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Poet Doug Powell’s free readings; winner CGU Kingsley Tufts Award

November 1, 2010

47 year old poet D.A. “Doug” Powell recently won the $100,000 Claremont Graduate University Kingsley Tufts Award for his book Chronic. His work Cocktails was a finalist for the Lambda and the National Book Critics Award. He appears in the southland this week with free public readings. The New York Times said of Powell, “No accessible poet of his generation is half as original, and no poet as original is this accessible.” 

“I was pretty surprised by the award. This particular book that they chose covers a wide expanse of territory. I’m writing about relationships. I’m writing about physical illness, ecology, and tying them all together as being similar in value. There was something about that that struck people, probably in different ways.” 

Powell began writing poetry, he remembers, around the age most people do. “Somewhere around 15. It wasn’t until I went to the University of Iowa’s writers’ workshop for graduate school that I took it seriously. I hadn’t written anything that looked like a poem for a year and a half before I got there, so the day I arrived in Iowa, I pulled out a pad of paper and started writing. I feel like I’ve been writing steadily ever since.” 

And writing well. Powell often writes about the human experience from a gay man’s perspective. I wondered whether he ever felt unsafe in doing so. “No, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “One was my own naivete. I wasn’t reading a lot of queer poets; I was reading more African American poets who had a particular kind of politicized voice. Later, I found folks like Alan Ginsberg and Robert Duncan.” 

Powell moved to the Bay Area. “It seemed like anybody could write about being queer. It didn’t seem that daring. It only seemed daring when I went to Iowa. I used that audience of people who were confused. They had no problem with the work, but I felt there were things I needed to explain. It helped me to figure out the formal aspects of the work and what kind of disclosure needed to be in the poetry and what didn’t, and what to explain and what to leave out.”

Now that Powell has won the Kingsley Tufts Award, he may be able to devote more time to writing. “I’ve pre-paid some taxes for next year, but other than that, the money’s just sitting in a bank account. I may use it to take time off from teaching [at the University of San Francisco] so I can write more regularly.” 

That does not mean he knows what he’ll write in the coming months. “I don’t know what I’ll be writing about later today. That’s the mystery of living, isn’t it? We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Poetry is usually a response to something else going on in our lives. It’s like a saxophonist listening to a jazz singer. She might bend the note differently and we might have to hit a different chord than we otherwise might have.” 

For Powell, poetry is always a response to something else that’s going on in the world. “It’s not necessarily a direct response, but part of an ongoing conversation that started thousands of years ago. Somebody wanted to tell the story of the Trojan War and that became the basis of the next poem and the next poem and the next. I think poets walk around with language in their heads and conversations that they want to revisit. We want to make those conversations better and get the upper hand. So when I sit down to the page, I’m not sitting down the blank page, I’m sitting down to my experience of the world up to that point – and what have I not yet said.” 

Photo by Eric Burg

Powell’s autobiography, By Myself (Turtle Point, 2009), was inspired by a conversation with longtime friend David Trinidad, a Chicago poet. “We’ve been friends for a number of years. He does a lot of pop cultural works. He’ll turn episodes of 1950s sitcoms into haiku, for example. We were talking about celebrity memoirs and I said half jokingly that I was going to write a memoir of my own but use other people’s sentences. He laughed and said I really should do that. I said I’d never have the patience and he asked if I would do it as a collaboration. That’s how that happened.” 

The 300-sentence work began with a line from Tennessee Williams’ memoir. “The next person was Helen Keller. It became a parlor game for us. Neither of us was allowed to use someone who’d already been used and neither of us could tell the other which books we were stockpiling. We had to be strategic. I’d think about when I would use Shelly Winters because I wouldn’t want to use her too early.” There are 300 footnotes. 

It would seem to make Powell well read. He laughs. “Well skimmed perhaps. Is that a category? It’s a particular kind of reading you do, not looking for the interesting facts, but the interesting lines.”  

Powell visits 5 classes this week at the Claremont colleges. His free, public readings are:

Wednesday, November 3 at 6:00 pm

Claremont Public Library

208 Harvard Street

Claremont, CA 91711

Thursday, November 4 at 4:00 pm

Claremont Graduate University

Board of Trustees Room

150 E. Tenth Street

Claremont, CA 91711

“The one I’m most excited about,” he says, “is a reading at an assisted living facility because I’ve never done one at such a place. Oftentimes people forget about older people as audience and they’re often really wonderful audiences because they have so much experience and knowledge. It’ll be a pleasure to have a whole audience of folks who are very knowledgeable.”

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