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Poet D.A. Powell on sex and metaphysics

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D.A. Powell is most often recognized for his first three poetry collections chronicling gay life and the age of HIV: Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails. But to know him for this trilogy alone would overlook the fullness of his work and ambitions. His latest book of poems, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, shares glimpses of the rent boys, disaffected suburban kids, and migrant workers among the fields, poppies, and liquor stores of California's rural Central Valley.

His 2009 collection, Chronic, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Powell has also received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and teaches at the University of San Francisco and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Powell will read from Useless Landscape on September 10 as part of the Butler University's Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. He spoke with NUVO about his landscapes and how readers relate to the eroticism in his work.

NUVO: You write about the vast agricultural center of California. Is that still an unfamiliar place for readers?

D.A. Powell: I think so. When I'm reading in places that have a strong history of agriculture, people get it. They really relate to the poems and they're surprised, because sometimes they think, "I did have this conception of California as a coastline with a couple of big cities on it." Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina audiences - they actually relate to the setting well because they can look around at their own backyard and see the changes that are occurring in the environment. You don't have to be in California to experience that shift in American landscapes from small farming communities to large, industrial farming communities to bedroom communities or sprawling cities - we're all experiencing that.

NUVO: When you layer gay life and gay sex over these agricultural landscapes, is that another surprise? Things have changed a lot over the last 20 years.

Powell: I think my work, as experienced by an audience, is benefitting from that social change. It's funny; there is heterosexual sex in my work, but no one ever complains about that. But I also meet so many queer people in rural areas who have experiences that feel analogous to some of the things I'm writing about, and I'm glad to be writing for them and their neighbors and friends. What I recognized after I had written the book is that I had naturalized queer life in a rural setting, and made it seem like it belongs there just the same as any other kind of life.

NUVO: In the age-old theme of innocence versus experience, I'd guess you come down on the side of experience.

Powell: How we grow as people is through experience. This book in particular is written for or from the psychology of someone who is on the verge of adulthood or teenhood. I am always surprised at how many young people are reading my books. And they don't even necessarily have to be queer identified or questioning, but they know that the world is more complex than people let on, and they're glad that someone is not holding back. Although I feel like I do hold back - quite a bit.

NUVO: Your poems often link the decline of the body and the decline of the landscape.

Powell: I'm drawn to the work of metaphysical poets, Platonists, people who are writing about the world as a magical place. So I try to stay in that mind and to recognize that these natural cycles are larger than us, that things are always disappearing, things are always dying - but also that lots of new stuff comes along, too. Our task as humans, I think, is to get out in front of that change and have some sense of active participation in how it happens, so that we're able to sustain life on this planet - not just for us but for children, and children's children. There is a wistful quality to my landscapes, but at the same time, I feel like there's also a sense of pleasure, a sense of enjoying the abundance while we have it - to celebrate the body and this life that you're given, because who knows how long it lasts?

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