Prose Feature: “What the Poem Requires: An Interview with Randall Mann” by Peter Kline

April 11, 2014

Uniting formal elegance with gritty subject matter and a delightfully wicked wit, Randall Mann’s poems are among the most compelling being written today. Whether he is satirizing the poetry world and its vanities, evoking the shame and longing and indignity of adolescence, taking us on a cruising expedition down Larkin Street in San Francisco, or elegizing bullied gay teenagers who have committed suicide, Mann writes with ferocity and pinpoint control. Part of what makes Mann such an exciting poet to read is the great range of tone and emotion that his work covers. The speakers of Mann’s poems swagger and sneer, come-on and submit, wink and lament, sometimes all in the course of a single poem. The poems are beautiful without ever being prettified – their beauty derives not from ornament or sentiment, but from their unflinching truthfulness to experience (even unpleasant experience), and from their inventiveness and energy of expression.

Randall Mann is the author of three collections of poetry, Straight Razor (Persea Books, 2013), a Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection; Breakfast with Thom Gunn (University of Chicago, 2009), shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and California Book Award; and Complaint in the Garden (Zoo, 2004), winner of the Kenyon Review Prize. In 2013, he received the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from Poetry magazine. His poems and prose have appeared in The Washington Post, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review. He lives in San Francisco where I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with him for this interview.

PK: Many of the poems in Straight Razor experiment with putting the reader in an uneasy or uncomfortable relationship with the speaker, as in the deliciously icky “Cockroach”: “I was your cockroach in Orlando, // the one who crawled on you at night.” What are you trying to achieve with this confrontational approach?

RM: I’m trying to achieve what I’m always trying to achieve: clarity and craft. I have never thought about confronting the reader; this may be the effect of the poem, certainly, but by then it’s out of my hands. In the lines you quote, I also see the speaker’s self-disgust and diminishment, I guess, as well as the suggestion of perhaps accosting, perhaps violating, perhaps lusting after, the addressee.

PK: “Contempt,” an important word in Breakfast with Thom Gunn, makes its return as one of the repeated words in the hilariously titled sestina, “Untoward Occurrence at Embassy Suites Poetry Reading”: “Tonight I reserve my contempt / for you, audience.” How can you write about – and frequently express – contempt without undermining your speaker or alienating the reader?

RM: I suppose by letting the reader in on the joke. In this case, the preening and posturing of a poetry reading, by both reader and audience. We have all been there (and if you haven’t, lucky you). Also, this is where form—this poem is a sestina—comes in handy; the repetition of the end-words, including that word contempt, is a nod to the artifice of such contempt. If I’m risking alienation with such mild satire, then I can live with that negotiated risk.

PK: In a past interview you identify one virtue of good writing as “a willingness to risk being disliked.” Can you expand on this idea? Does this have to do with the likeability of your speakers, with the way you are received as a poet, or with some other factor? What writers do you see as models for this ideal?

RM: These interviews are already coming back to haunt me. I’m suspicious of poems that seem to ask for approval. I am definitely not looking to be disliked—heck, I love love—but I guess what I mean by this clunky phrase, or what I mean at this moment, is, simply, that I want to say what the poem requires—cleanly, specifically, artfully—but then let go of a reader’s impression. So when I write a poem about the afterlife, “Detention,” which is in Straight Razor, set in a detention hall in “Jim Jones Middle School” after the “September 11 / Dance Party,” what must be made clear—I hope it’s clear—is that this is satire, and that humor is often teetering on the edge of horror, and vice versa. I see Louise Glück and Frank Bidart as models, their insular, brittle, often terrifying psychological landscapes that, out of respect for a reader, do not ask a thing of the reader—not to be liked, that’s for sure—but simply are.

PK: In other past interviews you have named “complication” as one of the primary goals of your work. Ironic shading might be one potential form of complication, as it creates a counter-echo to a poem’s prevailing sentiment. Can you explain what you mean by “complication,” and talk about how it plays out in a particular poem from Straight Razor?

RM: Maybe by complication I mean the relationship of all the parts that make up the poem, the confusions therein, and the benign secrets. Let’s take the first and last lines of “Larkin Street,” a poem about, sort of, a walk on a seedy part of Larkin, which is a street in San Francisco. But of course I know well the title evokes one of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin. Thus, I bookend the poem with Larkin references: the last line includes one of Larkin’s phrases, “pretending to be me,” the sentiment of which is key to the turn at the end of the poem; the first line is a riff on the first line of Heaney’s “The Journey Back,” which starts out “Larkin’s shade surprised me”; my line is “Her shade surprised me,” in reference to a “lark,”—albeit a “leather lark.” This poem, all poetry, begins and ends in allusion, which is another word, I think, for complication.

PK: In “Elegy” you say, “Death makes things more beautiful.” One of the most compelling things about Straight Razor – and, indeed, about all of your work – is the way its irony and cynicism occasionally give way to moments of hard-won earnestness and celebration. How do you see these opposing forces playing out in your poems?

RM: I wouldn’t call my poems cynical, but if that’s how you read it, fine; I don’t think I’m very celebratory, either. That said, I hope the ironic and sardonic impulses of the poems complicate the argument; in other words, if a poem moves toward some kind of unvarnished truth, then the gestures leading up to that “truth” have been indicative of the anxiety of admission. The appropriate dose of irony and poetic candor can make for a knotty, gratifying poem.

PK: Wide swaths of contemporary poetry still view rhyme as anathema, even as some of the most interesting poets working today use it. How do you see rhyme functioning in your own work? What can rhyme do that is different from other sound effects?

RM: Rhyme for me is a potent formal device, one of movement; it propels a poem forward and also allows it to turn back on itself; it is a powerful nod to the artifice, a nod that a poem is a made thing, one that allows sound the power of accretion and argument. Frankly I’m astounded that contemporary poets, still under the long shadow of Lowell’s Life Studies—whether they realize it or not—don’t employ the possibility and openness and exactitude of rhyme.

PK: Do you think of yourself as a Bay Area poet? What do you think that label means in 2013, in light of the great but disparate poets who have made their home here over the last century, most of them transplants (Robinson Jeffers, Yvor Winters, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, J. V. Cunningham, Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Thom Gunn, Robert Hass, Kay Ryan, Michael Palmer, August Kleinzahler, Kim Addonizio, Brenda Hillman, D. A. Powell, etc…)?

RM: Well I guess I am, in a way; I’ve lived in San Francisco for 15 years now, and I have a number of poems set here. I can’t imagine me introducing myself as “Hi, I’m Randall, a Bay Area poet,” but I wouldn’t object to being introduced as such. And I would not at all mind being listed with the disparate, distinguished group you mention…

PK: Mark Strand once said, “The point of truth comes when a poet goes from writing private poems in a public language to writing public poems in a private language.” Does this progression make sense in your own work? How does the plainspoken public impulse of a poem like “September Elegies” sit with the more ironic and elusive approach of a poem like “Small Talk,” with its jagged, promiscuous diction?

RM: I’m not entirely sure what Strand means, though it sure is a pretty sentence. I can tell you that “Small Talk,” written in 2002, is one of the oldest poems in the book, and “September Elegies,” written in 2010, is one of the newest. My new work has less self-conscious linguistic obfuscation—though this is part of the argument in a poem like “Small Talk”—but I still like to play. But my playfulness is muted in my newer work: an anagram or two, rhymes that come and go, words that live inside of words.

PK: How do you see Straight Razor in relation to your previous two books? In what ways is it continuous with your older work, and in what ways is the book a departure? In particular, the balance of verse forms seems to have tipped toward free verse in the new book (though there are certainly still many metrical poems) – what brought on this shift in method?

RM: Straight Razor, like Breakfast with Thom Gunn and Complaint in the Garden, is roughly half formal, half free (though nothing’s free). I have been writing seriously for twenty years now, but my method, while sharpened with reading and self-knowledge, is largely the same: each poem demands that I look carefully at what is being said, what might be said, and that I choose a form (and free verse is of course a formal choice) on the basis of this. Again, Lowell, writing in the anthology Naked Poetry: “I can’t understand how any poet, who has written both metered an unmetered poems, would be willing to settle for one and give up the other.”

While my first two books had Florida (Complaint in the Garden) and San Francisco (Breakfast with Thom Gunn) as something of a backdrop, Straight Razor doesn’t have that. It does have more of a turn toward memory, a mythologized childhood, and the perils of queer adolescence. I suppose it’s bleaker than ever about love and poetry. The book took years to write, but I wrote it more obsessively than my other two books; quite a bit of it was written during a challenging time in my personal life (I won’t bore you with the details, so maybe this comes through).

PK: When can we expect the “Project Book” you’ve promised in “My Major Prize”?!

RM: Never. And by never, I mean my next book.

Peter KlinePeter Kline’s first collection of poems, Deviants, was published in the fall of 2013 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has also been honored with residency awards from the James Merrill House and the Amy Clampitt House, as well as the Morton Marr Poetry Prize from Southwest Review. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and many other journals. He can be found online at

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