In on beauty and being just(1991), Elaine Scarry argues that “unlike all other pleasures, the pleasure we take in beauty is inexhaustible.” Perhaps this is because pleasure itself is beautiful; the erotic and the aesthetic are inextricably bound. In the best art, the two forces coexist and amplify each other endlessly. Garth Greenwell, Richie Hofmann, and Carl Phillips are writers who take seriously the pursuit of beauty and the observance of its pleasures; they write to acknowledge—and to transmit, through language—the erotic charges that permeate our daily lives. Though their work encompasses multiple genres—Hofmann and Phillips write mainly in verse, while Greenwell is a fiction writer who trained for years as a poet—their obsessions and approaches overlap extensively. All favor finely wrought sentences and sensual details, and their writing often explores queer romance and kink.
The three writers convened over Zoom in November to discuss queer subjecthood and literary craft, specifically whether the two subjects were interrelated or disparate: Is sexuality merely a theme, or might it also comprise a stylistic mode? Can a “queer aesthetic” be said to exist? Their conversation also touched on a range of other topics, including sonnets, morality, and why syntax might be the sexiest thing of all.
garth greenwellSo many artists of my generation were distrustful of beauty because they seemed to believe in a facile way that embracing beauty meant giving up on rigor. I was never tempted to believe that, partly because I have been very influenced by Carl’s work—which is both extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily rigorous. It was one of my first examples of what literature can do. Another important influence for all three of us might be Frank Bidart, a poet who, like Carl, sees sex as central to human life and to meaning-making.
carl phillipsIn our different ways, the three of us share a real carefulness with sentence making, a belief that the sentence can be not just part of but integral to a poem’s beauty overall. This requires a good knowledge of prosody—of syntax, especially—that can be rare these days. I will add that there are, of course, many kinds of prosody. I wonder if sex can be seen as a prosodic lens.
All three of us in our work assume that sex is a way to see the world. Writing about sex doesn’t feel like risk-taking for its own sake; it’s simply part of who we are. And it seems part and parcel of the world, by extension.
richie hofmannSomething I appreciate about both your bodies of work is a sensuality that unfolds through the apparatus of the sentence and suffuses every part of the experience of reading. Sex touches every part of the work. I’m not just talking about descriptions of sex acts or erotic encounters, nor only about writing about love or relationships. I’m talking about the way any kind of observation feels made alive in your work by the tenor and intensity and completeness of sex. There’s an erotics to the thinking itself.
cpI agree with you, Richie, that everything has an aspect of sex, even when sex itself isn’t happening. The ancient Greeks had this idea of daimons: these forces that exist in daily life that make a leaf unfurl or an ant unburrow itself. The sexual, too, is a daimonic force, as omnipresent as gravity, as sorrow, as joy. This doesn’t mean that I’m walking my dog around the neighborhood and having a sexual experience. But pure eros is always around—the impulse to unfurl and surrender and extend into space. That doesn’t have to be sexual penetration; it can be the leaf penetrating its space of air.
rhCarl, how do you think about making eros—whose source is something other than language—available in language?
cpWhen it comes to my sentences—and I think this is true of all three of us—the syntax is often enacting the erotics. I take for granted in good writing that sentences enact content, resist apparent content, and display their own distinct content. Syntax for me is about negotiating power and creating hierarchies.
But syntax isn’t the only way of doing this. I was just reading two poems from your new book, A Hundred Lovers (2022), Richie— “Things That Are Rare” and “Linen.” The sentences in those poems are very spare, but the juxtaposition of images, along with the prosody of the sentences themselves, is what sets the erotic force into motion.
GGAll three of us also engage in our work with the historically specific but also transhistorical practice of cruising. Cruising is a place where the partition between public, historical life and desire—a partition that was certainly a defining feature of the straight world in which I grew up—breaks down. Cruising is a good model for some of the ways that desire infuses historical consciousness in both of your bodies of work, I think.
But the reason human beings have all these ways of partitioning and structuring desire is because desire is such a frightening force. It’s a drive toward wildness. Queerness and queer sexual practices break down those barriers and protections that people sometimes want to build around desire. My earliest experiences of desire were of desire as a disruptive force: something that prevented me from filling the forms that were ready-made for me and the kind of life I was supposed to lead.
Our formal and syntactical obsessiveness feels related to the fact that our work orbits questions of queer desire. Perhaps we share a drive to build other kinds of forms for desire to fill; our meticulousness and obsessiveness might be a response to the wildness of the queer desire we’re experiencing and writing about.
At the same time, the breaking down of boundaries allows one to then return to form in a newly eroticized way. There’s an old queer idea—it shows up in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for example—that the Dionysian and the Apollonian collapse into each other if you look at them closely enough. What seems like form might actually be wildness; what seems like wildness might actually be form and discipline.
CPYes, the interchange between discipline and wildness is always ongoing, it seems to me. I think about this when I teach prosody and poetic forms. I spend a lot of time on the sonnet, which is a perfect machine for the erotic. Perhaps this has to do with its compression; the sonnet is more a way of thinking than a poetic form. But there’s also something sadomasochistic about the sonnet for me. It calibrates privilege and suppression, revelation and deferral. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 is a perfect example:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action; and till action, lust Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust; Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight; Past reason hunted, and, no sooner had, Past reason hated as a swallowed bait, On purpose laid to make the taker mad; Mad in pursuit, and in possession so, Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe; Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream. All this the world well knows; yet none knows well To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
That’s a two-sentence sonnet. Twelve lines make up one sentence, and the final couplet is another. There’s a fascinating interplay between how much time Shakespeare spends on lust and how much on reason—how much power he gives to each. The syntax heightens that power differential, playing with what’s going to be subordinated, what’s going to be stalled until the end of the line or the end of the poem. And all of this has to happen in a tight space. As in actual sex, the fluidity of power and the deferral of arrival heighten the eros. They make an eros of the sonnet’s argument.
When it’s well done, the sonnet feels as if all the doors are still open at the end, as if the sex could still go anywhere. The encounter hasn’t been resolved, which is exciting or terrifying, depending on how you feel.
RHThe size of the sonnet feels like the exact size of a moment or a thought. There’s something about the fourteen-line poem with the strong sense of a turn that feels infinitely expressive to me. My recent work is interested in complicating what we think of as “amorous poetry,” so the sonnet seemed a perfect form. I’m not sure if my work subverts the expectations of the tradition or merely carries them out. It would seem that queer love, unnamable love, has been central to the history of the form. From the beginning, the sonnet’s turns and breaks have allowed different—even conflicting—forces to commingle, to come together: desire and wit, control and hunger, the moment and the monument. I love how the shape of the form keeps those tensions in harmony, even if they aren’t in perfect balance.
I’ve also been thinking about how the sonnet in a way comes to stand in for poetry itself, for poetry’s prestige as a historical art form. The sonnet’s history contains so much of what we have come to expect of poetry—the stateliness and intellect of early modern rhetoric, the passion and interiority of Romanticism. Nearly square, sonnets look gorgeous on the page of a book; you can easily memorize them. So many memorable sonnets enact the idea that a whole self can be revealed in the lyric.
At the same time, I think my poems—especially my sonnets— want to seem uncomposed, dashed-off, diaristic. That was a tension I wanted to animate within the somewhat consistent shape of the sonnet. Sonnets are supposed to last forever; the pages of my erotic diary are meant to be ripped out as soon as they’re written on. I’ve learned so much from sequences—James Merrill’s “The Broken Home,” Henri Cole’s “Apollo”—about how sudden shifts in diction and expectation can energize a poem. The fourteen-line shape, I think, makes the whole poem gemlike, artificial, even when it unfolds in plain or vulgar language. The sonnet, with its desire for order and perfection, and my interest in the wilder, uncontainable, anarchic forces of lust—together, they dramatize the process of turning messy feelings into elegant art. Of putting inconsequential love affairs into a shape that aspires to permanence.
GGI’m attached to the sonnet, even though I write prose. It’s been deeply important to me to write and teach sonnets, and to read poets whose work explores how sonnets are so amenable to both eros and queerness. (I’m thinking of Carl’s work here, and also of Henri Cole’s.) Even though my books don’t look like poetry, they make much more sense if one approaches them as things made with the tools of lyric poems than as works in the tradition of the American novel; I’m much more invested in the kinds of thinking that poetic form allows than in cause and consequence or narrative or plot.
One of the first texts of queer theory I ever read was a book by the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw called Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (1989), which is an account of how writing, reading, and interpretation are figured in medieval texts in bodily and sexual terms. In the final chapter, Dinshaw uses a reading of the Pardoner’s Tale to distill a formula for what she calls “Eunuch Hermeneutics,” which she sees as a strategy for making meaning even when one is cut off from the grand sources of meaning (God, nation, the “nature” that undergirds compulsory heterosexuality).
I thought, I want to be uglier. I want to be more complex. I want to be more jealous. I want to be more disgusting. I want to be frank. And I want to let all of that transpire in shapely poems.
The formula (which she borrows from the psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni) goes, Je sais bien mais quand même (I know well, but even so). That is precisely the formula of the sonnet. Take the ending of Sonnet 129: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well.” Saying “X is not not Y” is a way of arriving at affirmation that is different from just “X is Y.” Even if logically the statements “X is not not Y” and “X is Y” are the same, they are affectively, experientially, existentially, radically different. It’s the difference of the via negativa, a version of mysticism that I think has profoundly marked Carl’s work and a mode of thinking that offers tools for making impasse or dilemma productive—not something that stops thinking, but something we can think with.
That difference feels vital to the kind of thinking and feeling that I think of as queer. Sonnets often say, “I know this is not true, but even so I still believe it.” I’m interested in affirmation, and it seems to me that an important part of the work that art does is to give us a reason to say yes to life. Yet I am also firmly attached to art that launches itself into the abyss, that does not try to arrive at affirmation without passing through the negative.
RHCarl, in your most recent book Then the War (2022), a collection of new and selected poems, the word persuasion comes up frequently. As I read, I was thinking about the history of amorous poetry of persuasion, about poems that say, “There’s no time; we should have sex now,” like Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” or the carpe diem poems of Robert Herrick. There’s that marvelous poem of yours, “And if I Fall,” in which “Light enters a cathedral the way persuasion fills a body.” I’m curious about that word persuasion, which is somehow not coercive; it implies consent, because both parties own some of the danger. But it’s still a little violating.
CPI had to remove several instances of that word in this new book, because I realized I use it too much. Persuasion, like distraction, has a long history of being considered dangerous, at least as far back as the sophists of ancient Greece, whose ability to create a persuasive argument around anything was viewed as potentially threatening to the governing order of thought. In literature, sentences are also always potentially about getting and sustaining attention. That’s what eros is, too: getting somebody to come near you and sustaining that person’s attention for as long as you decide to, assuming you want to be in control of the situation.
And yet succumbing to persuasion can be tender and gentle. It’s easy to succumb, especially to language. Maybe, to bring it all back to what you were saying, Garth, both writing and reading can be seen as forms of cruising: we’re either as writers leading a reader down a path that we control and whose end the reader has no clear idea of, or else we are the reader, trusting the stranger (i.e., the writer and the sentence), wanting to see where we’ll end up. That feels dangerous and alluring and persuasive. Not that sentences are the only way of doing this.
RHRhyme is another way of succumbing to language, I think. I don’t always write in rhyme, but when I do, I feel especially aroused to the possibilities of where a poem can lead me. Writing in rhyme means relinquishing some of the authority of the poet back to the language. I love how a rhyme will take me somewhere new and bring bodies into relation in surprising and nonnormative ways. Sound becomes the dominant force. Rhyme may feel traditional to a reader, but during the experience of writing a rhyming poem, each rhyming word always seems entirely disruptive of the poem’s other demands of narrative, logic, and syntax. That seems to me kind of queer too.
CPBeing queer, especially a queer person of color, trains you to be a very careful observer of the room, because you may feel that it’s dangerous to be who you are. There’s always the felt gaze of the outside world as we make our way through it. Who’s noticing? Do I sound queer? Am I walking gay? Is this scarf giving me away? I don’t think this way now, but I grew up with this kind of anxiety. And it’s probably a big part of what made me a writer.
Queerness, or what I sense to be queer aesthetics, is real because I make real books out of it.
Growing up, I couldn’t find any public space in which I could be allowed to live as myself. Writing became that space for me, and it still is. When I’m writing, it doesn’t occur to me to care what anyone might think of it. I’d gotten used to no one listening, anyway—and I realized it gave me the freedom to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted. Later I found confirmation of this way of thinking when I discovered the work of Frank Bidart: the first poet I encountered who made me think, This person does not care what anyone thinks about how he should proceed. His first book’s first poem, “Herbert White,” is in the voice of a serial killer. I’ve always loved that.
These days, everyone’s trying to figure out who the judge for the contest is and how they can win the prize. But Frank’s first book is an example of someone announcing, “This is who I am. You can hate it or love it. I don’t care. I had to make this.” Which also seems to me, in a strange way, queer.
rhI’ve had students who bristle at that poem and find it highly inappropriate. I think they are uncomfortable about imaginatively inhabiting a space of violence and about humanizing, or seeking to understand, abhorrent actions of a killer. They seem to believe that to represent those desires or actions is to endorse them. In general, I sense in the literary culture a sort of moral conformity. A lot of writers are interested in being seen as good, virtuous, or redeemed, or use language that simplifies, that makes complex things easy, that demands you speak for an identity as if it’s a monolith. This feels like an even stronger urge than the pressure toward avant-gardism that drove so many poets a generation ago.
cpThe history of art doesn’t suggest, though, that great art gets made by aligning one’s thought with everyone else’s. I understand, of course, why it may be inappropriate to just walk into a class and start reading Frank’s “Herbert White” and not let people know the at the poem includes material that some might find troubling. But at the same time, I’m so glad I first read that poem with no idea of what was coming.
ggI feel that there’s a huge misunderstanding in our current discourse about what morality is and also therefore about the relationship between morality and art. Many of these pressures come from a desire for art to be exemplary, to present a clear ground for us to stand on that gives access to righteousness. But we’re wrong to think that living a moral life means coming to judgment and passing verdicts. To me, that’s actually the end of moral relation. If moral relation depends on a full recognition of the personhood of another, it seems to me that the hierarchy established by the presumption of one’s ability to judge is the abrogation of that relationship. And if instead one thinks that the moral task of art is deep research into the human, and that its purpose is to strip from us our always-wrong sense that we have some access to righteousness, then all of a sudden one can see that “Herbert White” is not merely a provocation. It has a deeply moral force, one that poses the question “How do we live with one another?”
I worry too about this mistaken notion about the ways in which we are vulnerable to art and the kinds of force that art has. I feel very protective of art, without trying to dehistoricize it or claim that there’s a kind of firewall between it and our social and political life and history. But I really resist this idea that art is responsible to the same kinds of forces that, say, our actions in the unframed social and political world are responsible to. I agree with Carl that real art isn’t made in response to those forces, but instead depends on a much more complicated sense of what morality is.
rhWhen I look for alternatives to the orthodoxy we’ve been talking about, I often find them in work in other languages from other times. One powerful spirit behind my recent poetry is Hervé Guibert, the French autofiction writer who died of AIDS in 1991, whose work I discovered while writing my new book. He’s a writer of such intensity, an unflinching cataloguer of his own vanities and hungers. His work is very ugly; there are jealous, dark, unredeemed feelings that pulse through it: dreams of his body’s slow degradation; sexual hungers that pursue him in the streets, in the markets, in passing encounters with strangers; an interest in pleasure and violence; a hatred for friends and lovers that is weirdly playful…For me, encountering that work was the biggest driver of my poetry. I thought, I want to be uglier. I want to be more complex. I want to be more jealous. I want to be more disgusting. I want to be frank. And I want to let all of that transpire in shapely poems.
I also want to feel true to myself. I don’t want my poems to purport to speak righteously or definitively on behalf of a community. I know my sexuality is like other people’s but also not like other people’s. I’m a bit anxious about thinking about my experience as the same phenomenon as queer experience in general. Is the specificity of my pain, my loneliness, my hunger, unique to queer experience, or unique only to mine?
It probably is mine. And yet—to bring back Garth’s “and yet”— being a teenager and reading the queer poet Hart Crane’s “Voyages,” or C. P. Cavafy’s nostalgic longing for boys of yesterday, I felt some shimmering force there that I recognized.
ggIt’s so tempting to pose those sorts of questions: Is there a specificity to queerness? Is there something distinct about the queer aesthetic? But I agree that the minute we start trying to answer those questions in any kind of definite way, we’re playing a straight game, a game of heterosexual logic. I do think that if there is any constituent element of queerness, it is the resistance to definitions and categories and gatekeeping.
At the same time—quand même!—the idea of queer sensibility and tradition is deeply meaningful. My refusal and inability to define that idea in a rigorous, defensible way might lead to the charge that there’s nothing real there. Yet the great thing about being an artist and not a scholar is that the test of reality is not logical rigor but usefulness.
Queerness, or what I sense to be queer aesthetics, is real because I make real books out of it. It inspires me; it has a real effect. I do think the elements we’ve been talking about—inappropriate attachments (inappropriate whether because of object choice or because of the size or intensity of attachment), disjointedness in time, openness to boundary-crossing identifications and affections, and so on—are constitutive of both my sexuality and my writing. I came into art and queerness at about the same time: I was fourteen when I began both studying opera and acting on my queerness. To me, art and sex are absolutely bound up; there is a way in which the aesthetic and the queer, for me, interpenetrate.
Maybe that has to do with Richie’s comment about the unbearability of life: the fact that art and queerness are both yearning for other worlds. The fact that both art and queerness give me something to do with those feelings of loneliness and pain and turn them into something generative, something other than my own extinction.
CPIn the past, I’ve said that I make poems as a temporary wedge between myself and what at the time feels unbearable. Part of that unbearability is indeed a kind of terrifying aloneness-with-pain—and an accompanying doubt about everything I’ve worked hard to believe in. But even in a poem of real interiority, where only one consciousness seems to exist, there’s also always a sense of “peopled-ness.” A single consciousness always entails a multiplicity of selves, of sides to the same self. And because I’ve created the poem, the poem is automatically lit and defined by queerness— which is to say, I’m not strange anymore, and I’m not alone.
GG I do often feel alone or lonely when I write. Yet one of the reasons I want to write is to have a conversation with the dead: with Hervé Guibert, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin. Sometimes that conversation can seem like an erotic experience in itself. One of the reasons I love reading Henry James is because for me, Henry James’s sentences are sex. They just are themselves eros. In that sense, writing is a different kind of sociality. I have always felt that way, whether I’m writing poems or prose—because like Carl, I’m not thinking about an audience when I write. I’m not thinking about if it’s going to sell, or who’s going to read it, or whom it’s trying to represent. But the writing does often have specific addressees or interlocutors, who are almost always dead. I’m writing to Catullus. To St. Augustine. To Thomas Mann. In some ways, that’s one of the most profound experiences of sociality I have: that feeling of connection with this transhistorical, often but not exclusively queer-identified or queer-claimed community of people who have made the very voice with which I speak.
RHAnd that sociality doesn’t stop with you, either. Writing imagines a future in some sense, too. Like you, Garth, I sometimes feel so lonely and so hungry for connection as I write. And yet when I’m writing, the whole world gets to be channeled through me and in concert with me. All those relationships, in some sense, are imaginary. But I think writers know they’re also the most real.
Garth Greenwell is the author of two books of fiction, Cleanness and What Belongs to You. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, he received the 2021 Vursell Award for prose style from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Richie Hofmann is the author of the poetry collections Second Empire and A Hundred Lovers.
Carl Phillips is the author of Then the War: And Selected Poems 2007-2020 and the prose book My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, among many other books.
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