Sex, Religion, Politics, and Writing: Uncensored Interviews with the Authors and Artists of MLR Press
Wayne Gunn, interviewed by Sarah Black
Wayne Gunn provided the translations of Rimbaud's and Verlaine's bawdy poems that William Maltese made the basis of Ardennian Boy, his imaginative re-creation of the two poets' attraction to each other. Wayne is also the author of a study of American and British writers who were inspired by Mexico as well as a Tennessee Williams's bibliographer.
Q: What do you remember about your first love?
A: His incredibly sexy hands. His blue eyes and black hair. His smell.
Q: Those sound like the beautiful sense memories of an adult. Do you think the love we feel as adults is different or stronger that the snowball-in-hell sort of feelings of adolescence?
A: I don't know. I don't ever remember being in love when I was an adolescent. I had crushes I guess, but none were deep enough to change my life.
Q: Whose David is sexier, Michelangelo's or Donatello's?
A: Michelangelo's. When I was preparing to take my first trip to Europe, I asked one of my students what I should see especially. He got to Florence, said, “The David,” and just stared into space. I didn't understand his reaction, until I stood at the same space and looked up at that example of sheer beauty. To appreciate David has nothing to do with sex; it's to appreciate beauty and power and a spirituality beyond explanation. Confession: I know I saw the Donatello on the same trip, but I had to go find an art book to refresh my memory of his David. And I still don't remember seeing it in place.
Q: I think the size of Michelangelo's sculpture, as well, gives it that strong sense of otherworldly beauty. Would you rather spend the weekend at the beach with Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollack?
A: Since both men, so I understand, were rather difficult individuals, I'm going to take the question in a metaphorical sense and think of their paintings as persons. If I'm headed to the beach for a carefree, devil-may-care weekend, I want Pollack. If I'm going to meditate or think, I want Rothko.
Q: Any new young artists you'd like to recommend?
A: I don't know how young he is, but I am discovering the work of Steve Walker. I find his paintings have a calming influence. And I continue to love the works of Delmas Howe.
Q: What's the best movie you've seen this year?
A: Shortbus, hands down. It's an absolutely incredible movie. Beautifully, imaginatively put together. John Cameron Mitchell should be declared a national treasure. I just saw an Austrian film unlike anything I've seen before: Whispering Moon. I like quirky movies if they have characters I can get into.
Q: Choose one of these men for an elegant dinner date, and tell me why 1) Gov. Bill Richardson, 2) Sen. John McCain, or 3) President Bill Clinton? What would you eat?
A: Well, since I'm a yellow-dog Democrat, it's obvious who would not be invited. But in all honesty, I would prefer to dine by myself to eating with a politician. What do we have to say to each other? Give me a writer, an artist, a musician any day!
Q: You know, you're absolutely right. Okay, which writers and artists and musicians? I was thinking about this last night, which writers I would like to visit with- I was torn between Dagoberto Gilb, Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison, Sherman Alexi, Charles Frazier... How do you pick? So then I decided I would really rather just have dinner with you and William and Josh and Laura. A barbecue. So, who are your picks?
A: I'm going to leave friends out, though they are the ones whom I really would enjoy a meal with. But in the spirit of your original question, let me go with people I've never met, and let me ignore whether they are alive or not. My first table I think would have Oscar Wilde, Maureen Dowd, Mollie Ivins, and Leonard Pitts. Wow! My mind reels at the thought of it.
Q: What books are on your bedside table right now?
A: None, actually. I never read in bed. Nor in the bathroom, before you ask. The coffee table will have whatever new mystery I'm reading, plus a stack of other stuff, some of which I will get to, some of which I will eventually give up on. At the moment, I'm rereading Jack Dickson for the sheer pleasure of it.
Q: You're very literal! I would never ask about the bathroom. Any new authors or books you'd like to recommend?
A: I just finished Tonne Serah's Drop ... Dead. The writing is astonishing. A book that I don't think has gotten nearly the attention it should get is Ashok Mathur's Once Upon an Elephant. I came late to Tanya Huff. She was a nice discovery.
Q: Would you be more likely to read the winner of the National Book Award, The Edgar for Best Novel, or the Hugo for Best Novel? You have favorite Mystery or Sci-Fi authors?
A: It depends, but probably the Edgar.
Q: Do you have a favorite mystery author?
A: Oh, yes, I have several, but given that I now know so many of them personally, I think I'll keep that list to myself. Of dead writers, it would be Christie and Chandler (I've read every one of their mysteries). Of crime writers, Graham Greene, hands down.
Q. Best nonfiction this year?
A. You know, I don't read much nonfiction, but I did enjoy The Triumph of the Thriller by Patrick Anderson. Earlier, I was much taken with The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. I had not realized how his sexuality and his politics fit together, though it should have been obvious.
Q: Is music important to your creative process? Tell me about that.
A: No, quite the contrary. I start listening to the music rather than thinking about what I'm writing. I want only natural sounds when I'm at the computer.
Q: Do you write on a computer, or do you write with pen and paper and transcribe into a word processor later?
A: In the days of the typewriter I would always write out my ideas first, then type them up. When word-processing became a reality, I carried over the practice till one day I had to get something out fast. I discovered I can compose just as effectively at the computer as I can with paper and pen. Now I very seldom rough anything out first on paper.
Q: Which of your own books is your favorite? Was it the easiest or the hardest?
A: The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film because it was an act of sheer love.
Q: Speaking of your books, you have a very interesting book scheduled for release from MLR Press with William Maltese called Ardennian Boy. Would you tell me how that project came about? The title is interesting- what does Ardennian mean?
A: More than a quarter of a century ago (it seems incredible it was that long ago), with the help of my French mate, I started translating the extremely sexual poems that Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had written. I found them astonishing in their directness, their delicious perversity: there's nothing quite like them in 19th century English poetry. Then a number of years ago, for some reason I started translating some of the ones I had let slide the first time with the idea that a new edition of the translations could come out including these new poems. But my publisher had problems of his own, and the project was called off. Then one day it crossed my mind how exciting it would be to incorporate these poems into a sexual biography of the two poets. I pitched the idea to William, and he took it on. What he is achieving is phenomenal! Since he published a collection of stories under the title Slovakian Boy, he suggested Ardennian Boy for this novel. Arthur was from Ardennes, a province in northeastern France.
Q. As far as poetry, whose do you prefer? Your favorites?
A: I love poetry. I find it sometimes astonishing to discover I have unconsciously memorized a poem. From where I'm seated, I can look at my bookshelf and tick off my favorite poets: Dickinson, Whitman, Eliot, Auden, Cavafy, and Yeats. They are peerless. To them I might add Cummings, Hughes, Jeffers, Garcia Lorca, Ransom, Thomas.
Q: Why so many undisciplined boy-poets who seem to leap into sexual excess like they're leaping into the fires of hell? Christopher Marlowe, Lord Byron, Rimbaud? What's the relationship, do you think, between their creativity and their behavior? Or is it just a function of their age?
A: It's a very good question. And I don't know the answer. Are their lives a demonstration of Blake's proverb? "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
Q: Do you prefer the poetry in the original French, or does it translate well into English?
A. One of my friends in graduate school looked at me one night after a few too many beers and moaned, "You know, works lose so much for me in the original." (laughter) Against that, you have to set the Italian saw, "Traduttore, traditore"; translator, traitor. I have to really wrestle with Rimbaud; Verlaine I prefer in French.
Q: Are you a fan of collections of letters? What do you think of Rimbaud's letters?
A: Interesting question. As I said earlier, I don't read much nonfiction. Letters fall under that category for me. I tend to read them for information (in the case of Rimbaud, for example) rather than pleasure. When I culled my library after I retired, I kept back only four collections of letters: Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Dickinson.... You know, I'm surprised that you have not asked me which writers have influenced me.
Q: Well, of course! That's exactly what I would like to know.
A: Thanks! Some are already obvious, but some I have not mentioned. I'd say Hawthorne, Shaw, Eliot, and Greene made me think. Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Whitman, and Dickinson helped me feel. Ricardo Armory, Isherwood, Forster, and Patrick Dennis freed me to become me. Wilde, Saki, Waugh, Queneau, Joe Brainard, and Cummings taught me about play. And Sherwood Anderson and Fitzgerald taught me about writing. These would go into my personal pantheon.
Q: Let's shift gears. What do you think Jerry Falwell's first conversation with God was about?
A: Gee, does God visit Hell on occasion? If so, Falwell being clueless as only Falwell and Co. could be, probably asked why he's there.
Q: I can see him demanding to see the person in charge, trying to get the error rectified. Any suggestions you'd like to pass on to the Pope?
A: Get a life.
Q: Care to make a small wager concerning our next President?
Q: You just refuse to be dragged into a discussion of politics! Since I read The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, I've been fascinated by the idea of souls taking animal forms. If your soul took an animal form, what would it be?
A: I've always thought that I looked like Snoopy imitating a vulture. My soul is definitely a dog, probably a bloodhound.