In conversation with Columbia Journal’s Online Poetry Editor Brian Wiora, the poet Alex Dimitrov discusses capitalism, social media, and his upcoming book, Love and Other Poems. After reading this interview, we hope you will read his new poem, “Having a Diet Coke with You” published here.
Brian: I’m very excited about your upcoming book, Love and Other Poems. What can you tell us about it?
Alex: I was obsessed with the world, almost in a childlike way, when I wrote this book. There is a lot of optimism in it, a lot of idealism. And while it’s also quite existential, it’s full of romantic abandon. Obviously we’re living in a dark time, though, I don’t think ideologically screaming at people or regurgitating the news in art is what I want to do. Back in 2008, I went to a talk at the Guggenheim where Marina Abramovic said that she sees the role of the artist as someone who elevates the public spirit. Someone who suggests more, someone who suggests what is possible. That’s what I was trying to do with this book and that’s why I titled it Love. I want to return the reader to the world as opposed to having them look away from it. I think love does that.
In an earlier interview you mentioned that you “never want to write the same book twice.” Is that something you think about when you write the poems themselves? Do you write poems in a different persona or mood consciously?
I don’t consciously set out to write a different book each time. I would like it to happen, but it needs to happen organically. That process usually takes a while. It takes drafting a lot of poems and throwing out a lot of poems—the ones that sound like the last book, which is most of them at first, until I’ve thrown enough away that I start to hear a new cadence. A new sound is what’s important to me. But you can’t force it. Luckily, it’s happened three times now. My second book is very different from my first, and this third one is very different from the second. I’m interested in changing and shifting because I’m interested in surprising myself. In seeing what my own imagination can do and how it can use language in a new way.
I’m not here to write what’s expected of me, which is probably, oh I don’t know, a gay male Eastern European immigrant narrative? I’m sure capitalism would love for me to sell that. But I’m here to be in service to my imagination, not the space capitalism will reward me for as it absorbs every critique of itself while doing so.
Since you mentioned that you’re constantly changing as a poet, do you find that your influences are changing? Who is influencing your work right now?
The Beach Boys, Joe Brainard, Kurt Cobain, Ted Berrigan, The Doors, Robert Lax, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the city of Miami, the year 1969, and also 1994. I’ve written a poem called “1969” and I also think I should write one called 1994. Maybe I will this summer. Oh and Winona Ryder should be added to the list. River Phoenix too. There’s a poem called “River Phoenix” in the book.
When I read (and as I reread) Together and by Ourselves, your second book, I am struck by the beauty in the scarcity, the quiet profundity. Lines like, “And whenever they couldn’t speak they looked at each other./How long should I look at the world before I go home?” say so much without needing to present an ornate fabric of incessant imagery. Can you talk about how you use imagery in this work?
The poems in Together and by Ourselves are a real mystery to me. I’m not sure where that voice came from. Somehow, I was able to house an emotional interiority within a seemingly opaque line, a line that departs from narrative and context. I wanted those poems to be moods. I wanted them to be a sensual experience, like Sontag talks about art being “Against Interpretation.” It’s like going for a swim late at night in a warm lit pool in some house where you’re staying alone in the desert.
I was trying to describe what it feels like to be alive and I didn’t think narrative was the way to get there. I also think there’s this impulse, if your first book got attention, to do the same thing in the second. And I wasn’t going to do that. I’m kind of a contrarian. I like to take risks.
Most of your poems, especially in Together and By Ourselves, are written in a single strophe. Is that a natural instinct or is there a philosophical underpinning to the way you use form when you write? Do you ever envision yourself writing in tercets or quatrains?
I have written in tercets and quatrains. Some of those poems are in my first book. In Together and by Ourselves, I was interested in extending the line. And for whatever reason, writing in stanzas didn’t occur to me. Not for the majority of the poems anyway. There are some, like “Biography,” for example. That’s one I know isn’t a single strophe but maybe there’s a few others like it too. Almost each line in those poems makes a departure from the line before it, in terms of subject matter, pronouns, mood—so maybe because of that I wanted to house them in one stanza. Like one house in which all these shifts occur.
I just read your new poem in the Iowa Review, “Sunset on 14th Street.” What struck me immediately was your use of exclamation points, very O’Hara! Can you talk about the stylistic differences in your new poems? What excites you about what you’re writing now?
Oh, but if I talk at length about the stylistic differences I’ll find them less interesting! There are certainly a lot of exclamation points in that poem. It’s very campy! But I’ve been campy before. “This Not A Personal Poem” is both camp and politics. Originally I started writing “Sunset on 14th Street” and it was thinking about how self-righteous people have become now, how moral and justified they feel in their views. And how truly boring and performative and empty that is. Though, of course, it’s so rewarded on social media. Capitalism is giving some people a lot of incentive to say certain things they probably don’t even enact in their offline lives. But I cut a lot of that from the poem and pivoted back to love. Those people don’t deserve the airtime or my attention!
In the poem we’re publishing, “Having a Diet Coke With You,” you take the ending of your poem “We Sleep A Little And We Live,” from your chapbook American Boys and you use it again, to end this new poem. Can you tell us about that?
I wanted to reference O’Hara, obviously, and I also wanted to reference Plath (which I do somewhere in the middle), and then I thought, well, why not also self-reference? Let me just use the same ending from a poem in 2012, why not? I think there’s been so much talk around me with the Wilde Boys and Astro Poets, and so much other stuff, that sometimes I feel like the poems get lost. Not for me, but for other people. Even in reviews.
I’ve always been all about the poems. I’m 34 and have 3 books, and it’s not because I’m sitting in front of the mirror brushing my hair. This was my way of being a little ironic and cheeky, and saying, you know what, you’re going to read this ending again, if you didn’t catch it the first time.
Switching gears, I’m also interested in Astrology. Astro Poets, the twitter account you run with Dottie Lasky, has over 460K followers. What’s it like running that account? How do you construct the tweets, if you can tell us? What influence does astrology have on your poems?
We are very excited because we have a book coming out this November! It’s called Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Universe and it grew out of our twitter, but it’s different than it. It’s in the vein of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs…that cult text from the 60s. In terms of writing the tweets, it’s all about imagination and conjuring. There’s no formula. It’s about being wild and creative and intuitive.
What do you think it’s like being a poet today? What is poetry like today? Do you think technology has changed the way we write poetry?
Poetry is what you speak into eternity. It has little to do with capitalism or social media or what’s popular. Or what people have to say about you in your time. Being a poet today is stressful. I wish someone would just pay me to write poetry.
What are you looking forward to in terms of the future of poetry?
I’m writing a novel! I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. Also, I have to go pay my rent right after this interview but I don’t have a stamp for the envelope. I always lose stamps! I can’t believe I’m actually expected to be a real person in the world. I’m obviously a poet and people should leave me alone!