Bryan Borland is practically glowing these days. His first poetry collection, My Life as Adam, has just been published, and he’s obviously proud of it. Or at least I think he’s glowing. It’s hard to know when you do an interview via Facebook and email. But judging from the enthusiasm of his responses, this is something he really wants to do. Or, rather, needs to do. He doesn’t need the recognition, necessarily, but like anyone who has ever struggled with words even semi-professionally, he knows that although they can be your friend or your foe at different times, one thing never changes; they need you to express them. I throw a sort of stock opening question at him (‘What are your views on inspiration?’), but while his answer has things in common with what any self-respecting writer will tell you, it has the rhythmic energy readers will come to appreciate in the Borlandian school of poetry; a belief that being serious about your craft doesn’t have to mean you can’t also be playful.
Thus, after having assured me that he has no control over when inspiration strikes, he goes on to characterize the moment it does as “the voice of some poetry-spewing, partially-clothed gay God seducing me in whispers”. Or like another classic Borlandism, on the same subject: “I have no choice but to write. The words stay in my head, haunting me like an ex-boyfriend I’ve wronged, taunting me like a bully, seducing me like a lover until I get them down in the form of a poem.”
It’s responses like these that make me not particularly surprised when he describes the almost painful feeling of poetic urgency by way of a metaphor that more than anything reminds me of having an erection in public. There’s nothing you can do about it, it just is. Or, in Bryan’s words: “Lines often come to me at inopportune times. In the shower, driving in busy traffic, in that moment just before sleep, when I’m comfortable and don’t want to move. Times when it’s not necessarily convenient to reach for pen and paper.”
Maybe it’s those moments of inspiration that lead him to declare that he doesn’t have the patience to write longer-form prose. Having tried once, but failed, he instead goes on to underline that inspiration alone is insufficient for a poem to happen. Timinng is essential. He tweaks the cliche about how writing a poem is like a first kiss:
“The stars must be aligned. I might be ready with an idea, but then I find the timing off and I don’t connect with anything I want to write. One of us has garlic-breath. We reach for each other’s lips and clumsily miss. I find my words unattractive on that particular day. We have no rhythm. Other days, words come to me in sort of a premature poetic ejaculation and I must scramble to record them before they evaporate. Then there are times when everything is perfect. Rose petals. Soft music. Candlelight. And what I produce satisfies me. “
I find my words unattractive on that particular day. There’s a message of genuine poetic self-doubt here, but more than anything, it’s about persistence. The belief that some greater truth, a breakthrough, the slow but steady honing of skills, awaits somewhere down the road. Except that, as with a painting, it’s hard to know exactly when a poem has found its final form. On his vibrant website, his impressive catalogue of works are often subject to rewrites. Like many before him, he names Walt Whitman, who famously rewrote his epic Leaves of Grass several times, as one of his poetic inspirations. That’s the way it is when writing is something of a calling, I guess.
But if writing is like a personal calling, that doesn’t mean you have to seal yourself off and write exclusively for an audience of one. BryanBorland.com has grown into something of a community in recent months, with Bryan firing off poetic musings about the events of the day, and even inviting his growing readership to submit their own poems in a reader contest. In this spirit of community, it’s perhaps only fitting that Bryan frames his blogging presence with a touch of motherly love. “I feel a responsibility to keep writing,” he says. In the end, though, this too comes down to being true to who you really are. He’s proud of and grateful for the input he gets from his online audience, whom he calls a “group of extremely intelligent thinkers, writers, artists, poets, philosophers, and, yes, even friends,” but he doesn’t think they would come back if they didn’t sense a certain pulse in his poetry.
«My poems are raw, brutal sometimes, honest, sexual, ugly, but full of life. I think people sense that what I’m writing is at least, if nothing else, true (not necessarily autobiographical, but from a place of truth).» It’s important, because it says something about trying to balance an understandable wish to reach a broad audience, with a commitment to not compromise yourself in order to satisfy them. To try to kill the myth of the artist as someone who ideally should write for himself only, while at the same time keeping as much of himself in his poetry as possible.
His poems may “not necessarily” need to be autobiographical to feel true, but he admits that My Life as Adam is a highly autobiographical book. By his own count, all but two of the poems are inspired by people or events in his own life, and he bluntly calls it “my autobiography in poetic form”. In the case of Bryan Borland, this doesn’t just mean that “old lovers and friends will recognize themselves”, but to chronicle a life of struggling to come to terms with his sexual identity and harrowing personal loss. His brother died when Bryan was 13 years old, the same year Bryan realized he was gay, and these two themes run through Adam. In his fine introduction to the book, Philip F. Clark calls it a book about “becoming gay”. That sounds about right.
When I ask him about this process of self-realization, he keeps returning to the issue of otherness. It goes way back.
«Growing up, I soon became aware of a separateness between myself and other boys my age. I didn’t have many male friends because I took the friendships too intensely – they were emotional for me. I would grow too attached. I couldn’t take the standard boyhood playground taunts. They felt like rejection. Meanwhile, I would mentally torture myself because I didn’t have the kind of friendships I wanted, the kind that would satisfy the longing I had no idea how to voice. I had no idea what was “wrong” with me. All I knew was that I was lonely and I was different.»
The feeling only grew:
«My peers became interested in girls. I never did, though not for lack of trying. Instead, the intensity of my longing for male friendships grew. When boys would tease each other with words like “faggot,” I would die a little inside, because I was slowly coming to realize that they were talking about boys like me, and death was preferable to being something strange, something queer. I couldn’t be gay. The thought was terrifying.»
We talk about his life and times, or, more specifically, we talk about how much of his Southern upbringing, how much Arkansas there is in his poetry. The poems about his family are, unavoidably, poems about Arkansas. He loves them both, but he has no interest in denying that it could be a harsh place to grow up gay in the late eighties and early nineties. ‘Queer’ wasn’t a familiar word in the Arkansas vocabulary. Rather, it was something you read about, secretly, shamefully fascinated, in magazines, or heard about in television reports. In short, it was an Eastern thing. It’s a testament both to his love of Arkansas and to his poetic precision, that his exploration of this Southern cultural code never comes across as even the slightest bit exotic or otherwise alien to the outside reader.
In the new collection’s titular poem, Bryan has a wonderful line about «the seeds of normalcy that never grew». The way I read it, it acutely encapsulates the aforementioned sense of otherness. But, as we touch upon time and time again throughout our conversation, the influence of popular culture on our lives cannot be underestimated. For him, an insecure boy in Arkansas, a long-since ridiculed pop culture phenomenon not only offered relief, but showed him that seeds of normalcy could in fact grow closer to home than he thought. Within himself, even. He explains:
«There were very few gay people available via the media who were considered normal by any stretch of the word. My salvation came in the form of MTV, and particularly The Real World. On this show I was finally able to see gays and lesbians who were happy and comfortable in their own skin. Seeing the cast of the various Real Worlds gave me hope.»
Back in those days, the countercultural music network still used the slogan I want my MTV. Bryan needed it. But realizing he was not alone in the world didn’t necessarily resolve his troubled feelings about being gay. In a way, the problem only grew larger now that he actually knew what the feelings he was still loyally suppressing meant. He has written a couple of bittersweet, funny poems about how he half-heartedly dated girls while in college (Prom Night, Introduction to Eve), but as he explains, «I remained in love with the cool guys, the handsome boys, my best friends, but not being able to even acknowledge my feelings brought me to a point in my life where I almost lost everything. If you deny something for so long, something akin to cancer grows within your body. I came very close to losing myself. I graduated four years later still firmly in the closet, and still very much walking the tightrope between life and death. Most of the time, I hated myself. I knew everything in my life was a lie and I saw no way to the truth.»
To this day, he can not precisely point to when things started to turn around.
«There was no moment of clarity – no miracle minute when the lightning struck and I was able to admit to the world I was gay (something most already suspected or knew). I guess I just finally reached a point where I was comfortable enough with myself to bring my truth into the light. I credit being around some very supportive people, gay and straight. I credit seeing gay men and women living open, happy lives. I credit friends and family who I knew wouldn’t turn me away. I told one friend via an emailed poem. I told others over the telephone. I told my family face-to-face. I lost no one. Friendships grew stronger. Finally, I could be myself. It felt like the weight of two decades had been lifted from my shoulders.»
It’s not without a tinge of bitter irony that he tells me about how alienating he found it to be a closeted gay at a very liberal college. «My college had a large gay contingent,» he says, «but they were so ‘out and proud’, I found them intimidating. They represented the stereotype, and I couldn’t just ease out of the closet and become this flag-waving, pride-marching homosexual. They knew I was gay. They could smell it on me. See it in the way I walked. I couldn’t risk being outed, so I stayed as far away from them as possible.»
I get his point. The gaydar may seem like a myth, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It isn’t, like some conservatives seem to be believe, a plot by homosexuals to turn people gay; it’s a matter of trying to find a little bit of yourself in other people. Neither is it meant to shove a one-size-fits-all gayness down the throats of all gays (oh, hold your jokes, pervs!). It’s perfectly possible to not want to stereotype people, and at the same time use the stereotype as a way to navigate socially, in an effort to figure who might swing the same way as you. And for a guy afraid of being outed, the mere possibility that someone might direct their gaydar at you can seem terrifying. Even if their gaydar turns out to be mostly broken, like mine.
Now in his ninth year as an openly gay man, Bryan says he understands the gays at his old university. «I can see now that they were likely experiencing freedom for the first time in their lives, and they were simply joyous.» That just wasn’t were he was at the time.
But coming out wasn’t just a personal triumph for Bryan, it gave his writing a much needed new direction as well.
«I started writing poetry at thirteen to express my awakening attraction and sexuality, because there was no other outlet. I couldn’t speak of being gay. I couldn’t act on it. So I wrote love poems that were gender neutral. Part of the joy of writing my current style of poetry is that now I put my sexuality front and center. Hell, I give it a microphone. A bullhorn. You won’t find any more gender neutral poems in my catalogue. Whereas a decade ago I timidly wrote about sexuality, now I soak the page in sex, or gender-specific love, or social commentary. Once I crossed that line, there was no going back. Some might say I’m overcompensating for the years I spent muzzled, and I’d have to agree. But I love it.»
Overcompensating or not, what I found most striking the first time I read My Life as Adam, was how wrong I had been about Bryan Borland, the poet. If I ever thought he could be pinned down as a ‘gay’ poet, or as someone who writes ‘poems about family’, this book is proof that such labels are often useless. A thread of his family history, of a search for acceptance and recognition, runs through even his most playful and light-heartedly explicit pieces, and no matter how sad many of the poems about the loss of his brother are, they never fail to exude a sense of gratitude for what they shared.
I read the book from cover to cover, slowly, deeply concentrated, and the poems about Bryan and his brother really got to me. I wanted to read them out loud, like poetry wants to be read, but I couldn’t. I was afraid my voice would break. They had this relatable quality that lies at the heart of all great poetry, no matter how specific it may seem at first glance. Reading My Life as Adam as a book, and not as the standalone poems several of them had appeared as on the website, also changed how I understood them. Previously, I had let myself get immersed in small, intriguing details; drawn in by an elegantly turned phrase more than the totality of the poem; getting driven line by line through a concealed narrative; but now, it struck me as a more somber collection than I remembered. The elegance was still there, but now it was supplemented by something much more ambitious; an attempt to write a life.
He says he’s humbled by the praise, but we return to how his coming out represented a poetic wall coming down around his writing. Or a barricade upon which he would climb, if you prefer that metaphor. Since we share an obsession with the singer-songwriter Jay Brannan, I frame the question of what he thinks of being labeled a ‘gay poet’ around Brannan’s reluctance to do pride events because he doesn’t want to get boxed in as a ‘gay singer’.
Bryan’s initial response is equal parts manager and loyal fanbase. Although Brannan claims to have no interest in the commercial possibilities that catering to a gay audience could offer, he has never said anything about not wanting to reach the broadest possible audience. And, Bryan insists, he just really wants people to discover Jay’s music.
«I completely, whole-heartedly, and emphatically disagree with Jay Brannan’s stance against performing at pride events. That doesn’t negate my deep love for him. However, I do think it’s foolish to record a song about wanting to be a housewife and then refuse to promote said song at events where you would be treated like a queen, pardon the pun. Say what you will about us gays, but we’re a loyal audience for those we love. He can run from the label of a gay artist all he wants, but the fact remains he is a gay artist and the majority of his audience is gay. The fans that follow him around and drive hundreds of miles to sit in the front row of his concerts are gay. The fans that tell their friends about him and retweet his tweets and buy his singles religiously are gay. Not to say he doesn’t have straight supporters, but those who are ravenous for him? I’d go out on a limb and say they are about 90% homosexual. And I subscribe to the old Southern saying, “Dance with who brung ya.”»
So, Bryan Borland is on a mission. He’s out to take back the the terms of the debate from skeptics like Jay Brannan. «When I google the term “gay poet,” you know, there’s not too many who want to wear that label. In fact, when I started my blog, it was difficult to find even one gay poet who was openly posting quality gay poetry. I’m here to say I’ll not only wear the label of gay poet, but I’ll wear it like it’s designer fashion. I’ll wear it like it’s a tiara. Even if it means slapping the tag of ‘gay poetry’ on any poem that could be considered even a small bit queer.»
It turns out, however, that the mission is even bigger than that. He draws a line from the story of how he barely survived college because he couldn’t come out. «I was one of the lucky ones. Too many others went off the edge, and we lost them forever. Now I have a responsibility to speak for those who haven’t found their own voice yet. I spent too many years running away from who I was. Now I run toward it. And I hope that when they read my poetry, they feel the same way I did when I first heard Jay’s Housewife.»
«It looks like we’re both choosing to enjoy our labels,» he says later, when we discuss how I have embraced one label, the gay one, in place of another, that about being a physically disabled guy. But even though Bryan enjoys his labels, and has become pretty much the flag-waving, pride-marching guy he once feared, there’s one label he won’t wear; that of a party. He considers himself an independent. We’ve circled back to Arkansas, and the wonk in me wants to know why he wrote Jesus Was A Walking Public Option after his home state Senator, Blanche Lincoln (D), voted against that key progressive provision last summer.
«I campaigned heavily for Blanche Lincoln when she first ran for the United States Senate in 1998, and she was the first person for whom I ever cast a ballot in a Senatorial race. I recently came across campaign material from that successful bid and attached it to a letter I sent her reminding her of my past support. But I also informed her that I no longer support her, in that I’ve witnessed her groveling to appease the fanatical hate-spouting right wing of Arkansas.» He’s clearly upset with Arkansas politics, but hoping for a reason to vote in the Senate election in November. «Blanche is trying to court individuals who will never vote for her, particularly in a year when there are upwards of ten Republicans seeking to take her seat. She has not expressed public support for ENDA [the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, a seemingly perpetually stalled Congressional bil seeking to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity] which I can’t fathom. She recently voted to block an Obama nominee to a federal position. She’s turned her back on her base in an effort to win over a middle that does not exist in Arkansas. We were the only state in 2008 that actually turned more red. I will not vote for Lincoln again, and I won’t vote Republican. I can only hope that an independent candidate will emerge so that I can cast my vote for him or her.»
As Bryan is about to take the leap from poetic community organizer to proper paper poet, and I prepare to wrap up our interview, I’m struggling with coming up with a final question. I could continue down the political path, and ask him to weigh in on the greatest challenges in contemporary gay America, perhaps in the context of Time Machine, the hard-hitting, AIDS-themed poem responsible, once and for all, for making me a Borlandite. But then I remember that our conversation has strengthened my feeling that we have something, at the same time deeper and more superficial, in common; neither of us wish to go back to the anxieties of our teen years, but we’re not ashamed to revel in nostalgia over the celebrities we once crushed on. Expecting that he’ll reach for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and offering him a bridge between the past and a more glamorous future, I therefore ask him who he’d like to see playing him in the movie about his life. It may seem like I opted for going out on a stock question, just like I opened with one, but I suspected Bryan was just the right person to make such a question interesting. You be the judge:
«It depends on what stage of my life we’re talking about. Clearly, the actor must be attractive. For my younger self, I think Hunter Parrish is the most intelligent choice, as we clearly have much in common. For example, we both have teeth. And feet. As to who would play me in my early thirties, that would be Ryan Phillippe. Mostly because he doesn’t seem to have that much work right now, and also because he can stay at my house while filming. You see, he’d have to spend some time shadowing me, learning the real me. He’d need to know important things; like, how do I kiss? What kind of lubrication do I prefer? At the height of passion, what sounds do I make? And then, for my later years, I simply must be portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, a classy older gentlemen who has aged gracefully and grown in success. Of course, in order to get the part, he will have to buy me things and see what he can do about breaking the rules and have the Queen knight me. If Elizabeth won’t do it, just any old queen will work. How about Kerry O. Key, the drag queen? I’ll take it.»