|Arsenic Lobster poetry journal||
by Damon Ferrell Marbut
Read Damon’s poems in the current issue of Arsenic Lobster
~ It’s All Right
~ So You’re In Love
Damon Ferrell Marbut, author of Human Crutches, and Lissa Kiernan Walk Into a Bar
“Human” is, perhaps not surprisingly, the operative word in Human Crutches, Damon Ferrell Marbut’s gripping follow-up to Little Human Accidents. In this major and yes, humane, achievement, Marbut unblinkingly documents bar culture—specifically gay bar culture—even more specifically, gay bar culture in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Despite its specialized setting, anyone who has ever been in a relationship with bars—those oases of both self-aggrandizement and self-loathing, of glitter, smokescreens, trade-offs, and rude awakenings—will readily identify with, and to Marbut’s credit, develop both affection for and frustration with the cast of characters he paints without one false brushstroke or whiff of pity.
LK: Damon, let’s pretend that we’re, oh, say, sitting at a bar. Your compelling new collection holds up a hand mirror to gay bar culture. These persona poems, both on the page and when read out loud, seem utterly organic, like conversations—or in some cases, conversations with oneself. At the same time, they are heightened to poetry by your incisive editorial decisions: which words to leave in and which to omit so that the poem can breathe and sing, where and when to turn the line, whether and how much colloquial diction to deploy, by your inventively-shaped forms and well-chosen titles.
Matters of craft aside, it seems to me your poems also succeed through good old-fashioned listening. In any great persona poem, we need to know our characters so well that it feels as though we’ve crawled down their throats and into their hearts, and the poems in Human Crutches seem to issue from just that place, with great authority.
I know from the book’s introduction that you began culling this collection of poems from your experiences bartending in the French Quarter of New Orleans, but I’m interested: over what time period, specifically, did you research and write them? They feel both contemporary and timeless with their inclusive cast, containing a spectrum of “types” from gutter punks to closeted husbands. One of my favorite poems, “Once It Was Called ‘Gay Cancer’,” recalled the year 1979 for me, the year my own father came out.
DM: The timespan was 2010-2012 in terms of actual bar time I worked and observed, but a few poems are from conversations had over 2013-2014 with friends who work in other bars in the Quarter. They’re all written from mental notes and recollections…some are as verbatim as memory allows, and some were twisted a bit to fit an image I wanted to convey as representative of my subjective attachment to the experience or memory, especially when writing about a friend who died—there are two in Human Crutches and counting….
LK: The grief and loss inflicted by AIDS on multiple generations now, particularly on the gay community here in the US, is a waking nightmare. I was 17 when my father came out, just as the epidemic was beginning to rear its horrific head.
DM: Seventeen for me, too, but that’s when dad passed, died of AIDS. He was living upstate and we hadn’t seen him in a while. My parents divorced 13 years earlier and he wasn’t that available as a father.
I think I was just bothered by the fact my uncle knew he was terminally ill for nearly a week before he passed and never told us. Missing that chance to go face to face with him and forgive him, tell him I understood how some aren’t prepared to be a father, tell him I love him, etc….
I think that translated into many relationships with others for a long time after (family, friends, lovers), as in, “Let me show you how much I can love you! Give me the chance to prove it!”
LK: That desire to go to the mat, so to speak, for your friends and extended family seems to still have a grip on you, based on the tough love with which you paint the conflicted characters who make regular appearances in Human Crutches.
In your author’s note, you state that you’ve “largely held great affection for most of these ‘characters.’” That feeling is abundantly clear, even though you don’t hold anything back in your graphic portrayals of them. Your compassion is telegraphed “between the lines,” while never calling attention to itself in any way, let alone a self-congratulatory one.
You also mention that the poems were written from mental notes you collected over a couple of years of bartending. That’s an incredible achievement, because these poems arrive as if freshly transcribed. Your poignant haiku are even presented as scratchings on paper napkins, seemingly jotted down in the moment, tears fresh in the tankard!
DM: I DID actually jot down notes and quotes when I was working at the bar (because holy shit, what fodder, right?), but the notes are probably stuffed in shoe boxes and folders (I’ve moved six times since 2012). I wrote the collection from memory. It was one of those fantastic, wild inward rushes of images and conversations that I wish everyone on the planet can experience at least once in some creative endeavor of theirs. It just didn’t stop. I would recall a face, then an action, then a place, and it opened wide up.
LK: It certainly did; it’s as if you are channeling these characters, so three-dimensional they practically leap off the page. What struck me in that sweet-spot between heart and gut was the realization that both alcoholism and AIDS are agnostic of sexual preference…that the person sitting, slurring, weaving, or passed out in that New Orleans’ bar could easily have been me.
Of course, alcohol severely impacts the gay community, and the use of alcohol may lead to unsafe sex, so I wonder if there’s a direct link between alcohol and AIDS, that both alcoholism and AIDS plague the gay community disproportionately, even today?
DM: Yes. Even though the timespan was 2010-2012 in terms of actual bar time I worked and observed, a few poems are from conversations had over 2013-2014 with friends who work in other bars in the Quarter. My aim was to represent a wide age range telling the stories. I thought it was a nice and indirect way to bring up AIDS as a topic without using that exact phrase, especially when young bartenders were sharing their understanding of it which is nowhere near as devastating as it is/was to the generation before them.
LK: Right, and I don’t want to overemphasize AIDS as a major theme in Human Crutches. That story is told in an implicit way, while the overarching concern seems to be our mutual human desire to be seen, accepted, even loved, and how difficult it is to realize that goal, particularly when one is self-destructive and has not yet even learned to love oneself.
A secondary theme seems to dwell in that darkish place that can quickly become pitch-black hole when we self-medicate with alcohol and/or other mind-altering substances in order to numb our pain. The more these feelings of loneliness and voices of self-loathing are silenced the more tortuous and taunting…given a bit of liquid courage…they become. And if it sounds like I’m familiar with that, it’s because I am.
DM: I was also living a drinker’s lifestyle: work, sleep, hang out at local watering hole when off work, write weak poems, repeat.
LK: I can relate. By contrast, the poems in Human Crutches are as strong or stronger as any I’ve recently read. All in all, how long did it take you to complete this book?
DM: Draft done in a month. My publisher said, “Don’t over think them too much once they’re done…you have to remember those poems aren’t you, so you can’t try to edit them down into you as the poem.”
LK: Your publisher is BareBackPress. In a recent interview in The Review Review, Editor-in-Chief Peter Jelen describes the writers he’s looking for as “unafraid to bare themselves to the world and give us truth, as they see it. Whether this truth can be agreed upon or not doesn’t matter; what matters is how convincing they can be. To name a few of these truth givers: Damon Ferrell Marbut, Wayne F. Burke, Mike Algera, and Carl Miller Daniels. These writers, in my opinion, are taking poetry in the direction it should be going, which is an absolute dissolution of pretense. It’s honest and it’s fun to read.”
What a wonderful compliment and aesthetic! Tell me: did you set out to write all the truth, Damon, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
DM: In the beginning I was just trying something different with style, and I sent a few pieces to my publisher basically asking “What do you think this shit is?” And some of them were just manic, dark poems, but he liked a few of the conversational ones, and we decided going forward with those to capture the mania of the environment by just being almost journalistic in the truth of the characters. Just to see what happened. So, the book was an accident. But if I wouldn’t have been willing to try something new before getting to them it never would have happened. I’ve learned over the last couple of years that when something I’m doing creatively confuses me or frustrates me, something solid is on the other side of it.
LK: Something is not just solid, but simultaneously transparent, brilliant, and utterly moral in Human Crutches. What a wildly successful struggle to find poetry even in…or perhaps exclusively in…traditionally unpoetic places. Congratulations, Damon! Human Crutches should be on everyone’s bookshelf and go on to win well-deserved awards.
Review/Interview by Lissa Kiernan, Poetry Editor Emeritus
author of (Negative Capability Press, 2014)