But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
The two writers stroll the streets of Manhattan to talk about Dimitrov’s new poetry collection, Love and Other Poems, which traces his affection for the city.
Alex Dimitrov came down to my office on Union Square and we spoke over video in adjoining rooms. It was an interesting turn in our friendship to have a distanced conversation under fluorescent lighting, but we still found ourselves trusting intuition, generally laughing off rationality, and following whims. After about an hour, we left the office to ramble around mostly empty streets, walking past many of the bars and restaurants that appear in his poems.
Alex has published three books of poetry, including Together and by Ourselves, Begging for It, and most recently, Love and Other Poems (Copper Canyon, 2021). He is also the coauthor, with Dorothea Lasky, of Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac, based on their popular horoscopic Twitter account. I was excited to talk to Alex about Love and Other Poems, as the qualities I’ve come to appreciate in him are all here on full display. The work is candid, particular, and located, yet also full of something resonant and mystically charged. It’s the kind of surprise that makes you smile and nod, like catching a glimpse of the full moon in the middle of the day. Above all else, the poems express the intangible power of a ludic spirit both at rest and on the move.
Will Chancellor How long have you been up?
Alex Dimitrov Not that long.
WC Let the record show it is 5:01 PM.
AD Alright. This is rare, okay? And also I was working last night. I went to bed at 5 AM.
WC This is by far the most personal work you’ve written to date.
AD I don’t know how it happened. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I’m writing a book, which might sound strange, but I know you get it. You kind of just keep going day to day. And then that long poem at the end of the book, “Poem Written in a Cab,” was happening as I was writing the other poems, and it started divulging personal details.
WC “Poem Written in a Cab” fits in the Frank O’Hara I-did-this, I-did-that category of poem, a catalog of a series of nights in your life. I actually remember you meeting me at a hotel bar and you were like, “I’m working on this poem I’m pretty excited about, called ‘Poem Written in a Cab.’” By my count, this is a three-year-in-the-making poem.
AD It’s true. I became friends with you right around the time that I started it. It began out of a quotidian irritation; I was taking a lot of cabs I shouldn’t have been taking. But I’m not a really rational person, obviously: I’ve decided to be a poet in New York City.
WC Nor are you a really rich person.
AD Thank you. I’m not a very rational or a very rich person. Despite whatever ideas people have about me. So yes, I was taking a lot of cabs downtown to meet you, to meet other people, to do stuff. And one day I thought, this is getting out of hand. But instead of stopping like a normal person, I thought, well, why don’t I just work while I’m taking these cabs, you know, as a way to justify it? I had just quit my nine-to-five job at a poetry nonprofit. It had gotten to the point where that job wasn’t allowing me to write poetry and wasn’t supportive of my life as a poet. Dark and ironic, really. So I said, “Fuck it. I’m going to follow my art.” One day I opened the notes app, stuck in traffic in a cab, and I wrote those first two lines where I say, “Hey, this is a poem, we’re in a poem.” And I was directly speaking to the reader.
WC After I realized that you were going to be my friend pretty much from here on out, I was like, I’ve got to do a better job of reading his poetry. And I found this Maggie Nelson book, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions—
AD I teach that book.
WC Well then, I did okay! Pretty much every question I have is predicated upon the assumption that your work lands firmly within the New York School, and that O’Hara, Schuyler, and probably Ashbery, are three of the most important people to reading your work and making sense of it.
AD That’s one way to look at it. You’re right that I’m in some sort of tradition that includes those people. My second book, Together and by Ourselves, was inspired by Ashbery, especially The Tennis Court Oath. After my first book—which everyone read autobiographically, though it was meant mythically—I wanted to throw a curve into my own way of thinking about poetry. I read a lot of Ashbery, not in the hope that I would sound like him, but to read someone who was doing something no one else was, really throughout his career. He was in his own lane. And Together and by Ourselves has that vibe. It’s in its own lane. It’s my favorite book I’ve written and I don’t think critics got it or even took the time to get it. It doesn’t sound like the poetry being published then or now. Or even like my new book! This new one returns to a more democratic and pedestrian voice. The second wave of the New York School is also important to me. Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan. Still, I do a lot of things differently, and I don’t want to—I mean, I’m a Sagittarius, you know. I never want to commit to anything, so if people are like, should I understand you as a New York poet, as a New York School poet, as a whatever? I want to half say yes, and the other part of me resists talking about anything that would make me legible.
WC Yeah, well, the New York School has made your work legible to me. Here’s Maggie Nelson writing on O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler: “He displays a love of chatter via such ephemeral modes of communication as lunch dates, telephone calls, and postcards; an interest in collaborative practices, which complicate or erase the possibility of the individual genius author; an abiding commitment to the occasional and the ephemeral, and a related fascination with nonlinear time.” I feel like that’s pretty on the mark for your title poem, “Love,” and the first poem, “Sunset on 14th Street.” Nelson’s using “love of chatter” in a nonpejorative sense. Reading the poems with that in mind made the work click. Can you talk about ephemerality, how you try to capture that?
AD As a person and as a writer, I love chatter and gossip. It’s one of the reasons I live in New York City. It’s one of the reasons why I’m friends with certain people. I think this new book is going to be more legible to people—whether or not they have an understanding of poetry’s history or are poetry readers—because aesthetically I have written it more plainly. And the ephemeral is, to me, easier to capture when it’s more plainly stated.
WC I think the most personal poem in the collection is “New York.” This poem is just you laid bare. There are references to Opening Ceremony and to different gay bars in New York City.
AD That’s so embarrassing.
WC Love and New York are inextricably linked in this collection.
AD Well, of course. New York is the only thing I’ve been able to commit to. Other than poetry.
WC James Schuyler in his poem “Moon” has a line I love that reconstitutes the very notion of place, New York specifically. He’s sitting in his room at the Chelsea Hotel, lamenting the fact that he didn’t go out to watch the eclipse, and then he writes, “And now the sun shines / down in silent brightness, / on me and my possessions, / which I have named, / New York.”
AD I love that.
WC It seems like he’s operating in the same way you are: revealing personality by highlighting particular objects, moments, and moods, and then naming those aspects of life New York. It’s not confessional in the sense of “Here are my deepest yearnings and here’s my anguish.” It’s, “Here’s the world around me and these are my possessions, which I just happen to name New York.”
AD I don’t want the book to feel confessional. Though, in “Poem Written in a Cab” I do say things about my personal life that I’ve never said before. A little bit about my family, about where I come from. In my own work, identity has rarely interested me. I have too many other things, in relation to the imagination, that I want to explore. So I surprised myself when I brought certain personal details up, but I quickly swerve away from them and say, you know, they don’t really matter. I say that in the poem. My hope is that nobody reads this book through an identity lens. At times people have tried to do that with me, but I’m shifty and I jump around.
I’m an immigrant; my parents came to this country when they were very young. They didn’t have any money. They didn’t go to college. And I’ve never talked about that because it’s never really been important to my project at large. For some reason it did come up in that poem. And yeah, I’m gay. That’s never been important to me either, to be quite frank. I think the things that have shaped me as a human being are that I’m a writer and reader and that I’ve always wanted to, and do, live in New York City. Art has shaped me. I’ve tried to let art shape me more than my circumstances. I mean, it’s been bad at times. Most recently, I didn’t have healthcare, for like the entire time I wrote this book. I don’t even want to talk about my student loans.
WC There’s a line in your poem “Summer Solstice”: “Love is hard to account for. / This is what summer has always been / and where limerence goes on.” Now, limerence, I have to confess, I had to look that word up. I thought if anything, it would be like a limerick. But limerence, as far as I can tell, is unrequited love or infatuation.
AD I stole that word from my brilliant friend, Melissa Broder. We did a reading in LA while I was writing the book, and she was talking about limerence at dinner.
WC There’s something to be said for the intensity of that first experience. Do you think that the way that you relate to the world is less a flow of events and more a series of initial sparks?
AD The world to me becomes a lot less exciting when certain possibilities are closed off. I think that happens more and more, the older we get. The choices get fewer. As a poet, I want to keep the doors open. It’s not necessarily that I want everything to be unrequited or new, I just want everybody to be utterly themselves. And I think that at the beginning of love, there’s no other way to be, because you have no authority to ask someone else to change anything about their life, since you just met them. And that’s when they reveal themselves, because they do a lot of things that confuse you and in doing so, are more themselves. Then when you’re partnered…I mean, my longest relationship has been four years, and that almost killed me. I suppose there’s a lot to be said about seeing someone through time. But I see my friends through time, and those are more exciting relationships to me because they’re somehow more true. People are more themselves in friendship than in love. More free. Friendship is the greatest romance in a way. And I’m also obsessed, as you know, with freedom and contradiction and being able to change. When I read Whitman for the first time—his ideas of the open road, America as constantly creating itself, changing, contradicting—that to me felt true not only to being an artist, but to being an American, to being gay, to being all of these things that Whitman was, and that I am. I just want to take another path, not the path most people are on. And to be honest, I’ve been punished for that. I mean, I don’t have a lot of security in my life because I’ve chosen to live the way I do.
WC In Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem,” he says “freedom of choice / is better,” right? As opposed to engaging in any kind of hierarchical structure.
WC One of O’Hara’s quintessential love poems, “Having a Coke with You,” has definitely been read to partners in bed. I’m sure that it’s been read at a wedding. But you transformed the poem into, “Having a Diet Coke with You.” These lines of yours stitch together a lot of what we’re talking about:
There are other things
I need you to remember.
Like, please stop taking cabs
so you don’t have to take out a loan
or become a lawyer. And please stop
having sex with men who are terrified
of looking at your face when you cry.
One day, your choices will be limited
and you’ll wear the same outfit
forever into the beyond, into the gold sea.
AD I wanted to write a love poem to myself. No one was writing love poems to me, or reading me love poems either. And if I was going to do that, I mean, I definitely wouldn’t drink a real Coke. That’s too many calories. So it had to be Diet. It started as, Alright, I’ll just tack on this title. Also, the ending is lifted entirely word-for-word from another one of my poems in a chapbook I did called American Boys, one that I thought no one read. And I was like, I’m just going to write the same ending twice and see if anyone notices.
WC I want to challenge you and say that it’s not really a love poem to you as much as it’s a love poem to poetry, and to your life as a poet, which is, I think, why you are courting yourself.
AD Maybe. I’m not interested in interpreting my work. So let me just ask you, when do you write?
WC Well, I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. I made a decision a couple of years ago that as soon as I was aware that I was awake, I would just get out of bed. I never go back to sleep. My day almost always belongs to other people, other concerns and obligations, and the only time that I have to get anything worthwhile done is before it starts. So getting up then, I can have a couple hours just to myself. I wish that it were more productive sometimes. When you look at what I have per day, it’s depressing. It’s like, you wrote an average of twenty words a day for five years. That’s difficult to justify as a life-ordering principle. But at the same time, if you write 500 words a day, you have a novel in a year, so it’s hard to make sense of these things mathematically.
AD I understand that. I actually don’t even think of word count as a poet.
WC So your unit is not the word, it’s the poem?
AD The unit is the poem or really, the line. And a poem can happen in twenty minutes or over twenty months. I’ve had three or four poems that I’ve written almost word for word, haven’t changed anything later, in about twenty minutes. I’m going to spend my life hoping that happens a few more times.
WC Right, exactly. But that’s what it is. When things are really clicking, I have a very simple rule for knowing when I am finished with the day’s work: if I have turned the valence. Let’s say that the scene that I’m working on, the mood is very positive. Like, things are good. I have to keep working that day until things are miserable. There has to be a shift in the tone from positive to negative, or from negative to positive. Is there anything like that with your poetry practice: a tangible, concrete way to say, Alright, done?
AD No, there isn’t. That’s a really interesting way to think about temperament and cadence. I don’t know how poems happen at all. But I do like constraints. This book was fun to write because I had two poems that had real constraints. “Poem Written in a Cab,” could only be written in a cab on my iPhone. And with “Love,” every line had to start with that construction, “I love.” And the poem is endless. It continues infinitely, one line a day, on Twitter (@poemcalledlove). In a sense, I’ll always be writing it, you know. But to deflect from me again, I wanted to ask you, or really say, that every time I see you out at a bar, you always have a book and a notebook. You actually read and write things down in bars, and I just find that remarkable. I’m very jealous.
WC Well, sort of. I think you have to write with as much clarity, lucidity, and sobriety as possible. But then I like to edit with as much drunkenness as possible. A lot of times I have something that I wrote in the morning and later that day I like having a couple drinks, looking at the work like, does this hold up? Sometimes it takes a drink to realize you’re being too precious or just … off. You know?
AD Definitely. Why did you move to New York?
WC I thought this is where everything happened. I didn’t think that it was possible to publish a book unless you went to an MFA program or lived in New York City. I took the joke literally. And I thought New York was the more attractive of those two alternatives.
AD You didn’t say when.
WC I was twenty-three. I had a 300,000-word draft of a novel. It was a fucking mess, and I showed up at the Chelsea Hotel, gave Stanley Bard a chapter; he read a little of it while I waited in the lobby and said, “Hey, you can stay here.” He kept the original scroll that I typed the thing on, though.
AD Incredible. That’s a really good New York story. You’re probably one of the last writers who was able to do that with the Chelsea.
WC Until I read that poem, “Moon,” I had no idea Schuyler lived there. It’s kind of amazing that a place can have so many legends that you can miss somebody like Schuyler. Not that twenty-three-year-old me really had any concept of literary history.
AD I didn’t have a concept of literary history either at that age, but I weirdly knew about the Chelsea Hotel. Not only because of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, but I read in Interview magazine, when I was in high school, that Madonna shot parts of her book Sex there. I remember thinking, I have to go to that room. I have to see that room. And apparently, it’s a real shitty room or whatever.
WC I mean, that’s the secret. They’re all shitty rooms. But it was $815 a month and I could pay with my credit card, which meant I didn’t need to make rent every month, only my minimum payment.
AD How long did you live there?
WC Years. You know what’s funny, I was living there for about a week before I even really realized what the Chelsea Hotel was … I mean, New York was such a foreign, weird place to me with tourists taking pictures of everything, so I thought this is just what happens if you live in Manhattan; people just take pictures of your lobby. It took me a while to really put together all these things … Suddenly Leonard Cohen made a lot more sense to me. I think it’s a lot nicer, in a way, those first couple of years when you’re just too naïve to really be aware …
AD You’re broke, but you don’t really know what that means.
WCExactly. Your standards are like, Oh, well, I’m here and I had a couple of actual meals this week.
AD I don’t have the Chelsea Hotel story. I wish I did, but I always knew that I would come to New York. Other cities didn’t even exist in my imagination the same way.
WC Did you have any kind of plan B when you moved here?
AD Oh God no. There was barely a plan A. People thought that my “plan” was ludicrous. When I said the word poet, there would be a silence, and a look up and down to see what I was wearing, to see if they could glean anything from me, possibly, that could define what I meant. They would be like, Sonnets? What are you actually going to do with your life?
WC Yeah, it’s weird. This was the absolute low point, I think, of my whole experience publishing my first book. I was friends with a pretty famous painter, and I went with him to a collectors’ dinner after his show, and I was seated next to this older woman. I felt like I was on decent artistic footing for the first time. I was publishing a book, like that very week, that I had worked on nonstop for ten years. I’m sitting next to this woman, and she asked if I was an artist. And I was like, “Well, not really. I’m a fiction writer. I’ve actually got a novel coming out.” She grabs my hand and says, “How does it feel to be a buggy maker?” (laughter) I was like, “Pardon me?” And she’s like, “Well, I mean, you’re telling me that you’ve made a new buggy in a world filled with cars? It’s so cute.”
AD Oh God.
WC That’s fully irrelevant, but poets have had to suffer that “buggy-makers of literature” thing for a while, right?
AD I think that’s always bothered me because I want everyday people to read my work and not to feel frightened by it or feel like they have to decode something. I’m really invested in an everyman, everywoman, everyday reader. I’ve never felt at home, not in the world and not in the poetry world, which has never understood me or allowed me to be myself. When we became very close friends three years ago, and we hung out a lot, we talked so much about writing and about New York and all that stuff. That, to me, was the vision I had from the beginning: money didn’t matter, fame didn’t matter. I just wanted to find those people.
WC Welcome home. I mean, in one sense, there’s a nice alignment between the New York School and the idea of not having to have some kind of a mythological glossary to make sense of the poem. I don’t think any of those people would shy away from the idea of, Yes, the poem is on the surface. That’s the surface that I’m presenting, that’s what you’re looking at. And it took me contextualizing this in this specific way to be able to read you well, learning to take things at face value.
AD I think that the reason why I’ve felt so homeless, in a sense, in the poetry world, is because no one has ever figured out what to do with me. They either read the surface too literally or think that it’s a joke or a myth or a lie. Or invent their own ideas that have nothing to do with me. I’m someone who is formally interested in artifice and aesthetics over everything else. At the end of the day, when I’m writing something, I just care about it being aesthetically pleasing to me, and then I’m hoping that it’s aesthetically pleasing to someone else. I want art to give people pleasure. To return people to themselves, the inner self. Something that is well made is important. It can get you up in the morning.
Will Chancellor is the author of the novel A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper Perennial, 2014) and is currently writing an alternate history of the Soviet space program titled The Meaning of Certain Dreams. He recently wrote on the Brazilian painter Lucas Arruda for David Zwirner books (Lucas Arruda: Deserto-Modelo) and is the fiction editor at the Brooklyn Rail.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.