During his poetry reading at the Manor House on March 15, Derrick Austin revealed himself to be an incredibly approachable, friendly guy. He demonstrated his humor and wit, as well as his thoughtfulness in many side-notes and tangents, in addition to the complex observations about life that come alive in his poetry. In the Foreword of his debut collection Trouble the Water, Lewis & Clark’s very own Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities Mary Szybist writes: “These poems are so alive, so good, so full of wit and charm and sorrow and tenderness and grace…” Each of Austin’s poems grapple with many of the paradoxes that make up so much of human experience—those concerning the emotional, the artistic, and the identity. His collection also has a wide variety of subject matters, ranging from pop-culture, to art history and mythology, to issues regarding race, sexuality, identity, memory, love and spirituality. He links these varied subjects with the endlessly fruitful metaphor of water, while also grounding the work with a focus on and awareness of the human body. Szybist has pointed out how, for Austin, spiritual salvation is not separate from bodily salvation. In this collection, the body is linked to it all—spirituality, identity and sensuality.
Szybist selected Austin’s collection as the winner of the 2015 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. After an introduction by Associate Professor Jerry Harp, Austin thanked the crowd for being part of his first visit to Portland. Above all, however, he wanted to thank Szybist for picking his book out of all the other submissions in the competition and thus changing his life. He then leapt into the reading, commenting: “It’s time to read poems before I get too emotional.”
Austin read a total of 18 poems, including “Bow Down” — titled after Beyoncé’s song from Lemonade — that deals with questions about masculinity, power and submission. Austin prefaced his reading of “Torch Song” — a drag queen’s anthem — with a story about a friend of his who says that people cannot call themselves poets until they’ve written a poem about Persephone. Austin, on the other hand, joked that you “can’t call yourself a poet until you’ve written a poem about a drag queen.” Here, and in “O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E,” we can see how Austin weaves together images and inspiration from his favorite films—in this case, “Paris is Burning.”
Austin also finds ways to interact with visual art — another area of great personal interest for him — while also commenting on race. In “Sweet Boys” and “Sweet Talk,” Austin takes inspiration from Kara Walker’s visual art installation “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby.” Walker’s piece was made up of a black female Sphinx made out of white sugar. Surrounding the Sphinx were sculptures of black boys made of molasses and brown sugar. The piece became infamous for the ways white viewers interacted disrespectfully with the figures. In the poems, Austin discusses the historical erasure of slavery and the personified experience of these figures, writing: “their bodies now magical – / burning, dismembered, singing – to make the myth / easy.”
Even though these poems were influenced by modern art, Austin has always been drawn to Renaissance-era European art. Growing up, Austin wanted to be a historian—especially in the areas of art, fashion, and religion. He does not do visual art work himself, but finds a way to interact with it through his poetry. Rather than describing exactly what he sees in a given work, he pays attention to the experience and sensibility of the viewer, and even imaginatively reworks and changes what he sees. He also finds Renaissance art particularly compelling because it tends to tell clearer narrative stories, and forces him to pay attention to “Where I am, and where I’m not.” He, as an African American queer poet, would have never been an individual imagined by Renaissance painters. He finds himself aware of where someone like him would or would not fit into the narratives of old, white European painters, and uses that idea as inspiration in much of his writing.
Two audience questions related to “truth” in Austin’s poems began an interesting discussion about art and creativity. The first dealt with Austin’s sources of inspiration and whether or not his poems were based on real events. After playfully responding that “a lot ain’t real,” Austin went on to discuss how much more important emotional truth is than literal truth. For example, the poems in his collection about the “grandfather figure,” such as the one suffering from Alzheimer’s in “Summertime,” were created from a conflation of both his mother’s father, who died of cancer, and his father’s father, who died in the military. Austin finds the emotional truths to be more direct, important and interesting, thus working to creatively pull different experiences together in order to get to the powerful emotional truth that lies beneath. The second question was about the poem “5. Etching of Adam and Eve,” which discusses a work of art that doesn’t actually exist. Austin discussed how he loves bringing together inexact amalgamations of images collected from art and media. He wishes he could paint, but alas, cannot and instead combines images in his poems that are able to “talk back” to art. The image of Adam and Eve, specifically, was derived from an image in the movie “I Am Love.”
While answering a question about his use of vivid settings in many of his poems, Austin described some of the symbolic importance of water in his poems. The two main settings in which his poems take place are Florida — and the Gulf of Mexico — and European cities around the Mediterranean Sea. For him, water was the force by which he could connect the two widely different places. Throughout his collection, he finds a way to connect the dynamic properties of water with many of the poem’s stories. Most notable during the reading were the poems Austin read from his sub-collection cycle entitled “City of Rivers.” In these poems, water in the form of rivers becomes a fluid metaphor for cycles, renewal, anxiety and hope.
Austin concluded the night with an answer to a question about his writing methods. He said that his biggest hurdle now — and the main difference in his work pre-book release and post-book release — is his past work. Before he released the book, he joked that all he had to contend with was the entirety of his literary predecessors. Now, he has to contend with his past self, work and habits. More than anything, he does not want to write Trouble the Water ptII. What’s next is still a mystery, but there is little doubt that Austin will be able to once again enthrall us all.