Timothy Dyke is the author of Atoms of Muses (Tinfsh Press, 2017). He lives in Honolulu, Hawai‘i with parrots. He teaches high school students and writes poems, stories, and essays. In 2012 he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He is also the author of the chapbook Awkward Hugger, which was published by Tinfish Press in 2015.
Jaimie Gusman: Thanks for agreeing to continue our conversation. I’m really excited about your upcoming book Atoms of Muses. The poems are raw and beautiful and seem very personal. We talked about vulnerability in our earlier conversations, so I was hoping we could pick up there. In the book, you write, “I struggle with the ethics of telling stories about people I love.” Tell me something about this.
Tim: I wrote a story once about an extraordinary and dangerous experience I went through when I was devoted to this drug addict friend of mine. Once I came out of the spell of that relationship, and once my friend cleaned himself up and put his life in a forward direction, I wrote a story that got published. I told my friend I was writing a story about the crazy stuff we went through. He said he understood and didn’t want to read it. About a year later he read the story, and he was so pissed. He didn’t deny that I’d captured a truth about our experience, but he wanted me to know that I’d embarrassed him.
Jaimie: How did he handle it?
Tim: We didn’t talk for about two years afterwards. We got over it. We’re friends now. He’s the friend I called last summer when I needed a ride to Moanalua for emergency surgery. At the time of his first expression of rage, I was in graduate school in Tucson. I told my professor what was happening. This poetry teacher said he made sure he didn’t tell his loved ones where he was publishing. He seemed to imply that he wrote whatever he wanted and dealt with the consequences.
Jaimie: This exact same thing terrifies me. But, at the same time, I’m like your poetry professor. I sort of just do what I think is necessary and deal with the consequences, if there are any. There is always a part of me that hides.
Tim: I saw a video of Spalding Gray recently — three or four hours of his monologue performances and interviews. He talked about blowjobs, encounters with con-artist spiritualists, his own infidelity, his children, his therapy — it seems like he talked about everything. There is an interview, though, in which he was asked if he keeps any part of his life off limits to his storytelling. He said, “Yes.” The interviewer asks what part. He went silent and didn’t speak until the subject changed.
Jaimie: That seems suspicious to me. The silence, I mean. I think writing about your own experiences is different than writing about or from someone else’s experiences. I struggle with telling stories about my family because I don’t want to hurt them. Not because there isn’t truth there. But, maybe there is something else there? How is writing about family, love, friendship…about gay teen suicide ethical storytelling?
Tim: I remember one time asking another professor if there were a connection between ethics and writing. I was thinking of writing as a way to address the gay teen suicide issue. I was aware that there is a certain arrogance in thinking that if I write about a subject, I am doing an ethical good. At the same time, I was aware that ignoring a subject as a writer was also not ethical, at least not typically. This was a fiction writing class, so I asked the professor about the links between ethics and narrative.
Jaimie: What did he say?
Tim: He basically laughed at me. He told me he knew a lot of great writers who were terrible people. He told me it sounded to him like I was trying to work something out. I think he was implying that my need to write ethically was some kind of pathology or neurosis, or that it stemmed from some huge sense of guilt. And maybe he was right to a certain extent. How do I write ethically without being self-righteous and without over-estimating my own importance? I think it’s a really tricky balance.
Jaimie: It is tricky. But I like your approach. In the poems, you are always questioning. It’s like watching a series of questioning and unveiling.
Tim: When I first started writing about queer teen suicide, I was reading about a specific case in Texas where a boy hanged himself in his back yard. I read a couple articles about this boy and then stopped. It didn’t seem right to assume I could know what he was thinking or feeling. I am really fixated on that paradox: to bring attention to a vulnerable person’s plight is a positive thing, but to speak for, or assume the voice of, or presume to understand a vulnerable person’s plight is an arrogant, negative thing.
Tim: I aspire to write ethically. I am not necessarily writing about ethics. I’m not creating only ethical characters. I guess all that I can say is that I am putting my writing to the use of noticing, and paying attention, and shining light upon, and uncovering. I am not so arrogant as to think that I know what ethics is, exactly, so I back-pedal and question myself and reveal imperfection as I go along. In the end I am probably not the one to say whether or not I am ethical as a writer. I guess that’s for other people to say.
Jaimie: Speaking of characters. Let’s talk about “The Homosexual Agenda”, a prominent character in Atoms of Muses.
Tim: The conceit of my character is that he acts the way the people who use that phrase — “homosexual agenda”– say he acts. He recruits young girls onto softball teams and spends his time undermining the institution of marriage. I was trying to personify a stupid and bigoted notion as a way of laughing at the notion.
Jaimie: Maybe this is a good time to bring up Milo Yiannopoulos. Mostly, because I know you despise him.
Tim: Ha! Thank you for bringing up someone you know I despise! To a big degree I don’t want to talk about Milo. I don’t want to reward people for cruelty. He seems like a cruel terrorist to me, either in order to get attention and make money or because he’s fucked up. Both, probably. Did you see how he shamed that woman in Milwaukee so that he could make fun of transgender people? She said she was terrorized, and I believe that. It does me no good to give Milo my attention. That said, I am intrigued by the notion of comparing him to The Homosexual Agenda. When I picture what The Homosexual Agenda looks like, I picture some cross between Milo Yiannopoulos and the Pillsbury Dough Boy. My character should look like a cartoon because the conception of homosexuality as a ruthless agenda is a cartoonish notion. The impulse to stigmatize queer people is an impulse of cruelty. The Homosexual Agenda reflects the cruelty of the people who invented him as language construction. Milo is one of the descendants of those people.
Jaimie: I don’t disagree. I admit that I watched the episode of Real Time where Bill Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest. I don’t think we should give him any more attention then he’s already garnered for the Alt Right, but curiosity got the best of me.
Tim: Milo as a person is too cruel, too destructive of all that is good, for me to want to think about. The language that Milo uses, however, is probably worth thinking about. I think he uses language like “free speech” and “political correctness” in manipulative ways that allow him to cast his cruelty as bravery. You asked me about my thoughts on ethical language: maybe I think ethical language is brave language. Milo’s use of language isn’t brave at all. How brave is it to ridicule the powerless and the vulnerable? Fuck Milo. Fuck Scientology too.
Jaimie: Ethical language as brave language—I love that. As a high school teacher, you must battle the (mis)uses of language all the time. And this must be just as—if not more—difficult to talk to your students about.
Tim: I have had students—young writers—who want to use writing to depict acts of cruelty and abuse. It’s a really hard thing to handle as a teacher. On one hand I want students to understand that poets and storytellers and essayists explore every aspect of the human condition. I want them to understand that good can come from naming bad. At the same time I don’t want to encourage writing that exploits people. I wouldn’t want a young writer to sensationalize violence or to depict sexuality in a misogynistic way, but does this mean that a young writer can’t write about misogyny? Is it racist to write characters who are racist?
Jaimie: These questions come up in MFA workshops all the time. When I was a grad student, I saw a lot of fear coming from fellow students. When I was teaching a “Women’s Writing” course, there were a lot of defensive responses from male students after the readings. It’s really hard work to turn those responses into productive discussions.
Tim: There are so many really difficult questions around issues of witness, empathy, exploitation, and the ethics of taking on certain subjects, but I think it’s necessary to ask the difficult questions. I try to wade into these areas with some humor and some awareness of the complexity. I don’t know if I completely avoid saying stupid things. I don’t know that I can be ethical as a writer without the risk of saying stupid things.
Jaimie: I don’t think you say stupid things. In fact, I’m really interested in the things you say, and how you—someone who I know mostly as a prose writer—has shifted focus from prose to poetry. Didn’t this manuscript begin as a novel?
Tim: In 1999 I traveled to Amsterdam by myself and took legal mushrooms. On these “Philosopher Stones,” I sat in a coffee shop, smoked weed and typed into my laptop. I got the idea of creating a character called The Homosexual Agenda. Most of the stories were funny. They probably weren’t as great as I thought they were. Eventually, ten years later, I had a novel — a meta-narrative thing that was basically a mediocre imitation of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock and David Foster Wallace’s everything.
Jaimie: Wow. Atoms of Muses couldn’t be further from its original conception.
Tim: I went to graduate school in 2010 in order to improve the manuscript. I was literally sitting in Jane Miller’s class on the poetry of place discussing Dante during a monsoon when I decided that I didn’t want to frame my story around The Homosexual Agenda. I had been reading a lot of articles about gay teen suicide, and I committed to writing about that.
At this same time, I was working in the University of Arizona Poetry Center and reading poetry all day for months. I was in a fiction writing class where our professor said there was only one way to write a story. The whole rising action-conflict-climax thing. The narrative arc thing. His view was that once you perfected the formula, you could use it for infinite variations. I hated this idea and don’t believe it at all.
Jaimie: It seems pretty constrictive. So this turned you off from fiction completely?
Tim: I still love fiction. I am writing some more traditionally structured stories right now. But as I was working on Atoms of Muses, I started looking for poets who could give me some alternatives to straight up narratives. I like David Trinidad’s poem about Thelma Ritter. He pretty much gives her film biography and comments on her excellence. For reasons I can’t explain, the poem moves me a lot. I read My Life by Lyn Hejinian and Mid-Winter’s Day by Bernadette Mayer. I read everything Maggie Nelson has ever published. I read Reader’s Block by David Markson, I Remember by Joe Brainard and Halls of Fame by John D’agata. I dove into the wordplay of Harryette Mullen. I read Inferno by Eileen Miles and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine.
Jaimie: You’re mentioning some of my favorite poets. In grad school, Catherine Wagner and Haryette Mullen changed by life.
Tim: All of those great writers gave me confidence to stop worrying about whether or not I was a fiction writer or a poet. I realized that the spaces between genres felt really comfortable to me. I’ve never felt like I’ve fit into any community, really. I didn’t fit into my family because I was the gay one. I didn’t fit into sports teams, churches, etc. I don’t even fit into gay communities all that well, maybe because I’m single and I prefer masturbation to paired-up sex. I’ve learned to enjoy the margins.
Jaimie: Well, it makes sense that you’d want to write characters you connect with, characters that are also in the margins.
Tim: I don’t want to make too much of this. I know in a lot of ways I’m privileged. I’m saying I feel more free when I don’t worry about what genre I fit into. So I stopped worrying about genre.
I was pitching the manuscript as a novel, but it was so fractured and non-linear that it lacked narrative drive. So I set upon the task of compressing my book. It went from 260 pages to 89. I think of it as compression more than cutting. I was after a balance between forward momentum and non-linear organization.
Jaimie: “Compression” is a nice way to think about such a substantial task.
Tim: I read a book by Jennifer Moxley called The Line. I started thinking about the line that my prose blocks moved through. I really liked the idea of a book of prose blocks that are self-contained but also linked and moving in a forward direction. I just kept compressing and balancing. The balance seemed really important, almost like I was creating a mobile out of blocks, and if one was too heavy or in the wrong place, the whole thing would topple.
Jaimie: I do really admire the balance you create in Atoms of Muses. You are a wonderful storyteller. The further I got into the manuscript, the more I enjoyed the connections you were making. Crafting this manuscript to be what it is must have been so laborious.
Tim: In 2014 I went to a summer writing conference in New York City. I was excited to be a Teaching Assistant in a workshop with Stephen Dunn, a master whose poetry I admire. Mr. Dunn opened his workshop by asking me to read my poem, “Awkward Hugger” out loud. I read the poem and he said, “That was written by someone who has had interesting life experiences but who knows absolutely nothing about poetry.” It would have been devastating and humiliating, but I had been reading Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum, and I had learned how to look at the emotion of shame with a kind of distance. I decided I would ignore Stephen Dunn. I flew to Portland and sat in Powell’s for three days changing all of my lineated poems into prose blocks.
Jaimie: It’s funny how poems find their forms, and who helps us shape them.
Tim: I committed to telling the story of Elliot, and The Maple Tree, and The Homosexual Agenda, and all of my alter-egos and earnest narrators in a series of linked prose poems. I called it Atoms of Muses. Then I called it The Homosexual Agenda. Then I went back to Atoms of Muses.
Jaimie Gusman is a freelance writer in Kaaawa, Hawaii, and founder of Mixing Innovative Arts, Honolulu’s longest running reading series. Jaimie has three chapbooks: Gertrude’s Attic (Vagabond Press, 2014), The Anyjar (Highway 101 Press, 2011), and One Petal Row (Tinfish Press, 2011). Her work can also be found in the journals Moss Trill, The Feminist Wire, Sonora Review, BODY Magazine, Trout, Mascara Review, Unshod Quills, LOCUSPOINT, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Hearing Voices, Hawaii Women’s Journal, Spork Press, Shampoo, Barnwood, DIAGRAM, 2 River Review, and others. She is on the web at http://jaimiegusman.com/. Jaimie Gusman’s first book, Anyjar, is forthcoming Fall 2017 from Black Radish Books. Read an interview with Jaimie, by Tim, here.