with Kevin Bertolero:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
I didn’t start seriously writing until around my junior year of high school. I was fortunate enough to work with poet Peter Mishler in a couple creative writing classes and he was an early mentor of mine who was very encouraging. My work was terrible back then, as most high school writing is, but he was the first person to really engage with my writing in a critical way and that kind of attention was invigorating to me. I participated in more workshops when I was an undergrad at Potsdam college, I started attending the Colgate Writers’ Conference each summer, and I started reaching out to other writers online… I was seeking these kinds of conversations wherever I could find them. This was one of the primary reasons I started Ghost City Press, as an attempt to build a larger community of poets and artists.
In terms of my own work, I found myself drawn to the New York School poets very early on. Frank O’Hara has had a huge influence on my work, and of course that led me to Schuyler and others. I was also drawn to the queerness of these works, too, and Oliver Baez Bendorf was another poet who really spoke to me in this way. He had this video online for his poem “The Ice” which really inspired me, just the conversational tone he was using. His poems focused a lot on the nature of Wisconsin which he wrote about with such care, the same way I was writing about the Adirondack Mountains. Gary Snyder was another early influence in this way, which lead me to Diane di Prima, and so on. There’s a quality to all of these poets which is shared, but difficult to articulate. They’re from different schools of poetry, but they’re all trying to get at the same kind of personal feeling, very centered on place.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Kevin: O’Hara, Schuyler, Bendorf, di Prima, and Snyder are all still very important to me. I would also say that Jameson Fitzpatrick, Tim Dlugos, Jack Gilbert, Robert Lax, Ron Schreiber, Aaron Smith, and James Wright have had a significant impact on my writing in the years since I finished undergrad, all writers who, again, are very focused on place in their writing. I recently have found myself enamored with the work of Robert Bly and William Stafford as well. There’s something about the Minnesota poets that really appeals to me, I guess.
I came across Ron Schreiber’s poetry not too long ago as well and he’s a poet I feel an almost spiritual connection to. I was wandering around Books and Melodies in Syracuse a couple years ago (the best used bookstore in the city) and I found all six of Schreiber’s collections on the shelf. I bought one, went home, read it and fell in love with it immediately. I went back the next day to buy the other five books.
Schreiber was a member of the Good Gay Poets collective (who published a collection by another mentor and friend of mine, the late Native American poet Maurice Kenny). In addition to his poetry, though, Schreiber was—like me—also a publisher who ran Calamus Books out of Ithaca, New York. Schreiber and I seem to share a similar aesthetic within our work which was what initially attracted me to his poems. Upon further reading though, I realized that him and I share a similar perspective; We both have backgrounds in publishing, we both write about place within our work—especially about New Hampshire, Buffalo, Ithaca, Boston, even Saranac Lake—and we both write personally about our past relationships and boyfriends.
For me, Schreiber is a poet who writes about gay domestic life in a way that I haven’t seen from many other queer poets. This is a quality I greatly admire in his poems. His collection Living Space (1974) feels to me like a revelation regarding the gay domestic setting. Tomorrow Will Really Be Sunday (1984) shows how sensually gay sex can be examined on the page without venturing too far into the erotic (almost in opposition to a poet like Aaron Smith who fully embraces the erotic). Moving to a New Place (1974) is a book about a breakup, a life in transition, stuck in a queer liminality that feels very familiar to me. And finally, his book John (1989) is about the last few months in the life of his longtime boyfriend who is dying from complications related to AIDS. It traces their relationship from the first hospital visit to John’s funeral and is one of the most devastating collections I’ve ever read. Schreiber has been completely overlooked and I’ve kind of made it my personal mission to recommend and share his writing with as many people as possible. He’s brilliant.
Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
All throughout high school, and even through senior year, I had planned on going to college for music. I wanted to be a high school band teacher. I had played percussion since elementary school—my main instrument was the marimba—and I was really passionate about this for the longest time. But then I found poetry and it was affecting me in a way that music hadn’t, I just couldn’t get enough of it. And when I started touring colleges, I went to Potsdam first because they’re known for their music school. The school was entirely underground though (literally, not metaphorically) and was actually a really depressing space. I couldn’t imagine spending four years down there locked in some practice room with poor lighting. It’s a great school, don’t get me wrong, but I just wasn’t passionate enough about my instrument, I guess.
While we toured the rest of the campus, though, we stopped in the English dept where I had a lovely conversation with some of the faculty there, and it was in this beautiful old brick building covered in lush ivy… I knew right then that this was where I wanted to spend my time. I majored in literature with minors in philosophy and art history (it sounds pretentious, I know), and I overloaded on credits every semester and took in as much as I could. All these classes came together thematically and ideologically for me in these interesting ways which really influenced my poetry over the next few years. There was also a significant queer community at the school as well and there were several boys who were a part of my life which influenced what I was writing about as well. It was a productive, important time for me.
Q4: Who has helped you most with writing?
Oh gosh, there are so many people. As I said, Peter Mishler has been there cheering me on since the beginning. I studied with Rebecca Lehman at Potsdam who was wonderful (she was mad that I wasn’t studying in the creative writing department). I was an editorial assistant for Maurice Kenny in the final months of his life and he was a terrific friend and mentor. I met Bruce Smith, Kathleen Ossip, and Peter Balakian through the Colgate Conference, I worked with Christopher Citro and Georgia Popoff at the Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse (and there was a really great, inspiring group of poets there who gave me a community at that time). At New England College I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Chen Chen and Andrew Morgan, all of whom have helped me grow in different ways. I owe so much to all these people.
And then of course there are my friends. Jack Bachmann is my first reader and one of my closest friends and I trust his opinion above all else. I think we’re both careful readers of each other’s work. He’s seen my poems change through time and is often able to articulate these differences before I even realize they are happening. I always hope that I can give his poems the same level of attention and care that he gives to mine. I would do anything for him.
Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing & did any travels away from influence your work?
I grew up in the suburbs of Syracuse which was fine, nothing really dramatic happened and I had a pretty quiet childhood. Being in the closet was probably the most notable thing from that period of time. My writing wasn’t very good when I was living there either, so I don’t really credit Syracuse too much as being an important part of my work. It’s where the name Ghost City came from, so it’s significant in that regard. It wasn’t until I went up into the North Country for college that (I think) my writing was really worth anything. That landscape really influenced my work, and if you look at my first two collections, From the Estuary to the Offing and Soft Boy, those were both written primarily at Potsdam and are very much products of that region.
When I moved to New Hampshire for grad school after I left Potsdam, things changed in my writing. My lines were becoming much longer and my subjects were growing more abstract. I was writing more prose poems and as a result of living on the seacoast, a lot of the imagery in my poems was being affected by the region. The kinds of art and literature I was researching were influential to me around this time, as were the people I was interacting with and hanging out with on the weekends, all of whom were much more intellectual than the people I was friends with at Potsdam. And this is not to speak down on anyone, I just mean that people’s priorities were different at the University of New Hampshire and the other students in my cohort were very dedicated to their studies and were passionate about their own research interests in a way that was refreshing. They shared the kind of dedication I felt at the time for more academic work. This all played a significant role in how my chapbook Love Poems turned out.
Q6: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far to you?
Kevin: I’m most proud of the new work I’ve been producing over the past couple years. Jack has pointed out a pretty significant syntactical shift in my newer poems and they’re much different than any of the stuff included in my other books. I’m doing a lot more with punctuation and white space than I have before. I’m very proud of how Love Poems turned out and am incredibly thankful to Bottlecap press for all their support in putting it out. But yeah, I think I’m always going to be the most excited about what I’m currently working on and the directions I’m heading in creatively. I think now that I’ve spent more time in New Hampshire and have had time to explore the areas surrounding, whether down in Massachusetts, up the coastline of Maine, or even into some more rural areas of Vermont, New England is very much finding its way into my poems (oftentimes without me even consciously attempting to do so). It’s mysterious to me, but very exciting.
Q7: Favorite activities to relax?
Kevin: I have spent A LOT of time at the beach this summer. The school I’m currently teaching at is only five or ten minutes from the beach, so it’s been easy to head over there after work most days just to read for a few hours. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done that way.
I also really love visiting with friends when I can. I’ve spent some wonderful evenings up in Portland, ME recently. There’s so much great food up there and they have a very vibrant arts scene (and it’s also super gay, which is nice). I think these conversations and visits I have with friends are the most generative events for my poems. I find so much love in these quiet, late-night conversations, and it’s always interesting to find out what other people are reading and thinking about. That’s important to me, to have those experiences and interactions.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem/writing of yours or others?
I don’t know if I’m ready to share anything from my new work yet, I’m still playing around with most of it, but I have been obsessed with this poem by Jack Gilbert recently. I actually came across it for the first time several summers ago, but I’ve been teaching it in one of my classes recently, so it’s been on my mind. The poem is called “Married” and it’s about the death of Gilbert’s late wife, Michiko. He writes,
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got the from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
It’s one of the best love poems I’ve ever read. All my friends tell me it’s a sad poem, but I truly don’t think it is.
Q9: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Kevin: I’m currently in the process of putting together a new collection of poems, but before that happens, I actually have a nonfiction book coming out this fall with Another New Calligraphy. It’s called Forever in Transition: Queer Futurist Aesthetics in Gay Cinema. It was born out of the research I did for my masters thesis at UNH and is a combination of academic work and personal essay. I’m really proud of it and it’s the longest work I’ve ever written. It felt nice to get away from poetry for a little bit—but it’s also very nice to return to poetry after some time away.
Bio: Kevin Bertolero (he/him) is the founding editor of Ghost City Press and is the associate director of the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Love Poems (Bottlecap Press, 2020) and his nonfiction book on gay cinema, Forever in Transition, is forthcoming in 2021 with Another New Calligraphy. He is currently studying in the MFA program at New England College and lives on the New Hampshire seacoast where he teaches English at a residential school for at-risk youth. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinBertolero or visit kevinbertolero.net for more info.