The following interview took place over the telephone between David Trinidad and MiPo Magazine staff editor on August 23, 2003.
I have some questions for you about Rachel Sherwood. Who was she? Are you Rachel Sherwood?
Am I Rachel Sherwood? Meaning . . . literally?
No, no, she was a friend of mine in college. A young poet who died in a car accident in 1979. I was a passenger in the car, and was severely injured.
Then it’s really uncanny, her poem called ”Premonition.“
I know. She wrote other poems that indicate she knew she was going to die young.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Yes. She appeared to me after the accident, when I was in the hospital. I put that in a poem I wrote about her.
“A Poet’s Death”?
Right. That poem took me nearly twenty years to write. I didn’t think I would ever be able to write about her. Finally that poem came out.
You got a lot of grief over that one line with the word “cunt,” didn’t you?
Yeah, I did. How did you know that?
I read three or four references on the net where people were teed off by it.
You’re kidding me.
You’ve never heard anything about that?
No. Well, not on the Internet. One of the first times I read “A Poet’s Death” publicly, two people had a very strong reaction, a negative reaction, to that line. Or to the phrase: “your cunt felt coarse.” One of them was a female friend who later apologized and said she had talked about it with her therapist and realized it was her problem, that there was really nothing wrong with the line. The other was a male, a colleague, who had such a vehement reaction he tried to convince me__several times__to change it.
What are you doing talking about the dead like that?
Talking about her death?
Talking about the feel of a dead woman’s vagina.
The poem is an elegy. It’s an elegy that was very difficult for me to write. An experience that took me a long time, like I said, twenty years, to face. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about her, what could be said. I use that quote from Erich Segal’s Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” That question can be read several different ways. One: what can you say, literally say, about someone who died that young. I mean what is there to say: it’s tragic, she was just beginning to find herself as an artist, and so on. And two: what can I, David, say about my relationship with her. Or say about a dead person. How honest can I be.
When I was writing the piece, when I got to that scene, where we have sex, and where I describe the sensation of having sex with her, it threw me into a kind of turmoil. Am I allowed to say this? I address her, ask her, sort of, for permission to say it, that her cunt felt coarse. I spent a lot of time with my therapist talking about the line. It cost me a lot of anxiety. Obviously I can, and did, say it. But I had some guilt about it. I guess I knew that I was saying something that some people might consider forbidden, a forbidden thing to say.
Were you straight or gay at that time?
I have always been gay.
Always known you were gay?
Yes. Since I was in elementary school. Rachel was the only woman I had sex with. That one time.
Were you repulsed?
Umm, in part. To be honest. Yes. We were with her boyfriend, who was passed out, I think, at that point__it’s complicated. I’d like to say about Rachel: I loved her deeply. She was a very important part of my life. And the poem was meant__it was not meant to degrade her at all. It was meant to memorialize her. We had a very complex relationship. She was a straight woman, I was a gay man, and yet we were extremely attracted to each other. We were young poets, passionate about writing, about life__though we were both obsessed with death. There was a lot of chemistry between us.
So, you had a mental bond?
Yes. An intense intellectual and emotional connection. But not physical. I mean I think we were attracted to each other physically, but it just wouldn’t have worked. But then there was that drunken experience, where we had sex, and it was shortly before she died. We never got to talk about it, never really got to talk about what had happened. I felt it was significant, and potentially damaging to our friendship. But she died and it was something I was left with__the memory of that experience.
This might sound naive, but I really did mean it as a description of a physical sensation. Of course the word “coarse” is loaded in that context. It’s double-edged. I meant it as a physical sensation, but I suppose I am also saying that, as a gay man, I was repelled. I think that might be what upsets some people.
Do you consciously seek to push the bar forward on sensationalism?
I just go where I need to go. It doesn’t feel very premeditated to me. It’s not like I say to myself: “I’m going to push the envelope. I’m going to go boldly where no one else has gone.” I can’t think that way or nothing will happen. You have to forget all that and just do what you do. Does that make sense?
Let me tell you, too, about the Rachel poem, about “A Poet’s Death“__it was a very strange experience for me. As I said, I didn’t think I would ever write about her. I thought it would be too painful and too difficult. But one morning I woke up with the first line, like I got the first line in my sleep, and began writing the poem. Throughout the writing of the poem, whenever I had difficulty with a line or a word or a rhyme, I’d go to sleep and wake up with the solution to the problem. I never had this experience before__where it felt like half the poem was written while I was asleep. I would wake up with lines and images.
Steinbeck called that a “sleep jury.”
A sleep what?
A sleep jury. If you go to bed with a problem you would wake up with the solution.
Yes, that’s what I experienced with that poem. It was very intense.