Daniel Zomparelli’s debut collection of poems, Davie Street Translations, has all the high-octane things we love in poetry: sex, booze, drugs, Beyoncé, gyms. There’s danger and excitement, fear and laughter, camp and heartbreak. In disarming ways he transitions from funny to sad to sweet to harsh to funny and sad again, sometimes within a single poem. He takes familiar places and makes them new or thrilling or telling or so familiar it hurts. In Zomparelli’s Vancouver, nothing is black or white and his debut poetry collection is a double-ended dildo; one side mockery and criticism and one side love. He examines the relationships we have with place and with each other. He pays homage and makes allusion to other Vancouver poets and queer Vancouver poets. He makes graffiti poems. He creates black out poetry. He writes drag queen sonnets. He writes alphabet poems to define party drugs. Sometimes wordplay in poetry can feel like a forced, really unfunny joke you’re supposed to enjoy just because it’s clever, but you won’t feel that here. These poems are fresh and relevant. Davie Street Translations will make you a Zomparelli fan.
It’s a big week for Daniel, and not just because he’s launching his first book. As well as being a stellar poet, delightful conversationalist, stylish and lovely human being and part-time DJ (DJ That’s So Raven) Daniel is also the editor-in-chief of Poetry is Dead magazine, whose 5th issue launched on Friday March 30that Project Space. To add to his seemingly never-ending workload, Daniel also curated Arte Factum, a poetry chapbook exhibition whose opening was the same evening in the same space. Despite all this he found time to invite me into his kitchen to share my cheeses, enjoy his beer and talk writing (it’s enjoyable), self-promotion, getting readers to read poetry and pop stars.
This is your first book and now it’s going out into the world. People are going to look at it. How does that feel?
It’s deeply frightening, because you spend so much time worrying about your first book and then it’s done and you have to just wait and see what people say.
Do you think the weight you put on it being your first book is the measure by which you’ll be judged from now on?
It feels like that, but thankfully poetry has such a low readership rate that I could bomb and nobody would ever know it.
You are fortunate in that regard. You don’t think that’s you managing expectations?
No. If there was a bigger readership it would be a concern if it’s a big flop. Because there’s not a big readership it’s just an entry level thing. I remember having this conversation with Carmine Starnino and a first book is a first book and people know that and they don’t expect it to be the most genius piece of work.
You could pull that idea out of any review anywhere: it reads like a first book.
Yeah. At the same time I deeply fear reviews of it. Because that’s the actual test. You can get a publisher to publish your book, but getting readers to like it or having reviewers review it so readers will read it is another story.
Once it’s out there what are those next steps? So you just give it to a publisher and they’re like yeah, whatever, publish that sucker and then it’s out there. How do you make people care about what you’ve created?
I think with small presses, and mainly for poetry, unfortunately you have to be interesting as well. You can’t just publish an interesting poetry book. You have to do interesting things. You have to consistently say interesting things on Twitter. Or…
The Facebook. You have to be popular. It’s super weird and not what you expect. We as writers are generally supposed to be introverts and we’re in this zone where we have to be extroverts and it’s exhausting and you can tell all of us hate it.
That is very true. Do you think you’re good at the persona side? I personally think you are. In the book, on the Internet, in person. I’m not saying it’s not taxing for you, but you obviously do have a handle on it.
I agree, I do. I don’t like that I have to do it. It takes time and an extensive amount of energy. I also have to do it for Poetry is Dead which is to promote other peoples’ writing and now I have to switch it so I’m the focus.
Your job is two-fold right now, doing all of that for your magazine and your own work.
I’m letting go a bit of the editor work for Poetry is Dead because I realize I don’t have enough time to do my own writing. I really like writing. I enjoy it. Whether it gets published or not is not my big interest. It’s the fact that I take time to actually spend writing, creating these worlds. That’s my problem with self marketing, it’s like you publish a book, you think you’re good to go. Really, you publish you have to make launch parties that are interesting so people will come so people will review so you can reach the 1000 print run. Which is very small, but poetry is impossibly hard to sell. Because no one wants to spend $17 on a poetry book.
I mean, what are people buying with that $17 dollars?
Three coffees. Or in my case they’re buying two beers at a very fancy gay establishment.
I agree with what you’re saying about how exhausting that is. But it also really warms my heart to hear you say, I love writing, I want to write, I don’t care if it gets published. I think that’s something people always miss. That the goal isn’t necessarily to constantly achieve publication. That just tickles my heart area, that you want to do a good job.
I’m just glad I tickled your heart.
Tell me about your experience with Talonbooks.
Talonbooks was really good to work with. It was kind of unexpected to get published in the first place. I had written a poem for my friend, Garry Thomas Morse, so I just wanted him to read it, but he wanted to read the whole book. And I had just finished it so I handed it to him and he said let’s meet for coffee. So then four days later we met and he asks if he can publish the book. I didn’t really believe him.
You were skeptical? You’re like, this can’t happen to me?
Pretty much. I sent him 15 or 20 emails over a few months, being like, for reals? Just because I wrote you a poem you don’t have to publish me.
That’s not how it works. There is no “I wrote you a poem you have to publish my entire manuscript” exchange program. That’s not a precedent set in Canadian publishing. Yet.
I get that I’m a nice person, but you don’t have to publish it because I’m a nice person. He would send nice emails back saying yes, I genuinely appreciate your work, I would actually like to publish it and wouldn’t publish it otherwise. So that lasted three months of me freaking out. Until I signed the contract, and even then.
Is that a fake contract?
Oh no it’s 2012, the world’s going to end.
You know what, Davie Street Translations might bring about the apocalypse.
The one poetry book that destroyed the world.
You don’t hear that. Ever.
Because it’s going to make gay guys riot and that will cause the collapse of capitalism.
Why are gay guys going to riot over your book?
Well, if they were.
If gay guys were going to riot it would be because one, their stories are being put forward. Two, because the word play will blow their minds.
One more point. Three points.
Three, because it pokes fun at gay consumerism.
I think those are all good points, and they encapsulate what the book is about.
The book is totally about boners.
It’s about boners and poetic devices.
It’s all about enjambment.
It totally is. It’s not just about the gay experience, or your experience, but about a Vancouver experience. Was it your intention to capture what it’s like to be here?
A lot of times in writing groups, or in poetry, people focus on making it as broad as possible, trying to not put it in a place, so it will reach a broader audience. Which I think is bullshit, because how many books are set in New York or wherever?
Not just books but iconic books.
Yeah. Everyone knows you can locate a reader and it’ll still reach a broader audience. I wanted to make it as local as possible. I wanted it to be local because it was a project more than anything. I wanted it to be specific to Vancouver as a space. The gay experience came about from the people I know and hang out with and my own experience.
I like what you’re saying because the title ties into that. Davie Street is very specific and the concept of translation brings these stories and experiences from a specific place and gives them a new language with the book you’ve written.
Each thing is a translation of an event or idea. Like the graffiti or text on walls.
The graffiti is a great touch.
We got pretty drunk to do that. My friend Brandon Gaukel is a photographer and I got him to do the photos and basically got him wasted and we walked around.
And that ties into another thing that felt great. If you were to take the book, open it up and go out it’s like a walking tour of gay Vancouver, visually and atmospherically everything is in the poems. You add the visual element of graffiti. Like photos in a travel guide. Oh, there’s the bathroom at The Odyssey.
Here’s the body hair from that guy at the Pumpjack.
You also address body image and physicality and how that factors in. It’s something people understand as a part of gay culture, cruising and Grindr, where dudes are trying to pick up other dudes, but that vanity is more often associated with women.
It’s taking all the male insecurities with body and height and heightening them to extremes. We’re played to in consumerist ways the same way women are. Which is why those advertisement poems replicate what advertising uses to get you to purchase products, to get washboard abs. If you buy our product this is what you’ll look like. There’s also an excessive amount of porn. There’s no counter-check to that. It’s free reign. To use really academic terms we’ve internalized “the gaze.” Which is why I make “the gays” joke.
Even within that there are other groups and different types of physicality that are favoured in those groups.
Each one has their own set goal. It’s almost like there’s no room for people to be different. We’ve entered this new stage in gay culture. Being different used to be the thing, but as we become mainstream we start to buy into specific heteronormative ideals and in the end becomes not about progress, but about replicating what’s already wrong with society.
And that funnels back into consumerism and the commercialization of sexuality and love.
There’s a reason that gay males have such a low life satisfaction. There are a lot of mental health issues, a lot of depression and a lot of it can come up from being closeted, but when they come out they enter a culture that is very demanding in terms of your looks and who you are and who you know and it doesn’t feel that it’s the safest space either.
Like in your poem, “Gay Christmas or Halloween”. It has the funniest and saddest lines. You describe all these people dressed like different characters, iconic gay figures and at the end one of the costumes is “you. ”
someone is dressed as you
but you’re not popular
so no one gets it.
To have someone dressed as you, but you’re not popular so no one gets it. It’s horribly sad, but also horribly funny. You’re taking all those ideas we’ve been talking about and putting them in a personal realm. That personal element is very grounding.
There are a lot of lines about people who are lost in a culture that’s focussed on all those things. A lot of these poems are not my stories, they’re other people’s or composites. One poem was about a specific incident. I was sitting by this guy at a bar and we were talking and I decided to try to have a conversation with him. He seemed really shy and nervous. I asked him about his hobbies or what he likes to do. And he couldn’t think of anything. So he finally said he likes making crafts. And then complained that he starts to make crafts but never finishes them. And I said failing to make crafts is also a hobby. Then he said he does have a hobby: he grows his nails. And he showed me these long perfect nails. And they were beautiful. At first I felt sorry for him. He seemed a bit out of it and I didn’t know if he was on drugs or not. And later I saw him going wild, dancing, sweating up a storm and I was still just sitting there. You find your happiness in a world and my instant reaction of judgement is something society ingrains in us. Why aren’t you doing all these interesting things?
And why is that so threatening to people?
I have all these things that I do, but I don’t have the enjoyment from just letting lose and having fun.
Maybe, unlike him, you also were not on MDMA. The MDMA comes in later. In the alphabet drug poems.
Those poems took so much crowd sourcing. Those were all stories I heard. One of those things I did, but otherwise it was all other people’s stories.
The order of those poems is amazing. Some are so truthful and often funny and then PCP shows up and it’s harsh, it’s sad.
We use a lot of camp to deal with situations and experiences. If I made them all humorous, which is what I tend to do anyway, I would have skipped over so much.
That thread runs through the whole book. Going from something really funny or campy or light and then going to sad or even violent and scary places. This is all the shit we have to worry about.
Once again the whole thing was a project. There were about 40 different ideas and then I did all those 40 ideas and interweaved those together. And one of those things was to read as much gay Vancouver poets as possible. Everything that came my way. A lot of Robin Blaser also Billeh Nickerson, Michael V. Smith, Sean Horlor, bill bissett. I was reading Seminal, which is where I got a lot of the poets from.
There aren’t just literary allusions, but so many pop culture references in the book too.
I wanted to make sure I was using the language of our community. A lot of times I could have gone for this really whimsical way of writing, but that would have read as false. It had to come from the mouths of people.
Daniel this has been really delightful. But we didn’t get to talk about Beyoncé.
What, you want to talk about Beyoncé?
Wait. First I want to ask you about this: You reference both Gaga and Madonna in the book. Do you feel the current Lady Gaga-Madonna feud is real?
I do. Because even Madonna knows that her work, and this is ironic, is reductive.
I knew you were going to bring up reductive. That interview is amazing.
So my favourite thing about that was hearing a remix on a friend’s wall of her saying, “reductive ” and then this music. (DZ makes some dance beat sounds.)
Also Beyoncé, was she really pregnant?
Also, how beautiful is Beyoncé?
I love Beyoncé.
(We high five.)
Davie Street Translations (Talonbooks, 2012) is available now. You can buy it and add to the poetry readership.