Oct/Nov 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Bryan Borland

Interview by Philip F. Clark

Bryan Borland is a Pushcart-nominated poet from Little Rock, Arkansas, and the founder of Sibling Rivalry Press. His first book, My Life as Adam, was one of only five collections of poetry included on the American Library Association's "Over the Rainbow" list of notable LGBT-themed books published in 2010. He is the editor of Assaracus, the only print journal in the world dedicated exclusively to the poetry of gay men. His work has appeared in Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, vox poetica, and Velvet Mafia, among others. He sat down with his friend, artist and poet Philip F. Clark, to discuss poetry and publishing.


PC     Family is so important to you. Your brother was a huge early influence on your life, and he inspired some of your most amazing poetry. You lost him early on. Can you speak about how that experience started you as a poet?

BB     My brother's death turned me into a writer by necessity. I was 13, and I lacked the verbal capacity to explain how the loss affected me. His death came right at the onset of puberty, so in addition to the standard new feelings—lust, physical longing, and for other males, which terrified and alienated me—I also was experiencing grief for the first time. I found I couldn't acknowledge his death in any sort of straightforward manner; so instead, I latched onto the concept of brotherhood in general. I wrote stories in which fictional characters were saved or redeemed through the bonds of brotherhood. Looking back, it's clear that I was writing what I would miss, what I already missed. But I didn't directly reflect on my brother's death until I was writing My Life as Adam, and specifically, until the afternoon I wrote "Flawed Families in Biblical Times," a poem that I would argue is the core of the book.

PC     Less Fortunate Pirates was written after your father's death. Another loss, but it inspired you once again. Can you tell us about this poem cycle?

BB     My father died on December 20, 2009, and I believe I wrote the first poem about the loss on December 26, the night of the funeral. Contrast this with the fact that it took me 15 years to write directly about my brother's death. After my father died, I gave myself permission to access and record the rawest of emotions: the stages of grief, the collateral damage of an exploding emotional bomb, the infancy of a new existence, and the forced straightening of my spine. These are poems of a shifting family geography and of an unwanted ascension to an undesired throne. These are poems that assess every relationship anew, be it spouse, friend, or stranger. They became my therapy and my coping mechanism. They kept me busy, which was a blessing. I wrote about every moment that first year, from the miniscule to the monumental. In doing so, I came to understand myself and my father in ways that were more intimate than I'd ever experienced. It was a spiritual, soul-wrenching process, and the resulting work is what I consider the best of my writing life thus far, and I find that those who read the work, those who've experienced some sort of loss, instantly identify with it. I imagine the book will see the light of day in some shape or form within the next two years.

PC     A small, yet telling tribute to your mother is in the poem "Supper," and the last line always breaks my heart... "but only now, Mother, do I know why." It is a poem that speaks to a family under a mother's universal care and love. Yet it is a reminder that we miss so many of these small maternal gestures until many years later.

BB     Yes, and you know, I think that's part of what I love about poetry. Poetry is essentially photography through words. Poetry captures a moment, or a feeling, and then adds perspective, be that perspective simultaneous to the moment or decades later. The poem you mention was based on the notion that we view our parents through one lens as a child, when our mothers' and fathers' sole purposes are to care for us. Later, we come to realize our parents were and are individuals, with lives and experiences separate from us. In that moment, parenthood becomes a miracle in itself, a miracle of love, and we come to understand the sacrifices that many of our parents made for us. Little moments, such as a family dinner, become gigantic.

PC     You live in Little Rock, but you are a frequent traveler. Do you enjoy this combination of home and homes away? What cities most make a difference in your poetry?

BB     Arkansas will always be home to me on some level, but I have many second homes. New York is one place that is special to me. I feel as though I'm an honorary New York poet, and my poetry friends there have become family. But there's also New Orleans, which is my spiritual home, the place I'm pulled to as if I've lived there in a past life. Chicago has been very welcoming. It's a great poetry city, and you can't beat an evening in Millennium Park listening to a free concert and writing in a notebook in the grass. Recently, I fell in love with Atlanta, too. These places creep into my poetry, but only in the sense that they strengthen my belief that, as Maya Angelou says, "We are more alike than unalike."

PC     How do your poems come into being? When do you write?

BB     My writing time has decreased somewhat with the daily operation of Sibling Rivalry Press, which is a fair trade, and I'm okay with it because as long as I'm putting good-quality writing into the world (even if it's by someone else), I'm satisfying my own artistic obligation. That said, when a poem comes, I have to get it onto paper. I have no say in the matter. Until I do, it's like a child, pulling my sleeve and begging for attention. I wrote so much last year with Less Fortunate Pirates that I've allowed myself a bit of a poetic break. These days, when I do write, it's mostly on a novel-in-progress, but there are poems inside me, too. I was driving to work this morning and became nostalgic for the city park that was behind my childhood home. I grew up with a park as a backyard! There's a poem in that memory.

PC     Your poems are about love, sex, and loss; yet at their core, they are about the resilience of the heart. The men and women—gay or straight—are fighters who don't let failure get the best of them, though it marks them. How much of your own life do you share with them?

BB     Nothing is off limits in my poems or in my writing, though I may choose to keep some pieces private out of respect for people in my life. There have been times when Christopher (my husband) hasn't been comfortable with something "going public," if you will, but those times are few and far between. I believe Mark Doty has said that he doesn't truly experience something until he writes about it. I can relate to Mr. Doty on this account.

PC     Perry Brass's Rainbow Book Fair in New York was your first forum for presenting My Life as Adam; it was a marvelous day, and I was proud to share it with you. Can you speak about what that meant to you?

BB     As you say, I launched My Life as Adam at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York City. For an Arkansas boy who'd never travelled north, the day and the trip were monumental to me. New York is the center of the world, and I'd argue that the Rainbow Book Fair is the most prominent book event of the year for the gay community. It's a wonderful, laid back atmosphere. The decision to launch the book at such an important venue was crucial. It was the difference between being a published author with just another book or being an author who understands the needs to market and sell a book. The writing and publishing world is much more than having a book go to print, and that's something many authors don't realize. An author has to become a salesperson and invest in the book's future by putting as much into it post-publication as they put into it pre-publication. The publication and the launch were the end of one chapter. The next day was the beginning of everything else. A year and a half in, I'm still doing readings from My Life as Adam. And let me add this: if you put in three years writing a book, or a lifetime writing a book, it's disrespectful to that book to publish it and then just leave it to sink or swim, moving on to another project. Put it out into the world, yes, but you better be willing to hold its hand. Travel for it. Do readings. Promote it. Keep a box of the books in your trunk. If you're a writer and your end point is to get published, you're in the wrong business.

PC     There is a no-holds-barred quality to your poetic voice. You take no prisoners, as it were. It's not just Out and Proud, it's Out Loud and Proud! Why is this important to you as a gay poet, specifically?

BB     If you would have told me at 14, or at 16, or at 18 that I would be waiving the rainbow flag through my writing, that if you did an Internet search for "Bryan Borland," one of the first things to appear would be "gay," I wouldn't have believed you. I was the kid who never thought he'd have any kind of relationship with the word "truth." I remember thinking I would never kiss a person I really loved. Part of what brought me out, into the light and into my own truth, was gay-themed poetry, and most notably, Gavin Dillard's anthology A Day for a Lay. In it, poets like Ginsberg and Norse held up a mirror to my face, and reflected in that glass, standing just behind me, was a generation of men and boys just like me. They showed me, a kid in a small town in the south, that I wasn't alone, and I feel like my poetry has the potential to do that for someone else, be it a sophomore at Kansas State or a middle-aged man in Illinois, or someone half a world away, in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by death. I want to tell these people we exist, that they are not alone, that our voices can be as loud or louder than we could ever imagine.

PC     What do you see as the life of poetry today? How is it sustaining itself, and who are some of the poets who inspire you?

BB     Blogs and social media are the life of poetry today, whether publishing companies want to admit it or not. These places are where poets can share their work unfiltered, where the impatient but talented can gain an audience or name recognition. I just don't understand publishing houses that frown on poets sharing things via their own websites. A well-done blog can gain and grow an audience for a poet. Blogs can create community and allow for readers to offer critical feedback. When the blogging poet publishes a book, there is a ready-made audience in place, and that audience, in on the secret from the beginning, will buy the book.

There are so many poets who inspire me. All of the Sibling Rivalry Press poets inspire me—why else would I publish them? Ultimately I am publishing poetry I love, and that's what's so great about running a press. It's a real treat to work with folks like Raymond Luczak, Ocean Vuong, Steven Reigns, and the Assaracus poets. Beyond Sibling Rivalry Press's stable of writers, I've really been impressed by Theresa Davis, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing the keynote speaker slot at this year's Atlanta Queer Literary Festival. Theresa is the current Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and she brings such passion to her work. I traded her a copy of my book for a CD of her poems, and I've been driving around for two months listening to her perform. She does this poem called, "Breathing Lessons," and it electrifies me every time I hear it. Chill bumps up and down my arms. In the poetry world, there's a divide between slam poets and "traditional" poets. That's bullshit. I'd like to build a bridge between the slam poets and the traditionalist. All I can say is stay tuned.

PC     I remember when I first contacted you almost two years ago and wrote you an email expressing my admiration for your work. At that time, "My Life as Adam" was just in its nativity. Within a year, everything changed. How did the publication of the book change you?

BB     It was sort of like jumping from a plane. You can't halfway do it. Once the book was out, because the poems were both autobiographical and so personal, my own history and even my little black book became, well, an open book. I hid my sexuality for so many years, and by sexuality, I mean more than just the physical side of intimacy. I mean the emotional aspect of announcing to the world who you love and why. And so I went from not mentioning my husband's name at my law firm to writing a book with intimate details of our lives. Instead of ringing the doorbell, I sort of took a sledgehammer to it.

I think that publishing the book also placed a responsibility on my shoulders. It's like, okay, Bryan. Here's an opportunity. Here's the opportunity you've always wanted. Run with it. What you do with it is up to you. And what I did with it was found Sibling Rivalry Press.

PC     Maintaining, promoting, editing, and managing the press is a huge undertaking. Who are your helpers? How do you handle it all, as well as hold down a full-time job?

BB     Sibling Rivalry Press has definitely become a second full-time job, but it doesn't feel that way because I love every second of it. I could work on the press 24 hours a day and never cross everything off of my to-do list. When I'm in the zone, time dissolves. (Ask my husband. "I'll be there in ten minutes, Chris," I promise him often. An hour later, I'm still on the computer, finishing up a layout or sending thank-you notes to customers.)

You, Philip, have been a great friend to the press, introducing me to New York, being my artistic eye. The authors help me a great deal, too. They understand that we're a small publishing house with limited (but growing) resources. They've had to become masters of marketing, and they've excelled. Mona, my cover designer, has been fantastic. Kevin Simmonds, who, through Collective Brightness, provided my first experience working with and trusting an editor, has been like a machine. Chris, of course, has to be mentioned, because he's been so giving in our relationship. We share a bed with Sibling Rivalry Press, and that's not an easy thing to ask of a man.

I've learned not to fear asking for help. In the last year or so, I've learned a great deal about publishing, but there's so much more I don't know. But you know what? Somewhere, someone has the answers, and I've been fortunate enough to meet people who are so willing to share their time, their knowledge, and their hearts.

PC     Your journal Assaracus was the love child of Ganymede—in Greek mythology, they were brothers. How did you come to create the journal?

BB     One of the first places to accept my work was Ganymede, a journal of gay culture based in New York, which was edited and published by John Stahle. As a young writer without many connections, it gave me instant community and put me in contact with several like-minded poets, such as Stephen S. Mills and Dustin Brookshire.

Stahle was also a freelance book designer, and he convinced me to self-publish My Life as Adam (and to hire him to do design it). I did, and less than two months after we launched the book, John died, and because it was a one-man show, Ganymede died with him. Because John and I became close through the process of working on Adam, and because I placed such value on what Ganymede had done for me as I poet, I didn't want to let the journal simply disappear. John had taught me a bit about design work, and I knew the basics of how he put each issue of Ganymede together. I used previous issues as template, put out a call for submissions, and thanks to the generosity of poets, writers, and artists John had published, I was able to put out a tribute issue of the journal which I called Ganymede Unfinished.

I didn't want to continue Ganymede, but I knew I wanted to create something to fill the void left by its sudden absence, particularly in relation to gay poetry. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was the young man swept up by Zeus's eagle to serve at the god's feet. Assaracus was Ganymede's earthbound brother. The name (which I incorrectly but intentionally pronounce ASS-uh-RACK-us), was a perfect fit, and its experienced tremendous success. I'm very proud of it, but I'm perhaps most proud of the friendships I've seen bloom between its poets.

PC     Let's talk about a few Sibling Rivalry Press poets and titles. Raymond Luczak's Road Work Ahead is the work of a gay and deaf poet, of extraordinary emotional range. How did that project come about?

BB     Raymond and I developed an appreciation of one another after praising each other's work on various websites. I'd read Mute and loved it. Raymond has been a constant presence in the LGBT-writing community over the last two decades, and I knew I could learn from him. I'd said, realistically, about 75% of what I know about publishing, I've learned from Raymond Luczak.

You mention that Raymond is both gay and deaf. Raymond would be the first to tell you that categorizing oneself is an important marketing tool for authors, especially in a crowded marketplace. But Road Work Ahead is special, because while there are, of course, references to homosexuality and deafness, the book is far from being about those subjects. Road Work Ahead is a love story through the perspective of years and absence. Its poems are universal in their longing and emotion.

PC     You've published Theresa Senato Edwards's Voices Through Skin, Loria Taylor's SOB, and Jessie Carty's Fat Girl, three powerful women of voice, yet with completely different emotional sensibilities. How did these projects develop?

BB     Theresa was the first poet I chose through Sibling Rivalry Press's open-submission process, which comes down to a "know it when I see it" sort of thing in terms of the selection process. I tend to fall in love with poetry quickly, and while I ruminate on a manuscript for a while, I generally come back to the work that jumped out at me instantly. Voices Through Skin was like that for me. In it, Theresa explores various roles of femininity, from the warrior to the mother to the victim to the survivor. It's also laced with fragments of her own experiences as a person with OCD. It's very raw in tone and has that non-academic, outlaw quality I love. In the poetry world, Jessie Carty is the equivalent of an older sister to me. We've provided editorial comments to one another's manuscripts, pushed each other to further our poetic careers, and through all this, we've really become fans of each other's work, so I've been familiar with her "Fat Girl" series of poems for a while now. In fact, I've chased the manuscript since I founded Sibling Rivalry Press, and through persistence I was able to convince Jessie that Sibling Rivalry Press was the best fit for the chapbook. I love the poems. Who hasn't struggled with body issues? Who hasn't looked in the mirror and wondered whether to laugh or cry? As far as SOB goes, Loria's been in my life for, oh, about 17 years now. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and as kids, we'd write stories together. We took the same creative writing class in high school. She edited the terrible novel I wrote when I was 15. It's completely appropriate that I'd bring her into Sibling Rivalry Press. But it's not just because she's my friend. It's that her writing is good.

PC     Right now you are mentoring and publishing emerging poets of significant gifts, such as Ocean Vuong. His Burnings was a turning point in Sibling Rivalry Press's publishing mission. How do you find the poets you publish? Why is it important that you focus on the newer poets?

BB     I haven't mentored Ocean. Ocean has mentored me! I met Ocean at John Stahle's memorial service, and I agreed to publish him on the spot. Mark my words: Ocean Vuong is the future of poetry. I think the kid practically lives at Poet's House in New York!

We find poets through our open submission period, through referrals, through gut feelings and instinct. Primarily I'm not looking for polished poets. What I mean is that I'm pulled toward writers who are a little rough around the edges, who consider themselves to be outsiders, who might fit somehow into the category of outlaw poetry.

Jane Cassady, who we'll be publishing next year, and who we selected through the open submission process, fits this bill for me. She's someone who can be a rock star poet. That's what excites me. I see a bit of that quality in everyone Sibling Rivalry Press publishes to varying degrees. I could care less about a poet's degree in writing (although it helps with marketing and networking). What I want to see is a fire in your belly. And you can't take yourself too seriously. Publishing a book should be fun.

PC     Can you tell us about Collective Brightness? Kevin Simmonds has gathered a unique collection of voices in poems that address spirituality—not always the most beloved subject of the gay audience. Why will this volume make a difference perhaps in opening more conversation on this subject?

BB     It will make a difference precisely because it's "not always the most beloved subject of the gay audience." The beautiful thing about this anthology, and there's never been anything like it, is that it gives voice to the many facets of our spiritual existences, from the Christian to the agnostic to witchcraft and even to those harmed and hurt in the name of God. It's a massive undertaking, featuring the work of over 100 poets from all over the globe. And when Kevin scored Armistead Maupin as a blurbist, I nearly lost it. I've long been a fan, and we weren't sure he'd be willing to champion a book like this. But what he gave us blew my mind: "Kevin Simmonds has achieved something remarkable with this anthology: he has shed light on the universal hunger for spirit by assembling poets who are no so much adherents of religion as survivors of it. The truth for him seems to lie in the tender reaches of the resilient queer heart. I can live there too—even without God—so I found this book compelling and beautiful." I think Armistead's blurb made me hear angels sing!

PC     Several Sibling Rivalry Press titles are available as eBooks, and there are more on the way. What is important on the horizon with e-publishing? Will you always continue to offer more than one format? What are some of the economic considerations in these new printing technologies?

BB     I don't own a Kindle or a Nook, but I respect that they exist. As a publisher, I refuse to stick my head in the sand like so many record industry executives did when Napster and then iTunes came into existence. Instead, all of our books are on our production schedule to be released as eBooks, and they will be released in all e-reading formats. The only exception is our journal Assaracus, which I want to maintain exclusively in print form, because I like the thought of it being passed around in sort of an underground manner, ending up in used bookstore, being found in attics and closets 50 or 100 years from now. But as far as our full-length books and chapbooks, I'm all for eBooks. There's very little overhead, so, economically, it's a smart move.

PC     Your cover artists are a large part of what makes Sibling Rivalry Press books so successful. Do you have a particular graphic vision that you try to adhere to?

BB     My philosophy on cover art is governed by two rules. First, the cover art has to fit the author's intended spirit of the book, and second, the author has to approve of the cover art. I remember very vividly how happy I was with the cover art for My Life as Adam, and, in fact, the wonderful painting that's featured on the cover, "Aaron" by Seth Ruggles Hiler, is hanging in out living room. That's the feeling I want the author to get from the cover. I want the author to love the cover art so much that he or she would hang it in their home. For Assaracus, at least for our first year, I wanted our four covers to represent man unfiltered, from the nude model on the first cover, to the spiritual side represented in the angel on our second cover, to Spencer Smith's beautiful eyes shining on our third cover, to the very neurological-esque inspired fourth cover. Flesh. Soul. Eye. Mind. Our first four issues create an arc.

PC     What is up ahead for Sibling Rivalry Press, and for your own work? How will you continue to keep bringing hearts to the house of poetry?

BB     This autumn is a busy one for Sibling Rivalry Press. We've got Jessie Carty's Fat Girl and Nocturnal Omissions from Gavin Dillard and Eric Norris. We've got our fourth issue of Assaracus, featuring poets like Emanuel Xavier and Daniel Nathan Terry. And of course, there's Collective Brightness, for which there will be readings all over the world. In November, I'm very excited to publish Saeed Jones' first chapbook, When the Only Light is Fire. In December, Megan Volpert brings the most unique book we've published to Sibling Rivalry Press in Sonics in Warholia, a series of prose or essay-like poems centered around Andy Warhol.

I've also completed the publishing schedule for 2012: Stephen Mills, Matthew Hittinger, Jane Cassady, Virginia Bell, and Brad Richard, and four issues of Assaracus, including one issue devoted to lesbian poets subtitled Lady Business. I've hired Kevin Simmonds to edit the journal, which will allow us to expand and allow me to focus on the business side of things a bit more. Between all of this, I'm working on a novel and trying to determine the best route to take with Less Fortunate Pirates. True, this is a lot of work, but you won't hear complaints from me. This is my dream. This is what I pictured myself doing when I was 12 years old. How many times do childhood dreams become realities?


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