Interview conducted with Gregg Shapiro for the "Velvet Mafia" as it appeared in print online from 2007-2011
Postcards From Heartthrob Town: A Gay Man's Travel Tales (Haworth Press, 2007) by Gerard Wozek
Gregg Shapiro visits with Gerard Wozek to discuss his Wozek's collection of lyrical travel tales in "Postcards from Hearthrob Town."
Gregg Shapiro: First things first, your book Postcards from Heartthrob Town opens with a Joni Mitchell epigram, from her song "All I Want." Does Joni mean something special to you or was that just a quote that fit the book?
Gerard Wozek: It is hard to even talk about just how important Joni Mitchell's work is to me. I discovered her album Blue when I was thirteen years old and memorized every word and vocal nuance on that record by heart. Her anthem, "All I Want" has been with me as a sort of traveling companion throughout my whole life, so I thought it fitting that a quote from that song would open and inform the thematic elements of the book. I'm really struck by the way Joni has been able to exquisitely document her emotional journey in all of her work. Hejira is perhaps the quintessential travel album and in so many ways that opus really inspired and informed me on how to approach the stories for Postcards From Heartthrob Town. In certain stories, I wanted to capture this notion of a soul in flight, running from the constraints of a relationship gone bad and turning up at a certain foreign locale--but never quite being satisfied or fully arriving at the intended destination.
GS: The book contains other musical references, including one to Karen Carpenter and one to Bryan Ferry. What role does music play in your life?
GW: I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't listening to music because for me it's like breathing. The stories in this collection can be thought of as musical or lyrical in as much as they play with and combine the sounds of words to evoke a deeper feeling in the reader. The stories all tend to assert a solitary sense of oneself in the world. They attempt to carve out a space for what is most personal and intimate for the reader to explore.
For me, music represents an emotional snapshot, an enlarged portrait of what you wish to somehow convey or reveal to another, and sometimes the only way to get at that sentiment is through a well-written song. I guess that is why I tend to have a good number of references to songs and musical artists throughout the collection. Music is always informing nearly everything I think about. I often use particular song references as a counterpoint to a character's inner life. In the title story for example, the protagonist's mother is flipping the dial through mountain radio stations and snags a bittersweet Loretta Lynn song. That particular tune seems to cast a distressing shadow over the relationship between her and her son.
Songs can crystallize a dramatic moment in a story as well; just as the reference to Karen Carpenter's sad vocals do in the story "Tenderness Among Wolves." Towards the end of that story, you witness this insular and overly sensitive adolescent wondering just how far he can reveal his "queerness" to his obtuse cousin and ultimately, to himself. When he begins to sing the Carpenters' version of "Superstar" softly to himself, there is a recognition that the mournful lyrics of the song are not only for himself, but for every one who has ever attempted to come forward and admit a secret attraction to someone else and in the story's climax, the protagonist is singing to the world and trying to call back some kind of courage for moving forward and going on with his own solitary, personal journey.
GS: How much of Gerard would you say is in the boys in the title story and "Tenderness Among Wolves"?
GW: The two protagonists in those stories are the purest part of myself that you'll find in the entire book: who I was and who I still am in some respects. I thought it was important to include those stories and in fact begin the collection with where I started from as a boy. I spent a great deal of my childhood alone, inventing games about explorers, dreaming of and reading about places I wanted to travel to once I grew up. The boys in those stories, like myself as a child, want to escape into the larger world and be swept into something dangerously exotic and romantic. I wanted to write about and explore that naive element so eloquently displayed in some children, that desire to bravely enter new territory and be utterly inhabited or taken over by the environment.
I wanted the first two stories in particular, to point towards that longing for a larger myth and the belief that crossing borders might sweep you out of mundane routines and circumstances. Louis, in the title story, wants to be seen and accepted for who he is, for his idiosyncratic behavior and for his indelible queerness. He wants to believe that Heartthrob Town will be a kind of sweet panacea, where a shirtless, suntanned Adonis will recognize him instantly and offer the kind of paternal acceptance that he has been missing his entire young life. However, everything in this mythical Heartthrob Town mitigates against these notions. His father, for example, is a stoic realist who insists that boys should act like boys. Even when the young Louis arrives at the sought after beach, he's compelled to bury his secret postcards and hide his true feelings. I think that Louis and I share this wound as part of growing up and I believe that this childhood pain has fueled my own desire to travel almost incessantly; as if being in constant flight might shake loose the residue from the past. Or that somewhere, somehow, I might be able to actually locate the Shangri-La where everything is happy and the past is healed. Still, the final point to all of this is that you have to take the conscious journey within first before any real hope for moving forward begins.
GS: One of the characters in your books says something about "the sickness known as wanderlust." Has it been something that has always afflicted you or did it come upon you later?
GW: As a kid I would slip away for hours to take long walks or bike rides by myself and imagine seeing foreign places. Once I got older, I couldn't wait to pack my bags and explore the world. I graduated college and took my first excursion through Europe in the eighties, illegally altering the date on my student Eurailpass in order to extend the time I could keep riding the trains. What started out as a three week backpacking jaunt turned into a three-month odyssey. Once I got a taste of being on the road I was hooked. There is a strange comfort in being a perpetual traveler. You get up in the morning and say, "I wonder what I'll find in this new city." And then of course, there's always the next city to explore, and then the next one. It becomes this almost insatiable curiosity to simply inhabit new territory and experience the rush of new spaces and faces. That hunger can carry over in other aspects of your life as well; always thinking there is something better waiting for you in the next career move, the next house you'll live in, or the next relationship for example. In my academic career, I've had the fortunate advantage of teaching overseas at different junctures and I think that's helped with dealing with my own wanderlust. I can't imagine being static for too long in my life. Traveling is good for the soul in that it allows you to reinvestigate buried dreams and try on new personages.
GS: The book also contains references to Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, writers known for their sojourns to exotic locales. How much would you consider any or all of them as influences?
GW: I admit, there is a lot of intense vicarious living for me that goes on when I look at the stories and memoirs of these beloved authors. I loved reading the stories of all three of these writers, especially Paul Bowles and his famous book, The Sheltering Sky and how the characters in that tale are drawn into the hypnotic elements of the desert. All three writers have led such dark and varied experiences and I'm fascinated by the choices that they made in their writing careers. I make reference to them in the story "Holding Pattern" as the protagonist attempts to flesh out the myth of the Moroccan city of Tangier, where years ago, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Genet, Bowles and other queer literati came to this bohemian zone to feed their appetites for sex and hallucinogenic drugs. I'm intrigued by these outlaw stories and I genuinely appreciate the risks these writers took for their craft. Their unique styles and candor in telling their stories contain a particular revelation for me in terms of enlightening readers on what it might mean to be grappling with existentialist notions about one's self in a foreign land. In particular, I'm drawn to Genet's own personal odyssey and his quirky subject matter which includes life in prison, hunky sailors, unrequited desire, the homoerotic, male prostitution, and his own youthful life as a reckless vagabond. I do bring some of those darker elements into my own writing at times and in Postcards, you can find them in the story about Sitges, Spain titled "Pulse Points."
GS: When writing the travel pieces, did you approach them differently than the other stories in the book?
GW: All of the stories, in a certain way, are informed by the notion of home. How do we define it for ourselves? Where do we look for it once we’ve left it? How do we continue to reinvent it as we get older? I think this is of particular interest to gay men in as much as we are all trying to create a safe and nurturing homeland amid a situation that can at times be thought of as hostile or at the very least, chilly and unwelcoming. Many of the stories carry this theme of the gay man as outsider who needs to come to terms with the spinning compass inside of himself before he ever feels at home. I wanted the book to very pointedly address this notion of where and how do we as gay men feel at home in the world? What are the particular necessary conditions that need to be in place in order to feel that we have arrived at our native land, if we can every really define such a place? I didn't want to put together a literary collection that was merely a rote travelogue of where I've been to with highlights from locations that everyone could discover for himself or herself. I wanted an emotional cartography that would map out many of the logistics of what happens when you sometimes arrive at a destination and it challenges your notions of who you thought you were and where you thought you were headed in life. While some of the stories tend to have fuller descriptions of terrain and foreign culture, I set out to color all of the stories with the idea that travel is essential to understanding just exactly who we are and where we need to be headed.
GS: What about in terms of writing poetry and prose? Do you feel as if you are working different muscles?
GW: Poetry seems to be the construct and genre I'm always falling back on. I'm very comfortable with the brevity and intensity of the poetic line and how it seems to rely more on instinct and emotion and how that contrasts with a culture that often encourages us to be unfeeling and mechanical. With writing prose, I'm always concerned about the character's motivation, plot coherence throughout the story, and thematic unity. But what I love about the lyric in poetry is that it gets to the truth in a very compact manner. It simply dives into what is most essential without a lot of the framework one would expect in a prosaic piece. Some of the stories in the collection started out as poems. The stories "He Said Those Roses Would Be Sanguine" and "Pagan Love Child" were both very long poems in their early stages. I took "Roses" to a poetry workshop in Seattle a few years back, and someone commented that what I really had was an outline of a story. The more I went back to develop it, the more a solid plot and character emerged, until it just eventually morphed into a prose piece. However, I don't know that you can ever take the poet out of the prose writer here. I think the goal with poetry and prose is actually the same: to flesh out the transcendent. I'm always looking for ways to bring to my writing a certain color and attentiveness to the language that is emblematic of poetry.
GS: There is also an erotic edge to a number of the stories, with "Pagan Love Child" as one example. Is writing in that voice easier or more difficult than writing in the others?
GW: "Pagan Love Child" was perhaps the easiest story in the entire collection to write. The sensual voice found in that short tale is completely naked, without subterfuge. It's also very easy to locate that voice within myself. The characters in that story move through different physical localities but they're bound up in a kind of heady, erotic love spell with one another so that they not only travel through place but through emotional locations within each other. I like to settle into that curious space that emerges with the authentic erotic voice which I why a number of the travel tales contain episodes detailing a character's intimate carnal quest. It's important for me, especially as a queer writer, to explore those emotions that surface as I investigate my own sexuality and reveal to my readers what exactly prompts me to merge with Eros. Travel or being in an unfamiliar setting, seems to heighten the erotic experience for me and allows for a kind of narcotic-like dream state. One purpose for writing the book was to divine the spark that brings men together in unfamiliar locations. For me, coupling the erotic with travel writing is to write honestly about what matters and to resist the current cultural view that we need to sanitize and censor everything. The emergence and pervasive hallmarks of fundamentalism and the right in the United States over the past several years has compelled me to insist on throwing a light on the openly erotic story. I write to reveal my own dark truths thereby addressing our cultural taboos and insidious little hang-ups, just as Walt Whitman, Anais Nin, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov did in their literature..
GS: You are someone who wears many hats . .you are an educator, a poet, a prose writer, a performer. How would you rank those things in order of importance to you?
GW: If I had to choose just one hat, I'd have to say that being a poet informs everything I do: from stepping up to a microphone, to delivering a writing lesson on Thoreau, to showing up at my journal in the morning at my favorite Starbucks to draft a story. If you think about the ancient bards, they were a select group of rigorously trained minstrel poets of a Celtic order who composed verses celebrating the achievements of their culture and the people. They traveled around moving audiences with their symbolic tales and images. We no longer have professional bards in modern culture; however poets today carry on this legacy of preserving language and hopefully liberating their readers through the creative use of technical literary skill. In poetry, we forward powerful images through the use of our words and I believe there is a certain responsibility that goes along with how we present those mental pictures because poetry has the power to shape consciousness, invoke a greater wisdom, and compel others to make new choices with their lives. I like to think that is part of the outcome I'm always after, whether I'm writing, teaching, or reading a poem to an audience..
GS: Have you started working on your next literary project?
GW: With filmmaker Mary Russell, I continue to develop new work in the expanding genre of poetry video. We offer workshops on combining word and image, screen poetry films and we are developing a new project that looks at nature writing and the urban landscape in a whole new way. In addition, for a few years now, I have been working on a memoir project that details my experience with being adopted. It's a challenge for me because I'm trying to strip down my language and sophisticated worldview and reenter my childhood vision of the world. It's illuminating and frightening at the same time to recall those years of being bullied for being a bit effeminate and withdrawn. And of course I'm always writing poetry. Nothing is more important to me than the world of the imagination. I keep a journal and write every day and go back to working on my poems as often as possible. It doesn't seem I'll ever get tired of the kind of self-interrogation and soul scrutiny that goes on with writing and creating and extending the self through words. Sometimes I think the best relationship I've ever up until now had has been with the page..
Pop-culture journalist Gregg Shapiro's interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT publications and websites, such as Chicago Free Press,afterelton.com, Gay & Lesbian Times, Bay Area Reporter, Baltimore Outloud, EXP, David Atlanta, OutFront Colorado, OutSmart Magazine, and others. His poetry and fiction appears in numerous outlets including literary journals such as Beltway, modern words, Bloom, White Crane Journal, Blithe House Quarterly, Mipoesias, and the anthologies Sex & Chocolate: Tasty Morsels for Mind and Body (Paycock Press) and Poetic Voices Without Borders 2 (Gival Press), Blood to Remember. His collection of poems, Protection (Gival Press). A 1999 inductee into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and a recipient of the 2003 Outmusic Award for Outstanding Support, he lives in Chicago with his life-partner Rick and their dogs, Dusty and k.d.
This interview was conducted by Gregg Shapiro for Velvet Mafia--an online magazine produced by writer Sean Meriweather. This interview was published online and ran in 2007 after the release of "Postcards from Heartthrob Town."