Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! In this latest installment, Stephen Mills reads us Frank O’Hara and talks about how O’Hara’s poetry has not only helped shape queer spaces in poetry, but has most recently provided comfort while living in New York City during the COVID crisis. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Frank O’Hara for Lyric Essentials – and why these two particular poems?
Stephen Mills: From the moment I first read Frank O’Hara as an undergraduate, he’s been a touchstone for me as a poet as he is for many. I did, however, debate choosing him because he’s such an obvious choice for me. But as I was making my selection and setting about to record poems for this project, things took a turn here in New York where I live.
As I began to deal with the reality of the COVID-19 health crisis in the city, I felt even more drawn to reading Frank O’Hara. I needed his poems and his New York. It’s hard to separate his poems from the city where he wrote a majority of them. He wrote with such joy and excitement, which was often tinged with darker themes or events. Some of his most famous poems are “walking poems” where he’s moving though New York and capturing everything that makes this city so thrilling and alive (though he often does so by reminding us of death). Due to the current situation, I haven’t really been out for four weeks and counting, so reading O’Hara was a way to reconnect with my own love of this city as well as his work.
I selected “Steps” because it is one of my favorite poems. There’s a thrill and a speed to it that really captures the excitement of New York but also of love. It’s pretty hard to get away with lines like “oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much” but O’Hara makes us feel that and believe it so fully.
“St. Paul and All That” is a different kind of love poem. It’s full of an anxious feeling and an exploration of what it means to be with another person but to also be without them sometimes. In this case, O’Hara is writing about his lover Vincent Warren who was a dancer. I like the contrast between these two pieces which showcase O’Hara’s range.
EH: Has O’Hara influenced your own writing at all?
SM: Yes, in very profound ways. I am especially influenced by O’Hara ability to combine so many different things together from his own life and friends to history to art to pop culture to open declarations of love for another man. And to know he was doing this in a time when most of those things were very taboo in culture and in poetry, makes him a huge inspiration for me.
As a gay man who often writes about my own life and relationships, I found a deep connection to his approach. When I read him for the first time, it was like nothing else I had ever read. There wasn’t this secrecy or shame around his sexuality or love or life. There was excitement and joy and the thrill of being alive against a backdrop of the changing world of the mid-20th century (one of my favorite time periods). I’m very drawn to the personal set against the historical.
In a very clear way, you can see a lot of O’Hara’s influence in my second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried, which explores the concept of marriage within the queer community by examining many of the stereotypes of marriage and family from the 1950s and 60s. The book includes direct references to O’Hara as well as Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the tv show Mad Men, which paid its own tribute to O’Hara in season two.
EH: What is your relationship with reading poetry aloud?
SM: It is a huge part of my process as a writer. I read all of my work aloud over and over again as part of my writing and revision process. I’ve even at times recorded pieces just to hear them played back to me. Poetry is unique in that way. You want pieces that work both on the page but can also come alive when heard. The experiences can be very different.
Personally, I’ve really grown as a performer of my own work over the years. It has taken me a lot of practice and a lot of public readings, but I now feel more confident in giving my own work a voice. There’s something thrilling about having that immediate response when you are in front of an audience.
When I’m reading poetry by others, I almost always read it aloud. It’s very hard for me to read poetry silently, which means I normally have to read poetry books in private.
EH: How do you think O’Hara still speaks to readers, after all this time?
SM: In many ways, O’Hara was ahead of his time, so his work still feels very contemporary. You could replace a few names in his poems with current celebrities or artists and it would feel like the poem was written today. But I think it is more than that.
O’Hara is so good at walking a fine line between life and death. In the poem “Steps” he writes “and in sense we’re all winning / we’re alive.” O’Hara was well aware of how fragile life was from the deaths of friends and idols to living through World War II. There’s a rush to his work that acknowledges how close we all are to the end. This is magnified by the fact that O’Hara died young in an accident on Fire Island.
This exploration of our connection to death is something that still resonates with readers. Something we still seek out in the literature we read or the TV shows we watch or movies we go to. And it connects to this very moment as we face a pandemic like nothing most of us have ever seen.
Particularly for the gay community, O’Hara holds a special place for a lot of us because of the openness within his work. We don’t have to sit and decode all his poems to see his queerness and that is extremely refreshing and something that can still, at times, be hard to come by in mainstream poetry. Queers writers, like myself, are still questioned and sometimes pushed to the side for writers who are less open or direct.
EH: Do you have any current writing projects that you’d like to tell us about?
SM: I’m currently looking for a publisher for a new book manuscript called Shelter in Place that is my own exploration of our connection and fascination with death through a queer lens. The book looks at current events, historical events, personal events as well as TV and true crime documentaries for inspiration. I’ve also been working on playwriting and completed my first play last fall and I’m currently working on my second.
Frank O’Hara is a celebrated American poet known for his key role as a leader in the New York School of avant-garde poets and artists during the 1950s and 1960s Manhattan. He wrote ninety poems, and his poetry collections were all published posthumously, with the exception of Lunch Poems. O’Hara was involved with the art scene, and incorporated dance, theater, painting and music into his life’s work, and is known for his poetic observations of New York City. He served as a long time art critic, and was long associated with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a curator until his tragic death at age forty in 1966.
Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (2012)as well as A History of the Unmarried (2014) and Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution (2018) all from Sibling Rivalry Press. He earned his MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, The Antioch Review, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award and the 2014 Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction. Two of his books have been placed on the Over the Rainbow List compiled yearly by the American Library Association. He lives in New York City with his partner and two schnauzers.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/