"With poetry, if you find something you love, you can write back to it"

from a conversation with Billy Merrell

Q: At 21, you are the youngest PUSH author to have his own book. How did the come to come into being?
A: I was invited to have a poem I wrote in high school included in the PUSH anthology You Are Here, This Is Now: The Best Young Writers and Artists in America, a collection of winning pieces from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. It seems ridiculous now, but at first I was concerned because I was no longer happy with the poem that was going to be published. I emailed the editor, David Levithan, and asked if I could swap the poem for one of my newer poems. He said no. But he did welcome me to send him whatever I was working on anyway, and eventually the exchange turned into more than either of us had expected. At the time, it all felt like it had fallen into my lap. In retrospect, I'm glad I made that first move. As high as my hopes were when I was urged by a teacher to submit that first poem into a national contest, the idea of it being the spark that would eventually become my first book still overwhelms me.

Q: What were your concerns about writing a memoir at the age of twenty? Where did you look for guidance in writing it?
A: If you had to tell the story of your life, what would it be? It sounds like it's an easy question until it's you distilling twenty years into something comprehensive and still easy to follow. And of course at twenty I was quite conscious of the fact that I was still at the beginning of my life. What was my conflict? Who were the main characters? What are the turning points that shaped me? Life is beautiful because of its complexities, its serendipities, and its inconsistencies.

I found myself looking at Eireann Corrigan's poems in You Remind Me of You and felt even more overwhelmed. If you've read her poetry you know that her life was active and dramatic. I had also read and had huge emotional responses to Firebird and Heaven's Coast, a two prose memoirs by a gay poet named Mark Doty. Like Corrigan, Doty's life was dramatic. One is filled with angst, climaxing with his own mother attempting to kill him, and the other recounts his lover's AIDS related death and his relationship with grief.

I didn't think I had anything worthy of being read. Eventually I understood that the parts of stories I reacted to weren't these dramatic episodes. Instead, I was touched by moments of discovery, of vulnerability, of devastating truth. I don't believe the strengths of a memoir are in its story, necessarily. These honest and beautiful moments are arguably more important, because they have the gravity of everyday life.

Q: Your book presents being gay in a way that books of previous generations never could — the conflicts are more about living life than being oppressed or victimized. What's your take on your book's sexuality?
A: I'm gay, but fortunately enough we have come to a time when people can be less defined by sexuality. It's shocking to some of my slightly older friends that I was out in high school—and in turn their shock is shocking to me. What I began writing was not a story of a boy becoming okay with his sexuality because, for me, there was less conflict there. Instead, Talking in the Dark is the story of how I learned to love, and to believe in the love that was already in my life.

That story didn't come all at once. In fact, it's still coming. But the process of writing it was so introspective, that when I finally took a step back enough to look at what I had produced, I was really afraid it wasn't what teens would want to read. What I saw being sold to teens were more dramatic tragedy-based stories. I was afraid my small introspective poems may not be "gay enough" or edgy enough for teens. I was very happy when my editor assured me that its reluctance to be solely concerned with trauma or sexuality was what made it real and something that could really set it apart.

Not everyone wants to read about runaways, disownment, fighting, and alienation. Not everyone really goes through all of these awful things. For an increasing number of teens, being gay is less of a pressure than their SAT scores. A few years ago, when I was in high school, it would have been wonderful to find a book that I felt spoke to me.

Q: What are some of your literary influences?
A: There are a number of poets and musicians that I've experienced enough of that I find myself aligning or conspiring with. My favorite writer, and the one I probably invest the most time in, is Mark Doty. My favorite musician is Ani DiFranco. As far as this book goes, I found myself coming back to certain artists when what I was trying to achieve something they seemed to exceed in consistently. Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, Peter Sirr, Richard Tayson, Li-Young Lee, Dar Williams, Patty Griffin, Now It's Overhead—these were some of the voices in my head when I was struggling to bring certain sections to life.

Most importantly, though, there are a number poets who teach at the University of Florida that shaped my aesthetics of poetry: William Logan and Michael Hofmann specifically. They stress formalism and structure in a way that has helped my voice considerably, and introduced me to great poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Louise Gl┘ck.

Q: As someone who is just out of your own teens, why do you think poetry appeals so much to teens?
A: It's short. Prose can be so exhausting. Poetry is emotional and achieves what it wants to quickly and concisely. There is also an exchange available with poetry, being that it is, for many, a more accessible form. You can read a novel and enjoy it. But you can't respond to it as you can with a poem. With poetry, if you find something you love, you can write back to it—you can take it with you, sometimes without knowing it.

Part of the introspection in Talking in the Dark meant reading my old journals from high school, something I've never had enough of a reason or curiosity to do, really. I was shocked by what I found. Poem after poem was passionately inspired, angry, or depressed—in ways I don't think I knew I was at the time.

When I first started writing poetry, around eighth grade, it was because I could. I had a stronger grasp of rhyme and meter than many of the kids in my English class and my teacher gave me poetry assignments instead of other, less expressive work. I loved the attention and continued with it. It wasn't until my sophomore year that I really started to write what I was feeling, but when I did it was such a freeing outlet. Reading my journals, I found myself wishing I had read them much earlier. I would have understood myself and so many other people so much earlier.

Today, there's even more to love about poetry. Poets of all ages have outlets for readings and workshops. There's an audience for it now. More and more people seem to be writing and reading, performing and listening to poetry, and the affect is an exchange that was less a part of the experience not too long ago.

Q: What advice do you have for other young poets?
A: Man, there are a lot of things I've discovered that I wish I had been told about when I was in high school—or whenever, I guess.

First is the book The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. Read it! Sleep with it under your pillow!—no matter what you want to write, (poetry, prose, or the backs of cereal boxes). I remember reading it for the first time and being in awe of how simply he put things I feel I had to figure out on my own.

Another thing is to read anthologies. I find that a number of young poets, if asked, admit they don't like reading poetry. But when they do find a poem that speaks to them, it's often in a literary magazine or anthology. And when you find a poem that you relate to, you can always go check out a book of that person's. It's a good way to come across writers you may not have, and to discover someone worth following before it feels like following a crowd of their other admirers.

I don't know if this is the case with everyone, but my parents would have been happy to buy me books when I was a teenager. Ask for them now while you still can!

One last thing would be to look up words you don't know. Who am I kidding? Look up words you do know too. I love Dictionary.com because I'm not overly adept with the alphabet, but there's something incredibly cool about picking up a seven pound book and riffling through it for the right word. I want to say I know someone who puts a mark by every word's definition as they look it up, just to see which ones they stumble across again and again. Maybe I saw it in a movie or something, but that sounds like fun. I admit it, at the heart of it all, I'm a huge nerd. Words, and our languages, are just cool.

Q: Tell us about the way your bedroom and living room are designed.
A: At the moment I am a poor college kid living in a little apartment in Gainesville, Florida. I don't have much furniture, and what I do have isn't worthy of becoming the center of the room's attention, so I had to improvise.

My living room is a particular shade of light blue, skylike almost, bright. On the largest wall is a mural I did with some friends: it's a pixilated portrait of Audrey Hepburn—a favorite pose from Breakfast at Tiffany's—forged from four variations of the wall's blue. The window has makeshift curtains made out of some faux-fabric paper I bought in SoHo while in NY this last summer, and there are a number of photographs that I love that have been blown up and mounted behind squares of Plexiglass my Mom found and didn't want. My entertainment center is pretty exciting too, when it's not buried under CD cases and whatnot—the summer after my freshman year I painted it all a bright blue that most likely clashes with the walls now, but collaged the top with bits of blue images from magazines like National Geographic and GQ. It's busy, but something keeps it all together.

My room is a mess as well, even when it's clean. Around sophomore year of high school I started having too many photos to know what to do with, so I started putting up pictures on my wall. My parents wouldn't let me paint, so I covered any white space I could as I developed rolls of film. When my brother moved out that next summer I changed rooms and had to transfer roughly a hundred pictures in the move. My dad bought me a huge supply of poster board and I started mounting them on there and putting up poster boards instead of one picture at a time. So now, years later, I have three walls of my room in college covered with photos of people: those I love, those I've lost touch with, and a few I'd love to know (Ani DiFranco and others make cameos). But they're all of people. This tends to freak out people who can't take a thousand sets of eyes pointed at them, but it's not so bad. Usually I don't know it's there. Sometimes, though, I can look up at all the people that make up my life, and it's perfectly calming.

Q: What's next?
A: I still have a year left at the University of Florida before I'll have my B.A. in English. I'm hoping to go to grad school in the fall of 2004, but I won't know for some time now. For now, I have a number of projects up my sleeve, but am most excited about seeing what happens with Talking in the Dark, and where the next year takes me.

Q: And now for our musical question: Can you feel the love tonight?
A: Yes. Always. If there is one thing I'm never without, that's it.