Brent Goodman's poem "Closet High School Girlfriend" appears in the April issue of The Collagist. He is the author of The Brother Swimming Beneath Me (2009) and the forthcoming Far From Sudden (2012), both from Black Lawrence Press. His work has appeared in Poetry, Devil's Lake, Pebble Lake Review, Diode, Poetry East, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Rhinelander, WI.
1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Closet High School Girlfriend?” What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?
I must have been thinking back on being a teenager, wondering who I was back then, and remembering a forgotten prom date. We met in creative writing class junior year. She was 6’3” and towered over my skinny 5’9” frame, leaning down each time to kiss me. I wasn’t allowed to get my driver’s license until college but she already had a car, so for the two or three months we dated, she’d pick me up for movies or lakefront cruising, driving us around past curfew, and drop me off in the dark of my parent’s driveway after making out until the porch light came on. I remember being happy, content with having a girlfriend, but in fact I was so deep in the closet I thought it was my entire house.
2. I love how nothing is certain or what it might seem in this poem, appropriate for a poem with such a title, perhaps on multiple levels. Whether it be the “she” going into either basketball or journalism or something more substantial like “her tongue the sky above/someone else's empty yard,/the whole world a breath in,/or exhaled,” the still coherent yet borderline imbalance of the description is incredible. Where were you trying to take readers in this short poem?
Thank you. I was trying to bring readers to the point many gay youth experience when they first start noticing hints they are “miscast” to play the role they thought they were expected to as a straight person. Growing up, I was attracted to girls, but during High School I discovered that my attraction had boundaries which ended where my growing attraction to boys did not. My girlfriend and I would kiss for hours, and everything felt “right,” except I never intended for my hands to roam from her shoulders, never imagined her clothes coming off, never plotted any progression of baseball analogies to lead me out of my straight virginity. It was just her head and mine, floating through the universe. That’s the space this poem explores.
3. How does the title work for you to inform this poem?
It’s the only direct indication to the reader that the speaker in the poem might be queer. I had been sending out the poem under the title “Wintermint” for some time, with the 1st line launching right in “The breeze in her mouth / opened a window I climbed through.” But after performing the poem aloud at a reading for the first time, and talking through what setup was helpful to introduce the poem to a live audience, I realized the title needed to inform the poem more directly: The speaker is a gay man remembering what it was like being in the closet and not realizing it.
4. Reading the title poem from your first book, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, I feel a slight persistent imbalance in the words. I keep thinking about these lines:
this boy who is not dead yet gliding flesh-tone
and wavering hair past, though I want to say
I'm floating in an oarboat and his face is hidden
or blurry, I can see him again and again,
all snorkel and fin and dolphin kick, reaching forward
through handfuls of wavering light;
In a longer form, it reminds me of the way I felt when reading “Closet High School Girlfriend.” Having not read the full collection, how does “Closet High School Girlfriend” compare to the other ones in that book?
An artist friend recently commented to me that “all sculpture is an attempt to defy gravity.” I suspect the same holds true for poetry, so that “slight persistent imbalance” we feel is the key to a poem’s potential for flight. The poetic line becomes a rolling fulcrum between two wings. Uncertainty creates an updraft.
I never would have considered this poem side by side with any in The Brother Swimming Beneath Me until you mentioned it, but I suspect it shares the same source as the piece “Robin’s Egg Blue,” which also explores what defines us sexually during our most influential years. I was molested by my older brother over a period of episodes spanning 5th-7th grades, which for many years later forced me to associate my quite natural attraction to men with a most unnatural sense of guilt and self-disgust. It was from that center which I entered High School, very much wanting to have a girlfriend and prove to the world that I wasn’t “damaged goods,” or tainted by those earliest sexual experiences.
It’s taken decades for me to untangle this subject. Anyone sharing similar memories eventually has to accept it’s not the experience itself that defines you, but the energy you create to reject or embrace it ever happened. I’m much more mindful and present now having let that energy recycle back into the light.
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
Well as I write this, it’s day 19 of NaPoWriMo, and I’ve been drafting daily poems in the form of 7 lines (3/1/3 stanzas), 11 syllables each line. In turn I’ve been trading drafts every day with long-time friend and mentor David Graham in exchange for his fine daily poems. A rich conversation is taking place. At the end of the month I hope to start sorting through this pile of new work and pull together a final section of a 3rd poetry manuscript (which will include “High School Girlfriend”) to start shopping around this summer.
6. Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I’m excited for my second full-length poetry collection Far From Sudden to be coming out in 2012 from Black Lawrence Press. I’m also honored to be part of the forthcoming anthology Collective Brightness: LGBT Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality by Sibling Rivalry Press, which I look forward to reading cover to cover.