Butcher’s Sugar by Brad Richard
“The Men in the Dark”
Dropping shut the trapdoor that opened the dark
above my childhood bed, they don’t want me
to tell you about them, those two men
who left their smell with me each night
until I was no longer a boy. In tee shirts
or sometimes shirtless, they sat on bunks
as in a cell, smoking cigarettes and staring
down as I whispered. They liked to hear
about my parents, my dog, hurricanes, the wasp
and the dandelion, how blood tastes, how deaf people talk.
– from Butcher’s Sugar by Brad Richard
In your third collection, Butcher’s Sugar, you step out onto the ledge of gender, curling your toes toward “dirty boy” poetry, then lean over the edge toward yearning, sex, and even homophobic violence.
Tell us more. What else were you moving toward with these poems? And have these pieces led you into another dimension in your writing, a place where you can take off into the next stretch of work?
The first poems I wrote that ended up becoming part of Butcher’s Sugar were exercises in form: “Queer Studies” came from practicing the sonnet, “The House that Jack Built” from practicing the villanelle. I wrote sonnets and villanelles on other subjects, but in these particular poems I was interested in queering the forms. I didn’t think they would necessarily lead anywhere; they were exercises. I did play around with similar material, most of it also in forms, but a lot of it was pretty bad; this was back in the mid to late ‘90s, when the manuscript for Habitations, my first book, was basically done, and I was looking around for a new direction. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and a lot of the abandoned work from then reflects that.
There were two turning points. One was “Eye-Fucking,” which was a response to reading about gay-bashing killers in Texas. Although I had played around with writing about creepy material, that was a more visceral writing experience, one that made me confront the real horror of what I was dealing with, and made me question why I wanted to write about it. After that, I couldn’t deal with material of that gravity without feeling more certain that it was OK—morally and artistically—for me to do so.
The other, more liberating one was a re-encounter with ancient literature, specifically Gilgamesh and Greek mythology. That gave me a frame of reference for dealing with material that was quite personal, even in poems that don’t refer directly to classical myths. I’m not a Jungian, but archetypal material is undeniably powerful, deeply referential in ways that heighten the intensity of a poem and give them a certain density (which I hope isn’t merely borrowed). I feel that, too, in the kind of material I drew upon for Motion Studies.
Motion Studies is a very elegiac book with some hope for the living, for those who can remember, for the lovers at the end. Butcher’s Sugar is also elegiac, but brutal: of all the classical influences in it, the strongest may really be Euripides’ The Bacchae, which is, in my reading, about the question of whether it’s necessary to destroy the self in order to have self-knowledge.
Right now, I find myself working between two impulses. One is directed outward, toward the idea of the city and of history, in a partially completed manuscript about the capitol of an imaginary kingdom and in another about New Orleans (which is also kind of an imaginary capitol). The other impulse goes more inward, and a lot of that material is very domestic; there are poems about things growing in my yard, and about my life with my husband, Tim. (Not coincidentally, I’ve been going back more often to James Schuyler’s beautiful poems.) Related to these are some memory poems, some cousins to poems in Butcher’s Sugar, others more like poems from Habitations. Which means, I guess, that I keep coming back to place and perspective, trying to get my bearings again and again.