When I first met Bryan Borland we were standing in a parking lot, and he was shoving books into my hands. “I just brought you everything we had, so you’ll get a feel for what we do,” he’d said. He was giving me the collected issues of “Jonathan,” a journal of fiction that he published through Sibling Rivalry Press, the Little Rock company he founded to feature authors from the LGBTQIA community.
The press’ first book was Borland’s self-published poetry debut, “My Life as Adam.” He went on to publish a second book in 2012 and was a named Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry in 2015. He was recently awarded the Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award. His newest book, “Dig” (Stillhouse Press), comes out Sept. 16.
“Dig” is chronological. It takes readers through the course of your first relationship and its ending and then your new relationship with your husband. Did you set out to write that narrative or did you look at your collected poems and see the pattern?
When I organized the book and when I was working with my editors to figure out the order of the poems, I instinctively went toward a storytelling aspect, but I think that generally comes secondary for me. That’s after the poems have been written. When I’m writing, I don’t necessarily think of how they’re going to fit into a book. It’s only when it comes to building the book that that aspect comes into play for me.
That said, I write better when I’m writing on a theme, when I have a project in mind, but I never try to write in order. I always want there to be an arc to the books I write because I want the reader to come on a journey with me. When I put the manuscript together, I lay all the poems out on the floor and I try to put myself in the shoes of the reader. And this book was so difficult … .
I’m not naming everybody in these poems, but I’m dealing with different people just referred to as “he.” It’s easier when it’s “I” or there’s one “he,” but when I’m making the transition from one relationship to another and those “he’s” intersect, it’s difficult. One early form of the book had everything interwoven. It would go back and forth and that was very confusing, particularly when you were dealing with the pronoun “he.” At one point the book had seven sections with just a few poems in each and I pulled that back a little bit. But there’s a line in the first poem: “Relationships are never linear.” And that’s a theme of the entire book; it’s still jumping around a little bit. So in the end, I thought that this format worked best: the start of the previous relationship, the end, then the current marriage. And that middle section is full of all of the experiences that make us who we are, and the book is about recognizing that we all bring history into whatever relationship we’re in.
You talk about this being a book of love poems, and while that’s definitely true, there’s a pretty wide range of love on display here. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows here.
I wanted to make sure that, even in love poems, they were honest and real. I didn’t want to write just happy, happy love poems. I wanted there to be some reality there.
Was there ever any hesitation on your part or even your husband’s part about your being so transparent with your relationships?
No, I don’t think I have any other choice in that. I process things through writing about them. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to put everything I ever write in a book, but I did feel a responsibility to be truthful. It’s easier because [Borland’s husband Seth Pennington is] a poet, too, and so he understands that. But also, it’s difficult to see your intimate moments put in a book for the public. I get that, too, when Seth writes about us. It can be really awkward sometimes; you’re at a public space and he’s reading about a moment that we’ve shared. That’s just our relationship, though. It looks at how our publishing company came into being and how we balanced that, how I struggled to define myself as a poet vs. a publisher vs. just a man. I think to shy away from that would be dishonest to myself and my readers.
I’ve often heard you talk about being Bryan “the poet,” but you’re also Bryan “the publisher.” How do you balance those parts or facets of yourself with Bryan “the man” and Bryan “the husband” in your poetry?
That’s something I’ve had to learn how to balance, and it’s a difficult balance. You see that a lot with the poems here; a lot of them overlap sometimes. It’s very freeing when I can only write about one thing, or one part of myself — it can be a totally different face of myself. I think the people that have read the book so far have … have picked up on that people in a relationship, any kind of relationship … it’s dealing with desire. Desire is a concept we all have: desire for romance, desire for sex, desire for success in our careers. Bringing that into a relationship means finding a balance between all of that and then figuring out what to give the other person, how much of yourself to hand over. How much of the desire we carry do we give up? How much do we compromise to make that relationship work? Sometimes I’ve been unsuccessful in finding that balance. Other times, I’ve been successful and that’s part of the journey of the book.
I’m a big fan of your second book, “Less Fortunate Pirates,” which dealt with the death of your father. How does “Dig” fit into your larger body of work?
You had the first book [“My Life as Adam”], which was dealing with my coming out and understanding who I was in regard to sexuality, religion and family. It was very much my youth on the page. I didn’t read my poetry then — I was the poet that said he liked poetry, but never actually read any. Hopefully now it’s evident how much I love poetry and how much I read it.
The second book was even more personal than the first. … [“Dig”] is really my first book as an adult. This is the place I’ve carved out in the world, this is the most honest I’ve ever been. This is all of me on the page. The heart of the cover is my heart. It’s everything I’ve got. It’s a bridge between where my writing was and where it’s going.
I’m curious to know what you were reading while you were writing these poems.
Well, I don’t read contemporary poetry when I write. I’ll read older stuff. For this book I was reading a lot of stuff from the 1960s and ’70s, but I don’t want to read a lot of new stuff by my contemporaries because I don’t want to sound like anyone else. I’ll pick up their style. It won’t be intentional, but it’ll still happen. It’s interesting, you know, because I feel like poetry has sort of ruined reading fiction for me because I read it like a poem. If the fiction doesn’t have a poetic element, if it’s not beautiful, then I don’t have any patience for it. I can read a lot of nonfiction, but that’s about it.
I understand what you mean. Are there specific poets that you found yourself going back to while writing these poems?
Adrienne Rich for sure; she’s at the top of my list. I think the things she wrote decades ago are still so applicable to today’s political climate; they just fit so perfectly. She balances the political and the personal in a way that just fascinates me. I want to go there next, but I don’t know how to do it exactly. The way she balances sexuality, romance and her acknowledgment of herself as a writer was really beneficial to me. On the other side is Anne Sexton, the iconic confessional poet who was one of the first women to write about her period or abortion, these things that are so uncomfortable but true. She has such lyricism in what she wrote and she’s definitely all over this book, too.
Is writing something that comes easily for you?
I can never say that I’m going to write on a certain day at a certain time. I have no control over that at all. I can write anywhere, but I like it to be quiet, very little distraction. For me, my favorite poems and my best poems are ones that are nearly one-shot deals, where I can sit down and write them from beginning to end. I might tinker with them and revise a bit, but the bones are all there from the beginning. The ones I have to mess with are never my favorite. I’ll work on them, and I’ll get them there in the end, but they never quite have the magic of the one-shots.