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An Interview With Gerard Wozek, Author of A Little Wounded But On Fire

A Little Wounded But On Fire (Tebot Bach, 2022) is a book of creation. In this poetic memoir, author Gerard Wozek goes beyond the point of self-discovery by assuming a more active role in his own self-making. This act becomes necessary for a boy adopted into a Midwest Catholic family that does not cherish his queerness. He learns over time, this is something he must do for himself, in order to survive. It is this lesson in self-love and determination that lingers and resonates so acutely, as each poem enters the heart of the reader. A Little Wounded But On Fire also underscores the tragedy of forced self-erasure due to Wozek’s queerness in the wake of his closed adoption. It is in his learning to create himself anew, a man who can relish in his own authentic identity, that Wozek creates a mythos and personal ritual that honors this reality. Indeed, it is with his powerful words that Wozek paints himself amongst the stars, so we can chart a kinder future under the guidance of this newly drawn constellation.

This is a work with potent language that speaks directly to a queer experience within the loneliness of middle America. The writing is dynamic enough to form its own structure, but then fully immerses within the world of that structure, allowing the reader greater accessibility to the story that unfolds. It is both his style and content that drove me to want to know more about this project. I was so lucky to speak with Wozek about this important work and to ask a few bubbling author’s questions, which he was kind enough to answer.

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KBZ: I have called this collection a poetic memoir, is this a description you agree with? And if so, how did you as an author navigate both the trauma and vulnerability you share in A Little Wounded But On Fire?

GW: Kelsey, I completely agree with your assessment of the book being a poetic memoir.  Memoir writing takes on many forms, and poetry is but one of them. If we look at memoir as an autobiography of one’s recollection of particular people or events, then I definitely embraced that opportunity to explore and evacuate my past in this book of poems. One of the themes that emerges in the beginning of A Little Wounded But On Fire, is the tension between being brought up in strict Catholicism and wanting so much to belong to something larger than myself.

I knew early on that I was adopted, left behind by my original family and surrendered up to the Catholic Charities orphanage. The iconography of the Catholic church was so powerfully daunting for me in my childhood. It inhabited a place inside of me that inspired both curiosity and terror. I was so overtaken by the little chaplet, Lives of the Saints, (required reading from the third grade on) that I felt like I wanted to be one too; to sacrifice and be part of a legion of these legendary, virtuous holy ones. But knowing my secret desire for other boys set me apart from church doctrine, and not seeing any positive role models around me in this desolate landscape, led me into a kind of free fall growing up.

The initial poems in the book attempt to examine and share the angst of what it feels like for a young person to live in such a limbo. As an author, I felt obligated to dissect those broken pieces of myself, so that others in a similar position might find some solace and even relief from knowing, no one is ever alone. Illuminating a difficult childhood in my writing felt very fulfilling and allowed me to share an authentic voice. Adolescence seems to be a good place for any poet to begin with in terms of telling their own personal story. I saw the Jennifer Jones, classic film, Song of Bernadette, when I was around nine years old, and the notion that suffering could be a great teacher just seemed to linger with me. I felt that it was important to reveal these desolate places I inhabited as a kid and to share my longing to escape from always feeling so alienated. I yearned for a transformative experience that would allow me to feel part of something greater than myself—larger than this shy queer kid growing up in the seventies, perpetually plagued by the feeling of being abandoned, bullied for being “too sensitive,” and not ever quite fitting in.

KBZ: One of my favorite poems in this collection is, “Patron Saint of Disco,” because of the juicy language. The form really embraces the energy of this poem with lines like, “My finger plunged into the mouth/of a stoned bearded lady circling a beehive/of drowsy drones. Heaving bare chests soaked/in sour peach vodka and sweat.” I am curious to know how this poem developed.

GW: That poem in particular is very close to me and one of my personal favorites. I always wanted to believe in a “Patron Saint of Disco” because as a young emerging gay person, I was so enamored with the transformative elements of sweating it out on a dance floor, rubbing up against a beehive of other drenched, shirtless bodies, and letting the hypnotic strobe lights and tribal beats of the music alter me. I felt most myself, most at home in those throbbing gay clubs. San Francisco disco legend Sylvester was my true inspiration, (and real-life patron saint) back in the early eighties, when dance hits like “Stars” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) would capture my body like a rapturous seizure and leave me convulsing in a raucous dance hall, well past “last call” at the bar.

Dancing was a form of ecstatic prayer, calling upon the celestial queen Sylvester to lead all of us under the mirror ball into a maxed-out euphoria. This poem originally started out as a theatre monologue in a collection of performance pieces I named “Flesh Is Enough.” These early poems were given voice in Chicago by the Lionheart Theater Troupe, and “Patron Saint of Disco” just seemed to live on from that initial theatrical presentation.  I think because of my fascination early on with Catholic saints and my desire to underscore the ritualistic elements of dancing in public and being swept into the primal elements and energy of the dance music, this autobiographical poem just seems to thrive on.

The lyrical poetry of early dance queens like Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, and Evelyn “Champagne” King, all bonafide disco saints to me, seemed to saturate me, provoking me to write about what was shaping and inspiring me during what was a very sensual and liberating time. In “Patron Saint of Disco” I write: “I knelt down in a pile of glitter, /on a mosaic floor, with a million rays of light /whirling over my head. Pierre and Gilles sailors /with powdered blush and mascara, blessed me, /anointed my teenage shoulders, as I pulverized/into hi-hat drum patterns, powdered ecstasy, rented bliss.” Writing about those early disco days feels like capturing a piece of valuable history, a time of growing pains and shifting identities that can only come through deliberately transgressing normative boundaries.

cover of A Little Wounded But On Fire by Gerard Wozek

A Little Wounded But On Fire by Gerard Wozek

KBZ: The book centers on the concept of what’s hidden. Hidden relationships, hidden feelings, hidden violence, a hidden past. Paradoxically, each poem-revelation in this book transforms you–as the narrative voice and body within this work–from being unseen and unheard, to finally being witnessed and heard. So, I want to know how it feels for you as a person to share these words?  How does it affect your body?

GW: Certainly, one of the core themes of the book is the desire to become visible and more at ease in the world of forms. The narrative arc of this book progresses from grappling with internalized shame and self-dissembling to reinventing, owning, and appreciating a more expansive version of my queer self. I think for any LGBTQIA person especially, this can be a lifelong challenge, one that I continue to find challenges with all the time. For so long I took some sort of strange consolation in being unseen, because I felt that as a kid, I wouldn’t have to succumb to the persistent harassment that was taking place all around me. I thought if I was hidden, I wouldn’t have to admit to the certainty within myself, that I desired other males and felt deeply ashamed because of it.

One of the poems in the collection, “Sebastian,” looks at the dilemma of being bashed and tormented to a point when you finally succumb to utter self-annihilation. I dedicated that poem to the five teenage boys who committed suicide in 2010 because they were so bullied and persecuted for being gay. One of them, Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers at the time, jumped from the George Washington Bridge because his roommate had posted a video of him having an intimate moment with another man.

I believe it takes tremendous courage to openly declare who you are to the world. I respect and honor all of us who take risks, love openly, and face the world with our emerging queer identities intact. Staying visible and sharing directly from your own personal veracity, feels so heroic and necessary in these times. One of the most challenging poems for me to write was “Game Under the Bed,” which allows the reader to enter a private space with me at a time when as a young person, I was confronted with an individual who was physically and emotionally tyrannizing me. Composing that poem was truly a form of deliverance for me, and it’s one of the great gifts that writing can offer. Holding onto that secret abuse had entrenched itself in my physical and energetic body for too many years, and by writing about it, declaring it openly, I was able to dislodge a great deal of the shame that I was holding onto, even unconsciously.

Poetry and journal writing for me have been my saving grace when it comes to dissecting and removing so much of the self-disavowal that comes with feeling deeply anguished by the pressure to be “normal.” By the end of the book, there is a celebration in having endured the many trials of an embodied queer life. The end of the book is more about acclaiming my existence and calling others to join me in a joyous dance of self-acceptance. From the final poem in the collection, “The Map on Which I Vanished, I write: “I strip down to bare skin, /take a naked swim in summer pond water, /scrape the stone bottom of the shallows, /then emerge forgiven, reverent, queer and certain, /a spirit without dogma or origin story, /a numinous hurricane manifesting in my own flesh, /seeking heat, communion, /finding Magna Mater within . . .”

KBZ: The poems in this collection are very imagistic. Poems like, “Whitmanesque,” read like they themselves are paintings.  There are also references to paintings and art experienced by the narrator in the real world. As a reader I find this “Buson-like” ability to paint with words, to be an important tactic for building the mythos in A Little Wounded but Still Here. Can you say how you homed in on this style?

GW: I am an avid reader of Japanese haiku, and I so appreciate the reference to the imagistic work of poet Yosa Buson. In his writing in particular, one discovers a very sharp lens on what is most essential. His very acute images culled from nature all fill a precise frame of their own. I really admire how skilled he was as an artist, where the reader really feels taken into the composition of the living poem-painting. In the poem “Whitmanesque” I write, “Let me be an unearthed snail fossil, creeping rhizome,/ imprint of a wet leaf on a rock bed, /octave range of the ripening Greek fig.” My attempt at bringing out very sharp and critical details in nature seemed to be a requirement for revealing the journey of the poem’s protagonist who is searching for making that which was once unseen, seen.

Also, for the past couple of decades, I have been collaborating with visual artist Mary Russell in the creation of poetry videos. When I compose a poem, it is inevitable now that I see it translated into visuals in my head. This really informs how images arrive on the page. I have also become more enamored with writing ekphrasitcally, or using paintings or established works of art to spark an inspiration for a poem. This happens within this collection of poems as I explore a trio of paintings by artist Odilion Redon. Finding identification with Redon’s vision helped me to find my own heart, and more readily illustrate my own being, because I had their tangible painting as a reference for the poem.

KBZ: As well as really feeling these poems in my heart, as I read, I also learned, not just about a specific life, time, and place, but about art and history. Your language is keen and beautiful, and your didactic approach feels effortless. My guess is this has something to do with your many years of teaching. How has this profession influenced your writing and how you think of your audience?

GW: I taught writing and the humanities for over twenty-five years, so as a university professor it’s nearly impossible to separate completely from that part of me that desires that people know about the world and remain steadfastly curious–particularly the universe that we inhabit within us and the uncertain terrain of the heart. I hope my audience is up for a good challenge, and they are not afraid to stubbornly inquire and engage with topics that aren’t always pat or clear cut. I also don’t resist more metaphysical or mythological subjects—I like embracing a tapestry of ideas while not subscribing to any strict doctrine or dogma.

Certainly, a poet like Hilda Doolittle, also known as H.D., remains a resolute inspiration. I found an identification early on with this poet’s florid landscapes and her depictions of an immense, internal sea that manifests within both erotically and spiritually. Reading as a teenager, I felt a kind of redemption in knowing that another queer life could be rescued by both writing and the discovery of a healthy and abiding same-sex lover. This difficult time of living through the pandemic, has allowed me to surrender to the teachers I find all around me, whether through fallback contemporary poets like Adrienne Rich or Jaime Gil de Biedma, or Danez Smith, or by just listening to the pervasive stillness and silences that comes with this quarantine  time of isolation and aloneness.

poet Gerard Wozek smiling at a restaurant patio

Gerard Wozek (photo from his Twitter account)

KBZ: I hear you are migrating to Spain and with your love of travel, I can imagine this will be a wonderful time for you. Does travel inspire your writing?  How has seeing the world with fresh and foreign eyes developed your personal philosophy?

GW: I am thrilled to take up residence in  Poblenou, near the seductive blue of the Mediterranean Sea, in my beloved city of Barcelona. My exuberance for travel most always informs all my creative work and I’m really looking forward to working on and sharing more of my own personal “wanderer” stories. My individual credo can be found in Walt Whitman’s epic poem, “Song of the Open Road” where he declares, “To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.” I think the poet is asserting that this life we take on is an opportunity for perpetual movement, evolution and the endless reshaping of reality. Like Whitman, we are all restless explorers, and this life journey is a rare chance to immerse into the expansive possibilities of becoming greater than we are—similarly, as his protagonist in the poem merges with the inexplicable and mysterious pulse of the divine.

I found that my own travels fulfill this inner provocation to make pilgrimages to places that hold some sort of familial and energetic response for me or fill in the gaps with my own persistent wanderlust. In the poem “Novena of the Lost Saints,” for example, I am that pilgrim making stops in France, Ireland, and Spain–seeking out the cathedrals, antiquated icons, and druidic locales where one might be swept into the dynamism of the mystical. To travel with the intention to conspire with this ancient wisdom, inherent in the spirit of these sacred places, demands that the sojourner allow a kind of inner alchemy to occur. I suppose it’s my way of  linking with historical and mythological figures that provide a sense of genealogy for me. To be spontaneously open to this kind of personal transformation requires stamina and the keen ability to be willingly in touch with one’s own emotional tenor. It seems to me that writers in particular are built for this kind of experience: the mingling with the dead, the encounters with artifacts and strange ephemera, and of course, having to be bound to the uncertainty of being on the road. The beauty of writing is that this experience with traveling or being on a pilgrimage can be shared and enlarged with others through stories and poems. There’s delight in that.

KBZ: Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with us? 

GW: Kelsey I am so grateful for this opportunity to share with you my thoughts on what inspired and provoked me into writing A Little Wounded But On Fire. My intention with this collection is to bring to light how necessary it is that we share our unique identity narratives. I think that being both gay and adopted set me on a quest to discover who I belonged to, and in my attempts to look to others to identify with, I found out that really the most important task is to learn how to belong to myself.  I believe that now more than ever we need to lean into poetry as well as each other. Heart-centered poetry can help us to find empathy and compassion with other diverse lives and visions. We truly depend on each other to make sense of the world. The act of declaring our truths through our words can help both the writer and the audience to receive some kind of blessing or healing or at some level, a very profound solace. This is so necessary to our continued survival and evolution.

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