In fact, there may be no other recent poet who became a recognized figure by, in part, articulating their own place in history. From early-1980s beginnings among Dennis Cooper’s Beyond Baroque “Gang” in Venice, through editing posthumous anthologies of Tim Dlugos and Ed Smith, through book upon book of his own verse, Trinidad’s writing has preserved people and places. Artifacts are essential, he reminds us. Even the most ephemeral may transmute into tears … or laughs, as in Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (2013), which documents every single episode of the impeccably dumb TV series.
With Digging to Wonderland, Trinidad the archivist detours from the lit-scene tell-all approach of Notes on a Past Life (2016) by retrieving childhood memories and relationships. Rendered in the objects that denote them, and amid the unknowable roles of chance and choice, memory empowers creation.
As David has been a longtime friend since the Beyond Baroque days, our conversation included a few shared memories.
JACK SKELLEY: You have written other memoirs and have also edited anthologies that remember the late poets Tim Dlugos and Ed Smith. What is the literary value of reclaiming the past?
DAVID TRINIDAD: In the case of Tim and Ed, it was a way of ensuring that their work was available to readers. Both were long out of print when I took up those projects. For me, it was an act of discovery. I knew both of them, but by researching their lives and editing their work, I got to know them in a way that wasn’t possible when they were alive. It’s a form of archaeology, really. You do this deep dive, try to put all the pieces together, create as full a picture as possible. So, they continue to live, in their poems. There was also the desire to document the literary scenes each was involved in: Tim in New York, Ed in Los Angeles. Again, for any readers that might be interested.
In my own writing, it’s a similar process of discovery — a more personal one, of course. By excavating my own past, I’m trying to make sense of, understand, what I’ve experienced. I think it’s also a way of honoring your lived experience, rather than just leaving it in your wake. As to what value others might get from it, well, that depends on the individual reader, doesn’t it? A poem can do many things: comfort, inform, enlighten, entertain. Even when a poem moves you to your core, it’s often mysterious as to why.
Digging to Wonderland includes several entries centered around the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in 1980s Venice and “The Gang” associated with Dennis Cooper. This period is having a significant revival. Has time validated its value?
I think so, yes. In Wrong, Diarmuid Hester’s recent biography of Dennis, there was a chapter on this scene. And the exhibition Sabrina Tarasoff recently put together for the Hammer Museum celebrated the creative ethos of that moment. It was such an exciting time in our lives — young artists coming together and fostering each other’s talent. I’m so grateful to have known you and others in “The Gang”: Dennis, Amy Gerstler, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Ed Smith, Benjamin Weissman, Kim Rosenfield, Michelle T. Clinton, Robin Carr. Some of those friendships have continued to this day. I think what many of us accomplished then and in the decades since certainly speaks for itself. And is validation enough, don’t you think?
Some pieces meditate on objects connected with Sylvia Plath — a lock of her hair, her “little glass-topped table” — both of which you own. Can you compare these items to religious relics? What power do they have for you?
Oh, a lot of power. To own something Sylvia Plath, a lifelong idol, once owned, once touched, especially in the last weeks of her life, like that table, is, yes, a very religious feeling. Not long ago I bought a book from Anne Sexton’s personal library, with her ownership signature. Same thing — a reverent kind of thrill. I’ve always been fascinated by the fate of objects. I once wrote a poem about one of Marilyn Monroe’s auctioned chairs. It sold for $28,000. I understand someone willing to pay that much, just to have it. As with memories, writing for me is often a way of touching certain objects from my past. Maybe this is a collector’s thing, but I’ll sometimes be overcome by a desire to find those objects, to touch them again for real, not just with words. As Plath herself wrote, “I love the thinginess of things.”
The poem “Guardian Angels” is a “what if” memory: you had planned a date with someone who — it turned out later — was HIV-positive. But your car wouldn’t start and fortunately you stayed home instead. What are your thoughts on the roles of fate and chance in your life?
Well, as that poem implies, it felt like there were otherworldly forces at play that protected me from doing something rash and potentially self-destructive. I’ve had other such moments in my life, where a sudden thought or action “saved” me. I was led somewhere instinctively, or someone “magically” appeared at just the right instant, and that changed my life. Life seems less dictated by chance than it did when I was young. These days I guess you could say I’m a member of the “you create your own reality” sect.
In “Proustian,” you denote the compressed circuits of fate in your teen years. Instead of weekend movies and parties, you were forced to irrigate your family’s apple orchard, while reading Valley of the Dolls. How do you feel about this turn of events?
At the time, I suffered immensely. I was a teenager; I wanted to hang out with my friends, make new friends. And more than anything, to smoke cigarettes. Instead, I was stuck with my family in this godforsaken apple orchard. Afterwards, I couldn’t eat apples for decades! As an adult, when I’d visit my family, my mother would always say, “Take this bag of apples.” And I’d refuse. I did eventually get over my resentment of apples. And I did eventually quit smoking. Looking back, I can honestly say I don’t regret anything that’s happened in my life, as it’s all led me to here and now, and I like my here and now. And that experience ultimately gave me the poem.
The poet Jack Spicer once said, “Scent is the signifier of the intimate.” But your collections and keepsakes signify memories. Is that why you saved them?
I’ve mostly collected things I either once had or wasn’t allowed to have as a child, so I think it’s more about revisiting or trying to heal something from the past. But who knows? Once, feeling rather existential about collecting, I asked a friend who also collected, “Why do we collect?” She simply answered, “To have.” That took the wind right out of my angst.
There are several Disney-related memories: souvenirs of Disneyland, movie stills (including a map of Wonderland). In the imaginations of children, how much do imposed memories — layered through movies and other corporate products — comprise one’s past?
A great deal, I suspect. So much of what we’re exposed to, whether it delights or terrifies, can stay with us our entire lives. Just this morning I was remembering how the movie Jaws — when I first saw it in the mid-’70s — took the joy out of swimming in the ocean. And when I recently watched The Andy Warhol Diaries on Netflix, I was again moved by his use of brand names and logos. He captures their enticing quality, makes them look beautiful. They’re part of our lives, and live in our memories.
You’re not afraid to “dish” on other writers — revealing feuds, for example. Do you feel you have a responsibility to be sometimes brutally honest?
I don’t think of it as brutal, really, but yes, I do feel it’s my responsibility as a poet to be as honest as I can be. Even if it means telling the truth against myself, as Arthur Miller says.
Your childhood memories of growing up in the San Fernando Valley include brief asides about your neighbors. One was a John Birch Society member, while another family had a backyard bomb shelter. After unearthing these memories, do you feel differently now about the political/social environment of the time?
We had a bomb shelter in our backyard! Like the apple orchard, it was a great disappointment. The choice was between a swimming pool and a bomb shelter, and my parents decided on the latter. My siblings and I could have gotten a lot of use out of a pool; we didn’t get any use out of that bomb shelter. One of the things I learned in writing about the time and place I grew up in was how much of a construct it was. Not fake per se, but striving for an impossible ideal. A perfect little suburban bubble, safe from the dangers of the world. On the mountain above our neighborhood in Chatsworth there was a Nike missile base — missiles armed with nuclear warheads! I never knew that as a kid. Or if I did know, I didn’t fully understand what that meant.
I also write about a mystery house at the end of our street. We never saw who lived there; the drapes were always drawn. After this book was published, a childhood friend told me that two women lived in that house, and there was speculation that they were lesbians. I never knew that either. Of course, it all began to break down in the upheaval of the ’60s. That picture-perfect lifestyle could not go on forever.
Jack Skelley’s books include Monsters (Little Caesar Press, 1982) and Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press, 2021). Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing will appear from BlazeVOX [books] in fall 2022. Semiotext(e) will publish his novel Fear of Kathy Acker in spring 2023. His psychedelic surf band Lawndale (SST Records) will release a new album in 2022.