The Creatives Series: Poetry with Darrin Gonzales

Darrin Gonzales is a 25-year-old American postgraduate from Gering, Nebraska who is pursuing a research master’s in literary studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is the first face of the Amsterdam Creatives series, publishing in The Amsterdammer every Friday for the next weeks.

By FLO MCQUIBBAN

We’re in a dimly-lit, cozy, one-person bedroom at the Student Hotel Amsterdam West, laughing and chatting away. Darrin Gonzales has just professed his undying love for burgers to me. “If there were a food that [could] describe me, it would be a burger. Any burger, even vegan, I could eat so many – though I couldn’t tell you why.” “Maybe because burgers are multi-layered and complex?” I suggest. We laugh more loudly. Darrin is also a coffee addict, a gin and tonic lover, an artist who writes poetry and music and sometimes plays around with the visual arts.

We spend the next few minutes discussing likes and dislikes, authors and artists, no camera in between us – we’ll save that for later. As I look around his room, I begin to see the personality of the artist in front of me, in every corner. There is a mood board and a collection of books, as well as a small, white deer bust statue. There’s also a TV but it’s turned towards the window – he never really uses it. I ask him if he likes it here in Amsterdam, if it’s conducive to creativity. “Well, I fall in love with one or multiple places I go to. Amsterdam is probably the best place I’ve lived,” though he mentions California and Colorado with fondness too.

Darrin Gonzales, 25 years old, from Gering, Nebraska, at White Label Coffee on Jan Evertsenstraat in Amsterdam on February 25, 2019. Flo McQuibban/The Amsterdammer

“I have written for as long as I can remember, wherever I have been” he affirms, peering at me from the edge of his white bed, with his legs crossed and the palm of his hand steadily placed on his knee. He describes his poetry as “lyric and non-confessional” and his music as “sleepy-time, ambient soundscape music” in which he conceives of sound “as a unit.” “I usually listen to other people’s music but, if I’ve just finished three or four songs, I’ll add [them] to the playlist [which functions] like a working album. Sometimes I’ll listen to my own music before bed, to see how [and] if it works.” When it comes to the writing process, he admits that it’s a tiring one. “Usually, I write my poetry in a workflow and I go, and go, and go until it’s gone. Weeks will go by until something happens again. So everything from the rhythm to the images will be a result of that flow. Because of that, I don’t revise often. I’m wary of how [that] could break the workflow of the original poem. It’s a wonderful and beautiful exhaustion.” We talk about this exhaustion and other feelings or states of being that can be linked to creative output. Most present in my mind are the concepts of happiness and unhappiness. He inhales quietly and leans towards me. “Incredibly arbitrary” is how Darrin describes terms such as ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’. “I have had periods of unhappiness and happiness. I am fairly happy, but I am also being productive, and what I produce is good. What I produce when I’m unhappy is also good. It doesn’t depend on a necessary state of unhappiness – that is something we inherit from romanticism,” he chuckles. “I can’t speak for every artist, but someone who’s had a happy life will probably just produce art that is very different. One thing I can say though is that art always seems to come from struggle. I prefer the terms stability and instability, rather than happy and unhappy. Artists live very unstable lives.” He mentions the personal and artistic instability that has constantly enveloped his own life, though he points out that just about everything has been tumultuous for him in some shape or form. “My present has never really satisfied me fully and that’s what got me into the process of creating, to make the present more bearable. It’s the most typical narrative that probably exists for a lot of queer men who come from the rural Midwest, like Nebraska. I’ve experienced a lot of bad things from people across the spectrum and that’s really important to mention. It is not just straight people who bully – some people within the community do it to protect themselves. Intra-community violence is not something that’s looked at as much as it should be. Art offers a way for all of that to be more bearable.”

So if Darrin doesn’t get his inspiration from the tear-stained poems of romantic lyricists, then where’s it all coming from? I’m surprised to find that most of his gratitude is directed towards mentor and poet Robert Fernandez, who has published three books and has held the Reynolds Chair of Poetry in the English department at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “[He’s] the reason I even write poetry. Robert really helped me break through, and [he] is why I write the way that I write now. The way I actually developed [my style] and the things I do with imagery – none of that happened until I read one of his earliest published books, Pink Reef.” Darrin also owes some of his creativity to Federico García Lorca, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Celane, though he discloses that had he been able to, he probably would not have struck up a conversation with any of them in real life – barring Lorca.

Darrin conceives of his poetry as a place in which he can be “wildly throwing together images,” something he trusts that all of the aforementioned poets also do in their writing. “The primary feature of my poetry is the imagery, it’s like I’m in five fever dreams at once. All of those [poets] also have this aphoristic style and there are moments in my work where I state something like it’s a matter of fact, but it’s only to increase the imagery. There’s also something about tone that I learned from them, definitely.” My speaker claps his hands together enthusiastically because he has remembered something. “I just thought of another one who belongs in that list: Arthur Rimbaud. Now I would’ve loved to have spent time with him, because that’s someone I would have publicly dated,” he confesses unapologetically, creasing up in laughter. But what about Paul Verlaine, with whom Rimbaud had a short-lived but sizzling affair? Darrin is quick to point out that “Verlaine wasn’t even that cute.” After googling him to refresh my memory, I had to concede: he wasn’t. “And not as good of a poet [as Rimbaud],” adds the Nebraskan.

“There is an elitist myth, [but also] not everyone can write good poetry, that’s a romanticist myth.”

Included in those who influence us are of course those who only slightly pave the way, and those who give us nothing at all. At school, Darrin was mostly exposed to Keats and Shelley, poets whom he defines as “really important and special” and as having only a “peripheral influence” on his work. Before his breakthrough with mentor and poet Fernandez, who taught him both one-to-one and in class, Darrin was reading a lot of Kerouac and Ginsberg. “But the Beat [Generation] movement wasn’t really working for me as a writer, [nor was] this pseudo-Buddhism, the road metaphor, or the cigarettes” he laughs, falling back onto his bed. Darrin breaks eye contact with me for a moment as he remembers. “Robert could see a poet underneath these things, that really made it easier for me. And because of this [belief in me], the current world I occupy now is very different from Ginsberg and Kerouac.”

Darrin asks me if he can get controversial for a minute – I say go for it. “I’m gonna [sic] be shady for a moment. Rupi Kaur?” he sighs to me as he utters the name of the (in)famous Indian-born Canadian poet who has divided opinions on her Tumblr and Instagram poetry, “I could do [what she does] in my sleep. I could also publish some sad text messages. But, it’s important to put critical effort into the attention, the world-building, the complicated, the hard, and the illusive. I am not saying that deserves more attention – but the commodity poem becoming the famous poem – now, I am really critical of that. So, what makes good poetry? It’s really difficult to answer that – all I can say is that I am not going to say Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey,” he whispers in reference to Kaur’s debut poetry and prose collection. “Of course, [what she is doing] is working – but in a capitalist way. You cannot write your work in relation to how well-known you want to be, because then you will not work hard, and if you do, it won’t be on your poetry or your craft. So, congratulations Rupi Kaur, you’re a businesswoman.”

Darrin's mood board at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam Niuew-West. Flo McQuibban/The Amsterdammer

Who can write poetry then? He pauses and thinks. “There is an elitist myth, [but also] not everyone can write good poetry, that’s a romanticist myth. You can be content with being blocked out by certain things; you don’t have to participate in everything. Rejection sucks, but it’s important to respond productively to rejection, instead of just responding by doing something easy. The worst that can happen is that you just have to try again.” So, what if you want to do the hard work but you don’t have the means to access any writing that could inspire you along the way? “I really cannot think of a ‘do-it-yourselfer’, and for the most part, there are books,” he answers, “You can always find an influence in somebody else’s written work, even at a thrift store for 15 cents.” Him and I agree that inspiration can also be found in nature and in other people. I look outside Darrin’s window, where there is a constant flux of pedestrians crossing the street and peeping into the Student Hotel.

Before we leave for a drink, I ask Darrin if he ever writes with an addressee in mind and what he would say to anyone who is doubting their own ability to produce creative content. “My poetry is in a broad sense available for all kinds of persons to insert themselves into. Hypothetically speaking, if I ever had a crowd look up to me – there is a special place in my heart for the queer – I just want them to know that this is something they can do. This is available to them in their own process of making the present bearable. You don’t have to be afraid to offend. I am not afraid to offend where I know [it’ll] be productive, critical, valuable, for change-making action.” When it comes to doubting your own work and its potential, Darrin understands the process well. “Sometimes I look at [my work] two months later. I look at it again and…,” he pouts a little, “It’s a blip in the history of making work, and I usually don’t touch it after it’s been finished. Just try not to have a negative reaction or response. It’s really hard but I don’t think you should write with the expectation of anything beyond allowing your work to surprise you. It will always be worth something, it will always be valuable. Eventually, you’ll begin to discover how restrictive the language of value is to begin with.”

Darrin concedes that although it has always been a positive experience for him, he very rarely shares his work because it’s “intimate to a point” and “unconventional,” he sighs. “People will analyse your poems and find your vulnerability anyway. I haven’t published yet [because] those kinds of anxieties make it hard to press the submit button. It’s easy when it’s someone you’ve met, because they usually like you,” he laughs infectiously, swinging his head back. Luckily, Darrin is sharing. He’s left us with his SoundCloud profile and his poetry UNTITLED-SERIES, which includes his works A’DAM: WHEN I AM LAID in five parts, and MEAT SONGS in two parts. He prefers to leave it all “as explanation-free as possible,” though he describes the following passages as “a record of an expat experience, of managing how to live in a new city – and the mistakes in Dutch are an intentional part of the poems.” Here are part II and III of A’DAM: WHEN I AM LAID; a glimpse into the world of instability and bearableness woven by a poet in a new place.

A’DAM: WHEN I AM LAID By Darrin Gonzales

II.

brother, we all have

basements where the

water is still and the

mosquitoes are thick

and the buzzing is high

and the boys are high

the prices are high and

my chest is open and

the twinks are pouring

molly in it

denk om het basement

like a seedy neologism

steamy discourse to take

a load off sell some cro-

pped denim cut a hole in

a sweater call it haute the

boys are haute the prices

are haute and my chest

is a fucking ketamine

pit

this is korting flikker-

lijk my broken credit-

card lets the monsters

jump from my wrists like

hot beans they wear those

awful beanies that look

like tired mushrooms

III.

in the tram, when

I am laid, I note

I have change en-

ough for bacon and

oh the world is empty:

a hole you could whistle

a sad song through

bushy eyebrows could

tell me I forgot to

piss on my hydran-

geas but I am lush

swollen with mint tea

the ghosts I juggle twist

themselves like

potatoes, they poke

holes in the fresh mud

so it can breathe (it’s like

sticking a tube in the

throat)

what the fuck

is the PC Hoofstraat

waar ben ik lopen?

and why do the

gold coins fall like

hail onto the arcades?

and why does Ramses’s

nose fall farther back

into his skull?