Christal Ann Rice Cooper

Christal Ann Rice Cooper
Christal Ann Rice Cooper March 2017

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Poet and Medical Student Eric Tran on Homosexuality, Religion, Politics, and Writing!

Scripted Interview With
ERIC TRAN’S
RELIGION, POLITICS, SEX & AFFAIRS WITH MEN IN SUITS



Eric Tran’s Affairs with Men In Suits is a sustained and meticulously researched meditation on love and lust and shame and grace.  He dramatizes sexual encounters with disgraced public figures Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, and Mark Foley so completely that he simultaneously humanizes and convicts with the same paintbrush.  These poems are funny and scandalous, yet extraordinarily delicate, as shown in the closing image of the opening poem:  the paper/catches/ quick – unexpected brightness/ from such small tinder.  The truths that Tran shows me about myself are not convenient, but they are essential, and they fill me with forgiveness.”
Michael White, author of Vermeer in Hell and Re-entry



YOUR BIRTHDATE?
I’m turning 26 this July. I’m a Leo and a recent birth chart reading says my rising sign is Sagittarius, so apparently everything about my stars is warring with everything else.

WHERE WERE YOU BORN?
I was born and raised in the land of Google and Facebook and now live in North Carolina.

AT WHAT AGE DID YOU REALIZE YOU WERE GAY?
I actually thought everyone in the world was gay until I was about 8 or 9—it just seemed natural to me that all boys would have crushes on other boys. (I’m still having trouble accepting this.)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE OF COMING OUT AS A GAY MAN?
I was first vocally out in high school, the early 2000s. It wasn’t until years after I graduated that I realized that I was, for a time, the only out student and that the majority of the high school hated me for it. I thankfully had very supportive friends—we listened to a lot of Bjork and read Margaret Atwood and pretended like we lived elsewhere—so it didn’t seem like any of it mattered. And it certainly doesn’t matter now. I would say I was lucky, but isn’t it weird and sad to think of ‘lucky’ as being loved and accepted?


On another note, the experience of coming out as gay, as bi, as trans, as whatever, is not a singular incident. Coming out is constant—in so many spaces the default is straight, is cis. Every new group of people or new situation is a decision of if or how to signal to people who you are.



WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GAY?  SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY IT SIMPLY MEANS MEN OR WOMEN DESIRING TO HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH PEOPLE OF THE SAME SEX.  OTHERS WOULD SAY IT IS MEN AND WOMEN DESIRING TO HAVE A ROMANTIC LASTING RELATINSHIP WITH PEOPLE OF THE SAME SEX.  WHAT DO YOU SAY?
Oh man, I usually defer to whatever an individual says. I’m not brave (arrogant?) enough to even venture a guess about how sexual and romantic attraction works for others. Hell, I don’t even know what they mean for me.
I’ll go as far as to say identity and behavior are different things. Someone who may not identify as gay may have sex with or be attracted to people of the same gender. Similarly, there’s a gay identity and culture that is almost entirely separate from the acts of sex and romance. Gay culture involves history that includes the AIDS crisis, the fight for marriage equality and shared experiences about coming out, self-discovery, (and) family, among other things.


And if someone has a story that’s different—or the same—as what I’ve proposed, I’d be out of my mind to suggest that they’re wrong. If anything, I’d ask them to tell me more.



WERE YOU REARED WITH A FAITH OR RELIGION?
My family was half-heartedly Buddhist. We had a family shrine in the house, but didn’t go to temple. I stopped identifying as Buddhist because I didn’t think it fair to claim something that I didn’t actively participate in. I recently asked my family about our religious beliefs and they just made an “ehhhh” sound and shrugged.

CAN YOU GO INTO DETAIL OF WHAT KIND OF POLITICAL EXPERIENCES YOU HAD AS A CHILD?
I’m actually an odd duck for thinking so much about politics. My family is inert most of the time. They keep up on the news but they’re also immigrants form the Vietnam War so they probably want to keep their investment in political manners to a minimum.
More than political activity, my family reads. A lot. We used to take garbage bags to the library to take home our haul. And when you read that many people’s stories—fact or fiction—it’s hard not to be empathetic toward other people’s lives.



REPUBLICAN POLITIANS AND MINISTERS TEND TO LEAN TOWARD CHRISTIANITY.  DO YOU HAVE A FAITH/DOGMA YOU LEAN TOWARD TODAY?
I’ve lived in the South for a few years now and have heard this question quite a bit. I usually mumble something along the lines of I do a lot of yoga.
It sounds like a cop out, but I did go through a spiritual crisis a couple of years ago. I went to different churches with my friends, but the only time I felt really at peace, like entirely silent, was when I did yoga.


YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF READING POETRY?
I don’t know about the first poem I read, but the first poem I interacted with in public was Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.”  (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172103) I’m not sure my tenth grade English class appreciated it much, but those of us who wanted to talk went back and forth a lot about if the tone was bitter about abuse or nostalgic for a rough-and-tumble father.



WHO ARE POET WRITERS THAT HAVE INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
I still feel like I’m a little baby when it comes to poetry, so almost every poem I read teaches me something. But in terms of who I’m stealing from most right now, I’d say Mark Halliday, Sabrina Orah Mark, Matthew Siegel (http://www.matthewsiegel.us), Jill McDonough (http://www.jillmcdonough.com), and Jeffrey Schomburg. I can’t stop re-reading Lilah Hegnauer’s (http://www.lilahhegnauer.com)
Pantry.



YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF WRITING POETRY?
In eighth grade, we had to write a mixed-genre book that included essays and poems. Early drafts of those poems involved me being a smart-ass with punctuation and spelling and how I placed things on the page—now that I think about it, I wish I could channel that little smart-ass more!


WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WERE A WRITER?
Oh man, I’m not even sure I would identify as one now. The identity seems to come with responsibilities and requirements that I’m not sure I can fulfill. I’d rather prefer to say that I just write.



WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS OF WRITING A POEM FROM THE MOMENT IT IS FIRST CONCEIVED IN YOUR BRAIN UNTIL FINAL FORM ON PAPER?
I don’t naturally think in images or lines. If I’m lucky, now and again I’ll stumble across something or maybe force it out through sheer effort. I usually then write a skeleton, a ‘practice poem’, around that and try to eventually replace bad lines with better ones. Or sometimes I rescue a good image or line from a sinking poem and place it elsewhere. Or sometimes everything drowns. I’ve finished maybe twenty poems in my life, and for every one of those poems there are dozens that are buried in my drafts folder.

HOW HAS WRITING NON-FICTION HELPED YOU BECOME A BETTER POET?
If anything, I think poetry has made me better at writing non-fiction. I’m an essayist in heart and mind and poetry has been essential in helping me consider how a piece of work operates word-by-word.



WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE AN MFA IN NON-FICTION VERSUS POETRY?
Honestly, I just think and organize in terms of essays and memoir. I love that poetry challenges the conventions of how we make associations and establish rules and relationships—essentially the opposite of what I want to do in essays—but I exist most naturally and comfortably in arguments and narratives.



WHAT NON-FICTION WRITERS HAVE INFLUENCED AS A POET THE MOST?
John Jeremiah Sullivan has the most beautiful and surprising closing lines I’ve ever read in nonfiction. I also source a lot from fiction: Rebecca Lee, Dave Eggers, Marquez—gorgeous, gorgeous writing.



YOUR WRITING CAREER AND YOUR MEDICAL CAREER SEEM TO CONNECT – YOU WRITE TO BENEFIT GAY RIGHTS AND YOU WANT TO PURSUE A MEDICAL CAREER TO BENEFIT LGBT INDIVIDUALS.  WHAT GOALS DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH FOR THE LGBT COMMUNITY IN THE MEDICAL FIELD?
Oh man, I just finished my first year of med school and the goal right now seems to be just to pass.


I think overall the dream is to give LGBT people access to comprehensive, competent, and sensitive care. Research shows that a lot of the health disparities that LGBT people face—increased rates of cancers, obesity, addiction, mental health problems—probably stem from not seeking or receiving healthcare because of discrimination or fear of discrimination.


On a smaller level, I’d love to work in a community clinic that recognized the need for public health outreaches to reduce these health disparities.
        
I LOVE THE TITLE AFFAIRS WITH MEN IN SUITS.   HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH IT?
It’s funny: I’ve co-opted every space in my apartment for shoes and blazers and sweaters, but Affairs With Men In Suits was the first time clothing—particularly masculine, political clothing—figured prominently in my writing. Sex was another theme of the collection, so the two just fell into place.

WHICH POEM FROM AFFAIRS WITH MEN IN SUITS DID YOU WRITE FIRST?
I was simultaneously new to and frustrated with poetry at that point—everything I wrote was awful and hollow. My first Larry Craig poems were a way for me to say, “Fuck you!” to poetry. Like, “I’m going to write what I want,” thinking that somehow poetry was telling me what was an acceptable topic.
Regardless of the quality of the product, it finally felt good to write poetry, so I continued.



WHICH POEM FROM AFFAIRS WITH MEN IN SUITS DID YOU WRITE LAST?
The last poem I wrote was “My Mother Asks How I Was Gay Before Sleeping with a Man.” Before that point, I had stuck pretty closely to the theme or idea I had in mind—there’s that downfall of thinking too much about a project again! I wanted all my poems to be directly about Craig or Haggard or Foley, but the collection was too rigid, too one-note.
As an experiment, I thought about what would happen if I wrote tangentially or even opposite to the collection. With Affairs With Men In Suits, I wanted sexy, I wanted dark and so I thought, “What’s something I wouldn’t immediately want to associate with these things? Oh, my mom.”

DID YOU EVER ACTUALLY HAVE THESE FANTASIES WITH TED HAGGARD, LARRY CRAIG, AND/OR MARK FOLEY OR ARE THEY STRICTLY POETIC FORMS OF EXPRESSION?
It’s hard to say anymore. I’m the kind of guy who falls in love with most people he meets and nearly everyone he works closely with. The number of Valentines I write every year is ludicrous.



WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU FIRST HEARD OF THE SCANDALS SURROUNDING TED HAGGARD, LARRY CRAIG, AND MARK FOLEY?
I was a senior in college when I started to read about these scandals. I had been working with this LGBT student panel for four years—we went around to dorms and administrative offices to talk about our experiences as LGBT people in hopes of inspiring compassion and empathy. I suppose that primed me for being softer towards these men than the most of the media was being.





WHICH OF THESE POEMS IS THE MOST COMPELLING AND EMOTIONAL TO YOU AND WHY?
You would think the poems based on my own life, where I am the narrator of the poem. But I find that I’m a typical non-fiction writer—I’ll tell you anything you want about my life, probably stuff you don’t want to know at all.
The tough poems were the fictional poems I wrote about Ted Haggard. I imagined the boy of those poems having a relationship with Haggard that imploded because of his insecurities, which I based on my own. It’s easy to tell you the ‘shameful’ facts of my life; it’s harder for me to tell you why I feel ashamed about them.



I FELT THAT THE BOOK COULD BE TAKEN TWO WAYS:  CONDEMNING GAYS WHO INSISTS ON HIDING IN THE CLOSET OR CONDEMNING THE RELIGION AND POLITICAL ORGANIZATIONS THAT FORCE GAYS IN THE CLOSET?  WHAT DO YOU WANT READERS TO TAKE FROM THIS BOOK?
When the scandals first broke—and continued to break—I found myself trying to convince my friends, all LGBT activists as well, of how sad these men (Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, and Mark Foley) were, of how much sympathy I had for them. Guys, that could be us.
No one really believed me or paid much attention, so I tried to write these poems as a way to prove—at least show—that sympathy, that empathy. I of course don’t expect that I will succeed in convincing every reader, but I do hope that people start
to see that these men—and all of us—have many complicated motivations for what we do. This doesn’t absolve us of the consequences of our actions, but it’s a hard life out there.



WERE THESE POEMS WRITTEN AS INDIVIDUAL POEMS OR AS PART OF A COLLECITON?
A lot of my teachers told me to write without a project or idea in mind, like just see where the writing takes you before you build a track for yourself. I’d still agree with that because whenever I think I know where I’m going I have to make a turn somewhere else or flip around entirely or just stop the car and ask for directions. But I did have a collection in mind and I always have a series or project floating in my head. Whether or not that ends up being the final product, I find the structure of a project helps me revisit the writing when I’d rather give up.



HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE ALL THE POEMS IN THE BOOK?
I wrote and rewrote and dreamed about lines and concepts and narratives on and off for about four years. Come to think about it, it’s been the longest relationship of my life.


WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE IN GETTING THIS COLLECTION PUBLISHED?
As with all my writing, I got rejected a lot. A lot. There’s never (a) guarantee of finishing a piece of writing and on top of that there’s no guarantee that it will be published anywhere or that anyone will read it.


When I found Backbone Press (www.backbonepress.org), I had actually given up on submitting the book for a while. It was discouraging to feel like it didn’t belong anywhere and I just needed a break. But I just fell in love with Backbone’s mission and interests: the sociopolitical aspects of life figure prominently in our work, so I took a chance. I’m glad they took one on me, too.



*Eric Tran is currently a medical student at The University of North Carolina –Chapel Hill and holds an MFA in Non-Fiction from UNC Wilmington.  His work can be found in the Crab Orchard Review, Hobart, Indiana Review, Knockout Poetry, Redivider, Specter Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He can be found via the web at www.veryerictrain.com


Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photo 1
Eric Tran’s web logo photo.

Photo 2
Jacket cover of Affairs With Men In Suits.

Photo 4
Bjork performing in Vancouver in May 23, 2007
Attributed to Jhayne.
CCA2.0 Generic

Photo 5
Margaret attending the reading at Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Attributed to Vanwaffle
CCASA 3.0 Unported

Photo 6
Rainbow flag, LGBT symbol.
Attributed to Ludovic Bertron
CCBY 2.0

Photo 7
Eric Tran on May 25, 2014
Copyright granted by Eric Train.

Photo 9
Eric Tran’s library
Copyright granted by Eric Tran

Photo 10
Eric Tran doing Yoga on July 11, 2013.
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 11
Theodore Roethke in 1959.
Attributed to Imogen Cunningham
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 12
Matthew Seigel web logo photo.

Photo 13
Jacket cover of the Pantry by Lilah Hegnauer.

Photo 14
Excerpt of Eric Tran’s published piece Release The Panda Bear
July 16, 2013.

Photo 15
Eric Tran on February 16, 2010

Photo 16
John Jeremiah Sullivan at the National Book Critics Award.
Attributed to David Shankbone
Public Domain.

Photo 17
Dave Eggers at the 2007 Brooklyn Book Festival
Attributed to David Shankbone
CCASA3.0 Unported.

Photo 18
Eric Tran receiving his medical coal for medical school
October 9, 2013.
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 19
Eric Tran and friend Margot at the Weird Bay Area Feminist and Queers Becoming Doctors
September 21, 2013
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 21
Eric Tran on July 25, 2010
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 23
Eric Tran in May of 2014.

Photo 24
Ted Haggard on the cover of The Advocat

Photo 25
Larry Craig's official portrait
Public Domain

Photo 26
Mark Foley's 109th Congress Photo
Public Domain

Photo 27
Jade Benoit, Eric Tran, and Mathew Lewis on April 14, 2013
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 28
Eric Tran
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 29
Copies of Affairs With Men In Suits and the Index
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 30
Eric Tran on May 26, 2014
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Photo 31
Web logo of Backbone Press. 

Photo 32
Eric Tran on April 13, 2014
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

Copies of Affairs With Men In Suits and the Index
Copyright granted by Eric Tran.

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