The poetry of Alex Dimitrov stays in the present. It’s the essence of contemporary. A living voice, an urbane voice, overstimulated and sweet and stylish and aware. To say it’s talkative is only to highlight the point, and point to its tradition, which is very old, older than the New York poets who embodied it, James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara and others: it’s as old as the intimate cutting voice of Catullus or the troubadours of Galicia. New York is not so much the subject of Dimitrov’s work—particularly true in his latest collection, Love and Other Poems—so much as its raison d’être. Even a poem like “New York,” a catalog of places in New York the speaker has cried in, is a love poem to “the best city to cry in.” Dimitrov’s voice is casual, open aesthete, open-hearted in a way that doesn’t forgo acid worldliness. No one could call his lines naïve, and yet they record—almost can’t help themselves—moments of awe, happiness, painful clarity, or, the beauty of true feeling, up or down. In that sense, Dimitrov is a first-class artist of the art of feeling, of giving a mood a shape in language. And here is a poet who understands the stakes of that, infuses his art with that understanding, whose art-for-art’s-sake is built not on an evasion or denial of the harsh everyday politics of the world, but in a rebuke to its dominion over things, a revenge on it, a claiming of what’s vibrant in the moments of our lives. And it’s a claiming, I want to say a claimency, designed to implicitly answer the ugliness of things with a record of charm. Listen to the voice of it in a poem called “May”:
What can I tell you?
I’m a young man in Central Park.
A cherry blossom falls in my hair
like small cruelty.
I listen to a couple speak Dutch
knowing as little about them
as I do of my past.
Why go home at all?
Or this, from “More”:
How again after months there is awe.
The most personal moment of the day
appears unannounced. People wear leather.
People refuse to die. There are strangers
who look like they could know your name.
And the smell of a bar on a cold night,
or the sound of traffic as it follows you home.
Sirens. Parties …
Dimitrov doesn’t write from memory. His typical tense is the present. The formal shapes of his poems aim to seem unaffected, spontaneous, neither underworked nor overworked—he writes in verse paragraphs more so than stanzas. Dimitrov was born in a distant country and grew up in the distances of the Midwest, but he writes of New York and New York only, which is to say he writes about the America of America, a place ravaged by the catastrophe of money and a place where you can dream of being your own invention.
JESSE NATHAN: You’ve mentioned that you write single poems, rather than books—poem by poem, rather than larger conceptions or sequences. Curious about why that is, and about your process more generally.
ALEX DIMITROV: As soon as I said that on the phone with you, I changed my mind. Or rather, I realized both were true. Do I contradict myself? You know what line comes after that, of course … since we talked about how important Whitman is to me (and Ginsberg, and that big American spirit).
My creative brain is very conceptually oriented. My poem “Love,” which is a list of all the things I love about the world, is endless. I add a line to it each day on Twitter (I’m also doing this with a poem called “Loneliness”). When I had the idea for writing it, that “endless” concept came to me and was the catalyst for both the poem and the entire book it ended up being part of. I wanted to write a book about looking at the world. About being alive in the world and in New York and also being alive in time, through the seasons and the months and the joy and despair of it all.
Writing the single poem often leads me to concepts. I have a drug poem in every book (except for the first one). In Together and by Ourselves it’s “Cocaine,” in Love and Other Poems it’s “LSD,” and in this next one it’s “Ketamine,” but it also might be “Ecstasy.” I’m not sure! I’ve written both. I’m fairly certain I’m going to have a drug poem in every book that follows.
Conceptually that interests me, like say a crown of sonnets might interest someone. The same thing happened with my character study poems (and this time starting with the first book). “James Franco,” is the poem in Begging for It, “Lindsay Lohan,” in the second book, “River Phoenix” in this last one. Maybe “Alex Dimitrov” will be next, or “Jesse Nathan.”
But yes, in both of these cases, endless poem or character study poem, I have been led to a concept I’d like to explore over time and through many books. Obviously, I’m thinking of Warhol and am indebted to Warhol, as much as Whitman. Not that contemporary poetry has ever found me legible (or maybe they have and are pretending), so I always have to sort of reveal my references. Which is boring, but at this point I’m like, you know they’re not going to catch on unless you say it.
I don’t like the phrase “project” or “concept” too much, because I do think a lot of the work that gets labeled that way lacks heart. And I don’t think my work lacks heart. I hope not. If it does, what the fuck am I doing… but I’m not too worried.
On the other hand, “Poem Written in a Cab” is another poem born out of concept, or probably guilt. I was taking too many cabs and I was also broke and felt like I couldn’t rationalize it. So I decided to work during the cab rides. And write as much as I could, in my phone’s Notes app. The rule was that I could write and edit only during the cab rides. Which was challenging because I was often drunk or drained or sad or… you know, all the things you are in New York on a regular basis. So that poem took me two years, if not a little more. I think from September 2017 to August 2019. But then I took some additional cab rides after August 2019 too. In order to get some more edits in. Once I find a concept that interests me, I’m committed to it.
I’ve been going back and forth between New York and Miami a lot this past year, for various reasons, one of them being that a prose project I’m working on takes place there. So I was thinking that I should write “Poem Written on a Plane.” The same way I’m also writing “Loneliness,” after “Love.” That’s the new endless poem. So these concepts extend into how I see my work as a whole, as a poet. My subject matter and my form are born out of my aesthetic obsessions. And I’m probably also not very legible to contemporary poetry because everything out there has been so tied to biography, in terms of what’s in vogue. Well, you’re not going to get the biography poems from me. I’m not that interested in Alex Dimitrov. I’m interested in the imagination. I’m interested in the poem and the art form itself.