It’s an event: Randall Mann’s work is now gathered in Deal: New and Selected, a volume of poems as rich as they are chiseled. Mann is a love poet, or at least a poet of lust—though maybe that’s a description of all poets—but Mann is also a writer whose passion is almost always shot through with an overt and bittersweet cynicism. A singer of shining knives. Praise and complaint go together, after all—epideixis is sometimes called praise-and-blame rhetoric—and the visceral, cutting quality of Mann’s poems goes hand in hand not only with his love for terse, rhyme-taut lines but also with what we might call his subject: “action: / transaction.” His first book was called Complaint in the Garden and his third, Straight Razor. On the other hand, the lover-as-poet is visible in the book some may know him best for, his second collection, Breakfast with Thom Gunn, or a more recent gathering, such as 2021’s A Better Life, whose cover is a ravishing matrix of thumbnails, glam shots of naked men’s faces in various expressions of come-hither. “Rhapsody,” for instance, is a poem in eleven parts, and it represents Mann’s line pared down to its tightest and shortest—and each part of the poem seems to use that quick stab of poetry almost as if to speak of the men on the cover:
I did. Both.
Mann loves twisting open a cliché, and he loves other tricks of language like puns and homonyms. There’s a poem in Breakfast with Thom Gunn that’s partly about Mark Strand, and it’s called “Stranded.” Puns become signs of delight in and at the stuff of language, a sensual delight. And this poet’s interest, in some ways, is always leaning toward that which might be embarrassing: the faux pas, the things polite hetero society might hide. His poems have a pulsing beauty, sometimes driving, sometimes graceful with the poised supple rigidity of a ballet dancer.
Athleticism runs through the poetry. And Mann’s work comes by that honestly. The poet grew up in Kentucky and Florida and his father is a biomechanical engineering expert who works with elite athletes and who was one himself. There’s a devastating account of Mann’s grandfather’s aborted baseball career—and life—in “Long Beach.” California, though, is where Mann has thrived: he left Florida around the time it turned “permanently red” and found his way to the still open-ended, less anxious, pre-iPhone San Francisco of the late 1990s. He’s been here ever since, and his descriptions and poems of the place—“Bernal Hill,” “The Sunset,” “Ganymede on Polk Street,” “Ocean Beach,” “The Lone Palm,” and so many more—are among the most important works of San Francisco poetry—poetry actually seeing the city—that I can think of. Here’s his brief line brought to bear in “The Lone Palm,” dedicated to a poet who also told the stories of the city, the late Kevin Killian; the poem begins by describing a certain bar in the Mission:
is it 1980s:
a deco dish
of golden fish;
by George Platt Lynes …
And the poem ends in a kind of elegy caught in the neverendingness of the AIDS pandemic, and the losses the gay community still feels, will always feel:
to the plague.
of the Eighties
on the mantel.
Keep it vague
If it were,
we would all
be at the Lone Palm …
JESSE NATHAN: I’d love to hear more about how you think of form, how forms emerge for you. Is it a messy process, your form-finding? Is there a relationship for you between sex—or other sensual pleasures—and form, or the formal work of poetry?
RANDALL MANN: I let the formal path declare itself as I draft a poem; I’m almost never sure how I might proceed when I sit down to write. (I don’t really have ideas, I have half-thoughts and images and snippets of conversation or quotation or whatever that I virtually shake out of my notebook.) Formalism as I see it has less to do with prescribed, patriarchal ways of approaching a poem and more to do with the freedom of choosing how best to allow my work to emerge.
I see the short line as a unit where syntax and inference are simultaneously held and withheld. What’s tacit is all the information that could have been said but—out of care, out of charity, out of listening to the truth of the words—remains necessarily unsaid; with these short lines, I hope the poems are turning back on themselves to get somewhere. I hope the tension, their claustrophobia, is exacerbated—and, perhaps, undermined—by irregular rhymes. In other words, an economy of movement, and the movement is a measure of thought. I think short lines offer an exactitude of compression and I see this architecture as a feature of accountability for the words chosen—one more way to qualify, which is to say distinguish, language.
I love rhyme so much; I can’t make heads or tails of a poem without it. Somehow, even though it’s ubiquitous in the broader culture, rhyme is something of an anathema in American poetry. Seems strange to me. Sound is a form of argument—the rhymes, for me, generate the content, thereby the subject, thereby the poem. It’s hard to imagine a poem of mine without this kind of music—and I think the short line allows the rhyme to cut into, and undercut, meaning. The rhyme is weaponized.
There’s a relationship between form and sexual content because, as in writing, as in life, form and content are the same. I often lay out my boundaries a bit like a poetry prompt. Omit: drugs and anonymous transaction (first names a must, last names optional). Include: small humanizing chat, status disclosure, kinks, and a negotiation of where to shoot our shot. Rigor is important in this sensual life, but so is forgetting the self. And pleasure. If it doesn’t give the hope pleasure, then why bother?