Poetically Speaking:
Franklin Abbott takes a stab at mortal love

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

Franklin Abbott is a longtime Atlanta poet, author, psychotherapist and activist in the gay spirituality movement.

His fourth book, Mortal Love was published in January by RFD Press. It is a volume of his own poetry and a departure from his other books. Those have been anthologies of writing on men. The last of his anthologies, Boyhood: Growing Up Male, was recently released in a second edition by the University of Wisconsin Press. It is a remarkable collection of pieces about boyhood around the world.

Following are excerpts of my recent conversation with Abbott.

I suppose we should say at the outset that this isn't a gay book, really, but it is informed by things that are especially close to the experience of being gay.

Yes, that's true. I suppose the fact that I am gay and have been an activist will make the book appealing to gay people. But I hope that my career of 20 years as a psychotherapist and my long interest in spirituality make the poems attractive to anyone interested in spirituality and psychology. I also hope it will strike a chord with people who might realize how much gay people have to teach our society.

Tell me about the title, Mortal Love.

It's about loving within the boundaries of time and space, which we, as mortals, have to do. If you listen to pop music, you get the idea that love lasts forever but that, of course, is an illusion. We love within time and space and gravity. I think I, and many of my contemporaries, have unusual perspectives on this subject. Because of our experience of AIDS, we have come at relatively young ages to experience all those psychological states normally associated with old people, as they come to face their mortality. But gay men have maintained their physical vitality, their passion, amid the experience of so much loss. Think of what that does to consciousness and one's understanding of what it means to love.

Yes, exactly. And in my opinion we have an obligation to inform younger gay men and the culture generally about this. Isn't one of the underlying messages here about the virtue of grief? It seems to me that our capacity to grieve is what makes us particularly human and the extent to which we are able to grieve and remain open-hearted is the extent to which any of us can be said to be evolved.

I agree entirely. The book opens with lines from Mary Oliver: "To live in this world you must do three things: to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends upon it, and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Now, it does seem to me that younger gay men, who have been spared the horror of the worst of the AIDS epidemic, aren't too open to hearing about this.

Well, you know young men have to assume a certain amount of immortality to make their way in the world. They simply have not had to deal with the loss and disruption older gay men have and I would not wish them the experience of the horrible things you and I saw. And I would also say that, as I say in one of the pieces in my book, I often feel battle fatigued. Many of us just don't have the heart and energy to speak about what it's been like to live in such unending grief.

But you do that in your book. I mean, that is one of the virtues of poetry and the arts - to bring alive an experience for the other.

Yes, that's part of my effort, to bring this alive at the heart level. As far as young and older gay men go, though, I think there has always been a lot of tension between the two groups, a lot of it sexual. Older gay men don't have children, so they don't have an embodied way of measuring time the way heterosexuals do. It's a difficult situation. In an ideal world older and younger gay men could sit down and talk to one another, particularly about grief, but it just doesn't happen.

And I think gay men could teach the entire culture a lot about the meaning, the healing, that arises from grieving…I'm curious: Are you a poet or a therapist first?

Well I began writing poetry in my early twenties. It was a way of expressing romantic feelings toward other men when I quite literally could not get them out of my mouth. I'm a Southerner, raised in a nice white middle class Alabama family. You just didn't give voice to these feelings back then, but poetry was a way for me to speak them.

I think that's partly how poetry, all of the arts, heal. By rendering something in a language of metaphor, we're able to approach it. Sometimes what is too painful to be viewed directly can be approached indirectly through metaphor.

Yes, absolutely. Giving the unspoken form by writing or some other art makes the internal external….

And that way we can work with it with some distance and perspective….

Right, and of course, we also learn to language what has been inarticulate. This is essential to healing. Therapy after all is a language art.

And so many of the movements of the last 50 years - the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the peace movement - have been about finding language for new ideas.

Part 2

Last week you mentioned that you began writing poetry in your twenties in order to give expression to feelings you couldn't speak aloud. I wonder if you use poetry in your work as a therapist.

Not directly, for the most part. I do keep photocopies of poems around and now and then I'll hand one to a client but I don't have the kind of mind that remembers and quotes poetry every time an issue comes up. Mainly I think the relationship between therapy and psychotherapy has to do with the way of speaking and hearing. Therapy is healing with words.

How does that work?

Part of what I tune into in poetry is its power to induce trance and invoke spiritual energies. This has always been magical for me. Good therapy likewise involves a certain amount of being entranced. Both people - therapist and client - move into a deeper space mainly through the use of words and we know that this process is healing…You can even learn to listen musically, noting where a story has harmony and where it doesn't.

But do you think the writing of poetry itself is healing?

I know it is for me. When I feel the need to write a poem about something, it means I am needing to go to a deeper level. And when I complete the poem, it is a prescription. I don't mean that the poem states something explicitly. It comes from too deep a level for that. So I have to read it over and over. I know that something is being made apparent in this process. You could call this the completion of a gestalt and it's the same for any art.

I wonder if you've thought about the similarity between dreams and poems.

Yes, my book deals with that a lot. Dreams are liquid poetry. Poems congeal images, while dreams, if you start playing with them, constantly change. They never congeal, really.

But doesn't that happen when you read poetry? The mind begins playing with the images and there is a continual movement…

Yes, if the poem is fully alive, that's true. In fact, if you read the poem over time, the meanings change. A poem rarely has only one thing to say. But as a piece of written material, the poem does describe the way things congealed at a particular moment. The dream, as a raw experience, doesn't do that exactly.

Okay, I've got you. Another way of putting it is that the image reveals its meaning, its prescription, when it comes to rest. It may be difficult to see into the prescription, but fundamentally, because the image is congealed at that moment, there is a meaning in it wanting to be revealed.


Poetry has an odd standing in the world right now. It seems both unappreciated and very appreciated.

Yes, you can't make any money from it - that's why I became a therapist partly - and, because of the kind of world we live in, people with great talent have ignored poetry to write novels or do anything else. As a result, poetry has fallen into the hands of academics who write very dense, intensely analytical poetry as if 15 professors with very sharp knives were looking over their shoulders. So, the work they do is very cryptic, far beyond the common reader's knowledge. It's almost as if they are making it as confusing as they can.

And at the same time, poetry slams are a very popular entertainment.

There's no doubt that the poetry slam is a revitalization of the spoken word. But I think it's unfortunate that it's a competition and, as a result, it promotes poetry that has to be shouted. There are other forms of poetry, meditative types, that simply don't fit the slam…But at least they are getting read more. It's amazing that the most popular poet of our time is Rumi, a mystic from the time Columbus discovered America. This is profound, heart-oriented poetry that is sophisticated enough to be really interesting.

My own work is sometimes called psychopoetics. I try to engage directly with the poetic imagination in people. Lots of us are working with creativity now, but I've noticed a down side to this. It can also produce an inflation. People with respectable jobs suddenly think they should be able to become poets or billionaire decoupage artists or some such…

I think that when people become more creative - in cooking, in writing, in reading, in what ever they choose - they sort of come to their own level. For me, the point is developing your heart connection. I mean, you can be extremely proficient in something - be a fabulous musician - and still produce soulless stuff if it doesn't have heart, authenticity. That's the problem with making creative expression a competition. In our world, if you don't get the gold medal, it means you should quit. Well, that's ridiculous.

Do you think gay men are inherently more creative, poetic?

I am aware that people like Will Roscoe build a good case for that, but I'm not sure. There's a fascinating argument that in nonwestern cultures gender-variant people have special spiritual roles and, as such, are more prone to healing speech. I do know that if you blindfolded me and put me in a room full of men, I'd be able to pick out the gay men on the basis of what I heard. Gay men tend to have music in their voices and certain patterns of speech, so it's something to think about.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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