“You have to be a bit deranged if you’re going to pick poetry and hope to reach a lot of people. It’s like picking Latin as a language to communicate,” says poet Shane Rhodes.
His modesty belittles the situation he’s in: I’m interviewing him because, at 33, he’s one of the youngest poets included in Seminal, the first definitive collection of gay men’s poetry written by Canadians. His third full-length book, The Bindery, has just been released by one of poetry’s most reputable publishing houses, NeWest, and the day after our conversation, he’s set to fly to Alberta for part one of his whirlwind tour promoting the new book. Not exactly a whirlwind, actually.
“It’s more of a dust devil,” says Rhodes in his characteristically mild manner.
The poet is bright, articulate and — I’m going to go ahead and say it — handsome. In Ottawa’s poetry community, his reputation withstands comparison to any poet his age. He’s also bisexual, making him one of only a handful of Ottawa writers with a reputation who is queer. And he’s not afraid to build work that expresses that side of him.
“When I take a look at poets, what I really admire are writers that place sexuality in a larger context — that answers to the complexities of personalities,” he says.
He’s got a lot of raw material to pour into his work: historical, geographical and sexual. He’s in a long-term relationship with a woman; before that, with a Hispanic man. In his professional life, he’s was an HIV/AIDS worker in Alberta before becoming a policy maker for Public Health here in Ottawa. His work often takes him abroad — including long stints in India and Latin America.
Taking a year’s leave and a $10,000 Canada Council grant, Rhodes headed to Mexico, producing work for both Tango Sed and The Bindery. Following the philosophy of William S Burroughs — namely that First World dollars last longer in Mexico than further north — he used the time to write poetry and improve his Spanish.
“There wasn’t any mescaline or anything like that. There wasn’t even much tequila involved,” he says.
All of which paints a picture of a rather diminutive personality, which certainly isn’t the whole story. Readers are struck, first, by his unburdened approach to sexuality.
“I think back to when we met. Our bodies were / younger then and sex moved through our cells / like the heat from an acid etch. It still brings me / to my knees,” begins His Hands Were Hounds Over Me, a 2002 sonnet included in Seminal.
In fact, he avoids the gay writer’s twin traps. On the one hand, he avoids heavily coding his sexual references to make them more ‘acceptable’ to straight audiences; on the other, he doesn’t let his explicitness hamper his poetic craft. Rhodes’s obvious love of words and images coexist with his sexual energies, creating work that can be praised on either count.
In an extended meditation on condoms (Fucking, 2002), he calls them “what stops us from going to far / into each other” and earlier “My hands covered with lube and bed lint / scrambled for it as if it were, just then, / the very edge of both of our lives.”
His new book, The Bindery, will be launched at the suitably modest Manx Pub on Elgin in April. Admission is free.