Randall Mann’s poems are often set within the landscape of Florida or California. Influenced by Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Donald Justice, Mann’s poetry – at once vulnerable, unflinching, and brave in its ambivalence – explores themes of loss, attraction, brutality, and expectation. Of his preference for working in form, Mann says, “Form helps me approach more comfortably the personal, helps me harden argument.”
Mann is the author of three collections of poetry: Straight Razor (2013), Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), and Complaint in the Garden (2004), which won the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry. He is co-author of the textbook Writing Poems (2007). David Baker, poetry editor and judge for the Kenyon Review Prize, wrote that Mann “re-creates the landscape and flora of the Caribbean and Florida with great precision, its saw palmettos and egrets, its ‘feathery-leafed locusts’ and ‘punctual monsoons.’ He follows, in other words, a long line of observers from Donald Justice back through William Bartram to Ponce de León and Cabeza de Vaca.”
His work often reflects the stark contrasts of life in San Francisco: the beauty of the surrounding landscape set against the city’s serious and seemingly unsolvable social problems: widespread homelessness, random acts of violence, and the spread of meth use, particularly within parts of the gay community. Stretches of Market Street are very different than, say, the relative tranquility found in the Marina District. How does one reconcile these extremes? “The pink neon/bakery sign, Sweet Inspiration, //a mockery of loneliness/but no one cares to eat, we souls/of this hour jacked up on what–/ever” he says in ‘Early Morning on Market Street.’ ‘Bernal Hill’ echoes a sentiment that runs through many of his poems: “Something has to give.” What will that something be and when?
This chaos is explored in ‘N,’ which begins dream-like and gently: the city’s skies seen from the window of a light-rail car (“the gray of outer Sunset portending/the gray of inner Sunset”), glimpses of people with their dogs in the park (“the happiness of dogs!”), but ends tragically: a man found mutilated in a public restroom, likely the victim of a sex crime. Yet “the world continues” despite this loss. It’s this “going on” despite everything, this tension of opposites, that Mann seeks to make sense of.
Though Mann’s poems often have a sobering quality, they are frequently playful, even bawdy and celebratory. One such poem is ‘Halston,’ a glitzy portrayal of the famous designer:
At Bergorf’s he acquired an accent and referred
to himself in the third person, every bird he flayed
wrapped in Ultrasuede. He lit a True with a True,
smeared his hirsute muse with sequins. There were air-
kisses, Capote’s new-cut face at Studio 54, that Baccarat
flut of ejaculate.
Of Mann’s latest book, Publisher’s Weekly observed, “the sex is explicit, the meters traditional and taut, the poems compact, witty, yet ready for serious points, the physicality of the male body right up front.” In response to critics who have regarded the open portrayals of homosexuality in his work as radical, Mann responds, “if tenderness between two men is radical – and I suppose it is – then the shameful world needs a new radicalism.”
Complaint in the Garden, Zoo Press, Omaha, 2004
Breakfast with Thom Gunn, University of Chicago, Chicago, 2009
Straight Razor, Persea Books, New York, 2013
Writing Poems, 7th ed. Pearson Longman, White Plains, 2007
Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry, 2003
Academy of American Poets: 'The Illusion of Intimacy: Discovering John Ashbery'
Links PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Straight Razor’ read by Randall Mann PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘The Fall of 1992’ read by Randall Mann Academy of American Poets: ‘6 Poets, 6 Questions: Randall Mann in Conversation’ Compose: ‘Compose Q&A With Poet Randall Mann’ Publisher’s Weekly: ‘Straight Razor’