Dale Boyer: novelist and poet on his writing

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Sunday November 20, 2022
Share this Post:
author Dale Boyer
author Dale Boyer

In the small gay world of Chicago's literary scene, I first encountered writer Dale Boyer via his involvement in the gay writers' group New Town Writers in the early 1990s. By the time he joined NTW, I had left the group and started my own.

However, our paths crossed regularly at various literary functions. Since those early years, Dale has published a few poetry collections, a novel, a book of short stories, and a children's book. All of this in addition to being the Director of Conflicts and Records for a mid-size law firm in Chicago's Loop. Dale was generous enough to make time for an interview regarding his new book, "Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems" (Oh Boy Books, 2022).

Gregg Shapiro: Dale, your new book "Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems" features a Mark Doty blurb and a Jorie Graham quote in the poem "The Walnut Room." Do you consider both poets to be influences? Who are some other influences?
Dale Boyer: Graham's work I was always aware of but am only now beginning to read. Mark Doty's work has always been an influence, as I think it has to have been for nearly every gay poet writing these days. He's not only an essential poet of the gay experience but also one of the great poets of the twentieth century, period. Early on, I was greatly influenced by Wallace Stevens, and my work has always had this pull between the very terse (Stevens) and the very emotional (Doty). I also love Robert Hass, who found a kind of middle course, and I love Jean Valentine's statement that poems are essences. I've always been very drawn to the evocative, fragmentary bits, the ruins that conjure up the greatness that was Rome.

With whom did you study when you received your MFA at Vermont College?
Mark Doty, Mark Cox, and Leslie Ullman; great poets and excellent teachers, all. Vermont College has a low-residency format for their MFA. You spend less time on campus, but you get a great deal more individualized attention. It was the perfect solution for me.

You write both fiction and poetry. Do you have a preference for one or the other?
I like them both. Early on, I thought I had to call myself a poet, or a novelist, or whatever. Now, I'm happy to just call myself a writer. I've also done a screenplay and a play. I think they all inform your work.

You live in Chicago, a city known for its vibrant poetry scene. Have you been active in it? Done a poetry slam?
Early on I was. Indeed, that's where I first met you, via New Town Writers. The pandemic put many readings on hold, though I think some are coming back. I've also participated in some virtual readings and even virtual book clubs, which actually went very well.

Why was now the right time to put out a selected poems collection?
It just felt right. I think the pandemic created a lot of room for contemplation, and when I looked at my work, I started to see that it had a certain shape. There was always the Columbus imagery in the early poems; that theme of exploring new worlds of sexuality and coming out. Then, I began to see that my middle work was heavily involved with exploring religion and what I still believed. And, after the death of our parents (my partner and I lost all four of our parents in the space of five years), there was that theme of exploring a world without them, a world of loss. So, the Columbus theme seemed like a good way to frame all of them.

What was involved in the process of selecting poems for the book?
Just literally putting all of them in the center of the room and beginning to sort. The early manuscript was much longer, and then I began to see that certain poems still didn't fit, some were duplicative. Then, I had a few people read and offer advice.

Poems from the first section of the book are about coming out and coming into your own as a gay man. Do you have a favorite poem from that section, one that you think is most representative of who you were at that time?
I started the book with the very first poem I wrote at Vermont, in a class exercise with Mark Doty. It used Marianne Moore's poem "The Steeple-Jack" as a starting point for exploring a physical setting or a feeling, and I flashed on an experience I'd had as an intern in Washington, D.C in college, where I witnessed a man speaking to his son in Spanish. It became a dialogue with my own father about being gay, and ultimately set up the theme of exploration for a great deal of the rest of my work.

Your husband Scot O'Hara is also a writer. Did you seek his input when putting this book together?
Absolutely! Scot is not only a great writer ("Tarantella") but a great editor as well. In fact, he's given me the final edit of everything I've ever written. I trust his judgment implicitly.

Do you share work with each other when you're creating?
Pretty much only after we feel like we're done. I like to think we're good editors of each other's work, but it has to be pretty well along before we show it to each other.

You've also been writing book reviews. What do you like best about that?
I love feeling like I have a voice in the conversation. Being in the Midwest, it often seems as though we're outside of the literary world on either coast. I often think the gay experience in the heartland is overlooked as well, which is partly why, with my novel ("The Dandelion Cloud"), and my short stories and children's book ("Thornton Stories," "Justin and the Magic Stone"), I attempted to give a voice to the gay experience of the whole middle section of the country that is often not represented.

Is there a recent book you reviewed that you'd like to recommend?
I didn't actually review it, but I recently read an older book by Neal Bartlett called "Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall," which I was absolutely flabbergasted by. It wasn't on my radar at all, but I actually think it may be the great gay novel of the older generation (meaning, most of the twentieth century!). It's funny, elegiac, lyrical, archetypal, metaphorical, and extremely moving. I've also encountered works like "Bitter Eden" by South African writer Tatamkhulu Afrika, and "Radio" by Tonu Onnepalu, from Estonia. These are dazzling, really important works I might never have discovered except for the fact that I was reviewing them. That's what I enjoy about reviewing so much: it really puts you in touch with your community.


Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.