“Security Deposit” by AE Hines is the winning poem for the 2022 Love & Eros Prize, selected by Carl Phillips. We’re honored to share this visceral poem as well as an interview with AE about his work.
“Sometimes a large part of a poem’s success is situation, deployed in a minimal number of spare strokes. That’s the case here–I also love the tension between the shock of the situation and the casualness with which it’s delivered. The turn from narrative mode to the lyric transformation of the final sentence is an especially rewarding surprise.” —Carl Phillips, guest judge
Long ago, before breakfast
my first roommate in California
pulled his stiff prick from his boxers
and asked me to kiss it, as casually
as one might offer a guest a warm cup
of tea or a second pillow—a small request
of the twenty-one-year-old stray
he’d taken in without a security deposit.
Afterward, he said it would be easier,
living together, old and young, having cut
that tension — the sex, he said, now
out of the way. He dressed for work,
and I stood at his window in nothing
but his boxers, watching him leave. I remember
the previous night’s rain still dripping
from his eaves, the Crape Myrtles huddled
along his street nudging themselves
into color, as willing as I was to bloom.
Interview with AE Hines
by AT Hincapie
AT Hincapie: Your poem, “Security Deposit,” is the winner of Palette Poetry’s Love and Eros Prize, a contest that includes a wide range for how poets interpret this theme–and your work here seems particularly inspired by the physical body and the outward expressions of “Eros.” Does this suggest that a casual encounter might force someone to separate themselves from the emotional experience, as the Crape Myrtles separate the speaker from the street outside? Is it possible to remain open to the kind of intimacy that might someday accompany “Love and…?”
AE Hines: For me, the trees just beginning to bloom also represent the “I” in the poem, that particular version of myself at the time, as a young queer man desperate to step into adulthood, and be free to experience and express himself fully. That self-expression includes the freedom to explore the body and one’s sexuality. In this regard, if there is emotional separation in the poem, I believe it resides in the speaker in relation to himself. He is trying to force himself into “bloom” as it were, which in my case, seemed impossible at that time given my repressive evangelical upbringing in the rural south, and an ingrained self-hatred due to my sexual orientation. California represented the opposite of all that and presented an opportunity to reinvent myself. As for the question of intimacy, and when it accompanies true love, this poem is less concerned with that. Does the “I” in this poem long for true love? Of course he does. But that’s a different poem! Here, instead, “Security Deposit” seems to inscribe a moment when the speaker discovers that sex can indeed be transactional, and that in this too, there can be freedom.
ATH: The title of this poem makes note of the practical requirements for renting a place to live, and yet this phrasing can also be taken as a bit of a play on the notion of “security” or even “insecurity.” How might this physical transaction between these two people potentially offer a kind of security for the speaker, even if it comes at a personal price?
AEH: Yes, this poem is all about insecurity, and the title definitely a play on words, which hopefully conveys multiple meanings. There’s the reference to a literal “security deposit,” of course, and how this financial transaction represents, at a very basic level, what it means to be an adult, out on one’s own. There’s also the comparison of that to the transactional nature of the sex between these two people. And then there’s the speaker, who in seeking to overcome his own deep insecurities, and step into himself completely, comes to see sex as an expression of his autonomy, of his “blooming,” even though it has been demanded – “nudged” – by the older, more successful adult. Whatever the personal cost of the encounter to the speaker, he does seem to realize through this event, for better or worse, that being sexually desirable conveys a certain power and security. But this is just another beginning for him. The end of the poem wants to acknowledge this, with the image of the trees which are almost – but not fully – in bloom. This first shimmer, this glimpse of spring, if you will, is only a first step for the speaker in his development of genuine self-regard.
ATH: This poem demonstrates the often-unspoken trauma of coercion, as the speaker acknowledges an inherent dominance and a notable age difference between the two parties living together. How might this imbalance of power influence their decisions, and what might this suggest about the ways that people build relationships with others?
AEH: This is a question we could talk about for a very long time. While I completely acknowledge the pain and unspoken trauma from coercion, and have personally experienced and written about this in the past, I find the dynamic portrayed between these two adults more subtle, and not (at least not overtly) exploitative. Yes, there is an age difference between these two men, and therefore a power dynamic exists where the older man has some advantage over the younger. I do think I unconsciously wrote this poem, initially, from a place of not knowing how I felt about this encounter, asking if there had been some unfair coercion on the part of the roommate. In so doing, I recognize the risk of re-traumatizing some readers who might interpret the poem in this way. In the end, I realized such a reading of the poem is just as valid as any other. Each of us comes with unique subjectivities, and will frame what we read based on our own experience. In my case, I hope I did a reasonable job of clarifying the emotional stakes for the speaker, using closing gestures and images that portray the speaker as “willing.” In fact, that gesture, that willingness, seemed to me the most significant discovery in writing this poem, and in the end, the reason I believe it exists.
At that time in my life, I recall the prison-like feeling of having lived with male college roommates, and before that, being surrounded by straight adolescent males in high school, in constant fear that my natural impulses might give me away. It would have been easy in college to have been kicked out of a living situation, or worse, faced physical harm – and I did have experiences where I faced such harm. So, it was very different to suddenly be out of the closet, out of the south, and living with another gay man. This was quite novel. The rules, suddenly, unwritten. Consider also, that this older man represented in several ways what the younger man longed to become. Confident. Successful. In touch and comfortable with his sexuality. So, in the end, I hope this poem is less about the coercive nature of that encounter, and more about the speaker’s self-discovery – even though I recognize both of these things are present in the situation.
ATH: In addition to the physical bodies present throughout the poem, “Security Deposit” also meditates on the interactions between natural and domestic spaces, especially the Crape Myrtles “nudging themselves into color, as willing as I was to bloom.” From a landscaping perspective, these plants are often used to create makeshift privacy barriers between neighboring homes, and I wonder–how might this act of “blooming” allow both the plant and the speaker to grow beyond the confines of their respective gardens?
AEH: Those Crape Myrtles seemed literally everywhere on the streets of midtown Sacramento back then – I suppose they still are – and I felt that their presence in the poem conveyed something slightly different, but perhaps similar to your interpretation, in that they were not native, but transplanted, like so much else and so many of us, to California. And they are placed intentionally into the landscape to frame and enclose domestic spaces, as you mention. They arrive, after the fact, so to speak–which is how I felt then. I, too, had just re-planted myself in California, and was in the very early throes of making a different kind of life–one with more freedom and self-acceptance–which was very different from what I had witnessed growing up. Interestingly, the image of the Crape Myrtles came to me very early in the drafting process of the poem. (I can still see them so clearly.) But, it took me a long time to work out the ending, to figure out why that image was important. It was only when I realized that the speaker in the poem was no victim, and in fact was willing to do whatever was required – to “bloom,” to grow up, to experiment his way into that better life–that the poem found its proper close.
ATH: You also have published a collection of poems entitled Any Dumb Animal, (Main Street Rag, 2021). How might the work from this previous collection be related to your newer writing? What themes or patterns do you find yourself returning to, and/or what newer ideas in your writing have you become interested in exploring since this book’s publication?
AEH: Any Dumb Animal was written over the course of six or seven years, as I was first finding my way as a poet, and where I leaned very heavily on autobiography for the content of my poems. It explores growing up in the rural south, coming out in the 80s and 90s at the height of the AIDS crisis, and then jumps forward in time to marriage, the adoption and raising of my son, my eventual divorce, and even later to my re-marriage to my current husband. It seems to explore my relationships with all the significant men in my life – my father, my son, my first and current husband – and how these relationships influenced the person I’ve become.
Thematically, in that book, as in my recent work, there is a tendency to focus on the body, both as the vehicle for our consciousness and experience, but also as a source of personal freedom and pleasure, a form of self-expression. Like in the book, I remain suspicious of religious orthodoxy, and continue to write poems that rub abrasively against the religiosity of my youth. Perhaps, not unrelated, I tend to be obsessed with betrayal – how our bodies, people, organizations, our own sense of self can fail us. How we’re failing the planet, and in turn, future generations. Now in middle age, I find myself also writing more elegy, being at the uppermost edge of that downhill slope where we begin to lose people. I can’t help but contemplate my own mortality, and look back with some wonder at life when I was younger. I suppose this informs a great deal of my poetry at the moment. All of this to say: I am hard at work assembling my next collection, which attempts to collage and braid together these various themes.