If someone was making a movie of Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s life, Jared Leto would fall all over himself to land the lead role: An Asheville-born artist and writer (Dillard grew up on Sunset Mountain) leaves North Carolina for the bright lights of 1970s Los Angeles. He immerses himself in the excitement and excess of that city, rooming with Paul Reubens (pre-Pee-wee Herman) before leaving college to pursue poetry, work in the porn industry, date high-profile Hollywood personalities and befriend the likes of Dolly Parton and Orson Scott Card.
Dillard, whose life’s work is anthologized in the forthcoming The Mortal Poems (the first half-century), is also a talented lyricist and photographer, though he’s perhaps most (in)famous as The Naked Poet. That title was bestowed by the Los Angeles Times for a series of readings Dillard gave, in the buff, at his own literary salon. “The first time was due to the size and the clamor of the crowd — my nakedness humbled and silenced the room,” he says. “They listened. After that it became a metaphor for truth and simplicity.” And while his upcoming performance at White Horse Black Mountain, titled “Nocturnal Omissions: An Evening of Poetry and Song,” will most likely be clothed, Dillard continues to emphasize vulnerability in his creative work.
“I’m like crazy athletes I know: I tend to do whatever scares me most,” he says. “An artist should never hold back — that’s going against God and spirit. … Nothing I have ever done has embarrassed me, other than the times that I held back or said ‘no’ out of fear or some social or religious justification. And yes, I have angered and offended people.” Some of those people wielded significant power, such as two high-profile lovers he outed in an early version of his 1998 memoir, In the Flesh. Due to pressure from those entertainment industry moguls, the book’s publication was delayed for five years; eventually In the Flesh was released with names changed.
For the most part, though, Dillard (who describes his time at the North Carolina School of the Arts as his salvation) has had little trouble getting his words into print. His first collection, Twenty Nineteen Poems, was published by Catalyst Press when he was 20 and a student of Black Mountain College poet Jonathan Williams. Dillard went on to write or co-author seven more books of homoerotic poetry and publish two anthologies of gay poetry. His own notes and letters are housed in the San Francisco Public Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center archives. “I am dreadful at organizational duties. I figured, why not let someone else do it?” he jokes about donating that body of work. Dillard says he’d love to have an archive at Pack Memorial Library, too, “But I just don’t think they’d get it.”
Then again, the poet finds this area much evolved from the town he left as a young man in search of adventure. During visits to care for his ailing mother, he realized that Asheville was “amazing — way beyond San Francisco and LA, which were so obviously over.” And after decades of living in such far-flung locales as San Francisco, Seattle, Yosemite and Maui while pursuing various art forms (he’s written comedy for Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin and others, co-wrote BARK! The Musical and penned lyrics for OMFG!!! — an iLove Story), Dillard moved back to Western North Carolina.
These days, Dillard lives on a small farm where he raises tea, chestnuts, chickens and cats. He’s also become increasingly involved with classical art songs. “Composers are taking my poetry and setting it — legitimate composers rarely use lyrics anymore but want free verse,” he says. For When Adonis Calls, producer/director John de los Santos of The Dallas Opera constructed a libretto out of Dillard’s older and newer work, creating what Dillard calls a “conversation between an old poet and a younger muse.” He adds, “It’s a two-voice, two-dancer, five-musician ensemble opera that will start workshopping in New York in January or February. An opera company in San Francisco already wants to premiere it.”
Meanwhile, art continues to be an adventure for Dillard. “The poetry never stops,” he says. “To be truly awake is to be truly spontaneous.”
WHAT: Nocturnal Omissions: An Evening of Poetry and Song, featuring Gavin Geoffrey Dillard with Roberto Flores, baritone
WHERE: White Horse, whitehorseblackmountain.com
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. $15 advance/$20 at the door