A photo of Thomas Holton.

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We noticed that “Florida” contains direct commentaries on that state’s crumbling public infrastructure and a specific demographic of people associated with Florida. How did the current socio-political climate in Florida impact your approach to this piece?

Thomas Holton: Florida is crazy right now. From the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that’s attacking LGBTQ youth, restrictive reproductive laws, book bans—it’s pretty dystopian. Because of how the state is set up culturally and economically, a lot of Floridians (or people who are retiring in Florida) don’t have to or want to concern themselves with any of that stuff. Florida is beautiful, so it’s a great place to exist in a bubble. 

This poem isn’t about any of those things in isolation; it more so tries to capture the frustration that comes from knowing that decisions are being made about your life by people who don’t understand or care about you, which I think most people there can relate to. 

RR: Your poem repeats several strong and distinct phrases, such as “big, red, ugly, alcohol faces.” What was your process for developing these images?

TH: When I was back home in Florida this past summer, I had a weird interaction with someone I know who has a big, red face. I feel scared of going into more detail, but that interaction really upset me for the rest of that trip. I felt myself reverting back into a younger version of myself, and not in an empowering way. Going home does that to me sometimes.

The “big, red, ugly alcohol face” image was one of the first things that came to me for this poem, as I was waiting in the Orlando airport. It felt childish and shameful in a way that reflected how I felt in that moment, I think. I’m not sure. I like how cartoonish it is. It feels like something that would be in your nightmares as a kid. Just a group of red faces, huddled together, almost like totem masks.

RR: The language in this poem moves it forward at a quick pace. How do you approach rhythm when you write?

TH: It’s all very instinctual, I think. I try to get out of my head as much as possible when writing. Most of the time, I start poems from a feeling that I can’t quite make sense of. The rhythm and structure of the poem usually come out as a natural byproduct of that feeling.

For this one, the feeling was quite urgent, which is why I think the poem moves so quickly. While editing, I also realized that the rhythm and overall vibe of the poem kind of feel like a monologue or a voice-over. I imagine it playing at the beginning of a crime thriller set in Florida. Maybe something like Miami Vice? (Idk, I’ve never seen Miami Vice.)

RR:You mention in your bio that you were born in Florida. Can you describe your feelings about your birth state?

TH: A version of this question has come up a fair amount in conversation since I’ve been in Chicago. Every time, I struggle to answer it. I’m not sure why. The first few times it came up, I remember feeling shocked that I had no answer. How could I live in a state for the first twenty-two years of my life and not know how I feel about it? 

I think a lot of my poems grapple with my feelings toward growing up in Florida, so hopefully I’ll have a better answer when I’m a better writer. Here’s the best I can do now, though: I love my friends and family who are still in Florida. I love Gainesville, where I went to college. I love visiting my friends in Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami. When I think of Florida, I think of those things, so I guess I love Florida. I have bad memories there too, but I don’t think that’s Florida’s fault.

RR: If you had to write a poem titled after another state, which would you choose? What parts of that state’s identity would it focus on?

TH: It would have to be Illinois since it’s the only state I’ve lived in besides Florida, but I feel like Sufjan Stevens already beat me to the punch with his Illinois album. 

I would have to write about Chicago—specifically, the vibrant and uplifting creative community that we have here. There are so many talented artists, writers, and creatives in Chicago who are just as invested in their peers’ success as they are their own. Being a small part of that ecosystem this past year has been a blessing.


Read “Florida” by Thomas Holton’s work in Issue 11.1: