'Naked Poet' bares soul in intimate reading

Paul Clark
Gavin Dillard works on some poetry on the porch on his home in Black Mountain on a recent drizzly morning

Gavin Dillard won’t be reading naked. But he may read works he wrote when he was known as “The Naked Poet.”

The Black Mountain resident and author of seven books of homoerotic poetry will read from his new book of poetry, “Graybeard Abbey,” as well as from other works during “Metaphors, Mumblings & Music,” his performance Saturday, July 8 at the Masonic Temple theater in Asheville. Vocalists scheduled to perform in the Asheville Lyric Opera’s production of “The Elixer of Love” at Diana Wortham Theatre July 14 and 16 will also appear at Dillard’s event July 8, singing lyrics he wrote for “BARK! The Musical” (music by David Francis), a show that debuted in Los Angeles in 2004 and became the then-third longest running show in the city’s history. The July 8 event is free, “but checks and credit cards will be welcome,” the event press release states.

“I wish we had another month to put this together. It’s all happening fast,” Dillard said last week. “It’s going to be an evening of readings, songs, my emceeing and some laughs. I mean, I am a comedy writer.”

How Dillard, who has written for Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and Peggy Lee, ended up in Black Mountain is a long, circuitous route that began with his birth in Asheville. He went to high school at the N.C. School of the Arts. There, his English teacher saw such promise in Dillard’s poetry that he showed it to Jonathan Williams, a Black Mountain College poet who became renowned for using the language of Western North Carolina mountaineers – so called “found language” - in his work.

Soon Dillard, a callow 17-year-old, was being flown to New York City so that a publisher could put together his first book of poetry. “It was quite a ride,” he said. “I’m hanging out with (Allen) Ginsberg and the beatnik, hippiedom literary sorts. It was a lot of fun. It would have been more fun if I had not been a creeped-out North Carolina boy. A lot of stuff intimidated me. At 17, you think you know everything. There were a lot of things I should have listened to that I didn’t.”

A prolific gardener growing tea in his tiny farm in Black Mountain, Gavin Dillard is a man of many interests.

But things were moving fast. He was spending a lot of time with Dolly Parton, he said, even writing comedy for her. But he wasted that experience too, he said. “I was always going to write a song for her, but I was really cavalier with her. If I had one song with Dolly Parton, that would have changed my life.”

Not that it was going badly. In his early 20s and a student at the California Institute of the Arts, he was hanging out in Hollywood and meeting people. “I was enthralled,” he said. “I was meeting all kinds of stars – wrong place, right time. I met (comedian) Lily Tomlin and (novelist) Christopher Isherwood within the first month – I just knew that they were the best things in the world.”

He was living in the apartment that once quartered Clark Gable’s maid. His neighbor, Betty Davis, use to wave from her wheelchair when he was outside in his garden in his underwear.

“I couldn’t see any reason to go back to North Carolina,” Dillard said. “I fit right into Hollywood because I was so nonplussed.  I never really worked it. Maybe that was my salvation; many people who got into it got into a lot of trouble.”

Dillard lived a pretty fast and, by some measures, glamorous life that his natural reticence protected him from. “All of it worked out,” he said. Hollywood for him was “everything Hollywood was supposed to have been,” he said. “I had all these great people advising me, and I didn’t take anyone’s advice. It’s just embarrassing to look back at how arrogant and ignorant I was, at times.”

He did OK when he listened to his own muse, however. He started a performance art club in Los Angeles - “a very classy restaurant, nice, posh salon-like venue,” he said – that succeeded quite well, more than he wanted it to because he doesn’t like noise. One night he was performing, reading his poetry, and the crowd was loud.

“And so I took my clothes off and everyone shut up and listened to everything I had to say,” he said. “My vulnerability hushed everyone. It brought them into my humanity. Housewives from the Valley came up afterward and said they’d never been so moved. I decided that’s the way to read poetry.”

And so he got the name “The Naked Poet.” (He won’t be reading naked in Asheville, he said.)

Things were definitely happening for him. He was living in Maui when someone he’d done some writing for called him to fix the lyrics to songs in a musical that was under production. The more he fixed, the more the producers came to like his version and dislike the original. He ended up writing about half the lyrics, but the name of the play – “BARK!” – was his idea, he said. With music by David Troy Francis of Asheville, the musical ran for two years in Los Angeles and has been produced internationally, as well as by Asheville Community Theatre.

Maui was his home for 12 years, and he still loves it. But it never felt like home. Same with California. When his mother in Asheville got sick, he came back to help her move into an assisted living community. He came back again when she died. Each trip he made to see her, he was impressed with what Asheville had become.

“It had everything that I wanted, except winter, which I don’t want,” he said. Much as he liked Asheville, he didn’t want to be in it. So he looked for property in surrounding towns, eventually finding a three-acre piece of property in Black Mountain that cost a tenth of what it would have cost in Maui, he said.

“Medical in Asheville is as good as any in the country. So it’s just a great place to be an old poet,” he said.

Now he raising three chickens, a couple of bunnies and seven cats in Black Mountain. He’s growing tea too, four or five cultivars of Sochi from which he creates a white tea. He doesn’t expect it to be a commercial crop, not on his richly landscaped, colorful “gentleman’s farm,” as he calls it. But it is “totally delicious,” he said. “Very light, very high octane.”

Dillard has donated many of his papers to the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the San Francisco Public Library. He also created The Gavin Dillard Poetry Library & Archive, a nonprofit organization that promotes poetry. As part of that, the Black Mountain Poetry Collective (find it on Facebook) will meet 6-7:30 p.m. the second Sunday of each month on the patio of Roots & Fruits Market in Black Mountain.

Gavin Dillard will be signing his books at Chifferobe in Black Mountain from 5-7 p.m. July 7. 

Allegorically speaking

What: “Metaphors, Mumblings & Music” by Gavin Dillard

When: 7 p.m. July 8

Where: Masonic Temple theater

Cost: Free, but books for sale