Friday, May 1, 2009

On Jason Schneiderman, Time, and Self-Pity

Highly conceptual and totally entertaining, Jason Schneiderman's debut book Sublimation Point fascinated me so much that I find myself frustrated that I haven't been able to read his next."Jerk, get your act together," I want to say Jason, "I need a new book."

Instead I find myself combing the web, searching for his latest work. One of my favorite "new" poems, "Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sex Object (Age 19)", impresses me in the way he uses narrative (autobiographical or not) as a vehicle to address a larger issue. (I found it a bit ago in the David Trinidad Edition #2 of Mi POesias.) Lesser gay poets share the uninspired, idiosyncratic details of their lives in order to charm us with their victimization.

During my undergraduate years, I was one those students who teachers would scold for confusing the narrator and the author of the poem. I internalized that need for distinction and scolded my own students for committing the same crime I once did. That is, until recently. We were reading this "Self-Portrait", and I kept on calling the narrator by the author's name. My students happily pointed our that I was making the same mistake I demanded them to avoid at all costs.

I snapped at them: "I don't care."

That's the kind of teacher I've become: My three most repeated sentence are, "I don't care," "Shut up," and my new favorite, "That's dumb." Next year I'm up for tenure.

"This is the deal," I said. (I also feel that no matter what my students say, I have to have the last word.)

This was the deal: if they loved the poem, and only if they loved it, could they confuse the narrator with the author all they wanted. Sometimes I need to believe the author is spontaneously sharing his soul with me; as a result of this intimacy, I need to call him by name. (Soul is also another word I have banned from the classroom, and now find myself injecting into the conversation all the time.)

I honestly feel you sometimes its in one's best interest to confused the two. Isn't the ultimate compliment to the poet is that you want, maybe even need to believe he's talking directly to you. That you so fully want to enter his imaginative world that you want to imagine it too. Isn't that one of the amazing things literature can do?

"But," they said, "our other teachers would mark off for that."

"So?" I said, "They're dumb."

(I remember going to a Lynn Emmanuel's poetry reading. She opened by telling us how stupid people are for thinking her writing was autobiographical. One woman came up to her after a reading and asked what the fictional lover Raul in a series of her poems looked like. Emmanuel said she wanted to laugh at the woman's face for not realizing most art is made up. I wanted to slap Emmanuel, and say, you are a nasty woman.)

Here's Jason's poem that I need to believe is autobiographical, and when I read it, I need to believe that I'm the only one he's shared it with:

Self-Portrait of The Artist as a Young Sex Object (Age 19)

It was a nice body, slender,
not as flexible as you might
have hoped, fun for a few hours,
but nothing you would want
to keep or hold onto. The bodies
of young men are like
furniture from Ikea,
clean lines, smooth surfaces,
but no real promise
of longevity or staying power
and mine was no different,
and I knew that, which was
why I wanted the bodies
of older men, their skin
mapping out the place
I would go, their touch
the promise of living
into that country of age that
seemed so far away that
I thought might never get there.
One man would tell me
nothing, except to confirm
that he was older than
my father, and this was
on the subway, the morning
after we had lain down
on his bed under a painting
of him that had been done
when he was still a model,
decades ago. He liked
my body because it reminded
him of the one he had lost.
And it comforted him,
because his had been
so much prettier.

I love the way that Schneiderman deals with the dark comic consequences of Time and lust. In this poem, Jason, offers us now in the present day, as an older gay man, a reflection about what he reflected about when he was 19, seducing older men. (What do I mean by "older"? Who knows in Gay Time? I feel like I can qualify for Senior Citizen discounts and I just turned 24, that is, after my 3oth birthday last month.)

When Jason was 19, he was attracted to older men, less for their sex appeal, or even their eagerness for sex. What yielded lustful attraction for Jason was the pathos in his knowledge that Time took away from their looks. And the fact that these older men themselves were aware of their loss. Time is not necessarily kind when it effects the attractiveness for gay men. (This gives me a sense of happiness when I see what will happen to the beautiful poets in my Facebook account.)

This older Jason also presumes that they pitied him for not being stunningly attractive. Or at least not as attractive as they once were. Jason imagines retrospectively that they both kept a secret from one another: the old men are growing old, and Jason's youth doesn't make him into a beautiful. These undisclosed facts perversely yield their attractions.

Pity as aphrodisiac. Or even intercourse itself . Is there anything sexier than a pity fuck? At least when you're not sure who's pitying who.

Self-pity fuels this whole dramatic monologue. (There's a potential desperation in the title alone; it implies that the poem is about someone who "used to be" a sex object, and now who know what?) I see the monologue as the ultimate masturbatory poetic genre. Your primary interest is getting yourself off. You don't finish until your "done," have closure Everyone else's needs, words are unimportant.

When we masturbate, Time gets messed up. We need to imagine something that happened (or might happen, or we might want to happen) in order to be happy, satisfied. We leave the moment (through our imagining) to have fun. At the same time, we're completely within the moment, within our bodies. Also to have a release. Masturbation's play with Time becomes an annoying, even if accurate, paradox.

Jason no doubt knows this. In the genre of the intergenerational gay poem he offers the most genius anti-climax: "He liked/my body because it reminded/him of the one he lost./And it had comforted him,/ because his had been/so much prettier."

One final note: Let's say you believe in Roland Barthes' claims that photographs contains studium ("meaning that are nameable" "given cultural meaning that we know at once") and punctum ("a personal memory based not on the public archive but a private repertoire", "stings the viewer...some detail, some accident in the photograph.") The punctum is what gives the photograph power. I think this is analogous to a poem.

The punctum is often what we say when we declare, "This poem touched me." It's the mystery of the poem.

The studium of the poem is easily nameable: the psychosexual dynamic of relationships between older and younger gay men; the description of bodies, feelings of pity etc.

The punctum?


For me, the bizarre antiseptic quality of the name, the furniture our family could never afford, etc. punctures me.

With the uncanny proper noun of Ikea unexpectedly appearing, this near perfect poem is even closer on its way to becoming a queer classic.


  1. I think for me, I cannot separate the narrator from the author because I can never be anything but the narrator in my own work.
    I find that when I write poetry, I can never write from a perspective that is not clearly my own. I often wonder if this fact is what separates my writing from the art that I wish it was.
    I think that because the narrator in my writing can never be anyone but me, I have trouble making the narrator in others writing anything but the writer him or herself. It's a tough distinction to make sometimes...And sometimes I wonder WHY write something as personal as poetry if you are not going to write it from your own personal perspective. At least that's how I justify my lack of the artistic ability to separate myself from my own narrators.

  2. I think it's unfair of anyone to assume that the narrator is the writer. First off, it limits the reader's perspective on the piece, especially if he is very familiar with the poet. It's also impossible for any writer, no matter how talented he is, to completely capture his "self" in a poem, so it's just an inaccurate interpretation. A poem might share similar aspects of the writer, but it is not completely defined by him, nor should it be.

  3. Hi Brandi,

    Totally: why write it if its not from your perspective? Why bother? Isn't even a persona poem a way of even getting closer to the Real You? Through a personal lie that this isn't about you or someone else? But allows you to Discover yourself through thinking you're committing a "generous" act, reanimating someone on the page out of the best of intentions.

    A Mystery,

    I don't get what you're saying. If you're very familiar with the poet in real life, then I'd expect you'd be thinking, O Shit, this is why he wrote it.

    No matter how unrational it may be, I believe that the Soul of The Writer is contained in every word he chooses as he writes and perhaps rewrites...