Friday, May 29, 2009

What the Father (Mark Doty) and Son (James Allen Hall) Co-Win of the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry Means to the Gay Male Community

James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy and Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire were co-winners of the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry.

This choice is symptomatic of the gay community’s refusal to challenge Mark Doty’s stronghold on queer poetry. How predictable that teacher (father) and student (son) triumphed together, championing the power of plain-spoken, direct narrative with some wit, but little or no actual humor. These poems are aware of their importance and refuse to jeopardize that.

These qualities are not necessarily a bad thing. However, they should be duly noted.

This post is not in any way meant to be a critique of their work. In earlier posts, I’ve offered that, much to gay male disapproval. I cannot tell you my surprise at the number of emails I receive from gay poets who compliment me on my “courage.” Although they agree with me, they would never voice their criticisms in public; there’s too much to lose, as they say to me.

I understand this and respect their decision. I’ve only current entered a psychic space that allows me this freedom. This is not in any way to say I'm more mature. Not at all. I mean simply that I've entered a psychic space that allows me this freedom. And ultimately there is too much to lose. Money and awards and grants and fellowships and residencies and conferences and teaching jobs all hang in the balance.

At the same time, many mother others have told me I’m “crazy” and need to keep my mouth shut. Doty is a good man and teacher; why pick on him? “He’s a better poet than you,” they say, “You’re just jealous.”

Of course, I’m jealous. I see myself a martyr. I'm jealous of everyone; I suffer the most.

But that doesn’t mean that I fail to objectively assess a situation.

And I don’t doubt Mark Doty’s a better poet than me. But again, that shouldn’t be any reason to take away my critical agency.

However, when someone is as powerful as Doty, we must offer more than an automatic acceptance of his work, as most gay poets do. If resistance is not conveyed, the gay poetry community is a twisted, useless mirage. Which it might very well be. But I’m an idealist.

In terms of anthologies and canonization, we need to help make these decisions. The Lambda Literary Awards are one of these ways.

A number of queer poets rival Doty. Let’s name a few: David Trinidad, Rane Arroyo, Henri Cole, D.A. Powell etc. etc. In future posts, I will look at these poets’ work and insert a reason as to why Doty eclipses theirs in terms of prestige. It shouldn’t be hard for anyone to infer. But I like saying the obvious. It suits me.

Queer poetry criticism is dull, even if the poets aren’t. So, so few regularly say what they think, anything worthwhile. I applaud Jason Schneiderman for writing probably the best contemporary reviews and pieces about queer writers. His work is invaluable, and deserves as much recognition as possible. Check out the on-line magazine coldfront for some briefer examples of well-balanced, thoughtful wriitng. They’re almost always more exciting than the poems under consideration.

As Doty has admitted in his blog, three of the five nominees were his students. The influence shows. Most similar to Doty would be Barot: both are invested in poems that intertwine a dual narrative, carefulness of language (a bit more fastidious in Barot’s case for good and bad), pointed allusions to high art, definite closures, obsession with the words desire and memory (used an infinite number of times in their work), etc. etc.

Hall is livelier. He’s willing to puncture his melodrama with comedy, adding nuance to the potentially oppressive seriousness.

But all of Doty’s students are essentially writing a very similar poem to that of their teacher’s. All of their poems rarely refuse to question their own importance. Domestic abuse, family strife, conflicted relationships surface most regularly as the subject matter. Only Brown truly experiments with syntax, the music of words. His poems do though like the others contain a piousness.

(And I offer this distinction as the truth. Not as an attempt for him to reconsider ignoring my friend request on Facebook. I’m a sensitive person, Jericho.)

Spicer’s too nutty to have won the award. If he was living, I doubt he would have even been a finalist. (As in the case of Trinidad.) But now we can acknowledge the silly old queen (which I do mean the best sense of the phrase). Spicer is dead. He hung out with some names we’ve heard of. He can’t win, but we can give him a nod.

Really none of the nominated poets except for Spicer do anything risky formally. No Tom Savage. No Chris Schmidt.

In all seriousness, you can liken the Lambda Awards to that of the Oscars nominations. With movies like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, you’d be a fool not to identify their artistic and historical significance. But they are simply great movies, nothing truly ambitious in terms of content and/or form. So what if Lee can realize the obvious homosexual subtext in the cowboy movie? Or that Van Sant can adroitly recreate what the Oscar-winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk already did to much better effect?

I hate to use the word self-esteem for anything other than a joke. But I'm going to use it here with a straight face. Gay men have begun to see each other in the same way a lot of straight people see them: as pets. If we obey our the rules set out by our gay father, he’ll pat our foreheads, and maybe if we’re really good, he’ll accidentally make the Freudian slip of calling us Arden and Beau. One poet is even ripping off the names of Doty’s dogs! (Calm down, Charles. It’s a joke. If you liked Glee, you can take it.)

I would like to add here I am not against awards. Or contests. Or hierarchies. Or literary fathers. Or inheritances. Or awarding your friends (who else are you going to honor, your enemies?) But let’s have some surprises.

I thought gay people were supposed to be fun. Why do we always do the same thing. Randall, did you need to write another paean to Mark Doty? Couldn’t you have chosen someone more aligned with your poet project? Someone like Dennis Cooper or Essex Hemphill? I seriously bet you a bottle of wine, Randall, you’ll get your nomination. With or without the love letter. (And yes, Poet with a Day Job, this may prove your charming thesis in more than one way!)

As of now, there’s no doubt that Doty is the Father of Gay Poetry and his much-touted sons inherit his riches. This isn’t to say they’re not deserved. But you can trace the line of inheritance.

And that should give us need to pause and reflect.

I dare any gay male poet to say otherwise. I dare any poet-gay or straight- to comment on this blog.

In these awards, cultural diversity is crucial. (One could read that Doty’s popularity and near shut-out of Rane Arroyo’s almost equally prolific output is partly a result of our Father’s whiteness.)

But so is aesthetic diversity. I can see understand someone saying that Doty, Barot, Hall, and to a slightly lesser extent Brown are doing vastly different things.

But that would mean they don’t know much about poetry. Most of the poems are straight forward narrative, accessible and direct. There are many, many other options.

Straight people look to us for our recommendations of gay poets. We’re essentially recommending the same one.

In the future, we need to think about honoring someone from a different lineage. A lot of gay men feel displaced by their families. They need to make new ones, as it is always said. If we begin to choose different fathers, the rewards will carry more meaning.

A new father might be able to find new loves, and our family history may be even more fun to trace than the genealogy completed by that which gay men truly love: the Mormon church.


  1. One year of one award does not confer a sense of gay poetry currently being written to audiences outside gay men. One year and its nominees for the Lambda are but one snapshot, not a painting or a collection of paintings. Your logic here is flawed and burdened by your obsession with Mark Doty. And speaking of piousness, your hyperbole above daring anyone to say anything counter to your assesment is every bit a kind of piousness. Mark Doty and James Hall won the Lambda last night. They didn't win the Publisher's Triangle Award. They didn't monopolize other awards. They won this one. It is an honor, but it is not the end all and be all of gay poetry.

    Carl Phillips, Mark Bibbins, Luis Cernuda, Richard Siken, are all poets who have won the Lambda in recent years. Are you seriously trying to tell me that they are all "sons" of Mark Doty? Well, are you?

    Criticism and discussion are necessary things, but when 70% of your posts mention Mark Doty, it really raises the question of your objectivity. I am not Mark Doty's student. I have only met him in person once. I do not consider him the Father of Gay Poetry, nor do I resent him the way you do. Okay, I will qualify that, the way your repeated posting about him makes you appear to resent him.

    People attack William Logan as being irrelevant because when a critic writes the same things over and over in predictable fashion, they do not surprise us and make themselves irrelevant. You are in the same boat here. You write about Doty so much you have already become predictable, and you are dangerously close to becoming irrelevant as a consequence.

  2. Hi C. Dale,

    I appreciate your criticism; I'll offer it to myself as a challenge. I'll give you my word: I won't mention him at all, even his name, even indirectly until Jan. 1, 2010. I mean this in all seriousness. Your authenticity is valued, as always.

  3. How annoying to be told that "Straight people look to us for our recommendations of gay poets." As a "straight people" (a heterosexual male to be more exact), your assertion here is overly-sentimental and simplified. And I say this as a writer who incorporates emotion into his critical and creative work quite often.

    I'm not trying to champion some kind of diversity award, just point out that you're assertion bugs the hell out a thinking person and really is detrimental to the gay community. You may want to be a martyr or voice of the gay community, but please stop throwing out such wrongly-attached duties to your cause.

    Within your argument can be found the same kind of dichotomously narrow thinking you wish to rebel against. Try not to treat communities (even if they are majority by numbers and history) as if they are simpletons. And by this I mean, stop being a drama king and assuming that straight people can't find poetry written by gays that doesn't involve a homosexual intermediary.

    There are plenty of intelligent people that seek out gay poetry not for it being gay poetry but for its humanistic qualities. In fact, they don't even look for gay or straight or black or white or male or female poetry...they just look for work that bites them in the ass and won't let go of their soul.

    I've had gay poet friends who have had gay poets referenced to them by straights, too, you know. So it's quite annoying to see such an oversimplification of your fears. And such an oversimplification of any kind of poetry.

    The fear you should have is that anyone starts rudely defining gay poetry to be a fad, a fashion, and have such taut rules of what a gay person can write about. Doty seems to go beyond issues of his sexuality, whereas a writer like David Trinidad is firmly rooted in his orientation and in femininity.

    As a fan of both, both are a necessity for the larger poetry world to understand (paralleling African-American issues) that a writer must not, but can be by artistic divinity, be cornered into writing a certain kind of poetry based on one facet of their self.

  4. Steve, I can totally take your ribbing. LOL. In my defense, though, you have no idea how long it took to a) find a man named Beau and b) then convince him to be my boyfriend.

    I don't know if I'd call Mark Doty powerful. I definitely call him influential. I think the majority of queer poets in our generation (and the next) would credit him as an influence, and justly so. That he may also be a good teacher who draws talented students to his program is also not necessarily due to power, but probably to influence.

    But I wouldn't say that any student of Doty's--or any queer poet influenced by him--is influenced only by him. About which I'm sure you'd agree.

    I do think that one of the struggles inherent for me as a queer writer is the amalgamation of many diverse "queer" identities into a mainstream, dominant-culture friendly "queer"ness.

    We can't even circle our own wagons as a community, and when we try, we shoot inward. It's because queer isn't a unifying identity as much as it used to be, although I wish I felt it were. The experience of white upwardly-mobile gay people is very different from that of other gay people.

  5. I couldn't keep typing in that comment box, so my last thoughts is/were that that's why Hall's and Brown's work is an important step forward, because they merge queer identities with issues of race and class.

  6. Hi Anonymous and Charles,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. This is why I wrote my blog.

    This is just to you Anonymous:

    1.) I'm most interested in your comment about Trinidad. You use the phrase "firmly rooted in his orientation in femininity." Even more than nouns and verbs, I think prepositions are more revealing, esp that "in" here, as opposed to, say, "beyond."


    It's always good to hear from you! I still love the comment some posts back about writing "inside" grief as opposed to outside it.

    You say, "an important step forward" in regard to Hall and Brown. I think they are both doing work that's attempting to critique and offer insights into race relations. I'd have to think about how radical their poems are in terms of if they make a "step forward" or if they're admirably making the steps that have been made that much more visible. Which of course is a good thing, great even, but not necessarily a step forward. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    P.S. I bet it took me longer to find a boyfriend with the boring name of Phil. Who once I tricked into dating me, still threatens to leave me because he's a animal-rights activist and I insist on eating duck. So there. :)

  7. Whether or not Hall and Brown are doing things that are a "step forward" is probably an oversimplification on my part, and reveals my own blindspots on other poets who are also exploring issues of complex identities in their own work...I'm not meaning to say they're innovators, per se, or that they're unique among their generation, but I do think they are part of something, or writing in response to something.

    Perhaps that because our queer poetry forebearers did the tough work of writing about being gay that now we are tasked with writing about being gay and ____, or being gay despite being ____, or etc.?

  8. Charles,

    I'm the one with the blind spots! My partner Phil scolded me after he saw my comments to your post on Glee. "You're annoying," he said, "You complain about everything. Lighten up on these posts."

    I love that phrase "part of something"-perfect way of saying it. And that is totally true. And I think that something is good. And I'm excited to see where they go. I'll be buying their books.

    Do post on your blog when you're book is available. I'm so excited to read it. I'm trying to do your Matthew Shepard poem justice. These posts take me forever to do. I don't know how you've kept everything up all this time.

    I have to write so much to get something decent.