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.