Friday, July 3, 2009

On Gay Poets Spencer Reese's, Richard Siken's, James Allen Hall's, and Miguel Murphy's Desire to Elasticize the Meaning of the Word Political

(Writer's Note: Some of the ideas were inspired by a conversation with Elizabeth Oinen.)

With the relative paucity of gay material in the New Yorker, Spencer Reese’s poem “The Long-Term Marriage” was a welcome relief. It appeared in the April 23 issue, published in the aftermath of Proposition 8. I enjoyed some of the sentiments of the poem, but ultimately wonder if they’re that useful politically. Here’s the poem:

At last she’s happy, reigning with her creams,
rubbing his scalp’s roof until it gleams.
As the squamous-cell carcinomas sprout,
the local dermatologist cuts them out

or frosts the lunar surface with liquid nitrogen.
The creams come from West Fourteenth Street, Manhattan,
FedExed from their adopted son’s boyfriend’s home,
a relationship that remains, to them, unknown.

Their Oriental rugs are steeped in piss
from the bulldog barking like an activist.
Bickering over misplaced books, the tchotchkes
lost, and how she re-remembers her stories,

they wait with an unfinished, finished look,
and note how honeysuckle crowns Old Saybrook
and thistles overrun their last garden.

The dash between their dates is nearly done.

From the first clause, the poem offers a darkly comic ambiguity: is she happy that her husband grows sicker and sicker or that she has the opportunity to help him conceal the visible aspects of his illness?

Throughout the poem, the less favorable aspects of middle-class marriage emerge: they have never taken the time to know details of their son’s life, including his gay lover. Even during this grave time, they “bicker” over material possessions, the useless tchotchkes. So bored with her husband, she perfunctorily “re-remembers” uninspired moments of their life together. The setting reflects the dismal nature of their marriage: “thistles overrun their last garden.” You could even claim that the flat-footed rhetoric (even if it’s present in a good amount of Reese’s work) contribute to the impersonal nature of their relationship. No one way could miss the use of the distant third person, further adding to that effect.

And that dog, possibly the only element in their house that resists, barking “like an activist.” But ultimately a faint echo in a room marked by a an all-pervasiveness deadness. That poor dog a substitute of a gay male presence. Perhaps the only lightness emerges from the honeysuckle crowning Old Saybrook. Or is even that image simply a continuation of the image established in the initial stanza. The honeysuckle may conceal the problems in the garden to a degree, but to what end? Same thing with those creams? Same thing with the perfunctory gestures the husband and wife offer one another in this desperate time?

The poem is efficient in satirizing a long-term marriage. Its theme is deployed with fine, mechanical skill. It's as predictable as most bad heterosexual unions.


Larger question looms: is this a useful political poem? Is it a political poem at all? With the paucity of gay-themed material in the magazine, why choose this gay-authored poem above others? Why can’t we have a poem that focuses on the son and his lover?

I would claim that this poem is not in any way political. For a poem to be political often it must identify clearly the historical incidents and/or people inspiring or depicted in the poem. A political poem must be aggressively explicit in its naming of the historical elements creating the world of the poem. Metaphor, obviously, can employed as a political tool, without the explicit naming, but one must be sure to ask why and to what effect. Reese’s benign satire offers a depiction of an anonymous middle-class marriage. It doesn’t offer a new take. It doesn’t do justice the privileged.

I have the sinking feeling that like a lot of gay poets, Reese wants his poem to outlast the moment; it aims for a timelessness. Which, ironically, makes the poem feel already dated.


Way too often gay poets elasticize the world “political” in a dangerous way. By claiming that all art can be political, as long as its good, they make the word void of useful meaning, It becomes a word related to aesthetics rather than politics. Take this current exchange between gay poets Richard Siken and James Allen Hall. Siken wrote Crush, one the my favorite debuts of the decade; James Allen Hall partly rejuvenated the mother-son domestic narrative. The exchange centers around Hall’s ahistorical domestic narratives about he and his mother:

JAH: Any story worth telling is valuable not because of the nature of its spectacle. When I began writing poems about my mother, and then began making the book, I was concerned with the question of spectacle: is it interesting because it is, at various turns, sordid and gossipy and heartbreaking and joyful? I asked not, “what concerns,” but why. I needed to enlarge beyond my mother’s story, or to understand her particularity as a stream birthed by a whole other river, and that river sourced by another, and on and on. I think I’m interested in this enlargement as an issue of empowerment. Maybe because people who resist their categories have been told they have no history, that their struggle is futile and incoherent precisely because, our teachers and theologians and lawmakers have said, there has never been a precedent for that struggle.

RS: Does this make you a political poet by default?

JAH: By default, yes. And by choice.

(This excerpt of the interview appeared in the University of Arizona Poetry Newsletter)

Richard Siken’s question eclipses James Allen Hall’s curious readings of his own poems.

What does “a political poet by default” mean? One could just accidentally inadvertently write a polemic? How can you truly choose to become a political poet by default? Is a formally inventive poem automatically a political one? Why can’t a poet be great and apolitical? Are we so insecure as gay poets that we feel the compulsion to name our work as political so we can justify the writing of our own poems? When we should be marching in rallies?


I do believe form can be political. But using deliberately inflated comic metaphor to describe your own mother cannot in any way be described as political, no matter how many bodies of water surround the domestic scene.

Siken’s question and Hall’s answer leave me confused.

My point: If you want to write about Mom and Dad, then go ahead and do it. But don’t claim they’re stand-ins for Father John McCain and Mother Sarah Palin. Unless, of course, you’re a Log Cabin Republican.


This is meant in no way to disparage Hall and Siken.

I am envious of their justified success and talent.

But their views reflect a disingenuous and a questionable way of needlessly elevating their art.

Being a gay writer does not necessarily make your poems political.

I believe in art as pleasure. I believe in beauty and magic.

But poets need to choose their words with care and definition. The political cannot simply be synonymous with the artistic.

I don’t know if Reece would call his satire of heterosexual marriage as political. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. This pattern of elasticizing the word political to mean whatever we want it to is dangerous. All three of these poets –Siken, Hall, and Reese- are hugely well-respected gay poets. We cannot simply let them off the hook.

Miguel Murphy is another poet I respect; his collection The Book of Rats intrigues me. He also is a smart editor, creating a politically viable issue of OCHO with the theme of gay marriage. (Full disclosure: I contributed.)

Look at an excerpt of his exceptionally well- written guest post which appeared on The Poetry Foundation of America website. I’m going to offer a fairly large quotation from the it. Here are the first two numbered sections:

Tonight I am a parade of love and anger.
For those of us who are gay, a sad, palpable irony accompanies, even ruins, the celebratory mood, the prayers of thanks and joy. On November 4, 2008, we accomplish a fulfillment of the civil rights movement, and yet on the same night we find that our relationships are marginalized, our desire to manifest our lives, our loves, and our families in the public realm has been very cleanly snuffed.
Tonight 18,000 gay couples are marching for their lives. Tonight, hundreds of years are walking arm in arm together parading the rim of some comic black abyss. Men and women who love one another with their bodies and with their intelligence, like you. Tonight they are marching. Together they are daring the absence to abolish them. They are crowding the darkness with the light of their private embraces. Tonight they are together, facing the public, their faces lit by starlight and police light and news camera, flashing their pleas and anger. They are facing the hypocrisy of our culture and government, refusing silence, determined, defiant, undefeated.
We carry our signs: we carry the singular river of our song, our voices lifted into a shout that echoes other revolutionary movements: Separate Is NOT Equal! Ban H8! Yes We Can! Sí Se Puede! Yes We Can!
Tonight I am marching with them.
I am taking you with me.

I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone. . .
When I first put out a call for Gay poets to submit to the upcoming February 2009 issue of OCHO magazine: DEAR AMERICA, DON’T BE MY VALENTINE, I received a surprising handful of negative or insulting messages. Some queer poets thought the point I was making silly, others were offended by the vulgarity of the call. In it, I appropriated the language of the illicit, the derogatory, to emphasize in a dramatic way the feeling that as gay men and women we have been demoralized by our political system that even as it courts our race and gender, illegitimates our pursuit to love.”

Imagine my surprise when I saw this comment on his blog Pistola:

“For me, all good poems are political in that they can be written into the ineffable they seek, and in this way I can read Celan, or Tsvetaeva, or Shakespeare, and feel like I've received something in this prison. Even if we write poems from our gay, single, immigrant migrant worker, 2nd generation American 21st century perspective”

Where did this dramatic shift in attitude come from? Why did Murphy, who created his issue out of a defiant political impulse change his tune? Why would such a smart politicized editor all of a sudden make a bizarre statement “all good poems are political?”

You can’t help but ask: what does that make the bad ones?


I think it may be important for me to (re)emphasize a few points:

1. A poem does not need to be political. Write whatever you want.
2. A homosexual who looks for political meaning does not make him incapable of enjoying apolitical entertainment.
3. A homosexual who looks for political meaning does not always feel compelled to do so. (Many of my posts simply deal with aesthetics.)
4. Beauty and magic, to me, are completely different. Beauty is something that can be described: sentence structure, pacing, music, etc. etc. Magic can’t be described. It’s the ineffable. In Camera Lucida, Barthes’ tries to describe this "magic" not with poetry, but with photographs. The book develops the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium referring to the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum referring to the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it. Maybe these two terms can be applied to a lyric or narrative poem.
5. A homosexual who looks for political meaning wants to be wounded as much as anyone else.


I know that Murphy, Siken, Hall all have an extraordinary appreciation for poems different than their own. But, at the same time, why translate the word political to merely the aesthetic. You admire the odd sincerity of their words; at the same time, considering the admirable merits of these three poets, you would think that their prose would be as precise as their poems. No one could deny this trio are galvanizing, important voices in the gay poetry community. Why aren’t they providing more precise definitions of the word political, especially in the current political climate.

Reese’s poem isn’t a challenging one. (I prefer the syntactical brilliance of e.e cummings “the cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls,” undoubtedly a huge influence on Reese here). This isn’t to say it doesn’t have its merits. At the same time, why is this the queer poem the New Yorker chooses to include? Is it more palatable for heterosexual readers.; in other words, it isn’t that political or that angry. It's well-tempered.

Weirdly, you could say that Reese’s poem romanticizes heterosexual marriage. No matter how bleak their marriage, they still have health care. They have the inalienable, legal right to sit at their spouse’s bedside, visit the doctors without awkwardness, lead a domestic life without outside restriction. Maybe Reese’s poem is the ultimate taunt to homosexuals. The joke’s on you, Reese could be saying, relationships always degenerate. But for you, you queer, you have less than nothing. You don’t even necessarily receive the bitter, comic punchline. Your dying lover may be taken away before you even have the chance to offer a crummy good-bye.


  1. In Defense of My Desire to Elasticize the Meaning of the Word Political,

    you'll have to visit my blog!

  2. Everyone,

    Do read Miguel Murphy's post. It appropriately shamed me. It's super smart and well-reasoned as opposed to my impulsive, seriously flawed original. Sometimes you have to admit you're wrong.