Monday, October 19, 2009

On Mary Oliver's Gay Activism

Is their anything more anticipated and inevitably dull than poets revealing their exasperation with the most recent volume in the Best American Poetry series?

How many times can a blogger promote themselves as a young rebel for claiming that a BAP editor choose the wrong best poems?

I’ve always thought of the Best American Poetry Series as pure fun; I always buy a copy in advance on It’s a giddy thrill to see someone like Ashberry or Gluck or Collins read whatever’s contemporary and offer their endorsements of not only particular poets, but also individual poems. The Best American Series isn’t any more rigged than the Pushcart Prizes.

Except that the Pushcart editors like to believe they’re all-inclusive and democratic when, over the years, they’ve essentially stopped looking for emerging writers. Every year they choose fewer and fewer writers from little-known or completely obscure lit magazines. The Pushcart Prizes ignores them for the same old favorites. After looking at a few of the more recent Pushcart volumes, you can see the writers included are the same ones edit the Best American Poetry series: Ashberry or Gluck or Collins.

So much for the little guy.

That’s global capitalism for you.


I mistook this year’s BAP editor David Wagoner as David Shapiro. I was excited. What a cool, unsurprising choice, I thought! It turned out the two aren’t the same, not even related.

Why didn’t David Lehman choose David Shapiro? It’s not like Wagoner is any more of a name than Shapiro. The only difference: Shapiro writes good poems.

I’m still trying to get over the disappointment. But that’s enough of that.

I’ll turn my energy to a more troublesome issue in a different annual: the 2009 Best American Essays Series, edited by Mary Oliver, whose sentimental editing may prove to be a contributing factor to the liberal refusal to wholly lambast Proposition 8.


There’s something unkind when a critic channels negative energy toward a young, unformed queer writer. At the same time, age shouldn’t necessarily be a factor in barricading necessary critique. If the writer’s old enough to publish his work, he should be ready to accept the flak as well as the praise.

Oliver choose a memoiristic piece entitled "First" by a writer - Ryan Van Meter- who I presume is young and gay. Out of all the pieces she’s read, she has claimed Van Meter’s essay “First” is one of the year’s best. The piece is really nothing more than a slight, mostly humorless piece about closeted gay adolescence. You can feel Van Meter attempting to give his essay gravitas through implicitly linking it to the necessity of gay marriage rights, but the political intent proves ultimately ineffectual.

In the essay, Van Meter and his best friend Ben enjoy covert expressions of their “love” for one another: “We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy-his and mine-to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us.”

Van Meter then makes the perfunctory (and completely annoying) gesture of acknowledging the unreliability of memory: “Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben.” This is the kind of move that too many non-fiction writers use these days. Either you remember it, or not. If you don’t, then write something your memory does claim.

Other than the roteness of the claim, Van Meter is surely lying. No way can you not remember then name your first crush. Unless the car where Van Meter expressed his love for another boy crashed and caused him serious neurological damage. Which is what I expected to happen after such an unbelievable claim. I'm all for reading an essay about a mentally challenged gay man. I thought Van Meter was going to position himself to become something like a young, queer Floyd Skloot.


But the essay doesn’t travel into that direction. Instead we move through familiar terrain.

Instead we receive a tepid replay of the young boys admitting their sweet, trite love for one another in the car. Van Meter asks Ben to marry him; Van Meter’s mother freaks a little; Van Meter humors his mother and acts docile. The essay closes with an aggressive banality: “No one speaks for the rest of the ride. We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road-the parents see what is ahead of us, while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.”

And what we, as readers, have left behind is an earnest meditation, a pre-coming out story. Obviously, Oliver’s attraction to the story was not a result of its strong writing or complicated psychological observations. She liked it for the simple reason that it deals with the issue of gay marriage in an unconfrontational way.

Van Meter made himself and Ben as sweet as a pair of dumb horned owls. How could the most boring nature poet, Oliver herself, not be in awe?


The Best American series are big sellers. You can buy them at the airports. Does there need to be any greater proof of their attraction to the average reader?

I would hope that someone as smart as Robert Atwan, the series editor, would realize the mixed blessing of choosing someone like Oliver. On one level, it’s a marketing decision: people recognize her name. On another, it delegitimizes the series: does anyone think Oliver is any more important to the essay than David Wagoner is to poetry?

Lehman should have chosen Oliver to edit this year’s BAP. She can be an odd bird. I love that years back she choose someone as unexpected as inspiredly wacky as Matthew Rohrer for the National Poetry Series. It was wild and different. It showed a side to Oliver that no one would have expected to see. That's what a smart critic does. That's why I've always had hope for Mary Oliver.


Cynics could claim that no one’s mind is going to be changed by a pro-gay marriage writing in any of the Best American Series. Anyone who buys the anthology is already a liberal, they’d say. You’re preaching to the converted.

I don’t think that’s really the issue. I’ve always believed, as ridiculous as it may sound, in the collective unconscious. Through writing, you can affirm things like equality and justice; that affirmation spreads, and slowly, through indirect and direct means, love has the power to work through the accumulation of even the smallest of gestures. Anyone who might be reluctant to agree needs to look no further than the fact that a few poets unexpectedly are the ones who everybody is talking about. With all the poets out there, why do the same two or three in any season become cited more than anyone else? I love Allison Stine’s work, but it is a little weird that within less than a month, she was the one poet everybody was clamoring about.


What I find disconcerting in the Oliver-edited volume that out of all the essays about gay marriage, she choose to include one that doesn’t have the inclination to explicitly state what’s at stake with Proposition 8. Van Meter’s sentimentalism is a useless politeness. By failing to directly tie in his personal anecdotes into the larger, urgent issue of Proposition 8, the essay, at this present historical moment, renders itself unnecessary. Perhaps, like a lot of gay writers, he’s hoping that through unnaming he’s offering his essay a sense of artistic timelessness. This is a common problem with gay male writers—they’re willingness to receive accolades for dealing with an urgent political matter; at the same time, safeguarding themselves from being known as as someone more than simply Another Gay Writer through refusing to be confrontational.

Van Meter is no Bernard Cooper. Included more than once in the Best American Essays, Cooper writes conventional gay narratives that are bolstered through his exemplary mastery of the create writing workshops’ draconian mantras: show, don’t tell; find those perfect verbs and nouns, etc etc. You could claim Cooper’s operating under the same tepid gay male politic, but at least, he does know the difference between active and passive voice. Or at least in terms of the verbs written on the page.

For the most part, Oliver’s body of work has never accumulated into anything other than pretty pastoral pictures. One might want to think they would eventually lead to something greater. But they don’t. There’s no formal variation, no real critique. You would think that someone with Oliver’s clout would feel the limitations of her own content, and would want to push further. Like Van Meter, she’s not done anything new with form. Her affirmation of Van Meter is an affirmation of the most pointless of liberal politics: show a societal problem without naming, without telling. Oliver has possessed the opportunity to make important statements about two of the most important political issues –the environment and civil rights, and, I would claim, she’s hindered the progress of both causes. Sentimentality can be a good thing, but when it’s used to conceal what’s at stake, it’s a danger.

When it comes to Oliver’s editorial and her own writerly choices, the distinction between a homosexual and a wild goose blurs. In fact, there may be only one difference: the gay man is easier to pet.


  1. I thought Robert Creeley and Adrienne Rich did a really good job of resisting the usual suspects and usual places when they edited BAP.

  2. Wait. Are you talking about ME? People were clamoring for my work?! For real? Seriously? When? I wish they would have told me. On the contrary, I feel like I've been working for sixteen years and no one notices or cares. Maybe that's how everyone who tries to publish poetry feels?

  3. Oh, Ally! Everyone loves you!! (The Violence Please Party was amazing!)

  4. I love "a young, queer Floyd Skloot."

  5. Jason, I love you too! I wish my book got some love from strangers/ reviewers. You know how it goes. You liked the party, huh? Maybe I should have another next year, this one called: Violence, No Longer Asking Nicely?

  6. Ali and Jason,

    Thank you for turning my blog into a meet-and-greet. That's what I've been aiming for.

  7. Ali and Jason,

    I hope you do know I was joking. :) If anyone even glances at my blog, I'm thrilled--