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.
Did Mark Doty slip up and reveal on his blog that he is, indeed, one of the judges for this year’s Lambda Literary awards?
He surely offers a compact, cogent rationale. Out of the five nominees, Doty declares the winner should go to one of the younger poets, for his pleasure in seeing “their terrific work come to light.”
The nominees include Jack Spicer, James Allen Hall, Jericho Brown, Rick Barot, and Mark Doty himself.
It’s nice to know that Mark Doty feels he can narrow down the field of winners to three of his ex-students: Rick Barot, James Allen Hall, and Jericho Brown.
Out of generosity to the young, poets, I suppose, still moving out of the darkness, Doty declares that the judges should skip over him himself. He already won twice, he admits.
My question: why did he allow himself to be nominated again? In order to follow his line of reasoning, he needed to disallow his publishers to submit the book. Provide a less celebrated poet to take the spot.
Or maybe he just needed to prove an old-timer could still seize a position. Once that occurred, he could let his self-labeled altruism shine forth.
Unconsciously or not, Doty disappointingly misses the point of a competition: choosing the best book.
What gay author wants to fee that he won the competition out of another reason that he wrote the best book, according to the judges?
(I wish we could find out who judges these awards. I’m curious. Someone choose me! I have opinions.)
It is also insulting to Jack Spicer’s spirit that Doty declares we should ignore him. According to Doty, has no use for the award as he is resting in “paradise.” For someone who boasts about his faith in the spiritual, the afterlife, I’m surprised that Doty couldn’t see the award as a vehicle for the dead and living to talk to one another. That’s what I see it as.
Because Mark Doty must be aware of the stronghold he has on the poetry world, he needs to heighten his self-awareness of how his comments could hurt the integrity of a competition through essentially encouraging judges to see it as an act of charity.
I’m rooting for Spicer. My runner-up would be James Allen Hall. But who am I?
With Proposition 8 still existing, it’s crucial we evaluate our strategies in attempting to garner support in our fight. No doubt our poems reflect in some ways the gay community’s mainstream arguments. If we parade more conventional strategies, we need to attempt to discern the consequences.
No doubt Mark Doty’s recent “Theory of Marriage (The Hug)” presents his trademark poem-as-argument. As a deliberate pedagogue, Doty compares how his dogs, Arden and Beau, attempt to receive affection, ostensibly privileging one over the other. This can be read as instructional guidance as to how queers need to behave. There's nothing inherently wrong with a poem telling us how to live; it isn’t anything new or offensive. Think Horace.
And in the current political climate, we may need more poems offering such imperatives.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Arden would turn his head toward the one He loved, Paul or me, and look downward, And butt the top of his skull against us, leaning forward, hiding his face, disappearing into what he’d chosen.
Beau had another idea. He’d offer his rump for scratching, and wag his tail while he was stroked, returning that affection by facing away, looking out toward whatever might come along to enjoy.
Beau has no interest in the economy of affection; why hoard what you can give away? Arden thought you should close your eyes to anything else; only by vanishing
into the beloved do you make it clear: what else is there you'd want to see?
At this particular historical moment, it is impossible to read the poem as anything but an argument for the repeal of Proposition 8.
Or an explanation as to why the courts reified the public’s decision. Much in the same vein of Larry Kramer’s prose such as Faggots, the poem could be read as a critique of gay male promiscuity.
The metaphors are appealing creepy. Are you an Arden or Beau?
Or should we reframe the question: a donkey or elephant? Wild or tamed?
Why can’t you be married and still desire? It’s Doty’s insertion of that “only” that worries me. Does an open relationship (or even a closed one with some straying) preclude an inability to express genuine love?
With the failure to repeal Proposition 8, am I simply hypersensitive? Should I see the poem as a mere strategy in convincing straight people that we will comfort ourselves through telling the same lies that they do? That way they will allow us to wear the ring and sign the contract?
I’m concerned that our desire to marry will cause us to marginalize those of us who choose something else.
Then again, do we need to engage in such strategies to receive our rights, and then, and only then, we can dismiss what we said prior to our victory.
But what about that word “hoard”? Is he deliberately toning down sex-positive arguments, gently mocking Beau? Does Doty possess he still believes in the sanctity of lust and pure, unabashed desire? A marriage doesn’t have to transform physical connection primarily into a dull, needy hug? Quick, desperate fucks between partner can still be possible, can’t they?
Couldn’t we even argue Beau is ultimately kinder to his audience? Isn't there’s something ungenerous, maybe even inhumane, in not giving away your body to those who crave it?
(When I did Gay.Com and sent fake photos, I enjoyed watching disappointed men attempt to scurry out the door. It entertained me. Sometimes I would call attention to their discomfort. “You are so hot,” I’d say, “You owe me the pleasure of your beautiful body. It’s not fair not to share it with someone will never have one of their own.” It worked. As it should have.)
Whatever ambivalence do (or don’t) present themselves in Doty’s theory of marriage, we need to hope that one day we’ll morph ourselves back into human being without the help of a poet or a state court judge.
Obviously impacted by the best of Mark Doty’s beautifully rendered sex-positive arguments-as-poems, Benjamin S. Grossberg “Beetle Orgy” could have rivaled his predecessor’s work. A botched politically conservative ending hinders that possibility.
Recalling Doty at his finest, Grossberg displays an amazing lightness of touch, a well-paced disclosure of nature’s beauty. Doty’s influence pervades the poem, but for the most part we can see Grossberg marking out his own subject matter and formal strategies.
Grossberg sets himself a tough challenge. He wants to prove that gay male group bareback sex is as natural, and even as necessary, as the mating, or simple physical attraction beetles show for one another.
This political argument normalizes sexual activities many, including gay men themselves, find objectionable.
At its most profound, Grossberg raises the question whether the much derided Treasure Island and other bareback films produce one of the more important tenents of radical queer activism: we, as gay men, can put our bodies in whatever sexualized space or position we choose.
Grossberg’s lingering descriptions of nature posses an unforced sensuality and music:
Bloom up from the earth, blooming and curling like ribbon, and at semi-regular intervals sprouting leaves: almost the border art of a Celtic manuscript, the vines up along the fence of this old tennis court. Amid the wreck...
He even succeeds with a pretentious allusion to a Celtic manuscript, wisely offering it after the phrase: “border art." Throughout the poem, Grossberg inflates a particular moment only to later deflate it. This allows him to avoid a condescending romanticism (look at the beautiful nature! look at the beautiful men!) It also gives him the power to swerve away from crudeness that could simply function as bad pornography. Crude, good pornography would be a different story.
Here’s the chief turn in the poem, deftly moving from the beetles to the HIV-identified men:
...And here I come to it, amid the advancing vines and decrepit court: they’re on the leaves, too, all around-coupling in company, hundreds of them, the rows melding to make a single metallic band.
Back in Houston, a friend had parties- lawn bags in the living room numbered with tape to store guest clothing; plastic drop cloths spread out in the spare bedroom (cleared of furniture For the occasion) a tray of lubricants....
The narrator of “Beetle Orgy” knows well enough to allow the beetles and the orgiastic sex continue as the spectacle—when he refers to himself it’s in a furtive parenthetical expression:
..when I would drop by to find his talk transformed, suddenly transcendental- the community, he told me, the freedom: not just from the condom code (HIV negative I was never invited) but freed of individuation-...
This poem begins to delve into neglected areas: the tense, tentative division between HIV-impacted and those not. Nothing’s inherently wrong with a poem choosing to concentrate on an HIV-negative narrator trying to make sense of unfamiliar sexual practices.
As long as the poem is aware of its manipulation and the subsequent consequences.
In this area, the poem begins to fall apart in serious ways.
After the friend acknowledges the fun in the wild sexual activities, the narrator declares:
...As he talked I looked around the spare bedroom, attempting to see it in terms other than lust-a couple of dozen men,
how they would have lined up...
Why does Grossberg need to force the narrator to frame the gay men’s sexual choices as something completely other than lust. It seems that lust needs to be invoked to complicate the analogy of group bareback sex to the insect world. Grossberg needs to recognize gay male as something independent of nature; our relationships may be a bit more nuanced to that of beetles. Maybe not much, but still.
But then the poem shamefully combusts, ruining itself through an invocation of God.
I would like to emphasize that I have no problem with a poem using the spiritual as a way of defending homosexual behavior. No doubt Grossberg’s most crucial influence, Mark Doty, has been one of the best practitioners of synthesizing the spiritual with gay male sex and desire.
Much to my disappointment, Grossberg doesn’t, at least not yet, possess the confidence of his master. The crucial radical politics of his poem vanishes. Through the shameful manipulation of his narrator, Grossberg reveals his own anxiety as a gay man:
Maybe that’s how it was at my friend’s parties- God leaning over the house on a casual tour
of the wreck of the world, noticing , noticing ornamentation where it wasn’t expected...
Grossberg’s own sexphobia yields this unnecessary spiritual explanation for the sexual sublime. Why does he need to feel the need to toss God into the mix when he’s already introduced the primary analogy?
In his earlier poems, Doty expertly wove the spiritual elements into the narrative; his decisions were always remarkable ingratiating and self-possessed. Grossberg seriously fails in this regard.
The prolonged mention of God seems like a desperate last-ditch effort to make his HIV positive characters’ sexual behavior acceptable. It feels like Grossberg sees holes in his metaphor, and now is trying to clean up the mess. This conservative move destroys the impact of the poem, offering nothing more than images verging on pure camp:
..each man brightens at the touch, comes to know something expected, unexpected, and tenuous- and God, also, comes to some knowledge as if for the first time, is distracted and pleased by the collective brightness of human skin...
Grossberg is one of the most underrated queer poets. His work often stimulates, going places where a lot of poets avoid. Morphing God into a dandy or supplementing Richard Howard’s vast, and already dated, persona poems seem to yield the most trouble for Grossberg.
Here in this poem, you want Grossberg to push further. Rather than resorting to conservative Christian tactics in explaining what some say are questionable sexual practices, he needs to provide nuance to the questions he only has begun to explore.
Are there any problems in HIV-positive men having sex with others who share their identity? Are HIV-negative men this accepting of what they “don’t understand? Does the voyeurism established in the poem yield any consequences for the person doing the looking? Do bareback porn movies like those created by Treasure Island encourage young gay men to engage in unsafe practices? What if an HIV-negative man chooses to join such orgiastic activities? Should the HIV-positive men allow his engagement?
It’s a credit to the poem you even think of these too-often neglected issues. So much so, you wish the poem was riskier, less protected, making us, as gay male readers, uncomfortable about what territories are opening up, and perhaps about the possibility of choosing to never come back.
Why hasn't the SoQ ever acknowledged the fundamental difference between them and the post-avant poets? What is that difference?
The answer is obvious: their different relationships with Time, how Time manifests itself in their processes and products.
That's all that fundamentally matters to both groups: Time, and the ways in which they attempt to deal with the horrible and liberating clicking of that clock.
As a proud, insignificant member of the SoQ, I am annoyed that my peers haven't acknowledged their charmingly absurd relationship with Time, and how it impacts their art. But shame on the post-avant poets as well! If they're going to ridicule, they need to map out these difference in a more concise and useful manner. If this pressing matter was addressed in the way it should, both groups could continue fighting with renewed energy rather than trotting out the same old arguments.
Rather than rehash the positions and definition, which I may do if I ever decide to make this a more complete post, I want to delineate the differences these distinctive groups have toward Time. I always feel that SoQ poets misread Ron Silliman's dichotomy. It is a polemic, which seems to be a word that many SoQ poets seem to forget in all their self-aggrandizing, and ultimately, boring seriousness.
At the same time, the distinctions are weird. It is queer, odd, startling almost the way that Time is regarded by these factions. How though can anyone blame them? Time is queer, perhaps the most perverse thing of all.
I am going to outline these differences briefly between these camps and come back to them in a later post.
1.) Time in terms of labor. How many times have we not heard an SoQ poet whine about how long it takes to create a poem? Time is always pressing on them to complete this perfect verbal object. They don't joke about Time.
How could they? Think about it. They always pride themselves in that it takes years upon years and upon years to find that perfect word. They bemoan their resistance toward Time, and how they nobly refuse to resist its temptation to quicken their process, the discovering of matching the perfect work to objectively portray a feeling, or object, or person. You can always imagine them working way into the night, pacing frantically, hoping to find that one last and final word. Do they make love the same way they write their poems? Don't they ever believe in a quickie.
You can't help and laugh at the amount of pure pain they share in finding that right word for that right object, because if they don't the entire world may be destroyed.
It is weird that most of my teachers have been SoQ poets, and they have been the most dismissive when students ask for extra Time, or when the student himself talks about his process. All that matter is the poem, they say. Weird that they discuss their labor in the same way their students do. "It took me literally three decade to find the last three words to that poem," they said, "Or I've been thinking about that poem for two hundred years before it came out the way I wanted it." Time is relentless and uncaring in regards to their artistic process.
Post-Avant poets usually react to Time in a completely different way. Sometimes I've heard them even brag of how little work it takes. They seem to base a lot of their poems around a writing exercise of some sort that never needs to be rewritten or polished. It simply is and then you move onto the next poem.
And, the SoQ poets reason, how can their work be any good if they don't spend an eternity sweating over a poem? Obviously theoretical positionings make this even more clear. A Post-Avant poet would never claim that a word can represent a object. Language is more slippery than that. SoQ poets in isolated examples may believe this, but their poems don't represent that. They may announce the slipperiness of language but that idea is carried out through lyric and narrative strategies that never disobey, or do in such an overly self-conscious way that you can feel their terror. They must dismiss it as a radical thought and get down to that real business.
I love that one female post-avant poet (I can't remember her name) boasted that she wrote an entire book in one day. What an interesting! Who cares if it's a piece of crap. At least it's a cool idea. But those SoQ poets, they struggle day in and day out, sometimes even skip a trick at artist colonies in order to find that one last word that will solve the puzzle of poetry once and for all.
2.) Time in terms of immorality. It could be argued that both SoQ and Post-Avant poets want to live forever; who doesn't? But I would make the claim that SoQ buy into that rhetoric with a fiercer intensity. If you spend your entire life working on that one significant poem, discovering that perfect arrangement of words, doesn't death owe you?
And that damn Norton anthology, almost always filled with SoQ poets (I am talking about specifically poetry anthologies--I have a colleague doing amazing work for an upcoming Norton Anthology of the Bible).
If you look at a Norton Anthology of poetry, really any one, towards the end, there are a fairly decent amount living poets who need more books sold to break even. Norton knows this, so they force the editors to put them in there. With such popular, highly regarded Norton anthologies, you might, if you an SoQ poet, actually be able to watch your own immortality take place. A lot of those SoQ Norton anthologies include authors who --guess what?--include authors publishing with Norton. Death and life is taking place right before your very eyes!
That's magic. Or an act of God. Who knows? But it is something. There's modesty with Post Avant poets: they know that immortality is a funny thing so they do spend more time producing and producing, hoping that the sheer mass of their work may force the world to recognize them. They always brag about the number of books they created.
They also never use spellcheck. Their journals are filled with dumb typos. Too busy creating the next piece, I guess.
3.) Time in terms of age. You really won't receive that much acclaim, entrance into the better SoQ magazines or publishers, or receive the grants, until you've lived long enough for the Senior Citizen's Special at Denny's. Or the need for an artificial respirator. Since high school, I've been looking at lit mags of national reputations. I was recently in a library, reading one from 2008, and then the same one from 1970. Guess what? They contained a large percentage of the same authors! The only good thing is this could save all SoQ poets a lot of money. We don't need to buy the most recent periodicals featuring our own. We can browse the stacks from the 60s and 70s for free and still get the basic idea as to what's going.
Whenever I see a poem by Richard Wilbur, I'm shocked. Same thing with W.S Merwin. "I thought he was dead," I say to friends. The friend says, "So did I." Cryogenics is definitely the way to go.
The Post Avants are always changing, thinking about new names for their movements, creating charming manifestos, including younger and younger poets in many different series. Names change from issue to issue of their magazines. Which is equally annoying. Who am I supposed to form a parasitic relationship with? I love being a sycophant! How do these post avant poets know who to network with. Or maybe they just all gravitate toward Ron Silliman. Earning brownie points for carting his zillion manuscripts into his garage. She's sick of them pushing her out of her own house. They're already taking too much space in the attic, crawl space, living room, bedroom, den, kitchen, toolshed, pantry, closets, and of course, the bathroom, upstairs and downstairs...
Through questioning some of his points, I would like to contribute to this important dialogue. Quick background information: I currently have a tenure-track job at SUNY Brockport. I was hired to teach Creative Non-Fiction, but the majority of my classes have been poetry workshops, undergraduate and graduate. Five years ago, I went on the job market and interviewed at the MLA. I was offered four campus interviews and received an offer from all of those schools: Idaho State University, Adelphi University, Elon University, and, of course, SUNY Brockport. In my initial application, I gave all of these schools writing samples which contained explicit queer content.
I would like to add here that I am not writing this to be self-aggrandizing but to offer a context for my own observations and disagreements with Gravitas.
1.) When you are interviewing at a small university or one far from a major city, DO NOT ask faculty about the gay hot spots or what it's like there for a gay man. That would be an alert to them that you're looking for something "more urban" than they can offer. Also: you should have done that research yourself before the interview. Instead strategically emphasize why you would like to live in their location. I told the truth, partly because I don't lie: I lived in Alabama and Utah, two of the most conservative places in the nations, and love that small-town feel. They are aware that you're gay and that you might have additional concerns. Show them that you've already thought through them through as any interviewee should have.
Also, Gravitas, why should straight people know about gay spaces? They are straight after all.
2.) Smaller colleges are aware of how they might be perceived, that they may be seen as backwards or judgmental. Idaho University's faculty contained some of my favorite people. A lot of them were white, straight men and they offered unequivocal kindness. They reached out to me. In fact, after they threw me a little party, I went out drinking with three of the males and we got drunk.
Personally, I don't care if anyone is gay on the faculty. I just want some fun people to drink a bottle of wine with.
If you're uncomfortable, they'll be uncomfortable. They want you to see them as cool. So do. Most people are pretty nice if you don't make them nervous, self-conscious.
3.) Be out from the beginning. No interviewer likes surprises.
4.) Where are these schools you went for campus visits? I have a hard time believing that at every school you had told them you were gay, and then they still asked you about having been married at one point. Or am I misreading this claim? Is this meant as comedy?
5.) At the same, I did have "bizarre" occurrences. At one dinner with my interviewers, I was told that they needed a "breath of fresh air" and then they moved the conversation into S&M and bareback sex. I didn't mind sharing my opinions on them, but still.
6.) The meanest interviewers will inevitably be other openly gay men. They will feel you're going to be competition, and might not want to feel their queerness isn't as special as it was when you weren't around. Or that you'll steal their potential boyfriends. Or even worse: their tricks.
Even with these disagreements, I think your post was of great relevance, and hope to see more like this.
I lust after people I wish to be. I love people who I once I was. Or will become.
Beauty is an intelligence.
Salt Lake City contains two kinds of beautiful people: mountain climbers and models , Well-showered, they filled the streets. That’s where they belong. Everyone should have the chance to gawk. They don’t belong indoors, in bookstores, sitting. They have their territory.
The unbeautiful know how to tell jokes. The beautiful live in an unfunny riddle.
Long ago when I searched for men on gay.com, I sent phony pictures to men I wanted to seduce. The photos were of a beautiful man. It worked. After a little prodding, they visited me. Some were often angry. Some weren’t. We often had fun anyway. They made the drive, why not? I never felt bad. I gave them hope.
Do not contradict a poet who says he’s ugly. As if he’s suffering from low self-esteem. As if he’s being self-deprecating. He might be right, and then you’ll have told a lie.
I didn’t want a photo on my poetry book. I wanted people to imagine I was beautiful. It seemed unfair to dash their expectations. Especially if they loved any of the writing.
Only rarely does one give the beautiful a second look. The ugly always receive at least two.
Someone told me Phillip Levine said that you had to be unbeautiful to be an important poet. It was weird. I always considered Levine to be beautiful in a working-class kind of way.
I always think that arranging words in the right way will trick people into thinking I am beautiful.
The unbeautiful are unburdened. You can leave your house with food in your teeth or wearing a dirty shirt. No one will notice. We have expectations for the beautiful.
My first love died of AIDS. I met him when he was sick, his beauty already ruined. He had slept with a lot of people. We both knew it. On his deathbed, he took my hand and said, “Be happy you are not beautiful. You’d be sick, too.”
If you are unbeautiful, become a poet. Hide in words. But not for too long. Your body will call you back. It will moan and ache. When you return, you body will be there. The words may not.
Although published before Proposition 8 passed, Aaron Smith's poem "Open Letter"(found in David Trinidad's issue of MiPOesias) can be read as a near-perfect encapsulation of the way in which some gay men felt after they were betrayed (once again) by the American people, their heterosexual counterparts through that law.
Here in its entirety is the poem "Open Letter":
You are a boring man. Your wife is boring. Your children are boring. Even your dog: boring. When you walk to the train and your socks fall down in your boots and you bend down to pull them up, that is boring. Your choice of socks is boring. (So is the way you walk!) You eat boring bagels with butter (not cream cheese) and your breath reeks with boring, boring coffee and morning-stink. Your coffee is black and boring and the hand that holds the cup is lonely and boring and lonely. Boring. You are too boring to hate and your family is too boring to die by disaster or murder.
Would anyone else other than a gay man be so obsessed with a "boring" marriage that he describes their morning ritual with such eerie acuity? No doubt this spectacle is "boring" but there's no way a gay man can turn away. It is an uninspired reminder of what he has been aggressively denied.
Smith's comic illustration of gay male stagnancy after yet another overt denial of their humanity addresses the more heartbreaking and debilitating consequences of Proposition 8. It's too easy ignore, as much as gay men have joined public demonstrations, the fatigue of fighting a county who does not have their best interest at heart.
This heartbreaking poem does something courageous. It discloses gay male exhaustion.
How long can we continue to be active when time and time again we're forced to view what we do not have, and perhaps may never will?
This understandable boredom with an endless struggle for equality is one of our best kept secrets. We, as gay men, feel the need to keep it undisclosed; how can we expect other to rally if we admitted our own fatigue? Smith exposes this fact in light of how some gay men may consider such an admission a defeat rather than a necessary catharsis.
The unimaginative, generic "open letter" obviously requires no elaboration. The "letter" needs no formal introduction, no explanation of its intent, no desire to make those sentences active, or be active in and of himself. The gay man is too unsurprised to frame the predictability of what's occurred. As described in the last two sentences, the gay man can't even summon the justified anger at the nuclear family's inability to break their boring routine and see his suffering.
So much gay male suffering has continued as a result of Proposition 8: the potential refusal to be at your partner's bedside if he's sick, the lack of financial protection etc etc. Having to enumerate those denials with robotic precision is undoubtedly boring. I, too, am bored with my need to make everything clear to those heterosexuals (and sometimes homosexuals) about why they need to help us with something they take for granted.
Undoubtedly, heterosexuals feel a similar ennui; they don't need to hear us whining. Our letters to them go completely unacknowledged; they have their morning routines with their spouse which is so taken for granted they can continue with aggressive, federally protected boredom.
(Sidenote: I had the honor seeing Smith read the poem, and he did so with flawless deadpan delivery.)
In a creative writing class I taught in Utah, one of my students wrote a narrative poem about a gay man who abuses a child and then celebrates the “conquest” with his ugly male lover.
It was the best student work I had read that semester.
This student possessed excellent writing skills: sentence variation, active sentences, no pronoun confusion, etc. etc. You could not fail to be impressed.
Some scholars consider it dumb to talk about form and content as separate entities. How can you reinforce an inaccurate dichotomy? Point well-taken.
But as a teacher, sometimes it works to pretend their opposites.
You can praise one and question the other. For whatever reason, if class discussion becomes too intense about form, you can move to content, and vice versa. It will be less likely someone will notice you're guarding someone from something.
For the most part, these are sensitive, aspiring young artists in our classes. They deserve that respect.
Homophobia is a word I never use in a creative writing class. Here are other words I don’t say: representation, activism, liberal, conservative, queer, political. Once a student invokes them, then fine; I’ll go with it. Otherwise they’re off-limits.
In some ways, at some times, I feel most protective of my heterosexual students. I’ll even strategically joke that I’m a failed homosexual—can’t dance and have no sense of style (both horribly true). My goal: to make them feel free, allow them to ask questions, make comments that would make gay activists cringe.
Why shouldn’t a student say, as one did in conference, I’m trying to write a story about gay men. How do I make one the male and the other female?
That’s the sort of talk I want to happen. I’ve made choices in my life. I don’t always know what ones are good, what ones are bad. But I’ve made choices. One of those includes creating a classroom which is full of useful conflict, a decent amount of tension, and the freedom, as long as its done with tact and sincerity, to say what we feel we shouldn’t. To hell with safe spaces!
(BTW-I’m the woman in the relationship, as one of my best lesbian friends tells me. “Of course, you’re the female,” she said. “Who is more shrill and hysterical than you?”
I’m not an activist. I’m a teacher. Both require some manipulation to yield the desired results. One of those things necessitates an avoidance of a perfunctory embrace of good manners.
Good manners ruin discussion. It ruins our creative writing. Worst of all, good manners are boring.
Through ostensibly innocuous words, you can better convince students of their questionable political stances .
Nothing represents anything else. That makes students nervous. “These are just ideas that came from my soul,” they will charmingly say.
But every student fiction writer or narrative poet knows the important of making good characters.
(As often as I remember, I assign Stephen King’s On Writing. The best book on the creative process. I’ve never read any of his novels. Only seen every single movie. Deloris Claiborne is my favorite. Who can resist the paring of Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh?)
This is what I did with the Utah student’s character. We, as a class, listed all the qualities of this queer protagonist: murderer, evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly rapist.
(I loved that last one! I’ve always wanted to be a dastardly homosexual!)
I asked: Are there any characteristics here that we wouldn’t expect from an evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly rapist homosexual surprise you? Where is that idiosyncratic detail that we wouldn’t expect such a character to possess?
That was my goal. To make students realize that they needed to create nuance. Their character could be types as long as they were individuals, too. It could be as small of a detail as you wanted.
But it needed to be something. Something that would make him distinct. Something that would make us remember him. Something that would make him more than a stereotype.
(I hate that overused, dangerous word stereotype, but I’ll save my explanation for another post.)
That detail would make all the difference in the world, I told them. In a way, that statement was an exaggeration; there is a pattern of representations that are insidious, need to be challenged, and rewritten. At the same time, you have to start small. Very few students want to hurt anybody in their writing; they just don't know how to get around it. As a lot of us don't.
Remember, I said: evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly homosexual rapists are people, too. You shouldn’t think of characters as completely good or bad. Everyone contains tenderness or cruelty, no matter how tiny the performances. If the writing forces you to see your characters as one or the other, the writing isn’t as engaged as it should be.
During that class, it was all I really said.
By making them aware of what they choose to ignore, they could realize, without much pressure, what they owed their characters (and by extension, all of us gay men.)
“How can we do to make this homosexual rapist be more complex?” I asked.
“Have him work at a florist shop,” one of my students said.
Before my first graduate school teaching orientation, we had to fill out a questionnaire in which we were asked our goals. I wrote: to become a queer role model. This was over a decade ago, and I still feel the embarrassment of having written such a thing,
The last thing I would ever want any gay male to do is emulate my behavior. In or out of the classroom. As a gay man, I’ve made a lot of choices. I often am confused as to whether they were good or bad choices. But they were choices, and I made them.
At the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, I took a creative writing course with a gay male instructor. There were several homosexuals in the class. I remember being intimidated. If he didn’t like my fiction, then I was not a legit queer. If he did, I was on my way of becoming someone important. It was that simple.
I still feel that way. There’s something special about having another gay male’s approval.
I am not a creative writing teacher who does in-class writing exercises. As a student, I hated them. They felt like a waste of time. Why do something that you can do at home? The teacher was lazy and didn’t prepare for class. It’s like putting students in small groups. That never felt like real teaching. Still doesn’t. One of my required texts is "The Practice of Poetry," a book full of poetry writing exercises. If a student tells me they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to look at the book. If they press me further, I say, “Page sixty-three.” I have no idea what’s on page sixty-three. But they walk away satisfied.
I am interested in the act of criticism. Before you can talk about a text’s strengths and weaknesses, you must be sure that the student can describe what is going on it. So much student writing evolves from the presumably autobiographical. Everyone wants to appear tolerant. Everyone wants to be a good person. A lot of gay students are dealing with coming out issues; their first poems will reflect that. As a result, the class' first inclination is to offer charmingly meaningless praise.
Courageous, they say. This writing is courageous. It took guts.
Courage is a very trick thing to evaluate. How does one slap a letter grade on the abstraction?
(I would like to add here that I am a teacher who believes that undergraduate students need to receive midterm assessment, and yes, some sort of grade. It is unethical, as far as I’m concerned, to tell a student that they shouldn’t be interested in grades, as if there’s something shameful in asking. These teachers need to be reminded that their workshops are situated in an academic institution. Students are paying for that letter on a transcript. That letter has a cost. It has worth,)
How do you lead a discussion and evaluate an openly gay male student who has produced his first openly gay poem in a predominately heterosexual classroom?
How do you protect that gay student from potentially hurtful critique and at the same time allow for an intellectually authentic classroom discussion?
I can still remember when I saw my first Denise Duhamel poem, The Difference Between Pepsi and the Pope, and my shock that someone could write such obnoxiously long lines. Here’s a link in which you can hear her breathless reading, as she races through the poem in the way the line suggests:
How can she take up so much room on the page? I understood how Whitman could; he was an old dead poet—they always babbled. (This is probably a shameful to admit, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I read Whitman’s The Song of Myself. It always had looked long and boring. I've never been an intellectual. If SparkNotes had been around, I would have picked up a copy. That’s what I did for The Canterbury Tales.)
I don’t know why I thought such a dumb thing. Like a lot of undergraduates, I hadn’t read much poetry, and I didn’t feel like I need to really. I simply needed to see how long a poem should be. (Much like a needless term paper) And then go from there; I would eventually hit the end and be done.
In Duhamel’s new book Ka-Ching, she has a number of prose poems. I have a hunch why. Maybe the sheer length of her lines got so long she couldn’t manage them. Their sheer manic intensity didn’t allow her to pay attention. They sped past her.
I always get annoyed when someone describes Duhamel’s poems as campy. It’s a completely inaccurate description. Think back to Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. One of her tenents states that for art to be camp, it must be oblivious to its own potential for comedy, enraptured by its own seriousness, its own self-importance. The comedy cannot be deliberate. Otherwise it’s either pretty much straight-up drama or comedy. Or a combination of the two. Not camp.
Why am I protective of her poems, from being labeled as camp? Camp isn’t a bad thing. Or is it?
Look at the first few stanzas of “Please Don’t Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen”:
Remember to pamper, remember to preen The world doesn’t reward a pimply girl. Don’t sit like a frog, sit like a queen.
Buy a shampoo that gives your locks sheen. If your hair is straight, get it curled. Remember to pamper, remember to preen.
Keep your breath minty and your teeth white and clean. Paint your nails so they glisten, ten pearls. Don’t sit like a frog, sit like a queen.
Camp or Light Verse?
Light Verse, no doubt. And what’s wrong with Light Verse? A lot of people are scared of it. It means you may not take yourself seriously. Or them seriously, God forbid. These same people need to be reminded that Light Verse boasts its fair share of amazing practitioners. Like Auden. Like T.S. Eliot. Like E.E. Cummings. Like Dorothy Parker.
For some reason, though, camp feels beneath Light Verse.
But there I go again. “Beneath.” This may be why: camp thinks it’s doing one thing when in actually it’s doing another. Light Verse knows what it’s up to, so there’s nothing to laugh at. You laugh with. But isn't there something more real about being oblivious? Or is that just stupidity?
Thank God we have Mann's sweet humor to keep us rooted when we talk about bodies and the gym.
Although he does not define himself as queer in any way (as far as I can tell), African-American Ross Gay deals with the same material. But also raises the bar, offering an unforced transcendent moment in his sonnet "Poem Beginning with a Line Overheard at the Gym" from his book "Against Which."
In its entirety, here's the poem:
I'd drive a thousand miles to suck the dick of the man who fucked her once. If you're like me, the pristine lilt of iambic verse will halt your dumb work on the bench press. You also love
the hyperbolic rattling of logic's cage. Mostly, you love the way the loins fuel the tongue's conjure. But what grand sadness dragged in misplaced desire; as though from another's memory
of smoke we might glean some end of ache. Truth be told, ache's shop is long set up. Is birth's phantom. Let's, instead admire the tether. Its
wrangle with the loamy earth for the body, the keepsake.
If you want to make a great poem, any subject matter has potential pitfalls, especially if it's as potentially insignificant as going to the gym. Not only does Gay dare to use that content, but he also invokes a good amount of the words you'd expect: desire, memory, body, ache, love, work, bench press. Through line breaks, syntax, connotative meaning, his sonnet transforms these cliches into something special.
With the initial stanza, I was a bit nervous: I didn't want Gay to explicitly (or implicitly state) that as a poet, he transcends his body, that his poetics keeps him away from the solipsism of working out. Scansion can never eclipse exercise routine.
"Dumb" body work is ritual work for the soul. In fact, maybe I'd even go a step further. Maintaining the body is an intelligence, not any less (maybe more) important than writing poems. But Gay quickly rebounds from a questionable start.
His rhythm is unobtrusive, subtle. As when he admits the lyric "you" and I "love fuels the tongue's conjure."
And then he does something truly neat. As opposed to a lot of poets who would, without any reservation, emphasize the pathos of desire, he offers a corrective through imperative. (Most poets don't have the conviction to tell us how to live, and isn't that one of the why we ultimately read? Think Virgil's Eclogues. Think Horace's Ars Poetica)
Gay instructs: "admire the tether." Tether: What keeps desire's flux controllable. What often centers us. As long it's firmly grounded, like the device of the same name that holds a volleyball. And doesn't the role of a tether help "fuel" our bodies, encouraging us to work out. And through that workout, we are given our bodies back, even stronger, even of more value, the ultimate "keepsake."
Gay, an expert in infusing his words with double meanings, only falters once. I'm not sure how "smoke" relates to the conceit of the gym, working out. Otherwise, through his word choice, he creates the most impressively tight work out poem.
According to Mark Doty's poem "At the Gym," we, as gay men, may need to look "beneath" our vanity to find "something more tender" in our desire to work out. To simply want to be beautiful can't satisfy Doty; he needs to offer an argument. In his best poems such as Tiara, Mercy on Broadway, and Homo Will Not Inherit (essential reading for any Gay and Lesbian Literature class), he excelled in making didacticism beautiful. Too often that stupid creative writing mantra "Show don't tell" renders itself useless. As a result of the awful political predicament gay men find themselves, it's imperative to tell and tell. And then tell some more. Doty knew that. That's one of the many wonderful aspects of those historically important poems.
In "At the Gym" it's confusing who he wants to tell what. Is he trying to make gay men "feel less bad" for their obsession with working out? If he is, he needs to back off, and stop trying to depathologize gay men's intense connection with gym equipment. Everyone has their fetishes; why does ours need to be justified? To anyone, especially ourselves? If he perceives his audience as straight, why does he once again need to invoke the spiritual to justify what he fears others may see as the less attractive aspects of the gay community. It feels like pandering to the hypocritical Log Cabin Republicans. We may have been born gay, but there's nothing wrong with us. We're just like everyone else. Even the right wing religious fundamentalists. Here's one of many justifications why:
..beneath our vanity, our will to become objects of desire: we sweat the mark of our presence onto the cloth.
Here is some halo the living made together.
Verging on the self-parodic, Doty ends his poem on a contrived transcendental moment. It's eerie that he needs to invoke "the cloth," "a halo." What if the vanity is simply crude? What's wrong with being a shameless homosexual, bringing some crude exhibitionism into your life for no reason other than you want. And want.
And what about that phrase "the living made together"? Is going to the gym a communal activity, where we can find solidarity, or is it perhaps about creating a hierarchy that can provide competition for queer alpha males? Ruthless competition, but a game all the same.
Randall Mann, one of, if not the, best practitioners of Light Verse, offers a welcome antidote. It is a necessary rebuke of Doty's poem. Without much apology, Mann's sonnet "Modern Art" illustrates how vanity can induce self-aware comic anxiety. It's not like Mann's narrator can't be somewhat cognizant of the ridiculous psychic connection of "seeing the satyrs in the Cadillac" and then his need to hail "a cab: Gold's gym, pretty please, and step/lovely. So, can one still be a man and take step/classes? I grunt at the pec-deck..."
The throwaway jokes ("It's a myth,/btw, the size of my Nikes.") thankfully invests in a gay audience.
But then, weirdly, Mann almost ruins his own comedy through forcing the narrator to ask us for pity:
...If I shave my chest and my yes and my happiness, will I find someone, some happiness...
Mann sometimes wrings pathos from his Light Verse, which seems to me, indicative of a young writer's needless anxiety. Doty justifies our preoccupation with the gym as a way of elevating himself; he says, I know why we do this, and let me tell you and the world, and even remind God Himself as He continues to touch our lives.
Somehow more confident and less, Mann allows his narrators to invest in the physical without the worldly pontification. Mann's weakness may stem from a refusal to accept that he's channeling W.H. Auden's and light verse. Unlike Mann, Doty believes too much in the power of his own poems, tainting his most recent work with an annoying gravitas. Perhaps because he is young, Mann panics about his own poetic project. At points, he seems to seems to want to deny he's writing Light Verse, and then capitulates to his own anxiety, making his characters blurt out their unattractive desire to be loved just like everybody else. For brief yet significant moments, these calls for self-pity can make a narrator, and worse, the poem unattractive. Let the characters be, Randall. They don't feel bad for you; don't feel bad for them.
Fortunately, by the end of this poem, Mann's narrator recovers, thankfully rediscovering his tunnel vision and vanity:
Just as I start to peak, I'll shave
my head, instead (think Full Metal Jacket). And throw on a cultish animal jacket.
The penultimate line is the best in the poem. Mann strategically inspires self-pity for the narrator in a genuine way, one worthy of us. How sad is it that a gay man in 2009 is emulating his look after a 1987 Kubrick movie. Any respectable queer these days would screw the jacket and just ask for Jake Gyllenhaal's Jarhead buzzcut.
Vanity is underrated. Being vain can be an act of survival, especially in a world that wants to murder peole from marginalized communities. A world that refuses us autonomy of our own bodies.
Living in Brockport with my partner, I could not be more happy than I am now. Total geeks, with exorbitant student loan debt, we mostly stay at home on the weekends.
All day long I wear my Star Wars pajama bottoms, go the movies, have a few glasses of red wine, and make something on our George Foreman Grill--undeniably, the most important invention in the 20th century. If we're feeling ambitious, we'll exploit friends to make us dinner.
This doesn't mean that I haven't had bottles thrown at me by passing cars. Or crankcalled on my office phone. Or deal with someone yelling, "Get off the streets, faggot." Or been threatened with physical violence.
This is no reflection on the community. Everyone here, associated with the University or not, has been so kind, welcoming, and thoughtful toward us. We plan on staying here as long as we can. We're indebted to the Village of Brockport.
It's just that wherever you go, even San Francisco, you, as a gay man, face threat of extinction. That's part of the life of a marginalized male.
What else is there to do when someone wants your body to be invisible?
To obsess over it, of course.
Is there anything more healthy than directing the fear into a healthy obsession: adding tone, definition, and muscle to your body. In the hope of being worshipped by people who like you.
Work out those pectoral muscles, dammit. (I'm convinced my unnatural obsession with seeing well-defined ones comes down to the fact that I wasn't breast-fed.)
I am grateful to men who obsessively work out. It means I don't have to do it. If everyone worked out, there'd be no one to lust after your achievements, your body.
You're on the right path. And no doubt Aaron Smith, Mark Doty, Randall Mann, and Ross Gay are as well. From their author photos, they look like they work out. And I'm sure receive well-deserved accolades in a number of unsurprising ways.
Their vanity surfaces as well in their desire to write poetry. Is there anything more vain than expecting us to spend our morality reading their words?
It would be a sign of disrespect if we didn't look as closely at their poems as I'm sure a lot do at their bodies.
In his poem "Working out with the Boys" from his book Blue on Blue Ground, Aaron Smith takes the most expected, conventional approach. It feels a bit unkind to single out this poem, because Smith has progressed from relying on such simple observation, merely identifying the eroticism between straight men at the gym.
(I always found it odd that Smith put the poem so early in his book--second--when so much better writing is buried in the middle. Same thing with Doty. Why does he put his workout poem on his website when the man has written some of the most timely and politically urgent poems in the 90s? Perhaps that's true vanity--feeling that even your throw-aways deserve as much attention as what is obviously better work.)
No doubt Smith has written much, much better work since this poem. I've followed his poetic career. Some of the work I've seen over the years on the web and heard at a reading taps into attitudes/issues most gay men avoid discussing. One poem in particular stands out; it was deservedly a huge crowd pleaser. I'll mention at the end of this series.
Smith has moved beyond such an uninspired take on one of the oldest gay male tropes. But a lot of his contemporaries have not. This is why I want to spend a little time with this poem.
(Quick question: Why are gay men exactly so invested in the Workout Poem? Do they think that someone beautiful will read the poem, be so touched, and want to screw them for their words and bodies? I suppose so. That is why I used to write witty retorts and send fake photos to potential tricks on Gay.com, I suppose.)
Here are the first few stanzas of "Working out With the Boys":
They could be making love, these straight boys, judging from the sounds, their breathing
quick, forced like before orgasm: the soft strain of men pushing their bodies...
The humor becomes downright hackneyed:
...Someone saying, Come on, come on, push it, push: a final
throaty groan, an almost come- cry, as a barbell is raised one more time, one
more time, then dropped or slammed down on the mat...
When I read this poem, I think of bad undergraduate Women's Studies classes. On the first day the teacher brings in a slew of advertisement, basically all of them picturing the same thing: a scantily clad woman, a man sitting on top of his car, his sunglasses on, gawking. The teacher puts you in small groups, asking you to identify patterns. Which you do. You come back as a class, and- lo and behold!- you realize women are undressed, the objects of men's gaze, etc. etc. Someone realizes, Sex sells! At, of course, the price of women's bodies. And you all leave triumphant.
No difference here. It's a similar point-and-see. Look!: straight men are obsessed with their bodies. They occupy the same place, sharing their obsessiveness, comparing their bodies. O my! Homoeroticism!
Again, this poem is an easy target. But still.
In his poem "At the Gym," Mark Doty tries to up the ante. Predictably, he attempts to do this by spiritualizing the act of working out. (You've got to hand it to Doty. He could find Heaven and a whole team of angels in a plate of overcooked tofu.)
I do partly admire his ambition, his valiant attempt to put a new spin on the poem. But can't he accept, as all gay men should, his superficiality. Why can't he see working out as fun and useful?
He's a bit of a downer. His sincerity quickly transforms into dreadful earnestness:
Though there's something more
tender, beneath our vanity, our will to become objects of desire: we sweat the mark of our presence onto the cloth.
I would make the argument that vanity is in and of itself tender. You don't need to believe "there's something more." Which Doty highlights with the most overly deliberate of line breaks.
The next part of this series will start with the question implictly posed by Doty in this same except from "At the Gym": Why do we need to look "beneath our vanity"?
To further enter the dialogue about Thom Gunn created by Eshuneutics' post on Thom Gunn's Selected Poems and Randall Mann's Book "Breakfast with Thom Gunn", I am posting an essay of mine, "On Love, Sex, and Thom Gunn" that appeared in Number 38 of Another Chicago Magazine in early 2001.
Here is a reprint of that essay in entirety:
On Love, Sex, and Thom Gunn
A fellow student in one of my classes said that she disliked Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats. She described his verse as self-indulgent, “masturbatory.” I couldn’t tell which bothered her more: the poems or that somebody somewhere in the world was touching himself. And enjoying it.
Reading a book of poems and searching for attractive guys in a bar are essentially the same exercise for me. I never read a book of poems from cover to cover. Most often I open the book to a random place, scan the page for something that catches my eye. If nothing does, I turn to another page and do the same thing. It’s not often that I stay with the same page for long. Usually, I just flip through the book until I get bored. Once in awhile a poem does obsess me. I can’t stop staring at the words. I read the poem to a friend, ask them what they think. For hours we analyze every line break, odd word choice, covert message.
I’m too promiscuous to read novels. Too much of a long-term commitment.
This is one of my many tragic flaws: I am so restless that I rarely allow myself to linger and miss noticing a lot of beautiful things.
As an undergraduate, I was afraid of going to the gay bars, because I knew I’d want to have sex and was afraid of getting AIDS. It was a deep, irrational fear but I didn’t have the strength of character to do anything about it. So I stayed home and touched myself. The Man with Night Sweats was one of the best books I used to get off. Some poems worked their magic in odd ways. Consider “Lines for My 55th Birthday.” I’ll quote it in its entirety:
The love of old men is not worth a lot, Desperate and dry even when it is hot. You cannot tell what is enthusiasm And what involuntary clawing spasm.
When I confessed to a friend that this poem excited me, he said, “You’re such an easy lay.” I laughed and then explained my attraction to the poem: it constructs a desperate, even if comic, image of growing old as a gay man. It made me hate myself for sitting at home, wasting my precious youth. I imagined myself as not being afraid of touching various attractive men. This, of course, stimulated me.
I also credit this poem for finally motivating me to go out to the bars. I fooled myself into believing that all sex between young people was hot, void of desperation and dryness. I was wrong. Young people are desperate too. And dry. I was bummed for weeks. Only now am I appreciative of the fact that I did find that out for myself. Through the undeniable, gentle prodding of that wonderful poem.
On the inside back cover of Boss Cupid, there is a picture of Thom Gunn: short, cropped hair, wise, kind, gaze, pursed lips. He’s thinking, Dear Reader, I’m not going to let anything be revealed in this photo; I’m not going to let you know how much I want you to love me. He looks like he’s looking at me.
This is my fantasy: he meets me and falls in love. He thinks I’m the most brilliant poet. “But I haven’t even shown you any poems,” I say.
“You don’t need to,” he says. “I can just tell.”
I believe him. I believe I can identify a genius just by looking into his eyes.
This fantasy only goes so far. It only excites me a couple of nights. So I add to it. I imagine that Thom Gunn and I have dated for several years. He never cheated on me once. I imagine him telling me that my beauty and talent turned him monogamous. I know he is lying. But I don’t care. All that has ever mattered to me was the willingness of the gesture.
One night he says to me, “I have a confession. I don’t really like your poems.”
“But you’ve never even seen any of them,” I say. “You’re always too busy with your own.”
“That was a ploy,” he says. “I just never wanted to read them. I was afraid I’d be disappointed.”
“So do you love me?”
He doesn’t answer.
“So do you love me?” I say.
I masturbate in silence. It’s the best sexual experience I’ve had in weeks.
The final poem in The Man with Night Sweats is a complete embarrassment. “A Blank” acts as an apology for a lot of the poems that precede it and feels like a dangerous sell-out. Let’s take a look at the second stanza:
Watching Victorian porches through the glass, From the 6 bus, I caught sight of a friend Stopped on a corner-kerb to let us pass, A four-year-old blond child tugging his hand, Which tug he held against with a slight smile.
And the narrative continues later with the following exchange between the two men:
A sturdy-looking admirable young man. He said ‘I chose to do this with my life.’ Casually met he said it of the plan He undertook without a friend or wife.
Perhaps the conceit of the poem would bother me less if it appeared anywhere other than at the end of the book. I can’t help but read Gunn’s placement of the poem as a claim that becoming a father functions as some sort of redemptive act for engaging in the freedoms of anonymous, casual sex. This isn’t to say that Gunn fails to provide some complications to my possibly oversimplified reading of his poem. But how else are we supposed to respond to these lines?:
...So this was his son! What I admired about his self-permission Was that he turned from nothing he had done, Or was, or had been, even while he transposed The expectations he took out at dark -Of Eros playing, features undisclosed- Into another pitch, where he might work With the same melody, and opted so...
At first this poem may seem radical. To use that horrible word: empowering. Gunn does articulate that this gay man has no shame about his past sexual acts; however, Gunn feels the need to emphasize these acts are of the past (“had done,” “was,” “had been”), an aspect of self-identity which no longer exists. As Gunn says, they have been “transposed.” What an interesting word! Transposed. One of the definitions in Webster’s is “to transfer (an algebraic term) from one side of an equation to the other, reversing the plus or minus value.” It cannot be denied that Gunn admires this man for choosing parenthood, so are we supposed to see his past promiscuity as ultimately a negative?
My hunch is Gunn’s true feeling toward this man are much more severe and buried than one may want to believe. Analyzing the logic of the claims supports this belief: Why does Gunn preclude that the sexual energies are the ones he’s drawing upon now as he raises a baby? Why can’t these current paternal impulses have been located elsewhere? Or perhaps never have existed before? Gunn’s desire to view this man’s choice of parenthood as transformative upsets me. Also, it troubles me that once again we have such a conventional image of a desexualized parent. Why can’t this man sleep around and be a responsible father? Why does sex need to be sacrificed in order to be a good parent?
I’d like to emphasize the problems of making this the final poem of the book. As I said, I don’t read novels, but I read a collection of poems as a novel in some ways. At least in the sense of asking the question, “What happens next?” Parenting seems to be the next step. Although this undertaking has been done “without a friend or wife,” we’re to assume, I hope, that eventually he’ll find a partner, even if it’s a sexless marriage. Being alone is rewarding for only so long. And after all, the guy isn’t getting laid; parenting has dried up his libido. So eventually, this “sturdy looking admirable young man” will be the epitome of middle-class respectability.
Once I read the poems as a novel with this conservative ending, I found the erotic potential of the whole book diminished. I also had a weird ethical problem about using it as masturbatory material. Should I jerk off to something that is ultimately sex phobic, even possibly dangerous in the way it longs for middle-class heterosexual approval?
It took me a long time to figure out what to do about it.
I tore out my favorite poems and threw the rest of the book away.
When I come across a poem I love, I think: would the author love me? I look for proof everywhere in their collection. This is what happened when I read The Man with Night Sweats. Some of the poems appealed to me. So I asked myself: Would Thom Gunn fall in love with me?
I searched “To a Dead Graduate Student” for answers. The title gave me some clues. He cares enough about graduate students to write a poem for one. I am a graduate student. I may win some affection, if not a little love, from him based on that alone. The last four lines of the poem also provided some help:
What a teacher you’d have made: Your tough impatient mind, your flowering looks Would have seduced the backyard where they played, Rebels like you, to share your love of books.
I could claim to have an impatient mind (my mind is always wandering in a million different directions, undisciplined in its inability focus); when I’m not feeling lazy or bored, I am a somewhat questioning person. But as for the “flowering looks” I don’t think so. What did that word flowering mean exactly? Did it mean as beautiful as a flower? Divine like nature?
That’s not me.
Or did flowering mean that he was blossoming into someone better and better looking every day? That couldn’t really be me either. I’ve looked the same for the past decade.
But I do love books.
Not much of a rebel though. Can any graduate student really claim to be any sort of rebel? A rebellious grad student: one of the best oxymorons I’ve heard in a long time.
I wanted to be the living incarnation of the grad student he lost.
I wanted him to think I had risen from the dead.
As an undergraduate, I wanted to be cool. So I dated someone who was HIV positive. His name was Bill. Bill was a wonderful cook, so I convinced him to throw dinner parties for our friends. We had at least one dinner party a week. Somehow during the conversation I always made sure we talked about AIDS. I made a huge speech about how people with AIDS are misrepresented, shut out of health care, etc. Later during the night I whispered to anyone who I suspected didn’t know Bill was HIV that he had contracted the disease years ago, and that I knew that going into the relationship, and it didn’t bother me at all. “We’re all going to end up in the same place anyway,” I joked. Everyone looked sufficiently impressed. So I was pleased with myself.
Bill and I never had sex. Once when he started to kiss my neck, I said, “Get away from me, you know you have that disease.”
He threatened to leave me. So I started crying. He made it up to me by throwing a large dinner party for me and my friends. Seven whole courses. Homemade pasta. During the meal, I talked about how people needed to stop fearing their bodies and learn to let go a little. In front of everyone, I kissed Bill on the lips.
In a poetry class, a teacher passed out the poem “Lament” from The Man with Night Sweats. After we read the poem, a student was surprised to discover that the poems were written about AIDS. She claimed that without changing too many details, the poem could easily have described her mother’s battle with Lupus. A few students looked sympathetic, nodding their heads in agreement.
I raced through the poem, trying to find telltale clues that the poem was written about a gay man dying with AIDS and no one else. I found the lines:
...they conveyed you from Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom The hedonistic body basks with in And takes for granted...
Exactly, I thought to myself: “hedonistic body.” Translation: A gay man’s sexualized body. Imagine how disappointed I was to read the subsequent litany:
...summer on the skin, Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea In a dry mouth.
None of those things related specifically and undeniably to a gay man’s body. So I looked quickly for more textual clues only to find in a rather pat hospital bedroom scene:
You wrote us messages on a pad, amused At one time that you had your nurse confused Who, seeing you reconciled after four years With your grey father, both of you in tears, Asked if this was at last your ‘special friend’...
But still. That didn’t feel gay enough. And a similar scene could easily be constructed between a father and daughter and the same sort of silly, odd confusions. I needed more proof that this poem was written for me.
No one else. Just me.
Couldn’t find anything on the spot.
Another student in the class said that it was important to contextualize the poem; it was part of a book after all. I seconded his claim, and felt oddly, ridiculously victorious.
Later on my bus ride home I found myself cursing Gunn’s name. How could he write a poem in such a way that someone else could think it was for them? I felt jilted, betrayed, dumped.
That same day a student from the class approached me at a party and said that I was acting a bit too crazily emphatic in class. “You pulled the whole, ‘I’m gay and I’m suffering like no one else routine,’” she said.
This is what I wanted to ask her: But did you still love me? Did you ever love me? *
As a young poet, I am more than often frustrated with my limitations as a writer. After I finish a series of poems, I realize how weak they are and throw them away. When this happens, I become depressed and go to pick up a man. Once after working for an inordinately long time on a book-length project, I realized that my work was worse than flawed; it was completely inept and dumb. Upon this assessment, I had the immediate urge to go have public sex. I found someone in a restroom. I came on the wall. I didn’t clean it up. I left and went home to bed. I slept for three days, too depressed and exhausted to shave or put on clothes. All my energy was focus on one detail: I wanted to know if anyone cleaned up after me.
I wanted to have left a mark.
When Boss Cupid came out, I exaggerated how much I disliked the poems to my friends, concealing my tortured ambivalence to the poems, failing to mention the solid, great ones such as “The Dump.” Why did I do that? I wanted to show my friends that I could be objective, that I was capable of not liking the work of a gay poet, so that when I found a poet, who happened to be gay, that they misunderstood, I would be able to show them why, and they would be more apt to believe me.
How significant of a betrayal of this is to Thom Gunn?
I don’t know.
But I do know I still feel that I can freely and justifiably criticize aspects of The Man with Night Sweats, because everyone else loves it. Other than Mark Doty, Gunn’s work has appeared in more of my undergraduate and graduate classes than any other poet writing about AIDS. I always see his stuff in The Most Important Anthologies. Farrar Strauss Giroux published his latest Boss Cupid.
He doesn’t need my love.
When my boyfriend Bill finally died of AIDS, I was oddly relieved, almost happy. Now I could be a writer. I had a subject. No one would take that away from me.
Although Bill had tried to. Before he died, he said, “I know you don’t really love me. You want to be a writer. You’re here for one reason: my dying is good material.”
“Nice to know you see me as a saint,” I said.
“No problem,” he said. “And just so you know: there’s a lot of people writing about this stuff. Better writers than you. By the time you get the skill to do it, it’ll be too late. Dying boyfriend with lesions will be a huge cliché.”
It was true. The day he died I tried to write an elegy in formal verse. It included all the clichés: hospital visits, bitchy humor, wistful sexual remembrances. They read like the worst sort of derivatives of Thom Gunn.
I still blamed my inability in writing a successful AIDS elegy on Thom Gunn. I hated him. And Doty. And Campo. And Monette. And Ashberry. And Shepherd. And Wunderlich. And Cole. And McClatchy. And Trinidad. And Powell. And Hemphill. And Dlugos. And Liu. And McCann. And so on and so on. There isn’t enough room for all these men and me to love the same men, the same disease.
In a recent feature published in L..A. Weekly, Gunn says, “Stand-up poetry, performance poetry, seemed to be mainly people complaining about their parents, long past childhood. It seemed to me a boring subject and it seemed to me they had nothing new to report about their parents that you couldn’t have heard from most people. You didn’t appreciate me enough. That kind of thing.”
So I scorn some of the poems in Boss Cupid without too much reluctance. After issuing such a critique, how could Gunn present this poem entitled “A Los Angeles Childhood”? I’ll quote the first two stanzas:
My stepfather sat on the can while I was taking a shower he would read the paper, but when I got out, toweling myself, into his stink, he’d look over at me.
I was eight. Whenever my mother was out, it was time for punishment, for whatever I’d done, he’d take off his belt and then wale into me, then he’d fuck me. I hated him !...
In discussions, I found myself ranting about the obvious: the dullness of the trope of the abused child, the lack of daring in the execution, the journalistic telling, the uninspired word choice, the linearity of the narrative. No one disagreed. How could they?
Would Gunn himself not identify this as an inferior poem?
I want to believe Gunn has the self-awareness to realize the limitations of his own poem. In other words, can we read Gunn’s laziness, his lack of craft and the exhausted subjects as something other than an unself-conscious artistic failure? It is not coincidental that the weakest poems of the book appear in a section called “Gossip.” Is he trying to emulate the nature of gossip, its formlessness, emphasis on content over form (or even inventive word choice) in poems such as “Los Angeles Childhood”?
My major problem with this analysis is it doesn’t explain why Gunn failed to provide more self-reflexive clues in the actual poem, that he wanted this apparently autobiographical anecdote to be seen as gossip rather than a simple catharsis. Why not offer clues in the text that could show the narrator’s awareness of his questionable motives in sharing the story? Why not even possibly insinuate that the narrator’s exaggerating the story to receive attention, love from his audience, thus offering an implicit critique of mainstream audiences’ desire for certain sorts of tragedies?
True: these aren’t the most exciting solutions in fixing a bad poem, but at least it would offer a sign that Gunn knows he’s writing one.
Consider another poem from the same section entitled “The Search.” The rather grand title leads to a bunch of fairly witty, coy one-liners leading to nothing other than yet another minor punchline:
Looking to hook up with a younger guy from E Bay. You: cab driver’s build, lots of attitude. Me: hi self-esteem, lo tolerance for anything not me. Am forty-eight, work out, classic abs, uncut Wanna deconstruct man on man? Let’s do lunch and each other. Leave #. Movie stars OK, insensitivity a big +.
If we were to read The Man with Night Sweats and Boss Cupid as a serial novel, would our impressions of the weaker poems in the latter book change? The Man with Night Sweats is permeated with a sense of wanting to create Great Art: the rigorous formal choices, the odd and unexpected earnest bouts in dealing with the disease, such as the sporadic likening of the dead gay man as martyr. Maybe we should be happy that Gunn has allowed himself to grow a little lazier and more self-indulgent, writing poems simply for gay men, our own “gossipy” circles, who see nothing wrong with nothing wrong with a wink and a fuck. No more Gay Overachiever Syndrome, exacerbated by our awareness of people’s AIDSphobia, we can write whatever we want, and make it as joyfully banal as anyone else’s.
But then again, why waste my time, our time? We’re dying. We’re all dying. Is there anything more cruel than wasting someone else’s mortality with the uninspired details of your own life?
I always judge a book by its title.
Even though all my friends were encouraging me to read The Man with Night Sweats, I refused. I didn’t understand why someone would give their book that title. The image begged for pity and love: a weakened sick man, clinging to his bedsheets, sweating profusely, calling the name of his beloved.
My boyfriend Bill wouldn’t read the book. “That’s not how I want my suffering portrayed,” he said.
“If I was sick, I guess I’d feel the same way.”
“You’re a jerk,” he said. “You should be offended, too.”
“Well, I don’t want to speak as someone who has HIV.”
“Don’t speak as someone,” Bill said. “Speak for someone. Be presumptuous. There’s so few of us in the world. Every voice counts.”
In the last month, a friend of mine who’s also a young gay poet, went through a breakup. His boyfriend of three years who was HIV positive broke up with him. My friend said, “He’s the one who’s dying. Shouldn’t I be the one leaving him?”
I didn’t know what to say. I never think of talking about my breakups as I left him or he left me. All that matters to me is he’s gone. He’s somewhere else. And that somewhere else is not where I am.
“Write an elegy,” I said.
“But he’s not dead. He’s sick,” my friend said.
“I know,” I said. “But he’s as good as dead.”
“But I’d feel like I was killing him off,” my friend said.
“Is voodoo necessarily a bad thing?” I said.
I wonder if the dead love Thom Gunn’s poems. For example, what do they think of “Words for Some Ash”?
Poor parched man, we had to squeeze Dental sponge against your teeth, So that moisture by degrees Dribbled to the mouth beneath.
Christmas Day your pupils crossed, Staring at your nose’s tip, Seeking there the air you lost Yet still gasped for, dry of lip.
Now you are a bag of ash Scattered on a coastal ridge, Where you watched the distant crash, Ocean on a broken edge.
In interviews, Gunn has openly admitted that a lot of his poems are based on real people, real experiences. There seems to be something cruel in Gunn’s relentlessness in portraying the dying as useless, decaying bodies. And is Gunn really addressing the poem to his friend who died, this “poor parched man?” I’m not convinced he is. His friend knows the day-by-day disintegration of his own body. Does he need to be reminded of the specific, horrific details of his own demise? I have no other choice to read this elegy as a nasty taunt.
And I think the dead would find problems with the closing of the poem:
May you lastly reach the shore, Joining tide without intent, Only worried any more By the current’s argument.
It’s interesting to me that Gunn portrays the afterlife as such a conflict-free, blissful existence, devoid of any decision making. Does he not think the dead live and want to be loved? Does he not think the dead have some serious things to take care of?
I should add here I realize I’m speaking for the dead. I do it because I want them to love me for it. I want to have a lot of potential lovers in the afterlife.
In a postscript for one of the poems from Boss Cupid, Gunn writes, “The dead have no sense of tact, no manners they enter doors without knocking, but I continue to deal with them...They pack their bodies into my dreams, they eat my feelings and shit in my mind. They are no good to me, of no value to me, but I cannot shake them...” Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this excerpt is Gunn’s belief that etiquette confounds the relationship between the living and the dead. How much of a projection of Gunn’s English middle-class social codes hinder a more authentic, healthy (?), loving relationship with the spirits he writes about. For a man, who brags about the playful insensitivity of his sexual relationships, I find it oddly defensive of him to privilege good manners over candor and forthright desire. It seems to me that he should view the lack of attention to etiquette as symptomatic of larger problems. Maybe the dead don’t want to be contained in formal elegies. Maybe they want love poems.
My teacher passes out several unremarkable poems from The Man with Night Sweats. During the discussion, she begins to talk about Gunn’s flamboyance, his “extravagance.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. I’ve always seen Gunn as an eerily restrained poet: his plain-spokenness which strays into abstraction rarely, and always to make a larger, necessary philosophical point, his hard, sometimes harsh rhyme schemes, his characteristically short free-verse lines, his sexual experiences always almost told in deliberate flat understatement.
I ask her what she means.
She never really answers. Not that she’s avoiding the question, but other issues elide that debate. I wonder if Gunn has always felt the pressure to use such obvious rhymes, tight lines, because he knew as a gay poet, people would want to see him as out-of-control, a histrionic. Would he have written in much longer lines and have been less likely to employ rhymes if he was straight?
These are not the sort of silly questions one should ask.
These are the sort of questions that ruin any chance of me being loved.
* One of my friends came home to his apartment to find his lover and his best friend in bed. My friend kicked them out and called me on the phone. “It all comes down to who you love,” my friend said to me, “When you love a man you’re doomed. The man will cheat. It’s inevitable.”
“There’s forms of betrayal other than cheating physically with someone else,” I said. “That’s just usually the easiest to identify.”
“Don’t be a Pollyanna.”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m just saying that everyone betrays their lover in some way.” “Then how do you know if he ever loved you?”
“It’s a question of not who loved you, but how you loved. All that matters is how tortured your lover is when he’s found out. If they express shame and regret, then they’ve done the most they can for you. Then they’ve loved you.”
I wonder what the spirit of Robert Duncan thinks about Gunn’s elegy to him. And I wonder if he’s at all jealous of Gunn’s elegy to Donald Davie. Or if Davie is jealous of the elegy to Duncan. I wonder who Gunn loved the most. Because the elegy to Duncan begins the book, I’d want to say that Duncan is loved the most.
But so much of the elegy to Duncan is really about Gunn himself:
...he faltered and he fell -Fell he said later as if I stood ready, “Into the strong arms of Thom Gunn.” Well, well, The image comic, as I might have known, And generous, but it turned things round to myth: He fell across the white steps there alone, Though it was me indeed that he was with.
By contrast, a personal narrative in “To Donald Davie in Heaven” reaches its point of closure with a commentary about Davie. Gunn’s obsession with himself doesn’t upstage his insight on Davie:
I was reading Auden-But I thought you didn’t like Auden, I said. Well, I’ve been reading him again, and I like him better now, you said. That was what I admired about you your ability to regroup without cynicism, your love of poetry greater than your love of consistency.
Am I suffering from needless self-righteousness that I believe a poet should remove himself from the elegy of a beloved as much as possible? Does Gunn’s ability to do this in the latter poem mean that he loved or loves Davie less? It’s so difficult to determine who loves who more. But often it seems to be the only question of any value, urgency.
The following is something you should never do to your beloved.
You should never write an elegy for them before they are dead.
I imagine myself speaking to the ghost of Thom Gunn. I imagine him hovering above my word processor, laughing at my arthritic fingers hunt and peck the computer keys, struggling to type the most profound things imaginable about his poems, his person, his spirit.
I imagine him laughing, thinking that he has an eternity to watch me suffer.
Of course, I only have a lifetime. A single lifetime to figure out how to say I love you without ever using the actual words.
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.
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.
Steve Fellner's second book of poems The Weary World Rejoices was published last year. His first book of poems Blind Date with Cavafy won the Thom Gunn Gay Male Poetry Award.
His memoir, All Screwed Up, focuses on his relationship with his ex-trampoline champion mother.