Monday, June 29, 2009

In Praise of Complaining

(Author's Note: Because of unexpected circumstances, this Sunday's post on the Creative Non-Fiction classroom will be resolved Wednesday. This post has noting to do with creative non-fiction or pedagogy.)

Complaining is my favorite hobby. For me, complaining is not the result of a warped psychology. (At least not on most days.) It is also not a failure of etiquette. It is not a crassness.

It is a symptom of institutional inequalities in the poetry community. It is a way of saying: “Shit. Things shouldn't have worked out like this.”

It is speech that has not quite yet evolved into anger. Complaining is a work-in progress.

A complaint has a form. Anger does not.

Maybe that’s why I feel most like an artist when I complain.


Middle-class people know the danger of complaints. They know a lot of things. They went to school. How could they not know a lot of things? That’s what school does: it teaches you not to complain. The institution says: here is why things are the way they are. You have an explanation. There’s no reason to complain. This is what it means to be a success. This is what it means to be middle-class.


Gay poets need to complain more. Any gay poet who tells another gay poet to not complain is probably not a good person. He probably has a lot of stuff.

Stuff=publications, books, awards, fellowships , etc. etc.

Complaints threaten people who have stuff, whatever that stuff is. If they hear you complain, then they might hear someone else complain, and then another, and finally they might have to accept that all their stuff is not a result of their specialness. It may be a result of his class. It may be a result of him not complaining.

What poet want to accept that they received stuff because they kept their mouth shut? Who obeyed and didn’t complain?

Complaining is essential. It is essential if you want the truth. Complaining demystifies everything. You compare notes; you find out how things work. What a frightening thing for one who has success to know! Institutions don't want us to know how things work. An institution needs your love to exist. An institution does not need to love you in return. It has a lot of love from a lot of people. It can replace you quite easily.

That’s another reason why gay poets do not complain: if they don’t, then one day they may have no reason to do so. They may have plenty of stuff, too.


No one is surprised when a poor person complains. Only middle-class people are denied that privilege.

Is there anything more stupid to say than, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”? That's what middle-class people say to one another.

For a gay poet to say nice things is crazy. All gay poets should complain. Our failure to complain is why we have to focus on Proposition 8 rather than solely on our poems.

Obama has failed us. He didn't hear enough complaints. He didn't need to love us. In the cowardly interest bipartisanship, he decided to tell us that institutions don't need to love us. But also that the institution can murder us: it can extinguish our love and ourselves.


There's another huge reason gay poets don't complain. They fear they might be read as nothing but a complaint in and of themselves. Complaints are by their nature a political act. It says something is wrong.

A lot of poems in literary journals are depictions of scenery/nature.

A lot of them detail extramarital affairs.

A description of a scene/nature is affirmative. It says look how beautiful this is.

An analysis of an extramarital affair is affirmative. It is a snapshot of a good time. That's why people have affairs: to have more good times with more people. Writing about an affair is affirmative: it says I remember a good time that I shouldn't have had.

You shouldn't want to turn the page when you read a description of a scene/nature. You shouldn't want to leave nature. You shouldn't want to leave an affair. They both say yes. They love the page(s) they appear on.

A political poem is a complaint. A complaint is the opposite of affirmation; it is a refusal. It says turn the page. It says the poem is over. It says don't read. Do something.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On the Necessity of Transforming (Occasionally) the Creative Non-Fiction Workshop Into Group Therapy

When I was a graduate student, one of my creative non-fiction teachers gave us a syllabus headlined with the following statement: “THIS CREATIVE NON-FICTION COURSE IS NOT GROUP THERAPY. I AM NOT A LICENSED PSYCHOLOGIST.”

At the time, I applauded such a statement.

But now, as the years have gone by, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong. Why shouldn’t the classroom become a therapeutic space?

What artist didn’t begin creating out of an essential need? Like love?

As an adopted child, I always felt a lack. If I arranged my words in the right way, I believed, that my mother would somehow receive the message. Somehow she’d discover my words and come and save me.

In a small way, I still think that.

As the university transforms into even more of a business, and encourages that horrible word professionalism , there seems to be a greater capitalist need to alienate the personal from the university space. No one wants to say let's right a straight up memoir. We have hybrid genres called charmingly annoying things such as the lyric essay.

(Doesn’t every amazing piece of writing aim for transcendental moments? Are essayists so concerned that their work will be marginalized that they need to attach a qualifier like the lyric? Hoping that the poetic qualifier will justify their writing? Is that why they needed to attach the silly word creative to non-fiction? Out of a fear that –O! My God-someone could mistake their writing as academic, scholarly?)

With the rise of the term creative non-fiction, the memoir feels dated. Old-fashioned. This is what we seem to tell our students now. Write the personal. But. Throw in some factoids, weird typography. Fragment the essay. Give each section an annoyingly clever title. You can then boast that you created a collage.

If anyone invokes the word collage in workshop again, I’ll go to Joseph Cornell’s grave and drive a stake through his heart.

Much to the shock of academics and some creative writing teachers, simple catharsis can produce odd, idiosyncratic details, worthy of an essay. And possibly deserving of classroom space.

Many years ago, I had a beautiful woman in my class. She wrote one of the most intriguing undergraduate essay openings. She listed all of her body parts and explained why each and every one of them were beautiful. (Even her spleen and right inner ear.) This wasn’t presented as self-flattery. She was taking an inventory, something good personal writing can do. Then based on her experience, she continued the essay with a polemic about the ways beautiful people suffer prejudice. I can still remember relishing its weird details. Finally: there was the opportunity to talk about something other than a family vacation or dead grandmother!

Disappointingly, the essay fairly quickly stopped being angry. She used a more conventional narrative to conceal her more taboo, more honest feelings. She went as far to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that we're all special in our own way.

She needed my help. I became a workshop leader because I feel classroom space can provide such opportunities. How could I encourage her to freely vent about her own beauty in a state of undisciplined rage? In this public act of mentorship, how could I also make her less of a spectacle and more of a vehicle to talk about broader issues related to the personal?

This cliff hanger will be resolved Wednesday.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How to Ruin a Gay and Lesbian Literature Class Before It Even Begins

Moments before you teach the class, look in the restroom mirror and accept that you’re at least fifteen pounds overweight. Actually make that an even twenty.

Force yourself to remember that your boyfriend said that it wasn’t your fault. Upstate New York is known for The Garbage Plate. A big helping of hotdogs, baked beans, French friends, and whatever other deep-fried foods you can shove in a trough. You never ate one. But still. Food works like second-hand smoke. Eventually you gain the weight even if you didn't cause it yourself.

Flash forward to the gay male students who will judge you for your chubbiness. Promise yourself you won’t despise the ones in good shape. If you weaken, remember their coolness may make them look more vulnerable to gay-bashers. Their stick bodies may be cracked in two. Don’t smile too much thinking about this.

Or they might secretly have an eating disorder. A lot of fags do. Especially the ones with hot boyfriends, You might be obsessed with macaroni and cheese and die of a heart attack. But more than likely, your death will be quick. Eating disorders are slow killers.

You glance over your syllabus for typos. All you see is you don’t have any books about coming out. Anything slightly aspirational.

Coming out didn’t do anything for you. All that happened was you heard of even more parties you weren’t invited to.

But you know that isn’t fair. You did become a big campus activist, wrote a newspaper column which caught the attention of a drug addict who choose to love you. “You’re a good substitute for meth,” he said. That’s when you fell in love.

The drug addict did have a great chest. You still dwell on the secret reason why you are transfixed by men’s upper bodies.

You were never breastfed.

But there are worse things that have already happened with this class before even its first day. One gay man came to your office and asked how much time would be spent on discussing unisex politics. What the fuck are you talking about, you wanted to say. You felt old. You thought invoking the word queer would be cutting edge.

You’re such a dummy. That is how far you are behind the times. You decide you’ll never confess that in 2009 you saw Rent for the first time. And yes, in 2009, relished telling you friend that you saw this brand-new hip show. Your friend slapped you across the face and said, “’Legally Blonde: The Musical is all the rage now.” Realize he is still the kind of gay man who still wears rainbow necklaces.

Promise yourself that if any other gay man mentions something you don’t know, avoid outright lying, Instead you smile and talk loudly. That’s how you convey sincerity to gay men. And the deaf. Talk loudly and smile.

You promise yourself to make the class not about yourself. The books are what matters. You will not blabber on and on about yourself and turn it into group therapy. Even though that’s one of your strengths. Isn’t that ultimately why we teach what we teach? To voice our obsessions to people who have no choice but to listen?

Don’t offer a Spark Notes version of your memoir that’s just been released: the public sex with strangers who reminded you of your dad who left your family; cruising for men outside STD clinics, who looked like they just got a clean bill of health; your happiness in telling a gay man who didn’t love you back that you were gay-bashed. You wanted pity to create a spark that had never been there in the first place.

Whatever you do, don’t think of the class as an opportunity for redemption, a chance to purge your sins, to say to the world finally, something you should have said years ago, perhaps even before you came out. “I’m sorry,” you will want to say. You will want to say it before it even begins.


Monday, June 22, 2009

On Denise Duhamel's Wonderful Instruction on How to Make Class Not Only An Issue of Subject Matter, but also a Formal One

I once wrote that some of Denise Duhamel’s poems could be labeled Light Verse. I don't want anyone to think that I saw Duhamel primarily a practitioner of that genre. There would be nothing wrong if she was, but I don’t see her as that. For a poet as prolific and wonderfully comic as Duhamel, I can’t imagine her not experimenting with such a genre. I offered an analysis of one poem “Please Don’t Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen.” Which I feel shared the characteristics of Light Verse. There are others. But I do ultimately see her as a poet who uses humor as a vehicle to discuss larger political and personal issues.

This post has as a three-fold purpose:

1.) to identify Duhamel as a poet of discursive lyricism (my label)

2.)to discuss Duhamel’s class politics as an attempt to continue the conversation from my last post

3.) to show Duhamel as a poet who uses humor as a vehicle to talk about larger issues rather that simply to entertain. Not that entertainment is undesirable, or missing in Duhamel’s work.


Why choose Duhamel to talk about class over a queer male poet?

Duhamel is more of a gay male poet than most gay male poets

And more supportive of the gay male community than its actual members.

At least two established queer male poet has told me that they feel self-conscious about choosing another gay writer for a book contest winner. One in fact told me that he felt an obligation to deliberately overlook a gay poet because he had just chosen one for another competition. It was the best of the finalists, but he was afraid he’d look like he was advancing an agenda.

As politically active as almost any other popular poet, she doesn't seem to stoop in thinking about such fears. Think about all the gay lives she’s changed (including my own) through her evaluations. Think about all the various aesthetics she’s embraced.

Is there anything more queer than creating so many overlapping dialogues in a poetry community wrecked by predictable factions?


In a good number of her poems, Duhamel deals with class, and I would argue, not simply as subject matter, but perhaps even more crucially as a formal issue.

In a recent on-line interview between Nin Andrews and Denise Duhamel, we see Duhamel describe her childhood as such:

I grew up in Woonsocket, RI during the 60s and 70s. It was a dying mill town at that time. Very working class. There wasn’t a bookstore, but there was a library, which I really loved.

And then even more specifically:

My father was a baker—he finished 8th grade, but then had to quit school to work to help support the family. My mother was a nurse—she was the Valedictorian of her high school class and got a scholarship to college. The guidance counselor told her she had two choices—nurse or schoolteacher. This was 1954. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled about me becoming a writer. They saw my chance to go to college as a chance to make more money than they did, not as a chance for artistic freedom. Still, they accepted my decision. I think my father was proud of me—he died in November of 2008. My mother is too. I think they both wished I’d written less about sex.

I think it would be hard to not justifiably conflate the narrator of the poem “Lucky Me” with Denise Duhamel herself. Even if one disagrees with me on this point, I would defend myself by saying the sheer imaginative breadth of the poem makes one want to believe that the “I” is autobiographical. To the poem’s credit, you want to completely enter the world of Duhamel that you don’t mind transgressing such dogma of literary analysis.

Her most recent and exciting book of poems Ka-Ching boasts the presence of this poem. (Even though I am a huge fan of this collection, my favorite still remains The Star-Spangled Banner.)


Is there anything more annoying than at a public event someone asking: “What do you do?” The phony curiosity is in some ways a dare: Tell me how you justify your existence. Tell me something that will make you respectable in my eyes. Tell me you’re worth of my conversation.

Having been a child of poor parents, I always want to say: I sit on my ass all day long. Which is true. Sitting on your ass all day long is an underrated activity.

In a startling unique way in terms of subject matter and form. Duhamel answers the question: “What do you do?”


Without much or any context, the poem at first seems to absent mindedly jump from its title to its first lines:

For awhile I hated myself for not making it into prose-with movie rights
and screen credits and meetings with stars and walk-on parts.
Maybe, my friend Michael says, I simply wasn’t hungry enough.
But I was famished.
(I’d written two novels for adults and one for teens,
none of which were published with covers, artwork on the front
and blurbs on the back. They never were put on bookshelves
in libraries or stores, never assigned a price or barcode,
never marked down or remaindered. I never signed a copy
or had someone to come up to me and say, Hey I’m in the middle
of your novel-not bad. The titled were Precious Blood, That Song
You know the One about Love, and A Girl’s Best Friend.
Each took me several years to finish. And there was a screenplay
called Headlines, a comedy about a weather girl in New York
and her crazy brother who wants to become famous, but he has no real talent
and is not a murderer or a winning pie-eating contest
so he’s pretty much screwed.

Who can resist Denise’s shamelessness in revealing every comically self-absorbed detail of her struggle with “work?”

But even more importantly, Denise imparts the information with so little pause. The ostensible lack of enjambment defies the conventional tidiness of mainstream, middle-class poetics. Denise will not shut up. She refuses to let shame or self-consciousness stop her from telling a story.

This isn’t in any way to imply that Duhamel doesn’t use the line in more subtle ways.

Yes: I would argue that Denise is strategic in her recklessness. (For my own self-justification, I hope she would attribute such a quality at least in part to her lower-to-middle class background). Her exacting formal choices are considerably underplayed. It always annoys that me that discursive poets are always seen as employing less technical skill. Just look at the line break of the final two lines as well as the artful colloquialisms of this excerpt.

I also don’t like that discursive poetry is seen as less than the lyric or for that even less than more restrained narrative. I’d like to coin the term discursive lyricism. You could put Duhamel happily in this category. Other members of this clan: David Kirby, Steve Orlen, Jason Bredle, Clay Matthew, Josh Bell...)

Through describing every contour of her search for career, she refuses a more measured middle-class response. Since you asked, she seems to be saying, I’ll tell you.

And I'll continue telling. She doesn't show. She tells and tells and then tells so more. Good riddance to the needless creative writing mantra: Show. Don't tell. People from less privileged upbringings don't have time to frame or show. They need to skip the formalities and find out what will keep them going.

This refusal to shut up contributes to the narrative’s richness. If we believe God is in the details, we can ultimately subscribe to polytheism with every fact Duhamel provides:

..I also wrote a few episodes of She TV, a vehicle
for my friend who was a stand-up comic and wanted to be a VJ on Vh1,
but they told her that she didn’t have big enough boobs. She used to joke,
Just tell me who to blow to get this job and I’ll do it...a line I tried to use, too,
but by then I was mostly writing poetry, and the joke fell flat,
the joke teller-me-more pathetic because she was just trying
to get published in tiny literary magazines with print runs of 200
rather than make hundreds of thousands of dollars. I also wrote
a few skits for Wake Up, Jerusalem for another friend who was also trying
to break into comedy or acting. But I didn’t understand enough about Jewish
culture, so my punchlines were a bit off. I was typecast
in real life as the kooky best friend to women who would later go on to play
the kooky best friend in movies...

What’s not visible here but remarkable is that these lines are contained in a 73-line parenthetical expression. Within that parenthetical expression, Denise brackets four lines. Tangent within tangent. What can be scarier to the middle-class than a refusal to offer empty, clear-cut answers? Another disposable soundbite?

Middle-class culture wants you to offer just enough of yourself so that they don't really have to get to know you. That’s where the inherent generosity of Duhamel’s poems emerge. She’s too present. Which is a miraculous thing.

This isn’t at the same time any attempt to romanticize someone from a more humble class background. (I cringe even using the word humble, but what can I do?) The parenthetical expressions, the brackets, the refusal to employ expected enjambment all contribute to the expression of anything but an all-too-familiar middle-to-upper mindful voice, overdetermined to arrange their material in “sensitive ways.”

You could even claim that the parenthetical expression is Denise’s way of teasing herself. She knows she’s blabbering (and we’re happy that she does). She makes a vain effort to use the punctuation as a source of containment. But she knows better, and cheerfully, so do we. The parenthetical marks encourage her to continue even more determinedly, making her discursiveness an unstoppable force.

Discursive lyricism is often cited as privileging the sentence over the line. This is incorrect and annoying. Nothing is more unkind than when a critic says of a poem, “This is prose chopped up into lines.” How dare they! It implies that poets such as Duhamel don’t know the basic unit of poetry. Perhaps a poem can be something else: one uninterrupted line, a hysterical endless breath coming from a voice that won’t stop being heard. In a poetry community that prizes fake modesty, dull reserve Duhamel may be just what we need.

The look of the poem also fights middle-class etiquette. The poem essentially is three pages long, the lines stretch from one side of the page to the other. No stanza breaks. The layout says, Here you go. Here’s a lot of stuff. The columns look like slabs of food from a cheap all-you-can-eat buffets my family used to visit.

Don’t say I’m not giving you anything, Duhamel says with her poem.

This offering of self is one of the most important attributes of discursive lyricism.

When it comes to poetry, less is not necessarily more.

More can be more. And a lot more can be a lot more. Ask Alan Greenspan.


Happy endings are underrated. Here's the closure to Duhamel's poem:

...I remember eating
one particularly delicious lunch at my Bank of America temp desk
soda crackers and seedless grapes
I'd lifted the night before at an event to promote Stepping Out,
a movie starring Liza Minelli. Michael called to say he had two free tickets
to Tracey Ullman's one woman show The Big Love. I'll be there, I said.
But I can't chat right now. It wasn't that my boss wasn't around.
I didn't want to talk because I knew Liza would never read
my revised Pickles script and I didn't want any false hope.
I didn't want to talk because I was happy,
scribbling "Lucky Me," a new poem, on a crumpled Stepping Out party napkin
I'd fished out of the bottom of my Goodwill purse.

Who wouldn't hope that the Goodwill purse, once a sign of being down and out, a meager but sincere attempt at fashion, has now transformed into a classy vintage article, yet another sign, along with her poems, that Duhamel is leading the pack?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Gay Poets James Allen Hall's and Christopher Hennessey's Curious Class Politics

No doubt gay men need to take part of the blame for their weak resistance of Proposition 8. I would argue a significant reason for this failure resulted from a lack of insight into the economic power of the Church of Latter Day Saints, which effectively harnessed money to organize an effective conservative campaign.

This gay male resistance to class-based inquiry surfaced in aggressive critique of some benign speculative comments about the economic status of Paul Monette.

Recently I was surprised to find that some brief statements I made in an interview caused some readers to become “a bit offended.”

Here is what I said:

“I wish I could tell you something like Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man impacted me. But it didn’t. He was wealthy. And it’s good that you mention class, as Monette’s “coming out” memoir did bother me a little, when I first read it. His sentences reflected his privilege; they were clean and neat. I just couldn’t connect. I liked being poor. It meant I could act up and people would blame it on my trashy parents. There are many writers I like and admire—big names like James Merrill and Edmund White—who were part of the early gay ‘canon.’ But it was hard not to notice that much of this work came from a fairly privileged background. I think as social progress continues to move forward, we’ll see more memoirs that reflect economic backgrounds where it’s been historically more difficult to be openly gay.”

Queer poet Christopher Hennessey posted that excerpt from an interview on his blog. James Allen Hall responded:

"Monette isn't uppercrust, though he does get to go to some good schools (Andover and then to Yale). That memoir's sentences are about beauty, which may have its roots in a certain sense of class, but to say that the syntax is a symptom of Monette's class is just essentialist and wrong (at the same time). Monette worked for Andover and was a day student -- something that marked him among his peers as lower class and for which others mocked him. He worked as a grocery bag boy in the summers. And when he graduated from Yale (a school he was pressured not to accept by the Andover headmaster because he was not of the right class), he got a job teaching English, traveling between two schools to make a living. Sure, the prose is sometimes breezy about that work, but would we really rather he bemoan how tough it was? I'm a bit offended at Steve's recollection and sweeping misinterpretation of Monette's work."

Christopher Hennessey then echoed Hall’s claims:

“I too remember Monette's writing as beautiful but not as with an agenda that Fellner's attributes to it.”

I do not want to belabor this point: I respect Hall and Hennessey. You need to go no further than my blog for that evidence.

This doesn’t, though, insulate their public statements from critique. I am concerned about their desire to silence class-based inquires of gay male writers.

To best honor their arguments, I will enumerate my grievances:

1.) Both Hennessey and Hall use the word “beauty” or “beautiful” for aggressive reasons. At best, it is their attempt to guard aesthetics from the political. Their choice of words indicates a common middle-class gay male refusal: to self-reflect about their own complicity in national economic inequalities. Which allows them to avoid addressing and then attempting to change that inequality. Gay males shouldn’t used their queerness to deny their own investment in a corrupt capitalist system. They must accept their privilege (their maleness and middle-class position), rejecting a holistic victim status. My pretty much diluted and tangential comment inspired them to react in a common way: to inquire about class automatically precludes an attack against beauty. Was I preaching Marxism? And what if I was?

2.) Hennessey doesn’t seem to be able to juxtapose politics with the “beautiful.” It’s either one or the other. As he himself says, “I, too, remember Monette’s writing as beautiful but not as with an agenda.” I’m not sure why he must insist on this either/or dichotomy.

3.) Hall is a little more generous. As he puts it, “the memoir’s sentences are about beauty, which may have its roots in a certain sense of class.” But Hall still deprivileges class, the political. Begrudgingly, Hall conditionally admits class “may” have an influence.

4.) In Hall’s commentary this is the most confounding statement: “the memoir’s sentences are about beauty.” For a variety of reasons, the strange use of the verb “are” concerns me. Is he claiming that Monette’s “Becoming a Man” functions as a treatise for beauty? Is he claiming that Monette self-reflectively comments about his own sentences “as beautiful”? Or is he, perhaps, insisting that the diction, syntax etc etc. make the narrative less about political content and more about the pure sound or construction of the sentence? I’m confused. Except for the fact that he wants to pretty much safeguard “beauty” against any aggressive political critique.

5.) In a peculiar way, Hennessey uses the word “agenda.” I was surprised that he would invoke a word often used by anti-gay crusaders: queer male teachers want to convert our children, queer men want special rights in their demand for inclusion in discrimination statements, etc. etc.

6.) And is an “agenda” necessarily bad thing? I would make the claim that any narrative has an “agenda.” What else is a reader supposed to do but evaluate the narrative’s intention? Is a biographical reading of a story a worthless one?

6.) I have no choice but to ask why Hennessey and Hall feels such a need to depoliticize Monette’s story. What is their own personal and economic investment in advancing such defensive resentment?

Hennessey and Hall both attempted to marginalize my comments about class. To make speculative analysis about class-related issues doesn’t in any way taint beauty. Should art not engage the soul and the mind? Are Hall and Hennessey unconsciously (or consciously) promoting an anti-intellectual agenda?

(I prefer to use the term “magic” instead of beauty, but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

This is the ultimate problem with Hennessey's and Hall’s comments: they loosely parallel the way in which gay men failed to take into consideration the economic power of The Mormon Church in the battle of Proposition 8.

Gay men failed to speculate about the Mormon church’s economic power and its possible consequences. If we continue to ignore class-based commentary in various areas, even in the realm of poetic dialogue, gay men will continue to fail themselves.

Insulating ourselves from speculative class-based inquiry ensures a failure of equality in federal law and a comprehensive discussion of poetry.

A very minor point: if you read my initial comments I never once declare that Monette is “uppercrust.” At most I say he is “privileged” and “fairly privileged.” I don’t see how anyone can see a Yale graduate otherwise. Perhaps Yale had a booming Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) program that I’m unaware of.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Ethics of Creative Non-Fiction and Proposition 8 (Part Two of a Series)

It’s always been odd to me that so many poets turn to writing memoir. Out of cynicism you could say that younger writers do this for a job: recently most of the MLA advertisements ask for at least some sort of accomplishment in non-fiction. This was one of several reasons why I began non-fiction. Health insurance seemed like a good thing to have.

Always having an interest in the autobiographical, I felt a certain amount of self-consciousness and shame in doing so. I still feel that the writing of the personal is a lesser, somewhat embarrassing endeavor, as I explained in the last post.

For me, memoir equals uncreative non-fiction. (This term creative non-fiction has, I feel, received a bad rap. As a pedagogical tool, it has benefits—something I will address in a later post).

As an undergraduate, the discovering of line and the exploration of the ways lines can look on the page excited me. To me, it also justified my use of the autobiographical. The personal was invigorated and redeemed by putting the material into a poem.

As I finished my first poetry manuscript, I noticed that my lines were growing longer and longer. This made me nervous.

This is what also made me nervous: I didn’t care how the lines were arranged on the page. I just wanted them to be there.

These moves also begged a central question: if I wasn’t paying attention and essentially ignored the basic units of poetry (the line and its look) how could I continue to justifiably shape the material into a poem?

It seemed like an unethical act.

Essentially, I was showing disrespect to poetry, something I loved.

Why call something by a name, if you no longer produced something that embodied that label?

I had no choice but to stop writing poetry until I figured out why I was compelled to do so.

That might be why lately I’ve written less poetry.

I suppose it may sound like a silly thing, but I’ve always feel that to not be interested in the primary formal issues of a particular genre means you should not write in it any longer. And for me, the line and the look are two of the most important formal issues of poetry.

I do understand that some people want to blur the lines of the lyric and non-fiction when possible. Call it the lyric essay. But that has always felt to me a preposterous undertaking. It seems like a self-justification, a lack of ethical courage to call something by an appropriate name.

With measures like Proposition 8, naming becomes even more important. People labeled homosexual cannot marry. To say that we shouldn’t name, we’re limiting ourselves, continues to allow for institutionalized discrimination. Our labels matter to the nation. By elasticizing the labels of our artistic creation encourages more of the same in other walks of life. Such as our art.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Gay Domestic Narrative Poem, Memoir, and the Sentence (Part One of a Series)

Except for Siskel & Ebert, my favorite TV show growing up was Love Connection. I loved the idea of a man and a woman going out on a date and then coming back to the TV studio, discussing what occurred. Now you have video cameras trailing the couple. Back then, all we received was their own reflections—the pure uninterrupted dish coming from their own mouths. We never saw them actually on the date. It felt so personal. Like they were directly talking to me. They needed to know if they deserved love.

Perhaps this is what caused me to begin writing about the domestic. I was fat and lonely, as some of these people were. It was a time when a contestant didn’t need to be as beautiful as the host to appear on the show.

I wanted someone to see my poems worthy of love. Or pity. I still don’t know the difference.


As a queer writer who writes almost only domestic narratives, I resent others who do the same. You’re stealing my material.

One gay poet told me he was planning to write about his alcoholic father.

“That’s interesting,” I said.

Pause. “My dad was homeless,” I said.

He looked sad, as if he knew I had won something. And I had.

A completely different moment in my life. This one occurred between me and a gay man I wanted to love me.

He, too, was planning to write about his alcoholic father.

“That’s interesting,” I said. “Your story is one that needs to be told. So many of us need to know there's others like us.”


This is undeniable: every gay male (including, of course, myself) writing poems about the domestic questions their own work . They suspect their work is the result of obsession, attention to the self, not craft. If they weren’t medicated (or alcoholics or both), they may write prose. Or keep the stories in their journals. These poets know they should keep their stories private. They won't acknowledge a true creative person would enter another world, another language other than their own.


Self-pity does not need to be monotone. It can have many different tones, pitches, frequencies, and even, uses.


There’s only one reason people cheer the domestic: they know they could write the same thing. If they tried. All they need is a computer and disposable memories.

Tomorrow's post will be for James Allen Hall, a poet I respect a lot. He wrote an intriguing comment on the blog Outside the Lines, one of the most useful resources for me on the internet.

Here's the link to Hall's comment:

Friday, June 12, 2009

On the Political Power of Instability and Charles Jensen's "I Am the Boy Tied Down"

Charles Jensen’s brilliant poem “I Am the Boy Tied Down” raises significant issues with the title alone. Not only does the title obviously refer to Matthew Shepard’s murder but also the predicament, that we, as gay poets, find ourselves. No less of a “boy” than Shepard, we’re “tied down” by our urges to create poems responding to our current oppression, history of subjugation, and the desire to create the beautiful. With recent setbacks, like Proposition 8, it is easy to privilege the political over aesthetics. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But Jensen juxtaposes both with admirable deftness.

[This poem appeared in the David Trinidad-edited edition of MiPOesias Magazine 2007. I can't figure out how to post the entire poem without sacrificing "the look" of the poem. Instead of sacrificing the visual style, here's the link:

Please, please use it to see the poem the way it was meant to be seen.]

This is ultimately the key to Jensen’s approach: undeniable instability. Jensen’s shamelessly inflates almost every aspect of the poem with huge poetic gestures. In a world where federal law demands gays to behave, this poet reject self-control. This histrionic approach reaches for melodrama, restlessness, shifting perspectives, whatever lies behind that personal, limited “I.”

Predictably, justifiably influenced by one of our masters, Richard Siken, you admire Jensen’s refusal to domesticate “the look” of the poem; he rebels against the commonplace move to keep everything aligned to the right. Jensen allows his line to reach to the other side, sometimes even allowing the line to begin in the middle of the page. Strategically obnoxious, Jensen flings the lines all over, refusing to make his poem behave.

Rejection from certain public spaces occurs all too-often to gay men.. In a world where gay bashings regularly occur, it is important that we don’t allow fear to immobilize us. The unpredictability of the lines’ appearance functions as a necessary call-to-arms: we need to seize what might be otherwise inaccessible spaces: the streets after dark, the institution of marriage, the army, certain religious institutions, etc. etc.

The first person “I” of the poem startles. The ubiquitous pronoun refuses to remain contentedly stable, as it often does in lesser poems. That often inadequate choice creates a self-pitying, inert first person. It represents us as singular bereft gay male, rotely pitying Shepard. Which still allows the poet to congratulate himself for his sensitivity and political awareness.

Remarkably ambitious, Jensen offers a rare comprehensiveness of the tragedy. He offers a democratic perspective of the incident, offering the stage to everyone involved. Even more courageously, he includes all the props, including the gun and the road leading to Shepard’s death. In Jensen's world, metaphor can morph in a split second, destabilizing us. We can’t be "tied down" as poets if we keep altering, confusing our readers through constant transformation.

Simile is appropriately avoided. It is a smart move. In God’s world (and I think it is undeniable there is a spiritual force greater than our own souls), nothing can be “like” something else. Everything is distinct and special. Similes, by their very nature, are useless lies. (Similes and the creepy exclamation mark should be banned from use!)

Let’s look at the multiplicity of perspectives courageously gathered in this poem. There’s Shepard himself:

I am the boy tied to a fence and I have a deep wound for the world.
There is autumn, there is sky, there is blood. The world is simple
in the dark.

And the murderers:

I am a killer. My hands are two big guns fully loaded.
I am a killer and I go into the night with a pair of hands that fire off shots.
I smack him with the gun.
I smack him with the gun.
I smack him with the gun.

And the scenery:

I am the moon. A boy is tied down to a fence by his wrists
while two boys look on.

Sky bears down on the landscape like an open mouth.
The mountains sink into the earth. Shards of broken teeth.

And the props:

I am the smooth mahogany bar on which the boy’s small hands rest.

And Time itself:

I am the alpha and omega, the dawn and its darkness, the beginning and the end.

Along with the sheer comprehensiveness of the perspectives, Jensen uses a number of discourses. Once again Jensen’s deployment of various rhetoric excites his politics. Streamlined religious language oppresses. The solid, impenetrable language of state and federal law immobilizes as well. Through unpredictable rhetorical moves, Jensen offers other ways of fighting the nation’s attempt to cage queers .

Look at the way the language changes throughout the poem.. At one point Jensen uses the sensual:

I am the night. I have more stars than there are names;
if I listed them here you would forget them or move on.
The night is not conventional time. In the darkness I know
you are capable of so much, so much.

Then, at some points, the philosophically abstract:

I am the failure of the body to remain a boy.
In the remains of failure, the body of a boy.
I am the remains of a boy, the body of his failure.

And even the unabashed sentimental:

I am a bone of the body. Every seven years
I am completely new and have no memory
of what came before. If I am broken, I grow back.

Against creative writing dogma, sentimentality does have use. It should not be invariably rejected. To do so is to dismiss a shared language. Straight people who may reject a more defiant language can find a way into understanding gay oppression through the sentimental, pathos. This potential embrace of the sentimental allows our collective to grow even larger.

(I never hesitate in giving my partner a Hallmark card. I’ll even go through and underline the most sentimental lines, emphatically, as a sign that these words are most true to my feelings. And yes—I do mean feelings—a word that frightens most draconian academics and their minions.)

Unlike Shepard, the gay male poet can escape from the tyranny of homophobic language through breaking what keeps us “tied” down: the ugly limited power of the victimized, stable “I.” As Jensen declares, “I am the boy who is tied down and he is me.” This unapologetic conflation of identity allows for necessary memorialization and poetic possibility.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On the Lambda Literary Awards, Kindness, and Aaron Shurin

With the yearly announcement of the Publishing Triangle and Lambda Literary Awards, small press books emerge you may not have discovered on your own. It happened to me this year. I am thankful to the Lambda judges for choosing Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows as a finalist for men’s memoir/biography.

As a creative non-fiction teacher, I know that I will undoubtedly teach his memoir.

Consisting of twenty-two short essays, King of Shadows deals with nature, the writing life, San Francisco past and present, the intersection of growing older and queerness.

So many memoirs impose strict organization on their material. It is an understandable attempt to make the memoir read like fiction: a potentially contrived immediacy, tension, quickly paced. You’re secured that the author will not only reveal the protagonist’s pivotal life moment, but that it will also be boldfaced. With the plethora of memoirs, you have to convince your audience (and yourself) you should offer the story of your life to the world.

Writing epiphanies are a predictable and dangerous thing, sometimes an outright lie. Shurin does something different.

Unlike most memoirists, Shurin refuses to impose phony conflict, drama.

He chases the aggressively banal moments of life. This sort of aggression causes Shurin to stand out from other memoirists.

One of the more dramatic moments surfaces in one of his more nature-focused chapters, “Reciprocity.” It deals with his symbiotic relationship with flowers.

Notice how the poet takes control of the word perform, so rotely used by theory-buffs who often make the word mean nothing. As a poet, he seizes the word, giving it a concreteness. Like a true poet, his “drama” reveals itself in an ars poetics:

“...while on the right a massive bush of climbing roses, which had been cut back before I arrived, began to open by the dozen, dense, ruffled circlets of deep tangerine that matured into glowing apricot love-nests, seductively subtle and flamboyant at the same time, before finally releasing themselves into exhausted overblown white. By then it was clear that my garden was performing for me. It responded to my dutiful and generous care with creative intent-it grew!-and if I refrain from adding “joyously” so not to (over) anthropomorphize, I can still insist the mutual give and take was relational. Having saved it from meltdown, brought back to life, cultivated it, savored it, stroked it, fed it, worried over it, been endlessly started by it and euphorically entertained, I’d clearly forged a deep reciprocal bond.”

Throughout King of Shadows, Shurin obsesses about the ostensibly insignificant: moving into a new apartment, hanging out in a sauna, observing fish, discussing his mentor Denise Levertov’s troubling politics.

He dedicates a chapter to tracing the relationship between him, Robert Duncan, and Levertov. What is instructive about this passage is he does his best to understand Levertov’s dismissal of his more political, explicitly gay poetry. He’s not using his memoir as a tool for vengeance. His thoughts’ circuitousness reveal his admiration and disappoint in her.

This professed ambivalence is an act of kindness. He strives for a Zen-like balance (a practice he admittedly doesn’t use as a compositional model):

The school quarter had been peppered with demonstrations and student strikes, and we’d often, if I remember correctly, met off-campus; that we should go together to work at the park was testimony to our support of Denise’s political conviction as well as our belief that the common purposes of poetry made a place for voice in the space of action; ‘the personal is political’ extended its alliterative syllogism to include ‘poetry.’”

Later Shurin sent her his poems that did contain homosexual content. This offering excited him “with expectant pride”. But her response was at best tepid. He offers a quotation from her letter:

“When I seem to detect a note of propaganda it turns me off completely. But when you are simply writing poetry and transcending opinion then I can respond. This may sound inconsistent from one who has written ‘political’ poetry, but I believe my political concerns to be less parochial in theme.”

He clearly identifies his disappointment:

“She was telling me, in fact, that it wasn’t a poetic argument that most mattered to her: The argument was political and revolved around the supremacy of her own ideology. Parochial! If I (thought I) was busy tying up racism, misogyny, homophobia, and warmongering into a unified theory of oppression, her authoritarianism split the weave, and unraveled me where I was most in need of support.”

Going a step further, he says:

“This double face of her response had the power of revelation: of a true homophobia in her nature (‘too emphatically homosexual’) that called forth the same stern disapproving persona who so vehemently opposed The People’s Prick.”

Continuing to analyze the friendship, allowing her the benefit of the doubt, he adds nuance to her motivation. This is a kindness that allows for a redemptive possiblity:

“It occurs to me now that Denise’s ruffled recalcitrance may have hidden the fact that I had recently met and formed a friendship with Robert Duncan. I must have told her, and she must have felt in a paranoid way- as she certainly did later-that this new association implied a censure and maybe even a kind of gay alliance.”

This self-reflection embodies the spirit of the book. Refusing to harshly accuse, Shurin avoids the pitfall that deflates the power of most memoirs. As he knows, most readers would love to read about the melodramatic conflicts between writers. He shuns such temptations. Acknowledging Levertov’s homophobia, he does restrain himself through pointing to a banality of friendship. In a friendship triangle one person always feels left out. This gracious statement is an ultimate act of kindness.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On the Ethics of Creative Non-Fiction and Aaron Shurin's Memoir "King of Shadows"

Ellen Bryant Voigt has upset me more than any other poet. After my encounter with her, I promised myself I would avoid the poet in every way for the rest of my life.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, I signed up for a conference with her to discuss my work. I was excited. I’m a sycophant and find it an exciting challenge to be liked by someone popular. At the same time, I become frightened that I will be judged in an unfavorable way, slink away from the encounter without any self-respect. I’m a nervous person.

During my conference with Voigt, I deflected any talk about my work, and instead asked questions about hers, particularly the intriguing volume Kyrie which deals with the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. In this book, she writes poems in the personaes of those impacted by the plague. The characters are based on actual real-life people is history.

As it was creative non-fiction, it raised questions for me: How does a writer offer a compelling and organized narrative without warping the characters in such a way you show disrespect for the dead. This sort of work is elegiac, after all, and the dead do possess a right to be remembered in a respectful way. At least, I think so.

So I asked her that.

“I am their God,” she said, “I brought them back to life. Once I write their lives, they become mine.”


One of my brilliant graduate students asked brought up this same very question, and then explored the role of ethics in memoir. In her inquiry, she triumphed in explaining two ways in which a writer can represent The Real, the actuality of historical and/or personal events. She differentiated between translation and distortion. I’ve stolen this idea from her. This dichotomy now supplies my classes with a fun way of looking at CNF.

Let’s draw an analogy to explain the differences.

Think of the way it works in terms of translation of a poem from one language into another. No one could, to a certain extent, acknowledge the importance of translation. You allow a whole new audience accessibility to a foreign work.

In the process of translation, undoubtedly, some words could not be translated to new ones. There would be no equivalent. But you’d find approximations.

And those approximations would be as faithful to the original as possible.

The original text still remains the one worshipped, given appropriate respect.

But if you decided that you wanted to warp the meanings in order to more closely fit your political/aesthetic/ethical agenda, problems arise. You fail to llow your audience to make their interpretations. You appoint yourself as God; the original words no longer marked with the need for respect, fidelity. Your behavior is unkind. That's distortion.

This is all a lead-in to talk about poet Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows. It is one of the kindest pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.

My discussion of Shurin's King of Shadows will continue Wednesday.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On Billy Collins, Politics, and Queer Poet-Activist Edward Field

In a way, it’s no surprise that Billy Collins offered a blurb to Edward Field for his selected and new volume After the Fall. With even a cursory glance, you see that they’re both invested in the plain-spoken idiom, too often reasonable line break, and the boasting of a mildly amusing conceit, ending with a witticism. Not necessarily a bad thing. Entertaining isn’t a sin. Or at least not as much as gay men wanting to marry, according to Proposition 8.

Billy Collins has gotten a bum rap. In this age of weak criticism, where saying anything questioning yields fear and anger, it’s no surprise that everyone targets their hostility toward the same person. And who better to attack than a white, straight, heterosexual male who likes to crack jokes, and thinks he’s funnier than he actually is? Leave the poor guy alone. He’s done some charity work, editing “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry” and such, offering younger poets recognition.

But we like to go after the obvious. Yes, a Billy Collins poem has a sure-fire formula; he’s always sitting at his desk, looking out the window. But if you’ve seen Collins read, he strategically makes his own banality known, reading in an uninflected manner, tossing off his best jokes. He generously hints that he’s not that good.

An Edward Field Poem is a Billy Collins Poem. Sometimes I hear gay poets talk about Fields in a reverential sense, as if he’s done so much for queer poetry. And that’s possible, I suppose. But he hasn’t done anymore than Collin for straights.

I don’t want to sound overly critical of either of them. (At the same time, Collins poems share some disconcerting political views about the role of history in our lives. More on that later...)_

With some disappointment and relief, I think that Field shield himself through his openness of his sexuality, his overtly political rhetoric at times. I prefer the former; his contribution to the intersection of queerness and old age deserves more inspection.


Here I want to briefly talk about the way Field engages hot-button political issues. His method is as repetitive as Collins.

Here’s the first stanza of a recent poem called “Homeland Security”:

My advice to anybody who looks like an Arab these days is,
when you’re in a post office or jogging around the reservoir,
never stop and jot down any notes,
even if it’s a great idea for a poem.
And for God’s sake don’t snap any photos at the airport,
even of your cousins arriving from St. Louis.
God forbid you should draw a map of the subway for them,
showing the route between their hotel and your house!

Collins no doubt was proud of the establishment of that conceit. Mark that off the tidy checklist. One acknowledgment of the poet writing the poem. Check. Self-congratulatory humor. Check.

The second stanza elaborates the thesis:

And if a new “friend”-the guy on the next barstool, say-
starts suggesting pranks
like blowing up the tunnels....
just keep saying what’s fun about that,
even as a reality game, and you’re really only
interested in poetry about nightingales.

The witty closure:

And when they lead you away in handcuffs
don’t bother protesting your innocence and calling for a lawyer.
You can’t have one-and you’re guilty.

An easy “political” poem—what liberal isn’t going to agree with a critique of this prejudice. That’s why the poem fails. Field reveals no intricate ambivalence. This lack is what causes some gay poets to prematurely dismiss the political poem as containing little, if any, artistic value. Who can deny this poem might even have worked better as a column on the editorial page of a newspaper?

I hate saying this. I think too many gay poets have rejected the possibility of an overt politics and a sophisticated aesthetics emerging.

In this poem, Fields does offer one potentially interesting moment. He tellingly skips over the idea that could cause complications:

And if this “friend” brings up the subject of the Palestinians,
for whom you might reasonably have some sympathy...

Unpack that word reasonably, and you could have a firestorm on your hands. Is the reasonably pedantic? Condescending? Genuine? Sarcastic?

Here’s the rub: Nuance can be form. It can emerge through the acceptance that a poem by its very nature can’t express tone. Only possibility.

Field is as slick as Collins; he skips over the nuance. What if your protestor forgets why he’s marching in the first place, or the entertainer comes to believes the heckler might be right. Both fear their potential silence on the stage. They may become lost, and that expectation may be why we’d happily follow them .

A Thoughtful Reply Regarding My Last Post from Joshua Weiner, The Editor of "At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn"

Dear Steve Fellner,

I think you ask some fair questions, which may be answered more fully in the full version of the essay--it contains a fuller critical response to specific poems than the excerpt suggests. As the editor of the book that Tom Sleigh's essay appears in, I very much wanted a "hetero" thinking about homosexual experience, and though I didn't ask Sleigh for such an essay, I was happy to have this one--in the book it works in conversation with essays by Alfred Corn, Brian Teare, and Neil Powell that take up the issue of homosexuality from different homosexual points of view. (Brian Teare's essay is very long and exhaustive, and I think great). As a heterosexual and a big fan of Thom Gunn's work, I've thought about some of the stuff you raise here, and I'm curious myself about how Thom Gunn's poetry seems to bring out the "bi" in some hetero men who like his poems
--that is, the early poems with their heroic masculinity, and the later more tender ones perhaps express feelings that hetero men have but have never been able to say with such precision and force. Gunn's classicism and his tough intellectuality, a kind of emotional coolness, maybe allows a hetero male reader to approach these homosexual experiences with some sense of belonging; TG's intelligence, in other words, opens up these experiences in an inclusive way. I don't really know. When I first fell in love with these poems, I never thought of the homosexuality of them as exclusive. They just seemed like the best poems of my own time that I had ever read. Best wishes, Josh Weiner

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Problematic Nature of the Excerpt from Tom Sleigh's Elegiac Essay "On Sex, Drugs, and Thom Gunn" on the Poetry Foundation of America Website

After reading the extended excerpt from Tom Sleigh’s elegiac essay “Sex, Drugs and Thom Gunn,” I was sort of creeped out. As stated at the end of the essay, this non-fiction will be included in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, an anthology coming this summer from University of Chicago Press. I hope that the remainder of Sleigh’s essay complicates what I’ve read here.

This excerpt appeared on the Poetry Foundation of America website:

More or less, the entire excerpt focuses on how Gunn himself and his poetry helped Sleigh complicate his vision of heterosexual domestic and sexual roles:

“But it’s one of the inadvertent pleasures in reading Gunn to discover in his imagination a passion to propose new forms of human relation, at least as far as the straight world is concerned, through the practice of his art.”

Admitted, I don’t know if more profound observations complicate this inoffensive, but no less annoying thesis. What insights are gay readers, and most importantly, Gunn himself supposed to receive from this non-fiction? (Elegies are ultimately written for and by the dead.) Why does he feel an overdetermined need to universalize a gay male’s experience? Why does he have to make them his own? And why can't he imaginatively speculate to a much greater degree the reason for difference between straight and gay communities?

It goes without saying that not every essay about Gunn should be written for a gay audience.

You also could rightly argue that the essay illustrates the too-often ignored bond between a straight and gay man. This is important, and Sleigh should be sincerely thanked. Although I wish the essay could have been more ambitious than revealing Sleigh confessing his platonic love for Gunn.

But still the pleasant superficiality of the excerpt makes me nervous.

Here’s to hoping that the straight male writers (and gay, for that matter) reveal in their autobiographical writings more nuance, more of the small, idiosyncratic tensions. I’d love straight men to explore trickier ground: the egotistical assumption that (perhaps) their gay friend wants them; their awareness (and covert satisfaction) that in some ways there is a glass ceiling in the poetry word for gay poets; their slow awareness of heterosexual privilege; their annoyance with certain aspects of the queer community.

I am bored with the notion of gay men “opening up” the possibilities for heterosexual relationships. We don’t want to be a breath of fresh air; we don’t want to be a queer eye for the straight guy. This isn’t to say that the essay doesn't contain virtues. But it fails to dig as deep as it should be. Or at least not in this substantial excerpt.

At the same time, I understand Sleigh’s possible reasons for romanticizing his relationship with Gunn. Straight men do have a lot working against them. If they disclose any criticism of a gay man’s poems, or a tentativeness toward certain aspects of the homosexual community, they’re immediately branded homophobic. Gay men are often guilty of shutting down the conversation in a knee-jerk way. Even if our reaction is understandable: we’ve received more than our fair share of bashings from our straight counterparts. But if we expect them to take intellectual risks than we need to encourage them. This is how authentic dialogue begins.

Sleigh includes few poems, and those that he does are the weaker ones. Sleigh is a very strong poet; he should have been a bit more discriminating.

Or maybe I’m just curmudgeonly. But “The Hug” irritates me. I don’t even want to quote it here in its entirety, but in fairness to my argument and Sleigh, I will.

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

It’s not surprising that Sleigh offers a pat explanation of the piece. As he writes,

“The dryness of the embrace marks the transition from sexual to domestic love, from the physical joy of sex to the physical joy of being held by someone with whom a life has been shared. Now, what heterosexual male poet would celebrate such a transition? Presumably, that poet would say how sexual attraction was attendant on the hug; or else the poet would lament the passing of such passion. But Gunn does neither—or if there is a touch of melancholy, it is balanced by an equal sense of triumph.”

Maybe Sleigh needs to reflect on how age treats gay men and straight men differently. More often than not, the straight woman is left behind in a heterosexual relationship for someone young. The same thing happens in gay male relationships. Youth is prized. Heterosexual men, the ultimate daddies, get away with a lot more; they always have choices. And because of that luck, no matter how generous straight guys are, as I’m sure Sleigh is, they can always be pushed a little bit more, intensifying a dialogue that will truly benefit us all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Brent Goodman's Poem "First Queer Poem" in His Collection "The Brother Swimming Beneath Me"

Before I bought Brent Goodman’s collection of poems “The Brother Swimming Beneath Me,” I was concerned about the title. It seemed to me that its baldfacedness could indicate an unwanted sweetness in the poems. For the most part, I was happy to find out that I was wrong.

One of my favorite poems includes the excellent “First Queer Poem” which deals with a different sort of gay male exhaustion than the one I identified in Aaron Smith’s wonderful “Open Letter.” In case you’re interested, here’s the link about Smith’s work:

Goodman’s sonnet also provided a strong directive to the gay male community about what its poetry needs to avoid. Here’s the poem in its entirely:

Of course I shake all my martinis Sapphire,
appreciate art, MFA’d, these shoes international,
chocolate chaise zen-modern, whip-smart attire.
By necktie noose I am a creative professional.

By night I product my hair to a perfect mess,
unwind my tongue around velour conversation.
Oh, do stop. My mirror adores me when I undress,
big boy, abs groomed smooth to chiseled definition.

Eyes up here, buddy. Your future wife is watching.
No secret: married me sometimes rest-stop cruise,
flashing headlights like sad lost deep sea creatures.
I live on the surface. I’m for real: ask me anything.

How dramatic my coming out, tears blurring my eyes.
Father puts his fork down. My mother feigns surprise.

Effective parody is tricky to pull off. Not only do you need to poke fun at your subject, but you also need to show some sort of affection. After all, you once were invested in the more serious aspirations of the material. A lot of parodies transform themselves into mean condescension.

No doubt every young gay writer has valued their own coming out poem, their first sex poem, their derivative I’m-longing-even-more-than-Cavafy-once-did poem, etc. etc. More importantly, we all reveled in the fact that we could write about such novel ideas! To totally dismiss gay male investment in those subjects would be at best unkind.

But Goodman knows better than that. His choice phrasing reveals this mandatory gentleness: “necktie noose,” “velour conversation,” and, of course, that wonderful closing couplet.

(As a teacher, I always find myself surprised when a student tells me his struggle with his identity. “Don’t worry,” I’ve said recently, “Things get worse once you come out. You’ll finally meet the assholes you’ll be dating for the rest of your life.” And then I got my student and myself a Kleenex.)

The sonnet, though, doesn’t balk at revealing its own impatience with the subject matter. A lot of can’t help yawning at the expected tropes, no matter how much we buy in themselves, too afraid to venture into more unexpected, mature terrain.

Even though we, as homosexuals, may understand the needs for this kind of a catharsis, we’re exhausted of having to go through it. Time and time again. It’s as familiar as the plodding rhyme scheme of a sonnet.

For a parody to work, the writer and his audience must be overly familiar with the subject material. That’s what makes parody work: the collective knowingness of the conventions. As Goodman knows, there’s not much space for any more investigation on these subjects ready for parody. You can’t write a parody of a parody.

Only a dumb heterosexual could find pleasure in such repetition.

Then again, with Proposition 8, there might be more than enough of them.