Friday, July 31, 2009

On Myth and J.D. McClatchy

To receive attention from the dominant straight culture, gay artists often need to infuse a Seriousness into their art. No matter how contrived or unnecessarily amplified. To draw an analogy to what some call PoBiz,, think of the state of American cinema. In the past couple years, the most popular and critically acclaimed queer films were “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk.” Both nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture.

While both could be considered great movies (neither of them anywhere close to a masterpiece), it makes me uncomfortable that both feature protagonists who are essentially martyred gay men killed either by themselves or some angry, crazed heterosexual. There’s no doubt where our sympathy should lie. In both films, the two-dimensionality of the almost too respectable gay characters (save for the more charged moments in Heath Ledger’s performance) inspire straight audience to take note that, yes, this is serious art.

As I approach middle-age, I bet I will have a fondness for these films as much as I do for the poems of J.D. McClatchy and Alfred Corn.

Fondness is a weird word. For me, it connotes nostalgia with an underlying fey condescension. Some of McClatchy and Corn’s poems somewhat annoyingly feel a fondness for us as readers.

And even a larger issue: Sometimes Corn and McClatchy may use mythology and allusions to classical literature that they feel may make heir poems more “legitimate” for heterosexual and even gay audiences.

Both Corn and J.D. McClatchy were both born in the 1940s. Both of them were surely old enough to be fully cognizant of Stonewall and its implications for gay men. This produced undoubtedly certain historical pressures that one could say lives on today.

To an extent.

As in the case of the movies, gay poets feel the impetus to create art to prove their worthiness , especially in mainstream circles. Who can’t deny a poem its significance if it provides an immediate intertextuality, highlighting the poets’ comprehensive knowledge of ancient and classical texts?

Think of Romeo and Juliet winning the Best Picture Oscar. The movie possessed no real romantic spirit. It won because people could feel a middle-class literariness in being familiar enough with Shakespeare.

With popular gay (however stark it is) narrative film, everyone can feel pity for its unnuanced protagonists, the story’s imminent tragic end. We know we should cry; we know we should embrace these murdered innocents.

I would make the claim that Corn and McClatchy regularly share the anxiety that they need to prove the importance of gay subject material. This is a generational issue; it also asks us to analyze their poems to see what are relevant to us as gay men today.

They use myth and allusion to high art to legitimize their well-needed interrogations into the domestic realm.

(Of course, this anxiety doesn’t necessarily relegate itself to gay poets; Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, her weakest book, essentially an ostensibly unconscious parody of her others, creates an intertwining narrative with the story of Odysseus.’ Marriage. Ararat is by far her best. The Wild Iris too confident in its own cloying metaphor.)

Let’s look at J.D. McClatchys “Er.” In talking to one of my best friends, I unpacked the meaning of the poem. I ripped off some of her ideas.

(BTW She has an enviable, amazing debut collection of poems coming out. I won’t mention her name out of fear that her association with me may hurt her chances of receiving all the accolades she deserves. She’s also married to a man and has a kid. Because of that, I will never mention her crucial importance in my life on this blog again.)

“Er” consists of three numbered sections. Here’s the numbered first section’s opening, a typical description of a break-up:

I hesitate to mention now the time
I hesitated—was it weeks or months?—
Before telling him I was leaving, leaving for good,
So that, in the end, it was he who left me,
And my fear of his decision, or no ... well,
His tonelessly announcing it one night,
Only that, always that, has clouded the scene,
Not unlike the way the years of happiness
Until that day, all of them a delusion,
Had prevented my recalling just how long
I'd waited to discover my feelings at the start.

In retrospect, after time has passed, he explains:

Years later, forcing me
To divide the shoebox full of snapshots
Or the letters from our long-dead companions,
He waited while I chose, through tears, the things
I didn't want to see, and did not look back
Through the closing door, though it only seemed
As if he were standing there and I was falling
Back, back to a time when I couldn't delay
Any longer, the time I leaned down to select
My lot, lying there on the ground, in the field,
Where I recognized so many others waiting their turn.

The poem does consist of three number sections: the first numbered section describes the break-up. The second section of the poem details the myth of Er to “explain this.”—this being the break-up in the first section. The myth functions as a metaphor for the relationship: McClatchy draws a parallel between the narrator-as-bodiless witness (to his own break-up) to Er, another sort of bodiless witness contained in the first section, and Er in the second numbered section.

Both protagonists are bodiless, narrators-as-witnesses rather than active participants in their stories, retelling the events .

In the second section is long. McClatchy explains the myth, but it would be unfair to the poem to not offer his description. After all, McClatchy seems to be inordinately invested in the myth to make his point. Here’s the start of McClatchy’s teaching of the myth of Er:

Twelve days after his death in battle, the body of Er—
Son of Armenius, a hero of legend in far Pamphylia—
As torches were readied, came to life again on his funeral pyre,
And told what he had seen of the other world,
That his soul in a crush of companions had journeyed
To a mysterious place, two openings, it seemed, in the earth
And two others above, between them the seats of judges
Who bound men to their sentences, that they should climb
Or descend, the symbols of their deeds fastened to their backs.

The next excerpt is essential to the parallels McClatchy wants to draw. Er acts as a witness, an invisible storyteller to the spectacle of events surrounding him. This is similar to the bodiless narrator of the first section in which he retells the complexity of the break-up through words, words that mention anything about the body.

Here is the excerpt to illustrate that point:

But Er was told only to watch and bear the message back to men.
He saw the dead arrive, dusty with travel, and the souls
Of those already saved step down into a meadow to meet them.
Those who knew one another embraced and wept at tales
Of what they had endured and seen, while those above
Told of delights to come, of injustices reversed, of tyrants
Cast into terrors worse than they had themselves inflicted.
Er then looked up at a column of light to which the chains
Of heaven were attached that held the spindle of Necessity,

And finally:

Er stood in astonishment as, one after another, men and women,
Because the memory of their previous lives was still so strong,
Asked to be animals in the next, no matter bird or beast,
A blameless, unknowing being not in love with death.
The soul that had once been Orpheus chose the life of a swan,
Not wanting to be born of a woman, hating
The race of women who had murdered him.
Others chose sparrow or horse or, remembering their pain,
An eagle that could circle the slain in their bloody armor,
Slowly circle, high over what men do to themselves.
Then each was given a cup of Unmindfulness
From which some carelessly drank too much
And some too little, so that the past would haunt them.
Er himself was kept from drinking, and how
His body was returned he could never say,
But as the others were driven, like stars shooting,
Up to their births in the world, torches were lit
And Er suddenly woke and found himself
Lying on a pyre, his old parents in tears.

In the final numbered section, McClatchy conflates the narrator and Er:

In the end, because I took too long to decide,
The bird-lives on the ground there to choose from
Meant I would have to live far from home.
I chose the farthest, the common tufted warbler,
Native to the Maghreb, a small bird,
The size of a fist, the color of wet sand,
My tail brushed with berrystain,

And the most fun part of the poem involves the play of the words Er and errand. As McClatchy has his narrator confess:

My call a calling, er-rand, er-rand, er-rand.
I can fly to find direction out and sing
Only to attract the echoing air,
But my task, an hour before dawn, is to help
Summon the halfhearted day from its sleep
As the dark begins to tip reluctantly.

His “limping cheer” reminds who hears it that there is “work to be done”:

Word to be sent ahead of happiness,
Of noon on an iridescent scarab wing,
Of the dank leaf mold and warted rind,
Of the peace in our hours now, for all but them,
Those humans who shout and slash and smell of flesh.
One of them stands alone, every morning, looking
Into water, silently moving his lips.

Finally, the narrator declares:

I stay
To keep watch, and something comes back, a sense
From some other life, that because he has never been hurt,
He is impossible to love. For now, he is my errand.

You can’t help but feel the narrator’s fake immodesty in his choice of transforming himself into the sparrow; the self-congratulatory gesture of his willingness to witness the events and then share them.

The narrator remain almost bodiless, surely not taking up much room as a sparrow.

On the other hand, the narrator’s lover remains s a cipher. The narrator “fleshes out” his lover through memory and lost desire. That journey of the memory and mind, not the body, allows the sparrow/narrator to fulfill his duty: the errand of giving a corporeal reincarnation to his ex-lover.

Complex, self-contained, and clever, McClatchy uses the classical myth of Er as a metaphor for the relationship between the narrator and his beloved.

The poem could also be seen as one about pedagogy.

The second numbered section does begin “In Plato’s Republic, there is mention of is.” This tone is firm, full of authority, determined to explain how a self-appointed witness can empower History with a personal history, and vice versa. The three numbered sections contribute to this pedagogical effect: the logical argument explained with utmost clarity.

When researching the myth, I found no evidence that McClatchy warped any part of the allusion. He does not make the narrator “unreliable” (a horrible phrase) . He renders the myth accurately. If it was an inaccurate telling of the myth, we could ask ourselves, “Why does tell us this way?” And: “what does this discrepancy say about the narrator’s psyche?”

In other words, the narrator’s lessons are uncorrupted; we can, as far as we can tell, depend on it. If the myth of Er functions as a strict metaphor for the initial narrative, does the poem itself become a pedagogical tool? Does McClatchy’s employment of the metaphor become simply a way of teaching us classical myth?

For me, the question becomes even larger one, why would McClatchy want to write a poem simply applying the myth to broken domestic life?

It seems to me there is something potentially useless in the teaching of myth, something that, perhaps, needs to be questioned in queer poetry. Do allusions literary/classical/biblical more than often serve any function other than to show the comprehensiveness of the writer’s knowledge? Does McClatchy have a new take on the myth? Or for that matter, gay domestic relationships?

I like poems that tell me how to live. I like lectures. Class discussions always bothered me. Why not enlighten the class with the genius of a teacher? Why make students fumble toward the conclusions the teacher will force them to reach

One reading of the inclusion of classical myth in this poem could be explained as a gay poet’s anxiety. I don’t want to offend anyone here; at the same time, it’s important to note that McClatchy as an older, senior poet? He was born in a time when gay material was much more marginalized.

Does he feel compelled to rely on classical myth as a way of legitimizing queer material? Belonging to a different generation of gay men and less accepting heterosexuals, did he once (and still) think that only through allusions could he justify his writing of homosexual domestic life

As a result, he feels compelled to give us a lecture we’ve already heard.

Should we, as gay men, possible, discover our own myths, say, Stonewall or Matthew Shepard, and extrapolate on those? McClatchy’s meticulously crafted poem not only says something we already know, but its lesson could have been written decades ago. Someone as smart and well-read as McClatchy has a responsibility to move beyond the facts of a myth or show us why we need to remain inert.

If he doesn’t, then he will seem as dated to future gay audiences as the myth of Er does to us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Following Public Facebook Exchange Occurred After My Last Post on Alfred Corn and J.D. Mc Clatchy and (Very Tangentially) Rick Barot

All boldfaced sections are Alfred Corn's statements; everything else is my response. Corn initiated the conversation on Facebook after, I assume, reading the post on my blog.

ALFRED CORN: “Oh, not only on Barot, but C. and McC. seem to have had a terrible influence on Ann Carson, Lowell, Marianne Moore, Eliot, Pound, Browning, Milton, and Dante, whose poems are chock-full of cultural references. Side-splitting, Steve.”

Steve Fellner: “I don't think your comment is fair. And for someone who has a history of being a forceful critic, I am surprised you didn't engage me a bit more substantially. I'm disappointed with the current poetry scene because a lot of people obey middle-class etiquette. In your criticism, you have a history of not passively giving everybody the thumb's up.

You could claim that that everyone influence everybody else, and vice verse, but to do so isn't a solid response to my argument. I'm obviously talking about the three of you in a SPECIFIC TIME FRAME OF GAY POETRY. According to your logic, I might as well have included Horace, Anne Sexton, and most of all Ogden Nash.”

ALFRED CORN: “Poems I write for free, but not criticism. Clearly you don't know my books well enough to make it interesting, otherwise you'd be able to distinguish between these two dated, culture-vulture poets. For the record, some of the poems are allusive, but the majority are written in "plain American, that cats and dogs can read," as M. Moore said.”

STEVE FELLNER: “Have I read ever single poem you ever wrote? No. But I have read a good number. And I have read secondary sources. I'm sure you have read the commentary as well, evidenced by your final statement-very reminiscent of what Thomas Disch wrote about your poems in Boston Review.

Although Disch offers what I'm sure to you is a more "interesting" ... Read Moreanalysis. My problem with his review is the respect he has for your poems ends up being used as a vehicle for him partly to condescend to those who are "plain" and "American." I hope you scolded him for that, and I mean that, in all seriousness.

Also: as I'm sure you would agree there is a different between the allusive and diction. It seems that you conflate the two, no?

I think what you extrapolated from my post is suspect. I do not think that just because a gay poet during a SPECIFIC historical moment is doing essentially the same thing as another poet means they're work is unnecessary. (I will concede McClatchy seems more interested in the employment of humor). A lot of poets need to be present at a specific point in time to collectively push things forward even if they're not transcending boundaries. As poets, like Bidart and Henri Cole, writers closer to your generation than me, seem to do.

For you it seems that the value of a poem is based on whether or not it lives forever. I don't agree. What matters is if it attempts to be as ethically and aesthetically beautiful as possible EVEN IF there is no reason for it to exist for an eternity.

Someone like Richard Howard has written poems that helped push things forward. But his dramatic personae poems will disappear (or already have) because they already have been done by Browning, his idol.

His translations will last tho.

One can achieve an ephemeral greatness. There's nothing wrong with that. That is important work. Invaluable in fact. It's just that it won't live eternally. There's nothing wrong with that.

I mean this exchange in the most good-natured way possible. If I didn't respect you, I wouldn't be writing about you on my blog.”

I've also written about Rick Barot much more extensively. If you're interested in a detailed review of his book Want, feel free to check out the link to a post on my blog.

Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Old-Fashioned Anxieties of Alfred Corn and J.D. McClatchy (PART ONE)

Is it possible to feel deep nostalgia for a poet who is still alive? Is it possible for a poet to become even more essential to the gay literary cannon at the same time he is gradually vanishing? Is it possible to feel a poet's work dating itself as it also seems to deal with topics not often talked about in gay circles like aging itself?

These are the sort of questions that I ask myself when I read the work of queer heavyweight poets like J.D. McClatchy or Alfred Corn. They seem interested in the same sort of content and form: description of love affairs, high-culture, literary allusions, strict prosody, a control freak's use of metaphor.

You could say they’re the same writer. Is that what Time ultimately does to a poet’s work? Does Time make us more or less interchangeable?

This isn't to say I don't like some of their poems. But still.

Time reveals that at a particular historical moment everyone pretty much does the same kind of thing. What once seemed like vast differences in subject matter and form shrinks, making it easier and easier for anthologists. For the most part, everyone (un)accidentally copies everyone else.

This is the tragic fact: once you are dead, the true heartbreak begins: within a few moments, you’re forced to accept that you’re already forgotten. But when alive, you can take comfort in that fact: when you fail as a poet, no one minds. There is already someone else doing it better. Or not that much worse.


Alfred Corn has charmingly dated himself on his blog:

“There is a high correspondence between prize-winning and favorable reviews in the Times and the New York Review of Books. If the reviewer is a person with great prestige, like Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, a review can form the basis for lifelong career prominence.”

Who is reviewed by Vendler or Bloom anymore? Does it really matter if The Times or New York Review of Books has something to say about your poems? May it even work to your disadvantage to have the popular, mainstream publications review your book? Critics like to find what others have missed. They then think they have a unique perception.

In the poetry world, there is no centralized power center anymore. It seems weird that Corn, an engaged man of letters, refuses to let go of a bad memory: a time when all who mattered was Vendler and Bloom, a moment when he himself, no matter how wrongly (as I believe) was automatically considered a second-tier critic.


You’ve got to admire Corn for starting a blog. He’s not at all self-conscious about boasting that he has chosen to “work” full-time as a writer. (It’s telling that Corn uses the word “manual” in the subtitle of his book on prosody. I can’t help but wonder if he feels the need to justify his middle-class poetic life through employing working class rhetoric.)

On another level, I love him for admitting that he has completely dedicated himself to the art of writing, teaching as few classes as possible and still managing to jettison around the world.

If the Universe was wholly kind, then vacationing would be a full-time job.


Here’s the truth: I own a lot of McClatchy's and Corn’s books. From time to time, I take them out and feel a genuine fondness for them.

When I read younger poets, I always notice their influence right away. Without the encouragement from McClatchy and Corn's poems, would Rick Barot have written his poems often rotely infused with high-culture/literary allusions? McClatchy has the best sense of humor when he allows it to come forth; I would claim those poems are the most pleasurable of the trio. I must say that, as of now, I like Barot’s actual sentences more. Sometimes Corn and McClatchy’s feel awkward especially when you feel their need to heighten the faux philisophical value of their weakest poems. On the microlevel Barot almost typically writes a sentence with more energized verbs and nouns.

Recently, I’ve been scouring the web to find Corn and McClatchy’s most current stuff. I found a McClatchy poem on Poetry Daily and later tried to find it again. For some reason, I was convinced Corn wrote it. I asked Corn where I could find his poem. Corn seems to be a nice man and tried to make sense of my inability to find his poem.

In fact, I was reading a lot of McClatchy and Corn, and completely associated a poem called "ER" to the wrong poet. A friend of mine and I recently played a game. She read me key passages from their work and I had to guess who wrote what. I got it wrong at least half the time

This is what bores me about a good portion of their work: Like Barot, Corn and McClatchy’s anxiety forces them to incorporate high-culture as a justification of an inquiry into daily life rather than as a vehicle to make more comprehensive inquiries. McClatchy falls victim to his poetic anxiety in his poem “Er.”

Next time I will analyze McClatchy’s poem “Er” in order to uncover his own writerly panic.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why Blogging Has Made My Social Life Better than It Has Ever Been

I’m waiting for my friend to wake up and pity me because yesterday I inexplicably busted my thumb trying to help her pick up a hot Australian. Overnight my thumb did not heal and she did not get laid. What else is there to do but blog until she arises from her slumber and we attempt to assuage the other’s pain and suffering? I promised not to post anything during my mini-vacation, but as my partner of 11 years says, I can justify the breaking of any vow.

So instead of writing a close analysis of a poem or a more general polemic, I’m going to argue against the idea that you only develop superficial relationships through blogging and/or Facebook.

Happy to say that my most gratifying recent relationships have come from blogging. If you don’t believe me, then you’re stupid.

(I use the word stupid a lot lately. Even when I’m teaching. "That's a stupid thought," I'll say. I find that it shames the student into thinking harder. Try it sometime. I guarantee results.)

I have never felt closer to gay men than on my blog. This is the first time I feel apart of a genuine community. To anyone who finds that pitiful, you’re stupid.

Listen as to why.

For someone who is intimidated of gay men, I find that I can hold a conversation without having to deal with their bodies. And by that I mean there’s no distraction from the narratives they tell. For me the best part of sex are the ways in which someone enters and exits. That’s how it is for me when I read a story. Middles are tedious.

My favorite part of sex is the moment right after the man decides to take off his shirt and right before the man’s shirt is completely off. You can sense the vanity (“I’m excited to take off my shirt so he can see me”) and the insecurity (“What if he doesn’t like what he sees?”) To watch a man in this brief moment of excitement and duress turns me on.

(My second favorite moment is to see a man with good pectoral muscles. It makes up for the fact I wasn’t breastfed.)

This same voyeuristic thrill occurs when I read a post on a gay man’s blog. I’m always curious how that gay man will begin (“here’s something that’s on my mind so you can see me”) and their closure (“What if he was bored with what he read?”) Furtive fucks are the best.

Bloggers can say all they want about not caring what people see, that they’re writing their blogs for themselves and no one else.

But they do care. Why wouldn’t you put your thoughts in a private journal if you didn’t?

Personally, I prefer blogs that read like a journal where every petty detail of their lives are revealed.

I’m pro-pettiness.

When I was younger, I loved to discuss challenging topics or what felt pseudo-philosophical. I can still hear myself saying, “We stayed up all night talking about art and life and poetry, etc. etc.” It’s cute. But now those nights are few and far between. Now I like to hear how someone’s body is failing them or how someone’s job is driving them crazy or what they had for dinner. That now comforts me. Grandstanding bores me (although it seems that’s all I can do.).

But when I read other blogs, I just want to know how someone trudged through their days and what little joys were held in store them.

That’s why I love status updates on Facebook. The more insignificant, the greater the appreciation. Banality binds us.

And what is love? What ultimately is the foundation for a long term (or short term) relationship? Isn’t it partly the finding of someone else’s tedium mostly bearable?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Robin Ekiss' Poem "Contemplating Quiet"

No doubt I’ve shamelessly used heterosexual women as a way of proving my own self-worth in the public realm. I can remember times in graduate school, when I somewhat unconsciously, somewhat not, pursued the friendship of the most attractive women, using them as ornaments, hoping that their presence would bolster my social status. I don't mean to say that I didn't love these women. I did. But every relationship has a more insidious side worth identifying. There is too often an unchallenged romanticism of gay male-straight female relationships.

This was not a result of low self-esteem instead it was of hubris. I deserved to have the most appealing women surrounding me. When I discovered my social status was threatened by my enemy—another gay man—I worked fast. I was paranoid enough to think that if I somewhat ditched my somewhat less attractive female friend for a more striking looking woman, I would appear even more cool. After three years, this gay man and I ran into each other at a conference, and both of us confessed that we were insecure dorks, nervous to go to gay bars even though we both had been out for years. To fill our lack of a queer social life, we surrounded ourselves us with great women.

This is what makes our typical gay male behavior more sexist: without a care in the world, we ditched them once we had the nerve to start fucking the men we thought had hot chests. (As you can tell from my posts, I have a pectoral muscle fetish--it's because I was never breastfed.)

I don’t know the poet Robin Ekiss—absolutely have no knowledge of her. But she and Denise Duhamel would make me feel popular if we were paling around with each other. I must admit that because Duhamel chose my book in a contest I felt hip for a period of time. Like I had something gay men wanted. Like I was "in." It wore off after awhile, or at least I feel the need to pretend it did.

When it was first published, I missed Ekiss' "Contemplating Quiet." Which bums me out. It is one of the kindest recent portrayals of queer men. For me, it matters that it was written by a heterosexual woman. I hope she's happy in a marriage. (The only woman I wished bad things upon was a woman who told me that she wanted another gay graduate student to have a threesome with her and her husband in front of me and the other queer. She then realized she ignored me and said, "I'm sure you would be that bad either." I put a curse on her unborn kid; I wanted him to become Damien from the Omen. And he did.)

"Contemplating Quiet" details “the first marriage/of sound and image:/seventeen seconds of film/in which two men are dancing/to the wheedling strains of a violin.” It's true that one of the first movies with pre-recorded sounded ever made was created for Thomas Edison in 1895. The experiment almost failed. Only partial synchronization happened.

The experimental movie features two men dancing. Is the duo gay? Who knows? But I prefer to think yes. And if not gay, then undeniably queer; no expected heterosexual coupling appears. It’s weird to me that I haven’t found a homosexual poet deal with this important part of queer history. Here's the link to the film:

"Contemplating Quiet" then goes on to further describe the fleeting movie in terms of what isn’t present:

nothing to imagine
beyond the frame, one man's song
buzzing the air again and again

like bees bearding the wall
of a hive, as if to prove
its existence unaltered

by the loop of history.

This is what impresses me about the poem: Ekiss’ refusal to psychologize these queers. By allowing the queer spectacle to remain a spectacle, by refusing to add anything more, she reveals a deep sensitivity. She doesn't bolster her poem through presuming what’s in their head, what she thinks may garner sympathy for these men. Generously allowing their image to remain untainted, she excels.

Ekiss shows these queers as a dancing couple. Nothing necessarily more, definitely nothing less. As a poet, she doesn’t barge into the image and take center-stage. This is an act of kindness. In one of the rare times she begins to extrapolate from the image, she offers mere rhetorical questions and then immediately pulls back:

What synchronized mystery
accompanies them?
to hold us so tightly in their grasp

Did they suffer in silence
or because of it?

It goes without saying that the "mystery" is potential homosexuality; the silence can be read as a not-naming of gay identity. Her refusal to convey invisible suffering is commendable. Lesser heterosexual writers would go for such an easy, useless approach. Straight people have a hard job in making homosexuals feel comfortable. On one level, they need to name their gay friends and family as queer as an acknowledgment of the difficulties they face; at the same time, they need to know when such labels don't matter.

The poem concludes with a final imperative:

In the space between

notes, the absence of women
is easily accounted for,
but an echo leaves the room

for sound. To contemplate quiet,
shut your mouth, as they did,
until nothing comes out.

By elevating these men into models (role models?) of behavior, she transforms and normalizes queer behavior, possibly even the expression of sexual desire. The stridency embedded in the final lines (the words aggressively say "shut" your mouth not simply "close" it) tries to protect these queer men from judgmental language. It doesn't matter if the speech results from curiosity or dismay; Ekiss pretty much refuses to give anyone, including herself, permission to distract them. She instructs her presumably heterosexual audience to watch the image and their own reactions with kind, generous silence.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Some Random Notes on Being an Overweight Gay Male Poet

As an overweight gay man (5 ‘ 11’ 189 pounds), Steve finds that stating he’s overweight causes some people to feel the need to deny this fact. As if it’s something other than a fact. At the present moment, Steve primarily considers himself to be a critic. A critic does not know pity, self or otherwise. He deals with facts. Facts keep the world in tact.


Once a student, who worked as a waitress at Denny’s, told him that the amount of the tip you receive does not depend on the quality of the job you do. People are going to do what they’re going to do. Having always oscillated in weight, Steve notices that’s the same thing about asking a man to have sex with you after you lured him to your house with fake photos on It doesn’t matter how much you weigh as long as it’s not extreme. If they’re going to fuck you, they’re going to fuck you.


Steve thought words would make him thin. Possibly beautiful. When he won an award, he couldn’t attend the ceremony; he was very, very ill—he works on recovery every day. He’s getting better. But he regrets not having gone to the ceremony. He imagines someone wanting to fuck him because of his words. He dreams that if that night he had written on his profile, “Winner of Publishing Triangle Award for Gay Male Poetry” that then the probability of being fucked by a hot top with a nice chest would have increased. Steve dreams about guys with hot pectorals. He was never breastfed. He also dreams of being the object of a starfucker’s desire. And being stalked by someone--attractive or unattractive.


Being overweight is the ultimate revolutionary act for a gay man. It says to homosexual men, Here’s my body. Deal with it. As opposed to here’s my body. I’m working on it.


Do not pity the overweight gay man. Do not pity the beautiful gay man. Pity the gay man who is almost beautiful. The overweight gay man has accepted that he’s out of many homosexuals’ leagues. The almost beautiful gay man curses the day he was born. He knows that he’s just a mere step away from eliciting all the attention beautiful men receive.

Maybe the almost beautiful gay man has a bad jawline or hair that never looks quite right no matter how well its cut or badly colored eyes. He doesn’t like fucking overweight men; he’s secretly scared that if God denied him one more aspect of his beauty, he might find himself in the realm of the overweight man.

As a result, he hates the overweight man. You fat ugly faggot, he thinks.

The beautiful man doesn’t think this. He has never felt what it feels to be denied so he does not deny.


Take advantage of gay men who are good looking but were once fat. They will forever be crippled with low self-esteem and never feel attractive in the way they should. They will have sex with you because they will remember the days they dealt with rejection. These men will be easy to manipulate. Never say, “You are good-looking.” Say, “You really have become good-looking.” The verb "become" will remind them of their old selves and they will be putty in your hand.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On C. Dale Young's Poem "Torn"

Confession: The work of doctor/poets often leave me disappointed.

(In terms of office visits and poetry, I prefer nurses over doctors any day. What ever happened to the wonderful nurse/poet Belle Waring?)

Often doctors' more presumably autobiographical poems share the same formula: deadened language, straightforward description, a closure containing dull pathos. There is nothing inherently offensive in their work; it just seems the poems were written after a long day’s work. Which I’m sure some of them were. Wound up tight, the poems lack spontaneity.

Reading their poems cause you to feel as if they're hurried, harried. They’re checking off the formal properties of poetry to create art in the same way they rule out a diagnosis based on symptoms. They take inventory of what a poem should include, insert as many of those properties they can, and then -poof!- they brought a blank page to life.

The poems usually seize up to an alarming degree. Rescuing themselves from the hospital chaos, the doctors sometimes seem to panic and impose a strict formal rhyme scheme, something as clear-cut and unmiraculous as possible.


In terms of doctor/poets, I think of Rafael Campo, Peter Pereria, Dwaine Rieves, and C. Dale Young

I find the work of the first three unambitious, too unrumpled.

I’ve always sensed Campo, Pereria, and Rieves would be receptive to critiques of their work, to transcend their obvious limitations, as any good doctor would. Unfortunately, no one’s offered them the help they’ve given so many others.

C. Dale Young is a different story. Even when frustrated with his poems, as I sometimes am, I find that he pushes his work into peculiar realms, making him always worthwhile to read. In The Second Person, Young seemed more obsessed with the opacity of desire, especially in the longer sequence, which produced ambivalence for me.

For this post, I want to focus on his strongest poem I’ve read of his called “Torn.” This is an undoubtedly a significant contribution to this theme of gay male exhaustion as well as a corrective to some of the unconscious self-aggrandizement evident in his peers' writing. Already analyzed in the comic poems of Brent Goodman and Aaron Smith, Young offers a dramatic approach to this theme of gay male exhaustion.

In no way do I want to come across as privileging the dramatic over the comic. That is a stupid mistake poet-critics often make. But I do think it’s necessary to claim that the pitfalls are different, and C. Dale succeeds in an enviable way.

The set-up is simple. A gay man is in the emergency room. Some thugs have gay-bashed him. The doctor begins to stitch up his face.

Who would think that in 2009 you could still make a remarkable poem based on these overly familiar images?

This is what separates this poem from others: the unflinching portrayal of the doctor as bored, jaded, and very tired. Young refuses to show the doctor as a hero, but as potentially extraneous, even replaceable, disposable:

Even though I knew there were others to be seen,
I sat there and slowly threw each stitch.
There were always others to be seen. There was

always the bat and the knife.

And one can no doubt assume that there is always the doctor. Just another spoke in the wheel. The bold closing smartly amplifies this sad fact:

..And when they
came in drunk or high with their own wounds,

when they bragged about their scuffles with the knife
and that other world of men, I sat there and sutured.
I sat there like an old woman and sewed them up.

Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers
attempted perfection. I sat there and sewed them up.

You can pinpoint the strength of the poem through its use of the phrase “like an old woman.” By all accounts, this simile should not work; it should be an awkward cliché. But here it emphasizes the endless routine, the lack of specialness in a job that forces you to deal with a steady stream of hurt people needing urgent help, sometimes even those you may too closely find verisimilitude:

Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe
in that town. There would always be the bat

and the knife, always a fool willing to tear me open
to see the dirty faggot inside.

These hate crimes will never stop. Plenty of formal strategies contribute to this numbing effect: the deliberate flatness of the language, the repetition of the sonic element in sewn and “sutured” (an oddly wonderful sounding word). Even the anaphora, something as potentially as dull as “there was” produces a deliberate numbing effect. The poem ultimately enlivens this mundane godly activity: bringing gay men back from what could easily have been their grave.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the Coming Out Narrative and Matthew Hittinger's "Two Men on a Bed"

Call me naïve, but I always expect true excellence to found immediately.

Can I blame discrimination against queers as a reason for a number of gay male poets don’t find their books in print? Or is that too easy? Is it just a simple fact that it takes a lot of tries and chance to find publication?

Whatever the reason, Matthew Hittinger and Eduardo Corral should already have their books published. If there’s any justice in the world, they will receive a number of awards when they do.

I have never met these two poets; I don’t really have any desire to do so. I haven’t even had a conversation with them. They were two of the very first bloggers I began to read.

Charming bloggers tend to morph into cloying dullards in real life.

I’ve only met two gay poets in real life. One was nice. For the five minutes we talked. One scurried away from me within seconds. I’d rather not repeat the experience.

But I do like repeating the fun inherent in (re)reading Hittinger’s poems.

For this post, I want to talk about his poem “Two Men on a Bed”’s reinvention of the coming out narrative.

It made its appearance in Issue Three of a literary magazine I never heard of. It’s called Ouroboros and includes other poems by queer poets like Dustin Brookshire.

For some time, I’ve been bored with this genre of The First Gay Sexual Experience Poem. Proposition 8 effects adults not children. In terms of content, aren’t the ways in which we suffer as adults at least as important as the strangeness of our more youthful days?

Not to mention that the coming-out-narrative often lends itself to sentimentality. In these days, this doesn’t do us much good. We can fawn over our dumb childhoods after we’re given our equal rights.

When I read Hittinger’s poem “Two Men on a Bed,” I realized how wrong I was. You could use the coming-out story as a vehicle for a vital investigation of art, perspective, and time.

Here’s the terrific opening of “Two Men on a Bed”:

sounded erotic: affix homo
and you qualify desire not bodies: but suggested

a plot a scene and that word history: so let me
invert sequence and dispense three facts: Francis

Bacon’s 1953 composition echoed in 1887 photo
by Edward Muybridge: and I write, type this

rather: in early 2003: one hundred thirty-four years
since homosexuality came to be: forget history:

its language bores me: let’s trace memory: first
time I was one of two men on a bed: July 1997:

want details: our bodies blurred where they met
in shadow...

How great to see A.R. Ammons influencing a younger poet! Lately, I’ve read one too many gay poets claim as inspiration the stodgy work of Donald Justice or the mostly facile Alberto Rios. It’s especially disconcerting when the poet has already way exceeded his mentors’ work.

In “Two Men on a Bed”’s opening, you can see Ammons’ impact: the colons, the discursiveness, the sudden shifts in tone. I love the litany of historical dates segueing so naturally into the personal. His casual, comic-asides pump more fun into the poem. As Hittinger writes: “forget history: its language bores me." One of the best tossed-off lines I’ve read this year.

But most importantly, Hittinger unerringly synthesizes whimsy with larger epistemological inquiry. His work in this area rivals the better sections in Ammon’s stellar, Pulitzer-Prize nominated Garbage.

An authentic inquisitiveness pervades the poem. After the beginning, Hittinger, from a distance, further describes the physicality of the scene. And then he offers a helpful art lesson:

...who’s on top: well that depends at which

point you enter how the body bends and how you
decide to plot the bodies and bed if you feel anchored

by a room’s rectangle or a sphere’s gravity...

Hittinger’s measured gentlemanliness , almost Southern in its hospitality, never feels simply rhetorical or insincere. He even makes an off-color joke or two that momma would not approve of:

...should I pull these
shapes out of focus mute the palette: would you

rather words like mount slime teeth bared-
like-an animal: I draw lines

With Proposition 8, so many gay poets understandably want to issue unequivocal statements, unyielding answers. The political realms begs for that fortitude. In poetry, we need someone who still inquires rather than tells. Hittinger does this. Through relaxed persistence, he doesn’t let gay men forget their own bodies.

Hittinger’s euphonic yet melancholy tentativeness inspires. The government may want to deny gay men our bodies, but through poetry, no matter the limits of words, a little (even if tainted) hope remains:

..if I describe two

bodies as ashen pasty ghostly must I also urge
words like sinister wail and should I pursue

bars or can I exit through streaks that rise fall
fold and splay like a thin but shimmering veil

Friday, July 3, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dash between their dates is nearly done.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

JAH: By default, yes. And by choice.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

I am envious of their justified success and talent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Sequel to the June 28th Post "The Importance of Transforming the Creative Non-Fiction Class Into Group Therapy"

Because university culture encourages students to behave in a boringly dignified way, teachers prioritize formal, restrictive etiquette. In the creative non-fiction classroom, this limits the subject matter. Politeness reigns; victim narratives result. If your a writer who explore suffering, you can’t seem unruly.

This causes a huge problem.

If the student chooses to write memoir, how do they create a self who contains contradictions? How can they reveal the kind and cruel, aware and ignorant, confident and insecure aspects of their soul?

(I know soul is a scary word. In certain respects, some academics resemble bad psychologists. Anything unknowable, not visible in the real world scares them. You can see my students surprise when I acknowledge the facts ghosts have visited me. The occult surfaces in my life. I’ll save that for another post.)

Everyone wants everyone to liked. God knows, that’s why I do most of what I do.

I do it for love. I write and teach for that reason. That’s one of the many reasons I started this blog.

I’m always charmingly startled by students who say, “I am who I am. I don’t care what everyone else thinks of me.”

I always say, Maybe you don’t. But I do. I need everyone to perceive me as lovable. And why should my students be any different? Why shouldn’t we want to appear as anything less than lovable to this weird, amazing world?

I’d like to recap a scenario that occurred in my classroom:

We planned to workshop a woman’s story about beauty. She was beautiful. She inspired people to admire her presence. Her essay took a rare angle; she discussed the discrimination she faced as a beautiful woman.

You couldn’t deny she knew her subject. She really was beautiful. The essay triumphed when she dealt with this subject head-on. She made a list of every part of her body. From her nose to her spleen, she explained why she was the ideal woman.

Her essay eventually succumbed to dull modesty. Cliches then begin to multiply: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; if you’re beautiful on the inside than you’re beautiful on the inside; etc.

Self-aggrandizement is what made her essay special. Justifiable egotism is often an undervalued, unexplored subject.

A female student told me in my office, “I didn’t like the beginning of that girl’s essay. It made her seem like she was so much better than us.”

“I don’t know about you,” I said, “But in some ways, she is better than me.”

It’s easier to be loved for your domestic strife, your disastrous family vacation, your dying grandmother. Those subjects make readers feel like you earned their love.

What happens if you’re beautiful and you don’t need anyone else's l0ve. What happens if your subject tells your reader you already have plenty of it. What happens if you tell your readers you may not need them.


I know this attractive woman student did not, on some level, expect to make herself into a spectacle. After all, her essay abandoned her more risky idea of self-pity: I suffer because I am fundamentally amazing). It degenerated into second third-rate platitudes.

Before I discussed her essay in class, I told the class to write down in one sentence what one quality makes them better than everyone else.

A student raises his hand, “Can I write down that my tongue can touch the top of my nose?”

“I can do that, too. So it doesn’t count,” I said, “You’ve got to be for real. Some quality that currently make everyone else jealous.”

Everyone looked nervous. “You’ve got to write something down now. No stalling,” I said.

Impatience is my greatest strength as a teacher. Second my fundamental lack of tact.

“What would you say about yourself?” a student asked me.

“I'm the best critic of your work you will ever have,” I said.

I get a laugh.

“I’m not joking,” I said.

Then I instructed them to take that quality and write a scene in which that quality hurt yourself or someone else.

“It’s weird,” a student said, “I feel like I’m playing Truth of Dare.”

“That’s what memoir writing is,” I said.

They begrudgingly did the exercise.


This exercise produced their best writing. Memoir can be an act of bragging, exhibiting your most envious qualities. Minus, at more times than not, the morality of the story.

Don't apologize for writing about that.

I’ll never forget the time I apologized to someone who claimed that I was too effeminate. “Don’t be a woman,” my mother to me, “Don’t live your life as an apology.”

She had a point.

One student wrote that he was brilliant at convincing people to believe what ever he said: "Next to me, everyone is a dummy." To his friends, he once tricked his friends that his brother had attempted suicide. Of course, they spread the rumor. People approached his brother and said that they felt bad for him. One kid recommended a psychologist—his own father. The student had tried to retract his statements about his brother, but no one believed him—they just assumed he was embarrassed that he, indeed, told the truth. At the end of his writing, the student declared, “And I did not feel any regret. My brother could be a real asshole sometimes.”

I loved his finale. I commended it. Sometimes it’s important in memoir that we don’t feel bad for the sins we committed. Regret is such a dull luxury.

Another student prided herself on her detective skills. She could find out anything, even the most oblique gossip. One day she and her friend were snooping around the attic and discovered some of her mother’s love letters. She showed them to her dad. She didn’t look close enough at her discovery. They were written to someone else; they were written at the start of her parent's marriage. Her discovery didn’t change anything. But still. “Sometimes I search desperately for other people’s secrets so I don’t have to think about my own,” she said, “And I won’t reveal what they are in this essay.”

She also wrote in her essay: "My dad actually thanked me for finding them. He said he had new material to use next time he and my mother got into a dumb fights. Being married twenty years even made arguing pretty dull and predictable."


Maybe the exercise didn’t solve everything, but it made the students realize that everyone, in some respects, contains vanity. Its presence and its consequences, positive or negative, may produce a thoughtful essay. The beautiful woman was simply exploring something she felt she possessed. And don't we all constantly congratulate ourselves.

The exercise helped normalize the beautiful woman’s admission of her own attractiveness. It didn't seem odd. Everyone was forced to look inward and discover what they felt they possessed in worthy abundance. Our own self-worship may be our most difficult secret to reveal.