Saturday, November 28, 2009

On Neglected Gay Poet A. Loudermilk, Natasha Saje, and Issues of Class

It would shock me if poet James Allen Hall has not read A. Loudermilk's inexcusably neglected book "Strange Valentine." It is undoubtedly an important literary predecessor to Hall's own award-winning collection "Now You're the Enemy," which deals with class on its own terms. Both books talk to Saeed Jones' important blog post "The Importance of Class & How to Write Ourselves Back to Relevancy." More complicated in its technique and class analysis, "Strange Valentine" acts as an antidote to the number of the more mediocre poems in Hall's exciting collection. Which is a book obviously by a young talent trying to find his own idiosyncratic vision. I think A. Loudermilk's poems will, if they haven't already, prove to be a touchstone for Hall.

What is instructive about A. Loudermilk's poems is that they refuse in any way to romanticize poverty or at the same make the claim that we're all --even the middle-class--impacted by its reach. Some people do suffer more than others, and to pretend otherwise is a dangerous fallacy. Self-awareness doesn't make you any less culpable for other peoples' predicaments.


The December 2009 issue of the Writer's Chronicle boasted Natasha Saje's annoyingly diplomatic article entitled "Poetry & Ethics: Writing about Others." From the piece, it could be extrapolated that Saje encourages what I see as the inclusion of pathos as a way of mitigating any political discomfort between the poet and marginalized people represented in a poem. In her discussion of Larkin's poem "Faith Healing" she makes the claim that the poem (consisting of a narrator observing a minister's attempt to heal his female congregants.) succeeds. Even though the narrator describes the women as objects, according to Saje, there the poet "seems to recognize what he is doing and he makes himself vulnerable." In other words: allow your narrator to feel a little guilty, and his own sins and the poem's problems will be redeemed. Liberal guilt goes pretty far in Saje's remedies for troubled poems that deal with cultural distances between people. Thankfully, A. Loudermilk avoids Saje's questionable solutions.


Here are the first stanza of A. Loudermilk's poem "Rent":

My bed is on the landlord's floor. His men are in the basement
clattering up dirt rooms where old wood smokes sunlight
chronometrically. They address the rotting timbers. The men
are in the basement, the teeth are on the saw, small mice
they worry, worry, & bed is on the breadth of my landlord's floor.

I love him so much I haven't touched myself for three days.

The initial repetition of passive verbs sets us up for the expectation of plain diction; the moves feel familiar. We've seen one too many depictions of a lonely tenant occupying a dilapidated apartment, feeling the landlord's oppressive presence. But then A. Loudermilk jolts us; that intriguing word-chronometically- takes us by surprise. It's definition --the scientific measurement of time--and its accompanying line break elevates the bleak scene into one containing a surprise: a beauty in the steadfast cycle of nature.

At the same, the word encourages us to see (without romanticization) the workers as doing something important, something that could be mistaken as rote, but isn't, according to A. Loudermilk. Their cleaning up of the outdoors deserves to be named in as precise of a way as possible. It is worthy of any middle-class scientist's job and warrants the same alluring, specialized.

A. Loudermilk refuses to pass over the working-class men's job without any special mention. In the next sentence, the verb "address" confirms this generous class awareness; the men aren't seen as perfunctorily chopping down the trees; instead the workers are speaking to the trees, treating the environment with the dignity they know it deserves.

The one-lined stanza that follows is more than a comic punchline. If this scene appeared in a movie, the landlord would be seen as a cranky obstacle to be avoided. A. Loudermilk allows his narrator to feel a weird identification with him that results in a devotedness. What is a greater display of love for a gay man than abstaining from masturbation?

Here's the rest of the poem "Rent" in its entirety:

First floor, my bed is on the floor. Sing mattress springs
to the trio of hammers against you & I will think of Matthew
in a v-neck romantically. Our bodies full of drum. The men
are in the basement, a claw is at bent nails, my morning
knocks hurry, hurry-rent is due on the landlord's floor.

How refreshing to not make the lower middle class narrator an object of pity, but an oddly romantic figure who takes happy refuge in the shabbiness of his apartment. Hall's poems sometimes unkindly makes his characters' shame feel lurid.

This narrator's "dirt room", his undoubtedly crappy bed, becomes a setting for dumb romantic play. The personification of the singing mattress springs allows for an imaginary threesome between the inanimate, Matthew, his boyfriend or trick, and himself. All bodies should be full of "drum," (and all poems) stealing people away --for a brief moment, anyway--from the lower middle class worries of getting that stupid rent check in on time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Some Random Thoughts On Being a Gay Male Mentor to Gay Male Students (Part One)

In college, all my gay male friends and I signed up for a Gay and Lesbian Literature class to affirm the fact that we were successful homosexuals. I've always considered myself a failure at being gay. Dorky haircut, out-of-style glasses, belly, I didn't know even how to be a good wallflower at the queer bar; someone always stepped on my shoes on the way to pick up the gay man of their dreams. This is not meant in any way as self-deprecation--a trait I always find uncharming--but as an objective fact.

On the first day of the gay and lesbian lit class, all the queer men sat in the front row. I've always wanted to be one of those teachers who could gracefully scribble brilliant things on the blackboard. That's what he was like. His students took notes. Maybe it's because I'm a creative writing teacher, but I cringe when my students write down what I say. "What's important to you," I say, "You'll remember."

When we received our first papers back, I got an A-. I was devastated.

I decided to be a man. Someone who he'd respect. I looked up to him, after all. So: I made an appointment. We met and I said, "I received an A-."

"I know," he said.

"No homosexual ever gets an A in my class," he said, "We all need to remember we're flawed. Until we get equal rights. So we keep fighting."


After five years of teaching at my school, I finally received the opportunity to teach a Gay and Lesbian Literature class. All the books by gay men featured protagonists who were seriously troubled, and once in a while suicidal.

One young gay man came to my office and said, "From the books you choose, it seems like you don't like yourself. Do you?"

"Sometimes," I said.


Unless it happens to be in Gay and Lesbian literature class, I get very nervous about teaching a book by a queer author. I don't want it to seem like I'm biased. And I figure that my presence is more than enough. It takes up enough room on the syllabus as it is.


Another gay teacher during my undergrad years was HIV-impacted. He was beautiful. He had a wonderful chest--you could tell he had the best pectoral muscles. Something that obsesses me. I suppose it's because I was never breast-fed.

His health declined. Along with a bunch of friends, we visited him in the hospital.

"I got this disease because I was promiscuous. I never used a condom," he said, "And I have no regret. I did what felt good for me. I'm not saying you shouldn't use a condom obviously. But you need to do things that make you happy."


Recently a male student told me he was gay. I shuddered.

"That sucks," I said laughing, maybe a little too hard. Or maybe not. Maybe not hard enough.

He said, "I heard that's what you'd say."


As a gay male teacher, I'm always walking a difficult line. In a workshop I taught, some women always believed that I was siding with the heterosexual men--there I was, according to them, getting off on masculinist impulses. On the other side, some of the heterosexual men told me that I seemed to be promoting a feminist agenda, too concerned about the representation of men.

The gay men never accused me of anything, even when I asked. They seemed not to have anything to say about the matter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why All Creative Writing Instructors Need to Teach Intro to Composition

This is my claim: with the university exploiting adjunct faculty to teach basic composition classes, it is up to tenure-track and tenured faculty members to volunteer to teach these courses as part of their normal load and enhance in part those same skills in their creative writing workshops. With CW teachers boasting publications, no doubt they should want to use their talents to help with fundamental skills: creating a thesis, synthesizing evidence with analysis, etc. Any CW teacher who uses the excuse that they themselves never took enough a comp class and as a result don't know how to teach it is copping out on their moral responsibility.

In my department, I am appalled by even the Literature faculty wanting to shirk their composition duties because they're upper-level courses are so precious.

As most CW teachers assign students to write a short critique of their peers' work, they need to teach them how to go about doing that. Most CW teachers take that for granted, failing to teach close reading skills, etc--the very skills their students need to complete that task. Instead they do twee writing exercises like another dumb, twist on the "I remember..." writing exercise that students share without any critique. (Although I have used Joe Brainard's "I Remember" precisely for that purpose. Or find a litany poem, and have them emulate it only to xerox a few of them as examples. This makes an analysis of abstraction vs. concrete manageable and urgent since it is their own work.)

For me, whatever writing class you’re engaged in, even composition, you need to start with one basic skill: the use of idiosyncratic detail, stressing specificity over abstraction.

CW teachers can claim that there’s other ways to go about writing instruction.

But I think they're foolish.

Having taught at a number of different universities and community colleges, I can attest that students, no matter how intelligent, will always avoid, to some significant extent, offering unique details. If they can’t do this, they will not be able to do much in terms of their writing life in and outside of the classroom.

So: undergraduate creative writing teachers have an ethical responsibility to give their students skills that apply not just to various aesthetic poetics camps studied in class, but to supplement the failure of certain introductory composition classes.

Most undergraduate composition papers suffer from a lack of detail, vague claims as do a lot of their poems.

From reading various blogs and talking to CW teachers from other universities, I find that a good number of teachers often ignore a skill that they may feel is beneath them: abstract versus concrete details. These same irresponsible teachers pride themselves on such embarrassing rationales that they’re expanding their students' possibilities with form and content, and the connection between the two.

CW teachers often fail as a result of teaching out of their own aesthetic and cultural obsessions rather than appropriately diagnosing what our students need.

I taught at University of Utah, largely populated by LDS students, who are some of the most literate and cultured students I’ve ever had, largely as a result of their evangelical missions to other places in the nation and world. Even there, a majority of the students faltered in being able to identify an abstraction and an idiosyncratic detail. Obviously, there is a role for abstraction in poetry. However, with students being unable to comprehend a fairly simple narrative or lyric poem, nothing else can really be taught with any efficiency or effectiveness.

I was this baldfaced with my CW students this semester. I wrote three words all in caps on the blackboard: GENERAL, SPECIFIC, IDIOSYNCRATIC. They would have to choose an object and brainstorm a general description of an object, then a specific, and then an idiosyncratic one. For instance:

they would choose car as a general item,

a rusty Volvo with a bad paint job as specific,

and as idiosyncratic: an Oldsmobile with a bumper sticker that says "I AM THE PARENT OF AN HONORS STUDENT" torn off by what could have been the kid who just got a C for the first time.

This was very difficult for them. Idiosyncratic description usually involved puke, vomit, blood, etc. The only way they could expediently describe something was through the grotesque. They don't like to linger over their writing and provide something truly unique. This isn't in any way to blame my students. Cloudy, sentimental, vague writing permeates our culture; why should they write any different.

This abstract-versus-concrete skill obviously can be applied to composition. It's hard to move beyond a thesis that says "This ad is sexist" or "Society reveals there are similarities and differences..."

No doubt some CW teachers would liken my pedagogical philosophy to forcing students to write the five-paragraph essay in their composition classes. At Project Advance at Syracuse University, a gathering of high school and college teachers, I brought up on the panel that I wish the five paragraph essay was taught more often in the classroom. Much to my surprise, I caused an inadvertent controversy. My belief was so unfashionable. One teacher came up to me and said, “I wouldn’t expect a fellow homosexual to encourage such retrograde ideas. You’re supposed to be on the cutting edge.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On White Space, Poetry, and Serious Depression

It's always after the fact that you realize you are depressed. It comes so naturally that you don't think to look at one of the signs: the growing white space in your poems. Before the psychic pain, you thought it was quite the opposite--you thought it meant you were happy. A lot of white space meant ambition.

You were excited about sending out your book of poetry. You believed that you found the way to a win a contest. Put as few words on the page as possible. This was your rationale: screeners are flooded with too many manuscripts. What is smarter than giving them as little as possible to make their way through. They won’t realize it. But they’ll thank you. They’ll thank you by passing your manuscript on to a final judge.


White space is a place for rest on the page. You wanted your readers to rest, or at least you thought. You didn't realize you were projecting.


The Sun and electric incandescence create white light. Maybe the growing amount of white space was a sign of resistance to depression. As your depression increased, so did your desire to fight back. Or at least you like to think that.

Through the white space, you were saying wake up. Wake up. The white space was the closest thing to sunlight you could let in.Too tired to get out of bedd and open the curtains, you laid in bed and lamely browsed through a book of poems, anything longer than a dozen lines felt too time-consuming. Like tying your shoes. Depression makes you feel like tying your shoes is something that needs to be completed in steps.

Has a doctor ever considered white space to be an antidote for Seasonal Affective Disorder?


You always look forward to seeing a psychologist. One of your favorite games is pathologizing yourself. You can't imagine too many poets not looking forward to it. It means, I'm special. There's a name for it. It's the same way with a poem. The problem is the novelty of finding a name for something indescribable only lasts so long. Within seconds, the words date themselves. Your poem rendered obsolete.

White space has no expiration date. It always looks fresh and alive and ready.


In Vietnamese culture, white is the color of mourning and death.


In page layout, white space is often referred to as negative space. Negative space, negative capability. Where does the willingness to be "uncertain"--the location in-between uncertainty and limitless potential occur? Where is the space on the page? Do the two negatives complement one another? Do the two negatives equal a positive? Or do they simply cancel out one another?

Friday, November 6, 2009

On the Vignette (Part One for Nicole Walker)

For months in graduate school, I suffered from urticaria—a kind of hives. It was the weirdest infliction. The hives appear on one part of your body, and then disappear only to appear on another. You never know how long it’s going to take for them to reappear or where they’ll show up next. This is when I started to write vignettes for what would turn out to be a memoir. I would start writing a vignette when a bunch of hives appeared, and then end it as soon as they appeared in a new place. This is the truth: It always felt like my body gave me the perfect amount of time to finish my vignette.


My best friend’s father stopped reading novels when he began to die. “I can’t afford to spend too much time reading. I'm dying and have to say bye,” he said. He tried switching to short stories. That didn’t last for long. “Short stories are like bad hospital guests,” he said, “They’ll sit by your side, and you think they’re going to stay for a long time, but not that much time passes until you can feel them getting ready to go.” One day he told my best friend to tell him a story. He talked for a few minutes and then his father stopped him. He never let my best friend share more than a short episode, a vignette. It was too tiring to hear more. During that time, it was when they felt the closest.


You can ethically judge an essay made out of vignettes without having to read all of it. In fact, your assessment made me best served by only reading parts. A good vignette should be self-contained; it shouldn’t need anything other than itself. At the same, if you do put it next to another, it should feel like the perfect decision. Like the essay would be incomplete, doomed to failure, if you didn’t put it exactly where you did.


For middle-aged writers like myself, writing a vignette is pure nostalgia. The best ones are like photographs. You have no choice but to show. No time to tell. All those useless, silly, dated mantras, your high school creative teachers taught you- like show, don’t tell- feel, once again, like undeniable Truths.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Definition of Creative Non-Fiction

It’s weird how annoying and self-satisfied writers become when they’re asked to define creative non-fiction. They don’t like labels, they say. Or: “It crosses-genres. You can’t pin it down.” I remember when an esteemed creative non-fiction writer was interviewed at my graduate school. He looked appalled by the question and then said, “It can be whatever you want it to be.” He turned out to be a favorite mentor and I'm always amazed by his writing.

As a gay writer, I can’t help but see it as our ethical responsibility to name and define things. If we don’t, the world defines it for us, and may use it as a tool for oppression. Take Proposition 8. People can congratulate themselves as much as they want on their refusal to define their sexuality, that their “sexuality is fluid.” But California voters named a group of people as homosexual. Which essentially meant to them you do not deserve equal rights therefore you are nothing more than dead to us. For any queer person to believe they can transcend a label is at once foolhardy, and cruel to those who suffer psychic and physical harm from such mandates.

“I don’t know what creative non-fiction is,” my students ask on the first day of class. I will not have them jot down on a piece of paper what they think it may be. And then share their ideas. I always hated as a student being asked to offer something that the teacher already thought she knew. It felt weirdly condescending—just tell me, jerk, I always want to say. This isn’t to say I don’t allow for classroom discussion, but that I offer them something first. It's the generous thing to do.

And then I encourage them to challenge me and my definition. This is scary for them, but benign threats always work—tell them that their grade depends partly on being contentious with tact—they’ll do it.

Here’s my definition:

I tell them they need to break up the word. Creative. Non-Fiction.

Non-Fiction=The Real=Autobiographical Experience and/or Texts and/or History=”The Content” of the Piece

For the “Creative” aspect of the definition, they need to ask the question, “Where would the author locate his artistry in the piece?”, “What special formal strategies does she employ?” (ie point-of-view, diction, organization, etc.”)

“That’s why,” I say, “Journalism and diary writing cannot be creative non-fiction. There’s nothing inherently special about its formal strategies. It’s simply meant to convey. To an audience. Or to oneself. It’s not meant to convey in a way that is special or artistic.”

Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to deconstruct this definition. (Even though I think it's pretty good.)

The endless battles about this definition as a result of that can go on and on.

But it offers a starting point rather than simply raising your hands in the air, and offering nothing except to claim no one can pin it down, that it transgresses boundaries and refuses to be defined. Of course, it refuses to be defined; that’s why we’ve become writers, to fumble our way towards a useless, necessary naming.

If your class should look at Jamaica Kincaid’s “My Brother,” your can collectively name her autobiographical experiences dealing with HIV-impacted, drug-addicted brother as the Non-Fiction. And then collectively discover the creative aspects, “Where would Jamaica Kincaid locate her artistry?” (ie the consistently elongated sentences which echo offer one another, the identification of repeated words that accumulate in number and meanings, the successful overdetermination to use flattened syntax.)

[Whatever you do, don’t assign Kincaid’s “Girl.” It’s an insult to Literature to read the most trite and unchallenging piece by one of our greatest living authors.]

If your class should look at say David Shields’ “Fear of a Black Planet,” your class can name his racial analysis of the Seattle Supersonics’ 1994-1995 Season. And then collectively discover the creative aspects, “Where would Shields locate his artistry?” (ie the artificial organization of the diary over time, the deft obsessive delineation of time to provide a sense of increased self-awareness.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On Gender Inequality and the Whiting Awards

I am concerned that this year only 2 out of the 10 Whiting Award Winners are women.

I demand a recount.

There’s more curious news. Look at the history of the award. In 2008, 3 out of 10 were women. In 2007, 3 out of 10 were women. In 2006, 4 out of ten were women. In 2004 and 2005, 5 out of ten were women. According to the anonymous panel, women’s writing must be declining in quality, and fairly quickly.

It cannot be emphasized enough how esteemed the award is for young and emerging writers. Everyone sees the honor as a confirmation of a long-lasting, important career. I cannot tell you the number of times in graduate school that one of my classmates would express a hope to receive the title of Whiting Award recipient. In a special-topics graduate class that focused on young writers, one of my teachers simply assigned a whole year’s roster of Whiting Award winners.

I have no problem with the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation cloaking their judges in anonymity, but I do think the significance of these awards needs to be questioned, and why exactly the Foundation may possibly be invested in keeping everything such an annoying, self-important secret.

This is how the award is described on the website:

Since 1985, the Foundation has supported creative writing through the Whiting Writers Awards which are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. The awards, of $50,000 each, are based on accomplishment and promise. Candidates are proposed by nominators from across the country whose experience and vocations bring them in contact with individuals of extraordinary talent. Winners are chosen by a selection committee, a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors, appointed annually by the Foundation. Both nominators and selectors serve anonymously. The Foundation does not accept applications to the Writers' Program.

No doubt someone could make the claim that for a prize of this significance the selection committee shouldn’t be cloaked in anonymity. If that’s the way the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation wants to conduct itself, then by all means they should do it. Who is anyone to claim that they should do things differently? Maybe they should start their own foundation then.

But there is a larger issue at the stake: Why exactly does the selection committee seem more likely as of late to choose a man over a woman? Are the identities of the judges kept a secret because it’s essentially a men’s only club and it wants to protect itself from any accusations of sexism?

It’s scary challenging the legitimacy of the awards. Let’s face it: it’s an especially dumb idea for a woman to criticize them. You might be attacking them to someone who’s a judge. No one wants to be associated with a troublemaker. Or a sore loser. You might be passed over if you open your mouth.

And who doesn't want their art valued? But this year it seems that if you’re a woman you have a lot less of a chance.

No one can tell me that with a committee of so many reputable writers they could only find two women as worthy finalists.

With this year's lack of female recepients, this Whiting Foundation could be seen essentially a secret society that through its selection process bestows its awards on men. Because of the prestige of the award, these same men can use the award as a gateway towards something larger, further legitimizing their career. More leads to more.

This post is not meant in any way as a critique of the men who received the awards. I haven’t read most of the winners’ work. I'm sure they are amazing.

But I do mean for this post to act as an attempt to reevaluate the significance of what it means to be a winner of a Whiting. By looking at the relatively low number of female winners, the awards could be seen as a confirmation that the publishing industry and the awards committees are a fraternal system based on predictable, though no less inexcusable, gendered inequalities.

The Whiting Foundation surely chooses brilliant authors. It also knows the importance of the written word. If you’re going to possibly exclude people, and, in this case, women, don’t say it to their face. Make invisible committees. Lurk in whispers. Don't offer any rationales. At least not in writing.