Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Michael Theune, Denise Duhamel, Kevin Prufer, Wayne Miller, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and Pleiades

Dear Michael Theune,

Because I google myself at least a dozen times a day, I was happy when I discovered that my name and poem was mentioned in your review of issue #34 of Triquarterly, edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby. It appeared in one of my favorite magazines Pleiades --no joke, the only reason I don't have a subscription is you can't order directly from their website, at least last time I checked. I cannot tell you how many times I've sent work there and have never got in. So you can imagine my excitement that my work was singled out.

Here's the link: -

I think it's so cool that you would write a review of an issue of a literary magazine. So few people rarely do that, and by complimenting you, I'm complimenting myself--I love searching the web and magazines for poems the world might not have noticed.

Because reviews are so rare, I have no choice but to celebrate that I received the sort of attention I crave. For my readers of this blog (and myself--I love to affirm myself that I am indeed beautiful and amazing, be gone, modest Midwestern upbringing), I posted the poem you talked about in the previous post.

Here is what you say about my poem "I am Known as Walt Whitman":

"There are excellent poems here, and there are very bad ones... Denise Duhamel’s “Lucky Me” is a 4-page confessional poem that goes nowhere; however, her “October 1973” is much more typically accomplished for Duhamel. Steve Fellner’s “I Am Known as Walt Whitman” is problematic, with lines like “…O, my dumb, dead boyfriend, / you are my expired muse. Because I know you gave so kindly to strangers, I imagine / your hole as raw as the material for this poem,”...

I have no problems with my work being criticized. Recently, a critic leveled several charges against my memoir. The thing that pissed me off was that they were right!

What concerns me, and why I'm going to address this criticism is I feel it's a vehicle to talk about something larger: the subtle ways in which homophobia presents itself in book reviews --intentionally or not--to marginalize already marginalized authors.

You are unkind in your solemn, wholly unfunny review (you're as guilty for lacking that trait as much as you accuse gay African-American anthologist Reginald Shepherd of being).

How irresponsible of a critic to claim that my explicitly gay poem is "problematic" without telling me why.

Or perhaps you do eerily tell me why by quoting a line that deals explicitly with homosexual anal sex? Because you easily allow this conclusion to be drawn, I would make the claim that this could be read as an act of aggression against a gay author dealing with R-rated (or you may think X-rated) sexual material.

I think there's plenty of criticisms to level against the poem: a pretty clunky beginning (the poem doesn't really become a poem until the second half), ugly, stiff diction choices ("resurfaced"?),etc. But you don't name those or even others. Instead the line is labeled as a problem and then later you reveal your obsession with the poem by mentioning it again (which made me happy--I think sexual humiliation feels way better the second time around.):

"Why these poems by these poets and not others? Why not take, say, just Duhamel’s stronger poem, and then solicit other poems from other poets, including, say, Kent Johnson, a poet rarely thought of as being in “ultra-talk” circles, but whose work in his amazing book of anti-war poems, Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz, and whose recent epigrams, filled with gossip about contemporary American poets, are the epitome of talky poems? Why Steve Fellner’s “I Am Known as Walt Whitman” and not a poem by former slam poet Jennifer Knox?"

I wished that you said I should have been replaced by a gay male poet who deals with explicit sexuality--there are plenty of them out there, and have written much better poems than mine. But you don't do that. Which makes me think one can translate "problematic" as "gay."

I don't understand the absurd arbitrariness of this comment. Through you admitted preoccupation with my poem, and a dangerously coy refusal to name the reason behind that preoccupation, you commit, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, an act of homophobia.

There are some other things you say about a different poem of mine, but that's irrelevant. This reaction to this particular poem is what matters. I do hope that your editors Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer had suggested that you explain yourself and you rejected the critique. Book reviewing is a moral act. They are powerful people; they should be challenging their own critics even if their suggestions are ultimately rejected by the author.

You choose to simultaneously criticize and withhold commentary of a gay male authored poem dealing with sexuality. These ostensibly minor, cryptic acts ultimately server as a gateway for larger ones, such as mandates like Proposition 8.

In spite of all this, I'm thrilled you mentioned my poem. (Barbara and David betrayed me, too --that poem shouldn't have been placed in the middle of the volume. It deserved to be plastered on the back fucking cover! You're all goddamned homophobes!)


  1. Dear Steve Fellner:

    I had no idea you were (or were not) gay...!

    Michael Theune

  2. Hi,

    Regardless the content is. And there's still no explanation of the word "problematic" in your reply.

    It might be more upsetting if the poem was written by a heterosexual and you didn't offer a follow through of the word "problematic." Here they would be taking an admirably audacious imaginative leap (moving beyond the trope of homo best friend or suicidal casualty) and you shame their work *without any explanation* by calling it problematic.

    I know for someone like you who has won a major teaching award you would not do this to one of your students. A review is a form of pedagogy, no?

    In a way, I like the fact that you're treating gay material with no kid gloves, it's a sign of respect, (a lot of het critics falsely praise such material rotely and see themselves as charitable), but then here you shortchange the author (het or not, me or not) and the quality of your own review for not explaining "why" it's problematic.

    I challenge you to give me an explanation of the word problematic. That's all I want. That's all I deserve. I may even agree with you.


  3. Hi Steve,

    You might never receive the closure you seek from Theune, but I have followed your brief back and forth, and I thought I would address the lines Theune insufficently comments on. I would never use the word "problematic" without closer investigation, and though I don't have time for a thoughtful close reading isolating specific missteps and rhetorical anxieties, I can give you some global observations. The poem coyly relies (in a rhetorical approach not literal or figurative) on shock and taboo for the mere sake of shock and taboo, instead of employing taboo and shock to defy expectations, to move toward greater insight or more complexity or toward bewilderment--some otherness. The lines are awkwardly prosaic and overtly metapoetic and self-referential, which could be quite brilliant if done in a more Whitmanic manner--ironic since you invoke Whitman in name only, not as a response to or reaction against his graceful approach, which makes the speaker seem merely a naive name-dropper. Without attributing gender or orientation, I could replace the anus with a vagina, and the sensibility would remain the same: its vapidity speaks more to the intent behind a porn-mag forum than a claim or insight worthy of further investigation.

  4. Review of anonymous's patently glabrous review:

    1. It is Whitmanesque, not "Whitmanic." I would avoid both adjectives.

    2. Please stop consulting your literary theory thesaurus. In fact, throw out any thesauri you have altogether: metapoetic, bewilderment, awkwardly prosaic and worse, vapidity. How very frosh.

    3. As for Whitman's graceful approach--you obviously have no comprehension of how mores evolve over time. And telling a gay poet to sublimate his diction so that your priggish eyes don't smart is condescending.

    4. Yes, you could replace anus with vagina, but that would be rather "self-referential." And no, you have obviously never read a porn-mag forum but want us to believe you did.

    The poem is hardly so straightforward as to deserve comparison with pornography--even an AP English class clown would get that.

  5. Ouch! I'll consult a slang thesaurus in the future.

    Changing mores are responses to or reactions against a movement, history, culture, social construction, you dolt. It has nothing to do with sublimation or priggish eyes. The ignorant speaker uses Whitman as a cheap prop.

    You could repalace the anus with possum or chipmunk hole or cherry tree knot, which is the point--I merely slipped past those and to the polarity. Chipmunk hole would be self-referential.

    Oh,don't kid yourself, the poem is painfully straightforward. I'm surprised that the last two lines aren't an enjambed "The/End"

    Thanks for your lesson on Whitman terms, but I'm afraid that all of your years of Whitmanesque learnin' have left you dry, quite dry--Whitmanic has been a prevalent term in literary scholarship and reviews for decades. Learn yourself something before making a "vapid" claim.

    I was merely a regular-English class clown--fart sounds and alike.

  6. Dear Steve,

    I think I'm starting to understand the beautiful alchemy of your devilish antics here. The real art to this blog is not in the cattiness of the thing itself, but in the bitchiness it engenders. I've always been pretty sure that you don't believe a word of what you write here, but I'm really appreciating why you insist on the facetious hysterics: you just love the nasty, ultra-literate blowback, don't you?

    Kisses and hugs,


  7. Because I know you gave so kindly to strangers, I imagine
    your chipmunk hole as raw as the material for this poem

    Definitely an improvement.

  8. Oh Angel! whose anus stood open to all,
    Your ragged old rectum's now raw as my song

    --The Pearl Poet

  9. Steve--

    With all due respect, Mike Theune is on record as saying that DA Powell--who writes explicitly of gay sex--is a fantastic, innovative poet. No homophobia there...

  10. Thy buttocks were ever held wide for the throng,
    Now hangs thy wrecked asshole as slack as my song.

    Now that, my friend, is how it's done.

    --Alexander Pope

  11. Aurora is right, right? This post is a joke?

  12. If Steve is offering a "joke" (and I'm of the opinion he's offering what might be called a half-joke) it must be the kind of humor that someone like Sacha Baron Cohen plays on-- the kind that reveals the blissfully unconscious ugliness of a lot of the folks who take it in.

    Let's see, a quick looksie through the current comments section gives us a woman (and I hate to use the word "literally," but, Jesus Christ, literally) making claims of a gay man's "cattiness," "bitchiness," and "hysterics;" a reviewer who would rather, I guess, paint himself as a clueless boob ("why, mercy me, Steve, the author of this poem blatantly about a male lover, is gay? Why, my stars and garters, I had no idea") than as a homophobe; a "some of his best friends are gay" style defense of said reviewer; and yet another volunteer reviewer worrying about "vapidity" by pondering what would happen if we replaced an anus with a vagina.

    Really, people, some of you should trust Socrates about that whole "unexamined life" thing.

    You'd have to be an absolute ninny to miss Steve's attempts (successful sometimes, not sometimes) at self-deprecating humor throughout a lot of his (often more serious) posts, but the real funny is apparently in the comments section.

  13. Thanks, Socrates, for your muscular sweep of the masses, and in doing so, brushing your gold toes along the same filthy ground the unexamined lovingly but aimlessly attend to.

    Steve attenpts to provoke a response from a reviewer--how Franz Wright, how frosh. Sometimes, it is best to just laugh and go on.

    The lines the review calls problematic are problematic but not because of the queer content, the context, which speaks more to the editor's poor decision to publish it than Steve's construction of the poem. Then why even isolate a poem that doesn't enter into a meaningful conversation in a review? I don't know. It is like marking "awkward syntax" or "problematic" on a comp. essay that has too many problems to address, then passing the essay out to the writer's peers while saying, "This is not how to write an essay!" This is where Steve has his beef--his approach or decision to even address the simple-minded review, however, is "problematic."

  14. Should we pause and note the ridiculousness of the "sometimes, it is best to just laugh and go on" freshman comp teacher then immediately spending a lengthy paragraph, made up of vague axe-grinding, interrogating a blog criticism of a review of a single issue of a magazine, or should we just laugh and go on?

    Like I said, Steve's got a tough road ahead of him if he wants to be funnier than this bonfire of the inanities. Good luck there, dude.


    Gold Toes

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. Steve Fellner is a classic Internet troll with a bruised ego. His post is purposefully inflammatory, designed, as Aurora says, to elicit responses. Half of these "Anonymous" posts are probably him. Maybe they all are. What's even more pathetic is that he uses self-deprecating "humor" to make it seem as if his feelings aren't really hurt and as if he's not just writing this post out of sour grapes. Look how much time he spends just trying to reassure us that he can handle criticism, only to write a, yes, hysterical post that links two words--two words!--in a relatively obscure review to homophobic aggression and Prop 8. No wonder people think this post is a farce.

    The problem with Steve Fellner's post is that he writes it as if the review was all about him. Theune's review is probably 10,000 words long. Of those 10,000 words, Steve Fellner gets about 100. Fifty of those words are critical and the other half are actually complimentary of another poem he has in that issue of TriQuarterly. Most of those 100 words are direct quotes of the poetry, and actual commentary on the poetry uses only four words--"is problematic" (The horror!!!!) and "is delightful" (no word yet on what Steve Fellner's take is on that woefully unexplained compliment besides a dangerously coy reference to "some other things" that Theune writes). (Personally, I feel that "delightful" is just more homophobic aggression! Because, you know, "delightful" just connotes a kind of light-in-the-loafers-maybe-I'll-just-suck-this-one-cock-and-see-if-I-like-it homophobic condescension).

    So, as I was saying, Steve Fellner is a completely insignificant part of this review. It's no wonder that Theune didn't spend more time explaining why Fellner's poem, specifically, is "problematic." I mean, after all, the review is not about Steve Fellner. Steve Fellner's poem is just used as an example to argue what is itself a rather minor point in the review. In other words, in the context of this review, Steve Fellner is quite insignificant. Did the Pleiades editors make a poor decision in this case, or are those 100 words--actually four words--so completely insignificant as to not warrant an effort to really notice them? Probably the latter. The only person on this planet who would care enough to notice them is Steve Fellner, and that's only because he Googles himself 12 times a day.

    The real problem Steve Fellner has with this review is not that it's "homophobic," it's that it doesn't spend enough time talking about Steve Fellner. All of Steve Fellner's criticism stems from an assumption that Steve Fellner should get more ink--that Steve Fellner is entitled to more ink.

    Steve Fellner's response to that hit on his ego is to take to the Internet and write a trollish blog piece that is nothing more than a nonsensical string of sexual-politics platitudes so that everyone can come to his blog and discuss his poem. Then he'll finally get the attention he feels he deserves. Well, enjoy.

    --Sam Page & Ron Jeremy, proud defenders of raw holes everywhere, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

  17. Nice, Steve--go get um.

  18. Dude, How _Lost_, how Feste, how frosh.

  19. Ah, the predictable "Steve just wants attention" and "Steve's a troll" and "all of these posts are secretly Steve" Remedial Internet 101 response. The only thing that writer forgot to do was play into Godwin's Law. Maybe next post?

    I'm convinced, though. What a catty, bitchy, hysteric, self-obsessed agent provocateur is this Steve person. Heavens, don't you know, if someone says something potentially homophobic about your work in a review, and doesn't effectively clarify, for the Love of God Almighty, keep yer trap shut, Nancy-boy... or else! This kind of inquiry simply ain't done in polite society [clutches pearls]. After all, the name of this blog is Tediously-Uptight-Poets-Central-Not-About-Gay-Related-Inquiries, not Pansy Poe... wait, what's that?

    A grudging tip of the hat, I must say, to Steve's chameleon-like genius. For a moment, I thought I was me, but now I discover I'm him. Now I'm even confused about my own gender. Kudos, what with his making the usual suspects fret by being too publicly outspoken while at the same time being too secretive and hidden. That's hard thing to pull off. Also, faking all those typos and poor command of HTML in his regular posts. Crafty!

    He's bitchy, catty, hysteric, self-obsessed, and devious! You ain't Feste, Steve-y, you're the f*cking Joker! I'd pat you on the back, but I'm not sure if I'd be patting you on the back or patting me on the back, which means I'd be patting you and... oh, damn, I am in over my head!


    Orteils D'or

    [c/o a secret lair/slash/imaginary adjunct and/or teaching assistant office somewhere off the Cote D'Azur]

  20. LMFAO, LOLLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111!!. GAGOYOT, FYBS, Got Pics?

  21. I'm not sure how homophobic/philic this is to say, but I dearly love Steve, and when I suggest that his blog contains certain elements of performance (catty, hysterical performance at that, provoking in turn a certain brand of righteous, mean-spirited response), I mean to suggest that I have had trouble recognizing in this blog the person I know to be generous to a fault, kind, deeply appreciative of the work of his peers, and surprisingly humble on most occasions. I tease Steve, as I do often, primarily as a result of my discomfort with a tone that sometimes emerges in this blog that just feels not-Steve for me, namely when he takes an uncharacteristically cheap shot at an unsuspecting target. But I realize that these are precisely the posts that generate the most energetic commentary, interesting to read on its own, and I have come to view Steve's blog as, not unlike his poetry and creative nonfiction, a piece of (interactive) performance art that blends fiction and truth, reality and fantasy, and Real Steve with Mean Steve.

    Carry on,


  22. Now that's a Missouri steer without horns--hip-hip. Find your own way home.

  23. The Joker, hell, you are Harry F*ucking Crews in tights, sans pitbulls and mohawk. You quit this writing thingy. You should be in moving pictures!

  24. Ah, the classic in-the-face-of-obvious-truth-distort-mock-and-distract technique.

    Steve Fellner's post is textbook attention-seeking trollism.

    Let's review:

    1. Does Steve Fellner respond to what amounts to a passing, two-word comment ("is problematic") about one of his poems--which, by the way, was balanced by another two-word comment complimenting another poem--by writing a 900-word hysterical, inflammatory, and nonsensical diatribe accusing the other person of being a bigot? Answer: Yes.

    2. Does Steve Fellner's logic in said diatribe amount to the following: A. You said my poem is problematic; B. My poem is about gay sex; C. I'm gay; D. I assume you're not; E. You're a bigot. Answer: Yes

    Diagnosis: Troll.


    SP & RJ

  25. RJ--I caught you on an episode of the Bang Bus. You still got it, dude. And I mean "it."

  26. Okay, everybody gets the points the same people have been making over and over. Two of you need to go to your room without supper: wannabee Socrates and paranoid troll man.

    Aurora, you get cake.

  27. Some late to the party food for thought... If the poet in question was a feminist poet and a reviewer singled out the one line that most graphically described her female sexuality with simply the word “problematic,” with no further comment, I doubt we’d drag her over the coals for wanting a better explanation like Fellner is getting here. That holds true even had the reviewer praised the poet elsewhere for one of her more “polite” poem.

    Suggesting it’s only one word, or it’s only one insignificant review, sound a lot like the same old rhetoric always used to dismiss minority concerns. Minorities should constantly challenge questionable discourse, particularly in a culture where the key overriding obstacles is a majority already primed to dismiss them. A word at work, a word behind your back, a word thrown at you on the street, a word on the page. It’s not getting in anyone’s face to simply say “excuse me, what did you mean by that?”

    Offering the few lines ending with “your hole as raw as the material for this poem” from Fellner’s poem without any real context is a provocative gesture. Even on a first reading of the actual poem, it’s clear this line is directly tied in to a persona narrative invoking in part particular, current controversies in the gay community of increasing risk and barebacking (in light of new HIV treatments). A closer reading reveals the poem is, in part, using the persona to actually criticize an increasingly prevalent nihilistic mindset in some members of the gay community. Notably, the lines the reviewer chooses to quote are neither the resolution nor actual emphasis of the poem, they're simply the ones that sound most provocative if singled out.

    Had the reviewer offered even one real sentence clarifying the gist or subject matter of the poem or of why he found this line “problematic” in relationship to that subject matter, it would hardly have been making the entire review about Steve Fellner. It would have been a matter of simple ethics, that those with majority privilege should always consider when addressing works that evoke minority images and issues. This thought sometimes riles those who don’t want to consider it. It is often dismissed as uppity, trivial, or P.C. But it doesn’t take much ink or effort, it simply requires of all of us a genuine consideration of how we ourselves add or subtract from a cumulative perception of those who have to fight daily for their basic rights. Poets, of all people, should know how words add up.

    Not knowing whether the poet is gay or not doesn’t in my opinion change the problem. Even were this a straight poet writing in the persona of a gay man, it would still be a dangerous gesture to single out the most graphic image of gay sex in the poem and dismiss it without context. An image of heterosexual intercourse, anal or otherwise, is distinctly not the same as one of gay or lesbian intercourse, because they are not valued the same way in our current, biased culture. Saying that we could treat, or exchange, one image for another in the same way is an argument that ignores the difference of power in our culture.

    (...continued...) JAH

  28. (…continued…)

    …An illustrative example of why examining the reviewer’s action should not be dismissed as mere self-promotion or hysterics is to picture a year end movie review by a television film critic: in the midst of quickly discussing various films released during the year, the reviewer quickly flashes a sex scene from a gay film like “Brokeback Mountain,” simply says “troubling,” and moves on to discussing other works, at greater length. Whether the reviewer meant offense or not, he or she is dealing with a culture where evocations of gay sex are regularly used to raise repulsion, prejudice, and dismissal. It is the job of an ethical critic—and really any member of a privileged majority with a good conscience—to be aware of his or her own responsibility in not feeding that mindset. The decision of the reviewer to choose that scene, or if he or she chose that scene not to have more of a specific point to make with it, would definitely be open to question.

    Likewise, it doesn’t take damning or celebrating a writer or his/her works for paragraphs or spending a good deal of ink on them, but it does require an understanding that it is dangerous to single out the most graphic image of gay sexuality in a text, no matter how one feels about that text, and expect everyone should instantly perceive why this image is “problematic” with no further explanation.

    James Anderson Hamlin

  29. Steve Fellner has ruined my California spring break! While I should be hauling my surfboard into the gnarly waves, or at least reading some Rexroth poems to the pelicans, I'm having way too much fun watching the blogosphere light up with responses to his review of the review of his poem in the review that won’t publish his poems, even though the other review (which just stopped publishing, no?) did. Publish his poem, that is. I feel a little bit like the chambermaid at the hotel who fell asleep outside of Isaac Stern's door, hoping for a few more delicious notes...