Monday, May 10, 2010

On James Allen Hall, Enid Shomer, Michael Walsh, Allen Ginsberg, Mark Doty, the University of Arkansas Press, Paul Zimmer, Ronaldo V. Wilson, etc. etc

Dear Enid Shomer, the Poetry Editor of University of Arkansas Press:

First I want to thank you for doing what I consider to be extraordinary work in supporting gay poets--a lot of editors would be very wary of publishing more than one gay poet a year. They wouldn't even dare to admit to themselves that they do have quotas about those sort of things. You have published three gay men. Again, I can't say that about too many editors. I can guess you would say that these were the best manuscripts and you're not interested in the sexuality of the authors, that you just simply want the best work. A lot of editors claim that but most don't practice it. By far, that's the most important thing I'm going to say in this post. You have a great, well-deserved reputation within gay male circles and deserve it. I can't think of too many other mainstream (ie university) presses who would do such a thing, or have.

So, as you can imagine, I feel a bit guilty in critiquing some, if not any, of your decisions or your press. It has brought a lot of important new and emerging authors into the marketplace. At the same time, I think that everything is open up for critique, so this post is not meant as an aggressive attack, but as a way of creating a dialogue. I can tell from your comments on my last post that you may see me as a overdetermined to offer an opinion. While that may be so (my partner of 13 years would definitely side with you), I like to cause a little trouble. Trouble makes people self-conscious, and self-consciousness, I believe, is a good thing. I also think criticism is an act of creation: the ability to unpack words, decisions, catalogues, and so forth. I give you my word, that's my primary intent.

Even more importantly, though, no matter how personal this post may seem, it is not intended as such. I see my extensive critique about your press as a vehicle of talking about larger issues. I sound like someone who teaches freshman composition (which I do): begin with the specific and then the universal will emerge. In other words, the problems I examine are not particular to your press, but mainstream (ie university presses) in general. That is why I am giving myself leeway here.

I also want to make clear that it is upsetting to me that I'm offering a critique of a press that does care about queer authors. Why not attack the ones that don't? Because they don't listen. I'd rather offer opinions to those who do care than waste my time with those who don't. It may be unfair, but that's the best explanation I can offer.

I'm going to try my best in explaining why I think your press may privilege a certain type of gay poet over other types of gay poets. This is a tricky thing to discuss, because one may think on the surface that the poets --James Allen Hall, Eric Leigh, and Michael Walsh may seem like they're different poets. I would like to make the argument that they are not only of more or less of the same aesthetic camp, but also, how they essentially, to a degree, are creating the same poem. This isn't to say that they are good or bad poets (although I do receive by far the most personal pleasure from James Allen Hall and the least from Michael Walsh, but that is irrelevant).

My argument will be two-fold: 1.) articulate an anticipation of reasons why you might argue against them being at all similar and then refute those arguments in a congenial, non-aggressive manner 2.) offer examples of other gay poets who offer alternative aesthetics and contents in contrast to the sort of rhetorical strategies and material you seem to honor the most regularly.

1a.) You might say, "But, Steve, they're all dealing with different subject material: Michael Walsh (the pastoral); James Allen Hall (the melodramatic, and I do mean that descriptively, not critically), and Eric Leigh (AIDS.) On the surface, this might seem true. But if you look deeper, these authors actually employ the same sort of narrative arc in their poems: they always begin with the domestic which pervades all aspects of their books. I think this is particular troublesome in the 21 st century when gay men seem eerily relentless in their attempts to gain tolerance through presenting themselves as domestic creatures, or at least craving such comforts . As if by focusing on the limitations and potentialities of the nuclear family, they are essentially safe and non-threatening. These statements are not an attack against any one particular poet, but a description of a cumulative pattern of poetry in the gay literature scene, a problem that does not belong to one particular press.

1b.) Here's another reason why I find stressing the familiar--mother and father--a problem. It offers a socially deterministic view, a sort of self-pathology of gay men. Why so often to mainstream narrative gay poets feel the need to offer backstory to their lives. Why can't gay men allow themselves to act and feel the way they do because they are gay men. By privileging the domestic arc (here is what happened to me when I was young and this is why I act the way I do when I'm old), gay men are limiting their own agency. Not everything needs to be operating in a psychoanalytic frame work.

1c.) If I should say that the poets personaes' are asexual, and at the very least, non-threatening for the most part, I'm sure you could point to excerpts of the poems that refute this. For example, the use of the word "cum" in Eric Leigh's book. Or perhaps an example of the poem "Wish" from Michael Walsh's The Dirt Riddles: "When I kiss him, weed sour/and tomato green/after hours in this garden,/I taste the darkness/suspended between bone and skin/..." I would make the claim that the queer sexuality is almost always tastefully embedded in the poem, or used as a way to titillate a middle-class reader. The poems are never about or truly deal with what might be perceived as more raw sexuality in general or unconventional sexual practices.

1d.) I do not think you could deny in any way that these poets privilege unrepentantly the narrative. Conventional narrative is what matters. This is undeniably partly impacted by Mark Doty. Mary Doty is the driving influence here. Other significant writers like Timothy Liu (his more later work), Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Rane Arroyo, John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, Wayne Koestenbaum, James Schuyler, Essex Hemphill, etc etc. and their contemporary influence play no role. Your press seems to privilege almost completely poems that Theodore Roethke could have secretly written. (I think when James Allen Hall uses metaphor and hyperbole he comes closest to doing something new, and that's why I like his work, by far, the best--in his portraits of his mother he simultaneously embraces and parodies the iconic mother figure in his poems. Those poems create a certain amount of envy in me.)

1e.) They are all very earnest poets. Whether it's Leigh's AIDS narratives or Walsh's pastorals about growing up on a farm or Hall's domestic tragedies, I sense that one of the reasons they may have cross over success is that they seem like the type of poet who is having an emotional catharsis on the page--no matter how much they may claim otherwise, or how true that is. People like to feel that they are witnessing the outpouring of a gay man's troubled, triumphant souls. And their aesthetic strategies encourage this reaction from their audience.

1f.) On the back of Michael Walsh's The Dirt Riddles, poet Paul Zimmer says in his blurb: "...Walsh, a poet who concentrates on meaningful particulars and who doesn't try to dazzle us with poetic footwork." Most of these poems for the most part consist of flat, journalistic language, like Theodore Roethke or Mark Doty or Stanley Kunitz. No Wayne Koestenbaum or Ashberry or Ginsberg like influences in this trio.

1g.) The poems are essentially humorless. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and yes, you could claim that there is some wit or the odd toss-away joke in the books. But if you read Michael Wash carefully, he is essentially a Andrew Hudgins ("cute wit" I would define it as)--which again I mean descriptively not critically. What I perceive to be the earnestness of the narratives seems to limit the potentiality for the truly irreverent, the tonally disconcerting, the slapstick, the self-consciously postmodern, the scatological, etc. These poets have a polite, quaint sense of humor. Michael Wash has a bit called "MOOO"--polite, appropriate comedy.

1h.) None of them are explicitly political. I do not like when writers claim that everything is political. If you elasticize a word like political to mean that every poem by its very nature is political, the word means nothing. Of all people, poets should know that. None of them address current events or particular discrimination, federal, state, or local, in any way. At the very least, it seems to me that the poets are way too invested in the ahistorical--which is often the case for gay poets: they're a bit too desperate to appeal to everyone. The problems gay men face, these poets, seem to say, are universal. That isn't the case.

1i.) I do not know if this is true at all, so you may simply want to discount it, and I don't mean this any more than as an observation, at least in this limited conversation, but it must be said: all the gay writers seem to be white.

2.) I'm going to now provide links to gay poets who subscribe to a different aesthetic camp. Rather than retype them, I'm going to provide links. I think you would concede that none of these poets are Theodore Roethke/Mark Doty/Stanley Kunitz influenced poems. You can see the influence of, say, A.R. Ammons, Haryette Mullen, Lorca, Ginsberg, Susan Howe etc. Another way of thinking about it is that they do possess "poetic footwork":

Christopher Schmidt

Brian Teare

Rolando V. Wilson

Neil de la Flor

Saeed Jones

Emanuel Xavier

And why does Mark Doty always have to be the influence, not someone, say, like Jack Spicer?

Jack Spicer

There are numerous other poets, such as Eduardo C. Corral and Matthew Hittinger, but I've written them already on my blog. You may want to check them out.

If you choose to look, these poets are doing something very different than the singular sort of aesthetic camp you may be invested in. I do not think there's any way you could argue that they come from a different lineage than the Theordore Roehtke/Mark Doty/Stanley Kunitz one you seem to privilege. Notice also the various contents: a bit more daring and ultimately to some respect creative. There are a zillion more that I've written about or will be. Their books are stacked near my bed: Steven Cordova, Tony Leuzzi, Francisco Aragon, etc etc etc.

It goes without saying that I am indebted to you. You're invested in bringing a marginalized group of poets out from the shadows. I am sincerely grateful. The three books you have chosen have helped me--they have made me think. Coming across the voice of a new gay poet is always useful.

But I would like if at all possible the way to consider my arguments in which I feel that you and your press may privilege certain aesthetic and certain contents.

With much respect,
Steve Fellner

P.S. This is all I'm going to say about these three particular poets and the press publicly. Anything else I'd backchannel you.


  1. I don't think you can lay all this at the feet of Mark Doty: he's representative, not causative.

    But it does reflect some very big trends in contemporary poetry, of which gay poetry must dialogue as a subset. Your call for more variety is well said, although it also applies to poetry at large.

    Contemporary poetry in general has become dominated by two or three main styles, most notably:

    1. the semi-autobiographical post-confessional lyric; this brand of lyric poetry, small scenes taken from life and turned into poems, is very very typical out what I see coming out of most MFA workshops; well, lots of young poets don't have enough life-experience to write about anything else.

    1.a. the gay poets you're talking about here reflect this trend, frankly, more than they reflect being something uniquely gay.

    2. the "fooling with words" schools of poetry, such as LangPo, the so-called post-avant, and neo-formalism. Most of these place themselves in aesthetic and even political opposition to the post-confessional lyric. I include Ashbery in this category.

    But I agree with your question that asks: where in all this are the other modes of poetry? The vatic or prophetic modes? The epic (as opposed to short personal narrative) modes? And so forth.

    Your criticism of gay poetry as published has merit. Yet I see as more reflective of PoetryWorld in general. These gay poets are working in the post-confessional lyric mode. Is that a form of political or aesthetic assimilationism ("we're just like you, only homosexual")? It may well be, although it might be operating on an unconscious psychological level, below the poet's own radar. I see this a lot. You're quite right to bring up that list of other poets who operate in larger or different modes. I'd even add Whitman to the list as exemplary of a different mode. Or Kenneth Pitchford. Or Harold Norse.

    So, well said. It's just that I think it's a larger issue, not just a gay poetry issue.

  2. Not that I disagree with your critique, but if you can identify queer (male) poets who are working against this dominant aesthetic, why not then spend some time to review their books and poems? You've mentioned Wilson, who now has two very interesting books: where is that review? And in the past you've only marginally mentioned another queer poet, Jericho Brown, claiming you'd return to offer a full review of your ideas. Where is that review?

    I remember you writing something to the effect of that, in the act of critiquing, you hope to construct something: why not construct a space to speak about these lesser known or, at least, lesser acknowledged queer poets?

  3. Hey -

    I've just finished my first slow read of "The Dirt Riddles" by Michael Walsh. Like most poetry to which I'm attracted, I'll read it again and again before retiring it to the bookshelf. Not that it matters, but I'm 54, male and heterosexual.

    Although I enjoyed reading the critique and comments, I'm left with this: does any of this really matter?

    I'm an unprofessional "lay" reader but confident enough of my ability to distinguish between good poetry and crap that I will say something I'm sure we will all agree with: Michael Walsh is GOOD.

    I tend to deify artists such as Wallace Stevens: one of our greatest voices but, also, a Vice President of The Hartford Life Insurance Company.

    My decades-ago University days taught me (and I still believe) that occupation, gender, age, sexual preference, politics, religion, even biographical trivia meant nothing compared to the absolute power of the work itself (despite the fact that I possess a guilty-pleasure fascination with all-things-tabloid about my favorite authors - however - don't confuse the art with the artist!).

    My guilty pleasures aside, I still believe this, strongly. Has this become old-school and somehow irrelevant? Or, is it the nature of this web-site, to debate issues that are, ultimately, meaningless?

    Regardless, I'm very pleased that the U of A Press published Walsh and has made his work available to someone that would have, otherwise, remained unexposed to his considerable talents.

    And thank you, Miller Williams. I don't know the extent of your involvement in the publication process, since this book won the "Miller Williams Poetry Prize". I assume you had some say in the matter and I thank you for exposing me to a talent that has and will continue to have an impact on my life.


    Joseph Elliott