Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Chip Livingston's "Museum of False Starts"

Similar to Lethe Press, Gival Press primarily appears to invest in gay and lesbian writers. In looking at their publications, I see several interesting new poets. What is upsetting is that these small presses often don't receive more attention from queers themselves. Recently I was talking to a friend of a friend about the trouble he was having finding a publisher for his first book. He said to me, "I'm holding out before I go to a specialty press. I'd prefer somewhere legit first."

I don't think there's anything wrong with a writer wanting to receive a substantial circulation. At the same time, it doesn't mean that such statements should go without criticism. It upsets me that books from places like University of Chicago and University of Arkansas receive so much attention from gay men, each repeating the same praise almost verbatim, determined to give those writers as much access as possible to awards, reviews, and interviews. But some of these same gay men rarely actively support small press queer writers. If Chip Livingston's Museum of False Starts from Gival Press came from one of those larger aforementioned two presses, I guarantee there would be many more well-deserved accolades from mainstream sources. Are there gay poets out there who may claim that they possess anxiety about sending out their manuscript when the real issue is that they only want to send it to the most high profile contests?

After reading two of the National Poetry Series winners, Carrie Fountain's Burn Lake and Colin Cheney's Here Be Monsters, it becomes more difficult to claim that the high profile contests necessarily reveal the most interesting work. The former is buoyant, but fails as a result of its consistent, ultimately unarresting deadpan and its faux interest in dated 1970s ecological feminism; the latter feels like a book that would win a contest -- it's ostensibly inevitable leaping between the personal, mythic, and historical feels like the sort of moves that one associates with "Good Art" when it may actually been indicator that the poet hasn't truly found his subject matter yet. Both are perfectly fine, forgettable choices.

How many times have you heard someone praising a book for the reason that he "simply manages to capture what it feels like to be a gay man." I have no idea what that means. As I tell my students, if I can "relate" to your work, you should probably start again.

I can't relate to the work of Chip Livingston, who Alfred Corn describes as "Native American" and "cosmopolitan" in his blurb, any more than any other writer. But still. I know a good poem when I see one.

One of Livingston's best poems "Coon Was Here, 1985" deals with naming, and mixed heritage. Imagine how a lesser poet may have easily shortchanged the elegy through clumsily attempting to interweave the various names of the deceased. Here's the opening:

I never called you Coon
though that was home Ricky
brother I still think is God
& pray to bound by half our blood.
Mom's firstborn by a non-Indian
you came out blond & blue eyed.

I got my Daddy's Choctaw eyes.
And eyes are what made Poocha call you Coon.
Crazy bastard with all your Indian

The line break between "Indian" and "names" complicates the nature of identity, the difference (if there is one) between who someone essentially is and what one is called. Does the naming actually change one's essence?

The poem continues: "...On your headstone it says Ricky./ But wolf is what you carried in your blood./Poocha took it straight from God./And whose eyes are bluer than God's?"

What's remarkable in this poem is that even with all of the various juxtapositions of identities, Livingston keeps the framing story intact, and when we notice the names, it feels simultaneously orchestrated and spontaneous. This is no small feat. Here's the rest of the poem:

Yet you put Mom's mascara to your eyes
& burning them you tried to brown your blood.
Fisting them tattooed you like a ring-tailed coon.
From then on Poocha never called you Ricky.
But named you Coon, 'cause you were an Indian.

Then named you again in secret in Indian
& told you how your grandma bet the wolf in his eyes
& won. I miss you so much Ricky,
I swear to God.
I thought you were smarter than a damn raccoon,
letting a bunch of rednecks doubt your blood.

By 17 you'd made spilling blood
a ceremony & finally learned to kick ass like an Indian.
You even hung a coon-
tail from your Pinto's rearview mirror. Eyes
still red from dope & daring God
behind your bangs. Then you did it Ricky.

You made the papers as a Richard.
But I want to write your name in blood
on the wall behind Geronimo's spirits where God
took you to rest with the Indians
through a western door where no one sees your eyes
& no one calls you Coon.

I'll write Coon was here & sign it Ricky
call you God & mix your blood
to pain forever closed your Indian eyes.

What is so impressive about this poem is that it is not a victim narrative on any level or a narrative about self-empowerment, which would definitely limit the psychological complexity of the poem as well as its politics. Instead, through an expertly tight narrative, Livingston's personae shifts the naming of his friend so quickly, sometimes through a single line, that we can feel his self-justification, accusations, and, of course, loving tone. It is also a more uncommon elegy in that the narrator doesn't try to completely demystify his friend's inner world.

One of the wonderful aspects of Livingston's book is the occasional indecisiveness of a particular narrator. You can always feel these narrators spinning their wheels, trying to find a balance between the appropriate and genuine thing to say... which aren't always the same things. According to these poems, Livingston proves that indecisiveness can be a form of openness, and as a result, a kindness--it allows for possibility rather than just finality.

My favorite poems in Livingston's book are the ones where he creates silences within the lines themselves--it seems that formal strategy allows him to juxtapose abstraction, odd images in a way streamlined narrative doesn't always allow. Often, for a lot of poets, the rhetorical strategy feels more like an uninspired pose -- a lot like the trend to put a space between each line of the poem for no apparent reason except possibly to make the poem feel longer. Also, silence seems to be a scary thing for a lot of poets. So many feel the need to write incredibly long discursive poems contained in one monolithic block of text.

Here's one of my favorite of Livingston's poems, "Creation Myth":

Crawfish’s idea         digging the mud up
But who thought up Columbus

Mud a man can sail to         flown through fog
And down down into mountains

My own breath part of that naming
Esakitaumesse Fuswalgi Chebon

Until we got the hang of marrying down   down   down

Not the very best idea         remember Atlantis
All that water     first deal with birth mother

Never in SF at the same time       in case it happens again
Never play piano under water       listen to piano music
under water never

There are legendary comparisons how could it be
The Christian reincarnate of a drowned woman

Listen     if you think it’s noisy in my head

For more information on Chip Livingston and Gival press:

Gival Press, LLC
PO Box 3812
Arlington, VA 22203


  1. Hey, I like "dated 1970's Ecological Feminism."

  2. Steve, you have essentially two posts here, one about gay and lesbian poets who flock to the "big" presses, trying desperately to get a book published through one of them, while ignoring many of the valid small presses, such as Gival and Lethe--and I'll add New Sins, since that's where my book went. To this part of your blog, I wanted to say you're right on about the concern. I often think of it as people wanting to get into an exclusive party hosted by a few "popular" kids while ignoring all the other interesting people who have a decidedly lower profile. With regards to gay and lesbian poets, I think many of us already feel marginalized and think acceptance from a big press might validate us in ways we have not been validated elsewhere. Add to this so many young poets today with MFAs from Columbia, NYU, etc... that spend enormous amounts of money on their degrees and therefore feel to some degree pressured into getting the biggest bang for their buck.

    Maybe it's because I didn't get an MFA and developed as a poet independently of any institution that I felt no qualms with going with a small, small press. The editors were wonderful, they gave me a good deal of control over the look and shape of the book, and they were generous with their time. Radiant Losses doesn't have big distribution, but the book is out there and some people are reading it. New Sins did me proud. I'm sure Gival and Lethe are the same.

    The second part of your post: Chip Livingston's book sounds wonderful! First off, the title gets my vote for the best title of the year, and the sample sections you cited are intriguing. I love the last line of the one poem: "Listen if you think it's noisy in my head."

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