Friday, September 17, 2010

On My Contribution to the Huffington Post "What is the State of American Poetry?" Symposium

Anis Shivani asked me to contribute to the "What is the State of American Poetry?" Symposium on Huffington Post. I wrote something for him. A week after I gave him my piece, his own controversial article appeared:

Here's what I wrote:

When talking about the current state of American poetry, two things must be addressed: gay civil rights and health insurance.

When Proposition 8 came into existence, I wanted to do something. I wasn’t sure what. My partner and I are geeky and agoraphobic. For better or for worse, we like to stay indoors, and aren’t really into marches and parades. We’re chubby, too. Too much outdoor activity and we’re beat.

This is what Proposition 8 says in the federal government’s words: you do not exist.

As a poet, I found that one of the ways to say that homosexuals do matter was to create a blog that focused exclusively on the words of gay male poets. Fight words with words. That’s what I did. I named my blog Pansy Poetics.

I only encountered one problem: gay poets didn’t like me. A good number of them hate it when you criticize their own. And a good amount of the time, I was doing just that.

Some of my experiences with the blog revealed even more explicitly the problems with the poetry scene in general.

Early on, I wrote about one of the most powerful (gay or straight) poets in America: National Book Award Winner Mark Doty. Several of his highly political poems from his book Atlantis will be remembered for awhile, as they should. I can still remember how much reading those poems affected me. My creative writing teacher showed me his work, and I thought, “You can actually write about homosexuals. And make them complicated and beautiful.” And so I tried. He was my inspiration. However, for some time now, I’ve found myself becoming impatient with his almost sole focus on the domestic sphere. With such an emphasis, there’s a curious lack of class-consciousness. It seems his poems are closing themselves off from the outside world and he’s more interested in his excursions with Paul, vacations, houses, and cute little dogs. The political force has all but vanished. If he writes another poem about the wonders of his partner and him receiving a massage, I’ll have a sit-in protest at his Provincetown digs.

I wrote on my blog about my issues with some of Doty’s later poems. Within less than 24 hours, a number of gay poets sent me angry emails. I understood the motivations behind them, the furious questions they raised: how you can hurt one of our own? With all the abuse we endure, do you have to create more?

My answer: yes.

The American gay and lesbian movement is showing signs of returning to life in some aspects—it’s very interesting to see both new and old-school style protests emerging in various parts of the country—but at times the movement can still be frustrating. Obama called for us to push him on certain issues, and we haven’t pushed hard enough. White middle class contentment is still often a major problem. It is well-known that gay activists didn’t marshal their energies soon enough to create a definitive force against Proposition 8. Certain poetries reflect this sort of white middle-class ennui. The Doty Aesthetic reflects this inertia. You could predict our political failures by reading his most recent work, and vice versa.

No doubt in the gay poetry community, Mark Doty’s artistic choices reign supreme. Stanley Kunitz and Richard Hugo have left their mark even on gay poets: white middle-class concerns embedded in straightforward, journalistic narrative. We like to think gay poets might use Cavafy or Frank Bidart or Wayne Koestenbaum as contemporary touchstones, but that doesn’t often seem to be the case. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but when it’s the prevailing mode of queer poetics it’s an undeniable problem. Airing a community’s dirty laundry may be the only way to go to get things riled up.

This past year gay Latino writer Rane Arroyo passed away. He created poems that were every bit as good as Doty’s, but he never received even close to the same amount of national and monetary success. It’s not like Arroyo wasn’t using traditional narrative/lyric modes. Perhaps what blocked that from happening is his overt humor, more incisive and inclusive politics, and lack of self-righteousness. Both Doty’s Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems and Arroyo’s The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems were released the same year, but Doty’s received all the attention, garnering a Lambda Award win and the National Book Award. Look at an excerpt from Arroyo’s “The Defense of Marriage”:

Sex, but no wedding is the 11th commandment

for us, legally defined Sodomites, sinners

in designer angst. One young man in

psychic Speedos and nerd glasses runs

on a Caribbean beach looking for any man

to kiss--but he's too shy to join any group.

He stumbles and looks up: a UFO crashes

to land by him. Out come the dead:

James Dean, Ramon Navarro, Monty Clift,

Jim Morrison, Rudolph Valentino, Sal Mineo

James Baldwin, Renaldo Arenas (no, no rest

for you in my poetry!). It's a family reunion.

They kiss him--some as lovers, as brothers,

as friends, as real human beings. Just for

the hell of it, let's put our Santana to play

his guitar on a pink yacht while Michelle

twirls on deck on a tuxedo: suddenly mermen

bubble up, kissing. Jean rides a dolphin and

and then looks up: the sun and the moon

rush to kiss each other. It's the end of

the world! That's how much power we have.

What’s fun about this excerpt is that there is an explicit naming of governmental discrimination (“legally defined Sodomites”), a generous multicultural compendium of poetic influences, and an unapologetic sincere flamboyance.

It may seem that the argument of the Doty Aesthetic is a silly one. Are Arroyo and Doty really that much different as poets? And I would say my point exactly. I would argue that often any kind of straying from one of the grandfathers of gay poetry causes problems. It’s also undeniable that passive, unconscious racism within the gay community stifles some voices as opposed to others.

Poetry does pay. Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant of what is going on. Publications means books means readings mean jobs means grants means fellowships. Means health insurance. You could ask anyone in an MFA program confirmation of that fact. With the job market the way it is, you need at least a book of poetry from a high-profile press to even be considered for a decent job. And I’m probably underestimating what the current requisites are. Everyone is striving to move beyond the current situation fledgling creative writing teachers are in: working part time at several colleges with no health insurance. You want to be hip but not too hip, idiosyncratic but not a rabble-rouser.

In the last two years, one of the most celebrated books of poetry by a young gay man is James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy. Along with his teacher Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire: Selected Poems, Hall’s book won (in a tie) a Lambda poetry award that year. I was ambivalent about the book. I admitted that reaction in a review and immediately received a couple of emails telling me that I was jealous. On one hand, I thought that Hall’s sporadic comedic poems made for an exciting debut. Who can not want to read a poem which turns the ostensibly confessional poem on its head with the hyperbolic title entitled “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas”? Instead of exploring his talent for comedy, however, he included a lot of poems that were morose reflections on relationships between son and mother. You couldn’t help but pity the personae of the gay son, doomed by his oppressive, promiscuous, troubled mother. Most heterosexuals are well-meaning. They want to appear concerned, especially when the gay poet manipulates the reader through his descriptions of a doomed gay child.

I was hoping that after his first book, Hall would stretch his wings and explore the comedy. Perhaps he received too much praise from heterosexuals (and even homosexuals) for the pity party. In the July/August 2010 of The American Poetry Review, a new poem by Hall appears. It’s called “Premonition” and here’s the opening: “If you don’t believe foresight is a curse, then I wish you’d love a man,/ knowing he won’t love you back. Then you won’t kiss him/ in the restaurant. You’ll keep your hand out of his./ You won’t believe him when he says you’re beautiful./None of us is beautiful when we see what’s coming. Trust me:/don’t spend the night...”

When Hall was an MFA candidate, Lorrie Moore’s collection of short stories “Self-Help” was popular. The collection impacted many female writers like Pamela Houston with its broad tragic-comedy, second person voice, and limited view of female/male relationships. The men were aloof or cheaters; you always pitied the woman. Hall reinvents these tropes through the insertion of two men in the formula sans the comedy. But then the poem takes an even more frustrating turn. In the eleventh and twelfth line, Hall foreshadows the conclusion of the poem with “Don’t love/the tenderness in his voice at the moment of impact.” Impact is the key word. Even though the syntactical structure is clunky, it turns out that the “you” of the poem is told to scamper away from his trick as a result of a tragedy any undergraduate might include: a car crash. As Hall writes, “Ease shut the door./Just because you see what’s descending, even now-the boyfriend/dead in the crash, his body halved through the shattered windshield,/ the man you love unconscious behind the wheel...”

The poem thinks it’s smart for tricking us into our expectation that it’s going to explore, even if in a heavy handed way, the issue of promiscuity and other interlocking issues such as barebacking. Instead the poem is a trick about thinking a trick is going to make your loss bearable, something Doty himself has rehashed to death.

I’m harping on this poem, not because I think Hall doesn’t have promise, but because I feel his poetic moves are reflective of what numerous gay writers are doing to receive publications (i.e., health insurance): putting the queer into a pitiful situation. Someone has to be mean to not love you if you’ve worked so hard to be a victim. Gays can’t gain any political traction if they’re too busy acting surprised about what any gay man already knows: men are often cheaters and liars. This is hardly a revelation (about either straight or gay men) and will probably be a subject of poems until the end of time. But there’s an added dimension when a gay poet writes about this subject—and goes no further—than when a straight poet tackles the nature of men, distant, cheating, or otherwise. Heterosexuals can love, betray, cheat, and redeem themselves all within a legal framework that gays and lesbians can not. When we want the same privileges heterosexuals flaunt, there’s an urgency here in our current political environment that makes stopping at simply the emotion of “pity” unacceptable.

It seems that many gay poets are also afraid to have fun, which may be the most threatening thing of all. One overlooked, somewhat recent book includes Christopher Schmidt’s The Next in Line. Impacted by someone like Harryette Mullen as opposed to Stanley Kunitz, Schmidt’s prose poem “Top/Butt” threatens to be sexual and silly: “Born of sunlust, bus runs to sub-Boston porn moor, horny homo zoo. Looks stun. No frumps, no fops, just buff studs burnt brown. Luc, uncut, hunts cut cock...” Schmidt goes on later: “Our two gods mushroom. Todd pulls Luc’s hood. Luc flops Todd, rubs Todd’s rump, drums Todd’s knott, churns Todd’s rut, tugs Todd’s butt.”

Queer writing doesn’t always need to be tidy with an easily digestible theme. As in the case of this poem, unique, arbitrary, and ostensibly euphonic notes resist the silence most queers allow to happen.

One of my concerns is that with the popularity of the Doty Aesthetic, more gay poets might continue find themselves trapped in certain old-fashioned, aesthetic conventions. In the last two months, there has been considerable focus on gay poet Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles. It was the 2010 winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. The book consists of a streamlined autobiographical narrative dealing with the poet’s childhood on the farm, his relationship with father, and various homosexual experiences. Here’s some lines from Walsh’s poem “Grounding II” that are emblematic of his content and aesthetic: “Once, he let me touch that fresh ink, /barbed wire around his arm./ I feel the strands turn electric/ where they crossed veins, /drew his pulse deep to the surface.”

Some critics have commended the book for destroying the myth of a homo-free countryside. It’s almost like people are playing “Where’s Waldo?” Look: the homosexual is in San Francisco. Look: he’s in the pastoral. (Hasn’t anyone ever heard of James Schulyer?) Look: there he is protesting Proposition 8. Oh no, I take that back. His back hurts too much to carry that sign. Someone give him a massage!

What’s eerie about the book is that it feels like it could have been written by poet Richard Hugo. Which bums me out. I’ve tried to put Hugo’s 80’s classic The Triggering Town out of my mind. I’ve always been surprised that the book hasn’t been taken to task for its eerily imperialistic leanings. Even a poetry critic as smart as Joshua Corey lets it off the hook in that regard. Hugo states that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another....With the strange town, you can assume all knows are stables, and you owe the details nothing emotionally.” He goes onto emphasize: “You must take emotional possession of the town and the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can’t understand, you feel is your own town.”

Hear how closely Walsh parrots Hugo’s eerie plan for colonization in relations to the dichotomy of city/country and the body. As quoted in a Literary Lambda on-line interview, Walsh says: “I’m trying to expand my vision into cities. That means writing about how cities are like barns and otherwise bringing the rural into contact with the urban in strange ways.”

At the same time, there is hope for gay poetry. Gay poet/blogger Saeed Jones is producing wonderful work that keeps popping up on the web.

Here’s an effectively jittery excerpt from a poem of his called “It Means Something Different in Arabic”:

Once, I threw a towel over my head and pretended I was Mary.
My aunt told me that pretending was blasphemy. A burnt cross
was lit in my chest that day, but they say my name
first appeared in reluctantly opened love letters
flown in from Japan smelling like cherry blossoms. Sweet
and sick and begging to be taken back. I come
from hastily signed divorce papers. I believe all the stories
of who I was: Custody battles are where I learned to dance.

The poem’s self-referentiality doesn’t come off as a gimmick, but as an appealingly desperate comic attempt to discover a point of origin. Jones doesn’t have a book out yet. No doubt in time he will. Other exciting and up and coming, not quite yet first book authors include Alex Dimitrov, Eduardo C. Corral, Matthew Hittinger, Rickey Laurentiis, etc.

A lot of people bemoan the shrinking amount of space allotted for literary criticism in print newspaper and magazines. I don’t feel that bloggers and people involved in new media are compensating for that loss. Is the popular Ron Slate’s blog “On the Sea Wall” much of an improvement, if any, over Logan’s New Criterion poetry reviews? If these critics, both solid in their poetry careers, solid commercial success behind them, can’t offer rigorous criticism to the poetry community at large, it is no surprise that queers quake in their boots when forced to review their peers.

Logan’s reviews are notoriously, uniformly negative. The tiny pleasures comes from his next clever or not so clever put down of an established poetry icon like Sharon Olds or Louise Gluck or Robert Pinsky, et al. In his somewhat well-known review of Frank O’ Hara, he shows how necessary it is for queers to take up the job of critiquing their own. Published in 2008 in the New York Times, Logan says about Frank O’ Hara’s poems: “O’Hara wrote about a homosexual life with a cheerful nonchalance rarely matched since; Allen Ginsberg by contrast was slightly lugubrious about sex.” Enough said.

On the other side of the continuum, Slate, who is exponentially a better poet than Logan, uses his blog to feature “reviews” on contemporary books that read like second rate ads for the book. If he didn’t already prove himself as a compelling poet, he’d look like a sycophant. In his post on August 16, 2009 he include a review of editor Joshua Weiner’s anthology At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. Slate mentions a few of his favorites, but doesn’t offer that much more. On July 20th of this year, Slate reviewed Mark Doty’s “The Art of Description: The World into Word.” At the end he tells us: “his essays are alive with wonder...”

What both of these critics lack is what produces the most intriguing essays: a tortured ambivalence. With absolutism, there’s nothing at stake in the over-determined predictability of the opinions.

But on the poetry blogs, there cannot be enough good things to say about Rigoberto Gonzalez. Much to his own detriment, he has tirelessly spent time promoting marginalized authors and small presses. Not only does he write so many reviews, he has during his tenure as a member of the National Critics Circle spotlighted so many worthy poets. I sometimes get nervous when someone is so generous that their own works gets overlooked. My favorite work of his: his first book of poems So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until it Breaks, Butterfly Boy: Memoirs of a Chicano Mariposa, and his zippy young adult novel The Mariposa Club. Poet and critic Jason Schneiderman has produced some of the most provocative and thoughtful essays I’ve read about poetry, period. His American Poetry Review essay on James Merrill is amazing. I can’t wait until he assembles a non-fiction book. To tide us over, his new book of poems Striking Surface is coming out from Ashland Press this year.

I am excited to witness whatever the gay male poetry community does next. Whatever its flaws and missteps, there is such promise here, promise not just for poetry, but for actual political change.


  1. Steve,

    This is a great piece. You make many valid and thought provoking statements. Your blog is wonderful and I enjoy reading your insights even when I don't agree with all of them. I'm glad there are writers out there willing to question the "praised gay poets" and to point out writers that are being ignored.

    After reading this, I am even more honored that you so nicely reviewed my poem from the latest issue of Knockout a few months back. Thank you.


  2. You suggest much for consideration. Your paragraph "Poetry does pay" rings true.

    Once I hit a dark period and stopped writing for ten-years, in part due to some of the issues you have raised.

    Look forward to reading more of your comments.

  3. This is an outstanding blog. I don't agree with every point (I am thankful for my longstanding attachment to Hugo and Kunitz) but I am thrilled to read such vital criticism. You're a first-rate agitator, Steve. Oh, and who else is writing anything as accurate as you about the merits of Rane Arroyo's work?

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