The first time I saw someone reading Shakespeare in public, they were laughing to themselves, and I hated them for it. I remember myself as an undergraduate wanting to be that sophisticated, so I grabbed As You Like It from the bookshelf, and mouthed the words to myself, and no laughter came out. I wasn't even sure what the characters were saying. I knew I'd have to get the CliffsNotes anyway, so I trudged across the room and found them. I read the plot synopsis, understood the frame of the scene, and read it again. I still didn't cackle, even guffaw the slightest bit. I sat there for a whole hour and was confused.
But in a way it didn't matter. I was in the presence of something larger than myself. I felt the same giddy feeling when my undergraduate poetry professor Laurence Lieberman handed me a copy of Mark Doty's Turtle, Swan, and told me that as a young gay man, I would be interested in it. This happened after I criticized a poem by a female author in class, because I found its presentation of homosexuality offensive. I was probably being oversensitive, but that's who I was at the time. No apologies. I didn't read Doty's book right away; it didn't matter--all I needed to know, once again, that something beyond me was happening, and maybe if I read more books, many, many more books, I would be a part of it.
As an University of Illinois -Urbana-Champaign undergraduate, I didn't have many friends really, and I wish I could say that it was because I was queer. It wasn't--I was a geek. All during my undergraduate years, I worked at Kay-bee Toystore. I wasn't a good employee. I perpetually claimed that I had an ingrown toenail so I didn't have to walk through the aisles and straighten the boxes. My alliance all that time was with a black stool stored just for me behind the cash register.
When I got off work, I'd go to the library and pluck whatever book off the shelf whose cover looked interesting --I like to judge a book by its cover and never liked to read what was inside first-- let it be a surprise. Also: I don't like reading standing up; it feels weird. Like I'm being disrespectful or something. I always lie on my stomach. My partner reads rocking in a chair. I'm on the couch; he in his Lazy Boy. He reads a lot of old detective pulps like Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, I read lots of brief memoirs and poetry magazines, the shorter the better. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we've stayed together for fourteen years.
One day I wandered into a library room that housed all the literary magazines. I can still remember how beautiful and mysterious it looked. Each one was in its own little cubicle. It was strange. The magazines were never stacked on top of one another. There was only one mag per space. They covered the bottom of that space, selflessly, never unknowingly, and resting, never ever being forced to stand parallel to the cubicle's short wall.
At the time, I didn't know how or why exactly people submitted stuff into literary magazine, or even what those magazines did. Why not just put all the stories and poems in books with hard covers or with definite spines? Why leave things scattered in so many small parcels?
It ultimately didn't matter. There they were, and most of them had shiny covers. It was like I was inside and outside at the same time. I could hide in the dark spacious room while pretending the magazines' gloss was something like sunlight.
(To Be Continued)