Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Shane Allison's "Slut Machine"


Shane Allison’s Slut Machine forces a question: can the writing of formal verse by a queer poet function like an act of homophobia? Is that iambic pentameter, blank verse, rhymes –all those formal elements- nothing more than a prissy way of “cleaning up” the messy emotionalism of poetry, forcing it into a cramped and tidy closet?

But like any good radical, Shane Allison wants it all, to have it both ways. If the "traditional values" of all those formal structures build a kind of closet, then the risk and energy in those same poems ultimately break free of that constriction.

Look at “Sonnet in Orange Avenue Projects”: “I got jealous when he tried to get under Makeeba’s skirt:/Boyish hands up girlish thighs./No one cares about sexual harassment in the projects.” Determinedly shabby, barely organized, Allison’s sonnet has no time to leisurely walk through the restrictive formal transitions---there’s too much at risk. At the end of the poem, Allison writes: “He promised not to tell,/But kids break their promises like pencils in the projects.”

One of my brilliant former students and I had extensive conversations about issues of race, gender, and publication, explaining her great frustration. When a white gay poet deals with race, he may sometimes receive more accolades than an African-American who deals with similar subject material. For certain critics, the white poet is seen as brave, dealing with topics writers of his own race often ignore; he’s applauded for being brave and risk-taking. At the same time, the poet of color’s material may be obliquely dismissed as predictable and expected. The underlying current being: what else is he going to write about? That may be one of the reasons why white writers still sometimes receive better jobs, awards, and fame than their peers of color. Perhaps even more importantly, certain critics still often respond more positively to poets of color who create austere victim narratives. It gives the appearance of being charitable.

But here’s a funny, lacerating excerpt from Shane Allison's poem “It’s a Boy.” What is remarkable is the way that it simultaneously seems to embrace and reject through humor the traditional victim narrative:

Polyester shirt with the butterfly collars:
His afro glistened with the coconut grease under the canary-yellow sun.
You look just like your daddy, boy, Ma would say
She fed me Skinner’s fried chicken.
Okra and mashed potatoes instead of strained carrots, peas.
Instead of baby formula, I got Tahititian fruit punch in my bottle.
I pulled a hot iron on my thigh;
It took the skin right off.
I don’t remember Ma scream for help.
Did the house smell like burned flesh?

At one-hundred-and-thirty pages, Slut Machine can feel a bit overlong, especially since Allison relies too often on litanies with uninspired anaphora. Sometimes those poems stretch over two or three pages. And like a good number of gay poets, Allison gives us at least two found poems comprised of gay personal ads and bathroom graffiti. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell the difference between the found poems and the poems that deal with his own sexual inquiries. Here’s some lines from “Love & Romance,” taken from the personals:

Massive muscular guy wants sensual bottom sissies for autumn
Uncut suck off
Dominant jock seeks 2 straight white boys
Well-hung good-looking hot bottoms for
Enthusiastic daddy suck buddy.

In flatness of language and understatement, the poem doesn’t differ much from “Tongue”:

My tongue purple from grape soda
My tongue newly pierced
My tongue forked and wicked
My tongue down the thick shaft of his veins
My tongue through a glory hole

Yet even with more similarity than difference, Slut Machine’s overindulgence is welcome. Rather than creating a nimble 48-64 page book for the average poetry contest, Allison jettisons those expectations for something more personal: an enjoyably vast, even if occasionally somewhat monotone, inquiry into racial and sexual politics.

In fact, you could claim that Allison’s decision to take up space simply to take up space is a political move in and of itself. With so many publishing houses ignoring the writing of queers, why not talk about whatever you want for a long as you want, given the opportunity?

I had never heard of Shane Allison, who has written six books of poetry. And I’m more familiar than many with very small queer presses. It’s unfortunate evidence of the marginalization of the gay publishing world. More people should hear about poets like Allison. Shane’s obvious self-satisfaction, his refusal to shut up, is nothing short of inspirational.

Shane Allison's Slut Machine is available through QueerMojo, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press, or by clicking on the book photo at the top of this review.

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