Friday, December 23, 2011

The Holiday Spirit of Kindness and Goodwill.

Maybe the holidays are the time for cruel behavior and unexpected lashing out at attempts at cheerful comradery.  Scrooge telling carollers they should be boiled in their own pudding and the like. I guess my unwanted holiday gift was being blindsided by a particularly unexpected mean-spiritedness.  The only thing that was unusual was that it was by another gay poet --one I respect and have vigorously supported in the past.  I wouldn't address this at all, except for the fact that I've rather cruelly been placed in a public position where I have to defend myself somewhat not on terms of my art but on terms of the personal. 

For me, Facebook is an opportunity to be silly and also to convey messages in an expedient way, especially when you're bored and have nothing much to do (like the holidays).  For three years, I've had a congenial correspondence with a certain poet.  In those three years on this blog, while I more often spend time promoting and praising interesting and new gay poets (as those who actually read my posts rather than skimming them for negativity or taking someone else's word for what I do here will know), but I've sometimes written reviews of books where I found them middling to fair to not-my-cup-of-tea (note, that's the books or poems, not the authors themselves--  I don't write about people who don't in some way interest me or who I respect, even if I don't always personally like every single piece that flows from their pen). Over that time, this person wrote me a number of responses, often affirming my decision to do so, in both personal emails and Facebook messages.

A few days ago, though, I wrote a status update in which I joked that I was bored and that I needed to get off Facebook or I would start "harrassing people."  He wrote comments on my Facebook account which encouraged me in a charming way to stay on and that I should do so (i.e., my joke about "harassing" people).  It was a fun thing to see.  Then afterwards he wrote as a status update on his account saying that he was drinking a glass of wine, and I said tongue in cheek, "I bet it's white, faggot"--offering what I felt to be a camp (if tired) response.  In case it's not obvious, I'm not a straight person, nor a high school jock bullying Kurt from "Glee," nor Tracy Morgan threatening to stab his gay son in the head. While there's a definite debate to whether gays (and other minorities) should comically "reclaim" slanderous words, it's hard to imagine that the context wasn't absolutely clear. In fact, there's a long history of prominent gays reclaiming such words comically. The name of this blog is even "Pansy Poetics."  Perhaps there's a silent contingent that feels that title's also "going too far" but in three years I have yet to hear from them, including this person who suddenly wishes to publicly chastise me as some sort of bigot.

Anyway, this person who I thought I was on good terms with said that his wine was indeed red.  Later on, we joked about something else.  I was never told during the actual conversation I was out-of-line or that my throwaway mock-Boys-In-The-Band moment offended him; if I had, I would have deleted it in a heartbeat and apologized. I don't go around spewing the word "faggot;" it's generally not my style of "camp" even if I feel like being camp.  Yesterday, though, a handful of people suddenly started writing me that this man was upset at me for some reason, and was making an issue of it on his Facebook page.  Not knowing what was up or why, I looked on his Wall and found out that I was indeed mysteriously de-befriended.

This person never wrote to me directly and said what's up.  Nothing.  Instead, I heard reports that he posted a slur on me on his account publicly stating that I "had gone too far."  Using the word "faggot," he apparently now said, was way beyond the pale for me, so, goodbye, get lost, sayonara.

I was (and still am) hurt that if he was offended he didn't just remove the post and privately tell me he felt it was misguided.  I'm not claiming we were best friends or anything, but, really.

I wrote him a response saying that I was sorry, that I thought we were being silly, and why did he not write me before he took a drastic action.  No response.  I wrote him again and gave him my phone number and said we should talk on the phone.

All I got was an email saying that I didn't know him as a person, and that word was unacceptable. His account was not a "gay bar."  It was a space for him to do professional work, among other things.  I was an interloper.  He would not change his mind.

But it's my career, too, after all.  And publicly charging me with bigotry and "going too far" while blocking me from being even able to defend myself at the source doesn't seem to me like the most "moral" or responsible behavior, either.

Needless to say, I am very hurt.  But I am not writing this post really to document this exchange, but instead to use it as a vehicle to address a concern about how some otherwise well-intended gay men cruelly marginalize others under the guise that they are acting in a moral fashion.

Any undergraduate from a Queer Studies 101 class could tell you that sometimes marginalized groups of people take back derogatory words by using them themselves--the pink triangle, for instance.  "Dykes on Bikes."  The term "Queer Studies," itself. Openly gay comics like The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson would go out of business overnight if the word "faggot" was verboten to gay men. Etc., etc., etc. And obviously, the role of camp comes into play, especially when talking about something as petty as drinking. 

When people have objected to something I've written it's almost always been on these grounds: be polite.   The unmistakable desire to protect middle-class etiquette is a result not of good manners, but a desire to protect the status quo, to ensure that insiders (whether it's schools, presses, aesthetic decisions, etc. etc.) maintain their control. Are we sure this isn't itself a type of homophobia-- the "behave yourself" and act like the "good" gay man? Maybe someone doesn't want profanity on their website, fair enough.  But it's the impulse here to take it farther than addressing it when it happened, removing it, and contacting me privately about it that bothers me.  Instead, it was a public upbraiding; this is what happens when you step out of line.

I'm not going to belabor the obvious, at least not here (too late, you probably say).

What shocks me in this particular case, though, is this person has almost everything one could ask for in terms of their poetry career, but suddenly feels the need to take a friendly conversation and use it to meanly clobber a friend who's an  insignificant poet with an admittedly obscure blog over the head.  There is so much fear about saying anything "negative" that the community shuts down.

I find it shocking when some gay poets claim that they don't believe in criticism, that (as I sometimes get leveled at me) critics are by their very nature just jealous writers.  My huge question to these people is, how many people are actually doing reviewing these days?  I sure as heck don't get paid for it, nor am I giving Poets & Writers a run for their money in terms of readers.  I do it because I love it, and maybe someone, somewhere might discover a work by a gay writer they hadn't seen or considered or get jazzed by discussing the merits of an established poet's recent works. And why on earth does one become a writer, if one doesn't want people to give you their take?  I feel writers want to share the excitement of finding what's new and intriguing, and sometimes discussing what doesn't work and why.  I'm not sure why anyone who just wants eternal positivity and praise should be a writer, rather than, say, becoming a cult leader instead.

I think that the reason some gay poetry can seem so homogeneous (and I will boast that I've read as much gay contemporary poetry as anyone, from the "big" books to the small ones I'm constantly seeking out, sometimes being one of the few adding to online bookstore's sales numbers) and that that's why the same aesthetic decisions and lines of inquiry can sometimes feel so much the same.

When I first started my blog, I was recovering from a serious, near-fatal depression--I needed to find ways to be more active in my attempts to find community.  I think that a lot of people are too cynical about social media.  I have found over the years that Facebook, for instance, has enabled me to be friends with people that I otherwise never would have met.  Starting a blog about queer poetics also introduced me to a slew of gay men who were now people I was corresponding with.  When I was depressed, it was about the same time I published my first book; for some reason, I felt words didn't matter.  They didn't yield anything.  Connecting people in such an immediate and expedient way restored that faith.

I never expected anyone to read the blog.  Why would they?  All I was doing was writing about books of poetry by fellow gay men.  I quickly found out when I shared an ambivalence about a gay poet that people do read a blog.  I know from the Sitemaster that my blog has been read by more people than anything else I've ever written.  That's not saying much, but, hey.

When the blog began, almost immediately, I received angry emails from gay men: how dare you criticize other gay men?  There's more than enough people already against us.  I could talk about which works I liked and loved and was happy to discover all I liked until I was blue in the face, but if I said something negative, it got all the attention, emails, comments, etc. Rarely did some of these responders want to discuss the specifics of a particular criticism if there was a criticism in a review, but instead wanted to talk about what a "negative" person I was being.   Regardless, for me, open discussion has always been a good thing.

To come full circle, for what it's worth, I said a lot of good things about this poet who won't now talk to me.  I felt though the need to make myself transparent, and thought that it would be more conducive for myself and the queer community, whatever that is, to provoke and get a more genuine conversation going.

Over the years, I have found out a number of things.  Once I made an attempt to read all the Lambda award nominees in Gay Male Poetry--I corresponded with the poets who were up for the award.  It shocked me that many of them said they hadn't read any of their competitors' books.  Wasn't anyone simply curious?  Instead of criticizing one another in a circa-1970's style circular firing squad conversation about the pros and cons of minorities "reclaiming" slurs like the F-word, why don't we encourage everyone to support our gay literary community by genuinely buying, reading, and actively and energetically discussing the works?

Needless to say, as if it bears repetition, how much I am dismayed that someone who I've talked to over the years, sent emails to, received emails back from, talked about other poets with (the same poets I wrote about publicly) but would just cut me loose over a dumb joke that might as well be gathering dust in the eight-million- gay-men-have-used-variations-of-it hall of fame.

I don't think that's the crime though.  In past emails he said that he wanted to hang out with me at AWP, but he said, jokingly, it might "hurt" his reputation.  If one wants to talk about a degrading, demeaning, and inappropriate "joke," one might start there. What did I do that I'm a risk to someone's reputation?  I kept a blog documenting my opinions about gay art.  (And I buy all the books by gay poets myself.  Only four times in three plus years did I receive a copy, and even then, I always made sure to buy yet another copy to support the press.) 

The fact that an unknown poet like myself could pose a threat shows how bad the situation is.  I've always wanted to be a part of a community that provides checks and balances to one another--why else write about other books? Anyway, sorry if I've inconvenienced anyone's reputation.  To paraphrase Scrooge, perhaps I should just be de-friended and decrease the surplus population.

Happy Holidays!


  1. Steve, I think this is one of the best things I've read in a long time about how people, particularly academic poets, use perceived personal slights as weapons, and hide behind a veil of "professionalism" when it is they who are petty and act unprofessional. I think anyone who would not talk about the issues of your address and post in a public manner about you (an act of complete unprofessionalism, I mean imagine having this man as a colleague, how could you ever trust him) also has serious emotional and identity issues. Any adult would talk rationally to the person. He could explain he was offended and never uses that word and ask you to understand, which you would. The conversation would pull you closer and you would learn both about one another, about your relationshop to language, and how language and your roles as gay men and artists are accepting of or offended by certain words, the reasons and the whys. This did not happen. I only wonder why? I think the reasons are specious at best. I also think your discussion of language and communities is right on and I think the poet who took offense no doubt has a bit of self hatred in him for him to declare his page is "not a gay bar." If only all our electronic spaces could have such exuberance. There are the transvestites in competition in the corner, and in the far left the Bears are all dancing rowdy and reciting whitman over the disco jukebox. Look at the old Lesbian couple playing pool in the back. The dark haired one won the state championships last year. And the pretty boy at the bar, smoking the clove cigarettes, have you seen him sing? Have you heard him scat like Ella. Is every gay bar a sleazy dive? What does that say about how he sees socially sanctioned gay spaces? Obviously he has never danced with a beautiful boa on? Obviously he has never swayed in the dim smoky lights with jewels of sweat on his back, and all the moths of A.M fluttering around the sequined joy of Being comfortable and gorgeous, in one's body, surrounded by one's brothers and sisters.

    Sean Thomas Dougherty

  2. I am with Sean, it's an understandable misunderstanding but nothing more. He didn't like that familiarity, he says, "hey Steve, I am not liking that terminology. Let's not use that term--even in play here."
    You are as good at taking as dishing--God knows I've tested it--and you are good at fighting and making up when that is what is needed. This closing-off, especially of the miles and miles of good poetry citizenship you've shown deprives you and the poet of the kind of comradery that you might enjoy. Criticism, reviews are all in their way an act of real attention, a giving of time and care that one doesn't often find anywhere else in one's creative endeavors. That should give you a line of good credit to fall back on when maybe you make the accidental faux pas. That, plus an apology for offending should be enough. I have found when people don't want to give me another chance or forgive me (I am dealing with this very directly and recently myself) that I am only left to believe that that person was looking for a way out of my life. I have a strong personality and those (like yours, Sean's) are not everyone's cup of tea. Thank God that some people "get" us and I have found, blessedly, luckily, the rarest and most amazing people stay in my corner. To anyone else who finds it too hot or cold or whatever, well, there's a whole world full of corners. Let them find another.

  3. Here you manage to be vulnerable, thought-provoking, and critical (in the best sense) all at the same time. In other words: totally honest. Which is what I appreciate about your writing (poetry and prose) and you. I also appreciate this even-tempered conversation, especially in a context where so many (regardless of sexual orientation, I feel a need to say) would become ear-splittingly shrill. Also, the cheery clip art is masterful irony, my friend. Happy freakin' holidays.

  4. Reviewing books is such an act of generosity that you do so we'll and so often and that i don't do enough of. Your whole Ethos seems to be: broaden this world. If that makes your world a gay bar, isn't that to the bigger and better? I'm proud that you're my friend.

  5. The poet in question is a bitch and a bully who delights in tearing down other poets because he's won a couple of prizes and thinks he's the next big thing.

    His blog has been filled with photos of men he wants to sleep with and other ridiculous stuff, but now he's worried about his "reputation?"

    He's practically been on his knees sucking off the academy for years as he tries to worm his way into the rarefied, insular world of academic poetry. No one outside that ivory tower knows who is, nor do they care.

    Don't concern yourself with this individual, Steve. He's not worth it.

  6. I sympathize completely, Steve.

    I once got into a little hot water myself when I published an essay on gay identity and gay writing. It was a speculative gloss on Virginia Woolf’s “A Room Of One's Own.” Too many careers are dependent on a stingy system of academic and artistic patronage to permit free, honest and open discourse.

    A book of poems is really just a sort of resume nowadays. The gay ones hit all the same notes: the first book is usually a tedious exercise in self-definition, a predictable panegyric on the pleasures of anonymous sex, or a political tract. In a few very special cases, if the reader is really lucky, he may be treated to a tear, a tryst and a tract all in one volume: in other words, he may be hanged, drawn and quartered.

    I hope I am not being too negative here. Nobody adores being a gay writer more than I do. In fact, entre nous, if I can be completely honest, I have no higher ambition in life than to suck off James Franco at a joy encrusted glory hole in Washington DC. I have done it dozens of times in my dreams.

    My only crime is that I have never written about it. Why? Because I suffer from a natural modesty. As a poet, I realize that slurping sounds make for very dull reading. How does one describe the effect of James Franco’s cum on the tongue without sounding cliché? The only poet who could really manage it metaphorically is probably John Keats. And even Keats would have the sense to realize that he would have to approach James Franco’s jizz from an oblique and original angle:

    He forth from the closet brought a heap
    Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
    With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
    And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
    Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
    From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
    From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
    The Eve of St. Agnes, 264-70

    I really think Keats was writing about James Franco here. But I am not Keats and I can’t say for certain. I can only speculate. All I know for sure is this: one is apt to sound a little silly if one attempts to descant on the delights of James Franco’s dick without recognizing the natural limits imposed on one’s language by one’s career ambitions. Personally, I would rather be an amateur poet than a professional prostitute. I would post something for free on X-Tube instead.

    The smile on my face would say it all.

    All the best,

  7. You are a good person, Steve. That is much more interesting and valuable than anything such a person can ever offer the world. It's one thing to be in love with oneself; it's quite another--and more difficult thing--to have others love you.

  8. I agree with everything that people have said. But especially this from Eric: "I would rather be an amateur poet than a professional prostitute." After all, just how "professional" is poetry supposed to be? Isn't it about truth and beauty, or somesuch other "twiddle"?

    This is a generous and lovely post that reveals much about who you are as a person, Steve. I'd be proud to drink with you in your "gay bar."

  9. My dearest Steve, I don't know anyone more polite than you. Your friend appears to lack your own integrity, since he would go to such lengths to bury an intimacy of yours just because it was offered publicly. And I agree; he has dreadful manners.

    Fascinating discussion, Steve!

  10. Hi Steve, I read this post last week but did not know what to say. Keep doing what you are doing, pal, is the best I have come up with so far.


  11. Just a lil' note saying thank you for reviewing so many Lethe Press titles. I really appreciate this blog.

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