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!

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the Lambda Literary Awards, Saeed Jones, Aaron Smith, and Glenn Sheldon


Dear Mr. Richard Labonte,
 
I recently read a mass email that you sent out, saying that you extended the December 1 deadline for submissions to the annual Lambda Literary Awards.  You reported that you would be contacting publishers who you thought had worthy entries.  There are three poetry books that I feel need to be entered.  I am afraid that because they are chapbooks and not full-length that their publishers might feel reluctant to enter them.  Chapbooks are often marginalized and often unfortunately seen as merely a gateway to a full-length book.  I feel that they should be considered as a self-contained product.  That's why I believe Sibling Rivalry Press, Winged City Chapbooks c/o. New Sins Press, and Rocksaw Press should be contacted.  They each produced a fine chapbooks that I feel could easily become a finalist.  The three chapbooks include Saeed Jones' "When the Only Light is Fire," Aaron Smith's "Men in Groups," and Glenn Sheldon's "Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads."  Please don't marginalize chapbooks.  (If Frank Bidart's chapbook "Music Like Dirt" can be a finalist for the Pulitzer surely these chapbooks could be at the very least considered for a Lambda.)  Immediately below are my microreviews of these works.

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Much anticipated, Saeed Jones’ chapbook When the Only Light is Fire lives up largely to its hype, particularly the first half.  Stand-outs include the personae poem “Kudzu” (“And if I ever strangled sparrows/it was only because I dreamed/ of better songs”) and “Boy Stolen Evening Gown” (“I waltz in an acre of bad wigs.”)  His deftly compressed series of poems about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. act as an affirmation and a successful extension of Lucille Clifton’s famous work, “jasper texas 1998”  Who could forget her line: “I am a man’s head hunched in the road./I was chosen to speak by the members/of my body.”?  Here on his own terms, Jones writes with a similar defiance in “Jasper, 1998: I”: ...”but I speak/(tongue slick with iron)/but I speak/in the language of sharp turns.”   His very few less successful poems deal with bad sex, jilted lovers, dark lonely nights.    There, he ditches his technique, strong line breaks, sharp turns of phrase, for baroque setting.  Take the poem “Room 31”: “Cigarette smoke/is the smell of the last couple here,/the ghost of their stains/still/on the sheet,..”  More of a sign of youth than anything I bet, these minimal, disposable scenes will be replaced no doubt by more earned and honorable sadness.  Regardless, don’t miss out on this exciting debut.

Saeed Jones' When the Only Light is Fire is available through Sibling Rivalry Press.

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I was not a fan of Aaron Smith’s first book Blue on Blue Ground.  It felt canned and amateurish. (“There’s a different kind of loneliness/in the city, one of thousands of people rushing away/...and streets that at night are forbidden like desire.”)  Over the years, I’ve been reading his new work online, and have been awed by his transformation into one of our more accomplished comic poets.  One of my favorites is his inspired rewrite of  Berryman’s Dream Song 14, “Life, friends, is boring.”  Here’s an excerpt from the poem called “Open Letter”: “Your choice of socks is boring.  (So is the way you walk!)  You eat boring bagels with butter (not cream cheese) and your breath reeks with boring, boring coffee and morning stink.”  Not only here, but in a number of other places in the book, he proves himself to be the master of the parenthetic expression, using them to provide an odd, inspired sincerity.  The closure of the poem “Hurtful” reads: “...I hate you/more for: That you can eat French fries/and not exercise.That everyone you let/be close to you has to need/you.  Strangers gawking/because you’re radiant (and you are radiant!)”  By far, my favorite poem in the book is “Diesel Clothing Ad (Naked Man with Messenger Bag)” which is essentially an ekphrasis at heart: “So what if the woman’s hand reaching/for the bag pulls the bag/back and we see his dick,/that one ball hangs lower/than the other,that he shaves them.  So what.  So what..."  The poem continues to use stanza breaks, spacing, and anaphora to embody the motion of the bodies in the actual ad.  The only criticism I have is his unfortunate use of the second-person from time to time.  Smith is too gentle a poet to succeed in such a control move.  You can feel him overextending, which results in a cuteness and an unsuccessful sadistic gesture.  We don’t want to live out his occasionally frivolous clich├ęs.  From his poem “Lucky,” Smith writes: “Who knew they’d punish you for knowing/your turquoise shirt went perfectly/with black sweatpants and turquoise/Chuck Taylors?”  All in all, Smith’s chapbook is full of some of the most inspired comedy of the year.

Aaron Smith's Men in Groups is available through Winged City Chapbooks co/New Sins Press.

                                        ***

 
Admirably eerie, at times angry, and other times necessarily sentimental, Glenn Sheldon’s Biography of the Gods of Foreheads freaked me out in the best sense.  In this current, troubled moment of history, we often overlook the power of allegory.  Only a poet as skilled as Sheldon can triumph over ‘war-worn amnesiac bats.’   The book is divided into six sections, each one revealing more nuance to his inquiry into youth, artistic process, and an abstracted politics.  Unlike so many books of poetry, Sheldon refuses to write flat journalism.  The book feels influenced by someone like Jeanette Winterson, blending a sort of magic realism with unrestrained metaphor.  As Sheldon writes: “The boy’s attic shrinks into the space of this poem, still size of a room with green flourishes of jungle,/industry of generational anarchy./The pages are  chiseled...”  By the end, the boy finds himself: “Deeper into himself but flying higher, desired/as an image to be stained in glass, he occurs:/epiphany of currency and blood’s sexy blues.”  Sheldon’s words are never ‘too fast, too flung,’  His words and the ‘fantastically small spaces between them’ broke my heart-- and mended it, too.

Glenn Sheldon's Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads is available through RockSaw Press.