Monday, March 30, 2009

Should I Call Myself a Gay Poet or a Poet Who Happens to Be Gay?

How does one happen to be gay?

A bad haircut happens. A drug problem happens. A monsoon happens.

Being gay does not happen. It’s a curse from birth. Or a blessing. I don’t know. It all depends on what kind of mood I’m in.

There’s no choice about it. We’re gay poets.

If you pretend you’re something else, you’re doing something bad.

To be a homosexual in America is to be part of a nation that wants to kill you. What else can you do but privilege your queerness above everything else?

Think about all the suicides. Gay-bashings. Murders. Proposition 8. A proposition that denies gay marriage, tells us what people think of us. This is what they think of us: we do not exist, we do not matter, or quite simply: Get away from us, you cocksuckers.

At the same time, people hate poets. “Have you ever been published?” they always ask. Trying to make us feel bad about ourselves. Delegitimize us.

It’s like when I told someone I was gay in college. “So you have had sex with a man before, right?” As if I needed to cross everything off a checklist before I could say I was. Of course, I must have tried out homosexuality. What eighteen year old hasn’t?

This was the truth: I hadn’t. Touching another guy scared me a little. I got nervous. It seemed gross. I took my time. What can I say?

Here’s another truth: young straight jocks, my friends, who later got married, tried out homosexuality before me. They thought it was OK. But it didn’t change their lives.

I still think homosexuality is just OK. What can I say? I always hope a pleasant amount of self-loathing is a kind of maturity.

There are some things I hate about poets who happen to be gay.

Poets who happen to be gay think there are a lot of other interesting aspects of their identity. And they don’t want to hide any of them by highlighting one in particular.

Trust me: no one is that interesting. Poets especially. That’s why they write. To create something that transcends their dull minds.

They also always say: I don’t want to appear in a gay male-only anthology. I don’t want to get pigeon holed.

My advice: Put your poems in whatever anthology you can. In this economy, no one is getting ahead. And definitely not poets. Or gay men. Even the cute ones who will never sleep with me no matter how much I beg. We’re all in trouble.

I’ve heard a poet who happens to be gay say: My sexuality is fluid.

That’s gross. Coca-Cola is fluid. The Erie Canal is fluid. The water from your busted toilet is fluid. Let’s face it: Everyone wakes up some days and realize they don’t want to be who they are. Because who they are pretty much sucks. That’s not fluidity. That’s called being human.

The idea of sexuality being fluid is leftover from the 1990s. When people started giving a damn about homosexuals. Those academic culture wars. When sensitive people were nervous about possibly hurting another sensitive person.

All of that is gone now. So we have no choice but to use the other leftovers. Like out, loud, and proud. Like I am a gay poet. That’s the truth. If we say that, there’s no way we won’t win in the end.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Writing Joy: The Truly Amazing Poems of Rane Arroyo

Only the best poets can convey joy. Unabashed, authentic joy. Which is probably the most important feeling to express. In the queer poetry world, victim narratives and reductive identity politic still rule supreme. With the creepy way PoBiz (and the world) operates, how can one find the courage to display an emotion as natural and as generous as joy?

I don’t know.

But I believe that Rane Arroyo’s The Buried Sea, new and selected poems, accomplishes that feat.

There are not too many queer books (and books in general) that I find as ethical, generous, and as artful as his. I can only think of one book last year that gave me as much pleasure: queer poet Tom Savage’s Brainlifts. Both of these books transcend their label as queer literature and can and should have competed as finalists for national, mainstream awards.

Let’s face it: bloggers have risen to be the most the influential poetry critics. For us, those include: C. Dale Young, Charles Jensen, Eduardo Corral, Dustin Brookshire, Christopher Hennessey, Mark Doty, among others. They may not want to hold themselves responsible for possessing such power, but, indeed, they do. The rest of us follow their lead. As C. Dale Young himself once noted on his blog, after he singled out poet Oleana Kalytiak Davis, her sales numbers skyrocketed.

As far as I can tell, none of the major bloggers have singled out Rane Arroyo. It is shocking. If I'm overlooking his name, I still believe they needed to mention this landmark collection more. (Shame on those blogger/critics!)

Let’s look at these inspired openings from Arroyo’s poems:

You’re dead, but the skies are not.
This Ohio storm makes me think of your
blackening Chilean horizons. What use

is your name now in the not-now
not-here? Neruda. Ne. Ruda. Neru.
Da. It was a wonderful mask, no?…
(“The Visitor”)


What I dislike about daylight is its
muscularity. What need to claim
everything, only to release it
at dusk, when man and woman need a
godparent? Do you notice how my
hands seem blue and yet I’m wearing no
sapphire nor do I play the piano?…
(“A Bolero, But Not for Dancing”)


Yet another Puerto Rican
Buddhist. He wants to breathe in
peace while keeping his rice-
and-bean cooking skills, his accent,

his blue jeans from the Santana
years, his wine and rum collections
housed inside his head. Today’s lesson:
fireflies know they’re grasshoppers
illusory stars…
(“Breathing Lessons”)


You’re still the island of the holy
palm tree. What can I offer to the man
married first to God, and then soon to
the wrong rib?
(“Almost a Revelation for Two in Bed”)

Perhaps a truly significant poet makes you not want to add anything to their words. You know their writing can do all the work. As a critic, you need to shut up.

Here’s an excerpt from yet another poem. From “Salsa Capitalism”:

…I live on a teacher’s
salary but salsa capitalism isn’t about
money or trickle-down theory of

Lorca’s duende. It’s about hearing
music to be spent inside our bodies,
rhythms’ richness, the dancing, our

now foreign tears’ rum, free will that’s
not taxed, kingdom come as crumbs…
(“Salsa Capitalism”)

And finally, here’s “World Citizen” in its entirety:

Charon doesn’t know a Cuban
from a Puerto Rican.
They are all firewood to deliver.

They’re as dead as everyone else.
Charon throws passports and visas
into the bloodied river.

He strips everyone upon landing;
then they truly disappear into
God’s dark imagination.

Charon rows back to us who,
while waiting for him on shore,
argue as if countries exist.

We’re naked without our flags.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why I Love the Art of Poetry Criticism (Part One)

Every Friday in junior high I ran to the local convenience store and bought a copy of all the Chicago newspapers so that I could read the movie reviews. Chicago boasted the supreme movie critics: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. For at least a good half an hour, I stared at their reviews and memorized the number of stars (out of four) they gave a particular movie.

What power! What importance they made of their lives. I loved the idea that you could reduce art to a star rating.

How could I not want to keep my own archives of their thoughts?

So: I cut out their reviews and criminally pasted them in my family scrapbooks saved in a trunk in the attic. I replaced our pictures with critiques. It seemed like more than a fair exchange. Why would you want to save a picture of yourself? That felt stupid. Someone else’s opinion of someone else seemed more necessary. It made for good gossip. Still does.

It intrigues me that two different smart people could think two different ways about the same movie. Even with all my embarrassing schooling (what moron pursues of all things a Ph.D. in Creative Writing!), I believe that if you look at a movie (or poem) long enough and hard enough, you can determine its intrinsic value and review the piece objectively. Yes, objectively. You can't say such a thing these days, especially if you’re trying to make a career as an artist in any reputable institution.

I can still remember when I read the reviews of a movie called Bachelor Party. Early 80’s Tom Hanks vehicle. He plays a character whose friends throw him, yes, a bachelor party. For the duration of the movie, a lot of weird sexual shenanigans occur. That’s it for the plot. Imagine American Pie with soon-to-be married men replacing young, dumb kids. Almost all of the reviewers hated it. I can still remember what are now predictable queer jokes. One of the young studs fucks a woman in the bathroom and afterwards realizes he had sex with another man. Needless to say, he pukes.

(Full disclosure: at the time my mother took me to see the R-rated movie. We both loved it. Having seen the film on cable last month, I still do. I find myself perversely liking the young studs gay-baiting one another as a form of peer pressure to drink and screw bimbos. )

All the critics justifiably hated it. Except one. Roger Ebert. He gave it three stars (out of four). He was different. I wanted to be different, too. He didn’t go along with everybody else.

I really, really wanted to make myself special. In a way other than being gay.

For James Allen Hall: A Passing Idea (Or Two) About Jericho Brown's Please

After I was challenged by another poet to talk about what I labeled as "the stiffness" in the language of Jericho Brown' s Please, I was grateful. My extremely brief (it might have been less than a sentence) assessment of his book yielded a response (my paraphrase): Why is stiffness necessarily a bad thing, one that should be avoided? Can one deliberately use it in an effective way, especially in a book ordered around music? No doubt I agreed with him. However, I do feel that Jericho's poems employ that strategy in ways that are sometimes unintentional.

But that poet's comment made me think.

To reflect about my critique from a different angle, I started to list words that describe the poems of Jericho Brown. I seized upon the word austerity. As economical. As unadorned. I would claim that both of those connotations are in play in his book in equally intriguing and frustrating ways.

My initial post started looking at "Pause," a poem I believe that is an inquiry into austerity. It obsesses me. And as I've said before, I prefer to write about books that inspires this tortured ambivalence. The following is the brief, and possible draft of an essay's beginning about Please. As I continue to reflect about my reactions to his poems and receive feedback, I will write more.


In regards to Jericho Brown’s much acclaimed debut volume of poems Please, I’m most intrigued by his formal and thematic value of austerity . Everyone, including Jericho himself, seems oddly to be most invested in the poems’ “music.”. Which to me sometimes sounds overdetermined, even, at times, tinny.

But his exploration of austerity surfaces time and time in ways worthy of sustained close readings, investigation.

In regards to this issue, the poem “Pause” investigates the concept of austerity through work, sex, race as well as periodic overlaps between the three.

One can scan the poem quickly for words that connote austerity (in the sense of the economical as well as rigidity): “a chore,” “slavery,” “subtraction,” rigorous experience,” “empty,” “cold,” “without” trees etc.

The poem begins with the narrator talking about a man who presumably surfaces and re-surfaces as a regular trick. As the narrator himself says, “From bed to dresser drawer/and all the while rolling latex down/he’d whistle, and I felt/daily at first, a chore, a long walk/without trees...”

Sex as chore. As unwanted work. Brown establishes this idea within four short lines. In a useful way, form reflects content.

Now look at this subsequent excerpt:

I should have known-
I who hate for people to comment
That I must be happy
Just because they hear me hum.
I want to ask
If they ever heard of slavery,
The work song-the best music
Is made of subtraction,,
The singer seeks an escape from the scarred body
And opens his mouth trying to get out...

The poem continues with formal (the rigidity phrasing of “I who hate”) and thematic preoccupations with austerity. Some connections I made:

“chore” =sex= work. “slavery” =work. work=unadorned, economical. austerity=unadorned, economical. I don't understand the idea of the best music as being made of subtraction."

But still. The concept of austerity seems to link slavery, work, sex in odd, thoughtful ways. Even choosing to capitalize the line’s first word’s letter yields an unusual austerity as well.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Our Transgendered Writers and Our Problematic Predicament with Queer Writing Awards

After I read Ely Shipley’s debut volume Boy with Flowers, I wrote him a fan letter, as I often do when I love a book. This year I also did that for Rane Arroyo and Benjamin Grossberg. I told Ely how happy his poems’ quietness made me. In a poetry world, where loudness (or the prominence of your connections) often only allow you to be heard, it was a welcome relief. His incredible attention to line breaks rivals any of those I’ve seen this year. (That particular ability was by far stronger than four of the five competitors for the Lambda.)

With books I enjoy (or even don’t enjoy), I always surf the Web, trying to find out what people have to say about the queer poet. It’s one of my favorite pastime; I’m nosy. What I found interesting was that Ely’s book was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Gay (Male) Award for Poetry. At the same time, it was also a finalist for a Lambda Award curiously titled “Transgender” which includes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.

How weird and upsetting.

I was tempted to contact Ely Shipley, and see how he labeled himself, if he did. But then I decided not.

But I have some general questions for us all to contemplate:

Because not all transgendered writers would identify as a gay man or lesbian, where does that leave them in terms of the Publishing Triangle Awards (who have no category called Transgender)?

Is it insulting to label our transgendered as gay men or lesbian? And to do so, does that ultimately make the award anything but an empty triumph, an unintentional yet still irresponsible insult?

In terms of the Lambda Award, isn’t it a problem that all genres of transgendered writing (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) get lumped together in one conspicuously broad category?

Especially when prose and poetry value completely different formal moves? For poetry, the line; for prose, the sentence.

At the same time, would putting our transgendered people in a gay male or lesbian category be insulting once again?

One the other hand, would the award mean more to our transgendered to compete in those categories when there are undeniably more competitors in gay male or lesbian poetry?

It is, after all, fun to beat out as many competitors as you can.

Don’t both the Lambda and Publishing Triangle Awards have serious limitations that may invalidate our transgendered's poetry?

How can we alter the names of these awards to show respect for our transgendered while at the same time provide the judges with a healthy pool of competitors to keep the stakes high and meaningful?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Questionable Fastidiousness: The Poems of Rick Barot

I’ve always secretly resented men who manage to keep their faces and bodies perfectly groomed. Needing to believe their obsessive cleanliness results from internalized homophobia, I mock them behind their backs for trying to overcompensate for the way they think straight people see them. As dirty creatures. Our filthy bodies determined to infect everyone in sight.

I’ll admit that like a lot of gay men, I’ve always had a flair for overstatement. At the same time, I do believe what I’m saying. To an extent. Maybe my discomfort explains my genuine disdain for Paul Monette’s prose: his sentences always fussy, preening, ostensibly never a word out of place. His perfect standard syntax. Edmund Write hasn’t fared that much better with me. Much for the same reason. (Except for The Farewell Symphony. Perhaps the title alone justified why his flawlessly edited prose didn’t irritate. He had to hit every note just right.)

This brings us to the poems of Rick Barot, most specifically the ones in Want. I genuinely can’t figure out if Barot’s manic fastidiousness in choosing the perfect detail, simile, personification, etc. etc. reveals a genuine confidence. Or a serious insecurity, rending his project more flawed than some people seem to think.

Whenever I write a review for public consumption, I choose one that either a.) deserves praise or b.) inspires a tortured ambivalence. One that I’m trying to make sense of, that haunts me, and that sometimes subtracts a few hours from a beauty sleep which never proves effective. Want is one of those books. If I wasn’t seriously engaged, I wouldn’t write about it. Unlike William Logan, a hack of a critic, I have no desire to write about poetry anyone could malign in attempt to make my own mediocre verse look a little better in my own eyes.

(I could never afford space here to doodle about Gregg Shapiro’s Protection or Richard Tayson’s The World Underneath. I don’t find the former as upsetting as the latter. Protection seems to be the work of a poet very young in his career who hasn’t realized that some tropes have just been to death. The latter already released a book, and has no excuse for wringing and wringing pathos from incest narratives, dull resolutions to victim narratives, etc etc. Shame on you, Mr. Tayson!)

The title “Want” even confounds me. The one word, monosyllabic title almost too cautiously guards itself from criticism. On one level, it feels perfectly right for the thematic interests of the book. On another, it doesn’t leave us anything to work with: it shuts us out, saying I’ve taken care of everything. Just sit back.

I would like to emphasize that this line of inquiry is not in any way meant to discredit the obvious virtues of the book. It’s revealing that I haven’t heard anyone said at all critical of Barot’s poems. And I can understand why: everything is in place, working pretty much in concert with everything else. And there’s so much attention to the diction, line and the look of the poem.

A year ago, I met the amazing poet-critics Judith Kitchen and Stan Rubin at a conference. Their reviews have impacted me so much as of late. Not as much as New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, my favorite writer of any genre. Period. There is no better critic than Kael. You can imagine my excitement in getting to talk to them. The first poet she named was Rick Barot, and had nothing but great things to say about his poems.

I can’t deny it: I was confused. Why his name was the first one that came to mind out of all poets out there in this world.

Maybe this is the fundamental question for me: I find that fastidiousness and reasonableness to be synonyms. Perhaps I ultimately find his project to be too reasonable, too centered to be anything more than a superior, well-crafted project.

Let’s look at why I may think this. I have no doubt that Barot would be a poet who takes a substantial amount of time assembling his book. As one should. But again, this reasonableness seems too (shall I dare say it?) reasonable. It feels too right that with a book entitled Want, the first poem would be named Echo. And written in couplets, as a poem about Echo and Narcissus I suppose, should do. It’s a tight ghazal.

Here’s the first five couplets:

And what part of his reflection will tell me who I am,
that I am standing a little away, wanting in on his story?

Days I am cup, slice, gray, need, therapy. The headache
of the repetition of his voice, telling himself some story.

I am in the city looking for him, forcibly drawn to
the square glass eyes. A light is on in the hundredth story.

Street black as eel, the wavering look of him inside
its puddle. I play lamp-post to the dark of this story.

The one who sets fire to half the state while setting fire
to letters in the forest. Let her be part of this story.

Everything is here that should be here, and in pleasant, unobtrusive supply. The repetition of the word “story”. Which never greedily calls attention to itself. The professional variance in kinds of sentences. We can check them off: the imperative, rhetorical question, clear, direct statement. Strong, and again well-measured injections of wit. No one need to look further than the first line in the second stanza to see a wonderful example of that. I can go on: well- chosen turns of phrase (“play lamp post,” etc.) There’s one or two forced ones such as “street black as eel.” But who’s perfect?

In this Echo, the pleasures are undeniably pleasures. Even if they aren’t surprising.

Barot seems most invested in the longer”ish” poem comprised of enumerated sections. It wouldn’t be fair not to look at one of those. “Theories of the Visible” may be the most emblematic of these works. Created out of two cross-cutting narratives, you can’t deny the precise technique in his transitions. The first story focuses on what the title says, the theories of the visible, various historic perspectives, including famous ideas from the Greeks, Renaissance, so forth. The second revolves around the narrator and presumably his lover’s relationship between themselves as well as other wants. Like gazing at boy “rollerblading naked in the house” across the street. Like the anticipation of “the blue current/ that would extend from where I was to where I would be” as the narrator deals with his lover’s “fever.” Everything works in the poem and more than well: the enjambed sections that allow for an unforced continuity;, the descriptions within the twelve-lined sections. Even the tidy, fitting closure of the poem, which nicely “echoes” the book’s title. Take a look:

…Days after
his fever, we saw a crow slowly take apart
a greasy paper bag on the grass, holding
down the bag with a foot as it ate each ripped
dirty piece. What is it to be here but to want?

The poem leaves an impression. In fact, a very good one. The book is like the boyfriend you know your parents would want you marry, especially after the last one: a messy, yet intriguing disaster. Or the one who justifiably looked down on you all. Or the one who was super-ambitious yet never consistent. That was the one you liked best.

When he agrees to meet your parents, he puts on his Sunday best. Even though it isn’t Sunday. He wears the cologne your mother wishes you had.

Everything about him seems to be perfect. Your parents cheer.

You know they’re right about him. In a way. Which makes you a bit uncomfortable. Just a bit. But still.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Racism of White Gay Poets

White gay male critics often do not know how to go about reviewing a book by a poet of color. These critics often fall into one of two camps: 1.) avoiding the review out of fear of writing something inadvertently racist. or 2.) praising the book without any reservations out of fear of appearing racist.

I would say that the first happens more regularly, and the second often proves itself useless to the poet of color. Not to mention the art and ethics of literary criticism.

Having been a college teacher for more than a decade in predominantly white areas (Utah, Upstate New York, etc.) I find that my students feel more comfortable talking about sexuality, class, gender, age as opposed to race, which feels dangerous to them. And should be. Self-consciousness isn't a bad thing. Unfortunately, though, my white students invariably either ignore any explicitly racial aspect of a poem. Or when prompted, they lavish gratuitous compliments upon the work, failing to articulate any reservations. They feel that saying something racist could make them look like a bad person. And no one wants to be thought of as a bad person. And most of them aren't bad people. Just in desperate need of education about race. A white teacher can offer that. As long as they don't pat themselves on the back for offering one of two poets of color to read during the course of the semester.

Things can get complicated. How does a white teacher in a predominately white classroom simultaneously protect the writing of students of color while AT THE SAME encourage criticism, often that will be misguided and unintentionally hurtful?

You struggle with it day after day. Self-consciousness isn't a bad thing for white teachers, either.

White gay critics are in some ways, definitely not all, no different. They want to be good and smart and reliable. But sometimes things are said.

It's a strange predicament responsible white gay critics are in. On one level, the publishing industry is mostly white, even in poetry, no matter how much some people like to pretend its beyond politics. White gay critics often feel oppressed as a result of their queerness. Which they are. But these same white gay men often never bother to think about other aspects of their identity. Aspects they may benefit from such as whiteness, attractiveness, economic status, family support, maleness, etc etc.

I am an elitist insomuch as I foolishly believe if I think hard enough I can find the right assessment of a book of poems. Too bad I often find that I'm wrong and when collectively discussing a text, my opinion becomes more nuanced. So: I'm forced somewhat happily, somewhat annoyingly, to change my mind.

But there is a self-consciousness that I find in myself when I read a book by a poet of color. If I am not fond of the book, there is a temptation to want to downplay the negatives. Because of the institutionalized racism in the publishing industry, I think that I could be participating in an act that would silence or hurt other writers of color. Or even the writer of color I'm reviewing. Writers change; why should I stifle that basic human ability? I also rightly fear that I am contributing to the collective oppressive forces of the white poetry publishing industry. My criticism could become an unintentional, but real silencing. Not to mention avoiding the pitfall of falling into the useless trap of White Liberal Guilt.

I cannot subscribe to the insidious romanticizing of gay writers of color. If I hear one more white person use the word courageous in describing a book by a poet of color, I will scream. How condescending to a writer of color! Courage is when someone does something that will have no value to the person, if anything negative value. A book of poetry has immediate value: you are being read.

I don't want to imply that I believe a critic, especially me, has an enormous sense of power. But I do believe that we all contribute to the collective consciousness of The Universe and we have responsibilities to That Constellation.

When talking to other white gay male writers about Jericho Brown's Please, I received a lot of odd responses from other white poets. I liked the book a good deal, but did have some serious reservations about his project such as the occasional stiffness of the language when the book seems to want to be invested in varieties of music. I told a white friend this, and they immediately replied: "You can't say that about Jericho. Everyone loves him. He's going to be the next Reginald Shepherd." Disturbing, but predictable.

I also think that gay white critics self-congratulatory pat themselves on the back when they discover a writer of color they like. The celebration of one poet of color means that they're not racist and then they can ignore any one else different than themselves. Plain and simply, this is aversive racism, choosing not to read certain other people simply because.

There are other other poets of color out there. Ones who even had books come out recently: Rane Arroyo, R. Zamora Linmark, etc etc.

This post doesn't even begin to deal with the intersection between aesthetic and racial identity, and the prejudice that can ensue from both fronts, say, if you're a person of color who doesn't write presumably autobiographical narrative..

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Christopher Schmidt's The Next in Line and Divine Childishness

Perhaps because he is uninterested in domestic narrative, perhaps because he doesn't always speak in a plain voice, perhaps because his poetics resemble someone like, say, Harryette Mullen as opposed to Richard Howard, Christopher Schmidt's The Next in Line, has been unfortunately, virtually ignored.

I would make the claim that The Next in Line is one of the best queer books of the year. And deserved to be one of the Publishing Triangle or Lambda finalists. I do have various degrees of respect for the finalists of both awards, but must admit The Next in Line wowed me more than some of them. One of the reasons involves the book's childishness; it refuses to settle down and be mature, ignoring the tropes and formal rules of what art seems to be to some queer poets.

The narrators in his poems are men who are invariably immature. You could say they're babies. Men as nasty, bratty babies. What man could disagree with that? Are we really anything more?

Sometimes the poems throw temper tantrums, refusing to act their age in an age that prizes (much to its own failure) calm seriousness. Let's look at "I Alone":

Dans ce monde, il faut etre un peu trop bon pour l^etre assez MARIVAUX

Every toad wants a piece.
Mr. Irresistible.
Gotta swallow it.

In the locker room
I wear a sign
to cover my ass

Says, Sorry
boys, taken.
Seems to work.

Every poet knows
he’s lousy
Me? I’m the shit.

Cock of the walk.
Talk of the gown.
Knotless wood.

Almost too good.

I wanted to pat Schmidt (hopefully a baby himself) on the head for making his narrator such a big, wonderful infant: the defiantly short sentences, the inability to stay put with his ideas, the end rhyme that seems to have been created simply out of boredom, the self-absorption contained in the fourth and fifth stanza. After Schmidt gives that baby a voice, he moves onto another one.

Here are opening sentences to the great, impatient, frivolous "Top/ Butt":

Born of sun lust, 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. Jock, hung, lucks on smooth boy cunt, round rump up on dun outcrop. Coy youth sucks thumb, sub for schtup. Jock’s pud pulls north. Jock stubs youngun’s mouth, swoons…

We're so in love with the aggressive grunts (and the whines) that at first we simply relish the word-play, the charmingly dumb scatological humor. Only after a second read does the narrative clearly surface. Not that we need the story. The brilliantly crafted nursery-rhyme quality is enough. But there's no denying it; we're entertained, as gay male readers, by the baby's shenanigans.

And when Schmidt's narrators do mature, become adults, they doen't lose their infantile verve! They definitely resist the kind of school where you become complacently middle-class. Here's the proof. It's the prose poem "A Little Learning is a Profitable Thing":

The old school advertises its advertising class. The new school advertises in its advertising class. Corporate execs sponsor assignments, then shadow-watch as pupils sell themselves the wares. Teachers' branded pets, your continued tuition is appreciated.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark Doty and Rapture as Middle-Class Luxury

No one can hold it against a gay man for having money. No one can hold it against a gay man for choosing to write poems about having money. Although I do find it odd that Mark Doty hasn't more explicitly interrogated his own economic status in his poems, and asked himself what that ultimately means in the construction of his poetic persona.

I'd like to take a look at the new poem "Theory of Marriage" featured in "Fire to Fire."

Middle-class gay men have a reactionary stance when class is brought up. Perhaps they are firmly invested in the discrimination they receive for being queer, but don't want to examine other more complicated issues regarding class, race, etc. etc..

What concerns me about the poem "Theory of Marriage" is that it seems to construct rapture as something that can be obtained through middle-class luxury. There seems to be no self-insight about the ostensibly unintentional comedy in this idea. Always invested in the idea of spiritual rapture/ecstasy, Doty no longer equates rapture with promiscuity, as he does in such poems as "Tiara"-- a justifiably radical defense of sexual behavior nowadays.

No. Now Doty sees his own middle-class status, the buying of a masseuse as a conduit to spiritual transformation.

This poem is ostensibly autobiographical. In his poem Mark and his partner Paul go see masseurs. In separate rooms, they receive their treatment, unable to see each other. They hear audible expressions of the other's pain/pleasure and unsure if each other is done with their massage, they continue with "the bliss" that becomes an exhaustion. They each spend more on their own massage simply out of respect to the other, not wanting to rush him:

..And he must think as I must think as well,
since I am still releasing the contained sounds of one

pushed into new life...

It should be emphasized here that the continuation of their sessions with their respective masseuse increases the cost of their venture.

As Doty himself writes: "In this way we spend a small but substantive fortune"," an explicit naming of middle-class conspicuous consumption. In fact, that quotation appears in an end-stopped line in and of itself. It's one of the few times in a Doty poem his class is named in such an explicit way. Obviously, he is calling attention to his socio-economic status.

Even more important: When Doty uses the phrase "In this way" he explicitly means a leisurely, even if protracted, massage, one that can be bought, one that will bring spiritual transcendence. Here's a description of the purchased rapture:

..vanishing again into the heaven
of rubbed temples, where no city exists except the one

in which the skull produces a repetitive, golden music...

One can "buy" spiritual transcendence. I wish I could claim that the poem shifts in tone to reveal the inflated nature of the this rhetoric. (The schematic closure of the poem indicates that Doty has been cured of his backpain.)

In a crucial way, in a necessary way, Doty uses this same sort of spiritual rhetoric in "Tiara" to defend his friend's HIV-impacted death, and by extension, promiscuity: "I think heaven is perfect stasis poised over the realm of desire...huge fragments/of music we die into/in the body's paradise.../given the ordinary marvels of form/and gravity what could he do/what can any of us do but ask for it?"

Where "Tiara" uses spiritual rhetoric to defend someone "Theory of Marriage" incorporates a similar lyric moment to self-importantly describe his own banal, middle-class experience. Some other new poems also offer this association. This theme makes the poem "about" the spiritual comfort of middle-class ecstasy rather than a "theory of marriage." How's that for false advertising, luring middle-class readers with one thing and then giving them another?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mark Doty and the Politics of Self-Importance (Part Two)

Self-importance needs not to be thought of as inherently a Good or Bad Thing. It must be valued in terms of its usefulness. One way that can be done is asking oneself, 'What is the political and/or ethical value of seeing oneself (or oneselves) in an equal or elevated position to others?" With gay men, it is the possibility of seeing themselves as something more than second-class citizens, as actual human beings who deserve an equal place in the nation, as someone who does not deserve to die.

So: self-importance can be a political tool. The most deservedly much-often anthologized poem "Homo Will Inherit" serves as a perfect example of this.

The set-up is simple.

The poem’s third person point-of-view draws a brief, but effective image of a downtown full of sex shops, clubs, and dirty magazine stores where desire remains “unpoliced or nearly so.” This third person then stumbles across a picture of a "xeroxed headshot/of Jesus: permed, blond, blurred at the edges..” No surprise that next to this picture someone scrawled the words "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be Saved.”

This is where the poem admirably transforms, through the poet's self-importance, into something other than the conventional victim narrative. Rather than the narrator bemoaning his position, he launches a pedantic attack on the anonymous person who created these words. For eight stanzas, the poem has been in the third person, now thankfully after detailing this homophobia, things change. A defiant first-person pushes his way to the forefront, and offers with laudatory self-righteousness an argument. Without self-consciousness and no apology:

I'll tell you what I'll inherit: the margins
which have always been mine, downtown after hours
when there's nothing left to buy.

The self-importance of the “I” shines through perfectly, standing in for homosexual men in general: the out, loud, and proud ones and ostensibly those who shy and closeted but ultimately share the same viewpoint. This self-importance also presents itself in the narrator’s self-righteous pathology of the perpetrator.

(It should be noted that Doty’s best poems usually are explicit arguments. One needs to think no further than, say, “Tiara” for another example. Its similarly sex-positive didacticism is necessary. These days didacticism is an undervalued rhetorical tool.)

Immediately the anaphora begins after this set-up (“I’ll tell you what..”). The attack against the perpetrator proceeds, and the argument hermetic and angry, reveals itself as anything but slack. Every word counts--a true poetic accomplishment.

(This is unlike a lot of later Doty poems, especially those that deal with the relationship between himself and Paul, where one can find a considerable amount of slackness in the rhetoric. For me, slackness=leisure. Here there is no time to be leisurely: the homosexual is a homosexual first and foremost, not a “comfortable, middle-class” homosexual.)

But back to the successful “Homo Will Inherit.” The narrator is so self-important he possesses a willful desire to pathologize the perpetrator. What is a greater indicator of self-importance than to consider oneself capable and ready to tell another what he or she thinks they think? Here’s a part where he does just that:

..And I’ll tell you,
you who can’t wait to abandon your body,
what you want me to, maybe something

like you’ve imagined, a dirty story..

Later in the poem, through metaphor, the narrator raises himself above the perpetrator to such an extent, a gay male reader can’t help but get nervous that he doesn’t possess the strength to self-aggrandize in a similarly bold way:

...I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be?
It’s written on my face as much as on
these walls. The city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

What a wonderful transformation! The gay man in this poem sees himself as capable of metamorphosing the “decadent city” into something as powerful as a “kingdom” on his own terms. And then he possesses the audacity of appointing himself as a leader of this land. No victim here. He believes in himself too much to give up his power.

This too much” may be, ironically, something that makes other Doty poems more problematic. But for now, in this poem, it cannot be undervalued; the rhetoric of self-importance a revolutionary move.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mark Doty and The Politics of Self-Importance (Part One)

When one thinks of the word self-importance, immediate negative connotations come to mind: wrong-headed self-image, conceited, vanity, etc. I would like to make the claim that self-importance in relation to the plight of homosexuals in America should be seen as a completely different entity. In a society that denies gay men equal rights, in a society that wishes they were dead, in a society where gay male youth are statistically more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts, I think that self-importance can be a good, if not necessary, thing. Who else is going to tell us that we are worth something, that we, indeed, matter? Gay men need more than pride. They need hubris. And definitely, a sense of self-importance.

Self-importance is crucial. I think that some of the early Mark Doty poems, especially at the time they were published, knew this. And this accomplishment cannot be taken for granted.

I will definitely spend time with this idea in my mind as I write these posts about Doty. In certain poems, Doty locates the self-importance in the narrative or lyric "I", but when one looks closer at the poems with that "I", the first person pronoun is actually a referent to a whole group of disenfranchised people: male homosexuals. This is what makes a group of his poems excitingly polemical. Their importance cannot be undervalued.

As Doty's career evolved, that "I" becomes something else, more often than not, a presumably autobiographical "I" that refers to himself in way that is much more limited, but not necessarily insignificant. Or at least not completely so. This essay-in-parts wants to examine the way this self-importance, once radical and subversive, has changed into something else.

One cannot ignore the reason as to why not more critiques have not been offered of Doty's work. For someone who has such a stronghold on the poetry market place, people are undoubtedly concerned about their own careers, and the reception they may or may not be granted as a result. I don't think there's very many writers--straight or gay--who would not want Doty's stamp of approval. This must be noted and understood as a deterrent to honest critique of his poetry.

My future posts do not aim to be a disavowal of Doty's accomplishments, but instead a supplement to his own work. It is a necessary critical interrogation I'm sure Doty would want as well. As one of the most popular and influential poets of his generation, we must determine the aesthetic and/or political and/or ethical and/or spiritual limitations and potentialities of his work through rigorous close readings, sometimes that are against the grain.

The politics of self-importance is one way to enter into an analysis of his poetry.

My next post will be a close reading of an early Doty poem.

Why Mark Doty is Important to Me

One of the biggest thrills in my MFA career was getting to introduce Mark Doty at a reading in Syracuse. I was so nervous. And when I got to sit next to him at dinner, I found myself at a complete loss of words, and if I said anything, it was dumb. My mentor Melanie Rae Thon was at dinner and afterwards asked me what was wrong. I said he was my idol, and even though I knew he would never remember me, it mattered. To me.

I was introduced to his work when I was an undergraduate by a Laurence Liebermann, who was a poet and editor of the poetry series at the University of Illinois. Leibermann was my first workshop teacher, and he introduced me to a whole bunch of poets. Ai was one of them. I was shocked that a poet could write about poor people. Having grown up poor, I thought, Wow! People can write about people like me. When I think of Ai now, I think of her as a toxic poet, one who uses representations of violence in ways that are unethical. But enough about her. Or her poetry. This is what's important about my relationship to Ai: my opinion changed over time of her and her work. The same can be said of Mark Doty. This isn't to say there isn't value to her work. Or Doty's. But there is now a different kind of value. And there are also limitations I can now identify.

For the next posts, I want to clarify my opinions as to what these strengths and limitations are. Maybe eventually turn them into a publishable essay. The posts will not be arranged in terms of strengths and then weaknesses and then conclusions. I'm going to write about what interests me. And sometimes when that happens, I'm all over the map.

In memoriam of Reginald Shepherd

In thinking about Reginald Shepherd for some time now, I was contemplating what his greatest contribution to the poetry scene has been.  For me, I think it was his criticism; insomuch as, my first introduction to him was not his poetry, but his criticism.  I can still remember happening over a poetry review of his in The Boston Review.  I think it was of Mark Wunderlich's first book The Anchorage.  I can't quite remember.  What shocked me was that it wasn't a goody-goody critique, one overdetermined to point out the virtues of the book, and ignore its limitations.

A gay writer could say something not necessarily positive about another gay writer, and he could continue.  Gay men are so willing to backstab, but rarely have the conviction to make those thoughts public.

True, Shepherd wrote his reviews with grace and tact.  So few queer writers do that anymore, and, as a result, I get bored.  This blog is an attempt to relieve myself of that boredom.  I wish it had a greater aspiration.  But it doesn't, and I have no apologies for that.