Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Arbiter of Good Taste (Inspired By But Not a Direct Response to Charles Jensen's Congenial, Thoughtful Post)

In the queer poetry world, you can always tell who is The New Arbiter of Good Taste. No matter how much He Himself may deny it.

It all comes down to who's blurbing who. A blurb is not a review. It is an endorsement. An endorsement is by its very nature unreflective and predetermined. A review challenges itself; it has not made up its mind on what it thinks. Only through the writing of it can it make its claims.

Blurbs function as the primary critique of a gay poet's book. It isn't difficult to imagine the problem with this situation. You either have the right blurbs from the right people, validating your work as Important. Or you don't.

Perhaps this is why a number of gay poets want to dispense of artful literary criticism. We like to be told what to think rather than follow someone else's thinking and decide for ourselves.

It's easy to have someone write praise and paste it on the back of a book. You can look at it every couple minutes and gloat to yourself that you've made it. I've done that a number of times.

But to receive an authentic emotional and intellectual assessment might make you have to re-evaluate your own work. And that may not be fun.

The New Arbiter's blurbs appear on the back cover of what most people consider to be the most promising homosexual males' book. In a poetry community where most gay men fear making public aesthetic claims, where newspapers offer less and less space for book reviews, where gay men obey middle-class protocol (be nice and happy), The Arbiter of Good Taste appoints himself through first and foremost writing amazing poems. The poems matter. Wisely networking, winning the national awards don't hurt either. Surrounding Himself with people who engage in similar formal strategies secure his position. They will be indebted to Him and keep His Memory alive.

That's what friends do. No problem with that.

And who can blame the New Arbiter of Good Taste? Who doesn't want His Own words to be final and definite?

The unfortunate situation gay male poets find themselves in is a result of their own uninspired and boring passivity.

It should be emphasized here that this is not a particular indictment of this New Arbiter of Good Taste. Or his friends. I have affection for all of them. Seriously. I introduced The New Arbiter at a poetry reading many years ago. Two of his more successful students are, when doing their best work, much better than good. I have said this publicly and privately to them. Ask them if you don't believe me.

More importantly, posting something meant to malign The New Arbiter and his friends would be counter-productive and a useless post--the last thing I want to do in my desire to open dialogue, conflict, and expose the factions that are already there no matter how much we may deny them.

This is my official game-plan for these polemics: through the nameless identification of The New Arbiter, I want to describe His ascent into power, why he was allowed to ascend to His position, and what this says about us, as gay men. This analysis will act as a vehicle for a larger issue: why do gay males put themselves in such weakened, vulnerable positions. It seems this behavior isn't occurring solely in the realm of poetry.

Perhaps our behavior in our own poetry community can help explain our ineffective behavior, campaigning in blocking Proposition 8. Why are we so afraid to take a stand until the damage has already been done?

This isn't We can't all be bottoms, can we?


Why are gay men so scared of writing reviews about other queers' books? Here's one pathological explanation (my favorite kind of reasoning):

Gay men become do become as gay as a result of overbearing mothers. To retain their power, they have to act as if their doing everything in the best interest of their son. They don't want to appear as control freaks so they mask everything they say with a polite, superficial smile. Gay men who turn out to be poets replicate this behavior. They want power so they refuse to ever act up, always pretend to remain impartial, reasonable. (For me accessibility in poetry can be decoded as reasonableness.) They forget one thing. The poetry world isn't domestic. It's too big of a place, so they sacrifice their power to critique in hopes of receiving love from someone (The Arbiter of Good Taste) who has too many children to love.

This was presented to my friend as a joke. Maybe you actually have a point there, my friend said, What else can explain it?


Because gay men often tend to be justifiably self-obsessed –we have to deal with everyone else’s hatred, what else are we going to do but turn inward?—we fail to think of others. This contributes to a lot of serious problems in the poetry world. We don't review each other’s poetry. Manically writing our own poems, paying attention to little else except our own readings, publication dates, we hope that someone will give us what we’ve lacked. Acceptance. Love.

That is, after all, why one writes poetry. To be loved. Someone publishing your book, investing money into your words is a form of love. Is there anything more loving than giving someone money to speak?

For me, the worst thing you can say to someone, the most vile words in the English language are Shut Up. It’s a way of saying you don’t matter. It’s a way of saying You’re Words do Not Matter. You Are Not Loved.

Gay men often hate reviewers. Gay poets consistently tell them to shut up.

A gay male poet wrote me an email telling me I need to stop criticizing The New Arbiter on my blog. You'll ruin your career. He doesn't like people who aren't a team player. No one will comment on that post, if you do write it, he said: They have too much to lose. He is the New Arbiter, after all. Recently he won a huge book award to confirm the title.


Unlike Richard Howard, the Old Arbiter of Good Taste, the New One seems to have a much more limited idea of what is good and what isn’t.

Here is some proof:

A champion of the straightforward narrative and lyric, he recommends poems on his blog that could have been written by him in earlier stages of his career.

Unlike Howard, he rarely champions books that don’t come from huge publishing houses or significant university and independent presses.

When The New Arbiter and his partner named their favorite poetry books on their respective blogs, they highlighted two of the same debuts. Both of those authors were students of The New Arbiter. Both write in plain language. Both largely invested in the domestic. Both of them have a blurb from The New Arbiter on the back of their books.

The New Arbiter and three of His students were finalists for a Lambda; two of them are finalists for the Publishing Triangle Awards. One Jack Spicer doesn't count as an embrace of more conventional narrative/lyric techniques. Inclusion of various aesthetic stances need to be demanded. This demand is in some ways, and some ways not, as important if not more so than cultural diversity.

(Who are the judges in these contests? Do they have no appreciation for different sorts of aesthetics? Shame on you, whoever you are!)

I have no idea as to whether the New Arbiter and his students wrote the best books of poetry of last year. I haven't read all of those published. But I do think the pattern needs to be identified and interrogated. This is not an act of mean-spiritedness; it is an attempt to understand.


When I lucked out and won a poetry contest, I became obsessed with receiving blurbs. I vowed to myself that I would not have any from people I knew or met. Through email, I contacted forty poets, many gay. In the letter, I authentically highlighted what I most liked about their work, and asked if they would consider looking at the manuscript, and then decide if they wanted to give me blurb. Only two gay poets responded.

If no queer poet had, I planned to make up a blurb, attaching The New Arbiter’s name to it.

Without His permission.

Who would know? He writes so many. If someday the book fell into His hands, how could He possibly remember He didn’t write one for me?


A second installment of this series will appear sometime Friday.

Monday, April 27, 2009

On Queer Poet Tom Savage's Brainlifts

Mischievous parody of the love elegy and simultaneously a wholly sincere lyric, queer Tom Savage’s poem “Oh Won, Oh No!” achieves a literary feat. Shucking conventional narrative strategies, a consistent lyric tone, his poem allows us to “enter” his grief through inviting us to “make sense” of the mourning.

Savage fills the pages of his book “Brainlifts” with such poems. It is unsurprising his book was ignored. People preferred to have their grief packaged for them in neat tidy narrative.

Unlike Monette, Savage’s treatment of Time shifts from the humorously reckless to contained disappointment.

From the get-go Savage treats Time like a dumb TV set:

When time slows down
Do we kick it in order
For it to conform to our desires?

Frustrated with his own question, he abruptly moves on:

Such a precious hand
Paints the thought behind the shape.
Now watch the silent birds fly.

You wandered through a swamp
In search of me
Even though you knew
I’d already died.

Savage strategically creates an ambiguous “you.” Potentially raising the stakes of the poem, he pushes the question of when death occurs, who does the work of grief—the dead or living..

If we’re meant to read the “died” literally, then the “you” stands for the lover, still alive and mourning in our actual world. If we’re meant to translate the “died” literally, then the “you” transforms perhaps into that of a spirit, a ghost of the beloved. This adds a layer of complexity to the proceeding stanzas:

Did the cranes you meet
sing you a sad song?
Did the sun, for my sake,
Refuse to shine?

In the fragrance of words,
The harmony of color,
Do you choose the air
Or does the breeze select you?

There’s no harm in borrowing everything you see.
Straddle the rooftop with an echo and hear.
The air demands you pay no interest on your eyes.

Either way we interpret the “you,” the speaker commits some intriguing moves. Knowingly self-aggrandizing, the narrator baits his addressee with sarcasm and odd sincerity. Who else but the bereft could make the inflated claim that Nature may have had sympathy pains, demanding that the sun and cranes react in tandem? Through the casual insertion of “for my sake, ”the narrator admits to his own flagrant self-centeredness.

As if this wasn’t enough, he adds, “There’s no harm in borrowing everything you see.” Does he mean “everything” as natural world? Or does the preceding stanzas break indicate a switch in subjects? Are we supposed to decode “everything” to refer to other love poems, or even as broadly as any other text?

It’s up for grabs. This is an act of openness. Not any sort of flaw of the writing.

Notice the strategic juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete. Savage asks us to participate in “recreating” this loss with him. Never coy, he saves us self-pitying details of the narrative. He forces us to partly recreate the loss with him.

Monette doesn’t find a way for us to “enter” his grief. He makes the meaning, and we “read” it from a distance. At the same time, we need to accept that Monette needed to use straightforward self-pity as a political tool, luring straight people to interrogate their own homophobia, fear of AIDS. Monette could not risk allowing them to make sense of the loss. At that time, they needed to be told what to think through straightforward narrative. Their readings would have been confused due to their own misgivings toward homosexuality and AIDS.

I would like to emphasize here I have no serious problem with Monette. In some ways, during his time and even now, he is an important poet to cite. However, a lot of queer poets now simply repeat his aesthetic choices and content.

That’s why I may be particularly find myself to be harsh; it’s misdirected anger. What disturbs me the most is to see living queer writers recycle the same material (and formal strategies). For their lazy theft, they continue to win the most major awards.

How can Savage and his tiny press Straw Gate Books compete?

Here are the next few stanzas:

In a painting of arteries
You took the heart.
How should the lungs react?

Savage, I would argue, forces his narrator to write inside his grief. Can any crime be more potentially fatal than saying something like “You took the heart”? That's an "inside job" to risk such what it usually seen as a failing of even the most amateur of poets. But he escapes! Here the immediate goofiness of “How should the lungs react?” refuses any complete embrace of the sentimental. Not to say it isn’t somewhat there. Sometimes grief warrants the most flagrantly banal statements.

As I provide my analysis of this poem, I find myself wanting to use the word “redeem” to explain how the comic “allows for” what is predicted in a love elegy. To use such verbs though is unfair to Savage. Doesn’t the poetic articulation grief sometimes deserve to be uninspired? Doesn't that captivate the feeling of loss sometimes even more.

Savage knows exactly what he is doing; the shift of tone does not occur in an isolated incident. You can see the pattern begin from the outset. And close in somewhat of a similar way:

If you stay for the winter
And leave in the spring,
The summer will be angry with you.

If you lock me in with a spoon
I’ll free you with the knife of my tongue.
Fire dictates all the world.

For a poet who relies on such abrupt changes of tone, I fear that by providing a close analysis may have caused a failure to see the effectiveness of these strategies. That is, uninterrupted. As of late, I haven’t read too poems that offer us hope through the most obvious, yet creatively rendered, truths. Some poems need to be rendered to give affirmation to what we already know, the obvious. In this age of easy irony, witty paradoxes, dull self-deprecation, Savage’s poem relies on more creative humor and a lack of fear toward the sentimental.

Not that he isn’t capable of employing more familiar, usually more unattractive, sorts of humor, using them to inspired effect. Here’s the poem entitled “Ode to a Once-Beautiful Adam”:

You were only a statue, after all.
When your plywood pedestal collapsed
You fell apart. The Metropolitan Museum
Now apologies to Tulio Lombardo,
The sculptor who is, of course,
Conveniently dead. When I, a mere
Volunteer there, walked through
The sculpture court,
I enjoyed your naked, perfect body,
An unattainable ideal,
Even your perfectly formed cock and balls.
Are these latter why you fell off your pedestal
Or more correctly, it failed you?
When I was still “wigged out” from brain surgery
I loved to contemplate your perfect body
I could never touch,
But need neither mourn not feel rejected by.
Artistic perfection misleads us
If we look at it in leading men
So I both miss you and don’t.
The museum is going to try
To put you back together again.
It may take four months.
My recovery took four years.
I emerged from it fat and middle-aged
But I wouldn’t trade breathing living
For being a perfect statue.
Look at what happened to your
Immortality, after all-
Demolished (only temporarily
I hope) by the failure of
An anonymous piece of wood.
From now on I’ll look at
Sculptures of real men and women,
Like Rodin’s fat, naked, middle-aged Balzac.
I hope real people can be satisfied
With real, imperfect lovers
And not be permanently deceived
By Gods, angels, or ideals
In stone like you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

On Paul Monette's Eighteen Elegies For Rog, Kindness to the Dead, and Time (Or, a Continuation of Wednesday's Post)

I’ve always possessed a deep ambivalence toward Paul Monette’s “Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies For Rog.” My critical inquiry evolves from the way in which Monette deliberately uses form to realize Time. On one hand, I feel that his elegies’ manic pace allows for less precious syntax. Something that I always felt marred his historically important yet overdetermined memoirs. Like “Becoming a Man.” Which already seems oddly dated.

Monette deliberately ditches his fussy style for an ostensibly more “raw” stream-of-consciousness, choosing run-on sentences, absent of punctuation. Which attempts formally to reflect the unorganized psyche of the bereft. In many cases, Time does not allow you to organize a direct address to the dead. Psychic pain causes Time to slow down, captured by grief; at the same time, you try to rush forward, hoping Time takes away the despair as quickly as possibly.

However, an ethical question surfaces. Are Monette’s elegies meant to honor his dead lover? Or does Monette’s illustration of his own grief eclipse any memorialization of his lover? Doesn’t one write an elegy to prolong the Time the living can justify reflecting about the dead?

I also hope that any sort of elegy tries to stop Time to contact and talk to the dead. Why else write one?

In the poem “No Goodbyes,” we have to ask if the poem even should be labeled as an elegy. The poem’s title launches directly, incautiously, into the first line. Which one could argue is as calculated as his prose. Here’s the opening:

for hours at end I kissed your temple stroked

your hair and sniffed it it smelled so clean we'd

washed it Saturday night when the fever broke

as if there was always the perfect thing to do

I am unsure why Monette offers information Rog and he always know. What’s the use of revealing these familiar facts to Rog? The poem’s start doesn’t establish an occasion for this monologue other than the fact Monette is grieving. Does he truly have anything to say to the spirit of Rog? Or is the addressee (“the you”, Rog) of the poem incorrectly named—is he really interested only in the reader, asking for our sympathies?

I would like to add here that I can imagine that some people no doubt will be offended by a critique that asks probing questions about an autobiographical love poem dealing with AIDS. To consider some subjects off-limits is dangerous, I think. As a Jewish man, I feel that refusing to openly question texts about the Holocaust can be damaging. Some texts are useful, some not. Some have greater control of craft than others. Some more deft in concealing their own (sometimes ugly) limitations, some not.

I can honestly say I have no desire to hurt anyone, most particularly the dead. But I want to engage in important political and aesthetic issues that may justifiably result in polemic.

To skate over the problems out of the obligation to obey middle-class politeness, I would argue ultimately hurts gay poets. In at least one of the Norton anthologies, poems from Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats” appear. No other writing dealing with AIDS by or for openly queer males. When there’s so much at stake, I believe we must argue, sometimes contentiously, about what may amount to an overly secure canonization (synonymous for me with memorialization) of certain dead writers who may have not been as successful as others.

Currently there are a number of queer writers who focus on AIDS, the most important D.A. Powell as far as I’m concerned. Even if I wholly disagree with critiques offered about his work (such as the recent one in Poetry), I hope we debate the merits. Unfavorable reviews provoke discussion. Discussion yields more nuanced analysis. Our different ways of thinking helps each other out in how we read. What more can ask?

I am not claiming to be an “arbiter” of good taste, but another person adding to the critical voices of AIDS literature. Whether or not we, as a collective of gay men, choose to do it, that work will continue.

I believe that the endings to Paul Monette’s elegies, as in “No Goodbyes” ‘s forces another central question. For a poem that claims to refuse send-offs, why does his poem end with the most defiant of closures, a lyric moment? Are there no goodbyes as long as Monette gets the last word? Here’s the end:

it's only Tuesday there's chicken in the fridge
from Sunday night he ate he slept oh why
don't all these kisses rouse you I won't won't
say it all I will say is goodnight patting
a few last strands in place you're covered now
my darling one last graze in the meadow
of you and please let your final dream be
a man not quite your size losing the whole
world but still here combing combing
singing your secret names till the night's gone

While Monette offers no period for definitive closure, he may not need to do so. He provides a final end to the poem. I am not criticizing the sentimentality in and of itself.--such rhetoric can be necessary and useful to creating a poem, especially in elegy. Saying the obvious can be necessary, if not critical.

Here’s the crux of the argument: Does the poem poem satisfy its own promise? Can there be a more ostentatious goodbye than for Monette than returning to his feeling of losing “lot the whole world,” buoyed only by the memory of sharing pet names with his dead lover. The poem seems suspiciously satisfied with its lyric finality. As a poet, he seems desirous of aggressively stopping Time, in order for us to admire his artistic flourishes.

Think about how Alice Notley, one of our best living poets, uses identical formal strategies as Monette’s: the single run-on sentence, an avoiding of punctuation except for the ampersand (in Notley's case), lack of capitalization, a disinterest in the line break. Their content is similarly the same: what should be a banal report of grief after their lover/husband dies. Here’s the wonderful Notley poem in its entirety. It’s called “Poem”:

Why do I want to tell it
It was the afternoon of November
15th last fall and I was waiting
for it whatever it would be like

it was afternoon & raining but it
was late afternoon so dark outside my
apartment and I was special in that
I saw everything through a heightened

tear, things seemed dewy, shiny
and so I knew there was a cave
it was more or less nearby as in my
apartment it was blue inside it

dark blue like an azure twilight and the
gods lived in the cave they who
care for you take care of at death and
they had cared for Ted and were there for me
too and in life even now

Notley immediately announce the artifice of her own writing with the title “Poem”; Monette seems to want us to see him artfully emerged in the raw current of grief. Because of Notley’s immediate admission though, she confessed to her own unchecked sentimentality: “I saw everything through a heightened tear things seemed dewy shiny”. What a genuinely transcendent move! What could be more aggressively banal than a tear, but through her “heightened” self-awareness she succeeds in creating a more authentic elegy than Monette could even dream. Her closure similarly says the obvious, stripped of poetic mannerisms. She says the obvious. Which more poets need to do. Ironic statements don’t do much in our world. A world on the edge of extinction. Is there a statement more important than gods taking care of her husband as he died and Alice herself.? As they still look after her? Her flatly stated declarative is more open than Monette’s affected elegy. This final boast is admirably unapologetic.

This is not to say that Monette’s poem fails contain nice moments. I love the exclamatory yelp that occurs mid-way throughout the poem: loping off whatever you could
still dream to the sound of me at 3 P.M.
you were stable still our favorite word
at 4 you took the turn WAIT WAIT I AM
THE SENTRY HERE nothing passes as long as
I'm where I am..

To capitalize that imperative is grossly emphatic. But it works. Time possesses him in its grasp; he can’t say anything as quickly as he wants. So he’s forced to rely on an obnoxious capitalization. Time limits him, and he’s trying to beat it through sloppy capitalization. One cannot help but feel that if the poem was written in sentences you’d see a couple exclamation marks, the most underused punctuation mark and the most difficult to get away with. More exclamation marks, I say!

My analysis here is not to say that Monette is a bad poet, or even a mediocre one. I am simply concerned that critics have not recognized the inherently benign hypocrisy of his elegies. And isn’t the best way to engage in a conversation with the ghosts of our beloved is to recognize that their death has given you permission to see their work in a new divine light?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Time and The Gay Male Poet (Part One)

Love is Time.

No doubt about that. To take someone else’s Time can be criminal.

In graduate school, and in life, I am always so conscious of occupying too much of someone’s Time. When someone gives me a ride home, I bolt out of the car before it’s even stopped. I don’t want to linger over a good-bye. I want the person to be free. No regret about the Time it took to drive me from Point A to Point B.

I do a lot of walking. Which is good; I need to lose twenty pounds.

In graduate school, I rarely made appointments with my poetry writing teachers. I envisioned them seconds before my appointment, scanning my manuscript, thinking “Didn’t he get enough feedback in workshop?” Once I would come in, they’d eye the clock every couple minutes, waiting for my cue that it’s OK to stop, to take his Time back. It didn’t matter if our conversation was useful. He had given me an appropriate amount of Time; he had given me love.


Perhaps my issue with Time is why I never became a painter. With poetry, you begin with the title and continue reading until you reach the last word. You know when it’s over. Same thing with film. You begin with the first scene and then finish with the ending credits.

Looking at a painting messes up the issue of Time. When does the experience end? You never know when you should stop looking. How long are you supposed to look at it so that you achieve the full aesthetic experience?

I never know. Years ago my partner and I went to an art galley together to see a new exhibition. I looked at him looking at the painting.

He got annoyed.

I tried to explain: “When do we know that we no longer need to spend any more Time with this art?”

“When your boyfriend walks away,” he said. And then he walked away.


Straight people need to understand the issue of Time is different for gay poets. A lot different.

Gay poets have less time to create the art they need to show the world. Almost all of us took Time coming out. We started late figuring out who we are. Or at least part of who we are.

I know I always feel like I’m making up lost Time. It’s as if during our adolescence, sometimes even longer, Time had stopped. And even after. Think about what we as gay men have to deal with. Negotiating our disclosure with family and friends. Securing our own comfort with our sexuality. Dealing with the less attractive aspects of the gay community. Finding a man who can offer a loving relationship. Or a string of successful cheap tricks.

That’s an incredible lot. And that’s not to mention how we deal with our Art. How does our new identity affect our writing? Even if we choose not to write about explicit queer material, things change. Change only occurs after Time. And Time, much to our own anxiety, ignores our pleas, refuses our Desire.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Myth of a Gay Poetry Community (Part One)

I’ve only met three gay poets in my entire life.

They seemed like nice people.

One of them was in grad school. He was good-looking, black jet hair, and muscular. He was (and is) the editor of a significant poetry journal. Everyone liked him. Everyone should have liked him. As far as I could tell, there was nothing much wrong with him.

Once he said to me, “Give me some poems.”

I gave him my worst poems. I wanted to save my best. Send those to the good journals. Where I had little to no chance of getting published. He would publish anything I wrote, I figured. We were both queer.

He told me all poems had to be approved by committee. It might take some time.
But not to worry, he said. He had power. A lot of power. I wasn’t worried.
I didn’t get into the magazine. At least not at that moment. He apologized. We moved on. Or so I thought.

It was predictable. Some people in the program started to receive acceptances. And then they all did. They traveled for a New York reading. Someone told me that he had said during a meal, “It feels like Steve should be here.”


Where is here? Where should we all be as gay poets? And do we all necessarily want to be there? What are the dangers for us all occupying in the same space?

Once someone said to me, “We all like each other. That is, until a straight male poet comes along. And then we’re all on our knees. Begging.”

Another poet said to me recently, “We’re all living for the praise of Cavafy.”
I’ve got news. Cavafy is dead.

I love Cavafy for one reason: he relaxed in cafes ogling attractive men. His poems justify my obsessive dreams of getting laid by someone beautiful. Because I am a poet. Because you can seduce someone with your words. Or so I want to believe.

So is that where here is? Is it lurking within a ghost? Who might afford us some fame since he doesn’t need it any longer?


There are two poets I think of as gods. Frank Bidart and Thylias Moss. I’ve only met the former.

The experience was an embarrassment. My graduate school treated him with no respect. Whoever organized the reading series thought it was a good idea to ask Bidart to do something for the community. The idiot thought he should share his poetry at the local shelter for queer runaways. Which he did. Me, another student, and my favorite faculty member attended the reading. I gave a brilliant introduction. More time was spent on that than any I put into a dumb poem. Bidart said he loved it.

Of course, the gay and lesbian youth, all under the age of sixteen, could have cared less. About ten of them were there; they periodically sauntered out to smoke. After the reading, one young lesbian showed him her notebook full of rhyming poems.

We all went to dinner. Whenever I’m around a visiting writer, I am sure never to talk about poetry. I told Bidart my experiences on How I send fake photos of myself to lure men over to my apartment. Photos of a man with a tight, lean body. My hope: if they took the time to travel to my place, maybe they’d do me just for the hell of it. Bidart laughed.

He gave me his address to send him my introduction. I never did.

This is what I felt: pride that I entertained Frank Bidart. I made him laugh, maybe even twice. I found a gay poetry community. For two hours.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Q&A About Pansy Poetics and a Coming Attraction

Tomorrow’s post will be entitled “The Myth of the Gay Poetry Community (Part One).” It will be posted sometime before midnight on Monday. My partner is sick. Everything takes me twice as long as the normal person. I'm a shitty caretaker.

Now he is sleeping. I’m bored. So I’m going to answer five questions that were backchanneled to my SUNY Brockport email.

Question: Why are you so angry? Do you think it’s because you’re not that attractive?

Answer: Probably.

Question: Charles Jensen and C. Dale Young don’t rip apart other gay poets on their blog. Why do you think you do? Don't you think people will stop reading your blog? Or be afraid to offer comments on your posts out of fear they may be associated with you?

Answer: I’ll do anything to get attention. According to my site meter, I get three or four hits day. I'm satisfied. As in response to your last question, I think it's homophobic. Gay men are stronger than that, I hope. I like queers who fight with me. It's more fun.

Question: What do you have against Jericho Brown and Mark Doty?

Answer: I admit I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time on his poetry. At the same time, I’m obsessed with my ambivalence toward such a highly acclaimed poetry. I’m much more interested in exploring my internal conflicts with poetry which has already received unanimous praise. Also Jericho Brown has not accepted my friend request on Facebook.

Question: You’re not inclusive. You never talk about lesbians.

Answer: Inclusiveness is relative. I plan to maintain this blog for one complete year. I will write about the dead and the living, narrative/lyric and the experimental, and try to explode the notion that gay men are all white, middle-class, and plain spoken. Aesthetic diversity is as important as cultural diversity.

Question: Why do you claim to hate domestic narratives when that’s all what you seem to write?

Answer: One of the selfish reasons I started this blog was to figure out why I have stopped writing poems. Why I no longer to feel a desire to send my second book out into The World. Although it is more or less completed and placed as a finalist in a few contests.

After my first book of poems came out, I went through a serious depression, one akin and worse than what C. Dale Young encouraged to spot sometime back in his blog. It was an important post. Go look it up.

This fact is not to encourage pity. But to simply further explain why I started the blog. I don’t need anyone else to feel bad for me. Self-pity is my favorite pastime.

Needless to say, I needed to change my life: meditation, music therapy, positive mental thinking, creating routine, trying to make more friends.

For the Poetry Foundation of America, Rigoberto Gonzalez wrote a post highlighting the need for more reviewers. At the time, this bugged me. I didn’t like the idea of thinking I had, perhaps, a responsibility to do anything for anyone other than myself.

Only through psychic pain, I realized I needed to do just that. My reviewing, writing about the gay poetry community, began somewhat as a complete selfish need.

I also would like to transform these microessays into a book about queer poetics.

Friday, April 17, 2009

On Benjamin S. Grossberg's Poem "Blue -Black" from His New Collection Sweet Core Orchard

Courageous. Whenever someone praises a book for its courage, I expect to hate it.

With the rise of the annoyingly territorial label "Creative Non-Fiction" (we need to make sure we're not confused with those "uncreative" academic types), we rotely celebrate trauma. Writing trauma is seen as courageous. You're baring your soul for all to see. Critics often forget that one benefits in disclosing the private. That's what people want and what people give their money to read. Buying a book is confirmation of love. We overlook true courage: formal invention. Once again. For a sob story.

Who wants to hang out with someone who’s courageous? Except another noble dullard?

No one would describe Grossberg’s Blue-Black as a courageous poem. In fact, I think a lot of people would skip over it. Or their criticisms would be obvious. Too glib. Too understated. Well-crafted, but not all that substantial.

Despite all of its strength I cited in the previous post, “Prayer of the Back Handed” knows it’s a Serious Poem dealing with an Important Issue, and, while that doesn’t necessarily diminish its aesthetic virtues, I believe that it limits its ability of to see abuse in a new light. No surprise that Jericho Brown almost, but not quite, resorts to a pat even if effective transcendent move:

God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward into fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

Brown redeems those closing lines with the final two words: excuse me.

Which I read as deliberately ambiguous. We may see is as a meek pitiful plea. Or as a justifiably snide refusal to accept the abuse. With a similar inflection you might use when a careless waiter bumps into you. I prefer the latter.

Whenever you fear Brown may go in a predictable direction, he subverts it to an extent. However, Grossberg envisions a wholly new take on the abuse poem. Here it is in its entirety:


standard poodle. His dog
had a seizure before

I was in the apartment two minutes:
pointed its snout to the ceiling

and froze up, stiffened, emitted
no high, penetrating whine. Just

silence. Later, in bed,
he explained it had been

beaten severely as a pup. But
that it was still a good dog. Nice

to be able to share the intimate details
of his dog’s childhood

afterward, our pillow talk. He was
the first man I’ve ever been with who

faked an orgasm. Or maybe others
faked it better. Not to be

a cad, I asked. He kept his body
to the side and quietly explained that

“there wasn’t a lot.” “What’s with
your dog,” I said,

swinging my feet off the bed
to the pile of clothes on the floor, his

and mine. Poodle rescue. He’d hoped
to show the dog, even had

its hair cut right, undignified
for such a serious-looking animal.

You know, once you’ve had sex
with enough men, you learn to draw

reasonably accurate conclusions; this guy
was molested young. How

do I know that? I laced my boots
while he told me about the time he tried

to show the dog. It was too timid.
Wouldn’t even enter the room; all

its training went out the window. Partially
I know by the behavior

he coaxed me into: the scripted
entrances and exits, the cues, props

to appear in one act, to be fitfully
discharged in another. His script:

neither violent, nor elegant, but
his pleasure had no part in it. The dog

approached again
after I dressed, laid its black head

on my knee and looked up
with vulnerable eyes.

I cupped its head briefly in my lap
stroked its ears.

He was out of the room by then
so I spoke to the animal. “You’re

a good boy,” I said. “A good boy.”

Poets interested in abuse often create a tortured first-person protagonist offering a litany of violations. This well-meaning dull narrative intensifies the obvious: people are abused, and that’s a bad thing. No matter how well-crafted the poem, it doesn’t offer new ways of thinking about the relationship between the abused and his audience, author and reader.

Grossberg does something quite special.

His poem is a meditation about the limits of empathy.

Unlike Tayson and Brown, Grossberg rejects the desire to pathologize the victim. The first two authors illustrate the familiar: the immediate suffering of all involved, perhaps with some blurring of the dichotomy of victim and victimizer. Content-wise, they don’t do much else.

On the surface, Grossberg establishes what should be a simple story. Gay Man and his trick arrive at trick’s apartment. The trick’s dog suffers a seizure. That doesn’t keep them from going to bed together. An intimate moment is shared. When trick leaves room, Gay Man pets dog’s head. The end.

Here’s the rub: The intimate moment belongs to the narrator himself, no sweet engagement with the trick.

The protagonist presumes that his trick was abused, molested when a kid.

No actual confession of abuse in the poem surfaces. The presumed victim never says anything about his childhood. No doubt the poem suggest the possibility none occurred. The trick’s failure to orgasm precludes the narrator’s assumption of abuse.

The narrator needs to feel better about himself and his own insignificant comic tragedy: the trick didn’t come. As a result, the narrator all too conveniently improvises an abuse narrative.

Can we not see the narrator as a stand-in for narrative and lyric poets? We devise abuse stories to secure our own worthiness. In a self-delusional way, we write the abuse of others to secure our own artistic (or in the case of the narrator, physical) idea of success: a poem, or a satisfying fuck. Or maybe both.

When we write others’ suffering, we realize someone is worse off than ourselves. Which is solace. Which is proof of our own artistic and emotional maturity. And we want to show the world we are, indeed, compassionate.

Perhaps this is why so many critics routinely praise poems like Tayson’s and Brown’s. This is not in any way a particular criticism of their work. But instead a necessary identification, and maybe, an explanation as to why some equal, if not better, work finds itself ignored. Tayson and Brown’s abused characters, imagined or not, allow us to congratulate ourselves as concerned, moral readers.

Grossberg’s poem crashes this grossly symbiotic relationship. We refuse to identify with the obnoxious, insensitive narrator. Out of fear our voyeuristic motives may not be altruistic as well, we need to distance ourselves. Remember how the narrator eliminates any nuance in the trick’s behavior: “I know by the behavior/he coaxed me into: the scripted/entrances and exits, the cues/props to appear in one act, to be fitfully discharge/in another.”

Which is more scripted: the easy explanation of abuse, or the trick’s alleged pathological behavior?

Look at the mentions of the theatre, the script, performance. Grossberg makes his narrator use a form of the word “script” twice: "the scripted entrances. Not to mention that the narrator says, “His script:/neither violent not elegant, but/his pleasure had no part in it.” The narrator’s cynicism is as staged for himself as our need to write an abuse narrative, even if possibly and most likely unwarranted, benefiting only ourselves.

The ill dog inspires no sympathy from the narrator except for a perfunctory petting. Which makes him feel good about himself. Unconsciously, he uses it as a way of distancing himself from his trick, and yet purging an innate need to offer something to someone.

And more importantly who is a dog in the exchange of the Victim Narrative Poem? The audience too willing to eat up the stories? Or the ingratiating victim, forced to run around, hoping to be petted once they share their misery? Or that literal pooch who doesn’t have a care in the world?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On Jericho Brown's "Prayer of the Backhanded"

Exponentially more ambitious, Jericho Brown’s austere poem “Prayer of the Backhanded” reenergizes the trope of The Victimized Child. You can’t help but appreciate his investment in anaphora, alliteration, smart line breaks.

Not to mention the dark comedy. Which surfaces at several key moments. Take the poem’s opening. Lesser poets, like Tayson, seize on a particular graphic image to immediately attract us. Brown is wiser and more original. With inarguable novelty, he allows his child to articulate that he prefers, over other abuses, even over the belt, the striking of his father’s hand.

Pay attention to the cadence of the language:

Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closest extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand...

Who can deny the gallows humor in listening to the boy list how he prefers to be abused? With perverse, but understandable logic, the boy places the blame on himself. No one can deny the verisimilitude of such a psychology:

...forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target...

Yet another significant passage triumphs in its sheer musicality. Again, lesser poets would call too much attention to the alliteration, particularly with the steady stream of “b”’s. They would force the poem into unintentional self-parody. But Brown knows and does better:

...Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack

The line break after the “you” and before “what was a busted lip” creates a neat surprise. Because of this boy’s logic, we expect, to a degree, that he may “lift” the intangible, something abstract like love, sadness, etc. But the poem works against that expectation. All we sadly receive is the remembrance of what had been once a “busted lip.” This line break more than earns its pathos.

Unlike some of the other poems in Brown’s collection Please, here he uses the inherent austerity and stiffness of language to his complete advantage. The abused boy has no choice but to remain stoic towards his abuser.

Notice that in the following excerpt, Brown inserts a jarring word (“eliminated”) into the boy’s song. Brown knowingly disrupts our sonic pleasure; he knows that we need to not become so lulled that we lose sight of the tragic abuse. Here the boy describes the backhanded slap:

...holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek
Make full this dimpled cheek...

There is no doubt that this is a masterful poem.

However, as good as this poem is, and it is more than good, I do not think that it necessarily advances the poetic dialogue of abuse. Accurately, Brown conflates the victim’s inevitable pain and weird pleasure amidst tragedy. Unlike Tayson, he doesn’t resort to cheap images for our sympathy.

However, is he shedding any new light on abuse, victims and victimizers, or our world? A world which allows for such things to happen?

It could be argued that this may be asking too much from a single poem.

That may be true. At the same time, some poets can do that. Benjamin S. Grossberg, a seriously overlooked gay poet, does offer that sort of advancement. As a result, all queer male poets’ contributions to that dialogue need to be ranked in terms of their necessity.

Grossberg’s “Blue-Black” proves to be one of the most important poems in recent years that deals with this subject matter.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Analysis of a Representation of Violence in Richard Tayson's The World Underneath

What gay male hasn’t been the victim of sexual abuse or assault, domestic violence, or a gay-bashing?

Our private stories are clich├ęs that need to be articulated, but not necessarily translated into art. However, a good number of queer writers feel the need to bypass their imaginative capacities and rely on uninspired sensationalism.

I hate to mention that I've suffered from at least one of these unfortunate fates, but if I don't, the inevitable criticism will rise. A predictable psychiatric evaluation. You don't know what it's like to deal with this suffering.

My belief: if you’ve told the story in a support group, it’s better to leave it there. Poetry has better things to do than allow you to relive your trauma. As a friend of mine always says, there is a difference between the personal and the private, and lesser artists confuse the two.

Here I want to look at three poets: Richard Tayson, Jericho Brown, and Benjamin S. Grossberg. They’ve all published recent books. I do not know if any of these writings are autobiographical.

And I don’t care.

But I am interested in how their constructed their narrators to deal with such touchy issues. How they attempt to create significant art out of trauma. Imagined or real. Or how they don’t. These close readings will hopefully shed some light on this aspect of their poetic projects.

Are these poets in any way advancing the dialogue about abuse and trauma? Or are they simply trying to ingratiate themselves with stock images to win our pity?

Let’s first take a look at Richard Tayson’s poem “Denkar Avenue, Gardena, California, 1951.” Talk about stock images of sexual abuse. Here’s the opening:

Suddenly, my grandfather stopped pulling
his daughter’s panties down, he held her

by the waist, placed
a callused and huge

hand over her mouth, his own breath
arrested. Then he heard it

again, the metallic jostle
of keys, easy fit of one

in the lock, and before
he could get her panties up and fix

the pink bow in the center
of my mother’s hair...

I am not objecting to a graphic image in and of itself. But one needs to interrogate Tayson’s ostensible desire to give us such a stock image so quickly. Tayson (and by extension his unnamed narrator) doesn't waste a single line to give us the goods: a lurid depiction of abuse meant to win our attention. No doubt it does.

Countless contemporary poems deal with sexual abuse, perhaps the most popular of the lot Sharon Olds' Satan Says. Though that book quickly reruns its material after a stunning first poem. You can't help but feel Olds is as obsessed with her poems' graphic nature as the fictional abuser seems to be about his victim. Which means way too much and to detrimental ends.

Tayson should know better. Already questioning Tayson’s ethics, I continued.

The narrator tells us that they don’t know “what happened next..” That doesn’t stop them from offering us guesses. Which feels weird. Is there anything truly left to predict? Can't we fill in the unsurprising blanks ourselves? Tayson can't resist the pathos:

Did self-made flesh feel better

than skin of women he could buy
at every truck stop, L.A. to Frisco?

Did his sorry fingers itch when he lay
down drunk most nights, the bourbon

air cleansing him like a prayer...

With any dramatic monologue you expect to find out the occasion for the speech. I couldn’t find one here. Unless you assume a spontaneous desire to titillate. No surprise Tayson decides to transform the poem's "I" into a "we," dragging us along with them. Our treat? Exploring the falsely lyrical details of this textbook scenario:

But for now we are trapped in the moment
Martha finds Jay, the stiff sway

of birds of paradise, the rice paper skins
of bougainvillea rubbing the lattice

above the porch...

One can't help and ask if Tayson realizes his narrator's severe unlikability. Making a deliberately unsympathetic narrator could be an intriguing move. That is, if they have more provocative things to do than unkindly disclosing the intimate details of a mother’s psychic pain. I tried to redeem this passage by reading it as a parody of the Tortured Incest Poem: mother won’t breast feed or know how

to hold children in her arms and kiss
their hurt away, she’ll later say

she never felt what it’s like to come.
O, she’ll be a big eater...

Shockingly, this poem never interrogates the narrator’s ethics. Is the disclosure of the mother's private pain appropriate? Kind? An act in its own way as cruel as his grandfather's abuse? The poem refuses to travel to such bold places, settling instead on a descriptive continuation of the initial event. According to the narrator:

...a mother drops her keys,

bends to retrieve them,
yanks her only daughter

by the arm...

...holds her
up to the mirror so the girl sees

the fear in her face...

Why does Tayson not move on? Delve deeper? Why does his narrator extend the sordid details of the discovery? Is the narrator upset that he's been made aware of their mother's past and speaks of it as a revenge of sorts? Making his mother's private pain public in order to reveal his anger that he wasn't breast fed?

The poem fails to provide us with any deeper psychological insights. It doesn’t care for its characters. Its nasty indifference eclipses its lurid details of sexual abuse.

Friday, April 10, 2009

On Poetry, Self-Pity, and Sympathy: In Response to Dustin Brookshire's Comment on My Last Post

Sympathy versus pity.

Sympathy comes incidentally from the sharing of a poem. It comes naturally. A poet does not/cannot strategize to receive it. Sympathy is kindness. It has nothing to do with love.

One strives for pity. One begs for this unearned kind of love.

For poets self-pity is a public act. A strategic act made of words.

Sympathy simply happens in the mind of the reader. It often isn’t made of words. It’s a mere feeling.

Self-pity is not a bad thing. It is not necessarily a monotone whine. It can be a beautifully crafted song. As in the case of Schuyler’s poems.

Self-pity more often than not is honest. It often is an honest and open indulgence. Even if ultimately unattractive.

Schuyler’s words confess a desire for pity. Self-referentially, they admit their own manipulative nature. Have I made it clear why I would love a poem entitled “Self-Pity is a Kind of Lying, Too”? Here is the poem in its entirety:

snowing defective
vision days and
mas is coming, like
a plow. And in the
meat the snow. Strange.
It all reminds me
of an old lady I
once saw shivering
naked beside a black
polluted stream. You
felt terrible-but
the train didn’t
stop-so. And the
white which is
some other color or
its absence-it
spins on itself
and so do the Who
at Leeds I’m playing
to drown the carols
blatting from the
Presbyterian church
steeple which is
the same as fight-
ing fire with oil.
Naked people-old,
cold-one day we’ll
just have snow
to wear too.

What I find alluring about this poem (other than the use of the verb “blatting”) is the title “Self-Pity is a Kind of Lying Too.” Which is an admission of the artifice of his own self-pitying words. At the same, notice he says “a kind of lying.” The striving to express his own self-pity (and by extension the poem) is of "a kind." Not actual and complete phoniness.

I see that title as an admission that contorting the autobiographical narrative is OK. If it’s in service of something. Like a poem. A wonderful poem.

Here that something larger is also a need for comfort. In a world where religion can offer us nothing. Through a single line break, he reduces the whole Presbyterian church to a mere steeple. Even the religious holiday of Christmas is destroyed through enjambment: a loud, capitalized X followed by the lonely, useless “-mas.” That X cancels out religion.

The self-pity inherent in these declarations (how sad it is religion fails to be of use) leave him with nothing. Absolutely nothing. Except the benignly comic fact that we’re all doomed: “one day we’ll/ just have snow/to wear too.”

His self-pity transforms into a minimally consoling, collective misery. Who can resist that?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Self-Pity Can Be a Good Thing!: The Poems of James Schuyler (Part One)

I always choose to love people you wouldn’t think to love. You’d skip over them, consider them a wall flower. Someone you wouldn’t remember. As the relationship continues with this person and I fall deeper in love, I always compliment myself: I am so special because I recognized what’s special about this person. And no one else did.

Everyone has dreams about Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara. But not me. I love Schuyler. Therefore, I am special. I see what The World fails to see. As a result, I have him all to myself.

Then again, Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize. Someone told me that David Trinidad is obsessed with his work; I can see the influence. Which makes me think: Assholes. Schuyler will be remembered. Which is love. Which makes me feel I need to offer my affections to someone else.


Honorable Self-Pity. That’s what I would name as James Schuyler’s triumph. Or at least one of them.

Everyone still makes fun of confessional poets; they should. Can anyone withstand reading one more poem about domestic abuse? Alcoholism? Unsuccessful trips to massage parlors where you don’t even find out if the author’s cock got hard? (Shame on you, Mark Doty!)

Can you?

I can.

I love to read about bad things that happen to good people. Or bad people. It doesn’t matter. I’m easy.

This is what empathy is: you hear someone else’s tragedy and think, “Thank God, that’s not me.” Believing empathy is anything else means you’re a fool.

A lot of queer poets write poems that ask, if not, beg for your pity. Coming out stories, incest tales, jerky boyfriends, gay-bashings. My response: “Thank God, that’s not me.” Or if I see the author photo and he’s good looking, my reaction changes a little. This is what I think: maybe he’ll screw me now if I ask. Everyone needs a pity fuck.

Schuyler’s poems don’t induce pity. His poems’ subject is self-pity. How to capture (and release) that pity through formal choice, the transcribed movement of the mind. Here’s an excerpt from “A Few Days”:

…I don’t like my
doctors, except the dentist and my shrink. “Come on
in, Jim.” “What are you thinking about?” “Nothing.” Not
true: you’re always thinking something.
I’m thinking about this poem. How to make it good, really
good. I’m proud of my poems.
I wrote a poem about Ruth Kligman in which
every line began “Ruth”-
talk about maddening. Ruth claimed to like it. When I
told her it was a
stinker she said, “I didn’t think it was one of your best.”
I’ve got to find that
notebook and tear it up, when I’m dead some creep will
publish it in a thin
volume called Uncollected Verse. It will be a collector’s
item. I hate to think
of the contents of that volume.

Go ahead. Read that excerpt again. Notice the self-pity: the reference to his general frustration with his doctors, his concern with how he’ll be memorialized, Ruth’s ultimate admission. Notice the vanity: his bold admission that he likes his verse, his premature fear that his life’s work will be memorialized. In the wrong way.

Notice how the poem conflates vanity and self-pity.

Which makes sense. To complain about one’s own life in public space, you must possess a large enough ego to believe The World cares. Schuyler wants us to marvel at his own self-aggrandizement.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

On Marxism and Reginald Shepherd's Orpheus in the Bronx

Because Reginald Shepherd’s Orpheus in the Bronx helped inspire this blog, I would like to occasionally comment on his work. As in this post, it won't necessarily be affirmative. This is the way Shepherd would have wanted it. True, my only encounters with the man was through his blog; I never once met him. But still. From his written words and my own presumptuous nature, I think that’s how his spirit would want it. Anyone who disagrees hasn’t read Shepherd closely enough. Or at all.

Strangely, one of his most popular essays “The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility” creates the most problems for me. For this essay, I’d like to focus on one in particular: his claim that poetry that “is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not capitalized by or valued by capital.” In the same essay he uses Octavio Paz as a mouth piece for this claim, binding them both together:

..poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to
commercial exchange....As poetry is not a thing that can enter
into the exchange of mercantile good, it is not really of value.

Creative writers often articulate this nonsense argument, and usually the poets who do so are the same ones benefiting from the exchange. They have a nice job. Which equals health insurance. They can make extra money working at low-residences, important conferences. Big readings are also possible--even more money. Grants and fellowships (and who knows what else?) are in their reach.

It’s weird that Shepherd isn’t more cognizant of that fact. He did grown up in the Bronx ghetto. He did rake in some jobs, big monetary awards.

Having grown up within modest means, I can attest to the ways in which college and my creative writing yields economical-social benefits.

Often middle-class people feel attacked when you mention their economic status. As if by bringing it up, you're out to crucify them. This isn't the case. Or at least not the case with me. Their guilt is their guilt.

This is not to say I believe necessarily that Shepherd became middle-class. I didn't have access to bank account. Even if I did, his personal life story does not affect my argument. For this particular interrogation, what matters are the words on the page.

I simply feel that Shepherd fails to bring class to the forefront of his argument. As a critic, I need to complicate what I see to be lacking.

Through student loans, I went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where I majored in something called Rhetoric, a major easily translated to Creative Writing. At the time, it wasn’t cool to give a degree that name. It didn’t have the prestige. Which now it does. Everyone is doing it. Everyone is complaining about what they won’t receive. Because everyone knows there is stuff out there. But only the privileged receive it.

We need to stop the poets who claim that their work never rakes in the money. Maybe one poem in and of itself doesn't. But poem after poem after poem legitimizes you. It offers you a possible job. Poem after poem after poem leads to a book. Proof you're worth an even better job. If you have that Ph.D., you have more evidence of your worthiness. A professional degree and publications leads to middle-class wealth. At least that. A way of supporting your family in these cruel economic times. A way of not having to march into work ever day. A way of spending more time with your husband and kids.

To make a long story short, I went to two MFA programs as well as another one offering a Ph.D. Now I have a job, a decent sense of security, and, yes, health insurance.

My poems brought me all that. This isn’t to say in any way they were good poems. But I could trade them in for money as long as I presented myself in an attractive way to predominantly , if not completely, other white, middle-class people.

Poetry can make something happen. It can fund a life.

Friday, April 3, 2009

On (Dis)honorable Sadness: The Poems of James Allen Hall

In gay poetry which often relies on self-pity and domestic narrative, queer authors provide themselves with a formidable challenge: How does a homosexual energize the poem of the gay-child-overbearing-mother in way that is new? No doubt some heterosexuals still believe in the tyrannical mother as a way of explaining male homosexuality, and maybe even some gay men, like myself who has suffered from this curious infliction. It’s a tricky feat to refuse to abandon the story (or the pity) and at the same time invent a new way of telling it. James Allen Hall’s debut book Now You’re the Enemy succeeds a lot of the time, and when it does succeed, it’s an enviable, serious triumph. At the same time, he includes a few poems that reveal the unfortunate outcome when a poet doesn’t strive for something more than a tale of pity and woe.

Happily, there’s many wonderful poems to read. A number of note-worthy “portraits” litter the book, particularly those featuring a mother figure. What is instructive about these poems is that Hall capitalizes on his poetic imagination rather than banal description to make us feel bad for the mother and son. Most gay writers invested in similar content use journalistic prose to describe the aggressively banal story.

Comic hyperbole is Hall’s figurative device of choice. It is a brilliant decision.

Let’s look at “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas.” In the title alone, Hall inflates the image of his mother to such an ungodly extent. Instead of using journalist understatement, he employs comic hyperbole, a truly creative choice:

After my mother won independence in 1836,
she dysfunctioned as her own nation, passed laws,
erected monuments to men who would never again
be slaves to order and pain.

And then Hall undercuts with deadpan: "Remember the Alamo? That was my mother.”

Who cannot admire the way Hall reemploys the word “dysfunctional” to the personification of a nation rather than simply linking the term simply to that of the familial?

The comic hyperbole never resorts to the pitfalls of easy one-liners; the conceit is carried out in confident, surprising ways:

…My mother had too many selves and the desire
to enslave them all. Pregnant, she was forced
to become the twenty-eighth child of the American family.
Lone star no longer.


…My mother renamed herself
The Republic of Texas, unfurled her flag all the way

into the 1980s, when the Republic kidnapped her neighbors,
Joe and Margaret Rowe, to highlight abuses she’d suffered.
My mother was an American terrorist.
Don’t mess with Texas.

Hall’s book sports a number of portraits: “Portrait of My Mother as Rosemary Woodhouse,” “Portrait of My Mother as Self-Inflicting Philomena,” “Portrait of My Mother as Lillian Virginia Mountweazel”, “Portrait of My Lover Singing in Traffic,” (my personal favorite), among others. His unapologetic, useful inflation of the mundane never disappoints.

This is what, though, surprised me about the book. I don’t understand why Hall choose to transform, at points, the son/mother in unattractively maudlin ways. It’s like he lost sight of what made the other portraits remarkable. Here’s the opening from the blandly titled “The End of Myth”:

I ask Dustin to recall his favorite memory
of our mother. He’s distracted from the past,…

The juxtaposition of the title and the opening two lines waste our time. I want to say, "Let’s get to something tangible." In his own way, Hall tries. It just isn’t that much:

playing a Nintendo game where what you are
is descended from a long line of monsters. The mother
is an incongruous order of unforgivable monster.

Hall never make the narrator into anything other than a whiner:

I survived my mother’s suicide attempts. I lived
for years in the damage. I ate well. I quit smoking.
I loved a quiet man badly.

Who doesn’t? I thought surviving the wake of your mother’s tragedy was a rite-of-passage. In the same way as getting crabs or hanging out in a psychiatric emergency room.

Hall’s points are so high, we can’t help be worried about these moves. For his next book of poetry or non-fiction, we don’t want his writing to devolve into this. He’s already published a number of intriguing excerpts of what appears to be a memoir-in-progress so that shouldn't be the case.

Another example of this dishonorable sadness appears in the closure of “My Mother’s Love.” (Weird that the inventiveness of his titles often indicates the inventiveness of the poem.) Here is what could be titled “Portrait of Mother as Lonely Woman with Cats”:

…She digs, she saves thirty-two cats that day,
then take them home, bathes them, speaks to them calmly
even as they claw up and down her arms. I’m her
witness, I’m buried in this story…
where love is
only love if it makes you bleed.

Because gay men often prove the stereotype of being hypersensitive, I fear queer readers of this review will read the second-half as a holistic indictment of the book. No doubt this is a misreading of my words. Which is often what happens if you’re a gay man who only gushes over another homosexual’s poems. Let it be said: Hall’s strongest poems are some of strongest I’ve read recently.

I’m using the weaker poems as way of offering polemic to gay male writers and readers. Through formal and figurative means, we need to redeem the most banal tropes: the coming-out narrative, the first visit to gay bar, the first sighting of a drag queen, the first I-might-have-AIDS-but-thank-God-I-Really-Don’t, among others. Otherwise we’ll be simply providing minimal titillation to straight people who recently met their first gay person and feel compelled to write a poem about it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On My Disdain for Gay Men (Part One)

During my undergraduate years, I went out of my way to taunt any teacher who was openly gay. Defiantly queer at the time, I feared that having another gay man in the same space as me, I wouldn’t be special anymore. I had to hurt them.

When I lived in the dorms, I felt I had to determine how I was going to be popular among straights. That was easy. Once a meek gay man walked into the cafeteria. I was with my friends. Pointing at the queer, I said, “I know he’s gay. But this is ridiculous. He walks like he has a gerbil shoved up his ass.” Everyone laughed. I was a hit. That was how I behaved for a long time. It's still the same way I act. For example: as all gay men do, whenever I first receive a book of poems by a new gay author, I rush to look at the author photo. If he's attractive, I'll start reading, imagining if he'd love me. Or do me. If not, I'll toss it aside and read People, looking for the shirtless males.

There’s a certain amount of safety in recognizing people like yourself, and a certain amount of fear they might upstage you. Any gay man who says otherwise is a liar.

I’ve always wanted to be a critic so that I could transform my misdirected anger into something useful, maybe even artistic. Also: if your bile is right in front of you, it might cause useful shame. In other words: you might keep some of it to yourself. Having a friend is a good thing.

I’ve never had many gay friends. I don’t know why. A whole lot of possibilities haunt me on a daily basis. Am I not cool enough? Attractive enough? Sweet enough? Comfortable enough with my own body or mind? Or maybe it’s them? They really aren't as judgmental as everyone thinks they are.

In some ways, I've failed as a homosexual. I'm now a college teacher; I came out when I was in high school. I still feel as new to the scene as I did then. Whenever I read a book by a queer male, my first response is always the same: "Shit. This guy really is a fag." When a student tells me he's gay, I freak. "Go back in the closet. Homosexuality isn't all what it's cracked up to be," I want to say.

Recently one poet wrote me after I said something critical of a book. It turns out the author was a friend of his, so was the other person whose project I questioned. Even though I think was right in my assessments, I was jealous. Unlike him, I didn't have anyone to defend.

At the same time maybe that's why I am better critic of queer poetry--I am shamefully objective. Or maybe not shamefully. Maybe that's a false qualification. Perhaps a victim narrative just comes easier to me. It's what we're used to. That's why so much of our poetry reads like that.

Recently after I wrote a lukewarm, yet positive, review of a book, a prominent queer poet emailed me, saying that he would never have done such a thing. You don’t take down one of your own. He had a point. Homosexuals have enough going against them.

Maybe he is completely right.

I justified the review (and still do) in that it was a mixed. I would never write about a book that yielded unequivocal dislike. Most often I write about books that create, what I like to term, a tortured ambivalence. This is what initially drew me to this particular book: I read it twice. And I still didn’t know how I felt about it. For me, writing a review is a lot like writing a poem. In fact a review is a poem. I don’t know what I think until I force the words out. I've tried writing an essay about another book by a new, extremely popular queer poet. I feel there's something missing in it. Even wrong. But I can't quite put my finger on it. That's why I've already written more than one draft, trying to figure out what I think. The review is all about me. I can't deny it.

But sometimes there are more important things than using poems as a vehicle to figure out yourself, isn’t there? Or when we read, is that all we really end up doing anyway? Should we think of a book of poems as a feat in and of itself, and celebrate it without any reservation? Or do we need to bash it, take a bat and swing, maybe even more than once, and see if it holds up or falls apart against the pressure?