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.

1 comment:

  1. Another provactive post...and Steve, I'll say it: you've got some big balls. I admire that about you.