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.


  1. It seems to fully engage a poetic, you'll have to be critical sometimes. Otherwise, it's just condescending. A gay poetry community is about as stable as any other community or identity--meaning not very. You still should send Bidart that intro.

  2. Why do you need a queer community, at all?

    I must sound ignorant asking that question, too, not knowing a thing about being a gay man, but it seems to me that poetry is about standing outside the box. All poets are brave if the material they handle is sensitive, sexuality notwithstanding. It sounds like you're asking for a lot: a support group of people you want to fancy are in at least two ways are just like you... poets and gay men.

    What is this mythological gay poetry community supposed to do? Get people published? Have cocktail parties and edit together? You'd start turning out "the stereotypical gay poem" that way! Remember the Iowa writers' workshop, that's started to teach people the "proper" way to write? When people sit all day in writing workshops, they turn into little cardboard cut outs of one another. When people get published just because their friends' have connections, is it a real achievement and is their work any good, at all?

    Community... People sleeping with other people and then bashing their work. It happens now in the humble, "straight writers community." Juicy, painful love affairs that make the world seem smaller and more insular. Lying, backstabbing, resentment when one of your friends gets to be "the gay poet" in that magazine you wasted time applying to. Do you really want to be compared to people you would call your friends just on the basis of your sexuality?

    Do you really want to become just one of the crowd in order to feel a little more security about your work? It will be shaky security, you know, when one of those people who adores it turns around and tells everybody publicly that he thinks your work is terrible, transparent, self-centered, and all of those insults that come out of the mouths of close friends.

    I'm sorry you lack the community you're looking for. If it matters, most anyone with any brains at all does. Why don't you expand your parameters from gay poetry community, to like, academic, intellectual, or all those terms people with brains like to assign their dress codes?

  3. Just because community necessarily produces SOME bad writing and SOME pettiness and SOME betrayal does not mean that community is not also essential for producing great writing and aesthetic risk-taking and deep personal loyalty. The best communities support a writer in standing apart from the crowd. An honest and unsparing exploration of identity's relationship to community is overdue and refreshing, if hopelessly politically incorrect.

  4. I don't see how community was essential Thoreau, for instance. I don't believe in community and feel-good nonsense. What I believe in is personal excellence, which is generally measured at the hands of your peers... but which should by no means be a product of them.

  5. Are you serious? Thoreau only had significant and intimate contact with the likes of Emerson, Fuller, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Hawthorne--but forget about their feel-good nonsense. The myth of the tortured genius who writes in isolation is just that: a myth. The more fundamental question: how does the artist establish a healthy community for herself? The first step in that is an honest appraisal of the power dynamics inherent in such communities, which is exactly what Steve's post seems to be confronting.

  6. If you want a real study of community versus individuality and the problems inherent within, read A D Moody's book on Pound. Community was necessary to provide a communion of ideas. But that same community did not support radical ideas and excellence. I don't see that this post says much about power's about communion, sort-of.

  7. Oh geez, Lindsey, misinterpret all you like. I wasn't saying that Thoreau didn't have people, we've all got people. Does that mean that they get to edit our work a hundred times before it goes to press because we value their opinions that much?

    I was saying that you don't get Walden because you sit around in a workshop. You get stuff like that because you go and isolate yourself for a while... tortured genius, or no. Tortured geniuses, in my experience, rarely get anywhere anyway, not for lack of community, mind you, but because they're usually completely cracked.

    But I do have a point to make about Thoreau! Note how he did not turn out Little Women and The Scarlett Letter! Also note how much closer his work is in narrative tone and point to Emerson's than to the rest of them - Emerson being the person that he had the most constant contact with in your list there. I'm just saying...

    And if you mean that Dr. Fellner is appraising the power dynamics of the gay poetry community, I think he's appraised that there pretty much are none, because there is no community... a fact which he bemoans and which I am trying to say should be looked at positively, for its advantages.

  8. I've never been dying for the approval or love of the straight male poet. For me, it has always been about wanting some love from some ass kicking, rockstar female poets.

  9. Dustin,

    When we meet in person, I'll buy the first round.

  10. Steve-- Sounds like a plan. (And, I never forget when someone promises to buy me a drink!) Are you scheduled to visit Atlanta at point in '09?

  11. Hey Steve!

    Just discovered your blog! I'm crawling out from under my rock--glad to see you haven't changed at all! I'm enjoying all the blather I can wade through. much tlc, Peter