Monday, August 31, 2009

Can Straight Female Poets and Gay Male Poets Just be Friends? (An Essay-in-Anecdotes: Part One)

[Writer's Note: For ethical reasons, I've changed details regarding the friend described, and made her, more or less, a composite character.]

During my Syracuse graduate school years, a little over a decade ago, a straight female poet and I spent our nights drinking cheap wine, and eating at least three Weight Watchers desserts a piece in one sitting. That didn't include the actual meals. We ate and drank, drank and ate, the whole time resenting all the straight men who found a home for their books before us. It was fun despising everyone else. If you're attentive enough, everyone can become quite contemptible. Trust me.

We possessed a great deal of respect and love for one another. At the same time, our relationship didn't replicate the false romanticization of gay male-straight female relationships. There was an honesty to our relationship. We were not only a little repulsed by our privileged counterparts; we also found the other, not all the time, but on occasion, very rare occasion, of course, a sensible fraud.


As we watched all our MFA friends find publication, we undermined their work with one another, making up convenient justifications as to why their books found homes quicker than us.

“But you are on the verge,” I said to her.

“No,” she said, “You’re on the verge.”

"No," I said, "You're on the verge."

"Really?" she said.

"Of course."

"I feel that way about myself, too," she said, "It's tough for a woman to feel that way. Not that you wouldn't know. You're ultimately a man."

She smiled and then I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I prayed that she didn't win a poetry book contest for at least another six months. I needed to beat her. After all, I felt I was on the verge too. I knew it.


I can still remember the day my friend received her long-awaited news. Suffering from hypochondria, I was at the ER room for my biannual MRI tests. Tests done for really no reason. After the results came back, always good, and left the hospital, I always feel elated. Nothing’s going to kill me for the next few weeks. If you need a quick boost, and have good insurance, get an MRI. It's sort of fun. All one needs to know in this world is that their body remain safe a little while longer.

Or at least that’s what I thought. My best friend left an unclear message, telling me to call her back as soon as possible. I was excited; I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t suffering from a fatal disease. I needed to hear a congratulations.

“You won’t believe it!” she said.

“You won’t believe it,” I said even louder. Gay men fall into one of two categories: sentimentalists or histrionics. I'm hysterical. It makes me proud.

“You first,” she said.

“I’m not dying.”

“That’s great,” she said. I could tell she was jealous. What better news is that?

“Yours?” I said.

“I got a call today from a contest judge about my book. I won!”

“I’m so happy,” I said, “It couldn’t happen to someone more deserving.”

Of course, there was someone else who was more deserving. But I didn't say who. I felt that it went without saying.


It did me feel good that I was the first person she told. I loved her. I was touched when she expressed how excited she was to tell me, impatient about my somatic illness. One of the most important aspects of any friendship: to allow the other to indulge in their own stories. I loved that she began to obsessively repeat certain particulars: her surprise that the judge had such a distinctive voice, what poems they wanted removed, etc. I listened to her for at least an hour. Which was no time at all. How much time had we spent indulging our jealous towards people who were better and worse than us?

You can call anyone with bad news. People love to feel better about themselves. Good news though is a burden: happiness, even when you genuinely feel it for someone else, is hard to genuinely convey.


Routinely, when a friend found publication, I was selfish. I wanted to hear every detail. Every single detail. It was fascinating for me to find out how everything with publication works. I wanted to hear as much about my straight female friends' successes as I did about their romantic relationships. One always was excelling; the other doomed. Something always need some pity. Which I offered. It made everyone feel better.


“You know the judge was gay?” she said.

“No,” I said.

“You have to be sure to look and see what contests he’s judging. He is gay,” she said, "I’m sure he’d like your poems, especially the sexual ones. And how could he not? You're gay. He's gay. You have a step a head of someone, like say, me."

“You think?” I said, smiling. “Gay men often feel pressured to avoid picking other gay men. They don’t want to look prejudiced."

"Yeah," she said.

"In fact, I bet he probably would pick another straight female’s book. They’re no threat to him," I said.

She listened very carefully. Which was what I wanted. And then I added: "A straight woman’s vulnerability is always touching to a gay man. Their problems are always so obvious. That’s why we're there in the first place: to help her with the obvious.”

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the Debate of the Need for "Accessibility" in Poetry (Part One)



Accessible poetry.


It sounds dangerously clinical, no?


The word accessibility has the same ring as the word homosexual.


The word homosexual was (is) considered pejorative. In the 19th Century, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and other doctors adopted the word homosexual and the definition of it (essentially a pederast) as a diagnosis for mental pathology. It was used in "clinical" practice.


A definition of poetry may be making the inaccessible accessible, wrote a poet I cannot remember or find with definiteness.


Mark Halliday define accessibility as an ability to communicate with the common man or woman. That is a good thing, according to him. We don't need "special" readings of poems. A poem is a poem. Read the poem to understand the way it relates to your own life.


How many times did you have to “read” a patient (how many sessions) before you could diagnose them as a homosexual? Was it all difficult?


With the proposal of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, some people claim that homosexuals want "special" recognition.


Halliday hates theory. It's dangerous. (A lot of big words.) They have no love of language. Theory is for people who don't have the talent to be creative writers. They're not equal.


Proposition 8 revealed that gay men are not equal. They cannot marry as their heterosexual counterparts can.


Scholar Robert Philen wrote: “... a work’s level of popularity or obscurity can change over time without its level of difficulty particularly.... Instead, the relationship between accessibility/difficulty and popularity/obscurity is more that most popular works tend to be relatively accessible and most difficult works tend to be more obscure...."


Can one be an accessible homosexual?


And if so, who would it be?


Richard Simmons? Rock Hudson? Harvey Fierstein?


Are you more of an accessible homosexual if you’re in the closet? So people can assume you’re still like them? Or are you more accessible if you’re way out there, relishing your own flamboyance? Like Jack from Will & Grace? And everyone is enjoying you, they feel "in" on the joke? Maybe even on what they see as the joke of homosexuality?


Is there more of a need for a homosexual poet to be accessible than a straight poet?


Can you equate accessible gay poetry with narrative/lyric and inaccessible as everything else?


Can a gay poet afford not to think as much in binaries as their straight male counterparts?

Heterosexual/Homosexual? Right to Marry/Civil Unions, Civil Unions/Nothing, High Probability of Teen Suicide/Much Less Probable? Narrative & Lyric/Experimental? Safe/Unsafe?


If (autobiographical) narrative is more accessible does that make it more urgent and, in a way, more necessary than the inaccessible?


Aren’t gay poets going to internalize a need for accessibility when they are made to feel so out of the mainstream, so inaccessible to a pretty good number of people?


And isn’t perhaps an unconscious internalization of accessibility going occur? Creating an imbalance of what kind of poetry receives what awards, inclusion into anthologies, etc.?


Based on my experience of teaching poetry for over a decade to college students, I think I can safely identify some gay poets who would be labeled as accessible. Here’s a few: James Allen Hall, Rane Arroyo, Randall Mann, Benjamin Grossberg, etc.

Here are inaccessible ones: Jack Spice, Brian Teare (“Sight Map”), Tom Savage, etc.

Toss-Ups: Jason Schneiderman, Miguel Murphy, etc.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Critical Review of the 2008 Winner of the Yale Younger Poet's Prize, Arda Collins' "It is Daylight"

The window was a little smudged.

I was too lazy to clean it.

I wondered if Billy Collins would be happy,

looking out Arda Collins’s window. I wonder a lot of dumb things.

I wonder if people think Arda Collins is Billy Collins’ daughter.

I know they’re not even if their poems don’t mind sitting next to each other.

Arda and Billy look out a lot of windows and never raise their voices.

I have the best memories when I stare at birdcages.

Once a next door neighbor I knew had a dog.

Wherever I lived, someone happened to have a dog.

One dog I knew ate avocados with its mouth open.

I liked animals who have tics.

I think Arda’s poems are a cross between Billy Collins and Louise Gluck.

They all share some of the same tics.

Gluck’s main influence is the DSM IV sourcebook.

I think she paraphrases whole passages onto a notepad.

They later become the introductions for the Yale Younger Poets’ books.

I think I forgot to name one of Arda’s influences.

I think when I opened my window, it flew out.

No one's dog caught it.

I think an influence is an inherited tic.

I think an influence is like an avocado. It’s all there

in front of your eyes. You better like the color green.

Is it bad that I may be claiming Arda’s poems are a hybrid

of Billy Collins , Gluck, and an avocado?

I still believe I left an influence out.

As a critic, I try not to put you in a bird cage.

I want to help the artist fly away and not aim and fire,

or if I do, not too readily

or without reason. An avocado really is a pretty green.

I want Arda to look out more windows, see things other than dumb dogs

and avocados. I want Arda to know she doesn't need to act

as if she Billy Collins' hip, morbid, even more deadpan daughter.

She needs to stop looking out his window,

disappointed and not disappointed he looms behind her.

It doesn’t matter.

Sometimes you need to smash a window as much as a birdcage.

I like to think Arda may believe things should change even if you may be happy

knowing you found the perfect predictable smudge that everyone will love.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Denise Duhamel and Dustin Brookshire's Corrective to Steven Schroeder's Somewhat Tongue-In-Cheek, Somewhat Cynical Assessment of PoBiz

Po-Biz is what keeps me writing. Before I read any of the poems in a literary magazine (and I subscribe to at least a dozen), I turn to the contributors’ notes and see who won a big prize. Always I read their work first. I like being told who’s important, who doesn’t? Isn’t that one of the wonders of AWP: you gawk at the people who matter. And for those of us who don't, there’s fun in being invisible.

About a century ago, my partner and I were Breadloaf waiters. In all seriousness, it was one of the best community experiences I’ve ever had. There were only two things that were disappointing: people were not snobby (I’m a masochist), and there weren’t enough sluts.

I tried to make a bargain with my fellowship-facilitator. In exchange for my individual conference, I wanted a lapdance for my partner.

He didn't tell me how much of a genius I was or give my partner a cheap thrill. He screwed us over.

(I’ve been tacky enough on this blog; for once, at least for the time being, I’ll let his name go.)

(But if you buy one of Reb Livingston’s books from No Tell Motel press, and send me a proof of purchase, I’ll give you the name and tell you a second Breadloaf much wanted secret: the name of who I almost got to sleep with.)

Anyway, almost everybody at Breadloaf was nice and I liked most everybody. Which sort of sucks. A critic always secretly wants something negative to say.


Sometimes Dustin Brookshire’s poems can be cloying and way too earnest. When I read one, I occasionally want to say, “Don’t be so transparently vulnerable. Or if you choose to be that way, never get a boyfriend. They’ll steal all your money and you’ll be left with nothing.”

But I want to focus on a poem of his that’s just the opposite. It's the kind of attitude and topic I want his poetry to be headed for.

Aggressively, the poem deals with The World of Po-Biz. Instead of whining about its nepotism and ruthlessness, he creates a first-person narrator who unashamedly revels in its pleasures. And there's no moral to the story! The poem is called “Drunk Dialing with Denise Duhamel.”

Full Disclosure: Denise Duhamel choose my Blind Date with Cavafy as the winner of the Marsh Hawk Poetry Book Contest. I am still so happy she choose my book. It is one of, if not the, highlight in my publishing career.

Loving Denise as much as I do (see—we’re on a first name basis), I can say that I don’t know if anyone is more of a contemporary iconic figure in the poetry world than her. She is everywhere: poems, contest judge, websites, etc. And people don’t get sick of her (unlike, say, Virgil Suarez-which they should. Virgil, if you're out there, writing a second draft is not a bad thing.)

In all sincerity, I love Denise. But she reminds me of my grandmother, there's no point in giving her a gift. No matter how expensive. She's already got the fucking thing.

It’s weird when I meet other poets, the same conversation always takes place:

(at a bar after a reading filled with six other poets)

Me: I’m shy. Would you mind if I stood next to you? I want to look virile and accessible. Just like my poetry.

Other Poet: You write poetry?

Me: (hoping to look virile and accessible) I have a book. Won a contest.

Other Poet: Who judged?

Me: Denise Duhamel.

Other Poet: Weird. I won a contest.

Me: Who judged?

Other Poet: Denise Duhamel. (then gestures to two other poets) They won contests, too. Both judged by Denise Duhamel.

Me: Interesting. (points to a man with nice pecs). How about him?

Other Poet: He won a contest. Denise wasn't the judge.

Me: Who was it?

Other Poet: Somebody else.

Me: So who was it?

Other Poet: That's all there is. Denise Duhamel and somebody else.

Denise Duhamel is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world. There’s no escaping her. Even in your dreams. As Brookshire’s bold poem-as-dream begins:

Over dinner, Paul says, I have to ask you something,
I sigh, expect, Are you still attracted to me?
Instead, Why were you saying, ‘Denise stop.
You’re killing me,’ in your sleep last night?

It came quickly like the lyrics of a song.

Denise had a reading at Outwrite Books.
She was in rare form, a real Queen Colleen.

Later in the poem, ‘one of her fans bought us a round of shots.” All the gay men in the club, obviously, fetishize Denise; it doesn’t surprise me that the narrator doesn’t name the fan; they’re all the same: hungry for this wonderful, talented, unpretentious woman’s attention.

Tellingly, other than his lover Paul (who disappears after the first stanza), the only names mentioned are other poets: David Trinidad (why doesn’t he win more awards than say someone as pedantic as Carl Phillips?), Maxine Kumin (she’s like Richard Wilbur—no matter how much you try to kill their reputations, they always come back to life; and BTW is she dead yet?), and Thomas Lux (when was the last time he had a book out, or one that didn’t repeat the same line break tricks that he used up in his millennium-ago debut).

What makes this narrator special is that he is unapologetic about his connection to these big names (even if vicariously) and, best of all, he's having lots of fun, an underrated commodity:

Before I realized the song had changed,
I looked over to see one hand snapping,
One hand on her cell, and
Kumin, Kumin, Kumin, Kumin, Maxine Kumin.
You come and go. You come and go.

The ending is too perfect, a satire of everyone’s desire to be “in” and at the same time a sincere glorification of the vastly underrated pleasures of that oh-so! scary PoBiz:

I wanted to grab the phone,
but my laughter wouldn’t stop.
I asked the taxi driver to pull over.
I felt margarita starting to rise.
I begged, Denise stop! You’re killing me.
But she was already singing,
You’ve got Thomas Lux eyes.

Only in this PoBiz world, would it be a compliment to dream that Denise says that you have Thom Lux eyes. Or that your worst nightmare comes true: it's Judgment Day and William Logan is making the call.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Some Random Thought about Blogging

Your posts will always be read more than your poems.


Your post needs to be as current as humanly possible. Show proof of that newness: a stupid idea, maybe two, or even the entire post. Leave in typos. Your blog should never be news that stays news. That should be left for the poems.


Time is different when you keep a blog. You either feel like you’re writing each post seconds a part or that your next post took so long, you should stop. Mostly, though, you experience both feelings at the same time. This tension is what keeps a blog going.


A poet should never post his own poems on his blog. He doesn’t need to remind everyone that he is a poet. That’s why people are reading his blog.


Writing nice things about poems yields less hits. Writing bad things about poems yields less hits. Writing bad things about poets yields the most hits.


It is unethical to post on your blog writing you published in another magazine. There never needs to be two of the same things in this world.


The posts on your blog are confirmation of your own mortality. Once they stop, there won’t be a eulogy. People will move onto another blog.


Stop being depressed about the number of reviews your book received. Keep a blog. You’ll always receive critical comments. Someone will always be offended.


If you’re reading someone else’s blog, don’t conceal where you’re reading it from. Even if you’re visiting the blog more than once a day. The writer feels good when someone may be a fan. Or a detractor. All he really wants, like any other writer, is for someone to read his words.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Bringing Back the Dead"

Writer's Note: For several reasons I'm posting this essay which originally appeared in turnrow. Classes are beginning which makes me weirdly feel like a student as much as a teacher. The events in this essay occurred during my years in grad school. It reminds me to have empathy for my students as much as possible; when you're juggling a whole bunch of things, your integrity can get lost. Or at least that's my justification for what I did. Plus what I was going to post today turned out to be stupid, based on a misreading of a poem. I do have more than one friend who would attest to the truth of this essay, including my partner of 11 years. And the ultimate truth is that I promise myself I'd write 3 posts a week, and with preparation for classes, I need something to fulfill my promise to myself.

Here's the essay named "Bringing Back the Dead":

Bringing Back the Dead

I decided to steal the woman’s money. That was the plan. It was a smart plan. The woman Jane Simmons started a travel fellowship in her son’s name after he killed himself. He liked to travel, and this was the best way she knew to honor him. I would create a phony proposal that I knew would appeal to her, and take the money and run.

My parents were poor, and I never traveled. I didn’t like flying or being trapped in a car for an extended period time. But I did want the money, and to apply for the travel fellowship, all you needed was a smart proposal and two letters of recommendation. No one would ever find out if you didn’t go on the trip. Or so I thought.

Not only did it seem to be a smart plan, but it was an easy one.

The travel fellowship was worth $5,000. I felt no guilt about taking the money. She was begging someone to take it. Gratitude was all the rich woman wanted, and I could give her some of that. Maybe I’d even shed a few tears for her dead son. For a price.

If you won the money, you had to leave the country for six weeks and spend the $5,000 on travel expenses. Everyone in the university thought Jane was eccentric. She loved the oddest proposals, had no tolerance for stiff academics.

My proposal was to go to England for archival research. I wanted to write about Joice Heth, who was P.T. Barnum’s first act. She claimed to be the 165-year-old mammy of General George Washington. Heth and Barnum toured England together. I pretended to want to visit museums that housed documents about her acts.

Flamboyant and fun, I never risked coming off as an uptight scholar. The one role I could play in life was myself, and I had it down cold.

Especially since there was $5,000 and a simple target, a vulnerable woman involved.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t become weak and feel pity for her. Everyone suffers tragedies. At least she had money to help her get through it.


Two weeks before I turned in my proposal, my mother disappeared, stopped returning my phone calls. She was always losing jobs. I hoped that she didn’t need money. I had bailed her out before. But I was feeling selfish. I wanted the $5,000. It was the least I deserved for concocting such a brilliant scam.

I promised myself that I would give my mother about half of the fellowship. That was how confident I’d be able to take advantage of this vulnerable woman. I hadn’t even won the fellowship yet, and I was already spending the money.

As the deadline for the fellowship neared, my resentment grew toward my mother. I was no Robin Hood. I didn’t want to steal from the rich to give the poor. I wanted to steal from the rich and give to myself.


The day before Thanksgiving, I filed a missing person’s report for my mother. Although my mother and I didn’t talk much, it was unusual not to be able to get ahold of her when I did phone. For several weeks, my calls went straight to her voice mail, and then suddenly, there was a message that said that the line had been disconnected, and there was no forwarding information.

Where could my mother have gone?

It wasn’t like she had any money to go anywhere. She had been unemployed for at least three years. My mother never left the trailer. Growing up poor, we never traveled, never invited people over. Arguing was our hobby; it was cheap and kept us busy.

My brother didn’t like to argue, so he never called me after I moved out of the state. Out of courtesy and foolishness, I left him alone, contacting the police before I phoned him. But my fears got the best of me, and I needed an answer, and, unlike me, he lived in the same state as my mother.

I couldn’t believe he picked up the phone when I called.

“Where’s Mom?” I said. I thought I was being polite by skipping the salutations; I knew he’d want to get off the phone as quick as he could.

“Gone,” he said.

“Where to?” I said.

“The bank foreclosed on the trailer. She had to leave.”

“I didn’t know this. Did you?”

“I don’t want to argue,” he said.

“Our mother is gone. I filed a missing person’s report,” I said, “I want to know the details.”

“There are no details,” he said, “The bank foreclosed on the trailer. She had to leave.”


Two weeks later my mother called me and told me she was safe, living in my brother’s spare bedroom. She didn’t sound sad, never once made a self-pitying comment. I almost wanted her to sound angry, bemoan the fact that so many job employers were discriminating against her because of her age.

I wanted her to come to life through anger, or at the very least, misdirect her anger towards me. But she didn’t. She asked how my financial situation was, if I was staying afloat.

I told her I was in the midst of applying for fellowships.

“Good,” she said, “Take whatever you can get.”

“Don’t worry about me,” my mother said flatly, “I’ll be fine.”

I was determined to bring my mother some happiness, put some life back into her voice. Now I really wanted to give all the money to my mother. But not too much of it. I wasn’t a saint.
The money would vitalize my mother. I imagined that was why Jane Simmons began the fellowship in the first place.

I pictured her laying in bed, depressed over her son’s death, wondering how she could escape her grief. She imagined her son’s happiness as being when he had the opportunity to travel, so she began the fellowship in his name. It made her feel a little better, not much, but it was a step in the right direction. Was I doing anything wrong to use the money to help someone else out, especially if that someone was a lost family member?


When I told my advisor that I was going to apply for the fellowship proposal, I found out that she was friends with Jane Simmons. A few days later after I turned in my application to the department, my advisor put me in touch with her. Jane really liked the proposal as I knew she would.

When I called her home, she sounded so happy, like she had never gone through a tragedy, which made me feel good. I didn’t want to steal money from someone who was sad. I had some morals. “Your advisor told me all about you. Why don’t you come over?” she said.

“Sure,” I said, “When?”

“Now,” she said, “Right now.”

I was embarrassed to explain that I didn’t had a car.

“I don’t have a car,” I said.

“Take a cab,” she said, “I’ll pay for it.”

“I’ll take a cab,” I said, “And I’ll pay for it.”

The cab driver took an especially long route to get to her mansion. I figured that he was going to get as much money out of me as he could. He knew she was in the richest part of town, and never suspected that someone traveling to this affluent neighborhood might be poor, trying to support a mother who made less money all year long than a cab driver on a slow night.

Jane was waiting outside for me. When I got out of the car, she gave me a hug.

“You look familiar,” she said.

She looked familiar to me too. I didn’t know whether I should say anything. I was afraid that it would sound like a line, something someone would say to get $5,000. I knew I needed to sound like the money was the furthest thing from my mind. So I decided to say nothing.

Let her guide the conversation. Let her guide me to the $5,000.

“Do I look familiar?”

I didn’t know what to say. “No,” I lied, “Have we met?”

She looked hurt. “I loved your proposal,” she said, “It didn’t sound stiff and academic. Barnum is a fascinating guy.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“My son used to make up stories. Really weird stories. When he was a child, he would make up stories about places he wanted to visit. Or thought he wanted to visit. For the longest time, he talked about Africa as if everyone ate candy bars there and rode ostriches. Nebraska was another place he thought would be exciting. I have no idea why he was so focused on Nebraska. He was such a baby when he told these stories.”

“He must have been real creative,” I said.

“He was going to study biochemistry,” she said, “But he was. I think he could have been a writer.”

And then she started to cry.

She was sobbing uncontrollably.

Nothing would stop her.

I had to do something. I had to help. I wanted to say that I didn’t expect anything in return. This was an exchange that I wanted to make clear was free of charge.

I put my arms around her and held her as tight as I could. My arms touched her back, my hands suspended in the air, as if they belonged to a pickpocket who was just about to make a swipe.


I did win the fellowship. I had to be interviewed by Jane and a committee of scholars. Right before the meeting, Jane pulled me to the side and said that I had nothing to worry about.

“I can fake confidence,” I said.

“You don’t need to fake it,” she said, “I’m telling you it’s in the bag.”

Three weeks later, I got the check in the mail. Jane called me and told me I should invest it, not to take it out until I decided to do the actual traveling. That same day I decided to go visit my mother. I booked a flight and was so excited to write a check to my mother for $2,000. (Giving her $2,500 felt weird, an even sum seemed wiser. Also I needed some new clothes and felt that I deserved to indulge. When would I have another opportunity?)

I knew the $2,000 would make her happy. I knew she would be proud that she had a son who could help her out.

Before I got off the phone with Jane, she told me to be sure to keep that money separate from any other savings I had. Her money was special money, “magic” money, she said. It was money that made one’s dreams come true. She said it so convincingly that I almost regretted having already put the money in the bank. I wanted to examine the paper the check was printed on.

Maybe if I held it long enough, some magic would rub off on me. Maybe I would be transformed into something special, something unexpected, something good and genuine.

But all I could think of was buying a lot of extravagant purchases for myself. And, of course, writing my mother a check. I no longer needed Jane any more, and I found myself annoyed that she wanted to talk about my obligations to her money. What more did she want from me?

I held her.

I got her to stop crying.

I had done my duty.

My mother, my homeless mother, needed me, and I had no patience for the rest of the world’s needs. The world could heal itself.


I never carried cash with me. Even though I never had much money, I always lost whatever bills and coins I had. I put the $1,500 check in a box in my backpack. (She was living with my brother now, rent-free. Did she really need a whole $2,000? It felt a bit excessive.)

I was so excited that I could give my mother a substantial gift. On the way from the air port to my brother’s place, I stopped at a department store, got the box with her check gift-wrapped. It looked beautiful. It looked like something you’d want to open, because the person took so much care.

As I walked around the mall, I kept looking behind my back to make sure no one was going to mug me. I felt like I was carrying something everyone wanted.

Finally, I got to my brother’s place and knocked on the door. She was there. I was happy. The gift box was in my hands.

“Honey,” she said and hugged me. She almost knocked the box out of my hands which upset me. I had something she needed.

“What a surprise!” she exclaimed and her voice was so loud that I was afraid that the neighbors could hear. They would run outside to see what all the commotion was, and then the presentation of the gift would end up being delayed. “Come in,” she said.

She told me to sit down and she’d get me something to drink. I heard her rumbling around in the kitchen, flinging cabinet doors open, looking for something. Her seemingly reckless energy made me nervous.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“I just can’t find anything,” she said, “This is not my home.”

She came out of the kitchen with a tray of milk and cookies. I handed her the gift box.

“For me?” she said.

“It’s a gift,” I said.

“For me?” she repeated.

It was weird. She looked embarrassed.

“Who else?” I said.

“I’m such a shitty mother,” she said, “I don’t deserve a gift. I haven’t been able to give you or your brother a gift for a long time.”

“Open it,” I said.

She opened the box and saw the money and then looked confused. I was bothered that she didn’t seem to appreciate the wrapping. I expected her to make a joke about it, like “Who the hell wrapped this? I know there’s no way you did.”

Instead when she saw the check, she said, “What’s going on here?”

“It’s a gift.”

“Did you rob a bank?” she said.

I rolled my eyes.

“You didn’t hurt anyone to get this?” she said.

It took me a full second before I said, “No. Of course not.”

“I’m scared,” she said. The money didn’t seem to make her any happier. I couldn’t believe it. I thought the money was going to bring her back to life. She still looked pinched, nervous.

“And you sure you didn’t hurt anybody?” she repeated.

“I’m sure,” I said, “I give you my word.”


I never asked my mother what she did with the money. She didn’t move out of my brother’s apartment. I knew that much for sure. My brother started to call me, asked me if our mother could stay with me for three weeks. I didn’t return his phone calls. My reason being I lived in a small studio apartment, barely large enough for me, let alone for two, especially when those two were my mother and me. But after half a dozen phone calls I decided to call him back.

At first I balked, but he promised it would be no more than two weeks, including the day of her arrival and departure, and he would pay for the tickets. He said he’d give me two months to prepare.

That same day Jane called me. She wanted me to come over for lunch. I agreed. I felt like it would be good practice: a mother who wanted more than I could give, was willing to give.
At lunch Jane asked me about the money. “You do have the money reserved for the trip?”


“When are you going?”

I could feel myself panicking. I told her two months. My mother didn’t like to leave the house. There would be no risk in getting caught.

I tried not to look her in the eyes as I was saying all this. I ended up spotting a picture of her son. I stood and walked over to it. It was a completely unconscious act.

I stared at the photo. Her son didn’t look like he came from money. His hair was tousled and he was wearing an unattractive navy sweater. It looked faded. There was a sadness in his eyes, almost as if he knew he was going to disappear one day and there was nothing he or anyone could do about it. I imagined Jane following him around the house, badgering him to cheer up, put a smile on his face.

I felt Jane’s hand on my shoulder.

“Does he look that unhappy?” she said.

“No,” I lied.

“You’re lying,” she said, “Don’t tell me what I want to hear.”

She waited a moment and said, “You look like him.”

I didn’t say anything. I decided not to tell her what she wanted to hear, not to mention we looked nothing alike. I would not tell her about my mother, her homelessness, the fact her husband, my father deserted us, lived in shelters himself for awhile. She had no right to know, no matter how much money she gave me. I owed her nothing.

She didn’t need my pain. That wasn’t part of the exchange.

I already gave her a hug.

That was more than enough.

I turned my attention back to the photo of her son. He had more rugged, classical features, a wan face. I still had baby fat, or what I tried to convince myself was such, so that I didn’t have to diet.

“Don’t you think you look like him?” I could feel our sadness in the room. She owned the most beautiful furniture, none of the cheap stuff that littered our trailer as I was growing up.

Everything was so beautiful and serene; I didn’t want to damage anything with serious conversation.

She came back out with an instant camera and took a picture before I figured out what she was doing. For the second picture, she told me to stand still, and smile, and then she asked me to back up. I did.

“Move that way,” she said.

I looked confused. Why couldn’t I just remain where I was standing? Posing for pictures was something I hated to do. “You’re cutting him out of the picture,” she said.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. There was no one else in the room.

“My son,” she said, “You’re blocking his picture.”

I took a step away from the photo. I was going to take another step, not because I need to, but I wanted to get away from him. He made me nervous.

She took another picture.

“Now,” she said, “Can you move a little closer to him? I want one of you together.”

I did what she said, and she took the picture.


The day before my mother came to visit me, I called Jane and told her that I meant to get ahold of her sooner, but time flew so quickly that I didn’t have a chance, and I was no leaving on the trip. For the rest of the day, I didn’t pick up the phone. She left 2 messages, expressing her concern that we hadn’t talked. She had travel advice for me.

That bugged me.

I wasn’t her son. I didn’t need her advice. I was a grown man. I knew what I was doing.

The day my mother arrived, I found myself restless, almost tempted to disconnect my phone service, because I didn’t want my mother to pick up the phone and have Jane on the other end.
But I didn’t. I should have, but I didn’t.

As soon as I picked my mother up from the airport, she claimed she was tired, and asked that we go home right away. She fell right asleep. I sat and watched her sleep.

For the first few days, my mother didn’t do much but sleep. I occasionally left the house to go get some groceries and videos. She never liked what I choose.

After a week, my mother said, “Why do you always get comedies? I hate comedies.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I ignored her.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “Pay no attention to me. I feel like I’m walking through life in a haze. Like I’m a ghost. Like I passed away along time ago and no one has the nerve to tell me my life is over.”

I wanted to say, “But I gave you money. You have something. The money should make you feel like you have a life.”

But I didn’t. All I did was hug her and say, “There’s no need to apologize. You’ve been through a lot.”


Two weeks into my mother’s stay, Jane called. My mother was sleeping when Jane left the message. I played the message several times, surprised she called, wondering if she was testing me. Did she not believe me? Was she half-expecting me to pick up the phone absent-mindedly forgetting that I told her I left the country?

Two days later, I sent her email, claiming I was out of the country, and thanked her profusely for giving me the opportunity to travel.

At that point in my mother’s stay, we were really getting on each other’s nerves. Anytime she announced she was going to take a nap, I affirmed, a bit too excitedly, her decision. Once after I over-enthusiastically encouraged to rest, she seemed to resist her own fatigue and engaged me in her favorite conversation: how her husband, my father abandoned her.

On the second to last day of her stay, I told her we should go out to dinner as a celebration. We had rarely gone out. We ordered in a lot of the time.

She agreed to go to a nice Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. She even put on some makeup. At the restaurant, she seemed nervous.

“You don’t need to waste your money on me,” she said, “You’ve done enough.”

“You’re my mother,” I said.

“By the way,” I said, “How are you going to use the money I gave you?”

I couldn’t believe I asked that question. I was treating her as if she was my kid, making sure she didn’t blow the money on something stupid.

“Actually,” she said, “I already used it.”

“Really?” I said.

“I owed people money.”

“People?” I said, “You mean credit card companies?”

“I lost my credit card privileges years ago,” she said, “I mean people. I owed people money.”

The way she said people made me nervous. I pictured heavy-set Italian mafia people knocking on my mother’s front door.

“You didn’t get into any trouble, did you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I’m out of it now.”

We ate our meal in silence. As we got up to leave, I heard someone say my name. I told my mother to go to the car, that I’d be out in a second.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” she said.

“No,” I said, “Please go.”

But by then it was too late.

Jane was less than a foot away from us. “I’m Steve’s mother,” she said.

“I thought you went away,” Jane said, “Did you come back early?”

“He never went away. I was coming here,” my mother said.
“He told me he was traveling?”

“Traveling?” my mother said, “He hates flying. He hates cars. He would never travel.”

“Oh,” Jane said.

“Plus he’s doing good right here,” my mother said, “Working extra jobs, I assume. He bought a brand new VCR and TV.”

“Really?” Jane said.

“Yes,” my mother said.

“I’m real proud of him.”

“It’s not what you think,” I said.

“I’m sure it’s worse,” Jane said.

“What are you two talking about?” my mother said.

“Never mind,” Jane said, “Mothers suffer enough. They don’t need any more grief.”

And then Jane said to my mother, “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” my mother said.

“We’ll talk the day after tomorrow,” Jane said, “We have a lot of catching up to do.”


In between Jane meeting my mother and the day after my mother’s departure, Jane called my dissertation advisor, several deans, all who wanted an explanation. I talked to the people from school before I talked to Jane. I explained to them the situation about my mother, but no one understandably had any sympathy. Why did I buy a VCR and TV then?

They said they would the best they could on my behalf, but I had an obligation to call Jane myself, try to form some sort of agreement.

When I called her up, I started to cry as soon as I heard her voice. “What do you want me to do?” I said.

At first she didn’t say anything.

“I’ll do whatever you want,” I said, “I was completely wrong, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s not like I personally want the money back,” she said, “It’s that my son needs the money back. It’s his money. Not mine. I can’t do with it what I wish.”

“I just want you to know,” I said, “If I was going to steal your money, I would have bought something I needed. Like a car.”

“The fellowship keeps the memory of my son alive,” she said.

I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to tell her the truth. I wanted to say, “I wish that’s all you wanted from the money. But the truth is, you want the money to bring your son back from the dead. And no amount will ever be able to do that.”

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. I imagined looking into her eyes and seeing my mother’s eyes, the eyes of a tired, exhausted woman, a woman so fatigued she could barely make sense of what was actually going on.

Not that I knew what was going on either.

“He needs the money back. He’ll take it in installments. And you need to be on time each month with your payment. He won’t be happy otherwise, and I know you want him to be happy. He shouldn’t have to worry about you.”


For an entire year and a half, I paid my installments on time. When Jane received the final payment, she called me up and said that she wanted me to come over. She needed something from me.

I asked her what that something was.

She said she could only make her request in person.

I took a cab to her place and she said that we needed to go for a drive. I got in her car. When we got to the cemetery, she got out, I stayed inside.

“Come with me,” she said.

We walked to her son’s gravesite. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his tombstone. “Look at his name,” she said.

She dug her hands deep in her pocket and then took out a check. “This is a check for $5,000,” she said.

And she tore it in half and then gave me half of it.

“Tear it up,” she said, “Tear it up in the smallest of pieces and then throw them on the grave.”
I must have looked confused.

I was scared.

I didn’t know what to do.

“Do what I say,” she said, “Please.”

I did what she said.

After I scattered the pieces on the grave, she followed suit. It was cold. It was cold and windy. It was blowing so hard that the grass on the grave shook, the tombstone looked like it might move. You might have thought that someone was alive underneath, restless, trying to make us aware of his presence, his gratuitous vitality.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Rigoberto Gonzalez's "Other Victims" and "My Crush on the Crisis Counselor"

Queer poet Rigoberto Gonzalez is a master of languid creepiness.

This daring artistry creates a profound unsettling effect for the reader, necessarily challenging commonplace gay male domestic narratives, prized in most circles, limiting more complicated inquiries into gay male lives.

In his prose, Gonzalez has articulated the importance of the possible and necessary intersection of aesthetics and politics. His poems "Other Victims" and "My Crush on the Crisis Counselor" should satisfy anyone suspicious of such a mingling.

Refusing to conventionally write about the expected gay themes (first sexual experience, first trip to gay bar, first encounter with a drag queen), Gonzalez permits his poems to ooze with the matters of lust and disgust, often embodied in the idea of compassion. In a way I wish could have avoided the employment of the word ooze, but Gonzalez in his obsession with the grotesque, makes such words appropriate to define his vision.

This artistry happens not only through strategically deranged word choice, but also disturbing themes, often considered taboo in gay male literature such as what could be called invisible ways gay lovers "abuse" one another. It's daring to deal with the lack of fulfillment within gay male relationships. If read against the grain, the poem also deals with the potential jealousy gay men feel toward martyred victims such as Matthew Shepard. All this is done with a morbidly comic confidence.

There are a number of important poems in his book Other Fugitives and Other Strangers that demonstrate this affinity with taboo themes. Other than the ones mentioned, these touch a nerve in me: "Rapist: A Romance," "Body, Anti-Body," "The Strangers Who Find Me in the Woods."

It’s expected but not wholly unnecessary that a gay poet make his themes accessible to a straight audience, revealing the commonality of experience. To a certain degree, Gonzalez resists this verisimilitude, and we’re thankful.

I’d like to focus my energy on "Other Victims" and "My Crush on My Crisis Counselor." Here’s the opening:

Thank heavens for victims who find their way
to folly. They walk on the lean streets in your place
and into a world rich with abuses. Their fates would have
no place to shine if not for that journey, the possible
headlines, and sigh pushed out by the odd relief that

it wasn’t you. You are lucky.

As in many of Gonzalez’s poems, he shows himself strategically contorting the meaning of compassion.

Yes: the spectacle of a gay male victim’s death, such as that of Matthew Shepard, functions as a wake-up call to gay men regularly denied access to some surprising public spaces that should be safe such as streets at nights. Gay-bashers (even the police) create a world “rich with abuses.”

But the poem presents another wise ambiguity: homosexuals are bonded as a result of these tragic deaths. The compassion that arises for these victims arises from the idea of thankfulness: “Thank God, another faggot died, and not me.” It's not uncomplicated mourning.

The spectacle of a gay man’s death can provide a panacea to a homosexuals’ worst fears. Immersed in a compassionate mourning for another queer, you lose sight of the potential threats of violence to yourself. Another gay man's tragedy allows you to relax. This creepiness is not located in an individual's psyche. We, a conspiracy of gay men, happily dwell in this psychological space. Notice the use of third person "you" as opposed to the first person "I." This also could be embodied in the title. Is the relationship of the victim to his oppressor the connection of gay men to a heterosexually-defined oppressor or simply another homosexual?

This uncomfortable idea of compassion infiltrates a lot of his work. Look no further than “My Crush on My Crisis Counselor.” One could say it functions as a sequel to the “plot” of this poem and a continued investigation of the limitations of compassion. You could say the third person “you” in “Other People’s Victims” transforms after the consistent threat of tragedy into a more urgent first person, needful of psychological support. Look at how the client to the “Crisis Counselor” immediately projects (and possibly not) a jadedness toward the fact that gay men statistically often are more likely to kill themselves from outside pressures:

How is it, good doctor,
that your eye won’t dry up,
soaking up dawn after dawn
of would-be suicides?

The pupil floats as rigid
as a lily pad over that
polluted iris, crystallized
into bulletproof glass.

"Other Victims" begins the wonderfully twisted inquiry into that compassion. It raises the idea of gay male jealousy towards members of community who do die as a result of homophobic violence. After all, the victims cash in on a world “rich” with abuses. And this yields a “shining,” a certain fame in the form of “possible headlines.” Where does this leave gay men who deal with the threat day in and day out? Matthew Shepard may live on as a myth, but what about the gay men who still live in this world? Our lives are ignored now, and with that fact, we can't fathom that our suffering will provide any relief for anyone else. There's only so many spots for immorality, and Matthew Shepard took one of the few.

Perhaps we're supposed to read the sentence "You are lucky" as sarcasm. Or perhaps even more the tone of that sentence can be seen as an intriguing gesture of disappointment.

Regardless the narrator tells us we are lucky. But then spends two of the poem’s three stanzas warning us of the unremarkable, daily instances of domestic "abuse", perhaps what should be our most highly privileged fear:

...The man you live with
would never kill you, not in the violent way
other people die, all horror trick theatrics with costumes
so dirty they could only thrive in other parts of town,...

In other words: there is substantially less of a chance that, you, as a gay male, would become a public spectacle of violence. Think about Shepard’s death –the tying of his torn body to a fence. To a degree, these public lynchings are a distant reality; how can gay men live with the threat day in and day out? At the same time, gay men suffer from the violence, literal and metaphorical, in their own homes all the time.

Those small acts of domestic unkindness have cumulatively harsh results.

Obviously, not all domestic "violence" is literal, or at all has the same root cause as a gay bashing, but the sheer pressures of outside terror takes its effect on a homosexual’s psyche and by inevitable consequence, his lover’s. The effects may result in various, subtle ways: neglect, alcoholism or pharmaceuticals (“a poison that falls in love/with your sleep”), and the stress of caretaking: "A compassionate man, he won't let you die/in public, or alone." This much-needed domestic assistance could possibly be (or not) a result of homophobic violence. How can our private, domestic life not be altered in a deleterious way if the world will “let” us “die/in public, or “alone"?

Rather than offering a mere description of this domestic "abuse," like most queer poets, he offers an incisive political analysis as to how it comes to be.

In contrast to our outdated gay poets like Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, and J.D. McClatchy, who sadly never shed their feathers as “culture-vultures” –Corn’s own self-description, not mine- Gonzalez draws undoubtedly upon new, important myths, such as Matthew Shepard.

The younger and most important queer poets have realized that you can only go so far reinventing those classical myths. And let’s be honest: those books are old.

We need new ways of analyzing our lives, new pages that have only begun to be written by poets such as Rigoberto Gonzalez.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Necessary Ending to the Queer Question "What Is The Difference Between The Prose Poem, The Short Short Story, and The Short Story?"

One of the most dispiriting and boring conversations in the literary community evolves from the understandable need to identify the difference between the prose poem, short short story (flash fiction), and a short story. It’s almost as empty as our need to talk about creative non-fiction as transgressing boundaries.

Or perhaps even the most worthless statement: sometimes you need to lie in order to arrive at the truth! Wow.

And let’s face it, anyone who tells you to lie these days is a Republican. Or they come from bad parents who never taught you any morals.

The genres’ definitions have nothing ultimately to do with word count, or the poetic quality of the sentences, or the emphasis on character over lyricism.

Word count is also offensive. Anyone who wants to make literature into something mathematical IS EVIL AND CORRUPT.

The definitions of these three genres has to do with The Look of the poem. It wholly has to do with the visual. Plain and simple. You don't even need to read the prose poem, the short short story, or a short story to determine how it should be labeled.

A PROSE POEM=a block of text that does not have ANY indentions. Even if there is dialogue. No indentions. No indentions to signify that someone is talking or that someone now new is talking.

A SHORT SHORT STORY (FLASH FICTION)=It must contain two characteristics:

A.) An immediate indention. The rest of the story doesn't need to contain any other identions.

B.) It must be no longer than one page. For a piece of writing to “flash,” the spectacle (the visual) of that flash may only happen once. If you turn the page, that causes two flashes. And therefore, should be called Fiction Containing More than One Flash; therefore, cancelling the name flash fiction. It automatically becomes a short story.

A SHORT STORY=It must contain two characteristics:

A.) The first line is indented.

B.) It must move onto the next page.

I offer these definitions as guidance to the fun if naive discussion occurring at HTML GIANT (which is my most recent discovery on the Internet, also my new favorite):

thinking about "flash fiction"


What We Talk About When We Try to Talk about What to Call The Stuff We Write

I’ll leave the rest of the work to other people. I did my work. If I’m stealing someone else’s definitions (or missed an identical comment to my post), go ahead and sue me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

On Obits, Elegies, and Thomas M. Disch

Most likely anyone who reads this blog knows that gay and lesbian youth are at least four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts. But what isn’t talked about, or at least mentioned much less, is that elderly homosexual men also share a greater probability of taking their own lives.

I think of the fairly recent suicide of Thomas M. Disch, a solid poet, who committed suicide sometime after his partner Charles Naylor died. Disch wrote many, many books. Anyone can see he has an eclectic output: realistic fiction, children's fiction and historical fiction; opera liberettos and plays; criticism of art, theatre, and fim; and even a video game. Science fiction is no doubt what he will be known mostly form. He's considered one of the key practitioners of speculative science-fiction.

I have been looking at the elegies and obituaries written for him after his death, and have become interested in how we read the poetry of someone who has died recently, and the ethics behind those readings.

Although it has been over a year ago, I can still remember my immediate reaction when I heard that Disch killed himself: he didn't have enough of a support system. This lack causes much mental illness in elderly gay men. It's not necessarily fair to create a cause-effect relationship. Predictably, most of the write-ups make this pathological explanation without any reservations or qualifying statements.

There are two articles that I (and another poet) found that resist this notion. The first is written by Sam J. Miller from Strange Horizons. It intelligently recognizes the danger in claims that simply one factor contributed to his suicide. He lists five reasons: the fear of extinction, the loneliness, the homophobic, milieu, the perceived lack of critical and popular attention, and Thomas M. Disch himself.

This is the link to the wise article:

Strange Horizons Articles: Who Killed Thomas M. Disch

I'd like to name another one not explicitly mentioned in the article: our collective failure to provide concrete resources to elderly gay men. Even if Proposition 8 passed, it would not have dealt with the intersection of old age and sexuality.

To locate suicidal depression simply in Disch's psyche ignores the larger issue: where do old gay men, often estranged by their family, go for support, love once their beloved dies? Also: bars were often once a safe heaven for these elderly gay men. But when you're older, dealing with the unattractiveness of old age, the bars, aimed toward youth, cause one to feel further marginalized.

Here’s the second piece of writing that subverts the simple claim that the poet killed himself simply as a result of his lover's death. It was written by Elizabeth Hand; it appeared in the more popular on-line magazine Salon:

Notice Hand doesn’t even mention the death of Disch's partner Naylor until the fifth paragraph. When Hand first refers to Naylor, it's an admission she wishes she had spent more time around the couple. By organizing her essay in this way, she exhibits a refusal to sensationalize. This writerly choice also stands out from the crowd of other obituaries, prosaic elegies.


One of my ex-best friends taught a poetry course. As a poet herself, she wanted to explain the dangers of pathologizing writers. She asked me to make a list of poets, like Disch, who recently, in the past half dozen years or so, committed suicide. I did that. She then went to the library and Xeroxed what she deemed as their saddest poems.

Without telling her class were victims of suicide, they analyzed the poems. She said, “Do these poets seem abnormally depressed?”

Uniformly, they said no. “That’s how poets are supposed to be,” they said, “They’re always sad."

She then told them that all the authors committed suicide.

There was a pause, and then they again scanned the poems and said, “Yeah. Actually, it is pretty obvious. There’s no way we should have missed it.”


Is there a difference between an obituary and an elegy?

Is it simply that an obituary is prose and an elegy poetry?

Can you define an obituary as a wholly flattened declaration of grief, and an elegy as an exclamation of it?

Does a suicidally depressed poem begin doubting that his creative writing can act as a catharsis, warding off negative feelings? And at the moment of suicidal despair does he see his words as an obituary, or if his mind is racing, an elegy?


This is the one thing a heterosexual should not say to a gay male poet says when he admits sadness about childlessness: “Your book is your baby.”

Disch wrote a lot of books. He killed himself. He didn’t have a baby.

How unkind is it to draw any links between the preceding facts?


“Do you think prose writers are characteristically more suicidal than poets?” my friend asked me.

I didn’t know. I am a fairly happy person.

“Maybe,” my friend said, “Unlike prose writers, poets always know the possibility of disappearing in the white space on the page.”


Is The Critic anything more than a self-appointed physician of “dead” texts? Don’t physicians typically see themselves –in some way- as God, as someone capable of bringing the dead back to life? Are poems brought back to life (in other words: inclusion into a canon) as a result of divine intervention or the mind of a mortal? Or is a miracle just an accident that we happen to like?


Untouched, unharmed here is a later poem (found on Poetry Daily) by Tom Disch’s entitled “Ghost Ship”:

There must be many other such derelicts—
orphaned, abandoned, adrift for whatever reason—
but few have kept flying before the winds
of cyberspace so briskly as Drunk Driver
(the name of the site). Anonymous (the author)
signed his last entry years ago, and more years passed
before the Comments began to accrete
like barnacles on the hull of a ship
and then in ever-bifurcating chains
on each other. The old hulk became
the refuge of a certain shy sort
of visitor, like those trucks along the waterfront
haunted by lonely souls who could not bear
eyewitness encounters. They could leave
their missives in the crevices of this latter-day
Wailing Wall, returning at intervals
to see if someone had replied, clicking
their way down from the original message

April 18. Another gray day. Can't find the energy
to get the laundry down to the laundry room.
The sciatica just won't go away.

through the meanders and branchings
of the encrusted messages, the tenders
of love for a beloved who would never know herself
to have been desired, the cries of despair,
the silly whimsies and failed jokes, to where
the thread had last been snapped,
only to discover that no, no one had answered
the question posed. Because,
no doubt, there was no answer.
Is there an "answer" to the war
wherever the latest war is going on?
If one could get under the ship
and see all those barnacles clinging
to the keel, what a sight it would be.
Talk about biodiversity! But on deck,
so sad, always the same three skeletons,
the playing card nailed to the mast,
frayed and fluttering weakly, like some huge insect
the gods will not allow to die.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ten Anecdotes about the Destruction of Books


I remember my friend and I throwing textbooks out of the window of our third floor high school classroom. Our Spanish teacher was senile and never noticed us leaving our desks, leaning out the windows, the stacks of extra books growing smaller and smaller.

She always seemed to have her eyes closed, rolling her r’s. Or telling the class her dreams about becoming a world-famous flamenco dancer. They were well-told stories. Something that could have appeared in a good book. But we didn’t care.

The joy of holding a book in our hands and watching it fall to the ground was too great.

We were always careful to make sure no one was beneath us. Once in awhile we did get so excited that we didn’t scan the ground below before we dropped the books. We could have really hurt someone.

Maybe such carelessness wasn’t always a result of a thoughtless eagerness.

The idea of someone being clobbered with knowledge was an image we wanted to see.

Living most of my childhood in a trailer park, I never owned my own books, always checking out my reading materials from the public library. Because I was smart, my teachers placed me in advanced reading classes with students who had rich parents to buy whatever they wanted.

I never felt like it was fair that I had to depend on an institution to supplement my education.

I wanted what everyone else had. So I stole books from the library. I’d take the book into the bathroom and rip the pages from the spine. That way I could smuggle the book out without the detector going off.

Once my friend said to me, “Why do your books always seem to fall apart so quickly?”
“Because,” I said. “Anything that’s loved too much falls apart.”

For about a year in high school, I was convinced that I had a spiritual responsibility to make contact with as many people in the world as possible. There was only one problem: I was horribly shy. So I came up with a game plan: I would write notes on the inside front cover of as many library books as possible. That way I could reach people I would never meet in real life.

I remember sitting for hours and hours, writing pretentious messages in random books. I wrote things like: “To Whom This May Concern, I want you to know I have absolutely no idea who you are. But I want you to know, because I feel it’s my responsibility, to tell you that you are loved. Don’t turn the page of the book and begin reading, because you’re embarrassed someone is telling you something so obvious. It’s an important thing to know no matter how reluctant you may be to accept it.”

On another book I wrote, “My name is Steve Fellner. I have blond hair and blue eyes. If you’re my father, please look me up in the phone book and give me a call. I miss you and want to know why you ran away from us.”

There was a time I was so depressed in high school that I would take a book into the bathroom with me and deliberately mishandle the pages so that I would have dozens and dozens of paper cuts. They would sting.

Then I would mumble a number of profane words at the book. Once I remember screaming at one of my mother’s Harlequin romances. It looked innocent enough lying there. But I knew better. The cuts on my hands were proof of the book’s guilt. I said, “How dare you cause me so much pain. You bad book. You horribly bad book.”

I knew I had to punish the book. You can’t let someone get away with things like that.

So I would tear off a page, crumble it up, and flush it down the toilet.

I would do that for awhile. Or at least until I got bored which was pretty quick.

A girlfriend of mine in college was a theorist. She’d come over to my apartment and prefer the company of Foucault over me. I couldn’t blame her. In a way. He had a lot of interesting things to say. All I wanted to do was get down her pants. I needed to prove to her that I wasn’t the gay man I knew I was.

When she broke up with me, there was a stack of her library books in the corner of my room. She left me a phone message, asking if I would drop them off at the library.

I threw them all in the garbage. I remember waking up one morning before dawn to watch the garbage men take my trash. At six in the morning they came, an hour before I had begun to drink mimosas. As the truck drove away, I shouted, “To hell with insight. Where does that get you anyway?”

The next time I saw her she said that the library contacted her about overdue books. The ones I had.
“Did you return them?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said. “I’m responsible.”

She invited me over to her house that same week. She made me dinner. Afterwards, we sat on her couch and she started to unbutton my pants. I kissed her.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you,” she said.

“Can I make love to you?”

“Sure,” she said. “After you answer one question.”

“Of course.”

“Did you return my library books?”


“Honestly,” she said. “Tell me the truth. I love you.”

How could I resist her?

“No,” I said, “I threw them out. Don’t worry. I’ll pay the replacement costs.”

She slapped me across the face and then told me to leave.

I remember seeing my father cry for the first time. He was alone in the living room reading a book. When he saw me, he wiped away the tears, pretending nothing was going on. He folded the corner of the page he was reading. How I hated those words. He told me it was time to go bed. So I went. I knew he wanted to cry more.

That same night I snuck out of my bedroom and crept down the stairs. The book was still open to that same page.

I knew I needed to do something.

I was afraid to look at the page. Let alone the cover. If it had the power to make my father cry, it might yield ever lasting psychic scars for me.

So without even as much as glancing at any of the words, I tore the page from the book.
Then I sat at the kitchen table and ripped the page into little pieces.

Every night for a month I swallowed a piece.

I remember one time my brother and I were so bored. Our father had deserted us. We had no idea what to do with our lives. We weren’t old enough to drive so we were forced to sit around our apartment and complain to our mother. She told us to watch a movie.

“We’re sick of movies,” we said.

“Play a game,” she said.

“We’re tired of games,” we said.

“Take a walk,” she said.
“Our feet don’t want to move,” we said.

“Read a book,” she said.

We couldn’t stop laughing. That was our mother for you.

We stole one of dad’s sci-fi novels from her room. We tore out pages and made paper airplanes. It was so much fun. The man-made vehicles darted around the room, colliding into the furniture.

“Where’d you get that paper?” she said.

“It’s dad’s,” we said.

“You mean, you tore up your father’s book?” she said.

We nodded.

She grabbed the book from our hands and made another airplane herself.

“Let’s have a race,” she said.

Once my mother announced to my brother and I that she was determined to make sure that we transcended our trailer park background. “I’m going to see it that you guys are cultured,” she said. We were nervous. Culture had always seemed so boring, especially when people invoked it in such a grand, important way.

She led us into the kitchen where there were several cookbooks lying on the table. There was one for Indian food, one for Mexican, one for Thai. My brother and I took a step backwards. We were scared. We were Midwesterners who lived on a diet of casseroles and meatloaf.

“Tonight’s Thai,” Mother said.

For several hours she barricaded herself in the kitchen, refusing to let us in, telling us to enjoy the odors wafting our way.

The only thing we smelled that had any distinction was smoke.

Mother ran out of the kitchen, screaming for us to fetch the fire extinguisher. My brother followed her order. We put out the fire.

In a large pot, there seemed to be scorched noodles and some crusty vegetables. “Go get a envelope from the hall closet,” Mother said.

My brother came back and held it open for her. Mother dumped the stuff in the pot and then ripped out the recipe from the book inside the envelope. She told me to lick it. I did. Then she wrote the address of the publisher company on the outside. She commanded me to go slide the package into the mailbox.

I balked.

“They need to know what their recipes are capable of,” she said.

I nodded and ran barefoot all the way to the box.

I never wanted my parents to read me bed time stories.

They weren’t good actors. I could always tell they despised each other. They both spent so much time looking out the window, imagining their get away car. Reading to me gave them an excuse to leave the other downstairs.

Once I said to my mother, “I’ll fall asleep quicker without your words.”

She insisted it was no trouble. She wanted to read to me.

One day I decided to take a magic marker and scribble out all the words to the story. When it was time for our nightly ritual, my father said, “Look what someone did to this book.”

“Guess no story tonight,” I said.
My father looked at me and said, “I don’t want to leave yet. Would you mind just looking at the pictures?”

“I’m tired,” I said.

“Please. Just give me some time. You don’t need to do anything. I’ll turn the pages.”

I’ve always had a hard time finishing a novel. I always lose interest midway through. I wish that this problem only had to do with books. Once my mother noticed this characteristic. “It’s cruel not to finish a book,” she said. “It’s a form of abuse.”

Assuming she was joking, I laughed.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Would you just walk away from someone when they’re talking to you?”
“No,” I said.

“Didn’t think you were like your father,” she said. “You have a responsibility to let the other person say The End. You shouldn’t do it for them.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t apologize to me,” she said. “Ask the book for forgiveness.”

[With the anxiety of school beginning, particularly finalizing my choice of books for my classes, I decided to post this essay which originally appeared in Mid-American Review.]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Vanity (Part One)

At least a million times, you’ve seen the article in Poets and Writers: the steps on getting your first poem published. In a kind, steady voice, a well-published author provides good tips.

That same well-published author will never raise the following questions:

What happens after you’ve succeeded, and then against all odds got that first book published? What do you do with the next manuscript you may have produced in the meantime?

Is it moral to put anything other than that first book out in the world?

How much, if at all, does the world need to see of you?

Is it pure vanity to expect the world to read more of your words?


At a restaurant, I was making fun of myself. As I always do. My friend said, "I could stay here for hours. You're funny."

For some reason, as time went on, I sensed that she started to feel bad for me. My self-deprecation was too intense.

Nothing makes me more upset than feeling like an object of pity. So I confessed a truth: yeah, I do a lot of dumb things, don’t think before I talk (does anyone really do that?), but I know I’m special, not because of talent, or intelligence, nothing like that, but because quite simply I am. If someone doesn’t like me, I said, I know something is wrong with them; unspecial people are the only ones who don’t like me.

Her face changed, she looked truly unsettled, and she quickly left.


Vanity can be a good thing.

I hate beautiful gay men who act modest about their looks. It makes them less attractive.

Or at least I wish it did.

I believe one should always flaunt what physical strengths they possess.

If you’re beautiful, then you do have a responsibility to put at least a dozen pictures of yourself on Facebook.

If you’re not beautiful , no more than five.

If every couple of days, you change your picture, fine, but you better be hot.

If you are beautiful (or even if you simply think you are beautiful), then you have a responsibility to sleep with as many lesser attractive people as possible.

You need to share your beauty. If you don’t you’re committing an immoral act.

Sharing your beauty with only one other person is selfish and damaging to the world.


I don’t know if the same thing goes with words.

You can always find something new in a beautiful body. But honestly, doesn't someone's words become old if you stare at them too much?


In the last couple years, one of my favorite books has been Richard Siken’s Crush. I love the sight of it in my bookshelf even when I have no intention to reread it. Like a good friend, it’s nice to know that it’s in the world.

More than once I’ve heard another poet say, “I wonder if his second book is going to be as good as his first book. How can he top himself?”

Why does he need to do such a thing? Why would anyone expect him to create anything more beautiful? Isn’t one near perfect verbal object enough?

Siken doesn’t seem to want to give us more and more books. Which in a way makes what words he has given us more beautiful. And if this doesn’t make his words more beautiful, it makes him kinder. We don’t waste a lot of time looking for his beautiful words. We know exactly where and what we should be looking at.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dear Christian Teresi and the AWP,

This open letter may be outdated, or a disclosure of my ignorance, my being out of the loop.

Or at least I hope it is.

(Full disclosure: I was on a panel that was submitted for consideration. It was rejected. In all seriousness, it should have been rejected. For a number of reasons.)

But I am curious if you or anyone else could tell me what correctives have/will be implemented to deal with the necessary and urgent feminist issues brought to my attention by the postings of Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu's letters on various blogs.

For me, there are two major issues regarding this issue I haven't heard addressed. I'll name these issues later in this post.

Rather than summarizing their letters (it’d be shameful for me to gloss their precise, thoughtful words), I’d like to post the link to where I first saw these letters:

I do not know any of these people (Cate Marvin, or Erin Belieu, or for that matter, C. Dale Young), and have no plans to meet them. I say this only because I think it’s important for you to know this is out of individual interest. I am not associated with any collective, or any alliance with another person.

I would like to say that it partly concerns me that Victoria Chang reported on her blog that she was contacted presumably after she blogged about the incident.

It is not because you reached out to her. That's admirable. I think you should be commended for that. And I hope you have been.

But I must ask: after the women associated with this one particular panel was contacted, were other women from other rejected panels that were also feminist/female-centered, or consisted of all female participants?

Victoria Chang is a poet with a more than substantial reputation. Chang herself describes Cate marvin as a "super poet." All the women in this panel are pretty huge, if not stellar, instant name recognition for anyone who has been in any poetry circles.

Did you go to the trouble to explain your rationale to other women of less visibility? Was this a gesture made out of panic that some high-profile women may spread potentially negative feelings about the already heavily criticized conference? I hope this isn’t so. I hope that as a result of Victoria Chang’s blog that you realized that all female centered panels needed to be notified and offered a similar transparent rationale.

Otherwise, AWP is contradicting the ostensible philosophy that all people will be treated equally. AWP then would be in defiance of your own guidelines, and a public explanation is warranted.

I do not know if this has taken place. But I assume it has. I would love to hear that lesser known women writers were offered the same treatment. Maybe this conversation has already taken place. If so, please someone alert me. And I apologize to you, Christian, and AWP.

According to all accounts, Christian, you are a kind, extremely responsible person. So I want to make it clear, if it hasn't, Christian, that AWP is responsible, not simply you. This is I'm sure obvious, but it deserves repeating.

(I happen to be ambivalent about the AWP conference. I am sick of people whining about how big it is. Get over it! Use your money and come see me in wonderful rural Upstate New York them. It's cheaper and I'll buy you at least two meals. It's lonely here. That's why I do this blog.)

That’s my first point. This is my second point.

I can’t help but wonder if Cate Marvin’s panel wasn’t rejected simply because it had a great title. I would want to go see a panel named “Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women’s Poetry.”

It sound great. It has a kick and spin. It seems intellectually substantial for once. And it doesn’t cater to the high school students who seem to populate the conference these days. (Sometimes I wonder if the panels should be given MPAA ratings, protecting these literary youngsters.)

Did you really choose the following panel instead of Cate Marvin’s?

It sound like arsenic itself:

Ellipsis as art: Crafting omission of information in a text
Description: Typically texts are made up of explicit information vital to the story. But texts can also be constructed with vital information left out which the reader must provide. Such information -- negative text -- must be crafted as carefully as explicit information. Works of this type rely on the reader’s imagination to be effective. The panel will discuss various types of techniques for crafting negative texts and genres that employ them.
Participants: Lance Olsen, Yuriy Tarnawsky, Debra Di Blasi, Steve Tomasula

Or how many times have we seen this one?:

Getting Students to Meaningful Memoir
Description: Getting to Meaningful Memoir: Students in their late teens and early twenties have all sorts of experiences--jobs, family life, sexual orientation, cultural background--that they can draw upon for memoir that goes beyond immature navel-gazing. Panelists will present in-class exercises and writing assignments aimed at getting students of all ages to the widest possibilities for strong memoir story and voice.
Participants: Eric May, Laurie Lindeen, Joe Mackall

Or how about this?

It's Not You, It's Me: The Poetry of Breakup and Divorce
Description: Poetry is one of the most beautiful forms of human expression on earth; breakup and divorce are among the worst. Does the poet's experience with such a dire emotional event change the way she approaches the topic? Featured in a new Overlook Press anthology on the subject, these panelists will read and discuss their work in order to explore the connection between breakup and divorce and their own poetic process.
Participants: Jerry Williams, Kim Addonizio, Gerald Costanzo, Amy Gerstler, Alan Shapiro

First, anyone entitling a panel" The Poetry of Breakup and Divorce" should be ashamed of himself. Are we aiming our panels for junior-high students who shoot rabbits and badly in need of counseling?

There is another serious problem with this panel. And it is a huge problem.

By looking at the labeling, it seems that this should be a panel, but the description makes it seem like a reading. Which is it?

AWP has to differentiate between a reading and a panel. A panel is a discussion. A reading is a reading. A panel should not be an opportunity for a reading. The panels that openly state that time will be significantly devoted to the participants reading their own work is a huge problem. It makes AWP seem like they’ll devote panels to writers who are simply high-profile (what somewhat aware poet doesn’t know all five of these names on the Divorce Panel?) AWP needs to give panels to writers invested in intellectual exchange, not a substantial amount of time given to a reading of their own work. There seems to be more than one “panel” like this. Let these writers do their readings at their own readings.

For what little it's worth, I support Cate Marvin, Erin Belieu, women's writing conference.

My only hope that their conference is not seen as a supplement or complement to AWP, but instead a potential replacement of it if AWP doesn't offer less conservative, anti-intellectual panels.

If anyone of this information is wrong, Christian, I apologize. I just felt that AWP would like to pacify the concerns of people like me who are on the far invisible margins of the literary community.

I'd be more than willing to talk to anyone from the organization on the phone, via email, or at the conference face-to-face.