Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Nepotism, Low Self-Esteem, and Compelling Manuscripts

The thing about writing a bad review of someone’s poetry is they might not like you.

But for me, I always think that when someone has something negative to say about me that they might be onto something. There is no greater comfort than when someone doesn’t like you for the right reasons. When my partner of fourteen years stops me in the middle of an argument and says, “When you fight, you’re crazy and insincere,” I know that he knows who I am. I love him even more. He loves me for the right reasons.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were also right. No one really likes to read their own reviews. They want either a thumbs up or thumbs down.


A friend of mine invited me to her class to talk about my published memoir.
I then told them about a bad review I got. My memoir is written in short vignettes, ranging anywhere from a mere paragraph to ten pages.
“One review said that the vignettes became monotone to a degree and ended the same way too often,” I said.
“Did your low self-esteem get even worse?”
“If you truly have low self-esteem, you don’t really notice. Your life is already a piece of shit.”


The personal note “Very strong. Compelling ms” could simply mean, “Thank you for paying your submission free. Send again next year.” Or it could simply mean it’s a strong, compelling ms. As three hundred others are.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Anyone who denies happiness or legitimacy to someone who got their book published through their contacts is mean. Everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. It might even be more difficult to get published if you have a lot of friends. People know you’re going to be there no matter what. What’s wrong with publishing your friends? Who else are you going to publish? Your enemies?


I know it's hard to believe, but I hate cynics. I’ve been going at this poetry publication stuff for a long time. And all I know is that there are a sizeable number of legit contests. And you don’t always need connections. And you can just write good poems and good things can happen.

One of the most exciting times in grad school was watching a poet named Eliot Khalil Wison’s career grow into something big. He had no connections. He always wrote on and off, but never sent things out. One day he got bored and sent a few out. They were immediately accepted, so he wrote more, and those got accepted. Everything was happening so quick, and then he completed a book, and got that accepted, and then he won an NEA, a Bush Foundation Grant, and a Pushcart—

He didn’t know anybody. He just wrote the poems.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Dante Micheaux's "Amorous Shepherd"

In the debut book of poems Amorous Shepherd, Dante Micheaux offers an elegy to pioneer African-American gay poet Reginald Shepherd. Micheaux tells him that "you deserve/something radiant...," and then adds, "...if I am to be true/to my aesthetic, elegies should/be more epistle and less ode." It's an intriguing if confusing sentiment: Does Micheaux see it as an act of kindness to letter-write to the dead, so the spirit doesn't need to respond right away? What can you do if you are the listener? Ignore the speaker or offer a quick, spontaneous, and most likely insufficient reply?

As in the case of the great Shepherd elegy, entitled "Goodbye, Curmudgeon," and others, Micheaux does his best work when he resists his friend Shepherd's influences: Shepherd's haughty lyricism and reliance on Greek myth.

One of the best poems of the book "And If I Break You Are You Mine?" shows off Micheaux's writing at its best. Michaeaux writes: "If you were here, it would be different/somehow; I wouldn't be held back,/separated by the ocean..." With the most subtle of line breaks, the placing of the "somehow" on the next line, Micheaux transforms what could easily have been a banality into a comic exasperation and a tragic disappointment. In the final of the three stanza poems, Micheaux declares: "I'm just an ordinary demon outside/your door; it will be me or another,/so I'll ask the question again." The line break that initially separates the door from the more general outside becomes a threshold, intensifying the threat. These subtleties are sometimes abandoned when he deals with broader historical material.

At the same time, I was also troubled by an elegy to 15-year-old Lawrence King, who was murdered for being gay. Micheaux creates the "The Boy in Highheeled Boots" as an ode: "If you want cute boots, you have to buy/the expensive kind, you said--/and I bet that's where you've gone; to a shoe store in the valley..." This opening leaps to a comic childhood memory of a friend who answered the door in his mother's "mock-croc pumps." The poem then comes full circle with an ending too conclusive in its sentiment: "When your classmate let the bullet fly,/you clicked those $30 knock off heels./Now you're back where you belong." Micheaux seems too eager--perhaps understandably so-- to put the events to rest. Perhaps a letter, the sheer messiness of that sort of composition, would have created more satisfying ambiguities than an overdetermined ode with a far too pat ending for the event it describes.

Sometimes these more tepid moves infest his poems that deal with Greek myth. In "Pentheus Up in Drag," Micheaux writes: "I'll show my mother how to be a queen./How to sit exemplar. How to decree with a nod or a slow blink." You can feel the impact of J.D. McClatchy or Richard Howard--it's difficult for young gay writers not to succumb to the lure of inserting mythical poems into their books. When those older writers did it, it was almost necessary; it gave the queer poems a sense of legitimacy. By asserting classical allusions, the poems anchored themselves into the History of Literature and made them more defensible. Now those choices seem at times less erudite and more a failure of imagination. Why not invent our own myths?

Often Micheaux excels when dealing with explicitly sexual material. In the poem "Analingus," the speaker pontificates about how he learned fellatio: maybe he "...watched his addict mother being coaxed/into it by a john or learned it the way/most things are passed down: in secret." What ultimately becomes a seedy aphorism has a low-down enjoyably gossipy feel. Another strong example is the poem "Daddy-O", dedicated to a Venus Thrash: "She's real smooth/parquet smooth, smooth like danger,/Great Uncle Chooly/smooth, brown skin on a/backside smooth...creeping through the/window smooth,/panty-dropping smooth..." Here, he relies on silly rhythms for fun and a liberated coherence,
instead of more general thematic inquiries.

Micheaux's better poems make me want to read more. Whether Micheaux champions the ode or the letter is insignificant, his chief focus should be on establishing his own myth-making, as he does in his elegy to Shepherd. In one of my favorite passages in the entire book, he tells his dead friend how he feels: "...you lived/in Florida and, as much/as you loved your quiet life,/you died in summer/and I just couldn't be bothered,/and it was The Panhandle no less,/and you shouldn't have been there." Direct yet blithe, Micheaux offer tough-love in a more poetic way than any of the hijinks of some overexposed Greek gods ever could.

Dante Micheaux's Amorous Shepherd is available by clicking on the book image (above) or through Sheep Meadow Press.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Jason Schneiderman's "Striking Surface"

With so many people scurrying for an English department job, and creative non-fiction vacancies the most available, you see a lot of poets padding their resumes with unimaginative memoir. Not very many applicants truly move beyond the idea of creative non-fiction as autobiography. It’s easy to make the useless claim that “good” creative non-fiction blurs boundaries, or even worse, that the genre can’t be truly defined. It’s an embarrassment to hear someone claim that they don’t want the label to pigeonhole them or ask why allow your art to be categorized, packaged, and then ignored anyway.

One of the many wonderful things about Jason Schneiderman’s second book of poems Striking Surface is that it single-handedly provides new areas of exploration for the genre. I can imagine that some people may say the book is too prosaic or frigid, but those people would most often be the typical anti-intellectuals, afraid of anything that doesn't offer plot and characterization. The irony is that the most heartfelt poems in Schneiderman's book are the ones that don’t deal with trademark autobiographical subjects, or in fact, avoid the blatantly personal altogether.

It’s easy to identify the collection’s best poems: “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” “Pedophile,” “Carmen Miranda,” “Symbolic,” “First Mouse,” and “I Love You and All You Have Made.” His gutsy elegies to his dead mother try to recast the elegy as schtick —an ambitious, but unsatisfying, project. I do hope another poet, or even Schneiderman, continues that intellectual endeavor. I love when characteristically pejorative words find new meanings and reveal unexpected value.

It’s always annoyed me that the term "creative non-fiction" was most likely invented as a way of marginalizing scholarly writing. You can still hear the underlying arguments from the artistic camp: we academic and create writers may be both engaged in non-fiction but artists don’t rely on that theoretical gibberish-- what those hacks study who can’t get their own art published. We. Are. Creative.

In the excellent poem "Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life)," Schneiderman analyzes the issue of race in the film. The four-sectioned poem begins with the guiding question:

If it’s true that what it means to be black
is inextricably bound up with what it means
to be white, that whiteness is ultimately
a byproduct of the production of blackness,
then what should I have learned
about Sandra Dee and Lana Turner?

As the poem continues to evolve, the poem becomes more special for not only what it includes, but what it chooses to omit. The poem doesn’t rely on a more predictable analysis of white liberal guilt—its self awareness comes through in the faux self mockery of lines like these:

I’m a bad person, always wanting
the expedient, the practical, the easy.

At the end of the movie,
when Sarah Jane comes home

for the funeral, and the flowers
are everywhere, and Mahalia Jackson

is in full voice, I want Sarah Jane
to go-to get back in her car,

to go be white. She fought so hard
for it. It seems like she ought

to get to keep it.

It would be incorrect to see this poem as one that could be as effective if written in prose. Or as one too many critics claim about more discursive poetics works: “it’s prose broken into lines.” As if brokenness is a bad thing, or that brokenness can’t be of value still. Here, there is more than a singular instance, of the break advancing and complicating the line of inquiry: the “wanting” signifies an attachment to the camp element of the movie; the intriguing cross identification with race and gender; a simple advance of the fun machinations of the plot; and a smart disclosure of his own complicity in the subtle, aversive racism. Furthermore, the line breaks intensify the complications of these feelings with the sense of simultaneity it creates.

Schneiderman’s poems show a way of subverting that limited way of thinking, producing poems that are a hybrid of the artistic and theoretical. Perhaps no other poem in the book does this better than “Pedophile.”

It deals with a narrator and his presumably graduate school friend who are engaged in an uncomfortable political discussion: should a thirteen-year-old boy convicted of a crime and given a life sentence, tried as an adult, be able to have legally consensual sex with a grown man?

His friend argues yes: “...if killing someone is the kind of adult action that makes you an adult, then what the hell is a blow job.”

What is remarkable about this poem is that it doesn’t merely present what some people may see as an intellectual-gamesmanship argument based on a hypothetical, but, as the poem continues, does something completely different. It reveals the paranoia gay men internalize involved in talking about the subject--the self-censorship created in talking about certain subjects, precisely because of homophobia. If a gay man mentions the word, there is always the fear-- even by gay men themselves-- foisted on them through years of bigoted false accusations, that their gay identities will be conflated with such an act.

As the poem evolves, the narrator forces himself to disengage from the valid intellectual inquiry. He can’t help to give in to an unethical and unkind pathology of his friend. Irrationally, the narrator struggles with the idea, even though there is absolutely no evidence for any sort of assumption, that his friend, Kevin, may be broaching the subject for personal reasons. The tragic-comedy of the self-enforced queer anti-intellectualism is summed up in the deadpan closure: “I’m also wondering how I can get out of this conversation. There’ll be no more coffee dates to discuss Derrida, at least not with Kevin.”

In the second section of the book, eight different elegies to his mother, Schneiderman goes for a sense of artlessness, which he may understandably be trying to convince himself is a form of emotionalism. He writes, “...I can grieve/you forever. But I wanted you here in the middle/of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost/or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile./Your denim dress.” Schneiderman’s implicit exasperation with being unable to capture "the real" through the mundane feels a bit false. In these elegies, he seems to be trying too hard to create a counterpoint to the more intellectual endeavors in the book.

I prefer the parts of the elegies which are deliberate schtick—a simultaneous embrace and dismissal of dealing with the emotional matters at hand. Here’s an ending to one of the sections: “...I Asked if Dad knew/you were punishing him, and you said, No,/he just thinks I’m lazy. And I said, “How’s/that working out for you, and you said, Just fine.” With these particular elegies and the consideration of Schneiderman’s strengths, the punchline offers a tragic-comic resolution to the grief, or at least temporary relief, and what more can you ask for, when speaking to ghosts? I think when he relies on pure wit, the desire to entertain, he honors the ghost of his mother much more effectively than when he attempts to coddle her spirit with mushy sentimentalities—a deliberate false, even if sincere, artlessness.

Aside from those minor problems, I can say that Schneiderman’s book is one of the most exciting I’ve read this year. And I hope that award committees which often find themselves wary of intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake, find that the act of rigorous thinking may be the most sincere kind of emotionalism of all.

Jason Schneiderman's Striking Surface is available by clicking on the book image (above) or through Ashland Poetry Press

Monday, October 25, 2010

On Jericho Brown’s Poem “Contrast”

One of the exciting things about being a critic is when you find a poem that you’re enthusiastic about by a writer you had previously dismissed.

This is what recently happened to me with gay poet Jericho Brown.

Without qualification, I can say that I thought his book Please was one of the most over-hyped books the year it was released. I admittedly had nothing more than a tepid response to what I felt were its fairly ingratiating representations of bad sex and domestic abuse. The book’s organization of the extended conceit of a recorder seemed mannered, much in the same way as Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris, which brought her to fame. With Brown, you have the recorder (poet) playing songs (poems); with Gluck, you have the gardener (poet) planting flowers (poems). People seem to like books that flaunt their cleverness in guiding them through easy metaphors, and their obvious transitions, and definite circular natures. Brown does it through his musical allusions and self-consciously labeled and organized sections reflecting that of an album.

People got really angry by what I wrote, and I wasn’t exactly sure why the defenses were so stern and automatic, especially since I had said some equally unfavorable things about other poets.

But I shook it off, and tried to read the book again—maybe I had missed something. I did, and still couldn’t find anything that really engaged me. The poems seemed at best fine.

Now much time has lapsed. In a recent period of boredom, I found myself surfing the web for a gay poem that I could focus on. I came across a poem entitled “Contrast” that appeared on Verse Daily. It first appeared in Copper Nickel. I almost ignored the poem because its title is at best forgettable.

But the first three couplets intrigued me:

I want to relax, but it’s April.
My students cross and un-

Cross bare legs as if one must
Take a turn holding the other

Down. Earth opens into 18...

Combined with the metonymy of the legs, the line breaks amplify the actual physical motion of the bodily restlessness. The raw sexuality submerges and emerges itself in a fun lurid way. And then it allows itself to transform itself into something larger with fierce lyricism. Here’s the rest of the poem:

...Earth opens into 18
stems, each limb, every stem,

Battling the next, all erect
Enough to win. I live with

disease instead of a lover.
We take turns doing bad things

To my body. We share a house
But do not speak. Both eat

What I feed. Spring is a leg
And can’t be covered. One day,

I was born. That was long ago.

This admirably compressed lyric manages to revitalize pretty familiar tropes: the seasons, suppressed sexuality, rebirth through its sardonic sense of humor: referring to spring “as a leg,” the welcome nastiness of “doing bad things/To my body,” nature’s erectness not necessarily achieving its full virility, but it being enough “to win.”

And the final two lines are near perfect. The penultimate line takes on two different charged meaning depending on how you read it. You almost (and I do) want to insert what could be seen as an implicit “for” between the beginning and ending fragments so that it “And cant be covered for a day”—claiming that nature, sexuality can’t be repressed. This reading accentuates the final line as more of an unreserved declaration, a claim devoid of longing.

This offers a bold ambiguity in its closure: is the birth being longed for or is it being boldly rejected? And if one is to read this as an AIDS poem, one cannot help but applaud the poem for managing to offer these two seemingly contradictory feelings. It subverts the idea of AIDS as simple disease, and perhaps, even of an empowerment, a defiant rejection of the sentimentality of rebirth.

It’s funny, when I read this poem to a friend, he asked me if it changed my opinion of his book. In keeping with the spirit of the poem, I told the truth: no. The past was not born anew; it was still the past. All I can say is I hope this is the future of Brown’s new work, because I like this present.

Jericho Brown's Please is available through New Issues Poetry & Prose or click on the book image (above) for more information.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On Reflecting about the Recent Young Gay Male Suicides

When you’re gay and young, there are words you cannot say, or at least, may be afraid to say, or taken on additional meaning when someone else says them. Faggot, queer, homosexual, cocksucker, gay, etc. etc. Because of the dangers of these words, you are inevitably impacted as a writer. Vocabularies are charged, dangerous, if not fatal. You cannot “happen” to be subjected to these loaded words. You are these loaded words. You cannot “happen” to be a gay poet. You are a gay poet. To pretend you “happen” to be a gay poet is essentially to be still in the closet, dealing with your own self-hatred.


Once I came out in college, I joined a Speakers Bureau in which three open queers were sent to classrooms to tell Human Sexuality classes what the "homosexual lifestyle" was like. Whenever I went to speak, I admired the way the other speakers said how their lives had “got better.” They gained a significant other, went to more parties, and developed a greater number of friendships.

When I came out, I said, it was strange, nothing much happened; I was still waiting.

How long have you been waiting? someone asked.

Four years, I said.

The class asked, but didn’t your life get better?

I said, not as far as I could tell. Nothing much happened. Maybe I missed something.

Once one of the other speakers took me after class and said that if I couldn’t at least pretend to be more well-adjusted that I should stick to help making floats for the next pride rally.


My freshman year of college I joined a speech team—you had to perform what would amount to a serio-comic after-dinner speech in various classrooms, competing against other students. There was someone who ranked you on content and delivery ---three different judges, three performances. The only reason I participated was you traveled on the weekends to other colleges. Translation: I didn’t have to accept that I had no one to hang out with on Friday and Saturday night.

My speech was about not being "The Ideal Male." It was all a huge self-deprecating joke about my weight and effeminate nature. Not once did I ever use the word gay. Or homosexual.

I remember the first time I competed. I knew it was well-written speech, even if unfinished, and I predictably forgot an entire section, making it far shorter than the time requirement.

I was a disaster. I didn’t care about my scores. I just wanted to go home—I was already planning what I would do as my two other roommates went to Bible study and then came home and watched The Blues Brothers. They did this every weekend night. I can still remember huge patches of that movie by heart. Ask me sometime to recite it to you.

But something weird happened. I won the tournament. I was shocked. I thought there was a miscount until I kept winning tournament after tournament. I ended up a national champion in After Dinner Speaking for the American Forensics Association. Look it up.

After the season ended, a speech coach from another team came up to me and said, “Next year you’re not going to be able to play yourself. That is the reason you won after all. It was a smart move. No doubt you knew most of the judges would be gay. How could they deny you a trophy based on your content?”

“But I never said I was gay,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said.


A few week ago a friend came up to me and said, I heard all you teach is gay material. I was upset and went into my office and examined all my syllabi. Here are the books I’m using in my classes this semester:

Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line by Sean Thomas Dougherty
This Noisy Egg by Nicole Walker
Red Fort Border by Kiki Petrosino
Teahouse of the Almighty by Patricia Smith
The Tunnel by Russell Edson
Recyclopedia by Haryette Mullen
AM/PM by Amelia Gray
The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

And two anthologies:

Seriously Funny edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby
Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman

As far as I know, none of these anthologists or writers are gay/lesbian. I felt the need to emphasize this fact to my friend. “Look,” I said, taking out my syllabi, “Here’s the evidence I don’t just teach gays and lesbians.”

“Evidence?” my friend said, “Evidence for what?”


In the wake of these recent publicized suicides (though, unfortunately, it may be a misconception that the problem is simply getting worse-- and not that it's been this bad for a long time) Dan Savage now has an important project titled "It Gets Better." For this project, members of the GLBT community, both famous and not-so-famous, make videos telling about how their lives have changed and improved since their youth. The project is intended to give young GLBT people hope and offer the idea of a better world to those contemplating suicide.

Does "it get better"?

Ask me now. Even for me, chubby, geeky, I have found happiness with my partner, and I found love.

Things aren't perfect by any means, but they sure as hell are better than they once were.

And despite all the words and all the stupid shit gay people hear in our lives, that's enough reason for anybody to live.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blobby, or, Some Random Notes on Critical Reviewing

How many poems in a collection need to be excellent to receive a favorable review?

Three? Seven? Four excellent, the rest between good and middling? Six very good, one excellent, the rest irrelevant? One that looks like it could be near perfect (with some specific revisions), the rest irrelevant? Or just some proof, no matter how meager, of potential to create a perfect verbal object?

And what about a first book? Should the criterion be different? Could it be for a debut that all you need is three that look like they could be excellent (with some revisions), the rest irrelevant?


In high school, some kids wanted to be actors or doctors or policemen. I wanted to be a critic for Consumer Reports: the idea of testing all the incarnations of a Something was irresistible. It was as if you had the chance to complete that divine task: finding the Platonic Ideal of Something.


I can still remember the day my partner and I both had different reactions to the movie Happiness. It was when we had a long-distance relationship and we both saw the movie in our respective homes. I had finished first, and told him it was a masterpiece—a word I think anyone uses with embarrassment. He was just finishing the film, and told me to hang on. He put the phone down and I could hear the dialogue to the closing scenes—I imagined him experiencing the ending for the first time, and I became incredibly jealous. “So what’d you think,” I said eagerly, to which he replied, “I hated it.” Usually we agreed, and when we didn’t, we could certainly understand why. I said, “Let’s play a game.” Scene by scene, we went through the movie, each of us watching the film from the beginning, stopping and starting, citing what we liked and what was an imperfection. It turned out we agreed about everything. Everything he didn’t like, I didn’t like. Everything I liked, he liked. For me, the sublime moments eclipsed anything weak; for him, the weaknesses deflated the sublime moments. For me, both reactions seemed eerily sensible.


In high school and college, I competed in speech team—you wrote an eight to ten minute composition and performed it in front of a judge who ranked you. Three different times you did this, each for a different judge, and if your scores were high enough, you went onto a semifinalist round. Of course, you wanted to do a good enough job to make it to the finals where you were judged simultaneously by three different judges you never had before. Once I won. I was so proud. My coach looked at my scores and said, “That’s remarkable”—I figured that she meant that all the final round judges had ranked me highest. That wasn’t the case. “You won without anyone thinking you were the best,” she said, “You won because you had the highest average of all the competitors. Everyone else was voted the best and the worst by at least one judge.” On the way home, I threw my trophy in a dumpster across from the school.


My favorite movie reviews are by Pauline Kael, who was once the film critic for The New Yorker. In three different reviews, she uses the word “blobby” to describe a character, and once to illustrate the walk of a dog. That’s become my test for a great critic: can you use the word “blobby” and make it seem like the most accurate, necessary word?

Friday, September 17, 2010

On My Contribution to the Huffington Post "What is the State of American Poetry?" Symposium

Anis Shivani asked me to contribute to the "What is the State of American Poetry?" Symposium on Huffington Post. I wrote something for him. A week after I gave him my piece, his own controversial article appeared: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html

Here's what I wrote:

When talking about the current state of American poetry, two things must be addressed: gay civil rights and health insurance.

When Proposition 8 came into existence, I wanted to do something. I wasn’t sure what. My partner and I are geeky and agoraphobic. For better or for worse, we like to stay indoors, and aren’t really into marches and parades. We’re chubby, too. Too much outdoor activity and we’re beat.

This is what Proposition 8 says in the federal government’s words: you do not exist.

As a poet, I found that one of the ways to say that homosexuals do matter was to create a blog that focused exclusively on the words of gay male poets. Fight words with words. That’s what I did. I named my blog Pansy Poetics.

I only encountered one problem: gay poets didn’t like me. A good number of them hate it when you criticize their own. And a good amount of the time, I was doing just that.

Some of my experiences with the blog revealed even more explicitly the problems with the poetry scene in general.

Early on, I wrote about one of the most powerful (gay or straight) poets in America: National Book Award Winner Mark Doty. Several of his highly political poems from his book Atlantis will be remembered for awhile, as they should. I can still remember how much reading those poems affected me. My creative writing teacher showed me his work, and I thought, “You can actually write about homosexuals. And make them complicated and beautiful.” And so I tried. He was my inspiration. However, for some time now, I’ve found myself becoming impatient with his almost sole focus on the domestic sphere. With such an emphasis, there’s a curious lack of class-consciousness. It seems his poems are closing themselves off from the outside world and he’s more interested in his excursions with Paul, vacations, houses, and cute little dogs. The political force has all but vanished. If he writes another poem about the wonders of his partner and him receiving a massage, I’ll have a sit-in protest at his Provincetown digs.

I wrote on my blog about my issues with some of Doty’s later poems. Within less than 24 hours, a number of gay poets sent me angry emails. I understood the motivations behind them, the furious questions they raised: how you can hurt one of our own? With all the abuse we endure, do you have to create more?

My answer: yes.

The American gay and lesbian movement is showing signs of returning to life in some aspects—it’s very interesting to see both new and old-school style protests emerging in various parts of the country—but at times the movement can still be frustrating. Obama called for us to push him on certain issues, and we haven’t pushed hard enough. White middle class contentment is still often a major problem. It is well-known that gay activists didn’t marshal their energies soon enough to create a definitive force against Proposition 8. Certain poetries reflect this sort of white middle-class ennui. The Doty Aesthetic reflects this inertia. You could predict our political failures by reading his most recent work, and vice versa.

No doubt in the gay poetry community, Mark Doty’s artistic choices reign supreme. Stanley Kunitz and Richard Hugo have left their mark even on gay poets: white middle-class concerns embedded in straightforward, journalistic narrative. We like to think gay poets might use Cavafy or Frank Bidart or Wayne Koestenbaum as contemporary touchstones, but that doesn’t often seem to be the case. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but when it’s the prevailing mode of queer poetics it’s an undeniable problem. Airing a community’s dirty laundry may be the only way to go to get things riled up.

This past year gay Latino writer Rane Arroyo passed away. He created poems that were every bit as good as Doty’s, but he never received even close to the same amount of national and monetary success. It’s not like Arroyo wasn’t using traditional narrative/lyric modes. Perhaps what blocked that from happening is his overt humor, more incisive and inclusive politics, and lack of self-righteousness. Both Doty’s Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems and Arroyo’s The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems were released the same year, but Doty’s received all the attention, garnering a Lambda Award win and the National Book Award. Look at an excerpt from Arroyo’s “The Defense of Marriage”:

Sex, but no wedding is the 11th commandment

for us, legally defined Sodomites, sinners

in designer angst. One young man in

psychic Speedos and nerd glasses runs

on a Caribbean beach looking for any man

to kiss--but he's too shy to join any group.

He stumbles and looks up: a UFO crashes

to land by him. Out come the dead:

James Dean, Ramon Navarro, Monty Clift,

Jim Morrison, Rudolph Valentino, Sal Mineo

James Baldwin, Renaldo Arenas (no, no rest

for you in my poetry!). It's a family reunion.

They kiss him--some as lovers, as brothers,

as friends, as real human beings. Just for

the hell of it, let's put our Santana to play

his guitar on a pink yacht while Michelle

twirls on deck on a tuxedo: suddenly mermen

bubble up, kissing. Jean rides a dolphin and

and then looks up: the sun and the moon

rush to kiss each other. It's the end of

the world! That's how much power we have.

What’s fun about this excerpt is that there is an explicit naming of governmental discrimination (“legally defined Sodomites”), a generous multicultural compendium of poetic influences, and an unapologetic sincere flamboyance.

It may seem that the argument of the Doty Aesthetic is a silly one. Are Arroyo and Doty really that much different as poets? And I would say my point exactly. I would argue that often any kind of straying from one of the grandfathers of gay poetry causes problems. It’s also undeniable that passive, unconscious racism within the gay community stifles some voices as opposed to others.

Poetry does pay. Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant of what is going on. Publications means books means readings mean jobs means grants means fellowships. Means health insurance. You could ask anyone in an MFA program confirmation of that fact. With the job market the way it is, you need at least a book of poetry from a high-profile press to even be considered for a decent job. And I’m probably underestimating what the current requisites are. Everyone is striving to move beyond the current situation fledgling creative writing teachers are in: working part time at several colleges with no health insurance. You want to be hip but not too hip, idiosyncratic but not a rabble-rouser.

In the last two years, one of the most celebrated books of poetry by a young gay man is James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy. Along with his teacher Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire: Selected Poems, Hall’s book won (in a tie) a Lambda poetry award that year. I was ambivalent about the book. I admitted that reaction in a review and immediately received a couple of emails telling me that I was jealous. On one hand, I thought that Hall’s sporadic comedic poems made for an exciting debut. Who can not want to read a poem which turns the ostensibly confessional poem on its head with the hyperbolic title entitled “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas”? Instead of exploring his talent for comedy, however, he included a lot of poems that were morose reflections on relationships between son and mother. You couldn’t help but pity the personae of the gay son, doomed by his oppressive, promiscuous, troubled mother. Most heterosexuals are well-meaning. They want to appear concerned, especially when the gay poet manipulates the reader through his descriptions of a doomed gay child.

I was hoping that after his first book, Hall would stretch his wings and explore the comedy. Perhaps he received too much praise from heterosexuals (and even homosexuals) for the pity party. In the July/August 2010 of The American Poetry Review, a new poem by Hall appears. It’s called “Premonition” and here’s the opening: “If you don’t believe foresight is a curse, then I wish you’d love a man,/ knowing he won’t love you back. Then you won’t kiss him/ in the restaurant. You’ll keep your hand out of his./ You won’t believe him when he says you’re beautiful./None of us is beautiful when we see what’s coming. Trust me:/don’t spend the night...”

When Hall was an MFA candidate, Lorrie Moore’s collection of short stories “Self-Help” was popular. The collection impacted many female writers like Pamela Houston with its broad tragic-comedy, second person voice, and limited view of female/male relationships. The men were aloof or cheaters; you always pitied the woman. Hall reinvents these tropes through the insertion of two men in the formula sans the comedy. But then the poem takes an even more frustrating turn. In the eleventh and twelfth line, Hall foreshadows the conclusion of the poem with “Don’t love/the tenderness in his voice at the moment of impact.” Impact is the key word. Even though the syntactical structure is clunky, it turns out that the “you” of the poem is told to scamper away from his trick as a result of a tragedy any undergraduate might include: a car crash. As Hall writes, “Ease shut the door./Just because you see what’s descending, even now-the boyfriend/dead in the crash, his body halved through the shattered windshield,/ the man you love unconscious behind the wheel...”

The poem thinks it’s smart for tricking us into our expectation that it’s going to explore, even if in a heavy handed way, the issue of promiscuity and other interlocking issues such as barebacking. Instead the poem is a trick about thinking a trick is going to make your loss bearable, something Doty himself has rehashed to death.

I’m harping on this poem, not because I think Hall doesn’t have promise, but because I feel his poetic moves are reflective of what numerous gay writers are doing to receive publications (i.e., health insurance): putting the queer into a pitiful situation. Someone has to be mean to not love you if you’ve worked so hard to be a victim. Gays can’t gain any political traction if they’re too busy acting surprised about what any gay man already knows: men are often cheaters and liars. This is hardly a revelation (about either straight or gay men) and will probably be a subject of poems until the end of time. But there’s an added dimension when a gay poet writes about this subject—and goes no further—than when a straight poet tackles the nature of men, distant, cheating, or otherwise. Heterosexuals can love, betray, cheat, and redeem themselves all within a legal framework that gays and lesbians can not. When we want the same privileges heterosexuals flaunt, there’s an urgency here in our current political environment that makes stopping at simply the emotion of “pity” unacceptable.

It seems that many gay poets are also afraid to have fun, which may be the most threatening thing of all. One overlooked, somewhat recent book includes Christopher Schmidt’s The Next in Line. Impacted by someone like Harryette Mullen as opposed to Stanley Kunitz, Schmidt’s prose poem “Top/Butt” threatens to be sexual and silly: “Born of sunlust, bus runs to sub-Boston porn moor, horny homo zoo. Looks stun. No frumps, no fops, just buff studs burnt brown. Luc, uncut, hunts cut cock...” Schmidt goes on later: “Our two gods mushroom. Todd pulls Luc’s hood. Luc flops Todd, rubs Todd’s rump, drums Todd’s knott, churns Todd’s rut, tugs Todd’s butt.”

Queer writing doesn’t always need to be tidy with an easily digestible theme. As in the case of this poem, unique, arbitrary, and ostensibly euphonic notes resist the silence most queers allow to happen.

One of my concerns is that with the popularity of the Doty Aesthetic, more gay poets might continue find themselves trapped in certain old-fashioned, aesthetic conventions. In the last two months, there has been considerable focus on gay poet Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles. It was the 2010 winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. The book consists of a streamlined autobiographical narrative dealing with the poet’s childhood on the farm, his relationship with father, and various homosexual experiences. Here’s some lines from Walsh’s poem “Grounding II” that are emblematic of his content and aesthetic: “Once, he let me touch that fresh ink, /barbed wire around his arm./ I feel the strands turn electric/ where they crossed veins, /drew his pulse deep to the surface.”

Some critics have commended the book for destroying the myth of a homo-free countryside. It’s almost like people are playing “Where’s Waldo?” Look: the homosexual is in San Francisco. Look: he’s in the pastoral. (Hasn’t anyone ever heard of James Schulyer?) Look: there he is protesting Proposition 8. Oh no, I take that back. His back hurts too much to carry that sign. Someone give him a massage!

What’s eerie about the book is that it feels like it could have been written by poet Richard Hugo. Which bums me out. I’ve tried to put Hugo’s 80’s classic The Triggering Town out of my mind. I’ve always been surprised that the book hasn’t been taken to task for its eerily imperialistic leanings. Even a poetry critic as smart as Joshua Corey lets it off the hook in that regard. Hugo states that “the poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another....With the strange town, you can assume all knows are stables, and you owe the details nothing emotionally.” He goes onto emphasize: “You must take emotional possession of the town and the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can’t understand, you feel is your own town.”

Hear how closely Walsh parrots Hugo’s eerie plan for colonization in relations to the dichotomy of city/country and the body. As quoted in a Literary Lambda on-line interview, Walsh says: “I’m trying to expand my vision into cities. That means writing about how cities are like barns and otherwise bringing the rural into contact with the urban in strange ways.”

At the same time, there is hope for gay poetry. Gay poet/blogger Saeed Jones is producing wonderful work that keeps popping up on the web.

Here’s an effectively jittery excerpt from a poem of his called “It Means Something Different in Arabic”:

Once, I threw a towel over my head and pretended I was Mary.
My aunt told me that pretending was blasphemy. A burnt cross
was lit in my chest that day, but they say my name
first appeared in reluctantly opened love letters
flown in from Japan smelling like cherry blossoms. Sweet
and sick and begging to be taken back. I come
from hastily signed divorce papers. I believe all the stories
of who I was: Custody battles are where I learned to dance.

The poem’s self-referentiality doesn’t come off as a gimmick, but as an appealingly desperate comic attempt to discover a point of origin. Jones doesn’t have a book out yet. No doubt in time he will. Other exciting and up and coming, not quite yet first book authors include Alex Dimitrov, Eduardo C. Corral, Matthew Hittinger, Rickey Laurentiis, etc.

A lot of people bemoan the shrinking amount of space allotted for literary criticism in print newspaper and magazines. I don’t feel that bloggers and people involved in new media are compensating for that loss. Is the popular Ron Slate’s blog “On the Sea Wall” much of an improvement, if any, over Logan’s New Criterion poetry reviews? If these critics, both solid in their poetry careers, solid commercial success behind them, can’t offer rigorous criticism to the poetry community at large, it is no surprise that queers quake in their boots when forced to review their peers.

Logan’s reviews are notoriously, uniformly negative. The tiny pleasures comes from his next clever or not so clever put down of an established poetry icon like Sharon Olds or Louise Gluck or Robert Pinsky, et al. In his somewhat well-known review of Frank O’ Hara, he shows how necessary it is for queers to take up the job of critiquing their own. Published in 2008 in the New York Times, Logan says about Frank O’ Hara’s poems: “O’Hara wrote about a homosexual life with a cheerful nonchalance rarely matched since; Allen Ginsberg by contrast was slightly lugubrious about sex.” Enough said.

On the other side of the continuum, Slate, who is exponentially a better poet than Logan, uses his blog to feature “reviews” on contemporary books that read like second rate ads for the book. If he didn’t already prove himself as a compelling poet, he’d look like a sycophant. In his post on August 16, 2009 he include a review of editor Joshua Weiner’s anthology At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. Slate mentions a few of his favorites, but doesn’t offer that much more. On July 20th of this year, Slate reviewed Mark Doty’s “The Art of Description: The World into Word.” At the end he tells us: “his essays are alive with wonder...”

What both of these critics lack is what produces the most intriguing essays: a tortured ambivalence. With absolutism, there’s nothing at stake in the over-determined predictability of the opinions.

But on the poetry blogs, there cannot be enough good things to say about Rigoberto Gonzalez. Much to his own detriment, he has tirelessly spent time promoting marginalized authors and small presses. Not only does he write so many reviews, he has during his tenure as a member of the National Critics Circle spotlighted so many worthy poets. I sometimes get nervous when someone is so generous that their own works gets overlooked. My favorite work of his: his first book of poems So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until it Breaks, Butterfly Boy: Memoirs of a Chicano Mariposa, and his zippy young adult novel The Mariposa Club. Poet and critic Jason Schneiderman has produced some of the most provocative and thoughtful essays I’ve read about poetry, period. His American Poetry Review essay on James Merrill is amazing. I can’t wait until he assembles a non-fiction book. To tide us over, his new book of poems Striking Surface is coming out from Ashland Press this year.

I am excited to witness whatever the gay male poetry community does next. Whatever its flaws and missteps, there is such promise here, promise not just for poetry, but for actual political change.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the Role of the Literary Magazine In My Life (An Introduction)

The first time I saw someone reading Shakespeare in public, they were laughing to themselves, and I hated them for it. I remember myself as an undergraduate wanting to be that sophisticated, so I grabbed As You Like It from the bookshelf, and mouthed the words to myself, and no laughter came out. I wasn't even sure what the characters were saying. I knew I'd have to get the CliffsNotes anyway, so I trudged across the room and found them. I read the plot synopsis, understood the frame of the scene, and read it again. I still didn't cackle, even guffaw the slightest bit. I sat there for a whole hour and was confused.

But in a way it didn't matter. I was in the presence of something larger than myself. I felt the same giddy feeling when my undergraduate poetry professor Laurence Lieberman handed me a copy of Mark Doty's Turtle, Swan, and told me that as a young gay man, I would be interested in it. This happened after I criticized a poem by a female author in class, because I found its presentation of homosexuality offensive. I was probably being oversensitive, but that's who I was at the time. No apologies. I didn't read Doty's book right away; it didn't matter--all I needed to know, once again, that something beyond me was happening, and maybe if I read more books, many, many more books, I would be a part of it.

As an University of Illinois -Urbana-Champaign undergraduate, I didn't have many friends really, and I wish I could say that it was because I was queer. It wasn't--I was a geek. All during my undergraduate years, I worked at Kay-bee Toystore. I wasn't a good employee. I perpetually claimed that I had an ingrown toenail so I didn't have to walk through the aisles and straighten the boxes. My alliance all that time was with a black stool stored just for me behind the cash register.

When I got off work, I'd go to the library and pluck whatever book off the shelf whose cover looked interesting --I like to judge a book by its cover and never liked to read what was inside first-- let it be a surprise. Also: I don't like reading standing up; it feels weird. Like I'm being disrespectful or something. I always lie on my stomach. My partner reads rocking in a chair. I'm on the couch; he in his Lazy Boy. He reads a lot of old detective pulps like Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, I read lots of brief memoirs and poetry magazines, the shorter the better. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we've stayed together for fourteen years.

One day I wandered into a library room that housed all the literary magazines. I can still remember how beautiful and mysterious it looked. Each one was in its own little cubicle. It was strange. The magazines were never stacked on top of one another. There was only one mag per space. They covered the bottom of that space, selflessly, never unknowingly, and resting, never ever being forced to stand parallel to the cubicle's short wall.

At the time, I didn't know how or why exactly people submitted stuff into literary magazine, or even what those magazines did. Why not just put all the stories and poems in books with hard covers or with definite spines? Why leave things scattered in so many small parcels?

It ultimately didn't matter. There they were, and most of them had shiny covers. It was like I was inside and outside at the same time. I could hide in the dark spacious room while pretending the magazines' gloss was something like sunlight.

(To Be Continued)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On the Resurrection of Queer Literary Magazine "Bloom" and Jeff Oaks' Poem "Little What"

Gay poet Jeff Oaks' unrhymed sonnet "Little What" combines the deranged syntactical variations in Karen Volkman's early prose poems and the eerie, terse imagery of Henri Cole's work. In a great, brand new issue of Bloom, a magazine focusing on queer writers, Oaks' work stands out, eclipsing a number of his more established contemporaries. I've never heard of Oaks before, but I have no doubt I'll see more, hopefully in a full-length book. His poem is one of the best I've seen this year.

Here's the opening, the octave:

In the darkness. What a sonnet. When muscle
grunts, gives, accepts, resists, suck on breath,
even aches. But is not broken. What is going up.
Not a wrong way. What is going in. What is darkness
but unseen. Where are those nerves? There. What
a sonnet. Like a bed with a penis. Growing harder.
Like a hallway after grief. A curse and a whisper,
an awe, out of which the wolf arose. On your lap.

So often I've heard people have a knee-jerk response to poems that call attention to their own making, as if such conceits don't have a history in and of themselves. It's the same sort of feeling I get when someone describes Billy Collins as a bad poet. Their so-called criticism stems from a fear of actually thinking through other aspect of their ideas. The title of the sonnet can be read in a number of fun ways: is the speaker shocked that his trick would even insinuate that his endowment is "little"? Or is the endowment so little, that it feels like nothing, is nothing, is a what.

This ambiguity moves throughout the poem: Why exactly is the speaker's mind drifting (racing?) to the making of a poem during the sexual act? Is he bored? Is it a result of the sublime moment, an eagerness to contain the pleasure? In the fifth line, this masterful, deliberate ambiguity spotlights itself through the line break: "....Where are those nerves? There. What/a sonnet. Like a bed with a penis." I have rarely seen a gay poem that deals with the comedic awkwardness of sex with such odd grace.

The poem takes a darker turn in the sestet, conjuring up Cole's poetry in a number of ways, such as the evocation of the wolf, (and even later his flower imagery), as well the thematic of desperate sexual activity and the ecstasy in such dumb need. I've always thought of Cole as one of our best poets, gay and otherwise. His poems contain an honorable sadness; honorable is the key word. It would be wrong even if tempting to describe them as lacking self-pity or being about self-pity--they're more complex than that.

Perhaps Oaks' poem is most reminiscent of Cole's poem "Homosexuality". I'll quote that sonnet in its entirety:

First I saw the round bill, like a bud;

then the sooty crested head, with avernal eyes

flickering, distressed, then the peculiar

long neck wrapping and unwrapping itself,

like pity or love, when I removed the stovepipe

cover of the bedroom chimney to free

what was there and a duck crashed into the room

(I am here in this fallen state), hitting her face,

bending her throat back (my love, my inborn

turbid wanting, at large, all night), backing away,

gnawing at her own wing linings (the poison of my life,

the beast, the wolf), leaping out the window,

which I held open (now clear, same, serene),

before climbing naked into bed with you.

I think it's a near perfect sonnet. How many other poems have used the parenthetical expression to greater effect? I could see a gay critic using the word internalized homophobia to describe Cole's ambivalence towards sex and love in the poem. But I think that would undermine the self-awareness of the narrator, his own employment of the self-created melodrama "(I am here in this fallen state.)" not for its own sake, but as a vehicle to intensify the inquiry of what and how we use sex. What is also remarkable is that final couplet: love does triumph without anything less than equanimity: the conjoining of the I and the you, the last word in the poem. Sentimentality isn't a bad thing; sometimes it's what is necessary.

Oaks' sestet possesses a similar trajectory though instead of using the duck, he uses the construction of the sonnet itself:

Clicking behind, on the finally down the dark purple
each man sits on quietly, secretly. A hyacinth. That
strange boy dead, transformed into petals. My
God. What a sonnet, what a little song of nails.
Slap it. Wolf it down. Slip it in, sing on. The mouth
shivers and opens to be a moan, that moon.

Whether or not you might think that this poem invokes baldfaced tactics that obviously reveals a less mature poet: the obvious play on the word wolf, for instance--you've got to be envious of Oaks' description of the sonnet as a "little song of nails." In fact, when comparing the two poems, you could make the claim that the Oaks' less subtle and subsequently less dramatic comparison is ultimately what makes it a deft companion piece to Cole's poem.

(And it can't go without saying that when asked, What do you prefer ultimately a bed with a penis or a duck?," always choose the duck.) This is less a criticism than a statement of fact that these two poets are at different points in their career. For some reason, the speaker in Oaks' poem feels younger. In the gay community, where youth is often prized above all else, it is commendable that Oaks' narrator poem talks to Cole's. Not to also mention that in youth, you're still reaching for that "moon," but as you grow older, the earth-bound act of lying in bed with your lover is equally stimulating, significant.

It is crucial for me to emphasize that Oaks' poem "Little What" did appear in Bloom. Having disappeared for three years after its initial appearance, it has been resurrected. Please buy a subscription. It really matters that you do in order to keep gay and lesbian publishing alive and well. Here's the link: www.artsinbloom.com

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On The New England Review's and Ploughshares' New Creepy Practice of Charging Fees for On-Line Submissions

It seems that a possible new trend within the world of literary magazine is the charging of on-line submissions. Two magazines, New England Review and Ploughshares, have begun this practice, and with their huge reputations could impact other magazines to do the same. It should be said that if you are subscriber, you don’t have to pay. If you send by snail mail, you don’t need to pay. For Ploughshares, it costs three dollars. I can't find out how much it costs over at the New England Review.

Ploughshares claims they are charging the fee to be able to continue to give money to the authors of accepted poems. In other words: the people who don't get the pub need to pay for those who do. As they say on their website: "This fee will help us to continue to pay our contributors." This is shocking from a magazine that I respect and claims to be interested in social change.

Of course, the most significant argument in defending this practice is that the magazine could face definite extinction if it doesn’t find ways to increase revenue. It is an important fact. It would be a sad fate.

However, then the magazines have an ethical responsibility; they must ensure that at least 40 % (or more) of their contents include work by unpublished or emerging writers. I am defining emerging as a writer who has publications, but no book. If a magazine can’t at least meet that percentage, then they are engaging in unethical practices. Their chances of getting published should be reflected in what the charge for submissions is.

I am suspect of any magazine that does not include 40 % unpublished or emerging writers. If they are uninterested in supporting unpublished and/or emerging writers, they should not ask for submissions fees. Take Five Points. They only publish established writers. And usually their worst pieces! Which does provide for great entertainment. I hope they keep it up.

A popular train of thought is that magazines can do whatever they want. It’s their magazine after all. For me, this is such a cop-out. Magazine editors have a responsibility to hold themselves responsible for the way they treat potential writers, especially when claim they’re interested in submissions.

Some people say that it’s a “tiny” fee. I don’t know how much the New England Review's is. Ploughshares is three bucks. It may be a tiny fee if you have a tenure-track job. But when you are a graduate student or working-class, chances are it isn’t—three bucks add up really fast. You send to six different magazines with submission fees, and there’s eighteen dollars.

Let’s face it: graduate students make up most of the submissions. And most of them are struggling financially as it is. To take money out of their pocket, when they’re struggling means that you don’t have a conscience. The editors of these magazines themselves should be decrying the situation. They should encourage their publishers to go on-line, perhaps. It’s not the end of the world. But taking money from hard working students is. With the current depression, it is inexcusable.

Needless to say, these same graduate students are not in a position to argue—their future livelihood may depend on these reputable magazines. Who isn’t going to want to have a poem in the pages of the New England Review or Ploughshares? I’ve been sending to these places on-and-of for a decade or more. In the past month, I bought a gift subscription of Ploughshares for a friend. When I first came to Brockport for my tenure-track job, I immediately purchased subscriptions to Kenyon Review and the New England Review.

The literary community is small. Trust me. I’ve paid the price for opening my mouth on a blog I’m always surprised anyone would even glance at. People don’t like people who have opinions. And some editors would say in advance that, hey, they do so much work for nothing, keep them out of this. No one should be excused from the discussion. And also, it’s so prestigious to be an editor of a lit magazine. I would love if someone included me. I like finding new poets, new poems. But I don’t expect them to pay for our newly formed friendship.

Addendum: Since I posted this, I thought perhaps a submissions manager could be created in such a way that working class people and graduate students could identify themselves privately and be exempt from paying the fee. All others could pay perhaps even a slightly higher fee if this is a system that will come into play. I know I'd be willing to do that. I'm indebted to the literary magazines for my salary and health insurance and do my best, not all the times successfully, to purchase as many small press books and magazines as possible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

On Paul Lisicky's Poem "The Little Songs" and James Schuyler

Amidst the strident push for gay marriage, Paul Lisicky’s prose poem “The Little Songs” admirably dares to be about gay male relaxation; his rhetorical effects are more than a little reminiscent of James Schuyler, arguably the most important New York School writer. The deliberately slight poem even evokes the momentary, yet ultimately insignificant doubt that queer men may actually have towards tying the knot. This James Schuyler impacted poem feels genuine, partly because-- not in spite of-- its willingness to explore the banality of gay male life.

From the title alone, "The Little Songs," you see that Lisicky avoids a convention in gay male poetry-- the loud, flashy, even campy title. The sentimental title seems unconcerned with announcing its self-importance; it doesn’t feel the need to overachieve and create something over-determinedly memorable. Strategically flat, the opening sentence reifies the rhetorical effect of that title: “Three notes into the song, and I’m cooked.” The next sentence, though, creates an image James Schuyler would be proud of: “And I know myself as well as I know the inner life of a sunflower stalk.”

The poem's plot is as simple as can be. Paul has pleasant thought about the interconnectedness between him and his partner. It consists of a remembered pastoral setting, "yesterday, in the woods" --another Schuyler trademark-- and traces Paul's internalized thoughts.

Almost immediately after the sunflower line, Lisicky deftly provides another Schuyler moment: “...just like I never knew until now that you sing to keep yourself lifted when the light in you wants to go down, down. Should I tell you that? Oops.” For a poem to not sound kitschy after an "Oops" you know you've got something special.

Later, Lisicky writes: “But I completely get it why any of us might need to say those are your fingers, your shins, and your habits, given the mighty temptation to merge.” This broad claim undoubtedly gives voice to the ephemeral yet very occasional doubt gay men have to the opening up of the institution of marriage. Will it simply cause gay men to lose their distinctiveness, their own self-identities?

Like Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem” the subject here doesn’t pretend that it is of vital interest. This creates a challenge and reward for the writer: How do you create even the slightest tension in a poem that admits that on some level it can be disposed of? The reward is that the poet, such a Lisicky, offers a fairly rare generosity: the poem allows the reader to relax, and enjoy the comic sublime without guilt or demand.

In the sentence, "And how many times a month do we hear; Are you guys related? No, we're from Fire Island, though I never find the sass in my to say so." This provides an intriguing ambiguity: are we to think that the people-- perhaps unknowingly-- conflate the lovers as a result of their own unconscious homophobia (they're blurred together, indistinctive as anything other than homosexuals)? Or is it a way of complimenting them, implying they look complementary, like a perfect couple? Obviously, it must be one of these--in real life, Lisicky and his lover look nothing alike. Whatever possibility it is, or perhaps it is both, Lisicky punctuates the thought with typical unobtrusive humor: "Damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Never self-aggrandizing, polite, yet calm and assured, Lisicky's "The Little Songs" is one of the most generous tributes to Schulyer I've read in some time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Emanuel Xavier's "If Jesus Were Gay"

With a title that recalls the brouhaha over Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi and is obviously meant to engender controversy, you wouldn't expect performance poet Emanuel Xavier's book If Jesus Were Gay to be shy. It's generally not, though at times, it can be surprisingly, steadfastly reticent. As a gay Latino poet, Xavier reveals his anger at the homophobia of distant relatives who "don't give a flying cono about me/because blood is supposed to be thicker than arroz con dulce..."

His undeniably necessary and significant rants at a white supremacist society comes through most vividly in his throw-away lines: "TO THAT GUY FROM PHILADELPHIA WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH ME AFTER ONLY ONE KISS AND WISHES HE NEVER MET ME/Why is it that white people can't deal with adversity?"

Yet from time to time, his poems suffer from a limp didacticism: “...what you create/thrives on your self/destruction, I pray/with your dreams bloodied on my hands.” Amidst all the broad claims of loss of innocence, drugs, hustling, it seems Xavier has sometimes yet to fully realize the power of his poem’s quick comic tangents.

In contrast, in a longer piece, “Dear Rodney,” his thumbnail sketches of his tricks enliven: “...He also happens to be a yoga instructor. This is definitely one of the pro’s of gentrification.” And: "The next evening, we crashed Cumalot's "Rocky Horror Picture Show" party by showing up with hoodies and pretending we ended up at the wrong party." Perhaps the expansiveness of prose allows him to surprise himself in interesting ways.

It's probably not fair, but whenever I read work of a performance poet, I hold them to incredibly high standards. How many David Antins-- one of the most important poets in the latter half of the 20th century-- can we have? (He's not gay, but he does look like a daddy bear on stage!) Using an occasion and an audience he creates a "talk poem," thinking aloud, creating a long, ostensibly rambling poem in simultaneously controlled and spontaneous ways. Here's a link to one of Antin's poems:


Xavier's anger towards Latino culture, homophobia, white society can occasionally be ultimately too polite, reigned in. But when he exchanges self-pity for a silly egotism, his poems become more energetic and appealing. In a poem called "The Mexican," Xavier writes:

When a legendary wordsmith introduced us for the first time
It was as if the Virgen de Guadalupe
and all the orishas
Had sanctioned the meeting

...Until I met your vato
This poem could have been epic

And indeed, with a greater inflation of his own self-importance, a more precise tracking of his reckless consciousness, he will transform himself into a unique paradigm of wonderful poetic immodesty.

For more information on Emanuel Xavier's "If Jesus Were Gay" and Queer Mojo/Rebel Satori Press, visit:



Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On the Question of Critical Passivity

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding Jessica Smith's post regarding the potential vitriolic nature of comment streams, not very many people have mentioned what is for me was a truly dangerous political statement. Most people have addressed her claim that after receiving a positive review on Silliman's blog she felt she endured psychological damage due to some of the comments to that blog post. After she received that mention, and sold 200 copies as a result of that singular post, some people said hurtful, vengeful things in the comment stream, making it near impossible for her to write poetry or partake in the poetry blogging community. She suggested that poetry bloggers consider rethinking having comment streams.

But I don't want to focus on all that. What I want to focus on is a particular statements made in passing during this controversy: in her discussion of how a particular small press possibly lost its momentum to publish as a result of comment stream defaming their reputation, Smith writes:

"I cannot stress enough how important chapbook and zine publishers are to the growth of experimental writing and how much time, money, and effort go into publishing a single issue or single chapbook. If you are not such a publisher, you have no right to complain about anything related to publishing. If you think something ought to be done differently, do it yourself– with your own time, money and sweat."

What I find most disconcerting here is the anti-intellectualism contained within this statement. I have nothing against Jessica Smith; she seems like a very nice person. But to advocate for a critical passivity simply because you don't know the complicated ins and out of publishing makes me nervous, and the fact that so many people seem to be complicit in advocating for this sort of repression makes me sad and anxious.

On this blog, I do go out of my way to focus on unknown authors and small-press books. One of my goals is to find unknown or lesser-known poets and small press books and give them attention (So often the books that receive gay awards are at least from university presses or there is a direct line of inheritance from the writer to a huge figure in the field).

Another motivation for me is to offer critiques of major poets who I feel need to be reassessed for failures in regards to politics. This is why I haven't talked much about D.A. Powell or Henri Cole on this blog: they are supported by significant presses and almost always deserve the attention they get.

My attitude in life is that it's pointless to love someone/something who everyone else wants. I focus my love on people who haven't been fully appreciated (or at least not yet). That's how I prove to myself how amazing of a critic I am: I can see what most other people fail to notice. Everything is ultimately about me, thank God!

I suppose I have violated Smith's comment when I gave a somewhat unfavorable review to a book that was released by the amazing Lethe Press. I have liked (a lot) a number of their other titles. But I did feel this particular book was lacking and said so. For me not to do so as a reviewer, even though there was some considerable anxiety in being unable to advocate for the book, would be an unethical decision. As a teacher, I see the review as a pedagogical tool--first, for my students who inspired me to create this blog. How can I expect my students (or anyone else) to think critically about a book if I tell them to silence themselves because they haven't produced a book themselves? Also, if, when your writing is out there, you don't want to be open to criticism-- even if it can be, yes, sometimes unkind and thoughtless-- I'm not sure why you're in this profession.

Presses are responsible for what they introduce to the world. Smith may not realize she's condescending to the very presses whom she supports and publishes. To ask us to safeguard small presses simply because they're small presses is a dangerous form of pity.

What her comment fails to realize is that breaches of etiquette are usually a symptom of larger institutional and individual inequalities. It is unfortunate that so many wonderful (and even not so wonderful poets) can't get published. If your book is read --let alone sells 200 copies as a result of a singular blog post, as what happened to Smith --you've been loved, with all the puzzling, questionable, horrible things that come with it.

Proposition 8 Ruled Unconstitutional.

"...The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." -- MLK







Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Chip Livingston's "Museum of False Starts"

Similar to Lethe Press, Gival Press primarily appears to invest in gay and lesbian writers. In looking at their publications, I see several interesting new poets. What is upsetting is that these small presses often don't receive more attention from queers themselves. Recently I was talking to a friend of a friend about the trouble he was having finding a publisher for his first book. He said to me, "I'm holding out before I go to a specialty press. I'd prefer somewhere legit first."

I don't think there's anything wrong with a writer wanting to receive a substantial circulation. At the same time, it doesn't mean that such statements should go without criticism. It upsets me that books from places like University of Chicago and University of Arkansas receive so much attention from gay men, each repeating the same praise almost verbatim, determined to give those writers as much access as possible to awards, reviews, and interviews. But some of these same gay men rarely actively support small press queer writers. If Chip Livingston's Museum of False Starts from Gival Press came from one of those larger aforementioned two presses, I guarantee there would be many more well-deserved accolades from mainstream sources. Are there gay poets out there who may claim that they possess anxiety about sending out their manuscript when the real issue is that they only want to send it to the most high profile contests?

After reading two of the National Poetry Series winners, Carrie Fountain's Burn Lake and Colin Cheney's Here Be Monsters, it becomes more difficult to claim that the high profile contests necessarily reveal the most interesting work. The former is buoyant, but fails as a result of its consistent, ultimately unarresting deadpan and its faux interest in dated 1970s ecological feminism; the latter feels like a book that would win a contest -- it's ostensibly inevitable leaping between the personal, mythic, and historical feels like the sort of moves that one associates with "Good Art" when it may actually been indicator that the poet hasn't truly found his subject matter yet. Both are perfectly fine, forgettable choices.

How many times have you heard someone praising a book for the reason that he "simply manages to capture what it feels like to be a gay man." I have no idea what that means. As I tell my students, if I can "relate" to your work, you should probably start again.

I can't relate to the work of Chip Livingston, who Alfred Corn describes as "Native American" and "cosmopolitan" in his blurb, any more than any other writer. But still. I know a good poem when I see one.

One of Livingston's best poems "Coon Was Here, 1985" deals with naming, and mixed heritage. Imagine how a lesser poet may have easily shortchanged the elegy through clumsily attempting to interweave the various names of the deceased. Here's the opening:

I never called you Coon
though that was home Ricky
brother I still think is God
& pray to bound by half our blood.
Mom's firstborn by a non-Indian
you came out blond & blue eyed.

I got my Daddy's Choctaw eyes.
And eyes are what made Poocha call you Coon.
Crazy bastard with all your Indian

The line break between "Indian" and "names" complicates the nature of identity, the difference (if there is one) between who someone essentially is and what one is called. Does the naming actually change one's essence?

The poem continues: "...On your headstone it says Ricky./ But wolf is what you carried in your blood./Poocha took it straight from God./And whose eyes are bluer than God's?"

What's remarkable in this poem is that even with all of the various juxtapositions of identities, Livingston keeps the framing story intact, and when we notice the names, it feels simultaneously orchestrated and spontaneous. This is no small feat. Here's the rest of the poem:

Yet you put Mom's mascara to your eyes
& burning them you tried to brown your blood.
Fisting them tattooed you like a ring-tailed coon.
From then on Poocha never called you Ricky.
But named you Coon, 'cause you were an Indian.

Then named you again in secret in Indian
& told you how your grandma bet the wolf in his eyes
& won. I miss you so much Ricky,
I swear to God.
I thought you were smarter than a damn raccoon,
letting a bunch of rednecks doubt your blood.

By 17 you'd made spilling blood
a ceremony & finally learned to kick ass like an Indian.
You even hung a coon-
tail from your Pinto's rearview mirror. Eyes
still red from dope & daring God
behind your bangs. Then you did it Ricky.

You made the papers as a Richard.
But I want to write your name in blood
on the wall behind Geronimo's spirits where God
took you to rest with the Indians
through a western door where no one sees your eyes
& no one calls you Coon.

I'll write Coon was here & sign it Ricky
call you God & mix your blood
to pain forever closed your Indian eyes.

What is so impressive about this poem is that it is not a victim narrative on any level or a narrative about self-empowerment, which would definitely limit the psychological complexity of the poem as well as its politics. Instead, through an expertly tight narrative, Livingston's personae shifts the naming of his friend so quickly, sometimes through a single line, that we can feel his self-justification, accusations, and, of course, loving tone. It is also a more uncommon elegy in that the narrator doesn't try to completely demystify his friend's inner world.

One of the wonderful aspects of Livingston's book is the occasional indecisiveness of a particular narrator. You can always feel these narrators spinning their wheels, trying to find a balance between the appropriate and genuine thing to say... which aren't always the same things. According to these poems, Livingston proves that indecisiveness can be a form of openness, and as a result, a kindness--it allows for possibility rather than just finality.

My favorite poems in Livingston's book are the ones where he creates silences within the lines themselves--it seems that formal strategy allows him to juxtapose abstraction, odd images in a way streamlined narrative doesn't always allow. Often, for a lot of poets, the rhetorical strategy feels more like an uninspired pose -- a lot like the trend to put a space between each line of the poem for no apparent reason except possibly to make the poem feel longer. Also, silence seems to be a scary thing for a lot of poets. So many feel the need to write incredibly long discursive poems contained in one monolithic block of text.

Here's one of my favorite of Livingston's poems, "Creation Myth":

Crawfish’s idea         digging the mud up
But who thought up Columbus

Mud a man can sail to         flown through fog
And down down into mountains

My own breath part of that naming
Esakitaumesse Fuswalgi Chebon

Until we got the hang of marrying down   down   down

Not the very best idea         remember Atlantis
All that water     first deal with birth mother

Never in SF at the same time       in case it happens again
Never play piano under water       listen to piano music
under water never

There are legendary comparisons how could it be
The Christian reincarnate of a drowned woman

Listen     if you think it’s noisy in my head

For more information on Chip Livingston and Gival press:


Gival Press, LLC
PO Box 3812
Arlington, VA 22203

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dear Paris Review...

Dear Paris Review,

I recently received a letter that you un-accepted my poems "Villianelle for My Pit Bull (who Died)" and "Rallying Against Feminism While the Moon is Full." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I talked to two other poets, JC and DN, who told me at first it might be a joke, that they didn't receive a letter and there was nothing to worry about.

As you know, they, too, soon received letters. Like me, at the time JC and DN were both dressed in their finest tuxedos, nervously standing at the mailbox waiting for the big day to arrive, for the mail carrier to grandly march up the walk, and to see our names joined for eternity with the name Paris Review splashed across the cover of the latest issue. Instead, the mail carrier grimly handed us a letter with black borders. "I'm so, so sorry," she said as she turned and walked sadly away. What could this be? Where was the issue that we had all dreamed was forthcoming? Our fingers trembled as we tore open the envelope. "It's not you, it's me," the letter read.

Oh, dear, dear Paris Review. I know you know that your magazine is one of (if not the) most respected literary magazines in the country. And here is the proof: even my father, who has always had bad eye sight and who would tell you that he never read an entire novel from cover to cover in his life, knows what the Paris Review is. It's right up there with the Saturday Evening Post. In fact, when my father was growing up, he always had to sit in the front rows of his single room schoolhouse grade school classroom, squinting to see the black board. His teacher, a true humanitarian, took him aside one day, and said that he could tell my father was struggling to take the notes.

This kind academic slipped my father the most recent issue of the Paris Review (my father still keeps it under his bed next to a well-thumbed copy of the Sears-Roebuck catalog) and said, "Even if it takes one full month, read this magazine from cover to cover and you will know all you need to know about the state of literature in our country." It took my father two full months. My father still says after all these years that what he learned still holds true today. I asked him what he meant by that, considering that he hadn't read a single piece of literature since that time. He winked and said it was a secret that I would have to learn myself one day (He also said that the aforementioned teacher told him not to worry, that he would, indeed, give him an A that year, no matter how wholly incorrect his exam answers were... this teacher is now a famous dean at a prestigious mid-American University).

So, dear Paris Review, I was shocked that I received that flimsy un-acceptance letter. Couldn't you at least send a singing telegram as you did for a friend of mine with the bigger reputation than mine? As you know, the job market is fierce, and I did put on my resume that I had two poems coming out in the Paris Review forthcoming. I don't have that many publications to my name --most people getting jobs these days have at least three books, I have only two full length-books, and I've even heard talk that some departments are now requiring three books, an "artsy" black-and-white author photo with your chin tilted at just-the-right angle, and your own reality television show, even to get a job interview.

Anyway, I called the university to which I applied; I wanted them to know that my resume had changed. The head of the department was out, helping to install the new, smaller cages in the adjuncts' office, so the secretary said that she'd relay the message. When I told her about me being de-accepted from the Paris Review, she gasped--literally, gasped-- "why, when I was in grade school, the teacher once slipped me a copy of the Paris Review and told me to re-write the whole issue in shorthand so that I'd understand the state of secretarial work in our country," she intoned. She also said that she didn't want to tell me this, but the job committee was currently taking notes at a meeting where they were discussing my application. "They want you, I think," she said. Guess what made me make the cut?

That's right: your magazine, the Paris Review.

She went on to say that nothing else really mattered in my case. Not my teaching experience, not my letters, not my other publications, etc. It was simply those three little words that every English department spends its formative years desperately longing to one day hear: The. Paris. Review.

So, Paris Review, and I really don't mean to belabor my distress, but, if I may, here is the thing that really bothers me: the poems had originally been accepted by RH. Did you know that he was editing the Western Humanties Review after teaching for a stint there? The backlog was four years, and, of course, weeks before my poems were about to be published in an issue, the editorship changed hands. RH tried to make it up to me by saying the poems would be published there. It was a three year back- log though for people who he had already told had a spot in the Paris Review. "Poets always commit suicide," I was told, "And I do give privilege to the living."

This made me happy. Not only because I was on two different anti-depressants, but because I knew I could actively eliminate some of my competitors. I found out who graduated from Columbia in the last few years--those were the only people who got into the magazine--and then sent them chain mail.

Ah, Paris Review, much like our own current torn-asunder relationship, in high school, my father once left my mother for a mystery woman. When we found out who she was, we sent her chain mail every other day until she refused to send it on and something bad happened to her. If I should ever be interviewed, the way they do in the Paris Review, I will claim that writing chain mail by hand is, in fact, what pushed me into the world of poetry. Chain mail needs to be explicit and concise and direct. Just like a good line of poetry. And in each letter, you're dealing with the theme of death. Which, as any college Freshman can tell you, is always the stuff of good poetry.

Sure enough, after a few weeks of sending chain mail to Columbia graduates, I would get a call, saying, "You're getting closer." I never looked at the obituaries. I didn't need to.

But, alas, I never got close enough.


A Forlorn Poet