During my undergraduate years, I went out of my way to taunt any teacher who was openly gay. Defiantly queer at the time, I feared that having another gay man in the same space as me, I wouldn’t be special anymore. I had to hurt them.
When I lived in the dorms, I felt I had to determine how I was going to be popular among straights. That was easy. Once a meek gay man walked into the cafeteria. I was with my friends. Pointing at the queer, I said, “I know he’s gay. But this is ridiculous. He walks like he has a gerbil shoved up his ass.” Everyone laughed. I was a hit. That was how I behaved for a long time. It's still the same way I act. For example: as all gay men do, whenever I first receive a book of poems by a new gay author, I rush to look at the author photo. If he's attractive, I'll start reading, imagining if he'd love me. Or do me. If not, I'll toss it aside and read People, looking for the shirtless males.
There’s a certain amount of safety in recognizing people like yourself, and a certain amount of fear they might upstage you. Any gay man who says otherwise is a liar.
I’ve always wanted to be a critic so that I could transform my misdirected anger into something useful, maybe even artistic. Also: if your bile is right in front of you, it might cause useful shame. In other words: you might keep some of it to yourself. Having a friend is a good thing.
I’ve never had many gay friends. I don’t know why. A whole lot of possibilities haunt me on a daily basis. Am I not cool enough? Attractive enough? Sweet enough? Comfortable enough with my own body or mind? Or maybe it’s them? They really aren't as judgmental as everyone thinks they are.
In some ways, I've failed as a homosexual. I'm now a college teacher; I came out when I was in high school. I still feel as new to the scene as I did then. Whenever I read a book by a queer male, my first response is always the same: "Shit. This guy really is a fag." When a student tells me he's gay, I freak. "Go back in the closet. Homosexuality isn't all what it's cracked up to be," I want to say.
Recently one poet wrote me after I said something critical of a book. It turns out the author was a friend of his, so was the other person whose project I questioned. Even though I think was right in my assessments, I was jealous. Unlike him, I didn't have anyone to defend.
At the same time maybe that's why I am better critic of queer poetry--I am shamefully objective. Or maybe not shamefully. Maybe that's a false qualification. Perhaps a victim narrative just comes easier to me. It's what we're used to. That's why so much of our poetry reads like that.
Recently after I wrote a lukewarm, yet positive, review of a book, a prominent queer poet emailed me, saying that he would never have done such a thing. You don’t take down one of your own. He had a point. Homosexuals have enough going against them.
Maybe he is completely right.
I justified the review (and still do) in that it was a mixed. I would never write about a book that yielded unequivocal dislike. Most often I write about books that create, what I like to term, a tortured ambivalence. This is what initially drew me to this particular book: I read it twice. And I still didn’t know how I felt about it. For me, writing a review is a lot like writing a poem. In fact a review is a poem. I don’t know what I think until I force the words out. I've tried writing an essay about another book by a new, extremely popular queer poet. I feel there's something missing in it. Even wrong. But I can't quite put my finger on it. That's why I've already written more than one draft, trying to figure out what I think. The review is all about me. I can't deny it.
But sometimes there are more important things than using poems as a vehicle to figure out yourself, isn’t there? Or when we read, is that all we really end up doing anyway? Should we think of a book of poems as a feat in and of itself, and celebrate it without any reservation? Or do we need to bash it, take a bat and swing, maybe even more than once, and see if it holds up or falls apart against the pressure?
Poetry workshop at Decatur Writers Studio
4 weeks ago