Friday, December 23, 2011

The Holiday Spirit of Kindness and Goodwill.

Maybe the holidays are the time for cruel behavior and unexpected lashing out at attempts at cheerful comradery.  Scrooge telling carollers they should be boiled in their own pudding and the like. I guess my unwanted holiday gift was being blindsided by a particularly unexpected mean-spiritedness.  The only thing that was unusual was that it was by another gay poet --one I respect and have vigorously supported in the past.  I wouldn't address this at all, except for the fact that I've rather cruelly been placed in a public position where I have to defend myself somewhat not on terms of my art but on terms of the personal. 

For me, Facebook is an opportunity to be silly and also to convey messages in an expedient way, especially when you're bored and have nothing much to do (like the holidays).  For three years, I've had a congenial correspondence with a certain poet.  In those three years on this blog, while I more often spend time promoting and praising interesting and new gay poets (as those who actually read my posts rather than skimming them for negativity or taking someone else's word for what I do here will know), but I've sometimes written reviews of books where I found them middling to fair to not-my-cup-of-tea (note, that's the books or poems, not the authors themselves--  I don't write about people who don't in some way interest me or who I respect, even if I don't always personally like every single piece that flows from their pen). Over that time, this person wrote me a number of responses, often affirming my decision to do so, in both personal emails and Facebook messages.

A few days ago, though, I wrote a status update in which I joked that I was bored and that I needed to get off Facebook or I would start "harrassing people."  He wrote comments on my Facebook account which encouraged me in a charming way to stay on and that I should do so (i.e., my joke about "harassing" people).  It was a fun thing to see.  Then afterwards he wrote as a status update on his account saying that he was drinking a glass of wine, and I said tongue in cheek, "I bet it's white, faggot"--offering what I felt to be a camp (if tired) response.  In case it's not obvious, I'm not a straight person, nor a high school jock bullying Kurt from "Glee," nor Tracy Morgan threatening to stab his gay son in the head. While there's a definite debate to whether gays (and other minorities) should comically "reclaim" slanderous words, it's hard to imagine that the context wasn't absolutely clear. In fact, there's a long history of prominent gays reclaiming such words comically. The name of this blog is even "Pansy Poetics."  Perhaps there's a silent contingent that feels that title's also "going too far" but in three years I have yet to hear from them, including this person who suddenly wishes to publicly chastise me as some sort of bigot.

Anyway, this person who I thought I was on good terms with said that his wine was indeed red.  Later on, we joked about something else.  I was never told during the actual conversation I was out-of-line or that my throwaway mock-Boys-In-The-Band moment offended him; if I had, I would have deleted it in a heartbeat and apologized. I don't go around spewing the word "faggot;" it's generally not my style of "camp" even if I feel like being camp.  Yesterday, though, a handful of people suddenly started writing me that this man was upset at me for some reason, and was making an issue of it on his Facebook page.  Not knowing what was up or why, I looked on his Wall and found out that I was indeed mysteriously de-befriended.

This person never wrote to me directly and said what's up.  Nothing.  Instead, I heard reports that he posted a slur on me on his account publicly stating that I "had gone too far."  Using the word "faggot," he apparently now said, was way beyond the pale for me, so, goodbye, get lost, sayonara.

I was (and still am) hurt that if he was offended he didn't just remove the post and privately tell me he felt it was misguided.  I'm not claiming we were best friends or anything, but, really.

I wrote him a response saying that I was sorry, that I thought we were being silly, and why did he not write me before he took a drastic action.  No response.  I wrote him again and gave him my phone number and said we should talk on the phone.

All I got was an email saying that I didn't know him as a person, and that word was unacceptable. His account was not a "gay bar."  It was a space for him to do professional work, among other things.  I was an interloper.  He would not change his mind.

But it's my career, too, after all.  And publicly charging me with bigotry and "going too far" while blocking me from being even able to defend myself at the source doesn't seem to me like the most "moral" or responsible behavior, either.

Needless to say, I am very hurt.  But I am not writing this post really to document this exchange, but instead to use it as a vehicle to address a concern about how some otherwise well-intended gay men cruelly marginalize others under the guise that they are acting in a moral fashion.

Any undergraduate from a Queer Studies 101 class could tell you that sometimes marginalized groups of people take back derogatory words by using them themselves--the pink triangle, for instance.  "Dykes on Bikes."  The term "Queer Studies," itself. Openly gay comics like The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson would go out of business overnight if the word "faggot" was verboten to gay men. Etc., etc., etc. And obviously, the role of camp comes into play, especially when talking about something as petty as drinking. 

When people have objected to something I've written it's almost always been on these grounds: be polite.   The unmistakable desire to protect middle-class etiquette is a result not of good manners, but a desire to protect the status quo, to ensure that insiders (whether it's schools, presses, aesthetic decisions, etc. etc.) maintain their control. Are we sure this isn't itself a type of homophobia-- the "behave yourself" and act like the "good" gay man? Maybe someone doesn't want profanity on their website, fair enough.  But it's the impulse here to take it farther than addressing it when it happened, removing it, and contacting me privately about it that bothers me.  Instead, it was a public upbraiding; this is what happens when you step out of line.

I'm not going to belabor the obvious, at least not here (too late, you probably say).

What shocks me in this particular case, though, is this person has almost everything one could ask for in terms of their poetry career, but suddenly feels the need to take a friendly conversation and use it to meanly clobber a friend who's an  insignificant poet with an admittedly obscure blog over the head.  There is so much fear about saying anything "negative" that the community shuts down.

I find it shocking when some gay poets claim that they don't believe in criticism, that (as I sometimes get leveled at me) critics are by their very nature just jealous writers.  My huge question to these people is, how many people are actually doing reviewing these days?  I sure as heck don't get paid for it, nor am I giving Poets & Writers a run for their money in terms of readers.  I do it because I love it, and maybe someone, somewhere might discover a work by a gay writer they hadn't seen or considered or get jazzed by discussing the merits of an established poet's recent works. And why on earth does one become a writer, if one doesn't want people to give you their take?  I feel writers want to share the excitement of finding what's new and intriguing, and sometimes discussing what doesn't work and why.  I'm not sure why anyone who just wants eternal positivity and praise should be a writer, rather than, say, becoming a cult leader instead.

I think that the reason some gay poetry can seem so homogeneous (and I will boast that I've read as much gay contemporary poetry as anyone, from the "big" books to the small ones I'm constantly seeking out, sometimes being one of the few adding to online bookstore's sales numbers) and that that's why the same aesthetic decisions and lines of inquiry can sometimes feel so much the same.

When I first started my blog, I was recovering from a serious, near-fatal depression--I needed to find ways to be more active in my attempts to find community.  I think that a lot of people are too cynical about social media.  I have found over the years that Facebook, for instance, has enabled me to be friends with people that I otherwise never would have met.  Starting a blog about queer poetics also introduced me to a slew of gay men who were now people I was corresponding with.  When I was depressed, it was about the same time I published my first book; for some reason, I felt words didn't matter.  They didn't yield anything.  Connecting people in such an immediate and expedient way restored that faith.

I never expected anyone to read the blog.  Why would they?  All I was doing was writing about books of poetry by fellow gay men.  I quickly found out when I shared an ambivalence about a gay poet that people do read a blog.  I know from the Sitemaster that my blog has been read by more people than anything else I've ever written.  That's not saying much, but, hey.

When the blog began, almost immediately, I received angry emails from gay men: how dare you criticize other gay men?  There's more than enough people already against us.  I could talk about which works I liked and loved and was happy to discover all I liked until I was blue in the face, but if I said something negative, it got all the attention, emails, comments, etc. Rarely did some of these responders want to discuss the specifics of a particular criticism if there was a criticism in a review, but instead wanted to talk about what a "negative" person I was being.   Regardless, for me, open discussion has always been a good thing.

To come full circle, for what it's worth, I said a lot of good things about this poet who won't now talk to me.  I felt though the need to make myself transparent, and thought that it would be more conducive for myself and the queer community, whatever that is, to provoke and get a more genuine conversation going.

Over the years, I have found out a number of things.  Once I made an attempt to read all the Lambda award nominees in Gay Male Poetry--I corresponded with the poets who were up for the award.  It shocked me that many of them said they hadn't read any of their competitors' books.  Wasn't anyone simply curious?  Instead of criticizing one another in a circa-1970's style circular firing squad conversation about the pros and cons of minorities "reclaiming" slurs like the F-word, why don't we encourage everyone to support our gay literary community by genuinely buying, reading, and actively and energetically discussing the works?

Needless to say, as if it bears repetition, how much I am dismayed that someone who I've talked to over the years, sent emails to, received emails back from, talked about other poets with (the same poets I wrote about publicly) but would just cut me loose over a dumb joke that might as well be gathering dust in the eight-million- gay-men-have-used-variations-of-it hall of fame.

I don't think that's the crime though.  In past emails he said that he wanted to hang out with me at AWP, but he said, jokingly, it might "hurt" his reputation.  If one wants to talk about a degrading, demeaning, and inappropriate "joke," one might start there. What did I do that I'm a risk to someone's reputation?  I kept a blog documenting my opinions about gay art.  (And I buy all the books by gay poets myself.  Only four times in three plus years did I receive a copy, and even then, I always made sure to buy yet another copy to support the press.) 

The fact that an unknown poet like myself could pose a threat shows how bad the situation is.  I've always wanted to be a part of a community that provides checks and balances to one another--why else write about other books? Anyway, sorry if I've inconvenienced anyone's reputation.  To paraphrase Scrooge, perhaps I should just be de-friended and decrease the surplus population.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the Lambda Literary Awards, Saeed Jones, Aaron Smith, and Glenn Sheldon


Dear Mr. Richard Labonte,
 
I recently read a mass email that you sent out, saying that you extended the December 1 deadline for submissions to the annual Lambda Literary Awards.  You reported that you would be contacting publishers who you thought had worthy entries.  There are three poetry books that I feel need to be entered.  I am afraid that because they are chapbooks and not full-length that their publishers might feel reluctant to enter them.  Chapbooks are often marginalized and often unfortunately seen as merely a gateway to a full-length book.  I feel that they should be considered as a self-contained product.  That's why I believe Sibling Rivalry Press, Winged City Chapbooks c/o. New Sins Press, and Rocksaw Press should be contacted.  They each produced a fine chapbooks that I feel could easily become a finalist.  The three chapbooks include Saeed Jones' "When the Only Light is Fire," Aaron Smith's "Men in Groups," and Glenn Sheldon's "Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads."  Please don't marginalize chapbooks.  (If Frank Bidart's chapbook "Music Like Dirt" can be a finalist for the Pulitzer surely these chapbooks could be at the very least considered for a Lambda.)  Immediately below are my microreviews of these works.

                                                         ***

Much anticipated, Saeed Jones’ chapbook When the Only Light is Fire lives up largely to its hype, particularly the first half.  Stand-outs include the personae poem “Kudzu” (“And if I ever strangled sparrows/it was only because I dreamed/ of better songs”) and “Boy Stolen Evening Gown” (“I waltz in an acre of bad wigs.”)  His deftly compressed series of poems about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. act as an affirmation and a successful extension of Lucille Clifton’s famous work, “jasper texas 1998”  Who could forget her line: “I am a man’s head hunched in the road./I was chosen to speak by the members/of my body.”?  Here on his own terms, Jones writes with a similar defiance in “Jasper, 1998: I”: ...”but I speak/(tongue slick with iron)/but I speak/in the language of sharp turns.”   His very few less successful poems deal with bad sex, jilted lovers, dark lonely nights.    There, he ditches his technique, strong line breaks, sharp turns of phrase, for baroque setting.  Take the poem “Room 31”: “Cigarette smoke/is the smell of the last couple here,/the ghost of their stains/still/on the sheet,..”  More of a sign of youth than anything I bet, these minimal, disposable scenes will be replaced no doubt by more earned and honorable sadness.  Regardless, don’t miss out on this exciting debut.

Saeed Jones' When the Only Light is Fire is available through Sibling Rivalry Press.

                                                   ***

I was not a fan of Aaron Smith’s first book Blue on Blue Ground.  It felt canned and amateurish. (“There’s a different kind of loneliness/in the city, one of thousands of people rushing away/...and streets that at night are forbidden like desire.”)  Over the years, I’ve been reading his new work online, and have been awed by his transformation into one of our more accomplished comic poets.  One of my favorites is his inspired rewrite of  Berryman’s Dream Song 14, “Life, friends, is boring.”  Here’s an excerpt from the poem called “Open Letter”: “Your choice of socks is boring.  (So is the way you walk!)  You eat boring bagels with butter (not cream cheese) and your breath reeks with boring, boring coffee and morning stink.”  Not only here, but in a number of other places in the book, he proves himself to be the master of the parenthetic expression, using them to provide an odd, inspired sincerity.  The closure of the poem “Hurtful” reads: “...I hate you/more for: That you can eat French fries/and not exercise.That everyone you let/be close to you has to need/you.  Strangers gawking/because you’re radiant (and you are radiant!)”  By far, my favorite poem in the book is “Diesel Clothing Ad (Naked Man with Messenger Bag)” which is essentially an ekphrasis at heart: “So what if the woman’s hand reaching/for the bag pulls the bag/back and we see his dick,/that one ball hangs lower/than the other,that he shaves them.  So what.  So what..."  The poem continues to use stanza breaks, spacing, and anaphora to embody the motion of the bodies in the actual ad.  The only criticism I have is his unfortunate use of the second-person from time to time.  Smith is too gentle a poet to succeed in such a control move.  You can feel him overextending, which results in a cuteness and an unsuccessful sadistic gesture.  We don’t want to live out his occasionally frivolous clich├ęs.  From his poem “Lucky,” Smith writes: “Who knew they’d punish you for knowing/your turquoise shirt went perfectly/with black sweatpants and turquoise/Chuck Taylors?”  All in all, Smith’s chapbook is full of some of the most inspired comedy of the year.

Aaron Smith's Men in Groups is available through Winged City Chapbooks co/New Sins Press.

                                        ***

 
Admirably eerie, at times angry, and other times necessarily sentimental, Glenn Sheldon’s Biography of the Gods of Foreheads freaked me out in the best sense.  In this current, troubled moment of history, we often overlook the power of allegory.  Only a poet as skilled as Sheldon can triumph over ‘war-worn amnesiac bats.’   The book is divided into six sections, each one revealing more nuance to his inquiry into youth, artistic process, and an abstracted politics.  Unlike so many books of poetry, Sheldon refuses to write flat journalism.  The book feels influenced by someone like Jeanette Winterson, blending a sort of magic realism with unrestrained metaphor.  As Sheldon writes: “The boy’s attic shrinks into the space of this poem, still size of a room with green flourishes of jungle,/industry of generational anarchy./The pages are  chiseled...”  By the end, the boy finds himself: “Deeper into himself but flying higher, desired/as an image to be stained in glass, he occurs:/epiphany of currency and blood’s sexy blues.”  Sheldon’s words are never ‘too fast, too flung,’  His words and the ‘fantastically small spaces between them’ broke my heart-- and mended it, too.

Glenn Sheldon's Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads is available through RockSaw Press.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reviews of Christopher Hennessy's "Love-In-Idleness" and Jee Leong Koh's "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"



Cautious, sometimes overly so, Christopher Hennessy's Love-In-Idleness seems influenced more by the fixed knowingness of Alfred Corn's poems than the loony spontaneity of Wayne Koestenbaum, even if he does seem more invested in the latter.  Referencing everything from Nietzche to Linnaeus, from Icarus to Gethsemane, it doesn't take long to realize that "Love-In-Idleness" employs a politics of academic elitism to push his book forward.  This isn't meant as a criticism; in fact, quite the opposite--it often grants the book an appealing old-fashionedness.  In a poem entitled "A Split Secret," posed as the story of St. Sebastian's lover, you can get the sense of Hennessy's finely crafted verse.  An archer hits St. Sebastian with an arrow, which causes his lover to remark on his beloved's physical body.  The lover pontificates if the martyr is beautiful "Even now?/Even branched/with arrows, skin bleached/but with a constellation/of red puncture ticks/Yet so little blood...And martyr is an ugly word--/a split secret, a coward's thumb.”  In another poem, “Ghost Boy,” also ostensibly sincere in its intentions (perhaps even autobiographical?) Hennessy writes to his father: “I’m left imagining a grim-faced child pressing the ghost/of his palms against the glass/a boy who sees the rumor/of his future in the black glass.”  Surely, if you talk to older gay poets, many would tell you that they felt compelled to embed their writing with classical and Biblical allusions.  Bias against gay material allowed, to an extent, for them to tell their own unique story as long as they affirmed that they weren’t going to ditch canonical touchstones in the process.  Now, with some civil-rights advancements, the compulsion seems to be a lot less overwhelming.  It’s pretty much a choice. And Hennessy proves he's able to use both the past and the contemporary to successful lyric effect.  Look at the firm, even if slightly too comfortable, ending from “Icarus on the Moon”: “...I’ll be seizing/ecstasy, a flying wild man—no one’s son./  No gravity.  Only libido, my breath causing/new eddies of atmosphere.  The moon-so close-/like all things desired, more or less there.”  Now admire the truly great final lines to the poem  “Blood in the Cum,” which takes the time to define its own title as “the scarlet ribbon/in an egg’s albumen, a mistake of embryonic petals/coiled at its center.”  Hennessy might occasionally approach his material in a tentative way, but his poetry reassures us that he has the ability to travel where he chooses next. 

Christopher Hennessy's "Love-In-Idleness" is available at Brooklyn Arts Press.


                                                                  ***

One of the most ambitious and overlooked book of this year is Jee Leong Koh’s Seven Studies for a Self Portrait.  Even though presumably autobiographical, don’t expect any mushy confessions here.   As good as anything I’ve read this year, Koh’s poems are curiously distant... but in an enticing and exciting way. The true excellence of the book is contained in a long poem called “A Lover’s Recourse,” a homage to Roland Barthes, stretching for forty-eight pages, written entirely in ghazals.  Tracing his relationships with lovers, the father, and his own writing process, Koh never resorts to easy theatrics but to open-ended imagery: “Love is not a house.  It is always on the move.  What does a lasso have in common with a house?”  And: “What is this world?/A ship or a shiptearing rock?/And does the lighthouse look anything like the sun?”   Like his peer Rigoberto Gonzalez, he regularly inserts a peculiar word to upset what may seem like a more ordinary image (although there is a more ferocious velocity in Gonzalez's poems.)  Here Koh does it with the word “itch”: “I hope perfection does not lie in quietness./A poet builds his house in the fading of a bell./The fading is a fault but silence is an itch./Most endurable, Jee, is the unrelenting bell.”  There’s a somberness that pervades the book that feels inherently risky; its confessions are checked with measured images and an eerie equanimity.  His obsessions are clear and multi-layered.  You don’t have to look much further than the trope of the pigeon, which moves consistently through the long poem and the book in general.  From “A Lover’s Recourse," the following lines appear: “He does not wish to choose between a dove and a dove./In Jee’s ribcage contracts the muscle of a pigeon."  In a shorter poem with a strategically overly familiar title “The Pigeon,” Koh reaches the graceful end : “This is not a rat ironed flat on the road.  This is/a pigeon.  See the white fluff still not completely blackened. Affixed to the ground, the animal ruffles the light./Hard to tell the difference but it is a pigeon./Hard to tell the difference but it is still bright.”  In yet another completely different poem, ”Unless,” Koh travels toward his obsession: “Every face is a closed door.  Every tree is a curtain./The smallheaded pigeon brings no message to me./The bright air gives way but doesn’t give entrance.”  Intriguingly unobtrusive and obsessive at the same time, Koh’s book grasps the sublime as any other book I've read lately.  I truly hope it’s found by more critics as the end-of-the-year retrospective lists are announced, and prizes awarded. This book deserves attention.

Jee Leong Koh's "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait" is available for purchase at Bench Press.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Rigoberto Gonzalez's New Collection "Black Blossoms"


I believe the dead listen to us. After his poetic mentor, Ai, died, Rigoberto Gonzalez wrote quite movingly about her: "Even in my third book (which I dedicate to her memory) I can still detect traces of her influence--we shared a love for the dark and disturbing narratives and gave them homes on the page."

Never mawkish in his elegiac statements regarding Ai, Gonzalez has always appeared respectful and honorable. No doubt Ai appreciates his prose tributes, but I strongly believe what would matter most to her is the development of his poems. With Black Blossoms, his new collection, Gonzalez has performed the ultimate tribute: he has made his poems better than hers. I have no doubt she is still listening and learning from his work.

As an undergraduate, I was introduced to Ai in my first poetry workshop. I remember reading Cruelty and The Killing Floor and being shocked and relieved that someone could write about lower middle-class people with such determination.  Ai truly strove to have an empathetic imagination and risked the potential failure and  the predictable criticism that comes with it. I can still remember various Ai dramatic monologues: a boy who has just murdered his family; an aborted fetus; James Dean. Over the years, when I've returned to the poems of Ai, I've grown more ambivalent about her work. It's too easy to say that the poems are sensationalistic, exploitative. It is one of inevitable dangers of writing persona poems; it's a pretty boring knee-jerk liberal criticism--you're exploiting a certain class of people. However, truth be told, sometimes Ai did just that.

Gonzalez's poems, though, offer a generous and urgent corrective of her occasional limitations. Through his extraordinary use of figurative language, he reveals that a wholly self-conscious aesthetic can triumph over a flat, journalistic one. To defend Ai, I think that her desire to tone down the language was most likely the belief that understatement works best when dealing with sex and violence. By rarely, if ever, challenging this assumption in her work, her books become somewhat repetitive. Through what I see as honorably defying Ai, Gonzalez reveals the breadth and depth of what a personae poem can do.

One of Gonzalez's recurring trademarks is his obsession with similes.  Due to spiritual reasons, I've always been suspicious of them.  Why not accept the fact that everything in this universe is on some level uniquely its own?  To imply that something is "like" something else is to ungenerously take away from the thing's specialness.  But in Black Blossoms, Gonzalez's book, which consists largely of persona poems, the figurative language is used less to compare but to show a different side, a nuance, or a shocking oddity of and within the same thing.

In the poem "Flor de Muerto, Flor de Fuego," Gonzalez exhibits this masterfully.  Here's the opening.  Pay particular attention to the two similes embedded in the rhetorical questions:

        Cempoalxochitl.  Marigold.  Flower,
the scent of cold knuckles delights you, as does

         the  answer to death's riddles:
What's the girth of the hermit tongue once it retreats

         into the throat and settles like a teabag?
What complaints do feet make when they tire of pointing

        up and fold flat like a fan of poker cards?

Or take notice of the unexpected similes in the poem "Floricuatro":

Every birthday you eat a year off your mother's life--your mother plucked
in parts, petal by petal like the schizophrenic daisy, stares down as her heart

bubbles out vulnerable as yolk.

The list could go on indefinitely.  But I must add one last one which is the opening of "The Mortician's Daughter Dies Each Night":

"When my father laughs my stomach scatters in the wind like hay."

Teabags, a fan of poker cards, a schizophrenic daisy, yolk, and --yes!-- even hay.  What an odd and fascinating list of things juxtaposed in a single book of poems.  By inserting these sort of  images in a book that deals significantly with the grotesque, decaying bodies, political injustice, and violence, Gonzalez's relies on similes to create an intimacy with the reader (you might not understand mental illness, but you can imagine a daisy!).

At the same time, he pushes the reader away by forcing them to remember that all they're doing is reading a poem with strategically artful language.  The self-consciously slippery poetic language acknowledges that these personaes, these "scoundrels" (to use Ai's word) cannot be captured.  They haven't found a home in life or on Gonzalez's pages.  He's acknowledging them in a supremely graceful and ethical way.  Also, he gives the grotesque, the tragic some sort of relief.  Rather than affirm the horrible with a comparison to a grotesque object, he offers the reader a kind of momentary solace; he doesn't want to add insult to injury. 

Another prime example of how Gonzalez achieves this is through metaphor in the poem entitled  "Mise-En-Scene."  After the title, it appears "after Lizzie Borden."  Then the actual poem begins:

You are not a woman
         you are not a ghost,
or the shrill that makes the neighbor's hounds abort.

You are not a space between buildings,
         not wind tunnel or porthole
through which the indigent cat slips in and out of its coma.

You aren't the hermetic door with its back to the street,
         You are not the center.
You are not the interruption of the window

surprising the postman as he skips the tin mailbox once more.
          Every person in this house has died.
You buried your mother with a plum pit in her throat...

This poem is merciful.  Gonzalez allows the narrator of the poem acknowledges his own failure in his need to "capture" Lizzie Borden.  Gender is but only one of ways Gonzalez does this, creating a wonderful, peculiar jitteriness

You are not the dress
       that opens from the outside like an iron gate,
you're not the stupid woman
  
with her finger shoved inside her mouth.
       When she goes up in flames
she will melt into the fruit bowl.

You are not the fire, you are not the bowl.

There's what I like to call a discursive lyricism operating in Gonzalez's poems.  Although the poems are long-lined (at least much more so than in his last book, Fugitives and Other Strangers), Gonzalez interweaves just the right amount of figurative language with a necessary talkiness in the speech of these tragic personaes..  To limit, as Ai did, your characters' speech into "chopped" prose, isn't fair--they deserve the space, a large enough space, to explore their thoughts, motivations behind their unsavory actions.  Paradoxically, as the personae of Marisol in "The Mortician's Bride Says I'm Yours" says, "Sound is death because it's /irretrievable and every time I speak I die a little more."

If it wasn't sacrilegious to insist, I would say that through the splendor of Gonzalez's poems, he allows them to live once again in every delicate, precarious way they deserve.

Rigoberto Gonzalez's Black Blossoms is available for purchase at Four Way Books.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Gay Male Despondency: A Square-off Between James Cihlar and Alex Dimitrov in The American Poetry Review

James Cihlar
Alex Dimitrov
In the September/October 2011 issue of The American Poetry Review, and only a few pages apart, there are two poems which deal with the issue of gay male despondency. With the frustrating, even if successful, queer movement, exhaustion and depression occur in both the private and public realms. Very rarely do gay poets make this emotional state the subject of their poems; its something that occupies the edges.  These days, it could be seen inaccurately as total resignation and not empowering. This is unfortunate for gay male poets who are in desperate need of new subject matter. Going to your first drag show, or seducing the football jock, can only go so far.

Alex Dimitrov's "Darling" and James Cihlar's "The Projectionist" approach the topic in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. The latter poem is the superior of the two; it not only has a more sophistical stance and curious tonalities, but it also avoids the sometimes overly-familiar feel of the former (a shame, since the poet in question there has produced much more interesting work).

Dimitrov's poem seems to use the subject of gay male despondency as a predictable pose rather a line of inquiry.  Pose and artifice are not necessarily bad things-- they can be invigorating-- but here it needs a boost.  "Darling," I'm tempted to tell this poem, "have a Red Bull."

More on that later, but first, the poem with what you could call the more "effervescent" despondency(!).  Deadpan is a pretty hard thing to do well. And perhaps, it's impossible to deal with the subject of despondency at all without some sort of use of this device. The title of Cihlar's poem "The Projectionist" is an obvious key on how to read the poem. The projectionist refers not only to the limitations of the escapism of movie-watching, but also a psychological coping mechanism. Here's the opening:

Is it pathetic to see the insides outside?
Matthew Arnold thought the sea was sad,
then he realized it was him.

I don't know how the world works,
how a friend becomes a stranger,
what a murder looks like on the face,

a hurricane. Brush lightly as you pass.
Sometimes an age just ends.

The poem is essentially a litany. What is exciting is the way it doesn't overwork the typical strategy of creating (what the writer thinks is) a sneakily revealed emotional crescendo resulting in a far-fetched epiphany. The poem just seems to "happen," much in the same way he declares life does. With grace, he constructs a strategically blithe inevitability:

...Celluloid culture
becomes cellular culture.
Anita Hill's college students

didn't know who she was.
We all get ahead on someone else's pain.
Once you start rewinding,

you have to go back to the beginning.

Unforced and unhurried, the poem's refusal to judge human nature, while at the same time, offering a comic disappointment toward what it entails, guides the poem to its charged closure:

We all get ahead on someone else's pain.
Once you start rewinding,

you have to go back to the beginning.
Everything we touch becomes infected.
I won't end like that. No rosebud,

no I don't give a damn, no lovers on the beach.
Dial it back to Paul Henreid in a white dinner jacket.
It's good to feel generous.

Does the "generosity" refer to the actual mission of his job in that he is in charge of offering these transcendent moments? Because he is the one who changes those reels, "dialing" the footage back night after night, he gives audience after audience the pleasure of projecting their desires upon these characters. They gain by the rote nature of his profession, making his job as something other than benign drudgery, but a useful, unappreciated "generosity."

To a certain degree, the poem's casual open-endedness allows for a mystery, something special created in what could be viewed as a despondency a gay writer sees in the world.

In the same issue of American Poetry Review, Alex Dimitrov's poem "Darling" is showcased. The title immediately announces that the poem will at least be in part about queer affectation. This could be a fun idea, if the poem lived up to that promise with inventive word choice and less middle-of-the-road syntax.  Dimitrov begins with a clear yet uninspired image of gay male despondency: "The days fall out of your pockets one after the other./Soon you'll need a new jacket with tougher leather/..."

The five (unrhymed except for the first) couplets that make up the poem continue in the same vein. We're given the stereotypical images of loneliness: "Soon you'll bring/the old books into your bed and sleep easy/and alone. It must be December again." Unfortunately, the laconic, deadening pose never reads as if its in tension with anything else--diction, imagery, larger philosophical inquiry, tangents, etc. This causes the poem to feel self-satisfied. It revels in its own despondency, but unfortunately yields only what feels like an unproductive self-romanticization. 

A little affectation is not necessarily a bad thing. Having lived in Western New York for seven years, I actually crave it--there's only so much rural earnestness I can take. However, the poem doesn't own it.  And if you're going to draw from the old and oft-used well of "winter" and "sleep" and the like, it would be good to drop that bucket down deeper, bring up something with a little more depth of cold and dream.

Here's the closure of his poem: "With heavy black boots/in a calm procession of darling and honey--they walk up and down the narrow streets of your heart." (Does any gay man use the word "darling" anymore? It oddly dates the poem. You feel the poem was written by someone in the Violet Quill Club, not the Wilde Boys.)

It's a shame, too. Dimitrov has written some really good poems. I happen to like "Passage" which appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Boston Review. He manages to reference both Hart Crane and Orpheus in a way that feels contemporary and sincere. It's difficult to do. I hope his book, Begging for It, which is coming out from Four Way Books, avoids the sort of phoniness in a poem like Darling.  Or else wildly polishes the idea of artifice and phoniness until it burns.  Dimitrov has the talent to do it-- let's see if he does.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Michael Montlack's Debut "Cool Limbo"


You’ve got to applaud a gay man who dares to sport a retro cover on his first book of poems. He’s willing to give away his age. Once you acknowledge the past, in a campy way or not, you run the risk of fumbling towards a dim nostalgia. Michael Montlack’s first book of poems, Cool Limbo, avoids that fate, revealing a giddy sophistication. His book is laid-back and silly; its best moments, of which there are more than a few, is showboat-y... and with good reason.

The issue of age comes up more than once in Montlack's poems, disclosing a preoccupied self-awareness. Take the poem "A Golden Girls Prayer." It begins:

so that in old age I might...

ever coordinate my outfits
(complementing even those of roommates
and random houseguests passing through)


The best lines include specific allusions to the TV show. How can you resist this couplet? He writes: “so that[in old age] I might.../just once say, 'I'll be out on the lanai.'"

Not only does he inquire into old age, but Montlack also fiendishly investigates our childhood toys. He has a lot of fun in the poem "If Hello Kitty Had a Mouth":

Maybe she’d just meow.

Or maybe she’d still be mute after all.
Perhaps give us the silent treatment
out of sheer spite.

She could become a feline AIDS activist.

What’s great about a bunch of Montlack’s poems is that they are largely a series of unapologetic over-the-top comic riffs, jokes. He thankfully doesn’t balk at his own pettiness. Once in awhile he seems to lack the confidence in his conceits and turns to unnecessary pathos for closure. This “Hello Kitty” poem should accept itself as joke, exactly what the title promises. I wish he didn’t feel the need to humanize her situation. Why anthropomorphize at the end in order to give the poem a false gravitas? He writes:

And sure, she might secretly want them
to beg her not to leave.
But she’ll know she’s done right
when they so cheerfully say nothing,
nothing at all.

There’s a plethora of punchlines in the book that makes that minor flaw essentially disappear: “...the best beauty is mute” (“Peter Berlin”); “Will you/be the mosquito netting/draping my honeymoon bed...” (“The Slip”); “So take a course in Arts & Crafts,/buy a glue gun or sewing machine./The support staff has been promoted!/Your court gesture is now the Queen.” (“’Uh, didn’t you get the memo?’”); “My tough leather headbanger well hid the lace/only I glimpsed as she kept my straight face.” (“Running with the She-Wolf.”)

He also manages to enliven some tropes that I thought were long beyond resuscitating. I feared what was in store with a poem entitled “Bringing Straight Friends to a Gay Bar." Knowing all too well the familiarity of the convention, he doesn’t pause to creatively reveal that such an act “is like showing photos of the trip to Africa/you will never be rich or brave enough to take./Here are the gazelles, you could say, pointing/at the horny bar backs.”

Like any good comic, you can feel Montlack's impatience, his restlessness to move onto the next gag. What makes the collection impressive is his panic to keep us laughing is wholly unnecessary, yet makes him and us fully energized.

Michael Montlack's Cool Limbo is available through NYQ books.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On L. Lamar Wilson's Poem "Dreamboys"


One of the wonderful things in writing on this blog only about gay writers is that I can delude myself into thinking that the poetry world is containable, manageable. It’s similar to working on an anthology: if your topic or formal issue is narrow enough, you can exhaust a group of writers you want to include. Exclusion can have its benefits. Because there are only so many gay poets with books, it gives me time to surf the web and read literary magazines, searching for poets who are still emerging, who I believe will grow to become even more exciting presences on the poetry scene.

Almost all of the poets I review on the blog I have never met. I don’t even know what a gay poet looks like. L. Lamar Wilson, who as far as I can tell doesn’t have a book yet, is someone I know only through his poems. And as time goes by, I have no doubt he will have in his own way a career as substantial as Eduardo C. Corral and Matthew Hittinger, two emerging poets who have recently had their books accepted by significant presses.

One of the poems that first brought Wilson to my attention was his poem “Dreamboys.” This poem first appeared in the literary magazine Rattle I was truly impressed at the way that he rewrote Theodore Roethke’s "My Papa’s Waltz" with an energy as compressed as Yusef Komunyakaa or Heather McHugh. In the first three tercets of the poem, he manages to reference both the Roethke poem and the musical Dreamgirls, adding an explicit queer matrix to the former through the latter.

The setup, as I read it: the narrator’ brother was apparently once conflicted toward him as a result of his gayness. Now that his own son is displaying queer mannerisms, he’s forced to do “penance” and provide a protection that he never afforded his brother. To further complicate this family dynamic, in this "waltz", both brothers, straight and gay, come to the painful realization that they are both limited in the ways they can parent this young queer child. Here’s the opening:

My nephew waltzes beside his father,
The man who was the boy who made Faggot!
A reason not to flinch. His neck a merry-

Go-round, our boy rears back, waves
His pointer in my face, jabs his other fist
Into his fist & wails: Watch yo’ mouth!

Watch yo’ mouth, Miss Effie White!

So much has been written about the thematics of Roethke’s poem: is it purely a sentimental image of a somewhat drunken father and son dancing or is the celebration a disguise for abuse and alcoholism? If you should choose to read Wilson’s poem as an answer to that debate, the poem straddles a similar ambiguity.

Here, though the opposite side of the continuum is not violence, but the knowingness of one’s ineffectuality. The nephew’s showboating causes the narrator’s brother to be transported into the past. As Wilson writes: “In my brother’s eyes, I see/The pain of remembering when I crooned Don’t/Tell me not to live. Just sit & putter. Life’s candy/& the sun’s a ball of butter” (i.e., lines from the showtune "Don't Rain on My Parade" made famous by Streisand and, to a new generation, Glee's Lea Michele). At the same time, the narrator and his brother “applaud” yet at the same time “feign” laughter at the nephew’s queer antics.

The young gay child is also given more agency in this rewriting of the Roethke’s poem as as he sees “beyond the veil shrouding/His father’s eyes. Realizes this isn’t/How brown boys win favor.”

The young queer child is given the scruples to see through the romanticism and into the unfortunate realities of race and sexuality. What is especially rewarding in this poem is that the gay narrator admits his own helplessness in the matter—he’s as lost as helping his brother’s son as his brother was with him. The nephew “Searches/My eyes for answers.

In this time when nearly every gay male couple seems to be thinking about adoption, there’s an understandable refusal to address gay male frustration at our sometimes ineffectuality in being able to protect or reach a younger generation of gay men from the very hurts we once experienced. Through the bleak closure of this poem, Wilson begins to address it. You don’t need to go much further than the poetry spotlight on the Lambda Literary website to see other examples of such exciting complexities from L. Lamar Wilson that will build an undeniably great first book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Craig Moreau's "Chelsea Boy"


Craig Moreau’s new book of poetry Chelsea Boy feels as if it's nostalgic for someone else’s nostalgia. Moreau knows that he isn’t part of the heyday of wild sex and drugs which once embodied Chelsea. This distance doesn’t stop his overdetermination to see himself as a descendant of a missing subculture. It creates a weird disconnect in a book that wants to see itself as edgy and contemporary.

For a pretty much straight-up first person party boy memoir, the most surprising aspect about Chelsea Boy is that it is so sexless, almost virginal. This may be the most disappointing difference between the past and present iconic Chelsea Boy figure. With AIDS, Chelsea Boy has become frigid. In his prose introduction, Moreau writes that there were two guiding questions for him in his writing: “What is a Chelsea boy to you? And, do you consider yourself a Chelsea Boy?” Having read Chelsea Boy, my greatest fear is realized: it means a lot of preening, a lot of talk and not much action.

What’s the point of being beautiful if you’re not going to offer a piece of yourself to everyone who wants? Or conversely, what's the point of coveting a Chelsea Boy if he's not going to spit in your face? That’s the central problem with what Moreau admirably labels as autobiography: he’s a nice, resepectable guy. He’s pretty careful in his dealings with other men and not very mean. I always cringe when you ask someone what his worst flaw is, and he says, “I’m too giving.”

But Moreau is too generous. He doesn’t have enough fun with unabashed narcissism. Instead of giving us vain, indulgent narratives about sex and drugs –two impossible, thankless things to be writing about—he creates a series of poems entitled “Chelsea Boy Survival Guide” which contributes to the structure of the books. He's so sweet he makes the time to pose questions of etiquette. He lets the music rest.

Here’s a look from “Lesson #2: How to Build a Puzzle for a Broken Heart”:

Go to K-Mart and look
for however many pieces
will fix your broken heart.
(I recommend 1000+, ages 15
and up, preferably with a
Thomas Kincaid painting.)

Purchase a 40-ounce beer,
one with a name you don’t want
to remember, written in bold
lettering and sounds vaguely
Latin American.

This passage is emblematic of the writing in Chelsea Boy. At best, it's inoffensive and serviceable. The modest wit hides potentially intriguing subject matter, namely, a more explicit dialogue between the past and present Chelsea Boy figure in gay culture. It’s odd that the lore involving the Chelsea Boy needs to be transformed for Moreau into self-help. At points, Moreau feels as if he transforms into a queer Tony Robbins. This move toward self-help feels as dated as the origin of the Chelsea Boy figure itself.

His contrived literary allusions perhaps are a result of his anxiety about his subject matter. Rather than reenergizing the sex-and-drugs tropes, he feels compelled to give pedestrian tributes to literary giants. Here's a stanza from "O, Whitman":

I love you for being civil war peacemaker, above so many
boys at their last hour, not for your love of their sculpture
or even their spirit, but for their being—-leaves of grass
burnt by fire, and how I wish to lay aside you, both
as ash and apple.


When he does write about sex, as in the poem Rawhide 54, he uses obvious metaphor:

The water dish outside
is only for dogs--and thank gods
you're here. Where else
would I go to get a drink
when I'm not wanting to drink
cranberries, but still needing to take
my collar off and feel bitter
on my tongue...

In spite of its sincere intentions, Chelsea Boy ends up committing a fatal error: it gives sluts a bad name.

Craig Moreau's Chelsea Boy is available through Chelsea Stations Editions.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Michael Klein's "then, we were still living"


In his new post-9/11 book of poems then, we were still living, Michael Klein creates the most involving mis-en-scene I’ve seen in a long time. Rich with various intellectual inquiries, the book could arguably be seen as a commentary on the potentialities and limitations of the mediums of film and poetry.

How does one ethically portray unmistakable tragedies and their aftermaths? In fact, you could claim that the poems’ deliberately blurry focus, their poetic abstractions, reject the rigidly staged domestic narrative with its concrete particulars.

It should be no surprise that I find Klein’s obsession with light as playing on the same field Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon. The film—my favorite Kubrick--is known for the director’s choice to use only natural lighting. In an early poem, "The playwright," dedicated to Mara Irene Forbes, Klein writes: “She was talking about the mystery happening to/the artist as necessary light.” Light as poetic process, as an unforced ars poetica. You might even call “Day and Paper,” dedicated to Jean Valentine, a complimentary theory of art. According to this poem, Klein's philosophy was engendered at an artist’s colony in Vermont. As Klein demands: “take that excruciating/collapse of light over day/over paper/and use it/when it feels most useless.”

The book’s closure ends with two poems, both revolving around light. In the final poem, Klein offers what a brilliant poem should: an opening for more. I don’t think too many poets have the courage to offer as much white space, a welcoming of light.

The poem “More light” features the protagonist (oh! How I want to say Michael Klein himself!) engaged in remodeling the kitchen. The banality of the act encourages the narrator to feel ephemeral joy in domesticity. With self-satisfaction, lesser writers would end the poem there—not Klein.

...indiscriminate joy finds us
and enters us

how it however briefly
releases our whole pasts
as a swimmer...

mild astonishment
around the eyes
ready to take the dark

as breath, as if to say
he'd seen the other world
less terrifying and with more light than this one.

The line break between “dark” and “as breath” conjures up several unexpected meanings. The narrator’s generous decision to extend the simile of the swimmer in such a way allows him to transform him into a heroic entity (“ready to take the dark”)—almost like a modest superhero. At the same time, the dark itself morphs into breath, refusing the dark/light dichotomy. This breakdown offers plenitude: breath, “the other world” as well as the maintenance of this one, and yes, even “more light.”

Light figures into a good number of poems in other ways, even unexpected ones. In the fun poem “Five Places for Sex,” which is written with a disproportionate number of end-stopped lines, making the poem look like a crude movie script, emphasizing the action—alas, even this formal strategy does not limit Klein’s gentle, perhaps understandably sentimental, philosophizing:

In the pornos, people don’t think about life

and death as it pertains to sex

They think that life is the empty room between cum shots--

cum shots—ticket shots—like streetlamps that come on

the same time every night.

Almost shocking, they are

if it weren’t for them lighting up the dark boulevard.

The strategically odd syntax and line breaks once again creates possibility: is the mundane—symbolized by the streetlights—sexualized (“that come on”)? If streetlights are alerted with regularity as much as a body against against another body, is Klein normalizing those come shots, and--hence-- porn? Is Klein using the streetlights as a comparison with the cum shots, or the empty room (a metaphor for life, the “empty room”)? Does it matter? Isn't it ultimately significant that sex is being spotlighted, taken out of the night, but not against it either.

The awkwardness of sex (and words) can render figurative language troubled at best, even if enjoyable, providing something like light. Like grace—something that Klein’s book offers in serious quantity.

Michael Klein's then, we were still living is available through GenPop books.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Ed Madden's "Prodigal: Variations"



Poet Charles Jensen has always impressed me with the way in which his own work invests in different sorts of beauty. If you should read his work in magazines or his debut, First Risk, you can’t help but feel an aesthetic restlessness that serves him well: from narrative to lyric; domestic to meta-fictional; or even drawing upon Stein to destabilize the definitions of commonplace words.

It’s no surprise that we should be excited with what he will bring to Lethe Press as their new poetry editor. Lethe Press’ book designs are always stunning, their content always charged and necessary. I can't think of an author who wouldn't be happy with their product.

I love that Jensen chose, as a first book under his tenure, one that is completely different than his own style(s) and content. For me, this is always the true mark of a superior editor, and one Jensen should be commended for. I think he’s doing a great job already.

Jensen's first choice is Ed Madden’s Prodigal: Variations.

It is a very respectable, polished collection with more than reasonable aims: trusting incredible line breaks and wonderful sound to re-energize commonplace tropes of a gay man’s attachment to an abusive father, the rural life, and the Bible with, of course, a tortured ambivalence. It upsets me that it will receive much less attention than Michael Walsh’s weirdly anorexic The Dirt Riddles, which deals with many similar themes. Will Walsh's book stay more in the public eye than Madden's because it is distributed by a university press over a smaller, predominantly gay one?

You can feel the steadfast sincerity that Madden brings to his poems. It’s a hard thing to fake. At the same time, his words never fall into the pitfall of sounding merely earnest. Here’s a fairly emblematic selection of openings. From “Rock collection”:

His uncle taught him how to find them—
after light rain, best time to walk

the rows, find the flaked flint
in dark dirt, cream or pink stone,

a scrape or point in the wet furrow....



From “The secret gospel”:

The sound of rolling stone pushed back the darkness:
a grinding, as of grain and grit inside a mill.
The room filled with light; a man
stretched his hand toward another,
causing him to stand, the shroud unwinding.



From “Ghazal”:

I sing old hymns while you drive.
Neither of us believes them anymore.

What do you make from a piece
of driftwood found at dry lake?

The wind whistles through bare limbs,
a song of renunciations.


There’s nothing wrong with these lines. A lot of the poems in Prodigal appeared in great national magazines, as they should have. Madden is setting himself up to be a master stylist, which he succeeds in doing. He pushes the material as far as it can go in terms of craft. There's no denying the enviable style, a content of its own. Here is the end of “Rock collection”:

He left a cigar box of rocks in the closest—
arrowheads, fossils, an agate he’d found

in a mound of wet gravel, before
it was dozered into the dirt road,

glitter driven in the ruts, the ditches
lined that spring with bundles of pink phlox.

The passage is amazing--the fun of the word "dozered," for instance. Without any qualifications, Madden has an excellent ear for the combination of sounds and letters. I happen to own Ed Madden’s debut, Signals, and there seems to deliberately be nothing here, in terms of content, as tricky as “Roots: An Essay on Race” or fun set pieces like "The Mutter Museum." This smaller scope allows Madden to focus on sound, and this decision is a bold choice. It seems that with this book, he’s trying to master his rhetorical skills, struggling and succeeding with music, through material as rich as the soil he describes with careful, repetitive precision.

Meticulous yet never fastidious, Madden's second book of poems Prodigal: Variations takes the familiar trope of rural gay son-father relationship and turns it into something we can't live without. Madden writes: "The crow is a bruise/on the green hedge, it shines." That's how I felt about this book: painful, illuminating, necessary spectacle.



Ed Madden's Prodigal: Variations is available through Lethe Press.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Reflecting about the Young Gay 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.

Due to my need to work on other projects, this blog will be on temporary hiatus. That's why this is a repost.

Monday, January 31, 2011

On Rane Arroyo's "White as Silver"


One of my literary heroes, Rane Arroyo, who died last year, gave his last reading at SUNY Brockport, where I teach. It was obvious that he was sick, but he made the trip with his talented poet partner Glenn Sheldon. (Within my next few posts, I’ll be talking about Sheldon's new chapbook Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads.)

In an earlier post, before I struck up a correspondence with Rane, I talked about how joy permeates his poems. In his eleventh book of poems, White as Silver, published after his death, it is obvious, if you read the poems autobiographically, and I do (and I’m sure Rane wouldn’t have minded), that the joy, even during sickness, was still present and thriving. Here’s an excerpt from “Even Tricksters Get the Blues”:

I have been sick all day and finally my body and house
are quiet. Is not quintessential a word that hides quills
to avoid questions? Saw a slow show about Whitman’s
vexed aging, read Ritsos’ last bitter poems and wondered

if Anna Akhmatova was forced to use her fire poems
as kindling in her last years? How quixotic I thought
Death was after I read the Romantics—before AIDS,
war(s), my friends stolen in broad midnight. Better

that I eat this banana bread my lover made or think
about not thinking, but not like in Buddhism. I do not
think this world is an illusion; I have eaten mangos,
have been transparent in a sudden cloudburst, and have

watched the doctors strap me down so I would not
loosen tubes by movement...

As in my other post about Arroyo, I felt queasy about offering a critique of his poems. Sometimes it’s better to leave the work alone. I offer this post then as simply an encouragement to sample his new book White as Silver. As in the work of Agha Shahid Ali, my teacher, Arroyo’s poems in their own way do very little wrong. Arroyo is a genuine writer: he wrote, and he wrote some more, and then even more. For me, I’ve always seen the prolific as the most generous: they want you to read them, and they expect you to pick and choose whatever you want; they allow you the opportunity discover the masterpieces among everything else. Rane never rested on his laurels. He just kept on going. That was one of the most amazing things about his trip to SUNY Brockport: he was sick, but that didn’t stop him from delivering hands-down one of the best performances from a poet I have ever seen.

Let's end this post, appropriately, with Arroyo’s “Poem To a Poem Written to One of My Poems”:

We agree there are poems
and scars. It’s that old
who came first: the chicken
or the cha-cha-cha? I’ve yet

to meet “innocent readers,
although once someone
wrote to ask me if I remembered
marrying her in a past life,

and I didn’t, don’t. What is
written astonishes because
most of the world escapes us
Then we find a poem and

a scar. Sometimes, there is
only one of them. I am “wrong”
often and why I have poems
and not just one. Like scars.

Rane Arroyo's White as Silver is available through Cervena Barva Press.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why the Creative Workshop May Need a Formal Mid-Term Examination


Reading published works has always taken a backseat in creative writing workshops.

I’ve done more work this past year to combat that than I ever have in the past. I've been free to make the undergraduate creative workshop into something other than a congenial, even if critical, discussion of other students’ written work. I can't imagine doing the same routine for thirty or so more years.

Even if you assign a book or two or three, what pervades the classroom is a desire to get to what students see as The Important Stuff: talking about their poems.

Who can blame them? I love to hear people talking about me: why should students be any different?

In order to stop that tendency, at the beginning of the course little to no creative writing work will be assigned. It will almost all be reading.

For the first half of the semester, all we are going to essentially be doing is reading published work in class. These books include Rane Arroyo's Buried Sea: New and Collected Poems, Haryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary, Russell Edson's The Rooster Wife, and Ketjee Kuipers Beautiful in the Mouth. (Two of those four are published by BOA--I believe in supporting local presses as much as possible.) David Kirby and Barbara Hamby's anthology Seriously Funny is also a required text. Again, there will be little to no creative writing exercises.

When it's time for midterms, they will be taking a two-day midterm. (I teach Tuesday and Thursdays for 90 minutes.) They won't like this, but they'll be going through the same hoops as students to do in their literature courses. Part One of the midterm will consist of the following:

1. defining vocabulary words such as "enjambment," "stanza," "litany," "metaphor," etc. etc.

2. matching poets and titles of book to lines of poems discussed in class

3. offering a short passage(s) of a poem and instructing them to write about particular formal strategies in relation to the content

Prior to the exam, students will be assigned three poems that contain examples of skill sets that I consider integral to writing good work, and will want to see employed in the second half of the semester when we do have "normal" workshop. They will be assigned to write their own poem, emulating one of the assigned poems in terms of their formal strategies. For example, let's say a poem contains a litany and anaphora; they will be forced to do the same.

Of course, people could argue this limits the students. But I believe that undergraduates are sometimes offered too much freedom and never learn to master anything definite. These are the skill sets I want them to engage. Each of the poems will force a student to "play" with their own work in a rigid way with consequences (ie. their grade on the midterm):

1. being able to create an idiosyncratic detail. This means to be able to:

a. using strong nouns and verbs
b. draw upon the five senses
c. demystify abstractions through concrete detail
d. don't equate description with simply illustrating gross situations (ie a messy dorm room, a friend puking, etc. etc.

2. following the odd trajectory of their mind through

a. making imaginative leaps from one "thing" to another "thing" (ie Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry)
b. vary syntax in intriguing, even if flawed ways

3. experiment with the line as opposed to the sentence

a. break the line in ways that create a sense of simultaneity, surprise, delayed disclosure, etc.

We will go into the computer room and they will have 90 minutes to complete the poem. I think this part of the exam forces them to also reflect about their own writing process. I guarantee that most students complete a group of three to four poems for workshop in less than 90 minutes. Here, they will be forced to slow down their process--this is an important thing. The reason why we spend so much time as creative writing teachers in saying "show, don't tell" is our students are never mandated to pause. Abstractions are automatic writing. Taking time to catch your breath is a good thing.

It also forces them to rewrite. If you have 90 minutes to complete a poem and your teacher isn't going to let you leave until class is up, what else do you have to do?

They also get to watch their classmates, how other poets are working. Comparing yourself with someone else is natural. They may realize their own work habits need to improve.

It gives me a way to see exactly where my students are at and how successful or not I may be as a teacher. If a lot of students don't do their best, I need to adjust my pedagogy.

I know some creative writing teachers may say that this criterion prioritizes a certain type of poem. Which I say yes, it does. What creative writing teacher doesn't believe in the necessity of abstractions? However, any creative writing teacher who believes that more than 30 % of the students can immediately identify the difference between abstract and concrete language is delusional.

This is my new experiment for the semester.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Shane Allison's "Slut Machine"


Shane Allison’s Slut Machine forces a question: can the writing of formal verse by a queer poet function like an act of homophobia? Is that iambic pentameter, blank verse, rhymes –all those formal elements- nothing more than a prissy way of “cleaning up” the messy emotionalism of poetry, forcing it into a cramped and tidy closet?

But like any good radical, Shane Allison wants it all, to have it both ways. If the "traditional values" of all those formal structures build a kind of closet, then the risk and energy in those same poems ultimately break free of that constriction.

Look at “Sonnet in Orange Avenue Projects”: “I got jealous when he tried to get under Makeeba’s skirt:/Boyish hands up girlish thighs./No one cares about sexual harassment in the projects.” Determinedly shabby, barely organized, Allison’s sonnet has no time to leisurely walk through the restrictive formal transitions---there’s too much at risk. At the end of the poem, Allison writes: “He promised not to tell,/But kids break their promises like pencils in the projects.”

One of my brilliant former students and I had extensive conversations about issues of race, gender, and publication, explaining her great frustration. When a white gay poet deals with race, he may sometimes receive more accolades than an African-American who deals with similar subject material. For certain critics, the white poet is seen as brave, dealing with topics writers of his own race often ignore; he’s applauded for being brave and risk-taking. At the same time, the poet of color’s material may be obliquely dismissed as predictable and expected. The underlying current being: what else is he going to write about? That may be one of the reasons why white writers still sometimes receive better jobs, awards, and fame than their peers of color. Perhaps even more importantly, certain critics still often respond more positively to poets of color who create austere victim narratives. It gives the appearance of being charitable.

But here’s a funny, lacerating excerpt from Shane Allison's poem “It’s a Boy.” What is remarkable is the way that it simultaneously seems to embrace and reject through humor the traditional victim narrative:

Polyester shirt with the butterfly collars:
His afro glistened with the coconut grease under the canary-yellow sun.
You look just like your daddy, boy, Ma would say
She fed me Skinner’s fried chicken.
Okra and mashed potatoes instead of strained carrots, peas.
Instead of baby formula, I got Tahititian fruit punch in my bottle.
I pulled a hot iron on my thigh;
It took the skin right off.
I don’t remember Ma scream for help.
Did the house smell like burned flesh?

At one-hundred-and-thirty pages, Slut Machine can feel a bit overlong, especially since Allison relies too often on litanies with uninspired anaphora. Sometimes those poems stretch over two or three pages. And like a good number of gay poets, Allison gives us at least two found poems comprised of gay personal ads and bathroom graffiti. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell the difference between the found poems and the poems that deal with his own sexual inquiries. Here’s some lines from “Love & Romance,” taken from the personals:

Massive muscular guy wants sensual bottom sissies for autumn
Uncut suck off
Dominant jock seeks 2 straight white boys
Well-hung good-looking hot bottoms for
Enthusiastic daddy suck buddy.

In flatness of language and understatement, the poem doesn’t differ much from “Tongue”:

My tongue purple from grape soda
My tongue newly pierced
My tongue forked and wicked
My tongue down the thick shaft of his veins
My tongue through a glory hole

Yet even with more similarity than difference, Slut Machine’s overindulgence is welcome. Rather than creating a nimble 48-64 page book for the average poetry contest, Allison jettisons those expectations for something more personal: an enjoyably vast, even if occasionally somewhat monotone, inquiry into racial and sexual politics.

In fact, you could claim that Allison’s decision to take up space simply to take up space is a political move in and of itself. With so many publishing houses ignoring the writing of queers, why not talk about whatever you want for a long as you want, given the opportunity?

I had never heard of Shane Allison, who has written six books of poetry. And I’m more familiar than many with very small queer presses. It’s unfortunate evidence of the marginalization of the gay publishing world. More people should hear about poets like Allison. Shane’s obvious self-satisfaction, his refusal to shut up, is nothing short of inspirational.

Shane Allison's Slut Machine is available through QueerMojo, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press, or by clicking on the book photo at the top of this review.