This will be the first of two posts regarding the panel I chaired at this year's AWP conference (the second that I've attended), which was, like last year's, wonderfully exhilarating and utterly overwhelming. I lead a very isolated life here in Pensacola, so to have the chance to hang out with so many writers was an amazing experience. The trip has practically bankrupted me (I will never stay in a Hilton again), but it was worth it.
As I noted in my previous post, my panel at AWP was called "Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics." The presentations of my panelists made me decide to add a question mark to that title.
This post will present an expanded version of my remarks at the panel. I have asked my panelists to send me copies of their presentations, and a subsequent post will discuss their wonderful contributions to the panel.
When I told a friend about this panel, he said, “No one sent me the memo that racism, heterosexism, and class struggle had ended and thus we can now put that silly business [of] the politics of identity behind us.” I told him he should check his mail more regularly, as lots of people have sent out that particular memo.
But in consideration of his quizzical response, I’d like to emphasize that the “post” in “post-identity politics” doesn’t mean “We’re over all that now,” though there are various people who do say such things. It just means that gay identity politics has happened, more than once and in more than one form (gay liberation, gay civil rights, Queer Nation, just plain queer). My friend also asked, "What does post-identity politics mean?" That’s one of the questions this panel is intended to address if not answer: Where are we and what do we do, what (or who) are we doing, now?
A large part of gay identity, at least for men of a certain age, and for men who didn’t grow up in major metropolitan areas (or did but were too shy, awkward, repressed, or just too young to strike out on their own in the big city), has been the product of books and magazines. My gay identity was formed by books like C.A. Tripp’s The Homosexual Matrix, Dennis Altman’s Homosexual Oppression and Liberation, an anthology called Out of the Closets (which included photos of men dancing together in a bathhouse! wearing just towels!), and another called Lavender Culture. And by issues of Blueboy and Playguy I bought on the sly during my ninth-grade lunch hours. For me, the gay world was a world of words and pictures in glossy magazines.
Gay male literature may be divided into pre-Stonewall riots and post-Stonewall riots or, to put in another way, closeted (or at least taking the closet as a given) or uncloseted (or at least informed by the realization that the closet door had been opened). Despite the presence of predecessors such as Robert Duncan, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara, and even Walt Whitman, the emergence of openly gay male poetry is concurrent with the emergence of the gay liberation movement in the late Nineteen Sixties and early Nineteen Seventies. Such poetry was dedicated to the affirmation and celebration of a newly articulate gay male identity in the face of a massively homophobic society. Such poetry made possible the emergence and development of a gay male poetry that took such an identity as a starting point, not a conclusion or goal, let alone a given.
My sense that there was or could be such a thing as gay male poetry was largely shaped by groundbreaking anthologies like Winston Leyland’s Angels of the Lyre and Orgasms of Light (whose frontispiece featured a drawing of a huge, erupting penis), and Ian Young’s The Male Muse, which didn’t have any pictures at all. But while I was very turned on by poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Sweet Boy, Gimme Your Ass” and “Please Master,” even at sixteen I was aware that they weren’t good poetry. Someone I was on a panel with at the old Outwrite gay writers’ conference in Boston over ten years ago talked about not feeling able or allowed in his youth to write poems about the boys on whom he had crushes. I never had that problem. My problem was how to take those feelings and turn them into things I could recognize and respect as poems. I wrote a poem in college called “A People Without a Language Cannot Be Free.” That was my one “gay liberation” poem, the one time I consciously wrote as “a gay person.” I threw that poem away a long time ago, and I don’t even know what the title assertion meant, though I have at various points read things about the possibility or necessity of a gay language. I don't know what that means either.
A column rather provocatively called “Gay? Who Cares?” that appeared last November in the Los Angeles Times reported that “‘Society is beginning to say that being gay is not such a big deal,’ [demographer Gary] Gates says. ‘What that means for gays is that homosexuality won’t have the centrality to their identity it once did. Being gay then becomes one of a variety of an individual’s competing identities.’”
This has always been true for all gays, and is true for all identities as such: no one has only one identity, at any one time or over time. It’s something, though, that gay men who don’t fit the mold of the financially comfortable, buff, fashionable white man have always had to be consciously aware of. Certainly for black gay men, gayness has not only been an identity distinct from their other identities but often in conflict with or contradiction to them.
Though I don’t think that writers or their work should be defined in terms of social identities or subject positions, I have much less trouble being considered a gay writer than a black writer. This is because being gay was a chosen identity for me (I may have been born homosexual, but I decided to be gay), whereas being black was an imposed identity, and one that came with a great deal of unpleasant baggage. Perhaps because I was rather out of touch as a youth, I had no such negative associations with being or becoming gay. Quite the contrary—the gay world I read about in books seemed infinitely preferable to the world of the Bronx ghettos in which I grew up. And I’ve definitely had a much easier time as a gay person than as a black person, even as a writer: the expectations placed on a gay writer are much less restrictive and eagerly enforced than those placed on a black writer.
For a writer like James Merrill, a white upper-class man, and thus as central as can be in American society and representation, homosexuality is a displacement, a marginalization, and his poetry enacts the negotiation of that displacement of centrality, that forced march to the margins (though he takes his sense of entitlement with him). But for me, as a poor black man, and thus the incarnation of otherness and marginality, the adoption of a homosexuality imaged, by both black people and white, as “white” was a move of displacing displacement, a move towards centrality and “self-ness”: a difference from difference that did not quite (any more than my education did) make me “the same.”
The Los Angeles Times article I quoted above goes on to say that “As the challenges associated with coming out diminish, so does the primacy of the identity that that act of self-discovery and self-assertion once forged. It means that the culture once associated with gay identity becomes less distinctive from the mainstream.
As the recent spate of state referenda banning gay marriage demonstrates, homophobia is alive and well in these united states. But nonetheless, we are living in a very different world than the one in which Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, and Jack Spicer, or James Merrill and William Meredith, to take poets from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, lived, or that in which pioneering gay liberation poets like Antler, Paul Mariah, and Charley Shively, or less explicitly political though quite explicitly gay poets like Joe Brainard, Ed Cox, Kenward Elmslie, and John Giorno lived. “Gay” is part of the texture of daily life, and there is a disparity between the still-prevalent political rejection of the idea of gayness and a widespread quiet acceptance of gay people themselves, even in Pensacola, Florida, where I’ve lived for almost seven years on what’s sometimes called the Redneck Riviera. I like to call it Redneckistan. Just as one can live an openly gay life (or at least a relatively openly gay life) in a number of ways and places than would have been possible even twenty years ago without making it a statement of identity, similarly one can incorporate one’s gayness into one’s writing (however one would define either gayness or the incorporation of that gayness) without making that the definition of one’s work.
So we come back to the questions in the panel description: What does it mean to be a gay male poet today, after gay liberation, the somewhat domesticated gay rights movement, the revived radicalism of Queer Nation, the AIDS epidemic and ACT UP, and intellectual interrogations of “queerness” and identity itself? Contemporary gay male poets can take their gayness for granted on several levels. They also can explore, question, and even explode that identity. This panel explores just what the words “gay” “male” “poetry,” in themselves and in conjunction, mean to four smart and gifted writers.