Friday, February 8, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Two

As I wrote in my earlier post, I will be posting the presentations that my panelists gave at the recent AWP conferenc. The presentations and the discussion after the panel made me question some of my positions about identity politics and poetry, so besides the general opportunity to hear some very smart and talented gay male poets discuss their reviews on the issue, it really stimulated and challenged my own thought, which I found invigorating.

Obeying the law of the alphabet, I will begin with Christopher Hennessy's untitled piece, which started off the conversation on a high note. Once again, I encourage people to check out his blog, ]Outside the Lines[ , which approaches the question of the relationship of identity and creativity from many directions, and never with a sense that the answers are already known.

And now, here are Christopher's remarks:

Gay poet D.A. Powell has pointed out that queer poets are “doubly displaced,” both gay and poet identifiers fixed outside the mainstream. It’s a location poets like Powell fully inhabit and one I’d like to consider today. Powell said, “In the America of the 21st century, the poet is a displaced person. The queer poet, doubly displaced. (Thanks America, for nothing.) If there can be a useful consequence of living as a second-class citizen within this growing empire, it is that the range of possible subjects and forms expands also.”

Let’s think about what the word “dis-placed” means:

1. To move or shift from the usual place or position, especially to force to leave a homeland: millions of refugees who were displaced by the war.
2. To take the place of; supplant.
3. To discharge from an office or position.

Each of these definitions speaks to a loss of power of some kind, but, on the contrary, for gay poets to be ‘displaced’ gives us a perspective and experiences that can, if we hone our craft, strengthen our work. But how ‘displaced’ are we?

When I started to think about what I would say today, I found I kept coming back to the idea of normal as a location, what it means to be ‘normal…what it means to belong to the club, what it means to want to belong--and more importantly for gay artists, what it means to resist that, to proclaim difference rather than to mumble or even pretend normalcy. What do we create outside the borders of normal that we could not create, or would not create, if we were ‘like everyone else’? The key to these questions lie in what aspects of our identity specifically keep us displaced, keep us from being normal. even at a time when homosexuality is losing its stigma. (A hint – it’s the sex, of course. More on this later.) I think these questions are crucial to understanding where we go from here, as it were.

In order to have such a conversation, I’ve ‘brought together’ several of today prominent and promising gay poets to join me in a sort of conversation.

David Trinidad: I guess it's always felt like the things I shouldn't or couldn't say are the things that I must say. For instance, putting one's sexual identity on the line felt like a risky thing to do in the 1970's; it also felt like a necessary thing to do. I think it's still risky, especially since gay poetry has become (since the late 80's) more coded, more conservative, as if it's trying to pass (I think of gay men getting married, raising babies) as straight. I always feel (whether it's true or not) that there's something unacceptable about my poems — they're too gay, too campy, too middle class. And that unacceptability is a big part of what makes my work (I hope) distinct.

CH: I think it’s important David has noted the possibilities gay people now have, the relative safety we enjoy. Are gay poets trying to pass as straight? I’m not sure. We may no longer face persecution, but what about assimilation? I worry that being safe means the risk-taking, the boundary pushing, the edge-exploring will fade. Looking back, I’m thankful for the crucible of growing up gay because I think it’s really affected me, in positive ways, as a writer.

Frank Bidart: To grow up gay in America is to know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical to the fictions desperately asserted by institutions that imagine their authority proceeds from God or nature. To know early that one's existence is fundamentally antithetical, period. That's a good start for a writer.

Joan Larkin, co-editor of the anthology Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: We are not just-like-straights-except-for one-thing. We are different because--often from an early age--many of us experience and see the world differently. Not separately, but distinctly--both the inside story and the outside story. It's often the gay writer who's taking risks for the entire culture. We're really good at that. From early childhood, many of use are faced with situations...we are forced to deal with....One of the daring things we do is write poems. Finding some way to tell the truth is part of staying sane. that's why our poems are often risky. And disturbing.

CH: In the past, we’ve had to create new metaphors, coded our language, disguised our desire, turned to myth and history and art as subjects in our poems when we wanted to talk about our differences--all strategies that refreshed the tradition, I think. And it’s about more than that--it’s about putting us in a position to see the world differently.

Mark Doty: Queerness invites us, every minute of our lives, to question our assumptions about what a man or a woman is, a mother or a father, a citizen; what is desire and what are the institutions we build around it, what does it mean to be desired, or the one doing the desiring? The position of questioning can keep an artist alive. I hope to never lose a liberating degree of distance from conventionality.

Alfred Corn: A contestatory stance: this is a good vantage point for an artist. We can see what the mainstream takes for granted, and we may call those axioms into question. Where there is no conflict or contestation, art is banal. Conflict comes to gay people ready-made, and we have to make use of it, in order not to be overwhelmed by it.

CH: I agree. Of course, it’s not always easy, but I feel like if we have something unique to offer poetry, something that informs our individual voice, whether we want it to or not, we have a responsibility to the poems to utilize it, to understand it. (Understanding that ‘it’ is why I do my interviews!) But as society accepts us more and more, do we risk becoming ‘normal’? I would argue not yet and perhaps never. Because let’s be honest, a big part of what makes us different lies in sex, desire and our relationship to the body, since this is what most explicitly and most fundamentally makes us different. Sure, our love is no better or worse than heterosexual love, our sex and relationships no more or less messy, our right to love and lust no more valid. But because of a history of repression, oppression, and sublimation; because of seeing the body as a site of death and disease for decades after celebrating it as a place of transcendence; because physically we do things that are, shall we say, a creative use of our bodies, because of all of this, gay writers start in what turns out to be a frustrated place--a burning desire to speak about our love and eroticism but not knowing how to do so, and not being sure it’s even safe to do so.

Alfred Corn again: When I contemplate the nature of sex between men, I find a counterpart in the art that gay men produce--a special searing intensity, the DMZ between pleasure and pain, synonyms for which might be "ravishment" or "rapture." Also, the ability to play both sides of the tandem, to understand both entering and being entered. Art has its analogues to these physical / psychological states.

CH: I think part of our work can be to analyze those ‘analogues,’ to understand how our desires get translated in our texts. I like what Alfred says but of course that is only one way our lives, unique and varied as they are and always have been, offer the work. How else might our experience affect our writing?

Carl Morse, co-editor of the Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, talking about the anthology’s poems: Some of these experiences require recasting of the language--since no one has ever talked about them before--and these poets have done a lot of that. Gay and lesbian poetry refreshes the language. So much of this writing gets away from "polarity vocabularies."

CH: I’d like to think that our perspective on sex and desire gives us permission to expand the boundaries of poetry, to push what the lyric, for example, can accomplish. In the Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou anthology The World in Us, the editors argue that our most important contribution is “the liberation of the libido.”

J.D. McClatchy: Over the centuries, the homosexual temperament has seemed especially suited to engaging the themes of bafflement, secret joys, private perspectives, forbidden paradises, hypocritical conventions, and ecstatic occasions.”

CH: I think it’s important to note that McClatchy says “suited to engaging the themes,’ not just ‘suited to themes.’ So for me, that means our talents lie not only in what we write but how we ‘engage those themes’, that is, how we convey our experiences onto the page. Well-known British poet and author of seminal texts on the history of gay poetry Gregory Woods argues that modern gay poets “have reflected the peculiarity of their social status by adapting correspondingly peculiar linguistic strategies.” For example, in his A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition he explores how gay poets employ paradox. “Once one finds oneself to be para doxa, freed from the ‘logic’ of linguistic common sense and the ‘natural’ urges of the syntax we have been taught, all kinds of poetic dialects struggle to unfurl the tongue."

Our own Brian Teare: Though we often speak of experimentation exclusively in terms of what a poem does with syntax, the line, or the page, there are as many conventions about subject matte--and how we feel about certain subjects--to be tested. For instance, writing a good lyric poem about enjoying anal sex: that too is a resistance, a test of what poetry can do.

CH: I always think of Ginsberg in this respect. I read a review of his books once in which the critic said: “No other writer of his generation defended homosexual desire as a fit subject for poetry as effectively as Ginsberg” and doing so within “a vision of the world in which the asshole could be, rather than a source of shame, something deeply holy.” I think that’s an important function for a poet--turning a subject inside-out, upside down, from shameful to holy. But I wonder if today’s poets are interested in that function, taking advantage of our ability to speak about those experiences that make us different?

Rick Barot: We're now in an amazing moment where artists can describe gay desire without having to camouflage it as something else. That desire can finally be an open subject matter, and this freedom has given us some recent writing that is scary, truthful, beautiful, and profoundly new.

CH: True as that may be, I think with it comes yet another problem, created, perhaps, in part, ironically, because of the levels to which Ginsberg pushed poetry. It’s that a deference to difference often times means that those gay writers who embrace sexuality in their work, depict those elements of our lives explicitly, are forced to worry if we’ll be seen as abandoning the poem’s needs over a “personal” (of god forbid political!) desire to ‘make a statement’. Or maybe that’s just me. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from writing the poems we must!

Our own Aaron Smith: I've felt like being overt/explicit in subject matter in "mainstream" poetry has been an uphill battle. It seems like since the late '80s early '90s there has been such a backlash against confessional poetry that anything narrative, seemingly personal, and/or sexual gets lumped under writing that is just for shock value. The writing is defined by that quality and not assessed for its craft, skill, and overall project. And so many writers are afraid to write personally for fear of being labeled a confessional poet.

CH: I personally hope we continue to embrace our differences as well as our similarities, no matter how post-gay we become. On that note, I’ll give the last words to J.D. McClatchy and Rafael Campo. McClatchy tells us why the difficulties of our history give us urgency and necessity to express our differences.

J.D. McClatchy again: [Speaking about the poets in his anthology of gay love poetry] Because their desires have been deemed dangerous, and their lives made difficult, they place a unique value on true love….Pleasure has been wrung from pain, illumination wrested from bitterness and fear, the moment of transcendence stolen from complacent hours.

CH: And Rafael Campo tells us how the triumph of our tradition gives us the permission and inspiration to write out our lives.

Rafael Campo: I realize that the gay literary aesthetic is one of hope, ultimately, where art is not simply a monument that displaces the truth of our existence, but rather is an insistence that we exist. At once edgily transgressive and universally humane, both painfully fractured and joyously restorative, queer writing is more than its artificial accomplishment in the eyes of critics; it is a document of persistence, an act of beauty, and the very breath and heartbeat of an imaginative and ultimately indomitable people.


Alan Contreras said...

Thanks, Reginald, for posting this interesting discussion. We look forward to your appearace at the University of Oregon in May.

I am a gay writer who writes poetry, though the great bulk of my writing is prose about higher education issues or ornithology. My poetry is very rarely about what I think of as "gay themes," yet I agree completely with the panelists who correctly perceive that gay writers by definition can't help but see society differently. I am IN society but I am not OF society.

I own every book of poems that J.D. McClatchy and you, Reginald, have published, and also all of Merrill, all of Carl Phillips and some works by Mark Doty. Many of the poems in these collections have a gay theme to them, but many do not.

I don't feel obligated to write about "gay things" because I am a gay person. It seems so cramped to limit oneself that way. Yet most of the panelists speak as though a gay poet has an obligation to focus on gay themes. Why?

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Alan,

Thanks for your comment, and I agree with your perspective. Christopher's presentation, the first I posted, is framed as a conversation, not a series of directives. I think of it as a conversation we are invited to join with our own voices and viewpoints.

I am no less a "gay" poet or a "black" poet when I am writing about house finches and pileated woodpeckers than when I am writing about late night cruising in Chicago (long in the past by now) or my childhood in the Bronx ghetto.

I do think that being or becoming gay has given me a different perspective, but that perspective informs everything I write and write about. Whatever I see, I see it a bit differently. But I see, and write about, a lot of things. I am utterly opposed to the idea that a gay writer should write in a certain way or on certain topics.

I've just posted another piece from the panel, by the wonderful poet (and one of my closest friends) Brad Richard, which goes very far in questioning (even exploding) the whole notion of "gay poetry." I think that you'll find it of interest.

peace and poetry,


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