Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, Part Four

I am now posting the fourth presentation (including my introductory remarks) from my panel at the most recent AWP conference.

Aaron Smith began his lively presentation by sharing photos of Daniel Craig (slamming body, fugly face, in my unhumble opinion) emerging from the sea like Venus (Venus as a boy, as Björk sang) wearing only a Speedo, one lovingly enhanced with a giant hand-drawn cock and balls. He then read a poem by pioneering gay poet Joe Brainard called, appropriately enough, "Sex," which I also reproduce here. The lovely and talented poet Randall Mann had promised to take his clothes off, but remained disappointingly clothed, though he did ask a provocative question about why so many contemporary gay male poets avoid writing about sex (Timothy Liu and Brian Teare are exceptions, as is Aaron himself), a question I've asked myself about my own work, which is full of desire but not much actual sex. I replied that for a lot of socially and financially comfortable gay men, they are born insiders and then this thing happens to them that pushes them from the center to the margins, and they then spend a great deal of energy trying to get back home to the center by asserting how safe and normal and respectable they are, with their good taste and their well-groomed dogs, and how they just want to be like everybody else (which most of them are, except for the alcoholism and the crystal meth addictions) (sorry, bitchy comment). I remember someone at a meeting of the mostly undergraduate gay student group during my brief sojourn as a PhD student at Harvard saying that gays weren’t any more artistic and sensitive than anyone else. I responded, “Yes, and that’s the problem.”

Gays may have inalienable rights which they insist on. (“What do we want? Gay rights. When do we want them? Now.” Good luck with that.) But one thing they apparently don’t have anymore (unless they're Republican legislators) is sex, since that, buttfucking, blowjobs, rimjobs, and even handjobs, is what disgusts straights to have to think about, though, perversely, they seem to enjoy disgusting themselves by imaging variations of gay sex novel to most gay men I’ve ever met. (In the heterosexual imaginary, lesbians don’t have sex, except perhaps as a prelude to getting all hot for a man to come along and give them what they really want and need.)

I’d like to marry my partner (if only to have access to his health insurance, which I sure need, what with my HIV and my chemotherapy, and my slew of other medical problems). I’d like to have a kid (kids in the plural would be too much to handle). I’d even like a dog, though we’d have to fix the back fences first. But I am definitely not like everybody else, nor do I wish to be. As Alan Parsons Project sang, “I wouldn’t want to be like you.” I’m not even like all the other boys. Aaron Smith’s presentation delightfully affirms that sense.

And here is Aaron's presentation.


By Joe Brainard (1969)

I like sex best when it’s fast and fun. Or slow and beautiful. Beautiful, of course can be fun too. And fun, beautiful. I like warm necks. And the smalls of backs. I’m not sure if that’s the right word: small. What I mean is the part of the back that goes in the most. Just before your bottom comes out. I like navels. I like under-arms. I don’t care for feet especially, or legs. I like faces. Eyes and lips and ears. I think that what I like most about sex is just touching. Skin is so alive. I like cold clean sheets. I like breasts and nipples. What I’m a sucker for most is a round full bottom. I really don’t like that word bottom. I think underwear is sexy. I like hair on heads, but hair on the body I can take it or leave it. Skinny builds don’t turn me on as much as normal builds. Probably because I’m skinny myself. I have a weak spot for blonds. I like to fuck sometimes but I don’t like to be fucked. What I really like is just a good plain blow-job. It’s rhythm that makes me come the best. I don’t think that, in bed, I take a masculine role or a feminine role. I guess I must be somewhere in between, or both. Sex-wise I’m not very adventurous. I am sure that there are a lot of things I like that I don’t know I like yet. I hope so. So—now you have some idea of what I like in bed.


Recently at a gay publishing party a friend told me that he wants his new book to be about something other than cock because that’s all that gay men write about. While everyone around him nodded in agreement, I was thinking: Can you please tell me which poets are currently writing about cock, because those are the poets I want to read? I couldn’t help but sense an undercurrent of conservativism in his statement. As if gay sex has no place in the pristine rooms of contemporary poetry, a sense that we have already done that. I wonder—this early in the 21st century—is there really nothing else we can say about the gay erotic? Can it really be as simple as: If you want to know about gay sexuality, see Ginsberg. If you’re a voracious bottom, see Sharon Olds.

I don’t think that all poetry written by gay men should be about sex. There are some gay men who don’t have sex (none of them are at AWP), but it does raise a red flag when the very thing that is an integral part of my experience as a gay man is the very thing I’m being told not to write about. I’m also suspect of the thinking that somebody else has already said everything that needs to be said on my behalf, as if there’s a collective “we” that gets the final word. I recently found the new anthology: The Best American Erotic Poems, and among the contributors was Billy Collins. Billy Collins is heterosexual, yes, but when Billy Collins starts making the cut as one of the leading voices concerning the erotic in America, I worry that it’s going to be a very long, dull century in verse. I want to clarify that when I talk about sex poems, I’m not only speaking of pro-sex sex poems. But I am also speaking of poems of sexual dissatisfaction, poems that are as complex and as distinct as the sex lives of gay men. Where are the poems about sexual incompatibility? Poems about sexual boredom? Poems about open sexual relationships because one or both persons isn’t satisfied?

If there are defining characteristics of a gay tradition, I would like to suggest that some of those qualities are playfulness, candor, a wild devotion to the inappropriate. My friend Matt always says that you just can’t shock a group of gay men. Even here, at AWP, I see how the gay men at this conference talk to each other, the language we use, the fun we have. I think that’s what needs to be in our poems. We gossip. We drink. We fuck. We quote movies and talk about so-and-so’s arms. We discuss Heath Ledger, and then joke about how all those silly queens must have clutched their pearls when they heard the news of his death. In the gay community, it’s never too soon to be inappropriate. I’m sure somebody already has a new Brokeback Mountain joke they’re just dying to tell. I don’t think our openness, or our humor, or the nuts-and-bolts of our sex lives are clichés that we need to move away from in our poetry. I think these qualities, like it or not, are part of our tradition. Let the general poetry community turn their backs on what they will, but don’t let trends divorce us from a rich and important tradition. I caution poets against listening to the voices that say we’ve heard enough about sex (or about discrimination or about coming out or about AIDS). And furthermore, if we get to choose subjects that we’re tired of, then I would like to suggest that the witty, straight-white-man poem be the first to go.

In many ways we are fortunate to be gay writers in a discipline that for the most part accepts us. Gay men are widely published, widely read, and generally as respected as our straight colleagues. But how much of this is real acceptance? Or is it merely objectification, or a rarified part of the culture buying books, or tokenism. Can the gay man who chooses to write about cock still get published, find an audience, get invitations to read, get taught in classes? When I think of gay identity becoming palatable to the point that we don’t have to worry about being gay on the page, I have to admit I panic a bit. In a country where gay men really still have so few rights, can our lives already be that passé or predictable in the literature? It’s not that I want us to be discriminated against, but there’s a power in writing the poems that the majority of poets can’t write. I’ll completely own this as my personal aesthetic, but I am drawn to poetry that makes me squirm, poetry that exists in difficult spaces. I’m drawn to poetry that provokes reaction. I think of Lucille Clifton, who says, You can’t play for safety and make art. So when I think that we don’t have to worry about gayness on the page, I see it as an opportunity to throw our legs up in the air and scream a little louder. And then write poems about it.


Mark Granier said...

Enjoyable post Reginald, and refreshingly honest. I hadn't read Brainard on sex before (except in his poem/book I Remember).

I know exactly what you mean when you say you don't like to be told what you can and can't write about. Any heirarchy of subject matter is clearly absurd, particularly when it concerns our physical selves. Every aspect of each person's body and bodily desires (if that person is a writer) must be open to remapping precisely because we are all ''a part of the main'; the need to re-explore that territory is always valid.

I'm not gay, but I like reading poems from any quarter (gay, straight, crooked, odd-angled...) that manage to be candidly erotic without slipping into that most narrow and functional of genres, porn.

One of my favourite love poems is Auden's 'Lullaby' (which is addressed to a young gay man, I seem to recall, though the experience it embodies is primarily human).

I have also greatly enjoyed Thom Gunn's, Carol Ann Duffy's and Mark Doty's gay erotic poems (Duffy's 'Warming Her Pearls' is extraordinary). I wonder what you make of Doty's elegy for a gay friend, 'Tiara', which I find terribly moving. A poet I know (who happens to be gay) doesn't care for his work; I think he finds it too 'gushing', and (I'm guessing) too clotted with sensuous imagery. I don't like all Doty's stuff, but some, like 'Homo Will Not Inherit' or 'Tiara', really hit a chord with me.

BTW, I think you're a bit quick to dismiss Billy Collins. I know he's become a whipping boy for the innovative (and sometimes even the 'mainstream') factions, and it seems sometimes that every poet has a kneejerk compulsion to take a kick at him in passing. But his best poems ('the Death of The Hat', 'Litany', 'Sonnet'...) seem, to me, to be peculiarly American in a refreshing way. The laconic, self-deprecating humour isn't lightweight, but ghosted by tragedy, the human condition of a very lived life. Anyway, just my take.

Very best as always,


Justin Evans said...

"Can the gay man who chooses to write about cock still get published, find an audience, get invitations to read, get taught in classes?"

A very interesting question. I think, the answer is sadly, Only if you are the Rafael Campos or the gay flavor of the month poet. It seems that whoever that happens to be can write about what is supposed to be shocking or in your face. However, if you don't have the name, or you are not the fave-rave, that gay poet who dares to write about cocks and sex comes off as trying too hard to be queer, and is dismissed as not being a serious poet.

Steve Fellner said...


I just want to thank Reginald for posting this wonderful panel of posts. I didn't go to AWP, and if I would have, I would not have wanted to miss this great presentation. Aaron's contribution seems particularly well thoughtout and useful. I love his intelligent quips about Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, and the odd false myth that gay men write about sex all the time when there is actually so much a lack of it.

To further add to this discussion, it also seems to me that often when gay men write about sex they write about the same sort of sex: their first anonymous, unhappy sexual encounter or perfect, sweet middle class lovemaking. It's often dull and frigid.

There's not much complexity and the sex always seems quite boring. Why isn't there more talk about the political choice of engaging in bareback sex, for instance, or talk about crystal meth that moves beyond drugs are bad. (You're comment seems oddly judgemental, Reginald, about crystal meth. I respect you and regularly read your work with excitement, but remember some gay men have engaged in some behavior for a variety of reasons.) Gay men shy away from dealing with material that doesn't show us ina "positive" light, because we might not be seen as proper and journals like our sex to be conducted in very circumscribed, safe ways. I, for one, have made a lot of different choices with different men on different occassions. All with a specific intentions, and some of those intentions would be seen as bad.

For those of us who are teachers, we often see our students writing about only the things that make then look good.

Gay men are no differnt. We need to show ourselves in the messy, dumb ways we behave and think and make honorable mistakes and less honroable safe choices.


Alfred Corn said...

I'm glad you opened this topic, Reginald, and it is far from being exhausted. We need to acknowledge that there is a resistance to gay and lesbian poetry, especially when poems are sexually explicit. One index is the awarding of prizes. Check out the Pulitzers, NBAs, and NBCC prizes. Except for poets whose poems are closeted, there are astonishingly few gay and lesbian prizewinners during the past couple of decades. Same for Chancellors at the Academy of American Poets. Clearly we're not being welcomed, and why is that?

BTW: I've just begun a blog, the address is:

Alfred Corn

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks to all for writing. To Mark, I want to make clear that most of this post is made up of Aaron Smith's presentation, so the views are his, not mine. I don't want to read Billy Collins, but I don't see him as the enemy. I don't think Aaron dos either. His point was that even what's presented as the heterosexual erotic in contemporary American poetry is very tamed and domesticated, so what room is there for the homosexual erotic? And really, where are all these poems about cock? I haven't seen them either.

To Steve, thanks again for reading and commenting. I understand that people, including gay men, make all kinds of choices in all kinds of situations under all kinds of pressures and constraints (as Marx wrote, we make our own lives, but not in circumstances of our own choosing). I also understand that gay men are opppressed and that oppression fucks people up. But I people often contribute to their own oppression, and they can make other choices than some of those they make. I wasn't really being judgmental, just descriptive: alcoholism and drug addiction are rife in the gay communities (if such things even really exist), and while I understand why, I also know that people aren't just social automatons reflexively reacting to external stimuli. People need to take responsibility for their lives and their choices.

To Alfred: I think that you're right about the resistance to openly gay work, especially to work that is sexually explicit in a positive way, that isn't tortured or mournful (dying has always been a way to become respectable). This is parallel to the resistance in our society to gay men who don't present themselves as just like everybody else, except with better taste. Sex is the sticking point, as always.

Gay men are allowed into the banquet, but we don't get to sit at the main table.

Take care, all, and thanks for writing. Sorry it's taken me a while to respond to these cogent comments, but I've been sick and depressed, with chemo and other things.

peace and poetry,


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