The Summer 2011 issue of the BPJ features a symposium on “Gay Poetry, Politics, Poetics.” The four poets who took part in the symposium and the editors all felt that what the journal was able to fit within the eight pages at the "back of the book” opens up an important conversation, one that needed to continue in a more capacious venue—and with voices beyond the original discussants’. And so, for the month of June, we have migrated the conversation to the Poet’s Forum, hoping you and others will join in.
You will find a brief excerpt from the opening of the print symposium below, and a link to the text of the entire symposium both in the blog post title above and under BPJ Links to your right.
JC: Clearly a gay sensibility exists in poetry. There are nuances, references, and shared experiences which can be expressed in poetry that straight people will never glean, but that a gay man or woman would recognize instantly. The hetero world is so very man/woman oriented that everything it looks upon is seen through that filter. When a gay male poet writes, “We met in the park / at dusk” it means something very different than if a straight man or woman wrote it. . . . But the intense, raw pain of Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, to cite just one example, is simply human. There is nothing gay about the experience of losing someone you utterly love. Why is a line being drawn across human experience because that love is man/man vs. man/other?
BT: Jeff, I think you go right to the heart of the matter with ardent clarity, the matter being the question of gay poetry: What is it? Does it exist? If it does, how so? If it doesn’t, then why do people act as though it does? At the heart of your response, I see you potentially arguing for a universal humanism that both trumps historical context and posits an implicit scale of value: “human” > “gay.” If I choose to play devil’s advocate in response to your question, please know that I don’t intend to single you out. I think you’re articulating a powerful question about art’s relationship to political experience—a question I almost daily ask of myself and my work as a poet and critic. But I wouldn’t myself say that there is “nothing gay about the experience of losing someone you utterly love” to AIDS, in the U.S., in the ’80s.
Reading Monette for me now is not just to revisit my own memories of losing my partner to AIDS-related complexes in 1999—which was, to be historical about it, a very different death than it would have been had he died in the ’80s. For me to read Monette in 2011 is also to be immersed in recent history that is finally just far enough away to be history: a specific era whose politics, activist actions, and emotional atmosphere were dictated and circumscribed by the very particular cultural and economic leadership of the U.S. government, moralizing and panic-driven public attitudes toward gay male sexual¬ity, limited medical knowledge of AIDS itself, and a paucity of ways of treating it. So while I totally understand what you mean about the universality of the loss of the beloved, the cultural and historical context at work in Monette’s autobiographical poems not only leads me to read them as representative of gay experience of a certain time—it insists that I do. I think that this is Monette’s particular form of literary activism: he refuses altogether the binary between “human” and “gay,” but not by erasing the particulars of gay experience or the specifics of gay history. He insists that though there is no difference between “human” and “gay,” the record nonetheless must stand.