Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jeff Crandall, Garth Greenwell, Peter Pereira, and Brian Teare on “Gay Poetry, Politics, Poetics”

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.


  1. Insistence on gaydar with which Jeff Crandall kicks off this extremely valuable symposium, is just another variety of discriminatory sexism.
    Salud, D. E. Steward

  2. That's an interesting notion, DE. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “insistence on gaydar.” My notion of gaydar is the ability of one gay person to recognize or intuit that another person is gay. In what way do you see that the concept of shared sensibilities is discriminatory or prejudicial? How is it manifested? Who is it discriminating against? -- Jeff Crandall

  3. Jeff C., To insist that "straight people will never glean" is exclusion. It's like claiming that most readers now cannot perceive Robert Frost's old Vermont farmers' horse-and-wagon context and so miss his poetry's truths. It doesn't take gay sensibility to understand these days what meeting at dusk in the woods may imply to a gay poet. All the best, Dave Steward

  4. Thank you for explaining, Dave. I think you are right that my comment is too extreme, and that the word “never” is inappropriate. I would revise it to say that “There are nuances, references, and shared experiences . . . which can be expressed in poetry that the great majority of straight people would not readily glean, but that a gay man or woman would recognize instantly.” This comment comes from own direct experience in participating in a poetry critique group for over 20 years now. The 10 or so writers are mostly straight, mixed with men and women. After two decades of working together we all know each other on a fairly intimate level, yet still when I bring a love-themed poem the gay nuances are consistently missed by the straight people and instantly picked up by the gay ones.

    To cite a specific example, I wrote a sonnet about a shy guy trying to ask out another guy at the gym -- obviously a very gay-themed poem. Toward the end of the poem are the lines: “...let me take you out — or, some other time? / I mean, we could go — to the park? God am I / embarrassed!” The straight poets’ only interpretation of the embarrassment was that it arose from the narrator’s shyness. However, the gay poets understood that the narrator had made a gaffe, that by innocently mentioning the park he was also inadvertently inviting the guy for a quick sex romp, and hence the deep embarrassment.

    I also readily admit that my perception of gay/straight culture comes from the perspective of a 47-year-old man (and my fellow writers are of the same generation). The new generation of writers and readers who are defining gay/straight culture are breaking down barriers and communicating in ways I am amazed by, and straight awareness of gay subculture is certainly expanding phenomenally. However, I think any poem written from within any subculture will contain nuances that those outside of the subculture cannot access without direct interpretation from those within.

    -- Jeff Crandall

  5. Jeff, Any poem written from any stance is open to all, contingent only on their savvy and the poem's sophistication. And gay sensitivity is not beyond the scope of most of us who love poetry. It's a war that's already been won. Salud, Dave

  6. I'm with Monette. I find it ridiculous when one of the symposium poets claims to have never let their activism into their poetry. I think that attitude is a cop-out. Like Monette, I think that sometimes poetry IS activism. Years ago, I too was one who marched in the street, was involved in LGBT rights education and speaking and public demonstrations. More recently I tend to let my art be my activism.

    I am not referring to the obviously political poem, the clichéd topical poem of protest that tends to have short, topical shelf life. I mean that poetry like Monette's book "Love Alone" IS activism because it speaks the truth. It is prophetic, in the classical sense that prophets speak the truths people would rather not hear. And there's also a Jewish idea that a prophet is someone who interferes with injustice. Loud, angry, explicitly gay poetry has often been prophetic because it does speak against injustice, and to injustice.

    There's that UK anthology of poems "How Can You Write A Poem When You're Dying of AIDS?" The anthology demonstrates again and again that not only can you, you must.

    Harold Norse's poetry didn't always contain explicitly gay sexual content, but it was always of a protesting sensibility. And he had a keen ear for telling about the Other. The narratives of being Other even in our own homes are at the root of any gay sensibility in poetry. Internalized homophobia is virulent form of xenophobia, of hating the Other.

    Even when gay poets aren't poems about being gay, that sense of the Other seems always present, which is why I think it's one mark of identifying a gay sensibility. Which by the way I do agree exists.

  7. What I can’t figure out is why I would refer to myself as a gay or a queer writer in the first place. They are not very descriptive words really. They convey no information about who I am—unless I happen to be deliriously happy or to have eaten a dozen bad blue point oysters—which I rarely do.

    I have taken to thinking of myself more as a cocksucker in recent years. Sometimes as a butt fucker, depending on my mood and the mood of my partner. A lot of times, being tired from work, we pop in some porn, kiss and jack-off together and drift off to sleep, the exhausted wankers that we are. You might also call us busy lovers who have very little time for navel gazing. We prefer to fool around with each other rather than fumble under the bed for words—which are pretty piss-poor substitutes for penises anyway, as anyone who has tried to stick the OED up his ass can tell you. After a long day at the office, we find that cock sucking and butt fucking are great time savers, metaphorically speaking. (Cum semel occidit brevis lux/ nox est perpetua una dormienda. -Catullus V. c.f. A. Marvell, To His Coy Mistress, for an English gloss on this immortal subject.)

    Anyway, I wonder if it is really necessary to continue making kissy-faces at each other behind these violet veils of Victorian euphemism—gay and queer? Queen Victoria is dead, gentlemen. Who can afford such livery—such luxuries these days—especially on the piddling income of a poet?

    Can you?

    (Back to work.)

  8. Dear Art and Eric:

    This is Brian Teare. I want to thank you both for your comments.

    From where I sit (in a friend's house in Philadelphia), I see you as positing different answers to a single question: What kinds responsibilities does the individual artist bear toward a larger collective or body politic, whether that collective body be identity-based, locally affiliated, or national or international in scope? A corollary question that might also embedded in your comments: Does the artist have any responsibilities outside of their own artistic practice?

    As you know, there are lots of answers to both of these questions, some of them deeply embedded in a historical time period (such as Monette's), and some of them carrying on a longstanding Romantic emphasis on the inherent freedom and self-determination of the artist. Of course there are also plenty of answers that fall all along the spectrum of the socially engaged (from deeply to obliquely to hardly), but I think I'm most interested in how engaging socially defined categories might be a way to think with or alongside a larger collective, a way to engage the body politic while potentially connecting to others.

    I understand why some artists are suspicious of and/or reject socially defined categories: it's true that they _can_ enforce norms of artistic expression and even curtail intellectual freedom. On the one hand, I think that this suspicion provides an amazing opportunity for the artist to wrestle with a craft problem: How does the artist think with the social without creating art whose content and form feel pre-determined? How can the artist both think with the collective and sidestep prescriptive doctrine?

    Honestly, I myself don't feel that anyone has the authority to say: This is the only (i.e. right) way to think about the social. When it comes to changing laws, that kind of attitude is incredibly helpful, but I'm not sure it helps make art. However, perhaps it is also safe to say that outright rejecting the chance to engage the body politic on one's own terms might be a lost opportunity.

    Given that I was in attendance at the Lambda Awards where Edward Albee made a fairly retrograde, semi-insulting speech about the relationship between sexuality and art (i.e. gay art = bad art), it's clear to me that this question is still very alive for the queer community. And I'm glad to see that we're creating our own discourse about it, keeping it alive and changing and ongoing.



  9. Interesting thoughts, Brian. Thank you.

    I find myself responding this way, though, to your question about how the artist can think with the collective yet avoid prescriptive doctrine.

    I have written and spoken many times my belief that art that follows any prescriptive doctrine tends to be lesser art. Stale, didactic, pedantic, whatever label seems to apply. That's the real problem with most political poetry: the ideology or theory dictates the art, which usually leads to lesser art. (Even Walt Whitman had problems with this, making for some uneven poems.) Experience tends to make me believe that poetry prescribed by academic or literary-critical or social theories in particular usually sucks. I've gotten into lots of arguments with poets about this. My position is normally that craft and theory should always remain descriptive, and never become prescriptive.

    So to answer your question, how can the artist think, my answer is that I don't think about it at all when making art. The interpretation, and the descriptive theories, come after the act of making. I find that thinking about anything other than making the art in the moment of making the art tends to kill the art, make it stale, didactic, pedantic, whatever. I confess I'm one of those poets who never sets out to write a poem. Poems are for me responses to experience, and neither descriptions of (i.e. talking about) nor theories about experience. The best poems are for me those that recreate an experience in the reader.

    This isn't an anti-intellectual or anti-theoretical stance. Rather, it's an anti-prescriptive stance. Let the art be whatever it wants to be, and talk about it later.

    Having said that, I do agree that there is no one right way, either to think about the social aspects of art-making, or how to make art. I'm very aware that there are many poets who set out to make their poems like architects set out to render a drawing, very deliberately, very consciously. Very Apollonian. If it isn't obvious by now, I tend to fall into the Dionysian camp, although I believe that the best art balances and integrates both of those ways.

  10. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for your thoughtful, thought-provoking reply.

    You pose two questions which I think go to the core of this debate about artistic identity:

    “Do artists have any responsibilities outside of their own artistic practice?”

    I believe the short answer here is “No,” even if the artist is creating propaganda. But, if the artist is creating propaganda, he should at least be aware of what he is doing. For instance…

    I have nothing against propaganda as art, per se. I am always prepared to accept it on its own terms and evaluate it accordingly. For instance, J.L. David’s portrait of Marat dead in his bath is one of the most beautiful and successful works of agitprop of all time. The modern viewer almost forgets to look for Mme Guillotine behind the canvas—David’s invisible Muse—the girl enforcing the prevailing intellectual orthodoxies of 1793, the same sadistic impulses screaming for Edward Albee now.

    Now, I don’t for a moment wish to imply that Edward Albee’s critics are revolutionaries or that they are calling for his head. His critics represent the doddering dowagers of the ancien regime—eternally powdered and perfectly prim. They do not represent cocksuckers like me—a lady whose red lipstick is always a mess. I am not sure what these dusty queens are doing. Neither are they. They move from crotch to crotch in a perpetual purple fog.

    Neither their tongues, their teeth, nor their wits are sharp enough any more to carry off the role of La Guillotine convincingly. I am afraid what we see here—if we turn this goofy picture I have just painted around—are dozens of wind up dentures turned loose on the world, hopping around, calling for the old boy’s dick. They wouldn’t know what to do with a genuine dick if it slapped them in the face.

    There we differ: I would. My teeth are my own. They are firmly fastened in my head. I am a cocksucker. I do with dicks what I please.

    The second question—or set of related questions—presents a different imaginative challenge.

    “How does the artist think with the social without creating art whose content and form feel pre-determined? How can the artist both think with the collective and sidestep prescriptive doctrine?”

    I think that the process part of the question—how does the artist create original art— is easy to answer: stop thinking of yourself as an artist. Think of yourself as an individual with dozens conflicting loyalties, loves and desires competing for your soul. Always remember that no claims on your heart or mind will ever be fully satisfied. Your work will never be finished. You will be disappointed when you die.

    Then pick up your pen and tell us how you can live with that.

    Everybody’s answer is different.

    All the best,

  11. Hi Guys,

    I am not sure if anyone is interested, but over the weekend I thought a great deal about our discussion here, the issue of gay identity and politics and Edward Albee's performance at Lambda.

    I think what Albee did was rude, given that he was receiving an award from a gay organization. But the stream of invective I followed on facebook afterwards was really too much to stomach in some ways.

    I think Albee raises an interesting point about where art and politics, the public and private spheres of discourse intersect. It is an insidiously gray area.

    Anyway, as an intellectual exercise, to clarify my own thoughts, I took some of the points up above and put them together a little essay on the topic at my blog, complete with links and illustrations. It is sort of a defense and reproof of both sides. But I think it comes down (with a nasty thud) more on Albee's side of the issue than any other.

    I am not sure how it moves our discussion of gay identity in art forward, since it is mostly a retrospective piece on aesthetics, but since it originated in our discussion here, I thought I might provide a link.

    I can't thank you enough for getting me thinking more deeply on this topic. I haven't exactly figured how I will integrate it into my own poetry, but it is bound to have an effect.

    My best to everyone,

  12. Saeed Jones did an a series on "What Makes a Poem gay" at his blog. There are responses from many different voices and is worth a gander.
    This is my response from the series: