Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are you a Gay Poet or a Poet who happens to by Gay?

And why does it matter?

These questions keep coming up. They are questions asked both by LGBT poets about each other, and themselves of course, and also asked by heterosexual readers, writers, and critics. The question is, perhaps, an attempt to define the nature of identity in art.

My reflections here were prompted by something poet Stephen Mills wrote recently: He had recently received a packet of poems and critiques from his last year of MFA in Poetry studies in Florida:

As I was ending my MFA, I was being nudged to write poems that didn't focus so much on gay identity and the domestic life of a gay couple, which was a lot of what I wrote during those three years. In the moment, I often took a bit of a offense to these comments and I partly chalked it up to the "heterosexual male factor."

Among the packet was a last comment by his workshop teacher, commenting that, yes, he did write a lot of gay-themed domestic poems at the time, and people would indeed get tired of it—but mostly because any one theme that ones writes about over and over and over is going to loose some readers, simply from monotony. To be clear, Mr. Mills adds that he did not feel any homophobia was in these critiques, nor does he feel any homophobia was in effect during or after the workshop period. Mr. Mills continues:

I still write mostly about sex and identity, but more of the outside world has entered those poems. The biggest difference between [his mentor] and me is that I don't see sex and identity as a narrow topic. It is a topic filled with things to explore and I could write poetry about sex and identity for the rest of my life and still have things to write about. There is always that notion that if you write about issues related to your minority that somehow you are being narrow. This may never change, but I hope to continue to push people to think beyond that notion.

It's an interesting issue, this opening out of subject matter, beyond a "narrow" topic, which is a topic tangled up with sexuality and identity. I've found that the line between "personal" and "universal" content in my own poetry moves around a lot. I write about everything; I write a lot of poetry that isn't "personal" or "confessional" but which can be considered impossible to separate from my self and my sexual identity. I began to write explicitly gay poems beginning in my mid-teens—and some of them were very explicit indeed—but I hid them from everyone till years later. I wasn't open about this poetry till much later in life. I've never done an MFA degree or workshop process, although I've been involved in poetry groups and private writers' workshops for several years; some other poems that do not hide the homoerotic nature of the relationships of the people in the poem have been through those workshops, but not those early, gay poems.

I feel that when my sexuality appears in my poems, it's most often in celebration, rather than overtly about issues political or psychological. Most of the gay-themed poems I've ever written have been celebrations of one kind or another. Not really political or issue-based—except of course that any gay-themed poem is still a political act in the current cultural climate of only partial acceptance of LGBT people and the art they make. Robert Mapplethrope and David Wojnarowicz and james Broughton are all still controversial, and not only because they were explicit in their art.

The three or four longest poems I've ever written are of this gay/erotic type: very sexual, very sensual, full of celebratory, life-affirming eros and ekstasis, written on a sustained level of white heat, and explicit about the acts involved in making love. Maybe it's the Midwestern reserve in me still, and it still seems daring to be explicit about who I love in a poem. These poems were explicitly, ecstatically sexual—that is, homosexual, pansexual, polysexual, panentheistic: erotic in the sense of life-force not just sexuality. Emphasis on the ecstasy. I have since published two or three of these poems as limited-edition chapbooks, for private distribution to friends and a few interested others. That's mostly because I just didn't think anyone else would be interested in such poems.

One thing I've never expected is that anyone would ever accept or like my poems; they've always been too outside the current poetic fashions. To non-poets and poets alike they break all the "rules," and not only in terms of content. To this day I mostly share these more explicitly homoerotic poems with my gay friends, rather than the general public. There are two reasons for this: They're very personal poems, not confessional but personal, and I didn't necessarily write them for anyone but myself. (In two cases that I can think of, in which the long poems accumulated lines over a few years, a bit added at a time, the poem set aside for a time then returned to later, the writing was also interrupted by self-induced orgasms: is it masturbation when your own sexual writing turns you on? I don't care. One difference between eroticism and pornography is that pornography turns into a job, and like any job, isn't a turn-on after awhile.)

The idea of what is universal in poetry is at the heart of the matter.

Does every poem have to be universal, or have universal appeal? No, not at all. But just because you write in a poem about gay relationships, sex, and community, does not mean you're not touching on universal human themes—quite the contrary, as can be seen in poems by Thom Gunn, Constantine Cavafy, james Broughton (a celebratory poet if ever there was one!) Dennis Cooper, Federico Garcia Lorca, Kenneth Pitchford, and many others, to name only a few.

Mr. Mills also writes: There is also a notion that if you write about gay issues you are automatically writing "confessional" poetry. Confessional has many other issues and is really grounded in a particular period and moment in poetry. I don't personally consider my work to be confessional.

The post-confessional lyric has become one of the dominant genres of contemporary poetry, in competition with Language Poetry and neo-formalism—in part because of the lyric poem's dominant place in poetry workshop teaching. Yet writing about the personal need not be "confessional" poetry. I tend to view confessional poetry as that which puts one's own personal biography of wounds on display, publicly revealing personal and private issues, be they psychological or sexual or whatever. There is always a feeling of the poet airing his or her dirty laundry in public in "confessional" poetry:—public "confession" always contains a hint of private "shame."

The usual argument heard from poets on the "poet who happens to be gay" side of the question is that they don't want their poetry to ghettoized, or limited in any way. They write about more than just being gay, they write about universal human concerns. Even gay poets who don't want to be identified solely as gay poets carry the assumption, it seems, that sex and identity are narrow topics: There is always that notion that if you write about issues related to your minority that somehow you are being narrow.

That I’m gay and a poet (and composer, etc.) is not hidden. It’s self-revealing in my writing (and even more so in my photographic work). This also opens the question of "gay sensibility," the idea in identity politics that no matter what you write about, your essential self as a gay person affects all the art you make, even the art not overtly about gay themes. There is some truth to this gay sensibility concept, although it is contested terrain.

I tend to agree with those artists who admit that no matter what there art is about, it is infused with their life's experience of being different, of being Other, of being gay. When you're a cultural outsider, you learn at a younger age than most how to step back and observe your own culture objectively. When you're bullied for being different, you learn to "read" people and situations very quickly, and you develop a survival instinct. Those instincts go deep, even if they don't rule you in later life.

Thinking all these questions through again, at the moment, I find myself on the side of “gay poet” rather than the "poet who happens to by gay." Yes, that's an explicitly political statement—although it's not necessarily myself who politicizes that statement. The presumption that a “poet who happens to be gay” might write more universally-appealing or universally-ranging-in-topic poems is based on the assumption that gay-themed poetry is somehow inherently less “universal” in scope than non-gay-themed poetry. I object to that strongly, now, because it feels like just another form of ghettoization, even of internalized homophobia—even when it comes from openly gay poets who want to present themselves (perhaps to win wider acceptance among the more conservative masses?) as “poets who happen to be gay.”

What makes a poetry universal is the shared human experience involved. We all love, we all suffer, we all live and die. The universal experience of falling in love, and living with someone, and dying, well, it doesn’t matter who that is. So a gay-themed love poem doesn’t have to be less “universal” somehow than either a heterosexual love poem or a love poem in which the genders are all indeterminate.

And why would readers want to know if I’m a gay poet anyway? I mean, I am, and it’s no secret. But if a straight person wanted to know, I would want to know why they wanted to know. To just put the poet into another categorical box?

Yes, this is personal/political, definitely, for me to declare myself a "gay poet" in many circumstances. The "poets who happen to be gay" have a different politics than mine—bluntly, a seemingly more conservative, assimilationist politics. I think of writers who have explicitly stated that they prefer to be thought of as "poets who happen to be gay"—Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, John Ashbery, etc. Others come to mind as well, some of whom are still in the closet, perhaps because they fear loosing work opportunities if they come out. Well, that remains a valid fear, even decades after Stonewall. Many of these writers are people I respect as artists, if not for their stances on this question.

Maybe there's something generational to this, as well; one thinks of the generation of avant-garde composers of the mid-20th C., many of whom were gay, but never publicly said so. An earlier generation, even after Stonewall, never felt comfortable about publicly coming out.

Therefore I sometimes feel that this question can be used as a marker for figuring out an artist's political leanings, since in several examples I can think of, “poets who happen to be gay” also have taken more conservative and assimilationist stances on other LGBT issues. A lot of their political stances are "don't rock the boat" stances, or otherwise anti-radical stances. For example, the fight for gay marriage rights is an assimilationist program, because most of the rhetoric breaks down into "we want to be just like you, only different." I am all for equal rights, but gay marriage is not now our most important issue, and never has been, except to the more assimilationist gays among us. DADT was more important. Far more pressing and important is the prevention of gay teen bullying and suicide. What causes we choose to give our time to is a political choice itself. Just to be clear, I'm glad that LGBT activists are working for all of these various civil rights, including gay marriage—I want everyone who wants to get married to have the choice available to them—and make no mistake, these are civil rights issues. My problem with gay marriage is primarily that the entire institution of marriage itself is problematic and anachronistic.

I can also see some situational aspects to the question of "gay poet." I could foresee myself not objecting to being announced, in certain venues, as a "poet who happens to be gay" rather than a "gay poet." I can foresee public performance and/or reading situations where that would be appropriate; not because of fear, but because sometimes you have to pick your battles. And because in other performance ventures, my sexual identity just isn't necessary to the performance—say, when I'm playing a jazz gig. I do feel that my gay sensibility does permeate everything I do, including my jazz gigs, but that's partly because my muse is a male, not a female. I play even jazz more intensely, more personally, if my muse is present in the listening audience.

Then there is the related issue of opportunism. Perhaps, to get an artist's award or grant, or to be even considered, you have to not "advertise" your LGBT status. Perhaps on some occasions you end up not talking about it because it torpedo your chances of getting recognition, or reward, or an award, or something similar. I sincerely feel that some "pots who happen to be gay," like some artists of earlier generations, have chosen their stance because being more "militantly" gay would deny them opportunities, or lose them gigs. This is an understandable fear. We all need to make a living.

But how far dare we go to (mis)represent ourselves in order to get something? How far does having an open identity go towards living and integrated and authentic life, and where would we sell that in order to gain some kind of advantage? In other words, this is at root about prostituting oneself in order to get ahead in one’s artistic career.

For my part, I'm perfectly willing to prostitute my art: I like getting paid for my creativity. I've had grunt jobs where I was an interchangeable cog in the corporate machine. And I prefer to be paid to exercise my mind, my creativity, and my sense of humor—because it's more fun and interesting for me. (I'd say that's pretty "universal" a sentiment.) But while I am willing to prostitute my art, I'm not willing to prostitute myself, my identity, my essential nature, just to get a gig. If they can't deal with me being gay, I probably don't want to work with them anyway. It's a big ocean, and there are always more fish to be caught. So I might not make a grand announcement that I'm a gay artist; but if it comes up, I'll quietly and proudly affirm that I am gay.

Honestly, in artistic situations that has mostly come up when my coming out in that artistic venue was a matter of setting the record, ahem, straight. Of being true to myself, and not being hidden. I recall one poetry discussion panel where I came out because the discussion was about an Allen Ginsberg poem, and to make a point, I needed to let people know my take on the poem. (Which was "A Supermarket in California.") I already thought everyone knew I was gay, who was there, so I didn't even think I was coming out to anybody there; although it turned out I was.

So I affirm that I'm a "gay poet." I may not broadcast it all the time. I make plenty of poems, and photographs, and music, that is not explicitly about being gay, or has openly gay content. And I do feel that my gay sensibility is never absent in anything I do, because it's an essential part of whom I am. My muses are other men. My inspiration in my art, the life-force energy that is the power under life, that supports and enables life, that life-force, which I often explicitly discuss in my art, is eros, is life-force itself. Or call it prajna, ki, ch'i, the Tao. There are many names. What I do know is that it is always in my art, whether or not my art is about it or not. And because my eros is directed towards same-sex affiliation, I am a "gay poet."

Not that it matters. And not that anybody should care.


  1. My poems do not often incorporate explicitly gay subject matter, but if/when I give a reading I make sure to include one that does &/or refer to my husband or something.

    I happen to be a lot of things, from a biological entity to six feet tall, all of which seem to matter more or less, some of which seem more noticeable to one audience or another. As a gay man I recognize that identifying myself thus is a form of activism on behalf of all glbt people. It's not quite shocking these days, largely because people like us aren't allowing it to be.

    If someone were to ask me: Are you a Gay Poet?

    I would say: Yes (in a sort of a what-else voice) ...

    If I were to have a book reviewed and the reviewer kept discussing my being gay I might be irked if the reviewer didn't also reveal s/he had thought about the work supposedly under review. On the other hand, I'm so invisible that anybody talking about my writing would be a surprise so I'm not going to start complaining about something ahead of it ever happening.

  2. Yeah, what you say here is pretty much how I feel most of the time, too. It's a form of activism. AND I doubt anybody actually reads my poems, explicitly gay or otherwise. LOL

  3. A hugely interesting post. I recognise the quandary and don't have a firm viewpoint. But I think of the years given (in literary study) to poets and poems that said nothing personally to me. I am quite able to study any poem from the Universe :-) but the poems and poets that I value most are those that speak to the Other in me (which I never escape). I enjoyed this post very much.

  4. That's a good point: dealing with poems that speak to us personally. Your point about the Other in us is absolutely spot on: that is the key to us being able to connect, at times, especially perhaps regarding a gay sensibility, is that very Otherness inside us.

    Thanks very much for the interesting comment.