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Is Poetry Gay?

by James Crews

On a flight from San Francisco to Chicago a few years ago, I happened to be reading a book of poetry—Charles Wright’s Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. I was absorbed, but the woman next to me—maybe bored by her own copy of The Da Vinci Code—felt compelled to strike up a conversation about her college-age daughter.

“She’s in school to be a teacher,” the woman said. I caught her eyeing the book now resting facedown on my lap. I was looking down at it too, trying to figure out a way to break off the talk. I didn’t want to hear about how smart her daughter was or that she was single. I didn’t like where this was going.

“Are you in school too?” she asked brightly. She had begun toying with her iPhone as if ready to flip it on any minute and enter my number for her fabulous, well-educated daughter.

I explained that, yes, I was in an MFA program for writing. “I’m a poet,” I confessed. (Why does saying that to strangers always feel like such a confession, a “coming out”?)

“Ohhhhhhh. A poet.” A hand fluttered to her chest. She let out a sigh, seemingly relieved that we might finally enter into a real conversation now that this mystery was cleared up. “I was wondering why a man would be reading poetry on a plane,” she said with a smile.

Her comment floored me, though I concede she could have meant any number of things by that. She could have been wondering why anybody would be reading poetry on a plane, which is a valid question: who would want to consider his mortality so far above the earth? Who would want to read something that demands so much attention with so many distractions at hand? Her hair was tied back and she was wearing a blazer over a crisp white shirt, gray skirt, black nylons, everything about her suggesting business trip. I’m not sure what kinds of associations she had with poetry but her own choice for airplane reading (am I judging?) and her well-spoken manner suggested to me that she’d probably read the required stuff in college—Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot—but had maybe never taken to something that took so much work to get through. And who could blame her? Most Americans would never read poetry for pleasure, linger over lines like Charles Wright’s while hurtling through the sky: “Into the chaos of every day/ go quietly, quietly.” I politely ended our conversation, but couldn’t let go of what was implied in her surprise since, about four years out of school now, I continue to read and write poems no matter where I am—in loud cafes, at bus stops, on trains. Her comment begs the question: Do we still see poetry as somehow feminine? Or, to co-opt one of the more unfortunate terms of our time, I’d like to ask another, overly provocative question: Is poetry gay? Was my seatmate suggesting not only that poetry is slight and worthless, but also that it is still thought of as mostly “women’s work” by those outside of literary circles?

A few months back, in a small town in Oregon, I was holding a poetry workshop for a roomful of grade-schoolers; I recited Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain slant of light” and after my reading, many of the boys commenced to rolling their eyes back in their heads with the torture of it, wriggling in their chairs, ready to leap out the windows as if their hair had caught fire. But the girls’ faces, I couldn’t help but notice, brightened. They sat up a little straighter and reached for their No. 2 pencils when I announced we would be composing our own poems; the boys, of course, groaned as if suddenly confined to a ring of hell. What’s the source of such conditioning? I imagine their knee-jerk behavior is mostly the result of lack of exposure to the kind of poetry being written today, kinds that do not focus solely on one’s feelings. And though I wouldn’t bring them into elementary school classrooms, there are scads of poems being written by rugged, hard-drinking, swaggering, Manly Poets, as bent on reinforcing their own heterosexuality as they are on writing a good poem.

Spencer Short and his first book, Tremolo, come first to mind. The collection was a winner in The National Poetry Series back in 2000, chosen by former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, and it is a fearless and energetic book, resurrecting Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and others of the New York School. Short should also get an award for Most Poems in a Book that Refer to Drunken Acts. Consider this from “There Is Nothing Not to Be Amazed At”:

What strange algebra all this seems, now.
The drunken, hot-rodding kids. The drunken poets.
The waves slowly erasing the shore with
their tiny, salty hands. It’s enough
to drive you batfuck, C.D. said, talking about
metaphors I think. I’m batfuck for X,
it’s only been three days, & she’s got a boyfriend.

What makes a Manly Poem manly in the first place? I believe poems like Short’s have an untamable hubris, what we’d call guts; their speakers probably spend most mornings recovering from a hangover. The Manly Poem is obsessed with a girl who isn’t good for him, a girl who’s already taken—the “X,” for instance, who recurs throughout Tremolo. And you won’t catch a Manly Poet writing about the usual suspects of poetic subject matter: no epiphanies or pining, and if there is grief (there is almost always grief) it is temporarily relieved with the speaker lighting up a cigarette, having a drink and writing something mysterious and inscrutable.  The poet-speaker introduces himself toward the end of “There Is Nothing Not to Be Amazed At,” “I’m Spencer. I’m three fingers gin,/ one finger tonic. I’m one stiff drink./ Morning comes on like an ulcer.” I’m poking fun at Short and his ilk—Matthew and Michael Dickman, Zach Savich, and Matthew Zapruder—but there is a heady exuberance here that’s hard to pass up, a persona for whom the reader easily falls. I think if I could have (if only I could have!) read one of the poems from Tremolo to that woman on the plane, she might have changed her tune, at least in terms of thinking poetry a feminine enterprise. She might have run the other way.

I’d also like to consider a very different poet’s first book, partly because I happened to read both books back-to-back and partly because they offer such stark contrasts to one another. Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage (1999) and Voluntary Servitude (2004), and he has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship. He is a gay poet (or a poet who happens to be gay), and though I hate to place labels on any writer, the poems in his first book, The Anchorage, do not shy from this personal truth. The many dark pieces are haunted by mortality and violence, and they trace a young gay man’s journey into a new life, far from his boyhood home in Wisconsin, near that “highway that cuts the Midwest into two unequal/ halves.” He too is a poet who drinks and smokes in his poems, but could we call him a Manly Poet? Of course, a man can be both “manly” and gay in my humble opinion, but I suspect there are still places in America (and many other parts of the world) where this is simply not the case: a gay man is marked as effeminate, no matter his gender performance, and that’s the end of the story. For our purposes, the speaker in The Anchorage is just as divided and conflicted about love as any of the characters in Short’s poems, craving unattainable affection and “leaning against walls in bars” to find it.

I admit it’s a little unfair to compare two poets whose projects are so wildly divergent.  Perhaps my bias shows: I can’t help but see Wunderlich’s poems as somehow more valuable and legitimate, manly or not. They seek something deeper, a tenderness not found in the hook-up as when a “hugely muscled” trick, on top, begs him, “Please kiss me.” There are drugs and sex and yet, the reader senses that these are not mentioned to cultivate a persona, lay claim to a voice, or play the part of the “drunken poet”; they are simply part of the life of a young man coming to terms with his own sexuality, ways to escape a self his upbringing has perhaps taught him to abhor. The poems in The Anchorage turn elegiac as the specter of AIDS—and the more literal-seeming ghost of a lost lover—begin to overtake them. They find a quiet power here where no pizzazz is needed, no posturing allowed. Wunderlich traffics in mystery (which is not to be confused with abstraction), and simply doesn’t want to give up all his secrets at once. The last lines of “Unmade Bed,” which reference one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ prints that appeared on billboards at the height of the AIDS Crisis in New York City are quietly affecting: “Forgive me. There will be mornings, waking alone, when a print of me in the bed is laundered and pinned on a line, is gone.”

As a gay poet who grew up in the rural Midwest and went to school in Wisconsin, I have been deeply affected by Wunderlich’s work, intoxicated with his utter honesty in speaking about love, sex and attachment. He is fearless too, but there is more at stake with his speaker than there is with Short’s. Wunderlich explores life-and-death issues while, reading Short, I picture a graduate student whose troubles lie mostly in stumbling home alone, drunk, still “batfuck for X.” Though I’m taken with Wunderlich, something just under the surface also troubles me a little, and I think it has to do with how he and other gay poets tap into a common language and visual vocabulary to write what we might call The Gay Poem. I think of his prose litany in “Fourteen Things We’re Allowed to Bring to the Underworld”:

L. says Fire, and I understand that, and would take that too. Architecture, fretwork for structure. The miniature tea set for delicacy. Opera for blood. Iron for fortitude and weight. Linen as a reminder of skin. Crystal for simple music. Tin. Leather for harnessing. Paper. Milk. A boat. I’ll stop one short.

When I read these lines, I bristle. This poet’s work creates its own versions of masculinity, but (although he is certainly being playful here) the lines sound somehow fey at the same time. “The miniature tea set” and “crystal” and mention of “opera” bring to mind the stereotype of the erudite gay man, obsessed with style, image and entertaining. And because the poems in The Anchorage do take risks with more openly homosexual subject matter, let me also ask a rather prudish question: If any poet ventures to write explicitly about her or his sex life and the trappings thereof—whether those include whips and harnesses or phalluses—does she/he risk losing more than a few readers who’d prefer not to go there? Do gay poets, who so often (rightfully, I would argue) write about their sexual lives, the pleasures and mutinies of the body—do we risk turning off straight readers? Can poetry afford to lose any more of its readership?

Recently, I was sitting in a café leafing through a copy of Carl Phillips’ Speak Low. I’ve been in love with Phillips’ philosophical musings and lush language for years, taken with his fluid lines that have often (tellingly) been called “athletic” and “muscular,” and which frankly explore the emotional and sexual lives of gay men. A writer-friend stopped by my table as I was reading and asked if he could see the new book. He flipped it open to the Table of Contents and started cracking up.

“What?” I asked. A Carl Phillips poem may make you furrow your brow and sigh, but it will likely not make you laugh.

He read the titles of the poems aloud to me; a partial list: “Conquest,” “Captivity,” “To Drown in Honey,” “Gold on Parchment,” “Porcelain,” “Topaz,” “Volition,” “Reciprocity,” “Sterling,” “Husk.”

“He’s so gay,” my friend said.

Since his statement is literally true, and my friend happens to know Carl Phillips personally, I can’t indict him too much. In his work, Phillips does often fall into the stereotypical role of the erudite poet—intellectual, unafraid to allude to esoteric mythology and history— referencing knowledge the average reader probably doesn’t have access to. So, though I wouldn’t have called the poem titles “gay” per se, he has a point. Phillips stakes out much of the same territory as Wunderlich in that he examines not only the inadequacy of material objects in our world—“Gold on Parchment,” “Porcelain,” “Topaz,” “Sterling,” “Husk”—but also, obviously, the body—“Conquest,” “Captivity,” “Volition,” “Reciprocity.” I can bristle all I want, but the idea of transience arises in the work of so many gay poets (and so many poets in general). Even if we don’t all use quite the same imagery, the legacy of AIDS and the necessity of hiding our desires has made the body’s insubstantiality a constant theme, an obsession. I think of the opening stanza of Phillips’ “Night Song” from Speak Low:

Servitude. Conquest. The one who, from the hip, keeps
pushing himself up into the other’s mouth. The one who
takes from behind . . .

Or these lines from “Captivity”:

Oh, sometimes it is as if desire itself had been given form, and
acreage, and I’d been left for lost there. Amazement grips me,

I grip it back, the book shuts slowly: Who shuts it? You?

Though becoming a poet certainly didn’t make me prefer men, the two are related. When I think about my first encounters with poetry, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson instantly spring to mind. They were outsiders, and that stance appealed to a nerdy kid who already felt excluded from the social structures of junior high school. Dickinson and Whitman had fallen in love with the things of the world, and there was a real loneliness in those lines I could relate to. My inexplicable attraction to men had already set me apart from everyone else, and so when poetry came around, I found a way to make use of the loneliness I reasoned I was going to feel either way.

Poets are outsiders, even among outsiders. Dana Gioia says of us in his famous essay,“Can Poetry Matter?”: “Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige.” That “prestige”—as faded as it might be nowadays—was part of what attracted this misfit to writing. If you grow up gay in the Midwest, or other small towns, especially, it doesn’t take long to register that what you’re looking for in this life does not jibe with what the culture says you ought to want. You don’t fit in. But poetry and the other arts lend credibility to that separateness and the contrary lifestyle that must come with it. Since poetry itself is a myth-making process, a “queering” of personal experience, the life of the poet is a further queering, inviting poverty, heartache and a constant crisis of faith in the life and on the page. I’m being hyperbolic, but poetry can help legitimize the outsider’s life to the wider world and bring with it at least some measure of acceptance, so the poet can stand apart and—gay or straight—look in on life like a voyeur, taking fastidious notes. Or like Charles Wright, often holding forth from the vantage of his backyard, separate from the world, yet steeped in it too:

Hard work, this business of solitude.
Hard work and no gain,
Mouthful of silence, mouthful of air.
Everything’s more than it seems back here. Everything’s less.

If I could do over my conversation with that woman on the plane, I think I’d now act as a better defender of my own art. I’d gently call her out on her assumptions about poetry and men, and I wouldn’t need poems like Short’s to do so. Maybe I’d say that, with so many writers of both genders attending MFA and PhD programs in Creative Writing, we no longer need to question the masculinity or validity of poetry: everyone’s doing it, and it’s thriving. Ultimately, I would kindly explain to her what power I find in poetry, how much I have inexplicably come to love it over the years (and how much I enjoy sharing it). The question is not whether poetry is particularly gay or not; it is, as always, why we choose to fill our time with the things we do, how often we have no choice in the matter of what calls to us. I think she would have understood.