Friday, February 12, 2010

Jack Spicer is my valentine

So Jack Spicer asked me out. I wasn't sure if I was going to go, but he was sweet, unassuming, didn't expect anything from me. Just a few hours of togetherness.

I'd never read anything by him. I'm still somewhat new to poetry, still feeling my way. Focusing on contemporary work, while slowly filling in the back story with the classics of the 20th century.

C buys a lot of books, which is good for me because I like to read, often directionless, book to book as they appear in front of me. In this house there's no shortage.

I'd heard the name, loved the title (my vocabulary did this to me - supposedly his last words), so I picked it up the other day, daunting in its collectedness at nearly 500 pages. Well-behaved reader that I am, as expected to do so, I read the intro AND the "about this edition." I was into it. The first handful of poems though? Good lord, no. I'm not really into poets waxing all mythological. I mean, I know that's a style and there's a great tradition and I should have paid more attention to Edith Hamilton. That's on me. And I like it the way I like the Bible. For the silly stories. Kind of in the abstract. I don't want either to feature in the poetry I read, though god and gods can be done well.

Then I got to "Imaginary Elegies":

Yes, be like God. I wonder what I thought
When I wrote that. The dreamers sag a bit
As if five years had thickened on their flesh
Or on my eyes. Wake them with what?
Should I throw rocks at them
To make their naked private bodies bleed?
No. Let them sleep. This much I’ve learned
In these five years in what I spent and earned:
Time does not finish a poem.
The dummies in the empty funhouse watch
The tides wash in and out. The thick old moon
Shines through the rotten timbers every night.
This much is clear, they think, the men who made
Us twitch and creak and put the laughter in our throats
Are just as cold as we. The lights are out.
The lights are out.
You’ll smell the oldest smells—
The smell of salt, of urine, and of sleep
Before you wake. This much I’ve learned
In these five years in what I’ve spent and earned:
Time does not finish a poem.
What have I gone to bed with all these years?
What have I taken crying to my bed
For love of me?
Only the shadows of the sun and moon
The dreaming groins, their creaking images.
Only myself.
Is there some rhetoric
To make me think that I have kept a house
While playing dolls? This much I’ve learned
In these five years in what I’ve spent and earned:
That two-eyed monster God is still above.
I saw him once when I was young and once
When I was seized with madness, or was I seized
And mad because I saw him once. He is the sun
And moon made real with eyes.
He is the photograph of everything at once. The love
That makes the blood run cold.
But he is gone. No realer than old
Poetry. This much I’ve learned
In these five years in what I’ve spent and earned:
Time does not finish a poem.
Upon the old amusement pier I watch
The creeping darkness gather in the west.
Above the giant funhouse and the ghosts
I hear the seagulls call. They’re going west
Toward some great Catalina of a dream
Out where the poem ends.
But does it end?
The birds are still in flight. Believe the birds.


I'm hooked. We're spending the day together, just me and Jack. Maybe a bottle of gin. Maybe some Chinese take-out.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I want to be the man who has me.

Paul Monette mentions several times throughout the winding coming-out narrative of Becoming a Man how he has to work hard not to let the current Paul, the one writing the story get too disgusted at the closeted Paul he used to be. This removes some of my readerly and gay sensibility of wanting to yell, 'what the hell, dude. It doesn't have to be this hard.' That said, it is hard. It was hard for me in the nineties, it was sure to have been even harder in the seventies. I guess I give it today's worldview (mine) and it all seems ridiculous to be so bent on staying sexless. In the context of 1972, just slightly post Stonewall (and though he was living 70 miles from the city, it seems to have been little more than a blip on his radar of self-hatred), even his therapist seems confused that his goal is to be straight. And he tries!

This book was written in 1992, just a few years before Monette died at age 49 or 50, young. Written as a startled response to the warm, fuzzy response his book Borrowed Time received. Borrowed Time was a portrait of his relationship with Roger Horwitz and Roger's death from AIDS. It was loving, accessible story of two men in love that made the loving look easy. Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story was Monette's angry response that, sorry, no. Gay love is not that easy.

It's hard not to see myself in all coming out stories, as I'm sure many gays do. My story ran parallel to his in many ways. But where he kept celibate and then dated women to try to cure himself, mine was all for show. In the coming-out formulary, his self-hatred equals my self-preservation. He truly wanted to change; I simply didn't want to die. This has mostly to do with the time. Though my coming out pre-dated contemporary gays in the spotlight (except maybe for Elton John and a few other elders, and the bi-wonder of my idol David Bowie), I knew it wasn't something wrong with me. I just figured there was no one around like me (except the queer black kid, the double excuse for punching bag in our white, straight suburban dream), that I'd meet them in another life, find my own "city of orgies, walks and joys" like my kind had been doing for ages (or since the advent of capitalism, thank you John D'Emilio). At some point my attraction to women just evolved into a quiet acceptance of, 'oh, this is something I'll worry about once I leave this small town.' (Though I did eventually end up getting lucky in high school.) I dated boys and enjoyed it, even though my heart was never in it; I never once thought it might go somewhere.

I wonder what the equivalent is now.

While I can't really cozy up to the fact that he didn't get laid regularly until he was approaching thirty, I can understand the trend of running from people he actually liked. "I told myself to go with it, not to be afraid. I was beginning to worry that I didn't know how to have sex with someone I liked" (271). My history is littered with girls I liked and ran from. The longest relationships were always with the safe ones, the ones where I knew where I stood emotionally and so had nothing to lose. The ones I actually loved, well, I never let those relationships go anywhere. But this has more to do with being stupid than gay.

At least I got that figured out soon enough to do the right thing by C, who is definitely not safe, and whom I be a wreck by if I ever lost.

Anyway, I'm starting to use this space as more of a reading diary than anything, which I suppose is okay. An homage to lines I love. If you know me, you know that I may interrupt your speaking to let you know that what you just said would make a good line, that you should probably write it down. Unless, of course, you aren't a writer. Then I'll steal your shit, rest assured.


And I think of my father when I read this, he who would love his sexless daughter:

The project of our enemies is to keep us from falling in love. It has always been thus, the history writ by straight boys who render us invisible, as if we were never there. Left and right, fascists and communists, they loathe us in equal measure. Then the Holy Fathers of every religion, their sick equation of pleasure and sin. If you isolate us long enough and keep us ignorant of each other, the solitary confinement will extinguish any hope we have of finding our other half. (25)

I can't believe it myself, how fresh the wounds of the deep past sting, how sharp the dry-eyed tears are even at this distance. The very act of remembering begins to resemble a phobic state--feeding on every missed chance, stuck forever in the place without doors. What's crazy about it is, I forget that I ever got out. For an hour or a day the pain wins. It throws a veil of amnesia over my real life... My white-knuckled grip on happiness, hoarded against the gloating of my enemies, against the genocide by indifference that has buried alive a generation of my brothers. (172)

Throughout, Paul Monette's language is beautiful. This is the first I've read of him, and won't be the last. It seems everywhere I've gone with this book in the past few days someone has stopped me to say, I loved that book.

If we learned to drive as badly as we learn to make love, the roads would be nothing but wrecks. (175)

...I had no choice but to keep on looking in the wrong places for the thing I'd never even seen: two men in love and laughing. For that was the image in my head, though I'd never read it in any book or seen it in any movie. I'd fashioned it out of bits of dreams and the hurt that went with pining after straight men. Everything told me it couldn't exist, especially the media code of invisibility, where queers were spoken of only in the context of molesting Boy Scouts. (178)

No longer invisible, we still have a long way to go. Even Weeds, a show I love, likes to kill their queers. (We're currently watching Season 5.)

Waiting numbly for a train in a place where there are no tracks. (179)

And just getting into bed with somebody wasn't the magic solution, because people could hide their terrors in pure technique--depersonalizing so completely the body embraced so they felt nothing at all. (253)

From his journals in 1972 when he was sleeping with men and women, still figuring out the sway of his orientation:

I feel fairly calm and together until I have to explain myself at all to anyone... Sex is more regular with Ellen. That is, I'm not afraid I can't do it anymore, but I can't stand the intimacy of it, can't face being the man in the situation. And yet I think of Bruce on Saturday [a trick] and get pissed thinking how irrelevant I was/am in the passive role. I want to be the man who has me. (264)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mean Something?

I understand the trend of popular readership through my family. They are not literary people. But they've always been readers. My father likes art books, he's a high school art teacher, went to school for sculpture. My mother consumes romance novels by the truckful. My Aunt Louise reads a lot of nonfiction, mostly things about the natural world. When my aunt tells me she likes Robert Frost and 'isn't smart enough' to understand contemporary poetry, I understand she's smarter than she thinks.

Some call it putting random thoughts together, a friend recently referred to it as the 'smart-aleck' school of poetry. Contemporary leanings in poetry and fictive prose have been about seeming either smarter than their readership in making references the general population won't be privy to or cultivating a camaraderie of 'you get this, don't you? look how smart and funny we are' geared towards the other smart alecks of their trade.

My aunt says she's not smart enough and I tell her it's not her, it's writing right now, poetry, the contemporary drag. That's just where we are right now. The smart clothes we're putting on. Maybe it's the Bush years, the war years, how we were attacked 'right on our own soil,' the years of upping alerts, packing small vials to get on planes. Our culture of fear. There's so much that's so important that needs to be looked at, that perhaps we as a tribe are overwhelmed and so write about very little. We want to be smart enough to outrun the fear. We don't want to look at it. (And I'm only marking it from W's reign because I wasn't enough aware of the contemporary poetry scene prior to about 2000. I am ready to stand corrected.)

That said, there are some excellent contemporary poets and prose writers who are getting down the important things about the way we live now in understandable terms and with beautiful care to language. Richard Siken, Heather Derr-Smith, Shane McCrae, Brian Turner, Patricia Smith, to name a few. It's just that they're hard to find if you don't know where to look. And looking from the outside, most contemporary writing is not for the populace; it's exclusionary. With that in mind, I would tell my aunt to read Robert Frost and not to try to bust in and find some meaning in what's being done today. If I see something I think she'll like, something that will mean something to her, I'll send it her way.

This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately; it relates to much of what Codrescu's The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans talks about. The book is from more than a decade ago, but is still vital thought on what's going on.

Ted Genoways (Virginia Quarterly Editor) has some smart things to say about the current state of fiction and literary journals here: The Death of Fiction, including:

But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reading Andrei Codrescu's Half-Naked Muse and the Boy in the Lake

But here is the thing: physical intimacy or potential intimacy is only a device for opening the floodgates to what really matters: words. What I want from my friends, male or female, are words. Great torrents of conversation, ramblings, monologues, infinite confidences, stories, anecdotes, confessions. I know that there are silent friendships out there just like there are platonic ones. I don't hold to those. I like my friendships warm, fleshy, verbal, sensual, sensorial... (50)

Me too, Mr. Codrescu. I think some of my prior relationships were gotten into mainly as a ruse for trapping people I admired into endless conversation. That said, I do enjoy the other aspects.

As the written depends only on the written, a poet finds himself inside a vicious circle of substance sucking by his own products' products. What was once living becomes Naturalism, Realism, Surrealism, Modernism, Postmodernism, etc. The speaker diminishes and the speech becomes all. But this is not the same speech as the sacred speech of the beginning: this is the even speech of machines, not the unpredictable story of the gods. This is speech turned upon its own devices, speech about speech. The cosmogonic myth and the fairy tale are replaced by the novel and television. The ritual-sacred utterance becomes a bourgeois commercial proposition feeding endlessly on the demands of a self-perpetuating market that is not an audience but, precisely, a market. Who reads? Who watches? The reader and the viewer have been replaced by the Spectator. Utterly different creatures these three: they vary physically. The body of the Spectator is a strategic map for the deployment of cultural products. The reader and the viewer used to touch. That is now forbidden: art is produced for the sake of production, which is to say for the sake of storage. It is made to be noted, credited and put in resumes, not to be actually read. In fact its message may be exactly the opposite: NOLE ME TANGERE, DO NOT READ ME. Art pour l'art is art contre l'homme.

The poet today is like Scheherazade: he must tell a story each night in order not to die.

The workshop writers masquerade as non-mainstream writers but that's only an illusion; they simply cater to the surveyed needs of a different class of consumers, namely academic institutions. Notice I said "consumers," not "readers," because properly speaking, these workshop writers do not have readers: they produce their materials for resume-building in order to fill the self-generating slots of a growing bureaucracy. These writers do not even read other members of their resume-building subgroup. ...These writers are institutional insiders disguised as outsiders. (135)

What is prompting me additional thought, and which I don't feel adequately able to speak on yet, is the alignment here of resume and commercialization. The selling and the selling. While I agree to some degree, to some degree there are differences. Part of why I read like a pig, snuffling through the muck of everything I can lay my hands on, is to avoid this sense exactly. That no one reads. I read you. I read you all, provided that you never cease to entertain me with something I can't find anywhere else. This, too, a steep order. The business.

Also why, thus far, I'm happy to have avoided cogging in the machine of the academy. Or so I think. I don't have (as much) the anxiety of gross production.

To believe this entirely would be to lose hope. So I don't. But there's something to it certainly. I'm also always shocked by how many creative writing students are so resistant to reading. The grumblings about how much reading instructors are forcing on them. How they don't read for pleasure. (What is pleasure? Vacancy?) But then, in my experience anyway, they don't tend to be the most engaging storytellers.


The weather continues to consume me. Sun and warm that calls for my blanket on the beach. Sand, rock, grass. I used to go to Lake Padden a lot to read, after a bike ride there, after a run around the lake, after a swim. My own triathalon (taken slowly). I haven't been there in a while, not since I moved and the bike ride got tripled. There're closer shores. The bay is just down the street.

Last weekend a young man drowned in Lake Padden when the canoe he and a friend were rowing capsized. The lake is so manageable. Like a bathtub is how I've always thought of it. I swim across, I swim back, I swim across. It's three miles on the trail around. I don't know what the diameter is the length I swim across. But I just can't imagine anyone dying there. People in boats die young in this town. One boy was drowned, the other was saved. When the authorities pulled up the canoe from the lake bottom, the two life jackets, unworn, were still in it.