9.28.2004

Ab/Normality

Is it normal to go through a writing "dry spell" after completing a project? After finishing a long series or a long poem, I typically have some days where I don't want to write, but lately it's been a few weeks, coinciding with thesis drafting.

Or: am I washed up?

So, taking a poll: do you typically pause in writing after you put together a book? If so, how long?

If not, why aren't you more like me? ;)

Thanks. Oh, and Zombies.

Thanks to everyone who has posted such thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful points and counterpoints to my recent posts. I've been so busy I haven't been able to respond, but there has been a buffet of food for thought. It brings me so much happiness to engage in discussions like this with colleagues and fellow writers, so thank you, thank you, thank you. And please, keep commenting.

In other news, I took time out from being busy to see the new zombie flick Shaun of the Dead. While I know nearly every zombie movie is a critique of consumerism, I also can't shake the suspicion that there's an AIDS-related presence here. Any time a blood-borne plague runs rampant, I see shades of AIDS. And I think zombies are more so than vampires. Vampires are "undead" while zombies are "living dead." It's an important distinction, I think, especially in terms of how AIDS was formerly an assurred death sentence.

9.24.2004

You're Not Queer, But My Boyfriend Is: Notes Toward an Understanding of "You" in Queer American Poetry

Over the past year, I had a few conversations with some established American poets who, somewhat in passing, declared use of the "second person" to be useless in poetry. "It's silly," they'd say (I'm paraphrasing), "everyone knows that when a poet says you, they're really talking about him or herself."

I was really shocked. I'd always felt very comfortable writing with a you in the poem; in fact, for several years, I preferred it, feeling it created an immediacy and urgency to the work. And it almost never meant I—although I admit that sometimes, that was the case. I thought about how I confront you when I read it in a poem. My first assumption is that the speaker is addressing someone. My second thought is that the speaker is addressing me.

From a queer perspective, the pronoun you is political. You is mutable, intangible. In terms of the literary closet, you used to be the only way a queer writer could address a love object without risking career and/or social suicide. Consider, as a related example, Melissa Etheridge's body of work. Of the songs I'm familiar with, and of those that are love songs, they all substitute the pronoun you for the pronouns she or her.

For a non-queer artist, I think this nuance goes unnoticed in their own writing. Has a straight male poet ever belabored the decision to use the illustrative she in an address to a lover? Has he fretted over its reception, concerned a journal may reject it because it exposes too much about a devalued "lifestyle"? Has he avoided showing that poem to friends and family because their response would be unsupportive?

The options open to queer writers: pass as non-queer (a pantomime), take risks (and close doors), or compromise with you. I'm referring, naturally, only to queer writers who elect to write the self (or representations of a queer self).

Can someone show me the poem where a straight woman writes in the voice of a lesbian? The straight man in the voice of a gay man? I'm sure they're out there. Both of them. But common? And we certainly don't expect that each straight poet, male or female, should compose a large portion of their body of work using voices & experiences of the queer. But I'd hazard to say that among queer writers, this pressure is more evident, more invasive, and especially more distracting.

I asked an exceptionally prominent and trail-blazing queer/feminist writer what work she thought was left for the subsequent generations of queer and feminist poets who follow the work she's done. "Well," she said, "now you can write whatever you want."

At the time, I thought it an irresponsible generalization, especially considering its source—someone who, for so many years, had made book upon book repossessing the culturally dispossessed. Can queer writers write whatever they want? Yes. And so could persecuted writers living in the Communist Bloc: but there are expenses.

Maybe it's irresponsible of me to try to connect the daily oppression GLBTQ writers face in America with the death, torture, and executions they faced in other countries Matt Shepard Barry Winchell. And maybe not.

Are queer writers writing under the gun—figuratively and/or literally? Spaces have been made all over the nation—safe spaces—for the free expression of queer experience. Spaces such as Bloom, James White Review, special issues of other journals, and so forth. But these spaces are queer-only. Like any gay bar worth going to, the straight folks can't (or won't) come in. But then again, no one likes spending much time in someone else's ghetto. Ghettos are funny that way: they do a good job keeping people in. As good a job as they do keeping other folks out.

Maybe I'm writing towards a theory where America is a heterosexual ghetto, and we're all just tourists hoping our green cards don't get yanked. But probably not.

Probably what I'm saying is that the queer use of the pronoun you is never as simple as it might seem. And when non-queer writers reduce the impact and necessity of that word by waving it away, gnat-like, what they're doing is violence against an entire mode of community-specific writing.

Language has done a lot of shitty things to queer folks in my lifetime alone, in certain mouths with certain agendas. And so we make spaces in the language—smoke screens, cover fire, camouflage—we find ourselves next to you, holding you, placing our head on your chest as we lay in bed. We kiss you. And it's clear to everyone: we love you.

More importantly, we need you.

Vocal Stylings

Ryan James Wilson posted a comment to my manifesto of days past, and one of his responses was that non-WHeMa poets could be considered voiceless, but that folks like Pound, in the Cantos, give voice to the dead, the voiceless. It's an interesting point. But I think my gut response is that Pound is actually committing violence instead of benevolence. He is, after all (in my mind), one of the biggest WHeMas ever, and in this instance his "giving voice" is actually sort of akin to him placing his fingers in the skull of the past, making its jaw flap and filling in the rest. Ventriloquism again.

Ryan also wonders if I'm really talking about Keats's notion of negative capability. I don't think so. My understanding of negative capability (which is shaky at best) is, as Ryan describes, having the ability to nearly BE another person via the poem. But I think I'm looking for ways in which multiple selves may coexist, but which discreetly occupy the same person. For instance, I have a poem in which the narrator spontaneously—and fairly inexplicably—switches genders. Multiple times. But the culmination of those gender migrations is a self in which gender coexists in balance, not as a social dichotomy. If I'm mistaken on the Keats theory, please correct me before I embarrass myself in public.

Are we neo-Confessionals or nouveau Confessionals? I still hate the word Confessional, so loaded with Catholic baggage and courtroom dramas. But "Professional" may cause us to be mistaken for hookers. Anyone have probs with that? Maybe it's a way to make poetry pay.

Ryan's thoughtful comments are enlivened by a beautiful example of work in his blog. Please check it out. Jesus, bicycles, dolls & taxidermists, Barcelona...you will be enthralled.

Tomorrow: "You're Not Queer, But My Boyfriend Is: The Queer 'You' in American Poetry."

9.23.2004

Terms

In my manuscript, I struck out/excised all instances of the word "gay."

It's my word, how I self-identify. This is about a language outside my control: the language used to confine.

9.22.2004

WHeMa Poetics

Preamble
I'm a little over the top sometimes. Have salt grains ready:

When I got into my MFA program, I became, over the first few months, acutely aware of something that I couldn't really identify or name. It was a pressure of sorts. A looming in the room during every workshop, at our readings, when some visiting writers came to talk. It was oppressive. It was instructive. It demanded to feed and be fed. And it was hungry.

I gave it a name after some time—years—had gone by. It was: WHeMa Poetics. The white, heterosexual male mode of writing. (Caveat: not every WHeMa writes in this mode nor needs to. It is an optional mode for them as a member of this mode's ruling class. But the number of them who disavow/disinherit this mode is slim, especially at the stage of the game at which I find myself: entrenched in academe.)

I think of Pound, aggressively touting the tenets of Imagism, then abandoning it; of Robert Frost writing his carefully metric verse; of Wallace Stevens (maybe).

I'm trying to cultivate a better sense of this mode of writing.

First off, it's bland. And it's so bland because it's so explored, been done over and over. The WHeMas who cultivate the greatest offense are those who succumb to the narcissism of dominance. Typically, they're the slowest folks to recognize WHeMa privilege in the world. They probably grew up at least middle class if not higher, support conventional concepts of the literary cannon.

The workshop WHeMa poems I came into contact with were obstinately male. I'm slow to gender writing; I think gender is a false binary, although gender roles are not (because they are socially supported). It centers on the WHeMa experience. Poetically, what can a WHeMa offer? As constant comptrollers of American poetry, we're familiar with WHeMa experience: it is canonized or selects for the cannon writing that supports its own mode.

The WHeMa mode has no issues of self-confidence. It never asks itself, "Should I be writing this?" or "How do I write this?" It is fully informed of its place in the world. Its sense of agency is all encompassing. It is pure authority without mediation. Non-WHeMa poets always risk something when they write outside the WHeMa mode. And to clarify: there are multiple and varied non-WHeMa modes of writing.

The WHeMa mode has absolute faith in itself. Like brick walls of verse. Unlike a Berryman, say, whose psychoanalytically diverse work constantly questioned its own validity, which in turned questioned ALL of poetry's validity. Berryman's mode risked itself. The moth who flies to the candle because it believes it’s the moon. (Obviously, to tip my hand: I believe Berryman, via his psyche, is a non-WHeMa.)

The effect of WHeMa on me was a pandering. The self of my poems became a caricature self, a self/narrator/voice/presence that was coyly aware of its non-WHeManess, but who/which desperately wanted a WHeMa smack of approval. Pandering. Which ultimately results in the evanescence of the self: the dissolution and dissipation.

Since the language owned by WHeMa poets is ultimately the language that oppresses the oppressed (i.e. non-WHeMas), non-WHeMas sacrifice themselves, their experience, their voices to its use. Ventriloquism is the easy result. A false voice from the mouths gerrymandered by the non-WHeMa poet. This language cannot be used to my (our) advantage. We must disavow this mode! By supporting the WHeMa mode, non-WHeMa poets perpetuate its dominance.

I say: make language other. Only by subverting the "rules" of this mode can language be made oppositional. If it is a political move, it's a survivalist move. No more evanescence, dissolution, dissipation. Language organizes reality, organizes relationships and ideas. Disorganize. Depart. Do not disengage: the (new) mode is waiting.

9.21.2004

Movements

I'm starting a new movement in American poetry. I'm calling it potentially "neo-confessionalism" or "professive poetry." Who's with me?



* * * * * * *

At AWP last year, I heard over and over again about what a demonized term "Confessional" poetry was. In fact, I attended the panel on which Aimee Nezhukumatathil sat with Duhamel & Addonizio which spent a long time discussing how reductionist this term was now as it applied to contemporary women's poetry, and I agreed with the boxing effect, especially when this term is dismissively applied by WHeMaCs (pronounced "WEE-max"—white hetero male critics).

But as someone who feels he writes in a mode owing a debt to Confessional poets, I wonder: is it time to reclaim?

Lynn Emanuel told me once that in Then, Suddenly—, the reader was confronted with Lynn Emanuel within the poems—but not just one Lynn Emanuel; it was "a carnival of Lynn Emanuels." This notion of the mutable self applies to what the new movement will achieve. We are all multiple people, multitudes of voices (see also Walt Whitman).

So, to manifestoize, I perceive this new movement to shake off the negative aspects of "Confessionalism"—including revalorizing that term, divorcing it from notions of SIN and GUILT, which I feel are its major short comings: when do people ever confess to something positive? NEVER. Instead of confessing the self, we profess the self! We enrapture the self in a multitude of selves, multitudes of moments!

I'm writing in part because some of the titles Eduardo C. Corral came up with for his ms. involve these types of impulses: "All About Me," for example.

Professive poetry is not poetry about a life, but of a life. It might be lying. It might want to go to bed with you, it might not. Maybe it feels like a light dinner of salad with vinaigrette; maybe it will order out for pizza. You just don't know. But truthful or not, professive poetry is honest of the self: capturing the selves in their reconstructed habitats, cared for and fed by trained professionals.

Do you profess?

Does your mother know?

9.20.2004

In Bloom

The second issue of the beautiful, triumphant, and to-be-celebrated journal Bloom arrived at my door today. Sadly, their website hasn't been updated yet. But if you see one, I recommend snatching it while you can.

9.17.2004

Hiss of the Brand

I just saw the commercial for Britney Spears's new fragrance, called "Curious."

It made me a little curious, in fact, but mostly it got me thinking about how contemporary American culture is moving more toward branding its artists—as in turning the artists' names into actual brand names. Branding as a concept is pretty timeless, but probably best epitomized in metaphor by its most graphic and inhumane use: the marking of cattle. Branding cattle signified that it belonged to you, that its quality was completely dependent on your good works. Artists, these days aren't much different.

J.Lo & P. Diddy are selling clothes. Jessica Simpson has created a line of edible cosmetics. And this is, naturally, significant of that other corporate impulse: diversification.

Film studios have been doing this nearly since the advent of the film industry itself. Back when, audiences would almost exclusively decide on what film to view by who starred in it. Later, in the auteur system, directors and producers started to seemingly brand their own looks. Now we have adjectives like "Hitchcockian" and "Tarantinoesque."

Do poets & writers brand? Two words: Danielle Steel.

The entire romance novel industry is a brand. Harlequin brand novels, etc. My mother was an ardent, ravenous reader of romance novels when I was growing up, but only certain authors, whose books she bought and collected as they were released. And her Christmas and birthday lists were usually populated with the titles of the books she'd missed or overlooked.

And I'd say that some poets are becoming brands—but whether or not this is their own choice or if its the choice of a money machine, I can't say.

And to relate this back to Victoria Chang's post about the change of artists' work over time, I'd say that anything that becomes branded is no longer evolving. Brands require stability, "product assurance of quality." Change jeopardizes assured quality. Experimentation jeopardizes assured quality. Brands—to survive—must tread water. The question then becomes: are branded artists still artists, or are they charicatures of the artists they were?

9.16.2004

In a Name

I really wanted to call my thesis Vocabulary Lessons, but with what I've done to it now, it's living down the street under a new name: Therapist with a Dream Inside. It just seemed to fit. People have also stopped mistaking it for a grade school textbook, much to its relief.

Draft 1 whallops out at 100 pages.

But it's not how long it is that matters, right?

Just how deep it goes.

9.14.2004

Ashes of Poems

I was all wrong.

I love my poems.

I feel giddy with glee now. You may remember just a short while ago how I disparagingly remarked how I hated my poems. And I did.

Until I read them in manuscript sequence, which I finished doing tonight.

Gleam! Star-wipe! Curtain swoosh! They open like a series of nested doors into each other.

I'm so excited about this project now.

It needs tweaking, you know, but overall, I'm very, very pleased. I feel even like a poet in some ways.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E

It seems like I can't go more than 24 hours without a reference to Language poetry cropping up somewhere in my life: online, in the readings I'm doing for school, conversations with friends and colleagues. Nearly every name-poet I've ever encountered and talked to has credited that movement with revolutionizing poetry in general, if not their poetry in particular.

And I'd be foolish if I didn't say I have something of a fascination with them: in undergrad, I was very influenced by and obsessed with Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. I devoured that book, used it as the main resource for my thesis (Cinema As a Language System). Those notions of signifer/signified haunt me.

A teacher once told me, Language is an inadequate signifier. It's true. And when I stop and think about how our entire world is based on one big system of symbols, it's a little overwhelming. We think in that system, are bound by it.

I do have a soft spot for the poets who were drawing attention to revealing language's secret mechanisms. To violating those mechanisms. Inspiring me to work toward creating a primal language—a language of the self—a language not rooted in the words used to oppress me.

9.13.2004

Paging.

I confronted it.

I paginated my thesis manuscript. I broke down the way I was thinking about it. I have poems that I sensed and created as sequences—the longest being 14 poems long—and that ghettoizing of work was preventing me from moving forward. I scattered the sequences over three sections.

It's 79 poems long. Probably about 90 pages, roughly, but I'm expecting some of these guests to leave the party early.

Oh, and I hate all my poems.

9.09.2004

Thesisness.

Every time I pick up my stack of thesis poems to order them and provide a general sense of structure, I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of dread.

And then I put them down, and leave the room, and assure myself I'll do it later.

9.05.2004

I'm Coming Out

I was thinking today about the abuses of the phrase "coming out" in recent years. Some of this discussion was prompted by reading half of John D'Emilio's essay "After Stonewall." In that writing, he identifies a shift in the queer usage of that phrase: prior to Stonewall, "coming out" was used by queer culture much the same way it was used by debutant society, as an indicator that one had "entered into" adult society and was available for suitorship. The queering of this term, then, naturally implies one's entrance into queer culture/society. After Stonewall, the phrase became a political term used to denote that one had identified one's sexuality to both gay and straight societies in an effort to create greater queer visibility (D'Emilio).

Unlike debs, though, queer folks come out of somewhere, and it's not their mother's house. The locus origin of out-coming became known as the "closet," that shadowy place where one hides skeletons, lycra, blue eyeshadow, and other shameful personal habits and vices. I believe this is a post-Stonewall development. Since post-Stonewall queers don't just come out into queer society, the come out into heterosexual society, they are coming out of a queer closet, a space that restricts the expression of their sexualities and sexual identities. Coming out, then, became the sloughing-off of the perceived shamefulness of queer sexualities and the embracing of the self as a queer person.

The obvious political bias of the heterosexual community is evidenced by their perverse understanding of "coming out." In their circles, to "come out" is to admit/confess to an activity or trait that is socially undesirable or looked down upon. It does not carry with it any positive aspects among straight people, and their usage of the term in their subculture shows a greater tendency to devalorize queer sexualities and genders.

I get angry when I hear people say they "came out" as a fat person. (This was a frequent instance on talk shows a few years back.) You CAN'T come out as a fat person. People already KNOW you are fat: it is a physical trait. However, you can begin to "own" your fatness, which I believe is how this usage works. Ownership of traits perceived to be undesirable by the majority is a political act that re-valorizes the trait in question. But I think it also begs: is there a fat closet? And what's in it? Can culture create a closet for a visible trait, devalorized or not? I think not, but the discussion remains open.

The expression "coming out" has morphed into several different usages since it became a maintream way to identify the process through which a queer person requests to be seen as a queer person. It became a transitive verb as people like Michaelangelo Signorile started to "out" people—to "expose" their queer sexualities to the public without their knowledge or consent. "Out" also became an adjective, as in, "Is he out yet?" Interestingly enough, this is one of the first occasions, I think, where it's cooler to be "out" than "in."

I read today on the cover of the most recent issue of DETAILS magazine: "Exposing Hollywood's Closeted Young Republicans." The Republicans have a closet now too? How much more can our cultural closet hold? Here again, the usage indicates shamefulness—"exposing" is never something we really hope will happen to us, right?

All of this relates back to queer culture and reinforces the shamefulness of homosexuality. If there was nothing wrong with queerness, if our culture didn't devalorize it and devalorize queer people, there wouldn't be any need for coming out. We'd already BE out.

In fact, we'd just be.

9.02.2004

Me

I just finished creating my profile.

And I've been experimenting with that Spahr-inspired collaging, revisiting my Madonna pastiche poem and crossing it with invented and revised memories, quoted journal entries (mine), and a pamphlet on coming out to your parents. It's going well. Nine pages so far. Don't know what I'll keep or toss, but the process has been exciting.

Spahrkling Diamond

In Juliana Spahr's "spiderwasp or literary criticism," she looks at three specific contemporary poets whose work "joins" various and varied poetic schools of thought and aesthetic, and she does this primarily as a response to the classification-based forms of literary criticism that reduce fields of vision rather than clarifying them. It is Spahr's assertion (which she locates as being in dialogue with several other critics) that categorization of poetic "schools" and such restricts the ability of those poets to transcend themselves. (I think)

What stands out to me most is the poem that reads three ways: Joan Retallack's "THE BLUE STARES" is fashioned out of italicized snippets of Barbara Guest's "lost" (out of print) poem "The Blue Stairs", the capitalized words "THE BLUE STARES" and some lowercase notebook entries by the poet. I'm so interested in this sort of collaging of work: and truly I have experimented with creating a coming out narrative from disjointed Madonna lyrics. (Yes, really.) But like the novel House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), meaning seems to come from the coexistence and collision of the disparate elements.

House of Leaves, by the way, is freaking genius.

9.01.2004

New Blog on the Block

My blog—I'm hoping—will focus on poetry & poetics as I explore some poetic theory.

Other interests: queer theory, film studies, postmodernism. Expect a buffet.