Sense and Queer Sensibility

"I have a lot of frustration with the insistence on content when people are talking about homosexuality. People define gay cinema solely by content; if there are gay characters in it; it's a gay film. It fits into the gay sensibility, we got it, it's gay. It's such a failure of the imagination, let alone the ability to look beyond content. I think that's really simplistic. Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a content. It is an imposted structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite of the counter-sexual activity to that, then when kind of structure would it be?"
               —Todd Haynes interview

It occurs to me that limiting the world of art to a series of "sensibilities" is both too easy and too foolish. I think in the world there is the common belief that there does exist a singular "queer sensibility" in terms of art—and it would probably be as stereotypical as your average episode of Will and Grace: the queer sense would be concerned with aesthetic beauty (either by elevating it or destroying it a lá trash culture); it would put an emphasis on the experience of the physical body, particularly the sexual body; and it would encompass an outsider philosophy or vantage point that is evokative of experienced oppression and prejudice.

We could probably, with comfort, put W. H. Auden, Carl Phillips, Mark Doty on the train to the first camp; D. A. Powell, Tim Dlugos, and Peter Pereira into the second camp; and Cavafy, Stein, and folks like Brian Teare into the third camp.

But putting people into camps, history shows, is generally not the kindest way of understanding them.

The camps won't account for Doty's My Alexandria, which is concerned with the body as much as work by the others. Or, the palpable shift in Dlugos's work from poetry before the rise of AIDS, which are "light" and Frank O'Hara-like in their dailyness and irreverence, to the work he wrote after, which is much darker and physical.

Furthermore, I haven't heard much about a heterosexual sensibility over the last several decades. What are straight people concerned with? Is there a prevalence of poetry on making babies, on whether or not the toilet seat should be left up or down, on the sanctity of marriage? Well, yes. These poems exist! So tell me, my heterosexual friends: would you support this definition of a "straight sensibility"? And if you do, can you promise to support it forever?

I'm sure we can agree that there are any number of heterosexual sensibilities in the world, just as there are any number of heterosexual identities and experiences taking place at any given moment. Although television shows me that there is an overall commodified structure to the heterosexual identity (career/marriage/kids/retirement/death), no one is really "enforcing" this kind of structure on straight people across the board.

The same is true for queers. While even in our community there is some commodifying of experience, it generally relates to coming out and becoming a sexual being—the two most common roadblocks to our identities. But one thing that's important for art, I think, as we move into the new century is that we need to stop all the naming. We need to support the multiplicity of identities and concerns expressed in the culture rather than limiting them. Is anyone else at all concerned that Lance Bass's The Odd Couple remake foolishly superimposes queer identity into an already-heterosexually sanctioned system? Or is it just going to be Will and Grace with Joey Fatone in Debra Messing drag?

When Haynes talks about structure, he's talking about a lot of different aspects. Naturally, he's concerned about cultural power—straight people have it, queer folks don't—and so, in some ways, everything heterosexual people do within the straight norm reinforces the norm, while everything queer folks do outside of what is sanctioned by the straight powers-that-be is an oppositional act. These oppositional acts are constantly changing as more and more people become educated and comfortable with the existences of queer experience.

Even among queer writers and artists, there is concern with whether or not one should or should not be considered (or consider themselves) a "queer writer." This is a serious and important debate. My personal feeling, echoing Haynes's quote above, is that anyone with a queer identity is a queer writer. We are entrenched in our identities because the culture forces us to be. (If you are legally married, for example, you probably don't hesitate to begin a sentence with "My husband," while a queer person, in mentioning that relationship, has no corresponding term and each explanation or revelation of that relationship is a kind of risk). But one of the reasons queer people can't come to consensus of whether or not there are "queer writers" is because the term itself cannot be succinctly defined—because people get hung up on content. "I don't write about queer issues," might be one argument, while another might say that his or her work doesn't look or feel different from heterosexual counterparts' work.

Those are fine statements to make—if we continue to support the notion that queer is in content the same way culture enforces that queer is behavior, not identity.


  1. We can walk in circles for days trying to decide whether or not we're queer writers or writers that are queer. But that skirts the real question, which is why do we have to choose in the first place? Because we need to assert our identity as queer, since the norm, under heteronormativity, is still heterosexual. And who wants to be defined as what they're not?

    Great post, Charles. When are you going to put these essays into a book?

  2. I'm not speaking as a heterosexual, but I happen to be one. I just wanted to say, to your statement: ..." I think, as we move into the new century [ ] that we need to stop all the naming. We need to support the multiplicity of identities and concerns expressed in the culture rather than limiting them" --hear, hear!

  3. where's the picture of the f-in engine cat!? it's tuesday!

  4. You're really on with your posts lately. This one has got me thinking a lot -- not sure yet where it's taking me. I think a lot about where my poetry falls -- or doesn't -- on the "queer sensibility" continuum; I do feel that there's something implicitly queer about it, but since I rarely write about relationships (or even about the lack thereof), I'm not sure whether that sensibility is something most readers would be aware of. And if it's not tangibly queer, does it matter that it's queer at all? My instinct is to say that it does matter, but what do I know?

    It is harder to assert one's queer identity without a significant other to refer to -- and what does that say, that one's identity should be dependent on an other? And am I conflating my own queer identity with the queerness (or not) of my poetry? Well, yeah -- but that's part of the tangle, and a valuable part of it, I think. In fact in many ways I don't want this all to be untangled, because the tangledness is what makes it interesting.

    I think there's a specifically lesbian angle to be taken on this, but I guess I'm gonna have to go chew on that one myself for a while, huh? (Damn, I gotta get myself into an mfa program so I have some pressure to write papers -- I can think about this stuff better when I take the time to write about it.) I do think that, at least in the not-too-distant past, claiming a lesbian "sensibility" in one's work was a radical act and a freeing, empowering one -- it was claiming, not limiting. Is that still the case? Yeah, I need to go do a bunch of reading and thinking and see how I feel about that one.

    Also? "...putting people into camps, history shows, is generally not the kindest way of understanding them." Thank you for that. That was a nice little "light bulb going off in the brain" moment for me.

  5. You'll always get my attention with a Todd Haynes quote--that man's a genius. I think he studied semiology at Brown which would explain his "structural" point of view.
    From Michael Warner's Fear of a Queer Planet: "Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding knows that her stigmatization is connected with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom, the state, public speech, consumption and desire, nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship, intimate life and social display, terror and violence, health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of the body."
    I think you pretty much hit on those points, and I think it also applies to Anne's comments about writing that isn't necessarily queer but still has that feeling. I know that I am still opening up to many of these ideas because I am still reaching my "queer self-understanding."
    When I consciously eschew or adhere to the labels surrounding me, I remind myself, "I am vast. I contain multitudes. I have room to contradict myself."--W. Whitman

    (and I can't help it--20 days til Veronica's back on--who shot Eccols? I'm guessing Rinna)

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  7. not all content is going to be pigeon-holed. it all depends on the balance of the content, and what audience the authors/composers/directors are seeking. i don't know who todd haynes is, and i know even less about what you and he are discussing in this post.

    i do, however, watch many films that have gay characters in them. to me, these are not gay films. for example, last night, i watched "heights." not a gay film, but has several gay characters.

    that doesn't mean there aren't many films made solely for the entertainment of gays. every group and country has their own film festivals. it's the long tail, baby; we live in a niche society, and everybody has theirs.

    incidentally, your series of poems this week at no-tell, they aren't gay poems; they're just good free verse about lost love. it's all about the audience you wish to include by the language, tone and venues you choose for your work.

  8. Harrlynn, thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I disagree. My poems at No Tell this week are very gay.

  9. charles, do tell, how are your poems gay?

  10. Everything I write is informed by the way I live and the way I see the world, both of which are inextricably informed by my experiences being gay.

    I think you raise an interesting point about audience versus author here, though, because while you might not receive the poems as gay poems, to me they absolutely are. I couldn't write a poem that wasn't "gay," I think—and I wouldn't want to.

  11. wait, you want to stop all the naming, but want to name yourself as a queer writer? am i understanding you correctly?

  12. I think other people should stop naming us, and we should have the opportunity to name ourselves. I elect to be a queer writer; that doesn't mean all other queer writers need to choose to name themselves that. *shrug* I note that it's a complicated but important issue near the end of my post.

  13. yes, right away, i can see how complicated it is, but i'm having trouble discerning why you think it's so important. does naming yourself a queer writer mean anything to anybody except yourself? and if the name is so important, why not attach it the end of your name? charles jensen, queer writer, why not include it in your bio? what's stopping you?

  14. Well, it is in my bio: I always list my publication credit in Bloom for this reason. For me, it's an issue of queer visibility. I want to be a visible queer person. That's not everyone's choice and it shouldn't have to be. But it's my choice; it's important to me; and I think it's important to my work.

    Does it bother you?

  15. I think, too, that this issue is common in any "non-majority" community. I've seen discussions about similar issues in Chicano communities, in Asian-American communites, etc. There is even an anthology of writing dedicated to blue collar gay people because they seem/feel underrepresented in the culture.

    But this post was primarily addressing notions of a singular "queer sensibility" in writing, not specifically queer identity, although, for me, it arrived at that point.

  16. no, it doesn't bother me at all. i'm just trying to understand your post.

    listing a publication credit to an obscure (i'm guessing queer) magazine doesn't even come close to stating in your bio: charles jensen is a queer writer living in phoenix....

  17. But then again, you're deciding what makes me seem queer, not me--or, at least, what makes me "seem" like I'm representing my queer identity.

  18. i still don't understand what you're saying here, but thanks for trying. and thanks again for the poems.