I owe a debt to Cher. It’s quite possible that every gay man owes a debt to Cher, but I’ll only speak of mine, since it’s the one I know best. In 1999, I was in a bad place. I’d just broken up with Aleksei the Evil Surgeon, or rather I stopped seeing him after it turned out that Sergei the Championship Skier was actually his boyfriend. Which made me not his boyfriend. Of course there’d been signs. I was ready to break up with him when it turned out that Leeza the Violin Player was in fact his girlfriend, and not, as we had discussed, his beard. But I only found out that she’d been his girlfriend because he told me he’d broken up with her. He told me that they’d broken up so that he could be with me. I was unconvinced, but my American compatriots convinced me that “things are different in Russia,” and I ended up becoming the sort of clingy relationship victim I’d always distained. My days were only good if Alekesei called. Even knowing that he was a lying cheat didn’t soften the blow when it ended. I should mention that despite my truly atrocious Russian, Aleksei understood everything I said. Everything. Despite my terrible grammar, my tiny vocabulary, and my thick accent, he understood me all the time. He was literally the only person I could reliably talk to. You see the appeal.
Enter Cher. Specifically Cher’s “Believe.” I think that it was the first time that most of us were aware of what we now casually call “vocoding,” and it was pretty awesome (much like the first time we became aware of “morphing” in Terminator 2 or the video for MJ’s “Black or White”). I for one couldn’t hear it enough. Whether at home in my room with Mtv Ru (a brand new Mtv at the time!) or out at St. Petersburg’s most happening gay club, “Believe” had me on my feet and dancing it out. You may have broken my heart Aleksei the Evil Surgeon, but you can never take away my believing in Life after Love!! Or maybe it’s “love after love.” I’m not sure it matters very much.
Now before you judge me too harshly for partaking of American pop culture when I was supposed to immersed in a foreign culture and language, bear in mind what Russian pop music looked like at the time. One of the more popular songs in Russia at the time was “Ты Бросил Меня» which translates to, «You dumped me.» You can watch the video for yourselves. It's the hearbreaking story of a golddigger who loses her sugar daddy. Nothing I could really dance it out to. (Before you cast me as the blonde and Aleksei as the mobster, bear in mind that he was a student surgeon with a stipend in rubles).
And in my defense, I did go see lots of Russian acts in concert. I even saw Шура (Shura) in concert. It was pretty amazing. His dancy pop numbers alternated with Drag Queens singing patriotic songs. I kid you not. And at this point, I barely speak Russian. Really, it's its own punishment.But I bring this up because a lot of my students want inspiration from poetry. They want the feeling from language that I get from dancing it out. They write poems about the world as they want it to be. Which is not at all what I want from poetry. I want poems to be honest assessments of the way things are, not visions of what the world should be. I think it may be the hardest thing for me to make explicit about my vision (and the serious literary world's vision) for poetry. That this endeavor of writing poems isn't about remaking the world, it's about presenting the world accurately—about making one's subjectivity visible, rather than projecting the subjectivity one desires.
And my students may not be off base. The earliest poems (I was taught—and have not fact checked or confirmed for this blog post—I’m on a deadline people!) were actually spells. They were efforts to change reality through language, usually to make so-and-so lose a chariot race or spill their olive oil. And certainly, anyone who says “death panels,” or who can’t say “community organizer” without chuckling is familiar with the way that language can have a very real effect on reality (as are those of us who are listening). For the amusing effects of overly simple linguistic alteration, you can check this out:
It’s not that my students are wrong to want the world
represented as it should be, it’s just not what the poetry community values—and
I think for good reason. One
problem with showing what they’d like the world to be is that it moves towards
a saccharine sentimentality, with a world populated by sad but noble homeless
people, kind and loving grandmothers, and no one ever having a feeling that
wasn’t the exact feeling you’d expect that person to have at that moment. The problem is that their poems aren’t
necessary—it’s great that you love your grandmother, and by all means Billy,
read that poem about her at her 80th birthday party—but you’ve
replaced the specific woman having a party with a general cultural stereotype
of what a grandmother should be.
I’ve tried many times to write about my own grandmother’s decision to
burn all of her photo albums after the war when she found out that everyone in
the photos had died in the camps.
It’s not an easy poem to write—I may never get it right (you can check out
my first book to see my other Grandmother in action with Hubert Humphrey). But in poetry, I value a specificity and honesty
of a kind that doesn’t lend itself to reading at 80th birthday
At the end of the semester, I try to have students bring in poems that they love, and to talk about why they love them. I’m happiest when they bring in poems that I dislike, poems that are completely outside of my aesthetic, or that feel dishonest to me because they project rather than assess. I want them to advocate for those poems, to say what it is that they value. A lot of them are inspired by poems that I would consider vapid or sentimental or spells. When they are the expert presenting, I can pose my objection without having to undo their love of the poem that brought them to poetry. But I do hope I’ll end up winning them over to my side over time.
So, I leave you with what “inspires” me. I offer you this young man dancing it
out in the spirit that I presume he posted it on youtube (I found him because I
was looking for a video for “All Things,” and he’s just so perfect). Dance it out young man! DANCE IT OUT!!!