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January 04, 2010

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This post makes *me* want to do a little dance. Not for the end of the "00s but for the future. I've never understood what the so-called poetry "schools" were all about. I once went to a reading where an audience member asked the fiction writer Amy Hempel how she felt about being called a "minimalist." She said she didn't understand those labels. "There's room," she said, "for all of us." Thanks.

I am not as familiar as I'd like to be with many of your references, but I did enjoy reading what you had to say. Any time period where people (poets, politicians, regular folk, etc.) get along is good in my book.

Dear Blog Supervisor:

Because I'm teaching a SUNY Brockport Wintersession course, what essentially amounts to an entire semester compressed into two weeks, I don't have much time. But I do want to offer a quick response to Jason Schneiderman's anti-intellectual post that appeared on the Tuesday Best American Poetry blog. I apologize in advance for the bad proofreading and to an extent, the sheer unchecked emotionalism of this post. Hysteria isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I want to deal with one brief section. Schneiderman self-admittedly offers a superficial reading of what's been going on in PoBiz for the last few decades. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with a gloss.

This is the conclusion he comes up with:

"So if the 80s were about the rise of language poetry & multiculturalism, and the 90s were the decade of the culture wars, what were the 00’s? Our last siecle totally came to a fin, and what should we say about the poetry of the last ten years? OK, so don’t all beat me up at once—I’m blogging, so I’m embracing interactivity and I want to hear from you—but I think that the 00’s were when we all got along."

And then he offers an emphasis:

"But I feel like in the 00’s, a lot of the fights kind of seemed less important. Like everyone’s toolboxes got shared, and we stopped having to stress over who’d be a new formalist, who’d be an old formalist, and who’d be an old school Shklovsky reading Russian formalist."

Again, I don't (can't) go into much detail because of time, but even in the gay poetry scene, there are definitely many factions. How couldn't there be? There is so much at stake: job, awards, fellowships, conferences, anthologies, etc. Associations with particular aesthetic lineages and certain gay poets can yield much greater success. This isn't old news, and even though it isn't, it is worth complaining about, even if we can predict what those complaints are. I refuse to believe that one should simply shut up and accept things the way they are. If gay men did that, we would not have at the very least opened up the conversation about gay marriage in a world that wants us to accept that we're better off dead.

I would like to offer one autobiographical story which is not in and of itself proof of the serious factions in the gay male community. I won't reveal the names. Not out of coyness--God know, I've named names on this blog, sometimes stupidly, and thoughtlessly. But I want to use the personal experience as a way of addressing larger issues.

Some time ago I was asked to be on a committee to help choose the winner for a gay poetry award. There were many books submitted. I had not met or talked to any of the authors of those books face-to-face. I thought one book which eschewed conventional narrative was one of the best. I also articulated that I thought a Latino author produced one of the other great books of that batch.

After I decided on who I thought should win and shared my opinions, I got into an argument via email with two members of the committee. One said about the non-narrative poet: "You know all that book is is a brain fuck. You don't write like this, Steve. Stop trying to show how open-minded you are."

When we discussed the Latino poet, I was told that the only reason I championed his work was because I liked to "look all multicultural."

Needless to say, I was in the minority and neither book was a finalist.

Schneiderman knows better. I would not presume to psychoanalyze anyone (I have no idea what thoughts are going on in his head, and I'm not a trained professional), but I believe he must have something at stake in this obvious denial of an imbalance of equality within the gay community .

But what upsets me about his post is most evident in the following sentence. I'll repeat an actual quotation from above for emphasis:

"OK, so don’t all beat me up at once—I’m blogging, so I’m embracing interactivity and I want to hear from you—but I think that the 00’s were when we all got along."

This is the sort of white middle-class thinking that caused Proposition 8 to go through. To translate the sentence: "I'm not necessarily directly impacted by what's going to happen, I have enough, but sure, I'm going to let you duke it out."

If he has the self-awareness that people might disagree with him, he has the ethical responsibility to name the opposing arguments, show other points of view. (I would argue that things are more conservative now than then. But that's another post.) In other words, Schneiderman ride on the backs of more politicized gay men while he boasts about some fiendishly wonderful queer and straight utopia.

Inevitably, anyone who is going to disagree with Schneiderman will be branded as a troublemaker. Even though! oh yes! he wants to hear from us! can he sound anymore like the quintessential passive-aggressive academic! (Why do so many gay men feel compelled to get advanced degrees!)

I am a big fan of Schneiderman's, as I've written about his poetry and critical work on my blog. I am excited about his new book and will pre-order it when available. When he has a new critical article, I'll go to great lengths to get a copy. He is someone I genuinely would like to meet, and I highly anticipate the day I do. But I don't know if I can read any more of these particular posts. This is the first time his writing has made me sad.

I am Jason's husband and I am writing in response to Steve Fellner's over-the-top response to Jason's post of Jan 4. Jason never said factions disappeared, he simply said they played nicely in the same sandbox, which was quite evident when poets united to oppose the war in Iraq or to organize the Not Fit for the White House event to protest Laura Bush's cancellation of a poetry event that she and/or her administration handlers thought had become too politicized.

To accuse Jason of "white middle-class thinking," to blame him for Prop 8, to say that Jason "rides on the backs of more politicized gay men while he boasts about some fiendishly wonderful queer and straight utopia" is, indeed, over the top. If I didn't know better, I would think it was some kind of camp humor on Fellner's part, but I know he is sincere in the worst sense of the word.

It would be ridiculous for me to counter that Jason canvassed for Obama in swing states and opposed Prop 8--of course he did. I will, however, proudly assert that he rides men's backs by invitation only. But what does it even mean to suggest that Jason is less "politicized" than his gay male peers? That he is not shrill or strident about same-sex marriage or gays in the military--causes which, as a matter of fact, he thinks represent a right-wing derailment of a more radical queer agenda that he came of age supporting, including women's rights, trans rights, and opposition to the marginalization of queer youth of color.

This may sound trite or predictable, but: Jason's most important queer activism is his poetry. From the man who asked him at a reading whether he knew the difference between love and lust (to whom Jason gave a generous and reasoned response) to the young gay men, lesbians, and trans people who come up to him after readings to thank him simply for writing, Jason is changing the queer world (and the world in which queers live) one poem at a time, one reader at a time.

Jason has nothing to apologize for in his politics or his poetics. If he thinks the aughts were a decade when all the poets got along, it is a testament to his own generosity of spirit, not to his lack of political zeal or blindness to the existence of conflict or injustice.

It's Jason's New Year, and I for one am glad to be living in it.

Michael, great response. Every gay man should have a husband as supportive as you ;-) I too was baffled by Fellner's post: it seemed like a projection of his own unresolved hostilities and contradictory views. There was nothing really in Jason's post to support his interpretative leaps of logic.

As for: "Why do all gay men feel the need to get advanced degrees!" Where is the political inclusiveness in that statement!? I assume he means "all white, middle-class gay men." Well, I am gay, white, past age 40, and getting my PhD. But it has taken me a lifetime of overcoming enormous obstacles to get here: a depressive mother on welfare and childhood spent in and out of foster care; a sister who died from AIDS-related complications; another sister lost to alcoholism. I wont go on.

I'm proud of much of the gay and creative communities. Sure, more can be done in the gay (and straight) community, especially in regards to class, race and trans rights. The culture wars continue and will spread and intensify as global issues (involving countries such as the Mid East, China, Africa, and elsewhere) assume a greater role in American lives in the years to come. Nonetheless, optimism, activism and critical thinking need not be mutually exclusive (see Jason's critique of Larry Kramer in the current Gay and Lesbian Review). Go Jason go!

Hi David,

I'm glad you support Jason, so have I, on many occasions. I hope he realizes my comments were made in the spirit of "interactivity." And so should you. A few brief things:

a.) As I predicted in my post, I was immediately labeled as an upstart for having a dissenting voice.

b.) I was drawing an analogy between Jason's extreme comfort with the dividing factions in the gay *poetry* community to the gay communities decision (comfort) in not mobilizing themselves in fighting Proposition 8 hard enough. Notice I say in the post: "This sort of..". I do not say Jason single-handedly caused Proposition 8 to happen. If you want to give him that credit fine. Also: I don't really care per se what he did/did not do for Proposition 8. I care how he's through his post representing the poetry community.

c.) The post as some of my other posts are meant to be a polemic. This obviously isn't to say that it's beyond reproach or criticism, but that it's meant to rile people up. As opposed Jason who sees everything as happy now, rather than acknowledging imbalances of power in terms of aesthetics, cultures in the literary community. I may be a hysteric, but Jason's over the top (and I thought campy) happiness with everything was equally the result of hyperbolic statements.

d.) A piece of advice: be careful of offering a psychological assessment of someone's motivation to disagree. That's what people have done to us in years. That's why it took so long for various psychiatric organizations to see us as anything other than social deviants.

e.) I do mean what I say about gay men teaching in university settings. They're bad people.

With respect,
Steve

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