Monthly Archives: April 2010

Jerome Murphy: What Makes a Poem Gay?

by Titus Kaphar

Jerome Murphy, a Wilde Boy & MFA student at NYU, answers the question – what makes a poem gay?

When I hear the phrase “gay poetry” I can’t help imagining the sculptural contours of a masculine figure bathed in the lavender ambience of unrequited desire, by a speaker ruefully self-aware and vaguely tragic. It’s like that.

Hell, I’ll just say it–Cavafy. Cavafy’s most blatantly homoerotic work, evocative as it is, represents for me one of the narrowest conceptions of what might fall within the purview of a gay poetics.

To me, for a poet to be “gay” with conceptual quote marks is a matter of  imaginative dexterity—of fully exploiting the double vision bestowed by existence as a variant on the sexual norm. To be, in other words, amphibious. To be deviously sensitive to whatever borders your culture has drawn around gender and to actually enjoy those restrictions for the acts of creative subversion they allow.

I want the poet to be a trickster with a mask, to embody uncanny gods, to be a tickly Anansi or shapeshifting Loki. When I picture the Mona Lisa–an ageless mask through which Leonardo himself smiles at us–I find the expression Emily Dickinson might have worn as she imagined violating plush “gentlewomen.”

Great artists are androgynous beings—hermaphroditic shamans of a third realm. Whitman, of course, took Keats’s concept of negative capability, of feminine receptiveness, and fed it steroids. Rilke lovingly described the galloping knight whose face is like “moonlight on a favorite book.” And how sensually he caressesed that torso of Apollo—almost as though he used Whitman’s “invisible hand.” Plath’s ferocious appropriations of Shakespeare and Eliot, indeed of much of the masculine canon, exemplify this approach. She ate Eliot like air! But these are only blatant examples—many are a more subtle matter of drawing on one’s transgressive energies.

I’m trying to complicate this idea of “gay” and to propose we can find this sensibility everywhere in literature, even in the much-maligned Canon of Harold Bloom.

Of course, this leads us to some difficult and possibly painful questions, such as, should the master’s house in fact be dismantled? Should the moldering antebellum estate of the Canon in fact be razed, or is there some sort of less dramatic and perhaps more arduous task of renovation before us?
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Everything Beautiful Will Not Be Saved, or Currently Reading

by Kent Klich

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Teeth by Aracelis Girmay

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Harm’s Way by Eric Leigh

The Black Interior by Elizabeth Alexander

Poet Randall Mann: What Makes a Poem Gay?

by Ken Gonzalez-Day

Randall Mann, author of Breakfast with Thom Gunn and Complaint in the Garden, answers the question – what makes a poem gay? A special mix of same-sex tenderness, evasion, and lust.  For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” one of my favorite gay poems.  Here it is:


The still explosions on the rocks,

the lichens, grow

by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.

They have arranged

to meet the rings around the moon, although

within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend

as long on us,

you’ve been, dear friend,

precipitate and pragmatical;

and look what happens.  For Time is

nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair

in bright formation

are flocking where,

so straight, so soon?

—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,

battered and shiny like the moon.

I love this poem because of what it does not need to say, the modesty of “dear friend,” the way it takes its time and zooms in from the celestial to the personal.  This is an evasive erotic celebration, where metaphor takes on the weight of code, and minutiae are a list of erotic lust—the syntax, the “explosions,” the “shooting.”  I’m no queer theorist, but this builds mightily to the final couplet, which I find gloriously erotic after all that linguistic lathering, where the speaker asks the unnamed woman to allow the speaker to submit to the speaker’s touch and care and intensity, and does so somewhat forcefully, with an abrupt dash, sexy right down to the punctuation.  This is so gay!  And numinous.

Talking To My Selves

by Lu Cong

Let’s just get to it: one way or another, every poem I’ve ever written is (really) about myself. This is more of a confession than a boast & it’s take a good long while for me to fully wrap my head around what it means. The “it” is the fact that despite my consistent use of persona, of the “other”, of all manner of literary strategies to distance myself from the “self” on the page: all of the poems are my attempt – on paper – to say something about myself. Or, more accurately, my poetry is an attempt to say something TO my self.

Up until quite recently, if you had read one of my poems and asked, “Saeed, is the “I” in that poem you?” I would have given a long, drawn out explanation of the differences between the “I” in a poem and who I am as a person. As a composition instructor at Rutgers, I constantly emphasize to my students that they shouldn’t confuse the author with the “I.” Patricia Smith is writing in the voice of a neo-Nazi. She – as far as I know – is not a neo-nazi. And I stand by that differentiation – for other writers.

As for myself, I am going to own up to the fact that my poetry is a conversation between myself and my selves (oh, yes.. selves as in plural). Some poems are a conversation with who I was, others are involved in an argument with who I am, or need to be, or won’t be, so forth and so on.

Now, I will say that the “conversation” is submerged. Sometimes I don’t realize what’s really being “said” in one of my poems until I return it months or years later. Maybe a reader could see right through the metaphors and line breaks. Maybe not.

All of this is to say that, since I will graduate from my MFA program in less than three weeks, I’m thinking more and more often about my life as a writer (as opposed to my semester or degree as a writer). And if I am going to return to those terrifying blank sheets of paper again and again, I need to be clear: I’m writing these poems because I have a lot of explaining to do.

Poet Jee Leong Koh: What Makes a Poem Gay?

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of one-question interviews in which I ask gay poets a simple (or actually, not so simple question): What makes a poem gay?

Here is Jee Leong Koh‘s answer:

To be honest I have not given any serious thought to it. When I write, I try to write as good a poem as I can, and I do not think about how gay it is. When I read, I ask myself if the poem is any good, and not if the poem is any gay. I am interested to know if a writer or reader is gay, because the writing and the reading may show the inflection of that person’s sexual identity, but a poem itself does not have, to my mind, a sexual orientation.

A [Belated] Love Letter to AWP

For me, poetry is as much about community as it is about words & images. Whenever I read, it’s a conversation between myself and the author. (I’ve been known to talk back, curse, shout, and nod my head while reading poetry that really speaks to me.) Perhaps it’s because poetry is part of an oral tradition. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I fell in love while sitting in a poetry slam in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Whatever the reason, I love opportunities to be surrounded by people who love poetry as much as I do. All of this is to say – for better or worse – I love going to the AWP conference every year.

Quite a few people, poets included, feel quite the contrary and that’s fine but that’s them, not me. The first time I attended an AWP conference, I was a junior in college and had to be cajoled into going by my professor Tom Hunley. He said that I would love it and learn a lot. I dragged my feet, but eventually gave it. I’m so glad he persisted.

This year was my third AWP and aside from a brief spell of altitude sickness, it was the best one yet (in my incredibly biased opinion). Here are some highlights, memories, fragments that I’m sharing so that I can remember:

– Sitting in Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s hotel room, listening to Erykah Badu’s new album, while I worked on one of my 30/30 poems. I rarely write in the presence of the other people, but there was something incredibly affirming about having a dear friend next to me as I worked on a poem that – frankly – still needs a lot of work. It’s easy to feel like an island while writing but M-E was my water that day (and given the altitude, water was crucial).

– The first reading I attended was also the most powerful. Cave Canem & Kundiman brought together an amazing line up with African-American and Asian poets that included Kazim Ali, Toi Derricotte, and Cornelius Eady among others. In particular, Kazim Ali took me to a place I’d never been before when he insisted on reading several poems by the late (and dearly missed) Lucille Clifton. It was like he brought her back into the room with us, like she had never left us, like she couldn’t get wait to get back to her desk and write some more poems. Cornelius Eady read “Gratitude” – a poem that almost everyone in the audience was able to quote line for line – and reminded the audience of what poets are capable of: “I am a brick in a house that is being built around your house.”

Side Note: Poet Oliver de le Paz has the best reading voice ever. He should moonlight as a DJ for a Smooth Jazz Radio Station…”This is Oliver “Quiet Storm” de le Paz and you’re listening to WJAZZ..”

– Side Note: Poet Randall Mann is as handsome and friendly as you could ever hope for. At one point, we sat down and had a great conversation about poetics and identity politics and he explained why powerade is the solution to every altitude sickness-related ailment.

– David Groff & Eli Shipley, in particular, gave brilliant presentations on a panel about “Queering Desire” in which they both challenged us to think of “queer” as a verb.. as an action… I had never thought of “queer” this way before but now when I sit down to write, I try to think about how my poems are queering experience which is to say: questioning, challenging, upsetting, deconstructing norms & assumptions.

– Side Note: You haven’t lived until you’ve been on the dance floor with Susan Somers-Willett, Patricia Smith, and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. These women know how to MOVE. On the last night of the conference, Patricia and I snuck away and went to a gay club and… well, you had to be there.

– I will be writing in more detail about the books I purchased at the AWP Bookfair later but here are just a few of the titles: Harm’s Way by Eric Leigh, Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capo Crucet, Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Dismantling the Hills by Michael McGrief, A Martian Muse by Reginald Shepherd, The Dirt Riddles by Michael Walsh, The Black Interior by Elizabeth Alexander, Garbage by A.R. Ammons, Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt, Here Be Monsters by Colin Cheney, and Temper by Beth Bachmann.. and more.

– Being on the Persistent Voices panel (put together by David Groff) was very exciting but also very emotional. Reading poetry by writers lost to AIDS was a lesson (in learning to write fearlessly) and beckon (to allow the voices of these poets to be remembered).

I could go on for at least three more posts – at least – but I just wanted to take a moment & remember that time up there in the mountains.

Currently Reading

by Scott Campbell

The Body’s Question: Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Apocalyptic Swing: Poems by Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Vice: New & Selected Poems by Ai

Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman

Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark & David Groff