I spent the last couple of days reading poetry by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and W.H. Auden. They're all brilliant poets, and they're all gay. So I got to thinking: do I like them because they're gay? I'm gay, and I write poetry. What kind of connections is there between the two? Why are gay men so often drawn to the arts, to theater, to music, to writing?
"Write what you know." we are told, and so I do, mining my life and relations for material, my poems flowing out first person, confessional. I cannot separate my writing from my identity as a gay man, any more than I can unravel it from my whiteness, my suburban angst, or my addiction to coffee.
"My friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are,
with mercy for the greedy,
the tongue's wrangle, the world's pottage, the rat's star."
-- Anne Sexton
Poets in the past (Homer, Tennyson) wrote about the deeds of others, about heroes (Ulysses, Sir Gawain) -- the poet himself was extraneous to the poem, his orientation wholly irrelevant. But when he adopts the term "I" everything changes. Although a poem can only reveal aspects of the self, and every concealment it its own kind of lie, the audience still wants it to be TRUE, that the poem correspond with the speaker.
(Although, reading Byron's "Don Juan" after you know about his flings with teenage boys becomes much more amusing. Watch for his long, lingering descriptions of the pretty sixteen-year-old Juan, who seems to get naked at least once in every Canto!)
Do I write poetry because I'm gay? No, I like to think that it is a free choice, my chosen medium for expressing art. But I could not write the kind of poetry that I do, were I straight.
"Homosexuals, I think, have rather an advantage when it comes to writing poetry," said one of my college professors, his British accent booming in a way I cannot hope to replicate in text. "Your relationships tend to be so much more... complicated that it gives you more material to work with."
My own writing often explores the tenuous territory between gay and straight that I've traversed, too often, in my relationships. My love songs are fractured with doubts, marred by the tentative caresses and pauses inherent in crossing lines of sexuality. So yes, my orientation does give me reams of material not available to most straight writers.
(Could I also write about my love for my pets, for Indonesian coffee, for the indie-punk scene? To all of these, my orientation is irrelevant. Why do these seem inappropriate subjects for poetry? Or is romantic love, the obsession of Western poetry, the only true subject, different in kind from all of the above?)
"All human being are obsessed with sex. All gay men are obsessed with opera. And it's not the same thing. Because you can have good sex." -Paul Rudnick
Gay men do tend to be more sensitive, more aesthetically inclined than straight guys. We can put together a coordinated outfit or even a dried floral arrangement. So shouldn't this translate to an ability to make sounds and words go together, to order syllables as well as we arrange shoes, belt, and pants?
Because gay people have to identify themselves in opposition to society, they tend to be more self-aware, more in touch with their own feelings. Hence, our much-vaunted reputation for sensitivity - we have to realize just what it is that makes us different. This is why most art comes from the fringes of society, areas which are rejected by the mainstream.
Happy, well-adjusted folk do not write poetry - cheerleaders, straight-boy student leaders, boy scouts, etc. They're too busy going to parties and dating. Gay teenagers, though, often struggling with guilt, doubt, or rejection, will stay in their rooms scribbling angst-ridden poetry to themselves. Eventually they might get good at it.
(As homosexuality becomes more accepted, as gay teens as a whole become more well adjusted, will gays retreat from the vanguards of culture? If art comes from the fringes, what happens when gay characters appear on every sitcom? Does gay culture die? And am I wrong to fear this acceptance?)
My own poetry has become more overt but also less explicit about my homosexuality. As I become more confident in my writing and more comfortable being out of the closet, I feel less of a need to refer to my orientation. Instead, it becomes implicit in the feel of a poem, part of the background.
My poetry workshop once discussed a poem I'd written called "The Night Before I Left." It was a poem about leaving my boyfriend to go back to school, about loss and heartache. It was addressed "to you" because I was speaking directly to him. I only realized later that I'd used gender-neutral terms, because a woman approached me afterwards and said, "Wow, I was really impressed. You can tell that you were really in love with that girl."
Was my poem a failure? I'm glad she got the emotions that I had accurately described the loss felt by two lovers, but dammit! The poem was Me and Him, two individuals whose existence could be verified by competent biographer. It was not about my girlfriend, or about two Generic Lovers. I strive for specificity, to describe, accurately, my own life. I think it's great if straight people can empathize or relate to my poetry, but it's NOT ABOUT THEM.
I want people to know that I'm gay, that my poem is about two men, even if I never use a pronoun. Otherwise, the poem becomes something else, it passes beyond what I intended. Must I convey that in the poem, deliberately, or give some kind of preface? It always sounds so awkward!
While at a high-school poetry reading, I introduced a poem by saying "I wrote this about my ex-boyfriend." Boy, there's no feeling like coming out to a hundred sixteen-year-olds at once.
Am I a Gay Writer? Or a "poet who happens to be gay?" "Happens to be" sounds dismissive of something at the core of my identity. Or is the whole matter redundant? Like "a rabbi who Happens to be Jewish?" (Straight poets exist, I suppose, but give 'em a drink and see what happens.)
I don't know the answers to the questions I've raised. I suppose it doesn't matter WHY I write, as long as I do it and enjoy. I accept my sexual orientation, and it forms the background and substance of my work, as I accept the laws of gravity, the material I draw from shifting relationships, the taste of good Scotch. I want people to enjoy my poems, I want to create Beauty, but all of needs to be drawn, truthfully, and sometimes painfully, out of the substance of myself.
That's all for this month, folks. If you want to read one of my poems (which is about something which never did happen, but might have) hop over to the Arts & Entertainment section of Oasis. Any comments or questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org