Over the past year, I had a few conversations with some established American poets who, somewhat in passing, declared use of the “second person” to be useless in poetry. “It’s silly,” they’d say (I’m paraphrasing), “everyone knows that when a poet says you, they’re really talking about him or herself.”
I was really shocked. I’d always felt very comfortable writing with a you in the poem; in fact, for several years, I preferred it, feeling it created an immediacy and urgency to the work. And it almost never meant I—although I admit that sometimes, that was the case. I thought about how I confront you when I read it in a poem. My first assumption is that the speaker is addressing someone. My second thought is that the speaker is addressing me.
From a queer perspective, the pronoun you is political. You is mutable, intangible. In terms of the literary closet, you used to be the only way a queer writer could address a love object without risking career and/or social suicide. Consider, as a related example, Melissa Etheridge’s body of work. Of the songs I’m familiar with, and of those that are love songs, they all substitute the pronoun you for the pronouns she or her.
For a non-queer artist, I think this nuance goes unnoticed in their own writing. Has a straight male poet ever belabored the decision to use the illustrative she in an address to a lover? Has he fretted over its reception, concerned a journal may reject it because it exposes too much about a devalued “lifestyle”? Has he avoided showing that poem to friends and family because their response would be unsupportive?
The options open to queer writers: pass as non-queer (a pantomime), take risks (and close doors), or compromise with you. I’m referring, naturally, only to queer writers who elect to write the self (or representations of a queer self).
Can someone show me the poem where a straight woman writes in the voice of a lesbian? The straight man in the voice of a gay man? I’m sure they’re out there. Both of them. But common? And we certainly don’t expect that each straight poet, male or female, should compose a large portion of their body of work using voices & experiences of the queer. But I’d hazard to say that among queer writers, this pressure is more evident, more invasive, and especially more distracting.
I asked an exceptionally prominent and trail-blazing queer/feminist writer what work she thought was left for the subsequent generations of queer and feminist poets who follow the work she’s done. “Well,” she said, “now you can write whatever you want.”
At the time, I thought it an irresponsible generalization, especially considering its source—someone who, for so many years, had made book upon book repossessing the culturally dispossessed. Can queer writers write whatever they want? Yes. And so could persecuted writers living in the Communist Bloc: but there are expenses.
Maybe it’s irresponsible of me to try to connect the daily oppression GLBTQ writers face in America with the death, torture, and executions they faced in other countries Matt Shepard Barry Winchell. And maybe not.
Are queer writers writing under the gun—figuratively and/or literally? Spaces have been made all over the nation—safe spaces—for the free expression of queer experience. Spaces such as Bloom, James White Review, special issues of other journals, and so forth. But these spaces are queer-only. Like any gay bar worth going to, the straight folks can’t (or won’t) come in. But then again, no one likes spending much time in someone else’s ghetto. Ghettos are funny that way: they do a good job keeping people in. As good a job as they do keeping other folks out.
Maybe I’m writing towards a theory where America is a heterosexual ghetto, and we’re all just tourists hoping our green cards don’t get yanked. But probably not.
Probably what I’m saying is that the queer use of the pronoun you is never as simple as it might seem. And when non-queer writers reduce the impact and necessity of that word by waving it away, gnat-like, what they’re doing is violence against an entire mode of community-specific writing.
Language has done a lot of shitty things to queer folks in my lifetime alone, in certain mouths with certain agendas. And so we make spaces in the language—smoke screens, cover fire, camouflage—we find ourselves next to you, holding you, placing our head on your chest as we lay in bed. We kiss you. And it’s clear to everyone: we love you.
More importantly, we need you.