You’re Not Queer, But My Boyfriend Is: Notes Toward an Understanding of "You" in Queer American Poetry

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.

5 Replies to “You’re Not Queer, But My Boyfriend Is: Notes Toward an Understanding of "You" in Queer American Poetry”

  1. Yes. I think that straight writers haven’t had to think about concealing pronouns (and real names!), so this hasn’t occurred to them, and their dismissiveness is troubling. “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as a favorite you-poem of mine. I know I’ve written my share of you-poems; when I was first coming to terms with my feelings for women, I wrote a LOT of you-stuff. And I agree with your point about the intimacy of the you: the poem addresses someone in particular, but it also addresses the reader.I think you could publish a great essay on “You” in Lambda Book Report if they’re still doing that column in the back where writers contribute essays about specific words.

  2. It strikes me that there’s an enormous difference between second person P.O.V. and the presence of a “you” in the poem as a character/addressee . . . which is a way of creating a certain intimacy of voice and tone, and the introduction of a very specific character/addressee with a specific relationship to the speaker (usually a beloved) into the safe embrace of the poem. I love the intimacy of voice created by this technique. The love poem becomes a love poem FOR the beloved, into which the reader voyeuristically eavesdrops, while simultaneously being drawn into the frame of the poem IN the role of the beloved. (Instead of the third-person description of the beloved, which runs the risk of potentially being scopophilic, or objectifying, I think.) The use of “you” has a potentially subversive, or disruptively performative, aspect as well, perhaps, in that the reader is drawn into the role of, and subsequently performatively implicated within, the role of the beloved. By the time the reader understands that the gender roles/cues may not be lining up with their presumptions/assumptions of a compulsory heterosexuality, however, they’ve already been drawn into the landscape of the poem, and must question their assumptions, and possibly shift their paradigms.

  3. OK, FYI, this is totally off topic, but Merrill Feitell wrote this to you about her short story in the Sonora Review:”Oh my god, that is the coolest craziest thing ever. I can’t even believe it.Thanks so much for sending that to me. That was the story that made me feel like an actual writer–though I never thought anyone ACTUALLY read it.Thanks for that. You made my day.xom

  4. You can be plural you (speaking to two or more people at once) or singular you (speaking to one person); it can also be general (sometimes called indefinite) you, which is like “one”, as in informal speech when we give instructions ( “to repair a flat bicycle tire you have to first determine where the leak is”), or a specific (sometimes called definite) you, as in “I want to speak to you.”What those poets were waving away like gnats was the over-indulgence of the indefinite you, which can get a little presumptuous sometimes. But when you consider a magnificent poem like Hummer’s “Where You Go When You Sleep”, quoted on Victoria Chang’s blog a few days ago, well, how can those “established poets” you were talking to be so dismissive?I myself just completed a poem that is a resume of a certain person’s life, which begins with the lines,You got canned, and your life was destroyed.Your friend told me that, not you:“You know, her life was really destroyed.”What you told me was…Whatever the worth of this poem, there is no mistaking her for me, because it is written using the specific, singular you.All this has nothing to do with being queer or straight.If you know what I mean.Thanks for helping me define that issue for myself…I’ve enjoyed your blog.

  5. I prefer the collective 2nd person plural “y’all.”*As a straight-identified male poet, I find that I almost always use “you” as a direct address to another person, male or female. When I identify the person behind the pronoun, it is most often a female person, though sometimes it’s a man. This is not so much a straight poet writing in the voice of a gay poet, but an acknowledgement that love, and loving “you” is never as simple as some straight folks may think it is. I’ve loved many men and women in my life. We all do. I prefer the non-specificity of the “you,” though, even in an intimate address. People have commented that in my own poems I often seem to be speaking directly to the reader, even though most poems with the “you” are responding directly to a specific person.*I wonder how Hebrew poets (or any highly-gendered language) handle the sort of ambiguity that a unisex snd person pronoun makes possible. In a language where every noun, every pronoun, and every verb is gendered, it would seem very difficult NOT to identify the sex of the addressee.*Just some thoughts. Found your blog today. Have enjoyed it.Tony

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