There have been so many fascinating posts about being considered/considering yourself an “ethnocentric” poet lately among Eduardo, Victoria, and
Tony that I thought I’d add some experiences to the mix as well.
I used to avoid reading gay poetry for an embarrassingly long time. In my head, I’d already categorized it into discrete little boxes: in the 60s, gay poets wrote cautiously about love; in the 70s, blatantly and profanely about man-on-man action; in the 80s, it was all AIDS poetry; and the 90s were entirely rehashings of coming-out narratives.
I refused to consider myself a gay poet, even though I think I desperately wanted to explore queer issues through writing. I’ve talked a little before about how my instinct early in my MFA program was to be the sort of “trained dog” whose poetry pleased the straight folks in the room, poetry that—even when it contained queer elements—did not ask for any “special treatment” or special consideration. Safe poems. Poems that supplicated to the dominance. Masochistic poems? Poems that slighted the self as whole.
I never hear anyone say as a critique, “Oh, his poems are so heterosexual.” It would seem that, percentage-wise, we’ve probably heard all we need to hear about the heterosexual experience, yet the impulse to not only box queer poets, but to dismiss them because “we’ve already heard that story” is so pervasive, it even affected my scared little queer self. I bought into it! Yes, I said. I’ve heard that story before too.
I had a teacher ask me once, after I discussed with her my ideas surrounding queer poetics, which queer poets I’d read. My list? Frank O’Hara.
She recommended I read some queer poets—if only for no other reason that to get a better sense of the diversity that lived there. So I started: D. A. Powell, David Trinidad, Wayne Koestenbaum, David Groff, Jim Elledge, J. D. McClatchy, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Aaron Surin, Justin Chin, Allen Ginsburg, Mark Doty, Timothy Liu, Langston Hughes, Jack Spicer….
Around that time I got off my high horse about being considered a queer poet. Because that’s what I am: a queer who writes poetry. I know the label is used to limit me—coming from the wrong lips, maybe—but it doesn’t. The label justifies me. Situates me in a context. A moment. A movement. Connects me to other people.
I do not want to be mistaken for a straight poet (no offense—some of my best friends are straight poets!).
Queer culture is, for me, my way out of academia, out of poetry, out of art. It balances my life so that I am not constantly living a life where my head is plunged into the cold water barrel of poetry & poetics. I don’t solicialize solely with poets.
I understand how political this conversation can get—for me and for others. I’m not here to make judgments on how other people should feel about their relationship to the identities that make up who they are. But I feel like I have a responsibility to ask questions about the heterosexual dominance of American poetry.
I’ll also say that it feels so nice to be the queer poet invited to the straight party. But I’ll also say I’m sure it’s very lonely there.