The What Else of Queer Poetry
I do not write the feminine, masculine, gay, straight, boi, girl, rich, middle class, American, violent, complacent, homeless, absolute or otherwise. I write beyond the determinable, which is not the same as the indeterminate. Such frames, these houses, do not hold, do not truly shelter nor constrain, do not even do good work as metaphor for the storehouse of my body, my language as system. My queer poetry is tentative, mercurial. In writing, I am always aware that no one named is ultimately mine; they move beyond me, and then, after all, are also me despite the effort to shed everything, including you, my Other Self.
A Few Bread Crumbs
I do not think all queer poets emerge from the GLBT community, though I imagine many do because of the similarly repressive histories that have required invisibilities and, hand in hand, subversive freedoms particular to people who have not been permitted to act in the same fashion as those who understand freedom as the status quo enacts it.
Poetry is not a large part of the marketplace and queer poetry is further removed, taking up nearly no space at all in that show. However, queer poetry is increasingly a felt presence in our culture, a lurking that happens in the open, sometimes erupting as a shock that startles akin to the Situationists’ anthems, sometimes a stroking seduction mocked as perversion and secretly sought. Queer poetry is not beholden to the tides and tastes of mainstream interests as dictated and demanded by the consumers of culture. This outlaw subversive work and sometimes in-your-face tradition remains largely unnamed, deliberately ignored, with parts selectively absorbed, and as such, is often targeted, feared and lusted after simultaneously.
Queer producers are labeled for control: “bent,” “odd,” “strange,” so that normalcy is comforted. Normalcy posts a bounty for the hunter to destroy the anxiety we inspire. But a third, lesser said response turns towards new pursuit: our work issues a hope that tickles and tempts beyond the barricades of the tyranny of the norm, instills a misunderstood aching for that which is feared: the drive to speak aloud what is unthought, unimagined, and hence, dangerous. From that fear, the “normal” seek to name and discuss the only mainstream palpable way through which they think they can control us bent producers: via the merits of gay marriage. For we are within the culture, perceived as pervasive because we are, after all, no longer hushed and invisible; hence the search and focus on scenarios in which we are perceived as a concrete threat to the established order, then rejected as the Other perverse—all efforts to stop the slipping of that order and ignore its own transience.
Beyond that debate, we remain, in all our queerness, anomalies writing aloud the unimagined territories that language spearheads and explores. They may fear adventure in my world, but I inhabit theirs in multiple ways—and am them. In the what else of my queer poetry, I try on the straight persona, I am curious to think my way into the Eastern European countryside, I think through the logic of philosophy’s conundrums, and more. Einstein broke with the mathematician’s logic and bent space in an imaginative leap; the theory of relativity underscores that leap by reminding us that no matter the demarcations, each one lives in relation to another, and another, and another—strangers, immigrants, enemies, friends. The what else welcomes imaginative confusion, especially the kind that confounds categorical identities, so that I might make new inroads via what it means to relate and create new perceptions that suck out the distance or insert fecund gaps. I want to come up close and personal to all that interests and all I encounter; I want to shake the categorical foundations of certain knowledge in the queer campaign of what else.
Is it possible to write a history of women? Marilyn French wove one. Possible to intermingle the blood and life jelly of every person from the slave to the student to the king? Whitman caressed and catalogued his efforts. Possible to reveal death and the spiritual undercarriage of each daily movement and thought? Dickinson kindly did. Possible to reach past resistance to love what is not? Upon reading Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, John Ashbery speculated, “And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.” What else?
The Forbidden Fruit
“The world’s scrutiny, however, turned on itself as we realized that we are Laramie, we are Matthew Shepard, and we are his killers.“–Dean William Ouellette, Student Director of the Punahou Production of “The Laramie Project”
In my queer project, poetry foregrounds imagination above all, broadly to consider the “Other,” the conservative, the heteronormative, the essentializing, the reduction and attempted deduction of what “should not be.” Queer poetry inquires, What is this compulsive lust to beat the queer out of each other? Just as Toni Morrison humanizes the pedophile in her novel, The Bluest Eye, queer poetry does not reductively proliferate hatred in the face of hate; queer poetry does not merely seek an eye for an eye. Despite the criminal, we want to peer through that eye—feel its orb and see what it sees. Looking, yes, and then what happens when we speak into the abyss? Does it answer or echo? Queer poetry strives to complicate the other, confound how we know that other, so that we might, however fleetingly, explore the other towards an even greater effort: to imagine what else beyond this other self.
A queer poetics is not only about what is but is equally about what is not. We live in relation to each other, regardless of our best efforts to divorce and secede. The human species is a community that communes even beyond its species. We do so violently, sometimes kindly and in multiple capacities. We commune in countless ways we aren’t conscious of yet. Consider two early queer poets about whom much has been said, but still not enough: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Interest in them continues because they not only disregarded embracing the standard strictures of the day, those that instructed how one—especially a poet—should be, but with their disinterest in those directives (a disinterest that is neutral and therefore frustratingly unassailable – “How could you not care?”), they were able to blur the boundaries of you, me, them, spiritual, carnal, etc. so that the fine line of love and hate goes gray (Old gray poet!), and the unthinkable is permitted: an intuitive exploration of the other and her realities, an exercising of the empathy and curiosity muscles that motor the imagination. Lines in the sand wash away and a conflation of identities opens to discover just what else might offer a push past the fears and limitations of tolerance.
In queer poetry, desire blooms, and yes, I may just marry my dog—not in the reductive status quo sense of canine-human copulation but in the Dickinson-Whitman poetic regard towards opening to and exploring other life forms, what it feels and means to be dog. A quest for new beauty bursts, and the heterosexual is jolted by the gay man’s passion and regard for another man’s breast. Though he may cling to the safety of his identity, he opens a little to find what else desire wants, beyond and beside himself. However incremental, the transgression of boundaries is encouraged in a great effort to imagine the what else, though that what else risks rejection and mockery by the popular marketplace. However frightening the production of this queer beyond, it must carry on because it is essential to the proliferation of hope, of how we may be in relation to each other positively, beyond the name-calling. In “A Transatlantic Interview –1946,” Gertrude Stein inadvertently explains this premise via an account of Picasso’s words, “You see, the situation is very simple. Anybody that creates a new thing has to make it ugly. The effort of creation is so great, that trying to get away from the other things, the contemporary insistence, is so great that the effort to break it gives the appearance of ugliness.” So despite the very real material-based obstacles and threats, the futile attempts to compartmentalize and even purge our efforts, the queer project, bejeweled in ugliness, steps out and thrives.
The Books of People
“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
—James Baldwin, The New York Times (1 June 1964)
Queer poets especially locate practical alternative means for production and distribution of our work. These methods typically supersede the accolade-driven capitalist mainstream venues for poetry. Baldwin, also a poet, left the country to rely on the kindness of friends, Whitman self-published all of his life, Dickinson refused the lure of suggested editing for publishing’s sake, I threw my faith and energy into a print-on-demand venture instead of holding out for more “respectable” measures of success as a poet. Nowadays, many of us follow suit or publish each other, though there are certainly exceptions and I’m speaking generally, but the end result is graciously geared towards an avoidance of compromise to meet the demands of who will give me what prize what job what pat on the back that says I fit in. Not, “How can I make my poetry publishable and fitting?” but “What else?“
Propelled by joyous impatience, many queer poets have leapt the divide to become publisher-editors. Presses like Belladonna, Chax, Litmus, Palm, Portable at YoYo Labs, and Tarpaulin Sky, to name a few, currently stand as examples of the practical exploration of the role of Other, from passive poet-in-wait to publisher-editors working to see new realities come into print, written aloud, regardless of the mainstream push for Collins, Kooser, Gluck, and the like. (I’m neglecting a rich history of poets-turned-publishers that includes Amy Lowell, Virginia Woolf, the women who published the Little Review and Joyce’s Ulysses, Diane DiPrima who published Audre Lorde’s first book, and many others.) When poets like Tim Peterson, Erica Kaufman, Ari Banias, and Ana Bozicevic run reading series, edit journals, and organize conferences like this one, we are creating the what else of post-publishing – the support of communal relations that, again, spearhead an exploration of how we are able to co-exist and investigate our differences, leap into and out of pockets of being, and push past the one-stop project of tolerance, which only leads to a deadening still. In turn, my queer poetics wants to mark these initiatives, celebrate the efforts, discuss the problematics, propose alternative methods, squelch projected ignorance, and proliferate the work that is also not my own, that is different and unusual in its strangeness to me so that I might be queerer than even my own queerness envisions. How can I expand without the other?
By publishing ourselves in all of the permutations of our various perversities, the temptation to adhere and please the marketplace, to say I will beat this poem into submission for your understanding, dwindles with each poem, each book, each conference and reading, to nearly nill, and a freedom of movement persists, permits, promulgates. What else?
The Why of the What Else
“Whatever our texts are, we today are dealing with new philosophical or political questions of which Shakespeare knew nothing. Ancient massacres are taking on new forms that call for new protests and new silences… Shakespeare, who does warn us, can’t have predicted it all. It’s up to us to find the language that will prophesy our age.” —Helene Cixous in White Ink
“To transgress,” “to wander,” “to search,” “to journey,” “to quest” – these phrases, common to queer theory, suggest action, movement, the antithesis of a centered security and stagnation. Queerness historically braces itself in bravery, however present our fear of rejection, and not only consistently minimizes and breaks from those grounds but moreover invents new terrain, new ways of thinking. Resistance alone is futile. A queer poetry is one of the very few realms of human conception not beholden to reifying the ideal “what is” or obeying the stultifying rules of specific schools of thought; in that knowledge and with such a history of subversive freedom, we are able to emerge and push past the naming of repressions and injustices; we are able to pursue the what else. As indicated by Cixous, this pursuit is essential to tackle the questions new to our ever-expanding population and changing planet. Where else but in the queer realm will we imagine the unfamiliar, that which unsettles and appears as Picasso’s ugly?
A queer poetry may offer a few common features though, as in Wittgenstein’s theory of games, there is no single identifiable trait that enables the culture-at-large to recognize, absorb, contain, and imprison it. In its mercurial condition, queer poetry may throw a wrench in the cogs of the white male heterosexual default setting. A queer poetry complicates. A queer poetry envisions. A queer poetry may consider world politics, the eco-system, familial relations, or the problematics of inheritance. A queer poetics is not invested in the stagnated discourse of tolerance but investigates the unimagined modes of interaction and the mingling of as yet undiscovered ways of being. A queer poetry transgresses, finds the ugly of new beauty, confounds, pushes past mere protest. Queer poetry may offer symbols that reflect the norm and, despite the construction of mirrors, reveals the queer and strange to decenter what is reflected. A queer poetry is permitted to invest in the ridiculous, the grotesque, the troubled and the blessed. A queer poetry may applaud the incongruous, the incoherent, the transformative acrobatics of nonsensical naming. A queer poetry is the province to surpass identity and inhabit multiply, to open to the scary other self I think that I am not and find another way to be.
Finally, the what else of queer poetics is a movement, a progression, a leap, a sidestep, a garrulous handshake, a vertiginous stretch, a reaching, a shape-shifting—any number of motions, gestures, or processes we might learn and practice that take our thoughts and relations to a whole new realm. When my students offer their initial favorable response to a work of literature, I ask them, “Why do you think you must relate to a text for it to be worthwhile? What does relating to a text mean? Don’t you want to think something new, something else, now and then, something you’ve never encountered before?”
James Baldwin, transient much of his life, always seeking and thriving on the communal exchange of friends and strangers alike, indirectly answers Cixous’ call for new prophesy via a kind of shedding of the “safe” skin of certain identity, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges. [“Faulkner and Desegregation” in Partisan Review (Fall 1956)]
In the what else of queer poetry, the focus shifts from who is what stable identity to an energetic movement, from the secure footing of “what is” to the risk and broadcast of hope in the one constant we know: that there is no there there, there is only now and then now, there is no permanence, and that knowledge encourages the exploration of what now really is beyond the false fences of security, of a center, a normal, for higher dreams and greater privileges that can be shared between us, among us, in our constant becoming, however fleeting, however impossible, for in the end, should it ever get here, the impossible of the what else is the only thing worth pursuing.
Finally, what else. A poem by way of illustrating my own poetics in action:
MEN BY THE LIPS OF WOMEN
I’m in love with a man who doesn’t love me
with the pages of the book he sees from.
He makes love through his syllabic ink, a salted thunder,
leaves me to my own delirium tremors.
I gouge out his eyes, break the yolk across his shoulders,
disembowel the nectar from his liver.
His toxins become a cherry blossom wine.
He sounds in the brain’s eagled hollows
of a soft guitar from a Spanish café
among the mountain peaks in nightshade.
He cannot hide, no matter how many goats he scares
or biscuits he throws at the hunger.
The mother of everyone calls him.
His fright is an orb of Hold me, I’m yours,
crisp and curled with age’s yellow
and the godless sunburn you love across your nose.
I am that love you light yourself with
and my gender is powerless in this.
We are metered only by our own machines,
while the book is a clock that forgets her mechanics.
Her hands can count but would rather wipe warm dew,
the pall from your lips and kiss the lids
of your eyes from sleep. Here am I, is he,
with yoke and shadow removed, she is, her in me,
apart from you, man reading men by the lips of women.
Amy King‘s latest book, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. Of I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press), John Ashbery describes Amy King’s poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. King is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and, as a founding member, serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. King joins the ranks of Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Pearl Buck as the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women’s National Book Association). She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees, and she received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. She is co-editor of the anthology series Bettering American Poetry and, with Heidi Lynn Staples, Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change.