To my relief, this month the Young Master has moved on from conformist 1940s Little Golden Books to another genre of indoctrination more congenial to his Gen-X progressive parents. I’m talking about Dr. Seuss. Shane’s current favorite is The Lorax, a still-timely 1971 environmentalist cautionary tale about a greedy manufacturer, the Once-ler, who destroys a pastoral paradise. (I hope our boy remembers this when he finds out that we spent his college fund on litigation to save our neighborhood’s wetlands…)
On about the tenth re-read, Shane asked me why the Once-ler is only ever shown as a pair of green hands. This is actually pretty unusual for Dr. Seuss, who never seemed to run out of ideas for depicting unique creatures. Shane thought maybe the Once-ler had no head, but some of the other pictures show his eyes peeking out through the slats of his abandoned workshop. So I brainstormed other possibilities. A 4-year-old’s “Why?” will lead you somewhere deep if you let it!
I said maybe the Once-ler did not feel connected to anything around him. He just made things without listening to his head or his heart, or paying attention to his environment. He didn’t take responsibility for what his hands were doing. He let himself become part of the machine of consuming, producing, and selling.
But I sensed that the alienation of the worker under capitalism was still too abstract a concept for the Young Master. So I tried again. “Maybe he doesn’t show the Once-ler’s face because the Once-ler could be all of us. We all have to be careful not to do what he does, not to be greedy and chop down too many trees and make the animals sick.”
As I spoke, I heard the echoes of a troubling concept we’d discussed in our church small group. We’ve started a video series by an evangelical pastor on the last words of Christ from the cross. That first week, we talked about “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Explaining the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the pastor said that “We are the ‘them'”. Past, present, and future are all one to God. Each of us, because of our sinful nature, crucified Christ and is forgiven by him from the cross.
That formulation no longer sits well with me, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think guilt feelings are the most skillful motivator for turning our lives around. Hopefully we feel bad enough about our actual sins without adding a cosmic crime on top of them–and if we don’t, there’s a good chance that the extra load of guilt for Christ’s death will only harden our ego-defenses. The second reason is that I’m looking to move away from theologies that romanticize scapegoating, because on some level they validate an abuser’s belief that splitting off her shadow side onto a victim is effective. During the time when I most fervently defended this atonement theory, I couldn’t have conceived that the universe could operate any other way; I was just grateful for Christ to take the hit on my behalf, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984 begging the torturer to hurt his girlfriend instead of him. I don’t believe in a totalitarian cosmos anymore, because I have a different kind of family now.
Nonetheless, these two myths, the gospel and Seuss, converge in reminding us of our universal temptation to sin and our interdependent responsibility for the kind of world we make. When we see a tree cut down, or an innocent man hung on one, none of us can stand apart and say “That’s not my problem.”
What a year! 2015 was a time of transition, living out the implications of changes that began last year and gathering the courage to go public with them.
Writing career milestones this year: My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, came out in March from Little Red Tree Publishing. Forbes Library in Northampton hosted the launch party with a poetry reading (watch it here) and slideshow by fine art photographer Toni Pepe, who illustrated the collection. Four poems from this book also won the final writing contest from the avant-garde online journal Wag’s Revue.
I finished the last pre-publication edits on the no-longer-endless novel, Two Natures, and began sending it out to contests and publishers. Will there be good news in 2016? Watch this space! Meanwhile, with help from my weekend writing retreat at Art of Change Tarot, I started work on the sequel, Origin Story. Research for this book will include attending Flame Con 2016 and reading M/M romances about bondage. I love my job.
In my religious life, I finally admitted to myself that I love Christianity but we need to see other people. I am charting a private, intuitive spiritual path by studying Tarot and reading books from a variety of traditions. With another member of my Episcopal church, I co-taught a summer workshop on faith and trauma, which seemed to be a positive and healing experience for everyone involved.
The Young Master, age 3 1/2, is in preschool full-time, where he is learning to use the potty and count to “oo-teen” (all the numbers after ten). His hobbies include Lego, trains, and complete resistance to every form of tyranny over the mind of man, especially putting on his pants when Mommy says it’s time for school.
Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been entries in our first-ever Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published novels and memoirs. Results will be out in February. This means I haven’t had much time for leisure reading. Here are a few picks for the best of 2015.
Best Poetry Books:
Why did it take me so long to discover Mark Doty’s Atlantis (Harper Perennial, 1995)? Perhaps I wouldn’t have appreciated its wisdom until now. Written as his lover and many friends were dying of AIDS, this poetry collection is bathed in the radiant, ever-changing, yet eternal flow of the ocean he lived beside. The artifice, the traces of formalism, are worn proudly–this is not contemporary colloquial poetry–so the bereaved speaker’s vulnerability is that much more naked by contrast. It epitomizes a certain style of high-art gay poetry, with its tropes of sublime opera divas, drag, bath-house ecstasy, and a spirituality that cherishes transient, embodied, unique living beings more than any ascetic dogma. The poem “Homo Will Not Inherit” expresses a creed that I can believe:
And I have been possessed of the god myself,
I have been the temporary apparition
salving another, I have been his visitation, I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel
for minutes at a time, and I have for hours
believed—without judgement, without condemnation—
that in each body, however obscured or recast,
is the divine body—common, habitable—
the way in a field of sunflowers
you can see every bloom’s
the multiple expression
of a single shining idea,
which is the face hammered into joy.
I found Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing (Persea Books, 2009) through the Smith College Poetry Center newsletter. The jazzy, tough, delicious poems in this collection swing through highs and lows of sexual awakening, boxing, and religious devotion. Resilience sings through these anecdotes of bombed black churches and synagogues, down-and-out factory towns and risky love affairs, with characters who know that “all you gotta do is get up/one more time than the other guy thinks you can.” I’d hoped to reprint a sample poem on the blog this year, but did not hear back from the editors. Treat yourself to some of her recent work at Poets.org.
Best Fiction Books:
Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos has spawned dozens of spin-off anthologies about his monstrous Elder Gods from outer space and their power to contaminate and consume the human species. A lot of these pastiches are good for some gross-out scares and nothing more. New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (Prime Books, 2011) and New Cthulhu 2 (Prime Books, 2015), both edited by Paula Guran, take the genre to a higher level. For me, the Cthulhu mythos is fascinating because it confronts our secret fears about our place in the cosmos. It mashes up the worst aspects of materialism (humans are weak and our lives are meaningless) and authoritarian religion (an eternity of torment at the hands, or tentacles, of an all-powerful being). Guran’s anthologies are not lacking in old-fashioned frights, but their creativity lies in exploring the spiritual and political implications of the mythos, including Lovecraft’s infamous racism.
Best Nonfiction Books:
A Religion of One’s Own (Avery, 2015) is the new book by Thomas Moore, a Jungian analyst and former Catholic monk, known for his bestseller Care of the Soul. Moore suggests practices and new perspectives to forge a personal spirituality that is enriched but not limited by organized religion. This book reassured me that I could move outside Christianity while retaining some pieces of it that still made me feel connected to God.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015), edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap, is an essential addition to our cultural conversation on racism in America. The anthology grew out of Rankine’s “Open Letter” blog that solicited personal meditations on race and the creative imagination. Contributors include poets Francisco Aragón, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jericho Brown, Dawn Lundy Martin, Danielle Pafunda, Evie Shockley, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and many more, plus contemporary artwork selected by Max King Cap. The writers span a variety of ethnic backgrounds, points of view, and aesthetics, united by honest self-examination and political insightfulness.
The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision (Apocryphile Press, 2014) pairs Douglas Blanchard’s paintings of a modern-day gay Jesus in the Stations of the Cross with Kittredge Cherry’s devotional and art-historical commentary. Read my review on this blog from March 2015.
[T]he whole world is already sacred, already “charged with the grandeur of God” that shines out from every material object, waiting for us to notice it. The Spirit is not something separate from daily life, which we must bring in by choosing the right set of rosary beads or tarot cards. Any of these objects could work as a point of connection to the life force, just as any of them could become an idol if used in the wrong frame of mind.
[T]the impulse to produce something worldly, even commercial, out of your moment of enlightenment doesn’t mean that enlightenment wasn’t genuine. And on the flip side, boundary-less emotionalism and flamboyant devotion to spiritual practice can also be a mask for egotism, passive-aggressive power, and seduction.
[On June 26] the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, gay and lesbian couples have a fundamental right to marriage equality! States may no longer ban same-sex marriages or refuse to recognize such marriages performed in other states.
In religion, a third way between “There is ONE truth” and “There is NO truth” can possibly be found through the model of medicine. Different religions focus on different spiritual maladies and propose cures to match. To oversimplify quite a bit, Christianity is answering “How do I overcome my sinful separation from God and ensure an eternity in God’s loving presence?”, while Buddhism is answering “How do I achieve inner peace and escape the ups and downs of this impermanent world?” What gives us the right to say that one of those questions shouldn’t matter to anybody? Outcomes-wise, what’s the benefit of pushing a solution on someone who isn’t experiencing that problem?
Peggy Olson is going to take on 2016 like a boss. (Image source here.)
My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to wait for a hearing on his early release petition, three years after California retroactively repealed the “three strikes” law mandating long sentences for nonviolent crimes. If you have enjoyed his work on this blog, feel free to send me a letter of support that I can forward to his attorney.
Meanwhile, his artwork graces the cover of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s just-published book of political poetry, Imperfect Echoes. Check out her sample poem, “Antigua’s Hope”, at Winning Writers, and read Conway’s new poem, “They Have a Cave”, below the graphic.
They Have a Cave
Have you been in a cave?
Blackened by shadowed bars; strip searched
like a newborn puppy, probed to prove a gender.
Paraded down concrete corridors, jingling in chains
like an untrained beast. Un-named, then re-numbered.
I despise this neverness, this severed distress
from the world of incorporated man.
I have survived too long in this cave,
while they have waved away time (The Administration.)
To claim the one key to freedom’s peace.
To fleece my mind, and control the doors
lashed to the mouth of each cave.
These caves have been built for your poor.
But, no-one they love. Only those
they claim to care about.
You can have my hollow cave.
I have saved nothing from its stark desperation,
from the stripes of separation
stomped out this conversation…
The Tarot, in the school of thought that I’m currently studying, is a tool for asking questions and receiving insights from one’s own intuition, from a higher consciousness, from the psychological emanations of other people, and/or from spiritual beings. This is also how I write fiction. So naturally, in working with Tarot, I haven’t confined myself to asking questions about my own life. I’m even more interested in Tarot readings for my characters.
More so than craft-based writing prompts, a randomly (?) drawn card has a Zen quality of surprise and mystery that confounds my intellect and jolts me out of the well-worn groove of my plans for the story. In addition, combining my writing exercise with a spiritual practice reminds me to stay open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. After a year of final revisions on the Endless Novel, which were challenging but predictable, I am entering the wide-open space of the Endless Sequel, where everything is up for grabs except the main character dynamics. Tarot helps me enjoy that freedom of unknowing, while making some concrete progress in filling in the space.
Not every card produces a fruitful or understandable clue. The confusing cards nonetheless serve a purpose. They encourage me to explore plot twists that I hadn’t considered, though I may ultimately reject them as dead ends. (This is an advantage of Tarot over my Christian Writer phase: no guilt or fear about disagreeing with, or misunderstanding, the Message From Above.) The hard work of interpretation flexes my creative muscles. Sometimes, weeks later, in the light of other readings, I’ll finally understand why that card was in that position.
For instance, in my first Tarot reading about the Endless Sequel, I asked “Who is the narrator?” and was flummoxed by the answer, the 8 of Wands reversed. Traditional meanings include blockage, confusion, too many choices. In the standard Rider-Waite deck, it’s one of the few cards with no human figures on it at all!
I knew that my main character had a dis-integrated personality because of trauma and that a major plot thread would involve him reconnecting and healing those parts. But a narrator with fragmented consciousness generates a confusing, overwhelming experience for reader and writer alike. I never could get through those kinds of experimental novels in school, and I didn’t want to write one.
Perhaps the card represented my own failure to make a decision, offloading too much responsibility onto the cards or the character? I was afraid I didn’t have the skill to coax this secretive, self-deprecating character to talk about his feelings in a way that sounded authentic to us both. It would also be a challenge to differentiate his voice from the narrator of the Endless Novel (his boyfriend), whose campy, chatty style was almost too easy for me to slip into. Below these intellectual concerns was a non-literary one, the primal fear that I would lose myself in his “parts”. The first few years of the Endless Novel were written deep in PTSD territory, so my gut memory associated first drafts with losing my pony in the Swamps of Sadness.
Meanwhile, to refresh my writing skills while I haggled with myself over plot, I started working on a completely unrelated short story, and remembered why I loved that form. I can deal with unknowing for 30 pages, better than 400. It’s publishable now, not 10 years from now. I can see all the way around the structure: it’s a statue, not the Parthenon.
“Oh!” I said in the middle of the night. “The Endless Sequel is a novel in stories.”
Thanks to this working hypothesis, all the questions that had stopped me from writing lost their importance: Where should I begin in the story? Who is the narrator? If there’s only one narrator, how can I depict things that happen to each of the main characters when the other is not present? Just start anywhere! It’s possible that one of the stories will take on such momentum that it becomes a single book-length narrative, with material from the others as flashbacks or interludes between chapters. Or it could become a multi-vocal, multi-genre work. Whatever happens, I won’t be wasting my time by experimenting with different points of view. And I don’t think this solution would have hit me with such clarity, if part of my mind hadn’t continued to work on the enigma of the 8 of Wands reversed.
Want to try this for yourself? Here are links to some useful layouts I found by Googling “Tarot spreads for novel plotting”. Barbara Moore’s Tarot Spreads shows you how to adapt or design your own spreads. For meanings, I rely on Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom and Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Reversals.
(From my new favorite deck, So Below Deck: Book of Shadows, Vol. 2. The contemporary settings make it helpful for plotting a realist novel. Multi-ethnic characters and a few who could be interpreted as lesbian. Interpretations of traditionally sad or violent cards, like the 10 of Swords, are more upbeat than in Rider-Waite. In general I find that modern decks prettify the no-nonsense medieval toughness of the RWS images, so it’s good to keep the old standby around for balance.)
Carmine Dandrea is a retired English professor, Korean War veteran, and world traveler whose diverse life experiences inform his award-winning poetry. The work he has published with us at Winning Writers spans a train ride across India, a pilgrimage along China’s historic Silk Road, and a child’s memories of an Italian-American family funeral.
In contrast to these world travels, his latest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, In a Kept World, takes the reader on an inner journey of introspection, grief, and hope. This 17-poem cycle is voiced by a solitary older man inside a house in Michigan in deep winter. As the “prime suspect” of his own examinations, he reflects on mortality and time wasted. Women from his past reappear as nameless sirens and ghosts, arousing both desire and regret that he did not value their intimacy enough. Despite the assaults of unforgiving weather and the temptation to succumb to darkness, he also finds moments of sensual joy and radiance in the ordinary furnishings of his monastic cell. The recurring image of the garden comes to represent not only the literal promise of spring but the “seeds of love” and “sureness of life” that he wants another chance to cultivate in his soul.
Carmine has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below.
A heavy wind is blowing
off Lake Michigan;
there is nothing but darkness
to stop it on its way;
it roams the corners of the house
like some fast beast of prey
unleashed until the break of day.
The wind has done strange things
has made it go in ripples
through the field,
has molded it peculiarly,
fitting it like fleece
to the bark-dark trunks of trees.
Snow is a warfare for my mind.
It lies here,
a barrier to the world.
I want to close my mind to it,
to let it stay outside
the tight parameters of light
around my planted fields;
yet I know that snow
must have its role
in plotting gardens,
even though it slows
the heart that’s beating
in the summer sun.
But I must remember
that day has passed
into the night.
The snow has filled the ugly field
across the ugly street;
the railroad tracks beyond
are slick runners
disappearing out of sight.
Fire in the Cave
How cold the darts of winter rain
that cut up light—
points that pierce naked bone
and make the bone like stone,
sore with winter weather.
The sun shining through
persimmon curtains casts
of the fire in the cave
where my mind,
intent on artifacts,
is ecstasized with little things:
the chaste silver catching light
upon a slender throat;
the slight uncertain gleam
seen in an eye half-closed;
the degree of pressure
in another’s touch;
a soft finger on the lip,
an eyelash trembling
on a cheek,
a slight lilac breath
caught in the ear’s conch.
2014 has been a year of self-transformation. I became a redhead and got a lion tattoo. I finished a major revision of the Endless Novel. I hope to finish-finish it for real in early 2015, after I nail down the details of my new poetry book launch and marketing plan. My second full-length poetry book, Bullies in Love, is forthcoming in March from Little Red Tree Publishing. Even the blog got a makeover, migrating from GoDaddy to WordPress with the expert assistance of design firm Tunnel 7.
Rearranging my poetry manuscript on the office floor, December 2014.
Why has this year been so good for my creativity and personal growth? Folks, trauma recovery really works. Trust yourself. Phase out relationships with people who gaslight and invalidate you. Find a spiritual practice that makes a safe container for you to feel anger, grief, and the love of God. And try to spend some time roughhousing with a toddler. (Kittens work too.)
Here are some more highlights from this year’s reading, writing, and other discoveries.
L. Lamar Wilson’s Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2014) is a passionate, musical exploration of intersecting identities: black, gay, Southern, Native American, Christian.
Brian Teare’s debut collection The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) uses dark fairy-tale and gritty Southern Gothic tropes to tell, undermine, and complicate a confessional narrative of sexuality and trauma.
Nin Andrews’s Why They Grow Wings (Silverfish Review Press, 2001) lets loose the divine feminine in magical-realist scenarios that are both playful and politically edgy.
Best Fiction Book:
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013). This Pulitzer-winning doorstop of a novel received equally intense yays and nays from critics. Based on Northrop Frye’s classic taxonomy of genres, I think Tartt’s detractors make the mistake of treating her books as realist novels when they’re really romances, notwithstanding the super-abundance of contemporary detail. I loved this book because it captured the feeling of growing up in New York City with more dreams than money. Tartt’s New York, like mine, is home to many social classes and subcultures living in close proximity but rarely intersecting. The first half of the book emphasizes the distance between these worlds and the illusions we spin about those who seem more fortunate than ourselves. Then a series of tragicomic twists brings the protagonist out of his grandiose isolation and into a humbled awareness of our common fate.
The Priesthood of All Survivors
I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer. However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.
Why Believe in a Need-less God?
It’s a leap from “God doesn’t need Hir ego stroked”* to “God doesn’t need anything from us.” This doctrine, which we take for granted as orthodoxy, has hidden negative political and pastoral consequences. Because of what I’ve learned from feminist and disability theology, I am compelled to question the equating of “need” with weakness, imperfection, or immature egotism.
Becoming Church: My Field Trip to an Intentional Christian Community
Becoming Church is an umbrella organization for small-group churches (a dozen people maximum) that follow the Church of the Saviour model of “journey inward/journey outward“. Grounded in their faith in Christ, members support each other’s personal spiritual transformation and work together on service projects in [Washington, DC]. Their vision for social change is both radical and humble. Radical, because they want to be used by the Spirit to attack systemic injustice. They’re not content to provide palliative care to the less fortunate, or as they prefer to say, “the under-resourced”. Humble, because they try to operate on God’s timetable, not their own, and eschew ambitious arms’-length initiatives in favor of intensive long-term relationships with a few needy individuals at a time.
I’ve binge-watched all 6 1/2 seasons of Mad Men since July. This show’s deep resonance with me deserves its own blog post in the near future. For now, let me just say that Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the first female character on TV that I really identify with. She’s socially awkward, ambitious, creative, blunt-spoken, willing to make enemies, unashamed of her climb from working-class Brooklyn Catholic schoolgirl to Manhattan ad executive, has a weakness for ugly plaid outfits, and secretly wonders whether she’s failed to perform femininity properly. Near the end of Season 7A, she anticipated the concept of “family of choice” to sell fast-food hamburgers to modern women.
I used to be afraid of my chronic nightmares. Now, before I fall asleep, I imagine Peggy showing up in my dreams to kick ass. That recurring dream about being stranded on the highway? No problem. Peggy will give me a ride and bring bail money, just as she did for Don Draper when he crashed his car on a drunken joyride with his mistress. I’m sleeping much better now.
As my readers doubtless know from the national news, the killing of unarmed African-American men and boys by white police officers has sparked protest movements across the country, challenging us white Americans to confront our participation in a racist law enforcement system.
On Aug. 9 in Ferguson, MO, Officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown; the grand jury declined to indict Wilson on Nov. 24, even though the conflicting testimony about what happened during the police stop would seem to warrant a jury trial. On July 17 in Staten Island, NY, police stopped Eric Garner for allegedly selling contraband cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold on him that was banned by NYPD rules, suffocating the unarmed and asthmatic Garner. Last week the NY grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 22 in Cleveland, OH, a cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun at a playground. Twelve years old. A toy gun. Just think about that for a moment.
These are just two of the many unarmed black men and boys who are killed by the police each year in our “post-racial” society. Activists on Twitter have been posting their names in hashtags but can’t even keep up.
I honestly have not known what to write about this because there isn’t much I can say except “FUCK” and “I’m sorry”.
I’m not bringing this up now to get cookies for being an ally (a title I still have to earn). It’s just reached the point where not saying something would be a sign of not caring. As a white person, I have the dubious privilege of prioritizing other issues. But I don’t want to get off the hook.
I know how much I appreciate it when men believe women about sexism, or when people who’ve had normal families work to overcome their misconceptions about trauma survivors. In doing activism around the issues that affect me personally, I’ve gotten a glimpse of how it feels to suffer from other kinds of prejudice. I want to turn that empathy into effective action, and that starts with listening to African-American voices.
So I’m using the rest of this post to recommend some of the books, websites, and Twitter feeds that are helping me begin my education in racism and racial justice. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.
Important advice: If you’re new to this issue and decide to check out these blogs and Twitter feeds, don’t jump into the conversation right away. Spend a good amount of time just reading and learning how this community sees the world, whether or not you agree. Remember that people are the experts on their own experience. No one is right all the time, but people of color have better attunement to racism than white people do, because they’re on the receiving end.
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (HarperCollins, 2014)
Witty novelist and pop-culture critic explores the intersections and contradictions of our cultural myths around race and gender.
bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (South End Press, 1981) and All About Love: New Visions (William Morrow, 2001)
hooks’s passionate first book argues that black women have been doubly marginalized by white feminists and by black men trying to gain status in a patriarchal society. The first chapter, describing the systemic sexual abuse of black women under slavery, is harrowing but a must-read. All About Love is an incisive and uplifting book that proposes that real love is inseparable from justice, seeing and being seen authentically.
Colorlines is a daily news site about racial justice issues in politics, the arts, and the media, offering award-winning original reporting and news analysis. (Twitter: @Colorlines) Check out this article about how white Americans can unlearn racism.
The Crunk Feminist Collective features black women writers on topics such as media representation, discrimination and micro-aggressions in the workplace, police brutality, and abuses in the criminal justice system. (Twitter: @crunkfeminists)
Dear White People is the Tumblr companion to the 2014 movie, an excellent satire about black students at an elite university and the different strategies they use to navigate around cultural stereotypes and double standards. A book is forthcoming.
Gradient Lair is a womanist blog about black women and art, social media, social politics, and culture. (Twitter: @GradientLair and @TheTrudz)
Political Jesus is a multi-authored Christian theology blog with interests in social justice, science fiction, pop culture, and racial issues in the church. (Twitter: @Political_Jesus)
@Karnythia (Mikki Kendall, fiction writer and blogger at hoodfeminism.com)
@ProfessorCrunk (Brittney Cooper, columnist at Salon)
@TaNehisiCoates (Ta-Nehisi Coates, columnist at The Atlantic, author of their 2014 cover story on slavery reparations)
@TheFerocity (Saeed Jones, poet and Buzzfeed LGBT columnist)
@TressieMcPhd (Sociology professor at Emory University, writes about racial issues in academia)
@WritersofColour (Media Diversified, a UK think tank tackling the lack of diversity in media)
This past October I participated in Dead Poets Remembrance Day, an annual reading series organized by Walter Skold of Dedgar.org. Walter is on a mission to host tribute readings at all the graves of notable poets in the U.S. He is working on a documentary that will incorporate video of these readings and other anecdotes of the poets’ lives.
I live across the street from a historic cemetery where Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali is buried. Ali, who was a beloved professor at U Mass Amherst, introduced American writers to the classical Indo-Islamic poetic form known as the ghazal. On the afternoon of my reading, there was a torrential rainstorm, which was the perfect (if noisy) backdrop for two poems from Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals: “Even the Rain” and “After You”.
We are left mute and so much is left unnamed after you–
No one is left in this world to be blamed after you.
Someone has disappeared after christening Bertha–
Shahid, will a hurricane ever be named after you?
Now from Miami to Boston Bertha is breaking her bones–
I find her in the parking lot. She says, “I’m blamed after you.”
The Deluge would happen–it was claimed–after you
But the world did go on, unashamed, after you
ANDREW BERTHA CHARLES DAVID ELLA FLOYD GEORGE
but S comes so late in the alphabet that although
SHAHID DEVASTATES FLORIDA is your dream headline,
no hurricane will ever be named after you.
One perk of having a Kindle is the unlimited supply of M/M romance e-books that I can now enjoy, free from concerns about privacy and shelf space. I’ve read a couple of standouts that I’ll discuss below, and meanwhile have been thinking about some peculiarities of the genre.
I was never really a fan of hetero romance novels–I didn’t look anything like the girls on the covers, and more importantly, I wasn’t attracted to the kind of meaty alpha males who conquer these ladies with a blast of pheromones. I don’t relate to the genre’s near-universal construction of female sexual response as surrender, or the notion that falling in love happens on an instinctual level where chemistry overpowers rational free choice.
I’d guess that this critique resonates with the large population of semi-straight women, like me, who read and write stories about two men in love. Besides our simple enjoyment of the male anatomy, maybe we’re looking for alternatives to the genre’s traditional gender hierarchies. We might appreciate some fantasies where we’re just spectators, not worrying how we measure up to the leading lady.
Gay men in love, at least in theory, have the opportunity to meet each other as equals. Because homophobia is often one of the obstacles to their eventual happy ending, the characters are compelled to be more reflective about the nature of desire–how do they know what their “real” feelings are, and how much weight should they give to eros compared to other moral and social values? Not all M/M romances allow political consciousness to intrude, but the best ones, in my opinion, allow it to deepen the story.
The funny thing is, though, that M/M frequently carries over some of the weird patriarchal themes of the old bodice-rippers. Our imaginations are so thoroughly conditioned that we don’t take full advantage of the genre’s potential for gender liberation.
I first noticed this phenomenon in yaoi, the Japanese manga subgenre also known as “boys’ love”. These romance comics featuring male couples are primarily written by and marketed to women. However, the gender hierarchy is alive and well. There are generally clearly delineated “top” (seme) and “bottom” (uke) characters, with the latter being drawn as a more effeminate or androgynous youth. In fact, sometimes the uke is literally a teen boy involved with an adult man, which echoes another problematic theme of traditional romance fiction–the borderline non-consensual sex that the victim winds up enjoying.
Among the yaoi books I’ve read so far, Tetuzoh Okadaya’s The Man of Tango distinguished itself because both partners are depicted as adult men who switch roles, in bed and out, mutually guiding one another to open up new dimensions of themselves. As for the sex, let me just say that this book was sold in a sealed shrink-wrap and totally lived up to it.
Okadaya’s fellows also have a close female friend who is a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. The same cannot be said for a lot of works in this category, such as Youka Nitta’s hot but silly Embracing Love 1 & 2, about male porn stars who go gay for each other. Too often, women in M/M are either absent or mere foils for the men. They’re needy girlfriends, cold ex-wives, or disposable sex-dolls, who only enter the narrative to prove the male character’s virility and the inadequacy of the relationships preceding the male leads’ pairing. Considering that women are in charge of this genre, why are we building “GIRLZ KEEP OUT!” clubhouses for our sexy boys?
This brings me to another odd trope of gay romance, so common that it has its own acronym: GFY, or “gay for you”. (My mom-of-choice, who has become an expert on foreign lesbian soap operas on the Internet, reports that it’s all over the place in girl-girl plots too.) A typical romance pairs an experienced, comfortably out gay person with a partner who has never had a same-sex lover. The more plausible books (relatively speaking) at least set up some backstory that the GFY had previous gay desires but didn’t act on them because of spiritual conflict, social pressure, or trauma.
In Jamie Fessenden’s amazing Billy’s Bones, for example, the man exploring his first adult same-sex relationship is alienated from his own sexuality because of repressed memories of child abuse. Not only doesn’t he know what he wants, he doesn’t remember what he’s already done. His partner, a therapist, has to learn how to support his recovery without caretaking and controlling him. The result is a genuinely egalitarian partnership between adults. I can’t say enough good things about this book’s responsible, well-informed, and compassionate treatment of a topic that is usually sensationalized or shrouded in denial. Check out Jamie’s blog for insightful discussion of love between men, in books and real life.
Another beautiful novel, Tim Bairstow’s The Shadow of Your Wings, explores the mentor-novice theme via a love triangle among three men with a fraught relationship to the Church of England. (The book takes place in England in the 1990s, when gay priests had to be celibate, although straight priests could get married.) Jack is an elderly monk whose life has been warped by repression of his same-sex attractions. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a beautiful, virginal youth who is staying at the monastery to prepare for ordination to the priesthood. Felix has never dared to act on his sexual orientation. The third player is Jonas, the groundskeeper, a savvy young man who loves Felix and helps him see through Jack’s spiritual manipulations. This book is not heavy on the sex; it spends far more time mapping the emotional terrain of love, self-knowledge, and spiritual awakening. A must-read for theology nerds everywhere.
Felix’s loss-of-virginity plotline, the GFY trope, and the plethora of coming-out stories in M/M made me reflect on how a romance novel establishes that the central relationship is “special”. Here, too, I smell the lingering influence of purity-based morality from traditional heterosexual norms.
Romantic convention provides two main tracks for setting up this specialness, both of which I find problematic. The more experienced partner (the male in hetero romance) has had a lot of meaningless flings, but now he’s going to behave better because he’s found The One. (E.g. Jonas in Shadow, Angie in Man of Tango.) The less experienced partner is letting down his defenses for the first time because he’s found The One.
In hetero storylines, I call this the “not like other girls” delusion–an actual quote from high school stud Jake’s pursuit of virginal Marley on the TV show Glee, which consciously referenced John Travolta’s pursuit of “Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the musical Grease. In both cases, he tries a little harder not to be a dick because she is purer than other girls, not because…uh, every girl should be respected? Being a dick is bad? In real life, this is not a man who is ready for a healthy relationship. He hasn’t done any of the inner work to transition from pick-up artist to husband. The clever but frustrating Steve Carell rom-com Crazy Stupid Love makes this point, but then throws it away in the interest of tying up all the plotlines with a happy ending.
“The right person will change you” is apparently very deep-rooted in the romance genre, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. While I enjoy these books, I think it’s disappointing that gay men (and their female fans) aren’t given more role models for relationships between two sexually experienced, mature adults.
Then again, my sample is limited. More research is needed. Gee, is it getting hot in here…?
Of the numerous poetry books I’ve read this year, Ruth Thompson’s Woman with Crows (Saddle Road Press, 2013) is the most personally meaningful to me. I just turned 42, undeniably middle-aged, and my son starts preschool this fall. All around me, it seems, are warnings and laments that youth is fleeting, and we must cling to each moment lest it pass us by unnoticed. Woman with Crows is an antidote to fear.
This poetry collection, earthy yet mythical, celebrates the spiritual wisdom of the Crone, the woman with crows (and crows’ feet). Because of her conscious kinship with nature, the speaker of these poems embraces the changes that our artificial culture has taught us to dread. Fatness recurs as a revolutionary symbol of joy: a woman’s body is not her enemy, and scarcity is not the deepest truth. For her, the unraveling of memory and the shedding of possessions are not a story of decline but a fairy tale of transformation. One could say that, like Peter Pan, she expects that death will be a very big adventure!
If this all sounds terribly sentimental and “uplifting”, don’t worry. She’s not a sweet, neutered old granny. There are fireworks here, and snakes, and “ooze shining and blooming and with sex in it.”
Ruth has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. “Fat Time” was first published in New Millennium Writings as the winner of their 2007 poetry prize. Visit her website for more great work.
Under purest ultramarine the raised
goblets of trees overrun with gold.
We should be reeling drunk and portly as groundhogs
through these windfalls of russet, citron, bronze, chartreuse.
Everywhere color pools like butter, like oil of ripe nuts,
like piles of oranges under a striped tent.
Oh, let us be greedy of eyeball,
pigs scuffling in this gorgeous swill!
Let us cud this day
and spend the winter ruminant.
Let us write fat poems, and be careless.
Let us go bumbling about in wonder, legs
coated with goldenrod and smelling of acorns.
Let us be unctuous with scarlet and marigold,
larder them here, behind our foreheads
to glow in the brain’s lamps
in the time of need.
Each tree a sun!
Let us throw away caution,
emblazon our retinas
with the flare and flame of it
so that in the unleavened winter
this vermilion spill, this skyfall,
these oils of tangerine, smears of ochre and maroon
will heat a spare poem, dazzle the eye’s window,
feed us like holy deer on the blank canvas of snow.
Travel Instructions for Elmwood Avenue
You leave the sepia light of the tea restaurant,
lapsang and peony, earth and green twig,
continuo of quiet human voices.
Outside is rain, fat frying, damp exhaust, sputum,
spit of tires on a wet street, brakes tuned
to the pulse of streetlights: green, amber, red, green.
You blunder, glasses fringed with rainbows,
until your own hands swim out before you—
greeny in the headlights, strange as ectoplasm.
Light laps from shattered planes of reflection,
emerges and re-emerges from sheeting brilliance.
Dimension becomes dimension, a turned fan.
Now darkness hums like a bowed string,
anchored somewhere you cannot see,
one end floating here in the spinning world
and what has always sung from around the corner
is no longer apart from you—
it is here, upon you—that blaze of tenderness!