Interview About My Poetry at the Book Lover’s Haven

Denise Turney, author of the popular novel Love Pour Over Me, runs Chistell Publishing, an independent press with a special interest in African-American and inspirational books. Her free monthly e-newsletter, the Book Lover’s Haven, features freelance writing jobs, literary conferences and events, and author interviews. Subscribe here. We’ve been connected online for several years because Chistell has periodically offered a free writing contest that we profile at Winning Writers. (The most recent submission period was October 1, 2015-February 28, 2016.)

I was honored to be the featured author for her September newsletter, which was headlined: “Bold Writers! Are Writers Too Scared to Write Authentically?” The newsletters are not archived online but she’s kindly permitted me to reprint my interview below. It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the prophetic truth-tellers she lists in the intro. I’ll try to live up to it!

Book Lover’s Haven Interviews Jendi Reiter

Novels, short stories and poetry demand authenticity. Although writers deal with fictional characters, imaginary settings and hard-to-believe plots, to connect with readers, writings need an element of real life. It’s easy when those real life elements are accepted by the majority of society. It’s harder when most people abhor the ways that a story resembles worldly events or experiences that many wish would just disappear. That’s when writing gets hard.
Yet, talent speaks for itself as it happens with James Baldwin, Jodi Picoult, John Irving, Amy Tan, Richard Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Marilou Awiakta and Alice Walker, writers who tackled issues and experiences like racism, mental illness and family dysfunction that most readers may prefer to turn away from. Our feature writer’s talent has opened doors for her. She covers heady topics that, although mirroring what’s going on in the world, make storytelling a challenge.

Keep reading this Book Lover’s Haven issue to learn more about Jendi Reiter, her poetry, short stories and novels. Her writing talent is undeniable.

BLH:  What inspired you to write?
JR:   Books have been fundamental to my experience of the world since I was a small child. “What inspired you to write?” feels almost like asking “What inspired you to talk or walk?” Composing poems and stories is just how I make sense of being alive.
Each of my poetry collections reflects the spiritual, emotional, or political dilemmas I was wrestling with at the time. I don’t want to find “answers” as much as to create a space where all possibilities have room to breathe.
For instance, my latest full-length collection, Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2015), takes aim at myths that confuse us about the difference between passionate love and abusive control. These myths may come from society’s gender roles, religious dogma, or our own wishful thinking about relationships.
My chapbook Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) is the most experimental of my books. Swallow uses fractured language, absurd humor, and collages of found texts to resist the oppressive narrative of psychiatric labels. It was inspired by unethical practices I encountered during my (ultimately successful) seven-year quest to adopt a baby.
BLH:  Tell us about the process that you follow to create poems that pull up a lot of emotion in readers, especially since poetry leaves writers with so little room to connect with readers?
JR:   The scarcity of space is an advantage, I think–the energy bounces faster and harder off the walls as they close in! I mostly write in free verse now, so I take extra care to listen for the difference between poetry and prose in the cadences of my lines. It is an auditory process. Poetry, to me, should sound tighter than prose, with fewer pauses or explanatory transitions between one thought and the next.
Intentionality about line breaks is a big part of that. It’s a pet peeve of mine when breaks in free verse seem random or end on a weak word. The reader is going to hear the “beat” created by that visual break, so it had better come in a spot that makes sense in the musical line.
BLH:  Your poems are powerful. Did you train with a professional poet or take an advanced creative writing course?  Do you recommend that writers receive professional/college writing or communications training? Why?
JR:   Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t, and I neither recommend nor discourage such training. It is a very personal choice. Some writers, like me, are unable to filter out the distraction of other people’s energy when working on first drafts. (I ask for feedback from a trusted writer friend on some of my revisions, but not all.) Others are more extroverted, or not as psychically porous, and thrive on the collective creative ferment of writing in a workshop.
I do recommend that everyone take classes in critical reading of contemporary and classic poetry. The English department at my arts high school (shout out to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights!) taught me everything I know about good technique, other than what I learned through trial and error by actually writing.
BLH:  How did you arrive at the title “Bullies in Love”?
JR:   The title poem was inspired by an episode of the TV show “Glee” where the homophobic high school football player reveals that he’s been bullying the flamboyant young man from the choir because he’s secretly attracted to him. The secretly gay bigot is a common and, in my opinion, problematic twist in many stories about tolerance. It can preserve the dangerous fantasy that we should give our abuser a pass because he really loves us and just doesn’t know how to show it.
BLH:  Please give us a brief synopsis of Bullies in Love.
JR:  This blurb from the back cover says it best:
“Jendi Reiter’s astute observations of the complex nature of love reveal not only its beauty but also its damning consequences. From the child to the adult, the home to the wider world, this collection of affirming yet disturbing tight-knit poetry in various forms kaleidoscopes vivid images, framing the struggle to free oneself from parental and societal expectations from start to finish. These poems span the coming-of-age search for self-respect and love; the ideologies of marketing and religion; teachers’ censorship of children’s literature; and political crimes against sexual minorities.”
-Suzanne Covich, child rights activist and educator, author of When We Remember They Call Us Liars (Fremantle Press, 2012)
BLH:  Where did the idea to include photographs in Bullies in Love come from?
JR:     This was my publisher’s request. His background is in graphic design so he likes to combine art and writing in his titles. I had recently won a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship for poetry, so I asked the MCC staff to recommend some visual arts fellows whose work would suit my style and themes. I couldn’t be happier with Toni Pepe, the fine art photographer who agreed to collaborate with me. We share a preoccupation with dark fairy tales and historical representations of womanhood and motherhood. Check out her website at
BLH:  Why you think that poems don’t sell more? They are so powerful.
JR:   Most poetry is published by small presses that have no marketing budget. The average person may feel that poetry is intimidating or old-fashioned, because their education has not included contemporary poetry that feels relevant to their lives. Perhaps the standardized-test-driven modern school is partly to blame for that: poems are ambiguous and complex, harder to summarize (if they’re good!) in a multiple-choice question.
This slippery quality of poetry is also a marketing problem, because how do you give an elevator pitch for what your book is “about”?
BLH:  I recently interviewed another writer who said that, today, there’s more pressure on women to be perfect while juggling more and more. Do you tackle that perception in Barbie at 50? If not, what topics do you tackle in Barbie at 50?
JR:  Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010) is my most light-hearted book, but with an edge. The through-line is how girls use make-believe games and fairy tales to imagine what it’s like to grow up-and then the reality that is more complex and bittersweet, yet liberating, as truth always is. I am a Barbie collector and a feminist, two interests that some would say are incompatible, but I believe that instead of scapegoating feminine fantasy, we should create a world where people of all genders can try on roles without being confined to any of them.
BLH:  Please share two to three marketing strategies that work for you in spreading the word about your books and reaching your target audience.
JR:  Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free, low-tech ways to break your poems out of the obscure printed book or journal and spread them in quick, shareable formats. Does this translate into sales? Not always, but it creates satisfying interpersonal connections and a sense of being heard. Think of the poems that have gone viral on social media in recent years, because they voiced people’s hopes for peace after tragedies and injustices in the news. As poets, we may need to measure our success in terms of impact rather than dollars.
Other than readings at local bookstores and libraries, I haven’t done as much as I should to publicize my poetry books. My first novel, Two Natures, is forthcoming in September from Saddle Road Press (, so I’ve been giving myself a crash course in marketing this year, guided by Carolyn Howard-Johnson at I recommend her highly!
BLH:  What advice do you have for a writer who is publishing her/his first non-fiction book, specifically as it regards finding a publisher or printer (if they are self-publishing) and marketing their first book?
JR:  Nonfiction isn’t my specialty, but my advice would be similar: for marketing, check out Carolyn Howard-Johnson, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Fauzia Burke, Online Marketing for Busy Authors. I am the editor of, an online resource site for creative writers. Our Useful Resources pages include a page of self-publishing vendors and advice sites that we have vetted for their honesty, expertise, and cost-effectiveness. (
If you are going to submit your manuscript to a small press publisher, do your research and trust your instincts: Does their website look modern, and is it easy to find information about their books? Do they have any online marketing presence, such as an e-newsletter, active Facebook feed, or Twitter feed? Are they prompt and clear in responding to emails (or phone calls, if that’s your preferred method)?
I love my novel publishers, Don Mitchell and Ruth Thompson of Saddle Road Press, because of their stellar transparency, friendliness, and ability to hit deadlines. They’re also great writers–check out their books on their website! Interestingly, I found them because Ruth and I admire each other’s poetry and wrote blurbs for one another’s latest books. This just proves Carolyn’s advice that marketing today is about building your personal brand as an author, not just promoting one book at a time.

Release Week Reviews for “Two Natures”

More great reviews have come in since Two Natures debuted last week. I’m honored when readers say that I did justice to the real-life experience of gay men and their loved ones during the AIDS crisis. When other people make an emotional connection with characters who previously existed only in my mind, something magical happens, like the scene in the play Peter Pan when the collective strength of the audience’s chant “I do believe in fairies!” brings Tinkerbell to life.

On Goodreads, reviewer Nocturnalux gave thoughtful attention to the book’s literary devices and philosophical dichotomies:

The story of Julian, a young fashion photographer trying to make it in the fast and furious 90’s New York environment, is not simply the vehicle through which gay rights, religious issues, the AIDS epidemic, family breakdown and queer identity are addressed: by immersing the reader fully into its well developed world, the novel conveys all this and so much in an organic manner.

This immersive quality is achieved in part thanks to a very apt usage of the first person narrative. As a photographer Julian employs highly image saturated language to frame his experiences, in a most literal sense. Visual intense descriptions punctuate the story and is the lenses through which the storytelling process happens. But these also serve to show a sense of alienation from the actual world, a pressing anxiety that haunts Julian.

The narrator’s repressive, traditional Christian upbringing also factors in his means of expression, with many biblical references strewed very liberally throughout the entire novel, to the point of the title, as it has already been mentioned. The biblical imagery covers a gamut of tones, from lyrical, pensive and musing to snarky and highly cynical…

Two Natures is in all respects very honest. It does not shy from being graphic, painful, at times horrifying, often moving, all without caring for niceties. The comprehensive scope of the endeavor has its own artistic vision, both in-universe- Julian strives to capture some form of beauty- and at a structural level as the novel is almost flawless in how it harnesses highly personal moments to turn into literature.

Ultimately, Two Natures questions the very notion of ‘either/or’ system: perhaps there is a way of sublimating truth into beauty, or vice-verse, and reach an integrated way of feeling in which one can be true to oneself and still find actual love. There are no guarantees but the mere possibility is enough.

Meredith King at the M/M review blog Diverse Reader provided an enthusiastic release day review and promo post. Leave a blog comment or tweet about the giveaway for a chance to win a free e-book review copy.

Talk about a debut novel that grabs you, bleeds you, and makes you cry until you’re raw. It’s one of those books that when it ends you realize you stopped breathing. This is not an easy read. The subject matter is very heavy and the author really thrusts you into the gritty.

Many of us remember the early 90’s and how AIDS was actually vocal. Yes, it had been around for years before but it wasn’t really until the 90’s that people talked about it. Many people suffered and died because of this virus.  This book not only addresses AIDS and that time period but you are gutted at the loss of one character because of the virus. That is the only warning you’re getting about the seriousness and emotional upheaval in this book.

This tale is close to 400 pages long but it flowed. Pacing was terrific and the characters were fleshed out nicely.

Gay novelist Hans M. Hirschi belongs to the same generation as Julian and me. His positive response to the book was very meaningful. Hirschi is a literary writer with crossover appeal to the M/M romance market, as I hope to be. His books have romantic subplots where love generally prevails, but also tackle serious issues such as bereavement, child abuse and trafficking, spirituality, and the obstacles faced by nontraditional families. I recommend his novel The Opera House, which is so far the only book I’ve read that reflects my experience with mental health stigma as a prospective adoptive parent. Some highlights from his review:

First things first: the writing is astonishing. Not really a surprise from an award winning writer, but still. It deserves to be said, as poetry and prose are two kinds of animals. Ms Reiter does an amazing job at describing the era, the early 1990s, the locales, mainly Manhattan, the politics of the Clinton and Giuliani era (seems history has a way of repeating itself…), and the fashion and publishing industry of the time. The characters become alive almost instantly, and I got to follow along the path of Julian Selkirk, the ‘hero’ of the story, as he tries to build a career for himself as a fashion photographer in New York. Work, life, sex, love, death. It’s all there, deliciously described…

…Without going into details about the plot, the two main romantic or love interests of Julian, Peter and Phil are painted in equally realistic colors. Both men flawed, but lovable. No, this is no romance novel, despite the romantic thread that permeates the pages. In fact, the mere mention of “open relationship” might send some readers of such novels screaming for the nearest therapy couch. Yet it is exactly the honesty, the unbridled truth told in Two Natures that makes this book so amazing. In fact, for all I know, Julian Selkirk is just a pseudonym for a real gay man living in New York in his mid-forties, married, no kids. I am deeply indebted to Ms Reiter for writing “our” story, the story of gay men growing of age in the nineties so honestly, so candidly.

As painful as it may be to remember some aspects of it, as hopeful is the picture she skillfully paints, and as we leave Julian on the floor of GalaxyCon, there is hope for the future. And as we all know, that hope has largely been fulfilled in the twenty years since, albeit loads of work still remains. Two Natures is an exquisite work of art, beautiful literary writing that enriches the LGBT section of any book store and Kindle, and it adds a beautiful facet to the mosaic of LGBT life past.

Who knows, perhaps writing can change reality, after all? Readers, if you see Julian walking around New York sometime, give him a big kiss from me. He saved my life.

“Taking Down the Pear Tree” Wins New Letters Prize for Fiction

It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!

In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.


          Taking Down the Pear Tree


You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.

Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.

Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.


It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.

After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.

You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.

All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.


There is a room that is blue and green.

There is a room whose door is always closed.


You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.


It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.

You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.

You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.

You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.



Today My Dreams Come True







Two Natures release date today from Saddle Road Press!

All my life, I dreamed of being a storyteller. Fictional characters were my closest companions in my solitary and sensitive childhood. Their worlds seemed almost tangible, coexisting in another dimension alongside my random meatspace life, separated from me by an imperceptible barrier I yearned to break. To create such a world, and make it real enough to invite others in, would be as close as I could come to working magic. In a way, that was my first religion.

Ten years ago I felt gifted by the Holy Spirit to start writing fiction. At a Christian writing conference at Calvin College, my literary hero Walter Wangerin Jr. spoke the prophetic words that your book doesn’t have to be perfect. He said that an inspired book simply speaks from the heart about authentic experience, and through that recognition of one’s self in another, brings order out of the chaos of the reader’s emotions, refreshing the reader like the bread that the ravens brought to the exhausted Elijah in the wilderness. These words of grace set me free to attempt something beyond my skill level or maturity at that moment, a vocation that I would grow into, with the Spirit’s help.

Thus was Julian born.

Eight years ago I lay on my writing couch, sobbing my heart out. I thought the God of the Bible was requiring me to give Julian up, and with him, the part of myself I loved most. My Christian support system had fallen apart because the book I was writing had turned out to be incorrigibly gay. The mentor who’d brought me to that conference warned me that “writing about sodomy doesn’t honor God.” I had repeatedly tried and failed to force my shapeless manuscript’s story arc into the narrative of sexual sin and redemption that I believed necessary to make it a “Christian” book.  Meanwhile, unethical psychologists in our adoption process had half-convinced me that my imagination itself was broken and corrupt, and that my subconscious, as exposed in my writing, could only betray how unfit I was for human relationships. “Julian,” I said to him, because I had always felt his presence like an invisible friend, “whatever happens, no moment I spent with you has ever been wasted.”

Like Huck Finn declaring “All right then, I’ll go to hell”, I scrapped that draft, let Julian be the narrator he’d always wanted to be, and wrote a story called “Two Natures”. In this prequel to the eventual novel by the same name, 12-year-old Julian identifies with his beloved uncle who is dying of AIDS, although he believes he’ll be punished for his sexuality in the afterlife, if not sooner. The story was published in American Fiction, a journal from New Rivers Press. I’ll be making it available in a newsletter giveaway soon.

Over the next three insane years, I wrote two prizewinning poetry chapbooks and some short stories, failed to adopt twin boys, came out to myself as a child abuse survivor, went no-contact with my bio mother, celebrated when my mom-of-choice escaped domestic violence, and through it all, kept plugging away at Two Natures. I wrote the ending in 2010, didn’t realize it, and spun out another 100 pages of demoralizing crap. Something I’ve just learned about being a survivor is that we may internalize a self-image of being fated to fail. When I hit setbacks in my writing, I panicked that I was too PTSD-damaged to complete a project, or that God had withdrawn the mandate of heaven because of my disobedience, like King Saul.

Four years ago I adopted the Young Master, who is beautiful, joyful, and filled with the life force. As an un-traumatized human being in his natural state, he is free of the baggage of shame and spirit-flesh division I acquired from my family and religion. I couldn’t see him as broken by “original sin” or imagine loving him less if he turned out gay, bi, or transgender. To be a better parent, I got serious about recovery and found a trauma specialist who’s helping me root out false beliefs about my unworthiness and God’s wrath. Those toxic religious doctrines only got under my skin in the first place because they mapped to the twisted idea of love that was familiar from my upbringing.

Parenting a “real-life” child taught me to let Julian be Julian, not force him into my increasingly incoherent religious agenda. I would follow where he led. If I couldn’t make a worldview plausible in the novel, I probably didn’t really believe it, no matter how many theological arguments I could win. And that naughty fellow led me right out of traditional Christianity, with its central image of suffering transferred from the guilty to the innocent.

Eighteen months ago I finished The Endless Novel, with tremendous help and encouragement from my friends who were beta readers, and my husband who has never been fazed by my many strange identities. Since literary contests are my area of expertise, I started submitting there. That direction wasn’t fruitful, but my online friend Ruth Thompson (a wonderful poet) mentioned that her press was looking for literary fiction manuscripts.

On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, Ruth gave me the wonderful news that Saddle Road Press had accepted Two Natures. She and Don Mitchell at SRP have been the best publishers anyone could ask for. They’re responsive and financially transparent, design gorgeous books, and can always make me laugh. Thanks, you two. Now everyone please go buy their books and support the press!

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

Today my dreams come true.

Perseverance is more than endurance. It is endurance combined with absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen. Perseverance means more than just hanging on, which may be only exposing our fear of letting go and falling. Perseverance is our supreme effort of refusing to believe that our hero is going to be conquered. Our greatest fear is not that we will be damned, but that somehow Jesus Christ will be defeated. Also, our fear is that the very things our Lord stood for— love, justice, forgiveness, and kindness among men— will not win out in the end and will represent an unattainable goal for us. Then there is the call to spiritual perseverance. A call not to hang on and do nothing, but to work deliberately, knowing with certainty that God will never be defeated. (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

“Two Natures” Book Trailer, E-book Sale, New Reviews

Romantic suspense author Zara West (Beneath the Skin) created this stylish book trailer for Two Natures using my storyboard, stock photos, and public domain archival photos from the New York Public Library.

Now through September 28, the e-book of Two Natures is on sale on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks for 99 cents! Julian may never be this cheap again…unless you’re a cute boy and buy him another rum and Coke…

I appreciated this insightful review from Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, “Two Natures explores sexuality and spirituality during AIDS crisis” Art That Dares, Cherry’s book of feminist and LGBT-themed religious art, helped me envision a God who could accept Julian and me. She writes:

The dense and varied literary coming-of-age novel ranges from comic scenes that could easily become a hit movie to the explicitly sexual and the touchingly tragic. Reiter brings alive LGBTQ touchstones of the era: the visit from out-of-town and out-of-it parents to their closeted son, the AIDS death and awkward funeral, and so on…

…As art historian, I especially enjoyed the way that some of Julian’s spiritual reflections were provoked by art. For instance, Julian’s inner spiritual conflict is portrayed at first through his responses to “Piss Christ,” a controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

The novel is also significant as an example of how a new generation tries to make sense of an AIDS crisis that they were too young to experience firsthand. I happened to read “Two Natures” at the same time that I was rereading my own journals for an oral history interview about doing AIDS ministry at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco in the late 1980s. Perhaps no novel can capture the agony, ecstasy and desperate intensity of those times.

Julian never found the kind of LGBTQ-affirming church home that we provided at MCC-SF. Sadly that may be true for many young gay men in the early 1990s, and even now. But there’s good news: Reiter is already working on a sequel. Julian will have another chance to find long-term love and a gay-positive spiritual community, with readers invited along for the ride.

And here’s my latest Goodreads review from T Christopher:

A marvelous book. I enjoyed Julian’s story so much and found it very relatable. There were so many beautiful, little surprises (“Spring Chicken Perfume”) and a great many laugh out loud moments. It brought up a lot of memories for me—young men who had to shoulder more responsibility and grief than was reasonable for their years, and too many who never got to grow up and old. Too many losses. I really appreciate the characterization of Julian—so on the ball in so many ways, and yet so readily apt to drop it. Very realistic.

Reiter is a marvelous writer and this is a rich, wonderful, and heartbreaking, story. I enjoyed reading it very much.

Book Reader Magazine, an e-book promotion site in the Awesomegang affiliate network, ran a brief interview with me this month.

Save the date: My book launch reading will take place on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM, at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division bookstore in the LGBT Center, 208 W. 13th Street, New York City. I’m honored to share the stage with Charlie Bondhus, winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. See the event listing in Gay City News. RSVP on Facebook.

September Links Roundup: Could This Be Magic

Apologies for another long blog hiatus due to book promotion, practicing witchcraft, and reading the picture book Construction Trucks twice a day to the Young Master. (I highly recommend this one, by the way: very informative, with illustrations of multi-ethnic male and female workers. Bet you didn’t know how cement gets to the top of a skyscraper.)

A high blood pressure scare this summer motivated me to rethink my expectations and self-image with respect to health. I wondered, what if I set my sights on true wellness, instead of settling for functioning on top of a constant feeling of fatigue and fragility?

I remain deeply conflicted about how much to have faith in this vision. I have enough friends with PTSD and chronic illness, not to mention the brilliant disability activists I read online, to know that positive thinking can’t wish away every limitation. Our idea of “wellness” is partly constructed by a society with unforgiving norms about bodies and productivity. On the other hand, I’m well aware of my learned helplessness as a trauma survivor and the health toll of a habitually over-activated nervous system that hasn’t learned that the danger is past. As the bumper sticker says, I don’t have to believe everything I think.

A friend sent me Louise Hay’s self-help book You Can Heal Your Life, which gave them great hope during a low point in their recurring health problems. I achieved some stress reduction through her mantras; “I trust in the process of life” was an appealing re-framing of prayer because I’m going through a phase of mistrusting anthropomorphic god/parent figures. However, I found her wider philosophy kind of crazy-making for my personal trauma recovery.

Hay is also a child abuse survivor, and like some other spiritual teachers with this background, e.g. Teal Swan, she has coped by believing that we attract all our negative experiences–either in order to grow spiritually, or because we had the wrong beliefs. This feels to me like a flight from the painful truth of being powerless at our parents’ hands. It also elides the political dimension of trauma, an analysis that has empowered me more than any mantra. I prefer Alice Miller’s advice that our psychosomatic illnesses will clear up when we listen to the child inside. Hay overstates the case by framing all misfortune–medical, financial, relational–as an individual psychosomatic symptom.

I got a reality check from this 2010 article from Tikkun Magazine, reprinted on the blog Common Sense Religion. Be Scofield’s “When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion: How ‘The Secret’ and Law of Attraction Poison Spirituality” skeptically examines the historical lineage of the positive thinking movement, from 19th-century opponents of Calvinism through Christian Science to today’s Oprah Winfrey Show celebrities. These movements always run the risk of becoming cultish and neurotic because there’s no process for recognizing factors outside an individual’s control (boldface emphasis mine):

While there are no claims of virgin births or bodily resurrections made by the new prophets of positive thinking they do preach many miraculous and magical ideas. And the law of attraction’s most prominent promoters borrow tactics from the play book of Christian fundamentalism, ones that are found in any group based on psychological totalism. Like other religions the law of attraction (as it is taught) promises salvation from the difficulties, anxieties and tensions of everyday life. Charismatic leaders viewed as Godlike shout the gospel in auditoriums and halls instead of churches, practitioners meet in small groups comparable to Bible study and devotees believe they have discovered a revelatory truth. The storyline of many of these new prophets is that they were once lost but are now saved.

The law of attraction is actually the perfect example of a postmodern salvation. It is individualistic (no community needed, one person’s thoughts run the world); narcissistic (the universe will supply ME with anything I ask for); focused on immediate gratification (its central teaching is to “feel good now”); materialistic (strongly emphasizes achieving money and wealth); detached from structural reality (lacks an awareness of political/social/cultural systems) and is hypocritical (claims to be free from religious dogma when it is actually reproducing it). Just like Christianity created a religion about Jesus which most often disregards the teachings ofJesus, a religion has been created about positive thinking while distorting its real meaning.

Many Christians believe that Jesus is the answer for everything. All you need to do is accept him as your savior and pray when in need. When Jesus (the invisible, magical and wish granting friend) doesn’t answer a prayer the error can never be with the doctrine or dogma but rather it resides in the individual who doesn’t have enough faith or hasn’t prayed hard enough. This aspect is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the history of positive thinking because as the new thought pioneers in the late 19th century broke away from the harsh Calvinism of the day they kept its most central element: incessant and obsessive self-monitoring of the internal landscape. Both the conservative Christian and law of attraction devotee must continually purge themselves searching for either sin or negative thinking. But rest assured both are not allowed to question the doctrine or dogma because this is just more evidence of their own shortcomings. Once the idea that the doctrine is perfect, flawless and divine has been planted the believer has only one place to examine and deconstruct when something goes wrong: his or her own mind and soul. Critical thinking in both cases is portrayed as dangerous and harmful.

The same conflict causes me to waver in my commitment to my new spiritual path, which is turning out to be a combination of Tarot, spell-casting, and some vestiges of folk Christianity (saints, hymns, the Holy Spirit). In both liberal and conservative churches, I used to shield myself from the weakness of my faith through intense engagement with theology. My current practice is intuitive and charismatic–not in the sense of speaking in tongues, but in expecting effects from my invocation of spiritual forces. I have to conceive of prayers (which is what spells are) as making changes in this world, not merely as a psychological trick to make myself feel better.

Some of my new role models for responsible magic are the bloggers Clementine Morrigan and Maranda Elizabeth. They’re both queer, disabled, survivor witches who use Tarot and creative rituals to re-center themselves in their life stories. Morrigan’s seawitch ‘zines are affordable ($3 US & Canada, $4 elsewhere) and filled with experimental essays, poems, and collages placing ripped-out phrases from psychiatric reports into a ritual context. Magic serves as critique of a mental health system with no room for non-normative bodies or spiritual modes of healing. In her recent post “Theory, Magic, More-Than-Human Worlds, and the Arts”, she reflects on a summer writing conference and the difficulty of translating her sources of inspiration into academia’s approved ways of knowing:

From a theoretical standpoint I am interested in how the more-than-human world can be a source of relationship, solidarity, and strength, in the face of trauma and violence. My lived experience as a survivor of child abuse has shown me that the more-than-human world can be sustaining. My relationship with trees, birds, and landscapes are what allowed me to survive. These relationships, which continue to be central to my recovery and growth, are difficult for me to articulate. These relationships were never linguistic and they were not relationships I spoke about with others. The safety I felt in the presence of trees was a private wonder, one which I now long to express.

As a writer and artist I am interested in how the arts can create space in which to speak trauma, in ways which traditional discourses do not allow. Because the violence I experienced happened within the family, within the home, as so much violence does, and because this violence existed in the double-reality of simultaneously being true and untrue, as so much violence does, and because the body experiences violence in nonlinguistic ways, I have found that mainstream discourses of trauma fail in expressing the complex embodied realities of trauma. The arts have opened up space for me to express aspects of trauma which I have been unable to express in any other way. The arts have also offered me the work of other trauma survivors which are instrumental in the process of my own healing…

… As much as I feared bring my creative practice into conversation with academic work, I feared bringing my spiritual practice into the conversation even more. Again and again, in subtle and overt ways, spiritual ways of knowing are dismissed and laughed at within academic writing. Each time I read theory which quickly and without engagement dismisses spiritual ways of knowing, I feel discouraged from being honest within my academic work. My creative practice and my magical practice bleed into each other. They both involve ritual, pause, noticing, intuition, and awareness of the connectedness of things. Writing poetry, filming plants, planting a pollinator garden and noticing bees, each of these practices returned me to my magic. This return opened up a deep space of sadness and longing. I began to feel deeply ambivalent about my academic work. I use language like ‘more-than-human relationships’ but I am not honest about the spiritual nature of these relationships. My creative work this summer resulted in a crisis of faith, not in magic, but in academia. I began to wonder if I could exist within academia if I could not be honest about the role that witchcraft plays in my experience of the world, and in my knowledge production. This resulted in the writing of a paper titled “Can Theory Be a Spell?” in which I unpack the importance of spirituality in my life, as a survivor of violence and sober alcoholic, and take the first steps toward bringing my magic into conversation with my theory.

Buy “Can Theory Be a Spell?” as a ‘zine for $3 here.

Maranda Elizabeth offers online Tarot readings “for weirdos, queerdos, misfits, & outcasts!” Her series “Exploring Trauma, Madness, Chronic Illness, & Disability with Tarot” meditates on selected cards with an emphasis on their significance for these issues. She wants us to discover the elders or role models in our “lineage” as mad people–a provocative question, since I’ve always thought of my family’s mental health history as a curse or a burden. My biological mother owned several popular books on magic (I suppose everyone did in the 1970s, but still…), used to brag that she had psychic powers to know what I was thinking (it usually wasn’t good), and was somewhat proud when my aunt pointed out her resemblance to the Wicked Witch during our annual viewings of The Wizard of Oz. Embracing my magic potential scares me because she didn’t use her powers for good. Some part of me would rather have no power than risk being connected to her this way.

Not coincidentally, this year I’ve been binge-watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix. This fantasy-melodrama features fairy-tale characters trying to change their fates in the modern world. I wouldn’t say it has a consistent theology, but it tackles the great questions of religion: Do people have free will to choose good or evil, or are they predestined by the Author or their own intergenerational trauma? Is anyone completely good or bad? Does magic always come with a price that’s too high?

By the end of the first season, supernatural events convince the skeptical characters that their enchanted cosmos is not a delusion. The town psychologist is bumbling and ethically compromised (and also doesn’t remember that he’s really a cricket) so no one makes a strong sanity-saving case against magical thinking. So far, no villains have tried, cult-leader style, to make people believe in fake magic as a smokescreen for real abuses of power.

In the world I live in, belief in magic is riskier than that. And under “magic” I include the Law of Attraction and other New Age philosophies that attribute practical power to your intentions, as well as Christian prayers and rituals. I return as always to the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” The wisdom is the kicker. In my abusive family of origin, I was groomed to fix adult problems that I actually had no power or duty to change, while having to resign myself to unnecessary physical pain and fear. So every time I light a candle to ask St. Dymphna or Ursula the Sea Witch for protection, I wonder, “Is this just my child self escaping into a fantasy world, avoiding the knowledge of my helplessness?”

Perhaps the conclusion of that Tikkun article can offer some guidelines. The author asks “What is a healthy spirituality?”

…[A]ny holistic system of spiritual or psychological development and transformation embraces the shadow. The law of attraction’s incessant avoidance of all things “bad” and obsession with feeling happy all of the time is what leads to narcissism and a dangerous denial of reality. A much more healthy but difficult approach is to learn to be present with what is arising in your awareness whether it is feelings of sadness and anger or joy and happiness. There is very little depth to a spirituality that is based on a superficial and shallow attempt to be happy all the time, but yet this depth is crucial for true growth. When devotees of the law of attraction are unable to be perfectly happy it is easy for them to blame themselves for failing to apply the law properly, thus doubling the pain or sadness…

…[I]f a spiritual tradition makes cosmological and metaphysical claims about the universe it needs to be done in the context of the reality of immense structural inequality, oppression and injustice. We can ask, can this idea about the nature of existence hold up in the face of racism, Imperialism and war? Or does the idea simply justify the dominant powers that be by empowering them to believe the divine or cosmic order of the universe is on their side? These are just a few of many elements that can be described as part of a spiritual system that is ethically sound and responsible.

Come to think of it, the characters in “Once Upon a Time” do sort themselves into reality-based or denial-based worldviews. Belief in magic is not the dividing line. Rather, it’s the kind of magic they practice. Good magic is powered by true love; takes moral responsibility for using power; sometimes requires sacrifice; is merciful even to wrongdoers; doesn’t trample on others’ free will; and is used for the benefit of others as well as one’s self. Bad magic tries to acquire love through control and deception; is frequently focused on revenge, blaming everyone but one’s self for bad outcomes; benefits at others’ expense; can be defeated by true love; and if practiced by women, causes them to expose more cleavage. (Hey, I never said the show was immune from sexism.) While practitioners of both types of magic may feel trapped by intergenerational trauma, the bad magicians use it as an excuse to repeat their forebears’ misdeeds, while the good ones say, “The buck stops here,” even if they have to give up something they really want.

In other words, the power of magic–the power of intention, desire, and belief–is like any other power. Delusional, selfish people wield it badly, and self-aware, empathetic people wield it as well as possible (though not perfectly). I can’t protect myself from all possible harms or errors by refusing to commit to anything. I guess I’m an existentialist witch.

Image result for regina once upon a time images

Regina the (reformed?) Evil Queen from “Once Upon a Time”.  (Source)