April Bonus Links: A Rainbow of Eyes

More and gayer links that didn’t fit in the last post!

Janelle Shane’s adventures in AI learning are always good for a laugh. She trains neural networks to generate plausible new members of a data set, such as paint colors or rock band names. If you thought real pick-up lines were pretty terrible, computers are even more clueless. “Your eyes are like two rainbows and a rainbow of eyes” shows a shaky grasp of human anatomy, and I’m not even sure what this kink is about: “Will you sit on my breadbox while I cook or is there some kind of speed limit on that thing?” Although I would definitely swipe right on “You’re looking good today. Want snacks?”

When I was a romantic young girl, I dreamed of the day when I would wear a Jessica McClintock wedding dress. Though the word “calico” now gives me flashbacks, I had a sweet pang of nostalgia when I read the designer’s obit in the New York Times daily briefing email. “Jessica McClintock dressed generations of women in calico, lace and beribboned pastiches known as granny dresses. Her clients included Vanna White and a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham for her 1975 wedding to Bill Clinton. McClintock died at 90.”

Last month I attended an online book launch for the new edition of lesbian photographer Joan E. Biren’s (JEB) Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, a groundbreaking work of photojournalism from 1979. Local archivist Debbie Richards posted many historical background links in the chat, including this 2015 profile of JEB in the photography magazine Aperture, “Sophie Hackett on Queer Looking”. At the book launch, I was struck by JEB’s reworking of the language around the photographer-subject relationship. Rather than the dominant phrasing of “shoot” or “capture”, she envisioned an equilateral triangle of relations among the photographer, her muse, and the viewer. The Aperture article discusses this paradigm shift, as well as JEB’s way of reading archival photos for queer subtext.

A lot of us picked up interesting hobbies during the pandemic. Music journalist Moritz Weber decided to re-translate Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin’s letters, and concluded that the Polish hero had been straightwashed, according to this article in the Irish Times:

Frédéric Chopin’s archivists and biographers have for centuries turned a deliberate blind eye to the composer’s homoerotic letters in order to make the Polish national icon conform to conservative norms, it has been alleged.

Chopin’s Men, a two-hour radio programme that aired on Swiss public broadcaster SRF’s arts channel, argues that the composer’s letters have been at times deliberately mistranslated, rumours of affairs with women exaggerated, and hints at an apparent interest in “cottaging”, or looking for sexual partners in public toilets, simply ignored…

…In an 1829 letter to Tytus Woyciechowski cited on the programme, Chopin refers to “my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, […] about whom I dream”, and who inspired an adagio in his recent concerto. Weber argues that the context of the letter makes it clear that this “ideal” is the letter’s addressee himself.

Yet a translation of Chopin’s letters published in 2016 by Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute assigns the “ideal” in the letter a feminine pronoun (“not having spoken to her for half a year now”) even though the Polish noun is masculine.

Them Magazine’s photo feature by Amanda Chemeche on “8 Drag Kings You Need to Know” made me want to whip out my eyeliner pencil and draw a mustache on myself.

Pokémon’s hapless but endearing villains, Jessie and James of Team Rocket, are queer icons for their flamboyant hair and dramatic voices. But did you know that their Bronx-accented feline sidekick, Meowth, was voiced by trans actress Maddie Blaustein? David Levesley tells “The Inspiring Story of the Trans Actress Behind Your Favorite Pokémon” in Them Magazine.

In a eulogy written after Blaustein’s death in 2008, Aaron McQuade, a friend of Maddie’s, claimed that her decision to transition and come out to her co-workers was inspired by an episode of Pokémon. In “Go West, Young Meowth,” we learn the story of how Meowth learned to speak like a human: He fell in love with another Meowth, and decided to learn English and to stand upright to impress her. It failed horribly, and the female Meowth called him a freak. “Meowth,” explained McQuade, “was a human trapped in a Pokémon’s body.”

Image

James, is that a Jessica McClintock gown?

 

 

April Links Roundup: Making and Unmaking

Happy Spring! Six weeks into my program as a first-year student of the Temple of Witchcraft, I have communed with several trees, learned a lot about my inner struggle over manifesting my power, but so far failed to establish a meditation practice before the end of April. The Temple’s founder and head minister is Christopher Penczak, author of such books as Gay Witchcraft. It’s early yet, but I may have found my ideal path (for the time being): a tradition that combines the sensory paraphernalia and rich imaginative world of Christianity with the empiricism, practical skills focus, and interfaith coexistence that I admire about my husband’s Buddhist practice. Penczak discusses the Temple’s rigorous but non-dogmatic approach to occultism in his essay “The Path of Making and Unmaking”:

Part of the world of the occultist is the continual evaluation, revaluation, and refinement of our ideas based upon our experience. We see Witchcraft as an art, with creative expression, as well as a religion that builds relationships with the gods, land, and people, but to the occultist, it is a science. Having too strong of an attachment to a belief system or identity, including that of the Witch, can hinder evolution. We obviously need words, ideas, and images to communicate, but as one enters the mystical realm more deeply and encounters direct experiences of consciousness and the spirit, one often opens up to greater possibilities and broader definitions of self and others, including the identity of the world “Witch” itself…

…Occult teachings will often break you down, unravelling the pattern for you to see the parts. We seek not only what is behind the masks of the gods, but behind the many layers of our own masks, to find the god within. Our heads are cracked open to new possibilities of the universe and the self. Our own image of ourselves and how the world works often changes. Our hearts are cracked open, and our wounds from childhood and adulthood are exposed to be examined and healed. And for some, even our bodies are cracked open as we become teachers through illness and injury, through pain and pleasure, and we explore the link between thought, feeling, and health. Mystery schools offer a path of purification, of unmaking, returning you to a place of potential.

Ever wondered why the Torah talks so much about curtain rings? In the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, English professor Raphael Magarik muses on the detailed re-description of the Ark of the Covenant in “Exodus: Vayakhel”. He suggests that the repetition is meant to de-mystify the sacred object so it doesn’t become another idol like the Golden Calf. “…The traveling sanctuary itself is built on a shaky foundation; it is constructed only to be deconstructed, its repeated relocation a cycle of sanctifying and secularizing space, bewitching and disenchanting.” Magarik urges us to embrace a similar paradox in our return to post-Trump, post-COVID “normalcy”, to celebrate without letting the rituals of our civic religion lull us into ignoring injustice once again.

Dr. Eleanor Janega’s hilarious and informative blog, Going Medieval, is aptly subtitled “Medieval history, pop culture, swearing”. In her recent post “There are no white knights”, she deconstructs the ideal of “chivalry” that modern-day conservatives tout as preferable to feminism. Like cops today, medieval knights were more likely to beat up the poor than rescue women from rapists.

In general, licit violence is made licit in order to protect the power of an entrenched class, and whether that is rich white dudes in the medieval period or rich white dudes now doesn’t make much of a difference. In other words, you are only given the power to beat people up if you beat up who the rich guys want, then as now.

Much as gallant knights were much more likely to inhabit fictitious worlds, the good cops we are meant to understand are out there are the preserve of shows like Law and Order: SVU. That isn’t something real. No one is coming to help you if you are not from the ruling class. Don’t let that scare you. Let it spur you to make the world differently.

In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a reform bill that would end re-imprisonment for merely technical violations of parole, including addiction relapses. Get on the Real Cost of Prisons Project email list for updates. The wisdom of this approach is laid out in the USA Today story “Community supervision, once intended to help offenders, contributes more to mass incarceration”. (The cynic in me balks at “intended to help” but so be it.)

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail system was Raymond Rivera — a 55-year-old father and husband who lost his life in April. The “offense” that ultimately resulted in a death sentence for Rivera? Leaving a drug program without permission — a minor technical violation of the parole he was on for stealing a motorcycle cover and some bicycles.

There’s a common misconception that probation and parole — sometimes called community supervision — are more lenient alternatives to incarceration. But justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations like the one that resulted in Rivera’s incarceration and, ultimately, death…

Rivera was hardly alone. Almost 25% of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical supervision violation, rather than a new offense…

In 2017 alone, U.S. taxpayers spent $2.8 billion on the people who entered prison for a technical violation. It would clearly be a much greater boon to wellness and safety if scarce resources were used to address the housing, education, health and employment needs of those under supervision, rather than disrupting people’s lives, families and communities through unnecessary incarceration.

I enjoyed Randy Rainbow’s parody song videos and other satire of the Trump years, in moderation, but I didn’t delude myself that it made a real difference to the advance of fascism. I was raised by a narcissist, so I know that all attention feeds the beast. At the Yale University Press blog, social anthropologist Mark Leopold analyzes the deliberate buffoonery of dictators Idi Amin and Donald Trump. Playing the outrageous windbag entertains supporters, causes opponents to underestimate the leader’s power and intelligence, and distracts the news cycle from his more serious and dangerous actions.

Behind all this is clearly what Freud recognized as the aggressive nature of joking. I suggest that buffoonery is, at root, a quintessentially masculine characteristic. In my experience, very few women are ever called buffoons. The jokes of a buffoon carry the stale reek of an all-male atmosphere—the barrack room in Amin’s case, perhaps the golfers’ locker room  or boys’ boarding school classroom for others… [A]n open, even boastful sexual promiscuity is another part of the package.

Don’t feed the trolls.

Two Poems from Joshua Michael Stewart’s “Break Every String”

Western Massachusetts poet Joshua Michael Stewart came to my attention through Straw Dog Writers Guild, where he’s a popular frequent reader at open mics and literary events. (Take advantage of the Zoom era and drop in on their upcoming readings!) As a Buddhist, Joshua is modest about his literary reputation, but I, for one, want him to be famous, because the guy has a helluva voice.

I recently finished his 2016 collection from Levellers Press, Break Every String. This lyrical autobiography is a blues song for the dead-end economy of Midwestern towns and the family wreckage they harbor. His characters crackle with energy that could find its outlet in verses or fists, parenting your own children or stealing someone else’s, a guitar or a bottle. Stewart writes of his teen years: “I was nabbed for keeping up the family business–shoving merchandise down my pants.” As the one who escaped, Stewart plays through all the octaves of emotion, from gratitude to judgmental pride, to survivor guilt, to wary compassion: “of loving/the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.”

Several poems are titled “After Ohio”, each beginning with an excerpt from a letter from his mother, who is usually updating him on his ex-con brother’s bumpy road in and out of sobriety. In one of these pieces, Stewart begins, with his characteristic deadpan humor: “When scoring a revolver from a guy/who lives out of his car, you don’t plan/much of anything else for that day.” The poem recounts how he wandered into a bookstore and bought a book of poetry when the guy didn’t show up. The tipping point between his fate and his brother’s could be just that random and precarious. I found myself thinking of the ending of the film Angels with Dirty Faces: “let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Joshua has kindly given me permission to reprint the poems below. He’s just finished a new manuscript–I hope it gets published soon!

NEVER ASK WHAT’S UNDER THE BED

Your grandfather once shot a man,
my mother says over pea soup on the porch—
chucked his sorry ass down a well,
kept the man’s false teeth as a souvenir.
Take that to your fancy school
for when you forget who you are.
The jobs have ditched town, and the freight
trains are gone—no longer rattling
windows, shaking nails from rotten studs.
The house shivers on its own.
We move out to the yard, squat down
on five-gallon buckets and scavenge fallen
pears among dandelions and bluegrass,
my favorite AC/DC T-shirt and my woodshop award
stuffed in a cardboard suitcase at my feet.
My generation, we didn’t have learning
disabilities, we just drank homebrew,
and threw knives at each other.
Sweetness drips off her chin,
her mouth a honeycomb of bees.

****

MOTHER, THESE AREN’T YOUR FLOWERS

I thrust open a stubborn window,
causing a book to plop on its side,
slide off the shelf and, washed over

by a wave of other books, crash
into a rose-filled vase that smacks
on the hardwood floor.

What follows is silence, the split
second after a mother slaps
her child. I’ll let the water search

the valleys of the room, finger
the petal-thorns and prism-shards.
This isn’t your carpet ruined

by spilt paint. You will not lean
in the doorway smelling of strawberries
and righteousness. No wailing

or pleading here, only the quiet
twinge of panic ingrained
by the memory of your nearness.

The Poet Spiel: “a suite of dirty pictures”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a visual artist Tom Taylor, is a longtime reader and occasional contributor to this blog. He asked me if these poems were too steamy for Reiter’s Block, but there’s no such thing! In this poem sequence, a gay man watching porn has an artist’s eye for the complex shadings of emotion in acts that are both intimate and mechanically mediated, painful and pleasurable, filthy yet strangely beautiful. As bodies violently strain to close the gap between self and other, the viewer straddles the line between obscenity and transcendence. And cums all over it.

The Poet Spiel and his life partner, Paul Welch

 

 

a suite of dirty pictures

seventeen seconds

as if to break his own neck,
the subjugated throws his head back,

utters an odd range of lamentations
expressing dire suffering

at each snap of the narrow strap,
more reverent than his moans.

hooked once more by this 17-second litany
panning flesh, compromised in stress,

no doubt pre-agreed to inflict the ecstasy of pain,
but when looped,

this sequence of harsh snaps and abrupt groans
becomes other than directed;

rather a familiar insistence —
like an old hymn lulling you

til you are lured to draw yourself to closure
into soft tissue.

__________

white smoke

two taut dudes
in possession of one and the other’s face
by squalls —
like dying fauns —
while that dark duo
of more substantial steamy feathered beasts
barks out harsh commands
and their prides, be-sheathed in latex skin,
come to resemble white smoke
just as they begin to burst
as turgid mounts,
now cease fire,
re-loop,
so returns
this pair of fauns
faces engaged, one micro instant
between the smoke and squall.

you relight your hands,
hot enough
to ignite your
otherwise compromised
spoil.

_____________

hard pressed

hard copy is not an option here;
no quickstop key to press then print
just eight-fleeting-seconds
of this rapidpoundingcocksucker.

his eyes with the inestimable insouciance
of fine crystal glistening
at table several hours before
you would be allowed to partake
of his admirably boned dish.

so you refuse to celebrate yourself
until you are able to regain your conscious mind,
some many dozens of re-plays later
when at last you are convinced

he

gazes

directly

at

you.

_____________

war of pearls

as qwik as a want,
your mouse glides you from coy to desperado;
your hands hostage to a war by casual treaty
declared within this spartan triad
harboring ransom never to be paid
but relentlessly antagonized.

this sequence of howls, indistinguishable
from the sacrifice of salt as real booty
beneath the drawing down of fetters —
as if little more than weekend anarchy
where the only courtesy might be
that all three come out alive.

but this is not your concern for now,
you too are subject to the strictures
as you form a fist jouncing madly in succession
to the flow of what you’ve come to rely upon.

the glistening of the jugular,
the snapping of the glands,
repeated incantations
oh so tautly veined like orchid whipsnakes unraveling
upon a fevered yowling emitted of flesh fresh bared,
committed to this driven theater that will never end.

at last, in sudden silence you sacrifice your will,
you loose the grip between your teeth
and as your walls submerge your windows,
you baptize your nipples in pearly showers
of hism.

________

urgency

these two
young blooming hides,
rising phoenix,
so hot before your eyes,
rush their capture
between your thighs
as ash becomes sweat —
like viscous rubber
on august asphalt —
these are not two peaches
abrading hair from there
but sizzling it

and no sooner
than you screw
your lotion bottle’s cap off,
the thickness
of your pour
is compromised.

March Bonus Links: Food and Freedom

More links that didn’t fit in the last post!

My prison pen pal, “Conway”, sometimes sends me pictures of the gross food that they serve California’s inmates. It’s mostly starchy, unidentifiable mush slopped together in styrofoam trays. I’ve been spending a few hundred dollars every year sending him and his cellies some more appetizing, though probably not very nutritious, packaged food from the few official vendors that are authorized by the Department of Corrections: jerky sticks, shredded beef in a bag, candy bars. They’re not allowed fresh fruits and vegetables for fear they would ferment them to make alcoholic beverages. I’ve heard horror stories of prisoners being fed spoiled milk and bait fish labeled “not for human consumption”. Diabetics and others with special dietary needs often don’t receive the types of meals that are medically necessary.

Patricia Leigh Brown’s New York Times Op-Ed this week describes “The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” and reports on an innovative prisoner-run farm and kitchen in Maine. The inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility, a medium- and minimum-security prison, are not only eating healthier, but also learning self-care and food-prep skills that will help them re-enter society. Seems like common sense, right?

Though the average American rarely spends time worrying over how incarcerated people are being treated, their physical, psychological and emotional health has a ripple effect on all of us, especially after they serve their time. If the goal of prison involves not only punishment but also rehabilitation and lowering recidivism, then sending a healthier person back into society is in everyone’s interest.

I accidentally subscribed to the e-newsletter from Jewish Currents when I bought their “Zayde mug” for a fellow Bernie Sanders fan, and I’m actually finding it’s a must-read. Jewish Currents is a left-wing politics and culture magazine that combines a strong Jewish identity with fact-based criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government–a third rail among many liberal American Jews, for whom Zionism fills the gap left by traditional belief and Orthodox observance. “How the ADL’s Israel Advocacy Undermines Its Civil Rights Work”, an investigative piece by Jacob Hutt and Alex Kane, explores how the Anti-Defamation League has remained silent on threats to free speech from state and federal measures that silence Palestinian human rights advocacy. This stance also hampers American Jewish leaders from making common cause with groups like Black Lives Matter.

In my continuing quest to learn how to BE A MAN, at the thrift shop I picked up a copy of The Bastard on the Couch, a 2001 essay collection in which two dozen male writers (mostly straight, usually with prestigious publishing histories) shared their feelings of confusion, resentment, and self-deprecating humor about modern changes in gender roles. Essentially they don’t know what to do with themselves now that their wives earn more money and open their own jars. One particularly whiny chap felt emasculated by the fact that his wife makes him a to-do list. I recently came across this graphic narrative, “You should’ve asked,” by feminist cartoonist Emma, which encapsulated why the men’s essays frustrated me so much. The invisible work of being household “project manager” often falls to the female member of a heterosexual couple. Without a conscious effort to resist societal conditioning, they can get into a mutually resentful pattern that is more like overworked mother and immature son than a pairing of equal adults. Luckily, my partnership has not been like this, even when I was female.

Finally, enjoy this cute story that I found on Twitter today, published in Queerty in 2018: “Are Bert and Ernie a couple? We finally have an answer…” In this interview, “Sesame Street” scriptwriter Mark Saltzman says he based the Muppet pair’s relationship on himself and his life partner, the late Arnold Glassman:

Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.

So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?

Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.

March Links Roundup: Unseen on Mulberry Street

It’s March! Spring is coming and links are a-blooming.

It was reported this morning that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that manages the author’s intellectual property, would cease reprinting six of his picture books because of racist illustrations. The best-known of these titles were On Beyond Zebra, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. The AP news article explains:

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

I’m not sure what to think about this decision. A fair number of the classic picture books I’ve read to the Young Master contain incidental images that are offensive. For instance, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (1977) show natural history museum mannequins in Native American garb, and I’m sure many other books show white kids dressing up in feathered headdresses, because that was considered a normal costume. When I read these books aloud (many, many times), I would revise the text to say “Danny saw artifacts stolen from Native peoples” or some such, but that likely went over my son’s head. So I understand the impulse to withhold these types of images altogether from children who are too young to consider them critically.

On the other hand, I wonder whether editing the past also perpetuates racism, by giving children the false impression that literature has always been morally pure–or ever can be. Surely today’s books have other flaws that we haven’t yet recognized. Are we setting kids up to be defensive about their future problematic faves, instead of teaching them from an early age to tolerate moral ambiguity? Every now and then, a well-meaning school bans Huckleberry Finn because it contains the N-word, but it seems more productive to study how an anti-slavery work by a white author can still contain racist stereotypes.

A more clear-cut example of bad educational decisions comes to us from Utah, where trans author Kyle Lukoff’s picture book Call Me Max led to the banning of an entire curriculum that didn’t even include his book. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A Murray [School District] teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.

The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of “Call Me Max” from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity…

…Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.

It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.

For the record, Shane and I enjoyed this picture book very much! Lukoff presented Max and the Talent Show and When Aidan Became a Brother at an online story hour at the BGSQD Bookstore last month and I cried all the way through. Contrary to what the guys on my trans masc Facebook group report, I’m just as weepy as I’ve always been. Must be my Cancer Sun.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up knowing that trans men existed. But it’s never too late to come out. Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head, who premiered in 1952, is going gender-neutral. Bloomberg.com has the mashed-potato scoop:

Starting in the fall, Hasbro will sell Potato Head family kits. They’ll come with two non-gendered “adult” potatoes, one “baby” potato and 42 accessories, according to a spokeswoman. That will let kids decide the parents’ gender, rather than being told they are “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

I haven’t been this vain since I was 10 years old. I found a dozen old photo albums in the basement last year and I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty cute my whole life but I looked very uncomfortable being alive.” Whereas now I will use any excuse to post a picture of myself in suspenders. A.E. Osworth explains why, in this September 2020 article at Catapult: “Taking Thirst Traps to Preserve Myself–and My Transition–in the Middle of the Pandemic”.

In the absence of my meatspace body living in the minds of my people, am I preserving this slice of time to be accessed later? Am I imbuing my early-testosterone body with immortality, marking its existence? Since when did I want my body at all, let alone to make it last for human eternity?

“It feels like a protest against this idea that it’s polite to not find yourself attractive,” my friend A. Andrews says to me over Zoom when I ask them about thirst trapping. A is a writer and a comic artist. They think about the arrival of bodies in digital space quite a lot, usually because they are drawing bodies into existence. A falls into category two—less thirst trapping, more existential crises. But they talk to me about it anyway.

“It’s considered rude or self-involved to think you’re hot,” A says. “This idea that we have to kind of think of ourselves as objectively neutral or below is weird. Thirst traps are a protest against this notion that we should all feel kind of medium about ourselves.”

I consider my adherence to a politeness written upon the hearts of girl-children, the over-emphasis of humble-as-virtue. It is an insurance that anyone with any relationship to girlhood, regardless of gender or outcome, will feel squeamish taking up a reasonable amount of space. Will disparage their own body until they feel less than they are: stunning. Everyone is stunning and I really believe that; everyone, of course, except for me.

Fuck that. I would rather be the Halloween crowd, unshackle myself from the normals. Love myself just a little bit more.

Feast your eyes on this non-gendered “adult” potato.

Poems for All, Big and Small

My online friend Paul Fericano, author of the wonderfully irreverent poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press), has just surprised me with a gift that combines two of my special interests: poetry and miniatures. It’s a subscription to Poems-For-All, a California publisher that creates two-inch-square illustrated books with a single poem inside. My first packet includes 18 delightful tiny volumes by authors such as Alice Notley, Kim Shuck, and Jack Hirschman, plus some self-styled “pointlessly small bookmarks”.

As you can see, these books are popular at Winning Writers HQ.

Lesléa Newman’s “I Wish My Father” Is a Tragicomic Elegy

Shepherding an elderly parent through illness and death is a stark, unglamorous journey that demands clear vision and directness, and (especially if you’re a Jewish New Yorker) a fair amount of gallows humor. These qualities abound in Lesléa Newman’s latest poetry collection, I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021).

Dedicated to Edward Newman (1927-2017), a dapper and hardworking New York attorney, this sequence of narrative poems cycles repeatedly through grief, frustration, and absurd humor, as his adult daughter endeavors to preserve his dignity and safety (not always compatible goals) while his grasp of reality weakens. There’s a certain kind of Jewish couple for whom bickering is a love language. One gets the sense that Newman’s late parents often communicated in this register, which makes her widowed father’s moments of romantic sorrow all the more poignant.

The collection is unified not only by the storyline but also by a formal similarity among the poems. Each poem’s title serves as the first phrase of a sentence that continues as a sequence of three-line stanzas. This device, never obtrusive, reinforces the feeling of sameness that must have burdened her father’s days once his mainstays of work and marriage were torn away. And yet there is change, painfully perceptible to his daughter if not to him.

…He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper

of that terrible last day. Don’t worry,
sweetheart. She cupped my cheek
with her worn, withered hand.

There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.

Now, that puts the “dead” in deadpan humor. Look how deftly the anecdote is saved from sentimentality by an unpredictable bit of very Jewish wisdom that is both optimistic and so pessimistic we can hardly stand it. As Leonard Cohen sang, You want it darker…

Faith is more than a cultural style here, though. Mr. Newman seems largely contented by his delusions–or are they visions?–of mysterious children at his bedside and random dead people from his past. Together they observe Yom Kippur in a nontraditional way that still brings his daughter closer to the mysteries of time, repentance, and forgiveness. And when he is released from his earthly life, she narrates his arrival at her mother’s side in the World to Come, in exactly the same factual voice as the preceding poems.

I appreciate how this book is accessible to readers without a background in poetry, while also revealing depths to an experienced writer and reader. Even the Young Master took an interest when he saw the book cover, asking me “What does that mean? I wish my father what?” I read him the title poem, about Lesléa’s father tallying the events of his life at age 90, and then asked Shane, “What do you think she wishes for her father?” His suggestions:

I wish my father was still alive.
I wish my father had a good life.
I wish my father knows he was the best.

I Wish My Father by Leslea Newman

Click the cover image to be taken to the book purchasing website. Lesléa has kindly permitted me to reprint the poem below.

MY FATHER WAS NEVER

on time once in his entire life.
No, we could always count
on him being a good 20 minutes

early. I remember many a Saturday
night with my dad dressed
to the nines in his sleek black tux

and glittering diamond studs
pacing the hallway from front
door to kitchen to dining room

before ordering me to dash
upstairs and see what was taking
my impossible mother so goddamn

long. I’d find her sitting side saddle
on a stool in a white silk slip
surrounded by crumpled tissues

imprinted with lip prints
of lipstck the color of apples,
clasping a sparkling bracelet

around her wrist, clipping
on a pair of matching earrings
and muttering to herself in the bedroom

mirror. “I know the early bird catches
the worm. But who the hell
wants a goddamn worm?” She’d hand

me a pendant shaped like a tear
to fasten around her neck,
then raise a silver aerosol can

the hairspray hissing like a snake
as she circled her head three times
forcing me to step back from the cloud

that always made me cough. Once
I came home from college
for Thanksgiving and my dad

drove me to the airport for my return
flight on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Somehow my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase

never made it out to the car.
After a ton of yelling and screaming
and carrying on, my father drove

us home and drove us back
to the airport and I was still
an hour early for my flight.

It made me laugh when my father
proudly showed me a note
he received after my mother died:

Dear Mr. Newman,
Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.
You were the first one there.

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

 

© 2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.