On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem with Joshua Corwin

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for Episode #10 of Joshua Corwin’s poetry podcast Assiduous Dust. As Josh does with all his guests, we produced an “On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem”, a format that he invented, which is generated by taking turns sharing phrases from found texts. He’s kindly allowed me to share our freestyle creation below. Check out his new poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable, just out from Baxter Daniels Ink Press. In it he writes about autism, sobriety, Judaism, mysticism, and neuroscience. You can see why we had a lot of common interests to talk about!

 

Two Poems from Joshua Corwin’s “Becoming Vulnerable”

Winning Writers subscriber Joshua Corwin’s debut poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable (Baxter Daniels Ink Press/International Word Bank, 2020), was inspired by his experiences with autism, addiction, sobriety and spirituality. He is a neurodiverse, Pushcart-nominated poet who teaches poetry to neurodiverse individuals and autistic addicts at The Miracle Project, an autism nonprofit. Josh hosts the poetry podcast “Assiduous Dust“, where he interviews award-winning authors and creates on-the-spot collaborative poems with them. Visit his website to learn more. He kindly shares two poems from his new book below.

12:01 AM

I can hear the shine in your eyes
on the other end of the telephone.

When I speak like this,
I feel authentic
and not heavy.

I don’t have to tattoo meaning in the air
to know what you mean.

I remember when you first told me…
apropos of nothing…
about the different levels of charitable donation.

I was sitting right across from you—over there.
(You in that armchair, me in this one: our eyes.)

You said there’s the donor who gives large sums
and puts a placard on the wall, signifying
who it’s from;

and then there’s the other one who gives…
but remains anonymous.

Your words hanging like a phantom,
I didn’t have to be who I thought I was;

you were once me,
once where I was…

In that moment, I knew.

 

[This poem first appeared in Al-Khemia Poetica, September 3, 2019, and was nominated for a  2019 Pushcart Prize.]

****

GRATITUDE AFTER BREAKFAST

I USED       to think that meditation was a hoax,
that enlightenment was for those interred in the ground.

I USED       to think it was impossible to cease thinking.
I secretly believed I knew everything.

I USED       to deem gratitude an unnecessary word.
I hated to stretch my cheekbones into a smile.

I was convinced everyone was a phony.
I USED       to think I was the shit.

I USED       to think I was a piece of shit.
I would be paralyzed by fear for hours.

I would argue with mirrors, threatening to pound my fists.
I USED       to curse the reflection I feared.

I USED       to stay up all night, dancing in sorrow
without consent, my entire body convulsing.

I watched the sun rising sadness and despaired like a mourner.
Outside rising, inside dying.

I USED       to not know if I was lying or telling the truth.
I spent hours wrestling with my god—myself.

 

I wake up in the morning, and I say the sh’ma.
Then I make my bed; wash my hands.

I wake up in the morning, and I walk to the room next door.
Then I sit in a chair; listen for an hour.

I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I feel light as a feather.
Then I make breakfast; smile as I wash my bowl.

I wake up in the morning, and I smile at the man in the mirror.
Then I take a shower; hug my soul.

I wake up in the morning, and I thank God.
I know I’m not Him.

Stay Home, Read Things

Greetings from week one of the pandemic. As I’m a self-employed introvert, the cancellation of everything has only slightly intensified my normal sessile lifestyle, but (like everyone else) I’m too stressed to concentrate on writing my novel. Wish me luck at homeschooling the Young Master.

The next month will be crucial in slowing the spread of the disease. Stay the fuck home, people! Here are some good book recommendations for you to pass the time.

Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (Tin House Books, 2019): My favorite contemporary poet just won the Kingsley Tufts Award for this visionary collection, which pursues sublime self-transcendence through radical honesty about the messiness of the flesh and the addictive ephemera of “the age of spectacle”. Reines can write a deadpan account of the nightly ritual of squeezing pimples and changing tampons, and in the next breath, proclaim “I had an idea of symmetry/Bordering on theology/That dictated I consume/Darkness in proportion/To ‘the world’s'” (a mission statement reminding me Johnny Cash’s vocation to “carry off a little darkness on my back”). This is a book to support you through the apocalypse.

Cynthia Lowen, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (University of Georgia Press, 2013): Elegant and unforgiving as equations, these poems hold us accountable for living in the nuclear age. Persona poems in the voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, reveal self-serving rationalizations and belated remorse, while other poems give voice to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This collection is notable for exposing the emotional logic of scientific imperialism, rather than revisiting familiar scenes of the bomb’s devastating effects.

Rachel Cline, The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019): This slim, incisive, timely novel of the #MeToo Movement explores the long aftermath of a popular teacher’s serial predation on tween girls in a 1970s Brooklyn private school (which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to St. Ann’s, which Rachel and I both attended). Two middle-aged women, once childhood best friends, find themselves on opposite sides of another sexual misconduct case because of the different psychological strategies they employed to cope with their victimization. I’m currently trying to get through the movie “American Beauty” on DVD and feeling disturbed by the high school cheerleader’s confident pursuit of her friend’s sad-sack father, which doesn’t ring true to the complex power dynamics in real-life “Lolita” situations. The Question Authority fearlessly examines the gray areas of consent, understanding that young women routinely overestimate how much choice and objectivity they could really bring to a relationship with an older male mentor.

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): This novel about the last day in the life of a corrupt real estate developer in New Orleans is an insightful, morbidly funny story about how tragic choices reverberate through the generations. One could call it a Jewish version of “The Sopranos” but where that show was cynical and bleak, this book is full of compassion and even a kind of poetic justice at the end. I loved the unusual technique of shifting perspectives suddenly to the thoughts of a minor character in the scene, like the ferryman or the drugstore checkout clerk. It reminded me of the moment in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch where Theo discovers the truth about the contraband he’s been obsessed with protecting–a refreshing turn from the claustrophobia of tragedy, to comedy that humbles and reconnects us to the mass of humanity.

Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, 2020): Journalist, public speaker, and science fiction writer Mikki Kendall’s new essay collection combines personal anecdotes and thoroughly sourced data to argue for a more intersectional feminism. She explains how race and class analysis gets left out of mainstream white feminism, and makes the case for treating issues like gun violence, food insecurity, and educational access as specifically feminist issues. Follow her on Twitter @Karnythia.

Courtney Milan, The Brothers Sinister box set: Four books and three novellas of delightful Victorian romance with a social conscience. Milan’s heroines are suffragettes, scientists, a chess champion and more. Her heroes are the kind of aristocrat who wants to reform factory conditions and give the vote to commoners. The main pairings are all M/F but there are a few queer side characters including two lesbian couples.

Suanne Laqueur, A Charm of Finches (2017): This gay romance novel about male survivors of rape handles brutal material in a responsible, compassionate way, with a hard-earned and believable happy ending (or the beginnings of one) for its wounded characters, and no bullshit about forgiveness. I discovered the first book in this series, An Exaltation of Larks, because it was submitted to our 2019 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published books. We awarded it first prize in the Genre Fiction category! I do recommend reading the books in order because “Finches” gives away all the major plot revelations of the preceding book.

That’s all for now, folks. Make sure you have enough lotion for all that hand-washing and…whatever else you thots are doing since you can’t go on Grindr.

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More

In mid-May, I attended the biennial Queers and Comics conference at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Kids, you too can grow up to be a novelist and purchase books like Hard to Swallow as “research”. Apart from the fact that SVA is very poorly ventilated and has insufficient bathrooms, I had an inspiring and intense weekend. I’d never been in a group with so many trans men before, and I had all the feels about the possible paths that my gender journey could take.

I heard a panel discussion with Diane DiMassa, creator of the wickedly funny (and trans-friendly!) radical feminist comic Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999), which is inexcusably out-of-print. I learned that my favorite Tarot expert, Rachel Pollack, created the first transgender superheroine, Coagula, for DC Comics title Doom Patrol; the PowerPoint featured a scene where Coagula dissolves a villain’s codpiece-like weapon into a flood of menstrual-looking red goo!

I attended a panel on comics about mental health issues, where I met LB Lee, the writer-artist behind the site Healthy Multiplicity. Lee’s work explores the premise that integration of multiple personalities is not always necessary or desirable. They conceive of themselves as a “system” comprising several minds with different names, ages, and genders in the same body. Their self-published graphic memoir Alter Boys in Love (available from their website) is a unique love story about the romantic and sexual relationships among members of the system. I admire them for working to de-stigmatize experiences that could teach us something new about personal identity and consciousness.

Image result for inside you there are two wolves they are boyfriends

(my internal family system)

Of course I bought many books for myself and my family. For my husband, Mama Tits Saves the World by Zan Christensen and Terry Blas (Northwest Press, 2016), a short feel-good comic book about a real-life drag queen who receives superpowers to bash homophobes. It’s poignant in retrospect because the political mood of this pre-Trump comic is “You’ve come a long way, baby,” riding the wave of optimism after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.

For my mom-of-choice, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by AK Summers (Soft Skull Press, 2014), a well-drawn, witty, and emotionally honest graphic novel about a lesbian couple’s foray into the highly gender-stereotyped world of pregnancy and childbirth. Not exactly a memoir, but inspired by Summers’ own experience giving birth to her son in 2005, Pregnant Butch brought back memories of my gender dysphoria–which at the time I had no name for–when I was first considering fertility treatments and then trying to create a sufficiently mainstream “adoptive mom” online profile to attract prospective birthparents. (Luckily for us, we were found by a birthmom who’s as nonconformist as we are.)

Jane Eyre was a formative book for me. I’ve read it a half-dozen times since I was a child. So I couldn’t resist The Brontës: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary (Headless Shakespeare Press, 2004), a melancholy, enigmatic graphic novel imagining what could have happened if Angria, the fantasy world created by the precocious and lonely Brontë children, had been a real place they could enter through a portal in the nursery. I was deeply affected by the sense of claustrophobia and fatalism that overshadowed the Brontës’ short lives, starting with the deaths of their mother and two sisters in childhood, and compounded by the young women’s maturing awareness of their limited career opportunities in 19th-century society.

There were a few too many skipped plot points in the narrative for me, where high-stakes interactions between the Brontës and the warring factions in Angria were foreshadowed and then left undeveloped. As a history buff, I’m thrown off by anachronistic mishmashes of different medieval/Renaissance fashion eras. In my opinion, 16th-century Spanish Armada helmets, Richard III hairdos, and King Arthur crowns don’t belong in the same scene, though Geary’s illustrations may have been imitating the unaware eclecticism of children’s fantasy world-building.

Other titles I brought home for my to-read shelf include Michael Derry’s Troy: The Whole Shebang (Derry Products, 2013), an anthology of his humorous erotic comic strip about pretty boys in L.A.; Lee Marrs’ The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp (Marrs Books, 2016), an anthology of her 1970s series about a frizzy-haired bi-curious teen sampling the delights of San Francisco; and Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge, 2019). Among the projects on Kobabe’s website is a remake of The Runaway Bunny called The Nonbinary Bunny. Just what I needed!

 

Poems from Paul Fericano’s “Things That Go Trump in the Night”

Good News…or FAKE GOSPELS?! No classic text is safe from the Trump Effect in Paul Fericano’s satirical verse collection Things That Go Trump in the Night (Poems-for-All/YU News Service, 2019). Famous lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry Kissinger, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, and many others are reworked into zingers that reference the Cheeto-in-Chief and his felonious hangers-on. Individually, the poems and squibs are good for a chuckle or a mood-lifter when the news gets you down. Taken as a whole, the numbing repetition of “Trump” starts to feel like a warning: dictators want all culture to be flattened into their own image. Most substantial, and chilling, is the book’s closing poem, which weaves together fragments of actual Trump speeches with invented absurdities, shining a relentless light on the combination of naïveté and paranoia that makes him so dangerous.

Paul has kindly permitted me to reprint an excerpt below. For more work by this prolific author, check out his bio at Poets & Writers and his online journal Poetry Hotel.

THE NRA REMINDS YOU TO DEFEND THE SECOND AMENDMENT

1. Treat every loaded trump as if it were empty.

2. Always point your trump at anyone
you plan to intimidate.

3. Keep your trump cocked and ready
for any crisis you create.

4. Sleep with your trump at all times.

5. Trumps don’t kill. People do.

****

SAINT PAUL STUMPS FOR TRUMP
BEFORE BEING STONED BY THE CORINTHIANS

1 What if he could not speak
in salty tongues of fast food beef,
and diet drinks or pork chops on a stick?
And what of his illegal rapists
for whom there is no dreaming?

2 If he could not praise himself,
be nothing more than a chimney sweep
or the smoking gun at the bottom
of his father’s safe deposit box.

3 Veracity is an empty cell in his brain,
for all he says is true in his name.
He sets his watch to howdy doody time
where dossiers and liars
are watergate under the bridge.

4 For he is never too proud or boastful
to consort with leakers and colluders.
And if he cavorts with concubines
who relieve themselves on hotel beds,
his complicity is the grey wool of old goats.

5 What if he could reinvent his words
and reshape all reality?
What if he could do these things
while his people are encouraged
to gaze elsewhere?
Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!

6 And what if he could wear bows
and push buttons that would decimate nations?
Would he not still be revered?
Would he not still be adored?
The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon
with the dragon, and the vessel with the pestle
has the brew that is true.

7 For it is written in the law of Supposes,
You shall not muzzle the mouth of the sham
that spills forth its corn,
lest you become all that and a bag of chips,
or as a toilet that runs all night.

8 And if he is obstructive, inflated,
paranoid and suspicious,
These faults are surely exalted in your eyes.

9 Verily, I say unto you
that all who consume with him
shall ensure a sizeable profit justly returned.
For I am he, as you are he, as you are me
and we are all together.

10 Yea, though his fingers be like long ties,
You know not what he is up to.

11 And denial shall be his greatest pleasure.
For the hoax perpetrated in bad faith
is more than payment due.

12 Be not disturbed by troubled times.
They are as common as the normal spin
of outrageous rent hikes.
For soon the shore of certainty will vanish
and strange odors will fill your nostrils.

13 When he was a president,
he thought not as a president
and reasoned not as presidents do.
But when he grew a tail
and fumbled and groped many girly bits,
and they let him do it,
he embraced his presidential ways.

14 Now he wears the blackface of his birthright.
And faith in desperation kneels
where once it stood defiant in his name:
Mueller, Mueller
why has thou forsaken him?

15 Later, he shall envision a darker stain
and wear the mask
of batmen, beetroots and bucketheads.

16 He spends no time swinging a club,
spray painting his skin or sleeping in a tree.
FAKE GOSPELS!

17 Yea, verily, yea.
Chaos, confusion and catastrophe
shall mark each tweet with impunity.
But of these three,
the greatest of these is Muhammad Ali.

October Links Roundup: Mx. Personality

October…my favorite season. The days turn cold and dark, the leaves change color, and Mr. Tech Support and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I am filled with an unusual sense of wellbeing because I sold three copies of my story collection at a Straw Dog Writers Guild reading last night and now have enough money to buy a new trans boi shirt from Androgynous Fox. (Speaking of which, this Dapper Boi button-down is the best. Make more colors!)

My forced exposure to psychological tests a decade ago convinced me that “personality” is a contestable concept. (A belief which, needless to say, did not improve my score.) The self is situational, changing over time, and wearing different personae depending on the norms and trust level in a given social setting. Attempting to quantify it as a fixed trait, like eye color, can erase the impact of interpersonal stressors and make the subject feel powerless to change.

Such caveats are thoroughly considered in “Who’s Got Personality?”, Deborah Chasman’s Boston Review interview with Merve Emre about her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (Penguin Random House). Their dialogue explores reasons for the continued popularity of these unscientific metrics, the test creators’ struggles with women’s changing roles in the mid-20th century, and the gender and class hierarchies that the test perpetuates:

If you look at the statistics around the [thinking vs. feeling] indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space—where feelings are managed—as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work…

…Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them—there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.

Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable—they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate—they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.

For a more contrarian take on self-help, life coach Pace Smith recently blogged about a dangerous omission in spiritual talk about the virtue of love. In “Why I Hate Compassion”, she writes:

If you hang out with spiritual people (and you do), you’ll hear a lot of talk about compassion. Supposedly, it’s pretty awesome. If we can just practice infinite compassion for all beings at all times, we’ll reach enlightenment and all dance around as joyful radiant beings of light.

Take this Dalai Lama quote, for example:

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”

Does that make you feel peaceful? If so, you can stop reading now, and pass this article along to a friend who suffers from Infinite Compassion Syndrome.

If the quote makes you feel anxious, and makes you question whether you’re truly doing as much as you can, then I’m talking to you.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” – Sri Chinmoy

Sounds great in theory, right?

But would you give this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship?

Would you tell her to forgive, to let go of judgment, and to love no matter what?

Yes, I know, I post a lot of links on this topic… If I have any consistent “personality”, it’s this: I can’t avoid probing for the weak spot, the thing that is left out, in any belief system. Is deconstruction a wounded trauma response? Was the neo-conservative phase of my teens and 20s an attempt to shore up fragments of absolutism against the inevitable ruins of whatever I trusted?

Back in those days, I was pro-life–largely because it scared me to think that my mother, or any mother, should have the power to decide whether I was a “person” or not. (Heck, she was never convinced of that after I was born.) But when I realized I didn’t trust the religious conservatives who shared my views, nor agreed with them on anything else, it caused me to question my position. Gabrielle Blair, who blogs at Design Mom, recently posted this Twitter thread (unrolled on her blog) with a convincing argument that the most ethical way to reduce unwanted pregnancies is to hold men responsible, commensurate with their real biological role in the problem. Excerpts:

Did you know that a man CAN’T get a woman pregnant without having an orgasm? Which means that we can conclude getting a woman pregnant is a pleasurable act for men.

But did you further know that men CAN get a woman pregnant without HER feeling any pleasure at all? In fact, it’s totally possible for a man to impregnate a woman even while causing her excruciating pain, trauma or horror.

In contrast, a woman can have non-stop orgasms with or without a partner and never once get herself pregnant. A woman’s orgasm has literally nothing to do with pregnancy or fertility — her clitoris exists not for creating new babies, but simply for pleasure.

No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.

What this means is a women can be the sluttliest slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.

Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion…

…Stop protesting at clinics. Stop shaming women. Stop trying to overturn abortion laws. If you actually care about reducing or eliminating the number of abortions in our country, simply HOLD MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

What would that look like? What if there was a real and immediate consequence for men who cause an unwanted pregnancy? What kind of consequence would make sense? Should it be as harsh, painful, nauseating, scarring, expensive, risky, and life-altering…

… as forcing a woman to go through a 9-month unwanted pregnancy?

In my experience, men really like their testicles. If irresponsible ejaculations were putting their balls at risk, they would stop being irresponsible. Does castration seem like a cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely.

But is it worse than forcing 500,000 women a year to puke daily for months, gain 40 pounds, and then rip their bodies apart in childbirth? Is a handful of castrations worse than women dying during forced pregnancy & childbirth?

Put a castration law on the books, implement the law, let the media tell the story, and in 3 months or less, tada! abortions will have virtually disappeared. Can you picture it? No more abortions in less than 3 months, without ever trying to outlaw them. Amazing.

For those of you who consider abortion to be murder, wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?

And if not, is that because you actually care more about policing women’s bodies, morality, and sexuality, than you do about reducing or eliminating abortions? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

At the cultural webzine Popula, Sarah Miller reflects on the dangers of going along to get along, in “The Movie Assassin: How ‘The English Patient’ almost ruined my life”. As a young film critic at a Philadelphia newspaper, Miller thought the much-hyped movie was pretentious and dull (I agree), but her mentors insisted that any smart person should love it, and leaned on her to write a positive review. She did, and moved on to a successful freelance career writing things she didn’t really care about, until one day the money dried up and she had an epiphany:

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it.

If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person…

…It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

Becoming poor was such a small price to pay to stop being so fucking dumb. I used to hear the saying “Politics is the art of the possible” as benignly self-evident. Now I know it is chastising, smug, and cruel. It’s not about cooperation. It is about agreeing that some people’s lives don’t matter. If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

Want to discover two great poets who understand why writing matters? Check out this conversation betwen Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith in Granta. At the time, both were shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize, which Smith won. Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) is a lyrical meditation on recovery from alcoholism, in dialogue with the Persian mystical tradition of his ancestors. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a fierce and tender book on being black and HIV+ in America, combines the energetic rhythms of performance poetry with the complexity of literature on the page. As the editor of Divedapper, Akbar is also an extremely generous promoter of other contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter to find your next favorite poem. In the Granta piece, I especially loved Smith’s discussion of the challenges of writing a joyful book (his forthcoming collection Homie):

I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy.

May we all write in such a way that our grief can be comforted.

Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel: “the suckling”

Earlier this summer I reviewed the new multimedia memoir by Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, a bold retrospective of his 66-year career as an author, political artist, and graphic designer. This month I’d like to share one of his poems that was not included in this collection. It displays his characteristic immediacy, darkness and tenderness commingled in a moment that slips away almost before you grasp it.

the suckling

they say
breast milk
contains toxins
of every aspect
of plant and/or any animal
ever consumed

and multiplied
by toxins of every thing
multiplied by
and so forth

and if any attempt
were made to market
milk of breasts
across state lines
that product would be denied

they say
for lack of touch
any one of us might die
of want

so for want of touch
i want to draw you
unto my breast
without reserve
and suckle you
until i die

Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Nerd Community at Flame Con

For my novel research, this weekend I went to NYC for Flame Con, billed as the world’s largest LGBTQ comic con. Now in its fourth year, Flame Con is sponsored by Geeks Out, a volunteer nonprofit dedicated to making comics and sci-fi fandom more welcoming for us queers. As the title of one panel put it, I experienced “the subversive simplicity of queer joy”.

Flame Con was way more fun and friendly than any literary conference I’ve attended. Poets can be so bitter, present company not excepted. We trail clouds of angst about whether our work is important enough and whether our publishing deal is as good as someone else’s. At Flame Con I rediscovered the happiness of making things you enjoy and meeting other people who are doing the same. We were like children in the best sense, unselfconscious about loving sparkly ponies and superheroes, simply grateful to spend time in the fantasy worlds we created.

It was a delightful novelty to be in a social setting where I felt completely cool and like I fit in. Imagine that every time you get into the elevator in a large Manhattan hotel, someone else is also wearing a butch haircut, rainbow jewelry, or a tank top with a sassy gay slogan. I got a compliment on my glasses, y’all.

At the trans and GNC meetup, about 40 of us sat around a workshop table, two rows deep, and threw out joking answers to the question, “What is the trans agenda?” Hint: it involves a lot of fanny packs. People connected over the shared experience of renaming themselves after comics and video game characters, obsessively listening to “Reflection” from Mulan, and using FaceApp to envision ourselves as the “opposite” sex.

You handsome devil.

At the Queer Nerd Poetics reading, I heard funny and passionate performances by fine writers who were new to me. I especially enjoyed Liv Mammone’s persona poem about the lack of handicapped access at the Louvre, “Venus de Milo Answers a Tumblr Feminist”. Liv really knows how to write a catchy title. Read an interview with her at Brooklyn Poets and follow her on Twitter. Omar Holmon of Black Nerd Problems spoke out in verse about the challenges of loving a genre where you don’t often see yourself reflected. Brendan Gillett, dressed as a dapper elf, graciously emceed and closed out the show with “Names for Months in a New Queer Year”. Happy Augayst, everyone!

I spent several hours at the exhibitors’ hall, making contacts to interview for the novel about the 1990s indie comics scene, and buying a ton of books and swag. G. Pike designs beautifully colored pins, keychains, and stickers depicting birds in the hues of various pride flags. Pride Pets enamel pins from Gay Breakfast feature different breeds of adorable cats and dogs with pride flag stripes, and pronoun pawprints, too. I met public health consultant Christel Hyden, the educator behind Heads or Tails NYC, an interactive webcomic about HIV prevention. And I bought this shirt from Hiroki Otsuka, because apparently I’m into bears and tentacles now?? Is this a thing that happens with middle age?

Ready for Chippendale’s of Arkham.

Continuing on that theme, I bought Kori Michele Handwerker’s Undone: A Tentacle Illustration Book, an elegant black-and-white art chapbook reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley; the first issue of Megan James’ comic book Innsmouth, which the artist described as being about incompetent Mormon-style Cthulhu cultists; a pin-up of a sweet hairy dude in purple high-heeled boots by Joel Gennari; and the erotic art anthology Doable Guys III. Check out Kori’s webcomic about discovering their nonbinary fashion style. Offsite at the BGSQD bookstore, I attended the book launch of the groundbreaking collection We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology from Stacked Deck Press, edited by Jeanne Thornton and Tara Avery–which, now that I think of it, I probably also backed on Kickstarter. Well, if I end up with two copies, I’ll donate one to Forbes Library. I also picked up collections and graphic novels by Molly Ostertag, Tony Breed, Jessi Sheron, and others.

The convention wasn’t all NSFW by any means. Diverse, upbeat books for children and tweens were well-represented too. I bought Shane a Lumberjanes collection and a Warriors graphic novel about magical cat clans. Let the geek family traditions begin.

July Links Roundup: Repent, Harlequin

So many links this month, we’re doing two rounds: literary and political.

Notable science fiction and horror author Harlan Ellison passed away last week at age 84. A giant in the speculative fiction community, Ellison was also controversial for his verbally abusive outbursts and the sexual violence in some of the stories he wrote and championed. There’s no question that he’s one of my problematic faves. This memorial essay by Cory Doctorow focuses on the positive side of Ellison, while other writers on Twitter reminded us of his history of mistreating women, such as groping author Connie Willis onstage at WorldCon in 2006 (see these threads by Bogi Takács and Jasmine Gower, for example).

I see both sides of the man in his work when I reread it now, 30 years after he first blew my mind with “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. (One of the scariest stories I’ve ever encountered, right up there with Lisa Tuttle’s “Closet Dreams”; read at your own risk.) My husband and I both tried to get through Ellison’s iconic Dangerous Visions anthologies a couple of years ago, and had to quit because we were nauseated by the pervy-ness and rapey-ness marketed as bold innovation. On the other hand, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, his classic tale of quixotic but meaningful resistance to tyranny, inspires me in a whole new way as our country comes closer to fascism than ever before in my lifetime. And when I worry that my life is meaningless, I remember the defiant existentialism of “The Cheese Stands Alone” and resolve to move forward anyhow.

As the debate over Ellison’s literary legacy shows, interpretation of a text is never fully open-ended nor fully closed. In the space between, a community of readers develops: people joined by a common sentiment that the text is worth debating, critiquing, and absorbing into their lives, but differentiated by the unique alchemy between that text and their personal imagination. I don’t picture the exact same “Harlequin” that you do when you read the story, and the life circumstances that the story illuminates for you may be similar, but not identical, to mine. In their Harvard Divinity Bulletin article, “What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction,” MDiv student Jade Sylvan suggests this is also true about Scripture, which is one way to explain why we have four canonical Gospels instead of one. Like queer fans who write and share Kirk/Spock slash fiction to reappropriate a mainstream story for an under-represented group, early Christians told varying stories of Jesus to make him relevant and liberatory for their particular audiences.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need…Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery epitomizes the trope of the fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far: furious that her favorite romance writer has killed off his main character, she kidnaps the author and tortures him into resurrecting the character in a sequel. However, on the Ploughshares blog, Natalia Holtzman invites us to rethink the moral calculus of this famous novel, taking a closer look at the protagonist’s aesthetic snobbery and contempt for his fans. Is it actually a projection of the writer’s worst fears about himself, that makes Annie appear so monstrous? This post made me want to read fanfiction from Annie’s point of view. King’s plot is attention-grabbing because of the unlikely gender reversal. In real genre-fiction fandom, it’s far more likely to be male fans having violent tantrums because Dr. Who is female and Star Wars has a black hero.

We’ll end this link-around with some writing advice from two well-regarded contemporary authors. I have not yet read Rita Bullwinkel’s story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018), described in this interview by Sadye Teiser at The Masters Review as “deadpan disaster” fiction, but I felt liberated by her depiction of her creative process. I’m working on embracing both the obscurity of my literary “brand” and the weirdness of my writing. In response to a question about her “craft choices”, Bullwinkel said:

I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and am looking forward to reading his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, sometime this summer. In this interview by Santiago Sanchez at Lambda Literary Review, he shares wisdom on many topics, including the market for queer art, your imagined audience versus your real one, and the pressure to represent your minority group and/or be confined to your personal identity demographics when writing fiction:

I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.

The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need.

Sometimes, when I read a truly outstanding book, I’m tempted to say, “That’s it. I’m hanging up my pencil. I thought I was writing fiction, but I can’t write like this, so why bother?” Then, I remember that this is exactly the opposite reaction I would want people to have to my work. I don’t want to induce competitive despair! Few responses make me happier than hearing that I inspired someone else to write. Chee feels the same way:

I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.

Follow Chee on Twitter and listen to his guest appearances on the Food 4 Thot podcast.

Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave

Posting has been light in the past month for a number of reasons, including course prep for my church group and attending my 25th college reunion. (What is it with the false modesty of our alumni going out of our way to avoid saying where we went to school? We’re not fooling anyone. Harvard Harvard Harvard.) I am exactly halfway through the 40-day book of Bible meditations that accompanies our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course, and I’m feeling all kinds of ways about it.

The helpful overall premise of the course is that our spiritual life is too often unconsciously dictated by family patterns and other people’s opinions of us. We’re encouraged to spend quiet time with God in which we pull back from these worldly manifestations of our identity and seek security instead in God’s unconditional love for the unique person that God created us to be. This practice has been deeply sustaining right now, because a situation in my personal life has been forcing me to confront my codependence and what I used to call self-salvation or works-righteousness. The desire to be “good” can make me afraid to be honest with myself and others about what I can willingly offer, and what I can’t or shouldn’t.

Alongside this fruitful process, however, old wounds of betrayal by the church are reopening. I’ve heard it all before: the invitation to listen to the Holy Spirit, the fine-sounding pronouncements that God doesn’t want us to stifle our true self in conformity to social pressure and secular norms. Well, I did that, I found out I was queer, and they tried to make me believe that all the fruits of the Spirit in my life had been a lie. The author of this course is a conservative, presumably non-affirming pastor. I imagine he would say that queerness couldn’t be a true self because gay and trans identities don’t exist; in the evangelical worldview, these are just sinful behaviors. This inconsistency doesn’t invalidate the insights I’m getting from the course, but it makes me depressed at a time when I’m already struggling with trust issues in relationships.

A surprising outcome of daily journaling is that I get bored with writing my objections to evangelical theodicy and hermeneutics over and over again, and eventually find something insightful and positive (however tangential) in grappling with those brief excerpts from the Bible and Christian writers. (A fan letter I’ll never be able to send: “Dear Pastor Pete, your Daily Office workbook really helped with my gender transition! Thanks.”) I hope the selected musings below have some value for my readers.

Mark 11:15-17

What secondary things keep me from being silently present with God? Mainly the need to be “productive” to prevent anxiety from rushing in.

Surrendering control over my own importance feels like depression and annihilation because my mother’s sad defeatism was contagious (old insight) and because living with an engulfing narcissist meant that I was constantly battling to hold onto my realness, my separate and desiring self (new insight!).

How does God, or some kind of connection to Spirit, provide a better way to preserve myself? This is not an answer I can find in the evangelical framework of surrendering one’s will to the Big Daddy in the Sky.

God is not absent from us. We are walking inside God’s body, the beautiful world where everything is growing and alive. We are inside God when we stand on the earth and look up at the trees full of life force.

Luke 10:38-42

Wondering if there’s an interpretation of Mary versus Martha that retains Jesus’ point about priorities, without shaming Martha for doing what women have been told they have to do since the beginning of Western civilization in order to support the higher calling of (mostly male) contemplatives. Yet, in what ways am I passive-aggressive like Martha, blaming structural forces for my lack of courage or energy to claim my contemplative time as valuable? Am I really constrained, or am I not doing what God calls me to do because I’m afraid of displeasing people?

The pop-culture antidote to anxious busyness feels too close to existential purposelessness. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”–well, then why get out of bed at all? Better to try believing it’s all big stuff. Everything I could do today is sacred or sufficient, going for a walk or writing or frying eggs, so no worries about doing the wrong thing.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

The thorn in St. Paul’s side: what would be an alternative to self-blame and shame, that wouldn’t make me fake positive feelings about being a fat queer loon, and doesn’t play into the creepy evangelical concept of God sending us disabilities and disappointments so we don’t get uppity? Perhaps Ariana Reines‘ idea from her reading of my astrology birth chart, that my unique nature is part of a cosmic pattern where I have a role to play, but not like someone up there intentionally put obstacles in my path to change me!

That’s what is so coercive and doublespeak about thorn-in-side theology. It’s supposed to be saying, accept your flaws, but it’s simultaneously telling you that God sent you a burden because you couldn’t be trusted with the power of being whole and free.

Christianity is like the female clothes in my closet. I keep trying it on, because it’s right there and I used to like it, but it just gives me bunions.

Exodus 3:1-5

Perhaps it’s trite to snark at the suppressed homoeroticism of prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”, but heteronormative evangelicalism’s refusal to admit the pleasures of abjection leaves no other way for this imagery to be read except as rapey. It’s as though, like chaste ladies in an old-fashioned romance novel, they can only allow themselves to bottom for Jehovah if it’s cast as a painful punishment against their will.

Genesis 12:1-3

On trusting in the slow work of God, and giving up control over the outcome: When I pictured what it would be like for an abusive parent’s soul to be purified in Purgatory, I had a (previously unknown till this moment) awareness of a Love so secure and powerful that it could hold that person in every moment of their lacerating self-awareness and make it bearable, even a blessing overall. And how, then, can I start to live this life with the consciousness that a Love so great surrounds my poor little old ego in every moment, so that nothing I do or have done to me should ever make me afraid of myself??!!