Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: My Love Affair With Tony Hoagland

I first fell for Tony Hoagland when I read What Narcissism Means to Me about 2 or 3 years ago. I read it at the suggestion of my thesis advisor, Erin Belieu, who thought I would enjoy and connect with his poetry and she was right. 

Hoagland is a very direct poet that writes using popular culture and social commentary. He is often funny, heartbreakingly honest, and always engaging. He doesn't rely on fancy imagery or figurative language. That's not to say his poems are "easy." Many examine central issues and questions of what it means to be a man in the 21st century. This is truly what draws me the most to Hoagland's work. 

For the most part I read poetry books by other gay men or straight or gay women. Why? Basically I find a good portion of straight, male poets to be rather boring (sorry). They often don't take on issues that I'm interested in and don't examine the idea of gender and masculinity very well. As one of my instructors once said, "straight, male poets need to stop writing about their fathers and lighthouses." I don't know if I could put it any better. Yes, this is a very general statement, and no, not all straight, male poets are like this, but many are.  This is why I was so surprised and taken by Hoagland's work when I first read it. He is straight, male, and a poet and writes about masculinity and the issues of being male in this culture and time period. He even writes about sex. He does it with humor, but also with a close and critical eye. 

Hoagland is also not afraid to write about gay people and to be open and honest about his feelings toward gay issues. He walks that line of the uncomfortable, but curious straight man so well. One of my favorite poems of his is from his book entitled Sweet Ruin. It is a poem called "One Season" and begins with these lines:

That was the summer my best friend
called me a faggot on the telephone,
hung up, and vanished from the earth, 

The poem goes on to discuss how he acted differently for the next year: "Probably I talked too loud that year // and thought an extra minute / before I crossed my legs." He is open and honest, yet never offensive. He also addresses gay issues in his poem "Mistaken Identity," where he imagines seeing his dead mother in a lesbian bar. This is not the work of most straight, male poets writing today and for this I love Hoagland's work. I even wrote him an e-mail saying so about two years ago and he responded quite nicely to it and said he was very relieved to know that young, gay poets liked his work. 

I bring all this up, because I just bought and read Hoagland's newest book, which is a chapbook entitled Little Oceans. I will be honest, because what is the point in lying, the chapbook let me down just a little and the cover art is bad. The majority of the poems don't strike me the way his work normally does. That's not to say this is a bad chapbook, but rather I don't think it is his finest work. However, there are many poems in here that remind you what is so great about his style and choice of subject matter. 

One of the stand out poems in this 39 page chapbook comes early on and is entitled "Playboy." Yes, it is about the men's magazine Playboy, but takes a very gentle look at the speaker's mother and wondering what she thought of the father always having the latest Playboy in the bathroom. The poem ends with these beautifully sad lines:

It was a big lonely world for a girl
just starting to get suspicious about the way
the world was stapled together;

--holding a boy's magazine in her hand, 
feeling the beginning of
her own invisibility,
and pulling her robe a little tighter.

Playboy in poems is nothing new, but this portrait is haunting and well-constructed. 

Other good poems in the chapbook include one devoted to Britney Spears entitled "Poor Britney Spears," one about being killed by stupid drivers in Texas called "Black SUV," and one about bears (not gay, furry men, but actual bears) entitled "Wild." 

If you have never read Hoagland's work I would recommend beginning with one of his earlier books first. He also has a new book coming out in the winter, I believe, which might include the best of these chapbook poems plus new ones. 

Regardless, Hoagland is a poet that always inspires me and reminds me to give straight, male poets a chance. 

-Stephen (Hoagland Lover)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: A Brief History of Time

As I have stated in other posts, one of my goals of this blog is to review and help promote poetry books. I often talk with readers and literature-type people who say they don't read much contemporary poetry because they don't always know where to find it and what to read, which I can understand. It is hard to find contemporary poetry in most bookstores, which is why I buy most of my books online. In the last few years I have tried my best to gain as much knowledge of contemporary poetry as possible, and I try to read as many books as I can and tell people about them. 

In this post I am reviewing Shaindel Beers' A Brief History of Time. It was published this year by Salt Publishing and is her debut collection. I found out about this book and about Beers on Twitter. I have to say I'm surprised constantly by how useful Twitter has been to my poetry knowledge, networking, and promotion. I have been following Beers for a few months and recently decided to purchase her book and I'm so glad I did.

A Brief History of Time is beautifully written and constantly surprises. I connected a lot to the speaker of many of these poems, because I am from the midwest and these poems are very grounded in the experiences of middle-America. I lived for 22 years in Indiana and fully understood such lines as: "you left, too afraid of being trapped / in a cornfield town / to wait for me" or "in our own little utopia / ten miles further than our mothers got." 

There is an overwhelming sadness in many of these poems, but they are not overly dramatic, but rather contain a quiet, haunting sadness that feels very real to life. Many of the poems touch on similar themes and build off of each other. For example the death of a former lover is the backdrop in many of the poems and reading them altogether gives a true window into grieving and moving onward. 

The poem entitled "HA!" literally made me gasp at the end. It's a harsh look at employees at a Dollar General and rapidly paints portraits of various people. This poem stood out to me because it is exactly why I love contemporary poetry. I'll say it again, it takes place in a Dollar General. How amazing is that? This is the kind of poem I love showing my students, because they have no idea that people write poems about Dollar Stores. It is also a perfect example of compression and of being able to fully showcase these characters and this situation in a page and a half. 

One of my other favorite poems in this book is entitled "In the Top Drawer." It is the kind of poem I immediately re-read. I got to the last line and had to go right back to the top and read it again. This poem really shows how surprising this book is. It begins with the speaker recounting a story of rabbits that died when she was young and then the speaker connects them to the death of this man later in life. The poem weaves these two situations together so nicely. 

I've read many books set in the same kind of landscape that Beers is dealing with, which is why this book shocked me so much. Many of these mid-west, cornfield-type books feel very stereotypical, but Beers' approach to these places, people, and situations is unique. She balances the insider/outsider feeling very well, and this is something I greatly commend and again connect with. 

I highly recommend reading this book and letting Beers take you on this brief, but poetically engaging, journey. 

-Stephen (Reviewer) 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Bridesmaid Again and Other Poetry News

Last night I found out that my chapbook entitled "This Side Up" was named a runner up in PANK Magazine's First Chapbook Competition. This is the second time this year that a chapbook of mine has been named a finalist or runner-up for a competition. The first time was with The Ledge Chapbook Contest. 

Every time this happens I have mixed feelings. I'm thrilled that I'm getting close and obviously it means I am picking the right contests and that my work is beginning to get recognized or at least stand out from others. All of those feelings are good, but they are mixed with the feeling that damn I came so close, why didn't I win. This is part of the life of being a writer and I deal with these feelings normally by submitting more poems to more magazines. Regardless, I am very happy to be named a runner-up by PANK and really look forward to seeing the winning chapbook.

PANK's announcement came in a week of already good poetry news. At the beginning of the week I was notified by Redheaded Stepchild that they want to publish my poem "If you were Jackson Pollock and Jackson Pollock painted nudes." I was thrilled. For those of you who don't know Redheaded Stepchild is an online publication devoted to printing the very best of rejected poems. When you submit you can only submit poems that have been rejected by other magazines and you must provide the list of places that have rejected the work. My Jackson Pollock poem has been rejected by 32 Poems, The Yale Review, Fence, Conduit, /nor, Rhino, Accent, Pilot, Ganymede, and Field. I wrote the poem nearly four years ago and I'm very happy it has found a home. I really enjoy the concept of Redheaded Stepchild and since I have red hair myself, I found it rather fitting. The poem should appear in November. I will keep you posted. 

I was also notified early this week that Velvet Mafia accepted two of my poems. They are entitled "We've done this all backwards" and "note, passed to matthew shepard." Again I was thrilled. I wrote my Matthew Shepard poem four years ago and it has been rejected from quite a few places. These are the moments that prove you shouldn't give up. Velvet Mafia is an online gay magazine that focuses mostly on erotic work. The publish erotica poetry, stories, and photos, as well as reviews. They are bold and fearless. Many gay writers might shy away from submitting to a place like Velvet Mafia, but I'm proud to add them to my list of publications. They notified me on Sunday and put my poems up on Tuesday (the beauty of online magazines). You can read them by clicking here

All in all this has been a nice week for poetry. It often seems to come in waves like this. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think of the poems or my blog. 

-Stephen (Maybe a Bride Next Time) 


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First Off the Boat

This past weekend was Pride here in Orlando. Pride in October? Yes, that is what many in the southern part of the United States do to avoid the heat of Pride Month, which is June. Did it work? This year no. Central Florida is having record breaking heat so far this month. It has been well into the 90s and this weekend was no exception. It was very hot, but we gays carry on. 

Dustin and I made the most of our weekend. We spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the always amazing gay landmark: Parliament House. We also attended the Pride Festival and parade on Sunday at Lake Eola. All in all it was an amazing weekend filled with heat (both outside and on the dance floor), amazing drag shows, and cute boys. On Sunday I sweat so much from dancing that my new jeans literally bled blue all over my legs, but it was well worth it. 

But in the middle of my Pride Weekend I had my first almost bar brawl. I have to say in general gay clubs are fairly non-violent (unless they are being raided). I can't think of a time that I've seen anyone looking to cause a fight. We are too focus on sex (or maybe that's just me), but Saturday night was different. 

After the midnight drag show many people were filing in from the pool area, where the show had taken place. We were all heading back into the club to get a drink, dance, pee, whatever. The door Dustin and I were going into was rather narrow, which required the rather large crowd to thin down and file in respectfully. This is normally no problem at all. But as we were making our way in a large group of straight girls decide they should shove through and get ahead of everyone else. Two or three pass by me before I completely realize that this entire herd of girls is planning to just plow in front of everyone. What do I do? I stick my arm out and push the next girl back. I was drunk, so I'm sure the push was more forceful than it should have been, but the girl never lost her balance, never stumbled, and never dropped a drink (which is vital in bar etiquette). 

Of course, she wasn't pleased and seemed to look at me for some explanation, which I happily gave her. I announced in her face that this was a gay bar, which meant all the men weren't just going to get out of her way because she was a girl. This is where the true trouble began, because her friend (a pushy blonde girl, who had already shoved by me) decided to get involved. She began shouting in my face various obscenities and then proceeded to literally attack my head. No punching, just slapping the top of my head, which actually sort of hurt. I probably hit her back at least once before Dustin jumped in and shoved me against the bar and away from the crazed straight girl. It was one of Dustin's proudest moments: other men can make out with his boyfriend, but nobody is going to hit him (he felt very butch and protective, which is why I love him). I'm thankful for Dustin's move as I didn't want it to escalate and did not want security involved. Oh and to top it off some twink in a vest threw in that I shouldn't hit girls (oh those good old southern gay boys). The girls gave up on beating me and left the area rather quickly and I never saw them again. Dustin says he hopes it ruined their night, because we recovered in about five minutes and danced the night away. As gays you learn to carry on. 

What is the point of sharing this story? It actually ties back to an old post I made about Camp Drag and straight people attending gay clubs. Let me begin this discussion by saying I have nothing against straight people. In fact, until this past year almost the entirety of my friends for my whole life have been straight. But I have to say in the last year of going out to gay clubs on a very regular basis, I have come to despise a particular kind of straight girl that attends gay clubs (notice I said a particular kind). There are many that attend that I have no problem with, because they come with an understanding of the environment and a respect for others. These are often straight women that come with gay men. The kind I have trouble with are those that are clearly there with an entire group of straight girls, most of which have never been in a gay club in their lives and probably won't return. This often happens as part of a bachelorette party (yes the girl that attacked me was there for a bachelorette party, if she was the bride, God help her groom). 

These girls come for the spectacle. They come to stare at the freaks. To watch drag shows and be confused and laugh, but not always in the right way. They come with little to no understanding or respect for the gay community or the fact that the gay club is our turf in a world that doesn't really allow us much space. They come expecting the same treatment they get in straight clubs. They often seem shocked that no one pays much attention to them. They find it hard to understand that we aren't all fascinated by their hair or boobs. We didn't all just walk off the set of a Bravo TV show. I'm there because it's my weekend and I'm looking at all the boys. They don't understand that the gay community is built differently. Being a girl doesn't get you ahead (just ask a lesbian), which reminds me of a great lesbian comedian that was on the Atlantis Cruise Dustin and I took about a year and a half ago. She said her mom was worried about her performing on a boat, but then said, "Well I guess if it goes down it is always women and children first." The comedian then told her mother, "This is a gay cruise mom. It is twinks and queens first, lesbians last, they have the best chance of fixing the boat." Yes, you can argue this joke plays on stereotypes, but it is funny and hits on my topic pretty well.  

This almost brawl with this girl showcased my own frustration at the issue. Do I want an us and them situation? A separation? Maybe I do just a little. Is it wrong to ask that large groups of straight girls who are just there to wear penis crowns and gawk at the gays stay home? Maybe I'm really just asking for respect of the space you are entering. I'm not anti-straight people, but when I go out to a very gay club, like Parliament House, I don't expect to be attacked by blonde straight girls who expect to get whatever they want. I'm a young, twinky gay guy with red hair (a fetish for many), if anyone is getting special treatment in a gay club it better be me. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Sometimes when I think how good my poetry sequence can be, I can hardly breathe."

For two months now I have been researching, pondering, and, recently, beginning to write a new poetry sequence. The problem: it's hard (in more ways than one). 

Growing up I always imagined being a novelist and would spend hours writing long stories, but when I discovered poetry I fell for the compression, for taking a story and trimming down. As most of my readers know I write almost entirely narrative poetry. They are often "story-like," but are small pieces I can mold and shape, that's not to say my poems are short. In fact I've been writing rather longish poems in the last year, but they are still manageable, because they are one piece and all interconnected.

What makes a sequence so difficult? For me it is thinking through the big picture and trying to make sense of all that I want to include and shaping it in a way that connects together, yet allows some of the poems to stand alone. It is the challenge of telling a longer story, but in multiple pieces. I can't just worry about the one poem. I have to worry about the poem that follows it and follows that one, etc. 

This is why, for the most part, I write individual, stand alone poems. Yes, they often connect in subject matter, style, and voice, but they are their own poems. I have only written two other sequences. The first was my Brad Pitt poems and these came easier to me because I didn't know I wanted them to be sequence until after I had written two or three of them. After I had those three poems, a lightbulb when off and I saw the whole project before me. I then went to writing the poems that needed to be written to fit my plan. I guess I work better this way. 

My other one is called "Confessions of an Open Relationship." I planned this one out from the start and it was difficult at times, but pulled itself together with a lot of work. In the end I enjoy this sequence, but have found that no one will publish it or even parts of it (maybe it is the subject matter). It is a sequence of 13 poems, but they rely too heavily on each other to stand alone, which has been frustrating, because few publications will print 13 of your poems. In many ways this is why the sequence was a bit easier to write than my current one: the poems and subject matter are a bit more narrow.  

This time around I'm feeling overwhelmed. This new sequence has the potential to be great and really challenge me in positive ways. I'm very excited about it, maybe too excited. I had so many ideas and information floating around inside my head that I had to plan it out on paper a week or so ago for fear that I would get lost in the middle somewhere. I've sketched out my plan for about 12 to 13 poems.

Honestly, underneath it all is fear. Sometimes I get ideas that I think are too good for me to be able to pull off. This causes me to freeze up and worry about fucking up. Welcome to the life of a writer, right? But I'm pushing forward with the sequence and hoping for the best. I have drafts of three of the poems and I'm praying to Truman Capote that the momentum with keep going and things will fall into place.

I don't want to say too much about the sequence as of right now, but I will say it involves a gay porn star, crime, prison, Armenia, and a crazed fan. 

Stay tuned.

Stephen (Capote) 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Falling for Orlando or Why I Love October

I love the fall. 

Of course, I live in Orlando currently, which means the fall is more of a feeling I have inside me than a season. But I try to create the mood in my apartment. I have decorated for Halloween and I am burning a pumpkin spice candle as I write this and pretending that it is cool outside and not 90 degrees. The fall is the number one thing I miss from living in the north, but even with the heat it is still my favorite time of the year and October one of my favorite months. 

This weekend kicked off the Halloween season here in Orlando. I love Halloween and especially living in a place that loves to celebrate things to the fullest. While I've always loved the fall, I just recently fell for Halloween and that has a lot to do with living here and being in such a gay city. For those who don't know Halloween is like the gay Christmas and until I moved here last year I never really experienced the kind of Halloween I had always longed for or seen in the movies. 

Growing up we celebrated Halloween, but my parents and family were never really into it. My mom always made us great homemade costumes as kids (I was always a dinosaur of some kind) and we always went trick-or-treating, but we never had big parties or anything of the kind and after I stopped dressing up I basically didn't celebrate it. 

Then when I met Dustin in college I really wanted us to have a fun (read: gay) Halloween, because I realized Halloween is a lot better when you are grown up and out of the closet. I convinced Dustin to go to a gay club for the night. This was our very first trip to a gay club. Now I have to explain that we went to college in rural Indiana in a town of a couple thousand people. The closest city was Louisville, Kentucky, which was about 40 minutes away, and they had a gay club called Connections. 

In preparation we headed to the Wal-Mart, basically the only option, and Dustin bought a child's firefighter outfit that he somehow stretched into. I think it was supposed to be a coat but was a shirt on him and extremely cute. I bought some purple fairy wings and glitter. Oh and we bought these terrible fake eyelashes. Regardless we got in our car on Halloween night and drove to Louisville to our very first gay club. It seems fitting that my first experience with a gay club was on Halloween. I think the gay community latches on to the holiday because it's all about blurring lines, fantasies, and becoming anything you want to become. In the end it wasn't the best night of our lives, but it was a moment and a Halloween I won't ever forget. 

Of course we have now become those gays that go to the club a few times a week. This past weekend we kicked things off by attending Parliament House's Hallow Scream, which basically just meant they put up all their Halloween decorations, had caged male dancers, and the queens did Halloween-like numbers. It was a perfect way to get into the mood. We got so in the mood that we spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night dancing and drinking at Parliament House (and at Epcot Sunday afternoon). 

It was a really great weekend that made me appreciate this time of year here in Orlando. We might not have changing leaves, cool weather, or corn mazes, but we know how to party and how to celebrate Halloween the right way. 

This year we have lots of events planned: Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a party of our own at our place, Parliament House on Halloween and maybe the Friday before too, and then to top it off next weekend is Orlando Pride. What better time to celebrate Gay Pride than in October. 

I guess I'm saying I complain a lot about living here: the tourists, the Disney crazies, the lack of actual seasons, but this weekend I didn't want to be any place else.

-Stephen (Falling)