Sunday, August 1, 2010

In the Movies

As a poet, I am fascinated by the use of pop culture in poetry. I've written about this topic many times, and it's evident in much of my work. Recently, I've been thinking a lot about movies in poetry. My favorite poet, Frank O'Hara, loved movies and often wrote about them and the experience of going to the theater, which was different back then. I also brought this up in my review of Valley of the Dolls a few weeks ago. What is it about movies that pull so many poets in (particularly gay ones)?

For me, it might, simply, come down to a love of movies. From the time I can remember, I have watched and fallen in love with movies. They are a reflection of our culture and of different times in our lives. I can think back to being 10 years old and watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the first time. I thought it was amazing. It was one of the first PG-13 movies I was allowed to watch, which made it even cooler. I watched it over and over again. Or I can remember being in high school and going to see American Beauty, which changed me forever and made me fall in love with Alan Ball's writing (he wrote and created my all-time favorite TV series, Six Feet Under, and is currently the creator and writer of True Blood).

Movies are typically the first place we see sex and violence. They are a window into worlds we may never experience or aren't allowed to experience yet, which might be part of their pull. Growing up, I had no connection to gay men or the gay community, but I can remember small glimpses I would get in film and television. I remember watching Ellen's coming out episode and being secretly thrilled by it. I also clearly remember sexual scenes in movies that I'd watch over and over again trying to understand my own sexuality. For example, Kevin Costner's ass in the waterfall scene in Robin Hood completely mesmerized me.

We also connect to other people through the act of watching movies, which is something that O'Hara wrote about, but that was when movie theaters were a little seedier and more fun. Still, we often remember the act of watching a movie more than the movie itself. I can remember watching About a Boy with Dustin. It was the second time we met. We were in my dorm room in college and we were both nervous gay boys. After it was over, we had our first kiss. I will forever connect that moment to that movie.

Movies are perfect jumping off points for poems. As many of you know, I first fell in love with the idea of using movies in poetry when I wrote a sequence of eight poems that use Brad Pitt movies, which serve as the sparks to get the poems going. I like to weave the storyline with something unexpected. One of the poems uses 12 Monkeys, but is about a gay couple protesting the circus. All eight poems are an exploration of a gay couple's relationship and the ups and downs of love and expectation.

When writing one of these poems, the choice of film is vital. You want something that will surprise and connect with the reader, which is another reason to use film. Going into the poem, most readers are going to have some prior knowledge of the movie, and therefore you can quickly go to new and interesting places. Part of the work is done for you. It is like shorthand. From there, you can take the reader on a journey that uses the themes or ideas from the movie, but ties them to another experience.

Gay poets often do this very well. Great examples include Frank O'Hara, David Trinidad, D. A. Powell, Charles Jensen, and Steve Fellner (I just finished his book Blind Date With Cavafy and he has many great poems in it that reference movies). This is not to say that straight poets don't use pop culture, because many do. I do, however, think the connection might be stronger for some gay poets who, growing up, found themselves drawn to worlds on the big screen because their world never felt right.

For me, it is also a way to connect with our current culture. Our society uses pop culture as a way to understand everyday life. It has replaced religion or philosophy. The main method of understanding ourselves, for better or for worse, comes from the movies or TV shows we watch. How many times a day do you hear someone referring or connecting their experiences with a fictional film or TV character? I do all the time.

This has also been on my mind because I've been working on a new movie poem titled "Missing You While Watching Misery." This poem is a perfect example of taking a movie and connecting it to something completely different and surprising. It is inspired by my two and a half weeks of not having Dustin around. I'm happy with my progress on it so far and hopefully one day you can read it. Until then, go watch some movies.

-Stephen (Star Struck)

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