Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Gets Better, But Is That The Answer?

Last weekend, I helped chaperone a homecoming dance for GLBT youth here in Orlando. It was an interesting experience for multiple reasons. First of all, it made me feel old. High school kids look so young. Secondly, it was so foreign from my own growing up. In high school, I attended a good portion of the dances, but always felt a little out of place and of course, always had a girl as my date. The kids on Saturday were coming together in acceptance and seemed to generally enjoy each other. I'm not sure exactly how many kids came, but it was a fair number. Some of the boys wore skirts and make-up and some of the girls were in boyish clothes. There was one couple that stood out to me, because they were two young boys (probably 15) and I couldn't help but feel like they were a representation of everything I missed growing up. They were holding hands and were clearly into each other. It was wonderful to witness, but also saddening because of all the people who never had the chance for young teenage love or those teens who still don't.

This past week, the news has been full of stories of young boys killing themselves because of antigay bullying. This isn't a new problem, but one that has gotten a lot of attention as the new school year has begun. My heart goes out to those boys and their families, because part of me can understand what happened. As I've written before, I didn't come out until I was 20 and well into my sophomore year of college. I was lucky in some ways. In high school, I managed to mostly fly under the radar of bullies, though I had my fair share of name calling and comments about my voice, which is probably why the phone ringing stills sends me into a panic. In college, I had "fag" written on my dorm room door, but nothing completely horrific ever happened, yet I was still in a very dark place when I came out in the winter of my sophomore year. Luckily, I went to get help and met with a therapist. If I hadn't, I don't know what would have happened or where I would be right now, so I understand these boys on some level and I know it isn't easy.

In response to these recent suicides, the writer Dan Savage started a video campaign called "It Gets Better." He is encouraging gay people to make videos of themselves telling the GLBT youth that it does get better. I have nothing against Dan Savage and I think the idea here is coming from the right place, but as I watched his video, I couldn't help but think is this really the best we can do? I've been a teacher for over five years and I can tell you from my experience, teaching 18-year-olds, simply telling them about the future and that things will be important later or things get better have little to no effect. Young people are in the moment and while that moment may not be so important in the long run, it feels vital at the time. A gay boy, sitting in a high school getting beat-up everyday and getting called fag, doesn't want to hear that it gets better and that he just needs to pull through, and I don't believe that should be our response as the GLBT community.

I'm not saying it isn't important to let kids know that gay people can be happy and can have amazing lives, or that there are places out there that have strong gay communities. Those are wonderful messages, but not necessarily a solution.

I began this post with the story of the homecoming dance for a reason. Here in Orlando, we have an organization called Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA) that is made to help these youth who don't fit in and need support while they are going through the difficulties that life has to offer young GLBT kids. OYA put on the dance and for that one night those kids could come together and have fun and be themselves. OYA meets weekly and provides a place to just talk. Does that fix everything? No, but it's better than just saying we can't help you and remember it gets better. More cities need these organizations and schools across this country need to take a stance to stop bullying of any kind. Schools need to discuss these issue with kids, parents, and teachers or it will never get better.

I also want to throw one more kink into this response, what if it doesn't get better? Yes, Dan Savage is doing quite well, but not everyone else is. We still live in a country that hates gay people. You still have to listen to constant discussion over if you should have the right to do, basically, anything. You can be fired for being gay. You still can't serve openly in the armed forces. You can't get married. You can't donate blood. Yes, you can move to a more accepting city. You can find friends and lovers, but it is still hard. I live in a fairly gay-friendly city for the first time in my life, yet not that long ago I was called a fag by some 14-year-old boy as I exited the mall. I couldn't find a job here for six months and went on a few interviews where I was told I couldn't be out if I wanted to work there. High school isn't completely the end of the fight or the bullying. Yes, you get stronger, but you are still always treated as a second class citizen in this country.

I'm not meaning to be so negative, or to even fully attack this campaign, but I don't think it's the best solution we have to offer as a community. Maybe it is part of an answer, but mostly it's a nice way for people to feel like they've done something in the face of such tragedy.

-Stephen (Better?)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Podcast 21: Warning: In Case of Rapture This Vehicle Will Be Unmanned

As most of you know or might have figured out, I am not a religious person. I consider myself to be an atheist, but I was raised religious and have always been around religious and often conservative people. There are some things I respect or can understand about faith and spirituality, but most of organized religion baffles me. The most baffling for me is people's belief that the world is ending very soon. I've heard people literally say, "I don't recycle because Jesus is coming back soon and it won't matter" (I'll let that sink in).

This all leads me to one of my favorite bumper stickers that reads "Warning: In Case of Rapture This Vehicle Will Be Unmanned." My favorite TV show is Six Feet Under and in season four they did the funniest opening death scene involving this bumper sticker and every time I see the sticker I think of that show and immediately start laughing.

For about two or three years, I've had the idea of writing a series of poems using bumper stickers as the titles. I still haven't decided if this is a fantastic idea or too gimmicky, which is why I've only written two of these poems and not fifty. The first one I wrote about three years ago and it is called "Real Men Love Jesus." Then about two months ago I began working on a second one using "Warning: In Case of Rapture This Vehicle Will Be Unmanned" as the title.

Today's podcast is a recording of that new poem. While the bumper sticker does make me laugh, the poem took on a very different tone and idea than I was originally expecting. This is a great example of a poem that came together and completely surprised me. The poem is dark and attempts to pay tribute to various people I have known who have died in car-related deaths and attempts to explore Christianity's response to death.

I hope you will enjoy listening.

-Stephen (Unmanned)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Seriously Funny Poetry, Seriously

Funny isn't often the first word people think of when they hear poetry. If they do, they are typically thinking of children's poetry and cute rhyming verses. Poetry has the unfortunate stereotype that it is all about sadness, death, love, and sometimes nature. This is anything, but true, and it's proven in a recently published anthology titled Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex and Everything Else.

I was drawn to this anthology because it is edited by two Florida State University professors (David Kirby and Barbara Hamby). I got my MFA from FSU and took three courses with David Kirby and he served on my thesis committee. I love Kirby's poetry, and since leaving FSU, I have seen the positive influence he has had on my work.

I don't often read anthologies cover to cover and in order, but this one I did. It is over 400 pages and includes a wide range of poets (famous and emerging, dead and alive). The idea here is that these poems are funny, but also serious in some way. They use humor in wonderful and surprising ways. The editors write in the introduction, "we're not looking for funny poems; we're looking for seriously funny poems, ones that evoke poetry's timeless concerns but include a comic element as well." They found plenty and many are by my favorite poets.

I've always been interested in using humor in my work, and anyone who has read much of my poetry hopefully has seen that. Humor works very well when paired with the serious or life concerns that much of poetry is about.

The anthology is nicely put together because it is divided into various sections by theme. For example, the first section is on one of my favorite topics: "Poetry and Pop Culture." This section also begins with Frank O'Hara's "Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed)." Other sections are about sex, friendship, religion, America, and almost any topic out there, which makes the anthology quite diverse and fun to read.

When I was at FSU, I taught a pop culture poetry course for freshmen and this book would have been perfect for it. As I was reading, I was wishing I could teach that class now and share these poems with new fresh minds, but I can't, so I'm writing this post in hopes that my readers will go buy this anthology. If you aren't overly familiar with contemporary poetry, this is a great book to get and to read cover to cover. It will give you a sense of what is happening in poetry today. Some of the poems are from the 1950s and 60s, but most are more recent and by living poets. Some of my favorites include Charles Harper Webb, Tony Hoagland, Josh Bell, Denise Duhamel, Nin Andrews, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Paul Guest, Steve Fellner, Jason Bredle, and of course David Kirby and Barbara Hamby who both have fine poems included.

Many anthologies are disappointing or only have a few worthy poems, but this one is fantastic and well worth the money and the time. It will have you laughing, but also thinking.

-Stephen (Seriously)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Podcast 20: Seeing a Dead Lizard After Reading Mark Doty's "Turtle, Swan"

On Friday, I celebrated my 7th anniversary with my partner Dustin. We had a great weekend with friends, drinks, food, and dancing. Our anniversary is always a complicated time for me. I'm thrilled and proud of how long we've been together, but it is also a strong reminder of how little recognition we have for our relationship. Since we cannot get married, our anniversary, to some, seems unimportant. I love my parents and they are very supportive of my relationship, but they never acknowledge our anniversary, even though they've always sent my sister and her husband cards or gifts for their anniversary. This may seem silly to some, but it is still a reminder that marriage makes it legitimate to people. There are many problems with this. Even if I was straight and I chose not to get married, that doesn't mean my relationship is any less vital or important. Regardless, it is this time of the year that I'm especially reminded of what I don't have and can't have.

This leads me to introducing my new poetry podcast. This podcast is a reading of my poem "Seeing a Dead Lizard After Reading Mark Doty's 'Turtle, Swan.'" This poem is about the fears that come from not being able to get married. I've read countless horrific stories of gay couples who have not been able to say goodbye to each other because they weren't "family." Or other couples that after one dies the other gets nothing. These are sad and scary situations to think about, and I try not to focus on them, but they are always there in the back of my mind.

This poem is also a tribute to Mark Doty's poem "Turtle, Swan." This is one of my favorite Doty poems and one of his very early ones. My poem follows a very similar pattern as his. In both, the speaker sees a dead creature, both end in a movie theater, and both deal with politically charged issues, but in a very personal way that examines the internal fears gay men face. If you haven't read Doty's poem, I recommend checking it out. I've linked it in the title above. It will give you a richer experience with my poem. I hope you will enjoy listening.

-Stephen (7 years)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Bug Motel, A Pink Cat, and Why Poetry Isn't a Hobby

As a kid, I would often see something in a store and say, I want that and my father would respond with I can make you that. Don’t worry this isn’t one of those sad father-son stories, because he often followed through. One summer he made me a “bug motel” out of wood, screen, and old scraps of school bus seats (he worked at a school bus factory) and I loved that thing. I spent a whole Indiana summer catching lightning bugs and forcing them to spend the night in my little motel. Often their lights dimmed or they drowned in the coke cap full of water I placed in the motel as a “swimming pool” for my guests. Regardless, he enjoyed making it and I enjoyed playing with it.

I also spent many winters at a Christmas craft fair where my parents had a booth selling goods they made. My dad constructed and painted lots of wooden decorations and toys: doorstops in the shape of kitty cats and turtles and clowns made of building blocks with little felt hats. My mother made stuffed animals. My favorite was a big pink cat that I loved to drag around by its ear, which eventually fell off. When my sisters and I played house, this pink cat was always my “wife.” I even went as far as giving her eye shadow, which was actually just purple chalk I smeared above each eye. If this isn’t proof that people are born gay, I don’t know what is.

The point is these actions made my parents happy. They had no desire to be toy makers or world famous crafters. These were their hobbies. I grew up in the Midwest and making crafts is what people do.

In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the word “hobby.” As a poet, I’ve had this word thrown at me many times. When I first moved to Orlando, I was in a gay club and a friend of mine introduced me to another friend of his. This friend of a friend heard I was a writer and asked what I wrote. I said that I wrote poetry. He responded by saying, poetry is just a hobby. I thought maybe he was joking, so I said, no, I mean I really write and publish poetry. He followed this up with a repeat of his previous comment: poetry is just a hobby. He seemed to be quite upset at the fact that I didn’t accept and understand this concept. He continued to press me by saying, what do you really want to do? I explained, once again, that I wrote poetry and that is what I want to do. Then for a third time he repeated, poetry is just a hobby. This is when I said fuck you and walked away.

This happened over two years ago, yet it hasn’t left my head. I can’t shake this man’s words or the complete disrespect in his face as he repeatedly said hobby. Now, I hate the word. In reality, there is nothing wrong with hobbies. Hobbies make us happy. They keep us busy. They help us make friends. They are something that fills the time, but in an enjoyable way.

Poetry, for me, is not a hobby. I don’t necessarily do it for fun. In fact, sometimes it isn’t fun at all. It is hard work. I recently saw a quotation about how writers are people who give themselves homework for the rest of their lives, and it’s true. I write poetry because I have to and I want to share it. I feel driven to do it, even when it’s painful or unpleasant. I come home from a fulltime job and force myself to write. I don’t write poetry just to share it with my mom or to give it as gifts so I don’t have to spend real money. It doesn’t fill my extra time, because I feel like my job is writing poetry and everything else should cater to it, which doesn’t always get to happen.

A few months ago, I had another odd situation. I taught a publication workshop with a friend and fellow writer and blogger named Jaclyn Sullivan. Our part of the presentation was on literary magazines and publishing fiction and poetry. I was explaining the fact that most literary magazines do not pay you, but give you free copies and help get your name out there. Then, this woman in the back raised her hand and said, so if you aren’t getting paid then what’s the point? She didn’t use the word hobby and I couldn’t, because of the setting, tell her fuck you, but I felt her sentiment was very much the same as the man in the gay club. She couldn’t believe that someone would write without getting paid to do it. Clearly, my presentation was going to be lost on her.

I was taken off guard and said something about loving poetry and then something about probably sounding un-American due to my lacking drive for money and then something else about wanting to actually get a job at a good school teaching in their MFA program. She, and probably many others in the room, could not quite grasp what I was saying or the reason behind my poetic desire. Yes, I am poet. Yes, I don’t make money. Is this why no one cares about the arts anymore? Is it really all about money? How cliché.

I write poetry because I was born to. It is inside me. I know lots people will never understand it and others will always think of it as my hobby. Most will probably never read a poem by me. Yet, somehow none of that really matters. I’ll still be here writing it, sending it out, and publishing it.

My dad has stopped making so many crafts. He now lives in Texas with my mom and my two sisters and his only granddaughter. He is happy. As for my bug motel, it was thrown away years ago, yet it lives on in a poem.

-Stephen (Poet)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Podcast 19: This Side Up

Nine years ago today I was just two weeks into my freshman year of college. I was trying to figure everything out and was focusing on my new beginning. I woke up that Tuesday morning to go to French class and when I went into the restroom the janitor told me a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. When I got back to my room, I flipped on the TV and saw the chaos unfolding.

September 11th happened right as I was growing into an adult. That event profoundly changed me and my world views. I didn't have my family or old friends to influence my thinking on the subject, but I did have my new college roommate. He was a Muslim from Pakistan and really helped me see the events of 9/11 from a worldly perspective. For that, I am forever thankful to him.

The podcast that I'm posting today, nine years after 9/11, is a reading of my poem "This Side Up." This poem is important to me on many levels. It was a breakthrough. It is longer than any poem I had written at the time and the style is a bit different as well. The poem is about those first few months after 9/11 living with my roommate at a small college in Southern Indiana. This poem was hard to write and I didn't write it until grad school, which was well after the events in the poem.

This title is also the title of my first book manuscript that I'm sending out to publishers and contests. The title "This Side Up" feels fitting for the book because there are so many pieces about trying to figure something out or forging a new path and my "up" may not be your "up."

I felt today was a good day to share this poem on my blog, and I hope you will enjoy hearing it.

-Stephen (Upside Down)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Struggle to Disconnect

On Monday (Labor Day), I turned off the wireless internet on my laptop and silenced my phone. I even put my phone on the countertop face down, so I would have no chance of seeing the little green light on top that flashes anytime I have a new text message, email, or Twitter or Facebook update. I did this for just two hours, so I could write and focus without interruption. I succeeded and it felt good, but also a little strange.

I am almost 28 and in my lifetime I have gone from very little personal technology to relying on technology to do everything. I actually wrote one of my first stories on a typewriter. I remember when no one had cell phones and when they were only those large bulky things you saw on TV from time to time. Remember: I was born and raised in the Midwest. Now, everywhere I go I am expected to be connected. People grow very concerned or angry if you don't respond to a text message promptly. Did you die? Do you hate me? Why are you ignoring me?

This expectation of connection has always been my greatest fear with technology. I don't like being trapped by it or bound by it. I sometimes like disappearing into the world and not having to answer to anyone. Does this mean I no longer like you? Of course not, but sometimes I want to just be with myself. Recently, these days have vanished. Last April, Dustin finally talked me into getting a smart phone. While I have enjoyed it more than I thought, I also fear it as I know I am becoming more and more attached to it.

On Monday when I was trying to focus on writing, I kept having the urge to check my phone. Why? Did I fear I would miss the witty thing one of my friends said on Facebook? Or miss the exact moment someone asked me a question or attempted to make plans for the weekend? Guess what, all of that stuff was there when I got done with my two hours of solitude and no one was pissed or sending a search party. As it turns out, this technology is making us all feel more important than we actually are.

What I hate is that I can feel my focus slipping away from me. Once upon a time, I was a very focused person. I've never been a huge procrastinator, but now I sometimes find myself too distracted to write and that makes me crazy. I feel I should be doing five things at once. There are days I wish I could bury my phone in the ground, have my internet cut off, and spend days just writing and writing, but that's not a 21st century world.

All of these advances in technology are meant to connect us to each other, yet I feel more disconnected from myself and I like myself better than a lot of other people, so this is a crisis. Do I really need to watch another stupid Youtube video (which actually I don't do very often because I rarely find them funny)? Do I need to look up some stranger's pictures of her wedding or baby or party with undetermined theme? And does any of this make us truly more connected? Yes and no. I have seen the benefits of much of this connection, but I also know that a lot of it is breaking down our ability to truly and effectively communication with one another.

My new goal, my fall goal, is to disconnect more often. I have to or I'm going to slowly melt into my phone or internet search engine and I'll never write again or everything I write will be 140 characters. Don't get me wrong, I love lots of technology, but we have to be careful how we use it. When I think of how much my relationship with technology has changed in just 28 years (almost) it scares me.

As I'm finishing this post, my phone is buzzing and flashing green and everything in my body is telling me to pick it up, but I'm fighting the urge.

-Stephen (Offline)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Great Divide

Poets can be bitches. This has been proved time and time again including this past week when the poetry blog world exploded (we also exaggerate) with posts about the idea of literary magazines charging for online submissions. New England Review and Ploughshares both just announced they would be doing this. I'm not going to rehash the arguments. If you want to see the full discussion, I recommend checking out the blogs of C. Dale Young, Steve Fellner, Collin Kelley, and my friend V. Wetlaufer.

I can see the arguments on both sides and all four of the people I listed above make valid and interesting points. What I found more interesting, than the discussion over charging $2.00 to submit to a magazine, was that in the comments section of many of these blogs the argument suddenly became about print vs. online.

It was suggested by many that instead of charging people to submit to your magazine to stay afloat, maybe your print magazine should go online, which some have (TriQuarterly for example). This lit a fire for many who seem to harbor a hatred for online publications. This fire was returned by people who believe everything will be online and that online is somehow more creative and cutting edge.

Underneath this argument seems to be lurking the same debate between "the academic world of writers" and "the anti-establishment world of writers." Because I attended an MFA program and long for a good academic teaching job, I fall into the first category. What this really means is I have to play by the rules. I need to get published in good magazines. I need to get a book published through a first book contest. Basically, I have a path I am supposed to follow. For many this does not include the online world.

What I hate about these debates is that there never appears to be a middle ground. People either are hating on the academics or hating on those who are not tied to academics and are often more willing to embrace online publications and self-publishing options.

I seem to land in the middle. Call me what you want, but I love academics. I love teaching. I love going to classes. I went to a very traditional, old school liberal college for my undergrad. I love books. I respect the establishment and the game I have to play. Publishing should be hard work. I will probably end up in a PhD program in the near future because I miss school so much.

On the other hand, I am young and see the benefits of the online world and I'm open to it. As you can see from my list of publications, I have work both in print magazines (many good ones) and in online magazines. This isn't completely a black and white issue, but everyone tries so hard to make it one. There are good and interesting online magazines and there are wonderful print magazines. There are also terrible ones of both. Some seem to think because it is in print it is somehow automatically good. This is not true. For example, Twilight is in print. Someone published it (grammatical errors and all).

The poetry world also has to be careful of fully embracing all online publications and self-publishing options. I wrote a bit about this in my blog a few weeks ago. These methods often lead to a world of writers but no readers. There still needs to be a quality check. I'm also tired of some of these online enthusiasts claiming the print world is dying. Books have been around a long, long time and aren't going anywhere (at least not in my lifetime). I do like some online magazines, but I have a hard time reading poetry on a screen. I love nothing more than a book in my hands.

I think we all need to calm down just a little. I don't care if you are published online or in print or if you have an MFA or not. I care about your work and if it is good. Maybe we need to focus on that a little more and stop trying to make this divide in an already small world. I am careful about where I submit, and I think everyone should be. I carefully consider the poem and the publication. At the same time, no one should close their eyes to any avenue, and we should try to respect and understand each other a little more (cheesy, right?). Of course, what would we write blog posts about if we weren't all a little bitchy and full of ourselves?

-Stephen (Poet Bitch)