Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Own Waste Land

In a lot of ways, I consider myself lucky for attending an MFA program that required that I take so many literature courses. I know many MFA programs do not. At Florida State, the MFA program is three years and you are required to take almost as many lit hours as the lit students (their program is just two years). This falls in line with my firm belief that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader. They go hand in hand.

When I entered graduate school, I had a firm understanding of the history of Western literature. My undergrad was in literature at a very traditional liberal arts school where I learned a great deal. During my MFA, I was pleased to be allowed to take more specific courses that dived deeply into periods and writers I loved. My favorite of these was a course on the New York School poets, which completely changed my writing.

As a writer, I feel as if I am engaging in a conversation that has been going on for centuries, and I'm just one more addition or one more voice. If I don't know what has come before me, I would feel a little lost. That's not to say you can't have an original voice, but it should be an informed original voice. If you are going against something, it is important to know what that something is and to be able to talk about it. Have I loved everything I have been required to read? Of course not. But I do have an understanding of why I don't like it, and many times why it is important to the ongoing discussion. I don't regret reading any of these pieces no matter how hard they might have been to get through at the time. Students often confuse "liking" with "valuable." Many things I do not like have been very useful to me and to my growth as a person.

Being a gay poet, I am particularly interested in the history and story of other gay poets, which I've written a bit about on this blog already. But it isn't just gay writers that inform my work and inspire me. There is a danger in only reading people "like you."

Yesterday, I finished what I'm considering the first "complete" draft of a new poem. The poem is titled "He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices." When I began writing this poem, I had no idea where it was going. My original idea came from a series of photos by gay artists that got me thinking about the idea of narcissism within the gay community. The photos were addressing that issue in relation to AIDS. I wanted a poem that would explore the idea of narcissism from different gay perspectives (multiple voices).

I began writing and writing, and I had all these little chunks that I didn't know exactly how to connect. As I was reading through the chunks one day, feeling defeated, a sudden thought surfaced: the original title for "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot was "He Do the Police in Different Voices," and I thought why not take that title, change it, and think of Eliot's poem as a strange guide for my own poem. This suddenly made things click and I started reshaping the poem and expanding beyond just narcissism. The result is one I am pleased with, so far. The poem is not trying to be "The Waste Land," but has various references to it besides the title. I don't necessary want people to take out my poem and compare it to, what is considered by many, the most important poem of the 20th century. That might be a bit too much pressure, but my poem is building on Eliot's and talking with it.

My point is that I would never have written this poem had I not spent various classes studying T.S. Eliot. I enjoy much of Eliot's work and I'm a huge modernist fan, but I hadn't read "The Waste Land" in three years, yet still the thought was there and completely saved my poem. You never know what might be useful later, which is why well-rounded education is vital to being a great writer whether you do that inside or outside a classroom.

I am going to continue to work on this poem, build on it, and hopefully get it published. I am also going to continue reading everything I can and push my own knowledge of literature, and I encourage you to do the same.

-Stephen (Read/Write)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Podcast 24: A History of Blood

It is Monday, so I did miss my Sunday podcast posting, but instead of being lazy and not posting one for another week, I recorded a new podcast today. I also figured there is a good chance, since next weekend is Halloween (also known as the Gay Christmas), I will not be posting one next Sunday.

Today's podcast is a recording of my poem "A History of Blood." This is the title poem from my still unpublished chapbook. All of the poems are inspired by a gay porn star (pictured) who was hired to "scare" an older couple who owed some guy money. Basically, he beat them up a few times. He is now serving twenty years in prison. The poems are also inspired by my interaction with him through letters. I'm hoping someone will publish the collection soon. I've entered it in a few chapbook contests and it was a finalist for PANK's contest in the summer. This poem will also be appearing in the spring issue of New Mexico Poetry Review, which is very exciting.

Many of the poems in the chapbook rely heavily on each other. This one can more easily stand on its own. One thing I'm trying to do in this poem, and in the whole collection, is examine the gay man's fascination with danger and men who are unattainable or violent in some way.

I hope you will enjoy listening.

-Stephen (Breaking My Rules)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

5 Things I'm Thinking About This Week

1. Mad Men. I watched the season four finale last night. While I don't think it was as strong as some of the other episodes this season, it was a good season finale. I've loved watching Mad Men grow and develop over these four seasons. The Peggy and Don interactions this season have been genius and I loved the extra screen time that Sally got. It is nice and rare to see strong and subtle writing getting recognized on television.

2. By Nightfall. I just finished reading Michael Cunningham's new novel. I'm a huge fan of his. I think his first three novels (A Home At the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and The Hours) are some of the best contemporary novels out there. I was not a fan of Specimen Days, which he published a few years ago, but was willing to forgive him. By Nightfall, which came out a few weeks ago, was a quiet book and very reflective. Not a lot happens in the book, which I don't have a problem with. My art minor in college did come in handy because the book is very much an examination of beauty and art in both the literal sense and in a more metaphoric way. I had mixed feelings about the main character. He didn't always feel real and sometimes felt like a mouthpiece for particular ideas instead of a character. I also would like Cunningham to write a novel that doesn't have references to AIDS. The main character in By Nightfall is haunted by the death of his older and beautiful brother who died 20 years ago in the AIDS crisis, which might be getting a little tiresome for Cunningham readers. Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is a quick read. It had some wonderful language and ideas in it, but it didn't blow me away.

3. Poetry Workshop. I have decided to start a local poetry workshop for GLBT people and their allies. The group is called Nerve, which is a reference to Frank O'Hara's quote about going on your nerve. I'm excited and hope some people will show up. I'm doing the first meeting at my apartment on November 8th. There is a Facebook group you can find and join if you are interested. Obviously, you do need to live in the Orlando area. I think this will give me a good outlet to share and discuss poetry. I've realized that I miss the workshop community. Please check it out.

4. Voting. The midterm election is about to happen and the more news I listen to the more depressed I become. While I have been frustrated with Obama, I know that the democrats losing too many seats will lead to a complete disaster. It saddens me how apathetic so many young people and gay people are. So many people came out and voted in 2008 who won't be at the polls this year. It is great to vote for the president, but, in many ways, all of the other elections are a lot more important. These are the people who can make things happen or stop things from happening on a local, state, and federal level. Obama is going to have his hands tied if congress can't pass anything. I encourage you all to go and vote. I will probably write more about this as the election gets even closer.

5. It Gets Better. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the "It Gets Better" campaign and the recent GLBT teen suicides. When I wrote the post there weren't many videos made yet. I have been surprised by the number of them out there and how many gay and supportive celebrities have filmed them, but my opinion really hasn't changed. While these videos are great, we need to be doing more. Kids get bullied because we've created a society where that is tolerated and accepted. We have let the word "gay" become a slur that kids hurl at each other and many people tell kids not to say it because it isn't nice. Actually being called "gay" is not negative. It is only negative if you feel being gay is wrong. We must take action and that action doesn't just need to happen in schools, but everywhere. When our politicians can get on TV and say hateful and untrue things about gay people, of course kids are going to think it is okay. We treat gay people like second class citizens and so do kids on the playground. Tomorrow, I will be wearing purple and will be attending a local vigil for the kids who took their lives in recent weeks. I hope you will be joining in this small act and standing up against hate not just in schools, but everywhere.

-Stephen (Full)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Podcast 23: I'm Supposed to Start with the Last Time I Saw You

Next week will mark the second anniversary of my grandfather's death. He was the only grandfather I ever knew. I grew up living about thirty minutes from my grandparents' farm where I spent many summer days helping them in the garden, climbing apple trees, and sitting on their porch and talking with both of them. I was a very big outdoors kid and loved my time spent there.

I was fairly close with him and my grandmother who is still alive, but as I got older I felt more disconnected from that life. When I came out at 20, my mother was concerned about telling my grandparents, so she took it upon herself to tell my grandmother, but said she wasn't sure we should tell my grandfather. My grandmother took it fairly well, as far as I know. She sent me a card right after and accepted Dustin immediately. At the time, my grandfather was having some health issues and everyone was convinced he was going to die. He ended up recovering well and living for six more years. I never told him I was gay and I don't know if anyone else ever actually said those words, but I know that my grandfather knew. He wasn't stupid. Dustin came to lots of family events and was there the last time I saw my grandfather. He never treated me differently and I don't think he cared, but I pulled away and I didn't always feel comfortable around my grandparents after coming out. I spent less and less time with them. Maybe this is because I wasn't the one to tell them.

I have regrets. Things I can't change. No matter what I loved my grandfather and I know that he loved me. He was a good man and one of the most hardworking men I've ever known. When he died almost two years ago, I was going through a really hard time in my life. I had no money and couldn't go to his funeral. I did, however, write a poem about him that is possibly one of the most personal poems I've written. It is called "I'm Supposed to Start with the Last Time I Saw You." In honor of my grandfather, Ralph Miller (yes my mother's maiden name was Miller, which was only a small change to Mills), I recorded this poem as my Sunday podcast. I hope you will enjoy listening to it.

-Stephen (Love)

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Power of Coming Out

This year's National Coming Out Day feels even more important and significant than in previous years. Gay teen suicide has been very much in the news recently, and I hope we continue to discuss this issue and not let the recent tragedies fade from memory. Coming out is vital, but it can also be a very big struggle.

It is on this day that I reflect on my own journey. As I've written before, I didn't come out until I was 20. It was difficult for me to accept myself as a gay man. I grew up knowing no gay people and saw only glimpses of them on TV or in movies. Most were not people I wanted to be. I remember Ellen's big coming out episode. I had been a fan of her show before and closely watched that episode and those that followed. At the time, I didn't fully understand my interest. I also remember the warning that ABC put up before each episode telling people about the possible offensive material in the show. It blows my mind that this happened during my lifetime. It sounds like a story from a long time ago, but it was the 1990s. Ellen had a huge impact on TV and still does, but for a young guy confused about his own sexuality that warning didn't help me come to terms or accept myself.

When I did come out, I remember being so scared to go into a Barnes and Noble and pull a gay magazine off the shelf. I thought someone would jump out and attack me or shout at me or even just look at me funny. At the same time, I was so thirsty for something gay, because I had little to no outlets.

I came out to most people in the spring of 2003 and then went to Europe for two months. When I returned, I spent the rest of the summer in my hometown with my family. I grew up in Richmond, Indiana, which is a small Midwestern city of about 40,000 people. I remember going into the Blockbuster (this was before they all started shutting down), and seeing that they had the first season of Queer As Folk. It was in the "special interests" section and on the top shelf where that store put all of the more "adult" titles. After much debate, I got up the courage to pull the disc off the shelf and check out. I spent the next week or so renting all the discs of the first season and diving into a gay world I had never seen before.

Some criticize Queer As Folk, but I still think it's one of the best TV shows featuring gay people to ever air on American television. It covered a huge range of issues and topics and was actually made for a gay audience and not for a straight audience (like Will and Grace was). I also have a soft spot for it because it was truly my first exposure to most gay things. I learned a lot from the show and it helped me feel connected. Watching that show made me know I was going to be okay. I also became well versed in gay sexual terms, which proved useful later.

Coming out wasn't easy. The first few months I felt very lost and confused. I had come out and everything felt different, yet everything was exactly the same. Little did I know, that upon returning to college that fall I would meet Dustin and I would fall in love. That's not completely the end of the story, but it's a good place to stop. The last seven and a half years of being out have been the best of my life. Does that mean everything is perfect? No, but I am who I am (the good and the bad).

Coming out is a personal journey and it is different for all of us. What is important is to do it. It won't be easy. It may take time to adjust. You may lose friends or family, but you will gain self respect and a new community that believes in you for who you are. There is power and strength in that.

As I close this post, I want to share a wonderful new website I recently discovered. The site is called God Loves Poetry. The goal is to get people to take press releases from the Westboro Baptist Church and to blackout the hate and make a positive poem out of it. For those not familiar with the WBC, they have a website called God Hates Fags and they protest at lots of gay events, funerals for gay people who have been murdered, and recently at lots of military funerals (somehow gay people are responsible for America losing wars). I created one of these poems and they just published it on the site today. It is about Lady Gaga, so please go check it out and read the others. I think this is a perfect site to read on National Coming Out Day.

-Stephen (Out)

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Dialogue Continues: A Review

A few months ago, I wrote a review of the fantastic anthology titled Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. What I loved so much about that book was all the writers it exposed me to that I wanted to read more about. The anthology contained useful bios of each poet that I carefully read looking for other books to buy. One of those books I bought is titled Unending Dialogue: Voices From an AIDS Poetry Workshop edited by Rachel Hadas. I have spent the last week or so reading this book and thinking about the idea of dialogue, but also of poetry workshops.

What is unique about this book is that it is work that came out of a workshop that Rachel Hadas conducted weekly at the Gay Men's Health Crisis building in New York City during 1989 and 1990. These were difficult years for GMHC as the AIDS crisis was in full swing. Her workshop often only consisted of a few men, but powerful work was produced. She writes a lovely introductory essay about her experience. I found this very interesting because of all the time I've spent in workshops and then my own experiences as a teacher trying to lead one. It is challenging especially when faced with a room of men who are facing their own deaths.

This book really gives strength to the idea of a workshop. For many, poetry is a very solitary act. A workshop, however, is a coming together and a sharing. Hadas says a lot of actual writing was done in the workshop as well as a lot of reading. She explains how many of the lines and ideas were shared amongst the men, which really shows the power of collaboration. I've been toying with the idea of starting a workshop here in Orlando geared toward GLBT writers and this book really pushed that idea to the front of my mind. This book also expresses the power of poetry to help examine difficult and confusing topics like the AIDS crisis.

After Hadas's essay, there is a section of poems by the men in the group. They range in perspective, but all feel very raw and to the point. These are poems written in the moment that help continue a dialogue that is still happening today. AIDS is still very much present in our society and world. Yes, we have better treatments and AIDS is not the life sentence it once was, but we still have a long way to go. These poems give a sense of where we have been and the wonderful people we have lost. In many ways, it is hard to put myself into those moments in the 80s and early 90s when so many men were dying. These poems help give me a glimpse into that fear and confusion that must have been everywhere. And because this is a collection written during a workshop, I can't help but think of those men gathered around a table talking about poetry and finding a voice in it. Part of me longs to be in that room with them.

The second half of the book, however, falls a little short. After the section of work by the men, Hadas includes poems she wrote during the workshop along with commentary about each one. Reading this last section confirmed my belief that poets shouldn't speak too much about their own work. By giving such lengthy commentary on her own poems, she devalues them and narrows their power. The great thing about literature is the connections and ideas you, as the reader, can pull from it. I found myself less engaged in her poems, because I knew she was going to explain the hell out of them on the next page. I believe that the intent or idea the poet had for a poem doesn't really matter that much after the poem has entered the world. It no longer belongs to the poet. She did include some interesting insights into how these poems developed from her workshop experience and her connection to these men, many of whom died while the workshop was still going on, but the commentary felt overworked and unnecessary. I don't say this out of hate, because I admire her attempt and the work she did in this workshop, but as a part of this book it doesn't work that well.

In the end, the book was well worth the read. I do recommend checking it out, if you can find it. I bought my copy used on Amazon. It is no longer in print, which is why the new anthology Persistent Voices is so important. It takes so many of these "lost" voices and gives them a second chance to speak. These books encourage dialogue and discussion and the use of poetry to do both. We must not forgot those we have lost, nor can we ignore the current dialogue that is happening all around us.

-Stephen (Unending)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Night of Making Love

On Saturday night, I had the privilege of attending a screening of the 1982 gay film Making Love and hearing the screenwriter, Barry Sandler, speak. The event was organized by my friend Josh and was held at the GLBT center here in Orlando. While I have often written of how much I enjoy the gay community in Orlando, one thing that is greatly missing is events like this one. We have a good club, bar, and drag scene, but the cultural or historical based events are lacking. This is one reason I am so grateful to Josh for setting up this wonderful opportunity.

A few years ago, I read some articles about Making Love, but I had never seen it. The film is very significant in the history of GLBT representation on the screen. It was the first gay themed film to ever be backed by a major motion picture company. It was released in 1982 (the same year I was born), and was the first time someone truly attempted to portray gay characters in a positive light on the big screen.

The story is a simple coming out tale (especially for that period). The main character is a closeted gay man named Zach, played by Michael Ontkean, who is married to Claire (Kate Jackson). Through the course of the film, he falls for Bart (Harry Hamlin) and comes out to his wife. While this is a familiar story, this film avoids many of the pitt falls of other closeted married coming out stories. All the characters are very successful career-wise. Claire is portrayed as a sympathetic character. She isn't an easy target or an annoying or stupid wife. Bart is a very "into the gay scene" guy, but isn't a walking stereotype. Zach truly wants a connection with another man and not just sex. The film also ends in a surprising and realistic way, but a very positive way.

It was great to hear Barry Sandler speak about writing the film, casting the film, and then the film's response. His goal was to do something different with gay characters and he accomplished that. He was smart for doing the story in the way that he did. Claire truly becomes, as Sandler said, "a tour guide" for the heterosexual audience. Her journey to acceptance helps the uncomfortable audience find their own acceptance or at least tolerance (or maybe they walked out screaming halfway through). At the same time, the film is great for a gay audience who was hungry for a real representation on the screen. It doesn't shy away from the gay scene or from the affection two men can have. Even by today's standards, this film is sexy. The actors have some 80s hair going on, but they are hot and both play the characters with respect and honesty.

As I've written before, one of my favorite topics to study is gay representation in film and television. I've written a lot of papers on the subject and even presented a conference paper on gay "characters" in reality TV. What I loved about seeing this film and hearing Sandler was trying to put it into the context of where we are today.

Making Love did open the gates to more variation in gay characters both in film and television. Today, gay characters are in lots of places, but I often feel, with few exceptions, that we've hit a wall. It is 2010 and Making Love, a 28 year old film, would still shock a large population in this country. We still don't see that many sexual or interesting gay characters on the big or small screen. We are too often the sidekick or the witty best friend. Or we end up back in the tragedy track. Brokeback Mountain immediately comes to mind. That film was praised as being groundbreaking for the gay community, but I found it anything but groundbreaking. Yes, it made money, which is rare for a gay themed film, but it was a typical and tragic story about men who never really accept themselves and one dies at the end. I know many in the gay community loved that film, but nothing in it is shaking things up. In fact, it is reinforcing tired and cliched gay storylines. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a badly made film, but I very much challenge the praise and rhetoric surrounding it. It is not a universal love story no matter how many times Ang Lee says that it is. In grad school, I wrote a paper attacking this rhetoric and the marketing of the film.

Making Love is a similar story, but done in a positive way and in a different time period. Sandler said that the reaction to the film was fairly good. He did mention some people walking out at the opening he attended in Miami, but also spoke of the endless letters he received praising his work. The careers of the main cast were not destroyed. At the event on Saturday, someone behind me whispered something about the religious right not being as organized back then and that got me thinking. What is the difference between 1982 and 2010? Well, like the woman said, the religious right has gotten organized and loud. They complain about anything remotely gay and the media gives them tons of attention. When Brokeback Mountain came out I remember lots of theaters refusing to play it. It blows my mind that we still have to fight to allow a movie to be shown in a theater where people have to pay to go see it. No one is forcing anyone to watch. People who live in more accepting areas seem to forget the fight that is still out there in the majority of this country. I'm from the Midwest, so that fact isn't lost on me.

The number of gay characters has increased since 1982. We have representation, which is a step in the right direction and a step helped by people like Sandler. Now, we must fight for diverse representation and to move past the coming out story. Gay people do more than come out of the closet. I am thankful that recently filmmakers have been addressing gay historical figures and stories. Films like Capote, Milk, and the new Howl are good examples of sharing GLBT history.

Making Love is a film I am thankful to have seen and one that greatly touched gay men everywhere when it came out. I remembered, as I was watching it, that D. A. Powell wrote a poem referencing Making Love in his 2004 book Cocktails. The poem is titled "[every man needs a buddy. who'll do]. See, poetry connects to everything.

-Stephen (Love Made)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Podcast 22: note, passed to matthew shepard

As my last blog post stated, there have been many horrific and sad stories of young men taking their own lives because of antigay bullying in the last two weeks. These events have been on my mind a great deal. My last post dealt with the "It Gets Better" campaign, and how it's a fine start, but, to me, not enough.

I've also been thinking a lot about how the media works in these situations. Suddenly, everyone is talking about gay teen suicide, when this is anything but a new issue. I'm not complaining because this issue needs serious attention, but it also needs to be recognized as a product of our society that has been going on for quite some time.

In just nine days it will be the 12th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard. His story seems important to be reminded of and think about in connection to these recent events. Shepard did not take his own life, but died at the hands of homophobia and ignorance. We are breeding a culture of hate and people, somehow, still seem surprised. We are electing officials who stand on TV and say gay people are a bigger threat than terrorists. We have minsters across this country blaming the "gay agenda" for anything and everything. We have celebrities, like 50 Cent, who encourage gay violence and still make millions of dollars. I like to think these aren't the majority opinions of the people in this country, yet not enough people are ever willing to stand up and say this is wrong.

Shepard's murder rocked this country for a bit and still weighs heavily on the minds of gays and lesbians. But his story is just one of many, just like these boys this past week. For each one of these stories that gets national attention, there are hundreds of others that don't. Shepard's story has also found its way into lots of gay literature, which brings me to my poetry podcast for today. This is a reading of my poem "note, passed to matthew shepard." I wrote this poem probably four or five years ago and have revised it many times since. It was a difficult poem to write, but one that I felt so compelled to get out of me. The title is a reference to the famous Lucille Clifton poem "note, passed to superman."

I felt this poem was appropriate for the moment. If you want to read the poem as well as listen to it, you can. The poem was published in Velvet Mafia last October. You can read it here: It is the second poem on the page, so you have to scroll down (though I encourage you to read both poems). Just a word of warning, Velvet Mafia is not safe for work.

I'm still trying to get my head around the events of recent times and how we can proceed as a community. Poetry is one of my methods of pushing social change and getting people to think. While my audience might be small, I do hope that by being open and putting myself and my life out there, someone does feel hope and connection. At the same time, I know that face to face interaction has more impact. As I mentioned in my last post, Orlando is lucky to have a strong youth organization for GLBT kids, but many places don't. My hope is that we don't forget these boys who have died and we strive to always stand up not just for tolerance (I don't particularly like that word), but for acceptance and respect for all people.

-Stephen (Not Forgetting)