Sunday, February 28, 2010

Podcast 7: Seven Years And Still No Birthday Gift From Your Parents

This week I am reading a newer poem of mine entitled "Seven Years And Still No Birthday Gift From Your Parents." I wrote the first draft of this poem following my 27th birthday last November.

For a long time, I've had the desire to write a good birthday poem. This desire mostly stems from my love of Frank O'Hara. O'Hara wrote many poems that involved birthdays. He often wrote poems as gifts (not sure my friends would approve). Birthdays often allow for a great discussion about time and what we have accomplished or not accomplished. While birthdays are often seen as celebrations they can have a dark edge to them.

My poem focuses on recognition and acknowledgement that is often lacking for gay people. For the last seven birthdays I haven't received a gift, a card, or any form of a "happy birthday" from Dustin's parents. I'm not even sure they remember when my birthday is, though Dustin has told them many times. This past Christmas, was in fact the first time my name was on the Christmas card, which is strange because I had just written a draft of this poem and then they go and do that. It was a step, but a small one since this was our seventh Christmas together.

Regardless, I got a poem I'm pretty happy with out of it.

-Stephen (Gift-less)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Worlds Collide: Searching for My Next Step

In last the few months, I've had these moments where I feel trapped between two worlds. I feel this pull in one direction and then a sudden counter-pull in the opposite direction. This feeling is tied to my own doubts about the future and where I should go next.

This is the first time in my life that I don't have a clear plan. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to go to college. I made both of those things happen. I picked a good college and I went. Four years later, I graduated and immediately knew I wanted to go to grad school and get my MFA in creative writing. I applied and went. Three years later, Dustin and I were ready to move somewhere bigger than Tallahassee (where I attended FSU) and Dustin wanted to work at Disney, so we moved to Orlando for a year or two (just for fun). Now, we are approaching two years in Orlando and nearly five in Florida, and I have no idea what the next step is and part of me is terrified. Or in other words, the anxious, control freak in me is not pleased.

In the nearly two years we've lived in Orlando, we've found an amazing gay community and our weekends are filled with great gay events, parties, theme parks, etc. We've had a lot of fun (don't believe me? check out my Facebook photos). What I haven't found in Orlando is career happiness or a poetry or academic community. It is hard to find a mixture of these two world. It seems most academic gays turn their noses up at going out to clubs or tipping drag queens or getting drunk and throwing up in the car. It is somehow beneath them. And sadly, many of the party gays I meet, here in Orlando, have no interest in poetry or books or literary theory or analyzing pop culture. They are happy serving the Mouse and dancing drunk on the weekends.

This is why I feel like such an oddity. I love going out. I love gay culture, drag queens, dancing, drinking, pride events, etc. On Friday night at Parliament House few would assume I have the education I have or the publications and interest in poetry that I have. On the other hand, I have spent most of my life being the complete nerdy, academic boy. I've read, studied, and written about amazing works of literature. I've study Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I've written a grant and gone to Ireland to study Joyce. Sometimes, I crave just being back in school or spending a whole weekend reading and writing like I once did.

I try my best to blend these worlds, because they are both so important to me, but it sometimes feels impossible. I write as much as I can with a full time job and full time social life and I read when I can (which isn't as much as I would like). I've kept myself to a schedule of writing on Sundays, which has helped, but I don't have a writing community or even people that seem that interested in what I write here in Orlando. I've relied a lot on making internet poetry friends, which has actually gone well, but I miss having people in the flesh. In the end, I often feel stuck in the middle. I want so much that is here in Orlando, but I also want so much that isn't.

I never pictured myself in Florida, and the three years I spent in grad school seemed very temporary. But now nearly five years later, it is feeling more like home and this scares me. Part of me likes the energy of Florida. Florida is a huge vacation spot and my weekends often feel a lot like a vacation and the gays are everywhere at least in Central and Southern Florida. My main issue is that I don't know that I'll ever be happy with my job or the poetry world in Florida, but I also know I can't give up having a gay community. I can't just apply for any teaching job and move to some small town and be that boy again. I spent my first 22 years in almost complete isolation from other gay people and I won't do that to myself.

For now, Dustin and I have decided to stay in Orlando a little longer than we expected. The plan was to move this coming summer anywhere that I could get a good job. We want to make sure our next move includes both of my worlds, but it won't be easy. Yes, we could move off to New York City and find both of these things, but that takes a lot of money and this economy hasn't been too friendly to those of us with MFAs. With time we could do it, but not at this moment. I will continue to try and find my balance and be myself: A mixture of these two worlds. Who says you can't be a gay club boy and a world famous poet and academic?

-Stephen (Caught)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

FAG/HAG Poetry Contest

Dear Blog Readers,

I wanted to take this opportunity to promote not only a new poem of mine that you can read online, but also a fellow poet, Bryan Borland, and his new book. Bryan has recently published his first book of poems called My Life As Adam. It is a fantastic collection of poems that deals with coming of age as a gay man. I read an earlier draft of the manuscript and look forward to reading it in print. I'll be reviewing it here on this blog as soon as I can.

How does this connect to a new poem of mine? Well, in honor of Bryan's book being released, he held a contest on his website: and I entered. The contest was to write a poem that would fit into Bryan's FAG/HAG poetry series. I enjoy a challenge and Bryan personally asked me to participate, so I did.

The first winner was selected by a poet friend of Bryan's (I didn't win), but currently all entries are posted on his site and readers can vote for their favorite. Voting goes until February 26th and then a second winner will be named based on the results. I highly encourage you to go check out the contest, read the entries, and vote (hopefully for my poem). My poem is entitled "Bryan Makes Me Write a Poem About a Term I Don't Like." Also, check out the rest of Bryan's site and how you can get your copy of his book.

-Stephen (Fag)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Podcast 6: Confessions of an Open Relationship

I've been silent this week on my blog for multiple reasons. It has been a busy week at work. I was promoted on Wednesday and am in the process of re-designing the course I teach and working on designing a brand new course. 

I've also been silent due to the response to my last blog post. I was really surprised by all the great comments, ideas, and questions it evoked. Partly, I wasn't sure how to follow it up, but since it was a long post and one many people seemed to actually read, I was happy to let it sit at the top my blog for a good week and a half.

I decided my next blog post I would save for today (Sunday, which I've deemed podcast day). I know I didn't provide a podcast last Sunday, but I did do one. It was for a project for PANK Magazine which will air in April (more details will be posted when I know them).  

Today's podcast is a perfect follow-up to my last blog entry. I have recorded, for your listening pleasure, my poetic sequence entitled "Confessions of an Open Relationship." I wrote this in the summer of 2008 right after Dustin and I moved to Orlando. We had be doing the open relationship for nearly 6 months and I felt very compelled to write about it, but wasn't sure what form it would take. This sequence is very different from various other poems I've written. It is a series of thirteen short poems that really tell the story of my experience deciding and having an open relationship with Dustin. It truly is the poetic version of my last post. 

Since I know not all of my audience will know this, I wanted to say that part of this sequence is referencing an online gay hook-up site called "Adam4Adam." Clearly the name lends itself to lots of other references that I also use. I don't like explaining my poems, but I did want that fact to be clear. 

I hope you enjoy it and leave some comments!

Listen: Here

-Stephen (Confessing) 

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Right-Hand Ring: Thoughts on Marriage

On February 12, 2005, I was standing outside my college's cafeteria in a suit and tie marrying Dustin in a mock wedding to celebrate National Freedom to Marry Day. This is a day meant to honor and call attention to the fight over marriage equality. At the time Dustin and I were leaders of the gay organization on Hanover College's campus called Love Out Loud. Our mock wedding event was quite the spectacle for our small, conservative college in Southern Indiana. This "marriage" ceremony consisted of three couples getting fake married (a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and a straight couple). In the evening we had a reception with wedding cake, showed a short film on the fight for gay marriage, and had a great discussion. It was a brave move of activism that got our group some press and attention.

At the time, Dustin and I were very committed to the idea of marriage. Just a few months earlier, Dustin had gotten down on one knee (on Christmas Eve) and asked me to marry him. I said yes and he slipped a beautiful white gold band with diamonds onto my ring finger on my left hand. It was picture-perfect and everything I had been taught to want. The idea of holding a ceremony, was appealing even though we knew it wouldn't be legal. We loved each other and felt that it was the right next step. We talked about decorations, clothes, people to invite, and even bought a guide to gay weddings. We didn't have much money and weren't sure when or where the event would take place, but we knew it would, eventually. As time rolled on our ideas about marriage began to shift and so did the ring on my finger. 

Right now, as I type this, I proudly wear my sparkly ring on my right hand and not my left. I do this because I am not legally married. In a way, it is my silent protest. We have never held a commitment ceremony of any kind nor have we ventured to the handful of states that allow gays to marry. Yet, this ring still means a lot to me, just not what people expect it to mean. 

Today, on yet another National Freedom to Marry Day, I'm not so sure I want to get married (legal or not). I've come to realize the true benefit of being denied something is that you can examine it more clearly. I now see marriage from a different perspective and I don't necessarily see it as something that embraces who I am or my relationship with Dustin. I am not against marriage or the fight for marriage equality. I am proud of all the hard work so many activists are doing. I believe in all people having equal rights and the opportunity to wed anyone they like. I know many gay people who want nothing more than to marry in a very traditional way. All I'm saying is that I'm not so sure I'm that person anymore. 

In this country, we are raised with a very traditional image of relationships. We are told there is one person out there for us and that person is of the opposite sex and when we find this person it will be perfect (beating hearts and fireworks). They are our soulmate. Once you have this person you must get married and have lots of babies. Marriage and babies will make you happy, will fill you with purpose, will make you feel alive. Being gay, I've always felt a little outside this image, but for a long time I thought I still needed to fulfill it. Perhaps, it was my attempt to prove that I am "normal": I will be gay and have a very traditional, standard relationship and prove the whole world wrong. I will show everyone that gays can commit and be just like straight people. But then all that changed.

Two years ago, something clicked in me and I realized I don't want to be like straight people and I don't need to prove anything to anyone. I am who I am. Partly, I thank the bigoted people who have kept me from getting married, because it has allowed me to realize that my relationship is my relationship and I can do what I want with it. I don't have a model to follow or picket fence to purchase. I am free to define it in my terms and Dustin and I have. 

As some of you know or have assumed, Dustin and I are in our own version of an open relationship. This began two years ago, sitting across from each other in a chain restaurant in Tallahassee, FL. It was a subject that had been floating around our relationship for a few weeks. But on this night with a few drinks in us, we finally let ourselves talk about it (I can only imagine what the other tables heard or thought). Up until that point, Dustin and I were 100% monogamous. For four years, we had only been with each other. We had never cheated or had a threesome or group sex or anything of the kind. We were living the life of a ring on the left hand. 

At that random dinner, we said what we were actually thinking, were honest with each other, and began discussing if we could have an open relationship. We had many of the same prejudices and ideas that others have about open relationships. Many think having or wanting one means you are headed toward a break-up and that there's no way an open relationship can work. But why? We think this because we've been conditioned to think this. We've been hit over the head with "the one person" idea and we put so much pressure on this one person to give us everything we need that these relationships often crack and fall apart. 

We came to the conclusion that a good portion of relationships end because someone cheats (so therefore monogamy isn't working so well either). Humans are sexual and we are driven to have sex with other people and that sex doesn't always have anything to do with love. We admitted that it is natural to look at other guys and want to have to sex with them and trying to convince ourselves otherwise is foolish.

Over the course of the next week we talked about it many times and made an arrangement we felt comfortable with. Our biggest rule is full disclosure. We have to tell the other person everything and get their okay before any activity happens. Our open relationship is an open book. I don't run off and have sex with people without Dustin knowing and he doesn't either. At anytime we can stop it and we have at times. In many ways, it brought our relationship back to life. We felt excited again. By opening our relationship, it reconfirmed the love I have for Dustin. We both know we want to be together forever, but this is our way of doing forever.

Open relationships in the gay community are more common than in the straight world, but they still aren't talked about and are often looked down upon. There is this fear that by having an open relationship I am proving how perverted and horrible gay people are and giving fuel to the bigots who think we would destroy marriage if given the chance. But that's just it, I'm talking about being with someone I love and finding a way to make our relationship last, which should be the goal of marriage. In reality, I'm trying to show the world that there isn't just one method and one way to have a good, healthy relationship. Dustin and I communicate constantly. We tell each other everything. Does that mean it's all smooth sailing? No, of course not. We've had huge, dramatic fights that have been caused by "hooking-up" with someone else. But we also know the alternative: go back to being strictly monogamous and wait for our relationship to eventually crumble and die. We don't want that. 

We both get enjoyment out of being open. Part of this comes from the high of doing something so taboo. Do we go out and have sex with strangers constantly? No, we actually don't do it very often. If anything, the openness of our relationship makes us both feel more comfortable and more honest with each other. The idea of it is almost enough. Our openness comes out the most in clubs. It has allowed us both to feel free to dance, make-out, and talk to other guys, but most nights we go back home, satisfied with our little flirtations, and have sex with each other. Sometimes giving the permission is all you need. Other times we do hook-up with someone. Sometimes it's a fun release. Sometimes it sucks and you are thankful you aren't single. Other times we have a fight after it happens (because we are still silly, jealous boys sometimes, but we are working on it) and other times we have great sex after being with other guys. We have even gained a friend out of it. It is amazing what can happen once you open yourself up to the possibilities. 

In the end, I didn't write this post with the intent of discrediting the fight for marriage equality or of National Freedom to Marry Day. I didn't write it to shock you or to make you jealous, but rather to shine light on the issue of marriage in general and how we view our relationships (gay or straight). Maybe it is time we redefine what relationships can be or should look like. In the last few weeks I've seen a few articles written about gay men in open relationships and the studies have been showing interesting and positive effects. I'm just so lucky I found someone who has been willing to reinvent the wheel. I know some people will read this and not agree or think less of me or my relationship, but that's okay. I don't need your approval. I have all I need here in this ring on my right hand. 

-Stephen (Wide Open) 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I'm a Mother Fucking Artist or My Thoughts on the MFA Debate

Five years ago, I was sitting in my dorm room at Hanover College shoving my future into envelopes that I mailed off to potential MFA programs. I was about to graduate with my BA in English Literature and I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to continue in school and go the MFA direction. I had spent the previous four years working on my craft, serving as editor of the college literary magazine, and reading as much literature as possible. I wanted nothing more than the opportunity to focus on writing poetry. 

I applied to eight schools, knowing that MFA programs (especially many of the ones I applied to), were very hard to get into. Florida State University was one of those schools and one of them that accepted me. I was thrilled and even more honored or surprised when I got to FSU and realized they only accepted five MFA poets that year. This is how my journey began.

Five years later, I'm reflecting on that decision and on the debate in the creative writing world over MFA programs. There are many people out there stuffing those envelopes and hoping for the best at this very moment, and there are others who have no desire to go to an MFA program. And then there are even more others who like to yell about the merits of going the academic route or not going it. I've met all of these others and decided it was time for me to weigh in on this hot topic (isn't the poetry world exciting?). 

Honestly, I'm not clear why there is such a debate and I'm suspect that it has been caused and fueled by a handful of people from both sides who like to hear themselves talk. Many writing magazines have devoted essay upon essay to this very topic. Many of them focus on attacking MFA programs and blaming such programs for the death of poetry or literature or creativity. That's a lot of blame. I say we blame the iphone, but that's just me.  

Let me begin by giving everyone a brief (maybe slightly inaccurate) history of the debate and of MFA programs in general. An MFA is a Master's of Fine Artists (though I do wish it stood for Mother Fucking Artist), but I assume you know that or you wouldn't still be reading this post. These are terminal degrees, meaning you can teach university level courses the same as having a PhD (courses you are qualified for, of course). You get paid less, but can still get a full time, tenure track position (well, you could until this recession began). In creative writing, MFAs have not been around all that long (40 years maybe). For a lot of that time there were very few programs. In more recent years they have become popular and more and more schools have offered them, which has partly led to this very debate. In some circles, it is now almost expected that you have or should have an MFA if you are interested in writing poetry or more literary short stories or long fiction. On the other hand, many people have ventured into MFAs programs because writing "seems like fun" (not all MFA programs are very selective). This has produced a mixture of people with both good MFAs and maybe not-so great MFAs. 

So, what is the big debate? The bottom-line is that some people feel MFA programs have produced bland, uncreative, and cookie-cutter work. There is this notion that your instructors will teach you how to write like them and therefore populate the world with little mini-mes of famous poets. Those who argue against MFA programs often say things like, "You can't teach creative writing. How do you teach someone to be creative?" On the other side, those with MFAs or teaching in MFA programs can present themselves as elitist and often think the only way to a successful writing career is through the academic world. Sadly, this is partly true depending on what you write. Much of the poetry publishing world is controlled by the academic world through University run presses, contests, and magazines, but it is slowly changing.

What do I think? Clearly, I have an MFA. I picked that route and I don't for a second regret it. Those three years at FSU allowed me the chance to grow. I know, for me personally, I wouldn't be where I am right now without having gone to an MFA program. I knew nothing about publishing or networking when I began. I was just a boy from Indiana who wrote poetry. Without the guidance of both the instructors and my peers at FSU, I would not have the work published that I do. I learned a lot about the poetry business at FSU and a lot about contemporary poetry and where I fit into the grand scheme of things. My writing took leaps and bounds and I was constantly challenged by my peers who often wrote very differently from me. Yes, I said different. I won't say there aren't MFA programs that push their students into particular styles or schools, but I would say most do not and FSU never did. I never felt pressed to write a certain way or to produce work I didn't want to write. I think this is a great myth of MFA programs and one that needs to stop being passed around (especially by people who have never attended an MFA program). 

Having said all that, I don't come down on one side of the debate or on the other side. For me, an MFA program was the right decision. I don't think it's right for everyone, nor do I think it is the only route to good work or successful work. Are all writers with MFAs great writers? No, of course not, but some are. The same can be said for writers without an MFA. Good writing is good writing. As a writing community, I think we need to drop this ridiculous debate and to lose the stereotypes.  For anyone who knows me or has read my work, they will know that I'm not a stuffy academic and my work can be called a lot of things but cookie-cutter or bland is not one them. Also, you are all free to go read Erin Belieu (who was my thesis advisor) and you will see that we do not write the same poems. On the other side, being anti-MFA doesn't make your work more creative or purer and on the same toke it doesn't make you stupid or uneducated. I'm a firm believer in education, but education can come in many forms. 

If you want to be part of the poetry world (I'll use poetry as my example for obvious reasons), you have to engage in it. Writing, for me, is a very solitary action, but afterward I want feedback and someone there to bounce ideas off of and help me grow. I also devote time to reading other poets and magazines and blogs. MFA programs can provide a community of writers very easily, which is one reason it appealed to me, but you can also find this in various other ways. What I'm saying is you need to find it somewhere. Some places have great local writing groups, or there's the internet, which provides tons of ways to connect with other writers. 

It all comes down to life choices and figuring out what works for you. I've always loved school and there is a very good chance I'll go back and get my PhD in Creative Writing. At the same time, I've enjoyed figuring out a new route the last two years here in Orlando with very few writer friends. I've relied heavily on the internet and have found some great poets out there that I talk to through Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail. 

My bottom-line: we all need to strive to write the very best work possible and care a little less about having a MFA or hating on an MFA. 

-Stephen (Elitist)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Podcast 5: The Three-Body Problem

It is podcast Sunday at Joe's Jacket and this week's poem is entitled "The Three-Body Problem." I selected this poem this week for a couple of reasons. First, it was inspired by my first gay cruise I took in 2008 and since I just got back from my second gay cruise and wrote all about, I figured this was fitting. 

I also selected this poem because it was recently published in The Moose and Pussy Issue 5 (January 2010). The Moose and Pussy is a magazine out of Canada devoted sex. Check them out here and buy issue 5 with this poem in it. 

Listen: Here

-Stephen (All Sexed Up)