Saturday, July 24, 2010

Narrating America: A Review

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I always imagined writing novels. I'm drawn to characters and stories. I've always loved fiction and movies. I love to be pulled into a narrative that overpowers me and changes me. But I didn't end up a fiction writer. I ended up a poet, but a narrative one.

I find that poetry is the medium in which I can best tell the stories I have to share. People often think of poetry and think of rhyme and lyric based work. They think of images only, and some people, sadly, think of abstraction. Anyone who has read my work will know that is not me. I tell stories. I build characters, and, in the course of a poem, I give you a glimpse into a particular world or relationship. Many people misunderstand narrative poetry. I often hear people say, "so it's just a short story with line breaks." No, it's not. There are clear differences. Most narrative poems, but not all, are still shorter than a story would be. There is a compression, which is always my go-to definition of poetry. A poem, even a narrative one, doesn't necessarily follow a traditional story arc. Pieces may be left out or shortened. It is often a quick glimpse at something or someone. The development is different. I love it because is it freeing. Poetry, to me, is the most free form of writing.

I read a lot of different kinds of poetry, but my favorite to read is also narrative based. Two months ago, I bought and read the amazing anthology called Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS. I wrote a blog post about it, so if you missed it, go read it. One of my favorite poets who was featured in the anthology was Richard Ronan. Philip Clark, who edited the anthology, told me that Ronan was also one of his favorites and that if I loved his work, I had to read Narratives from America, so I bought a copy from an online used bookstore. That's the thing about poetry: it goes out of print quickly and can be hard to find. Ronan's book was published in 1982 (the year I was born). It is a collection of long narrative poems that you don't see very often. Many of the poems are over five or six pages.

I was fascinated by his range in the book. When I began each poem I had no idea where I was going or what life I would be entering. Many discuss relationships, others death and sadness. As I was reading, I was suddenly reminded of Robert Frost. Ronan begins his book with a quotation from Frost, which, after reading the book, is very fitting. Frost is, in my opinion, the most misunderstood American poet. Most of Frost's work is very dark and while he is more known for his slightly shorter work, he did write some really great, long narrative poems. Ronan's poems are very much in line with Frost's "Home Burial" and "The Fear," which are two my favorites. There is something distinctively American about Ronan's work as there is with Frost's.

Ronan's book attempts to weave the various narratives of America together, but these aren't the overused or cliched narratives we are familiar with. For instance, he writes a poem about a woman dying after hitting an owl with her car and veering off the road in winter. This is a strangely beautiful poem that ends with these lines:

She was surprised to feel herself filled
with a deep sadness.
She wondered how she came to wear this long
coarse robe of snow and wings.

This poem also weaves together letters that her daughter is sending her from India while she is freezing to death. These poems are glimpses of everyday people. They aren't heroes or villains. They are just people. American people.

I also loved the poem "Seated Nude" about a woman whose husband has lost the function of his legs and everything else below the waist. It's a tender poem, but surprising as well. There is a realness to it and to her feelings and reactions. Other great poems include "The Pickerel," "The Scholar," and "The Beekeeper's Sister."

My favorite lines in the whole book are from the poem "Provincetown." I love when you get to a moment in a poem and you suddenly have to stop and read lines again because something has struck so close to you. In this poem Ronan writes:

There is the street, the sea,
the tiny and remnant lives, the sudden
conviction that the stranger
you kept out of the wind yesternight,
though nameless, could be as much
the reason for your life as you
yourself could be.

This struck such a chord with me and it seemed a fitting overall theme of the book. These are narratives of people and how they interact with each other and the world. Maybe we are all here for someone else, even a nameless stranger. It is these small interactions we have that are the core of life.

I'm glad to have found Ronan and his narratives. As I've sat and read this book over the last few days, a book that is the same age as me, I've found a kinship with it. Ronan's life was cut short by AIDS, but his work lives on and provides this poet with great inspiration.

-Stephen (Storyteller)



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An Open Book?

Over the weekend, a friend told me how much he admires my openness. He was referring to reading my blog and how I discuss myself, my relationship, and sometimes my sex life. He said that he could never be that open, but is always drawn to others who lay it all out. I believe his only other example was listening to Howard Stern, which is interesting as I've never put myself in the same category as Mr. Stern, but there's a first time for everything. Though I was slightly intoxicated at the time, this conversation stuck with me and made me think about the idea of openness.

Then today, over lunch, I was talking with two friends about coming out. One of them said how surprised she was that I didn't come out until I was 20, because I seem so open. I thought to myself, there's that word again.

For many people, I'm as open as you can get. I'm sure some out there would like me to be a little less open. Yes, I share a lot of my ideas, thoughts, and experiences. I am a writer, and this is what a writer does. I write this blog, which deals with my identity as a gay man. I write poetry, which is often inspired by my real life. I am also pretty open in face to face discussions. I do talk a lot about sex and identity because these are things that fascinate and interest me. I'm most intrigued by how people respond to such topics. Do they turn red and hide under the table in the fetus position? Or do they join in and offer their two cents? Since these are topics many do not like to talk about, my discussion of them makes me seem extremely open, but does that make me an open book?

I still choose what I tell and share. I do put a lot of time and thought into what I write and what topics I select, but I also don't shy away from things that are hard for me to write about or think about. I like a challenge. For many people that is sex, and I understand this. I struggled with my sexuality for 20 years, but that experience made me never want to go back. I've had to force myself to move beyond that because if I think about it for too long, I'll crumble into a pile of self-pity. I feel like I lost those 20 years. What did I do? Why did I convince myself I was someone I wasn't? Why did I let myself be so depressed? In some ways, I have compensated for that by being so open with my sexuality now and for the last seven years. This makes some people very uncomfortable, which, I have to admit, is part of the pull for me. I do slightly like shocking people. But I also think it's vital to be out and proud of yourself and your identity.

There is a notion within the gay movement to de-sex the discussion. Don't make everyone think or focus on the sex part. I understand this idea and I understand not everything is about sex, but a lot of my life is about enjoying other men, their bodies, and my own body. I think we can celebrate that aspect of the gay community, which I often try to do on this blog.

I do strive to be an open person, and I was pleased with my friend's comment, but I also have to admit that I'm not a completely open book (a few of my pages are stuck together). Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, and she questioned, in many of her books, the idea of ever really being able to know another human being. We can only know what they give us. We will never know their every thought, passion, desire, or even action. For some, this is what makes relationships so difficult.

For me, 20 years was enough of pretending, so I am here on the page trying to be the person I am, but there will always be pieces of me still locked away or scribbled down somewhere to be found long after I've left this world.

(Can I get some credit for putting Howard Stern and Virginia Woolf in the same post?)

-Stephen (Open)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

You Know How Bitchy Fags Can Be: My First Viewing of Valley of the Dolls

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching Valley of the Dolls for the very first time. This film was released in 1967 and has lived on as a favorite for many gay men. For the heterosexual world, the gay aesthetic or camp is sometimes difficult to understand. Why do films like Valley of the Dolls attract gay men? Why are we a sucker for crazy women who pop pills and drink too much? There are no simple answers to these questions.

In many ways, it begins with a love for those on the outside. Gay men are often drawn to strong women who go against the grain of society. Obviously, gay men feel connected to that outsider status. Valley of the Dolls paints a world that was quite shocking to a 1967 audience. The film includes pill popping, plenty of drinking, smoking, talk of sex, even a few carefully done sex scenes, and a line about abortion. When something is labelled shocking, people are drawn to it, and especially those, who by their very nature, shock people (i.e. gays).

For those gay men who were born and raised in the 60s and 70s, there weren't gay films or Logo or gay characters on nearly anything. We still have a long way to go in good inclusion of gay characters in film and television, but we are quite a few steps ahead of the 60s and 70s. This is one reason a film like Valley of the Dolls was and is attractive to a gay audience. It is a glimpse into a sordid world. We are also a sucker for overly dramatic scenes, and this movie has plenty. From a 2010 perspective, the film is hilarious and the dialogue is as campy as you can get, but that is all part of the fun.

I was also amazed by the gay references in the film. There are quite a few lines about fags and queers. They are not positive. It is these lines that make the film even more interesting from a current gay perspective. There is an underlining homophobia that seeps into the film so easily and gives a snapshot of that time period.

The gay poet, David Trinidad, loves to write about films and actresses from the 1960s. When I taught a pop culture poetry class at Florida State University, I taught his poem "The Shower Scene in Psycho." In this poem, he splices together three threads. The first is a frame by frame description of the shower scene in Psycho. The second is a description of the Manson killings that resulted in the death of Sharon Tate who stared in Valley of the Dolls. The last thread of the poem is the story of a young man buying Valley of the Dolls (the book) and then eventually going to see it in the theater. The poem is an examination of violence and curiosity. Now, after seeing the film, I can't help but think about the young gay men who saw this film in the 60s. Why were they pulled in by it?

The gay references in the film have something to do with it. The lines are homophobic, but I imagine they were thrilling to a young man questioning his sexuality in a world that didn't want to talk about it. Sometimes just hearing those words, even in a negative context, lets you know that gay people do exist. There are fags and queers out there. I can relate to this, because I grew up in a small Midwestern city where I knew no other gay people. Hearing any gay reference caught my attention. When you combine that with the over-the-top acting, the scandalous boozing and pill popping, you've got yourself a gay hit.

Valley of the Dolls is well worth the viewing. If you haven't seen it, I suggest you get some cocktails and let the dolls take you on a fabulous two hour ride.

-Stephen (Bitchy Fag)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Poetry News: The Hanky Code

I am pleased to announce to my friends, readers, and enemies that a collection of poems I wrote with Bryan Borland will be published by Lethe Press in 2011. I've mentioned my project with Bryan in passing on this blog. We wrote a manuscript entitled The Hanky Code. What is the Hanky Code? It is a code within the gay community to signal sexual preferences and positions. It isn't as commonly used now, but was once a main method of communication in gay cruising spots. A hanky worn on the right side indicates the passive role, and a hanky worn on the left indicates the active role. The most simple of these is a navy hanky, which tells people if you are a top or a bottom. From there the preferences get wild and varied. Currently, our book is a collection of forty poems and each poem takes on a different colored hanky. Bryan wrote twenty of the poems and I wrote the other twenty. The poems range in voice and subject matter and help paint a sexual picture of the gay community.

The process of writing this manuscript has been fun and thrilling. I've never worked with another poet on a project like this and it's been a very positive experience. Bryan and I get along really well, and I'm honored he asked me to do this with him (it was his original idea). I'm thrilled that Lethe Press is interested in the manuscript and willing to move forward with it. I will obviously post more specific information as it comes available to me. As of right now, the book is scheduled for release sometime in 2011.

If you would like a preview of the poems, Velvet Mafia just published six of the poems (three of mine and three of Bryan's). Warning: Velvet Mafia is not safe for work (well, maybe that depends where you work). You can read my poems here: http://www.velvetmafia.com/2010/07.14.mills.php and Bryan's here: http://www.velvetmafia.com/2010/07.14.borland.php

-Stephen (Throwing Hankies in the Air)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reading Thom Gunn

I've spent the past weekend reading Thom Gunn's Selected Poems edited by August Kleinzahler. Before reading this book, I knew little about Gunn or his work. I'd read a handful of his poems, but had never given him full attention.

I began this book by reading the introduction by Kleinzahler. I have to say it almost turned me off from the book. Kleinzahler's introduction is a little sloppy and all over the place, but he does give an overview of Gunn's life and work. Kleinzahler's main focus is on the transformation Gunn made in his work from the 1950s to his last book published in 2000. The poems Kleinzahler selected showcase that shift and change.

Gunn's early work is very clean and direct. He is often very removed from the poems even when an "I" is present. Gunn loved Elizabethan poetry and often used it as inspiration, but always with a slight modern twist. This makes many of his early poems feel a bit detached, yet, somehow, in the moment. While these early poems are far from anything I would write myself, they were enjoyable and I admired the sharpness in them. To some, these are considered Gunn's best poems (according to the introduction, the British hate his later work).

When I got to the poems selected from his third book, My Sad Captains, I began to fall for Mr. Gunn and his poems. My favorite from this section is called "The Feel of Hands." It was here that I saw more of a glimpse inside the speaker, and I felt a transformation taking place. This feeling continued through the next few sections.

The book then hits a high note, for me, when it gets to the poems taken from Gunn's 1992 book The Man With Night Sweats. These poems are personal and intimate in a way that Gunn's other work is not. Gunn was gay and living in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and this book is a reflection of that. In many ways, it was the AIDS crisis that brought a very real "I" to Gunn's poems. These poems are beautifully crafted and contain the fears and sadness of a generation of gay men. As I've written before, I'm very interested in poets' reaction to the AIDS crisis. Gunn's work was greatly changed by it, and I say for the better.

One of my favorite poems from this section is called "The Hug," and it contains these relatable lines: "It was not sex, but I could feel / The whole strength of your body set, / Or braced, to mine, / And locking me to you / As if we were still twenty-two / When our grand passion had not yet / become familial." I fell in love with these lines because of everything I wrote in my last blog post. I've been with my partner for almost seven years and I can still remember those first embraces, those first moments of passion and sex, and that is the power of this poem. It brings me into it. There are other wonderful poems in this section including "Lament" and "Still Life."

I enjoyed the poems from his last book, Boss Cupid, as well. It seemed through tragedy Gunn found a way into his poems even if he didn't want to be there. In his last book, he writes about his mother's suicide, which took place 48 years before. Sometimes we set out to be one kind of writer and end up a completely different one. To me this is the sign of a good writer. I hope to be a poet that changes, grows, and moves in new directions. I'm glad to have had these two days with Gunn, and I'm sure I'll read more of him in the future.

-Stephen (Not Gunn Shy)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Going the Distance


Dustin, my partner, left town on Wednesday and won't be back for two more weeks. His absence seems like the perfect time to examine our relationship. I don't know if distance actually makes the heart grow fonder, but it does remind you of all the things you truly love about that other person.

My relationship with Dustin is unique because we've hardly ever been apart. We met in college. We each had our own dorm room, but spent most nights together and saw each other for hours every single day. Three months into our relationship, Dustin had a falling out with his parents over our relationship, and he moved in with my parents for breaks and summer. We then moved to Florida and officially moved in together. Since then we have only been apart for two or three days at a time. Yes, in six and a half years, we have only spent three days at a time apart, until now.

Dustin is in Indiana with his parents taking an EMT course and will be gone for a total of 18 days. For some couples, this wouldn't mean anything, but for us it's a challenge and makes me realize how much I count on Dustin. While I have lived with Dustin for a long time, I do require a great deal of alone time, and he knows that. But living alone, for the last few days, has been different. The apartment is so quiet and the bed is so empty. I've gotten accustom to having someone to talk to all the time. That's the thing about Dustin, he truly is my best friend, and I don't really tire of him, which is one reason our relationship works.

In the end, relationships are about the small things. It is silly what you miss. I miss his hand in bed trying to play with the hairs on my body as he goes to sleep, which really annoys me. I miss having someone to go out with that knows exactly what I'm thinking just by looking at me in a crowded club. I miss all of his crap on the countertop...oh wait, actually I don't miss that.

Yes, it's kind of nice to have the place to myself (it is very clean). I plan on getting a lot of reading and writing done, but I know I'll be ready for him to come back very, very soon. I'm only three days in and I miss him a lot.

Since I have been in a relationship for going on seven years, I feel I should know some secret to keeping it going, but I don't. Dustin and I work hard at our relationship, and we challenge the norms constantly, but we also fail a lot and disappoint each other. Maybe the secret to a good relationship is realizing you aren't perfect and that you need to find a person that is better than you are in some way. Dustin is sweeter and kinder than I will ever be, and while I kind of like my bachelor time, I'm looking forward to having my other half back.

-Stephen (Child of the Sun)


Monday, July 5, 2010

Poetry In The Moment

When it come to writing poetry, I am a heavy reviser. I spend hours and days with a poem before anyone sees it, and at least months before I ever consider sending it out for publication. This is my method, and it has proved to be successful, but I'm intrigued by immediate poetry. There are poets who write a poem, work on it for an hour or two, and send it out into the world. There is something to respect about that method and a time and place for that kind of work.

To be truly successful, I would argue that you need to revise and spend days, weeks, months, and years on poetry, but in some cases an immediate, in the moment, poem can have a great impact. I've spent the last few days reading Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days. This is a great anthology edited by Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greensberg. It started as a blog in January of 2009. One-hundred poets were asked to participate and were all assigned one day of Obama's first 100 days in office. Each day a poem was published on the blog. The poets were encourage to write the poem the day of, or right before, and to incorporate the events of that moment and day.

I heard about this project shortly after it started, and I read many of the poems as they were first published. I thought the idea was clever, insightful, and a great use of a blog. The blog then turned into the book, which is a copy of all 100 poems with a foreword by Rita Dove. It was great to read them all back to back and in one or two sittings. The poems vary in style, approach, and subject matter. The poets included are some of the best writing today including Mark Doty, Mark Bibbins, Major Jackson, Erin Belieu, David Lehman, and Matthew Zapruder.

These poets did not have much time to revise or prepare and yet these poems have something striking in them. Yes, some, over a year later, already feel a tad outdated and some of the references have faded, but others are still vibrant and work as time capsules of those first days of the administration. This book captures the excitement, hope, and then the reality of Obama's presidency. Yes, it is liberal leaning (it is poets writing about Obama, what else would you expect?), but it is also challenging, and there is a nervous energy in many of these poems that ask, will Obama succeed? Will he do everything he promised? These are questions some are still asking.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is Mark Bibbins's "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" for day 35. I admire this poem for its amazing collection of events, thoughts, and references, and for the fact that is was written in the moment and is almost four full pages long. In the poem, Bibbins is able to discuss Joaquin Phoenix freaking out on Letterman, his idea for renaming the perineum "boyband," and what he would do if he met Obama. This is a perfect example of how to make the political personal and how to use pop culture and humor in your poems.

Other stand out poems include: Erin Belieu's "H. Res. 23-1: Proposing the Ban of Push-Up Bras, Etc.," Elizabeth Hughey's "The I Love You Bridge," Tony Trigilio's "I Picked Up That Strange Light Again," and Craig Arnold's "Dear Steve." Overall, this is a great collection that shows there is a time and place for a quick poem, and these poets are talented enough to pull it off with ease. Many of these poems will not hold up forever, but maybe not all poetry has to accomplish that. These poems instead remind us that poetry is alive, current, and important.

In honor of this book, I wrote my own Obama inspired poem and published it on Ink Node today. I've spent only a few hours on it. This is my attempt at breaking my own method and rules. It is called "If I Wrote a Poem for Obama on the 4th of July, 2010," and you can read it here: http://www.inknode.com/piece/560-stephen-s-mills-if-i-wrote-a-poem-for-obama-on-the-4th-of-july-2010

-Stephen (Right Now)