Monday, January 10, 2011

Narrowly Broad: A Reflection

A few weeks ago, I received a package from the English Department of Florida State University, which is where I got my MFA. Inside the package was a bundle of poems from my very last poetry workshop, which I took in the spring of 2008 with Dr. David Kirby. I moved soon after my last semester and I guess I never got the notes on my final turn in of those poems. On the front page, Kirby had written me a note, which I finally got to read two and a half years later.

It's odd to read things in a completely different context. I am far removed from my grad school days. I've written a whole lot of poems since then and many poems that were in that bundle I've not seen in quite some time. I came to Kirby's note from a different and, perhaps, more open place.

As I was ending my MFA, I was being nudged to write poems that didn't focus so much on gay identity and the domestic life of a gay couple, which was a lot of what I wrote during those three years. In the moment, I often took a bit of a offense to these comments and I partly chalked it up to the "heterosexual male factor." Mostly I felt this way because my thesis committee had three people on it and two were heterosexual males and one was a heterosexual female (she was my thesis advisor). She never shared these concerns, but the two heterosexual male faculty did. They were encouraging concerns, but they were concerns nonetheless.

Kirby was one of the men on my committee. I greatly respect and admire him, and his poetry continues to inspire me and surprise me. He was also great in the classroom. This is why I'm thankful I got this bundle in the mail. His note to me read:

Stephen, As you depart our city (or at least the Williams Building), you should appreciate the hard work you've done and the terrific position you've put yourself in to launch the next phase. Yes, you do write a lot about sex and identity; yes, readers will say "enough already!"--not because of the subject matter but because any subject matter becomes monotonous if it goes unrelieved. But the upside of the narrow subject matter is that you've taught yourself to write a nuanced, supple poem. And once you start writing poems like that which are made of a variety of materials--well, you'll be a wealthy man! Cheerio, DK

Two and a half years ago, I would have been pleased with Kirby's encouragement and acknowledgement of what I had accomplished, but partly saddened at once again mentioning the subject matter issue. Today, my feelings are bit more balanced. Once we leave the education world, we begin to view our experience differently and sometimes come to understand what someone was really trying to tell us or at least what we can learn from it.

Kirby, for those who don't know, is a master at putting a variety of materials into just one poem. He mostly writes very lengthy poems that are wonderfully put together and often very insightful. Kirby wanted me to broaden the world of my poems, which I actually have since leaving grad school.

The three years I lived in Tallahassee, I was very taken in by the confines of a relationship and a domestic space. Dustin and I had never had a place to our own until we moved to Florida. We were completely isolated from everyone we had ever known. We were in a smallish and very Southern city with hardly any gay community and much of those three years were spent inside our relationship and private world. That is greatly reflected in the poems I wrote during those years. Moving to Orlando, our lives completely changed and took many turns we didn't expect and with that my poems have spread their wings and have encompassed a lot more of the world. In the last year, that has also been shown in the length of my poems. They've gotten longer and longer.

I believe Kirby wanted me to see that and knew I would with time, which is what his note suggests. He is a wise man and has much experience to back it up. But his note also suggests there may always be a divide between our ideas about poetry. I still write mostly about sex and identity, but more of the outside world has entered those poems. The biggest difference between Kirby and me is that I don't see sex and identity as a narrow topic. It is a topic filled with things to explore and I could write poetry about sex and identity for the rest of my life and still have things to write about. There is always that notion that if you write about issues related to your minority that somehow you are being narrow. This may never change, but I hope to continue to push people to think beyond that notion.

I am thankful for my experience at FSU and for the great people I met and the faculty I worked with. I am also pleased to reflect back on just what two and a half years can do to your creative work. I feel like I'm such a different and better poet than I was in the spring of 2008. I also continue to grow and learn from people's comments even if I don't always fully agree with them.

I'm actually beginning to feel like I've found my footing in the poetry world. I've taken the best of what I could learn from everyone that's crossed my path and I am forging my own direction.

-Stephen (Reflective)

Note: I do not want to suggest, in anyway, that David Kirby is homophobic or unsupportive of the gay community. He was/is very much a supporter. I am only suggesting we have differing views on sexuality as a subject matter in poetry.


  1. I often get the same comments and once had someone tell me that my poems and Kara's poems were the same because once in workshop we both had poems featuring female lovers. Sigh.

    Reading about your life in Tallahassee makes me realize how interior my life was then as well and how different it is now. I think that I have also broadened my scope, in part because I finished the more narrowly focused book I was writing then, but I also think that straight people see gay subject matter as narrowly focused when they would never say that about straight poetry that was all about the domestic sphere.

    How funny that they just now sent that to you. It must've been in your mailbox?

  2. Funny, I got the same "feedback" from Yusef Komunyakaa in a workshop at I.U. (which I felt unbelievably honored to have even been accepted after submitting a dozen poems). I got it from other members of the workshop as well..."Why are you ONLY writing about being gay and/or having AIDS..." etc. We chronicle our lives, right? That's all I know how to do, even if people think my poems/writings are crap!

  3. My experience was the exact opposite. Much to my reservations: I was told to write MORE about gay experiences. To be explicit. The sad thing which resulted, I assumed the publishing world would accept anything/everything about being gay. After my MFA, I then had to learn how not to relate every poem to a singular community. Confessionalism / Public Voices have merits to some extent, but such modes can be overwhelming to the reader. There needs to exist some degree of universiality.

  4. it's an interesting issue, the opening out of subject matter. I've found that that line between personal and universal moves around a lot. I write about everything. I did write explicitly gay poems in my teens, but I hid them from everyone till much later. I wasn't open about it till much later in life. I've never done an MFA sort of thing, although I've been involved in groups and private workshops. So I guess my career is the opposite of yours, in many ways. One thing I've never expected is that anyone would ever accept or like my poems; they've always been too outside the current fashions.

  5. Thanks for all the great comments everyone. I truly appreciate it.

    For me, I am always intrigued by this idea of "universal." I don't know that I believe that literature or art needs to be universal. At the same time, I don't think because I write about the gay community I'm not touching on some universal ideas or themes, which is why I take offense when people suggest that to me.

    I read a great deal of heterosexual literature. I watch heterosexual movies and TV shows, and I connect to many of these. I think some straight readers or viewers are fearful to see themselves in gay stories or poems and they shouldn't be. They somehow think "this isn't for me" and don't give it a chance.

    There is also a notion that if you write about gay issues you are automatically writing "confessional" poetry. Confessional has many other issues and is really grounded in a particular period and moment in poetry. I don't personally consider my work to be confessional.

    Those are just some other thoughts that have come to mind as I've thought more about it and read your intriguing comments.

    Thanks again!

  6. Steve: I love the fact you opened up this chain of commentary. Really there is no one answer to the situation. We are all diverse and are going to react in diverse manners to the same equation.

    When I used the word "confessional" I meant in terms of publically telling people personal business, personal issues.

    Actually though there is no one way to respond to your entry without opening a whole discourse on "universal vs private" themes... on one hand I could use Anne Bradstreet as an example who privately wrote about her Puritan lifestyle, then her husband, brother-in-law published her work in a public arena, against her knowledge. Then you contrast this situation with Anne Sexton who publically declared her private battles with mental health...

    What it comes down to I guess, I personally do not want to declare to the world issues of my sexuality. I applaud others who can do it successfully... LOL I could talk on this subject for hours. I better stop.

    Thanks for addressing this issue! Keep blogging!

  7. I tend to feel that when my sexuality appears in my poems, it's in celebration, not about issues. The three or four longest poems I've ever written were explicitly, ecstatically sexual, that is, homosexual, pansexual, polysexual, panentheistic. Emphasis on the ecstasy. Most of the gay-themed poems I've written have been celebrations of one kind or another. Not really political or issue-based except of course that any gay-themed poem is still political in the current cultural context.

    In a way you're edging into the territory of that ongoing discussion that asks "Are you a gay poet or are you a poet who happens to be gay?" I find the assumption behind that question to be problematic also, though, because the presumption is that the poems with less gay content are more "universal," which I don't agree with.

    I think what is universal is what we all share as human experience. It's all human experience. It's all shared experience, when it's about love and pain.

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  9. Steve,

    I appreciate your thoughts and perspective. I am, however, a little confused by your comment. You begin by saying that you have a lot of problems with the post, but I'm not clear what those problems are exactly.

    You then seem to be defending Kirby when my post is not at all attacking Kirby. Kirby is a great poet, teacher, and supporter. I state that very clearly in the post.

    The post was to examine the issue that sexuality and identity are not narrow topics to explore and that often gay poets who address those issues are labeled as being narrow.

    This post was also a pure reflection on my own experiences studying at FSU for three years often with David Kirby. I also admit in the post that I now see what I think he was telling me and have learned from it.

    I don't feel my work has ever been in a "rut" nor has anyone ever suggested that to me, and I don't believe that is what Kirby was saying. As a gay man and college instructor, I have also never applauded whatever has been given to me nor have I witnessed other gay instructors doing that. I'm sorry that you have, but I think that's more of an issue of bad teaching than sexuality.

    I feel I very clearly expressed my respect for Kirby throughout the post while outlining where I think we differ as poets.