Friday, January 28, 2011

The Power of Words

As a poet, I spend a lot of time thinking about words and the power and meanings they hold. In a poem, each and every word is important and can change the whole tone, mood, or meaning. This can be one of the biggest struggles of writing a poem and one of the most difficult to teach in a creative writing class. Words, however, are important in all aspects of our lives. I've also been thinking about the power of words in relation to various events from the last few weeks.

The shootings in Arizona began a discussion over the language used in political debate in this country. I am not naive enough to blame one person or even one party. I don't personally know the motives of that shooter, but I do think the discussion that has followed is an important one whether it is directly tied to the shootings or not. Our leaders and talking heads on TV must learn that the words they choose are vital and have power. When you are using language infused with violence, it is not a stretch to think that someone might be encouraged, over time, to act violently. People are too quick to label things, nickname things, and use fiery and often absurd language and phrasing. Only time will tell if the current discussion will actually change anything.

There also continues to be a large discussion about bullying in our school system and particularly bullying of gay students or students perceived to be gay. This also comes down to language and words. We are often taught not to let words get to us and that somehow they don't matter, but I think most of us quickly figure out how wrong that advice is. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but actually words will hurt you. I've been called a fag many different times in my life and while I can come to terms with it and deal with it, it still hurts each time that word is thrown at me in hatred.

As a teacher, I see that students really don't understand the power of their words or the consequences (I've even seen this in a few of my friendships). What I find most interesting is that we almost need writing more now than ever before. Our lives have gone digital and the primary way to communicate through most of this technology is the written word. We now talk through text messages, emails, blogs, Facebook updates, and tweets. We are, in many ways, writing more than ever before, yet our writing and word choice is getting worse and worse, which I see all the time at my job.

In the last two years, I have taught primarily online, which means I talk a great deal to students through the written word. I have never in my teaching experience received such outrageous and inflammatory emails. Students who, in the end, might only be mildly upset or confused about something will send me an email filled with lines like "you don't know how to teach and I demand a new grade immediately." They often use all caps as well. If I get them to come meet with me face to face, they are these quiet shy kids who suddenly aren't so angry.

My students typically hate writing and learning about writing and somehow can't see the value in learning to communicate in a clear and professional manner. We have to change this. It seems our reliance on writing combined with the ability to hide behind our computer screens or phones have turned many people into monsters. They use writing constantly, yet don't care what they are saying or how it is coming off to others.

Words are important. Words do have meaning and power. No matter what people say, the ability to communicate through the written word is still a major way to succeed in life. To me it comes down to thinking more and writing just a little less.

-Stephen (Words Chosen Carefully)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Interview Series: Bryan Borland

One of my goals for 2011 is to begin to include other voices on my blog. To do that, I am starting an interview series right here on Joe’s Jacket. This series will feature gay poets who are emerging or near the beginning of their careers. Basically, the goal is to talk to gay poets who are close to my same age, but who may have different perspectives, backgrounds, and career paths than I do. I’m very excited about this project and hope my readers will enjoy these conversations. I want them to be insightful, but also entertaining. I hope to do one a month for the entire year.

After coming up with the idea, it didn’t take me long to decide who my first poet would be. I’ve mentioned him many times on this blog and we have grown into great poetry friends over the last year or two. Bryan Borland is perfect to kick off this series because he has exploded onto the gay poetry scene recently, but might just be taking it over. So grab your hankies and enjoy the interview.

S: I have to be honest with my readers, as you know Bryan, I didn’t ask you to do this interview, I told you that you were doing it. I think we have that kind of relationship, don’t you?

B: You're holding a whip and I'm collared. Do I have any other choice?

S: No, you really don’t. Start at the beginning for me, what got you into poetry? Can you pinpoint the moment when you first realized you were a poet?

B: I was thirteen years old, living in Monticello, Arkansas, and the concept of growing into an out, gay man had not been conceptualized, let alone born into any kind of pre-existence. I had a good female friend. We shared many things, including, unbeknownst to her, an intense love of a boy who lived down the street. She’d write him love poems. I would, too, but B:they’d never survive the night, and I’d drown them in water, rip them in pieces, or burn them. What survived, however, was the knowledge that an outlet existed for my feelings, and soon, I learned to write the type of bad, quizzical poetry I think we all write at one time or another – where only the poet can solve the riddle of the poem. When did I realize I was a poet? When I was thirteen. That was the year I understood that poetry was the same for me as breathing. I had to write. I had no alternative.

S: Drown them in water? Rip them up? Burn them? So, you were a drama queen from the very beginning?

B: It was a very elaborate production. My mother was confused as to why, for my fourteenth birthday, I asked for a mourning veil.

S: As you stated, you grew up in Arkansas and you still live there now. When most people think of Arkansas they think of a very conservative area and one that might not be so welcoming to the gay community. How do you define Arkansas and what effect has it had on you as a gay man and a gay poet?

B: Arkansas has a rich history. I think of three generations of my family as farmers. I think of my grandmother’s cooking. I think of our tradition of strong, Southern women – the kind of women that gay men hoist onto pedestals. But I also think of how the struggle for civil rights left blood all around this region. There’s still hatred here. But in my adult life, I’ve only had one experience wherein I was targeted for being gay. I was jogging around our neighborhood, and a young boy, eleven or twelve and with a friend, called me a faggot. The boy lives directly across from us. We don’t fly the pride flags from our porch, but it’s obvious to our neighbors that Chris and I are more than roommates. Was the boy repeating the words of his father, a man who waves and shares his newspapers with us? Maybe. More likely he was repeating a word thrown around at school like those cursed dodge balls I hated in gym. For the most part, I’ve found, as I’ve grown, and as my notoriety for being gay has grown, people are accepting. The women, especially, who hold Southern families together, the ones who really run things – even the religious ones – they love “The Gays.” They want us as their friends. Call it the Will and Grace effect. They want us to go shopping with them. It’s stereotypical as hell, but I’ll take that stereotypical affection over a baseball bat to the head any day.

S: You’ve had a lot of success in the last year and have started up many new projects including a new journal for gay poetry and your own press. What drove you to take on the editing side and business side of poetry?

B: I fell into it by accident. After my poem, “Bite,” was published in Ganymede, I developed a friendship with its editor, John Stahle, and I ultimately hired him to design my first book, My Life as Adam (John convinced me self-publishing was the way to go, though it was not lost on me that he stood to make a profit from my decision). John had planned to promote my book in the next issue of Ganymede, but he died before the issue went to print. I was left without promotion for Adam, but, more significant was that the gay writing community was left without a journal that had welcomed and published writers at all stages in their careers – something that was lacking at the time, at least in my opinion.

I exchanged emails with Matthew Hittinger and Philip F. Clark, telling them that I not only wanted to publish a tribute issue of Ganymede, but that I also was contemplating the idea of carrying on the publication in some form. Using Ganymede as a template, I learned the basics of design, and when we put out the tribute issue, from submissions to print, in a little less than two months, I realized I could do this. Our new journal was born the first time I read Perry Brass’ wonderful essay, “A Distant Memory: Andrew Bifrost and Mouth of the Dragon,” which is included in Ganymede Unfinished. Mouth of the Dragon was a gay poetry journal that included multiple poems by multiple gay poets. It was not flashy. But it was important. I didn’t want to use the Ganymede name for legal reasons, but choosing a new name was easy. Assaracus was Ganymede’s earth-bound brother. Since the press is called Sibling Rivalry, it was a perfect fit.

Working through each issue of Ganymede to build a mailing list for the tribute issue gave me all of John’s contacts. It all fell into my lap. Sometimes we’re handed a moment, and we have to take it. It’s never free, or easy, and, believe me, I’ve worked to build a legitimate publishing company, but it does feel like the stars aligned somewhat to make all of this possible.

My goal is to run an ethical, strong press that is driven by passion, not profit. I want to influence a generation. Is that too lofty a goal?

S: Yes, but one worth having. As someone who has closely watched and offered advice and feedback, I have to say you’ve pulled off quite a bit in a very short amount of time. You have guts, or would “balls” be more appropriate here? Let’s say you have both. Since you have accomplished a lot so quickly, what do you consider to be your greatest poetry accomplishment or moment so far?

B: The first issue of Assaracus feels monumental to me. I wanted to include different styles of poetry, from Eric Norris’s rhymed verse to James Kangas’ classical, confessional work to Shane Allison’s erotic, Ginsberg-esque poems. Christopher Hennessy is the first poet we feature, and he makes a grand entrance. Raymond Luczak brings this awareness of language that really stands out in a crowd of those of us who claim to be aware of such things. Frank J Miles wrote a great, three-poem piece that demands to be read into a microphone. Gavin Dillard sent in short, almost-spiritual pieces. Fans of his earlier work will be able to see his evolution and maturation as a poet and as a man. Your poems, Stephen, represent the voice of a generation of gay men in between repression and equality. Jay Burodny is an edgy newcomer with an old-English feel. Matthew Hittinger is a fun poet who writes with control and polish. It’s a powerful first batch of guys. I’m proud of them.

S: As I’ve told you before, I’m honored to be in the first issue and I’m so pleased with how it turned out. I don’t often read journals cover to cover (don’t judge me people, you don’t either), but I read every piece in that issue. It is a great start and I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

While you have been a great promoter of yourself (and I mean that in the best way possible), you have also always been greatly supportive of other poets. Your last response is evidence of that. With that being said, who are the poets who most influence and inspire you?

B: If there were a Mount Rushmore carved of the poetic giants of my life, it would feature the heads of Whitman, Plath, Ginsberg, and Angelou. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Rita Dove was the first established poet I met. I have a book of her collected work that I carried with me for the entirety of my college life. Claudia Emerson had a wonderful book a few years ago that won the Pulitzer, Late Wife. Gavin Dillard’s work as an editor altered my being. If I started listing my contemporary peers, we’d be here all day. The honesty of your work inspires me. I think you paint an accurate portrait of gay guys our age, the beautiful parts and the ugly parts. Not many people have the courage or the ability to pull that style of poetry off. It’s why I wrote you a fan letter when we both appeared in Ganymede.

S: That’s right you are my fan, but then how did I end up the interviewer?

I’m interested that you mentioned Angelou. She’s always been my go to poet to make fun of and I would always forbid my students to write about her. They mostly wanted to write about her because she was the only poet they knew and I wanted to push them. I do, however, love her reading of Craigslist ads (if you don’t get this joke then your gay card is in danger).

I like hearing your list because it’s quite different from my own (with the exception of Whitman).

On that same note, if someone came up to you who hasn’t read much poetry, what is the one book you would tell them they have to read?

B: Gavin Dillard’s anthology A Day for a Lay: A Century of Gay Poetry. It takes the concept of poetry as it’s taught in school and explodes it like a grenade. Take someone who thinks poetry is boring and read them a few poems from this collection. Poetry will become erotic, revealing, dangerous. It will become my favorite word: outlaw.

S: I’m sure that would blow some minds and maybe some other body parts. In the academic world, much is often written about the “state” of poetry in America. Some claim it is dead, others that it is thriving or hasn’t changed much. I’m curious how you would characterize the current state of gay poetry in America.

B: I’m going to borrow this answer from my friend William Johnson (Publisher/Editor of Mary: A Literary Quarterly) in an interview at EatOnThis.com. We’re in a contemporary renaissance of gay writing. Look at what Alex Dimitrov is doing with the Wilde Boys. Look at the exciting pieces William runs in Mary. Look at Allison, Hittinger, Jeremy Halinen, Steven Reigns. Look in the mirror, Stephen, because you’re a part of this, too. I feel like I’m giving the State of the Union. Hand over my heart, pledging allegiance to the rainbow flag: the current state of gay poetry is strong. And growing stronger.

S: My mirror is a little dirty at the moment, but I’ll give myself a good look later. I’m going to take a short break to promote myself. I have a new poem about Dolly Parton and Santa Claus coming out in the next issue of Mary, so make sure you get a copy.

As most of my readers know, you and I co-wrote a book that should be out later this year called The Hanky Code. What most excites you about this project? Give the readers a little teaser.

B: When I explain The Hanky Code to people, I say that it is a poetic interpretation of the sexuality of gay men. Yes, it’s raunchy at times, but it’s not sexual for the sake of being sexual. These poems are more than two-dimensional. What does it mean to look for sex in a public park? What are the origins of our fetish subcultures? Who would dare be a scat bottom – where is the eroticism in that? And what does marriage look like, decades in? You know, I’ve got a degree in psychology. I think for some of these poems, I channeled my inner Freud. I’ll let the readers decide what stage in which I’m fixated. Or just ask my husband.

S: Or search xtube? Maybe that’s just me. That’s a pretty good teaser. The Hanky Code was a really fun project to do with you. I had never done a collaboration with another poet until this. We both come from different backgrounds. We have also never met face to face, so what was it like, from your perspective, to write this book with me?

B: Really, it was like an online hookup. We chatted a bit. Compared dick size. Figured out who was the bottom and who was the top. Then we showed up at an agreed-upon location and whipped ‘em out. When it was over, we rinsed our mouth out with off-brand mouthwash with a little bit of each other left inside us. In fact, Stephen, I think I might be pregnant with your child.

S: Good luck getting child support out of me! But I’m glad I could impress you with my “skills.” If you find my underwear, could you mail them back? They were expensive.

We are both still young, or younger, but what is your advice for gay poets just starting out?

B: Blog! Blog blog blog. What do you have to lose? You’ll cultivate a fan base. You’ll create contacts. You might just get an offer for publication. Don’t listen to people who tell you not to blog your work. It’s a balancing act. Blog some of it. Blog first drafts. Take feedback. Share your process. The smart publishers will eventually realize that if they print someone with a large blog following, then they will likely gain a portion of that large readership.

S: While we have slightly different perspectives on blogging (I never post my work or drafts), I do second your enthusiasm for writing a blog. I’ve gained a lot of fans and made many connections by writing here. It is also a great place to push and examine your ideas about poetry. It helps to build an online presence and community.

Now for some real fun: What poet, dead or alive, would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

B: I want an orgy with the Assaracus boys. And it would be dirty, dirty sex. I’m thinking a sling would be involved. I bet Eric Norris has one. She’s freaky in bed.

S: Hot, I’ll grab my harness and lube and come over. Just make sure I get some of Matthew Hittinger (Matt, if you are reading this, I’m just kidding. Sort of. I mean, maybe not. Call me.).

We should move on before I get too worked up. What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

B: “Thomas” by Vytautas Pliura. It’s taboo. It’s scandalous. It’s my all-time favorite poem. It destroys and then rebuilds me.

S: That was your chance to really suck up to me and you blew it. Here’s one more shot: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic? And who would play me, because I should totally be in that too?

B: Where the hell is Jonathan Taylor Thomas? Let’s resurrect his career. He can play me. Rupert Grint can play you, if we’re sticking with redheads. If not, how about Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights?

S: Rupert Grint? Really? I’ll take Zach Gilford (though I had to look him up because I had no clue who he was).

Lastly, what’s next for you?

B: The schedule for SRP is crazy. Up next is the Raymond Luczak’s follow-up to Mute, Road Work Ahead, which I think will become our centerpiece. In June, we’ll publish our first full-length collection from a female poet, Voices Through Skin by Theresa Senato Edwards. I knew I wanted her based on her cover letter alone. We'll follow that up with Autopornography by Loria Taylor. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and she really is a fantastic writer. We’ve got chapbooks by Jessie Carty and Saeed Jones in the fall. Then in December, we’ll publish an anthology edited by Kevin Simmonds called Collective Brightness. It focuses on spirituality in the LGBT community – an outlaw concept in its own right. Then we’ll have more issues of Assaracus. I’m really looking forward to the third issue, when we’ll publish some potentially controversial but brilliant poems by Antler. Between all that, I’m trying to decide how to bring my new manuscript, Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems from the First Year Without My Father to the public. This is a book that has mass appeal and a universal message. It’s the best set of poems I’ve ever written, and it’s the most important project I’ve ever completed. Do I publish it through Sibling Rivalry? Or do I let someone else run with it? That’s what I’m wrestling with now. I’m also inserting myself into the third issue of Assaracus, because I’m the editor. Call it a perk.

S: Can’t wait to check out all of those projects. As someone who has read a draft of your next book, I can tell my readers it is not to be missed.

Thanks Bryan for being my first. I hope it was just the right amount of pain and pleasure.

Check out more of Bryan at www.bryanborland.com

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Born This Way

In roughly two years, I've gone from not really caring much for blogs to writing one and reading them often. I don't read as many as I'm sure some of you do, but I have various poetry ones I follow, a few cooking ones, a few of my friends, and a few porn ones, of course.

A few days ago, however, I discovered a new blog that I'm in love with and want to share with my readers. It is called "Born This Way." It is a project that gathers photos and short essays from GLBT people about their childhood. They want photos of people from the ages of 2-12 that demonstrate "the beginnings of their innate LGBT selves." They ask that each photo come with a short essay about when you first knew you were gay or different and something about the picture you submitted.

The results are fantastic and well worth a look. This project is a great coming together of various people from different walks of life and different ages. The photos are often funny and the essays are touching and interesting examinations of that "different" feeling GLBT kids feel growing up.

After seeing the blog, I submitted my own photo and essay. You can check it out here and then I highly recommend clicking around and reading others.

-Stephen (Born Gay)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Podcast 32: Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran

Yesterday, I was happy to discover that a review had been printed on New Pages for issue 3 of Knockout, which was published in the spring of 2010 and included my poem "Against Our Better Judgment We Plan a Trip to Iran." The review praises the issue and particularly comments on my poem and even quotes a few lines from it. You can check out the review here.

In honor of the review, I decided to do a podcast of the poem and post it today. I've mentioned the poem a few times. I wrote it in grad school as part of my thesis and part of a short series of poems that all deal with the treatment of homosexuals in Iran. I'm proud of the poem and the recognition it has gotten.

I hope you enjoy hearing it.

Listen here.

-Stephen (Knocked Out)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Salt Ecstasies: A Review

Poetry can quickly fade from sight. Most books are printed in small runs and unless that person gains great recognition their books can quickly disappear and become hard to find for future readers. This is why reprint series are vital. Graywolf Press has such a series call "Re/View" and they recently reprinted James L. White's 1982 book The Salt Ecstasies.

Prior to reading it, I had heard great things about it and so I placed it on my reading list for 2011 (which I have now read three books off of). The book absolutely engaged me and surprised me. White, who did not gain tons of recognition in his lifetime, is a powerful and important poet of the 20th century. I found myself connecting to White in ways I didn't expect, because I knew very little about him before reading the book. White grew up in Indiana, which is where I am from. He was also gay and his poems attempt to get at the complexities of relationships and the internal loneliness that can come from life.

This reprint includes a great introduction by Mark Doty. I often dislike introductions and sometimes don't read them until after I've read the book, but this one I read first and I was pleased by Doty's careful exploration of White's work. His essay is genuine and helped build a context for the poems. The reprint includes the entire book called The Salt Ecstasies, which was White's last book. He actually died before it got printed. Doty also includes two previously unpublished poems and a selection from a memoir White had written out in 1979. The memoir is a great exploration of "truth" within family and probably could have become a great book had he lived and finished it.

The heart of the book is still the poems from The Salt Ecstasies and these poems are beautifully sad. They truly capture the loneliness of a gay man in his 40s living during the late 70s. The poems are heartbreaking in places and always thought provoking. Doty mentions in his introduction that he has often suggested this book to young gay poets in his classes. He says one absolutely hated the book and couldn't take the saddest of it. The young man was seeking more encouragement that his life would be about community and love. White's poems don't really paint that picture.

White's work is different than many other gay poets writing at the time and even today. He touches on a few topics that I've rarely seen in gay poetry by men. A lot of gay poetry is filled with hot bodies, muscles, and all around sexiness. White paints a different picture. For example, he has a poem called "Overweight." In the poem, he explores the idea of our bodies changing. I found this refreshing. I've rarely, if ever, read a gay poem that talks about being overweight. In other poems, the speaker is often not viewing himself as attractive or sexy. These poems come from a very different place and truly capture the reality of life for many people.

My favorite poem in the book is also one Doty writes a lot about in the introduction. It is called "Making Love to Myself." First of all, it is a great title. It is also a great exploration of sexuality and of a lost relationship. As the speaker of the poem is masturbating, he is remembering a former lover named Jess. What is most interesting about Jess to me is his portrayal as a working class man, which again is something that can sometimes be ignored in gay literature (not always, but many times). Jess is described as coming into the room smelling of gasoline and in his work overalls. The poem is sad and also gets at the complexities of gay relationships in the 60s and 70s when being out and open was very different than it is today.

The book also includes intimate portraits of other relationships. The final poem in the book is called "Naming" and is about the speaker and the speaker's mother. The inclusion of poems about family relationships paired with these sexual relationship poems shows White's ability to examine those close interactions with have with people and the sadness and sometimes hope that comes from these relationships. They are all complicated in their own ways.

White's book is one I plan to read again. He has really grabbed my attention in a way a poet hasn't for some time. Again, I am thankful for presses that reprint books like this. I'm lucky to have had the chance to read these poems and I'm sure White would like to know that his work is still inspiring people today.

-Stephen (Salty)



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.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Podcast 31: Holding Hands Outside a Pro-Family Rally with my Seed Inside You

Today I am posting my first poetry podcast of 2011 and it is a recording of a brand new poem. I rarely share a poem this soon after writing it, but it felt right to post it today. The poem is entitled "Holding Hands Outside a Pro-Family Rally with my Seed Inside You." It is a poem I immediately felt good about after writing the first draft, which is rare.

It felt like an appropriate poem for today because of the shooting that happened yesterday in Arizona. I've been carefully following the story and have been really sickened by the whole event. If you don't know all the details, basically a gunman opened fire at a political gathering outside a grocery store in Tucson. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, but is still alive at the moment. I believe six others are dead and many wounded. The gunman was caught and not a lot has been released about his particular motives, but he has posted various videos online disagreeing with the government.

What this event highlights is a ongoing problem we are facing in America. I've mentioned this many times recently, but we've truly forgotten how to disagree and share our viewpoints. Our political leaders and the media are greatly at fault for spreading hate speech and promoting screaming and fighting over actual fact and true debate. I'm not an overly paranoid person, but I am truly fearful of this militant and fundamentalist movement in the country and I think it is only going to get worse.

My poem today is about a political issue and about peacefully protesting outside a pro-family rally. No matter how we feel about various issues, we must be able to disagree and discuss them in a civil and appropriate way. For me, poetry is a way to fight back and to share my views and to hopefully make people think.

As I was writing this poem, I also had a revelation about my work and created the term "vulgarly sweet" to describe many of my poems (this one included). I often attempt to take something many would call vulgar (i.e. cum in someone's ass) and make it meaningful and kind of sweet. I think I'm going to write a more detailed post about this soon. For now, I hope you will enjoy listening to my first poem of 2011.


-Stephen (Peace)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Bad Review Debate

Recently, I read a poetry book that was pretty bad, which, honestly, is rare for me. I'm a pretty good judge of what I will like and even when I don't like a book I often find the merit of reading it. This particular book (which I will not be naming) was very clunky, rather repetitive, and had numerous glaring grammatical errors in it. It had some potential in places and a few good poems, but as a whole it was a book I would write a fairly unfavorable review of, if I were to write one.

This got me thinking about bad reviews and the debate within the poetry community about writing such reviews. For the most part, you don't see very many negative reviews of poetry books. Why is this?

Basically, the poetry world is small and poetry isn't widely read, which means most mainstream magazines don't review poetry. The majority of poetry reviews are published in poetry magazines, on poetry websites, or on blogs like this one. What this means is that a lot of poetry reviews are written by other poets. In fact when I was in grad school, I was encouraged by faculty to write poetry reviews because they are often easier to get published and they get your name out there. They can be great for building connections. This is sound advice and the reviews I have published on this blog have gotten me some attention from various other poets and magazines. But there can be a downside.

What happens when so many reviews are written by poets is that the trend is to praise books and not overly criticize them. Why? Well, if you are a poet yourself, you are looking out for your own career. If you write a bad review of someone's book, what happens when your book comes out? Who else does this person know? Basically, who all have you pissed off? These may seem like silly questions, but in a world as small as poetry, they are vital questions to ask and sadly can't be ignored.

Does this mean that people are over praising books? Maybe, but often the case is that people only write reviews of books they like and stay silent on books they don't like. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. For many of us, it is more exciting to write about a book we love than a book we don't love. When so few read poetry, it seems more useful to spread the word about great books than to tell people what not to read (they have that covered). But the lack of strong critical reviews can cause the poetry world to think less and discuss less. It seems hard to praise something if you aren't clearly defining what is "good" and therefore what is "bad." This is why it is important to have critics who only write reviews and don't engage in writing the creative work themselves. They are more inclined to be objective (yes, of course this isn't always the case, but that's perhaps a different blog post).

I am basing this mostly on my own experiences reading reviews and more recently writing them. In the last few years, I've been busy making connections in the poetry world and in particular in the gay poetry world. I've been surprised by the connections having this blog has gotten me. For example, last April I wrote a post praising Richard Tayson and expressing how he greatly influenced my work. Three weeks later I had an email in my inbox from Richard Tayson who I had never met or spoken with before.

Another great example is Jeremy Halinen. I wrote a review of his book a few weeks ago. I knew Jeremy from him publishing a poem of mine in Knockout. He then asked me to review his book. Luckily, I genuinely enjoyed his book, but what if I hadn't? Bashing his book would probably not help me out too much. He has various connections, edits a journal that has published me, and writing negatively about his book could, in turn, hurt my own publishing chances. Thankfully, I've never been asked to write a review of something that I ended up disliking, but I'm sure it is bound to happen. I have been nothing but honest in my reviews, but I also haven't written any negative reviews.

Basically, this is all part of the "business of poetry" that nobody wants to deal with and many don't want to talk about. But let's face it, the publishing world, even a small one like the poetry one, is built on connections. Talent and skill do factor in, but connecting with the right people is vital. I've learned that over the years and was pretty naive to it when I first started writing and sending my work out to magazines, or maybe I just didn't want to believe it.

The problem is we live in a world full of sensational media and people yelling at each other on the television, which makes us forget that it is possible to have an intelligent, thoughtful, and civil discussion and critique. Sadly, I will refrain from writing that review because I know how quickly people can get labeled and for the time being I don't want to be "that poet who writes bad reviews." I'm not sure I'm proud of this decision, but it is the one I'm making today and one I will continue to think about and examine.

-Stephen (Questioning)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

29 Books for 29 Years

One of my goals for 2011 is to read more. I've always been a big reader, but since leaving school I've read a little less (especially fiction) and my reading hasn't been very organized, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Regardless, I wanted 2011 to be more focused, so I complied a "must read list" for the year.

I turn 29 in 2011, so my theme for the list is "29 Books for 29 Years." These won't be the only books I read in the new year, but they are my promised books. I will for sure read more poetry than is on the list. The list is mostly fiction. I have one non-fiction and a few poetry books. Two of the poetry book are "collected poems," which means they are very long. I have read pieces of both of these books, but they made the list because I want to read them in their entirety.

I consulted some of my literary friends for book suggestions, which was helpful in creating the list. I also thought of books I've heard great things about, but haven't read. A few of these simply fell through the cracks of my education. For example, I know some of you will be surprised that I have never read The Catcher in the Rye. I also picked books by authors I love like Faulkner and Morrison, but picked books by them I haven't read. I also tried to put a few difficult books on my list to push me.

I'm excited for the challenge of reading these book, blogging about them, and talking about them with my friends. I hope my list will inspire your own reading list for the new year. I want 2011 to be filled with books.

Here is my 2011 reading list:

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

4. Beloved by Toni Morrison

5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

6. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

7. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

8. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

11. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

12. Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran

13. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

14. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

15. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

16. A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

17. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

18. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

19. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

20. The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert

21. Pleasure by Brian Teare

22. Museum of False Starts by Chip Livingston

23. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn

24. Nox by Anne Carson

25. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan

26. Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder

27. The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

28. C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

29. The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch by Kenneth Koch

As I end this first post of the year, I want to let you all know that I now have a fan page for my blog on Facebook, so check it out. My partner, Dustin, made it for me as a surprise. Here's to another year of blogging and reading!

-Stephen (Reader)