Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Big GAY Poetry Giveaway 2011!

Tomorrow is April 1st, which means it is the beginning of National Poetry Month. This is one of my favorite months on my blog because I try even harder to devote posts to promoting poetry and discussing various issues in the poetry world. I typically write more posts this month than any other.

I am kicking things of this year by announcing that my blog is participating in the Big Poetry Giveaway started by Kelli Russell Agodon. Check out her blog, Book of Kells, for more information and to get a list of all the blogs participating.

Here is how it works: On May 1st I will be giving away two books by drawing two names at random. To enter you just have to make a comment on this post. Your comment should include your name and an email address I can reach you at if you do in fact win. You have until 11:59 PM EST on April 30th to enter. On May 1st, I will put the names into a hat and pick two winners. I will then mail you the book that you won. I will ship anywhere in the world. This is a great way to promote poetry and get more people reading both poetry and poetry blogs.

I am calling my giveaway "the Big GAY Poetry Giveaway" because I have selected two gay titles to give out. The original idea is that you, the blogger, give out your own book and a favorite book. Since I do not have my own book, I am going to giveaway a copy of the first issue of the gay poetry magazine Assaracus. This was published on January 1st and includes a series by me titled "Confessions of an Open Relationship." It also includes work by many other fine gay poets. I will also be giving away a copy of James L. White's The Salt Ecstasies, which is one of my favorite poetry books I have read in the last few months.

I'm excited to participate this year and hope many will enter. Again, just make a comment on this post and I will announce the winners on May 1st!

Good luck!

-Stephen (You get a poetry book, and you get a poetry book, and you get a poetry book)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Culture of Perfection

If you flip on the radio these days, it is hard not to hear a song about how perfect or special you are. There has been a sudden surge of pop songs promoting this idea. This is evident in such songs as Pink's "Fuckin' Perfect," Katy Perry's "Firework," Ke$ha's "We R Who We R," and even Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." Everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as perfect exactly as they are. No change required.

I don't mean to be a downer, but is this really the best message to send to our already overly confident young people? Yes, I understand that many of these songs have been directed toward the gay community and have served as a response (or maybe just good marketing) to the media coverage of gay suicides last fall. Were those kids confident? No. Does bullying happen? Yes. Does this need to be addressed? Of course. Our world, however, doesn't have to be so black and white. The only options aren't suicidal or perfection. The issue is that while I like many of these songs (except "Firework," which is just a shitty song period) and they are fun to dance to at the gay club, I wonder about the message of "you are fine just the way you are," because most of us aren't (even you Lady Gaga, but I love you anyway).

I've thought a lot about this in terms of the job I have. I teach a freshmen writing course at a for-profit school. A majority of my students can barely write. This is not an exaggeration. Many are at a very low reading and writing ability, yet most have an attitude that they are just fine the way they are and many are not open to criticism of any kind. This isn't something new. Many teachers have discussed the issues involving the "every student is special" movement, which has been going on for quite some time. If you are constantly told you are special and perfect, what is the motivation to learn?

The notion that everyone is special has also led to another common narrative that students will pull out anytime they see fit. Over a year ago, I had a student who refused to the meet the word counts on all of the assignments. The word count for most of my assignments are 300 to 500 words. She would write 150 or 200 and she kept losing points for doing so. She finally emailed me to say that she understood it was my opinion that the assignments should be longer, but she disagreed. She went on to say that she was really busy (a job and a family) and didn't have time to write anymore and that she would not change. I wrote her back simply explaining the demands of the school and how much time is required and that if she didn't have time to complete the assignments properly perhaps this wasn't the best time to return to school. This caused her to pull out what I like to call "the people like you" narrative. This is when students believe they are being attacked and that the attack is proof that they will succeed in life. She wrote me a long email back in all caps saying it was people like me that would make her succeed and that I was trying to keep her down, but she would not be kept down. Again, this was all over trying to get her to write 300 words. In the end, she plagiarized and failed the course.

In my experience, people need some more honesty in their lives. I'm not saying bullying or hate speech is the answer, but we have a population of people that see no need to change or grow and this is very concerning. We actually aren't all perfect. I'm not perfect. I work very hard to be a better person, a better teacher, a better writer, a better reader, etc. I've learned best from those willing to critique me and give valuable feedback.

I know some of you are reading this and saying, but it's just some pop songs. You are right, but these pop songs are everywhere and get ingrained in our brains and society. It also doesn't just stop with these songs. As a whole, we have become very cautious about giving honest feedback to each other. Everyone is afraid of hurting someone's feelings and anyone willing to give some critique of a situation or an assignment or a poem is often seen as an asshole. I touched slightly on this topic when I wrote my blog post about writing bad reviews.

The world is a cruel place and not everyone is cutout for everything. I would rather let a student know that he has some major writing issues than send him on his way only to see him crash and burn later.

Last night, I was watching the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is about street art (and so much more) and at the end one of the guys says how he used to think everyone should make art and he encouraged them to do it, but now he doesn't. To fully understand the context of that statement, you will need to see the film, but his point also works out of context. Not everyone is an artist. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is a poet. Not everyone is a scientist. Not everyone is a doctor. That's not to say we shouldn't, up to a point, encourage people to try things, but this over praising of mediocre or bad work is getting us nowhere. It is actually dumbing down our culture and making everyone think they will simply succeed in life because they are perfect for simply being born.

I'm all about empowering people, but I also believe in being honest. We can be positive and encouraging without simply slapping a "prefect" label on everyone. Our society needs to get better at taking criticism and learning from it. Of course, I understand that "you're fucking fine and I'll help you get better" doesn't make such a great song.

-Stephen (Working On It)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Podcast 34: The Anatomy of a Hate Crime

Over the last year, I have been writing a lot of poems that deal with violence and sexuality. Many of these poems examine the fine line between pleasure and pain and fear and love. These poems include the series I wrote about a gay porn star in prison as well as a long poem about Jeffrey Dahmer. Many of these poems also explore hate crimes against the gay community.

At first, I didn't realize how closely connected all of these poems were, but once I put it all together I realized I had a really interesting manuscript, which might become my first book if someone publishes it. The manuscript is titled He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices and I've recently begun to send it out.

My poetry podcast for today comes from that manuscript. Today I'm reading a poem called "The Anatomy of a Hate Crime." This poem is a bit different from my other work. Since you can't see the text, I will say that the poem is actually a prose poem and is written in blocks of text. The poem explores the idea of hate crimes and how they have become almost routine and also how we as a community respond to them.

Listen here.

-Stephen (No Hate)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Big Love: A Lesson in Writing

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the series finale of the HBO show Big Love. If you have not watched it and want to, don't read anymore.

A few years ago, I fell in love with a series called Big Love. I got the first season on DVD right after it came out and I was hooked. It is a show that has challenged me, surprised me, and compelled me to take interest in lives so different from my own.

Big Love is about family, but also faith. A faith that is very confusing and foreign to me. I was raised in a Quaker church and a Christian church, but am now an atheist, so Mormonism is a very different perspective from my own. The show also explored polygamy and made me question my own thoughts about relationships. At the center of the show was the amazing core characters: Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margene. These four actors disappeared into these characters and made you truly care about this family that had many, many faults.

The first three seasons are absolutely some of the best television out there. They are well-written, developed, and acted. Sadly, the final two season wavered a bit and stumbled in some key places. The show took some big risks and some paid off and others did not. The show remained entertaining and even thought-provoking, but the true heart of the show seemed to be in limbo.

If I really love a show, I am willing to put my trust in the creators and writers and hope that eventually they will relieve my doubts. I gave Big Love a lot of trust this final season, because I was questioning almost all of the storylines they were doing, but I kept hoping. As I watched the series finale I was let down and left asking, what the hell were they thinking?

In the final season the family was completely falling apart and crashing down. It seemed there was no hope in sight and that things were going to end in the destruction of the core family. In the final episode, things were still hanging by a thread and Bill was facing jail time because his third wife was actually only 16 when they married. This was something she had kept from the whole family (this was never hinted at or brought up until episode three or four of the final season, which is not good writing). As the episode began to wrap up, you saw a glimmer of hope that people might be coming back together, but then, like a badly written story from a college creative writing student, a crazed neighbor appeared out of nowhere and shot and killed Bill. The show then skipped ahead eleven months to show that the wives stuck together and appeared closer than ever before.

I wish I was making this up. This is writing 101: You don't just pull out a gun and shoot your main character with no warning or setup. If they wanted Bill to die, there were lots more people on the show that should have killed him. Instead, it was a small secondary character that we don't really know much about. Yes, we know he lost his job and has been depressed and his wife left him, but we, as the audience, don't know him well enough to understand why he would come up to Bill and kill him in the street.

Due to my great confusion, I decided to take a listen to Fresh Air's interview with the creators of the series, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, which aired yesterday. First of all, I love Fresh Air and Terry Gross asks the best questions and she didn't let me down. You could tell right away that Terry Gross also had some confusions about the sudden killing of Bill. She focused many of her questions about that decision. I thought the interview would be enlightening and might give me some peace about the series. Instead, it made me more angry.

Olsen and Scheffer had no good responses and actually had a very different take on the series as a whole than most of the viewing audience. They seemed to not understand their own show as well as those of us who have watched it for the last five seasons. They even admitted that their views seem at odd with the viewers, which somehow surprised them.

They claimed their goal was always to show how strong the family was and how it always endured. This message, however, gets a little messed up, because when is enough, enough? By the end of the five years, it seems like it is almost more harmful for these characters to stay together than to separate. As viewers, we aren't quite convinced that these people belong together or that this marriage, faith, and family work. Bill was still part of a system that controls women, which Terry Gross did a nice job of pointing out. It seems that Olsen and Scheffer saw their show as a testament to the surivival of a marriage, but survival based on the death of the figurehead of the family seems a little off to me. Bill had to die to bring the family back together? I don't know if that's very strong storytelling.

As the interview continued, it seemed to be clear that they planned the show and some of the big revelations rather quickly and without full consideration of the characters and overall storyline of the series. As a writer, this saddens me. I'd love to write a series for HBO and feel I could have at least written a better finale for this show, which I have loved for five seasons, than they did.

This got me thinking about writers and their views on their own material. Last night, at my Nerve Poetry Workshop meeting, I was talking to my friend Brian about this very topic. I am of the firm belief that the author isn't necessarily the key or the best judge of their material. Once I release a poem to the world, I can't control what others will see in it. I've often had someone find amazing connections that I didn't see when I wrote it. Sometimes I think it comes from my own intuition, but sometimes it is from the reader only. We were also talking about self-publishing and I think one of the dangers of that is that you don't have a strong outside editor to give you clear advice and guidance on your work. Big Love might have benefited from some outside guidance.

Writing a series is probably one of the most challenging writing projects. You have these characters that must move and change, but your audience must also understand the choices and decisions they make. In some ways, Big Love was fantastic at doing this. While Nicki did become a bit more annoying in the final season, I did fully understand her development as a character. However, the overall idea of sticking with a marriage was truly tested by the absolutely horrific stuff this family was put through in five seasons. In the final season, they were really at odds with each other and all seemed to be questioning the decisions they had made.

In the end, I was saddened that such a great show had pulled such a cheap shot. We all make mistakes as writers, and just sometimes our audience knows best. I will miss my Big Love family and will now try to forget the finale ever happened.

-Stephen (Loved Big)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Podcast 33: Fisting You for the First Time on the Day "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is Repealed

Today I am returning to podcast Sundays with a new poem to share. I haven't done many podcasts recently for various reasons. 2011 has proved to be a challenging year so far. It has also been a very productive one for my blog, but I haven't written as many poems in the last three months. As most of you writers know, we sometimes hit a slow period with our writing. This is one of mine. I have been doing a lot of thinking and I am hoping to focus and decide on a new poetry project in the coming weeks.

That's not to say I haven't written anything, because I have, including today's poem. This poem is titled "Fisting You for the First Time on the Day 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is Repealed." I wrote this right after the repeal of DADT, since then I have revised it many times and have let it sit and I'm happy with the end result, which is why I am sharing it today.

The poem attempts to explore the idea of violence and intimacy and while DADT is in the title, it is really just a backdrop for the poem (though there are various ways to closely connect it to the actions and thoughts of the poem, but I will leave that to you).

Listen here.

-Stephen (Fists Across America)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Interview Series: Matthew Hittinger

As most of you know by now, one of my goals of 2011 was to incorporate more voices into my blog. I am doing this by devoting one post every month to interviewing an emerging GLBT poet. I began with Bryan Borland in January and Valerie Wetlaufer in February. For March, I interviewed the talented and sexy Matthew Hittinger. We had a great time discussing everything from poetry contests to writing nude to his love of ginger to his collaborative work with musicians, actors, and artists. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Stephen: I first became aware of you and your work because we have both been published in the same issues of quite a few different magazines (Ganymede, Knockout, Assaracus). At first I thought you were stalking me, but it was probably just the fate of the poetry world that we would eventually become aware of each other. On that note, how do you go about selecting journals to submit to?

Matthew: My poems told me they’re stalking your poems; I told them to behave.

My selection process has evolved. I started out with a Poet’s Market guide and some recommendations from friends and mentors. Then in grad school we had the wonderful resource of the Hopwood Room at UM where the latest issues of many, many print journals are on display (fanned out like a wheel on the large round table in the center of the Hopwood Room). There was also a list circulating among the MFA students at the time which broke the notable journals down (acceptance rates, whether they were university journals, online journals, etc.) which helped us better target where to send our work.

S: Wow, that sounds like a great resource that I would have loved in grad school when I knew very little about publishing.

M: It was very useful and someone’s labor of love; I’m hazy on its origins. Sometimes I look at acknowledgments pages to see where my influences and peers have published. But in the years since grad school I’ve shifted how I select thanks to the rise of social media and Duotrope’s Digest. I’ve “discovered” many journals through posts by friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter, and through Duotrope’s listings. A new shift/reversal in the process is having journals now solicit me for work.

S: I have also seen the great perks of social media and networking sites. I hear about so many publication opportunities just by following people on Twitter or Facebook. I also scan the acknowledgement sections of many books that I admire.

Let’s backtrack for a minute to your writing process. What is it like? For example, do you write daily? Does it have to be quiet? Do you write by hand or on the computer? Do you write naked? I’m just trying to get a good mental picture.

M: I’m usually clothed. There is one poem I wrote naked on a hotel bed in Miami while watching the sun rise, but that was a few years ago. Oh, and I’ve been told my work makes certain readers want to get naked when they read it.

S: I think I fall into that “certain readers” category, though I don’t just want to, I often do. If I see your name in the table of contents, I start stripping.

M: Excellent. My poems are meant to be read naked in bed, and if you're lucky to have someone with you, whispered in that person's ear. As for my process…I read daily. Writing/reading are two sides of the same coin, so even if I’m not writing daily, at least I’m engaged with reading literary writing every day, be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry or graphic novels.

Whether or not it has to be quiet depends on my mood; I’m a bit of a Gemini that way. In grad school I kept NPR and music on incessantly in the background. For a year it was Cartoon Network and Boomerang (I love old Hannah Barbara cartoons—the Herculoids, Thundarr, Super Friends). NYC noises are a bit too distracting--I often use ear plugs here.

Hand or computer? I used to write all my drafts by hand. Every poem still starts with translating words that have found a rhythm in my head into a hand-written fragment. And then sometimes the fragments become lines, but it’s rare that I draft an entire poem by hand anymore. I usually dump all my fragments and lines into a computer file and edit from there. There are benefits to both types of writing: writing by hand forces my brain to slow down a bit, but conversely, I’m a fast typer, so typing better keeps up with the speed at which my mind works.

But to get at the heart of your question: new work comes in short, prolific bursts. A lot of material gets absorbed over the space of many months (I call it my sponge phase), and then I’ll hit a superabsorbed state and wring out the sponge, sometimes generating a manuscript’s worth of work in the space of a few weeks. The following months and years are devoted to revising that work.

Up until the past year or so, I could only generate work if I knew what the book project was. I’d fixate on a question I wanted to explore, for instance in my Skin Shift manuscript the question of transformation and metamorphosis in the postmodern world, of updating and queering myths for our own times. The exploration of that question generated the poems.

Of late, for the first time in a long time, I’ve just been writing one-off poems, many of which have been commissions for projects. It’s sort of nice to not have them tied to any bigger project, and also scary.

S: I’m always intrigued in other poets’ writing processes because they often vary so much from mine. It’s very interesting that you have these bursts of writing. I seem to work more on a steady pace. I have recently been writing more toward projects, but that is a newer concept for me. I often work best focusing on one poem at a time.

Recently, you’ve been doing some interesting collaborations outside of the poetry world. For example, I know some of your poems got paired with music. Could you speak about how that’s come about and how it’s changed your views on poetry or the arts in general?

M: The musical collaborations started with the Memorious art song contest. I was a finalist, and the composer, Randall West, wanted to work with me independently, so that’s how our collaboration came about. Those art songs debuted in January in Chicago performed by the VOX3 vocal music collective. It was a fun process, to hear the songs in-progress along the way and answer Randall’s questions about the poems as he set the text to music.

My upcoming musical collaboration with composer John Glover will be a little different. We’re starting from a similar point; John's read through a portfolio of my work and we've selected two poems. We'll record me reading them next, and then we're going to start playing around. There will probably be some sonic layering of my voice, some electronica, and we’ll be accompanied by the flutist Andrew Rehrig. I'll definitely be more involved as a performer. We’re still in the early phases of the collaboration, so I will have more to say about the experience after the performance on April 23rd (go to http://www.nysoundcircuit.com/ for more details).

Other recent collaborative projects: two of my poems were part of the Emotive Fruition reading series, which pairs the work of poets up with professional actors. We met with the actors during rehearsals to give them notes and answer their questions about our work, and then they performed the poems in two acts, the work of 17 poets (36 poems or so) sequenced in such a way that it created an overall emotional/narrative arc that left you feeling as if you had just seen a play or show.

And I collaborated with Kristy Gordon for “In Pursuit of a More Perfect Armor”--a painting/poem match-up that appeared in the November 2010 Issue of Poets & Artists. In that case we started via conversation, emailing back and forth about our current obsessions, having a lovely conversation about the masks and armor we have to don in order to create. I took many visual cues for the poem from her painting, and Kristy sent “in-progress” snapshots that helped me build the poem. Since I’ve done a ton of ekphrastic writing, it was a natural collaboration.

So why all the collaborative interest? It’s tied to my interest in hybrids, when two disparate things come together to form a third, new thing. I also feel myself pulled toward collaboration more and more as a response to the somewhat suffocating air inside the poetry world. There are days where I just can’t deal with PoBiz and I find collaborative pursuits a nice escape from our bubble. I’ve been really inspired by Anne Carson’s performance pieces of recent years (I just participated in a master class with her that focused on collaboration and it has given me some great ideas), and am intrigued at how written work can open up when introduced to another art form, and the larger audience we can reach when combining forces. Plus, it’s just fun to work with other artists, to be a representative from your field and educate other artists about poetry while learning about music or painting or dance.

S: Those all sound like amazing opportunities to explore your work and see it in a different way. It seems poetry could gain a bigger audience through collaborations like the ones you describe.

You seem to have a strong academic background. You have an MFA. What made you choose that path and what was your MFA experience like?

M: Oh gosh. My story: I straddled the critical/creative divide in college, double majoring in Art History and English, and wrote an interdisciplinary Honors thesis on the poetry and paintings of Derek Walcott. Our graduating class was also the first to have the option to add a writing concentration (we didn’t have a creative writing minor at the time) so I didn't have my first writing workshops until my senior year at Muhlenberg.

Having had a taste of graduate level work with my honors thesis, I wanted more but was torn: museum studies and Art History? English? My head said crit lit, my heart said creative. A fellowship to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets helped further propel me in the creative direction after graduation.

I knew I needed a break after college, so I worked full-time and stayed disciplined about reading and writing. After a year of working full time, I started researching summer writing classes and found the FAWC in Provincetown which was offering a class called “Exchanging Hats”. How could I not take a class referencing one of my favorite Bishop poems? It was taught by the fabulous Paul Lisicky, who ended up being a great mentor and helped me put the MFA question in perspective. Why not do it, especially if I was accepted to a program that would fully fund me, in essence buying myself a couple years to just focus on my craft. Which is what happened--I basically got paid to read and write for two years.

Overall, my MFA experience was good. Ann Arbor's an awesome town. UM has a lot of resources. I had a fabulous cohort. Through all the reading series and visiting authors and book recommendations from mentors and peers, I was exposed to writers I may not have found on my own. Within the program I chose to take PhD lit classes for my coursework. I figured if I were going to be serious about being a poet, I needed to know my tradition. It’s important to know the conversation you're having with the past, especially as you struggle to move the forms forward.

S: That last bit sounds like stuff I say all the time. I’ve met too many poets along the way that seem to have no sense of what has come before them and where they fit into the grander tradition of poetry. My MFA at Florida State was a three-year program and required a great deal of lit classes, which I fully supported. I was actually an English major and Art minor in undergrad, so I can also relate to that experience.

You have published three chapbooks. I always find the idea of the chapbook to be one that confuses people outside of the literary world. How do you describe chapbooks to people and what do you like about them?

M: I usually joke that it’s a poetry world thing and based on an arbitrary set of page numbers.

I like sequences, so my favorite chapbooks are those that present me with a tight sequence.

S: You have been published in a wide range of journals and magazines including some gay specific publications. How do you think gay poets are perceived in the publishing world? And what value do you place on having gay focused journals?

M: I came late to the gay-focused journals, and really I think I came to them out of frustration that I couldn’t get certain poems that happen to have queer content, poems I felt passionately about, out to the poetry-reading public via non-gay focused journals.

With that said, I’ve had plenty of poems with queer content published in non-gay focused journals, so I don’t think it’s some sort of big conspiracy. But I’ve found the gay journals more open to my work and more eager to publish it. Many of the gay-focused journals I’ve appeared in are young, so there’s a freshness of spirit there as we discover each other and get our work out on our own terms and define our generation. The emerging gay-focused journals have been very kind to emerging gay poets.

I’ve also overcome some of my hesitations about whether this means our work only reaches each other and our gay readers and not the larger public (as small as that poetry-reading public may be). While I hope the general poetry-reading public skinny dips into our waters, it’s equally important that we have spaces to hold up language-mirrors to our own community, to publish the work our community needs. As many a diva has discovered, gays are loyal to certain brands and products, so I think it makes sense to market to our own.

S: I’ve had a similar experience. For a long time, I was very cautious about where I sent my work, but I also came to realize the importance of supporting gay themed journals and the opportunities they offer. And personally, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to skinny dip in our waters. Our waters are pretty hot.

You live in New York City, which is a cultural center and one rich with poetry history. How does living in such a city influence your work or does it?

M: Moving here definitely changed how I wrote. New York allows anonymity, allows you to be a spy, to ditch the “I” in the poem and replace it with the “eye”. My poems are shorter, more fragmented, more a collage of the things I see and overhear on the streets, on the subway, in museums. There's a different rhythm to the poems that take the city as its subject. And having access to so much culture, in particular the museums and galleries here, is definitely a source for a lot of material and inspiration. I went through my Frank O'Hara and Jasper Johns phase here. If I could have my dream job, it would be working for MoMA like O'Hara did.

S: I would totally start stalking you if you worked at MoMA like O’Hara. You know, he’s my favorite poet and this blog is named after one of his poems. If that is your dream job, what is your actual job? As far as I know, it does not involve poetry or teaching.

M: I work at a secretive hedge fund in midtown Manhattan and manage a team of receptionistas. Administrative work has always come easily to me and I like having a day job that has nothing to do with my writing life. I have many colleagues with similar secret artist lives, so we're this subculture at the Firm. It’s much easier to balance than when I was teaching. Teaching was rewarding and I enjoyed it, but it also seemed to suck the oxygen out of every corner of my day, and now when 4:30 comes, I go home and that's my time. No papers or portfolios to grade. Just my time to enjoy the city, have dinner with friends, go to the occasional reading, visit museums, play video games. The money’s nice too. Writing gets tended to on the weekends. I'm very disciplined, so I've never felt my day job at odds with my writing career. If I did, I probably would have left long ago (I've been there five years now).

S: You have entered a lot of contests and won some and have been finalists for others. Contests are a big part of the poetry publishing world and often one of the few ways to get a first book published or a chapbook. What is your take on contests and what advice do you give people about entering them?

M: I have a love/hate relationship with the contest system. I've definitely benefited from it, and have also been a bridesmaid more times than I care to count. Since I’ve waxed about book contests before, over on Christopher Hennessey’s awesome site ]Outside the Lines[, I’ll keep my comments brief here.

Advice: do your research like you would with a journal before you submit. Know the judge's tastes (read their work), the press's tastes (read some of the books they've published), and make sure your manuscript is ready. Have others read it before you start sending it out. Spread out the pages on the floor or on bulletin boards on the wall and physically live with it for many months, making edits as you walk by, shuffling the order, etc. And don't think that a contest is the only way to book publication. There are presses that have open reading periods outside their contests. There’s nothing wrong going with a small independent or micro press. Their resources may be limited, but their enthusiasm and passion for publishing good work more than makes up for it.

S: I remember reading your post on Christopher’s site. It is well worth the read. I know from personal experience how overwhelming and frustrating the contest world can be, but there are ways to survive it.

If a young gay poet came up to you and wanted to know the best poets to read, who would you suggest?

M: Ooh, I hate that word “best” so I'd probably first send them toward issues of Assaracus and Knockout and Bloom and Gertrude and Mary to get a survey of what's out there and what they like.

Then I’d tell them about the poets whose work I've had love affairs with: John Donne and John Milton; Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop; Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, and Suzanne Gardinier; H.D., Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and Lorca; Frank O'Hara; Laurie Sheck; James Merrill; and Derek Walcott.

I'd tell them about my poetry mothers: Alice Fulton and Anne Carson.

After a quick check that they know the work of Mark Doty and Carl Philips, I'd make sure they know about Charlie Jensen, RJ Gibson, Eduardo Corral, Neil de la Flor, Miguel Murphy, Randy Mann, Saeed Jones, Dante Micheaux, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, Jee Leong Koh, Bryan Borland, Jeremy Halinen, Spencer Reese, Mark Wunderlich, David Trinidad, D. A. Powell. You, of course. And those are just the boys! I like Stacey Waite and Julie Enszer…we’ll be here all day if I try to make a comprehensive list. And I know I'm egregiously forgetting people (forgive me!), but the point is there are so many gay poets to keep track of these days. And many whose names I know but whose work I have yet to experience. For instance, I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and enjoy the work of Rigoberto Gonzalez and C. Dale Young (whose latest book Torn has an amazing title poem that you should go read right now; I'll wait).

S: Wow, that is a list. By “best” I meant more the best place to start for a young gay poet, but you’ve really got them covered here.

We live in a world that is not very “poetry friendly.” What keeps you writing? Why write poetry in the 21st century?

M: You know I don't really think about it. I just write. Poetry's my tool for thinking about the world and processing what I experience. If my work gets others thinking about the world, if my way of seeing gets others thinking and seeing the world anew and moves them, then that's all that matters to me.

S: That’s a fair response and perhaps all we can ever do as writers.

Alright, you’ve read my other interviews and know I like to end by asking some “fun” questions. If you could have sex with one redheaded poet, dead or alive, who would it be? And what kind of sex would it be?

M: Hah. I see this question has become very specific since the last interview. You know Milton was rumored to be a redhead (or at least auburn--his classmates called him “the Lady”).

S: I like to keep things fresh, and besides I read somewhere that you like ginger.

M: I do like ginger. Ginger snaps, ginger [bread] men, ginger ale. Have you ever anagrammed? “Tells men hips” and “spells net him” and “he spells mint” and “helpless mint” and “help smelt sin” and “helps melt sin” and “shell stem pin” and “shell stem nip” – and that's without your middle name. I could go on all night.

S: “Ram wet the hitting” and “gin tram with teeth” and “him wetter at thing”—I can also go all night. Shall we move on before one of us gets too worked up?

What is one poem that you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

M: Pretty much anything Elizabeth Bishop ever wrote, especially the poems in Geography III. I tend to feel this way more about books than individual poems, so here are three books that made me pause and declare I’d never write again: The Master Letters by Lucie Brock-Broido; The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill; Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

S: What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?

M: RPG video games. Especially the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises. I also collect these. I have a glass cabinet for them and everything.

S: Who should play you in your bio-pic?

M: This is tough because I’m not very good with actors or remembering their names. I was going to say Franco since he’s my age and into playing gay poets, but I heard he’s short. We might need to find someone taller (I’m 6’1”). I like Ben Barnes. He played Prince Caspian in that Narnia movie, and Dorian Gray. He has excellent hair. If you play me, you have to have excellent hair.

S: Lastly, what is next for you? What is in the works?

M: There are many pots on the stovetop. I have the John Glover collaboration coming up in April. I'm finishing up revisions to Impossible Gotham, one of my full-length manuscripts. I've dusted off two shelved projects that I want to make some progress on this year: my comic book poem and a nonfiction book of vignettes about my hometown. I also have some sketches in my notebook for a new poetry manuscript tentatively called The Book of M which intertwines Montreal, Manhattan, my boyfriend Michael and me, and Marilyn Monroe (I have the same birthday as Marilyn).

S: Those all sound like amazing projects that I look forward to reading and hearing more about. Thank you for my being my March pinup.

-Stephen (Q & A)

Photo by Michael Ernest Sweet, 2011.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Superman Isn't Coming

A few nights ago, I got the courage to watch the documentary Waiting for Superman. I knew I needed to see it, but knew it would make me angry. I've spent the last six years teaching English Composition to college freshmen and I've seen, first hand, the failures of our education system. I knew the movie would bring to a boil a lot of those helpless feelings I get with my job on a daily basis.

I taught for three years at Florida State, but I currently teach at a for-profit school with no entrance requirements (other than the ability to pay a lot of money). I see students with a 2nd grade reading and writing ability on a daily basis. These are students who have somehow passed K through 12 or at least gotten a GED, but don't have any basic skills. Many of them would not be accepted to other colleges or universities. There are many issues with the kind of work I do and with for-profit education, but I won't go into those here (I'm saving that for when I work somewhere else and can safely discuss them). My point is we have a massive problem on our hands. To be quite honest, once someone gets to 18, it is very difficult for them to get caught up on years of education they simply do not have. We are creating generations with little to no education and eventually this will destroy our country.

Waiting for Superman did all of the things I expected it to do. It made me angry. It made me tear up in places. It made me feel hopeless. It also surprised me by changing my mind about some very key ideas I've held for a long time. I'm a huge supporter of teachers and education and I thought the movie would mostly reaffirm all of my beliefs. It did in some cases, but in others, I learned something new and my mind was changed (see what education does!).

I've always been in favor of supporting education with more money. I've felt that we don't give schools enough funding, which leads to many of these problems. My idea about this wasn't completely reversed, but I realized that over the years we have greatly increased the amount of money per student in this country, yet nothing seems to change. More money is great, but if that money isn't distributed properly and fairly it won't matter. Our school system is completely out of balance and until we make all schools on the same level, a huge change will not come.

The film points out how there are too many people involved in making these decisions, which causes things to get held up. In the end, anyone who actually wants to do something gets burnt out or rejected. The money is filtered through various processes and doesn't favor all students or all schools. There is no excuse to have school in one part of town that is well-maintained and has all the necessary equipment and for another school across town to be falling a part. The film also focuses on alternative schools (like charter schools), but who gets to go is left up to chance. We are literally putting children's futures into the hands of lotto machines. I'm sorry, but that's just fucked up. Bottomline: money can't be the only part of the solution.

My biggest change came in how I view teachers and teacher unions. I know some people didn't like that the documentary focused so much on teacher unions and was clearly not in favor of them, but I found the information provided to be startling and valid. Teachers are at the heart of the issue. Without great teachers nothing will get better for the students. Good teachers are a part of the solution, but bad teachers are a big part of the problem, and until we face that and fix it, things will continue on a downward spiral.

As I stated before, I've taught at the college level for six years and I know the struggles of teaching and how hard it can be. I also can't imagine the challenges of teaching K through 12. I admire anyone willing to do that. I often wish I had the courage. Having said that, there is a tendency to place all teachers on the same level and to rally around teachers anytime someone tries to change policies or confront the unions about contracts. The problem is not all teachers are created equal.

For a long time, I didn't really have an issue with tenure for teachers, but after getting more information and thinking about it more, tenure for teachers is unfair. Because I am more familiar with the university process, I assumed it was a difficult process to get tenure (because it is for professors), but in K through 12 you are given it after two years. What other job is like that? We all know there are teachers out there that don't deserve to be teachers. I had plenty of them in my high school days. I had a teacher who literally gave us a book and a worksheet to fill out every single day of class while he sat at his desk reading a paper and drinking a diet coke. I can't tell you one thing I learned in his class. That man should not have a job teaching.

I understand the fear of teachers to a degree. If tenure is taken away, a good method of evaluating teachers needs to go in its place. There is much debate about how to evaluate teachers. Many proposals have been based on test scores. I don't think that is a fair method, and I completely understand teachers having issues with their pay and job being based solely on test scores. There are, however, other ways to evaluate someone. Classroom observations would be a good way. Student feedback would also be helpful. Many jobs are hard to evaluate, but people still do it, and I don't think teachers should be exempt from that. Good teachers should be rewarded and bad teachers should be fired.

Our schools need people devoted to education. Teachers are not the enemy, but anyone not doing their job is. Our system is so broken and we are quickly sinking to the bottom in comparison to other countries worldwide. This is scary and people need to start taking notice.

Do we really want a country full of people who can't read or write? Or people who can't do basic math or understand science? Some jobs are being outsourced because there aren't enough qualified people to do them in this country. Not fixing this problem is going to lead to the downfall of America. Dramatic? No, realistic. Education is key. Some comic book hero isn't going to just swoop in and save us all. We have to start saving ourselves.

I highly recommend watching this documentary and starting more conversations about these issues. Our schools need help. Our teachers need help. The youth of America need help. It's our job to save them.

-Stephen (Angry)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Around the Web

For anyone who has missed my posts on Twitter or Facebook, I wanted to write a quick post promoting a couple of pieces that have mentioned me and my work in the last week.

A few weeks ago, a fellow poet contacted me for an interview for his site Literary Magpie. I was honored he wanted to interview me and I had a great time doing it. He asked insightful questions and hopefully I gave good answers. You can read the full interview with me and Jory Mickelson here.

My name was also mentioned in a recent review of the first issue of Assaracus. You can read the review here. It is always nice for your work to be singled out in an issue. You can still order a copy of the first issue and I believe you can now pre-order a copy of issue two, which doesn't include work by me, but does include many other fine poets. All of that and more can be found at the Sibling Rivalry Press website.

-Stephen (Self-Promoter)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My Bell Jar

Sometimes you read the right book at the right time. It is like all the literary forces out there have created the perfect combination and you have absolutely no control, so you just sit back and take it all in one word at a time.

I've been a bit depressed over the last couple of weeks. This isn't completely new. I've been struggling off and on with the anxiety and pressure of deciding what to do with the rest of my life for some time now, but it has gotten a bit worse recently. I also came down with a cold at the end of last week, which still lingers in my head as I write this. On Monday, I wasn't feeling that great and I was done with work (I typically work from home on Mondays), so I picked up Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I had recently purchased a copy because I had put her book on my list of 29 books to read in 2011. I've read Plath's poetry, but had never read her novel.

I was immediately taken in by Plath's language and insight. There I sat on a Monday afternoon, the last day of February, with the Florida sun coming in my windows (it's been extremely warm here in Orlando already) and I fell into the life of Esther Greenwood. The book is a quick read. It is fast paced and full of beautiful passages that really get at the heart of the human experience.

Being a lit major, I knew plenty about Plath before reading the book, and I knew the book focused on the psychiatric experience of a young woman in the 1950s. I expected to enjoy the book. I love early to mid 20th century literature and stories that focus on the mind and experience of a central character (Mrs. Dalloway is my favorite novel of all time). What I didn't expect was how connected I would feel to the central character's experience.

The book and most of Plath's work and life are often discussed in very gender specific terms. She is used as a symbol for feminism. In some ways, I was expecting the book to feel more female focused. Yes, Esther is the narrator and it is about her life and her gender is important, but for me it become secondary to other factors in the book. Esther is a English major and wants to be a poet. These are obviously two things I connect closely with. She is also facing what she wants to do with the rest of her life (granted she is 19 in the book and I am 28). There are many options, but most are exclusive. She can't do more than one of them, which creates a trapped feeling that is all too familiar. She is also bombarded by the advise of various other characters (other young girls, her mother, doctors, etc.). In some ways, it is the standard 1950s female story most of us are familiar with. It deals with that time period that women were gaining more freedoms and recognition, yet there still lingered some old ideas about what a woman should do or should want. This is a topic Mad Men handles so carefully. On the other hand, the book is about an intelligent and artistic person driven insane by the pressures of modern life (male or female).

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the divide I often feel in myself. Do I want to be a big academic or do I want to have fun and live my life in a big gay community and have some job that just pays the bills? I often feel torn between feelings in me that seem contradictory. I'm someone who puts a great deal of pressure on myself. I went directly from high school to college to graduate school and then wanted everything to fall into place. I felt I had done everything right, but I ended up with a job that goes against almost everything I believe in about education. I also feel trapped. I feel trapped by the economy, by our country's views on education, and by the city I live in that is not very arts friendly (at least not writing and publication friendly). There are no good jobs here, but I enjoy living here and have made great friends along the way. I am at a point that I need to make some big decisions and those are often overwhelming.

For me, The Bell Jar was more about the struggle to be a poet in a world that doesn't really understand you and the fears and confusions that come from that. I often feel alone and misunderstood, but also fearful and anxious about the decisions I've made or will make. I connected with many of the feelings Esther faced and the pressure that is upon us all.

This book continues to connect with readers because we continue to create a world full of the pressure to be successful, but also a world packed with options that are often overwhelming and contradictory. Currently, we push everyone to go to college and tell them this will make them successful and will make them earn more money, but what we don't say is that they might exit feeling lost and confused and not ready to face the world. I think there are a lot of 20 somethings out there feeling a little bitter and angry. Here we are with our school loan debt wanting to take on the world, but it still feels like a world that only wants a certain kind of person and that person isn't me or Esther. I have spent 20 years in school and, to be honest, I feel I deserve something for that.

I'm not saying these are all the feelings of the narrator in The Bell Jar, but her experience still rings true to many contemporary readers. Thankfully, we are less likely to send people off for shock treatments, but that doesn't change the fact that depression is near epidemic portions in this country and that a lot of people feel lost.

For me, I have discovered I have a need for goals. All of my life, I have had set goals. I've wanted to be a writer since I can remember. I made sure to get good grades and get into a good liberal arts college. Once there, I continued to write and grow and knew almost immediately that I wanted to go to grad school and get my MFA. I did. During grad school, I got good grades and wrote constantly. I left grad school and started getting published more and more, but then I fell into a life here that is good in so many ways, but feels at times like a complete failure. I know I am not old yet, but I also know that time is ticking. At the moment, I am seriously considering applying to PhD programs in creative writing for the fall of 2012. I hope this will make me happy and feel more connected to parts of me that have felt lost in the last three years. It will also give me a goal to work toward.

It felt right to read this book at this point in my life. It was a little hard to read at times and at first I questioned if it was the best thing to do psychologically, but, in the end, I think it was. Plath tapped into the core of a familiar experience. Her narrator quickly crumbles revealing just how fragile we are. We are always on the brink of total disaster. The bell jar is always closing in and we have to fight at every step. I'm lucky to have a good support system in place, but even with that some days are harder than others.

As most people know, Plath took her own life shortly after The Bell Jar was first published in London. Her suicide added to her fame and eventually made her a household name in both Europe and America. She was in her early thirties, just a few years older than me, when she did it. It is hard to say what her life would have been like had she continued to live and write, but it is fair to say she left her mark on the world. Her poems and this novel live on and continue to make people think. Perhaps her own death was necessary to make that happen. Who knows? Regardless, I'm thankful to have read her novel now, in this year, under these circumstances.

-Stephen (Jarred)