Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Two Years of Blogging

I was a little late to the blogging party. Almost as soon as I started blogging, the death of the blog was announced in various articles, but I kept going. Yes, two years ago today, I started this blog and I'm still at it.

I was skeptical at first and wasn't sure anyone would read it. I also wasn't sure I'd be motivated enough to post on a regular basis. All of this proved wrong. I came at blogging at the right time for me. I was a year out of grad school and I was feeling a disconnect with the literary world I had so closely been connected with before. I wanted to reach out virtually and connect with other people and writers. Amazingly, that is exactly what happened.

This blog has kept me critically thinking about poetry and other social and pop culture topics. It has forced me to put into words my ideas and arguments. In other words, it has kept me sharp with my prose writing and has let me do more informal critical work.

It has also served as a great way to promote my own work. I don't post poems on my site for various publication reasons, but I have posted various podcasts and links to where you can read or purchase my work. My name has gotten out there because of this self-promotion, which I was, again, skeptical of at first. Who really wants to go out there and promote themselves? I felt uncomfortable, but realized the poetry world is small and I can't just wait for some person to come along and tell everyone that I'm great. I need to prove it with hard work and with getting the word out there. The internet and social networking sites have made that easier and easier.

My blog has also provided a place for me to help promote poets and books that I love. This year I have taken on doing interviews with various emerging GLBT poets and those interviews have gotten my blog more hits than anything I've done. It has also made me feel more connected to the people I've met through publications, schooling, and the internet.

My life has changed quite a bit in the last two years. My work has grown enormously. I've published more than ever before. I've made more connections and friends as well. In the last few months, I've hit a sort of wall in my personal life and I feel I am at a crossroads. I have to figure out the next chapter of my life and where I want to go. Joe's Jacket has helped give me a purpose and a voice in my frustration. I don't know how long my blog will last or where it will take me, but for now I'm happy with the past two years and all the posts I've written.

I want to thank everyone who has read this blog and helped promote it. I've enjoyed reading your comments and knowing you are out there.

-Stephen (Happy Birthday, Joe)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interview Series: Evan J. Peterson

One of my favorite parts of my blog is the interview series I started in January. Each month, I have interviewed a different emerging GLBT poet and each one has made me think and question my own ideas about poetry. I’ve gotten a great response from all of the interviews. You can check out past interviews under the "interview series" tab at the top of the page.

This is my fifth one and it features a conversation with Evan J. Peterson. Evan was a peer of mine at FSU during my MFA program. He currently lives in Seattle and had some great perspectives to share. I hope you enjoy our chat.

Stephen: How did you first come to poetry? How and when did you know you were a poet?

Evan: My mother read poetry to me when I was a small child, lots of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. I started creating my own, either through vocal rhyming or on the page. I'm also a musical person, finding rhythms and singing when I'm happy. Then I became absorbed into prosey free verse, and it wasn't until very recently that I began exploring music and rhyme in my poetry again.

S: We first met at Florida State University while we were both getting our MFAs. What made you decide to get your MFA and what was your experience like at FSU?

E: I went for an MFA because the "real" world is boring and, to most spiritualities, complete illusion and soul-detritus anyway. I wanted to create a life that immersed me in the creation and experience of hot literature. If that means teaching it, so be it. If it means working for a nonprofit while I write and read, that's cool too.

I had a great experience at FSU. I was surrounded by brilliant friends and mentors who live to write and read, and although Tallahassee isn't Seattle, it's not culturally desolate either.

S: The “real” world is boring is a pretty good reason. I like that. I wanted to interview you because your work is quite different from mine and from really everyone’s I’ve interviewed so far. Some might classify your work as more experimental. You often play with forms and splicing things together. How do you describe your own work?

E: I like to have fun and be open when I write. I've always tried different forms to see what they'll yield, but things became extra outrĂ© when I began the Frankenstein project and the Monster became the speaker. Experiments, fragmentation, and discomfort are his condition, so many of the poems reflect that. If a poem wants to be a series of broken images and decontextualized film quotes, I let it be, so the readers are made as uncomfortable as the speaker. At the same time, I take care to be precise when being experimental so as not to alienate the readers utterly, just have them sympathize with the alienation of the Monster. It's like a date—I want to be intriguing, not inscrutable. Heaven help me if I ever become impenetrable.

To connect this to your other interviewees, I tend to make the forms queer, rather than talking about gay politics and other topical matters. I tend to downplay the subject of queer culture in favor of presenting something more visceral. The Monster has one female breast. That's pretty queer.

S: Yes, that is pretty queer. This is a great example of the diversity of queerness and queer poetry. The idea of comfort plays a strong role in my work as well, but more so within the content than with the form, so I find this very interesting.

As you know and as my readers know, I have a great interest in the use of pop culture in poetry. From my experience with your work, you seem influenced by pop culture and, in particular, film. How did this come about and how does that influence work in your poetry?

E: I'm a fanatical acolyte of the Cult of the Image. My father is a photographer, my mother a librarian. I want to create provocative pictures in my readers' imaginations. All senses preferably, but visual imagery is the way we transform sounds/words into pictures. Magic. So pop music, film, myths, comics, larger-than-life characters and situations propel my work. I just started a series of ekphrastic poems inspired by Nick Cave's soundsuits—divine.

The Frankenstein manuscript contains quite a few poems in which the Monster reviews and responds to monster movies, some of which feature him as a character. Some of these are collected in prose form as an experimental fiction piece coming out soon in Weird Tales magazine. I wanted that meta element of this classic literary character commenting on his portrayal by Hollywood. It further disorients him to evolve from a creature of literature into one of film. He also responds to other classic movie monsters, including the Golem, the Fly, and Joan Crawford.

S: As someone who loves the “meta element” and pop culture in poetry, those poems sound amazing.

You’ve spent a good portion of your life in Florida, but now live in Seattle. How do the poetry scenes differ and what has your experience been like out there?

E: I've been rolling this question around in my mouth, wondering how to answer it. Their differences are subtle yet distinct. Seattle is far whiter than Florida, so that has directly influenced the nature of local poetry. I firmly believe that most white Americans appreciate poetry much less frequently than other ethnicities and other nationalities. But here's the curious part: Seattle has a huge poetry scene, bigger certainly than Miami. Less African American, Latin, and Caribbean influence, but the literature is uplifted. It is no exaggeration to say that in any given week, there are more poetry events than I can attend, often on the same night. Maybe it's the Asian influence? And yes, I'm being reductive and bordering on racial discrimination, but fuck it. White Americans don't read as much poetry as we should. Other nationalities and ethnicities invest more in poetry. It's a fact.

Now having said all that, I am immensely grateful to people and organizations like Brian McGuigan, Ela Barton, Josie Davis, Jenise Silva, and Richard Hugo House for continually tapping me for public readings. And they're just a fraction of people keeping literature thriving in Seattle.

S: I have to say I am rather jealous. I’ve spent the last three years in Orlando, which is not exactly a great place for poetry. I know from reading your blog and seeing your Facebook updates, you seem to do a lot of readings or performances of your poetry. What value do you place on doing these readings?

E: Well then, Stephen, if there's a drought of poetry in your city, I dare you to create more poetry events in town.

I place immense value on readings. I live in a place where poetry isn't merely read, it's experienced live all the time. Several people here treat poetry like a religion, and that makes me into an evangelist of sorts. People dig what I do on stage, and so I go the extra mile to make the audience glad that they attended. It comes back to the pop culture topic: why shouldn't poetry be entertaining as well as intellectual? I like gaining new fans of my own work, but the greatest value of live readings is to convert the merely curious into avid poetry fans. They connect in ways they may not have on the page.

S: I couldn’t agree more. I love exposing people to poetry that they didn’t know existed. So many people have such a narrow view of poetry and public readings really can help change that.

As you’ve mentioned, you have a completed manuscript that you are shopping around that is themed around Frankenstein. Could you speak a little bit about how that came into fruition?

E: I had never read Frankenstein, and I was on a road trip listening to it on cd. I found so much empathy with the Monster. At the time, I was re-experiencing some emotional garbage that had been dumped on me by various people over the years. Things had happened to my body and my spirit that I could relate to the monster within a relatively thin veil of metaphor. It all clicked together. I dropped the project I'd been working on and immersed myself in monsters. This remything of myself helped me to put the past behind me as the monster does. There's no magical happy resolution in the book, but there is relief and peace. My life is quite happy now, to be sure.

Even though we get the Monster's side of the story in Shelley's book, it's filtered. It's Shelley's version of Walton's version of Victor's version of the Monster's story. And with the two hundred years of culture, philosophy, and science that have emerged since Shelley's fable, the project just kept giving me new facets to explore. There's so much there to write about and extrapolate and embellish. I worked diligently to keep the poems from becoming repetitive.

S: It sounds like a great project. I love the combination of themes and taking a piece of classic literature and reexamining it.

Moving in a slightly different direction: If a cute young gay man came up to you and told you he wanted to be a poet, what advice would you give him?

E: Read voraciously. Write every day if you can, whether you feel like it or not. Especially when you don't feel like it. And, if he's indeed privileged to be "cute," I'd advise him to work his charm and sex appeal. Don't play people, and be kind and gracious to everyone, but be as monster-truckin' adorable as you can. And be audacious. As wary as I am of quoting Madonna, she has an excellent observation in her little Sex book: "Most people don't ask for what they want. This is why most people don't get what they want." I always ask for what I want, and a delicious amount of the time, I get it.

S: That’s pretty good advice. I can say that social networking sites, which allow more people to view photos of you, have helped me get published and I’m not ashamed to say it.

E: Right? And if someone doesn't feel cute by common standards, I say be adorable in other ways. If you only have one eye, a gold eyepatch covered in rhinestones never hurt anyone's chances of getting readings and publications. Just look what it did for James Joyce. I saw Nomi Lamm live, and she happens to be obese and missing a leg. She came out in a tutu, a tiara, and a drawn-on Dali mustache and read her ass off. I was in love. Love, I tell you!

S: Who are your greatest influences?

E: David Bowie. Marc Bolan. Prince. Bjork. Leigh Bowery. Peaches. Did you mean page poets? Allen Ginsberg. Sylvia Plath. D. A. Powell. Clive Barker. Oscar Wilde. And my poetic godparents, David Kirby and Barbara Hamby.

S: You currently teach at some community colleges in Seattle and I know you taught at FSU. When you teach poetry, how do you approach it? What are the challenges? Where do you start?

E: I try to approach poetry with immense openness and gusto. I present it as a feast, and students aren't obliged to like everything, only try everything I suggest. I start with emphasis on concrete imagery, then I stress imagination, boldness, and experimentation. Forms, tone, and other elements of precision are then applied to the raw gold we've brought through. I suppose the greatest challenge is creating a supportive and reliable community in a classroom full of artists. Writer's block, flakiness, paralyzing self-criticism; these are the main challenges that students bring, but I can relate to them. I try to be supportive.

S: Now for some fun: What poet(s) dead or live would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?

E: Arthur Rimbaud. I would absolutely teach him new levels of synesthesia. I bet Aleister Crowley would've been a fun hookup, too. As far as the living, we've got some stunningly handsome queer men on the scene. Charles Jensen. Alex Dimitrov. Matthew Hittinger. I just met Randall Mann, who is so gorgeous I can't even stand it. I had a cold the night I met him, and I was a mess. It was tragic.

"What kind" is strictly need-to-know. I'm rather modest for a poet. Also, I never dish anything on the net that I wouldn't want my dean, students, or mother to read. Call me if you'd really like to know.

S: Randall Mann is quite gorgeous. I lost my modesty somewhere and can’t seem to find it. I’ll dish anywhere. What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?

E: Domesticity. The feeling of security and ease. I'd like to be permanently coupled in the not-too-distant future. That's the most shocking thing I adore—heteronormative family life.

S: If you could take any poem and turn it into a film, what poem would you pick and why?

E: "Lady Lazarus" by Plath. This was the poem that ripped my face off and taught me that horror was a viable genre for poetry. Sure, we have Poe, but he's often fetishized to the exclusion of other horror poetry. If you know a young person who is crazy about Poe, get them to read Plath or Charles Simic or whomever you want to recommend.

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

E: "Howl" for sure. I've mainlined that poem for years when I've needed inspiration (aesthetic inspiration as well as Ginsberg's boldness and diligence).

S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?

E: Patrick Wolf. We have similar speaking voices, similar singing voices, and similar facial structure. And he's a hot ginger fairy. He could play you too. And if we can't get him, just get James Franco to do it. He plays every gay poet now anyway. He'll be playing Reginald Shepherd before we know it.

S: I think James Franco is also doing a Maya Angelou bio-pic, should be interesting. Lastly, what are you currently working on?

E: Getting this sucker published! I feel creatively inspired, but I have to focus on sending this dark little manuscript out as well.

My new poems are the opposite emotional direction. They're filled with ecstasy at the fertile world, magic, myths, and genuine optimism. I'm also developing a novel about gay superheroes in love. I'm all about growing and loving and the bright sensory pleasures of the world right now. Meanwhile, rainy Seattle continues to be the Year Without A Summer. It worked for Mary Shelley. It'll work for me.

S: Good luck with all of that and thanks for taking with me.

-Stephen (Q&A)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Imagine a World Without Christians

Growing up, I was a huge John Lennon fan. In middle school, I did a big research project on him and even came for my presentation dressed in an old 1960s shirt and wire-rimmed pink-tinted glasses. This was thanks to my dad who never gets rid of anything. "Imagine" has always been one of my favorite songs and a challenging song for me when I first listened to it.

I was raised in a Christian home. I went to a Quaker church for the first 12 years of my childhood and then to a First Christian Church until I left for college. My family went every Sunday. I went to Sunday school, youth group, special holiday services, pitch-ins, and anything else you can imagine. Don't get me wrong, my parents weren't fire and brimstone Christians. They didn't threaten me with hell or judgement day. My mother would occasionally pull out the "would Jesus watch that with you" when I was watching a movie or TV show she didn't approve of, but for the most part they were the "love everyone and do the right thing" kind of Christians.

I, however, was always a little skeptical and that's where John Lennon comes into play. His song made me think about the idea of a world without a heaven or a hell or religion. For a young boy in Indiana, that is a pretty wild idea. Lennon's song imagines a world where people just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. What would that look like? My parents both grew up in the 60s and early 70s, but weren't really into the hippy free love scene we've romanticized in film and television. They were midwesterners, and so was I, until I moved to Florida six years ago.

After getting to college (still in Indiana), my faith was constantly called into question by everything I read, learned, and experienced, and when I turned twenty I realized I didn't believe in God and that I firmly believed organized religion caused more harm in the world than good. My atheist thoughts and beliefs have only strengthened and seem to be constantly reinforced by the actions of Christians and other religious groups. I single out Christianity only because it is the biggest religion in this country and the one I've seen the most harm from firsthand.

Strangely enough, being an atheist seems to shock people more these days than being gay. I've written about this before. Many atheists choose to be quiet most of the time. We don't have many prominent spokespeople. Most us will let a "God bless" or "I'll pray for you" slide by from time to time. We have grown to accept we live in a country where our politicians have to be religious (or pretend to be) to get elected and that they must mention God from time to time in speeches. We actually have to put up with a lot, which is what has brought me to writing this post.

This Saturday, May 21st, is a day that a small, but rather vocal group of Christians believe is the second coming of Christ and judgement day. If you live here in Orlando where I live, you have probably seen the countless billboards all around town proclaiming the return of Jesus Christ (save the date). You can find out more information about this belief by visiting www.familyradio.com. If you can make sense of their website, please let me know (we only have five days left).

If we take this belief to be true, the Christians will all be taken up in the rapture on the 21st. The rest of us will be left here to live in chaos until October 21, 2011 when the world will be destroyed by fire. All of this is proclaimed on their website.

This got me thinking: what would the world be like without all the Christians? What if we really had from May to October without any Christians here on Earth? Well, for starters, the anti-gay movement would lose a lot of power. In fact, we could probably pass equal rights for all people before October. We'd be able to teach people proper sexual education in schools. We'd actually elect people based on skill, education, and ability and not on religious background. I think a whole lot less people would care about Obama's birth certificate and seeing Osama's death photographs. Basically, when you think about it, a good portion of conflict in this country is largely caused by Christians. Imagine a world where people are treated fairly based on being human. Imagine a world where people don't force their beliefs onto everyone else. It doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Of course, I'm partly being silly here. I don't really think the Christians are going anywhere on May 21st, but if they are going to subject me to their beliefs, I'm going to spend a few happy moments imagining a world without them in it.

-Stephen (Imagine)

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB GRUEN

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Art of Rejection

When anyone asks me for advice on publishing, the hardest thing to make someone understand is the amount of rejection that comes with putting your work out there. As writers, we are subjected to enormous amounts of disappointment. Some people are not cutout for this and end up not submitting work very often or only submitting it to places they feel more confident in or have some connection to, which can be problematic.

The question is: how do you teach someone to take rejection? One of the problems I see is that we've created a culture that wants everything for nothing and wants quick results. I've fallen victim to some of this thinking myself. I am currently struggling a lot with the fact that I don't have a good teaching job in creative writing, but the reality is that I am only 28 and I need more experience and time before that can happen. That doesn't change the fact that I feel like I want it now and deserve it now. Of course, I understand the reality. This isn't really a case of getting something for nothing (I have worked hard and I do have an MFA and publications), but it is connected to the idea of wanting results faster. The academic world, much like the publishing world, moves slowly and one has to play by the rules.

If you are a writer of short fiction or poetry, which is primarily published in small journals or magazines, you are in for a long and torture filled journey. Most places want you to be willing to wait for months upon months for a yes or a no, and then even more months or a year for publication if they do, in fact, accept you. This can be hard to take in our fast-paced world. We want answers now! But, this just isn't how it works. I do think some magazines could make some changes that would allow quicker results, but as a whole these places have small staffs and lots of submissions to get through.

In the last three years, I've had numerous works accepted. I've gotten about 40 individual poems published or accepted for publication. This has all been great and rewarding, but for every one of those poems accepted there were probably three or four rejection letters. I'm still early in my career, but I imagine, unless I become quite famous, these rejections aren't really going to stop. There will always be places that just don't want my work or don't think it's the right fit at the moment. It's a balancing act. You have to find the right poem for the right magazine at the right time. There is some luck involved.

Rejection is hard and can come in many different forms. The form letters are, to me, the worst. My least favorite are the ones that don't even bother taking two seconds to stick your name into them and address you as "writer." This is particularly inconsiderate if a publication rejects through email. I've also gotten my fair share of "we had your poem so long because it made it to the final round, but we regret to inform you that it just isn't right for us, please send more work soon." These are encouraging and discouraging at the same time. Is it helpful to know you were so close? I can't decide on this one.

Is there ever a good way to be rejected? I'm not sure there is. You just have to learn to take it. Once I get a rejection, I send out new submissions as quickly as possible, because it keeps me motivated. My work won't get published sitting on my hard drive.

As I said at the beginning, this is a hard thing to give advice about or teach to students. You have to remind yourself that art is hard and can be a long journey, but if you truly want to get your work out there, you have to try and you have to submit and submit and submit. Overtime, you also start to push yourself and your work changes and becomes stronger. Four or five years ago, my work was rejected constantly with little to no acceptance, but I now realize that work wasn't nearly as strong as the work I've written in the last 2 years. I'm not saying being rejected over and over again made me a better writer, but it did make me closely examine each and every poem and I grew as a poet through my experiences including being rejected.

If nothing else, this process is an exercise in patience and dedication. That doesn't mean I don't get discouraged or upset, but I try always to put it into perspective and I never stop writing or submitting.

-Stephen (Reject)

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Big GAY Poetry Giveaway Winners!

For National Poetry Month, my blog participated in the "big poetry giveaway." It is a great idea and was really fun to do. The goal was for each blog to giveaway two poetry books at the end of the month. I had fifteen entries and I randomly selected my winners last night.

The winners are...

Sandy Longhorn who will receive a copy of James L. White's The Salt Ecstasies
Bryan Crimmins who will receive the first issue of the gay poetry magazines Assaracus

Congrats to both of them! I entered quite a few contests myself and was lucky enough to win two of them. This was a great exchange of poetry books and a great National Poetry Month!

-Stephen (Keep Reading)