Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year That Changed Everything

If I wanted to cover 2012 with one word, it would be change. I'm at a completely different place than I was twelve months ago. Most of that change was amazing.

2012 will be a year that I'll always remember. My first book came out in March and it's been an unbelievable experience. I was truly humbled by the reaction to the book and all the support it received. Being a part of Sibling Rivalry Press has been a true honor. I'm amazed by all the talent that Bryan Borland is bringing to light. It was a nice surprise to be the top selling book of year for the press. It was also a complete shock when my book made the contemporary poetry best sellers list in August. To be on a list with so many poets I admire was one of the highlights of my year. I hope 2013 will bring more sales and surprises for the book.

It was fitting that I officially launched my book in NYC at the Rainbow Book Fair, because in October I moved to New York. This was a move that took a lot of planning and effort, but has been well worth it. Living here is so different than anywhere else I've lived. I feel like I'm in the right place to keep pushing myself and my work as a poet and teacher. It's been just a little over two months and I'm completely in love.

This year also marked my 30th birthday, which was celebrated here in NYC with my loving partner. I'm actually excited to be 30 and moving into a new decade of my life. It will be a full of new adventures and experiences.

Besides my book, my work has also appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and anthologies throughout the year. My poem "This Side Up" was nominated for a Pushcart for appearing in Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience. I'm also nearing completion of a second poetry manuscript called A History of the Unmarried. I'm also currently serving as Poetry Editor for a new literary magazine called Animal. Outside of poetry, my essay "A Tale of Two Closets" about being a gay atheist was accepted for a forthcoming book by Columbia University Press.

In my personal life, I celebrated nine years with my partner, who helped make our move to NYC happen. As I said, most of my year has been good. A lot of work, but good. My mother, however, was diagnosed with a form of leukemia this year, which has been my low point. She's doing well, but it's been challenging for my family.

In the end, 2012 truly changed my life. Completely. I don't know what 2013 will hold, but I'm ready to find out. I'm here in a city I've always longed to be in for New Year's Eve. I won't be in Times Square, but I'll be celebrating not only the prospect of a new year, but all that I've accomplished in the last one.

Happy New Year!

Stephen (Glass in Hand)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I Read in 2012

I've spent the last few years tracking what I read throughout the year. I do this simply by keeping a Word document where I enter each read book. I've enjoyed doing this for a few reasons. It can be interesting to keep track of when you've read particular pieces. We often view a book based on our current state. I like to know that in 2010 I read this book and in 2011 that one. It has also helped motive me to read more. I get a little rush when I add one more book to the list.

2012 was a busy year. It started off with the launch of my own book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, and ended with my move to New York City. Working full time, promoting a new book, planning a big move, and working on a new poetry manuscript took up a lot of my time, but I tried my best to make time for reading.

This year I read 35 books. I'm sure for some of you this is not very many, but overall I'm pleased with the number. It's a bit less than last year, but that's understandable. I hope to read more next year and I think I will.

Here's the books I spent the year reading:

1.     A Radiance Like Wind or Water by Richard Ronan
2.     We the Animals by Justin Torres
3.     God Bless by H. L. Hix
4.     1984 by George Orwell
5.     The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
6.     Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
7.     Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky edited by Michael Almereyda
8.     Love-in-Idleness by Christopher Hennessy
9.     Then, We Were Still Living by Michael Klein
10.  Burnings by Ocean Vuong
11.  Self-evident by Scott Hightower
12.  Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
13.  The Buoyancy of it All by Robert Walker
14.  Skin Shift by Matthew Hittinger
15.  Home by Toni Morrison
16.  Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman edited by Stephen Motika
17.  Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral
18.  The Submission by Amy Waldman
19.  Lord of the Flies by William Golding
20.  Selected Poems: 1957-1994 by Ted Hughes
21.  Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry edited by Rob Sturma
22.  Among the Leaves: Queer Males Poets on the Midwestern Experience edited by Raymond Lucak
23.  When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience edited by Kate Lynn Hubbard
24.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
25.  Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
26.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt
27.  Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
28.  Assumption by Percival Everett
29.  Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler
30.  After Dayton by C.S. Carrier
31.  State of the Union: 50 Political Poems edited by Joshua Beckman & Matthew Zapruder
32.  Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
33.  Vandals by Alan Michael Parker
34.  The School Among the Ruins by Adrienne Rich
35.  The Waves by Virginia Woolf

-Stephen (Reader)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Becoming a New Yorker

I've been living in New York City for just two months. Most of the time it feels longer. The one thing that always surprises me with the moves I've made in my life is how quickly I adapt. Humans actually have a great ability to adapt to their surroundings. In the course of just eight weeks, pretty much everything in my day to day life has changed, yet it's starting to feel normal. Like home.

I do still live in a constant state of wonder and there are many times that I can't believe I'm here and that I did this. At the same time, I'm starting to feel like a part of the city. I love listening and watching people, so New York is perfect. You're surrounded by people almost every second of the day, and someone is always doing something interesting or absurd or crazy. It is, however, hard to find a spot where you can be alone or just have personal space. Instead, you learn to create your own world, which can get you in trouble. I've gotten on the train going the wrong way twice not because I was confused, but because I was zoned out.

With time, I've gotten better at reading on the subway. I've actually read a lot of books in the last two months, but sometimes I just sit and take in my surroundings. I use the A express train the most because it stops very close to my apartment and really saves a lot of travel time to lower Manhattan. Since the A has long stretches without stops, it becomes a great train for performances. These typically happen between 125th Street and 59th Street. I've witness various songs and dance routines from people of all ages. I haven't been too impressed yet, but I'm waiting. I'm actually amazed by how much money people give and how low their standards seem to be. I want to see something really good before I pull out a dollar. Where are the drag queens?

My partner and I have also spent a lot of time exploring our area. It's interesting to be in this upper part of Harlem and to see things changing so much. The area is actually becoming more and more diverse and new businesses seem to be moving in on a fairly regular basis. We've tried many restaurants and found a good local coffee shop (where I'm writing this). We feel pretty lucky to have ended up where we did and we love our apartment.

On the job front things are moving along. My partner, Dustin, is enjoying his position with the non-profit organization Harlem United. I've been adjuncting at a school in lower Manhattan that offers degrees in nursing and various other medical things. I teach 8-week English Composition courses. It's something for now as I continue to apply for other positions.

Part of me wishes I would have made the move to New York much earlier in my life, but, after being here, I've realized that my other experiences have made me appreciate the city on a very different level. When I talk with native New Yorkers, they seem to not really grasp what it's like to live in the rest of the country, which is understandable. Life here is so different and the access you have to pretty much anything you want is amazing. I'm actually spending less a month living here than I was in Orlando. Yes, I have a smaller apartment and I don't have a car, but monthly, my bills are a little lower. It's all about what you want to pay for. I'd rather not pay for a car and spend more on rent and live in a city like this. I understand others might want different things.

I'm thankful that I've had diverse experiences. I've lived in the Midwest, in the South, and in Central Florida. Each place was different and unique. Those experiences have made it clear that New York is the place I want to be and that sometimes things happen in an order that becomes clear later.

I'm excited to see what New York will bring in 2013. I have a few things in the works that I'll be sharing soon and I'm looking for new opportunities every day. I'm fairly settled in, so if you live in NYC, hit me up and let's do something.

-Stephen (New Yorking)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Next Big Thing: Interview Series

I was invited by Alexander J. Allison to participate in the "Next Big Thing" writing web. Basically, each person answers ten questions about his or her book and then passes the torch to ten writers they admire.

1) What is the title of your latest book?

He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The book came about after I realized how many of my poems dealt with the lines between violence and sex. Suddenly, I started to see interesting connections between poems I'd written at different times and a manuscript began to take shape. A big driving force of the book was always the central section, which is a long poem about the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. 

3) What genre does your book fall under?

The book is poetry. Within poetry, I write mostly narrative work.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Since my book is poetry, it might be rather difficult to adapt to film, but I'll play along. I'd love to see these actors performing my work: Jon Hamm, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brad Pitt, and Maggie Smith.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

I'm pretty fond of this sentence from Jeremy Halinen's blurb: "If you're someone who's ever gone home with a stranger, after reading this book, you'll feel lucky to be alive: unraped, unmurdered, uneaten." 

6) Who published your book?

Sibling Rivalry Press (March, 2012)

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This is a hard question because I didn't sit down to write this exact manuscript. It came in pieces and then I spent time putting it together. I would say the experience took a bit over a year (though a few of the poems were written before that). 

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Here are four poetry books that handle similar themes or write about real-life tragic events:

I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl by Karyna McGlynn
Ohio Violence by Alison Stine
Ka-Ching! by Denise Duhamel
The First Risk by Charles Jensen

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My inspiration comes from so many places. Each poem in the book was inspired by something different. I'm very open to ideas and I believe the best poems come from rather unusual places. I'm also greatly inspired by other writers. This book pays tribute to T.S. Eliot and Reginald Shepherd in very direct ways.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

My book attempts to play to multiple crowds. If you are a big literary person, you will see a lot of connections to other works and references to pieces that have inspired me. If you are not a big reader of poetry, you will probably enjoy the book for different reasons. One thing I can say for sure, the book isn't boring. 

-Stephen (Answering) 

Monday, November 26, 2012

On Turning Thirty: A Poem

On November 22nd of this year, I turned thirty years old. A lot has happened in the last year of my life and I can truly say I'm proud of where I am at 30. 2012 saw the publication of my first book and I moved, just a month ago, to New York City where I'm starting a new adventure.

I planned to write a prose piece about turning thirty, but instead I'm posting a poem today. If you've read my blog for very long, you will know I don't post poems very often (I don't like to self-publish my work). I also don't typically share work that is this new, but sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and share something that's fresh and still a work-in-progress.

This poem is partly inspired by Anne Sexton's "The Double Image." I've spent the last year reading a lot of Sexton and Plath (who killed herself at 30) and reflecting on the struggles they each had. It's also been part of the research I've been doing for my new poetry manuscript (which this poem is part of). Sexton was also born in November as were many other great poets. It seems like November is a big poetry birthday month (old and alive).

I hope you will enjoy this piece:

On Turning Thirty

            “I am thirty this November.
            You are still small, in your fourth year.
            We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
            Flapping in the winter rain,
            Falling flat and washed.”
                        --Anne Sexton

I, too, am thirty this November.
Thankfully, no little ones to apologize to,
or console, or make up for lost time.
I’ve made it through three decades
without procreating, which seems a feat
for most. Being two men together helps,
I guess. We are finally back north away
from the land of sand, palm trees, and too
much sunlight. I’d forgotten the smell
of crushed leaves. How refreshing the fall
air can be in lungs deep. I’d forgotten how
cold the toilet seat can get and the boards
beneath my feet as I leave you in bed asleep.
I’m thirty today and not feeling nearly
as dramatic as other poets predicted.
Perhaps I’ll grow wiser, happier, stronger.
I’ve spent my twenties falling in love
then falling apart. Coming to terms
with adulthood, disappointment,
my own mind. We’ve been side by side
for nearly a decade. We’ve moved from Indiana
to Florida to New York City where we wake
today in the chill of November air.
We aren’t boys anymore, but I’m not quite
sure if we are men, or if I will ever be one.
I’m leaving a decade behind. A decade
spent in sunshine where we had our fun,
but almost lost our way—blinded. Here,
we stand watching queer leaves go from
yellow to brown. The winter coming fast.
Your fingers icy on the white of my skin.
Too pale for beaches. My cropped red hair
in need of a hat. My body older.
My face still young. I’m turning.
Turning thirty this November day.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

My Grand Entrance: First Ten Days in NYC

There's a moment every few hours that takes me out of myself and makes me think, "am I really here in New York City?" It still doesn't feel real, which is how most big changes in my life have felt. This isn't the first time I've moved hundreds of miles away.

Nothing ever feels as dramatic as I expect (the leaving of friends, the leaving of an apartment, the quitting of a job), so then I find myself suddenly in a completely new environment that feels a little unbelievable. Or in this case, completely unbelievable. NYC is a dream place to live. It's part of so many pieces of pop culture and there's so much history here, but I never thought I'd actually do it.

I've lived in NYC for ten days now and what a strange ten days it's been. Unless you've been in a coma or a drug-induced world for the last week, you probably know NYC was hit by a hurricane. It's strange to have experienced my worst hurricane here in the city after living in Florida for seven and a half years. It feels like Florida's last joke on me (at least I pray it is the last).

Just three days after our arrival, Hurricane Sandy showed her ugly face (by the way, Sandy is the worst hurricane name ever). Thankfully, Harlem, where we live, is a good place to be in a hurricane (who knew?). Our power didn't go out. There wasn't any flooding. A few trees went down, but that was it. We huddled together getting drunk with our candles ready and watched musicals (not Grease) and Sex and the City (why not be as gay as possible?). 

Since the storm came so quickly, we didn't yet have our internet installed or have cable, so we were a bit cut-off from the news coverage Transportation was down and we were left in a safe bubble. I got most of my information from posts on Facebook (using my iphone) and from my mother in Houston who was watching the coverage. It felt so odd that the rest of the country was watching the horrible things happening just miles from me, but I saw none of it. Here in Harlem, it was pretty much normal life (except we couldn't leave).

Of course, when these things happen, it's easy to put on the humanitarian hat and say all the right things (we were lucky, at least we still have power, we should be thankful), but come on. I'm brave enough to admit that I was a little pissed that my first week in NYC the entire city shutdown. Yes, I could still take a shower. Yes, I had access to food and water. Yes, I had power and heat, but did this really have to happen the second I made one of most important moves of my life? It does seem a little unfair (judge me all you like).

We did, of course, make the best of it. I spent part of the week at the local Starbucks, so I could still do my job (I'm currently still employed by my Orlando job, so work was not shutdown for me). We explored our area, ate takeout from local hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and watched movies. Even while doing these rather normal activities, I still felt astonished that I was here in the city. We live in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, which has a great history. It is where the wealthy African-Americans lived during the 1920s (the Harlem Renaissance). The buildings are beautiful. We live across the street from a big park. There are trees and leaves. It actually feels like fall.

Life here is completely different from anywhere I've ever lived. Suddenly, I don't own a car and there isn't a big box store on my street. I've never lived in an apartment that didn't come with blinds. I quickly learned how important blinds are when a small girl, who lives in a third floor apartment in the building next to ours, shouted at me to put some clothes on (I was unpacking in my underwear like any Florida boy would do). I've also learned that people in NYC don't know how to layout a grocery store. They make absolutely no sense (motor oil with baby food, tuna fish in the baking aisle). I've also been surprised by how friendly everyone is in our neighborhood. More people have spoken to me on our street in the last ten days than the four years I lived in Orlando.

Once the subway started coming back, we were some of the first on it. We just wanted out in the city so badly. We spent Thursday shopping and Friday we got to have our first real dinner out at a great Indian restaurant that we went to when we were visiting in March. Then on Saturday, I fell madly in love with the The Strand (an amazing bookstore). I can only imagine how much money I will spend there in the future.

Today, we had brunch and went on a fun (and free) adventure. My partner, Dustin, won some tickets to a double feature at a small theater downtown. In true Dustin fashion, he's already found contests to enter and won one. The tickets were from The Village Voice. We didn't know what to expect, but the poster promised male nudity, so why not?

When we arrived, we realized it was going to be quite a small engagement. The theater sat about thirty people and we were the only ones there (15 minutes to showtime). We sat down in the old red seats and pulled our coats tighter. It was almost colder in the theater than outside.

With five minutes to showtime, there was still no one else there and then suddenly another man appeared. He was Brazilian and bundled up. He came over and introduced himself. We assumed he did this because it would have been slightly awkward not to, due to the small space, but then he said, "I'm the director. I hope you're ready for four hours of film."

I suddenly wanted to flee. We had actually decided ahead of time to stay for just one movie (two movies back-to-back can be a bit draining). He went on to inform us that he really wanted our reactions after each film and that there would be a Q&A with him. He didn't seem at all concerned that only two people (who had free tickets) had shown up to his screening. We suddenly felt very awkward. He began the film and thankfully only stayed in the room for a few minutes.

With no one else there, we could talk openly as the movie progressed. It starred an attractive man (big surprise, the director was clearly gay and male nudity was promised) who was engaged to a hideous woman (no explanation as to why these two were paired together). One of the first scenes was clearly shot in a hotel room, but was supposed to be someone's apartment. The woman was a terrible actress and the attractive male lead was so-so. Thankfully, the main character quickly goes to Greece (alone) to see about some property his grandmother left him. Once there, he meets up with the property manager (played by the director who can't act at all). He literally sounds like he is reading his lines off of cue cards and possibly can't see well (there were awkward pauses).

It's all rather boring for the first bit and then suddenly, with no explanation or development, the main character finds a human clone living in his closet. The clone is another attractive male and he's naked the whole time (I guess clones don't come with clothes). The lead doesn't seem that confused or surprised by all of this and proceeds to treat the clone as a dog (feeding him in dog dishes, putting a collar on him, shouting sit and stay). It sounds more erotic than it was. There was plenty of nudity, but it wasn't very sexy. The clone also never speaks, so the lead is forced to have many awkward one-sided conversations.

A little over an hour in and a few penis shots later, we decided we needed to get out as quickly as possible. This man really didn't want my reaction to his movie and I really didn't want to see another one of his films. We decided it was best to leave one at a time. I went first to see if it was clear. Thankfully, the bathroom was on the way out, so if I saw the director, I could just claim to be going to the bathroom. He wasn't in sight, so I made a dash down the stairs and didn't look back until I was around the corner. Then I texted Dustin and told him to make a break for it. Part of me feels bad knowing that the director came back to an empty theater, but sometimes self preservation kicks in and you have to save yourself. Our absence is a reaction in itself.

In many ways, this is what I came to NYC for. There are stories everywhere. So many people. So much art. Bad art. Good art. Great art. There's adventure on every block and history at every turn. It feels like I'm in the right place for the first time in my life.

-Stephen (No Clone)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Farewell to Florida

I was never meant for Florida.

As a young boy, I spent many summer vacations here. My freckled skin turning bright red. The saltwater stinging my eyes. The ocean breeze catching in my shaggy red hair. It was a break from the stagnant heat of a Midwest summer. Growing up in landlocked Indiana, Florida was exotic with its fresh seafood, t-shirt shops, and palm tree lined shopping malls. But it was never a place I imagined living. Yet, I ended up here.

On Thursday, I'll be packing up a truck and driving to New York City to begin another chapter of my life. I've been in Florida for seven and a half years. Honestly, these have been some of the hardest of my young life. I've spent the majority of my twenties here and I've grown into some version of a man, I suppose.

I moved to Florida to pursue my MFA in creative writing at Florida State University. Their master's program is strong and selective and when I was accepted I packed it up and headed to Tallahassee with my partner, Dustin, in tow. At the time, we'd been together just a year and nine months.

Tallahassee wasn't the Florida of my summer vacations. It was small, hilly, and very southern. My time there was mostly focused on school and teaching. I grew as a writer and had a good experience academically. My partner and I made the most of our three years. We attended nearly every cultural festival, parade, or dog outing that occurred and there were many.

When I graduated in 2008, we didn't really have a plan, but we were desperate for a real gay community. We both grew up in small Indiana towns and attended a small liberal arts college in Southern Indiana. Tallahassee was the biggest city we'd ever lived in and it had many things, but a strong gay community was not one of them. 

In what would turn out to be a poor career move on my part, we quickly packed up and moved to Orlando. It was a short move. We figured it would give us a chance to experience another part of Florida while we decided the next step.

Our first six months in Orlando were terrible. My partner got a job at Disney and I remained unemployed for six months. This was a huge wake-up call. I realized spending seven years getting a BA in English and an MFA in creative writing didn't really impress the folks in Orlando handing out 7.25 an hour jobs. I was basically overqualified or over-educated for almost everything and not connected enough to get an academic job (which there are very few of here). I've had very little work experience outside of schools. My undergrad was in the middle of nowhere, so I worked in a writing center and an art gallery. In grad school, I was a TA and taught two classes every semester. This gave me great teaching experience, but not much more.

I felt let down. In many ways, I had done what people say you should do, yet here I was with two degrees from good schools and no job. Somehow we survived and I eventually got a job teaching for a for-profit school, which has left me unsatisfied.

We've now been in Orlando for four and a half years. These years have challenged me mentally. They have made me face a reality I didn't want to face, but they have also pushed me to work harder and to go after my goals. I was often depressed and fighting off a lot of internal pressures. I'm extremely hard on myself and I know that. I'm my biggest critic and I felt that everything happening around me was somehow my fault. The only thing I could control was my poetry, so I wrote and wrote and wrote. 

It was here, in that state of mind, that I wrote He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. I'm so proud of my first book and everything that has come from it and I know it is just the start of some really great opportunities. I've also spent the last year writing my second poetry manuscript that is currently titled A History of the Unmarried.

Outside of writing, I've found some of the best friends I've ever had here in Orlando and for the first time in my life I've felt part of a gay community. This has meant a lot to me and will always be something I hold on to as I move forward in life.

A year ago, Dustin and I decided to move to New York City. We gave ourselves a year to save and plan and we just went for it. I have to say that I'm extremely lucky to have found a man who is so willing to try knew things and start new lives with me. We've made a lot of big moves together and this one is our most exciting and challenging.

Since I was a little boy, I've always had an idea of moving to NYC, but I wasn't ever sure it would happen. Now it is. I don't know what this new chapter will bring, but I know that I'm excited to have someone to share it with and so many friends supporting our every step. I'll look back on my Florida years with mixed feelings, but I know some of the people I've met here will be with me forever.

At lunch last week, I told two of my friends that for me Orlando has been like riding a really fun roller coaster that really makes you sick afterward. I don't mean that offensively. I've truly had amazing times here, but the city has also left me empty. I need more. I'm not meant for Florida or this much sunlight. I'm a ginger after all.

-Stephen (Moving on)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Poetry News Update

It's hard to believe it's October 1st. October is one of my favorite months of the year. This coming weekend is Pride here in Orlando, which is always fun. I'm also a big Halloween fan and pretty much love all things pumpkin flavored. I've already made two pumpkin pies. This October will be a busy and challenging one. I'm in the process of some big life changes, which I'll post more about in the coming weeks.

I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few exciting pieces of news related to the poetry world. These are things I've tweeted about or facebooked about, but have yet to record here.

1. A few weeks ago, I was shocked to find out that my book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, was on the contemporary poetry best sellers list for the week of August 26th. I was number 24 and pretty much every other person on the list was a very recognizable name in poetry. This was truly an amazing moment for me and my book. It's been out since March and it's thrilling to see people continue to buy it and enjoy it. I'm thankful for all the support.

2. A few months ago, I was asked to be poetry editor for a new literary magazine called Animal. The first issue launched today. Each month we are publishing one essay, one story, and one poem. My job has been rather difficult, because we've received more poetry submissions than any other genre. It's been a fun experience so far, so please check out our first issue and consider submitting in the future.

3. I have new work in the anthology Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience. This anthology officially released today from Squares and Rebels. I'm honored to be one of the eighteen poets in the book. Raymond Luczak edited the collection and it's truly remarkable.

Thanks for reading and happy October!

-Stephen (In the Leaves)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why The Newsroom Matters: The Power of Fiction

I first fell in love with Aaron Sorkin on September 22, 1999 when I sat down to watch a new show called The West Wing. It quickly became one of my favorite shows and I never missed an episode. When I heard that Sorkin was writing a new series for HBO, you can imagine my excitement.

The Newsroom began in June and just finished its first season Sunday night. As the name suggests, the show follows a cable news staff who are attempting to change the way the news is done. The show begins in April of 2010 and uses actually news stories in the plot-lines, which adds an extra layer to the stories being told. The viewer is put in an interesting position, because we already know the outcomes, but Sorkin almost makes us forget that we do. In the fourth episode ("I'll Try to Fix You"), we almost believe that Gabby Giffords might not live after being shot in January of 2011. The final minutes of that episode are emotional and I found myself holding my breath.

As a lover of Sorkin and nearly all HBO series, it is no surprise that I fell hard for this show. It's smart, thought-provoking, funny, and some of the sharpest writing currently on TV. The show, however, has created a very love it or hate it situation. Critics have been mixed. Many major news corporations have trashed the show in their reviews and poked fun at it (even NPR).

What I've found interesting in these negative reviews is that people seem upset at how fictional the show is. In some ways, reviewers are holding the show to a standard that the show never set. Sorkin never claimed to be writing a completely fact-based TV series about how to do the news. The show blends reality with fiction. I'll be the first to admit the show uses rather convenient plotting at times (example: Maggie's best friend knowing Casey Anthony) and is not a true look at how the news is done. But does that make it a bad show? Or any less important? Doesn't fiction have the power to do something just as thought-provoking as non-fiction?

The Newsroom is a commentary on the current state of our media and politics. It's pointing out many absurdities and problems. The show is liberal without a doubt, but it is also pointing out how far the republican party has come from its true values. It's an important and interesting look at the country we are currently living in. The show isn't all about reaffirming what liberals already know or preaching to the choir. I found myself on a few occasions conflicted by the stories ("Bullies"). It made me reconsider what I believe. That's not to say there aren't "preaching to the choir" moments (Sorkin loves that).

The show isn't really about how one should do the news just like The West Wing wasn't really about how to govern our country (and critics loved The West Wing). Sorkin is using these platforms to present ideas and thoughts. The fact that he can do this in such an entertaining platform is truly what makes him a remarkable writer. During episode three, my partner, who doesn't know much about Sorkin, turned to me and said, "this show is really funny." Yes, it is. It's smart adult comedy.

Just like Sorkin's other shows, he does throw in some workplace love stories, which are often cliche. The thing is Sorkin is so good at writing the cliche that he overcomes it and you find yourself truly engaged with the characters. If you don't, there's plenty of other great storylines to keep you going.

Of course, The Newsroom owes a lot to the cast. This is Jeff Daniels finest performance. Emily Mortimer is absolutely the heart of the show and holds it together. I've also completely fallen in love with Olivia Munn who plays Sloan. Acting veterans Sam Waterson and Jane Fonda command every scene they are in. This is great television and thankfully HBO agrees. The show will be returning for a second season in 2013.

The show is doing what great fiction should do. It is entertaining us and making us think at the same time. Sorkin has built a world where smart people say smart things and smart people win. It's fantasy, but one that helps us think about where we want to go. The West Wing got me through those first few years of George W. Bush. Sorkin created a president I wanted. Here, he created a news show, I want  to watch.

-Stephen (Watch It)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Aim for the Head

Poetry is associated with a lot of different things like love, death, nature, and sex. But how about zombies? Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind, but why not? When I teach poetry, I always stress to students that poetry can be about anything you want. In my own work, I write about many topics that surprise readers. Giving people the unexpected is often very rewarding, which is what makes the book Aim for the Head: An Anthology of Zombie Poetry edited by Rob Sturma such a great read.

I first became aware of this book from my friend Evan Peterson who has a poem in the anthology. I also read the article The New York Times did on the book in January. It intrigued me. I have a great interest in using pop culture in poetry and this seemed like a perfect book for that. I'm also a zombie fan. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are some of my favorite horror films. I'm also a big fan of The Walking Dead on AMC.

Of course, I had my concerns. How do you keep the topic fresh? Will the poems be too similar? Will content be rewarded over craft? These are issues that can happen in any themed anthology. Aim for the Head, however, avoided all of these. With the exception of a few, these poems each hold their own and are fascinating glimpses into everything zombie.

Partly what makes this book work so well is that zombie is used both literally and figuratively. Many of the poems are taking on the voice of zombies or those in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Others use the term zombie to get at much bigger issues and themes. In "Zombie (1994)" by Lindsay Eanet, the subject is the Cranberries song "Zombie." As a teenager of the 90s, I appreciated this greatly. This song also appears in "The Last Hipster" by Brennan Bestwick. This expected take on the topic adds greatly to the overall collection.

These poems are often laugh out loud funny, but others are heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Zombies can be a great way to examine our own fears. Zombies work on so many different levels, which makes them perfect for poetry. The book is just 123 pages, which makes it a quick read, but you'll surely want to return to these poems again and again and eat their brains.

Favorite poems:

"George Romero Never Lied to Us" by Ryk McIntyre
"Fifteen Ways to Stay Alive" by Daphne Gottlieb
"Zombie (1994)" by Lindsay Eanet
"The Thing About Having Just Dropped Acid an Hour Ago When the Zombies Arrive at the House Party" by Mindy Nettifee
"Night of the Living" by Steve Ramirez
"Fuck A Nostradamus" by Jason Bayani

-Stephen (Brains)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Poetry Podcast: Standing in Front of Pollock's Greyed Rainbow, Chicago, 2012

In 2010, I devoted a lot of my blog to podcasting my work. This was something I wanted to try and I was pleased with the results. I recorded quite a few poems throughout the year and some in 2011. It became a fun way to share my work without publishing it on my own site, which I don't do.

Today, I decided to return to podcasting and recorded a new poem. Yesterday, August 11th, marked the 56th anniversary of the death of the famous painter Jackson Pollock. Pollock is one of my favorite artists and was a huge part of the art scene in New York when some of my favorite poets were writing (like Frank O'Hara). As many people know, I have a bit of an obsession with the New York art and writing scene in the 1950s and '60s. This obsession is part of the new book manuscript I am writing. Pollock is actually featured in three poems in the manuscript so far. This includes the one I recorded today.

For this podcast, I recorded my poem "Standing in Front of Pollock's Greyed Rainbow, Chicago, 2012." I wrote this poem after going to Chicago for AWP this past March. I hope you enjoy.

Listen here.

-Stephen (Splattered)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mini-Reviews: What I've Been Reading

Life's been busy the last few months, but I've been keeping up with both my writing and my reading. I'm well into a second book manuscript that is starting to really take shape. I'll post more about it in the near future. Today I wanted to do a few quick mini-reviews of books I've been reading this summer. Check out these three books:

1. Skin Shift by Matthew Hittinger

This is another excellent debut poetry collection from my press Sibling Rivalry. The book is beautiful and well worth the read. I've been familiar with Hittinger's work for quite some time now and he's a very talented poet and actually a very nice guy. This books varies in subject matter and style. The poems are rich with references, history, and observations. My two favorite sections of the book are Narcissus Resists and Platos de Sal. In a lot of ways, Hittinger and I are similar in what seems to inspire poems (history, pop culture, art, other poems), yet our approaches are very different. This is another important voice that I'm proud to promote and share a press with. 

2. Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral 

This book won the Yale Series of Younger Poets book contest selected by Carl Phillips and was published this year. I typically enjoy this book series and I'm a big fan of Carl Phillips, so I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed this collection so much. The poems are beautiful and startling at the same time. I love how Corral is able to examine the complexity of borders in these poems. The borders are sometimes literal like the border between Mexico and the United States and sometimes these borders are mental, yet just as real. I highly recommend reading these poems. I could have done, however, without the snakes on the cover. I really hate snakes. 

3. The Submission by Amy Waldman

Writing a novel about the aftermath of 9/ll is not an easy task, but Waldman pulls it off. The novel is set two years after the attack and is about a fictional jury deciding on a monument to go up at ground zero. The competition is anonymous and when the jury makes their final selection they discover the architect is a Muslim. The novel is about the aftermath of that decision and how much 9/11 changed our country. The book follows various characters including the Muslim-American architect and the 9/11 widow who was the main supporter of the design on the jury. The book isn't easy to read. It feels so real and makes you angry in one moment and empathetic in the next. It's an important book to read and shows how fiction can really get at issues from a different angle. 

-Stephen (Reading) 

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Different Kind of Visit

This past week my parents came into Orlando for their annual visit. They always stay with my partner and me and we take them shopping, to restaurants, to the beach, and we have a nice time.

This trip, however, was different.

A few weeks ago, my mother was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), which took us all by surprise. My family isn't a family of illness. We've been lucky in that way. My mother has always been in good health. She's thin. She eats right. She exercises. But suddenly, she has leukemia, which is a scary word. Her leukemia was only found because of routine blood work. She wasn't sick or showing many symptoms. CLL is considered the "good cancer to get," which isn't very comforting. Who wants the good or the bad cancer?

Suddenly, my world seems to be filled with cancer words. You don't realize how many times you see the word cancer until that word means something to you. In an instant, everything has changed and my eyes seem to fall on the word many times a day. It is on billboards, bumper stickers, and products at the grocery store trying to help raise money. It is everywhere.

The last fews weeks have been filled with doctor appointments for her and phone calls for me. She's kept me up to date on all the blood work and tests. She's getting more information and working with a really good doctor in Houston where she lives. CLL is slow moving, but most people get it in their 70s. My mom is only 57. At this point, the doctor is working on getting her platelet count up, but chemo or a bone marrow transplant could be in her future.

I don't know what will happen. Survival statistics vary greatly and in the end, each case is different. I've read as much as I can about it. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is scary. The hardest part is just accepting that my healthy mother is sick with something that could kill her.

I haven't talked much about this with anyone outside my family, but writing is my way of dealing with events and situations. After spending a few days with my mom, I felt ready to write about it.

Before she got here, I went to the store to buy her a birthday card. Her birthday was on July 3rd while she was here in Orlando. Even the selection of birthday cards made me think of her leukemia. Most birthday cards for adults mention getting old and dying in some way. These are meant to be funny, but suddenly they didn't seem so funny. I selected a silly card with a dog on the front and left the store.

This visit felt different, but in the best way possible. I felt closer to my mom than I have in a long time. I was glad to see her so openly discussing her leukemia and her feelings about it. I felt she could trust me with whatever she needed to say. My mom and I are a lot a like and we both internalize things, which can cause even more stress. She wasn't doing that and I know that's not easy for her.

My mom is very strong. I've always admired her for what she's been able to do. When I was just a kid, she went to college for the first time. She had three young kids and did a four year bachelor's degree in nursing and got straight A's. I think of her every time I'm faced with a whining student who claims they don't have time to do an assignment.

In recent years, my dad and her moved from Indiana to Houston to be with my two sisters. They both had never lived outside of Indiana. This was a big move. It's been great to see them so happy and flourishing in their new lives.

Due to many of the changes they've made, I've often felt a little more out of the loop. My whole immediate family now lives very close to each other in a place I've never lived. I'm the odd one out. I don't get to see my parents nearly as much, which can make staying close more difficult.

On this visit, I could see changes in my mother. Changes that come from being faced with something like leukemia. She was more open. We talked about things we hadn't ever directly talked about before. I also got to share with both parents my gay community. My parents have always been supportive of me and my partner, but they've not had many opportunities to experience gay culture or events.

While they were here, I took them both to their first gay bar and first drag show at Parliament House. We had talked about doing this before and they've always been willing, but I think the timing was perfect. I wanted them to experience a place that has meant a lot to me. Parliament House is really one of the first gay places that has felt like home. They also got to meet a few of my friends who came along with us.

During the show, the emcee, Darcel Stevens, spoke to them, made some jokes, and gave them a shot a Hennessy, which we all shared. My mother and father don't really drink. They were very good sports and had an amazing time. I was thankful to Darcel and to Sassy Devine who both helped make their evening one to remember. I don't know for sure, but my mother's reaction and participation in the whole event was different than it might have been last year when they visited. She was easygoing about it all and had a good time.

There was something very special about sharing this moment with my mom at this particular time. A diagnosis like this one puts things into perspective. I don't know how long I have with my mom, but in reality, I don't know how long I have with anyone. I wanted her to see that side of my life.

I'm staying positive even though I'm scared. Right now, I'm just thankful for the time I had with both my parents this week.

-Stephen (Hopeful)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: To the One Who Raped Me by Dustin Brookshire

One thing I love about being part of Sibling Rivalry Press is that I genuinely like the SRP family and the work they are all doing. I realize that I'm very lucky to be a part of this press and particularly a part of it at this moment in time. Sibling Rivalry Press has exploded in such a short period and truly is a big part of the future for not only gay poets, but many poets and writers. I love reading the books they publish and enjoy sharing them with my readers. 

Consider this post a welcome party for Dustin Brookshire. His chapbook To the One Who Raped Me is currently available for pre-orders and officially releases on August 7th. This is another great book to add to your collection. 

Of course, the title intrigued me and after reading the collection I have to say it is the perfect fit. These poems are raw, blunt, and honest, which are all things I look for in poetry. The poems deal with what the title says: rape, but these are not your typical rape poems (are there typical rape poems?). I guess what I mean is that they don't deal with rape in any way I've seen it dealt with before. For starters, the victim of the rape is male. Also the rapist isn't some criminal or stalker or thief. These poems explore the fact that 2/3 of all rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. How do I know this? Well, because Brookshire places facts about rape between the poems. At first, I was unsure about this technique. I thought why not let the poems speak for themselves? But after reading the chapbook the second time I realized how much these facts and information added to my perspective and response to the poems. 

The thing I loved most about this chapbook was the inclusion of film and television (surprise, surprise). As I've stated to my students many times over, you can't just throw in pop culture references, they have to be tied to something else and vital to the overall idea of the poem. Brookshire's poems do just that. They take the idea of rape from various films and television and use them to explore the experience of the speaker (a victim of rape). 

The first poem in the manuscript is entitled "I Don't Like To Say The Word Rape" and it begins with the lines: "When I say the word rape / I think of Jodie Foster in The Accused." This sets up the whole chapbook perfectly as various other films and TV programs come into play in other poems. Why does this work so well? It works because underneath the overarching story of someone dealing with the aftermath of rape there is the wider discussion of how we as a culture view rape and it is often through such mediums as film and television. 

Why I love using pop culture in my own poetry is because it is our collective pool of knowledge. In a way pop culture has replaced religion. When things happen to us we pull references from pop culture. We get raped and we think of Jodie Foster. It makes sense. Another great reference in this collection is the poem entitled "Law & Order: SVU." The poem begins: "I do not watch for open endings. // I watch to see the rapist slammed / against the interrogation room wall, / to stand before the judge / and receive a hefty sentence." Here pop culture becomes our therapy. We watch these shows to see the bad guys get what's coming to them. We know by the end someone will be punished. This poem not only deals with the speaker's own struggles, but gets at that deeper need our society has to feel like justice is being served. If we see it on TV, maybe we will believe it is happening in real life too.

All of the poems in this manuscript are powerful. Other stand out poems include "How Can I Tell Them?," which deals with the speaker's parents, "No Comedy in Tragedy," which has another great film reference and captures a very uncomfortable moment, and "My Therapist Asks What Image Haunts Me," which is perhaps the rawest of the poems and my personal favorite. 

The final poem in the chapbook is the title poem: "To The One Who Raped Me." This is the perfect poem to end with because it doesn't wrap everything up tightly, but rather leaves the wound still open, but possibly healing. Here we get a direct address that really brings the rapist fully into being. I love the line "I want your mother to know--" because it is so simple, yet so charged. The poem goes on to list all the ways the speaker imagines his attacker dying, but ultimately ends with what can never be erased. This you will have to read to find out. 

-Stephen (SRP family)

Saturday, May 26, 2012


If anyone needs more proof of just how small the gay poetry world is, they need to look no further than the various blog postings over the last few days in what has been named "beautygate" (which I love). I'm not going to specifically respond to this discussion/debate/fight, because I'm not sure I know enough to say anything particularly useful or different. I'll provide some links at the bottom of this piece to those who have written full responses.

I don't personally know any of the people involved. I have, of course, read their work and have heard things about them (again, the gay poetry world is small), but my opinion is still being formed. I don't know much about the Wilde Boys. I don't live in NYC, though I am planning to move there by late summer. I've never been included or excluded by them.  I can, however, offer this opinion: the article published on Lambda Literary's website, that started all of this, was a poorly put together piece that shouldn't have been published. It contained very little support for its ideas and made very broad statements and connections. We need to hold each other to better standards of writing even on opinion pages.

This post, however, is not about all of that really. "Beautygate" got me thinking about privilege. My own privilege. I am an openly gay man and I have experienced my own share of discrimination. I've been called fag countless times. I had it written on my dorm door in college. I've been turned down for jobs because I'm gay, which is legal in most states. I'm discriminated against every day in this country by not having equal rights. In this way, I'm not privileged because I'm not part of the privileged sexual orientation. I am, however, privileged in many other ways.

I am white. Very white. This is a huge privilege in this world. I can't change that, but I can openly recognize it. It doesn't make you a bad person to realize that you are privileged because you were born with a certain color of skin. Acknowledging that privilege is useful, but also uncomfortable, which is why so many avoid it. It is a fact that I'm viewed very differently than if I was black, latino, or Asian. No one has ever been afraid of me because I was simply there. Simply walking down the street. I will not be shot because I'm mistaken for a criminal. Every day I am treated like a white person. I know this has made my life easier. Does that make me sad? Yes, but pretending otherwise is harmful. I don't know what it is like to be a person of color in this country. I can't imagine what it is like to be a gay person of color in this country.

I am male. Because I was born a certain gender, I'm also privileged. I will most likely make more money because of it. I might be promoted more quickly because of it. I will not have to fight as hard to prove myself.

I am attractive and thin. Much of this current debate has revolved around "beauty" and outward appearance. I don't know if I'm cute enough to get invited to selective poetry salons, but I know that my looks have helped me in life. I'm privileged in that way. I know for a fact that some people have bought my book because they thought I was cute. This is a privilege. Like it or not.

The point is that we each have different privileges and some more than others. These are things created by the world we live in and to pretend they don't exist or to not be able to understand where another is coming from, is dangerous and naive. My skin color, sex, and looks are privileges I carry with me. Sometimes it's nice. Sometimes it's easier. Sometimes it makes me very uncomfortable to know that.

I'm not saying one has to apologize for these privileges, but acknowledging them and listening and learning from others will maybe eventually breakdown some of these privileges. What would that world be like?

Others Responses:

Collin Kelley 
Steve Fellner
Alex Dimitrov
Saeed Jones
C. Dale Young

-Stephen (Me)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Bans Play On

Yesterday, people in North Carolina voted to add a ban on gay marriage to their state constitution. This isn't surprising news and North Carolina is just one of many states that has passed such a ban in recent years. I've always found these bans to be a bit silly. Voters are banning something that isn't even legal. It is like it is doubly banned, which seems unnecessary.

What happened in North Carolina is sad. It is yet another reminder of the struggles that are ahead for the gay community and the battle for equal rights. The votes for this ban were rooted in misunderstanding, misinformation, and hatred. As many have stated, these voters, just like voters in all the other states, are on the wrong side of history. Gay marriage is coming. You can delay it, but you can't stop it.

I'm not, however, so concerned with those voters. What has concerned me is the reaction I've witnessed today on various social networking sites. The passing of this ban in North Carolina is worthy of a comment on Facebook or Twitter. In fact, I'd rather people spread the word about such things than telling me what they had for lunch, but I've been a bit shocked by many of the comments I've seen. Too many people seem to be quick to make their own hate-filled comments about people in North Carolina or very general statements about southerners. These comments are rooted in some of the same things that caused people to vote for this ban: misinformation and hatred.

Guess what? Not everyone in North Carolina voted for this ban. Also, not everyone in North Carolina or in the South is a stupid bigot. It's easy to make these statements and easy to feel that way sometimes. I've felt it and probably said similar things, but how are these comments useful or helpful. I didn't see this reaction when Prop 8 passed in California. People were angry, but the comments were not how stupid everyone in California is. This isn't strictly a southern problem. In fact many of the states that have passed bans are in the North.

I'm from the North, but have lived in the South for the last 7 years. I'm currently in Orlando, which actually is south of the South, but I spent three years in Tallahassee, which is very southern and very conservative. Florida as a whole is very conservative. We've passed our own ban on gay marriage. I've seen hatred and bigotry in every place I've lived. Yes, the South has a history that includes some strong discrimination of various groups of people, but I always remind people that Indiana actually has one of the worst histories of the KKK in our country. There are differences between the North and the South, but making generalizations is often missing the point.

Bans, like the one in North Carolina, make me angry. We have the right to be angry, but we have to be better than those voters who voted based on hatred and fear. Our responses have to be better and stronger. Hate the haters, but realize that making generalized statements about any group of people is wrong. Stand up and support those people who voted against this ban.

As I was finishing up this post, I got word that President Obama just officially and publicly supported gay marriage on ABC News (President Obama Endorses Gay Marriage in ABC News Interview). This is a big moment and shows that times are changing. These bans are here for the moment, but I believe their moment will be brief.

-Stephen (Vote)