Monday, January 30, 2012

Rediscovering Plath

I have a confession. Until recently, I attempted to avoid Sylvia Plath. Not completely, but mostly. I'd read her most famous work in survey courses in college and I'd read most of Ariel, but I'd never devoted much time to her as a poet. Why? It actually has little to do with Plath, but more so with the myth of Plath.

Plath is a poet who lives outside of her poetry. This happens to many writers and often can become a real problem. Many flock to her because of her life story and her suicide. Many of these people are not great readers poetry. For example, I've taught a few poetry courses where a student enters my class and the only poet he/she knows is Plath. I always know when I hear this I'm in for some badly written poetry.

Sadly, Plath has become the poster girl for writing troubling poetry about depression and suicide. This has always annoyed me and somehow caused me to avoid digging into Plath. Again, this was no reflection on Plath's actual work. I've never disliked her poems. I just never wanted to be the poet who goes in and says, "Plath is my favorite poet." It felt like a cliche.

This year, I set out to change this and to rediscover Plath. I selected her Collected Poems as one of my books to read in 2012. Over the weekend, I finished reading it. In all honesty, I might be even more annoyed now. Plath is a rich and complex poet and yet so many have written her off as this symbol of 1950s and 60s mental health issues. Plath wrote about many topics and some are rather dark, but her poetry is not the over-wrought and cliched work that she has inspired over the years. Her poems aren't depressed diary entries with line breaks. She knows what she's doing and her work is far more diverse than she's often given credit for. Of course, true lovers and readers of poetry know this.

I won't say I loved all of her work, but I appreciated it. This edition of her poems includes many that are clearly exercises in form and technique, but that's part of the fun of reading a collected book. What I enjoyed most was when she completely surprised me. I would be reading along and thinking this is a well-constructed poem that references nature and the landscape of England, and then all the sudden she'd throw in the most startling and strange image or she'd say something rather contemporary and modern. This technique works so well. In many of her poems, she gives you want you might expect, lets you get comfortable, and then hits you with something unexpected and thought provoking, which often causes you to go back and read again.

In many ways, this was the perfect time to read her work. I turn thirty this year, which is the age that Plath killed herself. It's amazing how much she accomplished in her short life. This book is also interesting because you can see how much she changes and grows as a writer through the short years it covers. I think of my own life and work and know how much I've changed in my 20s. Of course, it's hard to read her work and not ponder where she would have gone had she not killed herself.

Plath is a poet who has to fight off some of the cliches and myths that surround her. I was struck by the notes section in this edition. It included various introductions written by her for BBC radio. What struck me is that her descriptions were always removed. She never spoke about her work as being a reflection of herself. We often think of her work as being so personal and confessional, which made this stand out to me. I also enjoyed the section in the back that included 50 poems from her undergraduate years. Many of these poems weren't very good and were clearly written for a class assignment, but you could see the seeds of a great poet. I'd love to teach a creative writing class that used some of these early poems and some of her older poems to explore with students the growth of a poet.

Reading this book has made me reconsider Plath and her role in my own growth as a poet. It is also fitting that I read this book now, because it goes really well with the new book project I'm writing. Plath's lending me a hand.

Favorite poems:
"Street Song"
"The Snowman on the Moor"
"The Everlasting Monday"
"Two Views of a Cadaver Room"
"Suicide off Egg Rock"
"Electra on Azalea Path"
"The Net-Menders"
"Poem for a Birthday"
"In Plaster"
"Wuthering Heights"
"Three Woman: A Poem for Three Voices"
"The Applicant"
"Lady Lazarus"
"The Fearful"

-Stephen (Plathing)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Right to Pull the Plug

This morning I walked into City Hall in downtown Orlando and became the domestic partner of my boyfriend Dustin. Orlando passed a domestic partner registry in late 2011 and it officially took effect last week. I'm now officially bound to another human being.

Well, sort of.

The registry basically gives us the ability to make medical and funeral decisions for each other within the city limits of Orlando. Oh, and we can visit each other in jail. These are important rights to have, but are fairly limited.

The process was easy and smooth. We stood in the City Clerk's office in our work clothes initialing here and there and signing one form and it was done. We got a certificate and wallet size copies to carry around with us, which is nice since most people will probably require that we prove our partnership before we actually can exercise any of these rights. Though I could probably walk into any hospital in town and find an unconscious female around my age and claim I'm her husband with no questions asked (why hasn't some radical gay group tried that yet?).

Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of the people who fought to make this happen and I'm proud of the city of Orlando. As a city there isn't much more they can offer us when we live in a state and country that does not recognize our relationship. But the truth of the matter is that getting these few basic rights highlights the complete absurdity of this entire debate over gay marriage.

I spend most of my time trying not to think about the complete injustice and inequality that I am faced with on a daily basis as a gay person in this country. I think that's what most gay people do. We put on a good face. We make jokes. We live our lives. We drink a lot. But when I do think about it, I'm almost not even as angry as I am completely amazed and astonished. In some ways, I can't quite believe I live in a country that refuses to recognize my relationship, refuses to give me equal marriage or adoption rights, and even allows me to be fired for being gay. It's actually almost completely unbelievable. It's rather absurd that I had to go to City Hall today to get a piece of paper that pretty much only allows me to pull the plug on my partner of 8 years and only if we are right here in the city of Orlando. This absurdity hits even higher levels when we are constantly bombarded by political talk of "freedom" and the whole idea that we, as Americans, are leaders of freedom in the world. How do people still get away with saying this? When was it ever true?

Today was a nice experience. I have a certificate. I have these few rights. I was able to change my status on Facebook to "in a domestic partnership." I was offered many "likes" and "congrats," but I don't really know if there is much to celebrate. I don't mean to be a downer, but I'm also exhausted by acting as if everything is fine. It's actually not fine. A good portion of my friends could walk into a bar, find a member of the opposite sex, and marry them the next day with no questions asked. Yet, I can't marry someone I've been with for 8 years. I know people who have met someone, married them, and divorced them in less time.

Last year, I had to pay over $300 dollars in extra taxes that I wouldn't have had to pay had I been married to Dustin. The fact that I help support him while he goes to school and works a lower paying job has no effect on my tax information. He's my roommate legally and nothing more. This is true for even gay couples in states that have gay marriage. You still can't file joint federal taxes. The fact that my partner has a family that doesn't know me very well and hasn't always been very supportive of our relationship, could mean that if anything ever happened to Dustin, I could be left with nothing that he wanted me to have. This is a real issue that is facing lots of people in this country.

I appreciate all of the love and support that I have from my family and my friends. I'm happy that I got lots of "likes" and "congrats" on Facebook. But I also challenge each of these people to help in the fight for equality. Do you vote in every election? Just voting for the president doesn't do much. State and local people make a huge difference in this fight and every fight. Do you talk to people about gay rights issues, even if you are not gay yourself? We can't win this fight without the help of straight people who are willing to speak out and learn the facts. I know many who are and I'm thankful for them, but I also know many out of touch gay and straight people, who often don't even understand what a domestic partnership means. There's probably someone who read my status today and basically thinks I'm married. I'm far from married. What I got today is a far cry from equality.

We are taking steps, but sometimes these steps point out the injustice even more clearly. Domestic partner doesn't sound very romantic, does it?

-Stephen (Domesticated)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 Reading List

I turn 30 this year, so I've made my 2012 reading list 30 titles long. These are the books I want to make sure I read in the new year. I did this last year and I really enjoyed having the list as a goal. It also made me read a few books I'd been meaning to for quite some time. I will, of course, read other books as well. I limited my list to novels and larger poetry books (mostly collected poems).

I tried to have a range of titles on the list. Some are classic novels that I've never read (like Lord of the Flies and 1984). Others are newer books or books highly recommended by my friends.

I'm posting my list, so you can see the titles I picked. It might also encourage you to make your own list.

1 Lord of the Flies by William Golding

2. 1984 by George Orwell

3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

5. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

7. Orlando by Virginia Woolf

8. Light in August by William Faulkner

9. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

10. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

11. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

12. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

13. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

14. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

15. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

16. We the Animals by Justin Torres

17. 11/22/63 by Stephen King

18. The Submission by Amy Waldman

19. The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

20. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

21. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

22. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

23. A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck

24. Assumption by Percival Everett

25. The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton

26. The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

27. Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

28. Stanzas in Meditation by Gertrude Stein

29. Birthday Letters: Poems by Ted Hughes

30. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane by Hart Crane

-Stephen (Reading)