November 27, 2014

Notes after Fifteen Viewings of ‘The Fifth Element’

Posted on January 14, 2013 by in Opinion, The Ferocity


Never has it come about that I’ve turned down an opportunity to watch The Fifth Element. Surely by now, I have sat through at least fifteen viewings. Quite a feat for me considering that I typically hate re-living films, even ones I enjoy in the moment. The reason is simple; I prefer not to “think” while watching movies. Let me at least in the dark, I ask of my critical self, be dumb and amused and emotional and campy. Let me just enjoy the damn thing.

Nina Simone’s Gun

Posted on June 18, 2012 by in Opinion, The Ferocity

 “…because a village is always somewhere burning

and if you do not look because it is not your village

it is still your village.”

                                    from Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Nina Simone was listening to the radio at home when she heard about the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black girls. It was 1963. The year Dr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The year Kennedy announced the Civil Rights Bill. The year Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway. But four little girls? (more…)

All the Pretty Ones

Posted on May 24, 2012 by in Opinion, The Ferocity

 “I don’t trust beauty anymore / when will I stop believing it?”

                       - Reginald Shepherd

To pretend that a conversation about beauty isn’t, in fact, a conversation about privilege is an act of privilege. When an emerging writer pens an essay praising Anne Sexton for her beauty without quoting any of her poems, I sigh. I go read an essay by Audre Lorde. I try to work on a poem, but can’t concentrate. I think about how few gay men were in attendance at the Adrienne Rich memorial reading at Columbia last month and I wonder if, perhaps, she wasn’t beautiful enough for them to show up.

In response to the extensive comments his article “Anne Sexton, Aesthetics, and the Economy of Beauty” has sparked, Jameson Fitzpatrick contends “My aim was merely to defend an aesthetic (which, for me personally, is not raced) I feel is too often dismissed, disregarded and disparaged in contemporary poetry.” Not raced?

Just what are the aesthetic values that Fitzpatrick is championing? Aesthetic is defined as a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement. And so, I go back yet again to his article in search of the aesthetic he claims to defend, but find none whatsoever. Instead of examining Anne Sexton, Alex Dimitrov or Eduardo Corral’s aesthetic(s), the article prioritizes their bodies over their bodies of work.

All of this is to say, I have a sneaking suspicion that a discussion about the poetics of beauty isn’t really about poetics at all. Once we face that, what are we left with? An article about a beautiful dead woman, a Latino man who makes people “bristle,” and a young “pretty” New York-based poet. And, besides, what good did Anne Sexton’s beauty do her?

When I look at pictures of her, I don’t see glamour. I see a woman who wrote, “Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself…”

“I suppose at bottom we are all beautiful queens,” writes Toni Morrison in her essay “What the Black Woman Thinks About Woman’s Lib,” “but… one wonders if Nefertiti would have lasted ten minutes in a welfare office.” Morrison’s questioning of the “use” of beauty reminds that being pretty has never helped anyone write a poem.

There is nothing wrong with beauty. I certainly am quite fond of it, but we are doing ourselves no favors by pretending that beauty is what we are really talking about. Fitzpatrick’s article is in praise of a certain type of entitlement. It’s in praise of a certain brand of glamour that, more often than not in Western culture, is married to both race and class privilege. For Fitzpatrick to not understand how this supposed aesthetic could be perceived as “raced” is a perfect example of how blind a person can be to how culture works.

I could go on but we all have poems to write, so I’ll conclude with this: I know Eduardo Corral is beautiful because I’ve read his poems.

Watching ‘Pariah’ with Audre Lorde

Posted on January 29, 2012 by in Features, The Ferocity

As the last movie preview flickered out of focus, I stared at the empty seat beside me and had a fleeting thought: How could I watch Pariah on opening night in New York City and not invite Audre Lorde to watch it with me? Surely, as far as films go, Pariah which chronicles the coming of age of a black lesbian teenager in Brooklyn, is a sister (or perhaps daughter) of Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

Fortunately, Dee Rees, the film’s writer and director, decided to invite Lorde to the showing anyway; before we even see Alike, the film’s protagonist, we see a sentence from Zami: “Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.”

“Finally,” I heard one woman whisper to her friend. Yes, finally. Not because we were an impatient audience, but because waiting to see a young woman like Alike brought to life on screen has required a patience tantamount to the slow walk of trees.

If recent film history is any indication, the only way a gay character can make it out of the indie ghetto and into major theater showings is as the body of a conflicted gay white male (who will be brutally punished for being gay at some point in the film) or as a laughing, sassy gay sidekick (who is punished implicitly in the film by having no life, desires, or purpose beyond his relation to the main character’s relationship and fashion problems.) Even more rare are successful films that give breath to lesbian characters. To say nothing of young lesbians of color, but especially when threatened with erasure, silence will not save us. So, we go the theater again and again, cynical yes, but with just a bit of hope stored for safekeeping, thinking “Maybe this time they’ll get it right.”

Minutes into the first scene, as Alike struggles to feign ease at a lesbian nightclub while watching her more experienced friend Laura slow dance with a knockout femme, I practically exhaled. Seeing Alike change into more feminine clothes on the bus after leaving a lesbian nightclub so as to assuage her mother; Seeing Laura, who has already been abandoned by her family, let a homeless teenager spend the night on the couch while she studies for her GED; Seeing Alike read a poem in which she declares that “even breaking / is opening.”

The irony, of course, is that Pariah is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale. The pathos is one of hard-earned familiarity. As Lorde would say, “There are no new pains. We have felt them all.” Even still, to see those growing pains honored is a radical offering. It is frustrating, of course, that doing so is big news, but the power of seeing even part of one’s own life reflected on screen cannot be underestimated.

Pariah is preceded by twenty years of lesbian filmmaking. Films by Cheryle Dunye, Aishah Shahidah, Simmons and Michelle Parkerson among others come to mind, but Hollywood has proven that it literally would rather make another big budget film about black maids than about real black women, much less queer black women. What a feeling then to see Alike’s projected face looking out into a packed movie theater while Audre Lorde looks on and whispers “because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”

Over Coffee with Melvin Dixon

Posted on November 27, 2011 by in Features, The Ferocity

“If you must leave us, now or later,

the sea will bring you back.”

In her introduction to Love’s Instruments, Melvin Dixon’s posthumous poetry collection, Elizabeth Alexander notes,

AIDS has, of course, defined and devastated our times, and the ranks of artists and people of color have been particularly decimated. When literary historians try to write the story of gay black poetry in the late twentieth century, it will be a history swathed with absence.

A peculiar breed of grief sets in when I read and re-read those sentences (more…)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Langston

Posted on October 3, 2011 by in Features, Opinion, The Ferocity

Two years ago, I wrote about Langston Hughes’s sexual identity and what I have come to call “closeted poetry.” Here’s an excerpt from the catalyst for that line of thinking:

Last week, I told one of my 9th grade students that Langston Hughes was gay. The student stood up, panic-stricken, and pleaded, “Please don’t say something like that, Mr. Jones. That’s not funny.” He paused for a moment, (more…)

Queering Poetics, or “Werking” It

Posted on August 22, 2011 by in Features, Opinion, The Ferocity

Queer (adj)

1. strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular.

2. of a questionable nature or character; suspicious; shady.

3. not feeling physically right or well; giddy, faint, or qualmish.

4. mentally unbalanced or deranged.

5. slang: homosexual; effeminate; unmanly.

It was a delightfully confusing conversation. While discussing graduate school possibilities with my mother—women’s studies, queer studies, creative writing, American studies—she interrupted me with a sheepish look on her face, “But… I thought being called queer was a bad thing. (more…)

The Ferocity: Fierce Manifesto

Posted on July 27, 2011 by in Features, Opinion, The Ferocity

FIERCE—Middle English: from Old French fiers ‘fierce, brave, proud,’ from Latin ferus ‘untamed.’ Compare with feral.

The word “fierce” is in danger of being defanged. Somewhere in between Tyra Banks throwing “fierce” around like used fake eyelashes and President Obama campaigning as a “fierce advocate” in spite of his galling ambiguity (and that’s a rather polite way of describing his passive-aggressive homophobia isn’t it?) on comprehensive LGBT rights, “fierce” has been sanitized—pink-washed if you will—and pushed to the brink of irrelevancy. (more…)