Moving Forward by Looking Back
There are plenty of ghosts in New York City. And this PRIDE, we take a measure of what poets are among them. Haunting the halls of queer poetry salons and community centers is an entire generation lost to AIDS. “Art is not living, it is the use of the living” said poet and activist Audre Lorde. And she’s right; art stands to engage the living; though a seemingly grandiose statement, art, in many ways, is life. But it’s unconscionable to think about today’s queer art, or queer arts and literary communities, what we’re living and breathing in New York City and elsewhere, without considering the work done by this mostly lost generation.
As a poetry lover, teacher, writer, and arts administrator, hearing poem after poem, and living my own poetry, the question came to me, are we building toward a better future, or merely spinning our wheels without moving ahead at all?
A focus on the “lost generation” means we are looking at queer poetry life from the 60s through the 80s and early 90s The gay liberation movement is essential and first on our remembrance list. This movement—beginning in the late 60s and stretching into the early 70s—urged queers across the nation to “come out” and counter shame with gay pride. Poets like Harold Norse and Minnie Bruce Pratt led or were self-declared products of this movement in literature. Pratt wrote of a gathering of women contemplating coming out to their children in the poem “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light” from her stunningly titled collection Crime Against Nature:
Here, we hardly call our children’s names out loud.
We’ve lost them once, or fear we may. We’re careful
what we say. In the clanging silence, pain falls
on our hearts, year in and out, like water cutting
a groove in stone, seeking a channel, a way out,
pain running like water through the glittering room.
The capacious maternal and lesbian voice in the stanza above is both bold and vulnerable. And though, “like water cutting/ a groove in a stone” is not my favorite metaphor, this stanza stands out because she sets this image up to become “pain running like water through the glittering room,” hollowing the stone. I read these women as being both victims of an imposed silence and heroines for either baring the pain of secrets for the sake of forbidden love or for finally coming out, heroines for finding ways to survive.
These poets were important faces of the movement. Yet there were arguably no intersex or transgender poets recognized as “faces” of gay liberation (and few, if any, poets of color). But I find Pratt’s same boldness in two-spirit voices in poetry today, the latter being a Native American gender category, often viewed as a third gender, bigender, or transgender.
Just consider this excerpt from the poem “when I learned praying to be straight was not useful” by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran, featured in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, & Spirituality edited by Kevin Simmonds:
perhaps we always judge
those learning what we are ourselves. perhaps that is
what we offer the fire: to burn and renew, Ancestors
working through it for us in the flames. a year prior,
here, praying to be straight, praying to be anything
other than what I was: a lover of man. here I returned,
This poem presents the queer body as sacrifice to queer identity, to erect identity one must understand, and to understand one must pick apart, or in this case set afire. This self sacrificing bravery is rewarded with a kind of resurrection we see develop further on in the poem. This unique and necessary voice in queer poetry continues to extend existing dialogues and find new ones to share.
Is our work now to make sure all shades of gray within the word “queer” are acknowledged? Is it to make room for everyone to be a part of the conversation? It took a lot of hard work for queer to have its own box, to be acknowledged as an identity as opposed to a disease, and it’s wonderfully reassuring to see anthologists like Simmonds work to expand the box or perhaps suggest we are beyond the usefulness of any boxes at all. Perhaps being beyond these boxes is the ultimate liberation.
The AIDS epidemic reached its height in the 1980s. Poet Melvin Dixon raised awareness of the plight of so many suffering at this time with his poem Wednesday Mourning. Here are a few lines:
Morning blood on my pillow,
dried brown from the night fighting me
and I don’t know why.
I check myself and find no cuts,
no pimples scratched off, no teeth
loose and gummy, no fingers peeled,
but lips swollen from calling his name
and feeling my head and throat run dry—
the fluid fled are body tears
that take their mourning weight.
His verse speaks for itself, placing our hand underneath the morning blood to feel its mourning weight, the burden the blood disease has placed on the body, brilliant! I’ll only add that the eminence of death in this poem paints a face on the mysterious adversary the speaker is “fighting” in the opening lines, it’s a face in opposition to queer sexuality we thankfully see less of these days, the face of AIDS. These high stakes escalate the tension and challenge the poet to craftily navigate uncharted waters he risks his life to explore, to conquer, to learn – for you, the reader; for us, the next generation.
Yet still, with all that the poet discovers, I can’t help but think that the historical significance of narratives like this one have fallen out of focus in queer poetry today, not that shifts in focus somehow mean Dixon’s work is any less meaningful. But seemingly, in the aftermath of the 80s AIDS epidemic, out of sight means out of mind for many. Many young queer poets writing today haven’t written about this history. Are we operating blind to this past? Or has all the hard work already done by poets likeDixon, Essex Hemphill, and others freed us from any sort of imagined “responsibility” to take on this important part of our history? What’s next?
These questions do imply there is a sense of “responsibility” to one’s community or audience, and most poets and artists in general feel the only ‘responsibility’ is to their art. And of course, the history of AIDS is not one solely owned by the queer community. Yet even if it’s not your subject, come on, engage the rest of us; you too consider how do we move forward while looking back?
Perhaps looking back, so far removed, or for others still so near, is enough; writing from here and now is already a step forward, in doing so we are already beyond. What do you think?
Even if this question is not burning a hole in your mind right now, it’s one that affects us all; everyone needs a strong foundation, and as queer poetry is an important part of American literature (and of course, world literature too); knowing its history is important even for non-queer poets, writers, and readers as well.
Now, from where I stand, it seems today that the high rate of teen LGBTIQ suicides across the nation is an issue of high stakes. There have surely been cases in previous generations where the connection between suicides and instances of bullying or mental turmoil dealing with sexual orientation went unacknowledged. Yet following instances of gay bashing in the 90s this seems to be the second chapter in the book of violence against queers as chronicled by the national media (1 – pain inflicted by others, 2 – self inflicted pain). I think about Matthew Shepard, but before him there were many others, including Charlie Howard, forever immortalized in the touching poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent” by Mark Doty from his collection Turtle, Swan.
Charlie Howard was a young man and hate-crime murder victim thrown over a bridge in Maineby three teens despite his pleas that he could not swim. Doty’s poem is difficult to excerpt as each line is vital, beautiful, and shifting, pushing the poem further in both sentiment and craft—this means find it immediately and read it in its entirety. Here’s just a snippet:
I imagine he took the insults in
and made of them a place to live;
we learn to use the names
because they are there,
familiar furniture: faggot
was the bed he slept in, hard
and white, but simple somehow,
queer something sharp
but finally useful, a tool,
all the jokes a chair,
stiff-backed to keep the spine straight,
a table, a lamp. And because
In this excerpt Doty externalizes Howard’s psychological landscape; beautifully presenting the tragic home bullied queers have had to make for themselves in intolerance. The poem goes further to give Howard the dignity denied by his murderers in the proper burial of this poem, allowing him to resurrect and bless his killers at the end “in a way that only the dead can afford to forgive.” “Descent” presents both an individual narrative with great intimacy and a historical and universal story of otherness and abuse in savvy quatrains. Doty beautifully honors Howard and raises awareness to gay bashing in his work.
This powerful and moving work, like others featured above, is true poetry – a powerful force strong enough to spin the earth the other way with a whisper.
Perhaps the next step is more than to continue remembering or reflecting on those lost, but also to act, to use writing to enlighten and thus fight homophobia, to use poetry to empower and work to lower the rate of queer teen suicides.
The New York Writer’s Coalition, for example, runs creative writing workshops for LGBTIQ homeless youth; the workshop is called New Alternatives. They also have a day center with support services at the Ali Forney Center. NYWC has published various anthologies of their students’ work, including Once You Were Set Free, available at their website. Their workshop leaders and administrators are finding new and dynamic ways to build on the hard work of previous queer poets and writers. This is a great example of not only what’s next in art, but of art as activism.
I’d like to believe that today’s queer poetry community is working hard to be more inclusive than ever before, moving forward by knowing our own history and building on that foundation, and using poetry as a tool to save each other and save ourselves through various new educational, social welfare, and mental health programs. Hopefully history proves my beliefs to be true, and also that there be so much more good work happening now we have yet to know about, but soon will.
Whatever you know about this history, share it with others, start your own salon, give a reading, read a book, write a poem, start a workshop – build a foundation of knowledge, advance existing and new dialogues surrounding queer poetry, and act to ensure its advancement. Make a connection, whatever it takes because investing in the community is the only way to ensure it will have any future at all, let alone a great one.
Audre Lorde said, “Art is the use of the living.” I say – the only way to truly live art is to not forget the dead, to firmly stand on the shoulders of giants and grow taller; moving forward by simultaneously looking back.