Divisions and Connections in Queerdom: A Conversation Between Rickey Laurentiis and Darrel Alejandro Holnes
Poets Rickey Laurentiis and Darrel Alejandro Holnes examine categorization in the NYC social scene and in queer literature today.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, on the Best American Poetry blog, The Feminist Wire, The Caribbean Writer, Kweli, The Sound of Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Holnes is a Bread Loaf and Cave Canem fellow, and his work has been recognized with various awards, fellowships, and honors, including residency at VCCA. He has worked in arts administration for nearly a decade, and teaches at Rutgers University.
Rickey Laurentiis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St Louis, where he is completing his MFA. His poetry has appeared in several journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Callaloo, Feminist Studies, Indiana Review, jubilat, Oxford American and Poetry.
After attending a book party for Keith Boykin’s anthology For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough and witnessing various divisions in the LGBT writing community, poets Rickey Laurentiis and Darrel Alejandro Holnes question categorization in today’s queer literature and queer literary scene. A casual conversation over Facebook evolved into a longer e-mail correspondence; here’s what these poets had to say:
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: I was browsing the web searching for new music and stumbled upon this article discussing new black gay rap from NYC. This past summer at Cave Canem, a black poetry retreat, other fellows introduced me to the music of Zebra Katz, one of the rappers discussed in this piece. He, along with others, often perform at the Highline Ballroom in the long tradition of ballroom culture, from which vogueing comes. Though it feels as though I’m adjacent to this world, in the city, it’s not exactly my own. And this got me thinking, there are so many divisions in Queerdom, categories perhaps to give each sub-group their place on the stage, but do these divisions also block us from seeing outside our own category? What do you think?
Rickey Laurentiis: Thanks for the article. It’s quite interesting and exciting to think about these sort of “queer intrusions,” especially those happening in spaces assumed to be exclusively heteronormative or, worse, explicitly violent against queerness. I’m reminded about the queer hip-hop tradition I grew up with back home in New Orleans, about “Sissy Bounce.” But there I wonder if the word “intrusion” isn’t appropriate, since that music was always already so prevalent. One would literally hear it thumping on any given corner during a block party in summer, regardless, it would seem, of the sexuality of those in attendance. I’m sure there were divisions, but there was also some greater collectivity happening. Maybe that just speaks to the possibility of art and entertainment. So I guess, before I can answer your question, I’d like to know a bit more about your thoughts about “divisions in queerdom,” as you put it. Where have you seen them occurring?
Holnes: I see them occurring all around me, whether it be on the club scene; perhaps more so internationally than in NYC, but still they’re everywhere. When summering in the Canary Islands with a friend, we were club-hopping and passed by a leather bar I couldn’t enter wearing my cotton striped tank top—it had to be leather or skin—so I took my shirt off and walked inside to support my friend’s curiosity in the bar. Though seemingly superficial, the club exercised a prejudiced commercial practice we would never tolerate stateside, but it gave the leather daddies a private space in which they could come together and celebrate their point of view, celebrate their “beautiful.” It was their place in the spotlight, their place on stage.
I see this in NYC, literary journals, reading series, performance showcases, and the like only featuring writers of certain pedigrees; whether it be an unspoken understanding that to enter you must have an MFA, or be young, or be black, or have a slam background. These defined lines help to unite its micro-community members under one roof. And it’s great to be new to the city, as everyone is at one point, and find your people when they come together under one roof for different events. There are so many clubs, crews, and crowds that the categories help index and make NYC’s diversity a manageable delight instead of a maze of mass confusion.
We see this in literature too. Right? That division between The Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe Poetry Slam and The Best American Poetry Reading. Few poets, though more and more do every year, bridge the two worlds. And so on. Wouldn’t you say?
Laurentiis: But I wonder, though, if that kind of behavior isn’t tolerated in the States. I’m sure there are more than a few LGBT people here, myself included, who’ve had some similar experiences at various establishments, whether based on clothing, race, body type, age or what have you. But, you know, your last point about divisions is interesting to me: that while they can risk being problematically exclusionary, segregating one group from another, they can also outline a designated space—a safe space, if you will—where any given community can have its moment to be in the center as oppose to the margins.
And you’re absolutely right about these sort of lines traveling among the writerly community as well. The thing about NYC—and perhaps I have greater clarity because I’m not from there and am not currently living there either—the thing about NYC is that the population itself is already so large, so expansive. If we just think about writers alone, I think it’s possible to find one on every block if you just ask! Having lived in the Midwest for about two years now to complete my MFA, I’ve seen my own writing community—while it has deepened in ways—decrease in literal size. Fewer writers, but (maybe because of that) we all hang out together, always around each other. So, I guess I’m thinking now that any divisions one sees appearing, any sort of lines, are predicated at some level on a kind of privilege of mass. And that is a kind of privilege, right? To have options, choices, a real visible community around you where you don’t feel like you’re the only one or one of few? I’m thinking about the Leather bar in St. Louis now, and how—while it’s clear I’m not exactly the imagined clientele—I did feel as if I was nevertheless welcomed in with some sort of attitude of “the more the merrier.” Conversely, it’s been in supposedly “progressive” places like NYC, Chicago and even home in New Orleans where I’ve had some of my less-than-pleasing experiences, times when I felt like I was being purposefully excluded or impeded.
It’s a double-edged sword then, right? Categories, divisions, lines. But you say they’ve made your time in NYC “manageable.” What do you mean?
Holnes: For an out-of-towner, let alone a member of the international community, navigating diversity is a (welcome) challenge in NYC. Almost all of my first New York friends and family (mostly white, straight, and privileged) lived in Manhattan. And though I’d see the city’s diversity surrounding me when walking to and from work every day, NYC’s diversity was mostly off to other boroughs at night, and even those in Harlem or Chinatown were off to locales off my beaten path. It took developing a more diverse network of friends to be lead by others to more home grown local spots where I could find my Boricua queers (Hombres), and my ballroom black gays (the Highline), or my alternaboys (Westway), etc… in nightlife.
I remember one day in NYC it seemed everything was going wrong, and I looked at my community of supporters and realized each one could relate to a different part of my struggle, but none could relate to it as a whole. I was sitting in a Burger King in Times Square (the one time in my life) and a troop of fierce, black, queer twenty-somethings entered the restaurant. I couldn’t stop staring and even let them in front of me to order so I could watch them walk out. I then asked myself, where is this NYC? I love Meatpacking, but there is so much more to me than that crowd. I needed my people, I needed their safety, so I sought them out, gathered in unnamed speakeasies, pop-up parties, karaoke bars, gallery auctions, book clubs, arts salons, and the like, on the grind.
Since moving here I’ve become a member of various niche clubs, organizations, fellowships, boards, and committees that have been starting points for me meeting persons who’ve become strong and important folks in my inner circle, persons who helped me see that I belonged somewhere in this cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, mess of a place. And some of these groups are unofficial ones too, a crew of commuters you find when taking the train daily, or a pack of nomad soccer players every Tuesday evening in Central Park.
It’s the same in the literary and arts community, after readings and book parties, you can also find your you. But it’s easy to see ways in which these niche groups can also be limiting. I imagine we don’t have to summarize Beauty-gate (as so dubbed by C. Dale Young) for our readers, but there are a lot of politics involved in making a guest list.
So yes, it’s definitely a double-edged sword. “Privilege.”
Laurentiis: There are a lot of politics involved in making a guest list, but that practice doesn’t seem too different from, say, editing an anthology or even composing a course syllabus. Aren’t those all “guest lists” of a kind? For instance, last August, I was at Keith Boykin’s book release party in NYC. I was there visiting a good friend of mine, and together we had decided to spend one of our evenings at SPLASH, which was the club hosting the release of For Colored Boys. That it was in a club was very interesting. I guess it was an attempt to mesh both public and private, if you will, or rather public and “academic.” But even as that kind of meshing was going on, I couldn’t help but be a little perturbed by, in one sense, the “guest list” being anthologized. Not that I have any special issue with any of those selected (the anthology, I want to stress here, is quite important and gives needed voice to a community), but that I was aware of the divisions: mainly this arbitrary line between “activist” gay writers and their “literary” counterparts or, maybe better said, “performative” and “academic” writers.
Of course, these lines, as we’ve been saying, were already drawn prior to Boykin’s event. But I’m always interested in erasing lines or, at the least, drawing new ones. It may be my own selfish wish, but I wish I had seen a poet like Jericho Brown both on that stage and in Boykin’s book, not as a means of trying to push out any other writer who has been selected, but as a means of bridging these large gaps that are so painfully obvious. I think it can be useful, potentially radical, and always interesting to have someone who speaks in (or, maybe better put, to) the “ivory tower” with someone who speaks from (or, again, to) “the street.” I’ve been putting everything in these quotes because none of these terms are exactly stable, none of them quite fit.
When I think of the audience of Boykin’s event that’s when I begin to see my desires actualized. For it was in that audience where I saw many I recognized, many who I know have or are either completing graduate degrees, some literally at Ivy League schools. Some others were men who teach in public high schools. Some, like me, were in the process of getting their MFAs. I’m sure more than a few were only there interested to hear some good writing and then to dance (and dance they did!). Some further still had 9-to-5s.
It seems as if the audience itself was an anthology: a vast collection of various voices and perspectives, still connected by identity (in that case, their queerdom and their black or brownness), but individual as well. Could we say just the meeting of all of us, our literal bodies and our conversations, was a performance of a new knowledge? That’s precisely what I think is possible, and the radical potential, of bringing “groups” together. In the first place, it’s a move toward breaking down, at least augmenting, these arbitrary binaries, thereby allowing writers of all kinds to actually see their relationships, to see how we’re similar. But what’s more interesting, for me, is how bringing various “groups” together can also reveal our differences, where we diverge individually, within a framework that understand that that’s okay, that resists assimilation. It’s like what’s possible of a good classroom debate, insofar as the various opinions, agreements and disagreements brought together—that kind of easy combination and, yes, hard collision can be a means of discovering, even creating, new ways of understanding, seeing, thinking and relating. For writers, it could mean new approaches to old themes, for instance, or the adoption of new aesthetics or formal strategies entirely. What’s perhaps so often a problem with separate groups as they currently exist is that they can often only recycle, regurgitate and rehearse the same knowledge, again and again, rarely challenging themselves toward these new kinds of epistemologies. I think if it’s possible to wipe the poison off at all, this cross-pollination may be a gesture toward it. It seemed to happen somewhat organically for that audience. Now how do we make our salons, anthologies, course syllabi, etc, reflective of that audience?
Holnes: Boykin’s book party is a terrific example of niche communities coming together across the same lines that may have boxed other writers out of the anthology itself. I think programming is important. As an arts administrator, I made it my duty to make a case for programming that blurred literary lines, and championed diversity; though the campaigns were often met with significant resistance from the institution’s executives.
But programming is often so space-oriented, that like theater, it becomes ephemeral, and it’s value is only relative to those who were able to attend. I’m more interested in considering ways we can create and archive conversations across communities. These days, the largest platform for these conversations is online. And though the jury is out on the success of streaming events, YouTube poetry readings, and using more dynamic systems like social networking sites and blogs, seems to be the best way to foster intergenerational, cross-disciplinary, and transcultural dialogues. And that’s why I’ve always worked thinking about the importance of “the archive” in various projects throughout my career. I learned of its importance in anthropology courses in graduate school and in my previous projects with folklorists across the country. And with online archives anyone across the world can access, and in some cases even contribute regardless of their location. Having grown up abroad I always have my eye toward the global community.
The two largest audiences at my public programs this past year were the over 700 in attendance at Cooper Union, and the various events I hosted at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference (AWP), which played to an audience of around that much as well. Though the programs were well-attended, how many more accessed the recordings online through the New Yorker blog, and the Poetry Foundation’s podcast? How many readers will you and I now have on a site that receives over 100,000 unique clicks a day vs. at a literary salon? Add to that readers after the article is shared via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the like, you’ll see that the widest audiences are truly online.
Perhaps what I’m saying is that the best “guest list” in the world of arts and culture is to post an open invitation so all can join the ongoing party. You mentioned how terms like “activist” and “literary” aren’t fixed. I’ll add to that, perhaps we shouldn’t think of dialogues as fixed either, within a particular anthology or event. Boykin’s book party, for example, might have been an introduction for one or more of its ivory tower attendees to the world of queer “street” literature of color, but the exchange for that person or them continues beyond that introduction. Online, it doesn’t matter where you are, or if you arrive late, as long as at some point you get into the party. But then again, you also have to know the party itself is taking place. So it’s a bit of a Catch 22.
I get around it because I always assume people are talking about interesting things. And that’s a consequence of my higher education. As an educator now, teaching creative writing at Rutgers University, I constantly try to show my students that their work, questions, contemplations, and conversations are part of ongoing dialogues, not only in the academy, but also “on the streets.” And that there’s always a way to include everyone in the conversation, everyone has their place on the stage.
That’s how we try to take the Ivory out of the tower in academia. How does the reverse happen in the activist or performance “street” community, and elsewhere? What else can we do to wipe poison from the bad side of the blade?
Laurentiis: The Internet surely does provide us with a unique database to make these seemingly infinite connections, though it also seems to me that the Internet is only doing what any anthology purports to do but in extreme form: bringing together different, maybe radically different, voices that nonetheless have some connections. Of course, we lose page or other material limitations on the Internet. Doing this kind of online work, if you will, still however requires editorial or curatorial work, right? There still needs to be an administrator. Archiving conversations across communities requires some one person (or team of people) who needs to know of those conversations and communities in the first place. There needs to be one who, for example, knows of Keith Boykin and the work he’s doing and of Jericho Brown, and his work, well enough to know to present them, to link them all, and how best to link them.
That’s a little bit about what it comes to for me: who are the editors, how do we make and train more editors, how do we put these editors in communication with each other, so that they may share their lists of writers, thinkers, artists, et cetera, toward making the kind of audience I described earlier. Every editor inevitably has her or his blind spots, and those blind spots are not always an intention to exclude even if that’s the ultimate cost. To spur more conversation I’m sure we need to guard against that kind of blindness toward a more productive re-visioning of community.
But I have questions about your thoughts that the best “guest list” in the world is an open invitation. Is it an open invitation to participate or to simply witness? There’s a difference, no? For the latter, yes, it seems as if any number could do that. Hundreds or more can come to read, agree, comment on this very conversation we’re having, but how practical is it—even on the Internet—that that same number could participate? We’ve created lines right now around ourselves by speaking to ourselves. But this comes back to some of your previous thoughts: about the productive purpose of lines. Like in the Leather bar, perhaps creating some restrictions enables and produces the kind of safe environment from which true conversation and camaraderie springs. It’s for this reason why private salons, selective anthologies, parties, events, and what have you, don’t, in and of themselves, bother me: it’s important, I think, to carve out one’s individual space for a particular purpose. The issue arises when those individual spaces seem to dominate all conversation, or if not this the reality of them being the only one or one of few makes it seem like that’s the case. So, in my mind, it’s not about wiping the poison off—again, I’m not sure how possible that really is—but it’s about handling the poison, so to speak. Making it productive.
Holnes: It’s an open invitation to “participate” and “witness.” Though I see the necessity for curators, editors, and the like, I’m also hesitant to grant sole authority to anyone to solely define a community; being as “communities” are always influx and to define them at any instance is limiting. It’s a bit daring, but I instead prefer open forums of evolving conversation, like a Tumblr anthology, if you will, where anyone can participate or witness; rather than a volume designed with a fixed representation in mind.
I think about Stephen Boyer who is the manager of the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, he spearheaded the book project and coordinated the volume’s printing and distribution. He also fundraised, and promoted the collection. But according to my conversations with him, he never presumed any editorial authority to reject submissions to the anthology, and thus “curate” the volume of evolving voices to anything other than a snapshot of responses to the movement in poetry at that time. And now the anthology itself continues to grow beyond its first printed edition.
As we move forward to try to foster more intersectional dialogue between the “tower” and “the streets,” I hope we keep in mind that we can’t vest the value of a conversation in the structure of the exchange, but rather in the quality of the content exchanged. I find many anthologies today to be too limiting, too aspiring to be like Norton anthologies which still vibe off the concept of a literary canon. We’ve been there and done that, time to continue the dialogues on more open platforms like the Internet and social media.
Yes, I did start out talking about the value of drawing lines, but will add that online, this conversation right now can be tagged, shared, and otherwise extended to like conversations in other arts, and outside Literary Queerdom or the overall Queerosphere. When readers follow connecting trends, or links, they’ll see that anything we say here is meant to continue ongoing conversations at the intersections of various disciplines and communities, rather than be the sole or most “important” conversation. And I think if we all think of what we write in this way, then we’ll be more open to including more voices in the conversation because we’ll see it doesn’t threaten the place of our own voice on the stage.
You made a point about others needing to know that Boykin and Brown are playing the same game to even put them in the same league, and that editors ought to lead the way. My point now says the reader has more responsibility to his, her, or itself to take advantage of the links a.k.a. avenues a platform like the Internet provides—we should look at any group and always ask—who is missing? Why? And what might those missing have to say?
The more curious and demanding the reader the more boundary-breaking these anthologies, online or in-print will become. I learned to question during my time in the “tower” (and at home), but plenty folks learn to question during their time in “the streets”, and both are just as valid as long as we continue to challenge the authority’s “authority”.
I think when you were reading Boykin’s book you might have looked and wished Jericho Brown was in there because when reading it you were looking for a voice like your own; though I’m sure there was plenty in Boykin’s book you could relate to, weren’t you also scanning the picture for the most recognizable reflection? If we all did that to collections designed to represent “us” there’d be more pressure on editors to meet our thirst for more, as opposed to them just assuming what we want to read, they’d know.
When the National Portrait Gallery recently put together their controversial exhibit of LGBT art “Hide/Seek” I was shocked at the lack of diversity in the show, so few artists of color, so few female and trans artists, once more to be queer meant to be gay, white, and male in America – and the excuse was that the focus was on “canonical artists.” You have to raise your voice and say something. If not, so many important voices, whether or not they’re your own, won’t have a part in the conversation.
Challenge authority, and that also means challenge ourselves.
Questioning oneself is often the hardest, though, most crucial part. But by challenging ourselves to practice what we preach to others, we empower ourselves to act and provoke real change. As Junot Diaz pointed out recently when speaking on “decolonizing love,” it’s a difficult task:
You grow up and you live a life where you feel like you haven’t had shit, the last thing you want to give up is the one thing, the couple of things that you’ve really held on to. [... But] We are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economy of attraction of white supremacy.
We have to be critical of others but also of our own selves. Reader, ask yourself, how are you diversifying your own personal “anthologies”? Then seek out poetry, and fiction, and plays, and companionship from communities that are lacking in your life. And then share this work with others online and elsewhere. This, and not just a better-edited Oxford anthology, is the future.