All the Heat We Could Carry is a compelling, fierce, vivid, yet sometimes understated and curiously dry in tone, collection of poems by Charlie Bondhus, describing life as a gay soldier in Afghanistan. Bondhus cultivates a theme of heat: sustained, transferred, endured, enjoyed or suppressed, whether in the desert, the bedroom, the front porch, or the end of a pier. His decision to cloak volatile, profoundly disturbing content may seem counter-intuitive, but is actually dead-on, as this kind of material demands a kind of nonchalance. Otherwise it might feel manipulative and purple. Overblown. There is a quiet precision to Bondhus’ poems, like sealing something dangerous, despairing or grotesque in a glass jar. (more…)
Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp Press), Australian author Tom Cho’s debut book, bills itself as “a fresh, hilarious, and dazzlingly contemporary collection of micro-fictions that explore the slipperiness of identity, race, and gender.” While this may be the case, it reads more like a dream journal being kept by someone with an overactive imagination—in the most somewhat-exhausting-but-mostly-interesting-and-entertaining way possible. (more…)
Back in 2006, I interviewed Tom Spanbauer for The Lambda Literary Review when his book Now is the Hour was published. He is well known nationally as the author of that book and others, including Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and The City of Shy Hunters. And in Portland, OR where he lives, as a teacher for his Dangerous Writers classes. His publisher, Hawthorne Press, notified me that his latest novel I Loved You More would be published this month, and I was very happy to be able to interview him about his new book, his writing process, and the current state of publishing. (more…)
In the latest contribution to Arsenal Pulp Press’s “Queer Film Classics” series, Lucas Hilderbrand sets his sights on that legacy object, the fabulous and enduring cultural phenomenon that is Paris Is Burning. One of the most successful documentaries ever made, the 1991 film follows Harlem Drag legends like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and newcomers like Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza as they compete in Harlem drag balls, dream of fame and struggle as queer people of color in the bustle of pre-Giuliani New York City. Hilderbrand, whose scholarship includes articles on Todd Haynes’ Barbie bootleg, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and an analysis of “The Art of Distribution: Video on Demand,” embraces the rich cultural text with signature breadth and an impassioned personal narrative. (more…)
Before delving into any of Tom Spanbauer’s books, it is best to take note of the two central principles of his school of Dangerous Writing:
1) What makes writing dangerous is something personal, very small, and quiet… to go to parts of ourselves where there is an old silence, where it is secret, where it is dark and sore… to go to where we’ve never gone before, writing down what scares the hell out of us. Eventually to the very foundation and structure of how we perceive, and in this investigation, we can challenge old notions of who we are.
2) When you meet someone for the first time, be kind, and look them in the eye. Everyone has a battle raging inside of them.
—Spanbauer, quoted at a Dangerous Writing Workshop, Esalen Institute, June 2007
In I Loved You More, Spanbauer deftly executes these two Dangerous Writing principles. Compared to his previous novels, one senses that I Loved You More was the most difficult and painful for him to write. For the first time, Spanbauer expresses his personal struggle coping with HIV/AIDS through narrator and main character Ben Grunewald. It is also the first book where Spanbauer addresses bisexuality. Unlike Spanbauer’s traditional naïve, sweetly bashful protagonists, Ben is an unapologetic sixty-year-old who admits that sometimes he hates people who don’t have to worry about dying. While Ben is no angel, Spanbauer gives him grace and soft eloquence, with a touch of burnt tongue, that will make the reader want to be kind and look him in the eye while he reminisces.
Spanbauer’s main characters typically fall in love with people who are often seen as culturally “taboo” in some way—an African American drag queen in The City of Shy Hunters, a Native American man accused of pedophilia in Now is the Hour. While out and proud Ben Grunewald cannot resist telling the story of his first love and blood brother in Idaho, Native American Ephraim Owlfeather, Ephraim remains in Idaho while Ben moves to New York City. It is there, while working odd jobs and taking writing classes, that Ben encounters striking—but straight—author and writing teacher Hank Christian. Spanbauer’s writing advice, inherited from his mentor Gordon Lish, now is channeled through the macho, working class Italian Christian, who shouts “Latinate!” when Ben tries to hide behind fancy words when describing the complexities of love, sex, and relationships. No good old Anglo-Saxon word will do for Ben when he wants to talk about attraction; only “propinquity” will do. Propinquity delights and challenges; it can lead to pleasure or trouble. Ben spends most of his life negotiating his propinquity for men as well as women.
Ben has three “men” inside of him who guide his behavior—the macho Big Ben, the anxious Little Ben, and the Running Boy when he is overwhelmed by fear. Hank, while he never says so outright, is guided by similar spirits. Both Ben and Hank must negotiate all the ins and outs of gay and straight male etiquette, from figuring out who holds the door open for whom to how to dress when you go to a gay bar. While Hank is willing to step over some heteronormative boundaries with Ben, he is still primarily attracted to women, and so Hank and Ben bounce in and out of their relationship. Hank marries, has a son, and gets divorced, while Ben meets different men, engages in casual sex and substance abuse with them, and gets sick. At the lowest point in his life, Ben meets Ruth, a beautiful woman who cares for him while he is sick. Ben falls in love with Ruth. Then Hank, dying from cancer, shows up again. How will it all end up? Totally gay Ben Grunewald opens and closes his looping narrative on love, relationships, and survival with this simple equation:
More than likely, you’re like me and think that something like this could never happen to you. That you could love a man, then love a woman—two extraordinary people, two unique ways of loving, from different decades, on different ends of the continent, and what happens is something you could never in a million years have planned. There you are the three of you, dancing the ancient dance whose only rule is with three add one, if not, subtract. If three doesn’t find four, three goes back to two.
—Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
Bisexuality is one of the last taboos in the LGBT and heterosexual worlds. Religion, the media, and the American legal structure only recognize committed relationships between two people, with the assumption that each person is only attracted to one sex or the other, but not both. Although Kinsey had established long ago that a significant percentage of Americans are bisexual, those who identify as bisexual are often condemned as “experimenters” who are incapable of commitment, or “not really queer” if they are engaged in monogamous heterosexual relationships. A clumsier writer would clutter up a story about a gay man simultaneously in love with a “straight” guy and a woman with denial and angst; Spanbauer simply unpacks imagery, events, and dialogue without judgment, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. If anything, I Loved You More provides an empathic view of bisexual relationships as the most natural in the world, perhaps the most generous expression of love and shared strength for the survival of humanity.
Tom Spanbauer. (2014).
Wexelbaum, R. (2008, Spring). Dangerous writing. Lambda Book Report, 16 (1/2), 44
Wexelbaum, R. (2009). “Tom Spanbauer.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States, Volume 2, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson.
I Loved You More
By Tom Spanbauer
Hardcover, 9780986000782, 468 pp.
In “The Coast of Indiana,” one of five stories in Dan Lopez’s short but impressive collection Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea (Chelsea Station Editions), Cam spends an “impromptu beach day” with his lover Peter and a young woman named Abigail. Peter and Cam have flown to Chicago so Peter can explore a graduate school. While the three are sunning on the shore of Lake Michigan, Abigail asks Cam when he is heading back home. Cam, resentful that she would assume he and Peter wouldn’t be going back together, puts on his sunglasses to “project a cool ambivalence”:
“Tomorrow evening,” I said. “Our flight’s at six. We leave from O’Hare.”
“We’re just visiting the school this time,” Peter said, smiling in a way I immediately recognized as patronizing.
I couldn’t decide whether something larger wasn’t being communicated between them, some judgment passed, some silent understanding beyond my purview.
The scene is hardly the most startling of the collection, but in some ways it may be the one that best exemplifies the quiet drama of Lopez’s writing. In these stories, it isn’t necessarily the big events that are the most revelatory: it’s the glance, the nod, the two men sitting on a boat while “neither of them was making an attempt at conversation.”
The sea is the backdrop for many of these stories. In the title story, two men, one gay and one straight, find each other in a support group for those suffering loss, and when one accompanies the other aboard a boat, they share a quiet yet moving few moments together. “Andrew Barbie” explores the emotional landscape between the narrator and his new lover, Lorenzo, and Jeremy, the narrator’s older ex-lover, who takes them on a boat trip. In “The Cruise,” the narrator becomes transfixed by a young deckhand. When in a moment of rage the boy tears off his shirt, the narrator notes that “we saw for the first time in the naked light of day the battered body we’d so willingly hitched our desires upon. All that we’d built up around him seemed to suddenly burn away. He was just a boy, we realized, incapable of anything.” And in the final story, “Volumes Set Against a Twilight Sky,” Lopez shows us how our relationships with others continue to evolve, even after death, as an architect reads the journals of his deceased lover, Michael.
What’s fascinating about Lopez as a writer is that he chooses to dramatize such intimate moments when the sea has often been the setting for so many larger than life struggles. (It wouldn’t have been a stretch to call some of the high school English classes of the 1970s “Heterosexual White Men in Boats.”) Dan Lopez peoples his sea narratives with gay men, both white and of color, and in doing so reexamines the genre, not unlike Annie’s Proulx’s reexamination of the cowboy narrative in Brokeback Mountain. And when a genre is shaken up, its focus shifts. In “The Coast of Indiana,” Abigail tells Peter that his dog, Lucky, is “friendly to a fault.” “It’s because he’s never known any danger,” Peter replies. In Lopez’s world, the dangers characters face aren’t always where you’d expect them to be.
Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea
By Dan Lopez
Chelsea Station Editions
Hardcover, 9781937627164, 51 pp.
Mary Gaitskill called Keith Banner’s first collection of stories, The Smallest People Alive, “a perfect jewel of sweetness, ugliness, misery, and light. And it’s funny too.” Now Banner is back with another jewel of a collection, Next to Nothing (Lethe Press, March 2014). Banner’s stories have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Gay Fiction, Kenyon Review, and many more publications. He’s also the author of the novel The Life I Lead, which was published by Knopf in 1999. (more…)
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of its publication, Wesleyan University Press has republished Samuel Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Stars has earned comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses and has been called “the most truly galactic novel ever written.” As a novel it performs delightful and confounding acts of destabilization, challenging normative understandings of gender and race, sex, language, and death. (more…)
Erasure is a central concern when it comes to representations of AIDS—be it in the face of hegemonic narratives, or absence. Historian Martin Duberman addresses this in his new book, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS (The New Press, 2014). A dual biography, the book profiles Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, both gifted, successful, HIV+ gay men who came of age in the Reagan years and with the onset of AIDS in America. The primary difference between the two being Hemphill was black and Callen was white, a fact that did not save either from needlessly early deaths, but one that does impact how they lived and how they are remembered. (more…)
Longtime scholar and activist Dennis Altman begins his book talking about change. How and why “change” happens are points of conjecture, but one thing that Altman is all too sure of is that “change often occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven” and that is the point. In The End of the Homosexual?, Altman connects the old with the new and accounts for the pain and struggle that the LGBT movement has had in connecting to the proverbial “family-tree” version of queer history, while maintaining what is truly unique about the community as a whole–its constantly changing and evolving nature. (more…)