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 and the only way I can describe it is to turn, for a moment, to a parallel universe.
In that universe, we have not lost writers like Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Asotto Saint, Reginald Shepherd, so forth and so on. They are still making art. And, more significantly, they have reached the point in their careers in which they are now able to open doors for emerging queer artists. They are mentors now. Some have created presses and reading series. Others sit on the judging committees of book contests or direct writing programs. Perhaps Melvin Dixon, at this very moment, takes another sip of coffee, arches an eyebrow at the young writer sitting across the table from him, and says, “Baby, what do you mean you haven’t heard of Bruce Nugent?” The young writer blushes, then writes down “Smoke, Lilies & Jade” in his notebook, promising to read it as soon as he can get to the library.
Of course, we are not in that parallel universe with them. We are here, doing our best to raise ourselves and each other with the words and art they left behind. In the face of their absence, queer mentorship then takes on a deeper resonance. It is more than a good idea, or the right thing to do; it is a radical act of community building/re-building.
Consider the astounding work Sarah Schulman has done over the course of her career and then remember that Audre Lorde was Schulman’s teacher and mentor. How fortunate we all are that Lorde invested her wisdom in Schulman and countless other artists, then left those artists to us.
In graduate school, I was ten minutes into my first poetry workshop with Rigoberto Gonzalez when it dawned on me that this was the first time in my life I was being taught by a man of color. A queer man of color at that. Gonzalez’s insight in the classroom changed my writing life in ways that I am still processing, but more importantly, he mentored me outside of the classroom as well. Inviting me to attend readings with him, urging me to get in touch with other queer poets in New York, and, in fact, I didn’t even know Lambda Literary existed until he told me about the foundation. I am deeply grateful for his presence in my writing life, but this would not have happened if I hadn’t pursued my MFA. Imagine an arts community in which such mentors were to be found inside as well as outside of MFA programs. In fact, it would be interesting to survey writers to see how many of us have come across lasting mentors entirely outside of academia. The Queer Art Mentorship Fellowship, recently founded by Ira Sachs and Lily Binns, is a pioneering effort to bridge this gap. As a 2011 fellow in the program who has been paired with none other than Sarah Schulman, I hope to see and join more efforts like this moving forward.
Supporting oneself as an artist is difficult, at any stage. And so it is with deep gratitude and more than a bit of awe, I reflect on writers who, in the midst of their day to day grind, invest time in speaking to the absence of that lost generation by raising emerging artists. In fact, I would love for you to share your own experiences with queer mentors. Who has helped you write your way into this world?