Divining Gay Poets: Some Talk about Sex, the Soul, and Career

One of the most anticipated and exciting events at the Associated Writers & Writing Programs Conference, held this year in Chicago, was the reading for Michael Montlack’s new poetry anthology Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on their Muses (Lethe).  The conference, as always, was a highly successful event in which gay men, lesbians, and straight people alike received the opportunity to network and often times meet someone new.  That’s what happened when gay poets Michael Klein and Steve Fellner, who both participated at the reading for the anthology, sat down together at Rehab, the retro gay bar where the reading took place.  Their immediate rapport quickly evolved into firm affirmations about gay poetry and poets in general, as well as contentious yet respectful disagreements about community building and separating the truth from rumor, when it comes to something called a literary career.  When Klein and Fellner got home after the conference ended, that meeting in Chicago triggered the following dialogue between the two writers.  

Michael:  I thought it was a great reading and I really loathe most poetry readings because most people – dare I say straight people? – don’t know how to read poems out loud.  Maybe the fact that gay men are such good readers – a generalization, I know, but one I actually believe – has to do with the fact that so many of us have retreated into those imaginative worlds we made so long ago – first in our minds, and then in our own bedrooms:  singing along with records, reading sex scenes aloud to each other.  In many ways, the gay literary tradition is also an oral tradition.   We also know – some of us – how to sell a poem, and you, Steve,  made that great observation that the sign of a good poet was the quality of the patter.  No one really listens to the poem.  But I also know what it means to be judged, compared and all the other terrors that almost invisibly join forces in a room of gay men and, particular gay writers (which, since I stopped drinking 27 years ago, is usually the only time I’m in the company of so many gay men).  The fact is, the younger ones get all the attention.  And, I left the reading feeling old and unrecognized.  Does that surprise you?   I’ve been writing and publishing for more than 20 years, and I find it odd that there are so many young gay writers who have never read my work.  I read everything.  I’ve read their work and reviewed their work.  Why haven’t they read mine?

Steve:   I always get nervous about the idea of reciprocity.  I understand, and, I think you are correct in framing it as a serious and possibly unhealthy intergenerational gap.  For me, you have always been a touchstone with your anthologies, memoirs, and poetry.  At the same time, my only true concern is that a gay man—young or old— read something by someone queer, contributing to the economic welfare of our small presses like A Midsummer Night’s Press, Lethe Press, and Bryan Borland’s new Sibling Rivalry Press — which I understand will be publishing your new book of poems.  I wish this was a sign of unequivocal positivity.  But it isn’t.  A few years back I talked to the five finalists of a significant gay male poetry award before the winner had been announced.  I asked each of them to tell me which of their peers in the category they found truly exciting.  Totally open ended broad question.  Three of the five finalists said they never heard of any of their competitors before–and, I mean, any of them.  They never said they planned on reading them, or wanted to, either.  In fact, one joked, “to read them now, would be bad luck.  If I win, there’s no reason.  And if I lose, no way in hell will I ever even glance at their cover.”  I thought it was funny, so I laughed, and he said, “You do know I am serious.  All gay poetry is the same, anyway.”  And I sort of agree with that, and I sort of don’t.  I can’t help but wonder even with the brilliant way Michael Montlack devised and organized his anthology, how many gay male poets will find a poem they love and then actually buy his book?  For me, that’s one of the exciting things about an anthology: it gives the illusion that the world of poetry is somehow manageable and containable.

Michael:   Well, I think people buy anthologies — gay anthologies — more than they buy a gay man’s single book of poems and you would think (or at least hope) that a side effect of any anthology would be precisely that it would get people interested in an array of individual works.  As for those badly read gay finalists — I know exactly what you mean.  I sat with two young gay poets at AWP (away from the Diva reading) who I know had never read my work, asked me about anything to do with poetry, nor, more disappointedly were even interested in who I was reading.  We mostly talked about what type of other man we liked and who our boyfriends were.  As for all gay poetry being the same anyway — or sort of the same, anyway — say it isn’t true!  Still, I do think we tend to either be almost bizarre-ly confessional (i.e., can’t get out of our own way with our own story), or cryptic or some strange combination of both.  And I do think there is a gay aesthetic — as wildly wide as it may be.  Wayne Koestenbaum and James Schulyer are different poets, but there is a literary aesthetic there which they both share and it has nothing to do with subject matter that I would have to call gay — a tone, a certain vision.

Steve:   Men can be rigid in their approval of certain aesthetics and subject matter, and gay men can be as sexist as straight men.  One of the things that impressed me about Michael’s reading was that he went out of his way to be inclusive.  And I’m of two minds about that.  I say this solely because it was an issue that I faced in my search for my blurbs for my own book.  For me, the collecting of blurbs is something special.  I NEVER ask people who I have met in person or know in any way other than the fact that I have read their poems.  I want to use my book as a way of saying to someone “I like you,” and hope that when I ask them to consider writing me a blurb, if they should like my book, they say, “I like you, too.”  A lot of times people say no.  And gay men have more often than not said no.  Or didn’t even respond.  At the reading, there was one person who said no to my latest book and I carefully avoided them.  And because they hung out with some people I wanted to like me, too, I hid even more determinedly.  Once I got my big blurb rejection for my latest book, I swore to myself I would never ask a gay man for anything again related to poetry.  All my blurbs are from women who are heterosexual and often have children.

Michael:  Oh, women are so much smarter than men.  Of course, you want them on the back of your book.  And I see nothing wrong with asking people you’ve met in person for a blurb, but I don’t think you should know them very well, certainly.  I also don’t make a point of asking people for a blurb based on their sexual orientation in any way.  I usually just ask people, like you, whose poetry I like and I think would like mine.  Of course, it can always be tricky, too — like the time I asked someone to blurb my last book and he sent me something that was largely made up of two lines from one of the poems in my own book!  That’s disheartening, to say the least.  There’s a certain imagination a blurb requires and for someone to simply reiterate what they’re supposed to be elaborating on is just lazy.  I don’t avoid or go out of my way when it comes to other poets, gay or otherwise.  I just tend to be drawn to the ones who talk about ideas and not so much about shop, publishing, etc., etc.  I just find that kind of exchange really boring and completely up to chance, in the long run.

Steve:  Not drawn to the ones who talk about shop!  I don’t completely believe you on that one.  That’s one of the reasons I was immediately attracted to you, and bothered by you.  You do it in such a contagiously cheerful way!  Sometimes you’re mistaken, and sometimes you’re off-base, and sometimes you piss me off, but you do it in a way that builds community—you always want to know what everyone else thinks.  And yes, you can claim that it’s an intelligent and comprehensive talk about someone ‘s poetry.  But at the same time, and I know this is a quite unfashionable to say, when you talk about someone’s poems you are talking about their soul, too.  When I offer critiques of other people’s works, I am using the poem as a basis for my assessment, but, I know, that it is inevitably a personal thing—if you are not careful, you can be mean.  Personally, I think we need to be more in each others’ faces.  If there is less and less space for poetry reviews and more and more writers (due to the proliferation of MFA programs, etc. etc.), we have to find a way to connect with one another.  It must be done somehow, and talking behind someone’s back, as long as you’re not trying to hurt someone’s career, or are wholly unkind, is a proper, and possibly even, necessary way to do it.

Michael:  Everybody I know – unless they are dead or sober to the point of sainthood – talks behind someone’s back:  nicely, meanly, stupidly or with great insight.  Cruelty takes a certain intelligence, after all.  Saying that there needs to be more of that kind of thing is sort of like saying there needs to be more gossip.  It’s going to be there for time eternal and there is always probably going to be too much of it. Yes, I like talking shop, because I like gossip, but I only want it as a place to originate a real conversation from.  If I’ve spent too long a time with someone only talking shop, I leave the experience not knowing anything about their soul and, as you say, I think poems are representative of souls, particularly the ones, obviously, I live by.  I also think there will always be a place for reviews and have noticed them popping up, actually, at an alarming rate.  There are more websites than ever that only broadcast reviews (which I think is sort of boring, actually), and there has been in the last few years a real commitment (your own Pansy Poetics is a good example) of really well written and generous commentary on poetry from communities that aren’t particularly known for their critical thinking — and I think the gay community can certainly be that way.  I also think, for myself, because of the proliferation of websites to do reviews, I have become increasingly aware of many small presses that I would never know about otherwise.  As for hurting someone’s career by talking about them or behind their backs?  There are certain poets for whom, no matter what you say, are going to succeed no matter what anybody says about them.  We both know a nasty, not well liked gay poet who – no matter how hard people bad mouth him – lands in jackpot after jackpot.  And, he’s not even young!  Where is the justice in that, I ask you?!?!?

Steve:  Recently I had a major altercation with a gay male writer who I respect very well.  We never met in person; our conversations happened to be all on-line.  I became acquainted with him simply through his poems.  For me, someone who lives inWestern New York, who does not drive for a number of reasons, this was an important relationship. One day I woke up and there were a number of emails in my mailbox asking me what I did to offend this person.  I still don’t know exactly what I did.  In the final email, he wrote to me, he said: “Don’t ever pretend like you know me.”  I was so hurt and upset.  I felt like I did know him. Not through just the social networking.  But through his poems.  I really believe you can discover someone’s soul through their poems.

Michael:  You discover their soul and you discover their shortcomings, as well.  I always find it interesting in reading criticism how sometimes a writer will focus on what’s not in the poem as a way of intimating, perhaps, what’s not in the person as well.  I’m always sort of dismayed and saddened when I can’t have the whole array of language to express what I want to say in a poem, though, and while the soul is there, a certain soul sickness can be there, too.  I mean, let’s be specific for a moment:  in Henri Cole’s new book, Touch, there are many self-flagellating poems that could be construed as sad homosexual poems.  They call back  — though much better written than Tennessee Williams’ poems — to that kind of morose and weirdly hyperbolic kind of self-hating poem written in the 50s.  And yet, Henri has every right to be as self-hating or sad as he wants to be and that poem will be judged the way he himself would be judged — if one goes along with your thinking about poem=’ing soul.  But still, I wonder, is it fair?  Poetry may reveal the soul, but it’s also a representative.

Steve:  I think one of the things I really like about Henri Cole is that I would say there’s an “honorable” sadness in his work.  His poems can be self-eviscerating. One of the things that I respect is his prioritization of aesthetics; he makes the self-pity or even self-hatred in its own way transcendent.

I do read a lot of gay poetry for my blog and one of the most exciting, one of the best two or three volumes I read last year was what I suppose would be labeled as a chapbook (it comes in at under 48 pages)—but has more power and depth than most of the ones I read which are overlong.  (Why is it that gay men don’t want to pare down their books?)  This amazing book is called The Thames & Hudson Project, written by Hansa Bergwall and Timothy Liu—one of the many, many things I love about it is that it offers a polemic at the start of the book, a challenge to how gay men choose to write about desire and love.  It isn’t one of those books that claim that the gateway to middle-aged maturity is abandoning sex and having a kid.  At the same time, it raises philosophical questions regarding how middle-aged queers can find a new space.  I think it also may be of interest to you because as you mentioned there’s an intergenerational gap which I think not only exists in the actual real spaces, but also there’s a dearth of stuff that deals with growing older.

Michael:  The younger gay poets are still writing about sex and we older, jaded queers have figured out (particularly if we haven’t been in a lot of relationships for whatever reason) that sex is a vehicle for other kinds of experiences.  As Larry Kramer says, the mind is the sexiest part of the body.  Or, as my friend, Ricky Ian Gordon said years ago:  There was a time when men aspired to be Michelangelo, now they aspire to be David.  And you can say that young guys are writing the David poems and the older ones, the Michelangelo poems.  I don’t mean this as a judgment, by the way.  I think there are some young poets–Angelo Nikolopoulos comes immediately to mind–who are writing ground-breaking poems about sex and to think that after all this time, those poems could actually be written.  And yet, for me, I also look to the eroticism that comes from reading the mind more than the body.  Henri Cole’s work does that, Scott Hightower’s new book (which is wonderful, by the way:  Self-Evident) does that and that venerable poet of excess and ecstasy:  Wayne Koestenbaum.  And I think some of the poems in Divining Divas speak to the “personality” of sexuality, which is desire.

Steve:  Yes.  One of my many favorites in the anthology is one by B.C. Edwards who choose Parker Posey as his muse.  His poem is inventively called “You Smoke Like You Smoke When You’re Working.”  The poem evolves from the narrator’s fantasy of a three-way romantic triangle between himself, a sexy male bartender, and Parker Posey.  It isn’t really in any way a tribute to Parker Posey, even if the narrator describes the gay icon’s laughter as a cross between “Brillo pads and diamonds,” her “Onassis hair like a hoodie.”  Instead the narrator imagines exploiting his muse as a way of drawing the attention of the bartender who he wants.  The ambiguity of the narrator’s tribute arises in the ending when he fails to lure the bartender, but still feels, being seated next to the famous Parker Posey, “the way gods do.”  In other words, the narrator is uninterested in purely lavishing praise upon Parker Posey, but instead sees her as an unsuccessful tool in capturing the object of his desire.  I love that the poem ridicules the whole idea of heroine worship—the whole subject of the anthology.  The poem is remarkable for the way it delineates the creepy way that gay men exploit women to achieve their own goal: the love of a man with an unclear sexuality.  Through his wise selection of poems, Montlack hold gay men responsible for their own dubiously ethical actions.

Michael:  Apart from heroine worship, there is also the poem about becoming the Diva herself through writing her down: that widescreen on which the poet projects, to borrow from Kenneth Koch, one’s own wishes, lies and dreams.  Jericho Brown does this wonderfully, I think, in his poem “Track 4:  Reflections” about Diana Ross.  While it honors in a way a certain singer named Diana Ross, it also counts the time in which someone like her could thrive.  “I could hear the sun sing in 1968,” she says in the poem, which is more than just getting the song down right; it’s a proclamation, too about what it means to be a black woman at a particular time in history:  “…That was power — /White folks looking at me//Directly and going blind//So they wouldn’t have to see/What in the world was burning black.”  That double meaning at the end, I think, really points to the cost of fame and the ambiguity of who pays that cost.

Steve: I also like that Montlack provides yet another poem that calls into question the whole nature of the anthology itself.  Obviously, a lot of the poems are steeped in nostalgia, sometimes, often times, unqualified, unabashed nostalgia.  When you’re writing about female influences from the past, how could you not?  However, when you create an anthology, you want to have checks and balances.  I love Michael Broder’s poem “Priamel.”  The opening immediately establishes a comic philosophical inquiry: “You can’t really I don’t think write it today the kind of poem Sappho wrote six hundred years before Christ.” This mock resignation is bookended with a pretty unflinching critique of our desire to romanticize women through poetry.  Of course, he uses metaphor to state his case: “…the past ships that remind us of an earlier time or at least bring to mind what we think an earlier time was like and we think that time was simpler and therefore better than now.”  I like the fact that Broder calls poets (and the audience) out, identifying the silliness of nostalgia, our dumb need to make pretty (once again) what has already been .

Michael:  I think any time that we’re not living in was better and simpler which is why the past – is it Faulkner? – isn’t even the past.  I also think that AIDS has completely altered the way in which gay men know the past and, as it happens, how their own sexuality is framed.  I know young men who don’t know what sex without a condom feels like or have ever tasted semen.  While the big picture-ness of this might not seem like a big deal, I think its very specificity has to do with what we have to say as writers and particularly what we have to say as writers if we’re writing about sex.  What would Dennis Cooper sound like if he were someone just starting to write those early poems of his?  While the imagination may have no known context, personal revelation, subject matter, does.


Steve Fellner’s latest book of poetry is The Weary World Rejoices (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011).  His first book of poems, Blind Date With Cavafy won the 2008 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry.  He blogs about gay male poetry at http://pansypoetics.blogspot.com

Michael Klein’s newest book of poems, The Talking Day, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2013 and his last book, then, we were still living, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.  His first book of poems, 1990, won the award in 1993.