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Gathering Gay Poets

'Seminal' writers on gaydar, Gretzky, comfort zones, and more.

By Carellin Brooks, 9 May 2007, TheTyee.ca

seminal anthology book cover (2)

First Canadian anthology of gay male poetry.

  • Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets
  • (edited by) John Barton and Billeh Nickerson
  • Arsenal Pulp Press (2007)

[Editor's note: "Since Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults, one would think that an anthology like Seminal would already have been published and dog-eared in the hands of the aspiring and the curious," writes John Barton in the book's introduction. Yet there's no previous collection, and gay poetry, as such, can still be difficult to find. But "Seminal begins...on a gaydar moment."

The collection, in part, addresses the question of what gay poetry is. There used to be the idea that gay poetry had to deal with explicitly gay matters or describe a relationship between two people of the same sex. That idea is long gone. "The time to feel diminished or emboldened by labels -- or to feel one should trumpet, duck, whistle around, or deny them...should be long over," writes Barton. "A simple recognition of fact -- that a poet is homosexual / gay / queer / same-sex / bi / transgender / polyamorous or not -- should be sufficient." Readers want to know not how the poem fits into gay culture, but how it answers questions about the human condition, according to the intro.

The collection presents writing by 57 Canadian male poets, born between 1878 and 1981. What follows are three excerpts from the collection, and a roundtable discussion with four of the poets, led by Carellin Brooks.]

Why I Love Wayne Gretzky -- An Erotic Fantasy
By Billeh Nickerson

Because he knows what to do with pucks,
slapshots, wristshots, all that intricate stickwork
as he slips through defenceman,
shoots between the legs
& scores.

Because he likes to pretend
I'm the zamboni & he
the filthy ice.

Because even if he's tired
he'll perk up
whenever I sing O Canada.

Because sometimes my dyslexia makes me see
a giant 69 on his back.

Because he's always ready for overtime –
because he never shoots then snores.

Because he understands the importance of
a good organ player.

Because he calls me his stick boy.

Because he likes to be tied up
with the laces from his skates.

Because behind every great man
it feels good.

2000

The Stick
By George Stanley

My father stole my cock from me
He did it with a look.
He tried to put it back
many many times.
His eyes almost teared.
He said to me, "There were things
I could have done better."

The night he died
I said "Good night,"
& he smiled sweetly.
Such little things:

a look, a word, a smile.
And all this while
I have used this stick,
this weapon,
to replace the loss.

Now I know it is not
a sexual organ,
and I lay it down.

1974

Salvation
Michael V. Smith

If I stood at my open window with
a strange new light falling gold
over my skin now smooth and pale
like cream, no clothes, with breasts
grown full as love, and my cock inverted
to a tight vagina, if my hair grew back
full from the forehead up and fell out
from there on down, if I were a Venus
in the window, all curves, I'd share
everything. I'd masturbate for the men
heading home, the too-tired men
of little hope, the hard workers with
unhappy jobs. They would see me and
cluster on the sidewalk, hate in hand
eyes dewy, a lump in their throats
and pants until someone brave enough
would climb the stairs and find my
door ajar and me, pleased to please.
He would have me on the windowsill
until he was satisfied and each man
from the street, each deserving man
would approach for a taste of this
transformation, so by dawn, I'd be raw
and then, by evening, ready and healed.

2006

Reprinted with permission from Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets, co-edited by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson (Arsenal Pulp Press).

It was the first clear evening in a season of drenching rain when four poets from Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets gathered for lentil soup and literary talk. The oldest was 72, the youngest 36. One was bi, one had a well-established drag persona, one had co-edited the anthology as well as contributing to it and the last was arguably the elder statesman of this particular poetry world.

George Stanley: When I first found out about Canadian literary politics was when I first got here in 1971 and I applied for a Canada Council grant. I didn't get the grant. It was a two-to-one vote against me, and the person who voted for me eventually let me know what one of them said: "It's OK to be an American and it's OK to be from B.C., but you can't be both." How many Americans are in this anthology?

John Barton, co-editor: I don't think I consciously thought about that. Daryl Hine is a Canadian living in America who's largely forgotten. I don't think we're very good at recognizing expatriates. Robin Blaser and Daryl Hine really represent two of the strongest voices in the anthology, and they're not very well recognized.

George Stanley: What is the breakdown by regions?

John Barton: We did our best to bring in people from the hinterlands, but they tend to migrate. Some of the francophones didn't want to be in the anthology for a variety of reasons. They don't really recognize the idea of gay consciousness.

Michael V Smith: I didn't know that.

John Barton: So probably more francophones declined to be in the anthology than any other group. So I would say the majority of the poets do come from Toronto and Vancouver, which is not too surprising when you think of migration patterns.

Clint Burnham: Or when you think of gay migration patterns.

John Barton: I tried through word of mouth [to find people in smaller places]. What we didn't do was a call for submissions. There's 57 writers in this anthology. I would say half the poets in this anthology published their first openly gay book after 1990.

George Stanley: One question that occurred to me is, What is gay poetry?

Moderator Carellin Brooks: You can't ask that question. I swore not to ask "What is gay poetry?" or "What makes a gay poet?" It's a boring question. Let's talk about sexuality in gay poetry.

John Barton: I think we're still bound up in a narrative context where this stands out.

George Stanley: Can a straight man really write a great poem about sex with a woman?

Clint Burnham: It was liberating to see things like Turner's The Pornographer's Poem or Pat Califia in the early '90s. That's one of the services that gay and lesbian writing does: it opens things up. It was a response to a political crisis, AIDS, that became an aesthetic. An aestheticization of the vulgar.

George Stanley: And what is vulgar?

Clint Burnham: Bringing in street terms, like Michael V. Smith's e-mails.

Michael V. Smith: My e-mails are vulgar?

Clint Burnham: That one you said, 'Don't open at work.'

Michael V. Smith: Oh, yeah.

Carellin Brooks: What's your view on sex in poetry?

Michael V. Smith: We have embraced sex and the dirty bits, but now I think gay culture has moved on. We now have much broader concerns. We are much more interesting than our genitals. When I was reading at the Writer's Festival for the first time this Irish poet came to see me. He listened to me read a poem about a drunken sexual escapade that ended with me shitting my pants. He said, "Why would you want to make your poetry shit by writing about shit?" We are so invisible in the Canadian literary journals and on the shelves. I feel like much of the work I do is about making space for myself, making my experience more common. And I like that word, common. And that's what the Irish poet didn't see.

John Barton: They turn the discomfort upon you as the writer rather than asking why they feel uncomfortable. And I think that is one of the most important questions to ask of those who criticize us.

Michael V. Smith: I think a lot about othering. I feel like your average straight audience often engages queer work as other. And your average queer person doesn't, because we translate straight stories into gay stories so we can relate to them.

John Barton: Sometimes the straight reader sees the genital experience as a barrier. They have a hard time grasping it.

Carellin Brooks: So to speak.

John Barton: Douglas LePan is interesting. He came out in print in 1990 at age 76.

Carellin Brooks: Why did you choose [to anthologize the poem about the shit] of Michael's?

John Barton: With straight readers, their comfort zone is so small, and for gay people it's never gay enough.

Michael V. Smith: I was uncomfortable with the sad truth being in it. We don't talk enough about alcohol within the gay community. I think it's an enormous problem. And we don't talk intimately about our shame and our humiliation. We whine about it, and we use it. And I feel this poem is a very humane look at a common experience.

Carellin Brooks: Why are lesbian poets more well known?

John Barton: They've had support from women and feminists, and gay poets don't get support from straight males. The reaction is, "What's the big deal? Why do you have to hyphenate yourself?"

George Stanley: That's the question Carellin doesn't want us to get into.

John Barton: Get beyond the label. You can hyphenate yourself endlessly. George Elliot Clarke was very helpful. I asked him for a list of [Black] gay male poets. Unfortunately some of the writers he referred me to didn't want to be in this anthology.

George Stanley: Why not?

John Barton: You don't press them if they say no. But maybe they felt it would stigmatize them.

Clint Burnham: How many anthologies do you have people say, "I don't want to be published"?

John Barton: If you tell them what you're doing, and people send you poems, they're in.

Clint Burnham: [Gay experience is] a part of my history. Poetic itself is a queering in a kind of way. It's not very masculine. That's why people like Bukowski had to go so far the other way.

Carellin Brooks: You read in drag last month, Michael.

Michael V. Smith: I tried to pick poems that Miss Cookie LaWhore [his drag persona] would read.

Carellin Brooks: Is there a place for camp in gay poetry?

George Stanley: I'm not sure camp is an understandable concept any longer.

Clint Burnham: It's still a useful concept.

George Stanley: There's straight camp.

John Barton:There's another lapsed homosexual in the book. He's married.

Michael V. Smith: Lost another one.

George Stanley: There's a contrast between gay poetry as romantic and dangerous and making it common, like Michael said. Is there a nostalgia there?

Michael V. Smith: I think it's a real unhealthy one.

John Barton:The status of outlaw has disappeared.

Michael V. Smith: We were certainly more interesting then.

John Barton:I don't think mainstream society has caught up with the law. Tolerance is such a shallow concept. I was invited several years ago to the National Library to read in an erotica reading, and afterwards three women readers came up to complain. One said, "My aunt was in the audience!" Another said, "There was a child in the audience!" The first one had [read] a poem about fucking in the afternoon. It was an incredibly disturbing experience, and I can't forget it.

Michael V. Smith: Where I find I run into the most trouble is not with outright homophobia, but with discomfort. This whole idea of othering is about that. You see it in queer space. It's hard to get your straight friends to come to a gay and lesbian film screening. I rarely get asked to do events. It's not that they dislike me, but I think there's a certain invisible discomfort. I think that happens a lot.

Carellin Brooks: How does this anthology play into or not play into that?

John Barton: What I will say is the amount of surprise when I told people this was the first. It's part of the fabric of Canadian writing. We're just pulling the threads out to show it.

Michael V. Smith: Three-quarters of the people I've never heard of. I'm grateful for that.

 [Tyee]

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