Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe: A Biography – Philip Gefter (Liveright Publishing Co.)

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Biographies are such arduous and long term investments in writer’s lives that it’s almost a cliché by now that writers either end up loving or hating their subjects when the book is done. Philip Gefter unquestionably fell in love with his subject from the beginning and the amour lasted throughout the long research and writing. What’s not to love? Sam Wagstaff was upper crust, rich, privileged, intelligent, able, tall, slender, handsome, casually yet openly gay years before it was accepted, and he traveled in some of the most interesting of the cultured crowds of his period.

Also, and more importantly, Wagstaff was in many ways a visionary: seeing photography fairly early on for the art that it actually can be in the right hands. Eventually, his enormous collection of photographs, including many French, British and American pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century, ended up in the Getty Center Museum, a few miles from where I live. I appreciate that fact and those photos every time I see an exhibit there.

As the title after the colon points out, Wagstaff is best known as the “discoverer” of photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom he seemed to have an odd, mostly love but along the road love-hate, father-son, student-teacher (feel free to add in more dichotomies) relationship over a period of decades until their deaths a few months apart from HIV-related illnesses. But long before he encountered Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff was already seeing the value and acquiring the 1960’s “pop” artists. Then, he latched onto the 60’s-70’s Minimalists, curating a ground-breaking exhibition in a Detroit museum long before the New York galleries and curators got hip to the work.

In his last year,s he sold his vast photo collection, which by then had become not merely a golden but at least a diamond parachute, and he had begun collecting American silver—another area pretty much ignored until then.

Gefter does an excellent job of bringing Wagstaff’s life and times into some sort apparently real life quite similar to what I remember from “in the day”—I knew Robert and socialized with Sam a bit. The book is chronological and so the reader gets the same sense of forward motion as Wagstaff and his closest colleagues must have experienced during that heady period when New York City became for a decade or two the center of art and culture in the world. Concentrating upon the best known art world gallery owners, museum curators, artists and collectors, as he does however, means that the author doesn’t really have room nor inclination to look at what else was going on in the bohemian gay art world of lower Manhattan where, after all, the two men resided and played out most of their lives.

That world provided the context and the energy that levitated Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. So, for example, Gefter mentions Peter Hujar, but not his lover/pal/colleague David Wojnarovich. Warhol is noted everywhere, and, oddly enough, my friend painter, Norman “Billiards”; but not Ondine, nor director Paul Morrisey, nor the Velvet Underground, nor any other art or writing that exploded out of The Factory. Those and the theatre and music and literary worlds were all commingled together: that was what the Red Room at Max’s Kansas City that Gefter mentions so often was all about. Not being there, he doesn’t get that you could be applauded for your poetry, sucked off by Charles Ludlam a few minutes later, and have voyeur “Drella” Warhol screen test you right afterward,  “to capture the post-orgasmic glow.” The entire mixture was needed to perform, do art, and emerge to various levels of celebrity and artistry. Gefter is so busy gazing up at the “name” art stars that he misses the far more interesting gutters.

He does a pretty good job, however, of limning the over-privileged, off-beat and original character that Wagstaff actually was. More than one person described him as “organically eccentric.” And Gefter captures his busy and wayward romantic life. Long Island bred, working class stiff Mapplethorpe was anything but Sam’s masculine ideal. Most of his lovers were blonde, slim, handsome, un-intellectual, and with zero interest in the arts. But, as Gefter hints at but never comes out and says, Mapplethorpe was the ultimate hustler of fin-de-siecle America. He could assess in an instant what and how much you could do for him and his career. He then exploited you so nakedly that you had to laugh. He was always on the make, and when he laid eyes on Sam, it was like sighting the Annapurna of sugar daddies. Also Robert held on to everyone he ever used; after all, you might still be exploitable. When Sam died, guess who was heir to his millions?

So really large and full is this biography that it might seem churlish to point out several odd errors: he describes the film Fitzcarraldo as about a steamboat going up a mountain. It was actually about making that ship into an opera house in the depths of the Amazon jungle and then hoping Enrico Caruso would come sing to the Indians. Gefter writes that Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. I was present in late 1981 with twelve other men at the apartment of Paul Popham, who became GMHC’s president until his death in 1993, when the idea was first discussed and the first steps were taken to raise money to financially launch GMHC. Kramer arrived, ranted about the presence of Enno Poersch, calling him a Nazi, and was asked to leave. In fact, the Poersch family were religious activists, fugitives from Germany in the 1940’s and Enno’s lover, Nick Rock, and friend Rick Wellikopf (close friends to the rest of us) were the first two known AIDS deaths on the East coast. What Gefter writes is “Kramer summoned sixty prominent gay men to his apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue.” But Kramer had recently published Faggots, a book loathed in the community as virulently homophobic. I doubt if he could have summoned sixty prominent gay men to his funeral.

There is also one real missing piece of the puzzle. As part of the Violet Quill and the Christopher Street/New York Native writers in the late 1970’s, I recall attending several art show/parties at the Robert Samuel Gallery on Broadway across from the Episcopal Church between 11th and 10th Streets, a gallery that Wagstaff put together especially to first showcase Robert’s art to the gay media. He did so in a series of photo shows in which Mapplethorpe’s works hung alongside what many of us accepted as established homoerotic photos by Platt-Lynes, Georges Dureau, Von Gloeden, Charles Demuth, et al. Another Sam who worked there eventually left to open his own gallery in Provincetown. and their bookkeeper Stephen Myrick is still alive to tell of this gallery and of its early influence in the gay community. The author never even mentions it.

One has to wonder, did Gefter interview anyone outside of Manhattan? If so how did he miss this?

© 2015 Felice Picano

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Erebus – Jane Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Since April is National Poetry Month, I normally would have saved this until the Spring Poetry Roundup I have planned for the end of April. However, if Jane Summer’s Erebus is not sui generis, it’s the closest thing you’ll see this month. Poetry, yes. But it’s also prose, graphs, maps, photos, lists, newspaper articles, and other media all about the little known crash of Air New Zealand’s flight TE901 , a sightseeing excursion on a DC-10 which slammed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus on 28 November, 1979, killing all 257 people aboard. The link to Summer is that her best friend, Kay Barnick, died in that disaster, as did Barnick’s mother, Marion.

I knew nothing of the crash, but that wasn’t the case after Erebus, which presents facts and poetry in a tumbled jumble of feeling and sorting. But isn’t that how we remember? How we grieve? Not in linear motion, but in a random fashion that sees words cheek to jowl with pictures and overlaid with other images. It inhabits the past as well as the present, and it’s so garbled that it shouldn’t work. The parallel lines of logic and storytelling should order this anti-structure into submission, but it can’t. The emotions are too powerful to be contained within those lines. It breaks free in a way I’ve never quite experienced before.

Summer’s grief and anxiety is palpable here, her raw, wild poetry matched by the horrific images and neutered language of post-accident reports that lend an air of normalcy to proceedings only to vanish like the mysterious pages of the pilot’s personal notebook–seen one moment and officially gone the next–before another wave of imagery breaks over the reader. Finding a portion to quote is difficult as it works more all-of-a-piece than it does separately. However, these lines from “Cruising Altitude” say much:

No one in the world hears/metal claw ice/or the retort when the craft explodes./No one in the world sees bodies catapulted into crevasse after crevasse/cleaved by wreck as it hurtled along ice, the dying animal furiously burrowing/passengers into frozen tombs. A hand in shifting snow/seems to imitate the royal wave, not wanting/to make a fuss.

The overall effect of Erebus is one of elegy and honoring lost friends, but Summer also makes clear how the investigation was bungled, with evidence missing or stolen through bureaucratic indifference. It retains its razor edges so that it never slips into sentimentality, remaining sharply observed and even more sharply expressed. I actually read it twice. I put it down the first time, astonished at how much I’d learned and how much I felt, then immediately went back to the first page. Erebus is a remarkable achievement by a marvelous poet.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Taking time off for Saints and Sinners

IMG_0754Out in Print will be taking a break for a couple of weeks while I’m at the annual Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. I will be moderating a panel Saturday, Mar. 28th, 11:30 AM:

A FINE ROMANCE: ROOM FOR LOVE TODAY?
In the era before legalized gay marriage and mainstream LGBT pop culture icons, gay romance was taboo. LGBT novels—literary and popular—provided a literary refuge. Now that it’s (mostly) normal for us to have white picket fences and baby carriages, is there still a need and place for the gay romance novel? If so, who’s reading them, and who’s writing them? Join this panel for a chat on the state of intimacy and relationships in the contemporary LGBT romance novel.
Panelists: Lewis DeSimone, Felice Picano, Cindy Rizzo, and Mary Griggs.
Moderator: Jerry L. Wheeler.
Hotel Monteleone, Royal Salon D 

I will also be reading at Ron Suresha’s Bear Bones Books litBearary event Saturday night and reading again as a part of the Festival Reading Series on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Out in Print will return Monday, April 6th with a review of Jane Summer’s Erebus. Until then, I leave the mighty Duncan in charge. He’s a benevolent ruler, but a word of warning: Don’t try to get his bone.

 

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JD – Mark Merlis (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press)

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Mark Merlis’s version of history is always delightfully skewed, which is why I loved An Arrow’s Flight so much. Instead of reworking Sophocles again, however, Merlis has moved on to more recent times. In his latest, JD, he takes on largely pre-Stonewall gay history but does so through a dead queer novelist’s wife’s narration–a tricky viewpoint to say the least. But don’t be concerned. JD is a multi-leveled, multi-layered dream of a novel so sharp you don’t realize it’s cutting your heart out until it falls into your lap.

Jonathan Ascher is a critically acclaimed 1960’s radical writer of poetry and a couple of novels who never really achieved the kind of success he seemed, at the beginning of his career, cut out for. After a couple of strokes in the early 1970’s, he dies with that promise unfulfilled. Thirty years pass and, eventually, a professor wants to write a book about Ascher, approaching his wife, Martha, about the project. Prompted to read Ascher’s journals for the first time, Martha discovers his sexual adventures in the gay underground as well as the thorny relationship he had with their son, Mickey, a supposed casualty of the Vietnam War but, really, a casualty of family life.

Ascher appears only through his journal entries, but Martha continues to interact and argue with him as she reads about his affairs. She, of course, knew about them vaguely during his life but has never confronted the truth in detail. She also realized somewhere that they had both failed Mickey. Jonathan, however, fails him in a way Martha could only guess. The truth about that relationship angers her more than anything else she encounters in those journals. Mickey also only appears in Ascher’s journal entries, but all three characters are so fully realized and distinctively voiced that I’m left in awe. Together, they represent the disintegration of a family not through any covert destruction, but a simple neglect. They are incapable of nourishing each other, so all three of them die slowly inside their routines. The result is both sad and cautionary.

But the world Merlis creates in those journal entries is not the only one here. Martha’s decision whether or not to allow gay college professor Philip Marks to write about her husband is also a major part of the novel. But the relationship between Martha and Marks is particularly puzzling. He stays with her a couple of days during a power outage when he can’t take the train home, but no matter how he explains himself or his interest in her late husband’s work, she is wary. She knows the professor wants to turn her husband into some sort of “gay icon,” which Ascher would have disdained, if not been actually offended by. His take on gay liberation after Stonewall is not about equal rights as much as it is preserving the outsider status he prizes so highly, not only in his sexuality but in his career as well. And as for the student protests of the 1970’s? He addresses one of their meetings:

If you play your cards right, you can drag this show out straight through to June, and then you’ll all go home, no examinations, everybody passes. A terrific start on your unexamined lives. And when you’re home this summer, by the pool or working in your father’s haberdashery, other kids who are no worse than you are, decent kids whose daddies couldn’t send them to the nice college you’re trying to tear down, those kids will still be dropping bombs on hapless little yellow people who don’t even know why the planes keep coming. Your little shindig won’t have done a damn thing to stop those planes. And really: when the fire rains down from the sky, the people on the ground won’t know you’re not in the cockpit. Maybe you are.

In short, JD is a wonderfully readable, fascinating portrait of the crumbling American family as seen through the eyes of an iconoclastic writer whose view of the history he’s living through is as well-observed as it is painfully personal. Highly, highly recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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Daydreamers: Stories – Jonathan Harper (Lethe Press)

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If I’m linking to the evil Amazonian empire, you know the book is good. I have actually been a fan of Harper’s since I read his story, “The Bloated Woman” (which makes an encore appearance here) in Steve Berman’s excellent anthology The Touch of the Seaand I’ve been looking forward to this collection for some time. My anticipation has been amply rewarded, for the nine stories here are all richly interesting and as varied as they are evocative.

Harper’s protagonists are mostly adrift, searching for direction or waiting for purpose, without the contented contemplation necessary for productive daydreaming. But their unmoored status is what gives these pieces direction. Once the landmark is in sight or the course set, the story ends. Thus, the reader is constantly looking for some resolution on the horizon, inducing a curiously languid atmosphere where decisions are moot, actions are unimportant, and finality is always a step beyond.

For example, Randal, the tow-truck driver/repo man in the first story, “Repossession” has just been thrown out of his brother’s house and is casting about for revenge on Amber, his brother’s girlfriend, who is responsible for his eviction. He and his work buddy are also looking for a legendary Mercedes belonging to a real estate salesman who has hitherto avoided apprehension. No sooner do they find it than it slips from their grasp again, and no sooner does Randal decide to exact his revenge by spitefully towing Amber’s car than his buddy calls him stupid for considering it, which is where the story ends.

Similarly, the protagonist of “Nature” also finds himself adrift, living with his cousin and working in her tattoo parlor in a strip mall no one visits anymore. To relieve their boredom, she and her partner the tattoo artist, practice body modification and “suspension” in a warehouse somewhere in the mall. Hooks are placed under their skin, and they are suspended in the air, presumably using their pain as fuel for contemplation. August decides he wants to try it, but backs out at the last minute, settling instead for a drunken evening of Risk at his cousin’s house and a visit to the neighbor’s pool. Floating in the water, he achieves the same psychic vantage point as those who were suspended from hooks, but again, once he decides to finish his classes at tech school and find a place of his own to live, the story ends. Far from being disorienting, this pattern works to sharpen the reader’s own sense of purpose by illustrating that decisions, however trivial or illusory, lead to the ending of one’s present circumstances, giving you permission to move on.

Two other high points in this collection should also be mentioned: “No More Heroes,” which sees a group of old gamer friends growing up and away from each other as well as the aforementioned “The Bloated Woman,” which involves the discovery of a corpse on the beach of a small fishing town and how it lingers in the mind and psyche of an aspiring novelist who is caring for one of his old professors, now experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Harper has crafted a wonderful world of characters who engage by disengaging, an effect as reassuring as it is liberating. His gifts are many, and the perceptive reader will find much to think about and ponder. Thoughtful and powerful, this is a must read for anyone interested in short fiction.

I can make no higher recommendation than to link to an organization I despise just to get you to preorder it…

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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A House of Light and Stone – E.J. Runyon (Inspired Quill)

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In 1965 Los Angeles, Defoe “Duffy” Pilar Chavez is a precocious ten year-old and the ugly duckling of her family. She’s skipped two grades, she writes poetry, she tells enchanting fun-filled stories to her little brother as they play. She and her four siblings, by several different fathers, were separated for five years in foster homes, not knowing how the others fared. They are now reunited with their mother who angrily ekes out a subsistence life for them.

Mr. St. John, their social worker, gives the family a gift of Gibran’s The Prophet as a Christmas gift, with a chapter marked as “for” each of the family members. Duffy’s chapter is Self-Knowledge. One day Mama announces that they are moving to a new house. This alarms the children, as a similar announcement signaled the beginning of their fragmented lives in foster homes. Artie, the oldest, gives each of the other kids two dimes for emergency phone calls: “If it’s a trick and we’re going to be picked up for foster homes again, you keep these dimes,” he said. “There’s an extra in case you lose one. If they take these away from you, just find some bottles to sell and hide that dime somewheres they won’t find. No one’s gonna do us like last time.”

With the haunting unfiltered acceptance of a ten year-old seeking to make sense of the world she lives in, Duffy leads the reader into her complex journey, her Quest for self-knowledge. She cobbles together a frighteningly cohesive belief system out of her experience of abuse, religious doctrine, a dawning experience of special affection for other girls, and a self-sacrificing sense of responsibility for her mother’s happiness.

Runyon’s writing is smooth and pitch-perfect, never loses the sense of Duffy’s age or her situation, never shies from the beauty, pain and abuse of it, simultaneously stark and psychologically complex. Duffy narrates her story without rancor as she searches for her place in a dangerous world, accepts the burdens she believes are hers to carry, and attempts to solve the problems she believes are hers to fix.

A House of Light and Stone takes its name from one of Duffy’s poems, a poem she destroys without letting the reader see it. It is a wonderfully told story, and utterly compelling. Not only is the writing outstanding, but the core essence of the story is well worth pondering as it carries its painful realities to a completely satisfying resolution. I urge you to read and savor this exceptional book. You’ll be glad you did.

© 2015 Lloyd A. Meeker

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Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures – Julie Marie Wade (Bywater Books)

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I first became aware of Julie Marie Wade when I read When I Was Straight, published by A Midsummer Night’s Press, which I enjoyed tremendously. This volume, however, apparently preceded it and is being reprinted by Bywater Books, and I’m so happy to be able to give it a bit of a push. Wishbone is an absolutely absorbing memoir full of poetic prose, indelible imagery, and a fractured timeline that makes perfect sense despite its non-linear progression.

Certainly, there are as many ways to recount a life as there are to live it, and none are more wrong or more right than others. Most writers opt for a chronological approach simply because it’s the easiest way to tell the story, involving far less work on their part as well as the part of the reader. The fragments of personality that Wade presents look haphazard at first, but as the book progresses, and we see more and more of them, the pattern becomes clear. It’s like a broken mirror whose pieces have been arranged into a semblance of its former self, regaining its shape the farther back one steps.

If all this sounds like too much effort for a reader to make, it isn’t. The pieces are incredibly creative, with time and character shifts that confuse then dizzy at their verisimilitude once their purpose becomes clear. In “Dreaming in Alpha,” Wade rides the bus with her mother fifteen years before her birth, talking to her about  life, love, and J.D. Salinger, and she meets her grandparents-yet-to-be in “Early Elegies,” dialoguing with a grandfather who died when she was but a child.

But my favorite fragment–the one most fully realized in terms of creativity and relevance to the life in question–is unquestionably “Third Door,” which assumes the aspect of a game show featuring portions of her mother’s (and her) life. Her father is behind Door #1, Door #2 contains a lifelong friend who desperately wanted to be her mother’s husband, and Door #3 reveals her mother and a girlfriend of hers named Lara as they share a sweet kiss watching Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits” in the balcony of a movie theatre.  Touching, telling, and totally involving.

Indeed, Wade’s mother is never far from the narrative, no matter when or how it’s being told. She’s in “A Life on Land,” contrasting Wade’s love of the water with her own fear of it (which also contains a harrowing, barely-missed gay bashing), “Black Fleece,” which sees the beginning of Wade’s thyroid problem, and “Carapace,” where Wade discovers the concept of death.

The read is short (about 145 pages), but its length belies the punch it packs and the work that it accomplishes. It reminds me very much of Gregg Shapiro’s excellent Lincoln Avenue from last year, though the territories they mine are vastly different. Highly recommended!

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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