Monthly Archives: November 2017

Winter Poetry Roundup

This was to have been the Fall Poetry Roundup, but the Gay Romance Lit conference in Denver and Naked Heart in Toronto overwhelmed me with reading material, choices, and time consumption. Apologies to the authors and publishers who have been waiting. But it’s all good. And it’s all good stuff, so let’s get to it:

The Carnival of Affection – Philip F. Clark (Sibling Rivalry Press) 

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If good poetry is defined as form that touches all senses, Philip F. Clark is a hell of a poet. And he is. The work in The Carnival of Affection reaches deep into sense memory and comes up with some vital and stirring images that will really resonate with gay men of all ages. Consider the encounter in “The Correspondence,” where the narrator composes a letter while having bad sex (it’s grocery lists during Craigslist tricks for me), or one of the poems about parents–particularly the boxing match in “The Fathers” or the slow drip of family secrets in “The Dances.” I also liked the breathless rush of dialogue in “At the Bar,” ending with a delicious bit of irony only the gadfly gay man will truly appreciate. The poems named after men (“Joe,” “Vincent,” “Mitch,” “Martin,” and others) were also favorites of mine, particularly “Joe,” which details a night of lust for a man who lost an eye in a fire:

He wore his fire; half beauty, half beast. His face the deal/breaker every night in the bar, no matter how charming they found him. He/grew used to the averted eyes for years…He settled into unsettling everyone. He was the wallpaper and the fly,/drinking up and taking everything in with his one good eye./The other, a dare of blue glass.

One day, I will try very hard to write a phrase as guilelessly descriptive as “a dare of blue glass.” I doubt I’ll succeed, but until I make the attempt, I’ll have Clark’s work to encourage me.

The Desire Line: Memory and Impermanence – Sven Davisson (Rebel Satori Press)

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Sven Davisson doesn’t write enough, but having teased us mercilessly with the odd short story or poem here and there, he’s finally produced his first full-length book of poetry and photography, The Desire Line. It was worth the wait. Except for the title piece, the book is separated into two sections: Memory and Impermanence, leaving me to wonder if the title piece is meant to be where the two meld or where they diverge. The work in the other sections is deceptively simple, full of solid, tangible images that range from celebratory (“Equally Buddha”) to elegiac–more the latter, actually. Elegies abound in both sections, including “Horizons (for Ruth Moore),” a lively and lovely piece about his grandmother, “Eight Dollar George,” about a neighborhood character, and The Jason Cycle of numbered poems at the conclusion of the Memory section. But I keep returning to the title piece again and again, which is where this whole collection comes together for me. It houses all parts of Davisson’s life and serves as both summation and a collection of points of departure:

Papa Legba is at the door–St. Peter at the gate;/Baron Samedi looks on impassively/seeing into two worlds,/absinthe and unmarked graves;/and Our Lady of the Three Marks/sitting in her silence/one hand on her lap the other/holding a pipe to her lips.

Davisson’s photography also comes into play here, many shots of New Orleans rendered in black and white (that choice antithetical to the parade of colors that New Orleans represents). Put them all together, and you have a stunning collection definitely worthy of your time.

We Still Leave a Legacy – Philip Robinson (We Still Leave a Legacy Press) 

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Poetry is all about images and feeling, but the best poetry for me–the stuff that really sticks in my heart–tells a story at the same time. Philip Robinson’s chapbook We Still Leave a Legacy works the images like a boss but has strong narrative underpinnings that push his work to another level. The title alone clues you that much of this work is serious and, like the Sven Davisson above, elegiac. However, Robinson’s storytelling skills enable him (and us) to empathize as well as elegize, giving us context. From the heartbreak of “Shanelle’s Song,” which details the murder of a transgender man to the very different heartbreak of “When I Stopped Kissing My Father” to the truly celebratory title piece, Robinson takes us into his world and his arms. His experiences as an educator, his relationships with his family, and his racial identity are all fair game, and he renders all of them in intricately sketched cameos. The only problem with that narrative style is that it poses some difficulty for ‘umble  reviewers who want to quote him. However, I can’t do better than the piece which opens the book, “Awakened”:

I woke up with the urge to write and found blood on the floor/The cold bottoms of my feet met the moisture and my heart skipped a beat./The trail’s drippings were warm and wet./The drench sensation merged with the carpet’s beige Shetland./I ran the course which led me to the opened door./I saw my cousin Terence pasted against the field/wielding a knife in his right hand.

One of the authors who blurbed this chapbook called out that first line as heart-wrenching, but I would say arresting. It’s just the thing to lead you into the rest of the book, but you won’t be disappointed no matter where you begin.

Tertulia – Seth Pennington (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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In On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: “What is most personal is most universal,” and the very personal poetry of Seth Pennington proves this out. Okay, so all poetry is personal, I hear you say. And you’d have a point. However, Pennington’s work seems more personal than most, more revealing, more of a celebration of his life with Sibling Rivalry owner Bryan Borland. Pennington’s tertulia is exactly what that word means – a social gathering for celebration of the artistic and literary life in which both men are inextricably bound. The snapshot-inspired “Some Birthday,” the intimate “On Love & Mono,” and “Bryan,,” are perfect examples of this. However, this is not Pennington’s only subject. He writes with equal facility about death, especially in the gritty “DNR”:

The suicide is/a mannequin, eyes wide with pupils/floating in skim milk, every part/open: mouth, ears, nostrils, bowels/loosed and piss down to the knee./The suicide is stoic. Bone-faced and bitter/orange skin stretched taut, like/laminate reacting to a heat gun.

His imagery is sharp and clear and his writing economical, all the better to convey the picture of a poet in the midst of his happiness, touched with regret and loss. A wonderful debut.

And there you have it, folks. The Winter Poetry Roundup. I hope these volumes find their way into some Christmas stockings this year.

JW

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Disease – Hans Hirschi (Beaten Track Publishing)

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Nothing quite prepares you for the loss of a life partner, even books such as this one. From the stark, foreboding cover to the simple title, you can tell just what you’ll be getting at a glance. You’d be looking for a simple story of decline and eventual death, packed with emotional episodes and ending with a tastefully hopeful coda acknowledging the trauma while reminding the reader that life, ultimately, belongs to the living. And that’s exactly what you get with Disease.

Writer Hunter MacIntyre has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and must try to wind down his life as his health declines. Aided (and sometimes hindered) by his partner, Ethan, and their five-year-old daughter, Amy, he takes us on his journey through the Kubler-Ross model of grief as he mourns his life.

The temptation here is to wallow in those emotions, breaking occasionally for a bit of clear-eyed wisdom, but Hirschi has wisely chosen to eschew that over-emotional approach. That’s not to say this isn’t an emotional book. By using an epistolary style, however, Hirschi provides a welcome layer of distance. Hunter’s diary entries carve up the experience, proscribing the incidents and giving them clear borders and boundaries. Alternating those with the survivor’s point of view, written as reactions to those diary entries, sets up an incident/reaction chain that allows the reader to consume Hunter’s demise in more easily digestible chunks.

As the survivor of a similar experience, I well understand the markers and signals of decline, the importance of birthdays and “last” holidays, the joylessness beneath the joy of a “good day,” and the aftermath of grief. Hirschi hits all these points with deadly accuracy but never belabors them. He understands the situation has enough inherent drama and rarely stoops to wringing any extra out of the text (the lone exception to this is a piece of jewelry). By letting the reader’s reactions work for him, Hirschi turns a potential tear-jerker into a book which will induce those tears without overt manipulation.

The other bit of brilliance here is that–and I have to be vague to avoid spoilers–the deathbed scene is never shown. One would think missing that key element would leave the reader unsatisfied, but not following this to an overdone and cliched ending takes Disease out of maudlin company and puts it in a class by itself, rather like that tree on its cover.  We know what that ending would have been like, and I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t want that for them.

I’ll be honest. When I picked this up, I first thought “grief porn” and put it aside. However, I’m glad I second guessed myself and read it. Hirschi has done an admirable job in telling this story. Recommended without hesitation.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Great Man – Dale Chase (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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For all the fuss about m/m romance (the last time I’ll type that label here) and straight women writing gay men, Dale Chase keeps on doing what she’s been doing for the last twenty years–writing healthy, real, gay men. And, boy, do they have a lot of sex. Although neither Dale nor her publisher would like to hear it, The Great Man should be a primer for those women seeking to write men’s romance. In addition to having a lot of sex, the affection, the love, the relationship is right here. And it proves that the men don’t have to be…well, cover models. Or ape any sort of heteronormality. The Great Man, though billed as gay erotica, is far more than that. It’s a great romance.

Literary giant Lucian Sperring is having a life crisis at fifty-eight years old. His partner, Andy, has just died. Enter Scott Beach, thirty years younger, who has his cap set for his hero of letters. Scott wins his beau, but Lucian proves to be more of a challenge to keep than he was to win. So follows Lucian’s downward spiral. Scott could and would save him, but Lucian finds putting out his hand to be the most painful act he can imagine.

Where many of those other romances (and I’m generalizing, here – I have read some top notch ones) fail is that they’re way too concerned with form–peaks go here, valleys go there, and you have to have that main obstacle right here to be overcome. Life ain’t like that, chillun. And their characters are pallid, substituting pyrotechnic sex for passion. Neither is true here. The obstacle, Lucian’s inability to cope with Andy’s death, suffuses the entire book and is not relegated to the “right plot moment.” A shade over two hundred pages, three parts (one for Scott, one for Lucian, then back to Scott), and two points of view, it shatters all those romance tropes and delivers an absorbing and–goddammit, yes–real story about gay men.

Scott’s pursuit of Lucian through sex and writing is perfectly portrayed in the first part, as is Lucian’s reaction in the middle. Lucian is facing mortality and a mid-career slump and reacts just the way I’ve seen so many gay men do–an orgy of excess. Liquor, boys, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. Our denial mechanism. If we can just keep fucking, everything will be okay. By the time Scott comes back to pick up the pieces in the last section, Lucian knows his excesses haven’t worked. And he knew they wouldn’t. He realizes what Scott is offering and can finally accept.

Oh yeah, and it has a HEA, too. Gets there without artifice. By being real.

The Great Man reminds Chase’s audience what she can do when she leaves the Old West and the Victorian era (but I liked those books as well) and applies her skills to a contemporary setting. If the romance publishers put out books half this good, they might be worth the money and attention the industry generates. Highly, highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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So Famous and So Gay – Jeff Solomon (University of Minnesota Press)

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The subtitle is the theory Jeff Solomon expounds in this book: “The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein.” Solomon differs from the many tiresome Queer Theorists who seem to dominate (and enervate) literary studies today. He teaches English, women’s gender studies, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University, and he is a close-reader who uses fact, philology, and other old fashioned scholarly techniques to understand how it is that these two very different and very odd writers attained 20th Century fame. Especially since most lesbian and gay artists either remained closeted or “played the game” of pretending to be straight. Fabulous is of course a gay-ish term. While potency is a virile and masculine word. How can an undersized femmie Southern man with a high-pitched voice and a zaftig, mannish, Jewish art-maven who spent most of her adult life in Europe possibly be either, never mind both?

Solomon spends two hundred pages doing exactly that, in a readable and often entertaining manner. If he spends more time with Stein, it’s partly because these days we know her less well than Capote. Reading everything that Truman wrote is not uncommon. Random House published his Early Stories posthumously in 2015, and before that, put out his “withheld” first novel, Summer’s Crossing. Few authors would have been embarrassed by the latter. But there was a reason that book was withheld and Other Voices, Other Rooms became Capote’s official first novel. Summers’ Crossing, about an upper-class girl who is headed to Europe by Atlantic liner is a fine, if expected first book. But Other Voices, Other Rooms is sensational in its Southern-ness, it Gothic-ness, and its Gayness. Big, manly looking Gore Vidal writing gay themed novels in the 1950’s was seen as, well, a little declasse. But this fey little squeaky voiced, short story writer doing so was newsworthy; rich publicity fodder and somehow completely apt. He’d been pictorially featured in the Life magazine spread on the Yaddo Writer’s Retreat, and his carefully posed author’s photo on the novel was both scandalous, and yet somehow exactly right. Everyone thought so. By the time he got to his masterpieces, In Cold Blood and Music For Chameleons, Capote had burnt more personal and societal bridges than most people ever get to cross. But he was nightly television famous too and he’d “acted” in a mainstream movie along with Hollywood stars. The rare public readings he gave were standing room only and everyone wanted to be at his infamous Black and White Party. Capote had a genius for publicity almost as great as his literary talent and almost as strongly vectored as his bent towards self-destruction.

No greater contrast could be drawn than to Gertrude Stein who took over a half century to attain the notoriety Capote achieved in his early 20’s. As a writer she was for years the personification of the modern experimentalist. Even her friends made fun of her writing and its purposeful obscurantism. Those friends included famous—and popular–authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as ground breaking artists like Picasso and Matisse. By comparison with the Biggies, what Stein was doing with words in her earlier books seemed jejune, when it wasn’t deemed completely weird. Even so, by the late 1920’s and 1930’s other friends like Virgil Thomson composed operas out of Stein’s seemingly nonsense verse: Four Saints in Three Acts was a hit and is still regularly revived, and The Mother of Us All is also worth hearing. Also, and little by little, people in the know decided that at least one of her early books, Three Lives, was something quite special, although it barely sold its initial tiny print run. By 1933, when Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—Toklas being Stein’s equally unprepossessing lover — they were both middle-aged women and out of fashion. Yet the book became a best seller, and Stein’s photo by gay George Platt Lynes graced the cover of populist Time magazine and became almost as iconic as Picasso’s earlier portrait of her. If Capote seemingly courted fame from his days in the cradle, Stein had played the opposite game. At times, what people knew about her could be actually perilous to her person. She was a Jew in Nazi dominated France. She was a lesbian in a well-known relationship in an era of Pink Triangles. And she’d become known for driving ambulance supplies trucks in World War One– for the Allies. Yet she and Alice remained untouched by Hitler’s henchmen and while often in straightened circumstances, they supposedly had a protector in the Vichy Regime which, after all, deported 10,000 French citizens to German concentration camps.

Solomon’s in-depth analysis of Stein’s 1913 Three Lives, overweighs the book in Stein’s favor and it is so well-wrought, thoughtful, and worth reading that you may go searching for that college copy of the book you have somewhere to read it again. Solomon details each of the stories, the ironically titled, “The Good Anna,” the more accurately titled, “The Gentle Lena,” and the most famous one, “Melanctha,” about an African-American, to show how complex and layered Stein’s unique use of language was to illuminate each portrait. As well as confirming his finding that the three represent very different varieties of American lesbian women of the first half of the 20th Century.

Will any gay or lesbian writer ever again attain such unique claims to fame as Capote and Stein did? It’s unlikely for several reasons: first because authors are no longer the demi-gods of culture that they were in that time. Secondly because there are so many “out” LGBT writers today who lay claim the public’s attention that it must be divided, and lastly because figures in other, more visually arresting media—like Ru Paul– seem to have captured the American imagination.  So, in a way, So Famous and So Gay is a critique of a piece of cultural history that is unlikely to be repeated.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

© 2017 Felice Picano

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A Pornographer – Arch Brown (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Arch Brown’s film work formed the backdrop for most of my mid-1970’s sexual experiences, as those interludes often happened in either the odorific XXX theatres or the ordorific and claustrophobic peepshow booths in Denver. I didn’t recognize that from the cover, but once I saw stills of the films and read the names: Jack Wrangler, Scott Donovan, Scorpio, Justin Thyme, and my personal favorite, J.D. Slater, I was hurled back in time so hard I got a head rush from the memory of the poppers. Mmmm — were they stronger then? Where was I? Oh, yes. Arch Brown’s memoir. Great book. Let me step outside for a second and get some fresh air.

Gay porn in the 1970’s was different than it is today, if for no other reason than the performances of porn stars who were raised on the stuff are different from the performances of those who broke that ground. I’m generalizing, of course, but on the whole I think the vintage stuff is less studied and more genuine. Or at least as genuine as filmmaking gets. This same honesty shines through Brown’s memoir as well.

A quick glance at the first names listed in the table of contents would lead you to believe Brown has simply provided character sketches of a bunch of people he worked with, and indeed they are. But they’re hardly simple. Brown has grouped those sketches together and provided social and personal context to present them as both portraits of individuals and snapshots of the era. He outlines their positive attributes as well as their bodily flaws (too chunky, a bit flabby) and humanizes the bodies we see on screen.

As a writer, Brown is much like he was as a director–he puts all the elements on stage and gets out of the way so they can interact. His prose is simple and straightforward. He never attempts to justify or applaud himself and this is one of the least self-serving memoirs I’ve ever read. Instead, he concentrates on others and only brings his own thoughts in when they illuminate the situation at hand.

Brown’s manuscript is bookended by a great introduction by Jameson Currier, who also provided Brown’s filmography, and an afterword by Brown’s good friend and archivist, James Waller. Altogether, an informative and entertaining package well worth your time. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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