Tag Archives: Sibling Rivalry Press

Running for Trap Doors – Joanna Hoffman (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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The best authors writing from New York City have an underlying feel for the pulse and beat of that city. They know its quirks, its frailties (yes, it has them), and its avenues as well as its alleys. The very best of these authors can translate that into a universality people of all urban areas can feel and know. Joanna Hoffman’s recent release, Running for Trap Doors, has that universality while still retaining the peculiar tang of the Big Apple. 

Hoffman’s work has a weary, resigned pride in its middle-class excesses or lack of them. Its pride also evidences itself in the way she portrays her family, but its tempered with either anger or a detached, observational quality all the more powerful for its absence of emotion, as in her father’s reaction to her birthday lunch at a Chinese restaurant in “1989, Age Seven,” her characterization of her grandmother as crazy old lady in “Godface,” or her mother in “Golden”:

My mother told us/we had to fast on Yom Kippur/to cleanse our sins,/then ate a package of saltines/right in front of us/I’m sick, she snapped. It doesn’t count.

Hoffman’s narrators simply don’t fit in with either their own conception of themselves or society at large. They are uncomfortable in social situations (“Rush Hour Mob,” “Touch”), afraid of expressing their emotions (“What I’ve Been Scared to Tell You,” “Emoticon/English Dictionary”), and consumed by the consumer society as in “Why I Had to Leave the Party Early”:

I don’t fit in here. These girls can smell the TV dinner/on me, the metro card/and the borrowed shoes. These girls smile/like checks ripped from the book…I have Target breath. I bought my fingers/at McDonalds. I sold my sex drive/for pot. I sold my cocaine/for laundry detergent./ You’re a poet? Do you get health insurance?/Last night, I ate a bowl/of late fees. They tasted like home.

I love those last few lines because they are not only about consumption as in eating, but also as consumer of goods, and it all relates back to how the narrator feels about her family. It encapsulates the majority of Hoffman’s work brilliantly. It’s one of the strongest pieces here as is the Dylanesque repetition of “Drunk Girl,” the surrender of “The Gift,” the adolescent angst of “High School Electives,” and the defiant “Pride”:

This is for every wedding I watched from/the sidelines; every fairy tale with stipulations;/every it’s a choice, it’s a phase, you’re disgusting;/every swollen choke of shame I learned to/coat my throat with; every gay kid who/believed nothing would ever make this better/because home meant break the parts of you that/don’t fit into the plaster of who you’re supposed to be./We already are exactly who/we are supposed to be.

But these are only a few facets of an extremely varied voice that resounds across many subjects and areas. Hoffman’s work is powerful and filled with meaning. Highly recommended.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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This Assignment is So Gay – Megan Volpert, ed. (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Having been a closeted queer high school teacher at one point in my life, I’m familiar with the impotence of hearing epithets and observing bullies without being able to take action for fear of revealing my own secrets. It’s a miserable, sad experience not exactly conducive to learning anything except frustration. But, thankfully, it’s only one experience among many in the astonishing array available from Megan Volpert’s This Assignment is So Gay.

Seventy-five poets contributed to this brilliantly successful and important anthology, providing a broad range and deep breadth of experiences. They instill hope, not only for queer students and/or teachers, but anyone whose interests are beyond the curve. Sadly, the ones who need to read it most won’t, and those whose very existence depends on the affirmation found within these pages may not have access to it. That’s a real shame, because the work within opens doors on both the student and teacher halves of the equation so that each may understand the other more clearly.

Of the many variations of this equation, observations from teachers about students are among the most poignant, whether we’re talking about students at the collegiate level (Jeff Mann’s well-0bserved and magnificently articulated “Country Kids” and “Gallery, Virginia Tech”) or the secondary and elementary tiers. Many times out teachers are the only ones who understand life in the high school closet and become unofficial counselors as in Joseph Ross’s simple yet deadly “Conversations After Class 1,” Douglas Ray’s hopeful “Chaperoning,” or Scott Wiggerman’s powerful “Advocate,” but perhaps that emotional line is most clearly drawn in Donald Perryman’s “Was Melville Also Gay?” which sees a male student telling his teacher about his rape:

“It was, I assured him, a cruel crime,/but wondered if some of that pain/was the chronic, haunting thought/that sex between two males was wrong?/He said no (maybe only guessing the answer I hoped he’d give)/that it wasn’t because it was gay,/but just the awful fact that it was rape.”

And then there are the students we identify early as kindred souls in either sexual orientation or personal philosophy, doing our best with whatever limited resources we can to open up their minds and their hearts as in Terry Martin’s “The Third Wrestler Cries,” and Sophia Starmack’s “Earth Sciences”:

“Holding up his project, Jonah announces,/”There are billions of tiny orgasms living in the soil.”/He’s serene, studios, with blond ringlets/and a hand-drawn diagram of bedrock and roots./I’m torn, but in the end I just can’t correct an 11 year old/Week after week Jonah’s parents ask me, Is our son gay?/Has he mastered his times tables yet?”

We also see queerness from the teacher’s side of the desk as in Stephen Mills’s brilliant “After We Watch The History Boys in Class, My Students Fear I Want to Fondle Them” and Hadar Ma’ayan’s “On Being a Queer Middle School Teacher,” which begins with the middle school teacher in question being called a lesbian during class, provoking this reaction:

“In that moment of choice, I could have said, ‘She’s right’/Or ‘Let’s Discuss’/Or ‘Does anybody have any questions?’/But instead the fear rose in me/And I shrouded myself in a cloak of silence and said,/’Let’s all get back to work'”

Among these emotionally packed pieces are scattered other observations: about faculty meetings (Garth Greenwell’s oddly lyrical “Faculty Meeting with Fly”), non-gay classroom activities (Camden Kimura’s “My Mother Teaches Her Students About Hearing Loss”) and some feelings of intimidation that all teachers face in their first few years (notably, Molly Sutton Keifer’s wonderful “Student Teaching” and Sarah-Jean Krahn’s “Symptomatology of an Impostor”). But perhaps my favorite in this realm is Roma Raye’s “Big Fat Faker”:

“I barely know what I’m doing most of the time,/and the rest of the time?/I’m making things up. It is not unheard of/for me to be reading the text selection for the first time/with my first period students feeling like a jackass/for assuming the lesson I got off the internet that morning/would actualize into something decent.” 

Anyone who’s ever been in front of a classroom knows that feeling.  And if you teach or you’re a student, this volume will speak to you in ways both familiar and unfamiliar. You might get an opportunity to consider things from the other side of the desk, no matter which one you’re on. Kudos to Megan Volpert for putting together such a varied and interesting collection, and kudos to Sibling Rivalry for seeing its worth.

We all still have so much to learn.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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