For the past few days I have been reading Song After All (2013) which is a series of exchanges between Reginald Shepherd and Alan Contreras. At the core of the book is a discussion on gay male post identity politics. To make the discussion clear, Contreras (as Editor) includes Part Two of Shepherd's blog post and their follow-up comments. I remembered reading these at the time. Eight years on (to the very day by coincidence) I read them with a different perspective--not to disagree with Shepherd, who was right to insist that gay identity poetry produces dreary poetry, nor to change my view on the discussions we had, but to note a personal take on the debate that was not present then. There is a world of difference between the poetic spectrum and waving the rainbow flag. I re-read the debate with different eyes: must be the new varifocal glasses.
Firstly, having returned to Shepherd's blog, I noticed his belief that there was a change in consciousness that could be called pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall, a point at which the gay world shifted and gay identity became political. That is often stated, but how true is it? In Part Five of his posts on post identity politics, Shepherd posts an AWP presentation by Brian Teare in which the issue is approached through Thom Gunn's admiration and friendship with Robert Duncan. Strangely, hardly anything is said about Gunn's response to Duncan's courageous outing of himself in Politics...in 1944...twenty-five years before Stonewall. Nor is anything mentioned about how the situation went against the Duncan grain. Duncan's statement in Politics was a political stand and Duncan's argument with Ransom was equally political: Duncan told Ransom that his refusal to publish the poem was against the First Amendment. Yet Duncan believed that politics and poetry did not mix: political activism was not the role of the poet. Perhaps, Teare ought to have made the important point that identity did not create poetry for Duncan, but that poetry was the creation of complex identities. Homosexuality, for Duncan, was defined by poetry and the idea of identity politics was a falsehood. Possibilities existed within poetry and within that totality the love of men would seek new definitions. Duncan knew H.D. in depth and there was no identity outside the poet, outside H(ermetic) D(efinition).
On a simpler note...for whom was Stonewall such a massive watershed? For USA "gay" poets who can shrug off the label "gay". But the debate surely ranges beyond here. Is post-identity a luxury for USA poets? What about the emerging gay poets in Singapore, for example, who are as significant as the USA poets, but do not live in a society that allows them to be free, where society is two-faced and a liberal face masks another that wears a conservative blindfold. Or the oppressed poets in Russia under Putin? Can they live in a state of post identity politics?
It is interesting and worrying how insular the AWP debates were...I am speaking only of those cited in Shepherd's blogs.
Secondly, having returned to Shepherd's blog post (as quoted in Song After All) I started to assemble the varied responses.
1) "Gay poet" is a double displacement...both gay and poet are marginalised within society." (A minority-ethnic gay poet, then, has a triple displacement???). Post-identity makes the cancelling of "gay" acceptable. But would the poets who cancel "gay" be as happy about cancelling "Black" or "American". Clearly not, as all the poets think within their American identity. Shepherd would cancel "Black" and "Gay" because the purpose of poetry is what language can create. Poetry is the creation of what is possible and should not be restricted by what is. I empathise with his intelligent view. (It is why, in Song After All, he finds little value in Essex Hemphill and poetic activism). Shepherd's position is very much in line with Duncan--the poem is everything. But what happens when all the "gay poets" transform into poets? What happens to visibility?
2) Gay poetry has lost its element of risk, it is trying to pass (as in society) as straight. So, the change from "gay poet" into "poet" follows the trend of passing. Ronan McDonald makes a telling point in The Death of the Critic (2007) that no one wants to be just a critic these days. Critics are "Critics and Writers" so that the unacceptable is made acceptable by the honoured term "Writer". It is interesting to note a similar step being taken by Poets. They are no longer simply Poets: they are Poets and Writers. As society moves away from the Arts, the tendency is to dump terms that do not pass. It is part of the need to be "liked" at all costs. If a Poet wants to protect Poet, why not protect Gay? Is the post-identity phase a way of denying the thorn-in-the-side?
3) Gay is a sign of the "antithetical"...poets gain strength from their antagonism. Here, it is curious how gay is always seen as antithetical to straight, how homosexuality is a reaction to the heterosexual norm. Marjorie Garber wisely points out in Vice Versa (1996) that this common assumption is a huge mistake. Heterosexual is a cultural back-formation. "Homosexual" was coined, then "heterosexual" was created to reflect the opposite. Edward Carpenter, the radical Socialist thinker (in the UK, not USA) imagined this in one of his poems in Democracy when he viewed the Uranian Adam as homosexual before the creation of Eve--what a daring idea, that Adam had an identity that could be known before heterosexuality came along! The gay male is not antithetical to straights, he is antithetical to orthodox perception.
4) Queerness creates questioning. It is perpetual challenge. Would the questioning stop, though, if the term "gay" is dropped from "gay poet"? Isn't the Poet about questioning too. Isn't that what a poet does? Isn't poetry about a challenge to what is by creating what Shepherd called Otherhood? Is "gay poet" a double-questioning of assumed reality or a tautology?
5) There is a danger that as society becomes more accepting of gay people that the process of "normalising" begins. Is that a loss of identity, of difference? Is the loss of "gay poet" a step towards conformity and a loss of a unique poetic voice?
6) UK gets a mention...interestingly, though, Gregory Woods is quoted for his historical view-point, not as a significant "gay poet", so no real attempt to widen the debate beyond American poetry. The gay poet expands awareness by engaging with paradoxical language, a variety of language beyond the mainstream. Is this more to do with "poet" rather than "gay"?... "British poet and author"...the word gay is not attributed to Woods...strangely he already seems to have been liberated beyond the identity politics boundary and has entered into the post-identity Paradise!
7) Is there still a need to reflect gay desire in poetry in which case "gay poet" remains a valid term? The sexual element of gay poetry--which marked identity politics--is in retreat. Poets are afraid of being confessional because Confessional Poet is a feared label. But maybe...beyond the USA...there isn't that fear. American poetry had to go through its stages of Confessionalism to break new ground...maybe Confessionalism is a legitimate goal for poets outside the USA. Maybe there is a poetry beyond the prison-camps that the USA has elected so that the tedious can argue against the tedious. (Shepherd was absolutely correct about the danger of camps and allegiances and the restrictions of having to write is a certain way). Gay, as Duncan saw, is a misleading word for the homophilic (Carpenter) experience. If the sexual element disappears from poetry written by men who live men...what kind of poetry is left. As the writer Terry Goldie once asked in an essay on Fanon, what happens to the homosexual when he isn't having sex? Does the homosexual only exist in the act of sex? There is a continual sense within this debate on post-identity poetry that "gay" means something wider than sex, even so, if poets deny a sexual core because they wish to move beyond a limiting definition, then something vital is lost.
8) Is the change from "gay poet" to "poet" a step back into the closet? Or is it an elevation to Parnassus, an entrance into the world of Poets United?