Saturday, May 12, 2007


On Thursday, I went to the Vancouver launch of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada's Gay Male Poets. I'm automatically skeptical of any anthology whose principal criterion for selection is demographic; seems to me a book that consciously excludes the majority of the human population is going to be, almost inevitably, less successful as a work of art than a book open to all colours, sexes, creeds and orientations. Nevertheless, there are some very good poets included in this anthology, a number of whom have received insufficient notice (particularly E.A. Lacey, John Glassco, Robert Finch and Daryl Hine (better known outside of Canada than in)) and there are some pretty good younger poets included as well (John Barton, Craig Poile and Michael V. Smith). I haven't finished reading the book yet, so perhaps there will be some other pleasant surprises.

As minority anthologies go, this one seems to me a little harder to justify than others. I'm not going to suggest for a second that gay men have had it easy in our society, nor that, in spite of advances in recent years, we're anywhere near the kind of unselfconscious equality of treatment that should exist. But in the poetry world, which is always somewhere outside of societal norms anyway, gay men have been pretty damn well represented. Whitman, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Auden, Hart Crane, Hopkins, Housman, Wilde, O'Hara, Owen, Ginsberg--this just off the top of my head and just from recent history, never mind older examples like Kit Marlowe. If I had any trouble coming up with names, it's not for want of examples, but because I don't tend to think of these as "gay poets," anymore than I think of Elizabeth Bishop as a "lesbian poet" or even, greater stigma, a Nova Scotian poet! It might even be said that gay men, considering their small numbers relative to the overall population, have fared extremely well in the Western Canon.

Perhaps, if this is true, it's due to the intrinsic duality of being a gay man in a straight world. Whereas other minorities and women can't easily disguise what makes them a minority, a gay man can "act straight," (many going so far as to marry women and father children), much in the way a Jew can act Gentile (which makes me think of the excellent documentary about Jews in the film industry,
Hollywoodism, in which it is said that Superman is the ultimate Jewish hero because all he has to do to disguise himself is put on a pair of glasses). So the gay man can and has been both insider and outsider, which seems to me very fertile soil for a poet, if not the necessary position a true poet must occupy.

Which makes a book like this one a very problematic exercise, to say the least. Poets (in the elitist, not the generic sense of the term) are not by nature joiners. Anytime I see one of these "demographic cohort X" anthologies, I think of Bishop, who refused, in her lifetime, to be included in any woman-only anthologies. Edna St. Vincent Millay was also quite vehement in rejecting the label of "woman poet." Both of them felt that their writing was poetry first and female, if at all, second; that relegating it to a women-only book would trivialise, or at least narrow, its accomplishment as art. How much more they would probably recoil at the thought of being included in an anthology of lesbian verse, even though Bishop was a lesbian and Millay was bisexual.

In his substantial and informative introduction, John Barton says that some of the people approached to contribute refused "
because they felt discomfort at being included in an anthology circumscribed by the word “gay,” believing this criterion “narrowed” possible readings of their work ... thereby de-universalizing and devaluing it in some diminishing way.” Barton says that "in its diversity Seminal entirely refutes" this fear. This seems to me a pretty blithe dismissal of a pretty legitimate cavil. The narrowness of the work itself is not at issue, but the way it is received, which will ineluctably be affected by the way it is framed.

And part of the problem with this book is the framing. The subtitle announces that this is an anthology of "gay male poets." Okay, so the criterion is one must be a homosexual man to be included. But then in his introduction Barton talks not so much about gay poets as about "gay poetry." This is a much more nettlesome term. A man can be gay; he can have sexual intercourse and romantic relationships with other men. A poem, on the other hand, is words on a page and sounds in the air, so what the heck does it mean to say that it's "gay"? If that it's explicitly about "gay experience," then are the dissenting gay poets not right to fear the narrow confines of this book? If it's simply poetry written by a gay man, then does "gay poetry" mean anything at all, or is it just shorthand? If it's either/or, then can a straight man or woman write a gay poem? If not, why not? Is the subtitle the shut door of an exclusive club? These seem to be questions not adequately addressed by this book; the editors seem to take a number of assumptions for granted.

The very notion of homosexuality has been challenged, complicated and expanded by recent work in the sciences and social sciences. Neuroscience has taught us not only that homosexuality is hardwired into the brain (and not only in our species), and therefore not something we can criticise or praise as a "lifestyle choice," but also that homosexuality and heterosexuality are not absolute categories, but points on a continuum; this complements work in the social sciences that tells us that "gay" and "straight" are too simplistic as categories. At what points on the continuum does one identify a person as either "straight" or "gay"? Is a man whose sexual relations have been with women exclusively, but who has entertained fantasies of sex with men not-gay? Where does the completely and comfortably bisexual man fit in? The asexual man? The transexual? The homosexual-by-nature who stays in the closet his entire life and never has a homosexual relationship? You see how this could go on ad infinitum, and the question of what, as readers, is our business and what is not (to re-situate Trudeau's famous statement, does the reader have any place in the bedroom of the poet?) is a matter that should not be ignored.

At an earlier date--even twenty years ago, say--this anthology might have made a bold, shockingly defiant, statement, but now, with homosexuality not only being "tolerated" (awful, hateful word) more by an increasingly large percentage of the population, but even enjoying a certain vogue in popular culture, it seems a bit late. As Barton says, the younger contributors to this book “take their sexuality in stride” and “feel more confident that these stories are now recognized as part of an inclusive human narrative.” On the flipside, straight men of my age and background feel perfectly comfortable going to a gay bar to attend a book launch--or just to have drinks with friends. In many ways, it's queerer now to be a poet than to be a homosexual.

The launch was decent. Eight poets read, including both editors, Billeh Nickerson and Barton. Each poet (except for David Watmough, who only read his own poem) read one of his own poems and one by a contributor who couldn't make it due to geography or mortality. Highlights were Michael V. Smith's reading of his own poem "The Sad Truth" (a skillfully narrated confessional piece, by turns grimly funny and moving--see and hear Michael reading here) and Robert Finch's "The Shirt"; George Stanley's reading of EA Lacey's delightfully erotic "Eggplant"; Stephen Schecter (a poet hitherto unknown to me) reading from his long biblically inspired poem "David and Jonathan"; and Barton's reading of his longer poem "Saranac Lake Variation." Other pieces (Nickerson reading his own "If You Fit All Your Lovers in an Airplane, What Kind of Airplane would It Be?" and RM Vaughan's "14 Reasons Not to Eat Potato Chips on Church Street") were funny and well-suited to public reading, but not very interesting as poetry. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing to have in a long anthology, since anthologies of verse in this country tend to be too heavy. I thought one of the most interesting things spoken all night was when Nickerson said that they had originally envisioned 25 contributors, not 57. I'm less than halfway through the book now and already, I can't help thinking they would have done well to cut a number of the contributors altogether and trim other selections down considerably. Which is another problem with this sort of anthology: a poet can be "important" in a specific context without being much good as a poet. Patrick Anderson is a particularly glaring case-in-point in this book.

UPDATE: Just found this interesting, albeit unfocused and too-brief, conversation between four contributors to the anthology.

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