Friday, December 21, 2007

Fin del semestre + Travels + Picano as Publisher

Nearly a week has elapsed, but this past Monday was E-Day, as in End of Quarter Day! Tonight I'm sitting at my computer, nursing a chest cold that I picked up while on vacation--a geographical but not mental and physical vacation, that is, because I was, naturally, reading student work and addressing administrative issues--but even a persistent runny nose and hacking cough can't diminish my feeling of relief that this quarter is finally, finally over. Finally. Over. The daze lingers but the days, thankfully do not. As is always the case, the classes themselves, and the students, were a pleasure; it was clear to me that by the end of the quarter the introductory students were conversant in the principles of good fiction writing and their final submissions demonstrated this, the advanced sequence students were really hitting their stride with their second stories, and many of the revisions were superb; and the graduate students produced submissions that were among the strongest I've seen at that level. The two graduate fiction students with whom I've been working closely are really advancing, and the doctoral student on whose committee I sit produced a thesis chapter that is much closer to completion than before. In terms of the classes themselves, I believe all three proceeded pretty well, I think, though I often felt mentally exhausted from the sheer amount of reading at what can only be described as an insane pace. A colleague once suggested that students should learn to and be encouraged to read slowly, a suggestion which I strongly agree with, though I see the reality of our society, and particularly the high-powered sectors in which most of them hope to operate, demanding that they--and we--be able to assimilate and process information, in textual and other forms, at a dizzying pace. ("I want to be a machine."--Andy Warhol) If you cannot keep up.... But I did, and though I am still feeling a bit of mental whiplash, I'm glad to have had to the opportunity to work with these three sets of students. I hope to see some of the intro students as majors down the road, and I am looking forward to continuing on with the advanced sequence students into the new year, when I'll hand them off to my colleague who teaches the novella-reading and writing portion of the course. Before then we'll be reading Haruki Murakami and Aimee Bender stories (perhaps with stories by Edward P. Jones, William Faulkner, and Alice Munro in the mix), and I personally will try to resume work on several different projects that I had to shutter when I simply could not muster the brainpower to look at them. The novel, stories, a new book of poetry, translations, and several talks I'm supposed to be giving will need attention pronto. But that's for then; for now, finally....


We did get away, leaving the snow and ice of Chicago (at left) and the New York area for a very mild few days of Caribbean December (at right). I was surprised at how breezy it was, because C and I have traveled to the tropics during the winter months and wished we'd brought along a portable air conditioner. But this time, after the luases and loas and orishas and saints and every other intercessor drove Hurricane Olga out in a period of days, our good friend Victor and we were able to spend a little time sightseeing and relaxing and catching up with old and new friends, not least among them Anthony Montgomery, whose birthday, and birthday celebration, marvelously fell just before we left. It was a joy spending time with him, as always, and I will say this again: he is one of the best oral storytellers I have ever come across. Child know he need to have his own TV show!

We also got to spend time with Bernard, who joined us on an ear-popping trip up to Bonao, in the south Cibao valley province of Monseñor Nouel, where our wonderful and absolutely adorable tourguide, Henry Acosta (below, left, at the Balneario--click on the photo to see Henry in his full glory), recommended by Anthony, took us on a scenic tour of the vibrant, maze-like little city and environs, which included a riverside disco, the Disco Balneario "El Camellon" (though during the day, so though we heard and were breathing to the beat of Omega's infectious "Si no me amas" [*Note: Do not listen to this song if you do not want to become spellbound] by the time we got there we didn't fit in a dance) and a youth boxing match. (Anyone who goes to the Dominican Republic--or Brazil or anywhere else--and doesn't venture outside the resorts is really missing out in a huge way.) I even stuck my hand in the water, though I--none of us--was ready to "take a bath" (as Henry described it) in what looked like perfect rapids for whitewater rafting. Henry assured us, however, that he, Anthony, photographer Paul Culver, and a host of other beauties had marched 10 kms up the river and crisscrossed it for the purposes of art, but we were perfectly willing to experience his and Anthony's riverine experiences vicariously.

I did not keep a journal during the trip or even post anything here (I started to see online radesheets in quadruplicate and kept my screen viewing to a minimum), so at the risk of leaving out someone, let me say that it was fun once again see and to hang out with Byron, Richard, Patricio, José, Kenny, Gerard, Ruddy, Amauri, and Ruskin, and meet Edward, Merrick, Vicky, Michael, Mike, Natja, David, Rafael, Rey, Johane (more on her soon), and Terrance, a fellow writer from the US. I even talked up the university's graduate writing program. And it was truly exciting to finally drive a car in another country, which I've never done (is that true?--no, not even Canada or Mexico), though I was glad that C was behind the wheel when the ominous sounds kept issuing from the area of the rear wheels and the axle, because I knew he would be able to keep us moving forward at just the right speed so that the SUV would not disintegrate in the middle of the carretera and we'd get to the airport on time.

Y, por los luases, we did!


As I said, I was reading student work intently through Monday, so for lighter reading I picked up Felice Picano's history-cum-memoir, Sex and Art in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall (Carroll & Graf, 2007) just before we left, and finished it during the trip. It's a thorough, entertaining review of one of the most important segments of the gay literary scene, and by extension, of the development of LGBT mainstream culture, from the late 1960s through the early years of the AIDS pandemic, which killed off a number of the figures in the book and marked both an end-point and a beginning, as the mainstreaming of LGBT culture was rapidly underway. Picano was a noteworthy and rising young author and a member of the Violet Quill writers group--which included Edmund White, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, and George Whitmore--when he decided to start SeaHorse Press in 1977. It was, according to Picano, the second "gay press" after Winston Leyland's Gay Sunshine Press--I'm assuming he meant gay-male-owned and operated--and it and its two brother presses, which banded together to become Gay Presses of New York, published not only fiction, but poetry, essays, and works in other genres over the years, including poetry and fiction by Picano, as well the first books of Dennis Cooper and Brad Gooch, the poems of Rudy Kikel and Gavin Dillard, Robert Glück's "new narrative" landmark Jack the Modernist, the only novel of Guy Hocquenghem's to have been translated into English, the then-little known Harvey Fierstein's bestselling Torch Song Trilogy, two groundbreaking lesbian anthologies, and the hilarious anti-clone The Butch Manual.

Picano's narrative is as much a social history as a memoir. With a liberal and generous touch, he describes many of intersecting queer literary and social narratives of that era, though his particular network consisted, at least from what this book suggests and from other things I've read about it, of a primarily middle and upper-middle-class, educated and professional, 20-to-40-something, urban (or "metronormative") white male cohort. Picano does note his own more nuanced class origins and his strong connections with lesbians, yet he often reads his social group as "the gays" of that era, and, more troublingly, voices what sounded to me like a somewhat skewed understanding of the historical trajectory of radical lesbianism and lesbian separatism, but then I'm not an expert on LGBT or gender studies and perhaps I have the chronologies and figures wrong. His rendering of Adrienne Rich's positions and work, however, do seem problematic. Picano does note in a few places the monocultural and monocolor aspects of the world in which he ran, but too often it's taken as a given; gay equals white and male of a certain class. Yet he also situates his story within the more fluid context of that era's particular historical moment, which itself offered spaces of fluidity and exchange, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, particularly around sex (as others such as Samuel Delany, never once mentioned in this book, have detailed elsewhere), more so than what immediately followed or what passes for the LGBT mainstream today. Still, the absence of almost any significant queer writers of color in the narrative speaks volumes, and led me to appreciate even more some of the women's presses that did publish writers of color, Barbara Smith's, Gloria Anzaldua's and Cherrie Moraga's pioneering efforts, and Sasha Alyson, who, for whatever the reasons and whatever one may say about his press and its aesthetics, was by the mid-to-late 1980s publishing books like the invaluable anthologies Black Men and White Men Together, In the Life, Brother to Brother, as well as individual works by authors from Steven Corbin to James Earl Hardy. I also remembered Robert Ferro's how encouraging Robert Ferro, who makes several appearances in Picano's book, was to me the one time I met him, not concerning my desire to become a writer--I hadn't completed more than a few verse or a short story draft since college at that point--and as a potential publisher, a career I haven't taken up, though I am glad dynamic visionaries like Lisa Moore and Renee Gladman have.

Along the way Picano dishes quite a bit, providing delicious anecdotes about the dottiness of Gore Vidal, whose Myra Breckinridge nearly appeared under a GPNY imprint; how he managed to publish Charles Henri Ford's famous early co-written novel, which allows him divagations on the emotional and financial vicissitudes of gay figures from earlier eras; his pas de deux with James Purdy, which did not pan out; his near-miss with one of my favorite poets, the charming, sadly overlooked Edward Field; and his contretemps with John Preston, who considered Picano and his gilded cohort as gay literature establishment (they were and are), among others. One of the best stories revolves around Harvey Fierstein, who now receives routine voice work but whose bass rasp, in his early onstage (and later onscreen) appearances, most certainly sent a lightning bolt through viewers. Among the many new and fascinating tidbits I picked up was how Richard Schechner, whom I'd worked with closely at NYU during my days at the Faculty Resource Network, actually came to New York; I'd had no idea of The Drama Review's peripatetic history, or the extent of Schechner's bravado, which he demonstrated when he and a handful of colleagues led a revolt against Tulane's conservatism and quit, bound for New York, leaving that southern institution bereft of its best theater and performance scholars, and endowing the City with some of the liveliest young minds in the field, with repercussions for decades to come.

The easy and frequent sex of the title suffuses the story, as Picano details the square-dance of boyfriends and partners that many of the figures he's writing about, including himself, enjoyed, but what he makes clear is that sex was not just a means of pleasure, but an important step in developing social bonds that fostered the blossoming of what is now a historical fact, early post-Stonewall gay life, and especially its artistic triumphs. Art, in fact, was the aim of so many of these (mostly) male lovers, and one of the saddest and most tragic aspects of the story, which I've noted on this blog in the past when speaking about some of the Other Countries writers, or heroes of mine like Melvin Dixon, was how AIDS stilled their eyes and hands and dreams prematurely. A deep river of suffering and sorrow runs beneath this text, though Picano takes pains, it seems to me, not to belabor the grieving or the losses. He also doesn't hold back on discussing the pernicious homophobia and sexism that is now sometimes swept under the rug even by LGBT spokespeople who are too callow, indifferent or ignorant of fairly recent history. One frequent target is the mainstream media, particular the New York Times, which I can recall suffered several fainting spells before it could even print the word "gay" without qualification, yet now publishes same-sex wedding announcements as readily as all the straight bourgeoisie's banns. The Gray Gentleman comes out in an unflattering light. But then that's hardly a surprise these days, especially on the political front.

Overall, I would recommend the book to anyone who's interested in understanding how "gay" literature, or at least a good portion of it, became mainstream, now just another niche for the publishing industry, another shelf for the bookselling conglomerates, but more importantly, for anyone who's interested in a good story about a particularly fascinating moment in New York history and (gay) American culture.

1 comment:

  1. Dear John,
    Welcome back, sorry to hear about your cold. It does sound stress-related. Glad to hear you avoided the flu however, which has been a horrible bear over in these parts. How I wish I'd had you as a teacher in my early days--if I could time travel, etc. You always speak of your students with such respect and dedication Thanks for the read on Picano's book. I'm not surprised by some of his book's absences. However, I am surprised he even attempted a read on lesbian feminism and separatism, lol! Thanks too for the feedback on the James Brown symposium posts. One thing I've got to add are some of Alan Leeds' stories about Brown insisting that everyone be addressed as "Mister," and the sociological education he received working for Brown. He started as a wet-behind the ears white northerner who had a lot to learn about the complexities of southern black-white racial dynamics.

    Happy Holidays!