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Tuesday 30 January
My Year of Queer Writing: “Nonfiction As Queer Aesthetic”

Filed under Announcements + NF + queers

Today, I’ve got an essay up at Lithub about the choices I made to become queer, an essayist, and an artist. Its title was taken from a panel at last year’s NonfictioNow Conference, which got me thinking about how these three words were related in my own life. Thanks to editors Tim Denevi and Emily Firetog for shepherding it out into the world.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-30  ::  dave

Monday 29 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation

Filed under Books + queers

It’s unconscionable that it’s taken me so long to discover Wayne Koestenbaum’s essays: he’s writing in the precise mix of intellectual, critical, and personal that I aim for. A role model. I read his My 1980’s and Other Essays, a kind of omnibus of recent shorter pieces, earlier in the month, and it made me hungry for something longform. Humiliation is a booklength essay on that topic in the shape of 11 fugues.

It’s the sort of book I hope this book I’m writing might turn out like.

Here are just two of the things I loved (of so much in the book worth loving, like Koestenbaum’s writing on shame and the body and the queer body and porn and desire). One is what he calls “the Jim Crow Gaze”:

The eyes of a white person, a white supremacist, a bigot, living in a state of apartheid, looking at a black person (please remember that “white” and “black” aren’t eternally fixed terms): this intolerant gaze contains coldness, deadness, nonrecognition. This gaze doesn’t see a person; it sees a scab, an offense, a spot of absence.

It’s a useful term for a look I’ve seen on faces my whole life. A face we see every day on the president. A look I imagine I’ve worn more than once.

The other thing is the entirety of page 171, from the book’s final fugue, listing humiliations from Koestenbaum’s past:

23.
I gave two of my poetry books, warmly inscribed, to a major poet. A few years later, my protegé told me that she’d found those very copies, with their embarrassingly effusive inscriptions, at a used-book store.

24.
At an academic conference, a student stood up, during the question-and-answer period, and accused me of assigning only white writers in a seminar he’d taken with me. Some audience members, appreciating the student’s bravery, applauded.

25.
After the panel ended, a colleague—whom I considered culturally conservative—came up to hug me. I told him not to hug me right now; I didn’t want my revolutionary accusers to see me collaborating with privileged humanists.

26.
The next day, I called up this colleague and asked him out to lunch. At first he refused. He said, “You shunned me.” The next day, at the cafe, he told me about a lifetime of being shunned.

27.
Later, this colleague died of AIDS. I didn’t visit him in the hospital.

This litany of humiliations piled on each other makes me feel terrible. I feel Koestenbaum’s humiliation not just for having been an unsavory person, but for recounting these humiliations on the page. (This feeling of mine he expects and accounts for and speaks to throughout the book.) It’s so brave, which is a word I’ve tended to hate applying to essays.

Lately, I’ve been auto-sending a tweet each morning asking for suggestions of Twitter accounts that intentionally embarrass themselves or don’t try to appear likable or admirable or aggrieved. None have come in. Unsurprisingly, the only suggestions I do get are of parody accounts, or folks tweeting as some kind of funny character.

I read Humiliation, especially its final fugue, and trying to imagine it as a series of tweets I find myself dumb. My mind blank. To be a whole person online feels almost anatomically impossible, righteousness inhering to that experience as grammar does to a sentence. These days I’m seeing any such denial or avoidance of my embarrassments and private humiliating miseries to be a kind of self-treason.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-29  ::  dave

Friday 26 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions

Filed under Books + queers

A new favorite. I didn’t know that all my life I’d been looking for a fable about queers loving and working together as they prepare to destroy the patriarchy. Or “the men” in Mitchell’s parlance:

The first revolutions destroyed the great cultures of the women. Once the men triumphed, all that was other from them was considered inferior and therefore worthy only of abuse and contempt and extinction. Stories told of these times are of heroic action and terrifying defeat and silent waiting. Stories told of these times make the faggots and their friends weep.

The second revolutions made many of the people less poor and a small group of men without color very rich. With craftiness and wit the faggots and their friends are able to live in this time, some in comfort and some in defiance. The men remain enchanted by plunder and destruction. The men are deceived easily and so the faggots and their friends have nearly enough to eat and more than enough time to think about what it means to be alive as the third revolutions are beginning.

It’s a short book. Over the course of it, the faggots and their friends help each other stay alive and sane in Ramrod, a place run by the men. These friends include the women, the [drag] queens, the [radical] fairies, the faggatinas and the dykelets. Even the “queer men” who dress and walk among the men, “using all the tricks their fathers taught them” and at night go out and cruise the faggots.

One of the beautiful things about this book, which is full of beauty and wisdom and even pretty line drawings, is how generous it is with its spirit. It is easy as an out and proud faggot to hate on the closeted “queer men” in this book. I’ve done it myself: big vocal public anger at Larry Craig types who work to protect and maintain straight power, and then try to also reap the joys of queer sex.

You don’t get to have both unless everyone gets to have both. You pricks should be locked up for life.

Mitchell, as I’ve said, is more generous. Here’s how he ends the page on the queer men:

It’s the most beautiful book I’ve read about solidarity.

That it’s a book everyone should read doesn’t, probably, go without saying. Maybe isn’t readily apparent. If I’m making it seem like this book (from 1977 and out of print, but any easy googling will turn up a PDF) isn’t for you straight friends of us faggots, if I’m making it seem like something niche, or a relic, know that this book gave me the clearest lesson on what the patriarchy is, at heart, and not just why but how to fight it.

I’ll leave you with one more bit to inspire you, one I’m planning to hang over my desk at work:

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-26  ::  dave

Saturday 20 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up

Filed under Books + queers

Abandoned halfway through. This book is Not For Me. I think I failed to take its title literally enough: this is a how-to book for folks between their quarter- and mid-life crises. If All Advice Is Autobiographical, this book is a memoir, but one directed at a You I couldn’t quite step into:

Breakups make me feel old and haggard, all used up. Getting a new hairdo or a shot of Botox lifts me out of dumps. Even a mani-pedi and an eyebrow wax remind me to take care of myself—an outward manifestation of all the inner self-care breakups require of you, and a continuation of the declaration of self-love that you made when you dumped that fool. Oh, wait—the fool dumped you? As we say in 12-step, rejection is God’s protection! The Universe is looking out for you by taking away someone who was bringing you down. Give thanks by getting a facial.

What makes this Not For Me has little to do with gender (I like mani-pedis and restorative skincare treatments). It’s got a little more, perhaps, to do with age, but mostly it has to do with my looking for wisdom these days beyond 12-step bromides and This Worked For Me So It’ll Totally Work For You advice. But here’s where I’m trying to take this post: I can recall a time when I would’ve finished this book and set it aside a satisfied customer. Tea’s book’s being Not For Me is all about me, not her book.

Reading it brought me back to my first term teaching at USF. I had a student who wrote flash essays in this Tea-ish/How-To vein, specifically about how the reader might go about self-treating their depression without needing drugs or therapy. Self-care tips. Streetwise, This Worked For Me anecdotes. Assumptions that the reader’s life/background/belief system were in line with the author’s.

I was a shrewd, ungenerous reader of this work, aiming in my feedback to bring it all around to what I knew as Classic, Universal Essay Form: lengthen and enrich the structures, deploy more psychic distance between the narrator- and character-selves, etc. I wrote honest marginalia about how the You being spoken to was not me and was presuming things about me I couldn’t agree with.

The student protested: maybe I was reading it wrong, or unfamiliar with the style.

I counter-protested: how else can I help you but by reading this as I am, and gearing my feedback/revisions toward The General Reader?

Reading Tea, I saw at last an example of how I was wrong. If pushed in that classroom to describe The General Reader, I imagine I’d describe a man with a background and reading history closely aligned to my own. It is clear on every page of Tea’s book that whatever her notion of The General Reader might be, it’s not a 40-year-old professor who stays mostly at home and distrusts even the slightest interest in fashion and material objects.

The General Reader doesn’t exist. Not universally. It’s something I always try to keep in mind in the classroom: how is this work asking to be read? What do I know of the writing process (not The Essay Form) that can help this student see their work more deeply and develop it to the end.

I don’t know what I would do if handed Tea’s book in a workshop, but I know I wouldn’t do or say anything without listening to her first about what the work is, to her, and where she wants to go with it.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-20  ::  dave

Tuesday 16 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Tillie Walden’s Spinning

Filed under Books + NF + queers

A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.

It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.

The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….

Much less had the guts to tell others.

I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:

I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.

I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-16  ::  dave

Thursday 11 January
My Year of Queer Reading: Sam Sax’s Madness

Filed under Books + queers

you either love the world
or you live in it

I love the sad wisdom in these lines, which is a sad wisdom that runs throughout this collection. I’d only before heard Sax’s poems, at two readings here in San Francisco, where he spent a number of years. He’s from the performance poetry school: some poems were memorized, some asked the audience to woop at certain breaks, all seemed to draw mysterious things out from his body, which is sturdy and self-possessed about how it fills the space it takes up, like a dancer’s.

Echoes from his past performances came to my ear as I read certain poems, that voice, but on the whole these pages were filled in a variety of ways. Space and line working toward effects beyond what the voice alone can do. The concerns throughout are with mental health, physical health, ailments, drugs, addiction, sex, and the body and its transactions. Sax is younger than me by a number of years, but smarter than me in a host of ways about queerness and ways of being queer in the world we, as above, find ourselves just living in.

it's beautiful
how technology can move
from its corrupt origins
into pleasure

i have to remember the internet
began inside the murder
corridors of a war machine

each time i link to a poem
or watch two queers kiss

“Queers” and not “men”, note. Also that cleaving of sex to poetry, or poetry to sex. “[T]he homosexual since his invention has been a creature held captive in the skull,” he writes in “On Trepanation” (the practice of sawing open a hole in the skull), and it’s a sentiment I felt in my bones. What made this book a gift was how readily Sax found salvation within this world, the one here, outside the skull. Because “heaven’s a city / we’ve been priced out of”, his speakers are here to make as much of this life as they can, no matter the costs.

spare me the lecture
on the survival
of my body
& i will spare you my body

Buy Sam Sax’s Madness here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-11  ::  dave

Tuesday 9 January
Why I’m Reading Only Queer Writers in 2018

Filed under Books + queers

  • Because I tend to be a late adopter of certain trends and habits.
  • Because even as late as 2017 the message I hear in the conversations about books, and stories in particular, is that the most important stories (and the stories most valued) out there are about A Man and A Woman.
  • Because if not “important” or “valuable”, then what One-Man-One-Woman stories often get called is “universal”.
  • Because If not A Man and A Woman, then the other best/important/valuable stories are sagas of families, as distinguished by sexual reproduction and hereditary bloodlines.
  • Because I’m a queer writer writing a queer book, and I’d like to get a sense of the conversations I hope to step into.
  • Because my knowledge of queer books has centered for too long on Books By Gay Men, and it’s time to rectify that.
  • Because in trying to figure out why I wasn’t enjoying Call My Be Your Name (the movie) I kept asking myself “Would I keep watching this is if it were about a man and a young woman?” and I realized I would not.
  • Because calling Call My Be Your Name a queer story when the story itself invests so much of its energy in not calling queerness by its name feels inaccurate.
  • Because if CMBYN is a straight story by/about queer people I’d like to start finding queer books by queer people, because, again, I’m a queer person writing what I hope is a queer book.
  • Because, in the end, queers are my people, and I’ve spent too long convinced otherwise.

You can follow along with my year of queer reading on Goodreads.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2018-01-09  ::  dave

Wednesday 18 October
Writing’s Fraught History

Filed under Books

Was moved in various odd ways by this ¶ from John Lanchester’s “How Civilization Started” in the 18 Sept 2017 New Yorker:

War, slavery, rule by elites—all were made easier by another new technology of control [other than fire, detailed above]: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” [James C.] Scott maintains [in his book on early peoples]. All the good things we associate with writing—its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory—were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists, and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression.

Optimistically, we writers have clearly come a long way, and it’s wonderful that the art I’ve dedicated much of my life to has transcended these dark beginnings, that language since its invention has been so democratized and traded openly among the masses.

Pessimistically, I’m working within a tradition of power and control among state elites. I think of this both in terms of the things I write (about) and the audience to whom I’m writing. What are the ways my essays and blog posts and things maintain or reinforce ideas useful to the state in its project of oppression? What can I say that upturns such a project, in however small a way possible by one middle-class man in a comfortable job?

And how often am I writing to the very people who share this power with me—the more-literate-than-most with the gift of an audience, the gift of publishers’ interests? Very often. Probably always.

This ¶’s also made me think about the term “literary citizenship” or the idea of being A Good Literary Citizen. What this means in my community is doing things that help remind other writers they’ve found an audience. It’s going to readings in your town, and tweeting about others’ publications. It’s writing a writer when you read and liked her book. And not to disparage other writers, not to burn bridges.

These are all noble acts. Lord knows I’ve come up short in this kind of citizenship any number of times. But in working to be this kind of citizen, I don’t want to neglect to be the other kind—the one that acts nobly and consciously to the benefit of others, regardless of whether they’re also writers, too.

I’m not necessarily resolving anything here except to keep writing’s long shadow in mind when I quibble over how to make the structure of some sentence more beautiful. (I just did it. I just by reflex revised that sentence twice.) I’ll try to remember that there could be more at stake.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-10-18  ::  dave

Friday 25 August
An Update

Filed under Announcements + Books

I’ve written 138,000 words this year and none of it is publishable. Not publishable yet, is the point of this post (I think). About 100,000 of that is toward a new book, and the rest are from the essays and the short story I spent this summer writing amid travel. I’ve historically been the kind of writer who revises as he goes, who deletes what doesn’t look great on the page, and I don’t think it’s led my work to very surprising places. Now, I’m trying a new tactic. I’m trying to become a better reviser, and it’s scary because what if all those 138,000 words stay unpublishable?

It’s been a tough year, as tough as a year can be for a tenured professor. I remember a colleague talking with me earlier in the year about the Career Associate—the writer who publishes enough to get tenure and then stops, never to publish another book that would bring them to full. We agreed in our tones if not our words that such a fate is to be avoided. She had nothing to worry about, with three books and a newly donned full-professor title. I’d worked with such professors in grad school, and I remember wondering what happened. I remember assuming they could no longer write something publishable, which was to say relevant or modish. That was how hardily I breathed the competitive air of academia back then.

Here’s what I’ve been telling people: my first two books were written in a timeframe handed to me by academia; the first book to get a job, the second book to get tenure. Now that there’s no clock ticking, I can take the time to write the stuff the stuff I want to write needs. The stuff can dictate the time. Process can form the product. But there’s still a part of me with an eye on my CV, my online shares. When was the last time a thing of mine was printed? What if years go by and no one ever thinks of me?

This is egotism, but then again “pure ego” was one of the motivators behind Orwell’s writing. One of the hardest parts of writing is bearing through the time it takes. Unlike a table, or a computer, or a record, it always takes longer to make a book than it does to enjoy it. It always lives longer in your lonely brain than it seems to live in the world. I’m getting at what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “grief of writing,” the enduring of which he takes as an act of faith:

For the next nine years, I learned about grief as I worked on that damned short story collection. I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer. Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place.

I’ve never been good at faith. You should for sure read that Nguyen essay if you’re a writer in the academy. I found it so kind and helpful. It gave me a way to forgive myself.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-08-25  ::  dave

Monday 24 July
New Author Photo

Filed under Announcements

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I look so thin!

 ::  Discuss  ::  2017-07-24  ::  dave

Obvious Things
2017-07-12 :: dave
Obvious Things + queers
2017-06-30 :: dave
teaching
2017-06-30 :: dave
Reviews
2017-06-10 :: dave
Reviews
2017-06-01 :: dave
Reviews
2017-05-30 :: dave
Obvious Things
2017-05-04 :: dave
teaching
2017-04-21 :: dave
queers
2017-04-18 :: dave
Books + NF + Reviews
2017-03-27 :: dave