by Lucas de Lima on May.26, 2012
If you haven’t been following the queer poetry blogosphere the past couple of days, a provocative conversation has arisen about beauty, style, race, and privilege in contemporary American poetry. Over at Lambda, a piece by Jameson Fitzpatrick has come under fire for championing the self-presentation of NYC poet Alex Dimitrov, the organizer of a much-talked about poetry salon called Wilde Boys. Fitzpatrick’s article is itself in response to a comment made by Eduardo C. Corral about his feelings of exclusion in the queer NYC poetry scene. Here’s Corral followed by Fitzpatrick’s take:
“The queer poetry community in New York City is full of beautiful people, which makes me an outsider…I’m disappointed in many of my queer peers. So many of them want to be part of the hipster crowd. So many of them value looks over talent. The cool kids form clubs, become gatekeepers. So many of my peers are clamoring to be let in.”
Though I’m impressed by Corral’s candor, and lament his experience of exclusion because of his appearance, I bristled when I read this. I found myself worrying that this sort of attitude, taken a bit further, could lead to the devaluation of something important to me—namely, fashion and beauty. Moreover, I’m afraid such an attitude sets up a false dichotomy: looks or talent, style or substance. I refuse to settle for one or the other. Silly as it might sound, I want to be beautiful and I want to write beautiful poems.
As many on the comments thread and other blogs point out, Fitzpatrick’s argument overlooks the role of race, class, and other power dynamics rampant not just in queer poetry circles but the LGBTQ community at large. By contrasting Dimitrov’s emphasis on aesthetics with Corral’s words, the article fails to account for the politics behind ‘beauty’, a concept all-too-often synonymous among gay men with being white, thin/muscular, affluent, and stylish. As Corral, a Latino poet, says in his interview, “One young man told me, ‘You don’t look like the rest of us.'”
As a queer, light-skinned Latino poet, I have many feelings about this discussion not because I’m familiar with either Dimitrov’s or Corral’s work (I’ve only read a few poems by each) but because the rhetoric on both sides of the debate seems worth questioning. While I think Fitzpatrick’s article is problematic, I wonder if much of the dissenting response isn’t guilty of its own brand of normativity and policing about what queer writing is and does. Several commentators criticize Fitzpatrick and Dimitrov’s interest in “being beautiful” while “writing beautiful poems” as superficial, immature, and individualistic. Beauty, as their line of argument suggests, should be contained; it’s not meant to exceed the act of writing, which itself should only engage beauty in a measured and cautious way. C. Dale Young, for example, offers the following on his blog:
Someone once tried to convince me you could only see the beautiful if you had seen the grotesque, but I disagree. I believe to see beauty one must also see the ordinary out of the corner of one’s eye. So, in the drafting, the getting the poem down, I do not think of beauty. But in revision I do, and at that point I am also keenly aware that to have beauty one must also have the ordinary. If a poem is filled with nothing but the beautiful, it becomes a kind of grotesque. In the end, I strive not for beauty but for elegance, remembering that elegance arises from simplicity and not from the beautiful. Reliance on the beautiful, reliance on detail, gives rise not to elegance but to the baroque, something which if taken to the extreme is grotesque.
I understand Young’s idea of beauty to be ultimately about balance. For him, beauty should be an afterthought as opposed to an obsession, it should be ordinary as opposed to sublime, it should aim for elegance and not the baroque or grotesque. As in so much rhetoric about art and poetry, beauty therefore verges on the tasteless taboo of kitsch. Here I can’t help but think of countless queer writers who are interested precisely in excess, the low-brow, the sublime, the baroque, and/or the grotesque, not to mention the inseparability of art and life. I wonder, What Would Saint Genet Say about Young’s distinctions? And what about hugely influential artists and writers of color such as Samuel Delaney, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Frida Kahlo, and Basquiat, all of whom use excess in their work as a response to both heteronormative and whitewashed notions of the beautiful?
If Young’s benchmark of elegance sadly marginalizes these artists, so does Fitzpatrick’s failure to place aesthetic standards in a political context. I don’t think Young and Fitzpatrick are alone in this. One need only look as far as the Lambda review of Lonely Christopher’s The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse to see how the kind of excessive writing I’m talking about gets policed even in gay writing circles. The question on my mind, then, is where do such predominant “queer” filters leave Montevidayans and other contemporary writers with which I feel affinity? What about the exclusion of Genet’s and Sor Juana’s children? Why do I get more out of the excessive beauty of writers who identify as neither queer nor Latino (Alice Notley, Kim Hyesoon, and Peter Richards, to name just three) than work that is typically celebrated within those identity categories?
These questions also came to me while reading Rigoberto González’s Harriet post on Letras Latinas and other efforts to increase the visibility of Latino writing:
Some writers may reject this path toward publication and mentorship, and that’s fine, just don’t expect any love back. These are already crowded houses anyway, and yet, there’s always a will to make room for one more. But only those who thrive within them know the importance of keeping an old tradition–of coming together in the spirit of shared experience–alive. It’s a very cold and expansive landscape out there, and communities like these, publishing series and retreats like these, make the journey into the professional and artistic world a little less daunting and, frankly, a little less white and straight–believe me, the queer factor in all of these organizations is palpable.
For a young writer like me, who can publish in marginal journals in line with my tastes but not LGBTQ-only publications, and who writes about being an immigrant more with the mutating impulse of Bhanu Kapil than the identity-carving narratives of most diasporic writers, it is in fact ‘a very cold and expansive landscape out there.’ Only the issue is not, as González suggests, that I reject the expected avenues for publication and mentorship. Instead, those avenues have consistently rejected me. Many of us poets on the margins, younger and older alike, have learned not to ‘expect any love back’ from the very people we might have once thought would at least recognize, if not share, the literary traditions from which we draw.
The point I want to stress is that this is as much a political and ethical issue as it is an aesthetic issue. Too often, I think, efforts to highlight the presence of poets who don’t fit the identitarian norm fall prey to the biases of American literary culture at large. These biases are themselves normative because they enforce an aesthetics of good taste. As an unexamined tendency, the rejection of excess seems especially pernicious in the context of Lambda and other queer writing communities. In theory and praxis, from Foucault and Butler to ACT UP and Claude Cahun, queerness has always been about defiant exploration rather than obedience to prescription. I think I speak for many of us on the literary and social margins, whether queer or otherwise, when I say that to be there is already a position ‘in bad taste.’ Otherness is, by definition, that which exceeds conventional notions of beauty and the body, that which breeds monsters instead of models, or better yet, monstrous models. What my writing and art-making asks of me is an expression of this monstrosity as what I feel it to be, that is, hardly a state of peace, grace, stability, or austerity.