Saturday, January 31, 2009

From Homoerotic Tanka to Barack Obama

An earlier post on homoerotic tanka has gotten some positive feedback, and some bewildered comments wondering why a poet would fear censure. I've also gotten emails telling me how 'brave' I am to post such things. Frankly, hiding behind a pen name as I do to protect myself, I'm not sure I'm that brave. Above and beyond that, that people say such things is a tacit acknowledgement that there is something frightening out there. So far, however, I have not run into any overt homophobia in the tanka world.

On the other hand, I can't say that people are comfortable about it either. My own work is indirect, so that it is not obvious to most people that I am writing 'gay tanka,' this I suspect provides the necessary insulation to protect the reader from the poem and the poet from the reader. That insulation that prevents the poems from being perceived as the poet intended is a failure of artistic integrity, even as it permits popular success. The desire to make explicit that which was invisible is why I did my one man show "Love Letters : Homoerotic Tanka of Love and Friendship" at 3 Lights Gallery last year. (Thank you, Liam!)

I think tanka has an advantage in that sexuality is not taboo; erotic relationships, including male/male ones have a long history in tanka. Saigyo wrote love poems for male friends that people blithely insist on reading as 'only' friendship, and being a monk, they probably weren't carnal--but the word used is 'koi' (erotic/passionate love), not 'ai' (spiritual, platonic love).

In translation, the word 'love' is broad enough to let us believe that a monk meant 'brotherly love,' and not something more intimate. Here I mean 'emotionally intimate' because it is impossible to know more. In Saigyo's day such 'passionate friendships' were normal among men, but such relationships cannot be acknowledged among Americans without being tainted with the perjorative gay.

I have often listened to (straight) men expressing their love for other men, usually they say, "I love him like a brother," and go on to describe the admirable qualities of their friend, and express what they are willing to do for him, but they are always careful to invoke a certain nobility in order to forestall any suspicion. Canadian men I have known, by contrast, are much more comfortable, and have even expressed a certain amount of erotic appreciation for male friends, "If I was gay, I'd do him." I can't ever recall hearing such remarks from an American man. The same is true of soldiers; the Canadian combat veterans I have known have expressed their love for an admired officer in a mixture of platonic and erotic terms. Never have I heard such a mixed response from an American combat veteran.

I think American veterans must feel such things, but with the era of Don't Ask Don't Tell, they keep a firm division between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' expressions. Looking back through history, there is a lengthy record in the West as well as the East regarding deeply emotional, intimate, and personal relationships among men, and even a certain homoeroticism, intended or not. Compare the peacock finery of an eighteen century naval officer with the more prosaic uniform of an army officer serving in Iraq. Just why was the fashion of skintight pants adopted in the early 1800s anyhow? Why on earth would an officer at sea need to advertise the shapeliness of his legs? The well bloused and pocket laden uniform of the modern soldier is far more practical. Fashion was in love with the male physique in a way it hasn't known since the invention of the business suit.

Back then it was understood that a man's physical presence was part of his leadership abilities. Virile men were better regarded than men who weren't. Today's favorite word 'sexy' in no way conveys the package of authority, sexuality, paternalism, physicality, masculinity, and charisma of 'virile.' I don't think it's a coincidence that fashion moved to provide a duller, less flamboyant, less explicit display of the male form at the same time that homosexuality was becoming more and more of an anxiety to English and American culture. The more society became aware of the attractiveness of the male form, the more it covered it up. Nowadays, the tightness of a man's pants is popularity believed to be connected with his orientation; tight pants on a man over thirty are assumed to mean he's gay. Why else would he be 'showing off his ass?'

While the assumptions inherit in such thinking are clearly prone to error, that such thinking exists illustrates the connection I'm illuminating. Awareness of and appreciation for the male form is considered inappropriate for other men; it must be mean he's gay. By such thinking, appreciating Michaelangelo's David makes a man queer. This is clearly wrong. On the other hand, for a gay male, such forms do offer an added layer of appreciation, just as Venus Rising from the Sea by Boticelli must have engendered a certain warm appreciation among straight male viewers that is not necessarily shared by female viewers. Ironically, women are allowed to look at and evaluate other women, to comment on their appearance, and gossip about who's wearing what. Men aren't. If a man comments about another man's appearance, he must be gay.

Two hundred years ago men did care about what other men wore, commented on it, and responded to it. Our last two hundred years of fashion is a peculiar anomaly in which fear of homosexuality has channeled masculinity into narrow forms of expression and truncated the ability of men to display a full range of natural human responses to other men. For thousands of years societies have thrived and prospered with a much broader range of expression for men; modern men, especially British and American men, are the victims of a gender discrimination that subjects a man to being labeled 'queer' if he steps outside of it.

If he wants to be an elementary school teacher, he's suspect. If he wants to be a nurse, he must not be a real man. If he wants to write poetry, he must be effeminate. If he wants to be a 'real man,' he has to be able to mete out violence and crack jokes while doing it. No remorse, either. Remorse is for sissies. Football player, soldier, policeman, and if he hasn't got the physique to do truly manly things, he better use is brain as a substitute and mete out financial violence instead instead. Taking advantage of ones power (physical, financial, political) to exploit other people and enrich oneself is the American ideal of manhood.

It's pretty obvious what's wrong with such thinking, but only now has public disgust manifested itself in the mantra of 'change we can believe in.' It remains to be seen if Obama can live up to the towering expectations, but an examination of his person offers some clues. For one thing, he's an attractive man, as many people have noticed. George W. Bush was a fit man who kept up an exercise plan, but looking at a picture of Bush did not prompt one to say, "He's a sexy old guy." (If you're under twenty, you may not believe that it is possible to be sexy and old, but there are in fact sexy old guys. Sean Connery. Chuck Norris. Kirk Douglas. Even grey-haired George Clooney, incredibly ancient at 47).

Nobody has yet publicly applied the term 'sexy' to Obama, and I doubt they will. It would be.... undignified. Inadequate. Cute. Obama is a lot of things, but 'cute' isn't one of them. Obama is virile. He's got that amazing blend of looks, authority, and charisma that people have responded to for millennia. He knows it, and he dresses the part. No wonder people believe in him, he looks like a leader. He's the kind of man you can imagine commanding the quarterdeck of a British battleship at Trafalgar. (If blacks had been allowed to be officers.) Can you picture Bush standing along side the immortal Nelson at the height of British glory? No, not really.

Somehow Obama has managed to combine within himself the best parts of father, leader, fashion plate, and philosopher. He's already been lauded as 'Role Model in Chief' for young black men, who are now hitching up their pants and aspiring to something other than 'ghetto chic.' But what really excites me about Obama is whether he can inspire all men to become gentlemen. Because that's what he is, an old-fashioned gentleman. Once upon a time men aspired to be something better than a successful thug, and that meant living up to a standard that included consideration for others.

Okay, historically it meant rich white guys having paternalistic consideration for their inferiors, but I'll take condescending accommodation over legal discrimination and lynching any day. Still, although the old model of manhood had its drawbacks, it had a commitment to honor that is shamefully out of fashion today. Once upon a time, a man's word was his bond. Try telling that to Bernie Madoff. Dishonor is rampant in business today. We talk about 'ethics', but ethics aren't the same as 'honor.' 'Ethics' is something external. Ethics is something you take a class on in college. By contrast, honor is what you feel. It's who you are. To be guilty of an ethical violation means hiring a lawyer and a spin doctor. Dishonor isn't something than can be fixed with an application of money. Dishonor is forever. That's why old-fashioned gentlemen would go to any extreme avoid it, and if necessary, would fall upon their swords.

America could use some old-fashioned gentlemen in high places. And not to be sexist, women can aspire to the same standard of conduct. Vice President Miss Manners. Don't laugh, I hold Miss Manners in the highest esteem. She's an honorable woman, and while her foreign policy experience may be limited, the history of the Middle East peace process can be learned. A sense of fair play and respect for other people's dignity are innate characteristics, which, if not acquired by age 17, are not going to miraculously appear in a person once they achieve high public office.

Which brings us full circle back to homoerotic tanka. In order to get the best out of people, we have to let them be their best, whoever they are. We have to respect the full range of human expression and not constantly be monitoring people to determine if they're 'queer' or not. If it's okay to be queer, then it's okay to be a man and express whatever he happens to feel--without ambushing him with charges of homosexuality. It means opening ourselves to more fully appreciating the complexity of human interactions. It means that men must acquire more finely nuanced social skills so that they can detect and respond appropriately to a variety of interactions. It means that women and other men must come to appreciate men as something more than action heroes or buffoons.

It means that poets must be able to write about a variety of emotions and situations without having to hide behind a gender neutral pseudonym. It means that editors must be comfortable enough to publish a variety of content and treatments instead of the conventions of the genre. It means that readers must read with awareness and not make assumptions about gender, orientation, sexuality, or the nature of the relationships depicted.

In tanka we call this 'dreaming room.' The mind is not only free to roam and explore a multitude of possibilities, but it actually does so. Tanka is unique in that it requires the active participation of the reader more than any other form of literature. This is the height of a liberal education, where we understand 'liberal' in the old-fashioned sense of the word, not the politically charged media sound bite. It means having a generous mind--in poetry, in politics, in our personal lives.

I don't know if Barack Obama can live up to all our expectations. I don't know if tanka can grow into a truly open poetry. I don't know if our politicians can overcome their partisan divide. But a generous mind wishes them all well, with patience for stumbling and wrong turns, and faith that the ultimate outcome will be worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 : World's Largest Collection of Bad Poetry

Dear Robert Young,

It's generally considered a bad idea to insult the people you want to do business with. I am personally offended and so are a lot of other people by the rude remarks you made to the New York Times about those of us who have been foolish enough to publish with

"Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company’s titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” Mr. Young said."

Given the negative attitude that you have towards thousands of your creative customers, we can only assume that this represents the official cynical policy of the company.

Why are you even in the business if you have no respect for it?


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Update on Many Things

I have completed Men of Honor , the sequel to Pirates of the Narrow Seas , and posted it online at A few enthusiastic readers have read the first one, and I hope they will enjoy the second one, which I personally think is even better. Both novels can be read free online at:

Having been spending my creative energies on the novels (I think there is one more story in me about Lt. Peter Thorton and his adventures), I haven't written much poetry. Tanka requires relaxation to enter the contemplative state of mind necessary to write it, and there hasn't been much of that in the past year. My young adult children have come to live with me full time, my promotion at work has been full of stress thanks to a bad boss, and the crazy schedule I work at Wal-mart means I have rarely been able to take the solace of working the skipjack.

On the positive side, my health is the best its been in decades as I roll the cancer dice and beat the odds once again. My son, who is autistic, is working for his GED. And being able to write a novel is a signal achievement, since the ability to process language was a casualty of developing narcolepsy long ago. I cannot say I have overcome narcolepsy, but I have rebuilt my skills to the level that I can function in spite of it.

Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka is also consuming a great deal of my time. The nomination process is in its final days, after which we will need to make our final selections and I will need to contact the poets to request permission to reprint. A final date for the appearance of the anthology has not yet been selected, but it will be in the spring of 2009. I and my editorial team has read approximately fourteen thousand poems and has achieved our goal of reading all tanka published in English in 2008. We are grateful for those poets and editors who provided us with copies of their works.