Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gay Poetry in Britain

Moving to matters literary, I want to reflect a bit on the scarcity of poetry involving gay male experience here in the U.K. There are several prominent lesbian poets, forthright about their lives to varying degrees. I’m going to hold off giving their names, just in case they’d prefer not to be part of this discussion. The situation with gay male poetry, though, is very different. Two decades ago Jeremy Reed wrote poems with gay subject matter, but no longer seems to, or else doesn’t publish them. Since Reed, I know of only one book-publishing poet (Gregory Woods) who uses that subject matter in his work; but he is not famous. It might be helpful to hear him give an account of his experience. A few years ago Magma magazine (to its credit) assembled an issue on the theme of gay poetry, and Woods was queried about his publishing history. Here’s the link:


His account of what happened isn’t at all encouraging, but it sounds plausible, based on my experience. I’ve noticed that, when books by gay males are reviewed by straight males, the latter do everything in their power to make sure the reader understands that the reviewer isn’t gay. The easiest way to do this is to deplore the subject matter. Not much better is, “Although I’m not myself gay, I can understand…etc.” I’ve even seen, “When I showed this poem to my wife, she said… etc.” Whatever else these dodges mean, they suggest that the stigma of being gay, even in countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, is enormous. On the other hand, I know straight men who are sometimes mistaken for being gay and who find it amusing or flattering, in any case, no big deal. But that’s not the situation with most, and you have to wonder what secret fears and insecurities make some individuals so touchy about the topic. Oh, and the other fact to take note of is that straight women reviewers are almost always less damning when they review gay male poets.

The issue also comes up outside the realm of reviewing; it affects publishers’ acceptance of the work. My friend Mimi Khalvati told me the story of a gay poet (whose name I will leave out, since I don’t know if he’d like being mentioned). He was associated with an important poetry magazine, published gay poems and poems on other topics in many other magazines, won prizes, gave readings, etc. He tried for ten years to get a book published, to no avail. Eventually, he gave up trying. That is too bad.

At the Chroma magazine party mentioned a couple of blogs back, I met a young poet who received one of the annual prizes given by the magazine. His name is John Mccullough. He has published two pamphlets, won prizes, and has appeared in many magazines, as well as The Guardian. Some of his poems involve gay subject matter, but not all. He has decided, though, not to censor himself nor to worry about public acceptance, which strikes me as courageous and admirable. In an e-mail exchange, he said:

“I hope that the British poetry world is ready for a first collection with lots of poems featuring gay speakers - most successful poets have written them after already having proved their poetic worth with other successful collections rather than trying to prove it with poems which investigate gay history and such. Sometimes I don't know if maybe I should be moving away from it and trying to be relevant in other ways. I hope that love is something which transcends gender and that my love poems are sufficiently universal. I know that gay poems comprise less than half of what I write but I don't want to be tidied away into the drawer labelled 'gay poetry - for gay people' - it's even tinier than the one labelled 'poetry'.”

John’s comment about the “universal” appeal of poetry reminds me of something I read in an essay by a very prominent British gay male poet in whose work you can’t find any evidence of the nature of his sexuality. (And he is not a political conservative, in fact, is sited on the far left of the political spectrum.) He was discussing love poems written in the second person rather than the third, and noted that this allowed the reader of whatever gender to identify with the poem’s speaker—as presumably some of them couldn’t do if the pronouns were gendered. In fact, this poet uses the approach himself; all his love poems are written to “you,” never about “him.” And yet I don’t find the argument convincing. “Upon Julia’s Clothes” is written in the third person, and I’m able to identify with the speaker instantly; it’s quite a sexy poem. Just as easily I can identify with Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” or his “They flee from me who sometime did me seek.” And I'm aware that straight women readers also respond to these poems. Further, I know some straight men who read Cavafy’s poems about men and find them fully engaging. But, obviously, not all do.

When you consider that British (and Irish) fiction includes gay male authors who are celebrated (Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin, Adam Mars-Jones, Jamie McNeill), you have to wonder what forces here operate against gay male poetry. I should point out, too, that the American poet Mark Doty has a considerable following in the U.K., and that Thom Gunn, during his lifetime, was almost universally admired here. So there’s no automatic and incontrovertible rule saying gay themes cannot interest the British readership. (That's assuming of course that the work has literary merit apart from its non-routine subject matter.) My guess is that if more poetry book editors were women, we’d see more books by gay male poets. That isn’t the situation right now, but perhaps it will change. For John Mccullough’s sake, I hope it will, and for others’.


Logan Lamech said...

I guess Britain is a easier going place to get things started.

Logan Lamech

news4all said...

I sort of think of Thom Gunn as a British gay poet anyway, although he went to live in America. Some of his poems, like Talbot Road, are very clearly set in his British experience. You also haven't meantioned John Heath Stubbs who was a poet who happened to be gay and who wrote a few poems that came from his gay sensibility although his work went well beyond that.

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