If I am honest, I don’t really know how I did it, wrote cover-boys that is; but there’s something powerful about acknowledging the underlying mystery of poetry right from the get-go, what Whitman calls the ‘unseen hand’; that despite how much you learn and craft there is a subconscious ticking away beneath all the work that cannot really be tamed or understood.
In her essay On Beginnings, Mary Ruefle calls poetry an ‘act of the mind’ and goes on to say that, ‘it is easier to talk about the end of a poem than it is to talk about its beginning. Because the poem ends on the page, but it begins off the page, it begins in the mind’. I think she’s dead right about this. And if I can say anything about how I wrote cover-boys, it will be only what might have stirred the unconscious prior to the idea and then how I tried to end my poem, in as much as a poem can be ended of course!
Despite not being able to talk about the unseen start, ideas for the poem began to form back in 2010 when I wrote a few throwaway (and terrible) lines on my phone:
whilst interning in soho
I’d find shortcuts past the
porn shops with their blackened windows
waving me in
and the oranged-up boys
their influence tentacular
across the maze of rain filled streets
Reading these lines back I find the word ‘tentacular’ particularly cringe-worthy but for better or worse, these eight lines are the external genesis of my poem; although things began even further back as these lines try to capture something that happened twenty years ago.
Thirteen years earlier in 1997 I was seventeen and interning at an advertising company in Soho; inevitably, when they sent me on errands I went exploring this quixotic new world of sex shops and gay bars; needless to say, I was a bad and often tardy intern. And this span of years, from 1997 to 2015, when I finally redrafted and wrote cover-boys, is indicative of the way I write poems; experiences and ideas sit around in my head for years until they spill out of my subconscious.
I had always wanted to write a poem about pornography because it plays such a large part in the lives of gay men, indeed initially it can seem like our only legitimate access to the erotic might be top-shelf magazines, underwear catalogues, renaissance paintings and of course now, the internet. Of course pornography or at the very least the shadow of it affects most people’s lives today and accounts for over 90% of the internet’s content but in queer culture the lines between pornography and reality have always seems slightly blurred, especially as porn influences sexual trends and behaviours and it sometimes seems impossible to have a pint in a gay bar without seeing an orange torso or a baby-oiled erection glinting at you from a frame or free magazine rack.
Around the same time I also discovered a wonderful poem, David Trinidad’s Ode to Dick Fisk, which gave me confidence that porn can indeed be a poetic subject. In his startling ode, Trinidad describes the 70’s porn-actor’s body with Cavafy’s passive but actively erotic eye, ‘mouth/ stretched wide/ to accommodate’; Trinidad also updates this gaze using the prism of technology, be it printed or digital medias, Torso magazine or Google, which all at once makes his object close and intimate but also firmly distant and absent. Trinidad makes it clear that there is an inherent loneliness in loving your favourite porn-actor from afar, and I hope this atmosphere through trickled into cover-boys. cover-boys is also drenched in Gay Shame, a firm obsession of mine. Put simply, Gay Shame is a critical reaction to the commercialisation and hetero-normative co-option of gay pride, Gay Shame seeks to celebrate and acknowledge the dark beginnings of our sexuality in the hopes of educating us and helping us to know ourselves better. So whilst I believe that porn can be totally gorgeous and celebratory, it is not without its huge problems and reactions to these form the basis of the last part of my poem when it begins to volta.
The internet is indeed full of sobering stories of suicide, drug-overdoses, murders, imprisonment; gay porn-actors, it would seems, have a disproportionately high chance of facing a dramatic and sticky end and maybe the shame that they are forced to endure might account for part of that. I have no doubt that Mario Montez’s appearance in Andy Warhol’s Screen Test #2 was also on my mind when I was rewriting cover-boys. Throughout Montez’s screen test for the supposed role of Esmeralda in a non-existent remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Warhol and Ronnie Tavel ask this glamorous and sensitive drag-queen to deep-throat a banana, to pronounce diarrhea ‘as if it tasted of nectar’, to lift up his skirt and to unzipper his fly. These cinematic and quasi-pornographic violations are now seen to be early precursors to the Gay Shame movement, Warhol and Tavel were trying to outwardly and visually confront Montez with shame rather than allowing it to fester unsaid. cover-boys also tries to cover some of the same critical ground by hinting at the complex life these three men lead, ‘skateboarding fisting being taken for expensive meals’. But my poem in no way intends to negativize their experiences or cast aspersions on porn rather to bring to the fore notions of Gay Shame and discuss how gay porn only deals with them in off-camera biography rather than centrally; and how damaging this might be.
My poem isn’t true but it is honest. I looked at and still do look at gay porn; José, Raúl and Hotrod exist; Latin Inches exists; the tragedies I mention have indeed affected gay porn-actors but cover-boys is primarily a stitching together of truths and Google searches, an act of artifice. This became especially evident to me when I was trying to Google image search that particular cover with the three men on it that I remembered so vividly from 1997; I couldn’t find it because it didn’t exist, I could only find this one with Rocky, Franco and Daniel, and I felt that this misremembering gave me even more creative license.
There is one thing about which I am sure though, that if the beginning of poetry is an act of mind for Ruefle, the editing of a poem, for me at least, is an entirely physical act. Not just literally because the hands and eyes are moving but if I am careful and quiet enough my own body lets me know when something isn’t quite right or good enough yet; I feel it in my stomach like a tiny flip or maybe some of the air rushing out of my lungs; and this subtle twinge is what I am always trying to tune into.
But back to the question of how I did it; well with all of this shame and porn floating around in my head I went back to the eight lines saved somewhere in my hopefully named desktop folder ‘poems in progress’ and could immediately tell that they weren’t working; my stomach flipped on pretty much every line. Firstly the poem was about me, or at the very least the I voice, and secondly it began with a boring narrative line, ‘whilst interning in soho’. From the get-go this felt wrong, I wanted to remove myself from the poem and let it become about the three men, who I think deserve this proper, albeit less visual, celebration. This is something I often do as much of my poetry is first person and perhaps supposedly confessional but I try to moderate this; in cover-boys the I only appears when the men need a moment of sympathy, pathos and the anonymous voyeur’s voice seemed the right way to do that.
In cover-boys I also tried to subvert the readers expectations, ‘top shelf rags are not always’; I am forever trying to find ways to introduce largely straight audiences to queer subject matter and this stark contrast of ‘pink curves&tits’ to ‘three pixelated pricks’ was one way of framing this curve-ball of a subject. The more I write the more I realise how important it is for me to only write poems that are recognisably queer, this might sound like a grandiose and silly thing to say; and I should make it clear that I am not talking solely about subject matter, but I just feel that so many gay people have had to hide, use pseudonyms and deny themselves creative expression for centuries so now that we are lucky enough to have the chance to be open, then we should be, unreservedly so.
One of the things I do most with a draft is write it into 14 lines; most of them don’t ever become sonnets but using the constraints of the form helps me to organise my argument. So I stretched out my original eight lines into something resembling a big rowdy sonnet and used half rhymes and chimes to push my narrative forward; for instance I hadn’t thought about crystal meth abuse until I was reading a story about a gay porn-actor who hailed from Bristol, Texas. Strangely cover-boys has not strayed too far from its sonnet-box and this seemed fitting to formally dramatize some of the speaker’s love and lust, to give it a poetically-historical context.
But of course, beyond all the reading, thinking and crafting, the luxury of space and time also helped me complete cover-boys; looking back on something you sketched five years ago gives you the necessary distance to see its shortcomings. This is rarely possible, sometimes I only put things aside for a few weeks, but any kind of separation is really essential for me to find the core of a poem and to try and complete it.
cover-boys is maybe one of the poems I read out the most; people often laugh, sometimes out of a particular form of British-embarrassment, but I never once thought of the poem as funny. For me cover-boys tries to grapple with a deeply haunting subject; in my head it’s something akin to an altar piece detailing the martyrdom of these everyday men; tortured on the racks of other people’s desire, societies’ expectations of masculinity and their own subconscious Gay Shame.
top shelf rags are not always pink curves&tits
sometimes an out of date LATIN INCHES hides
forgotten behind RAZZLE – three pixelated pricks
have stayed this hard since two-thousand and five –
José Raúl Hotrod have stood inked jaw-locked
in a three-way french for some nine rugged years –
pecs still greasy tans Miami-orange fingers tucked
into each other’s pits – interests include PS3 beer
skateboarding fisting being taken for expensive meals –
this is the future I wish for them – open-mouthed
wanton lithe&toned – instead of the all too real –
Wikipedia tells me Hotrod married a girl appalled
by his past – Raúl’s serving time for battery in Bristol
Texas a born-again homophobe&José’s heart exploded
on stage at Pride too much love or rather crystal
Richard Scott’s poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet, Wound (Rialto), is shortlisted in the Michael Marks Awards 2016.