Queer Poetics II
In my last post about queer poetics, I said, “In celebrating queer poets, I don’t think that straight poets should feel that I’m not talking to them”—but I’m not sure that I did a sufficient job of explaining what the value of “minority” poetics might be. Indeed, a wise reader called me out on my celebratory exclamation mark regarding Jewish identity in queer poets. Am I simply calling out my people—insisting on my value in my heritage?
I hope you’ll agree with me that one of the values of poetry is that it is a place where thinking and feeling are not separate. We separate feeling and thinking all the time—we treat one as good, rational, and productive, while the other is bad, foolish, and counterproductive. Years ago, when my husband and I were trying to buy a house, we found ourselves in a contract on a disaster of a house being built by a crook. Did we want out? A real estate agent friend told me to separate out all the emotion—without the anger, resentment, and frustration, did I still want the house? I tried the exercise—and yes, we got the house. But frankly, my feelings might have been a better guide. My gut often knows more than I do.
Right now, most of the discussions I have about difference and minorities center on the concepts of “privilege” and “microaggression.” These are very useful concepts. Privilege is essentially what people outside of an oppressed group don’t have to deal with or know. When I walk down the street, I rarely get harassed or wolf whistled, because I have male privilege. If people on the phone tend to assume that your spouse is the correct gender, you may have straight privilege. If you don’t have to ask whether or not a reading is going to be accessible by wheelchair, you probably have able-bodied privilege.
Using the language of privilege can remove the burden of oppression from the oppressed. We often talk as though sexual orientation is only something that gay people have, or as though race is something that only people of color have. Talking about “straight privilege” or “white privilege” means that various kinds of difference are understood as impacting all people.
Microaggressions are the other side of privilege—the moments when you are reminded that you are not understood, or forced to bear the burden of other people’s misunderstandings. When you are not the subject of institutional discrimination, or outright attack, but the message is still clear that you are somehow unintelligible, unentitled, or somehow lesser, that’s a microaggression.
I think that these are very useful tools for understanding difference, and they put the emphasis on the ways that people suffer. But I’d like the put the emphasis on what comes out of the particular form of knowing that is prompted by suffering. If you think about a concept like “the closet”—and if you lived through the 1990’s, boy did gay folks have to spend a lot of time coming out of the closet—it turned out to be an incredibly useful concept for all people. Now people can come out of the closet as stamp collectors, trekkies, or even poets.
The notion of feeling a secret that you need to unburden in order to be accepted as a whole person is fairly universal, and it was given a specific voice and language by queer people. Obviously, there can be a facile way to co-opt that experience, and yet, why resist the notion that one by-product of suffering is often wisdom? (I’ve long resisted that notion because I don’t want to be told that I must suffer to be wise—there are other ways to wisdom of course, and suffering often leads to little more than trauma, so I am wary of celebrating suffering, even if I am eager to learn from it.)
Right now, I’m working on essay that works to put W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “Double Consciousness” in conversation with Martin Buber’s concept of “Ich und du.” These are both ideas of how the self is split and managed and presented in the world. For Du Bois, there is a true self that manages threat by understanding the other and managing both the way the self is seen by others and the way one wants to be seen. For Buber, the self undergoes fundamental shifts based on who and what it interacts with. These are both ideas that come out of minority experience—Du Bois manages a black self in the context of American racism; Buber manages a Jewish self in the context of German anti-semitism. In both cases, it’s reductive to say that suffering is the only mover of their thoughts. It is impossible to strip their thoughts of the context in which they thought them—and yet, these are also clearly valuable ideas for all people. These concepts are good to think with for all people, though they cannot be isolated form their minoritarian origins.
In my “Gay and Lesbian Philosophy” class in college—and I have not been able to track down the research that my professor presented—my professor told us that a major distinction between gay male and straight male sexuality in the 1950s was nipple play. In the 1950’s, gay men liked to have their nipples stimulated during sex; straight men did not. By the 1990s, the distinction had disappeared, and straight men were as likely to engage in nipple play as straight men. I walked around campus all day thinking, “You’re welcome, straight dudes.” Obviously, this is a bit of an overstatement—but it really made me think about how knowledge can and should be shared.
So in celebrating Queer Poetics—and particularly something like Mark Doty and Walt Whitman’s unabashed eroticism—I want to keep in focus both the minoritarian impulse that demanded a celebration of eroticism and the universal impulse to enjoy sex. It’s not to say that non-queers are worse at sex, or writing about sex—it’s to say that that the particular struggle to express sexuality in poems that these two gay men engaged led to the development of tools that all people can use.
With the emphasis on privilege (and owning privilege) and microaggression (and calling it out)—which seem particularly necessary right now as we protest (and I think you Londoners are joining us) the ways in which black people are being murdered by policemen, with seemingly no consequence—I want to put a different, and perhaps you’ll allow me to say poetic spin on how minority knowledge is productive for both those in and out of the group under the microscope. The tools that are developed by a group should never be deracinated, but they should also never been quarantined.
My favorite homage to Frank O’Hara’s queer devotional to Lady Day came from a poem by my (straight) friend Matt Longabucco. In response to O’Hara’s, “Lana Turner we love you get up,” he wrote “Morrissey we love you don’t age.”