Last week I braved the packed house at Magnet, the men's health center in the Castro, to attend a powerful reading by contributors to the anthology My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them.
For culture vultures like me, My Diva is a thrill to behold. Edited by poet and fiction writer Michael Montlack, the book includes clever, urbane, campy, and ernest essays about some of my favorite pop culture icons. Encomiums include Grace Paley by Mark Doty, Margaret Cho by Kenji Oshima, and Eartha Kitt by D. A. Powell.
Honestly, there's an embarrassment of riches here, and some of the best essays are about lesser-known women or by emerging authors. One of my favorite essays, which jerked tears and titters during the reading last week and earned special notice from queer theory legend Camille Paglia, is "Auntie Mame," by Lewis DeSimone. The author (who's reading more of his own work next Tuesday at the Harvey Milk Branch of the SF Public Library at 7 p.m along with Paul Hufstedler and Donny Lobree) mixes insightful film commentary with poignant self-revelation and sissy-boy memoir to create an essay that stands out and stands on its own, even as it fits nicely with the book's theme.
Another favorite essay of mine is "Wendy Waldman" by fiction author Paul Lisicky, mainly because Waldman is a wonderful songwriter, redolent of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, whose fame hasn't risen to her '70s contemporaries' levels, despite having written or cowritten such gems as "Mad Mad Me" (Maria Muldaur), "Pirate Ships" (Judy Collins, The Cure), "Save The Best for Last" (Vanessa Williams), and several Linda Ronstadt numbers.
If My Diva succeeds in shining light on hidden gems, my one complaint—the complaint at every reading, says Montlack—is that too many great divas have been left out. Among the refusniks I most miss are Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Blossom Dearie, and Judy Holliday. Luckily, the book has been such a success already that a sequel may be just a year or two away. For now, Montlack, who celebrates his birthday this weekend in San Francisco, is busy promoting the first edition, as well as entertaining the idea of publishing a book of companion poems about the 65 divas, all written by the essay authors (most of whom are distinguished poets).
Montlack began this labor of love because of his devotion to hipster queen Stevie Nicks—not a bad way to start. Who's your favorite diva?