Monday, March 28, 2011

Erica Jong on Blogging

"Blogging is vanity. Like loving the smell of your own farts. Like not only tasting your menstrual blood, but making bloody thumbprints and buying gold-leafed frames in which to display them. But the truth is, not everything you think is worth publishing. Not everyone's opinion matters. How to distinguish a "pundit" from a gasbag? Impossible! On television, they yell and posture. On blogs, they are equally puffed up with self-importance. Only blog if you can make others laugh. This includes laughing at yourself." —Erica Jong

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Liz Taylor in Levittown" by Michael Montlack

"Nobody tells me who to love, or not to love, who to be seen with and who not to be seen with" —Elizabeth Taylor (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011)

Liz Taylor in Levittown

You wore her perfume, kept score of her husbands,
even delighted in her weight gain
back in the 70’s—when you too had put on a few,
then were inspired to lose it all
(like she always did).

I still wonder if her Cleopatra
had anything to do with that green eye shadow
we insisted you throw away.

Yet from the kitchen table (while doing algebra),
I too watched that night
as she was ushered forward like royalty
for her Channel 4 press conference:
violet eyes blinking, curt smile glimmering,
hair teased to a threshold bordering on self-mockery
yet commanding attention—and you gave it.
“Chuck it all—I’ll never finish before your father gets home.”
The rice could burn, your family could starve
            but “That damn dog had better shut his trap!”

Another bone … then Liz took the mic.
I didn’t know who to look at:
this movie star under a fire of flash
highlighting that hair, those jewels, those eyes;
or you in your terrycloth housecoat and Kmart Keds knockoffs,
lighting a Kent III Ultra Light
to heighten the drama.

I rarely saw you focus on just one thing—
always rushing, even your crosswords were done (or nearly done)
with the spin cycle finishing and your soap opera starting.
Not to mention the phone (and “That damn dog!”).

But you waited for words of wisdom now, eloquence, power
to enter your world, our world: there—on the border of Levittown
and Liz delivered more than I could
when on the verge of tears (rage),
she demanded the nation to Wake up!
See what’s happening?
to not fear the dying, her friends.

She wanted research money, voices of support.
She wanted education
and I was getting just that:
a lesson that distracted me
from X and Y
and what it all might equal
for me—in the future, in this kitchen, on this island—
every day becoming more and more
a man.

And yet she seemed to be teaching you even more,
so evident by the way you inhaled deeper, nodding, agreeing with her
on a subject you’d never discussed, probably never pondered
except during your trip to Frisco when I was 10:
“We saw the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and oh yes … the gays—very colorful,”
punctuated with a whirl of eyes that said much more,
too much.

She was too gracious to name names
—those heartthrobs (Rock) and characters (Liberace)
disappearing without proper goodbyes.
Why?   Why?   You almost cried with her.

I did not
but I could not
though I could have a glimmer of hope
when Liz invited us—the world, America, Moms like you—
to ask Where would we be without these people
we passively watch die?
These incredible people ... who contribute so much?

A tenser tone, more unsettling glare:
I mean, for God’s sake, where would Hollywood be?
Where would I be?
—so bitter she almost scoffed.

And as I watched the rice smoking behind you
and heard Dad’s car pulling up the drive,
I knew exactly where I was—
as if for the first time—
I was there, just outside Levittown,
and surprisingly I was not alone
in that crowded kitchen
which suddenly seemed to be opening up
and opening up
at the beck and call
of one girlish but seriously angry voice
that somehow touched my mother
who’d once again be racing
to catch up with time.

©Michael Montlack, Cool Limbo, 2011 New York Quarterly Press
(originally published in The Cream City Review
republished at The Debifrillator by permission of the author)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

John Gruber, One of Gay Movement’s Unsung Founding Fathers, Dies at 82

by Brent Calderwood, republished with permission from the Lambda Literary Foundation 

John Gruber (b.1928), the last surviving member of the original Mattachine Society, died peacefully at his home in Santa Clara on Monday, February 28, 2011.

The Mattachine Society, often referred to as the first successful gay rights organization in the United States (a group called the Society for Human Rights was founded in Chicago in 1924 but folded the following year), was formed in Los Angeles in 1950 by Harry Hay along with his lover Rudi Gernreich and other founding members Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Konrad Stevens, and Stevens’ then-boyfriend John Gruber.

Initially, due to laws prohibiting homosexuals from gathering in public and private spaces, the group met under strict anonymity, using pseudonyms even with each other.

In Eric Slade’s 2001 film Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, Gruber discussed the Mattachine Society’s first public act: in February 1952, after Jennings was arrested by an undercover police officer in a Los Angeles park and charged with lewd behavior, the group launched a successful defense, at a time when most homosexuals entrapped by police simply pled guilty and quietly paid the fine. “In those days if you were a homosexual,” Gruber said, “it was your problem and you knew it.”

Although Gruber’s initial attraction to the Mattachine Society was social, camaraderie quickly evolved into loyalty and political consciousness. In an unpublished interview with Slade from 2000, Gruber described his introduction to the group:
I really didn’t think of myself as a homosexual man.  I thought of myself as a guy in college, an ex-Marine….  I wouldn’t have called it group therapy in those days, but that’s really what I meant, a kind of family, a family that I never had at home, a family that accepted me, and that … was a brand new thing to me.
Gruber and the other Mattachine members, in order to garner financial support to hire a defense for Jennings, adopted the name “Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment” and began distributing flyers excoriating the Los Angeles Police Department for its longstanding practice of homosexual harassment, in the process attracting volunteers and swelling attendance at the society’s meetings.

However, the strength that comes with numbers came at a personal price to Gruber, as he explained to Slade: “The new people who came in were… very much… mainstream and… nonpolitical… But everybody loves a winner and we were winners at that point, and they joined us.”

As the Mattachine Society grew, the new members became worried about the leftist political causes, including Communism, advocated by Hay, Gruber, and other founding members. Due to these differences, all the founding members, including Gruber, resigned in 1953.

A rare photo of the Mattachine Society. LR: Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, unidentified-member, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Paul-Bernhard. Photo: John Gruber
By the mid-1950s, the Mattachine Society had grown into a national movement, finally supplanted by a host of direct-action antiassimilationist groups that sprung up in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969.
Of the original members, Jennings (who died in 2000) and Hay (who died in 2002) are best known today. In 1953 Jennings cofounded the gay political organization One, Inc. in Los Angeles, publisher of the seminal One Magazine; he also authored several novels. Hay went on to cofound the countercultural Radical Faeries in 1979, a group still going strong today with branches throughout North America, as well as in Europe and Asia.

Despite his unsung status, Gruber’s role as one of the founding fathers of the modern gay movement cannot be overstated. By helping to write and distribute some of Mattachine’s earliest literature in order to publicize Jenning’s entrapment case, Gruber not only helped secure one man’s release from jail, but also contributed to a burgeoning public awareness of homosexuality and antigay discrimination, the ripple effects of which are felt even today in issues ranging from marriage equality and youth suicide to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Gay historian Stuart Timmons, who interviewed Gruber for his books The Trouble with Harry Hay (Alyson) and Gay LA (Basic Books), said, “I will always remember John fondly, as the self-described gargoyle on the cathedral of the Mattachine, no pushover. He was a sweet and generous man.”
Additional research provided by Eric Slade and Jim Van Buskirk. Photos courtesy of Eric Slade.

More on the Mattachine Society Here:  

Friday, March 18, 2011

‘Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master'

 Ed. by D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer
Reviewed by Brent Calderwood for

We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but just look at the pillow-lipped, sleepy-eyed poet gazing out from a soft-focus 1940s sepiatone on Dustan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master and your hunch is bound to be right. What’s inside is just as out of the ordinary as it looks: quirky, rarefied, romantic, and unabashedly epicene.

For this first offering in Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, esteemed poet-editors D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer have unearthed a rare gem, and in the process rescued Thompson from becoming a literary footnote. As they explain in their introduction—which gamely balances academic rigor with engaging narrative—information about Thompson was hard to come by. He had virtually dropped off the literary map by the 1950s, even though his World War II-era work was well-published alongside that of Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and others.

Powell and Prufer offer valuable insights into why Thompson remains elusive: the burning of literary bridges, a midlife conversion to Catholicism, and his own stipulation against posthumous republication of his first two collections of poetry—the poetry that was best-received and also most homoerotic.

Thankfully, the editors, by means of scholarly detective work and presumably a healthy dose of charm, have gained permission to publish a modest selection from those two volumes, as well as from his later narrative and poetic work. Their assiduous selections make a persuasive case for the inclusion of Thompson’s work among the best in mid-century gay poetry, as well as among the best of WWII-genre poetry (Thompson, in spite of his trust fund and apparent fragility, fought with the U.S. Army).
Rupert Brooke, who drove Cambridge boys, and modern reviewers, wild

Thompson’s work compares well with contemporaries like Rupert Brooke and Stephen Spender; and for a niche modern readership, which includes this reviewer, those comparisons alone make this book worth a look. For many others, though, Thompson’s adherence to form and meter and his frequent Classical allusions may at first glance seem old-fashioned or twee. However, his consistent musicality, his clever use of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, enjambment and campy, odd imagery transcend era and convention, making Emily Dickinson an even more apt comparison.

In “This Loneliness for You Is Like the Wound,” Thompson uses eyewitness war imagery to address his lover—ostensibly the girl at home, but more likely the boy on the next cot:
This loneliness for you is like the wound
That keeps the soldier patient in his bed,
Smiling to soothe the general on his round
Of visits to the somehow not yet dead …
The sonnet teems with clever loaded images like “bullet-bearing heart” and “fever chart,” concluding with the heroic couplet “Yet now, when death is not a metaphor, / Who dares to say that love is like the war?” In building a love sonnet around homosocial and homoerotic imagery and ending with an almost postmodern consideration of use of metaphor within the poem itself, Thompson blazed the trail for later New Formalists like Thom Gunn and Randall Mann, whose work is anything but twee.

Like many writers before him and since, Thompson frequently locates his poems in Classical or military settings to allow for an otherwise unconventional emphasis on masculine sexuality. “Tarquin,” for instance, is a vague-ish Roman title, but the poem reads as an au courant lament for a lost trick, or else as an ode to a newfound bad-boy: “The red-haired robber in the ravished bed,” “the sinner who is saint instead,” “bellboy beauty, this flamingo groom.”

Thompson’s work, overflowing with double entendres and winking metaphors, will no doubt provide poetry lovers with the same giddy, titillating awe that film buffs get from watching classic Film Noir (which similarly gained traction during the war years). It’s an awe that comes from seeing artistic work whose innovation, naughtiness, and depth not only survived, but were born of, the conventions and limitations that threatened to censor them.

Powell and Prufer capstone these tantalizing glimpses of Thompson’s oeuvre with wonderful essays by other poets and critics, including Edward Field—himself an early acquaintance of Thompson’s—and Dana Gioia. There is also a middle-of-the-book folio of images—a privilege most often reserved for Hollywood sirens and literary giants.
Edward Field in U.S. Army, where he met Thompson
The schoolboy and soldier snapshots are a delight for the reader who’s already gotten a taste of Thompson’s elegant, ribald sensibility; the photo reproductions of pages from Thompson’s short-lived lit journal Vise Versa will give the reader a further taste of the kind of campy, envelope-pushing poems and reviews Thompson wrote—work that we hope will one day be republished in full, but, were it not for this new and valuable volume, might never have been known about at all.

On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
Dunstan Thompson
On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
Edited by D. A. Powell and Kevin Prufer
Pleiades Press
9780964145412, Paperback, 190 pp

And while we're on the subject of hot gay poets—or was that just me?—here are a few more for your viewing pleasure: 

Lord Byron
Charles Jensen