7 Queer Poets You Should Know
While preparing to write the 2013 inaugural poem “One Today,” gay writer Richard Blanco wrestled with a difficult question. In his book For All of Us, One Today, released this week, Blanco revealed that he was forced to ask himself, “Do I truly love America?”
For LGBT poets, love and love of country are complicated matters, since the former often finds itself in direct conflict with the latter. Can one truly love a country where, in many places, prejudice is both legal and morally ingrained? Ultimately, Blanco’s poem, included in its entirety later in this article, is a celebration of unity across race, culture, and sexual orientation. On January 21, 2013, the nation and the world listened as a gay poet, the son of Cuban exiles, delivered this hopeful message, marking a great milestone the LGBT community has reached in America.
While Blanco consciously steered away from controversy in “One Today” (“My selection was enough of a statement,” he wrote), queer poets and politics are inevitably intertwined. From Sappho to Oscar Wilde to the Beat Generation, LGBT bards have played a crucial role in articulating every shade of sexuality by capturing, mourning, and celebrating the experience of being queer. In this spirit, The Advocate reached out to poets Frank Bidart, Eileen Myles, Mark Doty, Judy Grahn, CAConrad, and Tim Trace Peterson for poems that illustrate how the current generation expresses queer love and identity, in all its unity and division.
“Queer” by Frank Bidart
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That's what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
For each gay kid whose adolescence
was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
Involuted velleities of self-erasure.
Quickly after my parents
died, I came out. Foundational narrative
designed to confer existence.
If I had managed to come out to my
mother, she would have blamed not
me, but herself.
The door through which you were shoved out
into the light
was self-loathing and terror.
Thank you, terror!
You learned early that adults' genteel
fantasies about human life
were not, for you, life. You think sex
is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.
Excerpted from Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Frank Bidart’s most recent full-length collections of poetry are Watching the Spring Festival (FSG, 2008), Star Dust (FSG, 2005), Desire (FSG, 1997), and In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90 (FSG, 1990). He has won many prizes, including the Wallace Stevens Award, and, most recently, the 2007 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. He teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Cambridge, Mass.
“A History of Lesbianism” by Judy Grahn
How they came into the world,
came in three by three
and four by four
came in ten by ten
and ten by ten again
until there were more
than you could count
they took care of each other
the best they knew how
and of each other's children
if they had any.
How they lived in the world,
learned as much as they were allowed
and walked and wore their clothes
the way they liked
whenever they could. They did whatever
they knew to be happy or free
and worked and worked and worked.
in America were called dykes
and some liked it
and some did not.
they made love to each other
the best they knew how
and for the best reasons
How they went out of the world,
went out one by one
having withstood greater and lesser
trials, and much hatred
from other people, they went out
one by one, each having tried
in her own way to overthrow
the rule of men over women,
they tried it one by one
and hundred by hundred,
until each came in her own way
to the end of her life
The subject of lesbianism
is very ordinary; it's the question
of male domination that makes everybody
Excerpted from love belongs to those who do the feeling by Judy Grahn. Copyright 2008. Excerpted with permission by Red Hen Press.
Judy Grahn is a poet, writer, and social theorist. She is currently a professor in the Women’s Spirituality Master’s Program at Sofia University in Palo Alto, Calif. She is former director of Women's Spirituality MA and Creative Inquiry MFA programs at New College of California. Her books include love belongs to those who do the feeling (Red Hen Press, 2008), Blood, Bread, and Roses (Beacon Press, 1994), and Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (The Women's Press Collective, 1971).
Excerpt from "Soma(tic) Poetry Ritual & Resulting Poem" by CAConrad
“And our lips are not our lips. But are the lips of heads of poets.
And should shout revolution.”
Excerpted from ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness by CA Conrad, which is released September 2014. Excerpted with permission from the author and Wave Books.
CAConrad is the author of six books including ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books, 2014), A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (WAVE Books, 2012) and The Book of Frank (WAVE Books, 2010). A 2011 Pew Fellow, a 2013 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2014 Lannan Fellow, he also conducts workshops on (Soma)tic poetry and Ecopoetics. Visit him online at CAConrad.blogspot.com.
"At the Gym" by Mark Doty
This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,
and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen
this time: more reps,
more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we've been:
flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
gaining some power
at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who's
added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there's something more
tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.
Here is some halo
the living made together.
Excerpted from Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems by Mark Doty. Copyright 2009. Excerpted with permission by Harper Perennial.
Mark Doty's Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008. His books of poems include School of the Arts, Source, and My Alexandria. Two new books are forthcoming, both from W.W. Norton: What Is the Grass, a prose meditation on Walt Whitman and the ecstatic, and Deep Lane, a new volume of poems.
"HI" by Eileen Myles
for Steve Carey
You made me smell.
I didn’t smell at
all before I met you
smells are pouring out of
my clothes, feet, my
socks my hair
this is gross
you’ve made me monstrous
and I love it
I knew a man who laughed
for being this way
stinking of love
it was what he was
a stinking factory of his love
lying there all day
going out to get a smoke
I’m the east coast version
since I met you
since the era of my famous
resistance to you ended
it began like the wind
I am a window to the world
the mailman can see me
he waves; children out there playing
it’s even this way when I’m out
except when I hold your hand
I want it; to be this exception
not a woman or a man
The heart pumps
the man is dead and it’s
it’s a smelly season
don’t you think
the earth knows
the bugs are beginning to look
you’re throwing your mother’s
old stuff out
your friends are beginning
I want to show
mine something different
the ripples I’ve become
the way language changes
and rocks heal & burn
your little round animal
face keeps coming around
the corner but
oh no now you’re coming down
I’m looking up
Excerpted from Snowflake/different streets by Eileen Myles. Copyright 2012. Excerpted with permission from the author and Wave Books.
Eileen Myles is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays, and libretti, including Snowflake/different streets, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), The Importance of Being Iceland (for which she received a Warhol Creative Capital Art Writers Grant) and Sorry, Tree. A former director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Myles campaigned as an openly female write-in candidate for U.S. president in 1992. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2012. She lives in New York.
Excerpt from “Trans Figures” by Tim Trace Peterson
The voice wants to turn itself into a body.
It can’t, though it tries hard —
it brings you flowers, to engender a meaningful
relationship. It makes you coffee in the morning.
Here, have a cup.
See? It likes you. It makes your bed
and shows you this mountain vista out the window
a field of jupiters beard and beyond it
the dying fields. It shows you things like the sun
going down, and then here it is coming up in the hollyhocks.
Don’t look, you’ll hurt your eyes. I want
to be there for you, you never respond
in those moments we touch (but they are not enough).
Let me stroke your hair once more, here,
and again here. The voice is growing distant
now, it is fading like the sun fades
and explodes in strands of parti-colored fibers
you will never be able to see.
Let there be breasts! (and there were breasts)
Let there be a penis! (and there was a penis)
or at least it looked like it from the viewer’s perspective,
under those clothes. If only it were slim,
with wide hips! (and it was slim with wide hips)
Let there be taffeta, muslin, silk, velvet,
velour, or crinoline: and there were all these things,
in abundance. Let there be hard hats, biceps
bulging out of their shirts, buttocks like boulders
in tight jeans, and there were all these things,
across the landscape. The people looked around
and saw the abundances that language had given them.
The voice envied them. It could have none of this
to keep, but wanted you to think it did.
Smoothed my hand over the plush
Slipping my arms into the sheer
deep sound in my throat
my big breasts filling both my hands
Muscles rippling under my thin cotton shirt
Cleared my throat and began
Trailed blue smoke from my nostrils, like a lazy
Around my shoulders and across
To a party. Forget my hair for now
Clearing my throat, I glanced over
hips were small, and I wondered
Watching my cheeks flex as I suckled
felt hot against my almost naked
Riveted on the full, soft curve
Look around, my gray eyes unreadable.
In heels and a skirt, an elegant gesture of the arm
like this, a certain sweep of the neck
into necklace, the voice is trying to manifest
itself. It leaves its apartment after dark,
wondering if its neighbors will see it passing,
crossing the lawn, the tap of its heels
the only sound in the parking lot.
Excerpted from Since I Moved In by Tim Trace Robinson. Copyright 2007. Excerpted with permission from the author.
Tim Trace Peterson is a poet, editor, and scholar. Author of the poetry book Since I Moved In (Chax Press) and numerous chapbooks, Peterson is also editor and publisher of EOAGH and co-editor of the new anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books). New poetry and criticism are forthcoming in Vanitas, TSQ, and Original Plumbing.
"One Today" by Richard Blanco
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem for us today.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, always
home, always under one sky, our sky. And always
one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars. Hope—a new constellation waiting
for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.
Excerpted from For All Of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Selected by President Obama to be the fifth inaugural poet in history, Richard Blanco followed in the footsteps of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander. The youngest, first Latino, first immigrant, and first openly gay person to serve in the role, he read his inaugural poem, "One Today," on January 21, 2013. His poems have also appeared in The Best American Poetry and Great American Prose Poems. Blanco is a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, recipient of two Florida Artist Fellowships, and is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. A builder of cities as well as poems, he is also a professional civil engineer currently living in Bethel, Maine.