Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.
Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.
But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.
At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”
I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)
The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.
He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.
And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:
If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.
Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:
Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.
Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.
[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]
I have issues with my appetite. It’s not apparent from my waistline, but that comes from my lack of exercise. I get hungry but don’t feel like eating. It’s difficult to manage. When I do get the urge to eat, I do whatever I can to make sure I eat something.
So I’m out running errands this morning when I need to eat. Having just checked my bank account, I know there’s only one option for me close by: Taco Bell. I know, I know–they use bits and parts and call it ground beef, but it’s cheap, and that’s often my number-one measure of the desirability of food.
So I go to the Taco Bell in Minneapolis’s downtown skyway system. I come in at the very beginning of the lunch rush. The cashier, a friendly African American woman, takes my order. I get my cup for water, since I try to avoid soda–the cashier said she wished she could have some water–and await my order. The manager, a middle-aged white man, barks out the names of the line staff. I’ve been to this Taco Bell enough to know that I only know of one other white person to work on the line. As I await my meal, the manager hands me a soda cup. He says I get a free soda because his staff is “annoying” him.
I was in shock. I’ve worked enough in the public sector to know that his behavior was thoroughly unacceptable. When I worked at Minnesota Children’s Museum, we talked about “on-stage” and “off-stage” behavior–when working in clear sight of the public, you are “on stage.” What this manager did was abysmal on-stage behavior, and pretty lousy for off-stage behavior, as well. Finally, one of the line staff–a young African American man–calls out my order number.
I am not a confrontational person. When I am put into the position to speak up, my right leg shakes, my heart pounds, and I struggle to get my voice above a whisper. But I told the manager, “I’m not taking my meal, you don’t treat your employees very well,” and rushed out before he could say a word to me and I turned into a quivering mass of passivity on the floor. He made me lose my appetite, anyway.
All of this came on the heels of my catching a story in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune (front-page in the print edition, buried in the online): Minnesota has the widest racial gap in home ownership in the United States.
This divide in housing does not surprise me at all. I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. Most of our neighborhoods are divided by race. I don’t have my picture posted on my blog, so you don’t necessarily know until I tell you that I’m white. (Technically, I’m white-skinned–my racial background takes more explaining than I wish to do here. But society treats me as white, and that’s what matters as far as the line of reasoning I’m developing here is concerned.) And I’ve felt far more comfortable in neighborhoods where people who look like me are a minority. I often say that I blame it all on Sesame Street, that the show taught me that living in a racially diverse community is an inherently good thing. And I think that’s part of it. But I also think that I’m not often comfortable in large groups of white people because I associate being white with having money, which I can’t relate to.
Earlier this week, a most remarkable thing happened. A man named Charles Ramsey rescued three women who had been kidnapped a decade ago. (I’m not going to link the great many reports of the incident here. If you don’t know about this, Google it.) It was simple as noticing something wasn’t right and calling the police, but it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t do. When there’s drama in our neighborhoods, many of us tend to look the other way, not wanting to get involved. As the product of an abusive household, I am well aware of the phenomenon. Mr. Ramsey’s quick thinking saved these women’s lives.
Rightfully, the press hailed him as a hero. Unfortunately, the attention didn’t stop there. People were quick to mock Mr. Ramsey’s working-class values and African American vernacular. Out rolled the stills from the TV interviews, with sophomoric jokes dutifully typed out in Impact font.
Not everyone was in on the joke. Some have pointed out the layers of privilege and racism that have been uncovered this week, most notably in this spectacular blog post. Mr. Ramsey’s statement that a white woman rushing into the arms of a black man can only mean trouble is an ugly truth we in America ignore. Or, rather, we whites in America ignore. Because perhaps the ugliest thing about privilege is that if you have it, you never have to think about it in order to successfully navigate life. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that America really hasn’t progressed since the days of Emmett Till, as much as we whites would like to pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves otherwise.
Mr. Ramsey has revealed the tiniest bit of his Story in interviews, only to have it mocked by people who weren’t raised to have empathy. It is only by earnestly listening to each other that we have any hope as a species.
Edited to add (I meant to say this originally and forgot): I think it so funny that, from what we know, Charles Ramsey could probably be the best neighbor someone could have: hardworking, amiable, watchful. And yet how many of my fellow white Minneapolites would avoid living next to him.
In my online Adolescent Lit class the other day, we were asked to read two essays regarding the value of young-adult literary awards created especially for works that showcase the writing and stories of racial and ethnic minorities. The first essay was written by a white male scholar, who believed that such awards prefer subject matter over literary merit, and thus run a great risk of rewarding inferior writing. The second essay was written by an African American female author as a direct rebuttal, explaining the history of how mainstream awards have repeatedly dismissed the efforts of non-white authors and illustrators.
For my class, we were to post our response as to which side won the debate in the class “discussion,” which functions like a message board. I wrote that the field of literature was an extension of the field of academia, which exists as the result of centuries of white privilege and institutional racism. The vast majority of whites are, for many reasons, ignorant of the privileges they are afforded in society based solely on the color of their skin. Moreover, a person has no ground on which to claim what is appropriate for a group to which he does not belong, particularly if he belongs to a group that has historically oppressed the group in question. (This is simply a matter of respect in my book.) For these reasons, in the class discussion, I made the bold assertion that the first essayist did not even have the right to an opinion in the matter.
I awaited a mob of classmates, charging with virtual pitchforks, ready to pillory me for daring to suggest that someone doesn’t have the right to an opinion. I waited in vain. Most of my classmates–interestingly, including many who are not white–appreciated my perspective, and stated that they hadn’t even considered the angle of white privilege. Only one student rebutted my claim that the first essayist didn’t have the right to an opinion, since, as we are so often told, everyone always has the right to an opinion.
I, of course, disagree. For example, I have the right to an opinion about matters of taste. But even then, that only goes so far. I may not like what someone is wearing, for instance, but even then, I don’t necessarily have the right to air my opinion about it, especially if doing so belittles the other person (and so often it does.) In fact, if someone is walking down the street stark naked, the only reason that should be my business is if that person is too cold–then, it is my moral obligation as a fellow human being to ensure they are warm.
And then there are matters in which it doesn’t even make sense for opinion to come into play–and yet it seems almost everyone, in their postmodern, it’s-all-what-you-believe mentality, thinks otherwise. Many of these matters have to do with what a person has the right to know.
I do not have the right to know what two (or more) consenting adults do in the bedroom.
I do not have a right to know how your genitalia look or how they function. I do not have the right to an opinion as to whether your genitalia should match what I think your gender is, or even what you think your gender is.
I could go on, but I need to get a move-on with my day. Blogger Dan Pearce has a great list that delves further into this issue. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but overall, it is great food for thought.
Like I said, there is much more I want to say on this subject, but that will have to wait for other days.