Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The conversation expands...

It’s Also About Politics

by Darrel Alejandro Holnes

In considering Eduardo C. Corral’s statements in a recent interview on the Ploughshares website where he states, “The queer poetry community in New York City is full of beautiful people, which makes me an outsider. I’m not beautiful. I’m overweight. I’m unfashionable. I live in the wrong neighborhood.” I think about growing up in Panama and search my mind for images of queer America. I find the majority of images exported to my country were gay, male, white, fit, and upper middle class: Queer as Folk, Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (with the exception of one Latino co-host), and the list goes on and on when I consider movies, and other media in the 90s – remember, not everything was exported, so though there may be exceptions, they likely didn’t represent out-queer America worldwide. And it isn’t much better the further you look back, the 80s, 70s, 60s.

Corral’s feelings of exclusion reflect the exclusion of alternative queer voices in mainstream American media. Sure, the world of mass media is much, much larger than the microcosm of a queer literary community in New York City, but his feelings echo issues from across various micro-communities within American Queerdom; issues of racial, class, gender, age, and weight discrimination disguised by the word “beauty”.

We could ask what was first, the chicken or the egg? Misrepresentation in the media or prejudice within this already marginalized community? But despite wherever the blame might fall, the reality is not erased. I won’t use this space to argue either side, or to talk about discrimination in our community being rooted in patriarchy, racialized ideals of beauty, the performance of identity shaped by an American obsession with material culture, self-hating homophobia, misogyny, white privilege, imported legacies of post-colonialism brought (back) to us by globalization, or other theories…

Instead, I’ll use this space to ask - are you aware of realities like Corral’s within the queer community? If you are aware, in what ways are your actions considerate of this reality? If not, reflect on how your own actions may have continually perpetuated this divide. A divide we allow perhaps because we believe it when the media says the divide is “normal.” If we want to elevate the discourse on this subject we have to elevate its consciousness.

“So many of them value looks over talent. The cool kids form clubs, become gatekeepers. So many of my peers are clamoring to be let in. […] I believe in community, but I’m hesitant to reach out to some of my peers because I’ve already been spurned by a few. One young man told me, “You don’t look like the rest of us.”

Corral’s words encourage me more to act - to make sure my brothers, sisters, and other members like him always feel included in the work I do - than to criticize, defend, or discuss Alex Dimitrov and his Wilde Boys literary salon, as has been done by Jameson Fitzpatrick on the Lambda Literary blog and by others.

Not to say Wilde Boys is above criticism. Perhaps some critics are right to challenge Dimitrov to make Wilde Boys more than it is, to perhaps make it into the queer literary epicenter of New York City that the hype (though sometimes disparagingly so – NY Times) presents it as being, and for that epicenter to be more inclusive; for Wilde Boys to achieve its maximum potential. Perhaps he ought to rise to that challenge – despite how he feels WB might have already welcomed more diversity.  Or perhaps it is what it is, a private literary salon, worthwhile for its members (and full disclosure, yes, I’ve been in that room) but unworthy of all this public attention.

But all “perhaps” aside, the fact is that regardless of what Dimitrov does or does not do, we each as individuals have a responsibility to be more inclusive and to expand our understanding of what it means to be “queer”; to be more empathetic to the legacy of the community’s complex past, one where barriers have been simultaneously broken down and built up; to develop a stronger community than ever before.

Let’s not pretend that for a minute this discussion is solely about poetry – not Corral’s, or Dimitrov’s, or Sexton’s - nor should it be. This is also about politics within the queer literary poetry community. The moment we enter the illusion that it’s about anything other than politics we are missing out on the greatest lesson:

The more aware we are of our community’s own politics and history, the more responsibly we can build a better future – and the stronger and more dynamic our community the more vigorously it will thrive.

A strong community can conquer any obstacle – as trite as that might sound, it’s true. And ultimately, I’ll give them all the benefit of the doubt and say, perhaps that’s just what Dimitrov, Corral, Fitzpatrick, and others hoped to foster with this dialogue, strong community via their various statements, posts, projects, and yes, perhaps even via their poetry. And we ought to try even harder in our every day lives to make sure we all stand together - queers and allies alike.

I started this piece talking about mass media because having grown up without a proper variety of queer role models I strive to make sure my life doesn’t imitate art. Let’s not be like those writers, casting directors, and TV execs that pigeonholed actors and televised stereotypes when we were growing up, (nor like those who still do this today). Let’s not be poetry “gatekeepers” who keep people out and call what remains “beautiful”. Open the gates and right those wrongs by building a more diverse community and engaging our community with a deeper awareness of its history. Now that would be beautiful.


Darrel Alejandro Holnes is a poet and playwright. He is the recipient of scholarships to Cave Canem, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, various awards, writing fellowships, and writer's residencies. He and his work have appeared in the Kennedy Center College Theater Festival, TIME Magazine, Callaloo, the Caribbean Writer, on the Best American Poetry blog as one of the Phantastique 5, and elsewhere. He is currently the Program Director of the Poetry Society of America, where he collaborates with Letras Latinas on Latino/a Poetry Now.


Rigoberto González said...

Thank you, Francisco, for posting this insightful piece by Darrel Alejandro Holnes on Letras Latinas. I had a chance to meet Darrel, finally, when I attended the Poetry Society of America awards ceremony last month. I was there to present Wanda Coleman with the Shelley Memorial Award--Gary Young and I (both of us previous Shelley Memorial Award recipients) were the co-judges for this prize. I am deliberately mentioning all these names and organizations to illustrate how different communities come together in the spirit of collaboration and conversation. Poetry can indeed rise above demarcations and separations, without erasing identities and political beliefs. Case in point: a white male poet and a gay Chicano poet select a female African American poet to receive a prestigious recognition.

Up until now I have remained silent about this unfortunate episode that, no matter how you look at it, attempted to lessen the importance of a voice and reputation of one of our most promising Chicano poets whose accomplishments are making our Chicano/ Latino community proud. I will dispense with deconstructing or critiquing that initial post and subsequent statements because, thankfully, poet bloggers from within and outside of New York City have labored to detail the argumentative weaknesses and overall lack of maturity.

I will say, however, that’s it’s been a positive experience for me reading the level of wisdom, intelligence, and critical acumen exercised in a number of these responses. I will single out this piece by Darrel, certainly, and also by Saeed Jones, my former student. I hesitate to use the word “dialogue” because the responses to these critiques do not measure up in sophistication, nor have they shown an interest in the articulation of “the big picture” that’s been underscored each time. Indeed, that is troubling, but I am comforted, nonetheless, that among the next generation of writers I can find those who are leading by example, highlighting their creativity and--imagine that?--their brain power.

Rigoberto González

Lucas said...

Darrel et al, thank you for pushing this conversation forward. In the spirit of including marginalized ideas of beauty, I ask all of you to please read a piece I wrote on other implications of this controversy titled "Excess, Beauty, and the Limits of Identity Politics in Lambda and Beyond" (at

Darrel, you ask that we "not be poetry 'gatekeepers' who keep people out and call what remains 'beautiful'," but sadly I think even poets on the margins are guilty of this. As a young, queer-identified Latino poet who writes from a literary tradition of excess, I can't tell you how often I've felt punished (or, worse, neglected) in this country because of my aesthetic. Despite drawing from writers and artists as influential as Roberto Bolaño, Clarice Lispector, César Vallejo, and Frida Kahlo, I know I'm not alone in this sense of exclusion. It seems that even the best efforts to represent Latino and/or queer poetry tend to reject, along with the rest of American poetry, writing that defies notions of good taste and dares instead to be baroque, corporeal, and/or grotesque.

In my piece, I quote a recent blog post by Rigoberto González (about Letras Latinas) only to demonstrate the extent to which this particular aesthetic exclusion goes unnoticed.

Un saludo,
Lucas de Lima

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you, Lucas, for adding your voice to this conversation. I had read and appreciated your post at Montevidayo. Although I am only speaking for myself, my views on Latino poetics are very very ample. The quote I carry around with me is Lorna Dee Cervantes: "It's Chicana poetry because a Chicana wrote it." And here is how I end my introduction to The Wind Shifts: New Latino (University of Arizona Press, 2007): "Any attempt, therefore, to require or suggest certain aesthetic parameters, both in terms of subject matter or style, dishonors, I believe, the legacy of many of Latino and Chicano poetry's first adherents--both living and dead. A legacy, to be sure, that involved creating art informed by our community's stories and our social and political struggles, struggles that continue, but which are also joined by a celebration, as well as an exploration of language."