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.