Friday, May 31, 2013

How Editions Mean: Walt Whitman Redesigns his Book

It's Walt Whitman's birthday, and today Sally Keith and I read at the Library of Congress to celebrate. I was especially delighted that the Special Collections Librarian had prepared a display of marvelous materials: editions, correspondence, and rarities such as a volume of the Calamus poems combined with Whitman's letters to Peter Doyle -- a most telling combination -- actually signed by Doyle! And printed in an edition of all of five copies, in the early years of the 20th century; those must have been intended for a very special audience.

I have a reproduction of the first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855, but my copy doesn't do justice to the subtlety of the original: the gold lettering on the cover, with the title branching into roots at the bottom of the letters, and the embossing on the cover are more subtle and handsome than I knew.

But what really excited me was seeing the 1856 edition, which Whitman had boldly self-published after the first edition of the previous year sold not a bit. I'd always assumed it followed the same design, but far from it: the new version is small and thick, and it's been trans-formed from a coffee table book for the parlor to a sort of testament -- a volume smaller than the average contemporary paperback, but quite thick. And still green. Just the thing to fit in a good-sized pocket, and looking very much like a testament, which leaves me thinking about how the poet must have understood his book differently, after that year. The new design seems to reflect a new sense of purpose; by 1856, Whitman was going to get that thing into readers' hands.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The misery of self-googling

This morning I made one of those mistakes it seems nearly impossible to avoid now and then.  A Whitman fan asked me about some essays I've published -- parts of a book-in-progress -- and I went searching to see if I could find links to them online. In other words, I googled myself, at least in reference to some particular pieces of prose. If you even a shred of a public life, self-Googling is risky business.  You may turn up a pleasant surprise or two, but it's almost inevitable that you'll stumble upon something you'll wish you hadn't read.

I found myself reading responses to an essay I published in GRANTA, a piece called "Insatiable" that centers on  Whitman, Bram Stoker, the character of Dracula, and the notion of desire as a continuous hunger for what the world has to offer, a hunger that can become boundless and self-perpetuating. It's a frank essay; I'm working, in this book, on a kind of liminal turf between criticism and memoir, and in order to use this method of reading (looking at one's own life through the lens of the poems that matter most to one) I have to talk about my own experience, and place it on the page next to what I read. I am finding this a peculiar balancing act, exhilarating when it works -- and then, every now and then, I find myself thinking, Oh, why am I talking about me?

To my considerable surprise, "Insatiable" was chosen for THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2012, a nifty honor that brings a wider readership. So there I am, in a widely distributed anthology that many people teach, talking about my own sexual adventuring, and the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of "feeding" -- like the hungry poet or the ravenous Count  -- on the energies of others. As one who has written often in affirmation of desire, and on the transformative powers of eros, it seemed important to examine a darker aspect. Why would Bram Stoker say that he based his famous character on "The Good Gray Poet"?

I myself don't think I said anything terribly shocking, but then I live in an urban gay culture in which frank talk is an everyday matter. There's nothing in my piece than isn't mentioned in "Howl," or in the writing of many others. And yet there are elements of the essay that seem to trigger a fair amount of discomfort for some readers, and thus the dollop of online vitriol I wish I'd skipped. Reading it feels like sipping a little dram of poison.

So I find myself trying to think through some of the questions the experience raises.

First, why do I care? I know perfectly well that -- as the wonderful fiction writer Gladys Swann once said -- if you stick your head out of a hole someone will either give you roses or swing at you with a baseball bat. It's in the nature of putting work out into the world, and therefore one just has to find ways to ride out the rough spots. My nature is to more-or-less dismiss the praise and pretty much memorize the condemnations, an old habit and not a useful one; because I know this about myself, there are negative reviews of my work I've never read, and don't plan to. Those voices get stuck in one's head, and truthfully I say enough negative things to myself already,

What I read today were tiresome, homophobic screeds. I know on a broad level there is nothing personal about homophobia; someone who's disgusted by the content of my work isn't disgusted with me, per se, but with me as a representative of a loathed, unacceptable category. But it feels personal, especially when one is writing openly, speaking with the sort of vulnerability that feels to me required for the making of art.

What is summoned up by random nastiness on the net is my own old, stubborn, never-to-be-entirely erased sense of shame. How could it not be? In a time and family where I grew up, the particular transgression that seemed written on my face was somehow simultaneously invisible and declared completely unacceptable. That was written in my nervous system very early on, and to this day there are moments when I feel a kind of internal tensing, a cringe, when I pass a guy on the street in tighter-than-anything pants and elfin boots, carrying aloft a shining aura of gayness. I used to think my response was some relic of internalized homophobia, but when I looked a little deeper I understood that what I felt was fear; I was afraid that boy wasn't safe; he was too visible, too endangered; to be like that was to be hurt.

Probably one of the ways I've responded to the climate in which I grew up -- and to that sense of worthlessness programmed into me -- was to make myself charming. Not an unusual strategy, to seek to overcome prejudice by making oneself likable in spite. There are times when I've viewed this, especially as a performer, as a political strategy. I speak and read in high schools sometimes, and it feels like a kind of mission, not entirely apart from the work of poetry, to say to those audiences, Here I am, a man who loves other men, committed to being direct and emotionally forthright with you. I know from experience that this can change attitudes, and that it can mean the world to a queer kid in Ft Worth or Omaha, who's never had anyone like me show up at school before.

But there are clear dangers in the quest for approval. Allow the decisions one makes about one's work to be shaped by what an imagined audience will enjoy, or worse, approve of?  In that direction lies sentimentality, false witness, and the denial of complexity. You simply have to put in the poem or essay what the piece requires; there is no way around that, though sometimes I wish there were. Actually, that moment when I find myself saying, somewhere into a draft, "Oh, do I have to say this?" is often a crucial one: when I begin to resist what I'm writing, when it feels unnerving or overwhelmingly charged -- well, that's when it's beginning to work.

But one price of that is living with a degree of disapproval, something I find easier to do in some parts of my life that others. When I go out traveling as a visiting poet and memoirist, giving readings and talks,, no one says anything homophobic to me. I'm sheltered by my position,  by politeness and social convention. If there are undercurrents of prejudice, I don't have to hear them. But go online, take a lok
at the anonymous comments, and there are. I'd be curious to hear about the ways others manage this, or fail to; it's a sticking point, and probably a potential place of growth, too. How not to be sideswiped by the nasty stuff,  how to accept a little battering and move on?

The single obvious conclusion: no self-Googling, particularly before noon.