Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days of what it means to be a gay writer, probably because June is gay pride month. I suppose I tend to see the idea of a gay writer in two ways as it relates to me, sort of like a chameleon with two independently floating eyeballs connected to one brain—to one instinctual purpose. I can see (I hope to see) myself in one thousand years being pored over by a group of eager young scholars at the University of Olympus Mons on Mars. Each would be an immigrant, a muscular mix of Japanese, Ukranian and Nigerian origins. Each would be between the ages of 23 and 35.

Each would lovingly explore every inch of my manhood wherever it pokes through my poems. Nothing would make me a happier immortal. But, before I start taking off my pants, I think I need to distinguish the future practice of scholarship from the present practice of art. I must be an artist before I am adored by the scholars of tomorrow. My interests here are not academic but creative. They are, in very real terms, a matter of survival.

I am not immortal yet. I am still working on my reputation. I must think in more utilitarian terms—in terms of engineering. How does this zipper thing work? Who will help me with my spacesuit? How do I get my ass to Mars? Does thinking of myself as a gay writer today help me in that imaginative mission? I don’t think that it does. Let me see if I can explain why.

There is a kind of Calvinist mist of terrestrial predestination clinging to the idea of a gay writer that crinkles my nose—sort of the way suspicious milk does. When I am at a loss for words and I put a Bic into my mouth, I often ask myself whose foreskin I am nibbling. Who am I teasing, who am I torturing, whose jaded spirit am I boring to death with my dental timidity? I wonder how much the promise of a penis dictates the direction of my pen. Does it? Must it?

Yes, sometimes, especially if I am horny: if I want to write a poem to persuade some cutie on a gay dating site like Manhunt to come over for a fuck session, it certainly does. Believe me, when my dick is in the ascendant, I can out Marvell Marvell. For me, there is a powerful imaginative incentive in a penis. But first and foremost, my loyalty as a poet is to the project I am working on. In this limited case, like Andrew Marvell, getting laid.

I imagine Andrew Marvell probably did get laid for writing ‘To His Coy Mistress.’ I would have been his in an instant. He had me at the word “Had.” But since dear old Andrew is dead, what matters to me now is how his poem works rhetorically and how I can make it work for me as a poet. Can my Manhunt version of ‘Mistress’ obey the rules of Manhunt (300 characters per profile) and its own poetic logic? Do I transcend the transaction on Manhunt and acquire a larger life in the mind of the reader? Does the object of my desire drop by for some real meat?

The object of desire for any author, of course, is the reader. Unless the writer is satisfied to sit at home in the dark and masturbate in front of his computer—peering at porn through the leg holes of the stolen jockstrap he has fastened to his face—which some authors are. To each his own. It is a big universe. There is room enough for everyone. Even for me, I hope. I have other designs and desires. I look at literature as Manhunt writ large. It is a place where strangers separated by vast distances in space and time can potentially connect.

Sometimes, like Keats, I write about Greek ceramics. Sometimes, like Kipling, I write about animals. But I rarely do this on Manhunt unless I am tweaked out of my gourd. I write in different ways for different purposes in different places. “I,” to coin a phrase, “contain multitudes.” I define myself in different ways based on what I am doing. For instance, right now, I am a French heterosexual who suffered from kidney stones. I am Montaigne. I am an essayist. I am assaying myself.

Here is where I think the idea of being a gay writer becomes a kidney stone. It tells us nothing that you or I couldn’t discover for ourselves in a few lines of chat—a poem, a novel, a painting, what have you—but it demands that we relate to each other in a certain way (socially, politically, aesthetically) that we might not feel like relating to each other today. In other words, the painful urethral truth is that one of us is not always horny. The only thing I am—the only thing I shall ever be—in perpetuity is human: ambitious in my dreams and profoundly silly.

Two events in literature are never far from my mind whenever I confront this question of identity. I call them ‘events’ because they take on a larger life in my imagination than many other scenes in literature. The first occurs as Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography, where, before it was codified in legal terms, Douglass establishes an irrefutable claim to humanity through the power of words. He ceases to be a slave subject to the language of his masters. He becomes a man, in his own right in his own person. All of this he did illegally, all without the approval of anyone in the dictionary department at Oxford. He defined himself. It is a very American thing to do.

The second occurs in Mrs. Dalloway where Sally Seton and Clarissa Dalloway kiss. Clarissa and Sally establish the terms of their emotional discourse independent of men. It is a private interaction which takes place in the public sphere of language, in the same way that two soap bubbles may collide to form one delicately shimmering rainbow of a world: a shape not governed by the laws of man, but those of nature. The characters in Mrs. Dalloway might not fully appreciate the implications of what they are doing with that lip-lock, but I think it is a pretty safe bet to say that Virginia Woolf did.

As much as I may admire a poet like A.E. Housman for his stoicism and his classical scholarship—his ability to frame the predicament of the homosexual trying to make his way in a society largely hostile to his erotic and emotional needs is almost unparalelled in its grim clarity—I must disagree with my old friend in one vital particular. After reading Frederick Douglass and Virginia Woolf, Housman’s poem The Laws of God and Man no longer holds true for me:

I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.

My world is different. We have been to places like Mercury and Saturn. We have set spacecraft down on Mars. We once left footprints on the Moon, transforming its surface forever. In the same way, Virginia Woolf and Frederick Douglass have enlarged my understanding of what may be possible for me as a writer—where I might take myself and my readers. The only immutable laws—the only laws of God which I am prepared to recognize—are those governing the behavior of atoms. The laws of man may be rewritten by anyone with the courage to apply his talents in a new way.

When I suggested a few days ago that I would start to think of myself as a ‘cocksucker’ instead of a gay or queer writer, I had more than an evening of bukkake with fifteen frisky fratboys in mind. I was toying with an idea: a new way of looking at my identity—the relationship between my artistic self and the received understanding of what it means to be a gay writer. I asked myself the question: how does labeling myself a gay writer advance my imaginative interests? Does that innocent adjective ‘gay’ expand or restrict my horizons?

Then I started fooling around with my keyboard. I wondered what would happen if I lost the adjectives—gay, queer, pansy, cocksucker—and became (in my own mind anyway) ‘a writer.’ I asked myself if I—a mere poet—had the right to make such far-reaching editorial decisions. It is my future we are talking about, so I think I do. But how would that act of grammatical emancipation occur? Did it just occur? What have I done with my delete key? Have I, in a sense, without quite realizing it, just become the master of my own destiny?

I am not a man to mince words, though I am always happy to allow my thoughts to mince and swish wherever they wish. Cock sucking I understand. Cock sucking is an art. A cocksucker I can evaluate. This one has depth and ingenuity: he is a Leonardo. This one has teeth: he is a Caravaggio. This one might need a clean t-shirt before we are finished: he is a Pollack. Cock sucking all comes down to technique.

Gay, then, is what? Rather vague, in my opinion. A lemony gray. A word. Not even a verb. An adjunct professor. An adjective apt to be pushed around by nouns. The meekest of modifiers. What is its precise value to me as a poet? I appreciate its use in the publishing industry as a marketing tool. Gay is a cheerful sounding bibliographical category—much better than War or Warts. Queer is cool because it gives a nice edgy feel to a grant application. Each term has a specific political utility, in the way symbolic donkeys and elephants do.

The trouble for me is that I am not a symbol. I am a person. I am a member of the human race. I am Montaigne, Frederick Douglass, and Virginia Woolf all rolled into one—with a bunch of other people thrown in besides. I am me. The words gay and queer tell me nothing concrete about who or what I am, what I will do with myself tonight, or how I will get to Mars.

Here, I think, I must come out of the closet entirely. I am a deeply deranged and perverted individual. I am always casting about for some new thrill. As much as I look forward to the eternal tongue bath I will receive from those muscular studs at the University of Olympus Mons—it is better than being forgotten or neglected, certainly—I know what it feels like to be kissed by men. I must have kissed millions. What gets my glans glistening and my fingers moving across my keyboard is a different—some even may call it a sick—desire.

You see, even though I am on Manhunt editing my profile, even though there is one especially well-endowed Dominican daddy IMing me right now, even though I might well IM him back very shortly with my phone number, where I hope to wind up in the future is not at an orgy in Washington Heights, or in a library, but in a popular lavatory on the Tharsis Plateau.

I picture a quiet apotheosis occurring in a locked pink stall located inside a glittering spaceport built some distance from our hypothetical Martian University. I want to find myself buried in a book, an electric, highly eclectic collection of Humanity’s best. I want to be secretly read with pleasure. I want to be zippered inside the backpack of a freshman—some sexless, but culturally bi-curious exchange student on his way back to Andromeda for spring break: someone for whom the emotion of love was an alien mystery.

A mystery, that is, until he—let’s call this little conundrum a ‘he’—ran into me.

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ERIC NORRIS is the author of two books available on Lulu.com: Terence, a comic translation of A.E. Housman’s tragic masterpiece, A Shropshire Lad, and Takaaki, an epic love poem written in the style of Alexander Pushkin. Along with Gavin Geoffrey Dillard, he is co-author of Nocturnal Omissions, an epistolary series of poems exploring love, death, time travel, aging, AIDS, sex, religion and reincarnation, soon to be published by Sibling Rivalry Press. Eric lives in New York City.

2 responses to “From Manhunt to Mars: My Secret (Gay) Plan”

  1. Uche Ogbuji says:

    It is treacherous indeed, isn’t it, how the glass of identity can warp its lens to enlarge or reduce bits of how we wish to engage the outside world? Writer, dreamer, homosexual, black, student, journey-uh-person… I guess successfully achieved immortality means that the artist has managed to expand that magic glass until it works its funhouse magic over a greater segment of humanity. Perhaps it’s in the process of alternately embracing identities and repudiating them, and even thrashing around for new ones that we create the necessary energy to engage people across space and time. The bottom line, of course is that the writer has to live, to really live, and those identities are all bound up in what it means to really live, and the question becomes to what extent they are actual chemical reactants and to what extent they’re just catalysts. Eliot had his whole thing about how the mind of the poet, generically, should aspire to be a pure catalyst, like a bit of platinum in a chamber of oxygen and sulphur dioxide, in “[transmuting the] passions which are its material.” I think the puzzle for our time is to push beyond old tightwad Eliot’s limited imagination to assess what it means to aspire to catalysis among today’s diverse varieties of living.

    BTW I couldn’t help wondering whether U of O M would have to send across two orbits to the University of Veneris Mons for papers concerning the old tale wherein Clarissa Dalloway snogged Sally Seton, for a fuller appreciation of this essay in its archives.

    BTBTW I couldn’t help that the tryst on Tharsis Plateau bit reminded me of Dr. Manhattan taking the love interest to Mars in The Watchmen.

    Welcome aboard the TNB rocketship.

  2. Eric Norris says:

    Hi Uche,

    Thanks for the welcome, Uche. And thank you, Brad, floating about in the aether above us, for allowing me to participate here.

    I have often thought about Eliot’s metaphor of the catalyst as a model for what happens in the mind of a poet. It sounds a little too alchemical, a little too metaphysical. Housman’s critique of the metaphysical poets is one of the funniest things I have ever read. From Housman’s lecture, The Name and Nature of Poetry:

    “Some of the writers who purveyed it [the pleasures of poetry] to their contemporaries were, by accident, considerable poets; and though their verse was generally inharmonious, and apparently cut into lengths and tied into faggots by deaf mathematicians, some little of their poetry was beautiful and even superb.”

    Sounds like he could be describing Eliot to me.

    Eliot gives us a species of lifeless, purely artistic spontaneous generation. I think poets (and the varieties of human poetry) evolve over time, like living creatures. Encounters with others, other societies, other cultures, other poets. Each poem is a snapshot in the process of development.

    Yeats is a pretty good example of how a poet absorbs, mutates and changes for the better as an individual. Swinburne is an evolutionary dead end. Eliot is. It is hard to say what Eliot is. But he certainly is. Or was.

    Nabokov thought Eliot was a fraud. Groucho Marx was Eliot’s friend. How are we to square this circle?

    Maybe we should seek solace in Laurel (Stan) and Hardy (Thomas) and leave it at that.

    All the best,
    Eric

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