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Radio Show – Poet Greg Hewett on his literary coming out

February 26, 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013,  10-11PM ET

Listen to the podcast here

Poet Greg Hewett on the air.

Poet Greg Hewett on the air.

In the recently published anthology “Who’s Yer Daddy?: Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners,” our guest, poet Greg Hewett, recounts how his furtive adolescent theft of a library book opened up a literary universe of homosexual experience. In the same collection, Richard Blanco, poet of President Obama’s second inaugural, comes to terms with memories of his intensely homophobic grandmother.

Tonight we’ll discuss mentors and forerunners of today’s gay literati and cultural icons. Hewett also became a father a few years ago, something he had not expected. How has that changed his world?  And there will be music, of course, by our favorite artist!

Hewett, an Associate Professor of English at Carleton College, is the author of four books of poetry, most recently darkacre (Coffee House Press 2010). The Minneapolis Post writes: “He takes the long view of life and history, calling in ancient civilizations to make sense of our own, or imagining hidden worlds, the flip side of our own.” He has just completed his fifth book (part memoir, part biog), THE HEAVY, about his gay, Hispanic great uncle, trailblazing Hollywood actor Thomas Gomez. Here’s the website: http://thomasgomezactor.com/

Here’s Hewett’s chapter from “Who’s Yer Daddy.” We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

The Tallahachee Meets the Arve, or Unexpected Gay Confluences in the ’70s

Greg Hewett

It was a time before library books had anti-theft magnetic strips, when you showed the librarian your borrower’s card, then signed duplicate book cards right below the name of the previous borrower. One card she would place in a pocket pasted inside the back cover of the book, the other she would keep. The point being, it was relatively easy to steal library books back then, but you just wouldn’t. You just wouldn’t. But I did. At fourteen, I stole a book from our town library, violating the place that had been my refuge from the usual slings and arrows of gay boyhood in America. The hot item was of course a gay book. It was the first I had ever come across, and then only by accident. Though I never became Jean Genet’s homosexual-as thief-as-poet, all these years later I rationalize that I stole it simply because it was 1972, just three years after Stonewall, and I had not heard even the faintest echo of the gay shot heard ’round the world, let alone its message of gay liberation. In fact, I barely knew what the word “gay” meant. It was, for me, the Great Unknown. Yet I did know I was ashamed to show the librarian I wanted to read this book bound in lavender, and that she might surmise I was homosexual (because that was the polite word she would have used). I also knew I was scared to have my name appear on the book-card for future borrowers to see, and that they might think I was queer (because that was then a less polite word most other people would have used).

It was also a time before students carried knapsacks, when guys carried books in one arm, hanging at the hip, not in two arms, pressed against the chest, as girls did, or as fairies did. This meant there was no convenient place to stash the stolen book. But I was a scrawny enough teenager and could manage to tuck the 731-page tome in the waistband of my carpenter jeans, and pulled my V-neck sweater over the bulge. I then checked out decoy books that I quite deliberately hung from my hip as I passed through the turnstile into the ungay world with my gay contraband. I felt that I was bringing the Unknown into the Known.

This now long-out-of-print book was Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual in History, a single-volume biographical encyclopedia first published in 1964 by Vantage Press, what was then called a vanity press. Maybe it was self-published because back then no reputable publisher would take on a book like that. The edition I stole—and which still remains in my possession—is from 1969, by Nosbooks, an even more obscure New York imprint that is, as far as I can tell, no longer in existence. At that age, I still thought my public library had every book in the world; in retrospect, I find it amazing that this book of dubious content and provenance was there at all. Maybe there was a gay librarian?

The author-editor of Jonathan to Gide is one Noel I. Garde (b. 1925), who at first also seemed to have almost entirely disappeared in the Internet era. I eventually found a pdf for correspondence in the papers of one Edgar H. Leoni, and Noel I. Garde is of course an anagram of, and pseudonym for, Edgar Leoni. Apparently Leoni, who “worked in the insurance industry,” is also an expert on Nostradamus, so presumably “Nosbooks” is a contraction of “Nostradamus Books.” Crazy as it sounds today (and though I had then never heard of Nostradamus, let alone that his name was a byword for hocus-pocus), I did equate homosexuality with something secret, esoteric, mystical. I was drawn to all that was unknown. Garde/Leoni also wrote for the legendary (and brave), pre-Stonewall, semi-secret gay-rights organization, the Mattachine Society, as well as The Homosexual in Literature (1959), a copy of which I haven’t been able to find.

Among the hundreds of male homosexuals in history contained in Jonathan to Gide were the biggest guns, so to speak, including Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ, and George Washington. Alexander, Jesus, and Washington! My whole world inverted. And, even more important for a young man with a nebulous notion of becoming a poet, there stood the name of “the poet of them all” (as goes the show-tune I knew as chorus member of a 1971 junior high production of Kiss Me Kate): Shakespeare! Too eager, I took every one of Garde’s entries at face value. I wasn’t skeptical of his methodology, which, when faced with an absence of sound textual evidence, included sketchy psychological profiles that would demonstrate how someone like Jesus, for example, had the proclivity for homosexuality. Also, in an era before “outing” became a pastime, Garde did not include any contemporary figures, with the exception of those, like Gide (who died in 1951), who were “self-proclaimed homosexuals.” Longing for some gay identity I’d only vaguely imagined, Garde’s list was powerful.

Probably looking a bit hangdog after my crime, I returned to the library to find the authors listed in Jonathan to Gide. In those days I could still read innocently, in an ahistorical way. If I found few openly homoerotic voices, or clearly gay characters, I unveiled—or read into—what I thought to be the essence of gay sensibility in their work. I relished holding secret knowledge. These authors were all legitimate enough that I didn’t have to steal their books. In particular, I was drawn to the sonnets of Shakespeare and Michelangelo. A certain quatrain by Michelangelo (here translated by Richard Hooker), traced perfectly for me the difficulty—and in my case, the impossibility—of expressing desire between men; it was my unwritten, unspoken, barely thought, high school crushes writ large:

You know that I know, my lord, that you know

That I draw close to take pleasure in you,

And you know that I know that you know who I am;

So why do you delay our acknowledging each other?

            I am still embarrassed to admit to having been a little freaked out by the gay Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of the nineteenth century, Whitman and Wilde. As I didn’t really know what gay meant, I don’t believe I thought they were “too gay,” but Whitman seemed full of hot air and Wilde seemed bitchy (though I would never have used that adjective for a man). Of course a decade later I became devotees of both, after finding their lesser-known, more personal, spiritual, and darker works, Calamus and De Profundis respectively. These two writers at last made cameo appearances in a book-length poem I wrote a few years back, The Eros Conspiracy.

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters (1925) was the most interesting novel I had ever read. The novel-within-a-novel seemed wonderfully perverted (in the etymological sense of “bent”) to me, moving me toward experimentation, at least in literature. It also has clearly gay characters who simply happen to be gay. The metaphor of authenticity that played out in the counterfeiting said a lot to me about the problems of gay identity I encountered. How could I know what my real identity—or anybody’s—was?

About a year before getting to Gide, I came across Mary Renault’s 1972 historical novel The Persian Boy. I was babysitting for a couple I thought of as sophisticated. He reminded me of Dick Cavett (who I found sexy), and she was British and resembled, at least to me, Jacqueline Bisset (who was obviously sexy). On their nightstand I found Renault’s book. Because it was this particular couple, and the book was in their bedroom, I thought it was illicit. In those days before the Iranian Revolution I don’t think I knew exactly what Persian meant, other than maybe exotic, like a carpet, yet the title held an erotic appeal for me anyway. When I saw that it was about Alexander the Great (whose biography I knew well from Jonathan to Gide), I devoured it. I had to look up the word “eunuch” to know what the narrator was about. Maybe because I was, like many a closeted high school boy, a metaphorical eunuch, and he was just about my age, I identified with him. However, unlike me, he had a full-blown romantic and erotic life with a man—none other than the Ur-hunk, Alexander. Twisted as it sounds, because Renault was female, and the novel was about one of the great figures in history, it seemed to me somehow more “objective,” thereby lending legitimacy to homosexuality in literature, making it less of what I’d come to see as a personal problem of mine.

All of my influences were not, however, literary or historical. In the same year I stole Jonathan to Gide, ABC TV’s Movie of the Week presented That Certain Summer, one of the first portrayals of gay life on television, and still one of the most compelling. I had no idea what was coming on the night it was aired—my family just had a habit of tuning in to the Movie of the Week—or that my life would be altered. I sat in our wood-paneled basement family room, “hot with shame” and “feverish with excitement” (idioms I stole from god-knows-where for my diary) as it became clear what the movie was about. Shame, because the year before I recalled sitting on the same couch watching a new crime show, McMillan and Wife, and my mother muttering, “I used to like Rock Hudson, until I heard he was queer.” Excitement, because here were two men—from the same middle class I came from—in love, and living together. Plus, they were played by two prominent and attractive actors: Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen (can you see Charlie tackling such a role?). Weirdly, I identified less with the gay men than with the straight son of Holbrook’s character, who, on a custody visit, discovers his father’s relationship and is filled with shame. The son, played by cute and intense Scott Jacoby (who was just two years older than me), eventually comes to a partial understanding of his father’s life, but in the end remains realistically ambivalent.

Four years later, I confronted a contemporary gay character of around my age for the first time. It was in the movie Ode to Billy Joe, based on Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit-song, “Ode to Billie Joe” (with an “-ie” ending). The title-character was played by Robby Benson, who, like Jacoby, was two years older than me. The reasons for Billy/Billie Joe jumping off the Tallahachee Bridge, that had in the Southern Gothic narrative of the song remained mysterious, became an explicit gay melodrama in the movie. Depressing and melodramatic as it was, it still had a gay character, and one with great eyes and great lips. That Certain Summer and Ode to Billy Joe showed me contemporary gay life, and somewhere deep inside I felt I could someday use similar material. What had been my secret, and unknown to the culture at large, was fast becoming known.

I’m going to stay with my influences in those years when gay life was just becoming known to American culture at large, more precisely 1970–76, which also happens to be the time of my adolescence. This is also when my sense of literature and being a writer were formed, before I got too analytical in college.

Influences are of course not simply a list of books read, but, as the word suggests, a flowing into. In this case it might be a rambling, a series of confluences. Although the particular confluence of streams and rivers—some underground—mapped here may be unique to me, the great watershed of culture is obviously something I share with all writers. In this way, each of us, at least in part, is representative. And maybe it’s a case of denial or arrested development, but I never felt the infamously Oedipal anxiety of influence, never felt ol’ Daddy Shagspear, or the Great Gray Poet, or anybody else, was going to castrate me. I always felt a brotherly love, or friendly lust, toward writers I wanted to flow into me, as it were.

When I was sixteen, my thoughtful father, seeing I had a budding interest in poetry (though having no interest himself), bought me three anthologies that influenced me broadly: the 1970 shorter edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, the now-famous 1976 Norton Modern Poems, edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair, and the groundbreaking 1966 Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone. Clearly, there are many unavoidable influences in comprehensive collections such as these, so I will gloss just the ones that were most important to me.

I had read Lord Byron after finding him in Jonathan to Gide, and while I, like legions of men and women over generations, fell in love with portraits of him, and was titillated by his scandalous bisexual appetite, at the time I didn’t really like his poetry. The neoclassical wit made this prototype of the Romantic Hero seem, ironically, not quite romantic enough for me. However, in The Norton I found his dashing sidekick, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and though the name came off as a bit femmy to my internal homophobe, I fell for his poetry. He was a notorious womanizer, but, superficial as it sounds, because he had such an intense relationship with a known bisexual, and wrote essays on free love and atheism, I took him on as a literary love, and he became a potent influence. He, like so many figures I was drawn to, was more of a brotherly than a fatherly figure. If I had to pick a single poem as the one that has influenced me most, it would be Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” The closing lines of this poem addressed to a mountain seemed to me exactly what not only poetry, but existence, was about:

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,

if to the human mind’s imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy?

“Mont Blanc” of course has no gay voice, characters, or theme, but something about the Unknown it both enacts and tries to define allowed me, living in the closeted world of middle-class America, to grossly misread it (albeit at an almost subconscious level) as gay. As absurdly Romantic as it sounds, I reveled in the idea that I was—that gay people were—what was the Unknown to the Straight World, just as a Gay World beyond the Straight World was the Unknown to me.

Reading Modern European Poetry, I thought Constantine Cavafy was my discovery. I had no idea he had already influenced two generations of gay poets. It was not one of his overtly homoerotic poems that struck me first, but “Ithaka,” probably for the simple reason that I came from another Ithaca. The poem became a credo for me. Although I had not set out from my upstate New York Ithaca yet, and had precious little experience of any kind in the world, the closing lines nevertheless spoke to me, or some future me, about who I was in relation to where I came from:

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(Trans. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

Cavafy made the unknown future knowable to me. Furthermore, Cavafy’s understated, sadly ironic poems of cheap cafes, backstreets, and backrooms—places then completely unknown to me—also influenced me. He was writing poetry about his contemporary gay subculture, and I wanted to write about mine.

In Modern Poems I found my most important twentieth-century influence, my literary gal-pal, H.D. I recalled having seen her poems a few years before, at my great-aunt Leocadia’s apartment in New York City. Aunt Leocadia adored poetry. Leafing through the thin volumes lining her shelves, I was drawn to the title Sea Garden. I opened to “Sea Rose”:

Rose, harsh rose,

marred and with stint of petals,

meagre flower, thin,

sparse of leaf . . . 

            I knew that this was what I wanted in a modern poem, in a modern poet, in me. I didn’t know then what modernism was, and didn’t think of the stanzas as “Imagistic” or “crystalline.” As hopelessly un-modernist as it sounds, I simply felt fierce emotion and a connection with this other soul. In short, I lusted. Her sounds, her rhythm, and her imagery made me want to roam the shore with her voice in my head—or better, I wanted to run with this poet who could call a rose “harsh,” wanted to be “flung on the sand” with that rose. How, in a world where love and sex were defined by Charlie’s Angels and Last Tango in Paris, the Carpenters and Janis Joplin, Love Story and Fear of Flying, did a teenage boy get nailed by H.D.? Maybe it was because her pantheistic passion was virtually unknown to the rampantly heterosexual culture in which I lived? In my last year of high school her spirit inhabited mine. I read her out loud to myself sprawled on the black beanbag chair in my room, heels dug into the deep, orange shag carpeting. Though I didn’t then know what a drama queen was, my inner drama queen begged to echo her Eurydice’s defiant cry to the world:

Before I am lost,

hell must open like a red rose

for the dead to pass.

            H.D. led me to Robert Duncan in my last year of high school. While reading his “The Torso, Passages 18” in a bookstore, I felt the bodily experience in the poem: “His hands unlocking chambers of my male body . . .” When the word “. . . homosexual?” appeared a few lines later—on a line all by itself, preceded by ellipses and followed by a question-mark—I replaced the book (Bending the Bow) on the shelf and practically slunk out of the bookstore. I was a closeted teenager and my physical reaction was that strong. Duncan’s poetry combined the open homosexuality of Cavafy with the Unknown I’d found in Shelley and H.D. The mystical–spiritual bent in poetry I still, in some willfully ignorant place inside me, associate in a positive way with homosexuality.

Part of what made my experiences with Shelley, H.D. and Duncan so raw and charged is that I misread their mythic and sometimes mystical poetry as confessional. And not just as their confessions, but mine too. By way of allusion and imagery, “The Torso” told the story of the loves I had found in that stolen library book—back to Edward II, and even farther, to Alexander, to Jonathan and David. Of course there really is no confession in Shelley, H.D., or Duncan. What happens—or at least what happened to me—is that in their words, and in the very breath of their lines, myth flows into the psyche. The Unknown doesn’t become the Known, but Ways of Knowing. And into this yin-yang of Knowing and Not-Knowing, I wanted to more directly confront my contemporary culture than they had theirs. I wanted to overlay the America that was finally being imagined and seen in That Certain Summer and Ode to Billy Joe with H.D.’s seemingly timeless and symbolic beach and underworld, and with the universal and metaphysical River Arve from where Shelley confronted Mont Blanc. It is the whitewater created by the flowing together of ever-diverging, contradictory, and paradoxical influences that has rushed me from Ithaca in the ’70s to where I am now. Though hardly an Odysseus, the next time I voyage back to Ithaca I will pay tribute to Influence by returning Jonathan to Gide to the library, along with this essay as explanation, as words of contrition and gratitude, and pay a very late late-fee. To paraphrase Cavafy, with so much experience, I must already have understood by now what these Ithacas mean.

Are you as ravished by Hewett’s prose as we are? Now go and buy the book! On Amazon.

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