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Why National Poetry Month is Like the Gay Male S&M Activists Leather Night

Why National Poetry Month is Like the Gay Male S&M Activists Leather Night

Author: David Groff

April 5, 2010

Progagandizing for Poetry

It’s National Poetry Month again. All across America this April, poems are being read, recited, and dutifully heard, as if the entire country has trudged off to the group teeth cleaning we deferred all year. For me, the annual nationwide poetry jamboree thrusts me back to my first foray into the world of S&M.

Years ago, when I was young and leathery, I ventured out to an event hosted by the now-defunct Gay Male S&M Activists, New York’s premiere organization of leathermen. Descending into a Meat District basement as dank as the Hudson River in November, I felt my heart pound.

Here I was, edging into a genuine den of iniquity, one so steamily transgressive that even Whitman couldn’t have imagined it during his perambulations of the city he so constantly cruised. Top or bottom, collared or vested, kneeling naked or standing with boots astride, everyone would, I knew, be dancing with their own erotic darkness.

The basement indeed featured the requisite leathermen, the bottoms and tops arranged in a series of staged scenes, doing all the things I’d hoped they would do. But once my initial curiosity was sated, I realized that the tableaux vivants were not meant to be enticing but educational.  I was at a school science fair with nipple clamps.

What struck me next were the expressionless men patrolling the cellar’s open spaces and brightly lighted labyrinths, like museum guards whose task was to keep us sexual tourists from touching the science exhibits. Over their leather harnesses they were all wearing orange mesh safety vests, like traffic cops in codpieces.

Each vest sported the kind of nametag you see on Mormon missionaries, only less sexy.  On the tags were not only the men’s names but also their rank: Vice President for Bootblacking, Director of Rope Coiling, Manager of Servant Services. I felt a spasm of desexualization. The real perversity on display that night was a fetish for organization.

For me, what the leathermen did was to denude BDSM of its mystery, its particularity, the very danger that sparked its reason for being. The men of GMSMA, with their name tags and clipboards, were dragging bondage into the cheery light of day, stripping away its barbaric shadows, domesticating the very wildness that made sexual powergames so compelling in the first place.

You just knew that these guys–in their effort to make BDSM not only safe, sane, and consensual but also acceptable—engaged in depressingly worthy efforts like holding jolly barbecues, collecting toys for needy kids, and going to readings during National Poetry Month.

My complaint is not, of course, that poetry ought to be all bondage and discipline (though at some poetry readings I have felt as if I’ve been laced into a leather sleep sack and gas mask and left on a folding chair with no safe word). I am, however, worried that our cheerful readings, our gala benefits featuring Nicole Kidman reciting Charles Bukowski, our progagandizing for Poetry as if it were a Milk Board product (Got Poetry?) deny the primal power of a poem and our sweaty, scary, unparaphrasably intimate encounter with it.

In our worthy effort to bring poetry to more people, we risk homogenizing it.  We milk the risk out of it.  We risk making it as bland and acceptable Leather Night.  We gain the science fair and lose the sex.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good National Poetry Month event, and over the years I’ve been to more of them than you could snap a cat o’ nine tails at. Last night I attended the Poetry Society of America’s annual awards ceremony at National Arts Club, a grand and comically gothic edifice in which certain of New York’s creative artists still swig whiskey under a Tiffanyesque stained glass ceiling that would make Swinborne swoon.

While the PSA event had a whiff of an orange safety vest aura, the barbaric yawp of poetry still made itself heard—especially in the remarks and poems of our own Eileen Myles, cowinner with Kenneth Irby of the Shelley Memorial Award.

Eileen is one of the transcendent heroes of today’s poetry world, a lesbian feminist activist in the East Village before it was even named the East Village, and my favorite U.S. presidential candidate ever.  Both Eileen and her poems are no-nonsense, forthrightly mysterious, and ruggedly sexy.  She read a wonderful poem about how a lover makes her feel (literally, sexily) dirty.  It made me feel dirty too. Eileen can tie me up and throw me over her shoulder anytime.

Some group conflagrations do possess erotic, creative energy. I’m going to one this week: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in Denver. ( As its name suggests, the AWP event gathers a wide range of professional writers—from the occasional Pulitzer-Prize winner, grizzled and lauded, to eager young MFA candidates with astoundingly narrow waists.

Imagine several thousand writers all buzzing around the same hotel lobby. Imagine that the poets outnumber the prose writers. Sure, lots of people are on the make; for every Margo Channing, there are fifteen Eve Harringtons. AWP can feel like a Festival of Competitiveness, complete with a Low Self-Esteem Afterparty.  Still, most of us writers get so high from the literary altitude that our delight outstrips our anxiety.

LGBT people are well-represented and well-organized at AWP.  There are lots of panels and readings on queer literary topics that explore and revise the terms of the literature. (In my next column I’ll post descriptions of some of these events and ask for your feedback on the topics.)  But the best part is just hanging out.

Whether you are batting eyelashes with that grand Patricia Highsmith lookalike in the Grand Hyatt elevator, or lounging on sofas in the lobby with that writer from Hawaii you never thought you’d meet in the flesh, every encounter is filled with sparks and surprises.

Last year, I shared a hotel sofa with a guy about to graduate with his master’s in writing, as he told me all about his new book project: a memoir of giving blow jobs to men in all fifty states.  I listened and learned. Since then, I can’t look at a map of the United States without swallowing hard.

Now that I am old and leathery, I have learned to pick and choose among those enterprises—National Poetry Month, GMSMA’s Fiesta of Acceptability, AWP, or even a book club—and focus on the ones I know will ignite my literary libido. No matter how many orange mesh vests or poetically knotted scarves are involved, I’ve learned that the best encounters are not about the pose, the tableau, or even the good intentions.

The real test of a connection is how you feel about the intimate, essential moment that inspired it in the first place, and which it could not exist without: the lips that strain to reach you and kiss you, the tongue of the poem that licks your ear. The rest is costume.

*        *        *

In another column of Yawp I’ll report back on the adventure of AWP. Maybe I’ll even have incriminating photos. I’ll also be asking some of those writers I encounter prowling the conference to send in their reactions.  Starting soon, I’ll also be asking those writers—along with others from all North America and all over the world–to contribute to this column.  Their dispatches, as I will call them, will broaden Yawp’s conversation by including the voices of more than just one white guy in New York City.  I’ll look forward to engaging in conversation with you readers, too, as we all lounge on the virtual hotel couch that is this column. In the meantime, may all your encounters, literary and otherwise, be poetry in motion.

David Groff photo

About: David Groff

David Groff is a poet, editor, and teacher in New York City. His book Theory of Devolution, was selected by Mark Doty for the National Poetry Series and was published by the University of Illinois Press. With Philip Clark he is the editor of the anthology Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (Alyson).

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