‘Divining Divas’ ed. by Michael Montlack
Author: Sasha Debevec-McKenney
May 21, 2012
One-hundred pages into Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on Their Muses, I stopped thinking of it as a book and started thinking of it as a party.
At the party, I was the guest of honor and all of the poets kept telling me how much they loved my hair—as a woman, reading Divining Divas is the ultimate ego boost. The anthology is a collection of poems written by gay men to the women in their lives (who, more often than not, aren’t really in their lives). Personally, I recommend reading these poems while hungover the morning (read: 2p.m.) after you made a move on someone and it failed to the point of eternal embarrassment. Poetry has never been so soothing.
I’m not sure that “muses” is the right word to describe these women. I’d say “guardian angels” is more accurate: the women who watched over these poets before they knew they’d have poetry to save them. In that way, Divining Divas is often what I imagine the “It Gets Better” campaign would be like if it were more honest. Yeah, growing up and feeling like you don’t fit in sucks, but at least you’ll always have a diva, and the music she makes or the books she writes will always be there for you. You’re going to see her in concert and it will be exactly like how Jim Elledge was “delivered” to Tina Turner in “10:37pm, August 28.” How could it not be? Divining Divas says a lot about childhood, and what we use to fill in the holes left by an emotionally absent parent—or just general loneliness.
Accordingly, I have trouble finding more than a few poems from an fully “adult” perspective in Divining Divas. Yes, grown men wrote all these poems—but many have a small, needy, projecting quality. In “Saint Lucy,” Lawrence Applebaum calls Lucille Ball the “chaperone of [his] childhood,” like a best friend he’s never allowed out of his sight. Neediness is evident, as well, in Jameson Fitzpatrick’s “Part of Your World,” where the speaker, using the Little Mermaid’s voice for his own benefit, begs to be loved “so much I’m not me anymore.” I don’t necessarily see this quality as a bad thing (but I’m a poet, too, so I’m probably never going to pass judgment on anyone’s neediness), instead I see it as natural. I didn’t grow up gay, but I know what it feels like to be bullied and to want out.
Sometimes, we feel sheepish about how much pop culture means to us. Divining Divas makes that sheepishness seem ridiculous. In my favorite poem in the collection, Jericho Brown’s “Track 4: Reflections,” Diana Ross songs have enough power to make white folks go blind; naturally, they also have the power to change one kid’s life. Ross is such an iconic diva that it’s surprising when she only balances a note “as long as God allowed.” As if that would stop her. But we know she’s powerful, and we can tell that Brown has a connection—by taking on her voice, he looks at her without being blinded; he is part of something, and it is other people who are being left out. “Track 4: Reflections” is great in its ability to take the serious along with the glitter and put them on equal footing. There’s no shame in finding value and inspiration in music and film, or to be frustrated because nobody else quite understands why, for example, Rogue from “X-Men” means so much to us.
In other words, these poems were written by a bunch of nerds who just happen to be gay. Poets are, in the end, just nerds who love Greek literature, or Emily Dickinson, or comic books, and whose obsessions shape them. (I’ve been there. In high school, I had a favorite baseball player, Torii Hunter, whose initials I carved into anything carvable. I was also obsessed with River Phoenix—who died when I was four years old, by the way—to the point that I have actually seen every movie he was ever in—and some of those movies were really bad.) Obsessions inspire us to do and create crazy things, like Christopher Davis’ poem to Yoko Ono (even though she obviously split up The Beatles), or Steve Fellner’s sex poem about Miss Piggy, or eight stanzas to an cult television character with bad teeth (James J. Siegel on Amy Sedaris’ Strangers with Candy character Jerri Blank). Those obsessions come from somewhere deeper than seeing a woman and thinking she’s beautiful. Those obsessions come from seeing her as your savior—she becomes part of everything you do and everything you are: your musical choices, your sex life, and your sense of humor.
The collection is ordered chronologically by the birthdates of the divas, and, as a result, by the time we get to the more modern divas, we already understand that the connections are about more than just big hair. Our definition of a diva is challenged again and again. I knew by page 29 that my idea of what a diva really is was about to be shattered—or else, how would Gertrude Stein qualify? (Side note: You know who I hated before I read this anthology? Oprah. You know who I don’t hate now? Oprah. I’ve disliked her for a long time, and Ruben Quesada’s poem changed that for me.)
The lack of selfishness in the anthology as a whole is refreshing. While the poems might be selfish individually—in that each diva belongs to the poet conjuring her, entirely at his disposal—all together, Divining Divas is not about the egos of the poets, which is something that often upsets me about anthologies. Nobody here is struggling for space. This anthology is about the divas, a celebration of women first and of poetry second.
By the time I finished the book, it was becoming hard for me to distinguish between the poets and their respective divas. Many of the poems could have been written by the divas themselves (there are only a few that bring their imperfections to light). You know that theory about people who look like their dogs? I like to imagine that every poet has a little of his diva somewhere in his face, barely visible.
Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on Their Muses
Edited by Michael Montlack
Paperback, 9781590213834, 202pp.