Boy Interrupted At His Music
Author: Jameson Fitzpatrick
February 8, 2016
This week, Lambda Literary explores the ways in which music and literature influence each other.
I want to talk to you about my voice.
Or, I should say, I’m going to write to you about the various voices with which I speak (have spoken, been heard).
I’m a man—there’s the first voice. Except it is not the first, of course; a man’s voice tends to first be a boy’s voice, which is sometimes indistinguishable from a girl’s, as mine was. That makes two at least—but then I am not just a man, but a gay man, with a gay voice, and a poet with a poet voice, and an erstwhile singer, back before I was properly gay or a poet. I was a singer twice, in a sense, on either side of puberty (which, for me, coincided with both my coming out and the catastrophe of first love).
These are only some of the voices in my repertoire, but you get the idea—I contain multitudes, a chorus, etc. Where to begin then? The beginning seems rather obvious (how Freudian!), but then, as Julie Andrews as Maria-not-yet-von-Trapp advises in The Sound of Music, it is a very good place to start. With a soprano.
The only times in my life I’ve ever taken pleasure in my voice have been when I’m singing. When I was a young boy soprano, singing was the first experience I had of feeling exceptional in a positive way. Though I was always quite aware of my difference, this difference was distinct; it was empowering, to be set apart from my peers not on the basis of my discomfiting androgyny but because I could make something beautiful with my mouth and throat. That I was a good singer felt definitive, made fact by virtue of people’s mutual agreement. I got compliments, I got solos, I got cast.
The rest of the time I opened my mouth, the reaction was more mixed: laughter, confusion, derision. In elementary school, other boys teased me often, following me around at recess, or after school, or on the bus to ask, Do you know you sound like a girl? (Yes, I did.) But why do you sound like a girl, Jameson? Once, in a stairwell (why do I remember that detail?), an older boy told me that my voice was already funny, but—“just wait”—it would be hilarious once it changed.
Hilariously, he was right. Despite the predictions of numerous voice teachers, my soprano did not descend elegantly, as if down a grand staircase, into a high tenor. My changing voice was more like a malfunctioning elevator, moving jerkily back-and-forth between floors. No longer could I climb to a higher octave than any of the girls in chorus, or to the top of my favorite tree, where, whenever I was upset as a child, I would go to sit by myself and sing. For months, I could barely sing at all.
Looking back, it surprises me that, among many traumas, the breaking of my voice strikes me as one of the most painful. Then again, when you’re twelve, a year is a long time to be deprived of something that’s been so essential to you. What has clarified in retrospect is exactly what loss I was mourning—not only the temporary stay of my positive exception, but the end of an experience of gender that I’ve never recovered.
I cannot speak about my childhood without speaking about my gender, such as it was then. For as long as I can remember, my identifications were feminine—and by extension, so was the way I understood myself. Though it predates my memory, family legend has it that I used to put on my older sister’s dresses and parade around the house insisting, “I’m a girl!” (“A dirl,” more accurately, as I had trouble with my gs.)
As I grew older, into the realm of memory, this belief persisted—or at least this desire, to be understood differently than I was, even as the belief itself faded. One of my earliest memories is of singing along with Ariel while I watched my family’s VHS copy of The Little Mermaid, face almost pressed to the screen, as though I could become one with her if I could just get close enough, match my voice to hers. I knew I’d make a better girl than boy. The models of women available to me—in movies, in books, and in my own life—got to do the things I wanted to do: wear dresses, love men, be gentle and clever and kind, not expected to be tough or good at catching a ball. Though it’s obvious to me now how narrow (and superficial) an expression of femininity such things represent, this childish conception of what it meant to be a woman had far more to do with who I was and who I wanted to be than any version of masculinity with which I’d yet come into contact.
This desire to transgress—or transcend—the gender I’d been assigned had little to do with my body, however. When my voice changed, I realized that it, rather than my body, had always been both my point of access to femininity as well as my primary mode of yearning for it. The songs I most wanted to sing were those written for adult women—songs I could sing, for a time, beautifully, but which I would never be asked to. What I seemed to lose when I lost that voice, perhaps my first true voice, was the possiblity, however slim, that perhaps someone would ask. I lost the ability to at least pass as a girl, momentarily mistaken for what I felt like would actually be a more accurate understanding of who I was in the world—the thrill of getting to be a woman on the phone. As I got older and the bullies got worse, this pleasure was complicated by shame, sure, but it was there.
After my voice changed, I changed. Instead of a boy who sounded like a girl, I became a boy who sounded like he liked boys—precisely because my voice was at once like a girl’s and not at all like a girl’s.
When I could sing again, at some point early in the seventh grade, my voice was not at all what I’d been preparing for: big and low and heavy, decidedly masculine in its pitch and timbre, if not its speech pattern. I’d emerged on the other side of this transformation a bass-baritone, the romantic opposite of the soprano I’d lost.
Though I continued to sing seriously throughout my adolescence, I devoted my efforts more to musical theater than to any other form. I found my new voice too unwieldy for the technical demands of classical music and lacked the intuition for jazz, but the brassy, emotive possibilities of musical theater seemed manageable.
Still, there was a problem: I could not act straight, and my effeminacy, more often than not, disqualified me from the romantic leading roles written for my vocal range. Character parts, which tended to demand a less rigid code of masculinity, were usually for tenors—parts I couldn’t sing.
Maybe this is how I found my way to writing my own songs, or maybe this was just the natural extension of what I used to do perched up in my favorite tree, improvising melodies or writing alternate lyrics to the Fleetwood Mac songs used my dad used to play in the living room (I’m sorry, Stevie Nicks). I’d taken piano lessons for the better part of my childhood and, though I was no prodigy of music theory, knew enough to sit down at the family piano and play around with chords, singing over them until I hit on something I liked enough to want to keep singing.
The songs were about boys I loved, boys who loved me, boys who wouldn’t love me but would fuck me, boys who wouldn’t love me or fuck me, boys I didn’t love but would fuck, doing drugs with them, doing drugs with my friends, my friends who did too many drugs—and cars, where a lot of this was happening. They were full of melodrama, more often than not building to some climax, whether ecstatic or afflicted, in which I’d bang on the piano and sing out of nothing but feeling, free of any other concern.
In the performance of my songs, whether in private or in front of an audience, I felt fully identified with my own voice in a way I never had before, and also strangely liberated from the the accompanying pressures of how I performed my gender. I realize now that this was both like and unlike my relationship to singing before my voice changed: when my voice had been heard and understood as a girl’s, to the extent that it was, I felt the least like I was performing.
When I moved to the city to go to college, I brought my keyboard with me, but have never again put it to such habitual use. I specialized, became a poet. And perhaps as a young adult in New York, where it is much easier to be gay, and/or feminine and masculine in whatever proportions are most natural to you, the catharsis I sought in singing became a less urgent necessity.
This isn’t to say that after seven years in New York, I like my voice (I don’t), or that my relationship to it feels resolved (evidenced by the fact of my dislike). But it is of less concern to me more of the time. These days, I find myself self-conscious about my voice in only two contexts: when talking to men who are either straight and/or I want to sleep with, and when reading my poems.
My interactions with men are, for once, of less interest to me here.
It surprises me that I don’t take more pleasure in reading poetry to an audience. Given my extroverted personality, my background in performing, and my exhibitionist streak, it would follow that I would like nothing more than the chance to see my poems realize their potential communication, and to be the one to communicate them, no less. But in this communication, the old trouble of my voice re-asserts itself.
For most of the time I’ve been writing, I’ve understood poems as beautiful objects. Their beauty is myriad and multi-headed, of course, but also a constant that transcends differences of history and aesthetic. I’ve long considered the making of my own poems as a transubstantiation of sorts, an attempt to redeem or give meaning to the matter of my own life—the difficult, painful, and ugly, especially—through turning it into something else, something beautiful.
But my voice is not beautiful to me. Nor is it ugly, per se, it doesn’t preoccupy me—but I regard it neutrally at best, not with any kind of positive value. I might enjoy the speech of others, but I merely accept my own.
How to read a poem aloud, then, and not reduce its beauty through the less-beautiful mode of delivery? The dreaded sing-songy “poet voice,” which tries to better approximate song than everyday speech, is one answer, but it all too often does reduce the poem by rendering it precious or self-important. The extremely talky approach, which entirely embraces the sound of the everyday, is another, though this runs the risk of minimizing the poem’s importance. In fact, I admire the reading style of a number of such “talky” poets, but mostly because their voices are themselves wonderfully distinctive (Eileen Myles comes to mind).
Perhaps to like the way I read my poems, I need to start singing again, in earnest, and recover that sense of my voice as beautiful. Or, does the voice have to be beautiful? Perhaps the beauty of the poem could be improved by a reminder of its ultimate impossibility.