Lambda Executive Director Charles Flowers with Kate Clinton. Photo by Donna F. Aceto.
At last month’s Lambda Literary Awards, a prize ceremony for LGBT-themed books, the announcer of the prizes for erotica got overzealous about his duties. He offended a few finalists by drunkenly taking off his T-shirt and reading summaries of each nominated book in a slow, seductive whisper. “Ten different pulsating stories . . . explore the effects of child abuse on one’s eroticism,” he said, in between sips of champagne. “A fire-eater, a voluptuous masseuse, and a naked game of tag in a forest at twilight. . . .” By the end he was speaking so passionately that he made even the names of publishing houses sound like sex objects. When he got stuck on the word “orgasmic” (“say it again, or-GAS-mic!”), Charles Flowers, the executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, intervened and said that next year his punishment would be announcing the poetry nominees.
As it turns out, this was quite a threat. Of 25 different genres, including memoir, romance, and mystery, poetry was the only one in which the winners in both the gay and the lesbian categories failed to show up. The theater at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York had been filled with nearly 300 people, cheering, laughing, and making frequent Bush jokes (one speaker called him a “constipated little dog,” to hearty applause). But by the time the poetry awards were announced, three hours into the event, the theater was half empty. Sina Queyras, the lesbian winner, was at home in Philadelphia preparing for a move. She never expected her book Lemon Hound, which explores the generation of women who are “so done with political messages,” “so past any need to protest,” to win or even be nominated. “I don’t think of my poetry as being written in the lesbian tradition,” she said later, “but maybe I don’t even know what that tradition is. And maybe there isn’t a tradition, and maybe that’s a good thing.”
The winner in the gay poetry category, Jim Elledge, who missed the awards because he was teaching in Puerto Rico, believes the boundaries of the genre are less murky: “If a gay person writes a poem, it’s gay.” His winning book, A History of My Tattoo, is a ten-part lyric novel about a man, just released from a psychiatric ward, who is haunted by the loss of his friends to AIDS. Elledge was pleased to get approval from “members of my own tribe, as it were,” even though sometimes he grows tired with what he sees as the “gay literature formula.” “Someone always dies at the end, there’s a tragic figure, a lot of sex—but sex without joy,” he says. “Anyone who reads much gay or lesbian literature will know what I’m talking about.”
Although the Lambda guidelines say that a book can qualify for an award as long as it has “LGBT content”—the sexual orientation of the author is irrelevant—pinpointing exactly what this means can be a difficult process. “The judges will get into discussions like, Is it lesbian enough?” says Flowers, who is also a poet. “If a character is just awakening, does it count? What if she’s only bisexual?” (To ease some of these concerns, Lambda added its first bisexual category this year; several of the works in the finals, including Bi Guys, Bi Men, and Three Sides to Every Story, dealt with these questions.)
Poetry is one genre that has always been populated by gay and lesbian work—the canon would be a shadow of what it is now if you took away those contributions—but judges are still hesitant to take on the category. “It’s the least popular one, along with romance,” says Flowers. “They’re worried they won’t ‘get’ it.”
Jeffery Conway, one of the few poet finalists who showed up for the ceremony, says he never intended to write the kind of poetry that would appeal to a board of judges. “A few years ago I even wrote a whole 655-page book [An Essay in Verse] about writers’ obsessions with awards: they schmooze and try to climb their way up to the top. And for what?” he says. “And yet, despite all that, I was pleasantly surprised to get the nod. I don’t really know what these labels mean, but I do know that readers recognize when something’s been recognized.”