A black-clad waiter gingerly steps through the crowd, carrying a tray of wine glasses. A petite plate of parmesan slices and cranberries rests on the coffee table at my elbow. Four stately half-opened windows overlook Fifth Avenue. This isn’t your mother’s poetry reading series, unless your mother was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In fact, this isn’t merely a reading series. It’s Wilde Boys, a monthly invitation-only salon where young queer poets and poetry lovers gather to experience queer and queer-friendly authors in an intimate atmosphere. Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate Louise Glück perches on a plush wing chair in poet Tom Healy’s spacious living room, an apartment he shares with his longtime partner, Fred Hochberg. Glück is tonight’s featured guest and the reason I am here. As a Glück fan and a straight male writer, I‘m thrilled to have scored an invite to the evening.
Next to Glück is poet and Wilde Boys founder Alex Dimitrov. About 70 people, mostly male and Caucasian, nearly all under 40 and good looking, are scattered about the Greenwich Village apartment—sitting on sofas and chairs, lining the doorway and the back of the room, and plopped cross-legged on the floor. One woman is so comfortable, she stretches back on a sofa cushion on the rug, as if she’s sunbathing.
Dimitrov, now 27, started the series in May 2009, the same month he finished graduate school at Sarah Lawrence. “I wanted a community of writers, around my age, thinking about similar things, like getting a first book published, finding a readership for poems,” he told me in a phone conversation. “I wanted to keep the conversation going from graduate school into the real world. And I wanted to create a queer space.” He looks for “a serious interest in poetry and in talking about queerness and desire and how they intersect with poetics” when it comes to who gets invited. Dimitrov, whose first book, Begging for It, is coming out from Four Way Books in March 2013, is pretty easy to find, so anyone interested in attending can always reach out to him via e-mail.
The salon begins with a conversation between Dimitrov and Glück. Dimitrov asks about her initial book, Firstborn, which she published in 1968 at the age of 25. Glück says she now looks at the collection “with a mixture of tenderness and shame. I had a skill set, but I had no knowledge of the world.” She adds, perhaps as encouragement for this crowd of aspiring poets, that the manuscript was rejected 28 times before it was finally published.
Dimitrov skips through her career with knowledge and ease. He brings up Ararat, her sixth book, published in 1990. A number of Glück’s books adopt overarching strategies. For instance, Meadowlands, released in 1997, employs the myth of Odysseus and Penelope to help tell the story of a contemporary divorce. Ararat, however, shoots the moon—its startling strategy is to collapse the space between author and poetic speaker, largely avoiding the appearance of artistic embellishment: the work seems intentionally flat, with little music or figurative language. It’s uncomfortably direct and massively vulnerable; the speaker gazes lucidly and unsparingly at a family (seemingly Glück’s own) after the death of the father. I’ve taught the book in workshops at Sarah Lawrence College, and students either love it or hate it, mostly love. “Writing Ararat was such a lark,” Glück says. “The colloquial voice, the Long Island voice. Stanley [Kunitz] hated that book. He said, ‘You can’t publish it.’” She reveals how hard the decision to publish was, as “it meant thinking that Stanley was wrong.” So in a sense, Ararat deals with the downfall of two patriarchal figures: the poet’s father and her chief mentor. Poetic mentors may hold an unusually sacred place for Glück, who never finished college. “When everyone was going to college, I desperately wanted a sticker on my car that said: smart person,” she says wryly.
Glück mentions matter-of-factly that her sister is in the audience. A shiver moves through me. Ararat may be the sharpest snapshot of a sibling rivalry ever exposed in American poetry:
My sister and I
never became allies,
never turned on our parents.
other obsessions: for example,
we both felt there were
too many of us
After reading the book, I had assumed that Glück and her sister would never speak again. But Glück the human being forces me to remember that the characters we meet in books aren’t always the same as the real people they represent. “Truth in poetry is what the artist can envision, not what happened,” she says.
I have to confess, after reading about the Wilde Boys in the New York Times Style section, I thought the night would be a hotbed of romantic intrigue. But the salon really is about the poetry. “One of the things that gets lost about Wilde Boys is that there were no special guests or famous poets for the first year or so. Every single month, 10 to 20 guys sat and talked about poetry,” Dimitrov says. “And it was a powerful thing and a powerful space, and it still is. It's exceeded every expectation I had.”
Without a break, the reading portion of the night begins. Glück remains seated, gripping sheets of loose-leaf paper. A floor lamp casts a circle of light from her shoulder to her knees. The sound of cars and trucks huffing toward Washington Square occasionally threads in and out of the room. Her reading voice is softer than her talking voice, and without a microphone it’s hard to hear. An audience member urges her to read louder. “We can’t do anything about it. I read quietly,” Glück says. Part of me wants to yell out, “Sure you can,” or to run over and adjust the volume knob behind her ear. In a way, Glück’s remove seems consistent with her poetry; she has an almost telescopic insight into psychic isolation, and no one writes about emotionally charged subjects with such sparse, cold, and nuanced language.
“Now that we won’t be traveling much further...,” she says to her body in one poem, subtly reminding us that she is almost 70 and may not be around much longer. Her voice is getting even calmer now, and at a certain point I give up and close my eyes. Yes, it’s hard to hear, but how can any of us complain—it’s a cool spring night, and we’re in a fabulous apartment, listening to Louise Glück, with free alcohol, pork sliders, and dueling orchids on separate coffee tables.
After a 20-minute set of new poems, there’s a question-and-answer session with the audience. Someone inquires about her relationship to astrology, and she perks up. “You’re a Taurus, right?” the person asks. “I was born in the month of the bull,” Glück says, quoting one of her own poems, “Brooding Likeness.” “I’m entrenched, stubborn, rooted,” she continues. If Glück was standoffish while reading, she’s extremely generous while answering questions. She turns and addresses each person directly, as if they are the only two in the room.
Again the conversation turns to Ararat. “When this book was being published, nobody liked any of it, except Stephen Dobyns and Mark Strand,” Glück says. “Mark loved the book. His enthusiasm was a counterweight to Stanley. Ultimately, I thought the work was alive.” This is the third time I have seen Glück read in person, and this is by far the best because of the intimacy and depth of the conversation.
I can’t resist raising my hand. “Can you talk about your decision to include your son in your poetry?” As a father, I’ve wrestled with whether and how to incorporate my daughter into my work. I ask her specifically about the Telemachus poems in Meadowlands. Glück smiles and reveals that the Telemachus poems have almost nothing to do with her own son, that the voice is much more similar to that of her and her sister. I follow up: “Well, how about in Ararat—the decision to include your son and your sister’s child in a couple poems.” I’m not sure how Glück will respond; it could be a touchy subject. But she’s munificent and luminous. I don’t want to say something completely silly and compare Louise Glück to Athena, but it’s very powerful when she stares at you; her eyes have a way of holding you in place. “I showed my mother the book” before it was published, she says, “and my mother said, ‘Take out the poems about the kids.’” Glück says she considered the request, but ultimately the poems had merit, so she included them. Her mother then told her, "Well, just don’t read them in New York." I still find her decision to publish the poems a little problematic, but at the same time, I admire that she put art first.
After the reading, there’s wine and socializing. I chat for a few minutes with friends before leaving. Outside on the sidewalk in the breezy spring air, in territory stomped by the New York School poets and the Beats, I run into several MFA students from Columbia and a former student of mine. The young poets talk animatedly, and I realize how exciting this series must be for them. The readings my friends organized in grad school had cans of Schlitz and bowls of chips, if we were lucky. Wilde Boys is as well organized and orchestrated as fetes put on by major arts organizations. These young poets didn’t have to sneak in and peek in from the fringes. The gathering was for them. And the conversation they are having outside on the sidewalk is a continuation of what happened inside. A minute later, Glück and her sister float out, chatting amicably, disappearing together into the New York night.
I ask Dimitrov what he is most proud of about the series. “The relationships that have formed. For example, Hansa Bergwall and Timothy Liu met at Wilde Boys, and they just created a book together The Thames & Hudson Project, published by Fields Press. That’s one of the purposes of the salon for me—bringing people together and inspiring them,” he says. “That’s why it’s a salon and not a reading series or a workshop.”