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The Unsettling Muses
Pictured above is the actor Ramón Novarro. He’s one of my unsettling muses.
As I move forward to the next body of poems after Black Blossoms and Unpeopled Eden (which will be released next year), I don’t quite know if I am writing poems that will shape the next book or if I’m simply responding to whatever it is that pulls me toward the writing of poetry. But at the moment, I’m gravitating toward queerness, the intersection of sexuality and ethnicity, the narratives that defined who I am as a gay man of color and an artist.
I’ve written a number of books exploring, among other issues, identity–an avenue I have heard disparaged and dismissed over the years by critics and writers alike. Labels frighten people, especially those who don’t want to wear them. Asserting my identity, making my story visible, is an unwavering conviction of mine. I remember how empowering it felt when, as a young man taking those first important glimpses to the world outside of the closet, I heard a speaker at a university say, quite casually, “As a lesbian…” When no one gasped, when no one hissed, I knew then that the safe space was a reality, not a myth. And that perhaps I too would reach that moment of comfort and peace that this woman had attained. Oh, I knew life outside the closet was not going to be easy, but the closet was suffocating me. The closet was killing me. Outside the closet was breath.
Odd, but I didn’t think I would have to be writing about this twenty years after coming out. I thought that surely by 2012 terms like “coming out” and “homophobia” would be reminders of the ways of the past. But this vocabulary is as palpable today as it ever was. It stirs a series of emotions:
I’m touched, thinking of that young man in Decatur, Georgia, who walked up to me after a reading and whispered timidly, “Excuse me, but can you give me book recommendations for people like us?” I’m exhilarated by all those young queer bloggers who read books and write responses to them, making book recommendations, interviewing the authors and holding them accountable for what they have to say to the next generation. I’m saddened by the continued bullying of our young people who are “different.” Like me, I hope they are turning to books for solace. Books listen to us and keep our secrets. They look at our troubles and anxieties through other angles, not just the hopeless ones we sometimes lock our gazes to.
When I first heard of Ramón Novarro’s story I was paralyzed with fear. I must have been in high school and watching one of those documentaries about old Hollywood. At first I was enthralled by the notion that a Mexican was such a hot item in U.S. film–wow, a Mexican, from Durango no less, and not picking lettuce or stealing the hubcaps off a car! (We are so good with our hands.) It would be many years before I actually got to see Novarro in action, but those snippets of footage told me everything I needed to know: he was gorgeous. And then the narrator told me something I didn’t want to know: he was murdered.
Immediately I knew he had been killed because he was a Mexican. Those damn gringos! They must have been fed up with a Mexican coming up in here and showing them how making love to the camera was really done. My father had to know about this, he was ready to tell you in a heartbeat how it was a Mexican who invented color TV but them gringos took all the credit.
But then the narrator said, quite casually, that Novarro had been robbed and killed by the two young men he had solicited for sex. The revelation came across obscene, packed with all kinds of drama. What was left unspoken resonated even more: that Novarro was gay, likely closeted if he was to have a career in Hollywood, that his urges had betrayed him by placing him in a position of danger.
I was devastated. The Mexican body, the gay body–both were places I inhabited and both were just as vulnerable. How could I move an entire lifetime within them? But so far I have. Not an easy journey, but a less difficult one than I could have imagined thanks to books, thanks to writers unafraid to write those narratives that were more than the weight of their headlines and tragedies.
I have returned to my muse, Ramón Novarro, in a poem I have not yet finished. I am unsure if I will even publish it. But I have to write it. It’s giving me space on the page to examine during this time in my life, during these troubled times, what it means to be afraid, what it means to take risks or make choices–even fatal ones, what it means to shed light on the shadowy parts of our bodies and desires, what it means to surrender, to transcend, to tell the story and resist staying buried beneath the flatness of fact.