Letter from Poetry Magazine

Tom Sleigh Responds

by Tom Sleigh

When I write about poems and when I read them, I think that art and life interpenetrate and that they shouldn’t be kept separate. Not everyone thinks this, and that’s fine by me. I don’t think I’m being voyeuristic in talking about sex clubs or orgies or bathhouses or pickups, especially since Thom Gunn wrote about all these experiences—and as to the details, I leave to the imagination whatever doesn’t directly inform my argument. But why shouldn’t we be interested in the details? In fact, why does Ina Loewenberg feel compelled to label my interest in sex clubs as voyeuristic? As a poet and as a human being, I’m interested in many things, and certainly people’s sexual desires and how they enact them are of great interest—as a subject for poetry and as a subject for private and political contemplation.

And as for talking about such things in Poetry, I think Loewenberg’s response pretty much typifies what I pointed to in my essay: that talking about these things makes lots of people (some gay, but more likely married and straight) squeamish, uncomfortable, and above all, worried. Worried about what, I wonder? Asshole Alley? And if the editors of Poetry aren’t worried, why should Loewenberg be? She seems a little scandalized by what I’ve written; but as I go to great lengths to demonstrate in my discussion of “The Menace,” Gunn’s work explores, in the most intelligent and emotionally comprehensive way possible, the nature of our desires and what is at stake in trying to fulfill them. And if talking about sex clubs in relation to a poet who wrote about them can open up ways of feeling and being in the world, then not only is that germane, it could also be freeing—at least for certain readers. So Poetry is only doing its job: forwarding an art form that Loewenberg and I love, while coincidentally proposing new forms of relation.

Now, as to my being straight, it does bear on the point I was trying to make about the kinds of social and poetic conventions that seem to govern the way straight people write about desire, domesticity, and sexual exclusivity. That attitude is precisely the kind I address in my discussion of Gunn’s poem, “The Hug.”

As to my egotism, yes, Thom was my friend. Certainly he had other friends who were closer to him. I mention my friendship with Gunn not to score points, but to show how the communitarian ethos that connected Thom to his friends and lovers also made his work emblematic of what he once called “our community of the carnal heart.”

And I hope Loewenberg won’t shortchange herself: whatever she may think of me or my essay, she should consider reading more Gunn. If she likes “Yoko,” she should take a look at the free verse in his book Passages of Joy, a brave and comprehensive exploration of carnal love, without the usual straight “tea for two, you for me” exclusivity. And in his last book, Boss Cupid, his poem “Saturday Night,” about a bathhouse called The Barracks in San Francisco, is a truly great summation of a cultural period. And I can’t think of a finer elegy for a friend than “Lament,” included in his second to last book, The Man with Night Sweats.

Originally Published: September 1, 2009

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2009


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 Tom  Sleigh


Tom Sleigh is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of poetry. Space Walk (2007) won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘classical.’ Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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