Hard-on as a
I try then
shift my legs.
—George Albon, Empire Life
Like a hard-on, writing is a thing that would start something.
As when rhetoric moves from the general to the specific, an erotic gesture inviting the reader closer.
I’ve just begun having text and feel self-conscious: should I sustain this performance, the analogy I’ve created between sexual and textual preference?
But more important questions remain to be asked.
If textual preference is a matter of what gives a reader textual pleasure, with what categories does one establish preference?
There are pleasures that resist the categorical, and then there are the pleasures of the categorical.
Which do I prefer?
I want to disclose my textual preference, but I don’t know how.
“the sentence cannot tell/whether it will end or melt or give//way to the fabulous” (—Alice Fulton, from “==”)
A text does or does not feel good; it gives way to my close reading or my habits of reading give way to its demands; we meet each other’s needs or don’t.
Only later I might think about why.
The text touched me the way I like, but what way is that?
What was it.
I said lifting belly.
You didn’t say it.
I said it I mean lifting belly.
Don’t misunderstand me.
Do you. Do you lift everybody in that way.
You are to say No.
—Gertrude Stein, Lifting Belly
Having good text is like lifting belly: dialogic, intimate, and weird. In a close reading animated by passion and attraction, text and reader take turns being bossy and passive, commanding and curious, both constantly slipping between subject and object, top and bottom, Gertrude and Alice. Having good text creates its own sensual idiolect, a semi-secret shared language, a dialogic experience synaptic and dazzling and endlessly suggestive of a kind of endlessness, a signifying plentitude. Binarism isn’t its best measure. I enjoy imagining myriad continuums—analogous to the Kinsey scale—upon which we might locate our particular textual preferences. I’d prefer not to name either end of these scales, though I enjoy thinking about how Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality” might be used to help underscore the ways certain textual preferences might counter normative ideologies of reading and aesthetics, given that, as she writes, “heterosexuality…needs to be recognized as a political institution—even, or especially, by those individuals who feel they are, in their personal experience, the precursors of a new social relation between the sexes.” Where Rich writes “heterosexuality,” I would substitute “reading,” and see where that takes us.
Now it behooves us to ask: what is good text?
My textual preference answers: a new social relation.
Compulsory reading can yield pleasure, of course, even for those of us not entirely inured to the political institution of Literature. But as my citation of Rich suggests: textual preference isn’t only about textual pleasure, but about the relation of that pleasure to the powers-that-be, the relation of pleasure to our own innate physical and psychic powers, and the relation of pleasure to forming new social relations via the medium of literary language. For some of us, our textual preferences mean that reading is always already a kind of oppositional practice, while for others, the experience of reading might confirm a preference for institutional norms. And though against my better judgment I’m positing a kind of binary—oppositional versus institutional—there are of course forms of opposition that are in and of themselves institutional, and institutions that are oppositional, and most of us shuttle back and forth rather seamlessly between resistance and complicity. I don’t believe a pure position is possible. To read is to be eternally on this continuum, just as to possess language is simultaneously to be at the mercy of a force that disciplines and to be empowered with a force that resists.
We all have them. And like our favorite physical intimacies, sex acts, body parts, and positions, they’re rarely talked about openly, though they are everywhere implicit in book reviews, awards selections, and editorial decisions from the smallest lit mags to the biggest New York publisher. Textual preferences that remain implicit retain the power of establishing norms that seem objective. And as long as we readers conform to these implicit norms, we have a shot at attaining a similar “objective” authority, at assimilating ourselves into whatever power structures govern contemporary literary life at the national, regional, and local levels. There are very good material reasons we might give our textual preferences over to the norms of governing institutions—attaining a degree, gaining greater prospects for employment, keeping a job in publishing or journalism—and for those of us whose textual preferences anyway resemble the current norms, it might even offer pleasure to do so. But for those of us whose textual preferences seem to persist in some measure of conflict with the preferences of those in power, our experiences with education, employment, or publishing might be sites of alienation from our deepest textual pleasures.
Some words are open
Like a diamond on glass windows
Singing out within the crash of passing sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
In a perforated book – buy and sign and tear apart –
And come whatever wills all chances
The stub remains
An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
Breeding like adders.
—Audre Lorde, “Coal”
“When we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves,” Audre Lorde writes in “Uses of the Erotic,” “then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure not based on human needs, let alone an individual’s.” Some texts are like those “stapled wagers/In a perforated book,” and what alienated reader hasn’t had to read a compulsory text that, with every page, only grows more like “an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge”? What alienated reader hasn’t felt lonely for the text that fulfills their human needs, the text “open/Like a diamond on glass windows”? What alienated reader hasn’t then returned to a text that has fulfilled those needs in the past, “Singing out within the crash of passing sun”? Like sexual preference, textual preference occurs at the intersection of needs, desires, and the political realm of language, an intersection at once subjective and ideological, always already marked by gender, sex, class, race, and nation. This is why the scene of reading can be so fraught, why some texts get stuck inside us and “Breed…like adders.” Needs and desires drive us to read, but these needs and desires arise out of our material bodies, which have often been marginalized by official histories and antagonized by forms of literacy that both elicit and discipline our experiences of pleasure and text. Against this kind of alienation, Lorde posits a textual experience that abjures the limits that beset our lives. “Love is a word another kind of open,” she writes at the close of “Coal,” and blackness is an underground power, a word made of diamond, a loving invitation to “Take my word for jewel in your open light.”
The grass is a description but a description
of what, the light a paraphrase of light, the visual
rendition of an idea of blue white green blue
with a corner of gray where the storm is arriving.
—Reginald Shepherd, “Two Versions of Midsummer”
I came of age as a poet during the late years of the Poetry Wars waged between proponents of Language poetry and proponents of what Ron Silliman used to call the “School of Quietude.” From my position as a young rural queer just beginning an education in contemporary poetry, I experienced the Poetry Wars as a time of heightened binaries, like a bad divorce—I had to choose sides, and that choice would determine my fate. My problem was that I was curious and liked reading almost everything, even if I didn’t understand it. I liked autobiography, politics, and experiment, and I didn’t want to choose between them, though of course I also wanted to be loved by my teachers. So in school I made the appearance of a choice—School of Quietude—while out of school I went on following my undisciplined textual preferences. Other poets were doing something similar during these years, and eventually there emerged a variety of “third way” poetries—Rebecca Wolff’s Fence articulated “fence-sitting” as an editorial position in 1998, while in the same year critic Stephanie Burt coined the term “Elliptical Poetry” to describe the work of poets like C. D. Wright and Cole Swensen, and a decade later my friend Reginald Shepherd staked out the term “Lyric Postmodernisms” in an anthology of the same name.
I want to focus on Reginald’s legacy not only because he was my friend but because he was especially sensitive to—and troubled by—the relationship between textual preference and identity politics. A decade after his death, his fierce intelligence and pugilistic spirit still inspire me, in large part because of our affectionate disagreements. What I love about his position is that he doggedly and consistently refused to see a deterministic relationship between identity and aesthetics; he insisted on his right to his textual preference, which while not apolitical in the least, was indebted to a High Modernist legacy that he felt he (as a black, gay, HIV-positive man who’d been raised in poverty) was expected to reject. To say that he was pugnacious about his right to his textual preference is to put it mildly, but I love how fiercely he named, claimed, and defended his textual pleasure. “I would like to think I am primarily a writer who, in Auden’s terms” he writes in “The Other’s Other,” “wants to hear what words have to say to one another.”
During the early Aughts, the Poetry Wars moved online, and eventually Reginald entered the fray, often presenting his arguments about identity as binary. The subtitle of “The Other’s Other” is “Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility,” which implies exactly what he goes on in part to argue: because identity is prescribed by the powers-that-be, to hew too closely to what’s expected of your particular identity position forecloses imaginative possibility. Though it seems that he’s setting up a stark choice—identity poetry vs. aesthetic possibility—his full argument is ultimately subtler than that, and less binary. Though the sharp critiques he reserves for identity politics are barbed with a palpable scorn that’s hard to ignore, the essay embraces the continuum from oppositionality to institutionality. “An engine of my poetry is my experience of blackness, my experiences of gayness, of marginality, and exclusion on those bases,” he writes, “[b]ut the writing arising from that experience isn’t wholly determined by it, may engage that experience in only the most oblique terms, or not at all.” His textual preference was, in the end, “to hear what words have to say to one another,” and it is his sensual, intelligent attention to language that made me first fall in love with his work when I read “Two Versions of Midsummer” in Black Warrior Review in 1994.
The poem begins with description—both the fact of it and the act of it—a gesture that combines a reading of the world with its writing. The poet is in Wicker Park, watching a white boy play frisbee with his white dog in the green grass; the poet is listening to “all the arguments that make up//a world, the text trees grass trees and the subway/trestle weave.” And the poem is, in essence, a catalogue playfully made to catch the drift of cruising a cute guy, description doing the self-conscious work both of building a world and attempting to keep desire alive: “a little rain/might cool this afternoon that I can keep all year, all//week.” The poem is a poetics in the most literal sense: it’s a theory of making that also makes a poem, “this rendering of a man, white dog the meaning of a dog/that knows how to fetch.” I loved then as I love now how the poem’s self-conscious self-involvement doesn’t alienate me, but instead invites me into the creative process, limning the way language and desire intertwine in the acts of reading and writing. “It’s mine, I made it,” the poet declares triumphantly at poem’s end, “summer/afternoon in Wicker Park,” but it’s a somewhat pyrrhic victory. The man has left the park—and the poem. “The day’s all description,” the poet ruefully admits, “and what is he now?”
v. ( Texting Barthes )
A text interrupts the composition.
: What’s up?
I’m imagining the reader at the moment they take their pleasure, the person who abolishes within themselves all barriers, all classes, all exclusions, not by syncretism but by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction.
: You looking?
The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. I must seek out the reader (must “cruise” them) without knowing where they are. A site of bliss is then created.
: What are you into?
The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows their ass to the Political Father.
: More pics?
Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense: the entire excitation takes place in the hope of seeing the sexual organ or in knowing the end of the story.
: You free now?
The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do.
i care so
much abot the whord i cant
reed / it markes mye bak
wen i pass / with
a ribben in mye hare /
—Jos Charles, feeld
I need to feel the impress of the poet’s touch on each syllable of the poem—that is the site of bliss for me as a reader. I need to feel the physicality of the poet implicit in the idiosyncrasies of prosody, lineation, diction, syntax, typography. I need to feel the poem draw me close through the intimacy its formal details disclose: the attention paid by the poet is repaid with my own. Though of course, as Jos Charles’s poem suggests—words also press (and are pressed) upon us and mark our bodies and remark upon their differences. I need to feel the way they press upon the poet’s particular body too, to feel the poet’s physical engagement with words that words elicit because of their power to discipline, their power to resist.
I remember the moment I learned a poem could record the reciprocal press of poet upon words and words upon poet. Still a truant student, I had signed up late for a “Modern British Poetry” course, and came to the second class unprepared. The assigned reading was Gerard Manley Hopkins. Someone read “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” out loud. I had never heard anything like it. I felt a pleasure I can only describe as a swoon. I gripped the edges of the desk to keep myself upright. The sprung rhythm in combination with the alliteration was like having my head inside a ringing bell, like being the swung tongue that, in the poem, allows the hung bell to “fling out broad its name.” I knew then, as I know now, that the poem elicited an ecstatic physical experience because Hopkins brought what in another poem he calls his “heart in hiding” to the surface of words and let its quick pulse beat there, where it could coax my own into a sympathetic rhythm.
Of course that experience was erotic: Hopkins was turned on by the world! He was stirred for a bird! His response to phenomena was a prosody too hot to give to God alone: “He leans to it, Harry bends, look. Back, elbow, and liquid waist/In him, all quail to the wallowing o’ the plough.” Watching Hopkins cruise the titular figure of “Harry Ploughman” made me feel then what I feel now: reading should be at least as interesting as fucking. That is one way to describe my textual preference. I want to hear what words have to say to one another in bed, after good text, when they’re just hanging out talking. But I always want to hear what words have to say to one another because that’s just another way to describe thinking, which is after all another product of our bodies, our brains awash in water and sodium ions that allow currents to travel between neurons.
Is my textual preference for a deeply physical readerly experience rooted in my queerness? I think so, though I don’t think it’s intrinsically queer—only intrinsic to my own queerness, which, like Dickinson’s soul, selects its own society. But even the most iconoclastic of textual preferences might link a queer reader to what John Ashbery calls “other traditions” whose authors are not “of the center stage.” But “they have been central to me,” Ashbery writes, and “if that means I too am off-center, so be it.” I’m okay with that too. To read driven by textual pleasure is indeed to “act so that there is no use in a center,” as Stein writes in Tender Buttons, which is why I place Audre Lorde next to Jos Charles next to Reginald next to George Albon next to Hopkins and I will not choose between them.
I don’t feel a genuine conflict between identity politics and experimental aesthetic forms, between political solidarity with other queers and my own desires as a reader and writer, though of course others might feel my queerness is not queer in the way they expect. But the binary between identity and experiment, like the binary Reginald felt pressured to work within—identity vs. possibility—is like any other: a discursive trope embedded in history, one elicited by the particular pressures of the political moment. The alleged binary between identity and experiment I anyway see as a continuum, one upon which my work as a queer reader and poet is never fixed. I don’t have to choose between them because the way I touch words and the way they touch me back are everywhere marked by a queerness locatable only in relation to language.
Lifting belly says it there:
I like it best on my right side, in bed,
text open next to me, little nature
that is mine, text I love helplessly,
better than butter, better than anything -
when this you see you will kiss me.
Born in Athens, Georgia, Brian Teare grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He earned a BA in English and creative writing from the University of Alabama and an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. His collections of poetry include The Room Where I Was Born (2003), winner of the Brittingham Prize and...