This Assignment is So Gay, Plus Also Some Notes on Disease and Mortality and Parents

This post is supposed to be about the really exciting poetry anthology that was just released, in which I have three poems. And it will be. But not in any kind of straight line. We have a bit of a tangle to get through first.

It’s time to start teaching again soon. I’ve been working on my syllabus (in fact, I should be working on my syllabus right now), making sure that my calendar is in order, and generally preparing.

It hasn’t been an easy summer. I had such clear plans for myself this summer, and had begun to get into their rhythm, when both of my parents got serious, frightening health news within a few weeks of each other. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and my mom, breast cancer.

My dad is on some medication that seems to be helping a lot, and my mom has since had surgery and is recovering very well and rapidly. Both diseases are in early stages, and, at least for the present, things look like they are going to be ok for both of them. But still. The experience sent me for a spin, in so many ways.

When I was little, I used to deal with the idea of death, and my parents’ death in particular, by deciding the only way death would be acceptable to me was if I lived to be very old and my parents lived to be extraordinarily old, and we all died on the same day.

Much has changed since then. My parents are no longer together, and I don’t live with either of them anyway. I don’t know, if such an odd situation as I described above came about, if it would be particularly soothing to me. Charlotte and I were at the beach recently with her family, and there was a piece of art on the wall in the master bedroom that said something like, if you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live a day without you. We both agreed that this sentiment seemed a bit odd to us: are you wishing your partner to have a sad last day of life, since you just died? Isn’t it a little creepy to quantify your love and decide who gets to die first based on that?  But death, disease, and vulnerability of those I love, of myself, and of my parents, particularly, whose strength of body I have counted on without even knowing I was doing it, and whose vulnerabilities seem to point in a direct but unreadable line to my waiting, seemingly so healthy flesh– which I know so intimately and yet whose significant eventual weaknesses I do not, cannot know– well, these things still have the power to stymy me completely, to leave me dizzy and disoriented in a landscape of being for which I have no map.

One thing that kept happening, in the maelstrom of my reaction to all this, was that I would think with surprising dread about the school year coming up. “Why am I doing this?” I thought, meaning the program I am in, the classes I will teach, all of it, I guess. “Does it matter to anyone?” It just seemed, I have to tell you, like a lot of stress and work that might not actually be important things to do–for me, or for anybody.

So… I didn’t quit, or anything. I traveled to see my parents. I traveled to see my friends.  I read a bunch: some my disciplined school reading, which I clung to despite my (hopefully temporary) inability to do the kind of organizational work I need at this stage of the game, and some just for desire’s sake– my old childhood standbys, a book for a book club, new books by fiercely loved authors. Finally, I began to work on my syllabus for this coming semester. Ideas for how to structure my teaching popped into my head on the subway and receded as soon as I was in front of the computer. I wrestled. I played. I counted out days– enough time between one assignment and the next? Too much?

When I visited my mom before her surgery, I kept trying to get her to drink more water to prepare for the dehydration that would result. I’ve always been a thirsty person, so I felt this was an example I could easily set, something I actually understood in the wilds of surgical language, paperwork, preparation. “It’s a skill I have,” I said, a bit facetiously,  as we walked into my grandmother’s apartment building. “Being a pain in the neck?” my mom quipped. “Well, I’ve had a good role model,” I replied, and we laughed and laughed, something in the easy teasing breaking through the fear and tension that were pressing in otherwise. Later, I heard her talking on the phone about reality TV, making the exact same complaints I had made in a separate phone call, one she had not heard, to Charlotte. I thought about apples and trees.

When I visited my dad, we went out for dinner and he told me that he is coming to realize that he is not his brain, that the threat to his brain does not have to be a mortal threat to him, himself, in the reality of himself. He doesn’t know exactly what that means yet, but he believes it. And I believe him. He has promised that the cracking of everything you thought you know does not have to be the end of growth or wisdom. And I believe him. He got a big dessert and enjoyed every bite, and then he got lost looking for where we were going next, second guessing himself and wandering too far. I thought about apples and trees some more.

I have not fallen far, in many ways. I am so far, in others. I am not far in ways I cannot see, ways that are beyond the potential of body to fail, to suffer, to falter, ways that are about the spirit and the mind and the things that make me laugh.

So I came back from this, and I came back to my syllabus. (I know– we keep lurching back and forth, but this is how it has felt, so disjointed and everything so pressing). I was going through the mountains of paper my previous students had left me, and I found their words evaluating the course for me, bright, slippery, coated in salt and spice and drips of honey. One said a story we read pulled him in “like a fish.” One said she knew that one paper she wrote was her best, even though she didn’t get her best grade on it. Many said they loved our discussions best, getting to talk about things that mattered to them. I loved our discussions best, too. I always do. One said he fell asleep in them sometimes because they were boring, but admitted that maybe this would have improved if he had said something himself. They lied to me, I’m sure, occasionally, but they also told the truth. And the truth, in the balance, was that it seemed like we’d done something worth doing. That it was better, for at least a handful of them, to have taken this course than it would have been if they had not taken it.

I began to get excited about teaching again.

We lurch through these semesters, while our outside lives fray and tatter and come together and fall apart. We do it together. I think it’s hard to understand how fully we do it together, until you have been on both sides of the classroom, slipping the mantle of anxious authority on and off your shoulders, hoping for magic, for alchemy, for honesty, for connection, for five minutes together in which you all seem to want to be there, in which everyone is learning, although it’s rarely whatever the lesson plan had laid out for the day.

So there’s this anthology, and it’s full of all queer-teacher-poets, talking about teaching and queerness. And the premise, I think, is that what we say as queer teachers is significant precisely because of our identities, of the way we are situated in the world, even if we are not talking about sexuality at all. And the premise is also that teaching is something worth singing about, worth twisting words into beauty about. Worth the time it takes to do, and also worth the time it takes to write and read about.

And I realize, writing this, that this woven-together feeling that the book values and emphasizes, the idea that my queerness matters to my teaching and my teaching to my queerness, even if they seem separate– this is why I couldn’t just write a post that said, hey, y’all, I’m in a book! Or even something that was just about teaching and/or queerness, but rather I had to talk to you about what has really been going on.

I think in some ways that’s what this book celebrates. The “really” about all of us, and the way it may feel like a detraction, something that takes us away from the work we should be doing, something that distracts– when honestly, it is what makes us teachers. The “really” of our lives, beautiful, ugly, wicked, confusing, secret, thrilling– that’s the magic word. That’s what erupts in the classroom, every now and then, in the middle of the plodding and the oversleeping and the where-the-hell-is-the-worksheet-I-printed-out and the oh-the-paper-is-due-TODAY?, and suddenly we are somewhere holy. Suddenly we are somewhere true.

Here’s the link to the book’s website: http://www.thisassignmentissogay.com/home, and here’s the link to buy it from the publisher: http://siblingrivalrypress.bigcartel.com/product/this-assignment-is-so-gay-lgbtiq-poets-on-the-art-of-teaching

I hope you enjoy– this post, the book, your families, your lives, the remainder of the summer and the start of the school year. Thanks for reading!

An Avalanche of Excitement!

It’s been such a while since I posted anything here that I actually have tons to post! And, of course, not very much time to do it in. But I figured I will give you an overview now, and then, over the next few days, hopefully actually say something substantive about each of these things.

First of all, Word Up, the amazing community bookshop I’ve blogged about before, needs help. We lost our space in August and are having a huge fundraising campaign to reopen, and, not incidentally, there’s a dance video in which I (and many others) dance to show our love for Word Up. Word up is supremely important to my neighborhood, and the concept of Word Up, a community space dedicated to books, art, music, theater, and education and performance of all kinds, is supremely important everywhere. I hope you’ll watch the video, because it is super amazing, and check out the campaign and throw some love, money, reblogging and tagging, etc. our way. We have a long way to go, and every little bit counts. //www.indiegogo.com/wordupbooks

Secondly, my story “Woman-Time” is included in The Best Lesbian Erotica of 2013, edited by Kathleen Warnock and Jewelle Gomez. My story has magic in it. The real kind, as well as the sexy kind. You can get it here:http://www.cleispress.com/book_page.php?book_id=503 or at your local queer-and-small-press-friendly bookstore. I know here in NYC you usually get it at Bluestockings: http://bluestockings.com/. Also, I will be reading from this story at the KBG bar in NYC on December 20th! Please come! I would love to see friends both known and as yet unknown there. Here’s more info on that:

Drunken! Careening! Writers!

Best! Lesbian! Erotica! 2013!

Rebecca Lynne Fullan

Sid March

…and special surprise guests!

with your hostess, Kathleen Warnock

Thursday, Dec. 20, 7pm

KGB Bar, 85 E 4th St., NYC

FREE

Finally, my poem “Telling My Beads” was published in The Other Journal as part of their Prayer issue, and you can read it right here: http://theotherjournal.com/2012/11/29/telling-my-beads/ It’s based on a true story, and includes a rainbow rosary. Also, if you like, I will read it to you– there’s an audio file on the top of the page, and that’s me reading the poem.

So: community book & art spaces, sexy stories, and poems about prayer. That is a good summary of some important aspects of my life, and certainly my writing life! I hope you check them out, and I hope to write something more substantive about each of those things in the coming days.

Gloria Mundi in NY______, Dating Issue!

I just got a pdf today of the NY________ magazine’s third issue, which contains my poem, “Gloria Mundi.”  The magazine (it’s pronounced “New York Underscore,” if you’re not sure that’s going on with the title), features writing about living in New York City, and each issue is organized around a theme.  The theme of this issue is dating.  My poem is about dating, clearly, and about public transportation, since you can’t really have one without the other in New York City.

I mean, I guess you can, if you live really close by to the person you’re dating or like driving around New York or are super rich and don’t take the subway– but I always thinking living in New York City and not taking the subway (presuming you can, physically, take the subway) is sort of bad sportsmanship.

I have lots of feelings about the subway, which is partially why my poem contains subway trains.  It’s a funny, happy poem!  I hope it makes you smile, if you read it, which you can do by buying the magazine.

The magazine, by the way, is spiffy.  I was impressed with my pdf copy that I just received.  It’s really pretty and well-designed.  I think you will like it, if you try it.  There might even be a picture in it of a man tied up with neckties.  In a sort of artful way.  Just in case a poem by me that will probably make you smile (I don’t want to promise, then I will have angry, non-smiling people writing comments here) is not enough incentive.

Here’s the magazine’s website: http://ny-underscore.com/about.html, where you can find info about where to buy the magazine in New York City.  I recommend that you go to Bluestockings, because you will find 12,000 other books there that you want to buy, if you are me or anything like me.  Probably that would happen at Book Thug Nation, too, I just haven’t been there.  Once Word Up gets up and running again, I will see if we can get copies of it too!  (Now people who only know me through this blog and have been paying attention to old posts are wondering what the heck happened to Word Up.  I should write a post about that soon).

If you’re not in New York City, you can order the magazine here: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/443896, in print or as a pdf.

I hope you enjoy it!

Anniversary

I wrote this today during the composition class I teach.  The exercise was to tell the story of your morning, from when you got up to now.  Naturally, I ran out of time.  But I thought I’d share what I wrote, since I haven’t written here in so long.  No editing, no additions, though there’s more to the story and I dearly want to continue–but–in the spirit of the assignment– hot off the presses:

I can’t believe it’s time to get up.  It’s both too early and too late.  Too early because I’m so tired and too late because I’m still marking these essays.  I meant to get up earlier–or maybe stay up later–but now it’s just time to go.  It’s chilly, so I’ll need warmer clothes–do I even have warmer teaching clothes clean?  It was so hot this summer, I thought it would be that hot forever.

I find clothes and get out the door.  My metro card has run out of money.  It seemed to go on beyond the 30 days before, and I was secretly hoping that it was magic and would never run out again.  That turns out to be a false hope.  The turnstiles–well, the part that reads the cards–at my stop are dying some kind of slow death, and everyone just stands there swiping and swiping, hoping to get lucky and get in, which most of us finally do.

On the train, I focus on this one man sitting down.  He’s a tall white guy with a tattoo on his face–wearing camo pants and with a huge camo bag in front of him.  The tattoo makes wandering lines all across his nose and forehead–a mountain range, a bird, an insect?  No idea.  He seems out of it, staring a little, eyelids fluttering from time to time.  I am imagining dangers inside his bag, and I don’t like myself doing that.  When he gets off, I see he has had a large dog with him the whole time–where was it?  How did I not notice?

At my stop, it’s already warmer than it was before.  I head towards John Jay, thinking about class and what I will write in this assignment.  The bells at St. Paul’s are ringing.  I look at my watch, surprised.  It’s not yet 9 AM– why are the bells ringing?  Then I know why, and I stop on the sidewalk.  I put my hand to my chest, over my necklace.  I feel warm now.  I keep walking.

All You Holy Men and Women, Write for Us!

 

The prompt for the blogging challenge for today (or yesterday?  Day 3, and my 2nd post, at any rate) is about writers we admire, and writing mentors.

It feels like a litany of saints, eh?

I admire brave writers.  Writers who write about things that are difficult to say, or to say well, or who construct stories in ways that allow a deep and startling engagement with their intricate subjects.  Especially, I admire writers who are morally brave, who dare and struggle to reveal what is true about our experiences of the world and our choices in it.  I’m thinking of Patrick Ness here, and his brilliant Chaos Walking series, of Yann Martel, Hannah Green, the memoir I literally just finished by Margaux Fragoso, of Markus Zuzak, of Toni Morrison, always, of Louise Erdrich, of so many more.

I admire writers whose stories and characters are so alive that the books themselves feel like precious friends, or whose words and worlds have become the backdrop of the world I actually live in, always present, always ready, whole phrases there in my mind when I look at something from the corner of my eye, in the right light, in the right frame of mind.  Tomson Highway for Kiss of the Fur Queen; Elizabeth E. Wein, especially The Winter Prince; always, always, the first and beloved C.S. Lewis and L. M. Montgomery, whose writing literally helped me both recognize and construct a self to sit and write to you today… which brings me to the authors who taught and loved and maddened me from the earlier reading days: Madeleine L’Engle.  Cynthia Voight.  Authors whose names I can’t remember, of books like The Only Alien on the Planet. 

And the teachers of sex and adulthood like a glittering mirror ball with a thousand facets, they who help my sharpness, my desire, my wide-open eyes: Anne Rice, Armistead Maupin, Colleen McCullough, and, in his own way, Andrew Greeley.

This is impossible, every name leads to another, every thought or category to ten more who fit and break it.

The beautiful and blazingly intelligent William Shakespeare (I know, I’m not the first nor the last to love that one, but one of my first writerly ambitions was to have a vocabulary as large as his).  John Donne who melts me, Julian of Norwich who shores me up.  Those who have left their giant thumbprints on the details of my life, on my experiences and my relationships.  Little Willy Wycherly.  Diane Duane.

I admire writers who tend their writing like eggs in a nest, like thin-skinned infants, like centuries-old trees.  I admire so very many writers beyond this strange and idiosyncratic list that I could post on nothing else for the month and not be done.

I admire writers who are missing from my mind and from this list because I have never read them, because nobody has ever read them, or very few, but who keep writing anyway.  I admire Felix Gilman, who gave me his very excellent, intricate, beautiful book The Thunderer for free in a line at the New York City Comic Convention a couple of years ago, just an assembly line of signed books– it must have felt strange, perhaps discouraging, but I read what he writes now, and urge others to do the same.  I admire… oh, everyone!  The researchers, the ones who make me feel the whole spread and weight of their research like so many pounds of feathers, the intensely intelligent: Umberto Eco, Barry Unsworth… the comic artists who spread the world under my fingers– Craig Thompson, Fumi Yoshinaga…

OH, THERE ARE SO MANY.

Not to mention the writers I actually know, the ones who inspire, encourage, and sustain me.  The BMVCOE for the conversations that would be epics were they piled up in pages, Charlotte Rahn-Lee for a life-sharing story, Jeff McGraw for every bit of faith, The Uncut Pages Writers’ Group for loving my weird entanglements of invented human beings.

I am still leaving so many out.  But after all, this is writing.  Writing is always leaving most of the things out, spinning ecstatically next to that which you most want to say, throwing out a hand as you grow dizzy and hoping that the other person will catch enough of the scent on you to understand.

For that, I admire all writers.  All with honest hearts and willing fingers.

All the writers I love whom I’ve not mentioned or forgotten, forgive and smile on me still. 🙂

Inheritance at Underwater New York

So, I’ve decided to do this Author Blog Challenge to get blogging again, especially now that I’ve finished writing my last paper for the semester, and I saved some good writing news just to get started!

A couple of months ago I found this cool project/website/organization called Underwater New York.  What they do is go around to the waterways of New York City and environs, and find all sorts of strange, evocative stuff in and around the water.  Then they post about it on their website and people write stories, poems, even songs about the stuff!  Seeing that I love strange, evocative stuff, water, making up stories about strange, evocative stuff, and I live in New York City, I was pretty excited and raring to go.  They were having a flash fiction call when I found them, and I decided to write about an 1897 pocket watch found near Coney Island.

Here’s a link to all the tiny stories that were published about the pocket watch: http://underwaternewyork.com/2012/05/16/flash-fiction-submissions-1897-pocket-watch-coney-island/  Mine’s at the bottom.  With my name on it.  And it’s called “Inheritance,” so the title of this post is now making tons of sense.

I noticed that nearly all the stories about the pocket watch had some aspect of it being inherited or at least a special gift, and also that all of them had something to do with death or loss.  I guess the pocket watch aspect lends itself to the former, and I wonder if most stories about things being lost in the water related to death or loss.  It would be interesting to try to do one that was really jubilant, or something!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story, and that you check out the rest of Underwater New York, and that you come back throughout the month to see how the blogging challenge is going.  I’m not sure what the challenge is, exactly, mostly just to blog and read stuff by other writers, which I’m excited to do.

If you’re stopping by for the first time, welcome!  I’m glad you’re here!  Please feel free to say hello, and tell me a story about inheritance or pocket watches or Coney Island or finding stuff in the water, or whatever you like.

Yay Blog!

Guest Post: Anne E. Johnson on the Queer and Loving World of “Braids”

Anne E. Johnson is my guest today, speaking about how she conceived and crafted her story in Resilience.  Tomorrow is the big day– come and see Anne, James, Emma, Bill, Eric and me at Word Up from 3-5 PM!

My story, “Braids,” is meant as a literary experiment. When you read it, you’ll notice something unusual: All of the characters are gay. Male, female, kids, adults. All of them. I did this for two reasons.

First, I’m fascinated (to put it kindly) by the many people in the world who like to pretend that LGBT people don’t exist. They look around them and see a completely straight world. They watch TV shows, go to movies, and (maybe) read books that help them sustain this fallacy.

So “Braids” is kind of a counter-attack, a world where everyone is queer, yet nobody is ignoring them, bullying them, or afraid of them. They’re living their lives within the usual spectrum of love, loss, happiness, and pain, just like characters in a story in which everyone’s straight.

Second, I wanted a level playing field. I wanted the focal point not to be the characters’ queerness and people’s reaction to it, but how they see themselves. Nobody makes a big deal about anyone being gay. Nevertheless, everyone in the story has self-doubt. The point is that it’s hard to stay confident as you navigate through life, no matter what your sexuality.

Likewise, problems of self-image don’t evaporate just because we grow up. We do have to keep working on how we view ourselves, continually convincing ourselves of our own worth. The character Lateesha learns that as she and her mother both question their value, their looks, and their potential to succeed in life and relationships.

I’d say that the central message of “Braids” is that it doesn’t matter who you love; what counts is how well you love yourself.

[Please visit me at my website, AnneEJohnson.com]

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

We’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, but if you can’t make and/or are far away, here’s how to get Resilience: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/resilience-stories-poems-essays-words-for-lgbt-teens/18926125

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