Category Archives: GLBT poetry

“After Rubén” by Francisco Aragon— A Conversation Around Poetry

Aragon, Francisco. “After Rubén”, Red Hen Press, 2020.

A Conversation Around Poetry i

Amos Lassen

In “After Rubén”, Francisco Aragon takes us into  journey in poems and prose, bringing together the personal, the political and the historical which he intersperses English-language versions of a Spanish-language master: Rubén Darío. He presents portraits of public figures and sketches of his father while evoking his native San Francisco as well as his ancestral spaces in Nicaragua. He shows how poetry relates to Latinx and queer poetics.

We read memory poems from an American poet about his childhood lived between two worlds that reflect upon the inspirations that he gained from other poets as seen in an elegy about his mentor, Ruben Dario who is considered as a great Nicaraguan poet. Aragon shares both his home in San Francisco and scenes of Nicaragua along with looks at other places he has been in the United States. We are with him as he searches through cultures, books and languages as he takes us into queer Latinx poetry looking at both his family and scholars.

Above them all is the poetry of Dario and what his legacy means to him concentrating on his new translations of ten of the poet’s works. Aragon dares to share Dario’s imagined, intimate diary as Aragon writes of his own life that he has dedicated to the study of words. We sense the gamut of emotions and his experiences with solitude, separation and grief alongside of his life as an outsider. In this way he writes about “the individual Latinx experience and the universal desire to belong, to be heard.”

“The Idea of Him” by Charles Flowers—- The “Flower”ing of Desire

Flowers, Charles, “The Idea of Him”,  A Midsummer Night’s Press , 2020.

The “Flower”ing of Desire

Amos Lassen

Desire is the ultimate theme in Charles Flower’s poetry collection, “The Idea of Him”. We know that desire is a driving force in our lives and while it is a popular literary subject, Flowers’ poetry really shows its importance. The poems are no ride on a slow streetcar but a jet flight into the nature of what drives the soul.

“We don’t have words for this…

For what we do, for what,

if anything, we mean

to one another…”

We meet the adolescent male body becoming aware of forbidden sexuality and then later we have its adult self after having been through casual encounters, upset by constant loss yet barely trying to reconnect. Here is desire as an eternal and unrelenting force that can come to the fore whenever and wherever. This desire places us at the mercy of whim and offers both pain and love.

Through reading the Hebrew bible, we see that desire was created with and has remained part of his/her makeup ever since. Even though we know it is there, we rarely speak of it except perhaps for the lustful urges that come to us.

“In 9thgrade, it was what I wanted most:

      A hairy chest, like my father’s

Like this football player, at school…”.

The poetry here is filled with compassion and sensitivity and it is meditative. We know the power of the pull of flesh and that desire can lead us in unknown ways. Charles Flowers puts it all out there boldly and yet with grace and beautiful language. His sense of disappointment and frustration is evident throughout.

“I pour over this photograph of you

At the beach:…

And I sway in the rush of months

When I was in love and everything seemed given…

All I could think of was your face.”

In his short story “Eveline”, James Joyce’s first sentence is two words, “Everything changes”. The love of that face above becomes a feeling of being wanted at age 40 while at age 20, there was the need for love. The poems here are personal— so personal that there were times I felt like a voyeur. I’m glad I had that chance to read the beauty of Flowers’ verse and lines of self-acceptance. I read of myself here and of so many others of my generation and I smiled and I wept as I read.

“What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life” by Mark Doty— Biogaphy, Criticism and Memoir

Doty, Mark. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”,W.W. Norton, 2020,

Biography Criticism and Memoir

Amos Lassen

Writer Mark Doty brings together biography, criticism, and memoir as he explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. He says that he has always felt haunted by “Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self.” In “What Is the Grass”, Doty traces “the resonances between his own experience” and Whitman’s life and work. Whitman asks “What is it then between us?”. Doty searches for an answer, both externally and internally. He meditates on desire, love, and the poet’s enduring work which is a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death and the love for a great city and the character of American speech. Through close readings with personal memoir and illuminated by wonder, Doty shows the power of Whitman’s presence in his life and in the American imagination. What we have is a conversation across time and space, a look at the “astonishment” that Doty finds in Whitman, and his attempt to understand Whitman’s vision of human possibility.

I believe that many gay men have read all or parts of ‘Leaves of Grass’ looking for the lines, that speak to me as a gay male. I understood that such lines of poetry were there and I wanted to know what another gay male, a poet felt about desire. Doty proves that he can give a scholarly look at the work and then write about in ways we can all understand. He delves into the meaning he sees of various passages that Whitman is not afraid to write about and thereby expose.  Doty covers “the etymology of words used and the newness of their use in his collection, the edits he makes over time, the typeset of his words, the quiet, blank spaces, his innovations, and the movement and placement of various passages in different editions.”

Doty sees Whitman as a man both of his time, and out of his time. He further explores Whitman’s family, his readings, his mentors, his motivations, his influence on writers who came after him, and his drives. He writes of Whitman’s genius and how that genius changed the face of American poetry as well as that of the world.  

I once met Mark Doty when he was the guest of the Little Rock, Arkansas library system. Here was a man who inspired me with his poems and who never hid his sexuality. The transparency of his writings show him as both a strong and weak person (like all of us). I was very proud to shake his hand.

As he looks at various passages from Whitman, he says he feels Whitman is speaking directly to him and to the rest of us. Whitman is present in all of our lives and we see that in how his poetry remains relevant through the ages. What Doty captures so beautifully is Whitman’s genius.

Reading Doty, we learn how to read Whitman closely as he shows us how the poems reflect incidents in his own life and those of his  contemporaries. Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience are woven into Whitman’s life and vice versa.

Doty’s life and words are on a par with Whitman’s. He examines Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and his cosmic theology. As he does, he takes us into his own life in candid episodes. Language comes alive and we see meaning and purpose in the world. What the two poets share the most is faith in language. Doty’s relationship with Whitman is intimate in its “reality and in all that it imagines”.

“What is the Grass” is a sublime read that is fully of grace and intimacy. It made me feel alive again while being quarantined and I was reawaken to the power of language and the beauty of words.

“Infinity Standing Up” by Drew Pisarra— Can I Love a Book?

Pisarra, Drew. “Infinity Standing Up”, Capturing Fire Press, 2019.

Can I Love a Book?

Amos Lassen

‘“Love never ends,” Or so you contend, “Well neither

Does pi” is my curt reply. “Affections divide

Till the end of time.”’

For me reading poetry reminds me that romance is still alive today. Now along comes Drew Pisarra’s “Infinity Standing Up”, a collection of sonnets and even in these troubling times I feel that all is good in the world (even though we know it is not). What a great escape from what is surrounding us now!

As were most of us, I was introduced to the sonnet in high school, a time when poetry was as far away from my thoughts as death at any early age. It was much later in graduate school in a seminar on Shakespeare’s sonnets and everything changed. So for me to get a new composed only of sonnets, I was ready to sit back and escape the world—- at least, for a few hours.

I do not know Drew Pisarra aside from knowing that he is my kind of guy. His poetry tells me that he is a lover and a romantic so I was ready to love these poems before I even opened the covers. He uses the form of the Shakespearean sonnet (14 lines, 10 beats to a line, rhyming true to the form: abab, cdcd, efef, gg) to share the story of a love affair and passion. They are celebrations of the body that look at feelings and emotions that run the gamut. I find it amazing just how much there is packed into each group of only fourteen lines and that includes wit, reflection and desire.

“Some things are we sorely wish were never said.

Equally true: What’s read can’t be unread”.

Taken as a whole, the sonnets in “Infinity Standing Up” are a look at a relationship with all that went to make it what it was. Because a relationship is made up of good times and bad times, emotions and feelings, the sonnet is perfect to share the story. As in drama, events occur in sequence and in acts. Pisarra uses that construction to bring his book to us in five acts but there is a surprise here that I will not share except to say that the ending is not finite but in our own minds and based on what we take from what we read. There is a concluding sonnet but it too leave room for interpretation but not for closure.

There are many surprises here and I became anxious to move from poem to poem and as I do opinions change or are reinforced. Here are two guys (I will explain) about whom I really can’t decide how to feel about them.

We begin with a short introduction by the poet in which he asks some twenty questions and this led me to believe that by reading the sonnets, I would find the answers. Do not be surprised that the questions will still be there when you close the book.

“Our now-gone love thing was a false question

Based on mistruths and a cruel evasion”.

Relationships can be tricky and it is so important to understand that a solid relationship is the result of compromises. There is love and there are arguments and misunderstandings. There can be resolutions but not always and sometimes resolve comes after a relationship is ended. Questions are parts of life and are not always answered or even answerable. We need to enter the questions we have and to do so means we have to open ourselves and our lives.

Drew Pisarra’s love affair stands at the center of the sonnets and like we all do, we laugh and we cry about it; we are lyrical and we are sarcastic and lamenting. Pisarra shows us ourselves through him.  The relationship here is between who I am assuming is the poet and a young lover. The poet relates his story in a variety of voices and in layers. Pisarra’s brilliance shows in that he can make anything poetic. He takes us through the different stages love, moving from early infatuation and lust to the sad breakup and the memories that follow.

                                    “Cupid likes to laugh

In the deadpan face of propriety.

Does anyone else find Eros funny?”

The structures of the sonnets are surprising in that Drew Pisarra creates it anew and with imagination. Like love itself, they are often hedonistic and absurd. Above all, we feel the emotion behind the words and each sonnet is relatable— we have all been there. Each of the sonnets is a journey through the love affair and those emotive feelings are there in the words.

What I have not said until now is that Pisarra’s love affair is one-sided and for him this was a battle to be won. We are privy here to his battles and to his joy. We are also privy to a wonderful collection of poems that I possibly could have missed had someone not said something. I do not want others to miss the pleasures I have found it that reawakened my love for the sonnet. Now you too can enjoy Pisarra’s “self- deprecating, playful journey of love, hate and the inevitable understanding that we are all a little crazy.” And yes, I can, indeed, love a book.

“The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me” edited by Fatima Asghar and Safia Elhillo— Celebrating and Protecting Muslim Identities

Asghar, Fatimah and Safia Elhillo (editors). “The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me”, Haymarket Books, 2019.

Celebrating and Protecting Muslim Identities

Amos Lassen

Fatimah Asghar’s and Safia Elhillo’s edition of collected poems show that there is no single correct way to be a Muslim. Poems by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Warsan Shire, Tarfia Faizullah, Angel Nafis, Beyza Ozer and many others comprise “Halal If You Hear Me: The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3”, a wonderful collection of poems and essays by Muslims around the world. The contributors talk about everything from pride in their beliefs, to how it feels to deal with prejudice, to what it’s like to be an LGBQT Muslim, and much more. In reading the entries here, I was able to reach a better understanding of what it’s like being Muslim in a world where Muslims are often “vilified.”  We see the range of beliefs held by Muslims and see that are many different beliefs held by Muslims and that believe many different things.
Muslim identities is often seen as at the intersection of blackness and brownness, or claiming space inside/next to Muslim identity for varying gender and sexual identities. This anthology is filled with life and there is a lot to learn here about Muslims and identity.

“Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry” edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme— The Oldest Profession and Poetry

Dawn, Amber and Justin Ducharme (editors). “Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry”, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019.

The Oldest Profession and Poetry

Amos Lassen

This is certainly a book that I never expected to see. More than fifty self-identified sex workers from all walks of the industry (survival and trade, past and present) share their poetry.  The poems come in a variety of forms including lyrics, list poems, found poetry, hybrid works and more and these authors express themselves “with the complexity, agency, and honesty that sex workers are rarely afforded”. The contributors come from Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia  and include Gregory Scofield, Tracy Quan, Summer Wright, and Akira the Hustler. I do not think that we often regard sex-workers as poets so there are plenty of surprises here. The themes explore intimacy, transactional sex, identity, healing, and resilience. The contributors are current and former sex workers, from all across the world; they are young and old, people of color, trans, cis, queer, nonbinary, men, women, and more.

The poem are not just about sex work, but also about sexual possibility and self-determination for everyone and  covers enormous ground while yet it is  “united by an unwavering commitment to speaking the truth in all its painful and healing beauty.”

I really love the shared stories in this amazing book. There is a lot of trauma and a lot of love.  The poem are raw, explicit, and unapologetic showing the violence associated with sex work. It also highlights the marginalized— LGBT, people of color and everybody else on the fringe of society.

Amber Dawn and others explain in the introductory pieces, it is imperative that sex workers tells their stories themselves instead of others doing so for them. Their voices are rarely heard.

“Hold Me Tight” by Jason Schneiderman— Risk and Vulnerability

Schneiderman, Jason. “Hold Me Tight”, Red Hen, 2020.

Risk and Vulnerability

Amos Lassen

I have long been a fan of Jason Schneiderman’s poetry and I love every new book of his that comes out, However, I was not prepared for the vulnerability that I found here. That is not a bad thing, far from it. It is a good thing because it meant the poet has descended from above and feels what so many of us feel.

“Hold Me Tight” is composed of five poetic sequences and looks at life in today’s world of technology, violence and anxiety. He explores selfhood and where life is going. The collection opens with “Anger”, a long poem about finding peace and the struggle it takes. Having just recently done some deep research on anger for a class I will be teaching on anger in the Hebrew Bible, I dove right in and realized that this is an extremely personal poem about an issue we all deal with from time-to-time. Using his own life as a basis, we see the universality of anger and no one is exempt from being angry.

“And I realized

That I’ve never

experienced anger

I only know rage.”

This is the conclusion he reaches after Schneiderman asked everyone how anger works and  after trying to find a definition of what anger is. Can we differentiate between anger and rage?

“What it’s like to want

Everyone else to suffer

As much as you

Are suffering,”

This is a question I leave for you to decide after reading “Anger”. Schneidermann looks for a definition for the anger he feels only to discover that it also has another name.

Next we have a series of parables about wolves used metaphorically to look at political conflicts, emotions and relationships that all seemed to have the perpetrator and the victim, “the predators and prey”. “Wolf loves Fox, which wolves don’t do… which makes all the other wolves hate him”. I reread that line over and over thinking how perfectly this applies to loving someone that society sees as unfit for me.

“All the wolves are named Wolf,

which usually works fine, but now that

Wolf loves Fox, they need a name to drive him

from them.

”… “Foxbutreallywolf [sic] says

…“I had to know you would give everything up

for me”. (Thinking to myself, “WOW!”. I have never heard it put that way before).

A group of ten poems about Chris Burden and his movement from the personal, self-inflicted violence of his early work to the larger questions of political violence of his later work.

“The submarines are undeniably beautiful,

suspended from the ceiling in a field…

‘Oh god, look at all that destruction we’ve

unleashed on the world!” But really,

Those are some beautiful submarines”.

We then shift to a group of poems about technology and art that looks at how technologies extend the possibilities of the human body and this alters what it means to be human.

“O newest of new words

Welcome to my mouth!

Are we open to dealing with the new especially when we see the tremendous amount of change in our lives?

“Because we die, because

We can more easily calculate

The number of possibilities

Than actually look at them.”

 In the fifth and final sequence, Schneiderman creates a series of “last things” where finality gives meaning to the people and things in question. That old humanism is here as is the holding, accepting and loving of the changes in the way we live and think.

“The last baby is only the last baby for a year or so”.

 Schneiderman’s project invokes a kind of old fashioned humanism, embracing the ruptures in our contemporary ways of living and thinking.

Risk and vulnerability abound in the entire collection. I was reminded that the line from the Book of Ecclesiastes , “there is nothing new under the sun” is only temporary especially when we realize that the germ for something new comes from the old and what is new is only temporarily so.  There were times that I read that I felt that I was actually conversing with Schneidermann (and maybe one day I will get that opportunity). Everything he says is grounded in the reality in which we live. There are surprises here in that we are surprised to see how we feel in words. It takes a brave man to do that.  

I must admit that I did not arrive at what I say here after a singular reading. I kept returning to the poems hoping that the conversation between the poet and myself was still in progress. We can chat about every line of verse and every completed poem and to me, that is what great literature is. Schneidermann’s poems will stay with me for a very long time and the fact that I am having flashbacks as I write this is proof of that. I love “Hold Me Tight”.

“The Willies” by Adam Faulkner— A Journey

Faulkner, Adam. “The Willies”, Button Poetry, 2020.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

The Willies” is a poetry collection that gives us a look at the journey to being queer in America. It focuses on the two sides that battle each within the body and mind of the child of an addict and closeted varsity addict.  Through language that is both versatile and strong, we see what is behind the masks that hide “toxic masculinity” and its legacies. Vignettes  that are both smile inducing, lack of mercy and humanity, we see what brings queer shame to today’s culture as we question what we fear most

 Faulkner’s poetry is powerful in the way that it portrays the queerness of youth and how far we will go to come across as straight and anything that we are not. Faulkner shows the importance of honesty as we read about white guilt.

Faulkner has something to say about whiteness and struggling with black cultural appropriation. The poems cover many themes— queerness, alcoholism, mental health and how Black culture has been used to frame white guilt. They are raw and filled with emotion, and honesty. We see the struggle for familial acceptance, and learning how to accept oneself. 

There are sharp critiques of whiteness and the poet’s own sense of white privilege. I am amazed at the poet’s self-awareness yet I wish that he can gone a bit deeper.  There is intimacy and profundity here and they hit hard.

“Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader” edited by Jamie Townsend— 30 Years of Steve Abbott

Abbott, Steve. “Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader”, edited by Jamie Townsend, Nightboat, 2019.

30 Years of Steve Abbott

Amos Lassen

Bay Area luminary Steve Abbott was prolific in poetry, fiction, collage, comics, essays, and autobiography for thirty years. His works include including underground classics such as “Lives of the Poets” and “Holy Terror” and there are joined here by rare pieces of treasured ephemera, and previously unpublished material that become a survey of Abbott’s multivalent practice, as well as reinforcing his essential role within the contemporary canon of queer arts.

Abbott could be philosophical, sensuous, angry, humorous, sarcastic, and candid. He was never maudlin. He was not just a man of memory and of moment. “Beautiful Aliens” contains poetry, prose, and essays and it proves that Abbott’s voice lives on. Abbott wrote with a complex sympathy; he was sensitive to the shifting culture of the late twentieth century.

“Tracing the Unspoken” by Milan Self— Daring to Speak

Selj, Milan. “Tracing the Unspoken”, translated by Harvey Vincent, A Midsummer’s Press, 2019.

Daring to Speak

Amos Lassen

Milan Šelj is a Slovenian poet, publicist and translator who has received considerable attention for his explicitly gay poetry. “Tracing the Unspoken” is both my introduction to Selj and the English-language debut of the poet who dares to openly speak (or write) the name of gay desire in compact and precise prose poems.

From the very first page I was pulled into Selj’s poetry of obsession and became obsessed myself. His use of language gives shape to the shapeless and meaning to the banal. In his attempt to understand and give meaning to desire, he wakened in me a desire to keep reading and as I did I devoured every word, constantly wanting more. Suddenly and surprisingly I found a voice for the unsaid and watched as it came together with what had been considered implied as new meanings came into focus. Here is the first poem and a word picture that is unforgettable:

“Desire without a body is the hollow call of a fallen animal. Wounded, it lies in a thicket, licking its genitals. In the valley I hear a stag barking.”

And then we read of passion, a passion that is “blocked by indifference, indifference unblocked by passion” yet once love uttered, it survives. The tension is very real and selj captures emotions powerfully yet succinctly. I find that my eyes become wet as I read the truth that is so often obscured by the culture in which we live.

“We were sitting on a bench at the bus stop. Our eyes locked, avoiding the gazes of strangers and provoking them with our disdain. Later the descending road overtook the howling wind of disapproval. And if you said: The day is only an inevitable contrast to the night, I would have agreed. On the journey, our eyes sparkled with hints. The evening was a game of questions. You answered none of mine.”

I am having a hard time finding the words I want to describe what I have read here and therefore think it might be best to let the poems speak for themselves even though this destroys the meaning of review. A reviewer traditionally writes about the way he is affected by what he reads. What does one do when every word has an effect and every line brims with meaning? How is it that the poet ca say what is in MY heart so much better than I can? Can I daresay is that the beauty here is simply that what is said is so real yet so tenuous?

For me, the sign of good literature is that it makes me ask questions and the questions remain when the read is done. I so remember having similar feelings about Lord Byron when I was an undergrad trying to grasp the mystery of his words.

“Around Christmas he became itchy and home-sick. I bought him a pair of shoes, a one-way ticket and credit for his mobile phone. Standing at the window I waited for his call while watching the first snowflakes. They always cover my restlessness with silence. I kept telling myself I was right to send him away. Will we be closer if he decides to come back?”

Unlike Byron, Selj is graphic and openly erotic. I love that he dares because he dares for all of us.

“A shaved head is resting next to mine. I try to embrace his quick breath after the spill of burning sperm. Above the window sill, rays of sunlight slip through a slit in the curtains. Slowly, like an elegant jackal, he sneaks out of bed, leaving behind the impression of a sensuous shadow. I let him steal the last word before he leaves. His sharp fragrance floats in the air, enveloping my still quivering body.”

I realize that my words are few but I hope you sense the power with which I set the down. I know nothing of the language of Slovenia so I cannot say anything about the quality of the translation but I can say that translator  Harvey Vincent found the words that speak to us all.

“Day and night I write sentences with semen on the surface of your skin. This act is elusive…When I find solutions closer to the core of my obsession will I be at ease.”