A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now
The first words of poetry I wrote as a grown-man poet were “Before you say a word.”
As a boy in love with writing, I wrote poems and stories. But more stories. And in any case I put the pen down for about 10 years, beginning at age 18. (Fodder for another Poetry Squawk.) When I resumed writing, it was stories. And my fiction writing energized me for several years. But at a certain point, fiction began to feel more like lies. Perhaps because my fiction was mostly autobiographical. I wasn’t inventing a character. I was donning a mask. And that came to feel false. And in response to that feeling, I thought something like, “I wish I could just say it.” It, meaning whatever I really meant. And when I sat down with steno pad and green felt-tipped marker to give it a shot, it came out as a poem of direct address: “Before you say a word, I am yours.”
That began a period of some ten years in which I wrote primarily what you might call classically lyric poems, poems of love, longing, and loss addressed to a second person, addressed to a you. I’m a [trigger warning: pejorative term for sexual minority reclaimed in a reverse-discursive gesture of self-empowerment] FAG, so my addressee was…well…not really anyone is particular, and yet little pieces of a lot of young men. It was sort of what I was supposed to have been doing in writing fiction: inventing characters. For some reason (which reason you’d think I would identify in this squawk but I’m not sure I can), I could do it more easily in verse than in fiction. Perhaps because it was a you. Perhaps it was easier for me to reimagine you than it was to reimagine me.
I believe my attraction to the lyric poem of direct address was a legacy of my life as a classicist, i.e. a student of Ancient Greek and Roman language, literature, and culture. Cf. Sappho, Fragment 31, which begins (the translation is my own)
He seems to me to be equal to the gods,
that man who sits across from you
listening to your sweet voice…
The poem goes on the explain how “that man” keeps his cool, while the speaker, on the other hand, totally loses her shit—heart pounding, speechless, burning, blind, deaf, sweating, trembling, pale, she feels as if she is about to die.
We don’t really know who the speaker is—how much it is Sappho and how much it is not. And we don’t really know who “that man” is. To me it is has always felt like a generalization or a hypothetical, not any specific real-life man. It does seem to be a man, as opposed to a woman, because Sappho uses a masculine form of the adjective “equal” in line 1 and uses the word “man” in line 2. On the other hand, until quite recently, writers often cast their same-sex desires as opposite-sex desires to defy censorship or persecution. So who knows?
But more important, for my purposes here, is how these indeterminacies serve the poem. This goes back to what Poetry Squawker (and my husband) Jason Schneiderman wrote a couple of weeks ago about poetry and autobiography. In fact, when I asked him to write that Squawk, I was struggling with this Squawk. Jason wrote about how autobiographical detail can work in a poem if it serves a purpose larger than autobiography. Or as Jason put it, “If it’s a meditation on a theme, good. If it’s just stuff that happened to you, bad.”
Agreed. But something else, too. Something more specifically about the poem of direct address. I’m not here to say what makes a good poem or a bad poem, or what makes a poem good or bad. But I am here to say that poems of direct address may be more successful, may be more satisfying both to poet and to reader, if the poet generalizes both the “I” and the “you” of the poem.
Let me state right off that by “generalize,” I do NOT mean you should eliminate specificity, especially not specificities of race, ethnicity, class, sex, or gender. This is not about Aristotelian “universal in the particular.” This is NOT about making all poems White People Poems. Rather, I am talking about generalizing from the poet’s own experience, which is, of course, always specific, and always racialized, classed, sexed, gendered, etc. But even intersectionality can be generalized as a matter of poetic craft.
As I write this, I’m thinking about a particular poem of my own, “Instead Of Names,” which appears in my first book, This Life Now. The first stanza reads
Now I wait in familiar locations—
the park, the promenade,
any place I think you might find me.
Now, This Life Now is chock full of poems addressed to a second person. The “I,” however, is not the same in all the poems, nor is the “you.” And by that, I do not mean merely that they refer to different real-life people, although that may be the case, too. What I really mean is that the “I” varies in how much it is or is not me, the poet, Michael Broder. And the “you” varies in how much it is or is not any particular “you” (Randy, Marcos, Tony). And if that’s not already freaky enough, the “I,” and in particular the “you,” can change on successive readings. And even freakier yet—I, the poet, Michael Broder, can understand the “I,” and especially the “you,” in a particular poem differently over time.
The reader soon learns that “Instead of Names” is describing a cruising scenario (cruising, as in men in public places looking for other men to have sex with; it’s a thing from before the Internet). The speaker, it turns out, is not waiting for any absent beloved (slash) old boyfriend at all, but rather for what we used to call a “trick,” someone to have sex with just this once, right now, in this park or, well, maybe not right there on the promenade (although if I remember correctly, there was this one time on the Brooklyn Heights promenade…). The “you,” then, is the guy the speaker encounters: “When you arrive / I sidle up….” Okay, fine.
Or is it? Later we read, “For a while you stay and I think it’s what I wanted….” So, wait a second, when did this all happen, exactly? It didn’t. Or it did, but the poem is not referring to any one specific time, any one specific episode of cruising, any one specific trick. This is just a sort of thing. The sort of thing that happens (to wit, the very first word of the poem) now. And when, precisely, is “now”? (Not to be confused with “How Soon Is Now,” a classic Smiths song; the Smiths—it’s a thing from before the Internet). (But I just stopped to listen to “How Soon Is Now” and the song and the poem are TOTALLY RELATED, so, there’s that.)
So, this is all very nice explication de texte, but I fear I’m losing the thread about autobiography versus generalization and the poem of direct address. To keep it in terms of my poem “Instead of Names”—Yeah, I, the poet Michael Broder, cruised for sex in parks, promenades, and other public places. Successfully. I mean, there was the having of sex. Sex was had. In public places. By me, the poet Michael Broder. And that more than kind of makes its way into this poem. So you could say that’s autobiographical. But that’s not really the point (or as the poet once said, “That is not what I meant, at all”). The poem, it turns out, is really about that very first word: Now. Before, the speaker was intimately connected to people he knew by name. Now, it’s different; casual, anonymous: No names—This is what we have instead of names.
And so, yes, it’s a poem about AIDS. Sort of. I mean, for me, all those classically lyric poems of direct address about love and loss were about what it was like for me to be me, in my late 20s (slash) early 30s, living with HIV, facing not only the possibility (slash) probability of my own imminent doom, but also what it was like to be, for all intents and purposes, perfectly healthy in this world of gay death, dying, and ongoing, immeasurable, seemingly insurmountable grief. And for me, for whatever reason (which reason I said many paragraphs ago I did not think I could identify), these poems had to be poems of direct address, poems to you. I mean, there’s no reason a lot of those yous could not have been hes:
Now I wait in familiar locations—
the park, the promenade,
any place I think he might find me.
See? Perfectly fine. Or is it? Clearly, I, the poet Michael Broder, did not think so back circa 1995. “I saw you standing on the fire escape” could not be “I saw him standing on the fire escape” (“Variations”). Nor could “the dark hole you sleep in beneath your parents’ house” have been “the dark hole he slept in beneath his parents’ house” (“Tony Poem”). In fact, when I was writing “Tony Poem” (which took YEARS), an often very wise teacher said the poem did not work with a second-person addressee, not because Tony was dead, but because Tony, wherever he was, as a poetic fiction, as a person in the poem, already knew all of the biographical details about Tony. So my recounting to Tony the details of his own life did not make sense and tended to push the reader out of the poem. I didn’t buy that. Maybe because I grew up with a mother who had no problem accusing you repeatedly of wrongs you committed 30 years earlier (and, I mean, in the second person, imprecations of direct address, to be sure). Maybe because I believed that Tony, wherever he was, LOVED hearing me address him directly. Could not get ENOUGH of me talking about him. And WANTED me to refer to him as “you,” a poetic memoir, or memorial, or elegy, of direct address.
Mostly, I think, I wrote poems of direct address because I wanted intimacy. And of course, a poet can write an intimate poem in the third person, letting you, the reader, in on the secret of him, her, them, or it in the poem. But that did not work for me, at least not in the poems I was writing then, the poems I was writing then about a new kind of now that, at least in the opinion of my Muse, demanded a return to some very ancient poetic traditions.
Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.