Saturday, March 28, 2009

Interview with Rupert Smith by Radcliff Gregory

Rupert Smith isn’t your average gay novelist – not that there is anyone in danger of achieving that dubious accolade. He has managed to become not one, but three separate critically acclaimed novelists. After nine top-selling novels, he recently won the ‘Erotic Oscar’ for work published under his James Lear pseudonym. This is in addition to working as a journalist for 25 years, interviewing hundreds of celebrities, and ghost writing autobiographies. Apart from his regular contributions to Gay Times, Smith now mainly focuses on writing novels. His next novel, Silk, is released this summer.

RG: What does 2009 hold for you?
RS: A lot! Silk - a big blockbuster set in the worlds of fashion and the law. Then Man’s World (November). Soon I’ll start work on the 2010 James Lear novel. Later this year Cleis is reissuing the first ever James Lear novel, The Low Road (out of print for ages and changes hands on the second-hand market for a lot of money)!

RG: You spent many years working in the media industry. Were you consciously collecting material for a novel?
RS: Yes, sort of - I met so many interesting, ridiculous, amazing, annoying people in that world, I kept saying “If you read this in a novel you’d never believe it”.

RG: What inspired I Must Confess?
RS: The character was based on a good friend of mine, who was an aspiring actor-singer, who never made it – but in his own mind he was always a superstar. When he passed away I thought about him a lot and thought he’d make a great basis for a character. The book was also hugely informed by the celebrities I’d interviewed and their agents, managers etc.

RG: What is it like to be two writers simultaneously?
RS: It helps me to differentiate my output: Rupert Smith is basically gay literary fiction with a strong comic element, James Lear is gay erotica, and the new one is commercial fiction. Writing under a different name freed me from the stifling concept of “art” and made me realise that you have to put markets first, yourself second. Once you’re successful you can do what you like and serve Literature, but you have to get to that position first.

RG: Why do you write under two separate identities?
RS: When I started writing porn, I was working for the BBC and I didn’t think they’d take too kindly to it, so I used a nom-de-plume.

RG: Did you always intend to write erotic fiction?
RS: I always have written erotic fiction, from when I was a teenager writing wank fantasies about my mates in a secret diary. I did a bit for mags. The James Lear stuff came about because I was unable to get another novel published. It sold very well.

RG: Sex is notoriously difficult to write well.
RS: I don’t know why so much sex writing is so bad. I think it’s because people try to be literary, which is absolute DEATH in erotic writing. A cock is a cock, not a veiny maypole or a throbbing thrill-hammer. You have to have narrative context: danger, a sense of the forbidden, a frisson of guilt or power. Two people getting off is not very sexy in itself. And you have to have humour to defuse the essential ridiculousness of the exercise.

RG: Does the publishing industry understand there’s a market for queer fiction?
RS: Categorically. the publishing industry does NOT understand. Hardly anyone in the UK is publishing gay stuff, apart from a handful of literary writers like Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst. Nothing about the world we live in now. It’s terrible – our stories and experiences are going unrecorded. This is why I wrote Man’s World and I had a hell of a job to find a publisher for it! No major publisher has the guts to bring out a gay list.

RG: What inspires you to write?
RS: For the porn, I take a favourite literary model and rework it with a lot of sex. The characters come largely from men I see at the gym, or people I know. For the commercial, I take good solid situations and spin out a, melodramatic, sexy, funny yarn. For the Rupert Smith stuff it’s more personal. Fly on the Wall was inspired by TV “docudrama” and the weird people I see walking past my house. Service Wash was inspired by a big job I did on EastEnders, and years as a TV critic for the Guardian, fantasising about what could go wrong with a programme like that. Also from my observations of the gay scene.

RG: What about the gay literary evenings?
RS: The House of Homosexual Culture is a forum to explore and celebrate queer history and culture. We’ve done events on subjects from disco to drag, Aids, politics, porn, punk, the law, and literature.“Live journalism”. Lots of exciting stuff coming up. We’re resident at Southbank Centre now, a great honour. One of the aims of this project was to bring the generations together. To get young people interested in their own history, which is in danger of being forgotten, and to give respect to older people who earned us the freedoms we enjoy today. See

RG: Do you think it would be a positive thing to reinstate Polari in the Queer vocabulary?
RS: It never died! I use it constantly.

RG: Tell me about your next book.
RS: Man’s World is set in 00s gay London, and 50s queer underworld when being gay was illegal, it’s a dual narrative that joins up when one of the survivors of the “old” world meets the narrator of the “new” world. It’s about how much has changed in 50s years, and how little. It’s very funny and sexy but it’s also very romantic and has some serious points to make. I met a lot of great people in their 70s and 80s who witnessed gay life in the 50s and they were massively inspiring.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudonym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to pull in a little PhD research at Loughborough University.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Film Review: Derek

Directed by Isaac Julien
Written and narrated by Tilda Swinton


Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Of late, the BFI have done Derek Jarman proud: they’ve released Caravaggio, Wittgenstein and The Angelic Conversation, all in deluxe editions with commentary and – best of all – with Jarman’s loopy, fantastical Super-8 shorts like Glitterbug, the films he made in his studio and his community around the same time as the legendary Sebastiane. Their raw energy spills from the screen in pouts and flounces and poses and the occasional frank gaze to camera, charged with an intimacy that’s at once sexual and political. We are family, it says.

Jarman was famously a community-builder as much as an artist and agitator. He gathered people to his light, to his generosity, to his curiosity, giving people like costume designer Sandy Powell and actor Tilda Swinton their first breaks, based on a vibration of sympathy and an eye for raw talent. There’s that word again: raw. Swinton says of Caravaggio, the queer artist and murderer who was the subject of Jarman’s most conventional film, that he painted rent boys as saints – then corrects herself: he painted saints as rent boys. It’s an aesthetic – and ethics – that Jarman himself loved, juxtaposing classically-trained actors with circus performers and punks, all spitting Shakespeare or Marlowe or Eagleton with that same freshness.

Vivienne Westwood thought that the middle-class, middle-aged Slade-trained Jarman had co-opted punk for his film Jubilee, assimilating it into the more highbrow avant-garde film community. In the final interview excerpt in the documentary, Jarman tells this story with great relish, taking delight in the fact that he was the only person, aside from the Queen, that Westwood had turned into a T-shirt. Alive to his own multifarious co-optation – by queer rights groups, art movements, AIDS activist nuns, and even gardeners – Jarman seems to have accepted all the attention and all the (mis)reading as part of his role as artist(-as-saint).

Impassioned, articulate (he would have loved Barack Obama, a fellow speaker-in-subclauses), thoughtful: Jarman comes across in the excerpts from interviews, press conferences and TV news as almost donnish. As his notebooks – carefully panned by the camera – show, he was as intellectual as he was instinctual, writing reams and reams of preparatory notes in his distinctive calligraphic handwriting. His legacy is almost overwhelming: boxes and boxes and boxes of material lining the basement of the BFI’s archives.

Julien’s documentary cuts a sharp picture of Jarman from this spillage, presenting Jarman as the Renaissance man he was, and intertwining art and queer life as Jarman’s own films did over twenty years. It’s a film as crammed full of goodies as the two-disc edition that includes it: there are clips from all the features, but also from early shorts – including a startling and sexy one of Jarman having public sex.

But here’s the problem: if you wanted to track that film down and watch it, you’d have a hard time. None of the clips are labelled with subtitles – just one of the symptomatic problems with this documentary. Sometimes a film can be recognised from Jarman’s commentary, but it would take a true Jarmanhead to catch all of them. It’s a rewarding drinking game for the longterm fan, but a somewhat alienating introduction for the neophyte.

Julien and Swinton take the communitarian world of Jarman’s films – as Jarman describes it, he starting out making shorts with and for the people who would watch them later in his studio – and turn it into something hermetic. They’re understandably protective of his legacy, given the neglect it’s suffered since Jarman’s death. But the line between protective and possessive feels like it’s been crossed here: Swinton, alone of Jarman’s collaborators, commands the screen and dictates the shape of the legacy. The films are expected to speak for themselves: we’re rarely told when they were released, how they were financed, how they were received, where Jarman got his ideas – or how he turned them into films.

To me, this feels like the greatest betrayal of Jarman’s pursuit of art in a commercial world. While the film has no reason to be a how-to manual, it elides the hard graft and pragmatism that made Jarman’s films possible. They weren’t made (entirely) by alchemy. The sequence showing the making of Sebastiane, from phone calls in Bar Italia through to sex on the beach in Sardinia, is one of the most rewarding sections of the film, one that comes closest to identifying and revivifying the spirit of Jarman’s own work.

Because, in the end, that’s what this documentary is about: raising a ghost. The 1991 interview with Jarman that’s intercut throughout the film provides a powerful sense of his presence: it seems to be happening in this moment, up until the late footage of Jarman, thin and almost blind, at his last gallery show, and talking about Blue. The film goes looking for him in the BFI archives, and in his garden at Dungeness (which is flourishing), which makes sense – but it also goes looking for him in contemporary glass-and-money London, as Swinton paces the streets affectlessly, her words running in voice-over.

These inserts are frustrating in their obviousness – yes, London has changed and the places that Jarman filmed and fucked have been concreted over – but also in their stylistic flatness. Julien’s Fantôme Afrique installation pieces use the ghostly walker to brilliant effect, but here the footage feels banal, tacked-on. Swinton’s blank gaze adds to the sense that the film is closed off from those of us outside the charmed circle. It’s utterly in opposition to Jarman’s own sense of his films as put forward in the interview: that they are always about uncovering secrets – and, one could add, setting ideas and images free to scatter and cartwheel through the consciousness. Derek is worth watching as a catalogue of these images – but to uncover the secret of life, go to the films themselves.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Review: Loving Emma: A memoir by Carol A. Ortlip

Loving Emma – A story of reluctant motherhood
Carol A. Ortlip

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Angie Bartoli

This book is about women and how they support and nurture one another and their children within a community and society that at times is less than supportive.

Loving Emma – A story of reluctant motherhood is about a lesbian couple, Carol (the author) and Gemma. At almost fifty years of age, Carol is asked to take in and raise her partner Gemma’s six year old niece. The story of Carol’s ‘reluctance’ unfolds, written in lyrical and gripping prose. As a couple Carol and Gemma make a concerted decision not to become parents. Five years into their relationship, this choice is compromised as amidst the heavy snowfall and wind in a Vermont farmhouse, Emma enters their lives.

The child’s mother (Tanya) had a troubled adolescence and has been self medicating since the age of thirteen. Now, as an adult woman and mother, with only other women in her family to rely upon, she is diagnosed as being bi-polar and dependent on drugs. Despite her best efforts, she is unable to consistently parent her daughter.

The author, Carol A. Ortlip, has no biological bond to Emma. Yet she feels a connection to the child. Told with raw candidness, the author’s own repressed childhood demons and personal struggles with alcohol dependency are reawakened.

Joint parenthood is set to test the couple’s relationship, resilience and inner strengths.

Ortlip tackles difficult contemporary issues such as substance misuse, complex family structures and child rearing with forthright ease and bluntness. Real life issues are accompanied by real words that will linger in the mind of the reader for a long time.
By the end of the book, the future of the couple’s relationship remains tenuous. Some readers might find this unsatisfactory. But this is not fiction where simple ‘happy ever after’ endings abound. This is reality – where decisions are rarely straightforward, adequate or comfortable – but simply real if not reluctant at times.

Angie Bartoli is an academic working as a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Northampton. She is a qualified and registered social worker with experience in both the voluntary and statutory sectors within the field of child care and child protection.
Her particular interests are embedded within diversity and human rights (especially gender, lesbian/gay issues, teaching and learning with and from African social work students), safeguarding children and the benefits of group work as an approach when working with people. Due to personal recent experience, Angie has developed a growing interest in homophobic bullying, especially within schools.

Angie reviews academic books (for SWAP) and fiction (for a women’s writing blog). She is currently expanding her own academic writing career and is an avid reader and has recently become the editor of the University of Northampton Social Work Book Club. When not reading or writing she enjoys living proudly in Northampton with her partner and their two children.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: If It Falls

If It Falls
Naomi Young

Published by Discovered Authors

Reviewed by Liam Tullberg

If It Falls is the debut novel by Naomi Young, the Cambridge - based editor of the literary magazine Velvet.

It’s a story about trust that questions how well we can ever know the motives of others and, based on heinous true events, follows Raphael Sifuentes, an ex-guerrilla journalist who’s brimming with guilt and sorrow after his wife, Lidia, and young son, Benigno, were killed during the Guatemalan civil war.

Left emotionally detached after the deaths of those closest to him, Rafael becomes involved with Dolores Rodriguez, (Lola) whom he meets in a café and almost seems to have sought him out. The relationship is one in which Rafael never quite seems committed, but instead a man going through the motions of love or, perhaps more accurately, lust.

When local Pastor Rev. Manuel Chavez, a martyr for justice, is murdered, Rafael is sent to investigate the man’s death, a quest that soon leads him on a trail of deception and lies.

It’s not until Lola is murdered that Rafael fears he may be close to uncovering some shocking truths about a corrupt Colonel Lopez and realises that his own sanity and safety are at risk. Not least because Josue Chan, who Rafael meets before identifying Lola’s body, claims to be Lola’s fiancé. It’s here that the novel reaches its pivotal and most intriguing point as questions begin to circle in Rafael’s mind, not least if Lola was who she claimed to herself to be. And just who exactly is Josue?

If It Falls soon becomes a gripping page turner with each challenge that Rafael faces introducing him to characters he doesn’t know if he can trust. Using timely cliff hangers and well placed hooks, the story whips by quickly and it’s not until the last few pages that any denouement is offered to the reader.

What makes If It Falls such a good read is the fact that the narrative is so contained within Rafael’s mind and thoughts, that, in parts, it’s almost as if it’s written via first-person point of view as opposed to third. Readers are in Rafael’s mindset for every step of his journey and as a result can sympathise with the situation in which he’s embroiled.

However, this ‘up close’ focus can at times feel a little claustrophobic with an over-reliance on internal monologues and rhetorical questions. There are a few points in which it’s easy to forget where scenes are taking place since the focus falls heavily on dialogue. That said, Young’s use of dialogue is excellent and the many characters interact well together. The scenes between Rafael and Lola and, later, her sister, are exceptionally strong, particularly towards the end of the novel.

While If It Falls follows a typical character and story arc in some senses, Young offers no happy ending or ‘elixir’, a sentiment that resounds with her chilling epilogue. Rafael may have learnt a great deal about himself and his ability to trust, but at what cost?

This is a strong novel that reflects the troubled minds in a country at war and asks readers to imagine the unimaginable when it comes to seeking justice. It’s perhaps not just the story of one man, but that of many in a time in history that should never be repeated.

Liam Tullberg is a Bristol-based author currently working on his novel, From the Darkness, and can be contacted through


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: In the Life: a Black Gay Anthology & Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men

In the Life: a Black Gay Anthology
Edited by Joseph Beam

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men
Edited by Essex Hemphill and conceived by Joseph Beam

Published by RedBone Press

Reviewed by Richard Canning

These are timely reissues of two groundbreaking anthologies from 1986 and 1991 respectively. Redbone Press has done an excellent job of each, updating contributors’ biographies and adding new introductions. The one by James Earl Hardy, in In the Life, is refreshingly accessible, poignant and draws neatly on the impact that the book had on him as a college student. Jafaire Sinclair Allen’s portentous introduction to Brother to Brother is rather heavy-going. There’s a hint of this in the title – ‘Rereading Brother to Brother: Crucial Palimpsest’ – but the heart sinks further with the first line, where the anthology is celebrated for ‘indexing our collective injuries in blood, cum, fire and tears.’ Happily, this doesn’t get near the straightforward aesthetic pleasures offered by so much of the best writing here, which have little to do with any compulsion to complain about ‘injury’ alone, and everything to do with narrating the diversity of black gay male lives from original and winning perspectives. (The term ‘black’ is used advisedly, over African-American, since, though the genesis of both was in the US, their contributors include a good number of non-American voices, such as the British film-maker Isaac Julien). Nevertheless, a page later, Allen is warning how the stories told by and about gay men are ‘endangered by our own complacency, poor reading, self-appointed Divadom and lack of vision.’ Does he speak for himself? The self-lacerating tone and doom-laden pronouncements of this opening risk alienating the reader who – lest we forget – has taken an interest, is keeping the faith. In a context in which there are few serious readers left of any kind, it seems perverse to turn on those who are present and correct.

An interview with Essex Hemphill from 1990 has also been added to Brother to Brother, a project Hemphill took up by way of direct tribute to Beam’s achievement with In the Life. Beam outlived his book by just two years; Hemphill too would die of AIDS-related causes in 1995. The epidemic, needless to say, cut a swath through the authors featured in both books; gone are Assoto Saint, Melvin Dixon, Craig Harris and Donald Woods (all featured in In the Life), as well as Rory Buchanan, Charles Harpe, Walter Rico Burrell and Marlon Riggs (from Brother to Brother). As a subject it only appeared intermittently in In the Life, many of the pieces in which date back a decade or more. In Brother to Brother, it is a constant presence, implicit or explicit.

Inevitably, today some of this writing feels a little period-bound – written to the concerns of a moment, that is, and feeling rather historical today. But the best of it hasn’t aged a bit. Craig Harris’s ‘Cut Off From Among Their People’ – from In the Life – is a finely-rendered early portrait of the family politics attending an AIDS funeral, a subject later much embellished by Thomas Glave’s fine story ‘The Final Inning’ (Glave is too young to feature here, however). Harris was, moreover, an arresting poet, as ‘Hope against Hope’ in Brother to Brother reveals. Walter Burrell’s ‘The Scarlet Letter Revisited’ (from BTB) is a moving journal account of his deteriorating health, again a piece which seems to point forwards – to, say, the notebooks of Gary Fisher. Marlon Riggs’s striking poem ‘Tongues Untied’ is also in the later volume. Of In the Life, I particularly enjoyed the discursive self-account given by Samuel Delany, and Brad Johnson’s poetry is winningly ludic.

African-American gay writing in particular has developed extraordinarily since these seeds were planted. There are so many talented successors to what is really the snapshot (or two snapshots) of a particular generation of black authors here: Glave, certainly, but also Darieck Scott, Randall Kenan, Larry Duplechan, to name just three who appeared in Avon’s equally impressive 1996 anthology, Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent, edited by Bruce Morrow and Charles Rowell. E. Lynn Harris, of course, has shown too that there is no ceiling to the appeal of black gay literature.

If neither In the Life nor Brother to Brother is precisely the same as the original books, that is not the fault of their new publisher. Anthologies are a legally complex business in the first place. Revisiting them a couple of decades later must have been a thankless task. Two authors - Sidney Brinkley and Daniel Garrett - declined to have their work reproduced in the new version of In the Life. One poet, ‘Wrath’, likewise, is missing from this Brother to Brother. It’s worth adding, however, that Redbone have produced books which are both more attractive and reader-friendly than the Alyson originals. It’s a huge commercial leap of faith to reprint these titles, if only because the internet has made it infinitely easier and cheaper to find second-hand copies of pretty much any title. Still, with a wide and attractive further list – including implicit successor volumes to these, such as G Winston James and Other Countries’ Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing and G Winston James and Lisa C Moore’s Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity – Redbone is to be praised not only for disinterring these important titles, but for building on them so tangibly in furthering the presence of important and influential black gay writing in all genres.

Richard Canning is author of Gay Fiction Speaks and Hear Us Out (Columbia University Press, 2001 and 2004), two collections of conversations with gay male novelists, as well as Oscar Wilde (Hesperus, 2008) and E. M. Forster (Hesperus, 2009), two short biographies. He has edited Between Men (Carroll & Graf, 2007) and Between Men 2 (Alyson, 2009), as well as a collection of American AIDS fiction, Vital Signs (Carroll & Graf, 2007). Forthcoming is another anthology, 50 Gay and Lesbian Titles Everyone Should Read (Alyson, 2009). He teaches at Sheffield University, England, where he can be contacted.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: The Body in Question by Peter Flinsch

The Body in Question
Peter Flinsch
Edited with an Introduction by Ross Higgins and a Preface by Thomas Waugh

Published by: Arsenal Pulp Press

Review by Jonathan Statham

The Body in Question offers a glimpse into the world of artist Peter Flinsch. Born in Germany in 1920 he was drafted into the Luftwaffe at eighteen; at twenty-one he was caught kissing a fellow officer and sentenced to serve in a punitive unit clearing landmines. After the war, as an East German Flinsch was put to work by the Communists painting murals of Marx and Lenin. Bored with this he moved, eventually, to Montreal. There he worked in television but increasingly concentrated on his own, more personal art, an art that expressed his gay desires and demonstrated a passionate interest, aesthetic and erotic, in the male body: this is the work collected in The Body in Question (introduced lucidly and insightfully by Ross Higgins). It invokes a world of bodies, particularly though not exclusively male and homosexual, and of the places where they reach out for, and sometimes shy away from, each other: the bar, the sauna, the beach, the changing room, the boxing ring, the gym, the bedroom. Flinsch’s bodies wrestle, dance, fuck, caress and rest in an accomplished exploration of the male form as well as of male sociality and sexuality.

Flinsch draws and paints in diverse styles, always in an effort to capture the peculiar energy of a specific body. Speaking of his work, Flinsch frequently compares himself to a camera and while his work is never directly realistic it nonetheless strives to express the essence of what is seen, of what is being seen – for Flinsch’s bodies are almost always being looked at and often they seem aware that they are being looked at, be that by another figure in the painting, by the artist as he sketches or by the viewer who gazes at the completed work. The body for Flinsch is always caught in a gaze (and sometimes gives as good as it gets). It is always being put ‘in question’ by a gaze that socialises it, sometimes brutally, sometimes tenderly. For example, in ‘Sand in My Eye’ [plate 79] and ‘Jeff and Red Drape’ [plate 80] the central nude figure appears self-conscious, demonstrating a heightened awareness of their own bodies because aware of the eye that perceives them, as if (in different ways) they were inviting the gaze or content to be in it. Alternatively, in ‘The Frisco Kid’ [plate 85] we have a character sitting alone in a busy bar, abandoned by the gaze: thus Flinsch criticises the harshness of the communal gay gaze while also offering, in the medium of art, a possible redemption in that we find ourselves gazing at the beauty of the lonely young man. Perhaps this is a release also for Flinsch, from the experience of having his sexuality subjected to a violently homophobic gaze by the Nazis (in the criminal unit to which he was assigned he was required every morning to declare the homosexual nature of his crime).

Flinsch’s technique is ideally suited to an exposition of the queer gaze. He is particularly given to the use of outline: from just a few marks on a page the contours of a body will emerge (as in ‘Ben B.’ [plate 4]), or a face can peer out of a dense mass of scribbles (as in ‘Suppliant’ [plate 71]). In either case, the viewer’s gaze is dramatically engaged and they are made complicit in the appearance of the body on the page. In ‘Talk Me Into It’ [plate 48] Flinsch goes further in the use of outline by drawing one over another in a palimpsest to expose the social dynamic of the sexual pick-up. Flinsch explores yet more possibilities of playing with outline in ‘Unfinished but Complete’ [plate 86] where two figures seem to merge in a morass of scribbles, losing their outline at the places where they touch as an expression of their emotional state. Again this effect relies the journey of the viewer’s eye as they explore the lines Flinsch has made, just as the eye roves over a body we find attractive.

This sensitivity to the subtleties of the expressive, perceived body is cast by Flinsch into a profoundly comic tone. Perhaps perversely, I often found myself reminded of Quentin Blake’s illustrations, but with a sensibility more akin to Tom of Finland. Unlike Tom’s entertainingly outrageous distortions, however, Flinsch’s works tend toward the meditative and observant. A wry but never mordant sense of humour is at work here and it animates the paintings: not only do they suggest stories to the viewer but the people represented are never mere ‘figures’ but always more properly ‘characters’, expressing the sense of a whole life at work in the individual body.

Those who are interested should also look at where many more of Flinsch’s artworks in various styles can be viewed. He offers us an illumination of the body and perhaps of the question in the body which sexuality, in all its forms, is the struggle to answer. For some of us, in our own lives this book might itself prove a tool in that process.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Theatre Review: Eonnagata

Conceived and performed by
Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, Russell Maliphant

Sadler’s Wells, London
23 June - 27 June 2009

Review by Sophie Mayer

If I had a time machine, I would spin back to Québec, 1986 to see 29 year old theatrical wunderkind Robert Lepage creating Vinci, his one-man take on the polymathic inventor and artist. da Vinci has clearly been a tutelary figure throughout Lepage’s career, as he has fearlessly invented new ways of working in theatre, from his amazing ensemble-building and rehearsal, through the use of film and video, to his crazy-to-the-point-of-unworkable props and sets.

None of those are on show in Eonnagata, a piece of dance theatre conceived by Lepage with choreographer Russell Maliphant and dancer Sylvie Guillem, who have worked together previously. With lighting design by Maliphant’s regular collaborator Michael Hulls and an emphasis on dance given by the Sadler’s Wells setting, this would seem to be very much a Maliphant/Guillem show. Dance critics Judith Mackrell (The Guardian) and Zoe Anderson (The Independent) certainly approach it as such, enjoying the dance language, especially Guillem and Maliphant’s duets, and praising Lepage’s efforts. He may be a non-dancer, but he’s always been an incredibly physical performer. No wonder they are puzzled about what it all adds up to: by approaching Eonnagata as dance, they’re really confined to praising the dance, which I found boring: yes, Maliphant and Guillem’s duet represents them trying to morph into a single transgendered body, but why then use the clichéd gendered language of ballet (Maliphant lifts; Guillem is lifted)?

What the dance critics missing are the elements of Lepage’s work that are on show in Eonnagata: not just the cerebral investigation of gender and identity that also marked Lepage’s Needles and Opium (a solo show about Jean Cocteau) and his more recent Andersen Project, or even his affinity for, and research into, Japanese theatrical culture – from which the show takes the second half of its name, onnagata, the tradition of male actors playing female characters. Nor is it just his love of sword fighting, first seen in Elsinore, when he staged Hamlet’s duel with Laertes solo, with a fencing foil that had a camera mounted on the end. It’s the theatre of it, the investigation of and through spectacle and storytelling, through the echoes between text and gesture.

In fact, sword- and stick-fighting are key to Eonnagata’s movement, from a solitary Lepage wielding his sword with great elegance at the back of the stage to a witty vaudevillian stick-fight between Lepage and Maliphant. The swoops of the silvery swords refract Hulls’ brilliant lights across the stage, acting as costume and set as well as extensions of the performers’ gestures (although they always seem a bit lightweight; only Lepage is able to perform the weight of a sword in his movements). The sticks resound satisfyingly against the floor and each other, contributing to the warped beatscape composed by Jean-Sébastien Côté. They make visible an invisible conflict and its source.

The first part of the title refers to the Chevalier d’Eon, a diplomat (ie: spy) who was – great phrase – a member of the King’s Secret under Louis XV. So there’s the opportunity for drama aplenty already: the shadow of the Revolution, Louis’ affairs with Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry, Voltaire’s exile. It’s a time of upheaval in France, a time in which identity’s fixed nature is being rethought in terms of class. But also gender. And the Chevalier d’Eon offers a complex – if vexed – figure for thinking about gender in the Ancien Regime. d’Eon served as a diplomat in London until a riding accident revealed that he was female; recalled to Paris and forced into women’s clothes, she was made a pet at court and continued to dress as a woman until her death revealed that (as far as I can make out from the ribald poem Lepage recites) he was anatomically male. Other accounts say that d’Eon used female clothing in the service of his spying, and demanded to be recognised as female by the French government in order to end his exile in London.

d’Eon defied all sorts of gender norms, including offering to lead a brigade of women against the Austrians. His/her biological sex remains an open question, and its this ambiguity that Eonnagata explores most appealingly, while never making light of the social challenges that d’Eon faced. All that sword- and stick-waving stands for inner conflict, absolutely, but also for a social conflict that could be paralleled to the American War of Independence or French Revolution, for the right of gender self-determination. Phallic and physically aggressive, the sticks also suggests the aspects of the old order threatened by d’Eon’s contingent fluidity, which raises three possibilities that disturb the Good Old Boys of the French government: that a woman could successfully achieve the same military and diplomatic success as a man; that a man may choose to forego male privilege and live as a woman; and, thirdly, that male and female identities aren’t so clear-cut as that, that they rest in a set of constructions and assumptions dependent on gendered codes of activities, attitude and costume.

It’s the costume, designed by Alexander McQueen, that allows for the most fun, and make clear the dizzying range of references at play in the show, from music hall to kabuki. The costumes are inherently theatrical, and they point to the theatricality of gender – and to the fact that theatre is a site where gender has often been blurred and contested. In the stick fight, onnagata meets Widow Twanky. The incidents that act as a framework – d’Eon’s frightening return to France and robing as a woman, for example – all comment specifically on how clothes maketh the (wo)man. Seductive, beautiful, surprisingly robust and agile, McQueen’s costumes make transvestism – or better, sartorial androgyny – seem both impossibly glamorous and attractively practical.

McQueen is known for his cutting and structure, and his costumes here reveal the bones beneath. Whether transparent kimonos or pastiched crinolines, the costumes are slashed and opened to allow the dancing body to move, and to be visible in its movements. Under their various guises, the three quick-change artists wear all-over leotards covered with a web of lines (deliciously, Guillem’s had a codpiece to shape her silhouette in accord with her fellow dancers). In a particularly eerie sequence in which an upturned table becomes a boat, a cell, a womb, a cradle (all places where we are thrown back on our bodies, and all analogies for the body) the lines glow blue with ultraviolet light, alien veins turning the body inside out.

In that, they are reminiscent of da Vinci’s tireless diagramming of the body. Lepage’s final pose – spreadeagled on a table that is d’Eon’s deathbed – is that of da Vinci’s universal man. But inverted. Simple, arresting, grounded, embodied: when it refused the ethereality of ballet (associated with Guillem as the ‘female’ Chevalier) Eonnagata offered a glimpse of a beguiling, shifting, playful yet politicised hybrid, a form that brilliantly mirrored its subject. But Guillem’s bite feminine should have been visible long before she took her bow; its promise – and its obfuscation – mark the two sides of this show that hasn’t quite found the unity of self that d’Eon clearly did.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Review: Rimbaud by Edmund White

Edmund White

Published by Atlantic Books

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Edmund White’s latest biography is an intelligent meditation on a brilliant adolescent poet and horrible adolescent. If Rimbaud frequently aspired to genius in his brief period of poetic output, he occasionally sank into something resembling evil in the cruelty he inflicted on others. White is far too sophisticated to rely on either the G or the E word to explain this most complex of characters, though his Rimbaud often seems like a troubled boy-version of Madame Bovary, seeking out new interests to occupy his time but finding fulfilment in none bar poetry (for a while) and hurting people, thus lending weight to Kierkegaard’s notion that boredom is a root of evil.

At any rate, Rimbaud’s nastiness pretty much speaks for itself and in order to display his subject’s talent, White takes the standard literary-biographical approach of weaving fragments of textual analysis into an otherwise sequential account of the writer’s life. The critical passages are, as one would expect from so seasoned an intellectual as White, highly astute. His grudging acknowledgement of critics’ claims that Rimbaud was always a closet Catholic poet, despite ‘the essential impiety of the title [Une saison en enfer], which suggests that hell is finite and not eternal’, is a little odd, though. Had not Dante, the greatest Catholic poet of all, visited hell as a stage of a journey to somewhere else?

White is spot on when he flirts with political invective, reminding readers that leftwing politics cannot be counted on as a friend to sexual dissidents, who are often deemed to be by-products of bourgeois capitalism. Thus Rimbaud took a knock when he tried to align himself with modish leftwing movements. As White puts it, ‘Just as radicals in Europe and America during the 1960s would reject homosexuals, the Communards and anarchists drew the line short of “inversion” or “pederasty” or “sodomy”’.

White also shows he’s not immune to scholarly stilettoism, dragging the sharpest of heels across Enid Starkie’s theory, based on a ‘Freudian’ reading of Rimbaud’s poem ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’, that the poet was not only raped in Paris, but that he ‘enjoyed’ it. He quotes Starkie as saying that the ‘experience was probably the most significant ever in Rimbaud’s life’, which is not the same thing as saying he actually enjoyed it. Experiences can be significant in all sorts of ways, not least traumatic ones, and, regardless of whether Rimbaud had or had not been attacked against his will, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that something had happened around that time which drastically altered the young man’s understanding of sexuality. Some chapters later White ticks Starkie off again for having ‘cooked up’ the idea that Rimbaud was a slave trader during his time in Africa. Fair enough; but he does not chastise Graham Robb – whom he lauds, quite reasonably, as Rimbaud’s best Anglophone biographer – for supposing Rimbaud’s motive for tracking down Verlaine in Brussels to be blackmail and defamation. It’s true that Rimbaud threatened to play this twisted card later when their affair had soured beyond salvage, but the reason he’d sailed to Belgium might simply have been that he missed his lover.

The fact is that so much of Rimbaud’s short life remains enigmatic and courts biographers’ speculation and supposition. White doesn’t partake much in these things, which is why this book has such a chilly sparseness about it. As an introduction to Rimbaud, though, it does the job superbly. And if anyone thinks its subtitle – The Double Life of a Rebel – oozes blandness, they should just be grateful that its author didn’t stick with the working title of Rimbaud: Teen Top.


Review: Sea, Swallow Me by Craig Laurence Gidney

Sea, Swallow Me
Craig Laurence Gidney

Published by Lethe Press

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Craig Laurance Gidney’s exciting and impressive debut story collection Sea, Swallow Me traverses centuries of time and different continents depicting characters across a range of races and sexualities. In ‘The Safety of Thorns’ a slave named Israel Jones encounters a man he assumes to be the devil and whom he believes makes him and a girl temporarily invulnerable. In ‘Etiolate’ a student artist named Oliver feels isolated and treated like a novelty in the Baltimore club scene because of his skin color. His self consciousness about being objectified is turned outward as he begins to objectify others. When his desire turns into a power that obliterates the men he picks up, he must find a way to radically redefine himself.

Often the stories in this collection dip into fantastical realms describing characters who detect regions of spiritual or supernatural existence that are not immediately apparent to others. In ‘Come Join We’ the narrator Aime is literally able to detect people’s auras and see and hear the dead like a medium. Frequently in these stories there is a sense that the characters are tempted to eschew the physical world in favour of a more ethereal existence. The title story ‘Sea, Swallow Me’ describes a man who feels out of place as a tourist on a Caribbean island. Whilst longing for a deeper connection with the place which he feels rejected by, he sacrifices himself to the ocean in a religious ritual. Many of the characters’ fractured sense of identity can only become whole again by traversing the boundaries of their circumscribed ordinary existence. A rare security of being is achieved in one of the more straight-forward stories ‘Circus Boy Without a Safety Net’ where an isolated boy from a rural area travels to Manhattan and attends a Lena Horn drag performance.

It’s touching when we catch glimpses of the unique central characters in this collection through the eyes of other characters. The point of view is re-shifted from one immersed in a fable-like narrative to one grounded in a more physical reality. This frequently takes place throughout the stories when an encounter with a fantastical being is shunned in favour of a connection to an individual who genuinely values the dislocated central character. Such is the case in ‘A Bird of Ice’ where a twelfth century Japanese monk develops a dangerous relationship with a shape-shifter, but finally relocates himself by achieving an intimacy with one of the other monks.

Gidney’s imagery is inventive and his descriptions are sometimes like an impressionistic painting: “A suggestion of wings, the stem of a neck. Etched on the darkness, a transparent bird.” One of the most ambitious stories ‘Strange Alphabets’ describes the poet Rimbaud on a journey where the encounters he has and the things he sees are heavily coded with a meaning unique to the rogue poet genius. Each story in the collection is uniquely structured and laden with rich informed details showing that the writer has a strong sense of craft while being able to explore variations on his central themes of identity, alienation and the interplay of the supernatural with the real world. The intriguing set of characters’ flirtations with what is divine lead to surprising discoveries. These stories are engrossing, each confidently and imaginatively narrated while incorporating elements of mythology with a modern sensibility.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.