Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: Whoosh! A Queer Writing South Anthology

edited by Maria Jastrzebska and John McCullough

Published by Pighog Press

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

It has always been difficult to know whether or not there is genuinely such a genre as ‘queer’ writing, and what qualities and identities might identify work as falling into that category. There is, too, the thorny problem of whether work by and about queer writers and characters are ever representative and ‘real’, whatever that might be. Indeed, Chroma’s own Shaun Levin draws attention to this lack of accessible and recognisably queer writers in the Foreword to Whoosh!. Whatever else this anthology has to offer the reader, its queerness and realness cannot be questioned – its contributors have all been pooled from an ostentatiously queer literary network.

The poems and short stories are diverse in subject matter, with sexual orientation being one of the least prominent themes. Bec Chalkley, who has contributed articles and photographs to Diva opens the collection with her first foray into poetry. Her pieces are endearingly eccentric and vivid, sometimes crackling with brilliance, with the “axe [that]/ traced neat arcs through the dusk: a burst of steel/ and splinters, each dark hide yielding its milky sinews/ for the fire to come.” After reading Monk’s House, I’ll probably think of Virginia Woolf whenever I see a plump courgette.

Living in a society where ‘im/migration’ is a conversational and political hot potato, irrespective of our own beliefs and identity, “foreignness” has become an abused concept in nationalist mentality. Vicky_Ro’s short story, On the Mode of Existence of Foreigners is a timely wake-up call. If it is difficult to suddenly find yourself living in an alien culture, how much more disorientating it is to find yourself “other” in your ‘own’ cultural homeland. This author cleverly develops a metaphor of experiential paranoia to express the impossibility of existence.

Rod Lee expertly manipulates the reader into following a carefully constructed pace-sensitive denouement, and his work would suit public performance very well. Ode to a Night Boy cleverly draws you in, forcing you to eavesdrop deliciously, whilst doing strange things to your mind. Using full names for characters in poetry is a risky ploy, and quite a strange one for a poem where names don’t appear to be exchanged, and yet it does add to the sense of being able to see the drama.

Equally risky is writing a child as the main character in a short story designed for adults, because most of us have forgotten how our minds, abilities, identities and souls existed before social and cultural conditioning attenuated our creativity and erased that naïve sense of absolute invincibility. Airborne, by Morgan Case, is a stunning short story about the freedoms and prisons of difference, and the sometimes terrifying sacrifices we have to make to develop our special gifts and become whole.

Sue Taylor contributes a poem and a short story, the former detailing the ridiculously extensive lengths we sometimes go to for the sake of producing the all-important photographs in which it’s essential that we “cannot be faulted.” Her story featuring the ironically named ‘Swift Removals’ company vividly conjures up the sheer effort we put into building our adult lives, often so easily dismantled by other people’s fleeting manifestations of thoughtlessness.
The motifs of post-modern symbolism seamlessly undergo a new genesis in Cathy Ives’ poems And Which One Are You? and Pebble Beach. Tracy Emin and Jeanette Winterson are evoked and explored, but not plagiarised. The author then takes up the thorny question of what happens to LGBT folk when they get old and grey in a society where it seems that all services for the elderly take heterosexuality as the only possible sexual orientation. Where does the Queer community go when they get old, and how do they live and express their lives and loves? This surprising and touching story conveys and asks far more than the limits its three pages superficially imply.

Penny Lloyd’s poems explore the grey spaces in our lives, the Half Light and “predictive text intimacy” with which most of us are now familiar. She looks at the clichés and emblems that we all recognise and live by, and critiques the question marks that constantly and invisibly hang over us as the “dusk of confusion”.

Whoosh! is closed by two short stories from Nathan Hugh O’Donnell, Heatstroke and A Dark Horse. The first story casts a critical eye over the frisson of discovering what is popularly believed to be the ‘gay male lifestyle, and the eventual graduation into seeing through the perceived ‘glamour’ and ‘sordidness’. The reality of these actual, desired, supposed, and missed, opportunities are the spaces and silences between and beyond, punctuated by monotony, clumsiness and frustration – long stretches when the ecstasies, whether real or anticipated, cease to exist. A Dark Horse is an unusual exploration of grief after the death of a parent, the miscellany of conflicting and contradictory emotions convulsing out in spasms of unexpected prose, forcing the reader to really examine the words he or she is reading.

There is a rich landscape of identities to explore in this anthology, though I cannot honestly say that I felt ‘represented’ here any more than I do in most other literature, irrespective of the authors’ sexual identity. Perhaps we should not default to seeking to graft our own individual experiences on to strangers, and recognise that there are as many queer identities as there are people who identify as such.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), 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 complete his first full-length prose work.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Film Review: Sunkissed

Directed by Patrick McGuinn

Willing Suspension Films

Reviewed by Max Fincher

An arthouse, erotic thriller, this new film by director Patrick McGuinn leaves the audience to ponder whether the dark fantasies of one of the handsome young men is the destiny or tragic past of the other.

Teddy, bright, romantic and sociable, is a novelist staying temporarily in the Californian desert home of Crispin, his literary agent, to complete his novel. Arriving at the house, Teddy meets the handsome but conflicted Leo, an aspiring actor. Leo settles him into the house and the two of them get drunk and have sex. They then embark on a passionate affair together. However, all is not as it appears. We begin to wonder just what Leo’s past history is, and what will be Teddy’s fate.

Although the initial pace of the film is slow to build, the tension increases after the confessional drunken exchange between Leo and Teddy. This is a pivotal scene that reveals Leo’s backstory. As we subsequently discover, Leo comes out to his mother who denies he is gay. Teddy’s novel, (which Leo suggests should be titled ‘Goodbye’) is partly autobiographical. Teddy tells him that the experience of coming out in the mid-West was a ‘nightmare’. Leo’s story, then, is one that Teddy is, unwittingly, writing. The mystery over what happens to Teddy is intensified by a close shot later on that shows Leo’s name on the dust jacket of Teddy’s novel.

The nightmare that was coming out continues as we realize that Leo suffers either from premonitions or from flashbacks that involve violence and murder. We see Leo waking from a nightmare, and at one point, telling Teddy that he has visions that he doesn’t want to talk about with him, and that he is ‘going through some shit’. Leo’s visions or remembrances unsettle the viewer’s temporal anchors. These unnerving sequences are often filmed as rapid jump-cuts, and contrast effectively with the slower conversations between them and erotic lovemaking scenes filmed in slow motion.

That it is difficult to decide whether these visions that Leo sees are premonitions or flashbacks increases the tension and suspense, and seems intended to deliberately confuse any (straight)forward narrative chronology. The viewer is forced to piece the narrative together, but is left with no definitive answer as to what has happened or what will happen. Was Leo married to Cheryl, whom he then murdered? He tells Teddy that Cheryl was the victim of a random killer on their doorstep. But we are unsure if this is the truth or a fabrication because later we see Leo and Cheryl sunbathing, a copy of Teddy’s story beside them. Earlier, however, there is a startling shot of Teddy and Leo jumping up out of their seats in the front yard rushing towards something or someone. We are not sure if this is another fantasy of Leo’s. The line between what is fiction and fact is blurred to the extent that we feel, like Teddy, that it is impossible to know the character of Leo. Does Leo murder Teddy? We are refused any clear-cut, easy explanation, and are made to work hard to read the film’s narrative.

The effect of these temporal dislocations upon the viewer is dizzying, disorienting, perhaps even frustrating. Indeed, the prevailing mood of the film is dream-like. The cinematography aims to capture that dizzying, dreamy effect of being sunkissed, that slow, dream-like state one feels after being in the sun for too long perhaps. The breezy, ethereal soundtrack by the band The Sea and Cake emphasizes this effect, and imbues the film with an intense eroticism in its whispered, soft slow vocals and refrains. In one scene, Leo kisses a variety of men against a black background. The faces are lit brightly and shot close up, in profile accompanied by the soundtrack of a song, ‘Watch their Mouths’, that is particularly erotic. Other erotic moments include Leo and Teddy showering each other with a hose in the hot sun, and having sex in a Cherokee jeep in the desert. The overall effect feels as if the viewer is experiencing narcolepsy; there are periods of time that cannot be accounted for or are like hazy dreams.

To return to the point that Teddy, like the viewer, does not or cannot really know who Leo is, or what will happen, one perhaps needs to understand McGuinn’s inspiration for making the film. Over the course of one year, four of his close friends passed away in a series of sudden tragic deaths. As part of coming to terms with his grief, McGuinn returned to the desert, where he was brought up, to reconnect with nature. It was here that he felt that he could ‘embrace the creative forces within myself and in nature, as a source of renewal in the midst of loss.’ To some extent, the film reflects the experience of how the sudden death of those closest to us often feels meaningless and impossible to comprehend. The film resists any closure of meaning in that we are not permitted to know what happens.

At one point, we see Teddy looking up shocked into the night-time sky as a bright white light comes down from above. Perhaps it is a fanciful reading, but this moment seemed to play with the possibility of alien abduction. In another scene, Leo and Teddy are both lying down together discussing giving each other some space. The camera angle, shooting from behind their heads, makes their heads/faces appear almost alien-like, inhuman, alienated from each other perhaps. As mentioned above, there is another moment in the film, when the viewer is unsure if s/he is in present narrative time, or Leo’s dream/nightmare. Both of them jump in shock from the front porch and rush across the yard. But we are not shown what causes their shock. Later in the film, we see Leo running back to the house from a creek. The opening of the film shows Cheryll lying dead in the creek. Another of Leo’s visions shows him carrying Teddy back into the house, covered in blood and unconscious, crying over him as he lays him down on the bed. Why? Any explanation is left unclear? Has Leo murdered Teddy? Has he repressed the action, returned to the house to find Teddy missing, and then discovered him out at the creek? Does he have amnesia? Or have the aliens come for him? Teddy’s disappearance and death is the central aporia in the film’s narrative, and the essence of the film’s philosophy: death is more often than not meaningless, absurd and unable to be explained.

The ending finishes with a shot of both characters in profile, walking in slow motion to kiss against the backdrop of the pounding white waves of the Pacific ocean. In another shot, it would seem that Leo is going to walk into the ocean, his back towards us, perhaps even to commit suicide. The shot evokes the famous suicide scene with Joan Crawford in Humouresque. There are also some traces of Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. One could also read this final scene as the meeting of two halves of a divided personality which Leo stands for.

Sunkissed is a film that blends some beautiful cinematography, of the desert, of desire, and affirms the importance of both passion and truth to oneself as the source of happiness.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.


Saturday, May 23, 2009


Metropolitan Lovers: the Homosexuality of Cities
Julie Abraham

Published by University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Richard Canning

Looking at the title, I thought: that would be a big subject. Many of the biggest cities that have played host to significant GLBT communities have already attracted full-length books disinterring their queer pasts. George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1995) was certainly the trailblazing work. It covered just a half-century of its subject – 1890-1940 - but showed not only the breadth of material that could be uncovered in such cases, but also the complex interpreting skills required of the author. Available sources range from the legal to the literary, from the medical to the political, and from the sensational popular press to the private memoir, not intended for publication. (Those including the recent past may draw on oral histories too). In many cases, particularly in the centuries in which the closet was rife, deceit, dissimulation and fabrication were commonplace, often vital strategies.

In the past fifteen years or so, the obvious US metropolises have, piecemeal, been picked off: San Francisco (1996), Boston (1999), Philadelphia (2002 and 2004!), L.A. (2006), Chicago (2008). For better or worse, Europe contains most of the other conurbations likely to have generated substantial archives. London and Paris lead the field. The most compelling characteristic of such books, at their best, results from their pluralistic, interdisciplinary character. It’s best summarized as either instability or contingency. Fault-lines emerge. Claims turn out either impossible or implausible. Anecdotes are misremembered, figures long dead reanimated; protagonists’ addresses, origins, even genders get confused. For most of our history, the subjective accounts of same-sex coupling have necessarily been cautious, evasive or indirect. Only religion, the law and medicine have historically accounted for gay men and women directly, and then rarely favorably. When reading Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: a History, I remember thinking: ‘But this is the history of homosexuality.’

It seemed likely from the off, then, that Julie Abraham, a literature professor, may have addressed too large and inchoate a subject here. The fault may lie in the sweeping tenor of her press’s P.R. unit. Hence, this perfectly engaging, reasoned and substantial investigation of GLBT writers - mostly resident in the major American cities - is unhelpfully trailed as if it had global, not national reach, and indeed stretched back to ‘the destruction of Sodom,’ allegedly our first gay city. Abraham’s assiduous pursuit of the meaningfulness of cities in the sexual travails of her literary cast – Jane Jacobs, Henry James, Walter Benjamin and James Baldwin included – has much to recommend it. What it cannot offer – pace the back cover – is a reading of ‘how gay became synonymous with urban – and why it matters for both.’ This book is about literary writing only, which cannot be taken as representative or reliable as social documentation. Abraham’s somewhat forced comparisons to social theorizations of urban growth - the Chicago school, Walter Benjamin and so on - is not the book’s strength.

To pursue that line of enquiry would, paradoxically, have required the careful tracing of a previous, non-urban gay model: the pastoral idyll, probably first manifest in Virgil’s Georgics. It was co-opted in the Renaissance by poets like Richard Barnfield and Edmund Spenser. Contrastingly, visible, high-profile or articulate gay presences in capital cities and especially at court were, at this time, innately high-risk, even if the protagonists had regal entitlement. This is what Marlowe’s cautionary Edward II indicates. It’s true that foreign cities developed reputations for sexual license, pretty much universally: this was the sin that always flourished elsewhere (though there were cities then that seem to have deserved the reputation - Florence and Venice, above all).

Though less pronounced, the mythic rural retreat would impinge on women’s writings too, whether it be in fanciful reconstructions of Sappho’s life, or in the living circumstances of the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby, two 18th-century Anglo-Irish aristocrats cohabited in a house near the Welsh town which provided their nickname. Nearer the present, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart (1964) concentrates on how small-town lesbian lives contrast with urbanity.

Male writers got over the alluring shepherd boy, meanwhile, through the Northern hemisphere’s great population movement towards cities (roughly from 1850 to 1914). Still, replacing the rural recluse with urban opportunity involved an uneven period of transition. Scott Herring’s Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (reviewed by me in GLRW, July/August 2008) shows that the protagonist of Willa Cather’s story ‘Paul’s Case’ (1905) felt, on arriving in New York, that ‘his surroundings explained him’. But Forster’s Maurice (1917; published 1971) exhibited a stubborn, even reactionary harking back to the homosexual pastoral. It was not alone. Forrest Reid’s The Garden God: a Tale of Two Boys (1905) scandalized Henry James with its account of schoolboy protagonist Graham finding his long-sought Greek god in the incarnate form of new friend Harold Brocklehurst. (The same James, though, did somethig to ‘urbanise’ intimate relations between women in 1885’s The Bostonians). A whole genre of writing displaying public school and university homoerotics is a development of the pastoral ideal. Later, even an apparently definitively urban novel like Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) contains its most liberated treatment of homosexuality on the Baltic idyll of Ruegen Island, far from the capital.

Abraham begins with an account of the well-trodden but useful nineteenth-century French proliferation of the GLBT “damned” – Baudelaire’s women, notoriously; Zola’s Nana (1880); men in several Balzac novels, especially the hapless innocent Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac’s bold account of the tragic ruination of Lucien by the criminal Vautrin in Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes (1847) was hugely influential, including on Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Proust’s Baron de Charlus.

Her consideration of Wilde is less convincing – in part because of generalizations made regarding his background. Nobody claims Dublin to have been at the heart of nineteenth-century Europe. Still, Wilde was not, on his arrival in London society, ‘a young man from the Provinces.’ (He traveled extensively with his family as a child, including to London, a city he also visited frequently while at Oxford). Abraham identifies the duplicity manifest in The Importance of Being Earnest’s Jack (his country name, which he adapts to Ernest for town). But Wilde’s joke is complex. It is not only, as Abraham suggests, that Jack the countryman upholds moral standards, whereas Ernest is obviously as dissolute as the city he inhabits. Rather, Wilde disarms his London audience’s prejudices about the city. In the practice of ‘Bunburying’ (inventing a brother), Jack may in fact be covering over any manner of rural excess.

Similarly, some of the ambiguity in Dorian Gray is overlooked. The novel is described as ‘a prototypical account of the modern homosexuality Wilde would come to represent.’ This argument rests on the Irishman’s subsequent experience of British “justice.” If it were as self-evident as Abraham describes it, there would have been no need for Edward Carson, Queen’s Prosecutor, to be so zealous in his clarification of what that novel “meant” – or rather, implied. As Neil Bartlett’s Who Was That Man? (1988) argues, it is simultaneously true both that everything Wilde wrote is clarified by his gayness and that, in the writings published in his lifetime, Wilde never mentioned homosexuality once.
Next Abraham compares the groundbreaking social studies of gay culture made by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld with comparable classifying tendencies in the masterpiece of the French novelist Proust. Intriguing as the idea is, it leads to the unhelpful sense that the fiction-writer’s efforts prove inferior (because less definitive) to the relentlessly prescriptive Hirschfeld’s study, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1913). Yet which author is read today – and why? Likewise, the inventive bringing together of Radclyffe Hall and the “Chicago School” of sociology doesn’t fully come off. They remain chalk and cheese.
At this point, Abraham tires of Europe, barring two Parisian interludes. Radclyffe Hall’s merciless French capital (in The Well of Loneliness, 1928) was entirely fabricated, however - as was James Baldwin’s account in Giovanni’s Room (1956). As Herring recognized, it is truly only Djuna Barnes in English (in 1936’s Nightwood) who allowed Paris a signature presence to her urban protagonists that might be called liberating.

Otherwise, the States dominates. There’s nothing wrong in focusing on one nation’s representation of gay urban life. It might have made Metropolitan Lovers cohere better. Still, the narrowing of focus onto 20th-century American terrain should not go unexplained, especially since American cities tend to function unlike European ones. Abraham does consider apposite texts, like Jane Addams’s autobiographical curiosity, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). But the most radical changes to the way modern cities accommodated gay desires were effected, arguably, in Europe: through two world wars and social adjustments resulting from them. These wars had much less direct bearing on most American urban lives, for reasons that should be self-evident.

It feels paradoxical that when Baldwin relocated to Paris, he spoke of that city’s welcome ‘total indifference’ to him. That was as likely to relate to his ethnicity as his sexual nature. Was the boot of “identity” politics now, perhaps, on the other foot? That is, if European cultures had for centuries taken the lead in classifying human types (sexual and otherwise), had that process of classification – nurtured in American through the body politic and the Church, but also through the ready acceptance of neo-Freudian psychology – passed effortlessly to the New World? The liberation Baldwin felt in Paris was not the thrill of self- or mutual recognition, but of de-recognition. It was a new version too of the old Pastoral promise of being left alone.

By the 1970s (often seen as a highpoint of gay and lesbian literary expression), novels were ‘about to become less authoritative as accounts of gay and lesbian life,’ in Abraham’s view. There’s space to consider Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), two works sharing a country-to-town trajectory. But the proliferation of other sources (memoir, film) and the relative liberalization of news coverage and the broadcasting media per se made – Abraham is right - fiction a less vital redoubt for male and female gay readers, even as it came into its own.

At that time, America’s cities also needed economic resuscitation. Edmund White’s States of Desire (1977) celebrated gay men specifically as ‘the worker ants of our reviving cities.’ True or not, here key questions of capital, income and class finally come into play. Rental costs and living expenses had long left those GLBT individuals less able to indulge in costly metropolitan living languishing on the outskirts, in the ’burbs or in the communities and small-towns they grew up in (unless they used youthfulness or beauty as a passport – but that’s another story). Gentrification is about reconstructing the class formulation of entire neighborhoods, after all. Women and ethnic minorities were likely to be driven out by price, not welcomed in. Manuel Castells may, in 1983’s The City and the Grassroots, have thrilled over the prettiness of restored San Franciscan properties, redolent of ‘beauty, comfort and sensuality.’ But, as political responses to more recent changes to New York’s Times Square such Bruce Benderson’s Towards the New Degeneracy (1997) and Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) reveal, there isn’t ever one single model of gentrifying improvement. Gentrification destroys some cultures and traditions even as it builds, and rebuilds, others. The implications for gay men and women will be as various and as race- and class-informed as for the wider populace.

Some poignant late texts close Abraham’s considerations. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City earn a (brief) place, though characterizing them as ‘Balzac with shorter sentences, more graphic sex, and fewer and less-refined cruelties’ rather underplays how multi-faceted and class-aware Maupin’s fictional San Francisco truly is. Likewise, it’s probably a mistake to consider a polyvalent work like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in just a few sentences.

The emergence of AIDS drastically altered the relationship between gay lives and cities – in America, in particular. The default discretion of many well-off professional gay men, especially, was compromised by tangible symptoms of disability (well-caught in the films Longtime Companion and Philadelphia). At the same time, as the incidence of HIV infection spread beyond prime metropolitan sites and narrowly conceived “at-risk” groups, the epidemic’s destructiveness could, perversely, point to something non-metropolitan GLBTers knew all along: that we’re found everywhere. This, quite properly, is not the province of Abraham’s thoughtful and engaging monograph. Still, how ironic it remains: two essentially non-literary, non-cultural forces over which we, as a subculture, have had limited control, had the biggest impact on contemporary GLBT lives across the planet: the spread of an epidemic and the rise of the internet.

Richard Canning’s anthology of gay male fiction, Between Men 2 (Alyson) is just out, as is his biography of E. M. Forster (London’s Hesperus Press). He teaches at the University of Sheffield, England, where he may be contacted.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Watermark by Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins

Published by Bruno Gmunder

Reviewed by Michael Gellings

Photographer Mark Jenkins has so far only been known to insiders. His first book publication is likely to change this. There's a flood of male nude photography out there, which makes it difficult to find a new angle. But San Francisco based Jenkins has found one. Of course, nudes under streaming water, or with a soaking wet piece of clothing, have been done before, but Jenkins assembles a whole collection of such photographs.

More than the subjetct matter, however, it is Jenkins' style that sets him apart. The San Francisco based artist says about himself that he is not a 'capture the moment' photographer. So the often uncontrollable element of water brings some spontaneity to his perfectly set up shots.

All of his models are male, young, and hunky. Jenkins captures them in various stages of undress. If there is still a piece of clothing on the men's bodies, their being soaking wet adds to the eroticism of the pose. The collection also presents quite a range of emotions. Despite their physical strength quite a few of the models betray a great vulnerability when they look directly into the camera. Others challenge the observer, or seem to be oblivious to the look directed at them.

Jenkins mostly photographes single models. But there are also two tender portraits of couples. All photographs are black and white, and reproduced in an atmospheric brown sepia. The layout presents pictures of various formats, so there is a rythm to it when filing through the pages.

The only criticism I have is not limited to this particular volume: one or two of the models seem to have overdone their steroids and biceps curls. They have moved beyond hunky into the grotesque. But all in all, it's asthetic nude photography with an unusual angle.

Michael Gellings is a freelance translator and historian.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories

Second Thoughts
Steve Berman

Published by Lethe Press

Reviewed by Liam Tullberg

Steve Berman’s second collection of short stories, ‘Second Thoughts: More Queer and Weird Stories’ more than delivers on its title’s promise.

Following 2001’s ‘Trysts: A Triskaidecollection of Queer and Weird Stories’, in this selection, Berman introduces readers to an original take on the fairytale of the gingerbread man in ‘Bittersweet’, talking (and tempting) boxer shorts in ‘Always Listen to a Good Pair of Underwear’, and a man whose thoughts appear as words on his flesh in ‘Tearjerker’.

The range of subject matter is diverse, but perhaps the most apposite and ambitious of Berman’s thirteen tales is ‘Secrets of the Gwangi’. With tongue firmly in cheek, Berman explores the creation of a film featuring gay cowboys and ferocious pterodactyls from which the gay cowboys are later axed at the fictional studio producer’s request. ‘More dinosaurs and less fagelehs,’ the studio exec tells the writer. ‘That’s what makes a movie.’ The ending to this fragmented fiction is touching and believable, and one to a story that, in the following Author’s Note, Berman asks the reader to decide is utterly true or utterly false.

Each of the stories that make up this book is accompanied by such an Author’s Note in which Berman discusses the background and purpose of the piece. The tone is informal and the device effective, giving the reader a greater insight to the writer while enhancing the impact of the tale.
Though Berman’s style varies greatly throughout the 200 plus pages of this selection of stories, it is consistent in its quick pace, punchy dialogue and confident originality. No two stories are the same, but are linked in their fine marriage of reality and surrealism.

This collection is excellent for readers of the lesser-found gay supernatural fiction, or anyone appreciative of twisted tales in their many forms.

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


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: Bears – Gay Erotic Stories

Edited by Richard Labonte

Published by Cleis Press

Reviewed by Len Lukowska

What is a bear? This is something editor Richard Labonte ponders in his introduction to ‘Bears’. Apparently it’s about maturity and spirituality, and of course constructions of masculinity and the idea of being fucked/fucking a ‘real man’. OK, so that terminology annoyed me, and he didn’t really say ‘constructions of masculinity’, but I felt that’s what he meant. Anyways I’m ready to accept this book isn’t really about the theory.
Bear porn generally features older, big, hairy, often working class guys, instead of the traditional young twinks that grace the pages of many a gay magazine.

My favourite story in Bears was ‘Circulation Cub’ by Shane Allison, about a student who attempts to steal a gay magazine from the university library by thrusting it into his jeans. And of course the only member of staff left on at the library is a hot young cub who makes said student come back at three am to help with the shelving. He even gets a (library) job at the end of it. I really liked the sense of their complete awkwardness and tension up until the moment of fucking.

‘White Meat’ by Daniel W. Kelly is about Emile, who is always expected to be the butch Black top amongst the guys he fucks, and secretly wants to be topped by a white guy. So, lo and behold, his best mate sets him up with two white guys on his 32nd birthday. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a taboo breaking porno about gay scene stereotypes of Black masculinity or what. They find a video which Emile’s said best mate has planted in his flat called ‘Cream In Your Coffee’ which sets the overall tone. I found this one a bit cringey, though perhaps that’s the nature of porn sometimes.
I do think it’s good to find porn that celebrates older, big, hairy guys. There are a range of ages in the book, and some hot intergenerational stuff, but the average age of the men in this book is probably about forty, which is pretty cool in a gay porn world which often favours buff young things with cheekbones. ‘Leather Bear Appetites’ by Jeff Mann is particularly memorable and sees a middle aged guy pondering his history of sexual and romantic conquests and defeats and getting slightly worried about his belly and the aging process along the way. His love of Bourbon and food matches his love of sex, so as well as descriptions of him, for example, being bound and gagged and fucked by a top half his age, the story is full of graphic images of Southern cuisine and is written in a sexy Southern drawl.

There are lots of fairytale and fantasy stories in this book which have a very playful feel. The idea of being a Bear is taken to a new level in ‘Into the Woods’ by Karl Taggart in which the narrator ends up getting fucked by the missing link between man and beast who lives wild in a cave in the forest. This is my pick for hottest action.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine what might happen in ‘Justin Gold and the Three Bears’ by Michael Lassel. Justin Gold is a stuck up, vacuous gay boy and son of a top plastic surgeon. Justin has pretentious, judgemental friends to match and they all enjoy a beach holiday together. Justin decides to take a short break from the beach bitching with his companions and heads into the woods where he stumbles upon a messy, dirty cottage and three beary men who fill him with disgust until he discovers his hard-on, which doesn’t take long. He is never seen again.

It’s quite hard to review porn on its literary merits because maybe that isn’t the point. I’ll get to it, my copy of Bears doesn’t fall open at certain pages because I found the action so hot. It is chock full of descriptions of hairy backs and hard cocks but nothing that quite made me feel the action full enough. But, if even the mention of a chubby guy with a big beard and a thick cock is enough to get you off, you might want to check this out.

Len Lukowska is a writer, layabout, performer and library assistant. Len keeps a blog at, lives in London at the moment and can be contacted at

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review: Some Girls’ Mothers

Some Girls’ Mothers
edited by Anne Caldwell

Published by Route Publishing

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

This anthology of potted autobiographies by six poets, thankfully, avoids the clichés the title and cover blurb cause one to dread. The book is something of an enigma, but positively so. For example, it is not made clear why poets have been asked to write prose chapters, though this curiosity has resulted in an anthology that transcends its genre, the language often dragging the reader into unexpected corners of unknown rooms and dragging them around unfamiliar psyches. It is a profoundly unsettling experience, and one that left me wondering about the way parent-offspring bonds are stereotyped by both generations. The reality usually falls between the cracks of consciousness, and undergoes a curious transformation when we attempt to communicate it. Far too many books about parent-offspring relationships have reinforced, rather than explored, the social mythologies generated by decades of ‘progress’.

Nell Farrell illustrates the power of rewritten recollection in the opening chapter, My Mother Dreams of Lovelace Watkins, though some of the essay’s power is lost through the over-cataloguing of records. Between these tedious descriptions of her collection, Farrell neatly expresses how routine can be a coping mechanism and a way of unseeing, and how the whole illusion and script can be instantly demolished by the slightest change in actions, even something as insignificant as peeling potatoes, when all parties know by experience what their role is, and all possible denouements.

River Wolton explores the effects of gaps in youthful knowledge that expand exponentially to preoccupy memory and identity, such as the sudden, unexplained departure of a nanny who fulfils the maternal role, and the chasm of questions that gradually unfurls and then snaps brutally open as the mystery of menstruation begins its insidious invasion into unprepared young lives. She also opens up questions of bond and intimacy, being compelled to communicate her most private bodily development to her very busy mother via an intercom.

As most of us have found, tackling what matters to us most with who matters to us most can be something of a lurking volcano. Anne Caldwell writes with excruciating courage and clarity about taking her mother on a visit to the psychotherapist. Sometimes we all often wonder why people who care about us look away when we are most vulnerable, and perhaps the only explanation we don’t see is the difficulty of comprehension and the need to cope.

Char March writes with passion and poetry about the invisible process of enforced alienation, the brittleness of reconstructing shattered loves, and how split-second miscalculations hot-wire us to scrabble around for the jagged little pieces to try to put them back together whilst we’re too shell-shocked to co-ordinate, or even fully understand our efforts.

Out of this anthology, I was most affected by Susan Batty’s beautiful contribution, ‘The Gorge’. Her chapter is unusual in that it is about a mother-daughter relationship that hasn’t physically come into being, but is so powerful that it took on its own very real existence. Being the mother of child whose conception occurred on every level but the literal is both a powerful and fragile existence, and one that left her vulnerable to isolation and other people’s concept of her identity. This author’s unique exploration of the different challenges to becoming a mother as a lesbian does so in a way that opens even the most jaded eyes.

Clare Shaw completes the anthology by describing her difficult journey to motherhood in a lesbian relationship, and negotiating respect with parents whose homphobia had deeply marred her adolescence. She describes the birth of her baby in a way that is graphic and yet poetically compelling.

Overall, Some Girls’ Mothers presents a challenging and rewarding read, and should not be dismissed as a ‘female read’. The stories are real and complex, operating under the radar of gender politics. It caused me to ponder male relationships with their fathers, and any child’s experience with their opposite-sex parent, and what it is exactly that creates and constitutes those relationships. These aren’t cosy ‘mummy and me’ stories, nor the railings of rebellious teenagers. In places, there are fleeting explosions that mothers had wholly different lives before their children were born, that there were other people, other relationships, and, shockingly, secrets and rebellions of their own.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), 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 complete his first full-length prose work.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Review: Banalities by Brane Mozetic

Brane Mozetic; translated by Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu

Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

Brane Mozetic’s Banalities is a compact volume comprising fifty untitled poems spoken by what I take to be a single voice; in this sense, we might think of it as a poetic monologue in fifty parts. (Number 36 was published in issue 7 of Chroma and might therefore be familiar to readers of this review.)

Mozetic is a well-established Slovenian poet who writes both in English and Slovenian – this particular volume is translated by Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu (who aside from their names beneath the author’s leave little trace of their presence so we do not know by what principles they have translated this work; as such, my review, though it will refer to Mozetic should be understood as referring only to this translation). In the work, Mozetic takes on what is perhaps the most pervasive characteristic of life today, in Slovenia as elsewhere (‘whether on Christopher street / or Metelkova’ [#35]): namely, its banality. We all sense, I think, that boredom, apathy and banality have spread themselves across life like oil coating a bird’s feathers. The speaker in Banalities is obsessed with it: trapped almost inside his own self-reflection (the opposite of Narcissus falling in love, the speaker is terrified): ‘I / sit here in front of my own life realizing / how banal it is’ [#6]. The speaker is drawn to thoughts of sex, suicide, poetry and murder, his mind drifting on a tide of banality tinged with horror (‘The worst is the stomach tightening, shortness / of breath, trembling hands’ [#7]).

But make no mistake: this is not a man’s quest for meaning. Mozetic rather attempts something intentionally less dramatic but perhaps therefore bolder in the age of the superhero – the heroic gesture of the quest would be too easy a fiction here (‘I had / already spent half my life trying to / stay alive to perhaps discover the mystery of life! Now I’ve wandered off / among the young so that I would forget those / fruitless efforts’ [#5]); instead, we have a near-aimless movement from one pleasure to the next (as from one numbered poem to the next), the space between being filled with the eponymous silent banalities where it is the very search for meaning that has exhausted meaning, worn it down to the bare nerve and nervousness of the need for pleasure to shore up against ‘a world / in which I’m staggering’ [#20]. The narrative, insofar as there is one, has the narrator drift from one encounter (with the world, with other people, in the streets, in an aeroplane, in gay bars) to the next only in hope of drawing another moment of pleasure from the dullness (‘the banal / things that become fun / and put me in a good mood’ [#6]) and always finding it temporary and dissatisfying: ‘my life is nothing but strung-out dreams of escape’ [#42]. As a poem about distinctly gay experiences, this is resolutely the poem of an anti-revolutionary sexuality – sex might ‘find that / spot where the universe opens up’ [#9] but it is a universe in which there are only ‘fictional stars / in a long extinguished sky which as though weeping / for some ultimate phenomenal shooting star that / no one survives’ [#47].

Of course, the voice of the speaker is no less affected by banality than his experience. Mozetic couches the majority of the poem in a vernacular mode of direct speech (not to the reader but, most often, to absent or otherwise unresponsive figures in the speaker’s life or to himself). This, however, induces a paradox in the poem because the speaker, in affirming his own banality as the subject of his discourse, must also deny the poetic character of his voice: ‘this is definitely not poetry’ [#13]. Herein lies the core of the double bind that traps the speaker into a life of banality: in a world stripped of what Ezra Pound called the ‘luminous details’ and refilled with the monotony of the uniform, all reflection on the current actuality of life or the world is banal (this, in fact, was the crux of my previous review), including a reflection on banality. But, honestly, I cannot tell you if this work is itself banal. Maybe that does not sound like much to recommend it but it is possible that this very uncertainty is the poem’s mystery, certainly it is the source of the nebulous terror which haunts the speaker throughout his banality.

The poem ends on a note of hopelessness in the face of an awareness of ‘a horrible silence / and an even more horrible darkness’ [#50]. Yet, in fact, there is something that is not silent: the poem, the poem-that-is-not-a-poem: it speaks. It is possible that the poem disappears into its own void, swallowed up in the hollow space it vacates in the act of self-denial, fatally rendered into the object of its own critique, just like the pleasures sought out by the speaker. It is also possible that the poem somehow survives its own desolation – but I do not know, I cannot decide. Maybe it survives in this very indecisiveness, the tremor of what cannot be identified but which disturbs our banality and is the source of our poetry.

Can you hear it, Dave, that noise outside. Maybe
it’s a burglar. Or a bomb. Come on, wake up,
Dave, maybe another war has broken out and we’ll have
to go into the basement again. You know nothing about this.
[…] Wake up, Dave, so I won’t be alone when
the end of the world comes. […]
Another noise. I think there won’t be
a war. Perhaps it’s only our world crashing down
in pieces in the middle of the night when decent people
are asleep, like you, Dave, and I eavesdrop on noises
and am afraid. [#30]

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.