We Need Queer Stories

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by Antonia Crane

I’m in my closet office writing, or rather doing everything in my power to avoid writing. The dog shit has been scooped into tiny knotted bags, the laundry folded. I’ve 409’d the bathroom counter and swept floors. I’ve put away the dishes, which I hate—whipped myself into a procrastination lather both shameful and accomplished. A couple of grubby sponges into my Pine Sol frenzy and I’m soaking in it. I take a well-deserved break to check my email.

That’s when I’m asked what class I wanted to teach this fall. I have no idea. I imagine a class that could invigorate my writing and spark zesty conversations, push boundaries and scrape the grease off my keyboard, but the only classes I come up with are linty, mediocre repeats.

Summer was rock and roll time for those lucky enough to dash off to writing residencies or fellowships. Tin Housers jockeyed for position on the wait list and Bread Loafers cashed in their miles for their plane tickets to Vermont. Bootcamps beckoned, promising bikini-worthy butts and Kindles glow by the pool; kids were marched to museums to frolic in the AC and fuck off.

But now it’s back to school.

Fall is Writing Time.

What do I want to teach, to write? And more important: What stories do we need to tell right now in our culture in order to teach empathy in an era of homophobia, hostility, and terror?

We need the most human stories from the queer community in order to transmit empathy and create change.

We need stories that matter: dangerous, taboo stories with gobs of heart. We need Queerness that pushes against gender and sexuality and transcends what’s expected. If stories begin the moment something different happens one day, then let’s cast a light on queer as the starting point of our class. What is queer writing and what are queer bodies in fiction and nonfiction?

I’m interested in gender fluidity of people in their sensual lives—the crackling gray matter where heart and skin crash. I’m interested in love in all of its messy and prissy forms and how it stretches and builds, flies and walks and ends.

The only way I know to cure homophobia is to share our queer stories with the general public and create empathy. No matter what variety of queer we are, let’s bring it to the page. I proposed the class, “Writing the Queer Body” because I wanted to create a colorful place where queer lives thrive because we need that now—especially now.

I want to write and read stories about: the trans wedding, the lesbian bachelorette party, the elderly gay men and their flamboyant female friends dancing sexily at all the weddings; horny, gay elderly sex scenes and bisexual threesomes with no neat endings; An Irish Jewish woman and her African-Haitian partner and her kids and their family breakfast on Sunday morning. I want to read story about a sex worker who falls in love with another female sex worker and their jealousies and sisterhood and strength; I want to follow a woman well into her forties who leaves her husband for her bisexual yoga teacher and together, they heal her PTSD from serving in the Marine Corps ten years prior; I want to see the wigs of beautiful drag queens and know the smirk of dapper drag kings and feel their twisted dance of transcendence and escape after all the loss and AIDS stripped them of any pretense. I want to dance in their glittering sadness and know the joy of having survived it together in a proud and glamorous trance; and I want to read about a young male prostitute who falls hard for a meth-addicted homeless man only to discover he cannot save anyone, not even himself, especially not himself. Where are the stories about two gay male artists who stayed together for 46 years? Where is the lesbian nun who falls in love with a woman and leaves the covenant? Where is the vegan boy who steals a kiss from the busboy where they both work? Where are the topless T-girls stripping at the club in the Tenderloin, accepting dollars in their garters on Catholic School Girl night and their silver fox attorney-client who sweeps one of them off their feet and moves them in and gets two cats and hopes the sex work will be abandoned but the allure and security of sex work is its own peculiar addiction, regardless of sexual orientation or gender or totally sincere sugar daddy?

Where are these stories? We need to write them.

Teaching reminds me why I write in the first place. I write because I breathe. I write because I know the alphabet. I write because I want to create complex characters that reflect a deeply baffling human experience. I write to transmit emotion, touch universal empathy, and punch into surprising unknown terrain. I write because I live.

It has been said all stories about the fact that we are going to die. There are so many stories to write before that happens—so many summer suns and hot moons and queer bodies to march out on the page. Won’t you join me?

Antonia Crane’s Class Writing the Queer Body begins October 3rd.

Antonia Crane is a writer, Moth Slam winner, and writing instructor in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir, Spent. She has written for The New York Times, Quartz: Atlantic Media, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Salon, The Believer, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME and lots of other places. Her screenplay, “The Lusty” co-written with Silas Howard about the Exotic Dancers Union is a recipient of the San Francisco Film Society/ Kenneth Rainin Foundation Screenwriter’s Grant, 2015. She is at work on an essay collection and a memoir. She is a co-founder and Senior CNF editor of the Antioch Alum journal The Citron Review and the CNF editor of Word Riot. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: http://antoniacrane.com. She tweets @antoniacrane.

Empathy and Writing the Other Through Persona Poetry

Persona Poetry

by Dana Stringer

In the poem “Skinhead,” the poet writes, “No, I ain’t part of no organized group,/ I’m just a white boy who loves his race,/ fighting for a pure country. (51-53)”  Based on these three lines and the poem’s title, it’s not exactly difficult for a reader to identify the speaker in the poem.  However, for any reader unfamiliar with the acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, and the popularity of this particular poem, it may come as a surprise to some readers to discover that the author is an African American woman.  And that Smith’s white supremacist persona was created by her to speak the poem.

As poets, some of us are still inclined to follow the early advice we received from a well-intentioned instructor encouraging us to “write what you know.”  And in a society saturated in self-help psychology that primarily places emphasis upon self and I, our ability to shift our attention away from self and focus on other can be challenging.

So, quite naturally, when we put pen to paper, we immediately plunge into the familiar and write the autobiographical details of our lives.  Thus, our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences pervade our work.  This is neither wrong nor bad.  However, what Smith shows us, as well as other contemporary poets who abandon self to write about other, is that, by creating a character, embodying that character, and allowing that character to freely speak, a persona can give us insight and understanding about someone distinctively different than us, and perhaps elicit empathy in the poet and the reader.

Smith, however, may not necessarily be going after empathy.  In fact, some poets are not.  Poets rely upon the use of personas for many different reasons.  For instance, a persona is often used as a revisionist tool to debunk myths, subvert constructs, remake narratives, reinterpret history, and the list goes on and on.  But regardless of the reasons for creating and using a persona, the ability to immerse oneself in the life of another and adopt a different point of view enables us to gain a better understanding of other.

The poet and reader may not be able to relate to, identify with, or even share the same sentiments of the persona, but what happens is that the poet and reader begin to see things from a different perspective.  Such an undertaking requires sensitivity and consideration for another’s feelings, emotions, thoughts, desires, beliefs, and experiences.

In “Skinhead,” Smith puts on the skin of a white supremacist and walks in his boots, which goes beyond a mere impersonation or a staging of the character’s emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  When a poet exhibits the ability to become intimately acquainted with a character, so much so as to suspend judgment as well as any preconceived ideas and perceptions, the poet opens us up to a life experience that we might not otherwise be interested in knowing about.  Smith’s willingness to yield herself as a vessel in order to become the character is, in my opinion, an empathetic act.

The literary tradition of donning “the mask,” which is actually the meaning of the Latin word “persona,” is a long, rich, and interesting one.  Poets have been using personas as an artistic tool for a long time, challenging and changing how we see and don’t see things.  But more importantly, poets have been using personas as a way to enlighten us and promote understanding of other, which in many cases elicits empathy in us.

Dana Stringer’s course Mask Appeal:  Creating Compelling Persona Poems begins September 12th. Register today.

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Dana L. Stringer is a poet, playwright, instructor, and freelance writer. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a Bachelors of Arts from Morehead State University. She is the author of In Between Faith (Black Picket Fence), her debut poetry collection. Dana’s work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines, and she has served as a contributing writer for several cultural entertainment websites. In 2011, she served as an associate editor for Beyond Words: The Creative Voices of WriteGirl, a literature anthology. She also has been a featured poet in various venues. Dana is also a produced playwright. Her produced plays and staged readings include:Kinsman Redeemer, ID, The Costume Waver, Soloman’s Porch,Colored in Winter, Secret Life in a Sacred House, and Looter. For more information, visit http://www.danastringer.com.