Monday, April 25, 2011

A Poster for Poetry Month 2

(Click on images for larger versions.)

A version of the poster I designed for National Poetry Month, used as an element of another design idea. Not the first image I've rolled through one of my vintage typewriters, but this one definitely fits into the poetry/words/type/art theme of the original poster.

This is an idea I've explored before, in which the image emerging from the typewriter is one impossible to have done so: an anachronism, a technological impossibility, yet evoking both the history and the development of printing technology. The contrast and overlap are poetically evocative, for me.

This close-up, tightly-cropped version is my favorite version here, I think. I like the image emerging from the machine, as though it had been typed up. The dominant element is the Poetry Month poster, though, not the typewriter. The balance and composition of elements is important in any poster design, and I think this has a better balance than the overall view.

Questions were raised in comments on my original presentation of this poster design, from Eshuneutics (who is always worth reading), that are relevant to the poster design and concept on several levels:

. . . Would anyone notice it [the poster] is gay? Now, isn't that the eternal question again: What is gay art/poetry? This intrigues me more and more (because as you wrote in a post, the gay image [in] mid-America is not the same as on the coasts, in other words, we don't belong to the stereotype). If the wordle had SEX, QUEER and the image was a male couple, hey, it would be obvious. Yes, obvious to the gay stereotyping mass. To me, there is an ambience to the poster that says something. . . .

These are really interesting questions. They don't really have answers, at least not definitive answers. Some answers can be found, personally and locally, but these questions will remain open-ended for most writers and artists. I want to return to the question of ambience, or sensibility, later. But first, let's deal with the obvious.

Yes, I could have made the poster more obvious, more openly and overtly homoerotic (gay, LGBT, homosexual, etc.) by including more obvious elements such as gay-tagged words in the Wordle clouds, or a photo of two men embracing (which I do have, from past photo shoots), or two women, or other obvious signs and symbols. (Bang a cymbal to make the symbol more obvious.) It's not hard to make LGBT content explicit: all you have to do is depict same-sex couples together.

Although, let's be realistically honest about same-sex couples nowadays, and avoid one older set of stereotypes: in other words, let's use psychologically-positive and openly-loving images of gay couples. Depictions of gay lovers as innately self-hating and self-destructive, bitchy, unstable, and promiscuous are themselves stereotypes.

There can be purpose to using the stereotypes. With some people it is necessary to make it obvious. With some others, maybe less necessary, but perhaps polite. My intent was indeed to make a poster mining the oft-overlooked wing of poetry that is openly, even proudly, LGBT.

But what makes a poem gay? Subject matter? Sexual content? Explicit statements in the body of the poem, along the lines of those explicit signs already mentioned? The fact that a love poem written to a man by another man might logically be considered gay in intent and subject? (Not overlooking the truth that a poem written from a persona or character viewpoint isn't necessarily portraying the author's character or viewpoint, even in a so-called confessional lyric.)

While I have been explicitly homoerotic, even sexual, in some poems and art, I also find myself wanting to be subtle and indirect about as often: an oblique approach to the subject matter, that evokes rather than bludgeons the audience. Perhaps this is Midwestern reserve; at times it probably is. In other instances, it may be because I am less interested in reportage and more interested in metaphor and parataxis. No-one writes the same poem in the same way all the time, or ought to.

It can also be a desire, in my case as an artist and writer, to depict love and desire, rather than simple fucking. To present eros as itself, in its aspect as life-force, the power under all life, that moves us to unite as two solitudes meeting, on an energetic/psychological/spiritual as well as physical level. I am more interested in eros and Tantra, in my own art, than I am in producing work that others might view as purely pornographic. I am interested in transcendence—which does not exclude the physical, the raunchy, and the explicit, but rather embraces it—since the essential practice of Tantra is to take the power of the raw, base emotions and convert them into fuel for attaining enlightenment.

There are ways to subvert artistic stereotypes, just as there are ways to subvert clichés in poetry, by turning them on their edges. One tactic is to overdo the stereotype to the point of absurdity or irony. (An overused tactic of postmodernism, one I don't like very much.) Another is to make substitutions that are near to the stereotype, without exactly repeating it; the audience will perceive a conceptual echo of the stereotype, but be thrown off because it's not an exact replay.

I find myself, in a poster design such as this one, as well as in art and poems from time to time, preferring the oblique approach. I want to evoke, not bludgeon. I don't want to fall into stereotype, precisely because I want to give a fresh take on Poetry Month, from a different direction. There is also a connection between Wordle word clouds and both traditional concrete poetry and contemporary VisPo (visual poetry), although the latter has (like much post-avant-garde poetry of the present moment) more theory than practice supporting it.

It is possible to evoke LGBT literary and artistic history, I also believe, by using the old, pre-Stonewall, pre-Gay Liberation tactic of the "coded text." It was common, in much LGBT art and literature prior to the modern LGBT rights movement(s), to hide or "code" the queer content by using tropes familiar to subcultural insiders that outsiders would not know about, and therefore completely miss. Signs and symbols, turns or phrase, images, coded words: these were all used to evoke "the love that dared not speak its name" to those already "in the know" while excluding those ignorant of the code.

For this poster, using coded texts seemed an appropriate way to give the poster a gay sensibility without being stereotypical or blatant. In this case that meant using some of my own poems that are homoerotic without being sexually explicit as source texts for Wordle. It also meant using a male nude from a previous photo shoot, although the nudity is mostly hidden by the text itself. For one version of the poster it also meant using pink as the dominant color, which is a color associated with gay rights via the historical pink triangle used by the Nazis in World War II concentration camps for homosexuals, and reclaimed since as a positive gay rights emblem. Although personally I prefer the blue version of the poster, on purely aesthetic grounds, an art director might use the pink version precisely because of what it evokes. Again, how direct do we want to be?

To return at last to the question of ambiance or sensibility, the question arises again and again regarding if one is able to locate or identify a "gay sensibility" in artwork and poetry. Is there indeed a gay sensibility produced in his art by an artist who happens to be gay, even if the content of the artwork is not overtly (blatantly, stereotypically) gay, sexual, or homoerotic?

Although I do have an opinion here, at the moment I want to point out that discovering a gay sensibility in an artist's work is often a sub rosa attempt to identify the artist's biography with their artwork (the authorial fallacy), under the assumption that any gay artist must produce gay art even if they don't overtly want to. This assumption is itself a sub rosa (perhaps unconscious) attempt to categorize an artist's work based on their "innate" character or sexuality—which is itself a subtle form of homophobia. (Even liberated gay artists sometimes find subtle forms of internalized homophobia in themselves and their work; it can be a major opus to root it out.)

Homophobia? Indeed. You almost never see straight (non-LGBT) artists' sensibilities discussed in this same way, as though their sexuality was the dominant and deterministic factor in their artistic sensibility. The fact that it matters at all if there is or is not a "gay sensibility" can be taken as covert homophobia, and in practice it often is just that. For many straight critics discussing LGBT art, discovering a gay sensibility can be a road towards critical dismissal, a way of saying that this art doesn't matter to normal people. Indeed, for many mainstream critics this is a common and typical road towards critical dismissal of any and all "genre" art, from LGBT content to science fiction—and thus are enforced the critical and psychological standards of normative social and sexual expression. Normative critiques against non-normative stereotypes can be a direct, if subtle, forum for reinforcing what is considered normative: dismissing the margins keeps the center in power.

Discovering a gay sensibility in art, however, can also be taken as an attempt by gay artists to reclaim a formerly negative label as a positive emblem, in exactly the same way that the pink triangle was reclaimed. But to be taken this way, it seems important to know that the reclaiming is being done by other gay artists, rather than non-LGBT critics. This brings us back, full circle, to the insider's coded text. The distinction between insider and outsider, regarding discovering a gay sensibility in art by a gay artist, therefore, may be as simple as knowing whether the motivation behind the discovery is homophobia or reclaiming.

My own opinion is that there is indeed some kind of gay sensibility in art—the word "ambiance" is apt—although pinning it down can be elusive. It must vary from artist to artist, so it may be more useful to discuss gay sensibilities (plural). Different aspects appear at different time, in different ways. The subtle line between overt and coded. Can I tell you exactly what gay sensibility is? No; and I doubt anyone else can, either. In my own art, I can say that I do think that because I am a gay man who makes art, some aspect of my own sensibility, which is that of a gay man, gets into all my art, whether or not that art is openly, blatantly gay in content or not. It can be very subtle.

I do believe that one fundamental aspect of my own sensibility, which is a gay sensibility, and which might be shared by other gay artists, is empathy: the ability to walk a mile in the Other's shoes. To use imagination to create unity between disparate people. The use empathy to feel the suffering and joy of others. To be very aware, having grown up as an often-attacked Other within my own culture, of how the Other thinks and feels. Sympathetic thinking is after all one road to genuine empathy. if you can understand how someone Other has felt like a victim or a victor, you can walk a mile in their shoes. And thus all of my poetry, all of my art, I believe, contains the certain use of imagination and empathy to make those connections. I build a lot of bridges. Parataxis and collage are useful artistic tools that I use all the time.

All this discussion from a simple throwaway poster design made on a whim, for an annual designated national month about poetry that no-one except poets really cares about or will pay attention to!

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I am glad I’m not gay. I’m also glad I’m not Jewish. Or a woman. Or black. And my heart goes out to all the black-Jewish-lesbians out there. They must really struggle with their identity. I’ve just written a review of a book by Anita Brookner. It won’t be going up until July but I don’t like to leave things to the last minute. The thing is, she was Jewish and the novel I read was about a Jewish family whose history overlaps World War II and two words are never mentioned in the book: ‘Jew’ or ‘Holocaust’. To be fair ‘World War’ is never mentioned either. As I researched her I was struck by how much schtick she got because she rarely highlights Jewish issues. I remember Beckett being similarly criticised for not being a more political writer as if because he was an Irishman he ought to be automatically was obsessed with politics. I’m a Scottish writer and yet you’d hardly know it. And, of course, you’re gay. Which means you can’t just be a writer or an artist or a composer, you have to be a gay writer, a gay artist or a gay composer. That must be a bit of a burden I would have thought. I’m a little irritated when I learn about some label that people want to stick on someone. Suddenly a great work of art is argued only to exist because that artist was a [whatever] and that it is an expression of their [whateverness] as if every Jew is only unhappy because there was a Holocaust. It’s stupid.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's it, in a nutshell: labels can indeed be a burden. People try to slot you into fixed boxes, or whenever they read you their perceptions are colored by the label.

I don't really know if there's a way around it. It's been a circular debate in LGBT literary circles, of course, with no real resolution. I understand those who would rather be thought of "writers who happen to be gay" rather than "gay writers." At the same time, though, there IS some good to being labeled a "gay writer," at certain times. It can open doors as well as close them.

The main thing, I think, is to just go merrily forward with one's work, and not give the labels any more attention than they need. Which isn't much, really. I just write what I write, as you know.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous John Kim said...

You are very creative. That poster looks great

11:43 AM  

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