Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gay Poetry

Recently I came across my battered copy of The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, edited by Stephen Coote.  It's a striking collection.  The introduction is also worth reading, as an overview of the LGB experience in Western history.  (He doesn't really mention the T's.)  For example, the early Christian era was surprisingly tolerant of homosexuality.  Coote tells this amusing story about a certain Archbishop of Canterbury:
In 1102 the Council of London wanted to make the public aware of how serious 'sodomy' was (evidently they weren't) and to insist on it being confessed as a sin.  This was the edict Anselm quashed, declaring, rather oddly for an archbishop, that sodomy was so widespread that nobody was embarrassed by it anyway.
Many of the poems in this book I cannot share with you, because I don't want this blog to be X-rated.  The ancient Greek and Roman ones are perhaps the most shocking - if you had any doubts, understand now that "Platonic" love does not mean what everybody thinks it means.  When I hear people say that true civilization originated in classical Greece, I wonder if they've ever read any of these poems.  Although to be fair, the Romans (not so much the Greeks) spent a lot of time complaining about the increase in sexual perversion and the loss of good old-fashioned family values.  And they described these sexual perversions in minute and accurate detail, almost as if they had personal experience in the matter.  (Incidentally, one of Juvenal's satires, aka rants, describes a marriage between two men.)

Anyway. Here is a poem by Meleager, a Greek who was born in what is now the country of Jordan, in the 1st century BCE (translated by Peter Whigham):
At 12 o'clock in the afternoon
in the middle of the street -
Summer had all but brought the fruit
to its perilous end:
& the summer sun & that boy's look
did their work on me.
Night hid the sun.
Your face consumes my dreams.
Others feel sleep as feathered rest;
mine but in flame refigures
your image lit in me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Someone asked me why I didn't blog about Mardi Gras.  As far as I can tell, if you're doing it right you have no clear memories of Mardi Gras.  It's all a blur of brightly colored beads, screaming, slightly less brightly colored floats, music, and multicolored flashing lights.  I didn't attain that level of Nirvana, but I had enough fun to be thoroughly tired out long before the Blue Parade rolled.  Got some good throws though, including two strings of glass beads.

I hear that permanent residents of New Orleans hate Mardi Gras.  This was only my second Carnival season as a resident, but I foresee trouble ahead.  Or, as my boyfriend put it, staring at the huge pile of beads on our living room floor, "If we continue to live here I don't see how I can keep doing this every year."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Krazy Kat: "Watta woil, watta woil."

I'm here to share with you another of my favorite things: the Krazy Kat comic strip, by George Herriman.  It's hard for me to describe things that I love.  I mean, squee!!!  The surrealistic art, the gentle yet twisted sense of humor, the unique dialect . . .  I don't know how he did it.  Maybe that's why I can't describe it?  Anyway.

Krazy Kat was created around 1913 and ran until the artist's death in 1944.  The thing that really endears Krazy to me is that s/he is androgynous.  As far as I can recall, Herriman always referred to the Kat as "he."  However, the editor of the book Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman says that it was sometimes "he" and sometimes "she."  He also gives this quote from Herriman, discussing the Kat's gender:
I don't know.  I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl - even drew up some strips with her being pregnant.  It wasn't the Kat any longer . . . Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf.  They have no sex.  So that Kat can't be a he or a she.
 The central theme of Krazy Kat is the love triangle between Kat, mouse and dog.  Incidentally, mouse and dog are definitely male - so if Krazy were male too, that makes them all queer.  And since the expression of love in the comic consists of mouse hitting Kat in the head with a brick, it's kinky too.

The characters in Krazy Kat have their own unique language - for example, "what a world" is pronounced "watta woil."  Krazy might have more of an accent than the others, but they do it too.  George Herriman was born in New Orleans, and some people have suggested that this is a New Orleanian accent. I don't know if it is or not.  But one thing is true:  in New Orleans the Herriman family was black.  When George was six years old they moved to California and somewhere along the way they became white.

I believe that six is old enough to understand the concept of race, to know what race you are - and more importantly, to remember any darker-skinned members of your family who might have been around.  There has been a lot of speculation as to whether or not Herriman knew he was passing for white.  His daughter wrote on his death certificate that both of George Herriman's parents were born in France, but this is false.  Did he lie to his own children about his background?  Had his parents lied to him?

A black man would not have been hired as a newspaper cartoonist in the early 20th century.  A black man could not have worked alongside white newspaper men:  they seem to have been a rowdy bunch but some things were beyond the pale (as it were.)  Herriman's co-workers thought of him as an eccentric guy who didn't talk much about himself and always kept his hat on indoors.  (He did that in order to hide his possibly-kinky hair, which suggests to me that he must have known what he was hiding.)  They called him "The Greek," which was meant to indicate that no one knew what his ethnic background was. 

Apparently he did once tell someone that his family was Creole in origin and he thought he might have had some Negro blood.  What would it have been like to make that admission?  Was it the equivalent of hinting at homosexuality, or transsexuality?  There's no question in my mind that one of the things that draws me to Krazy Kat is the unspoken secrets.

The other arresting aspect of Krazy Kat is the scenery.  Many people have believed that Herriman made it up; but no.  It is based on Coconino County, Arizona, where Herriman frequently stayed on the Navajo reservation.  He said it was his favorite place on earth.  I wonder if he was aware of the Native American tradtions of transgendered, "two-spirit" people - certainly Krazy is one of them.  I also wonder if the reason he liked the reservation so much is that it was an escape from the white world, where he could go without revealing his black ancestry.

The great thing about art is that people can read into it whatever they want.  It's never just one thing. Which also means that it has an existence of its own, beyond any single interpretation.  Like that story about the blind men and the elephant.  Art is an elephant.  So is life.

From Wikimedia Commons.  (Krazy Kat, not being owned by Walt Disney, is in the public domain.)