When I received from the Queens Council on the Arts the 2015 individual artists grant that made it possible for me to finish my second book of poems, Words for What Those Men Have Done, I intended, as I’d written in my proposal, to use the public presentation of work that I would do to fulfill the grant to start of a conversation in my community about male survivors of sexual violence. Once I started planning the event itself, however, I kept coming up against a question that I’d never really thought about. Why make art out of my experience of sexual violence in the first place? It wasn’t that I had doubts about the value of my work or the role it might play in raising people’s awareness, but raising awareness is not why I write the poems that I write, and so I began to wonder if a program that reduced my art to an awareness-raising tool was really what I wanted to create.
So I took a step back and read through the manuscript one more time, paying attention to how the poems that deal explicitly with sexual violence fit into the book as a whole, and I discovered a thread running through the work that I hadn’t noticed before: coming to terms with fear. I haven’t thought of myself, when I think of myself as a survivor, as afraid in a very, very long time. Yet the more closely I looked at the poems touching directly on who I am as a survivor, the more I realized that, whatever else they may be, I’d written them in confrontation with a fear I had never explicitly named–which meant I’d written them not to end that fear, but to turn it into something beautiful.
On the one hand, this seemed to answer my question about why I write such poems in the first place. On the other hand, however, it raised a second question with disturbing implications. What does it mean, then, to find beauty in sexual violence? I am not talking, of course, about the simple, straightforward beauty of surfaces, but rather about the beauty that puts us in touch with the full depth of what it means to be human, that does not force us to choose between loveliness and ugliness, but rather holds them in precisely the balance that exists in each of us. I have been writing poems rooted in my experience of sexual violation for at least twenty years; more than that, I have made who I am as a survivor central to who I am as a writer. I have never before asked myself, however, why I feel compelled to fashion something beautiful from an experience that would seem, on its face, to be beauty’s antithesis. Why, to put it another way, do I feel so compelled to love what I fear? That is a question worth exploring.
The statistics speak for themselves. Depending on the measure used, studies show that as many as 20–25% of men will experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives. Sadly, most of us in this group suffer in silence, victimized a second time by a culture that refuses to acknowledge the truth of what those who violated us did to us. I was nineteen when I first broke my own silence–at, of all places, the Vassar College Spring Semi-Formal (which is a story in itself, but that’s for another time). I was fortunate. My girlfriend’s response was respectful and compassionate, protective and nonjudgmental; she was angry for me and happy I trusted her enough to tell her; and all of that helped me find the courage to keep telling people, without which I don’t know what kind of person I’d be right now. For that, Pat Holtz, wherever she is, will have my gratitude for as long as I live.
To take that first, terrifying step of sharing with someone else something you thought was unspeakable, or that you were sure no one else in the world would understand or accept, is to step off a ledge without knowing where your foot will land. Will you end up standing on solid ground, affirmed, bolstered, saved, by the understanding you see in that other person’s eyes, or will you find yourself falling even more deeply into the isolating despair that whatever you’ve been carrying has forced upon you? For some people, that difference can mean–has already meant–the difference between life and death, which is another way of saying that this kind of telling is about the teller’s needs and no one else’s. It is an appropriately and necessarily selfish act, and, in that selfishness, it is the antithesis of art.
Whenever I think about this distinction between art and other forms of telling, I think about something the poet Khaled Mattawa wrote in his introduction to Without An Alphabet, Without a Face, his translation of the selected poems of the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef: “Poetry can only be an exploration of an ideology, not a means of expressing belief in it.” Art can certainly inspire belief, of course, as it can even inspire action based on belief, but once art starts calling for belief, or for action, it becomes, no matter how artfully it has been made or how moving an audience finds it, propaganda. It is no longer art.
Recently, I attended a poetry reading where a local, spoken-word poet shared some of his work. His performance was quite dramatic, but it actually made me feel imposed upon by, rather than invited into, the world of his words. Initially, I wrote him off as being, simply, a bad poet who used the emotive capacity of performance to make up for the shallowness of his language, but then I realized the problem went deeper than that. His work seemed to me entirely focused on getting his audience to feel not with him, but for him. Every word he spoke, every verbal inflection he gave, every dramatic pause he inserted–especially at the end, right before the last few words of each piece–was carefully crafted both to impress us with his vulnerability and to convince of the profundity of his willingness to be vulnerable in our presence. He was, in other words, propagandizing for himself.
When I first started trying to make art from my experience of sexual violence–I was in my mid-twenties at the time–I made the same mistakes that poet did. The lines I wrote were concerned less with exploring my experience than with making sure the world knew, in near-clinical detail, that I had, beyond any shadow of a doubt, been sexually violated. I saw those poems as a way to lay claim to the measure of the world’s attention I believed I was owed as a survivor, and so I them to a literary magazine that I thought would be sympathetic to their content. I can’t remember the exact words of the editor’s response, though I can still see the slightly cramped, cursive script in which it was written. Its intensity remains palpable to me. The gist of it was this: Call me what you will. Think I am a heartless son-of-a-bitch, if you need to. I don’t care. But never, under any circumstances, submit another poem to this magazine.
This was the mid–1980s, when people were just beginning to talk openly about the sexual abuse of girls. Almost no one was talking about the sexual abuse of boys, which meant that many of what we now understand to be very harmful myths and misconceptions were accepted as fact. More than once I heard it explained, by both lay people and recognized experts, that sexual abuse just didn’t happen to boys, or that, if it did, it happened so rarely that the only ones who really needed to pay attention to it were law enforcement and the professionals who dealt with the victims. What many of these same people said about the victims themselves was even more disturbing. Sexual violation, they suggested, left a boy damaged beyond repair, with a crippled psyche and a deformed sexuality that rendered him if not entirely unfit for “normal” society, then certainly someone you were better off giving a wide berth to if you could.
The editor who rejected my work, I told myself back then, almost certainly thought this way, and so I comforted myself that he deserved the shock and disgust my poems had made him feel. When I think about his rejection now, however, I am struck that he took the time to respond to the anger he imagined I would feel at being rejected. What’s more, he invited this anger, solicited it as the price he was willing to pay never to see my name in his slushpile again. I may be projecting backwards here, but in my memory, his response feels very much like what I probably would have told the spoken word poet I discussed above had he approached me about being featured in the reading series I run. When I think about it now, in other words, that editor probably rejected me for the same reason that I would reject the spoken-word poet: we each resented having someone else rub our face in his life for no other reason than that he believed had the right to do so.
I don’t want to deny that there is a time and place for that kind of confrontation–especially when the world has refused to notice that you exist–but even if submitting the poems I wrote back then did indeed change the way some of the editors who read them saw male survivors, the poems themselves failed as art. Precisely to the degree that they merely indulged the anger by which they were motivated, they became nothing more than rants, shutting readers out from the complexity of the experience into which a succcessful work of art would have invited them. To put it in Khaled Mattawa’s terms, the poems I wrote back then expressed a belief in the righteousness of my anger; they did not explore what it meant to be that angry.
The problems art solves are essentially formal ones, how to give shape in whichever medium the artist works to the concerns the artist wants the work to address. Through the years, one such problem I have had to face over and over and over again is the impossibility of loving myself in the present without loving the boy in me who was violated. For how do I love that boy without seeing beauty in him, even in the fact of his violation; and how do I make sure that seeing this beauty does not in the least excuse or justify or rationalize or exonerate the men who violated him? I make art from my experience of childhood sexual violence because making art is the only way I know to respond to these questions, because trying to answer them with a reasoned, logical argument makes me feel like I have something to prove, and I have nothing to prove. If I am to love myself, I must love that boy, all of him, even the things about him that scare me, even though the idea of loving him scares me. Logical reasoning will not make the complexity of that love comprehensible; but the complexity itself can be made accessible through art.
It may sound paradoxical to say that you need to love your fear to turn it into art, but I believe it’s true, and I also believe it’s true that bringing craft to bear on what you fear is part of that love, because craft is how you walk into the darkness of what you fear and give it structure, and sometimes that structure might in fact let in the light that will chase what you’re afraid of away, but sometimes building that structure is how you learn to love sitting in the dark, which is the only way you’ll ever know its beauty.