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  • 27-16 23rd Avenue
  • New York, NY, 11105
  • United States

When: Decem­ber 12, 2015, 2:00 — 3:30 PM
Where: QED Asto­ria, 27–16 23rd Avenue, Asto­ria NY 11105
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Here’s the Face­book event page.

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.