Poems by Fiodor Tiutchev,  Galaktion Tabidze, and Josef Stalin

Poems by Fiodor Tiutchev, Galaktion Tabidze, and Josef Stalin

Sep 2, 2015 | No Comments

translated by Teimuraz Chanturishvil

Фёдор Тютчев / Fiodor Tiutchev (1803-1873)

Significant Absence

Significant Absence

Aug 31, 2015 | No Comments

by Nikita Elizarov

I wrote to her: “Nobody is like you. Words have always been the only reality for me; beyond it – is the impossible. But not for you. You speak tactile. Your touching tells more vivid stories, than any words will ever do. They break my thoughts and I enjoy the silence.” And, of course, the link to Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” was attached.

Only when Masha had not replied, I realised, that I had led myself into the trap.

What did she mean by not answering me? Was I given what I implicitly asked for – the silence? Did she ignore me accidentally or was it on purpose? Maybe she did not like it and decided not to show it? Or was she so deeply touched, that could not answer due to the shaking hands? The latter was unlikely, but still my mind kept ejaculating universes of possibilities.

And later on she laughed: “I washed my hands,” she said, “and I forgot to answer.” But it is not that simple.

Not only people remember mostly what is important to them – this is called selective retention. Not only being separated by seas and continents with someone, you are bonded with mainly physically, loosens your connection by the necessity to stick to online chatting – it actually exposes that it has been already loose before; everything, that is written, is always truth (especially lies), and in this way people on Facebook are utterly unmasked for anyone, who can read. And not only what remains unspoken tells more, than anything that has been said. Moreover, the very attitude to absence itself is what separates people through the epochs, and this chasm makes seas and continents seem small.

“The ordinary people’s subconscious is still in the Modern era,” – Julie Reshé.

Until the late Modern period art was on a track of inventing new techniques. That longing for a complete perfection was a symptom of an idealistic belief in Absolute. As a result, the artists of the time carried on cranking out masterpieces so technically excellent, that even before a new pleiad of philosophers took the chance to slash the concept of Absolute, art had become as boring, as runners’ races, where a winner is defined by a fracture of a second, though limit is unreachable.

When modernists emerged, they introduced subtraction as an addition to the palette of their tools. For this to be properly understood the audience has to be sated to such an excess, that tolerance to pleasures, too well known, kills the fun, thus opening domain for something new, and insufficiency itself becomes entertaining. This desire for the lack, staying hidden from self-awareness, is being realised in the ability to comprehend artistic forms, which miss some detail from a classical point of view, as nonetheless complete. The artists, who played on it, used minus-techniques – the term was suggested by brilliant Estonian semiotician Yuri Lotman. And to describe the whole concept in general he came up with something even more poetic – significant absence.

In that time, the ones who got it leaped forward, while others enjoyed their booby prize – another zeitgeist. However, this never happens once, but is repeated over and over in every generation mentally going through many eras again and again. Fortunately, as consequence of fundamental inequality of people and their chances they end up in different times, and our world is full of irreducible fissures between cultures. These gaps, if seen as missing common grounds, are absences themselves, and hence important.

Ironically, the chasm between modernity and whatever is after, aroused by Masha’s and my conflicting sentiments to absence, is the only empty place, in which our relationship had ever fitted: she has always been Nabokov’s Mashenka for me.

Love and truth are lies,” – Julie Reshé.

‘Mashenka’ was Nabokov’s debut novel, written during his early years in Germany. Young immigrant, exiled from Russia, Nabokov was sitting on the fence: he had already passed the point of no return in the journey to modernistic realm of purely aesthetic experiments with shapes and surfaces, but was still fatally chained to Russian realistic tradition. In a word, the novel can be understood as his self-analytical discourse – going through the problem in a metaphoric way to say good bye to it.

Ganin, the protagonist, is a young frustrated Russian immigrant in Berlin; his first book of poetry has just been published. One of the neighbours, Ganin is sharing shelter with in a boarding house, is waiting for arrival of his young wife, in whom Ganin recognizes his first love. Convinced, that she still loves him, Ganin comes up with a plot not to let the spouses reunite, and, while making the plan happen, he brings back to life the long-lost romance too, but only in his memory. Two universes – the retrospection, described in a meaningfully excessive tradition of Russian classics, and the present of the main storyline, which treats the retrospection as a material for modernistic form and reworks it – never coincide, yet come to climax simultaneously in the final: the plan has worked, Ganin is at the railway station, ready to intercept Mashenka upon arrival, so they could flee together. But before the train appears, he leaves. The end.

And there I was, in the exact same setting: at Larnaca’s airport, unnoticed, watching Masha through the crowd of people bustling around in the arrivals hall, while she was buying coffee, and I was hesitating. We have known each other for ten years: she was my buddy’s girlfriend; then my only friend, who never deserted me, when I used to fill all the gaps in my life with opiates; and then I loved her. We have not seen each other for three years. She wrote to me a week before, telling me she is coming, and the feelings, which, I thought, had withered, thrived. But still, there at the airport, I was uncertain. Should I have went away as Ganin did?

Why Ganin leaves can be read outside Nabokov’s biographical context. Ganin’s romance renaissance, existing only in his imagination, is a pure fantasy. Fantasy is an embodiment of the desire, and any desire is just a lack, which fantasy fulfils. So, fantasy – a sheer form – is everything, and nothing dwells behind its curtain. People are always intuitively trying to avoid realising their fantasies in real life, and, if they fail out of luck, and the fantasy is attained, it brings not satisfaction but a traumatic sense of loss. In fact, fantasies are never meant to be attained, unless nothing, the absence itself, – is what is consciously desired. That is why Ganin leaves. And for the same reason, I have stepped in.

For the new to appear, the old has to be destroyed,” – Julie Reshé.

Indulging pleasures from the lack was the reason for reductionism in art to appear. Where this general trend of all the art movements framed by modernism, was leading, is not where it finally got.

The general public can understand, for instance, how imperfections like cracks can complement antiques, but each time, when art makes another step in extending conscious usage of minus-techniques, the society has a strong immune reaction against it. That is why, since modernism appeared, art is all about destroying the tradition. Paradoxically, this fight is always occurring inside the context of tradition, which states, “in the beginning was the word,” and thus the battle cannot be won, because, from this point of view, in the end, if reduction is pushed to the very limit, where only minus-techniques are used to produce art, it will be diminished to zero and cease to exist. It means, that art has some kind of irreducible essence, and this religious positivistic notion is fundamental to the most universal tradition of human culture, in which intentional absence can be viewed only as negation of something.

Visual art is strongly dependent on physical materials. I have seen one of Malevich’s Squares: it can be read as an expression of the concept of clear absence, but abstract thinking is involved in it, so it can be understood, but never experienced. Overall, Black Square on White Ground is just a substantial object hanging lonely on the wall of Centre Pompidou in Paris. That is why the reduction trend in visual art has never reached its frontier – the tip, where a radical shift in perspective takes place, and from this new viewpoint the old tradition passes from sight forever.

The only one, who had made it to that tipping point, is John Cage, but it was never widely recognised. By performing his 4′33″, he has made a powerful declaration of silence as a primary shape: the music is born not when sound breaks the silence, but when silence breaks the noise. Even children easily get it, if you play the white noise to them and structure it, by introducing rhythmical pauses. Both white noise and white light are used for sensory deprivation, because they contain no information, though everything is there. They are the same as prehistoric chaotic noise of the universe, where everything exists and yet nothing is distinguishable, and the basic shape – nothing, a pure absence, which is an initial structure – is required for the other forms to have a space to emerge. And, therefore, every absence is significant.

“The biggest potential of a woman, as an empty place, is to be a manifestation of this emptiness,” – Julie Reshé.

Attracted to the void, I have burst into fantasy with Masha. As if falling in the black hole, the time had stretched, and the impression was, that a week, we spent together, had been lasting for a life. We had everything a man and woman can dream of, and our world became so isolated, magical and even toy-like, that an image of a Сhristmas snow-globe used to pursue me, though its boundaries seemed smaller day by day. And I would have been bored to death by happiness and its complete perfection, if had not known that this world, diminishing in size, is inevitably collapsing, and soon we will be covered by fragments of the glass-sky, the snowflakes will melt on the heated rocks of Cyprus as empty hopes, and nothing will be left behind. And this is what I was so badly craving for.

Then she left. We lied: she promised to return, I vowed to follow her in Berlin; our bonds decayed.

And in the worthless noise of our breakdown I noticed precious bits of silence: Julie Reshé was writing to me. I have been receiving letters from her exactly since that day, when Masha had arrived, and these benign interventions had brought pauses in my life – their significance was growing – and their steady rhythm started to structure it in the same way, how I used the quotes from them to frame this text. I began to hear the music.

We have found out, that we share one tongue for two, and often, when we are speaking to each other, both of us have a feeling, that what you hear is so close to what you think, that it could only be said by you. There was a moment, when she guessed precisely what I was only going to write in the text she only had known a working title for. There are coincidences in life, but this – it could not be, and gave me the creeps. I realised, that probably I am just hallucinating her. I had to know.

“You don’t exist, do you?” I asked, “Be honest, have I invented you?” And she replied: “I don’t exist. You’ve created me well: prospective for free interpretation, to some extent I am real.”

I was smiling: this answer, which was better, than I could possibly imagine, meant that she is real. She is an empty place, a pure absence in the life. But I am not the man to fill it. In fact, I am not a man at all. I am the same – an empty place, and in this being nothing we are equal.

There is no need for us to fall: we are the void.

October 2012


Nikita Elizarov had been a successful journalist and an editor with the decadent lifestyle before he moved to another country to settle among the people whose language he did not speak. As the chatter faded away, he began writing down his thoughts not for sale, and, since then, has been referred to as a philosopher.

Louie Crew Clay: Art of Social Activism Through Poetry and Prose

Aug 31, 2015 | No Comments

[The following is the edited transcription of an interview that took place in June 2014 between Louie Crew Clay and Sterling Thomas. The recording can be heard here.]

Sterling Thomas: Just to introduce you to the people you will hear later: This is Professor Louie Crew Clay, who has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Alabama. His dissertation was a linguistic and rhetorical analysis of Charles Dickens’ Language for Protest (1971)He has taught at a number of universities including Chinese University of Hong Kong,  Beijing International Studies University, and the University of Wisconsin. He is Professor Emeritus at Rutgers: The State University of New Jersey. He has an active website devoted to poetry resources and resources for the Episcopal Church: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/

Clay has 5,000 contacts on Facebook from all over the world: https://www.facebook.com/LouieClay

I have questions from the three of us. I have some questions I’ve written, I have questions from John Tang, and a few questions from Arian Cato. Those two gentlemen are people I’ve known for quite a while, since community college, actually. We are very curious. Here is a question from John Tang: You advise that reading current poets would help aspiring poets establish a sense of their own voice. Why is it important for a poet to read the work of peers?

Louie Crew Clay: I think it is important to read lots of people, particularly your peers, because we can often fall into fakery if we assume that poetry is made by Elizabethan pronouns and other diction no longer used in everyday speech. Even Hallmark greeting cards have moved on from that. When I was in high school and college, back in the 1950s, Hallmark cards often used thee, thy and thou. Their lesser competitors would sometimes use archaic forms incorrectly.

Some Christians insist on the King James Version of the Bible, as if God cannot possibly understand or respect us if we talk to Her in authentic speech of the 21st century. All of the Biblical manuscripts were written centuries before the English of the Elizabethans existed.

ST:  I see; I know what you mean. I feel that prose and poetry writers sometimes think that if they have a sufficient amount of Latin in what they write, they are better writers because of it. A lot of college professors think that if they don’t have five syllables in about every third word then something is deficient. But if we look to Orwell and to Joan Didion (even more Modern) we see that it is possible for modest prose to be impressive and enduring.

LC: Absolutely. I wish that more people in gay studies had taken my class in freshman English courses. I am glad that I can read read dense academic prose, but I am also pleased when I do not have to.

ST: There is much discussion about how to allocate your time. Do you believe an aspiring author should concentrate on contemporaries or concentrate on predecessors? Would it be ideal to concentrate 50/50 on past and present?

LC: Fifty-fifty is fine. That doesn’t have to be simultaneous, you can spend a whole year with one writer and benefit from it. [ . . . ] Writing is enriched by the more resources from which we are connecting. And while we come up with all kinds of categories for things, even the boundaries of prose and poetry are artificial.

ST: I agree with you on that. You could have read sth ten years ago and would known that it would have an impact on something you’d be creating that decade later, but then it comes up to you in a fit of inspiration that you could not have accounted for it, and likewise it could just happen much sooner than that, there’s just no way you can account for it.

LC: I am amazed at how many college graduates, even with advanced degrees, think they do not like poetry even when I know that they do. I have the privilege through the Anglican Communion of speaking to various audiences, and I rarely dare to tell them that I am reading a poem. When I include one, they usually love it. My entire presentation is not poetry, but often I sneak poems into it without framing the poems as poems. I don’t use rhyme in those.

ST: Even Montaigne, the original essayist, frequently quotes Roman and Greek poets in his essays.  It is pretty much impossible to read an essay by him without poetry showing up throughout it.

LC: Montaigne lived in a time when readers anticipated they might hear poems in contexts where modern readers do not expect to hear poems. The culture of the ancients valued poetry more than our culture does.

Before the movies, before radio and television, many families used to gather just to read poems. I learned my first poetry by heart from hearing my father, who ran a hardware store, get excited about Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.” “I wish I had written that!” he exclaimed after he read, “Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink; water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.  Day after day we struck nor breath nor motion, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

I too wish that I had written that! I followed his example and memorized this and hundreds of other passages of poetry.

ST: I love that epic as well, but for some reason I have a romantic attachment to “Kublai Khan.” It is obviously a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but it is incomplete.  Some say that Coleridge was distracted during an opium dream.

How significant is it to write on subtle things, things that are too often taken for granted. Why are they perhaps the most important topics in poetry?

LC: Everyday things and everyday reality are readily accessible. We respond to them as genuine, not artificial. There is nothing artificial about dying or getting married or getting ready to run a marathon, nor about putting on socks.

ST: You mentioned Coleridge. He was often boring to me. He and the Lake Poets collaborated to search for the unusual in the usual. I am a Romantic at heart, and that’s part of it.

Of course it is easy to give a gold rating to literary movements that had communities of timeless poets.  There was not just Coleridge:  there were Shelley and Wordsworth and others. They collaborated, but theirs seems like a different time.  Now, even with our technology, everyone is isolated, and the artists and poets you meet, unless they are already famous — a visiting lecturer, or something like that — you are going to run into them just on the internet, and you are not even sure if what they wrote is really theirs.

LC: I understand that problem, but I connect with over 200 poets through Facebook and listen to many perform poetry on Youtube.

Recently I announced the death of poet Robert Peters. He suffered from dementia for his last fifteen years or so. I was deeply moved by many of the comments that poured in. Several shared specific ways that Robert had influenced their lives too, as he continues to influence mine.

Robert was a mentor and a dear friend very early in my teaching career. I lived in isolation at a small black college in South Carolina and then at another one in Georgia. I loved where I was working, but I did not yet have many contacts who spent a lot of time writing or being concerned about literature. They liked me and I liked them, and I loved teaching in those places, but it was great to have somebody from far away, val . . . I won’t say validate. I’m tempted to, but validate is not the right word. We do not need somebody give us an imprimatur, but it is very gratifying to live in a community of writers while simultaneously with living with friends who have no interest in literature.

In the 21st century it is much easier to find a virtual support community of writers.  In the 20th century, most people stopped writing letters, but with e-mail, twitter, Facebook and other social networks epistolary communication has dramatically returned. During the early days of using computers in the classroom, I found that if you do not worry much about errors until students pour forth with their challenging ideas, many of them will ask for help as they go back to re-write; and of course re-writing is twenty times easier on the computer than it is by handwriting or re-typing. Once people write something that excites them, once they have an audience besides the teacher, they often come to the teacher and ask, “Doc, how can I make this thing more accurate or more correct?”  The very things teachers used to have to pull eye teeth just to get them interested in now interest them naturally. Writing itself is the seduction.

ST: You seem to enjoy free verse more than rhyme and structure.  How important is it to know all the styles of poetry?

LC: Well, if you’re going to write for a long time, you would be well served to know a tradition so that you can know how to distinguish yourself within it or in opposition to it. You might write a couple of very inspired things without even knowing that some other writers did something similar, but if you’re going to sustain your own growth as a writer, you can do so best by being a part of the writing community past and present. That does not mean that you that you have to write like others: It means that you know how your writing fits within or goes beyond literary traditions. T. S. Eliot made these points cogently in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

For example, look at Auden. I am reading Articulate Flesh by a friend of mine, Gregory Woods, recently retired as Professor of Gay Studies at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. The book focuses on male homo-eroticism. I spent an hour on just three pages in which he demonstrates how Auden and various other gay poets make different use of St. Sebastian and other characters that assume mythological status. If you  read one of those poems and without knowing the myth or any other rendering of it, the poem will have some measure of meaning to you; but in becoming a good poet or an accomplished  reader, you will be helped by knowing how other professionals do it. That’s true if you want to be an excellent tennis player or tennis aficionado.

I don’t know a thing about basketball, so if go to a basketball game all I know to do is to look at the scoreboard. Attending a basketball game is a richer experience for an athlete, someone who knows what is at stake. The same is true for a musician going to a concert: I am glad I respond to classical music and can identify seventy percent of what I hear on the National Public Radio classical stations just from hearing it. Nevertheless I don’t bring to music nor gain from music as much as persons with better training than I have.

ST: I know.  For example, if I had not taken some literature courses in college my ability to understand Virginia Woolf would not be nearly as enriched.  I could, as you said, find inspiration and even perhaps be transformed by her text, but I would be dumb to what had happened to British literature before her and unable to access her innovations accurately.  I would miss out on those experiences.  I think there is much truth to what you say.  You can enjoy a work of literature, art, or music, but the depth of my experience won’t be the same as the depth of the experience of someone who brings more understanding.

The same is true for how I might respond to “light literature” as to more serious literature.  I read with interest your own light poems “Hetero Hex” and “Nuclear Waste.”  What is your philosophy of the limerick?

LC: I have no philosophy of the limerick in any formal sense. Frankly, in “Hetero Hex” and “Nuclear Waste” I am just having fun:

 

Nuclear Waste

 

Hi there!

 

Hetero Hex

 

–or, Purge Yourselves, Darlings!–

The queandom is at hand.
Our rococo swirls will get you!
The queandom is at hand.
Some superstud will dick you!
The queandom is at hand.
A diesel dyke will teach your tyke!
Some nervous nellie will cure your belly!
The queandom is at hand.

A handsome nance with your son will dance,

while to a bitch your wife will hitch.

The queandom is at hand.

Drop hate, drop fear, embrace them all

since nothing you can do can stop them.
Come prance, come dance, englut their gall
so tomorrow you too can hop them!

The queandom is at hand.

 

In my prose often I try to de-mystify many things, especially sex and religion, great mysteries, the bible and so on, to make them accessible. On the other hand, in writing poetry I try to re-mystify, even to play word games

I never think of myself as writing poetry with a capital ‘P.’ As a reader and professor, I revere and thrive on canonical poets, but I don’t try to write like them. I don’t need to.

I have no desire to be known or remembered. I am delighted that I can find people to publish my poetry, but that pleasure is good much as the pleasure of eating homemade ice cream on a hot summer day or a homemade chile on a cold winter night, is delightful and engaging yes, but also ephemeral.

When I read some of my poems years after writing them, I like some of them better than I do others.  I was somewhat embarrassed when I remembered how I wrote Holy Hex back in 1976 when I read it again recently.  It sound terribly tacky, yet should a queen like me not sound tacky!?  ‘Get over it!’ I remind myself. ‘Enjoy it, sugar.’

ST: Well I think that’s actually a preoccupation with many authors, present and especially past, that the mission for immortality, posterity, legacy, there’s a lot of different words that can be attached to it, and I sometime got the impression that an author might have committed suicide as part of the enshrinement of their literature.

LC: Some poets will be read and remembered for centuries, some for the life cycle of one issue of a literary magazine. Both are good results.

I think some authors are too preoccupied with wanting to be famous. That may or may not help them write better, but it can be hazardous to the quality of their life.

A friend in the doctoral program at the University of Alabama was fortunate, we thought, to get one of his early poems into the New Yorker, but only one, and never again. He lived on the validation that he got from that, but it did not sustain him. He went to New Orleans and drank himself into oblivion. That was a kind of suicide because he felt a complete failure. His was harmed by his understanding of his worth both as a writer and as a person. His poem in the New Yorker was a good poem, but he might have written many other good poems that would never need to be in the New Yorker.

I am glad that the New Yorker is around and I do read it with pleasure occasionally, but I choose to spend more time reading poetry written and published more at the margins. I believe I read better by having a formal education, but I choose not to limit my reading to those whose education or experience matches my own. They teach me much. Many are enormously talented.

I.A. Richards (1893-1979) was disturbed that his students at Cambridge University were at a loss to say whether a poem was good or not until they knew who wrote it and how it had been received.   In his influential book Practical Criticism (1929) he demonstrated how to test one’s own aesthetics without an author’s biography or reputation as a crutch to understanding the author’s literary achievement.

ST: The reason I mentioned that suicide thing was that I always think of David Foster Wallace, John Berryman, Hunter S. Thompson, and of course, Hemingway.  Some had fathers who committed suicide before they did.  Suicide seemed to hang over them like a specter, and no matter what they accomplished or what love they discovered, they weren’t able to escape the grasp of that apparition completely. Eventually, maybe after a point of literary achievement, they felt that they had nothing else to prove or they had said everything that they knew how to say, and thus were ready just to end their lives.

LC: Then go out and get a nice meal or go walk in the garden or go walk in woods where there is no garden. There is so much else to life than ourselves, so much in life that will enrich who we are.

ST: I agree with that, but maybe once you’re on a pedestal the way that some of these writers were, there comes a certain amount of megalomania and narcissism.

LC: Indeed. I consider myself lucky that I shaped my own aesthetics when I felt I was a criminal. I knew that I could be put in jail if anybody knew that I was an active homosexual, and thus I did not have the luxury of going around thinking that I would get immortality, literary or otherwise. I wanted just to survive.

I also knew that literature was for me an early way to escape life behind the Cotton Curtain in Alabama. I could leave Alabama and go anywhere in the world just by reading a good book or a good poem.

ST: That touches on the value of escapism that all forms of published writing can provide.  Also there is something principally escapist by doing your own writing and having your own imagination and just putting it onto . . .

LC: Be careful with that word escapeEscape means that you’re getting away. I prefer to see the experience as an entrance rather than as an escape. I am not escaping if I go into a cave with Plato.  He opens a new world to me by pointing to the shadows on the wall of the cave.

ST: Yes, an exit is also an entrance.

LC: Yes. It’s important to realize that sometimes we buy into concepts that diminish our experience. Many think of literature as an escape from life, but I think of literature as one kind of life. I know the difference between that and getting up and going walking and getting a job done and turning in grades and all other mundane things.

Robert Peters taught me to separate the discipline of writing from from the discipline of circulating  manuscripts. I have friends that write much better than I will ever write, and yet some are so afraid of rejection that they don’t submit their manuscripts to publishers.

ST: Rejection is part of the course: You will be rejected in the beginning until you find a groove, far more than you anticipated.

LC: I find that it helps to anticipate rejection and just keep on going.   Professional athletes don’t expect to win every game.

I have been blessed by writing for all kinds of audiences, and enjoyed all of them. I have written for Fag Rag and for Episcopal Life. I have written for College English and The Hong Kong Computer Journal.  

ST: Here’s another question about “Hetero Hex” and “Nuclear Waste.” both limericks allude to great disasters in human history and contrast with the humor of your approach. Do you typically enjoy this aesthetic?

LC: Absolutely. I’m not stuck with being a quean, and I’m not primarily a comic, but sometimes I wish I were. I wish I could be as good a comic as some people are. I enjoy comedy. Comedy always lets us get a little closer to many truths than we cannot fathom if we are too somber.

I spent the summer of 1963 at Taos, New Mexico, and I learned about the Joymakers, Pueblo Indians. Pueblo Indians are matriarchal, organized around the mother’s family, each of which has a men’s ceremonial association called a kiva, the name for the room used for their ceremonies.  One kiva is called the Joymakers. They organized not around one matriarch like the other associations, but collect males from many associations. The Joymakers began when the Pueblos migrated to the Southwest in pre-Columbian times. During that migration, the Pueblos suffered great hardship, and the Joymakers kept their tribe alive. Whenever the tribe were depressed the Joymakers would come out and make fun of them and laugh at them.  That playfulness in the face of adversity kept the tribe resilient.

I remember going into a remote, isolated place not in Taos itself but in a canyon to which a friend took me. I spent a whole day watching the Joymakers dance and tease all in the audience. The tribe member whom they teased the most was the chief of the tribe. They would come out and imitate him and you didn’t have to know a bit of their language to understand their playful mockery. He blushed and blushed.

I like to think that poets and many other wonderful creatures keep our human race alive in similar ways.

ST: Do you feel that limericks have the potential of missing the meaning of the topic?

LC: Or that a limerick can give a new topic. They obviously are best when light. They are very effective — I wouldn’t say ‘best’ — with light things, like sex and honor and all those. I like limericks a lot.

ST: I think of Wallace Stevens, especially as you write in “Hetero Hex”: “I have real faith in science, honey.” For me that is the ‘turn’ in the poem. How does the poet achieve that balance between its topic and tone?

LC: I’m glad you think I did. I strive for that balance, but never never know for sure whether I have achieved it.  No poet is the final judge of her or his own writing.

I rewrite a lot, not as much as I should and not as much as I did for decades.

Some things don’t wear as well as others. I’m glad that that poem works for you, assuming that it does, and if it doesn’t then go onto another one.

The use of honey has much resonance for me, going back to Huckleberry Finn. Jim, the slave that Huck travels with, tells Huck, “Come back to the raft again, Huck Honey.”  Leslie Fiedler, who was a major literary critic, one of the best paid in the English Profession ever, wrote a book called Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey (1948),  suggesting that the relationship between Huck and Jim was homosexual. As one inter-racially married and gay, I have always found Huck and Jim as icons.

Honey is also in Southern speech. Although I have lived in New Jersey for a quarter of a century now, I am still very much a liberal Alabaman, not just by continuing to pay property taxes on property down home, but also by having a liberal Alabaman’s state of mind.

Honey is a wonderful term of endearment and it is especially popular with queans or gay males of some age (I will turn 79 in December 2015), so I like that word a lot. I probably use it way too much.

ST: Here is John Tang’s last question for you: “At times I feel tone tends to dampen substance, as you’ll find in modern Beats’ poetry where lyrics become theater. How do you feel poetry venturing into performance art?”

LC: I think poetry needs to go to performance as fast as it can.

I don’t like a whole lot of slam performances, especially that those seem cheap and are thrown out without much craft, but then I’m not the best judge of that. Often slam poets are writing about experiences that an old man has trouble remembering, much less getting all wrapped up in.

But human beings spoke poetry even before we knew how to write at all. When cave man came out of the cave and saw cave woman, he didn’t say, “Ooh Goo!”  He said “Oohguhguh!”

He repeated his ecstatic interjections. They’re basic poetry, just as grunts and groans are. They are integral to being sentient animals.

One of the saddest things that I’ve experienced is listening to some great poets read their own work badly. Many are afraid that they will be credited for being performers. Well, if they are not going to do performance, then they should get good readers to do it. Expressionless readings are dreadful!

If you want to hear somebody who is effective, then listen to Flannery O’Connor read her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I treasure a tape I have of her reading it to a group. A friend recorded her when she read it, and the quality of the tape is poor, but her reading is absolutely splendid because she knew how to read well.

The story, as you might know, tells of a family going on a trip. They encounter a murderer, but the grandmother is busy talking to her grandchildren. The car is filled with family trivia and arguments, and there is no awareness of the impending doom. O’Connor’s performance is riveting.

One of my favorites of my own performances is my recording of Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily.”  I paid $300 to the copyright owners, The University of Virginia, for permission to record it and publish it on my website for only five years, I will have to remove it on December 31, 2017.

That story needs to be read by a Southern man of some age who is a gossip. I play the part “naturally.”

After you have read the story aloud 15 or 20 times, you realize the story is not about Miss Emily Grierson at all: It’s primarily about the community of Faulkner’s imaginary “Jefferson, Mississippi.” Some are smart enough to see that focus during their first or second reading.

The story is about the community’s trying to account for Miss Emily. They don’t know how to deal with the fact that she murders her boyfriend and sleeps with him for 25 years. It’s a short story about necrophilia, but you don’t know that until you get to the very last phrase of the final sentence.

I hope I didn’t ruin the story for you, but you’ll still enjoy getting to that ending and likely will want to read it many times. Listen to my reading of it. I’m shamelessly self-promoting:  Go to this link on my website http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/A_Rose_for_Emily.html before I have to remove it.

ST: These next three questions are fairly in depth so bare with me as I read them from beginning to end. They’re from Arian Cato.

In your 1988 article “Whetting the Public Appetite for Poetry,” you begin:

As U.S. citizens increasingly involve ourselves in the world beyond our borders, I expect us to demand more poetry in our nation’s life, when we see poetry’s importance south of us and in much of the political life of Asia.

and you close:

Homophobia formidably throttles poetry. I may soon launch a new national organization, Poetry Is For Sissies—to reclaim turf, yes, but more important, to call the bluff by which many hetero males allow bullies to deprive them and their girlfriends of every human being’s birthright. I hope they react, “No, poetry is for everyone!”

At issue here amongst many is the relationship between poetry and democracy, another is of course the relationship between art, poetry, and the politics of equality and collective action. In the first quoted passage you write of poetry’s importance, given the above intimations, what exactly is this importance of poetry?

LC: Poetry can be a liberating experience if you read it to let your soul connect with it.

You know how to breathe, so when you hear someone breathing and you have no other sound in the room, you know how to relate to that breathing.

The same thing is true about poetry.

I wouldn’t say that people can’t do evil things who can write or read poetry because that would be foolish. Obviously some good poets might be undesirable people (Alexander Pope, for example, was a notorious manipulator).  And some with no interest whatsoever in poetry can be exemplary.  But poetry can liberate.

When I moved to New Jersey in 1989, an acquaintance asked me to visit him in prison. We had met initially at a gay wedding in Chicago, and he located me by reading an article which I had written for Christianity & Crisis. When I got to his prison, I found the prisoners did much more for me than I did for them. I continued to visit monthly for 8 years. Officially it was a ministerial visit, but more accurately it was a cultural visitation. These were all sex offenders. We all spoke honestly and in depth. When you are at the bottom and have unlimited time on your hands, somehow speaking honestly and in depth is easier.

One of the prisoners was in was a medical doctor who had paid ten-to-fourteen-year-old boys to put sticks in his anus. I can’t imagine anything less erotic. He said to me

Louie, I’m not talking about myself right now; I’m talking about others here. I believe that many in therapy with me wouldn’t even have had the problem if they had been able to experience the beauty of literature and music. It didn’t save me, but it certainly has made this experience more bearable. Literature and music have made it easier for me to confront my demons. Some don’t realize that literature can deliver you from demons.

That’s his testimony. I don’t know whether it would have worked for him or not, but I know that literature is a marvelous way to connect.

ST: I would also say that from my own perspective I’ve read avidly in my youth and adolescence and I didn’t have the best social conditions when i was growing up. I don’t know; sometimes you just don’t fit in like you should.

You relate to that quite poignantly.  Literature was the saving grace for me too, or “a silver lining” (to throw out another cliche).   Literature allows you to reconcile yourself.  You’re exposed to stories and to personalities beyond the ones of your immediate environment. Literature reminds you that the world is larger than the small sum of your misfortunes or your inconveniences.  In retrospect, I see that literature for me was a very strengthening force.

So here’s the next question from Arian. In your poem “The Right to Do Our Own Naming” you put up for question why “Chinamen” can be an insulting term.  The poem interests me in that elsewhere in the poem no other instances of naming appear, and yet the title of the poem suggests some elucidation of the right to do our own naming. Interesting, too, is the plural first-person point of view adopted in it. In adopting singularities, names, we can nevertheless form some sort of collective. What importance do you find in names and the act of naming?

LC: Words have great power whether or not one notices or intends them to. I deal with words as a writer, as a professor, and as a devout Episcopalian (witness the Book of Common Prayer, one of the greatest books ever written). We should be very careful: Some words have more power than I want to allow them in my life. That is one of the reasons that I stopped reading Marquis de Sade decades ago. I like the fact that I can readily experience the verisimilitude of any art form and for the moment feel I am really in the writer`s or artist`s creation. I hope that I am not as successful as the country yokel whom Fielding created in Joseph Andrews who shouts to Romeo not to kill himself, that Juliet is not really dead. But my experience resonates with that of the yokel. I like it that I can get into, rather than just observe the writer’s creation, but it behooves me to exercise caution about what I let fill my mind.

I don’t want to fill my imagination with the imagery of sadomasochism, which is popular with many straights and gays alike, but not with me. I do not censor those who write it nor would I try to prevent anyone else from reading it; I just turn the page and close the book; or don’t go to the play or stare at the artist’s painting. When I am watching or reading something that is intimate I want to be able to feel a participation, but I try to choose well the literature of intimacy which I read.

Consider derogatory epithets. My ancestors were Quakers, and Quaker was an abusive term. Initially adversaries used the term to mock the fervor with which they shook or quaked. Quakers were driven out of England in the 1600s and went to Holland and thence to the colonies in America. My Crew ancestors show up in the census of Richmond, Virginia. They stayed Quakers until they got kicked out of the Quakers because they mustered in the War of 1812.

Instead of objecting to the term Quaker, Quakers made it a positive.

Christian was originally a negative; it meant “little Christs.” Christians were laughed at in the Roman and Eastern dominions. Christians accepted the term for themselves and in time, it lost its negative connotations.

I admire what the Christians did, what the Quakers did, and what the Shakers did, but it takes a corporate effort to go succeed in reversing the meaning of words. Language is not private property: It requires community to be needed at all, even if just one other person.

Maya Angelou and Richard Pryor performed a skit early in the 70s. I think it was written by Langston Hughes but I’m not sure. In the skit, the husband (Pryor) goes off to bars, gets drunk and over time begins to use the N-word. His wife (Angelou) loves him dearly, but watches with increased concern the effect the N-word has on him.

As his friends use it, the N-word is a term of endearment, and bonds those who use it. But Angelou notices and grieves that the husband gradually but steadily thinks less of himself than he did earlier. He expects less of himself; he loses his self-esteem. The N-word bonds, but with dangerous consequences for him.

ST: A facet of naming intuitively solidified for me when I started to read Hobbes many years ago, Leviathan of course. Names are one of our foremost points of reference. Names are the pillars of definitions, and they create powerful conceptual frameworks for our thinking. If a name is loaded, a pejorative name, anything like that, and you attach it to someone or to a group, that name can prejudice conversation about that person or group. The power of naming is almost magical and potentially evil.

LC: I don’t refuse to tease and joke, but I try to be careful in what I allow myself to say. I don’t want to risk wounding someone. But, there are two people who have to work on that — the person naming and the one named. If someone teases me within reason, I take responsibility not to allow my feelings to be hurt. That requires maturity and self-assurance.

ST: I noticed that you taught at two different universities in China, one in Hong Kong and one in Beijing. China resumed sovereignty in Hong Kong in 1997 after 100 years of British rule. To this day Hong Kong maintains a strong Western bent relative to mainland China. What would you say were the principal cultural differences between Hong Kong and Beijing in the 1980s?

LC: Beijing was much closer to its horrible experience of the Cultural Revolution, and the closer you were to Beijing, the more you felt political restrictions against things perceived as Western. For example, in 1983, Beijing International Studies University canceled Christmas. That kind of restriction did not occur in universities far away from spheres of political influence. A stated goal of my university was to prepare persons to work internationally. Many of my students had given me Christmas cards before word came down that Christmas was canceled. They gave the cards not as a religious act, but as a polite international gesture.

Then the Party boss, who was the most powerful person on the campus, visited me in my campus apartment, ostensibly as a friendly gesture, but really to identify which students were violating the new policy. He insisted on looking at all of the students’ Christmas cards. I panicked but learned I need not have worried. The students had all signed their cards using their English names, and he knew them only by their Chinese names.

One of the saddest memories I have of teaching in Beijing was that one of my brightest students wanted to study something absolutely not political, and for that reason alone considered research into Anglo Saxon.

He had political savvy. Evidence abounded about the risks attending any topic of political consequence. For example, one of my colleagues had spent years hauling cow shit because he liked the wrong kind of poetry. He liked ancient Chinese poetry and not General Mao’s poetry.

The safest thing was to get a topic nobody would be interested in. What a terrible price to pay: These are some of the brightest people I have ever known. Some were forced to waste their talents.

Neither in Beijing nor Hong Kong did my employers train people to think for themselves.

One of my friends in Hong Kong had graduated from Chinese University several years before I taught there, and had then studied at Rutgers University, where I was later to teach. One evening over dinner he looked at me eyeball to eyeball and said, “Louie you will be haunted in hell if you don’t give your students more of a chance than I had. I went to Rutgers University and was the lead student in my graduate class. The professor called on me in front of all the students. I panicked. At Chinese University I was never required to answer a question about my own opinion. I had to answer questions about facts but not questions about my own opinions. Louie, you must make your students learn to have their own ideas, their own opinions. They will hate you if you do it. But you must! It’s the only way to prepare them well!”

I directed the writing program of English majors and worked with four recent Yale graduates. We committed ourselves not to accept memorized answers. We required them to articulate their own judgments.

My friend was right. For a season they hated us. At one point a few hung big-character posters on campus saying, “Yankee Go Home”; but we wouldn’t let them get away with rote answers.

Some of our colleagues from the West preferred reading what students cribbed from published sources; in that way they did not have to encounter (or correct) the students’ Chinglish (where Chinese noticeably interferes with English). When our team documented students’ plagiarism, instead of failing them or exercising moral judgment, we gave them incomplete grades until they did the work in their own English. That they were bright was never in question. We would rather they write in Chinglish until they mastered English; that was the only way they were going to learn to improve and the only way they were going to take responsibility for their own ideas.

I won the “Best Article of 1985” award from the Hong Kong Computer Society for an article I had written using a mail merge program to help myself learn Cantonese. “I am not a computer expert. Why are you giving this award to me?” I asked the donors, themselves employed in running the computers in the world’s second largest banking center and at one of the world’s busiest commercial airports.

“Yes, but most of our writers submit dull, predictable articles. They fail to imagine new uses for computers. You did something new and imaginative. We want to honor you, yes, but frankly we want to signal to others that this was what they need to be doing, thinking for themselves, thinking afresh.”

ST: Well after your teaching in two distinctly different parts in China—and obviously you spent more time Stateside than you have in Eastern countries—there is a certain allure for Eastern culture, and, I guess, that overall do you find yourself enjoying Eastern or Western culture more, and for which reasons?

LC: My husband arrived at the beginning of this interview from coming back from Beijing, and he was in Shanghai this week. He is an international flight attendant for United. I don’t travel much with him now but have the luxury of traveling for free wherever United Airlines goes, namely, the whole world.  He has purposefully chosen not to have just one route. He tends to do more with the eastern or western routes than with the northern or southern routes. Nevertheless he might be in Peru one day, then three days later in Argentina.

Facebook also provides a parallel international experience. I have friends on FB from my classes in China, my classes in Hong Kong, from my work in many parts of the United States, and I even have a Facebook friend who was my high school student in an impoverished area of London in 1965 and 1967. He’s a short story writer.

ST: I know that theology is an important part of your academic, personal, creative, and spiritual lives. What questions and perspectives have you used to engage hostile clergy members and Christians, some of whom I imagine openly condemn you to an eternity in hell for being gay?

LC: Hostility is no respecter of persons. It shows up everywhere but not in everybody.

Being gay has actually often filtered out of my life people whom I would not likely have enjoyed. Being in an interracial marriage for four decades has been an even more effective filter. While some racists and heterosexists are undoubtedly bright, talented, even kind to those within their favor, I do not moan my loss of their company. Ernest and have more friends than we are able to be friendly to, straight and gay alike.

One thing does mark our friends: Few can welcome friendship with community outcasts unless they are grounded in who they are. Those comfortable with themselves rarely find people to be threatening just because they are different.

Kindness is also no respecter of persons. It too shows up everywhere, but not in everybody. For example, I know many devout fundamentalists who have met well the challenge of loving a gay sibling or offspring or parent.

Most people change first with their hearts and then do the brain work to account for the change. However, some change their minds first and then change their behaviors to be more affirming and inclusive.

One of the best books to come out recently is God and the Gay Christian, by Matthew Vines. Vines grew up as an evangelical Presbyterian, went to Harvard for two years, and then took two more off to come to terms with his homosexuality and his faith. A video of his presentation to a Methodist congregation went viral. Until I watched it, I thought privately that I never wanted to read another book on homosexuality and scripture because I’ve had to read and talk about the six relevant passages for decades, but Vines manages to reveal some extraordinarily important things by looking at the implications of a whole lot of other scriptures as the context of six Bible bullets.

Many of the Lakota are Episcopalians. A priest friend who is one their leaders, invited me to come meet with the Lakota clergy about gay issues. My friend noted that they had not addressed these concerns. He thought that as an oppressed people themselves, they certainly should look at what LGBTQ persons face. My friend is straight, but some of his gay colleagues trust him enough to be out to him.

I decided to employ a pedagogical tactic I had used often in China when trying to summon personal opinions from a group resolutely reticent. Chinese students liked it when the teacher would fill their silence by talking.

I knew the reticent Lakota would also be pleased if I filled the silence for them, but I began: “I’m not the first person who’s ever presented to you the subject of homosexuality. You all have sexual equipment. You have all heard about homosexuality. Some of you may even have had a fantasy or two about it. I don’t want to talk to you about any of my opinions or experiences until I hear what you bring to the room so I can know whom I am talking to. I will to sit here and wait for somebody to talk and to share views or experiences.

It was ten minutes, maybe twelve, thirteen, before anybody spoke, and it was a woman who did it, the bishop’s wife, and she wasn’t even Lakota, and she should have waited, too, but felt she had to speak. “He’s absolutely—and she’s holds a conservative point of view!—he’s absolutely right we’re not coming here to talk about something about which we have had no prior thoughts.”

Then mercifully she was silent, and the nervousness of everyone else was palpable. Fortunately we had four more hours we could have used for silence if necessary, but one man broke down with tears in his eyes, and said, “Well, I will speak.”

Everybody turned to him, and he said, “This is hard, I will confess it. When I trained, I decided, since this was such a hot topic in my training, and since there were so few passages you really had to address, [Observe: He brought that up; I didn’t need to; if I had brought it up, others in the room would have taken my remark as self-serving and defensive! – Louie Clay] I decided to become a master of the question of ‘homosexuality in scripture’ and ‘homosexuality and Christianity.’ I was so proud of myself, I had the arguments down, I wrote my paper first, I got an A+ on my paper. I was pleased, and then the Bishop sent me off to work with the rector of the big parish in Minnesota, and the priest said to me, ‘I’m going to ask you, since you’ve had this training, to work with the gay group we have from Integrity [which is the organization I founded in our Episcopal Church – Louie Clay], but I don’t want you telling them things, I want you to spend time listening to them.’

“I thought to myself, I have all of this important information to share and my boss tells me I have to go listen to them! The request boggled my mind, but I went every week and sometimes two or three times because there were extra events during the week, and I was with real people, people who cared about other people whether they liked them or not! or whether the other people liked the gays or not. I was with people going to visit the sick and baking cakes, pies, and casseroles, and darning things, and sewing things, buying things, and not even asking to be given any credit for it, sending them sometimes things by somebody else.

“I realized that I don’t have anything to say to them. God said everything that needed said. God said, ‘I made them, I love them, you love them, too.’”

My silence and the long agony as the group waited worked in that situation. You may need another strategy to prompt others to speak up. You won’t reach everyone. That’s God’s job; it’s not our job. Our job is to plant seeds, and usually we are not there for the harvest.

ST: I didn’t really have a religious upbringing myself, but when people look at me and make the arguments, a popular one is that homosexuality is unnatural.

LC: I hope so. Sometimes what is natural is pretty awful. Many of the things we value the most in our lives, like reading and thinking, are quite unnatural.

ST: I’ve always thought arguments like that were inherently illogical because I didn’t choose to be heterosexual, so why should the absence of a choice be any less factual for someone who is homosexual or bisexual or transgender? Why must we assign agency to sexual orientation? Most likely people have different orientations inevitably and naturally. That’s always just been my perspective.

LC: I did a Google search about your magazine trying to see what LGBTQ items turned up. Google searches are not always effective, but they do index your text, which I think is a good start. You’re working on the fifteenth issue, and all fourteen have been indexed. I searched for the words LGBT and gay. One was called “The Gay Guy Who Likes the Girl” and that was merely a news story that was forwarded for interest by somebody. I found that kind of bizarre, not so much that the gay guy liked the girl, but the narrator in the news thing seemed to be obnoxious. Another one was, “Local Gay Man Admits It Was a Choice,” This was in your December 2013 issue. The “gay guy” was in your February 28 issue, and Mario finally found love in the May 16th issue.

I didn’t detect anything written from a gay or lesbian sensibility, and I was a bit surprised by that, given how popular that is among so many writers these days, even those that are not gay or lesbian.

ST: Well we haven’t published anything from an lgbtq perspective yet, but I certainly encourage those submissions. What you’re referring to are brevities or just short things written on the website and published on the website, I don’t think they are from any of the issues.

LC: I think they probably were the brevities. Google found them.

ST: The issues themselves are on the landing page for the website, brevspread.com. There you see them more or less in order in their covers. The second one you named I wrote under an alias and the whole point was to poke fun.

LC: I like the humor there.

ST: Yeah, right, it was satire, because I was writing from that perspective, as I already described, that the idea that sexual orientation could be a choice is absurd.

As I said I wrote the fictional piece about a guy coming out and facing hostilities from the LGBT community. That struck me as hilarious, so that was why I wrote it.

But I encourage a diversity of points of views from writers. I wish we had more female contributors and I absolutely wish we had more gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered sensibilities writing for us, too.

LC: I list your site in my list of over 1,000 publishers willing to receive manuscripts electronically. You or one of your colleagues provided me with five tags, and you can have up to ten. You might add the tags ‘LGBTQ,’ ‘Feminist,’ and ‘Women Writers’ to attract the diverse points of view you seek.

ST: Right, I think it’s really important to get those perspectives. That voice needs to be heard and needs to be published to give those experiences.

LC: I spend a good a bit of my time writing for audiences where I remain a minority. I don’t want to “preach just to the choir,” or write just for LGBTQ persons. I want to engage a diverse audience, especially people who don’t like gay people.

In 1976 at the MLA meeting in Chicago, a scholar, from University of Colorado complained that gay people were coming out of closets and wouldn’t write as well because the closet gave them so many wonderful metaphors through which they could hide what they were saying. I stood up at the end and said, “Thank you. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Therefore we ought to have a crusade to persecute heterosexuals to enrich the literature.”

Everyone else laughed, but he did not. Later that day I had an interview with the University of Colorado, Boulder, and he was on the committee. I was soundly turned down. Talk about winning the battle and losing the war.

ST: Here’s a question for you about politics. For the record, I studied political science at UC Berkeley, and then I interned at the state government in its capitol for a state senator. I still pay attention to issues quite a bit and meditate on them often. As you know it’s a large mess, especially for younger generations, but here’s a question on that up front.

Quite aside from the structural problems inherent to a two-party system I often get the impression that rhetoric and the platitudes of each party are believed or disbelieved wholesale out of partisanship. Rather than each pitted position receiving scrutiny on its own terms, as well the passionate commitment to capitalism by Democrats, second only to Republicans despite the speeches and the like that target the middle class, blue collar workers, minorities, and the disenfranchised. What do you think we can do to avoid the two extremes of partisanship and linear voting and the consequent disillusionment, disenchantment, and non-participation?

How do we avoid this dichotomy between people who are either partisan and voting and thinking along a one-eyed theology and people who are so disaffected that they don’t participate and don’t pay attention? What do you think would be a way to remedy that?

LC: My generation has failed, and I think it would be presumptuous of me to give you the answer, though you certainly ask the right question. I am at the point where it’s easy to get fixated in the emotions. I don’t find it healthy even to look at a screen or listen to someone like John McCain for example. I just get livid, and Fox News could easily ruin day after day. I wish I could say that I could give it the time or day, but if I’m going to get upset, it’s not going to make any difference to anybody but me and I’ll have gastronomic problems and everything else. So I’m just too old to solve that problem. I am sympathetic to what you’re saying, and I guess if I had to force myself to give you an answer, but it’s just a guess, and that is, and I never thought I would admit this to anybody: Conservatives talk about the need for a constitutional convention. I don’t want to have one that they control, but on the other hand we must change our country to get our democracy back. We don’t have a democracy right now. We have an oligarchy funded in large part by those whose views do not shape policy.

We talked about the meaning of words. Everybody throws around the word democracy, but I have never heard democracy used quite as much as I did in the year that I lived in Beijing, where I saw even less evidence of the real thing. Everybody wants to be all for the people, but they’ve got a very big notion of how different it is, and now we are bought by the Koch brothers and we are bought by members of Congress on both sides and even some of my favorite people like Obama and Hillary have their big money suppliers too. It’s just really scary.

As far as marriage equality is concerned, that battle seems won at the government level. It will take 50 years to clean up, and heterosexism will cast a long shadow.

Racism is still fiercely alive and well in this country and classism is furious. The fact that we don’t even have any guilt about it, about children who don’t have enough food to eat … it’s an abomination.

ST: From my own perspective, bearing in mind a lot of what you’ve just said, because politics has become so moneyed and even before people are elected often and they’re successful entrepreneurs for themselves, millionaires, if not billionaires, and there’s a huge separation between the type of person entering politics and the people voting them into office.

I am troubled when Obama or any other public figure tells a story about someone that is supposed to be moving or inspirational. I find those stories to be condescending or pandering. It’s just a ploy to tug at the heart strings of the audience. I always feel this is exploitation.

LC: I agree with you, and I’ve noticed that the word narrative has about quadrupled its frequency in public discourse, so everybody wants to know how this fits into this narrative or that narrative sounds like a college English professors got out of jail.

On the other hand, for me as a Christian the most powerful things about scripture are the narratives, not the doctrines. Doctrines can mess you up, but the narratives can enrich your mind and your sensibilities. So I’m conflicted. I often like many of the stories public officials tell, but I do not like a patronizing tone. If anyone is entitled to be a patron, surely it’s the President of the United States, and maybe the Secretary of State.

ST: I have two more questions for you. After reading Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, I immediately believed that it should be mandatory, not only for a college student but for any high school student. It was revelatory for me at the time. Have you read it?

LC: I have not, but I am adding the title to my queue.

ST: The basic premise is that George Orwell was wrong with 1984 and that Aldous Huxley with A Brave New World was right. All are so self-absorbed with their hedonism that they don’t care for anything else going around. News has become infotainment; politicians wear makeup; and celebrities get groomed for film. The government doesn’t need to have surveillance because we’re so wrapped up in our own lives that we’re not likely to do anything to disturb the peace for politicians.

Social media add nuance to this state of affairs. The media bring many positive aspects, like what you were describing earlier, but they also have equal or greater room for many frivolous things, like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Consider the advent of drones, the huge amount of money we spend on the military, and the great deal of meddling the United States does internationally. I think that Postman was wrong to prefer one of these to the other. Aldous Huxley was right and at the same time Orwell was right: we have sweeping hedonism and at the same time we have a surveillance state. What is your opinion?

LC: I’m just the observer. I find what you say helpful, but I don’t have anything new to contribute. I’ll be quoting you. I find it compelling that both are right.

ST: I read both novels before I read Postman.

The NSA, the whistle-blowing by Snowden, the use of drones and satellites all suggest to me that both Orwell and Huxley are true in equal measure.

The last question I’m going to ask is a question about non-violence and violence in achieving positive political and social change. The Occupy movement prefers non-violence. Protests in the 1960s got a little violent in many key moments, but by and large were peaceful.

The Stonewall riot is a really good example of violence creating change. It resulted in a paradigm shift.

There’s a passage that I really like from the Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

This violent praxis is totalizing in the sense that each individual represents a violent link in the great chain in the almighty body of violence rearing up in reaction to the primary violence of the colonizer. So for me the colonizer would just be juxtaposed with the oppressive party. Factions recognize each other and the future nation is already indivisible. The armed struggled mobilizes people, i.e., it pitches them in a single direction from which there is no turning back. – page 50.

The Black Panthers and to a lesser extent Malcolm X used verbal violence, if not outright physical violence in the things they did. I believe that violent resistance or protest has as much a place as nonviolent. The choice of one over the other depends on the context. What is your your opinion in the context of your advocacy for the LGBTQ community?

LC: The police were the violent parties at Stonewall. They raided the gay bar frequently and ferociously. The law itself was violent. It denied queer folks the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. What was different at the Stonewall Inn was that the people resisted the violence, resisted the arrest. They did not acquiesce and whimper their way to jail. They rose up in protest against the lawful order of police officers and for that they were put into the squad car, arrested, had their names in the paper, many losing their jobs. The drag queens and all the others who resisted were not violent: The law and those who enforced it were violent.

Malcolm X understood the power of language. He knew the power of scaring the bully who always attributed to you a great deal more courage and power and strength than you had. He did not need to wield a gun or shoot at some: He was much more terrifying by speaking the truth to power.

When I taught in Fort Valley, Georgia, one afternoon I was going home from the campus on my Honda and needed to mail some letters at the local post office, right next to the police station, opposite the city hall. On the front porch of the police station, several policemen loitered. It was the end of a warm day. As I put my mail into the slot policemen started heckling me, “Louieeeeeee!” “Faggot!” “Louise….!” interspersed with guffaws.

It is virtually impossible to accelerate a still motorcycle without revving the engine, and yet I did not want my hecklers to think that they had upset me, even though they had. Still, you fall over if you don’t rev the engine, so I revved and rode off.

I thought to myself, I don’t like this, it feels like I’ve got excrement in my mouth.

So I turned the motorcycle around, revved again, returned to the police station, entered the driveway, drove to within two yards of the policemen still standing there, and said, “I want to speak to the chief, please.”

They all disappeared, and I said loudly, “Well if you’re going to be that afraid of me, my uncle is J. Edgar Hoover and I’m going to be in touch with him.”

I was lying.

A week or two later one of Ernest’s customers was getting her hair done and her father came to take her home. He brought with him a bottle of Scotch and offered us all cups. “We’re going to celebrate. It’s Friday,” he said.

After a few swigs, he said, “Louie I was working inside on the day you rode up to the police station. Do you want me to tell you what happened inside?”

Surely, I said.

He said, “They were amazed when you yelled back at them, with such authority and with such. Someone said, ‘I never heard a sissy talk like that!’”

The policemen heard a kind of power that I did not realize I had, a power called courage. Courage scares the bejesus out of bullies.

On a much grander scale than mine Malcolm X did the same. Malcolm X also increased Dr. King’s effectiveness by making King look to white adversaries like a black man who was safer to heed.

I watched fixedly when both King and Malcolm, giants of the human spirit, manifested courage. I was raised a racist. At that point I was not out of the closet. I had never gone to an integrated school. I had no exposure to black peers. Watching Malcolm on TV, some white people were praying, ‘Where’s Dr. King when we really need him? He just writes letters. We really need somebody or people like this really mean guy will burn down our homes.’

We racists projected on black leaders the same malevolence that we white people had manifested to black people for generations. Our chickens were coming home to roost.

I don’t sanction the use of violence. I’m a pacifist, as was Bayard Rustin, the Black gay Quaker who brilliantly organized the March on Washington. Earlier he had trained Dr. King in nonviolence.

It’s amazing what time will do to heal. One of the early personal encounters I had with violence was when the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, Bennett Sims, became angry that I would not leave when the church I attended asked me to find some other place more in sympathy with my concerns for gay people.

I was the only white member. I taught at the black University directly across the street from my parish, and I certainly didn’t want to attend the only other local parish, all-white, who would welcome my black husband even less.

The leaders of my parish called the bishop. The bishop’s main disturbance was the fact that I had told the newspaper, and they reported what my parish had advised me. The bishop said that I was disturbing the peace and good order of the church. I think they were.

“Louie,” he said to me after meeting with them, “I want you to promise me that you call me in advance before you ever go to the newspaper with reports of actions of the parish.” I agreed.

I remained at the parish and explained that Jesus is the one who invites me, and everyone else.

The rector would no longer share The Peace with me nor shake my hand at the door following the service.

Then another black parish, at which I had earlier been a member in South Carolina, wrote a letter saying that they didn’t understand and were were embarrassed by my parish’s unwelcome. They assured me that Earnest and I would be welcomed in their parish at anytime.

So I called the bishop and said, “Bishop, I’m going to release this letter. It documents that the rejection of me here is not racial: Both of these parishes are black. One says ‘Welcome!’ and the other says ‘Find some other place to worship.’”

The bishop replied, “But you promised me you would not release information to the papers again.”

“No, bishop, I promised that I would call you beforehand if ever I felt I should go to the papers.”

I did not need to release the welcome letter to the press. Without telling me, the bishop called The Atlanta Journal/Constitution. On Palm Sunday, it reported that the bishop had summoned me for discipline. The Associated Press picked up that story and distributed it all over the United States.

Years later the bishop changed his views the more gay and lesbian people he got to know. We became good friends. Even through our early differences he and I worked at friendship. I knew something was different about this guy. He wasn’t just yelling some theology; he was struggling. Each of us was willing to be vulnerable to the other.

The bishop was not like people who had sealed their minds for ever and ever and ever and are not going to hear a word you say.

At one point the bishop wrote to me and apologized, but he didn’t just apologize in the backroom: In 1991 he came to the House of Bishops out of retirement and confessed that his 1979 book which had shaped the church’s official negative position was wrong.

The bishop died in August 2006. He had left instructions to his widow, his second wife, that I was to read scripture at his service of his interment.

You prompted me to remember this story with your question about non-violence and violence. I’m a Southern boy. I was taught to speak pleasantries. In dealing with a bishop, you’re supposed to say only “It’s nice” or keep your mouth shut. Yet I knew I couldn’t do that because I knew the bishop was wrong. I had to stand up to him to authenticate my respect for him as a person who could make fairer decisions.

At the 1994 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, I preached and the bishop was the celebrant. “I want to tell this audience how kind he was to me,” he said, and remembering my audacity to confront him, I objected, “You can’t believe that I was kind!” but he replied, “You were. I now realize the violence I was doing to you, and yet you remained kind and loving to me.”

Christianity is a weird religion – and excuse me for proselytizing or whatever – but you have to love your enemy. We will be judged for that, not for loving just your friends. Oh that most conflicts would end in lovefests!

ST: Right, I think that’s a human capacity, the potential to grow, even if you are in the midst of a conflict with someone at the same time that you engage the person, resist, and stand up for yourself. Your love and compassion grant the two of you a mutual understanding and even a certain friendliness even when you are not seeing eye to eye.


Louie Crew Clay, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers, has received three honorary doctorates citing his writing (2,460 items to date).  He has been a fellow at the Ragdale Foundation and at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation.  In November Seabury Press will publish Letters from Samaria:  Poetry and Prose by Louie Crew Clay.

He lives in East Orange, NJ, with Ernest Clay, his husband of 41 years.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Crew