Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Robert Andrew Perez, On Productive Ambivalence, Or Liminality, Or 27 Notes on Butch Kween Poetics

As I muse on (American) gay poetics and anti-racist poetry in an era that Brian Ang so astutely conceptualizes as post-crisis, that is post the 2008 economic crisis, I couldn’t help but interrogate how—or whether or not—I engage queer identity and anti-racism in my own writing. I began to ideate about this topic last week while I was concurrently in the throes of planning my Folsom Street Fair look/lewk/lqqk. Regarding my outfit, I was filled with, not an anxiety exactly, but an ambivalence around how I wanted to present gender-wise. I had bought a gold lamé dress and had barely dipped into my drawer full of virtually unused make-up for drag, yet conversely a part of me wanted to engage in a hyper-masculine version of myself, too. I desired to be pretty but this was complicated by my desire to be desired, which, is tied to a gay community that largely champions certain antiquated notions of masculinity we’ve been gifted by dominant culture. In this ambivalence, I was constantly unsettled by my cis-privilege (for instance, I can make these decisions about my gender presentation and remain relatively safe) and was beholden to the social insistence that masc(ulinity) makes one hotter; I couldn’t disentangle my competing impulses from toxic programming. The leather fest in astounding ways challenges and reimagines many of these social systems and opportunes stages for a variety of subcultures that push back on them, but in ways the kink community is still a very white community, so add on top of this waffling of markers of gender my stereotype threat (the fear a member of a certain social group has that he or she is fulfilling a stereotype of that group). By feminizing myself, was I de-sexualizing myself thus enacting the role of a submissive Asian man or Asian man devoid of sexual potency? Don’t I have to be extra-masculine to read as having any masculinity (white mediocrity)? How is this stereotype refigured for Filipino gay men? These calculations, though intensified by Folsom, are always present. They keep my identity, my consciousness, in a liminal flux. I am always between things.

Of course, then, my poetics are informed by my daily psychic negotiations with culture. My book, the field, opens with this poem:
my friends are writing poems for/about their kids, and here i am
still writing about fucking guys and fucking losing guys and fucking
loser guys and fucking loose guys, fucking losing loose, loser
guys. i do write about milk, but not breast milk. i’m more like
that dancing milk carton from the coffee and tv music video—at the end
i float to heaven with a strawberry milk carton, underscored by organ
music, except it’s hell. pre-fire, that is to say before the kiln, the shape
of the vase fully formed. formed fully and undone, my state, figuratively,
is pre-fire. i carry the threat of combustion; all i need is sapphire.
let’s think back to seeing nicole richie in a papasan in the westwood
urban outfitters. she corroborates my impulse to buy a blue jacket
i’ll never wear, but in that moment i feel the burn of stardom. no one
knows me or nicole anymore. the preeminent callipygian, kim kardashian,
smatters minstrelsy on paper. destiny’s progeny has a name for this:
jelly. we eat pulverized bone because purple is a flavor and grape is never
funny. with everything falling apart, why can’t the monolith of patriarchy?
just because i care, i can never write a good poem for womyn. i watch
shonda rimes because i care about race and gender. because i love soap.
to drop it. before i knew erasure did it first, i assumed wheatus wrote
the lines: i try to discover a little something to make me sweeter.
oh baby refrain from breaking my heart. anything successfully invisible is
also indelible. therefore i love him not. something partly loved, then,
is able to be smeared and eventually wiped clean away. the children
i never have and the poems i never write, therefore, i fully love them.
My poetry often lacks the vestiges of poetry that tackle race and queerness head-on, but race and sexuality is something that the speaker in this first poem is preoccupied with in his betweenness—between guys, between failure and potential, between student loan payments, between the trivial and the not-so-trivial. The speaker dies, goes to heaven which is hell, and hell is earth, so he never really dies—purgatory, the original liminal space. The speaker bemoans his romantic life and lack of success which spirals into his resentment for the patriarchy. It’s glib and dim, but there’s a hopefulness there. Watching television helmed by women of color provides the speaker with hope. Admission of failure engenders potential, breeds resiliency.

Some of the worst poems I’ve written were when I was trying to say something about race and/or sexuality; I think I sounded too didactic or preachy or jargonistic for my aesthetic. That is not to say there isn’t room in my writing or reading practice for discursive impulses, rather I recognize a failure in myself to be artful the moments I succumb to the seductive trappings of discourse. I believe it’s just a matter of tempering these impulses with strangeness that defamiliarizes the language—to make the truth ring louder by alienating it from a dull and safe semantic casing. For instance, Chris Nealon’s Heteronomy is a testament to one way of estrangement, with its digressive, essayistic limber lyricism. He writes in a newer poem, You Surround Me, featured on PEN America:
To feel surrounded – to be shot through –
Freud called it paranoia: fear that all the labor of the making of your unitary body could be undone
Undone by the river of desire – “river” here in general meaning homosexuality –
          That was 1922
By 1968 Guy Hocquenghem is having none of it – homosexuals aren’t paranoid, queerness is relief from paranoia – from the fear of not being normal,
          It’s waving not drowning,
And it prefigures the undoing of hetero and homo both– perversion universal – the end of capital
          That was 1968
But the jokes are still funny – “No one ever threatens to take away your anus” –
See how his intellect dances and how pop culture, chatter and theory rub up against each other? This is also liminal poetry.

Which brings us back to the question of gender. I learned a phrase this past year that resonates with me: Butch Queen/Kween. The origin of the phrase can be traced to Ball Culture (competitive black queer drag houses) as far back as the 60s and has colloquially evolved to mean a gay man who represents both masculine and feminine simultaneously or more masculine or more feminine from moment to moment. I believe there is an elasticity to the term that extends this to more gender queer and trans individuals than just gay men. So the question is: what is a gay poetry that is adequate to the present (post-viral video, post-police body camera, post-drone, post-Pulse night club)? I believe the hope is nested, braided into this notion of Butch Kweendom. Why is this distinction—gay poetry as opposed to Butch Kween Poetry—important? Because Mark Doty can’t turn off his orientalist impulses without kicking and screaming. Because trans folk of color experience violence at horrifically disproportionate rates. Because Black Americans are murdered by the state. Because we need a new gay poetry that rejects the whiteness it has historically favored and refigures its middling queerness.


The Butch Kweendom is intersectional.

The Butch Kween Poet knows that liminality is the lifeblood of the poet, like most poets should know, but knows liminality intimately as a daily practice. The BKP knows poetry is upper limit music and lower limit speech. The BKP knows how to text with emojis. That texting is upper limit speech, lower limit prose. Texting is cousin/cuzzin to poetry.

The Butch Kween Poet knows to have a body is to know betrayal.

The Butch Kween Poet is concerned with the body but like many poets insistent on its dematerialization. The disembodied voice is a hope, an aim for the speaker in Butch Kween Poetics. However, the Butch Kween Poet knows that the poetics of disembodiment is the poetics of privilege because the Butch Kween is interpellated, hailed.

The Butch Kween Poet knows repressive apparatuses. The Butch Kween Poet knows institutional apparatuses. The Butch Kween Poet is a bad subject. The Butch Kween Poet sees the state. Spits in his face.

The Butch Kween Poet is barred from the Academy. Or the BPK was born and thus expelled from the Academy.

Butch Kween Poet knows she’s abject. Knowledge of that abjection is a consciousness that empowers her.

The Butch Kween Poet can be discursive without falling into its traps. The BKP is always political. She’s nasty.

One cannot alienate or disassociate the racial valences of Butch Kweendom from the Butch Kween Poet.

It is yet to be determined that a Butch Kween can be white but she rejects whiteness. Traditional gay poetics harbor the orientalist and traffic in the fetishism of bodies of color. The BKP has no time for that.

The BPK has no time for Kenneth Goldsmith.

The Butch Kween enters a white space to contaminate it with fabulousness. The discomfort is tea, is a mirror held up to whiteness. Rob Halpern might say the Butch Kween Poet makes the secrecy of private life perceptible to make the secrecy of state violence perceptible.

Darrian Wesley is a Butch Kween Poet. Read this Butch Kween Poet’s poem, Butch Queen Shade:
Forthrightly, I could not risk missing
another flight home from ATL after
the unofficial pride weekend so I made
my cheeks clap clutch as a tucked BBC
until boarding time. Every fasting bottom
gets hungry after deep south dick. Those
pounds of candied yams and fatback
collards that didn’t stick to my bones made
my bowels fleet like a draining pot
of macaroni. I got on the plane timely,
carryon strapped, with Group C while a first
flight eye witness steward was fracturing ice
with a coke bottle. We’ve all interrupted
that religion with the imminent career
question, “Where’s the bathroom?” That Butch
Queen’s dagger eyes drew, voice rumbled:
“To the left. Hurry-up. We can’t take off
until you’re out.” I know enough not to
drop a bomb before the flight takes off.
But I dropped one anyway. Yes, and flushed two
times to signify I was not shitting around
with anyone’s ego. I synchronized
my hands in soapy water like a Pentecostal
preacher before communion, left the lid up
and shantey-sashayed to my first class seat
so all but me could smell my Soul Food cooking.
The Butch Kween Poet is a soothsayer. Phillip B. Williams is a Butch Kween Poet. This BKP wrote:
What we don’t like we consider
an intrusion in our life. [Such is skin],
no place for a boy to go, strange culture
that takes our sons. Let it kill him.
There are Butch Kween Poets awakening (woking) all the time like slayers.

Langston Hughes was a proto-Butch Kween Poet.

Women can be Butch Kween Poets.

The Butch Kween Poet might be poor. Might have student loans. Despises neoliberalism.

The Butch Kween Poet of color knows white supremacy enacts violence over non-black POC differently than it does black folks. The BPK sees anti-blackness and stamps it out.

The Butch Kween Poet is between states. She straddles barriers. The dreamscape is a liminality (to be woke is to once dream). The psychedelic trip is a liminality. Being mixed-race is a liminality. Being an immigrant is a liminality.

The Butch Kween Poet knows identity is iterative. Gender is performative. The Butch Kween has read Judith Butler or at least knows heterosexuality presupposes homosexuality.

The Butch Kween Poet may have lived outside of America, therefore can see America for what it is. The truth is the BKP is always outside America because she has been dispossessed by America. The Butch Kween Poet is also a colonized subject.

The Butch Kween Poet has been discriminated against on Grindr. The BKP is too fat. Too fem. Black. Asian. Latino. Combinations thereof.

The Butch Kween Poet contains multitudes, but knows though an abolitionist Walt Whitman was definitely still racist af. She sees his democratic-vistas-ass. #next

The Butch Kween Poet knows the golden girls. The girls of Set It Off. The girls of Steel Magnolias. Both versions. She knows all the girls she is and the girls she’s been denied to be.

The Butch Kween Poet is a codeswitcher. Butch Kween Poetry can move between registers. The BKP is dualistic.

Dematerialize the body. Body jump. Live in the body. Die in the body. The Butch Kween Poet’s body is always in emergence.


This list is ongoing, perpetually in negotiations. It isn’t a manifesto, it’s a byproduct of middle being, being in the middle. It is a list necessarily changeable.

Don’t we deserve a gay poetics that acknowledges the daily traumas the queer body of color endures? A poetics that problematizes the psychic and physical violences the queer body has to navigate around/through that traditional gay poetics tacitly disavows? Butch Kween Poetics as I’ve started to conceptualize here is a space in which the troubled gay writer of color can reassemble subjectivity in a tradition that has been predominantly cis-white. The Butch Kween Poet was killed in Orlando and wrote about that death. What if we had a poetics that acknowledged the body’s corporeal limitations only to vanquish them with ferocity? Read: a poetics that slays, henny.

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