3 min

One anthology at a time

As a kid I knew nothing of gay life beyond what I read in books, but I could spot the word “homosexual” at 60 paces. All I had to do was gaze at a page of type and the words “homo” or “sex” or “sexual” would spring out at me.

Ditto for gay faces. Time Magazine once ran a lengthy and very homophobic cover story on gays. Pictures of half a dozen experts ran across the top of a two-page spread and while they all looked the same —white, male and middle-aged —and none of them was identified in captions below, I knew immediately which ones were gay. They had a haunted, feral quality that I knew instinctively meant gay.

You can call this gaydar if you want, but I think it’s much closer to cultural reconstruction built on desperation. You want to belong and so you create a place or a community where you do.

People who argue that homos didn’t really exist before a certain point in time because history hadn’t yet created the category “homo-sexual” are missing the point. All history is a reconstruction, a fabrication produced from fragmentary facts and much supposition. Deny that idea and you’re lost in the void. If you can’t believe in the imagination, you may not have much to believe in. As a prominent biblical scholar once remarked, “If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.”

As much as history creates us, we create history. It’s an act of force, determination and imagination. We make ourselves exist.

That’s why I’m absolutely thrilled to see a new anthology from Arsenal Pulp Press called Seminal. It’s a collection of gay male Canadian poetry and it does an absolutely splendid job of creating a world that didn’t exist before.

There’s a massive and misleading typo in one of the poems (John Glassco’s haunting “Villanelle”) and some of the selections are questionable. Why RM Vaughan’s potato chip poem but not his Bed Poems suite? Still, the historical reach is enviable.

There have been other books devoted to gay poetry in general, one devoted to gay Canadian plays in particular (Making, Out) and even a book of criticism devoted to queer Canadiana (Peter Dickinson’s Here Is Queer), but never a poetry anthology that’s pushed so far into the gay Canadian past.

There are some 57 poets in the book and almost half came of age during Stonewall or after, but from a historical point of view the most interesting are the earliest; figures like Frank Oliver Call, Patrick Anderson, John Glassco and the contrasting characters of Robert Finch (1900-1995) and Edward Lacey (1937-1995).

Finch taught French at the University Of Toronto for 40 years, published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and won the Governor General’s Award twice, in 1946 and 1961, but was never out during his lifetime (it’s a salutary surprise to see him included here). Lacey was almost effusively the opposite, publishing in 1965 what is now considered the first book of openly gay poetry, a tiny unpaginated volume called The Forms Of Loss.

A devoted expatriate who cordially loathed Canada (see the cracks about snow in “Canadian Sonnets”), Lacey pursued sex through any number of hot-weather climes and crowded his poems with so much sex and alienation that they can seem boringly contemporary, when actually he’s an exotic reminder of a time, not so long ago, when gay life was practically synonymous with a life lived abroad.

Finch, on the other hand, was the establishment figure, perhaps too much so. A classicist in a confessional age, he’s out of fashion now, his hard-edged lyrics a little too hard to unpack. Compared to a loose, conversational poet like, say, Sky Gilbert (whose very funny poem about June Allyson and ass-fucking is also included), Finch can seem tight to the point of constipation.

Still, he wrote one of the first and wittiest takes on gay cruising ever written in Canada (“Egg And Dart,” first published in a magazine in 1929 and in a book in 1936), and even his most abstract odes are drenched in sensuality.

Yet without the hard work of people like Seminal editors John Barton and Billeh Nickerson, most of this work might as well not exist. Both Finch and Lacey are largely out of print, their work confined to libraries, used bookstores and the faded memories of old queens. Until I read “Egg And Dart” in Seminal, I hadn’t seen it in any publication more recent than Finch’s first collection of poems, published in 1946 and long out of print. There is exactly one circulating copy of that book in the Toronto Public Library and it seems to have disappeared. When I tried to reserve it, it never appeared. It’s a small book and I assume it fell through the cracks — literally.

It’s a valuable reminder that culture doesn’t happen by accident and a single careless accident can cause a major loss. If you want a culture and a space in which to belong, you have to coddle, curate and even create it.