I suppose it’s rather serendipitous that the newest edition of Pleiades — to give you an idea of the kind of timeline literary journals operate on: I got this subscription as a package deal with my submission fee to a manuscript contest back in September — contains a written symposium by noted poets and critics on the subject of “risk” in poetry. I started reading that particular stretch of pages during commercial breaks between Sochi events this past week, as if I hoped — or assumed — that doing so would automatically, autonomously, provide some context to what I was witnessing.
Each parallels the other: Olympic athletes risk much by attending the games in the first place. They dare injury, failure and the prospect that they may not be as good as they think, or others think, they are. (I remember during the 2012 summer games, a once-dominant female gymnast wiping out and failing to move past the qualifying round.)
Attending Sochi, as it has been written extensively and elsewhere, carries with it an extra, more impactful risk, as Russia’s stance on homosexuality clouds the outlook on what should be nothing short of celebratory proceedings. The United States and other nations have made considerable efforts to subvert such elements: neither the president nor the vice president are attending, and a major Olympic sponsor recently released a commercial stating that they are “proud of ALL our Olympic athletes.” The emphasis is theirs, and I don’t think the implications of the word “all” should be taken lightly at all here.
Poetry carries similar risks: each time we sit down to write, or to submit, we open ourselves up to criticism, to judgment, the most difficult types of which can stem from within us. In that light, we can say that the danger is diminished, that we truly risk little. When writing about Michael Benedikt’s “Of Poetry, My Friend,” John Gallaher says “Risk in American poetry these days is rarely a personal risk. No one’s getting deported or shot in American over their poems — at least not that I’ve heard of.”
I agree, to a large extent. Whenever I hear of American poets writing of “risk,” I can’t help but think of an artist that Anthony Bourdain spent some time with in Amsterdam during an old episode of “No Reservations;” his show mainly consisted of him screaming through a toy bullhorn at a stageful of fluorescently-clad extras and the occasional pile of Jell-O, I think.
Especially damning to himself were the scenes the production team — I admit, not this lunatic’s fault — chose to air underneath voiceovers by both Bourdain and himself. They primarily featured him scrawling the word “Revolution” in squeeze-paint over a series of disjointed magazine cuttings and smears. It seemed contrived at best, pathetic at worst.
Of course there’s the language barrier to consider, but maybe it’s just that the term “revolution” doesn’t carry the sort of weight that it used to or, at least, that we remember it carrying; once Miranda Lambert releases an album titled “Revolution,” I think we can consider that ship having officially sailed.
Apathy, I think, has something to do with it, this tendency of ours to skirt the revolution taking place before our very eyes, while simultaneously celebrating that which is much more convenient to consider “revolutionary,” which in doing so allows us to claim some modicum of forward thinking while at the same time not offending our haggard sensibilities. It’s a long-winded synonym for hypocrisy.
Think of the story that broke just today, of top NFL draft pick Michael Sam coming out as homosexual. In coordinated interviews with the New York Times and other outlets, the 6’2”, 255-pound defensive back was open, relaxed and to the point regarding his sexuality. He is a man comfortable in his own skin, even as he remains aware of the difficulties such a skin has brought him, and will, unfortunately, continue to bring him.
On the surface, the NFL is supportive, tweeting out and releasing statements along the lines of “Anyone with skill and determination can make it in the NFL,” “We admire and applaud the bravery of Michael Sam,” along with other make-nice sound-bites crowd-sourced among a boardroom full of middle-aged straight men. Some will say “I get it; for the NFL, it’s a balancing act, a delicate line to walk.” I see where these people are coming from; marriage equality and general acceptance of homosexuality has cleared the hump in terms of public opinion in America, and while the NFL lords over one of this nation’s favorite pastimes, it is, unfortunately, probably the one that most continues to perpetuate an ultra-macho, gay-wary subculture. Owners and coaches, under strict terms of anonymity, are behaving predictably, cowering under the familiar, “Well, it doesn’t bother me, but it might bother the players on my team.”
To these people, I also say: so the hell what? The NFL, for better or for worse, has the power to affect, acknowledge and perpetuate change in the last vestiges of gay wariness that exist in this nation’s popular culture. Will the movement towards universal equality be impeded or accelerated one way or the other? Not measurably, no. Like I said: public opinion. But it puts one of this nation’s most high-profile organizations under an especially intense microscope, and that is never a bad thing.
PR will, I’m fairly certain, win the day. And if that’s what it takes, fine. But we have yet to call ourselves out on our own complacency — how many of us would be outraged, disgusted or mildly irritated for more than a few minutes if no NFL team drafted Sam? Don’t answer; I’m not in the mood. But we would reflect on those few minutes, indignant quota fulfilled, and take a larger measure of comfort than we should in the knowledge that we have bothered to risk making trouble for ourselves.