Male experience poetry? "That's like Indians asking the white man, 'What do you think?' " said Beverly Baker at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana on Tuesday as she awaited the start of a poetry reading by men about men's experiences.
Baker, a computer industry executive and member of the museum, said she had come out of curiosity. "I thought men dominated the genre anyway and it was only 'lady' poets who got special attention," she said. "I wanted to see what would make this poetry specifically male."
What she and a few dozen other men and women heard were poems about boyhood, dogs, bars, fighting, the draft, dependency, divorce, and sex--sex with girlfriends, wives, and other men. They also heard jibes about "liberated" women and men.
The six local poets who read their work were among the 42 men featured in "Men Talk," a thin anthology of poems that its editors claim is the first collection of poems devoted exclusively to male issues. The book was created and edited by Elliot Fried, a Cal State Long Beach English professor, and Barry Singer, a graduate teaching fellow in computer science at the University of Oregon. Singer is also the former "Psychology of Sex" professor who left Cal State Long Beach three years ago amid controversy over optional "sexual homework" he had assigned students in his class.
"Men Talk," published in June by Pacific House Books, was created to parallel the exploration of sex-oriented issues and roles accomplished by feminist poets in recent years, said Fried. While searching for examples of male expressiveness to help men students become more articulate, he and Singer had found a dearth of poems in the genre. In fact, they note in the book's introduction, there was no genre.
Fried said he solicited poets whose work he wanted to appear, such as James Dickey (a prominent poet and author of "Deliverance"), and also advertised in poetry magazines. Of more than 1,000 poems he received, Fried said he chose the best quality poems for publication, regardless of theme. While many contributors are published poets or professors, the anthology is not academic and the poets come from diverse backgrounds ranging from construction to law and psychology, said Fried.
Most of the poets who participated in the Tuesday reading, sponsored by Electrum Magazine, were professors in their 40s, affiliated with Cal State Long Beach. Their poetic sentiments ranged from the bitter ("When she was around, my depression began the day after Thanksgiving and lasted until July") to the joyful and nostalgic (a soft-shoe performance and an a cappella rendition of Johnny Ray's 1950s hit song "Cry") and the resigned ("Someone else called the signals. He learned to take it like a man.").
The poems were clearly autobiographical. Some mentioned one another by name in their poems. Several interrupted their readings with personal remarks such as: "There's truth to that!" "That was horrible" and "Did you see that movie?"
Would Offer Insights
Baker said she hoped the men would offer insights into the upheaval in male/female relations in the last 20 years. And many of the men did describe their feelings of ambivalence or anger from failed relationships.
Charles Stetler, a tall, gray-haired English teacher, read:
After being married for 190 years I enjoyed the quiet of divorce so much I got worried . . . .
The poem goes on to describe his anxiety over asking a woman out on the telephone.
Okay. again the road to romance via area codes.
she was home. amenities. pleasant. chit-chat.
Saturday? sorry, love to, but we're going skiing.
next week? o, golly, chas, i've got relatives
coming in. but let's keep in touch okay?
right, but let's not plan too far ahead.
One poet confessed a chilling awareness of his ability to wound a woman in return. Gerald Locklin, 44, an English professor at Cal State Long Beach and author of several published volumes of poetry, read:
i know she is hypersensitive
about her athletic stature. . . .
so i never miss a chance to allude to
farmers' daughters, sturdiness
good breeders and germanic stock;
and since i know she is insanely jealous,
i seldom let an evening go by
without mention of some beautiful
and temporarily available woman. . . .
if she were a puritan,
i'd ridicule her for that
but since she . . .
has few inhibitions,
i do my best to make her feel
like a nymphomaniac.
these are ways in which i keep her
anxious, humble and dependent.
these are the ways in which i punish her.
and what was her offense:
that she restored my confidence
when i was nearly broken
on the rack.
Locklin, a bearded, heavyset and tousled man, also defended the super-macho movie character, Billy Jack, and chided "liberated women":
. . . i get asked out all the time by women.
all men do nowadays. . . .
she has worried that i would ask women out,
but for all her support of women's rights,
it has never occurred to her
that these liberated women might be asking out
her man. . . .