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Poet's Mantra: 'I Am Wussy Boy, Hear Me Roar (Meow!)'

Eirik Ott has 'outed' himself as sensitive and made it cool to eschew all things macho.

August 27, 2000|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Initially, Eirik Ott set out only to save himself. But now, just over a year later, the Bakersfield native is ground zero of a budding movement spreading not just through the esoteric realm of American slam poets, but edging across the globe.

Visualize a match tossed on the dry tinder of American masculinity, with Ott as the match, his win at last year's National Poetry Slam the toss and hundreds of men resonating to Ott's words the tinder. His poetry has been called "exuberantly defiant" by New York critics and the Reader's Guide to the Underground Press declared "R. Eirik Ott is, without hype or exaggeration, one of today's best creators of underground literature."

So, who is this buzz-cut Californian and what does he want? The 33-year-old, 5-foot-5, 160-pound Ott wants to be a wuss. No, more; he wants to proclaim wussy pride.

What exactly is a wuss? He is a man "unafraid of earrings and hair dye. A wuss is a sensitive man who embraces feminism and alternative cultures, and is proud of standing apart from American masculine norms," says Ott.

"As soon as you mention 'Sixteen Candles' and 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' people are like, 'We are brothers and just have this unspoken sense of connection,' " says Ott of the film heroes, who win through guile and charm rather than fists. A wuss, he says, doesn't like "girls who fit into the patriarchal mode of femininity: tiny bikini, big plastic boobs, fake tans." Instead, a wuss would prefer to hang around with a Winona Ryder, "someone with whom you could have an intelligent conversation."

"So many wusses in America are just a beaten-down populace," he explains. When performing the "Wussy Boy Manifesto," "you'll just see this glow of empowerment in the audience." The wuss once taunted in high school for not being "man enough" has launched his own magazine, the 60-odd page Wussy Boy Chronicles, and has a Web site, http://www.wussyboy.org.

"It's taken me a long time to admit it," wrote Ott in his premiere issue, the first of three thus far. "I remember shouting in high school, 'No, Dad, I'm not gay!' I tried to like cars and jet planes and football and Budweiser poster girls, but I never got the hang of it.

"Now I am no longer ashamed of my wussiness. No, I'm empowered by it. I am Wussy Boy, hear me roar (meow)." It's a "meow" being heard far and wide.

Mike Henry, who grew up in an Oklahoma town playing football and drag racing "between the Sonic Drive-In and Hardee's" felt a "huge affinity" when he first heard Ott. "He put a name to feelings I had," he says. So, rather than "driving around in circles, going nowhere," Henry, 32, moved to Austin, Texas, and became a wuss poet.

Oakland psychiatrist Terry Kupers, author of "Revisioning Men's Lives" (Guilford Press, 1993), says Ott has hit on the same formula used by American colonists, who transformed the derisive English term "Yankee" into a source of pride, as in "Yankee Doodle," poking fun at British arrogance. The "black is beautiful" and gay pride movements followed similar strategies.

Ott is giving nontraditional men their turn. Moreover, says Kupers, the wuss movement is helping men set positive goals. "When men first supported women's liberation, they wanted to end domestic violence, to stop date rape. But what did they want for themselves?"

The movement is helping provide answers. Many straight men long for meaningful peer friendships, but "the unspoken rule still is, it's better to keep feelings locked in than give others the impression they are gay," says Kupers. "Men invariably view themselves at the top or bottom of some hierarchy--and if at the top, needing to remain vigilant lest they fall, or be thrown, to the bottom." Fenced in by emotional land mines, he says, many straight men reassure themselves through "sexism, toxic hyper-masculinity and homophobia."

Judith Stacey, a sociology professor at USC, agrees that modern social stresses have "increasingly caused boys to put themselves at great risk to demonstrate masculinity. Macho displays like drunken driving are particularly prevalent among those who don't have a clear avenue of success, such as education."

Unlike women, who accept their femininity as a given, "Men see their masculinity as more fragile, tenuous, something that needs to be constantly proven rather than assumed," she says. Ott sensed this in his own life. He grew up on the straight and narrow, "joining the Navy to impress my dad, show him the kind of man I was," After six years, however, he realized, "I had gone to escape my father, and was surrounded by my father." Leaving the Navy, Ott earned a bachelor's degree at Cal State Chico, with a specialty in journalism. He then set out to prove himself in the only way he knew how--as a poet proclaiming his truth to a skeptical world.

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