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On Saturday, Oct. 12, Karl Tierney’s literary executor, Jim Cory, will appear at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mount Airy to talk about Karl, read from the book of poems — Have You Seen This Man ( Sibling Rivalry Press) — and answer questions. The reading/presentation starts at 7 PM. Big Blue Marble is located 551 Carpenter Lane in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. To get there from Center City, take the Chestnut Hill West six stops to Carpenter Lane and the store is a five minute walk down the street. Jim is a resident of Center City, Philadelphia.

 

Jim’s an old friend and I’ll be introducing him at the bookstore. This is a version of a review that is forthcoming from This Way Out, the international queer radio syndicate.

 

When I began reading Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney (2019 Sibling Rivalry Press), I thought the poems of Karl Tierney might be tragic, but instead found them tragically funny – in a way that often makes the soul snicker. I thought the poetry might be tragic because they were brought to us by tragic circumstances.  The editor was friend and literary executor of the author Karl Tierney who in 1994 became sick with AIDs and took his own life in 1995 when he was 39-years old.  The editor, Jim Cory, is a noted poet and essayist in his own right.

Tierney never had a book published during his lifetime, but his poems were published in auspicious places such as the American Poetry Review and Exquisite Corpse.

Karl Tierney as a poet also had his serious side. In the poem “Gertrude Stein to Alice B. Toklas,” he adopts Gertrude’s voice and writes in part of the poem:

 

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Our car is …beautiful and blue

and we are beautiful and not blue

and we are fast driving

and do not feel a bit dangerous or dirty.

We have the radio on

 

In his poems about gay life in San Francisco where he lived, Karl turned his keen poetic observations on life around him.  In “Adonis At The Swimming Pool,” Karl starts with:

 

“Who dances his thighs across the pool’s water,

spread on a mattress bloated from his breath.

 

Whose ripe-with-sun skin cuts through the spray

With the alingual grace of a kiss to my brow.”

 

….

And ends with:

“Whose wet curls stroke the evening’s earliest gasp

into naughty tones and murmurs of lust.

 

Who would have me discussed in seedy cafés

and ruin me since I’m deaf to this hiss

behind the teeth in that insipid smile.”

 

From Tierney’s take on “lipstick lesbians,” MacDonna, and gay life in the Castro at a certain point in time, I found Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney (from Sibling Rivalry Press) to be a page-turner of a good read.

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“To the queerest person I know.”

This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different. I read books rather than watching the TV. I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball. Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community. This was before we had the term LGBT. I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend who embraced the term. She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society. In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or “het,” as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned. My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me, “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.” So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I, are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.” Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different. We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen. The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school. High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced. He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again. High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully:

“I now had the power over him. I was in control. In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”

But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39. It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths. It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on. They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march. Over my shoulder. By my desk. In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:

“For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt. And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

previously in The Huffington Post

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