Graduate student explores gay literature’s contributions to social movements, canon

When Percy Shelley called poets “the world’s unrecognized legislators”, he was perhaps anticipating the future poetic argument that would pit those interested in form as a matter of primary aesthetics against those who see poetry through a political/social lens.

Eric Sneathen, a graduate student in literature, agrees that aesthetics and politics are largely inextricable, but his own research is closer to exploring the political.

“I’m much more interested in literary history and archival work,” says Sneathen. “I like to talk to people about their lived experience and then analyze how it fits or doesn’t fit the literary canon.”

Specifically, Sneathen, who is gay, explores how gay men, beginning in the 1960s, formed a literary community, writing or curating poems and other literary works about their experiences, and how this community informed movements more recent social issues around gay identity.

“It was a conscious homosexual literary culture,” Sneathen says of a movement in the Bay Area after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. “They had their own presses, their own networks, and their own literary celebrities.”

Sneathen thinks of literary personalities like Robert Gluck, Kevin Killian, Paul Mariah and Donald Allen. All four were prominent players in the burgeoning gay literary scene in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s.

“They’re not necessarily famous writers,” Sneathen says. “But one of the arguments I make in my thesis is that we should know who these people are and I explore why they have become marginalized.”

Take Donald Allen in particular.

He was not a poet himself, but as a publisher he championed the work of many of the most famous literary artists of his time.

“He was an editor and a tastemaker,” Sneathen says. “We don’t usually talk about editors the same way we talk about writers, but that’s down to our deficit.”

Allen worked for 16 years at Grove Press and was hugely influential in what the imprint brought to the press, including translating French playwright Eugene Ionesco’s famous absurd dramas. He has edited the works of poet Frank O’Hara, a dynamic poetic talent and leader of the New York School of poetry. But Allen spent much of his adult career in San Francisco, where he helped edit gay poetry and prose, but also helped shape the work of authors like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Charles Olsen, Joanne Kyger and Richard Brautigan.

“A common thread running through my argument is that across the underground gay community, people like Allen have tapped into their social lives to produce gay literature, but even straight poets like Charles Olsen have entered the orbit of Allen through his connection to gay poets,” Sneathen said.

Thus, Sneathen’s book is not so much an investigation of the aesthetic concerns of gay literary culture in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s as an investigation of how the social milieu of the social movement helped produce a distinctive literary movement.

“When you get to the social movement writers of the ’70s, sometimes they write from that confessional mode of expression and they’re shunned as a result,” Sneathen says. “They didn’t reach those impersonal standards of the various avant-garde movements of the time. There was a tension between the avant-garde, which argued for the suppression of the personal, and minority writers and feminists, who insisted that the personal and the political were inextricable.

Sneathen’s work also explores how one movement was sanctioned by the academy as canon, while the other movement was considered fringe with its inclusion considered questionable.

“I think gay literature, like feminist literature or ethnic literature, was seen as a supplement to canonical literature,” Sneathen says. “That may be true of course, but it may also be true that the contributions of gay writers are fundamental to the canon as we know it.”

But as Sneathen struggles with “questions about authorship and literary production,” he is also busy producing his own literary works. At the end of the month, a book by Camille Roy edited by Sneathen should be released. Called honey minethe book is a collection of experimental short stories with explicitly lesbian and queer themes.

He published a book of poetry titled Snail Poems, calling it an extended elegy for a friend who died in Morocco while working for the U.S. Peace Corps. He wrote another chapbook I fill this room with the echo of many voicesa collection of sonnets that explores the unjust stigmatization of Gaetan Dugas, who has been misidentified as “Patient Zero” for the North American AIDS epidemic.

Sneathen says the poems allowed her to wrestle with the implications of perceptions around a historical figure, which allowed her to contextualize her own biography. Growing up in San Diego, he realized as early as sixth grade that he was “very clearly attracted to men.”

“I came out to two close friends in 8th grade and was very quiet until about 10th grade,” he says.

Then he came out more generally in front of his entire class, an uncommon move at the time, but one that had profound implications for his creative work and scholarship, both of which continue apace.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work on books about specific issues in my own life and have my writing around those issues and issues interest other people,” he says.

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