Letter To a Queer Cultural Ancestor: ALLEN GINSBERG

Dear Allen Ginsberg,

It was 2010 when I first found you, I was 17, borderline homeless, brainwashed by the religious machine known as the Wesleyan Church and had been actively in the closet for 5 years. The old man working at the book shop had brought me to the section of the store on beat poetry after I specifically requested, as I try to recall from memory, “Something just as helpful as self-help books without all the mushy, religious stuff.” We had learned about some beat poetry in school at the time and I had possibly been assigned to read HOWL at one point but, to be honest, I was working 2 jobs plus high school so my mind was elsewhere. When he left me in that section, my eye was directly drawn to the orange and white spine of your collected poems. “Collected Poems 1947-1997.” It read as I begun to thumb through the large volume. “50 years of poems?” I thought about how impressive that was and at that moment of my life it was hard to imagine getting past the current year let alone imagining 50 years of polished work.

I flipped through a few short poems at first, the cadence of Pull My Daisy[1]was probably the first thing that truly made me like your work. The humor and brassiness of it was truly inspiring and the way you used your language to talk about things that even people now have a hard time talking about publicly was something I had never been exposed to before in poetry or really any form of art. How ballsy you must have been to, in 1949, write:

“Whore my door / beat my boor / eat my snake of fool / Craze my hair / bare my poor / asshole shorn of wool. “

I had never heard such language used so unashamedly, poetically and openly before. It gave me a new way I could look at the realities of sexuality through chutzpah and wit as well as beauty.  It took most, if not all, the money I had at the time to purchase the almost $30 book and would spend the weeks and years since reading it as if it was my new bible which some could argue after looking back on my life that it had indeed become that important to me. I replaced my time of shameful scripture memorization with reading about your counter cultural lifestyle and absorbing the harsh realities of your world through your poetry. For so long I had felt odd for always looking at the world in a pessimistic view but after getting to know you through your work I realized that how one looks out into the world doesn’t define them and is not shameful. It’s what they do with that perception that truly matters. Do we wallow in our tragedies, “woe is me”-ing for the rest of our days? Or do we simply have to realize that life just fucking sucks sometimes and it is up to us to change it?

After years of what I now can verbalize as emotional, spiritual and physical abuse it was more than relieving to see someone from an even harder time for gay people to outwardly live their truth and to put it into art and then gain renowned recognition and live a fairly normal and happy life on top of it all. This type of queer normalcy was brand new to me and was the first thing in my life that made me question everything I was indoctrinated to believe about having autonomy over my life, sexuality and choices.

In an earlier draft of this letter I recounted to you a page or so of the massive amounts of shit (and I use that word for a reason) that I had to endure as a closeted teenager in the south. I will spare you those details now but what you do need to know is that I was on a path to becoming an anti-gay speaker for a Denver based Christian organization. I returned to NC after a summer of seminary school and volunteer work completely changed because of your book. I was tired of living my life the way other people thought I should and when I expressed these new thoughts to a mentor I was met with disdain and negativity. I was told by that mentor, family members, church friends and more that if I were to live the way I felt was natural for me to live, with an attraction to men, I would have no other ending in my life than despair and eventually hell. Coincidentally, we were reading Huck Finn in class that fall and at one point Huck confronts a similar cross roads between helping his friend Jim or doing what everyone else thought he should be doing by turning Jim in. Huck was finding it difficult to be himself because he had been told his whole life that to do so is sinful and would lead him to hell. Huck’s response? “Alright then, I’ll GO to hell.”[2] That became my mantra.

With Huck backing me up from a fictional world and your book constantly weighing down my back pack I began to question the bubble I had found myself in. I eagerly wanted to change the way I thought of myself and the world around me and I was so unclear of how to do that. I changed mentors to someone who’s goal was to foster my truth and she was ecstatic that I was reading your work. The more I read of your work and researched your life the more comfortable I became in my own. It wasn’t until I finally reached the poem  The Terms in Which I Think of Reality[3]that I truly understood that my struggle may not be nearly over but it had an end date and I had a goal to get there. In that poem you say:

“For the world is a mountain /

            If shit: if it’s going to / be moved at all, it’s got / to be taken by handfuls.”

A mountain of shit. That’s what my life was and I had not acknowledged that until I read your words. But it’s not the mountain of shit you sink into and die because of (which was the path I was speeding on before I had found your work) but instead it’s a mountain that can be moved. Not moved by having faith in a fairytale sky daddie or putting too much faith in people that want to control my life but moved by my willingness to acknowledge its shitty-ness and with that, acknowledging that shit can be flushed if I’m willing to work hard at it.

This wasn’t one of those euphoria moments you see in media where my life became so much easier after this realization and everything magically changed but it was a big enough shift in thought that I stopped self-mutilating, I stopped giving other people agency over my body, over my thoughts, over my beliefs and I started embodying myself how I wanted to be seen in the world little by little. It’s been 8 years since that moment and so many things have changed. I’m still shoveling shit and life keeps dumping more on at times but I’m starting to be ok with that. There are somedays that I look at the news (which is a 24 hour cycle now btw) and am overwhelmed with the shit I see piling before me. But, to stay in this metaphor a little longer, I think some mountains just simply aren’t mine to worry about. There are so many people with shit piles larger than my own and for so long I had focused on mine while right in front of me are people needing help with their much larger one.

I think that’s one thing you have taught me unintentionally, that it’s important to pay attention to other people’s shit piles. It’s unclear to me whether or not you had the vocabulary of intersectionality like we do while you were alive but I have a feeling that you would support it. The way you talk of your queer friends of color in your poetry makes me think that you advocated for the visibility of those that society tends to forget.

I’m in a time in history where intersectional issues are actually becoming less noticed by those in power and solutions for major problems like equal health care, pay for work that’s within the means for living and that’s not even including other social issues that aren’t necessarily measured monetarily or statistically. We have a flaming hot cheeto sitting in the oval office surrounded by pimple faced twats who care more about the obituaries lining their wallets than about the lives of those they’re supposed to represent. I could only hope to have the courage that you and your peers had in the counter culture movement to challenge the powers at be.

I wonder, too, how would you would view our current social movements. Would you walk with us at Black Lives Matters? Would you criticize the ostracizing of trans, intersex and non-binary identities from the feminist conversation with us? I would like to think so.

Thank you Mr. Ginsberg for teaching me the importance of living my truth and giving me a guide through your poetry in how to not give a shit of what other people think. Thank you for teaching me that sometimes the mountains of shit in our lives, however large and ominous, could be moved if we work hard enough and accept help from other people and give help to those who need it.

Thank you for being my first queer ancestor.

I hope to live up to the title someday.


Shit Scraper

[1]Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac & Neal Cassady; New York, Spring-Fall 1949

Allen Ginsberg Collected Poems 1947-1997, page 32-33

[2]Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 31 – Mark Twain 1884

[3]Patterson, Spring 1950 – Allen Ginsberg Collected Poems 1947-1997 pg 58-59

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