MAY 6, 2013
AT THE END of a long list of acknowledgements at the back of his first full-length collection of poems, Begging for It, Alex Dimitrov says a little prayer to his “patron saint,” Oscar Wilde: “I will not disappoint you.” The invocation comes as no surprise from the young man who started a queer poetry salon in New York City called Wilde Boys shortly after finishing his graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College. If the media attention is any indication, Wilde Boys has proved a raucous success. It’s been profiled not only in literary venues such as BOMB but also in The Atlantic, Out magazine, and The New York Times.
The salon, in true gay fashion, reportedly starts and ends with cocktails, but the centerpiece is intensive conversation about queer poets and poems. I’ve never been to Wilde Boys, nor have I met Mr. Dimitrov — though if I were extended a coveted invite to the invitation-only event, I’d think long and hard before turning it down. The salon has attracted the attention of a veritable abecedarium of Who’s Who in contemporary gay literature: John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty — not to mention patriarchs like Richard Howard and Edmund White. The other attendees — mainly younger gay men, many of them in, or recently graduated from, MFA programs — seem like exactly the kind of literary society Oscar Wilde would have preferred: cultured and garrulous, educated and beautiful and horny. Regarding the guest list, Dimitrov told The New York Times, “I sort of had a list of gays that I wanted to come, and some of them that I wanted to sleep with.”
Dimitrov happened to be born on the same date that Wilde died — November 30 — but the affinities go deeper than the astrological. Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Wilde, called Wilde’s poetry “polymorphously perverse,” and the epithet applies just as aptly to Dimitrov’s. But where Wilde mostly robes his “perversity” in the classical attire of mythology, Dimitrov openly mythologizes his own sexuality. This is especially apparent in American Boys, an e-chapbook published by Floating Wolf Press in 2012. Interspersed between “regular” poems about gay love and Allen Ginsberg (to whom the chapbook is dedicated) are text messages and photographs, including one of the author as a little boy, and screen captures from Facebook and Grindr. Grindr is a smartphone app that allows men to quickly and easily find other gay guys in the immediate area to chat or hook up with, swap naked pictures, find fuckbuddies — or just cruise, to see who else in their immediate vicinity is “grinding.” (Imagine if Oscar Wilde had had an iPhone!)
The three Grindr “poems” offer a peek into Dimitrov’s self-mythologization. Each is a screenshot of a smartphone conversation between the poet and an anonymous guy from Grindr, and in each case, Dimitrov’s contributions are limited to laconic replies to his interlocutor’s promptings. In the first, called “Poems actually,” the two words of the title are the poet’s only part, typed in response to the query, “What sort of stuff do you write?” The rest is the rather effusive effort on the part of the other guy to pin down Dimitrov’s poetic credentials: “Epic poems, limericks or like what? / And who is your poetry inspiration / Was that grammatically correct? I don’t think it was but you get what I am saying.” The humor resides partially in the contrast between Dimitrov’s terseness and the garrulousness of the other guy — and in the unexpected “literary” chat on an app that’s more usually reserved for swapping cock pics.
In another Grindr piece, “Proust’s Grave,” one of Dimitrov’s anonymous online admirers has figured out who he is and messages him out of the blue, at 1:22 in the morning: “One shouldn’t lie on Proust’s grave,” he texts — a reference to a photograph online of Dimitrov wallowing on said grave. Dimitrov’s response, “Who the fuck is this,” is immediate — and that’s the end of the conversation. Part found poem, part unwitting collaboration, the poem’s appeal for the reader is essentially voyeuristic: our sense that we are eavesdropping on something private and potentially intimate. For Dimitrov, the act of cruising online is charged poetically as well as libidinally, and like a sexed-up version of Stevens’s Hoon, he invites us into his private “palaz” for “tea.”
Among the more traditional poems, the chapbook’s major achievements include the opener, “Kill Your Boyfriends” (“Kill your boyfriends […] While they kiss you, just before they say / ‘I’m close,’ just before they can forget to miss you”) and “Leaving Town With Allen Ginsberg,” Dimitrov’s homage to the Beat poet:
Allen Ginsberg, I met you
in a gas station bathroom somewhere in California
and I don’t even drive or dream. You asked me for my number,
I asked you for a cigarette. It was evening in New York
where we were both dead, and America
was beautiful and bloody like a boy.
In Ginsberg’s own supermarket reverie, the poet encounters two of his idols, Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca. “Where are we going, Walt Whitman?” he asks. “[A]nd you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?” Dimitrov, in turn, asks his idol Ginsberg, “When can I go into the supermarket / and buy what I need with my good looks? / Where can I find the best blue jeans to sell my book?” (The lines are shoplifted from “America,” and one might imagine Ginsberg answering Dimitrov with lines from “A Supermarket in California”: “Are you my Angel? […] I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.”)
In his full-length collection, Begging for It, Dimitrov casts off the whimsical yet gimmicky Grindr and Facebook pieces, but continues to invoke his queer idols and exploit his private sexual history, flaunting it like an exhibitionist. Begging for It is handsomely printed, with a black and white cover featuring a photograph from David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz, a gay photographer prominent in the New York City art scene of the 1980s, died of AIDS in the early 1990s, but left behind a brilliant series of photographs called “Arthur Rimbaud in New York.” The one on Dimitrov’s cover shows a young man (wearing the series’s ubiquitous Rimbaud mask) sitting alone enjoying a donut and a milkshake at a New York diner.
Rimbaud’s spirit inhabits the book at least as much as Wilde’s. An epigraph from the French poet at the beginning of the book reads:
What flag will I bear? What beast worship? What shrine besiege? What hearts break? What lies tell? — And walk through whose blood?
The quote is from “Bad Blood,” in Wyatt Mason’s translation, from Rimbaud’s 1873 A Season In Hell. That book was completed just after Rimbaud’s decisive break with Verlaine, which left Rimbaud with a bullet wound in his arm, and Verlaine with a prison sentence. Bad blood indeed. But it left us with one of Rimbaud’s best books, which another translator, Paul Schmidt, calls “a set of philosophical meditations” and “a confessional handbook.”
Dimitrov’s poems often channel that philosophical mode even as they flaunt their carnal, confessional nature. In one of Dimitrov’s “text message poems” from American Boys, the texter asks, “Would you say your poems are confessional?,” to which Dimitrov first responds, “Only when I’m lying,” and then, after a pause, “Which is all the time.” Confessional characteristics are foregrounded in “Leaving for America, May 1991” and “American Youth”: family relationships, the challenges of making a life in a new country (Dimitrov came to America from Bulgaria as a boy), and the changes of adolescence. But even more powerful is Dimitrov’s candid exploration of his early sexual awakenings: the young gay son’s fixation on his father, youthful masturbation fantasies, and, throughout the book, more sex than you can shake your stick at.
The book begins, oddly enough, with a poem about God. “Heartland,” shares that fact (if little else) with the opening sonnet, “Hélas!,” of Oscar Wilde’s first collection of poems, from 1881. “In America,” Dimitrov writes, “I stopped to listen for God.” By contrast, Wilde seems to hope that God is the one doing the listening:
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead?
Dimitrov displays none of Wilde’s hesitancy or tentativeness in that first poem, though the confident pose he strikes may be equally performative. Its unabashed, unblinking stance sets the tone for many of the poems that follow. “Let the blood wet the ashes,” Dimitrov challenges; “let the semen wet the mouth.” Here, in the first of several ejaculations throughout the book, bodily fluids take on eucharistic qualities, a conflation of religion and sexuality that will be echoed in later poems. There’s violence here too, another recurring motif: “these men with their wolf tongues / and the war with its quick deaths.” But the speaker’s confident boast — “I could kill faster than any war would, God” — can be seen as the first in a series of personas role-played to great effect.
Two of the most moving poems in the book’s first section explore a young boy’s feelings of arousal for his father. In “The Crucifix,” Dimitrov luxuriates in describing his father undressing after a hard day of work: first the tie comes off, then the dress shirt, revealing “tense drops of sweat which ran down from his armpits, / the stains forming delicate rings around his sleeves.” The boy then fixates on his father’s necklace:
[…] that gold crucifix which sank so low,
our Jesus buried deep inside his chest hair,
closer to my father than I ever got
and claiming the best part.
The confounding of religious and sexual feelings is nothing new to poetry, but Dimitrov’s handling of it is exquisite: the conflation of father/Father, the tension between the father’s exhaustion and the son’s admiration-cum-arousal, the hint of the son’s disappointment (and perhaps guilt) at not being able to “[claim] the best part” — all suggest a poet who knows exactly how to achieve the effect he wants.
“The Underwear” is an even more overt confession of the boy’s sexual attraction to his father. The speaker recalls sniffing his father’s underwear as a seven-year-old boy:
Held high above my face, I pressed it down,
let it cover my eyes and nose, a kind of warm suffocation.
My knees gave in when I pulled at the cloth
with each tooth, bit into it.
The scent of his father’s musk is thrilling, with a tinge of danger: the pleasure is “more animal than another boy’s hands / pressing my face into the playground dirt.” But the moment of pleasure is also fraught with “terror” when the boy is caught by his mother:
[…] she came in, looked
away, and like a good mother,
asked me to wash my hands before dinner.
These preadolescent sexual experiences give way, in the second section of the book, to more adult adventures. One poem illustrates the transition of the boy’s desire for his father towards that of a “daddy” figure. “In This Economy Even Businessmen Go Down” seems to suggest that such desire — both its rewards and risks — might even be passed down from father to son, or from daddy to boy:
When he unbuttons his shirt
he is teaching you kindness
and ruin he learned from his father —
leaving a wife and two kids, the crash at the office,
for a boy with your kind of eyes.
The focus for Dimitrov’s speakers is squarely on the rewards, while any risks seem to be shouldered by the older man, the daddy. In “Suit & Tie, 6’1, Married, Financial District,” a title that suggests a Craigslist posting for sex, we find a speaker who is well acquainted with the erotic power he has over such men. The married man asks, “How much, and would you like to // come with me to Rome?” — to which the speaker answers confidently, “a check — another zero — and I’m yours.”
Clearly, the book isn’t called Begging For It for nothing. It abounds in sexual escapades in which lust, desire, longing, and release are tangible needs. But who’s doing the begging? The title poem leaves the answer ambiguous. At first glance, it may seem like it’s the married man the speaker’s hooking up with: after all, it’s easy to picture the older, closeted, unhappily married man “begging for it” from the virile young Adonis, especially since the line “Whose scent will your knuckles keep?” implies the speaker’s either fingering or fisting the man’s asshole. But “begging for it” can mean different things in different contexts. In one context it might mean something like he had it coming, or he was asking for it, he was cruising for a bruising. Elsewhere, it could mean a variety of psycho-sexual power relationships, such as those between top and bottom, master and slave, dominant and submissive, “masc” and “fem.”
“It’s the night before Easter” in this present-day Sodom, which might suggest a less carnal, more spiritual reading of the title. However, instead of the release from embodiment associated with Christ’s resurrection, here, “the body becomes a cage you can’t feel your way out of.” Perhaps, then, it’s the speaker who is “begging for it” — begging for the spiritual release which, throughout much of this book, is conflated with sexual release. When the poem ends —
God rips through the skin
of every man you know
on a quiet evening,
in a city already done for, like this one
— it’s difficult not to have the sense that the speaker envies the fate of those other men.
Dimitrov’s brazen confidence and prowess in these poems, and the sexual adventures they depict, are refreshing. There is no hint of opprobrium or moralizing, no lectures or worrying about STDs. In fact, a poem from American Boys, “Sexual History, 1984–2012,” contains the only explicit reference to AIDS: “He slept through everyone who died of AIDS in 1993.” This is significant because, where the work of other gay poets — particularly those of the generation who survived the worst of the crisis — is often suffused with the gravitas of disease, stigma, death, and survivor’s guilt, Dimitrov’s work revels in bodily fluids, lust, and risky sex. To say that isn’t to belittle the poetry of Thom Gunn, or to deny the importance and power of the work of Mark Doty, to name just two poets whose work was indelibly marked by the AIDS crisis. Rather, it’s to affirm, or reaffirm, the legitimacy of a vision of poetry that — like Rimbaud’s — is carefree, unapologetic, and uninhibited in its depiction of sex.
This attitude toward sex, which may seem irresponsible or even unethical from a lifestyle perspective, is one of the things that makes Begging for It feel like a milestone in American gay poetry. Certainly, Ginsberg “put [his] queer shoulder to the wheel,” and many who came after him have also written about their sexual experiences, either overtly or obliquely. (I often think of that beautiful but starkly sexual last line of James Merrill’s “A Renewal,” in which “Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.”) Dimitrov, however, is a poet who came of age “after AIDS” — that is, after the “lost generation” of the 1980s and early ’90s. He represents a generation of young gay men who have reclaimed the legacy of the sexual revolution almost as though AIDS hadn’t intervened, and who reached puberty just as the internet gave them instant access to unlimited porn and the possibility of love — or at least a quick fuck — with someone they met in an online chat room. Determined to find his own truth, his own identity, from under the shadow of a previous generation’s problems, Dimitrov has no interest in preaching to us about safe sex: “The sex we want most will kill us,” he writes in “21st Century Lover”; “What part of me can I give you to sell?” This is bareback poetry: raw, unprotected, and dangerous — but exhilarating.
Just as importantly, Dimitrov is writing in an unprecedented era of gay acceptance. Consider the fact that “sodomy” was still a crime in 14 states just 10 years ago. The United States Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, although they had upheld them as recently as 1986. Same-sex marriage, which had been a “wedge issue” credited (or blamed) for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, is now supported by a majority of Americans, a trend first confirmed by national polling in 2010. And gay characters and relationships on television are so common these days that they hardly seem newsworthy anymore. To put it in perspective, Dimitrov was 12 when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, and for many young gay Americans such touchstones are ancient history.
Perhaps Dimitrov’s work ultimately has less to do with these developments — or even with what we think of as “confessional” poetry — than with a culture that shares everything, often the most intimate details of private life, on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention Grindr, Scruff, Adam4Adam, and other gay “dating” apps). This is a culture that celebrates the individual, that allows that individual to achieve, through social media, a celebrity, a notoriety, even a large-scale following they would not otherwise be able to achieve. To put it more cynically, it’s a culture that fetishizes its narcissism.
Such fetishizing is explicit in “This is a Personal Poem,” where the speaker has to:
[…] guess at why things end,
we ruin things, we start and stall,
and all all all we do
He’s made up his mind “that I must leave you now, reader.” He even bears the blame, relying on that old stand by “It’s not you, it’s me.” But desire — that aimless, unquenchable “want” that is at the heart of Begging For It — appears here in its purest form, with no particular object, only itself.
In “Sleeping with Everyone,” Dimitrov says, “I should stop writing / personal poems.” But thankfully, he doesn’t. He wonders “if I should start doing pornography / for more money,” or whether:
[…] I could role-play
as a plumber or a psychotic
youngish writer who wears leather
and takes it real hard in a walk-up on Allen St.
But wait, that’s me!
Dimitrov’s speakers rarely seem coy. If they appear jaded, it is often the affected jadedness of the educated-but-bored, savvy-yet-starry-eyed millennial generation:
“In New York no one will do you a favor / unless you sleep with them / and then you may to have to sleep with them / again. And again after that.”
Even in the ostensibly less-personal poems — such as “This Is Not a Personal Poem” — Dimitrov gets personal. “Would you sleep with the poet who wrote this poem?” he asks half way through. Later, he confides, “I had an orgasm before writing this poem.” It’s as though, to paraphrase Rilke, here there is no such thing as TMI. But there is a subtle critique here, a smart-assed cheekiness that pokes fun at the very culture that informs it:
This poem wants you to like it,
please click “like.”
I’m so politically conscious
the word “politics” is in my poem.
Would you buy this book? Click here.
There’s a double-edged irony in such lines, coming from the poet whose blog contains just such a link to Amazon.com. Self-critique turns into self-promotion and then, just as quickly, returns to critique. In the poem’s last lines, Dimitrov manages to encapsulate the inescapable oxymoron that Facebook, Twitter, Grindr, and other platforms can feel intensely personal and coldly impersonal at the same time:
This is not a personal poem.
This poem is only about Alex Dimitrov.
That same paradox might apply to the collection as a whole. Dimitrov reads widely, and that reading tends to shape his conception of poetry’s “big ideas,” love and death — with the result that some of his love poems inevitably feel less personal, less visceral, and more intellectualized than the fleshier, more explicit poems about fucking. “Sontag,” he says in “The Burning Place,” “recognized love is about submission.” In “A Lover’s Discourse,” he writes, “Roland Barthes reminded me / I am a prisoner condemned to death // before he is led to the scaffold.” He even invokes Montaigne in “To the Thirsty I Will Give Water” (“It is not death, it is dying / that alarms me”). Occasionally, these cameos can feel a bit forced — but sometimes they result in powerful images, such as the apotheosis at the end of “Passage,” where a vision of Hart Crane, another of Dimitrov’s patron saints of queer poetry, forces the speaker to
try to remember
the beginning of beauty […]
before this man who sings
for the drowning, touches my lips,
and I ignite.
Equally startling is a series of self-portraits in which the author appears in drag, posing as female literary and film icons. Drag has long been an important expressive outlet for gay men and plays a prominent role in 21st century gay culture, from performers like Lady Bunny, to Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, to the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. For Dimitrov, as for most drag queens, the adopted persona is a means of pushing the boundaries of a static identity. (“Once at a New York loft party a famous poet said, / ‘You are your author photo,’” he writes in “James Franco.” Dimitrov’s author photo — dark hair disheveled, a few days’ stubble, the leather jacket with upturned collar, the sultry bedroom eyes cruising the reader — is as brilliantly staged as the photo of him reclining on Proust’s grave, or another one where he’s wrapped himself in the American flag: exactly the kind of iconic self-mythologizing perfected by Walt Whitman in well over a hundred portraits he sat for during his lifetime.)
These three self-portraits give Dimitrov an opportunity to explore the darkly feminine facets of his psyche. “In the theater of bitters / where we sharpen, // I am your favorite actress,” he writes in “Self-Portrait as Brigitte Bardot in Contempt.” (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, in which Bardot’s character becomes increasingly estranged from her husband after falling for the producer who hired him to rework the script of a film version of The Odyssey, is a classic of the French New Wave.) “Even our own end loves us,” Dimitrov/Bardot says, as she bestows on the beloved “this gift, this black collar // I tighten around your neck, this final kindness.”
Later on he appears as Brett Ashley, the symbol of relaxed sexual mores in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Again, there is a sense of bitterness — a key component in any good drag queen’s repertoire — when she says, “Life could be darling, I thought during my cigarette.” But it isn’t, of course — and the average cigarette only lasts about four minutes anyway. As Daisy Buchanan, from The Great Gatsby, Dimitrov wonders (while sipping a cocktail, Chopin playing in the background), “Why does it feel easier to live during a sonata?” Through Daisy’s voice, we can hear the Wilde Boy’s salon anxiety:
It is early in the century and all the men are late.
I wait for everyone to leave the party.
For the music to end.
To feel the last note.
But Dimitrov also includes a self-portrait without drag — in fact, it’s a “Self-Portrait Without the Self,” another personal poem masquerading as impersonal, or vice versa. Then again, perhaps the self is always just another drag persona, one that exists “On the edges of the body,” with “every part of me, slanted // as if toward another body”:
I want what isn’t mine
and what will not last.
And yes, your heart will not last.
Nothing lasts, of course. These are carpe diem poems for the 21st century. “With a little rod / I did but touch the honey of romance,” Wilde wrote in that opening poem from his first book. Dimitrov goes quite a bit farther than that, putting his sexuality on display like few American poets before him: “Put your money on this poem,” Dimitrov urges us; “I love the money shot.” He promised his patron saint he wouldn’t disappoint, and he makes good on his word. He also claimed, in his 2011 feature in BOMB, that he’d “take a bullet for Oscar Wilde.” I imagine there are plenty of gay boys in America who would take a bullet for Alex Dimitrov — or at least hold his gun.
Of course, there are many poems in Begging for It that deal at least as much with love as with getting laid or getting off. There are poems of heartbreak, such as “Minor Miracles,” in which he begs the boy to “remove the knife— / but sweetly, sweetly,” and then orders him to “Burn the bed / in which I no longer wait for you.” He’s moved on, or wants us to think he has — but moving on isn’t always so easy. In “After Love,” he admits: “In the first poem I wrote after you left, I killed you”:
But this is the poem I’ve kept —
it’s years ago and we’re in bed.
Night slips into morning and I realize
I’ve woken up early again to watch you dress,
to remember you,
even though you’re right there, next to me.
And if we are right there next to him, begging for it, who can blame us? Dimitrov is a vital new energy in American poetry, one who loves us, degrades us, gives us what we want, what we need, what we can’t live without. He reminds us that we can be lonely and love it, that “Maybe [we] don’t want uncomplicated happiness,” that there is a place
[w]here there is no you or I
and our veins, like graves, are opening
for what will open in us.
We start and finish one another with a kiss,
a look. We do it ruthlessly and all the time.