Soul Food

Historian Dick Wagner explores the voices of gay liberation through the words of Wisconsin poets.

In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen has the handsome Mr. Darcy call poetry “the food of love.” In the early decades of gay liberation in Wisconsin, the lyrical voices of poets indeed nourished the movement in so many ways.

Eldon Murray was the leading force of GPU News, the main voice of liberation in the 1970s, published from Milwaukee. It included poetry as an integral part of advocacy, as did other lesbian and gay publications over the next decades. Murray wrote a lengthy article on Walt Whitman’s Calamus poems from Leaves of Grass. Murray’s theory was that Whitman’s coming to terms with his sexuality released a tremendous creative energy and joy. This enabled the poet to write, “We two boys together clinging / One the other never leaving / Up and down the roads going.”

The early gay and lesbian movement staged poetry readings in Madison and Milwaukee, sometimes as fundraisers—which, frankly, did not bring in the big bucks. One such reading was publicized as an Oral Exhibition, A Feminist Collusion. Yet poetry was valued. The Renaissance Newsletter of the Gay Center in 1977 noted that the Red Ozier Press of Madison was going to publish a signed, limited edition of homoerotic poems by Allen Ginsberg. Readers were informed that, “Ginsberg is largely unrecognized as a pioneer of today’s gay consciousness, even by gay people (and this in spite of the fact that he is often identified as a ‘homosexual poet’ by straight literati for whom the term is comprehensible if not comprehensive).” On the other hand, some of the early poetry was light drivel like a poem Dear Santa which asked, “Oh Santa, won’t you hear my plea—and leave a nice man under my Christmas tree?”

Serious works advanced liberation. In Disorder Richard Herman of Madison rejected the medical sickness model of homosexuality and encouraged the reader to continue the journey to love and joy found in the “secret kingdom.” Lawrence William O’Connor wrote in The Pain of Being Different, “The simplest animal’s sexuality is birthright, Yours is misunderstood; never taken for granted.”

Tom Redmond of Green Bay wrote of holding hands on the street, “But he will not, Allow it, His fear, Or mine, Or yours, Straight man.” Richard Whaley Sims titled one of his poems “Inside.” He talks of initially believing what others say, “that God would burn me eternally.” His positive ending is, “That I am human and need to love / As any other man would be allowed / To love with the whole of himself.” Poet D. A. Leonard, in a work titled “And God Cried,” also went full circle. At the beginning, “And I denied who I am, And God cried.” But Leonard concluded, “I’m real, I’m out, And God cried out for Joy.”

In recognizing the dangers of oppression, several poets went even further. Pat Wagner, in her work “witches,” embraced the older stereotype of non-normative women: “[W]hen you burn us, we will say our prayers / dutifully and ask God to let you purge your sins in hell.” Using the image of witches as herbalists and flying beings she asserts, “We heal ourselves” and finally she says, “Join us in heaven and we will teach you how to fly.” Chi McIntyre also talks of the “untamed witch” and seeks to “exorcise the fears men invoke in me.”

In “Queercide” Louie Crew put forth, “There are at least four good ways to kill a queer.” Among the means of oppression he noted were the witch-burning analogy and the pink triangles of the Holocaust. Brooks Edgerton, the editor of Madison’s OUT!, wrote “Crusading” about those who attack gays, especially the disingenuous, secretly sexual religious: “You’d say most anything / just to / ice their lips / and constrict their anuses.” Lynda Wannamake cries “Trash on Him,” who believes she could not be “sensitive for a woman lover.”

Yet most often love and desire would win out in their poems. Tara from the La Crosse area in womynspirit describes “such passion I have never before known.” Mary Waitrovich, also a songwriter, talks of “having the time of my life,” in a razor to the bone or love, hot and helping. Carol Kosobucki wrote, “There are no ’simple’ love stories.” Henry X. Dudek in Will You Dance addresses himself to a “Boy so fair, with hair raven-black and, cheeks blushing rose, with eyes flashing interest, kindling response.” Char, also from La Crosse, wrote, “But only finding sisterhood have I experienced the joys / Of how many kinds of love are real.”

Karen Snider of Milwaukee published a book of poems titled Aunty Em is a Prisoner in Kansas. Her Dorothy was a strong woman who “wanted a gathering of witches” as artists scraping the sky. No meek and mild here. Snider’s “Dorothy put on her hand-me-down magic shoes, and stole the tin man’s watch, and swiped the cowardly lion’s favorite blue collar, and emptied the scarecrow’s pockets and took the last dollar—hardly enough for a ticket home.”

Ayln Hess and Louie Crew both wrote poems on interracial love. The group Bi?Shy?Why? had a newsletter called BiLines that published bisexual people’s poems. R. X. Lee wrote “Choices.” Ellen Franklin in “Morning Cuddles” alternates between male and female cuddling, from “tight small buns” to “large round hips,” and from ”beard’s coarse whiskers,” to “soft delicious breasts.”

One of the state’s most famous gay poets was Antler. Allen Ginsberg praised his long epic poem “Factory,” about working on the line in a canning company in Milwaukee. Ginsberg arranged for City Lights Books in San Francisco to publish it. The poem includes the line, “Let me be paid for bringing into Poetry, penises and vaginas that will give us the visions, we have wanted them to all along.” The undervaluing of poetry was expressed in his Why No ‘Poet Wanted’ in Want Ad Column. Antler cultivated links to Whitman and in Whitmansexual described the 19th Century poet as a “cosmos-sexual.”

The release in 1987 of Heartpieces: Wisconsin Poets for AIDS was one of the earliest anthologies of works in the new crises with proceeds from the sale to benefit the Milwaukee AIDS Project. The book included 32 poets. The New York’s Poets for Life did not come out until 1989. Joseph Zanoni of Wisconsin wrote, “Gay men perish from AIDS / While the world looks another way.” He achingly recorded, “Struggling to find a proper sense of human dignity / From the same world always trying to deny it to you.”

In Heartpieces, David Carroll’s poem was titled Never Wearing White. He penned, “It’s hard to be an angel, at night, walking down Water Street.” The Milwaukee landscape of the late 20th Century populates his poem with the river that glitters and factories reflecting light. At the bar C’est La Vie he writes, drinks, and stares at the “bartender’s thighs, back, chest, and inevitably the rest.” His worry tottered between “I’ll die of AIDS or utter frustration.” For the poem Tonight Norman Richards mused on, “THAT four letter word.” His wish, “Tonight. I’m wishing for a miracle, that until THIS word can vanish, we will all unite with our hearts.”

The dominant belief in love was a constant. In Forevers Ted Gonsalves wrote, “The search goes on / For one to love.” Rich Herman counters in Pedro’s Love Poem by writing, “To believe in forever is beyond my vision.” To his addressee Pedro he said, “You suffer from an incurable romanticism, complicated by a youthful need to love.” The poet then admitted, “If I am not careful I / may catch your faith.” In 1980 the Milwaukee feminist magazine Amazon printed “One Against the Night.” This poet wrote, “Once again I come to you / Seeking comfort from a storm of fright. And you and I become / One against the night.”

Surely these singing voices of Wisconsin poets carried the joy of liberation, the pain of oppression, and the staggering heart loss of AIDS. Like poets throughout time, their spirit fulfilling words were a remarkable effervescence of Wisconsin’s coming out following Stonewall.