Crafting quite possibly the most distinctive collection of gay poetry has been a lifetime’s work for Michael Bemis. In his own words, he explains the value in gifting it to the University of Wisconsin’s Special Collections Library.
My parents are from Wisconsin, but we spent my first 14 years in the central Andes of Peru because my father worked there as a mining engineer. As a child, I was the stereotypical sissy: interested in pretty things, cooking, collecting miniature animals and loving music and books, but uninterested in sports of any kind. My older brother was a “regular” guy and fortunately fell for my mother’s admonition that he should always take care of his younger brother. Despite entertaining him with stories and exciting schemes to carry out, I also got him into a fair amount of trouble.
Reading became the most important activity in my life. During the 1950s, I went to public and private schools in the United States and England, where I became an avid reader of novels, plays and poetry and started to write my own. I majored in pre-med and English literature at Augustana College and went on to graduate school in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1961.
During the 1960s, I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and went to graduate school endlessly. I became very active protesting the war in Vietnam and managed to drink myself into alcoholism. I came out as a gay man and joined the Gay Liberation Front. To keep food on the table and pay my rent, I worked as a cataloger of books and assistant librarian in the Rare Books Department of the UW Memorial Library. It was a very busy and exhilarating – as well as terrifying – time in my life. I also started collecting books of all kinds, but mostly fiction.
During the 1970s, I left alcoholism behind and began my career as a law librarian. The seventies were an exciting decade for a gay man: Great gay ghettos like the Castro in San Francisco were springing to life, gay pride marches began, and best of all, books and periodicals by and for gays began to be published. It was then that I conceived the grandiose idea of collecting every book about gays: novels, nonfiction, humor, murder mysteries, science fiction, biographies, autobiographies, poetry – everything!
It became obvious very soon that I had neither the money nor the space to collect everything. I decided to limit my collection to poetry in English, or in English translation from another language. Poetry books and periodicals took up less space than most other books and were often quite inexpensive. They often were published in small editions by private presses or were self-published and distributed for sale in a few bookstores – sometimes even in gay bars and clubs. Once distributed, they usually disappeared and were forever-after unavailable.
Poetry appeals to me for many reasons. It has many forms: novels, epics, lyrics, haiku, tanku, free-form, sonnets, doggerel, limericks, and so on. It can be beautifully crafted and presented in forms that almost sing off the page, or it can be like a shocking slap in the face. Every word counts, every space, every punctuation mark. It can appear as graffiti on a wall or beautifully reproduced in an art book, in a card or program of some kind or in a paperback. Poetry can create vivid pictures and express complex ideas or intense emotions in a few words.
Collecting poetry fit in well with my interest in travel, especially to large cities that had gay/lesbian and many second-hand bookstores. Every year, I would find myself at the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries in such large cities as New Orleans, Chicago or Vancouver, where I would spend my free time hunting through bookstores and sometimes mailing home several boxes filled with gay poetry.
Ascertaining whether a poet was gay or the book was about gays was often quite a challenge when faced with a wall of poetry in a second-hand bookstore. Sometimes the title, like Elegy for a Gay Giraffe or Pier Queen, made it easy – I figured the titles did not refer to a happy giraffe or a member of royalty. Sometimes a dedication to a lover made things clear. If the publisher was Oscar’s Press or Gay Men’s Press (both in London, England), the poet and the poetry were definitely gay. Sometimes there was a biographical statement that strongly suggested that the poet was gay. Information from gay poetry anthologies and critical works could establish that a poet was gay. Then, of course, there were the poems themselves, which could be filled with references to gay icons, such as places like Fire Island or the Castro, or simply deal with a subject that was clearly gay, such as the love of one man for another.
During the 1980s, AIDS spawned an enormous amount of poetry about illness and death. The passion and beauty of poetry was a perfect vehicle for the drama that engulfed us at that time. Other eras also caused the same sort of outpouring, such as Walt Whitman’s vivid pictures of the Civil War and Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon about the Great War (WWI). And we can’t forget the Greek and Roman poetry about the love between an older mentor and a youth.
By the mid-nineties, my collection of over a thousand items, ranging from one-page pamphlets to large hardcover anthologies, included every possible subject or emotion that a poet could express, from sexual sadism to enlightenment, psychology to nature, hate to love. It became obvious to me that the dwindling space on my shelves was becoming a serious problem and that my unique and valuable collection needed a permanent home, one that provided easy access for readers and a good environment for books.
I decided to donate my collection, if possible, to the University of Wisconsin’s Special Collections (formerly Rare Books) in the Memorial Library because when I worked there in the sixties under Felix Pollock (himself a poet), I became familiar with the Private Press and Small Magazines Collections, and I believed that my poetry collection, which included many of both, would complement their collections. For example, I well remembered finding there W. H. Auden’s poem “The Final Blow,” about a blowjob with a neighbor, published in a chapbook by the small press, Pricks Around the World.
When I described my collection to the Library, they agreed immediately to house it and to honor my terms, which are to preserve the integrity of the collection by never breaking it up or getting rid of it and to give access to any scholar or other reader who wished to use the collection. After the collection left my house in 1999 and I came home to empty shelves, I had a tremendous sense of loss. But in a short time, I began collecting again, and I recently donated three hundred more items to the collection.
I have enjoyed poetry for the same reasons I enjoy opera, dark chocolate, sex, the Grand Canyon, and Machu Picchu – glorious beauty, great emotion and mystery in a spiritual sense. I also am happy that my collection – which is a historical tapestry reaching through the centuries to the present day – reveals the role of gay men in the history of events and emotions that might be lost if it weren’t preserved in the poetry in my collection. I have laughed and cried and learned from this poetry. Now others can, too.
To view the collection:
The Department of Special Collections is located on the 9th floor of Memorial Library, 728 State St. From the 1st floor take the elevator marked “South Stacks and Special Collections” to the 9th floor. The exhibit area of Special Collections will be straight ahead; from the exhibit area the reading room is to the right.