Since the model of sincerity (Johannes’ redefinition aside) honestly makes me want to crawl back into the closet, I’d like to explore an alternative concept. If “sincerity” tends to enforce agency and selfhood in a way that many right-wingers might approve of (while we’re tracing this movement back to 9/11, how about the war-mongering cowboy sincerity of Dubya Bush?), I think “susceptibility” does the opposite. As the “capability of receiving, being affected by, or undergoing something,” susceptibility unravels the harmful ideology of self-determination that promotes values as stifling as enlightenment, individualism, and restraint. To be susceptible, in this sense, is to risk and even court one’s undoing; it is to sustain a heightened capacity to be split open and transformed by, as well as with, all bodies and things.
Because I think this is a totally queer capacity, it only makes sense for me to pick up where I left off in my thoughts about Beauty-gate. I was lucky after the discussion to find an interlocutor in Ariel Goldberg, whose chapbook-length essay “The Estrangement Principle” is the smartest thing I’ve read on the supposedly earnest mainstreaming of queer art. Here’s Ariel on her sense of estrangement in regard to Kay Ryan:
But then a question began to haunt me: how does a dyke get to be the Poet Laureate? The obvious answer: she keeps her mouth shut. I am confused about Kay Ryan being government funded, in the sense that I feel there are a ton of artists who are queer with supposedly radical work who may be removed from this type of funding. Her insistence of her personal life’s separateness from her work is too close to a history of antagonizing straight culture discreetly closeting a gay.
I turn to The Library of Congress’ description of Ryan on their profile page:
Unlike many poets writing today, [Kay Ryan] seldom writes in the first person. Ryan says: I don’t use ‘I’ because the personal is too hot and sticky for me to work with. I like the cooling properties of the impersonal. In her poem “Hide and Seek,” for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, “I am hiding.”
After quoting Ryan, who admits that she “never reads poetry” and doesn’t “like to hear other people read theirs,” Ariel links the suppression of Ryan’s personal life to her guarded aesthetics:
It seems you get to be a popular poet by degrading poetry and presenting the most traditional image of it: a solitary, private figure whose work is compared to that of Emily Dickinson, someone who hid in her poems, whose work was read, mostly, after she died. Ryan’s work has developed to a voice of wisdom. Not timeless to me, but stubborn. Fortune cookie style. She wants everyone to get the metaphors. I hear she reads her poems twice at readings. I get a sense of confidence, omniscience in her work.
Here I think Ariel describes what happens when the logic of “sincerity” gets taken to its ideological consequences, leading to unshakeable mastery and conviction rather than restless exploration. Stephen Burt, for instance, admires how one of Ryan’s poems manages an “expertly oriented extended metaphor for mental and emotional disorientation.” We are thus led to believe that Ryan’s perceptual and emotive powers are so acute that she can erase herself from her writing, i.e. her ‘I’ becomes a universal ‘we,’ or worse, an omniscient voice gracing us from up high when she can “describe the feelings of the person hiding” without declaring as much about herself.
In this sense, Ryan’s affect of sincerity is so convincing that she earns the very privilege of shedding her subjectivity. She appears to her many admirers as ‘unmediated’ and ‘uncensored’ as any of the New Sincerests. In fact, the poet is elevated to the status of a disembodied feeling that is sincere to a fault, not postmodern in the least: there is no interest in revealing or recognizing power structures here. In her rejection of the personal and specific as frames, Ryan ends up siding with heterosexism when she intentionally filters queerness out.
It’s no coincidence, to me, that a distaste for reading poetry accompanies Ryan’s dismissal of her sexual identity as viable subject matter. She writes contra Foucault, who defined a literary work as “that which is susceptible of introducing a significant difference.” She does not aim, like Foucault, to “work on” making herself “infinitely more susceptible to pleasure,” whether sexual or artistic. As Ariel points out, Ryan also makes for an interesting contrast with Eileen Myles, whose passionate and wide-ranging criticism alone suggests a susceptibility to the inextricable forces of art/sex/politics. In level of a political engagement that seems coextensive with her artistic drive, Myles runs for office while writing poems that are upfront in their queer refusal to separate life and art.
Coming up in part deux: Mykki Blanco’s octopian militia…