:: Article

Queer as in Queering: a review of Communal Nude: Collected Essays by Robert Glück

By MH.

Communal Nude review

When not an experiment for the sheer sake of it (which would most likely reduce it to an insular, potentially frustrating read), experimental writing marks a departure from conventional meaning by questioning and subverting it while also creating space for disjunction – both on reader’s and writer’s part. Enacted on a perpetual fluctuation between text and meta-text, experimental writing can also be writing that tells its own story without fetishising the “I” perspective of the author or breeding hierarchies in terms of the critical outlooks it initiates. Brought to life as an appreciative yet critical reaction to the 60s and 70s avant-garde of the Language poets, Robert Glück’s and Bruce Boone’s New Narrative (a movement which also included Francesca Rosa, Kevin Killian, Sam D’Allesandro, Camille Roy, Dodie Bellamy, Mike Amnasan among others) assembled but also critiqued various experimental forms and techniques to a rather clear cut end – to ruin the locus, the ivory tower inhabited by a sole meaning-maker (the author) and replace it with a community of meaning-makers (the readers) who go beyond recognising themselves in a narrative and generate political and social change.

In writing about sex, desire, and the body, New Narrative approached performance art, where self is put at risk by naming names, becoming naked, making the irreversible happen – the book becomes social practice that is lived.

It’s precisely this New Narrative that is (re)introduced to us by Robert Glück’s Communal Nude: Collected Essays – reviews of TV shows, events and books featured in various publications, personal rants, transcriptions of public talks, incisive, introductions to his own books, art writings, a letter to Kevin Costner, diary entries and manifestos work to map out the New Narrative as something that also tries to escape the rigid boundaries of a literary movement by refusing to define or identify itself through conventional terms. Also incited by Glück’s own inability and unwillingness to recognise himself in the mainstream gay narrative that legitimated only one kind of gay discourse and violently erased other ways of gay expression and desire, New Narrative went all out to swell the existing tenets of experimental writing by making use of allegories, autobiography, satire and pastiche that allow local, communal meaning to exist on the same level as the sublime. In doing so, it challenged power dynamics to avoid the toxic bearing of an authoritative meaning-maker – the author of the work, or an expert, for instance – who is expected to legitimate the work. Once self is recognised as collaboration, a narrative continuously shifting its core and contexts, its awareness approaches narration itself. New Narrative believed innovative, experimental writing has what it takes to transform the fiction of one’s self into a transgression of self boundaries – a sublime collapse into one’s body that also concurs with the intimacy afforded by creating and sharing a real community as well as the relationships, mutual interests and beliefs, hot gossip and personal stakes this community is based on.

So most experimental writing has an adversarial relation to professionalism, to work-ethic mentality; a resistance to fetishizing the “expert, or whatever is authoritarian. I’m also thinking of performance art – a kind of art that says “no experts” – where we find flexibility, spectacle, and the “child” emotions of awe and fear.

Recounting Bataille’s concept of negativity as a major source of inspiration for New Narrative’s work, Glück hints at the collective’s commitment to questioning texts right in the process of writing them, thus creating different texts altogether, while also de-centring the power of the author and replacing it with excesses, contradictions and self-representations that exist on different levels at the same time – the time of the reading, a time that may very well be different from what the reader expects from the text. It’s also a commitment to bringing experimental writing into a present tense by using the already-known but without reframing it or retaining its initial authenticity. Instead, one’s body is used to counter one’s psychological self and evade its rational/psychological restraints.

I call disjunction that sudden change of scales, the double awareness of self (narration) and anarchic body (the sublime). The sublime: nothing, piercing laughter, a catastrophe, a fire at night, a violent orgasm – anything that expresses a void which our communities have filled with religions and monsters in order to understand the absence of ground. This awareness of disjunction between self and body is an experience that a community, to be a community, provides its members.

For the New Narrative, the body becomes a blank manifest waiting to be scrutinised in its own injunctions and possibilities while also being written on – with nonlinear stories that erase any domineering line between autobiography and fiction and reject the conformity of mainstream narratives, particularly of those fictions that promoted virulent stereotypes such as the straighter-than-thou white man or the healthy white gay. For instance, an immersive piece on Kathy Acker’s writing that examines the intimacy developed in a close friendship but also works as a perfect example of how the New Narrative generated a collage out of the personal and the analytical in an endeavour to bring literature up to the present moment by creating fertile disjunctions and opposing gay/queer excesses and desires to suffering and, ultimately, death.

Not coincidentally, Glück chooses to review unconventional art works such as Mark D’Auria’s film Smoke, Tom Thompson’s paintings, Jess’s The Mouse’s Tale, Chris Komater’s Out of Breath, Dean Smith’s drawings, Nayland Blake’s sculptures, In God We Trust/America’s Most Wanted by Meira Marrero, Loring McAlpin and Jose A. Toirac and Frank Moore’s paintings/installations. I say not coincidentally because each of them adopted appropriation, commodity culture and the padding of violence it affords, skewed power dynamics, fragmentations and distortions of personal biographies to convey a similar message to the one that New Narrative tried to bear: political and communal prospects in art could also find a rich opening in disagreements and discontinuities of all kinds. By creating unfamiliar discomfort and a place for you to dump your initial expectations as an onlooker, these experimental artists cancelled assumptions while making their work visible somewhere between the author and the viewer – there are no negotiators of meaning, no experts, just a permanent play among different perspectives that all happen in the present.

My colon is a county fair of friendly bacteria; my immune system is a Mardi Gras of mitochondria wearing exotic masks. When I reject the opposition between myself and the rest of nature, wonder replaces terror. I redefine my health as an enormous complex web, an ecology. I enter an enchanted realm whose magic is simply that I coexist with other organisms. Under the equals sign of marriage and sex, an octopus and Jacqueline Onassis have the same value, and the moth that blows me is my inferior only if I replace philosophical merit with the right of the strongest.

Glück braces modernism collectively but also individually – by collating and juxtaposing thoughts on his own experimental work (Margery Kempe, Elements of a Coffee Service, Jack the Modernist) while also paying homage to friends lost to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and the 90s, and including viewpoints on other writers’ life stories and works (Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, Lynne Tillman’s Haunted Houses, Chris Kraus’s Aliens & Anorexia, Juan Goytisolo’s The Garden of Secrets, Dennis Cooper’s Closer to name just a few) as an engagement to affirm genuine community. It’s a community that builds and (re)invents itself against the ongoing and probably never-ending gentrification of San Francisco, against the cult of healthy, photogenic homosexuality, the not-so-subtle ageism underlining the lack of representation of middle-aged gay life in mainstream narratives and homophobic attitudes that plagued the Left (as they still do today). The nude becomes communal also in the sense that anonymous and unprotected sex in public spaces could be used as a handy tool to provoke community, to blur and eventually erase the distinction between the public and the private space during an era in which homosexuality was still criminalised – an era in which you could actually kill someone and then get away with it by pretending that is was self-defence against a “queer” that made a move on you. All of these pieces and talks “uncover” Glück as someone deliberately entangled in a process of negotiating and (re)creating the authorial/personal self – as a human, as a writer who tries to reach an audience and turn it into a community through bending normative genres and genders and liquefying any kind of predetermined unity, all the while taking a distinct pleasure in doing so.

By distancing itself from any centre of meaning (i.e. power) and censorship that repress social conflict and smooth reality in order not to offend one’s ignorant worldview and another’s interests, the experimental writing professed by New Narrative can stand for anything but one’s conventionally designated self. For instance, it can also stand for an antidote to identitarianism as it refuses to allow any space for dominant narratives that can be so easily instrumentalised. While writing this piece, I’ve frequently thought of Dodie Bellamy’s line in Goldilocks Syndrome: “Too straight for queer, too queer for straight – no wonder I think labels are fucked.” I’ve also thought about how “queer” has come to be just another commodity on the neoliberal market – a noxious attribute in the sense that it designates a lifeless identity that, all too often, is strictly limited to one’s sexual orientation or gender performativity. But for Glück, queer desire still has the hot spunk of an action verb that doesn’t prioritise – a way of acting and writing towards disrupting homogeneity in literary and personal worlds, and building new social and political communities by means of queering markers of normative identity, spaces and the ways we are socially trained to relate to each other.

When I look at the sky, it becomes a homosexual sky. When I sit in a chair, it becomes a queer chair. I exhale queer atoms. Words are homosexual when I use them, or do I attract queer atoms? As for masculinity, I go through life assuming that I am pretty neutral, that I am not easily identified. When I hear or see myself on tape, I think, “Ohmygod, what a big fag!”


MH cross-stitches dissonances at Drunken Boat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 6th, 2016.