:: Article

The Shit Poetics of Queer Men

By Donna Marcus.

Photo courtesy of Marco Verch via Flickr.

 

The spring and summer of 2020 saw rainbows back in fashion. Cascading from family homes, blue-tacked on street-facing windows, chalk-sketched on pavements, rainbows were inescapable. No, the queers had not taken over Britain. Rather, Britain had taken over queerness. The rainbow, the symbol for LGBTQ rights for the last 50 years, was machine washed, dried and hung up, ironed and stainless, to celebrate the NHS. Six months later, on December 1st, BBC North West announced a new symbol for those who had died from Coronavirus: a simple red ribbon. The 1st of December was also World AIDS Awareness Day. The ribbon was and is a symbol of AIDS awareness. Gay Twitter was not happy. These symbols, once associated with dirty filthy queers—profane and untouchable—were now incorporated into a semiotic system concerned with cleanliness and sanitisation—sacred and hand-ringingly tactile. In both scenarios, historically important symbols for the queer community were sanitised, stripped of their queerness, and used in disorientingly different contexts. In reaction to this persistent sanitisation of queerness, one might welcome a radical sullying of queerness once again.

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For the British reader, Derek McCormack’s Castle Faggot thus acquires a peculiar resonance. Distributed at the end of 2020, the Canadian cult writer’s relentlessly bizarre satire of Disneyland and cereal cartoons antagonistically situates itself against the sanitisation of queerness. Divided into sections, the novel takes you through McCormack’s world via four related lenses. You’re first welcomed by the brochure of Faggotland, detailing the landmarks of the absurd amusement park. You’re next thrown into a souvenir photo album, decorated with blank images, documenting your trip through the main attraction, Castle Faggot. At the end, you’re told of the greatest souvenir in the shop, the dollhouse. After a short section imaging the Dollhouse, you fall into a novelisation, ‘Rue du Doo’.

At the heart of this position is a dedicated commitment to shit poetics. In McCormack’s world, much like our own, everything is shit. The characters are shit, from the cereal mascots “Count Choc-o-log, Boo-Brownie, Franken-Fudge” to “Walt Doody” the very designer of Faggotland. The places are equally shit—from the Parisian pastiched “Rue du Doo,” to “Sharts Cathedral,” “The Loo Museum,” and “Arse du Triomphe.” Excrement is the foundation of McCormack’s queer world: “Shit’s the flavour of Faggotland.” The book’s poetics of shit lays the foundation for its whimsically dark satirisation of the squeaky clean world of Disney and cartoons. As the drag queen host of the Santa Baby Pee Pee Poo Poo Party, one can imagine how I revel in the wondrous beauty of toilet humour and the poetics of shit. However, reading Castle Faggot made me arrive at an unfortunate destination: shit is no longer as radical as it once was.

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In 1972 moviegoers left cinemas astounded by John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. Flamingos—dubbed “the sickest movie ever made” by Interview—became a cult success across the world, blasting Waters into the almost mainstream. The “absolutely outrageous” film followed the forever iconic drag queen Divine through a series of shocking scenarios, with its climax of depravity in the film’s final scene. Divine comes into the shot—“You think you know somebody filthier? Watch!”—to which she bends down, delicately picks up a piece of fresh warm dog shit, like one might lift an indulgently priced truffle, only to scoff it in her mouth without a flinch. And in this deliciously scatological piece of cinematic history, the poetics of shit was consolidated into the rhetoric of radical queerness. Waters came up with the idea, he says, by thinking “What can we do that isn’t illegal—yet?” Pandering to the stomach-twistingly outrageous, to a disgustingly playful excessiveness, and to a repulsively ironic theatricality, the poetics of shit in Pink Flamingos is undeniably camp. But this monstrous configuration of camp isn’t bejeweled with cheap plastic rhinestones, nor vibrantly plumed with multifarious feathers. This is camp’s dirty cousin: filth. 

Filth’s rank campiness surrounds Castle Faggot. No matter where you run, its stank chases you. Take for example the chandelier in Count Choc-o-log’s library, “It’s crystal. It’s brown crystal. It’s smeared with shit so it looks like shit… Fag-nifique!” McCormack’s campiest use of the poetics of shit lies, however, in his final section, where Cocoa Channel goes on a murderous rampage across the shit-stacked streets of a parallel poo-poo Paris. Despite all this ridiculous theatricality, we mustn’t gloss over an essential aspect of the poetics of poo, especially in Castle Faggot: fucking.

In 2011, the borderline repulsive drag queen CHRISTEENE released the single ‘Bustin’ Browns’, a song dedicated to shitting and anal. In the music video, CHRISTEENE writhes around in the hollows of a giant colon-shaped set, alongside two hairy shit-smeared men, wig-clogged and drenched in an ominously unidentifiable coagulated grease. At once bringing an important respite to the increasing power of RuPaul’s Disneyfied ideals of drag, CHRISTEENE’s video also makes direct and explicit challenges to “all you straight motherfuckers,” “to all you no homos,” who protest and remove themselves from the repulsiveness of homosexuality. Here, the poetics of shit is soddenly entrenched in the radical act of good-old-fashioned-dick-in-arsehole gay anal sex. Here the comfort with shit-covered sex is the mark of personal, not societal, liberation. Occurring within a giant rectum, CHRISTEENE’s Russian-dolling of anal sex challenges us first to consider whether miniature gay men are indeed fucking in all our rectums, and second, to appreciate the poetics of shit as too terrifying for the wider sanitised culture.

Following his logic of filth, McCormack declares: “For faggots, fucking’s a form of decoration . . . What faggots did was turn fucking into decorating. What faggots did was turn decorating into fucking.” If then shit is décor, we might understand that fucking for queer men, specifically anal fucking, is intrinsically apart of the poetics of shit, and the poetics of shit intrinsically a part of fucking. Much like for CHRISTEENE, this is the faggot’s domain, and intrinsically a mode of being that is separate to sanitised monoculture.

However, this dichotomy of sanitised and unsanitised culture does not neatly fit into the binary of heterosexual-homosexual. Take, for example, Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic adaption of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The film is the shining bastion of sanitised white gay male cinema, with the most outrageous moment being left to a cummy peach—Divine would not be impressed. Despite its boring docility and saccharine sentimentality, the film’s greatest sin is its omission of a vital scene in the adaptation. Though Elio and Oliver’s passions are simmering beneath the daytime activities of the Italian villa, Oliver wants more.  He needs Elio’s ultimate intimacy in the novel: he wants to feel Elio’s body shit. Sat on the toilet, Oliver puts his hands around Elio’s torso and follows, with his finger, the turd’s path from Elio’s innards to the splash below. In the novel, shit is the complex epitome of intimacy between the gay lovers; in the film, shit is removed as too explicit, too unsanitary for its mainstream viewership. Shit is claimed by the radical queer male, the faggot, but rejected by the sanitised, assimilationist gay man. Within the poetics of shit, then, we may understand that the embracing of shit as an aesthetic weapon is a defining feature of male radical queerness. In McCormack’s words: “Faggots love shit.” With its own excessive embrace of faggotsfaggotsfaggotsfaggots—I dare you to find a page where this word doesn’t appear—Castle Faggot’s poetics of shit not only then separates the gay male from sanitised heterosexual culture, it also separates the radical queer male, the faggot, from the assimilationist gay man.

This obsession with faggots is nostalgic for a time when all gay men were faggots, when gay men couldn’t assimilate. To overly romanticise, this was a time when a stronger gay male community had a distinctive voice against wider heteronormative culture. Today, it faces less of this past oppression, but the gay male community is fractured and divided between faggot and assimilationist. In 2017, the Australian singer Brendan Maclean released “House of Air,” accompanied by a porn-saturated music video inspired by Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics. The video goes through various signs and symbols that have been historically significant to gay male sexuality, giving typologies of the handkerchief code, gay styling, and sex positions. Following the steps of John Waters, Maclean teases the audience through sloppy tonguing, slobbering blowjobs, and greedy anal fisting towards his pièce-de-résistence. In front of an azure blue background, a man’s head lies suspiciously innocently on the floor. It is still, calm. The man seems unphased and relaxed. From the top of the screen, something disrupts the unusual stillness. Of course, it is shit. Fake, you first assume, but nonetheless shocking, until the camera pans out to show another man, with cheeks clutched apart, shitting onto the first man’s face. Shortly after being put on YouTube, the video was removed, inciting outcries: first at its existence, then at its disappearance. Writing for the Guardian, Maclean reveled in his filthy depiction of the history of gay male sexual liberation. He was uncompromisingly committed to baring it all:It’s not have we gone too far, it’s have we gone far enough?” Here, the act of scat, the most enlivened form of shit poetics, both acts as the crowning jewel of gay depravity and nostalgically bridges Hal Foster and John Waters. In other words, the poetics of shit is not just a triumphant expression of gay male sexual liberation, but also an acknowledgment of queer ancestry and lineage.

I love the poetics of shit—I love writing about the puerile, the putrid, the abject, the filthy. I see a certain beauty in its intricate repulsiveness. But like all good men, it needs to know its place. For whilst it has previously served its purpose as a radical queer aesthetic mechanism, its implications render it innocuous, potentially dangerous, in today’s corona-riddled culture. I should herald Castle Faggot as genius. I should lord it as a coarsely triumphant satire of sanitising heteronormative capitalism. I should join Dennis Cooper in saying “It is really just one of the best books ever.” But I don’t. For I reluctantly could not shake the feeling that McCormack’s poetics of shit, with all its filth, fucking, faggotry, and forget-me-not nostalgia, was out of touch, out of time, and out of place in 2020. Upon finishing the book, in all its shitty glory, I could only ask: why now? The book could have been written at any moment from the 90s onwards. Indeed with all its references to Disney and cereal cartoons, this feels like its natural habitat. There is nothing radical about looking to the past when a currently fractured queer community, splintered by the impossibility of congregation, requires an undivided presentness in attention. Lying at the pulsating core of this nostalgic yearning is the fatal prognosis of shit poetics. Commemorating past times of oppression, with chocolate-tinted glasses, recognises that oppression no longer exists in that form. In the late 20th century gay men were systemically persecuted as dirty, sinful, and dangerous, and their oppression took centre stage of the discussion of queer politics. Today, benefitting from shifting cultural attitudes, medical breakthroughs, and the visibility afforded to them by patriarchal forces, they are no longer subject to the same levels of persecution. Remembrance, acknowledgment, and education of one’s queer history is paramount, but this nostalgia for past gay communities does something insidious: it places the male at the heart of radical queer politics. When we live in a violently transphobic world, this nostalgic centring of queer men is not radical.

Because the poetics of shit used by McCormack is relentlessly male, it also relentlessly centres the male. No other queer may exist in his universe (disregarding the draggy camp venerations of old matriarchal fashion designers like “Cocoa Channel”). One sentence, which I can only hope is made in deprecating self-awareness, states, “But not girl’s poo. Girl’s poo is gross.” Though said with deep irony, this lies at the crux of the problem of the poetics of shit, especially in today’s context. McCormack falls into the tired sexist trope occupied by ‘gold-star gays’ whose pride resides in their total avoidance of vaginas and vulvas. Such a perspective premieres cis gay male sex (and cis gay male pleasure) as an imperative act of resistance.  Radical queerness has gone beyond the need for such cis-homonormative understandings of sexuality, where one’s body is equated to one’s sex, which is equated to one’s sexuality, which is equated to one’s value. Much as the cis female body exclusively dominated critique against the patriarchy, so the gay cis male body exclusively dominates the critique against the cis-heteronormativity. Radical queerness should be orientated towards inclusivity and intersectionalism. Indulgent gay male debauchery does not break boundaries, it breaks an already fractured community. It once again forces the cis man, and the cis man’s desires, into the centre of the much wider debate regarding the liberation of sex and gender.

Queer culture is continuously being sanitised; Castle Faggot itself was briefly banned by Amazon in the U.S.—an honour for McCormack, I’m sure. But the reaction against such sanitisation cannot be led satisfactorily with the shit poetics of queer men. In fact, it perhaps shouldn’t be led by men at all. McCormack’s work serves a purpose in a cult literary world, so it is unfair to pin such a critique on him alone. Yet it was with him that I realised the poetics of poo, a lover I may never fully get over, had moved onto less radical pastures. I can only hope one day, covered in cow patties, he finds his way back with new, inclusive ways of being as radically scandalous as he once was.

Photo courtesy of Donna Marcus.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donna Marcus (they/them) is a writer and drag performer studying MA Writing at the Royal College of Art. Their recent work has appeared in Dazed, Vice, Schön and Chapter Z. They are currently working on their first book of experimental queer translations of Pāli texts. However, the reopening of clubs may prove to be a defeating distraction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 31st, 2021.