Craig Moreau received his MFA from New York University and attended University of Iowa for his undergraduate studies. He lives in New York City and recently was a teaching-fellow for NYU’s Veterans Workshop. He has work forthcoming in Lambda Literary. Chelsea Boy is his first book of poetry.
That familiar cliché is often the response I receive after answering that seemingly innocent question: “What do you do?”
“I’m a poet,” usually scares people off or moves the conversation to other points-of-entry, but every once in a while someone will prod a little further because they are legitimately interested or trying to figure out if I’m being serious.
The prevailing attitudes people bring to the table, whether that table is during cocktail hour, dinner, or at a board-meeting, are important however the question is answered. What assumptions are usually made about your career? Is there a cliché to what you do? Is what you do your career or a job? Or something else?
The reason this question persists is because of the power of the stereotype. You can gather a large amount of information about someone with their one-word answer. And in cities where time-is-money, it’s all about how much information you can gather in the shortest amount of time (keep in mind, “money” is interchangeable with whatever trade is in demand… it needn’t be currency…).
It’s important to know what kind of information you’re giving a prospective friend, client, date, or stranger when you answer. In my case, I get a lot of assumptions that I rhyme, I’m pretentious, or that I’m deep. True or not, the ideas people have about you will immediately turn them on, or turn them off. Regardless, I’m always interested in seeing how people react.
Stereotypes interest me greatly. So much so, that I wrote a book about it. In poetry, the tools I use to create with are words. As queer identifying peoples, we know all too well how the language of stereotyping can be limiting, hurtful, and sometimes dangerous. You’re gay. To some, that also means you’re feminine. Or, it means you know how to dress well. In some cultures and religions, it extends beyond the insulting and carries into the inhumane. To be gay means to be sick or unholy.
I’m not claiming this as a ground-breaking observation. But what interests me is how we stereotype within our own community. You don’t like being labeled as gay and having people assume you know the choreography to Vogue, do you? How rude, right? Or what about those very-uneducated who think being gay means we have HIV? I remember when I came out to my roommates at the University of Iowa; one of them asked me afterwards, “you’d tell us, right, if you, ya know, had it?”
Well, I don’t. But here’s what I do have: an MFA. A middle-class upbringing, blonde hair, blue-eyes, 24 years, white-skin, a soft voice, and the list goes on. It seems that whatever language I use to describe myself, I fit into a mold. If I call myself gay, if I identify as a New Yorker, if I say I like vanilla ice-cream, those all bring up different connotations for different people.
This is the fun part of poetry. I get to work with these connotations and meanings and try to alter them, undue them, or unfold them into something larger, and more complex. If I use the word “cruise” in a poem, does the word conjure up passenger-ships or sexually-aggressive flirting on 8th Avenue? Or does it make you think of Top Gun and Tom?
Poets try to understand these associations and work with them using various devices of the craft, in a hope to achieve the goals cited earlier. If the poem (and thus the poet) is successful, it will affect you in some way. It might be pleasure, it might be anxiety, it might be disgust, you might feel inspired or any combination of several things; as long as you feel something.
I was inspired by a particular term used within our own community. The infamous Chelsea Boy. What do those words mean to you? Muscle-head? Jerk? Circuit-queen? Attractive? Unattractive? Plastic? Player? If you’re from England, it probably makes you think of a very specific soccer team. If you’re in constant danger for being who you are, this probably doesn’t matter. What’s important is relative to the situation. My situation, and that of the book’s, is one of relative privilege and frivolity. But within this conceit there exist themes that are not relative to the situation—that are absolute in that we are all connected by our humanity. Things like finding our identity, the desire to love and be loved, and the longing for a community, are universal and forever relevant.
I write in my author’s note for Chelsea Boy:
“The more I asked around and read, the more I realized that the term, Chelsea Boy, seemed to be waning. As the new gay-ghettos are moving north to Hell’s Kitchen and east to Brooklyn, the phrase’s relevance has become limited to camp. To be labeled a Chelsea Boy immediately defines yourself in two ways: your geography and your gender. It implies your sexuality and age. In its subtext, so much more is said.
Throughout writing this book the two most frequent questions I received were: What is a Chelsea Boy to you? And, do you consider yourself a Chelsea Boy?
I live in Chelsea, check. I’m a male, check. I’m young, check. I’m gayer than Gaga, double-check. Now, for subtext: Do I do steroids and own a small dog? Do I go to circuit parties and do drugs? Do I camp and cruise and wear designer clothes? Am I vacant and shallow and plastic? Am I cliché?”
Are you cliché, Interior-Designer? Are you cliché, Lawyer or Doctor or Waiter? Are you cliché, gay-guy who likes Glee? The point is, we use language to make sense of what we do, but we should not use it to fully understand who we are. Doing so is far too limiting.
I got lots of nasty press because of who I am. I get lots of nasty press because of what I’m trying to do. I’m sure more will come, and I embrace it. The book, words, meanings, and what I, and the book represent to people, are far more important than my feelings or ego. I’m doing something I believe in.
I’m trying to get poetry to people who don’t read poetry, or care about poetry. I’m trying to show that if you want to be a poet, you only have to allow yourself to be one; you don’t need permission because no one is going to give it to you. When do you send your work in? Who do you send your work to? What do you write about? Why do you write? No one is going to tell you these things. You have to be assertive in your mission and believe in what you’re doing. Because what you’re doing is important, even if it’s only for you.
Do you believe in what you’re doing? In my undergrad an instructor once told me, “Poetry is a lifestyle, not a job.” I don’t think this is specific to poetry or art or anything else. Whatever you’re doing, be that, own the work you do, not the other way around. I am a person interested in words, language, history, community, and place. That might not be your kick, but I’m going to do everything I can to get you wonder, even if just for a minute, that these things are important to you, too.
Even if it means I have to take my shirt-off to get you to notice me. Even if it means I come across as desperate or arrogant. Because in the end, I’m hoping you look past whatever you see in me, and take a look at what I’m saying.
So, what do you do?
I want to know. Send me an e-mail. Write a poem. Read a poem.
Show me you’re more than the words that define you.
To purchase a copy of Chelsea Boy click here.