Monday, November 4, 2019

Lucas Crawford on Michael V. Smith

Faggot Sissy Gifts from A to V

What does the “V” in Michael V. Smith stand for? Whether his verve or his versatility, his top to bottom inside-out manipulation of language and the vas deferens, the vast difference between his body of work and that of mainstream queer writing is vital – verifiably. Michael V. Smith is a vertebrate and he has backbone. His work may cause vertigo, may vex us, may veer from vice to vice, may veto our ideas about virility or vex our binary of naughty and nice. This, to queer readers, may feel like… Vindication.

I live in a province (New Brunswick) where a municipal government raised the straight pride flag in 2018. This flag is an icon not only of white supremacy, anti-queer backlash, and enforced religiosity, but also of just how bad homophobes are at visual arts and textile design. New Brunswick needs political queer aesthetics, and not just because such practitioners are well-trained in turning the ugliness of the world into beautiful (sometimes imaginary) places in which we can survive and thrive. But if a new queer to town in Fredericton might appraise many of the signs of coercive heteronormativity she meets with a critical but hopeful queer eye (for the New Brunswick guy?), she might find that her critical gaze is returned to her tenfold. He might be having dinner with his mother at Mexi-Cali Rosa’s (RIP) and have to tell a group of men to pipe down with their loud transphobia. She might have received hate mail when she spoke out against white supremacist posters on campuses of the University of Brunswick or Saint Thomas University, or seen a Trump-inspired “Make NB Give ‘Er Again” ball cap at the club. Or, as in my case, moving to Fredericton during an acute illness, their introduction to the province as a trans person might be getting kicked off the plane to Fredericton, then kicked out of the ER at the hospital days later, and then evicted within a week for having a cat (in a building full of cats).

But why not focus on the positive? Because for many of us, it is tiring and soul-killing to accept the following social truth: being likable as a queer person often means accepting responsibility for the comfort of straight people. This can mean not only presenting a depoliticized queerness that affirms straight culture and straight choices, but also exhibiting gratefulness to indifferent or ignorant people, as if social change hasn’t been granted glacially, begrudgingly, and violently.

The discomfort of Michael V. Smith’s work pries open a different world. Living there means questioning one’s beliefs about propriety: his drag queen name is Miss Cookie LaWhore. It means investigating one’s commitment to politesse. It means questioning the idea that hatred is necessarily to be avoided: as Smith asks in Bad Ideas, “Has hatred not liberated more people than those who have done the enslaving? / Dear hatred, sweet hatred, do you not move our enemies to know us better?” It means questioning the detachment of (gender)queerness from anything to do with corporeal style, gender, sex, and beliefs: as Smith writes in his memoir, My Body Is Yours, “I’d been busy working on reclaiming sissy and fag and feminine and girly and queer and femmey even.” Take all of what you think you know about the goodness of “rejecting stereotypes” (often just a way of reinforcing norms) and hear Michael V. Smith say that he is a proud faggot sissy. How I yearn for such outward, visible, and discomfiting (gender)queerness amid the proliferation of digestible and respectable modes of gay life, amid the privatization and re-location of gender inside the mind or heart.

Listening to his work means knowing that no body (indeed, nobody) is disconnected from queerness. You may not see it. But then, “Someone who’d dismiss my hello in a pub would see me an hour later in the park and silently do me.” In Xtra West (RIP), Smith shared sex-capades with the public that would probably make you “Blush,” the title of his column. Whether it was, in his words, “furtively pulling on dick under a washroom stall, and swapping blowjobs with a boy in a cramped peep-show booth,” Smith carries on a long queer legacy of requiring and demanding that sex not be confined to the bedrooms of the nation or even to the woods, but that it, rather, enter the realm of the unrepentant page. The political stakes of this legacy are not always intuitive. You don’t learn them on committees, from television shows that champion makeovers as the ultimate queer gift to the straight world, from osmosis (that is, not from one’s “gay friend” or from watching Oscar-nominated anti-queer crap that happens to contain a gay or bi person), or from the kind of hesitant and implicit tolerance we have learned to accept as good enough.

There are lots of ways to learn and advance these political stakes, but each entails undertaking the most ruthless visceral inventory of yourself. This inventory is what Michael V. Smith creates across his oeuvre. May we be worthy of such a gift. May we consume it as the sacred and painful token of a queerer future that it is. May we study the (gender)queer pasts that brought us here and prolong their grounding in material departures from the norm. May we all be eaten up with the bodily excavation typical of Smith’s texts. May we be bold enough to take the risks he does. There’s a reason Loop Magazine named Smith one of Vancouver’s Most Dangerous People.

Consider the tales of My Body is Yours – fucking hundreds of anonymous men, blood staining one’s cheeks, proceeding when a particularly delectable man comes along and you don’t have a condom. There are many kinds of danger, though. One we all have the chance at is to risk our selfhoods and certainties – by admitting to ourselves oneself that there may be something about Smith’s body of work that we do not have the visceral capacity to understand (yet). As Smith ends a chapter of My Body of Yours, it’s neither candour nor courage that can lead any of us down a path of bodily-self-interrogation and but is, rather, “conviction.” Of what, then, have we already convinced ourselves about ourselves? Could you convince yourself otherwise?

So often when receiving a gift, we politely say thank you, and either return it, try to “regift” it, or bury it in the back of our closets. I urge us to give ourselves permission to receive Michael V. Smith’s gifts differently. Permission to be confused, to struggle. To live with that struggle and feed it, to refuse to shape it into a consumable narrative for ourselves and others. If we do that more often, maybe then we can, in New Brunswick and elsewhere, let our freak flags fly. Victoriously.

Lucas Crawford is associate professor of English at the University of New Brunswick and author of three poetry books: Sideshow Concessions (Invisible 2015), The High Line Scavenger Hunt (U of Calgary 2018), and Belated Bris of the Brainsick (Nightwood 2019).

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