A look back at the impetus for “GAY LIT.”Winner of BEST OF IMAGINE (SO FAR) for “GAY LIT”
By Richard Martin / San Francisco
Sunday, December 4, 2005
In the poem “GAY LIT” I wanted to capture a moment in time that changed the way I look at the world. I’ve had several life-altering moments like this over the years — moments after which nothing is ever the same again, and the universe looks different from that point forward.
My mother and I moved to San Francisco from New York City in 1963, right after the Kennedy assassination. Art and music were everywhere, and I knew early on that I wanted a career in the arts. I started out as a writer, but got derailed at age 10 when I started taking children’s parts in plays for the American Conservatory Theater. I also learned to play the guitar, and by the time I graduated high school I had joined the musician’s union and was playing five nights a week in nightclubs that I wasn’t old enough to be in without my cabaret card.
My father died in the Air Force so I was eligible for V.A. benefits. I studied creative writing and music at City College of San Francisco on the G.I. Bill and got an apartment in Chinatown. I picked up some bad habits along the way, and 15 years later, at age 38, I was in the county jail facing three-to-five years imprisonment for possession of heroin. In court they would decide if I could do 18 months of residential substance abuse treatment in lieu of prison time.
I had distinguished myself by getting caught bringing dope into the jail, so I was placed in the so-called “gladiator school” cellblock, with people who were much more dangerous than I was. Except for me, everyone in this corner of the jail was waiting for a bus: the “immigration bus” that took people to Tijuana; “the grey goose” that took people to the state penitentiary; and for some, “the happy bus,” which took people to Atascadero, the California state prison for the mentally ill.
These buses would come in the middle of the night and everyone on the line would wake up. Those who were leaving were taken out of their cells, and for a few transitory minutes they could walk around the dayroom that was in the center of the cellblock. They would walk up to different cells to say their goodbyes, bequeath their candy bars and other jailhouse treasures to their homeboys, and maybe ask a good friend to call their loved ones.
During my second night on the floor, the grey goose came and I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the ritual. Virtually everybody was standing near one of the cells that lined the dayroom, saying goodbye. But one person was sitting in the dayroom alone. This guy had the typical prison-issue insignias, but instead of “White Pride” down the back of his biceps, he had “Gay Pride.”
I had one of these moments that I was telling you about. I had a crystal-clear revelation that everything that I believed to be true was in fact not true; that reality was only perception, and different for everyone. I changed in that instant into a wiser, but weaker, man. I also felt a deep sadness for this guy going to the joint with “Gay Pride” tattooed on his arms and no one to say goodbye to, no place to call home, and no one to love. Maybe you’ve never done time, but I’m sure that you know enough to understand why I considered this tattoo to be an incredible act of courage. Still, I saw in that moment that this man was as frightened and vulnerable as a baby.
I considered calling him over to my cell and asking him if there was someone that I could call for him. And I’d like to tell you that I’m that kind of hero, but I was scared, man …
I have always regretted not talking him that night — maybe that’s why I wrote the poem.
I got out of my prison sentence and went to the drug program. While I was in there I started writing again — success stories for the agency newsletter. The people running the place asked me if I thought I could write a grant proposal; I said I thought I could.
For the last nine years, I’ve worked in some of San Francisco’s largest human service organizations as a grant writer. In the last place, all the people that worked with me had master’s degrees and I started getting an inferiority complex. Then my mother went back to school (at age 73) and got a master’s in gerontology and the carnage was complete — I enrolled in San Francisco State’s creative writing program. By the time you read this in December, I will have graduated.
I wrote “GAY LIT” for a workshop. Our class went out and sat on the grass near the Humanities Building on an exquisite April day and I received critiques of my poem from a group of intelligent and extremely attractive women who were half my age. They liked “GAY LIT” but they wanted me to change some things, which I did. Then one of these elegant young women read a poem about masturbation. I lay back in the grass and asked myself, “When did I become a king?”