A personal essay on queer love and loneliness in response to Sam Duckor-Jones’s People From The Pit Stand Up and Chris Tse’s he’s so MASC.
Two cocker-spaniel-sized sphinxes. A stockpile of Swoosh Icy Cool hair gel. A folder of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa worksheets. A tiny tin containing a sewing needle. A book, called The Goddess: Power, Sexuality and the Feminine Divine. And an old hatbox of postcards, letters and photographs. Valueless personal debris alongside precious personal artefacts.
Dana de Milo was central in a cohort of Wellington trans and other LGBTQ+ people who were defiantly visible in the 60s and 70s, a time when marginalised people could wholly expect to have varying degrees of violence perpetrated against them on a daily basis, by neighbours, by strangers, by family, by police. I didn’t meet Dana, but at the time of her passing in February 2018 I was working at Aunty Dana’s Op Shop, an outreach and fundraising project of Gender Minorities Aotearoa, named in Dana’s honour. Dana lived alone, and left almost everything she owned to GMA and the op shop. A week or so after Dana died, I arrived in Strathmore to help organise her belongings before her council house was turned over to a new tenant.
LGBTQ+ people can be both conspicuous and cryptic, like leafy seadragons against seagrass.
It’s hard to describe how it felt to participate in the pack up. It felt wrong to throw out things written in Dana’s hand, even when I knew whatever it was – for instance, a page of scrawled study notes – couldn’t be repurposed. I was grateful that the photographs and letters were being looked over by someone else (a selection would be submitted to Te Pūranga Takatāpui o Aotearoa archive), yet it was these same things that drew me in whenever I came across them. From the heyday of film cameras (with no easy way to inspect or edit the roll before printing), many of the pictures were imperfect sequences of ‘duds’, taken mostly at intimate gatherings – mouths open midsentence, eyes closed, goofy smiles – the nice, posed shots were missing, perhaps having made it into frames. Coming across these informal sequences (and the day’s work in general) felt special and solemn and intrusive, just as I guess many archivists and historians feel when investigating the stories and lives of LGBTQ+ people – people who can be both conspicuous and cryptic, like leafy seadragons against seagrass.
I was talking to a friend about writing this piece, a personal response to Sam Duckor-Jones’s People From The Pit Stand Up and Chris Tse’s he’s so MASC. My friend reckoned both collections place a high degree of trust in the reader – and, yeah, like going through the contents of Dana de Milo’s house, it can feel special and solemn and intrusive reading their poems. As well as these feels, both books are funny as heck – revelry bubbling like hot seams of gold through some of the other tensions and uncomfortable divulgences of the work. Contained in the poems are smirks and eye rolls and in-jokes, which I feel like I’m in on, even when I don’t totally understand – and if that isn’t queer culture, I don’t know what is.
Both authors are around my age, let’s say babies in 1986, the year consensual sex between men was legalised in Aotearoa. In 1999, the three of us were around the same age as Jeff Whittington, a fourteen-year-old kid whose killers (Jason Morris Meads and Stephen Smith) boasted about kicking “a faggot” to death on Inverlochy Place in central Wellington. Jeff’s hair was dyed purple and he was wearing fluorescent nail polish. Five years later, in 2004, Destiny Church organised a 5000-strong rally on parliament, aggressively opposing legislation that would honour and protect same-sex partnerships. Sam, Chris, myself (and, had he survived his injuries, Jeff Whittington) would be entering our twenties.
LGBTQ+ people develop a sixth sense for hostility in our surroundings. We get metaphor early, understanding there’s a surface and there’s a true nature.
If these were the surface tensions across that timespan – across the formative years of our cohort of queer people – you can imagine the undercurrents, the day-to-day experiences. At Rangiora High School, I would say I experienced queerphobia on a daily basis, but even today, in Wellington, I reckon I catch a whiff on the weekly, sometimes even more than a whiff. I want to say LGBTQ+ people develop a sixth sense for hostility in our surroundings. We get metaphor early, understanding there’s a surface and there’s a true nature (John Cameron Mitchell said this on the latest What’s the Tee? podcast). There are tensions for us between invisibility and spectacle, between solitude and intimacy. I think we’re primed to pay close attention to subtext, to not really ever stop scanning for hidden meanings – it could be a defensive mechanism. If you’ve ever tried to look for a hidden seadragon, that’s what gives them away – those big, round, stuck-open eyes, honey.
I’m feeling these tensions in the work of Sam and Chris.
From the first line, Sam is watching birds – kārearea calling overhead, finches gathering cobwebs, tōrea issuing distress calls along the beach. In the countryside, nature-lover Sam notices other darker elements too: truckloads of lambs are conveyed to the meat works, a local supermarket employee is murdered, surfers are thrown around in “daggery” rough seas. Outside the house, in the world of People From The Pit, there is a big, ridiculous, sometimes hostile, hurly-burly of provincial characters – like “G”, who sells cement and believes in reptilian politicians and a “third eye” at Kaitoke. Inside the house are Sam’s sedate golems, his stand-in husbands. In a hilarious scene Sam imagines burglars entering his house and being scared off by his creations, “the terrible faces of nudes who loom”.
If Sam’s house is a retreat guarded by clay golems, Chris’s could be an enclosure from which to liberate himself. In ‘Belated backstory’, he could be recalling feelings of powerlessness and captivity, and the poem ‘This house’ conveys a kind of pre-debut paralysis: “I must decide what to hide and what to show, always conscious of what others may perceive to be too much information.” Another poem suggests incriminatory material being hidden in a “labyrinthine folder structure on our shared family computer [that] wasn’t as effective as I thought it was”. Ugh, Chris, I relate! Not only to futilely hidden folders (in my case the folder trail ended with one hundred pictures of shirtless heartthrobs) but also to leaving the house, wracking my brain about what I could do that day to pass as straight, or at least not as queer.
Chris writes about striving to achieve validity through the masculine roles he sees available to him (best son, best uncle, cherished former lover) and the anxiety that comes with those expectations. ‘Heavylifting’ suggests achieving popularity and renown could even counterbalance not being able to (easily) father children. He feels the pressures of masculine beauty standards and performativity in ‘Tonight, Matthew’. The line “Don’t fuck it up” evokes RuPaul’s command before she pits two badly performing protégés against one another. The last lines, “I’m going to disappear into the dark side of the stage”, pinpoint that tension between spectacle and invisibility – sometimes invisibility can feel better, especially if you have practised blending in. Chris plays with the trappings and pressures of fitting a certain template. In ‘I was a self-loathing poet’, a friend gives advice “know your niche … and play the field that way”. I laughed at this, because earlier this year I went to bed with a warm, beautiful man, and after an aimless, fumbling cuddle session he said to me something like, “I really need to have a clear idea of what role my lover wants me to take before I can enjoy myself” and as someone who also tends towards taking my cues from someone else’s pleasure, I felt a deep, hopeless understanding.
I wonder about the way the lightness of heart and ease I feel in friendships contrasts to how intimate relationships can feel unwieldy and fraught – how for some queer people, feelings of connection still carry an undercurrent of unease.
Confession time! Sam and I dated while he was writing the MA thesis that would become People From The Pit Stand Up. When I talk to friends about our special something ending, I take pride in the fact that we shifted gears almost seamlessly into friendship. I wonder about the way the lightness of heart and ease I feel in friendships contrasts to how intimate relationships can feel unwieldy and fraught – how for some queer people, feelings of connection still carry an undercurrent of unease. Anyway, one of Sam’s poems describes a weekend we took away together, in which Sam canonised me as a snorer. For the record, readers, I hardly ever snore – I had a respiratory thing going on at the time, okay! Also, hilariously, at Te Papa’s Writers On Mondays, 2017, Sam read his wonderful poem ‘life model’. Afterwards, a mutual friend made some comment insinuating the poem was written about me. Look, I get the “His hair still loves the pillow” line, but come on, “He smells like a 3pm lunchbox”? Chris Tse and I don’t have that same tender linkage, so none of the he’s so MASC poems are about me – or not exactly.
One of the strangest, most special parts of People From The Pit is ‘Blood Work’. This sequence details the creation, and sometimes the destruction, of clay golems. Sam’s interactions with his stand-in husbands feels tender at times, at times darkly funny, like when an earthquake upends one of “the boys” and “look he’s all over the floor / found a finger in the garden / a penis in the grass”. While the house filling with golems can feel like an antidote to solitude, these acts of creation can also feel like isolating acts: “I touch & I touch & I am never touched”. A golem shifts to a dreamland in a deeply erotic scene when Sam and one of his creations go to bed together. Sam explains the loneliness that sits behind this imaginative reach, “When the only faces / in all the days are those one’s manifested / one can expect seepage”.
Queer people, before coming out, often entertain longer, more private, and perhaps idealised fixations.
Later in the book, Sam pays close attention to a nude portrait of Paul Rosano. The very same painting was included in a book of nudes on my mum’s bookshelf when I was growing up, and whenever I was home alone I would open up to that page, transfixed. Here, I was reminded that queer people, before coming out, often entertain longer, more private, and perhaps idealised fixations on characters from fiction and art, like Paul Rosano and Sam’s “placeholder golems”. But eventually, for many of us, interpersonal magnetism overrides the power of imagination. As Sam writes in the last poem of the ‘Blood Work’ sequence, “I’ve practised enough with these mannequins”.
Quite late in the book, Sam meets Antigone, and they play close, sweet, nervous attention to each other, before Antigone suddenly comes out as lesbian. There’s something so, so lovely here, a moment so familiar to me. Maybe I’m recalling how revealed queerness can feel like an anchor in rough seas. Maybe it’s the solidarity queer people can feel with women in general, who also suffer, rebel and celebrate in a world made hostile by misogyny and queerphobia. In one of my favourite poems in he’s so MASC, ‘Crying at the disco’, Chris begins with “The girls / I thought I loved / still follow me around–”. The poem goes on to describe a dance club, where, if the girls have become shadows, the new loves are incandescent and vivid. It could be possible to read the girls as having become irrelevant, supplanted by the boys “so bright”. That is, if it weren’t for how often remarkable women are conjured up throughout the book: Björk, Tori Amos and PJ Harvey in the epigraph alone, and later Madonna, Ani DiFranco and Taylor Swift. Like a hall of goddesses, the woman are trusty luminaries; by contrast, Chris’s he-wolves, a motif repeated throughout the book, are beings that exist as both predatory villains and potential companions. Owoooooo!
In both Chris’s and Sam’s books, there is sex and longing, tenderness and pain, quest and invention, togetherness and solitude: if that’s not the queer experience, I don’t know what is.
Feature image: Nathan Rupert