By Guest Columnist Cameron Martin
Happy pride month—now let’s talk about sex, shame, and poems. I had this one published recently, over at Sledgehammer Lit (fair warning, in the words of a friend, it “waxes lyrical about VD”). I’m going to copy the poem in full, and then I’d like to talk about how something like this starts out as a thought, and ends up as a poem:
There’s just something gay about poems, don’t you think? Or queer, if you prefer (I do, though didn’t when this poem’s set). Sexy, oblique, mysterious, slightly abject in an alluring way. I wanted to write gay poems before I could write gay poems I could stand, so, as with gay sex, even (long) after I was “out,” there was an element of pining, of aspiration. I remember reading in my high school psychology textbook that poets were more likely to be gay than the general population, and that’s probably as good a poet-origin-story as any.
This gay poem might strike you as somewhat sex negative, which isn’t an attitude I aspire to or endorse in life, and I suppose it is. My feelings about sex are mixed, even still (as informed by my fat, often undesired body, and all the bad sex I’ve had—bless you, good sex, truly), but the specific narrative contours of the moment I was limning in this poem just so happened to skew toward regret and dread. I’d like to write more about unabashed, unreserved pleasure, sexual and otherwise, in the future (which, as the poet Arielle Greenberg pointed out in a recent episode of Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast, you can go a long time reading contemporary poems about sex without finding), but this poem wasn’t it. I’m grateful to Greenberg as well as gay poets such as D. A. Powell, Randall Mann, Chen Chen, sam sax, Josh Tvrdy, and others (many of whom, surely, I haven’t read yet) who do write beautiful poems about sex and pleasure and pleasurable sex—go on ahead, I’ll meet you there.
Something I suppose I should get out of the way: this “speaker” is really just me, to the extent that any speaker can be. There’s no sense being coy. This isn’t always the case in my poems, perhaps less and less so as I write them, but this was the first poem of any quality that I wrote, so even with its insistent sounds and images, its couplets about coupling (kind of), it’s a transitional artifact—I was an essayist first, fitted to the factual, and even now I’m somewhat loathe to make things up. Besides that, I had a formative early love for Plath (the crisp swatch stained “garbage” was more or less directly lifted from the “trash / To annihilate each decade.” in “Lady Lazarus”) and the confessional. This somewhat circumscribed what I thought poems could be and do, and it’s taken me a while and a lot of reading to re-enlarge that sense. But you could call this a confessional poem and get pretty far in your analysis, I think, down to the last line’s mention of “my sin.” I didn’t grow up Catholic, but I have and, more to the point, had a lot of puritanical guilt—in general, but in no small part about the sex I was having—and poetry still seems like a good way of getting that off the chest, in style.
The title came fairly late in the drafting process, after I’d already started sending it out under different, less good titles (always overeager), but it feels like a necessary crux to me now, a useful tonal counterweight to the “fuck-all” opening line and other moments like “pissing really very little blood.” (Pissing blood is, of course, alarming; the alarm’s tragicomic suppression is that moment’s point, but not where the poem ultimately arrived, a progression suggested and urged by the title.) It signals what the poem is ultimately about: youthful immaturity that can’t see past its own face; shame and how it can keep us (kept me) both from pleasure and acting responsibly in pursuit of it. I was on my mother’s insurance at the time—would she somehow see a positive test result on a billing statement? And what if it wasn’t just gonorrhea or chlamydia, but HIV? Either way, how would my mother, not to mention other family and friends, react to the de facto admission of a sex life, and an unprotected one at that, which I’d never so much as acknowledged the existence of before? I was a roiling boy-shaped cauldron of stigma-induced anxiety. I had scarcely any queer friends or community at the time, was desperately lonely, had no one to confide in. And I dealt with it the only way the Midwest and my cis-het Midwestern parents (“too Michigan to say so”) had prepared me to: shoved it down, pretended to be unbothered, and got by that way until I absolutely couldn’t.
However sex negative this poem may be, I don’t by any means mean to suggest that this is or should be a generalizable attitude—the “sin” I’m confessing here (I struggled with that ending for ages), and may or may not be asking forgiveness for, is not the sex itself, not at all, but the fact of being sexually active without regular STI testing, the bare minimum act of collective (and, for that matter, individual) care necessary for ethical, care-free promiscuity. Then, of course, there’s PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, by means of a once-daily pill, for the prevention of HIV transmission, if my fellow queers will excuse the explanatory parenthetical), first approved for use by the FDA in 2012, the year I graduated from high school, a little over a year after I started having sex; I didn’t start taking it until 2018, the same year, as it happens, that I wrote the first draft of this poem. This convergence feels significant, telling, if not a little laughably on the nose, though I wouldn’t have made the connection at the time of composition.
I dearly hope that the experience that engendered this poem goes extinct. I hope the post-PrEP era means a resurgence of pleasure-centric sexual exploration among gay men, queer folks, everyone. I hope we all make informed decisions to reduce harm and act with care while getting off in the way that makes us most happy. It’s more or less meant that for me, if belatedly. I suspect, unfortunately, that this thirst-quenching, moist utopian moment won’t be so easily achieved. I live in the semi-rural inland northwest now, in a purplish pocket of mostly deep-red Idaho, and will for at least the next three years; I see closeted, femme-and-fat-phobic, trans-fetishizing men on Grindr as a rule, when I can bear to open it; I only know a few people on PrEP. I’m sure things are better elsewhere—I, too, am on gay Twitter—but being here has been a good reminder that progress is always uneven, always tenuous and contextual, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Which is some large part of why I feel the need to write about sex, about queer sex, about my queer sex life.
I still feel shame and regret about my potentially-malign neglect—I was lucky, in the end, and always would have been, relatively, thanks to (bullshit) privileges of whiteness and (middle) class— however well I understand what motivated it. I wish I could go back in time and grab that callow, fuck-all version of myself by the shoulders and shake him till he sees sense. As it is, poems are the only time machine I know, and all they’re really good for as regards the past is owning it. So, however much my younger self’s sins appall me, at least this poem I wrote about him and his infected body, reveling in its odors and colors, its feelings and failings, through sound and image, delights me. I hope it delights someone else too, makes them smile, maybe laugh, maybe wince, maybe cringe (maybe in recognition?)—and then I hope they get tested. I’ll love them for it, whatever the results.
Cameron Martin (he/they) is a fat & queer essayist & poet originally from Michigan. His writing has appeared in Sonora Review, The Normal School, Palette Poetry, and Sledgehammer Lit. They are the co-coordinator of the “queer minded, queer hearted” reading series Pop-Up Prose. He has a Twitter addiction ( @CMcLeodMartin ), ADHD, and a chip on his shoulder. They currently “live” in Moscow, Idaho, where they’ll be starting their MFA in poetry in the fall.