In our newest issue, Issue 69: Sex, Again?, we asked some of our favorite writers to describe some of their most awkward positions. The poet D. A. Powell was kind enough to respond with a rare foray into prose:
Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them? Before even saying hello? Most relationships ended backward, and quickly, and though we know the streets to be rough, I’m sure some of us are still out there, quivering in the moonlight. I do not think of those profligate days as particularly glorious, but different. It was a different time, when the noodle bar used to be a hard-core bar, before the pharmacy expanded and annexed the trashy old dance palace. San Francisco had sex the way Louisiana has churches, abundantly and with as much true spirit. Porn ran up and down these blocks like marigolds, the scene a twenty-four-hour donut shop for the transient and sexually desperate. Muscly women, muscly men, bearded, hunky, slender, lithe, kinky, twinky, clean or stinky. Candor. Fetish. Outness. It was Playland at the Beach without the sand up your crack. (Everything else, though, that could fit.) Talk was minimalized by the thumping homegrown music conjugated by producers at Megatone Records or Moby Dick, a label named for the popular tavern where patrons pressed into each other close and hard like a big box of matches waiting for just enough friction to be lit. We danced to the driving pulse of tracks like “Mandatory Love” and “Cruisin’ the Streets” and “Die Hard Lover,” songs that exploited and exposed the language of homo desire. At the Jackhammer, the Pendulum, the Headquarters, the Shed—music, bodies, the relief and thrill of being reflected and surrounded by a world in which one need not explain oneself. Untenable for the long term. Oh, but it seemed such a short-term life.
We lived illegal, illegitimate, marginalized in and by our own country, unprotected in every way. Any film that portrayed a serious homosexual told us we’d die; it was the code of a movie industry many of us loved that we would not be permitted happiness on-screen (or off), lest our form of sexual desire spread like a pod from outer space or werewolfism. It did not help that we acquired immune deficiency within our community, that the public treated homosexuality like an illness we all had to prevent from spreading. I speak of the past as a complex of repressive forces so powerful that simply to love felt like an act of rebellion. Sex was affirmation. Solidarity. It was proof that we were numerous and visible and therefore not an anomaly. Natural variants in a scale of genders and attractions, occurring across all the other spectrums of humanity. Sex was easy and communal, like when you pass a bottle of wine around at a picnic and fill strangers’ cups, too, because, hey, here we all are on the grass together.
But sex is just one kind of promiscuity. Poetry is another. Writing, in general, is the promiscuous use of language, and every writer or poet I know has started far more interactions with the page than ever saw the light of day. But it’s impossible to count the number of times we’ve kissed a new sunrise, turned to the scribble next to us on the nightstand and crumpled it up like a phone number we’ll never dial. I stop in the middle of writing this to open a package from Alex Dimitrov. I stop to read half of Honorée Jeffers’s The Glory Gets. I go to Lily Hoang and Marilynne Robinson. I’m listening to Sylvester, watching Rachel Maddow with the sound off and the closed captioning on (I prefer not to hear her voice but I want her ideas), and looking up the Cathy Park Hong essay everyone is talking about. Then Brecht’s love poems and Jamaal May. And this is all before breakfast. All these poems touch me in different ways, while I’m still in jammies; the essays penetrate me in ways I’ve never been penetrated before, and I am speaking tender words back to each writer. I am on the crowded dance floor of diction and it’s having its way with me. I run my fingers across sentences and lines, I finger and mouth each one of them, and sometimes I just lie there and listen and let the words take me.
I rarely finish what I write and I often don’t finish what I read. And don’t even ask me to get past the first paragraph of a relationship. I’m a good starter, though. I have joined the Twitter world, a perfect marriage of promiscuous interaction and lack of physicality. It is the divey cocktail bar of the imagination, where I can be stimulated in so many other ways—music, poetry, politics, science, news, quirky personalities. A dose of realness that can be ignored without dying on you, unlike, say, a cat. It is everything and nothing, like the present-day Castro neighborhood, a theater of liberation that has become so liberated that it no longer resembles itself except as a museum piece. I am glad to see we’ve been invaded by Starbucks and Pottery Barn—it means we are no longer in need of a fortress of identity and safety in numbers. I just hope that marriage freedom doesn’t become marriage expectation. There is no victory in a convention. What we fought for in these streets was not middle-class morality and well-behaved kids. We stood against the assumptions of heteronormativity, said yes with our hips, with our hearts, with our eyes. Made sexual play and sexual pleasure as easy and as enjoyable as poetry. If I belong anywhere and with anyone, it is everywhere and with everyone. Or at least as many as I have desire for. Of course I love being flirted with. But my drag name is no longer Clearance.
D.A. Powell‘s books include Repast and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.