When Percy Shelley called poets “the unrecognized lawmakers of the world,” he was perhaps anticipating the future poetics argument that pitted those interested in form as a matter of primary aesthetics against those who view form. poetry through a political / social lens.
Eric Sneathen, a graduate student in literature, acknowledges that aesthetics and politics are largely inextricably intertwined, but his own scholarship is more akin to exploring politics.
“I’m much more interested in literary history and archival work,” Sneathen says. “I like to talk to people about their lived experience, and then analyze how or not that aligns with the literary canon.”
Specifically, Sneathen, who is gay, explores how gay men, from the 1960s onwards, formed a literary community, wrote or organized poems and other literary works about their experiences, and how this community informed the most recent social movements around gay identity.
“It was a purposely gay literary culture,” Sneathen says of a movement in the Bay Area after the Stonewall riots of 1969. “They had their own presses, their own networks, and their own literary celebrities.”
Sneathen thinks of literary figures like Robert Gluck, Kevin Killian, Paul Mariah and Donald Allen. All four were prominent participants in San Francisco’s burgeoning gay literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s.
“They aren’t necessarily famous writers,” Sneathen says. “But one of the arguments I’m making in my thesis is that we should know who these people are and I’m exploring why they have become marginalized.”
Take Donald Allen in particular.
He was not a poet himself, but as a publisher he championed the work of many of the most famous literary artists of his time.
“He was an editor and a creator of tastes,” says Sneathen. “We don’t usually talk about publishers the same way we talk about writers, but that’s our deficit. “
Allen worked for 16 years at Grove Press and had a huge influence on what Imprint brought to the press, including the translation of famous absurd dramas by French playwright Eugene Ionesco. He edited the works of poet Frank O’Hara, a dynamic poetic talent and leader of the “New York School” of poetry. But Allen spent much of his adult career in San Francisco, where he helped edit gay poetry and prose, but also helped shape the work of writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Charles Olsen, Joanne Kyger and Richard Brautigan.
“A thread of my argument is that through the underground gay community, people like Allen have tapped into their social lives to produce gay literature, but even straight poets like Charles Olsen have entered Allen’s orbit. through his connections to gay poets, ”Sneathen says.
Thus, Sneathen’s book is not so much an inquiry into the aesthetic concerns of gay literary culture in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s as an inquiry into how the social milieu of the social movement helped produce a distinctive literary movement.
“When you get to the social movement writers of the 70s, they sometimes write from this denominational mode of expression and they are rejected as a result,” says Sneathen. “They did not meet these impersonal standards of the various avant-garde movements of the time. There was tension between the vanguard, which argued for the removal of the personnel, and minority writers and feminists, who insisted that the personal and the political were inextricable.
Sneathen’s work also explores the ways in which one movement was sanctioned by the academy as a canon, while the other movement was viewed as a fringe with its inclusion viewed as questionable.
“I think gay literature, like feminist literature or ethnic literature, was seen as a complement to canon literature,” Sneathen explains. “This may be true of course, but it may also be true that the contributions of homosexual authors are fundamental to the canon as we know it.”
But while Sneathen grapples with “questions about authorship and literary production,” he is also busy producing his own literary works. At the end of the month, a book by Camille Roy edited by Sneathen is scheduled for publication. Called Honey mine, the book is a collection of experimental short stories with explicitly lesbian and queer themes.
He published a collection of poetry entitled Snail poems, calling it an extended elegy for a friend who died in Morocco while working for the US Peace Corps. He is the author of another chapbook I fill this room with the echo of many voices, a collection of sonnets that explores the unfair stigma of Gaetan Dugas, who has been wrongly identified as “Patient Zero” for the AIDS epidemic in North America.
Sneathen says the poems allowed him to grapple with the implications of perceptions around a historical figure, which in turn allowed him to contextualize his own biography. Growing up in San Diego, he realized by sixth grade that he was “very clearly drawn to men.”
“I dated two close friends in 8th grade and I was really quiet about it until about 10th grade,” he says.
Then he stepped out of his entire class more generally, a rare move at the time, but one that had profound implications for his creative work and scholarship, which continues at a steady pace.
“I have been fortunate enough to work on books on specific issues in my own life and that my writing around these issues and issues has interested other people,” he says.