Tuesday, September 9, 2014



You know what I think is funny? That there was a point in my life I didn't know you. How weird. You are a permanent feature on my globe—like a continent. 
My friend Ryland

When I question my 31-year old buddy, Ryland, regarding any feelings he has about Walt Whitman, he asks, “Didn't the gay community claim him as their own, like their property?

“Make him a gay saint or something?”

“Okay,” I say to my artistic brother, “I’m going to suggest something that might be challenged—not by you, but if I publish these newfound discoveries. When I read Whitman in my teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with the notion of his homosexuality.”

It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress
 does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side
“I Sing The Body Electric” Walt Whitman

“The is-he-or-isn’t-he? question has become a non-issue for me,” I continue. “And that is partly because the word ‘gay’ is always thrillingly in flux and never more so than in your generation and the current crop, a decade younger—sorry, Ryland—than you.

“Was Walt gay?’’ I ask myself, and Ryland, as I attempt to tease it out.

“I believe that he loved men with erotically charged emotion, to a degree likely uncommon among his peers,” I say. “I believe there was likely some heartfelt and soulful canoodling and maybe some randy petting taking places with his buddies as the sun went down. But was there all-out fucking?”

I’m certainly not arguing that rambunctious man-to-man anal sex wasn’t transpiring in 1855 (or 1755, for that matter) but did Walt’s sexual repertoire and rapture involve insertion? Part of me thinks not.

I present Ryland with my heretofore cloistered conclusion: “I surmise that the way he navigated his sexuality was approached with more guileless sensually than rough-and-tumble sexually.”

Ryland speaks up, way up, “This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, as things keep evolving, minute to minute. Does it all come down to insertion?”

“No, it’s all up to insertion,” I say, as archly as possible. “I get it, Ryland,” I say, wondering if I really do.

“The gay community, per se, needed that identification to get where we are today,” Ryland posits.

What Ryland says is golden. No matter the specific acts Whitman performed sexually, he gave us voluptuous insight to the very renegade construct of men loving men.


O the magnet! The flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to definiteness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
“To A Pupil” Walt Whitman

I had already begun publishing myself, as intimately as I possibly could, in hopes that my comrades did not die in vain. To have lived to be sixty-four years old, having adopted an African-American daughter, and continued to publish myself has to be credited, not only to the empathy-embracing acting teacher, but to Whitman.

Surely his message—as political as it was artistic—has guided me since my first reading (even though perhaps I infused it with more steamy sexuality than was intended). Whitman was also addressing—in all his poetry’s luxuriousness and sensuality—the art and diligence of achieving democracy in multi-layered specificity. My digestion of those tenets was more subliminal.

Was I aware of that when I was in my twenties, as a horny young gay men looking for someone to identify with? Doubtful. Nor did I likely see the full palette of Williams or Albee or Inge or Isherwood or Vidal; it was their sexuality that provided the portal to understanding something far greater. Call it spirit. Call it spiritual. Call it soul. Without those voices, on the printed page, staring at me with such empathy, I would not have survived to this ripe “old age.”

I believe it’s Whitman’s righteousness that I hold onto as a grown up man; his sense of being one of a crowd, and loving those members of the crowd—no matter what their status may be—is what makes me move forward with some sense of gracefulness and ease. Whitman’s empathy is his artistic achievement.

“The seminar,” I tell Ryland, “resulted in an overwhelming, almost otherworldly sense of soulfillment. Sorry, I mean ful-fillment.”

“No,” Ryland shoots back, without taking a beat, “You mean soul-fillment.”

“Did we just make up a word? I love it. I fucking love it: soulfillment.”

Whitman’s poetry often references “loafing on the grass” and our class found many meanings in this luxuriously enveloping image. Is he being thankful? Was he meditating? Was he finding comfort in nature? What he simply being present in his body/soul? Was he taking time to pay attention?  Perhaps all of the above, all lessons that I know I can learn from.

The nourishment I received from my week in Santa Fe is almost indescribable in its breadth. Not only did I leave singing a song of myself, I left with a sense of being reinforced in my mission as an artist and a human being.

Yet I must share this information with my peers and my younger brethren, for it to resonate. I must publish myself—on the page and in person.

“Keep on loafing on the grass, bud.”
An email from Mitch

This is part five of a five-part series.

This piece is dedicated to Steve Schulte who made my second trip to Santa Fe a reality. And special thanks to Zo Harris for her editing skills.

Monday, September 1, 2014



Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw
          me approaching or passing
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood or the negligent leaning of their flesh
          against me as I sat
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told
          them a word
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman

While one of my esteemed classmates challenged Whitman’s boundary-less largess, I wholeheartedly believe that one can love someone without ever having exchanged words.

This was not the first reference to Whitman’s hyper-connectivity with every human being he encountered, saluting “all the inhabitants of the earth,” as he said. And that included prostitutes, prisoners, pirates, thieves, murderers, and lunatics among others. These humans comprised his chosen democracy and connecting to its manifold members didn’t require verbiage. Each is a metaphoric “leaf of grass”—distinct, important, part of nature, to be celebrated.

I am annealed to the idea of the body as a home for the soul and the soul as a conduit to democracy. Throw in a bit of homoeroticism and I’m there, baby.

Yet I am willing to question myself. Am I my own worst stereotype, a gay man who grew up on anonymous encounters and convinced myself there was emotion attached? I think not. In some cases, of course the sexual gymnastics were void of emotion. But in others, a sense of brotherhood, joined with a profound feeling of love, prevailed. With my soul, I was expressing something beyond the sexual act.

I do not believe this phenomenon is the province of gay men (or of men presumed to be gay) since I have also felt deep love for women; a woman that I silently exchange glances with just might result in an ineffable, instantaneous but fleeting love affair. And I feel certain that many heterosexuals, male and female, have shared this sensation.

When I first made love to Philip, I did not even know that his name was Philip. I also did not know his age, his occupation, his educational background, or where he lived. In those days, prior to the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, gay men often met in the darkened hallways of bathhouses where a communal desire to “only connect” (thank you, E.M. Forster) drove us into each other’s arms. We communicated but an abundance of words was not required. The uniformity of a white towel wrapped around one’s waist was the ultimate costume of democracy.

In the Eighties, when I was in my thirties, I was confronted with death (after death after death after death after death), my commitment to the art of acting transitioned from the narcissistic dreams of onscreen stardom to the day-to-day realities of depicting something (HIV/AIDS) only my soul could express. My soul, my body, my voice, and empathy: all aligned with purpose, to write as well as act.

Through the prism of that wrenching reality, I found purpose. I was able to rivet. In fact, I’ve been unable to stop: riveting, riveting, riveting. With all of my being, I related to Whitman’s deepening expression of democracy as he sat by the beds of dying soldiers in the Civil War. Death is the great democratizer.

The seeds of my blossoming had been planted early on, as a child in St. Louis, Missouri, with a grande dame of an acting teacher, who insisted that her young wards learn, above all else, the art of empathy. It was not a word that she employed but it was a powerful tool that was implanted in my consciousness and would manifest in my work.

“Do not see yourself as different than,” she intoned in a distinctive diva baritone. “You are the same as everyone you see. Always, always, look for yourself in others.”

Embracing otherness is the wellspring of great art. To be given this gift as such an impressionable age was a gift that somehow overshadowed a childhood that was fraught with the perils of familial alcoholism and mental illness, passed from one generation to generation like a broken baton.

Philip—the man with whom I shared museum walks in Amsterdam, romantic dinners in Paris and even a trip down the Nile—died at age 42 after our brief four year marriage.

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding
kisses (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battlefield spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there I the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not
          a tear, not a word
“Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” Walt Whitman

This part four of a five-part series.