Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cuban gays and Wallace

Eric Keenaghan published a very good essay on the Cuban “Origenes” group whose leading figure was Jose Lezama Lima. It’s called “Wallace Stevens’ influence on the construction of gay masculinity by the Cuban Origenese group” (published in the Wallace Stevens Journal a few years back).

Stevens befriended (by mail) the Cuban poet-editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, and they exchanged affection – at certain points one would almost say loving – letters for many years starting in 1944. When Beverly Coyle and I set about to edit the entire correspondence (both sides, not just Stevens’s letters) we decided – back in those Reagan-era cold war days – to meet Rodriguez Feo if we could. The State Department would not approve visas for a visit to Cuba. I had located Jose (“Pepe,” he wanted us to call him) in Havana and we exchanged letters for several years; finally, somewhat suddenly, Pepe got approval to travel to New York, where he spent about 5 days visiting old friends, going openly to gay bars in the Village. The latter especially was a huge treat for him, since he had not been to New York since (I think) 1949. We met with him in a borrowed downtown apartment for two or three long sessions of interviews and talks. We hit it off. He gave me a copy of a book by Stevens that the poet had inscribed for his Cuban friend, Transport to Summer. And one evening we all went to a bar on Christopher Street.

What emerged from our meetings with Pepe and our work on the letters was published in ’86 by Duke University Press, Secretaries of the Moon.

I’m pleased that Eric Keenaghan begins his essay with this sentence: “Publication of Alan Filreis and Beverly Coyle’s Secretaries of the Moon, the collected correspondence of Wallace Stevens and Cuban translator and editor Jose Rodriguez Feo, opened new possibilities for the study of North-South relations in modernism.” Three other studies made use of the letters in Secretaries: chapter 5 of my own book, Stevens and the Actual World; an essay by Roberto Ignacio Diaz; an essay on the queer dynamics of the letters by David Jarraway. I in my book and Ignacio Diaz in his essay focus on Stevens’s encouragement of the Cuban’s primitivism as an imperialistic gesture.

For Jarraway, by the way, the letters are a way of understanding why Mark Doty thinks Stevens’s writing is a model for what Keenaghan calls “a contemporary poetics of queer androgeny.” That’s not as much a stretch as it would seem.

Above: Jose Lezama Lima