In the cut

Poet Randall Mann's breakthrough 'Straight Razor' slices into gay life now

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Self and selfie: Randall Mann at Blue Jay Cafe.

LIT "Everywhere the gay narrative in this country is about freedom, but the reality doesn't match up. I'm interested in exploring the corners that aren't free — from bullied queer children killing themselves to the elaborate social prisons we concoct for ourselves online," Randall Mann told me. "The landscape is definitely changing, but I'm not convinced that the most exciting, most pressing thing is to slap a smiley face over everything and post about 'look how awesome my life is.' I think it diminishes the present and the past."

That may seem like a cynical take on the spurty arc of gay liberation. And a quick glance at Mann's latest book Straight Razor (Persea Books), prickling with darkness, insecurity, suicide, longing, and Smear the Queer, probably bears that observation out. But the thrilling poems in Mann's third volume are tenderly, uncannily, often hilariously on point when it comes to how we live our gay life now: the blundered hookups, halfhearted experiments, weird ghosts of old behaviors, buried childhoods, shady exchanges, unbelievable luck, the precarious balance of living at once in the glaring political spotlight and the throbbing shadows of history.

Or, as Mann exclaims with either surprise or sarcasm (or both) in "Teaser":

 

Look at us — we're smarter

Than our hair!

 

Mann and I met in the Castro near his house, at a posh wine bar in that increasingly upscale, mainstream neighborhood — a scrubbing that sometimes renders Mann's gritty lines (As I skipped out this morning,/ skipping down Castro Street,/ the queens upon the asphalt/ were racks of hanging meat) into totems of nostalgia, no matter how recent they were written. But his electric language is so of the moment it carries the past into a timeless, shared present, as in one of my favorite poems from the collection, eerie AIDS-survivor ode "The Afterparty":

 

I hover over the caviar, between

two spray-on queens, their asides –

 

eye cream, Pac Heights, microderm

winningly vulgar. And when someone turns

the beat around, pure disco,

 

we're dated, we're done for...

 

"Our walls are crumbling, but that also means we're losing our queer space," said the soft-spoken but impassioned Mann, who spent his childhood in Florida before moving here in the late 1990s. "Gay people are shifting from a very defined identity to an unknown, and we're performing this shift very much on a public stage. I'm fascinated by the way we construct and perform our identities — but at the same time we're always undercutting ourselves. That moment or mode of undercutting, of self-effacement, is the poetic moment I always find myself seeking out."

The pivotal moment of undercutting, when the straight razor is lifted, provides much of the humor in the book, as in the wonderful "Blind Date at the Blue Plate," in which Mann, in "Striped shirt, skinny jeans, new-old Chucks/ I am sporting the usual bankruptcies" awaits a possible mate by reliving his entire sexual past — who doesn't? — finally wishing he could redo it all, "much richer, cleaner,/ yet still dark, dark, dark./ A Michael Haneke shot-by-shot remake of my life." One guesses the date won't top that.

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