Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes roll. And, like Ginsberg, I’m queer. One night, I rewrote his poem “A Supermarket in California” as if my life depended on it. I called it a “A Health Food Store in California” and scrawled it with a speed that brings to mind Truman Capote’s vicious comment on Kerouac: “That’s not writing at all—it’s typing.”
I rewrote by substitution. Because I made them so fast, I wasn’t sure how seriously to consider the individual changes. I used to think the fact I rewrote the poem was more significant than the specific alterations. In “A Supermarket,” the speaker, who I’ll call Ginsberg, imagines following Walt Whitman around “the neon fruit supermarket.” I imagine following Ginsberg around “the quiet health food store.” Many of the later substitutions riff off this first deviation. Whitman eyes grocery boys in the supermarket. Ginsberg eyes dreadlocked grocery boys in the health food store. Ginsberg wanders “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans.” I wander “in and out of the brilliant stacks of Kombucha.” These easy jokes reveal little. Things start to get interesting when I exchange the hetero families of the supermarket: “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” But what’s this? A gay surprise among produce: “—and you García Lorca, what were you doing down by / the watermelons?”[i] In the health food store I find “Hoards of / hipsters shopping at night! Aisles full of Doc Martens! Anarcha- / feminists in the avocados, young idealists in the tomatoes!—and you, / O’Hara, what were you doing down by the sprouts?” (At long red lights, I reached for my copy of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency I had stashed underneath the driver’s seat of my car.)
My tone is certainly a little mocking, which becomes clearer when I put these questions in Ginsberg’s mouth: “‘Is it local? Organic? / Gluten-free? Are you my smelly Angel?’” I see myself grappling with a familiar struggle for queers: the opposing desires to be both normal and to retain our deviance (and therefore our specialness). Ginsberg seems a little uneasy in the supermarket. He imagines being followed by “the store detective.”[ii] Even if he’s not exactly paranoid, he at least knows gays like himself, Lorca, and “childless” Whitman don’t belong there. But in the “progressive” space of the health food store that replaces the all-American supermarket as the norm, I imagine Ginsberg, with his affinity for the New Age, to be right at home. I want nothing to do with neither the breeders nor the not-so radicals.[iii] Of course, I see now that Ginsberg might actually be struggling with this problem, too. Some of what happens in this poem looks like cruising—Ginsberg following Whitman, perhaps trying to catch his eye, as Whitman himself eyes the grocery boys. But the apparent promiscuity seems to give way to a desire for a quiet domestic life when Ginsberg suggests he and Whitman might later go back “home to [their] silent cottage.”
There, my performance of self-estrangement is just beginning. It takes a turn at the rewrite’s corresponding part to my favorite moment in the original. In the supermarket, “we [Ginsberg and Whitman] strode down the open corridors together in our solitary / fancy …” I can’t imagine a better tagline for the queer imagination than “our solitary fancy.” Ginsberg uses the double meaning of fancy as both the faculty of imagination and a feeling of attraction to suggest the gay poet’s imagination is inextricably linked to his same-sex desire. “Solitary” alludes to the alienation to which this desire can lead, as well as to the necessity, or at least the benefit, of that isolation to the poet’s art. Paradoxically, the queer imagination is both solitary and shared. Whitman and Ginsberg, will “both be lonely” even as they walk home together. You are never alone in your loneliness, Ginsberg tells us.
In “A Health Food Store,” I seem determined to be alone in my loneliness, at least in this moment. My answer to “our solitary fancy” is “our independent manners.” Note the plural: “manners,” not “manner.” I remember exactly what I meant by this: “I am not faggy, like this fag.” We walk, taste artichokes, possess every handpicked delicacy, and sneak grapes into our canvas bags in totally different ways: I like a man and he like a fairy. Even as I participate in Ginsberg’s vision, I simultaneously distance myself from the queer literary tradition within which I am (rather pompously) trying to situate myself. A painful reminder I wrote this from inside the closet. If it were to see the light of day, I had to quiet its queerness, sweep over my homo tracks.
Apparently I felt I was covering myself enough with “independent manners” that I could call Ginsberg “queer father” toward the end of the poem. This, I optimistically reasoned, could be read as “father figure who happens to be queer,” or “strange father.” Only I would know I was really identifying Ginsberg as a sort of queer mentor, as Ginsberg does with Lorca and with his “lonely old courage-teacher,” Whitman. Maggie Nelson would do the same in The Argonauts in which she calls Ginsberg one of the “many-gendered mothers of [her] heart,” paraphrasing another queer poet, Dana Ward. In “A Kentucky of Mothers,” Ward writes that Ginsberg’s “motherhood awakened all my / senses.” Let the husbands and wives and their babies crowd the supermarket. I would come to love my big queer family less and less hesitantly. They would show me, to steal from Ginsberg again, how to put my queer shoulder to the wheel.
[i] Ginsberg echoes Lorca’s ode to Whitman: “And you, lovely Walt Whitman, stay asleep on the Hudson’s banks / with your beard toward the pole, openhanded.”
[ii] In “A Health Food Store,” I replace the store detective (whatever that is) with the FBI. Did I know at the time that J. Edgar Hoover was a closeted queer who stopped at nothing to ruin the lives of his own kind?
[iii] Because I’m surprised to see him, maybe I thought O’Hara would be with me on this. Where would I have gotten that idea? Maybe from this line in “Ode”: “To be equal? it’s the worst!”