Home » LGBT Poets, Poetry
21 April 2009, 9:00 am 2 Comments

LGBT Poets: Kissing and Telling

This post was submitted by selena

For your Tuesday reading pleasure, I bring you “Practicing,” by Marie Howe:

I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,
a song for what we did on the floor in the basement

of somebody’s parents’ house, a hymn for what we didn’t say but thought:
That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each others’ mouths

how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. We called it practicing, and
one was the boy, and we paired off – maybe six or eight girls – and turned out

the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses, and lifted our
nightgowns or let the straps drop, and Now you be the boy.

Concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry.
Linda’s basement was like a boat with booths and portholes

instead of windows. Gloria’s father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun,
plush carpeting. We kissed each other’s throats.

We sucked each others’ breasts, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs
outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was

practicing, and slept, sprawled so our legs still locked or crossed, a hand still lost
in someone’s hair … and we grew up and hardly mentioned who

the first kiss really was — a girl like us, still sticky with the moisturizer we’d
shared in the bathroom. I want to write a song

for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire
just before we made ourselves stop.

I love this poem. It’s nostalgic, it’s unapologetic, it’s sweet. It’s open without being a confession, and accessible for the reader: an invitation to revisit those memories in the boat-like basements of your childhood.

But, I must admit, this post brings me into dangerous territory. From anything I can deduce, Marie Howe isn’t gay. But, but. This poem does such a beautiful job of opening up unexamined childhood gay desire, I decided I would count it.

In fact, this decision opens up a bigger issue with the premise of this column. I intended originally to write about “the intersection” of gayness and poetry. The tricky part is, most of the recent poets whose work I’ve highlighted over the past few weeks haven’t exactly been writing about gayness. But they were gay, so their poems were gay by the transitive property of gayness. I was just looking for elements of their work that I found interesting, even if they weren’t poems about gayness or gay love or gay lifestyle.

Then there’s Marie Howe, whom (beyond this poem) wrote a great deal about her brother who died of AIDS. Or Anne Carson, who’s not gay, but has written extensively on Sappho and whose Autobiography of Red has become a lesbian totem, especially after its much discussed appearance in the pilot episode of the L Word. But really though, that book is pretty gay. And I love it intensely. But I digress.

Basically gay poets have lots of other things on their mind than how gay they are. And gay poetry doesn’t always come from gay authors. So I’m opening it out, folks. There’s going to be gayness and there’s going to be poetry, but I’m not making guarantees about who the poets are sleeping with. As we’ve already discussed, that’s kind of hard to verify, anyway.


Marie Howe was born in 1950 in Rochester, NY. She didn’t start writing poetry until she was 30. She worked as a reporter and an English teacher, then attended Columbia’s for her MFA in poetry in 1983. She currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Check out a fascinating interview with her about her work here.

Read more about her on her official website or at Poetry Foundation.

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  • Jolly said:

    Great post! I think most gay and lesbian poets are pretty sneaky when writing about their gayness, even if they’re open about it in their personal lives. I realize it’s most likely so their work can be relatable to everyone, but it’s kind of fun to pretend it’s like a coded message for other LGBT people. Kind of makes it a game.

    Also, I really enjoy Howe’s “After the Movie”…

  • george said:

    that is a wonderful poem.
    i think it’s far more likely that a girl will learn the art of kissing from another girl than a boy with a boy. i know, for me, that kissing girls/women was so easy and enjoyable for oh so long.

    however, i must say that the first time i really kissed a man there was not just an excitement, but a reality to it. if only i had deemed it appropriate at an earlier age! though the lips are tender, there is still a roughness that perhaps the little bit of stubble left over from that prior shave creates, which makes the kiss between me and another man (i can’t speak for all men) such a revelation.

    thank you for an inspiring poem.