150 years ago, this year, Walt Whitman self published “Calamus,” a sensual, homoerotic cluster of poetry added to “Leaves of Grass,” and most of the country didn’t notice. He was, perhaps, hoping for it to be heard like a firing canon and recieved like a sorely missed friend or lover: the reader awakened to his own flesh and to his great loving potential. Yet, within a year, the young nation was ripped apart, facing the greatest crisis it would ever encounter. With brut force and violence, The Civil War pitted brother against brother, each with his different intention; the one to the South wished to break-up, while the brother to the North refused, attempting to keep the relationship going. Soon, Walt’s brother, fighting for the Union Army, was badly injured in battle, so Walt rushed off to take care of him and would spend the rest of the war as a volunteer nurse, caring for the wounded and dying young men. He and the nation would never be the same.
With my performance of Boys Together Clinging, I focus on him and his poems before the war and on the character of Whitman as one that might be unfamiliar: lusty, sensual, empathetic, arrogant, sensitive, totally relevant and always empowering. Not as an older man remembering his experiences of the big city, his travels and of his distant life and lovers, but as one immersed in and responding to his current environment. (After all, he was in his mid to late 30’s when he wrote and was experiencing the things detailed in his most significant poems.) I hope to do this by breaking that, sort of, third person wall or voice that seems too often to exist when one reads or performs poetry. The poems have been moved around, rearranged, and adapted to form a one person play. The character of Whitman interacts with the audience, sometimes touching, sometimes kissing, allowing the experience to be somewhat impromptu and fun. One of the biggest challenges for me with this work has been avoiding the temptation to create a “Greatest Hits of Walt Whitman” variety show and to just stick with, mostly, the “Calamus” poems. I really love and enjoy so much of his work and certainly some of his most dramatic material that might be perfect for the stage isn’t in “Calamus.” But, I think it’s equally empowering and challenging to find the dramatic aspects of this particular work that will read well for a lively, interactive audience experience that still has a strong story line with conflict and resolution.
I’ve never performed in or created a show that is as personal to me as the poems of Walt Whitman. I may have read his work in high school, but I don’t remember. I do recall picking up a book entitled “The Essential Gay Mystics,” about a decade ago and reading the selections of Whitman and crying. Then, reading the poetry out loud, having the sense that I’d just experienced something enlightning and greater than myself, yet still simple and humble like sitting and chatting with an old friend. This is what I desire to accomplish with this performance.
The experience of one’s own flesh and body is always at the heart of Walt’s poetry and in “Calamus” the experience of lovers and comrades take center stage as well. Though we are no longer in a great civil war as a country, our differences are mammoth and intolerance is often cruely played out on political platforms and behind closed doors. As a gay man, I can’t help but to see many of Whitman’s poems as beautiful arguments for the rights and continual liberation of queer people. For all people, he speaks of a magnificent experience and affection that “waits and has always been waiting” within the relationship we have to our own bodies and to one another. I can’t help but to see the irony of Whitman, as a volunteer nurse in the war, watching the amputated arms and legs piling up and watching the suffering bodies aching all around him- the self proclaimed, “poet of comrades” and of the “flesh.” Still, I hear and envision a resolute soul that proclaims in spite of the troubling world around him and it’s unanswerable questions, “Though I walk or sit indifferent- I am satisfied, He ahold of my hand has completly satisfied me.”
Boys Together Clinging: The Gay Poetry of Walt Whitman will perform one night only on Monday, November 22 at the Cafe Royale (800 Post at Leavenworth). 8pm curtain, admission free.