a man pours by Tommi Avicolli Mecca

It was the greatest thrill of my many years as a poet: I was not only published in Gay and Lesbian Poetry In Our Time (edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, St. Martin’s Press, 1988), an amazing collection of poems from the top LGBT poets of the last century, but my entry was right before James Baldwin’s.

It was accidental, of course. The collection was arranged in alphabetical order (at the time I wasn’t using my mother’s name Mecca). But being that close to one of my favorite writers of all times made me feel really important.

I got my first poems published as a teen in the South Philly Review Chronicle, a neighborhood paper that covered what was happening in the streets of Little Italy where I was raised. In the late 60s, the editor began a “poetry corner” to feature the works of the clandestine poets who lived in the endless monotonous row houses.

I was extremely prolific and became a regular contributor. Those early poems were clumsy and mysterious, sometimes even I didn’t know what they really meant. One thing I did know: I was gay and just couldn’t say it, though I secretly eluded to it in the poems (“having been made in an image/I can not mirror”).

Poetry was a revered art form in those days. Poets were celebrities, like rock musicians or TV stars. Political poets read at marches, cafes, bookstores and universities, helping to create the counterculture that fostered the radical movements of the day, including gay liberation.

At Temple University where I went to avoid the draft (it was 1969), I came out of the closet and entered a poetry contest — and won. My poem, “all the times,” written in the stream-of-consciousness style of one of my favorite poets, Allen Ginsberg, was dedicated to a guy I was crushed out on in high school.

That contest opened many doors for me. I read at all the fashionable poetry venues in Philly and even some in New York. I published a lot. I didn’t make much money ($5, maybe $10 for a poem), but I was well known in Philadelphia.

A few years later, I began bringing my poetry to life with dance, music and staging. One poem, “a man pours,” was recited by three dancers under the direction of dancer/choreographer Doug James, who would later die of the very subject of the piece, AIDS.

Other poems, including my most widely published work “Rape Poem”, appeared in “songs for the revolution,” a performance piece that won me the title of “angry performance artist” from High Performance, a national magazine. I had a lot of reason to be angry: it was the 80s and all my friends were dying of the disease that America refused to do anything about. After all, faggots were expendable.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of my years as a performance poetry artist was “Giving Voice”, a work that explored growing up gay and Italian/American in South Philly’s working-class streets. It won accolades from mainstream critics and played to sold-out houses every night.

I still publish poems occasionally in a wonderful journal called Philadelphia Poets. Poetry may not be as popular these days as it was when I was a teen, but it still has a very special place in my heart.

“Rape poem”
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
© 1982

Once an ex-con told me
I was pretty
He said if I were in prison I’d be
somebody’s woman
I’d have to obey him & be faithful to him
If I got caught screwing with somebody else
I’d be slit with a knife or a razor blade
slit until the blood from my faggot ass
met the blood from my throat
until the redness became a
poem & then a song
until a mute nation heard
but they haven’t heard & sometimes
I realize they can’t hear at all

Yesterday I put on my faggot gown
& went mourning for the faggots & dykes
burnt in the ovens that burped
and no one heard
the ovens that digested so
many bones & pink triangles
& once when I was young
a Nazi tried to rape me in an alley
but I bit his tongue & the blood
dripped swastikas
all over Europe

rape
rape as in Genet the rape of
humiliation
the humiliation of walking past
a corner & being taunted &
called sweetie & faggot
& when you answer back of having
bottles filled with beer & rocks
thrown at you because you have somehow
violated their manhood

rape
as in Alan’s bedroom
when that boy from up the street
broke in with a knife out of
breath whispering suck me off
or I’ll slit your throat
Alan the faggot
who said hello to everyone
even the Nazis who waited for
him that night
when they plunged into Alan
as they did
into Europe’s throat & hung
its neck from
every pole to wave like a flag

They left Alan’s sweet face
like a child’s
his mouth open to the breast
of the mother earth

 

“all the times”
for johnny
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
© 1971

all the times we raced through cold winter winds
frost licking our necks like the fire burning our hands
which met in the darkest of places where eyes
couldn’t tell if it was the popcorn on your lap
I was reaching for

all the times we were stubborn enough to hide
in the stockroom after the store had closed
in order to steal a moment from the world outside

all the times love was the worst obsession
and I hid what I felt for fear of what you might know

all the times we stood on corners canvassing our
jukebox petitions and shining our hit-of-the-week buttons
if only for what else mattered

all the times our tongues tasted of acid and our lips
were glued like toy planes to the fantasy of kissing
when we woke in suburban stations waiting for trains
to take us home to bleeding mothers with hypochondriac headaches
and corporate fathers with feathers for morals

all the times we raced to the plane
to see each other off and we hugged and people stared
as if to say stop but we kept on going because of how
blind they were and because we could see the wings

all the times I gave you a pass to the mountain
and you promised me the sky but fell to the valley
and got lost in the forest while I kept on climbing to
never-ending heights

all the times I missed you in New York
and saw you in despair

all the times I raced to your death bed
while green liquids passed the same lips I once kissed
and mucus exploded from the sturdy nose I once bit
and over the bed I heard you whisper you still cared
but the sound of the toilet was too overbearing and
I spit up and cried and they mingled in the covers
over the Tonight Show’s lineup of laughslaughslaughs
and perverse monkeys with one-liners to spare

all the times you died and I covered the grave
with caviar and spinach careful not to cook the greens
longer than the shortest second after a boil

all the times I stumbled into your bedroom
needing a fix a friend a lover or a few words of
timeless wisdom to reassure me again it was all
worth the upset

all the times I tried to sell myself to you
before I realized you couldn’t be bought
and I had to try Macy’s or even Grant’s but they
wouldn’t give the refund at Woolworth’s

all the times I stood by the waterfall
tempted to jump while you toyed with the boy
who came to contemplate and I swear I saw you
take him to the river to wash away his innocence
and I never minded
I enjoyed the sight of such raw tenderness as you displayed
in teaching of the universal void

all the times we died together to be reborn and separated
and diffused to our cells and die again alone

all the times we stank after our day in the factory
and we made love to the silhouette of the crazy stars
over the lake it was sunrise but winter was near and the
seagulls tainted the sky with gloom and their cynical cries
mutinied the moon which danced to our rhythm below

all the times I tried to convince myself you really cared
as you pierced holes in my eyes and sprinkled Xmas sparkles
in the streams of blood that flowed down my cheeks

all the times we waited for the train
in subway bowels only to find puddles of yellow jaundice
on the tracks and blood clots
on the windows

—————————–

 

Photo by David Elliott Lewis

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a longtime queer writer, performer and activist, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation and co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italian Writers Sail Beyond Columbus. Read Tommi’s blog here.

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