Both men have Baltimore connections—Bergman has lived and taught here for 35 years, while Harris lived in Baltimore for over 40 years. And while their poetic styles differ, both agree that poetry is a vital literary form for the LGBT community.
"Poetry is as important as life"
For local writer and teacher David Bergman, poetry is a necessary art—"For those of us who write poetry, it's sort of like breathing. If you're not working on it, you feel anemic. It's as important as life in that sense."
Bergman has published two volumes of poetry, Cracking the Code and Heroic Measures, and has written or edited numerous books focused on gay literature and culture. He edited Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris [see Feb. 4, 2011 GL review, Vol. 33, No 2] and is currently working on a history of LGBT autobiography and memoir for the Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature.
And while Bergman highlights the importance of personal narrative for the gay community, he sees "liberation" in poetry.
"Memoir is one of the earlier forms that LGBT people occupied themselves with and is central for forming the notion of being gay," said Bergman. "For LGBT people, poetry allowed (historically) a depth of expression that was not allowed in prose, and people could write about same-sex love in various ways. When we want to look at what is the deepest expression of a culture, we look to its poetry."
Bergman's poetry is both personal and universal—he writes about his father dying of cancer, "the shadow of AIDS" and lust, as well as myth and art. Several of the poems in Heroic Measures have links to Baltimore (see "Benny"), where Bergman came to get his doctorate. He came out in 1972, in his early twenties, just three years after Stonewall.
"Being out was not a common thing, but I did the only thing I could do, which was to be out," said Bergman.
One poem titled "In the Waiting Room" developed out of Bergman's participation in a program at Johns Hopkins, SHARE (Study to Help the AIDS Research Effort). The poem focuses on a patient discussing his course of treatment with a doctor and the struggle to accept inevitable loss ("Bring him back/ so he can teach me how to be/ content when I take his place at last.").
"We would go there knowing they were looking for the first signs of our death," he said. "It was very scary, yet you encountered people who were remarkable in their bravery. The heroic measure is the acceptance of mortality. It doesn't mean not to 'rage against the dying of the light' as Dylan Thomas wrote, but to accept and live life fully."
Today, Bergman teaches at Towson University, where he helped to found programs in Cultural Studies and Lesbian and Gay Studies. He's enjoyed a distinguished teaching career, instructing the next generation of learners, serving as first director of the Cultural Studies program, and writing about gay literature. He's beginning to revisit unfinished lines abandoned two years ago during a bout with depression, and continues to work on his craft at age 62.
"Writing is still a very difficult thing, because once you know how to write one poem, you need to relearn it for another one, if you want to grow as a poet," said Bergman. "It's a constant learning process."
For more information, visit Bergman's site, DavidBergmanPoet.com.
By David Bergman
Ohio State University Press
Paperback, $16.95, 96p
"We have to sing, to let all of our feelings out"
Reginald Harris remembers writing his first poem in a high school English class, when he was supposed to be taking notes. But Harris was exposed to the beauty of "language and linguistic play" even as a child—his family and friends "played with words and nicknames," and words were in books and on television.
Harris grew up in West Baltimore and moved to Waverly in his thirties. Although he recently relocated to New York, Harris worked for many years at the Enoch Pratt Library, a position that exposed him to the local writing community in the 1980s.
"After I started working at the library, I became aware of events going on around town," said Harris. "When Lambda Rising opened in Baltimore, the first manager had a number of readings there, and did things with local writers. The Center (GLCCB) also had some workshops and readings—I taught a class on Black Gay Poetry."
Harris's first book of poetry, 10 Tongues, was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and a ForeWord Book of the Year Award. He describes these poems as focusing on his family and himself—they detail his "turbulent" early life and coming of age as a sexually active gay man.
"There is so much life and joy and wonderment in the gay community that it has to be expressed. Poetry is one way to do that. And if we say poetry is like breathing, how can we as a group not breathe? We have to sing, to let all of our feelings out," said Harris.
He points to gay poets such as Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, and Frank O'Hara—who was born in Baltimore—as "writers who changed the way people saw us, the world and themselves." Harris also highlights the importance of black gay writers, such as Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes, who usually expressed themselves through short forms such as poetry or short fiction, and are an integral part of American literature.
In his current position as Poetry in the Branches Coordinator, Harris promotes diversity in poetry acquisitions and programming in libraries across New York City and the country. At age 51, his writing is less focused on the personal and more about community and global issues, but Harris still finds poetry an indispensable literary form.
"Whenever people try to react to something that happens, terrible or positive, what they are reaching for is poetry, that distillation of language, the concern for every word. Poetry is so evocative," said Harris. "When you are speechless, what you are reaching for is poetry."
For more information, visit ReggieH.Blogspot.com.
Poems by Reginald Harris
Three Conditions Press
Paperback, $12.95, 68p