Two summers ago I was in New England again, attending a literary conference at The University of Rhode Island, and then doing readings up and down the East Coast for my newest book. Since my rented car would take me right past New Haven, I decided to stop into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University to look at my papers.
At my age, one begins thinking about collecting what one has carelessly left lying around for decades: at summer cottages, in notebooks, presented to old boyfriends, in hard drives all over the world. I know there are stories, reviews, essays, and poems, out there somewhere. I thought maybe someday someone would say, Hey Felice, what about a Collected Poetry? I’d only published two books of poems, The Deformity Lover, and Window Elegies, a chapbook. Another hundred had appeared in print since then, the last being “His Diagnosis” about my friend, Robert Ferro. After that, poetry was no longer possible for me. But there were earlier poems, many I’d left unfinished, hanging. They were inside spiral metal notebooks with chartreuse covers, and those notebooks were at Yale.
Just to clarify, I didn’t go to Yale; my papers went there. I was barely sixteen when I graduated high school. My folks made it clear I wasn’t going away anywhere and in fact that I was staying home and working for my father. Unknown to them, my college counselor had applied me to The City University of New York, and I’d gotten past the rigorous requirements and into Queens College, a free school; I’d even gotten a small scholarship. So that’s where I went. I moved to Alphabet City among immigrants and cockroaches, junkies and thieves, and I went to college taking two trains and a bus each way.
However thanks to scholars George Stambolian, Jonathan Katz and John Boswell, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which collects American Writing Groups like the Transcendentalists and Gertrude Stein’s Paris circle, collected the works of the Violet Quill Club, the writing group being honored tonight.
So that’s where the first half twenty years of my papers ended up. I’ve still got the second half—1988 and after -- if anyone’s interested.
Before I showed up at Yale, I e mailed and called, warning them I was coming. It was June, in the 90’s, Farenheit, so I arrived wearing the usual: shorts, running shoes and a T-shirt. I was checked in for metal, electronics, cameras, and spy ware. My possessions were stowed in a locker. I thought: these people are serious!
I dropped into a large sunlight-filled reading room. At the desk, a woman my age made me fill in a call slip and then told me I had to do it again. “I need two names,” she said, sniffily.
“There are two names. Felice and Picano.”
“I need a name for the author and your name?” she said.
“There they are: Felice Picano and Felice Picano.”
I could see her internal computer whirring, as she looked at me and at the call slip, then at me again. Her internal computer slowly came to a dead halt. She mumbled: “I’m certain there are no papers here by that person.”
“You mean you’ve lost the eleven cardboard boxes of stuff you guys picked up at my house five years ago?” I asked.
But by then her internal computer was totally kaput: she simply walked away.
People began lining up behind me asking what was the hold-up?
“They’ve lost all my papers,” I said, not believing it possible.
A younger woman eventually showed up pushing an official cart and asked what name I was looking for.
“I saw them a few days ago. What do you need?”
Big sigh of relief
They weren’t yet alphabetized but they were more or less chronologically sorted, so I asked for the earliest and a middle year. They arrived at length and I took the box to a desk
Scholars sat all around me literally wearing tweed jackets with leather patches. And those were the women! No wonder the call desk lady had vanished rather than deal with me. As a collected author at Yale, I should have looked like them. Better yet, I should have been dead -- for awhile
I found the poems. I very much wanted to but I couldn’t correct them because I only had a stubby hard tiny lead pencil. So I had the nice young lady photocopy and send them to me in L.A. As I’d thought, about a dozen were salvageable with a word or half line changed here or there. Decades, later I could easily see how to fix poems I’d written a dozen times and then simply abandoned in earlier days
As I sat there recalling how and when I’d written those poems I looked around and thought: that woman scholar is probably thinking about “the dialectal reification of the masculine principle.” While that fellow there is probably contemplating “the hermeneutics of the hetero non-normative.
Could any of them, any of them, think what it was like in 1965, as I looked out the grimy back yard window of my $103.00 dollar a month under-heated Village flat and wrote this poem? Could any of them ever imagine what it was like in 1983, when I’d stumbled home from yet another funeral for a dead friend, watched a heedless robin go mad with birdsong, and then penned this other poem? Could any one in that room comprehend what it was like to have written a totally unexpected, a totally unprecedented short story in 1963, with utter satisfaction, even knowing that no one would publish it, and probably no one would even read it because of its gay subject matter? Could anyone there guess what it was like finishing another gay story in 1978 and polishing it to perfection so I could present it, nervously, expectant, my first prose reading ever, to Edmund and Chris sitting together on the love seat, with Robert and Michael stretched on that sofa there, Andrew on the floor all but hidden, and George closest to me, waiting, all of them waiting to be amused, moved and who knew what else, shocked? Outraged? Pleased.
I doubt that any of those scholars could or would.
Possibly neither can you.
Except maybe Edmund and Andrew. . . .If they can remember that far back.
That’s what I concluded -- visiting my papers at Yale.
©2009, Felice Picano, presented at the Lambda Book Awards, upon receipt of the Pioneer Award in 2011 and first published by Lambda Book Report online, 2011.