’Ursine Essays’ from Appalachia :: Jeff Mann on Being a Bear and ’Binding the God’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 16, 2010

Jeff Mann is many things, and many of those things seem, on the surface, to be contradictory. Mann is a devoted life partner, but also a leather bear who enjoys bondage sessions with men other than his "husbear," whom he identifies in his writing as a man named John. He's a bladed weapons enthusiast with a tender reverence for nature--and, perhaps not surprisingly, he's a fan (and scholar) of warrior myths, fantasy epics, and Wicca.

Mann is also a poet skilled with delicate nuance--and a BDSM practitioner (usually, but not always, a top) who relishes the sight of a bound, muscular man above just about anything else. He's unapologetically gay--and he's also unapologetically a "hillbilly" from the mountain South, the hills of which he regards as his one true home. All these elements are on public view in Mann's poetry, erotic fiction, and essays, and nowhere more so than in his new collection of writings Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South.

Jeff Mann corresponded with EDGE via email recently, graciously taking time amidst his busy end-of-semester teaching duties at Virginia Tech to talk about Binding the God, his forthcoming book of new poetry, tough gays and DADT, and queer life in the mountain South.

EDGE: The essays in your new collection--like essays you've published in earlier books, such as Loving Mountains, Loving Men--explore the connections between being an Appalachian, being a gay man (and, specifically, a bear), and your interest in literature. Does writing essays like these help you to define how those disparate parts make up your whole person?

Jeff Mann: Writing does indeed help me to define myself and to make sense of my many disparate and often warring facets. At this point--age 51--I feel fairly integrated, but there are always days when being a very open gay leather bear in the Bible Belt seems difficult. Every time evangelists show up at the door with their Bibles, I'm reminded of how much of my native region I detest. (I give them short shrift, as you might imagine.)

I was feeling pretty balanced after Loving Mountains, Loving Men--the writing of that book did help create that balance--but then Virginia passed that hateful constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, and I was powerfully reminded of how hostile my native region can be for queers. Since then, the attorney general of Virginia has stated that Virginia universities shouldn't include LGBT folks among the list of people protected from discrimination... so let's just say that, while for the most part I feel comfortable embracing my multiple selves--as a Southerner, an Appalachian, a leatherman, a bear--other days I really need writing to remind me of who I am and why, despite the difficulty, I insist on reconciling those identities.

In particular, I need to remind myself of why I continue living in Pulaski, Virginia, a small mountain town very much like the one where I grew up in West Virginia. Some days I feel absolutely at home here, and my assorted identities feel enriching; other days, I feel like a freak and a foreigner, I feel torn apart.

EDGE: That brings up a related identity: that of gay (or do you prefer the term queer?) activist, insofar as you see your writing as a form of activism. How much is your writing motivated by activism? Would your essays change in tone or content if we won full legal and social parity?

Jeff Mann: Gay or queer, I don't care. "Queer" doesn't carry for me all the complicated political weight it does for some folks. It's just shorthand for "LGBT," as far as I'm concerned.

Oh yes, my writing is very much informed by activism. I want to speak for marginalized groups: country people, queers, leather men, pagans. My identity is based very, very strongly on resistance, since I've felt, no matter where I am, out of place: the gay man surrounded by straights, the Wiccan in the Bible Belt, the leather bear among the vanilla types, the country boy among the urban and urbane queers, etc.

If LGBT folks won full parity, I might end up with less to say, to strive against, to protest. I have a warrior streak, I expect adversity, and my work--whether poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction--is based on conflict, so in a world with less conflict, I think I'd be less inspired to create. (In this context, I think of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette's book The Warrior Within, in which they say something like, "A warrior needs an enemy.") Maybe that's why I've stayed in the Mountain South instead of fleeing to some safer urban space: the abrasions keep me awake and give my inner warrior exercise.

On the other hand, a lot of the conflicts I write about--desire, love, aging--are independent of the struggle for LGBT rights, so maybe I'd still have topics worth my considerable passion. After all, my new book of poetry, Ash, is based on Norse mythology, and my present projects--a novella, two novels, and another book of poetry--are all based on the Civil War, albeit with a strong gay bent.

EDGE: Tell me a bit about these other projects of yours--particularly the novels. As far as I know, you've not published a full-length novel yet, and here you are working on two! Are they both about the Civil War?

Jeff Mann: True, I haven't published a novel yet. Two novellas-Devoured, in the anthology Masters of Midnight, and The Quality of Mercy, in my fiction collection, A History of Barbed Wire, but no novel.

This piece started out as a short story, turned into a novella, then into a really long novel a publisher advised me to divide into a novel and a sequel, since there's a natural breaking point in the action. So the first one, Purgatory, is done, at least the first draft, but it's already pretty polished, since I revise as I go. The narrator is a Rebel soldier from southern West Virginia. (West Virginia was officially a Union state when it was created in 1863, but many of the counties, including my home county of Summers, fought for the Confederacy.) In the last months of the war, he falls in love with a Yankee prisoner that his little band of roving Rebs captures. So he has to make a choice: save this Yankee boy, who's being tortured and abused by the Confederates, or remain true to his cause and his country. The problem's exacerbated by the fact that the leader of the Rebel band is the narrator's mentor and uncle.

The action starts in the mountains west of Staunton, Virginia, and continues along the Valley of Virginia to Lexington, reaching its climax at Purgatory Mountain. The sequel, which I'll start writing in 2011, will follow the adventures of the narrator after that climax; I have it semi-plotted out. Purgatory's like a lot of my fiction, I think: perverse, suspenseful, erotic, and lyrical.

In addition, I have a book of poetry about the Civil War about half-written. It'll be called Rebel, and it examines the Southern experience during the war, but with a very queer slant. It'll certainly be unique: I don't think there are many poets out there who are writing collections that include praise poems about Stonewall Jackson mixed in with love poems to Turner Ashby (a handsome Rebel cavalry hero), commemorations of fallen Confederate soldiers, and descriptions of gay three-ways and BDSM.

Finally, I've been asked by an editor to contribute to an anthology of gay historical fiction, so I have a novella planned about two Rebel soldiers who keep one another warm, so to speak, during the bitter winter of 1861-62 at Camp Allegheny, a Confederate camp in Highland County, Virginia. A four-wheeling buddy and I have toured the terrain several times in order that I might be more informed about that area and that segment of Civil War history.

Defending the 'Stars and Bars'

EDGE: In one of the essays included in Binding the God, you mount a stirring defense of the Confederate flag. Is the flag entirely a symbol of cultural heritage? Or is there a lingering political sense that the South would be better served if it were its own nation?

Jeff Mann: Funny about that essay. Word was (I wasn't supposed to know this, but it slipped out), when I went up for tenure in 2006-which I luckily achieved with no problem in 2007-what disturbed some members of my department's Personnel Committee was not any of my kinky gay erotica but that essay about the Confederate flag.

Of course the flag offends many, many people, who equate it with racism, and that makes me sad. Certainly my black in-laws would have no use for the Stars and Bars, and I understand that. I can only speak for myself, and for many other Southerners who are not racists but who honor our forebears, all those men who suffered and died for the Confederacy.

The South-soldiers and civilians-endured horrors during that war. The more research I do, the more I see how horrible it all was, how extreme the suffering. As a Southerner, of course I'm going to focus on my region's experience of that great conflict, at the same time that I recognize the misery and endurance of slaves and honor the bravery of those Northern boys who came down here to fight, many of whom never made it home.

That said, yes, I think the flag symbolizes cultural heritage and regional pride in what a damned fine fight our ancestors put up with very limited resources. It symbolizes, more particularly, heroism. Many of us Southerners still revere Lee and Jackson with glowing admiration, though outsiders seem to find that fact incomprehensible.

On the other hand, I don't think a lot of us would want the South to be a separate nation. I love all the far-flung corners of America, and I'm glad to be part of a country that includes such disparate landscapes as Maine, Vermont, Ohio, and other bastions of Yankeedom.

Of course, settling down with a man whose roots are from Massachusetts has taken the edge off my Southern partisan passion. I don't use the "Y-word" much anymore, especially considering how the South has responded to same-sex marriage. The last time I was in Boston, I was walking around thinking, "Argh. I'm a Southern country boy in a big bad Yankee city!" and feeling very much out of my element, and then I remembered that those "damn Yankees" had made same-sex marriage legal, and suddenly I was feeling very fond of said Yankees.

EDGE: Speaking of parity for GLBTs, we seem to have made some progress in recent years--along with suffering a number of setbacks, of course, but we're closer than we used to be. Or are we? Does the longer term hold a true and enduring promise of equality, or is this period some sort of transient belle poque for gays?

Jeff Mann: I think the progress we've made is undeniable and for the most part irreversible. When I think back to 1976, the year I came out (at least to myself and a small group of lesbian high-school friends), how excited we were that the APA had removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. And I remember driving back into Virginia, after some time in West Virginia, right after Lawrence vs. Texas had abolished all sodomy laws, and making jokes about how queer fucking wouldn't be half as much fun in Virginia now that sodomy was no longer illegal. And now my best friend Cynthia Burack and her partner are married in Washington, D.C., and many of my queer friends across the country are married too.

"I don't think there are many poets out there who are writing collections that include praise poems about Stonewall Jackson mixed in with commemorations of fallen Confederate soldiers and descriptions of gay three-ways and BDSM."

Certainly, there are huge areas of resistance, and here I am, smack-dab right in the middle of one, conservative southwest Virginia. It infuriates me that, after all the time I've taught at Virginia Tech--over twenty years--my partner of thirteen years can't have access to my health benefits. Still, still, I really believe that the good changes are here to stay. My students seem to be much more accepting of LGBT people than my generation was, so I'm hoping that's a positive sign for the future.

EDGE: Another way in which your different talents converge is in the lyrical, tender descriptions you write of S&M sex. Quoting Eliot in the middle of a bondage scene? Nice! There seems to be more than a poetic sense at work for you in this expression of sexuality: bondage and submission also seems to carry some sort of spiritual charge, the way you write about it.

Jeff Mann: Well, the title essay of my new book Binding the God is about my attempts to find the spiritual in BDSM, from the Christian imagery of crucifixion to the pagan imagery of the sacrificed vegetation god. Paganism would say that there is God in every man, so BDSM can become a ritual of sorts, where the submissive plays the role of the suffering and sacrificed god.

BDSM, for me, is very poetic, romantic, and spiritual, yes. There's a mystery to it that defies precise explanation. The vacillations between roughness--even brutality--and tenderness, between power and powerlessness, there's a charge there that's really exhilarating and profound. For some. For others, of course, I'm sure it makes no sense at all.

EDGE: I love how you both identify with a warrior ethic and give credence to the "softer" or more "feminine" men who have to cultivate even greater inner resources to stand up tall before a world that despises femininity. Is there a softer side to the warrior cultures you admire (the ancient Greeks, the Norse, the Celts)?

Jeff Mann: Well, there are goddesses in those cultures' religions who embody softness and nurturing feminine qualities. I think of Hestia, Greek goddess of the hearth, and Freya, Norse goddess of love, and Cerridwen, Welsh goddess of the cauldron of rebirth, or any of the Mother Earth goddesses.

But then there are the shit-kicking goddesses like Athene, the Greek goddess of war, who remind me of the wonderful butch lesbians who helped introduce me to the gay community back in the 1970s. (I'm instantly fond of butch lesbians-best buddies ever.) I'm no scholar, but the impression I get is that, though women in Greek and Norse cultures didn't have a lot of power, in Celtic cultures women were honored. I should also add that, according to some ancient historians, Celts could be pretty accepting of male homosexual behavior. There's a great passage in Diodorus that describes Celtic men rolling around on animal skins and making love.

EDGE: It seems that for many people, "warrior gays" is a contradiction in terms; but it also seems like many people are uneasy with the thought that there are tough gay guys out there. Do you suppose that's part of the reason so much of the media relies on the stereotype of the "urbane" gay or the "effeminate" gay? Is that also a driving force behind DADT and the fear that the idea of repealing DADT seems to inspire in foes of openly gay troops?

Jeff Mann: Yes, perhaps homophobes think they can dismiss feminine gay men as creatures who can cause no real harm, gays who are so obvious that you can "spot them a mile away" and who are useful only as objects of contemptuous humor or violence. (Guys like that had best stay away from drag queens, who are the toughest folks I know.)

I'd imagine that queers with physical power, or queers who appear to be straight until you get close enough to know them, would seem to be more of a threat. Gays who are strong enough to be soldiers, yep, that would be intimidating! Funny how few straight people know how many military leaders throughout history were at least part-time sodomites.

In my experience, however, many small-town or country people (at least the ones not poisoned with fundamentalist religion) warm up fast to butch gay men but regard feminine gay men with suspicion. It seems that they don't care whom you fuck as long as you measure up to traditional gender roles. That makes it much easier for butch guys. If you're not so butch, country living might be pretty rough.

Why Wicca Works for This Mountain Bear

EDGE: You mention in your essays that you are a Wiccan. Many gay Christians find a way to make that work, and there's always the non-religious option of atheism. Why does Wicca work for you?

Jeff Mann: Well, my parents, bless them, didn't raise me to adopt any particular religion, even though we were living in a Baptist-blighted little town in southern West Virginia. Even in my childhood, my father made clear his contempt for fundamentalist Christians; now he's 89, and he's still writing op-eds in West Virginia newspapers attacking and mocking them. Great role model in that regard. So I would never have taken up Christianity (though the bearded savior's suffering did appeal to the budding S&M enthusiast in me). I have since met many good, kind Christians I respect, but the ones I encountered in my youth, other than a few relatives, were all judgmental pricks.

On the other hand, at the same time I was seeing how nasty Christians could be, my father was introducing me to Greek and Roman mythology, Arthurian tales, and so on, plus he was adamant that Spirit was inherent in the natural world and the cycles of the seasons. I vividly remember him explaining to me the pagan roots of Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas. So when, through a very early interest in the occult, I stumbled on Wicca, well, it made perfect sense. Here was an eclectic faith based on seasonal holidays and a sense of God and Goddess immanent in nature. For a while, the emphasis on the feminine principle and on male/female duality put me off, but one thing about neopaganism, it's not dogmatic, it's infinitely adaptable, so my version of Wicca is very much focused on the male principle, on the Celtic Horned God Cernunnos in particular (though I deeply honor the Goddess--I see Brigit and Athene and Artemis in my female friends every day).

I've always thought that one's religion should be based on one's ancient ancestors', so, since, like many Appalachians, I'm a combination of Scots, Irish, English, and German, I honor those bloodlines by honoring Celtic and Norse deities. Local Pulaski folks always do a double take when they first visit my house: there's an altar in the corner of the study, complete with athames (Wiccan ritual knives), goblets, candles, and statues of Cernunnos, Pan, Thor, Lilith, Cerridwen, and Bast.

EDGE: Another interesting note that touches on spiritual matters: you write in one essay, "This is what makes the world fallen: it rarely accommodates our desires." That is definitely not a Christian attitude! Does the validity and the spiritual dimension of sexual desire reside in ancient faiths like Wicca?

Jeff Mann: Yep, Wicca is very accepting of the body and the body's desires. I'm an extremely sensual person--completely devoted to Eros, to food and drink, to the beauties of nature--so the flesh-hating aspects of fundamentalist Christianity have always been loathsome to me. Wicca's validation of healthy appetites is, for me, one of its greatest appeals. In one of the most famous Wiccan texts, written by Doreen Valiente decades ago, the Goddess says, "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals." How's that for affirmation?

And, as I mentioned earlier, Wicca and other forms of neopaganism locate God/dess in the physical world, not outside it. In the human body, in the mountains and forests and fields. So sex is, at the least, an earthy celebration; at the most, it's a sacrament.

This pagan attitude toward nature, it occurs to me, is one of the reasons I've refused to move to the more liberal environment of the city. I'm too devoted to this sense of the divine in the natural world. I can tolerate the obnoxious presence of conservatives and judgmental religion as long as I have access to rural landscape. The natural is of far greater worth than anything manmade or artificial, and it seems to me that the city is the epitome of the latter. So while I'll visit cities for the ethnic restaurants, bookstores, and leather/bear bars, I'll always return to the country and small-town life.

EDGE: Your new book of poetry, Ash, draws on Norse mythology. Some the poems seem like retellings of the Norse stories, some seem like meditations on the source material. What stirred you to tackle the theme of Norse mythology with verse, as opposed to essays or treatises?

Jeff Mann: Ash is very unlike most of the poetry I've published. Some of the poems are spoken from the voices of Norse gods, heroes, and heroines, and some are autobiographical poems that use the mythology to make sense of personal experience, in particular a destructive but amazingly intense relationship I experienced nearly twenty years ago. Thor shows up a lot in Ash, simply because he embodies the kind of masculine energy I both relate to and find erotically appealing. His protectiveness is a value I cherish above all others. He's the great protector of gods and humankind.

The Norse material lends itself to verse simply because it's all so visually vivid and emotionally intense. The landscapes of fire and ice, the mountains, forests, and snow; the passions, the violence, the heroism, the destruction: that's the stuff of poetry! It was fun to "queer" the material too, since it's so defiantly heterosexual. (God help men caught making love in a Viking culture! Greek and Celtic cultures might have allowed space for man-on-man sex, but not Norse.)

It's certainly not a coincidence that the heroines in the book seem to savor the same types of masculinity I do: beards, musky scents, big muscles, hairy chests, etc. Ash certainly does display a queer sensibility, despite the many male-female relationships in it.

EDGE: You say in your essays that your writings are inspired partly by "confessional" poets, and you do disclose a great deal about your own thoughts, feelings, and life. How does your partner respond to being part of your confessional writings? I would think there must be agreements when it comes to what you write that are similar to the sorts of agreements couples in open relationships have about playing with others; I mean, in a way, the partner of a writer is embroiled in the ultimate open relationship.

Jeff Mann: Scary question! Well, I share very, very little of what I'm writing with him. He's very critical (Virgo), and I have a very large but very delicate ego (Leo), so early on in this 13-and-a-half-year relationship I stopped reading what I'm working on to him.

Whether he reads it after it's published, I don't know. I think probably not. Perhaps he's afraid of what he'll find. Whatever the reason, I feel freer to write what I want to write because he's not looking over my shoulder, and I think he knows that, and maybe that's one of the reasons he keeps his distance in that regard. I think he expects that I'll be very frank, but I also think he trusts me not to be hurtful or reveal things that would be super-embarrassing.

Binding the God is published by Bear Bones Books. Publication Date: December 1, 2010. Pages: 232. Price: $15. format: Trade Paperback Originals. ISBN-13: 978-1-590-212-196

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.