Leather and Lore :: Jeff Mann on Poetry, 'Purgatory,' and Norse Gods

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 12, 2012

Whether he's writing poetry, erotic short stories, or novels, Jeff Mann brings a fluency to the form at hand and a dose of man-to-man electricity generated by shifting power dynamics.

It might not be a surprise to Mann's readers to know that he's a bondage enthusiast; Mann's stories often feature stark and passionate contrasts between roughness and sweet sentiment, restraint and tenderness. He's a literary painter whose particular brand of chiaroscuro is not light and shadow but rather dominance and submission. It's an form of artistry Mann embraces with gusto: In one interview, Mann characterized himself as "a rampant BDSM/Wiccan leatherbear."

Mann is also a professor of English at Virginia Tech, with a strong interest in Appalachian Studies. As a gay Appalachian himself--or, as he might put it himself, a mountain man--the poet and scholar has used his own life experiences and inner journey as source material in examining what it means to be a man from the rural South who loves other men, and loves them with a certain (even specialized) vigor.

In addition to his volumes of poetry, Mann has written a memoir ("Loving Mountains, Loving Men") and collections of essays (including "Binding the God.") His first novel, "Fog", was published last August; his next novel, a Civil War-era story of romance and captivity between soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict, titled "Purgatory," is slated to appear this Spring. Mann chatted with EDGE via email recently about his fresh slate of publications, the Nordic wellspring for his latest volume of verse, titled "Ash", and the mysterious strength that lies hidden in surrender.

Gods and Heroes

EDGE: You have been busy lately: A new collection of poetry, your first published novel, and a second novel on the way. Has all of this just been percolating away and now it's seeing daylight in a rush?

Jeff Mann: Part of my recent productivity is thanks to my first sabbatical. At Virginia Tech, professors can take a sabbatical (research leave is the official phrase) every six years. I'd never had one before, and everyone I knew told me to take a full year at half-pay if I could afford it. So I did, meaning that I didn't teach in 2011, I just wrote.

Best year of my life! I finished the revisions to "Purgatory," my first Civil War novel (which is due out from Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press in March 2012). I wrote "Camp Allegheny,", a Civil War novella (included in "History's Passion: Stories of Sex before Stonewall," edited by Richard Labonté and published by Bold Strokes Books in November 2011). I completed "Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal" (published by Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press in August 2011). I wrote quite a few short stories and essays. I wrote a load of poetry about the Civil War; at some point soon, I'll have enough for two book-length collections. Ten of those poems are appearing in January 2012 in Sibling Rivalry Press's new poetry journal, "Assaracus". Right now I'm about two-thirds of the way through writing "Salvation," the sequel to "Purgatory."

EDGE: How do you approach a story when you know it's going to be a poem, rather than a novel, or vice versa? How are the different formats alike for you, and what are the distinct challenges of each?

Jeff Mann: Poetry is the genre I've written the longest and the one I feel most often driven to write, though lately I've put it aside so as to focus on completing the first draft of "Purgatory"'s sequel before I start teaching again in mid-January 2012. (I can write poetry, short stories, and essays during the academic year, but not novels.)

Poetry for me is less about narrative than about capturing memorable images, distilling and commemorating what's loved and admired, seizing intense moments of feeling. And, despite the fact that I've been writing poetry longer than fiction or creative nonfiction, I still find it the most difficult genre to get just right. Balancing meaning and subtext and music and keeping the poem fairly concise, that's hard, that's challenging. At the same time, I try to infuse my prose with all those elements too.

EDGE: Your new poetry collection is based on Nordic myths--sources known as the poetic Edda and the prose Edda. You've talked about the attraction of warrior cultures in your writing, so it's not a surprise to see you writing about gods and swordplay and endless battles fought in the afterlife, but why Norse myths versus, say, Homeric hymns or Celtic warrior legends such as Cú Chulainn?

Jeff Mann: I've always been attracted to myth--Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" was one of my favorite books when I was young--but for a long time those myths were the Greek and Roman ones that most folks are somewhat familiar with. Studying Wicca in my twenties introduced me to Celtic myth, and since then I've become more and more interested in the mythologies of my bloodlines, which are, like many Appalachians, English, German, Scottish, and Irish... in other words, Celtic and Teutonic.

In Spring Semester 2003, a friend and Virginia Tech colleague of mine, Joseph Eska, taught a graduate-level independent study course on Celtic and Norse literature, so I sat in on that and read all the material, including the Eddas. So much of my poetry tends toward the autobiographical, which means I get weary of dissecting my "issues," so to speak, and so writing about myth (though admittedly the autobiographical tendency comes through even there) was a pleasant change of pace. Quite a few poets had examined Celtic myth, but I hadn't seen much in the way of poetic examinations of Norse myths, so in the summer of 2003 I composed a bunch of poems based on "The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda," and "The Saga of the Volsungs." "Ash: Poems from Norse Mythology" was the result, and Rebel Satori Press was kind enough to publish it.

EDGE: I was also happy to see you speaking informally here and there in the poetry, so that it's not all high-flown and stultifying. Not to mention your bold addition of same-gender warrior sex in Valhalla's Great Hall! Is sex between men also a form of combat? Can battle be a form of intimacy? How are violence and tenderness intertwined, if at all?

Jeff Mann: Well, I hope none of it is stultifying! And I hope none of it is opaque. I can't stand poetry that seems deliberately obscure. Perhaps it's my Appalachian background that makes me dislike overly learned, overly oblique verse. I want poetry to be comprehensible at the same time that it's dense and multi-layered.

As for combat, intimacy, and the delicious intertwining of those two, anyone who reads my fiction--which I like to think is literary, carefully crafted, and erotic all at once--will know that the only man-on-man sex that really interests me involves power exchange--dominance and submission. It's those vacillations in gay leathersex/BDSM between the rough and the tender, between what's caring and what's violent that I find most arousing, poetic, and inspiring. So of course my version of Eros is all about power and surrender, masculinity and battle, control and vulnerability, conquest and helplessness. And of course I'm going to be attracted to myths and narratives about manhood and battle.

EDGE: Your new poetry collection also came out right around the time as the Thor movie. What did you think of that (assuming you must have seen it)?

Jeff Mann: I want that hammer! Yes, oh God, I saw it twice, I bought the DVD and the soundtrack. In other words, I loved it. Chris Hemsworth, the actor who played Thor, was hot as holy hell. It was all beautifully done, parts of it super moving. I think the film was a fine depiction of maturing manhood. It made me think a lot about Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette's book, "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine."

Tie A Little Tenderness

EDGE: You often write about bondage, and you have certain recurring tropes: Big, powerful men restrained, feeding a tied captive Southern cooking by hand, the seductive power of helplessness and surrender. Your first published novel, "Fog," deals with all of that, and more--revenge, love, identity. It's a complex work. Do you worry that the complexity will be lost in the surface gloss of the bondage story and the erotic elements?

Jeff Mann: I don't really worry about reader response while I'm in the process of writing; I write what I feel compelled to write. I certainly do have my obsessions, and I am frank about them. Though I think my poetry has a semi-broad range, my fiction is indeed "specialized," likely to appeal to special, perhaps narrow, tastes. I've always been more interested in depth and intensity than breadth.

That said, I'm very aware that, no matter how literary the style, how careful the use of literary elements like allusion, rhythm, symbolism, and imagery, many readers will dismiss a work that deals frankly and explicitly with gay sex, in particular BDSM sex. Such material will be written off by the literary mainstream as "merely erotica" (or, worse, "porn," as one colleague of mine referred to my fiction during my tenure process). That's a fact that pisses me off--no one wants to be dismissed--but there's little I can do about it. I'm going to write what I please, and many readers are going to react with distaste, disapproval, or, most unpleasantly, complete disinterest.

I complain about all this to friends--my poor partner is the frequent sounding-board for my bitterness--but it's not as if I'm going to write about heterosexuals, parents and children, or vanilla sex all of a sudden, just to gain a wider readership. I don't think I could if I wanted to. I'd bore myself to death.

EDGE: Reading your work has given me a sense that bondage and s/m are very different things, even though there may be a lot of overlap between them. How would you characterize bondage as opposed to s/m?

Jeff Mann: Both are about trust and power exchange--one man takes power, one man willingly gives it up. Bondage is about powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependence. S/M is about pain. Enduring pain willingly only highlights the depth of the submission.

EDGE: "Fog" is a love story that's a little far fetched, but very moving. Or is it far-fetched after all? Has it been your experience that even the toughest, proudest men need to be able to let go, give in, and be vulnerable and trusting to someone in a position of power over them? Is this a deep-rooted daddy thing, or maybe akin to a religious experience? Can bondage be therapeutic, even emotionally or spiritually transformative?

Jeff Mann: If it's far-fetched, that's William Faulkner's fault! "Fog" started out several years ago as a short-story-length piece for an erotic anthology edited by Christopher Pierce in 2008, "Taken by Force." An old house on the outskirts of Pulaski, Virginia, the little mountain town where my partner John and I have lived since 2005, kept catching my eye. It reminded me of a house Faulkner had described in his novel "Sanctuary." In that book, a young woman, Temple Drake, is abducted and raped, but those traumatic experiences prove to be an erotic awakening and she eventually comes to revel in sexuality.

I very deliberately wrote "Fog" as a queer version of Sanctuary": Rob Drake is kidnapped but eventually comes to care for one of his kidnappers and comes to terms with his own bisexuality. When Pierce invited me to submit to his new anthology, "Kept Against His Will," I wrote two more chapters, then decided to finish "Fog" since I was on sabbatical and had the time.

As for your questions about bondage and vulnerability, part of the traditional concept of manhood is being in control at all times. But no one can live up to that. No man, however powerful, can be strong all the time. That ideal is exhausting to even begin to live up to. Occasional vulnerability and powerlessness--surrender and submission in a safe, consensual setting--can allow a man to lay all that down: Atlas unshouldering the earth, Sisyphus briefly freed from his stone. Such a relief from the struggle to be strong and tough can be an immense gift. Therapeutic, yes. It's interesting that some of the very men who fight to be dominant and powerful, who in most circumstances dread weakness and loss of control, are the very men who in an erotic context--mysteriously and explicably--are most aroused by their own powerlessness.

EDGE: Richard Labonté selected "Fog" as one of his favorite titles from this year. That's quite auspicious for a first novel! What was your reaction to that accolade?

Jeff Mann: I'm hugely honored! Richard Labonté's opinion means a great deal to me, since he's familiar with such a wide range of gay literature. He's published many pieces of my fiction in various anthologies, and his editorial advice is always very helpful. His inclusion of "Fog" in his "10 Favorite Fiction Reads of 2011" has me preening indeed. He's one of several editors and publishers I'm very grateful to have worked with.

EDGE: You've written essays about being both the dominant partner and the submissive partner in bondage situations. Which role is the bigger turn-on for you? Which role actually has the most power, in the end?

Jeff Mann: I relish both roles; I joke about being a "voracious versatile." The role I take all depends on the man I'm with. With men I'm strongly attracted to physically, I much prefer to be dominant. With men who insist on being the Top, or who are skilled in that role, or whom I like and admire but am not powerfully attracted to, I'm glad to be the bottom. As for true power, I think that has less to do with the erotic roles than the personalities of the men involved. Lots of men who are submissive in the bedroom (or dungeon) are very dominant in every other realm, and vice-versa. With my handful of play-buddies, along with and apart from the dominant/submissive sex, I share a sense of warm camaraderie and honest fondness between equals (the "buddy" part of "fuck-buddy").

Civility and War

EDGE: Your upcoming novel "Purgatory" is set during the Civil War. You've written at least one short story involving a captured soldier, and the ways in which duty and eros in that situation could dovetail. Will the book draw on or incorporate that story? Or are you going a different direction?

Jeff Mann: The conflict between duty and Eros, yes, well said. That's what this novel is all about. You're referring to "Sarvis," I assume, which appeared in "Special Forces," edited by Phillip Mackenzie, Jr. That's what started "Purgatory." I wrote that much, then realized the conflicts and characters were complicated enough that I could get a novel out of it. And so I did.

Rebel soldier Ian Campbell meets Yankee prisoner of war Drew Conrad in the last month or so of the war, and the two men fall in love. Drew's being treated very badly by some Rebel soldiers who are furious after General Sheridan burnt the Valley of Virginia in Autumn 1864, and Ian has to choose between his duty to his country (and his kin: The Rebel band's leader is his uncle) and his passion for this big blond Yank.

The sequel I'm writing now continues their story; it's full of rollicking high adventure and has been fun to write. There were few women in "Purgatory" (Miss Pearl, the Lexington prostitute, being a notable exception), but there are several female characters in "Salvation" I've enjoyed creating. They're tributes, I suppose, to the many female friends and family members who have enriched my life.

EDGE: As a contemporary queer Southerner, how do you see the Civil War? Was it "The War Between the States," or "The War of Northern Aggression," or something else, in your view?

Jeff Mann: Oh, Lord. Well, that's a "damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't" question! My homosexuality is likely to repulse many of my fellow Southerners/Confederate sympathizers, and my Southern sympathies are likely to repulse a lot of queers. Oh, well. I'm used to being wedged between worlds and never really belonging anywhere.

I've been reading about "the War of Northern Aggression" pretty constantly since 2008, all as research for the fiction and poetry I've been writing. In addition, I've been visiting historical sites (dragging my poor partner to battlefield after battlefield). I'm no historian, but obviously I'm a history enthusiast. And as an artist, I realize that complexity, rather than partisan passion, makes for good art. I've come to see and understand many, many points of view, much more so now than before I started the research. Having black in-laws, a biracial nephew, and a partner whose family is from Massachusetts has also certainly helped me see other sides.

God, what suffering, what a huge horror. Those Yankee boys who believed in Union, who came down to the South and ended up buried here; all those slaves, some treated well, some treated horribly, some fleeing to freedom, some staying with their owners; and the white Southerners, my ancestors, civilians whose land and lives were wrecked, soldiers who died by the thousands. That war, it looks to me, was about so many things, none of them mutually exclusive: Against slavery, for slavery, about enforcing Federal domination, about resisting Federal domination, about preserving the Union, about defending one's home against invaders.

So many folks I've known much prefer to see the war simplistically, as a battle against slavery, as a conflict between Good and Evil, the North being good, of course, the South being evil. As a white Southerner who was brought up to revere Jackson and Lee, of course I'm going to resist that simple-minded interpretation, and I'm going to resent anyone who instantly assumes I'm a racist because of my Confederate sympathies. Everyone suffered in that conflict--white and black, Yankees and Rebels--and white Southerners have as much a right to venerate and commemorate their ancestors' heroism, endurance, and courage as anyone else.

I can't speak for black folks, and I can't speak for Northerners--I wouldn't presume to--but I can speak as the descendant of a Rebel soldier. And so I am, in the poems I've been working on over the last few years. What interests me most is the experience of common Confederate soldiers, most of whom were not slave-owners, most of whom saw that war as a defense against invading forces. Those are the men I most sympathize with and those are the ones I've written about.

EDGE: Seeing the level of rage and demonization that's out there between Red and Blue, are we headed for another civil war?

Jeff Mann: Hmm, I hope not. Despite my love of the Southern region, I'm a liberal Democrat, and most of my attitudes are firmly in the Blue camp! At this point, I'm accustomed to divided loyalties. One particular example: I very much dislike Republicans in general and the Republican governor of Virginia in particular, but when, to the horror of many, he proclaimed April 2010 as Confederate History Month, I was pleased. Why can't Virginia celebrate her heroes and defenders of 1861-65?

On the other hand, at the same time that I snarkily derided those who objected to such a commemoration, I suspect that, on many other political points, those very people and I would have much in common. We're back to one of my favorite Walt Whitman quotations: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Or Emerson's line, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

EDGE: I may be imagining it, but it seems to me that more and more Southern men are coming out now. Is being gay still a big problem in the South? Or are gracious Southern manners starting to supersede old prejudices?

Jeff Mann: What makes being gay in the South such a problem is the religion. Religious attitudes--as my best friend Cynthia Burack makes clear in her most recent book, "Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right"--are the root of most homophobia. As much as I love so many aspects of Southern culture, I passionately detest the conservative, fundamentalist faiths that dominate the region.

That said, if straight Southerners aren't completely rabid with religion, they can be pretty understanding, in my experience. Who knows how they might vote on gay marriage? That leap from specific acceptance (this guy is queer but he's cool) to general acceptance (queers are cool) seems to be difficult for many. Still, they'll be very pleasant to your face. Over the last six years, all sorts of straight, local workers have been in and out of the house John and I share--guys painting, insulating, working on the plumbing, cleaning the chimney. I can only assume that they figure out why two middle-aged men are living together, but not one has been unpleasant. In fact, every one has been friendly. It helps, I think, if you're not an outsider. No one can say to me suspiciously, "You're not from around here, are you?" I am from around here, and everyone can tell that, so, while I might not share homosexuality with these local guys, I do share many rural values and a small-town upbringing. It also helps if you're somewhat gender-normative and "homomasculine," to use a word coined by Jack Fritscher that I learned from Ron Suresha.

EDGE: Another recurring theme in your work is the skinny teen working hard to transform himself into a physically and mentally powerful mature man. This must have a degree of personal bearing for you, but is it also symbolic of what the GLBT community needs to do if we are ever to gain social and legal equality?

Jeff Mann: I suppose so, though there are many kinds of maturity and many kinds of power. As much as I relish the aforementioned homomasculinity, I think the beauty of the LGBT community is its diversity, and I'd hate to see that multi-faceted richness played down in an attempt to assimilate. Yes, big butch bears are physically powerful, and I find that erotically appealing. But I've known many drag queens powerful in their own ways, and less gender-normative gay men whose endurance and kindness make them embodiments of maturity. Or lesbian strength. Lesbian friends really helped me survive the deep loneliness of my youth, and lesbian writers like Dorothy Allison have been great role models.

John and I recently saw the DVD of Leslie Jordan's wonderful one-man show, "My Trip Down the Pink Carpet." There's a Southern queer full of maturity and strength. To be yourself, unashamedly, ferociously, despite mainstream society's disapproval. To have weathered storms--lost loves, addictions. To have come through damaged, yes--who isn't damaged eventually?--but also wise and compassionate. That's the kind of strength I most admire, a strength I often see in the LGBT community.

This discussion reminds me of two statements of Oscar Wilde's in "De Profundis:" "The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me." And, "People used to say of me that I was too individualistic. I must be far more of an individualist than ever I was. I must get far more out of myself than ever I got, and ask far less of the world than ever I asked."

To be individualistic and independent, to learn resilience and compassion from suffering: Those are gifts offered the outsider. Being "ornery," as we Southerners would say. Orneriness will get us through, I think, while that social and legal equality you mention takes its sweet time arriving.

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.