In some ways, it felt strange selecting "Willie Boy" as the poem to place on the chopping block that is this vulnerable (and inspiring) publication format. It is a deeply personal poem. In other ways, it seemed like the perfect choice. It is at once a poem ABOUT process -- the process of coming out, moving cities and growing up, forgiving family and self -- and one that seems to be constantly IN process, and has undergone a number of edits and iterations before moving into the world in any substantial way. For these serendipitous reasons, it seems like a fun choice to include here.
When I first started writing this piece four or five years ago (in long hand, which sadly I couldn't recover for these purposes), I really wanted to tell the singular story of "Willie Boy," a term I remember hearing my father use to describe his prejudice and discomfort toward gay people. The piece evolved, I think, out of a humanizing recognition that in order for me to name that prejudice in him, I also needed to name it in myself. I needed to consider how his angst about gay people -- men in particular -- transferred to me and manifested in my own inability to come out as gay, to outwardly stake a claim in and want for gay community and companionship as a young man. And I think the evolution of the poem captures that.
First, I wrote it in the third person. Then, I wrote it in the second. Then eventually, it became clear that the poem was hiding, quite intentionally, behind enough "smoke and mirrors" as was -- and ultimately, after some really careful and critical editing from my dear editor and colleague and homie, the incomparable Jeanann Verlee, it became clear that the poem needed to plant its feet squarely in the first person. Jeanann's edit's helped push this piece in some really important ways, and also helped me see the value of it's "smoke and mirrors" as being in some ways the main heat of the poem, to not completely abandon the ambiguity and fear that felt so honest.
To be completely honest, I'm still not convinced that this poem has found its real legs yet. I like the way it moves, and it like the muscle it builds as it goes on, and in that, the stories that unfold. I'm also challenged by the way this poem seems to want be afraid of itself toward the end, almost tries to "undo" what it has worked so hard to say during its first 30 or so lines, because that process very closely mirrors what it felt like for me to embrace my queerness as a young man -- as though even when I was naming it, I wanted to do so in a particular way or to a particular section of my life that could somehow allow me to at once claim and not claim, prove citizen and exception. That said, I'm happy with where it is for the time being, and am honored to be able to provide such a rare and unique glance into its development.
Adam Falkner is the Founder and Executive Director of the Dialogue Arts Project, and a Zankel Fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he is a PhD candidate in the English Education program. Twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, his poems have recently appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Thrush Poetry Journal, Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in the Sociology and Education programs at Vassar College and Columbia University.