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Drew Pisarra’s ‘dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain’

‘You’re Pretty Gay’ shatters expectations and social mores

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Drew Pisarra’s ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ is just out from Chaffinch Press.

Is there anything more absurd than this, wondered gay poet and writer Drew Pisarra.  Pisarra, then, was an assistant to a paralegal at a toothpaste company.

Fiercely protective of the pattern on its toothpaste, they wrote letters to rivals who, they felt, were infringing on their copyright.

Even when their competitors were in countries in the middle of a civil war, “They would write back, ‘we can’t respond now, we’re in a war,’” Pisarra said.

But that didn’t soften the heart of the toothpaste company. They’d insist that “this most important matter be dealt with as soon as the war ends,” Pisarra said.

If you think that authors don’t encounter the absurdity and grit of everyday life or that all writers do is drink coffee (or sip stronger libations) while looking at the sunset, you haven’t met Pisarra.

Pisarra, 56, whose new short story collection “You’re Pretty Gay” is just out from Chaffinch Press, has worked at everything from ventriloquism to domestic work.

The word “unique” is so hackneyed that it’s a cliche to say it’s a cliche. But there’s no other way to describe “You’re Pretty Gay.”

This collection “is a prime example of Drew Pisarra’s dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain,” said Kevin Sampsell, author of “This Is Between Us.” “Each story is its own performance, its own shattering of expectations and social mores.”

Pisarra, who lives in Manhattan, gives readers a mosaic of wit, surrealism,  sex, queerness, memory, mortality and self-discovery.

In “You’re Pretty Gay,” there are gay bars in New York and New Orleans.

You’ll find everything from adolescent bullies fighting over a rare caterpillar to a character taking an AIDS test and, later, meeting up with Mrs. Claus.  

“Mrs. Claus I didn’t even know you were alive,” says the narrator of “Arctic Chill.” “I didn’t even know you were real. I haven’t received a gift from you or your husband in ten years.”

Another of Pisarra’s tales revolves around a trip to hell. “I love traveling,” says the narrator of “The Hat from Hell, “I got this hat when I was in Hell back in 1992.”

In “Granny,” siblings gather after their mother’s death. “All anyone could remember of her was that chair, how she sat in it for the last 40 years,” Pisarra writes, “immobile as ‘Jeopardy’ and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ glared at her night after night.”

Pisarra’s characters yearn to find love, sex, and who they really are.

“In my quest to bed mankind, I tended to avoid perfection’s rejection,” says the narrator of “Every Man for Myself.”

Pisarra, whose first short story collection “Publick Spanking” was published in 1996, was born in Orange, N.J. When he was in the third grade, he moved to Maryland. There, except for living in Oxon Hill for a year, he grew up in Silver Spring.

When Pisarra was growing up, being gay wasn’t even remotely on the horizon. “There was such denial in the culture then,” Pisarra said.

From early on, he had feelings for men. “I had a crush on a boy in kindergarten,” Pisarra said.

He consulted books and a priest, which wasn’t helpful. They said he’d grow out of it.

“As a teenager, I recognized that I hadn’t outgrown it,” Pisarra said.

Pisarra was a college freshman when he came out. “I sobbed the night I came out,” he said.

He was out in college, Pisarra said, “but I wasn’t getting laid.” That changed when he moved to New Orleans after college.

Pisarra graduated from Hofstra University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

In college, a professor had the students sit in a circle. Then, the teacher told them how she thought they’d be cast. 

“She told me, ‘you’re a grotesque,’”Pisarra said, “‘You won’t work until you’re in your fifties. Because your face and body don’t match.’”

Pisarra was relieved to hear this. His sense of relief was related to being a young gay man in the late 1980s.

“I wasn’t interested in being closeted,” Pisarra said, “I wrote. I wanted to perform.  I wasn’t interested in conforming.”

Since then, Pisarra has been creating – performing and writing his own material. Some of the stories in “You’re Pretty Gay” were originally created for the stage.

“I don’t write that often,” Pisarra said, “I started writing the stories in ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ 20 years ago.”

A prodigious reader, Pisarra has always “written to some degree,” he said.

Pisarra got turned on to writing poetry when he went to a meeting of a gay and lesbian writers group.

“There were, like, 10 people in this apartment,” Pisarra said, “there was a terrible woman sitting next to me.”

He would have dropped out of the group, if he hadn’t met writer Mare Davis, now his close friend.  

“I said to her, ‘I never want to see any of these people again except you,’” Pisarra said, “She inspired me to get into poetry.”

Davis wrote the introduction to Pisarra’s poetry collection “Infinity Standing Up” (Capturing Fire Press).

Released in 2019, the volume of sexy, playful sonnets received glowing reviews from the Washington Post, the Blade and other outlets.

“Devour me! Think me not some crazy nut!,” Pisarra writes in one of his sonnets.

With lines like these, he gives Shakespeare a run for his money.

Pisarra has held a variety of jobs – many of which have involved the arts. He has helped homeless people with mental health issues to find housing.

“I ran a writers group for them,” Pisarra said, “I encouraged a super-talented woman to send her work out.”

The woman and Pisarra submitted their work to the same magazine. “Her work was accepted. Mine wasn’t,” he said, “I was thrilled!”

In an unusual career twist, Pisarra, who received a literary grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, toured a ventriloquist act entitled “Singularly Grotesque.” He created the act after the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art commissioned him to develop a new solo piece.

“I was wandering around the library aisles and I found two (self-help) pamphlets on talking with ‘multiple’ selves,’” Pisarra said, “and I thought this is ventriloquism in a nutshell.”

Pisarra hadn’t watched much TV.  But that didn’t keep him from interviewing with AMC to be its director of digital media.

“I thought why not,” Pisarra said, “it would be a chance to see what else is out there in the world.”

He worked on the websites for “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”  “It was a pleasure to be part of the online team for these cultural phenomena!” Pisarra said.

With Molly Gross, Pisarra co-founded Saint Flashlight. In this project, he and Gross find inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces.

One of the project’s most innovative efforts has been putting haiku on movie marquees.  It’s fun to see people, looking up, counting the syllables, Pisarra said. You sweat when you put the letters up on the marquee, he added.

“It’s part of the fun! It makes you feel like you’re making something matter,” Pisarra said.

He doesn’t want poetry to be confined to “The New Yorker.”  “It should push the envelope,” Pisarra said, “It’s not just for the upper crust.”

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Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

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(Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New queer biographies make for ideal summer reading

Array of options, from somber to outlandish

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‘How You Get Famous’ by Nicole Pasulka is a fun read about drag in Brooklyn.

Another Pride month is in the can.

All that planning, preparation and execution of events is done, and now you find yourself with lots of time on your hands. So why not reach for one of these great memoirs to read?

A little bit of memoir, a little bit of sympathy, advice, and several biographies are at the heart of “Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life” by Rowan Ellis, illustrated by Jacky Sheridan (Quarto, $14.99). This book leans mostly on the serious-but-lighter side, with plenty of colorful artwork and suggestions for teen girls on figuring out who they are and what it means. There are fun activities, quizzes, essays, and tips inside; readers will find plenty of one-liners to take away, a comprehensive timeline of LGBTQ history, and biographies that reflect women of many ages and races. That all makes this a book that even adult women and, perhaps, some questioning boys will appreciate.


Speaking of lighthearted, try “Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute)” by Gary Janetti (Holt, $27.99). TV producer, writer, social media star, and sometimes curmudgeon Janetti is annoyed. Mighty annoyed in several essays here, but his aggravation is not meant to bring readers down. It’s meant to make you laugh and – with very funny, wry takes on finding the perfect tan and the perfect man, friendship with a nun, hotel rooms, mothers-in-law, “The Wizard of Oz,” vacations, weddings, and more – you will.


For something a little more somber, reach for “Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad” by Hil Malatino (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95). Honesty is at the root of this semi-biographical look at being trans: if you are trans, says Malatino, you may struggle with several righteously negative feelings you have — disconnect, anger, fear, numbness, burnout, exhaustion — feelings that exist, in part, because of the times in which we live now and the transphobia that seems to be everywhere. Counteracting these feelings – or, at least being able to survive and thrive despite them – may be as simple as some type of activism, and Malatino explains the details as he shares his own story as well as many case studies.


And finally, if you love watching or participating in drag, then you’ll absolutely love “How You Get Famous” by Nicole Pasulka (Simon & Schuster, $27.99). This book tells the story of a coat-check boy who loved performing in drag and who talked her bar-owning boss into letting her host a drag show in Brooklyn. But this was no one-night stand and soon, the event had a lot of fans – among them, dozens of “kids” who sneaked into the club to practice their acts next to experienced performers. But when you’re on the edge of what’s about to be a popular kind of entertainment, amateur status doesn’t last long enough – and neither does this upbeat, wonderful book.


And if these don’t fit the bill, be sure to ask your favorite booksellers or librarians for help. They’ve got your next best read in the can.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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