in los angeles, June 28–July 11, 2005 — At first glance Joel Derfner’s collection of Gay Haiku seems to be another frothy stocking-stuffer aimed at the gay man with disposable income. Sitting down to actually read through the more than 100 three-line, 17-syllable poems, however, the reader discovers a world of hilarious juxtapositions, melancholy reflections, and stingingly smart observations that make this compact compendium more than just a gag gift. Derfner astounds with his inventiveness within the rigid syllabic structure of traditional haiku (five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third). Cliched gay situations and subjects are given a fresh insight with the strict form, and sometimes the form adds to the fun. Meeting somebody new becomes:
“I have a boyfriend.”
We’ve been talking three hours.
You are a bastard.
While sexual miscommunication inspires more than one poem:
I know you think I
Like it when you slap my ass.
You are mistaken.
“I’m coming!” you shout,
As if no one had ever
Managed it before.
In addition to the syllable count, Derfner, who holds a linguistics degree from Harvard and teaches aerobics in Manhattan, adheres to the haiku notion of a pivot point in the poem, usually marked by punctuation in the first or second line, that splits the poem into two parts. This usually creates some kind of tension and results in an interesting arc that a single thought or sentence generally can’t communicate. Haiku fundamentalists might point out that the form traditionally addresses nature, not human beings, and that Derfner’s people-oriented poetry is more aptly “gay senryu,” but since the title Gay Haiku probably presents enough of a marketing challenge, he can be forgiven. Poetic hairsplitting aside, the most important thing about this book is that it made me laugh out loud — often and hard.
Joel Derfner gives good haiku
Harvard graduate (who wore nothing underneath his gown) debuts his book of Gay Haiku
by Mark Griffin
in newsweekly, May 25, 2005 — On the day America’s Homo Hall of Fame opens (whenever that will be), right between Liberace’s candelabra and a bronzed George Michael urinal, you’ll find a presentation copy of Joel Derfner’s gut-busting Gay Haiku (Broadway Books, $12.95) enshrined under glass. The 110 hysterical haiku contained in this delectable volume explore every aspect of the queer experience—with uproarious odes to Ikea, subway sex and Barbie’s Dream House. Just try nibbling one of these scrumptious samples:
See the gay man in
His natural habitat:
Bed Bath & Beyond.
Porno and Mapplethorpe prints—
Mom is on her way.
My heart is broken.
Maybe he will change his mind
If I lose five pounds?
“I started posting these haiku on my blog as reflections on bad dates and hook-ups,” Derfner divulges. “I mean, if you slather yourself with vile-tasting moisturizer five minutes before I show up at your apartment for sex, how can I justify giving you more than seventeen syllables?”
The manuscript that Derfner originally submitted to Random House was an abbreviated attempt in the form of 69 Gay Haiku, which impressed his editorial team but left them wanting more—41 more, to be precise. Manhattan’s most sought-after aerobics instructor excused himself from his gay cheerleading squad and whipped up a new batch of poetic pearls of wisdom.
“The world is very often a terrible place and one way to combat that is to be very funny about it and stay away from carbs,” observes Derfner, who graduated from Harvard summa cum laude (and naked under his commencement gown) in 1995. “My official major was Linguistics,” the author recalls. “My actual major was Scathing Wit with a minor in Repressed Longing.” When asked for details of his undergraduate exploits, the out and proud dynamo admits, “There were three guys in my class who were having sex all the time with most of the rowing team, and the rest of us were both mystified and insanely jealous. I mean, is it really fair to be getting plowed regularly and know the value of pi to a hundred fifty digits?”
Although he’s every inch the urbane New Yorker, with a hypertensive manner to match, Derfner says that his heart will always belong to his beloved Beantown. “Boston is really the unsung gay mecca,” enthuses Derfner. “Manhattan and Palm Beach are filled with roaming gangs of marauding homosexuals who will beat you up if they see you wearing last year’s Armani. In Boston, people care about far more substantial things, like whether you accessorize well.”
While presiding over one of the internet’s most frequented gay-friendly blogs (searchforlove.blogspot.com), Derfner is also assisting in the launch of a Manhattan-based musical theater writers’ collective called In One Productions and somehow finding the time to work on his second book, an autobiographical odyssey that chronicles his attempts to become the gayest person alive. “The life that I would adore is a life in which I write things and people see them. Like Janet Jackson or our new pope, I want to share myself with the greatest number of people possible.”
by Bruce Steele
The Advocate, June 21, 2005 — Just the author’s foreword in this little pink book is the funniest three pages I’ve read in ages. Then come his 110 “poems” — the 5-7-5 syllable count of each three-line aphorism is its only resemblance to traditional haiku — clever, hilarious, and even poignant snapshots of urban gay life, from the sublime (“Sitting at the bar,/My soul filled with deep longing/And deeper terror.”) to the ridiculous (“Bread from the orgy:/Stand nude in the kitchen and/Discuss Top Model.”). Priceless!
Celebrate National Poetry Month with these queer gems
by Mark Peikert
HX, April 29, 2005 — Open up this cute book at any point and there’s at least one giggle- (if not guffaw-) inducing haiku. These three-line wonders are witty, dirty and sophisticated — witness the following: “We’ve just met — I think/We might be going too fast./So I won’t swallow.” (It deserves a literary prize!) My favorite, however, is the one that neatly summarizes why I date older men: “Teens now: out, proud, and/Ignorant of Auntie Mame./Pyrrhic victory?” Go out and buy five copies; it will never be returned if you lend it to friends.
How Do I Love Thee?
by Dave White
Instinct, May 2005 — Gay Haiku, by Joel Derfner, is one of those books you buy in the gay gift shop and hand off at a birthday party for some homo you barely know. The recipient thinks it’s lame and impersonal at first and tosses it in the bathroom reading stack. Then he’s grateful you gave it to him, because he’s already got a couple of those books of gay lists in there and thoroughly memorized the sections about legendary Hollywood penises. And he’s also worked his way through the Vice Dos & Don’ts book twice. And truthfully, he has to admit that Gay Haiku is kinda fun. Here’s an example:
“Your room is filled with
Leather and Star Wars figures.
Um, I have to go.”
Here’s another . . .
“‘Hope you understand.’
Yes, of course I understand.
And I hope you die.”
Now you’ll need to get one for yourself, won’t you?
Beach book bingo
Our top 20 picks for summer reading
by Michael Glitz
The Advocate, June 7, 2005 — Gay Haiku by Joel Derfner (Broadway, $12.95): The Harvard grad spins out more than 100 witty queer poems such as: “My seventh birthday:/I weep at Barbie’s Dream House./How could you not know?” Hilarious.
17 PERFECT SYLLABLES
by Mark Griffin
Out, May 2005 — Fueled by the fallout from a bitter breakup, Joel Derfner put down his knitting needles and blew off his queer cheerleading squad to write Gay Haiku (Broadway, $12.95), 110 hysterical hymns to homosexual values. Among the highlights:
Gay marriage gives us
The most vital right of all:
Registry at Saks.
How is it you knew
I wasn’t faithful? Oh, yeah:
Bite marks on my ass.
Of his next project, Derfner says, “I’m working on a book about trying to become the gayest person ever,” though he acknowledges his competition. “Now everybody’s gay. Even straight people. Remember when they started piercing their ears and wearing freedom rings? It’s like, I’m glad that you accept me and love me, but leave me an identity, please!”
PlanetOut.com, May 10, 2005 — Long revered in Japan as the height of elegance and simplicity, the haiku has recently enjoyed a resurgence in America with the publication of haiku books about Judaism (“Haikus for Jews”), dieting (“The Sound of One Thigh Clapping”) and even road rage (“Honku”).
It’s surprising that gays and lesbians, so often at the vanguard of new cultural movements, weren’t haiku pioneers as well, but with “Gay Haiku,” Joel Derfner’s sassy and sweet new book, we’ve arrived with a resounding snap.
But if Derfner wanted to hold forth on such modern topics as gay sex, dating and interior decorating, why did he choose a form as ancient and venerated as the haiku? “I was dating and having sex with all these lunatics,” he says, “and I was desperate to find something worthwhile in the encounters. But come on — if I have sex with you and you talk about your wife the whole time, do you honestly think you’re getting a sonnet?”
by Jason Salzenstein
EDGE, May 10, 2005 — You may remember learning about Haiku in middle school. This ancient form of Japanese poetry is beautiful in its simplicity, and bound by rules: There are always and only three lines. The first line has five syllables, the second seven and the third five.
Generally written about nature, sometimes family and often love, the beautifully simple poems can tell an entire story in just three short lines. Leave it to the gays to destroy that!
“Gay Haiku” is without a doubt the funniest little ‘finger book’ I’ve read since “Yiddish with Dick and Jane.” A few gems:
Where are all those gays
Going this early? Oh, right:
Sale at Ikea.
Yoga calms my mind.
Then, unfortunately, I
See the teacher’s abs.
The salmon’s divine,
But I’m afraid we can’t stay—
I fucked our waiter.
Lovers at the gym:
Matching A&F tank tops
Make me want to hurl.
If you don’t see the humor and irony in these poems, you’re not gay. It’s sassy, it’s cute, it’s pink and small to boot!
Pick it up, read it and pass it on. It’s my new favorite host(ess) gift.
Pride in Poetry
A new book offers gay-themed haikus.
by Dayo Olepade
New Haven Advocate, August 11, 2005 — As a conspicuous nod to the, shall we say, rough interpretation he gives the thousands-year-old Japanese poetry form, Joel Derfner, editor of Gay Haiku (Broadway Books, $12.95), does make a point of distinguishing the more familiar term haiku from the real stuff of his book: senryu. The former deals exclusively with nature; the latter, apparently, can branch out into topics as edifying and unexpected as shopping, group sex, and America’s Next Top Model.
The senryu are light and well constructed. Reading the whole slew of them at once can be accomplished in under an hour, though this brevity causes a type of mindless thumbing punctuated by moments of appreciation when something really great comes along (“This orgy is lame/But I am, alas, in no/Position to leave”). Perhaps a gay-haiku-a-day regimen would yield greater pleasure. As it is, the poems carry a whiff of the melodramatic. There are admittedly a handful of laugh-out-loud instances (“The salmon’s divine/But I’m afraid we can’t stay/I fucked our waiter”) and others of touching poignancy (“I am over you/So why, after I see you/Are my cheeks so wet?”), but, generally, the pith wears thin as Derfner recounts one serial dating experience after another.
What struck me was the undercurrent of cynicism in what is presented as a light-hearted romp through bars, beds and Barneys. The author pooh-poohs different men and different shops, has sex, reflects—but from one emotional extreme to another, none seem to approach happiness. The latent manic depression is hard to ignore. But perhaps that’s the intended tone of the collection. Derfner admits to having composed the bulk of these poems post-breakup, so who can blame him?
But this begs the question: Is this the fate of the contemporary gay man? Derfner’s words describe a culture of perpetual singleness and an apparent fear of commitment. This is coupled with shameless opportunism, to tenderly comic effect: ” ‘He has a boyfriend.’/’No,’ you say, ‘They’ve broken up.’/Paralyzed with hope.” Derfner hopes, because he can’t help it, but the world he paints is unsure, and cruel, and difficult. This is a broad and familiar theme for those who date—gay, straight or undecided—but here the underlying sorrows are quite clear.
Really, this book reflects Derfner’s personal understanding of gay life, and nothing further. Poetry is an intimate art, more necessarily tinged with authorial experience than longer-form creative writing. So Derfner doesn’t shy away from the thin veneer of his own social attitudes; rather, he rolls around on the floor with them, oversexing, overmincing, overdoing the stereotypes. The gentle politicization of some poems is overshadowed by the overt shallowness of others. “George W. Bush/you know just where you can put/Your family values” is less potent, oddly, than “Gay marriage gives us/The most vital right of all:/Registry at Saks.”
The work is thoroughly airy, even giggly at times, but the freshness of the concept invigorates the repetitive content. The book belongs on a coffee table, rather than in your library next to Goodbye, Columbus and Gulliver’s Travels. But it’s often funny, to be sure. And who doesn’t need one more gift book for the preferred gay gentleman in your life?
by Ralph Higgins
Wayves, May 2006 — Gay Haiku is the kind of book that can ruin a party. It will go like this: Someone picks up the book, opens at random, reads, laughs and someone else will say, “What’s so funny?” Whereupon the first person will read a poem out loud, a group gathers, the book gets passed hand to hand, more laughter and no one paying any attention to the host’s beautifully prepared hors d’oeuvres or the ikebana flower display. A person could easily resent the author of such a book, if not for a couple of things like talent, wit, insight and skill, all of which Joel Derfner has in spades. An example:
My seventh birthday;
I weep at Barbie’s Dream House.
How could you not know?
Most of the poems in Gay Haiku have a hint of poignancy as well as humour. Derfner reveals himself (and thus all of us) with great honesty underneath a campy, funny surface. Written partly as an act of vengeance after a bad breakup, the situations and people are familiar to us and the laughter is fueled by recognition.
I spoke with Joel Derfner and found his humourous observations about gay life were only a part of this very talented man’s skills.
Wayves: I’ve got some questions about the book Gay Haiku. Got a copy for Christmas and LOVED it! But, I promise not to get into any “inappropriate” personal areas like cut/uncut, favourite glory holes or whether Bea Arthur’s greatest TV role was Maude or Dorothy.
JD: 1. Cut. 2. I’m actually more of a sex-club type myself, or at least was when I was single. 3. Her turn in the Star Wars Christmas Special.
Wayves: The poems have a simple, effortless quality which I’m sure is deceptive. What is your work habit like?
JD: Very simple—just a tunic, a scapular, a coif, and a veil. Wimples are so pre-Vatican II. The outfit as a whole is very slimming. Oh, wait. Is that not what you meant?
Wayves: (laughs) Let’s try something simpler, like favourite drink?
JD: Actually, I don’t drink. In my freshman year of college I got really drunk at a party thrown by the Professor of Christian Morals; he was serving his Bishop’s Punch, which was one part fruit juice to two parts bourbon. Since then the taste of alcohol has turned my stomach, so I drink only when it is absolutely vital that I get drunk. The last time this happened, at dinner with friends a couple years ago, I slammed my hand down next to my plate and slurred, “I’m smarter than everyone at this table put together!” You can imagine how well this went over.
Wayves: (still laughing) What is your position on electrolysis?
JD: I think it’s a terrible idea, mostly because hair might at any moment come back into fashion again. Just wax. I am always in favor of hedging your bets. Unless you’re talking about back hair, but anybody who has been so lax as to allow back hair to grow enough to need taking care of clearly has far more serious problems to address.
Wayves: Forgive my drifting off topic but I just got back from a pie social, followed by a viewing of Hotel Rwanda . . . my sugar levels and my emotions are all over the place. So I’ve had a teensy glass of vodka to settle my nerves.
JD: I must say that the thought of Hotel Rwanda paired with a pie social makes me a bit queasy. I feel that a pie social should be accompanied by a viewing of, say, Jeffrey or Breakfast at Tiffany’s or, at the heaviest, Yentl. Hotel Rwanda, meanwhile, should be seen following the start of a juice fast.
Wayves: Are you still single and bitter?
JD: Though I will remain to my dying day bitter and full of rancor, I am, mystifyingly, no longer single. Half the poems in the book are about sex I had with other people the first time I was dating my boyfriend (before I dumped him and then realized what a moron I had been and begged him to take me back and he did), and I see it as a measure of his generosity of spirit that he was willing to help me make editorial decisions. “Honey,” I would ask, “should it be ‘How is it you knew/I wasn’t faithful? Oh, yeah:/Bite marks on my ass’ or ‘Thumbprints on my ass’?” And he would say, “As I recall, it was actually thumbprints, but I think ‘bite marks’ has a stronger dramatic effect.” So he’s extraordinarily well-adjusted. Also, he’s a doctor, a fact I do my best to work into every conversation I have with anybody.
Wayves: Yes, one of my favourites is:
You are not the man
I always dreamed I would love—
Just the man I do.
Wayves: Advice for those seeking meaningful relationships and/or shallow but sexually fulfilling flings?
JD: Actually, I have the same advice for both, which is: burn your checklist to ashes. My boyfriend, who is a doctor, lacks several of the qualities I always thought I wanted in a partner. He’s the first person I’ve ever dated who I didn’t want to be when I grew up—who wasn’t an improved version of me. Similarly, some of my most sexually satisfying encounters have been with people who looked about as far from International Male models as it’s possible to look and still be a carbon-based life-form—but when I opened myself up (ahem) to their sexual energy, they sent me into transports of delight the likes of which have never been seen in any Vivid Man film. Not that I’ve seen that many Vivid Man films, of course.
Wayves: Famous person you would most like to sleep with? OR famous person you most enjoyed sleeping with?
JD: Don’t get me started on this. Because if Chris Meloni (Detective Stabler on Law & Order: SVU) finds out about the activities in which he participates in my fantasies, a judge might well grant him a restraining order against me.
Wayves: Do you recommend writing for vengeance as a lifestyle choice?
JD: Well, the great thing about writing for vengeance (especially when your boyfriend is a doctor, like mine) is that you get to take vengeance on people who have wronged you. The bad thing about writing for vengeance is that, if you get published, you may then see those people on, say, the 14th Street crosstown bus at First Avenue, to use a purely hypothetical example, and then you have to spend the whole ride to Seventh pretending to be a drunk homeless person with your head in your lap so as to make sure that they don’t recognize you.
Wayves: What are you working on now? Got things you want to plug, announce, send review copies of, have us pray over, order from the bookstore?
JD: I’m writing a new book, a collection of essays á la Sedaris, Burroughs, Rakoff, et al. The working title is Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever, and it should be published some time in 2007 or 2008. I’m also writing the scores to two musicals, one called Blood Drive, with book and lyrics by Rachel Sheinkin (Tony Award winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and one called Terezin, about the Czech concentration camp, with book by Peter Ullian and lyrics by Len Schiff. Most importantly, though, I’m trying to lose seven pounds. So if your prayer energy is not boundless, focus on that last one.
Wayves: This has been great fun for me. Thanks so much.
JD: Fun for me too. Anytime, caro mio.
Gay Haiku is a delightful, funny, thoughtful book and I highly recommend it, though with one caveat: do not lend it to anyone. You’ll never get it back.
The Gayest Art
by Mark Griffin
Genre Magazine, May 2005 — Joel Derfner is the gayest person alive — or at least that’s the title he’s gunning for. The hyperactive Manhattanite took a leave of absence from his queer cheerleading squad to compile Gay Haiku (out May 10th; $13, Broadway), a collection of outrageous odes to all things hot and homo. So far, so gay.
Why would a thoroughly modern homo choose an ancient form of literary expression such as the haiku to speak his mind?
I started posting these haiku on my blog as reflections on bad dates. And, really, if you slather yourself with vile-tasting moisturizer five minutes before I show up at your apartment for sex, how can I justify giving you any more than 17 syllables?
Okay, hot shot: compose a haiku dedicated to Madonna.
From “Holiday” through
To Lourdes and Kabbalah:
Mother of us all.
You recently declared your candidacy for the title of “The Gayest Person Alive.” You’ve started teaching aerobics and taken up knitting. What prompted such an ambitious campaign?
When I was six, I went to Jewish Community Center summer camp, and we had to pick activities to sign up for. I wanted Needlepoint and Flower Arranging, but the counselors wouldn’t let me participate in those groups because they were for girls. I was like, “I’ll show you, you hateful bitch! I’m going out a youngster, but I’ve got to come back a fag!” I’ve been driven by that vow ever since. I’m actually working on a book about trying to become the gayest person ever.
What’s the gayest thing you’ve ever done?
I went to this orgy once during which we took a break and stood around naked in the kitchen, eating canapés and talking about Buffy, real estate and whether The Little Mermaid was better than Aladdin, and then we all went back to having sex with one another.