Q&A With Samuel R. Delany

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    Bread & Wine by Samuel R. Delaney Juno Books, 44 pages, $15 Samuel R. Delany is a famous science fiction writer (Driftglass, Dhalgren), a respected critic and professor at the University at Buffalo. And he gives great head. I gleaned this last piece of information from the first of two extended essays in his recent book, Times Square Red Times Square Blue. In detailing his sexual encounters in all-but-vanished porn theaters, Delany faithfully reports the positive reactions of several of his casual partners to his ministrations. I have no reason to doubt their accuracy, as everything else reported by the author speaks of an accurate eye, a steel-trap memory and an unjaundiced view of a subculture gone by.

    That first essay, "Times Square Blue," draws from memories of the 30-odd years during which he used the Times Square porn theaters as a venue for casual gay sex encounters?often several times a day, several hundred times a year. And for much of that time, he writes, the area was slated for "major redevelopment," so that "an order of menace now hung over a goodly portion of the active aspect of my sexual life." The portraits Delany draws are fond and unflinching. My favorite is a self-deprecating portrayal of Delany himself, head-over-heels infatuated with a local bartender and porn-house habitue, walking the streets at all hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of the object of his affections.

    It's a tribute to Delany's ability to think clearly and speak plainly that the second essay, "...Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red," makes its points effectively and with considerable concision, avoiding the tsk-tsk-ing and handwringing so many Disneyfication critics fall prey to. He knows he's a day late and a billion dollars short with this critique, but uses it to make salient points about the effects these capital-driven cleanups have on the life of the city. The "contact" referred to in the essay's title expands on an idea in Jane Jacobs' 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Briefly, Delany contrasts contact?the haphazard, cross-class relationships that occur when we bump into our fellow inhabitants in public spaces (including, yes, the porn theaters)?with the more class-specific and artificial social constructions called "networking." By argument and example, Delany reveals contact as a key ingredient of a robust city's life, and one that can pay high dividends to participants (though he's at pains not to set contact at odds with networking?which would be just another example of the phony dichotomies Delany disdains). He looks down the road to a New York where vitality has been exchanged, in the name of a public safety of dubious necessity, for sterile tedium.

    His other new volume, released about simultaneously, can almost be taken as a companion piece, although it's a work of an entirely different order. Bread & Wine is a graphic novel?a graphic memoir, rather?written by Delany and illustrated by Mia Wolff, and published by Juno Books. In it, Delany expands on one of the most important current relationships in his life, and one that is mentioned several times in Times Square Red: the one he maintains with his current lover, Dennis, a formerly homeless street vendor with whom he struck up an acquaintance about 10 years ago. For all the attention the book has received for its "explicit" content, it's interesting to note that the single overtly sexual scene doesn't come in descriptive form from Delany's pen, but illustratively, in the form of a four-page, virtually wordless depiction by Wolff.

    I spoke to Delany briefly to arrange the interview that follows, barging in on him at his UB office, where he had recently arrived for a new post after a decade teaching at U. Mass Amherst; he was just getting unpacked and settled in. Nonetheless, he was gracious despite the intrusion, and asked that he be allowed to answer interview questions in writing as has become his habit (a collection of past exchanges?Silent Interviews?was published by Wesleyan University Press).

    There is the space of two decades intervening between Bread & Wine and your first graphic novel Empire. What prompted your return to the form?

    I've loved comics for years?I wrote a couple of early 70s issues of Wonder Woman for DC. I really enjoy writing about them. Still, it's not my genre. So I tend to wait till I'm asked. Twenty-two-odd years back, packager Byron Preiss and artist Howie Chaykin came to me, wondering if I'd be interested in doing a science fiction comic. I said, sure, it sounds like fun. Three years later, there was Empire (Berkeley Books, 1978). In 1993, Mia Wolff suggested we do a story together, and six years later, Bread & Wine. My point is just that a serious graphic novel is often a project of years, even a 44-pager, such as this most recent one. Thus, as much as I love the form, unless I have an assured outlet, I'm going to undertake them rarely.

    The ideas you put forth in "...Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red" made me realize most of the relationships that led to my doing what I do for a living today came through "contact" rather than "networking." If what you say is correct, that a continuing class war erodes the opportunities for contact, what's a poor city dweller to do? Are there things I can do tomorrow to help keep these lines open?

    Sure. Anyone on the street you see more than three times in a week, say hello to. And keep saying hello to them till they start saying hello back. When strangers need something, be generous with them, in terms of what you can afford: time, information, or?if it isn't a strain on you?money, or, for the homeless, food, clothing and stuff that the enterprising among them can resell. What I'm explaining about contact in the second half of Times Square Red Times Square Blue is simply the sociological grounds supporting the old adage, "What goes around, comes around." Also I'm pointing out why it comes around a lot faster through contacts made in public spaces used by a variety of classes impelled by lots of good will. Be aware, and tell other people?your kids, your friends, and strangers when you find yourself in contact with them?that democracy is about treating strangers, that is class strangers, in a civilized, congenial way.

    Last year Oprah was pushing a book called The Gift of Fear, by one Gavin de Becker, the first three chapters of which were actually pretty good. Basically it's about how to spot the nut case who intends you harm?and how to distinguish him (or her) from your common and garden variety nut case who won't really hurt anyone. De Becker points out that it's inappropriate behavior that lets you know when someone's intentions are malevolent. The stranger in the hallway who meets you as you get off the elevator, volunteers to carry your groceries and, after you've said no, politely, three times, still follows you to your apartment door and asks you can he come in for a drink of water?almost certainly this guy means you no good. Nor does it matter if he's wearing a three-piece suit or if half his clothes are falling off and the only thing recognizable is "Dannemora" stenciled across his filthy sweatshirt. The suit or the sweatshirt are matters of style, not behavioral signs of intention. As de Becker points out, the repeatedly successful rapist is the stranger in the suit or nice sports clothes who does just that?insists on carrying your groceries and coming into your house?and he's as successful as he is because the women he victimizes regularly misread signs of social style for behavioral content. The serial rapist is not going to do anything in the hall: Noise and the sounds of scuffle out there are simply too dangerous for him. But again and again these guys get into women's apartments with come-on lines no more sophisticated than the one I've quoted.

    What de Becker doesn't say, however (and I wonder how Oprah would feel about this one), is that the best way to educate young people so they can determine social styles and differentiate it from behavioral content is to expose them to, and allow them to grow comfortable with, as many different sociological styles as possible?even if that means letting them get to know a few ex-cons, or visit the alcoholic family on welfare three blocks east, as well as hang out with the guys at the yachting club and the banker's beautiful daughters. Sure, coming into a place where you don't look like you belong?that's behavior too. But it's behavior that appropriately signals concern on the part of those who do belong there, not malevolent intentions on the part of the intruder. Well-rounded exposure to, and knowledge of, the range of social styles, up and down the scale, is by far the best protection in almost any social situation you can be in, no matter how dangerous, if there's even a chance of coming out alive.

    Your work's becoming increasingly, or at least more overtly, autobiographical and less fantastical. Is this a consequence of aging? Does the power of reverie grow to match that of imagination?

    When I was about 44 or 45, I found my mind suddenly throwing up all sorts of things I hadn't thought of for years?things from my childhood and adolescence. Then, three or four hours, three or four days, three or four weeks later, I wouldn't be able to remember them at all. Soon I realized my mind was not only throwing these memories up?it was also throwing them out. The old gray matter was cleaning house, possibly in anticipation of the second half of my life. It was saying in effect (I mean, I'm a writer after all), "Hey, take a look at this. If you want it, make a note and we can keep it. Otherwise, I'm tossing it. You haven't used it for years anyway." So?now and then, when it was something I wanted to keep?I started making notes. For years (as an example), I hadn't been able to recall the name of the street I'd lived on in the beginning of 1966 back during the months I spent in Athens. Then, one night, in the midst of this same period I'm talking of, from a dream I had of taxiing through that city I hadn't spent any time in to speak of for more than 20 years, suddenly I woke at 3 in the morning, sat up in bed, and said out loud (with a moderately good Greek accent, too), "Odos Voltesiou, deka-efla...!" ("17 Boltetsiou Street," to the likes of you?and of me, today.) This time I grabbed up my notebook, turned on the light and wrote it down. A few months later I started welding some of this material into the first of the autobiographical essays that eventually formed the basis for my 1988 autobigraphy The Motion of Light in Water. The process went on for some half-dozen years, by the end of which it had, indeed, slowed way, way down. Toward the end, the things turning up were far more involved with the recent past than with childhood. '93, when I actually wrote the text for Bread & Wine, was about the last of it. For what it's worth, I wouldn't call it reverie?at least not in the way I usually think of reverie. When one of these memory eruptions happens, yes, it can incite reverie. But suddenly, rather, for six years, it was just tea and madeleine all over the place! Really, part of it must have been neurological?which, who knows, could be why so many people, especially older readers, respond so deeply to Proust's wonderfully evocative (of the evocation process) image.

    If I read "Times Square Blue" correctly, you prefer your sexual partners to have their foreskins still attached. Any special reason? Or is it just personal taste, like orange juice is better than grapefruit juice?

    Yeah, it starts just like that. Grapefruit juice. That's what I want this morning: grapefruit juice. In our society, I'm sure rarity has something to do with it as well. What's rare?or forbidden?is often sexualized. Once the taste is established, however, you find yourself more open to (and more interested in) far more rational arguments. I remember a performance artist, campaigning to end infantile circumcision, who began a very powerful piece?he himself was uncut and he wanted there to be more people like him (and so did I)?by coming out on the stage naked and, after skinning himself back and forward several times, announcing: "Like the human eyeball, the head of the cock is not an external organ. Think about having your eyelid cut off?for hygienic purposes, so you wouldn't cry as much, wouldn't shed so many messy, inconvenient tears." For what it's worth, the uncircumcised have noticeably better control over their orgasms than we circumcised fellows. I had a live-in lover for eight years who wasn't; as well, I have the evidence of many, many thousands of sexual encounters. The sexual impulse tends to be a little stronger, last a little longer, by a few years, among the uncircumcised. Fifty to 80 percent of the active nerve endings in the penis are at the base of the inner foreskin; so when the operation is done cleanly and esthetically, they're gone?or radically maimed. The secretion that keeps the glans moist, smegma, has mildly antibacterial properties, which holds infection down in uncircumcised men: even the most sexually active of them have a notably lower rate of aspecific urethritis than the rest of us. So, yeah, in term of pleasure and health, guys with everything intact have an edge.

    This subject once came up with a boyfriend of my daughter's, back when both the kids were about 18, and?without going into the details?I mentioned the facts to him. "Well," he said, "in that case, my sons will definitely be circumcised. I am. And I don't want my kid to have anything I don't have in that department." Sadly, I think that's how a lot of straight men feel. And women tend to go along with what they're used to in men. But, yeah, I think circumcision is anti-esthetic, anti-sexual, and verges on criminal maiming. In extremely hot climates, the very mild circumcision (usually only the outer rim of the prepuce), removed ritually by Semitic tribes from all the males to avoid the complications that result in cases of phimosis, is excusable?since phimosis is a little more common than twins. In temperate climates, however, even that's not necessary. And in all other cases, I think it should be left to the man himself to decide, once he reaches the age of reason. If there were an easy and cheap way to have my foreskin surgically restored, I'd do it in a minute. I've looked into it, by the bye. There are procedures, but they're expensive, and often don't work. But I should say, on top of this, the fact that long, meaty foreskins are nice to suck on, trowel your tongue under (both guys tend to enjoy it a lot) and dock over the head of your own or someone else's cock is?sigh!?only incidental to the above. No, the reasons to leave well enough alone are not related to the sexual taste any more than the fact that you or I might prefer orange or grapefruit juice for breakfast.

    Your collaborator, Mia Wolff, called Bread & Wine an "incredible valentine," and at least one critic characterized your novel Mad Man as, on one level, a valentine to the city of New York. Are you getting sentimental? Or have you always been?

    Yes, I'm an old softy and will remain one, probably till I die. One of my most anthologized science fiction stories, "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (1968), was written as a wedding present for two poet friends, Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh. Today, they've long since divorced and married other people. But my story is still reprinted, time to time. I do believe one purpose of art is to celebrate?specifically to celebrate what moves us in celebratory directions. The aging Sara Ohrne Jewett once told the young Willa Cather that those things we can never get out of our mind are what become literature. I think she was on to some of the things we were verging on talking about above. Most public/political celebrations occur simply because if someone didn't declare one, no one would pay any attention at all. But sometimes the individual is moved to sing, to dance, to make a poem, to write a novel?or draw a comic book. I want you to celebrate, so you'll like me for giving you a good time: that's politics. I celebrate, because I can do nothing else: that?sometimes?is art. And?sometimes, again, in the litter of our lives?it helps us cleave what means from what's meaningless.