’Ursine Essays’ from Appalachia :: Jeff Mann on Being a Bear and ’Binding the God’
Jeff Mann is many things, and many of those things seem, on the surface, to be contradictory. Mann is a devoted life partner, but also a leather bear who enjoys bondage sessions with men other than his "husbear," whom he identifies in his writing as a man named John. He’s a bladed weapons enthusiast with a tender reverence for nature--and, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s a fan (and scholar) of warrior myths, fantasy epics, and Wicca.
Mann is also a poet skilled with delicate nuance--and a BDSM practitioner (usually, but not always, a top) who relishes the sight of a bound, muscular man above just about anything else. He’s unapologetically gay--and he’s also unapologetically a "hillbilly" from the mountain South, the hills of which he regards as his one true home. All these elements are on public view in Mann’s poetry, erotic fiction, and essays, and nowhere more so than in his new collection of writings Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South.
Jeff Mann corresponded with EDGE via email recently, graciously taking time amidst his busy end-of-semester teaching duties at Virginia Tech to talk about Binding the God, his forthcoming book of new poetry, tough gays and DADT, and queer life in the mountain South.
EDGE: The essays in your new collection--like essays you’ve published in earlier books, such as Loving Mountains, Loving Men--explore the connections between being an Appalachian, being a gay man (and, specifically, a bear), and your interest in literature. Does writing essays like these help you to define how those disparate parts make up your whole person?
Jeff Mann: Writing does indeed help me to define myself and to make sense of my many disparate and often warring facets. At this point--age 51--I feel fairly integrated, but there are always days when being a very open gay leather bear in the Bible Belt seems difficult. Every time evangelists show up at the door with their Bibles, I’m reminded of how much of my native region I detest. (I give them short shrift, as you might imagine.)
I was feeling pretty balanced after Loving Mountains, Loving Men--the writing of that book did help create that balance--but then Virginia passed that hateful constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, and I was powerfully reminded of how hostile my native region can be for queers. Since then, the attorney general of Virginia has stated that Virginia universities shouldn’t include LGBT folks among the list of people protected from discrimination... so let’s just say that, while for the most part I feel comfortable embracing my multiple selves--as a Southerner, an Appalachian, a leatherman, a bear--other days I really need writing to remind me of who I am and why, despite the difficulty, I insist on reconciling those identities.
In particular, I need to remind myself of why I continue living in Pulaski, Virginia, a small mountain town very much like the one where I grew up in West Virginia. Some days I feel absolutely at home here, and my assorted identities feel enriching; other days, I feel like a freak and a foreigner, I feel torn apart.
EDGE: That brings up a related identity: that of gay (or do you prefer the term queer?) activist, insofar as you see your writing as a form of activism. How much is your writing motivated by activism? Would your essays change in tone or content if we won full legal and social parity?
Jeff Mann: Gay or queer, I don’t care. "Queer" doesn’t carry for me all the complicated political weight it does for some folks. It’s just shorthand for "LGBT," as far as I’m concerned.
Oh yes, my writing is very much informed by activism. I want to speak for marginalized groups: country people, queers, leather men, pagans. My identity is based very, very strongly on resistance, since I’ve felt, no matter where I am, out of place: the gay man surrounded by straights, the Wiccan in the Bible Belt, the leather bear among the vanilla types, the country boy among the urban and urbane queers, etc.
If LGBT folks won full parity, I might end up with less to say, to strive against, to protest. I have a warrior streak, I expect adversity, and my work--whether poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction--is based on conflict, so in a world with less conflict, I think I’d be less inspired to create. (In this context, I think of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s book The Warrior Within, in which they say something like, "A warrior needs an enemy.") Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed in the Mountain South instead of fleeing to some safer urban space: the abrasions keep me awake and give my inner warrior exercise.
On the other hand, a lot of the conflicts I write about--desire, love, aging--are independent of the struggle for LGBT rights, so maybe I’d still have topics worth my considerable passion. After all, my new book of poetry, Ash, is based on Norse mythology, and my present projects--a novella, two novels, and another book of poetry--are all based on the Civil War, albeit with a strong gay bent.
EDGE: Tell me a bit about these other projects of yours--particularly the novels. As far as I know, you’ve not published a full-length novel yet, and here you are working on two! Are they both about the Civil War?
Jeff Mann: True, I haven’t published a novel yet. Two novellas-Devoured, in the anthology Masters of Midnight, and The Quality of Mercy, in my fiction collection, A History of Barbed Wire, but no novel.
This piece started out as a short story, turned into a novella, then into a really long novel a publisher advised me to divide into a novel and a sequel, since there’s a natural breaking point in the action. So the first one, Purgatory, is done, at least the first draft, but it’s already pretty polished, since I revise as I go. The narrator is a Rebel soldier from southern West Virginia. (West Virginia was officially a Union state when it was created in 1863, but many of the counties, including my home county of Summers, fought for the Confederacy.) In the last months of the war, he falls in love with a Yankee prisoner that his little band of roving Rebs captures. So he has to make a choice: save this Yankee boy, who’s being tortured and abused by the Confederates, or remain true to his cause and his country. The problem’s exacerbated by the fact that the leader of the Rebel band is the narrator’s mentor and uncle.
The action starts in the mountains west of Staunton, Virginia, and continues along the Valley of Virginia to Lexington, reaching its climax at Purgatory Mountain. The sequel, which I’ll start writing in 2011, will follow the adventures of the narrator after that climax; I have it semi-plotted out. Purgatory’s like a lot of my fiction, I think: perverse, suspenseful, erotic, and lyrical.
In addition, I have a book of poetry about the Civil War about half-written. It’ll be called Rebel, and it examines the Southern experience during the war, but with a very queer slant. It’ll certainly be unique: I don’t think there are many poets out there who are writing collections that include praise poems about Stonewall Jackson mixed in with love poems to Turner Ashby (a handsome Rebel cavalry hero), commemorations of fallen Confederate soldiers, and descriptions of gay three-ways and BDSM.
Finally, I’ve been asked by an editor to contribute to an anthology of gay historical fiction, so I have a novella planned about two Rebel soldiers who keep one another warm, so to speak, during the bitter winter of 1861-62 at Camp Allegheny, a Confederate camp in Highland County, Virginia. A four-wheeling buddy and I have toured the terrain several times in order that I might be more informed about that area and that segment of Civil War history.
Next: Confederate Culture