Leather and Lore :: Jeff Mann on Poetry, ’Purgatory,’ and Norse Gods
Tie A Little Tenderness
EDGE: You often write about bondage, and you have certain recurring tropes: Big, powerful men restrained, feeding a tied captive Southern cooking by hand, the seductive power of helplessness and surrender. Your first published novel, "Fog," deals with all of that, and more--revenge, love, identity. It’s a complex work. Do you worry that the complexity will be lost in the surface gloss of the bondage story and the erotic elements?
Jeff Mann: I don’t really worry about reader response while I’m in the process of writing; I write what I feel compelled to write. I certainly do have my obsessions, and I am frank about them. Though I think my poetry has a semi-broad range, my fiction is indeed "specialized," likely to appeal to special, perhaps narrow, tastes. I’ve always been more interested in depth and intensity than breadth.
That said, I’m very aware that, no matter how literary the style, how careful the use of literary elements like allusion, rhythm, symbolism, and imagery, many readers will dismiss a work that deals frankly and explicitly with gay sex, in particular BDSM sex. Such material will be written off by the literary mainstream as "merely erotica" (or, worse, "porn," as one colleague of mine referred to my fiction during my tenure process). That’s a fact that pisses me off--no one wants to be dismissed--but there’s little I can do about it. I’m going to write what I please, and many readers are going to react with distaste, disapproval, or, most unpleasantly, complete disinterest.
I complain about all this to friends--my poor partner is the frequent sounding-board for my bitterness--but it’s not as if I’m going to write about heterosexuals, parents and children, or vanilla sex all of a sudden, just to gain a wider readership. I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I’d bore myself to death.
EDGE: Reading your work has given me a sense that bondage and s/m are very different things, even though there may be a lot of overlap between them. How would you characterize bondage as opposed to s/m?
Jeff Mann: Both are about trust and power exchange--one man takes power, one man willingly gives it up. Bondage is about powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependence. S/M is about pain. Enduring pain willingly only highlights the depth of the submission.
EDGE: "Fog" is a love story that’s a little far fetched, but very moving. Or is it far-fetched after all? Has it been your experience that even the toughest, proudest men need to be able to let go, give in, and be vulnerable and trusting to someone in a position of power over them? Is this a deep-rooted daddy thing, or maybe akin to a religious experience? Can bondage be therapeutic, even emotionally or spiritually transformative?
Jeff Mann: If it’s far-fetched, that’s William Faulkner’s fault! "Fog" started out several years ago as a short-story-length piece for an erotic anthology edited by Christopher Pierce in 2008, "Taken by Force." An old house on the outskirts of Pulaski, Virginia, the little mountain town where my partner John and I have lived since 2005, kept catching my eye. It reminded me of a house Faulkner had described in his novel "Sanctuary." In that book, a young woman, Temple Drake, is abducted and raped, but those traumatic experiences prove to be an erotic awakening and she eventually comes to revel in sexuality.
I very deliberately wrote "Fog" as a queer version of Sanctuary": Rob Drake is kidnapped but eventually comes to care for one of his kidnappers and comes to terms with his own bisexuality. When Pierce invited me to submit to his new anthology, "Kept Against His Will," I wrote two more chapters, then decided to finish "Fog" since I was on sabbatical and had the time.
As for your questions about bondage and vulnerability, part of the traditional concept of manhood is being in control at all times. But no one can live up to that. No man, however powerful, can be strong all the time. That ideal is exhausting to even begin to live up to. Occasional vulnerability and powerlessness--surrender and submission in a safe, consensual setting--can allow a man to lay all that down: Atlas unshouldering the earth, Sisyphus briefly freed from his stone. Such a relief from the struggle to be strong and tough can be an immense gift. Therapeutic, yes. It’s interesting that some of the very men who fight to be dominant and powerful, who in most circumstances dread weakness and loss of control, are the very men who in an erotic context--mysteriously and explicably--are most aroused by their own powerlessness.
EDGE: Richard Labonté selected "Fog" as one of his favorite titles from this year. That’s quite auspicious for a first novel! What was your reaction to that accolade?
Jeff Mann: I’m hugely honored! Richard Labonté’s opinion means a great deal to me, since he’s familiar with such a wide range of gay literature. He’s published many pieces of my fiction in various anthologies, and his editorial advice is always very helpful. His inclusion of "Fog" in his "10 Favorite Fiction Reads of 2011" has me preening indeed. He’s one of several editors and publishers I’m very grateful to have worked with.
EDGE: You’ve written essays about being both the dominant partner and the submissive partner in bondage situations. Which role is the bigger turn-on for you? Which role actually has the most power, in the end?
Jeff Mann: I relish both roles; I joke about being a "voracious versatile." The role I take all depends on the man I’m with. With men I’m strongly attracted to physically, I much prefer to be dominant. With men who insist on being the Top, or who are skilled in that role, or whom I like and admire but am not powerfully attracted to, I’m glad to be the bottom. As for true power, I think that has less to do with the erotic roles than the personalities of the men involved. Lots of men who are submissive in the bedroom (or dungeon) are very dominant in every other realm, and vice-versa. With my handful of play-buddies, along with and apart from the dominant/submissive sex, I share a sense of warm camaraderie and honest fondness between equals (the "buddy" part of "fuck-buddy").