James Schwartz is the author of The Literary Party: Growing up Gay and Amish In America, a work of poems and short stories. His poetry can also be found in Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets On the Mid-Western Experience, Milk and Honey Siren: A Nostrovia! Poetry Anthology and All Poetry is Prayer: A Fire Anthology. He is currently at work on a memoir. Here he answers some questions for taboojive on his writing and experience “going English” (leaving the Amish community). For a review of The Literary Party click here.
PenProstitute: To live and to love against all odds is a message in your work. Like Octavio Paz you lay the joy and pain of love and loss bare in your poetry. At the same time the reader feels passion for life pouring out f your words – as if not to experience these things would not be living. This is something that takes most people years to understand, ‘life is now, hand your heart over’. How did you get to that place?
PenProstitute: In your work you reference religious authority and scripture (for obvious reasons). What is your relationship with God?
JAMES: I left all religion behind when I was a teenager. I have an appreciation for my simple upbringing but poets are happiest in Caesar’s world! At least this poet is!
PenProstitute: You have lived two lives in two very different, strong communities. Are there similarities?
JAMES: In one word: rejection. Gays by society at large, although this is rapidly changing.
The Amish are descended from European Anabaptist immigrants that rejected the Roman Catholic church and were branded as heretics. Edward VI and Elizabeth from England persecuted them and they were a political nightmare to a Europe coming out of the Dark / Middle Ages. Their pacifism, refusal to swear oaths and opposition to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations were seen as a threat to stability.
Most Amish, Mennonites have a Dutch book titled Martyrs’ Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght which details their history from a passionately, religious perspective.
The full title is The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660 if that gives you any idea!
The gay community also have a history of martyrdom. Which predates Anabaptist martyrdom, I might add!
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century by John Boswell should be required reading and one of the most beautiful things I have ever read is “De Profundis” by Oscar Wilde.
PenProstitute: Your writing is precise and well measured – usually the mark of a well read writer. What are you reading now?
JAMES: I recently reread the anthologies The Baltic Quintet: Poems from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden and Modern and Contemporary Swiss Poetry. I also really enjoyed Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by Harold Bloom. I adore Arthur Rimbaud, Hart Crane, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, Whitman, Shakespeare. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran deeply moved me. I always recommend Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, a really beautiful novel.
PenProstitute: You were raised in a community with strict restrictions on clothing- let us know how that has changed.
JAMES: It varies in different communities, generally the stricter the community, the plainer the dress. Although shorter beards are now apparently in vogue ha ha.
PenProstitute: You are currently working on a memoir, what can we expect?
JAMES: A story to break your heart and hopefully warm it too. There will be drag.
PenProstitute: Can you explain to readers the repercussions for coming out in the Amish Community?
JAMES: If an Amish church member comes out as LGBT he or she will lose everything, be excommunicated and shunned to maintain the “purity of the body of the church.” Society has evolved but not Amish and most Mennonites which translates to out of touch heterosexual men. Your family and faith community will completely turn their backs on you and cut off contact. Amish put Draconian, antiquated church doctrine first and see homosexuality as a sin. Rather ironic considering their history is built on reformation. Even the ex Amish outreach ministries are anti-gay. It is a very black and white issue.
PenProstitute: Germantown Mennonite Church is the only church closest to the Amish community (Amish lite for our readers) who has said they will be inclusive to all. Do you see more change in your lifetime where LGBT youth will have safety and tolerance in religious communities?
JAMES: More ex Amish and Mennonites are coming out and there is now an LGBT Amish online support group which is wonderful! Change is a constant whether you resist or embrace it.
PenProstitute: Words for a young people growing up in biased communities on how to cope?
JAMES: Stay strong, love yourself and know there are people out there that love and support you.
“Morning in Michigan”
By: James Schwartz
His stubbed jaw in the dawn.
His sleepy, knowing smirk.
Empty bottles, echoes of laughter.
Pinnacle and piercing positions.
The sounds of humming vending machines and maids.
Drift down dim hallways.
Outside semis lumber onto I80/90.
Factory workers and farmers breakfast.
Alone, driving home.
Drive-through coffee, and miles to go.
The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish, in America (inGroup Press)
Official James Schwartz website