Catching Up With Felice Picano
By Phillip B. Crook
Felice Picano's worshipers know him as a prolific author, poet, and memoirist who helped shape the gay lit genre in the 1970s and `80s. Throughout 1980 and `81, Picano and six fellow gay authors, together called the Violet Quill, met to share and discuss their work. On the eve of the club's reunion this week, Out chatted with Picano about living on Fire Island, the last sexual frontier, and his place in gay history. And in the spirit of creative writing, we prompted the author with questions inspired by each letter of his name.
Out: F is for fictional gay sex: Describe the sensation of writing a sex scene.
Felice Picano: When the Violet Quill met years ago, one of the things we decided was there had to be gay sex in gay books, because that's what makes us different from straight people. So, in any case that I've written about it, and it hasn't been much at all, I tend to be as true to reality as I remember. Since I came out in the `60s, I've had lots and lots and lots of sex, so I had a lot of experience and I was able to draw on that very easily. But the way I write stories, it's just very seldom that people have sex.
E is for erection: What's your favorite euphemism for an erection?
Diamond cutter. That's what we used to call it. I'm 67 and no longer have diamond cutters.
L is for love: How do you react to the growing prominence of gay love stories in mainstream culture?
I'm glad to see it on film and TV. I don't see enough of it. I'm the type of person who will yell out in a movie theater, 'Gratuitous heterosexuality!' I'd like to see more love between men and men and women and women in movies. Not every story is two beautiful 30-year-old men having sex. There's all kinds of variations and I think that it's up to gay and lesbian writers to start writing about those variations.
I is for island: What is it about Fire Island that has helped to maintain its status as a hub of gay culture?
It's because it's an island. All islands are alike in that you're away from the mainland. You're free, in a sense. Fire Island for years was a place on the East Coast to be a free person: free to love, free to fool around, free to be whatever you want. People are able to drop their burdens and stresses and tensions and just be free. I lived there for 10 summers. It became a home to me.
C is for club: Why is now the time for the reunion of the Violet Quill club?
We all got an award last year for being pioneers. A lot of people thought that was overdue. We were all in a literary magazine, which I edited, and the publisher asked if I wouldn't mind flying in for it. I had the time. But I don't know if all three of us read together, ever. We were all in an anthology that I edited in 1981, but I don't remember Andrew Holleran or Edmund White reading there. This might actually be a first.
Well, fittingly, E is for Edmund White: He's said that writing his first gay (unpublished) novel at age 15 was a way of processing his own sexuality. Do you identify with that?
I'm thinking about that. I mean that's very smart, but I don't know if that's real. I was always very comfortable with my sexuality from the beginning. I came out, like completely, in 1965 and I've just been waiting for the world to catch up ever since. I had no problems coming out. I just thought I was able to do everything that the rest of the world could do.
P is for penis: Can we please talk about Robert Mapplethorpe's penis obsession and why his images still push people's buttons?
He was so open about what he was doing there that I'm amazed by all these biographers who insist that he had an affair with this woman and with that woman. He had an interest in women, but if you didn't have a cock, you weren't on his radar. It was pretty simple. Why are people still bothered? I guess the penis is the last frontier. People very easily talk about bowel movements and we have The Vagina Monologues touring around the world, but nobody really talks about dick. It's still the thing. He dealt with it as an object. If it's erect, it can only be aggressive. No matter what you do, it's sexual.