Lambda Book Report, 2007

An Interview With Felice Picano

September 22, 2007
By  Perry Brass 

In 1977, Felice Picano launched a small press devoted to gay books. SeaHorse, and author Larry Mitchell set up his own gay press, Calamus Books. Dramaturge Terry Helbing followed with a line of plays at his JH Press. By 1981 the three men joined forces to create Gay Presses of New York (GPNy), the most visible and influential publisher of gay books of its time. His new memoir, Art and Sex in Greenwich Village, is Picano's firsthand account of that historic moment.

About a decade ago, I went to a wonderful Publishing Triangle panel here in New York where you complained about “gay books without dicks.” How do you feel about that issue now, when “gay romantic fiction,” modeled on women’s romance fiction, and Dave Sedaris, with his “Gap khaki” approach to queer writing, have produced a stream of “gay books without dicks”?

Who knew that I was so accurately predicting the gray and dreary future? I hoped I was forestalling it. Evidently I failed.

Is there any hope out there for the outrageous gay novel, in all of its splendor and excess, in a time of galloping homogeneity, bland commercialism, and p.c.ism?

There’s hope for some original, unforeseen, gay-themed novels. But since there appears to be not one single truly individual or outrageous gay male left on our planet below the age of say, sixty, it seems utterly footless to expect that any outrageous or fabulous gay novels will ever again be written. And yes, this is a challenge to all of you reading this interview. In the words of that outrageous French faggot Jean Cocteau, I dare you to astonish me! 

Is there anyone out there today you wish were you publishing?

Among some newer authors who have made their names in the last few years, I think that Michelle Tea, Trebor Healey, and David Mc Connell are potentially major hitters with substantial careers to come, if they can keep it up. I would have loved to publish all of them. My friend, Christopher Rice is still young and still developing, but he’s natural story teller, which is impossible to imitate. He’s now at Annie Proulx’s publisher and it’s likely that he’ll keep getting better. Poets Franklin Abbott, Ian Ayres and Jeff Mann are current favorites of mine. Anthologist/author Ron Suresha is another. As is the multi-talented, Rob Stephenson: I would have published any of those writers in a heartbeat. Among experienced women writers, I believe the three J’s --Jenifer Levin,  Jane DeLynn and Jess Wells-- are  terrific and still need to be brought before the public in a way that I probably could have done as a publisher.

The guy writers are luckier, as there is a bigger and more active male market. It seems like every year there is some “great” new gay male novelist; but why is it that he is seldom is able to pull off a second or third book of equal splendor? Meanwhile a great deal of crap and psychobabble is being very nicely published: I mean coming- out stories and tired boyfriend relationship novels, things like that.

I’ve been reading gay lit for decades and I still don’t see any real compeititon for Andrew Holleran or Edmund White out there yet.  Among the foreigners, Colm Toibim and Alan Hollinghurst are very promising: but not as good as their mostly heterosexual supporters think they are. And U.S. people like Mark Doty and Michael Cunningham are constantly being given awards and critical acclaim. But who knows what they’re writing: it’s not gay to me. Straight women seem to like it and now Cunnigham is chanelling Susan Minot in scripts for what are essentially chick-flicks.

For that matter, Perry,  I don’t see any new Armistead Maupins or Felice Picanos out there either. I just came back from an East Coast book tour and some of the same men and women who came to meet me decades ago are still coming to events and still telling me they’re reading everything I publish—and not a lot else of gay lit. And Armistead’s newest book is beng raputurously greeted. Oddly enough I think that David Leavitt, who was damaged by over praise at the beginning of his career, and who I went after for being a “dickless” writer, actually came back strong later on with a very cool and sexy book, Arkansas.  He hasn’t gotten enough attention for his excellent bildungsroman, Martin Baumann. 

You have a chapter on the “books that got away.” Do you see any books now that you wish you had published, and, in effect, produced a better book?

Several books that “got away” from SeaHorse Press still haven’t been published. There was a book of George Whitmore’s short stories, still unpublished to this day. And a book of Andrew Holleran’s stories of the time: none of those tales have been collected by him again. Harvey Fierstein’s theatrical agent never obtained publication rights to the musical version of La Cage Aux Folles; I think Gay Presses of New York would have done a great job with that. While Martin Duberman’s agent dragged him away from us after one book: and I think we could have done a great job on his later gay titles.  The book I miss the most publishing was I believe never even finished: Clark Henley’s follow-up to The Butch Manual, which was the opposite, all about opening out your femme side. And then there are all of our authors who died young—and for me, unfulfilled: Henley, Bob Chesley, Jane Chambers, Alan Bowne, etc.

Do you have questions you often ask yourself about your role in gay publishing—was it worth the effort?

My own question has always been “Why me? And not someone else?” When I interviewed my living GPNy partner, Larry Mitchell, for the book, he seemed to think it was not worth the effort for him. I feel differently. Sure I put my own money into it and got very little money out of it, and sure I put my career on hold in the middle 1980’s for it, and it’s true that a few of the authors whose careers I helped create turned on me viciously after for no discernible reason, but I still think it was worth it. Also I had fun.

Could it have been done better? Or, how did you succeed with so little resources?

It can always be done better. But I was recently in Iceland and was asked to speak at the Rekjavik Gay Center, Samtonkin 79, where I saw their large and mostly English language library. I counted twenty of our books on their shelves. Ergo we reached pretty far.

I think we succeeded with so little resources, because we had a motto we adhered to closely: “Don’t be greedy and stupid at the same time.” And also because the GLBT scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s was so small that it was possible for three men like Larry, myself and our third partner, Terry Helbing, to pretty much know most of the important players in the entire gay art scene: photography, illustration, drama, poetry, fiction, non fiction, film-- you name it.

In the preface to Art & Sex in Greenwich Village I write about a young Texan photographer who was doing an MFA, shooting photos of people in bathtubs and who came to New York. Artist George Stavrinos sent him to me and I sent him on to I don’t know, Halston or Mapplethorpe. But in one summer, he shot lots of crucial people who were that year’s New York Bohemian Art Scene. And it is possible that was the very last time that there even was a scene in one place and at one time.

So, we three had our ears to the ground. We agreed to publish Torch Song Trilogy before it was completely written. Since Terry was in the theater as a producer and critic, we knew of new plays almost as they were being written. Then too, we were small companies, with a global vision, and open to anything -- a American/French poetess dead seventy years or an outrageous young Left Bank philosopher who needed to be translated; two fine Lesbian anthologies needing to be rescued from a printer; a reprint of the first real gay novel from 1932: and the Reverend Boyd MacDonald with his Phi Beta Kappa version of down-to-earth erotica and political commentary. Is there anyone around doing all that today? Gay or straight? I doubt it.