Comes Naturally #86 (July 30, 1999):
Celebrating the Great Celebrator

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July 30, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


James Broughton, one of the great and long-standing lights of unequivocal erotic celebration, died in Port Townsend, Washington, on May 17th. His body was 85 years old, his ecstatic wisdom about the same. His spirit was something akin to an everlasting 17.

Broughton lived most of his life in and around San Francisco. He was an unrelenting, uncompromising, and unapologetic apostle of the healing wonder of joy and ecstasy. He wrote some twenty books, most notably "Ecstasies," "Graffiti for the Johns of Heaven," "Hymns to Hermes," and "High Kukus" (books of his poetry), and "Coming Unbuttoned," his prose memoir. He also produced almost as many films -- short, zany, often delightfully absurd journeys into worlds of playful amusement and personal reminiscence. "His principal hobby," Broughton states simply in the biographical note at the end of "Ecstasies," "is the care of feeling of ecstasy." In the note at the end of "Graffiti for the Johns of Heaven," he describes himself as "a lifelong supporter of angels, faeries, muses, cupids, holy ghosts, and all such winged presences. As for earthly matters, [I remain] a confirmed believer in the amatory, the hilarious, and the unmentionable."

Broughton apparently truly believed in angels. In his memoir, he recalls that "one night when I was three years old I was awakened by a glittering stranger who told me I was a poet and always would be and never to fear being alone or being laughed at." He took both the experience with "his angel" and the advice to heart.

* * * * *

I first became aware of James Broughton in 1987, when I was collecting material for an anthology of erotic poetry, prose, and photography, "Erotic by Nature." The book was subtitled "a celebration of life, of love, and of our wonderful bodies," but at a time when concern about AIDS was sweeping through gay culture, I was having trouble finding gay male writing with the celebratory tone I wanted the book to have. Another gay poet, Paul Mariah, suggested I get in touch with James, who was then living in Mill Valley. I had no idea that he was a major luminary of gay culture, and of San Francisco's literary, independent film, and art worlds. When I sent what I now understand to be my very amateur solicitation letter, James immediately sent back copies of "Ecstasies" and "Graffiti for the Johns of Heaven." "You are free to use any of the poems in these books," he generously offered, even though he knew nothing about me and I had no money to offer for reprinting his poetry.

Reading James's poems was like discovering a geyser after wandering thirstily for months in the desert. Here was the sense of celebration I had been looking for, in apparently infinite abundance. I was delighted and charmed by his absolute reverence for the erotic and sexual human body in all its forms and expressions, by his love of language, and by his completely irrepressible joy and playfulness. Here was a man at once silly and profound, spiritual and lusty, experienced and innocent. His utter delight at being fully alive, and his clear understanding of the transcendent potential of the body and its sexual urges, were nothing short of inspirational.

Dozens of poems jumped out at and into me as I read them. I chose two in particular that seemed to fit the spirit of my book, but I could easily have chosen two or twelve others. "At Beck's Motel on the 7th of April" conveyed the depth of experience that is possible when we surrender ourselves entirely to sex. Although I didn't know it then, the poem was written when Broughton, at the age of 61, had just found (or, more accurately, been found by) the love of his life, Joel Singer. Singer, a student in one of Broughton's classes, swept James up and out of his married, suburban life, and became his lover, partner, collaborator, devotee, and soulmate until he died.

At Beck's Motel on the 7th of April
we went to bed for three days
disheveled the king size sheets
never changed the Do Not Disturb
ate only the fruits of discovery
drank semen and laughter and sweat.
He sweetened my mouth
   sweetened my neck
   coddled my nipple
   nuzzled my belly
   groomed my groin
   buffed my buttock
   garnished my pubis
   renovated my phallus
   remodeled all my torso
until I cried out
until I cried
   I am    Yes
   I am your    Yes
       I am    I am    your
       Yes    Yes    Yes
The other poem I selected was a different matter altogether -- a playful, even silly, ode to pleasure, fun proclaimed entirely for fun's sake, and for the appealing mouthfeel of the rhythmic spoken word:

Nipples and cocks
nipples and cocks
Nothing tickles the palate like
nipples and cocks

Lose your appetite for
clippers and clocks
by trying a tipple of
nipples and cocks

Up with your T shirts
Down with your jocks
Tempt your taste buds with
nipples and cocks

Don't riddle your brow
or rot in your box
It's nice to nibble on
nipples and cocks

No need to be fancy
or unorthodox
Just try a plain diet of
nipples and cocks

Nipples and cocks
nipples and cocks
Nothing tickles the palate like
nipples and cocks
With these two poems, Broughton joined sixty other contributors, some famous but many unknown, in a collection designed to celebrate "the incredible potential sex has to bring us deep joy, wonder, intimacy, growth, and wisdom." When "Erotic by Nature" came out, early in 1988, I was pleased to learn that James was delighted with the book, delighted to be part of it. "The book is beautiful," he wrote. "Coffee table ticklement! The type is rather sexy too. Maybe you will connect the populace to joy. Glad you are spreading erotic nature far and wide. All creatures need it."

* * * * *

Broughton was as close to a pure embodiment of Pan as we are likely to come across in this modern, cynical, troubled, technological time. Whatever life brought, he treated as a source of humor, pleasure, and physical delight, even the process of dying itself. "Creeping decrepitude has crept me all the way to the crypt," he quipped, shortly before his death.

"If you must feel tortured, respect your misery and be happy about it," he urged in one of his poems. He preached the triumph of life, sex, spontaneity, and creativity over death, repression, and what passes for normalcy. "I've never been afraid of losing my beautiful neurosis as the source of my poetry," he proclaimed and, indeed, he never did.

James sang the song of the body, electric and unapologetically sexual, in all its beauty and strength. He often spoke of his affinity to Walt Whitman. His faith in the wisdom and transcendent potential of the erotic was unequivocal, his reverence for the wonder of sex and the physical body unbounded. "Listen to your angels ripening your secrets," he preached in a poem appropriately titled "Sermon." "Come to beautiful terms with the god in your body, with the body of your god. Share flesh with others. Wake love. Make love. Clasp hearts and exuberate, and don't look back till you are far out of sight."

Other poems conveyed the power of lust and passion in fierce, yet reverent, terms. In "Aisles of Eden," for example, he writes:

I am into your fire
I am into your fire up to my eyes
   Hold me to the quick
   Hold me to the peak
I am into your fire head on

I am into your fire
I am into your fire with my fuel
   Heat up my smolder
   Reheat my fervor
I lay my love in your fire

I am into your fire
I am into your fire over my head
   Do me a turn
   Burn me to the ground
I am into your fire for my life
* * * * *

The notice of James's death came in a small envelope stamped with Joel Singer's return address. Although I had received many similar envelopes from James, I knew what this one was going to say before I opened it.

The card inside bore a photo of James looking out with soulful eyes from under a wide-brimmed white hat, while a broad, perfectly-arranged silk scarf swept across his chest and over his shoulder.

"James Broughton, November 10, 1913 - May 17, 1999," the card announced, and then: "Every day I grow a dream in my garden where the beds are laid out for love. When will you come to embrace it and join in the joy of the dance?"

Memorials for James would be held in Port Townsend and in San Francisco. "Both venues have limited seating," an insert noted. "Please plan to arrive early."

Hundreds of people from a dozen different artistic and sexual communities came together at the San Francisco Art Institute on June 26th. The gathering was of course called "Celebrating James" -- an opportunity to celebrate the great celebrator of celebration itself. Copies of two of James's books -- "Hooplas" and "Special Deliveries" -- were laid on the arm of every seat in the theater, a gift from Joel for each person who had come to be part of the afternoon. The stage was adorned by a huge, white bust of Dionysus posted on a long stake, as well as a podium, a harp, a cello, and a set of drums. Projected on a screen behind all the rest was a large photo of James quietly twinkling at everyone.

The program began at 1:00 and continued, without a break, for four hours. There were many personal tributes to James -- some by well-known figures like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Lou Harrison; others by people more obscure -- people speaking both reverently and humorously about their connections with him, and of how profoundly he had touched, inspired, amused, and amazed them. There was, of course, sadness and a deep sense of loss, but also much laughter, foolishness, and genuine appreciation of the quixotic nature of both life and death. Each speaker seemed to remember some exquisitely pointed aphorism of James's. "Be true to your madness throughout your life." "Everything is going beautifully nowhere." "My kundulini runneth over." "When in doubt, cut."

A quartet of flute, harp, cello, and percussion played music by Lou Harrison, music that echoed James's sense of whimsy, grace, and unfettered imagination. Throughout the afternoon, a slow progression of stunning projected portraits brought James's familiar, totally unguarded, unshielded, presence vividly into the room. "Here I am," each photograph said with quiet resonance and determination, "all of me. No shame. No blame. The only important question is how real we can be with each other and with ourselves, how ready we are to cherish and revere what it means to be fully and ecstatically alive."

* * * * *

"Homage to James Broughton: Ecstasy for Everyone," including videos of James's poetry readings and several of his films, will be presented by Joel Singer, Janis Crystal Lipzin, and the San Francisco Cinematheque at the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut Street, San Francisco) on Sunday, November 14, 1999, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $7 ($4 for students).

* * * * *


In my last column, I reported that Gender Identity Disorder had been removed from the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" after a long campaign to that end by transgender activists. Unfortunately, as James Green, a leading transgender spokesperson, informs me, that story is a hoax -- fanned, as so many are these days, by the speed of the Internet.

While I am personally amused by some Internet hoaxes (such as the famous faux-commencement address supposedly by Kurt Vonnegut -- perpetrated, rather unexpectedly it seems, on the whole world by Realist editor Paul Krassner), this sort of hoax -- dealing with an issue that is of tremendous importance and emotional impact to so many people -- is of another order entirely, and I am deeply sorry and embarrassed to have contributed to its legitimation. I am still amazed that the usually-reliable source who sent this report to me was herself taken in by the hoax, apparently the work of some transgender "performance artist" who wanted to see how quickly and how far such a hoax could be spread. When she learned the story was untrue, she immediately published a retraction which, unfortunately, I never noticed.

Alas, the battle to win professional recognition that alternative gender identification is a choice and not necessarily a sign of mental disorder, is one that continues into the future.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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