Every year A&R executives use the same formula to promote pop singers. The starlet volunteers for a magazine or blog to profile her social life and style; the paper focuses on promoting outrage instead of her music; said outrage motivates readers to search for her single. Most years, the publicity approach fails. Every now and then, an artist twists the formula and becomes a pop star, and sometimes, something even bigger: a gay icon.
Alex Dimitrov has done something different, and he’s about to become the first gay pop star.
Although Alex is a poet (but not a rapper) and an actual gay man (albeit one who acts just as gay as the pop starlets that imitate us), he made his public debut the way Ke$ha introduced fans to Warrior: in a divisive New York Times Style Section profile. Because the Times focused on Alex’s ultra exclusive queer poetry salon, The Wilde Boys, controversy was sparked. Uninvited gay bloggers derided the salon’s invitation-only policy, excluding the fact that in the age of Wikipedia, events must be exclusive to matter, and unknown poets said the paper of record paid attention to Alex only because he threw fun parties and looked hot in a leather jacket. These poets had forgotten that many important literary journals had published Alex’s poems and Alex often emails and Facebook messages strangers. (Disclosure: We have emailed and instant messaged a few times in the past few months.) Dimitrov became the first poet to experience illogical internet trolls—in other words, he was the first poet to matter in years, and bitches were jealous.
Two years later, we’re still talking about Alex, and it has nothing to do with his social life. This month Four Way Books publishes his debut poetry collection, Begging for It, and even trolls will struggle to find reasons to hate it. The book is Alex’s Like a Prayer; as Madonna’s post-Sean Penn-domestic-violence novel transformed her into an acclaimed songwriter, Begging for It proves Alex deserves our attention.
Starting with his family’s immigration from an unnamed communist nation to Michigan and ending with memories of recent one-night-stands in contemporary Manhattan, the poems lead readers through Alex’s American life. He dwells on nostalgic images: American roads, televised Bill Clinton speeches, and Susan Sontag quotes. (He doesn’t have to try to romanticize Sontag; her academia reads like Kate Bush lyrics.)
Although Alex’s imagery recalls Madonna’s Michigan imagery in American Life, his subject matter is always gay—and this is a good thing. Early on, “The Crucifix” establishes Alex’s complicated relationship with his hard working, absent father. The stanzas describe a crucifix dangling around an attractive man’s chest—presumably a stranger’s chest the young Alex viewed as a homoerotic object—and the last line proves the obvious prediction, while also surprising the reader:
And when he sat down on the couch
to rest his head back, Adam’s apple
sharply gleaming, palms left open on his thighs—
I’d stare at that gold crucifix which sank so low,
our Jesus buried deep inside his chest hair,
closer to my father than I ever got.
Later poems depict men Alex sleeps with: a businessman, one-night stands he probably met on Grindr, and a skinny boy with glowing ribs. The experiences leave Alex unfulfilled—as many gays know, short-term fucks rarely evolve into long-term loves—but unlike Andrew Holleran or other gay writers, Alex admits the joy he finds in our self-destruction. He describes the Egyptian pyramids’ magnitude and then imagines a future when the wonders of the world admire our glorious failures.
In “Uncomplicated Happiness,” he writes, “Maybe I don’t want uncomplicated happiness.” And let’s be real, we’re not idiots; we know what we’re getting ourselves into every time we go home with a married family man. If we didn’t find pleasure in the influx of new lovers, we wouldn’t log onto Grindr every night. But most gay lit refuses to admit this: most gay lit says we are sluts, and, therefore, must be punished. Gay pop stars like Adam Lambert don’t even say we deserve punishment; those men refuse to even admit we like sleeping around. Alex acknowledges our complicated contradictions.
His connection between self-destructive sex and American iconography sounds like denial of his imperfection. “Put your money on this poem,” he writes. But Alex isn’t Madonna flexing her muscles and humping LMFAO at the Super Bowl, telling the world that she is perfect, although she’s not. Even as “In this Economy Even Businessmen Go Down,” Alex glorifies a Wall Street employee with a wife and kids, he showcases his vulnerability:
A man, like the market, can surprise you—
study him carefully while he uses your face
as a mirror, a screen.
When he unbuttons his shirt
he is teaching you kindness
and ruin he learned from his father—
leaving a wife and two kids, the crash at the office,
for a boy with your kind of eyes.
The first five lines glorify the closet case’s behavior, and the sixth line admits his “ruin.” Dimitrov knows he’s a bad boy, but he agrees to watch him unbutton his shirt because he wants his affection. Like Madonna, in Truth or Dare, Alex just wants love from the nation he immigrated from, his muses, his readers (read: everyone), and he knows all great pop songs’ meaning can be found in Madonna’s “Into the Groove”: “We might be lovers; it’s a real long try. I hope this feeling never ends to night.”
Alex writes about his conquests, imagines himself as a future American icon, and is unashamed about his love for literature, but he’s relatable because he wants love like the rest of us. We want, we want, we want, and Alex recognizes that wanting is the force behind every great work of pop art.
You can view a book trailer for the collection here.
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image via Alex Dimitrov’s blog