Taylor Mac: Whitman in the Woods.

S2021 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Taylor Mac Discusses Whitman in the Woods

Taylor Mac, ALL ARTS artist in residence, on the draw of Walt Whitman's poems, and why the artist chose to engage with the works so deeply, in nature, in drag, while performing them.

AIRED: April 04, 2021 | 0:06:50
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TRANSCRIPT

"Walt Whitman: In the Woods."

I really gravitated to to Whitman

as a personal forefather,

somebody that I could relate to

and I could be inspired by.

And it's just so few 19th century

or before references to people, clearly,

gay men loving other gay men in the canon.

My first time experiencing Walt Whitman wasn't in school.

I never heard about anybody who was gay

in my entire public education.

They never mentioned the word once.

And then when I got older and I started hanging out

with some kind of more radical queers,

Walt Whitman is mythology

for a lot of those people and lineage.

And in fact, you know, I would say

that he's maybe the first Radical Faerie before Harry Hay,

who created the Radical Faeries with a bunch of other queens.

But the idea that you're committed to nature,

you're committed to thinking

outside of the structure of society

for how to live your life

and not necessarily basing everything on heterosexual norms

and committed to beauty

and committed to I would say equality

in the sense of the cosmos of equality.

It's important to me that how can we make Whitman queer?

How do we make Whitman queer? [ Laughs ]

Take him out of the hands of the people who aren't queer,

who love him and have analyzed him

and dedicated their lives to his poetry,

and we thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,

thank you for doing that. And at the same time,

is there room for the queer voice in this poetry?

And I think there is.

I tend to work in a way that's just you just trust everybody.

You find the right people, and then you just trust them.

And whatever you make together is what you make.

And it's a kind way to work.

But I also think it's more authentic.

One of the things, you know, I usually say to them

is especially for the aesthetics of it all,

is I want it to look like the float in the parade

that the community made but wasn't sponsored by a bank

but won.

That gorgeous float that people stayed up all night long

trying to make, you know, because usually with the drag,

you kind of -- you get a very pop sensibility,

at least the drag that we see in kind of popular culture.

It tends to be more pop.

So I thought it would be fun to kind of counterbalance that

with some stereotypes of what the All Arts might be

and squish the two together.

I like to squish things together.

So we chose to do a bunch of Whitman poems,

Walt Whitman poems, and put them in the woods.

I've been hanging out a lot in the woods lately.

And I just love the idea of drag queens in the woods.

So poetry and drag and woods,

and what else do you want?

Every time I've seen Whitman performed,

they take the queer out, you know?

So it's always very serious.

You know, I was like, "Where's the queen?

You're telling me he wasn't campy?

You're telling me he didn't have comic timing?"

I hear the comic timing in the poems.

I mean, he's very earnest as well.

And if I can fault him for anything,

it's maybe that, you know,

he's a little too earnest for my taste.

But I'm too cynical for my taste.

So I think that's a nice balance.

I want to be very obvious about it.

Nothing that the historians will say "No, that's not true."

You know, like, "Oh, he was just saying that's his friend.

You know, they didn't have the word homosexual,

so no one could have been homosexual back then."

You know, none of that crap that academics and historians

tend to do by erasing, you know,

anything that might be queer in the past.

So I just wanted something really, really obvious.

Humboldt wrote this book called "A Cosmos,"

and Walt Whitman was pretty inspired by that.

And that was so much about how we're all connected

and we're all part of the universe.

It was, without maybe consciously knowing it,

it was working off of a lot of indigenous understanding

of our place in the universe

and our place on this earth and with each other.

And that certainly was very different

from the kind of Christian monotheism approach

to philosophy and community.

The art that I've made for the last few decades

has really been an exploration of heterogeneity.

I grew up in a place where everyone was expected

to be one thing and nobody was, you know?

So I'm really fascinated with the difference

between the homogeneity and heterogeneity

and how can we express the full range of who we are?

That's something that again and again and again,

I want to focus on.

And when you're told that you have to be one way

and you're a little different

and you know you're not that way,

and so what are your options?

And if your options are to think,

"Oh, I could be the entire universe

because I'm part of the universe

and that means there's a place for me,"

then something happens in your heart and your soul

and you just want to -- you want to live in that place

more than you would want to live in the world

that wants to make you one thing,

you know, make you fit into somebody else's idea.

Whitman is definitely part of that lineage

of let's reconnect to the earth and the cosmos.

You know, to me, Whitman is a little bit of a --

like just a little light,

a little little lightning bug in the forest,

you know, and you go, "Oh," and then you look around

and you see, oh, there's tons of other ones, too.

I'm just floored by him.

You know, I just -- he just makes me happy.

I love the language.

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