He Believed in the Power of Art
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Published in: January-February 2020 issue.


Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader
Edited by Jamie Townsend
Nightboat Books. 296 pages, $21.95


WHEN STEVE ABBOTT drove his VW bug over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco in the summer of 1974, there was a palpable queer energy, like a hot wire, running through the City by the Bay. To paraphrase Andy Warhol when referring to queer sexuality, if you had “a problem,” whether you lived in Augusta or Oshkosh, San Francisco was where you wanted to be. Abbott (1943–1992) had been a prominent Atlanta antiwar and gay activist, a poet, a political cartoonist, and the Gay Lib editor at the legendary underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird.

            A year before he moved west with his five-year-old daughter, his wife had been killed in a car accident. When he told her that he was bisexual upon their first meeting at an SDS party, she responded with characteristically ’60s idealism: “That means you can love all of humanity instead of just half of it.” Her death is the subject of Abbott’s richly layered poem “Elegy.” (“Before my wife died, she dreamt of our fishtank breaking & all the fish flopping into the street. No one would help her save them.”)

            Beautiful Aliens is a selection of Abbott’s essays, fiction, poems, and poetry cartoons, illustrating Abbott’s creative range and versatility. The book was compiled by Jamie Townsend, a Bay Area genderqueer poet who first encountered Abbott’s work when she was browsing in a bookstore in the Berkshires and picked up a copy of Stretching the Agape Bra, a collection of his poetry that includes “Elegy.”

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James Cassell is an artist and writer who lives in Silver Spring, MD. He wrote about David Wojnarowicz in the March-April 2019 issue.