The Felice Picano Diaries: Spring 1982
Collected and Commented on by Kevin Stone Fries
Diaries can be snapshots of a life in words, their own kind of artifact. While not timeless, diaries are like other records of days gone by and only partially recaptured: They speak across time in some way. They are notes for a future reader, possibly future writer. They speak from one time to another. Felice Picano's diaries, beginning as early as 1969 and continuing still today, are a tantalizing trail of snapshots of the people and places passionately involved in the production of the author's published literature and the beginning of a larger literature by gay people. Felice Picano is the epitome of a lodestar to our community. His diaries, like the diaries of many published writers, serve as an additional compass: a source of guidance, strength, validation, and even permission and challenge.
The spring of 1982 was, in some respects, especially financially, a good one for Picano, as the selections below indicate. Even more significant is the mention of Torch Song Trilogy, the Harvey Fierstein play that has served to entertain and guide the hearts and minds of gay audiences since its production. These entries are a good representation of the entire diary -- they document Felice's active involvement among writers who influence gay expression today. Dennis Cooper, James Purdy, and Edmund White are the examples below. While only a short selection of the whole document, the entries compiled here show the writer challenging himself to begin a new book, validate the work just finished, and draw strength from the people, places, and events around him. All of these elements show how the creative process takes on a life of its own. These actions, I believe, are common to all who work at writing literature, published or unpublished writers alike.
Introduced by David Bergman, I met Felice Picano a few years ago. David knew I was interested in the unpublished diaries of literary masters. After making a trip to Yale's Beinecke Library to sample Felice's diaries, I met Felice when he was on a book tour visiting friends. I was impressed by the intense, energetic, and confident man who knew that he loved books and also loved the work that went into writing them. The diaries show this signature dynamism in a fashion different from his fiction. They offer a different way of looking at one of the most prolific gay writers of recent years. Felice has offered his recent annotations as "authors notes" in the selections below.
April 10, 1982
This comes very much in handy, needless to say; and at exactly the right time.
After paying a 1978 tax bill and the ... deposit on the FIP house -- I still have (because of previous earnings) some $7,000.00. This gets me through the next three months, and possibly the next four months. At least until sometime in early July.
What this means is I don't have to take the [money] owed me by Delacorte because I need it....
So barring disaster on the novel front, this might turn out to be my most profitable year since 1978.
Much thinking about Shadow... Master. ....
I have to plan a new book. The question of whether or not I'm ready to write a masterpiece is what concerns me. For that's what this book will have to be -- a masterpiece or nothing. [Author's note: the novel was finished and was by no means a masterpiece: in fact it was deemed unpublishable by FP's agent at the time.]
I have ideas, plenty of them. Structured... biographical. What I would like is for the book to be seen as a metaphor for the artist's life -- yes; and a metaphor for my own life too. It already possesses these possibilities in germ form.
I already have a protagonist -- Vincent Guilfoyle is his name. [Author's note: this was not the narrator's name in the ms. but it's a good name and I plan to use it in the future.]
The problem now is research into shadowplay; how I should write the book, and what time / style / prose to utilize. I suspect this book will need some early work on it.
April 12, 1982
First I want to note that the production was a poor one. Scenery was minimal... Director Auerbach's decision to use a single, circular bunch of steps with various levels was a near disaster. The costuming was fine, the lighting good three-quarters of the time.... The singing, however[,] was excellent. Justino Diaz, Rita Shane and the NYCO's new Verdi tenor Riccardo Calleo were all excellent. Calleo more than that. When these three singly, doubly, trebly held the stage, all went well...
The music in the opera is a strange mixture -- the soprano has a third act scene out of Bellini, and an aria out of Donizetti. There is a Verdi chorus, but also one reminiscent of Rossini's Moses. (Mosè in Egitto). Many of the earlier scenes are boring... but the bass has a good first and third act aria; the tenor and soprano two fine duets in the second half.
It's sort of refreshing to know that Verdi had such a long and dubious apprenticeship. He was 34 years old before he wrote his first repertory opera -- Macbeth. And I was glad to hear I Lombardi. Let's hope the next production is more sensible.
April 13, 1982
Dennis Cooper is fine. He's here for various readings -- including one at St. Mark's Church -- on Wednesday. We talked of many things, including naturally how satisfied he was with Crossing Press as his second publisher. Not very, he thought. So, with that I gave him a second royalty check -- for $125.00 (on top of $345.00 the first year) and I told him I was [sending] Idols back to press in 1982 and hoped he would publish his next book with me. I suspect he will.
His own press in Santa Monica is doing great work with poets. He has eight chapbooks scheduled for the coming year.
SeaHorse has had an excellent first quarter of 1982, mostly due to An Asian Minor; for which orders continue to come in. Sales of the title to date are 1708, with no let up in sight. Total units sold in the first quarter of 1982 are 2500 -- which is more than 1980's total sales [for the Press]. At this rate I expect to sell some 10,000 books in 1982. Income is also up -- $3900.00 to last year's $2500.00, and with three new titles. I expect that to continue also, possible as high as 30-40 thousand for the year.
In other words, if we publish a few more titles that are "hits" like An Asian Minor, I can expect a good business going in the next few years. My hope is that Andrew Holleran's short stories will do as well, [Author's note: AH never signed a contract for them., so they were never published.] and my poetry and who knows even DreamLovers.
[Author's note: SeaHorse Press Inc. was Felice Picano's publishing company, the first gay publisher on the east coast (Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco predated it) begun in 1977, lasting until 1991 when it was dissolved. New titles stopped appearing around 1984, and instead the SeaHorse Press logo was utilized by Picano as editor of various titles he acquired and published through Gay Presses of New York. GPNY was a parternship corporation with Terry Helbing and Larry Mitchell. That was dissolved in 1994. DreamLovers was Pete Fisher's first novel; SeaHorse published it the following year as its fourth book.]
April 15, 1982
It's on Midway -- that single block between F.I. Blvd. and the Bay -- located just west of the harbor, off Pine Walk. Close to the beach. The house itself is small, set back in the woods, with no views, except those of adjoining houses, and so quite different than the Tarpon Walk house with its astonishing ocean and bay.
But the house is pleasant, modest, and private. The front deck is sunny until midafternoon; the back deck sunny -- if dappled (because of trees) all afternoon.
The furnishings are satisfactory. It's close enough to the beach.
I think I'll take it.
Needless to say yesterday was a perfect day -- I'm tanned from two hours in the sun. Beautiful, like today seems to be.
April 16, 1982
I went up to talk to him afterwards, asked if his novel Eustace Chisholm was being reprinted. He said not. Neither was I am Elijah Thrush. He would very much like to see them in print again. I am to call his agent... I will read them this week. [Author's note: an offer was made for Eustache Chisolm. Purdy declined the offer, then sent Picano several stories and playlets for a single volume. Agreement was never reached and this collection never published.]
April 28, 1982
May 5, 1982
Torch Song is selling very well. In five weeks we've shipped over 1100 copies out of 2000 received for a total sales of 1900 for the two printings to date. But sales are pretty much limited to the NYC area -- and to drama and gay bookshops. One question is how soon will the market be saturated?
What to do with TS? The others want to raise the price and do another printing. Yet Bookpeople hasn't yet sent a contract. [Author's note: Bookpeople was a national small and independent press distributor, with offices in Berkeley, Ca. which sold SeaHorse Press and Gay Presses of New York titles in great quantities throughout the western U.S.] And the play has not yet moved to Broadway as predicted. And to date there is no film sale. While it's downtown in the Village, we're selling 50 to 70 copies right at the theater per week: too good to lose.
[Author's note: the following year Torch Song Trilogy moved to Broadway, won the Tony Award and went on to sell another 30,000 copies for GPNY, not including book club, mass market and foreign language rights; all of which assured GPNY of a decade of financial stability.]
The Felice Picano Diaries, called "The Diary of an Alchemist" from very early entries onward, are not only important documents of literary history. They also exemplify a basic template (but not a model -- each diary is its own model) of the creative process that everyone engages. Felice is unique, certainly, but he is also like anyone else who works to succeed.
Felice's individual drive to learn the calling of his life and times and to answer that to the best of his ability is nothing short of dramatic. While not everyone creates in the same way or for the same reasons, a challenge exists for writers and artists (and people in any profession really) to come to terms with or account for themselves as one among many in a given time and place with a given purpose. Felice's diaries and notebooks are a single part of a much larger story detailing the struggle for the equality of the collective expression of LGBTQ people in a heterosexually-centric, if not homophobic, culture.
Felice's personal papers also uncover lesser-known elements of his creative process and show his efforts over many years to integrate his goals as a writer with his unfolding career. Felice's work and persona are well known to some, but fewer people are aware of the author's interest in astrology and various Eastern tradtions, or of his intense interest in music, in addition to his being a prolific, well-connected writer.
A minority population that is misunderstood must go to extraordinary lengths to dispel the myths contributing to its oppression in order to achieve the civic equality that corresponds to a cultural respect for its differences, a status enjoyed by other populations. Publishing the diaries of our gay writers, politicians, spokespersons, shows our capacity to live to our potential, yet another way in which we are already equal to our heterosexual peers. With the publication of Christopher Isherwood's diaries, those of Ned Rorem, and still other LGBTQ writers, we are finally celebrating these histories. We can claim them and learn from them.
No diary, no writer, no person completely captures a moment in time, or is wholly representative of a group, but such captivity is not the goal. This intimate knowledge of an individual's -- and of a community's -- calling is not created by any one person or one group of people; yet, its free and open discussion may itself be likened to a lodestar. Celebrating and sharing the creative journeys of writers like Felice may encourage and guide all writers along their own paths -- and those of their readers, straight or gay.
Felice Picano's diaries are being prepared for publication by Kevin Stone Fries, with the help of the author. Other excerpts of Picano's diaries may be found in the special issue of Auto/Biography Studies called "Autobiographical Que(e)ries," and Afterwords: Real Sex From Gay Men's Diaries, edited by Kevin Bentley.