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Joel Derfner

is in a race to become the gayest person ever. To that end, he's tried knitting, cheerleading, musical theatre, blogging about his dating life, and finally, what just may push him into the winner's circle, writing Gay Haiku (Broadway, May 2005), a hilarious collection of poems opining on all manner of queer life, including bad dates, orgies, and Bed Bath & Beyond. Joel also chronicles his love life in his blog, The Search for Love in Manhattan (subtitled "A Gay Odyssey of Neurosis"), which, as he recounts below, has in fact brought him true love (though he still has plenty to be neurotic about).

Most of us haven’t thought about the haiku format since we were in elementary school and first learned the 5/7/5 format. Do you remember the first haiku you ever wrote?
Oh, Jesus Christ, I have no idea. I’m sure it was about the fleeting dawn or a whippoorwill or some crap like that. I was that sort of child.

Why'd you choose to write haiku, and specifically, gay haiku, for your first book? How did the book come about and how long did they take you to write?
I was doing a blog fundraising event for a theater company being started by the alumni of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, and I was supposed to post every half hour for 24 hours. And as soon as I signed up I was like, oh, fuck me, how am I going to write 49 posts in a day and be both funny and grammatical? I was about to jump out the window to avoid the issue entirely, and then I realized I could write 49 haiku about all the bad dates I’d been on and all the bad sex I’d had. They turned out pretty well, so I decided to write 20 more, which took me another week, and send them out as a manuscript called 69 Gay Haiku. Eventually Random House wanted it, but they needed 110 total, so I had to write 41 more. By that time, though, I wasn’t nearly as well-medicated as I’d been when I first wrote them, so the last 41 took me about three months. That’s eight syllables a day, or two waking hours per syllable. More like two and a half, actually, because I was sleeping so badly.

What’s the secret to a great haiku?
There are two things you have to pay attention to when you’re writing a haiku. The first is a principle called the "cutting." The poem has to be in two parts: either the first line and then the next two, or the first two lines and then the last. This turns what could be a simple declarative statement into something else: an interesting juxtaposition, a reflection on cause and effect, question and answer. Take this poem, without a cutting:

The subway rides to
Sex hookups are simply too
Long to be worth it.

As opposed to this one (from page 47 of the book), with a cutting:
I’m considering
Giving up casual sex:
I hate the subway.

In the first poem, there's no room to breathe, no time for expectations to build and then be dashed or fulfilled. In the second poem, the pause after the second line creates a tension that is then released in the third line—essentially, a joke and a punch line.

The other important thing to notice is that, in the first poem, the speaker gives his opinion and leaves it at that, whereas in the second poem, not everything is stated, not every dot connected, so when you read it you can do some of the work yourself. You have to take a split second to think about what casual sex and the subway have to do with each other—and then, having made that connection, you get to enjoy having participated in creating the poem.

The actual content of your gay haiku covers a wide range of topics, including your dating life, and even in that short format you are pretty forthright about some bad dates. Are you expecting to get any flak for any of the poems?
Yes, especially because I keep running into the people involved. I’ll get on the subway and there will be the guy with the pet tarantula. He won’t recognize me, but the instant I see him the whole terrible experience comes rushing back. I’m just hoping it’ll be like a Molière play; his audiences laughed hysterically without realizing they were the ones he was savaging. I hope the people involved will laugh without recognizing themselves. Or at the very least that they continue not to recognize me.

Did working on the book influence you when it comes to other forms of writing? I’d imagine that it might make you more concise and appreciative of each word you use.
You’re right, but in reverse. I fixate on each word I use no matter what I’m writing, which means that anything longer than a grocery list completely overwhelms me. So writing haiku was a relief, because with only seventeen syllables, I could obsess about every word and finish before the next Ice Age set in. Of course now when I look at the book I see countless things I wish I’d written differently, and I start to hyperventilate, but then I eat chocolate and everything is okay again.

Speaking of dating, you’ve been chronicling your love life as "Dr. Faustus" on your blog Search for Love in Manhattan and are now about to reveal yourself. What’s the process of being out about your anonymous blogger identity like?
Well, the anonymity has been fictional for a long time anyway, useful only as a literary device. Anybody who wanted to figure out my name could do it with thirty seconds of judicious googling. In the beginning the site was anonymous, or at least I thought it was. But then the director of the gay and lesbian cheerleading squad I was on mentioned it to me, and I certainly hadn’t told him about it, since I’d been fairly snarky about some other people on the squad. Then there was this guy I’d dated casually for nine months or so and then dumped, all the while dating and having sex with a bunch of other people and blogging about it. We stayed friends, and then one day he found my blog and read it all—he said it was obvious to him after two seconds that it was me. He was furious, and we had a long conversation about emotional honesty and being open. And it felt so good that I realized what a mistake I’d made breaking up with him, and a few weeks later I asked him out on a date and he accepted. That was almost two years ago, and we’re moving in together in the fall. So, strangely, the blog itself—and the trouble the pretense of anonymity got me into—was instrumental in the success of the Search for Love in Manhattan. (He lived in Brooklyn at the time, but he got over it.)

Clearly, you approach life, and especially dating, sex and romance, with a sense of humor and irreverence. Is that a necessity in the modern dating world? Do people take their own search for love too seriously?
I think most people are actually much healthier about it than I was. For me, humor was really just the flip side of despair and bitterness. I was so despondent at how insufferable some of the guys sitting across the table from me were that it was either laugh at them or put my eyes out with my dinner fork. When the book was done, I showed it to my therapist and he looked at a few of the haiku and said, "These are very funny." Then he looked at a few more and said, "They’re also full of rage." And I was like, "Oh, shut up."

You're also an accomplished composer. Can you tell me what's been the highlight of your musical career so far?
No question, it was the first time Broadway actors did a reading of a show I had written. No matter what’s in your head and what you put on the page, good actors always find things you had no idea were there, and turn the work into something far more complex and exciting than you imagined it would be.

Do you usually compose music for works that have already been written? What's your creative process like?
Musical theater is the worst art form to work in, because you do all your work with other people, and it’s the best art form to work in, because you do all your work with other people. I almost never write the music first—I’m always responding to a lyric the lyricist has sent me. Even as a composer I’m a bottom. I’m lucky to be working with two brilliant lyricists, Len Schiff and Rachel Sheinkin, on different projects. The lyrics they write resonate so strongly with me that the music just composes itself. Sometimes I’ll set the lyric as is, sometimes I’ll ask for changes, sometimes Rachel or Len and I will work back and forth in the same room, phrase by phrase or stanza by stanza. But even if I just set the lyric they give me, there’s always a lot of give and take afterwards. And arguing.

You wrote the music for "Blood Drive," a set of three one-act musicals about "a blood donation center, a temp agency, and the world of TV infomercials." How exactly did you go about writing music for something like this?
Well, that quote explains where those three pieces take place, but because Rachel is brilliant, the entire musical ends up being about people who are trying to find or escape from human connection. In the end, no matter what the subject matter, you have to write the emotion in it. In the first of those three pieces, for example, there’s a song about important dates in the history of blood transfusion. Obviously the music isn’t about the particular dates listed or the fact that goat milk was transfused into human veins. The music is about how the character feels about the miracle and mystery of blood.

What are you working on now? What's your dream project to work on music-wise?
In addition to Blood Drive with Rachel, I’m also working with Len and with bookwriter Peter Ullian on the score to Terezin, a musical about the Nazi propaganda camp. Both of them are brilliant too. The idea sounds horrifying at first—"It’s a concentration camp musical!"—but the show is actually the furthest thing you can imagine from "Springtime For Hitler." It’s a drama, and it makes sense that this show should be a musical, because the artistic elite of Europe were imprisoned in Terezin, so there was music going on there all the time. Though I have to say that recording the demo was a somewhat surreal experience. I kept on saying things like, "Okay, can we take it again from ‘And if the sun should blacken, that would seem like justice’?" As far as a dream project, I don’t really have one—I just want to be able to continue to work on material that inspires me with people who inspire me. I guess my dream is to be established enough that, if I write something, I can be reasonably certain that it’ll be produced and that more than twelve people will see it. Nowadays, with production costs soaring and producers less willing to take risks on new work, that’s actually asking a great deal.

I have to ask you about your bio on the back of the book, which reads: "JOEL DERFNER graduated from Harvard with a degree in linguistics. His work for the musical theater has been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between. In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he took up knitting and got a job as a step aerobics instructor." Did you really take up knitting and work as a step aerobics instructor?
I did take up knitting; I’m almost done with a particularly fabulous sweater, after which I’m going to knit a pair of lace socks for a friend. And I am still working as a step aerobics instructor, at the Paris Health Club and at New York Sports Club. The problem with teaching so early in the morning, though, is that nobody I know is ever awake, so I can’t ever pack my classes with friends I know will love me even if I fuck something up. This means that the whole time I’m shrieking, "Okay, knees higher! Three-repeater left and right!" what I’m really thinking is Why isn’t that woman smiling? She hates me. She definitely hates me. And she’s going to talk to the woman on her left after class and make her hate me too. Why isn’t the other woman here, the one who claps and whoops her way through class? Maybe I said something last week that made her hate me. Maybe I should throw myself in the Hudson. Whoops, ARABESQUE RIGHT AND LEFT! You get the point.

Can you tell me more about Cheer NY? What prompted you to join the squad and what was it like? Where and when does the squad cheer?
It was Thanksgiving of 2002; there was nothing good on TV, so my straight brother, who is also my roommate, turned on ESPN. There was a college cheerleading championship on, and I was instantly filled with regret that I'd wasted my college years studying and traveling rather than being thrown in the air by muscular hunks. But then I was like, wait, I'm a gay man living in Manhattan, there has to be a cheerleading squad I can join. It turned out there was, and it was having auditions the following week. I went, and I made the squad, and it was fabulous: 25 of the queeniest queens I'd ever encountered, cheering and jumping and flipping and throwing each other into the air. It felt like home. There's nothing on earth like having two men fling you high above their heads, twisting around on your way down--terrified that you're about to die--and then being caught safely in their arms. I left the squad a year ago or so, but at that point we were doing a lot of Pride events as well as cheering for the Sharks, New York's team in the international women's football league. It was hysterical. Big built lesbians in football helmets and cute little faggy cheerleaders. We'd be jumping up and down screaming "defense! defense!", and then we'd realize that, since we didn't know anything about football, we'd missed the fact that our team was actually playing offense, so we'd start screaming "offense! offense!" and then we'd hear the ice cream truck bell and drop our pom-poms and go get chocolate sundaes.

How's your "gayest person ever" quest going? If you don't make it, who wins the crown?
Ryan Seacrest, hands down. I should probably just cede the title to him now. But maybe I can be in the top ten.

As we approach Gay Pride Month, what’s your advice for making it through rainbow mania with one’s dignity and pride intact?
March in the parade. Find a group to march with—the alumni from your college, the Schubert Lovers, whoever. I’ve marched before and I’ve watched, and marching is much, much better. You feel like you’re really doing something for the community—because you are. You’re making your voice heard, you’re insisting that you be counted.

Since I sometimes ask comedians what the funniest thing about New York is, I’ll ask you what the gayest thing about New York is?
Oh, God, everything. Everything about New York is gay. Except, bizarrely, for Roller Disco Night at the Roxy. Hideously straight. But everything else is gay.

Photo by Chia Messina

Gay HaikuJoel’s website and blog to find out more about him. Joel will read from and sign copies of Gay Haiku on Thursday, May 26th at 7 p.m. at Barnes and Noble Chelsea, 675 6th Avenue at 22nd Street. Joel will also be reading on Saturday, June 18th at 6 pm at The Circle #53 in East Hampton (631-324-8680) and at WYSIWYG Talent Show on the theme of "I Love a Parade! Even Gayer Tales of Extremely Gay Gayness" on Tuesday, June 21st at 7 pm at PS 122.