Just Read It is a regular feature in which the State Journal seeks recommendations from authors, literary enthusiasts and experts, focused on the contributor’s particular genre of expertise.
Callen Harty is the author of more than 20 full-length plays and the recently released book “My Queer Life,” a collection of more than 30 years’ worth of his poems, essays, monologues and more on living life as a queer man. Here, he selects one play, one book of poetry and one coming-out story that hold personal meaning.
1. “Bent,” by Martin Sherman. As a playwright there are many writers I admire, but one of my favorite plays is “Bent.” I had the privilege of directing a production through Mercury Players in Madison several years ago. The play examines the relationship between two gay men who fall in love in a Nazi concentration camp where they are forced into manual labor. The play is ultimately about the triumph of love even while examining the darker side of human nature.
2. “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg. I have written poetry since I was 7 or 8 years old and have enjoyed reading and hearing it as well. I can still recall my own crazy excitement at holding my copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in my hands and reading, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” an on and on in an incredibly long and beautiful and profound spewing of perfect words. I read it, re-read it, read it aloud, listened to recordings of Ginsberg reading it, and it blew me away in every way. One night after Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso had done a reading at Memorial Union, I met Ginsberg in a Downtown Madison gay bar and then joined him and several of my friends for breakfast at the Café Palms. I listened to him speak as if he were a prophet, but was so starstruck I could barely utter a word myself. Even his conversation was poetry to me. “Howl” remains one of my favorite books in any genre.
3. “The Best Little Boy in the World,” by John Reid. When I was in my early 20s and figuring out my identity I stumbled across this book in a used bookstore in Madison. In its simple laying out of one man’s journey to self-discovery I recognized myself page after page. It was the first positively affirming queer life story I had ever read. The language is spare, nothing wasted, and it gets right to the emotional core of its story in a simple, honest way. For a young man struggling with coming out, it was a life-saving book.