By Aaron Smith
I can’t remember my dad calling me a sissy,
but he definitely told me not to be a sissy.
I secretly (or not so secretly) liked all the sissy
things. We had a hunting dog named Sissy.
Really: Sissy. My father nicknamed my sister: Sissy.
Still, he says, “How’s Sissy?” and calls her Sissy
when she goes home to visit him. Belinda (Sissy)
is one of the toughest people I know. My sissy
(sister) has kicked someone’s ass, which isn’t sissy-
ish, I guess, though I want to redefine sissy
into something fabulous, tough, tender, “sissy-
tough.” Drag queens are damn tough and sissies.
I’m pretty fucking tough and a big, big sissy,
too. And kind. Tough and kind and happy: a sissy.
About This Poem
Aaron Smith explains his poem: “As a queer person, I’ve had the word ‘sissy’ leveled against me as an insult. In this sonnet, I challenged myself to use the word ‘sissy’ as the ending word for each line in an attempt to reclaim the word, celebrate it, redefine it—as I say in the poem—as something ‘fabulous, tough, tender.’ I also wanted to celebrate drag queens. RuPaul [Andre Charles] is a national treasure.”
I came across this poem the other day, and it was one of those poems that really spoke to me. Like Smith, my dad never called me a sissy, but I heard more than once, “Don’t be a sissy.” I remember when I was in grammar school, all the boys played flag football at recess. I had no interest in playing football, so I spent recess with my friends, all the girls. My dad came to pick me up from school one day (recess was at the end of the day), and he noticed that I was not playing football with the rest of the boys. He told me that I had to play with the boys and “not be such a sissy.” So, from then on, when he would pick me up at school, I’d have to play flag football.
Years ago, I read a book, Mississippi Sissy. The book is a memoir by Kevin Sessums, a celebrity journalist who as the Amazon description says, “grew up scaring other children, hiding terrible secrets, pretending to be Arlene Frances and running wild in the South.” As he grew up in Forest, Mississippi, befriended by the family maid, Mattie May, he became a young man who turned the word “sissy” on its head, just as his mother taught him. In Jackson, he is befriended by Eudora Welty and journalist Frank Hains, but when Hains is brutally murdered in his antebellum mansion, Kevin’s long road north towards celebrity begins. In his memoir, Kevin Sessums brings to life the pungent American south of the 1960s and the world of the strange little boy who grew there.
There are words that haunt me because of the pain they caused me growing up: sissy, queer, faggot (fag), etc. I know many gay men use these as empowering words, such as Sessum and Smith do in their writing. Others celebrate their sexuality and gender non-conformity. As the poem says, “Drag queens are damn tough and sissies.” But it’s not just drag queens that are celebrating gender non-conformity. Many of us live our lives these days without the fear of being called a “sissy.” Though, there are still many like me who continue to care what others think. It’s difficult for us to break free from the traditional gender roles that were forced on us when we were young. Maybe more of us should realize that we are “pretty fucking tough and a big, big sissy, too. And kind. Tough and kind and happy: a sissy.”
About the Poet
Aaron Smith has an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh.
Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer (University of Pittsburgh Press); Appetite (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); and Blue on Blue Ground (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His other awards include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Mass Cultural Council.
Smith is an associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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