Freely Espousing: James Schuyler, Surveillance Poetry, and the Queer Otic
4,445 words

John Stuart Mill meant it figuratively. When he wrote, in his 1833 “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” he was thinking of those musings the lonely bard keeps between himself and God. The New York School took it literally. As John Ashbery said of his technique one century later, “I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance.” No poet was more interested in the overheard than James Schuyler, the self-proclaimed stylist of waste. As America’s surveillance apparatus burgeoned in the twentieth-century, policing bodies of color and sexual deviants, Schuyler, himself part of downtown’s queer scene, incorporated its tactics into his. Is Schuyler a surveillant? A voyeur? Evidence of Foucault’s “capillary functioning of power”? What are the ethics of his found aesthetic?

Five days a week I take the 2 from 96th and Broadway to Wall Street. Sometimes I read a book or the Metro New York that Mo offers me before announcing the time until the next train arrives. But mostly I listen: to grumblings about lousy service (frequent), shards of conversation from those who are talking (occasional), the music that leaks from the headphones of those who aren’t (more common), and the automated warning to “stand clear of the closing doors” (eight times each trip). I record the fragments that catch my ear in a small journal reserved for that purpose. Every so often I am told to say some-thing if I see something and that my belongings are subject to search and, in turn, I am reminded of a certain quandary: that in gathering the jetsam and flotsam of subway talk I become a citizen-surveillant. New York City’s subway system has 5,000 cameras; 5,001 when I ride.1Dan Rivolli, “MTA Report Says Just Over One Third of Subway Stations Have Cameras,” NY1, September 30, 2019, nyc/all-boroughs-news/ 2019/10/ 01/mta-report-says-just-over-one- third-of-subway-stations-have-cam- eras.

John Ashbery liked the subway too. When The Paris Review asked the Pulitzer-Prize winner how he “gets started in writing a poem,” Ashbery replied: “An idea might occur to me, something very banal—for example, isn’t it strange that it is possible to both talk and think at the same time? That might be an idea for a poem. Or certain words or phrases might have come to my attention with a meaning I wasn’t aware of before. Also, I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance.” He continued: “In fact, there is an example of that in this poem, ‘What Is Poetry?’ In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: ‘It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?’ I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.”2John Ashbery, “The Art of Poetry No. 33” interview by Peter A. Stitt, The Paris Review 90 (Winter 1983), Ashbery borrowed his last line from a bookshop and his title from a book, J.S. Mill’s What is Poetry? The English philosopher wrote his “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties” in 1833, asserting, famously, that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.”3John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” The Monthly Repository (January 1833): 63. Though in an early draft Mill alluded to the connection between poetry and surveillance —the writer listens to “the lament of a prisoner in a solitary cell” himself “unseen in the next”—he meant this metaphorically.4Lytle Shaw, Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018), 38. Poetry is written in dialogue with God, eavesdropped in holy communion. Ashbery, keeping to his radical empiricist ethos, took Mill literally: poetry is overheard in stores, on streets, in subway cars.

Poethics of the Gleaner
A black and white photo of John Ashberry and James Schuyler. They sit next to one another behind an outdoor dining table, each wearing a collared shirt. Ashberry leans back in his chair and cracks a wide smile. Schuyler hangs his right arm over the chair's back.
John Ashbery (left) and James Schuyler on Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, in 1968. The two poets were roommates, co-authors, and New York School compatriots.

No poet was more a believer in the overheard more than James Schuyler, Ashbery’s once-roommate and New York School companion. His debut collection, the 1969 Freely Espousing, makes extensive use of the—well—freely espoused. The book’s title poem begins:

the sinking sensation
when someone drowns thinking, “This can’t be happening to me!”
the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of pill when used as in
“she is a pill”5James Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” Freely Espousing (Paris: Paris Review Editions, 1969), 13.

Schuyler uses the page as the ragpicker’s satchel, rummaging through the trash and eavesdropping on conversations. He makes careful use of his findings. As Maude Chanson Emerson observes, “‘Sinuous’ snakes out of ‘sinus,’ involving the word ‘allergy’ in a tangled network of relationships among sounds and senses. ’Tonic’ relates both to the medicinal implications of ‘pill’ and to the way in which, when ‘pill’ sounds in one context, tones relating to its other contexts sound, too.”6Maude Chanson Emerson, “Radical Empiricist Poetics in the New York School and Beyond,” PhD diss., University of California, Berkley, 2017, 61. Schuyler continues to collect:

Marriages of the atmosphere are
worth celebrating
where Tudor City
catches the sky or the glass side
of a building lit up at night in fog
“What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”
“You are experiencing a new sensation.”
if the touch-me-nots
are not in bloom
neither are the chrysanthemums

the bales of pink cotton candy
in the slanting light
are ornamental cherry trees.
The greens around them, and
the browns, the grays, are the park.7Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” 14.

Citing his fascination with flora and fauna, critics have assimilated Schuyler to a tradition of pastoral lyricism and quiet epiphany. His most conservative readers dismiss his waste fetish as a marginal—if not “problem[atic]”—concern.8Helen Vendler, “New York Pastoral,” Soul Says (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 61. In a review of Schuyler’s posthumously published letters, W.S. Piero derides his thing for “clutter.” “Schuyler camps it up more in the letters than in the poems. He becomes Jimmy ‘the fag,’ Jimmy the (sort of) dandified flâneur.”9W.S. Piero, “Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again...” Poetry (January 2006): 309. Piero was right, on one account: Schuyler’s found aesthetics were intrinsic to his “fag”—a term the poet was eager to reclaim. Just as waste is the necessary but abject other of capitalist efficiency, queer affects and identifications correspond to, in Erving Goffman’s terms, a “spoiled identity” against which dominant ideologies of reproductive health and accumulation of property—“heterosexual,” “patriarchal,” “marriageable,” “familial,” “productive”—are defined.10Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963). Schuyler’s composting allows him to reclaim the degradation and “accommodate [himself] to the taint.”11Christopher Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashberry, Schuyler, and Goldsmith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 5. His investment in trash as a locus of identification and recuperation is exemplified by one entry from his 1988 diary:

Just back from Sheridan Square cigar store, where a spaced-out young man was laying it on the line for unwary customers—the man just ahead of me got, “Ten billion years older than the oldest living maggot on earth.” My sentence was a little lighter: “Take the garbage with you.” Walking up Seventh Avenue and passing Tony Holland, who was looking very well, staircase wit made me wish I’d said, “Baby, I am the garbage”—but for that kind of repartee, a body guard is no bad idea.12James Schuyler, The Diary of James Schuyler (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 113–114.

“Baby, I am the garbage”—Schuyler announces his affliction with waste in an erotic will-to-abjection, rewriting the connotation that his being would devalue him as something akin to a “maggot” (a trash-dweller and homophonic neighbor of “faggot”).

Schuyler arrived at his “waste-management poetics” much earlier.13Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste, 99. In 1949, the young writer was under the employ of W.H. Auden. He recalls picking through the bard’s crumpled drafts on the Italian island of Ischia:

When [Auden] learned that in Florence
I and my friend Bill Aalto had
fished his drafts of poems
out of the wastepaper basket,
he took to burning them, saying,
“I feel like an ambassador burning
secret papers.”14James Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 243.

What Auden—an icon of modern academic poetry—discarded to not betray the perfection of his poem, Schuyler recycled as raw material and, alongside his then-boyfriend Aalto, a site of queer intimacy.

On Ischia was born Schuyler’s attention to the wayward, the quiet, the ordinary, the cast-off. He would later summarize this orientation with the imperative “Attune yourself to what is happening / Now,” a riff on Wittgenstein’s “Don’t think, but look!”15James Schuyler, Ludwig Wittgenstein as quoted in Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 83. Schuyler returned to Wittgenstein often, finding in his “philosophy (as descent),” to cite Stanley Cavell, a similar poetics (as descent) that refused “(a false ascent), or transcendence.”16Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 46. Schuyler was also taken by Kurt Schwitters, the German artist and Dada affiliate. Schwitters believed that the leftovers of modern society could be gathered and converted into art. As he said at the end of World War I:

I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together... Everything had broken down in any case, and new things had to be made out of fragments.17Kurt Schwitters as quoted in Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 26.

Schuyler’s collage—employed often in Freely Espousing as he cobbles together “found” speech with news headlines, billboard copy, cotton candy, and cherry trees—was kindled by Schwitters. “I was very interested in Dada, and I loved Schwitters’ work,” he told one interviewer. “The idea of using scraps and bits and pieces.”18James Schuyler, as quoted in Carl Little, “An Interview with James Schuyler” Agni 37 (1993): 175. Schuyler was also enamored with Robert Rauschenberg, declaring his admiration in a review of the artist’s mixed-media Combines:

Any archaeologist of our own time and world, armed with the rosetta stone of his sensibility, has an occasion for profound research. Rauschenberg, as he works, is against imagination, which produces works that are much more provocative for the imagination of others, for he leaves the objects he agglomerates free to be themselves, generating the sufficiency of what they are of endlessly suggesting. That is up to the looker.19James Schuyler, Selected Art Writings (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1999), 84.

Side-by-side images of Kurt Schwitters' Merz 460 and Robert Rauschenberg's Combines. Schwitters has collages mutlicolored triangular cutouts atop one another. Rauschenberg has pasted a piece of paper, color swatches, a postcard, and stamps to his canvas.
At left: Kurt Schwitters’ Merz 460 (1921). Right: a detail of one Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines (1955). Schuyler’s poetic assemblages of found material were inspired by the two artists.

Like Schuyler, Rauschenberg drew from the daily. His use of color, for instance, was inspired by “the experience of walking on the street or being in the theatre or around any group of people,” in which “[s]omeone might be wearing a bright tie or green shoes.”20Robert Rauschenberg, “Interview with Billy Klüver” On Record: 11 Artists (New York: Experiments in Art and Technology, 1981), 43. And like Rauschenberg, and Schwitters before him, Schuyler nailed and glued together—agglomerated—scraps and bits and pieces of everyday archaeology. “February” seems to have been a breakthrough for Schuyler in this regard; he wrote it in 1954 and held it dear before publishing it fifteen years later in Freely Espousing. It begins:

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.21Schuyler, Freely Espousing

A chimney billowing waste. The sun. Pink. Blue. Tulips. Five p.m. March first. Six lines. Disparate objects arranged paratactically, linked only by presence in the poem. He concludes, agape at the variety before him:

I can’t get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She’s so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It’s a day like any other.22Ibid., 16.

“February” is among the first of Schuyler’s many “window,” or “roof-gazing,” poems; it attempts to record precisely what could be seen from his New York City apartment window at 5 p.m. “on the day before March first.” He had endeavored to “write a poem in a regular form about (I think) Palermo, the Palazzo Abatelli,...and the chapels decorated by Serpotta with clouds of plaster cherubs,” but it “turned out to be laborious and flat.”23James Schuyler, Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, ed. William Corbett (Brooklyn: Turtle Point Press, 2009), 240. So he decided to eschew the exotic location and masterpiece of Western art for what was right before him, in so doing following Emerson—another favorite—and his call to turn away from the remote and the antique toward the common and the familiar.24Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 78. He observes with measured (dis)passion, refusing to transform what he sees into anything more or less than it is. He ends the poem without insight or revelation. “It’s just a day like any other.”

The poet and critic Joan Retallack uses “poethics”—a word somewhere between poetics, ethics, and ethos—to name a form of life that forms out of language. “Every philosophy, every narrative, every poem, every piece of visual art or music,” she observes, “organizes our noticing according to its implicit and enacted geometries of attention.”25Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 175. I think Schuyler offers a “poethics of the gleaner.”26I borrow “ethic of the gleaner” from Amanda Boetzkes’s “Plastic, Oil Culture, and the Ethics of Waste” (2016). Writing on Agnes Varda’s 2000 essay film Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, Boetzkes says, “the ethic of the gleaner is precisely to welcome this, to find waste extraordinary, to discover redemption in the particularity and beauty of this process.” He “collect[s] in scattered or fragmentary parcels”—gleans—lyrical material like “the grain left by a reaper,” recalibrating our geometries of attention to the un-attended-to.27Noah Webster, “Glean” American Dictionary of the English Dictionary, 1828, Accessed December 13, 2020,> In so doing he gives birth to a way of being in and with the world that cares for the subaltern, the living and non-living, and the those unordinary beings caught somewhere in between. Gleaning also evokes investigation: to glean information from a source. This is part of Schuyler’s poethics, too. He is J.S. Mill’s surveillance-poet fully realized.

In his canonical study of modern surveillance, Michel Foucault traces the expansion of the disciplinary state from the Panopticon to a condition of quotidian life. The monitoring of prisoners leaks beyond penitentiary walls, becoming “a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.”28Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 205. Police come to “bear over everything,” examine “the dust of events, actions, behavior, opinions,” and track “those things of every moment... seek[ing] to reach the most elementary particle.”29Ibid., 213–214. Schuyler himself has been described as “a poet of the immediate, of views out of train and restaurant windows,” whose “subject matter, ostensible and real, is the flux of everyday life.”30Howard Moss, “James Schuyler: Whatever Is Moving,” American Poetry Review 10 (May/June 1981): 14. Indeed, Schuyler gathers dust: those particulate events, actions, and behaviors sordid and sudden. Literal dust sometimes, like the yellow sort “inside the tulips.” He keeps steady watch from his window, not unlike those guards stationed in the Panopticon’s glass-enclosed central tower. He intercepts conversations unintended for his ears, identifying with the maggots for whom “bugging” was named.31Dortë Zbikowski, “The Listening Ear,” CTRL{SPACE} ed. (Karlsuhe: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2002), 34.

As Dortë Zbikowski writes, “To listen attentively, to observe, is to lie in ambush, lie in wait.”32Ibid., 33. He collects data—Schuyler’s book-length long poems, such as “Hymn to Life,” are “governed by a logic of accumulation and repetition.”33Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 102. He notes dates, times, and places with exactitude: “five p.m. on the day before March first.” And he does this all with the cool dispassion of an informant, in which “the commonplace is not transfigured, but remains defiantly ordinary.”34John Koethe, “A Brief Appreciation,” Denver Quarterly 24 (1990): 33.

Foucault warned that the surveillance state was so insidious that it would lodge itself in the body. Discipline would operate through “the capillary functioning of power,” each citizen becoming a syndic.35Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 198. At times, through his surveillance poetics, it seems the disciplinary state worked its way into Schuyler’s blood-stream, too.

The Queer Otic

The late-José Esteban Muñoz—himself a fan of James Schuyler, “the great queer voice of the New York School of poetry”—theorized “the queer optic,” as the capacity to identify and value uncommon beauty.36José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 13. Kandice Chuh summarized it as “an affective rationality...neither identical nor fully separate from the structures of the dominating present” that “subtends misidentification, the intimate but dissident relationship to the given present.”37Kandice Chuh, “It’s Not about Anything,” Social Text 121 (Winter 2014): 125. I contend that Schuyler’s poethics introduce a queer otic, a subversive listening to the odd and out-of-place, which he uses to refunctionalize the surveillance tactics deployed against him.

Schuyler would have been uncomfortably familiar with these tactics. Beginning in 1950, as Senator Joseph McCarthy alleged that Communists had infiltrated the State Department and J. Edgar Hoover expanded the Federal Bureau of Intelligence’s domestic operations, America’s surveillance apparatus burgeoned. Between 1956 and 1971, the Bureau performed 2,219 activities, including 2,305 phone taps and 697 admitted bugs, some on Schuyler’s friends.38Shaw, Narrowcast, 50. It compiled dossiers on Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Ed Sanders. Amiri Baraka began to fear that FBI agents were inspecting his mail. He addressed them directly in a December 19, 1962, letter to a friend: “I suspect the FBI or somebody is opening my mail, in and out, so I want to say right here I think the FBI eats shit especially JEdgarHoover alias AJ of Islam Inc. alias Dr. Benway, alias Hassan O’Leary the afterbirth tycoon.”39Amiri Baraka as quoted in Ibid., 49. John Ashbery, who had registered as homosexual in order to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, feared “we’d all be sent to concentration camps if McCarthy had his own way.”40John Ashbery as quoted in Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 190. He was unable to write for several years: “a very dangerous and scary period.”41Ibid. Schuyler didn’t discuss surveillance outright, but his dual identifications as a gay poet increased his changes of being monitored. In a mocking verse editorial, journalist Westbrook Pegler linked homosexuality and poetry to “depravity” and national betrayal:

How could [Truman] help it if parties
both unusual and queer
Got into the State Department
which true patriots hold dear?
To hear the bastards tell it
they are true to Uncle Joey
And call each other female
Names like Bessie, Maud, and Chloe.
And write each other poetry
and confidential notes so tender
Like they was not he-men at all
but belonged to the opposing gender.42David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 95.

McCarthyism was, as Pegler suggests, at once a “red scare” and a “lavender scare.” McCarthy himself conflated sabotage and homosexuality when he told two reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be a Communist or a cocksucker.”43Joseph McCarthy as quoted in Naoko Shibusawa, “The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics,” Diplomatic History 36 (2012): 725. In fact, anxiety about the former was tepid compared to that about “homosexual problem.”44Johnson, Lavender Scare, 34. Of twenty-five-thousand letters sent to the Wisconsin senator, a quarter expressed concern the about “red infiltration”; three quarters worried about “sex depravity.”45Ibid., 19. This homosexual hysteria was inflamed by popular media. In 1948, entomologist Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His study warned about unprecedented homosexual conduct, calculating (dubiously) that thirty-seven percent of men—“more than one male in three of the persons that one may meet as he passes along a city street”—had at least one post-adolescent homosexual encounter leading to orgasm and that twenty-five percent had “more than incidental homosexual experiences or reactions for at least three years between ages 16 and 55.”46Alfred Kinsey as quoted in David Alan Sklansky, “One Train May Hide Another: Katz, Stonewall, and the Secret Subtext of Criminal Procedure,” University of California Davis Law Review 41 (2008): 902. His book spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list.47Ibid. In 1966, the editors of TIME ran an essay on “The Homosexual in America,” diagnosing that being gay was “a pernicious sickness” and “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality.” It deserved “no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, [and] no fake status as minority martyrdom.” The piece concluded that patriotic values were under “vengeful, derisive” attack by “homosexual ethics and esthetics.”48“The Homosexual in America,” TIME, January 21, 1966, 40.

A McCarthy-era report of the arrest of William H. Martin and Bernard F. Mitchell, two “lavender lads” who were “code experts for the U.S... before flying off to Russia.” The 1950s and 1960s witnessed unprecedented surveillance of “sexual deviants.” The headline is set in capitalized white lettering on a faded black background. Below it are mugshots and an aerial view of the National Security Agency.
A McCarthy-era report of the arrest of William H. Martin and Bernard F. Mitchell, two “lavender lads” who were “code experts for the U.S... before flying off to Russia.” The 1950s and 1960s witnessed unprecedented surveillance of “sexual deviants.”

Federal angst about sexual deviance emerged in the nineteenth-century alongside the expansion of the bureaucratic state. As immigration services, the military, and public welfare agencies began to systematically categorize individuals as desirable or undesirable, the government commissioned “scientific understandings about sexual perverts.”49Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 2–3. Homosexuals joined “the mentally feeble,” “criminally insane,” and “morally depraved” in the official ranks of the unfit.50Ibid. The regulatory response to homosexuality, however, was limited until the mid-twentieth century. Even during World War II, soldiers were seldom discharged for homosexual behavior. In the years after the war, surveillance caught up to social sorting and gay life was increasingly monitored. The State Department’s Security Division dedicated full-time investigators to detect gay civil servants. By 1951, Carlisle H. Humelsine, the Division’s Deputy Undersecretary, reported the dismissal of fifty-four homosexuals.51Shibusawa, “The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics,” 731. The next year, more than one hundred were expelled. Gay men and lesbians were the largest single category of “security risks” purged from government service during the Cold War. Historian David K. Johnson estimates that five thousand were removed in all.52Johnson, Lavender Scare, 166.

Surveillance reached beyond Washington, into queer bars, clubs, and (counter)spaces across the country—not least New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969, the year Schuyler published Freely Espousing. Police installed peepholes and decoys in men’s rooms, where “it was easy to orchestrate sexual activity.”53George Chauncy, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World: 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 197. Of 493 felony arrests for homosexual activity in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, 274 were made in public restrooms. Most of these arrests were for sexual conduct directly witnessed by officers stationed in hidden observation posts.54David Alan Sklansky, “One Train May Hide Another,” 887. Though visual surveillance was most incriminating, it proved inefficient in tracking homosexuality. Queer subjects often lacked the physical markers preferred by criminal anthropology. Flat feet, hookworm, or syphilis—used to reject individuals from entrance to the military—did not turn up queerness. Neither did melanin, so often (and problematically) deployed as a biocriminal indicator. In response to this queer invisibility, authorities turned to audio surveillance.

Suspects were first tracked through sound between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E. The Megalithic temples of Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, and Hal Tarxiem featured communication orifices that connected chambers and could be opened or plug to expose or hide conversation. The later Cathedral of Agrigent in Sicily had whispering arches built into its ceiling that made audible even the slightest murmur. Wire-tapping was used extensively by the Union and Confederacy armies during the Civil War and became a recognized tool of intelligence services during Reconstruction.55Dortë Zbikowski, “The Listening Ear,” 37–39. By 1950, as these technologies were deployed en masse, the FBI had refined tapping and bugging to be “virtually impossible to detect... without visually inspecting every inch of the wires and every element servicing it, down to the last screw connection.”56Alfred Hubest, “Technical devices and plan of operations for eavesdropping on the adversary” (Declassified 1994), Accessed December 13, 2020, A CIA memo celebrated that miniature microphones, amplifiers, and recorders were “small enough to hide behind a dime.” Agents intercepted untold thousands of hours of conversation in an attempt to locate the deviant and dissident.

A grey architectural drawing, showing a building's listening orifices. At right, a man listens to the activity in the atrium through a hole in the wall, which is connected between the two rooms by a spiraling cylinder.
Athanasius Kircher’s Spy-Ear, Draft of a Listening System from 1650, featuring communication orifices. FBI agents employed acoustic surveillance to police queer life.

The sonic is, as Sarah Ahmed contends, essential to “queer phenomenology.”57Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). Through sound, queer folx stage intimate encounters and locate themselves in relation to kindred bodies. Code-switching is a way of being oneself where one doesn’t belong, enabling communication that is unintelligible to straight overhearers. “Exploratory switching,” for instance, may be used to determine the orientation of an interlocutor by employing subtle elements of gay speech to test if the listener responds in kind. As Rusty Barrett writes of queer encoded speech, “exploratory switching represents an important site of contact between gay and straight settings, as it may be used covertly to establish gay solidarity even in entirely straight settings.”58Rusty Barrett, “The ‘Homo-genius’ Speech Community,” Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, Sexuality, ed. Anna Liva and Kira Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 196–197. Queer speech is at once a means of congress and counterintelligence.

Schuyler’s use of the overheard, unlike that of his surveillants, is not about capture but contact. Sound passes, physically, materially, between bodies and things, extending the limits that define them. Brandon LaBelle finds in the overheard a form of resistance. “The overheard,” he writes, “requires us to hear differently: to find meaning in the incoherent fragments and noises that interrupt and that trouble and excite the borders between oneself and another. In being something or someone—a voice, a vitality, a murmur, a cacophony—that is unexpected, the overheard surprised by reminding us of those who are always around or nearby, behind or to the side, next door or within optical fibers.”59Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 66–67. When Schuyler quotes the freely espoused—“This can’t be happening to me!”; “she is a pill”; “What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”; “You are experiencing a new sensation”—he espouses them in a “marriage of the atmosphere.”60Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” 13–14. This is a code-switch of his own. Through the queer otic, Schuyler joins his radical poethics with a radical politics—imagines, even drags into being for a moment, a world where he—we—is able to freely espouse. Where two sailors aboard “the S.S. United States” can

fold each other up,
well.61Schuyler would not allow an ending so ending-like; Ibid.