On Chip Delany
Last fall in New Orleans, I was browsing for Halloween costumes at the home of designer Cree McCree. My foxy companion tried on an outfit that had a vague resemblance to Wonder Woman. Cree’s partner (noise/jazz/avant-everything musician) Donald Miller remarked that he couldn’t think of me without thinking of Philadelphia. He also couldn’t think of everyone’s favorite female superhero without thinking of Samuel “Chip” Delany. I tried to flowchart this in my mind for a moment, but sometimes you just need to let great thinkers to do their thing.
With some light prompting, Donald schooled me on the Wonder Woman scripts that Delany wrote during the DC Comics “Women’s Lib” series (nos. 202 and 203) in the early ’70s. In these issues our hero loses her superpowers and takes up the real struggles of everyday women. The Delany story arc has Diana Prince fighting for equal pay for female workers at a department store and campaigning against sweatshop labor. The narrative culminates in an epic battle led by women to keep an abortion clinic open.
Delany and his Wonder Woman make sense, since he’s said many times that women’s oppression is the blueprint for oppression of all peoples around the world. Without addressing this injustice, no other liberations can be realized. Sadly, Chip’s Wonder Woman story remains unrealized as well. The series was cut short by a new DC exec that was not too Women’s Lib-y at all. He used an offhand comment from Gloria Steinem who was irritated by Wonder Woman’s costume change to justify cutting the feature short. Wonder Woman went back to fighting martians or something, while protecting the survival of business-as-usual Earth. Chip could not abide, since the words “status quo” and “Samuel Delany” do not belong in the same sentence.
Donald Miller never ceases to give me wisdom to go home with, so I wanted to give him something back. I told him that I gave a toast to Chip on Samuel Delany Day at the Kelly Writers House in the spring of ’14. He wanted to hear it. It went something like this:
Chip has been a significant part of Philadelphia’s literary community since he began teaching at Temple University in 2001. But far from being secluded behind university walls, he has been a dynamic force in the lives of Philadelphians. We all know of his polymathic magick, and it extends into the workings of his daily life. He spent the past decade-plus reaching out to younger writers like myself, offering support and encouragement. He could be seen walking the Gayborhood, supporting independent businesses like Giovanni’s Room, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ bookstore. He attended many events, and graciously agreed to read in my poetry series once upon a time at La Tazza in 2002, before we had even met.
After the reading, I asked him to sign a book for me that was given to me the year before. I received it from poet friends who just couldn’t get through it, due to it’s um, “graphic content.” The book was Hogg. When I asked Samuel Delany to sign my copy, he gave me a long look up and down and asked, “Did you read this entire book?” I answered enthusiastically (and maybe a little defensively), “Yes. Of course.” He wrote in the book and handed it back to me. He simply smiled and said, “You’re very brave.”
Chip’s presence in our lives has also been extra-literary. Years ago, Bill E. was my truck-driving roommate. He came home from work one day and told me that he’d been getting cruised in the mornings while he waited for the bus. His description of the amorous pedestrian was “a Black Santa that walks by with a cane.” I excitedly told him that he was being checked out by legendary writer Samuel Delany. Bill was curious. “Oh yeah? What does he write like?” I pulled Hogg off my bookshelf and said, “Here. Read this.” Bill was not much of a reader, but he finished the novel in a weekend. When I asked him what he thought of it, he replied, “I think I really want to fuck this guy!”
Sadly, their paths never crossed again. When I told Chip about this on Samuel Delany Day, he asked if “my truck-driving friend” might be making the event. That was heart-warming. After I finished telling Donald about the toast, he reached to his shelves to retrieve the first edition of The Motion of Light in Water. The cover features a photo of Delany from the ’80s. We were all irritated with Bill for not following through, chiding him from a thousand miles away and a decade later for not getting it on with a sexy brilliant mind, this fuckable genius. Once we got that out of our systems, we all expressed our gratitude for having this special gift to American literature very much alive here, in and around our bodies and our minds.