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Queer Poetics: Beyond the White, Straight, (Cis-)Male Literary Canon

In recent years, I’ve been increasingly keen on the word ‘queer’ as a descriptive tool for self-identifying as LGBTQ+, but also as a way of negotiating and understanding the society we find ourselves in.

Despite its former derogatory connotations, ‘queer’ has since been reclaimed by many as a powerful lens through which to better depict and analyse non-normative and culturally marginalized forms of gender, sexuality and desire. I owe my political and personal awakening to the work of the American lesbian and feminist Adrienne Rich, who once observed that ‘the possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.’ After more than a decade of Rich’s titular ‘lies, secrets and silence’, I found poetry and learned that these things were antithetical to the act of writing. Poetry does not demand the autobiographical, but rather a willingness to excavate one’s deepest desires.

As I prepare to take up my brief stint as Visiting Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, in Spring 2018, I am beginning to re-immerse myself in the poetic canon, but am also eager to explore what voices and perspectives might be easily left out of an “Introduction to Poetry” class taught to a group of first-year undergraduates. My Queer Studio – a three-week intensive online course commencing on 12th February 2018 – aims to introduce some of my favourite queer poets who I believe have defined and re-defined the poetic canon in crucial ways. Together, we shall explore canonical and contemporary work by Anglo-American poets with intersectional identities – including Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eduardo C. Corral, Chen Chen, Danez Smith, Maggie Nelson, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard and Andrew McMillan. As a queer, Hong Kong-Chinese poet who has lived and studied in both the US and UK, I count these aforementioned poets as some of my key poetic influences, and am eager to share their approaches towards and interpretations of queerness with my course participants. More recent influences of mine include Hong Kong poet Nicholas Wong’s Crevasse, which won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.

In terms of course aims, I hope this online intensive will provide a welcoming and mutually supportive space in which course participants might interrogate their own understandings of gender and sexuality in relation to notions of race and racism, and be moved to create work that will expand their own notions of self as well as fuel more compassionate forms of social engagement. While queerness is merely one identity out of many, I am excited about how a focused immersion in the works of queer poets might offer ways for us all to grapple with the tumultuous times we currently live in. Over the course of three weeks, I hope we will discuss and discover:

1. How the personal and the political might be productively brought together in a way that eschews the polemical while remaining true to one’s vision for a more progressive politics (e.g. feminism or anti-racism).

2. How history and politics powerfully inform and shape a poet’s queer poetics – e.g. whether or not the poet is from or currently lives in a country that has 1) legalized gay marriage, 2) refused to promote any kind of anti-discrimination legislation, or 3) continually criminalized queer lives – and how we might explore our own personal connections to global historical events as a way of situating our queer poetic selves.

3. How language, diaspora and place crucially affect a poet’s queer sensibility, since cultural norms and social practices determine one’s approach towards and understanding of queerness.

4. How poets who do not identify as queer might also gain inspiration from the work of queer poets in order to explore their own relationship to themes such as gender, sexuality, family and inheritance.

5. How form is crucial in conveying the particularities of queerness, especially when exploring themes of trauma and erasure.

In particular, I will highlight new poetic forms, including the lyric essay, prose poetry, as well as the specular (mirror) poem. We will read critically the work of selected queer poets, which will be linked to a writing prompt for that particular week. Through providing written feedback, I hope to inspire ideas and directions for new writing.

Ultimately, I am inspired by how queer poets understand and depict the relationship between queerness and poetry. In a recent interview with the Yale Daily News, Ocean Vuong poignantly observes:

I think, in a sense, queerness has taught me so much about being. Because it’s taught me about being a survivor. And…only in retrospect, because it was miserable growing up this way, constantly hiding, constantly editing yourself…it taught me to pay attention. […] Being queer was ultimately a nurturing of vigilance. And being an artist, then, is transforming vigilance into attention and care, based on the gaze. So I realize to be queer, then, is to be training my whole life to be a poet.


How might a “queer” poetics free us of our emotional chains? Join us this February on Mary Jean Chan’s Queer Studio. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image Credits:

‘Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich 1980’, by K. Kendall. Creative Commons license here.