Robin Morgan started her Lesbian Poem with a dedication to everyone who had turned to that poem first in the Contents page of her Monster chapbook.
I’d done exactly that, of course. I was hungry. Hungry for anything I could get my hands on to read with a hint of a non-heteronormative narrative or some reflection of my experience. This was the 1970s and I clung to a handful of authors I’d found, Jean Genet, Violette Leduc, James Baldwin… I’d scan every index for words like homosexual, bisexual etc. Old habits die hard and I still do that (though our language has changed and keeps changing so I look for other words).
I’ve been stock-piling queer poems for years. To this day, for instance, I am ‘discovering’ nineteenth century Polish writers I thought/ was taught were heterosexual but who weren’t. I love finding writers all over the world exploring what it means to be queer. But back when I couldn’t find what I was looking for I made it up, ‘translating’ mainstream narratives into my own. Is the hunger still there?
In her Modern Poetry in Translation essay ‘Queerness as Translation’, Mary Jean Chan* talks about the relief of finding others who mirror our experience and how she found solace in the work of Adrienne Rich. She also describes the process of queering texts we read – in her case Shakespeare’s playful Twelfth Night. Despite reading it in school where it was presented in a conservative, traditional way, and despite Shakespeare’s heterosexual resolution of all his gender-bending in the play, it provided her with her ‘first glimpse into the multiplicity of queer desire’:
‘there was Viola/Cesario who had fallen hopelessly in love with Duke Orsino (whilst wearing her dashing military uniform), and their passionate conversations about the true nature of love made me question who it was I found myself increasingly drawn to – Viola, Cesario, or both?’
This process of re-imagining and reinterpreting texts – or songs or films – is so familiar. What nourishment do we need as queer readers? What do we want reflected back at us? Or do we want to be transported somewhere different from ourselves, away from our own backyards? Poetry is often our safe place to explore who we are, but what if we still can’t find ourselves in the depictions of queer that become popular or enter the mainstream?
Introducing the poetry section of Queer Riveter, Lawrence Schimel* acknowledges the complexities of defining queer poetry. For his selection he chose recent work which is ‘celebrating or overtly expressing this identity’ but recognises this can’t be exhaustive. How explicit do we want to be? He also points out how many queer anthologies within Europe are national and thus mono-lingual so we are missing each other’s voices in different languages, from different cultures. And that’s just one continent!
I live in Brighton, the ‘gay capital of the UK’, where we have well established queer communities, lesbian networks, LGBTQ+ Pride, Trans Pride, etc., and even here people can feel isolated, attacked, vulnerable. In my birth country, Poland it’s a different, harsher story again. Is queer poetry – necessarily – a literature of protest? What of reflection, introspection, imagination? Not only that, but for many of us queer identity is not our sole identity. Is it meaningful to say ‘we’ when we come from different communities, ethnicities, face different issues be they race, class, health, age, language, & gender/s?
During my upcoming Queereading course we’re going to be reading poems which address the full richness of our experience, many already translated into English, and responding to them, ‘translating’ them into our own. So this course is for those who turned to the word ‘queer’ in its title, whether from hunger or from the sheer delight of wanting more, of expecting a broader, chewier, more delicious feast.
*Modern Poetry in Translation LGBTQ+ issue House of Thirst, 2018
*Queer Riveter – Riveting Queer Writing from Europe, Edition Six, June 2019, European Literature Network
Queeread and queerwrite across the borders of ourselves and others on Maria Jastrzebska ‘s online course, Queereading. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.