THE BLOG

What Is Queer Poetry?

04/26/2013 07:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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In celebration of National Poetry Month, I'm sharing this project of mine, which I completed for a poetry course that I took last semester with Professor Ruth Vinz at Teachers College at Columbia University. I created a handbook (which I hope to publish in the future) that asks and answers the question "what is queer poetry?" For this project I interviewed five queer poets. What follows are the introduction to the handbook and the five interviews.

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Introduction

Years ago my friend and colleague was fortunate enough to take classes with queer poet Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College, where he was a student in the M.F.A. program in creative writing, with a focus on poetry. (I was not as fortunate as my friend, because I was in the M.A. program in English and was not allowed to take classes in the M.F.A. program, so I never experienced a class with the great Ginsberg.) One day my friend told me what Ginsberg had said to him in a conversation after class: "To the world, I am nothing but a cocksucker." Ginsberg's words have a permanent place in my memory; they have made me sad and angry, because I have always thought that if Ginsberg, one of the greatest poets, felt such hatred from society, then what about the rest of us queers? If Ginsberg thought that society viewed him as nothing more than a sexual pervert, a member of a sexual minority, someone abnormal or less than human, then what about the rest of us? At times those words have made me feel powerless; other times they have empowered me. So, with this power and passion, I have chosen to create this handbook in order to answer the question "what is queer poetry?"

I define "queer" as a sensibility, a behavior and a lifestyle of a people who are a part of the queer community and population. These people identify as queer because they recognize that they are members of a sexual and gender minority that is not a part of heterosexual and heteronormative society. These people can also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, or Two-Spirit, or LGBTQITS.

Thus I define queer poets as those poets who are members of the queer population and community. And I define queer poetry as poetry that is written by queer poets for any person to read, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I also define queer poetry as having a queer sensibility, theme or voice. And I wish to believe that queer poetry is read by queer people in order for them to understand their own queerness: their own queer lives, thoughts, emotions and voices.

In his interview with me (below), gay poet Bryan Borland told me that queer poetry saved his life. Queer poetry, and poetry and literature in general, saved my life too. And I am almost certain that it has saved the lives of many queer people. Therefore, if poetry has the amazing power to save lives, then let it do so.

For those people who do not know what queer poetry is, or who deny the existence of queer poetry, or who do not know where to find it, or who are determined to hate and disregard it, I say read this handbook to discover the significance of queer poetry.

What is the mantra? "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!"

What is queer poetry? Well, read on and find out.

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Interview With Bryan Borland

Michael Carosone: Is there such a thing as "queer poetry"? Why or why not? And should this label be placed on poetry? Why or why not?

Bryan Borland: I think I have to answer in the affirmative, because I'm the editor of Assaracus, Sibling Rivalry Press' journal of gay poetry. To me, queer poetry, or gay poetry, as I'll call it, is necessary because we, as LGBTIQ individuals, exist. Therefore, art based on our existence must exist. To me, the term "gay poetry" is about freedom. It's about the freedom of gay poets to be ourselves, write about our lives, who we love and how we live. These are primarily the reasons I founded Assaracus, to give poets who identify as gay a safe space to write. Are labels important to the poetry itself? No. Can labels be important to the poet's audience? Yes. With gay poetry, especially, that label can save someone's life. It can make that person feel less isolated. Gay poetry can reach out to rural Montana or Arkansas or Kentucky and tell a young man, through a sestina, that he is not alone. That truth taken independent of any other reason is worth the existence of gay or queer poetry as a label.

Carosone: What is your definition of "queer poetry," if you have one?

Borland: I'll give you the definition I use when reading for Assaracus: If the poet thinks it fits under that label, then it fits. In Assaracus we run poems on love and relationships and coming out and sex, but we also run poems on dogs and food and dying mothers and Halloween that have no clear references to homosexuality. But they fit because we, as gay men, don't go around seeing things through homosexual eyes. No, instead, we see through human eyes. These poems, about food, dying mothers, Halloween, make it into the journal because they are part of the gay experience as well.

Carosone: Should we label poets "queer"? Why or why not?

Borland: I believe that labels can be very helpful in connecting poet and reader. It's like this: We tend to think of labels as boxing us in. Don't let it. Build a box, get inside it, then climb up top, bust through the top of that box and stand on it to get noticed. There's a difference between good and bad poetry. The label of "gay poetry" may bring in an audience, but it's strictly the quality of the poetry that will keep that audience.

Carosone: Can you say anything more about queer poetry?

Borland: Gavin Dillard's A Day for a Lay anthology saved my life when I was a bit younger. How did I find it? By searching for "gay poetry" on a search engine. I support any label that helps get the book in the right hands.

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Interview With Oliver Covington‏

Michael Carosone: Is there such a thing as "queer poetry"? Why or why not? And should this label be placed on poetry? Why or why not?

Oliver Covington: I think there is such a thing as queer poetry, as there is such a thing as religious poetry, such as the work of John Donne, and black poetry, as in the work of Langston Hughes. There are always going to be subgenres in every genre of writing, and poetry is no exception. [But] I feel that to label poetry too narrowly in any instance will reduce its audience, and in reducing its audience you reduce its ability to reach the largest group of people it can.

Carosone: What is your definition of "queer poetry," if you have one?

Covington: My definition of "queer poetry," for me, personally, would be poetry that had something to do with a GLBTQ topic, or something just out of the norm as dictated by society. Edgar Allen Poe was a heterosexual man, but I consider him a queer poet because he was not within the norms of the society of his time. I think it mostly has to do with the fringes of society.

Carosone: Should we label poets "queer"? Why or why not?

Covington: Personally, I do not like labels at all. I wouldn't label a straight writer as such, and I think it puts a lot of pressure on that poet to conform to always be in that subgenre; it also shrinks the poet's audience. We would not label da Vinci a queer artist; he is just an artist. I think art and music and poetry should transcend labels.

Carosone: Can you say anything more about queer poetry?

Covington: I think poetry is poetry, whether queer or otherwise. If a queer person writes poetry, that doesn't automatically make it a queer poem.

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Interview With Annie Rachele Lanzillotto

Michael Carosone: Is there such a thing as "queer poetry"? Why or why not? And should this label be placed on poetry? Why or why not?

Annie Rachele Lanzillotto: I write with every fiber of my being. I am as queer as my writing. Queer soul pulses in Whitman's sensorial celebration "loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine," in Essex Hemphill's "I'm not ashamed to cross the bridge / that takes me there," in Audrey Lorde's "I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds," in Sassafras Lowrey's narration of kicked-out gutterpunk queer kids.

Carosone: What is your definition of "queer poetry," if you have one?

Lanzillotto: The queer voice breaks boundaries just as queers smash boundaries and mores in society. In the center of the Sistine Chapel there is a bare ass mooning the chapel. There is a queer artist behind that. I see it clearly. Michelangelo Buonarroti was my queer brother. When I was younger, I wondered why Allen Ginsberg wrote so graphically in his later work, about cocks in asses. Now that I am older and writing of how I learned to lick clitorises, I don't wonder so much anymore. It's just part of my queer experience. When I was younger I gravitated more toward transcendent poetry, Rumi and Rilke and Blake. I didn't account for identity at all. I saw my words also as beyond identity, beyond my body. Now I don't. My words, my blood cells, my marrow, all relate.

Carosone: Should we label poets "queer"? Why or why not?

Lanzillotto: I crave queer voices who speak of the times they live in. Reynaldo Arenas is my guide to Cuba. I trust folk songs of the times more than reportage, lyrics and street poems written from the ones who suffer, the ones who breathe words in any kind of utterance, who hammer and nail them to a post or beatbox them sitting on a corner mailbox. We queer poets were there in the streets, shivering, experiencing the decades in which we lived and scribbling madly on diner napkins to capture the essence of the night.

Carosone: Can you say anything more about queer poetry?

Lanzillotto: At the end of my life, I will have been a lesbian poet. You may not hear it in every one of my lines, but then there it is, shadowing the words themselves somehow, casting a patina over the page:

This body I am shut inside

surfaces upon surfaces, without wings,

muted, closed, masked, and hiding

the passage of oxygen in brief and final tunnels.

As if skin can hold you!

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Interview With Stephen Mills

Michael Carosone: Is there such a thing as "queer poetry"? Why or why not? And should this label be placed on poetry? Why or why not?

Stephen Mills: Thanks for asking for my input. These are questions I've done a lot of thinking about over the years. There are a lot of discussions about labeling, and these discussions are important to have. Yes, there is such a thing as queer poetry. I actually like the term "queer," because it is much more inclusive and doesn't necessarily have to be defined in sexual orientation terms. Labels can hurt you, if you let them hurt you. I choose to own my label as a "queer writer" and "gay poet." I don't see these terms as limiting, because I don't let them define what I write. I'm queer. I'm gay. I'm a poet. What I write is what I write, and there's always going to be a queer or gay bend to it, because it's coming from me. In a rather practical way, these labels can help people find your work. They can also place you within a wider community. I often tell people we need to worry less about the labels and more about getting people to read work by all labels. As queer writers, we might need to work a bit harder to get a wider audience, and to make it clear that queer poetry isn't just for queer people. I read all kinds of poetry and expect others to do the same.

Carosone: What is your definition of "queer poetry," if you have one?

Mills: As I said before, "queer poetry" doesn't have to be simply defined by sexual orientation. Of course, it does include the GLBT community, but I think the term can have a broader interpretation. "Queer" also refers to the strange, the odd and something outside of the mainstream. I think of these writers as people who want to examine things from a different perspective and aren't afraid to come face-to-face with what they find in their explorations.

Carosone: Should we label poets "queer"? Why or why not?

Mills: I don't have a big issue with labeling things. As I mentioned, it can have a practical purpose. I don't write only for the gay community, but my work speaks to that community in a very direct way. If a young gay man is looking for poetry that is partly a reflection of himself, and it helps that my book is labeled as "gay poetry," I'm all for it. I would, however, like readers of all kinds to know that these labels don't have to define the reader. You can read anything you want, and you should!

Carosone: Can you say anything more about queer poetry?

Mills: My thoughts are always evolving on this topic, and I think that's a good thing. I want to see queer poetry become more and more diverse and embraced by a wide range of readers. That's starting to happen, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to grow.

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Interview With Steven Reigns

Michael Carosone: What is your definition of "queer poetry," if you have one?

Steven Reigns: There has always been an issue defining the word "queer." There are people who do not consider themselves GLBTQ and yet still identify as "queer." I am not one to deny someone's reality. I respect and address them as however they want to identify. I think GLBTQ people are automatically under the "queer" umbrella, but with everything else, it seems tricky. It gets even trickier when identifying poetry. I consider all of my poetry "gay," because my gay sensibility is embedded in everything I do. There are straight poets who have written poems that have a queer sensibility. To label something would require a set of parameters. I'm not sure what those would be to define "queer poetry."

Carosone: Should we label poets "queer"? Why or why not?

Reigns: I think labels are useful. The downside is a ghettoizing of that category and the discrimination that would come with it. The issue is never labels; it's our society's bias against the thing that is being labeled. Labeling creates a system where things are easier to find. If it weren't for the "Gay and Lebian" section at a used bookstore when I was 16, I would have had a hard time finding the books that opened up doors and changed my life.

Carosone: Can you say anything more about queer poetry?

Reigns: I might sound as if I'm relaxed about the subject of queer poetry because I don't have a stern definition of it, but that isn't the case. I think queer poetry is some of the most important poetry being written. Over 11 years ago I taught GLBTQ poetry writing classes to teens. For the past five years I've taught autobiographical-poetry-writing workshops to GLBT seniors. I feel passionate about connecting GLBTQ people to the benefits and joy of writing. I also want to aid in the process of creating a document of what it was like to live at this time and be queer.