03/27/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thirteen Reflections on Citizen Poet Queer



First, questions:

  • Who reads books by LGBTQ writers?
  • Who are our readers?
  • How do we find readers?
  • Where in our communities do we talk about books?
  • What role do books play in our lives?
  • How do we cultivate a habit of reading as a strategy to build community?
  • What makes for vibrant LGBT literary communities?
  • Why is it important to have vibrant LGBT literary communities?
  • Who are we, LGBT people, queer people, now?
  • Who have we been?
  • What can we imagine becoming?


Buy books by queer poets. Preferably from the publishers, who make more money when you buy directly. Sometimes as much as $6 or $7 more. Buy new books on advance order because many publishers finance the print run through advance sales or gauge the size of the print run based on advance sales. Buy "backlist books" from publishers as these provide revenue for printing new books.

Set a budget to buy poetry books. If you can afford it, exceed your budget each month, every year.


Write notes to poets. Literally. Read books by poets, and, when you love a book, write a short note of praise. Write it in your own hand, on a nice notecard. Do not ask for anything, simply express what you enjoyed about the poet's work. Do not talk about being a poet. Do not say you write your own poems. Praise the praiseworthy with no expectations, no agenda, no guile.

Mail notes to poets. Find addresses online or mail your love notes to publishers; publishers forward notes for authors.


Review books. Queer books are not reviewed enough. We do not have enough smart writing about queer poetry books.

As readers, we need reviews to tell us, what's next? We need reviews to arouse our curiosity and interest.

As writers, we need reviews to draw attention to the variety of work that is happening in an array of different locations. Reviews help us understand how books of poetry fit into broader conversations.

Book reviews provides a vital intellectual and poetic apprenticeship for writers. By reviewing, writers learn how books of poetry are put together and develop the critical apparatus to analyze what works -- and what does not work. Writing book reviews also situates writers in broader conversations, revealing what has our attention and why.

Finally, writing book reviews is a queer act, a feminist act, a political act. What books get attention, and from whom, is important. When writers engage in reviewing, we intervene in literary appraisals and reshape them to reflect our queer, feminist, and political sensibilities.


Write about queer poetry. Eclectically. Find places to insert poetry, expected and unexpected. I write about lesbian poetry wherever I can. Blogging at the Huffington Post brings new audiences to lesbian poetry, while blogging at Ms. Magazine reminds another audience of the importance of poetry. Find new venues to write about queer poetry.


Edit. My colleague Matthew Hittinger is working with Didi Menendez on the relaunch of OCHO as a Queer Arts Journal. Valerie Wetlaufer collaborated with Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington of Sibling Rivalry Press to launch the new journal Adrienne, a journal of queer women's poetry. All of these people edit the work of other poets and writers; they bring more queer work into the world. Editors and publishers create visually appealing books and objects that profile and highlight the work of queer writers, helping them find new audiences and new forms of recognition.


One of my roles as a lesbian-citizen-poet is editor of Sinister Wisdom. Sinister Wisdom is the oldest, continuously publishing lesbian-feminist literary journal in the United States. Founded in 1976, Sinister Wisdom is now just two years shy of its fortieth birthday. Editing Sinister Wisdom affords me two opportunities. First, I see a broad field of lesbian writers. Sinister Wisdom publishes poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, essays, and a variety of other occasional writing and artwork. Pulling together four issues a year of Sinister Wisdom allows me to see what is happening broadly in lesbian art and letters. Second, Sinister Wisdom gives me the opportunity to have contact with other lesbian writers; I especially appreciate the contact with lesbian writers across generations.

Editing comes at a cost however. Producing a beautiful, well-crafted journal requires an extraordinary amount of time, attention, money, and energy. Devoting attention to Sinister Wisdom takes away from the time and energy available for my own work.

This reality is one of the challenges of queer poet citizen engagement: the struggle to find a balance between community advocacy and generating new work of one's own.


Curate. In this era of the proliferation of text online and off, we all wonder: what to read? Where to direct our attention, our precious time?

Public curation is increasingly an important task of queer citizen-poets. Public curation combines selecting what to read, framing answers to big questions, and suggesting new and emergent meanings through careful placement and juxtaposition.

I curate the Lesbian Poetry Archive to preserve print culture from lesbian-feminism. Other people curate reading series in local venues, literary salons that feature writers and build new communities of readers, and collections of smart writing about queer books on blogs and other websites. What curatorial role can you imagine and create for yourself to promote LGBTQ literature?


Organize. Queer bards need patrons and audiences. Editors and curators are crucial in finding audiences for queer poets, but so are organizers. Do you bring people together for festive, social occasions? How can you include LGBTQ poetry in your organizing work?


Why invest in LGBT literary culture?

Literature challenges boundaries. Writers invite us to reimagine how we live today; writers denaturalize the familiar and imagine different ways of organizing our lives. Literature transgresses and provokes. Literature imagines new worlds and invites us to live in them. A vibrant LGBTQ literary culture contributes to the wild imaginings of future queerness; a vibrant LGBTQ literary culture suggests paths for creating new futures.


Why invest in LGBTQ literary culture?

Literature builds empathy. All people need empathy, but queers particularly need empathy to achieve our civil and human rights agenda. Greater empathy also builds compassion and a stronger sense of our interconnections as human beings. Investing in LGBTQ literary culture is a stake for greater humanity, kindness and caring in the world.


Why invest in LGBTQ literary artists?

Writers live creatively. They experience the world and record it with words. Writers record a world that is both known and unexpected, both recognizable and slightly off, somewhat quirky, a bit askance. Writers invite us to see our world with different glasses. They invite us to imagine living differently, with more creativity, with more passion. Writers cannot do their work without the support of readers, editors, publishers, and society. What investments can you make in LGBTQ literary artists?


Change the world with words.
Poems, not guns.
Metaphors, not missiles.

These are all mantras of Split This Rock, an organization that calls poets to a greater role in public life and that builds a national network of politically-engaged poets.

In my own poetry, how I address my beloved is one form of cultural activism. Before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere, I used 'wife' as an appellation for my beloved other. It was arresting. I wrote, "after making love to my wife" and "my wife dressed in the dark and / left while I slept." Now with a New York license, our home state recognizes our marriage and so do the feds. Wife today is different than a decade ago. I seek new words: beloved, paramour, my amorous one. I seek new language to describe our lives, our loves, our imagined future. The possibilities are unfolding as if in a dream, but I know: it will come in a poem.


I delivered these comments on the "Citizen Poet Queer: Building a Blueprint for LGBTQ Cultural Activism" panel at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, held in Washington, DC March 27th through March 30th, 2014. I am grateful to panel organizer, David Groff, and fellow panelists, Reginald Harris and Donika Ross, for their words and their work, and extend heartfelt appreciation to Sarah Browning for her tireless activism and work on behalf of contemporary poetry.