Isn’t all poetry queer? That is the question that has been running through my mind all these days. Even the most vanilla of poems that talks of some distant fields, full of yellow flowers could be queer. Because, a poem is never just what it presents itself as. It is always something more, a much of a muchness (from another queering work). The unfamiliar patterns of words that dip into palettes of colours or parameters of comparison. There is always a process of defamiliarization that goes on. Recognizing the whorls of meaning a poem can contain and the gradual opening of the same is a spiritual experience. Much like falling in love, or coming back from the dead. Birds in the sky become godlike, terrible beauties are born and dreams become raisins in the sun. That on saddest nights the poet writes the sweetest songs attests to the power of poetry to transcend the ordinary. To help one feel the feelings.To queer the ordinary.
If all poetry is queer, then what is Queer poetry? The simplest definition is poetry that is written by those who identify as queer. But that is not the sort of answer that we can get away with. What if a transperson writes of walking a dog? Does the mere fact that the poet is a transperson automatically qualify the poem as queer themed? I would like to think not. Because, that would horribly limit the infinite possibilities that are presented by the idea of Queer. For me, queer is in the insight, in the point of view that a person has. In the way they set their language free and inflict pain or pleasure.
From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning,
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemicals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rolling of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.
(Elizabeth Bishop, Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore)
It ought to be recalled at this point that this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to Jericho Brown for Tradition and the citation read, “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.” Expressing his happiness, Brown tweeted, “I mean...I dunno...you have to admit, “Black queer men win the Pulitzer for poetry and drama” is a pretty funny sentence, right?” thus referencing Michael R. Jackson’s win for the play, AStrange Loop. Why these victories are significant is that they were seen as affirmative and as beacons of light for all those who nurse similar ambitions. The identity always casts a long shadow. Rarely do we come across headlines that say, “Heterosexual wins the Pulitzer”. It could well be that what distinguishes queer poetry is that it is called so. Redact the poet and the lines will still read the same. But the poem won’t be the same. The poet becomes as important as the poem itself.
Speaking of the cult of the poet, there is hardly any need to go into the expressions of desire as manifested in the poems of Sappho and others, being as well-known as they are.In fact much of old-world poetry, did not accommodate the notches of differences between same sex or hetero love. The poets wrote of the Divine as a lover but often, this was placed outside the ambit of the corporeal or carnal. The feeling conveyed was one of the sublime. Poetic traditions in India such as Rekthi flourished in the courts of the Nawabs. There were men dancing on the streets in the rapture of the love they felt for their Lord. They could hardly be called queer. Not in the way the term has evolved politically.
In the modern sense of the term, queer poetry is not just about the poet. It is about the subject matter. It is about its ability to connect to a community that relies on a network of like-minded individuals for sanctuary and support. The sharing of the experiential is a vital way of reaching out to the community, the members of which often experience violent and destabilizing changes.
To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak-
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.
(Vikram Seth, Through Love’s Great Power)
In an interview with Firstpost, Akhil Katyal, who along with Aditi Angiras edited the anthology of queer poetry from South Asia, The World That Belongs To Us, talks about the fraught situations in the Indian subcontinent and the ways colonialism left its impact. “This debris-- along with intractable pre-modern prejudices that our part of the world still carries—resulted in very vitiated positions for queer people who are often viciously attacked on cooked up social or moral grounds. So, let’s write our poems against such attacks together.”
This doesn’t mean that queer poetry is charged with the responsibility of being a round the clock activist. There are heartbreakingly delicate poems that convey very personal narratives of love dare not speak its name and yet is a love story like any other. The ‘everydayness’ and ‘relatability’ of queer love makes it very unqueering and that is what is so queer about it!
In the Urdu Class
I confused my be with pe.
He asked me to write ‘water’,
I wrote ‘you’.
Who knew they’d make them so close,
Aab (آب) and Aap (آپ).
Both difficult to hold on to.
See? Just another love story! Or perhaps not!
And on that note, we bring you our first feature for the month, a handful of poems by Dr. Gaurav Deka. The poems, when strung together, seem to tell a story of love, of coming of age and finally, of coming into one’s own. They seem like a remarkable rite of passage with the narrator finally discovering his own voice that was made for singing. It is liberating to experience the frankness with which his words create narratives not only of love and longing, but also of the complexities of relationships. Deka has a rather introspective tone and the words gradually unspool to reveal the silence at the centre. Though love dominates the conversations, it is the need to survive heartbreak that the poet is trying to come to terms with. The need to break free while being present, is not as potent as the pangs of loneliness that are expressed. The poet says
It is almost fifty years early in
In your rented house,
you drink alone.
Beneath the immortal evening
the tamarind tree in the backyard—
in its own sad senescence—is thin in
(The Three Doors of Anagnorisis)
Deka’s poems are very physical. There is always something happening. Even while the body is at rest, the non-corporeal keeps travelling between worlds and universes.
just before we decide
to take the ride
soul on paper planes
and throw them
off the hills,
she tries to be earnest.
(My Friend Talks of Break-ups in Winters)
Just another love story? We leave it to you to decide.
We are joined in our work this month by a team of illustrators, who have kindly agreed to work with us. Today, we feature an illustration by Akshay A. S, a final year M.A English Language and Literature student at M G college Trivandrum. He is a poet and has a penchant for sketching. Unbeatable combination. Do look up his works on Instagram at #jotdowntales.