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!

Like

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.

(Akhil Katyal)

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
Matheran now.
In your rented house,
you drink alone.
Beneath the immortal evening
moss,
the tamarind tree in the backyard—
in its own sad senescence—is thin in
its roots.

(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. 

in November
just before we decide
to take the ride
draw his
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.

When not to Tell Him of your Longings

because for poetry to begin,
I must write something profound,
for there is no other way I can exaggerate
simple pains of not having you
beside me, in my bed, to hold your hand
and tell you that you matter beyond the skin…

…I, on such nights, begin to wonder
if there were other ways I could tell
you that just like every death
precedes a ritual of longing,
I often find myself sitting on the bench
outside your gate, growing old and dormant
like the name of the dog I’d have for company,
something to do with a chromosome turning inert

Clocks turn into shadows, its slow ticking
hitting the brain’s soft matter, ‘cause
for tonight it’s somewhat different – I am still
waiting for you somewhere outside a mall
where the asphalt is clean and lights are bright,
bright enough to see through God’s plans for the
evening, bright enough to remember that the sad
immortality of a pi can only be broken by
forgiveness, something that I have failed to ask
you while standing there, while staring at the sun,
while letting you become a spectre against
the glass of a running bus that I could never take
with you to that momo shop in south campus

Now that I worry about eating animals
for breakfast, tell you of my misdoings in the world,
in truth I want you to tell me that the true purpose
of the body is to disintegrate, that it’s
something called anthropomorphization to begin with,
that I am being way too eastern, and finally ask
what the real problem is – ‘are you okay?’: to which
I’d not protest and stay silent, for all I want is
to obey you in some sense, feel owned. For all I want,
in the absence of skin, is to turn into a stab
of sweat felt between fingers after a long call

Gaurav Deka reads When not to Tell Him of your Longings

How to delete photographs of a Lover who hasn’t loved us yet

(i)
You are here to hide into a haze,
to like a photograph on Instagram
and unlike it
that is how you begin to let go of things.

(ii)
fading is a
process of death
it’s like being
pressed to the
chest of a lover
and asked to breathe-in
his face,
commit to memory
commit to close your eyes to it
unwrap its filters,
commit to freeze it into your soul

(iii)
I have a string
of polaroids hanging
from across the room –
these are mostly places
that have left us, and lovers
jilted to stillness
I have trashed the rest
from my desktop and
have kept just where
I can see eyebrows and closed eyes

(iv)
One among them is a man who
hasn’t loved me yet,
I wonder where lies the button
to delete his absence that breath
How to like things straight

How can one ‘like’ things so straight?
And by like, I clearly mean sexually attracted.
Let there be no innuendos when I talk of things straight.
For it is normal, to like things straight.
But then, how does one like things straight?

Say for example:

A straight hairy hand, that holds itself out to shake –
and when the intonations of its muscles take shape
when the fingers splay out, breaking at their knuckles,
when the white nerves, the green veins and the black hair stick out,
they must be straight too.

The shake must be proper, firm and manly
It must be brief, and the friction
between the skin must produce no heat:
in such touches, in such measured moments of courtesy.
It mustn’t have any hard feelings, mustn’t suffer
any anxious wetness in the sweat of its palms.

Haven’t you ever confused a hand with a ruler?
a brown ruler, a white ruler, a black ruler,
that is everything wooden, everything hard,
everything that doesn’t know love, or to make any of it.
That only knows to beat, to ram, to touch without intimacy;
the only time it can get intimate is when it makes itself hurt against your skin.

What about the straight-lower-limbs:

Let me not call them legs,
Let me be precise as most young boys like to obsesses
over the calves and thighs of their avuncular lovers:
call them beefy, call them buffy, call them Big, strong and meaty.
But what is there to like about something so tree-like and straight?

You hardly see them, the way you see hands,
You only see them in long-pants, rarely in half-pants
while you may get lucky at dawn during a jog
or your once in a while brisk walk – that you do
only when you see him downstairs from your netted window.
That is the first thing you do in the mornings: pee-p.
and as you do so, you try and keep your hands straight, like his.
you don’t let them travel down and take a shape that involves an arch-
it is difficult not to like things that aren’t straight.

On close observation, his movements are nothing
but pure geometry; no, such geometries are devoid of circles,
they don’t believe in bending, don’t believe in returning,
try as you might to give yourself to them in-whole.
They only rise in one half of a square,
And as your gaze turns to gape,
you are reminded of your Maths teacher and
the right angled triangle learned in class six . Fuck, you curse,
as you hit a pebble: every shape cannot be solved
by the Pythagoras theorem –
If you take his thigh as the base, his calf the perpendicular, you are still left
as the resolved hypotenuse under him when you imagine
him curling up, on top of you.

But I’m sure everyone will disagree with a jeer,
If I call the thing dangling between the legs ‘straight’
and ask, how can you like things straight?

It isn’t straight, will be the first response,
It is curved, the second. “It is easier to bend things”, one will say,
“Without a bone, though we like them boned,
and so we call it a boner, while we like them best.”
“Nothing that isn’t straight goes in,” will be the clincher-last,
“Nothing like being fucked by a straight man!”

Some will sing in chorus:
“That is why we want them, that is why we stare at their crotches,
in buses and metros and cars and rickshaws.
And when they follow us back, when they turn,
we refuse to believe in the linearity of their desires,
with every blow we see to it that they twist and
bend and hunch over us.
With pleasure, with disgust, with
every bit of their straightness sucked out.”

Then, somewhere in the midst of a realization,
almost in a sudden retrieval of memory,
each of you will sigh, and agree on one another,
A few of you will pat my back and sympathize
On the strange fate of ours liking things straight, not inherently,
but quite cruelly with time, for it is so not normal for us to like things straight.
But then, how does one like things so straight?

When the Birds Left

Sometime in October, when there were
parrots pecking at our window
I had recently left a man who’d cradle me
to sleep every night, kiss my sweaty
forehead; with his wilted fingers
draw the creases on its wetness and
say: we’ll soon buy a house in Faridabad.

Ours was a single mattress on the living
room floor, he’d pull it out every night
from the bedroom, the A.C. wasn’t bought yet.
He’d put a new cover before I had moved
in, some blankets for the child we’d
never have were borrowed from a cousin
in Burdwan: it hadn’t torn even when I
left : the parrots still hadn’t arrived yet,
the lines on the walls smeared with our
knotted whispers, still smelled of the
ittar we’d got from Dilli Haat.

Breathing beside my neck, he’d dream of
the water churning inside my lungs; and
of the domes of Fatehpur, the marauder
inscribing its surface with a compass
the size of a comet: S+G. A+S. M+G.
Such were the premonitions of the
solstice – in September, when the water
rose up to my mouth, I stopped kissing
him, and bathed myself at dusk with the
ittar from the haat, so that he didn’t ask
for more than a piece of my throat.

Almost everything was set. New
cutlery was bought, a shoe rack was
installed, a foot cream was sent from
Calcutta, a brother was called to see
how two men can be in love under a roof

it does require more than just
commitment and a country, he’d said.
A promise was made, we’d soon sign the
papers somewhere in Manhattan:
I’ll get through an MFA and he through
another programme – the strength of
forecasts jolting the bar-moulds of history.
And this is how as the water rose, I felt
I’d lost the shape of my chest

The parrots had still not arrived and the
windows were yet not foggy.
When he’d leave for office, I’d sit down
with the door open and listen to the
Chole-Kulche wala bleating his misery,
the dust on Paris Trance unshaken, lying
limp on my palms, page 63
I’d meet anyone who came with the
same grief, the weight of the world
exerting on my shoulders more than any
other beauty.

When he returned, I wrote a page or two
thinking how a domesticated lady ever
wrote, no domesticated man surfaced in
my mind.
When the doors started creaking at dawn,
We decided to close the middle room,
and light it up to fight
For days I kept thinking it was his twelve
year old dead cat
But when he left for a week to the
mountains, I found my own voice there:
locked in the same cupboard with the
photograph of his dead mother. And this
is how as the water went down, I lost my
shape and turned into the woman of the
house.

Starting with the darkness of the
house, I slammed it on him
How shriveled the
house made him look. How horribly thin! How not my type!
And a friend helped re-iterate , ‘the
air here is as cold as night stones’. I took
that as a cue and cried all night.
We did not quarrel, neither did I write a
letter to Maa.

When the water rose up to my head, and
I was woman enough, I gave my heart
to a twenty three year old chemistry
student near Bahri and Son’s for a week,
took the metro to Lajpat and gave it to
a Kashmiri for another, at Karol Bagh to
a hustler for three, and finally to the
powdery whiteness of blood, where all
the worlds’ miseries end in several ways.
It was sometime in October, when
I’d left a man who loved. The parrots had pecked
breaking into the glass, and left by then;
the water in the vessel kept at the
awning had still not dried. A pinch of salt
was finally added to kill the demon
heart.

Of What is Left Behind

The truth is, I want him to tell me:
that after today
he’d like to carry a photograph
of me to the bathroom
in the hotels he’d stay
the night over on his tours
outside the city – the ones he’d take
a bus to on rainy days to make doodles on
his sketch board and return
with tripod-selfies mailed back to me
stamped every time. No, maybe
steal my toothbrush
to run his fingers over
its bristles on his way to Mysore
sitting on the third left seat
the same I’d see in
every dream I dozed into
somewhere around 2:00 pm
flipping through the theories
of mortality by Kagan, Heiddeger
and Jasper;
my dead grandmother
sitting beside him,
weeping darkening calling me
to her and I weeping darkening calling him
to me and the world
weeping darkening calling God
to the fate of souls like
his that turn to pixellated smoke
before dying,
and fade through the window glass.

This summer, every afternoon I step out
in the sun to
the white tiled verandah
the owner of my rented house
agreed to let knowing
that I bring burnt souls back
to their bodies
for his daughter who
set herself on fire eleven years back
when hanging was difficult in the absence
of a ceiling fan and
a silk saree – those were the years lived
in poverty
we could talk about sometime
when I’m not dreaming of light
slitting through abrasions on my skin left by
sweat-lines of his red T-shirt
he’d forgotten that I haven’t taken off
for weeks
to dream of him in one;
thawing burning evaporating
under the sun
the way he does in to a light pool
outside the window and the way
Grandmother comes back
from the dead
and the way the bus vanishes
through, breaking the rain
and the way the soul that never
ever appears in
the theories of Kagan Heiddeger Jasper.

the truth is, I want to tell him:
to carry the brush instead
for I fade away from photographs too

#GauravDeka #QueerPride #QueerPoetry