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Being a lesbian woman with a voice in the LGBTQ+ writing world, combined with the appreciation and passion for writing poetry, I was excited to attend Coast is Queer (Brighon & Hove’s LGBTQ+ Literature Festival) for the first time. I was particularly drawn to attending a poetry panel discussion to expand my mind, learn from experienced writers, and to celebrate queer lives and writing. 

I was immeditately drawn to the panel discussion titled What is a Queer Poem? 

As I visited the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (based at the University of Sussex) for the first time, I felt at ease within the surroundings, as well as a sense of belonging whilst sat in the intimate space in the presence of the panel of extremely talented poets, as well as visitors who share a love for poetry. The panel discussion was based on the book 100 Queer Poems, which is a powerful anthology, featuring work from 20th century poets as well as contemporary LGBTQ+ voices. 

Mary Jean Chan 

Mary Jean Chan (an editor of the book and Hong Kong Chinese poet, lecturer and critic) spoke of the book bringing an ammculamation of queer poets together and having a voice in queer poetry, especially during Lockdown when the book was created. I felt an odd sense of nostalgia as Mary Jean talked about building an online community during isolation – a time when society was disconnected. I thought to myself how beautiful it is that the voice of many was nurtured and brought to life during a time that felt lifeless and was dark for many. 

Mary Jean talks about the impact of poetry on life – something I resonate with. Poetry has been my escape, my confidant and my friend since I was teenager. 

Mary Jean expresses that in a queer poem you are able to see a reflection of yourself within a queer poem community. It’s about relatability and finding a safe space in poetry, and allowing yourself to speak. It’s about there being safety in language and using the English language to express. 

The “safe space in poetry” that Mary Jean highlights, creates a literary home. I believe it to be a space where you can be entirely yourself, with no judgments, no repercussions, and no other voice but your own. Being free resonates with every part of my being as Mary Jean talks of summoning one’s self to be free. Writing with the significance of every word, whilst writing truthfully and deep from within, feels free in its entirety. 

Talking about what a queer poem is, Mary Jean talks of the weather, seasons changing, landscape, the body being exposed, the queer child, adolesence, movement from the internal to the external, and manifestations in the world.

They spoke about going beyond sexuality, and that race can be seen as queer –  also that we all have different experiences to bare. They pulled focus to lonely children, numb feelings, expressions, having to hide things, coming out causing a rift between mother and child, beneath the surface, relationship freedom, a queer child’s vision of paradise, and finding grace in a poem. 

Mary Jean’s writing is raw and real

By Keira Thomas

When listening to Mary Jean I thought about the countless journeys of those within the LGBTQ+ community. Those who I see as ‘my people’. Those who I understand, and those I will strive to understand even though our journeys are different. Because differences are what make us unique, special…and downright loveable! 

Deliberating the struggles people within our community have faced, and the moments of pride and acceptance that many have experienced also, I began to feel emotional. My protective instinct kicked in. Every single person and their journey matters – and in a world where discrimination still rears its ugly head, absolutely NO-ONE has the right to take this or the beauty of individuality away from anyone. 

My journey of coming out as a lesbian suddenly felt so respected…so understood…and so very empowering! 

Peter Scalpello 

Sexual health therapist and poet, Peter Scalpello, spoke of being inspired by other poets. Listening to Peter’s writing I revert back to the days of being a teenager. Even though Peter and I shared similar stereotypical behaviours of adolescence and “teenage shame”, our experiences differ as Peter talks about wearing a tracksuit as armour against ridicule. He speaks about being happy to be invisible whilst wearing matching shell suits, which I interpreted as a metaphor for what many teenagers do in order to fit in whilst battling with their identity, amongst other things. What’s underneath the tracksuit? Peter prompted thoughts about vulnerabilities and insecurities as an adolescent, and personally, how I unknowingly masked these with popularity and socialising as a priority above all else. 

Peter’s honesty about queer desire, with added humour of effect, leaves me satisfied as he ends his talk with the compelling words…“The devil works hard – queers works harder.” 

Truer words ever spoken. 

Peter describes a queer poem as being home, which is a place and experience in relation to acceptence of self and your space in the world. 

It is about “challenging hegemonic thought, and to challenge established norms”.

John McCullough 

Poet, John McCullough, was enthusiastic and expressive in his delivery. John too talks of adolescence, which speaks of hope. 

A jolt to the sytem hit me when hearing John’s poem and tribute about the brutal murder of his chemisty teacher, who’s husband stabbed her to death with a screwdriver. This tragic story was cleverly executed through the use of chemistry themed personification – keeping her memory alive through the powerful sentiment of John’s written words. 

In contrast, John reads a queer love poem, which highlights manic and anxious feelings, and makes the audience laugh with his lighthearted, humorous references. 

John describes a queer poem as a wonderful box always changing its boundaries, in a world that brings joy and hope. It’s also about de-establishing boundaries and being open to the future – your future. 

“Queer is a wider spectrum for possibilities” he says. 

Fran Lock

Poet and critic, Fran Lock, shares her ‘wild’ talent as she speaks of turning people into animals within her writing – in particular using the hyena. She speaks of traumatic loss, which is strongly felt as Fran reads from a place of a tortured heart, but that of a big heart. A sense of gothicism becomes apparent through Fran’s hauntingly dark but beautiful writing, which read nicely during the harrowing month of Halloween. 

Fran describes a queer poem as an imaginative future where we can all exist, and a community that extends in both directions. It has characteristics of oppression, shame, fluidity and freedom, as well as being provocative, liberating and transformative. 

It’s about “making an unhomely home, home for you”. 

Verity Spott 

Artwork by Verity Spott

Neo-modernist poet, Verity Spott, humoured the audience with their witty readings, association to Lord of the Dance, and references to Doctor Who. 

The change of pace from chaotic to slow set the tone and expression of each piece. Talking of dancing in the flowers, standing tall and free thinking, uplifts and inspires. 

With the expression “Allies want something from you. We don’t want allies – we want accomplices”, I’m left feeling a strong sense of loyalty from a person that I have only just met.

Having identified a character of strength, Verity is definitely someone I’d want on my side in a literary warzone! 

What’s next? 

As I sit and chat to my partner at lunch after the panel discussion, I’m left feeling inspired and pleased with the realistion that I’ve written queer poems before knowing what a queer poem actually was. Now my poetic soul has further understanding and has learnt more about themes, depth and direction. 

So…what’s next for me?! 

Another queer voice. Another queer poem.

Recommended reading 

Want to explore queer poetry? Check out these recommended authors.

Nat Raha 

J Jennifer Espinoza 

Franny Choi 

Nicholas Wong 

Jameson Fitzpatrick 

Remi Graves 

Jackqueline Frost

About the author

Keira Thomas

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