Our Picks: LGBTQ History Month

Happy LGBT History Month! To celebrate, we’re sharing our favourite LGBTQ poets past and present. What are yours? Tell us by tweeting us @PoetsStories

Audre Lorde, ‘Who Said It Was Simple’

Audre Lorde is celebrated as one of the 20th century’s great theorists. Her essay collections, however, have become influential once again as a new generation read her to help understand the world as the ongoing evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism persist. ‘Theorist’ was not a label Lorde embraced. Her friend and writing partner, Nancy K. Bereano once recalled: ‘Audre Lorde informed me, as we were working one afternoon, that she doesn’t write theory. “I am a poet”, she said.’ Implying beauty, philosophy, creativity, and the fight for justice, ‘the poet’ encapsulates these high ideals. For us, there is no better example of this at work than in Lorde’s ‘Who Said It Was Simple.’ 

Caroline Bird, ‘Dive Bar’

Caroline Bird was first published as a 15-year old. In the almost twenty years since, she has published several collections and has been nominated for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prizes and the Ted Hughes Award. Her poem ‘Dive Bar’ however depicts a less glamorous setting: an underground ‘gay’ bar. Historic safe(r) spaces, as well as a rite of passage for queer people, such bars have sticky floors, are uniquely decorated with queer props, and are the locations of wild nights out. Bird’s ‘Dive Bar’ captures these occasions, but it is also a mouth into which the young lesbians in the poem tunnel down. Pushing back against the bars’ seedy reputations, Bird makes them intimate and a place where queer young women can be their entire selves. 

A link to Bird performing ‘Dive Bar’ is available here.

Andrew McMillan ‘Finally’

In 2015, Andrew McMillan won the Guardian First Book Award, becoming the first poetry collection ever to clinch the prize. Physical is not a celebration of 21st century queer liberation, as we might expect, but instead about masculinity and the negotiations gay men continue to confront after progressive civil rights gains of the last twenty years. We’ve selected the last poem in McMillan’s collection ‘Finally’ to share because for us it captures perfectly the sense that while many oppressive forces directed at gay men have ceased others continue.

A link to McMillan performing ‘Finally’ is available here.

Thom Gunn, ‘The Hug’

The AIDS epidemic devastated the gay community in the 1980s and 1990s. Many young men were lost to the disease. When Thom Gunn published The Man with Night Sweats in 1992, critics regarded it as profoundly expressing his grief. ‘Lament’, ‘In Time of Plague’, and ‘Courtesies of the Interregnum’ clearly speak to Gunn’s dignified devastation. ‘The Hug’, however, describes the warm embrace received by the persona from behind as he lays in bed: it is explicitly not sex but a reminder of the huggers’ ‘grand passion’ from earlier days. Physical intimacy is permitted here, whereas it was feared during the height of the epidemic, but the necessary announcement that ‘it was not sex’ reflects the poem’s need to reassure the reader that they cannot have been infected. The men in the poem cannot express their grief, and they instead chose to reassure each other by hugging.

Ocean Vuong, ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’

We had to include Ocean Vuong in our list. In January 2021, he announced his grandfather was a coalminer in Nottinghamshire, where half of the Young Poets’ Stories team is based. Despite the shameless plug, we also agree he is an extraordinary poet. Ocean Vuong won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his first collection Sky With Exit Wounds, and it’s in this book that we find ‘Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong.’ Based on ‘Katy’ by Frank O’Hara, and in which the lines ‘some day I’ll love Frank O’Hara’ can be found, Vuong seeks to come to terms with his own loneliness and the ghosts of his past and present. Despite the turmoil the speaker experiences, the poem ends with the promise of relief: ‘I swear, you will wake – /& mistake these walls/ for skin.’ We are reassured that the future will bring self-love to the speaker, even though it may not resolve all his problems. Vuong’s poetic reassurance is directed at a generation of queer people who examine their identities and their place in the world.   

Jackie Kay, ‘Fiere’

Jackie Kay is Scottish Makar and has written countless verses of poetry and several novels. She often writes in dialect and centres identity, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality in her works. We’ve picked ‘Fiere’ to share with you from her 2011 collection of the same name. As an epigraph states, ‘Fere, feare, feer, fiere or pheere’ is a noun for a ‘companion, a mate, a spouse, an equal’ and functions as do other regional terms of endearment. Read as meaning multiple identities, the poem’s description of a long-standing relationship can be read as a friendship, a love relationship, or a different partnership altogether. ‘Fiere’ allows for the expression of intimacy between two people with a degree of anonymity. Kay brilliantly allows for a safe public expression of love.

A link to Jackie Kay reading ‘Fiere’ is available here.

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