Thursday, June 24, 2021

Celebrating Queer Poetry: A Few Of My Favorite Recent Reads

Hello friends and fiends--

Today in the Madhouse, I want to talk about some of my favorite contemporary queer poets. I also want to invite you to check out my Madhouse Pride Showcase from last year where writers such as Eric Crumrine, Cynthia Pelayo, Cassie Daley, and Hailey Piper stopped by to chat about their work, their favorite books, and some must-read authors. You can check out their visits here:

While the poets I’m going to talk about today aren’t inherently horror poets, their work is raw, vulnerable, and filled with both a ferocity and gentleness that I’ve come to love and admire. In fact, in a recent essay I wrote for LitReactor, I talked about this imaginary gap between genre and literary work and how as writers of speculative fiction, we can learn a lot from reading outside of our respective genres in order to find horror in unsuspecting places. If you’re interested in reading that article, you can do so here.    

First up is Andrea Gibson. I think the first time I picked up their work was at AWP. I was hanging out at the Write Bloody table when I noticed a book titled The Madness Vase. The cover was so delightfully weird and vibrant, and you know I’m a sucker for anything with “mad” in the title, so this was an easy buy for me. After I read it, I knew that I needed more from Gibson, so I went and picked up Lord of the Butterflies (one of my favorite collections). Their work is so honest, and it always hits me in a way that feels like a homecoming, or like I’m visiting a friend I haven’t seen in years. I’ve watched some of their performances on Button Poetry, too, and I’m always left breathless.  Some of my favorite lines are:

  • “Though I don’t remember, I remember my birth/ was my first yes. Thought I was pushed, yes. / Though there was screaming, yes. Though the light hurt, yes.”
  • “to put on/ your best outfit/ and feel/ like you’re dressing/ a wound.”
  • “Truth doesn’t fly that kind of kite. / Trust knows everybody’s dark side/ is daytime somewhere.”
  • “Love, I smashed my glass slipper/ to build a stained-glass window/ for every wall inside my chest.”
  • “We wear our traumas/ the way the guillotine/ wears gravity. / Our lovers’ necks/are so soft.”

Next on our list is Danez Smith. I’m a new reader of Smith’s poems, and I actually picked them up based on a student recommendation not too long ago. My students were shocked I hadn’t read them yet, and now that I’ve finally gone through some of their work, I wish I had found them earlier, too. The first book I picked up was Homie, which is this stunning collection about friendship, bonds, relationships, and the ways we connect with others to make it through life. I then read Don’t Call Us Dead and honestly, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground more times than one. The writing in this collection was much more intense than in Homie (in my opinion, at least) and I appreciated the gut punches throughout the book. These poems were violent, haunted little beasts and cries and protests, and yet they were also vulnerable, sad, and heartbreaking. Some of my favorite lines from Smith are:

  • “i’ll plant a garden on top/ where your hurt stopped.”
  • “dead is the safest i’ve ever been. / i’ve never been so alive.”
  • “…i can’t stand your ground. / i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the/ morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”

Rachel Wiley immediately grabbed my attention after seeing her do a performance on Instagram. This one, in fact. It wasn’t long after seeing it that I read her collection Nothing is Okay and starting teaching some of her poems in my undergraduate classes. There are so many reasons why I love her work, but her confidence is certainly high up on that list. She is a force of nature and I love how her words command my undivided attention. I also feel amped up after listening to her, like I could go out and conquer the world (including the blank page). Her poetry explores queerness, space, feminism, and the joys of dating (sarcasm, because dating is awful) all while tearing down the patriarchy. She has another collection out, too,—one that I still need to read---titled Fat Girl Finishing School. Some of my favorite lines from her work include:

  • “…I don’t know, maybe this is why I love/the way I do/ with teeth and swallow and song and snarl/ and water and sparkle and consequence”
  • “Trust the bone next cradling/ your pink precious lungs to mother the breath/ back home to you”
  • “I have clawed my way to okay and it will/just have to do for now.”
  • “What you actually mean when you say that I Glorify Obesity/ is Hallelujah.”
  • “Perhaps I should submit a butcher’s diagram of all the things/they/might find in my fat.”

A recent read of mine was Bestiary by Donika Kelly. Her collection was a beautiful meditation on the human and the inhuman, the monster and the beast. There are these love poems scattered throughout where Kelly writes to chimera, centaurs, satyr, mermaids, and werewolves, and they read as these subtle flirtations, these quiet yet wild adorations. She explores love and abandonment, the disillusionment with reality, how we are born screaming yet beg to be returned to nature, to push our hands into the dirt. I loved the connection to mythology and body in her work, how everything became cyclic, enchanted. Like a glorious fairy tale, it was hard to discern where the magic ended and the nightmare began, and I loved her work all the more for it. Some of my favorite lines from her work include:

  • “When he opens her chest, separates the flat skin/ of one breast from the other, breaks the hinge of ribs, / and begins, slowly, to evacuate her organs, she is silent.”
  • “What clamor/ we made in the birthing. What hiss and rumble/ at the splitting, at the horns and beard, / at the glottal bleat. What bridges our back.”
  • “What the tongue wants. / Supplication and the burn/ of crystals expanding. / To be, always, a waxing, / a waning, and, in waxing/ again, not ever the same.”
  • “Folaed, fully grown, from my mother’s neck, / her severed head, the silenced snakes. Call this/ freedom.”
  • “I am a forest, / a field. I crumble and shift. I wake, / my breath deep inside the earth.”

Lastly, I want to talk about Mary Lambert’s collection Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across. This book came to me by way of a Goodreads recommendation, and I actually just finished this book earlier in the month. This was an intense read for me as she writes from a place of trauma regarding incest, rape, body shaming, queerness, and mental health. Some of these poems hit quite hard for me, and there was a particular meditation of hers about a bathtub that I think will remain a part of me forever. Truthfully though, I say that as the highest form of praise because I want to read poetry that rips me apart, allows me to heal, and assures me that I’m not alone, and her work here specifically really helped me do that on more than one occasion. Some of my favorite lines from her work include:

  • “We loved each other like an ongoing apology.”
  • My body is a crater/ in the living room, and you are a perfect/ moon, and I am going to ruin you.”
  • “When I was young and sad and/ hungry I learned how to guillotine a/ tulip like you with my eyes closed.”
  • “You will not remember these/moments, these death maneuvers, /these horror orchids.”
  • “I don’t know how much of me/is just space for you.”
  • “your lips are a city and I am a choir of yes.”
  • “we are all flowers with our heads off/ No one gave us a burial.”

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