Collection edited by Andrew McMillan and Mary Jean Chan ‘questions and redefines’ the meaning of its title.
This Pride month, a new anthology featuring the work of queer poets such as Langston Hughes, Ocean Vuong and Kae Tempest is “questioning and redefining what we mean by a ‘queer’ poem”.
100 Queer Poems, edited by Andrew McMillan and Mary Jean Chan, features work from 20th-century poets as well as contemporary LGBTQ+ voices. It’s a “landmark” anthology, said one of the contributing poets, Kit Fan, because there hasn’t been a collection of this kind “for probably two or three decades”. McMillan has described the book as “an update” to the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, the last major anthology of queer poems, published in 1986.
100 Queer Poems By Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan.
Jay Bernard, whose first poetry collection Surge was based on the New Cross fire archives and won the Ted Hughes award, said 100 Queer Poems was “coming at a critical, contradictory juncture: widespread hatred and distrust of trans people alongside huge efforts at representation and inclusion; general acceptance of cis gay and bisexual people yet rising intolerance post-Brexit; an increasingly vocal and visible intersex population, yet few legal rights or protections for them”.
They added: “It will be interesting to see what poets today capture of this moment and how things shift in 10 or 20 years.”
McMillan and Chan are both acclaimed poets themselves – McMillan has won the Guardian first book award, the Somerset Maugham award and the Polari prize for his work, while Chan’s debut collection Flèche won the 2019 Costa poetry award.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu, whose poem Curriculum Vitae is in the book, said it was “dreamlike” to be able to work with McMillan and Chan, and that they felt moved to have space given to “my voice, to my little poem”.
“Based on my personal experience here, the literary communities are often allergic to anything autobiographical,” said Pasaribu, whose short story collection Happy Stories, Mostly, translated by Tiffany Tsao, was longlisted for this year’s International Booker prize. “When I was starting publishing my writing, people would focus on the things they considered autobiographical and talk about them as if they were the weakness of my writing. So I thought it would be fun to be naughty about it by employing a tauntingly autobiographical title, a curriculum vitae.”
The anthology is split into various sections, covering everything from domesticity and history to the city and nature.
Harry Josephine Giles’ poem May a transsexual hear a bird? touches on how their life is politicised. “I’m somebody that leads a very political life and has been very involved in activist movements for a long time,” they said. “And for me, poetry is a space where I can kind of talk out the experience of that.”
Meanwhile Bernard’s poem Hiss came about because they were “thinking about all of the burned buildings [they] have seen or entered, how it feels to stand upright below an uncertain roof, how such buildings appear as both inside and outside, as both ruin and vitrine”.
This book is a celebration of exuberant queer poetics, and it’s very special because of that
Norman Erikson Pasaribu
The poem asks a number of questions, says Bernard: “What has passed away and what will transpire? Can we allow for a radical inner transformation that appears ugly to us, or that might render us undesirable?”
Meanwhile, Fan was surprised when Chan and McMillan chose his poem Hokkaido for the book, but says when he thought about it, it made sense.
“It’s not directly queer or about sexuality, but when they chose it, it immediately gave me a sense of epiphany,” said Fan. “And of course it is about the body and it is about how we experience ourselves being naked.”
The poem’s title refers to a prefecture in Japan that contains geothermal hot springs, which Fan has visited. The poem, he says, is about rituals, what it means to be naked in front of others, and what we “tell ourselves when we see our body naked”.
The power of the anthology, said Bernard, is that it “showcases each poem and poet doing something interesting with the subject in their historical context”.
They hope that people reading the book will “understand that queerness is not a discrete sexual category separate from everything else, but something that changes colour and texture in relation to history, economics, nationhood, geography”.
Giles said it’s always “grand to be in something that’s doing this sort of survey of work … that’s trying to, I suppose, use anthologising to communicate something broader” about who is writing poetry, and why.
Pasaribu though, said the last thing they’d do is worry “about how hetero people see me or my writing.
“Fuck heterosupremacy, really. This book is a celebration of exuberant queer poetics, and it’s already very special because of that.”