How do we learn to listen to gay voices after Orlando?

Poet Andrew McMillan, author of Physical, on bringing the rich underground world of LGBTQ lyricism into the mainstream

Whatever I was planning to write for this has been upended by the events of Sunday 12th June.  I was staying in Connecticut, and a colleague, driving me home from a gay bar that has a mural of Anne Frank outside (something which seemed incongruous before, why on earth?!, but now seems all too obvious and relevant), was telling me where he grew up, how strangely accepting Orlando seemed to be, how big a scene it had. I went to bed incredibly content that Saturday night. And then I woke up.

This isn’t a piece about how I felt, or what it meant to a community; there have been more eloquent and beautiful pieces on that than I could ever write. This is a piece about Pride, about being open in poetry, it’s a piece about Freedom.

'LGBTQ people don’t have the luxury of pretending we like something, or pretending to feel something, or pretending to buy into a culture because who we actually love could get us killed'

Whilst I’ve been over in the U.S over the last week, I’ve set myself a task of finding new poets to enjoy; or to delve deeper into the work of those I knew already.  I’m struck by the wealth of young non-straight men writing great poetry over here, and having it published; the stunning Ocean Vuong, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Jericho Brown, the poetry of Sam Sax in the latest Poetry magazine; how open, honest and frank they are with their subject matter.  I look around my young (ish) contemporaries in England and wonder why we don’t have that same range and depth of young gay male poets willing to testify openly, lyrically and beautifully of their experience (which is not to say we don’t have any, David Tait, for example); then of course the answer is they probably are willing and just don’t feel we are, collectively, ready to listen yet. We should be. Even more pressing, of course, is the need for much deeper diversity within our writing and publishing, more poets from across the sexuality, race and gender spectrum having their voices heard.

When Physical was published, one of the things I treasured most was a quote on the blurb that called it ‘unfashionably honest’; I treasured it because its what I, unconsciously perhaps, had really yearned for - a plain truth of something, however uncomfortable and I was honoured to appear on a list alongside some of our honest and truthful greats, like Doty or Olds. Irony always seems like a privilege; LGBTQ people don’t have the luxury of pretending we like something, or pretending to feel something, or pretending to buy into a culture because who we actually love could get us killed, or laughed at on the street if you think the former example is hyperbolic (which it isn’t). Often times exciting Queer poets get labelled as ‘performance poetry’, as though that further labelling makes it easier to stomach or to relate to, it becomes by its very nature a performance, and thus not true, and thus easier to take.

It’s a very complicated beast; the idea of being LGBTQ, the idea of poetry, the idea of language, some sort of venn diagram which might at some point include all these points within its curves.  I was aiming for a poetry that could re-examine the masculine, take it on, turn the traditional male-gaze-on-women and flip it back onto the men themselves; to consider what it meant to be a man. If you work with ‘bad lads’ or young offenders or with groups of young people, as I have in the past, one of the things they might immediately tell you is that poetry is ‘gay’, an idea which reaches out beyond the troubling use of the word to mean anything negative, and into a preconceived notion of poetry as feminine and floral; perhaps the stripped back, plain style of Physical was an unconscious reaction to this. The best thing I can hope for is that another young gay man, or someone else on the LGBTQ spectrum, can come along and have an utterly different opinion of what poetry could be. It’s that plurality that I yearn for, that depth of thought and voice, to be written, to be heard, to be published.

Being one’s true and honest self can often be dangerous; and poetry should always be a place where, if only between the pages, that danger and energy and fear and excitement and love can fizz and spark without ever threatening to burn something down.

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