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Saturday, 29 March 2014

random thoughts about gay poems...

March, 2014

I'm tired and running late. Neither of those facts will be surprising for anyone who knows me well - I'm often one or the other, or both. But it's 7.30am on Sunday morning and I've just got on a bus headed south to Deptford, with a bag stuffed full of outfits and accessories, and a script I'm a little anxious about.

Around six or seven years ago, I was invited to a podcast recording at Gay's the Word bookshop, across the road from where I lived. The organiser asked me if I had a "gay poem" I could read out. I didn't - and I was taken aback by the question. Should I have a gay poem? Does a poem have a sexuality? I genuinely felt disturbed by the fact my poems were required to take on a sexual identity, particularly as I veered as far away from the topic as possible; poetry was a safe space where I could write about the Circle Line, being a student, London life, politics and surrealism. The last time I'd written anything about sexuality - my sexuality - it had been misunderstood, and it nearly stopped me writing completely.

My best friend bought me a notebook for my fifteenth birthday. I copied all the poetry I'd written into that small book and wrote more. They were dark, experimental, half-formed things I'd sworn never to show to anyone else. And in the middle of it, a very gay poem... and I shall say no more, because I don't remember much about it. I do know that its ashes were spread in a school playground somewhere in East London. I do know that, the week after sections of my notebook were found, my grandmother, unprompted, called from Florida and, apparently, told my mother that I shouldn't label myself. Rumours had begun spreading around school and elsewhere. At church the following week, I was nudged that little bit harder when the preacher started the altar call. Fingers squeezed at my head as the pastor began to pray for "God's direction" in my life. Not much later, I would be sent to see a Christian counsellor to change these "worrying" tendencies. I stopped writing poetry for three years. I wouldn't write another poem with any reference to sex or sexuality until eight years later.

A year after the gay podcast and I was rifling through a mess of papers in a box full of essay notes. Scribbled on the back of an important document, the beginning lines of something I started that night: "He asked me if I had a gay poem... straight up no! My poems don't mince their words, or make queer observations." I had been looking for something and I was meant to be somewhere, but I had to finish this quirky poem - and right then. I began listing all the stereotypes, all the misconceptions about gay identity that I could think of, and I started to see places where I could fit them into a story. I had no idea if it would work, I just needed to write. I had no clue about all the places this poem would take me to: France, Poland, Washington, D.C., school conferences, library discussions, top ten lists on internet forums...

It's now gone 8am and I'm late to my breakfast meeting with Richard Tyrone Jones, project director, and a three-man film crew. I'm feeling particularly uncomfortable about the fact that, in just under an hour, just as the High Street is starting to wake up and its residents are trotting off to attend the neighbourhood's many churches, I'll be parading about Deptford in a tight pink outfit, topped off with a pink feather boa. The poem which I started writing in my head one night, years ago - and nearly threw away - where a writer confronts his possibly gay poem, is just about to be re-enacted on the streets of London. This is not something I imagined would happen, and certainly not in this way.

This poem was born out of weariness, out of anger, out of beginning to accept myself long after everyone else did. Why should I be expected to have a gay poem? (But why was I too scared to write one?) Why keep pigeon-holing poetry by sexuality? (But why was I scared of being open?) And, hang on, if Shakespeare's sonnets were mostly written to another man, does that make them gay poems - or just good ones? Why couldn't I just write good poetry and ignore the questions?

For example, some conversations I've had with people I've met for the first time...

2009 - after a slam
"Nice poem, dude. U smashed it!"

"Cheers, man!"

"In case you're worrying, don't... No one here thinks you're gay."

2010 - dinner hall - after an international slam event
"Ha! It's the gay poet!... We have vegetables here... but not gay vegetables!"

"I'll just take the straight vegetables then. Haha!"

"Would you like some bread? We don't have gay bread though!"

[this happened all night with different people]

2011 - before a feature
"Hello, Keith! I was sure I'd seen your name before..."

"Yeah, I get that a lot!"

"I saw you were on the programme of poets tonight and so I YouTubed you before I came...  I saw your Gay Poem..."

"...Oh, really?"

"Yeah - I need to ask... are you gay?"

2013 - 12-year old at a school
"You're on YouTube, Sir!"

"I know. [sarcastically] I'm famous! You ready to write some poetry today?"

"We got showed your gay poem... Don't worry, we know you're not gay!"

Increasingly, we're told that sexuality doesn't matter. A few months back, a famous diver announced on YouTube that his current partner is a man. The next day, the web was full of comment pieces explaining why it's such an eye-rolling non-story. The chattering classes are so busy being post-homophobic that they just don't get it.

"Of course, I still fancy girls," he inserted into his speech, because it does matter, because he knows that if he were seen as gay gay, it would align him with that type of person (and he would never be seen on TV again - unless he wants to start a chat show/ makeover programme).

Around that time, I met up with a close relative in a food hall in a shopping mall. She's friendly, frank and part of the cosmopolitan fabric that makes up this city.

"I saw your blog... Why do you keep representing that lifestyle so much?"

"To be honest, I feel I don't represent enough"

"Of course, you're ok," she said, and looked out towards a tall boy coming towards our direction, swaying his hips down the mall, his dyed-blond afro crowning his campness. "It's that lot that makes me feel sick. Why can't they just be normal, eh?"


It's probably my eighth or ninth outfit change. The pink feather boa has been moulting all morning, it's back in my bag somewhere, and I wish it would just poof away into thin air. I'm now in something more comfortable: shorts, cap, the headphones I always wear around my neck. Only thing is, I'm also wearing a string vest, with a ghetto blaster in one hand, standing outside a jerk chicken shop in the middle of Deptford High Street. I have to say: "Batty poem fi dead! Batty poem fi dead! Rip up chi chi poem in a shred!" for several takes, at the top of my voice. Without the context of the rest of the poem, my discomfort is heavy in my stomach. Halfway through shooting, both a bystander and the shop owner have to be persuaded that we're not shooting something inflammatory.

I've never made a film before, but I do know that story is important (I didn't leave university with a Creative Writing MA for nothing - no matter what Hanif Kureishi may say). A good story takes us on a journey, uses a narrative arc. The film's vision was to do exactly the same - navigate through all the clich├ęs and stereotypes the poem brings out and bring us to a final resting point where we realise how stupid they are. I keep telling myself that as I get increasingly annoyed with the film director (straight, white, male) when he keeps telling me to strike more and more flamboyant poses, while sitting on a sculpture that looks decidedly phallic.

There's nothing more unappealing than a sulky writer. I promised I would never be precious about my work. Of course, I wouldn't want anything I write to be totally misrepresented but, once it's out there, it's no longer mine. I am privileged that words - simple words, nothing else - have taken me this far. The fact that I spend most of my time organising words around a page, then reading them out again, and teaching young people to do the same, and that I'm almost managing to survive on just that is incredible. I know words are power. But my grandfather was a carpenter. He made things. My parents have had various jobs working with people, doing things. As we've gone done the line, things have become more abstract. All I have is words. And not always good ones.    

In the year it took me to write Gay Poem, I'd stopped writing new poetry and began taking my prose more seriously. I started the creative writing course at Birkbeck, where I put together a series of short stories. I met a group of people who I continue to meet nearly every week - who I count among my dearest friends - who challenged me to write the unwriteable when it came to prose. My poetry - and, bearing in mind, we couldn't study poetry as part of the course then - seemed removed, vague; I'd stopped going to so many open mic nights. I didn't want to be a poet, anyway.

So when I finished writing the poem, I performed it at a slam, totally unsure how it would be received. I nearly chickened out and stuck with one of my safe poems (the one called Circle Line); it sounds pathetic to me now, but I was really anxious about it. Suddenly, I was writing about something I cared about - and something that certain members of my family, and some of my friends at the time would disagree with. In a post-homophobic world, of course, these people, if they exist at all, do so only in the extreme fringes of society. And even if they do exist, with their fairytale religions and quaint cultural values, they don't matter. We've got gay marriages and gay soap opera storylines and gay bank managers and... God, even gay vicars, you know? Who cares about the rest of them? This is the sort of attitude I get, and one that misses the point...

I'm back in the food hall with my close relative, who also confides that a couple of my cousins have been asking personal questions about me. I think about the camp boy who strolled past us a few moments ago.

"You all need to stop obsessing."

"So do you."

I can't respond. Because I don't want to be reduced to labels. I don't want to be that gay poet, only writing gay-themed poems for gay events. And when I write poems that deal with race I don't want to be that black poet either. (This is a whole other debate, but there's something soul-destroying about the "Black Interest" section in Waterstones. Wake up, world!)

I wrote a whole show about how I don't want to be reduced to simplistic labels (did I mention the show? Cough cough! Last chance to see it next Sunday - book tickets now!) I don't want my poetry to be reduced to one label because a few of my poems have mentioned sexuality. I don't want to be writing gay poems all my life and the poem I wrote started as a finger up to the kinds of people that require them ("I don't need to be overly elegant, maybe that's why I stepped under your gaydar...") although it ended as a celebration of the fact that, yes, I can have a gay poem and embrace it as my best work and not shun it or subject it to the same tedious "othering" I've come to expect from all quarters.

I'm tired and I'm running late. I am off to meet some poet friends of mine after a whole day shooting a film of a poem I wrote years ago, which I nearly threw in the bin. I have a pink t-shirt with the word "Poem" in my bag with sweat patches under the arms. I have pink check trousers, a plain black shirt and some grey suit trousers folded next to them. I have a bible and a string vest underneath that pile of clothes. I have binned what's left of the feather boa. Deptford has been kind and so have the filmmakers: Mark Chaudoir; Ben Bishop; Ged Adamson; Richard Tyrone Jones. I know it will look good and the hours I've spent parading the streets reading out sections of the poem will be reduced to a video of two and a half minutes, erasing all of the discomfort, doubts and anxieties I've experienced today. I'm sick of the poem. But I know I'll still perform it again in a few weeks. I can't wait to see how it will turn out.

1 comment:

  1. Keith this is inspiring - concrete, complex, and real.