Queering Poetics, or “Werking” It

Queer (adj)

1. strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular.

2. of a questionable nature or character; suspicious; shady.

3. not feeling physically right or well; giddy, faint, or qualmish.

4. mentally unbalanced or deranged.

5. slang: homosexual; effeminate; unmanly.

It was a delightfully confusing conversation. While discussing graduate school possibilities with my mother—women’s studies, queer studies, creative writing, American studies—she interrupted me with a sheepish look on her face, “But… I thought being called queer was a bad thing. You want to be called queer?” My mother looked worried and intrigued; I looked stumped and overjoyed at the challenge of explaining queerness to this crucial woman.

I had come to take the word and its implications for granted so much so that I was stunned by the fact of having to explain why queer is, for me, an ideal, a way of “werking” everyday language into poetry.

In addition to the definitions offered above, queer implies a slipperiness, a subversion of expectations and conventions, and inability to sit still, a refusal to obey. Those qualities, at least in my mind, are the essence of any line of poetry worth reading. If, as David Groff once noted, the word “queer” can function as a verb, one might say that it is possible to be queer but also “to queer.” Consider how Alexander McQueen queered bespoke tailoring conventions to create iconic dresses, or how Nina Simone queered the show tune and produced “Mississippi Goddam.” Like any queer artist, they identified the conventions, expectations and constraints, then cracked them open. I believe that kind of queering is, or at least should be, inherent in poetry.

Please do not mistake what I am saying here as a matter of preference; I am attempting to speak to a need, and a possibility. We need queer poetry in order to counteract the ways in which we are being assailed by white noise daily. Audre Lorde reminds us that, far from being a luxury, poetry “is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never before been.” That bridge can only be manufactured by poems that queer syntax and expected language. What is wonderful is that myriad LGBT writers know that this is not news; what is even more thrilling is that every writer  – regardless of orientation – can embrace queerness as a way of creating art.

Going through my bookshelf, I happened across three examples of “straight” poets who queer language into exquisite poetry.

A “straight” sentence goes something like this: “I would do anything for you, sweetheart.” When Yusef Komunyakaa queers that banality it becomes: “For you, sweetheart, I’ll ride back down / into black smoke early Sunday morning / cutting fog, grab the moneysack of gold teeth.” That sentence is wonderfully deranged; it is so “off” that it turns you on.

Aracelis Girmay begins with a “straight phrase” like “The day we got the news” and queers it into the poetic in “Ode to the Brain”  : “The day we got the news, / my lungs fell down / three flights / of stairs.” The normality of the opening clause is actually just a set-up for the unexpected image.

And, get a load of this sentence from “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?” by Anna Journey: “The bitch / scent of the silver / -and-pink-clawed-possum  in heat – all rhubarb breath and unbelievable udder – is sharp as fuchsia / spoke of my oleander.” Journey’s sentence is disobedient; it insists on being read at least three times; it glitters in its defiance of straightforward syntax. The queerness of that sentence allows her to evoke smell and sight interchangeably.

Komunyakaa, Girmay and Journey demonstrate that poetry is inherently queer – regardless of the poet’s sexual orientation — because, if we are doing our job, every line we write is the result of finding a rule and breaking it.

A great deal has been written and said about the dance between identity and poetics. Certainly, living as a queer black man has impacted the subject matter of my poems, if not the language itself. But, I am increasingly interested in the possibility that, all along, my poems have been queering me. Perhaps this is what Jack Spicer had in mind when he wrote “My vocabulary did this to me.”

If we embrace poetry as a means of making/re-making realities, we are queer poets, not because of who we sleep with and love, but because of what we do to the world – and how.