Mary Jean Chan is the author of Flèche, winner of the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry. Their second collection Bright Fear is forthcoming from Faber.
Andrew McMillan is the author of physical, winner of the Guardian First Book Award, playtime, winner of the inaugural Polari Prize, and pandemonium.
Together they edited 100 Queer Poems, which publishes on 2 June 2022. In this correspondence, undertaken over spring 2022, the authors discuss the state of queer poetry in Britain.
Mary Jean Chan:
I’m writing to you from Headington, Oxford, where I’ve just moved to with my partner. I don’t think I’d mentioned this when we began working on 100 Queer Poems together during spring 2021, but having this project on the go felt like a soothing balm during the multiple lockdowns and collective trauma that we were experiencing as a result of the UK government’s clear mishandling of Covid-19. I felt intermittently homesick (Hong Kong had banned flights from the UK at that time) and also sorely missed my friends, but health anxiety kept me from reaching out to people even when it eventually seemed a little safer to do so. Our Zoom chats helped to alleviate that loneliness, and also reminded me how queer poetry is thriving in the UK at present, which also made me feel less alone.
I’m responding from a stormy Manchester, just as the clouds have begun to break. I think you’re right about that need to reach out to people; a huge part of the reason that I came to you with the kernel of an idea way back when was because I knew this was maybe something I wanted to do, but I knew I wasn’t up to the task on my own. It needed to be a collaborative effort, to seek out the different sides of the queer poetry community.
The idea of community is one which I’ve been sitting with over the past couple of years: what I need from it, what it needs me to give it. When my anxiety resurfaced at the beginning of 2021, before I sought out counselling and was given medication, I realised it was partly because I missed the casual, fleeting interactions that being out in the world gives us. My coping mechanisms; the gym, travelling by train, going to events and hearing readings or giving talks, those brief, quick conversations with someone afterwards – all that spontaneity felt taken away. And yet what replaced those interactions was more online events, more accessibility, and a broadened sense of who can attend things, who can be involved in those conversations.
When I started out in poetry, I had a sense of the poetry world as something living and tangible, but I remember looking around for queer poetry magazines that I might send some early work to, and I could never find any active ones based here in the UK. That’s probably less than a decade ago and I find it amazing how much and how quickly things have changed. I remember thinking, when physical was coming out, that it wasn’t a queer book, or a gay book, it was just written from life and I’d only ever slept with men so far, or fallen in love with men so far, and so that’s what the poems would speak to. I always felt it was more about masculinity and the male body, than it was about queerness.
I think the way my thinking has shifted as I’ve gotten more of a profile, more of a platform, is that labels can maybe help us to build a broad community, help highlight voices from … I don’t want to say margins, because margins are only defined by who controls the centre … voices who might have a harder time being heard. Did you have a sense of yourself as a queer poet as you were working on the miraculous Flèche?
I really love what you said about seeing the poetry world as something living and tangible. I didn’t have a sense of that until my final year at university in the US, when I represented Swarthmore College at the 2012 College Union’s Poetry Slam Invitational in LA. It was the first year our college had sent a team, so we were just eager to see what was out there. I remember being utterly blown away by the rigour and dedication that I witnessed during that slam poetry competition, featuring poets who tackled incredibly challenging topics with intelligence, love and empathy. For the first time, I saw poetry as something living, and as being something that could be co-created with others, and I wanted more of that. The first thing I did when I arrived in London in 2014 for my MA in Creative Writing was to Google the words ‘poetry + London’. The Poetry Café was the first thing that popped up, and I found a link to the spoken word night that they hosted on a weekly basis. I went along one evening, read a poem aloud, and was so moved when a few people came up to me afterwards to chat about poetry and to encourage me to keep going.
As for how I saw myself when I was writing Flèche, I don’t think I had the words ‘queer poet’ in mind, even though I knew that my work might be framed as such upon publication. Similar to your thoughts about physical, I think Flèche is a book about mother-daughter relationships, multilingualism, fencing and existing as a postcolonial subject, as much as it is about queerness. That being said, I am incredibly proud to be seen as a queer poet, because I used to spend so much energy trying to disavow this part of my identity and my life, and that internalised homophobia fuelled my depression and anxiety. I came out ten years ago. Now, the fact that readers (queer or otherwise) can find something of value in my work just feels like an immense privilege and a true joy.
I should also say that when I first read physical, it made me cry, and that your book also felt like a friend, even though I hadn’t yet met you at the time. How did you feel after physical came out, when it received such widespread acclaim? Did it make you feel more visible as a queer poet? Did writing playtime and pandemonium feel easier, or perhaps harder, as a result of that?
The time after physical is still so odd to me, so strange and warped. It’s only really in the last year or two that I’ve managed to get my head around it. I knew of a certain part of the poetry world, because my dad is also a poet, and a broadcaster, and I grew up in a house where the family was supported by someone doing poetry. So I knew about that freelance life of poetry, the gigs, the residencies, the commissions, the sense of poetry as an art form which could be facilitated in communities of all different sorts. And then later, I knew of the T.S. Eliot Prize, as some sort of distant thing given to these elder statespeople of poetry. I knew vaguely of some other parts of it, but the world I was suddenly thrust into, through the delightful, mad ride physical went on, I wasn’t really prepared for. I’d never heard of the Guardian First Book Award before I was shortlisted, things like the Costa, the Dylan Thomas, even the Poetry Book Society just weren’t really on my radar, and so each one was a strange arrival, my editor calling me up to tell me the good news. Being pulled into the whirl of events, readings, losing, winning, and then also just getting on with life at the side of all that, because poetry is what it is, it still happens on the sidelines of other things. The morning after I won the Guardian First Book Award I got a 5 a.m. train with a horrible hangover and went to teach my first year poets at my lecturing job up in Liverpool.
I was also dealing with everything that pandemonium talks about and describes. Oftentimes when someone reads out my biography, or talks about those eighteen months after physical came out, I want to hold up pandemonium and say, ‘Yes, but this was happening, as well.’ I said yes to everything that was offered to me, partly because that’s what I’d always been taught to do (it might be the last thing you ever get asked to do!) and partly because I felt a real necessity to keep working in case we were going to become a single-income household. Now I’m stepping back, stopping, asking myself what I really want from life, from my work, from a ‘career’, and it isn’t necessarily visibility or profile or any of those things.
I think one of the odd things is that when a book has demonstrable themes you’re suddenly asked to speak on those subjects, so people ask if I can speak to masculinity, or queer northern identity or whatever it may be. I think partly in those situations there’s a danger that you just begin to paraphrase your own poetry – I once tried to write some essays around those themes that the poetry contains and they never really worked. It’s in the poetry, maybe that’s the only way I know to say it.
Each book has been hard in its own way, I don’t think things get easier in that sense, except that fear you have before a first book, that nobody might read it, that dissipates slightly in that you have a sense that some people who bought the first one might buy the second one, even if they don’t like it! Now, seven years on, I look back on physical the way we might look at old pictures of ourselves – how could I wear that! Why is my hair like this! It’s an odd thing to think that perhaps my best-known book might be my first one, and that might always be the case – I’m lucky of course, some people never get a book like that, but it lends an odd arc to a life perhaps.
I’m also much more aware now than I was then of how it might have felt for poets a generation or two before my own, looking on at this widespread reception and acclaim, and perhaps feeling that it could have been given to their work too; I benefitted from an opening up and broadening of society, and many poets, such as a few we have in our anthology, didn’t have that luxury. We mention in our editorial for 100 Queer Poems about this idea of what it might look like if we came back to do it in ten years’ time, how things might look different, I think that’s quite an interesting thing to think about, isn’t it?
I definitely recall feeling in 2014 and 2015 that there were new possibilities emerging in British poetry that hadn’t been there previously. Even though I’d only arrived in London in 2014, I had been browsing the poetry section of the London Review Bookshop, Gay’s the Word, Foyles, Blackwell’s and Waterstones since I’d arrived in Oxford in 2012 (though I was still firmly a student of the social sciences at the time) and gradually noticing poets whose work gave me permission to write my own.
I remember going along to a poetry event at the Southbank Centre with someone on a date in 2014 (spoiler alert: it didn’t work out). Sitting in the audience that night, I heard poets like Jay Bernard, Mona Arshi, Sarah Howe and others take to the stage as part of the launch event for Ten: The New Wave, an anthology that grew out of the Complete Works mentoring scheme. Something shifted in me that night. A small voice in my head said, maybe you can make a way for yourself as a poet here, too.
Then Sarah published Loop of Jade in 2015, along with Mona’s Small Hands and your debut physical. All these books made me feel like I could begin to write towards parts of me that I previously hadn’t thought would be seen, let alone celebrated. I remember attending a panel event at King’s College London with the American poet R. A. Villanueva where you, Sarah, Ruth Padel and Parisa Ebrahimi were speaking at, and feeling like I wanted to come up to you all afterwards to thank you for the incredible work you were doing.
Fast forward to the present day, it feels like so much has changed: there are so many more global majority poets being published across small and mainstream presses, and queer poetry has become such a vibrant part of poetry in the UK. Joelle Taylor winning the T.S. Eliot Prize this year feels like yet another milestone being reached in British poetry. I have no doubt that were we to do an updated version of 100 Queer Poems in ten years’ time, it would be a different book, featuring new and emerging queer voices who are already making themselves heard through queer magazines and publishers such as fourteen poems, Cipher Press, Anamot Press and elsewhere.
Recently, I was invited to write the foreword for The Sun Isn’t Out Long Enough, an anthology about queer experiences across borders published by Anamot Press. Reading that anthology introduced me to stunning queer voices I had not previously been aware of (some of whom we’ve since been lucky enough to include in 100 Queer Poems), and I felt reassured that the future of queer writing was in good hands. I think it’s also important to remember those who paved the way for our current moment, poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay and others who were pioneers in terms of writing about gender, lesbian sexuality and race during a much less permissive time. My partner is also a poet, and she looked up to Carol Ann so much during her time in school as a role model for what being a lesbian poet might look like. Do you feel this responsibility in terms of being a queer role model? Who were some of the poets you read when you were younger who made poetry seem possible for you?
I don’t feel like I am a role model, or I certainly never wanted to be one, but I guess there are periods of professional success which make you more visible than at other times, and to that end I try to be as generous as I can, with formal and informal mentoring, with blurbs and trying to help share other poets’ work. I’m trying to imitate the generosity I had from so many at the start of my career, and what is the worth of that, if it isn’t something you can pass forward? I think in the past I’ve felt more compelled to speak out on things even though I wasn’t necessarily, beyond a purely personal sense, qualified to contribute to the conversation. Perhaps it’s just getting older, in literary and literal terms, that makes me feel less compelled to do that – I’d rather learn, read, donate, highlight other people who can use their voices in a much more constructive way than I can.
My dad is an obvious place to start in terms of someone who made poetry seem possible for me; in the sense that was literally true. I saw someone earning money as a poet, I had a sense that a poet was a living tangible thing, maybe even just that poets were alive, were writing now, and beyond that a profound sense that one’s own voice, one’s own street, one’s own town is just as worthy as poetry as anywhere else, that there’s no hierarchy or subject or location in terms of what might be poetic.
When I came out at sixteen my dad gave me a copy of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems and said I think you should read this. Thom Gunn was the first time I remember reading overt queerness in poetry; we’d done Carol Ann in school but (I assume mostly because of Section 28, and mostly just because of the kind of school it was) the queerness of that work was never centred for us. So Gunn was the first time I’d seen love poems to men, poems in love with the male body, poems of casual encounter; and it was Faber, and it was in this very formal, syllabic style, it was ‘literature’, that kind of life was worthy of literature. Geoff Hattersley was important to me – he grew up in the village next to mine and again he gave me that sense that the world around you was worthy of writing about – then later Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith. Robin Robertson too, in accepting physical as a manuscript but also as an idea, as something with no punctuation, and lower case, and the rhythms of my own speech, brought his editorial eye to it and made it the book it became, he made that possible.
I’ve been thinking too about the poets I didn’t read when I was younger, whom didn’t I encounter – I just finished writing a little thing about Harold Norse for a book, and recently someone got me reading Tim Dlugos. There are so many queer names who aren’t passed down to us through the canon. I partly think that often the voices who survive are the ones who have another claim on them, so we don’t know them as a ‘queer poet’, but we know of them as a member of another ‘school’ of poetry – so we might remember Thom Gunn as an early member of the Movement, or as an elegist, or a formalist, but not the radical queer poet of the body, or we might remember Auden as a poet of a particular kind of Englishness, or Wilfred Owen the war poet, Langston Hughes as part of the Harlem Renaissance – the queer voices are there throughout history, but often there’s another layer, or another coat of identity, laid over the top of them. Were there any surprises for you in our process of assembling this anthology?
The idea that some queer poets have always been read, known and even lauded for their work, yet not fully known qua who they were as queer people, is such a fascinating one. I remember reading W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen in secondary school in Hong Kong, and not having the faintest idea that these were queer poets. I remember studying Twelfth Night for the HKCEEs (our then equivalent of the British GCSEs), and the gender-bending in Twelfth Night was explained by the fact that it was a Shakespearean play about revelry during which all the ‘normal rules’ were ‘turned upside down’, but it all ends in heterosexual marriage, so the ‘waywardness’ of the play is contained after all. During my MA in London, I recall being encouraged by Andrew Motion to read Elizabeth Bishop, and a friend suggested that I revisit Emily Dickinson’s work, but once again, I had no idea that they were, in fact, queer poets. The moment it dawned on me that so many of my beloved writers were queer was when I visited Gay’s the Word Bookshop in Bloomsbury one afternoon in 2014. The sight of so many familiar names (suddenly seen in a queer light) just took my breath away.
As we were editing 100 Queer Poems, I was surprised at how easily poets across the generations or across different locales spoke to one another. That’s the joy of putting together an anthology: the privilege of having people you admire ‘in the same room’ as it were, and being able to invite them to engage with one another, thereby sparking something fresh in the reader’s mind. I’m glad we were able to include some poets in translation in 100 Queer Poems, as that certainly adds to the rich polyphony of voices in this anthology. Are there other anthologies (queer or otherwise) that come to mind for you when you think about anthologies that have meant a lot to you over the years?
Yes, I love that idea of inviting the poets into a room, all at once, and seeing what new conversations seem to start up, what new conversations seem to emerge from that. Gay’s the Word was such an exciting space for me to enter for the first time too, and it’s been great since then that we’ve had The Bookish Type in Leeds, Queer Lit in Manchester and loads more open all over the country, this real resurgence in queer bookshops which offer that space for a person to walk into and feel less alone.
Very off-topic for this conversation, but one anthology that did have an enormous impact was one that Penguin did called Children of Albion, which was really a collection of underground British Beat Poetry but a lot of the things I repurposed for my own work, stylistically, come from reading those poems in there, and the beauty and fierceness of a poet like Adrian Mitchell has always stayed with me.
Again I think that, to go back to something I said earlier, I had this real privilege of growing up in a house of poetry books, so had access to these different poets who I might not otherwise have read. I did an anthology of War Poetry at A Level, and the AQA ‘Poems from Other Cultures’ selection at GCSE, and then the trusty Norton Anthology at Undergraduate, but I always wanted to use them as jumping off points, I love the idea of an anthology being like a wine tasting, then you can go and order a bottle of one you really like … what are you hoping that readers get from our anthology that we’ve done?
I think I’d love our readers to get a sense of the vibrancy of contemporary queer poetry in the UK, how there are so many ways of writing a queer poem, and so many approaches – formally speaking – to queer poetry that goes beyond the lyric, for example. I’m also excited for the anthology to create a safe space for our readers, who might imagine themselves and their place in the world differently after reading our book. Growing up as an only child, I was rather introverted (and still am), but reading always made me feel like I was part of a larger story and a more expansive community.
I remember first coming across the seminal Staying Alive anthology published by Bloodaxe Books, and carrying it around with me for weeks because the physical object of the anthology offered me a kind of solace and reassurance that still feels miraculous to me. There were poets I knew and loved whose work I relished reading again, and others whose poetry I only discovered because they were in conversation with names I already recognised.
I hope that’s what our anthology will do, too. As we’ve said in our respective editorials, an anthology is never finished, and ours is by no means comprehensive or complete. Our hope is that by publishing 100 Queer Poems, our readers will be encouraged to discover hundreds more in the years to come.
Photographs © Hayley Madden and Sophie Davidson
100 Queer Poems is available now for pre-order.