I knew as soon as I read Alex Leslie’s smart, heartfelt introduction to the queer issue of Poetry is Dead–a poetry journal based out of Vancouver–that I was going to love what was between its pages. She writes, for example, that despite the diversity within queer-identified writers, what brings them/us together is that “writing [is] a tool of survival and self-knowledge but most importantly, of finding a way to leave a silencing place… We may not come from similar places, but we have all left silence to get here.” Where’s here? Queer, of course. But queer for Leslie, the guest editor for this edition, is versatile and malleable in the best way; she writes that her intentions were to “leav[e] open as many exits and entrances as possible.” Here are some of my favourite writers and pieces from this issue; let’s call them the entrances I favoured.
The issue really starts on a high note, with three superb essays by Lisa Foad, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Antonette Rea. As Sarah Fonseca pointed out in her review of the issue on Autostraddle, Toronto-based Foad’s so-called essay is really poetry; it looks like poetry on the page, and its narrative is fragmented and broken into stanza-like sections. Divided into groups of prose poems, “here be monsters” chronicles Foad’s journey from being brought up Jehovah’s Witness to emerging queer- and writerdom:
I’m 15. Then 16. Glitter spills from the sky and we dance all night. Every night. She sees me first. We make out under a disco ball and, behind me, the world as I’ve known it grows dim. Terror blooms fat and wild in my throat as I almost choke.
I love the image of terror as if it’s a ferocious animal gorging on her. The end of this journey/essay is, as you might expect, only a beginning. The last section reads only: “I begin again.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who’s also based in Toronto, although originally from the States, is the next essayist. She confirms poetry as both a “beginning place” and “the rock everything else stands on.” With passion and conviction she argues for the necessity of poetry in our lives despite the fact that you can’t make any money doing it and that you have to do other things to pay the bills. She writes: “poetry is the muscle, the winged dream of liberation that begins our work as artrebelwarriors.” Indeed, this journal is full to the brim of artrebelwarriors.
Antonette Rea’s essay tells a brave and moving story, again confirming that poetry, far from being useless or a high art accessible only to the privileged, is something that can both save lives and give them meaning. Rea recalls her writing while in a period of addiction, where “words flowed as if [she] were connected to a higher consciousness.” When incarcerated, Rea falls back on her poetry, spending time pacing back and forth in her cell, re-membering and memorizing her own words. Check out this powerful clip of Rea performing a poem where she talks about being a trans woman doing sex work in Vancouver’s downtwon eastside; she’s got a fantastic voice and presence. The clip is from a series called Rewind: Memory on Film, which was run by Elee Kraljii Gardiner.
Where can you go from these three essays? Only up, apparently. Highlights, for me, of the poetry from the issue’s poetry section ‘proper,’ were:
Leah Horlick’s poem “for queer grrrls who have considered silence/when the pap smear is too much” (cleverly playing on Ntozake Shange’s For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf). At once funny and serious, the poem describes Horlick and her best friend setting out for the gynecologist dressed in their best as if on a date. She writes: “How I was like, HIV? And she [the doctor] laughed. / As is lesbian meant eunuch, / or immunity. As if all we really do / is hold hands.” I recently reviewed this Saskatoon-raised, Vancouver-based poet’s first collection here.
Vancouver writer Amber Dawn’s “F*** Face” is also a standout piece. First of all, who has the guts to title a poem “Fuck Face”? There’s something hypnotic about the skilful way Dawn repeats the colloquial phrase “let’s be honest” throughout the prose poem, which begins:
Let’s be honest. The truth is I never meant to become an adult fetish worker. I was twenty-four years old, a masseuse at a Sensual Bliss Massage and More, on my knees fixing to give a routine blowjob to a man named Stan. Stanley said he had something for me. Something in his briefcase. He shyly produced a pair of handcuffs, a bottle of Tabasco sauce, and a rubber mask that looked like Larry Fine from the Three Stooges. And that’s how it really began.
I was lucky enough to see Dawn screen the video poem version of “F*** Face” at the launch for this issue, which I highly recommend seeing if you have the chance. It’s strange and beautiful like the freaks the poem talks about.
I also loved Saskatoon-born, Vancouver-based Adrienne Gruber’s poem “Day Thirteen,” which has a floating rhythm as the word “we” repeats as the lovers move, mold, moisten, make, unmask, and all sorts of other sensual m-sound words and actions. Actually, there’s not only m-sounds but a lot of playful use of alliteration in her poem. She writes:
We made love before your stitches came out, we came before your wounds had time to heal, before the cells multiplied and layered and stitched together, before the tiny rivets in your torso dried up, before you were able to bend and contort, before you were made flesh. We joined and twinned and twinned again, we sunk into each other like boots into briny birth.
Again, showing how malleable their definition of poetry is, this issue of Poetry is Dead features stunning drawings by Alexandra Sebag throughout. I feel quite inept at even talking about visual art, and I don’t have the language to describe why I liked Sebag’s art so much, but I really wanted to say simply that I loved it! I thought her pieces were gorgeous and provocative; they really are a beautiful visual counterpart to the linguistic art elsewhere. In fact, one piece, called “Off White Shitty Receipt Paper,” is actually playing with words; in a firm hand with dark, almost child-like print Sebag has written simple, emotional phrases onto receipts and then gently re-arranged them as she repeats them. For example, one reads: “i always hated you / always hated you / hated you i always / you i always hated.”
The queer issue of Poetry is Dead is smart, thought-provoking, beautiful, and diverse. There really is a range of style throughout the issue; I’ve favoured the less post-modern, but if that’s your interest, there’s certainly some fascinating poems, such as the excerpts from “ff or letters to a fellow fluency” by Pam Dick and Oana Avasilichioaei. At the back of the issue there’s a few reviews that convinced me to add a few titles to my to-read list (in particular, Dani Couture’s collection Sweet). Finally, closing the issue is a fun and stimulating interview / discussion between Alex Leslie and writer/painter bill bissett. I’ll just leave you with part of bissett’s response to Leslie’s question about how ‘out’ queer artists feel they have to be in their work: “i see language the way painters see paint—it’s what you do with it. so for me, i don’t need to change the paintings to make it more obviously queer or whatever. i’m ok with how it is. i love people’s responses. i used to think people would see what I was seeing and showing but now i realize that isn’t the way it goes. the way it goes is the reverse of how you think it’s going…”