4 Must-Read Contemporary LGBTQ Poetry Collections
LGBTQ poetry occupies a strange space in the public consciousness—the perception held by many that poetry is outdated and rife with gatekeeping and traditionalism will lead them to overlook the vital contributions being made by LGBTQ poets. Whilst for others, it is a thriving scene that offers a tremendous and powerful diversity of voice and perspective. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s always worth celebrating some of the most influential and original voices who are defining and redefining the medium.
Arguably one of the U.K’s finest poets—Bernard’s work is rooted not only in race, gender, and sexuality—but also in a critical and historical approach that allows them to capture the lineage and root of these issues. Nothing embodies this more than their most recent work Surge—for which they were the recipient of the 2018 Ted Hughes Award. Surge’s nexus point is the 1981 New Cross Fires—a subsequently overlooked and whitewashed tragedy which resulted in the death of 14 black teenagers. Throughout Surge, Bernard juxtaposes the past and the present, the history of racial violence and discrimination in the U.K alongside the way in which the self is composed of layers of identity, memory, inheritance and a desire for belonging. Doing so with a blend of form and language that interrogates these realities on a profound and moving level.
Throughout her multiple collections, Choi has woven themes of race, identity, the relationship between sexuality, femininity, the body, and how society exploits that relationship. In her latest collection, Soft Science, she explores those themes through a variety of framing devices relating to artificial intelligence and consciousness. By doing so she asks the reader to examine not just identity, but the nature of reality, of autonomy and selfhood. Throughout the collection, she illuminates these themes in language that is both lyrical and specific, rooted still in the idea of the body, of the self, as an object, as something to be possessed and observed.
It’s rare to have a poetry collection that could so apply sum up not only itself but the impetus that drives so much of LGBTQ art, but with the lines “How long can I keep tricking you / into thinking what I'm doing/is poetry / and not me begging you / to let us live?” Jennifer Espinoza found a way. In this still startling collection, she explores what it means to live, breathe, occupy nothing more than space and a body, as a trans woman. With poems that deliver on force and depth, with language that manages to be both elegant, lyrical, and sharp.
It’s hard to believe that Night Sky With Exit Wounds could ever have been a debut work—such is the staggering display of craft, beauty, and maturity on offer. Throughout the collection, Vuong interweaves what it means to be a second-generation immigrant, the weight of violence and history behind him and in front of him, as well as exploring queer desire with a carnal ferocity. The language in Vuong’s poetry elevates the work to ephemerality all whilst grounding it in the visceral and the personal.
As much as it remains true that poetry is on the whole still subject to oppressive structures, ones that can be difficult for LGBTQ writers—and that many writers experience the additional burden of having to navigate an industry that still privileges whiteness. Poetry, more than any other form of artistic expression lends itself to those very same voices. Poetry is a medium that can capture something visceral and immediate about gender, sexuality, race, and more. It does, will, and always has, lent itself to the personal and to the self, and been an integral tool in highlighting the voices of the marginalized.