“Poetry is the muscle, the winged dream of liberation”: A Review of the Queer Issue of Poetry is Dead

poetry is deadI 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.

lisa foadThe 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 lakshmiLeah 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 reaAntonette 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 horlickLeah 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.

amber-dawnVancouver 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.

adrienne gruberI 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.”

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Two of Alexandra Sebag’s pieces of visual art that are scattered throughout the issue.

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…”

You can get your very own copy of Poetry is Dead through their website and in bookstores in and around Vancouver (Project Space, where the launch was held, has copies!)

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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13 Responses to “Poetry is the muscle, the winged dream of liberation”: A Review of the Queer Issue of Poetry is Dead

  1. Lex says:

    The most amazing part of this review is that your bio reveals that your bike is named Harriet the Spy…

    Macaulay Culkin.

    • Hi Macaulay!

      Well, that’s one way to look at it, isn’t it? I hope you also enjoyed the poetry. You know, a certain someone did a pretty fantastic job as guest editor.

      FYI, my last bike was name Sydney Krukowski. I take naming my bikes very seriously.

  2. shawnsyms says:

    Yay for this review. And also so glad the reviews drew you to Dani Couture’s lovely Sweet.

    • Thanks! I really enjoyed your piece too Shawn! I’m always really fascinated by the search terms people use to find my website, and your poem reminded me of that.

      • shawnsyms says:

        Aw thanks, Casey; I appreciate that feedback. That was exactly the source material I used. Some of the other search terms were *really* “out there”… it was really interesting (and also involved an unexpected amount of ethical consideration and soul-searching) to decide what search terms to include and how to structure the piece overall.

  3. That’s so interesting. I didn’t realize they were search terms for your site! I’m jealous that you thought of the idea of transforming them into a poem before I did!

    • shawnsyms says:

      Yeah; I reviewed about 500 search terms that had been used to get to my site, then narrowed them down. I tried to reflect the diversity of terms that had been entered, and tried really hard to include some that had made me uncomfortable for various reasons. The only artistic license I took was to add 2 pieces of punctuation.

      If the idea appeals, I think you should still do it! The results would of course be totally different and your piece could follow a totally different approach when it comes to the structure of the words on the page. :0)

      • What a cool process!
        Thanks for the go-ahead on a version of your work. I don’t usually count myself as a creative writer (except as a critic) but I find this idea very intriguing. Today, for example, one search term is “vancouver rad queer.” Too cool.

      • Lex says:

        That is really interesting to know Sean. Adds a whole new layer to how that piece works with queer identity and online personas. People find me with the oddest search terms.

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