‘Landmark’ anthology 100 Queer Poems published for Pride month

This Pride month, a new anthology featuring the work of queer poets such as Langston Hughes, Ocean Vuong and Kae Tempest is “questioning and redefining what we mean by a ‘queer’ poem”.

100 Queer Poems, edited by Andrew McMillan and Mary Jean Chan, features work from 20th-century poets as well as contemporary LGBTQ+ voices. It’s a “landmark” anthology, said one of the contributing poets, Kit Fan, because there hasn’t been a collection of this kind “for probably two or three decades”. McMillan has described the book as “an update” to the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, the last major anthology of queer poems, published in 1986.

100 Queer Poems By Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan.

Jay Bernard, whose first poetry collection Surge was based on the New Cross fire archives and won the Ted Hughes award, said 100 Queer Poems was “coming at a critical, contradictory juncture: widespread hatred and distrust of trans people alongside huge efforts at representation and inclusion; general acceptance of cis gay and bisexual people yet rising intolerance post-Brexit; an increasingly vocal and visible intersex population, yet few legal rights or protections for them”.

They added: “It will be interesting to see what poets today capture of this moment and how things shift in 10 or 20 years.”

McMillan and Chan are both acclaimed poets themselves – McMillan has won the Guardian first book award, the Somerset Maugham award and the Polari prize for his work, while Chan’s debut collection Flèche won the 2019 Costa poetry award.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, whose poem Curriculum Vitae is in the book, said it was “dreamlike” to be able to work with McMillan and Chan, and that they felt moved to have space given to “my voice, to my little poem”.

Mary Jean Chan with the Costa-winning collection Flèche.
Mary Jean Chan with the Costa-winning collection Flèche. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

“Based on my personal experience here, the literary communities are often allergic to anything autobiographical,” said Pasaribu, whose short story collection Happy Stories, Mostly, translated by Tiffany Tsao, was longlisted for this year’s International Booker prize. “When I was starting publishing my writing, people would focus on the things they considered autobiographical and talk about them as if they were the weakness of my writing. So I thought it would be fun to be naughty about it by employing a tauntingly autobiographical title, a curriculum vitae.”

The anthology is split into various sections, covering everything from domesticity and history to the city and nature.

Harry Josephine Giles’ poem May a transsexual hear a bird? touches on how their life is politicised. “I’m somebody that leads a very political life and has been very involved in activist movements for a long time,” they said. “And for me, poetry is a space where I can kind of talk out the experience of that.”

Meanwhile Bernard’s poem Hiss came about because they were “thinking about all of the burned buildings [they] have seen or entered, how it feels to stand upright below an uncertain roof, how such buildings appear as both inside and outside, as both ruin and vitrine”.

The poem asks a number of questions, says Bernard: “What has passed away and what will transpire? Can we allow for a radical inner transformation that appears ugly to us, or that might render us undesirable?”

Meanwhile, Fan was surprised when Chan and McMillan chose his poem Hokkaido for the book, but says when he thought about it, it made sense.

“It’s not directly queer or about sexuality, but when they chose it, it immediately gave me a sense of epiphany,” said Fan. “And of course it is about the body and it is about how we experience ourselves being naked.”

The poem’s title refers to a prefecture in Japan that contains geothermal hot springs, which Fan has visited. The poem, he says, is about rituals, what it means to be naked in front of others, and what we “tell ourselves when we see our body naked”.

Jay Bernard.
Jay Bernard. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

The power of the anthology, said Bernard, is that it “showcases each poem and poet doing something interesting with the subject in their historical context”.

They hope that people reading the book will “understand that queerness is not a discrete sexual category separate from everything else, but something that changes colour and texture in relation to history, economics, nationhood, geography”.

Giles said it’s always “grand to be in something that’s doing this sort of survey of work … that’s trying to, I suppose, use anthologising to communicate something broader” about who is writing poetry, and why.

Pasaribu though, said the last thing they’d do is worry “about how hetero people see me or my writing.

“Fuck heterosupremacy, really. This book is a celebration of exuberant queer poetics, and it’s already very special because of that.”


Hiss by Jay Bernard

Going in when the firefighters left
was like standing on a black beach
with the sea suspended in the walls,
soot suds like a conglomerate of flies.

You kick the weeds and try to piece it back.
Fractured shell? A bone? Bloated antennae?
Flesh thigh spindle, gangrenous pet fish?
An eye or a tiny glaring stone? A seal’s tongue?
Or the sour sinew yoking front and hind fin?
Vertebrae or fetters? Bedsheet or slave skin?

The black is coming in from the cold,
rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.

It will enter you if you stand there,
and spend the rest of its time inside you
asking whatitwas whatitwas whatitwas
in a vivid hiss heard only by your bones.


Hokkaido by Kit Fan

It was summer in Hokkaido.
The forest stole the wind
and I swallowed my footsteps.
Nobody came to the springs.
Butt naked I sat halfway
through my life measuring
this, that.

In Hokkaido it was summer.
Everything was halved or merged.
Half-cut fingers, half-foxgloves,
a marrowbone-cum-cabbage white.
The cloud-light moon, split.
I talked to nobody about
this, that.

Hokkaido in summer it was.
Ants were carrying a caterpillar
home. No bird arguing.
Nobody said missiles crossing
so I stayed. The night trees
stole the seas, cancelling
this, that.


Curriculum Vitae by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao

The world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.
– Lisel Mueller

1) Three months before he was born the Romanian dictator and his wife were executed before a firing squad. To this day his mother still talks about it.

2) When he was little he fell from a tree. Ever since, his first memory of his father was himself in school uniform, squatting on the toilet. This stemmed from his first day of school – he was five and right before they set off he told his father he needed to poop.

3) The first thing he learned at school, as he watched the girls during break, was that there was a girl inside him. He believed that when he grew up his penis would expire and her breasts would sprout.

4) He didn’t say much and only learned to read when he was finishing second grade. In front of a friend of his mother’s, the mother of one of his friends dubbed him ‘the stupid one’. His mother’s friend told his mother and when he was grown up, his mother told him.

5) He was awful at making friends and spent most of his time reading or playing Nintendo and Sega. The first book he read was a book of Japanese folktales.

6) Some of the neighbours forbade their kids from playing with him and his brothers because his family was Batak and Christian.

7) He had no friends and didn’t realise how sad this was.

8) His father punished him with beatings. One day he eavesdropped on his parents – his father was worried because according to him their firstborn son acted like a girl. He peered into the mirror, to the little girl inside. And he saw it was good.

9) Once his father kicked him – and sprained his ankle. His father had to take a day off work. His mother said all the trouble in their house flowed from him.

10) One Sunday morning, his father took him and his brothers to jog and play soccer on a badminton court nearby. You banci! his father screamed in front of everyone.

11) He accepted that he was a mistake. His first suicide attempt occurred the day before he started middle school.

12) He made it into the best high school in the city – where the government officials sent their kids. His only friend from middle school started avoiding him. The bud of loneliness blossomed into first love.

13) Not long after he graduated from college, he discovered the rest of the Batak community called him ‘si banci’ behind his back.

14) When he was twenty-two depression hit. One night his mind went entirely blank. His brother found him sitting in a stupor at a gas station by a mall.

15) He ran away. In a bookstore in Jakarta he discovered a book by Herta Müller. Herta wrote about Ceausçescu’s Securitate. It reminded him of his mother. He read every English translation of her work and loved them all.

16) As he approached his twenty-third birthday, for some reason he felt that he was male. And he saw it wasn’t bad.

17) He moved back in with his parents.

18) He went back to work and began writing again. In a novel-writing class he met you, the man who loves him.

19) To marry his mother, his father had sold a motorbike he’d been leasing from his employer. He hopes to use the royalties from his books to marry you.

20) He will grow old. You will grow old. Together you both will grow old, and be wed before the Three-Branched God – the tree-like god – and have a child named Langit. Your descendants will fill the Earth so that whenever anyone is walking alone in the dark they will hear from every window in every building on both sides of the street, voices reaching out, ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’


May a transsexual hear a bird? by Harry Josephine Giles

May a transsexual hear a bird?
When I, a transsexual, hear a bird,
I am a transsexual hearing a bird,
when you hear a bird you are
a person hearing a bird, that is,
I am specific, you are general.
When a bird sounds in a poem
it is a symbol of hearing a bird,
a symbol of a person being
in relation to nature. Only a person
may hear this. Only a person may hear
a bird and write a poem about
hearing a bird and in so doing
praise the gentle dissolution
of personhood or elsewise strive
towards the clear and questionless presence
of an unworded bird, being.
Were I to attempt such a poem again,
I would be a transsexual writing a poem
on hearing a bird – I note now
that “transsexual” is the legal
adjective for a person with
the protected characteristic of
“gender reassignment” under
the Equality Act (2010),
Section 7, which applies
to any person at any stage
of changing any aspect of sex,
and so to make a claim of work
discrimination I must both have
the socioeconomic capital
to bring such a claim and also be
a transsexual – and so be unable
to dissolve without first addressing
my transsexuality to the bird.
Even were I to fail to sound
out my transsexuality, it would
remain in the title and byline, unsilent,
a framing device, regardless, and so
once again you would be hearing
a transsexual hearing a bird.
But now I am too preoccupied
with how to source testosterone –
a Class C Controlled Substance
under the Misuse of Drugs Act
(1971) carrying,
for supply, a maximum penalty
of 14 years’ imprisonment,
and/or a heavy fine – to give
to my friend, and how to publish a zine
detailing how to negotiate
and circumvent the Gender Identity
Clinic system, given that waiting
lists for first appointments now
range from 3 to 6 years,
without attracting the critical social
media attention that would shut down
any explicit alternative routes,
and whether the fact I have not heard
from my trans sister in over a month
means she is in severe mental
health crisis or merely working,
and whether I have the strength and love
to call her, to remember to hear
a bird. If I cannot remember to hear
a bird I cannot write a poem.
How can I not have the strength and love
to call her? Because I have not heard
enough birds. Because I am scared
of what it will mean if she does not answer.
Because I am scared of what it will mean
if she does. Because I have been working
in too many political meetings scolding
Parliamentarians to call or hear
a bird. In the morning I open the window
before the sun rises so I, a transsexual,
may hear the birds singing. If I
may hear the birds singing the sound
may lift me from myself and my
working conditions. Then the sun,
the conditions, and the working day.

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