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Essay by Ricardo Domeneck: A queer-bodied poetics?


Queer-Bodied Voices

The Berlin Poetry Festival 2021 has decided to engage the European poetic tradition in its many faces, in a time when that very notion, “European”, seems less categorical and certain than it might have seemed a few years ago. From political turmoil that led to Brexit, and the European Union losing one of the stars on its flag, to healthy winds of change within certain countries, where minorities have begun to claim their rightful place within the multicultural society the European Union has claimed to be, contemporary poets in this young century have acted within the political context of a tightrope – of certainties and uncertainties. But the winds of change have not all been healthy. Many societies within Europe have also experienced the regression to a time when the civil rights of minorities were truly uncertain. 

Few groups face such challenges so often as those we might here tentatively call ‘queer’. That concept itself walks a tight rope, as it seeks to be the demand for more fluidity and freedom within the rigid dual concepts of our society, bringing however with itself the many dangers of any umbrella-term. But the challenge ‘queerness’ faces is that of many concepts within a democracy on the Globe: how can we find common ground and still respect the differences that make our societies thrive? A community of differences for a different type of community.

And here we are in Berlin, a city that has played a central role in many of these transformations. Walk around town and you will often see a tourist carrying Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin”. Retracing the steps of homosexual writers such as Isherwood himself or his companions W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the city has become a safe haven for queers from around the globe. Here we are. The conversation, and sometimes the struggle, has had many agents, and names like Magnus Hirschfeld come to mind, and his founding in Berlin of the Institute for the Science of Sexuality. This is not a gratuitous invocation.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, the umbrella term that has been used to both criminalize and later unite a community was another concept – homosexual, for in a society obsessed with dichotomies all normality had to be defended by fencing in its opposite, deemed abnormal. Let us remember that ‘queer’ itself was once a derogatory term. In their heated political debates on television during the presidential campaign of 1968 in the United States, homosexual/queer novelist Gore Vidal would come to call conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. a “crypto-nazi”, to which Buckley responded by calling Vidal a “queer” on public television. A scandal.

But we are humans with different languages, and we attempt to apprehend the world through words. So here is one: queer. Under this umbrella we gather from the torrential historical rains, hoping it will protect the hairdo in Benjamin’s Angel, face turned, a storm brewing and raging from the past. But in this world, one seeks multiplicity. The multiplicity of sexual and social experiences that once enriched the world, with all their complexities and unsafe destinies, too. In this small word, queer, may those the Lakota called ‘wíŋkte’ and those the Navajo called ‘nádleehé’, gather. May they gather, those the Zuni called ‘lhamana’ and those some Inuit people called ‘sipiniq’. ‘Koekchuch’ among the Itelmen of Siberia, and ‘fa’afafine’ among the Samoan people of Polynesia. Dancing on stages such as the ‘köçek’ among the Ottomans, or still nowadays in India, the ‘hijra’. Are all these historical experiences to survive within this word, queer? 

But right now, among ourselves, in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the globe and placed all of our bodies in danger, how are these five poets from five different corners of Europe to answer such questions? Do different bodies write different texts? How is the social experience of a poet within a specific society part of his, her, their writing? How do poets today, who may or may not consider themselves queer poets, relate to the vast homoerotic tradition of the past, from Sappho on down through Catullus to reach the modern days of Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde, Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde? Do we write with our bodies? What is a queer-bodied poetics? This challenge we presented to the five poets in this event, and to each of you. 

About the project QUEER-BODIED VOICES.