Who’s the Bright Star Now? On Reclaiming Straight Love Poems for Queer Lovemaking

“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” I whispered into my partner’s ear like a dweeb.

I was prepared for laughter, at best. Until then, I’d always followed the advice Nicholson Baker dispenses in The Anthologist: “Never recite. Please! If you recite, your listeners will look down and play with their cuticles. They will not like you.”

(Why did I obey? I don’t usually follow the unsolicited advice of white men. Do I?)

But instead, my partner gasp-moaned. So I murmured the next lines of Keats’s “Bright Star” between gentle nibbles along their naked shoulder. “Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,” I read from my phone, which I’d carefully positioned on a pillow, “and watching, with eternal lips apart…”

I continued to the final couplet, which I teased out slowly. I lingered over every accented syllable: “And so live ever—or else swoon…to death.” I kissed my partner, and they kissed back hungrily. As I’d read, they’d seemed increasingly astonished, and desperate, and helpless.

“That. Was so. Erotic,” they told me raggedly. “You can whisper poetry in my ear any time you want.”

Suck it, Nicholson Baker, I thought as we sank into bed. I don’t need you. I don’t need any white male writers! Down with you and your patriarchal, cis hetero…

Hang on.

Keats. John Keats wrote “Bright Star.”

That’s, um. That’s a real white male writer, right there.

Well, Keats is different, right? Definitely the sweetheart of the Romantic set. It’s not like I’m making concessions for Lord Byron. Although, like, Byron is definitely gayer. Whatever! This isn’t about gay as in Lord Byron, this is about queer as in let’s celebrate our bodily autonomy through mutual respect and pleasure! The problem isn’t masculinity, it’s toxic masculinity! Speaking of which, I HAVE SOME GENDER ROLES TO REJECT RIGHT NOW.

But my uneasiness returned the next time I sat down at my laptop, when I did what any smug queer nerd would have done: I started a list of other love poems to recite during sex. Juliet’s “It was the nightingale, and not the lark” bit from Act 3, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet was a no-brainer. (It was going to be so fun to say “It is not yet near day!” the next time my partner woke me up in the morning with meowing noises!) So was that Rilke poem Henry reads Clare in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife, where the narrator asks the angel about the lovers on the “unsayable carpet.” And I had to track down that one John Donne poem, what was it called? The one that when I said it was my favorite poem, my poetry professor said, “Ooooo, now we know you’re in loooove.” And I wasn’t, but I wanted to be, and that poem—“The Sun, Rising,” that’s the one—made me feel the way I wanted love to feel.

But. But.

All of these poets were white, male, and dead. They might not all have been straight, but they definitely all used heterosexual pronouns in their poems. Donne was not thinking of me, a trans nonbinary bisexual glitter boi who was assigned female in 1988, when he wrote “She’s all states, and all princes, I.” He meant “princes” as in cisgender men—cisgender men with titles, money, and power. He meant that women were land, and the men who loved them ruled them.

When I realized every love poem on my list was a heteronormative poem from the Western literary canon, my first thought was, well, I must know other love poems, right? I thought of the other words I’d cherished as a closeted college student. On those late-night tumbles down YouTube rabbit holes, following a fascination I wouldn’t understand for a few more years, I discovered poets like Andrea Gibson, Staceyann Chin, Ani DiFranco. They said wild, thrilling things like “She pole dances to gospel music” and “Will the church or family finally convince me to marry some man with a smaller dick than the one my woman uses to afford me violent and multiple orgasms?” In one of the videos I watched the most, Ani warmed up before a performance of “Your Next Bold Move,” strumming her guitar and giggling about “that girl on the bus” who’d made her think, “Is she real? I’m all wet…” And as the audience roared, she grinned and yelled, “Now now, that was not vulgarity, that was poetry! Yeah, that was poetry!”

But back then, no matter how many times I heard these artists declare their desire, the poetry of queer romance felt beyond me. I still didn’t think I’d have sex until I got married. I’d once gotten in trouble for singing the Rent lyric “When Dorothy and Toto went over the rainbow to blow off Auntie Em,” but I had no idea why. From that deep in the closet, queer lovemaking seemed radical and exciting and totally out of reach. Straight lovemaking was what I knew to hope for, so Keats and Shakespeare’s assertions of love were the ones I imprinted upon. If sex was as good as “or else swoon to death” sounded, that was more than enough—right?

That was then, though, and this is now. Now I know that in and of itself, sex that feels like something John Keats would have written about isn’t enough. Only sex that feels like something I would write about is enough.

So why did I still turn to Keats when I wanted to recite my partner a love poem?

I think it comes down to revenge.

When I wasn’t allowed to sing “La Vie Bohème,” Romeo and Juliet was required reading. At a conservative college where the annual Rocky Horror Picture Show party didn’t even include a showing of the movie, saying I liked John Donne was kind of cute. These dead white dudes’ poems were just as steamy and over-the-top as those of the queer poets I watched on YouTube, but they were acceptable, even revered, where queer love was taboo. They were canon because words like “eternal lips apart” are explicit, but not explicitly gay.

But now that I do all kinds of things I never thought I was allowed to do, there’s something delicious about bringing the canon over to the dark side with me. Now that I know sex is everything I imagined and more, I get to repeat what I imagined it would be in the very moments I enjoy it for what it really is. I get to have something I was taught only men could have. Now that I’m not afraid anymore, I can steal their words and write my own, too. I want it all. I have it all.

Move over, John. We’re here, we’re queer, and our bright star is rising.

12 Exceptional Comics About Trans and Genderqueer People

We live in a rich and wonderful time for LGBTQ comics, particularly comics about transgender and genderqueer people. It’s been a long time coming! Even when LGB people were starting to show up on the page, T and Q people were often notably absent. No longer! There’s some really amazing work out right now that covers trans issues, includes diverse characters, and is generally conscious and awesome. If you’re looking for some great trans and genderqueer comics in print, start here.

Comics About Trans And Genderqueer People

100 Crushes by Elisha Lim

Written in a looping handwritten script, this book is a series of meditative vignettes about LGBTQ people of all types, including genderqueer people. Like the best of us, this book never demands that the individuals it covers define themselves.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

There’s a lot to love about this autobiography. Maia’s struggle to assert eir pronouns is poignant and relatable. If you’ve ever had to come out twice, then you’ll appreciate the complications e experiences as e navigates eir family’s misunderstandings and misapprehensions.

Gumballs by Erin NationsGumballs by Erin Nations

The really nice thing about this book is that Erin profiles other people on the LGBTQ rainbow. That, plus the vignettes about Erin’s life and transition, make this a true gumball machine of trans-inclusive joy.

 

How Loathsome by Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane

Edgy and goth, this exploration of queer outsiderhood involves a ton of sex, drugs, and nightlife. It’s a gem for fans of dark, gritty art and messy personal drama.

Oath Anthology of New (Queer) Heroes, edited by Audrey Redpath

It’s all about the heroes! (And, to be honest, the romance too. There’s more than a touch of romance to these short comic stories.) Whether it’s a child choosing their preferred clothing or a trans man and a superhero bonding over their secret identities, this collection will dispatch your boredom like a laser beam through a cheap set piece.

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

This epic lost love/girls’ school drama (iiiinnnnnn spaaaaaaaace) features both genderqueerness and devoted fans. Mia works as a member of a crew that rebuilds giant, broken space structures, but her true motivations are more serious. She intends to find the love she lost…at any cost!

The Other Side: A Queer Paranormal Romance Anthology edited by Melanie Gillman and Kori Michelle Handwerker

This book is not just about romance—it’s about spoooooky romance with queer couples and gender-neutral pronouns galore! As it is an anthology, you’re almost guaranteed to find a story and art style that suit you.

The Pervert by Michelle Perez and Remy BoydellThe Pervert by Michelle Perez and Remy Boydell

In the midst of her transition to female, a factory worker engages in the sex trade to raise money for hormones and nicotine gum. This is an unflinching look at one woman’s experiencing crossing the gender binary, complete with complications, pitfalls, and doubt.

Power & Magic: The Queer Witch Comics Anthology edited by Joamette Gil

While it is generally about female characters, this book includes a couple of transgender and genderqueer witches to enchant the savvy reader. After all, who says that only assigned-female people can be magical?

The Prince And The Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The dressmaker has talent. The prince has a secret. The two are destined to become co-conspirators in a scandal that could rock the ailing aristocracy of Europe…or set its fashion landscape on fire!

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

This lightening-quick read should be a standard text in all life skills classes. It’s basically a primer on they/them pronouns for cisgender people told by a genderqueer person and their ally buddy.

The Spire by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely

Sha, Commander of the Spire’s City Watch, gets word from the new Baroness: there’s a high-profile murder she needs to solve. If she doesn’t, she’ll lose her job—and maybe more. In a world where humanoid skews face discrimination even as they attempt to pass among “normal” people, the job quickly gets more complicated than Sha anticipated.

An Open Letter to John Boyne Addressing Transphobia Around MY BROTHER’S NAME IS JESSICA

Dear John Boyne,

Most people know you from your bestselling book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and its chilling, heartbreaking film adaptation. You have name recognition and many people respect your ability to write gut-wrenching stories. Therefore, when you chose to write a book about a cisgender boy and his transgender sister, you took on a certain amount of responsibility. Transgender people are a community vulnerable to all kinds of violence. Whenever someone produces mainstream representation of them and their stories, it should be done with a great amount of care.

The Book

john boyne transphobiaAnd John, it doesn’t seem like you’ve done that here at all with your latest book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica.

Let’s start with the title. For anyone who understands the destructive and completely disrespectful act of misgendering or deadnaming a trans person, this title is a big red flag. I get that you wanted it to be eye-catching and witty, but to many people, it just reads as ignorant. The titular Jessica is not, in any way, the protagonist’s brother. The minute Jessica decided to use she/her pronouns and identify as a “sister,” the use of anything else should stop. In real life, people mess up. They might forget and use the wrong pronoun from time to time. But you wrote a book. A painstakingly intricate task that requires research, devotion, and care. And right from the title, you let down the very people you’re trying to write about.

The deadnaming and misgendering continues through the summary of the book, which I found on Goodreads:

“Luckily for Sam, his older brother, Jason, has always been there for him. Sam idolises Jason, who seems to have life sorted – he’s kind, popular, amazing at football, and girls are falling over themselves to date him.

But then one evening Jason calls his family together to tell them that he’s been struggling with a secret for a long time. A secret which quickly threatens to tear them all apart. His parents don’t want to know and Sam simply doesn’t understand.

Because what do you do when your brother says he’s not your brother at all? That he’s actually your sister?”

Again, not cool. There are better ways to write this without deadnaming and misgendering the trans character.

As for the content of the book, I haven’t yet read it so I can’t speak on the actual story. But from what little we’ve seen of it so far, I’m not at all hopeful.

The Article

To make matters worse, you took to The Irish Times to write an article entitled “Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis’.” I’m not sure where to even start with that one. I guess I’ll focus on the quote that probably inspired the title of the article:

“And while I wholeheartedly support the rights of trans men and women and consider them courageous pioneers, it will probably make some unhappy to know that I reject the word “cis”, the term given by transgender people to their nontransgender brethren. I don’t consider myself a cis man; I consider myself a man. For while I will happily employ any term that a person feels best defines them, whether that be transgender, non-binary or gender fluid to name but a few, I reject the notion that someone can force an unwanted term onto another.”

Oh, honey. Can you not see the glaring irony that you yourself are offended by “an unwanted term” yet you literally misgender your trans character in the title of your novel?  In addition to fictional Jessica, you even misgender your real-life trans friend in this very article. You write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s. The reason this is so upsetting is that gendering people correctly is one of the easiest things cis people can possibly do. It takes a second of your time. It requires little to no effort. This is the BARE MINIMUM of what an ally should do, and yet you cannot even do that.

Your reluctance to identify as cis is also concerning. Calling trans men “trans men” but cisgender men just “men” creates a language where cis men are the default and trans men are the deviation. This does nothing but further the rhetoric that cisgender is “normal” and that trans people have something strange about them. As a gay man, perhaps the mental exercise of applying this to heterosexual people does something for you. I hope you can see that your stance is similar to someone saying that they’re “not straight people, they’re just people”. In the same way that that perpetuates heteronormativity, which I’m sure has affected you adversely in your life, you are perpetuating cisnormativity.

I’ll focus on just one last aspect of your latest article, John, because this is exhausting. You write that you can’t understand why “Martina Navratilova has been labelled transphobic for questioning where trans women should compete in professional sports. Navratilova is a heroine, a fearless advocate for gay rights over many decades.” This is especially important, because I think you are under the impression that if someone fights for the G and the B and the L, that they cannot do any harm to the T of the acronym. This is incredibly false.

LGBTQ+ might be under one initialism, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot harm each other. And transgender people are one of the most vulnerable communities out there. You need to accept that being a gay man does not excuse you from transphobic actions. You need to hire a goddamn group of sensitivity readers. Apologize and learn and grow as a human being. (From what I’ve seen on your Twitter feed, this is not the response you’re giving to the trans people rightly critiquing your work.)

On Twitter, you said that “literature is always open to debate, but the discourse must remain polite & mutually respectful.” I bolded the word “mutually” here, because that is where you have failed. Nothing about your actions have conveyed respect for trans people. You have good intentions, John, maybe even great ones. But to be a good ally, intentions aren’t enough.

Sincerely,

Mya (they/them)

Queer Poetry Collections to Read During National Poetry Month

Listen, we all know every month is National Poetry Month if you’re doing it right. And apparently, you are—we’re seeing a huge resurgence of poetry, with the NEA reporting an increase in U.S. adult poetry readers, from 6.7% in 2012 to 11.7% in 2017. It’s a really exciting time, with some incredible work being published.

But what National Poetry Month encourages us to do is think about the work we are consuming and actively seek out new work. National Poetry Month encourages us to spend time with poems, to give them space and let them seek harbor inside of us. National Poetry Month encourages us to celebrate poets and express gratitude for all of the ways poetry influences our lives.

For me personally, poetry has always been there. I remember writing my first poem when I was 8, and that love has stayed with me ever since. But as a devotee, I do try to make an effort to discover and support new poets, to give as much as I can to the community. So I encourage you to do the same, dear poetry lover, and find something new to love this National Poetry Month.

Here are some wonderful queer writers with new books out, as a place to start:

Franny Choi soft science Soft Science by Franny Choi

I can’t describe to you the feeling of reading this book. Franny’s full-length collection is so special, so thoughtful, and so exciting to read that I promised myself I’d find a way to work it into every piece of National Poetry Month content I put out. It really is that good. The book really captures what it’s like to be soft and vulnerable to the world around you, to be a soul trapped in a body (what is a body, anyway), to be questioning yourself and your autonomy. It’s an exquisite collection.

Monsters I Have Been by Kenji C. Liu

Kenji C. Liu investigates masculinity in this collection, a series of hard-hitting, visually intricate poems. A good chunk of this book is made up of “frankenpo”s, a sort of collage of quotes from other poems, pop culture references, or speeches pulled into a cohesive poem. He juxtaposes Senator Palpatine from Star Wars with quotes from that guy in the White House, Octavia Butler, and Confucius. All of these come together to make the reader think about toxic masculinity’s pervasiveness in our culture.

jericho-brown-the-traditionThe Tradition by Jericho Brown

I stand firm on the fact that Jericho Brown is one of the best writers working today. This work is powerful, but tender at the same time, and he approaches big topics like racial violence, queer love, and history with care. Brown’s skill is shown in the precision of word choice, the elegance and heart with which he writes. Did I mention he also invented a new poetic form?? I mean, come on. Truly devastating in the best way, It’s a book that will make you want to go and devour everything this master poet has ever done. And also maybe buy a flower crown.

The Black Condition ft. Narcissus by jayy dodd

Exploring themes of desire and self-love with hip-hop infused poetics, jayy dodd’s newest collection feels like a fairytale: the titular Narcissus taking a hard look at theirselves in a golden mirror, a study of beauty and sexuality and awareness. This collection will make you think about finding and caring for your own beauty, both physical and deeper, and how we can approach life with more tenderness. Trust me, dodd’s poems will seduce you, and you won’t be mad about it. 

alison-c-rollins-library-small-catastrophesLibrary of Small Catastrophes by Alison C. Rollins

This is an incredibly accomplished and intelligent book of poems. Using her experience as a librarian, Allison C. Rollins explores love and literature, womanhood, lineage, memory, and loss. With references to Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and more, these poems are an ode to black women, to Native culture and language, to bookworms. Rollins’s lines cut deep; her poems show a spectacular mastery of craft, each word poignant and moving. Plus, there’s tons of BLE—Big Librarian Energy.

& more black by t’ai freedom ford (pub. may 1)

Poet t’ai freedom ford is really a force to be reckoned with. Her latest collection is a conversation about blackness and ancestry, queerness and gender presentation. With ford’s trademark bold lyricism, the collection feels like a freight trail of unapologetic selfhood. & more black is truly a statement piece, a criticism and a sermon all at once.

sara-borjas-heart-like-window-mouth-like-cliffHeart Like A Window, Mouth Like A Cliff by Sarah Borjas

These poems will make you want to drive out with your friends in a pickup truck, get drunk and forget what time it is, watch the sunset over the desert. But it will also make you think about your roots and all of the small things from your past that made you who you are. Borjas writes about her parents, questions who they are, and the difference between how she felt as a child and how she views things now. It’s an interrogation of family and Xicana identity, told in honest, melancholy poems.

Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh

Written as a tribute to the victims and survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, this collection is about weather, sure—the humanized tsunami destroys and conquers—but also about homeland, displacement and starting over, surviving. Roripaugh imagines voices of the “nuclear diaspora,”  imagines the femme power of the tsunami, all lush with pop culture references and natural imagery. It’s a book of beautiful, wild, and impactful poems.

grace-shuyi-liew-careenCareen by Grace Shuyi Liew

Okay, so, I’m really excited about Grace Shuyi Lieu. These are poems full of fantasy and desire and rage. They’re decolonial poems, profound poems, poems with heart and tears. Grace Shuyi Liew questions whiteness, sexuality, family, homeland, politics, the body, and more in this collection, with a voice that is clear and sharp. It’s a knockout collection that’s unexpected in all the ways you want poetry to be.

Build Yourself a Boat by Camoghne Felix

Camoghne deals out tarot cards, heartbreak, love, both of self and of others, and so much more in this collection. These poems are written with confidence and wisdom, yet still convey vulnerability. And the collection is political, in the way that being of politicized identities demands (and yes, Camoghne is also a political strategist), but through explorations of the body and emotions and how the two are tied, there is beauty and strength. This collection really shows all the variations of that experience, in a wonderfully visual and dynamic way.

cover-of-halal-if-you-hear-meHalal If You Hear Me ed. Fatimah Asghar & Safia Elhillo

Leave it to poetry queens Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo to put together a collection featuring Muslim poets who are women, queer, genderqueer, nonbinary, or trans. Halal If You Hear Me is absolutely one of a kind. Every poem in here is an absolute banger, full of pride and emotion and, like, lots of mangoes. Featuring poems by the aforementioned powerhouses that are Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo, as well as Warsan Shire (whom you may know from Beyoncé’s Lemonade), Tarfia Faizullah, Yasmir Belkhyr, Noor Ibn Najam, Angel Nafis, Kaveh Akbar, Khadijah Queen, Marwa Helal, and more.

 

For more poetry: 4 Ways to Enjoy Daily Poetry This National Poetry Month

WoC Poets to Read During National Poetry Month

50 Best Contemporary Poetry Books