Friday 23 September 2022

 

A new anthology of queer poems, featuring the work of multi-faith and nonreligious British and Indian poets of colour, has been published at this year’s BBC Contains Strong Language Festival in Birmingham, as part of the British Council’s India/UK Together, a Season of Culture.

In a one-of-a-kind international collaboration, which paired three queer British poets with three queer Indian poets, the poems examine what it means to be queer in the two countries and ask how language can better reflect queer identities and experiences. 

The anthology is divided into numerous sections, covering a range of themes from sexuality, the idea of home and the inherent struggle to the personal stories of the community and the history of the LGBTQIA+ movement in their respective countries. The anthology is also available in an audio-video format. 

Poems in the anthology, Language is a Queer Thing (VERVE Poetry Press, 2022), were composed by Amani Saeed (UK) and Megha Harish (India), Ifẹ Grillo (UK) and Anil Pradhan (India), Sanah Ahsan (UK) and Garfield Dsouza (India) after extensive writing workshops with acclaimed writers. Their collaborative work, published in Birmingham, will also be showcased in India at Mumbai’s Tata Live Lit festival in November 2022.

One of the contributing poets, Megha Harish, used studies of nature, personal reflections and stories from the ocean to write about themes of discovery, coming out, faith and love. 

Describing the anthology as “ground-breaking”, she said there has not been a collection of this kind which exclusively features queer poets of colour and offers fresh perspectives on the lives of queer people in the two countries. 

Ifę Grillo, who won the UK University National Poetry Championships in 2020, said this collaboration is not just a cultural exchange; it is an experiment. They added: “I hope people can place themselves in the world my poems create, but are equally happy to be a visitor wanting to listen and understand. I hope [there] they find healing.”

Garfield D’Souza, whose poems, including Spaces, are in the anthology, said: “I have wrestled with – rituals, religion, the need to do the right thing as per the societal diktat – to find myself… My poems wrap themselves around this very facet of my queerness… It’s the implied angst and anguish mired in the lines of my poems that I hope my readers cling to and cradle with an empathetic perspective.”

Being queer is not a one-note samba, he added, it needs a lavish orchestra and a full-throated choir to voice every note and silence that it dresses itself with. “These poets have scripted one of the finest poetic extravaganzas that celebrates queerness to the hilt.”

Amani Saeed, who also contributed to the anthology, said: “Our poems are speaking of joy, specifically, of queer joy. We want people to read the poems and feel that joy that [being queer] has made possible for us.” 

Speaking about the collaboration, Skinder Hundal MBE, Global Director of Arts at the British Council, said: “We were delighted to host talented poets from India in the UK, and witness their performances as they enthralled an international audience in Birmingham with their experiences of growing up queer. We’re also looking forward to presenting this unique collaboration between the poets in India later this year.”   

Rafiul Alom Rahman, Director of the Queer Muslim Project, expressed that the anthology is a “powerful testament to the hopes, aspirations and dreams” of the six poets. He continued: “The project has platformed intersectional artist voices from India and the UK, and has created career development opportunities through workshops, mentorship support, publication, and showcasing.”

Stuart Bartholomew, Director of the VERVE Poetry Festival, said that the anthology was the talk of the festival. He added: “The anthology is a high-quality snapshot of our poets’ journeys so far, and a wonderful read, but one gets the sense that there is more to come, leading into the Tata Live Lit festival in November and beyond.”

Sue Roberts, Director of the BBC Contains Strong Language, said: "The ‘Language is a Queer Thing’ project opened an important space for the voices of these poets to be heard. I am proud to have been able to provide a platform for their work to be heard. The legacy from this will continue through the poetry that emerged from the project and also the strong bonds that grew between those who took part.”

This project is presented under the umbrella of India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, in collaboration with the Verve Poetry Festival, The Queer Muslim Project and the BBC Contains Strong Language. Running till March 2023, the season celebrates the 75th anniversary of India through a vibrant programme of events across music, theatre, cinema, literature, fashion and visual arts.

Language is a Queer Thing anthology is available for purchase here. Journalists can request a complimentary copy by emailing  snober.abbasi@britishcouncil.org

Read a selection of the poems from the anthology below:

Ganna

Amani Saeed

To believe in paradise you need to have tasted

paradise. To believe in god you need to have seen god

at least once, brushed hands in a lift, locked eyes

across the bar. To see you need to look. To look you

need to raise your head up. Raise your head up. Put

your hand out. Good things are in front of you if you

wish to take them. A friend said hell is a place god is

not. For us there is no hell, only the number of

footsteps between each other. My love, we were not

made for a sour life. We were made for sugar cane

flesh, for play, for mischief, for pleasure. Come, and let

me praise you from head to toe. Come, and let me curl

my hand under your chin and lift your gaze up. Look up.

 

                                                              Tell me what you see.

 

shezada

Sanah Ahsan 

i have my father’s little toe

stubborn little shit that refuses to touch 

the floor in spring he wears woollen indoors

heat rolled up halfway makes a qubba on his silver head 

he eats kichdi with his good hand

teeth stained by paan, amber leaf, exhibits of indiscipline 

i know six am by his humming

aweless lungs make sounds for help 

he asks me to write a letter to his boss

what could i teach a failing memory 

he is a sha’ir in urdu bangla punjabi but labours

over rungs painted milk white     when he doesn’t know 

the answer to my climbing

questions his smile says ask the google my father is still 

that little boy who pissed on a Karachi djinn tree

swears it had him English    speaking fluent out of nowhere 

he places bets on miracles in Shangri-

London he buys a lottery-ticket everyday    my date of birth his

talisman i win him disapproval he keeps playing

the same numbers trusting he made me    a bed everyday undoes 

its making he ruins me Shero-Shayaris splinters them halfenglish

and when my girlfriend maalishes his feet playing the dream 

daughter i could never be he rises into sleep

little toe flying free   from the edge of a strewn blanket

 

Milk bikis

Megha Harish

Like Roger, if I speak

of paradise, then I’m speaking

of my grandmother. Who taught

me that the biggest joy

lies in the little joys.

 

One pandemic online grocery shop,

I ordered the biscuits of my childhood summers.

“Kannu mooku” biscuits

we used to call them, white vanilla

cream smiling through the face-shaped cut outs.

I tasted them. They weren’t the same anymore.

 

Stocking the kitchen

with your favourite snacks

before each visit, I realised I’d learnt to love

from her too. She wouldn’t

have wanted me to conceal

myself or my becoming. Britannia

is the name of an Indian company, if you

can believe it (est. 1892). They make

two variants. I buy the plain ones now.

 

Notes to Editor

A selection of images from the Contains Strong Language Festival is available here.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Snober Abbasi, Senior Media and External Communications Manager, British Council

Phone: +44 75477 53669

Email: snober.abbasi@britishcouncil.org 

About India/UK Together, a Season of Culture

India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, is a year-long celebration of the long-standing relationship between India and the UK. Marking India’s 75th anniversary, it will see a vast programme of creative collaboration, education and cultural exchange take place online, and in cities across both countries. Working with a number of partners and institutions in the field of Arts, Education and English, the British Council is developing a programme of cultural activity which will bring together people in both countries, raise awareness around key real-world issues, and strengthen and celebrate the UK and India’s educational and cultural ties. For more information on India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, please visit www.britishcouncil.in

About the VERVE Poetry Festival and Press

VERVE Poetry is a city poetry festival and press based in Birmingham UK. Our work reflects the city we are from, with diverse poets and audiences and a colourful, celebratory and open-hearted approach to poetry in all its many and varied forms. Through our programming, our publishing, our workshops, our regular poetry nights, our annual themed competition, our regular free open submissions windows and our projects we encourage both the consumption of and participation in the wonder that is contemporary poetry.

About the Queer Muslim Project 

The Queer Muslim Project is one of South Asia’s largest virtual networks of Queer, Muslim and allied individuals, with a growing global community of over 35,000 people and counting. They use digital advocacy, intersectional storytelling and visual art to create avenues for young people from underserved groups to express themselves, build community and forge creative collaborations.

About the BBC Contains Strong Language

BBC Contains Strong Language is the BBC’s flagship poetry and performance festival. Now in its sixth year, the four-day festival is taking place from 8th – 9th September this year in Birmingham, as part of Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games celebrations. Celebrating poets from the UK and across the commonwealth, Contains Strong Language broadcast live across BBC Radio and online featuring a range of spoken word, live music and performances. It was created by the BBC for Hull City of Culture in 2017, and has taken place annually since then, touring to Cumbria in 2020 and Coventry for 2021. BBC Contains Strong Language 2022 is a partnership between the BBC and VERVE Poetry Festival, and is supported by Arts Council England, Birmingham Hippodrome, the British Council, PoliNations, Creative Lives and also presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. We do this through our work in arts and culture, education and the English language. We work with people in over 200 countries and territories and are on the ground in more than 100 countries. In 2021-22 we reached 650 million people.