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.
Read a selection of the poems from the anthology below:
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.
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
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.