Queer writing has come a long way since the scholarly secrets of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Walt Whitman’s naked bathers, and the scandalous behavior of bad girls like H.D. and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Post-Stonewall, post-AIDS, and post-big-box bookstores, the changing landscape of queer lit offers perhaps the greatest diversity of writers, audiences, and venues ever.
It is in this context that this year’s Atlanta Queer Literary Festival shows signs of real growth.
Like New Orleans’ Saints & Sinners litfest in May, Atlanta’s AQLF in October has offered both local and national queer literary audiences a strong forum in the Southeast — something that had been missing until less than a decade ago.
“This is our fourth year and we hope that we will continue to grow in numbers as we have with each successive year,” says Franklin Abbott, AQLF founder, a longtime fixture on Atlanta’s gay poetry scene, and host of the regular Franklin Abbott & Friends reading series at Outwrite Books.
“We have some exciting panels and readings at the Decatur Library on Saturday the 16th, with an art opening and reception that evening at Worthmore before the big queer slam at Java Monkey. We have an evening of queer Jewish writers at Outwrite on Thursday the 14th, and our traditional opening at Charis on Wednesday evening the 13th.”
Admittedly, literary gatherings tend to draw fewer people than do tea dances. Some of us remember English class as an exercise in pulling the wings off of butterflies.
“Many of us were put off poetry as we went through our formal education,” says Abbott.
Too often, Abbott points out, young people are introduced to poetry as something to check off a to-do list, or without any heads-up as to how the writing works. Then there’s all that false sentiment trotted out in greeting-card verse, at graduations, and on holidays.
But good poetry is more than pretty words or sincere feelings printed in line breaks. When it’s good, he says, “the poet connects to his or her audience, and the alchemy of the words of the poem and the voice of the poet render the ordinary extraordinary. The images are spoken just as a spell is cast.”
Like any art form, good poetry “can take you to new places and perhaps change the way you think and see,” Abbott says.
This year, poet and Lambda Literary Award poetry finalist Ana Božičević (“Stars of the Night Commute”) and editor Cary Alan Johnson (“Go The Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of Lesbian & Gay Fiction by African-American Writers”) headline four days of queer literary doings.
Award-winning poet, gay rights activist, and University of South Carolina professor Ed Madden (“Signals”) returns this year as winner of the broadside contest, judged by C. Dale Young.
Contributors to Johnson’s anthology include Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, the late poet Reginald Shepherd, Sapphire, James Baldwin and Georgia’s own Walker, among others.
As newly appointed head of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Johnson is just back from the earthquake recovery efforts still underway in Haiti.
Only a few weeks ago, on July 19, the United Nations’ Economic & Social Council voted to grant IGLHRC consultative status — effectively giving LGBTQ people worldwide a U.S.-based voice at the international human rights table.
Johnson’s experience with groups like Amnesty International, UNHRC, Planned Parenthood, and Africare is, in itself, reason enough to come hear him speak. But he’s also published many articles on issues of gender and sexuality in African culture, and his work with HIV/AIDS and gay rights organizations throughout Africa make him an enormously important member of our community.
Božičević emigrated from Zagreb to New York, where, along with poet Amy King, she edits the new online journal esque and translates Serbian and Croatian poets’ work.
At CUNY’s Center for the Humanities of the Graduate Center, she’s been instrumental in founding the Chapbook Festival and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. She’s also a longtime member of the WOM-PO (Women Poets) listserv, the pioneering online community of women poets founded in 1997 by noted American feminist poet-scholar Annie Finch —and affectionately known to members as “the old girls’ network.”
Madden’s poem, “Jubilate,” is a queer interpretation of the famous Christopher Smart poem “Jubilate Agno.”
Young chose Madden’s poem for “the way this poem stands on its own and casually nods at its forebear,” calling it “gorgeous in the way it is both playful and serious, comic and heartbreaking.”
“And in the end, it is a metaphysical poem that questions our perceptions of what is right and what is not,” Young says.
“It ends with that stunning couplet: ‘For what you do when you are confused / will make you certain,’ a true queer metaphysical statement if I have ever heard one.”
Local favorites like Collin Kelley, Maudelle Driskell, Alice Teeter, Elliott Mackle, Lisa Allender, Larry Corse, Megan Volpert, and GA Voice’s own Dyana Bagby, who joins a panel on queer journalism, are among those reading and taking part in panels during this year’s festival.
For the first time, many of this year’s events will be documented by poet and videographer Cleo Creech and posted online via AQLF’s website and Facebook pages.
AQLF also has strengthened its ties with the Decatur Book Festival, and its recent “I See Straight People” reading series breaks down the notion that “gay poetry” is just for gay people.
As always, readings and workshops are free and open to the public. For more on this year’s festival participants and updates on participants and venues, visit http://atlqueerlitfest.blogspot.com.
Robin Kemp, author of “This Pagan Heaven,” teaches writing and is a doctoral candidate in poetry at Georgia State University. Her dispatches from this year’s Saints & Sinners Fest are online at www.lambdaliterary.org.
Atlanta Queer Literary Festival
Thursday, Oct. 14
Jewish Showcase, 7:15 p.m.
Featuring Edward Fields, Megan Volpert, Joanna Hoffman & more