My Arvon Week: Cat Brogan – Queer Poetry

18 Nov 2020 / My Arvon Week

book on coffee table

‘The image doesn’t know it’s a metaphor – don’t … control it’ (Caroline Bird)

We feel for Billy Collin’s ‘light switch’* until we break through the image we curated and proclaim – I am a writer! I am Queer! 

As I read the email advertising Arvon’s first Queer Poetry Week, I felt so far removed from my writer self, I sobbed at the teacher’s desk in my empty Kuala Lumpur classroom.

Then, discovering the course was online – I didn’t hesitate! 

School would be on break and as Malaysia wasn’t accepting returning foreigners; no overseas family visits. After months of online teaching and writing successful funding applications – to support the Queer space I co-curate – it would be my treat. 

All was booked and paid for, when school lengthened the term by 3 weeks! 

Undeterred, I awoke at 6am, taught, attended Arvon workshops, 5pm – 8pm and daily tutorial 9.30pm, napped and up again at 1 am for evening readings. 

Tough, but vital – here was the creative community and expert guidance my starving artist soul craved.

Writing began with exploration of our ‘Secret Life’**, in response to the prompt … ‘when the world is not watching’. With Richard, we explored Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Where are we going Walt Whitman?’ accompanying the spirit of a queer icon in a metaphorical world. We explored the Queer Gaze through a Cavafyesque image-free description of a stranger and we wrote a world where everything has an opinion, parroting past negative voices and then ‘built’ a bar where, accompanied by guardian angels, we ‘drowned our sorrows’.

Having grown-up in heteronormative Northern Ireland and living in a country where my sexuality is illegal, strolling with the ghost in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Shadwell Stair’ – through the shadowy nature of queerness and hiding in plain sight, was particularly poignant. The theme of haunting one’s own life continued through exploring ourselves as characters constructed by others and translating it into a surreal world that doesn’t know it’s a metaphor.

Richard Scott’s ‘Everything Else is Bullshit’ prompted us to forget the world and lose ourselves in our beloved. Silence was personified as a housemate, because the queer experience is not just about loud liberation; self-protection is often paramount. 

We curated a personal Queer Museum, guiding the reader around the relics of our resistance before building our perfect planet, inspired by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s ‘The Moon is Trans’. Protest was developed through Allen Ginsberg’s annotated, early Pride photos while writing in response to works by Donna Kate Rushin and CA Conrad helped uncover what we will no longer tolerate.

Sappho’s fragments led to blackouting a piece written for a previous prompt – an enlightening editing tool that highlighted the censorship that queer lives often encounter. Objects that define one’s queer aesthetic were sanctified and repurposed as safe words to thread though a queer trauma where we floated at the edges of pain, eschewing narrative, resisting explanation.

The final exercise was to write about a non-romantic hug. Of course, I wrote about missing my mum’s hugs. More tears, as I wrote, and again when I read in Caroline’s tutorial. 

Paradoxically, prioritising time with Mum had delayed my booking a place on this course, while COVID made us recognise that we are not, ultimately, in control and travel restrictions enabled people constrained by time/money/location to experience the virtual hug that is Arvon’s Queer Poetry Course. For many, lockdown has revolutionised accessibility. Universal online access to knowledge, in its widest sense, must now stand alongside physical provision, when it resumes.

This course reinvigorated my creativity. Reminding me of the Cat who dreamed of a poetry collection and was never without her notebook. Back then, based in London, I rubbed shoulders with queer poets who I performed alongside on the Spoken Word circuit (Kae Tempest, Joelle Taylor, Dean Atta, Keith Jarret) but I never invested in queer writing on the page. I now have a fistful of follow ups from the comprehensive packs compiled by expert tutors, Caroline Bird and Richard Scott.    

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in April 2016, for a one-month Arts Council funded project, fell in love and stayed. I threw myself into making my own world, organising monthly LGBT cabarets and establishing a Queer social centre with my partner (bit.ly/klqueerspace) that blows a bubble of liberation in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Until, like Arvon, we were forced online. I know what it is to grasp at recreating the echoes of human connection in a virtual environment, when you are used to sweat, hugs and dancefloors. 

For too long I have been ghosting my writer self. Caroline helped me realise I had been floating above my poems with the telling voice of a teacher, controlling the image with a promoter’s eye and delivering the closing lines with a joke-like ‘ba-dum-tss’. 

Practical tips like ‘write in the present tense’ and the ‘metaphor doesn’t know it’s a metaphor’ let me relinquish control, to no longer censor or interpret but allow the reader to imagine. 

I am empowered to curate a Queer writing course (www.rainbowwrites.com) and I’m committed to finding more writing time, for me.

Thanks for the virtual hugs fellow queer writers and thank you Arvon for this rejuvenation. 

 

* from Introduction to Poetry: Billy Collins

** from Raisin in the Sun: Harlem – Langston Hughes (my English Literature course material) and

** In my Secret Life: Leonard Cohen


CatCat Brogan received an MA in Spoken Word education from Goldsmiths University. She has performed her poetry at festivals (Latitude, Electric Picnic, WOMAD), won Slams (BBC Edinburgh Fringe Poetry Slam, Farrago), been published in collections (The Golden Shovel) and featured on BBC & Irish Media. Poetry education is the subject of Cat’s TEDx Talk, has been presented at academic conferences and published in journals. Originally from Omagh, N.Ireland, after 8 years in London, Cat went to Malaysia funded by the British Council and teaches English at an international school in Kuala Lumpur. In 2016, Cat co-founded a LGBT social centre and regularly programmes queer cultural events. Cat has performed in over 20 countries including Pakistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, Nepal and New York.

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