An ode to New York’s rich history of queer poetry

An ode to New York’s rich history of queer poetry

June 27, 2020

I had only been living in New York for a few months in 2014 when I came across Roya Marsh’s work for the first time. A friend of mine dragged me to a poetry slam on the Lower East Side and as poet after poet took to the stage, my attention was stuck on a small chalkboard wall in the corner. On it was a small portion of Marsh’s poem, Admissions of Guilt: “I am guilty of not fixing the things I have broken starting with myself.” I was immediately hooked.

I spent the next several months working to track down the obscure poet and, hopefully, get a copy of the poem in its entirety. Finally, Marsh and I connected in 2016, and I’ve been following her work ever since. Little did I know that this pursuit of a single poem would launch me into the city’s vibrant queer poetry scene — a cultural melting pot in which queer poets indict white supremacy and promote a wider understanding of the full spectrum of sexuality and gender.

“The people in the New York scene are so interconnected,” Marsh says. “Not only are the legends of old working with the youth, but when the youth get older, they partner up with legends. It’s like a cyclical behavior.”

New York’s poetry scene has always been vibrant and fiercely political. Queer artists have brought life to the city for nearly a century, but a new generation of radical queer poets has emerged and all-but-defined New York’s renowned poetry scene. Unapologetic LGBTQ poets declare, “We all start out sucking titties,” and “I wish you the confidence of a lesbian in a new plaid shirt.” Poets like Marsh, Angel Nafis, Donika Kelly, Crystal Valentine, and more challenge traditional notions of sexuality and art through resistance and interrogating what it means to be queer in a patriarchal society — following in the footsteps of historic greats like June Jordan, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde.

New York’s queer poets, Black and brown specifically, do the work of forging new social, political, and emotional territory. At Bluestockings, a bookstore and event space run by sex workers and queer and trans people, queer poets perform their work surrounded by thousands of social-justice themed titles. At Bowery Poetry, queer poets lead Pride showcases and LGBTQ events. And at Bklynboihood, queer poets interrogate notions of masculinity at the venue tailored specifically for LGBTQ communities. Their work is both powerful and vulnerable. By simply exploring their marginalized identities through the written word, queer poets have ended up reshaping the political and social landscapes of their worlds.

But queer poetry has always combined art and activism. This is perhaps best evidenced by Lorde’s life’s work. She was central to several liberation movements, and her work was politically-charged simply because she told the truth about her life and her identity. Today’s queer poets follow in her footsteps.

“I don’t believe that the truth sets you free, but I do believe that the more truth you tell, the more truth that you live, the freer you will feel, the freer you will be, and you’re freeing other folks,” Marsh says.

Like most areas of culture, mainstream discourse about queer communities tends to center whiteness and white people. Each June, as celebrants observe Pride month and attend various Pride parades, the fault lines — both socioeconomic and otherwise — of race, class, and gender are exacerbated. Communities have been decrying the white gay privilege rife in Pride for years, and Black and brown LGBTQ poets have consistently challenged this divide while bridging the gaps of their intersecting identities in their work.

“Queerness in and of itself has not always been welcoming to me. I’m a Black queer woman and I’m fighting white supremacy, but I’m also fighting homophobia in the Black community,” says Valentine, who is based in The Bronx. “That’s a completely different fight, and I have to use different tools for it. It becomes overwhelming, and I turn to poetry. I turn to poetry to call my folks in, but also to say, ‘This is who I am.’”

She continues: “I don’t give a fuck about policing myself. I don’t care about respectability politics. You shouldn’t either. In liberating myself, I’m also giving other people permission to liberate themselves.”

In her work, Valentine carefully attends to the ever-present pressure to prioritize her intersecting identities based on everything from circumstances to days of the week. In “I Am Black Before Woman in February,” Valentine writes, “I am Black before woman in February/Woman before Black on Sundays/Queer before Black on Pride day/My Black stay posted up/Sniper ready.”

My desire to look deeply at New York’s world of queer poets, and to write about that world, grew after the March release of Marsh’s debut book of poetry, dayliGht. It is the culmination of her years as a slam poet, LGBTQ activist, and respected teacher in New York City. dayliGht is in fact both a love letter to the women who raised Marsh and a radical, political rebuke of broken notions of sexuality and race. It centers masculine-presenting Black women whose existence, like Marsh’s, is often met with a mixture of ridicule, fetishization, and paternalistic infantilization. She begins nearly every poem in the collection with the same phrase: “In broad daylight, black girls look … ”

In one poem she decries the harms of heteronormativity, writing: “There are worse things than being a homosexual like NOT being a homosexual.” She closes the collection with a poignant question that sits at the intersection of race and gender struggles: “What are the conditions of your freedom?”

“When people are having conversations surrounding catcalls, very seldom do they imagine or even draw up the image of a woman that presents as I do,” Marsh says. Her poetry collection was born out of her master’s thesis on Black butch visibility. “I think the greatest element of importance was to tell my truth, my unabridged truth. I’m saying, ‘I am all of these things and I’m going to put them all in your face.’”

Before dayliGht, Marsh, who is the poet in residence at Urban Word NYC, made many of these bold declarations on stage at the historic Nuyorican Poets Café. The iconic Lower East Side venue boasts appearances by esteemed poets like Mahogany L. Brown, Jennifer Falu, Jive Poetic, Whitney Greenaway, and more in some cases helping to launch their storied careers.

The Nuyorican is most known for its slam poetry and spoken word events and has been a beloved site of diversity and resistance since its founding in the 1970s. Legendary Beat poet and LGBTQ icon Allen Ginsberg once called the Nuyorican “the most integrated place on the planet.” Today, Valentine says the space is a place of “visibility” and a “community hub for the poet’s poet.” Caridad De La Cruz — a.k.a La Bruja, a poet and employee who holds open mic events at the Nuyorican — calls the space “the heartbeat of New York City.”

Nuyorican is a portmanteau of “New York” and “Puerto Rican,” and the term became popular in the ‘50s as several Puerto Ricans migrated to New York after the U.S. conferred commonwealth status to the territory. Puerto Rican poet Miguel Algarin founded the eponymous café in 1973 to provide a space for artists of color whose work wasn’t accepted by mainstream industries at the time. But what started as a simple living room salon in Algarin’s East Village apartment quickly grew into a cultural staple of Black and Latinx culture. The Nuyorican came to prominence in the wake of the Beat generation, the historic literary movement that saw writers breaking political and social conventions to transform the United States in the ‘60s.

“It’s a place to find identity, a place to search for identity. It’s where you can really become in tune with what’s making New Yorkers’ hearts beat.”

At the time, Puerto Ricans struggled to make sense of their identities in their new home, and to push back against the political and societal oppression of being a racialized other — a struggle very familiar to Black communities. The Nuyorican served as a place for these first-generation New Yorkers to spill their hearts, to carve out a sense of identity, and to commune with others like them. Although the venue was born out of Nuyorican culture, today it is international in its depth and reach. It has cemented itself as a safe, affirming place for marginalized and particularly queer communities, giving a special platform to artists within the city’s larger poetry scene.

“The Nuyorican Poets Café came out of this need to speak against oppression, against injustice — politically and socially,” says De La Cruz. “It’s a place to find identity, a place to search for identity. It’s where you can really become in tune with what’s making New Yorkers’ hearts beat.”

My first trip to the Nuyorican was for one of its legendary slam poetry events. It was a bona fide party. Black and brown people packed the venue, and the joyous atmosphere overshadowed any concerns about a lack of personal space. Jive Poetic led the rowdy audience in sing-alongs and callbacks, uniting people from every borough — and even New Jersey. Today, the audience at the Nuyorican includes Black, Latinx, and Asian American people, plus white people too. Justice and representation for the most marginalized groups orchestrates freedom for everyone, after all.

“It’s not even just poetically. It’s musically, theatrically,” De La Cruz says of the Nuyorican’s brand of activism. “As a whole, the scene is like a river, and the Nuyorican Poets Café is the roaring rapids of that river.”

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