Archives for posts with tag: identity

Words are powerful. They change meanings, connotations as language evolves. The goddess Trivia was clearly demoted. If you remember saying ‘straights’ to mean cigarettes (rather than joints) you are probably over 60. If you ever said sick to mean good, well below. I remember correcting students who said ‘coloured’ instead of Black. They thought Black was rude, didn’t want to offend.

When I was growing up ‘queer’ was an insult word for gay men. Women (and some men) I know still balk at using it. Most younger people I know prefer it to saying gay or lesbian. My friend, poet John McCullough wrote a wonderful essay for Queer in Brighton‘s anthology exploring and celebrating the word queer for its inclusivity and subversive quirkiness. The lengthening list of letters to describe the LGBTIQ community has amused and irritated people both on the outside and inside of the community. But when you are in a minority or seen as ‘other’, language and being able to name your experience in your own way (rather than being told what you are by someone else) is especially important. You have to fight to be recognised and you’re seldom in a position to take your identity for granted.

I recently went to see the exhibition about the life and work of 20th century artist Gluck at Brighton Museum. One of the things that struck me is how different groups and communities have claimed Gluck.  As someone who wore tailored ‘masculine’ clothes, with cropped hair and who had (quite a few!) relationships with other women she became a lesbian icon. More recently “a trailblazer of gender fluidity” for the Trans community. I couldn’t help wondering what she herself would have made of these legacies.

I love how many younger people (though not exclusively, think American writer Eileen Myles,) are rejecting or questioning gender stereotypes by appearance or pronouns to describe themselves. At the same time I think it’s crucial not to gloss over the misogyny (from the Greek, hatred – no less – of women) in society. It’s not a level playing field from which we choose equal options. As an older feminist I’m heartened seeing young women (men, everyone) take up campaigns about sexual harassment, male violence, economic inequality.  I’m also gutted that we still need to.

So maybe that is something to do with my relationship to the word lesbian.

I love the inclusivity (now) of queer and at the same time I mistrust general words. It’s too easy for women to get lost – be made invisible in them (since men are – still – the default, women the other). Also I have a soft spot for the word lesbian. Maybe it’s what was current when you first come out – like the affection you have for music you grew up with – which makes you embrace a particular word. It’s got limitations as a Western/Eurocentric word –  ancient Lesbos being the birthplace of Sappho, but it makes me happy that she was a poet as well as a woman loving women.  It also suggests an exclusivity (of only relating sexually to women) which actually doesn’t apply to lots of lesbians’ experience. But there’s something uncompromising about a word that is so much about being a woman. I can still remember how arresting it was to hear it and start using it myself. And all the times I heard any woman standing up for herself get ‘accused’ of being a lesbian, her opinion dismissed. I asked a friend who is around 20 years younger than me how she referred to herself, what she felt about the word lesbian. She said she calls herself queer or gay and – to my surprise, since I expected her to think its power had long worn off  – she said the word lesbian packed a punch, so she would reserve it for confrontations rather than casual conversation.

Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Basket the dog

Poets seek to name the impossible, the just-out-of-reach. Those from minority/disadvantaged groups look for words to name that which is sidelined, excluded.  Words do and don’t matter. Lesbian – not a word to hide in.

Gertrude Stein wrote her famous rose sentence in 1913, in her poem Sacred Emily

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IMG_4306What a shame you’re going to miss the fire in the brothel, my friend said to me when I arrived. I understood every word but had no idea what she was talking about – she meant Pożar w Burdelu, the hottest (sic) cabaret in Warsaw. What was it like being in my birth town? Hot and cold I tell everyone and the weather did indeed range from sleeveless tops to jumpers but we poets always mean something else as well, don’t we. It’s different when I go to France, for instance. I meekly accept that I can’t remember how to form the subjunctive and will be regarded with suspicion as a foreigner, but in Poland…I hear my mother telling us kids off for becoming too much like the English. I feel somehow not Polish enough. I run around trying to see as many people and things as possible, have to be reminded constantly which tram to take where, am fed at every opportunity regardless of what time I turn up and shown such hospitality and warmth it makes me cry even thinking about it. This year it was strawberry season. And I mean STRAWBERRIES, not the paler imitation. Strawberries with whipped cream, with vanilla ice cream, in sugary syrup, in cake, au naturel…IMG_4348

Before I knew it, it was time to fly home and now I’m in back in Brighton I feel somehow more Polish again. Every day I miss speaking my mothertongue. That’s just the way it is.

Last year on a panel at eMigrating Landscapes at UCL poet Steven Fowler asked writer and translator Marek Kazmierski and myself if we identified as Polish writers. Marek – with a more Polish accent than mine- said No, I, in my native-speaker sounding English, answered Yes. Afterwards we talked about this and both agreed it wasn’t that simple and really we both meant Yes and No at the same time. If I flick back through the books I’ve written they’re crammed full of Polishness, though written in English, from the perspective of living outside Poland.

Many writers are reluctant to be confined to any identity. Besides when you live in ‘your own’ country you rarely think of yourself as having a particular identity unless you happen to belong not to the mainstream culture but to a minority. Identity is usually talked about in relation to those outside the dominant culture or if you are visiting another culture when you suddenly acquire that ambassador role. Can you imagine a new novel being described as depicting white culture or telling a heterosexual love story? (And yet how many discussions have we had about whether there is such a thing as queer writing or not at Queer Writing South events!) When I give readings abroad I am usually billed as a British poet. Here often as a Polish poet, sometimes a queer poet.  At the wonderful London bookshop Gay’s The Word the policy is that novels need some gay characters whereas poetry is left, so to speak, an open book…Next week I’m reading at Have A Word in Brighton and then at Felixstowe Book Festival where I’ll be talking with writer and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek about Polish writing. Is there such a thing? I wonder what we will decide.

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