Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: Whoosh! A Queer Writing South Anthology

edited by Maria Jastrzebska and John McCullough

Published by Pighog Press

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

It has always been difficult to know whether or not there is genuinely such a genre as ‘queer’ writing, and what qualities and identities might identify work as falling into that category. There is, too, the thorny problem of whether work by and about queer writers and characters are ever representative and ‘real’, whatever that might be. Indeed, Chroma’s own Shaun Levin draws attention to this lack of accessible and recognisably queer writers in the Foreword to Whoosh!. Whatever else this anthology has to offer the reader, its queerness and realness cannot be questioned – its contributors have all been pooled from an ostentatiously queer literary network.

The poems and short stories are diverse in subject matter, with sexual orientation being one of the least prominent themes. Bec Chalkley, who has contributed articles and photographs to Diva opens the collection with her first foray into poetry. Her pieces are endearingly eccentric and vivid, sometimes crackling with brilliance, with the “axe [that]/ traced neat arcs through the dusk: a burst of steel/ and splinters, each dark hide yielding its milky sinews/ for the fire to come.” After reading Monk’s House, I’ll probably think of Virginia Woolf whenever I see a plump courgette.

Living in a society where ‘im/migration’ is a conversational and political hot potato, irrespective of our own beliefs and identity, “foreignness” has become an abused concept in nationalist mentality. Vicky_Ro’s short story, On the Mode of Existence of Foreigners is a timely wake-up call. If it is difficult to suddenly find yourself living in an alien culture, how much more disorientating it is to find yourself “other” in your ‘own’ cultural homeland. This author cleverly develops a metaphor of experiential paranoia to express the impossibility of existence.

Rod Lee expertly manipulates the reader into following a carefully constructed pace-sensitive denouement, and his work would suit public performance very well. Ode to a Night Boy cleverly draws you in, forcing you to eavesdrop deliciously, whilst doing strange things to your mind. Using full names for characters in poetry is a risky ploy, and quite a strange one for a poem where names don’t appear to be exchanged, and yet it does add to the sense of being able to see the drama.

Equally risky is writing a child as the main character in a short story designed for adults, because most of us have forgotten how our minds, abilities, identities and souls existed before social and cultural conditioning attenuated our creativity and erased that naïve sense of absolute invincibility. Airborne, by Morgan Case, is a stunning short story about the freedoms and prisons of difference, and the sometimes terrifying sacrifices we have to make to develop our special gifts and become whole.

Sue Taylor contributes a poem and a short story, the former detailing the ridiculously extensive lengths we sometimes go to for the sake of producing the all-important photographs in which it’s essential that we “cannot be faulted.” Her story featuring the ironically named ‘Swift Removals’ company vividly conjures up the sheer effort we put into building our adult lives, often so easily dismantled by other people’s fleeting manifestations of thoughtlessness.
The motifs of post-modern symbolism seamlessly undergo a new genesis in Cathy Ives’ poems And Which One Are You? and Pebble Beach. Tracy Emin and Jeanette Winterson are evoked and explored, but not plagiarised. The author then takes up the thorny question of what happens to LGBT folk when they get old and grey in a society where it seems that all services for the elderly take heterosexuality as the only possible sexual orientation. Where does the Queer community go when they get old, and how do they live and express their lives and loves? This surprising and touching story conveys and asks far more than the limits its three pages superficially imply.

Penny Lloyd’s poems explore the grey spaces in our lives, the Half Light and “predictive text intimacy” with which most of us are now familiar. She looks at the clichés and emblems that we all recognise and live by, and critiques the question marks that constantly and invisibly hang over us as the “dusk of confusion”.

Whoosh! is closed by two short stories from Nathan Hugh O’Donnell, Heatstroke and A Dark Horse. The first story casts a critical eye over the frisson of discovering what is popularly believed to be the ‘gay male lifestyle, and the eventual graduation into seeing through the perceived ‘glamour’ and ‘sordidness’. The reality of these actual, desired, supposed, and missed, opportunities are the spaces and silences between and beyond, punctuated by monotony, clumsiness and frustration – long stretches when the ecstasies, whether real or anticipated, cease to exist. A Dark Horse is an unusual exploration of grief after the death of a parent, the miscellany of conflicting and contradictory emotions convulsing out in spasms of unexpected prose, forcing the reader to really examine the words he or she is reading.

There is a rich landscape of identities to explore in this anthology, though I cannot honestly say that I felt ‘represented’ here any more than I do in most other literature, irrespective of the authors’ sexual identity. Perhaps we should not default to seeking to graft our own individual experiences on to strangers, and recognise that there are as many queer identities as there are people who identify as such.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to complete his first full-length prose work.



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