Thursday, September 17, 2009

Event: Poetic Licence

Gay Icons
National Portrait Gallery
2 July – 18 October 2009

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson


At the National Portrait Gallery in London, there is currently an exhibit on called Gay Icons which seeks to “explore gay social and cultural history.” The “gay icons” were chosen by a range of influential figures such as Jackie Kay, Ian McKellen, Chris Smith, Sarah Waters and Elton John and present a fascinating range of individuals from those from the centre of gay cultural life to the outermost and nearly-forgotten fringes. Jonathan Keane has organized a dynamic series of events to accompany this exhibit. On this evening, writers/performers Alan Hollinghurst, Paul Burston, Jay Bernard, Bette Bourne, Dean Atta and Neil Bartlett gathered for the event ‘Poetic Licence’ to read from their work, present a selection of their influences and question the degree to which words/literature can be iconic.

Alan Hollinghurst spoke about how the novelist Ronald Firbank was virtually unknown in his lifetime and how his slender highly-stylized novels were critically misunderstood, but how Firbank was a strong influence on writers like Evelyn Waugh. He read a passage from Ronald Firbank’s majestic The Flower Beneath the Foot.

Paul Burston began by presented a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire and spoke meaningfully about how when he studied the play everything but Tennessee William’s sexuality was considered in his seminar. Yet, it seemed to him impossible to discuss the seminal tragic figure of Blanche DuBois without acknowledging that she came out of the imagination of a gay sensibility. Burston read a passage from his novel The Gay Divorcee where he brought to life his own feisty female.

Paul Burston and Tennessee Williams

Jay Bernard presented a series of autobiographical illustrations and spoke powerfully about how influence doesn’t necessarily come from expected sources. She discussed how William Golding’s orphaned island boys left an indelible mark upon her and how she could feel more authentically herself posing as a white boy on an internet chat forum flirting with a teenage Texan girl rather than presenting herself as who she really was - an adolescent black girl questioning her sexuality in Croyden.

Bette Bourne gave a mesmerizing talk/performance about portrayals of identity and how the most flamboyant artifices can be the most sincere expressions of who we are inside. From September 21st – 27th he’ll be showcasing a no-doubt essential new performance at the Soho Theatre.

Bette Bourne

Dean Atta presented a series of powerful performance pieces about coming to terms with his estranged father and an individual’s responsibility to the community. He discussed a range of influences ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Maya Angelo to Bob Marley and how the beliefs and messages of these prominent figures have in some cases been obscured.

Neil Bartlett cited his most important gay icons including the masterful Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo and ended reading a passage from Oscar Wilde’s little known story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (printed in Ganymede issue #4). In reading passages from this story and his own novel Skin Lane, he spoke about the power of the character who walks through the night experiencing the inverse of societal norms as a way of getting to the essential core of his identity.

Neil Bartlett

The event was an inspiring evening which successfully honored the icons which inspire us, brought to light some queer figures whose influence has been nearly forgotten and showcased an impressive range of talent that will no doubt inspire many future generations.


Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.

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