doodle of a heart on a journal page

Queer Poetry Salon provides space for community-building, celebration

By

Emma Greguska

In Sarah Viren’s essay “How to Explain Lesbian Baby-making to Your West Texas Stylist,” she writes about finding herself, yet again, in the position of having to explain to someone outside the queer community that a family can be something other than nuclear.

When she read the essay last December to a group of other writers and literature lovers who had gathered in the backyard of a home in Tempe’s Maple-Ash neighborhood for the Queer Poetry Salon hosted by Equality Arizona, she felt a welcome sense of understanding and support.

“Often, as a writer, I feel that outside pressure to explain things that I wouldn’t normally have to explain within a queer circle,” said Viren, an assistant professor of language and cultures at ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts whose memoir, “Autobiography of Shadows,” is forthcoming from Scribner Books.

The Queer Poetry Salon is the brainchild of tanner menard, civic programming organizer for Equality Arizona, a nonprofit whose goal is to build the political and cultural power of Arizona’s LGBTQ community. The organization recently partnered with ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing to host quarterly readings that promise to bring “a diverse, world-class cast of queer poets” to the Valley.

This Saturday, Sept. 19, the salon will feature the writers CAConrad, Raquel Salas Rivera and Cyrée Jarelle Johnson.

“They are each revolutionary in their own right, and they are all trans or nonbinary,” said menard, who prefers they/them pronouns and doesn't capitalize their name. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say Queer Poetry Salon is one of most diverse reading venues in the U.S. We’ve had Indigenous writers, Latinx and Asian writers. I’ve made it a goal to include as many different types of people as possible.”

About a year ago, menard was living in Tempe when they befriended a group of MFA writing students at ASU and were struck with the idea for the salon.

“Even though the queer population is really huge in Phoenix – it’s bigger than Chicago and Washington, D.C. – people don’t interact the way they do in some cities. There’s not a lot of centers of queer life,” menard said. “So I created the thing that I wanted for myself, which was to have a queer community around poetry.”

Soon after the salon’s first few gatherings, often taking place on the lawns of amenable residents of the aforementioned Maple-Ash neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from ASU’s Tempe campus, it garnered the attention of the folks at the Piper Center.

“This partnership has been a great way to amplify queer and trans literary voices and support community-building for LGTBQ Arizonans,” said M. McDonough, outreach programs coordinator for the Piper Center.

“Being able to enfold community support with powerful creative writing is an important way the Piper Center serves the public,” McDonough added.

Writers in general can feel like outsiders, Viren says. For writers who also identify as queer, that feeling is amplified.

“Part of figuring out how to become a writer is finding confidence,” she said. “And part of that is finding a community that supports you, particularly if you’re queer and a writer. You already feel outside of what’s considered normal, so when spaces exist that support and celebrate queer identity, it can be really powerful.”

They can also be spaces where people whose identity falls outside of what the mainstream considers normal can be free of the expectation of performance.

“What needs to happen, and what’s starting to happen,” Viren said, “is that people with (a queer) perspective don’t have to tell one set narrative. … They don’t have to write about the coming out experience. They can also just write about being a lesbian and loving apple pie.”

menard says they weren’t necessarily trying to create something for the purpose of stoking social change, but that it wouldn’t be an unwelcome byproduct.

“You can call it activism and you can look at it that way, but at same time, it’s kind of like creating something that should have been there anyway,” they said. “And I think that people finally being in a position where they feel safe enough to do something like this in a place like Arizona, that is dangerously conservative and where some people are still violently oppressed, it can be a very powerful tool for queer people, and also people who are not queer to express their allyship.”

While the magic and ambiance of a chilly autumn evening in a backyard lit by string lights is currently on hold due to social distancing measures, menard says there are some advantages to holding the salon on Zoom.

“The beauty of the current situation is that anybody can access it now, and instead of bringing just one, we were able to bring three poets,” they said.

And even though salon attendees can’t physically clink their cups of cider in cheers, the sense of connection is still there.

“It’s not the same as being together in person,” menard said, “but there’s definitely still a special spirit and vibe with the salon. A lot of friendships have been made through it, and I think people have felt safe in it. So there’s definitely still that community-building going on.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay