Excerpt from the essay Queer: Published by Verlagshaus Berlin, 2022.
Between 1951 and 1953, William Burroughs was working on a novel he called Queer. During the same period, he was awaiting trial for killing his wife Joan Vollmer Adams. (A good example, by the way, of how literary misogyny can have social ripple effects.) Not until 1985 did Burroughs’s agent Andrew Wylie piece together a full manuscript from the writer’s papers and publish Queer. Despite the title and its use of numerous homosexual topoi, the text was scarcely received as a queer novel. Was it because Burroughs had married a woman? Or because this book, like so many others, did little more than put a fresh spin on the same patriarchal dynamics?
That same year saw the release of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a poetic essay that can be read as an appeal for a new kind of storytelling and poetics. The manifesto, which indeed centers on cyborgs, defines itself as a political counter-mythos. For Haraway, it is about “stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.”
We are looking at two texts published the same year. The first ties into the tradition of the cis-male genius writer with a problematic biography and questionable affairs, and essentially does no more than recreate the conventional, masculine hero’s journey—in language that was already more than three decades old. And then we have a text by a feminist biologist full of critical analyses and poetic utopias that vehemently reject culturally conditioned dualism. Which of the texts is queer?
Generally, the label of “queer” is applied to literature that was either written by queer authors, features queer characters, addresses queer desire, or some combination thereof. Obviously, this work of visibility-raising is crucial. Yet aside from the political dimension of representation, a “queer gaze” is not always evident in aesthetic terms. When I talk about queer literature, I am not content to limit myself to queer personnel in the text. After all, in literature, as in social reality, the mere existence of a few outliers or subcultures does not an open society make.
Those seeking continuities and strands of tradition have a beginning and often an end in mind. Perhaps they are also envisioning origins or objectives. Queer poetry, lacking a center, specifically moves away from these things, although it retains the ability to forge its own traditions. This begs the question of how writers engage with these traditions. Do they feel bound to them, or not? Do they update them, or challenge them?
Donna Haraway defines “queer” as “not committed to reproduction of kind.” And when she uses the term reproduction, she is referring not just to biological reproduction, but also to the perpetuation of traditions, worldviews, and ways of thinking and perceiving.
“Make kin, not babies!”
In addition to its connotations for queer politics, biopolitics, and climate politics, Haraway’s motto takes on yet another meaning. New poetry collections are sometimes called “babies.” So should we stop making new, queer poetry books? Of course not. After all, the stories, the biographies, the political struggles, the whole catalog of society’s brazen impositions on us and our experiences of them exist in the world. Queer poetry gives them voice, makes “oddkin,” adopts the babies, raises them differently, finds routes outside the canon. The last thing it does is reproduce itself.
Contemporary queer poetry does not divorce text from context. As such, it can be read as an archive of anecdotes. It “entangles” experiences—both biographical and literary—and allows them to speak. My poetic writing is a carpet. Unfurled, it displays the colorful strands of my linguistic development, regionalisms and academic language alike. The results of this writing are not works of genius, not creations of one singular genius. They are iridescent and ambiguous exposures, spotlights bringing some of the world’s previously invisible facets into focus. Contemporary queer poetry also draws links to memory, wires new circuitry in a network called (con)text. The friend I was first able to talk to about shame (because she outed me as a writer to our German teacher); my first “real night out” at a club (not a country fair, not a backwater disco, but a night out free from snide glances or judging comments); the last waning breaths of a little animal I held in my hands (and its subsequent burial in the yard); my first time having anal sex (to Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”); my first time publishing a story (which was titled “Essenz” and was about old boys’ clubs); my sense of completeness after getting my first tattoo (the tattoo artist in Erfurt said “This is just the beginning”); climbing Mt. Aetna; my first threesome, my first foursome; my bicycle accident in Italy; flying alone to Hong Kong; my first time trying MDMA; finishing my doctorate; my first general anesthesia before an operation.
The story of my life.
Saying “queer” always invites follow-up questions. That makes it a double-edged sword: it’s annoying, but the ambiguity harbors potential. Whether I say “bi” or “queer” doesn’t matter. Both labels are vague. They don’t mark a precise distinction or draw any clear boundaries; they fray at the edges (and elsewhere too). Both “bi” and “queer” distance themselves from the heteronormative mold, but they are also cognizant of their own entanglement. This often doesn’t suffice for “difference” because beyond the specific desire, the performance of heteronormative life deeply influences queer lifestyles. The heteronormative, binary matrix also includes coupledom, which is contrasted with singlehood and is not, of course, an exclusive feature of heterosexual relationships; many queer people reproduce it. In other words, the question of what “queer” means in any particular instance requires a disclaimer, or else it retreats into the realms of incomprehension, of showing instead of telling (enter: poetry).
This is taxing, yes, but vagueness and the “queer” concept’s frayed edges hold enormous potential: for open, ethical discourse as a relentless interrogation of the so-called “good life.” The Q in the alphabet soup can also stand for “questioning.”
The poetic “I” does not simply declare “this is my story,” but feels around inquisitively and, in so doing, carves out space for something unheard of. And often the familiar becomes clearer from another vantage point. The self is writing’s mycelial growth that widens, mutates, and expands the writer’s own (often restrictive) reality tunnel. Queer poetry transcends boundaries: epistemological boundaries, temporal boundaries, linguistic boundaries, bodily boundaries, boundaries of gender and genre. Queer poetry sends tentacles into all zones.
My story, my voice will establish a connection once I have defeated the traditional claim that the queer voice is not “universal enough” for literature. The connection is established through the process of making kin. Queer poetry offers spaces in which you and I, the figures and metaphors, the resistant symbols and experiments, authors and readers, find each other and become “related not by blood but by choice.”
draw an isosceles care model on your palm
bio films are super into boundary shifting
allow me to enjoy the coming revolution
What makes the prevalent dualism, that enabler of exclusion, so unbearable is its preferred principle of “either/or,” the pervasive compulsion to choose. How could a person’s individual sexuality ever be a problem? Other people’s thoughts as a guarantee of total differentiation—and there’s the rub.
Biphobia entails twofold differentiation; the potential for discrimination is likewise twofold. It emerges out of the assumption that an orientation is supposedly visible. In a heterosexual context, bi and pansexual people are usually labeled homosexual even though this disregards our non-monosexual orientation. And within the queer community we are seen as wishy-washy, only “half queer,” or not “truly queer.” This has legal ramifications as well. Bisexuals often struggle to obtain asylum in Germany because the authorities are skeptical of non-monosexual orientations. It is argued that bisexuals could conceal themselves “without losing their identities” simply by acting out their “heterosexual side.”
Bi+ as a 50/50 desire. WTF!
I always experience my non-monosexual orientation in qualitative terms, that is, in relation to my desire, which does not latch onto the supposedly visible gender of the person with whom I am seen in public. Rather, it is related to concrete, individual bodies that I desire. Neither is bisexuality about men and women. It moves along a spectrum from same-gender to opposite-gender attraction.
I experience my sexuality as a single sexuality, notwithstanding the gender of my bedfellow. This is not an easy statement to wrap monosexual people’s heads around. That’s because of the internalized drive to choose, which demands that we precisely pin down sexual orientation for the sake of protecting the linear relationship between external perception and linguistic labels. Yet bisexuality and pansexuality are independent, non-monosexual orientations. And the people I bring along to dinner parties, show up with at readings, introduce to my parents, or even live with for twenty years do not necessarily say anything about my sexual orientation, regardless of what it is.
Queer contemporary poetry attempts to engage aesthetically with developments of identity politics, social politics, and by extension biopolitics and body politics. At the same time, the poetry itself, as a symbol, raises questions about structural problems in language, the literary landscape, and the publishing industry.
The changed political situation these days is demonstrated most vividly by the shifts in interpretations of the body. “Bodies are maps of power and identity,” as Donna Haraway put it back in 1985. Only with the thought of the body do notions about gender, sexuality, skin color, voice, dis/ability, and materiality come into play. However, the thought of the body, which at last is no longer seen as some essentialist vessel for a soul in the Romantic sense, does not make conventional categories such as language and history disappear. Nor have the “organism” and the “individual” disappeared; they have simply been de-naturalized and de-idealized.
Bodies are “material-semiotic generative nodes” made of chimeric matter that ties into technology, language, and culture. The same holds for textual bodies. Maybe queer poetry isn’t a carpet that unfurls language after all. Maybe queer poetry is a yoga mat we can exert our bodies on. Without bodies, there is no language; without language, no voice; without voice, no political struggle over increments of freedom; and without that struggle, no revised balance of power, no redistribution, no visibility for queer bodies.
We are those bodies.
On the phone recently, my father told me he’d had the lenses of his eyes removed and replaced with artificial ones in a “minimally invasive” procedure. Now he has 20/20 vision, both near and distance. Excited, I said: “You’re a cyborg now.”
We are those cyborgs.
Because what would we be without our medical and aesthetic body modifications, without our glasses, contact lenses, and hearing aids, implants and prosthetics, walkers and wheelchairs, tattoos and piercings, hair extensions, operations, and brands—what would we be without our smartphones? Bodies are made. We make our bodies. Just like symbols, language, poetry.
2.a. Dangerous standard for the mechanics of purity; the illusion of hygiene.
3.a. Unreliable in raincoats. Makeshift and often vacillating. Anything that comes
3.b. A set of mistakes and misunderstandings known as sanity; a public
Bodies are not apolitical material, they are communicative nodes amidst links with other bodies, with the planet, with language, technology, and culture. Bodies always move in contexts. Yet they are not congruent with language’s notions of a body. Bodies are never pure text. They have non-discursive parts. However, bodies are not preceded by discourses, technologies, and languages, for we cannot encapsulate them outside linguistic acts. Bodies are not prediscursive, they are extradiscursive materiality. Bodies are cyborgs of practice. Contemporary queer poetry inserts this practice into the language, carving out additional spaces within which voices, languages, and stories can be shared with readers. Bodies are material, escaping our powers of understanding and language alike.
Aging bodies especially guarantee the experience of vagueness, insecurity, and helplessness. Aging makes us queer.
Translated by Jake Schneider
To read another essay by Alexander Graeff from the anthology Writing the Virus (Outpost19 Books, 2020), click here.