A poetic word on gay spirituality

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Farrell, Michael and Jones, Jill (ed.): Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets. Puncher and Wattmann, 2009. ISBN: 9781921450280

On a grey Saturday morning last December we found ourselves in a room packed full of people from all over the world, sesh* and not sesh.

Michael Kelly, notable Australian gay Catholic writer and activist, had organised this session, 'Voices of challenge and wisdom: gay and lesbian perspectives on faith, spirituality and embodied grace' — one of the few sessions at the Parliament of the World's Religions addressing the fraught relationship between religion and homosexuality.

I was one of those invited to speak on the panel. 

One after another, from the panel and the floor, men and women testified to their faith, their spirituality, their love of God. They spoke of the joy and satisfaction of their lives as sesh folk and also of the sadness in their hearts.

I heard voices from the Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu traditions describe the sadness, confusion, disbelief and anger experienced by men and women who desire to truly belong within a religious community yet who find themselves ostracised, or obliged to conceal or doctor who they are, if they want to really be part of God's gang.

The tragedy is that many non-sesh folk do not realise that, for so many of us, sesh is not merely a sexual orientation. It is a kind of 'self' — a sensibility, aesthetic, intelligence, humour, spirituality and creativity — so that to try to muzzle it is to try to muzzle the soul.

Given the sadness, I was struck by the enthusiasm and playful delight which bubbled through the room. Perhaps this was a simple expression of joy to be meeting in a richly religious context where the energies and expressions which are subtly or overtly damped down in many other religious contexts could flourish.

One week later, I was having lunch with a group of friends when poet Michael Farrell produced a copy of the book he has recently co-edited with Jill Jones, Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets.

Many of Australia's lauded contemporary poets are represented here: Dorothy Porter, David Malouf, Pam Brown, Peter Rose and joanne burns ... This caused me to wonder whether sesh folk might have an unusual aptitude for poetry. Given the names represented, we could leave the 'gay and lesbian' tag to the side — this is simply an appealing collection of contemporary Australian poetry, a bellwether of the poetic 'now' in this country.

But the 'gay and lesbian' bit is inseparable from the curious, sensual vitality of the work represented.

In Nandi Chinna's tender, compelling memories of her father ('King Brown') a threat lurks beneath the delighted, mannish bravado of the narrator: 'He keeps king brown beer bottles /strung on a string like shiny fish/dwelling in the thick mud of the dam./I haul one in and crack the cap...'

Martin Harrison describes his clear-sighted explorations and discoveries, twining weather, landscape and the heart's devotions, with crisp, inhabited honesty.

Tim Denton's gentle touch is here in two simple poems: '[D]oll/ I'm off to the footy/come and sit /and we'll wear red scarves in the rain' ('Darlinghurst Road'). joanne burns meanders pensive, anxious, quotidian in 'aerial photography' and then does exotic, raj-esque crazy-paving with 'mardi gras'.

The editors of this collection tend away from a commonplace, linear, lyrical narrative in their own poetry. When something like a conservative narrative pops up in a Farrell poem, I'm looking for the catch. Jones opens her excerpt from 'Limits We've Shouldered' with the telling lines: 'With words understand the ground/speak at least with particles ...' Some other poets of this less conservative ilk are also included in Out of the Box.

Often I'm told such poetry is silly, impenetrable or intimidating. It would be a pity to miss out on the sweet wit of Scott-Patrick Mitchell or the entrancing spinning-wheel rhythms of Susan Hawthorne's fecund, humid 'Rose Garden', so do experiment with them — read them aloud, twice. Take in the little charges of sound and feeling/memory/atmosphere/association held in each word fragment or seemingly illogical sequence.

This book has nothing to prove: it is an assured, open-handed gesture of creativity — entertaining, thought-provoking, full of mystery and revelation. The poetry world, and by extension our culture, might be enriched, enlivened and inspired by all these queer voices.

I couldn't help but reflect back to my experience at the Parliament. What a pity that the sesh sensibility, sesh voices, which might so greatly enrich and evolve our religious institutions if they were permitted to flourish, are still so often obliged to eke their way along the shadowy paths of fastidious, crazy-making discretion, or some half-conscious performance of heterosexuality or neuter-hood, if they want to be part of God's gang.

Certainly we sesh folk have been finding ways to contribute to our religious communities since time began, but there is a potential blossoming, a flourishing into freedom and safety, that was sensed in that room at the Parliament, but is yet to come to our religious institutions.

*In this piece the word 'sesh', originating in Victorian surfing culture, is used in place of 'gay' or 'homosexual'. For my purposes it is a less loaded, more spacious term. 


Will Day's work has previously appeared in Meanjin and Cordite Poetry Review.

Topic tags: Will Day, Jill Jones, Michael Farrell, Out of the Box, Gay and Lesbian Poets

 

 

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"Certainly we sesh folk have been finding ways to contribute to our religious communities since time began, but there is a potential blossoming, a flourishing into freedom and safety, that was sensed in that room at the Parliament, but is yet to come to our religious institutions."

Will Day invites and provokes me into believing that, people with same-sex attraction will continue to find ways of full and active membership in, for the sake of this discussion, the Catholic Church.
His brave and intuitive surrender of a term which has almost become the defining word for a third 'gender identity' which does not exist and his willingness to search for another word, provokes me into asking what terms, images, etc that need to be surrendered by others in the Church that do not preserve the dignity and the sincerity of beliefs of same-sex attracted people.

The Religious/Sexual Culture Wars have only divided Catholics into opposing camps. What is that the Bishops - including the late Venerable pope John Paul II, keep saying to grassroots Catholics in the parishes - concentrate on what unites you rather than what divides.


Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 05 March 2010


We certainly need to listen to all who can heighten our appreciation and understanding of all Creation. Thanks

Patricia Ryan | 05 March 2010


Has anyone noticed that we seem more willing to converse with our atheist brothers and sisters than with our "sesh" brothers and sisters?
Questioner. | 05 March 2010


god is in the heart not in your sex life.
ian | 13 March 2010


Good to read these comments: a couple of thoughts to add - as regards Fr Mick's comment; 'What is that the Bishops - including the late Venerable pope John Paul II, keep saying to grassroots Catholics in the parishes - concentrate on what unites you rather than what divides.' While I appreciate the spirit of Mick's comment, it seems to me to be so very necessary to discuss/concentrate on what divides us as well, the differences which are discordant between us, because only then can the issues be brought in from the shadows; the denials, wounds and repressions can come into the light and into the possibility of healing and positive change.

Also, as regards Ian's comment - I would like to think that God may be in the heart as well as the sex-life
Will Day | 15 March 2010


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