I often feel that poetry gets the short end of the stick when celebrating LGBT literature. There are so many rich options that it can often be overwhelming to know where to begin. My first real brush with LGBT poetry was the Everyman’s Library Pocket Series anthology Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems, which gave me an introductory and historical look at the challenges and loves of LGBT poets within the last century. While thinking about books to recommend in honor of Pride this June, I wanted to offer some classic choices alongside brand new ones that might someday be part of the canon of celebrated LGBT poetry. These collections offer everything from lusty hookups to images of domestic bliss with a long-term partner to frustrations over the current state of LGBT rights. There’s even an image of gay icon “Little” Edie Beale of Grey Gardens. I hope you enjoy.
1) Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems: As part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Series, Love Speaks Its Name features a wonderful hodgepodge of poets ranging from Sappho, W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, and Gertrude Stein, to James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich, Federico Garcia Loca, Walt Whitman, and Joan Larkin. Divided into six sections (Longing, Looking, Loving, Ecstasy, Anxiety, and Aftermath), these poems are a wonderful introduction to LGBT history, and, as editor J. D. McClatchy says in the introduction, “because their desires have been deemed dangerous, and their lives made difficult, they place a unique value on true love.” Recommended: “Turning Forty in the 90’s” by Melvin Dixon, “Having a Coke With You” by Frank O’Hara, and “Breathing You In” by Joan Larkin.
2) Going Fast In Loose Directions by Ben Kline: This erotically-charged collection represents the 2014 gay Grindr-using, brunch-planning, H&M–wearing, white suburban hipster gay man. The poems are refreshingly raw with clever titles like, “The Getting Laid Strut,” “Jacob Makes a World with Psychic Urges, Gay Weddings, and Crossfit Dreams,” and “If the Moneyed White Gays Under the Velvet Ceiling Wrote Dating App Haiku.” An interesting collection for the millennial generation—but maybe don’t let your mother read it. Recommended: “Bodies Undiscovered,” “The Certainties,” and “Three Beats Per Line Makes a Fast Love Song.”
3) He Do the Gay Man In Different Voices by Stephen S. Mills: Winner of the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the collection features everything from correspondence to a gay porn star serving prison time, a chance meeting with the ghost of Little Edith Beale of Grey Gardens fame, musings on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and ode to the young Iranian men hung for sodomy charges in July of 2005. Full of frustrations, lust, and general disappointments in our hetero-normative society, the poems are sharp, funny, and intimately touching. Recommended: “The Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” “The Ghost of Little Edie Beale Meets Me in a Gay Bar,” and “Sitting in My Cubical I Reconsider a Porn Career.”
4) Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry by Essex Hemphill: This beautiful collection from 1992 perfectly embodies the anxiety of the gay community in the late 80s and early 90s around the AIDS crisis, and addresses the challenges of being gay in the African American community, while also striking a chord against the blatant racism Hemphill encounters from white LGBT artists. Recommended: “Object Lessons” and “Rights and Permissions.”
5) The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich: Inside the collection are Rich’s famous Twenty-One Love Poems, showcasing her love for another woman. With lines like “You've kissed my hair / to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem, / I say, a poem I wanted to show someone,” we see not only the ups and downs of her relationship, but a discovery of her true selfhood. Rich reminds us in XVII that “No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone,” yet we know through reading these poems that we’ve seen a love of hers unlike any other. Recommended: “III”, “ XII,” and “VI.”
Nicholas DiSabatino is a publicity assistant at Beacon Press. He received an MA in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College and a BA in English at Kent State University. In his spare time, he tries to balance life with a violin-playing fiancé and a black cat named Roxie.