Queerantine Bookshelf

While the usual Pride parade may not be possible this year, we’re still keen to amplify LGBTQ experiences and lives. Golnoosh Nour, a Creative Writing Alumna, teacher and author of her most recent short story collection, ‘The Ministry of Guidanceshares her essential LGBTQ reading list.

Fiction: Three Queer Novels

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy: This is a book that beautifully depicts the fluidity of sexuality and desire. This novel was published in 2016, my prediction is that this book will become a classic for its mastery of plot, characterisation, and language, but also for its unapologetic portrayals of female desire, motherhood, and the nuclear family. Levy’s descriptions of lesbian desire and female bisexual desire are beatific. Also, Sofia Irina is one of my favourite protagonists. She is curious, clever, and bold – even though she thinks she is not bold, and she really is ‘pulsating with shifting sexualities’.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad: Another unputdownable novel with an adorable protagonist, Rasa. An Arab gay man who describes his beautiful but forbidden love for the closeted Taymour with the utmost sensitivity both in an imaginary Arab country and the United States. The book subtly debunks the myth that the West is a sanctuary for gay people. The novel also does so much more; it is an extremely nuanced account of being a Middle Eastern queer. While this book made me laugh out loud and cry several times, on the whole, I cherish it for its warmth and compassion. If books had hearts, I’d say Guapa has a heart of gold.

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper: I love this book for the exact opposite reason that I love Guapa; I’m intrigued by its depiction of brutality, cruelty, and hollowness that can accompany uninhibited sexual desires – in this case, homosexual men who enjoy being extremely violent and at times murderous to one another. But apart from these compelling depictions, this book is a work of literary genius in terms of narrative structure. It is a mystery that at the end of the day the reader needs to solve on their own – if they believe it needs to be solved at all. I did and I didn’t. I felt so overwhelmed by the ethereal and yet pungent quality of the prose that during the two days that it took me to finish it, I felt I was on some strange drugs. This was a drug that made me unable to read any other books for several weeks apart from the ones by Dennis Cooper.

(There are so many more amazing queer novels, including the enticing classic: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, My Education by Susan Choi, Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp, and many more that the limitations of space don’t allow me to mention. The three I elaborated upon are the ones I discovered fairly recently in queerantine.)

Poetry

There is so much breathtaking contemporary poetry exploring queer desire: these are some of the collections I have been rereading during the lockdown: English Breakfast by Jay Bernard (a literary masterpiece that boldly explores race, gender, and sexuality, not often talked about as it’s probably ‘too queer’ for the UK poetry scene) Soho by Richard Scott (a queer bible), I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles (funny and canocial), Rabbit by Sophie Robinson (deliciously readable, yet deep and sapphic), Selah by Keith Jarrett (a star Birkbeck alumni!), Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock (especially the poem Rag Town Girls do Poetry, also, Fran is another Birkbeck star…), and last but not least Insert [Boy] by Danez Smith (their first and in my not very humble opinion, strongest collection).

 

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , ,

Tap Dancing, Poetry and Black Mascara

Birkbeck PhD student is one of four prize winners at the 2020 International Book and Pamphlet Competition for her collection: ‘Black Mascara (Waterproof)’

This is a photo of Rosalind Easton

Rosalind Easton

An English teacher for the past 10 years and an English, Theatre and Creative Writing PhD student more recently, Rosalind Easton has spent as many years deconstructing poetry. But it took the interaction with and observations of her young niece to inspire her to write poetry in the first instance. 

Just two and a half years ago, she penned her first poem about the birth of her niece and found other familial influences through her grandmother’s love of literature. She shares that her writing was sporadic- just one or two poems every few months but also notes that “when you get into a rhythm of writing, that’s when you get the lightbulb. That’s why it’s so important to try and write every day.”

Easton was able to source further creative expression through her love of dance; tap dancing, in particular. She points to the correlations and expresses, “The rhythm of my tap dancing comes through in my poetry.”

Having found her rhythm and routine, Easton would spend her mornings before going into work, writing in a local cafe for just under an hour, a process driven by “50% ruthless discipline, 50% pie-in-the-sky dreaming.”

Connections between things is a key component of Easton’s work. She draws the link between poetry and mathematics for its patterns and structures; as well as likening the visual elements of poetry to paintings and sculptures. Throughout her winning collection, objects seem to take on a life of their own with judge, Imtiaz Dharker capturing this most aptly:

Catching sight of a former lover makes my iPhone flicker/ with the ghost of a Nokia brick. All kinds of inanimate things come alive enthusiastically in these poems: the stiletto heel, the music stand, the microphone, a wand with no spells, making every poem a delightful surprise.”

It’s all a far cry from when Easton had worried about her poetry being publishable, acknowledging that she writes long lines; so she was pleasantly surprised when judge, Ian McMillan praised her for this. Indeed, both judges McMillan and Dharker were emphatic in stating the“final choices were unanimous”.

A Book & Pamphlet winners reading will he held at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere in Spring 2021, and the four winning pamphlets will be published in Feb 2021. Read more about the competition and winners.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,

School of Arts Awarded Three Research Fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust

Senior Lecturer, Dorigen Caldwell, reflects on her award and looks forward to a time she can visit Italy again.

Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work!

this is a photo of a cathedral in Italy

Please tell us about your area of research. I am a Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art in the History of Art Department at Birkbeck. My area of research is early modern Italy, with a particular emphasis on religious art produced after the Council of Trent (1545-63), where the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church were discussed and codified, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation. This marked a key moment in debates not only around religion, but also around the visual arts and their role in the propagation of faith.

What inspires you most when it comes to your academic pursuits? Like most art historians, I have a passion for art, and am happiest wandering around art galleries, cities and churches. It is therefore a privilege to be able to call that work! In both teaching and research, I think I am primarily interested in the history of ideas, and in thinking about the use of images within a broader historical and cultural context.

Why have you chosen this particular area of research? The title of my current research project, for which I was awarded the Leverhulme fellowship, is ‘Piety, Patronage and Politics in Early Modern Rome’. The focus of this research is a private chapel in a Roman church that was lavishly decorated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and includes an altarpiece designed by the celebrated painter, Annibale Caracci. I chose this chapel because it was commissioned by a family of cardinals who came from the Northern Italian city of Trent, where the pivotal Council was held, and which at the time was a German-speaking territory. As such, these cardinals represented the interests of German catholicism in Rome, and their family chapel represents a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between the periphery (Northern Italy/Southern Germany) and the centre (Rome) of the Catholic world at the time, and to explore ideas around images, beliefs and politics at a moment of intense artistic production.

What impact do you envisage from the research? I am due to give papers at conferences in Rome and Dublin over the next year (coronavirus permitting!) and plan to write a book which I hope will disseminate my research to a broad audience beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art history. The Leverhulme Trust will be paying for a replacement post to carry out my Birkbeck duties over the course of the next academic year (apart from my PhD students who I will continue to supervise); and I plan to make two research trips to Italy to visit churches and archives. The award allows me to focus on my research for a year, to (hopefully) travel to Italy, and to get as much of my book written as possible in the time.

And lastly, can you share your sentiments on the significance of the Fellowship? I am incredibly grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for this Fellowship, as it will make all the difference to my research, allowing me to focus on my book project over an extended period of time. I am very excited about this opportunity to devote myself to my research and I look forward to the moment when I can travel to Italy again.

Learn more about the Leverhulme Trust Fellowships.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , ,

Out@BBK film screening for LGBT+ History Month

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts discusses the feminist classic, Orlando, and why it was such an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies. The film adaptation of Orlando will be screened in the College cinema to mark LGBT History Month.

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in the film ‘Orlando’, Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

As part of our campus, Birkbeck is fortunate to have 46 Gordon Square, now the School of Arts but formerly, from 1904 to 1907, the home of the young Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf was 22 when she moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. Her time at Gordon Square was the beginning of her adult life as a professional writer and heralded the start of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As well as being an innovative author and thinker, Woolf was a feminist and lived what was then an unconventional life, including long relationships with women. Woolf’s affair in the 1920s with the writer Vita Sackville-West inspired her short novel Orlando, a ground-breaking queer text about identity, bodies, history, and love.

Orlando was presented by Woolf to Sackville-West in 1928 after the pair had been travelling in France together. The novel is the fantastical fictional biography of the hero of its title, a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries. Orlando meets key figures in English history including Elizabeth I, Charles II, and Alexander Pope, but Woolf creates a magical version of history in which the queer hero/heroine survives and succeeds. The novel culminates in 1928, the year of its publication. Orlando is at once a light-hearted historical satire and a feminist classic, and an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies.

As part of LGBT+ History Month, Out@BBK, Birkbeck’s LGBT+ staff group, is hosting a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) in the Gordon Square cinema. The screening will be introduced by Dr Jo Winning and myself (we have previously taught Orlando on our undergraduate course Critically Queer).

Potter’s film is a creative and dazzling interpretation of Woolf’s novel. Tilda Swinton, in one of her signature roles as the titular, androgynous lead, heads an eccentric cast encompassing such diverse figures as Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams and Lothaire Bluteau. It is also the film which saw British director Sally Potter emerge from an avant-garde notoriety into mainstream recognition, with a lavishly designed spectacle that earned numerous awards and two Oscar nominations.

Join us at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square cinema on Friday 28 February at 6pm to watch and discuss Orlando, a unique chance to see this fascinating film in Woolf’s Bloomsbury home. You can book your place in advance to save your seat.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten”: Benjamin Wood on writing The Ecliptic

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

The EclipticIn Benjamin Wood’s second novel, The Ecliptic, we delve into the story of Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy, a passionate, though somewhat lost, painter. Her desperate pursuit of truth and capturing it in her creations leads her to flee the commercialised 1970s London art scene. Refuge awaits off the coast of Istanbul in the form of Portmantle — the secret retreat on the island of Heybeliada which houses an eclectic group of creatives, from painters to architects and writers.

Will Ellie reconnect with her muse? What exactly was she fleeing from? And is this Turkish haven really everything she thought it would be? All come to light in Benjamin’s book, a fascinating journey into the mind of a passionate artist and her quest for creative authenticity.

The frequently thrilling and consistently moving story was sparked by Benjamin’s own experiences in Istanbul during a three-month artist-in-residence cultural exchange programme which the 34-year-old, Southport-raised writer was selected for by the British Council. Set up with an apartment in Istanbul for the duration, he was handed a simple mission: explore.

Here, the senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, discusses his Turkish adventure, crafting his novel, and the pursuit of authenticity in art.

Hi Benjamin. How was the Istanbul experience?

I was so absorbed by it. There’s something about the city itself­ — it’s a meeting place of continents, and it has an innate sense of history, but equally there’s a certain manner to the people there that I enjoyed. It was quite a levelling experience. I felt that there was a frenetic energy to the city, but also an astounding natural beauty. I could wander alone and feel quite a part of things even though it was a different culture from the one I grew up in. But actually, I don’t know if it was the people or the landscape that I found most inspiring. I think it was going back and forth from the mainland to the islands on the ferry that gave me the strongest connection to the place.

That’s where the idea for the book really came to mind, wasn’t it? What sparked it?

It was visiting the island, Heybeliada, and discovering that a Turkish author Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar had lived and worked there. That set my creative head spinning, wondering about the possibilities of how far I could extend this idea of a reclusive artist at work on the island, and how I could use the landscape to hypnotise the reader.

In the book you go into beautiful detail about the process of painting and creating art in general. I believe you went to art college for a while in your youth, but beyond that, what research was involved?

A mix of book learning, extrapolation and some imaginative projection, I suppose. A lot of the stuff about Ellie wandering around Paddington with her sketch book is something I do as a writer. If I’m looking to write about somewhere, I go there and try to memorise the scene and convey that in language — these are things a painter does, it’s just that my medium is different.

How did you come to flesh out the central character, Ellie?

I tend to read a lot of life stories of artists or creative people who I find inspiring. With this, I was reading about Alasdair Gray and Francis Bacon and John Craxton. I tried to find ways to appropriate elements of their lives and create a viable character of my own.

I try to build a character out of found materials and my own personal reflections, to mould them into something that’s believable and authentic — as authentic as fiction can be, anyway.

Ellie goes through some very dark times. Do your characters take you down a dark path personally when you’re writing them?

I tend to be drawn to characters that are solitary and autodidactic, and who feel both compelled towards the world they inhabit, but also repelled by that world too. My characters tend to be only children with few friends who have a very active interior life.

It does make you go to places you wouldn’t wish to go to in your own life, but when you imagine your character in situations like that, it’s one of the most affecting things you can do. You really feel like you’ve been there yourself and, even though you haven’t experienced that particular thing, somewhere you have access to the truth of what it feels like. I’m not saying there aren’t inconsistencies, but when you go into that inner darkness of the character, you realise that it exists in you as well.

Does it feel cathartic?

Yes, it’s saved me a ton in therapy. (Laughs) I’ve always been an aggressively creative person. I think it’s because I work out so much of my anguish that way.

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

Do you miss the characters once the book is finished?

I miss being in their headspace. It’s an odd thing, because they’re always with you, in a way, but equally you move on to the next project. It’s like being an actor going from one role to the next; you give up so much of yourself to get it on the page, but the character gives you so much in return. But you forget so much of them as soon as you send off the draft. You have to do that otherwise you would go completely mad.

There’s a flushing out process in between novels when you need a year — well, I need a year — to get over the last one and ruminate on the next one and find the right voice.

When doing her best work, Ellie becomes completely absorbed in her work and time seems to stand still. Do you crave those moments in your own writing?

Yes! You reach this plane of consciousness where you’re not aware you are writing and creating. You’re just in this…it’s like when you look at a heat shimmer on a hot day. It’s like that shimmer is all around you. Those moments come rarely, so when they come to you, you go until you are exhausted.

You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten. You come out of it and suddenly you’re hungry, then you look back and you have written 5,000 words. Those days rarely come at the beginning, they tend to come at the end when everything is coalescing and words just seem to flow.

It’s a physical rapture that you feel when it’s going absolutely as well as it can. And those moments usually need the least amount of retouching afterwards. Because it’s like the tap has opened up and it’s clear water rushing out.

Benjamin Wood (photo credit Nicholas Wood)What’s next for you?

I’m writing my next novel. I’ve got the research behind me now, and I’m entering the writing stage. I’m in the foothills of the thing. Actually the thing that takes me the longest isn’t the writing; it’s all the formulation of the character and finding the voice. It takes a long time to find the right framework and the right voice to it all. Once I’ve got that, it gets much easier to commit the words to the page.

How do you find striking a balance between writing and your teaching work?

It can be exhausting but you learn to manage. I tend to be a ‘compartmentaliser’ anyway, so when I’m at Birkbeck I’m doing Birkbeck stuff, and the days which I’m allotted for research are my writing days and nothing really interrupts them.

I also find that I get into a bit of a funk when I’m not teaching and I’m solely working on a novel. Teaching keeps me in the real world, and gives me purpose beyond churning out a creative project. I find I bounce off the energy of this place.

I find teaching really rewarding. It allows me to think about my own craft continuously, to look at the work of great writers and see how their stories function. You’re teaching yourself as much as you’re teaching others.

The Ecliptic is available now in hardback and Kindle. His first novel, The Bellwether Revivals is also available across print and digital formats

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,