Performance Poetry: Where We Belong by AJ McKenna

The Apples and Snakes Poet of the Month position is an exciting opportunity for us to showcase some of the very talented poets that we work with. October’s Poet of the Month is the multi-slam winning AJ McKenna. Here, AJ shares her thoughts on the position of trans people within the performance poetry scene. 

How do you feel bBLOGAJefore going to a poetry night? As an audience member, do you worry about the quality of what you’re going to see? As a performer, do you hope for a receptive audience? If you’re after an open-mic slot, do you hope you’ll get there in time to sign up?

Or do you worry about whether you’ll be hassled at the venue for using the ‘wrong’ toilet?

As a performance poet I’ve travelled to venues from one end of the UK to the other; and as a trans woman, that’s a question I’ve asked myself at every venue where I’ve performed. And I’ve been performing, and transitioning, for around three years now.

If you’re trans, the bathroom thing is always a source of concern: it’s what my most well-known poem is about. And it’s an issue that still causes controversy: I know, because I have a Google Alert set up for the phrase ‘trans bathroom’, and because of that I can tell you that, in the past week alone, news outlets across the US have covered the case of an eight-year-old trans girl harassed by a parent over her bathroom use; an astroturf group have taken out a scaremongering advert in a Minnesota newspaper about changes to their high school sports league policy on trans access; and the Daily Mirror tried to whip up a good old-fashioned moral panic about a primary school introducing unisex toilets.

Why do people make such a fuss about this? I think it’s because bathroom panic provides an emotive issue which transphobic people and groups can use as a cover for what they really want, which is to drive trans people out of any space at all. I’ve written before, in my capacity as Deputy Editor at LGBT lifestyle magazine So So Gay, about the fact that some people will abuse trans women for daring to appear on a daytime quiz show. Behaviour like that is designed to send a message, and that message is: keep out. Keep to yourself. Stay away from ‘normal’ people.

That matters because being ostracised from society makes you vulnerable in a number of ways. For one thing, you’re more likely to commit suicide: a study in the US found that 41% of trans and gender-nonconforming respondents had attempted suicide – a figure which is nine times the national average for that company – but which isn’t surprising when you consider how social exclusion makes life difficult for trans people in other ways. While gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equalities Act, the culture in many workplaces still lags behind the law, and many trans woAJBLOGmen, not seeing conventional work as a welcoming environment, wind up drifting into sex work – which can make them more vulnerable to violent clients and harassment from the police. And the ultimate, tragic consequence of trans social exclusion can be seen in the Transgender Day of Remembrance list, which memorialises all those killed in the previous year in acts of violence against them because of their gender expression.

That’s why I’m grateful to Apples and Snakes for making me Poet of the Month this October, and why I’ve been happy to find that the poetry scene as a whole has been so welcoming compared to other parts of society. I’m pleased to say I’m not ploughing the trans poetry furrow alone: there are many exciting trans poets writing in Britain right now, including Rosie Garland, Lyman Gamberton, Roz Kaveney, Carol Robson, Elaine O’Neill, and many more. And it isn’t just trans people saying this: Dominic Berry, a cisgender (non-trans) gay poet, wrote movingly in the introduction to his second book of poems, Wizard, about the fact that he found a welcome in poetry that he never found in the mainstream Manchester LGBT scene; and some of the most exciting names in contemporary British poetry, such as BBC Slam Champion Sophia Walker, Other Voices organiser Fay Roberts, and Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum, the joint force behind Edinburgh’s Rally and Broad, are absolutely committed to making sure that poetry remains open to a plurality of voices, rather than just straight, white, cisgender people from a particularly privileged stratum of society.

I don’t know how significant it is, but all the people and organisations mentioned in the preceding paragraph have another thing in common: they’re all involved in poetry that’s experienced best in performance, rather than just on the page. Too often, the ‘guides to getting published’ that I read when I first started taking an interest in poetry are full of rules about what you shouldn’t do: rules about how to write a covering letter, whether to double or single-space your submission, and other hair-splitting rules, down to the recommended size of margin you should leave on the page. When you actually do find yourself in the margins, you don’t have time to worry about stuff like that.

And that’s why I love performance poetry too. Through Apples and Snakes, I’ve been to gigs where I’ve seen established poets blown away by kids from council estates who’ve been through our workshop programmes, I’ve got to perform for and interact with audiences I’d never normally be exposed to, and I’ve learned that, in a world where too many people in politics and the media are intent on denying people like me any kind of space, I can create my own. And that’s why, ultimately, while I might worry, for a moment, before going to a performance poetry gig, that I might have to face bathroom-policing, I know that, ultimately, I won’t have to worry: because trans people belong in performance poetry, just as we belong in many other sectors of society – and, unlike many other places, this is a scene that’s serious about making us feel that we belong.

And if you’re interested in what else can be done to include trans people, particularly in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) spaces, please do think about coming along to Conway Hall this Friday, where I’ll be performing, then taking part in a panel discussion on ‘What it’s like to be the T in LGBT?’ alongside trans performers Mzz Kimberley and CN Lester, and trans academic and journalist Natacha Kennedy. Doors open at 7:00pm , the event starts at 7:30pm and, yes, to answer one of the most important questions in organising poetry gigs, there is a bar. 

To find out more about AJ, visit her poet’s bio page.