An exploration of queer joy in contemporary poetry…

by: Bleah Patterson

Joy and contemporary poetry seem, at first glance, at odds. The poet in the minds-eye of most people living in the 21st century calls to mind images of the Russian superfluous man, of Keats languishing, of a splenetic being with dark circles under their eyes and a pen in hand comparing their suffering to that of Greek myth, of a crucified Messiah, or a wilting lilac that comes to the page already heavy with symbolism. And while those poems certainly persist for a reason, speak to a certain kind of despondency that simmers within all of us in the era of late-stage capitalism, chronic oppression of marginalized bodies, and COVID — shows us that where we are, others too have tread and coped — there are poets, particularly queer poets, who are asking for something else and creating it themselves. There is, according to poets like John Keene, a distinctly heteronormative association with these aforementioned poets and archetypes as well, an approach to language and to outlook that has the upperhand. Keene asks that those without an upper hand, the marginalized and specifically the queer, break out of that approach and imbue a certain accessibility and approachability into poetry that resists the urge to wallow — reinforcing a pre-established trope of gayness and its tragedy — and instead remind people that joy exists, and the LGBTQ+ community can inhabit it as well.

In John Keene’s interview with LAMBDA Literary he posits that writing is inherently queer when it “destabilizes usual norms and conventions,” which led me to think about the norms and conventions of canonical poetry and inspect the ways that queer poets destabilize them in their work. This particular line of investigation led down a pipeline that of course reveals LGBTQ+ poets doing this, but that many are doing it specifically to the ends of representing joy, pleasure, and fun in their communities. It’s worth noting that Keene also insists that the writing he trusts the most is “accessible and readable,” which seems to be one of the means employed by many queer poets, the end being destabilization of those norms. In his own works this takes a lot of shapes and forms — literally. In his 2021 collection, Punks, Keene opts for his speaker to use a conversational tone, question poetry directly within the lines, and employs full sentences and casual language to achieve an accessibility that transcends education levels, class status, race, gender, and assumed poetic training. 

As far as relatability, Keene’s speakers don’t not insist on the reader’s ability to relate to specific experiences, but rather employs common and approachable language to relay a feeling, preoccupation, or concern through the specific and concrete experiences that a reader can relate to regardless again of race, class, sexual orientation, or level of education. This achieves a greater goal of contemporary writers to open poetry up to the broadest possible audience, but this goal comes into conflict with more traditional poetic mainstays and has since before the turn of the century. Accessibility is seen by many as a dumbing down of poetic practice, these same people feel that poetry should be specifically inaccessible, implying a need to work for it that poets like Keene, Danez Smith, and Ocean Vuong who will also be mentioned in this paper, resist. 

Accessibility in poetry is a confusing one that can elicit a wide array of reactions depending on the context and the audience, but when Keene says it I believe he’s speaking of pushing against a pre-established elitism in poetry. For instance, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet”, he writes a manifesto of poetry using intellectual heavy allusions to Greek myth, latin roots, and insists on not just the double meaning but “the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact.” (Emerson, “The Poet”) And while I’m sure Keene agrees with the spirit of this, he also acknowledges that there’s an air of superiority, privilege of training and education, assumption of time to spend reading and retaining, that not every reader, much less every poet has to spare. David Orr explores this struggle for accessibility among poets and poem readers in his New York Times article “Points of Entry,” citing Richard Howard in his 1996 PEN literary awards keynote address, “we must restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures.” Orr goes on to observe: 

And of course, the opposite of making something “secluded” and “secret” is to try to make it “public” and “open.”…To make it, one might say, “accessible.” It’s a word that haunts contemporary poets. Usually it’s a put-down (Billy Collins’s poems are “too accessible, too obvious,” according to The Christian Science Monitor). Occasionally it’s a term of praise (“Readers weary of overtly intellectual poetry,” Booklist says, will find Anne Carson “emotionally accessible”). Sometimes it drives otherwise sensible people into flights of hyperbole (“ ‘Accessibility’ needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world,” Helen Vendler claims)

It is this continued assumption of a shared vernacular, history, and frame of reference that is seen by some contemporary poets as not just elitist and gatekeeping, but as heteronormative and in need of disruption. 

Contextually, queer people have always sought to destabilize cultural norms, it would be short sighted to say that this is a contemporary trend or that it is confined in art. In Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender insubordination,” they give background on Compulsive Heterosexuality and Heteronormative Culture, illustrating the way it promotes a depiction of queer suffering to reinforce the idea that it is wrong or unnatural and that being straight is the default. Butler writes: 

“Compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic; the norm that implies that ‘being’ [queer] is always kind of mining, a vain effort to part participate in the phantasmatic plentitude of naturalized heterosexuality which will always and only fail.” (Ryan and Rivkin, Literary Theory, pg 955)

It is this assumption that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way,” a binary of not just gender but validity in lifestyle, in preference, in creation, that has perpetuated the trope-ic depiction of the tragic gay, that perpetuated trope is arguably responsible for any tragedy within the queer experience. 

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner elaborate on this hetero-standard in American culture in the essay “Sex in Public,” in which they write that all queer existence is considered “public sex” because it is counter to the proverbial white-noise of straightness that we’ve grown so used to we hardly notice. That is to say, any time a queer acts in a non-passing, non-heteronormative way—think, defying gender norms, dressing more masc or femme than they are perceived to be, to more explicit acts like same-sex public displays of affection, etc.—the heteronormative public are instantly reminded of “sex” and are uncomfortable, because in hetero-culture anything resembling sex is meant to be unspoken and behind closed-doors, a Marxist might argue just another capitalism manipulation tactic, but that is another essay altogether. However, the de-privatization of sex, the public unapologetic displays of queerness, destabilize perception and thought. Warner and Berlant wrote: 

“Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.” (Literary Theory, Ryan and Rivkin, pg 1037)

In her book Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility, Sarah Lamb writes, “Exploring pursuits of pleasure, friendships, and fun in my interlocutors’ daily lives, I examine pleasure and fun as domains in which normative ideals of gendered respectability and femininity are both produced and contested.” She insists that “pleasure, friendships, and fun” as a new norm in queer representation is essential, not only to better illustrate the genuine reality of queer lives, but to show queer people what their lives can be. Often the tragedy is used as a warning against “becoming” gay, forcing people to stay in the closet longer for fear that they will lead miserable lives. And while poets like Keene, Danez Smith, and Ocean Vuong certainly do not shy away from the oppression and tragedies of the queer experience in America, they make the time to paint pictures of their own joy and imagine a world in which joy was the prevailing experience. 

What twenty-first century poets are then insisting upon is forging this space, where queerness doesn’t just defy norms on principle or for the sake of it but where queerness is allowed to honestly portray everything that it is. In America, queerness comes with a dichotomy attached as queer bodies regularly engage in what Heteronormative Culture perceives as “flamboyant” and the mere display of queer joy can so quickly come under fire—literally, in the case of the Pulse massacre that claimed forty-nine lives engaged in joy at a gay nightclub—there is always that risk attached. Flamboyancy, is should be pointed out, generically is defined as a person drawing attention to themselves—the first of many western hetero-no-no’s if Warner and Berlant are to be believed about America’s disdain for public displays of affection—in a way that is “exuberant, confident, and stylish.” (Oxford Dictionary) And of course, it is easy to see how the American’s foundation of puritan values of modesty, decorum, and minimalism would have a problem with this; the very notion of people expressing themselves—and their sexual preferences—loudly, proudly, colorfully, etc., that people might express themselves openly in a way that defies our cultural norms, seems threatening to the heteronormative way of life. Evidence of this train of thought dates back to our landing in the Mayflower, to the Salem Witch Trials, our continued oppression of indigenous and African cultures throughout our history, and the rejection of anything other, especially when it doesn’t other quietly. 

Danez Smith employs the approach of using the accessible language Keene trusts in his own work as they approach their own joy as a queer body, but also as they imagines a new world where joy is known by both queer bodies and black people uninterrupted by oppression, racism, and homophobia, one of their most well known poems, “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is an example of this imagining for Black boys. Smith has mentioned in interviews that they will often not post a tweet on Twitter that comes to mind and instead use it as a part of a poem. By using this casual, often humorous and/or sarcastic, colloquial everyday language in poetry, Smith believes they are subverting the heteronormative tradition in poetry to make language complicated, overly erudite, and evasive. In the same interview with Them in which Smith speaks about using accessible language, they say this works hand-in-hand with the depiction of queer joy, speaking of the necessity for queer joy in direct opposition to the shame typically thrust upon the community: “We need to learn how to write about queer joy, queer stillness, and queer drama that is not attached to shame.” They do this by incorporating jokes, reimaging a future where they can take their existences lightly — take for instance “my president” from Smith’s Homie, where a trans woman, rihanna, and Colin Kapernick are all imagined as the president; in a society where being queer is normal but not yet normalized, Smith invents a world where they not only prevail but rule us all, better and kinder than the presidents we have known up to now: 

& the leather daddy who always stops to say good morning /  & the boy crying on the train & the sudden abuela who rubs his back / & the uncle who offers him water & the drag queen who begins to hum / o my presidents! / my presidents! / my presidents! / my presidents! /   show me to our nation / my only border is my body /   i sing your names /  sing your names /  your names /  my mighty anthem (Smith, Homie) 

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Smith continues to equate representation with accessibility. When asked specificity about said accessibility they responded: 

I will say that for me, in my personal life, it’s always felt like poetry was respected, was desired, was cool. And so what does feel like a new day to me, especially in the literary world is just how many different kinds of people are allowed to take up space and tell their stories and tell the stories that they’re interested in telling. That’s just like so much more diverse, right?…it’s so lush and golden at this time…Maybe what’s also happening, when I’m talking about that lushness, is more people are finding poets that are better speaking their story or that are speaking the language that sounds familiar to them. And God bless that.

In the communities these poems reveal and depict, being queer exists in a space where couples, friends, and families are just as joyful as their straight counterparts. 

In Time is a Mother, Ocean Vuong has similar intentions as Smith and Keene, to destabilize not only whiteness but straightness as cultural norms through accessible language, depicting joy, as well as subverting traditional expectations of poetic form. In this collection, he  wrestles with the loss of his mother while celebrating his gay identity which, when read after On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous the reader understands came with a lot of shame as an immigrant and only son. Vuong writes of joy in the queer and immigrant communities, “We are rare in goodness, and rarer still in joy.” (Vuong, “Künstlerroman,” Time is a Mother) In an interview with NPR, Vuong said that when his mother passed, before writing TIAM, he had two options as he saw it: 1.) quit writing, or 2.) “ start doing whatever I wanted.” Vuong subverted form before, in his prose lyric auto-fiction. In Time is a Mother gave himself the ultimate permission to break every “rule” or tradition of poetic form. On the page this looks like aeration and line breaks that don’t always make sense according to what readers have come to expect from poetics of the 20th century and before. However, Vuong, Keene, and Smith believe this act of allowing a chaos formally to overtake the page is an act most authentic to cultures, communities, and lived experiences that don’t fit into heteronormative boxes. In poems like “Not Even This,” chaotic form also incorporates language, using strikethroughs to take back (but not really) certain phrases, some lines seem like non sequiturs, and brackets that contain added information, the poem is a stunning compilation of snark, wit, casual language, and zinging one-liners, he writes: 

I used to be a fag now I’m lit. Ha. // Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young / woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to / write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause.] I got nothing. [Laughter, glasses clinking.]

Do you know how many hours I’ve wasted watching straight boys play video games? // Enough. // Time is a mother. // Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.

John Keene, as mentioned before, values accessibility and relatability in the works he reads, as well as sets this as a metric for his own writing. Examples of where this intersects with depictions of queer joy abound in his collection Punks, I’d argue too that the two schools are almost intrinsically connected—that to depict joy at all in poetry, much less queer joy, is such a destabilization to traditions of poetry that it can really only be done by breaking down the walls of canonical poetry and also make the language accessible and relatable. 

In Keene’s poem, “Herring Cove Beach, 1997,” he speaks plainly and frankly with the reader as he depicts queer joy, and confronts the age-old question on his own terms of, “what makes a poem?” 

If I wrote 

the bikinied couples fleeing the sun’s 

stare, the fragrance of sex over-

flowing the dune’s copper cups, 

mysterious rote symphony of the sea 

would that make this a poem, even though it’s barely enough to/ fashion a brief song? 

Perhaps there’s grist for verse in the sand between my thighs, or the / laughter braided with cries from the others a few feet away, or the / Atlantic, relentlessly churning lyrics of its own. 

Keene’s speaker goes on to address a presumably male lover, or at least attraction, and depicts the way they have snuck around unnoticed by their chaperone, depicting the fun of a young love hidden from view of adults even though there is a tension lying between the lines where the reader knows the consequences would be different for two boys, than for a boy and a girl caught together. Keene allows that tension to exist —how could it not? — but refuses to let this be the focal point, the thesis of his poem. Instead, it’s about enjoying a day at the beach regardless of the judgment of onlookers, regardless of the threat off the page. 

Craft-wise Keene makes a lot of interesting decisions in this poem and others. The poem’s don’t read like the traditional poem that lends itself to fragmented thoughts bound together by elusive language and symbolism. Keene doesn’t need to imagine the purple lilac dripping with blood for us to hear the threat, he doesn’t need to evoke images of Achilles and Patroclus as young boys unaware of the war and tragedy that awaits them. Instad, he just presents a scene to us, often utilizing full and complete sentences reminiscent of prose. Formally he doesn’t prescribe to any contemplated lay of the page, rather just a few sentences strung together as he saw fit, separated into stanzas intuitively.  

Queer poets of today are redefining queer lit by not only keeping their darlings alive, but their joy alive too. In an effort to resist heteronormative poetic tradition they are paving the way for all kinds of marginal voices to do the same. In an industry where poetry — it’s form and it’s language — is so often gate kept by a ruling class of educated and erudite writers who hide behind their walls of sorrowful allusions to myth, legend, language, and history, queer poets are paving the way for laughter, for love, for pleasure and in the process for an approachable and accessible use of language that can be written and read by all, regardless of social or academic class. By using forms that can only be described as poet’s intuition rather than tradition; by using accessible, casual, and colloquial language that is not only not the standard but expressly counter to it; and opening up the themes in queer poetry to be joyful, funny, and heartfelt instead of tragic, 21st century queer poets are forging new identities in, not just queer art, but art as a viable outlet for marginalized bodies everywhere.


Bleah Patterson (she/her) is a queer writer, born and raised in Texas. Former evangelical, former homeschooler, former journalist, she believes in honoring every iteration of herself. She is a poet who sometimes writes prose. She explores generational and religious trauma, compulsive heterosexuality, disability studies, the millennial aestheticization of sadness, and inherited poverty. and is a current MFA candidate at Sam Houston State University. For what it’s worth, her mother says she’s a bad daughter but a good writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Brazos River Review; The Hyacinth Review, The Texas Review; the tide rises, the tide falls; Anti-Heroine Chic, Fifth Wheel Press, Fish Barrel Review; and elsewhere.  

Works Cited

Harris, Reginald, and John Keene. “John Keene: On Hidden Histories and Why Writing against Official Narratives Is Queer.” Lambda Literary, 8 June 2015,

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Emerson – Essays – The Poet,

Orr, David. “Points of Entry.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Nov. 2013,

Lamb, Sarah. “Pleasure, Friendships, and Fun.” Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility, 1st ed., vol. 15, University of California Press, 2022, pp. 154–68. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Apr. 2023.

Butler, Judith.  “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” from Literary Theory and Anthology, Third Edition. 2017. Print.

Stewart, Chris, and Danez Smith. “Nonbinary Poet Danez Smith Is Winning Awards – and Our Hearts.” Them, 16 Apr. 2018,

Smith, Danez. Homie. Graywolf Press, 2020. 

Paul, Crystal. “Poet Danez Smith Talks Identity, Safe Spaces and a ‘Lush’ New Day for Poetry.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 19 Nov. 2018,

Colyar, Brock, and Ocean Vuong. “Ocean Vuong Considers His Work ‘Badass Emo’.” The Cut, 11 Apr. 2022,

Mosley, Tonya. “Poet Ocean Vuong Sifts through the Aftershock of Grief in ‘Time Is a Mother’.” NPR, NPR, 5 Apr. 2022,

Vuong, Ocean. Time Is a Mother. Penguin USA, 2022. 

Keene, John. Punks. The Song Cave, 2021. 

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