Essay | How to Run a Queer Reading Series at a LDN Arts Institution by Isabel Waidner

0
564
Screenshot of Ecco the Dolphin, developed by Novotrade for the Sega Mega Drive

Isabel Waidner


How to Run a Queer Reading Series at a LDN Arts Institution

Queers Read This is a literature event that isn’t boring.’

Queers Read This is an ongoing reading series started independently by artist Richard Porter and myself at the Horse Hospital in London in 2017, and co-run with the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) since. Quarterly events feature readings of texts which work across intersectional systems of oppression, and challenge formal distinctions between prose and poetry or critical and creative writing. Themes range from pansies and twink mysticism (Caspar Heinemann), sissy bois (Natasha Lall), art in black homes (Abondance Matanda), and protection spells against magpies (Timothy Thornton), to the end of the world (Alison Rumfitt). Alongside like-minded reading series organised by The 87 Press, the No Matter poetry series in Manchester, and Horseplay in Brighton for example, Queers Read This has been instrumental in re-defining interdisciplinary writing as a medium which is bringing together new communities of LGBTQI+, Black, BAME and working-class writers, poets, artists, performers and readers in the UK. The title of the series is gratefully borrowed from an anonymously published leaflet distributed at a 1990 Pride march in New York.

This fan fiction essay introduces the best of Queers Read This, and recruits it into a blockbuster narrative. Written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it strangely anticipates the loss or suspension of institutional access and queer sociality. Though unprecedented in terms of its universality, the current suspension feels like an extension of the precarity and ephemerality of queer working-class infrastructures at the best of times.

The multidimensional theatre space is huge, black walls. When I say multidimensional I mean several past and future Queers Read This and related events are collapsed into one, and unreeled simultaneously—busy night. The foot high, square stage in the middle of the theatre is surrounded by seats on all sides like a boxing ring. Early audience members and readers are wandering around, talking. Event curators are chatting to techies. A test puff of dry ice goes up in the air. Some people are coughing, or, if ever they personally or on TV experienced a house fire, potentially triggered—international guest star Dodie Bellamy is reminded of the California wildfires, Autumn ’18. A smoke machine isn’t innocent, not in relation to PTSD! I understand now that there are small, controlled fires in each corner of the theatre.

The place is filling up. Happy hardcore plays quietly in the background. Mojisola Adebayo, Helen Cammock and Abondance Matanda sit down in the back row, furthest away from the entrance. Clay AD, Huw Lemmey, R. Zamora Linmark, D. Mortimer and Kashif Sharma-Patel sit in the first row, nearest the entrance. I get up on stage. Test one, two. Joanna Walsh there, Timothy Thornton. Shola von Reinhold! But what’s this. There, in the back. I see an arm in a neoprene wetsuit, a neon-green gardening glove. Another arm, three, four in total. Gone. Let’s hope I’m imagining things, it’s my job after all. Roz! I hop off the stage to say hi to Roz Kaveney. At the edge of my vision, I see a figure in neoprene creep up behind people in the back row, left. IT’S THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL VORTEX QUEEN FROM LINDA STUPART AND CARL GENT’S DIY ARTISTS’ PLAY ALL OF US GIRLS HAVE BEEN DEAD FOR SO LONG, WHICH, OF ALL PLACES, PREMIERED HERE IN THE ICA THEATRE LAST JUNE! Know that this place hasn’t always been multidimensional. At one point during Stupart and Gent’s play, the Vortex Queen unleashed a significant vortex in the venue’s then regular theatre space, multiplying dimensions. I watched it happen, own eyes.

Place is getting packed. Another puff of dry ice, the Vortex Queen lives for dry ice. Dry ice is the reason why she decided to occupy the theatre in the first place. Originally derived from the 1992 Ecco The Dolphin SEGA video game, the Vortex Queen abstracts natural resources from the Earth like a venture capitalist, siphoning raw material off our planet via gigantic vortices. With the planet’s resources largely depleted, she, in 2020, has evolved to metabolise toxic by-product and waste, including dry ice and preferably urban human bodies.

I signal my co-host, let’s open the night. Porter and I get up on stage. Music stops. Spotlights come on. We banter, tell the audience who and what to expect. We laugh, the audience laugh, implicit gay trauma connecting us all. That’s why our laughter is so wild and so free, like pink smoke billowing from barely controlled fires.

Verity Spott, the Brighton-based poet, steps onto the stage. We are honoured, et cetera. Like every reader at Queers Read This, Spott rotates on stage as she reads, addressing different sections of the audience in turn. I’m concerned that the rotating motion, recurrent at that, should open some kind of metaphysical borehole, and that’s on top of the temporal vortex we’re already living the consequences of. Reading her poem in which madness, more specifically Suggs from Madness, creeps up on her grandmother, Spott brings the house down. Reading another poem which connects the BBC to the Gender Recognition Act or its potential reform (from Prayers, Bravery, Manifestos, 2019), Spott walks over the rubble of the house she already brought down, crushing it. Standing ovation for Verity Spott! Amid the cheers, nobody seems to see what I see. The Vortex Queen tackles one of the few working-class audience members in the room and tears out their working-class heart.

Next up, Nisha Ramayya. Poet reads Future Flowers, from her collection States of the Body Produced by Love (2019). The poem starts with hundreds of thousands of albatrosses courting and ends up with the real fucking police sitting across the street from a real fucking temple in Hyderabad. En route, it discusses the race to “one-pointed consciousness”, the opening of the hole in one’s head into which “sky drips”, and other actions conducive to the imagination. Future Flowers speaks of the want to be left alone with one’s mind-rays, a cosmic puppet, dangling in the grandeur of the inner void. But how to achieve perfect desirelessness when surrounded by kissy noises? “Everyone and everything is kissing,” Ramayya reads, “except you! Your mouth is stuffed full of flowers and even these flowers are kissing each other, inside your mouth as if you were simply a space in which desire takes place.” Nisha! This is exactly what Queers Read This feels like at its best!

I first heard Ramayya read Future Flowers the year before at a student-organised reading at a post-’92 university. I, writer, borrowed a perceived image from the poem of two lions vomiting. In my novel We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (2019) the lions’ vomit rises into the air where the distinct streams meet and create a giant vomit heart in the sky. The vomit heart turns into a lasso and is being weaponised against the border police. Hearing Future Flowers again now, I can say that, on top of the topics already mentioned, it covers coloured powders, corpse-width bodies, and, crucially, lions, but no flying vomit hearts. The lions that do appear in Future Flowers don’t vomit—they prop open their mouths with enemy heads. This, is speaking to me. I should bite the Vortex Queen’s head off, stop her from clawing out proletarian hearts.

She beats me to it. It’s the Vortex Queen who ends up biting the head off of a precarious audience member, fourth or fifth row, exit-facing! ENOUGH! I leap onto the stage, interrupting Ramayya’s reading. I take the microphone, alarm! Alarm! “The Vortex Queen is killing lovers of literature!” I say. The audience look at me, stunned. “Let’s stop her, I beg!” The audience start to boo a little, they prefer their poetry readings unpunctuated. They don’t believe, they say, that the, what, Fostex King?, is killing literature? “The VORTEX QUEEN,” I correct, “is killing LOVERS of literature.” Where, by the way, is she, is she hiding. “What about the corpse-width body,” I say, pointing to what’s left of it in row five. Are we to call the police?! No. No police. Four audience members get up, pick up the body and bury it under the row of seats. So there, wipe wipe, they wash their hands of it. Can Nisha Ramayya get back on stage and finish her reading now. Ok wow. I let that sink it. It’s not that the audience are unscrupulous, reckless and classist, I think. They’re just really committed to cutting edge poetry.

Fine. I’m on my own. I’ll end the nefarious Vortex Queen solo, send her two-bit, I mean, 16-bit butt back to the 1990s alone. Question is how.

Ramayya cannot be persuaded to continue her reading right now, so Porter and I introduce our next reader, Natasha Lall. In Lall’s The 16mb, Future Sounds & A Mini City (2018), a trilogy of lo-fi, retro-futurist videos shot in Glasgow, a protagonist (Lall), sometime in the post-apocalyptic future, searches for the meaning and origin of an obscure, obsolete object, a 16mb memory card. On their quest, they come across other forgotten objects, like a golden snow globe containing the titular mini city. Lall discovers that the memory card would have been used to store information. What if crucial insights are contained on there, such as the histories leading up to the apocalypse? The reasons behind the general absence of memory cards and snow globes in future Glasgow? There is no electricity in this dystopia, but Lall works on cracking the 16mb using a circuit diagram, rubber bands, sellotape, mechanical forces and magic.

They got something. On an ancient Atari in a Glaswegian bedroom, a message appears: ‘To rid yrself of th EVIL Vo tex Qu.’ Blank screen. Sellotape manipulation produces: ‘follo these instru©tins.’ Power out. Say what? Can it be that a 16mb memory stick in the retrofuture contains detailed instructions for the removal of the Vortex Queen from a multi-dimensional theatre space? The exact how-to? Yes, it can! Lall gets their head down. Access to the stored data is ever more urgent.

Meanwhile, Huw Lemmey gets up on the ICA stage and reads communist pornography, or, his novel Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell (2019). In it, protagonist Tom, a moderate member of Oxford University Gay Labour Youth and aspiring career politician enters the LDN chemsex scene, partly to process what he perceives to be the Labour Party’s counterproductive turn towards basically communism following Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015. In an interview with i-D, Lemmey describes the satirical conceit of Red Tory as follows: “[W]hat if the tabloid newspapers’ [overblown and reductive] descriptions of the political scene in the UK were reality?” Playing on the real-life media’s belief that ordering a latte in Costa was the epitome of middle-class culture, cappuccino actually is elitist in Red Tory, for example. And the people who joined the Labour Party in 2015 are the bloodthirsty communists the media made them out to be. But at its best, Red Tory performs the more nuanced ways in which hard facts and imaginaries fundamentally co-shape contemporary reality. Take the pig sex scene early on in the novel: In a newly-built block of flats in East London, Tom experiences chemically induced hallucinations of being fucked by “daddy pig”, whose “body seemed enormous and pink, so very pink.” “The piggy rocked back and forth,” and then, after what seems like a period of extensive “assfucking”, piggy grew “so tall his trotters, raised up above his head, ripped down the halogen chandelier, bringing shards of the ceiling with it.”

Oh, CRAAAAASH!!! That’s the Vortex Queen tearing down, not a halogen chandelier in an East London fuck flat, but a heavyweight spotlight in the ICA theatre. Parts of the ceiling come down with it. No audience members were hurt, but one of the small, inadequately controlled fires is now out of control. Pink smoke everywhere. Vision is overall poor, but some audience members are prepared to admit that they ~may~ have seen ~something like~ the Vortex Queen taking down part of the ceiling. Lemmey holds it together, continues reading:

Having passed out after the piggy sex orgy, Red Tory’s Tom gets up and walks into a local newsagent. He sees the headlines ‘Prime Minister Pigfucker’, ‘CAMERON HUMILATED BY PIG SEX SCANDAL’, and ‘CAMERON: CONFIRMED PIG FUCKER’. Tom thinks he is still hallucinating, still tripping on Tina or meth—of course #piggate actually happened. I, for one, have resigned myself to the twilight affair that is facto-fiction at this historical juncture in Britain, and also to the fact that there’s pigs everywhere.

Intent on infiltrating, colonising and flying like so many proverbial piglets, the Vortex Queen gets up on stage. She starts bounding on the spot, gently at first, then increasingly vigorously, sending shock waves through the theatre like a minor earth quake. But what’s this, the extra-terrestrial’s neoprene skin begins to blister. She can’t take the heat on stage, I think, but that isn’t it. Tiny Vortex Princelets are hatching from bursting blisters, dozens of them. They detach from the parental body and take flight! They’re nothing like piglets, they are albatrosses crowding the air. Poetry lovers are fighting them off with their phones like lightsabres. Remember when we were all kissy kissy? Not now. Re-enacting the albatross fest in Future Flowers, we are “hundreds of thousands of awkward bodies, golden arms, sword-fighting, sunbeams, laser quests.” We “hold hands, rub beaks, play footsie, […] wind tails together, […] bumpity bump bump bump.” Literature fans and Vortex Princelets “circle each other, full body popping; […] [we] star-gaze.” We are one communal body, except we aren’t “[t]he absolute soul of the universe,” which according to Ramayya is “an assemblage of migratory birds, whose agitation is indeed creation.” We are an absurdly poetic battlefield.

Back in the retrofuture, Lall has been working on accessing the memory card’s content sans electricity. Latest phrase appearing on the screen is: ‘You want t imagine futures?’ “It’s the opening line of Future Flowers,” Porter says, ducking. Vortex Princelets are dive bombing from the ceiling, winning their fight against battery-intensive lightsabres run off our phones. “What is,” I ask. “You want to imagine futures,” Porter repeats. “It’s the opening line of Ramayya’s Future Flowers.” Turns out, Nisha Ramayya didn’t read the opening line of her poem earlier tonight. Before she was interrupted, she read Future Flowers BACKWARDS, honouring the temporal idiosyncrasies distinguishing this particular event. Is the 16mb telling us that the deactivation of the Vortex Queen is connected to the end, I mean, the beginning of Future Flowers?! The part we haven’t yet heard? “Hey!” I make myself heard over the sword-fighting, the laser questing. (Mythologically speaking, it is very unlucky to kill albatrosses.) “Future Flowers,” I say. You what? “Future Flowers,” I insist. Finally! The audience are glad I’ve come ‘round to their way of thinking. They’ve wanted Ramayya’s poetry all along.

A million gold flakes are falling from the ceiling as if the theatre were a snow globe and we were a mini city. Incinerated Vortex Princelets? Torched PVC chairs? Acid rain? Chemtrails? We’ve got to act now—.

Every writer and poet in the room drops their phone-y weapon and gets up on stage. In concert, Mojisola Adebayo, Dodie Bellamy, Helen Cammock, Roz Kaveney, Natasha Lall, Huw Lemmey, R Zamora Linmark, Abondance Matanda, D. Mortimer, Richard Porter, Nisha Ramayya, Shola von Reynolds, Verity Spott, Timothy Thornton, Joanna Walsh, Eley Williams and I resume reading Future Flowers where Ramayya left off. I can confirm that no lions vomit in the early parts of the poem either, nor do vomit hearts take to the sky—that’s just me, just We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff. But at the very end of our collective reading, the actual beginning of Future Flowers, two elephants feature, vomiting rainbows. The rainbows meet and, YES, they fuse in the air to form a giant lunette! A lunette (n.) is a crescent-shaped object, an area enframed by an arch, and also a peephole. The Vortex Queen turns her head in my direction exactly—.

IS THE PEEPHOLE THE ANTI-VORTEX? IS THE PEEPHOLE THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH TO TRANSPORT THE VORTEX QUEEN BACK TO THE 1990S? I think so! Coinciding with our second or third collective iteration of the word ‘lunette’, a whirl like a giant pink piglet’s tail materialises in the theatre. Within seconds, the anti-vortex, or peephole, or piglet’s tail claims the Vortex Queen and everything else alive or dead, except me. I’m left in an empty theatre. No writers, no audience, no pink smoke billowing. No uncontrolled fires, no puffs of dry ice. No happy hardcore playing quietly, no curators, no co-host, no Queers Read This. The anti-vortex took everything away, sent it back to various points in the past and the future. I would raid the ICA bookshop on my way out, but even the books are gone.

This creative-critical essay is an extract from There Will Always Be Nights Like This, published by Cipher Press and available to buy here.

_

       Isabel Waidner is a writer and critical theorist. Their books include We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff (2019), Gaudy Bauble (2017) and Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (ed., 2018), published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Waidner’s critical and creative texts have appeared in journals including AQNB, Cambridge Literary Review, Frieze, The Happy Hypocrite, Tank Magazine and Tripwire. They are the co-founder of the event series Queers Read This at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (with artist Richard Porter), and an academic at University of Roehampton, London.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cipher Press for publishing. Thanks to everyone involved in any way in making Queers Read This happen, especially Richard Porter, Rosalie Doubal, Sara Sassanelli and our readers. Thanks to our audiences. Scheduled on 2 April 2020, Queers Read This (5) was postponed indefinitely, as was every other queer and literary physical get-together worldwide. List of events referenced in the text:

Queers Read This (1), 24 May 2018 at ICA, London. With Richard Porter, Abondance Matanda, Nisha Ramayya, Timothy Thornton, Isabel Waidner and Joanna Walsh. Music by Charlie Porter.

Queers Read This (2), 16 November 2018 at ICA, London. With Dodie Bellamy, Natasha Lall, Richard Porter, Verity Spott and Isabel Waidner.

Queers Read This (3), 7 March 2019 at ICA, London. With Helen Cammock, Caspar Heinemann, D. Mortimer, Richard Porter and Isabel Waidner.

Queers, Class and the Avant-garde, 23 May 2019 at ICA, London. Presented by writer Isabel Waidner, this evening of readings and discussion interrogated queerness and class in interdisciplinary writing and publishing in the UK, and featured presentations by Mojisola Adebayo, Ray Filar, Roz Kaveney, Huw Lemmey and Kashif Sharma-Patel. 

Queers Read This (4), 7 November 2019 at ICA, London. With Clay AD, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Porter, Alison Rumfitt, Shola von Reinhold and Isabel Waidner.

Queers Read This (5), 2 April 2020 [POSTPONED]. With Sophia Al-Maria, Harry Burgess, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Richard Porter, Tai Shani and Isabel Waidner.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.