In the latest installment of the Rainbow Center’s “Out to Lunch” series, queer Black femme feminist poet M. Mick Powell gave a powerful presentation centered on sexual intimacy and eroticism in queer poetry. “Out to Lunch” is an academic lecture and discussion series with guest scholars and activists exploring a variety of topics surrounding gender, sexuality and gender expression.
The lecture began with a brief introduction of self-identified “Black lesbian mother warrior poet” Audre Lorde, and her 1978 speech “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde’s thesis was centered on explaining how eroticism is a deeply feminine, sexual, emotional and spiritual power.
“Power as in something that is only deeply and intrinsically accessible if we can get from under the corrupted systems of patriarchy [and] the corrupted systems of white supremacy,” Powell explained. “Lorde argues that the erotic has been suppressed, oppressed and suffocated by these systems. She talks about this throughout the piece; how the erotic can exist in all of these different sorts of ways and also how it’s been punished and demonized in the society that we live in.”
“Power as in something that is only deeply and intrinsically accessible if we can get from under the corrupted systems of patriarchy [and] the corrupted systems of white supremacy”M. Mick Powell, Poet
Powell made sure to mention the distinction between the erotic and pornography as discussed by Lorde: “Pornography is the direct denial of the power of the erotic … [it] emphasizes sensation without feeling.”
“Within the erotic, there is a deeper understanding of the emotions, the feelings, the spirituality behind the actions,” Powell said. “As we’re encountering work that deals with the erotic, I think there’s always that social question [of where the line is] and Audre Lorde answers that right up front in the essay.”
There were four main themes about eroticism Powell outlined from Lorde’s speech: intentionality in language through sensory details such as touch, reclamation of agency and sexual autonomy, simultaneous exploration of the deeply spiritual and deeply political and the need to share erotic feelings with others. She connected these points to examples of contemporary expressions of queer eroticism in poetry: how desire is documented through focusing on the physical body, redefining what it means to be feminine by disrupting cisnormativity, revisions of spirituality and of the world and, lastly, acknowledgement of the dangers faced by queer eroticism including queer and trans antagonism.
The remaining portion of the presentation focused on analyzing how these themes manifest in the works of contemporary queer poets Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Justice Ameer, Tatiana de la Tierra and Powell herself. Her poem, “poem in which my whole hand fits in my mouth”, was published in 2019. As evident from the title, the uses of hand and mouth imagery relate to sensory details such as touch and taste, one of the vital elements of written queer eroticism today. Here, Powell also focuses on the susceptibility to danger experienced by queer eroticism. The line “They paint the surrounding space / with their electric homicide” is a reference to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, where one of Powell’s close friends was killed.
“Part of what’s coming up for me in writing this poem, even though it’s set in this basement party, is this idea that I’m on the dancefloor with the dead, including KJ and including the other people who were killed in the Pulse Orlando shooting,” Powell said. “What I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about how the erotic and the intimate shows up in queer and trans poetry is that element of danger. Danger broadly, but also really intense danger; the potential for really intense violence like homicide.”
“What I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about how the erotic and the intimate shows up in queer and trans poetry is that element of danger. Danger broadly, but also really intense danger; the potential for really intense violence like homicide.”M. Mick Powell, Poet
She moved on to discuss “bare” by Black non-binary poet Danez Smith, a love poem to — as they state in the beginning — their “HIV-positive lover.” Smith’s passionate words encapsulate the extent and harmless nature of their desires, which can often be considered a dangerous aspiration by a society that has garnered negative views of HIV and AIDS in the past. However, everything said by Smith is intended with pure intentions of love and longing, with a theme of revisioning spirituality weaved within the poem. As they say, “if love is a hole wide enough / to be a god’s mouth, let me plunge…”
“Devotion” by Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong was the last work analyzed by Powell. His poem utilized the same element of spirituality as Smith’s, as well as focusing on physical body parts like the mouth and tongue. Vuong’s evocative imagery starts right from the beginning: “Instead, the year begins / with my knees / scraping hardwood … Because the difference / between prayer & mercy / is how you move / the tongue.”
“We get this image of prayer sort of instantly, with the image of being on the knees, but also of course we get the image of — it’s always hard when you’re talking about this to find the most professional way to say it — but engaging in oral sex,” Powell said.
In the interest of time, Powell was unable to talk in-depth about “t for t” by Black trans poet Justice Ameer or “Dreaming of Lesbos” by Latina lesbian writer Tatiana de la Tierra, but encouraged audience members to engage in the poems whenever they got the chance. Despite this, her earlier words were enough to sum up the purpose of queer erotics in poetry and its significance in today’s culture.
“In some of the poems — whether it’s named or not — I think there’s a desire to live in a world where our intimacy is not criminalized or demonized”M. Mick Powell, Poet
“In some of the poems — whether it’s named or not — I think there’s a desire to live in a world where our intimacy is not criminalized or demonized,” Powell said. “And poets are building that world through writing poetry.”
While Powell identifies as a poet first, her extensive educational background eventually gave way to her second identity as an educator. After earning her B.A. in women’s gender and sexuality studies and Africana studies from UConn in 2015, Powell proceeded to earn her M.A. in creative writing from Southern Connecticut State University three years later. She is currently an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at UConn.