We talk to writer and film programmer Jay Bernard about resisting reformist agendas, writing marginal lives, and why you should be wary of the tagline ‘young poet’.
Hi Jay – thanks for talking to us. You work across various different artforms: film, graphic art, poetry. As an artist, do you find that your different interests and talents complement each other? Or do Jay the filmmaker and Jay the poet, say, occupy distinct, discrete spaces?
The funny thing about this question is that whatever I say I am, I find myself discarding; whatever I say I’m not, I find myself becoming. So I do a lot of things, but ultimately everything I do is a form of writing. I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the past year – how all the different things I do relate – and I think I am interested in everything, possibly because I see how it relates to poetry. And poetry is very porous: the idea that you might try to see things as they are, work at things until they are completely transparent, aim for lucidity – I think these are ideas that apply to many areas. I can see the essential beauty of many forms and can’t help but engage, which means I find it hard to settle. Some might say that being interested in lots of things means that one or the other practice suffers, or more likely both. So I suppose I occupy that very anxious position – of bi-creativity, and the invisibility thereof. By the way, I have yet to make a film and would never say I am a filmmaker, but if you check back in six months that will have changed completely.
February is LGBT History Month in the UK. Your work strongly engages with (among other things) LGBT identities and dialogues, and I know you’ve also spoken about the challenges of engaging diverse LGBT communities. What’s the purpose of LGBT History Month, from your perspective? What are its limitations?
It’s a nice idea. In principle I see nothing wrong with dedicating a month to the history of a particular community. I think LGBT History month is still quite sensitive for a lot of people, as is Black History month, because to celebrate them is to acknowledge that there is a lot wrong with our society and that the history we’re told is not the full story. The limitations are the same as with any initiative that attempts to look at a historically oppressed group: is it radical enough? And does it let people who otherwise don’t give a damn about marginal groups off the hook? Does it pander to a reformist agenda in which we ask to be “accepted” and “included” while ignoring the broader, interconnected struggles of those who are still oppressed?
We must always be aware of pink-washing and homonationalism, in which we conclude that the hard-won rights of LGBTQ people are somehow an inevitable benevolence bestowed by the state and are therefore the sign of a more advanced, compassionate society. This is the reasoning of some who use LGBTQ rights to bash Muslim people over the head – as though homosexuality and Islam were mutually exclusive. The fact that we have celebrations such as LGBTQ History month is great, but we need to always be vigilant against those who would use it for their own messed up agenda, as a way to actually obscure history.
You are working as a programmer for the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival. How did you start being a part of that? And what are some of your favourite – or most memorable – pieces that you’ve programmed for Flare in the past couple of years?
I applied. In fact, Nazmia Jamal who now works in the education department used to do this job. I got it after she left. It has been a steep learning curve. In my first year, I was very proud to programme Stories of Our Lives – a series of short films. Last year I was most pleased to present an amazing documentary about disabled people and the people who help them to explore their sexualities. The director ended the Q&A by talking about how queer people are ostracised because we don’t reproduce, disabled people are ostracised because they don’t produce, and that ultimately we must transform society not accept the repression and marginalisation of ourselves. It was brilliant. This year, I am very excited about presenting a panel on the spate of new digital laws that surveille our online activity and disproportionately target queer people.
In a previous interview, you’ve said that you should never identify as a ‘Young Poet’. I think that your advice never to “value yourself based on your youth” is excellent – what should (let’s call them aspiring) writers be doing to create a different kind of value, in themselves and their work?
It is important to remember that good work is good work regardless of age. There’s a set of obvious routes you can take when you’re under 25 that distinguish you as a “good writer”. So – as I did – you can win a slam, win a competition, get published in a well-regarded magazine, get accepted into a good university, graduate from all kinds of schemes and programmes. But there is also a maturation process that nobody can help you with – not Arts Council England, not The Poetry Society, not anyone. In that respect you are completely alone and you must decide for yourself what you are going to be. It will be very anxiety-inducing to watch some people rocket to fame while you can hardly pay your rent, but that’s the nature of the game. You must value your project and your ideas, not the age you are when you complete them. And you must understand that it’s better in the long run to climb than to shoot – better to be seasoned than to be novel.
Try not to always do things according to your age group (which is a bit of a social pathology), and seek out people who won’t be enchanted by your youth, who won’t let you delude yourself, who will hold you to a genuine standard. To me our obsession with age is as strange as people who are prized because they have certain bone structures or famous parents. Be cautious of profiles of very young people doing great things. Although that’s great for them (and you, if you happen to be profiled), most will not last. Your youth has nothing to do with you and will definitely fade. Have a plan for that.
In 2016 you spent three months as Poet in Residence as the George Padmore Institute and produced new work which was published in a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of New Beacon Books [the first independent publisher for Caribbean and Black interest fiction and non-fiction in the UK]. Why are spaces like New Beacon so important?
What I learned working at New Beacon Books is that ordinary, quiet things are extremely important in the march towards a better society. New Beacon is like a time capsule in that you can see what was possible in London before property became a total, all-encompassing racket. John La Rose was an immigrant from Trinidad who started a publishing house and eventually was able to buy a building, start an archive, start a bookshop. You can do that today, but the landscape is very different, and in London I doubt you’ll last long. And that’s just how things change. You can’t always be nostalgic for things that don’t make economic sense anymore. However you can be nostalgic for something more integral, the idea of space, of being able to claim space for whatever you think is important. The George Padmore Institute is invaluable, but it is not inevitable and it is not invincible. Black British history is often subordinated to US history – thanks cultural imperialism! – but I assure you it’s as rich as anything, doubly so because it is so tied in with internationalism, the idea that struggles in Trinidad and Barbados are as relevant as struggles in Hackney and Toxteth. You also realise that history repeats itself. And that’s a cliché but it’s true. The struggle against fascism in the archive is twinned with an appreciation of culture and I don’t think that’s an accident. White nationalists attacked bookshops, just as neoliberals attack cultural studies and any department that focuses on the epistemologies of marginal people. New Beacon is a very simple response to that. And it’s actually closing down as a bookshop soon. It will become something else, which I think is important – to transform with the times rather than remain a relic of history.
What led you to focus on the New Cross Fire in your poems produced at the GPI?
Thirteen black kids died in the fire, and a fourteenth committed suicide soon after. I was living in New Cross and I knew that I wanted to write about these kids who were migrants, the children of migrants. In the current climate, it is important that we can value and respect the mundane lives of marginal, demonised people. The press goes crazy over a protest, a killing, thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean. But no-one cares about the more banal struggle. The media does not care to cover the hundreds of people in detention centres or those who are deported – the Yarl’s Wood protests have really drawn attention to that. So my poems were about the fire, but more about the aftermath, when everything has died down, and the victims are speaking out to their living relatives. I wanted to focus on the very simple, human relationships, because I feel we are living with a worldview in which those simple relationships, simple acts of compassion towards others who need it are matters of “illegality”, “taking jobs”, “not respecting our freedoms”. As though people up and leave their country for fun; as though this country has no part in the economic conditions in the global south that drive people to migrate.
You were also a writer in residence at the National University of Singapore. What experiences – good and bad – have you had as a poet, and an LGBTQ person of colour, working outside the UK? Have these experiences been very different to working here?
For the record, I don’t like being referred to as a ‘person of colour’. I find it euphemistic. I’m black. Black British. And this is important because when I was in Singapore, I had a conversation that never left me. I was talking with a professor about ‘Ang Moh’, a pejorative term for white people in Singlish. And he said, “Of course, you’re an honorary white person here.” And I thought, hang on, do I not have any reality as a black person? POC would cover anyone non-white, but makes no sense in Singapore because the majority are Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi. So I too am interacting with these people with my own ethnic / racial history – why should it be reduced to “honorary whiteness?” I think this was a very eye-opening experience. All of Singapore was. My experiences in other countries have also been interesting. I don’t know if there’s such a huge difference compared to working in the UK, other than some basic cultural differences.
What does it mean for a writer and a person with a public persona to change pronouns? Your work often explores gender identity – how does a poet’s relationship with their existing work change as their identity shifts and grows?
I don’t really have a public persona. I obviously have a paper trail or projects and pamphlets, but not enough that anyone cares that my preferred pronoun is ‘they’. The thing that bothers me most is looking at photos of myself. I look so awkward and weird because I was never trying to be feminine, I just did the default because ultimately I didn’t care. I wish I’d found the trans and non-binary scene sooner because it has now become the core of my thinking. Prior to about two years ago, I was always asking myself what my subject was, why I was writing. I was always drawn to family, body, sexuality, but now I see my old work in a different light. ‘Lingerie‘ was a poem I wrote before I knew the term dysphoria or really knew anything about chest surgery. Now I read it, and I think, yup, I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what. I think everyone has that when they look back on their work as teenagers. I wrote that poem when I was seventeen, published it at nineteen. Ten years later, I really feel for my younger self. But there’s no real consequence to this. And this makes me think about poetry more generally. I have never been in this game for much more than the opportunity to say something real, work things out. Or to say what I already know and have not yet come to acknowledge.
Jay Bernard is from London and works as a writer and film programmer at BFI Flare (London’s LGBT film festival). A former Foyle Young Poet and a winner of SLAMbassadors UK, they are the author of three pamphlets, The Red and Yellow Nothing (2016), English Breakfast (2013), and Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (2008), and have been featured in numerous anthologies and magazines, including TEN: The New Wave, Voice Recognition, Out of Bounds, and Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology. Jay can be found @brrnrrd and jaybernard.co.uk