Poetry as queer liberation and Joy

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been thinking about the role of the arts in helping us see ourselves, connecting us in experience and feeling to others.  

When I was in high school, my teacher took a group of students who were part of a “Young Writers” program to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which was then hosted at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey. This biennial celebration of poetry, the largest in North America, is a four-day festival that dedicates one full day to students and another day for teachers. The magnitude of this structure wouldn’t be apparent to me for some time, but it’s safe to say my 16-year-old self was not at all prepared for what would happen once I stepped off that school bus.  

Poets were among us. Literally walking around. Student, student, poet, teacher, poet, student, poet, student, Lucille Clifton! When these poets who I would soon come to know took to the Mill, or Chapel, or Barn or Main Tent for readings and conversations on poetry, these writers transformed their experiences into an embrace for all of us. 

The poets wrote their lives, their sadness, their joy and did so while letting us know exactly who they were: parents and children; those loved deeply and also those exiled by family; queer folks, lovers, survivors, witnesses; similar to some, and not like any others at all.  

I saw people I didn’t think existed and simultaneously I also felt seen. And for my friends and all the other students there that day, there were poets sharing their work that made them feel seen, connecting them to possibility and shared futures. Certainly, hearing about love—queer love—in some of the poems at that time made me feel more whole, and it made the challenges of being who I was as a teen in the 90s more bearable.   

But there was a broader impact it had as well—poetry, the living library I was given access to on that festival day, was liberatory. It freed my voice, and I know in the decades since, it has provided open windows, sliding doors, many mirrors and space to be ourselves.  

It’s this set of memories that are present for me as I hear about books being pulled from the shelves of schools, of the brouhaha over gender and sexuality and race and ethnicity being voiced by authors for young people. To think that any one identity, any single narrative, could be what is appropriate for youth! The freedom to read is integral to discovering ourselves and others. And when we read, we free ourselves from the rigid sense of who others think we can become, and instead are offered a plurality of possible futures.  

Sadly, these approaches—the limiting of information, of art, of language—have devastating effects, and we would be remiss to not connect the restriction or removal of art, poetry, books in general, and classroom content to the significant rise in bias incidents in schools across the nation. These connect indelibly to tragedies like the actions leading up to and including the death of Nex Benedict, an Indigenous nonbinary sophomore, after being attacked in a high school bathroom after ongoing bullying in Oklahoma, where recent anti-trans legislation limits civil rights for trans and nonbinary people. 

The Dodge Poetry Festival, now in Newark and entering its 38th year, still opens its collective heart to everyone looking for spirit and connection. Poetry remains a way to live out a truth, to share that truth with others, to keep love and liberation alive. 

Share your thoughts and ideas with us at rainbowconnectionnjea@gmail.com. 

Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson (both she/her) are out queer educators, leaders and activists working to make education affirming and inclusive for all of their students and colleagues. Moran has taught middle school for 29 years and was a high school GSA adviser for 16 years. Okeson is a 26-year art educator, GSA adviser for 14 years, local association president, and co-founder/program director of Make it Better for Youth.