Lunch Poems: York LGBT History Month

by Amy McCarthy and Rachel Louise Atkin

To celebrate LGBT History Month, a group of poetry enthusiasts gathered together in the Eagle and Child to discuss Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch Poems’ alongside other legendary LGBT writers – appropriately over lunch. We leave the streets of York to go to the bustling streets of Manhattan. As O’Hara composed his poetry during his lunch hours, the group bounced off each other’s analyses.

Frank O’Hara’s ‘Song’, a poem about people watching ‘where the tough Rocky’s eaves hit the sea’, seemed particularly relevant to us as we were able gaze out and watch the people bustling about in the city below us. This is a poem about movement, evident in its use of enjambment as though the words move too fast for the lines to catch up. The objects around O’Hara take on human forms – books have ‘trousers and sleeves’ and trains ‘run and shout’. New York becomes a people city, and specifically a fast one, where even inanimate objects absorb the speed and activity of those around it. It seemed appropriate to be reading such a poem, and hearing the clinking of glasses and footsteps from the rest of the pub.

‘Ave Maria’ has many layers to it as a poem about sexuality. The overarching theme is censorship of sex. O’Hara argues the youth of America should be allowed to go to the cinema and experience storylines besides their own narrative and therefore understand their sexuality. Yet, the mothers of America would also have the time to engage with their sexuality. The poem says ‘they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience / which only cost you a quarter’; sexual encounters are an exchange and the cinema becomes a place of pleasure. With gay bars being regularly raided and patrons harassed by police, (which led to the Stonewall Riots of 1969), the cinema was a queer space to occupy and to safely meet other people.

Throughout the poem, tension between pleasure and the drama of encounter is explored

Cheryl Clarke’s ‘living as a lesbian on 49’s final eve’ explores sexuality later in life – in comparison to the other poets discussed this lunch time. Clarke explores the nature of desire and whether sex is patriarchal and an experience of power. Throughout the poem, tension between pleasure and the drama of encounter is explored as the narrator writes: ‘Tear off my clothes in the middle of the road’. It is a transitional poem as the narrator first says she shouldn’t be happy to be chosen by a woman just because she is an older woman, but then the poem shifts to acceptance of love.

The group moved on to discuss ‘Many Loves’ by Allen Ginsberg and its explicit content. ‘Many Loves’ contrasts the hyper-masculine figure of Neal Cassady with the delicate body of Allen Ginsberg. Written early in Ginsberg’s career, it is subversive even now as early sexual awakenings are unearthed. Ginsberg allows his masculinity to fade from the picture. Walt Whitman’s epigraph chosen for the poem: ‘Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment’, is from the Calamus poems from Leaves of Grass – which explores homosexual love. As Whitman was revolutionary in the nineteenth-century, Ginsberg takes on the batten in the twentieth-century to normalise non-heterosexual sex.

When we reached the poem ‘I want a president’ by Zoe Leonard, we thought it had been written yesterday. It was, in fact, published in 1992, but the phrase ‘I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils’ seemed more relevant now than ever. In a space where we could discuss queer poetry with confidence, we examined the way Leonard used words such as ‘dyke’ and ‘fag’ as a method of empowerment rather than demonization. Although some argued that there was an attempt to normalize these words, Leonard relies on the obscenities to create a contrast. She wants ‘to know why this isn’t possible’, and the language in this poem is an attempt to place these two spheres together.

After the food and poetry was over, the group dispersed onto the busy streets of York, perhaps with just a little more to say on the queer history of 20th century poetry.

For more information on the York LGBT History Month events, follow this link:


Scarborough Writing trip

By Rachel Louise Atkin


Gothic fiction is actually pretty great. In YSJ Creative Writing society we talk about it a lot, as many of the novels in the genre make up a lot of our favourite books. We like to see Gothic fiction as something to do with the supernatural, contamination and Victorian repression, and with two of the committee members studying the ‘Gothic and Horror’ module, it has become a genre we are confident talking about and exploring.


In February we took a day trip to Scarborough with the University of York’s own creative writing society, the Inklings. Initially, we went for inspiration (or really an excuse for a day out), but we ended up taking more away from the trip than we hoped we would.

The weather was overcast and windy without raining, making it perfect kite-flying weather. We ran around for a while on the beach first, writing our names in the sand and dipping our toes into the water which was way too cold to swim in. Far behind us was the seafront, revealing a stack of homes and winding streets which run all the way up a steep hill to Scarborough castle at the peak. The castle looks across the whole beach like it’s staged for a photograph, but it has been there since the 12th century and was used through the English Civil War. It’s open to visitors during the day, and once it closes it’s nice to have a stroll outside its deserted walls.


A trip to the sea wouldn’t be complete without arcades, and so we spent a little of our time getting frustrated at 2p machines and getting our fortunes told. Stopping for lunch, we swapped writing tips with the Inklings. We discussed how we generate and organize our ideas, as well as sharing our favourite books with each other. Poems were written and read out using the sounds of the shore as inspiration.

Moving further along the literary trail, the five of us from YSJ headed to Waterstones (inevitably). After purchasing some books we began climbing the hill towards the castle and St. Mary’s Church which is home to the grave of Anne Brontë. It was here where we started making connections with Scarborough and the Gothic. We stood amongst the graves and looked down at the water lapping against the sand, hearing the whistling of wind through the branches above us. It was easy to see how people like Bram Stoker and Emily Brontë had become inspired by landscapes similar to this one.


Walking up to the castle and finding it closed, we sat on a bench at the bottom of the cliffs and looked out to the sea, sharing story ideas and brainstorming ideas. The five of us didn’t really want to leave this spot. Though it was cold and I could hardly hold my pen, the atmosphere was like a machine for generating ideas between us. We were desperate to get indoors so we could write down everything we’d experienced.

The day rounded off when both universities sat together in a pub and discussed everything they’d enjoyed about the day. 90% of people sat with notebooks and were scribbling things down about graves, trees, ruins and haunted mansions. It seemed quite funny that although we’d joked about going to a place like Scarborough for inspiration, we all came out of there with something we were completely itching to write about.

It’s amazing how we manage to find literary connections everywhere. Scarborough seems underrated compared to its neighbour Whitby, but I found its seclusion and uniqueness to be something akin to the isolation and individual feel to books of the Gothic genre. We hope to recreate the experience by heading out on more day-trips, and hopefully uncover more of the hidden literary world as we go.