Queer activist and poet Letta Neely speaks as part of Coming Out Week

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Friday night in the Scheuer Room, Harris Kornstein ’06 introduced Letta Neely as, among other things, queer activist and poet, director of the Boston GLASS Community Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, writing workshop instructor, mother, and his boss during this past summer. The event was part of Coming Out Week, an annual week of events organized by Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) to raise visibility and support for LGBTQ students.

Neely read several poems from her published work, which includes two chapbooks, entitled, ‘we were mud,’ and ‘god and alluh huh sistuhs,’ as well as two full-length books called, ‘juba’ and ‘here.’ She somewhat jokingly characterized her work as mainly falling into either a category of angry, political writing or a happier category of lesbian erotic poetry. “My mother used to tell me I couldn’t write any happy poems,” Neely said. “But then [after reading the happy ones], my father told me to go back to writing political poems.”

Her poems invoked for the rapt audience images of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as “the first revolutionary,” of American government-fueled injustice in places from Birmingham and Indianapolis (her hometown) to Rwanda and Iraq, and of cocaine-addicted youth seeking but not finding help. She spoke of the invisibility of queer people of color as she read a poem entitled “Not Brandon, not Matthew, not Versace,” and explained that she wrote lesbian erotic poetry because, “we need to be part of the canon in that way.” In the pauses between her intense poems, she often asked the quiet audience if they were still okay.

After her reading, Neely fielded questions about her work and the GLASS Community Center. She described GLASS as a place for LGBTQ youth between the ages of 15 and 25, and mostly of color, to gather for cooking, reading from their extensive library, or voguing (a type of dance). Neely attributed her love of writing to her parents, who regularly gave her journals, offered her support, and made her “love language.” She also spoke of writing as necessary for her “in order to walk through the world and be okay.”

Neely’s newest play, ‘Shackles & Sugar,’ debuted as part of the Out on the Edge theatre festival at the Boston Center for the Arts yesterday.

Coming Out Week also included sidewalk chalkings (washed away early in the week by rain); a workshop and performance by Vicky and JaneJane on Tuesday, focusing on issues related to feminism, pornography and female sexuality; a closed dessert for LGBTQ students, staff and faculty on Wednesday; a Paces party Friday night; and a picnic Sunday afternoon.

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