Being a gay woman in the 1990s, with the fight against right-wing institutionalised homophobia at its height, was no walk in the park, but writer and historian Jill Gardiner found refuge in poetry, as she tells Jaq Bayles.
As first crushes go, being a six-year-old girl besotted with a nine-year-old girl playing Circe in the Long Voyage of Odysseus has to be up there.
“I knew what I felt,” says Jill Gardiner, whose recently published first book of poetry, With Some Wild Woman, sold out within four weeks of its Brighton launch and has gone into reprint.
The book spans 30 years of the author’s poetry, starting in 1989, at which point in time people could be sacked from work simply for being gay – and Jill found writing poems, particularly love odes, a way of counteracting the harsh realities of the wider world.
“By the time I got seriously involved with a woman it was the early 1990s and if it was known at work that you were gay you could get sacked.”
It was also common to be turned away from establishments that didn’t approve of same-sex relationships. “When we would go to a hotel, I would book a double room and my girlfriend would come in after with the luggage and we would get looks. We knew that they could turn us away so I was writing about the joy of being in love as an antidote to what was going on outside.”
Jill found some refuge among a group of Brighton poets, which was set up in 1992 and embraced her and her lifestyle. “It wasn’t a gay group but a very good space in which to workshop poems. People were very welcoming and interested in my life. We put on Brighton Ourstory shows and galvanised people to protest. Sometimes when you’re under attack it can unite you – but it’s not to be recommended.
“Sheila Jeffreys, academic and lesbian feminist, said somewhere about how good it was that we could be sexual outlaws, but it can also be very wearing. It’s certainly better for your mental health to not have to be that way.”
Jill is inspired by “love or death or women throughout history” and the poems in With Some Wild Woman all fall under one of those sections. The book is described as “a poetic journey through one woman’s life, which casts an honest and amused eye on growing up gay in a straight world, sharing stories of inspiring people encountered on the way – from uninhibited aunts to Bohemian French writers”.
As Jill has lived in Brighton for over 30 years, the local area features in some poems, including one about an amorous encounter in the garden of Monk’s House, Rodmell.
The journey through themes from love to death was a natural progression. “I wrote lots of love poems when I first got together with my girlfriend but then, more recently in later life, as family and friends died it set off another bout of poetry.
“But it’s got a lot of humour – not all the poems are poignant.” She gives as an example a poem that reflects an incident in the 1990s when Jill had been invited to the wedding of two gay men – not a legal affair in those days. After Sunday lunch she had to tell her family she needed to leave for a wedding. The response came: “On a Sunday evening?”
“My father said: ‘I hope it’s a man and a woman getting married.’ And so began the process of coming out to family.
“Poetry is authentic and honest,” says Jill. “You communicate something directly to people that moves them. That’s what I have found touching about the book. Poetry can be about expressing things that matter deeply but also injected with humour, as life is such a mixture. Humour helps convey things.”
Prior to the poems, Jill was feted for her book From The Closet To The Screen – Women At The Gateways Club 1945-85. She was drawn to the club as “the closest thing we had to a lesbian institution”, and indeed it was a feature in the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George, during which members of the club’s everyday clientele actually came out on screen.
“They were normal Gateways customers. It was very brave. We never know what’s going to happen in the future and we can never be certain there’s not going to be a resurgence of homophobia. It happens still now. So it’s important to be aware that the relative freedom we have now was hard won.”
Jill’s current project is writing a biography of writer and gay rights campaigner Maureen Duffy – “it’s a long-term project and not for publication in her lifetime.”
But that’s not to say there won’t be more poems. “I do just write. I can wake up in the morning and write for 20 minutes and I think: ‘Ah, so today’s going to be a poetry day.’ Other days I wake up and think: ‘What’s Maureen doing today?’”
More info or to buy the book see the publishers website here:
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