Wriggling worms, a fluttering firefly, beetles, a glasswing butterfly.
These creepy-crawlies evoke the jitters of early love in D.C. poet Marlena Chertock’s “When you’ve got the bugs.” Teeming with the fear and excitement of a crush, the poem is brief, delicate and subtly queer.
So earlier this year, when local writer and editor Kim Roberts asked Chertock if she’d participate in Pride Poems — a local Pride Month poetry collection themed around queer love — Chertock submitted “When you’ve got the bugs,” among a couple other options. It ended up in the collection.
“Coming out to myself on the page was kind of the first step for me,” Chertock says. “To be able to now share poems about it is just so, so powerful.”
The brainchild of co-curators Roberts and Jon Gann, Pride Poems will feature 30 videos of queer D.C. poets reading one of their works. The project, now in its first year, posts one video a day throughout Pride Month. Some poems had been previously published elsewhere; others had not. Roberts and Gann chose the theme of queer love to combat the isolation caused by the pandemic.
The two of them developed the idea and applied for funding last year. While Roberts’ editing experience helped her put together the project, she also wanted to work on it for more personal reasons.
“I have long written poetry, but only in the past few years had my poetry taken on more overt queer themes,” Roberts says. “So part of it was me just sort of searching for more community, more literary community that was specifically LGBTQ+.”
Grounding the project in D.C. helped reinforce a sense of belonging for queer writers, she says, especially at a time when in-person readings and book signings remain limited.
Chertock agrees the project’s D.C. roots help build connections, even outside the literary community. On the Pride Poems website, each entry lists the D.C. neighborhood where poets live.
“I think that really just like helps highlight for folks like, ‘Oh, we’re all part of this community,’” Chertock says. “You have poets living in your neighborhood and you may not even know it, but we’re here.”
The collection of poems features writers from wards across the city. Roberts says she and Gann tried to highlight poets of different backgrounds, races, genders and ages, with poetry topics ranging from sex to queer history.
Tafisha Edwards, a local poet, wrote “I Want Your.” She describes her poem as “a nesting doll of intimacy”: sexy on the first read, devotion coming through on the second, and more feelings surfacing with each additional read-through. Edwards says she’s been checking the Pride Poems website to see new poems essentially every day.
“It was really encouraging and, I think, invigorating to see the breadth of poets,” she says. “It was great to be in community, even if it’s digital.”
Other poets took a different approach to the theme of queer love. Sunu Chandy, a poet and civil rights attorney, submitted her poem “Too Pretty.” In it, she describes her experience watching queer teenagers on the New York subway while another passenger criticizes one of the teenager’s gender nonconformance to her.
“Be safe my handsome girls, be safe my pretty boys,” Chandy exhorts in the poem.
Though “Too Pretty” isn’t a traditional love poem, Chandy says it touches on queer love by showing different experiences within the LGBTQ community, demonstrating how younger folks often embody more freedom than older folks used to hiding their love.
“I’m hoping that this poem is just an example of like, we’re in this together,” Chandy says. “We have to realize that this work is for all of us together, to fight against those forces who are trying to limit us.”
Roberts and Gann aim to run Pride Poems again with a new theme next June — and in the meantime, this year’s poetry collection will remain archived online after June 30 for all to see and interpret.
Both Chertock and Edwards want viewers to take away a message about the many facets of queer love from Pride Poems 2022.
“Queer love is so expansive and freeing and fulfilling,” Chertock says. “I hope that these poems provide some of that feeling and give a little bit of hope back.”
Watch, read and stay up to date with the growing Pride Poems collection here.
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