Firstly, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with us. So, a little warm up question to start - what are you currently reading?
In big nerd energy I'm currently reading St Augustine’s Confessions.
And why did you choose that?
Firstly it's one of the big ones, one of the standard reads if you're going to be weird about medieval theology. But also because I think there’s a big push, particularly in modern Christianity, towards being perfect all of the time. I think we also apply this to Christian converts, and to young people who are still just being stupid and young, and I think more people should read Augustine's Confessions to understand that he sometimes sucked and yet he became a saint.
Where do you find the inspiration for your work?
I find inspiration everywhere to be honest. A large portion of writing a poem is to consume as much stuff as possible, be that worthy books by medieval theologians, or rubbish telly, weird road signs or conversations with people. You boil it down, you put it in your brain and jump up and down on it, and out of the bottom comes a poem.
I do feel that people who write religious poetry often feel that they can only get inspiration from religion, so that’s why it often feels like people are just going over the same thing over and over again and writing the same poem. We are all coming at it from the same starting point. I think for something to be fresh or interesting you need to combine inspirations.
Would you say that your work fits within the canon of religious art that has gone before it? Or do you think it is necessary to break out of that in order to create something more thought provoking for a modern audience?
Everything is a reaction to something that has gone before it, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even if I very consciously ignore the last fifty years of Christian poetry, everything at some point hails back to the first poem which influenced everything else that has come after it. If I consciously skip over the last fifty years then what I'm doing is just engaging with the last one hundred years instead.
I think the question is, what is canon, particularly in the last one hundred years? In a hundred years’ time there will be a new canon that is established by people, but we don't know what it is yet. When Dickens was writing, he was writing for popular magazines, and Shakespeare wrote lewd jokes for the stage and is now seen as one of the greatest writers of all time. We don’t know what the canon will be in a hundred years, maybe I will be part of it, and maybe I won’t.
You came to faith in adulthood. Would you say that gives your work a different perspective to the work of someone who had been brought up in faith?
I think I haven't engaged with things in the way that others have. I didn’t go to Sunday School, there was no VeggieTales. When I was engaging with poetry there was no sense of being unable to engage with certain topics or authors because it was seen as dodgy, and I still don’t think as Christians we should avoid art that is ‘unacceptable’ as deemed by random people. Art is art and we should engage with it because art is the creative wellspring of human kind.
I didn’t know what Christian writers were writing, and I wasn’t going to imitate their work because I didn’t know their styles. I probably draw influence from a lot of writers that Christian writers do not draw from, and there are probably some writers out there who do not engage with a breadth of art because they’re reading Christian art so that they can then write Christian art, and it is the great trap because then you will end up writing the same poem.
With regards to potentially ending up in an echo chamber of religious writing, do you think that everything a religious person writes is necessarily faithful, or is it possible for a religious person to write something entirely secular?
One of my hot-takes is that every single poem ever written is an act of faith in some way. Poetry is all about the impossible. Every poem ever written that has been any good has been written out of love. Whether that be love for a person, love for a place, or love so strong it makes you angry at what is happening. That is why when you read poetry written by bigoted people to push an agenda it is garbage, because you cannot write a good poem out of hate, a good poem has to spring from love.
Faith is about connection with others, and about connection with an other, and so good poetry, whether it is about a religion or whether it is about that tree in the back garden, and whether it's written by Christian or Muslim or Hindu or somebody who isn't of faith but believes in love for one another - that’s where good poetry comes from.
Do you think your poetry comes from that place of love?
I hope so, I like to hope that I live in love.
Is there an aspect of spirituality to performance which gives poetry or scripture a level of understanding that you can’t get from just reading?
So in another life, I started my career as a performance poet. It was a very deliberate choice, not because I enjoyed taking part in competitions, but because that was a back door for a working class person to get into the industry. You can write the world’s greatest poem, but if you read it in a tiny mutter nobody is going to care, and you can write a garbage poem and claim it well enough that people will think it is better than it is.
Performance poetry is a skill, and I think a lot of poets fail to recognise the power of performance, but also of human connection. I don't know if I agree with her, but my priest once said to me that the feeling in the room when I read ‘Jesus at the Gay Bar’ is what grace feels like. And I don’t know if I agree with her on that, but as I’ve said previously, all poetry is about love, and human connection is an exceptional form of love.
That’s one of my favourite poems that you’ve written.
It’s not my best poem by a long stretch. I wrote it while I was sat in the choir stalls at St Nick’s, in five minutes, and my friends came in and I said ‘I have just written this poem, and it is not a good poem, but it is what people need to hear.’ And I was very correct. I think skill-wise, it is the poem equivalent of a nice dessert your nan makes, it’s lovely and warming, you’re always going to go back to it. It is not the fancy thing they make at the Michelin starred restaurant, and as a poet I'm always seeking to the best at my craft, and the craft in ‘Jesus at the Gay Bar’ is extraordinarily low. The message is what people need to hear, and that is how I feel about ‘Jesus at the Gay Bar’. I know that it is important it is important, and I will continue giving that gift of love into the world. Skill-wise, it is a mediocre poem.
Where do you feel the inspiration for that poem came from, especially the message of queer acceptance and love in Christianity?
The thing about being an adult convert to Christianity who was already massively queer, is that I have been blessed with the greatest gift I could be given in this world, which is that I have absolutely no doubt that God loves me exactly as I am, and I was so far removed from Christianity that I didn't even get that tiny little niggle in your gut that makes some people who are otherwise completely fine a little bit upset. I didn't get the horrible conversion therapy, but I also didn't get the guy at the back saying something weird at a pot luck. I got nothing, and that is an incredible gift. That certainty is an incredibly rare gift.
Do you think that your experience of faith as a queer person has influenced your writing?
All of my poems are queer, because I wrote them and I'm queer. An example that I often bring up is in Backwater Sermons there's a poem called Splitting Fares, and that poem is inherently queer, because it is a conversation between two people where an event is being narrated. In that event the narrator goes to a bar on a date with a man, they leave the bar and fall in love with God in a taxi, and God is a woman. And that poem is inherently bisexual no matter who reads it. It's a good example of how all of my poems are inherently queer, and all of them have anticipation of God because I believe in God and I wrote them. From queer authors people always want queer poems. There is no acceptable world in which people demand queer things from the authors without recognising that everything that they write is inherently queer. When you want to hear a queer voice you should be waiting to hear what that queer voice thinks is important to say, instead of saying well it doesn't have enough ‘gayness’.
My latest book features a lot about bones in the earth, about caring for bones which have escaped graveyards. And on the surface that has nothing to do with me being queer, but I wrote them because as a trans person I'm massively transfixed by the way in which we treat the dead, and I care hugely the way in which I care for those bodies in the graveyard at our church because I have a body that is treated with so little respect by this world. Trans bodies are treated with so little respect by the world. When people bring in transphobic laws it is all about the physical body, whenever people fixate and say weird things to a trans person, it is always about the physical body, it is always, “Have you had that surgery yet?”, not, “How is your brain feeling?” So for me it is extremely important to treat bodies, the bodies of the dead, with the respect that perhaps I am not afforded in this world. And it also speaks to the members of my church, because subconsciously they see us treating the bodies of the dead with such care and they know that if we treat the bodies of these strangers from whom we can expect nothing in return with such care, how much more care will we have for them who are living, breathing members of the congregation at this time. So to care for the body, and the bodies of others is inherently for me a queer thing. It isn't only queer, other people can care for the bodies of the dead, but I am interested in it from a level that that the base of it is to do with the fact that I am queer, and so everything I write is queer, even when it is not about a queer topic.
Do you find that you have to fight not to get pushed into the box of the ‘queer Christian poet’? Or are you OK with that label?
Every agent who's ever approached me has used the phrase, “I am building my LGBT list”, and I have said no to every single one. Either you appreciate me for the quality of my work, or I don’t want to know.
Many years ago, there was a Mumsnet thread about how terrible I was. I was writing children’s stuff, which is part of the reason they were mad at me because I also had some very public beef with a transphobic children’s poet, and there was a Mumsnet threat about it. I've forgotten everything that it said except for one comment. I clicked on the profile and all they had done was post transphobia, but they said something like, “I mean, he's a terrible human being, we all hate him, what an awful trans person. But don't be mean about his poems, he's actually a really good poet.” And that lives rent free in my head. I want all of my art to be so good that everybody who hates me has to admit that I’m good at what I do.
How do you think the church could be more inclusive to queer people?
Stop discussing it's like we're not already here. There seems to be a feeling that queer inclusion in church is the hill upon which we die. The church did divorce, which Jesus actually spoke about, and it was fine, but the gays is a step too far and you’re telling me that’s not human bigotry? Jesus Christ said absolutely nothing about queer relationships, and he had a lot to say on divorce, but we’re allowing that while stopping people from being in queer relationships. I'm not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to get divorced, because the world in which we live now is so very different from the one that Jesus lived in, and the social and economic and cultural understandings of what marriage means and what divorce means are so very different to what they were in the culture in which Jesus was speaking. I am saying that if Jesus, whose opinions we apparently care a huge amount about, never said anything about gay relationships and queer people, and yet apparently stood with all of those marginalised by society, why would we stand in a society in which queer people are marginalised and be ok with it?
Something that I often struggle with is reconciling the fact that the church as the institution is structurally unwelcoming to queer people. How do you reconcile the idea that God isn't homophobic but the church that humanity has created, and that many of us attend, is?
They don't get Jesus. We can’t let them have Jesus. If we as queer people were to leave, they – the church – get to put whatever words they want into the mouth of Jesus Christ. By being present and by following the Spirit’s call to places that are difficult, we get to witness by our sheer presence there the expressive and expansive love of Christ. If queer people flee, homophobes get what they want. What they want fundamentally is to erase us from the social and public sphere to the point at which we can no longer exist at all. To refuse to do something, to refuse to be in a space out of fear. Though that fear is valid and I'm not ignoring the fact that it can be physically dangerous for queer people to be in homophobic and queerphobic and transphobic spaces, when you feel able to be in a space it is important to be there, because to live in fear and discomfort to the point in which you no longer engage in the things that you want to engage in is the point at which they win.
I will not be erased from the church or erased from the community of Christ. I will be there and I will be myself and everybody is going to have to deal with it. There are other people whose choice may waver at that point, and that is entirely valid. But to be queer and to say you are a Christian is to, at its core, win that fight. Every single day a queer person says “I'm also Christian” or a Christian says, “I'm also queer,” or somebody puts those two words together in a way that one does not proceed the other. That is a day in which queer people win.
A final question, do you have any advice for young trans, non-binary, or queer people either in the church or outside of it?
Part of my advice would be, do not let your fear prevent you from living fully in this world, because to live in fear and to live not as yourself, that's not the queer way. That’s not what we do, that's not what our predecessors did. We stand joyously in the face of oppression because our joy is found in our queerness, and to be fully ourselves may lead to oppression, but it also leads to that joy. If you’re Christian, Jesus Christ calls us to not fear those who will kill the body but cannot kill the soul. We as Christians believe in a God who is all genders and none simultaneously. They are gender weird in a way far beyond human comprehension. Of course trans people exist, of course trans people are part of creation, because we are all made in the image of God, and God is not just male or female.
Don’t settle for a church community. Fight like hell in the church as a structure, for example the Church of England, or the Methodist Church, or the Roman Catholic Church. Fight like hell in those spaces and do not leave, because you belong there, but do not settle for a specific local church in which you are not appreciated for who you are. Find the communities within your wider community that appreciate you, because they exist in every denomination even if within that denomination those communities are extra to the structures. There are Roman Catholic groups that support LGBT people of faith, even when there is no church near you that supports you. Don’t settle and don't let them shut you up.
We are all called to be irritants, to be those grains of sand that wear away the structures of oppression. Sometimes it sucks to be an irritant but it’s not the grain of sand that gets worn away, it is that which grates. Be grating, be irritating. My life motto is, “Cause problems on purpose.”
You can find out more about Jay’s work on his website at Jayhulme.com