It’s pride month,
and as a proud LGBTQ+ led organisation, PAPER Arts is very excited to be able to bring you a month of curated queer content, profiling some amazing work coming out of Bristol, by queer artists and members of the community.
To kick things off, we were delighted to be able to talk to Leila King, poet and mental health advocate as part of our pride month coverage. She shared with us how she got from starting writing, to becoming a published poet, and how her life and culture feeds into everything she creates.
How I got started
Leilah told us that she had always had an interest in writing whilst at school but explained how, as a 21 year old politics student, she experienced her first manic episode. This catalysed her exploration of poetry “I kind of had this thought that I was like this amazing writer, and I wanted to write all these poems, it was a little bit weird. I just wrote lots of terrible poetry, but it was all during this acute episode. I still have some stuff I wrote, it was really bad.”
Discovering Bristol’s creative community
After her recovery, Leilah started to write more “I started going to the open mic scene in Bristol, places like the arts house and Halo, it was really nice meeting other people that were interested in writing. And yeah, that’s it really. That’s how I started out.” “I loved being with this bunch of weirdos – myself included – all opening up and sharing things in this way that is unexpected, is quite naturally quite candid and authentic” She described how writing for her has become a form of catharsis “I find being creative and writing about it afterwards helps me and helps my well being, it helps me process things, and it also can be quite an empowering reclaiming of an event.”
Bringing your identity into your work
Her willingness to be open was evident throughout our conversation, and is something that also extends to the work that Leilah makes and the subjects she chooses to explore. For example, the politics she studied at university are the backbone of Leilah’s writing, “my work is quite political, not in the party politics sense, more like just to its core like and who I am, what I stand for, my family and my background”
Exploring your culture in what you make
Leilah is half English and half Iranian, she told us that “ the Iranian side of it has always held a lot of gravity” she has a large Iranian extended family and says “there was this mutual fascination and interest, like the one family in the big family that was a bit English. They were fascinated in us and we were fascinated in them.”
This fascination led Leilah to do a lot of writing on trips to Iran, finding inspiration in a culture with a deep rooted poetic tradition
“It’s a very romantic place. It’s a very beautiful place. It’s a very warm culture. People are very open, and I think that lends itself to my inclination to write like that and to be sentimental and nostalgic.”
Life as a queer artist
Leilah identifies as a lesbian, when we spoke she marked the importance of being open and true to oneself in both personal and professional spheres.
“I’m a writer, I’ve got a story to tell, it’s important for me to not feel controlled or restrained by the impact of certain people finding out certain things about me.” “I’m not gonna take down photos of me and my girlfriend. I’m not gonna not advertise that aspect of who I am as a writer because it’s relevant, and it is nourishing for me to be myself, obviously.”
Leilah describes how she realised that she tended to use ambitious pronouns in her work “there’s this kind of implicit limitation to people being able to bloody talk about things.” “I wasn’t opening up about the whole story in some sense.” Now Leilah makes a conscious choice to be open and express her sexuality in her writing but explains “it’s definitely something that I always had to train myself to do.”
Living authentically as a queer artist
Leilah’s decision to live authentically and address her sexuality in her work now means the likelihood of her being able to travel back to Iran (where she hasn’t visited since 2017) is low.
“It’s now more complicated for me to go back” she told us. “I felt like clinging on to the possibility that I could still go back and not completely be myself. On one hand, if I kept going back, it’d be amazing because I could continue to maintain relationships with my family – I could take more photos and gain more experiences, or learn more about my family and my grandparents, but at the same time, things are gonna come up, people are going to be like oh, are you getting married? Have you got a boyfriend? Oh we saw on your Instagram that you’re a lesbian. You know. I don’t really want to put myself in that position, it’s really unlikely that somebody would go to the police and report me, but at the same time, it’s not legal there.”
She supposed that this nostalgia came through in her writing, “there is that kind of desire to hold on to some memories because they feel precious then they feel like they’re slipping away.”
Publishing her first book
We finished by discussing Leilah’s proudest moment, the launch of her first published poetry collection Midnight Picnics in Terhan which came out in the summer of 2019.
Leilah said “I just felt like the publication coincided with me feeling like I was ready as well. To release and I had like a collection I was happy with.”
She talked about the launch night, putting on a night of performances by a diverse stable of poets and queer artists.
“My mum, bless her, cooked loads of Persian food. It was quite a special launch. You came in and there were Iranian flags and pride flags everywhere, Persian rugs and then loads of really tasty. Cuisine”
We think this is an amazing example of what magic can happen when we are given space to be our true authentic selves. We love the sound of Leilah’s launch night and how it brought together the aspects of her identity that she had been keeping apart in one way or another for a long time.
We hope to celebrate and see more of this in the future – this is the creative industry we want to be a part of!
You can keep up to date with Leilah and her work here
Be sure to c heck back next week for your next dose of our Pride Month coverage, we will be chatting with another queer artist, Clare Lowe from Wig In A Box Productions and we couldn’t be more excited!
If you would like help to think about ways you can bring your own values and identity into your art, check out this free resource.