Polari, author Paul Burston’s LGBTQ+ literary salon, has barely finished celebrating its 12th birthday and already there’s a bumper 2020 ahead including a return to Heaven on Tuesday 18 February. Dave Cross had a catch up with Paul to find out what chapters lie ahead.
Hi Paul, 2019 seems to have been a busy year for Polari, what have been the highlights for you?
It’s been our busiest year to date. As well as our regular residency at the Southbank Centre, we’ve toured to 20 towns and cities across the UK and beyond, funded by Arts Council England. There’ve been so many highlights. Interviewing Russell T Davies at our recent 12th birthday event was one. Interviewing Tracey Thorn in matching leopard print outfits on Polari Prize Night was another. And Dustin Lance Black, of course. That was a great night. Plus we’ve had such a diverse range of guests, from Amrou Al-Kadhi to PJ Samuels. It’s what Polari is all about.
And personally your new novel, The Closer I Get has been very well received, you must be pleased?
I’m over the moon! The reaction has been incredible. The Closer I Get is my second crime novel, but the first to be truly embraced by the crime writing community. It’s about a gay novelist who’s targeted by an online stalker. To have your work recognised by writers you admire is such a huge compliment. And the response from readers has been wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for more.
For Boyz readers who have never been, how would you describe what Polari is?
Polari is a live showcase for emerging and established LGBTQ+ writers. It’s billed as a literary salon, but I tend to think of it as a cabaret or variety show in which all the performers happen to be writers. It’s accessible, inclusive, diverse and theatrical. It’s not a dry, bookish event. People who attend Polari for the first time are often surprised by this. Either they’ve never been to a literary event before, or the ones they’ve attended have been rather dull. Polari is many things – funny, moving, challenging, provocative. But it’s never dull.
We also run two book prizes. The Polari First Book Prize is awarded annually to a writer whose debut book explores LGBTQ themes and characters, and is sponsored by FMcM Associates. This year’s winner was Angela Chadwick for her novel ‘XX’. This year we added a second Polari Prize for non-debuts, sponsored by DHH Literary Agency. The winner was Andrew McMillan for his poetry collection ‘Playtime’.
How was your first Polari event at Heaven earlier in the year?
To be honest, I was quite daunted at the prospect of Polari In Heaven. It’s an enormous space to fill. And that main stage has hosted some legendary acts, so there was a real sense of following in the footsteps of giants. But Jeremy Joseph and the team were so supportive and ensured that everything went according to plan. We sold out faster than any event I’ve produced previously and the lineup really rose to the occasion. Alexis Gregory, Paula Varjack, Barbara Brownskirt, Neil Bartlett and Adele Anderson all gave superb performances – and the aftershow DJ wasn’t too shabby either, Dave! It was a very special night and our biggest event so far. The feedback was so enthusiastic, with lots of people insisting that we do it again. So we are.
Can you talk us through the guests for the Heaven event in February?
After the success of our last event, I knew the lineup had to be equally strong and just as diverse. So we have live music from the mighty David McAlmont and Janette Mason, who’ll be performing songs from the LGBTQ History Songbook – everything from Shirley Bassey to David Bowie to George Michael. We have a new piece by Joelle Taylor, who is one of the most astonishing live performers I’ve ever seen. We have poetic tales of ancient goddesses from Nikita Gill and an extract from A Trans Fairy Tale by Cerys Evans. And as it’s LGBT History Month, I may be tempted to take a trip down memory lane with a Heavenly fairy tale of my own. The event is on 18 February and over half the tickets have been sold already.
What else is coming up in 2020 for you and Polari?
Our Spring season at Southbank Centre is already firmed up, with headliners including Paul Bailey and Philip Hensher. We also have pop-up events in Wakefield, Huddersfield and York. And I’m busy planning our next tour, which kicks off at the end of March and includes 22 dates across the country. 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of The Polari First Book Prize, so we’ll be showcasing past prize winners and looking for the LGBTQ literary stars of the future. People can check our website for details at polarisalon.com or follow us on Twitter @polarisalon
Photo of Paul by krysphotos.co.uk