Max Wallis: 'And the award for savage wit goes to ...'

Suzi Feay, one of the judges of the Polari prize for LGBT writing, explains its rationale, and talks to shortlisted poet Max Wallis

Tomorrow night, the winner of the Polari Prize for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) debut authors will be announced at London's South Bank Centre. Tomorrow also marks the fifth birthday of the monthly literary salon that gave the prize its name. The prize is the brainchild of Paul Burston, the editor of the gay section of Time Out magazine and the flamboyant MC of the salon. As a novelist himself, the author of The Gay Divorcee, Star People and other books examining and satirising contemporary gay life, Burston is acutely conscious of the difficulties facing LGBT authors in a tough commercial climate.

"I set up the prize because I feel that it's increasingly difficult for LGBT writers writing about LGBT themes to get published, and I think that the mainstream is becoming more and more cautious about publishing what they see as niche material," he explains. "If you are an author who happens to be gay and you're writing genre fiction, thrillers or whatever, then that's okay, but if you're writing fiction that's about gay lives, or lesbian or trans lives, then people tend to be quite cautious about it. It's different if you're writing literary fiction. That's a kind of fig leaf; as long as you reference lots of classical literature you can get away with scenes of cocaine and homosexuality." (Who can he mean, I wonder?) "But if you're writing fiction that isn't pitched as literary, it's a different ball game."

The Polari prize focuses on debuts and, unusually for a literary prize, will accept self-published and e-published works. Last year's winner, the singer James Maker's hilariously waspish memoir Autofellatio, was a case in point: self-published before being taken up in the conventional way.

The prize has not been without controversy. Burston comments: "I think there's always going to be an issue of [here he puts on a snarky voice] 'Why do you need a special prize for gay people?', which is the same argument as 'Why do you need gay bars?'. Well because you do! Otherwise, the wider world just seems to be straight – and not just straight but white, male and straight. It's why the [prize formerly known as the] Orange prize for women's fiction is also necessary. Anything that helps shine a light on stories, poems and books about what it means to be LGBT today is very necessary."

If there's one sweeping generalisation to be made about queer writing (I've been a judge for two years running), it is that it's often savagely funny. Judge a mainstream literary prize and you'll be overwhelmed by dark themes and sombre writing. This year's Polari shortlistees are North Morgan, a bitterly funny satirist in his London club novel Exit Through the Wound (Limehouse Books); the music producer Terry Ronald's Becoming Nancy (Transworld), a deliciously camp rites of passage novel; and Vicky Ryder's rollicking Ey Up and Away (Wandering Star Press), a series of almost poem-like vignettes about growing up in Nuneaton. But perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of two strong poetic voices in John McCullough (Frost Fairs, published by Salt) and Max Wallis (Modern Love, published by Flap).

The elfin Wallis has an unusual day job for a poet: when I caught up with him, he had just got back from a modelling assignment in Paris. He's also unusual in his choice of inspiration: the Victorian poet George Meredith who also penned a poem sequence called Modern Love. (Also something of a model, Meredith posed for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting The Death of Chatterton.)

"I already had the idea for the book, and the title," says Wallis. "And I was reading pretty much anything I could find on love poetry for inspiration. I stumbled upon George and it fit so perfectly. There are so many links, because his narrative also is about shipwrecked love and doomed love. He was one of the first psychological poets."

Other contemporary influences include Jacob Sam-La Rose and Carol Ann Duffy: "Rapture [a Duffy collection charting a love affair] also had a massive impact. My writing brain is split between poetry and prose: I want to write poems that link together, then people can read the book as if it's a novel."

I tell him that I took the Meredith influence as a sign that the sequence is not to be read as autobiography, and he quickly agrees: "The best thing anyone ever taught me about poetry was in a drunken conversation in a pub with a performance poet. She just said, 'Max, the best thing to do in poetry is to lie'. And that's what I do all the time. I write a lot about doomed love but I'm in a happy relationship!"

On the importance of the prize, Wallis says: "Times are changing but we still don't see much of the LGBT world in literature. Or at least, it's not picked up on as much. I like that the prize does that." However, he did not personally experience much difficulty getting published. "I didn't have any problem. I wouldn't call myself a gay writer, but I am a writer who's gay. My next book is for children and is about a world that's gripped by an eternal winter, and a young boy's quest to save the Sun. I don't think that's come about because I'm gay, you know?"

Modelling and poetry make great bedfellows, and he plans a collection of poems about his experiences. "That's what I really want to do, combine the two worlds. It was not my plan at all [to be a model]. I grew up very sheltered, very introverted – typical poet! And then a friend threw me into the business and it started. I've never made it big or anything, and I don't take it that seriously. It's not a foolish industry or anything like that," he stresses, "but it's something you have to have your distance from and it's nice that I've got the poetry."

Modern Love, By Max Wallis

Flap £4

"... A final glance. Sigh as the door slams a wooden tongue. Do not look back as dawn carries her torch across the sky; he will stay. Tarmac claps footsteps toward day and then, within, something out loud to the world that he will never hear; 'I am sorry, you know'."

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor