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'."

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing