Culture: Books

Stripped Bare – Ernesto Sarezale

Ernesto Sarezale

Ernesto Sarezale is known in London for performing his poetry in the nude. He is also the founder of the erotic literary salon The Velvet Tongue. Alex Hopkins caught up with him to find out why reading naked helps him and the importance of talking about the body.

Tell me about your background. How did you become interested in poetry?

I started writing in my late late teens, in Spain, but not seriously – I was just trying things out. I then did a Phd in Aberdeen and continued to write a little bit in Spanish. When I came to London in the late 1990s I joined a writers’ group and gradually gained confidence to write in English.

In your own work you’re known as ‘The Naked Poet’. How and why did you decide to perform your poetry naked?

It’s a strange thing because before I ever performed my work in front of an audience I always thought that the way to do it would be naked. I don’t know why. I could use the cliche that the poet bursts his soul and things like that – if you’re bearing your soul then bearing your body goes together. Many poets have done it before – Allen Ginsberg is famous for it and Blake was a nudist. My work is all about the body, so if I’m talking about it then revealing it seems to work well too.

Reading in front of an audience is nerve wrecking. It must be tenfold when you’re naked… 

Even now, after years of doing it, I still get nervous. I have the impression that people see me as free and that what I do is easy – it isn’t. But I think it actually helped me become a better reader, because if you’re able to overcome being nude then you can do anything – you’re putting yourself on an edge, in an extreme situation, so anything that follows gets easier. I’m actually a very shy person,  but doing away with the clothes helps me deal with the shyness – it’s paradoxical. On the one hand it makes you exposed and vulnerable, but it also empowers you. It makes you open up, but at the same time it creates a barrier because people tend to move away from you.  I don’t actually like the tag line ‘The Naked Poet’,  but unfortunately I can’t avoid it – I’ve never used it myself, but everyone does, so what can I do? I want to think there is more to what I do than just getting naked, but it’s an easy type of categorisation.

How did Velvet Tongue begin?

It was really about filling gaps in the existing London poetry scene. It started in 2002 and, at the time, there was very little in terms of queer poetry events in the city. I liked the idea of starting something that was not just poetry, but also incorporated performance. New York had an event called Glam Slam and I did my own version of this between 2008 and 2010, but I still felt that there wasn’t anything in London specifically about erotic poetry. I wanted to address this.

What’s your definition of ‘erotic’ literature? I am thinking our ideas about what passes as ‘erotic’ have probably been affected by the book Fifty Shades of Grey…

This is something I keep fighting against all of the time with journalists. They always refer to Fifty Shades of Grey, which I haven’t read. I browsed through it because it’s obviously a reference point now, but even by page one I was put off. I don’t have a definition of erotic and want people to come up with their own. The common elements are all to do with intimacy, the body, physical contact, or perhaps not physical contact – voyeurism and exhibitionism can also be erotic. I like to keep the parameters as wide as possible. Everyone who comes to Velvet Tongue has their own preconceptions about what ‘erotic’ is. Some of those are met, others times they may not be. A lot of poets and writers in London deal with sexuality in one way or another, so I want them to bring their own take on it to the event. It’s a space  where anything to do with sexuality can be explored and expressed and you know the audience is going to be welcoming and receptive.

This is not a ‘gay’ only event – you bill it as ‘polysexual’…

Yes, absolutely. It is not exclusively gay, although there’s a very strong gay element – a bit less than 50% of the audience is gay.

Are gay people more open about sexuality than straight people?

When gay people write I think it’s more likely that they will write about sex than when straight people write. It’s a very strange generalisation that I’m making, but in my opinion it’s something that defines gay people – their sexuality. It’s something that obviously preoccupies them, so it’s natural that they will talk about it. I believe there’s more frankness about sexuality among gay people, although there are always exceptions.

What sort of performers do you have on the bill? Are they all poets?

Most of the performers are poets, but there’s always a lot fo fiction. I also like to introduce things that are not technically literary – there may be a stripper of some kind, a burlesque performer, which is not strictly literary, but is about storytelling. There’s always an element of live performance art, which is often quite experimental.

How well has the performance aspect worked?

The performance artists normally provide the W.T.F. factor – people wonder what on earth is going on, which I like. The element of surprise is very important here.

What do you think queer stories should be exploring in the twenty-first century? 

For me the important thing is anything that explores what happens to your body, how you interact with people, connections and feelings and the different ways you can intimacy. All of of this is a good thing – there’s a lot of it, but not enough. I have never been interested in coming out type stories or narratives to do with aids. There was a period, in the 90s, when it was all about those things. At the time it was important.

What about stories that talk about how gay people behave towards one another – how much emphasis should writers be placing on these?

I believe it’s crucial that we look at the difficulties on the gay scene. We are often told that the scene is some kind of paradise – that there’s a hostile straight world out there and on the scene everyone loves one another. That’s not necessarily the case and some people feel very alienated on the gay scene – there can be little room for difference and the expression of individuality. We need to have an element of self-criticism in our writing. Many different gay lifestyles exist, but often we are only shown variants on the clubbing/drug aspect of gay life. Human relationships are complex and I think it’s important to show all gay relationships, whether it is friendship or partners, or a casual incident where that human complexity comes across.

Talking of relationships, gay marriage is now in the final stages in the House of Lords. What’s your opinion on this?

A problem I have with mainstream acceptance is that there can be the tempation to recreat straight models. Equality doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to behave in the same way as heterosexuals and I think it’s important that we carve our own identities so that there’s room for lots of different ways of being gay. It’s a matter of minorities having the opportunity to just be themselves, however they choose to be, as long as they’re not harming anyone else. So, of course, gay marriage is important in terms of the rights we should have with our partners, but we should also be promoting different models and alternatives. That’s certainly one of the functions at Velvet Tongue – diversity is one of the crucial adjectives. I want as many voices as possible; the idea of making people aware that whoever they are and whatever they want to present, they are welcome is vital. In general the poetry scene in London is open minded, but I want to go a little bit further and I have the impression that there are people who use Velvet Tongue as an opportunity to try things they wouldn’t do at other events –  I like that very much.

The next Velvet Tongue is on Monday 2 September at Bar Kick, 127 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6JE


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