Writing poetry helped me realise I didn’t have to conform to gender norms
When Peter Scalpello started writing their debut poetry collection, they could never have known just how much they would discover about themselves along the way.
Peter’s debut was published in March by Cipher Press, the queer UK-based publishing house that’s amplifying LGBT+ voices. Limbic is their latest find – Peter’s poetry explores chemsex, masculinity, queerness and sexual violence through the prism of their own lived experience.
At its core, Limbic is an examination of trauma and memory – it interrogates the ways we remember past experiences that have chipped away at our sense of self.
Peter, who is originally from Glasgow but now lives in London, first started writing poetry in their early 20s after they discovered contemporary queer poets like Andrew McMillan. When they launched into writing the poems that make up Limbic, they could never have known just how much it would challenge their own ideas about themselves.
“I felt like there was a bit of permission there to be like, ‘I don’t have to be a certain type of person to write poetry or express myself in this way,'” Peter tells PinkNews. “I’d always thought myself as outside of the literary realm or something, maybe from how I had grown up. I hadn’t studied English or anything like that as a degree. That emotive side was always there – that was the initial impulse.”
Writing Limbic helped Peter Scalpello realise they didn’t have to conform to gender norms
Shortly after Peter Scalpello finished writing Limbic, they came to the realisation that they’re non-binary. Looking back, they explain that the writing process encouraged them to think about their own gender identity and their relationship to masculinity.
“Masculinity, even within the queer community, is valued. There’s a hierarchy there – that heteronormative hierarchy can still replicate itself within the queer community. I found that fascinating from the perspective of growing up and coming out in my late teens as gay but really repressing that sexuality in Glasgow where I grew up.”
Peter grew up in “a very masculine culture” – they felt a “visceral oppression” that they’ve only been able to critique with hindsight.
As they came of age, they found a sense of community among gay men. They soon discovered that those hyper-masculine images were still highly valorised, even in queer spaces.
Affording it language and the questions of ‘what if’ and ‘why’ led to me discovering these things about myself.
“That hyper-masculine image is treated in many respects like a safety or an ideal,” Peter says. “What I did learn from writing about masculinity and interrogating that was, on one side, its relationship to shame and how shame manifests itself in things like our mental health, our sexual behaviour, substance use, but also this other thread of gender identity and how that intersects with all of these things, but also with me as a person.”
Writing Limbic forced Peter to “unlearn” many of the ideas they had come to hold true about masculinity.
“That led to me coming to the realisation or accepting the fact of my non-binary identity,” Peter says. “It was in the months following that, almost after the dust had settled and I’d thought a lot about these themes. I’d been interrogating my masculinity and there was this idea of, ‘What if I’m not a man today, what does that even mean?’ This taking away or opting out of something that has been expected or enforced.”
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The simple act of writing, for Peter, provides an opportunity to discover new things about who they are.
“There’s permission in the voice, especially if you just start writing for yourself, like a diary or journalling,” Peter says. “It’s trying to articulate what’s felt or thought or suppressed, which I think is really interesting because it’s all stored there psychologically. Affording it language and the questions of ‘what if’ and ‘why’ led to me discovering these things about myself, and that’s a back and forth relationship with writing.”
Sex and drugs can help some people ‘avoid’ their traumas
Central to the collection is trauma and memory. What’s fascinating is just how fearless Peter Scalpello’s poetry is – it’s the kind of writing that refuses to let the reader look away.
“Trauma does thread through all of it, as it does through my life,” Peter says. “I found with poetry, what really grabbed me was that there was so much freedom in the form. There were almost endless possibilities to explore that interruption, to think about the impact of traumatic memory and how trauma is held in the body, but also in our behaviours. I was very interested in threading trauma through the writing in regards to how memory is stored, how it returns, and how it informs the self – particularly the queer self – and how that can be avoided through sex and drugs.”
Those efforts to avoid trauma through sex and drugs come up time and time again in Limbic. Peter writes powerfully about their own experience of chemsex, but they’ve also got the professional expertise to back it up – they work as a sexual health therapist in their day job.
One particular poem, titled “Chem”, explores the ways in which the past “can inform the present interaction or the present experience,” Peter explains.
“There’s this haze of the traumas that exist for all of us, to some extent, and what can be related to and shared and appreciated and destigmatised. That’s an intention of the collection – to share a lot and to pull from a sense of communal understanding or experience to express a love and care for a community that is suffering or has suffered.”
Peter has learned a lot about chemsex and its connection to shame, stigma and sexual function through their work as a sexual health therapist.
“The compounding of sexual desire, drug use and the alleviation of shame I think can be incredibly powerful and intoxicating in itself, on top of the intoxication of drug use,” they explain. “I think that is what can become dependable upon for people. It’s an opportunity to remove yourself from that context, that voice in your head, or the limitations that you maybe feel physically as well as mentally.”
Peter continues: “I also provide a psychosexual service for patients in the sexual health clinic where I work and there is a functional relationship between some people’s drug use and sexuality as well. The impact of performativity, or of this hyper-masculine expectation or stigma they faced – or potentially experiences of chemsex they’ve had – impact their sexual behaviour and function, and an attempt towards this sober sex model can be challenging and threatening. It can provoke these emotions around trauma and sense of self and worth. It’s different for every person – this is what I find so interesting about the work.”
I hope it can maybe speak to any reader who is maybe uncertain or feeling a kind of invisibility to elements of their self or their identity.
Writing about those themes was “cathartic” for Peter – they hope reading these poems will have the same effect for readers.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself through writing and through the people that writing has led me to,” Peter says. “For example, the publisher Cipher Press – being published by a queer publisher is a dream come true and incredibly exciting and validating… to be held in a way within a community like that is extremely cathartic and it’s something that I am now kind of thinking more about and will continue to write about.
“I hope it can maybe speak to any reader who is maybe uncertain or feeling a kind of invisibility to elements of their self or their identity.”
Limbic by Peter Scalpello is published by Cipher Press and is out now.