Paul Burston: The Polari Prize and beyond
Polari founder Paul Burston on the ongoing development of the prize, the state of LGBTQ writers and their readers as well as his mission to reach diverse audiences through increasingly diverse means.

Adam Zmith and Joelle Taylor have been announced (15th November 2022) as the winners of the 2022 Polari Prizes, the UK’s only awards celebrating literature exploring the LGBTQ+ experience. The winners were announced in a ceremony held at the Polari Prize’s new home, the British Library.

Zmith becomes the 12th winner of the Polari First Book Prize for his expansive history of poppers and their relationship to LGBTQ+ culture with Deep Sniff (Repeater Books). Polari notes that it ‘ingeniously scours the archives to forge a rich account of this until-now under-acknowledged drug and the lives of those who use it, offering an expansive popular history of desire across time’.

Joelle Taylor takes home the overall Polari Prize for non-debut talent for her new poetry collection, C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press/Saqi Books) which explores and honours the female body. 2021 Polari Prize winner and judge, Diana Souhami said: ‘Joelle Taylor has a Midas touch with words. C+nto will open eyes, hearts and minds. Here is poetry that defends our right to walk without fear, wear what we choose, be who we uniquely are. A clear Polari Prize winner.’

The winner of the inaugural Polari Children’s & YA Prize is Nen and the Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Author and Chair of the Judges for the Polari Children’s & YA Prize, Jodie Lancet-Grant said: ‘The judges agreed that this book does something important and radical by centring a queer love story in a picture book for young children. The story is innovative and moving, and the artwork truly stunning. Congratulations to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew.’


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Will Self at Polari

Polari began its life in 2007 in a bar in Soho. Founder Paul Burston’s aim was to create a more sociable environment for book readings than the more formal bookshop readings. Polari has been described as “a gay-themed salon of interest to anyone remotely interested in literature” (Patrick Gale), “a unique mix of voices that provokes the strongest responses from its audience – love, laughter, tears but most of all, thought” (Val McDermid) and “The most exciting literary movement in London” by the Huffington Post.

Since its birth, the literary salon has grown in range and stature, and 2011 saw the launch of the Polari Prize.

NCW spoke to Paul in 2019 to reflect on more than a decade of Polari. As the Polari Prize celebrates its twelfth year in 2022, we caught up with the author and journalist to discuss the ongoing development of the prize, the state of LGBTQ writers and their readers as well as Paul’s unending mission to reach diverse audiences through increasingly diverse means. Read our interview with Paul below the shortlists.

Polari Prize 2022 shortlists

Polari Book Prize

  • Address Book – Neil Bartlett (Inkandescent)
  • Valentine Ackland – Frances Bingham (Handheld Press)
  • The Origins of Iris – Beth Lewis (Hodder)
  • Rocksong – Golnoosh Nour (Verve Poetry Press)
  • C*nto and Othered Poems – Joelle Taylor (Saqi Books / The Westbourne Press)

Polari First Book Prize

  • These Great Athenians – Valentine Carter (Twenty Seven)
  • Lessons in Love and other Crimes – Elizabeth Chakrabarty (The Indigo Press)
  • All The Things She Said – Daisy Jones (Coronet)
  • This Much is True – Miriam Margolyes (John Murray)
  • Deep Sniff – Adam Zmith (Repeater Books

Polari Children’s & YA Prize (new prize for 2022)

  • The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. – Jen Carney
  • Nen and the Lonely Fisherman – Ian Eagleton
  • Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating – Adiba Jaigirdar
  • Not My Problem – Ciara Smyth
  • Grandad’s Camper – Harry Woodgate.

Forthcoming Polari events

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Polari founder Paul Burston

When we spoke to you in 2019, you said that a lot had changed since you started the prize in 2007. So what’s happened in the last three years? For example, the enormous rise in submissions.

Well, that trend has continued. We had a 50% increase this year on last year. That was probably a similar rise from the year before, between 2020 and 2021. So incrementally, the prize has grown massively. Also, the non-debut prize was still in its infancy back then and that’s growing a lot too. The reading for the judges this year was just huge. Whittling it down to a longlist was very difficult – let alone a shortlist.

Whittling it down to a longlist was very difficult – let alone a shortlist.

Obviously, that shows that there’s good material out there. Also, we have had more submissions from the bigger publishing houses than we used to get. There have been more books with LGBTQ characters and themes published by the big five than have been submitted over the last couple of years. Although I would say that the longlist and the shortlist this year were still dominated by independents. A lot of the bolder, more experimental and boundary-testing material that inspired the judges this year, tended to come from smaller imprints.

The Polari Prize rewards works that explore aspects of the LGBTQ+ experience past or present. What new ideas and experiences are you seeing being addressed that weren’t 20 years ago? For example, Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures.

Who would have thought that there would be a book about the history of poppers that was a mixture of academic study and a very gossipy, chatty book about various celebrities who have been spotted with a bottle of poppers jammed up their nostrils over the years? It was a fantastic submission and very unexpected.

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The biggest change really has been when the prize began when the first Polari Book Prize began in 2011, we had a lot of books from white gay men, about coming out. That was the dominant theme. Gradually, that’s changed. We’ve had a much more diverse range of writers and books.

There’s been a big push to tackle diversity in all its forms within publishing

The biggest single shift has been the number of books exploring gender. There have been a lot of submissions over the last few years from trans and non-binary writers writing about gender identities and how they intersect with sexuality and other issues. So that’s seen quite a significant increase.

We’ve also seen a big increase in the number of writers from black and minority ethnic communities, which we weren’t seeing in the early days of the prize. Maybe those writers weren’t out there, maybe they weren’t aware of the prize in its early days, but there’s been a big push to tackle diversity in all its forms within publishing. And that’s been reflected in the submissions that we’re receiving.

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Joelle Taylor

Sticking with diversity, in 2007 you said that the key was diversity but a diversity of forms of formats. From non-fiction to poetry to essays to memoir. Has that diversity continued to grow?

It has and it makes the judging ever more complicated and difficult because you’re not comparing like with like. We’ve always been open to poetry, prose, long-form fiction, short-form fiction, non-fiction, etc.

We’ve had a few books over the last couple of years, that are what I call ‘wildcard books’. They really come out at a place where you think: who could have predicted that a book will be published on this subject written in this particular way? For example Deep Sniff.

Joelle Taylor’s C+nto & Othered Poems is another book like that. There’s a daring thing going on in that book in terms of how she’s structured it. The book also includes a link to a clip of her performing so the book includes the spoken word element comes to life within the book itself.

In terms of form, it’s an ever-evolving landscape.

Again, this makes it hard for the judges because they’re not comparing like with like. You’re comparing such different books with such different aims, ambitions, forms and genres. We’ve just had the final conversations around who the winners should be of the two adult prizes and they were very difficult conversations to have. And so I’m incredibly grateful to the judges for putting in the time and the thought that was required to make those comparisons because they are challenging.

It’s great to hear that you’re receiving more submissions from some of the bigger houses. What has Polari shown and proved to the wider publishing industry?

The first we achieved is the thing that I really set out to do at the beginning: to show that there is a readership and an audience. Polari was predominantly a live showcase event while the prize is about books and readers.

There are obviously lots of things that have driven that change, but I think we have been part of that conversation.

Prizes like the Polari Prize – any prize that’s about a specific group that maybe has not been given much of a platform historically – shine a light on those particular books and those particular writers. That gives encouragement to publishers and commissioning editors to take on those books because there is a platform for them, one which will help shine a light on them. Maybe without the work that we’ve been doing, those people would have been less encouraged to create or submit work and those organisations would be less inclined to take a chance on these books.

I’m not claiming that it’s all down to us, of course. There are obviously lots of things that have driven that change, but I think we have been part of that conversation.

How does the prize impact those winners?

It depends. For the First Book Prize winners, it gives them a launch pad for a longer career.

One of our earliest winners was the poet John McCulloch. He won in the second year (2012) for The Frost Fairs and he’s had an amazing career since then.

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Polari Prize winners 2021: Mohsin Zaidi and Diana Souhami

Andrew McMillan won in the first year of the non-debut prize. He’s obviously had quite a bit of recognition for his debut book, but as most published authors will tell you, publishers are keen to support you when you’re a debut writer but when you’re doing your second or third book, you get slightly less enthusiasm from them. So, it’s helpful to have a prize that rewards people for staying the course – rewarding them for their fourth or fifth or sixth book.

It actually has the word ‘lesbian’ in the title, which is a first for her.

Our current winner is a perfect case in point. Diana Souhami is a historian who won the prize last year (2021), she’s 80 and has published many, many books. She was so delighted and moved to have won this prize because she said it may be the last book that she publishes. She may now be working on a memoir, so she may have changed her mind. Diana’s been publishing books about lesbians in history for such a long time that at the beginning, she wasn’t even able to even mention the word ‘lesbian’, everything was coded. The book she won the prize for is called No Modernism Without Lesbians. It actually has the word ‘lesbian’ in the title, which is a first for her. That marks a big shift for her – the courage that she’s shown – she has been incredibly brave.

How have we seen LGBTQ writing impact commercial and genre fiction? Books that aren’t directly tackling LGBTQ issues, but just feature LGBTQ people as characters in the wider cast? How has social change filtered into popular fiction?

Those things have changed. When I published my first novel – Shameless – in 2001, I set out to try and write a popular fiction novel in which the main character happened to be a gay man.

 width=I was so tired of reading various so-called ‘chick-lit’ novels that had the gay best friend, who was this sexless, emotionless character who was just there to dispense fashion advice. I was frustrated and I wrote the book in response to that.

What I’ve seen over the last five or six years, is a really big growth in commercial fiction that happen to have gay, lesbian or queer protagonists.

Kate Davis, who won the prize in 2020 for At The Deep End, wrote a book which I would describe as a very peculiar commercial fiction novel in which the main character happens to be a lesbian discovering her sexuality.

There are writers like Matt Cain and Justin Myers.

There are quite a few writers what I would call ‘popular fiction’, which happens to have queer characters at the centre of them. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. I mean, when Shameless came out, it really was an odd book – there really weren’t many books like that.

 width=There was already a market for that in America, but it was quite a new thing here in the UK. There’s been a huge shift in that, and that’s partly down to television – television writers have, in some ways, been way ahead of the curve in that respect. Russell T Davis [writer of Queer As Folk, Doctor Who, A Very British Scandal] has obviously made a huge contribution, but there are others. There has even been a shift in soap operas. You didn’t see these characters on television programmes when I was growing up. It makes a big difference.

All of this gives encouragement to writers of novels as well as readers – that these characters aren’t going to be as alien to them as they may have thought. Books are a growth area. The kind of books that we’re celebrating are being read by people beyond our community. They’re being read by a much wider readership now than they used to be. I came out in the days of Gay Men’s Press. Books would have ‘Gay Men’s Press’ written on the spine and you never saw anyone other than a gay man reading those books. That’s all changed now.

Genre fiction – such as science fiction – has often been ahead of the mainstream. Crime fiction is another good example. There have been a lot of books in the last couple of years, which fall into the broad category of domestic noir which happen to feature a lesbian or gay central character but that wasn’t the case five years ago.

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Paul with Soft Cell’s Marc Almond at Polari

You’ve had a long and busy career, what’s next for you? What work is still to be done?

Well, I have a memoir coming out in June of next year. I wrote it during the pandemic – during lockdown – just before COVID really hit. I had literally just got an Arts Council grant to go on tour, then two weeks later, the whole world closed, so we had to shift everything online and do everything differently.

I was trying to write another novel but I just found it so difficult to write fiction, because I couldn’t escape the anxiety of the real world sufficiently well to create a world in my head and keep it going every day. I know several other novelists had similar problems.

I couldn’t escape the anxiety of the real world sufficiently well to create a world in my head

My agent suggested that I write the memoir that I’ve been talking about writing for years but putting off – partly because it covers several quite traumatic events in my life. The world felt so traumatic at the time, so they felt like it was the right time to do it. The COVID pandemic brought back lots of memories of living through and fighting during the 80s AIDS pandemic for many of us. There were comparisons – and major differences – between the public health response to both of those pandemics, so, in a way, it feels like the right time to do it.

Tell us about your ambitions for Polari events.

I’m doing a lot of Polari events, and in a wide variety of venues, partly because of the impact of the pandemic and the changing ways in which LGBTQ people tend to socialise – especially gay men. We’ve seen a decline in the number of venues over the last few years and I wanted to try and support those venues where I can.

Polari will always be put on in arts venues and libraries and places like that but I also want to do more events in ‘commercial’ venues: gay bars and bars and clubs. We had a few events last year – including at Heaven – and earlier this year, and we’ve got more planned. We’re doing an event at The Eagle in Vauxhall – they’ve had a really difficult time over the last few years for obvious reasons. People respond really well to these events – a lot of people come.

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Kerry Hudson, Paul Burston, Rebecca Chance, Paul Bailey, Celia Imrie, Fidelis Morgan

We did our third event at Heaven, in 2020, just before COVID hit. I was surprised that it was packed out – 200 people. I was surprised at the number of people that were there, that hadn’t come to the Southbank, which is literally five minutes’ walk over Hungerford bridge. It was extraordinary.

There are people that will come to an event in a space like that because they feel that those spaces are theirs but they wouldn’t go to an arts centre. I hadn’t even thought of that until then. It’s made me think a lot more about how we reach new audiences because that’s always an aim of Polari – reaching new audiences and new readerships. That means thinking about where you platform your event, whether it’s a physical space or an online space.

Doing Polari events online during COVID brought home the fact to me that there are people that don’t come to our events because they physically can’t get there. Going forward, digital events are going to be a part of our remit in order in order to maintain and grow those audiences.

My ambitions are quite big, and maybe I won’t fulfil them all, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Hybrid events are going to be a big part of our future as well. We’ve just moved to the British Library where we just did our first event a few weeks ago. We have the Polari Prize ceremony day on 15 November and that’s going to be a hybrid event – it’ll be a physical event and it’ll be streamed as well. It’ll be interesting to see what the audience feedback is, who attends and where they’re watching from. That’s a really interesting way of gauging how successful you are in terms of reach: part of celebrating diversity is reaching diverse audiences and that means in all kinds of ways.

That’s key for all of us working in live arts, we need to work out how to reach those audiences that are unable – for whatever reason – to reach us. And that’s a big question for me going forward.

My ambitions are quite big, and maybe I won’t fulfil them all, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Polarisalon.com

Photo credits

  • Paul Burston (top and second): © Kystyna FitzGerald-Morris
  • Joelle Taylor: © Roman Manfredi
  • Paul et al: © Kystyna FitzGerald-Morris

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