In Conversation with TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson: The Troubled Line
Author: Edit Team
May 17, 2013
Released this past March by Nightboat Books, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics is a riotous omnibus of queer poetics. The first comprehensive collection of poetry by trans and genderqueer authors, Troubling the Line offers a lyrical investigation of issues ranging “from identification and embodiment to language and activism.”
The poets in the collection include:
Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán, Aimee Herman, Amir Rabiyah, Ari Banias, Ariel Goldberg, Bo Luengsuraswat, CAConrad, Ching-In Chen, Cole Krawitz, D’Lo, David Wolach, Dawn Lundy Martin, Drew Krewer, Duriel E. Harris, EC Crandall, Eileen Myles, Eli Clare, Ely Shipley, Emerson Whitney, Eric Karin, Fabian Romero, Gr Keer, HR Hegnauer, J. Rice, j/j hastain, Jaime Shearn Coan, Jake Pam Dick, Jen (Jay) Besemer, Jenny Johnson, John Wieners, Joy Ladin, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, kari edwards, Kit Yan, Laura Neuman, Lilith Latini, Lizz Bronson, Lori Selke, Max Wolf Valerio, Meg Day, Micha Cárdenas, Monica / Nico Peck, Natro, Oliver Bendorf, Reba Overkill, Samuel Ace, Stacey Waite, Stephen Burt, Trish Salah, TT Jax, Y. Madrone, Yosmay del Mazo & Zoe Tuck.
Lambda Literary Review recently talked to the collection’s editors, TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, about the process of editing this groundbreaking anthology.
TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet and teacher. Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, instructor at University of Arizona and Pima Community College, and wilderness instructor at Outward Bound, s/he is the author of Gephyromania (forthcoming, Ahsahta Press, 2014) and chapbooks spirare (Belladonna*, 2012), and territories of folding (Kore Press, 2011). TC is co-editor, along with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013). TC writes monthly lyric essays on the trans body, intimacy, architecture, and public space for The Feminist Wire and s/he recently curated a trans and queer issue of Evening Will Come for the Volta. TC is a regular curator for Trickhouse, an online cross-genre arts journal and s/he is the creator of Made for Flight, a youth empowerment project that utilizes creative writing and kite building to commemorate murdered transgender people and to dismantle homophobia and transphobia.
Tim Trace Peterson is a poet, editor and scholar living in Brooklyn, NY. Author of the poetry book Since I Moved In (Chax Press), Violet Speech (2nd Avenue Poetry), and numerous chapbooks, Peterson is also Editor / Publisher of EOAGH. Peterson has co-edited, with TC Tolbert, the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books), and with Gregory Laynor the forthcoming Gil Ott: Collected Writings. Peterson is currently a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center.
What was the impetus in pulling the collection together? What sparked the idea?
TC Tolbert: As I say in my intro, I’d been searching for a collection of trans and genderqueer poetry for years – simply looking for mentors, a sense of community, friends. In that time I was reading a lot of other collections of marginalized writers and I admired the breadth of work and the way the books, themselves, were an occasion for connection (readings, tours, etc.). After feeling frustrated and a bit lonely for the kinds of community I saw other folks creating, I met Michelle Tea at a reading she gave at Antigone’s in Tucson (one of the authors and editors I admired – she edited Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class). This was about 5 years ago and we just talked for a few minutes but that interaction (and meeting her a few years later and getting to know her better) was a significant source of inspiration because she reminded me of how human (as opposed to super-human) this whole process (of publishing, gathering folks around an idea) is/can be. I don’t know if she knows this but she really helped me to see that pulling together a collection like this was completely possible and that I needed tenacity and passion more than any sort of institutional/academic support—I think her work has inspired lots of queer folks this way. All of this coincided with a deepening friendship with Samuel Ace. And it was at Sam’s house that I stumbled onto Trace’s book.
I decided to reach out to Trace for a few reasons. First, I just loved her work from the minute I picked it up (Since I Moved In, published by Chax Press). But I also felt strongly that I should collaborate with someone who was not just like me. I wanted to work with someone with a different gender identity and expression, a different class background, a different poetic emphasis, a different geography. If I had to do it over again, I would still want to co-edit with Trace but I would want the editorial team to be bigger and more diverse. Even though Trace and I are different in lots of ways, we’re both white and we both have graduate degrees and it is always good to have more voices from a variety of perspectives at the table.
Sam was, in many ways, the third co-editor–always listening as I talked through what I was thinking, what I was reading, how the book was progressing. And Trace and I were really able to figure out how to play to our different strengths and this helped us create a book together that neither of us could have created individually and I really like that.
What was the hardest part about choosing what to include? Were there any poems/work that you loved but didn’t make the final cut?
Tolbert: I was floored by the enthusiasm. We received work from over 200 folks (10 pages each) so the first challenge was reading all of the work and holding space for all of it. I felt so honored to receive work from strangers across the continent—there was something incredibly emotional about it for me—all of that trust in us as editors and in our vision. I had a few moments of doubt about my own ability to make these decisions—I asked myself several times, who the hell am I to say which poems make it into this book and which ones don’t? And although I didn’t completely come up with an answer to that question, I could trust myself to be attentive, patient, reflective, and thorough in the process of choosing poems for the book and that is the best I could ask of anyone.
One of the most profound experiences of this process was being introduced to so many incredible poets. I mean, talk about undoing that loneliness and wondering, are we out there? The answer is a resounding YES—trans and genderqueer poets are everywhere!
And yes, there were several poets and poems I loved that did not make it into the book. That’s just the nature of collaboration, and that was hard but fair. We made plans to publish a supplement in EOAGH (online literary journal that Trace edits) with several poets we both admired who didn’t make it into the book. We still need to figure out when and how that will all happen but hopefully soon. People are clearly excited about trans and genderqueer poetry and that is a beautiful thing to see.
Two editors working in tandem on such a big project I am sure can pose its own special roadblocks. Care to share any editorial difficulties in pulling together an anthology of this size and scale?
Tim Trace Peterson: The biggest challenge from my perspective was coordinating a massive number of people (55 authors) and a massive amount of information which was constantly changing and being updated. This is a 544 page book which at one stage might have been 100 pages longer. As the person in the process who probably wore the most hats simultaneously, I was the co-editor and the graphic designer and copy-editor and proofreader and several other things at once (I’m in the book as an author too), which meant that at times it was harder than usual to create healthy boundaries between these different roles, and therefore editing this book consumed most of my life for the past year or two. In the early stage of the book I was also the publisher, before Nightboat Books took on the project—and I am so grateful to Stephen Motika for his generosity and his unerring instincts. In terms of the process of working on the book, TC and I both have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to organization, follow-through, approach to deadlines, other impinging life responsibilities, general knowledge of publishing process, where and when we tend to be most detail-oriented, etc. But in terms of carrying out the actual book and getting it done, from beginning to end, I can’t imagine having done this with anyone other than TC. We’re both really intense and relentless, both really driven, and I think that is what carried us through this process—we both just believed in this book so much. His particular kind of intensity matched up with my particular kind of intensity quite well in a really functional way throughout most of the process, though there were also some hiccups and some disagreements too, as is bound to happen with any project of this size.
For me personally, the design stage was just basic hard work. (I’ve coordinated a gazillion details at this level in the past, working in architecture and with my own graphic design company PTRSN Design, so that was not unusual for me.) But actually the stage of the book that I found most challenging was earlier on when TC and I had to convince many of the poets to revise their poetics statements and say more than they had initially said. This process involved reading the poetics statements closely and listening for spots where they seemed incomplete, or where someone might have more to say about a particular issue. As with the rest of the editing process, he and I split up these duties equally and we each approached a certain group of poets and tried to convince them to expand their poetics statements, say more about aspect x, etc. I found this part of the process hard, both communicating to people that the prose was not quite there yet, and simultaneously being responsible for helping the person fix what was missing and push their writing further. It was hard because in several cases, people simply refused to cooperate. There were a few authors who insisted that the poetics statement was exactly what they wanted to say, or they refused to connect the relationship between formal aspects of the poem and trans issues in a more explicit way. One poet simply wouldn’t give us a poetics statement. So I think you can give people a writing prompt, but as I know from many years of teaching, you don’t have a lot of control over what someone does with that prompt, how they will read it, or whether their response will even be on topic in the way that you expected. And perhaps that’s for the best, really. Getting poets to do anything is like herding cats while trying to nail Jello to the cats. I think we did remarkably well with the poetics statements, considering this.
The other most difficult part of the process for me was having to turn down so many people at the beginning who really wanted to be in the book. But after receiving submissions from 250 people, we had to narrow it down enough to 55 in order to have a book of a manageable size where the reader could have time and space to get to know the different poets. It was not hard choosing our favorites because TC and I tend to have similar tastes in poetry, but it was hard communicating to people that though the work they are doing in life is important, and we would love to hang out with them if we ever met, unfortunately we just weren’t into their poems. We did come up with one solution of doing an online gallery of 20 or so trans poets in EOAGH, mostly people who are not in the book yet. This should be going online sometime soon.
Tolbert: I don’t think our challenges were particularly surprising – just regular old human communication. Working on something this size and scale requires (I think) some kind of foundation and, as I mentioned earlier, when I asked Trace to collaborate with me – we didn’t know each other at all! I just wrote to her—I think I even got her email from Facebook (or did I send her a Facebook message?)—and I said, this is who I am, this is what I do, we both know and love Sam, want to do this thing with me? And Trace was amazing about it—she said yes right away and we arranged a phone call, then hit the ground running. I think the website for the book was created and the call for work was posted within a couple of months of that first phone conversation.
So, with such breakneck speed on the project (which was really, I think, just a product of our utter thrill about seeing a book like this come into the world), we didn’t know how to communicate with each other—which quirks we shared, which quirks we didn’t, that sort of thing. To compound that, we were mostly communicating via email because we live across the country from each other and setting up a phone date was sometimes challenging. We all know how email can actually hinder communication rather than smooth it. So we got bogged down in different misunderstandings about timeline, or roles, or expectations. But I really think most of that could have been more easily navigated if we could just go out for coffee. Instead, it was like we emailed a few times and suddenly we were having a baby!
Given the challenges of distance and email and new relationship-building, I’m pretty impressed by our ability to come together and see the book into fruition. We were both always so clearly dedicated to the project and so in love with the idea of bringing trans and genderqueer poets together—the crunchy stuff naturally recedes. It goes back to that idea of being human. I’m proud of both of us and how we just brought and worked with our humanity. I think we made a damn cute (and smart) little baby!
As editors, how did your own particular aesthetics shape the work that was chosen for this collection?
Tolbert: I think Trace and I made a different book than I would make with any other collaborator, even given the same pool of work. I think that’s just the nature of it.
My aesthetics certainly influenced my choices—whether that be what I felt compelled by instantly or where I felt there were gaps that I wanted to see balanced out in the book. One of my beliefs about a collection like this is that it should include a range of poems—from narrative to pastoral to conceptual to slam to lyric, etc.— not just the kinds of poems that I happen to love right now. An aesthetic that I was working toward in this book was a diversity of aesthetics. I wanted to identify and highlight good poems in as many schools or with as many influences as I could.
That said, I know I could never totally neutralize an emphasis on the kinds of poems that I love—and I don’t think that is necessary either. I see the book as a conversation starter—not, by any means, the final word.
I quote E. Tracy Grinnell in the intro because I deeply appreciate her thinking around all of this. She said: anthologies are inherently, undeniably, always problematic. Even when necessary, they cannot be inclusive. That is a limitation of the form and I worked with that the best I knew how. But it’s something I still think about. This book would be different with different editors. And I would be a different editor with different life experiences. Totally.
Trace: There are similarities between TC’s taste in poetry and my own, and I think we were very lucky in that way because this made choosing poems fairly easy—we nearly always agreed on which poems from the submissions we liked. We had both attended the MFA program at the University of Arizona, he following just a year or two after me, and we both also had a healthy amount of participation in the poetry scene outside of that MFA program too. I would say that more than any aesthetic battle or platform in the larger scheme of things, to me what really makes the aesthetic perspective of this anthology possible is the eclectic literary culture of Tucson, AZ. My own aesthetic was very much shaped by POG and Chax Press, and if I recall correctly, when any poet gives a reading in Tucson, something like 200 people show up—which would be a large turnout in New York. So I think the sense of permission that Tucson as a literary community encourages, the sense of not having to fight other people’s battles, while at the same time treating poetry as something with a great deal of consequence that should be taken seriously—all those things inform my aesthetic perspective.
I suppose if you were to do an overall chart or map of poetry, you would find that both of our tastes tend toward the “experimental,” the “avant-garde” or the “innovative,” however one defines those terms. This is largely a coincidence, given that I don’t think “avant-garde” writing has been any more sympathetic to queer or trans issues historically than other types of “mainstream” writing. But given how marginalized such types of poetry often are, it’s a pleasant surprise to have the first anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry feature so much experimental writing in it. At the same time, I’m also proud of the wide range of aesthetics in the book. I think it’s a very balanced book in a way that few anthologies are.
TC, in your intro, you talk about your hesitancies/fears in choosing to label the collection “Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics” because of the dangers in a potential restricted audience (those who may not pick up the book due to thinking “this is not about me”) and the dangers that some readers may question the merit of the poems due to the emphasis on the identity of the authors in the title. However, you also talk about how giving marginalized people a voice is important in proving such assumptions wrong, especially seeing as how little trans and genderqueer poets are included in mainstream anthologies and collections. You ask a really interesting, and I think relevant, question: “Why aren’t we seeing the work of trans and genderqueer poets in other collections, at academic conferences, on a variety of presses, at slams, and in literary journals?” What do you think the answer to this question is?
Tolbert: I don’t think a surface level answer can touch that question which is why I didn’t try to answer it in the book. Or rather, I tried to answer it by making a book.
I do have some ideas but they might be rants more than they are theories. So, I won’t bore you with all of them. I’ll just say this:
I think trans and genderqueer identities threaten a monolith of gender essentialism which includes assumptions about safety, capability, intimacy, knowledge, etc. To really engage with trans and genderqueer people—to make space for our (incredibly diverse) experiences, perspectives, expressions, identities, etc.— to welcome trans and genderqueer people as equally valued participants in poetry, in politics, in science, in engineering, in love—is to allow that these gendered foundations we’ve built so many institutions and cultural norms around may not be so solid after all. For many folks, that’s very scary business.
What do you think is needed to improve the visibility of these authors?
Tolbert: At least two things. I think the trans and genderqueer folks who feel safe and able to be out and visible should make some noise—which is certainly happening already and I just want to add my voice to that uprising. I also think it is equally as crucial for allies (in journals, in academia, at slams, at presses, at conferences, etc.) to reach out to trans and genderqueer folks—to say, Hey, we want you involved! Will you work with us? Will you apply? Will you collaborate? Will you submit your work? Will you read here?
It’s too easy (and always puts the onus back on trans and genderqueer folks) to say, come out, come out, wherever you are. That’s fine, if you are safe and if you can come out. But for lots of trans and genderqueer folks, that kind of safety is not a given and allies have to really do that work to step up and make a space safe and inclusive.
Each author is given 5-10 pages, a mixture of several poems and a couple of short essays talking about the relationship between the body and language. Although not every author included these essays with their poems/work, how do you feel these essays work in conversation with the text?
Tolbert: I think they work just like you described—as a conversation. And like any conversation, there are these delightful leaps and gaps and delicious wanderings into other territories. I don’t see the poetic statements as a translation of the work, at all. I just see them as a different entry point—and a possibly very useful one for folks who don’t read poetry but are interested in trans and genderqueer studies.
Trace: The notion of the “poetics statements” in the book specifically comes out of my own perspective on the state of discourse in contemporary poetry. Poetics—often a term used by “avant garde” writers—is sometimes defined as any critical writing about poetry, though most often understood as critical writing about poetry by the poets themselves, often involving discussion of what polemical premises frame the writing. I have a slightly different, idiosyncratic
understanding of the term, one which was very much the outcome of a talks series I curated from 2009-2012 at CUNY Graduate Center, titled TENDENCIES: Poetics & Practice. The idea behind this series, created in honor and fond memory of my teacher Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, was to bring together the notion of queer poetry and writing about one’s process. This idea of poetics as something “behind the scenes” often involved a discussion of where the poets’ writing came from, what motivated them to do it, and what specific personal practices they used in the process of writing. This has less to do with a polemical view of poetics but, I would argue, is just as urgently and radically political in its aims, at the location of where the personal and the political meet. With TENDENCIES there had not been an existing critical or poetics discourse around queer poets. I wanted to ask what would happen when poets were invited to help create such an idiosyncratic or personal critical context for their own work. (My next project is to publish the talks from the TENDENCIES series as a book of essays on “new queer poetics.”) So the poets who submitted work for the anthology were encouraged to try their hand at being both poets, critics, and in some cases writers of memoir—to stand beside themselves, not just in the sense of one’s original relation to gender, but in relation to one’s original text, and see what kind of generative discussion this might reveal, for themselves, for other trans poets, and even for beginning writers who are just learning that, as Eve Sedgwick was fond of reminding us, “people are different from each other.”
Were there any that you found particularly surprising/illuminating?
Tolbert: I picked Trish’s piece for this excerpt because I love how she hybridizes the poetic statement as a form. How she queers it. As you might guess, I really love that sort of troubling.
Trace: I found all of the poetics statements surprising and illuminating, because they often provided a framework that would be most relevant and helpful for reading the work—they let you know to what extent the poet wanted you to see the poem as an extension of themselves or to what extent the poem was not intended as autobiographical but engaging with other issues, for example. Given a question like yours I would love to go through and list what I liked about everyone’s statements, but I think the most useful thing for me to do in this case would be to list a few of the trends I saw among them.
Poets such as Max Wolf Valerio, Stephen Burt, and others talked about the persistence of the imagination in relation to gender, and the importance of that term to their own practice of poetry, whether they felt the imagination was something related to autobiography or not. Another theme I was surprised by was the notion of poetry as a gut experience, an intestinal experience, which is an idea that appears in the statements by Kit Yan, TT Jax, and a couple others—the notion of a visceral aspect to trans poetry interests me very much. A surprising theme I saw across maybe fifteen different people’s poetics statements was the tendency to go back to childhood when asked about the relationship between poetics and gender identity—for these poets childhood was seen almost like a locus at which one’s poetics concerns and one’s gender identity were both galvanized, almost as in Wordsworth’s Prelude, except here the childhood experiences are often (not always) traumatic, and sometimes involve abuse, bullying, or other kinds of violence related to one’s identification as transgender. I was inspired by seeing a lot of narratives about becoming stronger or building oneself back up after a trauma that blocked one’s self from fully emerging into the world. Yosmay del Mazo describes this situation as “an attempt to reconcile place and identity within a builder who learned to distrust body and language to survive.” Stacey Waite says “I believe that if all the genderqueers keep writing, keep talking, keep creating, we can take back the playground from the norm-protecting bullies. We can turn gender and genre themselves into a playground.” This seems to me not a notion of poetry as therapy so much as a notion of poetry as survival.
Another particularly inspiring theme I found among different poets was the paradoxical notion of the poetics statement as a self-deprecating excuse for why one can’t write the poetics statement, or why one doesn’t like such statements in the first place. Zoe Tuck admits to being able to write such a “fairly typical spiel,” but instead feels it is more important given the situation “to shout from this lovely rooftop: trans and genderqueer comrades, let your voices be heard.” Ari Banias in his statement says, “I don’t sit comfortably in binaries that posit ‘tradition’ and ‘experimentation’ as mutually exclusive, and I fidget & buck when I’m expected to pledge allegiance.” Similarly, Y. Madrone’s statement is punctuated with complaints about Madrone’s tendency to “fidget” and interrupted by asides such as “I promised myself I’d make a statement already.” Trish Salah’s brilliant poetics statement is framed by the recurring refrain “I need coffee…I haven’t had my coffee yet,” in which not having had the coffee becomes a kind of apologetic allegory for not being fully oneself at the moment, for being in a state of incompletion or a state of about to become.
This brings me to another, really essential aspect of the poetics statements, which are the complicated, very eloquent constructions different poets articulate that go beyond binary thinking and enact other types of freedom for the writer and the reader. Meg Day describes the notion of “the selves we are just barely discovering” and how this discovery will hopefully allow us to “bring our particular amalgam of margins to the core.” I think that’s a really beautiful phrase. Burt describes the “both-and, neither-nor, what-if-but-also, something other than a continuous story about one body in one life” which I also find to be a very moving formulation. As Leslie Scalapino was fond of saying, it “wrecks the mind” in a very good way. Salah makes a point similar to the bridge/gap issue we were discussing earlier when she eloquently states “It is troubling, where language makes a bridge, but there’s no firm.” EC Crandall describes a paradoxical relationship between performance, body, and text when he says “A grounded poetry is melodramatic, the electrostatic between two bodies.” These boundary issues are expounded upon further with an odd and memorable inside-outside figuration, “My body should make a quarter turn when you read it, inside your skin.” Banias has a really wonderful and similarly confounding statement which I think is also amazingly precise and which I sympathise with very much: “Writing often feels like a process of tricking myself into saying something I didn’t know I meant, or something I didn’t mean to know—an encounter with the almostness of what I’m trying to look at but not be obliterated by.”
These confounding yet very precise poetics formulations that go beyond binaries are one of the most noticeable patterns in the anthology—[everyone] is trying to go beyond gender binaries so other kinds of binaries involved in critical writing and thinking are being challenged simultaneously. kari edwards asks us to wrap our minds around a notion of textual layering that includes self-appropriation as a practice—hir statement “a narrative of resistance” folds and condenses the language of hir earlier books into a really beautiful summary of the important conerns in hir work. Micha Cardenas talks about the notion of “the Transreal” which is “crossing boundaries of reality and existing in multiple realities simultaneously.” This groundbreaking notion “was much like the crossing between realities, virtual and physical, fantasy and reality, symbolic and imaginary, that people do every day. I decided to respond to people who denied the reality of my gender, my body and my sexuality on a daily basis by claiming the space of the transreal, rejecting the real/unreal binary by living between multiple realities.” Eileen Myles describes a position beyond binary constructions this way: “In terms of gender I wasn’t either (Alice Notley had invited us in a workshop to write a poem in the opposite gender and I thought opposite what) all the time and that’s what my poem wasn’t so much worried about but was attempting to resolve.” Samuel Ace articulates a body space prior to the performance/gender binary by stressing sex as a factor: “I take lessons in poetry from sex. Because in sex is where all narrative truly falls apart. Where narrative breaks out of corners. Where narrative stops in syncope.” Monica/Nico Peck in a statement called “Real Poetry Tranifesto” ambitiously tries to articulate the connections between the language of poetry and everything in the universe, “& what I think of as poetry is poetry, too, but also what I don’t even know exists is also poetry. I don’t mean this in some sort of namby-pamby way. At all. I mean that language ACTUALLY is the connective tissue between consciousness & material realms. It transits from the most mundane to the most ineffable. Just because I don’t have words for it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have words for me.” Oliver Bendorf’s statement notes “I’m interested in poetry that invents or cobbles together a vocabulary for all those little loves and miseries between or outside existing taxonomies.” Max Wolf Valerio says “While post-modern, I feel apocalyptic.” To read these statements and think about how they relate to the poems is truly to stretch one’s mind toward a dozen new directions, a dozen new possibilities for poetry and poetics.
Trace, in your intro, you talk about how there are several authors included in the anthology whose concerns you feel very close to, but you also talk about the three poet in particular (Samuel Ace, kari edwards, John Wieners) whose work expresses perspectives that are central to the book’s concerns as you understand them. What are the concerns that you identify with most?
Trace: My aesthetic position (it’s a political position with identitarian allegories built in) seeks to bypass the debate between performativity and biology. It’s a position which I stated in the introduction to the anthology this way: “So as a trans-identified poet, editor, and scholar, what do I want? I want a poetry with a connection to the biological, but a biological that relies upon neither ‘gender essentialism’ not reproductive teleology as defining characteristics.” What this would look like in practice is coalescing gradually, but I think that the best examples of it so far are the consciousness and perspectives of the poets in this anthology. Each of them navigates the relationship between performativity and biology in different ways, but each of them I think shows that it is a false binary, while simultaneously keeping the body present and the consciousness of the writer in play.
And how do they compare/contrast with the other authors in the book?
Peterson: Well those three authors I mentioned are older than the other poets in the anthology, and they are also among the authors with a more established oeuvre of books that we can look to in thinking about trans poetics. They start to anchor the anthology in what might become a historical context. One of the things I have been trying to do in my scholarly work for several years is address why this category (“trans poet” or “genderqueer poet”) has not been common in literary discourse as a group formation or as an aesthetic set of concerns. But going back to your question about that list of three poets in my introduction: I could just as easily have listed some of the other more established trans poets who have been trailblazers in this area: Stacey Waite, Max Wolf Valerio, Eli Clare, Joy Ladin, or Eileen Myles, to name just a few.
This book has been a kind of balancing act, in order to try and make the category “trans and genderqueer poetry” more visible. It’s really hard to say who the representative trans authors might be—we’re in a situation where there is no easy synecdoche or shorthand, and that’s why we need an anthology with 55 very different poets! A friend of mine had the critique that for the more famous people in the anthology, such as Eileen Myles, trans may not be a primary identification. My answer to that is that you’d have to ask Eileen, but she certainly wanted to be in the anthology and was enthusiastic about the book. I think the emphasis on fame in that comment highlights exactly why this group of people needs to be gathered together. One reason for us making this anthology was that “trans and genderqueer poets” are not very visible. We fall between the cracks of other discourses and we lurk in the margins of other categories much of the time. So many poets in this anthology have been around but have not been as famous or as visible as they should be. Our criteria for inclusion in the anthology was “self-identification,” which I think holds at bay some of the policing which goes on in identity politics, and instead means that each contributor is describing hir own specific idiosyncratic relationship to a common category. One thing I loved about co-editing this book was that some of the authors changed their “author names” during the process because they felt so empowered by the project. Similarly, on the panel that I moderated at AWP dedicated to the anthology, Dawn Lundy Martin talked about how thinking of herself and her writing as “genderqueer” helped make a lot of things possible that had not been before.
When I make that comment in the introduction about poets whose concerns I identify with, I am also commenting on my multiple roles in the anthology. Not only am I a co-editor with the responsibilities that involves, but I am also an individual poet with creative concerns and with my own poetics. So what I say representing the anthology as an editor is always going to be a little different from what I say as an individual poet with influences and aesthetic concerns of my own. We worked hard to have a wide representation of different aesthetics in this anthology, and that’s healthy for trans poetry. But this is not to say that everyone in the anthology is someone who I aspire to write like or who I even feel a particular aesthetic kinship with as a poet myself. There was a lot of give and take in gathering this group of writers and making this intervention possible. From an aesthetic perspective, I was writing the introduction in the only way I can given that I’m an editor/author. But of course the concerns of the poets involved run the gamut, especially the younger poets we included who may turn into very different kinds of writers later in their careers.
Trace, also in your intro, you also talk about how, in the past, you were often perceived as “trans” or a “poet” or neither, but never both at the same time, and how walking the bridge between these two identities—poetry as a career and trans as a category—for over a decade sometimes led to feelings of isolation due the inability to “articulate or make visible the position that one occupies in publicly, socially, or politically understandable language.” How do you think this anthology works in bridging those gaps and in what ways? Why do you think those kinds of distinctions are drawn in the first place?
Trace: This anthology is the first time that such a large number of trans and genderqueer poets have been gathered together. So I think it helps us all because when accompanied, we don’t lapse into “only gay in the village syndrome” or trope that state of being as if it were a constitutive condition of our work. When we’re together, we have this chance to look around and put our work in perspective, and understand our unique accomplishments as well as our collective clichés better. The specificity of our achievements shines, both as trans/genderqueer poets and as literary participants in a larger sense. I hope everyone teaches this anthology and I think all the poets in the book call for our responses and our attention. To respond to your metaphor of the gap in the most direct way possible, I think the anthology is simultaneously trying to be a bridge AND a gap, depending on what you say the gap is between. And I like the impossibility of that—my own poetics statement in the book is titled “Channelling and (Im)possibility: A Poetics and Erotics” and I am drawn to that kind of thinking.
There is a weird unarticulated space between the category “poetry” and the category “trans / genderqueer”—you almost never see them together in the same place. I’ve done some research into this for the past few years, and am developing my thinking and writing in my graduate work in looking at why this has been the case in poetry as a genre. In the case of someone like Max Wolf Valerio, he mentioned on the AWP panel that when his memoir The Testosterone Files came out, people were always really excited to hear him read from the memoir, and he would always say in response “but I’m really a poet.” In the introduction to the anthology I tried to talk about the troubled relationship between the terms this way: “Perhaps one reason for that is the paradoxical situation Viviane K. Namaste evokes when she quotes Michelle de Ville in a fanzine interview: ‘The drag queen in the gay world is meant to be on the stage or ‘walking the streets.’ Don’t get off the stage, baby! It’s like the bird in the gilded cage’ (10-11). Perhaps poetry has tended to be understood by the public not as a stage for performance, but as an introspective personal space in the normative sense—an ‘intimate’ space from which trans people are barred or where we remain invisible unless we are playing the role of an externalized, hypersexualized being…But in the language of Namaste’s quote, surely there must be an alternative somewhere in between performing on the stage and prostitution on the streets, and surely such an alternative must include a space in which the consciousness, reflections, and concerns of trans and genderqueer poets can be heard, understood, and nurtured.”
I would add to all this that one of the main mechanisms we have for propagating poetry as a medium in this country in the apprentice system of writing workshops, one of the central assumptions of which is that there is a normative “general reader” that everyone must write for, and in which one common question becomes “how does this effect the reader?” or “what does the reader think of this?” It’s not unlikely, depending on who you’re studying with, that this projection, this presumed general reader probably has an essentialist attitude toward gender and an investment in reproductive teleology. I am making a lot of generalizations here, but these might be some of the reasons why we haven’t seen more visible trans and genderqueer poets as such.
Can you talk a little about the inclusion of author photos in the anthology? What sparked the decision to include photos of the authors.
Trace: The author photos and the poetics statements were my main contributions to the overall idea of the anthology. My issue from the beginning of this project has been finding a way to make trans and genderqueer poets visible, because for so long the subjectivity of “the creative writer” in poetry seems assumed to have been someone with an essentialist or unproblematic gender identity. The poetics statements and the author photos were both elements I introduced into the anthology as a way of trying to show us in three dimensions. As co-editor and graphic designer, I framed each person’s section with these elements as bookends: the header images that announce each section with a portrait of the poet at the beginning, and the poetics statements which provide a sense of context for the poet’s work at the end. This is an open structure that allows flexibility and encourages the kind of depictions I’m talking about in relation to subjectivity, without in the process sacrificing any seriousness of intellectual rigor.
The photos specifically I felt were needed because in life my trans acquaintances had never overlapped with my cis acquaintances, and I can’t tell you how many of my relatives and professional colleagues often don’t seem to know what I’m talking about because they have never actually met a trans person—they’ve never even had a conversation with one. So many people’s knowledge is many years behind what’s currently happening in the trans community and trans activism, and the gap can become embarrassing, even in academia. Often people have the mistaken impression of an exotic unicorn grazing in a forest somewhere, rather than the sense of an actual person with problems and struggles, a person who does creative and other kinds of labor behind the scenes or offstage.
Yet as I mentioned in my poetics statement for the anthology, trying to describe trans/genderqueer poetics out in the open is complicated because “It engages with a central dilemma of identity, that we always weigh the risk of making ourselves visible against the possible dangers of targeting, tokenization, or erasure involved, as well as the possible use of our voices against their own interests. My goodness, this is getting exciting.” So yes, all of these are things I had in mind when advocating for the idea of author photos, and also I just felt that the diversity of people’s gender identification and expression was inspiring to see.
Photo of Tim Trace Peterson by Diana Cage
Read an excerpt of the collection here.