Ari Banias: On His New Poetry Collection and Trans Representation in the Larger Culture
Author: Tennessee Jones
October 24, 2016
A poetry book ten years in the making, Ari Banias’s stunning Anybody tackles questions of relatability and difference. The collection deftly navigates the strangeness of living, the significance of place, and the implications of belonging.
From the publisher:
[H]ow boundaries are drawn and managed, the ways he and she, us and them, here and elsewhere are kept separate, and at what cost identities and selves are forged. Moving through iconic and imagined landscapes, Anybody confronts the strangeness of being alive and of being a restlessly gendered, queer, emotive body.
Banias has held fellowships with Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He currently lives in Berkeley California. Lambda’s Tennessee Jones sat down with Banias to discuss the book, whiteness, and writing while trans.
My interpretation of the title of the book, Anybody, is you’d like to suggest (not universality), but that the commonality we all share is the fact of being here together, on this planet, sharing experiences in one way or another. I’m curious how your thoughts and experience of whiteness informed how you conceived of these poems.
Exactly! Looking at the experience of being here together outside of the concept of the universal was on my mind. I thought a lot about my whiteness in writing and titling Anybody. Because I’m white, it’s often assumed my poems aren’t thinking about race, or that my entry point for “difference” will be through my being trans. I want to resist that. Whenever the concept of universality pops up my alarm bells go off. I think of how the unnamed default of whiteness has been inherent in ideas of universality and humanness, and how that default is an erasure tied to projects of actual, material erasure—displacement, colonization, war, slavery, mass incarceration…. So for me, a white person, to say anybody (or everybody), to say commonality, to say we –all of these feel extremely loaded. And important. It’s important to keep trying to say them, even while stumbling, and to mean something that directly opposes the kind of erasure I name above.
I’m interested in where we touch and overlap. Unexpectedly. I don’t want to presume who will or won’t find themselves in my poems. I mean anybody as an invitation to inhabit space, to fill this blank. Anybody signifies a zone of possibility between nobody and somebody, and seems to me malleable, up for grabs. The anonymity in that word also lends it a sense of the plural. Which is something I was working through in this book–the being-with and the being-apartness of sociality, of being a body in the world. Whiteness, and assumptions readers might make about who is speaking or spoken to, comes up for me a lot around this word we, which has been central to the making of many of these poems.
When I use we, I’m conscious that speaking this pronoun as a white person might affect how and with whom it resonates. Some of my we’s read very specifically as white we’s or American we’s, often, these are indictments; some we’s are trans, are queer; some are a split I; some a self and their beloved. And some are unspecified, wide, more generally available for identification. We aspires, is utopian. I hope, in general, that my work throws elbows out and enlarges space; I want we’s that make room. But we can narrow, be exclusive, fascistic, violent. There’s a poem in the book in which white settlers appear, and as I was writing it, I wanted so much to use the pronoun them, to dis-identify. To do so would’ve been an abdication of responsibility, so in the end I decided to say us. This seemed terrible to me, but true.
We feels risky to use which is why I use it–always, I hope, fully considering its stakes coming from this body. To say we is to wield a weighted thing; it calls for attentiveness, calls up questions. We implies a them, and I can’t always know where you are in this equation. Have I alienated you? Are you “with” me? Are you part of a Them that wants me to believe my we is imagined, that I’m alone? Have we been coopted? Are they telling us who or how to be; can a poem cut holes in these borders estranging us from each other?
You’ve worked on different forms of this collection for ten years. What sustained you during this period?
Unnameable Books, the poetry section of Unnameable Books, the cheese at Park Slope Food Coop, doubles on Flatbush, Prospect Park, Hatches Harbor, The Old Colony, Roberto Bolaño, Agnes Varda, Frank Ocean, Frank O’Hara, my teachers, my parents, my enemies, my crushes, my failures, distractions, obsessions, delusion, showing up, bad puns, phone calls, windows, Cape Cod’s inter-library loan system, small accommodations strangers make at the laundromat, eye contact on the subway, overheard conversations, things people leave on the curb, Samos honey, Cherry Grove, Ruthie’s, lavender, anger, rocks, earplugs, sweat pants, rembetika, G. M. Hopkins, Rukeyser’s “The Fear of Poetry,” free healthcare through the state of Massachusetts, three fellowships, one grant, teaching, not teaching, femininity, long walks on the goddamn beach, and the minds and faces of my extraordinary hilarious generous friends.
The poem “Double Mastectomy,” calls to mind for me an almost fairy-tale like telling of the experience: “the creaking house we lived in / that hundred-year-old matron” and later, “Glided straight toward that white / room. As if / approaching from within / a dense wood” It is by far the most telling (and accurate) description of top surgery I’ve read. How did you come to this approach? It’s vastly different from work by trans writers that details the bodily mechanisms of experiences of transness.
I didn’t intend to write about surgery. It seemed a subject to steer clear of, given the fascination so many non-trans people have about our bodies. The last thing I wanted was to reinforce a voyeuristic trope. At the same time, I’d initiated a profound physical intervention, chosen and deeply desired by me, that I also had complicated feelings about, among them, grief – as well as the strong sense I wasn’t supposed to cop to this grief. I felt, as many do, an obligation (for the sake of concerned family, as well as in light of the skepticism directed at trans people who take charge over their own bodies) to outwardly present my surgery as certain, as perfectly aligned with “finally making my body right”–as if it had been unequivocally wrong before, as if a body in itself could be wrong. So then of course writer-me comes in like, Oh, I’m not supposed to write about that? I’m definitely going to write about that. It was around this time I learned my childhood home had been demolished, so suddenly my sense of loss of two historic bodies, that had each in its way housed me, merged, felt inevitable.
The wonderful poem “One Possible Reading Among Many” ends with this: “To learn to see beyond my seeing/ I need to admit everything.” This is a vastly important statement. Can you talk about what you mean by it?
Thanks. I was thinking of parameters, confines, frames. Of the voids in childhood, and the sinking feeling that what lies ahead is a more calcified version of “this.” I can remember learning how to hold my face, and my body, in certain ways. I think of being told “don’t be so emotional.” Of learning, cue by cue, to think of myself as inherently separate from others. And what kind of person, and by extension what kind of world, these swallowed lessons add up to. In poems, I long to get outside the ways culture has directed me to see myself, others, and the world; at the same time, I feel compelled to describe the terms of this seeing. As for “seeing beyond [our] seeing,” I believe our ability to survive depends on trying to do that, fraught as our tools are, difficult as it may be. In that last line, “admit” is working in two senses. To divulge, and to allow in. I mean admission porously. I mean to be exposed, and to expose.
Trans representation in the larger culture has changed so much in an extremely short period of time. I’m thinking, right now, of how when I started grad school in 2007, I wasn’t out to my classmates because I didn’t want to deal with the possibility of entertaining other people’s ignorance. This fall, I went back to school, and both schools I’m attending in New York have gender-neutral bathrooms. I burst into tears when I saw this, thinking of all the years I spent trying to hide myself when I wasn’t in my immediate community. Has this sudden change affected your writing in the last few years? Have you experienced any emotional whiplash?
That’s beautiful about the bathrooms. And I know what you mean. That the freedom to use a bathroom without fear is so moving is also just such an indication of how far the culture has yet to go. In terms of representation, my first thought is that it still feels sadly necessary to state the obvious–that trans lives being accounted for in media and even in infrastructure, has not resulted in the day to day existence of most trans people being freer, safer, affirmed. Representation can come as a relief, feel good (or, sorta good), and dammit I want us to feel good. To be a subject rather than an object of pity or fascination, to be seen complexly, or to represent ourselves (watch out!) is undoubtedly meaningful. Ultimately though it’s hard for me to get truly excited about greater media visibility when trans people are routinely & disproportionately murdered, policed, harassed, incarcerated; denied housing, jobs, health care; misgendered and misnamed; barred access to basic public services; still overwhelmingly stigmatized. And overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of this violence are trans women, poor and low-income trans people, trans people of color. Trans visibility, while it can yield support for things like gender-neutral bathrooms, has also left more people targeted for violence. So there’s been this huge shift: we are now mentionable–some of us, sometimes. A kind of currency. But we have always existed, worthless and worthy. This shiny moment shinier for some has a history. Well before the specter/promise of respectability, trans people have been organizing and fighting. A half-century (at least) of determined struggle has made this cultural shift begin to happen.
How this impacts my writing is hard to know yet. I will say I feel less need to spell out or contextualize transness, and a growing desire to give voice to other aspects of experience & embodiment in my poems. Probably, I’m sort of poised in anticipation of a spotlighting of my transness. So my feeling is, let’s bring some other things into that spotlight–let’s bring in whiteness and critique of it, femininity, class, humor, let’s bring constructs of landscape, romance, loneliness, power, let’s bring immigration, proximity, place, let’s bring anger and doubt.
You’ve had incredible success as a poet, in terms of being able to make a living as a writer. Can you give some advice to people who are trying to make their way doing this?
The problem of earning a living as a poet, and in the long term, is one I’m still figuring out. For the better part of fifteen years I’ve worked in bookstores or with books, teaching some of that time. I’ve taken jobs that allowed me to write outside them, and I say no a lot. Fellowships have sustained me materially for substantial periods, and have been invaluable for the intimate writing friendships that began there. Always, having one or two sharp, honest readers of my work has been essential.
Now, corny Dad advice: identify what sustains you as a writer, where you get energy, who makes this feel possible, and do whatever you can to prioritize these in your life. If your time is extremely limited, protect the intervals and spaces where writing can happen. Be as viscous as you must about this. Leave your phone. Be what they might call unavailable; say no to hanging out with the friend who drains you. Do all you can to not hinge your sense of worth on institutional praise–and the institution takes many forms; a scene can be an institution. In my experience, writing is a courting of uncertainty, often lonely, often unsexy, mostly frustrating, mostly failure. I don’t know why the hell I do it, but then it has its small odd satisfactions, its rare ecstasies, and I remember.