Wanting to write something I could think only of my own ideas, though you surely have your separate, private being in some place I will never walk through.
— John Ashbery, "Haibun"
Last week I was flown to Pennsylvania to talk to 50 or so strangers about my junk. This wasn’t, of course, what the contract said. It never does. The conversation always begins benignly enough. But inevitably, somewhere between the definitions of trans identities and statistics about violence against trans folks, the conversation turns to my body, my desire, and my narrative. I don’t blame the folks in the audience. I mean, I make myself available for questions and the people, very simply, want to know.
Some sample questions that always come up:
How do you pee?
How do you have sex?
If you could be born straight or cis,i would you?
What if you want to go back?
Did you ever want to kill yourself?
Where are your tits?
How old were you and how did you know?
It’s either incredibly serendipitous timing or brilliant curating (nice work JMW) that this trans and queer issue of Evening Will Come is published on the heels of November’s issue with a conversation between Maggie Nelson and Brian Blanchfield. So much of the work here echoes, extends, or enacts their wondering about “contingency rather than essence,” the “recognizability, visibility, and dignity of the queer subject,” “which lives are visible/readable as lives,” “what counts as a life,” and expansion rather than limitation of poetic possibility, subject, and form.
If there is such a thing as transgender literature, it is, as Joy Ladin pointed out, dominated by the trans memoir.ii The resilience narrative, the tragedy, and the freak show. This is the danger, often, of the integrated space. That the trans and queer writer becomes responsible to educate. To simplify. To show. The work here resists those expectations. It’s a weird thing to navigate – knowing that part of the reason we might be here is because our identity and/or our desire is so other as to be of interest (does every invitation include the hint of the voyeur? is that a bad thing?) but, no really, you don’t have to tell us any secrets or do a little show. Judith Butler points out that, “One ‘exists’ not only by virtue of being recognized but in a prior sense by being recognizable.”iii This is a constant challenge for trans and queer writers, especially in a non-trans or non-queer space.
When I solicited work, I was grappling with these issues, and I wanted to learn from how other trans and queer artists negotiate such a space. I said, “Do you know the haibun? I’m not going to ask you to write a haibun. I mean, not totally. I was just thinking that here we are, it’s summer, and there are all of these incredible [trans and queer] people I’m meeting and others I know and others I want to know and I want to know what’s happening inside all of their brains. And I want them to meet each other. And so what’s the internet version of stone soup? Or a potluck? Or a road trip?”
I also said: “First off, I’m pushing against the trans and genderqueer constraint and saying now, queer. There are already so many ladyboys, andro-dykes, sissy boys, and homos trying to get a word in edgewise and what with all the noise out there, it’s just damn hard to hear. And while there is surely some increase in the number of folks talking about trans and/or queer folks, there’s still very little coming from trans and/or queer folks that goes beyond the standard narrative or moves beyond the usual social justice circles or even (gasp!) dares to engage with other material. I’m contacting you now because you are smart, you’ve said something that struck my fancy, your heart intrigues me, I want to hear more from you, what you do with your art kicks ass, and your perspective is, well, wicked queer.”
I picked the haibun as a (very loose) constraint because as a trans and queer writer (and this is different, I think, than a writer who happens to be queer and trans), I am particularly interested in form. The haibun, to me, is a kind of queer and trans body – a text in dynamic relationship to context at all times, passing through, in, between, among. It interrogates the static – the passing body is made to relate to shifting landscapes (social, physical, emotional) and those shifts, in turn, influence thought, body, form.
Access to space, movement, and mobility are important trans and queer issues and I was particularly interested in what kinds of topics, places, subject positions, and ideas queer and trans folks had access to and what kinds of space we might inhabit on the page. There is also something distinctly gendered about the history of the hiabun, about travel, about the value of personal narrative, and access to public space. Basho’s ability to travel across Japan was possible absolutely because he was a man.iv Particularly thrilling for me is to see that, of the artists I solicited here, almost half experimented with visual elements (if they are primarily text based) or textual elements (if they are primarily visual artists). All of the work is pushy, smart, large. It’s too small a sample size to make any sort of definitive claim but it is nice to see trans and queer folks taking up more physical and social and intellectual space.
Just as there is no monolithic trans destination (there is no such a thing as “the surgery” and coming out as queer or trans is a continual process, not a one time deal), there is no checklist other than “go” for the haibun. That the form, itself, is so anti-form but still operating within constraint. I love how the haibun insists on shifting (and this highlights the tension) between poetry and prose, reflection and action, body and landscape, traveler and inhabitant, intimate and public space. There is also something in the haibun that exemplifies Butler’s idea of gender as a doing, not a being. We perform the journey, we repeat it in order to solidify it. The haibun highlights the constructed element of what we assume to be natural. It is not just that trans folks are constructing and/or “doing” their genders, but that everyone is. Similarly, the structure of the haibun highlights a narrative that is both constructed and real.
When Joshua Marie Wilkinson asked me to guest curate this issue of Evening Will Come with a trans and genderqueer theme, I said yes for two reasons. 1. Trans folks make up .5-1% of the population. That’s somewhere around 1 million folksv but it still feels like we’re a secret. And trans and genderqueer poets and poetry – we’re freakishly scarce.vi (I’m not saying we’re the freaks, the scarcity is.) A happy exception is Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, a collection of over 50 trans poets that I co-edited with Tim Trace Peterson. It will be out in late February 2013 with EOAGH/Nightboat Books.vii Still, it’s time for a Lambda Lit category. It’s time to see more trans and genderqueer poets at readings, on panels, in teaching positions, in print. 2. I believe the worst thing that could happen to poetry and poetics would be that any given poet’s work end at the page. If one wants to undermine capitalism and compulsory heterosexuality through syntax or some other poetic project, one shouldn’t be a dick in real life. The editors at the Volta aren’t dicks. They have historically made space for trans and queer folks without ghettoizing or enforcing assimilation. This is crucial and exciting. To see lots of queer and trans writing in a place that is not a designated trans or queer space.
But after I said yes, I changed the parameters. The language of identity is tricky and even more so the acts, permissions, and prescriptions to make that identity visible – the last thing I wanted was to be the gender police. In Transgender History, Susan Styker says she’s using “trans” to “refer to the widest imaginable range of gender-variant practices and identities.” Me too. Also, I often use “trans” and “transgender” interchangeably, though not unproblematically. Depending on who you ask, this may or may not be different from “genderqueer” (which indicates a (perhaps more broad) rejection of gender norms that does not necessarily result in any sort of physical transition).vii The truth is, I never know how to separate trans from genderqueer from queer.
So what the hell does that mean – queer? It’s about more than desire, although that is part of it. Queer has political connotations. As Nelson wrote to Blanchfield: “I’ve also become steadily less likely to believe there is anything necessarily radical about choosing sexual partners or life partners of the same sex—save the reaction-formation that ensues when heteronormative culture pushes on you, threatens you, tries to “cure” or shame you, won’t let you into a loved one’s emergency room or an adoption office, beats you up, or kills you.” Queer is different from lesbian, bisexual, or gay. In Fear of a Queer Planet, Michael Warner describes queerness as, “a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal.” Yes. What interests me about queerness is its emphasis on experiment, hybridity, failure, vulnerability, and risk. These, in addition to authorial connection to lived trans or queer experience – queerly gendered, queerly sexed, queerly positioned, queerly politicized, queerly otherwise. I use “trans and queer” as a kind of ideological shorthand for an anti-hegemonic orientation with regard to desire, intellect, approach, and form.
But also, it would be pretty fucked up to act like a poet who uses a trans and queer syntax (if we could prove such a thing exists – and I hope it does) but does not walk through the world as a trans and/or queer person is the same as a poet who lives a trans and queer experience. As Christine Wertheim says in Feminaissance, “By rendering the notion of identity invalid, post-humanists attempt to render every body equal. But every body is not equal. Some bodies, many bodies have never been accorded a recognized identity in western society, and hence are not in a position to lose it, or get over it.” I’m not interested in moving “beyond gender” or “beyond identity.” Bodies matter. Different bodies have different experiences. And that is incredibly apparent with regard to resources and safety.
Nelson refers to a conversation with Jack Halberstam in which he claims that, “gays are no longer second class citizens.” I don’t know if Halberstam was also distinguishing between gay folks and queers (or how much he was also talking about race and class – knowing his work, I’m sure he wasn’t dismissing those things) but it feels important to acknowledge that trans and queer people still face exorbitant rates of systemic and personal violence and oppression. A trans woman is murdered every other day globally and 1-2 trans women are murdered a month here in the US.ix Trans people are disproportionately incarcerated in relation to non-trans people.x Transphobia is compounded by the pre-existing conditions of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. In a recent study by National Center for Transgender Equality, 41% of trans respondents had attempted suicide – compared with 1.6% of the general population; 78% of trans folks have experienced harassment, 35% experienced physical assault, 12% experienced sexual assault.xi What I’m getting at here is that one’s sense of safety and access to resources is greatly impacted by an identity and/or expression that exists outside of, in opposition to, or obliquely alongside cultural norms. Maybe white lesbian and gay folks have moved up, but if you are trans and queer (and particularly if you are a person of color who is trans and queer) the world just isn’t all that welcoming or safe.
And yet it is imperative that we see trans and queer people as more than victims. I hope this issue is one of many jumping off points for more conversations, gatherings, readings, collections, etc foregrounding the work of trans folks and queers. The best that can come of this is that trans and genderqueer folks are able to find each other more easily. And trans and genderqueer youth can have more access to trans and queer role models, mentors, confidants, and friends. The most profound impact of this issue, for me, is engaging with work that is brilliant and complex. And knowing that this work was created by folks who are brilliantly queer and trans.
On my way to Pennsylvania, I flew to Denver. We boarded at 6am and by 6:30, the guy in the seat next to me was asleep. He put the armrest down between us and he seemed pretty comfortable. Four arms between us but only three armrests. I had the window. Thinking about the gender of elbowroom.
i “Straight” refers to heterosexual folks – sexual orientation. “Cis” means “on the same side as” and it refers to gender-normative folks. Someone who is born female and then presents as a girl and/or woman is cis. Straight is to gay as cis is to trans.
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ii Joy Ladin’s essay, “Ours for the Making: Trans Lit, Trans Poetics” on Lambda Literary.
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iii Judith Butler. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative.
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iv A huge thank you to Kristi Maxwell, Samuel Ace, and Kristen Nelson for sharing their thoughts about travel and gender and helping me develop my own thinking in relation to Basho and the haibun.
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v A 2011 Williams Institute Survey estimated that .5% of the population identifies as transgender (about 700,000 people) while the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates between .5-1% of the folks in the US are trans.
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vi See “Numbers Trouble” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young for a great breakdown of publications by gender or just Google it – you’ll see what I mean.
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viii For definitions and further reading, go to Transgender Terminology at National Center for Transgender Equality.
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x Eric Stanley and Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and The Prison Industrial Complex.
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