Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

TC Tolbert & Trace Peterson
The Troubled Line

This conversation was excerpted from an interview with Lambda Literary Review, first published at Lambdaliterary.org on May 17, 2013.

Released in March 2013 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.”

LLR:What was the impetus in pulling the collection together? What sparked the idea?

TCT: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/by 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 a bit lonely for the kinds of community I saw other folks creating, I realized how human (as opposed to super-human) this whole process (of publishing, gathering folks around an idea) is/can be. Watching other folks do it reminded me that I needed tenacity and passion more than any sort of institutional/academic support.

I approached Trace because I love her work and 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.

LLR: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?

TCT: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? I never really answered that question.

Also, there were several poets and poems I loved that did not make it into the book. That was hard but fair.

LLR: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?

TP: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. I was the co-editor and the graphic designer, which meant that at times it was harder than usual to create healthy boundaries between these different roles, and 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. 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. 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. 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. I think you can give people a writing prompt, but 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.

TCT: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 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? She said yes right away and we were off.

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. 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!

LLR:As editors, how did your own particular aesthetics shape the work that was chosen for this collection?

TCT:I think Trace and I made a different book than I would make with any other collaborator, even given the same pool of work. That’s interesting to me. One of my beliefs about a collection like this is that it should include a range of poems, 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.

TP: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 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. 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.

LLR: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?

TCT: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. 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.

LLR:What do you think is needed to improve the visibility of these authors?

TCT: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.

LLR: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?

TP: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. 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.”

LLR:Trace, in your intro, you 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?

TP: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. 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.

LLR:Can you talk a little about the inclusion of author photos in the anthology? What sparked the decision to include photos of the authors.

TP: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.

Also I just felt that the diversity of people’s gender identification and expression was inspiring to see.