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Multitudes

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, ed. by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson

by Frances Richard

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, ed. by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson.

Nightboat Books. $27.95.

In 1990, Judith Butler published her pathbreaking study Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. A decade later, for the anniversary edition, she added a preface addressing the book’s role in shaping what had come to be known, in the intervening years, as queer theory. Gender Trouble, Butler explains, was written to disrupt assumptions about gender as a stable category:

I opposed those regimes of truth that stipulated that certain kinds of gendered expressions were found to be false or derivative, and others, true and original. The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a model for readers of the text. Rather, the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized.

At issue for Butler — and for her readers who have felt their worldviews wobble and expand — is the fixity of  binary distinction. Lines that split false from true, derivative from original, female from male are, Butler argues, precisely imaginary. That is, they are potent social projections, constitutive collective fantasies. These lines are not easy to cross, and in that sense are very real. But they are not given as 
a priori natural law. They are inscribed as habitus in the social world.

It follows that another zone where apparently bright lines blur is in the interval distinguishing words — conversational, theoretical, poetic — from acts — legal, economic, erotic. How does this blurring function? A person has a body, a name, a family, a job; one has to see the doctor, go to school, rock the baby at 3:00 a.m., and find a public bathroom when, in the course of a busy day out and about, one has to pee. Normal verbal exchange might play a part in any of these activities. But what do language-forms that are theoretically elaborate (or for that matter, poetically intense) offer in such moments? 
Butler addresses this, too:

One might wonder what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible,” illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.

Speculative, imaginative writings — texts that “open possibility” 
— help us to live because the definitions by which we live are themselves productions of the cultural imaginary. Consider, then, a 
profound and generative trouble; a nexus of vibrating lines. 

 

 

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics includes work by fifty-five participants. Each of them, including the two editors, TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, contributed a poetics statement and portrait photograph as well as multiple poems, and this commitment to providing critical context while also figuring the writer’s physical presence is enough to make the collection unusual. Butler is one of many theorists whose works on gender, queerness, and epistemology are acknowledged here and there throughout the book. Indeed, in this editorial project no firm distinction holds between texts that are poetic and those that are critical, or between texts foregrounding self-conscious artifice — concerned with language as symbolic system — and others framed as urgently confessional — trusting words to denote ego-experience. The writers involved hail from some quite different poetry worlds, and evince disparate ideas about what poems are. They seem largely to agree, however, about what poems can do. Poetry, in Troubling the Line, is presented as polymorphous, contradictory — another expression resistant to judgments of proscribed versus legitimate. It operates, for just this reason, as a 
vector for creating social space.

Troubling the Line is a big book. In addition to the poems, statements, and portraits, the 538-page volume comprises two introductions, one by each of its two editors, plus substantial contributors’ notes. (Two poets, kari edwards and John Wieners, are anthologized posthumously. Short pieces of their prose, selected by Tolbert and Peterson, stand as their statements.) Figures of quasi-cultic fame, like edwards, Wieners, and Eileen Myles are represented, as are midcareer authors who win prizes, teach, edit, and perform — Samuel Ace, CAConrad, Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin. A slightly younger group with books and chapbooks from small presses include Ari Banias, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Jake Pam Dick, HR Hegnauer, and Ely Shipley. Many contributors have MFAs, PhDs, and jobs in English departments. But at least one (Kit Yan) has never had work anthologized before, and another (Lilith Latini) has never before been published. Among Max Wolf Valerio’s achievements is inclusion in the watershed anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Persephone Press, 1981). Another contributor, Stephen Burt, is an influential critic and professor of  English at Harvard University who has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Everyone in the anthology identifies as trans or genderqueer. What exactly this entails is left open.* “Trace and I agreed early on that we had no desire to be the gender police,” writes Tolbert in introduction number one, “so, we had no litmus test other than self-identification.” In introduction number two, Peterson states, “We are not interested in policing identity; we are interested in helping make more widely available in poetry different kinds of inbetweenness in relation to gender identification.” These rejections of “police” and “policing” form a chiasmatic structure, apropos for paired essays by and about trans scholars who are also artists. Related concerns with multiplicity and traversal appear throughout the book. “we want the freedom / to be disassembled” writes edwards in a poem titled “This leftover disruption thing.” “I am king-sized — I embody dis- and quietudes,” 
affirms Drew Krewer in “It Could Be Anything You Want Me to Be,” as if the entire Whitmanic lineage had been tending toward Troubling the Line. Perhaps it has.

“We wanted a deep experience of the textual body,” Tolbert notes. Peterson adds, “I want a poetry in which trans concerns and linguistic experimentation appear together and overlap.” In practice, this means that the anthology sets field poetics, typographic play, and collage practices alongside earnest narrative in prose-based, left-justified stanzas. Specific influences cited are various. “I am in debt to the Surrealists, the Objectivists and Imagists, H.D. and also of course to Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, Lorca, and Genet,” reports Valerio; ten pages away, Lori Selke tells us, “my personal shout-outs would have to include Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Pat Parker, Dorothy Allison, Harold Norse, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Sharon Olds.” (Perhaps only Ginsberg makes a link.) There are passages in transliterated Thai by Bo Luengsuraswat, a series of zuihitsu, loosely concatenated poem-essays, by Ching-In Chen, and pieces incorporating visual material by Jen (Jay) Besemer and Meg Day. Micha Cárdenas’s “net.walkingtools.Transformer” investigates trans and immigrant experience as code:

package net.walkingtools;

import info.QueerTechnologies.TransCoder;

public class Transformer extends java.lang.Object
        implements java.lang.Runnable
{
        / * Fields * / 
        private java.lang.String lifeLine;
        private boolean maleOrFemale;
        private boolean citizenOrMigrant;
        private java.lang.String genderDesired;
        private java.lang.String genderGiven;
        private java.lang.String oldName;
        private java.lang.String newName;
        private java.lang.String birthPlace;
        private java.lang.String destination;
        private java.lang.String attributes;
        private java.io.File uploadMyBody;

In this rather dizzying diversity, the basic thematic that Brolaski calls “the act of transing” parses into several key subthemes. Most potent — as Cárdenas’s work suggests — are tropes of the poem as a transmittable body, a private “lang.String” rendered “public class.” Also important to nearly every contributor is the related conviction 
that unpoliced poetic speech can save its speakers from erasure and hopelessness. “It is the telling of these / stories that makes our / changes real and possible” avers Ariel Goldberg in the poem “Dear Photographer.” In a statement titled “Carved Crimson into the Bark of a White Page: A Queer / Trans Womanist Indigenous Colored Poetics,” Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán declares:

I write because our lives are largely unwritten, and if written largely not self-written, and we need to textually, conceptually, and artistically (re)inhabit these previous places of absence and longing.

j/j hastain muses in the prose-poetic “we force-effect the oubliette”: “Stringcourses assisting us in surviving. Mutant forms are hopeful....    As attempt at restoration. At collective utterance being mined for an accurate or applicable ‘I.’”

The belief that poetry is a tool for forging a better consciousness goes back, of course, to the Romantics, while the conceit that the poem is flesh made word has circulated at least since Whitman cried, “Camerado! This is no book; / Who touches this, touches a man.” A venerable tradition is accordingly in effect when Monica / Nico Peck writes, in “real poetry transifesto,” “i mean that language actually is the connective tissue between consciousness & material realms. it transits from the most mundane to the most ineffable”; or when Samuel Ace compresses the metaphor to total equivalence: “Poetry is the body” (his italics). This insistence on language as nonabstract, immediate, risks sounding sentimentally exaggerated. What makes it absorbingly strange instead are the ways in which the bodies being written know themselves as already protean. Gr Keer addresses all these issues — poetry as salvific, poetry as avatar, physicality as a series of syntactic options — in both statement and poem. “i write to banish shame and conquer despair....    as a genderqueer person, i live my 
poetics on a daily basis. my ambiguous embodiment requires readings and rereadings, and invites misreadings and rewritings.” And:

she — he — 
                   [is here]
                   [wants to tell you]
                   [needs a good fuck]
                   [is a librarian]
       — From who is a man

When people are interpreted as textual, books become peculiarly relational — and not just for the writers who convene a cohort in print. As readers flipping between poem and biographical note, photograph and statement, we are invited to catch ourselves wondering what an author’s gender presentation has to do with what goes on in our thoughts as we read. Who is writing, and what do my projections or reveries about this writer do to my reception of the piece? What, exactly, is happening in that cathexis between myself as receiver, the picture that says “author,” and the poem?

In fact, similar questions pertain to any act of reading. What kind of truth is writing? What is the rightfully motivated name? What kind of language labels only in helpful, clarifying ways and never in suffocating, simulacral ones? These are problems as old as Plato and as important to Shakespeare, Stein, and Wittgenstein as they are to Ari Banias, whose poem “Here’s the Story on Being” considers essence as fiction (or vice versa) and linguistic address as a kind of clothing. Clothes here are not metaphors. Banias really has in mind the ways in which we interpellate each other according to how we’re dressed. But such constant street-level appraisal is not a false propriety under which stands radiant, naked truth. Neither social identity, nor verbal expression, nor the quiddity of the body guarantees legibility:

                       and then a person addresses themselves to you — 
            well, to your clothes.
but I only borrowed these, you want to say, they aren’t
me. or you’d like to explain yours were broken or wet or
you didn’t have a skin — but it wouldn’t make sense.

Troubling the Line emphasizes, in effect, the ways in which any act of address — any act of interpretation — is a transing, a complicated carrying across boundaries demarcating inner and outer, present and absent, certain and uncertain, et cetera.

As Banias shows in the poem “At Any Given Moment,” the freedom to be “just a thing in the wind,” unlabeled, unaddressed, remains paradoxically a social freedom, powerful only when understood as simultaneously self-reflexive and communitarian. Lovers might slip away to a wild Eden where no authority names us boy or girl, flower or weed — but that vision of a state-of-nature beyond gender sustains itself, in the poem, for just one three-line stanza. Then it’s back to the hot apartment with the TV on — back to culture, categories, self-awareness, other people and the emotions they elicit:

                        Our near naked bodies in underwear we’ve decided

are outside the room of gender. Which means we are eternally outside, two
wildflowers in soil, faces upturned. The elements tend to us
gently and with rain and light

but then of course large people in gloves come to poke
plastic tags in the soil
right beside us to help us be seen correctly

though we’d rather it all be
a little less precise. I’m not just a flower.
At any given moment I’m also a weed and
medicinal and food for some bees and I don’t know, just a thing in the wind, a thing

in the ground. I like the feel, the sound
of that. But since I’ve imagined this room it must be
me who jabbed the tags into the soil.
With my blurry picture and beneath it

the scientific version of my name. I’m watching myself
watch TV in the heat in my underwear from the next building 
over, and
honestly, I seem overly angry.

            I think we should talk.        Can we all come to our windows?

It’s like the scene in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) where the news audience is exhorted to yell from their windows, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Leaning out of one’s little space, recognizing one’s implication in the interlocking systems that make meaning, and calling across the divide to others in their other little spaces: transmission, translation, transformation (and so forth) depend on this.

To make such universalizing claims, however, is not to downplay the specificity of language-patterns tailored to the needs and wishes of trans and genderqueer subjects. It’s notable, for instance, how often the writings in this anthology use brackets, slashes, all-lower-
casings, and other paralinguistic markers of indeterminacy and blending. Or take pronouns, those portals between embodiment and grammar: Who accepts conventional terms — she, he — that may or may not be the same language-part with which he or she was identified at birth? Which individual uses a new or repurposed pronoun — xie, hir, it, they — inventing a verbal instrument better suited to the deictic task at hand? Who contrives to avoid sentence constructions requiring pronouns altogether? For a cis-reader who may not have thought deeply about how gender encrypts in language — or for a seeker starting to wonder if “he” or “she” is really hir right label — these new terms might feel as disorienting as the old ones do for Keer and Banias. At the same time, for poetry-loving people, such derangements of received significance are precious. It’s “troublings” like these we go to poetry to find.

A consequent pleasure of Troubling the Line is to show that perturbations of the language  / body are not only fundamental to 
communication and representation, but also resoundingly mundane. How you name or outfit yourself, what happens to your hormones, stuff you have to deal with running errands or coping with aspects in civic life that don’t, ostensibly, depend on gender or the torques of syntax: Troubling the Line explores all these as “inbetweenness.” Bodhrán jokes, for instance, about the menstrual cycle as performative — a “minstrel cycle.” Stacey Waite responds as kindly as possible to the child in line at the DMV who announces, “Mommy, that man is a girl.” Like Cárdenas, Fabian Romero reflects on the intersecting border-breaches of immigration and gender transition: “my fresh 
migration mind saw my boiness this way / libertad far away / an 
unreachable land.” And, again and again, the anthology meditates on that site of enforced duality, the public toilet — as in Brolaski’s puns on privilege and privacy:

I am privy to these contradictory situations where I am told first the one and then the other bathroom is the wrong one. Madame, c’est là! and then o monsieur! je me suis trompé!    ...    So one learns to make thir way amid the multitudes.
      — From of mongrelitude

How, where, and next to whom you relieve yourself: what better juncture for considering the semiotics of our animal selves? We know that we are molded as either/or, that or this, by law and convention out among the public multitudes, and — as forcefully — by what Banias calls the “plastic tags” categorizing society and biology, perception and desire in our minds. What leeway is there? HR Hegnauer writes in “Sir”:

I buried the dolphin in the back of the garden — right between
my goldfish, Alfred, and my rabbit, Sarah-The-Boy....    
    ...    And I think that if everyone could be just a little more and,
we’d all be a lot better off....    
    I understand now that this is what happens when a human
tries to become an and. The language won’t let us.

Poets’ language, at least, is working on it.

* Tolbert glosses the editors’ choice of terms this way: “Because language is continually evolving to accurately name the multitude of fierce, fabulous people, bodies, and identities who either do not identify with the terms woman, man, female, and/or male or those who do not identify with the gender and/or sex assigned to them at birth, Trace and I felt ambivalent about choosing one word that is somehow supposed to encompass us all. We settled on trans and genderqueer to stretch our arms as wide as we currently know how.”

Originally Published: May 1, 2014

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Poetry magazine

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Biography

Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem Books, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012), and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003). She is coauthor of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's "Fake Estates" (Cabinet Books, 2005).

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