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24/7 Gender is Hard: Cheena Marie Lo on the Poetics of Both and Neither

By Sara Wintz

Cheena Marie Lo

Cheena and I became friends after I participated in a poetry reading at their house in 2011. Since then, we have moved to new parts of town, changed jobs while still remaining friends. In 2012 Cheena included me on a completely eloquent note to friends and colleagues instructing us begin identifying Cheena with plural/gender neutral pronouns like “they” and “them.” Cheena and I are still very close and it felt important to invite Cheena to participate in this conversation that I am facilitating about women poets. We recorded our conversation, which took place at Pizzaiolo in Oakland, and then we collaboratively revised it via email. Cheena has asked me to explain that there are some questions that they would not feel comfortable answering from just anyone. If you don’t know Cheena, or anyone who goes by a plural pronoun very well, they may not like being asked some of these questions. I am grateful to Cheena for answering these questions from me. Thanks for reading our conversation!

Cheena Marie Lo: Obviously my gender is… I don’t know how I identify these days. Definitely genderqueer. I was having a little bit of a crisis last night about our interview. I kept worrying, “Am I taking up the space of maybe somebody who is fully woman identified.” And then I was having all these thoughts about what it means to span neither and both at the same time, which is, all the time.

Sara Wintz: 24/7

CML: 24/7! Gender’s hard!

SW: When you identify as a plural pronoun, does it include man and woman?

CML: It’s different for everybody. It feels more comfortable for me than just identifying as one or the other, and the ratios of both are always different.

SW: Is it kind of like a working space?

CML: Totally.

SW: What was your crisis like?

CML: I feel like that’s my everyday crisis. In the queer community, what’s hard is that often times. The voices of trans women are not included and its trans-masculine folks that are given the space and I don’t want to be that jerk. I’m always worried about taking up space. It sounds like you are trying to get a wide range of voices which is exciting to me.

SW: What parts of you feel like a female? When do you feel like a female?

CML: Well, obviously I have that history, but even as a little kid something felt a little off or not quite there. I was always a little tomboy. My mom would always get compliments about how cute her sons were when my little brother and I were together. My gender has evolved over the past five or ten years. Becoming an adult, there are parts of myself that I am finding out that I am not necessarily aligned with, or rather I’ve become more aware of it/am able to articulate it more. My femininity manifests itself in different ways than how a woman presents. Sometimes I am really faggy, and that’s also, very much feminine.

SW: Are there other moments like that, when you mind yourself really feminine or girly?

CML: I feel like I’m really queeny sometimes. Yeah…. but….

SW: Well, how long have you been identifying as a plural pronoun person?

CML: I started officially, I sent out an email to my friends about a year ago now. I sent an email to my friends asking them to use gender neutral pronouns, they/them. But it took me a long time to work my way up to that. It had always been an issue, especially in the service jobs where I worked. You’re always getting gendered. Someone will say something like, “Hey ladies!” and I’ll always think, “Don’t gender me!” There have been a lot of those feelings for a while now, but it was about a year ago that I decided, maybe I’ll do this thing that feels better for me.

SW: When you first asked and sent that note to your friends it was the first time that I had ever heard of the plural pronoun being used. Has that always been around and I never knew?

CML: I’m sure people have been using they/them forever. Some people use the gender neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir.” But those also felt like a weird fit for me. I didn’t really identify with them. Ambiguity felt easier for me to step into.

SW: Has it effected the writing that you do, or your engagement to the writing community?

CML: I’ve been working on this project that digs a little deeper into my gender stuff. I read it at SPT about a year ago. It’s sort of exploring the “they” pronoun and also my own relationship with gender with regards to work.

SW: How is poetry useful to you as you are thinking through that process?

CML: It’s great! There’s a lot of room for me to figure things out or work through it. Especially with gender and the pronouns. Working through it feels really important. The changing of the pronoun is such a language thing and for some people, it doesn’t come naturally. One of the critiques that I always hear is that the plural pronoun is grammatically incorrect and I’m like “No it’s not!” [Flashes peace sign] Grammar has always been, “What does that even mean?” because I’m a poet and it’s okay to do whatever I want. It’s been great to have that space to work through it.

SW: What has your identity as a poet been like for you?

CML: I’ve always been into poetry. I had an English AP teacher in high school who was super great. We’re still friends. She is a poet and before class every day she would read a poem. We had a lot of poetry writing assignments. In high school they don’t really do that. Or poetry is one section or whatever. But I felt like there was poetry happening every day. I went to college for writing, but it wasn’t until I moved here and went to grad school: I got really lucky with the people that I went to Mills with. We are still collaborators. Here, I feel like it’s been so open and supportive. It’s the first time that I’ve ever had a poetry community, which I am realizing is so crucial.

SW: How does that effect the poetry that you do? To have a cohort of poetry people around you?

CML: I think that it’s been super important. One, not only to have people that you are sort of accountable to. When you’re out of school and you have a writing group: I like having that group of people who will get on my case if I’m not writing as much as I should be. It’s also great to have that community of people who are also creating things. I feel like I’m always thinking and making. I like having that creative energy around me.

SW: Do you remember the poets who were really important to you when you were first starting out?

CML: My teacher read a lot of Mark Doty poems and Nick Flynn, which is funny because I wouldn’t necessarily be into those poets now, but when you’re in high school or even college…

SW: I think that everyone has those poets. Like, the poets who I was really into were Billy Collins and e.e. cummings. Now I read different poetry. Who are you reading now?

CML: I have been reading Jennifer Tamayo’s book. I’ve been reading comment threads on Facebook. I’m reading a lot of my friends’ work because I’m in a writing group with some friends. We call ourselves Burning Pudding. I don’t know how that name came about actually. We meet every week and that’s been really exciting because I think that they are all doing really fantastic work, and it feels good to be part of the process, to see it evolve. I’ve been reading Stephanie’s book too. People that I’m around…. it feels important to read their work.

SW: Are there other conflicts that you have encountered within the queer community, because of the open quality of your identification?

CML: I don’t think so. Not me personally. I feel like I have more conflict with myself, because I’m always so afraid of taking up space from others that deserve space too. It’s been great having both poetry community and a queer community here in the bay. It’s been important for both my own identify formation and also my own work. I think I have some conflicting feelings within the poetry community because of the open quality of my identity, and how it more often than not falls under the woman umbrella. Or the women and trans umbrella, which is a messy umbrella for those who are not cis-women. (*NOTE: this is probably a whole separate interview!)

SW: What was growing up for you like?

CML: Growing up was pretty ordinary, the first time around, that is. I was born in the Philippines, and my family immigrated to America when I was about two. I was a shy kid and really into school. I learned how to read in kindergarten, I always had my nose in a book. I love my family, we are really close. They’re pretty supportive, my mom especially. One thing that I have noticed about my mom is that since English is her second language, she’s kind of bad with pronouns, but in this really subversive way that I am obsessed with. In the span of a conversation with her she will have referred to me as both he and she and even sometimes they. I’ve never talked to my mom about my gender. I feel pretty lucky.

SW: Do you feel like, once you began to identify as a queer person, you grew up all over again? A second time?

CML: Definitely a second time. I’m sure there will be a third and fourth time too. Queer Time, you know? I read Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place a while ago, which argues for this idea of queer time. I’m probably going to do a bad job of explaining it, but basically the way I understand queer time is that is includes experiences beyond the linear experience of time that’s tied to conventional modes of reproduction. Like growing up, going to school, getting a job, getting married, having kids, raising a family. As a queer person, I’ve had multiple interruptions and experiences of time. I feel like I’ve been growing up again the past few years as I learn how to be in my body as a genderqueer person, having entered the world again as I wanted to. I’ve also been trying to find a new name, one that fits just right. Things often begin with a name–when I find it, it will be another interruption, a new timeline. You know?

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014 by Sara Wintz.