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'We Probably Need, Like, 10 Vidas': Zoe Tuck and Axes for the Frozen Sea Inside Us


Born in Texas, Zoe Tuck has been a participant in the Bay Area literary scene since 2008: she co-curated the Condensery Reading Series in Oakland and worked at Small Press Distribution for many years. I met Zoe via email in 2011, right before I moved back to the Bay Area. Zoe is transgender: I felt that this conversation about women poets would be incomplete without her informed, insightful, and sophisticated perspective. I am grateful to Zoe Tuck for participating in this discussion!

P.S. You can read more of Zoe Tuck's writing in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry (Nightboat, 2013). Her chapbook, Terror Matrix, is due out from Timeless, Infinite Light on May 9th!

Sara Wintz: So... these interviews that I'm doing are all centered around the idea of what a woman poet is. How do you feel about that?

Zoe Tuck: The question itself? Mm... I think that it's a good question to ask. Sorry, that's a really boring answer. It makes me think of a couple things. I mean, there's kind of the general sense that a woman poet is not that different from a woman writer in general. So I think about Kathy Acker and then I think about women who mostly haven’t been allowed to participate in this shared universal subjectivity for like, a couple thousand years, and it involves a lot of smashing with hammers.

SW: Are you comfortable talking about your transition?

ZT: Well, who's ever comfortable talking about it?! It feels weird, I feel like I'm in this great limbo place. Everybody has a different goal. Some people are of the attitude "I'm going to start here and I'm going to transition my body into this, and then I'm going to go somewhere else, and no one will ever know where I started." And I would never criticize anyone for going stealth, but I think that that requires being at a point where you proceed through an expensive process really quickly. I made a decision that it's going to be like this for a while because of my lack of money and resources, regarding any of the physical changes that I want to make.

Part of the reason being out pre-transition or during the process of transition came up is that it started to feel like my writing wouldn't make sense to other people. Even if I can't, magically, immediately get all sorts of laser hair removal and all this crap: I can let people know that this is my deal and also, I'm a writer so that's what I do.

SW: What about your writing makes you feel that people wouldn't understand it unless you identified as a woman?

ZT: I think that your own body or your sense of your body is like the ground. You know? How people see me and then, the gulf between that and how I want them to see me. It affects my writing in the same way that gender affects everybody's writing which in a sense is like, if you’re a woman, your body is always already visible, and if you’re a trans woman (and many other intersections of identity that I can’t personally speak to), your body may be especially visible. It's a weirdness too if you're not already in a place where people are reading you differently—in that case you are invisible but you don't want to be.

I feel like I couldn't have come out to people the way that I did or write the kind of writing that I write if I didn't have a strong cadre of philosophically hip friends. There's this mainstream discourse about gender that you are one thing and then you become another thing but then, there's another discourse trying to challenge that that says "You were always this gender." You may change external aspects of yourself, but it privileges that the identification takes precedence.

SW: How do you see yourself fitting in?

ZT: Oh, I don't know... awkwardly?

SW: Do you see yourself in one specific place?

ZT: Well, I mean, I have an interpretation of what you're asking so I'm going to run with it. I feel like, in a way, if you have that cis-identification, many things line up for you. But that puts me into a thorny place, you know? At least, I desperately want to get lumped into the woman category, but at the same time, the fact that I wasn't given that—I feel like I also have particular allegiance to that third space so, it's a weird both/and thing. I feel like, I do want to try and assertively claim my womanhood, but I never want to disown that third space.

SW: Kind of like a growing space?

ZT: Yeah. But that's also something to look out for because too easily we get accustomed to saying that the third space is part of a larger process when actually, there are people who spend their whole lives following that M.O: non-binary people, genderqueer people. There are serious gender-fucking people who I respect and think, "You are awesome. I love that you get up in the morning and you mess with it, you invite people in, causing a conversation." Whereas partially for me, I'm gravitating towards a pre-existing pull of a binary. There is experimentation, there was experimentation, and that will always be part of my process—for some people that's part of a process and for some people that's a destination.

SW: How has that played out in your life? Can we start with writing?

ZT: A lot of my understanding of gender and sexuality comes from books. When I was younger, and still living in Austin, Texas—which former residents are legally required to say is hip—I had no queer community, I had no community around transgender stuff. Maybe it was there, but I didn't find it. And so, I found a lot of that through copious copious reading.

SW: Like what?

ZT: What did I read... Some of it was specifically about being genderqueer or transgender, like Kate Bornstein or Leslie Feinberg, Rikki Wilkins, Susan Stryker, all those folks. You're figuring out two things: what does it mean to be trans/what models do I have to be trans and I had this other straight feminist streak influenced by the fact that I've always been kind of woo. I definitely let myself go really hard into the 70s body art, goddess worshipping, some of which was difficult and self-destructive. I don't want to rag on second-wave feminist articulations of sex and spirituality in general, but there's some essentialism, some "the phallic god of the forest," "her fields will be plowed under the silvery rays." That's a very inflexible thing. It's a very essentialist idea of bodies and relations between bodies.

SW: When was that?

ZT: Gosh, I don't know: ages 16-24!?

SW: Whoa!

ZT: Yeah. So... that's one aspect. But it's weird too, that was before I had ever spoken the words to anyone "I don't identify with, I don't like this name." There is great activist writer and comedian, Red Durkin, she has this bit where she talks about the trope of a woman being stuck in a man's body, and she says "It's not like that at all! It's like a woman being stuck in an orangutan's body." [Laughter] Isn't that good?

I always had this super nuanced, academic understanding. I had diligently read a lot of literature on gender before I was comfortable riding a city bus wearing a skirt.

But I mean, it's really funny because I came here for problematic reasons. I had visited San Francisco when I was younger and I really loved it, just as a beautiful place and I was constantly comparing it to Austin. “I can get around on public transportation, there's more than one bookstore.” I went to a Joanne Kyger reading and that was just a random day! I thought, "I have to move here," for a lot of reasons. I also had one of those naive ideas about the whole queer sanctuary thing.

SW: You mean about the Bay Area being a queer sanctuary?

ZT: Yeah, like, "I'm just going to move to the Bay Area and everything [regarding transitioning and being queer] is going to be chill and just, really laid back." And when I first started living here, the first literary event that I went to—I don't remember whose house it was—but I was randomly invited to a group recitation of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter's Day and Erika Staiti was there. I had been trying to figure out the lay of the land and I had been going to Writers with Drinks, the Radar Reading Series. I think was at one of those things and afterwards I ran into Erika over by Civic Center Bart Station and we were sitting and talking for a while and I totally came out to her. I had it all figured out: this is my deal, I want to go by this name. And then I totally didn't follow up on that moment of bravado and I just went back into that shell. Then she saw me in a different context and realized that I was going in a different way. She played it cool. I played it cool.

I think that what has delayed me for a long time, this social transition, is getting a job or getting a foothold in a community. I got here and I was dead broke and so I thought, "Maybe this Zoe can't get a job. But this person Zack, I've been working on his persona for years and he's pretty good at getting work." And it's true! If you're intelligible (that is, reading pretty unambiguously as a man or woman) you're more hirable.

SW: Does the person who you were disappear?

ZT: For me, I don't think so. I think it's both and a little more complicated than that.

SW: Does this feel like a vulnerable place for you?

ZT: I feel like, it's a really interesting time right now. I'm going through my process and a lot of trans and gender-queer writers are going through a process of becoming more visible and asserting a position within literature and in general—adding a really necessary element of complication to the feminist discourse. I'll say poetry because that's what I read and write, I think that it's good and fruitful and an opportunity. It helps a lot. For a long time I thought, are there any other writers? No one is just a gender, you're all of those things—a poet, a woman, queer, etc. Are there any others like me? Are they being taken seriously? It makes me feel better to see publications like Troubling the Line.

SW: It sounds like you feel good seeing that there are examples of people going through particular steps.

ZT: Well, I think, there are so many varieties of female subjectivity in general. I remember recently seeing that a list: Juliana's list of all these female writers. And being a woman is not one thing. Trisha Low is not the same as Juliana Spahr is not the same as... At the same time, there are also these trans- and gender-variant subjectivities that have never been seeing before. They supplement and problematize this category that is already multiple because of race and class and... It's part of the same project. We probably need like, 10 VIDAs.

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

ZT: You know, that's part of what informs almost my whole work! That whole question. It's almost a spiritual question. And I think that it's a really dangerous question to answer as a trans woman; it's a double bind. On the one hand, if you say certain traditionally feminine things, you run the risk of seeming like you have an idea of femininity which is like a caricature. There are all these qualities that we culturally associate with femininity: softness, doing lots of unpaid labor, doing the emotional heavy-lifting, being sensitive, wearing certain types of garments, having certain types of sexuality. There’s this kind of hegemonic worldview, it still says that it's more feminine to be a straight woman than a queer woman—I mean, there's a broader cultural trope. You turn on the TV and it's an ambient cultural trope. So I feel hesitant to answer partly because I don't even know what those things that make me feel like a woman are exactly!

SW: I think that it's a pretty powerful thing to say that you don't know.

ZT: Yeah, I think, I mean, yeah. It feels spiritual in a way. There's this core of unknowability and it's so strong. I may not always see it when I look in the mirror and people may not always see it in me but when I'm reading Gertrude Stein, when I'm walking with my female friends, there's something that we share and I don't know why I'm so convinced that we share it but there's no doubt there.

SW: That's really poetic.

ZT: Thank you.

SW: Thanks for answering that question for me and sharing that much about your experience! Tell me about your writing: what are you working on?

ZT: Oh, what am I working on... I'm trying to do a little bit more memoir writing. I feel like I've had the privilege to live in this weird and special time and place and I want to get some of that down. Even if it's something that doesn't get written for 20 years, I'm starting to take better notes now. What else am I working on... that's a good question. I have a poetry manuscript that I've been polishing for the past 8 months called Answering Machine. Timeless Infinite Light is publishing a chapbook of mine and that's coming out soon, May 9. It's called Terror Matrix. I was reading Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain which is about how the experience of pain is this universal experience but it remains very undescribed and she talks about a lot of really heavy stuff like torture and war and what those do and then she moves to creativity and poetry and what that can do. I was reading that, I was reading a lot of Beckett and thinking about being a U.S. citizen and being complicit in a lot of nasty governmental extracurriculars. I knew that in part that story wasn't my story to tell, but I was trying to talk about being complicit in that. But it only fails. In a way that's interesting. It's poetry.

SW: What do you like about writing poetry?

ZT: What do I like about being alive! That's an important question. I am so prone to getting sucked into the para-poetic, getting sucked into different schools of poetry like Neo-Baroque or Conceptualism. But then I just go back to…what have I been reading...I was reading some Lisa Jarnot and then I sat down and wrote a poem and thought, "This is what it's about!" Sometimes you have to think about all the debates like "What is the political significance of poetry" and then you have to shake it out.

What do I like about writing poetry. It's a different way of thinking through being in the world and it can be logical or it can be anti-logical but I feel like it does real work even if that work is sometimes ineffable. In one of my classes, Alexandra Grant visited and she was talking about her collaboration with Helene Cixous and so I was like "Oh yeah! Cixous!" and so I picked up my copy of Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing and one of the people who she talks about is Kafka and she delves into his assertion that, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." Sometimes when I'm reading a poem or writing a poem, it solves a problem that I didn't know existed while rearranging the inside of my body.

Originally Published: May 3rd, 2014

Sara Wintz was born in Los Angeles and studied literature and writing at Mills College, Oxford University (BA), and Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard (MFA). Her first book, Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012) is an epic poem...