Review: Notes From A Missing Person by Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

notesfromamissingperson

By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs chapbook, Notes from a Missing Person, reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. Notes from a Missing Person is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who dont have a background as fraught as Dobbs, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.

“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.

Outwardly, Notes from a Missing Person falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to [T]alk back to that void, as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying [T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective. Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isnt simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.

Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, I cant write my way to Mother. She is not this page. Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobbs discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:

Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[] My mother is missing. I am missing [] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me
gently
and with
the hunger of a child search and writing her mothers body from
what she knows
of her own.

Dobbs words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.

As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: What is this reality that is always a phantom [] Its a fiction that haunts where the body shouldve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memorys force. As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.

Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: In the agencys kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:

Yet Im remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting
Geonbae! and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one
s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she
s annoyed that were drunk and burning our food because
we don
t know what to do. Were trying.

Because we dont know what to do. Dobbs line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends cant know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajummas judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when its not, she is deemed an outsider.

Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. Thats not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:

You can weigh [the works] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
toward
the flamespaper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashesto see the
words return to their source.

Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.

Read it at Essay Press for free.

Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.

REVIEW: Angels of the Americlypse: an Anthology of New Latin@ Writing ed. Carmen Giménez Smith & John Chávez

angels

by José Angel Araguz

While Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of Latin@ Writing provides no shortage of interest, I decided to limit
myself to three “stops,” highlighting how each in their own respective way points to the inclusive/expansive spirit of the anthology, all the while detailing the unique reading experience it offers. In their introduction, the editors describe their intent as wanting “to invite, to welcome, to unerase and reinscribe, to expand the landscape by making it visible” (xvi). One of the ways in which this work is done is in the anthology’s structure: Angels presents each writer with an introduction, a sample of their work, and space for their own aesthetic statement. This thorough approach to each section allows for not only a glimpse into each writer’s literary voice as well as craft/personal voice, but, along with the introductions, points in many ways to the overall conversation each writer’s work is engaged in. This structure has the accumulative effect of evoking how alive the field of Latin@ writing is today.

Stop 1: Rosa Alcalá

In his introduction to Alcalá’s work, Peter Ramos asks: “Where is the line, the border, between one’s cultural identities and one’s supposedly true self?” (5). The selected poems that follow seem to take turns engaging with this question. Compare the first line of “Voice Activation” with that of “Paramour”:

This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker (“Voice Activation”)

English is dirty. Polyamorous…(“Paramour”)

Writing against an epigraph by Wittgenstein on how a poem “is not used in the language-game of giving information,” the first line of “Voice Activation” plays the idea of “native speaker” against that of a poem “activated by the sound of my own voice” and, doing so, complicates the act of writing. There is a powerful assertion in this line – that the writer is capable of both accessing the ineffable (with its connotations of the unknowable and unutterable) as well as being fluent in the ineffable – that is later counterpointed in the poem by lines like:

Have no doubt, my poem is innocent and transparent. So when I say, I think I’ll make myself a sandwich, the poem does not say, I drink an isle of bad trips (6).

In using the language of reassurance, Alcalá is able to both allay the ineffable as well as invite it in. This ability to navigate between the several ways language(s) can mean (and unmean) is a key facet of much of in this anthology, one that highlights the sentiment behind the line “English is dirty. Polyamorous.” In the two short sentences that open the poem “Paramour,” an act of “unerasing” and “reinscribing” occurs, which is repeated and developed, becoming a rhetorical engine driving the rest of the poem.

 Stop 2: Norma E. Cantú

In her aesthetic statement, Norma E. Cantú describes herself as being “[t]rained in semiotics” as well as “an undocumented folklorist – that is, I do not have any formal training in folkloristics” (54). If these statements are unpacked a bit more, Cantú can first be seen as a reader of signs. The latter statement’s juxtaposition of the word “undocumented” with the vocation of “folklorist” – the former a charged word for Latin@s, at times meaning illegal, and often implied in describing someone as being sin papeles (without papers) – complicates both terms, expressing an interest in both signs and folklore beyond the page (beyond papers). As the title of her aesthetic statement makes clear, Cantú focuses her reading of sign and folklore in order to “[See/Look] through a Chicana Third Space Feminist Lens.”

This seeing/looking takes us through the lives of three women – Aminda, Mercedes Zamora, & Elisa – from the novel Champú, or Hair Matters excerpted in this anthology. In Cantú’s particular mode of storytelling, which John-Michael Rivera in his introduction to her work describes as a “[conceptual] meld [of] autoethnographic technique with poststructuralist theories,” brings South Texas to life. Within each character’s story, many lives collide, celebrate, and pass each other through narrative as alive and charged as gossip and an unexpected phone call. Laredo becomes as rich as one’s own palm; lifelines cross each in their individual streaks but hold together as a resonant whole. An example of this kind of engaging narrative comes in this short passage from Aminda’s story in which she recounts her reaction to running into a medical intuitive:

Pues to make a long story short, I was intrigued and scheduled a session with the medical intuitive. It was intense. After six hours in session, I was exhausted. I cried and laughed and felt elated and full of life. She says we can heal ourselves (48).

This passage shows how Cantú mixes formal choices and an openness of voice to create a narrative that is engaging, direct, and real. This passage is also a favorite moment of mine because of how close this kind of narrative takes the reader into the thinking of the character. I found myself able to read the words She says we can heal ourselves both for what they say within the story’s context but also what they say about the spirit of this anthology. Angels provides example after example of how we as writers can heal ourselves by taking on the cultural and literary landscapes within and without.

Stop 3: Edwin Torres

Travel on the back of a poet in flight – the conjured modalities among a century’s search is where answers shapeshift among the alphabets. (294)

These words, taken from Edwin Torres’ own aesthetic statement, are a good place to round out this short ride through this anthology. With its focus on new Latin@ writing, Angels of the Americlypse offers the opportunity to do just what Torres suggests in this sentence: that we “travel” with this group of writers, experience some of the “century’s search” and be witness to “answers” as they “shapeshift among the alphabets.” The following three stanzas, drawn from Torres’ poem “ME NO HABLA SPIC,” tie together and evoke this anthology’s fascination with temporal and cultural reality, how both shape each other, “unerasing” and “reinscribing” who we are along the way:

i remember one afternoon in soho
sitting on the sidewalk
with my long-haired cat harry
single and care-free
showing my beautiful pet to the world
people passing by, saying
what a cute spic

i remember reading every email i sent
to feel as if i were the person
receiving my own words, basking in their clever reach
to feel the warmth of many messages
from many people, all of them me
a conglomerate of sinewy desperation
wrapped up in the viral opportunity of a cute spic

i remember sitting in soho
with my two-year old son
surrounded by expensive buildings
where there used to be none, the world passing
me, just thankful to get some rest
in the sun’s imperfections, the people
ooh’ing and ahh’ing, what a cute spic                     (273-279)

By bringing together some of the most exciting work being written today along with the thoughts and conversations behind them, Angels of the Americlypse stands as an essential and illuminating anthology.

Available from Counterpath Press for $35.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Poet Lore, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of flash fiction/prose poems, is forthcoming this summer from FutureCycle Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

REVIEW: Follow-Haswed by Laura Walker

follow-haswed
by Brenton Woodward

Erasure poetry has become something of a trend in recent years, and has suffered the usual travails of trendiness: mis- or overuse by dabblers and hacks, ungainly attachments to political agendas, being assigned as undergraduate exercises, etc. What Laura Walker has done for the genre is remarkable. The premise of her book Follow-Haswed is an erasure of the eponymous Volume VI of the OED: every poem’s title is a word, from “follow” to “haswed,” and each poem’s text is taken from that of the word’s dictionary entry. The result is a refreshing and unpretentious example of what erasure can be.

As with any erasure project, the reader cannot help but wonder about the source text as they make their way through the book. This is especially and intentionally the case in Follow-Haswed, however. Walker’s choice of a dictionary as a primary text may seem whimsical or even arbitrary, but it is in fact a very calculated setup for Follow-Haswed to perform its own illustration of a fundamental poetic principle: the ability of individual words to have a spectrum of connotations and implications depending on their context. A dictionary such as the OED shows this in an explicit and matter-of-fact way, and Follow-Haswed invokes that method continuously – but it also performs such spectral shifts itself. Individual stanzas or even lines of a poem may be thought of as possible context for the titular word they attenuate; word-titles are eventually repeated, some several times, as though new and different contexts and connotations for them had been thought of and duly noted. The reader is constantly considering the connection between words, between the title of a poem and its text, between the text of a poem and the OED entry it was culled from, and eventually, between the text of the poems and the agenda of the speaker they originate from.

The word-title “go,” in particular, becomes a barometer of the book’s tonal development as it progresses through different iterations. Early on, “go” summons such images as a swarm of bees making “a great humming” as they are “reddy to flye,” while midway through the book “go” entails “the letters of the alphabet / in rags”. Certain words also recur thematically within the bodies of the poems, and despite my earlier expression of distaste for politicality in erasure poems, Follow-Haswed approaches something like it with a deft gracefulness. For example, “war,” “sailor,” “soldier,” “general,” etc. appear regularly throughout the book, and one is forced to consider what it means that a dictionary, the arbiter of the linguistic establishment, should be so preoccupied with the business of death. More subtly, “I,” “him,” and “she” / “the girl” become more and more common, until they can no longer be ignored or glossed over, and what was previously a pretty but depopulated landscape of tableaux becomes a dynamic and very human narrative.

These developments all come together somewhere around three-quarters through the poems, when the shuffling images and connotations fall into place to reveal the deeper truth of Follow-Haswed: it is a love story. Behind the shifting, translucent curtains of curated fragments and broken etymologies is a proto-narrative between “I” and “him” in which the narrator has “lost him” – a lover, or maybe a son, or perhaps both, somehow. By the last poems there is a suspicion that “he” was taken from the narrator by the often darkly-regarded “girl,” who might be only another aspect of the narrator’s own personality. The beauty of the story at the heart of the book is that it’s hardly even there, barely hinted at, a breath-fogged circle fading on the window of a darkened house; but better still is the fact that the hidden story of Follow-Haswed is just one of its many beautiful, subtle accomplishments.

Follow-Haswed is forthcoming from Apogee Press.

Brenton Woodward is a fiction writer and an incoming MFA student at Southern Illinois University. He hopes to someday understand the mechanics of a successful writer’s bio, among other things.

REVIEW: Storm Toward Morning by Malachi Black

storm toward morning

by Michael Wasson

How might we find ourselves filling the vacancies in the small pieces of the world around us? How might this feel when we know that the psyche we carry along is central to our suffering? In his debut book of poetry,
Storm Toward Morning, Malachi Black is not so much our complete answer to these questions but an attempt to beautifully transcribe the experience of questioning via meditative exploration.

Take for example “Psalm: Pater Noster”:

I am your plum:
Enfold me
in the shadow of your mouth
and I will echo as a taste
against your tongue:
I am
your praise:

To search out the world for metaphors and adding meaning to our experience is a central concern for these poems, and we find ourselves participating. The speaker informs us that it is our plum. Adding urgency and palpability, Black’s speaker seems to be desperate in fixing us together. We are devouring the plum. Hungered. It echoes across our tongues. We praise it.

Here, too, the speaker mines into us. At the same time, we want it. In time, through the pulse of the poem, Black’s speaker has become a part of us. Desire. The need to be wanted. That satisfaction, the very suffering of loneliness reaches out and slips in, transforming from the ache of the mind to the fleshy plum opening in your mouth. And the best part is that you, yes, want it.

Religion and ancient literature seem to ground the collection well. Not oversaturated, but briefly, effectively so. In the aforementioned poem, I notice at first it’s headed with “The Lord’s Prayer. Throughout, but not limited to, Black helps us reenter Dante’s Canto XIII—the suicide woods—; we witness the canonical hours that he notes is a condensing of “the traditional quarantine period of forty days and forty nights into the passage of one day”; and we see gestures toward Caesar, Archimedes, Marcus Aurelius.

What I find with Black’s clear-eyed and intellectual use of these figures is a profound sense of inwardness by looking to others. Again, it’s that way of locating pieces of the world—be that literary events or a baby grand piano—that we can fill in with ourselves. With Dante’s Canto XIII, Malachi is attentive to the tree in agony: “The tree can speak, and it will shriek until a whole head hangs by a neck-like stem with a dumb body dangling beneath. And hell has won: once borne, the body drops. Another one’s begun.” How much like lives in cycle Malachi Black showcases with this grim scene.

How much like being born, like suffering and hanging on to life, and finally in an instant like dying and being reborn again we simply are in our experience.

Storm Toward Morning is one of those true to form, true to innovation and to ancient concerns of humanity—which seems to always be reoccurring in some way or another—and true to the music in our questioning. We feel guilty in defying powers around us. We feel relieved to break bonds. We are anguished. We are joyous in our celebrations. And we are carving the outlines of our consciousness in the world around us. Malachi Black takes us closer to ourselves and illuminates how “… to burn on.”

A genuine, masterfully skilled, and powerful debut in American poetry—haunting, reflective, and guiding us through by its light, through the dark ruptures of our living, Storm Toward Morning is a magnificent book.

Storm Toward Morning is available from Copper Canyon Press.

Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.

INTERVIEW: Fiddle is flood // Lauren Gordon

fiddle is flood

Lauren Gordon is the author of four chapbooks, Meaningful Fingers (Finishing Line Press, 2014),  Keen (Horse Less Press, 2014), Fiddle Is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015) and Generalizations About Spines (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit. In this interview, conducted by Lizi Gilad, she talks about her recent chapbook, a collection of persona poems inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

Gilad: First things first: why Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Gordon: I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie series, so the poems originally began from a place of nostalgia and love. As a character, Laura Ingalls Wilder (and I feel the need to delineate between the person vs. the character since the series was fictionalized) spoke to me in her need to always to be a good girl. I understood Laura’s existential crisis on a deep level, even as a young reader. It is one thing to have the knowledge of right and wrong and another to weld behavior accordingly. I began re-reading the series for pleasure when I was a graduate student and going through a divorce. I had just relocated to Wisconsin and lived across the street from a small, undeveloped prairie. And I found myself getting annoyed with those re-readings. Where were the outhouses? In a house full of women, why does no one ever discuss menstruation? Or the death of Laura’s brother? Did Laura’s mother have “the talk” before she married Almanzo as a teenager? In my own grieving over the dissolution of my marriage, I had a strong desire to recreate a more adult version of Laura and after a few experimental series poems, the project took shape.

As I read the chapbook, one word of several that immediately came to mind was ‘ekphrasis’. The poems that make up Fiddle Is Flood absolutely engage with the material of Little House on The Prairie but at the same time, very much are their own thing. The reader need not be familiar with Wilder or with her books to appreciate your poems. I’m wondering if you can discuss a little bit about your engagement with the material—did you set out to do ekphrastic work? Was it the LHOTP collection that sparked engagement and led you to create this work, or were you more interested in having a “conversation” with Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Thank you for saying the reader does not need to be familiar with LHOTP – I was not sure of that, so it’s nice to hear it. Persona poetry is interesting as a subject and these are definitely persona poems that are mostly Laura, but her daughter Rose appears in a line or two and there is also a narrator occasionally. I definitely used emulation in language to create the persona. I like the idea that it’s a conversation, but truthfully it is probably closer to appropriation than an exchange. I inhabited the character to give it a voice it could not have had; to create a safe space where a thirteen year old invention could filter sexuality, gender, loss, racism… it is occasionally painful to read the LHOTP series now as an adult with the context of the history that was actually occurring around the family’s migrations. Now that the annotated biography has been released (and boy did that feed my desire to know “the truth”) the books can be read with a different lens. That was really my intent when writing these poems. I just wanted a darker Laura to come home to. I’m also interested in the blurred line between fact and fiction, how my Laura is sort of an unreliable narrator which makes you realize the Laura in the books is also sort of an unreliable (though likable) narrator.

One of the things that seriously seduced me about this chapbook is the darkness, discomfort, and eroticism you evoke in each poem. For example, the final lines in “Ma Scraps the Boiled Orange”:

I listen for the Indians
press a cold tongue
to the ceiling of my mouth
lay a hot hand
to myself under
the piecemeal quilt

Or, from “Pa Sent Me to Town”:

look at me strangely, Ma
say it with biscuits
say it with blackbirds sweet
are the uses of adversity
if you live like a barren field
lit with prairie fires
there isn’t a single rabbit left in this country mother

And, from “Then Grasshoppers Crawled Over the Baby”

to fuck their way west
and lay quivering gray jelly
in the hot earth

These lines recall to me Roland Barthes writing about the pleasure of the text—“that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do” because my body reacted to your poems in ways I wasn’t necessarily prepared for or interested in: a flush in the face, perhaps a quickened pulse. But these unwanted physical reactions, their disturbing the air around them with sexuality, violence, and darkness are I think part of what makes them so successful as ekphrastic pieces.

I feel like I need to go back and reread Wilder’s books! When I think about her work, especially LHOTP, I feel nostalgic, warm, and happy. My memory of reading Wilder is joyful and nourishing, sure, yet quite simple and uncomplicated. Reading your chapbook complicated my memory a bit. What did I miss, I wondered, and what belongs solely to the poet’s imagination? Would my reading of Wilder as an adult be more nuanced and complex? I’m thankful your text complicated things for me, muddled my memories and led me to darker, stranger “prairies”. This is all a long windup to ask you to discuss the edges in these poems, your apparent desire to subvert the texts (our memories of it), to dirty and cloud and storm.

Well, definitely go back and read the series – but I don’t know if you will find too many sexy parts! I mean, there are a lot of awkward sleigh rides and a little jealousy when it comes to Almanzo. But I think you nailed it, that the books are a comfortable, safe, happy, and warm space, until you impose Truth. Then they start to cast a shadow and it’s hard to un-see the shadow in the re-readings. As a comfortable, sheltered white kid, even I knew that the scene where Pa is in black-face yukking it up at church, was “controversial” (to say the least) but it has a different overtone in a contextual reading. There is a consistent theme of the Other in these books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a racist. She was kind-hearted and loving and clever, but let’s be clear about it – she was racist and her family was racist. We are talking about systematic, fundamental racism. When writing the poems, it was easier for me to inhabit taboo sexuality and puberty and to insert Rose as a counter to Laura’s “fond racism” (think of Laura wanting to own an Indian infant because of its “inky black eyes”). The poem about the Indian who predicts the long winter (who has remained unnamed, despite the annotated biography research) is an important one in the manuscript, because without those pointers, it is too easy to slip into the romanticism of prairie life, when it was anything but. My version is also not the Truth. It’s just a spin.

I’m not going to win any brownie points for creating Laura Ingalls Wilder as a masturbating racist, I know. I don’t think I had to manipulate the texts too much to even bring the racism into the forefront. I wish sexuality had been less taboo, because it is so hard for me to fathom being a sixteen year old bride, and I am a rubbernecker for the nitty gritty. Her courting period was full of a lot of angst, with little talk of choice or love. That grew from circumstance maybe. Almanzo steps in as a new sort of father figure. Grief and sex are tied together. The loss of her brother (and her own subsequent miscarriage, which is another sub-current in the poems) is another lever for subversion. In her annotated biography, the death of her brother is reported in one sentence and is rarely dwelt on again: “one terrible day, he straightened out his little body and was dead.” That sentence rocks me. It minimizes the grief while at the same time explodes it – it happened on one terrible day, his body was little and stiff and that was that. I became a mother while revising and writing this manuscript, so the persona’s grief is really my grief of course. But it’s an interesting idea that there is a text within a text and both can be mixed together or re-imagined for a new perspective. And I might have a little bit of a warped sense of the world.

I noticed in your acknowledgments sections you thanked a few people for letting you “talk about this manuscript for the last six years.” I am fascinated by this declaration of love—I mean, love for the work you were doing, love for LIW. Can you talk a little about why you stayed with this project for that period of time and why/how were you so committed to it?

Sure. This started as an experiment under the tutelage of Ilya Kaminsky, who is an incredible poet and an even more wonderful person. He encouraged me to keep going with it and see where it would take me. It went through a lot of changes and I became that one guy at the bar that just gets drunk every night and tells the same story over and over again about how his wife left him and took the dog. I worked on this manuscript and then I shelved it. And then I worked on it again. And then I shelved it again. And I had a hard time publishing individual pieces, because the poems all ran together like a bad watercolor. And the pitch “these are Laura Ingalls Wilder persona poems” has few editors hurrying to publish. One very renowned publishing house wrote to me and said they could see it having great YA appeal. It made me wonder if they had even read the manuscript. So this manuscript (in all its variations) really went through the ringer until it became what it is now. And the few wonderful journals that did run these poems have my undying gratefulness. I am lucky to have such talented and kind poet friends – friends who said “this is good, don’t give up” and friends who said “it isn’t about where you publish or who you know, it’s about having people in your life that believe in what you’re trying to do.” So I kept those kernels of wisdom close. This is what we do for our art, right? We create it, we throw it away, we look at it again, we salvage it, we shelve it, and then we shoo it out the front door à la Anne Bradstreet.
Then, if you happen to be a glutton for punishment, you revise it for a full length manuscript.

Your attention to sound and wordplay is delicious. I have a sense that perhaps the language of that time and place may have been the first seed for this whole collection. Certain words that just feel very Wilder, very LHOTP. Calico, jug, butter, fiddle, grass, chirruped, pail, pa, ma, mud, etc. Well, obviously some of these words are not at all just of this time and place, but amiright? The particulars of the language specific to that time and place, were they your muse?

You have a good eye! Thank you. A lot of the language is straight from the books. That was important to create familiarity and to then do a little twist through repetition, alliteration, consonance and rhythm. You see Pa call Laura “little half pint” but it takes on a sort of sinister crumbling in the poem. I mean, sure, you wouldn’t read the words “spawning ovum” in the Little House series. The repetition was key to the song-like quality. I wrote the first series poem as if it were a hymn, like I was singing the verses. Ilya was, of course, the perfect foil for that kind of work, because his own poetry sings. I always say he taught me how to sing, especially when I didn’t think I had a voice. The language operates as a metaphor for the family’s endless traveling, in a sing-song way that mimics Pa’s fiddle. Music was an important part of Laura’s life. It just made sense that the manuscript should honor that.

I believe this is your third or fourth chapbook, yes? What are your thoughts on the chapbook form? Do you prefer to work smaller? Do you think the material in Fiddle Is Flood required a briefer manuscript?

Yes, this was chapbook #3 out of 4. I love chapbooks. I love reading in small bites. I love the affordability and the art and love put into them. No one is starting a chapbook press because they want to make money. It’s purely for the love of the art. I don’t necessarily prefer to work smaller, but it just happens that way! Fiddle was a long series poem at first, and then it evolved into a chapbook manuscript – and then I wrote for another year and it grew into a full length manuscript. After sending it out and getting a lot of honest feedback (YA appeal, lol) I cut it back down to a succinct chapbook manuscript. I thought it would be neat to see a handmade chapbook for this manuscript with a small press and I was lucky that it won the contest with Blood Pudding Press. The editor, Juliet Cook, makes really lovely handmade chapbooks and I’m so happy with the finished product. It seems like something that is true to the art. I also created the artwork for the cover. It’s a combination of images from a children’s nursery rhyme book from the nineteenth century. Hidden in the scroll-work are the names of my husband and daughter, and the blackbird is homage to Blood Pudding Press’s journal, Thirteen Myna Birds.

Did I veer from the question? I was very invested in finding the right home for it. It is now part of a full length manuscript (I am shopping) that combines this chapbook with another I published last year with Horse Less Press called “Keen” – persona poems about Nancy Drew. I swear I never meant to become this gimmicky. So I like the idea that chapbooks can become full length manuscripts with the right maneuvering. And I’m nuts – I am so delighted with the idea of bringing Nancy side by side with Laura. It changes the entire conversation about authorship and literature for young girls.

What’s the last best book you read?

It’s a three way tie, is that ok? “rel[am]ent” by Jamison Crabtree, “Last Psalm at Sea Level” by Meg Day, and “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison” by Maggie Smith. I will gush. I am very close to gushing. Three wonderful, important books and poets.

Are you working on anything new?

I am. I am trying to publish this full length of Fiddle and Keen, and also sending out two other chapbook manuscripts – one is experimental poems about the dissolution of marriage through addiction and the other is more formal poetry about relationships. Hmm, thematic. I am going to the Tin House summer workshop in July to work on a full length manuscript I have been laboring over for about five years now. I just want to get this thing finished and polished and into the world. This one is my heart and soul on paper. It (I) needs resolution. I get to work with Natalie Diaz and I am already sweaty and nervous and giddy. Isn’t poetry wonderful?

Is there anything I neglected to ask you that you’d like to address?

Do you think a Choose Your Own Adventure anthology of poetry would be insane? Like one poet writes one poem without an ending and another poet writes an alternative ending and then another poet writes another ending or another beginning and maybe there is artwork and… children’s literature, it’s a whole plum ready for picking.

Fiddle is Flood is available from Blood Pudding Press.

Lizi Gilad’s recent work can be found in Dum Dum Zine, Forklift Ohio, and Poor Claudia. Her first chapbook,Hyperion, will be released by Big Lucks in the winter of  2015.

REVIEW: Tradition by Daniel Khalastchi

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by Eric Howerton

No one can accuse Daniel Khalastchi’s second collection of poetry—provocatively named Tradition—of failing to fully embrace its post-modern conceit. At times the risks in Tradition reward the tolerant reader’s pathos, but mostly these poems tickle our sly, inner appreciation for the unanticipated chaos of modern life.

Comprised by mostly narrative poems, this collection is unflinching in its satire from the very first poem to the tongue-in-cheek cover, which features the visage of a rather stern-looking, hatted Hasidic gentleman with the word “tradition” angularly lacing throughout his beard. Rather than revering tradition and the time-honored customs of yesteryear, Khalastchi’s work labors to dismantle the very notion of tradition so as to scrutinize tradition’s relevance amidst the instability of an ever-fluxing, ever-diversifying world, a world where the need for arch-narratives and moral templates seems waning, unwanted and anti-progressive.

The traditions Khalastchi most often deflates are those of Judaism, most notably Jewish conversions for marriage purposes, which here more resemble a weekend with your dilettantish uncle than anything having to do with spiritual tutelage. If the cover of the collection doesn’t communicate a tone of near-total irreverence, Khalastchi ensures that no one misses out on the joke immediately in the collection’s first poem, “I Want Jew So Badly”:

The conversion Rabbi comes to my door holding
a box of unwrapped dildos and a wood-handled

cement chisel…

The conversion Rabbi and his convert appear regularly throughout the collection, though they won’t be caught doing anything remotely “orthodox.” While readers might expect the conversion poems to address the difficulty of reading and speaking Hebrew, familiarizing oneself with holy texts, or psychologically preparing for certain dietary prohibitions, these poems instead show the Rabbi and his ward receiving facials at the Clinique counter and shopping at Costco, as well as committing crimes in public restrooms. While each of the conversion Rabbi poems has a rather unfortunate pun as its title (e.g. “Jew and I Travel to the Beat of a Different Drum,” “Lover, Jew Should Have Come Over,” etc), they do float above their comic origins by asking whether modern consumer behaviors have loosely become traditions in and of themselves? And if so, are these traditions any less deterministic or confining than the antiquated moral restrictions openly mocked elsewhere in the book?

Khalastchi takes jabs not only preservation of tradition, but at its evolution too. How tradition interfaces with and is warped by modern preoccupation is perhaps the collection’s chief concern. In a moment where the Rabbi and his convert are discussing burial practices, the Rabbi offers a startlingly contradictory consolation in order to procure a sale:

When you stop shaking
we can go to the basement and I’ll teach you how to knock clean

Hebrew names into the dark marble of a headstone. Plus,
he says, removing a blueprint of black x’s and circles

from his satin breast pocket, if you commit to buying
your cemetery plot today, I’ll let you sleep for ten

minutes believing in the resurrection.…

For as many blows as it takes, religion is not the only target of ironic entanglement here, as Khalastchi is an equal-opportunity lampooner. In the midst of poems that poke fun at religious practice and custom, Poetry with a capital P receives just as must criticism for the assertion of its own dogmas.

For example, many of Khalastchi’s poems bite their thumb at what most readers and writers of poetry have been taught to regard as “rules” that should be broken only with ample justification. Khalastchi often abandons the strategic use of enjambment as emphasis or to double a line’s meaning, and instead bluntly ends his lines on articles (a, the) and prepositions (on, to) that do little to reinforce a poem’s theme. The aesthetic inclusion of a clumsy tedium does not, however, mean that the poem itself becomes uninteresting or fails to accomplish its aim simply because its enjambment is not of a “recommended” variety. Rather, these poems present themselves as aggressivity in the face of tradition and orthodox method, as alternatives to blind adherence and stylistic rigidity. The 28-line poems that Khalastchi dubs “sonnets” earn their titles by positing romance, however these poems intentionally lack strict meter and make more turns than a revolving door. Time shifts and time leaps that might be a turn in a 14-line sonnet here serve to reemphasize the fact that everything is always turning all the time, always moving away from the patterns of what was into the patterns of what will be. The traditions of tomorrow will be born from the same mouth that chewed on, deformed, and spit out the gummy traditions of today.

For Khalastchi, that rules and traditions exist at all seems to be the only justification needed for breaking them. But to what end? Perhaps in order to assert that the rules are not always broken in the same way, that there are both reckless and systematic ways of bucking the norm.

Still, breaking the rules for breaking-the-rule’s sake begs the question of whether or not a rejection of tradition—wholesale or partial—is an act of liberating oneself from the arbitrary binds of time, history, and the inheritances left to us by the zealous, controlling dead? And if so, once one dispenses with the supposed value tradition, do the world and its movements fatalistically slip into a morass of symbolical emptiness and nihilistic solipsism?

The answer to these questions, I would argue, appears in the numbered “Poems for My Father,” in which the speaker addresses his Jewish father’s exodus from Iraq, a journey necessitated by frightening religious persecution. For nine consecutive poems, Khalastchi’s project pauses the satire and hones in on the historical realities of lived, human experience instead of hyperbolic satires.

When Khalastchi writes in the acknowledgments that “dissonance is an integral part of harmony,” it seems as though he’s speaking directly to the tonal incompatibility between “Poems for My Father” and the rest of the collection. The collection is worth reading for these nine poems alone, as they stand out as the most politically significant, culturally sensitive, sincere, and meaningful poems in the collection; however, their importance wouldn’t be emphasized as such if not surrounded by poems that showcased the extreme and comic manifestations of the “modern traditions” like late-stage capitalism, liberal individualism, and sexual liberation to name a few.

The poems in “Poems for My Father” are a dissenting voice in a collection that largely mocks tradition, and perhaps this caveat is intended to remind us that for those who suffer persecution because of their traditions, tradition cannot be a laughing. As a marker of identity, affiliation with tradition is often involuntary, which means that persecution may be unavoidable despite what one actually believes or practices. Khalastchi powerfully writes of the danger unfurled when traditions grow intolerant of one another in “II.”

You walked until morning. The city was
swollen in throngs of long cotton and the

souqs became veined with lines for raw
meat. Standing in garbage, you needed

new clothes. Back at your house, a police-
man was waiting with sandals by the

door. He asked for ID and if you were
Jewish. From your wallet fell pictures

of a well-dressed man. Before taking you
away, the officer spoke to an onlooking

neighbor. What she said in her garden let
him let you go.

After a series of prolonged gags, Khalastchi reminds us that laughing can itself be a privilege, and it is privilege alone that allows us to question the value of or roll our eyes at tradition. By recognizing this privilege in light of traditional habits, Khalastchi helps us see that—for all its absurdities, hypocrisies, and inequities—the perseverance of tradition both endangers and strengthens us as a people. At the same time, tradition mocks us for participating in retrogrades, while also adding gravity to customs that would—without the context of other people having done the same thing for hundreds if not thousands of years—seem crushingly and foolishly quaint.

Tradition is available from McSweeney’s

Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza,theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.

INTERVIEW: TC Tolbert

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introduction by Christopher Soto

The first time that I heard TC Tolbert read was in April 2015 at the Poetry Project in NYC. He asked me (and several friends in the audience) to recite excerpts from a long poem with him. I had no clue who else was speaking with me or where they sat. As the event began, different voices from throughout the audience started erupting from wall to wall (in conversation with TC). The voices kept growing in number and frequency as the reading progressed. By the end of the reading all of the voices were overlapping one another in chorus, in community, in chaos. All of these voices in the room were united by TC and singing with him in an orchestra of pain.

TC Tolbert is the author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press, 2014). He is also the author of two chapbooks I:Not He:Not I (Pity Milk Press, 2014) and territories of folding (Kore Press, 2011) and a chaplet spirare (Belladonna* 2012). TC Tolbert is co-editor, along with Trace Peterson, of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013). TC Tolbert is a genderqueer, feminist poet, and teacher committed to social justice. He currently teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades. This interview will discuss TC’s reading at the Poetry Project, his latest book, and work in the trans poetry community.

***

CS: Can you tell us about your reading at the Poetry Project. How you decided to organize your set and why?

TC: I like the words you used to describe it – orchestra, chorus, conversation. And a conversation is nothing if not partial improvisation and when we enter into one, we accept that we must be flexible, porous, able to be changed. I’m less interested in giving a reading and more interested in sharing an experience with an audience – a conversation. For the last 2 years or so, I’ve committed to myself that I will not give readings but I will engage in site and audience-specific collaborations. This developed as a result of working with Movement Salon, a Compositional Improvisation collective I’ve been with for about 7 years. We compose together in the moment to create dynamic, complex, and fully realized pieces without rehearsal or planning and this practice has taught me to pay attention to the intersections of text, body, architecture, and space in ways that readings often don’t. Also, I’m exhausted by the idea of “performing” and I resent any experience in which I am expected to entertain. I want to feel people with me. Also, I grew up Pentecostal and the sound of speaking in tongues has always delighted and terrified me.

The Poetry Project readings happen at a church so I wanted to bring in the experience of chorus and glossolalia, the beautiful and the unspeakable. I also think of church as the place where I’ve experienced some of the worst pain of my life and the most intense healing. The arc of the evening was built around a challenge to god, which is another way of saying it was a prayer and a wish: Here, you hear this? The sexual abuse I endured as a kid – the abuses that so many children endure – the schism of gender identity – the horror of suicidal ideation – the realization of the violence I am not separate from – the all out war against trans and gender non-conforming folks (primarily trans women of color) – where the fuck are you? All of my work is, when it comes down to it, really just a practice of trying to find god in the midst of suffering.

CS: I was particularly interested in your choice to recite the names of our trans sisters,

brother, siblings (who have been murdered). This is not something that either of us take lightly. What response do you want from the audience? Is there a call to action?

TC: YES – I WANT THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE IT STOP. I WANT THEM TO QUIT LISTENING POLITELY AND I WANT THEM TO DO EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER (including but not limited to donating large amounts of money to TWOC orgs like Trans Women of Color Collective or any of these other direct support networks for trans women) TO MAKE THAT LIST OF NAMES COME TO AN END.

I chose to have the names read throughout the piece because this violence is largely unseen and unacknowledged yet it is utterly brutal and endless. Because even though most people in that room are protected from this information, it is still happening. And if all of the folks in the audience are going to support a white trans guy by listening to his poems, they damn well better realize that that one act is not enough to be an actual ally. IF WE ARE NOT ACTIVELY SUPPORTING TWOC IN LIVING FULL LIVES, WE ARE COMPLICIT IN THE VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.

CS: At the reading (which was mostly cisgender white folks) you had your shirt taken off, exposing your chest. There is a lot of emotional labor involved with being a visibly trans person (both inside / outside community). How do you prepare to be so physically and emotionally vulnerable in a space? Why might such vulnerability be necessary?

TC: I was born female and about 9 years ago I transitioned to something less visibly female. And I often need and want to declare this publicly for many reasons. Regardless of previous visible embodiments and regardless of my own psychic and emotional connection to the skin I live in underneath these clothes – I’m also a white passing trans guy and that affords me a ton of privilege I didn’t have before taking testosterone. In other words, transition, for me at least, was participation in erasure. Some parts of my corporeal text have been made invisible while other parts seem to have become more clear. And I have questions about that erasure. Is transitioning a way of killing myself? If I have ostensibly erased Melissa in order to make visible TC, what other kinds of violence am I capable of? Am I, as a trans man, degrading women simply through the acts of transition (“acts” because there are many, both repetitive and cumulative, somehow seemingly never ending)? To present my particular acts of transition as a simple resilience narrative feels insincere, too neat. And although I am ambivalent about how transitioning has not just figuratively, but literally, saved me – I don’t take either my history or my current context lightly. All of this to say: my poems and my experiences and my love for the world – all of these things come from my body. And while I spend most of my time in public trying to force that body into a version of embodiment that feels safe – it would have felt like a lie to be that protected during that particular experience.

How do I prepare to be physically and emotionally vulnerable? Honestly, I pray for an open heart. I pray to be present. Pema Chödrön says: “Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world. In that instance, removing my shirt was a way to turn toward suffering and open myself up.

CS: I’d like to talk a bit about the body in your work. Of all the references that you had to the body, I was most intrigued by your relationship to the knees. The knees as a site of

prayer (and penance), pleasure (oral sex), the knees as a reoccurring site of submission to rise from. It was interesting for me to think about the knees in relationship to the conversations about gender throughout your book. Can you elaborate?

TC: The knees are very important to me as a site of resistance and surrender. Multivalence. Yes – it seems to me there is something about one’s relationship to the knees that insinuates gender (or at least gendered expectations) in all of the ways you listed – penance, submission, pleasure. Who gets to feel pleasure when one is on the knees? Who has power? Who can be broken and who needs to be forgiven? Knees also indicate motion – or at least the possibility of motion. Every bend in the body, a turning. The knees also make possible the liminal space between prostrate and standing. In most of my life I feel as though I live there (and I don’t imagine this is unique to my trans embodiment – perhaps this is just embodiment, generally speaking) – in the motion of rising and supplicating simultaneously.

CS: Your book, as a tangible object, felt like a bridge in itself (referencing the title, Gephyromania). The font was constantly shifting size and shape. The book could be read vertically and horizontally. I was always traveling from one place (one experience) to the next. Can we talk about aesthetic choices?

TC: Gephyromania literally means an addiction to or an obsession with bridges. Bridges, themselves, are so many things: a musical interlude, a passage over, a joining, a contrast, a way across.

I wrote this book because I kept losing track of the differences between us. The woman I was in love with was leaving. I was beginning to transition away from visibly female to something the world would call “man.” Who was disappearing? Who was showing up? Gephyromania was written between bodies – between who I loved and who was leaving, between who I was and who I would become.

The poems started as a notebook with the word “bridge” written across it. I was wicked sad. I was so tired of talking about me/her/us. My friends were tired of hearing about me/her/us. I needed a place to put me/her/us down. I needed something else to carry us/her/me.

For a long time I’ve been more interested in the form a poem takes than it’s content. That might be an overstatement but it’s at least true that I’m as interested in the form as I am the content. So, even though I have a trans and genderqueer narrative and some of these poems are explicitly about that, most are trying to work that out through form while talking about love. And maybe the body is just love made visible anyhow.

I see the page as a body and how I have used that body, or it has used me, for experimentation, silence, shape, music, rupture, image, etc. interests me. It is, undoubtedly, experiments in poetry and with language that led me to and into and through my transition – which is something I’m still in and probably will be forever – there is no endpoint, as far as I can tell, to the transitioning body – and so even what I’m writing today (9 years into my transition), I see as a formal representation of my gender. My question is always: how to get the body in the poem, how to find my body on the page.

The writing is the body :: the freedom is the constraint.

I feel like I’m always thinking about silence and white space. At a time when I felt like I was leaking out everywhere, my breasts constantly spilling out of my shirt, my voice undermining any attempts to pass – I wrote territories of folding – and you can see how I was aching for silence – to be smaller and smaller (to have a smaller and smaller voice but, perhaps, to begin to learn to take up more space?) – and then to succumb to the page. And then take the sonnet crown. How I would vacillate between needing this expansive silence, white noise to swallow me whole, and then composing these tightly wound 3-5 page poems. How I needed the rigor, the dancing in a straight jacket of form. 7 sonnets back to back, the last line of one becoming the first line of the next until the last line of the poem curls back to the first line of the first sonnet – the form seems to evolve back into itself. I push out against that always while also willingly taking it on – so there is tension that interests me – the tension between holding and being held – sense and perhaps not sense – music and not music – the story of the thing and the embodiment of the thing and the thing itself and then the hand.

CS: Are you currently working on a second book? What should we expect thematically, stylistically?

TC: Yes, I’m working on several somethings but I’m very unsure of where or how they will bear (bare?) themselves finally to me or the world. Part of me just wants to leave it at that. But I also feel like this unknown territory – the process of risking and failing – is important, so I’ll share some of what I’m wading through.

I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness as erasure. A culture of silence. And how when white people don’t talk about racism or transphobia, when we talk about other things, we are committing an erasure of what is always happening – which is to say violence against trans people and people of color. And I am thinking through that in my work (which isn’t limited to poetry or even writing, really). Maybe it’s more accurate to say that my life project is to work through these realities.

So, one thing I’m working on is a series of hybrid essays. I’m not a theorist, or rather, critique is just my affection in drag. Utilizing elements of poetry, research, and personal narrative, I think of these essays as embodied meditative investigations on the trans body – my trans body – and its relationship to architecture, intimacy, and public space. They are, to me, genderqueer bodies, much like my physical genderqueer body – nonlinear, dynamic, a kind of textual bricolage, sometimes awkward or halting, passing as narrative at one turn, then full of ruptures in logic, vulnerable and visible and joyously so.

Lately I’m realizing that all of the work that interests me is collaborative. I need you (the reader) to make sense of who I am or what I’m doing. This is similar, I think, to how we collaborate to create meaning from each of our gender expressions and identities, trans or not. But public space is often a dangerous place for trans and genderqueer bodies (most brutally, bodies that either cannot or do not wish to be invisible, and specifically the bodies of trans women of color). What could be collaboration, or celebration, becomes violence, oppression, and control. My hope is that reading (and writing) these essays is a practice in shifting that dynamic. That we can play, be curious, wander among tangents, delight in the previously undefined, decorate, find connections where they are not obvious, unhinge our expectations, say yes to what we don’t yet know.

In this way, I want to celebrate trans and genderqueer bodies – how we pass and sometimes don’t, how we spill over, slip, call out, miss the point. These essays don’t defend anything or even prove a good point. They bump into things. They might make illegible what was just starting to come into focus. They are rigorous but they refuse to pass. They “fail, for sure.

The other thing I’m working on is a series of erasures of news reports about the violent deaths of trans peoplenews reports that show us this violence is primarily enacted against trans women of color. In the first 3 months of 2015, ten trans people – almost all of whom were trans women of color – were murdered here in the US. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, a trans person – again, almost always a trans woman of color – is murdered every other day worldwide. In 2014, the total number of reported murders was 226. 1612 murders have been reported since 2008. It’s also worth noting that these are only the reported numbers. In the first 3.5 months of 2015, at least 10 trans youth have died by suicide.

By erasing these reports, I hope to deal with this atrocity head-on, with a deep awareness of my own and other trans people’s vulnerability – while also acknowledging my white skin and passing privilege and how this has actually given me access to a vulnerability and resilience narrative that QTPOC may not have access to. In other words, I am suddenly a marketable trans body – often positioned as a version of trans success – but this does not mean that my trans siblings are ever, even in the most “progressive” spaces, safe. As Adam Phillips points out in an essay on agoraphobia, “James’ open space is full of potential predators, but in Freud’s open space a person may turn into a predator.” In these acts of erasure I am thinking about who my potential predators are and what kind of predator I may be.

But I also don’t think it’s enough to call out privilege and power. I want to expose sites of privilege and vulnerability while also inspiring action and connection. I also want to insist that trans writing and trans lives must be able to become more than documented suffering. Healing, I think, is too lofty. But relationship. M. NourbeSe Philip said at the most recent &Now conference: “Poetry generates relationships” and that’s really my goal. Touching people seems to be the best I can do.

CS: Lastly, you’re very involved in the trans poetry community (having co-edited Troubling the Line). Are there any poets or upcoming projects that we should know about?

TC: I want to mention two authors here whose work I was introduced to after Troubling the Line came out. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s book I’m alive/it hurts/I love it is un-fucking-believably good. I also love Jos Charles’ poems and their thinking and I hope they have a book out soon. I feel incredibly lucky to read and learn from these two.

CS: Closing thoughts?

TC: Thank you, my friend, for these questions. And for giving me the space to continue to think carefully and critically about my work, its intention, and its reception. Lord knows interviewing folks is an invisible labor of love and I appreciate you taking this time with me.

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist.  They have poems, essays, and book reviews published in print and online. They edit Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color with the Lambda Literary Foundation. They are an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU and the 2014-2015 intern at Poetry Society of America. In 2015, they co-founded the Undocupoets Campaign (with Javier Zamora and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo) to protest the discriminatory guidelines which many publishers used, barring undocumented people from applying to first book contests. They currently reside in Brooklyn but will soon be moving to the Bay Area.