I have these conversations periodically about how much of myself and my poetry might better be kept in journals or on hard drives, unshared. Thus far, all of these conversations have been with my mother. When I was a teenager she encouraged me to not come out, partly for the entirely reasonable fear she had that my best friend’s parents would react poorly. As it turns out, they did react poorly, but they also got over it. I wrote a poem about that conversation with her that won my first ever poetry award, a Scholastic Regional Gold Key. Another such conversation resulted in Gentle. (My mother did see both poems eventually.)
My mother has gotten better at broaching these conversations over the years, so that the last one resulted in neither one of us crying. She pointed out that she was actually less concerned about my identities as trans and queer than my “sensuality” (I talk about sex and I swear, guilty as charged). She also broached the topic as a question, acknowledging that I know more about the world of poetry and spoken word than she does, but I confess I don’t know the answer either. I tend to dismiss a certain amount of her concern because she is a children’s book author, and the kind of spoken word poetry I’m aware of thrives on identity politics and controversy. My current goal is to one day be picked up by Write Bloody, which carries my beloved Sierra Demulder and recently picked up Andrea Gibson. A poet friend of mine advised that if I want to be able to speak to the bar scene, I had better embrace the racy portion of my poetry.
Last night, April 15, I saw Mary Lambert perform in a Pride Awareness Month sponsored event downtown at the Wooly, an intimate venue well-lit with red and blue lights. She wore a floral-on-black dress with bright red lipstick, played her keyboard, and sang and talked and recited until most of us laughed and cried. A friend described her voice as “rolling around in silk.” Mary got a girl singing a love song about another girl on the radio. In rural Kentucky. Yes, she’s quite proud. Mary also made a point of performing a poem/song about domestic violence, and another deeply moving and incredible piece about rape. She not only has a piece about body acceptance in her act, but is making a Twitter (#BodyLove) campaign out of it. All of this from a woman who sang with Madonna at the Grammy’s. Does this mean the world is changing?
I waited at the end of the line so I could heap my excitement and love on her after the show, and my time was well worth the conversation and the hug I received. She had said during the act, as part of her trigger warning for the rape poem, that people expected her to be a pop star now, but she insists on talking about what matters to her. When I spoke to her one on one, she said it was difficult sometimes, but (except for not swearing in front of minors) it was worth it to stick to your guns and talk about what matters. Keep writing, she said. Her face and signature are going to hang on my wall to ward off worries.
Last week, NaPoWriMo gave a lovely prompt to rewrite a classic poem, suggesting Black Stone on White Stone and providing Nickel On Top of a Penny as an example, both of which inspired me. That incredible reinterpretation, by Stephen Burt, perked my interest. The author self-references as “Stephanie” at the end of the poem. I kept reading through that blog for the next couple of days, finding good poems but inevitably landing on an essay-style piece entitled, “My Life as a Girl.” Stephen explores the various feminine personas they have taken on over the years, levels of gender dysphoria, and says something I relate to particularly: “I’m not sure how much of that feeling comes from having the body of a man, and how much of it comes from having a body at all.” (I am using “they” not because I think that’s what Stephen normally uses, but because I don’t have the luxury of asking what pronouns would be best in this particular context.)
Mostly, though, I was struck that Stephen says their earliest publications referenced these alternate feminine identities. Today, Stephen works as a professor of English at Harvard. And yet, poems and essays about their gender exploration are available on the internet. Perhaps it helps that Stephen is still living, more or less, as a cisgender man. I prefer to think, however, that the levels of talent, hard work, dedication, and unique ways of seeing evident in Stephen Burt’s poetry are more important to Harvard and Stephen’s numerous readers than issues of identity.
Myself and Yocheved Zenaida-Cohen held a poetry and performance art event on April 4th to celebrate the release of my cd, Riverbed (which was not actually out at the time). We got a considerable audience and a very positive reception, considering the venue and the number of competing events. Our set focused on issues of identity, relationships, social justice, and trans* lives and bodies. A friend of mine spoke with me after about getting a copy of my CD to a friend of hers, specifically because she thought my poems could help him in his transition.
And that, right there, that is why I write! That is why I share my poetry. I do love the sound of words, the feel of language, the intoxication of writing. However, my true, compelling purpose is to change lives. I want my poems to be hugs when no one else is there. I want my poems to say stay with me. To say it’s okay to be you. To say stand up and fight for what you believe in. It’s not an accident that I get asked to perform at events for Pride, ISO, and a workers’ celebration on May Day (upcoming).
First of all, writing poetry instead of novels or nonfiction about science puts me in a niche market. I think it’s worthwhile to be bold about my identity, and that my identity and my beliefs will do me more good than harm. I may never have the kind of caché that more privileged writers have, and I do not expect to be invited to speak in elementary school classrooms in Texas like my mother has (with a book about vegetarianism, a minor miracle!), but I’m doing the work that is meaningful to me. If I make it, I will make it on the platforms that matter to me as the person I am.
Anyway, I’ve gotten hugs from Mary Lambert and Laverne Cox in the last month, so clearly I’m doing just fine.
What about you? Is this a question that you consider in your poetry, or other art forms?