The title Your Wound / My Garden brings to mind what you have said about the importance of transforming rather than transmitting pain. How would you describe the relationship between the wound and the garden, the relationship between pain and poetry?
Your wound / my garden. The things that you hate about yourself / I love them in me. That doesn’t make me wrong (or even right). It just makes me, me. And, perhaps, makes me…queer. Queerness is about the perennial, stubborn attempt to reclaim and inhabit the places within us that have been colonized by shame.
Being nonbinary is an invitation to interrogate all the dichotomies holding us back. We aren’t just fighting against the gender binary, we are also affirming the poetics of simultaneity. Truth is polyamorous. It is not only possible – but terribly likely – that things are multiple things all at the same time. We all live there: the both/and. (It’s just that some of us are more honest about it.)
Everything. Every thought. Every desire. Every identity. Even the things we dismiss as flat, ordinary, or boring. Everything is a diamond: precious, complex, multifaceted. Nothing is one-dimensional. We just don’t do the courtesy of noticing it: the majesty of the mundane.
I harbor within me both a deep despair at the way this world castigates our creativity (by which I mean: our humanity) and a fierce love for that very cursed world. Because it was here that I stumbled upon that sublime word “castigate” and found friends to be lonely together. This is the most bittersweet drink on the menu: in this cruel world / there is compassion. In all of my pain, there is still beauty. Alongside the merciless drone of misery, so many miracles. Like you. And me. And this.
I wanted to craft poems that paid attention to this. So many posture cynicism and nihilism as the superior and more enlightened way of being. These approaches have always felt more fitting for a dissertation than a diagram on how to live.
I need hope to survive.
One day I woke up with 24/7 chronic pain. It never went away. This book came from that place. Waking up asking: what is the point of being alive when there’s so much pain? Poetry is where we go to get lost to get found. I wrote, like I have always written, because some part of me wanted to justify my choice to be alive.
Maybe the pain won’t ever go away. But maybe, maybe I can still live a meaningful life even when it’s here.
How would you describe the poetic and emotional arc of Your Wound / My Garden?
These poems document my journey to realizing that I can’t always control the external world, but I can pilot my own heart. That’s where I’m recalibrating my compass. I am not waiting for someone to give me permission to live, I am doing it. Feral and rambunctious. I won’t wait for freedom to be conferred; I will live it. I don’t want to wait for acceptance, I will accept myself. Fully: in all my glory. In all my grief.
That’s why heteronormative society hunts us. It’s not because we lack. It’s not because we “fail” to be men or women, or beautiful, or normal, or any other fairy tale they use as fodder for this fantasy world where they masquerade counterfeit connection as community and dissociation as personality. It’s because we love. And it’s that daily baptism — of choosing love over fear – that provokes their derision. Because it shows that heaven is possible on earth — that all the things we were told we had to wait for (joy, acceptance, beauty) are here right now.
It’s easier to believe that healing is impossible. That naturalizes our loneliness – makes it an indelible fact, not the result of choices (often by the people who say they love us / often by the people we love). Nothing is absolute: everything is capable of transformation. It is easier to ridicule us than reckon with what we are saying: I love you for you (not for your disappearing act).
A theme in this collection is the relationship between words, language, and pain, between the wound and its articulation. In “care is our natural state” you write: “but before language i was a baby crying out in need.” In “anatomy lessons” you write “maybe pain is where language becomes physical.” In “my body: an american horror story,” you write: “pain stretches the limits of language.” Would you say more about the process of articulating wounds we don’t have language for?
Often people are hesitant to use the word trauma to describe their lives because they feel like nothing serious has happened to them. We only understand trauma as episodic and spectacular, but most of the time it’s constitutional and atmospheric. So too, is grief. Grief isn’t just about the death of loved ones, it’s also about the slow decay of our soul. It’s about every encounter we barter our dignity for safety.
I write in the book that “trauma means that the living die many deaths,” meaning – in order to survive, so many of us have had to destroy ourselves, contour ourselves into someone else’s fiction of who we should be. As a poet I go here: to those more amorphous, diffused forms of feeling. I don’t think language can ever adequately communicate them (nor do I think capture is the goal), but language, like a stud-finder in a wall, lets us prove that something is there. Grief requires witness to release. Sometimes we just need to prove that something is there.
Dr. Taschel Bordere has this concept of “suffocated grief” (sometimes referred to as “disenfranchised grief”) to describe forms of grief that are not recognized by others as a loss. I think this concept is particularly helpful for understanding the trauma of the gender binary.
We all grow up being told that other people get to decide our genders and our presentation. To question that — the authority of the people and institutions who say that they love us – is heresy. So we don’t. We repress our curiosity, wonder, individuality. And it manifests as bitterness and resentment against those who refuse to clip their own wings. The rage becomes misdirected as transmisogyny.
It’s this grief that structures so much of the antagonism against trans and non-binary people. People who haven’t questioned their own gender programming unconsciously react to the notion that people could actually have a choice about their gender. Rather than implicating the family or society in their imposed lack of choice, it is easier to demonize trans and non-binary people. When cis people don’t see trans and non-binary people, then they don’t have to confront the parts of themselves they had to destroy.
In “pronouns” you write, “The premise of speech is the promise of it. But what about those of us for whom there are no words?” Would you talk about the promise of language for those of us for whom there are no words, from your perspective as a scholar?
I spent so much of my life and career in the pursuit of language to communicate who I was. The goal was always precision: like if I just crafted the most sophisticated argument or compiled just the right amount of research to substantiate my claims, then people would treat me better.
I was wrong in two ways.
Firstly: I believed in the fantasy that anything could ever be adequately captured by words. This is an illusion of western knowledge production: the idea that the world can be known, tabulated, categorized. Humanity is not reducible to language. We are paradoxical, whimsical, and prone to spontaneous combustion. We transcend our worst and best quotes. Humans – we are live art. The ultimate: “you had to have been there to understand.” We should be able to sit with that which we can’t describe because that’s what it means to embrace being alive. Unknowability is not a threat, it’s an invitation to another way to be.
Secondly: I thought that being understood meant that other people would protect me. That’s just not true, and it never was. We shouldn’t have to prove our humanity. It should be indisputable – and we must navigate the world with that ethic. Coherence and comprehension shouldn’t be a prerequisite for compassion. Compassion should be offered to everyone, regardless of their/our ability to be make sense to people.
With these continued realizations I’m developing a more flirtatious relationship with language. I allow myself to have play dates with words. To be more ambivalent and experimental with form. It’s not just for explaining myself, it’s about enhancing, decorating, accessorizing myself.
In “pronouns” you write: “being trans means existing in the underbelly of language. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s that we have been written out of language.” This specific line is striking in the context of the newsletter you recently published, in which you discuss how “Beyond the Gender Binary” is on the list of 850 books Texas Republican State Representative Matt Krause is attempting to ban from Texan schools. Would you speak more about what it means to exist in a world that enacts and legislates this erasure?
The obsession with our novelty as trans and non-binary people is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from what we should be addressing: the persistent attempts to disappear us. It’s not that we are new, it’s that those in power continually attempt to eradicate us as we live alongside you. This is how the gender binary works: when you erase anyone who lives beyond gender norms, then you can pretend that man and woman are the only ways to be. You can pretend that gender norms are natural and innate, not political and enforced.
What does it mean to attempt to live in a world that is predicated on your erasure? We all have different strategies of coping. For me: I choose glamor. That’s how our transcestors did it: they posed for photos as the cops threw them in prison for transgressing cross-dressing laws. They dusted off their heels. They kept going outside. They did it because they knew there was no legitimacy to a law that was anti-fabulous. And so must we. Continue to write, speak, exist, live. Not just to show the world that we’re here. But to show one another that we are. That gender non-conforming life is possible. And beautiful.
We love the way you use parentheses in admissions of truth, especially in this line of “dissociation”: “For the first time I (not ‘I’) experience this pain.” Would you say more about this difference between I and “I”?
We make one-dimensional holograms of one another and call that love. We see what we want to see, and dismiss what we want to ignore, to make people become what we need them to be.
This is not love, it’s control.
Brené Brown writes that “true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” I spent so many years living an illusion of what other people wanted me to be to be safe. It almost killed me. Over time armor begins to dig into the skin and feel like the very dagger it was meant to protect us from.
I am trying my best these days to live outside of parenthesis, to be present in all my ungovernable spirit. It’s terrifying because it goes against everything that I’ve been taught. Often I want to retreat into that house of mirrors I grew up calling a home. But I’m trying, anyways. Because I don’t just want to exist, I want to live.
In “what if,” you suggest that we ask “what hurts?” rather than “how are you?” Would you say more about what the impact of this shift might be?
For years I’ve hosted FEELINGS workshops across the world where we bring together a group of strangers and practice vulnerability in public. Sometimes we begin screaming as long and as loud as we can. It’s cathartic, and so many people cry. And on the other side of the scream people say, “I needed to get that out of me.”
We have so much in us that needs to get out. There is so much pain in the world – lost — looking for a witness. We often presume that people are living stable, peaceful lives. But I think it’s the inverse. I think most people are grappling with so much anguish. What if we let people know, from the get-go, that we didn’t have to play pretend? That we could be honest about how hard it is being alive.
I think that would make it less hard to be alive.
That’s what I’ve discovered with my friends. We have a moratorium on small talk. We talk about the things that matter, air our subconscious thoughts like laundry out in the wind. Let each other stay for a while in the spaces made in our broken hearts.
Would you describe the relationship between the images and the poetry in Your Wound / My Garden?
In the beginning of my career what attracted me to writing was this sense that for a moment I didn’t have to be a body. People so often reduce me to my appearance, and so rarely engage with what I’m actually saying. Writing felt promising because I wanted to be taken seriously.
But whose gaze structures our definitions of serious? We shouldn’t have to compartmentalize ourselves to make other people more comfortable. I get to have a relationship with my own visuality, unmediated by other people’s projections.
Legitimacy is no longer my anchor, authenticity is. I still don’t want to be reduced to my image, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a part of the way that I engage in the world.
This book was about how I continue to live a gender non-conforming life in a society that is trying to erase me. Why disappear myself from my own pages?
Style is mobile poetry. I don’t see the difference between written poems and visual poems: both language and clothing decorate the soul. Unfortunately, the literary establishment does. There’s this conservative (and most offensively –boring!) fetish of the text over all other modes of communication.
This book was about how I continue to choose life in the face of pain. This is not just a discursive argument, it’s an embodied practice. It’s putting on a full face of makeup and a gown to an MRI. It’s wearing a six-inch (completely practical!) platform heel to make myself feel powerful when I know I’m going to be harassed outside. I had to show that.
In “impossible lives” you write: “The job of an artist is to replenish imagination. Is to say: there are ideas we haven’t considered yet. Feelings we haven’t encountered yet. Love we haven’t surrendered to yet. ‘Yet’ is the most wonderful word ever built. Let’s live there together. Redesign existence.” How do you replenish your own imagination?
I surround myself with boisterous company: people and ideas who tickle my limiting belief systems, remind me of the everyday anarchy of being alive.
What is the last beautiful thing you saw?
The way that my manicured nails glisten in the light as I type this message to you.