SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Thank you for coming. I'd like to thank David and Barbara Zalaznick for their generous donation that has made this reading series possible. If the universities are really modeled after the Greeks, then it is only fitting that we start today's event with an excerpt from Plato's Symposium. A time before modern science, a time before very needed queer studies or gender studies, the tools that the ancients had was basically just myth and metaphor.
It's not really Plato I'd like to stress today, but actually a writer came about 2,800, 900 years later by the name of Ellison, who spoke about invisible people or people who get very little respect, people who get very little representation. Today we have a panel, especially for those who study these issues. Today's reading will be followed by a panel as well as a Q&A. I won't take any more time because this event will be an hour and a half. So therefore, let me just welcome tonight with Ryka Aoki.
RYKA AOKI: I seriously never thought I would come back here to read again. I mean, after my MFA thesis reading, it's been kind of a long time coming around. It's been kind of emotional. Quite some time ago, I earned my MFA here and sat and gave my thesis reading. But anyway, I'd like to just thank the continued generosity of the Cornell MFA program and the English department. For an Ivy League school, y'all are pretty hip. Prologue.
"Archie could skip abstract on [? September ?] through his office blinds. A watercolor paint brush swirling pigments into vistas, simple and prime, an undisturbed [? inlet, ?] short walk home. The napkin falling from hand to desk, on that current he could lift, then turn touching down and perfectly factored. I yearn to dally where the apples must taste like music and prayer would cling to thistles to a mathematics that coordinates the sky. Yet here I am with child, with dead weight metaphors, and irrational feet.
The mass of the universe enjambed within these hungering lines. With child, with want of child, now am I as Archie wonders, even now he's singing. (SINGING) Let's all gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river. Well, I can only speak of motion and how I so believe it cannot enroll her form."
Poetry is where I've always felt most at home. However, home has always been complicated. Although I love the idea of being home, home itself was never safe or viable place. And when somehow I was admitted right here to the Cornell MFA program, I discovered an environment so rarefied and magical that I thought I might finally get away.
See, Cornell was like nothing I'd ever seen, at least in reality. I was stunned by how all the faculty lived. You know, with all my heart. I wished for a future like theirs-- quiet office, a well-worn desk, some books, a comfy chair, and a window, maybe, overlooking some sort of courtyard garden. I had no desire to deal with ugliness, with violence.
I wasn't thinking about revolution or justice, I just wanted escape. I wanted peace. Yet being at Cornell was far from peaceful. Most of the time, I was frustrated, not at my classmates, not even at the language poets or the cold, cold winters, but at my own inability to become the writer that I felt I had to be, cultured and privileged and [? above ?] all, brilliantly safe. Yet more than that, and the more I tried to be that ideal artist, the more I felt I was missing something vital, ownership, self.
It seemed like I was surrounded by people who knew who they were, their stations, and what they wanted to write. Me? Pale imitations all. You see, more than any other type of writing, I feel that poetry demands truth. There's nothing Hollywood glamorous about writing a poem. It's clumsy, stumbling most of the time with generous heaps of self-importance and self-pity.
But at least for me, the poem must contain truth. If I'm being evasive or lying, even unconsciously, the poem reacts. There's nothing like a poem to remind you who and where you are, even if you're not sure yourself. So I returned from Ithaca even more lost and confused. I was back where I started with my one ticket out of town wasted. There would be no comfy office, no quiet courtyard, no peace. It was over.
I most likely would have broken, but for one lucky act that saved me. I continued to write poetry. And somehow my constant probing for what was wrong with that poetry led me finally to realizing what I had wrong with me, which finally led me to realize that writing wasn't the only issue I had. Because you see, after leaving Cornell, that's when I worried.
And after wondering that I had the wrong voice, the wrong life, I found that I was transgender. And soon after that, my therapist helped me to admit to myself that I'd also been the victim of child abuse, not the easiest process. But it was emancipating and strengthening. And with stronger spirit and new eyes, I looked back at the poems that truly inspired me, not the names, not the reputations, but the actual words.
And I realized that my poems did not run away from their past. My favorite poems transformed them. After trying to write poetry from a perspective and privilege that I never had, I stopped trying to be somewhere else and someone else. I began to not concentrate on escaping my world, but transforming it. My time at Cornell and even before that, my time home began to fall into context, producing this new form and this richness.
And gradually, a type of poetry began to come to my hands and heart and voice that I could finally call my own. See, in the past, I desired a poetry that offered escape from the pain and the nonsensical cruelty of the world. You know, forget this life, somewhere in the chaos of the world, there has to be room for a pastoral quiet space where none of the outside matters. You can spend lifetimes waiting for a place like that.
Yet, are we really interested in poems and poetry that come from such a space? Well, at Cornell one of my professors once said that in the US we kill our poets with kindness. At the time, I thought he was crazy. But now I realize his wisdom. Think about it. Why do poets seem to rise from places and spaces of oppression? Why do those who hunger for existence and significance and safety also seem to hunger for verse?
In my hanging outs with other queers of color, I'd become familiar with a pattern, one that resonates with my own life where oppression is more than having nameable obstacles and villains, life itself becomes the enemy, whether it's planning your trip around a non-existent gender neutral bathroom or taking four hours to run a 20-minute errand because the bus is late. Life itself is oppressive when the only thing that seems to have any regularity are the bills or the insults or the panic attacks that keep you awake every night.
Oppression is the extra pain you feel in your bladder, the sudden feeling you get when someone accuses you of going to McDonald's when it's the only way you can afford to take your kids out for a meal where there's air conditioning. Oppression reduces conflict and meaning to an impersonality that can pummel a soul until even this existence loses meaning. For when societies and institutions operate on statistical scales, where on earth is there room for the personal?
What gives the self its significance? At times such as this, it is not the body that most thirsts or hungers, but the soul. We can do far more if we simply know that we matter, that there is significance in who we are and in what we do. And this is where I finally realized that poetry sings. Unlike the weightiness of essays or prose, poems can be portable, personal things.
Poetry links us not through our shared philosophies or stories, but through the minutia of our day to day existences. A poem can bring seemingly endless, stupid craziness to a personal human scale at least for a while providing space for contemplation and reflection and maybe even a little peace. In "Ars Poetica," Archibald MacLeish writes, "for all the history of grief, an empty doorway and a maple leaf." One doorway, not a labyrinth of closed doors, one leaf, not a forest of lost opportunity.
Poetry is one of the few ways we can transform the broad band of oppression into something manageable. It does this by insisting that one's personal experiences, one's personal world, they don't merely exist, they embody their existence. We don't have to measure ourselves against the global or universal. Our existences themselves are enough to connect and sanctify us. Poems remind us that we are significant not because of how much land we own or how many guns we have, but who we intrinsically are.
This is a world where some children laugh and others are beaten, where some children are cast out, others blend right in, where some have clean water and bedsheets. Where we force our activists into ignoring their health, our artists to give up before they turn 25, where people are so addled, so shell-shocked and overwhelmed that they protest their own health insurance, [? whether ?] at picnics and beaches and fireflies and even ice cream.
This is the world where poetry most matters, not through its ability to offer escape, but its ability to transform one's surroundings and link even God and eternity to one's coffee mug search for a shopping list significance in truth. A philosopher once asked if I believed in God.
My friend lost two friends. And one of them was my friend and so was another. And in the morning, I could kiss you not to wake you, but to linger a little resting a bit where my nose still brushed your neck. And yes, I was crying because you stirred and smiled. And we were still going shopping. And it was still not even May.
A philosopher once asked if I believed in God. I said, no. I have experience. And so even now, I can disbelieve all I want, but I shall always know that I would want another night next to you breathing, dancing on byways no matter how afraid. Up overhead, we peered at what snuggled the side of the Griffith Park ravine. We identified it with an app you downloaded from the cloud, then snipped a sprig of showy evening Primrose to dream of planting in our someday backyard, or at least until the allergies set in.
I'm writing a speech to tell a group of earnest undergrads something helpful and life affirming. How does one say, trim just a little bit of flesh, the glass slipper will fit, you'll get to the ball and dance with the prince. Feets blister, mouths are bleeding rubber and [? come. ?] The backbeat fades to cross-reference, cross-gendered graves. Jesus fucking Christ, she was only 22 years old. You shush me. Say it's 4:00 AM and you'll be awake where you are.
In the come and go of neutrinos, house cats, a sweethearts notes, and schoolyard beating, there is not enough courage in my hand but for the courage I hold in yours. What beatifies leftover lo mein? Styrofoam, chopsticks, plastic forks, two napkins, three packs of crappy soy sauce that neither of us will use. You [? slob ?] home drenched and empty from work you swear you only do for the money, but we both know otherwise.
Rents increasing 4.5%. LA wants $61.42 in taxes we don't owe. What trip to Paris? We're hoping to visit the supermarket between paychecks. Leftovers for the wok, leftovers for the stock pot, leftover rice, leftover bok choy. Yesterday, I yearned for when I could buy a bag of salad without caring how quickly the freshest greens spoil. Yesterday I yearned for clean dishes, a clean refrigerator.
But yesterday I could tell you how someone waited a little longer to hold the elevator door, how the Walgreens clerk heard me sniffle and say, I hope you feel better. Or that helpful woman at the post office saying, oh, people forget the postage rates all the time. And today as I entered the liquor store an actor rushed past me to buy lemon drops, then dashed to the theater next door.
I bought a two liter of Diet Coke, three cans of sardines and tomato sauce, and stammered [SPEAKS KOREAN] to the shop owner, who knew I said it wrong, yet smiled and nodded completely and simply to me. One can forge documents, reinvent identities, concatenate acronyms, be lost in our flags and our labels and our unfilled prescriptions and lists of the dead, yet though the cure for cancer may not cure cancer or suicide or a trip to the doctor. Who will whisper "I'll go with you," be scared with you, trust what you say and always, always be here?
When two spirits peer into moonless native sky, when transsexuals primp for conjugal visit with surgeon and syringe, when I am writing even now as she ended, someone was there to make sure her nails were absolutely perfect. Who turns off my phone, closes my laptop, gets a popsicle to ease my sore throat? Who are we? What is this?
I think I am. What is this [? but in ?] that in all that I give, I am yours. I am yours. I am yours. Build with me. Walk with me. Grow old and tired and share supper with me. And with you I light a candle. And with you I reheat the noodles. Or so we hope. We hope when we are weak, can say we know what it feels like to truly love.
Today a sparrow was perched on the banana tree, so the hummingbirds were probably too frightened to land. And near the galaxy's core, a black hole stripped a pearl blue star into ribbons of fire. And poetry is all one has strength to hear when we don't have enough daylight to waste even a little food. Leftovers go to stir fry. Stir fry becomes soup. And soup is what a lover needs after a lifetime of saving the world."
Thank you very much.
And thank you to the Cornell Program.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Thank you, Ryka. Let's welcome the author of She's Not the Man I Married as well as My Husband Betty. It is a pleasure for me to introduce to you someone I've known since we were together in college. We weren't friends or anything, but we definitely crossed. And it's amazing that she's here-- Helen Boyd.
HELEN BOYD: I'm not reading anything from my published work because I've been working on 18 projects at once like you do during long winters. I live in Wisconsin, which gives us far too much time to think and too much time to drink. So I just wanted to read a couple of short pieces. Because one of the books is basically a kind of meditation on masculinity. It's called Men I Have Known.
"He must have been shopping for my mother's Christmas present except that I don't remember it was actually Christmas. That is the only thing that might explain why my father was shopping with me only and why it was so crowded at TSS that night. There was a rush of human beings around us and I was the kind of small that I saw humanity as an army of knees and legs and belts and hands. I was double stepping to keep up with him. I clung to his hand like a prehensile kite, light as nothing and skipping and running because he was in a hurry, which meant he wasn't as happy as he could be.
When he was happy, my father moved at a leisurely pace. And when he was really happy, he didn't move much at all. I was the youngest and easy to convince to go anywhere. My dad and I spent most of the time we spent together driving. By the time I was a teenager, it was a break for both of us from our mess of a family. I don't remember us ever talking much about anything. Mostly we listened to music.
And I'm sure he regretted the day I was old enough to insist we not listen to the old people station he preferred. He put up with new wave even when he mocked it. He called Slip [? Disk, ?] my favorite record store, broken back. He thought it was funny. But he got his turn, too. He was so pleased with himself for working out how crude The Cramp's "Kiss My Ass" was because it gave him a reason to put Benny Goodman back on.
He was being a responsible parent after all. I remember it being really, really laid out that night, but I bet it wasn't. In the whoosh of people coming and going through the revolving doors, I lost his hand for a second and then reattached myself, a homo sapien's grasping instinctually. But I picked the wrong hand or the hand of the wrong man, a man who wasn't my father. I didn't notice I just kept up my skipping and walking, skipping and walking, walking and skipping, until I saw my father approaching me.
Only then did I wonder whose hand I was holding and how he was holding it for so long. Maybe he'd seen my father looking for me before I knew he was missing and brought him to me. I don't know. But I was transferred from the strange man's hand to his. It took all of my hand to grasp only two of his fingers. I have no idea if we bought anything at all that night. And I still don't think it was Christmas. But I can't think of any other reason we would have been shopping just the two of us in a department store past dusk.
It was one of the [INAUDIBLE] boys who took me to the creek to show me the blinded kitten. It wasn't blind from birth. Someone had gouged its eyes. It was stumbling around in a stupor in so much shock and pain, it was silent and didn't even meow for help. It was a hot sun above us, and the creek stank like brine. I ran home and got cat food.
This boy, whoever he was, we'll call him Russell, for now, stayed with the kitten. He tried to feed the kitten after I did. We switched off a few times, but the kitten only staggered in half circles. I don't know why I didn't bring it home. We had pets. I remember thinking I should kill it, but I didn't have the heart and had no idea how. I went home again and told my mother.
Russell came with me. She told me it wouldn't eat, that nature would take care of it. And she was probably right. But I was nine and fearless and compassionate and always [AUDIO OUT] right just the way nine-year-old girls often are. It wasn't there when I got back with the milk. My mom said it had probably drowned itself. The creek smelled like the milk had already gone bad.
'You're the nicest person I've ever met,' Russell offered.
'I didn't help much,' I said.
'You tried,' he encouraged.
And that was when I started to wonder if he'd been the one who'd hurt the kitten. I haven't stopped."
I'm gonna lighten things up and read a little bit something about mourning.
"You don't always make the best decisions in the wake of a death. Sometimes you have sex with someone you'll never have sex with again because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. You might drink too much. Skip that, you drink too much.
You might spend too much money on clothes or dye your hair a new color or get a tattoo. You might decide you're working in the wrong industry altogether and quit your job or move clear across the country. You might sit in your room at 3:00 AM and watch Deep Space Nine for four hours solid. You might wonder about that guy you dumped 15 years ago and wonder, too, how it was you managed to keep sleeping with him despite your inability to agree with him about anything at all and realize that you probably haven't had that much sex since then. Well, maybe.
You might surprise yourself by spending an hour digging out your middle school yearbook, only to remember that when your shoulder deep in boxes sitting half in and half out of your closet that you lost that yearbook years ago. You might wonder if your mom got buried with that ring she found that she was convinced he'd bought her for Christmas but that you were convinced he bought for their sixtieth anniversary, which he didn't make it to. You wonder whether or not you will be younger or older than your mother when she gave up living. You wonder how it is she didn't remember the entire year after her husband died.
And you wonder if you'll remember this year that's now ending. You are pretty sure you don't want to. You stop dead in the street when you see a cardinal in the tree. You try to remember what that means and in what culture it means it. It's a sign that your loved one is nearby. But is that in some symbolic sense? Or is the cardinal supposed to be some reincarnated version? Are cardinals always representatives of dead people or are they just birds sometimes?
Because I live where they live, so I'm either being plagued by dead people or it's just spring. You eat whatever you feel like eating. A muffin for dinner seems reasonable. A turkey pot pie for breakfast is also reasonable. You work out in a regimented and unenthusiastic way, but discover after four weeks that you can actually do 100 push-ups, that it worked, but you don't really care or feel any sense of accomplishment.
You feel disposable. You wonder when someone tells you that you look beautiful whether or not they can tell that you're also dead inside or if being dead inside is part of what makes you beautiful. You remember every disappointment, every betrayal, every loss from a death reminds you of 15 other kinds of losses. You save muffin wrappers for your old cat who has discovered an inexplicable joy of muffin wrapper licking.
You drink too much. You wonder if you think about your mom being dead too much, enough, or not enough. You wonder if you have unresolved feelings about her even though you've spent most of your life realizing unresolved feelings for her. You think about the joy on her face when she gave you your first bike. You wonder if that guidance counselor who asked your mother if you were in a cult because you were wearing African-mask earrings is still asking parents stupid shit like that.
Your mother bought you the earrings, of course. You wonder if you will ever stop feeling sad. You wonder if the friends who were there for you are there because they like you or because they kind of feel sorry for you. You wonder if now with both parents dead, there's some astonishing reality about yourself you are about to uncover. You hope there is. You hope there isn't.
You think about calling or emailing someone who really let you down to give them what for. You wake up as if from a trance after watching 20 minutes of goat videos. You do not feel better, but you are sure you like goats. You wonder if your cats can tell when the dead are visiting and simply choose not to notice them or inform you that they're present. Occasionally, you are certain that they can see the ghost of a loved one right behind your head because they are obviously staring at something that is just to the left of your right ear.
You assume that other people maybe don't have as much sexual regret in their lives or that they have a lot more or that for some people sadness doesn't mean reexamining your sexual orientation, your sexual choices, or excoriating yourself for not sleeping with that very cute woman when you could have. She wanted you. You were scared she wanted a girlfriend. You couldn't be her girlfriend so you didn't sleep with her. But you wonder if you should have anyway and whether you should really stop considering every last ethical ramification of every possible flirtation, crush, or love affair you've ever had.
You wonder if there is anyone in the world who might understand how it feels to hear your mom's voice on your voicemail still, her beautiful sing-songy way of talking, the message she left you only a week or so before she died. You are still amazed at how much she radiated happiness on the phone even when she wasn't. And hell, when you were a kid, she could go from screaming about what a mess this place is to answering the phone with the joy and melody of a bluebird as if she'd become a different person in that split second.
You realize you will never hear her say anything new to you. You wonder if anyone knows that you've kept your hair blue for a year because it was the last color she saw it. No one would have noticed if you'd worn black every day. You know she would appreciate you taking the time to live out this Catholic rite, even if it was with blue hair and not black clothes.
You wonder if you remember the rosary and if it really would make you feel any better if she insisted it did your entire life. Your grandmother did too, and you wonder how long she's been dead, because once you're mourning your parents, every kind of ghost of your life pays a short visit at least once. You don't even bother to try to find the rosary. Here is the blanket my grandma crocheted. Here are my mom's pajamas I wore. Here is my father's sweater, which is still surprisingly cooler than almost every sweater I own.
You take a lot of baths, so you forget to bathe for days at a time. If you realize it's only been three days, you decide you can wait another day. You come to the same conclusion the next day because memory is no longer your strong suit. And you walk around on a lot of Wednesdays thinking it's Tuesday and vise versa.
You become certain that taking a probiotic, vitamin C, Valerian, fish oil, whatever has really made a difference in your health. You say "I hate children" with a hint of rage, even though you don't actually mean it and regret it for weeks and wonder if you should explain that you don't really hate them to the person you said it to or if that would be protesting too much. It's not really children anyway. It's how sticky they are and how the world revolves around them that you hate.
You decide to explain what mourning is like to that person who you told you hated children to so that maybe they understand and you add a smiley face to the email as if that will make you seem less crazy, but the opposite is probably true. You wonder again about unresolved issues. You can't seem to fake a smile or even work up the energy for anger, your most stalwart companion. You feel mean and unapologetically so, except the next day when you wish you could be a nicer, more upbeat sort of person.
You realize no one wants to have sex with a sad person, not even you. You drink too much. You wonder why so many people like Klingons so much when they're really just patriarchal. Robin Williams was once told that coke makes you more like yourself, and so he asked, but what if you're an asshole? Mourning is the same as coke.
I still don't know how to do this, to live in a world where the woman with the brightest voice and the brightest smile who is fearful in a way that made her so old and yet gave you a glimpse into how she must have been when she was seven is dead. I am still in that room with her sitting and holding hands with her, the TV on or off, the trees and flowers blooming outside as she lay dying in the spring.
She loved spring so much, but the sun on her face almost hurt her in the end and the cool breeze was an affront that no sweater could ameliorate. She was already in mourning the whole time I was waiting to be. I am pretty sure I don't know how to do this and probably never will. I am also sure I will be doing this for the rest of my life in one way or another."
OK, last bit, finally some gender, or more gender.
"I've recently been reading Lou Sullivan's biography, which I highly recommend. And I'm having trouble with it because some of it cuts too close to the bone for me. I'm not sure how he came to understand he was a gay man when there was little or no awareness of either gay men or trans men, but he did. And I'm astonished by that.
I've been hanging out on the edges of gender dysphoria my whole life, but never really named it that. Gender queer, gender neutral, gender fuck, these were the words I started using to talk about myself back in 1985. There's a photo of me in boy drag from when I was 16 and found out I would have been named Doug had I been assigned male at birth. My nickname in high school was "The Gentleman," not because of my class, but because I opened doors and took care of women in ways that more closely resembled gentle masculinity than anything else.
I feel sexiest when I feel like Rufus Wainwright. Feminine forms of sexy have never ever appealed to me, not when I was skinny, not when I was fat, not when I was an hourglass. I've spent a lifetime trying to make curves straight lines with little success. Only now that I'm older and lose muscle mass at an alarming rate have my jeans started to fit my hips in ways I don't hate.
I have always resisted identifying as trans, maybe because I grew up raised by second wave feminists who wanted to get rid of gender for good and feminist reasons. Maybe because I grew up in an era of trans activism where people who needed medical and legal intervention really, really, really needed the healthcare industry and legal precedents to be recognized in order for them to be people at all. Priorities, you know?
Maybe it's because I was just new wave and everyone had a complicated gender in the 1980s because as a culture we'd made room for them. A very pretty, very feminine, foul mouthed and slightly drunk friend greeted me recently with, "Helen, you Boy George son of a bitch." And I took it as a reprimand about both my style and my gender and later thought, well, fuck yeah, I am the same gender as Boy George, just really from the other direction.
In a nutshell, it's hard to say. I look at the mix of internal feelings that make me unhappy about my gender and I look at the forces from the external world that make me unhappy with my gender and I wonder if that makes a difference at all. Who really cares? We're born this way [INAUDIBLE] to become this way. But the one thing I can tell you is that my gender has always been a goddamn problem.
I have never understood how to dress or to sit or how to be. And even as a child, I'd be going along swimmingly playing with my Barbies and adoring an occasional dress or keeping a pair of white jeans extraordinarily clean. And then yet I do or say something or be something that would cause that look on adults faces and I would know I had transgressed. I have spent a lifetime having people tell me I'm feminine when I say something about my masculinity and a lifetime having people remind me of my masculinity when I was trying to make peace with being a woman.
I've had to explain to the men that I dig that I'm not a lesbian, that queer means something else altogether. A friend spent years introducing me as the straight girl who made her gay and I really was that at the time. Gender identity and sexuality are different things, folks, and some of us in this room have known that for years, but goddamn I wish the world would catch up. I don't know why it took Lou Sullivan to shake this out of me. I have always been worried about it in fits and starts.
And I have often said that once you meet a trans partner, you only have to scratch the surface to find out they've also got gender in big ways. Sometimes just a lot of it, sometimes not enough of it, sometimes just a queer gender, but almost always partners of trans people have their own complicated relationship with gender. Of course, we all do in one way or another, whether we seek to confirm what they told us to be or to subvert it. But living around and with and, honestly, for trans people brings a whole new level to the way you live in the world.
I've been reluctant. Auntie Kate told me I was trans a long time ago on a day when I helped her carry her luggage for an event in Brooklyn. She took a photo of me with her phone and told me to look at it. I felt unseen, over interpreted, not me. But she kept saying it, kept loving me for this masculinity of mine. And maybe it's the diminishing returns of estrogen in my system as I approach menopause, but now I may finally be ready to admit it.
I like myself most when I look like a well-dressed, over-read, overwrought middle-aged dyke who will tell you what for. I'm still in the process of becoming that. And let me tell you, being this person as someone who dates men for the most part is a pain in my ass and it always has been. I became an ally in public which was both humiliating when it wasn't horrible. But I never could have been just an ally, not when my wife and I first met. I was more than thrilled to cross dress and to cross gender, to transgender as we used to say.
And it was, in some ways, my wife's abandonment of the liminal areas of gender that left me feeling alone in my marriage. Her transition, you could say, but more so her move away from the borderlands and back to binary identity. Not long ago, a photographer who didn't know us or our story came to take a photo of us for a thing. He looked at us closely trying to assess who was the trans one, a phenomenon we're both used to and don't interfere with, and then made his decision by asking my wife how long it took her to get used to having a gender queer partner.
We thought a little about not correcting him because we're dicks like that. But we knew the folks doing the project would have been mad at us. They wanted a trans woman and her loving wife, which, yeah, we are that, too. Sometimes we're still that when people assume I'm the trans woman. Rachel, I can tell you, is a shitty ally to the trans community in comparison being as she is conflicted with being trans in the first place.
I will continue to insist that I am not trans. I don't know what I am. I use these words that attempt to suggest what I might be, genderqueer, non-binary, gender neutral, 'a bad man,' to borrow from Ursula Le Guin. But I will leave the word itself to you all who find yourselves in it. I still don't. But you know, fuck gender. Fuck it right in the ear."
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Now, Helen and I were at City College at the same time that Bell Hooks and Michelle Wallace were teaching there. So it was a big block. And that's the block that Helen would hang out with. And I was always afraid. Because I'm writing all these macho stories of Spanish Harlem. And once in a while, Helen would say what are you writing? And I would say, grocery lists. Anyway, true. Let's welcome Ely Shipley.
ELY SHIPLEY: OK, I'm going to read a bit of this new book that just came out, Some Animal. And the piece I'm going to read is called "On Beards." And it's the last section. And just to give you a sense of it, the form is sort of collage. There's poems. So there are parts that are broken into lines. And then there are parts that are prose. It's very hybrid.
And in addition to that, it's memoir as well as there's queer theory in here. There's history, anthropology, in particular, medical anthropology, pop culture, documentary, letters from therapists, and some canonical poets like Chaucer and Alan Ginsberg make appearances. So I'm going to start "On Beards" with a quote from Judith Butler. And this is from Undoing Gender.
"FTM candidates actually practice the narrative of gender essentialism they're required to perform before they go in to see the doctors. The price of using the diagnosis to get what one wants, one cannot use language to say what one really thinks is true."
"One pays for one's freedom as it were, by sacrificing one's claim to use language truthfully. Ancient Egyptians and Romans let their beards and hair grow out when grieving. Conversely, Greeks shaved and cut theirs. This may have evolved into the ritual of 18th-century English widows covering or even cutting their hair after her husband's death.
When she becomes he, people are confused, some are even angry. For example, his girlfriend's mother gets so flustered one day, she-- I mean, he-- oh, she begins to call him 'it." He's been called 'it' before. In 7th grade, first period math, she slumps forward in her seat, hides behind the hair she's been growing. It's a tent that whispers against the back of her thighs when she walks.
The teacher never calls on her. She never raises her hand. She is safe. No one ever asked Cousin It, what are you a boy or a girl? She's reluctant to change [AUDIO OUT] gym clothes. Most days she sneaks into the stall to change, even though it's forbidden. The coaches linger at the edge of the bathroom, watch for shorts sliding down over sneakers pooling on the floor. On the toilet seat, she balances carefully, a circus act for an acrobat, a bearded lady.
A portrait reveals 18-year-old Annie Jones, one of PT Barnum's bearded ladies, hair pulled back and tied by a black ribbon. Her face is fully exposed, though more than half of it is covered by her enormous beard and thick, dark eyebrows. She wears a long fur coat that reaches her knees where a dress adorned with large flowers flares out then ends at the bottom, a ruffle along the seam.
The fur coat looks less like fur and more like the long wavy tresses of a mane, an extension of her hair and beard. She's nearly completely covered in hair except for her shadowy eyes which look to her side into the distance. The field of her flowery dress. Her thin fingers rest delicately together over a long piece of fabric broadening out from behind her.
Hair does not continue to grow after death. Tissues around it, especially on the face, contract and expose it giving the dead their five o'clock shadow. We're painting pictures. When I draw, I'm in another world. Painting is different. The watercolors move out of my control.
I've already dripped a fat black drop onto my self-portrait. I begin to move the brush along the jaw line in the papery mirror. I spread the thick mistake into a beard. Mrs. [? Hertz ?] passes my table and pauses.
'Oh, look, how wonderful. That must be Abraham Lincoln. Is that Abraham Lincoln? Look, children, blank is painting one of our most important presidents.'
I'm the shyest student in my class. I never speak. The kids will laugh. But I like the way my face looks out at me through its beard. I keep my eyes on my face, nod my head, and begin to paint a long line across its forehead. A dark, cloudy frown will become a stove top hat. He will need more than a beard if he's really going to be Abraham Lincoln. A few weeks later at open house, my parents and I arrived to find Abraham Lincoln wearing a long and shiny blue ribbon.
He's won first prize for the annual district contest. Everyone is smiling except Abraham Lincoln. I look at him, he stares through me. Axis IV, problems related to the social environment, difficulty being accepted in social environment due to incongruence between expressing masculinity and lack of masculine physical attributes. And that's from a letter from a therapist to an endocrinologist and sex reassignment surgeon in accordance with the Harry Benjamin standards of care in the DSM-IV.
And this is from the Greek saying. There are two kinds of people in this world that go around beardless-- boys and women. I am neither one. In gay slang, the word "beard" is used to describe a woman who is a cover for a gay man's orientation. She, the beard, is used to hide his identity by accompanying him in public so that he might pass for straight. Beards were often worn as a form of protection.
A parallel word, though used less commonly, to describe a man who appears in society as a cover for a lesbian is not a beard, but a merkin. And this is from the Oxford English Dictionary, 'an artificial covering of hair for the female pubic region, a pubic wig for women, also an artificial vagina.' Merkin is also slang for female genitals. It is said that a merkin was originally worn by prostitutes who had to shave their pubic hair when they contracted a disease.
He visits a gynecologist before his hysterectomy, a procedure trans men are advised to have within the first few years of hormone replacement therapy because they're at a heightened risk for cancer in the female reproductive organs. The doctor points at his pelvis, says don't worry, won't have to shave all that hair, then asks if he wants to see his cervix, tells him, take a look, it's really cool. It's like you have a penis, a big swollen penis head.
He looks up and watches the bulbous organ, which seems to float inside the watery black TV suspended over him and magnifying everything. It is a planet in a grade school science fair planetarium. Jupiter angled up as if to breathe. It is a pinkish whale arcing its blowhole out from under the viscous water. He reminds himself to breathe so that he will not pass out.
'Farewell with your old dress and a long black beard around the vagina.'
That's from Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish."
"My mom and I sit on the couch and look at old family photos. In one, I am sitting on Santa's lap. I wear a faux fur coat. It is striped black and white. I am something polar bear and the zebra under pigtails. I'm crying.
What did I look out and see? A flash of white light, a spotlight, lighthouse beam crossing over a drowned body. And after, a ghost, some dream, a thin trace of lightning. Santa's eyes enlarge over his beard. They are brown, his lashes thick and long, his eyebrows thin, black pencil blinds, face, smooth and slight.
His beard is not a part of it. His beard is a white mask, a shroud. His hands, cold, gloved, a surgeon's. Even though you were so young, my mom says, I think you could tell something wasn't right. And finally she says, that Santa was really a woman."
So that's, again, excerpts from a longer piece. It kind of works in this way of accumulation. It sort of accrues meaning as you go. It's hard to excerpt from. So that's just one sort of thread. And I wanted to share with you also a kind of newish poem just to give you a taste of the other kind of style I write in. And this poem, the title is a Sanskrit word "kosha," which roughly means "layers of self."
I think there are five different koshas. There's the sort of gross body, like the material body, and then there's the energy body, and so on. And I like the Sanskrit word kosha so much better than just saying sheaths of self because it doesn't have the same ring. And it's kind of reductive.
"Steam light across a field flowering a sun. At the horizon, our arms silhouette. Stocks of long grass folding. The hair of a girl child gone somewhere now to make spiders' webs or birds' nests. A thin willow branch braids down my back. Once I was a stone, no mouth, no eyes.
I bent over to pick a yellow leaf from the ground. I knew one day I would die alone. With it I covered my mouth. I covered my mouth to cough even when alone. Always polite to gods in disguise. I held doors open and looked beggars in the eyes. I watched kites float just there over a shore, let snow melt into my open mouth, let it burn along my nerves.
I bent my skeleton from side to side to music. I clothed my skeleton in a single teal scarf, held the hand of another. Poured bourbon into a teacup, a blue pasture painted around its rim, a candle between thumb and forefinger doused. Walked dogs through city night insomnia. Watered young vegetables in my father's garden. Picked a tick from my dog's neck. Held a crying infant to my chest.
A lover, an orgasm, palms to my chest. Made brand. Washed a lover's hair. Brushed a lover's hair. Braided a lover's hair. Combed the forest floor for a familiar face in pools of rain. Read tarot to tables of strangers. Sliced bread. Grew tired in the afternoon. Napped like a dog at the feet of a mistress who read in bed. And from a can, ate sardines.
Imagine my thin skeleton encased in slick skin sliding down the length of her body. Pressed my fevered cheek against the cool window of a store front church. Remembered ice skating a frozen stream and whispered the names of the ones I beg forgiveness from and one I long to forgive."
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Thanks, Ely. I'd like to invite Joshua Cole, PhD candidate from performing arts to the panel as well as our very own Masha Raskolnikov, Associate Professor of English. This would be a panel of questions and answers. And in about 15, 20 minutes, they'll open it up to the audience for questions.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: So what a pleasure to have you joining us here [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you so much. And thank you for coming back. I wanted to introduce myself just a little bit. I am Masha Raskolnikov. I teach in the English department. I teach Chaucer. I was teaching Chaucer today. I was hoping to read something from what do you did with Chaucer. I want to know.
But I also teach classes that are [INAUDIBLE] classes on trans literature. I am a cis lesbian. There's no particularly good reason why I am the main person that teaches trans literature on this campus. But it should really, really hire some trans people. But that is the case. I started out teaching a general trans lit class. And then I realized that that is too much literature.
And so then I taught a class just on femininity because I was wanting to [? center ?] the work on trans femmes. So that's my background. And I'm also now the editor of a volume with two friends called "Trans Before Trans," where what we do is look at literature before 1800, which is usually the starting point when I talk about trans stuff. But we look at the literature before 1800 to see how transgender and genderqueer bodies and lives were represented. That's sort of what I'm here for. I might ask questions of the panelists, but [? I'll have ?] Cole introduce himself first.
JOSHUA COLE: Hello, I'm Joshua Cole. I'm a third-year PhD student in the department of Performing and Media Arts. I mostly work on cinema, particularly science fiction cinema and its potential overlaps with trans cinema. Oh, yeah, I was introduced as a candidate. I'm not quite a candidate yet, but on the way there. I don't want to take too much time. Do you want to start with questions from here? Do you want to go first?
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: Well, OK. So I wanted to-- Here's the thing, we're gathered here [INAUDIBLE] at Cornell University with some really lovely writers. And I want them to talk about their craft. Because I don't think that there is necessarily any trans-specific thing that we could track between these three layers. And I actually really don't want to do that. I think that would be wrong.
That said, I want to talk a little bit about the political crisis that we find ourselves in today. And I want to see if these writers from their different vantage points and their different ways are finding their writing being changed by the intense sense of threat that we all feel, but that are particularly happening to trans communities. I know I just met someone who did not remember this already.
But you might remember that in November of this year, the Centers for Disease Control scientists were given a list of seven words that they would no longer use in applications patients for funding if they hoped to get funding as part of the CDC. Those words included the word "transgender." They also included the word "vulnerable." And the forbidding of those very words haunts me every day. So I just thought I'd turn the microphone over. Y'all want to go?
ELY SHIPLEY: I think the first thing when you started that question that struck me was just how overwhelmed and depressing, but also how urgent. And I think, you know, for as shitty and difficult as it's been to be a queer trans person in the world, on a good day, I feel very grateful. Because I think that I have a perspective that maybe, I wouldn't say, yeah, most people don't have. Or if they have it, they don't realize it.
Because we're all gendered people. And we all are limited even by our gender or the kind of expectations of that. So the first thing that occurred to me was just that I think that writing, in particular, writing poems has saved my life. I mean, I think I kind of wonder like if I hadn't been born a queer trans person, if I would even write poems.
And so I think that because of the current sort of political situation, it's just, for me, kind of turned the volume up on the urgency to do my writing practice as a way of surviving, as a way of praying, and, I think, as a way of continuing to heal and to connect with other people who are experiencing the same vulnerability and threat. And so yeah, that's what occurs to me, just the urgency, and maybe that kind of why bother with doing this anyway. And it is really about the practice of writing for me that my survival is really tied up in.
RYKA AOKI: So a lot of times when I'm writing, I write for two people. I write for me, and then I write for the person who needs my work. I don't know who that person is. I don't know where they live. I don't even know if they're alive yet. But I think that books came to me and saved my life. I don't think the author ever knew that I depended on them. And I want to return the favor.
One thing about being transgender is that there's an immediacy to your work. People have come up to me, and we were talking, have come up and said your book saved my life. That poem was the only thing in the world that spoke to me at a given time. It's hard to hear that and not take your craft seriously. But it also does change the way you work with your audience. I remember in poetry workshop here we were talking about how Langston Hughes changed his metaphors, changed the way he worked to better connect with his audience when he was barnstorming.
And I spent a lot of my early writing before the books were out barnstorming around the country. To a point, I still do. And sometimes the choice of wording I use, the choice of metaphor I use, maybe the choice of forum I might use, the cadence might reflect the audience that I'm speaking towards. It's not a dumbing down. What it is, it's a refining of my work to better reach the voice of the people that I care about.
One thing as a writer that we can do is that I think as poets, I think we spend a lot of time thinking about the deeper meaning of circumstance as it comes to us. So when it does come time for us to speak, I don't know, speaking for myself, everyone here, we're all kind of basically introverts. We don't, you know, it sounds like we say a lot. We've got books.
But we don't pretend to say anything until we've thought it through. And so when we're working and when we write, a lot of times in an environment where people are flashing and tweeting and doing all these off-the-cuff reactions, even people who are fighting for, say, human rights, trans rights, a lot of times they'll miss some of the nuance. So sometimes as a writer, I feel in some ways I'm a recorder, an articulator, and in some ways even a record keeper of some of the deeper issues that might be affecting us as we go through. So maybe some of the connections don't get lost in the swath of tweets or reactions or, you know, thumbs ups or likes or dislikes.
HELEN BOYD: Interesting point of comparison. I've been blogging for a very long time. And I think, in some ways, almost the opposite, is that I feel like one of the responsibilities I have in working with students, I teach at Lawrence University up in Wisconsin, but also with the people who I know to be my readers, it's been a very long time since the first book, I have to respond immediately when things happen politically and try to kind of address an issue, not maybe as quickly as I possibly can, but in some ways that allows people to know that very specific people can hear them.
I think sometimes when I watch, especially with my wife, you know, the news about things like the numerous bathroom bills were proposed. She is a funny, confident, extrovert actor of a person, like unbelievable. Exhausting to be with, really, for 10 minutes. I'm not sure how we got married. But incredible and amazing and bright and brings so much light into other people's lives.
And when I watch her go quiet-- you know, it's nothing horrible has happened, just the news, the news, the news, the news. Because she's a news junkie. I feel like I have to go, when I see that happen in my own home, I think, oh my god, how many other people? I always like to say the trans community, for me, is that whole X-Men thing, you know, you need the special helmet to know where everybody is and to bring it together.
But for me it's like I want to get that message out immediately to kind of go, yeah, I'm reading the news, too. I know you're out there. The person who just decided to transition, the person who's been transitioned for 30 years, the cross dresser, the 10-year-old, the whatever, like, you're out there. If I can get a message out that gets spread, then maybe I'm doing that much good in this political climate. But you do sacrifice some of the thoughtfulness of writing as a result, yeah.
JOSHUA COLE: Actually, I think that leads into what I was going to ask really nicely. Because I had some questions about language, but also audience. And all of your points are bringing those together. And I also wanted to thank Ernesto for opening with "The Origin of Love," which was based on Plato's Symposium. Because there's this word that Heidegger has used. And it comes from the Greek "poiesis."
And it means bringing forth something from inside itself, right, it's bringing something into appearance. And this word poiesis, the word itself has shown up in trans discourse quite significantly, actually. It gets translated into things like self organizing, self creating, self making. And I'm starting to wonder if poiesis is a kind of trans poetics, a kind of language, an embodied knowledge that turns into a language that trans people are fluent in and can understand, even if we aren't poets or authors. But we understand it and recognize it when we hear it.
And so my question is, how much, as authors, as poets, as memoirists, how much attention do you give to the idea of translation or, you know, time spent concerned about legibility to the audience beyond the trans reader. And how much do you even care? I mean, just to be blunt. It doesn't need to be legible.
And yet, maybe, it does because illegibility is directly tied to [? trans ?] stuff. But do we use these creative spaces to speak to each other, send out invitations to be received, phone calls waiting to be answered, right? And I do think translation in various iterations has come up in all of your work. And I love for you to speak on those ideas.
RYKA AOKI: I think that one of the-- and I'm just going to speak to this program-- one of the benefits that I've received from coming through these halls, coming through Goldwin Smith is, if, for nothing else, one thing I learned here was craft. One thing I learned here was how to make a poem stand up. How to make a poem, you know, how the lines worked, how everything worked.
I do martial arts as well. And, you know, I've done martial arts all my life. In fact, I used to teach judo at [INAUDIBLE]. And you get to a point in your work where no matter what you do, it makes sense because you've been practicing so long. It looks like natural work, but it's actually the product of repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.
And even when I left the program, I continued to work as a writer so I can free myself up and not worry about legibility. Because I've spent so much practice time being legible. This just works for me. It's different for other people. But I've always kind of come through this, maybe with martial arts, that you practice so the crafted approach, the improbable approach, actually becomes instinct.
And then from there, it becomes a valuable tool. You know, you practice these forms until you can work with an unforeseen circumstance. And it looks like you're just acting off the cuff, but you have learned how to respond artfully. And in the same way, I think that one thing that I'm really grateful, this program, is, it made me work. And so when I speak with words and I respond to things there's a certain amount of art to it now that I can't say I take for granted. I continue to nurture it. But it is something that, well, anyway, something that I'm very grateful for.
HELEN BOYD: Yeah, I was just thinking, I often describe myself more as a translator than as a writer, at least in terms of the gender books or as somebody who writes memoir or creative nonfiction, but reads an awful lot of gender theory. Because when I really first started working with people in the trans community, it was mostly with cross dressers. And I'm working class myself. And so communicating with people who had no access to theory, to higher ed, to basically this theory that had been around that was liberatory for them, they were still living in really narrow gender roles.
And the suffering, right? I mean, for me it was a point of compassion to just go, you know, here's Bell Hooks, here's Butler, but let me translate effectively. And doing that, for me, like the art form is doing that without dumbing it down, which is hard to do. But I feel like that was really the most important or pivotal thing for me was that I also have to say as a working-class person, never really felt like I had permission to write for my own self or my own satisfaction. And so working out the activism with the writing became its own kind of form of art, if that makes any sense.
ELY SHIPLEY: In terms of like who I am-- I love that idea from Heidegger, by the way. I wasn't familiar with that. And that's very, very helpful, actually. Yeah, but in terms of audience, I think, for me, writing has been a way to articulate myself from a place of not knowing maybe with words, like having a sense of who I am, but something needing to externalize this way of kind of thinking aloud or being more in a physical realm.
Because I think as a young person, as a queer gender ambiguous, I think just feeling safe in my body in a day to day experiential way was-- well, I don't think I did. I mean, and that's something I'm still working on. And so I think writing has been a way to do that for myself. One of my great poetry teachers Donald Revell used to say, "don't write to be understood, but to understand."
And I thought, yeah, of course, this cis, straight, white dude is saying this and whatever. But on the other hand, I feel like there's something that resonated with that because that has been my experience, to kind of understand myself. And then I think to trust the work and to trust that the more honest I can be in that way, someone is going to be able to connect or relate with it in the same way that I was.
I always think about one of the first books I really connected with as a young person when I was in junior high or something was a Black Boy by Richard Wright. And to think that I was this white assigned female at birth kid, you know, in the '90s who was relating to this Black Boy, like pre civil rights era kind of novel. It's been a long time since I've read it. But I just remember being like, oh, I understand something about this being othered or being marginalized in this way.
There's something really magical about literature and art that allows us to kind of have that sort of recognition. And so I think now, in terms of writing, I feel like the more work I can do to make myself legible to myself, you know, to be able to recognize a sense of self that does in some kind of, again, external way. And I think when the writing is really working for me, usually it feels like it's always been there.
Like I'm not really writing. I'm just kind of uncovering something that's already there and sort of trusting that process. And then, yeah, it seems inevitable that people are going to connect or get those emails or someone will come up to us with this kind of relating in the same way that I related to some of the other writers that have inspired and influenced me.
RYKA AOKI: I just wanted to add one thing, too. It's weird how writing connects with people. Like for example, in my novel, I have a character who is an amputee. And I have been interviewed by Easterseals to talk about writing characters that are otherly abled. I mean, I suffer from chronic pain, but that's not a visible disability.
So I think that when we're starting to think about our audience, we have to understand that we might be speaking to a trans audience, but other people might be translating transness into other things and have it develop a sort of ownership with that work. I mean, I'm going to be speaking this November in front of a Buddhist conference because the Buddhist seem to dig my stuff. Maybe being Asian had something to do with it. But, you know, there it is.
But also the other thing, though, just talking about audience, is that in our communities, there's this urge, it seems, to canonize and to think this person is a celebrity or this person is a hero. And even here, I've got people who say, you know, your work is blah, blah, blah. And what I want to do is I never want my work to squelch the development of another writer. It's like, you know, sure, I'm writing great, but you're probably going to write a story down the road that's going to say something even better or say something differently.
So I think that one of the responsibilities that I found is that not simply to exist as a writer, but to understand that I function as a guide, as a teacher, as somebody who is maybe a little older than you, but, you know, let's keep going. The water is warm. We want more people to be writing. So one does find this in the community where people are looking for heroes. And you've kind of got to step down from that pedestal and say, I'll accept older. I'll accept maybe a little bit of a guide. But there's nothing here that I do that if you have the talent and you have the perseverance, that you can't also do.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: Hey, audience, would you like to ask our speakers some questions?
AUDIENCE: I'd like to bring the discussion around to publishing. As far as writing about transgender individuals or writing for the transgender community, do you find that the publishing community and the audiences, which are two different things, both the publishing community and the audiences are more open to reading about this sort of thing? Or is there still this hesitancy or I want to read about that sort of thing? How do you feel those waters are?
HELEN BOYD: We're still fashionable like every couple of years I'd argue.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: Do you want the mic?
HELEN BOYD: No, I'm loud. The idea that there is a consideration is still frustrating to me. Because I feel like it's still-- if it's not sort of a fetishized identity at any given moment in time or there isn't, you know, a Jenner or somebody out there right doing stuff, then there's not as much interest. And that's still very frustrating to me. Because I think they're amazing.
Like, I got into the mix at a time when it was so difficult to get anyone to listen to you about transness. I mean, 2003, my first book, we were doing research for the subtitles. And we couldn't use the word transgender because not enough people knew it. And so trying to get people a sense of how fast this has been, how quickly things have changed in terms of the language, in terms of an identity.
But it's also because there's like [AUDIO OUT] book is published in 2004. And then it's four years before anything else does. And now it's starting to speed up. But really when I started, I pretty much read everything that was written. And I can't read everything that was written in three weeks anymore. So that's awesome. But there's still more needed.
ELY SHIPLEY: Yeah, actually, I'm teaching a class right now on trans and genderqueer poetry. And I'm using this really great anthology edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson called Troubling the Line. And just thinking about, that was published in 2012. And my first book came out in 2008. But I remember, maybe, the first interview I had someone asking me about what trans writers had influenced me or, specifically, trans poets. And I literally didn't know a single one.
And I think I knew of Hilda Raz whose son is trans. And she has a book called Trans. And so that was kind of on my radar. I mean, of course, there were trans poets. And but only since that-- for me anyway-- since that anthology came out, this whole world has kind of opened up. But I think it's a really interesting thing to think about like the timing, like, what time was, you know-- I don't want to say right-- but when maybe a more general kind of public was able to, yeah, even know the word transgender.
And, you know, thank god for TC and Trace because they did this amazing work. And now it's the same. Like, there's just so many trans poets. And I can't keep up. I'm trying to. But it's really interesting how publishing and especially anthologies, which are problematic, I think, fundamentally, but how they're so necessary, too, to kind of open up that conversation, just kind of as an archive, even, to put things on the map. Yeah, but it is a different time just even 10 years ago, from 10 years ago.
RYKA AOKI: I mean, just a couple of years ago, we were fighting-- this is Lambda Literary, which is supposed to be the LGBT literary organization. There was no poetry category for transgender poetry. So we actually had to do a lot of fighting to get that in. This year, I was one of the judges for the transgender poetry category for the Lambda Awards.
And what I saw in terms of the small presses that were making things, it was really exciting. Yeah, some of the work was extremely, extremely strong. It was varied. It was playing with form and genre. Some of it was incredibly formalist. Some of it was just way out there. And, you know, it was exciting.
So I think publishers as well as writers, there was a move towards queer publishing. As much as, you know, there were writers saying, I need to get my poem published, there were also publishers saying, I need to get these poems published. There's queer distribution. There are queer distributors. There's queer presses out there. So the work is beginning to get out, and it's beginning to get recognized.
And I think that anybody right now who is writing somewhere on the margins, talking to all of you, when I was at Cornell, there was this feeling, I don't want to play that card. I want to just do it as a writer. No. Get your damn work in print. Somebody will notice it and things will happen. Like, this first book was actually the owner of a record company who I said, hey, you want to press? I can back the book up.
And right now, my writing was noticed. My next novel is going to be with a pretty darn mainstream publishing house. So, I mean, it happened because this particular book got read by one particular editor from Random House. And so now I've got this.
What I'm saying is, look, you've only got one life. You've only got one writing career. If you're going to play the margins, the margins were shit to you in some ways, play them to your advantage now. Do what you can to get your work in print. And having to be Asian or having to queer, be queer, or being a woman or anything else be damned. Just do it. You will find your readers.
ELY SHIPLEY: I mean, for the most part, there's so much struggle that comes out of all of those identity categories that I think I had the same experience of sort of being like, but I want to be appreciated because, you know, I'm a good writer--
RYKA AOKI: I know. I want to be TS Elliot.
ELY SHIPLEY: --not because I'm trans. Whereas, you know, I didn't choose my subject matter, you know, it chose me. And I do think I see it as a gift now. But, yeah, I mean, I think there's a way to really embrace your subject matter and also be, you know, a good writer, and not just, you know, yeah.
HELEN BOYD: Let's not forget all those white dudes benefited based on their gender and race.
RYKA AOKI: Absolutely.
HELEN BOYD: You're not doing anything different.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: The person in blue.
AUDIENCE: Hello. [? That was ?] amazing. [INAUDIBLE] So I am also trans. I'm also a writer.
over and over and over. And is there a point that you're getting [INAUDIBLE] to this kind of work? [INAUDIBLE] You know, it's kind of maybe exhausting.
So I was wondering if you ever deal with that or how to deal with that? [INAUDIBLE] Do you feel like its too much of a responsibility to write about these kind of issues?
HELEN BOYD: I got advice a long time ago from Jamison Green, who said the same thing, basically. What do you do with like, basically, activist fatigue? And he said, take a break. It seems dumb, but it really was like the most-- I still have that voice in my head every time I'm like I gotta do a thing, I gotta do a thing, I gotta do a thing.
Like, you're not going to get to do everything that you'd like to do. And sometimes taking the energy and time to not just value, but sort of cherish yourself, right, that is a radical act all in its own as someone who is marginalized. And, so, yeah, take the time to do it. You're worth it, you know.
RYKA AOKI: Also, the nice thing right now is, you're not alone. So you know, there are trans writers who write genre fiction, many good ones. You know, just all sorts of things, poetry, fiction. So you don't really have to speak for everybody. Whatever you decide to write, there's probably some person who is trans who thinks, I wish I had seen that. And so they'll follow you.
You don't have to worry about writing for the community. If your work is strong, the community will generate around you. You know, so really, the other thing about it is, it's not boring, the story you're writing over and over and over is the one story you need to write. I still think a lot of times my entire work boils down to one poem that I've not figured out yet. So what I'm saying is just don't worry so much about what people expect.
I mean, it's a hard thing to say, I know, because there's certain people we think that we need to please. But at the end of the day, writing is boring. It hurts your back. It hurts your hands. So you might as well be doing it for something you love. Because it's annoying. Nobody understands you.
So do that and be the first trans writer who writes about x, whatever x is. Or be the one who writes in many different genres. We will follow you if the work is good, and we will exalt you for expanding what it means to be a trans writer. So don't worry. You know, just as much as I can tell you, we need more people and more voices. And don't worry I know how to read I'll find you.
ELY SHIPLEY: Yeah, I was just thinking about my first book of poems Boy with Flowers is very different than the one that was just published. And I think I had a similar sort of feeling like I had written this book that really sort of tracked my kind of self understanding, figuring out that I'm trans and whatever. But the style of the new book is so different. So even though the subject matter is the same, the approach is very different.
And I think, actually, it's much more playful, even though there's seriousness to it. But, you know, like I mentioned, I'm kind of collaging and taking from all these different genres. There's the first piece in there, it has stuff about sleep paralysis and alien abduction and the supernatural. And what else? An LSD trip. You know, and it's all gender stuff, too.
And so I think there are ways to kind of keep it interesting for yourself. And I also think that even when you were reading the piece about your mother's death, I just thought this, you know, you said, OK, back to the gender stuff. But I was thinking, yeah, but with this perspective is a very particular, you know, queer, gender queer point of view that I could, you know-- so there's something about that lens, you know, or the kind of forms that we choose.
Because we're already, I think, interested in, you know, what is embodiment? What is it to be in a trans body or a gender queer body? And, you know, that's really what we're doing when we're writing is we're making these forms. We're making these other bodies to kind of inhabit for a while. And so I think there's a lot of, for me, anyway, there's a big relationship between the form and content kind of question.
But it actually feels sort of-- this is maybe the one way in which like identity doesn't feel limiting, you know, or reductive to be able to write poems. Because then it actually feels like meaning or possibility proliferate rather than sort of shut down.
JOSHUA COLE: I just wanted to jump in, a follow up on the publishing question that sort of ties in with this as well. Maybe [INAUDIBLE] about just the sort of context of the trend in trans literature that, yes, there are a lot of publishing opportunities that are actually pretty recent in that a lot of what proliferated in the past few decades were memoirs. Because that's all that publishers would publish.
And Juliet Jacques has said that. She had other work, but all that publishers were interested in [? were ?] a memoir, a single story. And Ryan Sallans who wrote Second Son, also had done a larger body of work, but the publisher only wanted his personal life story. And that's what got published.
And I know all of you have done autobiographical and biographical material that has maybe expanded or shaped poetically in different ways. I don't know, maybe you can speak about that, sort of movement that was so zeroed in on memoir because of a cis audience desiring it. Yeah.
RYKA AOKI: Well, I mean, just when it [? comes to ?] a memoir, that sort of thing really struck me as very white. Most of the memoirs are written by white folk. And I thought that that's just what they did, you know? And so I never really cared. You know? Just like, I was, so-- the weird thing about [INAUDIBLE] the trans POC experience is quite different in many ways from the white trans experience.
So just that particular, nobody cared about what an Asian would think about this. They wanted some-- There wasn't even a need. So my thinking vis-a-vis this was, you know, yeah. You know, in fact, before that, I didn't even think to be trans because I thought that was just a white thing. You know, when I figured out that I could actually do it, it's like cool. But when I did it, I kind of bypassed all that stuff, because that really had nothing to do with me. And now I look back and say, maybe it did somehow. But I just thought I wanted to give a shout out. POC, different experience.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: Yeah, we're starting to get the cut it off signal. We're wondering if there's one last question that people in the audience might want to ask?
AUDIENCE: This one's for Ely. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
ELY SHIPLEY: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: OK. You mentioned that you're not sure if you write poems if you weren't born queer or trans. I'm wondering if you think that the urge to write poetry or perhaps write, in general, arises necessarily from oppression or the face of oppression. [INAUDIBLE]
ELY SHIPLEY: Yeah, I mean, I can't speak for other folks where that comes from. It's definitely something that I've wondered about for myself for sure. Yeah, it's hard to say. If I hadn't been born the way I am, you know? And I think that there is something about-- I don't want to say all literature, but definitely whatever that sense of outsider or loner, or just there's a kind of theme that has appealed to me that does feel like a pretty common one. I also feel like, though, it's a very human one, you know, to just maybe not feel like you're part of the group or maybe there's like desire or longing to be part of a group. Or I don't know, I wonder if y'all have responses to this.
MASHA RASKOLNIKOV: I feel like there's a really easy segue to let's go upstairs and eat food for free and be part of a group together.
ELY SHIPLEY: That's right. There's a conversation upstairs.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Upstairs at the lounge, we got some books [? they ?] can sign for you. So let's give one last shout out.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University. On the web at cornell.edu.
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Ryka Aoki, Helen Boyd, and Ely Shipley read from their work and discuss trans topics in a panel. Part of the Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series at Cornell University, April 26, 2018.