Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews
when i do not want to say anything about the bridges
or about the land of sweet water where my mother
can not bare the shadows of light fixtures, she
bare the suburban quiet. her neighbor
sets raccoon traps beside the aspen tree,
which has been cut back away from
there is little to say of the ocean which she cannot
feel. i am not always sorry to return.
i imagine myself to the courtyard
of my high school. everyone is named "jodie"
the boys smoke around the flagpole
with their milk cartons and long hair. this is a
town with diners. no ravens,
no hard rains. you wouldn't have liked it
though you wouldn't have known you didn't.
you can not
put your feet in the ocean without
money. you can not learn or breathe without
money. you can not learn or breathe
money-breathe without trains, without
becoming a mistress back in the horse trails
where the cut machines
were sometimes kept.
when you are young
there is no way of telling
yet your father suspects something
about your walk, about the notes you write to his secretary, lori. i love you you say take me to the beach again
you say because you are in fourth grade, because your father is in love with his nurse and not your mother who cannot bear
to ease the dialysis needles in. she cannot bear anger or the color of dusk. there is the waiting for someone else to
die your father says the transplant wasn't much he says the first thing he does with his kidneys is piss
on the operating table he says laughing. and you are laughing too. you are thinking about the tree fort your father
had torn down. you do not think his piss is funny. somewhere someone died you think to save him. when you imagine
somewhere someone died, he is always a good man, someone who shouldn't have you think, though you would never say-just
about your walk: you did not fall in love with the secretary though once you took to smelling her hair and offering your
air to the dry sand between her fingers.
when what is given breaks under
there is little
of christmas i remember. one bicycle. my father's yellow whiskey. no snow, though I am sure there was. outside the long breath
of my father's house, three distinct patches of lawn. on one, my brothers played "keep away" with the soccer ball.
they would not let me touch it. on the two front lawns, we spent autumn stuffing black bags with the oak leaves. i was always
the last one in. the last one dragged the bags to the street. it wasn't so much the being kept away or even the work of
lifting the bags. mostly, it was the loneliness that got to me-the long dark lines of the back shed door.
-these poems appear in the lake has no saint
Waite, a 1999 graduate of Bucknell, received an MFA in poetry in 2002 and a PhD in Composition and Pedagogy in
2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. Waite is currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska
and has published three collections of poems: Choke (winner of the 2004 Frank O'Hara Prize), Love Poem to Androgyny
(winner of the 2006 Main Street Rag Chapbook Competition), and the lake has no saint (winner of the 2008 Snowbound
Prize from Tupelo Press). Waite's poems have been published most recently in The Cream City Review, Interim, and
Black Warrior Review. Waite's first full-length collection, Butch Geography, is forthcoming from Tupelo
Press in 2012. Waite's other honors include an Andrew Mellon Dissertation Fellowship Award, the Elizabeth Baranger Excellence
in Teaching Award, two Pushcart Prize nominations, and a National Society of Arts & Letters Poetry Prize. Waite has also
published essays on the teaching of writing in Writing on the Edge, Reader and Feminist Teacher.
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews
A Mini-Review of
Stacey Waite’s Featured Poems by Assistant-Editor Matthew Huff
The first time I read through these poems I was baffled. Their structure
is unorthodox, the poems offer narrative but only in snippets, the point of view suddenly shifts, and Waite utilizes a stream
of consciousness reminiscent of Benjy’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury. In short, a lot is going
on in these poems, and there is something endearing about the child-like voice of the speaker.
Structurally, these poems share numerous similarities.
To begin, each deploy a type of media res in which the reader is dropped into the narrative of the poem midstride. It’s
disorienting but, at the same time, highly engaging. Each of the poems uses the title as the first line
of the poem, and each title in this selection begins with the word when, which creates a sense of continuity
between them. As a result, I kept looking for more story— more narrative backstory, placement, setting, and so on—
in these poems when I first read them, but the clever use of medias res coupled with the often abrupt endings leaves the
reader wanting more. These short poems act as a snapshot, not a whole picture— similar to a photograph torn in two—
functioning individually as a small piece of a larger mosaic. The more you read of these poems, the more complete they begin
Formally, there is no regular
meter to be found here (even "when i do not want to say anything about the bridges," which is lineated), and while there is some anaphora
and end-line repetition, there is no formal rhyme scheme. These poems function more as lyric poems than as poems purely
in prose even as they don’t necessarily break their lines. The abundant internal rhyme generated by repetition, alliteration,
and assonance create a delicate yet distinct musicality in these verses. Though the lines themselves are not metered, the
individual sentences share a similar syllabic length, which gives these poems a sense of lineation that, otherwise, wouldn’t
Waite makes a lot of
creative moves with syntax. I was particularly intrigued with the use of you in “when i do not want to say
anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling.” In
“when i do not want to say anything about the bridges.” the poem seems to address the reader, but there is no
way to be absolutely certain this is the case: “this is a/ town with diners. no ravens, no steeples/ no hard rains.
you wouldn’t have liked it/ though you wouldn’t have known that you didn’t.” Additionally puzzling
is the speaker’s intimacy with this “you,” a choice that draws the reader into the poem on a personal
level, whether they are the intended recipient or not. The you assumes an entirely different role in “when
you are young there is no way of telling.” Now the you, or in some cases your, is told from the second
person perspective, the you no longer functions as an address but, rather, as a mode of reflection. Though the
reader is clearly not addressed in this poem, the reader (as with “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges”)
is drawn into the poem and forced to take an active role within the it: “…once you took to smelling her hair
and offering your breath to the dry sand between her fingers.”
Each poem features effulgent and precise details that lend great intimacy. For instance, we receive vivid yet sparse
descriptions of the speakers neighborhood in the description of the speaker’s mother’s house in “when
i do not want to say anything about the bridges”: “her neighbor/ sets raccoon traps beside the aspen tree,/ which
has been cut back away from the windows.” “what is given breaks under” also provides such arresting description
in moments like “there is little of christmas i remember. one bicycle. my father’s yellow whiskey. no snow.”
Presumably, each of these three
poems, are through the lens of the same speaker, fixing her gaze on the same reappearing characters, particularly the mother
and father. The mother is a disparate character; in “when I do not want to say anything about the bridges” the
mother, we are told “can not bear the shadows of light fixtures, she/ can not bear the suburban quiet.”
Later, in “when you are young there is no way of telling,” the mother “can not bear anger or the color
of dusk,” an intonation that the mother and father’s marriage may be fading.
The father is absent from “when i do not want to say anything about
the bridges” but takes on a more prominent role in “when you are young and there is no way of telling”
and “when what is given breaks under.” The father is a character of mixed morals, or at least a character, which
is of great conflict to the speaker. “when you are young there is no way of telling” provides
a portrait of a father who is sickly, humorous, and, perhaps, a man of infidelity:
"...because your father is in love with his nurse and not your mother who can not bear to ease the
dialysis needles in....there is the waiting for someone else to die your father says the transplant
wasn't much he says the first thing he does with his kidneys is piss on the operating table he says
laughing. and you are laughing too. you are thinking about the tree fort your father had torn down. you do not think his
piss is funny."
The characterization of the father continues in “what is given breaks
under,” not so much via his actions as in the portrayal of his house, a foreboding place where secrets are kept, a
place where, “i was always the last one in. …it was the loneliness that got to me— the long dark lines
of the back shed door.”
poems, however, aren’t about the mother or the father; these poems are about the speaker, the respective i and
you(s) who guide the reader through the poem. Each ending focuses on the idea of the self, an image or idea which
directly corresponds with the speaker of each poem and their internal conflict. In “what is given breaks under,”
we are left with the image of the lonely and foreboding shed door. “when you are young there is no way of telling concludes
with the identity question and a longing for something as permanent as sand yet is uncontainable. The most efficacious ending
comes in the final lines of “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges.” This is due not only to
Waite’s use of repetition and line breaks but, but more so, because of its confessional nature of speaker to the unnamed
you: you cannot put your feet
in the ocean without
money. you cannot learn or breathe without
money. you cannot learn of breathe with
money-breathe without trains, without
becoming a mistress back in the horse trails
where the cut machines were sometimes kept.
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews
the lake has no saint by Stacey
Waite, Reviewed by Jocelyn Heath for Lambda Literary
The smell of crayons in a first grade classroom. Red toadstools under a gum tree. Those minuscule pieces of memory
that we can’t shake often give way, for poets, to poems—sometimes as a “trigger” that initiates the
piece but does not stay in it, other times as the unassuming vehicle of the poem’s insight. The poems in Stacey Waite’s new chapbook the lake has no saint
fit the latter category: twenty-six deftly molded moments laid end to end, a finger crooked to invite readers into the haunting
geographic and mental landscapes traversed by the speaker.
Waite’s poetic gift lies in the choice of details for each poem—an ability to put a finger on a near-synesthetic
instant of perception and let that little detail break your heart with hardly an overt expression of emotion. The lines
“the book shelves are weighing on me. the candlewax two months hardened,” gives readers the extent of the speaker’s
grief before the narrative details unravel (16). Likewise, “mostly it was the loneliness that got to me—the
long dark lines of the back shed door” juxtaposes an abstract feeling with an image so imposing and bleak, solitary
and dark that it pierces the reader’s spirit (5). To choose words so emotionally wrought in sound and image is true
mastery of tone.
Likewise, Waite renders physical
intimacy in subtle, dexterous gestures that draw out the power of each motion for the two lovers. Waite’s speaker has
a “mouth pressed into the pull of her body”; the lover’s hand “drafts my body/in halves” (17,
18). Even the poem titled “when after she guides my fingers,” whose title runs into the first line of “out
from the red memory of her body,” is beautiful rather than graphic for its own sake (28). What these brief moments
show us is that these lovers are inextricable from one another, even when separated physically.
Their love story represents one half of a dual narrative driving the collection forward—the other being the
speaker’s struggle to reconcile body and gender identity. Keats spoke of poetry that had “palpable designs”
as undesirable, certainly if they actively seek to instill in the reader some opinion held by the poet. In this instance,
Waite’s intentions—questioning the strictures of gender—offer insight rather than opinion, and are carried
out with both ironic humor and sincerity. At a drag show, “drag queens called me “handsome,” giggled when
I pulled out their chairs and lit their cigarettes,” yet she returns home to a mother who asks, “where could
you have gone dressed like that?” (13). Younger, and less courageous, the “chalk of androgyny” sticks in
her throat when forced to use a women’s restroom solely because of her biological sex. These questions open the collection,
but eventually dissolve into the shifting currents of the relationship between speaker and lover.
The poetic forms in the lake has no saint are as much an experiment as the speaker’s attempts to
grasp at gender. Waite predominantly employs the prose poem form, but intersperses a handful of traditionally lineated lyric
pieces throughout. The prose poems spin the syntax longer and looser, building sentences that span three lines or more.
The play of unpunctuated phrasing demands a line to be read over and over to grasp its movement–a task that may frustrate
some readers, and enthrall others. The most successful poems in the collection are among the lyrics: “when in winter
you bring home white lilies” describes how “we lean out the window/into the city rivers/how they wrap us/in
their water arms” (22). The collection’s final poem pleads “I’ve hung prayer flags/from the roof
of the house./I’ve turned over the soil/in the flowerbeds. please./there isn’t any more/I could ask of you”
The narrative arc of this brief collection is
clear and consistent with only one minor deviation. “when you wish you had not said” offers a relevant insight—what
we say and lasting regret—but the moment does not seem quite right for the speaker’s own story. It is someone
else’s moment, retold secondhand: a brother attacked by a dog that is later put to sleep, the father’s misguided
statement of comfort reminding the brother of the dog’s death. It is a fine poem of its own merit, but the caution
against regret would carry more weight in the context of the manuscript if it came from the speaker’s own experience.
the lake has no saint ends with forward motion—having done
everything possible to entreat the lover’s return, the speaker remains watching and waiting. To be caught somewhere
between grieving and hopeful is universal and, we hope, as transient as ripples on a nameless lake.
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Interviews
with Stacey Waite by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I love the movement of these poems from the lake has no saint, awarded
2008’s Snowbound Chapbook Award from Tupelo Press. Reads almost like a list or nonsense poem in which associative images
and statements leap off of one each other with a pace that can’t be duplicated. How did this poem come together?
Stacey Waite: That’s an interesting
reading of the poem. While I don’t really think of the poem as “nonsense” in some sort
of conventional understanding of that word, I do think that the lake has no saint is an exploration of sense-making.
All the poems, including the one you reference here, are some kind of attempt to push at the boundaries of how we
make sense—emotionally, syntactically, conceptually. That particular poem—“when I do
not want to say anything about the bridges”—is a kind of attempt to make sense of where I’m from, a suburban
town right in the middle of Long Island. When I go there, I am not only struck by the details of my own life that fire off
in my memory as I drive the roads or look at the back window of my parents’ house, but I am also struck by the place
itself, how the beaches cost money to see, or are owned by rich folks who live on the shores, how many diners.
So the poem tries to make sense of language and make sense of how we become ourselves based on the places that get
in our blood. But, ultimately, the sense-making never arrives at itself. So, in that sense, you couldn’t
be more accurate than to say the poem is a kind of “nonsense.” It’s all non-sense. Ultimately,
we’re all a mystery to ourselves. If we weren’t, why write poems at all?
AMK: There are unexpected details in this poem that are
a real delight to read. “my mother / can not bear the shadows of light fixtures,…” “this is a /
town with diners. no ravens, no steeples, / no hard rains,” and “you can not put your feet in the ocean without
/ money” are a few examples. I’m wondering if this is something you arrived at over time or if this is one of
those poems that “fell out of the sky.” It has that feel to it with its swift pace and association, but, then
again, the best poems often seem easy while being anything but.
SW: My poems, in terms of process, usually begin with details—something
someone said, a pile-up of images that collide in my mind. But often, at the start, I do not know which
details matter, what to make of them together, what details are part of the poem I may write and which are just details.
I often tell my own students that anyone can be descriptive or list details, but writing a poem is about illuminating
the right details, the ones that feel (even if we can’t tell why) urgent, full of intensity and complexity. I’m
not sure I always live up to that myself, but I know I try to. The place on Long Island that is the impetus of the poem
is not a beautiful place, and I really tried to also think about what, for me, was missing, why it didn’t seem beautiful.
I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, a place with hard rains and just amazing churches. So those
details rise out of looking at this old place through the lens of the place I was living at the time. I do like the idea
that the poem feels like it “fell out of the sky.” There’s a part of the writing process
that always seems like that for me, like the poem just arrives. But, of course, then there’s the
work of actually making the poem, which is less like an arrival (that’s the part where the poem, or the idea for the
poem, first comes to me) and more like traveling in bad weather—that is, you have no idea how you’re going to
actually get the place you imagined. I have heard poets argue a few times about whether things like “inspiration”
are actually real. I’ve heard poet friends talk about poetry as “work” like any other
work. For me the truth is that it’s both at the same time—that there is some part of it that
remains mysterious to me. I am often fearful, for example, that I will never be able to write another
poem again, that I have pulled it off for the last time without really knowing what I’m doing. I think we might blame
that on “inspiration”—that somehow I’m afraid the moment where what I am seeing translates as a
poem will never reoccur. But then, of course, there really is the part of writing poems that’s just
plan work—the labor of engaging your imagination in a world that might rather you do something else, the work of language,
That repetition throughout the poem of “can not” is interesting to me. You’re using “can not”
rather than “cannot,” which implies that while these things could have happened or been done, the people connected
to them refused to act. Given that this is repeated over and over in the poem, it seems that your using structure to provide
a little subtext to the poem. Or is this reading too much into it? Perhaps this repetition is more for a musical effect?
SW: I use this construction of
“can not” through out the book. Part of that is rhythmic. When I read “cannot,”
it always seems to happen to fast, inviting a reader to read through the impossibility of it whereas “can not”
stresses the “not.” It’s funny though, some of the earlier versions of the poem had “cannot”
and the wonderful editor at Tupelo Press, Jim Schley, pointed it out to me that I had sometimes spelled it one way and sometimes
another. And then when I thought about it, it felt clear to me that “can not” was what I meant.
It is subtext in the sense that the decision implies part of the meaning of the poem, and of the whole chapbook—that
impossibility is a spiritual and political problem, that each of us can actually trouble the space between the “can”
and the “not,” that a life outside of the one you think you know is possible—a life other than the place
or family of origin, a life other than the genders that seem possible, a life other than the relationships that make you
someone you do not actually want to be.
Talk to us a little about the titles in this book. I really like how each poem uses its first line as the title and each
first line begins with “when.” This gives the book a rushed feeling and imparts a great sense of desire, a need
for things to change that I don’t think would be there otherwise.
SW: At the time, I was really interested in the conditional. In returning to
some of what I just mentioned about (im)possibility, I feel like the titles of the poems set up conditionals, but then the
poems themselves are (at times) disrupting the notion of the conditional. It’s one of the things
that really attracted me, for example, to surrealist poets, and to exercises that help writing students see how conditionals
can reveal what’s possible to us in terms of language. I’m thinking of a particular exercise
from the Book of Surrealist Games whereby one poet writes the first part of the conditional (like “if trees could
breathe”) and then the other poet (without knowing what the first poet said) writes the other part of the conditional
(like “then there is no such thing as Monopoly money”). So the exercises forces the two writers
to begin to think about how that conditional might be true, might enable or prevent certain kinds of possibilities.
So the titles were sometimes meant to disrupt the logic of the conditional, and sometimes meant to complicate the
relationship between cause and effect, event and result, action and self.
You can see from the first version of “when what is given breaks under” that often the first part of
the conditional evolved later after I’d drafted the poem. Originally that poem was going to be
called “when my father’s breath smells of christmas,” but then later those details got absorbed into the
poem itself once I knew the poem wasn’t about that breath. The poem was about breaking.
AMK: Both “when I do not
want to say anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling” tell stories
but in a very lyrical fashion. By this I mean that we get snippets of who these characters are (the young girl in love with
her father’s female secretary, the mother disturbed by shadows, the father with his faulty kidneys, the boys with
their “milk cartons and long hair,” etc…) and how they feel about their world but without any real story
being told. It’s all supplied to the reader by images, pieces of dialogue, etc… Is this approach what you’d
call your voice or style, or is this something more intentional?
SW: I would say that there are, at last so far, two kinds of modes that lead me to poems.
Sometimes the poems are driven by story or narrative—this, for example, might be said to be true about my most
recent book Butch Geography, just out this month also from Tupelo Press. This collection is driven by
story in many ways. But a few of the poems in that collection, like most of the poems in the lake has
no saint, are built of fragments, what you’re calling “images” or “pieces of dialogue.” Sometimes
I’m not driven by narrative at all; sometimes the details lead me to what the poem wants to ask. I
think of all of my poems not really as having meaning or conveying a particular ideas, but more as asking questions.
Poems, well actually all the writing I do (poems, essays, scholarship) are desperate acts of inquiry.
AMK: In both “when I do
not want to say anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling” the speaker
seems to be you in the present addressing your past self. In the next poem, “when what is given
breaks under,” you switch to the first person “i.” Why this shift?
SW: I’d like to say this is some kind of craft decision,
but the truth is it’s a kind of intuitive decision that I would say has more of an emotional or psychological dimension.
I feel a lot of distance sometimes between the self I remember being as a teenager. And what’s
strange is that my younger self—the self in the poem “when what is given breaks under”—feels more
like the self I am now, still terrified of that loneliness, still feeling the haunting of that house I spent my younger
years living in, still seeing that back shed. Those memories and feelings still feel here—in my
body—while the kind who was in love with that secretary, or the teenager that hung out with the “jodie’s”
and the “rachel’s,” those kids don’t live here anymore, though, yes, I still need to tell them stuff
from time to time.
Many of the poems in this book are prose poems that utilize punctuation but very few commas and no capitol letters. It gives
these poems a very stark feeling to them. As if the language has been boiled down to its essential parts. That said, it
seems you could remove the periods to create an even greater structural effect here. Do you mind discussing the forms of
these poems a bit?
I suppose you could say I didn’t “go all the way” here, in a sense. *laughing* I thought
about that possibility for sure, the idea of no punctuation at all, ever. I wanted the sentences or lines to
be able to be read in multiple ways, but I suppose I didn’t want the meanings to be infinite. Maybe I
just couldn’t let go of all the control (certainly possible with a Capricorn like me), but I also think that while
the poems can feel fragmentary and associative, they are also perhaps even more controlled than my more story-driven narrative
work where punctuation is dependable and frequent. They do feel “stark” to me too. So I guess partially
they are little experiments: who needs commas when the rhythm works in more than one direction, who needs capital letters
when the period already does the work? I also wonder how much of this has to do with the actually way
I was writing at the time. As you can see from the page of my notebook I’ve shared with you, these
poems were hand-written, the first drafts more of a gathering than a composing. So perhaps, too, I wondered
what might happen if I kept the “polish” off, if I resisted the urge to hide the making itself, if the poem
was both its process and a product.
I’ve always believed poems end on either a great image or a statement that stands out from the rest of the poem in
some particular way. A great example of this would be that final sentence of “when what is given breaks under”:
mostly, it was the loneliness that got to me— “the long dark lines of the back shed door.” Not only is
this a wonderful final image, but it stands out from the other sentences in the poem due to that sudden use of meter in
an otherwise very “prosy poem:” “the long dark lines of the back shed door.” What do you notice about
the endings of your favorite poems? Do you concern yourself much with how you bring your poems to a close or do you let
it happen more organically?
I wouldn’t say it happens the same way every time, but I do think I often have the image or the line that will be the
last line before I have the rest of the poem, sometimes I am writing towards the last line, or I label the image that I
think is going to be the last line. I am not always right about that, but I am often enough to call it
a pattern, I guess. Once I have the image, it’s about finding the rhythmic moment where the ending comes in.
To finish poems, I always read them out loud to myself over and over, maybe even fifty times in one sitting, trying
to hear the moment the poem is over, trying to feel the exhale in my chest that indicates that last thing that needs to
be said, for the moment, anyway. I coach a few youth poetry slam teams here in Lincoln, and I often circle
images in my students’ poems as “the last image” and then tell them to write until they get to it.
Sometimes that works. Of course, sometimes I wrestle with a poem without knowing how it will end,
or what its last words will be—those poems get stuck in the notebook a lot longer. And some of them
never find their way out.
Embracing the Contradictions: Stacey Waite on Gender, Poetry, and Infinite Possibility an interview
by Jennifer Perrine first published at Pilot Light
Stacey Waite is the author of three chapbooks—Choke, winner
of the Thorngate Road Press Frank O’Hara Prize for Poetry; Love Poem to Androgyny, winner of the Main Street
Rag Press Chapbook Prize; and the lake has no saint, winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Prize in Poetry.
Hir first full-length collection, Butch Geography, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012. An assistant professor
at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, s/he currently teaches composition, gender studies, and creative writing.
I first met Stacey Waite
fifteen years ago, and since that time, we have had many exchanges in which we have shared with one another the pleasures
and challenges of writing poetry that seeks not just to represent queer lives, but also to imagine a queer poetics—a
way of writing that opens up new possibilities for (un)doing and (un)thinking gender and sexuality. In our many discussions,
I have appreciated how Stacey and hir poetry have disrupted the restrictively normative idea(l)s of natural, coherent gender
identities and, in the process, exposed the fictions that underlie compulsory heterosexuality. I enjoyed the opportunity
to interview Stacey for Pilot Light, as it gave me the chance to share with a greater audience the conversations
in which Stacey and I have been engaging for over a decade.
JP: In your series of “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man . . .” poems,
you offer reflections on moments when the body is mistaken, when gender is misread. Do you see relationships between mistaking/misreading
the body and misreading text/language?
SW: The idea of “mis-reading” has always been fascinating to me, both because there
is really no way for someone to not “mis-read” my body—that is, if they are using the conventional interpretative
frame for gender that widely circulates in the culture. But then, there is a sense of mis-reading that is more productive,
more generative than perhaps a more aligned reading might be. For example, just recently, a little boy at the DMV pointed
to me and said to his mother, “Mommy, that man is a girl.” His statement might, in other contexts, be considered
a mis-reading, an impossibility even. But in the end, he is more right about gender than his mother is. She says, “Of
course he’s not.” Her response means both that I was not a girl (which I, a little bit, am) and that men cannot
be girls (which, of course, they can). So I think mis-reading the body, or mis-reading the text, is sometimes a result of
not having the tools to read other than in the usual, binary ways. But it can also be more subversive to “mis-read,”
more disruptive. Sometimes mis-reading means reading more queerly. Since the first set of “On the Occasion of Being
Mistaken for . . .” poems, I have written more of them, and have found that I can be “mis-read” as a woman
as well—to read my gender in an either/or way is always to mis-read it. Then again, to read my gender more queerly,
as something else entirely, something not able to be captured in man/woman terms would, to some, be its own kind of mis-reading.
I guess, in a sense, all my poems are about mis-readings in that (I hope) they call attention to the ways meaning is made,
and more importantly to the ways meaning might be re-made, queered, open to infinite possibility.
JP: How does place affect your
poetry? I’ve noticed in your poems a relationship between location/place and the body. Baseball games, restaurants,
public bathrooms, airports—they’re all imbued with certain assumptions about gender and space, although in some
places these assumptions are more readily apparent than in others. You’ve recently moved to a new place after many
years in Pennsylvania—does Nebraska “ask” you to write differently? Does it call up different readings
or writings of gender? Does it reinforce/disrupt/shape your poetic process?
SW: That’s an interesting question. Like most writers,
my surroundings have a profound influence on my writing—not just because of the places my poems name as their settings,
but also because shifting around in place can feel quite similar to shifting around in gender. I’ve only been in Lincoln,
Nebraska, a few months, but already I can feel the landscape in my body. I was in Pittsburgh for thirteen years before this
most recent move and in Pittsburgh you can’t walk ten feet without having to climb a hill, without navigating a tunnel
or crossing a bridge. Moving from that kind of space to this flat expanse of sky and earth is, at times, a bit daunting.
I can actually feel the vulnerability of having no place to hide—like if the lightning wanted to find me out here on
the plains, it most certainly could. I’ve written a few poems since I’ve arrived, and I think the poems have
that vulnerable feeling to them; they seem more exposed to me, more aware of the infinite space there is. I’m looking
forward to feeling the effects of this big expanse of sky. I’m hoping it will expand my reach, help me see past what
is to what might be possible.
As far as gender goes, sometimes it feels like a different reading of gender gets called up in me every time I
shift in my chair or turn my head, so I expect that will be the case here in Nebraska. But I would be lying if I didn’t
mention how sometimes I can feel Falls City, Nebraska, below me, how I am both drawn to the place and in fear of it, how
the story of Brandon Teena’s life feels somehow closer than before. And while I am not naïve enough to think that
hate crimes and violence against queers only happen in more rural places, I do think something about that open sky and that
flat expanse of land does make me feel more susceptible to that violence—however irrational that fear may be. I’m
aware, as a queer person, of the ways the media and the urban cultures I have largely lived in have situated places like
Nebraska as dangerous for people like me. But the truth is that, because gender is everywhere, danger is everywhere. And
I guess part of writing poems, for me, is coming to terms with that danger and trying to offer a kind of political, aesthetic
and poetic argument: that gender is not sustainable, that it’s dangerous to all of us—not merely to folks who
fall outside its constructed norms.
JP: Do you think about audience reception of your poetry? Does your poetry queer its audience?
I’m thinking about times when I’ve taught Love Poem to Androgyny, and some students experience a revelation/affinity
that’s about them (an “oh my gosh, I might not be as gender normative as I thought” realization), while
others read the book as about you, as autobiography/memoir. Do you prefer one response to the other? Is one closer to how
you think about your reasons for writing? Are there other ways you hope an audience would respond to your poems?
SW: I do
think part of what I hope happens for an audience in reading or hearing my poems is a kind of defamiliarization—something,
I would argue, all poets try to do. So, in that sense, there is a kind of aesthetic of making the familiar seem strange,
or shifted, or even new. Because so many of my poems take up questions of gender, sexuality, and the body, I think I am
hoping those terrains become strange as well, that suddenly the taken-for-granted-ness of bodies and their meanings, bodies
and their relationships to other bodies, becomes visible, that suddenly we see differently something we think we have been
looking at our whole lives—that something being our own bodies, our own identities in relationship to gender. I guess
I am hoping my poems explore and expose gender as failure, as always a profound failure, even for those who consider themselves
traditionally gendered—whatever that means. And I think I work hard, as a poet, to capture the shifting ground of gender,
even in terms of the way I characterize its effects. One moment a poem captures gender in its silliness, its playfulness
and humor, only then to move to highlight gender in its terror, its fear, its violence. Poetry is a place, it seems to me,
where contradictions are valued as the kind of dynamic tension that makes art art.
JP: What’s your relationship
to received form? I’m thinking about the constraints of received forms, the constraints of gender—are the constraints
less constricting when imposed on the self? Or do received forms feel like policing the self? Is there a form you’re
drawn to that suggests questioning/queering? Do you feel a pull to be experimental/radical/innovative with form? How do
your concerns about narrative inform/complicate/shape your concerns about form (or vice versa)?
SW: I had a teacher, back in undergraduate,
Karl Patten, who once asked me (though I learned later he might have been kidding me a bit) to write ten sonnets in a week.
He said this to me after I had said, rather nonchalantly in his office, “I don’t like form.” This was the
same teacher who once forbade me to write a poem that had a single true fact or “real” event inside it. I spent
that semester trying to understand iambic pentameter, writing a horrifying number of persona poems in the voices of farmers,
prostitutes, fathers, and military soldiers. It’s strange to me now that writing a poem that wasn’t “true”
somehow translated to me as speaking in someone else’s voice. I remember being frustrated with Karl back then, thinking
that the constraints were arbitrary or part of some conspiracy to control emotion. But really, in the end, I learned some
really valuable things about how constraints work, about how we always (as writers and as bodies) move within a field of
constraints—whether those constraints are pre-existing forms, rules we give ourselves, or limitations put upon us by
some force, or someone, who stands in powerful relation to us. I mean, gender is a form, right? A way of limiting what can
be said, known, and expressed. And I guess what I am saying is that forms are there to be pushed on, exploded, made fun
of, followed then abandoned.
So, in a way, I stand by what I said, “I don’t like form,” meaning that if a form intends to
limit or frame what is able to be seen and therefore what is possible, then yeah, I don’t like form. But, as I learned
that semester with Karl Pattern, some forms can set us free from the very limitations they set in the first place. Sometimes
to work with form is precisely to work against it, to push back at the boundaries of what can be thought. So we can understand
one another as men or women, or we can say fuck men and women. We can start writing sonnets in order to say fuck sonnets.
And sometimes, sometimes in the writing and in moving through the world, sometimes “boy” fits just right, or
sometimes the sonnet carries us until we realize we have made a sonnet—we have said, “Okay, sonnet, for now.”
I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, but I think what I want to say is that, for me, the forms I value
are temporary, contradictory, fleeting—and so, when I say “form” that is what I imagine.
As far as narrative, well, I am
reminded of Joan Didion’s “The White Album” in which she says something like writers live by the imposition
of a narrative line upon the disparate images that are the shifting phantasmagoria [love that word] which is our
actual experience. So, in that case, narrative can be normative, can be the most unqueer form of all—that is,
if that narrative is linear, sequential. I have been interested lately in some of the shifts in queer theory whereby scholars
like Lee Edelmen, José Muñoz, and Judith Halberstam have been theorizing about queer time and queer space.
In the lake has no saint, I was really conscious of trying to move in queer time, right down to the syntax of a
sentence. I tried to think of sentences themselves as a disruption in narrative, rather than as something to be contained
by the narrative. As a writer, I absolutely do give myself forms and rules, projects with which to work, but I
often find that the pleasure in that is located in the moments I move outside the bounds of my own expectations, move out
into the realm of what’s possible that before was impossible.
JP: I’ve been to a few of your readings and
have heard audience members remark every time that your performance changed how they thought about your poetry. Do you think
performance in general recreates/alters the poem? Does the embodiment of a poem change it? Does the poem change with the
person embodying it? For instance, do you experience a slippage between your performance of your own poems and, if you’ve
had the occasion to witness this, someone else’s performance of your poems?
SW: As a poet deeply invested
in the music of poems, and in their embodiment, I really do think that all of my poems are meant as embodiments, are written
with the idea in mind that someone who looks and sounds like me is reading them, out loud. I don’t mean to suggest
at all that only I can read my poems aloud, but I do mean to suggest that the poem is an embodiment that offers a particular
kind of body. And I don’t exactly mean a particular kind of gendered body. I mean more that the body is queered
in its performance, that it exposes itself outwardly as a deviant and disobedient body—one that will not mean
in the usual ways bodies come to mean. I think of poems as sung, and I think of reading as a kind of singing, moving
sound and story through the body. I do think that when people say that my reading of the poems changes the poems that it
has something to do with a poet suddenly becoming a body. When you read poems on a page, there is an invisible author (and
there may be some generative productivity to this kind of reading), but when the author arrives to sing his own songs, suddenly
there is a human, a body given over as evidence of the poems having been written by hand, by a hand reaching out from a
body with a beating heart. And at one of my readings, this also means there is a body that both can and cannot be seen. I
can sometimes see an audience member fixate on my chest or crotch, and I can assume they’re looking for traditional
symbols of interpretation. I think it helps to remember that there are actual bodies with actual lived experience, bodies
that don’t “add up,” that refuse the usual narrative, bodies that might have before seemed impossible.
I think my poems might sometimes raise the questions: Who could live like this? Who could live as neither/nor or as either/or?
It seems unimaginable—that is, until there I am, singing the song. There I am woman/boy with no direct line to the
easily categorized answer. And I breathe, and my hands are hands, and there may or may not be a cock in my pants. But who’s
counting cocks anyway?
Does poetry offer an understanding of genderqueer lives that scientific/medical/psychiatric discourse cannot or does not?
SW: I really
like this question because I am sometimes asked it another way, something like: how do you manage your work in gender studies,
with your work in composition, with your work in creative writing? And I often find myself trying to unearth the overlaps;
I often find myself frustrated with that question and want to answer just: it’s all the same work. But I
feel like your question here is inviting me to say something else about how writing is, or can be, queer. I am not sure I
would go so far as to say that poetry, as a particular genre of writing, can offer more complex understandings of genderqueer
lives. I might say that writing itself as a practice can offer more nuanced, more complicated and layered ideas about queer
lives. Of course, science and medicine also translate into writing. So, what’s the difference in the kind of writing
I am talking about? Well, here’s what I think. The kind of writing that can tolerate, accommodate, and move toward
contradiction is the kind of writing that can better represent genderqueer lives. Students in writing classes all over the
country might have heard teachers say: you contradict yourself here or there’s a contradiction in your
paper (this meaning, get the contradictions outta there). But poetry, the best poetry I think, asks us to move toward
the contradictions, to embrace them. I am thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “Intelligence is the ability
to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I do think poetry demands
this kind of intelligence. I hope most poets feel a responsibility, an obligation even, to write poems that reflect this
kind of complexity, poems that lean into what is difficult, complicated, and perhaps even impossible to name. I do think
writing can lead us from what seems unthinkable to the imaginable.
For genderqueer lives, one of the most important things that could happen
in the consciousness of this culture is that we could move beyond the realm of the possible, that we could imagine lives
other than the ones we have lived, seen, or imagined. With all the bullying of queer teens, the sad fact that many queer
people can’t imagine what Judith Butler calls a “livable life” is a real problem. I am not so naïve
as to think poetry can save the world, or that my poems can inspire some kind of global change, but I do know what it was
like for me, as a young queer person, to hear the voices and the poetry of people who had imagined and were living queer
lives. So in that, I suppose poetry is my way of showing up, of being heard and that poetry, as a genre, does allow and
even demand that the contradictory be visible, that the impossible be imagined, that there is a world beyond the world we
can see from where we stand. To me, even the simplest poem, even the shortest, image-based, “In a Station of the Metro”-type
poem is resisting one-dimensional understandings, pushing on the limits of what’s imaginable. Poetry is always pointing
to something unsayable. And as far as my gender is concerned, it is, quite literally, in the English language, unsayable
in the third person. I cannot be talked about without the use of “he” or “she.” Unless, of course,
I am with others—“they”—and am thereby an “other.” And queers are starting to push on
the language, to invent new names for ourselves, like “ze,” for example, which is a term that has been embraced
by some people in the trans community. I sometimes use “s/he” both to echo my identification with the character
in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s S/he, and also because for me something feels complicated about the slash, about
what it intends to mean. Poetry is the exact place for innovative language, for using words in ways they were not intended
to be used, for coming up with new names for ourselves, for clouds, for the sound of breathing. So, yeah, poetry understands
How do you understand the relationship between queer poetry and queer activism? Is there a relationship?
SW: I think I
would say that it really would be impossible to be saying radical things, to be writing poems that ask their readers to reimagine
bodies and identity and have those poems not be activism. I see myself as actively protesting gender in its current systematic
form. And if activism is about disrupting and trying to change damaging dominant ideologies and institutions, then there
is no way around the fact that I am also an activist. I know not all queer poets would see themselves that way, but I do
think there is a way to see one’s writing as a call to change. I know quite a few poets who feel that thinking of their
work this way is to cheapen it, or to make it somehow less about art, but I think most art is activism too—that at
a very basic level artists offer us alternative ways of seeing. Sometimes even the subtlest shift in the way we look at
things, or even the smallest shifting of the angle from which we see the world, can be a life changing and world shifting
When I was
an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to listen to a reading by Robin Becker, an old school, soft butch poet who may or
may not consider herself an activist (we’d have to ask Robin about that). But, she read the poem “Solar”
from her collection All-American Girl, and there I was—nineteen, sporting a major mullet (and not the ironic
kind), and I was at a college with lots of people who considered themselves “real boys” and “real girls.”
And something shifted in me, in the degree and quality of my own shame when Robin read:
And I am not kidding, I remember sitting in the church-like poetry building
at Bucknell University thinking: I am a desert. I am a vast expanse. I remember feeling my body relax into the thought
of it. I remember looking at Robin and thinking my life as a queer poet was suddenly possible, that I could even write about
this queerness, that queerness was precisely what poetry was about. Now, I don’t know if everyone would consider this
activism, but something changed there. Something changed in the way I thought about myself and what was possible for me.
And I think these moments shape the work that I do, that I hope changes a few people’s notions of self and body along
the way, then shapes the way they do what they do. And I don’t think this is only about poetry. I once had a nurse
write to me. Her sister, a poet, had dragged her out to an event where I happened to be reading. And I got to hear this nurse
talk about an experience she had over a year after my reading, where a middle-aged transman who had a heart attack was brought
into her unit. And she told me how my poems sort of “came over her” (that was the language she used) as she
treated this guy, and how she was able to see him and to talk about him to the other nurses and aids on her floor in a way
she couldn’t have before. So, I do think that’s activism. That’s change. If we all wanted to live in the
world just as it is, why write? Why imagine anything at all?
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