How A New Poetry Magazine Is Claiming A Space For Trans Writers To Be Themselves

On the eve of its first edition, the editors of Vetch discuss the need for poetry written by and for trans people.

September 18, 2015

There is a line in a poem by California-based poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza that goes like this: everything i love about myself is everything/ we are taught to hate and disregard/ how cool is that? It’s a simple, yet revolutionary concept: to turn everything we’re told—through our upbringing, social cues, and mass media—that we “should” be on its head and decide to love it instead. You can find more of Espinoza’s poems in a brand new poetry magazine called Vetch, which exclusively features work by writers who identify as trans. In the first issue’s Editor’s Note, Vetch’s three editors, Kay Gabriel, Liam O’Brien—who are graduate students at Princeton and University of Iowa respectively—and Stephen Ira write, “trans poets face a lack of structural support and aesthetic guidance. [...] But the more we reach out to one another, the more the teacherless silence will dissipate.”

As Gabriel told The FADER over email, ten years ago she hadn’t met “anyone who talked about being trans” and couldn’t “even find any information about it, anything that could have suggested to me that there were possibilities of gender other than thinking that I was a boy and hating it.” Recently, however, there has been an increasing amount of light being shone on the trans experience, in part due to Caitlyn Jenner’s high-profile transition, Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation, Laverne Cox's activism, and a plethora of articles (like this one) aimed at educating the cisgender population on trans lives. Vetch, however, is not interested in catering to or educating cisgender people. The purpose of Vetch is to create a space in which there is no pressure to reach people who are not trans, where the language of trans experience can exist unto itself without being questioned, derided, or disregarded. As O’Brien so eloquently puts it, “art depends on connection, on conversation. These poems are reaching across the spaces that divide us.” Vetch’s three editors have taken it upon themselves to exhibit poetry by trans people, for trans people, because visibility and connection are crucial to any human rights movement. Unsurprisingly, the internet has a big part to play in getting the word out, says O’Brien: “It's really exciting to start this ball rolling and see the trans people of the internet catch it and multiply it.” Here, Gabriel, Ira, and O’Brien speak on how and why they decided to stake out a space for trans poetry.


Why did you decide to start a poetry journal?


STEPHEN IRA: We started Vetch because there was no journal for trans poetry, and we wanted one. It's as simple as that. THEM Lit also publishes fiction by trans authors, and the NYC Trans Poets Workshop puts out a zine that its members contribute to, and we love those publications. But we wanted a publication that, like most poetry journals, had an open reading period and published only poetry. It feels like a way to stake out space in the poetry world for trans writers.

KAY GABRIEL: The 2013 anthology Troubling the Line, edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson, arguably made our work in Vetch possible by thoroughly demonstrating that poetry by and for trans poets exists on a large scale. Peterson's journal EOAGH publishes consistently exciting work, while the trans publisher Topside Press has really helped organize a groundswell of trans literature through giving a spotlight to prose authors and poets we really love. And there are dozens of individual trans poets and writers—many of whom we're very lucky to have published in our first issue—who make us excited about the possibility of trans poetry and poetics, and trans art more generally.

“We started Vetch because there was no journal for trans poetry, and we wanted one. It feels like a way to stake out space in the poetry world for trans writers.”—Stephen Ira, Vetch

In your call for submissions, you stated that you were seeking work “that does not bother to translate itself for a cis reader.” Why is it important to exhibit poetry that is written by and for trans individuals?

GABRIEL: We see Vetch as supporting work by trans poets that allows itself to speak primarily between trans people, and that is not faced with the necessity of authenticating itself to a cisgender audience through appeals to a narrow and reductive set of tropes. In committing to work written by and for trans people we're responding to a number of structural difficulties we see for trans poets writing, or being forced to appeal, to cisgender audiences. It’s not just that we waste time and energy explaining ourselves to these audiences that do not, and cannot, have the same experience of gender in social relations—or even just that a cis reader may not be familiar with the relevant social, cultural, political, or even medical and biological context of a given poem. More importantly, it's that poetry written by and for trans people allows itself a richer and more varied poetics when it isn’t subject to the standards, however implicit and unconscious, according to which a cis reader may judge some work. Our poetics can be more abstract, figurative, and formally interesting when we ferociously imagine new possibilities together.


LIAM O'BRIEN: Historically, trans people haven't had many venues (or even much language) in which to write our own stories. Cis people have written about us a lot. As writers, we've either had to refrain from any discussion of people like us—see the medical novels of Alan L. Hart, though they are gems in their own right—or write purely memoir, a dissection of our own lives for a cis audience. This makes for didactic work, which I think nobody really enjoys. It's incredibly important to be able to write on trans themes and publish as a trans author, without being forced to constantly pause and interpret yourself. As for readers, I can personally attest that reading poems by other trans people, and seeing those poems widely read, makes me feel more human every day. I believe strongly that art depends on connection, on conversation. These poems are reaching across the spaces that divide us.

“Poetry written by and for trans people allows itself a richer and more varied poetics when it isn’t subject to the standards according to which a cis reader may judge some work. “—Kay Gabriel, Vetch

Another statement in your call for submissions was that you sought work that was “attentive to the ways in which power shapes language, poetry, and relations among trans people.” There is, of course, an inherent power structure in the way we use language—do you hope that Vetch will start a shift in that power structure within language?

GABRIEL: Yes and no. If I understand the question and can rephrase it slightly, it sounds like you’re asking about language as a mediator of ideology—a structure that fundamentally alters the ways in which it is possible to represent, or even imagine, social relations—and what kind of intervention we think Vetch makes to language and within ideology as a cultural product.

This paraphrase may not be kind to your original question, because it looks like the answer must be "none," but it’s also productive for understanding how we imagine our engagements with politics through Vetch, which opens onto a broader conversation in U.S. poetry about the capacity of poetry to be a political act. Overall we agree with the maxim put forward by poets Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes in their response, published last week in Lana Turner, to Amy King’s blog post on the Poetry Foundation page, “What is Literary Activism?”: “we don’t think you transform the world by transforming literature, we think you transform the world and literature comes with it.” Poetry is not, in other words, a form of activism, however politically committed and engaged it is and even must be. All of this said, we think that the most political intervention that Vetch makes is to help trans creators give voice to new narratives and formal expressions of trans lives.

How does power present itself in the poetry featured in Vetch?

GABRIEL: The short answer is: with great complexity. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, so let me explain a bit. This question opens up onto one of the most important, even dire contradictions motivating a politically engaged poetry: how to speak truly to a political moment characterized by various kinds of state-sanctioned violence and inequality, and how to produce art whose aesthetics commits to that politics but is not solely and reductively determined by it. The stakes of this contradiction are different for each of us, and more urgent according to dynamics of racialized and gendered violence. I think that one of our contributors to this issue, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, summed this contradiction up stunningly in a poem “One: Trans Planet” published in Potluck last month: so if you want to see something truly beautiful/ stop killing us/ & then stare at the sky & shut the fuck up forever.

To my mind each poem in Vetch engages this contradiction in one way or another: Alok Vaid-Menon’s “Transmisogyny” elucidates its subject in a deftly explicit register, while Stephen (Stephanie) Burt’s poem “Water Strider” is a highly figurative monologue that can be read, if not exclusively or reductively, as an allegory for a kind of trans experience of gender. The poem of Espinoza’s in Vetch, “Performance,” organizes shocking images of violence (plastic bayonet/ sticking out of her chest) around a structure of feeling of tedium (bore my/ self to death). Poems by Melian (“Evasion: Pocket Knife”) and Sara June Woods (“Dear Hairless Ruth”) similarly engage narratives of violence and death with incongruous images or the formal technique of ecphrasis, while Rebecca Bedell’s “Breakfast” is to my mind a poem allegorically about a trans medical encounter expressed in a surreal and progressively horrifying register. I admire Stephen’s “Competitive Excuse” for how it tackles forms of and hindrances to trans gay male sociality through the mediations of mass culture.

“We’re hoping that Vetch acts as a hub around which ways of being trans and an artist can orbit; something that people can read and take tools from as we learn to write our own stories.”—Liam O’Brien, Vetch

In Zach Ozma’s poem “Lou Sullivan says…", he writes we will/ laugh because it is funny to be bodies together in this way. Is there a connection that you see between the natural world around us and the way in which we connect with our bodies, and our bodies to the world?

O'BRIEN: This poem is in conversation with Lou Sullivan's quote, "I want to look like what I am, but I don't know what someone like me looks like." Sullivan, one of the first transsexual men to be public about his homosexuality, spent much of his life fighting for the acknowledgment of gay trans male existence—from the medical establishment and in the world beyond. This statement of his articulates a discomfort that many of us feel: that, as trans and gay people, we are involved a project with few or no models. One is required to have a body. But what to do with it? How do we manage to look like ourselves? Ozma writes, To grow a GENDER as a FOREST FARM it will be/ innavigable from the outside/ but it will thrive with a little attention[.] He conceptualizes a gendered body as something cultivated in the strangeness of nature, both inaccessible to the outside world and responsive to its own processes of care.

In Alok Vaid-Menon’s poem “Transmisogyny,” they write Promise me that you will not repost all of the articles about how we shouldn’t assume gender (and then still do it). Recently there has been somewhat of a rally on the internet for trans rights, and how to speak about trans people, etc. Is this helpful? In what ways can it be different or more helpful?

GABRIEL: On the one hand I think that the development in the past several years of massified online platforms has facilitated connection among queer and trans people in some unique and genuinely exciting ways. To answer from a personal perspective: even ten years ago, when I was just entering my teens and on the internet every free minute I had—usually talking to strangers on World of Warcraft forums or whatever—I didn’t meet anyone who talked about being trans or even find any information about it, anything that could have suggested to me that there were possibilities of gender other than thinking that I was a boy and hating it. I think that the internet is a very different place to be trans now even than it was five years ago. What excites me about these platforms is helping trans youth who may not otherwise have access to peers and information figure themselves out a bit better.

On the other hand, it’s reasonable to be suspicious of the promise of a unified discourse on trans identities that claims to be a correct and complete representation thereof. This is partly for the reason that Alok points to in their poem, that some of the gestures of participating in and circulating this discourse are empty and do not point to or constitute political commitments per se. The premise of increased trans visibility that underpins a lot of internet awareness-raising is not an unalloyed good: many of us, trans women in particular, find ourselves hyper-visible in various social contexts, and the internet can increase our risk of being outed, doxxed, or bullied. Moreover, a lot of the content of this awareness-raising itself is incorrect, misleading, or silencing in some capacity or other; it often fails to historicize the complicated social situations it takes itself to speak to, or entirely ignores trans history within recent, never mind living, memory. Many of these problems are structural within internet social-justice discourse, so my claim here is not straightforwardly that it can progress or be improved, but rather that it’s fair to be critical of and even arms-length from it.

There are many references to Twitter in Vetch, especially in Maxe Crandall’s “Emoji For Cher Heart.” Is Twitter an important part of the trans community? Is social media powerful enough to communicate ideas to a larger public?

GABRIEL: [Crandall’s poem's] claim to assembl[e]/ a politic against/ ‘gay diva talk’ organizes “Emoji for Cher Heart” predominantly around a tradition of gay consumption of divas and cultural production written in praise and adoration of these figures (e.g. Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”), rather than the techniques of advertising that have allowed women celebrities to market themselves to this consuming public. The fundamental gesture of the poem, like others in its genre, is imagining an impossible and immediate intimacy that points to other forms of intimacy foreclosed, circumscribed, or mediated in alienating but inevitable ways by the consumption of mass culture. [“Emoji For Cher Heart”] points out the contradictions that underpin its genre: against the youth and glamour that categorically characterize a diva but also ensure her fungibility with others who come after her, Crandall's poem is both thoroughly entrenched in its period of composition (witness the emoji) and dedicated to Cher, a diva far from the height of her popularity who thus acts as an icon for a bygone, passé, or lost gay past.

While I think it’s important to contextualize Crandall's references to Twitter in terms of both Cher’s larger-than-life Twitter presence, as well as how the poem directs its attentions towards mass culture generally, I do think that Twitter and other social media websites are indeed important to trans communities. It's necessary to acknowledge, of course, that the internet has helped connect geographically distant trans people to friends, resources, and online communities for many years. What’s inarguably different now is that large social media websites mediate trans sociality to an unprecedented extent—as they do all of us, but there are some dynamics specific to trans folks. This situation has its up- and downsides, but the major benefit as far as I see it is the ease with which it’s possible for trans people to connect to others like us. It was helpful to me when I was figuring myself out to meet trans women over the internet through Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook groups, and I still know more trans women online than I do in my day-to-day life. It’s relevant here that I met Stephen and Liam through the internet, that we spread the word about Vetch over social media, and that that’s also where we met or interact the most with several of our contributors.

I’m inclined to say that social media overall can be helpful for organizing actions, protests, and strikes, but in no sense indispensable for these things and there are clearly many respects in which, as privacy activists have demonstrated, police and other state agencies turn to social media along with other aspects of activists’ online presences to criminalize and silence certain political actions. I think it’s also important to understand social media websites as for-profit services—ones that, indeed, make their money through selling data about their users—that thus have no interest in changing the conditions that make them profitable.

Can you tell me more about the “teacherless silence” you write about in Vetch’s Editor’s Note? How can the silence be filled through poetry and through other mediums?

O'BRIEN: Stephen and I both came from undergrad writing classes at Sarah Lawrence, where our professors had various levels of knowledge about trans people, and weren't particularly well equipped to help us figure out how to write about ourselves. To be clear, we're both very fond of and grateful to all the teachers we worked with, and got a lot out of their classes. However, not being able to work with trans mentors, or even mentors familiar with trans writing, was difficult. Stephen wrote a lot of explicit trans content, but felt he was fumbling in the dark with regard to feedback. I responded to that lack with silence—I wrote one story with a trans man in it during my four years, and it was a terrible piece of writing. Here at Iowa, a similar problem persists. While my teachers and peers are intelligent and willing, they mostly don't have the experience or context to help me work on poems that engage with transness. We're hoping that Vetch acts as a hub around which ways of being trans and an artist can orbit; something that people can read and take tools from as we learn to write our own stories.

How did you choose the poetry featured in Vetch?

O'BRIEN: We put a call for submissions last year via various forms of social media. We received a lot of wonderful responses, which make up most of the issue. Our selection process was pretty standard; each editor read through all the submissions and came up with a list of preferences, and then we Skyped and emailed to work out a final list. We also solicited submissions from a few poets we knew we would particularly like to publish. Moving forward, we'll be working on the same model. So if you're a trans poet reading this, you should submit during our next reading period: November 2015 through January 2016!

Grab a copy of Vetch No. 1 here, and if you're in N.Y.C. on October 17th, swing by the mag's launch party, "Trans Poets Bloom," featuring readings by Gabriel, O'Brien, and Ira.

How A New Poetry Magazine Is Claiming A Space For Trans Writers To Be Themselves