This is part two of a conversation between Wendy Lotterman and Violet Spurlock. Read part one here.
Let me ask you now: I’m curious about a couple of rare moments in the book in which you seem to lean into ideas of possession and ownership. In “Powers of Ten” there’s this homophonic play with the Russian word for “invasion” sounding like “oursness” and then the final movement of the poem culminating with “the impossibility of creating anything that is ours to fuck up.” There’s this sense that possession is a violent relationship, but at the same time its loss is being mourned. The desire to have a child is a desire to be in a situation where one’s fuck ups will bring other people inexorably closer. Is a different sense of possession and ownership as a bond that’s lurking around in these poems, some secret, different relation that’s being hinted at, or do you feel more strongly that possession is an ugly feeling that has to kind of be acknowledged and allowed to flow through?
That poem is over ten years old. I wrote it when I really wanted someone and something that I didn’t want to want – some indivisibly shared thing. And so on the one hand there was this flicker of rebuke in the other person observing that “invasion” bears phonic similarity to the nominalization of “ours,” but I was also thinking about the strange sterility of same-sex sex, the elimination of a reproductive risk with which I’d previously been familiar. It was a failed intimacy, and that felt even more acute without the horizon of accidental synthesis. I wasn’t only desiring someone, but wanting to take shelter under the umbrella of a first-person plural so that I could enter worlds that felt otherwise inaccessible at that stage in my life. In a twisted reversal of this wish to be coextensive with someone else, I had my AOL email regularly hacked by someone who knew me and my security questions – my mom’s name, my dog’s name – but remains anonymous. She read my email every day, and there are a few transcripts of her chatting openly with my sister. So she kind of did provide invasive and excessive company, and I did kind of like it. This happened for nine months; then she begged me to change my security questions, which I did. So the gestational rhyme of her hacking habit pairs with the infertility of my desire in the poem.
Connecting this to some of the other questions, this poem is also about the minimum condition of the social, which is two, and what it feels like to move from multiplicity to mass. Like, even if there’s a theoretical or political aspiration to an indivisibly social subject, what kind of fusion is actually tolerable? How does it feel? Hegel has this thing about marriage being a contract that transcends the standpoint of contract, in that it requires two separate consenting subjects, but those subjects then surrender the abstract freedom that allows them to consent in the first place. I’m not so interested in marriage, per se, but I’m interested in the desire, fear, and possibility opened up being both more and less than individual – both what that allows politically, and how it actually feels.
Okay, a simple one: your book is so formally diverse. Can you tell me about that?
I think the form created a distance for me in order to safely write my way into areas where I didn’t feel completely confident or safe. Writing into a form lowers the stakes of one’s choices through the sense that you’re not fully choosing your own choices, they’re being provided for you. The presentation of forms is supposed to run alongside the argument in a way that asks: would you believe in a poem if it looked like this? Would you trust that a poem had power if it addressed the reader directly at just this moment? Kind of a Green Eggs and Ham logic. But that would lead one to think that I'm presenting all of these in order to exhaustively suggest a total insufficiency of form, which isn’t quite the case.
Your book approaches childhood, puberty, and girlhood as entangled but actually very distinct experiences. They don’t feel bound in time or personal history despite feeling precise and intimate. These crises are often metonymic of the entire world. I want to hear about how you’re dealing with this entangling of gender and childhood and how you’re trying to pull them apart or show ways in which they don’t belong together, or can’t overlap. I also want to know about the balance between the interiority and intensity of the child’s experience, which often results from a kind of ignorance about broader social forces and conditions, and yet is very much placed within those social forces and conditions. How do you hold that intensity in writing, and also show that it’s simply a point in this huge field?
On the one hand I want to say childhood is a kind of insulated prologue to gender. This might run counter to current conversations on trans childhood, but that’s how I experienced it. Being boyish felt harmless before it properly disagreed with puberty. I remember once my family was driving up to Maine and me and my sister were like “when do most people know that they’re gay?” and my dad was like “Well, you should have some sense by 8.” My sister is older, so she was on the other side of that threshold of self-knowledge, and I was like: I’m the only one in this car still up for grabs. But I kind of like being up for grabs. Some qualities of maturation feel like a spinning coin falling on heads or tails, and part of me prefers to remain on the fore side of that verdict, which in the case of being female feels quite arbitrary. You were describing a desire for the book to effect transition in language, and I was maybe thinking about how language could keep the coin spinning, but past the point of childhood in a way that’s not regressive or avoidant; it’s just honest.
I love that. That feels very true to the book.
You write a lot about names, proper names, which are both more specific and mutable kinds of language. I really liked the formulation “I go by,” which brings up transience and transition, and “passing” in many senses. But it also appears to be a declaration of one’s name that then drops the actual name. “When you see me/ do not say a name/ I go by/ Let me go by.” Without the name it’s just a statement of movement.
It’s great that you brought that moment in. The impetus for that stanza is my frustration when people think that the way to share space or include trans people is to add a bunch of language, so what I noticed is that when someone is using a new name after a transition, they say “Oh so and so goes by X,” and it’s often the same as “so and so identifies as a woman.” And it’s a dog-whistle that says: we’re all pretending that this person’s name is this, it’s an appearance. So what I’m trying to do in that stanza is yes, on the one hand it’s a kind of namelessness, just be with me in the transitory nature of this appearance, and on the other hand, don’t say a name I go by, just say my name. Names are real, don’t act like they are appearances. That’s not to say they’re magic, but they can’t be made false without being subjected to a kind of violence.
To me the added language reflects that a decision was made; it doesn’t feel like the violation of a truth claim, but a mark that desire has “entered the chat.” It’s almost worse to lack the qualification; it means you’ve accepted your reality as it was handed to you. One wants to be on the other side of having identified the structures of repression, of having liberated oneself–
That extra language is saying: you left the cave. And I think the worst thing is having left the cave but then also kind of choosing to go back.
Most people come back; a new name doesn’t keep you away forever. Here’s the thing about what you’re saying, it makes sense, but these expressions are used by cis people about trans people, and it marks a difference.
When you said that you don’t know what your gender is, but it’s whatever is in your poems, I feel that way too. I fantasize that if someone takes the time to read these poems, they’ll know how to treat me. When I chose the title, I was thinking about this idea that people think that poetry can and must help us solve social problems. That’s the main thing I’m trying to shrug off, but I think I am trying to fight off all over the place this idea that it is going to solve my problems, that it is going to make my love better, help me care about people better, show people how to treat me. So it’s interesting, what kinds of fantasies I’m willing to entertain.
I love this poem from the section titled “The Unseduced” that reads:
A young something-or-other, the girls
found and pinned me on the sandy
carpets of a vanishing hallway. Their
tweezers floated and stung between
my regions, condensing my eyes into
dark clouds of injured pride. Secretly
my love was blooming in the shrill fog.
Some of its sheddings landed on me.
I felt their prodding through a vellum
that blurred the line between victim
and crush. Red blotches spelled my
limits and possibilities, a tunic draped
however it is allowed. A removal fetish
proliferated among the fecund critics
who dreamed of amputating their own
fruits. In an airier room, a sexier year,
the castoffs would be wrapped up in
a mesh reverie.
There’s a sense of femininity as a conspiracy that lands on you and pins you down. I also love “blooming in the shrill fog” – where the fog is an agent of changing the figurative into the impressionistic, and the redness of the skin taking on a semiotic capacity, spelling limits. I found this poem very moving because you are there and you are also diffused; you are a condition of a moment, but you are also very you. And maybe that is part of the mesh thing, too. A border that allows entrance and exit, or a cross-breeze. Some of your poems feel loud and cacophonous – messages are running in every direction, either intersecting or ignoring each other. But something else is happening here. It’s calm and direct, ambient, and humid.
This poem has a lot of Wendy words!
True! But I can read these poems on their own terms. This section is very intimate, but also lacks some of the explicit keywords that are doing heavy lifting in other sections. Since these are the newest poems, I wonder how it relates to your trust in the reader to follow you with fewer signposts.
I thought about revising the book to make it 80 pages of just that. I think it’s more intimate partially because, well, I wouldn’t say that I stopped writing about trans things–
It’s still very trans, just without some of the SEO–
It’s not that I had to resolve certain problems before I could write like that, but I had to write some of those earlier poems to just say: I’m not better or smarter than just saying the fucking thing I’m thinking about. There it is! One of the things I wanted to touch on in this interview is that I had the eerie feeling reading your book: how are these books so similar, but in a way that I can’t explain the shared origin.
It’s uncanny because we’re not reading all the same things or even talking to each other that much, aside from the last few days.
I love what you said about femininity as a conspiracy that falls upon you. It’s interesting for us to have a shared sense of that from different perspectives. But the way it occurs in your poems with such violence and at the same time such promise, like you can really be enfolded. The poem you read cites a very important moment in my life when I was at summer camp and two older girls were like, you would look so much prettier if you just got your brows shaped, and I was like, okay I’m not going to do that, but they found me and one of them pinned me down and the other one plucked and shaped my eyebrows. It took 30 minutes. I was struggling and crying. Everyone was just laughing. But even at the time I was so happy, I was so happy. I have this fucked up sense that I want to believe – we were talking earlier about the power of choosing – in the power of choice, but there’s a darker part of me that’s like: no, you have to be chosen. It’s also interesting because I do imagine various body modifications, but never my brows.
It doesn’t surprise me that one of the poems I loved most took place at camp. So much happens at camp…
I love how much you honor that intensity and hold on to it.
Of these experiences.
They were intense!
But don’t you think that an equally plausible response would be to disavow it? I have a defense mechanism, or a sense that a lot of crazy weird shit happened to me as a kid, but also like, meh. Every therapeutic relationship I’ve ever had has fought against this, or the therapist has tried to get me to care about my child self.
I think the intensity comes from feeling like you’re on the outside of something, and trying to find a way in. I really like this scene in In Search of Lost Time, which I may misremember, in which young Marcel witnesses two girls in a park making a profane hand gesture that he doesn’t quite know how to interpret. It’s coded, and he feels himself on the outside of meaning. As I remember, it’s very frustrating and alienating, but also productive of desire. That’s how I feel about moments in which something was experienced, I experienced something, but various qualities were remote or unable to be decoded as it was happening. It produces a desire to go back, equipped with language, and I want to share that pursuit of language with the reader. I don’t want everything to be found instantly – I want the language to escape its cancellation through the immediacy of reference – but I also want the reader to keep following, and ultimately arrive at meaning. Again, it’s sardines.
Here’s my last one for you: In the final section there’s a recurring evocation of “the men” as an indivisible conglomerate with none of the utopian communalism that attaches to other forms of mass assembly. It’s like an intrusive continuous bass note that shunts the desire for group affiliation with a reminder of how it can go awry. In addition to this vector of menace, the section itself feels at times a bit mocking and harsh, but then it shifts. I want to say the hinge is as simple as the line “Got stuck in the bad world again,” which inaugurates a calmer register, not of resignation in the sense of defeat, but maybe a resignation to the tools we have at hand, to language and hormones and social life as spaces in which the bass notes can be turned into music. It doesn’t feel hopeful or optimistic, but it does feel like there is an arrival. Given that it’s the title section, can you say a bit more about where we wind up, if not at a solution?
Reading this response made me feel tremendously at ease because this is exactly how I wanted the final section to read. I’m invoking the men sort of in the way that the men are invoked in The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. Men are a political class. There are all these wonderful exchanges in that book between the men and the faggots and the ways in which the faggots live on the men, but also are kind of continually evading them. But I think that I can’t talk yet about what “men” are; I don’t yet know.
This movement from harsh mocking and menacing invectives into something a little more open is really crucial. You’re identifying the hinge in the first line of the penultimate stanza or section. For me the hinge is the last lines of the stanza before, in which, after this extremely depressive experience, I assert that writing is a form of recognizing, accepting, and loving the world and is therefore of utmost ethical import. In my depressive closure of imagination, I start feeling that wanting a better world is a form of hating the world that exists, and that my task is to love it. No solutions, just affirmation. But of course writing is always imaginative, inserting elements of what does not yet exist or what never can, so it comes to be figured as a way of bridging this gap between what actually is and what we want to be, but one that has to remain permanently loyal to what actually is.
You could say that the arc of the book is a movement from thinking in an extremely negative and fearful way about awful things to thinking joyfully about those same things. I wanted to figure out how to write about mass crisis as well as individual frustration and suffering, and at the same time feel that I was giving strength to myself and others. Part of that is the playfulness you’re identifying, but another big part of it is like: what if we take these big words and start juggling with them instead of trying to find their right place and make them fit together? If there’s a lightness, I think it’s stemming from that.