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Diving into the Wreck: My Transition 4.0

Every time I write about my transition, I wonder why. Why reveal the mess of being human and the struggle of my life? It feels safer to be silent, more dignified and the best response to the weight of this change. I come back to writing in the end. I’m writing poetry about this process now, poetry which I will share and publish, so why not prose? There is always a pull to witness in me. Words make sense of life, speaking protects against erasure, and silence is easy but not brave. I live my life on fire, burning up and burnt out. I don’t know how else to be.

I find the idea of a transition more and more silly as I go on. What am I transitioning to? I’ve always been this way. My body is changing but never fast enough to match the pace of my desire. I realize know how far away any real changes are from me. Years out, if I get there and choice to go farther, and I’m not sure why it matters so much. It will bring me closer to the body I want to have but farther away from the body I am. The disconnect feels artificial.

I realize the people who are willing or able to see me as a woman now are going to be the same people who see me as one in the end (if there is an end to a transition). The people who don’t see me as a woman or who use the wrong pronouns/names now will keep on seeing me the same way regardless of how I appear. I will never become a woman who passes as a “real” female, unless I go through major facial surgeries and body modifications with some very negative implications for my health. Even if I could afford them, would I want to spend months recovering from them? Who would care for me in that time? There is no one around now.

I debate hormones. Some days, I think I have nothing to lose. If I can get a referral to a doctor who will prescribe them, I think I will take them even though I don’t necessarily want them. They will move my body closer to a “female” appearance, which may make my daily interactions with the world easier. Is the pressure of society’s intolerance and casual violence enough to push me in directions which may not be right for me? There is a part of me which wants the completeness of the change as a way to wash away who I used to be and kill the old life in me fully. There are no good answers, just more questions and problems.

There are moments of joy in this body and life now. I worry I am not grateful enough for those gifts. I used to walk past shop windows and feel a deep sadness when I would see dresses on display, knowing I could never wear them. I never have to feel that way again. If I want to wear a dress from a show window, I can. I was out with friends a few weeks ago at one of those horrible straight sports bars. Everyone stared at me like always and it was neverwracking to be trapped in a hostile space. At the same time, I looked around me at my friends, my purse on the table, us sharing the same lipstick while we posed for selfies, and thought “yes, this is right. this is the life I belong to”. I can’t change the world and it’s cruelty, but it doesn’t have to change me.

People are more or less tolerant, if uninformed and prone to assumptions. Almost everyone slips between genders or names. I get the sense they feel it’s a choice I’m living out and they’re humouring me. When people are angry with me, the way they say my new name takes on another layer. A friend was irritated with me a while ago and switched to male pronouns for the rest of evening, despite my repeated corrections. If people feel sympathetic to you, they will respect your gender. If they don’t or you upset them, they move back to calling you male. Power works in funny ways.

I asked a trans friend recently if she ever felt like people just saw/treated her like an ordinary woman. I think my exact words were “do you ever get to just be a girl?”. Her answer broke my heart but confirmed what I’ve come to realize. No, you never get to just be. Maybe when I’m alone, watching Downtown Abbey in a 30 year old floral nightie, I can be, but otherwise, you’re something else to everyone you meet. The myth of a transition is that you can become your gender. You can’t. The world doesn’t let you.

I understand why transwomen move to new cities, change their names, and work so hard on passing. It’s the only way to escape this life in between and to finally be the woman you are. It feels like you are only able to be a woman when they don’t know your past. Maybe that shouldn’t matter. After all, I’m not ashamed of the life I lived before and I always was a woman in that life as well, but I realise the dream I’ve had about becoming is one I won’t live. Why should it matter how other people see you?

It is easy to say self love and claim that your life is realized through your actions alone. We live with people and we need them. Our ability to form social bonds is how we survive in the world. Without friends, without lovers, and without peers, our lives shrink to impossible narrow windows. I feel this happening to me now. My life shrinking, contracting as I avoid places where it’s not safe to be in and step away from social situations where my gender isn’t realized. My life expands in other ways as I form new bonds with other transpeople and as people in my life adjust, but it’s lonely.

I know I made the right choice. I don’t regret it but I can’t imagine how I will be able to live with this for the rest of my life. I suspect it gets easier as my body morphs closer to gender norms and I “pass” more. I’m sure I will stop caring about misgendering. I already care less and less as all of my emotional energy leaves my body. I’m getting numb to the world, deadening off the parts of me which react when men spit at me or coworkers call me “sir”. A layer of stone creeps up. I can’t care about the small pains. I need to plan out facial hair removal, find a doctor, decide on hormones-the list of problems in endless and my capacity to respond is not.

I remind myself the world I love is still there. The sky is still beautiful to me. I love the dark nights, the rush of wind on my apartment balcony. Fall is coming and soon, winter. I wait for the return of the snow. I have books and 80s music and vintage dresses. There are people I still love. Miracles can happen. I don’t see all ends. It’s hard not to scroll through facebook and see everyone’s life go on. Friends get married, engaged, and go on vacation. People go on dates, they instagram cute coffee pictures, and get pregnant. My life sits, spooling around an impossible body in an angry world.

I try not to think of the life I would have lived if I born a biological woman. It’s a useless thought but I mourn the unspoken life. She would be almost be 30. Would she be married? Would she have children? What would her life had been? Easier, harder, or just different? I will never know and in some ways, that grief is the hardest to embrace. I will never know what it feels like to walk in the world as a woman. I know what is to be one inside myself, but I will always be read as something else, treated like something else. Separate, a land of my own.

I wish someone had warned me of the grief which comes with a transition. The grief of leaving an old life behind and the grief of realizing the dreams you’ve held your whole life are impossible. It may be a necessary and vital grief, but it’s still pain. I used to think I would one day transition and held onto to it as a promise that my life would make sense in some distant future. The future is now. Now there is nothing left in front of me but the pain of this change, the struggle of becoming.

There is still worth in it. As I said, I feel it was the right decision in every part of me. I feel joy at bringing my life closer to who I am. I love not having to lie anymore. I do not have to hide my femininity with men. If I had a lover, I would not have to fake masculinity. Whatever my life is now, it is fully my life. I won’t lie about the torment of it through.

I’ve been reading Adrienne Rich. She has a lovely series of poems from the middle of her career just before her husband committed suicide. They are about the challenge of being stuck in the middle, between love for her husband and their emotional disconnection. I love the poems because I relate to their bittersweet quality. She seems to be saying “Here is joy, here is suffering-how I can I separate them?” and “everything I love is still here but why do I feel so different about them now?”. I have the same inner experience. 

She wrote a collection which won her major poetic accolades after her husband’s death called “diving into the wreck”. In the titular piece, she describes diving down to a shipwreck and circling the ruins. I feel like this a good metaphor for this transition. I’m disappearing, falling so fast and far into the cold water. I’m alone in this ocean. Beneath me is the bones of my life. I can’t breathe but I’m still alive. I’m circling, looking for a way forward. All I have is words and witness.

If it’s dark here, it’s the darkness I’ve brought with me. I’m caught up. I’m doing well. Processing, making sense, moving on, mourning and rebuilding. I’m having a hard time. I’m gaining weight, not coping well, avoiding public space. I’m spiraling the wreck. This will one day be a story I tell others. This a story I’m telling myself. I’m transitioning to my transition. I’m waiting for tomorrow. I have no hope but I keep watch. I’ve always been this way. This is my life. I’m alone in deep water. Something worthwhile is here.       

When I figure it out, I’ll tell you. Being trans is hard. The right thing for me to be. Not a choice, but a destiny. I came with into the world with this girl self. Now I make her real. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks. I just wish I had something to give her beyond this useless grief. I wish the world was capable of more than barely tolerance. I wish she was taking cute coffee instagram pictures and no one called her “he”. These wishes are silly. Some dreams need to die. The wreck is beautiful in it’s disintegration. I love diving. And this transition goes on. It’s endless even if I am not.

The world I love is still here. The self I love is still here. There are so many things to fear, but my gender isn’t one of them.  

Welcome to Being a Woman: My Transition 3.0

I debated writing about my transition again. It feels strange to speak about something so private on social media. People have had mixed reactions to me writing about my transition. Some are supportive and find it useful to hear the internal process of working through a transition. Others are uncomfortable with the openness of my writing or dismissive of the content as attention seeking or lurid. I feel there is an unspoken disapproval of publicly speaking to my experiences as if it’s undignified.

I question myself as well. If there has been any constant in my life, it is my capacity to question my life. I would not be transitioning if I didn’t question everything, including my intentions with how I live in public. Questioning does not mean I disapprove of writing about my transitions. I understand why I write about transitioning and what it means to me to speak about my gender. I am a writer, so I confront my change through my writing. I am a poet who comes to language with a reverence for its capacity to transform the world. My writing is a promise to myself that I will not go unwitnessed.

I have the same approach to Instagram. Since announcing my transition, my Instagram has switched from nature and food shots to selfies. I love seeing the selfies on my Instagram. I enjoy taking them, planning my hashtags, and sharing them with people I know (and some people I don’t). I love it because they capture my body and gender expression as it changes from male to female. I was never able to express my gender in my body like I can now. It is exhilarating to wear what I want to. Every selfie is an affirmation of why I am going through this transition.

There are other reasons why I love the selfie. I use my hashtags to problematize gender in various ways and I try to acknowledge the inherent narcissistic nature of the medium. I always repeat the hashtag #transisbeautiful because it challenges notions of normative gender appearance and affirms our bodies as transpersons. I like adding #darklady and #dietcokewitch because they reflect the sarcastic elements of my personality. In case you don’t know, Dark Lady is a Cher song about a “gypsy” fortune teller (a.k.a my entire fashion sense). I’m not trying to be serious about this change. Despite how terrifying my transition is, there are moments of joy when I get to play with gender.

The primary reason I love selfies is they are the safest way for me to enjoy my body. I remember Vivek Shraya write about her love of seflies because they are a safe moment to inhabit her body. It is the similar for me. I wear what I want but I do so at a constant cost of hostile reactions from strangers, insecurity about how my body conforms to female gender norms and the persistent threat of violence or intimidation while I walk between my house and the office. In the moment of a selfie, no one can harm me or challenge my expression. The filter blurs hair and I can colour correct away most of my beard shadow. For a brief digital moment, I am as close to the woman I want to be as possible and no one can hurt me for it.

I have another reason for writing and for photographing myself as I go through the transition. I want a record of my change which is visible and accessible to others. In part, I want a visible and accessible narrative of my change because we lack real narratives of women like me transitioning in all of our messy glory. I’m not the only narrative of transitioning around me, but I am one of the few as an Indigenous woman. For many people in my life, I am the first openly transgender woman they have personally known. I also know how important it was for me to read and encounter other transwomen speaking about their transition. It helped me know what to prepare for. More importantly, it showed me it is possible to be trans and still have a functional, meaningful life.

I understand people problematize narratives of transitions. There are many good reasons for transpersons to push back on narratives of gender change. I’ve experienced my share of problematic assumptions from cisfolks who think they “get my story” just because I’m trans. They ask questions about my hormones, my surgery plans, and discuss trans celebrities with me. It’s well intentioned (mostly) but motivated in part by the trans narratives they’ve encountered in the media. With increase visibility comes oversimplification. I’ve seen the same thing happen on the Indigenous side.

I’m not convinced any of those reasons are good rationales for not speaking about this change. Yes, it is a narrative of change, but it is also a narrative of staying the same. I’m transitioning in some way to another expression of my body, but I’m also moving closer to a familiar self I’ve known my whole life. It’s not like she is a new person. She’s been there along, just…displaced. Now, she is stepping back in as someone else steps out. How much of overlap there is between the two of us, I don’t know.

I also want a visible and accessible narrative of my change because I don’t want to answer questions when I see people. If people read my writing and see my body before I have to meet them, my hope is they are prepared and I don’t have to explain myself again. My hope is people won’t be surprised when I show up in female clothing. Everyone should know what to expect from my gender presentation because my body has been spammed across instagram since I started this transition. I believe in witnessing, in leaving a record of myself through image.

I’m losing friends through my transition. Partly because I’ve been so public about it, partly because people are less tolerant than they pretend to be. No one will directly say they disapprove of my transition because it’s taboo to be a bigot. They just withdraw from me, stop texting or engaging. They make hostile posts about transpeople on Facebook or say disparaging thing to me about other transpeople. They avoid anything around transidenity like it’s a contagious disease. They don’t say my name in conversation. They stop inviting me out. I’m erased out of the world, one small negative square at a time.

That’s the way of life. You change: some people step closer, some people step back. It hurts but I think they are wrong. It is important to be honest and public and open and soft. Cynicism is not wisdom. It’s envy and weakness and fear. I am not ashamed. I am not making a choice. I am sharing a truth with the world. It is not my fault. There is nothing wrong with me. If it is not proper to speak honestly in an considered and balanced medium about your life, I don’t see much point in continuing onward as a writer or a person.

To quote Thomas King, “All we are is stories. All the way down”. This story is the one I’m telling myself and the world. I’m going to keep telling it because it’s keeping me alive. It’s all that keeps me alive. This story and this love for myself and this sky and this land and this hope in the promise of truth.

 

~

 

Every morning, I pray my condo elevator is empty. I leave my condo around 8am every day, walk down the carpet lined hall, adjust my dress and fiddle with my Ipod, and wait for the doors for glide open. When they open, I step in whether the elevator is full or not. On the best days, there is no one and I ride down swiftly to the ground floor. On good days, there is 2 or 3 people in the elevator and I shut them out of mind. The worst days are the ones when the elevator is full. I end up perched by the door, balancing my heels and pulling my purse over my hip.

I pray my elevator is empty because there isn’t enough coffee in the morning. I get up 2 hours before I leave the house to get ready, but I’m never prepared. I fight through tiredness and pep talk myself into getting dressed, knowing my outfit will be judged and evaluated and commented on by everyone I encounter throughout the day. Will my coworkers praise me for looking more feminine and my slow learning of the unspoken rules of dressing like a girl? What will strangers on the street say to me today? If the Starbucks guy calls me “Sir” again today, will I finally correct him?

I look at myself in the mirror for long stretches while I get ready. I check for leg hair, arm hair, beard hair, chest hair, back hair, elbow hair, knee hair, hand hair, and feet hair. Every hair on my body is a double reminder of my failures. I’m not Indian nor woman enough to be hairless. My body is the result of vigilance. I watch for it’s deviances. Too much fat, too much hair. Cut, trim, burn away my discomfort. Then love, then affirm, then defend, then celebrate. The cycle of getting dressed is painful and joyful in equal measure.

I like how I look in women’s clothes. Sure, gender is a construct. Yes, women can wear whatever they want, but I like lace. I like long skirts because I can twirl. Abstract print cocktail dresses. Black sheaths. Floral patterns.Looking like a goth gender bending alien. It’s the best part of the transition. For the first time in my life, I feel small and vulnerable in a floral skirt but also powerful and my skin vibrates. What I don’t like is how other people react.

A friend said I always liked to make a stir, as if my transition is another way of seeking attention. I hate making a stir. Being loud, being funny, being bright-these are the only ways people value me. Being soft, being quiet, being gentle-that gets you killed or ignored. Now, I want to be as soft as I can in this new body, but people don’t let me. They stare and stare at me until my skin ripples and I look at the sidewalk while I walk home.

The staring is why I hate the elevators in the morning. You are at your most vulnerable in the morning, just seconds after stepping out your front door. When I step on board and the elevator is full with people, the first human faces I see are filled with repulsion. Sometimes the girls laugh to their boyfriends, skinny hairless shining in their summer dresses. Sometimes the gay guys sneer to their friends, roll their eyes behind me when they think I can’t see. Mostly, people just stare, checking every part of my body.

I can already hear the things people say to me when I tell them about this. That’s what being a woman is like. You are too sensitive. Did you think this would be easy? Well you can’t blame them, can you? They’re confused. It’s confusing. You are confusing and sensitive and stupid and weak and you should be grateful they aren’t smashing your head in with a brick. That’s what everyone means, even if they won’t say it outright because it’s not cool to be intolerant. No bigots in this country. Just nice people with their clean houses and their bloody hands.

People are the hardest part of the transitioning. I used to think it was hair removal or learning a different wardrobe. Now I know better. It’s the daily questions about my body. It’s the endless unsolicited reactions, observations, judgments, and backhanded compliments. Last night a woman came up to me after a reading and grabbed me, making me to hold her hand while she told me that she saw me as a woman. She said I was beautiful, lifting up her hand to stroke my face for what felt like forever. It was mindlessly stupid. After I made my escape, another woman said to me the phrase I hear constantly now. “Welcome to being a woman. No one respects your personal space”. True, but the way they say it, as if it’s something I deserve.

As if I’ve made a choice and now it’s time to pay up. Pay up for what? For my years of living as a “man” knowing I caught in a body which didn’t let me be the self I am? For all that male privilege I benefited from while being assaulted and being chased through streets because I wasn’t “masculine” enough? “Welcome to being a woman” as if to say “you are going to regret this” or “welcome to a difficult life”. As if I don’t know how the world treats female bodies. As I don’t know what it is to be a girl. As if I’m some man in a dress, shocked and surprised by misogyny. As if I haven’t lived my inner life as a girl for the last 29 years.

People tell me know lucky I am. How lucky to be skinny, as if it wasn’t a choice/work. How lucky to be petite and short, so I can pass better. How lucky that I don’t have periods or can’t give birth. How lucky, how lucky, how lucky. I am lucky. I have a good job. I live in a relatively safe and accepting city. I have people around me. I’m also very unlucky. I spent 28 years of my life in the wrong gender. I don’t get to make life with someone in my body. I will never have the same opportunities for love or human connection as biological women. There are no fairy tale endings for girls like me. Everything is complicated. I will spend my life being hunted in the streets, always at risk.

Everyone seems to think it’s a choice to be trans. As if I woke up one day and decided this would be a fun art project. Like I’m trying out identities in a never ending catalogue of options. I’m living this life because it’s the only way to keep living. I don’t see much point for me to keep going as a “man”, pretending and warping myself around a word which hurts me. If I’m not going to live my life as a woman, I’m not going to live it all. I don’t know if it is genetic or personality. Environmental? Who cares -it is what it is. Sure, gender is not real but it is powerful.

I think some people in my life thought I was just becoming a fun version of a full time drag queen and are disappointed that I’m not funnier. I think some people in my life think I’m just looking for attention. I think some people in my life need to leave my life. I’m tired of explaining myself. I need to explain myself. I don’t want to talk about my transition. It’s all I can talk about.  It’s complicated. It’s simple. It’s human.

There have been standouts. People who don’t ask questions but listen. People who affirm whatever I am. People who walk with me to get coffee and give death glares when strangers gape. People who go out of their way to let me know that I’m ok. People who make eye contact with me and smile on the street. People who knew me for years as Giles but never fail to use Gwen. People who use the right pronouns. People who appreciate that they don’t understand and accept it. People who give me girl clothes and shoes. These people help in more ways than they know. They let me be a human being again for a moment: not a statement, not an educational seminar, not a curiosity, not a perverted freak, not a chance for people to prove how accepting they are. Just a girl in a floral skirt who like bubble tea and books.

The negative voices are more numerous than the positive, but the positive voices are more important. It balances over time. I’m fine. I’m capable. I’m handling it. I’m overwhelmed. I’m drowning. I am working through it. Every day, I figure it out. It gets easier with time. I told someone about how traumatic my first electrolysis appointment was and all  they said to me was, “well you didn’t think this would be easy, did you?”.

No, I didn’t think it would be easy. I just knew it was necessary. The biggest feelings I have are exhaustion and joy. How the two intermix is past me to explain, but there they are. Every day, I feel so tired that I want to fall into river and disappear. Every day, I feel a rare joy rush through me which lifts me up into the world. Is it always this so conflicted, this transition? It’s important to remember the problem isn’t with me. I’m not fixing myself. I’m expanding myself. The world is broken. It resists expansiveness.

I want to wake up and walk through empty corridors into the light of day with no one looking at me. I want to move in the world in whatever dress I want and not be pressed like a pack animal. I want to relax into my skin without a constant vigilance against men and their anger. I want to talk with people and hear my name and gender reflected without having to forgive them every-time they get it wrong. I want to not explain my experience but share it. I want, I want, I want. I will never be a Buddhist, but I will be a woman.

Welcome to being a woman. Yes, I’m familiar with this place. It used to be my home. I had to flee to other lands, but I still remember how it works. I never wanted to leave. This is my old home. Part of me has lived here my whole life. This is the body I wear in my thoughts. This is the face I imagine when I think of me. I’m doing some spring cleaning right now. Come back in a few months. It won’t look the same but then again, none of us will be the same. If you are, something has gone wrong. Check for an expiry date. Welcome to being a woman. It feels impossible and tired. It feels powerful and vital. It’s all the feels. It’s work. It’s a part of me I lost. It’s part of me I never forgot. It’s my future, it’s my past.

It doesn’t matter that much. It means everything. It isn’t a big deal. It changes everything. I’m doing well. I can’t sleep at night. I still look like a man in a dress. I still feel like a woman in my soul. There’s a reason they can it a transition. I’m in-between. How is it? Different and the same, but mostly as hard as you’d expect.

Except for sometimes, when no one is looking, when it’s as easy as breathing, when it feels like floating in lake water, when the only thing that scares me is not having more time to love this self as it deserves to be loved. That’s why I do it, every day, in a dress, facing the crowds and the danger and the questions and the doubt. This love for this girl I’ve spent my life hiding.

It’s not easy but love has never been. It’s always work. That’s why we value it.

      

 

Writing with Ghosts: Violence and Grief in Poetry

I finished edits on my second poetry manuscript last week. It went off to the graphic designer and will return at some point in the next 3 months with new fonts and a cover page. My part of the book is finished. I will promote and read from it, but the manuscript has entered the stage where it lives a separate life from me. It is now an artifact, fixed in time and voice to one singular experience. It is hard to let go of a book which I’ve nurtured for 1.5 years.

Releasing the book into the world also marks a change in my relationship with it. It sits outside of me now. I encounter it as an almost stranger, although a stranger I used to know closely. I find myself rereading the final manuscript, trying to get a sense of who it is. When I am actively editing/writing a book, I don’t have a clear sense of what the book is about. I only begin to know the book when it has left me. I recently had to pull a PDF copy of my first book, Ceremonies for the Dead, for someone, so I ended up rereading it. It struck me how different the book was in real life than it was in my head. More than 4 years after writing it, I see the work in a very different light.

For the new book, I’m curious how it will be received by others. I was talking with two friends this week and they asked me what the book is about. As a writer, you are supposed to have a quick 30 second blurb memorized to “pitch” the book. I have nothing rehearsed for Passage. One of the funny things about being a writer with a small independent press is that you often do much of your own promotion/write up, so I wrote the book jacket description of Passage myself. I don’t remember what I threw together to describe the book, but I know it seemed impossible to explain the work. I dodged the question with my friends. If I’m honest, I don’t feel comfortable with the correct description for Passage.

I’m uncomfortable with the description because Passage is a work about violence. It explores violence in its varied forms: sexual violence, physical violence, land and race based violence, gendered violence, and family violence. I’d like to write books about other things, like magical explorations of little known neighbourhoods in Toronto, but I often write about the legacy of violence. I do write past violence to its children: grief, anger, depression, compassion, forgiveness, destruction, and mercy to name a few. Even knowing I write more than violence, I feel conflicted about my published work being focused on a persistent darkness.

I debated other ways to describe Passage to my friends. I could have said the book is about land sovereignty and gender based cultural revitalization or about self-love and acceptance of the world. I could have spun the book as being a transgender “coming out” narrative. Those would be true enough in a way, but wrong. The more I reread Passage, the more convinced I am that the book is about violence and living with its reality. In my life as an artist, I think I will have an opportunity to create work which is not a response to violence but that moment is not now.

I think not writing about violence is a privilege I don’t have. I speak in the voices I was given. As a member of multiple marginalized communities and an Indigenous person in Canada, violence is persistent force of my life. How can I as an Indigenous artist live in a colonial society on appropriated land and not write about land based violence? How can I grow up in Huron County as a transwoman and not write about gendered violence? How can I survive abuse and not write about the impact of family violence? I would have to be a different person to produce art which is not a reflection of those forces. My language has always been a response to the violence I have lived (and am living).

Most newbie writers I meet make one central mistake. They write what they think other people want to hear, usually an event disconnected from their lived experiences or rendered as abstract and impersonal as possible. Newbie writing is almost always exaggerated and unspecific. It uses widely common phrasing and images to convey its meaning. It is rarely specific to the individual writer or if it is about personal content, the piece often cloaks the personal in obscure language. To me, this is always the wrong approach. The personal is the powerful in writing. I want to read writers who speak from their lives, who have voices which are specific and distinct, and who are working through the circumstances of their lives.

I write and read poetry which is personal. I am interested in the world around me. I don’t read poetry which deliberately circumvents the primary goal of language: to communicate clearly. I write what I know. For better or worse, what I know most in my life is violence. I feel a tremendous responsibility when I write about violence. There is the risk of harming others by triggering or speaking to experiences they also carry. There is the responsibility to be careful with myself. Above all else, there is the responsibility to the truth. To honestly embody and revisit violence is one of the central challenges I work through as a poet. I balance this responsibility against the constant external pressure which surrounds all conversations about abuse/violence in Western society.

That external pressure is fear and resistant to speaking to and about violence. When I speak about violence, I have learned to expect the judgement of others.  It is a judgement which privileges silence and questions any account of violence as fictional. It is a response which privileges those who do not speak about their experiences and views survivors who do speak publicly as seeking an improper recognition for their trauma. It believes there is something wrong with disclosure and directness around abuse. In the dominant narrative around violence, the ideal victim suffers in a quiet room and triumphantly returns to the world to reaffirm their togetherness.

In my life, this narrative is far from the actual experience of living with the legacy of violence. Much, if not all, of my writing explores the messy aftermath of violence. There is rarely a graceful or dignified suffering. If you return to the world, it is as a changed body. Triumph is possible but not because of or in spite of violence. Violence just happens and you make what you can of it. It does not alchemize you into anything purer or better. It is what it is, at least for me.

I think there is an instinct to view confessional poetry as raw, unfiltered emotion. I suppose it can be that, but not when it is drawn through layers of editing and revision. It is as constructed as any other discipline of poetry. Indigenous confessional poetry (if such a category exists and/or is needed) is particularly nuanced because it navigates through the legacy of colonial erasure and disintegration. When an Indigenous poet speaks from a place of “I”, they are responding to the history of Indigenous voices being deliberately legislated out of existence. Whether an Indigenous poet intentionally confronts colonization in their work doesn’t matter. The act of writing and publishing as an Indigenous writer in Canada, regardless of the content, is an explicit defiance of and a response to colonial violence. So in all these ways, I see my poetry as a constructed engagement with violence.

I question of the meaning of my engagement. Most people don’t think about violence in their everyday life or navigate the responsibilities of speaking to it. Most people don’t think about poetry at all or if they do, it’s just some pretty bits of writing somewhere in the world. I don’t blame other people for a disengagement from violence or poetry. It’s easier and more logical to focus on what interests us. Interest is often defined by things which are easy, beautiful, and engender a feeling of comfort and happiness. Violence and its legacy is not restful nor likely to produce positive emotions. Violence’s discomfort is not a compelling reason to ignore it, even if it is an understandable response.

It is hard to write about violence and grief. It is hard to read it. There has never been a point in my life where I have felt comfortable speaking about the violence I know. It seems necessary to appreciate the complexity and beauty of our experiences as human beings, including our pain and the multifaceted responses we have to it. The darkness in the world remains real and urgent. While I wrote this entry, news broke that the remains of a 26 year-old Indigenous woman had been found in the North. She was missing since November. Something is wrong in the world. We can’t ignore violence, even if we want to.

I use a quote from Audre Lorde in the beginning of this next collection. I debated putting it in for a number of reasons, including using the voice of a Black queer poet to frame a collection of poetry by a light skinned Indigenous Trans poet. I decided to use it because it articulates perfectly how I feel about confessional poetry and about speaking to violence/abuse. At the end of a poem called “A Litany For Survival”, she writes

“so it is better to speak/

remembering/

we were never meant to survive”.

The quote speaks two ways for me. In one voice, it captures the genocidal dreams of colonial society which intended to eradicate Black, Indigenous, and Queer bodies from the lands they claimed. In Canada, Indigenous peoples were explicitly identified for elimination through murder by the state via residential schools, forced sterilization, smallpox, medical testing, starvation and displacement, and family/cultural destruction. We are survivors of genocide, one which is still dramatically impacting our communities. Lorde’s quote, originally related to the legacy of slavery and violence towards the Black community in America, translates to an Indigenous context as well.

Her quote also reflects the impetus to speak to the violence even if our response is not viewed as appropriate or appreciated. Earlier in the poem, Lorde talks about how speaking risks negative reactions and threatens the speaker by disrupting spaces within and outside of community. She talks about how members of her own marginalized community rejected and judged her for speaking. Yet she comes back to affirming that the only answer to violence is to speak. It’s a profound point. Our voices are valuable (in part) because we were never meant to have them. Our stories are meaningful (in part) because we should not be here to tell them. Poetry, for Lorde and for me, is a way of reconciling the reality of their ugly violence with the reality of our beautiful survival.

I shouldn’t doubt my book because it is a conversation with violence. I’m not comfortable speaking about violence or grief, but it is necessary. One of the lines from the new book has been stuck in my head since my last reread. Like much of the collection, it is part of a very sparse poem which closes out the collection. In the piece, “Goes On”, I have two stanzas which say:

“yes, it’s endless,

the weight of grief.

 

this country knows

nothing else.”

I like these lines (not just because I wrote them) because they are my response to collective resistance with engaging violence/abuse. The “yes” is an acknowledgement of the reader’s discomfort. Yes, this collection is dark. Yes, there are so many poems about violence. Yes, this is depressing stuff. Yes, it goes on and on, but it still meaningful. The line also connects violence to the idea of nationhood through “this country”. This country is Canada as the enactor of colonial violence, but “this country” is also the poem’s narrator. It is both a critique of colonization and an affirmation of sovereignty of the individual (sovereign body=sovereign land). The “yes, it’s endless” also speaks to the reader who has experienced violence, validating/affirming their experience of grief and the constant work of unpacking violence. Healing is not a destination, but continual work.

I am curious to hear how others find Passage. It’s funny to spend so much life energy on a piece of writing which may only reach a readership of 200 people if I’m lucky. Poetry is a neglected genre but I don’t write for acclaim or any other reward. I write because it’s what I do and love. The technique of poetry compels me, but also its ability to capture complex truths in limited lines. Like the exploration of violence, it is challenging but always worthwhile. Life is not easy but there is comfort in consciously embracing the world.

After everything I’ve read and done in my life, I come back to the same questions. I live and write with ghosts. I want to go out into the night and walk until I find lake water. It’s endless, the journey and work of reconciling to the world. I have one life. Soon enough, it will end and I will be silent. Until then, I speak remembering I was never meant to survive. Poetry is one of the ways I speak with the world I know and Passage is a record of that conversation. It is not an easy dialogue, but it has always been mine. When Passage is published, it will become ours. I look forward to that moment. Like every moment in my life, I’m afraid but not enough to stop.

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Questions About My Transition

I made a choice to come out when I was 13 as gay. Looking back, it seems impossible that I thought it was a good idea. I wasn’t ready for the response. My family told me I was possessed by the Devil. Most of my friends thought I was confused. Everyone at school already called me a faggot, but being the only openly gay kid in a rural high school was a death sentence. Other teenagers, mostly farm boys, wrote on my locker, stalked me in the halls and on way home, and threw bottles at my head from car windows.

I’ve always been a public spectacle, even when I didn’t want to be. When I was much bigger, my body set me apart from the other boys who could run with ease. My family’s poverty and weird religious background disconnected me from the world. We didn’t have television until I was 12, weren’t allowed to go to movie theaters, couldn’t swim in mixed pools, or listen to the radio. When I entered the public school system, I was a freak who read fantasy books. I had a noticeable lisp, causing people to tell me to “talk normally” and ask me “why do you sound like a girl”?

I was the same in university, always on the outskirts of my friend’s circles and orbiting in a sphere of my own. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to fit in. I tried to make myself as normal as possible, but I never seemed to fake it well enough. I found other Queer kids and figured I’d belong. I quickly learned that being gay wasn’t my only difference. I was still weird and fat, interested in worlds of magic and wonder. I had my culture and started learning my language, which helped me but didn’t fix anything. Being a half breed isn’t an easy identity to navigate, especially as a two-spirited, blue eyed, light skinned one.

It wasn’t until I came to Toronto that I finally discovered invisibility. In a city of Queers, I could disappear on the streets and wander without anyone noticing me. When I lost weight and became as close to skinny as I have ever come, it was even easier to evaporate. I made stronger friendships, built a career, wrote a book, lived with a guy for 5 years, and tried to put my past behind me. It was and remains a good life. If my life was a book, I wouldn’t be disappointed by that ending, even if the relationship broke up and I went on a series of really bad Tindr dates.

I’ve made another choice in my life, a second “coming out” I didn’t expect to make. This time, instead of explaining my sexuality, I’ve revealed my gender doesn’t align with my physical body (which seems to be how we decide gender in this society). Coming out as transgendered is not the same as coming out as gay. It’s much harder and I feel a vulnerability about it that I didn’t feel about being gay. Maybe because people have so many more questions about what it means than they did about being gay. I wonder if this coming out renders the first coming out a mistake. Am I gay anymore or something else now?

Coming out as transgendered and as a woman has been as public as when I came out as gay. As a poet, I have a desire to live my life as openly as possible. I announced my transition as work in a staff meeting, seemingly out of nowhere. I started wearing women’s clothing, using makeup, and regularly go to work in heels. I instagram’d photos of myself in dresses and as a woman. I changed my facebook and public accounts to my female name and will be publishing my next book under my new name. My transition is fully exposed to everyone I know.

Part of my openness has been a conscious choice. I realized how few narratives of transitions existed in the world. People seemed to think we just take magic pills and turn into a woman overnight. There is constant message around me to be quiet and careful about my gender, which feels like shame. Other transwomen, drawing from their own experiences with oppression, cautioned me about wearing the wrong clothes or not doing my makeup perfectly because it might embarrass ciswomen. Everything about transitioning seemed to imply a secret self, hidden away in a closet filled with women’s shoes and lingerie.

I only speak for myself and recognize that much of the secrecy is related to the very real discrimination and violence which transwomen face. It makes sense to be careful and cautious. I understand many transwomen don’t want their life as a “boy” to follow them into womanhood. It’s much easier to hide this part of myself than to be open about it. I could have started hormones, got electrolysis, and prepared for this change without anyone knowing. I don’t want to live that life anymore, hiding the girl inside me and trying not to be feminine around others. I don’t want to shapeshift around gay men, pretending I’m like them when I know I’m not. I want to live my life now, not in two or three years when the process is complete.

Becoming a woman takes time. The hormones, if you decide to take them, take 3 years to reach full effect. Removing your facial hair can take a year or two years of painful, expensive electrolysis. You have to learn an entirely different set of social cues and movements. Walking in heels in an art form I have not mastered. Girls who are born girls have years to figure out makeup, clothing, and relationships. For girls like me, we have to learn in months. It’s a second puberty and adolescence. Nothing makes sense and no one, except for other transwomen, really understands.

A lot of people don’t get it. Some people are privately hostile about it. Men on street are publicly hostile about it, as I’m reminded every day I wear heels. People who love you try to wrap their minds around your change, switching between pronouns and your old name/new name. The best allies have been straight ciswomen who offer advice, shoes, and are protective in a way which surprises me. Straight men in my life seem to get it, offering a distant support which is mostly “call me if anyone fucks with you”. Some gay men, mostly older and wiser, are supportive, but many gay men are not. It feels like they can’t see the value of becoming a woman, as if I’m diminishing myself or becoming something disgusting.

There are positive things as well. It’s elating to move closer to living the life I want in the body that belongs to me. I feel a freedom in my body which I never felt before, telling me I can be as feminine as I want. I’m happier identifying as female, hearing people call me by my new name and using the pronouns I want. Deleting the gay dating apps from my phone was a great moment as well, recognizing that I don’t have to conform to the ideals of a culture which increasingly preferences athletic white bodies and a masculinity which feels toxic. Even the dates I had with gay men with good politics made me feel like a cheat, like I was pretending to be a man when I knew I wasn’t what they wanted. It’s relieving to not feel the weight of their expectations. I look forward to my life as her, even if I don’t really know what that will be like.

I do know that I want to be public about this change. I don’t want to cloister myself away for two years until I’m “woman” enough. I don’t want to hide the process, how painful and complicated it can be. I keep going out into the world with the swollen and red marks of electrolysis on my face. I post selfies of my body in dresses, often forgetting to tuck. I wear heels and heavy makeup, black eyeliner, and lip gloss. I’m tired of being ashamed and of waiting. Sure, it’s a mess but who cares?

The question which runs through my mind everyday of this transition is not one which I expected. I expected to ask myself “am I crazy for doing this?” and “what will happen to me?”. I have these thoughts as well, but not as much as I anticipated. No, the main question I find myself asking is “when do we love ourselves?”. It seems to be one of the central questions of being a woman. I know the other women in my life struggle with the same question.

Do we love ourselves when we’re done transitioning? When we’re finally skinny? When we’re beautiful? When we have a boyfriend? When we have a husband? When we look like magazines and our lives are full of friends on instagram? When we look like everything is together and our legs are perfectly smooth and our vaginas are normal and our breasts are perky and everyone wants us? When we’re laughing and happy and believe in ourselves?

I’m going to be transitioning for a long time. Years of life will pass before I’m fully a “woman”, if I even go that far. I probably won’t look like I want to look until I’m in my 30s. My body will be caught between boy and girl for the foreseeable future. I’m going to spend my summer getting my face burned and zapped. It’s going to a strange, messy journey. I should hide it, I know, and appear like nothing is happening because that’s what normal people do.

I’m not normal. I’ve never been. I’m not an ordinary girl. I don’t think any of us are. The closer to becoming her I go, the more I’m convinced that what I’ve been told about femininity is a myth. The answer to the question of “when do we love ourselves” has to be now. For me, that means being open about this process and not feeling like I need to hide myself. It’s challenging but the beauty of the universe lives in it’s complications.

Maybe I will look back on my second coming out with the same chagrin as I do my first. Maybe I never learn, rushing into the water even when the lake is freezing. Maybe my soul is a mistake which keeps repeating. I’m not sure it matters. I’m living the answer I want. I’m a woman and I love myself now. Not when the hormones kick in, not when I lose the last 10 pounds, not when my beard is gone, not in two years when I look like a woman “should”.

What I’ve learned about transitioning so far? The biggest change in becoming a woman isn’t physical. It’s learning to accept and celebrate yourself as you are. No one else can do it for you and it takes constant effort. The world will spend it’s time telling you in a thousand ways that you aren’t enough. If you listen to it, you will be as miserable as a woman as you were as a man. I’m not going to live the rest of my life feeling like a freak. I’m a transgoddess and I bake a mean apple pie. The rest is white noise I don’t have time for.

Come out? Stay in? It’s every woman’s decision if and when you tell people, but if you don’t accept yourself first, you will never make it. Transitioning is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a life of hard things. The only way through is love. From my friends and myself. And love in public, love in action, love in every selfie, and love in every poem. I’m 28 years old and I’m going to spend the rest of my life in love with everything around me, starting with myself.

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The long poem: embracing the world as it is

The last two weekends of my life have been focused on finishing edits on my second book of poetry. While editing involves hundreds of individual line edits, fixing poems that don’t work, creating new pieces to fill in gaps in the collection, the part I’ve spent the most time on is the quotations at the front of the book. I have three quotations listed and am debating adding a fourth. I like using quotations as a way to introduce the collection to readers. I think it’s an extension of how introductions work in Indigenous communities, as we always introduce our names, our communities, and our clans before doing anything. It’s a way of indicating our connections and responsibilities so other Indigenous people know who we are accountable to and how we fit into the greater collective.

For me, quoting other poets fulfills the same function. A reader can tell from my quotes where my poetry comes from and what tradition it is carrying on. I quote Queer poets, two American confessional poets and one Canadian conceptual poet. My gender balance is off, as I currently have two male identified poets and one female identified poet. I’m also conscious that I’m not quoting any Indigenous poets or poets from other racialized communities. I feel that is appropriate for the collection, as the forms and conventions I am primarily working with are Western (particularly American) poetic styles. Indigenous content comes from my experiences and worldview which is infused into the poems, regardless of their technical construction.

One of the poets I quote is Tim Dlugos, a queer writer from the 1970s and 80s. He was an underground poet for many years until an omnibus of his poetry was published recently, so he has come back into the mainstream of poetry. His work is highly personal and conversation, focused on intimate details of his life and landscape, and can feel “messy” and “cluttered” at times. He is a master of the long poem, a poetic convention I ended up writing much of Passage in. His poems start in the hyper-personal, often using names of his friends without explanation, but expand throughout to embrace the broader world. When I first read his work, I didn’t like his technical style and the long narratives which he creates in his work. Now, at a different place in my life, I appreciate the fluidity of a conversational long poem which speaks to the personal.

The specific piece I quote from Dlugos is his most famous, G-9, which is a long form poem about his final stay in the AIDS ward in New York. It’s the last published poem he wrote before his death. Much of the poem could be described as a self eulogy, as Dlugos reflects on his life and coming death. Through the long poem, he lists people and places from his present experience, but also reflects back on people and places which have disappeared. He died at 41, so the span of his life is short as we would think of it, but it’s remarkable how the poem manages to give a sense of movement and a full life. It is commonly seen as a poem about the AIDS epidemic, as the poem speaks directly to the impact of AIDS on the people around Dlugos and the experience of dying from complications of the disease.

I don’t discount it’s social relevance as giving voice to a profound historical moment in North American Queer life, but the connection to the AIDS epidemic is not why I appreciate the poem. I love G-9 because it showcases one of the primary functions of the long poem. A long poem is almost always where the poet is able to embrace the world, to let go of some of the constriction required of shorter pieces, and reach out into the landscape around themselves. G-9 is a eulogy but it is also a gentle and wondrous summoning of the world which Dlugos possesses. It speaks through death and past dying into life, the life he has lived but also the lives of other people  around him (even ones who he knows will outlive him).

A Buddhist at the time of his death, Dlugos also uses G-9 to reconcile the world. The poem accepts death, accepts the loss of love and friends, and the knowledge that Dlugos’s dying is not graceful. It normalizes death and experience of dying, if such a thing can be possible for readers who have not approached their deaths yet. It accepts the world as it is, flawed and broken up. Dlugos speaks about his lover coming to visit him in the ward, about his nurse dancing to music on the television, and mentions his fellow patients around him. He presents the moment he is inhabiting fully and through G-9, embraces it and passes it over to his readers. For me, this is the most important part of being a poet. Embodying our humanity and sharing it with an audience is the highest form of poetry.

I used the long form construct in Passage for the same reason. I wanted to reconcile myself to the world around me. I felt a strong instinct to embrace my humanity and reside in the moment of connection. Long form poetry is dangerous because you have so much room to make mistakes and you can lose your poetic threads, but I came back to the work of poets like Dlugos to guide me. This why I quote him at the beginning of the collection, to let my reader know where my poetry is coming from and to acknowledge I’ve learned from him. I don’t think I have his capacity for the casual narrative or have managed to create a work as powerful as G-9, but I’m happy to stand in a poetic tradition which created works like that.

The lines I quote are below. Right after he writes them, Dlugos goes on to repeat an interaction with a friend where he affirms that the best moment of his life is “today”, even though he is weeks from death and trapped in a hospital. It’s a profound piece of writing which does exactly what a long form poem should do. It lists the world in precise detail but manages to say something about human existence which is applicable to all of us. The older I get, the more I appreciate the power of embracing the world exactly as it is with nothing held back but a small wish for miracles. Read the whole poem here. It’s worth the 3 minutes it takes. Try to see how the moment which the poet is inhabiting gives him the power to speak to the expanse of time. It’s a master poet writing with extraordinary urgency to speak across generations. Dlugos pulls it off with a an effortless grace which we know must have been anything but easy.
I’ve trust enough in all
that’s happened in my life,
the unexpected love
and gentleness that rushes in
to fill the arid spaces
in my heart, the way the city
glow fills up the sky
above the river, making it
seem less than night.

 

Tim Dlugos, “G-9” from A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos. Copyright © 2011 by Tim Dlugos.

For National Poetry Month: why poetry?

On days like today, I ask why I write. It’s often the question people raise at public events, usually followed by my favourite question of “how do you write”. I guess the process of writing seems mysterious to people who don’t write. We all write as part of everyday life, but what turns everyday writing into literary writing? It’s not magic, if sometimes good writing can feel magical. It’s an ordinary love which comes from the practice of repeated work. How do I do it? I just do, over and over again for the rest of my life. A habit I can’t shake, writing is how I think and see the world. Even when I’m not writing, I’m stringing lines together in my head.

The better question is the why of writing. People have complex answers for this. Some of those answers I like (connection, self discovery, communication, inquiry, transcendence) and some of the answers I don’t like (healing, empowerment, change). I think it’s an individual answer for every writer. It’s an answer you write your way to and it changes as your writing does. For me, coming onto the release of my second book and nearing the point where I let go and stop editing the new work, it feels important for me to consider the question of why I write.

Writing is hard. I find it painful, especially if I’m writing poetry. I avoided it after my first book because I wanted to feel happy. Poetry doesn’t make me happy. Bubble tea, walking through the city, 80s music, and Chinatown make me happy. Poetry is a wound I pick at until it bleeds. Perhaps other kinds of poets, ones who write through other people’s eyes or retell myths, don’t poetry as emotionally difficult as I do. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter of my poetry which makes it challenging or if it’s my intentions when I write.

My intention is to offer up memory through language. I try to distill my experiences into images and use to create ideas and moods. I don’t always know what I am writing. Sometimes I follow an image and narrative emerges. There are poems which I’ve planned for weeks and poems which come from a strange place I don’t understand. My goal is the same for every poem I write, even if I come to the poem from a different place. That goal is always divination. I want to see the world through my art, as honest and unfiltered.

In a way, poetry reminds me of Instagram. It’s a snapshot of a scene which you colour and edit to create a kind of visual beauty. It is shared across language and scrolls past in someone’s head. It has the span of however long it takes your reader to flip through or listen to your voice. Then it disappears, back to the great well of language it came from. That’s what I love about poetry. It’s temporary wonder which comes and goes faster than you can fully catch it.

Perhaps that’s why so many people tell me that poetry is hard to understand. It asks you to quickly see to the heart of things. You have to follow the logic of words and image to make sense of poetry. It tries to trick you, sends you down one path but brings you back to another. I think the best poetry is the most understandable, but even the cleanest lines ask something of their reader. I believe you should work for truth. So this must be why poetry is hard to understand and harder to write.

It is off to me that many people start with writing poetry instead of prose. Maybe the length of poetry seems less intimidating than prose’s long story arcs. I think this is a mistake. Poetry is unforgiving. If you mess up in 30 words, it’s much easier to see than if you mess up in 40, 000. Poetry is also immediate. A novel or a short story has a slow burn simmering throughout but a poem is a firecracker. It goes up and flares (if you do it right) or it crashes and smolders (if you do it wrong). An audience or reader knows a good poem in seconds while they may get ¾ of the way through a book before deciding it’s terrible. So why write poetry?

For me, it comes back to truth and divination. A good poem shows you what you already know but manages to make the familiar become something new. It takes emotions and spins them together to impact readers. It reveals what you’ve always felt but could never say aloud. At it’s heart, writing or reading poetry is like praying to the Divine. The difference is that poetry answers. It opens up and shows the world in all of it’s varied forms. It grieves what is missing in our human lives and celebrates our ability to transcend our physical forms.

I’m not a hopeful person. I don’t expect things to work out. I haven’t lived a life which taught me to feel secure or to believe I could find what I wanted. My experience of life has often been of it’s absences, what escapes me and doesn’t come back. What I want more than anything is a life where the world comes to me with light. I don’t think I’ll ever live that life, as a woman or a man. What I hold onto is the promise poetry gives me.

The promise of poetry is that we aren’t alone in our experiences or observations. We aren’t even original in our angst. Someone has felt and thought exactly what I have felt or thought. They’ve written about the same quality of summer light on red bricks. They’ve fallen for the same impossible to reach boy. They’ve waited in hospitals for their deaths to come. Their poetry is a record and witness of life. My poetry is the same. There is hope in that, a small comfort which is worth more than everything else I’ve found.

Sometimes, I read a poem and it creates a space inside me where I feel a profound sense of connection to being human. When I’m lucky and work hard, I write a poem which connects me to the same expansive sense of the world. I come back to poetry because of this feeling, which I don’t have precise words for. It reminds me of new love, the moment when you meet someone and there is an attraction which seems like it could change your life. You lean into that feeling as much as possible, because it says you can be anything and everything bad can be forgotten. It’s a stupid hope, a dumb longing you can’t help but give into. That’s how poetry makes me feel. It’s hard to read/write but necessary.

I can live through many things, but my life is only worth something if I hope. And poetry lets me feel the wonder of the world, the mystery of our origins, and the relentless flow of chance and happenstance. So I read it and write it. Constantly, every day, as long as I need to. Try it.

If you haven’t read poetry since school, National Poetry Month is a good time to start again. Go for this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, or just try to read them all. 

 

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Transitions

When sending my updated author headshot to my publisher, I realized I had some explaining to do. Not to my publisher, Kegedonce Press, who’ve been tremendously supportive, but to my audience/anyone who encounters my work. The reason for explanation is because my previous author headshot is different than my new headshot. There are two major changes between the first and the second, my weight and my gender. I haven’t spoken directly about either parts of my life in public before, even if my poetry has always circulated body and gender as thematic elements. I haven’t spoken about them because it’s painful to talk about and it opens me up to ridicule or misunderstanding. Some things, I’ve always felt, are too private for the public sphere.

I realize the contradictions in saying some parts of my life are off limits for conversation. I’m a poet whose work has always been defined by candour, speaking to abuse and trauma, and never failing to go as dark as I can. Yet for the last two years of my life, I haven’t made a single public comment about my weight loss or my gender identity. After rereading my new collection, Passage (forthcoming, Kegedonce Press, 2016) and doing final line edits, I feel like it’s necessary to say something about both. Not just for practical reasons, but because I feel it’s important conversation around poetry itself.

My old author photo was taken when I was 24 years old in Christie Pits. I am probably 215 or 210 pounds at that time. I have long hair and am wearing plaid. It’s not the best look, but I like the photo because it reflects a happy time in my life. What isn’t obvious from the photograph is that I had long hair because I was preparing for transitioning from a man to a woman. I grew out my hair because I wanted to start the process and realized I would to need to plan in advance. Life happened and I didn’t follow through on the transition, partly because there were barriers I didn’t expect and partly because I didn’t want to rush into a decision I couldn’t step back from.

My new author photo was taken in a basement in Kensington Market. I am 136 pounds in the photo. I know the number because I weigh myself regularly. Part of major weight loss is developing a paranoia about regaining your weight. I am in a dress with heavy makeup and a long black wig. It has purple streaks running through the lower half which is why I bought it. I love that wig and I love how I look in the photo. I’m in a vintage black lace gown from the Market and I feel like Morticia Adams. When I look at my face in the photograph, I feel like I’m finally seeing a version of myself that makes sense. It’s an outer change, not an inner one, but it still surprises me how much to matters to see myself as a woman.

Weight loss is change, a profound change to your body and your experience. I find my changed body so different than my old one. I experience the world differently now, not always in the positive ways that weight loss is marketed. I lost weight because I wanted to change my experience of the world, because I was bored with being the “fat girl” in the room, and because it was an incredible challenge. There is another reason for the weight loss. I wanted to lose weight before beginning my transition, because the surgeries for gender reassignment are much safer at a lower BMI. It’s easier to wear heels in a male body when you weigh less.

Becoming a woman, changing my gender, transitioning from one life to another, is the other reason for a new author headshot. My author bio will only use female pronouns going forward. I’ve edited all my media work to reflect this. When Passage comes in the Fall of 2016, it will be under my name but the descriptions and photos will be of me as a woman. I’ve started transitioning in my non-writer job as well.

I’m not sure what it means for my life. I can’t answer the questions people ask me yet, like if I will get bottom surgery or will I change my name (probably-Gwen). My transition will be rocky as I learn makeup, women’s clothing, go through hair removal, hormones, and everything else. It’s a second adolescence. I don’t know what it will mean for my sexuality and my intimate relationships. I’ve lived my life as a gay man. I’m not sure what I will be now. I don’t think I will stop appearing as a “boy” for while yet (hair removal, girl), but I know I will also be appearing as a “girl” in public. That will be confusing for everyone involved. Probably not a good time for first dates.

I don’t care about the consequences, to be honest. I’m scared of many things. I know violence towards girls like me to a very real threat. I worry that I’m going to end murdered or missing like so many transwomen I know. I’ve felt the anger and fear that people have towards you when you step across gender lines. There is medical risks. Small pains like discrimination and comments, constantly explaining yourself, and the everyday struggle of makeup. I’m afraid I’ll stay single forever, caught between genders and no longer desirable for either category. Mostly, I’m afraid of men- their violence and their rejection.

I hope my experience is ultimately a positive one. I am very privileged to be a light skinned woman with a secure and supportive job. I have friends who value me for my contributions and who support my decision to transition. I will figure out the rest of it in time. In the meantime, I’m happy to finally be moving towards a body and life which feels truthful and real for me. When I look at the old and new author shots, I see a change which isn’t physical. Yes, I changed weights and genders between the two, but that isn’t the real difference for me.

It’s a change in openness. In the new photo, I lean into the camera with a smile and my arms outstretched. The old photo shows me turned slightly away, my face empty and no real expression in my eyes. My former body, it’s layers of fat, sits between me and the world in the photograph. Both are me and will always be me, but only one of them is embracing the world. It’s the girl me, the nerdy tattoo covered girl with a crook nose and heavy glasses, who is reaching out to the infinite light only the camera can see. She’s the one I want. She’s the one I’ve waited my life to be.

This is why I feel it’s useful to talk about this change in public. My story is really a story about revelation and discovery, which is what poetry is for me. I know it’s trendy to reject confessional poetry as diary entries ejected into the public, but poetry about the self is also a form of connection with the world. I try through my poetry to reach my fellow human beings. I communicate through my memory, my senses, my language, and my body to transmit ideas to my readers. It’s a very intimate exchange. I think it lets us into other humans in a way which is transformative. That’s the burden and the gift of being a poet.

If I didn’t believe that language could connect us, I wouldn’t write or read it. What I love about poetry is how it brings me to myself through the voices of others. It reconciles me to the world I live in, affirms the human experiences I carry, and brings me to places I couldn’t find on my own. We’re not all the same, each voice is unique and our difference matters, but poetry is a place to speak between us. Given that, how I publish another poetry collection without first telling you who I am?

I’m a former fat girl in a boy’s body who spends my income on heavy foundation and Japanese curry. I’m a poet, a half breed, and a running addict. I try to reach the universal and the specific in every poem I write. I want to be connected to the world I live in. I want us to be connected to each other through language. I hope we change through our shared story and change around it. Some days I think the world is the best poem I’ve ever heard and I wish I could write the way it feels to be alive. Other days, I’m satisfied to be a small part of the everyday wonder of the universe.

If you see me as a boy, call me Giles. If you see me as a girl, call me Gwen. If you read my poetry, you’ll realize it doesn’t matter. Stay beautiful and live the body (whatever that is) that works for you.