Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with J/J Hastain

In 2011, I devoted a post each month to interviewing a poet. These interviews were enjoyable and great ways to connect with other poets and share ideas and experiences. Part of my goal with my blog is to discuss issues related to poetry and to showcase other good poets. The interviews were a way to do that. After a year of doing it, I took a break that lasted a little too long. Life happened.

Today, I'm featuring my first interview since 2011. Over the last few weeks I've been interviewing J/J Hastain through email. We first connected this way about a year ago. J/J's work is very different from my own, which is one reason I wanted to interview J/J. I hope you enjoy our conversation!

S: Who are your biggest influences?

J: Oh there are so many! Here are a few: Sadhus, Butoh performers/ practitioners, fire eaters, circus ghosts, overlooked Biblical/historical figures, mythological victims, fringe populates, divergents, people who identify with their bodies in ways that overtly torque systemic norms, many genderqueer and Trans writers (I don’t want to start into the specificities of this list because it is very long and each of the people on it are dear to me and I don’t want to accidentally leave any of the many beautiful people out), feminist versions of Mary Magdalene, intentional harvesters of female masculinity (friends and lovers who nurture masculine-female identified beings), intentional harvesters of male femininity (friends and lovers who nurture feminine-male identified beings) female Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Guanyin, lesbian nuns, nanotechnology, Priscilla Queen of the desert.
S: That’s a great and diverse list. I love it. Your work might be described as complex, but also playful in how it uses language. I’m curious about your writing process. What is it like?

J: Thank you! Those are both compliments. I would not say that I am ever intentionally either complex or playful, but as the integrity (and impetus) of my works is often sound and image related it definitely makes sense that that could be how the works are received (and that reception pleases me).

I suppose when you live the blessing of being utterly and entirely subsumed (this is both the what and the how of my writing process) you are bound to get wrapped up in sensory information. That wrap is being rapt. Sparks fly off of the flag when its sides are rubbed together. To tighten wrapping by psychic powers, then to find ways to unwrap (wrap and unwrap are proven possible on the visually itinerant shell of a gastropod mollusk) or loosen is the embodiment shape of the work of all of my books in one way or another.

Each of my writings investigates and invests in tone more than anything else: tone as a feeling place and tone as delivery mechanism. Tone is a precursor to an infinity of travels, to inter-stellar tergiversations of many types.

S: On that same note, some of your work borders between poetry and prose. You often write in long lines and even paragraphs. How do you determine what form your work takes?

J: It feels important to state that meaning has always meant things to me, but has not always been a clear thing for me (in particular) to pursue. I began writing with an absolute rebellion against traditions of many types (including grammar and enforcements regarding sentence/phrase structure). For this reason, some of my earlier works were sound-based articulations of disparateness—a bell or a singing bowl being rung without a middle. In other words, there was resonance, but not the kind of resonance that instantly communicates meaning. These early books depended on the reach of the reader in order to get their middles and that reach (the reader’s belief folding into them) resulted in plump and foretelling middles that outdid what the earlier works could have ever hoped for for themselves on their own.

Lately (for the last few years), I have been working intently on developments of the mystical sentence: a sentence that somehow holds more than its share of the weight of a page. Mystical sentences drift and drip: they writhe. They reach outward from the configured and clotty middles (intents, figures) of the projects. They extend to readers from their own matured middles.

The first few books I wrote in the mystical sentence projects were what I called non-novels. They were impossible content trying to tell itself by way of sentences and phrasing that are not indigenous to grammar. In other words, in my writing process I have moved from glittery, guttural accounts of disparateness to composition of forms of tell that while sharing my early, guerilla refusals (in regard to grammar and tradition) also began to intentionally mate with sentences on my own terms. This transition has made meaning even more suitable to and able to be sought within my writing process.

S: You’ve mentioned working with “sound” and often working against the norm when it comes to grammar and sentence structure. These might present challenges to certain readers. How much do you consider the reader when writing? Is there a particular reader you have in mind?

J: My work with sound is more akin to trance work than it is, say, some impenetrable chant in a foreign language. It is there to be entered: it can feel it when you come in. Sounds bleed: they are music’s primal tongue. Silhouettes skip along the bridges seeking out reservoirs, invisible revenues are pursued for the sake of increasing beautiful excesses.

I would say that I decided a long time ago not to write for a particular reader at all, but this does not mean that I don’t care about the reader. I would offer, hold space, reach, and even write letters. I am intensely into camaraderies of many types and I am totally willing to give of my time and effort. I would do many things for the people that readers are. I don’t, however, feel that it does anyone a service for me to work with some invented abstraction about what a reader is about the potential limits that an abstraction of a reader might have. A reader is a person and a person is a you: an individual with feelings and preferences, a body that likes broccoli or does not. I can say that it is never my intent to affront. I take care with the sound-hinges because I believe that they make slippage into merge states more possible: lubrications do a lot of magical work. However, I also believe that confrontations can, at times, progress the psychic queue and that new kinds (or sensations) of love can come from what, at least initially, may have felt like a struggle.

It is never as simple as saying yes or no about anything for me. I am, however, confidently saying that I give everything I’ve got to each page (envision a doula sweating along with the emerging offspring and its mother) and I think that the reverberations of the phrase shapes are a type that actually nourishes water particles rather than damaging them. We, as human bodies (readers) are largely made up of water, right?

I believe in the shapeliness of the gesture of each book and, like a new or an ancient piece of architecture, like the pull of a crenellated portal, I believe it is possible to feel belonging in my pages.

S: I like the image of a doula. It seems fitting for the process so many writers go through. Speaking of things not being simply a yes or no for you, how do you self-identify (transgendered, genderqueer, etc.)? And how does that play into your work?

J: Good and relevant question. Thank you. I identify as genderqueer (as the base from which I name the more subtle specificities of my gender travels). I am currently pretty femmed out: queer femme and sometimes even stone femme. Maybe I am even queer mother to a child that regularly comes to me for revival in my dreams.

I have found through gender practice, gender engorgement and gender study over the years, that the specificities of my gender are quite flex and very dependent on my relations and proximities. This has always been the fact and the challenge for me: my gender and embodiments are very much dependent. They depend on environment, on feeling, on era and on planar realm. When I say dependent, I am not talking about being closeted in unfriendly environments. It’s more like the vitalities and sensory integrities of others’ authentic embodiments and agendas bring nuances and facets out of me: provoke mysterious aspects of me to come forth. I am very committed to naming as ricochet regarding those mysterious aspects and for this reason my naming must remain quite expansive.

I believe that identity is something to be lived as it is being built. This also means that parts of what has been built, fall off in storms, come crashing down and into the relentless holding of the trees below.

I have long referred to myself as Trans (but not Transexual or Transgender), and though I still refer to myself in that way (Trans as traversal, as embodiment of passage and crossing, as non-arrival but unequivocal movement across or along) I am also willing to give up that component of self-regard so as to not crowd out the people for whom Trans-ness (Transgender and Transexual) is finally just coming to be recognized and respected by the larger (cis) social setting. Genderqueer works just fine for me.

It is so hard for us to prove our queer names to those who rest comfortably in the privileges of non-queer names. It saddens me that we still have to sweat in the ways that we do, in order for our accuracies to finally ring toward us (with regard) from the mouths of those who still do not understand or from those who even blatantly reject us. I honor the Transgender and Transexual folks who have worked so hard for the honor and reception of accuracies: I ally you.

Another little flipping, tail-like side note to close this comment: as part of my genderqueer identity, I definitely self-identify as a gender shaman and an embodied performer of ceremonial gore. As gender is an innate wilderness to me, I could obviously go on and on but having stated this I will stop here.

S: In the last year, some important trans and genderqueer anthologies have come out including The Collection which just won a Lambda Literary Award and a new poetry anthology called Troubling the Line, which includes work by you. Could you say a little bit about what it means to you to be in a collection like this? Why are these collections important?

J: They are important (in the context of history) because there are not enough of them. Plainly, like endangered or hybrid species, occupants of the fringe do not have as much recognition as we could have. For this reason, I find collections and anthologies like these to be rare, of extreme value.

How best do you hold a glistening glass figure that is not particularly easy to make out in the context of its shape? As you hold it, you know it is beautiful but it also remains mysterious to you. You appreciate that because no matter where you are in your life, you can always stare into it and find something new for yourself. These anthologies are gifts in just such a way: I stare into them as I invite staring into me. We can all look a little bit longer than is usual for us, can’t we? And if we do, we just might find.

Note: tc tolbert and Trace Peterson did an incredible job envisioning Troubling the Line. Please buy it and teach it. They put in many months of collection and editing for the sake of bringing out an anthology that is profoundly timely and unique. This book itself (as well as my experience of being in the book) is the homophone of rose: both the flower and a doughy rise.

S: Thanks for talking with me. For more on J/J go here:

-Stephen (Interviewing)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Back to Essay Writing

One of my goals for this year is to spend some of my writing time on essays. I've spent the last few years focused on poetry only, but essays (particularly memoir/narrative pieces) have always been my other area of interest as a writer. I took creative non-fiction classes in both undergrad and graduate school and always enjoyed them.

My goal is going pretty well at the halfway point in the year. I've generated various ideas for essays and I've completed one and I'm halfway through a second. My first one was just published last week at The Rumpus.

I'm very proud of this piece for so many reasons. The essay is called "Surviving a For-Profit School" and discusses my experience teaching at one for four years in Orlando, Florida. I spent my four years at the school not publicly discussing it. I never posted on my blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in any of my bios where I worked. Mostly because I was embarrassed. I had to put it on my resume, but, other than that, I've kept where I worked fairly private.

This essay has given me freedom from that experience. It truly felt good to write it and share the truth about what so many of these schools are doing, but the essay is also about what so many of us face in the humanities. The job market is grim and I had little choice but to work somewhere that I didn't believe in. I felt forced to be part of the problem. I know I'm not alone. There are many good people who work at that school and at others like it.

I know there are probably some people out there that are very angry that I wrote this essay and I'm glad if they are. I'm not the only voice out there talking about for-profit education, and I'm not the only one speaking out about the school I worked for, but more people have to be willing to join the conversation and address the effect these schools are having on the overall education system.

I've been gone for nine months and I feel like my old self again. I'm happier. I'm not angry all the time. I'm not depressed. I'm making a whole lot less money, but I don't care. I like where I work and I believe again that I'm helping students.

Since the essay was published, I've gotten a lot of messages from people who either attended a for-profit school or have taught at one. The messages have been great and have all thanked me for writing the piece. I've never had such a reaction like this one to something I've written (at least not this quickly). I'm glad the piece is connecting with people and informing them. This gives me a boost to keep working on essays.

-Stephen (Survivor)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Counting Gender

I've spent the last nine months serving as poetry editor for a new lit magazine called Animal. It's a fun magazine with a specific focus and format, which makes my job as editor difficult at times. We only publish one poem, one story, and one essay each month. This means I send a lot of rejections. I've worked on other magazines in the past, but I've never been the only decision maker for a section. In the case of Animal, I read each and every submission myself, and I make the decision of who gets published and who doesn't.

Over the last few years I've been following the actions of VIDA, which is an organization that "seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities." It was co-founded by a former professor of mine and my thesis advisor in grad school Erin Belieu. Most notably they began doing what they call "The Count." If you haven't been paying attention, let me explain. They calculate how many women vs. men get published in various well-respected journals and magazines. They also count the number of reviews of books written by females and compare it to the reviews of books written by men. Their findings have been unsettling. Most of these journals and magazines heavily favor men.

The Count has been the subject of numerous articles with various points of view. Some have gone on the defensive simply saying magazines publish "the best of what they get" and others have proposed that perhaps less women submit work. These "ideas" are often just as troublesome as the results of The Count. Also note that some of these editorial decisions are being made by women as well as men (it's not simply men keeping women down).

I don't mean to rehash all that has been written on this subject, but I will say that The Count has been on my mind for various reasons. Some argue that journals and magazines should care about showcasing a balance between female and male writers and that magazines are simply publishing what they "like" not "the best." This is fairly easy to do when it comes to reviewing books. Review more books by women, but when it comes to editing a journal it gets a little more complex.

Using my experience as an example, I realize that I often don't know the gender of the author submitting the work. Sometimes they include a bio that is gendered. Sometimes their name is clearly a gender specific name. But many times the author really could be either male or female (a lot of people use only initials). If you are purposely trying to keep your journal balanced (and by balanced I'm not implying an exact 50/50 split each issue) should you require that authors specify their genders? This could be asked about race and sexual orientation as well.

These are the kinds of thoughts that have been on my mind recently, which then led me in a different direction. While I admire the work done by VIDA and the conversations it has started, I also wonder the effect something like this has on the trans and genderqueer community. This community is currently fighting for a place at the table in the publishing world. How do you count a trans writer or someone who doesn't conform to gender standards and doesn't see themselves as male or female? While some might say, this is changing the conversation, I would say it is part of the conversation we should be having. An over focus on gender sometimes leaves a large gap where various groups of people get lost and once again excluded. Even the gay and lesbian community can often feel excluded from these conversations, because they often seem based in a very heterosexual battle.

What The Count shows is that there needs to be more diversity out there and that these well-established and respected journals need to make an effort to seek out work by not only more women, but writers of color and the LGBT community as well as those who don't identify under one of these labels. But doing this is going to take a lot of effort and might require that some publications diversify the kind of work they publish.

If one looks at the list of magazines and journals VIDA examines, you will find that many of the publications can be rather narrow in the work they publish. I've been published in many places, I have a book, I recently won a big award, but not a single one of these journals has ever accepted my work (yes, I've submitted to many of them). Perhaps part of this conversation should also be about why we continue to hold some publications in such high esteem if they aren't really showcasing the writing community. Perhaps we've let them get away with this.

Thankfully, there are a lot of amazing journals and magazines out there that aren't included in The Count. It seems part of the response to these issues is to support these other publications and help them rise to the "level" of the often over-hyped publications. I love reading The New Yorker for it's articles and commentary, but most of the poetry is boring and not a great example of what is happening in the poetry world. The same can be said for many other publications on the list.

My thoughts on these issues are always changing and evolving and I'm thankful to VIDA for making people come face to face with these numbers. We need more conversations about all of these issues.

-Stephen (Counted)