Stacey Waite is the author of three chapbooks—Choke, winner of the Thorngate Road Press Frank O’Hara Prize for Poetry; Love Poem to Androgyny, winner of the Main Street Rag Press Chapbook Prize; and the lake has no saint, winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Prize in Poetry. Hir first full-length collection, Butch Geography, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012. An assistant professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, s/he currently teaches composition, gender studies, and creative writing.
I first met Stacey Waite fifteen years ago, and since that time, we have had many exchanges in which we have shared with one another the pleasures and challenges of writing poetry that seeks not just to represent queer lives, but also to imagine a queer poetics—a way of writing that opens up new possibilities for (un)doing and (un)thinking gender and sexuality. In our many discussions, I have appreciated how Stacey and hir poetry have disrupted the restrictively normative idea(l)s of natural, coherent gender identities and, in the process, exposed the fictions that underlie compulsory heterosexuality. I enjoyed the opportunity to interview Stacey for Pilot Light, as it gave me the chance to share with a greater audience the conversations in which Stacey and I have been engaging for over a decade.
JP: In your series of “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man . . .” poems, you offer reflections on moments when the body is mistaken, when gender is misread. Do you see relationships between mistaking/misreading the body and misreading text/language?
SW: The idea of “mis-reading” has always been fascinating to me, both because there is really no way for someone to not “mis-read” my body—that is, if they are using the conventional interpretative frame for gender that widely circulates in the culture. But then, there is a sense of mis-reading that is more productive, more generative than perhaps a more aligned reading might be. For example, just recently, a little boy at the DMV pointed to me and said to his mother, “Mommy, that man is a girl.” His statement might, in other contexts, be considered a mis-reading, an impossibility even. But in the end, he is more right about gender than his mother is. She says, “Of course he’s not.” Her response means both that I was not a girl (which I, a little bit, am) and that men cannot be girls (which, of course, they can). So I think mis-reading the body, or mis-reading the text, is sometimes a result of not having the tools to read other than in the usual, binary ways. But it can also be more subversive to “mis-read,” more disruptive. Sometimes mis-reading means reading more queerly. Since the first set of “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for . . .” poems, I have written more of them, and have found that I can be “mis-read” as a woman as well—to read my gender in an either/or way is always to mis-read it. Then again, to read my gender more queerly, as something else entirely, something not able to be captured in man/woman terms would, to some, be its own kind of mis-reading. I guess, in a sense, all my poems are about mis-readings in that (I hope) they call attention to the ways meaning is made, and more importantly to the ways meaning might be re-made, queered, open to infinite possibility.
JP: How does place affect your poetry? I’ve noticed in your poems a relationship between location/place and the body. Baseball games, restaurants, public bathrooms, airports—they’re all imbued with certain assumptions about gender and space, although in some places these assumptions are more readily apparent than in others. You’ve recently moved to a new place after many years in Pennsylvania—does Nebraska “ask” you to write differently? Does it call up different readings or writings of gender? Does it reinforce/disrupt/shape your poetic process?
SW: That’s an interesting question. Like most writers, my surroundings have a profound influence on my writing—not just because of the places my poems name as their settings, but also because shifting around in place can feel quite similar to shifting around in gender. I’ve only been in Lincoln, Nebraska, a few months, but already I can feel the landscape in my body. I was in Pittsburgh for thirteen years before this most recent move and in Pittsburgh you can’t walk ten feet without having to climb a hill, without navigating a tunnel or crossing a bridge. Moving from that kind of space to this flat expanse of sky and earth is, at times, a bit daunting. I can actually feel the vulnerability of having no place to hide—like if the lightning wanted to find me out here on the plains, it most certainly could. I’ve written a few poems since I’ve arrived, and I think the poems have that vulnerable feeling to them; they seem more exposed to me, more aware of the infinite space there is. I’m looking forward to feeling the effects of this big expanse of sky. I’m hoping it will expand my reach, help me see past what is to what might be possible.
As far as gender goes, sometimes it feels like a different reading of gender gets called up in me every time I shift in my chair or turn my head, so I expect that will be the case here in Nebraska. But I would be lying if I didn’t mention how sometimes I can feel Falls City, Nebraska, below me, how I am both drawn to the place and in fear of it, how the story of Brandon Teena’s life feels somehow closer than before. And while I am not naïve enough to think that hate crimes and violence against queers only happen in more rural places, I do think something about that open sky and that flat expanse of land does make me feel more susceptible to that violence—however irrational that fear may be. I’m aware, as a queer person, of the ways the media and the urban cultures I have largely lived in have situated places like Nebraska as dangerous for people like me. But the truth is that, because gender is everywhere, danger is everywhere. And I guess part of writing poems, for me, is coming to terms with that danger and trying to offer a kind of political, aesthetic and poetic argument: that gender is not sustainable, that it’s dangerous to all of us—not merely to folks who fall outside its constructed norms.
JP: Do you think about audience reception of your poetry? Does your poetry queer its audience? I’m thinking about times when I’ve taught Love Poem to Androgyny, and some students experience a revelation/affinity that’s about them (an “oh my gosh, I might not be as gender normative as I thought” realization), while others read the book as about you, as autobiography/memoir. Do you prefer one response to the other? Is one closer to how you think about your reasons for writing? Are there other ways you hope an audience would respond to your poems?
SW: I do think part of what I hope happens for an audience in reading or hearing my poems is a kind of defamiliarization—something, I would argue, all poets try to do. So, in that sense, there is a kind of aesthetic of making the familiar seem strange, or shifted, or even new. Because so many of my poems take up questions of gender, sexuality, and the body, I think I am hoping those terrains become strange as well, that suddenly the taken-for-granted-ness of bodies and their meanings, bodies and their relationships to other bodies, becomes visible, that suddenly we see differently something we think we have been looking at our whole lives—that something being our own bodies, our own identities in relationship to gender. I guess I am hoping my poems explore and expose gender as failure, as always a profound failure, even for those who consider themselves traditionally gendered—whatever that means. And I think I work hard, as a poet, to capture the shifting ground of gender, even in terms of the way I characterize its effects. One moment a poem captures gender in its silliness, its playfulness and humor, only then to move to highlight gender in its terror, its fear, its violence. Poetry is a place, it seems to me, where contradictions are valued as the kind of dynamic tension that makes art art.
JP: What’s your relationship to received form? I’m thinking about the constraints of received forms, the constraints of gender—are the constraints less constricting when imposed on the self? Or do received forms feel like policing the self? Is there a form you’re drawn to that suggests questioning/queering? Do you feel a pull to be experimental/radical/innovative with form? How do your concerns about narrative inform/complicate/shape your concerns about form (or vice versa)?
SW: I had a teacher, back in undergraduate, Karl Patten, who once asked me (though I learned later he might have been kidding me a bit) to write ten sonnets in a week. He said this to me after I had said, rather nonchalantly in his office, “I don’t like form.” This was the same teacher who once forbade me to write a poem that had a single true fact or “real” event inside it. I spent that semester trying to understand iambic pentameter, writing a horrifying number of persona poems in the voices of farmers, prostitutes, fathers, and military soldiers. It’s strange to me now that writing a poem that wasn’t “true” somehow translated to me as speaking in someone else’s voice. I remember being frustrated with Karl back then, thinking that the constraints were arbitrary or part of some conspiracy to control emotion. But really, in the end, I learned some really valuable things about how constraints work, about how we always (as writers and as bodies) move within a field of constraints—whether those constraints are pre-existing forms, rules we give ourselves, or limitations put upon us by some force, or someone, who stands in powerful relation to us. I mean, gender is a form, right? A way of limiting what can be said, known, and expressed. And I guess what I am saying is that forms are there to be pushed on, exploded, made fun of, followed then abandoned.
So, in a way, I stand by what I said, “I don’t like form,” meaning that if a form intends to limit or frame what is able to be seen and therefore what is possible, then yeah, I don’t like form. But, as I learned that semester with Karl Pattern, some forms can set us free from the very limitations they set in the first place. Sometimes to work with form is precisely to work against it, to push back at the boundaries of what can be thought. So we can understand one another as men or women, or we can say fuck men and women. We can start writing sonnets in order to say fuck sonnets. And sometimes, sometimes in the writing and in moving through the world, sometimes “boy” fits just right, or sometimes the sonnet carries us until we realize we have made a sonnet—we have said, “Okay, sonnet, for now.” I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, but I think what I want to say is that, for me, the forms I value are temporary, contradictory, fleeting—and so, when I say “form” that is what I imagine.
As far as narrative, well, I am reminded of Joan Didion’s “The White Album” in which she says something like writers live by the imposition of a narrative line upon the disparate images that are the shifting phantasmagoria [love that word] which is our actual experience. So, in that case, narrative can be normative, can be the most unqueer form of all—that is, if that narrative is linear, sequential. I have been interested lately in some of the shifts in queer theory whereby scholars like Lee Edelmen, José Muñoz, and Judith Halberstam have been theorizing about queer time and queer space. In the lake has no saint, I was really conscious of trying to move in queer time, right down to the syntax of a sentence. I tried to think of sentences themselves as a disruption in narrative, rather than as something to be contained by the narrative. As a writer, I absolutely do give myself forms and rules, projects with which to work, but I often find that the pleasure in that is located in the moments I move outside the bounds of my own expectations, move out into the realm of what’s possible that before was impossible.
JP: I’ve been to a few of your readings and have heard audience members remark every time that your performance changed how they thought about your poetry. Do you think performance in general recreates/alters the poem? Does the embodiment of a poem change it? Does the poem change with the person embodying it? For instance, do you experience a slippage between your performance of your own poems and, if you’ve had the occasion to witness this, someone else’s performance of your poems?
SW: As a poet deeply invested in the music of poems, and in their embodiment, I really do think that all of my poems are meant as embodiments, are written with the idea in mind that someone who looks and sounds like me is reading them, out loud. I don’t mean to suggest at all that only I can read my poems aloud, but I do mean to suggest that the poem is an embodiment that offers a particular kind of body. And I don’t exactly mean a particular kind of gendered body. I mean more that the body is queered in its performance, that it exposes itself outwardly as a deviant and disobedient body—one that will not mean in the usual ways bodies come to mean. I think of poems as sung, and I think of reading as a kind of singing, moving sound and story through the body. I do think that when people say that my reading of the poems changes the poems that it has something to do with a poet suddenly becoming a body. When you read poems on a page, there is an invisible author (and there may be some generative productivity to this kind of reading), but when the author arrives to sing his own songs, suddenly there is a human, a body given over as evidence of the poems having been written by hand, by a hand reaching out from a body with a beating heart. And at one of my readings, this also means there is a body that both can and cannot be seen. I can sometimes see an audience member fixate on my chest or crotch, and I can assume they’re looking for traditional symbols of interpretation. I think it helps to remember that there are actual bodies with actual lived experience, bodies that don’t “add up,” that refuse the usual narrative, bodies that might have before seemed impossible. I think my poems might sometimes raise the questions: Who could live like this? Who could live as neither/nor or as either/or? It seems unimaginable—that is, until there I am, singing the song. There I am woman/boy with no direct line to the easily categorized answer. And I breathe, and my hands are hands, and there may or may not be a cock in my pants. But who’s counting cocks anyway?
JP: Does poetry offer an understanding of genderqueer lives that scientific/medical/psychiatric discourse cannot or does not?
SW: I really like this question because I am sometimes asked it another way, something like: how do you manage your work in gender studies, with your work in composition, with your work in creative writing? And I often find myself trying to unearth the overlaps; I often find myself frustrated with that question and want to answer just: it’s all the same work. But I feel like your question here is inviting me to say something else about how writing is, or can be, queer. I am not sure I would go so far as to say that poetry, as a particular genre of writing, can offer more complex understandings of genderqueer lives. I might say that writing itself as a practice can offer more nuanced, more complicated and layered ideas about queer lives. Of course, science and medicine also translate into writing. So, what’s the difference in the kind of writing I am talking about? Well, here’s what I think. The kind of writing that can tolerate, accommodate, and move toward contradiction is the kind of writing that can better represent genderqueer lives. Students in writing classes all over the country might have heard teachers say: you contradict yourself here or there’s a contradiction in your paper (this meaning, get the contradictions outta there). But poetry, the best poetry I think, asks us to move toward the contradictions, to embrace them. I am thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “Intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I do think poetry demands this kind of intelligence. I hope most poets feel a responsibility, an obligation even, to write poems that reflect this kind of complexity, poems that lean into what is difficult, complicated, and perhaps even impossible to name. I do think writing can lead us from what seems unthinkable to the imaginable.
For genderqueer lives, one of the most important things that could happen in the consciousness of this culture is that we could move beyond the realm of the possible, that we could imagine lives other than the ones we have lived, seen, or imagined. With all the bullying of queer teens, the sad fact that many queer people can’t imagine what Judith Butler calls a “livable life” is a real problem. I am not so naïve as to think poetry can save the world, or that my poems can inspire some kind of global change, but I do know what it was like for me, as a young queer person, to hear the voices and the poetry of people who had imagined and were living queer lives. So in that, I suppose poetry is my way of showing up, of being heard and that poetry, as a genre, does allow and even demand that the contradictory be visible, that the impossible be imagined, that there is a world beyond the world we can see from where we stand. To me, even the simplest poem, even the shortest, image-based, “In a Station of the Metro”-type poem is resisting one-dimensional understandings, pushing on the limits of what’s imaginable. Poetry is always pointing to something unsayable. And as far as my gender is concerned, it is, quite literally, in the English language, unsayable in the third person. I cannot be talked about without the use of “he” or “she.” Unless, of course, I am with others—“they”—and am thereby an “other.” And queers are starting to push on the language, to invent new names for ourselves, like “ze,” for example, which is a term that has been embraced by some people in the trans community. I sometimes use “s/he” both to echo my identification with the character in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s S/he, and also because for me something feels complicated about the slash, about what it intends to mean. Poetry is the exact place for innovative language, for using words in ways they were not intended to be used, for coming up with new names for ourselves, for clouds, for the sound of breathing. So, yeah, poetry understands me.
JP: How do you understand the relationship between queer poetry and queer activism? Is there a relationship?
SW: I think I would say that it really would be impossible to be saying radical things, to be writing poems that ask their readers to reimagine bodies and identity and have those poems not be activism. I see myself as actively protesting gender in its current systematic form. And if activism is about disrupting and trying to change damaging dominant ideologies and institutions, then there is no way around the fact that I am also an activist. I know not all queer poets would see themselves that way, but I do think there is a way to see one’s writing as a call to change. I know quite a few poets who feel that thinking of their work this way is to cheapen it, or to make it somehow less about art, but I think most art is activism too—that at a very basic level artists offer us alternative ways of seeing. Sometimes even the subtlest shift in the way we look at things, or even the smallest shifting of the angle from which we see the world, can be a life changing and world shifting moment.
When I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to listen to a reading by Robin Becker, an old school, soft butch poet who may or may not consider herself an activist (we’d have to ask Robin about that). But, she read the poem “Solar” from her collection All-American Girl, and there I was—nineteen, sporting a major mullet (and not the ironic kind), and I was at a college with lots of people who considered themselves “real boys” and “real girls.” And something shifted in me, in the degree and quality of my own shame when Robin read:
The desert is butch, she dismisses your illusions about what might do to make your life work better, she stares you down and doesn’t say a word about your past. She brings you a thousand days, a thousand suns effortlessly each morning rising. She lets you think what you want all afternoon.
And I am not kidding, I remember sitting in the church-like poetry building at Bucknell University thinking: I am a desert. I am a vast expanse. I remember feeling my body relax into the thought of it. I remember looking at Robin and thinking my life as a queer poet was suddenly possible, that I could even write about this queerness, that queerness was precisely what poetry was about. Now, I don’t know if everyone would consider this activism, but something changed there. Something changed in the way I thought about myself and what was possible for me. And I think these moments shape the work that I do, that I hope changes a few people’s notions of self and body along the way, then shapes the way they do what they do. And I don’t think this is only about poetry. I once had a nurse write to me. Her sister, a poet, had dragged her out to an event where I happened to be reading. And I got to hear this nurse talk about an experience she had over a year after my reading, where a middle-aged transman who had a heart attack was brought into her unit. And she told me how my poems sort of “came over her” (that was the language she used) as she treated this guy, and how she was able to see him and to talk about him to the other nurses and aids on her floor in a way she couldn’t have before. So, I do think that’s activism. That’s change. If we all wanted to live in the world just as it is, why write? Why imagine anything at all?
Poems by Stacey Waite: On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport It’s like being born again, these metal detectors are like traveling through the womb, the buzz goes off to indicate the birth of trouble. And the gender of trouble matters because when a woman goes through, Jimmy yells, “Female Search” and a large woman appears from behind her security table. So when I walk through and my wallet chain sets off the womb alert, I wait. I wait for “Female Search” like I wait for the bus, that hopeful and expecting look. But Jimmy takes me himself. Jimmy slides his hands down the length of my thighs, he pats his palm stiffly against my crotch. He asks me to remove my boots and jacket. And so I do. And at first, the woman in me goes unnoticed. But when I hold my arms straight out and he traces the outline of my underarms, he makes that face, the face I’ve seen before, the “holy-shit-it’s-a-woman” face, the “pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits” face. Jimmy’s hands change from a tender sweep to a kind of wiping, like he’s trying to rid my body of the afterbirth, he is preparing to peal off the skin of my body as he would the apple he brings to work for break time. Jimmy stares hard at the metal detector, with a kind of respect like the arch of it became holy, transformed me on my walk through. Jimmy is nervous for the following reasons: he has just felt the crotch and chest of a woman who he thought was a man, he can not decide which way he liked her best, his supervisor might notice he has not yelled “Female Search” which he knows is grounds for some sort of lawsuit, he’s angry, his blue uniform makes him angry so that when he is patting her down now, he does it with force, he wants her to feel he is stronger than she is, he wants the metal detector to stop being a gender change machine from which this woman, who is also me, immerges, unties her boots slowly, follows all his directions. And when Jimmy is done, he nods. He wants me to keep him secret, to pretend neither of us had ever been born.
Also appears in Love Poem to Androgyny (Main Street Rag 2006)
On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Woman By a Therapist in the South Hills Tell me again, she says, how you liked being Hansel in the sixth grade production of Hansel and Gretel. She leans in close, you’ve told me how it feels to be a man, how about how it feels to be a woman? And I remember how it felt to play the woodcutter’s son, the tight grip of the suspenders on my shoulders, Lila Henning’s small hands as she played the role of my sister, how she pushed Mrs. Gladys, who played the conspiring candyhouse witch, into the oven. I was a good Hansel, I practiced making the disappointed face for the moment we realize the birds have eaten the breadcrumb trail. It felt wrong to be a woman, wrong when the barista at the café says have a nice day ladies, wrong when my mother calls my underwear panties, wrong when my hair is tied in pigtails. I do not speak the language of women, and the therapist is trying to unwind me. She thinks, of course that I must know what it is like, that somewhere, somewhere deep inside myself, lives the life of a woman, if I would only let her speak. I sit still, I sit like Hansel locked in his cage. The witch, after all, plans on eating him. If I thought a woman were there, I would go look for her. I am the kind of man who rescues, who thinks to leave a failing trail in the forest. I am the woodcutter’s son, unwanted, but finally, after a close call with death, held closely and welcomed home.
Will be forthcoming in Butch Geography (Tupelo Press, 2013)
when leaving the house as a man i was sixteen the first time i saw a drag show. it was, as it turned out, my first time in a tie if we don’t count the endless number of times i tried on my father’s ties in the master bedroom, pulling each one close to my neck trying to learn how to loop the fabric, how to become a man. here, in this gay bar off the coast of suburban long island, drag queens called me “handsome,” giggled when i pulled out their chairs and lit their cigarettes. and when i arrive home late, when i try to sneak in through the back sliding glass door, my mother sees me in the suit and tie. she, for a moment, covers her eyes as though i had been naked and not her child. “what are you doing?” she wants to know. “where could you have gone dressed like that?”