A Review of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics

Candice Amich
Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics
Edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson
Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2013.
544 pages. $27.95 (paperback)

In the vein of Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s groundbreaking anthology of third world feminist writing, This Bridge Called my Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981), TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson’s Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics is an unprecedented gathering of poets. Troubling the Line stakes new ground within the larger field of contemporary poetics, making a compelling case for the complex relationship between poetic form, gender identity, politics, and experiment. Each of the 55 poets included in the anthology (all of whom self-identity as trans or genderqueer) is represented by a sample of 7-10 pages of poetry and a brief poetics statement, which interrogates and/or reflects on the relationship between embodied experience and language. Emerging and previously unpublished poets appear alongside nationally well-known poets and critics, such as Eileen Myles and Stephen Burt.

The immediate question of what constitutes a trans or genderqueer poetics is perhaps best answered by Peterson’s editorial claim that “We are not interested in policing identity; we are interested in helping make more widely available in poetry different kinds of inbetweenness in relation to gender identification” (15). Negating any sense of an ‘essential’ male or female identity, trans and genderqueer poems create new and fluid identities on the page, registering the experience of transition, in all its variations and stages, as well as the desire to refuse all manner of gender categorization. What binds this diverse body of poetry is its insistence on representing the radical disjuncture between gender norms and the psychic and material lives of the collected poets.

The photographs of the authors that precede each selection of poems foreground the link between biography and content; this presentation challenges the New Critical truism that the poem as object stands alone, an immaculate vessel beyond history, fashion, or context. Yet, the effect of severing biographical links to poetic content has historically been to shut out marginalized voices, to refuse to acknowledge the integrity of a black aesthetics or feminist poetics, for example. Troubling the Line teaches us how to think about trans-poetics in a manner that is as flexible and dynamic as the poets it brings together, to understand form as culturally specific rather than universal.

Often, the struggle to shape and remake the body on the page, to stretch beyond the confines of binary gender, and craft a new set of possibilities is made palpable through textual experimentation. Take, for example, the restless typographical moves of gender-bending performance poets like Aimee Herman and Micha Cárdenas. Cárdenas, a member of the Electronic Disturbance Theater and developer of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, contributes a “code poem” that attempts to map the intersection of transgender and immigrant experiences through its computer-inspired syntax:

/* Constructors */
  public Transformer (
    java.lang.String) {
  if (genderGiven != genderDesired || birthplace != destination)
       walking = true;

       /* attempt to enter into a queer time and place via the
          transcoder library */

Other poets, while working in a perhaps more familiar lyrical mode, nevertheless bristle against the gendered boundaries of language. Consider, for example, these lines from Stacey Waite’s “The Kind of Man I Am at the DMV”:

… learning the failure of gender’s tidy little

story about itself. I try not to look at him

because, yes that man is a girl. I, man, am a girl.

I am the kind of man who is a girl…

The importance of naming was explored at a Troubling the Line poetry event I attended at the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh on August 31, 2013. Contributors Jenny Johnson and Ari Banias read their poems to an overflow audience in a gallery room dedicated to the photography of Caldwell Linker, a queer Pittsburgh artist whose series All Through the Night documents the local LGBTQ scene. The neat oval circle of 20-25 chairs surrounding the poets at the beginning of the reading was quietly but insistently disturbed over the course of the event, as more and more people crowded around to listen, joining the formal circle, or sitting down comfortably inside it, standing with folded arms on the fringes, or leaning up against a table of found object sculptures. The messiness yet flexibility of the circle itself seemed to be in dialogue with the discussion of spaces of inclusion and exclusion in the conversation that followed: questions of pronoun use and naming, community formation and alienation, legibility and invisibility, possibility and policing all coexisting in tension side-by-side.

Earlier, I shivered to hear Banias’ unforgettable lines from “At Any Given Moment” read aloud:

… Gender is the room

I see myself walking into, is all the rooms, any room, the number, the


corresponding, and of course the whole

world’s in there. Of course if I want to talk to almost anyone

I have to go in. Fuck!

It’s too fucking small and we’re all in it. But no, not all of you

seem to hate it …

By naming the “room” of gender, with its endless hall of restrictive walls and locks, Banias ignited the open space of the gallery, ricocheting his listeners into their own trans- or cis- (i.e., non-trans) gendered bodies.

Johnson’s poems evoked figurative bodies beyond the limits of gender binaries, drawing on the language of science and the animal world to represent both utopian desire and structures of confinement. In what upon first hearing registered as a queering of magical realism, her fanciful poem “Tail” begins:

I picture the shameful length of it poking along behind me as I walk down 5th

          Avenue, the odd sheen of it, shimmering in shop windows,

How after too many beers, I’d lumber back into bed, its strangeness between

          my legs.

But as the sun rises—the clean stretch, aesthetic vertebrae—how I might flex

          its elegant, careful weight.

The sensual intelligence and lush imagery of these poems transmitted sparks of laughter and recognition throughout the gallery space.

Because of the dazzling diversity of poetic approaches contained within its pages, Troubling the Line not only forges a community of queer and trans poets and readers, as was evident at the Warhol event, but disturbs critical narratives that seek to keep the body of the poet and the body of the poem separate. These are poems that leap off the page and grab their readers by the throat, demanding an equally intimate and intellectual engagement.

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