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TRANZ: An interview with poet Spencer Williams

The following is an interview with poet Spencer Williams about her upcoming book TRANZ, set to be published by Four Way Books in 2024. We talk about trans-poetics, Adrienne Rich, and erasure.

Tim Carter: Let me start by saying that I’m so glad Four Way Books is publishing this book, and that you shared it with me. TRANZ is irreverent and funny (“if u hate me, thank you / for thinking of me”) while also, often, heartfelt and honest (“I assert there is something surgery cannot change / it is history”). There’s so much in this book to consider. But before we do that, I’m curious: you’re currently a PhD student and Schomburg Fellow at SUNY Buffalo – What ideas or problems are you wrestling with in your work? What’s occupying your time?

Spencer Williams: At the time I was writing TRANZ, I was wrestling with a post-MFA delirium that left me feeling creatively expired. I graduated into the pandemic and briefly lost interest in writing entirely. I’d spent the two years of my MFA writing what I thought were these really serious, topical poems, and when I looked back at the work I’d produced in COVID-19 isolation, I found I couldn’t take any of them seriously anymore. Because of that, I decided to try and write a poem that would make me laugh, which is something I had never set out to do before. From there, the rest of the manuscript kind of vomited out of me in a span of two months. I was really trying to locate some brevity that felt hard to come by at the time. Now that I’m in Buffalo, I’m trying my hardest to take myself less seriously. I think the PhD environment can be so cutthroat and sinister at times, and so right now, poetry is a way for me to re-engage in play and cheap humor and kind of remind myself that, despite all the theory I’m reading, I still have the capacity to have a good time.

My current research revolves around 21st century trans-poetics, which is a very nebulous genre to think about, so my current obsession is trying to figure out the weird shape and contours of what trans-poetics is, what it could be, and what exactly I want from it. Mostly, I’m just excited to spend precious time with so many trans poets and their work.

TC: Yes! I recognize that feeling of looking back at your work and, in a way, not identifying with it in the same way. Do you feel there’s any connection between this discovery, or maybe rediscovery, and what you’re thinking about trans-poetics?

SW: I think so! I think my understanding of “trans-poetics” right now is that it’s an incredibly nebulous field, and the same could be said for gender variance as a concept too. I was thinking a lot about Jack Halberstam’s notion of “queer time” a lot, and trying to think of my work as being severed from any linear timeline so that, upon returning to it, it could still feel present to me in some way. Whenever I go back to the manuscript, it reads to me both like a document of transition in the linear sense, but also as a kind of malleable brain vomit that taps into my current frustrations, fears, and humors.

TC: You refer to the body in “Revising The Danish Girl,” as having a center, as being a container, “a girlish thought / when I pressed my center with one hand I could / almost feel the kicking there, the vase of me pleading,” and just a bit later you have the remarkable line, “no canvas wide enough to capture the landscape it inspires.” I’m thinking of the formal dynamics of your poems and how this relates to the idea of identity as form. I’m really drawn to your longer poems that have unique shapes: they flex and sprawl and coil. One thing the poem suggests to me is that we might have this form (the poem or the body) that can never fully “capture the landscape it inspires.” You begin the book with an epigraph that reads, “The body is not a prologue, its story can be written at will.” The self, in a way, is always being expressed in new ways, the self always exceeds the ways we find to describe it. Could you talk about how you think about the self or identity in relation to form? How does this show up in your writing?

SW: I think you can track the early poems in this manuscript by marking which poems read the most scattered, or flung in a visual sense. I was thinking a lot about distancing myself from formal poetic constraints because at the time I considered it a very punk rock thing to do. Now, I’m kind of embarrassed by that line of thinking–it feels very young to me– and yet, a part of me still clings to the idea that because I, in my own life, occupy this strange, in-betweenness in how I’m perceived socially as a trans person, that my poetics should also reflect that positionality in some way. Which is to say, hard to pin down. I never want to be starkly drawn in a poem. I thrive in messiness, and the state of my room can attest to this. I’m also constantly thinking about my tranness in relation to self-curation, and this never ending process of building the body and self away from the rigid grammars of cisness. The epilogue comes from Sasha Geffen’s amazing book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, and it made me consider investing more into a kind of musicality in my poems. Obviously, I was also listening to a lot of SOPHIE during this time (RIP) and I think the discordant sounds of her work inspired me a lot to think about being more abrasive in my imagery and language overall. So the musicality in my work might actually be garbled, or uncomfortable, or strangely rhythmed. Hopefully!

TC: Could you talk about “Poem about Adrienne Rich”? I’m thinking about memory, but also about deliberately forgetting. You say, “memory is whatever / I want it to be.” This feels both like a positive thing, as a way of becoming more yourself, but also a negative thing, as a way of scrubbing out a harmful or oppressive history, like Adrienne Rich’s transphobia and her relationship to Janice Raymond. There’s also memory in the sense of “blacking out.” What you say about memory in this poem really connects it to a lot of other poems in the book.

SW: I wrote that poem to relay a kind of personal frustration with the way in which these canonical poets are revered without consideration for the baggage they might carry. Even calling Rich’s transphobia “baggage” feels minimizing, but I imagine that’s the word a lot of people would use to describe it, which is another source of frustration. In Rich’s case, her transphobia often feels skirted over or conveniently ignored. The biographies that have been published about her never seem to mention her editorial hand regarding The Transsexual Empire, which is perhaps one of the most harmful, transphobic texts I can think of. I don’t subscribe to the idea that someone’s good art transcends their social harm, especially if that harm was not rectified publicly or materially. There are many Rich poems I love, but that love has to be conditional. I can’t ever forget what I know, and so I must prioritize knowing over pleasure. Whenever it hits the Twitter timeline that Rich was transphobic, there are always a handful of writers who are like “I never knew this!!!!” and so I wrote this poem as a kind of way to put that fact in print. I don’t think the fact of her transphobia is an unfortunate “complexity” that should merely be footnoted in “the grand scheme” of her work. Every time Rich is brought up by poets, I wait for them to mention her work on The Transsexual Empire and it never happens. So. I guess you could say I have beef, both with poets and with Rich, and with what we conveniently choose to acknowledge and not acknowledge in order to mentally maintain the shiny image of our favs. The poet Stephen Ira wrote an amazing poem about Rich too.

TC: How does erasure relate to personal history, memory, and transitioning, in your mind? You have a poem like “Origin” which thinks of erasure as fogging a mirror, which suggests erasure as having to do with reflection, and maybe the self-obliteration from addiction, which made me think of my own history with recovery. You also say how erasure “is only a poem / if a body is unearthed,” in the poem “laramie.” These poems (and many others in the book, but these specifically) made me think about how erasure is tangled up with becoming, in both transitioning and in recovery. Both are fascinating, in a way, and abundant, and endless. What does this mean to you?

I love the erasure form. It’s so generative to me and brings me closer to the source texts, in a way. I feel like I’m participating in a dialogue that can go in any direction. For “Origin,” I was inspired by torrin a. greathouse’s use of the reflecting word–how, in order to read the text, you also have to face yourself in some way, with some mirror. I think, for me, I was interested in how that reflecting, paired with erasure, might resemble a kind of drunken readership–a slower, more fragmented version of events. But on the other hand, I also see those fragments as containing their own kind of clarity about addiction and the recovery process. For “Laramie,” I was thinking about Sean Fader’s installation project “Insufficient Memory,” which both reiterates and expands the fraught discourses pertaining to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, proposed in 1999 in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and finally passed in 2009. Featuring a digital archive of locations where hate crimes were committed between 1999 and 2000 with Google Earth, and a series of framed, hanging photographs depicting a handful of those nondescript locations in 2020, Fader’s project conjures an elegiac and inherently unstable community archive of the queer dead. I was drawn to the project’s attempt at unearthing moments of queer erasure in order to draw our attention to them, at the same time that we are made to reckon with such limited information about those queer people who have been brutalized in the past, and how the traces of their lives in the public record are often fragmented or distorted. In this sense, erasure might seem redactive on the surface, but I find that the gaps and silences that are created exist as their own markers, loaded with meaning.

TC: Final question (and thanks for taking such care with all these questions) – What are you working on now? Where can people find your work?

Writing has been slow, but I’m slowly formulating a new poetry manuscript about my relationship to dance, both as an observer and lover of the medium, and as a failed performer. TRANZ is out in fall of 2024, and I imagine I’ll have to tweet more about it as the date gets closer, which I’m dreading. I don’t have a website and this question makes me think that I should probably get one eventually. As of now, people can find me on twitter (@burritotheif) and instagram (@spencerfreak). Thank you for these really thoughtful questions, and for taking time to read the work. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to converse with you!

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