My author bio reads “Jesse Rice-Evans is a queer Southern poet. Her work has appeared in The Queer Girls Raised in the South Anthology from Freeverse Press, Yes Poetry, Monstering, and Public Pool, among others. She is the nonfiction editor of Identity Theory and the author of poetry chapbook from Damaged Goods Press, but she doesn’t give a shit about genre.”
It may seem disingenuous to proclaim genre twice in an author blurb and then disparage it soon after, but queering systems doesn’t always mean ignoring them. I wasn’t always a literary separatist, but once I discovered how genre held me back—held artists to expectations based on label, I turned rogue.
The first few days of the Fall 2012 semester were harrowing: North Carolina dog days drag on into September, and then, overnight, the maples pour auburn tumbles of leaves into walkways. My sweater bulked up my Shakespeare & Company tote bag, already cramped with my thesis materials: legal pads, shredded Moleskines, chapbooks foraged from the punk used bookstore on Lexington, a brightly illustrated Tarot deck by two local feminist artists.
I plopped down outside of Karpen Hall to fish leaves out of my cheap vegan boots, now blooming with holes, and inhaled deeply, trying to fill my tingling fingers with crunchy mountain air. Only 45 minutes until the first session of LANG 373, my creative writing workshop. Should I smoke a cigarette?—not that I even did that anymore. Sucking down lukewarm coffee wasn’t quelling my anxiety much. I flipped open Kate Zambreno’s new book Heroines, which I was devouring, ravenous for writing that fit into the anarchic literary space that I chose to focus a whole workshop on.
How can I teach other writers about a form that I can hardly produce?
What if everyone hates the texts?
What the hell is a creative biography anyway?
I threw back the dregs of my now-sad Americano and stuffed Kate under my arm, the back of my knees sweating in the weird blend of hot sun and crisp breeze, a hallmark of Asheville’s climate, the altitude of campus, the vista of the Blue Ridge yawning across the western horizon, past the chalky, institutional dorms and the sparkling student center. Brick dust spattered across my jeans, I scurried into Karpen, up the stairs, and down the dead-end hallway to David Hopes’s office.
David, UNC Asheville’s resident flamboyant performer, had his edematous right calf propped up on some ancient tomes of Byron, a box of in-progress plays, and copies of his latest poetry collection, A Dream of Adonis. His tie-dye tee-shirt, tight over his belly, and his bemused perma-grin immediately softened the edge of my bubbling panic. I knocked, slunk inside, nudged Roethke from the seat of my favorite badly-upholstered office chair, plopped down, and sighed.
“Why am I nervous? I didn’t think I’d get so nervous.”
“Don’t forget teaching is just a performance. Take what you need from the audience, from the Muse, and be fearless.”
“But I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Oh, but you do. Shelley sought to die upon a mountain to find sublimity. Yours is much closer. Legislate! We’ll have Manhattans afterward.”
“Right, but Shelley could take a few days off of work to seek the sublime. I’m pretty much shackled to my work.”
“Don’t worry; I’m buying.”
“You know we’re not reading anything resembling Shelley, right?”
“It’s never too late to learn.”
Less than an hour later, a dozen students trickled into the 2nd floor classroom, the one wall of windows looking out onto a brick courtyard lined with wrought iron benches, late afternoon sun arcing in. I took a deep breath.
“I’m Jesse, I’m a last-semester creative writing student. I’ll be leading this course in discussions of our texts and in classic creative writing workshop discussions. I have a question for everybody: what is genre?”
Eli, a bearded queer with curly, cross-cut hair and a knack for metaphor, couldn’t have answered better: “Genre is a construct.”
Kelly, a fellow writing center tutor and brilliant memoirist, chimed in, “made up by bookstores to sell books in neat little categories. Makes it easy on the consumer.”
Cameron, always bursting with theoretical critiques: “Late capitalism only succeeds if we perpetuate binaries. There is no such thing as genre.”
I was stunned. Other writers felt this surging need to deconstruct genre? To write something uncategorizable? I conceived of Creative Biographies as an escape for the rigid, enforceable constraints creative writing courses brought into workshop; the idea that fiction should appear as a paragraph, that memoir needs to be fact-checked despite the scientific admission that memory is fallible, the fetishization of truth in a world inundated with contradictions. Creative writing courses needed to be challenged, and I sought to make room for the creative.
Creative Biographies allow a writer to scrape the edges of memory, to rewrite trauma as liberation, to try on gender, to excavate the deep stuff in themselves, the untranslatable. Each week, we held space for exploration, for weirdness: Taylor’s autobiography of addiction, Reid’s childhood crushes, my secret marriage, truth from murky memory. Composing biographies tasked us with questions hard sciences can never answer: why are we here? how do we survive in this mess? Survival has no genre.
I joke that I received my Bachelor’s degree in White Male Writers.
In truth, even a renowned public liberal arts college fetishized the canon: Marlowe, Donne, Shakespeare, McCarthy, Shelley, Keats, Flaubert. The only books I was assigned that weren’t by white men were from my two political professors in a Disaster Capitalism & Literature course and a Black Literature course.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Keats (Ode on a Grecian Urn is notably well-conceived), but it wrong intellectually, morally, and politically to depict a solitary social perspective as universal. This debate is occurring culturally now, with activism going digital, canons getting dismantled by radical teachers. I worry about the derision of “alternative facts” in the age of Tr*mp. Histories are written by oppressors, and objectivity is a fantasy of the apolitical. For many writers working from a place of powerlessness, of subjection, these “alternative facts” are the only ways to reclaim stories lost to a narrative that never included them. Creative biography can be a method of liberation, a way of writing into, of staking a claim to historical space that erased people of color, queers, disabled folks, trans people.
This is my literacy: a literacy of holding space; a literacy of intersectionality, critique, and a politic of inclusion; a literacy of self-definition, rather than an attempt to cram itself into an already-formulated shape; a literacy of comes from a place of privilege and works to make space for literacies that do not; a literacy of queers genre; a literacy of hunger for more than stanza; a literacy of wants to shed binarist constructs wielded as proof of inferiority, to make room for the weird, the othered, the fresh; a literacy of alive-ness and growth, of curiosity, thirst, in bloom, becoming.
Jesse Rice-Evans is a queer poet from North Carolina. Her first chapbook, Soft Switch, was recently published by Damaged Goods Press. You can read her work in Public Pool, Monstering, Yes Poetry, and others. Follow her @riceevans for posts about Pokemon, femme supremacy, and teaching writing.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.