Andrew Byrds: Right off the bat, with the title of the collection itself and with one of the first few poems, you say, “I don’t write about race. I write about silence.” Many of the pieces in your book deal with quieter, more mundane experiences of life such as visiting a flower shop, or being in a coffeeshop in Brooklyn. And yet these moments yield some of the most poignant, thought provoking ruminations in the book. Do you believe it is just as important to document these experiences, as it is to write about the more overtly politically/emotionally/socially fucked up aspects of life? If so, why?
June Gehringer: I love this question.
I think many writers, and especially QTPOC writers fall into the trap where we feel like we’re only allowed to put our deepest, most life-altering traumas on display in our writing, or perhaps more accurately and cynically, that our work only receives attention insofar as it centers on our traumas, when the realities of our lives and our identities are so much deeper, more beautiful and more complicated than that. And in another sense, our identities, whether or not we want them to, inform each moment of our lives in little ways. That’s something about being a trans woman of color that I’m trying to speak to in my work. What does it look like to be everything I am both in the public sphere, and also when I’m all alone?
I think there’s also a way in which realist poetry and fiction fails to accurately depict the realities of our daily lives. So much of it rests on drama and conflict which feels tired and contrived. Most of the time, my life is not dramatic. Most of the time I’m just lying in my bed, staring at my phone, or stuck at work, staring at the clock, waiting for the shift and day to end. And it feels vitally important to me to be able to reclaim those spaces and that time, especially the time capitalism robs us of, at least retroactively, by writing about it. Like if I can turn the many empty moments of my life into something beautiful and meaningful than that will have made somehow made this wasted life more beautiful. Or at least, I’ll have had something to do.
AB: Have you read MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl? He writes about a similar approach to living, which is to give meaning to absolutely everything, especially to the aspects of the world which may seem insignificant, like a piece of trash lipping out from a gutter could be this life changing thing. Do you find there is more of a challenge reclaiming your identity through avoiding the archetype conflcits/themes often found in QT/POC writing?
JG: I love this quote and I agree that there’s no such thing as nonfiction. All narrative is constructed, and is fictional in that sense. I think there are different kinds of truth. Factual, scientific truth likes to pretend that it’s somehow truer than other kinds of truth, but it too is a narrative, is a story that we tell. And I think in IDWAR I’m at least attempting to deal in a certain kind of postcolonial literary truth. I want to acknowledge and document the contradictions and fluctuations of identity, without being reductive, because I think there’s truth in that. Truth can be oxymoronic, irrational, acausal. The truth of my life is.
AB: The deconstruction of language comes up a few times in your collection, and primarily I’m alluding to the piece “dog person”. There are times I believe identity is nearly impossible to claim due to the instability of our cognitive understanding, just as I believe words make it difficult to present ourselves to those who may not find as much strength in writing as they would in other mediums. What I’m saying is, sometimes when writing I become frustrated because the experience of myself becomes lost and almost pointless. Have you dealt with similar frustrations in your own writing, and how did you curb your insecurities, if you have at all?
JG: I’m relating to this so much. I mean yeah, as a writer, I primarily understand and experience my own identity through language. And it’s absolutely frustrating and ultimately doomed, I think, to try to claim identity through that kind of self-articulation. And yet we must try, or resign ourselves to nothingness. And something this book is engaging with, I think, is what happens when you reach that threshold you’ve described, when language proves too blunt and wild an instrument to wield.
The answer this book chooses, I think, is to let that be okay. To admit the illegibility of the self. Often I feel that that illegibility and inarticulability are actually the self, or closer to it. I know now I can’t articulate myself. The best I can do seems to be to gesture towards a possible self or selves, to offer the reader the same experience and metaphor through which I understand myself. And I think that’s another argument the book puts forth. That through metaphor, emotion, and association, we can comprehend something of the ineffable, something that can’t be articulated narratively. It’s why I write poetry. Poems can do things stories can’t.
AB: Poetry can say so much in so little time. The difference between, say, writing a short story and writing a poem is that to an extent poetry says all that needs be said. It’s like the vehicle for the voice of the exhausted, those who only have a little bit of time to speak. I think it’s especially important being the last few years has seen a raise in queer and POC writing, even more so in poetry than in longer forms of narrative. How would the narrative of IDWAR change if it were to have been anything else but poetry?
JG: I love the way you describe that. Probably because I’m always exhausted, lol. It has been wonderful to see so many more QTPOC gaining notoriety and getting paid. Like we’ve always been around making this art, and it’s lovely to see at least a few of us finally getting paid for it.
This is an especially interesting question to me, because I think genre is something very much at play in IDWAR. There are a few poems that feel like stories, a few stories that feel like poems, and even a piece or two which, taken outside of the collection, might read as personal essays or memoir. But to me, they’re all poems and the book is very much a poetry collection, even if it makes use of borrowed forms.
When I consider genre, I think less about what my writing means than how it means, which is why I categorize the book as poetry. A friend once used the phrase “the transrational logic of poetry” to describe how poems mean, and I think of that quite often. For example, craft-wise, my favorite piece in the book is “my father sells insurance”. In that poem I tried to set things up so that the poem’s different moving parts momentarily interlock with and inform each other, lending each other meaning and import which transcends the “actual” narrative of events. I think of that poem as a microcosm of the entire book, as perhaps the foremost example of the poetics of the work.
I think that if IDWAR were to have been written as, say, a straightforward prose memoir, it would try to advance the same arguments, but through different means. And I think I could have done a decent job, but I also think that poetry really was the best tool for the job here. Poetry can rest in ambiguity and contradiction in ways that subject-verb-object prose simply isn’t built to do. It’s perhaps an oversimplification but generally I think prose tends to reach for or naturally point to conclusions. in this book I wanted to resist conclusion, to resist the kind of singular meanings such narrative structures can produce. IDWAR is a questioning, a complication, a problematization. It is a sprawling mess and it does not conclude.
AB: At one point in IDWAR you say something along the lines of “I can’t imagine talking with anyone who doesn’t at least spend 4+ hours online.” How has internet culture shaped the way you write/communicate with people?
JG: The internet has definitely shaped the way I write and promote my work, probably to a higher degree than I’d like. I try to be a pragmatist about it. The world is more highly saturated with text and information than ever before. If there are tendencies toward brevity or snappiness in my work, they exist because of an awareness of what it’s like to read in 2018. My attention span is short, and it takes a lot to catch my attention. It often feels like poems have to be retweetable in order to be read, which is something I’ve both played into and tried to push against in different turns. People get pretty negative about the way the internet shapes writing. The rhetoric of those arguments usually feels pretty pedantic and is often vaguely racist, ageist, or classist. Short doesn’t have to mean simple and simple isn’t always bad. My main concern in my own work is avoiding reduction and erasure. I don’t see why snappiness and shareability can’t coexist alongside nuance and craft in poetry.
AB: I admit I used to be against the use of internet culture/vernacular in writing primarily due to an aversion to the “alt lit” that unfortunately seemed to dominate the smaller publishing world, but it’s detrimental to associate the internet speak solely with that dark period of writing. I’ve found that my philosophy about it now is that using the lingo/cultural references of the internet makes it easier for a once neglected demographic of readers to relate and find an outlet with these important books being published now, including your own. Lately you’ve been tweeting and retweeting a lot about the resurfaced sexually manipulative/abusive behavior of writers in the Alt Lit, most notably Steve Roggenbuck and Tao Lin. Do you feel there is a new push in the writing world towards reclaiming writing as a communal experience in understanding the fucked-up nature of the world, rather than what “alt lit” offered as using “art” to justify shitty behavior?
JG: i think it’s important, now more than ever, that art be accessible, especially art which is reaching toward revolutionary and healing aims. I was reading a thread by Danez Smith today, in which they lamented feeling a bit useless as a poet in the face of so much death and suffering, while at the same time knowing that their work is part of the Big Work we all need to be doing together. I want my poems to be useful. I want my book to rest like a brick or bottle in your hand. Something useful, heavy, dangerous. Something to keep you safe.
Alt lit is fucked, and I hate that a lot of elements of my work which feel politically imperative to me (accessibility, rejection of prescriptive grammar, use of internet slang, etc.) cause me to be associated with alt lit and thereby dismissed. I’ve gone back and forth personally as well in terms of my attitude toward the use of internet speak in poetry. I’ve seen it used to tremendous effect, and I’ve also seen it used as a fashionable substitute for having anything substantive to say. As far as my work goes, I’m mostly writing for people like me, young queer and trans folks who are trying to survive in America. I write in the language that feels most like it could be mine or could be ours, which, in the colonizing language of English, is something difficult to navigate. Yet, as you say, there’s there’s a real push going on right now to reclaim that space. It’s something that must be done carefully, but I’m glad to think that my work might be part of that project in some small way.
AB: It seems that nowadays many writers appear to cross-reference one another in their own works, establishing new literary circles and hyping each other up leading to a saturation of similar voices/writing styles in the indie market. I say this because though there has been a recent wave of QT/POC writers being published by some presses, a lot of the bigger indie presses still appear to favor white writers. Is there a difference between being part of a circle and being incredibly supportive of one another? Especially today when it’s incredibly important for once marginalized voices to reclaim a space domineered by white writers.
JG: It’s been increasingly important to me, as I find myself (confusingly? surprisingly?) developing a larger and larger platform, to use that platform to promote folks who otherwise aren’t getting the attention that their work deserves and needs. And usually those folks are QTPOC. I think you’re right that larger indie lit establishments by and large continue to promote mostly white writers, mostly cis, mostly men, which is something that’s always disappointed me about indie lit. Often times it feels as though the only meaningful distinction between indie and mainstream lit is that we aren’t making any money. The politics are all the same. And so both in and outside my work, I’ve tried to prioritize promoting other QTPOC artists and getting them paid.
I see the extremely supportive nature of QT art communities as an extension of the supportive nature of QT communities in general. We’ve always had to rely on each other to survive – and for many of us, being able to make art and make money in art is how we survive. I want to be as supportive as I can, but I’m wary of circles. When I was coming up in indie lit, it often felt like things were kind of ruled by a “cool kids club” of writers with large followings on twitter and other social media. From that perspective, indie lit felt opaque, unwelcoming, and cliquish. Now that I’m on the inside, I want to try to break that down. Even if the clique is made up of QTPOC, cliques still suck. And it’s so bizarre to be in this position now, whereas I was an unpublished “nobody” like 2-3 years ago. Every now and then I’ll interact with trans writers who are trying to break into the scene, and in those interactions I often feel as though I’m being put up on a pedestal, as though I’m somehow above the other writer. And as much as I appreciate the appreciation, I don’t want it to be like that, because I’m just another nobody, some random weirdo from Nebraska, and I’m really proud of that. I don’t wanna be your hero, and I don’t want you to be my fan. I’d much rather be your friend.
QA: Are there any QTPOC writers you feel deserve some recognition you’d like to mention, or any works you feel would be important to bring up?
QB: The thing about circles is they usually come with labels. You look at all the doped-up white writers from San Francisco in the 50s/60s and they were the Beats. On the east coast you had the New York School. In the same neck of the woods in the 20s there were black writers part of the Harlem Renaissance. I feel like with labels comes expectations and, subconsciously/socially, obligations in one’s writing. For example, any writers part of the HR HAD to talk about the struggles of passing during their time, any writers of the Beats talked about drugs/fucking/road trips, and so there isn’t much freedom in writing with a label attached to you. Which you seem to address in IDWAR where you wanted to subvert expectations with your writing because it had to be about being a QTPOC and the struggles therein, but you say FUCK THAT, I just wanna write. Do you think those labels act as a detriment to other QTPOC writers, or that it would lead to catering to an audience rather than expressing oneself honestly?
ReA: Sung Yim’s book, “What About the Rest of Your Life” is probably the best book I read this year. Zack Blackwood, Jayy Dodd, P.E. Garcia are a few favorites. Kristin Chang. Chen Chen. I recently got to see Noor Ibn Najam read in Philly, he gave probably the best reading I’ve been to this year.
You hit the nail right on the head there. I think those labels absolutely act as a detriment to both the perception of our work and its value, and to ourselves as working artists. Society does a great job of putting us in boxes in which it’s hard for us to survive. People only want to see us in that box, only understand us in that box. It seems like for anyone to care about my writing, for anyone to acknowledge my identity or my art, I have to present my identity through the lens of my trauma. Not that it’s bad to write about trauma but damn I’d love to just write about love or the weather today and have somebody care. And obviously identity matters in art and publishing, but our identities are so much more than people know, more than people can imagine, more than people are willing to care enough to even attempt to imagine. And I’m tired of trying to force people to care who, it seems, just won’t. So I’m not gonna embrace or reject the “QTPOC poet” label. Because it doesn’t mean to the wider world what it means to me, and probably never will. I’m trying, as you say, to say “FUCK THAT, I just want to write.” I want to want to write. I trying not to care what me and my work get labeled as. I’m trying to focus on doing shit for myself and for my friends. I’m trying to let it be that simple now.
AB: Was there a moment when you realized that you just wanted to write, forgoing all pretensions and labels, and truly wanting to focus on your craft?
JG: Nah. I wish I had a cool crystallizing moment – it’d make for a better origin story. I think my desire to do things my own way has been building within me over time. Like the longer I spend in indie lit the more bs I’m exposed to, and the less patience I have for any of it. To get famous and get paid from within indie lit, it seems like you’ve gotta be Steve Roggenbuck or Tao Lin. And I have zero fucking interest in that.
I just wanna share shit with my friends. That’s what gives me life, what makes it all worthwhile. The best moments in my lit career haven’t been the publications, the paychecks, or the (extremely mild degree of) fame. The best nights of my life have been spent in basements and living rooms, reading for crowds of like 10 people, all of whom I know and love. That’s what I’m in it for. A chance to do that again.
AB: I have to ask because I’m from Iowa and one of the things I struggle with is being creative while from a small town, did you find many of those nights while living in Nebraska, had there been any creative difference between living there and where you currently are?
JG: Honestly, it’s been unreal, the love i’ve been shown in Nebraska. Some of the best nights, the warmest, most intimate shows.
Leaving was bittersweet. There was so much love and support coming from my community back home, but at the same time being a trans woman of color in nebraska is hard and scary in real ways. As much love as i left behind in NE, there’s just more opportunity for me out here in Philadelphia. I wish I could stay in Nebraska and keep trying to do the work there that needs to be done, but in a lot of ways, this year i hit my breaking point. And there’s a lot within me i need to rebuild before i can think of going back.
AB: You still seem to take an active interest in the Nebraska scene. Lately you’ve been immensely vocal about the recent appointment of Simon Joyner as the head of a sound program at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Most people when they get the hell out of the Midwest, they do so both physically and emotionally. Is there an importance in needing to remember where you came from, from a personal and career standpoint?
JG: Yeah that simon Joyner thing was immensely disappointing. Without getting too into local beef, there’s just a lot of better places, better people, better artists that that money could be going to.
I don’t love the narrative of “getting the hell out”. Like there’s a real way in which I had to leave to gain access to resources and community in new and necessary ways, but I love NE, and I love the artists and organizers there who brought me up. They’re why I am who I am today.
I think the “getting out” narrative does a bit of a disservice to those folks. In living in and traveling through the Midwest and the Deep South, that’s something I’ve been shown time and time again. The most beautiful, thriving queer and trans communities often sprout up in places we’re not taught to expect. I’m happier than ever living in philly but I’ll always be proud to be from Nebraska, and I hope someday to return. It’s not something I could forget, and I don’t think I’d very much like the person I’d become were I to do so.
AB: At the end of IDWAR you wrote an addendum that says you wrote the book to better understand yourself, but in the end realized it is impossible to be understood. Did this realization bring more solace or discomfort about your identity?
JG: It was comforting, yeah. I think of the book as the byproduct of a failed project – selfhood I guess. Like I was free to just give up on a unified self, on any one cohesive lens through which to see myself. It’s a bit of a paradox I guess. The comfort is in doing the work of accepting that. Living in the chaos of myself.
AB: Do you think it’s possible to ever achieve an absolute understanding of the self? Or is the pursuit of understanding more important than the end product?
JG: I think it’s possible but only if you’re willing to work from a kind of paradoxical understanding of selfhood. My sister is a chemist and I always think of this thing about electrons, I think it’s called Heisenberg Uncertainty, how the more you know about a particle’s location, the less you know about it’s momentum and where it’s going. I think it’s kinda like that.
I think our selves are too constantly in flux to be pinned down. By the time you get it figured out you’ll already be somebody else. I think understanding the self means being willing to sit with that. Like, you’re never gonna have absolute categorical knowledge of the self in its totality. But I think if you’re willing to understand yourself and others as being constantly in flux physically, mentally, and emotionally from moment to moment, it creates a lot more possibility and space for kindness and love and empathy and all that.
AB: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you included in IDWAR, or things you’d like to have written about now after its publication?
JG: It’s funny, there’s not much I want to add to the book, but I think I could probably have done without the epigraph and the author’s note. They’re more for me than for the reader, and I think they give away too much. I intentionally wrote a book that felt resistant but I chickened out and put cheat codes at the beginning and the end.
I think I’d really like to put this book behind me. I’m proud of it absolutely, but ya been stressing me out for like, a year. I wanna do something fun. Something cute. Something hopeful. Something sweet.
AB: So you think it’s important for a writer to let go of their last project so they can move forward and challenge themselves with something different?
JG: Yes and no. It’s important for me, personally, to be able to move on. This book took a lot out of me and I wanna get back to just having fun doing what I love. But, also, I want my works to be in dialogue with each other across the span of my career. So, paradoxically I guess, it feels like the best way to move forward and figure out what’s next is to let that stuff ferment in me a little bit. I think writers in general should do whatever the hell they want, whatever helps them write and live. I’m working with what feels right to me, but fuck if I know, lol.
June Gehringer is the author of “I Don’t Write About Race” (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2018) and “I Love You It Looks Like Rain” (Be About It Press 2017). She tweets @june_gehringer.