I started reading forever ago. I’m not interested in the why, my longing for words almost aquatic—tangled in me like swamp root. Instead, I’m trying to write a self through texts rather than experiences. I’m trying to annotate a kind of loneliness from being a queer trans woman in a space (academia, an early career in “professional” “poetry,” publishing) where there aren’t a lot of other folks doing the same thing. Surely you know the feeling. I’m trying to write myself into these texts, but, as the sun’s dipping down, I’m not sure how welcomed I am by any of them.
Here’s what I’m wondering, why I’m writing you in the first place: if I can’t be saved by texts, why am I reading them. If I don’t feel at ease in spaces, have I ever. If I were to draw a list of the writers—or even people—who first nurtured me, it would be marked by absences. Have you noticed the same thing with yourself? Of course I’m talking about the process of assembling a self through texts, which is always by nature burdened with incompletion; but I’m also talking about the burden of reflection.1 Which is to say I’m interested in elision, crust of gender//the ways bodies hold us and are held, but the poets who precede me on that are all moving through a gender that is either already stabilized or trends towards the rind of masculinity in ways that I can’t find myself within. Dear _______, I’m writing about texts to avoid writing about myself, but I think I’m doing both.2
The feminist scholar Ann Cvetkovich talks about the importance of the “archive of feelings” in resurrecting lesbian lives, but feelings are also that which can’t be touched/can’t be found/are always resisting archiving. To say that feelings haunt the archive of influences I’m assembling is to say I am seen by these texts, if not necessarily the authors. What does it mean to see, or be seen?3 It’s to say I’m wrestling with the contradictions inherent in reading people who are, in some ways, opposed to your identity. It’s to say behind this archive I am shoring,4 the ghost of the past is also yelling.
But how do I grapple with the depth of, say, Angela Carter? The Bloody Chamber meant the world to me, it was a book that saved me, its violence and the way it actively rejected the gaze gave me an out as a young femme child who was cracked open by assault already. Her shorter works read to me like poems, ways toward naming without settling into easy answers. I loved her excess, how she always had too many words or details, her trend into morbidity. But what of works of hers like The Passion of New Eve—which extensively centers a trans woman protagonist as “inauthentic”/deceitful—or even in how in The Sadean Woman, her one extensive work of critical nonfiction, she erases queers, non-binary identities, racialized identities, proliferations/ complications in gender, to make her point about the revolutionary potential in the works of the Marquis de Sade? The Angela Carter text that I read is not the text that Angela Carter reads.5
Even Adrienne Rich—and I have “I know it hurts to burn” embedded in me like a koan— produces these complications. More so, even. She immediately provided a foothold for different types of writing as I was moving away from Eliot, although still engulfed in the same boring whiteness of the canon. The way “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” jumps tones, types of writing, diction, writing to a new self/type of form, that ending of that poem. Adrienne Rich who was one of the few names explicitly thanked for her “editorial advice” in the notoriously anti-trans The Transsexual Empire. But also how skeptical some friends are that Adrienne had anything to do with that book, the (relative) absence in her own writing of rhetoric on that level of hatred.6 The Fact of a Doorframe a book that helped me discover myself, one that is still parked by my bed despite everything. But a book I can’t read without thinking of that other book, as well.
So maybe I draw community / influence from more contemporary writers because there’s less to grapple with, less dark history immediately visible. The poet Latasha N Nevada Diggs looms over my work in her moments of rupture, juxtaposition. When I first read Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With The Dictionary I thirsted for other works similar and found a likewise freewheelingness in TwERK, Diggs’ grasp of words and the politics involved in grasping words (I’m always thinking about the politics involved in grasping words). Working at Apogee Journal, my current literary position, has challenged and made more cogent my own politics, and through reading for the magazine I’ve found so much writing, art, and culture that’s radically altered how I think.7 These are other texts that I’m trying to find myself within. But not saved by, never saved by.
It feels weird to list as influences poets who are writing at the same time as me, but the archive I want to assemble is almost by necessity an archive of the present (the reflection I want really only visible in the now). I’m looking for another home, a way to sit by myself without the clanging of violence that’s surrounded me. Take Jordan Rice, a trans woman poet whose writing is nothing like mine but in whose work I could see a heavy thumbprint of lyric in ways that were exciting, I reviewed her debut right after it came out for Apogee and said it was a text I was waiting for for some time (it was). But in its mannered-ness, still not a fit, something that I could only indirectly relate to.
Does this bibliography make sense? If I’m writing to you, I’m really writing to me—the blank of an open page, my body’s creasing, I’m tired of memoir but somehow keep only writing that anyway. The hunger I feel towards books, the hunger I’ve always felt. This is the way I’m building an archive or a self: out of the past, suturing myself into where I don’t fit. Out of the crumbling ruin of the present: like tubers, like swamp vines, the dusty mirror that hangs in a haunted house. If I feel uncomfortable with reflection, I always have. I’m writing as a kind of community, which is to say allowing my own excessiveness—books for me were always a way towards becoming, feelings that wouldn’t ultimately betray me. Please, don’t leave.
1 When I say there’s a noted absence of poetry by trans women that shadows the writing I want to make myself. When I say I feel seen by texts, but not necessarily by the authors. When I say I’ve found parts of myself buried, hidden deep, “what does it mean to search?” (Reina Gossett). How searching is a type of discovery. How the mind makes its choices reading, just as the body does.
2 How do you engage with music? How do I? Everything’s a text: great-grandfather playing accordion in stories my mom would tell, old country records I was brought up on (my mom: “I’ll always be white trash”), the peal of organ in Sunday mass as a little kid. The other things outside my reading life that have shaped me. I grew up in a swamp. I left home at 15, haven’t lived there since then. My friends and I, when I was 18, decided to spend a night sleeping in an Asheville cemetery and bumped into grave robbers, them trudging towards us with shovels, duffel bags, knives. I held onto a curled leaf for safety until it was crumpled to pieces, it’s still tucked into an old notebook somewhere.
3 Foucault, of course, thinking about how the panoptic gaze shapes all genre/genderqueer work, the different types of discipline we’ve both encountered, the way the body is shaped and resists shaping. But also the way that my trans woman antecedents ( “many gendered mothers of my heart,” to steal a phrase from Maggie Nelson stealing a phrase from _____) are almost all in visual fields, not (exclusively) writing: how the sculptor and dollmaker Greer Lankton looms over my work, the presence of contemporary multidisciplinary artists like Juliana Huxtable, past activists, how my sense of self is shaped by that which I can see and touch but not read necessarily. (“This is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.” –Adrienne Rich, ‘The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.’) The way the page breaths but not enough to hang a skin onto— not like a video, or cloth, or assemblage, or person does. (Can any of those hang a skin?)
4 S. Eliot, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the first poet I read, given a copy of Old Possom’s Book of Practical Cats and then, a year later, the Selected Poems by my father, how I had to work to free myself from his (which one’s?) influence and haven’t read him in ten years because of that; but also Vievee Francis, “You hear me don’t you? The waves aren’t banging the shore/too loudly are they?” words that haunt me, just as so many of her poems haunt me, just as Asheville NC, the mountains, the darkness of a creek at night haunts me, just as my father, who died last year, haunts me. What are the violences that are done unto us, what are the violences we do through reading itself? (“sorry I’m so melodramatic, I’m gay as fuck” – X, on a date a few months before we broke up.)
5 Roland Barthes, “the author is dead,” but even more to the emotional point, how does one write the self through annotation? How does one write the self through the selves that other writers are writing? As I’m compiling, I’m also fighting the impulse towards narrativization. (“The urge to erase the (female) self through the writing”—Kate Zambreno.) But is there a way to talk about books, for instance, without talking about how we read them? When I first read Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising,” my favorite children’s book for a long time, I had just moved South. It was a hand-me-down copy; my dead sister’s. Twenty-year-old flowers were pressed in the margins and my mother cried when I showed them to her. That school year, I’d always come home in bruises.
6 I can’t talk about the self without talking about the thrill when I first read Rich or Butler, but what ways is the self contained by these texts, the cis gaze? It was in undergrad, I had climbed high into a pine tree at the outskirts of campus to not be seen. I came into, say, Gender Trouble with nettles and burrs cutting into my (newly) varnished hands, exhausted from my just-ended shift at work. Class and gender were always in dance for me, are for you too I suspect.
7 The incredible family of editors present there: Joey De Jesus, Muriel Leung, Safia Jamia, Alejandro Varela, Alexandra Watson, Crystal Kim, Dennis Norris II, and others; the incredible roster of folks we’ve published (countless). When I moved to New York, I spent hours wandering around the city each night—headphones on, sitting by the East River. It’s aquatic, this longing for community, this seeing-ness.
Zef Lisowski is a writer and artist currently based in New York. A poetry editor for Apogee Journal and MFA candidate at Hunter College, her work’s appeared or is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, The VIDA Review, Dreginald, and The Wanderer, among other journals. Find her online being professional at zeflisowski.com or talking shit @zefrrrrrrr. She’s a total Pisces.
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, the coming-into-language story. 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 email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.