Painting: Odd Nerdrum

We Want It All is fecund. It is full-to-bursting with sex and intimacy, mischief and wonder. It is fiendish and puckish and sweet and caring and hot and burn-it-to-the-motherfucking-ground. It is, in short, a behemoth of a book dedicated to imagining a collective, genderful world. For me, as a trans writer, it felt like being nestled into a queer bar or knee-to-knee at a Bluestockings reading or arm-in-arm chanting words of protest in Washington Square Park. Which is to say: it felt like being in community. And perhaps it is because I have a friend in this anthology, but I doubt it. I think it has more to do with the exciting leaps of experience across time and space, and these multitudinous voices all clamoring and conglomerating, eager to have their abundant imagination heard—from the artful shout of Harry Josephine Gilles’s ten poems, all titled “ABOLISH THE POLICE”; to the sly wink of Amy Marvin’s “Hey Guys”; to Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s “Harold Mouthfucks the Devil,” which imagines the narrator’s father fellating Satan; to an excerpt from Lou Sullivan’s diaries.

At a time when we are all locked away in our homes, some of us without another trans person in sight, it is a valuable gift to feel this way while nestled between the pages of a book. Naturally, I had a lot of questions for editors Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel. We spoke about trans community, the epistolary form, and the difference between trans literature as a mainstream marketing category and trans poetics as a practice.

—A.E. Osworth for Guernica

Guernica: Why was it important to you to compile this book?

Kay Gabriel: One of the things that has happened in the past, say, five or seven years is the emergence of a category called “trans literature.” That’s come from a bunch of different places, but it has taken the form of, in several instances, large publishers figuring out how to capitalize on trans identity to sell to non-trans people, to sell to cis people, to sell to people who do not have a stake in our struggles—who are not participants in but rather tourists of our identities. We want to think about what is named by “trans literature,” actually and ideally. And what does poetry have to do with that? What is poetry doing here that fiction cannot do? What can “trans literature” name other than a consumer category?

So the questions that keep me up at night—not because they stress me out; they’re actually very pleasant to think through—are, What is the relationship between poetry and revolutionary movement and struggle? What do trans people and poetry have to do with each other? What does trans liberation have to do with communism, liberation, abolition? The benefit in concretizing radical trans poetics in a book object is making this category thinkable and possible to reflect on, and be critical of, and engage with, and write alongside, for more people than those people who are in the book.

Andrea Abi-Karam: We’re thinking about trauma narratives, we’re thinking about coming-out stories, we’re thinking about the poems about the first T shot, and we’re thinking about singular abject trans-ness. And all of these stories, of course, are important, but we have interpreted them as very singular, individual stories, and part of the project of this book is to explode the idea of the “I” into a collective “we” that is searching for abolition, liberation, self-determination.

Gabriel: Even for poems in the first person singular, which is a mode that I write in all the time, we kept asking, “How is this also speaking in a collective language?”

Guernica: Kay, I have a question about your work, and the excerpt from Stone Butch Blues, that speaks to this. Would you talk a little bit about why you think epistolary poetry reoccurs in the anthology, and what it means to be in conversation with others and with the self?

Abi-Karam: We love epistolary poetry.

Gabriel: We do, we’re really hot for it.

One thing that I am drawing on is this epistolary project. I also think the tradition of long, discursive love poems—mediated in the twentieth century and written in a letter— resonates with other trans writers. And the other is the category of what you [might] call a revolutionary letter, and that is a separate tradition. And one of the things that I’m trying to do in my project is to put those two together as unevenly, and sometimes antagonistically, overlapping modes of address.

Why is this interesting for trans writers? Well, on the one hand, what does the letter do? The letter allows you to speak intimately to somebody to whom you do not have to explain yourself, to whom you don’t have to disclose details of your identity biographically, although you can talk about your life. You do not need to explain yourself as you would to a doctor, or to someone whose sympathies you are appealing to. So it is a different way of talking about the self that assumes that somebody is already in continuity with you. And the other thing I’ll say about it is that direct address is just a very permissive form; it allows you to say a lot. And we are always looking for that kind of permissiveness.

Guernica: Many of the aesthetic concerns listed in the book’s introduction are either rooted in or gesture at the concept of abundance. What is specific to the trans experience that lends itself to an imagination of the ability to enact abundance on the page?

Abi-Karam: I mentioned earlier how the trans literature that gets commodified is of alienation, trauma, coming out, and abjection; part of the revolutionary trans experience for us is an abundance of sex, an abundance of desire, an abundance of thrill and joy and mischief. In our acknowledgments, we took a maximalist approach by thanking everyone that we’re in conversation with and in community with—and I’m sure there’s people we didn’t include who we should have—but our kind of mode there was thinking about how writers don’t exist alone in a room. We are made and created by our communities, and by our actions and by our intimacies with one another, and we find that modes of abundance and excess reflect that.

Gabriel: For me, it comes back to this thing that Kristin Ross, who’s a scholar of Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, likes to talk about, which is communal luxury—an aesthetic ideal for a world in which everyone will have their share of the best. That’s directly opposed to the kind of model that fixates on a scarcity of resources: there’s not enough, so some people have to have less. The way this shows up in some people on the left is, we’re in a situation of crisis, and that means that we have to demand less. But the kinds of aesthetic contingencies that capital cordons off for the wealthy actually belong to everyone. When we as trans people insist on the aesthetic and pleasurable dimension of life, and we say that that is politics, what we are doing is building a world in which everyone has access to—yes, housing, yes, food, but also to ways of being with people that are enlivening rather than degrading, rather than demeaning, rather than personally abhorrent. Where everyone has bodily autonomy, where we’re intervening into our bodies in these ways that some motherfuckers are like, “That’s just pure contingency. Who cares about that?” And we’re like, “No, it’s important.”

I think that that’s where that comes out in the end; I think a trans poetic that Andrea and I vibe with is something that has a really expansive imagination, maybe an extensive appetite, that proposes a formal maximalism as a mirror of an actual, political maximalism, which demands the world for everyone.

A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time faculty at The New School, where they teach fiction and digital storytelling. Their first novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in April 2021. You can see more of their work in Quartz, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, and Slice, among others.

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