The Body of the Poem: On Transgender Poetry

By Stephanie BurtNovember 17, 2013

The Body of the Poem: On Transgender Poetry

Troubling the Line by Tim Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert

BEFORE WE CAN THINK about transgender bodies, transgender writers, and our (perhaps) transgender poems, we will have to think about bodies and poems in general. I’ll get back to trans people, and to our poems in particular, a few paragraphs down; if that’s what you’re seeking, stay with me.

By now it’s a commonplace, though not a truth universally acknowledged, that a poem can stand in for, or create an alternative to, a human face and a human body: for the writer (after she writes it) and for the reader (while she is reading it). Jay Wright says that a poem creates a “body that stands apart from itself”; Wallace Stevens, in “The Motive for Metaphor,” suggests that literary figuration opens up, or imagines, a world “[o]f things that would never be quite expressed, / Where you yourself were never quite yourself / And did not want nor have to be.”

And so unless the poem is a dramatic monologue — and maybe even when it is — the poet is both herself and not herself, or not quite herself; the poem augments her face, or substitutes for it. Think of Emily Dickinson’s poem, so often taught to children, that begins “I’m Nobody — who are you?” Think of the people in Randall Jarrell’s late poems, often middle-aged women, who want nothing so much as to be noticed, to be seen: “The world goes by my cage and never sees me,” says one. Think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” whose sacred headless sculpture (a figure for poetry) seems to meet our gaze, to speak to us, even though we can never see its face. Or think of Shakespeare’s sonnet 83: “I never saw that you did painting need / And therefore to your fair no painting set,” where “painting” means word-painting (flattering poetic description), portrait painting (preserving a face through art) and the morally suspect artfulness of cosmetics (improving the face you have by applying makeup). The poet would have made a better face, a more durable face, for the beloved, but felt he could not, because the beloved’s real face is as good as it gets.

We need poetry when literal faces and bodies and circumstances are not as good as it gets: we might enjoy reading and writing poetry for many reasons, but we need it when we feel that we need figuration, need something unavailable in the literal world. That “something” might be a theodicy, a way “to justify the ways of God to man”: it might be an expression of grief, or devotion, or confusion, or frustration. But it might also be a new face, a new body; it might be a way to make the inward person audible (if not visible) to other people, if the outward person cannot match what’s inside.

And it never wholly does. All of us are, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, bigger on the inside than on the outside. Few of us are finished, none of us ever find moments when we have at last enunciated the single, true, real, authentic, satisfactory self: instead, we can work to articulate that self as it changes and multiplies and evades us, whether or not we do so with our changing bodies’ physical appearance, whether or not we do it in poems. “Who doesn’t want / to be called something / other than the name we’re given?” writes the contemporary poet Angie Estes. Nobody ever feels that even her closest friends know all of her, all the time, at any one time, and it only gets worse (we get more opaque) if we consider ourselves in time, since who I am now can obscure whatever I have been. Another contemporary poet, Laura Kasischke, writes that “growing older” is like being “blindfolded, walking // straight through one / immaterial mirror / and into another. / But it’s never enough.” You never see, you can never get other people to see, or hear, all of yourself: no one face, no one text, can suffice, no matter who you think you are.

These questions — of poetry and voice, of visibility and self-consciousness, of textual faces and textual substitute bodies — apply to all poems, but they have special salience when the bodies and the poet in question are trans or genderqueer. Definitions may be in order here. Trans people are people whose inner sense of gender — of whether and when we are men, women, boys or girls — does not match either our anatomical sex, or our former anatomical sex, or the way in which other people have seen us. The category includes sometime cross-dressers, performing drag kings and drag queens, people who change their everyday full-time gender — before, during, after, or without surgeries —  and some people who are biologically intersex (other intersex people reject the term).  “Cisgender” — a back-formation, like “acoustic guitar”—refers to people who are not trans: whose sense of their own gender matches their social role and biological sex. People who label themselves as genderqueer are trying to queer (or “trouble,” or bend, or break) the binary of gender, to live as both/and or as neither/nor.

I, for example, love to be called Stephanie, though I first asked somebody to call me by that name less than two years ago. I wish I were a woman — or a girl — often, and I might be Stephanie all the time if it were easier. I’m happy enough as Stephen, most of the time, and I’m lucky to find social acceptance when I dress as a woman just now and then, and to play with the signifiers of gender, around their margins, in the rest of my life. The terms “trans” and “transgender” thus include me, while “transsexual” does not, nor does “drag queen” (which implies a stage act); “transvestite” sounds dated (it also sounds like a rare mineral), and “cross-dresser,” while accurate, has the unfortunate implication that I’m interested mostly (or fetishistically) in clothes.

Don’t get me wrong: I am interested in clothes. With the right women’s clothes I can feel that I am more myself, even that I am better than myself, a Stephanie who is prettier and more confident than the Stephen I have historically been. I like learning about women’s clothes, and about makeup too, and I wish I had learned a lot more a lot sooner. I know it’s not worth it to me — it would be too disruptive, both practically and emotionally, to me and to people around me — for me to live as Stephanie full time, but I also know that I would like to be able to use women’s clothes more often, more fully, more deftly, as means of self-expression: as a way to feel pretty, to be both the person I am and the people whom I would like to be.

“People,” not “person.” I would, in fact, like to be several mutually incompatible women and girls: a techie tomboy; a confident professional woman whose palette is grey, gold and black; a girl who in several senses has not quite developed, who still puts hearts on her “i’s”; a reviver of colorblock tops, bringing back the New Wave. I would like to resemble the British pop star Clare Grogan, and the cute starship mechanic from the TV show Firefly, and Katherine Hepburn, none of whom resemble each other, and Kitty Pryde from X-Men, who doesn’t exist. I would also, at times, like to be, and I can see myself vividly as if I were, a point guard, and a ferret, and (like Shelley and Mayakovsky before me) a cloud. Sometimes I feel that I might as well be 75 years old; sometimes I feel that I’m “really” 12.

Some of those identities can be approximated, approached, even if clumsily, with makeup and wardrobe; some of them can’t, or not for me. But all of them could be, and some of them have been, explored in my own poems. I think (I have no way of knowing) that if I had been born a girl and had grown up a woman I would still have a profession in one of the arts that use words; I might even be a professor and a literary scholar and a cultural critic, doing much of what I do now. But I am not sure that I would have become a poet, not sure that I would have had the same motivation to make these odd, embarrassing, risky, intuitive, apparently useless art forms that can stand in for the bodies and faces we have, to eclipse or disguise the literal with figura, with artifice made up of language alone.


My goals as a poet overlap with the goals of the 54 other poets included along with me in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, a recent anthology edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson. A prose statement by one contributor, Jen (Jay) Besemer (the parentheses in the name are Besemer’s own), speaks, perhaps inadvertently, to the head-turning range of the anthology as a whole:

Some poems look like informational captions for photos taken by stone-age cameras. Some poems take the form of bibliographic citations. Some wear the clothes of word problems on standardized tests. Are you a man or a woman? Are you a door or a window? ... Sometimes I appear evasive or contrary so as to avoid miscategorizing myself... What I am is how I work and what I make.

Besemer’s statement also has the virtue of humor: “I was female when I was born. Later additional information became available.”

This big book includes cross-dressers, like me, and others who live in two genders but won’t transition; people, such as the Michigan poet J. Rice, who are writing during transition; transmen and transwomen who have transitioned, such as Joy Ladin and Samuel Ace; and people for whom it’s more complicated. It has writers already eminent, either nationally (Eileen Myles) or within a queer avant-garde (the late kari edwards), and writers for whom it’s their first appearance in print. It’s also got people working in and through and against several other identity categories — among them heritage language, race, disability, fat pride, Deaf culture, and early abuse — and people whose poems draw on poetic lineages, on styles and goals, that are far from my own.

In particular — that is, particularly far from what I think I do — are people who seem to be writing for performance, in front of an audience, in their own body, in real time, however gendered or attired. That’s an art form that comes close to the one that I practice, but it’s also disturbing and alien to me, because it seems to insert back into “poetry” the very things — the physical body of just one person at a particular moment in space and in time — that “poetry,” for me, attempts to escape. I am happy to read my poems in public: overjoyed (if also nervous) to read them as Stephanie, delighted to read them as Stephen in a T-shirt and jeans, and willing to put on a tie if the venue demands. What’s alien to me is the idea that my poems somehow require my bodily presence, in real time (as if a musical composition were pointless unless you had seen it performed live).

But maybe, for these performance poets, the integration of person and poem, of writer, reciter and text, is part of the point. A performance poet who makes queer identity his or her or hir or their subject is integrating the personae that come from the poetry into the living body attached to the poet’s name: and that sort of integration is what, to me, seems impossible or undesirable, either because it’s impossible in general (each of us “hath that within which passeth show”) or because it’s impossible for me.

Troubling the Line required author photos from all contributors: they take up a third of a page, with each author’s first poem. Usually I dislike author photos, since they encourage us to judge by appearances. Here, however, the author photos are great, because they remind us that the poems are part of a project by which trans people try to make space in the world where we can show more, feel free to be more, of ourselves. “There is something important,” writes Peterson, “about the relationship between how trans poets look and how they look (at the world, at language), between how they read and how they want to be read (or to be unreadable).” “Read” here has an additional special meaning, since to be “read” is to be identified, especially by a stranger, as trans. (If you are not “read,” you can “pass”: be seen as a cisgender woman or man.) To be out as a trans poet is to be visible: it is, in this sense, to want to, to try to, be read.

In addition to the photographs, Peterson and Tolbert also required each contributor (other than the two now deceased) to provide an original statement of “poetics,” in prose. Some of the poets who don’t quite move me with their own poems make me sit up and take note with their statements. My own poetics statement, written two years ago, now seems defensive, over-cautious, afraid to be taken the wrong way: I didn’t want people to think I was “going full-time” (living as a woman from day to day), much less to think I was leaving my wife and children, and I didn’t understand (yet) how to write with any confidence about being both-and, neither-nor, Stephen-and-Stephanie, except in disguise and in poems. I think I’m slightly better at it now. As I read through the other poets’ prose statements, I find myself asking, not just how well I think each poet handles the language, but whether the life that the poets claim to represent, to re-embody, to voice, is or is not anything like mine.

My answers make me feel very white; they also make me realize that I feel much closer to the writers who identify as butch or as female-to-male (FTM) — who want to be manly, or to be men, even more than I want to be a woman or a girl — than I feel to the writers who want to destroy gender entirely. As with the rest of our social and political and verbal life, so with gender in language: I don’t think that we can just smash everything and start over, but rather that we need to use all the tools we can find in order to open up and repair and improve what we have. 

I feel closest, of course, to the writers who want to be feminine, or female, or women, or girls. To J. Rice, whose wife has been watching her transition:

This morning before
the mirror I said These
are my breasts and you
looked away in disgust
and silence. All winter
you insist I’ve been two

If I have read the poem rightly, Rice herself sees her transition, instead, as a process by which she turns from two people into one. “For the first 30 years of my life,” Rice writes in her prose statement, “I escaped my body most through writing, which became the most recognizable and liveable space I knew.” (As it did for Stevens; as it can for me.) Rice now writes instead from within a positive feedback loop: “If I admit who I am, who will I become?” It’s a fear that I’ve had during what I am now willing to call the coming-out process, too.


Despite the usual problems with such events (too many writers, not much time for each), the marathon reading for Troubling the Line during the AWP conference in Boston in March 2013 was the first marathon reading that I’ve ever enjoyed, because it was a chance to claim an identity. Whether I liked individual poems, or individual performances, wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that we could share — that I, as Stephanie, could share — that space. It’s not a feeling I need every day, but it is one I want very much from time to time. Right now, at least, Stephen needs Stephanie, because I am her, and Stephanie needs the solidarity with other trans and genderqueer artists that an anthology like Troubling the Line turns out to provide.

I had an almost comically hard time physically reaching that Boston reading, walking to its site: one of my heels almost broke, I kept stepping in puddles, I got the address badly wrong, and I felt as if something or someone did not want me to get my body to this assembly of people whose bodies informed our work. Once I got there I knew I was (a) a bit late and (b) welcome. The room ended up being almost full — there were perhaps a hundred people: I saw at least as many transmen and butch people and genderqueer young people with short asymmetrical hair as I did people who looked feminine, or who were trying to look feminine, like me; the range of readers matched the range of the book.

I had complicated reactions to the Boston reading; it wasn’t all joy and communion. It saddened me when I saw a few transwomen, or cross-dressers, who could not keep up a femme look, or did not know how to try: it’s possible that people think of me that way, when I’m en femme. I was bored, occasionally, by all too straightforward verse about identities lost and found, verse I would have ignored were its subject almost anything else. But the reading also let me delight in seeing at least one femme author I’d never encountered before, both because she looked great, and because Troubling the Line turns out to be her first national appearance in print. That author is Lilith Latini, of Asheville, North Carolina, a ravishing, raven-haired studio-era femme fatale. (This is the first time I have ever written a sentence for publication about how a poet looked when she read her poems.) Those poems, raw as they could be, spoke to my twinned and antithetical desire for glamor and for solidarity, my wish to stand with others and my wish to stand out. It’s not a wish unique to LGBT people, but it sounds great when Latini finds it in the thoughts of Stonewall queens: “Don’t send me / out of the closet and into the streets alone. / Someone has to help me out of my strappy shoes before I run.”


What is a “trans poem?” It might be any poem by a trans poet (the way “Irish poetry,” for example, refers to poetry by Irish poets); it might, instead, be any poem that gives an account of life or thought or voice or language in more than one gender (in two, in three, in one-half). (What about poems whose speakers are women, but whose authors are non-trans-identified men — like Jarrell, or Alexander Pope, or Ovid — or, vice versa, women who write for the voices of men? To include them all would be ahistorical; to exclude them all might leave out something valuable for transgender writing today.)

What if trans poems have to be self-consciously trans: to reflect awareness of the label on the part of an implied author? To reflect not only a voice or a persona that crosses or confuses gender, but an implied author who set out to do so, in dialogue with a modern, named identity? That’s the definition of trans poetry that emerges from Troubling the Line, and it serves the book well. The anthology works not only as a set of explorations for what trans poetics might mean, but also as a coming-out party for an identity category, a set of people (myself among them) who are exploring an identity that a person (not only a poem) can have.

In theory, we could sort out three kinds of trans poetry: one kind would describe life in more than one gender at once, or life in a range of gendered personae, whether or not that life had a narrative arc; another kind would imply a narrative of departure, passage, and arrival, from one gender to another (especially apt for transsexual people); a third kind — analogous to third-gender or genderqueer lives — would attempt to destroy the binaries of gender entirely, to fashion a voice and a style outside or beyond them.

In practice, as I read through Troubling the Line, that three-part distinction turns out to be hard to maintain; nor do familiar distinctions among kinds of trans people (transsexuals, butches, third-gender people, etc.) map very well onto forms and styles for trans poems. Some of the poets in Troubling the Line are obviously MTF, some clearly third-gender, some obviously FTM, but part of the fun — and part of the cumulative effect of its contributors’ diverse, often disorienting techniques — is that sometimes, from the poems, you can’t quite tell. Aimee Herman’s prose poem asks about itself, or about Herman’s self, what we might ask about the whole collection: “How to define the need to not be defined.” Herman continues:

On Monday see Poet in tie and vest. On Tuesday, feast eyes upon cleavage and whale fat lipstick. On Wednesday Poet is packing, Poet is binding, Poet is gender concealed... I know I have long hair but sometimes I am boy. When I talk about my dick I need you to believe that I have one [sometimes].

Herman would like to be both-and: to be one thing on one day, one thing on another, either for reasons of social mobility, awkwardness and convenience (it would be too hard for Herman to present as male all the time), or because that’s simply how Herman feels. Ari Banias, on the other hand, would apparently like to be neither/nor. Banias’s poem “Here’s the Story on Being” reminds me of Jarrell’s unhappy women, trapped in their overlooked bodies:

                                and then a person addresses themselves to you —
                well, to your clothes,
but I only borrowed these, you want to say, they aren’t
me, or you’d like to explain yours were broken or wet or
you didn’t have a skin — but it wouldn’t make sense.

Most of the poets in Troubling the Line appear to agree (with me and with one another) that a poem and its form have something to do with the poet’s body, and also that poetry can provide imagined alternatives to that literal body. “Consider the poem itself as a body, an extension of the writer,” Ely Shipley suggests.  “Every time I write a poem I make a little body,” writes Oliver Bendorf, citing D.A. Powell. “Then I name it … and then maybe other people read it … My poem-bodies are inexact. They are sometimes uncertain of their hips on the page. Sometimes their voices crack.” “The voice wants to turn itself into a body,” Peterson writes:

It can’t, though it tries hard —
it brings you flowers, to engender a meaningful
relationship. It makes you coffee in the morning. Here, have a cup.

My voice wants to be a body, to be bodies, too, but it also wants to be … not the body I have. By writing poetry, by working in disembodied language, I can get out of the physical body I happen to have, can depict and counter the insufficiencies of the merely physical world; I can create other bodies for myself in words, some called Stephanie (or Kitty Pryde, or Kermit the Frog, or a lightbulb, or a hermit crab), some just called “I.” But I have to stay within, have to acknowledge the limits, of a real world from which words and sentences come, and to which — however fictionalized, however figural — they refer.

Not everyone does. Troubling the Line has a high proportion of poems that use the unstable language of contemporary “experiment.” They try to get away from the specific boxes and types and assumptions that come with male, female, man, woman, boy, girl by getting away from boxes and types and assumptions in general. “Clear the fascism of anxiety that begets identity begets narrative begets a story,” urges Samuel Ace. Such writing does not want to cross a line, but to crumple it up, or erase it.

When I read the weaker “experimental” poems in this inspiring anthology, I feel lost; I do not know where I am. But that sense of lostness, or of sudden freedom, might be the point. Patriarchal and heteronormative and cisgender-normative assumptions underpin so many of our habits, in our language, in our economy, in our visual culture, in so much of our life, that a feminist queer genderqueer or trans-activist poet might well declare war against habits as such; might want to build up a new system, as if from scratch. I do not think that project, in its purest forms, can succeed; but I take pleasure in seeing and hearing other poets try.

For my part, I think that we take what we have and build on it, even if we flee from it as well. Whether or not its author is transgender, a poem is always an alternate self, an imaginary body, a form of transport: we make it from what we are and from what we know, from our immediate lived experience, from the examples we find in others, from what the culture and its words can give.

In this sense, Troubling the Line shows not just what all its trans writers share with one another, but how trans writing can illuminate one purpose of imaginative writing in general. Czeslaw Milosz wrote that “in the very essence of poetry there is something indecent,/ a thing is brought forth that we didn’t know we had in us.” I agree. The same poem by Milosz announces that “the purpose of poetry is to remind us/ how difficult it is to remain just one person.” There I think he was half-right: it seems to me that another purpose of poetry — especially, but not only, trans poetry — is to show us that we don’t have to be.


Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author, most recently, of Belmont, a book of poems.

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them After Callimachus; Advice from the Lights, an NEA Big Read selection; and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems. She lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with her partner, two kids, too many X-Men comics, and two astonishing cats.


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