Monthly Archives: June 2015

BWS 08.07.15: Trish Salah

Trish Salah copy

Trish Salah is the author of two poetry collections–the Lambda Award-winning Wanting in Arabic, and Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1–and co-editor of a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, on Transgender Cultural Production. At the University of Winnipeg, she co-organized the conferences Writing Trans Genres: Emergent Literatures and Criticism, and Decolonizing and Decriminalizing Trans Genres. She has recently accepted a position as assistant professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University.

BWS: You are an academic in addition to a poet; your book Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 comes complete with a long list of works cited, and you’ve said elsewhere that the collection is like “the other side” of your Ph.D. dissertation. Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation, and how the two works inform or react to each other?

Trish: Sure! That’s a great question. The dissertation was a response to a small but damaging body of literature that attempted to explain the existence or appearance of transsexual people as we “emerged” in the mid-20th century. That body of literature claimed to be doing genealogical work within a broader history of sexuality in the west, but what it really did was posit trans people as an aberration, an accident of technological know-how, masculinist scientific arrogance, American ideologies of self-actualization. I attempted in my dissertation to look at some of the sites where discourses about trans people were constituted (early psychoanalytic writing, feminist sci-fi, queer theory) and to critically and psychoanalytically evaluate cis peoples’ fantasies about trans people as they formed those discourses on trans people.
Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 was an attempt to use the resources of poetry to reconsider those sites or archives as scenes of desire of desire and loathing where trans people show up and need to make something of the discourses that precede us, but which we none the less have a hand in.

BWS: What’s it like trying to balance two very different modes of expression?

Trish: In terms of balancing modes of writing, with Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 I was less interested in doing that than in letting a lyric question–“How might I be?”; “How or what might be an I?”–be overwhelmed by its source material, and in watching it gradually put pressure on that material. Of course the material also is tensile, has push back.

BWS: Many of your poems contain parentheses–sometimes empty parentheses–as well as text in strikethrough. It seems to imply that there is a self-censoring, or a gap of some kind in the given poem; that elision is an active process in the work. Would you say this is the case?

Trish: The empty parenthesis is less about censorship than about deferral. What is absent arrives after the fact and can be read back in, changing the grammar, interrupting the received sense of the first reading. So, yes, elision is very much an active process. It is a lot of work or power to disappear something or someone.

BWS: Could you tell us more about the value of the unsaid to your poems, about saying what you’re not saying?

Trish: What is unsaid might be what or who is erased, and it is about unsettling seemingly buried ground. Of course there is also the unconscious and its censorship. Desire comes at a cost. As does identity.

BWS: Many a poet would say that poetry is primarily performed, and to an extent, one could expect someone writing lyric poetry to agree. How does one perform elisions, strikethroughs, parantheses, etc.? Can they exist only on the page?

Trish: Language is its own thing, but there is no language without the body. When I perform an elision or a strikethrough it is a translation, and it produces something new as well as the gap between what is sayable on the page and what is sayable in performance. They are strangers attempting to strike up a conversation so they talk about nothing, what’s obvious, “the weather,” and also difficult things, with difficulty.

BWS: You call the book a “sexology,” but in one review, it was characterized as a genealogy as well, due to its engagement with–discovery of? cataloguing of?–a sort of “trans canon.” Was there a conscious effort to create a canon with the book?

Trish: The book acknowledges genealogy, but it is not one. It is maybe the opposite of that. Writing it I was aware of canon formation, obviously–as you say, there is a works cited–and I certainly want to send folks to other trans writers and other interested/interesting writings, but the point was to diffuse things, and make the historiography messier and less consistent than we have been pretending it might be. By “we” I don’t really mean anyone… but I do think that the production of a canon is a move of power, and one the book hopes to undo rather than consolidate.

BWS: The timing of this interview makes it hard (for me) to not ask: Have you paid much attention to media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition over the past while, or her “reveal” in Vanity Fair?

Trish: I don’t think it is that hard to not talk about Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not going to talk about Caitlyn Jenner. As my boyfriend mentioned over breakfast, there is a significant history of sexual minority people being spectacularized, even while we are accused of “making a spectacle of ourselves.” Activist and artist Mirha-Soleil Ross observed in the late 1990s: “Every decade has its own wave of fascination, exoticization, sensationalization, economic exploitation, and misrepresentation of transsexuals.” When we talk about Caitlyn Jenner, we are not talking about Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Doctor; Ethel Lance; Daniel Simmons Sr.; Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Tywanza Sanders; we are not talking about Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women or the erasure of trans/Two Spirit Women, we are not talking about the deaths of Ty Underwood, Taja DeJesus, Lamia Beard, Yazmin Vash Payne, Bri Golec, Sumaya Dalmar, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald.

We are not talking about the damaging effects of the (re)criminalization of sex work and drug use, of the ongoing violence of healthcare, housing and employment discrimination, of systemic racism and ableism and neoliberal economics on trans people’s lives.

Nor are we talking about poetry, about the recent growth of trans literary visibility thanks to amazing novels like Nevada or He Mele a Hilo, short story collections like A Safe Girl to Love, memoirs like Redefining Realness, poetry anthologies like Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, presses like Topside and Transgress. We are not talking about the Troubling Tucson Trans and Genderqueer Poetics Symposium in 2013, or the international trans literature conferences we hosted last year at the University of Winnipeg, Writing Trans Genres. (You can watch the video documentation here.)

BWS: Thanks so much, Trish!

Trish Salah visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Amber Dawn, Vivek Shraya, and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.


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BWS 07.08.15: Amber Dawn

Amber Dawn

Amber Dawn is the author of the poetry collection Where The Words End And My Body Begins, novel Sub Rosa and memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Her writing traverses themes of sex work, queer identity and survivor pride. She lives on unceded Coast Salish territory (incorporated Vancouver).

Amber dropped by the BWS blog with this guest post ahead of her July 8 appearance. 

Poetry: Queer and Connectional

The first poetry collection I purchased was P.K. Page’s Hologram: A Book of Glosas. I was in my early twenties and had already written a couple of dog-eared notebooks worth of poetry, and had even discovered a few scrappy open mics around East Vancouver to read my newly penned poems to audiences, but it had never occurred to me that I could walk into a bookstore and buy a published book of poetry.

It was summer of 1998 and I had secured myself a sugar daddy—a client who picked me up from my regular street corner in a champagne-coloured Mercedes-Benz, and who paid me enough to send me to my first creative writing class at University of British Columbia. I decided to enroll in Introduction to Writing Poetry.

Poet Kate Braid was UBC’s summer poetry instructor. My first realization about my inaugural university experience was that I was treated exactly the same as the other students. Whereas, my customary cuts and bruises and “fuck the world” attitude received exasperation or pity at the doctor or social worker’s office, in the creative writing classroom, as long as I was participating, I was a valued peer.

The next thing I remember thinking was that if I was to be treated like other students, then I’d better level up my dedication and determination. I needed to take poetry seriously, to deepen my understanding of the craft. Kate Braid told her students that if we wanted to know poetry we must read poetry books cover-to-cover, hopefully many books. This is what poets do, they read. So I set off to the People’s Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive in my quest to seriously know poetry.

It could have been the pleasing kaleidoscope image on the cover that drew me to Hologram. I read the foreword, in which P.K. Page likens her process of writing the glosa form to birds that learn to sing by blending the notes and cadences of other birds into their own call. “We have a song – of a kind. But it’s not until we have heard many other songs that we are able to put together our own specific song.” This alone was compelling enough for me to buy the book.

First used in 13th century Spain, the glosa typically opens with a source quatrain from an existing poem by another writer, followed by four stanzas of ten lines each; the last line of each stanza is taken sequentially from the opening quatrain, and lines six and nine rhyme with the borrowed tenth. P.K. Page’s enactment of this form is gobsmackingly fine as she works quatrains by canonical poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, and Pablo Neruda. I had never read any of these poets before. My experience with poetry was slam and spoken word, not textbook. (Well, I actually had heard of Sappho, that she was a lesbian, which is what I was calling myself at the time.) In this way, P.K. Page introduced me not only to her own writing, but she gave me an “in” to experience the writing of other poets from a canon that previously eluded me.

I’ve re-read P.K. Pages glosas so many times that the poems have become even more immersive than song. I’ll call the feeling I get when reading Hologram consanguineous: connected by blood. Nearly 20 years later, I’ve become acclimatized to English-language canonical poetry, and Hologram now allows me to feel the very pulse of Rilke’s concentrated incantations or Sappho’s longing vestigial verse.

Inspired, I wrote my own collection of glosa poems, Where the words end and my body begins (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015). When I began the book, I looked well outside the canon that P.K. Page drew from. “Glossing” quotes from Rilke, Thomas and other mostly white men of systemic esteem does not fit with my values or lived experiences. I looked to queer women, women of colour, and/or survivor justice-minded poets for my source quatrains; poets like Lucille Clifton, Lydia Kwa, Trish Salah, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ritz Chow, Leah Horlick, Chandra Mayor and Jillian Christmas.

Through glossing these (and eleven other) poets, I aimed to do three things:

First, to venerate and observe the remarkable and unique lyrical verse of each: some are widely published, while others have yet to release a first book. Here I must mention the barriers to publishing for queers, women, and most especially women of colour. Again and again, I see Can Lit publish and recognize white authors (like myself). I am a learner in anti-racism work, and what I’m learning is that poetry can and should play a role in disrupting white privileged/Eurocentric narratives and in honouring diverse voices.

Second, I simply wanted to share the work of the poets I admire the most. Several of the poets I glossed are friends, mentors and chosen family. What can I say; I love the talented folks I know! It brings me joy to quote them and to respond to them in verse. And I can always use more joy.

Last, I chose source poets that would allow me to continue my own exploration of survivorship, sex work, and creative queer healing. I desire companionship when writing through pain and recovery. I need solidarity because writing lived experiences can be isolating. I’m always looking for kin. I will always be seeking that bloodline of language and craft and healing and resistance. I am deeply indebted to all the poets who reminded me just how connectional poetry can be.

Amber Dawn visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Trish Salah, Vivek Shraya, and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.

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BWS 08.07.15: Vivek Shraya


Vivek Shraya’s body of work includes ten albums, four short films, and three books that have been used as textbooks at several post-secondary institutions. His debut novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. A three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek was the 2014 recipient of the Steinert & Ferreiro Award for leadership in Toronto’s LGBTQ community, the recipient of Anokhi Media’s inaugural Most Promising LGBTQ Community Crusader Award in 2015, and a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist.

Vivek stopped by the blog for an interview ahead of his July 8 appearance.

BWS: In She of the Mountains, we see the protagonist first embrace his sexual identity, and later, his ethnic one. The descriptions of the former, “transitioning from you’re gay into I’m gay had also allowed him to stop having to think about, question, and sometimes be ashamed of his desires,” even seems to echo the latter, “In the absence of white, he could see colour [and difference between shades of brown]. Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen.” Did you intend for there to be a similarity in these two moments?

Vivek: I love this question. Honestly, for the narrator to embrace both his sexual identity and ethnicity was never the original intention. But She of the Mountains grew into a story that is ultimately about a man and his relationship to his body, which of course includes his desire and his skin colour, so it makes sense that self-love in both areas had to be explored.

BWS: You’ve stated elsewhere that the main character’s experiences are based on some of your own, and that the book was written as a challenge to biphobia, which, the book shows, exists both within and outside the queer community. How do you see this persistent opinion–that no one is actually bisexual, that people should “pick a side”–affect the community and bisexual people, and why do you think it persists?

Vivek: The hard truth is gay people are just as attached to binaries and boxes as straight people. Boxes keep us safe. If you can put me in a box, you can figure out how to interact with me. Without boxes, there is chaos and danger.

Except this is a lie. Because what is actually so threatening about desiring across genders? This is the kind of question that we must ask ourselves to eradicate biphobia, but unfortunately this questioning doesn’t often accompany the snap judgements we make.

BWS: Do you have any anxieties about writing such a personal book? How do you manage the tension between fact and fiction?

Vivek: In regards to the tension between fact and fiction, my job as a writer is to tell a story. The best possible story I can tell is not one that is based solely on fact, and the best story I can possibly tell is always the priority.

Consequently, my main anxiety about being inspired by the personal is that the work won’t be taken as seriously, on the assumption that no craft is involved in writing based on true events.

BWS: In the first part of the book, you write an outstanding sex scene: it’s descriptive and erotic, but it’s also barely a page long. How do you approach writing sex scenes? And would you care to engage with Russell Smith and Lynn Coady’s (staged) debate about the inclusion of sex in fiction? Would it even have been possible to tell this story without sex scenes?

Vivek: I appreciate the compliment! I was once advised by a publisher never to write sex scenes because “no one can do it well.” I had those words in my head when I was writing this scene, largely because I found it hard to write sex without sounding cheesy. But no, this book wouldn’t have been possible without sex, for the reason you pointed out. Furthermore, being queer, I do feel a responsibility to write about sex because our sexuality continues to discomfort conservatives, and therefore be invisibilized. So often I hear queerness being connected to the choice to love whomever we want. This is true, but queerness is also inextricably linked to sex. We can’t forget this. In the words of Canada’s first openly gay senator, the late Laurier LaPierre:

“We’ve come a long way since Trudeau partially decriminalized gay sex 40 years ago. We have built community, come out in droves, connected with each other, demanded and obtained equal rights. We even won the right to marry. But we are still not totally free. We are still limited in the expression of our sexuality. If our society is to truly liberate sexuality, gay and straight, we have to talk about sex. We need to discuss the essential value of expressing the totality of our bodies, of our attractions and desires.”

BWS: Thanks so much, Vivek–see you on July 8!

Vivek Shraya visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Amber Dawn, Trish Salah and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.

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