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.