Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2021

How it started:

Jennifer Melfi - Wikipedia

How it’s going:

Silvio Dante Picture

Another year around the Block. I definitely don’t take that for granted. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life is short and unpredictable, entirely another thing to feel that urgency as one wakes up every day in a country under threat from fascism and disease. What am I waiting for?

High Spirits: I tried marijuana edibles for the first time in November. It was pleasant to feel my brain slow down for about 5 hours. No time to do it again till February, I imagine. I really need to readjust my work-life balance.

Salem’s Lot: Studying witchcraft this year has brought me great satisfaction, mind-body integration, and optimism. ICYMI, I blogged about it earlier this month. My first year of training will wrap up in March 2022. Time to start selecting my magickal name, which may coincide with applying for a new passport and driver’s license with a male gender marker. (My desire for gender affirmation conflicts with my basic laziness regarding paperwork and my Ron-Swanson-esque opinion that my gender is none of the government’s business anyway.)

Personal Soundtrack: Remember that week in January when everyone was singing sea shanties on TikTok? I got hooked on The Longest Johns, and particularly their song “Bones in the Ocean”, a poignant ode to survivor guilt that seemed extra meaningful as America’s COVID death toll reached 800,000. The Young Master independently discovered this song at summer camp and now we listen to shanties together on Spotify. His fourth-grade music teacher also introduced him to 2Cellos, an energetic pair of HOT guys who play pop tunes in a classical style. And I still can’t get enough of that German Karneval music.

Bookbag: Some of the extremely homosexual books I enjoyed this year were Aden Polydoros’ Jewish paranormal mystery The City Beautiful, Brandon Taylor’s literary short fiction collection Filthy Animals, and the poetry collections Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams and The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. I’d been meaning to read Glen David Gold’s historical novel about vaudeville magicians, Carter Beats the Devil, for almost 20 years, and it was all I hoped for and more. Julie Murphy’s queer YA romance Pumpkin gave me the courage to sign up for a transgender runway show next month. Pictures forthcoming!

The Writing Life: I finished a major revision of my novel Origin Story with guidance from the peerless editor/sensitivity reader Denne Michele Norris, co-host of Food 4 Thot Podcast and the new editor-in-chief of Electric Lit.

Once again, I took part in the 30 Poems in November fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, while binge-watching “The Sopranos” on HBO’s streaming service. The conjunction of those two pastimes generated The Waste-Management Land, a poetry chapbook manuscript in need of a good home.

My third full-length poetry collection, Made Man, comes out in February from Little Red Tree and is now available to pre-order. Cover art and interior illustrations by Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel. This book explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters. Enjoy the opening poem, first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal.

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

September Links Roundup: Learning from Demons

Happy (almost) autumn–the witching season!

Self-described “normie Satanist” blogger Stephen Bradford Long followed a similar trajectory as mine, from anguished gay Christian to student of occultism and Tarot. In a provocative post from July, “The Satanic Practice of Learning from Demons”, he explains why he bothers to engage with authors like Jordan Peterson, notwithstanding the latter’s bigoted views. Long doesn’t expect anyone to traumatize themselves by immersing in hostile literature. However, to the extent that we can do it with equanimity, reading problematic authors can be useful for both humility and intellectual exploration. We can come to realize that harmful people are also sometimes right, and conversely, that great influencers and heroes have flaws. Consider how Christianity has been both a route out of despair and a source of new abuse for many of us.

Willingness to learn from demons is a prerequisite for intellectual integrity*, because there is no earnest learning without the practice of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that our interlocuter, no matter how disagreeable we might find them, means what they say and might have some piece of knowledge that we don’t. It is to entertain the terrifying notion that we might be wrong, and they might be right.

However, this does not negate the fact that ideas have consequences, and the ideas of an author might also be utterly destructive and evil when manifested. Engaging with that darkness is valuable, too. Looking into the blackness of an evil ideology is a practice that fortifies you into a wiser human or terrifies and defeats you. I have experienced both and become better for it.

Above all, my Satanism blasphemes the infantile purity that rejects the pursuit of knowledge. There is no safety in reading, and no security in learning. Learning has frequently broken me – it has cost me my faith, my community, and sometimes my sleep and mental health. But it has also liberated me and made me a stronger, better person. The pursuit of safety and avoiding all toxins at all costs means starving the intellect and living with a stultified and brittle mind.

Around the same time, Black feminist author adrienne maree brown wrote this incisive essay, “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19”. She observes that marginalized activists too often turn on each other, in the name of “accountability”. American culture right now feels collectively suicidal, and we are acting it out on social media because it’s the only place we feel a sense of agency. “our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.” That foundation, of course, is genocide of Black and Native peoples.

we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.

so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.

our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage.

She asks us to stop fighting over who is “innocent” (another supremacist concept) and start looking for solutions that liberate everyone. “i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.”

Gates of Light Tarot is a Jewish mystical Tarot site that I just discovered. The post “The Blinding of Isaac and the Eight of Swords” links a card and a Bible story that both arouse big feelings in me. The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham’s test of faith, in which God (supposedly??) commands him to sacrifice his son. But this midrash/Tarot reading, connecting it to the blindfolded woman on the card, suggests that Isaac developed traumatic blindness because of his father’s betrayal of his trust:

The Eight of Swords is the Sefira of Hod, Humility, in Yetzirah. It’s a coded teaching that our personal and family history, our culture and traditions can bind and blind us from seeing truth. And that rather than identify with these ideas, if we are to be free, we must see these ideas for the limitations they are and let go of them.

In Genesis, Isaac blindly repeats the mistakes of his father, from trying to pass off Rebekah as his sister to save his life and by fomenting discord in his family by actively preferring one son over the other. We all repeat the mistakes of our parents in one way or another. And we all inherit their ideas, preconceptions and prejudices. But if we are ever to experience liberating insight, it must begin with liberating ourselves from the short-sightedness of familial and cultural prejudice and by clearly seeing and healing family trauma.

Last month, Image Journal hosted an exciting conversation between two autistic authors, Katherine May (The Electricity of Every Living Thing) and Daniel Bowman Jr. (On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity). The recording is available to watch on Vimeo. Some insights from their talk that I found particularly relatable: Neurodiversity extends to narrative structure, as well. We don’t have to write the disability memoir that mainstream culture expects, with a hero’s journey and a triumph over obstacles. Multi-genre collage may better reflect how our minds work. Moreover, the stereotype of the unemotional autistic person is harmful and inaccurate. Some of us simply don’t express emotion in expected ways, while others are more intensely emotional and have to withdraw periodically for that very reason. For the latter group, the arts can be a great refuge.

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, reminds us to “Make Bad Art Too” in this playful blog post from 2020, which I found via Northampton poet Naila Moreira’s e-newsletter.

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

It’s my abusive mother’s birthday this month. Am I going to send her a card? No! Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column explains why not:

There is no instruction manual for this kind of sorrow, Estranged Daughter. There is no map. There is only the story you lived through, the story you survived, the story you wrote for yourself, the story you will keep writing. It’s the story of the elegant, heartbreaking, brave way you’ve done the limbo for nearly forty years and the story of the way you will continue to do it, even though it hurts. You didn’t get what most people get and what all of us deserve—a mother who regards you as her richest treasure—and yet here you are at forty. Free. Happy. Comfortable in your skin. Strong. Neither sending a birthday card to your mom or not sending a birthday card to your mom will obliterate that, Daughter.

So, trust your gut. Don’t think about how your mother will react. Think about what you want to do. You can write to her and say what you want to say without opening the envelope of her reply, if you’d like. You can write to her and not send the card. You can silently narrate birthday greetings to her in your mind and breathe them into the air. You can decide to not think of her at all.

Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.

In Witchcraft class this month, we are working on cutting energetic ties to situations and people who are harmful to us. I’ve done a lot of trauma processing in the last decade since I went no-contact with her. But it’s humbling to realize that on a somatic level, some part of me still believes that one or both of us will die without the psychic umbilical cord connecting us.

Favourite Moro Quote? - Princess Mononoke - Fanpop

Even though the cord looks like this. [Image credit: Studio Ghibli, “Princess Mononoke”]

On that note, I highly recommend Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (Random House, 2018), which I just finished reading. Among other things, it’s a stunning depiction of the push-pull between fighting for your own survival and longing to stay connected to your family. The story of her rural Mormon family’s anti-government paranoia and rejection of modern medicine gives insight into the Covid anti-vaxx movement today. Her website links to other useful resources for survivors.

Poetry by Victoria Leigh Bennett: “The Nature of the Offense”

Winning Writers subscriber Victoria Leigh Bennett recently made my acquaintance online to announce her forthcoming collection, Poems from the Northeast (Olympia Publishing). She is a fellow Massachusetts poet, though born in West Virginia. Victoria says, “A poet’s spiritual homeland is oftentimes not exactly the same as his or her homeland by birth. This book is a book of poems composed over a lifetime lived entirely in the northeastern United States and Toronto, Canada.”

Victoria has kindly allowed me to share this new poem of hers, which appealed to me because of its wordplay and gentle but pointed repartee.

The Nature of the Offense

Well, the most you can say for him is that he’s inoffensive,
Fairly inoffensive,
Pretty much noncommittal, and
Well, just inoffensive,
You said.

That’s a hell of a lot to say,
Say I,
And after all,
Think of how everyone in our world
Who’s parleyed and had to negotiate
For a cessation of the offenses
Committed against them
In perpetuity from the past, at least,
It seems,
Would like him,
Find him a valuable asset
As a companion.

Oh, yeah, you say,
He’s pretty wishy-washy,
And everyone complaining these days
About everything ever done to them
Whether on purpose or not,
Maybe just in a moment of inattention
Or thoughtlessness,
Yeah, I can see how they might value him.

Well, say I,
As to the “wishy” part,
I think he wishes a lot for others
To be comfortable and happy
In his presence,
And for the “washy” part,
He’s continually washing
His own soul hands
Against the washing away
Of others’ vital differences,
Which are important to them.
He wouldn’t give offense,
Is the issue.

Maybe not, you say,
Maybe not.
Though some would prefer
An outright enemy
To a halfway committer.

But he’s not falsely committed
To anything,
Say I,
And anyway, people
Really don’t want enemies.

Some people just like to quarrel,
You decide.
Anyway,
You say,
I’ll just bet you’re tired of him
In a year, or a month,
Or a fortnight.
I can still call it a fortnight,
Can’t I,
Without giving offense
To your peace-loving friends?
I have no idea, I say,
No one’s ever told me anything
Different from that yet.

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re tired of him
Before long.
Where’s the passion,
Where’s the thrust of sexual contention?

Where’s the love,
Where’s the melting-togetherness
Of passionate agreement? Say I.

You’ll get tired of him, I’ll just bet.
I’ll take that bet, I say,
All in one breath,
See you and raise you,
As maybe your parents
Should’ve seen you
And raised you better,
To be more inoffensive.

March Links Roundup: Unseen on Mulberry Street

It’s March! Spring is coming and links are a-blooming.

It was reported this morning that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that manages the author’s intellectual property, would cease reprinting six of his picture books because of racist illustrations. The best-known of these titles were On Beyond Zebra, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo. The AP news article explains:

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.

I’m not sure what to think about this decision. A fair number of the classic picture books I’ve read to the Young Master contain incidental images that are offensive. For instance, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) and Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (1977) show natural history museum mannequins in Native American garb, and I’m sure many other books show white kids dressing up in feathered headdresses, because that was considered a normal costume. When I read these books aloud (many, many times), I would revise the text to say “Danny saw artifacts stolen from Native peoples” or some such, but that likely went over my son’s head. So I understand the impulse to withhold these types of images altogether from children who are too young to consider them critically.

On the other hand, I wonder whether editing the past also perpetuates racism, by giving children the false impression that literature has always been morally pure–or ever can be. Surely today’s books have other flaws that we haven’t yet recognized. Are we setting kids up to be defensive about their future problematic faves, instead of teaching them from an early age to tolerate moral ambiguity? Every now and then, a well-meaning school bans Huckleberry Finn because it contains the N-word, but it seems more productive to study how an anti-slavery work by a white author can still contain racist stereotypes.

A more clear-cut example of bad educational decisions comes to us from Utah, where trans author Kyle Lukoff’s picture book Call Me Max led to the banning of an entire curriculum that didn’t even include his book. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

A Murray [School District] teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.

The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of “Call Me Max” from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity…

…Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.

It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.

For the record, Shane and I enjoyed this picture book very much! Lukoff presented Max and the Talent Show and When Aidan Became a Brother at an online story hour at the BGSQD Bookstore last month and I cried all the way through. Contrary to what the guys on my trans masc Facebook group report, I’m just as weepy as I’ve always been. Must be my Cancer Sun.

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to grow up knowing that trans men existed. But it’s never too late to come out. Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head, who premiered in 1952, is going gender-neutral. Bloomberg.com has the mashed-potato scoop:

Starting in the fall, Hasbro will sell Potato Head family kits. They’ll come with two non-gendered “adult” potatoes, one “baby” potato and 42 accessories, according to a spokeswoman. That will let kids decide the parents’ gender, rather than being told they are “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

I haven’t been this vain since I was 10 years old. I found a dozen old photo albums in the basement last year and I was like, “Wow, I was actually pretty cute my whole life but I looked very uncomfortable being alive.” Whereas now I will use any excuse to post a picture of myself in suspenders. A.E. Osworth explains why, in this September 2020 article at Catapult: “Taking Thirst Traps to Preserve Myself–and My Transition–in the Middle of the Pandemic”.

In the absence of my meatspace body living in the minds of my people, am I preserving this slice of time to be accessed later? Am I imbuing my early-testosterone body with immortality, marking its existence? Since when did I want my body at all, let alone to make it last for human eternity?

“It feels like a protest against this idea that it’s polite to not find yourself attractive,” my friend A. Andrews says to me over Zoom when I ask them about thirst trapping. A is a writer and a comic artist. They think about the arrival of bodies in digital space quite a lot, usually because they are drawing bodies into existence. A falls into category two—less thirst trapping, more existential crises. But they talk to me about it anyway.

“It’s considered rude or self-involved to think you’re hot,” A says. “This idea that we have to kind of think of ourselves as objectively neutral or below is weird. Thirst traps are a protest against this notion that we should all feel kind of medium about ourselves.”

I consider my adherence to a politeness written upon the hearts of girl-children, the over-emphasis of humble-as-virtue. It is an insurance that anyone with any relationship to girlhood, regardless of gender or outcome, will feel squeamish taking up a reasonable amount of space. Will disparage their own body until they feel less than they are: stunning. Everyone is stunning and I really believe that; everyone, of course, except for me.

Fuck that. I would rather be the Halloween crowd, unshackle myself from the normals. Love myself just a little bit more.

Feast your eyes on this non-gendered “adult” potato.

Poems for All, Big and Small

My online friend Paul Fericano, author of the wonderfully irreverent poetry collection The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press), has just surprised me with a gift that combines two of my special interests: poetry and miniatures. It’s a subscription to Poems-For-All, a California publisher that creates two-inch-square illustrated books with a single poem inside. My first packet includes 18 delightful tiny volumes by authors such as Alice Notley, Kim Shuck, and Jack Hirschman, plus some self-styled “pointlessly small bookmarks”.

As you can see, these books are popular at Winning Writers HQ.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2020

Your humble transmasculine fashion influencer has had an intense year. As have we all.

Greatest accomplishment: Staying alive.

Other greatest accomplishment: Finished a draft of Origin Story, my second novel about butts and sadness.

Currently writing: Poems about dinosaur masturbation and vat-grown human flesh steaks for my third collection in progress, Made Man.

Soundtrack of my days: Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell”; various artists, “Karneval Top 50: The Very Best of German Karneval”

New obsession: Jigsaw puzzles. We were given a ridiculously difficult Harry Potter puzzle last year that we dug out of the closet during the first weeks of lockdown. I discovered that putting physical objects in order is extremely soothing when the world is falling apart. Also, that all puzzle manufacturers are not created equal. I give top marks to Ravensburger, Pomegranate, and New York Puzzle Company.

Edward Gorey book covers puzzle (Pomegranate)

Most ridiculous purchase: Doll-sized penises on Etsy for my FTM Barbies.

Binge-watching: “Bob’s Burgers” on Hulu. I was a Tina who grew up to be a Gene.

Feeling Meme-ish: Bob's Burgers - Paste

Best novel read in 2020: Eve Tushnet’s second novel, Punishment: A Love Story, was the first work of fiction I read this year, and nothing has quite equaled it. No one is better at exploring the blurred lines between self-destruction, kinky submission, and religious humility. Set at a Washington, DC halfway house for former prisoners re-integrating into society, this wickedly funny tale includes (among other things) a predatory cult, a tender romance between a male sex worker and a figure skater who calls himself “Trash”, and a stolen owl who might be the Holy Spirit.

Best memoir: Obviously, Daniel M. Lavery’s essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (published as Daniel Mallory Ortberg). The humorist who co-founded The Toast finds transmasculine resonance in a wide range of stories, from Greek mythology to “Columbo” and “Star Trek”. The comical riffs bookend deeper reflections about the self-mistrust and emotional shutdown he learned from his evangelical upbringing, and how these factors delayed his transition.

Goals for 2021: Hahahaha.

Latest Bobs Burgers GIFs | Gfycat

Have a safe and peaceful holiday season, readers.

 

 

On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem with Joshua Corwin

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for Episode #10 of Joshua Corwin’s poetry podcast Assiduous Dust. As Josh does with all his guests, we produced an “On-the-Spot Collaborative Poem”, a format that he invented, which is generated by taking turns sharing phrases from found texts. He’s kindly allowed me to share our freestyle creation below. Check out his new poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable, just out from Baxter Daniels Ink Press. In it he writes about autism, sobriety, Judaism, mysticism, and neuroscience. You can see why we had a lot of common interests to talk about!

 

Two Poems from Joshua Corwin’s “Becoming Vulnerable”

Winning Writers subscriber Joshua Corwin’s debut poetry collection, Becoming Vulnerable (Baxter Daniels Ink Press/International Word Bank, 2020), was inspired by his experiences with autism, addiction, sobriety and spirituality. He is a neurodiverse, Pushcart-nominated poet who teaches poetry to neurodiverse individuals and autistic addicts at The Miracle Project, an autism nonprofit. Josh hosts the poetry podcast “Assiduous Dust“, where he interviews award-winning authors and creates on-the-spot collaborative poems with them. Visit his website to learn more. He kindly shares two poems from his new book below.

12:01 AM

I can hear the shine in your eyes
on the other end of the telephone.

When I speak like this,
I feel authentic
and not heavy.

I don’t have to tattoo meaning in the air
to know what you mean.

I remember when you first told me…
apropos of nothing…
about the different levels of charitable donation.

I was sitting right across from you—over there.
(You in that armchair, me in this one: our eyes.)

You said there’s the donor who gives large sums
and puts a placard on the wall, signifying
who it’s from;

and then there’s the other one who gives…
but remains anonymous.

Your words hanging like a phantom,
I didn’t have to be who I thought I was;

you were once me,
once where I was…

In that moment, I knew.

 

[This poem first appeared in Al-Khemia Poetica, September 3, 2019, and was nominated for a  2019 Pushcart Prize.]

****

GRATITUDE AFTER BREAKFAST

I USED       to think that meditation was a hoax,
that enlightenment was for those interred in the ground.

I USED       to think it was impossible to cease thinking.
I secretly believed I knew everything.

I USED       to deem gratitude an unnecessary word.
I hated to stretch my cheekbones into a smile.

I was convinced everyone was a phony.
I USED       to think I was the shit.

I USED       to think I was a piece of shit.
I would be paralyzed by fear for hours.

I would argue with mirrors, threatening to pound my fists.
I USED       to curse the reflection I feared.

I USED       to stay up all night, dancing in sorrow
without consent, my entire body convulsing.

I watched the sun rising sadness and despaired like a mourner.
Outside rising, inside dying.

I USED       to not know if I was lying or telling the truth.
I spent hours wrestling with my god—myself.

 

I wake up in the morning, and I say the sh’ma.
Then I make my bed; wash my hands.

I wake up in the morning, and I walk to the room next door.
Then I sit in a chair; listen for an hour.

I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I feel light as a feather.
Then I make breakfast; smile as I wash my bowl.

I wake up in the morning, and I smile at the man in the mirror.
Then I take a shower; hug my soul.

I wake up in the morning, and I thank God.
I know I’m not Him.

Stay Home, Read Things

Greetings from week one of the pandemic. As I’m a self-employed introvert, the cancellation of everything has only slightly intensified my normal sessile lifestyle, but (like everyone else) I’m too stressed to concentrate on writing my novel. Wish me luck at homeschooling the Young Master.

The next month will be crucial in slowing the spread of the disease. Stay the fuck home, people! Here are some good book recommendations for you to pass the time.

Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (Tin House Books, 2019): My favorite contemporary poet just won the Kingsley Tufts Award for this visionary collection, which pursues sublime self-transcendence through radical honesty about the messiness of the flesh and the addictive ephemera of “the age of spectacle”. Reines can write a deadpan account of the nightly ritual of squeezing pimples and changing tampons, and in the next breath, proclaim “I had an idea of symmetry/Bordering on theology/That dictated I consume/Darkness in proportion/To ‘the world’s'” (a mission statement reminding me Johnny Cash’s vocation to “carry off a little darkness on my back”). This is a book to support you through the apocalypse.

Cynthia Lowen, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (University of Georgia Press, 2013): Elegant and unforgiving as equations, these poems hold us accountable for living in the nuclear age. Persona poems in the voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, reveal self-serving rationalizations and belated remorse, while other poems give voice to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This collection is notable for exposing the emotional logic of scientific imperialism, rather than revisiting familiar scenes of the bomb’s devastating effects.

Rachel Cline, The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019): This slim, incisive, timely novel of the #MeToo Movement explores the long aftermath of a popular teacher’s serial predation on tween girls in a 1970s Brooklyn private school (which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to St. Ann’s, which Rachel and I both attended). Two middle-aged women, once childhood best friends, find themselves on opposite sides of another sexual misconduct case because of the different psychological strategies they employed to cope with their victimization. I’m currently trying to get through the movie “American Beauty” on DVD and feeling disturbed by the high school cheerleader’s confident pursuit of her friend’s sad-sack father, which doesn’t ring true to the complex power dynamics in real-life “Lolita” situations. The Question Authority fearlessly examines the gray areas of consent, understanding that young women routinely overestimate how much choice and objectivity they could really bring to a relationship with an older male mentor.

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): This novel about the last day in the life of a corrupt real estate developer in New Orleans is an insightful, morbidly funny story about how tragic choices reverberate through the generations. One could call it a Jewish version of “The Sopranos” but where that show was cynical and bleak, this book is full of compassion and even a kind of poetic justice at the end. I loved the unusual technique of shifting perspectives suddenly to the thoughts of a minor character in the scene, like the ferryman or the drugstore checkout clerk. It reminded me of the moment in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch where Theo discovers the truth about the contraband he’s been obsessed with protecting–a refreshing turn from the claustrophobia of tragedy, to comedy that humbles and reconnects us to the mass of humanity.

Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (Viking, 2020): Journalist, public speaker, and science fiction writer Mikki Kendall’s new essay collection combines personal anecdotes and thoroughly sourced data to argue for a more intersectional feminism. She explains how race and class analysis gets left out of mainstream white feminism, and makes the case for treating issues like gun violence, food insecurity, and educational access as specifically feminist issues. Follow her on Twitter @Karnythia.

Courtney Milan, The Brothers Sinister box set: Four books and three novellas of delightful Victorian romance with a social conscience. Milan’s heroines are suffragettes, scientists, a chess champion and more. Her heroes are the kind of aristocrat who wants to reform factory conditions and give the vote to commoners. The main pairings are all M/F but there are a few queer side characters including two lesbian couples.

Suanne Laqueur, A Charm of Finches (2017): This gay romance novel about male survivors of rape handles brutal material in a responsible, compassionate way, with a hard-earned and believable happy ending (or the beginnings of one) for its wounded characters, and no bullshit about forgiveness. I discovered the first book in this series, An Exaltation of Larks, because it was submitted to our 2019 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for self-published books. We awarded it first prize in the Genre Fiction category! I do recommend reading the books in order because “Finches” gives away all the major plot revelations of the preceding book.

That’s all for now, folks. Make sure you have enough lotion for all that hand-washing and…whatever else you thots are doing since you can’t go on Grindr.

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More

In mid-May, I attended the biennial Queers and Comics conference at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Kids, you too can grow up to be a novelist and purchase books like Hard to Swallow as “research”. Apart from the fact that SVA is very poorly ventilated and has insufficient bathrooms, I had an inspiring and intense weekend. I’d never been in a group with so many trans men before, and I had all the feels about the possible paths that my gender journey could take.

I heard a panel discussion with Diane DiMassa, creator of the wickedly funny (and trans-friendly!) radical feminist comic Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Cleis Press, 1999), which is inexcusably out-of-print. I learned that my favorite Tarot expert, Rachel Pollack, created the first transgender superheroine, Coagula, for DC Comics title Doom Patrol; the PowerPoint featured a scene where Coagula dissolves a villain’s codpiece-like weapon into a flood of menstrual-looking red goo!

I attended a panel on comics about mental health issues, where I met LB Lee, the writer-artist behind the site Healthy Multiplicity. Lee’s work explores the premise that integration of multiple personalities is not always necessary or desirable. They conceive of themselves as a “system” comprising several minds with different names, ages, and genders in the same body. Their self-published graphic memoir Alter Boys in Love (available from their website) is a unique love story about the romantic and sexual relationships among members of the system. I admire them for working to de-stigmatize experiences that could teach us something new about personal identity and consciousness.

Image result for inside you there are two wolves they are boyfriends

(my internal family system)

Of course I bought many books for myself and my family. For my husband, Mama Tits Saves the World by Zan Christensen and Terry Blas (Northwest Press, 2016), a short feel-good comic book about a real-life drag queen who receives superpowers to bash homophobes. It’s poignant in retrospect because the political mood of this pre-Trump comic is “You’ve come a long way, baby,” riding the wave of optimism after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.

For my mom-of-choice, Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by AK Summers (Soft Skull Press, 2014), a well-drawn, witty, and emotionally honest graphic novel about a lesbian couple’s foray into the highly gender-stereotyped world of pregnancy and childbirth. Not exactly a memoir, but inspired by Summers’ own experience giving birth to her son in 2005, Pregnant Butch brought back memories of my gender dysphoria–which at the time I had no name for–when I was first considering fertility treatments and then trying to create a sufficiently mainstream “adoptive mom” online profile to attract prospective birthparents. (Luckily for us, we were found by a birthmom who’s as nonconformist as we are.)

Jane Eyre was a formative book for me. I’ve read it a half-dozen times since I was a child. So I couldn’t resist The Brontës: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary (Headless Shakespeare Press, 2004), a melancholy, enigmatic graphic novel imagining what could have happened if Angria, the fantasy world created by the precocious and lonely Brontë children, had been a real place they could enter through a portal in the nursery. I was deeply affected by the sense of claustrophobia and fatalism that overshadowed the Brontës’ short lives, starting with the deaths of their mother and two sisters in childhood, and compounded by the young women’s maturing awareness of their limited career opportunities in 19th-century society.

There were a few too many skipped plot points in the narrative for me, where high-stakes interactions between the Brontës and the warring factions in Angria were foreshadowed and then left undeveloped. As a history buff, I’m thrown off by anachronistic mishmashes of different medieval/Renaissance fashion eras. In my opinion, 16th-century Spanish Armada helmets, Richard III hairdos, and King Arthur crowns don’t belong in the same scene, though Geary’s illustrations may have been imitating the unaware eclecticism of children’s fantasy world-building.

Other titles I brought home for my to-read shelf include Michael Derry’s Troy: The Whole Shebang (Derry Products, 2013), an anthology of his humorous erotic comic strip about pretty boys in L.A.; Lee Marrs’ The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp (Marrs Books, 2016), an anthology of her 1970s series about a frizzy-haired bi-curious teen sampling the delights of San Francisco; and Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer (Lion Forge, 2019). Among the projects on Kobabe’s website is a remake of The Runaway Bunny called The Nonbinary Bunny. Just what I needed!