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.

 

 

November Links Roundup: Testify to Love

Thanks for your patience, readers. The link farm harvest is a bit late this month because I’ve been front-loading my Winning Writers work in anticipation of another school shutdown. The Young Master and I expect to spend the winter making art and lighting fires.

Over a decade ago, when I was deep into Gay-or-Christian angst, the Christian pop band Avalon’s song “Testify to Love” always renewed my desperate hope that God accepted me as I was. Even now, when a lot of Christian media is triggering to me, this song gives me joy. I wondered whether I was just reading my own preoccupations into the opening line, “All the colors of the rainbow…” But this People Magazine article from September shows that my gaydar was correct–as is my instinct to mistrust evangelicals: “Former Avalon Singer Michael Passons Says He Was Kicked Out of Christian Band for Being Gay”.

Michael Passons, a founding member of Avalon who left the Christian band 17 years ago, is opening up about his departure from the group.

The singer-songwriter, 54…said that he was confronted by his former bandmates on June 30, 2003, to leave Avalon.

“Avalon showed up at my house and told me I was no longer in the group,” he said. “And it was all because of who I am.”

The artist also said that he was “required to attend some reparative therapy sessions” prior to his exit, which like conversion therapy, is an attempt is made to try to make someone identify as heterosexual.

Acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell, though not a religious man, has a devotional cast of mind that makes his literary criticism especially insightful. An admirer of St. Augustine, Greenwell often writes about how our desires and needs are a mystery to ourselves. The liberal, rational self envisioned by the literary marketplace has too narrow a time horizon and too judgmental an imagination, he proposes in his Harper’s essay “Making Meaning: Against ‘Relevance’ in Art”. Although the current push for “relevance” provided a necessary corrective to the presumption that only stories in a certain demographic are “universal”, taken to extremes this demand denies the possibility of grace, understood in the humanistic sense as the opportunity to be confronted with the divinity in any person (even middle-class white men!).

[I[t is always ethically suspect to speak of any human experience as irrelevant to our common human experience; it is always, let me go further, an act of something like violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes what he calls the law of the conservation of violence: that groups subjected to violence will seek to inflict that violence on others, to pass it along. This is what we’re doing when we dismiss the relevance of other stories—the relevance, therefore, of other lives—and suggest that the aesthetic value of a human experience, such as straight-male desire, is exhaustible.

Growing up in Kentucky, and later, studying in the academy of the 1990s, I experienced the violence of being told that my life as a queer person, my work as a queer artist, could stand only as an eccentric counterpoint to a central, universal human story. But I don’t want to conserve that violence; I want to disperse or transform it. It seems to me that either we believe that all human experience is valuable, that any life has the potential to reveal something true for every life—a universality achieved not through the effacement of difference but through devotion to it—or we don’t. I want to encourage the proliferation of voices and stories, not their repression.

And he also deftly subtweets Marilynne Robinson. Go read the whole essay.

Along with “relevance”, the idea of a “writing career” is an idol that periodically needs to be dethroned. Poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, themselves no stranger to literary accolades, diagrammed the mutual back-scratching among winners of the most prestigious awards, in their article “On Poets and Prizes” at ASAP Journal. The ostensible goal of awards is to make poetry visible and relevant (that word again) to the general public. In addition, prizes are the only way that most poets ever get paid for their writing. Spahr and Young’s data-crunching showed that although winners’ racial and gender demographics have finally diversified in the past 5-10 years, their background is still quite elite and insular:

The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners… Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.

Hey, I went to Harvard! Where’s my money?

Philosopher Adam Kotsko decries the pressure to prove the humanities’ worth in terms of market forces, in his article “Not Persuasion, But Power: Against ‘Making the Case'”, part of a forum in Boston Review on “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus”.

For a generation or more, institutions of higher education have been actively dismantled—in many ways, transformed beyond recognition—by powerful constituencies who are actively hostile to academic values. These constituencies include conservative politicians who view widespread access to liberal arts education as a recipe for social upheaval, and business leaders who want to shunt the expense of training workers for highly technical jobs onto the university system (and ultimately the students themselves). They do not need to be told of the benefits of a liberal arts education. They have often benefited from such an education themselves and are happy to provide it for their own children—including at elite Ivy League schools that do not even have the kind of vocational programs that they recommend so fervently for everyone else. They are well aware of the potential of liberal arts degrees to produce engaged and informed citizens who can navigate an ever-changing job market with confidence and creativity. That is precisely why they want to keep a true liberal arts education as a preserve of the elite, consigning everyone else to narrowly vocational paths that teach them how best to serve those above them in the social hierarchy.

I’ve spent the past five years working on a novel, which means I haven’t written anything I can make money from. I miss that sweet short story prize cash. But Origin Story is hard to excerpt. You need context for those blow jobs. At Craft Literary, novelist Maria Cichosz (Cam and Beau) explains why in “For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt”.

The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

Finally, I have to share this fierce and funny Missouri Review poem-of-the-week by Katie Erbs, “Artemisia Gentileschi Gives Head to Every Man at Once”. It’s not what you think. Check it out.

Poem: “Strap-On Ghazal”

First, let me just say:

BIDEN/HARRIS: WE DID IT!

During the darkest moments of Election Week 2020, I spent a lot of time in the graveyard across the street from my house, invoking the ancestors. Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) is buried there. These delightful reminiscences from poet Steven Cordova on the Lambda Literary website show Ali’s gay side, as in both sexuality and playfulness. I apologize to his spirit for the poem I wrote this morning after visiting his grave. Please sponsor me to write even worse poems every day this month in support of the Center for New Americans.

Strap-On Ghazal

Diagnosis, girl: missing her own penis.
My body is the Tomb of the Unknown Penis.

Firmer than rims on a bright-blue pickup truck
The secret boast of the silicone penis.

The two genders: do you click on “Like” or “Block”
Surprise photo texted to your phone — penis.

Tip for the successful gardener:
Weekly T-shots fertilize a home-grown penis.

Cockiness the downfall of great men —
The teleconference disrupted by a shown penis.

Yet even Jacob raised his Ebenezer to the Lord,
Marking angelic throwdown with a stone penis.

And Earth herself thrusts up wood and mountain,
Exoskeleton and bone penis.

While I, Jendi, though my leg hair grows like fruited plains,
Must make do with ordered-from-Amazon penis.

Election Day Poetry by Carolyn Howard-Johnson: “We Will…”

An Election Day poem by my book marketing guru, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the Frugal Book Promoter series. Also check out her human rights themed poetry collection Imperfect Echoes with cover art by Richard C. Jackson, known to readers of this blog as Conway. (He is still waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2008!)

We Will…

Today we will line up.
We will line up in the heat…
We will line up in the cold with scarves around our necks,
hot coffee steaming from paper take-out cups…
We will line up, leaning into Santa Ana Winds or hurricanes
named after Greek letters…
We will line up in fire storms and bitter ashes…
We will do what persevering voters did in ‘64
with a new voting bill as assurance we should be there.
Today we will line up
with that bill clawed away
because “there is no longer a need,”
our postal service disrespected,
our drop boxes suspect or gone.
We will line up today, tomorrow and tomorrow…
We will line up wearing our masks…
We will line up six feet apart
with space enough
to dance,
to sing
to vote.

October Bonus Links: Small Gods

Extra good stuff from the Internet this month.

Fantasy/horror novelist Seanan McGuire (Middlegame) and illustrator Lee Moyer teamed up this spring to create the Small Gods Series. By turns whimsical, comforting, and pleasantly sinister, these short posts are encyclopedia entries about the minor spirits that might be watching out for us. Worried about offending an unknown deity? Ask for intercession from Fishier Spooner, the cephalopod Small God of Pentacle Torn. Are you cute but full of revolutionary fury? Pumpkin Spice is by your side to decolonize that shit. Deconstructed Victorian gentlemen The Assless Chaps support shaking up gender roles. Or maybe you just need a hug from Elder Bunny, the Small God of Fluffiness.

Cats know they are divine, and sooner or later, their human companions know it too. This amusing piece from Open Culture shows that some things haven’t changed: “In 1183, a Chinese Poet Describes Being Domesticated by His Own Cats”. Journalist Colin Marshall remarks: “Here in Korea, where I live, cat owners aren’t called cat owners: they’re called goyangi jibsa, literally ‘cat butlers.'”

On Medium, activist and filmmaker Chris Landry critiques one liberal idol. In “Trump, COVID, and the Politics of Civility” he writes:

One of the most damaging things in politics over the past fifty years is the liberal fetish for civility, for the self-satisfied knowing that they have taken the “high road” and refused to stoop to the level of the opponent.

“When they go low, we go high.” I despise that saying and the smugness that accompanies it. At root, it is entirely selfish. It’s about politics as an aesthetic experience in which the goal is to feel good, noble, better than the other side — no matter the harm being perpetrated on much more vulnerable people.

In family, work, and friendships, yes, go high. But politics is, unfortunately, not like those things. It is always about power. It is, as they say, war by other means. It determines who lives and who dies. The goal is not to go high. the goal is to fight for justice and for the greatest good for the people…

…Is it corrosive to our society when the divisions are so strong? Absolutely. As FDR said, “I hate war.” We the people didn’t seek it, or choose it, but here we are: at war for the future of the country against very powerful and ruthless forces…

…We’ve been in an ideological war for fifty years. Republicans have been scheming and planning — extremely effectively — to take power even as the demographics increasing disadvantage them. They’ve built power at the state level, used that to gerrymander themselves into power at the federal level, and focused on radically altering the judiciary, blocking Democratic nominees to federal courts while ramming through their own.

The Democratic response? Senator Pat Leahy long continued a tradition — not a law — of allowing senators to put a hold on judicial nominees from their states. This foolishness allowed one lone Republican, for example, to block an Obama nominee for eight years, so that Trump could fill the post. You think McConnell cares about that tradition? It would be funny if it weren’t so harmful to actual human beings.

Image, a respected journal of spirituality and the arts, published this intriguing conversation, “A Devotional Temperament”, between acclaimed gay novelist Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You and Cleanness) and theologian James K.A. Smith. Here’s Greenwell on his interest in St. Augustine:

Very early on, I was indoctrinated into the idea that my desire was inherently disordered for reasons that I now entirely reject. But it still seems to me that my desire is disordered, and it still seems to me that desire is the great disorderer. Desire is the most extraordinary plot device, because it gives us something to seek, an aim for our will, and yet it itself is always unwilled. We don’t choose what we desire. That balance of activity and absolute proneness and abjection is endlessly fascinating to me. Even separate from the context of homophobia, I find desire humiliating. I find it humiliating to be overpowered by something I have not chosen and do not will. Augustine feels that, too.

And later in the interview, on the stylistic lessons of Augustine’s Confessions:

To me the great promise and faith that lies behind not just literary art, but all art, is that by devotion to the particular, by attending with all of our faculties as precisely and carefully as we can to the particulars of a life, a place, a time, we can arrive at something that is true of humanness itself.

The word “universality” is often used as a weapon against writers who are said to be marginal, who are told—as I was as a graduate student—that their experience is not pertinent to “the universal.” That is always a lie; it’s a false use of the word “universal.” But I do believe in universality, of a kind that doesn’t deface particularity but is arrived at through particularity. That’s how Augustine, though he is separated from me by centuries and language and continents and, more than any of those things, by a system of belief that I absolutely reject—that’s how he shows me to myself.

This faith, that the interior and particular can lead to the interpersonal and universal, is what I think animates much of our literary practice, especially first-person literary practice. I think Augustine invented it.

…I do think concepts can be useful without being true. That’s a belief of art, too. But when you write a poem or a novel, when you paint something, when you create music, all of those things are done in a faith that one can make something finite that has access to the infinite. That to me is the promise of art, and it’s fundamentally an incarnational idea.

Finally, this personal essay on the Ploughshares blog by Anaïs Duplan (Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture), “I Will Always Be That”, has given me some peace of mind about being misgendered by strangers.

Knowing I was injecting myself with testosterone every week made it really hard to hear people use “she” to refer to me, even harder than before I started HRT. I was making an effort to change and no one was acknowledging it.

There was a point, about six months in, where I started to pass on and off. I looked like a twelve-year-old boy, so when I did pass, it was as a child. This was the hardest part of my transition (though sometimes I think I say that about every part of my transition). I would have an interaction in a deli where the cashier called me “miss,” then walk out onto the street and hear someone call me “sir,” then meet up with a friend who would use the pronouns I’d asked people to start using (they/them), then talk to an acquaintance who would mess up my pronouns and use she/her. It was a rollercoaster. I was a rollercoaster. Every time someone gendered me as male or just didn’t use she/her pronouns to refer to me, I felt euphoric. As soon as someone misgendered me, my mood crashed and I felt terrible. This went on for a long time, this sometimes-passing liminal space.

After a while, I realized how ridiculous the whole idea of passing is. It had to be ridiculous if I could be referred to with “he,” “she,” and “they” all in the same day. What exactly were people referring to when they used these pronouns? The way my face looked, the clothes I was wearing, the way I talked, carried myself?..

…As soon as I learned not to let how I was being gendered control how I felt, I could reclaim my sense of self from the pronominal chaos being reflected back to me. I learned to “play in the reflections” and “dance with perspective.” It took about a year of hormone therapy before transition started to feel like healing, but not from a lifetime of “being in the wrong body.” I was healing the part of myself that was identified with my body, identified with a gender, with the person I was on any given day, with my interests, preferences, and dislikes. Identity itself as an idea fell apart and my sense of self started to “come from some of everywhere, somewhere so deep that some of / everywhere come with you,” if I may borrow again from [Fred] Moten. It didn’t matter where I was headed, gender-wise, anymore. I stopped wishing for the day when I would pass all the time. I started living as myself, whoever that was.

Transition seems to have brought Duplan to the perspective that Buddhists call anatta, non-self–the realization that we have no permanent unchanging identity. Perhaps a looser attachment to the “self” of the Western philosophical tradition would help all of us, cis and trans alike, to accept gender fluidity. “What if you do something irrevocable to your body and regret it?” is a common objection that often gets in the way of life-changing medical care for trans youth. One of the nice things about transitioning in my 40s is that I already know I can’t rely on my body to stay the same, whether or not I actively try to change it.

I don’t think I’m ready for this, though:

In a move that could revolutionize gender-reassignment surgery, hospital officials in Boston are considering whether to allow a first-ever penis transplant in a transgender man. Surgeons hope to attach a dead man’s penis to the groin of a patient born as a biological female.

According to the MedPage Today article, a few such transplants have successfully been performed on cis men who lost their genitals to cancer or a war wound. I can’t get past the phrase “dead man’s penis” though. Would that be a…Hand of Glory-hole?

Happy Halloween, everyone.

My Poem at Flowers & Vortexes Online: “Self-Portrait as Pastry Box”

This poem of mine was first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Vol. 5, and reprinted at Flowers & Vortexes Online this month. I wrote it during 30 Poems in November 2019, the annual fundraiser for the immigrant literacy and job-training organization The Center for New Americans. Sponsor me again this year!

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.

 

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!

 

September Links Roundup: The Rules Never Applied

Hey, it’s time for another round of “Jendi discovers the obvious!” I have a hard time recognizing hypocrisy. Until, and even after, reality slaps me in the face, I assume that everyone is trying to live up to their publicly stated ideals. To be fair, that’s the premise behind most liberal political satire, too. We like to think we’re doing something important when we laugh at the gap between Trump’s evangelical values-talk and his violent and adulterous behavior. But as Noah Berlatsky wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, “Fascists Know How to Turn Mockery Into Power”. Their absurdity or incompetence isn’t a lapse in effectiveness, it’s a deliberate middle-finger to the very idea that truth matters in politics.

Similarly, it’s finally dawned on me that the MAGA crowd’s support for unchecked police power isn’t actually inconsistent with their hyper-individualism about gun ownership, mask-wearing, and paying taxes. It only seems contradictory if you believe the surface claim that all Americans live under the same rule of law. But the rules were never meant to apply to them. Beneath the surface, there are two Americas. Authoritarian policing is for black people; freedom of choice is for white people.

This dual consciousness drives the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country”, based on Matt Ruff’s excellent novel of the same name. “In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that ‘normal” never existed,’ feminist critic Sady Doyle writes in her Medium article “Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror”. In cosmic horror, we are de-centered in the universe. Our comforting, orderly beliefs in human institutions and culture are shown to be irrelevant to the strange and heartless way that the world really works. For white people, this can be how it feels to wake up to structural racism. For black Americans, well, what else is new?

The genius of “Lovecraft Country” is that its black protagonists have no naiveté to lose. The traditional horror-show monsters are less scary than the small-town white sheriff, and can sometimes be redirected to save our heroes from their human persecutors. Referencing Lovecraft’s flagrant racism, Doyle concludes, “The idea that life comes down to either ignorance or despair did, after all, originate with a fairly malicious guy, one who probably could not come to consciousness without realizing that he’d hurt people, and who had reasons to prefer denial. Crumbling beneath the horrible revelation denies us the other possibility, the one Lovecraft himself seemed to fear most: Being transformed.”

Along those lines, in this 2016 piece from Nightmare Magazine, an online journal of horror fiction and criticism, Chesya Burke contends that “Horror Is…Not What You Think or Probably Wish It Is”. She questions how the boundaries of her genre have been drawn to exclude the black perspective: why is The Handmaid’s Tale considered horror, but not Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

What does it say to upcoming writers of color who don’t write about the middle class white family fighting against malevolent forces? What of the black writer that writes of welcoming those forces into their lives, as it is less horrific than living under white oppression?

…It is too often in the genre that horror is seen as an invasion of some outside force that must be exorcised in order to restore balance. When you see this, and only this as horror, you leave out those whose worlds are already defined by outside forces (e.g. the white gaze), and often use an invasion of another force as a welcomed reprieve from systemic oppression. When you have historically seen the black, the dark, the other as scary, you create an entire genre around fearing them and their cultures. Does Voodoo, loas or perhaps entire countries (Haiti) and continents (Africa) come to mind? When you define horror by white men, you not only exclude others, but you vilify them.

In another story about coming out of denial, novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen shares an excerpt from his new book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America in his Atlantic article “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots”. This longform piece describes how the professional class (lawyers, professors, journalists, bankers, etc.) helped wealth inequality grow out of control, starting in the 1980s. A cultural divide between upper- and lower-class white Americans was exploited by the super-rich to gut labor rights.

Most liberals, like most Americans, preferred not to regard capitalists as categorically rapacious and amoral, or to imagine the U.S. political economy as a never-ending struggle in which everyone must ultimately choose between two sides. That seemed crude. They didn’t vote for Reagan, but most didn’t hate him, certainly not at first, because in their way they shared his dreamy faith in the 1940s Frank Capra movie vision of America. And to some degree, most liberals succumbed, like most Americans, to a new form of economic nostalgia that was being revived and popularized—the notion that market forces are practically natural forces with which we dare not tinker or tamper too much. Finally, affluent liberals didn’t want to think badly of all their nice friends and neighbors and classmates who happened to work at banks or in real-estate development or in the vicinity of C-suites.

Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies.

At Catapult, Jess Zimmerman writes about adjusting a little too well to the Great Shutdown: “It Doesn’t Hurt, It Hurts All the Time”. She discusses how she came to understand her equanimity as traumatized numbness to the emotional load of our collective crisis. When she was finally cleared to go outside, she developed agoraphobia.

Like episodic analgesia, where the brain holds pain at bay, it was a protective nothingness, a shutdown. We are all so afraid. We are all so angry. We are all so lonely for our former lives, and mourning the collapse of the future. We are genuinely in danger, from the virus. We are genuinely being endangered, actively, by a government that sees us as disposable or worse. It’s too much: a black hole, all gravity and no light. At the same time, we are relentlessly, inescapably aware of how much worse it could be, how much worse it is, for someone, for many people. How do you let yourself feel that bolus of emotions at all? How, especially, do you feel it knowing that this is what “lucky” looks like?

…What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: not as worthy injuries and unworthy ones, but as a wide class of wounds made in different ways, whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms? It is worse to die, to be grievously ill, to lose someone you love, to lose your job and fear for your survival, to not lose your job and be forced to risk your survival every day. But it is also terrible to fear the future, to be betrayed by your leaders, to see ignorance weaponized, to have your life treated as a bargaining chip by the powerful. It is terrible to hang suspended over the pit and try not to look down. The teeth of this year grind all of us. Maybe, in seeing each other’s wounds, we can let ourselves feel our own.

In the new issue of Poets & Writers, Filipinx poet and college writing professor Rachelle Cruz proposes alternatives to the traditional writing critique workshop, which can be emotionally damaging and hostile to minority perspectives.

I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.

Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach…

We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.

Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.

If you’d like to try out some of the alternate workshop forms that Cruz and her students have developed, email editor@pw.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”.

Two Poems from Phyllis Klein’s “The Full Moon Herald”

In the most frequently quoted lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, William Carlos Williams wrote that “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” What is found in Phyllis Klein’s new poetry collection The Full Moon Herald (Grayson Books, 2020) is an unflinching and compassionate witness to the news of the day and the historical traumas that birthed it.

Cleverly organized in sections titled like the features of a newspaper–International News, Health, Crime, Arts & Entertainment, and so forth–the collection responds to timely topics such as wildfires and droughts, the refugee crisis, sexual violence, and even the coronavirus. Several poems reference the Holocaust, a visceral part of Klein’s ancestral legacy as a Jew, and how the memory of this event both compels her to write about other genocides and sometimes threatens her with despair. Human interest stories provide fleeting moments of hope, such as in “Paul Barton Plays Piano for Elephants”, yet even there, Klein refuses to look away from details that complicate the sentimental picture: “Even if they/knew where the piano once got its keys, what would/they do?”

On August 22 at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM Eastern time, Klein will be participating in a Zoom poetry reading with J. David Cummings and Christine Holland Cummings titled “Staying With the Trouble: Poems of trauma, grief and hope in an age of disaster”. RSVP to phyllis@phyllisklein.com for the link. Visit her website to learn more about her work as a writer and trauma therapist.

She kindly shares two poems from the book below. Jeni Haynes, referenced in the second poem, is an Australian child abuse survivor who developed 2,500 personality alters. Hers is believed to be the first case in Australia, and possibly the world, where a victim has testified in their alternate personalities and secured a conviction, according to this BBC Australia article.

The Human Tragedy

Dandelions… kept alive by the finest gardeners
in the world who knew how to work against nature.
—Jack Gilbert, “The Difficult Beauty”

You can only avoid it for so long. Like reading a story set in
pre-war France knowing something terrible will happen to
the lovely Jewish characters. Why do you read it? When you

started it was a happy story. Good fortune draws you in.
Love starts off loudly, calling with the ecstasy of a requiem,
only you don’t want to realize the beauty leads to the grief

until it happens. More and more of this these days. More of the people
gathering, the bombs gushing off, the dead and the survivors.
No need to explain what fear feels like. It’s in you, it’s sitting beside

you. It’s in the backs of the gardeners as they bend over
the plain yellow flowers weeding out everything else that wants to grow.

****

She Was Alone

for Jeni Haynes

She was alone like an iceberg, but not too frozen
for her father to hurt. He assaulted her at age four almost
breaking her. Her body, a crime scene. Her mind, a disjunction.

Every day of her childhood. We know about it now because
she went to court. She was alone like a volcano on a fault
line, sitting there facing him, barbarian in a chair. Enjoying

her affliction. A gargoyle. He’s going to prison now. She did
the impossible. Didn’t erupt or sink him with an icy gash to his side.
Didn’t smack him in the face. Found a detective who believed her.

A detective who can cry. She made an army, a republic of her, to stay real
while her criminal father tortured her. There are Muscles and Erik
in charge, but it’s a democracy, a nation of her. Alters, fragments, back

room boiler boys and girls and notgirls. Voting on every single
important issue. Symphony testified first. Still four years
old. Remembering everything in detail. She was alone like

a seed planted in a vast empty desert. Until the others,
so many she would never be alone again, surrounded
by their palm fronds, cassia bushes, cactus guards, soothing aloe veras.

Her body a crime scene, what he did to her, how she paid with her organs
in ruins, no babies ever for her. He is going to prison for a long
time, her father. And everyone will know what he did.

How he violated her territory. He told her she was ugly, every
day he tried to ruin her. Tried but couldn’t. He was a giant next to her
meager body. Bathroom tormenter. How she fought him, her beautiful

enduring, backboned, spirit. What he would never see on her cold
wounded skin. Excellent, breathtaking, outstanding beauty, had to go
under cover, beneath her waterline to the vast hidden underside.

Residence of power. She opened the door for other split
people to have their days in court. We bow to her, association of Jeni,
society, territory, unionized, incorporated, ablaze.

August Links Roundup: Love and Work

Summer has flown by at Reiter’s Block HQ. The Young Master is in wilderness camp, learning how to start fires (and hopefully put them out). I have finished a draft of the Endless Sequel! Now we are girding our loins for the likelihood of Zoom school, part 2, since the state prioritized reopening restaurants and beaches rather than beating down the virus before winter. Why can’t you all just drink vodka alone in your office, like I do? You don’t need bars to hook up. That’s why God made Grindr.

While I have the time, I’m doing get-out-the-vote activism (check out Swing Left for projects you can do from home) and participating in an anti-racist online book group with my college alumni. Last month we read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, a masterful, bracing 600-page history of racist ideas in America. In the forthcoming September issue of The Atlantic, Kendi offers an ironically optimistic take on Trump’s presidency as a force for bringing white Americans out of denial.

He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.

Similar to the 1850s, when a critical mass of Americans finally recognized the evils of slavery, Kendi thinks we’re at a moment of opportunity to acknowledge and strike down modern manifestations of racism: police violence, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and economic inequality. To keep the momentum alive, however, we have to remember that the rot pre-dates Trump and will not simply be solved by defeating him in November.

At the Disability Visibility Project, Stella Akua Mensah and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkulu wrote in July that “Abolition Must Include Psychiatry”. While I have my doubts about the either-or framing, I agree it’s important to question the assumption that the mental health system is always a humane alternative to jail.

[B]oth prisons and psychiatric institutions: have an overrepresentation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), disregard the rights and safety of TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) folks, use law enforcement transport/response, use solitary confinement and seclusion in cells/“rooms”, forcibly medicate folks (also known as chemical restraints), use physical restraints, offer extremely limited access to sunlight, fresh air, cell phones, news/media, and the outside world. In addition, sexual violence is routine, there is limited power to appeal legal/medical decisions, and the overwhelming majority of inmates are survivors of previous traumatic experiences. This year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presented a report asserting that involuntary psychiatric interventions “may well amount to torture.”

Prison culture is not solvable by ‘funding the mental health system’ more robustly. The mental ‘health’ system is fundamentally carceral, meaning that it is one of the many kindred systems that function to contain and surveil people, take away their locus of control, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom. As it functions in America and in all places touched by colonialism, psychiatry is rooted in torture, white supremacy, and a culture of shame and punishment.

Some articles about writers’ mental health seemed worth sharing this month. Found via the supreme advice blog Captain Awkward, Paul Graham’s essay “How to Do What You Love” challenges the way that kids are traditionally brought up to think about work versus play. The usual belief is: school is boring because grown-up work will be boring, and you do boring work to earn fun time later. Graham observes:

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house…

…If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.

…The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

Related to that, Lindsay King-Miller (author of Ask a Queer Chick) writes at Electric Literature that “Writing Doesn’t Need to Hurt”. (Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman on Twitter for the link.) Discussing her writer’s block while working on a bereavement memoir, King-Miller tells us not to force ourselves to dwell on trauma; it isn’t the only way to produce authentic and important work. She eventually wrote herself out of a dark place, not by endlessly dissecting her grief, but by generating tons of happy-endings fanfiction for her own enjoyment.

I’m not unique in writing past the point of comfort or safety. The archetype of the suffering artist is centuries old, a cultural memory that long predates my own idiosyncrasies. Writers are encouraged, tacitly and explicitly—no, fuck that passive voice. Writers encourage each other to steer into the pain. We value “raw” and “searing” prose, venerate brutal honesty. We say “write what scares you” but seldom “write what makes you happy.” There is so much advice about “bleeding on the page” and “cutting deeper” and, if you follow those instructions, you can end up a mess of open veins and damaged tissues.

“Writing this book almost killed me,” a writer I admire tweeted recently about her new memoir, and maybe she didn’t mean it as a point of pride, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who read it that way. When I was a slam poet, I watched over and over as people I loved delved into their most painful moments, live and onstage, reliving trauma with their whole bodies for the sake of a compelling performance. In some creative circles, the willingness to push oneself to the edge of a breakdown is considered vital to producing great art.

It’s not a surprise, then, that so many writers seem to hate writing—if “writing” is synonymous with “chewing open old wounds.”

…It is brave to write the thing you need to write, even if it hurts. But that doesn’t mean that the hardest writing is always the bravest. Self-flagellation for its own sake is not noble—and it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.

My guiding spirit, as I plan my next project, is Diane Nguyen from “BoJack Horseman” season 6. Unable to start writing her book of serious essays, which was meant to turn her banal family dysfunction into something productive, Diane overhears a conversation at the mall and spins it into the accidentally successful middle-grade series “Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective”.

At Medium, Kacen Callender, author of the YA transgender novel Felix Ever After, reminds us that writers are people too, even on social media. “The Humanization of Authors” notes the complexities of the power dynamic between authors and readers:

There’s an idea that authors and novelists have power and platforms, but there’s a key narrative being overlooked in the relationship between novelist and reader: authors depend on readers to buy our books for our livelihoods. There’s immediately a power dynamic placed between author and reader where we depend on pleasing the reader, many times to the point of our dehumanization. There’s also the fact that readers, bloggers, and influencers can be white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, or any other identity with privilege, and an author can have identities with no privilege. The idea that an author automatically has more power than a reader needs to be reexamined.

There’s a culture where many readers feel entitled to an author because they pay money in exchange for an author’s work. The culture implies that the reader is entitled not only to the author’s book, but to all of the author’s being. This unhealthy balance leads to situations where authors, for example, are not allowed to set healthy boundaries. Authors are vilified if they respond directly to a reader who has tagged them in a negative review, asking that they do not tag us. Authors are expected to respond to all messages. Authors are considered bad writers for not wanting to take a reader’s feedback or criticism into consideration.

Among the ways that authors are dehumanized by the social media culture of instantaneous, on-demand reactions, says Callender, is being “forced to disclose their gender or sexual identities and/or forced to share their past traumas so that readers will stop demanding to know about their lives as proof that the author is allowed to tell a specific story.”

Playwright and screenwriter Topher Payne has rewritten the cringe-worthy classic The Giving Tree to teach kids about healthy boundaries. Take a look.

When I was a Christian, I worried a lot about what made my creative work “Christian poetry” or “Christian fiction”. (Fun fact, naming your gay butt sex novel after the hypostatic union is a good start.) Does it have to be uplifting? Didactic? Contain a Christ-like character–but if it does, will this promote the misconception that human beings are our own saviors? Is it a Christian book simply because I, a Christian, am writing it? And if the book doesn’t turn out Christian-ish, does that mean I’m not a believer? (Well, in my case, yes.) In retrospect, I think I was concerned about this because I’d just become a full-time writer and I didn’t know if I deserved that privilege.

At the ecumenical online journal Breaking Ground, Tara Isabella Burton’s piece “Toward a Christian Aesthetics: Novel-Writing in an Age of COVID” addresses this very concern. The pandemic has exposed and heightened many inequalities in America. Writers can’t avoid noticing that the leisure to practice our craft depends on the physical labor of less privileged workers.

Now, more than ever, as we make public sense of a world in which the powerless are in bondage to the powerful, and in which we are all in bondage to sin, we are called not merely to account for the ways we exercise our freedom. It is a question for aesthetics as much as for politics—insofar as we can separate them, which as good systematic theologians I motion we cannot and must not do.

The questions of whether we should write and the question of what we should write as Christians are inseparable from one another and from this wider question of the theological character of right and wrong freedom—a question that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests have rendered ever more urgent.

How, in the forming of words on a page, can we exercise good creative freedom, even as we resist in both practice and product the embedded liberal notion that our individual, autonomous liberty to do, to make, to fashion, is the highest good there is?

Burton calls for a humanizing aesthetic that embraces the contingency and interconnectedness of our lives. She contrasts this with the pipe dream of unlimited personal autonomy that capitalism promises. The Christian novel will

embrace the implicit power in the authorial position by adopting not…a cynical gaze, that of the disengaged ironist, nor even the more morally palatable fury of the rightly raging prophet, but a distinctly loving one. I think that that the Christian novel can—indeed must—express anger at the world’s brokenness, and its injustice, even as it casts its attention on, and loves, the tiny details, the anecdotes, the phrases, the moments, that make each of its characters, in being fully human, fully loved by God. To zero in on a character’s foibles, their mistakes, their wickedness, their self-deception—and show us why we should love them anyway—is the greatest task of Christian art…

…And, most importantly of all, the Christian would preserve in every character depicted, however briefly mentioned, the sense that they are made in the imago Dei: that they are fully human, with their own wants, needs, desires, hopes, that each of they could, if only given space to tell it, be the protagonist of their own story as well.

…It is a commitment, too, to creating work where all characters, however minor, are treated with the respect of their full humanity, and where the narrative structure of the work reflects the imperfection and insufficiency of any one authorial or authoritative gaze. It is a commitment, too, to treating the world I write about with love—to seeing the incarnate Christ everywhere, even in the most broken or sinful characters; to seeing their God-given capacity to receive grace.

This actually has been my ideal from the beginning, as well. The problem is that I didn’t find it in the Bible, nor in the reactions of the most devout Christians to my art. Quite the opposite, usually.

At JStor Daily, Ed Simon writes a provocative article “In Defense of Kitsch”. He suggests that criticism of kitsch’s democratized rococo style can be traced to Protestant suspicion or snobbery about Catholic material culture. I don’t know that I buy this as a complete explanation, since American evangelicals pump out enormous amounts of sentimental tchotchkes, but I do love to read an appreciation of my favorite room at the Met, the 18th-century furniture in the Wrightsman Galleries. Mean Mommy used to make fun of my “tacky” taste for gilded furniture and porcelain shepherdesses. Well, I have a glitter-covered orchid vagina painting on my office ceiling and I’m living my best life.

Reading Treasure: Barbie Travels to the 18th Century

“Madame du Barbie” image via Reading Treasure, a Marie Antoinette fan blog (for real!)