My Poetry Book “Made Man” Is Here!

My third full-length collection, Made Man, officially launches March 1 from Little Red Tree Publishing.

Staci Wright at the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table Reviews says:

A mix of somber moments and charming wit, Reiter’s collection makes space for humor in the maelstrom of navigating gendered experiences. Their poems synthesize recent historical moments and deeply personal anecdotes to create commentary that dares you to question binaries and social construction itself. Reiter sources material from the nooks and crannies of the human experience; they sculpt each poem using anything from Scholastic Book Club books to Jewish folklore to 1970’s photography series to Manhattan dumpling houses.

Poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt says:

Dense with figure and dense with thought, full of fun and full of anguish, superbly conscious of every rule they break, sometimes giving us comfort and sometimes “another live coal in your mouth,” the poems in this collection work and play and travel in many directions, speak through many and varied masks. Then they come back together to point to a confident future, a nonbinary embodiment, a way past the limits of what other people have told us counts as feminine (“the mermaid bleeds lipstick”), as masculine (“chaos softboy”), as sacred, as childhood (“happy as a rubber ball”), parenthood, adulthood (“I didn’t grow up. I had more laundry”).

I regret that I did not send the poem below to queer theorist Leo Bersani, author of the seminal-in-all-senses text Is the Rectum a Grave? And now he has gone to the great bath house in the sky. Dr. Bersani passed away at age 90 on Feb. 20. From the NY Times obit:

Dr. Bersani was best known for his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” a dense, polemical critique of the tendency among some gay activists to respond to AIDS by downplaying their sexuality and emphasizing the need to replicate bourgeois heterosexuality.

Male homosexuality was not the mirror image of heterosexuality, he argued, but something radically different, lacking many of the patriarchal inequalities that he said defined straight life.

“Far from apologizing for their promiscuity as a failure to maintain a loving relationship,” he wrote, “gay men should ceaselessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relations, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women.”

This poem (like many of my best works) was inspired by a joke from my husband, so I guess marriage is good for something. FYI, the opening line of Bersani’s famous essay is “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”

 

Is the Roasting Pan a Grave?

There is a big secret about turkey: most people don’t like it.
One November day’s duty, otherwise ignored, the bottom.

When the legs are moist, the breast’s dried out
With a hellbound heart, closeted clerics exhort the bottom.

The more savored the taste, the more later despised:
Rest now, fabulous martyrs who whored the bottom.

Play families, play natives’ welcome spread for the plagued men:
Our schoolboy histories will not record the bottom.

But for one night, we feast together in a dying year —
What, then, that too much stuffing may distort the bottom?

We “failed to find the idea of the holocaust unbearable”:
Rather police meat market into pastoral, report the bottom.

Give thanks to ghosts, our unquenchable forefathers,
Pilgrims of filth, who on their knees adored the bottom.

TL;DR? Should Bersani’s words prove dry,
Read the foil pan embossed: ALWAYS SUPPORT THE BOTTOM.

February Bonus Links: Go Ahead, Break That Dish

When the pandemic started, my spiritual guide Julian said to me, “We’re all going to die, darling–wear your good shoes.” (For more advice from an imaginary fashion photographer, read this book.) The sudden closeness of death and impermanence brought home to me that there may be no “later” that we’re saving our luxuries for. Or, as a less slutty higher power is reported to have said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20)

In the magazine Eater, journalist and witchy writer Jaya Saxena advises “Stop Worrying and Start Using Your Fancy China”:

 It is such a waste of beauty to keep the loveliest things out of sight, away from the parties and the food and the people you love, just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.

The thing about owning nice things is you’re going to die one day. Which isn’t to say throw it all to hell and only eat off paper plates, but that nice things are meant to be enjoyed while we’re still on this earth… Honor your ancestors or your family who bought such nice things off your registry by actually using what they’ve given you.

This mindset shift is not easy, I admit. Referencing the fraught family dynamics of our wedding, I often caution my son when he’s playing too vigorously next to our the china cabinet, “Many Bothans died to bring us this Royal Doulton tea set.” Which, now that he’s seen “Star Wars”, perhaps he will understand.

Shortly before that wedding, a much-fought-for event that I’d dreamed about all my life, I wrote this poem about my ambivalence about making any life-altering decision, even one that I wanted. Now, contemplating another big step in my gender transition, I appreciated this article by Joseph Bikart at the UK-based digital magazine Psyche: “How to make a difficult decision”. Bikart offers several thought-exercises to help you identify the parts of yourself that want opposite things; expand the range of choices; clarify your underlying goal; and break down big overwhelming projects into manageable steps.

Bikart writes, “Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.” (Literally, in my case, since I’m thinking about top surgery!) And he really called me out with this one: “Indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day, until you finally decide.”

On that note, hats off to cultural critic and historian Lucy Sante, formerly known as Luc Sante (author of Low Life and The Other Paris), who transitioned last year at age 67. In her recent Vanity Fair article about her journey of self-discovery, this passage stood out to me:

I once described myself as a creature made entirely of doubt, much of it self-doubt, but as soon as I made up my mind to come out, last February, I ceased doubting. That is to say, I experienced regular bouts of dysphoria, which in this context means intense recurring periods of self-doubt, self-hatred, and despair, which happen irregularly for varying lengths of time, typically (for me, by now) about two or three days a week. Yet paradoxically I had never before experienced such wholehearted conviction. Even in the throes of those bouts I felt an unaccountable bedrock of certainty.

Trans people colloquially refer to this moment as your egg cracking. It would be equally true to my experience to describe it as an iceberg thawing. All of the frozen feelings emerge like the Old Ones in “From the Mountains of Madness”. Along with euphoria, wholeness, relief, and a new sense of integration and resonance with myself, I have bouts of grief and fear. I confront internalized cis-het beauty standards that tell me I’m mutilating my body, or squandering the safety afforded by presenting as an average-looking lady. My younger selves finally speak up about the shame and discomfort of puberty. Paradoxically, I mourn both the young man I never got to be, and the older woman I won’t become.

Here’s another poem, “Couplets”, from the same pre-wedding period. “One can never/prove anything to the world, only make it surrender/by ignoring it or being ignored.” Thanks, Jendi-age-26. You were a smart guy.

Hell Is the Absence of Closure

Having just finished my intensive immersion in “The Sopranos”, I don’t have an explanation for the enigmatic and (some would say) unsatisfying final cut-to-black scene of Tony in the diner. To quote Wednesday Addams, Are they dead? Does it matter? What I do notice is a psychological resemblance to the endings of two other shows that made a deep impression on me, “Mad Men” and “BoJack Horseman”. The central character of all three shows is a charming and destructively narcissistic man whose antisocial behavior at first seems clever and entertaining, then tragic, then dull and predictable.

I binged “BoJack” during 2020 quarantine (how fucked-up is it that we have to specify which year of COVID quarantine we’re in?) and something about its combination of bleakness and surreal frivolity spoke to the sudden bizarre shift in our lives. I was late to the “Mad Men” trend, but caught up in time to watch the last season in real time. Back in 2015 I thought Peggy Olson had finally shown me the kind of woman I was, which I’d never seen on TV before. Isaac Fellman’s essay “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man” tells you how that worked out.

As viewers, we crave a conventional narrative arc. Someone changes, or is shattered by the consequences of refusing to change. The endings of these three series frustrate that desire, because a wearying stasis is truer to life with a person trapped in his own narcissism.

Don Draper seems to have a breakdown and breakthough in the finale, shedding the status symbols of his ad-man life to wind up sobbing in an encounter group at Esalen. But the final minutes strongly suggest he’s going to spin his moment of enlightenment into a Coca-Cola commercial as soon as he catches a ride home to New York.

A “Hollywoo” treatment of “BoJack” would have ended one episode earlier, with him drowning in the swimming pool of his former luxury apartment like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”. Instead, a subdued BoJack is directing amateur theater productions in jail while his friends’ lives move on without him. “Life’s a bitch, then you die, right?” he says to Diane, who replies, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch, then you keep living.”

In my opinion, that’s the punishment to which Tony Soprano is sentenced. He’s dead inside, whether or not his physical body is alive. Like the Flying Dutchman, he’s going to go on eating onion rings in that diner forever, after almost all his old friends and close family have died (many by his hand).

Sometimes the redemption arc is that other people get away from the one guy who’s been soaking up all the energy in the room because of his resistance to growth. The guy who thinks he’s the main character in everyone’s life, not just his own.

January Links Roundup: As the Crow Flies

Welcome to 2022, readers. Let’s start the year with the energy of this Oregon crow who befriended a class of fifth graders:

[Education assistant Naomi] Imel said the bird wasn’t aggressive at all and seemed to love the kids.

“It landed on some people’s heads,” she said.

And, she added, it spoke. The bird could say, “What’s up?” and “I’m fine” and “a lot of swear words.”

I’m doing my part–I’ve taught my 9-year-old to say “va fungool”, which he prefers to pronounce as “fats and goo!”

In other linguistic news from Harvard Magazine, my alma mater has articulated some useful principles for “de-naming” buildings and programs that honor slave-owners and other problematic characters:

 Harvard Law School has changed its shield, given its prior association with a founding benefactor who was a slaveholder. The faculty deans of Lowell House have relocated representations of Abbott Lawrence Lowell—a former Harvard president, whom they associated with racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views and actions—and prompted a wider discussion of the House’s name. (“Faculty dean” is itself a 2016 retitling of the position formerly known as “House master”—a decision accompanied by some controversy.) Critics of the Sackler family, associated through their pharmaceutical company with the lethal opioid epidemic, have called for renaming the eponymous museum (the donor, Arthur M. Sackler, pioneered pharmaceutical advertising, but died a decade before Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, the compound associated with the epidemic.)

One of our local writing groups hosted an online discussion this winter on Craft in the Real World, by bestselling novelist, essayist, and writing teacher Matthew Salesses. In true Harvard student fashion, I hadn’t actually read the book yet when I attended, but it’s on my long wishlist because of the compelling insights in his January 2021 LitHub essay “25 Essential Notes on Craft”. Salesses points out that aesthetics are never universal or apolitical. Rules for good writing are audience-dependent, and we don’t always need to cater to a white American individualist audience.

Craft is also about omission. What rules and archetypes standardize are models that are easily generalizable to accepted cultural preferences. What doesn’t fit the model is othered. What is our responsibility to the other?…

Craft is the history of which kind of stories have typically held power—and for whom—so it also is the history of which stories have typically been omitted. That we have certain expectations for what a story is or should include means we also have certain expectations for what a story isn’t or shouldn’t include. Any story relies on negative space, and a tradition relies on the negative space of history. The ability for a reader to fill in white space relies on that reader having seen what could be there. Some readers are asked to stay always, only, in the negative. To wield craft responsibly is to take responsibility for absence.

I never get tired of reminding people that the controversy over false memories was largely manufactured by defense experts for parents accused of child molestation. “Harvey Weinstein’s ‘False Memory’ Defense and its Shocking Origin Story,” a Longreads article from February 2020 by Anna Holtzman, is subtitled “How powerful sex offenders manipulated the field of psychology.”

Founded in 1992, [the False Memory Syndrome Foundation] was on its surface an “advocacy group” created by and for parents who’d been accused by their children of sexual abuse. The group’s supposed agenda was to provide support and fellowship to families that had been “destroyed” by accusations of incest. They launched a well-funded media campaign purporting the existence of an epidemic of “False Memory Syndrome” — not a scientifically researched condition, but rather a slogan concocted by accused parents to discredit the testimonies of their children…

The strategies by which FMSF infiltrated the psychology profession share much in common with Trump’s methods. The foundation used a carrot-and-stick technique to coerce the mental health field to fall in step with their agenda. The carrot was an impressive list of researchers, psychologists and academics that the accused parents of FMSF had recruited to be on their Scientific and Professional Advisory Board. The stick was a far-ranging assault of well-funded lawsuits aimed at discrediting, disbarring and suing therapists who dared to support incest survivors and validate their memories.

Psychologists and therapists were threatened with professional ruin if they sided with survivors and were tempted with professional reward if they aligned with the powerful forces behind the anti-survivor backlash…

Elizabeth Loftus, widely cited as the preeminent memory researcher in the “false memory” camp, has made a career of defending alleged child abusers in court for large sums of money. By her own admission, she has no experience working with trauma survivors in any clinical or research capacity.

Holtzman notes that the FMSF board included University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Orne, known for working with the CIA on mind-control experiments during the Cold War.

Orne and his MKUltra colleagues likely believed that by traumatizing their “research subjects,” they could ensure that their victims would not remember the abuse or would at least be too afraid to tell anyone. When survivors started speaking out, however, it became evident that their memories were resurfacing. So, what better way to silence sexual abuse victims than by launching a propaganda campaign that labels victims as crazy and discredits their memories? And what more natural frontmen to hide behind than the aggrieved parents of FMSF?

Holtzman’s article carefully and clearly debunks the main arguments used to discredit recovered memories. Whether or not you buy the CIA conspiracy theory, her logic is sound. And the Weinstein connection? One of his expert witnesses in his rape trial was, you guessed it, Elizabeth Loftus.

Safe Communities Pennsylvania has created this free 36-page guide to making your church congregation a safer environment for survivors of child sexual abuse. What I appreciate is that they treat it as a theological issue, not only a pastoral care issue. The guide suggests ways to rethink your preaching about forgiveness, suffering, and peace, among other concepts, so that survivors are not silenced or pressured to do emotional labor to redeem their abusers.

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.

Witch Kitsch

We went to Salem.

This Massachusetts coastal town has made a peculiar tourist industry out of the fact that it executed 19 people (and two dogs) on charges of witchcraft in 1692. Four others died in prison or under interrogation.

All respect to Giles Corey, the crotchety octogenarian who let himself be pressed to death rather than admit the court’s authority to try him.

In one of history’s ironic twists, Salem is now an epicenter of modern witchcraft culture and fashion. You can hardly walk a block downtown without coming across a shop selling pentacle jewelry, mini cauldrons, psychic readings, crystals, candles, and dolls in pointy hats. Not to mention, this tribute to Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in “Bewitched”.

Visiting Salem as an actual, serious, practicing witch was an adventure in cognitive dissonance and complex emotions–not to mention a temptation to spend way too much money on Goth swag, like this Baphomet pillow I bought to make myself feel better about not getting top surgery.

Aiming for equal parts entertainment and scares, Salem’s witch-tourist museums go in for waxwork tableaux and sensationalist re-enactments of what they call the “witchcraft hysteria”. The presentations include some helpful historical context about the plagues and warfare that stressed the Puritan settlement to the point of irrational scapegoating. Then as now, people were desperate to blame someone for the disconnect between their suffering and the divine blessings they were promised. But of course it would be too controversial to draw those connections for the paying customers, so the popular image of the Puritans remains exotic and remote from the world of their descendants. The official story on the placards is that “of course” witchcraft isn’t real–even as the alternative spirituality business is booming, right outside the door.

Should I, then, mourn Salem’s executed witches as my spiritual ancestors? It’s hard to say, because there’s no good evidence that they considered themselves witches (tortured confessions don’t count). Even if some of them did practice folk magic in secret–practices like hexing or fertility charms having always coexisted alongside official Christianity–the 17th-century witches’ values and cosmology were likely more similar to the Puritans’ than to my Temple of Witchcraft class’s Buddhist-inflected, queer-friendly worldview. Magic is a technology that doesn’t necessarily create common ground among its practitioners. The concentrated collective prayers of right-wing Christians could be seen as a hex designed to wipe out queer people. I began practicing magic in earnest during the Trump years because I perceived a spiritual warfare component to the GOP’s attacks on human rights and Mother Nature. (In my opinion, it’s not really Jesus they are worshiping, but I digress.)

The gender politics of the “hysteria” also left me with unanswered questions. It’s actually remarkable that pre-teen girls’ accusations against prominent men, such as minister George Burroughs, were taken seriously by the church and court system. A number of witches were convicted on the “spectral evidence” of girls’ nightmares and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands. To me this sounded like abuse flashbacks, which can take the form of body memories. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Burroughs was the real perpetrator; don’t haunt me, George.) In dismissing the entire trials as delusional, we may play into the patriarchal script that anything that can’t be confirmed by outside observers is not credible.

The irreverence of the waxwork history tours troubled me at first, but then I recognized it as a form of “whistling past the graveyard”. At Halloween, we dress up as what we fear, to make our mortal vulnerability manageable through play. We put our heads in the stocks as a joke, to dispel the unease of imagining our own neighbors turning on us.

Salem was also the birthplace of the great fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose work you can read for free at AmericanLiterature.com. I wrote my college thesis on original sin in his stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”, two Gothic fantasies about prideful scientists whose drive for “perfection” destroys the women they love most (to the extent that a narcissist can love!). A descendant of witch-trials judge John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from that history. I understand him better after visiting the Witch City. Throughout his work, he struggles with inherited sin. On the one hand, he wants to hope that descendants can break a cursed pattern, even if the cost to themselves is high. On the other hand, he’s enough of a Puritan to remind progress-intoxicated Americans that human nature is permanently flawed. We trade religion for science, we scoff at the past, but the same impulses that drove the witch trials remain in our hearts.

I don’t think Hawthorne would be a fan of the “Scarlet Letter” coffee mugs in the House of Seven Gables Gift Shop, but this fan art by Wendy Snow-Lang shows why Melville thought Nat was such a snack:

Transition goals, am I right?

More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.

July Links Roundup: Free at Last

Readers of this blog may remember my pen pal “Conway”, the poet and artist who was serving 25-to-life under California’s three-strikes sentencing law for stealing a motorcycle. This Independence Day finally has real meaning for him, because he is FREE! He is thriving in a re-entry program in Los Angeles, reuniting with his devoted daughters and learning how to use the Internet. He dreams of opening up his own auto repair shop and tattoo parlor. Read more of his poetry here and here, or browse the Prison Letters category on this blog.

Several factors converged to make this miracle happen (if you can really call it a miracle for a man to spend 29 years of his life in jail for petty theft). The new Los Angeles County D.A. is no longer opposing early-release petitions under Prop 36, the 2008 referendum that retroactively repealed the harsh sentencing law. Stanford Law School’s pro bono clinic continues to help my friend navigate the legal system that profits from keeping people under perpetual surveillance, even when they’ve served their time–and then some. And I applied the full force of four months of witchcraft training to send him protective energy and courage.

Though Conway’s exodus is cause for tremendous rejoicing, millions more Americans are still trapped in prisons and jails that violate their human rights to medical care, adequate food and shelter, voting access, and speedy trial, among other indignities. In June, Harper’s Bazaar, in partnership with the PEN Prison Writing Program, published this worthwhile feature: “5 Formerly or Currently Incarcerated Writers on What Freedom Means to Them”. The personal essays include criminal justice reform leader Vivian D. Nixon on reclaiming the freedom to use African-American Vernacular English, and Elizabeth Hawes on music and literature as a lifeline behind bars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Native American and Canadian Indigenous children suffered another type of unjust incarceration in euphemistically named “residential schools”. Governments run by white people stole the children from their families, with the goal of eradicating Native languages and cultures. This genocidal project has been in the news lately with the discoveries of mass graves on the sites of some schools. Many more doubtless remain to be unearthed, as conditions at the schools were brutal. This online curriculum from Facing History describes the shameful role of Christian missionaries and educators in running these institutions.

To help bring justice to Native Americans today, consider donating to Lakota People’s Law Project. Their initiatives include fighting for voting rights, creating community centers for Native youth, and protecting the land and water from pipeline pollution.

Truly the best essay I’ve read in a long time is queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from the 2002 anthology Touching Feeling. Eve understands what’s wrong with The Discourse. Does debunking everything make you feel better? Does it help you understand what to do about the brokenness of the world? Especially in 2021, is the trash fire even news? Suspicion is not always the most progressive hermeneutic. Nor is exposure automatically effective at producing change, because people may still be apathetic, wedded to fake news, or too hopeless to act on what they’ve learned. Sedgwick suggests that one can see systemic oppression clearly, yet still be committed to a reparative approach that aims at maximizing love and pleasure, rather than the paranoid priority of avoiding all bad surprises.

45 Shining Harvey Milk Quotes - SayingImages.com

Two Poems from Joshua Michael Stewart’s “Break Every String”

Western Massachusetts poet Joshua Michael Stewart came to my attention through Straw Dog Writers Guild, where he’s a popular frequent reader at open mics and literary events. (Take advantage of the Zoom era and drop in on their upcoming readings!) As a Buddhist, Joshua is modest about his literary reputation, but I, for one, want him to be famous, because the guy has a helluva voice.

I recently finished his 2016 collection from Levellers Press, Break Every String. This lyrical autobiography is a blues song for the dead-end economy of Midwestern towns and the family wreckage they harbor. His characters crackle with energy that could find its outlet in verses or fists, parenting your own children or stealing someone else’s, a guitar or a bottle. Stewart writes of his teen years: “I was nabbed for keeping up the family business–shoving merchandise down my pants.” As the one who escaped, Stewart plays through all the octaves of emotion, from gratitude to judgmental pride, to survivor guilt, to wary compassion: “of loving/the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.”

Several poems are titled “After Ohio”, each beginning with an excerpt from a letter from his mother, who is usually updating him on his ex-con brother’s bumpy road in and out of sobriety. In one of these pieces, Stewart begins, with his characteristic deadpan humor: “When scoring a revolver from a guy/who lives out of his car, you don’t plan/much of anything else for that day.” The poem recounts how he wandered into a bookstore and bought a book of poetry when the guy didn’t show up. The tipping point between his fate and his brother’s could be just that random and precarious. I found myself thinking of the ending of the film Angels with Dirty Faces: “let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

Joshua has kindly given me permission to reprint the poems below. He’s just finished a new manuscript–I hope it gets published soon!

NEVER ASK WHAT’S UNDER THE BED

Your grandfather once shot a man,
my mother says over pea soup on the porch—
chucked his sorry ass down a well,
kept the man’s false teeth as a souvenir.
Take that to your fancy school
for when you forget who you are.
The jobs have ditched town, and the freight
trains are gone—no longer rattling
windows, shaking nails from rotten studs.
The house shivers on its own.
We move out to the yard, squat down
on five-gallon buckets and scavenge fallen
pears among dandelions and bluegrass,
my favorite AC/DC T-shirt and my woodshop award
stuffed in a cardboard suitcase at my feet.
My generation, we didn’t have learning
disabilities, we just drank homebrew,
and threw knives at each other.
Sweetness drips off her chin,
her mouth a honeycomb of bees.

****

MOTHER, THESE AREN’T YOUR FLOWERS

I thrust open a stubborn window,
causing a book to plop on its side,
slide off the shelf and, washed over

by a wave of other books, crash
into a rose-filled vase that smacks
on the hardwood floor.

What follows is silence, the split
second after a mother slaps
her child. I’ll let the water search

the valleys of the room, finger
the petal-thorns and prism-shards.
This isn’t your carpet ruined

by spilt paint. You will not lean
in the doorway smelling of strawberries
and righteousness. No wailing

or pleading here, only the quiet
twinge of panic ingrained
by the memory of your nearness.

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.