I’ve known Zoe Tuck since 2009, when I spent the summer interning at the poetry distribution warehouse where she worked. Maybe it’s because that’s where I first met her, but I think of Zoe as a sort of poetry distribution warehouse—she’s always recommending a poem or a book you have to read, always connecting you with another poet or artist or person you have to know. Her poems are the same way: friendly, immediate, full of life, full of interesting people and ideas. 

Zoe’s debut poetry collection, Bedroom Vowel, was published a few weeks ago by Bunny Presse, an imprint of Fonograf Editions. I was lucky to read an early version of the manuscript in 2021, and she trusted me with the task of suggesting titles for the poems. 

Zoe and I conducted this conversation in a Google doc in late June 2023. I asked my questions in San Francisco, California, and she replied to them in Northampton, Massachusetts. 


Amy Berkowitz: I think Bedroom Vowel is a great name, but as you know, I wanted you to name your book Personal Mythologies after that line in “Boring poem”: “the retelling of one’s personal mythology / is a foundational gesture of friendship.” I’d love to hear you talk about the process of choosing a title. 

Zoe Tuck: Okay, but Bedroom Vowel was definitely on the list, right? I actually think Personal Mythologies would be a great book title. You are a talented titler (a talent I don’t share), so this is where I credit you for titling the poems in this book—a kind of co-authorship that should not go unsung! As for Bedroom Vowel, I think I was (and still am) writing a lot from the bedroom. The bed is where I write from, the inner sanctum of the house. A multiuse space for sleep, dreams, nightmares, illness, crumbs, sex, work, writing, reading.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, given that in this very interview I talk about some of the imperatives shaping the “typical trans poem,” but I think part of why I picked Bedroom Vowel is that it’s a little sexy. So maybe it’s a bit of a lure? Read a certain way, it’s a moan of pleasure. I also like its indeterminacy: It could also be an “O!” of surprise, an “Ahh” of settling into bed, etc.

These poems are so funny. I’m looking at “Epistolary” right now, one of the poems that I appear in: 

Amy says the reason why my previous series of poems really popped
was the fact that they were addressed to specific people, so:

Dear Santa, 

I need to make like $1,000

this month and I do not know where it is coming from. 

Will I be able to launch another class? 

Swinging from vine to vine—is that really a thing? 

I have
mad love

for Brendan Fraser, 

star of 1997’s George of the Jungle

Based on the 1967 cartoon series,

1992’s Encino Man,

which I learn from Wikipedia

was “known as California Man in France, Great Britain, Asia, and New Zealand,”

and of course, 

1999’s The Mummy.

I’ll stop there. But the whole thing is funny. It’s surprising, it’s weird, it’s associative. You riff a lot. I can tell that you’re having fun in these poems. I know that you’ve started doing some stand-up comedy, and I regret that I haven’t been able to see you perform yet! Tell me about the relationship between your comedy performances and your poetry.

I love to make people laugh. I think it’s one of myriad ways of casting a spell during a performance. Laughter, as comedians know, is also immediate, embodied feedback on what you’re doing, and a way of assessing, and working with, the energy of a room. Awareness of and the ability to work with the energy of a room is essential for any performer.

The banter in my performances is actually an outgrowth of dealing with anxiety. When I gave my first public reading, I was maybe nineteen and I was shaking like a leaf, sweating through the paper my poems were printed on. Over time, I’ve managed to turn awkwardness into the performance of awkwardness and finally just into performance. Actually, even before my first reading, my sense of humor has roots. I grew up a scholarship kid going to school with lots of rich kids. My mom would always tell my sisters and I that we were “mice running with the elephants.” What I lacked I would make up for in quips.

Therapy again: Humor is a defense. Sometimes I want to be funny at readings, and I am, and it feels good. Sometimes I feel like I have to be funny at readings, because if I weren’t, I would just be presenting my naked poems, which are often serious, strange, thoughtful, anguished, whatever. Am I allowed to be those things? Or just funny.

But I don’t always feel like I have to be funny. One of the reasons why I choose it is to deflate my own self-seriousness. 

How did you start writing these poems? I remember you were writing poems dedicated to people who made donations to the Trans Asylum Seekers Support Network (TASSN), and some of the poems in the book are dedicated to TASSN donors. Did that play a role in shaping your practice? Did you also already have a daily poem routine? 

I wasn’t new to bouts of daily writing when I started the poems that comprise Bedroom Vowel, but I hadn’t had the element of writing poems for specific people. Something about holding an audience of one in mind (and the broader audience of people who might eavesdrop on the poem) helped focus the form and content. And I can’t quite explain it, but there was also something stimulating about the oblique transactionality.

The money wasn’t for me, but for something I cared (still care) about. I felt under contract to try to dazzle, on the one hand for TASSN, and on the other, for Poetry. I hope that mentioning TASSN in the book doesn’t feel like virtue-signaling. The best-case scenario would be for people to get curious about the organization, and about the project of supporting trans asylum seekers. Like any other group, trans women are not a monolith, and I think it is our obligation to be honest about the privileges we do have—not in a self-flagellating kind of way (because that is always most gratifying to the self-flagellator), but to make sure that resources go to people who need them the most.

It is also important to mention that another huge factor of my daily writing practice has been my Hot Pink co-editor Emily Bark Brown, who regularly convenes shared google docs in which friends post and comment on each other’s poems. It’s a semi-public, low stakes, and warm environment for producing poems. Writing for the docs is writing for a space of community and conviviality—a nurturing environment for poems.

How has the practice of writing a daily poem changed your life?

Maybe it’s obvious, but the more of anything you do, the better you get at it. I think daily writing has made me a better poet and a more disciplined writer, as well as helping me to be less precious about my poems. Yes, the individual poem is important and deserves care and attention, but there is also always another poem.

But it feels important to add that poetic discipline, which I believe precedes late capitalist hustle culture, can easily become subsumed in it. Not for nothing does CAConrad tell the story about coming from a factory town, falling into writing poems like an assembly line work, and then having to change how they did things. I’m not a proponent of writing every day no matter what. I’m a fan of discipline, which I think of as a spiritual exercise. In my experience, it inevitably involves drifting away from a practice and then returning. I have often felt intense shame about quitting, losing, and failing. In light of that, returning might be the most important part of a daily practice, because it teaches you how to cope with shame. You have to accept this small failure without it preventing you from beginning again.

It’s also important to mention the gift of having a record of one’s days. I have a pretty selective memory that’s good for literary trivia but bad for some of the events of my own life, so a daily poem can act as surrogate storage.

One of the things that makes these poems feel so alive is all of the people who walk in and out of them (I counted seventy-seven individuals making a total of ninety-five appearances). These conversational, associative, funny, vulnerable, weird poems are a joy to read, and I do think all the people inside them are part of that. Tell me about how all of these friends wound up in these poems. 

My friend Ell Davis likes to try out different schemas for understanding the world, and I like to join them. One of the ones that has endured in our conversations is the idea, from Russ Hudson’s Enneagram Instincts and Subtypes, that everyone contains elements of sociality, sexuality, and self-preservation, but in different permutations and proportions. I think I’m social first, which I didn’t always know. It took living in places where it’s not so unusual to be a nerdy queer trans poet to discover how much of an extrovert I am. (This is why my bio always says that I was born in Texas and became a person in California.) And it’s not simply that contact with people nourishes me, but that I relish connecting friends with each other.

Another schema is Deepa Ayer’s social change ecosystem map, which lists core goals (equity, liberation, justice, solidarity) surrounded by a multitude of different roles. That is, different ways of working towards those goals. I identify strongly as a weaver. One of my main tasks in this life is to tighten the social weave, and one of the ways that manifests is through inviting people into my poems.

Another friend, Emily Hunerwadel, has been doing embroidery, and looking at their process, I wonder if these poems are like the underside of an embroidery—the inverse of the social field as a space of composition.

This question also goes back to my poetic education. One of the first poets I was introduced to as a young adult, and one that I really latched onto, is Ted Berrigan, whose Sonnets are filled with friends, lovers, and others, and from there broadening my reading to other poets whose work is well-peopled, from other NY School poets to Sappho and onward.

These poems feel very Frank O’Hara to me, and part of that is all of the people in them, but also there’s the dailiness of the poems, his I do this, I do that thing. Like I’m thinking of this stanza from an O’Hara poem—it would fit right in with the poems in Bedroom Vowel

It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering

if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch

ah lunch! I think I am going crazy

what with my terrible hangover and the weekend coming up

at excitement-prone Kenneth Koch’s

I wish I were staying in town and working on my poems

at Joan’s studio for a new book by Grove Press

which they will probably not print

but it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night

wondering whether you are any good or not

and the only decision you can make is that you did it

Do you like Frank O’Hara? Is he an influence? 

You know, I love Frank O’Hara but I haven’t read him much since I was younger. He’s in the groundwater, for sure, but he’s also present through my friend Zach Ozma’s love for him. 

Something else that O’Hara excerpt makes me think about is vulnerability—wondering whether you’re any good or not, etc. I like how honest and vulnerable the poems in Bedroom Vowel are. I’m thinking of the poem “No sunlight,” which is in part about watching a writer talk about “lyric something-or-other” on a Poetry Project livestream and feeling “cravenly jealous of trans/academic stars.” I guess I just appreciate you naming those awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing feelings that we all sometimes have and letting them take up space in poems. That poem ends like this: 

but despite my resolve not to become bitter
I am, occasionally, a little bitter

and in those moments, I become

not the public intellectual I fantasize about being 

but just someone who couldn’t hack it 

in bed, in pain

no sunlight

no pizza

I really love this. I relate to it—letting a bad feeling like that totally collapse my idea of myself. Tell me about your decision to include ugly feelings like this in the book. 

Oh, I am so insecure, so moody, often jealous, occasionally bitter. I think it does a tremendous disservice to other writers when more successful writers affect a saintly attitude, because it makes us feel not only less successful, but also like jerks. I believe that everybody has ugly feelings, and that practicing sharing them can help us feel less shame and maybe also help other people feel less shame, too.

Maybe it’s because my partner is a therapist as well as a poet, and consequently we have a lot of therapist friends, but I believe that it’s important to acknowledge the ugly feelings. Don’t stuff them, suppress them, ignore them. I don’t like to be jealous, but I’m not going to pretend I’m not. Being able to regard myself impassively lets me know myself more accurately. Knowing myself more accurately allows me to write with greater integrity, if I’m honest about what I know.

I’m also aware of the book as status symbol, the book as sign of arrival, the book published by someone else as the sign of that ultimate artistic desire: I have been chosen. Yeah, I wanted it. I was afraid it was never going to happen. So in a sense the book preserves a feeling that the existence of the book has soothed, and now I am someone else’s “more successful” poet. But of course, aspiration’s locus shifts to the next thing, and the next. That’s not so bad. I want to stay hungry, but I am also working on learning how to feel satisfaction and contentment, even if I can’t stay there forever.

It feels important to point out that sometimes ugly feelings have something to tell us that’s not just about us. If you feel like something is fishy, it might not just be that you have to adjust your attitude, but that something is actually fishy. 

I feel like that all the time, like, am I a public intellectual or someone who can’t hack it? And day to day, what makes me feel one way or the other is stuff like this conversation with you. When my friends are hyping me up, reminding me that my writing is important, engaging me in collaboration and conversation, I know I’m a public intellectual. And when they’re not, when I haven’t had that kind of interaction in a while, that’s when I’m more prone to feeling like maybe I’m just nothing. 

Well, first of all (and I know you were not fishing for this), you are one of the smartest and most generous writers I know—a paradigmatic public intellectual, and one whose ethical commitments I really respect. I think we public intellectuals need to hype each other up. Even when systems like academia are slowly imploding, the lure of bona fides, accreditation, degrees, exclusivity are strong. The social media equivalent is verification. In the same way that I’m not immune to ugly feelings, I’m not immune to the desire to be taken seriously. As someone who dropped out of preschool, high school, college (several times before finishing), and PhD school, I have been subject to a massive pendulum swing. The lure of familial and societal approval balanced against my inner orientation towards liberated learning.

Anyone can think and learn and write. Critiquing academia is not the same thing as being anti-intellectual. While we are rediscovering and inventing new ways to think and make together, how can we incorporate ways to support each other in believing in ourselves? Because I think the idea that we are just somehow going to remember to do that on our own is unrealistically individualistic and characteristic of white supremacy culture.

You’ve been teaching a lot lately, but not within a traditional institution—you offer classes yourself or through Threshold Academy, which you created. Tell me more about how teaching informs your writing. 

I love to teach! I was scared when I was in the MA-PhD program at UMass Amherst because over the three years I was there, I came to loathe teaching College Writing (the required freshman composition course). I hated how students were forced to be there. I had pedagogical issues with the curriculum I was forced to teach. It was also frankly really hard to be trans in the classroom. I felt very administratively unsupported, and some of my students were quite cruel. As I’m writing this, I do want to acknowledge that some of them were also quite kind. Despite the kind students and the positive moments, I was so filled with dread. I remember mornings when I would be walking to class, and I would quickly throw up from stress, wipe my mouth, and then continue on into the classroom.

My departure, admittedly chaotic (all apologies and gratitude to my partner for holding it down during this time), was facilitated by my zest for the book Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. We meet the protagonist in a state of profound crisis, which resonated at the time. The protagonist’s unapologetic affinity for autodidacticism (which is actually community-didacticism) and her deeply felt and sharply delineated politics resonated with me in that chaotic moment. It helped return me to my values (anti-authority, anti-hierarchy, anarchism) and my most successful and meaningful experiences of education, which were informal: the living room classes conducted by Hoa Nguyen, the conversations and book recommendations Philip Trussell gave when I visited his studio.

This is just one layer in a palimpsest that includes taking classes with writers like Laura Moriarty, and various informal reading groups that eventually led to a free school called, somewhat confusingly, the Bay Area Public School. The constant among these disparate experiences is an idea that you can learn about what you are interested in by simply finding people and studying with them. Or by reading a book with friends and discussing it.

[The conversation continues in Part Two of the interview.]

Amy Berkowitz is the author of Gravitas (Éditions du Noroît / Total Joy, 2023) and Tender Points (Nightboat Books, 2019). Her writing and conversations have appeared in publications including Bitch, The Believer, BOMB, and Jewish Currents. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s working on a novel and a nonfiction project.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.