The following is the second half of Amy Berkowitz’s interview with Zoe Tuck. Find Part One here.
As my conversation with Zoe Tuck continues, we talk about the idea of a “typical trans poem,” why it’s important to write about money, and the writers and friends who’ve influenced her work over the years.
Amy Berkowitz: How are the poems in Bedroom Vowel different from your previous poems?
Zoe Tuck: The poems in Bedroom Vowel are a year-long sample. At the time of this interview’s publication, I’ll be thirty-nine years old, and I’ve been writing poems since I was sixteen or so. A lot of my early poems were very hermetic because I was trying to express myself authentically, but I wasn’t out as trans and I wasn’t out as queer (because my queerness wasn’t really intelligible without the transness). Not being able to talk directly about gender or sexuality is a huge limitation, both because of my desire to talk about these subjects in and of themselves, and because they touch so many other aspects of life. There was a part of me that wanted to be found, but I strewed my breadcrumbs inside of bank vaults. So one obvious answer to your question is that these poems represent a multi-year course correction, in which I have tried to figure out when I want to be oblique and mysterious versus when I’m doing it from muscle memory.
Another permanent stamp on my poetry is coming up in the aftermath of an experimental, New American Poetry, outrider tradition. In very broad strokes, this is a milieu in which form is a way to flag lineage, and which has sometimes had ingrained biases against things like the confessional mode or long Latinate words. This tradition still exists, but the US’s internal poetic Cold War has given way to a multipolar field—thank god. This feels relevant to this question in that this is where I admit that I am writing to my contemporary and future readers, but I’m also writing back to folks like Robert Duncan and, back of him, HD.
In “Hymns to the Night,” you write that “this is not a typical trans poem.” Tell me your thoughts about what a typical trans poem is. How do your poems fit into that, or not?
There’s definitely no typical trans poem, but trans poets (like other minoritized writers) have to navigate a set of expectations, including but not limited to: that we conform to a normative idea of trans life, that we instrumentalize our traumas, that we fulfill the prurient curiosity of cis people about our lives, genitals, etc. Another big one is that we stay in our lane: Writing about issues of transness and gender. How limiting! So when I write the phrase “a typical trans poem,” I mean something produced according to these specifications.
I have so many thoughts about so many other topics: translation, hermetic spirituality, and phenomenology are the first three that come to mind in this moment. I guarantee you all three make multiple appearances in Bedroom Vowel. Will I be read as having something to say on these topics, or will I be read as a typical trans poet?
I’m okay with writing typical trans poetry, as long as we can widen the frame of what’s typical to include the entire universe.
Because you’re trans, we can call all of these poems trans poems, but one that takes on trans identity directly is “The Women’s Building,” which is inspired by the vibrantly muraled Women’s Building in the Mission. I always wondered what went on in that building, too! But you use that mystery as a jumping off point for asking all kinds of questions about what it means to be “let in” to being a woman:
Other ways of being ‘in’ the Women’s Building: being ‘in’ a friendship between women; making love like women do with each other (a kind of mirroring, S. uses the word “twincest,” shocking my delicate sensibilities); comfort with ambiguity, responsibility, right or wrong, for the recreation of the world.
To the TERF, this sounds I’m sure like infiltration, but all I’m really talking about is coming home, to a category.
Find a place where they’ll let you in the Women’s Building. Learn from it. Become it. Become what was already in you to become.
I like this poem a lot. The Women’s Building is such a cool and evocative metaphor for your experience with gender. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that it makes your experience really accessible—like, I feel like a reader who doesn’t know many trans people or doesn’t really understand what being trans is could read this and have the experience of being “let in” to understanding that a little better. I wonder if you think about that when you think about who will read your writing: Do you write for trans readers? Cis readers? Do you think about that at all?
Yes! I’ve written about this elsewhere, but my early interest in gender went hand in hand with an interest in the feminist neopagan spirituality of the 1970s and 1980s. Think Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, Monica Sjöö’s archeological interventions, Barbara Guest’s Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and her Women’s Dictionary of Signs and Symbols. In a way, a baby trans woman reader is the ideal audience for this. I suspected that femininity was something sacred and essential, something some people had, and others didn’t. I felt as though I didn’t, and it made me miserable. I saw certain rites by which others were affirmed in their womanhood. In my family, there is a tradition of naming the firstborn daughter a variation of the name of her mother. So the older of my two sisters is named Katy, my mom is Kathy, her mom was Katherine (Kitty). Or for instance, I remember one of my girlfriends telling me that when she had her first period, her mother gave her a gentle slap and welcomed her to womanhood. Or more official rituals, like friends having bat mitzvahs and quinceañeras.
My mom has told my sister details about things that she’s never told me, things I don’t know or only know in a roundabout way through my sister.
Could I be invited into womanhood? Weirdly, I was. When I had work accepted in Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert’s anthology Troubling the Line, it felt like an invitation to say who I was: a woman. This opportunity has reverberated profoundly through my poetic life.
Another kind of invitation: Almost immediately after I came out to our poetry community in Oakland, our community had a proto-#MeToo moment when several people came forward naming rapists and abusers within the community, and we tried to have an accountability process. It was awkward. The well-intentioned desire for accountability led to further harm. I was invited into a quickly assembled women’s group. I was both touched and terrified. I had only just come out as trans and I don’t think I had even started hormones. Did I even belong in that space? But neither, I thought, could I absent myself from it. I had a duty to be part of the solution, I thought. Still, it was very awkward.
I also had more friends at the time (who have since either changed their minds, parted ways with me, or I guess learned to swallow this feeling) who couldn’t understand what on earth drew me to being a woman. Hadn’t I hit the jackpot? All the privilege! All the safety! I’ve had some people in my life who genuinely believe the definitive experience of being a woman is suffering, and this breaks my heart.
My trajectory into womanhood was marked by suffering, but also by collectivity and care. This jived with my experience. My grandmothers were powerful women. My mother is a powerful woman, and she doesn’t shrink from problems, even when she can’t solve them. I guess one of my big lessons from her, that right or wrong I have come to associate with being a woman, is the responsibility to try.
In terms of your question, I have come to realize that I used to write more for cis readers, cis women, who I thought could “let me in.” I don’t believe that any more. I write for cis readers, but try not to pamper them with too much explanation, and I definitely write for trans readers and in conversation with other trans writers. I aspire to write against the dichotomy of cis and trans, which is only useful up to a point.
In “The Women’s Building,” you write, “they’d probably ask for two forms of idea [sic].” I love that, the idea of them asking you for two forms of idea, and that you accidentally wrote that when you meant to write “ID,” and that you left it that way. There are other places in the book where you show evidence of your writing process; I’m thinking of “One, two, three, four,” where you write, “B and I had sex on Sunday. Afterward, I call them Merlin, because they are a pussy wizard. They keep figuring out new stuff to do with my body, but they say we are figuring it out together and I guess we are. (I will probably have to take the sex stuff out if this gets published.)” Tell me about your choice to leave it that way, and to let your writing process into your poems in general.
For one thing, I’m a first thought best thought person! For another, hesitation is a mental process that I often suppress, especially in the editing process. In the example from “One, two, three, four,” I noticed the impulse to celebrate my sexuality and the impulse to hide it. Only expressing celebration would be disingenuous to the internalized shame I have and leaving it out altogether would be to let the shame succeed in making me censor myself.
Similarly, there are a couple of poems that end—or rather, don’t end—because you’re interrupted by work. In “Dear LL and VS,” you’re writing about finding the center of gravity of the poetry community in Western Mass., and then the poem ends suddenly with “[this isn’t done, but i had to stop writing and start working].” And “The Women’s Building” ends: “What happens when you punish love? // I would tell you, but I have to go to work.” Tell me about work interrupting you, and tell me about your decision to let it interrupt, mark the interruption, and not pick up where you left off.
Return is important, to the discipline of poetry, to the tides (I am a triple Cancer), to my sense of feminine sensuality. But with respect to work, I think that it’s important to mark the way it interrupts writing and thinking. Traditionally, talking about money (which follows from the need to work expressed in these poems), is taboo in the dominant US culture. However, I think this taboo is shifting with Gen Z. Pretending about money helps no one. It actively hurts us.
Money and needing to work to make money is a recurring theme in these poems, which I appreciate. I’m looking at the poem “A little pile” now. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve been letting the work pile up for a day or two
like an actor asking what’s my motivation?
money you dingdong
you have to keep earning it
and fighting about it
unless you figure out
a better way to communicate about it
and unless we (the big we, society)
manage to enact a better system
for the distribution of goods
There’s a whiff of di Prima there. You’re interested in a vision of a better world, an anticapitalist world. “What’s happening in the troposphere” is about that too. Is poetry a good place to imagine a better world?
I might be biased, but I think poetry is maybe the best place to imagine a better world. Not least of which because the tools are so cheap (pen and paper, or even just speech and dreams), making it a widely accessible form. It helps that there is a long tradition of utopian poets. You’ve named Diane di Prima, one of my favorites, but there are so many more.
And poetry, in its guise as entertainment, is a great way to smuggle in utopian sentiments that might be dangerous to espouse publicly. Were the medieval troubadours concealing heretical sentiments in song? I don’t know, but it was a sexy idea to Pound in The Spirit of Romance and to Robert Duncan in The H.D. Book. To be honest, it’s a pretty sexy idea to me! I don’t care as much about its historical accuracy as about the feeling of poetry existing as a kind of loose group of spiritual traditions whose shared doctrine is that the world might be—ought to be—otherwise.
While I have tremendous pride and solidarity with fellow workers, I hate work and I don’t think it’s ennobling or whatever. What Puritan tripe—especially for a poet! Poets (and other living creatures) need leisure, otium. I’m not the first or even the thousandth person to point this out, but what did the property-owning men of ancient Greece do with their wealth and freedom? Poetry, philosophy, politics.
The great promise of a more equitable distribution of wealth is that we can all participate in the activities that free souls love!
Tell me about some of your other influences, in addition to di Prima.
My influences include the people around me: Britt Billmeyer-Finn’s manuscript Sensational Gestational and her play-in-progress My Fellow Lesbian Wife. You. Emily Hunerwadel. Emily Bark Brown. Ell Davis. Actually, can I just list for a minute?
Samuel Ace, María José Giménez, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Franny Choi, Jina B. Kim, Anna Gurton-Wachter, Matt Longabucco, Trish Salah, Christina Tudor-Sideri, Elle Longpre, Sophia Dahlin, Alana Siegel, Lauren Levin, Carrie Hunter . . . this list could go on and on!
The writers that I’ve curated for, met, or deepened my relationship with through Belladonna* Collaborative, like K. Prevallet, Rachel Levitsky, James Loop, Poupeh Missaghi, Mia You, Gabrielle Civil, Sawako Nakayasu, Kyoo Lee, Meca’Ayo Cole, and many others.
The writers I’ve talked about in my reading blog (recently relocated to Substack), who I don’t know but adore, like: SD Chrostowska, Aleksandra Lun, Cristina Rivera Garza . . .
I also have these lifetime guides: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of the Tao te Ching, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.
My teaching really bleeds through, like when I talk about Hannah Arendt, that’s not just because I enjoy her work as a philosopher, but because her correspondence with the writer Mary McCarthy was the first text I assigned in a series of classes on the literature of friendship. And to follow that thread a little further, I convened this series of classes as a way of trying to understand not only the effect of friendship on literature, and the way friendship is represented in literature, but also as a salve for or a way of metabolizing my grief for a lost (or hopefully just misplaced) friendship.
Students, who are also my teachers, are huge influences: Vidhi Gupta, Michael Anderson, Geraldine Jorge, Ruth Bardenstein, germ lynn—this list could go on and on.
The writer Peter Gizzi, another significant influence, has a great line, “No ideas but in wounds.” My wounds are significant influences.
Another influence: the music and other non-literary media I mention. I think one of the aspects of Bedroom Vowel as a “pandemic book” is that I speak to my immersion in, for instance, ’90s pop punk and hip hop as a kind of protective nostalgic shield from the horrors of the contemporary world. Escapism is an important function of art that gets a bad rap, and I understand why. Ultimately, I want not to just escape but to engage, but there’s something disingenuous to me about exalting engagement and critiquing escapism. Additionally, I might come to pop punk for escape, but leave from my listening experience with rhythm, tonality—themes that enter my writing indirectly.
I’m looking at your poem “Ars Poetica.” I don’t know if you considered it an ars poetica when you wrote it, because I’m the person who gave it that title (though the phrase did exist inside the poem), but I do think it serves as an ars poetica for these poems: “Even a poetaster knows about the oblique connection between the stuff of everyday life and the poem. Each quotidian detail isn’t a brick. Witness today! But neither can it be omitted.” What a beautiful way to sum up the relationship between life and poetry about it. Poetry about daily life is my favorite kind of poetry. What about you?
I love poetry about daily life! I love it for many reasons. It can dignify the experiences of people with identities whose lives haven’t historically been considered worthy of attention. The writer Alina Stefanescu, whose work I deeply admire, recently posted something on twitter:
Mothering’s absurdism: no one knows more than you about your child. No one has studied their every syllable, smile, worry, dream, “normal for this small human.” But this rigorous episteme (and corresponding techne) is designated *sentiment* rather than *knowledge.*
I’m not a mother (not for lack of trying), but I was struck by Stefanescu’s point: that the world is full of such rigorous epistemes that go unnoticed. Poems can make readers take notice and repair this structural invisibility.
This is also perhaps another good moment to plug how economical and expansive poetry is! You can write about the fall of Troy or whatever, but you can also write about how you’re sick (again) and the neighbor’s been mowing the lawn for what seems like hours, but the tea feels great on your throat and now the people in the apartment upstairs are boning noisily . . . that is, whatever’s around you can become the material of the poem.
What kind of poems do you want to write next?
In the future I want to write poems that are as free, curious, complex, unapologetic, idiosyncratic as they can be. I want to write poems that are funny and sad. I want to write poems that encompass a sense of spirituality, passing along whatever wisdom I have been given, and I also want to write poems about stuff that happened in my day. I want to be those things (free, curious, complex, etc.) as much as I can in order to write those poems. I also want to keep honing my craft so that I can write bangers. If I could write a poem that made people feel like I feel when I read or listen to Alice Notley’s “At Night the States” or Dana Ward’s “A Kentucky of Mothers,” I’d feel like I’d died and gone to heaven.
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.
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