Interview with Trace Peterson


Trace Peterson Poetry Contest Judge

By Christina Firl

TRACE PETERSON is a trans woman poet critic. She is the author of two books of poetry, including Since I Moved In (new & revised) (Chax Press, 2019). She is also Founding Editor / Publisher of EOAGH which has won 2 Lambda Literary Awards, including the first Lammy in Transgender Poetry. She co-edited the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books) as well as Arrive on Wave: Collected Poems of Gil Ott (Chax Press).

Her work has recently appeared in More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems (Persea Books), Readings in Contemporary Poetry: An Anthology (Dia Art Foundation/Yale University Press), From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice (ON Contemporary Practice), Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press), TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and at the Academy of American Poets. She currently teaches at Hunter College and was 2020-2021 judge for Bayou Magazine’s Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry.

Christina Firl spoke with Peterson about recent work, poetry vs. prose, and the queer and trans poetry community. 

How did your book, Since I Moved In, change (between the first publication and the revised edition)?

Well the book was originally published in 2007, and this new edition came out in 2019. I changed some lines that had been bothering me and I rearranged the order of the poems. I revised things that felt like they should have been different. The main point of republishing the book is to publish it under my real name. Because the first edition came out under my deadname. When you’re a trans author and you publish a book under one name and then publish another book under a different name, it becomes hard for many to reconcile or connect the idea of these books as being by the same author. There’s something about the way we understand poetry, where an author has to be a stable object. Even the Language Poets, who were so insistent on deconstructing literary selfhood and who were a big influence on me, didn’t ultimately want to deconstruct the idea of themselves as authors. You know, everything by Ron Silliman is by Ron Silliman. There is a critique of the self by those writers but there isn’t a lot of play with the nature of authorship when it comes to which name actually goes on their books. But when you’re a trans author, you are interpellated in this situation where it might be a matter of play or performance art for someone else, but you don’t have access to the basic stability of being an author that say a cis person has. You have to continually point out that you’re the same person who wrote a book that is under a different name. It’s a really weird situation of not having the language for something.

In the title poem of the collection, there’s a curious use of the word “than.” You have examples in this poem like, “Orpheus was plugged in / than you” and “but it seemed that girls were messing things / than your mouth.” I am wondering whether this is, in part, commentary on the way comparison, particularly of the binary variety such as “than,” is built into language? Is this an attempt to shift it?

The short answer is that yes, my interest in polysemy is related to my interest in types of language that go beyond the gender binary, especially in this book which in retrospect is a pretty nonbinary one. That also reminds me of a review that Thomas Fink wrote when it first came out. He said parts of that poem are interrupted and chopped up, meaning the reader can’t entirely “move in” to the poem. The title of this poem, “Since I Moved In,” is ironic, because when the book came out I was pre-transition. So the title was kind of pre-elegiac. It was referencing how I didn’t think I could become who I wanted to be due to external obstacles, and there’s a melancholy to that. The idea that it has become a trans book in retrospect coexists with the textual evidence of that dilemma. It means both things: push and pull simultaneously. It means being inhabitable and being uninhabitable simultaneously. The connection is in the last line: “I’m writing in my pajamas.  / The interface that has kept me from reaching you”–an allusion to Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Harbormaster.” It’s an unintentionally COVID-era moment. There’s this quality to both poetry and identity, and maybe also zoom, where they allow us the illusion of connection but they’re also kind of a trap. They’re also kind of a limitation. They’re not just an experience of oneness and an experience of intimacy; there’s also an experience of alienation because the very medium that connects you to a potential audience is the thing that also means you can never reach them in a certain way. And there’s something like that about trans identity too, where you want to be yourself, and you set out to do that, but then you also get stuck in this thing. You get on what a friend of mine called a “treadmill” of trans identity and you can’t get off it because that’s who you have to be, professionally and personally, 24/7. Identity can be both anti-hegemonic and hegemonic, right? And Queerness can be both identitarian and anti-identitarian; so can transness.

There’s almost a compulsive use of indefinite modifiers in the poem, ‘Thee and Thou’ and throughout the collection. Take the repetition of “nearly always more or less” in quick succession. Do you think that the idea of adjusting, resisting and recoiling against oneself is present everywhere throughout this collection? Do you think this is a part of your poetry or do you think that your interest in intermediacy has changed in any regard after transitioning? 

It’s a part of my poetry and also my relation to it has changed. Aspects of language there can be said to be figures for struggle with the possibility of transition. But now they become figures for something else, because after transition I’m still here, and they are revealed to have been leading to the present state of my existence as a trans woman author. So there’s clearly something persistently residual beyond a trope of mediation. I’m in an unusual position as a poet. I don’t know many other trans women who have published books of poems as a guy and then transitioned and lived to tell the tale professionally as a woman. I could probably count the number of them on one hand. One is Stephanie Burt, who I admire very much. Another is Joy Ladin. That’s why I asked Stephanie and Joy to write things that would be part of the book. Joy did a great job telling my story in the introduction because there’s something about being in that predicament that’s just very odd, but she understood it. That reading you did, noting “moments of recoiling against the self,” is something I would love for people to do with my poetry: connecting trans discussions with aesthetic or formal moves that are happening. Unfortunately, I think we’re still at a moment where people’s ability to read trans poetry is limited to stock trans narratives. I think if you were able to connect transness with aesthetic or formal elements in a way that doesn’t erase the author as subject in the process, that would be pretty great. And some of us have been trying to model ways to do that. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s understandable for many folks yet. 

You mentioned liking the second half of this collection more than the first half, the second half being primarily prose. I’m wondering if you think there’s more room or more freedom in prose poetry than in lyric? 

A lot of this comes back to the idea of the lyric essay. When I was getting my MFA, it was the time of the lyric essay. It seems to me a very queer form, and I also like prose poetry a lot. For me, poetry is about momentum and it’s about music. And those two things are hard to achieve when you’re writing in lines. The first thing I taught myself to do when learning to read poems is I memorized hundreds of them and learned all the different meters. By comparison, writing in prose feels like jazz improvisation, and as a musician I think primarily in terms of how language sounds. It’s very important that there be some freedom to move around. A lot of my favorite poets are doing something that’s in between poetry and prose. But it’s called poetry because if you show those things to a fiction writer, they would find it incoherent, because the emphases of attention and craft they are looking for are different from the ones poets are used to thinking about. Like first of all poets are the only people who call it prose right? We call it prose, as if it’s some kind of novelty. Fiction writers, they call what they do “literature” and everything else is just sort of “that’s not interesting” (that’s not gonna get me a book deal, etc). If you’re interested in poetry there’s a certain abjectness to the situation of it within capitalism, because poetry is largely free, yet there’s a certain object-ness to it as a medium. Prose allows me to focus on the actual music of the line as it unrolls, the flow and momentum of it, rather than what meter it’s supposed to be, or what the line break is supposed to signify. And that feels very liberating.

Julia Kristeva argues that we live in a collectively depressed society. A result of this depression, she says, is that language has become transactional and asymbolic. So the way that someone, particularly the artist, transcends the asymbolia, is through the creation of one’s own symbolic language. Do you find this argument compelling? Is the experience of having to come up with your own language something you’ve been faced with often?  

Yes. In fact, “having to come up with your own language for something,” especially when there is none available, would make a pretty great definition of poetry. That seems very queer, and very trans too. If we look at trans identity in artistic production, it’s a potentially very old category and it’s something that hasn’t existed very long, both at the same time. It could be said to have existed for thousands of years, but we didn’t have a name for it at that time. And it’s the same thing with gay and lesbian identity, but some of the work of recovering “what were we before we had a name?” for gay and lesbian people has obscured trans people in the process. There has been a constant problem in trans culture and literature, under the cis gaze, where trans people are reduced to tropes or figures rather than being artists in our own right. Or subjects in our own right. It’s always a struggle: if you are not in the room, do you exist? If you’re trans and you’re not in the room, do you actually exist? I’m not sure the answer is yes! But I hope that’s in the process of changing, and that this book helps it change.