Passing: Beyond the Body - Conversation II
A REASON TO SAY YES: a conversation with Venus Selenite & Francisco-Luis White
by L.G. Parker
While conversations about “inclusion” and “diversity” bully on, poets Francisco-Luis White and Venus Selenite have disengaged from the institutions that habitually endanger and require them to justify their presence. What happens when the presumed and constructed Other removes herself from the neo-liberal possibility of changing institutions by wholly disengaging? What happens to the archives of those who are not institutionally backed? White and Selenite trouble these questions in the wake of their respective debut, self-published poetry collections, Found Them and trigger.
L. G. Parker: Around the time that I started to read both of your collections in conversation with one another more deliberately, I was reading this essay called “Becoming A Trans Poet,” and the major focus of that was how trans poets who wrote for years under their given name, after transitioning and changing their names, suffer a sort of archival loss in that readers don’t necessarily know that both bodies of work belong to a singular person. The work gets lost in that way. Do you all feel like there's any sort of archival loss in trans poetics for yourselves? Do you experience it already?
Venus Selenite: Archival loss?
L.G.: That’s what I would call it, like looking for work by trans writers but being unable to find them due to name changes or any other violence that erases their work.
V.S.: I’m a core collaborator for the Pulse Orlando Syllabus and I’m researching works to be added to this list, this living document of trans and queer people of color artists and resources because originally it was very white washed. I was on the list and I was talking to one of my colleagues in the trans literary community. Her name is Jamie Berrout. She’s a Mexican trans woman who lives in Oregon and she is always producing phenomenal work, phenomenal writer and editor. We were talking and she reached out to me over Twitter saying, “You know, why are there white people on the syllabus?” And so we were looking at the document and they were getting ready to close this document so I had to say, “Hey you cannot close this document because there’s so many works that should not be on this list. And there are so many works that haven’t been added.” So along with all the other projects that I have, I’m spending time researching and finding books that are not just Redefining Realness by Janet Mock because everyone goes to that book and I’m like, there’s other work out. I’m having difficulty finding older works of poetry and so when I released trigger, it became the first poetry book to be released by a black trans woman who is native to Louisiana and it’s an accomplishment but at the same time, it’s a very bittersweet accomplishment because why did I have to be the first? My sister Dane Edidi was the first trans woman of color to release a book of fiction in DC and that was in 2013.
L.G.: What was that called?
V.S.: It’s called Yemaya’s Daughters. It’s a wonderful story. Why did we have to be the first to release this kind of work? So I do believe that there is lots of archival loss not just with poetry and not just with fiction, but I think we can also count like earlier blog entries and memoirs and all of that stuff has to be tracked down. And as someone who’s working on that project, for me it’s very difficult to hunt by genre and hunt by year because there has to be some work that came before me. There has to be a reason why I do what I do. There has to be work that came before me.
Francisco Luis White: I guess, I mean I hesitate to say this but I guess I have to credit Essex Hemphill and James Baldwin who are like the go-tos of course, but you know that’s all I had. Those were the only points of reference I had. And so for the longest time were those black gay men who weren’t quite speaking to me but who were speaking so honestly about who they were and about what black queerness meant to them. I definitely was inspired early on by Essex and James, Audre too. And now we’re tasked - writers like Venus, myself and Dane Edidi - with sort of like reclaiming our narrative and confronting a very white, cis, hetero publishing industry with our truth. I think all three of us are self-published. So it’s like I know I’m not the first afro-latinx non-binary poet. I can’t be. Where is that work? Where can I find that published prior to now? So yes, I do feel like there’s a loss.
V.S.: I thought this was a wonderful discussion because I just got back from NY, I went to an artist’s retreat in Queens called Set on Freedom, which was centering queer people of color and the day before I left I actually went to Francisco’s reading in DC for Found Them. And it was phenomenal. It was very fantastic to have this conversation about trans literature and where it is. And it’s so white. So when I hear there’s a black trans person releasing a book, I have to go and support. It’s not simply an obligation; it’s my duty to support that and to be in solidarity with that because there’s so many powers out there that say we shouldn’t be publishing books.
L.G.: I mean cause if you write yourself into existence, then people after you can more fully exist without feeling that they have to do that same work to create space for people like themselves. Then you exist and other people after you can exist more fully without feeling like you have to dig this space out for yourself. But also, something that I love and I don’t know if either one of you caught this, but both of y’all came out with collections around the same time and were both saying some similar things in terms of self-publishing. Right now there’s all the conversations about the journals that are progressive I guess and that are centering marginalized voices. And so you know the traditional academic route is to publish individual poems here and there and submit to collections and get it selected. And so when do you both, sort of what is the process? You know before it was at the point where you had the collection and you were determined to get it published, what was the process of coming to that? Because listening to both of you all talking about it, or rather reading you all tweeting through it and documenting it elsewhere on social media, it definitely didn’t sound like spur of the moment, it sounded like you both saw what was happening in literary marketplaces and decided to respond with your own work. I guess because I think people just view this particular moment in American letters as more progressive, or at least under more pressure to be such, it’s interesting that you both decided to do without the industry all together. What was your process like in deciding to self-publish and would you consider now sending these poems out for publication?
F.L.W.: I struggle with that. To be honest there was a point, I would say like six months to a year before I published Found Them, where I felt like I needed that validation from the literary community. Like that’s not my story; I don’t have an MFA, I don’t have a BA and that’s typically the introduction to those spaces. And I was like “I don’t have that, I’m not going to have that in the near future. I have something that I need to say and I need to just say it and not really be concerned with how widely it will be received but just be concerned with how honest I’m being with myself and the work.” So I didn’t really have any expectations for Found Them, I was like listen I gotta get this shit out. This is who I am, this is the shit that I wrote about myself and my experience and I’m going to publish it. And you know if I sell a few copies and make $15 here and there great because I need that $15. I’m just not out here for the reviews and I used to be out here for the reviews, I was like I need to be reviewed and I want to win a Pushcart prize.
L.G.: So if your collection won a Pushcart you’d be like, look girl, appreciate it but...
F.L.W.: Yea but that’s just not the aim. That’s not what validates the work anymore. I’m so glad Venus was in the space the other evening with me during the reading because that’s what validates my work, that I’m able to take it into a space that was not a queer space. Take it into that space and have a very honest, safe conversation. That’s what validates me.
V.S.: I agree with Francisco. I’m now struggling with that because I’m now being asked to make submissions to magazines and periodicals. And I’m confused because on one hand, if your poem gets published, that’s more visibility and exposure. On the other hand, there’s not a guarantee that I’ll be paid for it. And as a trans woman of color in America, I can’t afford to do work for free. So if you’re asking me for my work then there has to be compensation that comes along with that. But at the same time, I’m done with asking or begging for visibility and exposure or having the need to cross-over; I don’t need that. There have been people asking me to certain spaces to promote, talk about, and exhibit trigger, and I’ve been very irritated by that. And my question and response to them wanting to have me in the space is: What have you done or what could you do for me that I haven’t done for myself already?
F.L.W.: I would if I could trust that my work would be safe. So it would need to be a small press run by us, by people like me, which doesn’t exist. So I would love to have someone else do my formatting and distributing. That’s not my strong suit. I write. I feel it was really hard and stressful for me so I would love for someone to take care of that. It almost didn’t happen, I’ll put it to you that way. I hope that in addition to, you know writing more work, that I am able to create a place. You know I don’t want to say that I am planning to, but I hope that I am able to create or contribute to a space that can house works like trigger and Found Them because it doesn’t yet exist.
L.G.: I think it’s interesting & significant that both of your responses to the issues in the publishing industry is to simply not publish whereas many people seem to respond either by only submitting to journals whose politics align with a resolution of the prevalent issues or by starting their own journals to make space for marginalized voices. Do you think that’s sustainable in creating an archive that exists outside of the academy?
F.L.W.: Yes, I have to believe it's possible. It’s a hustle. It’s hard. I’m discouraged more often than I should probably admit. I’m also afraid of what is happening to poetry as an art form. It’s become a very academic thing and inaccessible academic form. I feel like it’s my obligation to resist that and I think self-publishing is a resistance. No, I’m going to tell this story the way I want to tell it. I love having that power over my own narrative.
L.G.: So y’all wouldn’t even send out individual poems?
V.S.: I don’t think so.
L.G.: Oop. Francisco's like Wait a minute, girl, cause we might just…
F.L.W.: I have to play it by ear.
L.G.: I don’t know if y’all know Phillip B. Williams but he was just recently talking on Facebook, actually, about how it’s impossible to resist having academic work because if you’re having academic conversations, if you’re reading things that are being published in the academy and so on, then it is academic poetry. But I’m just so interesting in this because you’re saying that you want your work to be accessible, but… these major publications you resist working with are accessible. They are everywhere. I think the content can be inaccessible in that if you don’t live a certain life you don’t care about what’s being said, that content is useless to you because it doesn’t help you survive. But I think there are certain writers who speak from the margins. I’m interested in what it means, and I’m not saying this as an indictment, to create a literary archive of trans, queer, agender, Black & Latinx artists without a structure that deliberately preserves it. How do you make the accessible archive beyond this moment while still preserving this moment?
F.L.W.: Without the academy then who’s doing that preservation…
L.G.: Right. Because the preservation is a whole job in and of itself.
V.S.: The publishing industry and the academic poetry community here in America have not given me a reason to trust them. I’m just too much of a rebel for that. One of the things that we discussed at the Set on Freedom retreat was how to create spaces for ourselves and for the communities we represent and align ourselves with outside of artistic institutions. And a lot of that is centered around community art. All artists and creators are not interested in making a career out of their craft. Some people are doing it for therapy; they need a release. They just need a space for themselves and they’re not interested in making a profit. And I think that’s perfectly okay. So this goes back to the academy and to the publishing industry. They just haven’t given me a reason to say yes.
F.L.W.: I’m willing to be in conversation with the academy but I am not willing to put my work in a space where it will be qualified in the way that the academy qualifies black poetry, along the lines of whether it’s truly black or are you using these devices enough and where are the metrics. I just don’t want that done to my truth because it just… robs my work of authenticity. But I’m definitely willing to be in conversation with the academy specifically about the absence of the trans or non-binary voice in mainstream literature. I definitely want to have that conversation. I just don’t want my work taken up for any like weird uses or made lofty or made academic or made inaccessible to people. I write for people like me. I write for myself first. I write for my community, I write for the people I fuck with. And they’re not degreed.