‘Thinking of You: A Conversation Between Poets’, by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and Alison Whittaker


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Continuing our Poets in Conversation series, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza and Alison Whittaker get into each other’s Twitter DMs.

@AJ_Whittaker, January 12
Yaama, @sadqueer4life! I guess we better actually start this conversation! In my other browser window I’ve got your poem ‘Sometimes in a Moment of Déjà Vu’ open, so it seemed appropriate to get our two tin cans together and: ‘Talk to me. Say something. Use words I don’t have to go back to college to understand.’ I guess from that, something I’d really love to talk to you about is the role of language in making hierarchies of access and meaning! What’s your take?

@sadqueer4life, January 12
Hi there! I really appreciate that you’ve chosen that poem/line to open this discussion with because I think it goes a long way towards encapsulating what much of my work is concerned with – poetry is in many ways my attempt to reach out and communicate with a world that is more often than not frightening and alienating to me as a trans woman. Furthermore, I desire community with others who’ve been shut out and have often been stripped of the ability to form functional communities due to the trauma that stems from systemic oppression, and who’ve been denied access to education.

The world of the academy was never one that seemed accessible to me even when I was eventually able to go back to school and learn nice big words and do very well for myself. There was always this sense that I was existing in its margins, that no matter how well I did I would still exist as this kind of abject non-person, that I would never be able to achieve my goal of producing transformative work. In other words, I don’t want to write poems solely for MFA students. I’m not interested in impressing academics. I don’t want to contribute to a structure whose only purpose seems to be the commodification of certain kinds of knowledge and the erasure of others – I want to resist it with all of my might. I am interested in some of the ideas behind the jargon and I’m interested in communicating the ideas I agree with in a way that the me from five or ten years ago would have appreciated. All of this is not to be infantilising or to claim that marginalised people are incapable of understanding dense academic language, but it’s just not something that speaks to me at all as a trans woman.

I want to imagine worlds outside this world. I want my work to exist in and move through a more spiritual and intuitive realm, and in my mind the academic and the spiritual are opposing forces that I can’t reconcile. I know this issue of language and accessibility is something you’re deeply interested in as well – in your poem ‘O, Eureka!’, you write about “long white theory word(s)” and how both authority and fear are linked to this kind of language. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with academia and your thoughts about its relationship to marginalised communities and forms of knowledge.

@AJ_Whittaker, January 14
Yes! I have to echo what you just said about jargon writing. Coming from my tradition in poetry and languagework as a way of building community, the idea of just putting a poem out that people would look to and look at is bizarre! It’s not just a simplification of language (like you said – not to infantalise), but to make something you can bark back at. In that same way, just echoing what you’ve said right back into the valley, you can also craft a language beyond language! An intuition of meaning that you can make through negative space, through crafting stuff that seems like it’s nothing, or seems minimalist. That’s something you lose, something intimate and personalised you miss if you’re writing flat poetry that just tries to code I’-M I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L. What a waste!

I’m so interested that you describe yourself as not reconciling the academic and the spiritual. It’s something I’ve personally felt constrained by as I poet (v), but I also wear a scholarly-ish hat. I’ve found a way to weave the spiritual and the academic together, which is a shit way of me trying to express this because I don’t think it acknowledges that the root of any thinking I do or make is in my spiritual and cultural identity as a Gomeroi woman. In ‘O, Eureka!’, I try to talk about how that genius gets driven out by colonisation. It drove me out from what I was told from when I was a birralii, and it manipulated me to prioritise white knowledge, and cishet men’s knowledge, and wound those Indigenous women in my life who gave me the real knowledge relevant to me. I’m not sure I can attribute that to hierarchies of access to language either – my language, Gamilaraay, has hierarchical access in another way. There’s just something about English – feels like a master’s tools/master’s house thing for me.

I guess you could say that I’ve reconciled spirituality and academia from my perspective by making them the same, and making them as reciprocal as I can. Also, I just unabashedly and tackily love my Nan – who is the knowledge-wielder of ‘O, Eureka!’ I like being earnest and unembarrassed about love and adoration in poetry, and I love watching QTWOC globally be unashamed of love in poetry, where ‘love poem’ is often used as an insult.

What’s the role of love in your work? I’m trying to get a copy of your first collection I’m Alive / It Hurts / I Love It to turn up in Australia, so until then I’m combing through your online imprint. One thing I’m seeing woven through your works is a shuddering, solid love and protection for trans women, drawing selves into orbit and literally lifting up trans women with ‘The Moon is Trans’. Did you wanna talk about that?

@sadqueer4life, January 17
I love what you’ve said here about reconciling the spiritual and the academic with reciprocity – this is something I’ve hoped to accomplish despite my misgivings about academia, and to hear someone else who also has a conflicted relationship with the academy speak in these terms warms my heart!

And speaking of warming hearts, love—another thing seemingly in conflict with this current state of academised poetry—is maybe what I mean by spirituality. Or at least spirituality becomes a means to finding love. Or maybe love is means to finding spirituality. Possibly both. To me, love is about exploration and excavation and radical destruction and all the messy attempts to create that which does not yet exist, but must be imagined into existence for us to be able to survive.

For a brief period in my life, during the time I was entrenched in the academic world, I felt like I had lost love, or that I had ceased to believe in it as anything more than a function of power, a way for capitalism to continue to replicate itself. This is such an ugly and sad way to view the world. It feels like an acceptance of defeat. I believe it is my job as a poet to reclaim, to redefine, to misname, and to challenge the agreed upon meanings of signs and symbols. So I reclaim love. I loudly and proudly use the word in my poems. I use it to mean intimacy and community, and I also use it to mean fire and death and apocalypse – the end of this world and the beginning of a new one. I aim to describe a love that not only uplifts those marginalised beneath patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, etc. but also seeks to destroy those systems. Love is not simply about peace – love is about violence towards that which stands in the way of peace.

Love is also about losing your individuality, about recognising that it never really existed – it’s about seeing yourself in others and others in yourself. This is what I’m thinking of when I’m writing poems for other trans women (and cis women and trans and gender nonconforming people in general – all victims of patriarchy). It’s about blurring boundaries between the self and the world, and coming to live in a realm that we haven’t yet been allowed to realise is there – the realm of the spiritual, where love is able to flourish, where we say “I” to mean “we” and “we” to mean “I”, where the self as we know it goes to die.

With that said, I’ve been spending some time reading your work that I’ve been able to find online (I also just bought Lemons in the Chicken Wire and am sooo excited to read it), as well as interviews you’ve done, and I feel very drawn to this idea of rendering visible that which has been made invisible. Would you be interested in further discussing your experiences with this as a Gomeroi woman, as it relates to excavating these experiences and attempting to tell stories that have been erased? I’d also really like to hear more about the role of love in your poetry, if you’d like to talk about it!

@AJ_Whittaker, January 18
Thanks for sharing that! I feel fresh from it (plus we’re having a pretty choking heatwave right now and I got your message right as a southerly wind came through – coincidence)!

I wonder if that radical resisting love for community is kind of like dissolving into the whole? When I write poetry, I cling to writing in the first person for the same reason as you! Not trying to impose like any universal truth, but to string a thread between a huge group of people that might only touch them in one place, but at least tugs us together.

Thanks also for seeing the in/visibility split in my work. I like to think of it like just casting a light onto that which is strategically unseen – especially the strength and resilience of Aboriginal women. Maybe it’s less like casting a light, now that I’m thinking about it, but like shifting the angle of a light so new kinds of shadows are cast? So, Aboriginal women are hypervisible as kind of this poetic or public or literary object here – new territory to be conquered (an opportunistic spotlight), half-drawn hapless villainesses (a light from below the chin), cowering victims (a light from above) – but never given that glory of a fuller light that, even when it omits flaws, is still filling a role in seeing so fully. Even idolising, maybe? That might be how I’d answer the love question too, ay. Glory, idolatry, complexity – new light sources, ancestor and peer worship in verse! Holding onto and naming what is seen, and from where. Idk.

Something I’m a little conscious of in writing the above is the question of the ‘bias’ in my view as a poet – but obvs I reject that turning the lens back on myself and my mob from our way of knowing is bias or wounds my poetry. It’s a weird hang-up I have. How do you see your perspective? I’d love to know, if you’re happy to tell, how you shape and name your gaze and how it in turn moulds your technical craft (and your craft of love)! Do any readers or listeners ever respond to it?

@AJ_Whittaker, January 20
Also, we can just yarn if you want! What have you been up to since 2017 started?

@sadqueer4life, January 20
Since the year started I’ve been mostly working on staying mentally/emotionally healthy and planning my wedding. It kind of feels like the world is about to end, so I’m just trying to appreciate small moments and love as much as I possibly can. I live with my partner and we’re raising a pup together, so I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by goodness right now. It makes everything else sort of bearable. Other than that, things are a bit up in the air! I had planned on applying to several MFA programs this year, but decided against it for many of the reasons I brought up earlier – so I’m a little adrift at the moment, and waiting to see what’s going to happen before I make my next move. How about you? How have things been lately?

@AJ_Whittaker, January 20
Of course! Hey, just happy to get to know you a little! So important to do that sustaining work, ay. I think I’m learning that bit by bit this year.

Congrats on your wedding coming up! I imagine things must weigh very heavy on everyone today (tonight? I’m thrown about by the time difference). Love and power to you and yours. Including a pup!

Crucial to build family and be surrounded by goodness. Maybe not such a bad thing to be adrift? I’m so excited to see what good things happen for you this year! I might actually be coming to Turtle Island for the upcoming academic year. I’ll let you know! Hoping to do my LLM there, so things here feel a bit like they’re in limbo. For Indigenous Australia, the first month of the year is pretty much spent fortifying ourselves for January 26, which is a national holiday that celebrates our genocide and colonisation. So January’s always a garbage month, but I feel like things are on a precipice of some kind this January. Guess we’ll just wait and see, but I’m just trying to embrace goodness with me and my mob and my partner too. All the best for the next twenty-four hours. I’ll be thinking of you!

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her most recent collection There Should Be Flowers was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in August 2016.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet living and writing on Gadigal and Wangal lands. Her debut collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire was shortlisted for the Scanlon Prize and was awarded the 2015 State Library of Queensland’s black&write! fellowship.