Poet creates first class for transgender poetry

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Listen to Trace Peterson read her poem “AFTER BEFORE AND AFTER.”

Trace Peterson, a poet at the forefront of the push for transgender representation in poetry, will soon pioneer what she says is the country’s first course in transgender poetry.

The course, which she will teach at Hunter College this fall, is part of an ongoing effort by Peterson and other poets to create visibility for transgender people as well as a literary context for their work, Peterson said. That context is lacking in the worlds of literature and academia, especially for poetry, she said.

“Literature departments and studies of literature are very comfortable approaching transgender subject matter as theory, or as types of metaphor. But there’s very little study of literature by transgender people,” she said.

But that has the potential to change as new publications and conferences move to create spaces where transgender poets can be heard, she said. Peterson is editor and publisher of the journal EOAGH and co-editor of the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, both of which publish work by transgender poets. Since Troubling the Line was published in 2013, at least 10 of its authors have published a first book of poems, she said.

Other publications carrying that mission forward include Writing the Walls Down, which centers on transgender and queer writers of color, and Them, a journal focusing on poetry by transgender authors. Peterson also successfully lobbied this year to include a category for transgender women in VIDA’s annual count of women working in the literary arts, and the Lambda Literary Awards added a category dedicated to transgender poetry for the first time ever this year.

Poetry has provided an important space for Peterson to express herself, she wrote in a personal poetics statement published in Troubling the Line. “Before transition, poetry offered to me the possibility of trying on different versions of myself, a way of channeling possible selves through associated chains of sound, imagery, and thought,” she wrote.

Peterson described her poem “AFTER BEFORE AND AFTER,” which you can listen to above, as a “love letter to trans women.” The poem deconstructs a common narrative that scapegoates trans women for causing various ills of civilization, a narrative that Peterson said is all too common.

“I was trying to reverse the narrative that trans women are symptoms or metaphors for various problems, that we are somehow outside the human or unlovable,” she told the NewsHour in an email. “Thinking of myself for the first time as an author of poems years ago helped me begin to take myself seriously not just as a poet, but as a woman. It helped me be unafraid to defy all those secondhand narratives and respect myself enough to show up for my own life. And the friendship of other trans women also helped me do that.”

AFTER BEFORE AND AFTER

I’ve been freed from
inside the Fall of Rome,
my contract disrupted.
Civilization will
not descend without
my bet against it rising,
a weather balloon
that hangs against a vast
usurped sky. A carrier
pigeon, to be,
carries me. And from here
I can find the edge
of the cunning, supposedly
clear window that
divides us from the world
of Michael Kors, that
divides a kiss from
its aftertaste.
A coda is a beginning.
After before and
after, humane enclosures
air whips through
with a taste for blood
oranges and secret
unpoliced
temporal lace
have been spread out
imagining possible
goddesses in
bed. What’s free
about a woman’s stubble,
what’s enhanced
delivering an urgent note
across a field of blue.

trace peterson

Trace Peterson is editor/publisher of EOAGH, co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2013) and author of Since I Moved In (Chax Press, 2007).

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