The literary world reached a milestone this month with the debut of “Vetch,” the first submission-based literary journal devoted to poetry by transgender writers.
Liam O’Brien, one of the journal’s founders who is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said the journal is a space where trans poets can address their experiences without needing to explain them. “We want to publish poetry that doesn’t bother to translate itself for a cis audience,” he said.
Last year, O’Brien and fellow poet Stephen Ira began planning the journal and contacted poet Kay Gabriel and designer RL to ask them to co-edit. The group put out a call for submissions and plans to release two editions per year, on Sept. 1 and March 1.
The journal is named for the vetch plant, a hardy legume that is often planted in ditches and other places where ground has been disturbed. “This is the kind of resilient beauty of which we know trans poetry is capable,” the editors wrote in a preface to the journal.
“Vetch” assumes its audience knows what it means to be transgender, or if not, can do the necessary research to find out, O’Brien said. Freeing the poets themselves from providing that explanation gives them the space to address new material, he said.
“If we’re [not] under the impression that everything we write about being trans has to pause and take into account the fact that not everybody might know what being trans means, then it really frees us up to write more and to start from fresher places,” he said. The first edition supports this mission with a wide diversity of work, including poems by Sara June Woods, Maxe Crandall and Ira.
With the publication of the anthology “Troubling the Line” and literary journals like “THEM,” more avenues than ever are opening for trans poets to publish, O’Brien said. “I do think that things are changing right now, pretty fast,” he said. “And that feels like an exciting time to be alive and to be writing.”
O’Brien wrote the poem “Salt Sheet” in response to images from “Golden Vanity,” a ballad about a cabin boy who drowns at sea after helping to sink an enemy ship, along with the Dylan Thomas poem “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed.” The piece is informed by formal tradition, but experiments with newer rhythms too, according to O’Brien. It attempts to engage with the story of being both trans and gay in today’s world, he said.
Listen to O’Brien read “Salt Sheet” or read the text of the poem below.
There’s a wound in me, wound up in me, expert
like a corkscrew unscrewed. And the cork is kept.
Press a palm over it—help, there’s a wound in me—
no, three. No, more. No, here is a ship at sea
and she sinks. She was the enemy. So the borer—
the boy with his brace & auger—he swims over
to the Golden Vanity. Entreaty. Captains,
can’t trust them far from land. And so he ends—
the boy—I’m drifting with the tide. They stitch
him in his hammock—it was so fair and wide.
How many holes got the enemy? How many
left to plug, crew bailing, boys tiring in the tide?
Fight’s over, brace & auger. Wrap me in my salt sheet.
What deserves disease will get it, or has already.
Liam O’Brien grew up on a small island outside Seattle. In 2012, he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where he received the Stanley and Evelyn Lipkin Prize for Poetry and the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction. His work can be found in print in “Unsaid Magazine,” and online at “The Offending Adam,” “Blackbird VCU,” “Buffalo Almanack,” and “Industrial Lunch.” He is currently pursuing his MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.