I debated whether or not to add a foreword to this book. Part of me wants very much to let the poems speak for themselves. But this book represents the end of a long journey for me. It’s my first ever book dedicated to poetry, something that I was not sure was going to happen. In fact, up until only a few years ago, I thought it would be impossible. I feel so many emotions right now. It’s a lot to process, and I have always processed best on paper, and I feel like I’d like some company along the way.
Poetry is where I have always felt most at home. However, being home has always been complicated. Although I love the idea of being home, home itself was never a safe or viable place. I looked to poetry as an escape from my actual home. And, when somehow I was admitted to the MFA program at Cornell University, I discovered an environment so rarefied and magical that I thought I might finally get away.
Cornell was like nothing I had ever seen, at least in reality. I was stunned by how the faculty lived and worked. With all my heart, I wished for a future life like theirs—with a quiet office, a well-worn desk, a wall of books, a comfy chair and a window overlooking some sort of courtyard or garden. I had no desire to deal with ugliness, with violence. I had no desire to look back on my past. I wanted a locked door with frosted glass. I couldn’t even think about justice—I just wanted to leave my childhood home for a newer, quieter, safer one. I wanted an escape. I wanted peace.
Yet being at Cornell was from peaceful. Most of my time I was frustrated, not at my classmates, nor even the interminably cold winters, but at my own inability to become the writer that I felt I had to be—cultured, privileged, and above all, brilliantly safe. Yet, the more that I tried to be that ideal artist, the more I felt that I was missing something vital. Ownership? Self? I felt surrounded by people who knew who they were, their stations, what they wanted to write. Me? Pale imitations all.
More than any other type of writing, I feel that poetry demands truth. There’s nothing Hollywood-glamorous about writing a poem. It’s clumsy stumbling most of the time, with generous helpings of self-importance and self-pity. But, at least for me, the poem must contain truth. If I’m being evasive, or lying, even unconsciously, the poem reacts. There’s nothing like a poem to remind you and where you are.
Even if you don’t know yourself.
I returned from Ithaca even more lost and confused. I was back where I started, with my one ticket out of town wasted. There would be no comfy office, no quiet courtyard, no peace. It was over. I most likely would have broken, had not one lucky act saved me: I continued to write poetry. And somehow, my constant probing for what was wrong with my poetry led to finding what was wrong with me. Which finally led me to realize that writing wasn’t the only issue I had.
It wasn’t until leaving Cornell that I realized all those years of not fitting, of feeling I had the wrong voice, might have been in part because I was transgender. Soon after, my therapist helped me admit to myself that I had been the victim of child abuse. The process was so painful. But it was emancipating, and strengthening.
With new eyes, I looked back at the poems that truly inspired me. Not the names and lifestyles, but the actual words. I realized that my favorite poems did not run away from their pasts—they transformed them. After trying to write poetry from a perspective and privilege I never had, I finally stopped trying to be somewhere and someone else. I began to concentrate not on running and escaping my world, but facing and transforming it. My time at Cornell, and even before that, my time home, began to fall into context, producing newfound form and richness. And gradually a type of poetry finally began to come from a hand, heart, and voice I could truly call my own.
In the past, I desired a poetry that offered escape from the pain and nonsensical cruelty of the world. Forget this life; somewhere in chaos of the world, there had to be room for a pastoral, quiet space, where none of the outside mattered.
You can spend lifetimes waiting for a place like that.
Yet are we really interested in poems and poetry that come from such a quiet, bucolic fiction? While at Cornell, one of my professors once said that in the US we kill our poets with kindness. At the time, I thought he was crazy. But after my experiences, I realize his wisdom.
Why do poets seem to rise from places and spaces of oppression? Why do those who hunger for existence, significance, and safety also seem to hunger for verse?
In my hangings-out with other queers of color, I have become familiar with a pattern—one that resonates with my own life—where oppression is more than having nameable obstacles and villains. Life itself becomes the enemy, whether it’s planning your trip around a nonexistent gender-neutral bathroom, or taking four hours to run a 20-minute errand because the bus is late. Life itself is oppressive when the only thing that seems to have any regularity are the bills or the insults or the panic attacks that keep you awake every night.
Oppression is the extra pain you feel in your bladder, the sodden feeling you get when someone accuses you of going to McDonald’s when it’s the only way you can afford to take your kids out for a meal in a place with air conditioning. Oppression reduces conflict and meaning to an impersonality that can pummel a soul until even its existence loses meaning.
For, when society and institutions operate on a statistical scale, where on earth is there room for the personal? What gives the self its significance? At times such as this, it is not the body that most thirsts or hungers, but the soul. We can do far more, if we simply know that we matter, that there is significance in who we are, in what we do.
And this is where I finally realized that poetry can sing. Unlike the weightiness of essays or prose, poems can be portable, personal things. Poetry links us not through our shared philosophies or stories, but through the minutiae of our day-to-day existences. A poem can bring seemingly endless stupid impersonal craziness to a personal, human scale and, at least for a while, provide space for contemplation, reflection, perhaps even a little peace.
In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald Macleish writes:
“For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.”
One doorway. Not a labyrinth of closed doors. One leaf. Not a forest of lost opportunities. Poetry is one of the few ways we can transform the broadband of oppression into something manageable. It does this by insisting that one’s personal experiences, one’s personal world, does not merely exist the world—but embodies it. We don’t have to measure ourselves against the global or universal; our existences themselves are enough to connect and sanctify us. Poems remind us that we are significant not because of what how much land we own, or how many guns we have, but who we intrinsically are.
This is a world where some children laugh and others are beaten. Where some children are cast out, other blend right in, where some have clean water and bedsheets… Where we force our activists into ignoring their health, our artists to give up before they turn twenty-five. Where people are so addled, so shell-shocked and overwhelmed that they protest their own health insurance. Where there are picnics and beaches and fireflies and even ice cream.
This is the world where poetry most matters, not through its ability to offer escape, but in its ability to transform one’s surroundings and link even God and eternity to one’s coffee-mug search for a shopping list, significance, and truth.
But here, perhaps, I’ll stop and let the poems take over. Thank you so much for listening, for reading, and for being alive.