A Poetics that is Not One: Origins, Forms, and Communities of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century TransPoetics

James, Austyn, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, University of Virginia
Cavalcante, Andre, University of Virginia

Over the course of the last decade, the once speculative notion of ‘transgender poetry and poetics’ has materialized into a fully fledged field of practice. And yet, despite the undeniable flowering evidenced by the scores of individual volumes of poetry published by trans authors, as well as the ever-increasing number of anthologies, podcasts, conference panels, academic articles, and pop culture features dedicated to the field, the definition of exactly what trans poetics is remains rather amorphous. This dissertation, A Poetics that is Not One: Origins, Forms, and Communities of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Trans Poetics, seeks to clarify this state of affairs by offering one of the first expansive accounts of the field’s historical origins, formal shapes, and sociopolitical entanglements past and present. Through a series of case studies that bring archival research, cultural and historical analysis, and critical theory together with close-readings of individual poems, this dissertation (re)conceptualizes trans poetics as rooted in a dialogic interplay between lyric forms, social discourses of trans identity, and the everyday experience of trans writers and readers. As I elaborate in the introductory chapter, the dominance of prose autobiography in understandings of trans literature—and to an extent, of trans identity itself—has long rendered the category of trans poetry invisible and resulted in overly deterministic accounts of its relation to its writers (and readers). The central aim of A Poetics that is Not One is thus to account for the cultural history, social meanings, and major formal practices of trans poetics, and in so doing, to advance a framework for reading trans poems that elucidates what’s unique about them while fostering nuanced attention to literary form, to trans identity, and to their interrelation.
Chapter one dives into the rich but under-discussed archive of trans periodicals published between the early 1950s and the late 1980s in order to recover the trans gothic lyric. Situated amidst the medical and social sea changes that profoundly restructured trans identity in the mid-twentieth century, I argue that the trans gothic lyric emerged as a communal form that empowered both writers and readers to define themselves and their community as trans, and may thus represent the historical moment at which ‘trans poetics’ becomes coherent and meaningful. Chapter two considers a prominent experimental aesthetic I dub transtextuality that responds to the textualized assignment of sex in state identity documents like birth certificates and driver’s licenses. I show how Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Jos Charles, and Trish Salah use poetry’s unique formal powers to cultivate opaque, illegible, and flexible identity positions that resist the fixity and legibility demanded by state documentation. Transtextuality, I conclude, represents as much a readerly mode as a writerly one, and one that can help us imagine more livable trans lives by enabling us to read our textual assignments a little less by the letter. Chapter three intensifies the dissertation’s interest in the intersection of poetics and everyday life by considering how lyric sequences by Cameron Awkward-Rich, Trace Peterson, and Yanyi reflect, refract, and reimagine everydayness. In contrast to the reductive and monolithic portrayals of trans lives in popular culture, these lyric sequences draw on elemental aspects of everydayness like clothing, journaling, and domesticity in order to embody the spatial, temporal, and affective nuances of trans experience, resulting in a poetics I term trans mundanity. I argue at the chapter’s end that the metafictional dimension so crucial to these sequences reaffirms a point first made in the context of the trans gothic lyric: that poetry is essential to the daily life of trans people, a resource for making sense of and reconstructing our selves and our world. The project then draws to a close with a concluding chapter that meditates on topics for further study, contending that these ‘trans poetic futures’ bolster the framework I forward throughout the dissertation, even as they complicate and expand it. And perhaps most importantly, I show how these ‘futures’ attest to the importance of poetry in the work of building trans future, a project already ongoing in our present moment.
Staging an extended conversation between trans identity, lyric poetry, and the everyday world in which they interact, A Poetics that is Not One documents and illuminates the obscured history, formal inventiveness, and social significance of a vital but understudied field. Beginning with the historical invisibility of trans poetics—which was thus seen as not a poetics at all—the project concludes by affirming its abundance, a poetics that is not one thing but many.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Trans Poetics, Trans Studies, Trans History, Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Feminist Theory, Trans and Queer Literature
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