I’ll just be completely upfront about it: this week is all about Abbie Normal.
Her poetry collection, A Woman Walks Down the Street, is the first book published by our new imprint, Bent, and it’s now live all over the place. We couldn’t be much prouder, really. So, we figured we’d resurrect this interview I did with Abbie this past March for those of you who may have missed it. She says lots of important stuff. What can I say? Abbie’s awesome. —Jacob
I’ve got to start off by asking you why you decided to submit your non-erotic poetry to an indie press who mainly publishes porn and erotica when you could have submitted to another house that very likely could make you famous.
I think the simple answer is, “why not?” Pornographic and erotic writing are just as valid as any other form of writing or art that exists today, and when I first started coming out as queer, or even as a “writer,” it wasn’t the Advocate or Ellen that made me want to come out. It was the sex radicals like Carol Queen, Patrick Califia, Dorothy Alison, and Susie Bright that really helped me feel connected to queer culture and art in general. And while I really, really suck at writing porn, I think porn has been an influence on my writing in the fact that I try to keep things visceral and simple. And as far as fame is concerned, it never interested me much. I just want to be a “read” author, not a celebrity author.
The poems in A Woman Walks Down the Street expose your experiences coming out as a trans woman in such devastatingly beautiful prose—in some moments ugly and crushing, and then in others so brave and beautiful and heroic. There are no holds barred here. What was it that prompted you to show us, as readers, the very essence of your day-to-day existence as a trans woman—and so transparently?
I actually didn’t initially want to write a “coming out” book because I thought that there were too many of those already written. I think the queer and trans* community has something else to offer nowadays besides just “coming out” narratives, but I quickly realized that it was ridiculous and impossible to try to NOT write about it, since everything in my life changed within a period of six months, from my sexuality to my spirituality to my relationships and to a general degree of happiness I’ve never felt before. And I think that all people have “transitions” of some sort or the other throughout their lives, like getting sober or dealing with the death of a loved one or a chronic illness or just emotional growing pains. Changing my gender may seem like this huge thing to adjust to, but I’ve also dealt with a lot of other changes in my life and in the lives of others, and this was probably one of my milder life choices, if you can call it that, but we all go through these things in some way. I think reading the “Layers of the Onion, Spokes of the Wheel” essay by Patrick Califia in his Speaking Sex to Power book really helped me figure it out.
I found such strength in these poems. I imagine other queer/trans people will, too, and that A Woman Walks Down the Street will help inspire more writing of trans stories, of trans art in any medium. As a writer and poet, who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
When I was younger it was Edgar Allen Poe, because I loved his ability to elicit such emotional responses from his readers. Then poets like Allen Ginsberg in junior high, to Danielle Willis, Kathy Acker, Dorothy Alison, and Sapphire in high school, and later on to Gertrude Stein and Ann Quin and all the other great experimental storytellers. I’m definitely a child of the 90s in the fact that I love brave new ways to tell stories that might shock or offend or just make uncomfortable the more puritanical audiences on the Right as well as the Left. Probably the book that saved my life the most was the anthology High Risk that came out in the early nineties. That book has everything you need to know about bravery in writing.
I love “Beauty Tips” so much. What you explore there—the experience, or non-experience, of transitioning to what some would consider the “acceptable” woman—that is, embracing the media ideal of femininity and “passing”—is a vital topic we all should sit with. I love all the words you use in this poem, but I’m particularly fond of “they don’t make dolls that look like me.” Can you talk a little about the importance of boldly displaying in your poetry who you are as a trans woman in a world where, and maybe even in certain circles of your trans/queer community, being ABBIE, for some fucked-up reason, is not enough?
I definitely had a bone to pick with some of the trans* folks that I first met online or in my life at the time I wrote that poem. The only thing I was hearing was how to apply makeup and find ways to “hide” all my so-called masculine features. Some of the people I met really understood me from the get-go, but mostly it was a lot of confusion. I think the thing that really bothered me the most about all that “advice” was the fact that I am a Midwestern Nebraskan woman, and anyone who’s ever been to the more rural areas in the Midwest knows that there are completely heterosexual cisgender farm women that make me look absolutely high femme! But also to be fair to those people who I had a bone to pick with, when I first came out as trans*, I was so confused that I went through a femme period in my appearance because that was the only “acceptable” trans women type I’d seen at that point in my life. I also hope that the “Beauty Tips” poem is easily relatable for all women—trans* or cis, butch or femme—because, honestly, do they make dolls that look like anyone that could actually exist in the real world? Maybe they have, but I haven’t seen them yet.
Well-intentioned suggestions. Are they really that well-intentioned when they’re drenched in American beauty standards? The insinuation of having to hide myself to be presentable? (They don’t know these comments make me stare in the mirror at one AM. This lantern jaw and movie star chin. These dark bushy eyebrows. I wince. Sometimes I weep.)
A woman suggests facial surgery when I ask how I can be more confident about my appearance.
(for the high femmes in my life…
I love you…
let me breathe…)
No hope for self-acceptance unless there is a scalpel involved.
(My strong jaw turned to glass, my broad shoulders lurching,
my bald head bearing razor marks and cat scratches, my scarred and tattooed flesh. Photos of pretty girls have made me hate my body, born so or not.)
Initial urge to hack up my face, shave my bones, wear a flesh toned mask in public so no one can see me.
(for the high femmes in my life…
I love you…
don’t silence me…)
I still fight it,
this urge to deform myself to conform myself
they don’t make dolls that look like me…
(for the high femmes in my life…
this is not an attack…
I am just tired…
of being ignored…)
So I put on my boots. My ragged jean vest stitched and pinned with activism. A frayed black cap. And I look in the mirror.
(And I am pretty once again.)
All right. Tell me what you’re reading now, and then tell us all what we should be reading, too.
A LOT of poetry. I’ve recently become reacquainted with the some of the California poets like Dianne Wakoski, Wanda Coleman, Sesshu Foster, and I know I say this at the risk of losing my feminist card, but I truly love that old bastard Charles Bukowski. I think he did so much, alongside the poets listed above, to free poetry from academia, and I do truly find his work achingly sensitive underneath all that bravado and bullshit.
Rumi’s poems also always draw me back when I’m feeling the need to be peaceful. I’m also reading When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz right now, which is absolutely incredible.
As far as what people should be reading in the future, be on the lookout for a trans woman poet named KOKUMO. Mind-blowing, hard-edged, and beautiful. I think she has a book coming out in the near future, but I don’t know any details.
And read the old stuff for Goddess’s sake! Read Walt Whitman and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Hildegard Von Bingen and all those other dusty old books written by dead people. Know your past to empower your present.
Now, go on—use this space to tell the world exactly what you want it to hear.
I don’t know if I’m saying anything necessarily new, but I would like to see more examples of queer strength and empowerment, instead of that very old and tired way of focusing solely on your oppression for your entire political identity. We’re strong. We survived a lot of shit in our lives. It’s about time we become warriors instead of victims.