“Sent Mail” is pieced together from two kinds of scraps: excerpts from emails I sent over spring and summer 2012, and poetry jotted in a tiny 3” by 5” notebook, a Missouri Review freebie I picked up at the 2012 AWP book exhibition.
The emails were written in the midst of family conflicts related to my daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah, an event that required my children and I to reconsider the relationship between between my life as a woman and my life as the man who fathered them.
When I picked up the notebook, I was in the midst of writer’s block, or at least exhaustion. After years of compulsive writing (five books of poetry since 2005), I found myself stranded between projects, obsessions, questions, interests. I didn’t know what kind of poems I wanted to write, no idea how to revise when I didn’t know what I was trying to accomplish. The “little notebook,” as I called it, became a place I could write without knowing what, if anything, I was doing. I carried it everywhere, cramming as much language as I could onto each page, ignoring questions of form, lineation, beginning and ending.
Both the email and little notebook material reflect states of transition. In the midst of and on top of gender transition, my relationships with my family, poetry and myself were shifting. I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, in poetry or in life, but I kept writing, hoping to grow into the person and poet I needed to become.
Writing in the hope of becoming is something I’ve done all my life. I grew up in terror of revealing my trans identity; there was no safe place to explore who I was beyond the margins of the page. When I started to live as a woman after 45 years of living as a male, writing was the medium through which I tried to figure out what it meant to say “I” – who, exactly, I wanted this suddenly honest pronoun to signify.
According to conventional myth (if such a term can be used for such a marginal phenomenon as gender transition), transsexuals are fully formed men or women “trapped in the wrong bodies.” In these terms, gender transition is a matter of adjusting physical form to psychic content – changing the body to reveal the man or woman hidden inside. Translated into poetic form, this notion of gender transition would be a Shakespearean sonnet, whose last four lines reveal the speaker’s true meaning via an abrupt turn from what the speaker had seemed to be saying.
I certainly felt trapped in the wrong body – now that I’m in my fifties, I’m finding that’s a pretty common feeling – but I knew that my disembodied sense of female gender identity was too nascent, too wispy, to qualify me as “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Gender transition as I’ve experienced is nothing like a Shakespearean sonnet: it has no definable form, no underlying self revealed by the turn at the end from my life as a man. In fact, transition seems to have no end; after five years of living as a woman, my self continues to grow through breaks, turns, reversals. My self is a shifty, shifting assemblage of scraps without a clear arc or argument; it began in the middle, as a decontextualized voice of yearning, and has accumulated haltingly, less through introspection or self-assertion than through relationship.
The scraps that make up “Sent Mail” reflect this formless, inconclusive process. The perspectives they voice are embattled, provisional; they don’t add up to a single self or fall into a narrative trajectory. The seams between scraps, the differences in voice and vision, are as clear at the end of the poem as at the beginning.
This unreconciled variegation qualifies this as a type, or at least a mutation, of haibun. Haibun is by definition a hybrid form, a combination of occasional prose with haiku composed during or after the occasions described in the prose. The difference between the poetry and prose is clear, and traditional haibun make no attempts to specify relations between their pieces, or to gather their disparate reflections on disparate experiences into a single arc or perspective.
As Basho’s travel haibun show, the absence of coherence-imposing form, argument or perspective make haibun ideal for evoking the vivid, moment-by-moment evanescence of human experience. In Basho’s haibun, the self represented by “I” is little more than a vantage point from which to experience the overflowing fountain of sound, color, scent, encounter, and emotion that is the present.
When I lived as a man, I rarely tasted the sort of present Basho evokes in his haibun. Time, for me, was a largely undifferentiated duration, with events, perceptions, feelings dulled by my dissociated distance from my body. Since I’ve been living as a woman, my present is flooded impressions, feelings, events – but I still don’t have the kind of “I” Basho presents in his haibun, a self mature and stable enough to confer aesthetic form on present-tense experience.
Instead, I approach haibun as a means of exploring without needing to resolve the resonances and disconnections between between the overflowing nows stuffing my little notebook pages and crisis-fraught emails. I ransacked my sent-mail for interesting language; what I found, instead, was yearning, desperation, sentences that outran their subjects and kept right on running. I pasted chunks into a document, and then scanned my little notebook jottings for snatches of poetry that seemed to speak to or against the sent-mail prose. I then re-read the prose in light of the poetry, cutting away whatever addressed a specific situation rather than the poetry now surrounding it. Decontextualization worked a little of its magic – the less clear what I had been originally emailing about became, the more evocative the not-very-evocative prose seemed.
As poetry and prose fell into conversation, I recognized that the aspect of the sent-mail prose that was most poetically alive was the sense of address, the “you” to whom I was either explicitly or implicitly talking. As in my life, what animated the language wasn’t a coherent sense of self, but the drive toward a “you.” The form of the poem – if it is a poem – began to echo my process of transition, moving from self-reflexive crisis to the equally inconclusive but infinitely richer process of loving and being loved.
My experience of transition shaped my approach to writing haibun. Now my experience of writing haibun is re-shaping my notion of self. Rather than fretting about my incompleteness and incoherence, I see that my shifting constellation of still-accumulating fragments constitute a form of self, that my self consists of the processes of accumulation and constellation, that my “I” need not refer to this or that one among the stars but can encompass the space between them.