Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Evie Shockley—Issue 65, April 2017)
Power and|of|in Poetry

Cameron Awkward–Rich
Feeling Strange

I imagine my insides sometimes—
         part female, part male, part terrible dragon.

         –Ada Limón

These days, it seems, everyone keeps talking about joy. Black joy. Trans joy. A syntax of flourishing despite the facts. White supremacy relies on the idea that to live outside of the impossibly small space of whitestraightnondisabledmiddleclassmaleness is purely to suffer. White supremacy both produces actual suffering and needs to imagine that pure suffering exists in order to justify that production. White man’s burden. History of colonialism. Etc. So, I do understand. Joy is one way to claim personhood, to resist being flattened out. Still, I’m skeptical about the poetics of joy, its resistant capacities, at least on its own.

An example. Recently, there was a Law and Order SVU episode in which a confrontation between a group of black cis boys and a white trans girl resulted in the trans girl’s death and a black boy’s imprisonment. The episode seemed, on the face of it, to have an anti–racist and anti–transphobic message; it made both protagonists fully human, divided our sympathy. In this rendering, both the black cis boy and the white trans girl are essentially good kids thrown into a world where their trajectories have been unjustly predetermined. The trans girl will inevitably die young, the black boy will inevitably go to jail. We are supposed to notice that this is not the fault of either individual, or any individual; rather, it is the fault of “the system.” Law and Order pretends to want us to rage against the machine. But, it’s funny, how even this good liberal story can’t imagine blackness and transness as anything but antagonists, that the place where they meet can be marked by anything but violence. One impulse is to point to thriving queer and trans communities of color, their joy despite being represented as impossible. And yet. What if rather than attempting to prove (again) that blackness and transness aren’t contradictions, we spend time being interested in the space that opens when one takes contradiction seriously, inhabits it?

Let me put it this way. Blackness and transness, as they are imagined in this time and place, pull one in opposite directions. Anyone who has lived as black in this world knows that blackness is imagined to have something to do with pastness, with being stuck. Either in the sense of being somehow developmentally lagging or politically stuck in the past, harping on old problems when the thing to do is move on. To be trans, however, is to be regarded as a perpetually new invention, having arrived from the future, making demands on a world that isn’t yet ready to acknowledge that one exists. Both of these constructions are absurd, to be sure, but have effects on how one can and does live a life. How one feels about doing so.

Growing up as a black kid in a white majority town, and as a girl who turned out not to be one, I’ve always felt very strange, somehow only adjacent to the world of other people; I’ve come to think of this strangeness as the feeling of black transness. Whereas insisting on joy allows one to insist on having a claim this world, wallowing in strangeness makes it easier—at least intellectually, imaginatively— to turn one’s back, to shut the world out, even if it does not feel good to do so. It’s possible that I simply find joy exhausting work, but I also don’t know how we will ever sustain ways of life outside of the logic of white supremacy unless we are first willing/able to suspend our attachments to the ideas of what it means to be a human that we’ve all inherited from it.

Of course, it’s one thing to have a theory of strangeness and quite another thing to enact that theory, given that one has to live in the world. But poetry is, in many ways, the form of creativity most up to the task. A poem is a place where strangeness thrives, where we can see what happens in the place adjacent. This is perhaps obvious in the work of writers whose craft is a kind of experiment that, in the words of Dawn Lundy Martin, finds “when language refuses to tip over into speech—recognizable or other—when it is non–reproductive of what has already been produced for us.”1 But even at its most confessional, its most speech–like, poetry requires us to take very seriously the strangeness of the life of the interior, the ways in which we all wildly exceed (and recede from) the narrow protocols of legibly human life.

1 In Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (2013), page 138