Queerness, Violence, and Poetry: A Conversation with Meg Day
There’s no better way to say it than to say it simply: Meg Day is an astonishing poetic force. She has one of the most unique and driving voices around. And when I say ‘around’, I do mean it in the general sense. However, thanks to her position as an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster now also has the privilege of being the place where Meg makes her home.
Meg graciously agreed to meet with me at Chestnut Hill Café, where we talked all things queerness, violence, poetics, in-betweenity, personal experience, and self-perception in Lancaster county. The following is a very small slice of the conversation that we had and an indication of the sort of relentlessly kind, fiercely intelligent conversation that Meg brings with her to the Lancaster literary scene.
The Triangle: So: National Poetry Month!
Meg Day: Yes, National Poetry Month. [laughs]
TT: Do you want to talk about it?
MD: I mean, sure; it’s my whole life right now. It’s the coolest month. But yeah, it’s a rough time of the year for me and a joyful one, but a really REALLY emotional one, coming out of seasonal affective disorder at the same time AND the semester at F&M. And I haven’t ever lived in Lancaster at this time of year, and so I feel like I’m living on a new planet. I’ve never seen colors like this before, and the lushness I get—California is green like this—but have you looked outside? The pink, and the white, and the PINK! It’s like, the gayest place I’ve ever lived! And I’ve been traveling so much that it’s like I was here for a second in a peacoat and I got back and now it’s like this. It’s joyful, and odd, and it’s a tough time of year. You know, all beginnings are violent. So I suppose this is just another one of them.
National Poetry Month is this site of deep generosity but there’s also not a lot of reciprocity there. I feel as if I’m giving and giving and giving. Not to say that folks haven’t been generous, because they have, but it is a little bit like being remade once a year. You go and visit these places, and I travel throughout the year, but not with the congestion of this level. [laughs] I just feel like I’ve met a lot of people in the last 24 days and it’s probably going to take until next April to process all of it.
TT: Did you see anybody this month perform that you really latched onto who was new, or someone that you were super excited to see?
MD: I read up at the Wildwood Writers’ festival up in Harrisburg and I loved that, I loved being in conversation with other poets and really read for the first time. That was my first time, I mean I read in Lancaster and Harrisburg and the surrounding areas, but to be with people who are doing it—it was really exciting to touch what it might be like to live here for the long haul. Just trying to figure out—I don’t know, I’ve not lived on the east coast before, I’m just integrating into my vocabulary the word mid-Atlantic. I have a lot of curiosity, like who am I supposed to be here? And what are the people here doing? And I certainly have a sense of that in Lancaster proper, you know, like Marci Nelligan and Le Hinton and you know, those touchstones of the community and being at DogStar Books and going through the writers’ house at F&M and the library at Millersville and the Ware Center downtown and…it is a rich, rich place. How odd, to be reintroduced to yourself.
TT: So, Last Psalm at Sea Level, released 2014, it’s excellent. To tie in to violence, I’ve seen a lot of poets of color and women poets approach their experience in minority groups and be very direct about the kind of violence that they face, but I think that literary queerness is often pushed to the side in terms of acknowledging violence. Something that I enjoy very much about your work is how direct it is about identity informing this violence. Do you have any influences specifically who allowed you to grow into that?
MD: I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about it in any intentional kind of way. I don’t have a way of understanding queerness outside the context of violence. Queerness and threat and queerness and physical bodily vulnerability are absolutely inseparable. And I think I am always already trying to be in conversation with the lineage into which I step. I would say most of the people that I feel as if I come from or are in conversation with are speaking to violence maybe not in the same way, but I think that’s because they don’t experience violence in the same way, right? And I don’t think that gendered violence is the same as racialized violence at all. I think it really just boils down to that, because of my gender and because of the ways that people really, without my understanding, respond to my gender, and respond to my body in public…I find being a human is very violent in general. And I mean that even in private; the world often feels far too much for me, and I don’t mean that in a melodramatic way. It’s just very factual. I am at once not enough and all too much for the world.
I had a professor in undergrad—I came kind of late to poetry on the page—and was in this class and the professor asked me, you know, “What are you gonna write for your final?” And I was like “Oh, I’m going to write something feminist”. And she was like “Okay, but aren’t you a feminist?” and I was like “Yes, yes, I am a feminist!” and she was like “Cool, so anything you write will be feminist”. In that same way, I don’t know that you can be a queer person without violence. You can’t have queer sex without the potential for violence. I’m not even convinced you can have any kind of sex without violence, but we don’t need to walk that road now. [laughs] Can you have a poem at all without the potential for violence? I don’t know. I also don’t mean it as a ho-hum, the world is violent, how sad for us. There can be pleasure in violence also, and power in it, and adamant empowerment, and to be empowered by violence, I think, is a really queer thing. Like, a torquing of violence.
TT: So, you just had a Lowell Grant year in 2016. What was it like being a sort of forced expat when 2016 happened?
MD: It was not a dream. And I don’t think that’s the answer that anybody really wants because I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity and just very, very lucky to have the kind of response to this moment of privilege that I have—which is that it was not a dream. [laughs] Yeah, the Trump apology tour was a little rough, and there was lots happening around the world with refugees and public violence and politicized violence and Brexit happened. I was in Ireland when Brexit happened, and it was intense to watch so much public mourning, and then to come back and feel as if [pause] I didn’t feel it in my body as much as folks felt it in their bodies here. But yeah, it was rough. It was a rough year. But I mean, it was full of joy, surprising joy and pleasure, and excitement and adventure, but maybe a little too much adventure! And also a sort of deeply disappointing, NEWLY disappointing understanding that the world is not a kind place. And it doesn’t really matter where you go. And I say that as a white kid, with remarkable privilege and the funds of this grant to move about the world. But I’m very very grateful and also…don’t give me that. [laughs] Please don’t make me do it again.
TT: So, you’ve got a variety of different experiences to write about. Queerness and disability seem to me to be the big two—when you’re writing about all of these different facets of your identity, do you find that they balance each other organically? You mentioned that you’re trying to work on queerness on the page more so than gender right now, so is that more of a conscious thing that you need to balance all of these identities?
MD: I don’t know; they feel very balanced within me. It feels like the moment where things move from the private to the public though, there’s some sort of necessary disidentifying that I have to do. I hesitate around gender on the page because it feels very permanent. Poetry’s always getting the short end of the stick and being read as factual, right? And my poems are definitely not factual, [leans in toward the recorder] for the record. [laughs] And certainly they come from a place of authenticity and of very genuine feeling and I am nothing if not sincere to a fault, but I feel very wary of saying on the page, “I AM this” or “I DO this” or “my body SHOULD BE READ in this way”, mostly because these conflicts around betweenity and being sort of a cultural crack-dweller. I’m not somebody who’s going to transition in the normative trajectory, I don’t identify as trans despite the huge push of this generation to force genderqueer under the trans umbrella. Like, I just…I don’t want it. And I do think it’s this generational thing around language, right? I came up at a time when trans was of the binary, and if you identified as trans it was because you were moving from one to the other, and I don’t mean to say that I can’t give up that definition, I just mean that there isn’t space for me. I don’t find that there’s enough space for me in that place. And maybe the language is moving in that direction, maybe the next generation is radicalizing it in some way, but that doesn’t yet change the way that people look at me when I’m introduced as trans. I’m not trying to find myself there. And I don’t desire to be read in that way. And I’m very, very resistant to the idea that a label like that can do so much damage. [laughs]
Let’s go back to violence. So I do think that in my poetics I feel sort of very VERY tenderly wary, you know in “On Nights When I am Brandon Teena,” right? Like, people just [snaps fingers] INSTANTLY go “oh, you’re a trans man”. And not to speak too much to the book, but that’s part of the great gift of the liminality of poetics. “On Nights When I Am Brandon Teena” describes my experience EXACTLY. On nights when I am read this way that can get me killed, on nights when I am read this way that forces me into a lineage that is of me and that I also did not choose, it’s instead read as, “oh, so you’re a guy, right?” And it’s more complicated than that, of course. I owe everything to the trans community, we both do, for our trans lineage of rioting and social justice and power to the people and survival, all of it. So it’s not to say that I neglect them or refuse them, [the label of trans] just doesn’t fit. I think that’s sort of at the root of my hesitation, and it blurs into disability, too, where I’m not culturally Deaf despite my deep investment and involvement in Deaf culture, you know, like, I don’t have an interpreter in my classroom, and I’m not signing to you right now. [laughs] So there is an in-betweenity there also where I am very hesitant to be read as something that I’m not both because of the violence that might do and also in the ways in which it feels very violent to me.
TT: Because I personally come from so many different places of privilege, I tend to anchor myself to experience in oppression based on sexuality to pivot on and try to better understand other forms of oppression. So as soon as anyone has more than one oppressed identity to handle, I immediately have no idea how you write—for example, to sit down to write and say “okay, I am equally disabled and queer”.
MD: Okay! The intersectionality you’re talking about is very real and very balanced privately with me, yeah. But my experience in public with disability is very different from folks who are much more visibly disabled. Folks can see my hearing aids and hear my accent, sometimes I’m signing, but beyond that, I move about the world with great ease and privilege in ways that huge portions of the disabled community don’t, or they have different experiences of the world. And so there is something about the public experience of being visibly queer: my gender is visibly deviant in a way that elicits violence and attention and praise and all of these things but MOSTLY violence. Like, nobody wants to beat the shit out of me because I’m wearing hearing aids.
I’ve yet to feel if that gaze is one of immanent or inherent danger. It’s mostly just foolishness. So yes, it feels very privately even and balanced and organic in me and then there’s a level of responsibility to be authentic in the ways that I can be, I guess.
TT: I have to say, since we discussed vocabulary briefly, my favorite poem from Last Psalm at Sea Level is “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God”.
MD: It makes people SO mad. Just SO mad, in SO many ways. There’s a community of people who read it and are like “ugh, this is gimmicky as fuck”, and there’s a community of people who read it and are like, “how DARE you desecrate John Donne!”, but then there’s ALSO a community of folks whose response is twofold: how DARE you be of a queer subjectivity that speaks of the divine, because queer folks can’t have a spirituality OR they’re deeply deeply offended that I have made God a trans woman. [laughs] The hate mail that I’ve gotten about this poem is just catastrophic and awful. Like…it’s a poem. And it’s that moment where you’re like, oh shit! I’m doing the right thing in my life. If I can use John Donne to make this many people be so unwound I feel excited about that. I feel excited about poetry, and the power of it, and of all poems, right? I was just trying to make Donne accessible to my own communities and trying to say: here’s a kid who’s doing something interesting! Right? John Donne is living in a time when it’s really not cool to be of unbelief, and he’s like, “hmm, I don’t know, y’all”. [laughs] And I’m about it.
TT: I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised about a negative response to it.
MD: Our aesthetics fascinate me because our aesthetics are inherently flawed, and belong to the systems of power that we subscribe to, which are just deep, abiding evidences of racism and other powers of violent oppression, and to have written a poem that so many people have so many problems with, or have such disparate problems with—like you don’t like that God is a trans woman, but you also don’t like that it’s gimmicky to borrow John Donne? That’s a whole spectrum. I’m working with Donne again right now in conversation with this issue around trans and disability and the inherent mourning there of bodily change, being a sign of conflict.
TT: Well, I’m definitely looking forward to that. So is anything else in the works right now? I know [Last Psalm at Sea Level] was published in 2014…
MD: [laughs] Yes. Folks seem to churn out books. I think I’m a long-hauler. I think I’m a slow burn.
TT: And there’s no problem with that!
MD: I’m working on a new manuscript, and it’s feeling really exciting and scary, very terrifying in ways that maybe my work hasn’t scared me before. I feel very very comfortable being queer on the page; I feel less comfortable speaking directly to gender on the page, although I’m walking my way through that park, and I think I’m becoming much more comfortable engaging with disability on the page in a way and being hard of hearing and speaking to the ways in which Deafness has affected my gender, my queerness, but also how it’s affected my relationships, intimate and otherwise.
My poetics has always been rooted in the sonic play of the planet. I’ve always been rooted in sound. And so, the ways in which the world is becoming quiet to me, or has been becoming quiet to me for a long time, has been a thing that I’ve been dealing with in form and not in content. And so this is a movement toward that, which is exciting and, um, violent. [laughs] And it’s a chance to be in conversation with folks that I’ve needed to be in conversation with my whole life and I have perhaps refused myself that. I feel lucky for the poets, disabled poets, Deaf poets, I am able to be in conversation with right now, I’m excited about their work, I’m excited about the conversations we’re having about the queer body, of disability, and of working through what it means to be a hard of hearing poet mostly non-disabled readers. So that’s what I’m working on.
Meg Day is the 2015-2016 recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street 2014), winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award, & a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University. Day is Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Lancaster, PA. www.megday.com