Holy Wild, Gwen Benaway’s highly anticipated third collection of poetry, is constructed of deceptively plainspoken poems that want to talk to you about complex things. Its subjects are nothing less than gender, colonialism, sex, power, and abuse, but because this discourse is offered as confessionals and everyday speech, Holy Wild is presented informally yet dead serious, blurring distinctions between inner and outer. Or, as Benaway puts it, “submersion . . . that 10% of the piece is visible on the surface and the rest is sunken below the page."
Eros plays heavily in your poetry, so I wanted to start by asking you about how you view love and love poetry. Especially in context of these lines from “Girls Like Me,” “I know love is a lie sold by the white// capitalist machinery, patriarchy and Ikea,/ my ancestors married for a season or two// with multiple lovers in every hunting ground/ but it’s a dream I’ve carried since// I can remember. . . “
I’ve always been interested in intimacy, sex, and love as core parts of what I write about, especially since I transitioned, because I find that our intimate relations reveal so much of our oppressions. Coming from a family with intergenerational trauma and normalized domestic violence, I grew up watching my mother, my aunts, and my gookum be abused by the men in their lives. I don’t want to say that the violence was all of what they were or that it was even all of what the men in my family were, but it left me with a lifelong interest in trying to understand how intimate violence is inherited, shaped by history, and how it co-exists alongside of love.
Part of my process through my transition was shaped by being in an abusive relationship with a cis guy so I found myself continually reflecting on the idea of romantic love and trauma. I started to unpack that ideal of love for myself, moving into polyamory, opening up about my bisexuality, and falling in love with another woman. I realized that the ideas of love that I had been given were rooted in colonization, transphobia, state violence, and capitalism as well as the violence which I had grown up with. So I started imagining a way out of that kind of love for myself through my writing.
I went through so much transphobia and abuse with my ex partner and other men that it really broke down my optimism around love, but I ended up finding spaces within the idea of “love” that felt good for me: kinship, sisterhood, polyamory, and loving other women. My idea of love transformed as I transformed as a woman and I realized that the idea of love which I was raised with (and force fed by mainstream culture) didn’t have space for “girls like me”. We weren’t going to be treated well by men or valued equally to cis women (at least, I wasn’t) so we needed to make our kind of love. And that’s what I think I’ve been doing.
Making and writing a new kind of love for me (and others like me). I think love poetry is shamed as is writing about intimacy, but what and who we love (and fuck) is the space where violence, healing, and joy most commonly happens. I think it’s an important feminist decolonial intervention to write about/talk to/embody your love. It’s a generative resistance that disrupts notions of transmisogyny and cissexism to say “hey I’m a trans girl in love and here’s why it matters”.
I find that fascinating because it poses love as a disruptive, revolutionary force. Much of Holy Wild stuck me like this, a way of discussing complex things such as decolonialism and gender in an accessible way, instead of, say, a more academic or political approach, where so much of this dialogue can take place. Obviously, you do this through a very personal, confessional mode. Is it fair to say the “I” in your work is you in the autobiographical sense; or is there still an element of persona you take on when writing to help express what you are trying to say or for style?
The “I” in my poetry (and other writing) is me in a autobiographical sense. I write from my life and I always try to scope my writing into the space of what I’ve lived and know intimately. Obviously, as someone who is in a PH.D program, I read a lot of theory and it does influence me as a poet on a conceptual level. The work of folks like Fred Moten, Sarah Ahmed, Dionne Brand, or Billy Ray Belcourt where poetry and theory are interwoven is very resonant for me, but I often try to write in a conversational style because I think speech is my main inspiration as a poet. I think every writer writes from their life whether it’s visible or not and confessional writers like myself are often seen as being more “accessible” or “simple” because we explicitly acknowledge that, but I think it takes tremendous skill to paraphrase a memory or life experience into a poem.
With my work, I try to merge those streams of activism, theory, and poetry into each poem. I often use the idea of submersion in my work, the idea that 10% of the piece is visible on the surface and the rest is sunken below the page. For example, the poem “Tonight” closes out the collection and has an extended metaphor about tanning. I use the image of processing animal hide and tanning it to speak to the process of a transition. At the same time, I also extend that metaphor to talk about how the forces of colonization have changed us. Finally, the image also speaks to the idea of violent intimacy or complex love, how it morphs you into something different. I end with the line “I’m a softness/ you will never know/ how to be”, where softness is positioned as a way of being in the world. For me, “softness” is the altered state of being that arises from going through things like transitions, colonization, and heartbreak that imagines us as transformed into something beautiful.
And that’s a theoretical argument about affect, femininity, and “otherness” as well as a political critique of transphobia and colonization but it’s also a real process that I’ve done with my hands and something that’s poetic to me. There’s a kind of sacredness to me in the relationship that happens when you are removing skin from the animal, preparing it, and processing it. It’s intimate and can be violent, but is can also be loving and tender.
I have this one really strong memory of my hands being red with the animal’s blood and what that felt like. I kept nicking myself with the knife while I worked because I was inexperienced, so the animal’s blood and my blood were intermingled on my hands. To me, that memory of care and clumsiness as well as intimacy and relationship makes me think of romantic love: how you often hurt yourself while hurting someone else, how the two of you are combining into something new, and how there’s this closeness that comes from the work. But while it’s the two of you or the animal/person, these artificial constructs of Western thought, underneath everything is also these forces like colonization, transphobia, inheritance, and relationship to land.
That poem is a good example of how I bring my life, the “I”, into my writing. It’s about my relationship with W and in particular, one rough night together, but it’s also drawn from my experiences, culture, theory, politics, and embodiment. All of those elements go into making a poem like that, but I think all that’s visible is that 10% of “oh wow this is a f’d love affair” but really, it’s about so much more. I have the line in the poem where I talk about telling W about the hide process and how he doesn’t understand what I’m saying, so whenever I read the poem, I laugh because I think it’s also true of my audience. Like none of what I just described is visible in the poem, I guess.
Memory plays a significant role in your poetry. The image of skinning an animal and your blood commingling with theirs is a striking one, but there are also more recent memories, like those of your transition, and past and present trauma. One of the poems that hit me the hardest “Forgiveness,” the first section I want to quote here in full.
forgiveness is a road you walk alone
at the beginning and end of the road
is the shadow of your childhood,
asleep in the fallen trees, waiting for you
to return to everything you’ve lost.
It’s at moments like these Holy Wild seems pragmatically optimistic: acknowledging the possibility of something like recovery, but not without the hard work that comes along with it. You mention therapy and your therapist a few times throughout the book, and there seems to be the act of processing taking place here, some working through of memory. So was the writing of Holy Wild (and maybe the writing of poetry in general for you) a difficult experience?
If I had to describe myself, I might say something like “pragmatically optimistic” so it’s fitting that you pick up on that in the text. I would say that I’m not interested in healing or recovery, because I think both terms imply that there is a state of being “sick/unwell” that can be cured through the application of effort, therapy, and hopefulness. One of the arguments I make in Holy Wild is that a girl like me can’t be “well”. My life, burdened with the realities of transphobia, colonization, and inter-generational violence, may never reach a level of “wellness” comparable to a cis hetrosexual person.
What I do believe in is prayer and the possibility of transcendence. I don’t mean transcendence as in a vertical transcendence towards God or a divine will, but transcendence as a returning to home, to rebirthing back to ancestral waterways, a recovery back into an embodied sovereign subject. As in the land, the water, the body we reside in can grant us a freedom from the affective violence of our lives. That we can use relationality and interdependence on kinship, love, and resistance to materially transform and empower our own survivance. Holy Wild is me working towards that embodied sovereignty which requires a refusal on cissexist narratives and a repair of transsexual possibility, a kind of dualistic narration which says “no, I’m won’t be your sacred fetish tranny idol but yes, I’m holy and this is how I make my living into prayer.”
For me, I think people reach towards charismatic concepts like healing or resistance as ways to mediate the lived reality of violence. I understand that urge, having replicated it myself in my life, but I think it’s more useful to move towards ideas of entanglement and shared transcendence as a reaction to violence, whether that be state violence or social violence. At the heart of Holy Wild is a tremendous amount of love and beauty, a careful wanting that tries and often fails to be recognized by the world.
I really think people are going to look at this book as educational or therapeutic, working towards some political end which is “useful” for “diversity” or some other metric of “goodness”, but for me, it’s just a sincere reflection of what I felt and experienced during the first two years of my transition. My only stated goal with the collection was to make space for myself in the world, as who I am, not speaking for anyone and not needing to perform any kind of value beyond existence.
In that way, writing isn’t hard for me. Writing Holy Wild wasn’t hard. As a trans girl, living is hard for me. Staying alive is hard for me. Being present in the world and not attacked or shamed or punished is hard for me. Having this body is hard. So you know, when people say things like “it must be hard to be so vulnerable on page” or whatever, I’m always like “well I woke up in this transsexual body and I went outside the house, went to work or went to the store, or whatever and that was hard because this is a cissexist and transphobic society so writing about it is actually easier than living it because ya’ll can’t murder me on the page.”
That probably sounds dramatic, but it’s true.
You’ve also written non-fiction for places like The Globe and Mail, McLeans, and Flare. Other than the obvious difference of form, what are the differences for you when writing poetry vs. non-fiction? I know that may seem like an obvious question, but I’m always curious about why poets are drawn to write poetry, especially since it can have a much smaller audience than prose.
For one thing, non-fiction pays better than poetry. I got into non-fiction to pay transition related expenses and have continued to rely on it to supplement my income. Since I’m carrying 20k+ in debt because of transition related surgeries, I needed to have the income from my non-fiction in order to survive. I grew to love non-fiction over time and now, I prefer it to poetry. There is something emotionally and technically satisfying to writing non-fiction that I don’t get from poetry anymore.
After my fourth book of poetry, Aperture, comes out in Spring 2020, I wonder if I will step back from poetry to focus on prose more. I will always have a poetic sensibility to my writing, but I’m less enamoured with poetry than when I first started writing. Having said that, my first instinct is still to read poetry over all other forms of literature. I’m a huge fan of poets like Canisia Lubrin, Natalie Wee, Rebecca Salazar, Stevie Howell, Domenica Martinello, Layli Long Soldier, Joshua Whitehead, and many more. I still read one of Anne Sexton’s poems a day.
So we’ll see how long I stay away from poetry. Like love, like rough sex, like nicotine, it’s a hard vice to give up.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.