This year, we released our second chapbook, Meg Day’s We Can’t Read This. Judge Cathy Park Hong called the book “a how-to on re-imagining the body and language when one is denied the instruments of voice and hearing.” Meg generously agreed to speak with us about her book, feminism, and poetics.
1. How would you define your view of feminism?
I’m so glad you started with the easy question—ha! I just finished teaching a condensed summer section of Gender & Social Change at the University of Utah. I wasn’t so much surprised that the course marked many students’ first encounter with feminism; instead, I was floored that so many of them had such rich and, truthfully, strange preconceptions about what feminism includes (we started at the hairy lesbian stereotype, moved quickly to bestiality, and didn’t stop for a long, long while, even at liberal CIA offshoots infiltrating daycares in the Midwest). What I’m witnessing more and more in my classroom is that capital-f Feminism—the popularized (mis)understanding of “equal opportunity,” really—is regarded with the deepest and most sincere, absolute fear. I thought for a long time that folks were uninterested in engaging with feminism because it required a forfeit of power. I certainly still believe that to be the case, but I am also beginning to understand the newer generation of young folks—whether they live on a coast or not, whether they arrive in a college classroom or not—to be just really, genuinely afraid of what happens if their world gets turned upside down the way (even very essentializing, “safe,” mild versions of) feminism demands it must. I’ve personally struggled with calling myself a feminist for plenty of years because of its lack of intersectionality—if feminism doesn’t include all women (cis-women, trans*-women, every woman) or, really, all people; if it doesn’t prioritize the power inequalities among communities of color, folks with different ambulatory or accessibility needs, or individuals who don’t fit some hegemonic body norm; and if feminism doesn’t take a long, collective look at the way, historically, (white, socio-economically stable) feminism has actually participated in the further oppression of many, many groups of people (but especially women), then I’m completely uninterested. This push-pull dynamic of Yes, I’m a feminist, but only if… is really difficult to walk through with students who are used to an all-or-nothing agenda of extremes. I don’t believe feminism should be a movement that pushes for equality of women and men unless it is only interested in upholding hegemonic and violent standards rooted in cis-sexism. That kind of movement would (and, admittedly, does) only contribute to maintaining the gender binary and further oppressing every single person who does not fall into cis-sexist, racist, classist, ableist standard put forth in support of state-sanctioned violence and industrial complexes. All of that is to say that teaching constantly defines and redefines my personal feminism, and that feminism is constantly failing, again and again, in increasingly complex ways.
2. What makes a piece of writing "feminist?"
This feels a lot like it should be one of those you know it when you see it kind of things, but I don’t think it necessarily is. I can remember really clearly a conversation with a writing professor during my undergrad and it was easily some of the best advice anyone ever gave me concerning identity and writing. At the time, I was in an experimental writing class—which also coincided with my coming as queer—and I had become really earnestly invested in public art. My professor said, very simply, that I didn’t have to set out to create “something feminist”—that by nature of engaging with feminism and questioning feminism, my feminism was infused in the choices I made while writing. She saved me from a lot of really unnecessarily embarrassing and over-the-top, cliché poems early on. I stopped worrying about broadcasting my politics and got back to dissecting, digesting, and using them in my creative work. She gave me this really necessary kind of permission that I didn’t know I needed, yes, but it also changed the way I read everything from then on. I wasn’t merely looking to see if the main character was female or if a film passed the Bechdel test; instead, I learned to examine the narrative and syntactical choices—the way a particular arc depended on a sexist trope—and discovered how to interrogate the inherent ableism in every plotline in which there is a problem that needs “fixing.” I think making a piece of writing that is truly feminist requires a lot more work than any of us want to admit or, perhaps, invest the necessary time in. It involves a lot of mental gymnastics, I think, and a peaceful, perhaps even resigned dexterity around the very matter-of-fact racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, trans*phobic, and ableist systems we live in and unwittingly enable day in and day out. I don’t know that I achieve that ever, much less on a regular basis. I’m under no illusion that my feminism has somehow “arrived,” so to speak; I know it hasn’t and I think that’s a part of what keeps me writing, too.
3. Who are some of your feminist precursors? Which feminist writers do you admire?
Angela Davis, bell hooks, Laura Hershey, Anne Bradstreet, Audre Lorde, Luce Irigaray, Virginia Woolf, Donna Haraway, Coretta Scott King, Grace Paley, Leila Ahmed, Marina Tsvetaeva, Carson McCullers, May Swenson, Myung Mi Kim, Anna Akhmatova, and Gloria Anzaldua. These are all folks I’m reading frequently, teaching consistently, and learning from again and again.
4. What is the relationship, as you see it, between gender, ability, and feminism? How does poetry fit into this relationship?
This is another really difficult question, mostly because gender, ability, and feminism are so deeply intertwined not only with one another, but also with other intersections of race and class. Because of the medical industrial complex and how we have designed our infrastructure in this country to really maximize inaccessibility, we can’t really talk about ability without also talking about access via class and socioeconomic status—race is not far behind that, nor are the implications of gender. Poetry is the wildcard here and I think perhaps it’s a site of possibility and brainstorming. Because bending rules or breaking them is a part of poetics—and because poetry is a place in which the imagination can really feast on the potential of the blank page or the unspoken word—there is an anticipation, I think, of stumbling into unexpected access points, or solutions, or more accurate representations. How one’s own restrictions play with poetry’s restrictions really exploits creativity in exciting ways. Poetry can illuminate the crack-dwelling quality of so many of our identities that don’t adhere to hegemonic standards, yes, but it also can perform great feats in terms of understanding (and celebrating!) the unpredictability of the body. As many poets and theorists have suggested, the body of the poem is analogous to the body of a person. If we understand that to be true, poetry magnifies access and the prospect of play regarding difference. I don’t think feminism is interested in removing difference, but I do think it’s invested in reconfiguring the power dynamic therein. I could go on for a long time about poetry and power, but that seems like a tangent we don’t have time for.
6. You are pursuing a PhD in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah. How do your studies in this area inform your own poetics?
I think it goes without saying that anything I’m reading greatly influences whatever I’m writing—how could it not? So to work in disability studies and ASL poetics in addition to my regular PhD coursework was not only a total joy, but complete creative madness. What’s more, the graduate certificate in Disability Studies isn’t limited to creative work or theory—it has a lot to do with lived experiences, with legislation, with accessibility movements, and with the larger intersectional, often ignored, trajectory of ableism in this country. As a result, I think I’m frequently thinking about accessibility when folks bemoan the upswing of literary print journals moving online or of seeing ebooks of poems accompany the print version. I have mild concerns about the viability of print books, sure, but mostly I’m just really excited that so many more texts are available to those who rely on digital assistance in order to have access to them.
I’m also pretty obsessed with sound. As somebody who wears hearing aids and works frequently in ASL poetics, with ASL poetry archives, and hopes to work on translations of ASL poetry into English, the bimodal insistence of audible sound and, alternately, sound “on the page” takes up a lot of my daydreaming time. How do you create inflection on the page that is available for vocalization? What happens when you read a poem aloud that was not written for your voice? How does an ASL poem transform when it is originally performed by someone who self-identifies as a woman and then is performed by someone who self-identifies as something else entirely? How do you archive that? What are the implications? Queer poetics and Trans* poetics seem pretty crucial to ASL poetry and Disability poetics, and especially to Implant Poetics, an area of study in which I’m currently neck-deep. It opens up space for betweenity. It’s all possibility and I think that’s really important in poetry right now.
7. Tell us about your process in composing We Can’t Read This. At what stage did the ASL (American Sign Language) images enter the text, and how did they take shape throughout the project?
The ASL screen captions were the starting place. Many of these poems began as ASL poems and only moved to the page as I tried to navigate the borderland of Deaf culture and hearing audism. I was working with ASL poetry archives (8-tracks and VHS tapes) and felt pretty upset that none of the poets who I so admired were considered a part of any current poetic canon. I was curious about how one could get ASL “published” in the contemporary English understanding of the word; so often, folks don’t consider (or even know about) the long history of ASL literature because it doesn’t (usually) appear in books on shelves in stores. ASL is barely even considered a legitimate language by most Americans, despite their insistence on teaching it to their hearing babies.
The chapbook that Gazing Grain put out is really beautiful in that it holds the simplified narrative of a much longer conversation, one that even the unpublished, full-length manuscript can’t begin to envelop. Culling poems from the larger mss was the most difficult part, mostly because I didn’t want to ostracize hearing readers who were unfamiliar with the signs, nor did I want to essentialize for any Deaf readers who might feel totally short-changed by seeing these dictionary screen captions put to a particularly complex and thorny task. Regardless, it’s the ASL that’s leading the English, not the other way around. I’m not sure it could be any other way.
8. What's next for you? What are you reading and writing these days, or hope to read and write?
My first book, Last Psalm at Sea Level, comes out September 1! I’ve been really fortunate to work with the excellent folks at Barrow Street over the last year to make this book into an object I am excited and proud to hold. I’m luckier still to have survived my PhD reading year and to now be ABD just in time to tour with the book! So please, please—if you have a university or a bookstore or a living room you’d like me to come visit and read and listen to what local poets are doing in your neck of the country, don’t hesitate to be in touch. Touring is something I used to do with much greater frequency and I’m so excited to get back on the road and meet other writers, and be in conversation with readers, and see parts of the country that are entirely new to me.
Other than that, I’m trying to find my feet in the next book. Usually, for me, this means a lot of reading. Roger Reeves, Natalie Diaz, Immogen Binnie, Marcus Wicker, Claudia Rankine, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Tarfia Faizullah—these are folks I’m really looking forward to reading (and rereading) while I’m away on residency to Montana in July. I’m also pretty obsessed right now with Deaf artist James Castle’s work. You should look him up and be in touch about what you think. I’m genuinely excited about taking LPASL around the country, though, and that’s fueling a lot of poem-thought on its own.
Click here to buy your copy of We Can’t Read This for only $8 and free U.S. shipping!
Meg Day, recently selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD fellow in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah.