An Interview with Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics

05/12/2016 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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In a year of unconstitutional "bathroom bills" aimed at terrorizing trans women and Antioch Review's publication (and defense of) one of the most transphobic "articles" many of us have seen in recent years (a petition opposed to its publication garnered thousands of signatures in a day) it's become apparent that an ever-increasing national discussion of "trans issues" is eclipsing the work and lives of actual trans people.

A note of positivity in all this mess is Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics. The second issue of the magazine just launched and I sat down (virtually) with the editors of Vetch (Kay Gabriel, Liam O'Brien, Rylee Lyman, and Stephen Ira) to discuss the future of poetry, the usefulness of genre, and what advice they have for young trans writers.

What space is Vetch filling? Do you see Vetch as a way to make space, take space, open up space, or something else entirely?

Liam: The acknowledgment of space is interesting, since Vetch is so far filling only a digital role. We definitely see Vetch as a way to make, take, and open up space. Trans poets are mostly not published in a literary world that considers our work essentially identitarian and therefore not authentically literary. We would like to see trans poetry in general take up more space, and we're hoping that Vetch will provide one venue among many to do that.

One of the most striking things about Vetch is the range of forms and poetry styles within it. While shaping the magazine, do you think about a cohesive collection of poems or does the form rise organically from the poems you love and accept for publication?

Kay: It's a bit of both. In our editing process we're looking for poems that surprise and challenge us, that strike us as particularly effective and, for this last issue, engage with our theme in complicated ways. We make a point of not setting an agenda on the kind of poetry someone needs to be writing in order to engage us--so we end up with, as you say, a vast range of voices, forms, and modes of expression.

But we also pay a lot of attention to what the issue will look like as a collection. Part of that question is a social one: we don't want, for instance, to be in the business of curating majority-white trans art under the disingenuous banner of "trans art." We think a lot about whose work we're putting forward and how that matches with the political commitments that subtend the journal. And we put a lot of thought into arranging the journal, selecting which pieces will contrast against or elaborate each other. To a certain extent, for instance, the first few poems in this issue--from Joss Barton's "Eulogy" to Wo Chan's "what do I make of my face"--might be read as a series that engages variously with loss. One of Trish Salah's poems within this sequence, "Tiresias as Cuir (from a first run)" is written in a less personal register. As I read it, this poem attempts in a more explicit way to represent the social processes of queer historiography and its impulse to translate words, phrases, myths, and history into its own, usually anglophone, idiom. But Salah's lines "On the couch. At the urinal. A woman race with a use value / For the revolution. For the dead. For women like me" also link these abstract processes to their brutal material consequences in licensing sites of violence and exploitative acts. Salah's poems within this series thus attempt representation of (some of) the conditions that undergird the kinds of losses keenly felt elsewhere in the issue.

This is the second issue of Vetch. Was the process of creating this volume different? How so?

Stephen: Definitely--Vetch No. 1 felt almost experimental to me. We were seeing if we could do it, and what would happen if we curated trans poetry based on what gave us pleasure as readers and writers of poems. Working on Vetch No. 2 I felt both more confident in my own enactment of a curatorial role and more suspicious of the implications of curation itself. Doing anything in trans lit seems like it necessitates a kind of disoriented groping around for position, and with this issue I began to feel excited about that disoriented state rather than anxious to settle.

What advice do you have for all the young trans poets out there?

Stephen: Read a lot of poems and don't orient your trans poetics around the correctness of your own gender.

What kinds of questions do you wish you were being asked?

Stephen: "What is the relationship of trans poetry as a vexed and emergent 'genre' to the vexed and established 'genre' of gay poetry?" All the editors of Vetch are gay, as are a lot of the poets we've published. Obviously, there's an absurdity to the idea that "gay" or "trans" is a matter of genre, but at the same time, there are certain tropes in gay and trans lit that I would call generic. I wish in general that we were engaged with more as a part of an extent tradition of queer people writing, rather than having our transness overwhelm us and throw us from the ludicrous but necessary category of gay lit into the equally ludicrous but necessary category of trans lit.

Also--joking but not joking: "Here is a lot of money so that everyone involved in Vetch can be paid for their work; can I give it to you?"

What do you think poetry can do? What do you think it should do?

Stephen: I'm confused and inclined to be careful about the terms of this question--what can whose poetry do for whom, and when? Things I know that poetry can do: raise political consciousness, bring pleasure, relieve emotional pain, communicate love--but I don't know how discrete those things are, and I don't know how much good they are without bread and beans. Not to subtweet Brecht, but food is first; everything else follows afterward. I also know poetry can reaffirm selfish and evil beliefs in such an aestheticized way that they no longer even seem ideological, just like wallpaper.

Kay: One contradiction we confront in editing Vetch is that we posit a political basis for the work we do but don't take art as an intervention into politics. In an ideal world, without the political conditions that place trans people variously at risk, there would be no need for a trans literary magazine. (These conditions, needless to say, are hardly transphobia alone.) So trans art is conditioned by and often responds to politics, but is not itself a form of political activity. Poetry is not the same thing as praxis. In a more general frame, cultural production cannot negate the exploitative material conditions that license its own existence; at most it can attempt to represent them. Many people, probably including some of our own contributors, would dispute these claims. But they inform the work we do, in particular the stress we place on aesthetics: since we don't take art to constitute a political intervention, we appreciate poetry that doubles down on its aesthetic strategies--even its entanglement in cultural production. Aristilde Kirby's roundel series in Vetch No. 2, "Intermediate Starved Aster Egretta SAE," is a great example of this. So is an. cinquepalmi's "Apricot."

Vetch is also a journal of poetics. What are the poetics of Vetch?

Kay: There are two ways to answer this. One is that we accept critical prose essays on trans poetry that engage with poetics. We've received very few submissions of this kind, but it's something we'd really like to expand in future. Trans poetry is challenging and complex, enough so to deserve critical close-reading and sophisticated theorization, but the analysis of trans literature is more often than not reductive and often offensively so. Vetch can be a space for more sensitive and insightful critical work--that, furthermore, grapples with trans literature that falls outside of a remarkably narrow canon.

The second is the poetics that guide our work as editors and publishers. This is easier to discuss in a negative vein. Vetch is motivated against the contemporary trend in journal publishing to have trans issues of literary magazines. This is not to say that the poetry that has appeared in such issues is all bad: some of us have been or are going to be published in such issues, and the guest editors in charge of such issues frequently do sensitive and interesting curatorial work. But this form of publishing is opportunistic at best--yet another iteration of the justification for brief instances of trans-focused cultural production in light of, say, Caitlyn Jenner's media spotlight. This situation takes the form of a commodification of identity; it certainly doesn't constitute a commitment to trans literature as such. It has ramifications for trans aesthetics as well: in a world of cis publishing where poetry by trans authors is published rather more rarely and is moreover understood as a genre, this poetry will be judged by whether or not it fits the predetermined standards of that genre. This situation thus operates through a version of what Viviane Namaste has called the autobiographical imperative: in this case, that we make our social identities transparent in the poetry we write, and that our writing therefore should take the form of attempting to establish authenticity as trans authors. The reverse side of this imperative is that we write without disclosing or thematizing dynamics of our social being or community at all, which is a more obvious form of silencing.

Vetch is an attempt to intervene in this situation. One of our goals is that by doing so we offer a space for a much broader range of aesthetics from trans poets, and for poetry whose relationship to gender is articulated in more complicated ways than dominant narratives around trans identities license.

How did y'all meet one another?

Liam: The real answer is The Internet. Stephen and I, as boyfriends, were talking about the possibility of starting a trans poetry journal. Stephen posted about that on his blog, and Kay said she'd be interested in working with us--which was amazing, since we'd both been kind of intimidated by her poetic intelligence already. And then her girlfriend Rylee agreed to be our design editor. Thank goodness. But seriously, I am really glad that trans poets (and queer poets in general) have the internet as a resource for connecting and forming collective projects. It's not the only way to connect, certainly, but it has done great work for us.

In the current landscape, how do you as poets and artists think about the world of litmags and journals? How do you know if a place is friendly to work about trans experience, especially work that isn't written for a cis audience/cis gaze? Are there things you look for or do you rely on word-of-mouth stuff from friends? What would you like to see calls for submissions say?

Liam: Personally, I don't read a lot of litmags or journals. The fact is that trans poets aren't widely published right now--with a few exceptions--and what I am mostly interested in reading is poems by trans and gay people. There are a few venues that publish these poems; I hope for more. I think poems that aren't written for a cis audience have a thorny road ahead, but I have hope for them. Word-of-mouth, especially in this communication-heavy age, is what trans poets rely on for publication. What I would like to see is a renaissance of trans publishing: more journals, more books, more blogs than we can handle. I want calls for submissions to specify that they welcome work on trans themes; I think that needs to be said out loud, and I think it cannot be confined to "trans-themed" issues of magazines that will ignore trans writing the rest of the time. More broadly, I want journals to seek poetry outside the realm of the "publishable." If litmags pushed their boundaries more, I think they would have more readers.

Do you believe in the idea of the future? Where do you see Vetch in five years? Will there ever be print copies, or is Vetch digital-native, digital-forever? How important is it that Vetch be free and downloadable and accessible for anyone with a link? What about AWP/other literary conferences and table-ing and selling something? What about getting paid for your labor that you put into Vetch, how do y'all feel about that?

Kay: To take a line from Ernst Bloch, we believe in "reality plus the future within it."

Rylee: In five years, we hope to have just published our twelfth issue! While we're web-only at the moment, Vetch is designed with print in mind, and we would love to have a print run of each issue. Unfortunately, printing is much more expensive than posting to Dropbox, so it might be a while before this happens. We love that anyone can download and read Vetch for free, wherever they are! It's a shame that this doesn't mean that everyone who might enjoy Vetch will be able to reach it, but it's a nice fantasy to have.

Vetch currently is a volunteer project edited by four people with other jobs. We'd love at some point to be compensated for our work here. However, while we have a lot of exciting plans to expand the journal--including making appearances at literary conferences--we're realistic when it comes to profit: it's likely Vetch will never make us much money, and we're not torn up about this. More important to us is that, when we are able to, we start paying our contributors for their work

You can find the second issue of Vetch here.


Kay Gabriel
is a student in the PHD program in Classics, Princeton University. Her poetry has appeared in TINGE and Industrial Lunch and is forthcoming from Matrix Magazine; a critical essay on trans poetics is forthcoming in Transgender Studies Quarterly in a special issue on translation. With David W. Pritchard she is a co-author of the poetry chapbook Impropria Persona, due out from Damask Press in winter 2017.

Stephen Ira's poetry and short fiction have appeared in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, Spot Literary Magazine, the St. Sebastian Review, and Specter Magazine, among others. In 2013, he was selected as one of Lambda Literary's summer fellows in poetry. In 2014, he was featured as a guest star in La Mama's SQUIRTS: New Voices in Queer Performance. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2014.

Rylee Lyman is a PhD student and graphic designer in Boston. Her forays into writing poetry, as opposed to typesetting it, have appeared in Industrial Lunch.

Liam O'Brien grew up on a small island outside Seattle. In 2012, he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where he received the Stanley and Evelyn Lipkin Prize for Poetry and the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction. His work can be found in print in Unsaid Magazine, and online at The Offending Adam, Blackbird VCU, Buffalo Almanack, Industrial Lunch, PBS Newshour, and the HIV Here and Now Project. He is currently pursuing his MFA at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.