Woodland Pattern presents: Oliver Bendorf & Trish Salah

To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. This conversation was originally part of our March 2015 issue. Enjoy!

Oliver Bendorf and Trish Salah
Oliver Bendorf and Trish Salah

This Woodland Pattern interview series will document conversations between some of the writers, artists and performers who pass through Woodland Pattern and Milwaukee. Oliver Bendorf and Trish Salah read at Woodland Pattern on January 17, 2015 as part of Shift: Guest Curators from the LGBTQ Community. Below are excerpts from their reading as well as a conversation conducted via e-mail after the reading.

Oliver Bendorf, “I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn’t Get Any Larger,” “Split it Open Just to Count the Pieces,” “The Manliest Mattress,” and “Patrón,” recorded by Michael Wendt, Woodland Pattern, January 17, 2015


Trish Salah, “Notes Toward Dropping out,” “Phoenicia ≠ Lebanon,” and “Reading the Book of Suicides,” recorded by Michael Wendt, Woodland Pattern, January 17, 2015

Oliver Bendorf: Hi, Trish. Several years ago, before I even knew who you were, and certainly before I might have imagined that we would one day read together at Woodland Pattern, I encountered your essay, “In Lieu of a Transgender Poetics.” I found it by searching the internet for “transgender poetics” which was not, as you write, yet a very identifiable thing, but it was becoming a thing (and now it is many things). I was so happy to have found your essay. You write, “Textualizing sex effects new constitutions, of word, world, work, but we are still sooner or later and all the while, turned, also back upon our body.” Mostly the meaning this sentence produces for me is one of returning to the body, but sometimes when I read it, my brain inserts a word and makes it a betrayal—turning our backs upon our bodies. And it makes me wonder: what is the role of running and returning in trans genres? How do we return to a body that’s changed—that we’ve changed?

Trish Salah: It is nice, and funny, that you recall that essay, and wonderful to think that it found a reader as careful and generous as you. “In Lieu of a Transgender Poetics” was a short manifesto, or piece of snark, I suppose, on trans poetics, for this special issue of Open Letter, “Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today.” Initially, I had submitted something more straightforwardly lit critical, reading and situating the quite different (trans) poetries of Nathanaël, kari edwards, and the Taste This collective, but it was longer and probably more pedantic and skeptical of queer feminisms than the editors wanted. So, one does what one can, and I tried to make some gesture, within the piece that was published, in the direction of the essay that was not. (Though Julian Brolaski actually brought a version of that paper shortly thereafter in Aufgabe.)

Anyway, I bring this up because the line you pointed to, “Textualizing sex effects new constitutions, of word, world, work, but we are still sooner or later and all the while, turned, also back upon our body” was one way I was doing that pointing. In other words, I was thinking, with that line, about different modes in which the body returns, as debt or violence, as a signifier of desire, or embodying token inclusion within a body of work that constitutively excludes that very body even in the act of constituting some one’s representation, or… Whence the turn?

I like the sense of betrayal you pull out of that phrase. To betray is, at root, a transitive act, with an object, and its Latin origins are “tradere” “give over” from “trans” “across” and dare “to give.” So to betray is to hand over or deliver to an enemy. Who is the enemy and what do we give over, when returned to our body? Or is a return to the body itself a betrayal? Though, what you said might also be meant as, where do our bodily returns (and turned bodies) leave us? It might seem I’m being frivolous, but I thought about this in relation to your beautiful, but kind of heartbreaking, book. I mean obvious examples are “I promised Her my hands” and “At the Chalkboard.” I wondered about handing over, discipline and disclosure with those poems and others. There is this question about the subject’s relation to the other; that one can only become a subject by passing through the other. So what happens to a dialectic of recognition, when a prospective subject’s passage through the other is barred?

But to move more specifically with the language of your comment, about flight and return in Trans Genres. I think that Trace Peterson makes some important inroads on this topic in a recent and foundational essay in TSQ:Transgender Studies Quarterly; that is, she parses a movement to and/or through unintelligibility in the representation of the poetic subject in some foundational trans authors (Sam Ace, kari edwards, Max Valerio). I think the movement there is both ethical and ontological at the level of somatechnics (how does one make one’s body out of not one’s body, for instance). And as Joy Ladin so aptly demonstrates in her wonderful essay “I Am Not Not Me: UnMaking and Remaking the Language of the Self,” though we do change our bodies, we are not simply or simply not not the we we were.

Still, depersonalization is difficult—it can be poetically interesting—but it is subjectively difficult, it is difficult for a subject to be while, so… we might prefer to be we, when we can. Or at least to chart some family resemblances to keep us company at night.

Can I ask you what you think trans genres are? I mean, I know I use the term quite irresponsibly, disloyally even, to interrupt, if not entirely pre-empt, the idea of trans literature/s. How are you thinking with the terms?

OB: Trish, I have been thinking about what you wrote about relation, and I am excited about what that offers for thinking about becoming, and recognition. To lean into Althusser (I shoulder him but he doesn’t shoulder me back), how do we hail ourselves and each other? I think the power dynamics of transitioning are quite complex and what is this desire to submit ourselves, to turn ourselves over (in all the ways one could picture that)? Like the question from your smart and exciting new book, Lyric Sexology Vol. 1: “will madame take all of an i?”

I have been thinking about relation and intelligibility (I re-read Trace’s essay) and in/coherence and ambivalence as something about trans genres, and I have been wondering about why it feels so hard to know or articulate what I think trans genres are. I keep coming back to Donna Haraway’s call for “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” Is the confusion of boundaries always pleasurable, though? And is a certain amount of irresponsibility called for? I don’t know. I believe that trans poetics involves a particular relationship to body and to reading practices and to being read. I don’t think I believe in trans identity as being transcendent in the way I used to. It’s not not, but it’s not. And for whose consumption?

Here’s maybe the trouble for me with articulating anything about trans genres. I feel like describing it accurately would change the thing. Like shining a light on darkness in order to see the dark. You can see it then, but it’s not the dark anymore. I don’t know. This week I taught Kathy Acker’s essay “Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body” in which she tries to write about bodybuilding and about why it’s hard to write about bodybuilding, why what happens in the gym resists verbal language. I think there might be something there, too, that speaks toward trans genres: “For bodybuilding (a language of the body) rejects ordinary language and yet itself constitutes a language, a method for understanding and controlling the physical which in this case is also the self.” What would it mean about trans genres if they did not resist intelligibility and coherence? Maybe that’s partly what they are. A thing that is hard to articulate.

Anyway. Trish, there are so many things I want to ask you, and maybe to get at some of them—the roles of mythology and psychoanalysis in your book, Lyric Sexology Vol. 1—I will give you a scenario to riff on. Tiresias and Freud are coming to dinner. Who do you invite as a third guest? Do you cook or order in? What’s conversation like?

TS: So, Oliver, I’ve been having a hard time articulating my thoughts and have come to the point where I think I need to offer three in-articulated versions as if this conversation were a choose your own adventure:

  1. So, Oliver, it is really funny that you should ask that because there’s this old photo that I saw in the Transgender Archives in Victoria, and I think it is a pretty rare find. It actually suggests that Freud and Tiresias did know one another or at least that they met over dinner, and more than once. From looking at it, you can tell that there was an argument, more than one, though I’m not sure what about. Maybe Oedipus’s complex and Tiresias’s role in all that. When you think about it, ze is pretty queerly proximate to the paradigm parable for cis and heteronormative development, right? And what sex was s/he at the time? Because for at least one version of Freud, sex was development, and it was social constraint, repression and its effects, and it was a way to be a person, in the world. We can imagine Tiresias taking an older view though; sex as knowledge, and perhaps it is as what cannot be known or seen, which is death or a death in your eyes and what comes after that. Anyways, by the time they met, Tiresias was at the end of a really long and quite varied career, whereas Freud is obviously young, just putting things together, not seeing where they might lead.

As an aside, Tiresias and Freud did both have something to say about your earlier question about whether the confusion of boundaries ….” is always pleasurable.” They said, “it is not.” I’m not sure about responsibility or a responsibility to be irresponsible. I think that poetically speaking the most we can hope for is inconsistency or irretrievability.

  1. Here is the straight answer to your question. Edward Said called it Orientalism. I stole it from Sandy Stone. If a contemporary transgender subject arises from an Anglo-European context, one in which autobiographical narrative emerges in tandem with medical-juridical discourses (sexologies of the clinic and the court), if à la Jay Prosser, narrative enactments (in books, in clinics, in courts, in intimate life) perform while forming a container that is both psychic, social and material for a self without a proper relation to an unhomely embodiment, if narrative figures appear out of contexts shaped by Eurocentrism, then the mythological archive, like the anthropological archive, which appear to answer the desire for a history, that seek to deliver evidence of trans being across cultures then mythology is always already what Jacques Derrida called “white mythology,” i.e. a metaphysics of white myth as reason. Psychoanalysis, applied deconstructively (which is to say, like psychoanalysis) gives some leverage against such evidence of the empirical, narrative and of identity.
  1. So like feminism, and anthropology, mythologies and psychoanalysis offer theories as to what it is to have a sex, or to be or to become one. We can call those theories phantasies in the strict sense: they are condensations of desire in all its ambivalence, and detritus (histories). In Lyric Sexology, I am drawing upon the Greek myths not only because they spoke (to) me as a child, but because they are such persistently recurrent material/motifs in clinical, autobiographical, and anthropological writing about transgender. They speak cis people’s wish for gender transcendence, regulation and/or transgression, but not just cis people’s desires—we read books too, but we also are not exempt from Orientalism. The way in which a figure for becoming other is made is always historical and political. Tiresias had enough of that in ancient Greece, so isn’t all that interested in what Freud has to say about narcissism of minor difference. Though perhaps she should be.
  1. To the party, I would invite La Malinche and E. Pauline Johnson. You know Marina (La Malinche), a Nahua woman who was enslaved and later is said to have become Hernán Cortés’s mistress, accomplice in the conquest and genocide, and “the mother of Mexico.” I don’t know if you know E. Pauline Johnson’s poetry? She was a mixed-race Mohawk writer active at the end of the 19th century. I’d read her in school but it was Aiyanna Maracle who really introduced me to her thinking. A lot has been said about these women, and their place between cultures, between races, and I’d be curious as to what they might say about being between, and about being represented as the very sign of colonization/betrayal.

5. Can you talk a little bit about your use of quotation and citation, history and heritage, in the lush becoming strangeness that you chart in The Spectral Wilderness?

OB: Somewhere in the spectral wilderness, Trish, there is an uncanny valley, which is also the name for an aesthetic phenomenon in which when something looks or moves almost exactly like you, but not quite, it can illicit a response of revulsion as opposed to empathy or identification. Maybe the narcissism of small differences lies in this same valley in the spectral wilderness. In The Spectral Wilderness, I am aware of a process of reaching for identification and recognition from these others, but I keep coming up with animal others: spider, goat, ghost dog … I felt, trying to become a boy-man at 25, that I had missed some memos on being raised and socialized as a boy-man, and thank goodness for that, mostly, but there was, even so, the desire to pass through the other. So I write my way into this enchanted forest to figure it out. What it might mean to look to an animal for how to become a man. This was my research.

My spectral wilderness is full of ghosts, some of which are friendlier than others. Haunting and being haunted, sides of the same coin. There were things I was afraid to encounter. Derrida’s notion of hauntology gave me a helpful way to navigate the specters of experience. It’s not the same book I would write now. It isn’t the book I’m writing now. Now is the boy-man re-encountering the girl he was. You asked me about history. How do a boy-man and a girl integrate their shared history? How do they cite each other? He makes it out of the wilderness and then he goes back in. C’est la vie, right? But the wilderness changes each time. At least a little bit. Or it or we can potentially change, if we go back into it. Psychoanalysis gives us that.

Can I ask what you are working on now, and how you see it being in relationship to or departing from your previous work?

TS: I love that movement in your work, and I’m thinking now particularly of moments in “Precipice” and “This Wolf is Going to Swim Someday”:

“I farm not for/ the countryside but for the tumbling sense inside me/ that everything has to transform eventually. My/ masculinity is animal at best…” and “and my love is a dolphin and she too/has a language part-forgotten, and I am a wolf/canoeing while she swims circles round me.”

So if I’m reading your argument, the animal makes a better mirror, antagonist or off-site occasion for unmaking and reallocation of self. (Suddenly I’m reminded of Joy’s essay again.) And you commit to a certain confusion of being across species, as well as in crossing genres. So if on the one hand, there is a staging of trans genres, those genres transit species as well as sex, environment as much as subject. That seems extraordinarily generative, and yet, without shedding too much light upon a preferred and perhaps necessary darkness, they seem to have elaborated in relation to the work of making subjectivity, trans subjectivity; and yet, on another level, men like John Muir speak to and through your discourse …

I have a couple of projects that I’m working towards, but am not quite in at the moment. Teaching full-time, you know? One is a part two to Lyric Sexology, a collaborative poem that will open up the Anthropologica section of the first book, as well as its Occultish pieces. Really this is about the question of translations, of the untranslatable elements of body, genre, cultural world or point of view. I’m also working on an essay that thinks about those problems more … umm … theoretically? I’m also working on a novel and some critical writing about literary trans genres.

Can I ask you the same question? And further, about whether the spectral character of the wilderness changes with having (written) a history or histories to a certain masculine becoming?

OB: Confusion of being across species, yes, and across time, Tiresias… everyone else has Mars One but we have trans genres!

I am really excited to know that you are working on a follow-up to Lyric Sexology because, as you write in “Prelude,” “How do you narrate the end?” I like thinking of the project as being larger than the book, that your movement through mythology resists ending or committing. Not arrival or completion but continual trans-it. You wrote earlier that “poetically speaking the most we can hope for is inconsistency or irretrievability” and I am interested in this, moved by this. It seems like in every sleep-dream I have, and this is something I’ve talked with the poet Anna Vitale about, there is so much trying in dreams. All my dreams are about trying. I recognize that in waking life, too, and in your articulation of translating the untranslatable.

And writing while teaching, yes, that is another kind of trying!

What I am trying now: to move toward the images desires fears ghosts fixations but in a differently formal container. Last summer I broke my right (dominant) hand and elbow in a bicycle accident, and for eight weeks while in a cast I wrote with my left (non-dominant) hand and what I found was that writing was not only slower, but fundamentally different. My relationship to syntax shifted. Not surprising, I suppose, given the relationship between the hand and hemispheres of the brain in relation to language. I have been out of the cast now for awhile but it didn’t really revert back. In both my transition and my writing, I am trying to come out from under the weight of striving for coherence. This current manuscript might be the sort of shadow side of The Spectral Wilderness. It does try to retrieve what was left or lost in the wilderness. It goes back for the girl, not the other-girl as love object, but the girl of past self. Well, insofar as those are different.

As you write in “Explore the wreak,” “can we change what we fear?”

I am in a coffee shop today and my mug is empty and the something about the music reminds me of our time in Milwaukee, in the car? I can’t quite place it, I keep opening and closing Lyric Sexology Vol. 1 re-reading it as we wrap up this conversation. What a pleasure it has been to move through thought and language with you. I don’t know whether to pose another question or to “wrap it up” so I will end here (how do you narrate the end?) as a not-question question mark which you can leave or take. Thanks, Trish, for your generosity and provocation.

TS: “…there is so much trying in dreams.” Yes! And every dream a rehearsal and a ward. In your statement for Troubling the Line, you mention making queer little poem bodies, “darlings,” “counterintimicies.” Those figures figure writing that swerves past what it thinks are its ends, towards–what? It ends up wanting and that can only be a relief… It has been lovely and exciting to begin talking with you, Oliver. Until soon.

Born in Iowa City, Iowa, Oliver Bendorf is a writer-artist-librarian and author of a book of poems, The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015). His writing and comics have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Feminist Wire, Indiana Review, jubilat, Original Plumbing, The Rumpus, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere. He teaches and works with the Little Magazine Collection at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in 2014, he organized the first annual Big Draw Madison. http://oliverbendorf.tumblr.com/

Born in Halifax, Trish Salah is a writer, activist, and professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg. In 2014, she co-organized an international Trans Literature conference, Writing Trans Genres, and co-edited an issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly on Cultural Production. She has writing in recent and forthcoming issues of Atlantis, Tripwire, TSQ, Lemonhound, and in the collections The Electric Gurlesque, Trans Activism in Canada: A Reader, Selling Sex, and Troubling the Line. She has two books, the Lambda Award-winning Wanting in Arabic, and Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1.


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