The High Line: Making Space for Trans Poetry
by Brynn Bogert
It’s not getting on the train that’s hard, it’s getting off in time that’s difficult.
I almost always miss my stop because I’m clamped in by men who, inevitably, spread their legs infuriatingly far, leaving me to settle in and let my body (bag on lap/book on bag) conform to whatever space is left, then I get caught up reading and forget to pay attention to anything and anyone else.
I’m like a puddle taking the shape of any available place.
This is a problem women, both cis and trans, know well, but which anyone with a marginalized body feels on the train and anywhere else. So, self-contained by my own surface tension, I miss my stop by—I’m embarrassed to write it, but usually it’s a lot.
On one trip from Mount Vernon to Brooklyn I was reading Cole Swenson’s On Walking On (Nightboat Books, 2017). Passing underground, I found myself in what Swenson might call the terrain vague which she defines in that poem as “the blind spot, the white space” amid which the light flits.
At the time, I liked that term, terrain vague. I’m not so sure I like it now since every terrain is clear to the people who live there. But, when I first read it, it seemed like a good metaphor for how white space works in a poem. The metaphor would claim that white space, the caesura, the margins and lengths between lines as a geographical landscape that the poem hasn’t been to yet or has, instead, decided to leave unmapped. I got so lost in this thought that I forgot, once again, to get off. I had to move the opposite platform, had to make my approach to my meeting from the other way.
When I sat down that time I read Spencer Williams’ “Rumination on a Mother//Sister Tongue.” In the poem, her words move around the page like an uncurled strand of DNA, as she writes:
thick of reeds
It strikes me that Spencer, though an unmatched favorite and a lovely friend of mine, is not the only transgender poet using this kind of formatting to make the body of the poem large, long, and sprawling. We have, As Emma Stewart, another dear friend and queer-trans poet, said to me one day while walking around Manhattan: “a tendency to spread words further than a man's legs on the subway.”
This is a way of using white space that differs so much from Swenson’s terrain vague. If terrain vague is the unclaimed white space that surrounds the words, then this queer word spreading is the act of letting the poem claim its own space.
I suspect that so many transgender poets are using word spreading as a technique because it reclaims and problematizes the space that transgender people are often denied in the barrage of bathroom bills, denial of service lawsuits, and ineluctable surveillance and gendered policing.
In their essay, Can You Believe (Me)!?:On Identifying the Politics in Poetic Imagination, jayy dodd writes, “We read poems from people who are not like us, every day. Dead poets. Rich Poets. Straight Poets. Cisgender Poets. White Poets. Degreed Poets. The Like. For some of us we can go too long in our literary education, regardless of formality, without seeing voices like ourselves & still we find ways to language that tools us in & out of our bodies.”
When I first started reading poetry I found myself gravitating toward people like Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, and Elizabeth Bishop: women whose words were so striking that they gave my early hand a model, my young pre-practiced, pre-coerced into passing, voice its tenor. I wanted my poems to look like theirs as much as I found myself spreading toward their modes of gendered being, their way of writing about sexuality.
Funny how as we grow, we also outgrow our heroes and see how they have hated us: Rich’s introduction to The Transsexual Empire, Sharon Olds’ poems “Ode of Girls’ Things,” and “Outside The Operating Room of The Sex-Change Doctor” come to mind.
Now, I still read them. I can still admire them for the way they build the bodies of their poems, but I have come to realize that I don’t need my poems to look like that and, in fact, prefer it when they don’t.
Because the poem is a place and a body (we occupy space—with all the new political potential of that word—both in different ways). We have limitless forms and styles with which to construct poems, places, and bodies with which to change them and decorate them. And as long as we are reading poets who are trans, like us,— Chase Berrgrun, jayy dodd, Torin A. Greathouse, Spencer Williams, and Justice Ameer to name a few—we can avoid building beautiful stretches of park like the Highline which came at great cost to transgender sex-workers who had been there before. We’ll create structures which represent ourselves, and reclaim the space society so often denies us as we move from point to point.
Brynn Bogert is a transgender poet, freelance writer and editor, and collector of street-sounds. Her work has appeared in Iowa’s Best Emerging Poets, GO Magazine, INK LIT MAG, The Paha Review, and Little Village Magazine. She graduated from The University of Iowa with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.