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Counting Tokens: Special Issues and the Theatre of Delay

On Poetry magazine’s trans and gender non-conforming poets issue and the costs of being included

By Yanyi

I was told, once, during my first successes as a writer, that I was being invited to read and publish because I was an intersectional gold mine. Queer, trans, Chinese, and immigrant, I ticked off many boxes at once. “I only say this because I don’t want you to be tokenized,” this person said at the time, well-intentioned. I reiterated, in response, a longstanding fear I have lived with far before writing poetry: that including my writing—including me—is based on what worth my identities have to an institution’s profit or marketing initiative or, worse, the good intentions meant to ease the moral conscience of those who usually can’t be bothered. With this came also a suspicion: that once I expressed myself within the acceptable modes of my identities, I would confirm stereotypes that anyone could parrot and profit from.

This fear and suspicion also followed me when I heard last October, through several friends’ emails, that Poetry magazine had put out a call for poems by trans and gender non-conforming poets. I am trans and I had poems: what would prevent me from submitting for a coveted spot in one of our nation’s leading poetry magazines, and without the anxiety of being the only trans poet in the issue?

The Poetry issue was announced, it seemed, in direct response to the 2016 VIDA Count released two weeks prior, which revealed a dearth of publications giving space for non-binary writers’ work. Suddenly, Poetry was eager to take a stand in “building a more inclusive literary community to trans, gender non-conforming, and non-cis poets” with a single non-binary editor at the helm, assisted by its cisgender editor-in-chief. Knowing that the issue seemed to spring from a sense of urgency in a private conversation between the two, I do believe that this was their best idea at the time.

But I can’t help but wonder where the urgency actually came from. Why had the VIDA Count, and not one of the many reported murders of trans people that happened that year, been the impetus for the conversation between the two editors? Trans and gender non-conforming lives were to be included, but in what way, and how?

I was not the only trans writer who felt that discomfort around the editorial makeup and the form of the issue, and when one group of trans and non-binary writers compiled a folio of statements critiquing Poetry and the concept of special issues earlier this month, #BeyondSpecialIssue, I experienced some déjà vu. Two years ago, I contributed to another folio filled with similar critiques: a white man decided to publish a poem under a Chinese woman’s name because he thought it would increase the value of his work. The poem was chosen by the guest editor of that year’s Best American Poetry, and after discovering the true identity of the poet, Best American Poetry not only still published it, but also defended the decision. Like then, this was another failure of editorial allyship. It seems that the trans and non-binary community, like the Asian American community before it, is being asked to explain the cost of that failure in order for that failure to have been legitimate.

That is, if we could take the personal and professional risk of criticizing those mainstream institutions rather than blending in. In their #BeyondSpecialIssue statement, Kamden Hilliard points to Cathy Park Hong’s 2014 essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” She writes there that “[mainstream poetry institutions] prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques.” The notion is direct, pointing out how mainstream poetry ultimately prefers minority poets to “assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it” in verse itself. This was the cost of being included: play up heritage and play down race enough to keep up appearances of progress and inclusion.

Gestures, too, may be imbued with the power to assuage. In Lambda Literary, the special issue guest editor Christopher Soto’s initial announcement is peppered with explanations: why Poetry—citing its print distribution and longevity—is a powerful venue for such a offering, and why the special issue is a “bold and necessary statement” by Poetry editor-in-chief Don Share in particular, giving slantwise praise for what appears to be Share’s unilateral editorial decision. It implies, by identity descriptors, why Soto is qualified to be the sole editor of Share’s special issue, a “major step in furthering the visibility of trans and gender non-conforming poets and lives.” One wonders, of course, if trans and non-binary people were the primary audience for this announcement at all: to shield its readers from ignorance, Soto’s announcement also explains the significance of releasing the issue in time for Trans Day of Remembrance, explaining the annual memorial by invoking a recent trans teen’s murder.

What would a poetics against quietist liberal assuaging look like? One strategy is to denounce it, bring uncomfortable emotion—anger—to the fore, and direct it against the institutions and individuals who reinscribe a cisgender, heteronormative, white, and masculine center of mainstream poetics. The criticisms both in #BeyondSpecialIssue and in Twitter conversations around the hashtag exemplify this strategy, though they do so using energy that could be spent on something else.

Gloria Anzaldúa, in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, describes a river on which both sides of a political moment exist: the stance and its counterstance. “The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against.” Anzaldúa notes the standstill that this theatre creates, each side playing a part ad infinitum, trapped in the roles that keep them interlocked “in mortal combat.” Mortal combat, here, is that deadly expenditure of energy. It is a callout on social media; thinkpieces on whether there are enough visible trans people; correcting people who misgender me under my breath, then louder; a yearlong, third-party check on gender in mainstream literary publications.

Why do writing institutions like Poetry necessitate third-party checks like the VIDA Count in the first place? Part of the theatre is the trick of counting. Institutions know how to count: they simply refuse to. The game of counting is often used to obstruct and prolong the time it takes to move, make progress, get ahead. Those who are not interested in getting ahead ask others, who usually do not have the access, power, or ease, to do the counting instead.

We who have “special issues” are not the only ones equipped to imagine what might be right. We have a lived perspective to contribute; we have a stake that is higher than anyone else’s. But deferring to us to give out answers is yet another expression of indifference—another expression of I have no stake in this.

So long as the “diversity problem” is to be solved, we will continue to have panels, keynotes, and special issues designed to teach those in the majority—in this case, cisgender people—again that we exist. We will be asked to explain how and why again and again. But couldn’t the problem be…? But have you considered…? I didn’t know that. I couldn’t have imagined.

These shows of disbelief encourage further discussion: that the part of the marginalized is to come closer, lean in, pull up to the level of the institution. The institution still directs the speed and grain of progress—what one might call a theatre of delay. On the institution’s terms, we ask as Hong demonstrates, “but a little more please?”, and hope to eke, maybe, a living. That it is so difficult to be anointed as one of those exceptions, to have one’s writing and editing be valued enough to be paid, is what motivates some contributors of #BeyondSpecialIssue to all suggest or demand ongoing financial support first and foremost for trans and non-binary writers.

How quickly the mainstream may shift its tastes can be seen in how new poets especially are being encouraged to wear their marginalizations like a badge. Rather than begrudgingly giving “a little more” to those writing within the lines, the new institutional practice for fostering non-white-cis-straight-male poets has been to shower acceptable marginalized writers with guilt-assuaging resources, access, and prestige.

Those resources may include those rare fellowships which, though substantial in sum, are often fleeting and temporary, and almost never include medical insurance, let alone trans medical insurance. However, these fellowships offer something much more valuable: recognition, the eventual payoff of rallying one’s community, positing all people of color in one camp and queer and trans people in others. We have proven that we care for our camps. We have proven that we want and need to write to each other.

Care, in a country where survival is tied to commerce, can be hijacked by commerce. The will to survive can disguise a will to profit. Fostering community can flip, underhandedly, into a messy web of tit-for-tats between a representational few whose audiences become, finally, large enough to be lucrative, followed enough for their words to be fruitful, to be valued enough to be picked for power and resources, even if their content directly implicates the gatekeepers of those resources. In the theatre of delay, who is to say that mortal combat can’t be waged between the pages of pocketbooks?

Without an invitation, there’s a new way in: bring your own audience. Mainstream poetry will publish us, but won’t learn how to edit us. Appointing a special-issues writer who speaks and edits for many means that there can be very few who rise to prominence, very few who reap the benefits beneath the institution’s gleaming awnings, and very few contesting, discussing, and variegating the field of trans poetics with visibility. What’s most ugly about tokenization is that it continues to quarantine those in power from knowing and caring about those who aren’t. Plucking one editor for a whole trans and gender non-conforming community means that one doesn’t have to deal with all of them—that one can choose not to hear those who may be willing to speak critically of the institution’s limited action, its theatre of delay.

This is my special issue: that our most prominent poetry institutions are demonstrating a type of taste that absolves cisgender white liberal guilt, and that that encourages marginalized poets to quickly identify and file up in order to be included. It doesn’t matter what the mechanism of the day is. As Hong wrote, marginalized writers who kept within quietist lines were the ones most favored. As I write merely four years later, it has become more popular to write excoriations of privilege or accounts of our trauma, but within the halls of its perpetrators, lest those institutions be accused of not working hard enough to include them—and to pay them, too.

This may also be why fellow trans poets are calling for Poetry to hire many trans and GNC poets to serve continuously on their editorial staff. Does each of us hope to be one of them, to steal away the gatekeeper’s latch? As I was writing this essay, I had a submission out to the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and had work accepted in Poetry. I have a book coming out with a major university press, a university that was named after a man who not only enslaved people but also knowingly made a profit off of it. No, I am not absolved of any of this—ambition or history. But I submitted to Poetry because I want to talk. Moreover, I want to disagree. Trans writers, thanks to publications like Vetch and THEM, have just begun to talk to each other in public rather than private, unburying the bodies, names, and voices of those who never had an archive. It is not enough to suffer in private with each other. It is also not enough to suffer so someone else can witness that suffering as a requisite for our joy.

To be silenced not only once by history but a second time—by a prominent institution—was perhaps the most painful indignity when the issue was unceremoniously canceled early last month. Accepted contributors to the Trans/GNC issue of Poetry were informed over email that the issue was no longer happening thanks to a spate of recent criticism. There is no announcement to link to, or stance to counterstance. As of this writing, neither Poetry, nor Share, nor Soto has made a public statement on its cancellation. It was only through following other trans and non-binary writers on Twitter that I and other writers would have known at all. Memory, lest we forget, is the longest delay of all.

What would it be to stop playing our parts in the theatres of those who won’t value us readily? What I love about literature is that, at its best, it is a record of consciousness. Consciousness which moves through a process just as our bodies continuously renew: food, rest, movement. And so for those of us who have survived trauma, the literature we write and read may also be a record of how we—the collective we—live in and beyond our “special issues.”

Rather than tokenization, emerging poets need these communities the most: writing communities that recognize their identities as in line with political and historical movements and memories, where each line of experiences—of immigration, transition, domination—have histories of poetic strategies not just of resistance but of thinking and being. Strategies that showed our value to ourselves. Before writing about being trans was profitable, it was how we taught each other to live.