NOTE: We first accidentally published an outdated version of this interview; it has since been updated with the correct information.
Subhaga Crystal Bacon's first poetry collection, Elegy with a Glass of Whiskey (BOA, 2003), was awarded the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications in the United States and Canada, and she has presented essays on Elizabeth Bishop in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, and Ouro Preto, Brazil. In addition, she has advised a college literary magazine, developed creative writing curricula, and judged academic and small press contests. Her third collection, Transitory, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2023.
In the following self-interview with Subhaga Crystal Bacon learn more about the author's thoughts around the responsibility of art, the ethics of remembrance, and documentary poetics at play in Transitory.
Q: What’s your connection to violence against transgender people?
A: The process of writing the poems in this book took me on a crucial journey of investigating my own gender. Responding to an interview in the book, Subject to Change: Trans Poetry and Conversation, the poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza said that “Investigating your own gender . . . allows you to experience the world in a new way . . . to be more sensitive to the oppression faced by those whose gender is not legible within this system.”
I’m from the generation that came of age with the Christine Jorgenson story, the Stonewall uprising, and the second wave of feminism. When I was in high school, a number of us read the Christine Jorgenson story with rapt attention. What did it mean to have what was then referred to as a “sex change?” Growing up, I knew myself as differently gendered. I thought I was a boy until I hit puberty, so there’s a way in which I had a gender dysphoric childhood. When I came out in college, there were few identity options. Because I was a “woman” in love with a “woman,” I was labeled a lesbian. I was never comfortable with the label because it just didn’t feel right. Inwardly, I had a very masculine identity that came through in the way I dressed and moved.
There are trans people in my family, and I have known trans people for decades. I dated a trans woman briefly in college. I frequented drag bars where a lot of the performers were navigating the trans life. I felt an affinity with the liminal nature of trans identity. I’m on a spectrum of gender nonconformity and consider myself nonbinary. When I think of myself, it’s often in a male persona. Writing this book, getting to know and coming to love its subjects, reified my own sense of gender.
Q: There’s a big gap between your books. How would you characterize those?
A: I often say that my first book took me almost 50 years to write! Of course, I actually wrote it in the eight years following my MFA from Warren Wilson. I’m—if not a late bloomer—a time lapse bloomer. In the years after Elegy, really up to around 2020, I had a very loose relationship with publication. I’ve been reluctant to engage the cycle of write, submit, resubmit, rinse, repeat. Somehow, submitting poems is more painful for me than their inevitable subsequent rejection! The pandemic brought me out of my shell—the climate was ripe for writing and starting to submit. A friend from my local writing group who runs Methow Press asked me pending my participation at a regional event, don’t you think it’s time for another book? That was Blue Hunger.
Transitory came out of the natural explosion of racial violence and Queer identities that blossomed in the past few years. Because the pandemic took many of us home to work, there were more opportunities to write, including for me an invitation to participate in a workshop on writing poems of protest in forms. That spawned the project that became Transitory.
Q: Isn’t this a hard book to read given its focus on murder?
A: Yes. I can’t apologize for that. Every trans murder is one that needs to be recognized. Every trans life needs to be recognized. By elegizing these 46 people and attuning myself and my poetics to the fifty-seven murdered in 2021, the thirty-eight in 2022, and fourteen (July) I’m shining a spotlight on the lives that were lost, the personalities, the loves, the individual qualities that make a person unique. We’re seeing an increase in not only physical violence, but psychic violence enacted in legislation. I hope that the poetry, both formal and free verse, I’ve created in Transitory, the stories of trans people lost interspersed with my own Queer journey, creates a kind of sonic boom that reaches all around the world to shatter the silence about anti-trans violence in spirit and matter. If we can start to recognize the violence in our silence, the world may become a safer place for trans people.