“[I cultivate] the feeling of being devastated by words.”
Transit (Button Poetry, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Well, if I’m honest, it’s about riding the train & gender “transition.” I started taking testosterone during the years in which I had just begun living in Oakland, a 2 hour public transit commute away from where I go to school. Every day I would move between these two very different, very strange landscapes (Oakland with its racial/ economic violence visible on the surface of everything & Palo Alto with its enormous production of racialized/ classed precarity actively hidden from view). I didn’t know how to navigate that disjuncture, who I was in those spaces. At the same time my body was changing in ways that made others relate to me differently, making me unsure, always, of how I was being read. So, it was a strange, unsettling time where all of the usual contradictions of being a person in the world felt more palpable & the chapbook is about that feeling. Also, you know, my small sorrows & my father.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I’m not certain, but I think the oldest piece is “Bridge.” I wrote it in a gross hotel room in Charlotte, NC—I was there as a member of the Bay Area team at the 2012 National Poetry Slam. Retrospectively, this poem obviously catalyzed the project—it’s interested in transition & architecture & memory—but it took me a few years to figure that out. At the time, it was simply the first poem I had produced since undergrad that I liked & my first inkling that I hadn’t completely forgotten how to write.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Well, this chapbook mostly emerged while I was “co-coaching” the New Shit Show slam team in the summer of 2014. Part of the project of that team was to produce work together, to figure out how to workshop (for slam & in general) effectively, etc. So the process of making this chapbook was quite different than how I usually write (alone, or talking to myself while walking down the street, or in response to a particular event in my life), because so much of it came out of a workshop space where I was responding to other people, other poems, etc.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I like to think it’s arranged to tell a story, albeit a non-linear one & the title is just a pun. There’s a series of “theory” poems in the chapbook, one of which insists that theory is less about arriving at truth & more about arriving at a good pun, & the chapbook as a whole resists the impulse to pin down the “truth” about gender/ place/ identity.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Oh, I got really lucky. I love the cover of Transit, but my only involvement was sending a vague email about distorted images/ train tracks/ the color white.
What are you working on now?
I have a full-length book coming out soon from Ricochet Editions, an imprint of Gold Line Press, called Sympathetic Little Monster. It’s sort of Transit, but with slightly less narrative & more emphasis on themes of objectification, race, & image. Otherwise, I’ve been putzing around, working on my dissertation, which is, unsurprisingly, about trans[masculinity] & bad feelings.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Does the chapbook allow for something that the full-length book doesn’t? What?
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was weird because the book is so long. But as someone who cultivates the feeling of being devastated by words, I sensed that after I’d emerged from that novel, I would have a hard time finding something that could properly devastate me for a while. Any suggestions? Anyone?
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
This is an interesting question. The answer, obviously, is yes, though it’s hard to pin down exactly how & why. Partially, I think Transit tries to enact a trans politics of anti-linearity, the self as a multiple singular, etc. To that end, the story tries to curve rather than proceed in a straight line & the pronouns in the book are always shifting. I think the brevity of the chapbook form let me get away with this—to present a simultaneously fractured & coherent speaker—in a way I’m not sure a longer project could sustain.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Ocean Vuong, Ross Gay, Anne Sexton, Lauren Berry, I technically do have a Mary Oliver tattoo, Richard Siken, Audre Lorde, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison (she’s a poet, ok?), & Suji Kwock Kim
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
There’s a series of poems titled “Once” that break up the sections. Originally, it was one poem, but breaking them up & using them to string the book together was the moment it really cohered for me.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
I did. Or, rather, I got my computer to read it out loud to me. That experience was neat because it gave me a better sense of how the line-breaks were functioning to pace the text & what each poem did divorced from the emotion I can’t help but read into my own work. Reading it all together gave me a sense of how images repeated & let me identify when those repetitions worked & when the image felt dead from too much repetition. It also gave me a clearer sense of where the narrative went straight ahead & where it diverged or multiplied. Plus, this was the first time I’d had my computer read a substantial block of text to me & it was weirdly intimate—I feel much less skeptical about technology these days.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Oh, anything, though I mostly read academic books these days. Queer theory is good for mixing ideas with wit, or ideas as wit. Ethnography is surprisingly good for narrative & landscape & portraits.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I wrote this book for myself as a bewildered little trans kid, so I hope most to reach the bewildered kids of this strange cultural moment we’re in.
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). His poetry has appeared/ is forthcoming in The Offing, Vinyl, The Indiana Review, Bat City Review, cream city review, The Journal & elsewhere. A Cave Canem fellow & poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, Cam is currently a PhD candidate at Stanford University.
So now winter is a place I visit
but don’t belong to. I pass the time
in a room that isn’t childhood, but
does that matter? My mother
is still down the hall & I am still
watching men on screen break
into other men & the once-snowfield
of my body becomes a flood that shatters
me each night. I thought I was finished
with desire & what a relief. To not want
to reach outside the skin. To touch
what isn’t mine, or anything at all.
To not be a tongue in a glass jar
in an ocean. But the pills make me
dream in oceans. I wake up crusted
with someone else’s salt.
I become a boy who touches
the backs of strangers’ necks
in public—in love with the soft
of his own throat.
This makes every man
on the train into something
that could kill me. Don’t worry.
That’s a good thing.
It means I got on the train.
It means I still have a body.
(previously appeared in The Bakery)