Ahead of the release of Gender Flytrap, her debut collection, Zoë Estelle Hitzel took time to speak with Sundress editorial intern, Jacquelyn Scott, to discuss the order of the book, form, the role hunger played in the work, and transitioning.
Jacquelyn Scott: What made you order the collection the way you did rather than beginning with transition and working your way backward?
Zoë Estelle Hitzel: It never occurred to me to start with transition. I know transition is the part of being trans that gets the most attention and tends to be sensationalized as the defining aspect of being trans in American culture, but really, it’s only one part of a long journey, and by no means the end of it. Or the beginning!
It gets attention because it’s highly visible and something cis people tend not to understand. There’s plenty of writing, documentaries, television, etc. that frames transition as some kind of freakshow spectacle for cis people to voyeur out on. I wanted to avoid all that. I wanted to write without falling into the Yet Another Trans Autobiography microgenre, and to focus more on what has thus far defined my experience of being a trans person—confronting and unlearning all the toxic garbage I learned when I was raised as a cis man in a misogynist, transphobic, cissexist, and specifically transmisogynist culture, while dealing with how people respond to my trans body in such a world. I had to rehumanize myself after all the dehumanizing stuff I internalized that’s inescapable in such an environment. So it made more sense to me to start with that vicious learning process and to proceed from there.
JS: Why did you choose to alternately flip the poems from first to the second person?
ZEH: I’m not sure how ethical this is, but part of the flipping is that I wanted to give cis readers the experience of gender dysphoria as best I could, and to find language for the parts of being trans (lots of them) that we don’t seem to have language for yet, with the hope that having language for these experiences would help trans people understand themselves better, while also helping cis people better understand the experience of living inside a trans body.
I also really wanted to put the reader in the body of the speaker, so these experiences would be more accessible. Second person grabs the reader by the shoulders and doesn’t let go. It stares you down as you stare back. It drags you along with the narrator in a more immediate way than first person does. The distance between subject and object, between reader and stuff-happening-on-the-page, is greatest in third person, less in first person, but almost nonexistent in second person, and I wanted the reader to be right there with the speaker in her body as all this stuff was happening.
But some of the stuff was too … hyperpersonal, or maybe just specific to my experience, for the second person to feel like it worked, so I used first person for those. There is also the rhetorical consideration, where in a space that the “you” and the “I” weave in and out, what does that say about identity, about the space between you and I, about the idea of separateness versus togetherness we all learn to carry with us throughout our lives? The toggle is meant to flaunt that feeling of separateness and blur the distinction between reader and speaker, deepening immersion while giving the reader room to breathe once in a while. At least I hope it does that.
JS: Can you speak to form? Is there a way that the poem form limited you in writing this? Is there a way that it liberated you?
ZEH: Writing poems was primarily liberating. There is so much freedom in poetry! I tend to go to poetry when I am seeking language for an experience I have no immediate language for or something that the available language fails to fully capture.
One way I approach poetry is the act of pinning some ethereal, flighty thing down, and of exploring something I don’t fully understand until it makes sense, which sounds like an essay thing now that I say it. I think of an essay as driven by inquiry, and poetry by lyric, but they can, of course, do more than these.
Beyond driving impulses, I write differently when I am thinking in lines and images rather than thinking in sentences or paragraphs. I considered writing these as essays and drafted some, but those essays felt didactic and explanatory compared to what poetry produced. Poetry‘s capacity for comparison and figure, its urge to be compact and concise, and the potency that the breath and the line can give each image or idea seemed more necessary to this project than the freewheeling and often expansive way I approach essay.
That said, the book is driven by narrative as much as it is by lyric and by inquiry, so trying to think of it as more one genre than the other seems disingenuous. After I wrote the book, I thought of it as a lyrical memoir, since it does memoir stuff (telling my story) but often in a lyrical way (wordplay, focus on sound and breath and rhythm, etc). While I was writing on the bus home from work and during artist residencies and on planes from the coast to the south to the midwest to the pacific northwest and in generous friends‘ living rooms, the writing sprung forth as poems, so I wanted to trust that, while also knowing that as a whole, the project was telling a story, my story, and inquiring at why things are as they have been. It was liberating to sit down and write without concern for genre or form, and have poems come forth, and let that be enough.
Fortunately, the decision to trust the writing ended up being a productive limit rather than a stifling one, as it kept me writing when I had so much else going on I needed to attend to.
JS: How does hunger, both literally and metaphorically, play a part in your poetry?
ZEH: I have never thought about the part hunger plays in my poetry! Is there much hunger in this book? There is certainly hunger as in desire. There is also a bit of eating. I do like to eat. Having starved and been denied access to food, I value food and am grateful whenever circumstances align to allow me access to food.
Food is necessary. It is universal. It is basic and exotic and a truly well-done eating experience can be transcendent. I did not think about any of this when writing the book, however. Well, I did try to give a wedge of a clementine to my roommate’s cat, Benji. Benji sniffed it, pawed it, then left it alone, and it broke my heart because I thought of the clementine as a heartfelt gift, and Benji discarded it like a dead rat skull. Not much to hunt in a clementine, I suppose, when you’re a cat.
I was amazed when I wrote the book at how much of my money went to food, and how much I was struggling to make ends meet due to food expenses and trans medical expenses (also rent, which is theft). I was also learning I have some kind of gastric issue wherein my body can’t operate without food like it used to. I just get fatigued and belchy and acidy when I don’t eat now. Acid reflux, perhaps.
So I was trying to eat regularly and to indulge my appetite since I had some money with which to do so when I was teaching, and Knoxville has plenty of places to eat, including at least one great Thai restaurant. I’m a sucker for good Thai food. Oh, you asked about metaphorical hunger too. Good.
Hunger and desire are close friends, but not the same. Hunger is always there, as a basic need your body must meet, as an animal reality, as a chemical and biological and ecological process. To fight hunger is to fight yourself. To eat is to care for yourself. To feed your friends is to nourish them, so I like to cook for others when I can. Desire is perhaps a type of hunger. Or maybe hunger is a type of desire. I’m not sure which one is subsumed under the other, or even if the Venn diagram overlaps, or where it would.
I think there is more choice and control involved with desire than hunger. Hunger will be there whether you want it there or not. You can’t not have a belly. You can’t not eat—your body will revolt and drive you to food with a ravenousness you have never known, or make you eat things that are in fact not food. Desire, however. You can target desire. You can decide on what you desire, make choices, forego things to make the payoff more pleasant down the road, etc. The consequences seem less dire when one does not fulfill a desire, versus when one goes hungry.
In this regard, perhaps my transness falls under the category of a hunger, as it lacks the intent of a desire, and possesses the immediacy and physical consequences when denied that desire can’t hold a candle to. Maybe every poem in the book is a hunger poem in that way. My body hungering to become my body. My body as the grumbling stomach, shooting its pangs through me. My body’s hunger for estrogen, for progesterone, for breasts and full hips. My hunger to be seen for who I am.
JS: Did you have a difficult time writing about the emotionality of a trans childhood?
ZEH: No more difficult a time than I did living it. In a way, it was perhaps healing to go back to all these disparate moments, memories I have from a traumatizing time, and assemble them into something that makes sense. But it feels more honest to say it was very painful and one of the most difficult things I have done in my brief life, to revisit and relive those experiences so I could do them justice on the page.
I wrote the Jerry Springer poem, which is how I thought of the first section of the book for the duration of drafting and revising it, at a writing residency. I had been out for four years, in transition for two, and homeless for about half a year, sleeping on other people’s couches, in their guest bedrooms, drifting from LA to Knoxville to St Louis then back to Knoxville.
In those first few years of transition, the world I discovered a trans woman lives in struck me as so terrifyingly different from the world I thought existed when I was undercover as a cis guy before I came out. Everything was different, especially social interactions, what people thought was ok to say to me, how people thought it was ok to treat me, the efficacy of any and all systems involving humans to follow through on their promises. So I was asking myself over and over again, Damn, was this worth it?
I knew I’d be sacrificing a lot to transition, but I didn’t think it would be so much and so everywhere and so all the time. I still haven’t decided if it was worth doing. Some days it feels less worthwhile than others, and on those days, I think of Nietzsche. “There is no price too high for the privilege of owning yourself.” Sometimes that feels like bullshit though, because Freddy was a cis white guy living under a very different set of privileges and oppressions than I. So I’m never 100% he’s right, but sometimes it gives me comfort.
Some days my body gets to be a source of joy, which is I guess how it feels to not be living with gender dysphoria constantly knocking at the inside of your skull. Anyway, this was my daily as I approached my time at the residency, which I had cleared away to focus on my writing. I kept thinking about my transness, how I came to be aware of it, when I knew, how I knew, when I missed a chance to know, when I edged close to self-awareness and/or self-acceptance but backed off due to any of a thousand reasons.
The absurdity of my origin story stuck with me—Wow, I learned trans people exist by watching them get shamed to pieces and physically attacked on TV—and I kept orbiting all these memories that would float up from the aether, one after another, like, one memory would trigger another, and that new one another, and so on, and no matter how much I drafted, how much I caught from the aether and pinned to the page, it always felt inadequate or insufficient or not enough. The residency was a week, but it took me months to finally assemble what I thought the poem needed, like, to grab the other contextualizing bits needed for the reader to emotionally and narratively access someone else’s experience of becoming self-aware while also denying that awareness while also not having language to know exactly what you were becoming aware of.
The biggest challenge wasn’t dealing with the emotions of revisiting that material—I have CPTSD, so revisiting highly-loaded emotional memories is just part of my daily life that I should be in therapy to start healing from but I can’t afford it so I just read books about healing from trauma and try to use what hacks I can, whoopdeedo, thanks America—but trying to find a framework that would let me describe this part of my life to someone who would never have to go through something like it, while being honest with myself about what actually happened, while finally finding the language for things I wish I’d had language for twenty or thirty years ago? Yeah, that was tough.
The JSP, though drafted in 2016, dogged me throughout writing the book. Sometimes I’d read it and think I should cut it from the book, sometimes I’d read it and think a certain poem was perfect, then return to it a week later and be like, ‘What was I thinking, this is terrible.’ I was revising it from February of 2016, when I drafted it, up until I sent the final manuscript to the publisher in spring of 2019, and then again whenever I had a chance to make small changes to it during the final phases of putting the book together with the publisher and the press.
It’s difficult to make art out of pain sometimes, but another dimension of the struggle there was how to make something so sinister and wicked and cruel and hurtful into something beautiful, or moving, or transformative. Art is always a subtle alchemy like that, right? Turning one thing into another, an experience into language into an experience inside the reader’s skull. I thought taking a lyrical approach to the narrative and the inquiry could at least address those concerns. Maybe it worked.
JS: Can you speak to the significance of each of the four sections? How and why did you divide these sections as you did?
ZEH: I wrote the first section of the book as a single poem during a residency, and broke it up into individual poems and added new poems to it for years after the initial draft, but I drafted the rest of the book, save a handful of poems, on the bus.
I hate using public transit because it’s a space I feel super visible and vulnerable, but I had no other way of getting to and from my teaching job when I lived in Knoxville, so I spent an hour on the bus into town in the mornings, and an hour on the bus back home in the evenings. I’d put in my headphones and write while the city crawled past me and someone else drove. So the occasion of writing the poems was a slight guiding factor for organization—the JSP was a residency poem, the latter half of the book was mostly bus poems.
But what I decided on for the sectioning had more to do with the narrative that occurred between poems than anything so precious as occasion. The first section was childhood—struggling with self-awareness, trying to understand yourself and your transness.
The second section was adolescence—having self-awareness but denying it with inebriation, with drugs, with hiding in a fraternity, with lying to people about who you are until you can’t.
The third section is the transition section—the struggle leading up to deciding to transition, finally accepting that my transness is a part of me that hasn’t gone away for over 20 years no matter how much I’ve wanted it to or tried to chase away my knowledge of it so it probably won’t go away ever and is just as much a part of me as is the fact that I am six feet tall or right-handed or have stretch marks on my belly. This section follows what happened to me when transitioning, like trying to get the help I needed through the medical system to transition, dealing with the absurdity of the fact that it took me 27 years to accept my transness and I am finally ready to take action and now there are all these idiotic roadblocks to obtaining the care I need, the joy of that first moment estrogen entered my bloodstream and my body seemed to hug me, thank me, reward me for my labor to listen to it and understand it and act in its best interests, basically being forced to take depression medication as a prerequisite to being allowed access to hormones, etc.
The fourth section I thought of as the section wherein we inhabit the daily. It tries to answer a question: We no longer pass as a cis person, so what is it like to live in a transphobic world with a visibly trans body? I didn’t want the book to end with transition. That would make transition seem like the end of a journey, would literally position it as the end of a story, and then the denouement would be something like, “Oh hey I’m a girl now and me and my body lived happily ever after.” Fuck no, it is so not like that! So I wanted to portray what happens a year, two years, five years into transition. Transition didn’t solve all my problems. In fact, it added more, many that I was unprepared to deal with but muddied through/am muddying through despite that. The end of the journey is death. Until then, there is a section in the book about life during transition.
I’m not sure if there is an after for transition. The other trans folks I’ve spoken with talk about it like it just goes on forever. I hope it does not go on forever. But for now, the book gives the reader some of that and avoids portraying transition as a happily ever after. So that’s how the book is organized. I felt a linear approach to time—having that firm and simple framework—would give the reader something to hold on to when the chaos revs up, as it does.
JS: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?
ZEH: I hope trans readers can find camaraderie, and some language for experiences they don’t have language for yet. I hope cis readers can better understand what it’s like to be trans, or at least to have been this one tran for the length of a book and better know our struggles and what the world looks like through trans eyes. Bonus if it produces lasting social change. A girl can hope.
JS: What projects are you working on right now?
ZEH: I am not writing at the moment. After my hospital visit last winter, which came after over a year of unemployment and lead to a few months of homelessness, I’ve been focused on getting my life together, like, finding semi-permanent shelter, settling in a single city for more than a few months, securing access to food, securing access to medicine. None of these things were at all tenuous or things I had to struggle for before I transitioned, but now I can’t operate on the assumption that I will always have them.
I got a letter today saying I won’t have access to food stamps anymore in Missouri because they only give them to you for three months, or some other bureaucratic nonsense. I lost my access to Medicaid in June because I applied for it while I was scoring tests part-time and I made too much money somehow to qualify for social assistance, even though I’m still broke and still have the health conditions I do and still need to go to the doctor and to eat.
Since I lost Medicaid, I have to find a new doctor (and find money to pay for one out of pocket since I’m unemployed and don’t have health insurance) to renew my hormones and the meds I take for my mental illnesses. I’m moving out of the apartment I found in March as well as going to a small college town in rural Missouri to teach a course about troubling genre for the fall.
After that, no idea. I’m trying to move to Canada as well, since I’ve been out as a tran for seven years out and am five years into transition and because of how America is designed, I’m still struggling to meet my basic needs, still struggling to transition, still struggling to attain any degree of security enough to know I’ll be able to feed, clothe, shelter, and care for myself next month. So the project I’m working on now is surviving, and trying to get to a place (maybe Canada) where the things I need aren’t perpetually out of reach, or reached for a brief period and then yoinked away.
Writing-wise, when I write, I’m trying to write about hormone replacement therapy, both my experience of undergoing it and recent developments in HRT science, and why there need to be dramatic changes implemented in both how the medical community treats trans patients and what exactly that treatment should look like. But the writing just isn’t happening (see above struggle to meet basic needs). I guess I’m also looking for employment after the fall. Maybe I’ll be a barista at Starbucks. Their insurance program covers trans healthcare. Or a Canadian. Who knows. It’s a big future out there.
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Zoë Estelle Hitzel earned her MA in creative writing studying poetry at Northern Arizona University and her MFA in creative nonfiction at Oregon State University. Her writing has appeared in Uproot, The Fourth River, Blue Lyra Review, entropy, and elsewhere. She has taught English as a lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and will be the Fall 2019 Ofstad writer in residence at Truman State University. She has edited various literary publications, most recently nonfiction for Best of the Net. Hitzel is a citizen of the wind, currently stalled over Missouri. Hitzel freelances professionally as a writer and editor, scores standardized tests in multiple languages, reads tarot cards, and drums in the blues band, Deadwood.
Jacquelyn Scott is a student at The University of Tennessee where she is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and The Write Launch. Find her on Twitter @jacquelynlscott.