Following the republishing of her book Impersonation, Joy Ladin spoke with Doubleback Books editorial intern Pema Donnelly about the revision process of republishing, as well as how her gender transition and relationship with God and religion inspired her poetry.
Pema Donnelly: In your author’s note at the beginning of Impersonation, you talk about what revising was like for you. Could you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with these poems that were coming from all different stages of your transition?
Joy Ladin: My first response to re-reading the book after it was accepted by you was shock. Over the years since its publication, I had occasionally reread individual poems that became regulars at readings. But I hadn’t read it as a whole since the first edition was published in 2015. In addition to being struck by the need for an organization that would make it easier to see the connection between the relations to gender expressed when I wrote each poem, there were a number of poems that simultaneously seemed to cry out for revision, and feel too foreign to re-enter imaginatively. They were my poems, I remembered writing them, but after years of living as rather than struggling to become and grow into myself, they didn’t feel like mine any more.
As I worked on them, I realized how much my relation to gender when I wrote them had shaped my poetics. Poetics grow out of the problems we are wrestling with when we write—they are ways of using language to explore, or clarify, or navigate, or avoid, or resolve those problems. For example, the earliest poems in Impersonation were written when I was in the closet, hiding my trans identity behind a dissociated male persona. That created two poetics-shaping problems: though I wanted to write poems that were coherent and in some ways true, because I wasn’t present in my body or life, I had little vivid experience, feelings, or even memories to draw on, and because I was in the closet, I dared not say anything that revealed my gender dysphoria or female gender identification. These problems led me to write persona poems about feelings, experiences, and memories that weren’t mine, but which indirectly reflected an unspeakable sense of dislocation, loss, and (internal) exile which, after fifteen years of living as myself, seem like a bad dream. That made it excruciating to revise those poems – to once again approach writing as something that couldn’t reveal or even be about me.
There are three other poetics-defining relations to gender represented in the book. The poetics of my pre-transition poems were defined by trying to explore or express my struggles with gender in ways that are so abstracted that no one would recognize them. The transition poems were driven by a bundle of exciting new (to me) problems. I was trying to speak from a female subject position I hadn’t yet embodied, and to create language for feelings, fears, and losses that, so far as I knew, no trans poet had yet expressed. I was also, for the first time, trying to write as myself, the person I knew myself to be but had not yet grown into—a problem that lead to me writing a lot in what I think of as the prophetic second-person, as a future voice addressing my struggling, unformed self. Writing about a process of becoming I was in the midst of made it impossible to reach what I now think of as endings or conclusions—like fragments of existential rainbows, the poems begin and end in the middle. And finally, even as I was trying to express the excitement and ecstasy of becoming, because my transition was bound up with the breakup of my home, family, and marriage, I needed to do so in a way that acknowledged the sufferings of those I loved – sufferings I caused by finally being true to myself. I couldn’t revise these poems until I gave up trying to force on them a clarity and conclusion that, I realized, negated the problems that summoned them into being. The only section that was easy to revise was the last one, poems about living as, rather than becoming, an openly trans, female-identified person. Even though I don’t write much about that these days, that relation to gender, and representational problems that grow out of it, are much closer to those I live today.
PD: You mentioned that the “Transit of Venus” sequence felt very ambitious. What does this sequence mean to you, and how do you feel about it in relation to the book now?
JL: The “Transit of Venus” section represented what were then completely new ways of writing for me—writing about feelings in the present (actually, after 45 years in the closet, openly writing about my feelings was new to me); writing about my life in the midst of living it, rather than fictional lives or abstracted reflections of bits of my life; and what was then a new practice of writing poems composed solely from language sampled from women’s magazines, something which became a staple composition technique, but which then was an effort to learn what it meant to write from a female subject position, as a woman. Those poems were also among my earliest efforts to create language to express transgender experiences and interiority, particularly for the tumultuous emotions surrounding gender transition and the process of becoming. But in the personal sense, the most ambitious aspect of these poems was that they weren’t only efforts to represent and express transgender experience—they were efforts to imagine becoming myself and, in a real sense, my first experiences of being myself. To me, they were crucial parts of gender transition; in fact, I considered their earliest drafts as the beginning of my transition—a crucial test of whether I could write poetry as myself, and so—apologies for being so dramatic, but this was how I thought – of whether I could actually live as myself, or needed to die in order to end my life as a man.
PD: During the revision process, did any favorites emerge for you? Were there any surprises to revising? For instance, a poem you initially liked didn’t make the final cut, or the opposite, a poem you didn’t like initially made the cut with a few changes?
JL: My biggest surprises came when I went back to poems I cut out of the original manuscript—I have musician envy, so thought of them as outtakes from the original sessions—and found previously unpublished poems some, including “Unmaking Love, “Reincarnation,” and “Letter to the Gender Critical,” and the “Stories” sequence, that seemed relevant and strong enough to include.
I was also surprised that the father poems in the “Post Mortem” section felt important to me after all these years, and by the sharpness and vividness of some of the “Mind-Body Problem” poems, such as “Photograph 1934” and “To Say You Lived— they reminded me of a kind of concentration and distillation of image I left behind when I left the closet.
It was a relief to cut three poems I included in the original book even though I had misgivings about them – “Still a Guy,” “She,” and “Exegetical Fingers.” Leaving them out made the book better.
PD: One of my favorite poems while reading Impersonation was “Filibustier”. I think it stands out as one of the more overtly political poems in the collection as well. Was there any specific moment that inspired this piece?
JL: I don’t remember a moment that inspired “Filibustier.” It grew out of techniques I learned during the study of modernist American techniques that became my dissertation and book, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry, in which I examined how Dickinson would fuse language representing different discourses together in ways that turned them into metaphors for one another. She does it much more concisely and mind-blowingly that I do, of course, but that technique gave me a way to express the intensely ambivalent experience of exploring gender transition while still being in the closet without veering, as I often did at the time, into shame or self-hatred. I suddenly realized that, like gender transition, voting (the metaphorical discourse that makes up most of the poem) is an act of self-expression that is done in private, a self-defining choice no one else witnesses or knows, a way of trying to change the world that may mean a lot to the individual (my mother was a devoted member of the League of Women Voters, and came from a refugee family that saw voting as a gift and sacred responsibility) but which is imperceptible to others. I feared that gender transition would cut me off from society. As I expanded the voting metaphor, the poem surprised me by speaking about gender transition in a way I hadn’t imagined—as a private commitment that would strengthen my social participation, a prophetic glimpse of what happened years later after I started living as myself.
PD: A lot of your poems tend to incorporate God or religious references in some way. What is your relationship to religion & how would you say it has changed & evolved over the course of writing Impersonation’s poems?
JL: I’ve written a lot about my relationship to God and religion (two different things!) and how they are bound up for me with my trans identity, including chunks of my memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, which I wrote before Impersonation, and a book-length work of trans theology, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, which I wrote after it. Long story short, though my family wasn’t religious, I have always had a sense of God’s presence that sustained me through decades of gender-related suicidal depression. My family didn’t talk about God, and I learned as soon as I started taking writing workshops in junior high school that American poets aren’t supposed to talk about God either, unless we occasionally want to do so skeptically or angrily. So though I’ve always written poems with the word “God” in them, for most of my poetic career, I kept my actual relationship with God, like my female gender identification, in the closet. As I did about gender in my pre-transition poems, I wrote about God from a distance, in ways that make God seem like an idea I’m questioning rather than someone who feels like an important part of my life. You can see those closeted techniques for talking about God in several poems in Impersonation, including the first, “A Story About God,” and the last, “Making Love,” in which God is part of a metaphor for queer sexual ecstasy. But in “Gender is Not the Only Transition,” the sequence that makes up much of the post-transition section and was written after most of the rest of the book, I come close to directly representing parts of my actual relationship with God (though still through the veil of the voices to which the poems in the sequence are attributed).
PD: Finally, if you could, what would you like to say to those who are becoming?
JL: “All beginnings are hard”—that’s a Jewish saying that applies directly to becoming. Becoming new or truer versions of ourselves is hard, because it means living through a series of beginnings. Every time we come out to someone, it’s the beginning of a new relationship. Every time we re-examine our ways of living or thinking or talking or acting from the perspective of the selves we are growing into, it’s a new beginning. When I was in the throes of becoming, everything felt like a beginning: dressing, walking, talking, seeing old friends, going to the bank, sitting on the subway, kissing, waking up as myself rather than to male persona I had to suffer and maintain, even my emotions, felt new, beginnings of a life and self I was just discovering, making up as I went along.
Because all beginnings are hard, becoming takes toughness, courage, resilience, and hope—and it also takes compassion toward oneself and those who are affected by our becoming. We have to learn to enlist the most grown-up parts of ourselves in caring for the newborn parts of ourselves. As toddlers teach us when they are learning to walk, becoming takes falling down, getting hurt, pulling ourselves up, lurching forward again.
Most of all I want to tell those who are becoming that though the world may not be ready for you, though it may seem utterly hostile to you, it needs you—because you, and only you, can be the person you are becoming.
Joy Ladin has long worked at the tangled intersection of literature and trans identity. She has published ten books of poetry, including her latest collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press, 2022); 2021 National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Ana (EOAGH); and Lamda Literary Award finalists Impersonation and Transmigration. A new collection, Family, is forthcoming from Persea in 2024. She has also published a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life, and a groundbreaking work of trans theology, Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Her writings have been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. Many of her poems, essays, and videos of her presentations are available at joyladin.wordpress.com.
Pema Donnelly is a poet and interdisciplinary creative born and raised in Southern California. In her work, she explores representing queer joy, silver linings, and aspects of her own mental health journey. Today, Pema attends the University of California, Irvine, where she studies English and Education. When she is not studying, you may find her visiting your local estate sales or spending time with her senile tuxedo cat, Rose.