July 2, 2022

Notes on Female Visionary Poetry: Trans Women Poets Writing Themselves into Existence

By Zoe Tuck

Aviva Bogart, Inside God’s Body, 2020

If you turn to page 515 of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, co-edited by Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert and published by Nightboat in 2013, you’ll see a picture of me taken by my partner Britt. The setting is the old apartment we used to share with friends on Twenty-Second Street and Telegraph in Oakland, California, and there are books and art and an LP by The Men propped up cheekily in the background. There’s a little bit of the prophetic here, in that Britt teases out a softness I didn’t think anyone could see from my face which hadn’t yet been softened by hormones and the feeling of living in greater alignment with my gender. Across my collarbone, my name: Zoe Tuck, newly and somewhat aspirationally claimed at the time I was submitting these poems to Trace and TC. My closest encounter with the visionary or the prophetic in my own life was writing the poetry and poetic statement which this image accompanied.

I’m using the word prophecy outside of a strictly religious sense and more like its Greek bones: before + speech. To prophesize was, for me, to prefigure in the sense that I was writing my future self into existence. In order to accomplish this task, a lot of things had to come together. I had to carry the seed of myself as a woman around until I felt safe to plant it. I had to despair of ever feeling like it would be safe or possible. I had to stoke my despair: by loving women without ever being able to be with them as a fellow woman, by soaking up media related to the life I thought I couldn’t have, like Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For and Michelle Tea’s The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America.

Separated from femaleness, or so I thought, by a chasm, I fetishized it. I put WOMAN on a pedestal, while putting myself into some really twisty, low, self-hating places. I immersed myself in a kind of old-fashioned goddess worship, soaking up art like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and, more locally, Bonnie Cullum’s Dark Goddess theater rituals at The VORTEX theater in Austin, Texas. In addition to my poetry studies, I read writers like Monica Sjöö and Barbara G. Walker. In case you don’t know Walker’s work, she is the author of The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. “I sometimes forget how wrapped up your womanhood is in the occult,” my partner told me, when I read her a draft of this piece.

And it’s true: at a certain point in my life, I wanted to know the story of women from the creation of the world. I wanted to be initiated into femininity as into a mystery cult. And as both a woman I was dating (who I agonized about not being able to be in a queer relationship with), and my first poetry teacher (one of my biggest female role models) happened to use Barbara G. Walker’s tarot deck, that was the deck I learned on and the deck I would use for years to come. As you might expect from her titles above, the deck encodes various symbols of matriarchal belief into its imagery. Walker’s work naturalized the practice of using the symbolism of the occult—especially its divinatory practices like tarot—as the language in which to articulate my relationship with femininity.

Poetry, tarot, and femininity were three terms that had been braided together in my life, but aside from kari edwards, whom I never had the good fortune to meet, I had never even heard of a trans woman poet, and I needed to know that it was possible to be all of those things. The silence I heard from the world begat silence in me, so in order to write my poems, I used the cento form, which collages lines or phrases from others. In this act, I drew inspiration from Kathy Acker’s fuck you chutzpah and the Sumerian goddess Inanna, whom I had encountered in Dianne Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. This book, one of the inspirations for Alice Notley’s iconic The Descent of Alette, includes a story about Inanna in which she gets Enki drunk, thereby obtaining from him many supernatural powers.

I liked the idea of this. As a kid I had always been partial to Hermes, as depicted in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, stealing cattle from big brother Apollo but inventing the lyre in the process. This theft with a positive outcome calls to my mind the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, in which Jacob, through an act of deception, obtains his father’s blessing. I actually wrote a poem that imagines Jacob as trans avant la lettre—a notion that found some confirmation in Joy Ladin’s The Soul of the Stranger, in which she discusses moments in the Torah when various figures act in ways that take them outside of typical cisgender experience (i.e., donning an animal hide to counterfeit a certain kind of masculinity, like Jacob, or giving birth at an advanced age, like Sarah).

I knew, if sometimes at a preconscious level, that being a woman wasn’t given to me and that I might have to take it or trick my way into it. I’m apprehensive writing that. How like a man! I hear my imagined critics say, but I hope they will hear me when I say: I didn’t and don’t want to obtain womanhood in a way that leaves anyone bereft. I genuinely believe that there is no scarcity of being female and that my “theft” impoverishes no one.

So, I wrote my cento series, to which I applied the cumbrous title “Suck the Smell of the Sun from Textos or Chance Encounters” (because my Texan tongue has always had trouble saying the word “texts”). I took books from my collection and from the library and I assigned them each the tarot card that I thought best described them, shuffled and wrote. And, without hyperbole, what I wrote were prayers, spells, keys, invocations to the next chapter of my life.

According to Sonny Nordmarken’s “Radiant Selves: How Transgender People Are Remaking Gender in Discourse, Narrative, and Practice,” writing my future into existence like this makes me a citizen theorist, engaging in coming into transness through my use of language. “As such, in directing others in how to honor their identities, gender minority self-performers perform themselves, thus, speaking themselves into being. This procedure is their technology of the self.” Having used this, what I would call spiritual technology to create a framework for understanding myself and being understood by others as a trans woman poet, I stepped into that confluence of roles and have dwelt there ever since.

Works Cited

  • Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972.
  • Joy Ladin. The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2018.
  • Sonny Nordmarken. “Radiant Selves: How Transgender People Are Remaking Gender in Discourse, Narrative, and Practice.” PhD dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2019, 122.
  • Trace Peterson and TC Tolbert, eds. Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2013.
  • Dianne Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper Perennial, 1983.

Zoe Tuck was born in Texas, became a person in California, and now lives in Massachusetts, where she is building the Threshold Academy. She cocurates Belladonna* Collaborative’s Close Distances Reading Series and co-edits Hot Pink Magazine. Zoe is the author of Soft Investigations (Daisy Mayhem Books, 2019) and Terror Matrix (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2014). Find out more at zoetuck.com.