On November 7th, award-winning poet Jenny Johnson came to Plymouth State University for a reading from her new book, In Full Velvet. Johnson’s performance was part of the Eagle Pond Authors’ Series, which brings diverse and revered poets to Plymouth State’s campus throughout the year.
In Full Velvet tackles issues of gender, nature, and sexuality, and has been said to “speak into the story of queerness“. The online magazine Autostraddle named the In Full Velvet in their list of “45 Queer and Feminist Books You Need To Read in Early 2017“. The book has received notable praise for its exploration of LGBTQ+ issues:
“Jenny Johnson is a poet of deep compassion and mesmerizing range. Her work probes the complexities of queer identity and the body, weaving in the unexpected reaches of intimacy and communion found in nature, dreams and lost family histories. The transformative power of community in the face of discrimination and intolerance is also felt throughout much of her work.”
All this talk of queer literature, however, forms an important question:
Just what is queer literature?
Is it queerness found in the author, or in the work being written? Does an author’s identity influence how their works are categorized, or does genre come solely from what’s written within?
Once tucked into the shadows, the queer genre has become more prevalent in recent years, as diversity has become accepted and celebrated. Now, more than ever, is the time to question this genre. And what better way is there than to ask an author?
During her visit, Johnson was able to answer a few questions about the nuances of queer literature, what makes the queer genre, and her personal thoughts about queer poetry’s purpose.
Q: Do you consider your poetry to be queer literature? Why or why not?
A: Absolutely. Before I say anything else, I think it’s important that I define what the word “queer” means to me when I use it. I was first exposed to queer theory as an undergraduate in the late 90’s. The word “queer” I knew to be a political word, as well as a theoretical one, first used by activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation. I appreciate how in a collaborative article from 2005 called, “What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?” Jack Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, and David Eng contextualize the word “queer” as having originally been a term used to challenge “the normalizing mechanisms of state power to name its sexual subjects.” So for me writing queerly is about identity, sure, but it’s also about a way of engaging with and critically responding to those “normalizing mechanisms” that are a part of the world I’m living in. It’s a lens through which I see my surroundings given my subjectivity, but it’s also a practice, a kind of ethics that I’m writing through.
Q: Genre is often interwoven with the author. Do you find that a queer author’s works are often placed in the queer genre, regardless of their content? Should this or should this not happen? Does a person’s identity inherently become part of what they create?
A: I can only speak to my own experiences. I don’t mind being tagged as an author of “Lesbian Poetry” on Amazon or Goodreads, for example, especially if this tag helps a reader find my work. I am especially proud to be included in the groundbreaking anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson. Every year, I look forward to hearing who won what Lambda Literary Award, and I am glad that there are many awards given for the many different genres and identities that fall under the umbrella of LGBTQ literature. I hope many readers, of course, will read my work regardless of how it’s categorized. As for the question of whether a person’s identity inherently becomes part of what they create, I would say that a person’s identities are inherently a part of what they create. Which is to say, I identify as a genderqueer person, but I also oftentimes describe myself as a “butch” or a “dyke,” because I enjoy reclaiming these words, owning the resonances of their herstories. I am middle class. I am white. I am a person who is not living with a disability. I am someone who was born and raised in Virginia. Many intersecting identity markers impact what I know, what I can’t know, and how I write.
Q: Can authors considered to be “straight” and “cisgender” write queer literature? Are there any issues with these types of works? Are they less authentic?
A: I think it’s difficult to write well about experiences that you don’t know. Many people fail, some offend, which is why I understand when writing instructors advise — Write what you know! That said, I think there’s value in attempting to write outside of one’s self. I love the poem “At Pegasus,” by Terrance Hayes, which takes place in a gay club and was written by a poet who, as far as I know, identifies as straight and cisgender. I tell my students that if you’re trying to write from someone else’s point of view, you have to ask yourself: What bone do you and this person share? If you write from a nuanced place of connection, you’re more likely to succeed. In “At Pegasus,” for example, there’s a complicated moment where a straight speaker at a gay club says, “These men know something/ I used to know.” Is this poem an example of queer literature? Depends on our definitions. I would say that it is a poem that challenges heteronormative thinking, so, in that sense, yes.
Q: Are there particular characteristics of queer literature? Would a small reference to a woman kissing another woman in a poem count as queer literature, or do deeper themes need to be present in order for a work to be placed in the genre? If so, what are the enduring issues that queer literature tackles?
A: I like how Eve Sedgwick talks about the word “queer” as being about possibilities. So in that sense I don’t think of the word rigidly in terms of a set of particular characteristics. In “Queer and Now,” Sedgwick says that “queer” can refer to, “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” It’s those untidy places, where things don’t add up, where I am most interested in inquiring queerly as a poet.
Q: Should the line between sexual orientation and gender identity in literature be more defined? While both of these topics often have overlapping themes, is something lost by putting them both under a “queer” umbrella?
A: I value precision of language, and there are many contexts in which language could be and should be used more precisely and descriptively. When you ask if the line should be “more defined,” I am not sure what literary situation you have in mind. But, in general, I would say that I appreciate when sexual orientation and gender identity are clearly differentiated in academic contexts.
Q: What’s the value in writing queer literature, and who do authors of queer literature write for?
A: I write for a younger version of myself, who didn’t see herself reflected in much of the literature she was required to read as as a teenager, struggling to come out, let alone make sense of my relationship to my gender identity. I write for the queer communities that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of. I write for my elders, my great aunts, the “old maids” in my family whose love lacks an archive. I write to connect with readers I have yet to meet, but who I imagine are out there.
Johnson’s In Full Velvet is a personal “archive” of the politics surrounding gender, sexuality, nature, and identity. Her Tuesday reading allowed listeners, whether they be straight, queer, or anything in-between have a moment of interconnectedness by experiencing her poetry firsthand.
For Johnson, the answer to “what makes queer literature?” has been formed from experience. These experiences come from life, from writing, and from the tales of others, like the “old maids” of “Elegy at Twice the Speed of Sound”.
If the queer genre is dependent on the individual, then the question of “what makes queer literature” has as many answers as there are people to ask, and will remain ever changing as the celebration of diversity continues to flourish.