#AWP19 Featured Presenter Q&A with Joy Ladin

AWP | February 2019

Event Title: Coloring Outside the Gender Binary: How Transgender Poets are Redefining What It Means to Be Human, Sponsored by AWP
Description: Until very recently, the English language, and most of the poetry written in it, has been based on the gender binary assumption that all human beings are always, either, and only male or female, as determined by the sex of their bodies at birth. We see this assumption at work in the traditional system of gendered pronouns and honorifics, in words for our most intimate roles and relationships, which designate parents as mothers or fathers, children as daughters or sons, and so on, and in subtler habits that reflect and reinforce the idea that human beings are born and remain simply male or female.
Participants: Max Wolf Valerio, Ching-In Chen, Joy Ladin, Cameron Awkward-Rich
Location: Oregon Ballroom 201-202, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Date & Time: Saturday, March 30, 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.


If you’ve been to an AWP before, what is your favorite conference memory?
My all-time favorite AWP experience was participating on AWP's first panel of transgender poets in 2012, “Gender Interrupted: Poetry of the Alternatively Gendered.” The presentations were fabulous, and the audience's attention and gratitude was palpable. But what I remember most vividly was that when I was trying to find the panel's location, I turned a corner and saw that the corridor that led to our room was lined with people hoping to get into the already packed space. I have spent a lot of time feeling isolated as a trans person. As I walked through that corridor, I knew I wasn't, and had never been, alone.

Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
I've received public funding for my writing only once, when, a couple of years ago, I was awarded an NEA fellowship for creative nonfiction. I was notified by phone call, a thrilling experience made all the more moving because it came at a low point in my teaching career, when my colleagues turned on me after I tried to talk about the difficulties of teaching as an openly trans person at my Orthodox Jewish university. The NEA call helped restore my sense that my work could be valued, and inspired me to embark on a kind of writing I had never tried. The resulting book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, came out in November 2018, and has been warmly received. Without the NEA, I might never have had the heart to write it. In addition, the NEA's funding helped me afford to write instead of teach for summers, and to pay for medical treatments that weren't covered by my insurance. In so many ways, it was a life-saver.

If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP19, who would it be and what would you talk about?
The author I would most want to meet is Emily Dickinson, whom I have studied, read, and taught for decades. (I taught the first classes on her poetry ever held in her house, years before it became a museum.) But even if Dickinson were there, it wouldn't be easy to meet her. Like many writers, Dickinson was shy, cocooned in idiosyncrasy and the adoration of her small circle of family and friends. She knew her own genius, but was reluctant to put herself forward; on the few occasions when she did, the literati who read her poems did not respond with the acclaim she deserved. If she was at AWP, she would probably haunt the backs of rooms at talks, readings, and panels, arrive late and leave early, avoid mixers, and be deeply ambivalent about presenting herself as a writer. Now that I think of it, I bet there will be a number of people like that at AWP. Perhaps I can meet some, if I pay proper attention.

If you’ve been to Portland before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
I taught for a year at Reed College, and was amazed by Portland's Forest Park. This urban forest, among the biggest in the US, is a truly wild space in the midst of the city. The first time I went, when I parked the car on a nearby street, a flock of peacocks was sauntering between residential houses and the park.


Joy LadinJoy Ladin is the author of nine books of poetry, including two Lambda Literary award finalists, Transmigration and Impersonation, and 2017’s The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems and Fireworks in the Graveyard, as well as a memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life. Her second collection, The Book of Anna, will be reissued in 2019 by EOAGH, and her book about reading the Bible from a trans perspective, The Soul of the Stranger, was published in 2018 by UPNE. She holds the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University. 


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