Love and rage

A review of 'We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics'

Image adapted from cover of ‘We Want It All.’

We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics

We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics

ed. Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel

Nightboat Books 2020, 480 pages, $22.95 ISBN 978-1643620336

We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics is an essential addition to the growing canon of work arriving from Nightboat Books and serves as a kindred successor to Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, the trailblazing 2013 anthology edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson. The collection reads like a top salon emceed by editors Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel, whose ambitions for this groundbreaking anthology are laid bare from the start. Their introduction, “Making Love and Putting on Obscene Plays and Poetry Outside the Empty Former Prisons,” hits like a kick in the teeth and sets a declarative tone for what follows:

We don’t hold that poetry is a form of, or replaces, political action. Poetry isn’t revolutionary practice; poetry provides a way to inhabit revolutionary practice, to ground ourselves in our relations to ourselves and each other, to think about an unevenly miserable world and to spit in its face. We believe that poetry can do things that theory can’t, that poetry leaps into what theory tends towards.[1]

Abi-Karam and Gabriel artfully curate a pioneering assemblage of work to showcase anticapitalist, ecological, and deeply personal verse, as stylistically dynamic and ranging as the trans community itself. Their emphasis on radical trans poetry sets an essential, unwavering stake against the systemic totality of gender oppression, with its too-few protections and even fewer allies across the broader sociopolitical landscape. At once violent and tender, We Want it All breaks open the gender binary with enigmatic force, as seen here in Ian Khara Ellasante’s “Let Me Tell: You Diana”:

            ask the easier question
              which is more:
              how much we are     or
              how much we are     not the same
              how nothing and everything is
              boy      and or or        girl you
              are nothing and everything you
still the same        Diana listen
girl you      turning boy
shake him loose or
                             shake me loose    Diana
            loose of girl       and        loose of boy (161)

The very construction of Ellasante’s verse serves to refute our societal notions of an either/or, as the poem itself is set by varied indentions and spacing. We see this reclamation of space and visibility in the avant-garde poetics of Cameron Awkward-Rich, xtian w, and Anaïs Duplan, as well as the page-expanding prose of Evan Kleekamp. Their works, like so many in the collection, seem to light up across the page as line by line goes dancing down the margins. The slinky, staggered step lines of CAConrad’s “Glitter in my Wounds” provide another case in point:

                           heterosexuals need to see our suffering
                the violent deaths of our friends and lovers
      to know glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to
unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture
    defiant weeds smashing up through cement
                 you think Oscar Wilde was funny
                 well Darling I think he was busy
                 distracting straight people
                 so they would not kill him (63)

As the poem sways back and forth down the page, we see CAConrad utilize this playful styling as Oscar Wilde might use humor. It provides a dazzling distraction and veiled armor against those who might otherwise pound this speaker to death. The poem highlights this volatile intersection of visibility and survival, wherein the gains made in achieving such basic human rights might arrive at the cost of self-preservation.

Nowhere is this tragic dichotomy better represented than Aeon Ginsberg’s “Against Queering the Map,” whose justifiable rage sets forth an expectation of the broader queer community to defend, protect, and support those most vulnerable or at-risk of state violence:

The government ghosts my name away from me, not even
A tombstone will know how to speak it. The way it sits sounds
Like nothing and smog. It feels like we’re making it easy to
Disappear our community with the internet. Upload our ter-
ritories to the cloud, let it rain-hate upon us. There’s nothing
I can do about the gay clubs closing but let them and meet
again in secret. What’s the hanky code for “I want to destroy
The government before I hear it say my name?” (14)

Here and throughout so much of the anthology, we come face-to-face with the revolutionary practice of survival, of thriving in a too-murderous world. And yet, for all its essential and outward-facing work, We Want It All thrives in those quieter corners of lyrical verse. In fact, some of the most radical poems in the collection are often the least overtly political, as in the excerpted works of Lou Sullivan or Leslie Feinberg, whose intimate prose highlight a vulnerability of the heart, transcending gender into the very foundations of life itself. Just consider the following passage from We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan:

My god, when he stands so near to me I feel like I’m going to be burned if he
brushes against me. I can hardly hold myself back from taking hold of him. He
looks like he tastes good. He smells good.

I said I was very complimented he came over. He said he’s real lonely lately.
I debated with myself whether to give him [Swinburne’s] “Fragoletta,” but
decided against it at this time — no need to rush anything — we’re having a
4th of July cook-out on the roof. I just told him I got into a real poetry-reading
mood after everyone left from the party.

We drank tea + talked. He sees me watching him + pretends he doesn’t + then
he decides to give in + looks me right in the eye + laughs.

Why is he always teasing me? (275)

At turns poignant and deeply personal, We Want It All isn’t so much the little red book of radical trans verse as it is a vital touchpoint of contemporary poetry. It envisions a more just and equitable world while unequivocally raging at the rampant injustice of our present. These are poems of resilience and hope and greater ambition, as Amy Marvin so beautifully highlights in this excerpt from “Hey Guys”:

Above all, I yearn for a world in which
everyone is vulnerable and glittery and
soft and not mean, a kinder, more docile
world full of softer signs who I can
relate to. I yearn for a world without
mean girls. I yearn for a world of socials. (24)

But of course, should this vision of a softer world invite even more opportunistic cruelty, rest assured:

As a community
organizer I will organize my city
with the safest, softest walls and doors. (24)

And so perhaps We Want it All is that kinder, gentler world of socials, with each new poem extending an open invitation for all those who share in its essential mission, “where all is a list for everyone to make” (7).

1. Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel, eds., “Making Love and Putting on Obscene Plays and Poetry Outside the Empty Former Prisons,” in We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (New York: Nightboat Books, 2020), 2.