blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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A Correspondence with torrin a. greathouse
Conducted October, 11 2021

On October 11, 2021, torrin a. greathouse participated in an email interview with Blackbird associate editor, Garrett Vesely. Two of torrin's poems, "Still Life in Central Valley with Fog Cannons" and "My Friend Tells Me I've Got to Stop Letting My Enemies Live Rent Free in My Head" appear in this issue of Blackbird, though this conversation centers on her recent book, Wound from the Mouth of a Wound. The interview focuses on several recurrent themes in the book: language, etymology, art and ekphrasis, and the perception/re-perception of gender identities. As torrin writes, "I must contend daily with others’ perceptions of me, and the way that language—often violently—characterizes these perceptions." Her poetry deftly navigates the complex, nuanced space of mediating the identities society and family press upon an individual and one's own understanding of self in the wake of these pressures.


Garrett Vesely: Your book is profoundly concerned with the body and identity, and how the body and identity are perceived or misperceived. How do you see language functioning in relation to perception, identity, and the body?

torrin a. greathouse: Regardless of any internal understanding of my various identities, I must contend daily with others’ perceptions of me, and the way that language—often violently—characterizes these perceptions. Language, like any tool, is capable of being made a weapon. For me, poetry is a process by which I can examine this weaponized language and, if I’m lucky, blunt the blades wielded to harm me and others like me.

GV: The ekphrastic poems in Wound from the Mouth of a Wound seem to be working as kinds of inversions of violence and concepts of beauty. In "Medusa With the Head of Perseus," the sculpture itself inverts the myth of Medusa and Perseus, and the poem with the same title is concerned with the way the concept of beauty can be a source or excuse for violence to the body. And in "Ekphrasis on My Rapist's Wedding Dress" the poem is concerned with the transposition of violence into something beautiful, and perhaps the inescapability of that transposition in art. Do you see art and poetry, specifically in the mode of ekphrasis, as a space to challenge and reframe conceptions of beauty? If so, how do you see the relationship between concrete artwork and textual artwork as necessary to that purpose, or if not, to another purpose?

tag: I’m deeply interested in the ekphrastic mode, particularly when used to encounter things that sit outside the typical realm of the “art object.” Perhaps part of this fascination is the potential intellectual violence that ekphrasis constitutes. To create a contemporary ekphrastic poem is, on some level, to superimpose your will or narrative on an existing object. Yet, I also find myself drawn to art that is, yes, beautiful, but also that concerns itself with violence. Perhaps there’s a comfort in working into and through these spaces where violence is already a precondition, something that frees me to explore the entanglement of beauty and trauma I am made to contend with when encountering them.

GV: Many of the poems in Wound from the Mouth of a Wound use space in a variety of ways to shape meaning differently. The last poem in the book requires the poem to be read in a mirror, which forces a reader to not only encounter the words on the page but to also encounter their body reflected back at them along with the text. How do you see this—or other—augmentation of space working with language or content to alter meaning differently than more traditional shapes for poems? Is that work directly correlated with reshaping concepts of gender and body? 

tag: A core motivation when I first undertook the writing of this collection was to produce poetic bodies that resembled my own or the structure of my memories. I wanted these poems to be unpredictable, fragmentary, and visceral. I wanted these poems, as objects, to be felt, kinesthetic things as much as they are written texts.

GV: In your poem "That's So Lame," you write that the word lame "trips over its / own etymology." How do you see the history of language in relation to the history of identity, and do you see poetry as a mode of mediating that history, both personally and culturally?

tag: I’ve been fascinated with etymology as a form of linguistic history since I was a kid, and so naturally, when I started writing it became central to my practice. So much so that I have a contact at Merriam-Webster who helps me out with etymological research. I think I’m most interested in the spaces of possibility which occur when etymologies are contested or unknown, which become a site for imagining alternate histories, perhaps ones kinder to my trans and disabled kin. There’s a term—one I explore somewhat in my new project—“etymythology,” sometimes also called “folk etymology,” which is an untrue, but socially agreed upon etymology. I’m interested though, in the potential of the “myth” segment of etymythology, and the power inherent in getting to create for myself those myths.

GV: More generally, do you see poetry as a mode that opens space to inhabit or affirm one’s identity?

tag: I doubt that I would claim poetry is at all unique in this potential. But, for myself, it was the first place I encountered people who moved in the world the same way I did, who shared my lived experiences. It was poetry by trans and disabled poets that first made it feel possible for me to exist in the world, and every time I return to poetry—as a writer or a reader—it gives me again this gift of possibility.  

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