The Assay Interview Project: Zoë Estelle Hitzel
March 1, 2021
Zoë Estelle Hitzel earned her MA in Creative Writing studying poetry at Northern Arizona University and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Oregon State University. Her writing has appeared in Pretty Owl, Uproot, The Fourth River, Blue Lyra Review, entropy, and elsewhere. She has been a Lecturer in English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and was the Fall 2019 Ofstad Writer in Residence at Truman State University. She has edited various literary publications, most recently Best of the Net. Zoë is a citizen of the wind, currently stalled over Missouri, where she freelances as a copywriter and editor, scores standardized tests in multiple languages, reads tarot cards, drums in a blues band, Deadwood, and teaches public speaking at community college.
Gender Flytrap portrays the constant hurt of a trans experience in a toxic, hegemonic culture. Hitzel’s collection wrestles with the nature of prejudice, gendered stereotypes, a broken healthcare system, and the realization that everything—including transness—is filtered through a cisnormative lens. In a world where social reality weaponizes bodies against their occupants, trauma is inherent to trans existence and simply seeing and being seen becomes an act of violence.
Shea Boresi: Congratulations on your book, Zoë. One theme that bridges the sections is technology as a source of representations, proxies, and avatars for the speaker. The first section is titled “The Jerry Springer Show, Therefore I Am,” and it chronicles the speaker’s childhood journey toward understanding and articulating her gender. The point of departure is Springer’s sensationalistic presentations of his guests: “the people as bodies / the bodies as freakshows.”
Zoë Estelle Hitzel: Thanks, Shea, for taking an interest! That’s the smartest way I’ve heard “seeking to understand yourself with the available means” phrased in a while.
Yes, Jerry Springer was a fixation of mine when I was in grade school, maybe because it was the first time (first medium in which?) I’d ever encountered anyone whose gender wasn’t cis, binary, or normative, and we kept popping up there, albeit too often in a “smear the queer” or otherwise abusive context.
“Freakshows” are the nature of Jerry Springer, aye, but that type of sensational voyeurism was how I understood how cis people accessed or understood trans people—we were objects for ogling, things to gawk at, something separate and other and “not.” And as I was closeted and young and impressionable, that freakshow narrative was also how I learned to understand trans folks, myself included, which likely contributed to my staying closeted for another two decades and some.
In the same section, “Dial-up Internet – Quiz” emphasizes that gender is culturally marked by relationships to things: physical things like haircuts and beverages (beer vs. wine). Elsewhere, the speaker relates to her video game avatar, wondering if the avatar is also trans.
Mhm. It’s how we tag each other across the distances between us. I followed the logic of embodiment video games offers, which went something like, Ok, so, if I’m a woman but I’m “trapped in a man’s body” (to use a phrase popular in my youth but recognized as cissexist and unnecessarily binary now), and if my cisgender avatar has me inside them, does that mean that I (the trans player) am stuck inside the cis body of the avatar? And does that mean the avatar then becomes trans, since they’re technically a cis body inhabited by a trans consciousness? That additional degree of embodiment that video games offers fascinates me. Likely because it’s a bit of a balm, also because it offers all sorts of neat implications regarding the nature of the self and the I and personhood. So I thought, could avatar-style embodiment possibly be an analogue that could make trans reality, trans embodiment, more accessible to cis people, who generally never experience any degree of trans embodiment? The analogy is not 1 to 1, of course. I’ve never met anyone who told me they feel dysphoric or euphoric based on the gender of the avatar they choose in a video game, but I also have friends who only play avatars of a certain gender no matter what the game is or what other character creation options they are given, so it made me think, can the player/avatar relationship work as a functional stand-in for how I as a closeted tran who hadn’t read anything liberating yet relate to my body? Both inextricably located “in” it yet separate from it in important, painful, joyful, confuddling ways? Isn’t it weird how we think of ourselves as inside our bodies rather than as consequences of them? Of bodies as the seat of the self rather than an extension of the self, or the self itself? Often more hindrance than path to joy? Something to transcend rather than something to explore? Maybe that’s just me.
I had a conversation a few years ago with a friend in an MMORPG [massively multiplayer online role-playing game] I play, exploring the relationship between the user interface in video games and the consciousness working the controls from the captain’s chair inside the body-device. I thought the body was the UI [user interface], the thing that lets us [the user] interact with the world. My friend kept insisting the body was merely a peripheral like a keyboard or a mouse and that the consciousness then was the UI, but I didn’t think that worked well because consciousness is a product of brain activity and the brain is part of the body, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to consider consciousness as the player who makes the decisions, the brain as the user interface device, and the body moving through the world as the avatar? Which raises all these other questions. Why is the brain sometimes considered separate from the body? Why is the self considered separate from the brain or the body when they’re all interrelated, parts of the same device? You can’t have one without the others. So I thought that at least smashing those two things together, video games and embodiment, would let me explore (explode?) how I think about embodiment, though the analogue is imperfect, and maybe give cis folks a handhold when scaling What Is Trans Mountain.
Can you talk a bit about how you are tangling with normative and non-normative representations of gender in popular media?
I kinda don’t want to, because of the impulse to speak from the royal We rather than the personal I when it comes to media. I also hesitate to because I’m only the expert over my experience, but media isn’t geared toward just myself as the audience and I’m certainly not the only tran with critiques about popular media and gender and trans (mis)representation in media (Julia Serano has an excellent essay in Whipping Girl about this). How to tangle? I can’t tango. I can’t dance at all.
What I’ll say is that popular media is inherently frustrating to talk about because it seems like there’s always something more its consumers want from it that it is either completely unable or savagely reluctant to provide, and I count myself as one of those disappointed consumers.
I never see myself represented in popular media like the me that existed before she understood she was trans saw who-she-thought-she-was represented all over the place. I know I’m a weirdo, but still, popular media can do better at representing people as they are rather than representing queers as normies fail to understand us, trans as cis fail to understand us, First Nations folks as whites fail to understand them, etc. So much of this has to do with who’s allowed to make the narratives that eventually reach a wide audience and who isn’t allowed or who isn’t given the resources they need to create those narratives and get them in front of their audiences that idk how to tackle it. I’ve pretty much withdrawn from popular media as a consumer. I don’t watch TV or movies unless my girlfriend wants to. I don’t see the point of social media when all that chatter and writing and sharing and shitposting and trolling and deep reflective pieces and years-long 24-hour election coverage got us Trump four years ago. I don’t want to be part of a debate about whether or not I exist, whether or not I deserve rights, whether or not someone being transphobic is a transphobe, there’s just too much, and participating in those conversations legitimizes them so I typically avoid them. Instead, I wrote a book, to set my own terms instead of submitting myself to someone else’s shitty world.
Regarding representation of trans in media though…we almost never get to represent ourselves or control the narratives made about us, even with all the real progress we’ve made toward social acceptance or at least social recognition in the last decade or so, and that’s frustrating and defeating and othering to know that despite the significant gains we are still largely shut out from being able to tell our own stories on our own terms in mainstream spaces.
Media teaches its consumers what’s possible for them. It shapes who we are as much as it reflects who we are. Popular media reflects how we understand ourselves, and viewers learn about themselves from what they consume, watch, witness, contemplate, what stories appear over and over again and what stories never appear. Not good if you’re an outlier, as your experiences are almost never reflected and when they are reflected they’re most likely not going to reflect you in an accurate way, since it’s the dominant culture’s interpretations of outlier-you that get represented. And it’s way more frequent to see the dominant culture writing about subcultures than the other way around since the dominant culture by definition controls and defines the mainstream spaces directly and the outlier spaces passively. So, since cis folks can really only access the external parts of trans like behavior and attire, the stuff related to transition and passing, that’s how we tend to get represented when cis folks are in charge of the representation, and that’s why so many portrayals of trans folks focus on transition—it’s visible—which is why stories and portrayals of trans people created by trans people are so important, and so necessary.
There are also the inherent limitations of each medium. Television, since it only has access to two senses, sight and sound, can function at best as an incomplete representation of embodiment, and at worst a false or delusional or oppressive one. Maybe I’d be more interested in popular media if more of its content told stories that were relevant to me or at least represented me in an affirming way. There was this article in The Onion years ago, titled, “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break from Being Feminist to Enjoy TV Show” that speaks to my experience of seeing representations of trans folks in the larger mediasphere. I just don’t have the patience to wade through all the junk.
With all that in mind, Gender Flytrap attempts to write against the persistent narratives about and representations of trans people I first encountered in the media of my youth and early adulthood by taking the reader on that speaker’s journey toward self-articulation. The narrator-speaker grapples with a lack of useful language, a glut of invalidating models, plus plenty of available toxicity; dives into that mess; explores and responds to the gulf between her perceived self and the self that media offer her; and comes to an articulable self despite it all.
Did you find yourself feeling predominantly alienated, nostalgic, or something else as you reached into your catalogue of cultural references?
Alienated and lost, primarily. Analogues were as good as I could find when I tried to create an early-90s kid’s point of view. At that point in my life, I hadn’t read any trans authors writing about themselves yet. I didn’t even know we did that, or could do that, both ‘permission’ could and ‘ability’ could. I bought Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw when I was in my early 20s at a queer bookstore in Columbia, Missouri, and it was a windfall of relief to know someone else had thoughts and feelings like I did, at last, finally, and wasn’t straightjacketed away in a mental institution for them. I legitimately feared being labeled insane and losing my autonomy due to my transness for the first twenty-plus years of my life, and hoped some medical professional could one day cure me of them. Up until Gender Outlaw, nearly every cultural reference I encountered had been hostile to trans people. We got to be the butts of jokes, liars out to deceive the straights into fucking us and getting tricked into being gay (oh no!), failures who can’t achieve being seen as our lived genders, or the climax of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Something about trying to take apart the master’s house with the master’s tools didn’t quite work out.
Video games and graphic novels are probably the media I consume the most of now, both of which also generally suffer from trans exclusion in both content produced and the people producing said content. The content produced reflects the values of the people producing it, so that’s alienating too. Fortunately, there is so much more attention and platforming given to trans authors now, and I had no clue how much I starved for that until I finally got a taste.
What are the limitations of these references, and how did you contend with them?
What a question. I banked on the absurdity of smashing Jerry Springer up against Descartes to set an expectation of what’s possible in this book’s universe. References rely on the audience’s knowledge of the reference. So there’s always a limited scope of people who will be able to grab what you’re trying to give them when you drop a reference. Hence, the many different references. I hoped trying to come at an idea from many sides could provide a more complete picture, or at least could fill in some of what any individual reference left out.
In this collection, your use of forms is diverse. You use long lines, short lines, blocks of text, lists… Can you talk a bit about how you arrived at this range of variation?
As the book was concerned with consciousness and communicating my experiences growing up trans, I thought poetry’s emphasis on momentary and associative consciousness served the project better than the more discursive and linear consciousness that paragraphs provide.
I want to trust the writing as it spills forth, so if it came in short breaths versus long exhales versus sharp intakes or the exhausted plodding catching-your-breath quality of three-word lines, I wanted to trust that the form in which the writing arrived would assist the content until I reached the end of the initial draft. But I’d say that, like, 90% of the decisions about form are made and remade during revision. So if a piece came through in short lines, it may have ended up with longer lines later because I thought it warranted the more breathless quality of long lines, or maybe I obliterated line completely and went with paragraphs or lineless text blocks when I felt a piece had a more discursive or chatty voice.
Lines give language breath and space. They let the stuff in the line have a shape and a rhythm that paragraphs or text blocks don’t allow for, I think. They command more attention be given to the minutiae of language. As the book’s project was to be a lyric memoir, or poems that essay, essays that rhythm, I wanted to convey my experiences in a more engaging way than just another prosaic trans autobiography would allow. There’s more to life than story, and there’s more to story than narrative. When I’m listening to a story, it’s the voice telling the story as much as the story itself that keeps me listening.
Language moves like music when you let it. I’m a drummer, and I understand drumming as variation of patterns over time. You can play the head four times in a 12-bar blues tune, but you play it a little differently each pass through, building energy, tension, and release along the way, ensuring each forthcoming journey speaks to what came before.
I wanted the book to do narrative things but to get there via the motion of poems, to establish a pattern and then break it a little, tweak it into some new mutation that resembled itself enough to be familiar while also being unfamiliar enough to feel new. So I made narrative my backbeat, lyric poetry my melody, and improvised on top of that.
Does it indicate that you composed these poems over an extended period of time, so that the collection encompasses your shifting poetics, or do you consistently write with this kind of variety? How did you decide on the arrangement (is it purely chronological)?
Yes, yes, yes, and sorta. Gender Flytrap is largely but not completely chronological. I wanted to avoid a chronological narrative initially, as that seemed too…clean? Too pat? Artificially neat? Chronology implies an ending, but as the book leads up to the present moment, an ending didn’t really exist. Transition and self-discovery is never over, so a definitive ending seemed disingenuous to the book’s project.
I ended up going with a macro-level chronology underpinned by a micro-level concern for what moves between each piece. What do we take with us from page to page, in that white space between last line and title? That informed how I structured the book more than anything. Macro-level chronology I think assisted there being a character arc across the whole of the book, as well as themes evolving and weaving in and out of foreground and background. But the motion from discrete text to discrete text, specifically what happens in the spaces between each piece, was just as important to me as the chronological overlay. The book does tell a chronological story (mostly) with a beginning, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and end (I hesitate to say there’s significant resolution), but the white space between each last line and next title is where the other less linear stories happen, where the small but significant changes in the speaker and her world become apparent and evolve and morph forward.
Ultimately, I went with four sections because it seemed like I had at least four major inquiries here: how does lacking the language to understand yourself influence your relationship with your self, how long can a person build herself around an untruth or a denial or a resistance before that built self becomes intolerable, what do you do with yourself when you become intolerable, and how do you relate to yourself when the world refuses to relate to you?
If you want to stick to chronology, the four sections are: disorienting childhood > obliterative young adulthood > coming out as adult, beginning transition, facing down a transphobic society > present existence putting one foot in front of the other. But I like the inquiries better. They feel more significant and have larger consequences than the inquiry of chronology, of "What happens next?”
The settings in this book encompass a wide biography: we drive through the desert, hunker down in a stale apartment, wait at a bus stop, hang out in the speaker’s childhood (suburban? Catholic?) home, and go to college.
Roman Catholic and quasi-suburban. My first childhood home was at the intersection of at least four sections of town in St Louis, Missouri. Half a mile north of our home was the ultra-wealthy Clayton with its seven-figure pre-recession mansions. To the east was St Louis City proper with its dive bars, breweries, and shuttering K-Marts. To the south was Maplewood, a working-class area I was racistly taught to think of as a rundown place to be avoided even though my mother grew up there and I rented there recently with no regrets. To the west was Brentwood and the greater St Louis County, where the grid of the city disappeared as the roads became windy and the yards became estates. That home had the insular quality of white flight suburbia, but not the wealth of it. We didn’t want for food or clothing until my folks divorced when I was in middle school. Then we became poor as lack was suddenly ever present and pennies had to be pinched. I gained a second home in the city proper when my father moved in with a young barmaid who became my stepmom. I guess you could say my youth was colored by an awareness of how place colors possibility and how people load places with meaning.
I wrote the book all over the country! I was fortunate that my education took me to Arizona and Oregon, that my distaste for moving back in with my mother after school drove me to Tennessee for a cat sitting job that turned into a full-time teaching position at UTK, and that Tennessee brought me full circle back to Missouri via a few quick jaunts to Georgia, New York, Iowa, Chicago, LA, and DC.
Landscapes have sentiments. Sometimes different landscapes are there to inform tone, such as the thirsty and desperate desert, or as something to contemplate and seek meaning from beyond the personal, such as the colors of fall in the South, the eternities encased in sandstone throughout the Southwest, the plastic sunshine of southern California, the gigantic azaleas all over Corvallis and the frogs vivifying its midnight riverfront, the thistle I walked through every day to work when I lived in Flagstaff where the giant sky blazes down on clear nights.
Perhaps the traveling, though it doesn’t move the narrative much and exists mostly as background, mirrors the narrator-speaker’s journey across her own varied internal landscape. The chaos of everchanging setting has its own implications. Are we running from something? Or running towards it? Or running in place? Is all this travel exhilarating? Exhausting? Evasive? When you move enough, you get good at triaging your possessions—this is worth the effort of hauling across the country, this is not, this is worth packing, this isn’t, I’ve always hated this lamp so why do I still have it, you know. What comes with this speaker as she endlessly moves? What falls away? What would she rather discard that she can’t? No spoilers.
But one theme that recurs is the body as a place within or relating to nature: wherein neither the body nor nature reliably conform to tidy narratives.
Nature never builds in straight lines. How does attempting to render a queer life invite writing a queer text? Does a text need to be a queer text or a straight text? I grapple with this. Kazim Ali told me once, when I asked him (naively, regrettably, embarrassingly) something about how to write from a queer place or what you should do when you’re writing as a queer author. The answer, of course, is whatever you want, but I hadn’t gotten there yet. Ali paused, and asked me if that, if “queer author,” was a useful label, and said something to the effect of, “Can’t we just be authors, sometimes?” I wish I remembered the encounter better, because his response was so powerful that it mortified me in an instant. I blushed and ran home to cry because I’d just gotten my lyric ass handed to me by one of my literary idols and I felt like the biggest dope. Isn’t that such a contradiction in terms? How to write queer. That’s like asking how to solve chaos theory, or how to predict the waveform the aurora borealis will make on any given night. Now that I’m out of grad school and my anxiety is under much better management and my ego has been tempered by years scoring standardized tests and adjuncting to keep the lights on, I take Ali’s point. I wonder how much the book does to declare itself as a queer text (a lyric memoir, poems that essay) and not just a text with queer content (ie Hi it’s me this is my predictably trans predictable memoir), versus how useful it is for me to declare it anything myself. Like, would pitching the book as a queer text limit what meaning readers ascribe to it? Would that color their reads before they even open the book? As opposed to letting a genrequeer text speak for itself? Do I cheapen or pigeonhole the book by labeling it? Regardless of if/what I label the book, will it get shelved in Queer Studies in Barnes and Noble, or in the poetry section, or in the essay section, or the memoir section? Maybe in the travel section?
Like genres and genders, narratives are things we impose and invent. Nature doesn’t have narrative or work according to narrative, and when it does, it’s because we frame it that way. Bodies too. Our culture teaches us to impose narratives and labels on bodies, but a label is always approximate, and a narrative always leaves something out, beyond the frame.
The book deliberately doesn’t end tidily, as I thought that would be inauthentic to my experience as represented in the book and that a tidy ending would imply that something as holistic and lifelong and batty as transition can even have an end. This is something I’ve struggled to accept about transition, nearly a decade into it. There aren’t discrete endpoints or a single moment when the world says “Ok great congratulations you’re a girl now and we see you and we’ll never be mean to you or threaten you or deny you your rights based on your transness ever again, we’ll only do those things to you because of your womanhood from now on, which is totally valid, we swear, great work.” If only it could be that tidy. But it’s not, so my representation of it couldn’t be.
This is visceral and sometimes painful in the poems that describe gender dysphoria (“You think of your cells – are they not your cells? / Your molecules, what is their problem.”)
However, snow, and autumn leaves, and an ocean of fireflies are all harnessed to describe the speaker’s experiences of both integration and disintegration. Hilariously (and relatably), the speaker confesses in “Bus Stop:” “I like ravens better than people most days.” Can you speak a bit more about the role of nature in this book? Do you see contemplation of the nonhuman as a source of refuge in this collection?
What a lovely way to phrase that. I’m fond of ravens. Humans stuff them full of dread and apprehension, but they’re pretty benign. And they make these little watery sounds. What other animal could be mistaken for a brook?
Writing the back half of the book, I was struck by how the natural world went about its business despite all the suffering and toil that seems to define human existence. The seasons proceed apace no matter how many people misgender me in a given day, the animals go about animaling no matter how much my meds cost without health insurance, the leaves pirouette through the dry autumn air whether or not anyone notices their colorful death dance or if I still can’t get a passport. It can be a comforting constance, especially when so much of transition endlessly and recurringly proves itself unpredictable and monstrous.
There’s also something normalizing, or centering, or affirming when you can discuss something potentially unfamiliar (ie one trans girl’s coming of age in a transphobic world) in the language and settings of the familiar (nature). The book is stuffed with the familiar and banal deliberately to position a trans existence as something that belongs in that context, because being trans can be familiar and banal if we let it be on a cultural level. Hopefully one day trans can be something unexotic, the sort of thing we finally get tired of making documentaries about. I think we’re getting there, culturally, very slowly, but there is progress in so many places there didn’t used to be that it’s something that seems increasingly less absurd to hope for, that progress.
Please know so much still sucks and is out of reach and is, in its absence, killing us. I don’t want to be rosy about the state of trans existence in America. There’s so much work to be done to remove roadblocks to basic needs like shelter, clothing, access to legal documents, income, medical care, safety in public, safety at home, safety in schools, safety at work, the list goes on. The trans suicide rate is outrageously high, as discussed in the book. People still get fired, evicted, disowned, and murdered for being trans. We are still consistently denied medical care, denied insurance coverage, denied coherent and affirming legal identities, denied basic dignity, denied life. It’s completely unacceptable. Anyone who tells you we’re in a good spot right now is delusional. We still aren’t seen as human in far too many eyes. I think a lot of that is due to being othered, being exoticized, being fetishized, being misunderstood, being feared.
Nature works to normalize trans in the book, and to show all the places trans can exist that perhaps you haven’t imagined trans can be yet (we’re sitting there alongside you on the bus every day, fam).
Is it also a mirror for the speaker?
Perhaps more like a foil sometimes. In the later half of the book, I think nature serves as a beckon or a reminder that there is a world outside all this terribleness, a world that acts upon you and that you participate in even when you attempt to withdraw from it.
As a poet, I admired the quality of lyricism that broke through in key moments of this book, for example, in “The Body Lined with Diamonds”: “what bangs my brain like the bottom of a stewpot / what acidwash spasms the spine like a nightcrawler / arced in rake-hot sun”
There is a graceful interplay between these moments and the delivery of information that seems more straightforwardly autobiographical.
Can you talk about how you balanced poetic language within a coherent, loosely narrative frame?
Syntax, image, space on the page are every writer’s tools no matter the genre they write in or from or around or at or through. I had to impose the narrative frame on the book after the individual texts were written, which is why it was such an undertaking to wrestle this glut of writing I had produced into something that has shape. I’m not actually sure if I imposed it or if it was already there and I just found it or excavated it or made it more apparent. My revision process is mostly one of culling and elimination, paring back the clay to reveal the sculpture waiting beneath so to speak. The more I played with the grouping and sequencing of the printed manuscript pages on my living room floor, the more a narrative(s) emerged from the apparent chaos.
I’m also not sure if I felt like I was balancing lyric and narrative when I drafted the book or if that became a project later on in the process. I think I just allowed them both into the writing where they felt like they needed to go. Since I wrote most of the poems in the book around the same time and in the same places—on the bus home from the university I worked at for the back two sections, during an artist residency at Sundress Publications’ Firefly Farms for the first two, on planes, in cafés, on trains, in motel rooms, on friends’ couches, in guest bedrooms—certain pieces spoke to each other more than others, via subject matter or a lyric move or a sentiment I was stuck on and wanted to explore over and over again. So I trusted the writing to appear as it wanted to appear when writing each individual piece, and then I shaped the collected pieces with narrative in mind after the drafting was complete and I was deep in revision.
A moment seems more approachable than a memoir, at least to me, so I wrote in moments to get at the memoir.
Can you address how this relates to the genre of the book, which you have described as “essays in poems or poems in essays?”
Gender Flytrap became a lyric memoir as I was assembling it, but at first the project was as simple as “write your experience of having a trans body-consciousness.” Later it became “inquire at how growing up surrounded by institutions that denied you your self shaped your life.” Then it became “how can I communicate the horror of gender dysphoria to readers who may never experience it” and then “what is it like to live with all this now, as a tran in her early 30s just now coming to terms with who she is and who she’s been and why the world treats her like it does?” It’s a memoir in the way it relies on memory and narrative for the content, and a poetry collection in how it speaks through elevated, lyrical language.
When I was workshopping some of these pieces, I received comments about how my essays were poems and my poems were essays. It confounded me at first, that the writing’s genres seemed so malleable or indistinct or unapparent, but I think that comes down to how readers perceive genre, like gender, based on small cues and large cues—Margot Singer and Nicole Walker’s Bending Genre discuss this better than I can here—the ways we write genre and read genre onto texts, and what genre does to the writing, to the writer, to the reader. It can be limiting, it can be freeing, it can be something you give as much or as little thought as you want, a periphery concern, a central task, something to explore or explode, flaut or fillet.
I think of poetry as driven by lyric, and essay as driven by inquiry, and fiction as driven by narrative, but those engines aren’t mutually exclusive. This is how we have narrative poetry and lyric essays and prose poems and, ultimately, graphic novels, possibly the most visible hybrid form or multimodal genre in the contemporary litscape.
The texts of Gender Flytrap do declare their genres though, even with simply visual rhetoric. Some of these pieces look like poems with their use of line and large helping of white space, while others resemble essays at first glance since they appear in text blocks and don’t employ line breaks.
But genre, again like gender, is more than how things look. And less than that. Ultimately, it’s a label that tells readers what to expect and booksellers where to shelve their inventory. Readers are prepared for an association-driven consciousness when they pick up a book of things declaring themselves to be poems; essays come with the expectation of inquiry and investigation, a discursive mind, a linear assemblage of information, potentially a narrative engine.
You can read Gender Flytrap like a memoir exploring the distances between the narrator, the self in the scenes, and the author. You can read it like four lyric essays made of moments whose liminal spaces whisper their attempts to answer similar questions. You can read it like poems that orbit the interior spaces where language’s sidewalk ends. Hopefully the book does all this without tripping over itself along the way.
In your book, you quote or credit Eula Bliss, Claudia Rankine, Louis Aragon, Jennifer Espinoza, and Mary Ruefle – among others. Who else should be on an “Essential Zoë Estelle Hitzel Reading List?” Anyone (other than Jerry Springer) from the internet or pop culture spectrum that you’d like to shout-out?
Leslie Feinberg--Transgender Warriors. Feinberg wrote the history book that situates trans people in ancient and contemporary cultures across the globe. Julia Serano--Whipping Girl. Serano explores how transphobia, cissexism, misogyny, and a culture that maligns femininity create a unique intersection of oppressions for trans women. Jennifer Espinoza--There Should Be Flowers. So many poems in here I wish I’d written. TC Tolbert—everything TC writes lifts me up. I taught “Dear Melissa [a curve billed thrasher]” in my public speaking class this term and the more we talked about it, the more I admired this poem and its project. Susan Stryker--Transgender History, second edition. Stryker maps the origins of contemporary transgender activism, and opens with one of the most thoughtfully intersectional considerations of what it means to be trans that I’ve read. Sana Takeda and Marjorie Liu--Monstress, new favorite graphic novel. Beautifully drawn and colored, woman-centered, dark gritty fantasy where old gods went away but never disappeared. Bessel van der Kolk--The Body Keeps the Score. Rearranging how I understand trauma and what it does to your entire being, physical and more. The Hirs Collective—psycho metal frenzy raging about dead trans women. Kittie—Canada’s all-woman metal band. They do nü, death, thrash, power, groove, and doom metal, and probably a bunch of other subgenres too. Jojo Mayer’s band Nerve, Music for Sharks—exactly what it sounds like.
Shea Boresi is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Missouri. Primarily a poet, she also writes fiction and nonfiction, and is an especially prolific and witchy journaler. Her publications include Blue Poems, winner of the 2014 Reid Prize.
For Further Reading