Five Questions With… Eli Clare

Eli Clare is the author of Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999) and has been widely published. He has walked across the United States for peace, coordinated a rape prevention program and co-organized the first-ever Queerness and Disability Conference. He works for the University of Vermont ‘s LGBTQA Services. We were lucky enough to meet him at a Translating Identity Conference at UVM, and I was happy to get the chance to talk to him about his new book, The Marrow’s Telling, which was recently published by HomoFactus Press.

(1) Why poetry?

As a writer, my first love is poetry. I think of it as a thug who grabbed me by the collar many years ago and whispered in my ear, “You’re coming with me.” I went willingly, not having any idea where poetry would take me or what it would demand. Twenty-five years later I find myself writing a mix of poetry and creative nonfiction; my first book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, is a collection of essays, and my second book, The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion, which ought to be rolling off the press at any moment now, is a mix of poems and short prose pieces, not quite essays but more than prose poems.

Audre Lorde in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” writes of poetry as a “revelatory distillation of experience.” Poems demand both wildness/revelation–moments where language, sound, and rhythm, rather than thought or idea or analysis, take the lead–and discipline/distillation–the paring down to heart and bone. As a writer, a reader, an activist trying to make sense of the world, I need revelatory distillation.

I also know that in the United States too many of us have been taught to fear or avoid poetry, to feel bored or stupid in its presence. As an activist-poet, I always hope that my poems will be doors held wide open, roller coasters, parachutes opening above you, slow meandering rivers.

(2) You’ve previously written about the intersections of disability and being trans. Does experiencing the world as one inform the way you experience the world as the other?

The simple answer is yes.

The generic answer is that all of us live at complex intersections of identity, marginalization and privilege criss-crossing each other. I wrote in Exile and Pride, “Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race…everything finally piling into a single human body.”

The specific answer is that my disability politics and experiences as a disabled person profoundly influence my trans politics and my experiences as a ftm-spectrum genderqueer who has chosen to use medical technology to reshape my body. For example, in making the choice to have chest reconstruction surgery, I grappled fiercely with what self love means. I have spent so much of my adult life working towards loving my disabled body as it is, digging through shame and self-loathing about my cerebral palsy. In contemplating major body-changing trans-related surgery, I was haunted by a childhood fantasy in which I wanted to cut off my right arm to stop my tremoring. The question—what is the difference between my childhood desire for amputation and my adult desire for a flat chest—wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t want oppression to carve itself into my flesh yet again. But slowly the answer rose inside me: the first was about shame and abandoning my body, while the second was about embracing who I am and what I want inside this body as I have made it my own, the difference between the two as subtle but yet distinct as light and shadow.

For more about disability and trans politics, see my recent keynote speech at the FORGE Forward Conference in Milwaukee:

(3) You’re one of the trans men out there who has a Women’s Studies degree? Tell us a little bit about what that’s like.

I received my B.A. in Women’s Studies from a women’s college ten years before I started moving towards a trans identity. It certainly makes for an interesting and complex resume, which I am happy to call my own. Recently a co-worker came to me, all concerned after reading a blurb about me that was circulating our workplace. He claimed that the blurb used the pronoun she, rather than my chosen pronoun he. When I went back and checked the blurb, I discovered that it used he throughout and led with the phrase: “With a B.A. in Women’s Studies, a M.F.A in Creative Writing, and a penchant for rabble-rousing, Eli Clare….” Clearly my co-worker read “Women’s Studies” and automatically assumed she. He was chagrined when I challenged him on his assumption. More men simply need to study and participate in feminism.

At the same time my feminist politics have had to grow way beyond my Women’s Studies degree. So many strands of feminism are actively transphobic and, to use a phrase from Julia Serano, trans misogynist. Before I could come to terms with my trans self, I had to be able to step over the ways some feminisms demonize masculinity and men. And in order to build a trans politics of any integrity, we have to challenge the ways in which many feminisms deny transwomen their womanhood.

(4) Who are your influences? As a poet, as an activist, as a person – your choice.

As a poet, I see my work as deeply connected to the traditions of North American (really north of Mexico) narrative political poetry, feminist poetry, and storytelling as witnessing, with some nature writing and social ecology thrown into the mix. The poets who have influenced me—Li Young Lee, Mark Doty, Joy Harjo, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, Eavan Boland, Irena Klepfisz, and Martin Espada, among others—all come from these traditions in one way or another.

More generally my work as a writer and activist are embedded in many communities, which nourish me and which in turn, I hope, are strengthened, enlivened, challenged by my words, both as art and as polemic. Of course, writing is solitary work, and so I often feel some tension between my writerly need for solitude and my writerly connection with community.

(5) Tell us about Homofactus Press, and what’s it’s like to be published by a press that is dedicated to serving FTM and genderqueer people. Do you worry about reaching a larger audience?

I so appreciate the work of Homofactus Press. Publishing poetry in the U.S. is an act of love for, or commitment to, the genre. It’s certainly not a money-making venture. The Marrow’s Telling is Homofactus Press’s second book, the first being an anthology called Self-Organizing Men. Homofactus calls itself a digital, global micropublishing company committed to publishing books by, for and about trans masculine folks, FTMs, and transmen with a special emphasis on communities of color and disability communities. Because Homofactus is new, small, and overtly political, I’ve been involved in every stage of the process from helping to write the contract to working on the book cover design to thinking about marketing strategies. This kind of collaboration is unheard of with larger presses. I know a lot of writers worry about not reaching a wide audience when they publish with small independent presses, but for me there’s so much benefit in publishing within specific communities for those communities. Homofactus makes all its books available as free downloads (both PDFs and mp3s) on the web, which of course increases access for poor people and disabled people. I believe The Marrow’s Telling, while probably not reaching the widest of audiences, will find a deep and abiding home in a variety of marginalized communities. This is more than enough for me.