INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN SCOTT WHITAKER
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We’re interested in how music and sound play out in “For Gender Dysphorics, Face App Is a Portal,” and we feel immersed in the senses. In what ways do you think music and sound connect with other themes in the poem, especially gender dysphoria?
Stephen Scott Whitaker: Dysphoria is a disharmony of mind and body, a repetitive noise or thought; euphoria, unity of body and mind, plays out like harmonics, or vibrations on a string.
In terms of the poesy, alliterative Bs in the early movements imitate the hard emotional punches that Face App can deliver, dysphoria or no. Later longer lines were composed with the idea in mind of fingers playing across a harp, or up and down a guitar’s neck. Long syllables and repetition were employed as similar sonic flourishes.
This poem was written about a picture. I had been writing Face App poems for a week, using the app daily, often on a brain break at school. This particular picture had been de-aged using the “youth two” filter, and for a second, when I saw me, I was transported to this other reality. I felt it in my bones, an attraction, a calling. In my personal experience, euphoria/dysphoria can manifest as a calling, as if I am hearing a wine glass hum from another room, or sometimes a voice, my voice, urging me to join myself in another place. On the other end of the euphoria/dysphoria spectrum, a corrosive white noise on loop. When I looked at the picture, I had a physical reaction, as well as I heard the ambient noise of a school between classes. Some of that ambient noise is not present in the poem, the slamming lockers, etc., but someone calls her name, and there is laughter, the boisterous children of friends. The name is important, that word by which so much of our life revolves, a name, but not as important as the laughter, the real music. Joy, which the speaker longs for and feels within, waiting to be had. In this poem, driven by the queerness of technology, the speaker is transformed by the experience, its alchemical. The speaker becomes an instrument of music.
RR: We’re interested in how the speaker separates themself from the person they see while using Face App, referring to this other person as “her” and even going as far as referring to her as “my sister self.” How did you approach writing about identity in this way?
SSW: Sister self is a way to both identify sameness and closeness while also being emotionally distant, though the distance is negligible. Sister self is something that kept reappearing in poems for a good six months or so, this idea tumbling over and over. I did debate using the more direct personal pronoun, “me,” but because the girl in the picture felt so real to me, and because I felt that other life, that other possibility, albeit briefly, I wanted to give that life agency. Which is also part of the poem’s exigency, agency over one’s identity.
RR: You mention on your website that your poetry tends to focus on your own personal experiences, such as gender dysphoria and non-binary consciousness. How do you approach writing through your experiences in a way that can be felt through the poem?
SSW: I have a daily practice, and I’m a verbal processor, so writing or talking is the best way for me to process emotional events, or past trauma, or cognitive loops, so invariably my personal experiences become poetry food. Even when I’m focusing on a topic, such as queer ecology, my own personal experiences become woven into the matrix of the poem, for example—the symbiosis of the birds in my backyard that I feed and the trees planted in town. This poem was one of ten or more “Face App” poems, two survived: this poem and a contrapuntal double sonnet.
Non-binary frameworks challenge systemic norms, in ourselves– in terms of how we experience ourselves and the world, and outside ourselves–in terms of how inherited cultures and norms are projected onto us. I like to think of gender as a kind of magical glamour, an illusion. How I approach writing through the lens of identity is to be open to emotionally vulnerable, an evolving process. But regardless of the context of the poem, ultimately the poem is a relationship between my breath, my current state of being, and a sandbox of words/concepts to express sound. Each day is a new opportunity to discover something about myself and heal, which writing, as a kind of mindfulness, can accomplish. Each day is a new opportunity to practice mindful cognition to order the sandbox of words.
RR: Besides writing, you’re also a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts. What have you learned from your students or experiences teaching, and how has teaching affected your writing?
SSW: Community. Students teach me every day if I listen. I teach novice writers, I teach seasoned writers with publication credits, I’ve even had the pleasure of teaching a Guggenheim fellow and Whiting winner, which was intimidating, but joyful, and no matter the level of the student, when we discuss writing at the sentence level or at the line level, just the beauty of it, or the clipped rage of it, or the wonder of its turns, I am schooled by my students. I am reminded to take care crafting words. More importantly, students show me, time and time again, their emotional grit, the tenacity of their spirit, as they create, and process, and struggle with language and life.
I teach at a small rural high school, Pocomoke, this dynamic, rambunctious community intersection. Population-wise, we’re small, you could put us in your pocket. The staff is this amazing and varied group of folk who work hard to create opportunities for students. The principal encourages student voice and co-sponsors the Speak Up Club, which advocates for student rights and student care, which has been responsible for things as varied as vegetarian menu options to welcoming signs for LGBTQIA students and advocating for better drinking water in school. I run a visiting writers series where small-town rural kids interact with artists and poets who work with students from across grade levels who want to create, and want to write, or compose lyrics. This year we have funding from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, among others, to bring in local, regional, and national artists, live and via zoom. Trace Peterson and Jos Charles in the spring! Our school has a print shop, a thrift store, JROTC, plus the usual assortment of high school fine arts and extras. I work with the Chorus teacher to put on the winter musical, and we have worked hard to empower a diverse group of students to do the day to day work of being a performer, albeit for a few weeks; additionally, we have always cast without consideration to race or culture and gender, and to create a safe space for student voice. Student artistic experiences enrich both the teacher and the student, and when one can watch a young artist develop over the years, it pushes you to do better in your own work.
RR: This is a raw and open poem that may inspire people of the queer community. What queer writers inspire you?
SSW: Logan February, Natalie Diaz & Eduardo C. Corral dominated my spring-summer reading. Also Meg Day, jd hegarty, Gretchen Rockwell (quatros!), Michael Chang, James Allen Hall, Kay Barrett. In my youth, Crane, O’Hara & Bishop; Frank Bidart’s work and process fascinated me in grad school, and still does. Currently, Jos Charles’ Safe House, Feeld, and Trace Peterson’s I Used to Live Here are on my bedside table along with We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, to say the least.
Stephen Scott Whitaker’s work in Issue 9.1: