queer myth-making & The Erasure of difference: ghost ocean talks with wren hanks
Ghost Ocean: How long has Prophet Fever been in the making?
Wren Hanks: The first Prophet Fever poems came out of a Christian radio broadcast I heard on the way to New Orleans in August 2013. The very first poem I wrote was the epilogue (which used to be a two-page poem from the perspective of the Virgin Mary). I knew I wanted to write a series, but my focus was completely different. I was interested in the tension between the human and natural worlds. In Catholic school, we were told over and over that animals don't go to heaven. I was an outcast kid who felt a lot more kinship with fish and toads than the rich kids I went to school with so I always found this idea deeply troubling. Of course, when I became older and more self-aware, I found out there were whole lists of humans unfit for heaven too—lists I was definitely on. The initial impetus for what became the Prophet Fever poems was grief over our dying world, hereticism, and my post-humanist leanings. However, this was one of those projects that had its own agenda.
GO: The first poem begins, “When the people asked / they were told the world was no longer for them.” Is Prophet Fever for the marginalized?
WH: Absolutely. I knew I wanted to read an apocalypse story where everyone was queer/trans, and hoped other people would want to read this too (full-length spoilers: Mary's girlfriend is a trans lady; there's a cadre of genderqueer angels; there are transgressively gendered undead skeleton pets). To queer Catholicism, a religion I'm so marked by felt healing, like scrubbing that "dust to dust" Ash Wednesday mark off my head permanently.
What I'm most invested in as a poet is queer myth-making—both reshaping myths in our own languages (our myriad vernaculars) or fashioning our own whole-cloth. I'm interested in the big, unwieldy projects we can write to and for each other. "I'll tell you all my secret names; please tell me yours" is the unofficial motto, I guess, of my poetry. It's not written with straight readers in mind (although I hope they enjoy it and buy this chap!).
GO: You’re investigating gender, sexuality, and the body, while also confronting eternity (“is there a place / for these bodies / in the afterlife really?”), religion, and what it means to belong. It’s ambitious and risky to take on so much in only sixteen pages, but you pull it off in a way that cultivates a rich and less rigid reading experience. Was it challenging to tackle these ideas in one volume or are these puzzle pieces that naturally fit together for you?
WH: What happened with this project is less that I intended to confront gender and the body so explicitly and more that at some point Prophet Fever dovetailed with my own coming out or, more specifically, became the mechanism through which I could come out. My protagonist was intended to be a cis gay teen, and the poems were intended to be persona. What I found is that writing from "male persona" unlocked me, not just as a poet, but as a human who didn't have place to locate their gender itchiness. I located it in Wren. After I came out as genderqueer, I took his name because it felt inevitable—as if I'd earned it in some weird mystical sense. I'd imbued him with self-possession when I had very little, and now I'm beginning to find my own.
I think these pieces fit together pretty handedly for me because I am fascinated by what the "body as eternal" (Catholics, as I understand it, believe they recover our literal flesh-and-blood bodies during the coming of Christ) means for me as a trans person, as someone who might not necessarily want this exact body back. I'm also interested in the question of what is natural vs. what is artificial, and how queer people are expected to conform to this idea of "the natural" in order to belong.
A close friend of mine said we are all "transitioning to worm food in the end." I don't personally believe in afterlife—I hope pieces of me are transmuted into various lifeforms (I aspire to be thousands of dinoflagellates, a coywolf, any species of octopus or carnivorous plant). However, I relate to the fear of never belonging, not even in death, and I have friends who've been asked to choose between their faith and their queerness.
GO: There’s an urgency and conflict in these poems that feels rooted in our world, in our nation, in 2016, yet these poems aren’t held to the bounds of realism and don’t call every threat by name. Can you talk about engaging with real-world issues from the periphery?
WH: I wrote these poems pre-election cycle, before our nation's fear of difference became amplified to the nth degree. To be honest, I wasn't even aware of a lot of the anger and fear that's reflected back to me now when I reread these poems. I knew I was writing against the "good queer" narrative, because that narrative felt both like a bouncy castle ("look at me jumping higher to meet your expectations") and a prison. We're at this point where gay marriage is legal and certain types of coming out narratives (overwhelmingly cis white ones) are palatable to, if not the whole country, at least a significant part of it. Meanwhile, this respectability narrative has left many queer people—trans women and queer POC in particular—behind. None of this has to do directly with Prophet Fever, but the complicated feelings I have about being relatively safe as a cis-passing white queer in 2016, I think they come out in the way I destabilize Wren as a character.
I wish I had a better answer than fantasy is the only way I knew how to engage with our country's collective denial in the face of a sixth extinction and our tendency to choose the erasure of difference over the acceptance of it. I don't yet. I'm working on it!
GO: One of the lines repeated in Prophet Fever that has stuck with me most is “We are not ourselves alone.” It’s repeated in a rather climactic moment in the chapbook, during one of the most direct engagements with identity. Can you talk about this idea and its importance? Do you feel an obligation or necessity to discuss and confront identity?
WH: Being genderqueer, the desire to be seen eats me alive most days. The need to be accurately taken in and loved for your sparkling contradictions feels so basic and human, but it's also elusive for some of us. Okay, I'll own this—it's elusive for me, girl'ed and ma'amed all the livelong day, so I feel a drive to write about how overwhelming it is when someone gets it right.
These past few months I've felt a particular urgency/obligation to confront identity head-on in my work, because my coming out was marked by overwhelming love and support. I didn't have to be alone, and I don't want other trans people (especially anyone for whom coming out isn't safe) to feel alone. I want to radiate a little bit of belonging and safety however I can. The confessional poems I've published recently are one way of doing that.
GO: The cover art for Prophet Fever is arresting, and it points to the nature of these poems: threatening, mysterious, and not entirely spelled out or revealed. Can you talk about the artwork/artist and how the cover and poems within interact with one another?
WH: Sarah Reck, who is the design and prose editor for Hyacinth Girl Press, made a cover that I absolutely adore! What I appreciate about her design is exactly what you've mentioned—it's ominous and totally indicative of the poems themselves, but at the same time tells readers very little about what they're in store for.
It also invokes, at least for me, the biblical journey of the "prophet" through the wilderness (and that makes me very happy).
GO: Prophet Fever is reminiscent of Sam Sax’s sad boy / detective (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) —both address youth, the body, violence, belonging—but your poems exude a touch more darkness and gore. What draws you to horror and the grotesque?
WH: First off, I just want to say that Sam Sax's poem "On Trepanation" destroys me every time I read it (and everyone should go read it right now), and it makes me fanboy blush to have my work referenced in relation to his.
Oh man, I'm drawn to horror and the grotesque because the monstrous is so often queer-coded, because body horror is a useful way (for me, personally) to talk about dysphoria, and because I love playing around with the tropes/conventions of genre fiction in verse. I'm thrilled you asked this because I think of Prophet Fever as genre work (horror/fantasy), and I want more poets to embrace the genre-ness of their poems!
I'm currently editing an e-chap anthology, Curious Specimens, for Sundress Publications that we're aiming to have out in early October. As I outlined in the submission call, I sought work that "moves beyond cataloging the strange or uncanny and, instead, embodies a persona/personae as a means of interrogating identity and our fraught relationship to the natural world." I'm so excited about the possibilities for genre poetry, especially for us queer writers. Let's write earnestly about swamp monsters, sentient gelatinous cubes, and being possessed by conjoined ghost twins—it'll be great, I promise.
GO: You have two more forthcoming chapbooks, gar child (Tree Light Books) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). Are these chapbooks an extension of Prophet Fever? Do they focus on similar obsessions, ideas, or questions you have as a poet?
WH: The three chapbooks are totally separate from each other (and my secret fear is that someone who loves one may not necessarily be as into the other two).
Gar child is a fairytale about a girl who is part spotted gar. She's my example of a queer grotesque character: a reverse mermaid literally covered in saw tooth scales. It's a very self-contained project (I always knew it was going to be a chap, not a full-length), and it's more concerned with the architecture of each individual poem than Prophet Fever. However, both chapbooks are concerned with questions like: Who affords us agency? How do we deal with trauma that's passed down through generations? And both focus on queer adolescence, partially, I think, because I still feel like a teenager, a baby trans person, 30 going on 16.
Ghost Skin is an elegy for my grandmother who committed suicide when I was eighteen. It's also a farewell to my womanhood, my binary identity. It's the most painful series I've ever written. I hope it does my grandmother justice.
Wren Hanks (formerly Jennifer) is the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press). A 2016 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow, their poetry and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Arcadia, Gigantic Sequins, Bone Bouquet, Drunken Boat, Permafrost, and elsewhere. They have two forthcoming chapbooks, gar child (Tree Light Books) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). An Associate Editor for Sundress Publications, they live in Brooklyn with their fiancée and a collection of sea ephemera. Follow them @corsetofscales.