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Trans artists challenge English conventions in poetry

Five authors discuss limits of English language, transgender experience in digital language arts

Local lit lovers gathered Tuesday night at Symposium Books for “Rhythms and Methods,” a poetry reading and lecture on digital language arts exclusively featuring trans artists. 

The event drew roughly two dozen attendees, who brought an intimate and conversationalist atmosphere with them. Providence was the fourth stop on the “Rhythms and Methods” New England book tour, which highlights trans authors published under Topside Press and Instar Books.

The night began with poet Ada Maxine, who read a series of humorous one-liner poems, as well as a longer, more intimate piece. Maxine ended the set with a call to remember Keyshia Jenkins, a trans woman of color murdered in Philadelphia last week and the 20th trans woman reported killed in the United States this year. The final poem read: “What if the trans panic defense was if I was trans and I panicked.”

Next onstage was Tyler Vile, a trans poet, disability activist and author of “Never Coming Home.” Vile read a collection of poems “about sisterhood and the relationship between trans women and cis women.” The poems frequently featured the locations of Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design, which Vile’s sister attended.

The most memorable poem in Vile’s reading was “Ode to My Boy Jeans,” which chronicles Vile’s desire to keep wearing “boy jeans” post-transition despite the haunting feeling of wearing a “dead kid’s clothes.”

Allison Parrish, a self-described “poet or programmer or artist depending on which grant I’m applying for” and the digital creative writer-in-residence at Fordham University, presented the first of the night’s digital literature.

Her presentation was largely focused on “@everyword,” the Twitterbot she programmed in late 2007 to tweet every word in the English language, one word every 30 minutes. The program completed its mission in early 2014. The account received 100,000 followers, which Parrish said is nothing compared to the followers for a member of One Direction but is impressive for a conceptual writing project.

Parrish, in one of the most moving moments of the night, explained that the reason she is inclined toward digital writing is that “programs let me speak without having to speak at all” because “as a trans woman, conventional language wasn’t made with me in mind.”

Next, poet Lilith Latini read from her book “Improvise, Girl, Improvise.” She read a poem based on her “favorite lit tradition” of giving voice to women in famous works of art who have no agency. In “Gloria Speaks,” Latini gave voice to the female protagonist in the eponymous Van Morrison song, receiving strong audience approval.

Merritt Kopas closed the evening with a lecture on Twine, a literary “choose your own adventure” gaming genre. As she explained it, most games encourage us to dissociate from our surroundings and our own selves, and Twine tries to make gaming an intimate and reflexive experience. Kopas has published an anthology of Twine games called “Videogames for Humans.”

“It was an amazing event. It was moving and just really encouraging to know this space is here,” said Kevin Czape, a local who just moved to Providence and came because he was familiar with Kopas’s work. Czape added that it was his first time at Symposium Books and he plans to come back in the future.

Selina Filippone said she came across the event by chance. “I was just walking by and saw the event,” she said. The subject caught her eye because she was interested in how the poets and artists’ work was influenced by their trans identities. “When you are called a trans poet, I imagine you think, ‘I’m a poet first,’” but are at the same time defined by trans identity, she said.

Todd Anderson MA’93, who helped organize the event, said digital writing and trans poetry are connected through their “shared sensibilities,” adding that the event highlighted the “many different mediums you can use to express trans issues.”


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