Interview with Stephen Stratton

As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Based in Portland, Maine, Stephen Stratton is currently navigating the role of parenting in his writing practice. His tender essays often explore new ways to approach grief, gender, and personal and collective histories.

When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then? What elements / images / phrases strike you most now?

I’ve read this poem many times now since you originally shared it. What resonates with me, and something I started to explore in the last cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, is this idea that we can be born with inherited grief through generational trauma. If grief lives within our DNA, if our world is constantly cycling through apocalypse and rebirth; how do we learn to heal ourselves, how do we stop ourselves from passing it on to our children? 

…………………………………………………………… I was born from an apocalypse
and have come to tell you what I know—which is that the apocalypse began
when Columbus praised God and lowered his anchor. It began when a continent
was drawn into cutlets. It began when Kublai Khan told Marco, Begin
at the beginning. By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already
ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending
world spun in its place. It ended, and we woke up and ordered Greek coffees,
drew the hot liquid through our teeth, as everywhere, the apocalypse rumbled,
the apocalypse remembered, our dear, beloved apocalypse—it drifted
slowly from the trees all around us, so loud we stopped hearing it.

Even if we aren’t directly experiencing these apocalypses, we are living with the residual aftermath of them; the tremors that follow the collapse are the micro-aggressions that ripple well into the future. The grief & trauma become absorbed and integrated into ourselves so well that we aren’t even always aware that we are perpetuating and propelling ourselves into the eye of the storm. 

Our experiences with grief, healing, rebirth, and emotional/social evolution are not a linear journey. It’s a cyclical one. Endings are not opposite to or in opposition of beginnings, they depend on one another. Admittedly I am uncomfortable with change and I am afraid of things ending. Yet, over and over again these days, we are being asked to respond quickly and calmly to our social-emotional worlds being in constant flux and upheaval. In the last few weeks I think there is something hopeful to be found here in the title: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. 

No matter how we show up or respond right now, the world goes on. Maybe seeing just how little control we actually have is a kind of gift. Maybe something more hopeful, more beautiful, could rise up from the ashes this time.

Our experiences with grief, healing, rebirth, and emotional/social evolution are not a linear journey. It’s a cyclical one. Endings are not opposite to or in opposition of beginnings, they depend on one another.

What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?

I am exploring what it means to envision an apocalypse as an ending as means to a beginning. As we destroy pieces of our history, what grows in its place; is it something better? Can we actually reinvent ourselves [collectively/individually] or does intergenerational grief & trauma make some sort of clean slate impossible to achieve? 

My piece will be a two-fold project. One part will be my own work; writing, [possibly interwoven with photos/images] imagining an apocalypse of binary gender for future generations. I plan to expand on some conversations I’ve been having with my child, Bird, as I attempt to answer their big questions about gender identity and expression, as well as reflect on my own experiences with gender. What it means to form a gender identity (a largely internal and personal process) and what it means to express that gender (have your identity to be seen, reflected and understood by others). Are they interconnected, separate, or both? How might they change separately or dependent on each other? I am also curious about the future of gender moving forward in a new more fluid generation where there truly could be an apocalypse of binary gender.

The second part of my project will be a zine created as a collaboration between Bird and I, as we try to make sense of what it means to understand gender as a young person, how that may or may not change as you grow, and how to navigate something so deeply personal that also has such strong repercussions outside of ourselves.

I have spent over 30 years trying to reconcile what it means to have a gender that our society doesn’t fully understand or accept. Now, as a parent, I find myself trying to help my own child navigate waters I still don’t fully understand myself. We are anchored to our Queer & Trans ancestors, we are buoyed by our community, but we are still treading water in this vast sea where any shore that holds respite also comes with its own limited expectations. What would it mean to swim to a new, uncharted shore? Who would join us there? Who might we exclude in a new world where binary gender is over? Will anyone grieve its death? 

We often think of children as possessing a wonder of the world, a kind of innocence. How do you use art / writing / creative projects to approach the heaviness of our realities in collaboration with your child / family?

Before Bird was born, we already decided that when difficult conversations or questions arose, we would answer their questions directly and honestly as was appropriate for their age at the time. Which was easy when Bird was two and satisfied with very simple answers. As they have grown older and have grown up as part of an activist & advocate community the conversations have gotten much more complex than I ever anticipated.

Age five is a curious time and if you have the pleasure of knowing a five year old, you know there is never an end of the questions. Young people have a great capacity for empathy and understanding. A lot of our history, of our present reality is painful, and it can be difficult to navigate the delicate balance of giving them enough information so they don’t grow up ignorant and unaware, while not burdening them with a level of information they aren’t ready or able to understand.

Reading books, writing, and making art are all ways that help Bird navigate their growing understanding of concepts and realities. For me, it’s very important to share our values with Bird, but also to make space for them to form their own ideas. I don’t want Bird to just parrot back our politics, I want them to learn how to think critically and form their own opinions—their voice is just as important as ours. Bird always brings thoughtful questions to our conversations and truly wants to understand why things are the way they are.

The idea to create a zine for this project in collaboration with Bird came from a conversation we had after shopping at Target. They just couldn’t understand why there were so many gender distinctions in the clothing department and true to their personality they got very riled up about it and wanted to speak to the workers about it, Let’s ask them to change the signs! Clothing doesn’t have a gender, anyone can wear whatever they want! I explained that it wasn’t up to the folks working the floor at Target, but that we could write an email to the head of the company or we could find a way to share their ideas about gender with people. They particularly liked the idea of making a zine that could be accessible to adults as well as children. Young people are natural learners and I also think they are natural teachers when given the opportunity to share their thoughts & feelings. I think armorning our children with knowledge, love, and radical acceptance gives them the best possible change to not only take on the world, but to change it.

Much of your creative work is centered around parenting and parenthood. How do you view your practice in context / in collaboration with parenting? In what ways does parenting inspire your approach to writing? In what ways does it hinder it?

I have been working on these questions for several weeks and I have been interrupted approximately 3,000 times by my child to Watch this, Papa! So parenting isn’t always super conducive to writing practice…

I have been a parent for exactly one month shy of six years as I write this. The first five years of my parenting journey have been an intensely intimate time and it’s hard for me to separate my parent identity from any other part of my identity. It’s the same way that being Transgender or Queer informs my experiences and interactions with the world, they are all interwoven with each other. But I also don’t want any of the ways in which I identify to become the whole measure of me and my perspective in the world. I strive to write in a way that even if someone doesn’t claim the same identities as me, they can still appreciate and connect to what I have to say.

I am also really aware that Bird is their own person. They come from me, they are a part of me, but they are not me. I think my job as both a writer and a parent is to be thoughtful in how I write about our family, and to continue to ask for consent and input from Bird if I am writing about them. This can be challenging sometimes but ultimately it reminds me to write from my own personal narrative and not speak for someone else.

What role does personal / collective history play in your work?

As a Queer/Trans person it can sometimes feel that in writing about my identity and experience means I am speaking on behalf of all Queer & Trans people. I’m not trying to do that—it’s not my place, and it’s just not possible. Our individual voices are so important, as they are all individual pieces of our collective history.

Who is one of the most influential people in your biological or chosen family lineage?

I find myself cycling between writing about my father, myself, and my child. [I am sure there is some sort of Freudian explanation for that].

Who / what is currently inspiring you locally?

Fellow artist for this cycle of A CLEARING, who is also a dear community friend, Nicole Em [@radicalemprints], always seems to say just the thing that hits in the bullseye center of my heart. She shares her politics and voice through her art always inspires and impresses me with her talent and vision.

I also feel inspired by my close friend and local printmaker, Rachel Kobasa [@rachadilla], she has a really interesting and creative approach to art that is accessible, interactive and playful, that I admire. She has a unique perspective that engages folks with her art in ways that are new and inventive.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

I don’t really like change. Now we are living in a time where everything feels like it’s changing all the time—very quickly and unexpectedly. So, I’ve been turning to what’s familiar and comforting.

I’ve been listening to this album on repeat for weeks now:

I’m re-reading this book for the third time:

And I’m watching my kid making art while I answer these questions:

What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?

Prior to the stay at home order, I had one full day off of work while Bird was at school, so I could freely spend that time writing. One day a week might not seem like a lot, but it felt like such a luxury to me and it really helped me get into a rhythm with my writing practice. Showing up when I wasn’t sure what to work on, writing for the sake of writing, not just to result in a finished product. As we really settle into this new reality where we are all home together, all the time, and my attention is often needed in several places at once, I feel like I have let writing fall to the very bottom of the priority pile. Having something specific to work on is helping me hold myself accountable to my writing. I am also working with a small group of friends online to write, share, and encourage each other’s work and practice.

Describe your practice space.

Typically, I write at a coffee shop because home is too distracting. Now that we have been asked to stay home I don’t have a particular writing spot yet. I am hopeful that working on this project will inspire me to create a little personal writing nook at home for myself.

For now, the kitchen table is where I am doing most of my work.

What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

My sweetie, Josh. He makes me laugh every day, which is a pretty important thing right now.

How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?

I lost my father to cancer when I was 16. No one could help me feel better about that or even really help me process it the way that writing could. Over the years I have always turned to writing and reading as a way to understand the complexity of grief in its many manifestations. I believe that when we share our own private stories and experiences with grief we are reaching our hand out to those who turn to art to process their own grief and loss. It is not a small thing to see yourself reflected in someone else’s shared pain, to know that someone else has felt the way you have—tangible proof that we are not as alone as we might fear we are.  ✽

Stephen Stratton is a writer who lives and works in Portland, Maine. He spends much of his time alongside his partner and child, exploring the rich natural landscape of Maine. Stephen’s work is reflective of his queer/trans identity, and his journey to become a parent. His writing centers around themes of grief & loss, family, identity, and his evolving relationship to his body.


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