When you think of this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch,” what elements / images / phrases most strike you? How does your work relate to these ideas?
As I have read, and re-read Kristin Chang’s poem, I was struck by how she connects self-identity [particularly queer//gender identity] to family identity and expectations. She writes, “First of many betrayals: my refusal to resemble, to reassemble rain into a cohesive water, daughter. To disown all salt in a series of bleedings. My masculinity a factory. An assembly line of mothers unmaking me.” The expectation of what a daughter will be [feminine, a future bride and mother] are passed down from mother to daughter, from mother to daughter, again and again. I hear her asking the question, if you reject the expectation passed down from so many generations before you, are you rejecting your own linage; your mother, your mother’s mother, your mother’s mother’s mother? Can we be expected to live the lives mapped out for us by mothers who came so far before us they couldn’t even imagine the kind of lives we live now. For years I carried guilt that I had taken something from my family when I transitioned. There is a delicate balance when trying to sort out your own identity while also trying to juggle what your family will think of you, how will they respond to you, will they reject you? As the expression of my gender and sexuality has evolved over time, I’ve experienced both overt and subtle rejections from my loved ones. Years later things look different, but that kind of hurt stays with you, it changes you, it isn’t easy to recover from. Writing about that particular pain allowed me to dissect it, to see where it comes from, and to move through it.
Describe the work you’ll be contributing this season.
I am writing about having experienced pregnancy as a trans masculine person, focusing especially on my postpartum experience. I was not prepared for how grief would take up so much space in what was supposed to be such a celebratory time. I think a lot about how giving birth opened me up; literally and figuratively. I was prepared for the former but not the later, and in not planning for the later I found myself sinking in feelings of loneliness and grief. I didn’t know who to talk to or how to talk about it because there was no blueprint for how a man might seek postpartum support. I didn’t feel like I could connect to my female-identified friends, I didn’t feel like I could just roll up to a support group full of moms and ask for help, I was afraid to even try to reach out to a therapist for fear of having to explain myself when I was already barely holding myself together. Honestly, my baby was the only thing that made me feel grounded and tethered and so I clung to her. My heart broke wide open and rebuilt itself around this new love for her, but the grief and loss and hurt needed somewhere to go so it went everywhere else, it seeped in every crack and crevice and ran through my veins. On the outside I appeared to have it together, I gave the impression I had it all; I got to be the guy with the beard and the baby, but in reality it came at a cost and I wish I had sought help sooner. I have since realized it wasn’t because I am trans or queer [i.e. it is not “my fault” and I didn’t “bring this on myself,”] it is because of other people’s limited ideas of what it means to be trans, to be queer, to have been born one way and have chosen another way and then to have taken a detour no one expected. I want to write about the queer and trans narratives I am not already seeing, and to bring a fresh perspective to the old narratives. As our understanding of gender continues to evolve, it is even more important to share our stories, even when it feels vulnerable and painful.
Thinking of the body as a physical home for self, as a body of work, as a body of text… What are some of the ways these bodies enable or limit expression?
In a more perfect world I believe that there would be no limits to how we want to express and understand and present our bodies. I think for many of us that world doesn’t exist, especially when you consider other factors like race, class, etc. I think even within queer and trans communities, there is a “correct” way to be trans//queer, which is reflective of heteronormative sex//gender roles and expectations. When I made the decision to physically and medically change my body I asked myself, “If I lived alone in a cabin in the woods and never interacted with other humans again, would I still want a beard, a flat chest, a deeper voice?” The answer was yes, but even that yes was wrapped up in having been raised in a culture which is still very binary and doesn’t offer us a lot of alternatives to what is expected. I don’t want to imagine a world without gender, I want to imagine a world in which we don’t take gender so seriously, where we don’t see it as immutable, and we don’t categorize it as an either/or identity. When I was pregnant a relative told me they support me identifying as a man, but if that’s who I want to be I don’t have a right to also get pregnant because “that is a woman’s right.” At first I internalized that nonsense, especially when I was being told by others that my pregnancy was “weird” or made them feel uncomfortable. But then I decided, fuck that. I was given this body and only I get to decide what to do with this body, I get to decide what being transgender means to me, what being a man means to me, and I alone reserve the right to evolve how I see fit. Our society’s expectations are limiting, not our bodies.
What do you find challenging about being a writer in 2019?
The accessibility of the internet makes procrastinating exceptionally easy.
What / who is currently inspiring you locally?
These days I find myself inspired by my other writer friends who are working full time//part time//side-hustle jobs in addition to holding it down at home and doing not only the physical but also unseen emotional labor of parenting, while also managing to find time to write and put their work out into the world. Weeks go by sometimes where the only writing I have managed to produce is snippets of ideas I voice text to myself while I am in the shower. In an ideal world there would be at least two uninterrupted hours a day to sit at my sacred creative space and dedicate myself to my writing practice. But the reality is that often there is no time, or the time comes at the end of an exhausting day when I have nothing left to give myself. But then I see my friends, who have just as much going on as me, maybe even more [or in different ways], and yet there they are sharing a new blog post or getting an article published online and I am reminded that while it may feel impossible somedays, it is both possible and attainable. I don’t need to have a perfect practice in order to write, I just need to seize the moments even if that means I am writing at the messy kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon while my toddler is watching an episode of Daniel Tiger in the background. 8
What types of ghosts haunt your work? What kind of relationship do you have / want to have with these ghosts?
My father died when I was sixteen, I carry 22 years worth of grief within me so that experience of loss has not only shaped my life, but it has impacted my writing. Literal ghosts are the easiest subjects to write about, I can write about my relationship with my father more honestly than anyone else in my life. My father and I did not see eye to eye on many things and before he died we weren’t able to reconcile all of our issues. Writing about him over the years has allowed me to work through a lot of residual feelings that I couldn’t work out with him when he was alive. My father has become a muse to me now. In writing about him I have achieved a level of openness I never had with him in life. There is no fear of rejection or worry of disappointing him, and that feels powerful and freeing.
Who is one of the most influential people in your biological and/or chosen family lineage? How do you feel their influence in your work?
Since becoming a parent, I find it hard to write about anything else. And even then she is still always there, between the lines. The decision to have her shifted my identity, and the process of having her changed me so profoundly I feel like I was born a new person along with her. There is a connection there that I feel a constant pull to dissect and understand and explore. I also know that someday she will be old enough to read the things I write, which encourages me to want to write more, to capture this time, to explain myself to her, to leave her a legacy of words.
How do other artistic mediums inspire / inform your work?
I read as much as I can, I try to read a book a week if I am able to find the time. I recently worked my way through all of Jesmyn Ward’s books, she is an incredibly powerful story teller and writes so lyrically about such intense narratives. Her works of fiction are woven with so many strands from her own life and she writes her characters with such tenderness and care. I think that reading other people’s narratives [both fiction and non fiction] make me a better writer. I have always been drawn to memoirs, particularly stories told by people with marginalized identities. I feel inspired when I see others opening up and sharing the stories that are hard to tell and painful to share. I am drawn to stories that bring a fresh perspective and point of view, even if the subjects or ideas themselves are not new.
How do you generally spend your days?
Coffee, kids, repeat until bedtime. I am only half joking. Actually I am not really joking, my days pretty much revolve around drinking coffee and doing childcare [I work as a nanny and my daughter is able to come to work with me]. On the weekends our family spends as much time outside as possible and as weather allows.
Describe a vivid dream you’ve had recently. What do you think it was trying to communicate to you?
A year ago I had a dream that I still carry with me because it refuses to go away. A full year later it still carries a sadness I can’t shake anytime I think of it. At the time it felt so raw and real that I wrote it down. I had a baby boy, with dark, dark hair and my Papa’s blue eyes. He is quiet and petite and I can’t stop staring into the bright, clear pools of his eyes. Birdie is spooning him on the bed. They nap together like this while I watch in awe and adoration. But everyone else around me seems ambivalent to him, like he is nothing, like there is nothing significant or important about his arrival. Whenever I try to show him to someone he gets smaller, and smaller, and smaller, until he is the size of my hand. I try to hide him but I already know that I am losing him and I am powerless to stop it. He turns into a wooden doll I hold in my palm. I wake up and try to memorize his face. We never gave him a name. I cried secretly for days after I had this dream, it felt like a such a real loss, and I didn’t even tell my partner about it until recently. I dream often of babies, I always have, even when I was young. I actually dream of this particular baby boy a lot and I believe he represents a longing. I think this particular dream was a manifestation of wanting to have another child and that not being in the cards for us. It is a subject I struggle to write or even talk about because it feels so personal and painful and not for public consumption.
What is one important thing you’ve done for your own creative practice / own nourishment as a creative person in recent months?
I recently did a six week long writing workshop online. It was the first time in a very long time I have invested dedicated time to my writing [beyond carving out time to just write in my blog]. The workshop held me accountable to writing each week, which was helpful, but we were also spending time each week participating in writing lectures, as well as responding to each other’s work. I realized how important it is for me to be a part of a writing community. I have been slowly working on getting a group of my local writer friends together to meet, talk and share our writing with each other. Though writing often feels like a solitary act, I think it is important to connect to other people doing the work, who understand what it takes to be a writer, and to try not to exist in a vacuum. I learned that my creativity thrives when I connect with others. ■
Stephen Stratton is a writer who lives and works in Portland, Maine. He spends much of his time alongside his partner and daughter, 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.