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Kay Gabriel: The Art of Illegibility


Interviewed by Edna Bonhomme.

Kay Gabriel is an essayist and poet who graduated from Princeton University with a PhD in classics. Gabriel is the author of two books of collected poetry, A Queen in Bucks County and Kissing Other People or the House of Fame. The books are shaped by Kay’s experimental grammar, one that holds space for the erotic and the perverse. The scholar McKenzie Wark noted in The Nation, Kay Gabriel finds a connection between trans femininity and modernism as she documents one person’s winding journey from suburb to city.” 

Together with Andrea Abi-Karam, Gabriel co-edited an anthology of trans and gender non-conforming poetry, titled We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, published by Nightboat Books in 2020. The book received praise and was a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her writing and poetry have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Social Text, The Recluse, and The Believer amongst other publications. Gabriel is a recipient of a Poetry Project fellowship and the Lambda Literary fellowship. She lives and works in New York.

Our interview was during the late spring in Wedding, a working class neighbourhood in Berlin. We sat at a cafe next to a cemetery at a former crematorium, the first of its kind in the city. During the conversation, we spoke about writing, trans identity, and the works that inspire Kay. Her energy and love for her craft was inspiring, and it is beautiful how she finds a language for herself and fostering community. The discussion was edited for length and clarity.

Edna Bonhomme: How do you think people view you as a poet?

Kay Gabriel: I had to fight hard to get people to take me seriously as a trans poet. And then when some of them did, there was an assumption that I was merely speaking to a small aesthetic circle. Interesting things were happening in trans-literature such as with Imogen Binnie’s “Nevada.” In the same way that Imogen wrote Nevada, she was like, this is a book that hasn't been written before, I, too, wanted to write something that wasn't written before and focus on the world I knew, twenty-something transsexuals in Brooklyn. I know this culture and I can write about it in a positive sense. I think the culture developed really beautifully and powerfully. And there is a sense of a vibrant, animated, pulsing, large, and complex cultural movement with a clear political orientation, but not in a corny tone. Rather, I want to elevate the language and make certain kinds of language possible.

Edna Bonhomme: Is there something particular about living in New York City in 2023 that makes this type of writing possible?

Kay Gabriel: When I think about why New York City is a good place to be a transsexual right now, I mostly mean that it's a fun place. I've worked hard to be illegible to people who shouldn't know and legible to people who should, which is how everybody wants it, right? No matter how, you know, it's how everybody wants it. And I thought hard about that. Anyway, what I'm saying is that it relates to safety because the legibility of transgender people can often shape their safety. But that being said, it is also the case that in New York City as opposed to here in Berlin, they don't know what transgender people look like because there aren't many trans women in Berlin. When I was here last time, five years ago, I met one trans woman and she came up to me, and she was like, hi sister in my ear as if we were on a bus in Winnipeg fifteen years ago. And she was saying something like, ‘I think you're like me’. I was talking to my friend Maxi Wallenhorst, a Berlin-based transgender writer, and I told her when I visited Berlin five years ago, I didn't meet a single trans woman that I know of. And she said, yeah, precisely. There are a lot of us in New York City and it feels like a good place because it is big and powerful. A lot of girls are getting expert attention in a wide variety of different cultural spheres. Nightlife became the centre of many people's lives after the lockdown measures. And there are wonderful resources that provide gender-affirming care. For example, if a person is transitioning, Medicaid in New York City will pay for the surgery. There is a cultural infrastructure and social infrastructure in New York City and there is a political common sense that liberals will defend. All of that adds up to a wonderful moment when, of course, so many things are really hard right now. It's just a wonderful place to be the way we are.

Edna Bonhomme: What you're describing is that a community can flourish when you have the numbers and the resources to flourish. You can't be the only one.

Kay Gabriel: Flourishing. That's right. The community is more than big enough. It's an important stage of development in a social scene, where you can be like ‘We're in this together, even if everyone doesn't like each other’. If you see a foe, you can just turn, move six feet in the other direction and avoid that person altogether. The community also encompasses the girls who are your ‘ride or die’. And I'm not trying to exclude the boys from all of this. I'm a fan of the genre. [Laughs.] I think they're fantastic. I'm focusing on the dolls because it's just, you know, it's like we get that much more scrutiny. A big and flourishing trans community with all of the things that people need makes lives worth living for themselves. And that is the result of struggle on several different fronts at the same time. And it's very beautiful to be there and to be in it. And I don't take it for granted.

Edna Bonhomme: At what point did you consider yourself to be a writer? And how did you figure out a path for yourself as someone who would be able to be both a poet and a scholar? 

Kay Gabriel: That's such a good question. I'll give you a version of the answer that I gave Michelle O'Brien when she did my trans oral history project interview: I started writing poetry. And this is what I said to Michelle. I started writing poetry around the same time that I transitioned. They had nothing to do with each other. But Michelle said, ‘I don't believe you’. I felt a bit dismissed that she would dispute my stated truth about myself. But then she elaborated and explained, ‘You arrived at a position of discovery which also arrived during a period where you adopted a creative practice.’ I was finding a different way to intervene in the world through my identity while making an intervention of language in the world. And Michelle is probably right. But regarding the time, it was ten years ago that I started to write seriously. I would say that my writing process is extremely important. Even when I'm writing something that's playing weird language games or recording my dreams or whatever it is, it feels extremely important to me to think about language. I think about my writing as a way of thinking, as a mode of theory, or even philosophy. I have a strong optimism in the capacity of creative experimentation.

Edna Bonhomme: Often some writers can point to specific individuals they read that have inspired them or maybe even motivated them to experiment with different writing or in some cases, people having mentors who helped or encouraged them to write. Did you have any mentors who were poets or essayists, or other writers who helped guide you in thinking about writing in this way? Or did you feel that it was more community oriented and your peers were your muses? Or was it a more individual experience in which you found yourself kind of self-motivated? Who were the external people who helped to guide you, as you were thinking actively about this creative process?

Kay Gabriel: I feel very lucky that I had an early personal encounter with the Lebanese Canadian writer Trish Salah, who is just extraordinary and whose work I think never compromises ever on the thought. I think explicitly about her work, about poetry as a genre of philosophy or a genre of theory. I wouldn't describe Trish as a mentor, but we know each other, and there's a superb feeling between us. I met her when she was visiting New York. She was giving a talk at the City University of New York. She's in her early fifties now. So, you know, there's about twenty years between us. But I feel like I learned a lot from reading her, writing from the handful of encounters that we had together. She lives in Toronto and Kingston now. And just reading her work, I see who she is taking seriously and I see how she arrives at extraordinary conclusions. I would say her work is really important to me, but not in a mentorship way. Because mentorship implies something like training. 

There's an extremely important formative writer to me, a poet, Bernadette Mayer, who died recently. She died in November 2022 at seventy-seven. She was a lifelong experimentalist writer who also discussed aging and how things fall apart. Mayer taught this experimental writing workshop where they did really weird stuff in the seventies, and she was involved with early conceptual art. So she was thinking about things on a really ambitious scale, as people in that generation did. She wrote, played with language, and tried not to be famous. Unfortunately for her she did, but, you know, in a punk way. And I think learning from her sense of continually reinventing a writing practice and your fidelity should be to the cumulative effect of your work over the stylistic of any individual small instance of it. That is extremely important to me, not because it's not wonderful to see somebody do a virtuosic gymnastic routine in four or five lines of poetry, but because I think this is ultimately nice. This big thing in poetry that people care about a lot, is the pained difference between the Capital P poem, the perfect poem, and the actual concrete, messy, imperfect poem, the one that you write. And this, you know, is something that Ben Lerner talks about. The hatred of poetry and its pain. It can be distressing to be stuck in this kind of muddy world where you are striving for the perfect thing you think about, like the finessing, the endless revision. And the point is actually the expanse, the vast surface and speeding over it. That's often how I think about my work as well. Although of course, I like to write brutal sentences, too. 

Edna Bonhomme: So, you've published three poetry books over the past several years, which is quite prolific in terms of output. This is not to say that one should only be judged by productivity, volume and quantity. But I do want to know how you have done it and what has been your writing process, especially in the past three years, given that some people find it difficult to focus as writers when the world seems to be on fire.

Kay Gabriel: Poetry has some relationship to political life, so it doesn't seem to me to be intentional or a contradiction to be writing. My theory of change is very involved in organising. At the same time, I believe the force of the cultural front, especially at this moment, and especially thinking about how the far right knows we're in a culture war. The center does not, and the left ought to know. I like making pervy work that's also politically ambitious and connected to all of these kinds of multiple fights that we're all engaged in at the same time. Thatto me feels like really part of the process.

Edna Bonhomme: Let’s talk about kink. I enjoyed reading R.O. Kwon’s anthology on kink and thinking with literary figures, that is writers and poets who are documenting pleasure through prose. What function do you think sex and kink serve in writing?

Kay Gabriel: There are a couple of ways of answering that. Kink, as a word, is not important to me, although I'm a pro. But, fetishes and sex writing is. I was thinking recently that my work is, I think it's hot. I don't think it's erotic. It's extremely sexual. And the difference that I mean by that is bodied, erotic poetry, but my writing's graphic. The work is not meant to dissolve the reader. Rather, I describe how I like your knuckles or my forearm. It's content. There's a vulgarity in that. Precision. There's a way that sex is in my writing, it’s a part of knowledge, discovery, and production. I'm interested in the overlaps of trans identity historically and socially. I'm interested in the freaky, which I also see as part of a life worth living, even when the rest of it kind of sucks. 

Edna Bonhomme: You've been circulating through the poetry circuit here in Berlin. What has it been like to be on stage with other writers, some of whom are from Germany? How do people engage with your work and how have you been received? 

Kay Gabriel: So far, it has been positive. I love that there's a genuine community, people around my friend Maxi, who respect her exactly as much as she deserves. And you know, she's so brilliant. I was excited to share a stage with her. I did two events, one at the Poetry Festival in Berlin with Kemi Alabi, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Eileen Myles, and then I did a second event that was just me and Julian. The first event was pleasant in part because I could tell that some of the people in the audience were trans as well. On top of that, it was a young crowd. It was not just German people. It's super cool to learn from people and to be outside the US context which is pretty miserable. New York is great, but the US is a pretty miserable place to be. I love encountering people in Berlin, and I find it gratifying to think with them. That's not necessarily why I write, but that people like my work, and engage with me is satisfying. There's something that's socially efficacious. There's something wonderful about having people writing in a social context and people are writing back.

Edna Bonhomme: Who are your top three trans writers that you are reading at this moment or that you recommend that people read at this moment?

Kay Gabriel: Number one, Cecilia Gentili. Cecilia is a badass. Her epistolary memoir,  Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn't My Rapist, came out from Little Puss Press is a hilarious, smart, super brilliant, extremely sensitive book. Her work is sensitive in all the variety, like all the many moments within the extremely complex subject position of being a trans child. She tells a hilarious story. 

The second person I would list is Jackie Ess who I think has this amazing capacity to be real that most people lack, Jackie is real in situations where most people fall back on. She's really about the multiple projections that make up any social relationship. And she does all that with writing, with intense satire, but also graciousness. After reading Darryl and her new book, I came away feeling that all these people are doing something a little bit laughable and none of them are wrong. I think that’s really powerful. 

And Trish Salah is the last one. She has a bunch of essays about Schrader, psychoanalysis, racialization and trans desire. I just think that Trish's the business. One of the nice things about the culture is that I don't have to pick three, but artificially if I have to, those are my three.

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