I first heard poet and memoirist Joy Ladin speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in 2012 in Chicago. I heard her again at the same conference in 2013 in Boston. If you don’t know of Joy and her work, you should. She writes with an emotional depth I can only envy and praise.
About Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, is the author of six books of poetry: last year’s The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration, Alternatives to History,The Book of Anna, and Psalms. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, and a Forward Fives winner. She is also the author of a book-length study of American poetry, Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry (VDM). Her work has appeared in many periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Southwest Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review, and has been recognized with a Fulbright Scholarship.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first realize you were a writer? Joy Ladin (JL): I started thinking of myself as a poet almost as soon as I learned to write, which I did at the usual time for the 1960s, around age six. From the first, I felt that I was exercising great power when I wrote, that writing enabled me to create worlds instead of merely enduring the givens of existence. The givens of existence I found hardest to endure were sex and gender, specifically, the maleness of my body and the identity and life that went with it. Writing was a way of existing that seemed to me to be outside sex and gender; the only part of my body I needed to write was my hand, and once the words were on the page they spoke without any body at all to frame or constrain them.
TWM: Who inspired you and why?
JL: When I was a kid, I kept re-reading Valiant Companions, which told the story of the relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. I don’t think I knew why I kept reading the book then, but now I see so much in it that points toward the person I needed to become: Helen Keller’s courage, dignity and persistence in overcoming crippling difference; her creation of empathy and understanding of that difference through writing; Anne Sullivan’s commitment to teaching as a means of helping students grow into their best selves; and the image of two indomitable women sustained by mutual love.
TWM: In your memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders, the depth of emotion blew me away. Were you conscious of the depth you were creating? How much of your talent as a poet contributed?
JL: Thank you! I was trying to be as honest and precise as I could be in narrating the emotional journeys entailed by living for so long as someone I wasn’t, slowly becoming my true self, and facing the consequences of my becoming for the people who loved the man I had pretended to be, and for the relationships (both personal and professional) that were based on the premise of my maleness. I wanted to document what was going on in me without losing sight of what was going on for those I loved; I don’t know how successful I was, but I think that ambition to keep multiple emotional realities in mind helped deepen the memoir. I had grown up thinking of poets as being responsible for creating language for realms of human being and experience for which there is no ready language. The memoir gave me a very specific realm in which to attempt that work, work driven not by some abstract sense of where language falls short but by my own desperate need for language to help me and others understand what and who I was.
TWM: Did writing help you through your transformation? If so, how?
JL: From the first stumbling efforts at writing about transition, I knew that the writing process was a crucial part of my transition. Writing had always been my way of being my true self; as I wrote about transition, I saw that it was my way of developing the life-story that is the backbone of a sense of self. My life as a man had no story, as far as I was concerned, no trajectory, no triumphs, no goals. It was sheer endurance. But if I was going to become a person, I needed to learn how to narrate myself, how to tell myself and others the story of where I had come from and where I was going. Writing the memoir — and, of course, therapy! — were my primary means of doing that. In fact, my therapist urged me to write a memoir. The writing process enabled me to practice being a person in many ways, and also — because even though I wrote most of it in the midst of transition, I wrote it in the past tense — writing enabled me to imagine a perspective beyond the anguish and turmoil of transition, a perspective from which a narrating “I” who wasn’t in constant crisis could look back and reflect on the process of becoming. Writing also gave me something to do other than killing myself, a way of transcending circumstances that I sometimes didn’t feel I knew how to live through.
TWM: What drives you as a poet?
JL: I’ve been driven by different impulses over my almost four decades of writing poetry seriously, but whatever is driving this or that project or poem, writing poetry always thrills me. It doesn’t matter whether I’m writing well or badly, whether what I’m working on becomes a poem or scrap paper. There is something about the feeling of poetry surrounding me, buoying me, welling up through me, that makes me feel ecstatically alive.
TWM: In Book of Anna and Transmigration, two books of your poetry, you use collage. Can you tell us more about that approach and your choice and use of it?
JL: In both books, I adapt modernist poetic techniques I explored in detail in my dissertation (now a book), Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry. I love formalist analysis, and when I studied the emergence of modernist poetics in American poetry between 1850 and 1925, I found that what’s usually called “collage” turns out to include a number of different approaches to language, two of which, discourse fusion and discourse splicing, I used in Anna and Transmigration. In discourse fusion, two or more distinct kinds of language — say, self-help lingo and tax instruction — are fused into sentences that sound like coherent utterances, even though readers can see the different kinds of language jostling within them. In discourse splicing, different kinds of languages are juxtaposed in grammatically and often visually distinct blocks, but are still presented as though they represent some sort of coherent overarching perspective. I learned to recognize different kinds of language, and to work with the different worldviews and values they imply, from studying Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, but Dickinson and her modernist successors didn’t need critical theory to develop those techniques.
I turned to these techniques in Anna because to her, after her concentration camp adolescence, no language or worldview seemed whole or honest. She would fuse and splice different kinds of language to dramatize how inadequate they were, to play them against one another, and, by the end, to fumble toward a larger language composed of their fragments. Some of the poems in Transmigration uses the same techniques, but for very different purposes: as I tried to write my way toward a new self and life as a woman, I wanted a poetic language that came from outside me, from that future, and cajoled and guided and sometimes shoved me toward it. I tried to create that language by splicing and fusing language I found in women’s magazines, which, if you include everything from the headers to the contest instructions to ads to anti-depressant warnings, offer an enormous range of language to choose from.
TWM: Can you tell us more about your persona poetry?
JL: I haven’t written persona poetry since I started living as myself. The persona poems in my first book, Alternatives to History, were conscious attempts to explore the way human souls worked without having to reveal my own. Some of them were also efforts to exorcise a certain kind of masculinity I inherited from my father and grandfather, a definition of masculinity as acceptance of the utter futility of life. Since my father stopped talking to me right after college, those poems were, I think, also attempts to feel close to him even though, as it happened, he would never speak to me again. The latest persona poem in the book, “Fossilized Happiness,” represented another kind of attempt to escape constraint — in this case, the constraint of short lyric utterances that “worked” in workshop terms but seemed to me to say little because they were unmoored from character and situation. My own life didn’t afford that sort of context to my poems, because it wasn’t a real life but a hiding from life.
The Book of Anna started out of utter boredom with the way I was writing — I just wanted to “write like someone else,” and Anna was the someone else who presented herself. But over the five years I worked on discovering her character and story and learning how she needed to write it, it was also clear that though Anna was designed to be not-me (she really isn’t!), she was also the first extended opportunity I’d given myself to imaginatively live within a female point of view. Anna isn’t “a woman” — I’ve never known anyone like her — but her sex and gender were important parts of her story and her voice. I think that work both eased me toward gender transition, and helped me put it off by giving me a place to escape the facade of maleness for a while.
TWM: Please share with us your transition from persona to an “I” narrator.
JL: When I finished Anna, I was nearing the end of my ability to live as a man. Fortunately for me, the book found a publisher just in time to qualify me to apply for early tenure — I got tenure when I was literally falling apart every time I presented myself as a man. I wondered what I would do when I could no longer write as Anna. I wrote more persona poems, mostly in male voices, poems collected in a still-unpublished manuscript called Impersonation. I wrote lyric poems complaining about life, and one long, very strange sort of persona poem in the voice of the prophet Habakkuk kvetching to God about the Babylonians, a not-very-veiled way of complaining about the post-9/11 imperial America of George W. Bush. Then I started to face the fact that I couldn’t simply hide and repress my gender identity any more, that I had to find other ways to deal with it. That decision didn’t directly lead to anything but Google searches, but it was the beginning of my gender transition. As my explorations of my gender identity progressed and my marriage fell apart, I started looking for ways to explore writing as a woman — not as a persona, like Anna, but as someone living as a woman. For a long time — from the end of Impersonation through most of Transmigration, the book I wrote during the roughest part of transition and the first one published under my true name — the closest I could come to writing as a woman was poems in the second person, made out of language scavenged from women’s magazines. To me, these poems constituted prophetic voices, voices from my future self dragging and cheering me on toward a kind of embodiment, feeling, personhood, that I had never experienced and, despite all my persona poems, didn’t know how to imagine for myself.
My ability to say “I” and mean myself emerged after that book. You can see it growing in Coming to Life, the book after Transmigration, though that has plenty of second-person writing, too, and it is fully developed in The Definition of Joy, the book I published last year. But the key to my transition to writing in the first person was the book I published in between them, Psalms. I wrote psalms over a couple of terrible summer months, when I thought a mysterious illness (I was initially diagnosed with MS) was rapidly destroying my cognitive abilities so I had to write whatever poems I was going to write. It was miraculously published a few months after I finished it, by a small publisher, Wipf & Stock. In Psalms, I didn’t have time for personae or future selves or indirection; I needed to talk directly to God about the collision of coming to life and, so it seemed, simultaneous descent into disability and death that I was experiencing. The book is intended as a sequence, the story of a relationship between the speaker, an “I” who really did represent me, and “you,” God, that progresses from the speaker’s rage and disgust to … tenderness, forgiveness, a kind of largeness and acceptance that I didn’t know I was capable of, and toward which, in my life and writing, I still strive.
TWM: You’ve said in an Ilanot Review interview that you suspect that American poets’ obsession with first-person writing is also a response to loss of authority. Please tell us more about that.
JL: Till the end of the nineteenth century, and in some respects for some years afterward, Americans looked to poetry for moral guidance, spiritual uplift, family entertainment, national history, political proclamation, as well as for aesthetic experience. Poetry was a major expression and aspect of our emerging national culture, and was taught in schools as a model of not only eloquence but of thought, philosophy, values, and so on. That gave poetry a kind of authority that it lost in the twentieth century for a variety of reasons, including the segregation of the study of literature into English departments, which increasingly presented poetry as a specialized literary activity rather than a broadly relevant mode of cultural expression.
American poets responded to this shift in poetry’s cultural status — its loss of broad cultural authority and enshrinement as a hyperspecialized form of literature — in a variety of ways in the early twentieth century, introducing non-literary language (think Frost’s North of Boston and The Spoon River Anthology, both seen as cutting-edge when they were published), developing modernist techniques that among other things enabled poetry to sound like it was espousing great truths that most readers would be too stupid to grasp (what I call, somewhat unfairly, the TS Eliot effect), etc. But by the mid-twentieth century, more and more American poets were turning to the one mode of writing in which they could unarguably speak with authority: first-person writing, poems that present truths about one person, one voice, one situation, one life. These poems stake very modest claims in themselves, but they can gain great cultural authority and resonance when readers see themselves reflected in the “I” of the poem.
TWM: What advice would you give emerging Jewish poets?
JL: Jewish poets are inheritors of three thousand years of extraordinary writing spanning innumerable cultures and countries. Because both American culture and American Jewish culture tend not to be interested in poetry, I think many young Jewish poets think of poetry as a non-Jewish endeavor, and overlook the riches of their own tradition. Those riches include ground-breaking Americans like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Reznikoff, the excruciating intimacy of Biblical psalms, the glittering cross-cultural brilliance of medieval Andalusian poets such as Yehuda Ha-Levi who were inspired by their Muslim peers, Russians such as Osip Mandelstam — the list goes on and on. We can learn so much from this Jewish poetic legacy, and grow enormously by seeing ourselves and our own small lives as extensions of this millennia-spanning heritage.