SPEAK FREELY: NAMING AND UNNAMING THE SELF
Let me start by saying that the vast majority of the poets I include in my syllabi belong to the LGBTQ community. Generally speaking, my classes focus on issues related to the heteronormative binary, gender identity, and queerness often throughout the year. I suspect that this is true for many educators, especially those motivated to teach living poets and incorporate socially relevant verse into the classroom.
Certain publishers are showing a clear and consistent effort to increase visibility for LGBTQ poets, and many poets are openly discussing their relationship with gender and sexuality. Despite this progress, transgender poets remain noticeably underrepresented in conversations about contemporary American poetics, and educators are far less likely to include transgender poets in their syllabi if only because platform and visibility are extremely limited for transgender poets.
This month, I want to focus on several self-identified transgender poets who are making a profound impact on American poetics today—the poems I’ve chosen focus specifically on naming and how naming impacts one’s identity. One of the reasons I’m motivated to do this is because my transgender students continue to share difficulties with educators who refuse to recognize their names and pronouns, intentionally deadnaming them during class and dismissing the error as a simple mistake.
I am fortunate enough to work for a college that has adopted a policy requiring that faculty respect our students’ names, pronouns, and identities without question. However, many school districts and institutions continue to reject students’ identities with relative impunity. As the poems below illustrate, names and those who assign them can significantly impact identity formation, self-acceptance, and mental health. I think it’s necessary and valuable to introduce all students to the potential impacts involved in naming ourselves, naming each other, and processing how others name us.
Hopefully, these poems can foster conversations around agency and self-actualization, empowering all students to take a more vested interest in how they perceive themselves and how their language impacts others’ self-perception.
Brookins crafts a fascinating and poignant mirror poem that juxtaposes “son” and “daughter.” The poem is framed around the line, “This can’t be a wonderful scene,” with each line in the second half of the poem directly mirroring lines from the first half. By utilizing the mirror form, Brookins complicates the linear trajectory of most origin stories, presenting a speaker who first conforms to or becomes one identity. Following the necessarily messy “scene,” the speaker participates in the act of unbecoming.
The author is particularly brilliant in their approach to the origin story, which follows the familiar path of working to fit oneself into the expectations of family before ultimately embracing themselves in the latter half of the poem. The subtle changes to various lines in the second half help to contextualize the trauma inherent to feeling at odds with the person our family members expect us to be. Though the speaker cannot initially “fit in” to the family unit, they come to recognize that they do fit into their “genes.” This clever play on “jeans” in the first half of the poem also encourages students to revisit the first half of the poem through a symbolic lens.
Another thing that makes this poem ideal for conversations about naming and unnaming in the classroom is that it challenges the “coming out” trope. Whereas society still pushes the need for LGBTQ people to publicly identify themselves, and those stories which most often garner national attention frame “coming out” as a beautiful moment of self-actualization, Brookins instead employs imagery of a car crash and emphasizes the messiness of self-actualization. This lends authenticity and depth to the experience while also making students who may choose not to share their respective traumas, or who have had intensely negative reactions to “coming out,” feel seen and valued through a shared experience with the speaker in the poem.
Melt’s poem is a litany that features the various levels of naming and unnaming that students may experience with family members. There are a number of things at play in the structure of this poem that should facilitate student engagement and analysis. First, the poem is fairly brief with four brief stanzas and relatively short lines. Second, each stanza employs simple anaphora in the first line by beginning each with the word “When.” Melt is clever to use this specific word, as it is temporally ambiguous, allowing them to address the past and anticipate the future.
The anaphora further encourages readers to compare each of the scenes directly. In doing so, students will notice that the first and second lines of each stanza follow the same framework. First, the speaker identifies the family member at play in each line (“aunt,” “other aunt,” “other aunt,” “cister”); next, the speaker describes a specific action that each family member performs (“whispered,” “sent,” “called,” “allowed”). This framework helps to emphasize which family members offer intimate, outward responses of empathy to the speaker and which distance themselves from the speaker.
By the end of the poem, the speaker recognizes that they do not have complete agency over their identity. Though the first two aunts invoked make concerted attempts to support the speaker as they are, the aunt in the third stanza explicitly rejects the speaker’s identity by including them in the collective “ladies” and refusing to use the speaker’s new name. This is the catalyst for the question(s) raised in the final stanza, where the speaker thinks toward the future and wonders what their “cister” will name them in the future. That the speaker wonders if they will be “an aunt, an uncle, or/someone else entirely” suggests a space for acceptance and growth, but also acknowledges the possibility that the cister will fundamentally reject the speaker.
Tran introduces two new layers of naming and unnaming, namely that reinforced by government documents and that associated with trauma. The poem begins by noting that the speaker is looking at a form, likely the incident report alluded to in the title. Tran situates the form as symbolic of government systems that seek to name and possess our bodies. “The form said Name of victim./The form named me,” the second and third lines explain, introducing the form’s first effort to name the speaker. The juxtaposition of these lines further reinforces the assumption that the speaker has experienced trauma, and that form is attempting to define the speaker specifically (and exclusively) in relation to that trauma. Tran expertly highlights how people (and systems) often strive to name parts of us without validating or recognizing the totality of our respective experiences, noting that “Naming gave me form.”
As the poem progresses, Tran considers the function of language and naming as they work through the form. Words like “time” and “incident” become immediately coded and situate the trauma in a specific context, a context the speaker has virtually no agency over. Tran also notes how the form includes space for “Race or ethnicity,” which are “both…a form of naming.” Students are especially attuned to this form of naming given how frequently they encounter the same on school forms. By explicitly acknowledging that these names are “constructed,” Tran offers a point of entry into conversations about how and why government forms seek to categorize people, what the impact of such categorizations might be and how individuals carry those constructs with them when they interact with others.
One of my favorite aspects of this poem is that Tran refuses to name “the Sex” that took place, and which has been renamed “incident” by the form. This refusal is not a moment of conservatism or shame, but of strength. Tran’s insistence that they “won’t say the Name” allows the speaker to reclaim some agency over the act and, by proxy, over their body. The poem includes brief but vivid descriptions of the trauma, as well as a direct reference to consent. Tran’s decision to frame the poem around naming without specifically naming the event at the center of the narrative will inevitably encourage students to use context clues, imagery, and word choice to make predictions about the trauma experienced. From a rhetorical standpoint, this is excellent, but it also creates a space for dialogue around why we are more motivated to name the trauma than to name the person.
Expanding the Conversation
These poems do a lot of work in the classroom. Most obviously, educators can increase visibility for transgender poets and help to validate the experiences of transgender students in the process. Brookins, Melt, and Tran all address the process of naming and unnaming from different perspectives. Together, these poems will help foster understanding and empathy around the language we use with one another, and with ourselves. Most students will quickly pick up on how the various labels used within their respective peer groups can have a considerable impact on one’s sense of self. This is an ideal space for students to begin investigating the names they give themselves, the names others give them, and how these names either reinforce or work against the parts of themselves they most value. They might do these through poems or reflective writing, drawing on one or more of the poems to give them structure. Regardless, these poems help assign language to the process of naming, of becoming.