boy/girl/ghost: a preview
Lately, I’ve been thinking of poetry as justice. Is it possible that a poem can shift its readers towards equity, righteousness, the dream of the unified field? Does one already need to be changed to welcome the poet in? When I first read torrin a. greathouse’s boy/girl/ghost, I saw a poet alive in the transformative pause of the magician’s trick. In that moment where we hold our breaths, curious of what sleight of hand we missed, torrin speaks with a bewildered knowing: “it goes like this i tried to body into anything but this / body.” If there is a disappearing act, torrin offers any other explanation, not to elucidate the trick, but to trace the outline of the disappeared through the air. They ask us what, if anything, have we learned in this grief?
To read boy/girl/ghost is to undergo transformation on a molecular level—”the magic here is when we name it water / it begins to drink back”—as much as with an epistemological understanding—”if the music | ian turns every | thing into sound | the poet re | makes her world as | failed body where | keys become teeth.” torrin understands music through the rupture of it; its distortion and feedback is the sound becoming toothsome, more mouth than composition. This is the magic and beauty of torrin’s work: How quickly they turn every cosmic swirl into flowers, hands, their father’s clinking bottles, “an honest elegy.”
Below, please enjoy the poem, “Wind Chime Aria for Four Hands,” the second poem in torrin’s extraordinary chapbook, boy/girl/ghost. torrin answers some questions about their writing process, community, and homage. Make sure you purchase your copy of boy/girl/ghost. ‘Tis the season to give.
Publisher and Editor in Chief of TAR Chapbook Series
WIND-CHIME ARIA FOR FOUR HANDS
my mother has always loved wind-chimes / something in the music
preceding the storm / i swear some summers they started singing
long before the streets were ransacked / by evening breeze like a warning
see, my mother used to say that this house was haunted / & by this
she meant the day we moved in / my father disappeared / into the mouth
of a bottle like lungs emptying / & glass teaching them song
or he became wind or lightbulbs / began bursting on their own
a confetti of blades / across the kitchen floor the way
the fracturing light held every room / a burning photograph
translates to noisy ghost / so it’s no wonder we never slept
made gardens from the violets beneath our eyes / woke up with bruises
we didn’t remember / anything but the rattling sound in the walls
& bottles seemed to empty / on their own / my muscles still turn
to sand at the top of basement stairs / remember cold cement & flight
how my father pressed me / like a flower / against the wall
how he scraped the polish from my nails / held my hands
& told me / that Mozart’s father taught him to play
by breaking / his fingers each time a note fell wrong
i still find myself searching / for ghosts in the melody / floating over
a banquet hall of teeth / daydream of bending my fingers back
until they snap like rotten boards / of the porch gutting itself
i could still cry from the sound / of a wind-chime / waltzing
with noisy ghosts / on the breeze / am still afraid to paint my nails
to feel my father’s hands / cement cold & acres wide
my mother says that this body is haunted / & by this she means / i buried
the boy / my father beat / behind the barn / or became wind or woman
or i run my hands through silk curtains / plumed like drowning lungs &
mistake them / for my own skin
An Interview with torrin a. greathouse
Natalie Eilbert: You are a poet who seems to truly spend time with your poems before they are "done." That is to say, your poems are quite cooked. They know what and how they function, and where they need to go. There's a refined praxis to your work. I'm curious if you could speak of your writing process for boy/girl/ghost and how it has evolved in newer poems.
torrin a. greathouse: It sounds needlessly esoteric to say, but most of my poems are written in my head. There's a long gestational period before I ever touch the page. Sometimes an idea will float for months, accumulating lines until it bursts from me. It occurs to me now that it's not all that unlike rain. A poem leaves me only when it has become heavy enough to plummet out. If anything has changed, it's simply that it rains less now, but when it does, it's usually a storm.
NE: As much as you revolve around process, you are a poet of company. I'm reminded of Dana Ward's term for this, "the many-gendered mothers of my heart." Your influences are vast and your homage of them follows straight into your poems. Can you speak of influence and community? What does it mean for you?
TG: I think that my conception of my work's lineage is very much one informed by queer found family. At a certain point, I have to eschew the dedications, because one single poem might call Linette Reeman cousin, call Danez Smith and Jeanann Verlee aunties, and be really excited after coming home from a playdate with Irving Goffman and Erwin Schrodinger. And all of this is to completely, for a moment, ignore the lineage of punk, rap, and folk that has informed my voice and plays in the back(or fore-)ground whenever I write.
I think a lot about Rachel McKibbens' "Oath (Blud Litany)." How she invokes a kind of kin beyond genetic for those who have suffered through trauma. How she says "I un-bl__d you to blud you" and invites the reader into a new lineage. I no longer speak to anyone of my blood. But I spend so much time in awe of the blud who have helped me survive. My poems veins are thick with this blud.
NE: The work in boy/girl/ghost takes up space. Sometimes the poems take up so much space that one must physically flip the book and experience the poem as composition. And yet, while you experiment with the boundaries of the page, you seem sharply attuned to formal structures. How do you navigate space in these poems?
TG: A piece of conventional wisdom I was once given is that any poem longer than a single page is exponentially less likely to be published. It's an anxiety that I let direct my work for a long time and, in many ways, one that you can see in boy/girl/ghost. So when we began to typeset the book to smaller pages and certain poems spilled over this container, I became interested in how the poems could take up space, not just in an emotional or linguistic sense, but how they could push the reader in small ways.
The pretentious academic part of me wants to gesture to Brechtian theatre, but the truth of it is far simpler. As a trans woman, I am told to be small, to take up less space, then take less than that. Each poem is an attempt to take back this space. To be larger. Louder.
NE: I want to talk about language. But for me to talk to you about language, I also have to talk about the slash, or virgule. The slash, not only deployed in the title, but throughout the verse, points to language's mutability, its electability. What first attracted you to the slash and how do you see its utility now?
TG: One of my earliest introductions to this device in poems was Christopher Soto and their fantastic essay in which they discuss how virgules function in their work like the blast beat in punk music. I love the idea of this symbol for percussive musicality, as well as the way that it disturbs the speculative vocality of a poem. What does it mean for a poem to be read with this signs as interrupture, how does the same poem function without the pause. As you said, a sense of electability. I love the idea that, like memory interrupted by trauma, a poem can be broken in such a way that it does not stabilize. That these poems exist in a near-quantum state. The line is a waveform that collapses as it is read and then returns again to chaos.
NE: Scientific terms flourish in your chapbook. In your poems in general. As a poet, you examine the world with an exacting vision and this exacting vision has an immediate relationship to the self. Could you talk about the ways you merge your poetics with more clinical language?
TG: I often tell people that if I were far better at math I would have been a scientist, not a poet. Though I think that the end goals don't differ so much. There's a need to dissect, categorize, to understand, and to alter, the world. In a poem, the taxonomy of the element, atom, subatomic particle, quark is exchanged with form, syntax, lineation, word choice, orthography. Still a series of infinitely large worlds leading to infinitely large worlds hidden within.
I think that all of my scientific obsessions eventually lead back to my gender. What more perfect metaphor is there than quantum mechanics for a girl who was "born a boy?" To both be and not be a thing? And as a disabled trans person, breathing or not, is to be medicalized. If I cannot escape these systems, then perhaps there is some freedom in taking the language right out of my oppressor's mouth and misusing it. If I must be the subject of dissection, then I will do it myself and language will be my scalpel.
NE: Finally, what poets do you find yourself returning to, over and over again?
TG: Linette Reeman, Jeanann Verlee, Danez Smith, George Abraham, sam sax, Kaveh Akbar, Liv Mammone, Paige Lewis, Nicole Connolly, Rachel McKibbens, Christopher Soto, Brad Trumpheller, and more than I could possibly list.
torrin a. greathouse is a genderqueer trans womxn & cripple-punk currently haunting the greater Boston area. She is the author of boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018) & winner of the Peseroff Poetry Prize, Palette Poetry Prize, & the Naugatuck River Review's Narrative Poetry Prize. Their work is published/forthcoming in POETRY, The New York Times, Muzzle, Redivider, BOAAT, & Breakwater Review. When she is not writing, her hobbies include awkwardly drinking coffee at parties & trying to find some goddamn size 13 heels.