This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends.
One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette.
When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms.
Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”?
In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free.
In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.