Alien Pink: A Preview
I’ve heard it said countless times that a poem is an argument. Those who say it are satisfied enough with this workshop proverb, but who or what is being argued? We enlist an idea, then, that all poems are political, because surely the argument challenges a larger force, simply by being a poem in this consumer culture. Meditation, by way of a supreme expression of poetry, is a kind of resistance. But resistance is the best kind of resistance—and Spencer Williams’s Alien Pink has a direct and devastating poetic arc that, rather than resisting the intelligence almost successfully as Wallace Stevens would have it, obliterates the intelligence with utmost intent. Here, the intelligence is the hetero-patriarchal white supremacist America that permeates everything. Spencer is a poet of utmost intent, a trans activist on the page who will not let the Eddie Redmayne’s and Matthew Bomer’s off the hook, who will make us see rampant trans deaths as she reports her own coming out narrative. She will not obey the traumas that made her. She will force out the blooms of her form and become herself again, an alien celebrating her inheritance. Her lines shiver through a metallic mechanism, something both archaic and futuristic. Her landscape, it is one of familiarity and violent distance, Americana more than dystopia. There’s a brutality to her alien inheritance. Listen to this stanza from her poem, “And God Created Woman . . . “: “Mother’s flammable / nightwear ties around / my balding head. / I am every bone in / the VCR. My labor is / a cardboard house with windows / that fear rainfall.” Alien Pink was an absolute dream to work on, Spencer a gorgeous spirit amid so much of this regime’s early brutalities. It is a vital chapbook that can and will save lives along the way. The ever-talented Emily Raw created an incredible animated video to Spencer’s shortest poem in the collection, “Voice Lessons,” which you can watch above. Below is a sample poem from Alien Pink, as well as an interview with Spencer. Run, don’t walk, to buy this one, folks.
Here is a dune containing my mother’s antique loveseat
from the Woodstock era. My father’s dull razor
splotched with crusted blood. I do not reach to
touch it. I attempt admiration from a distance in the
stomach of his dune, how it glimmers in the cup
next to the toilet, bone-white and toothless. My
father is a 1940s relic curving lower by day, sinking
unworried outside my window as he hedges the
bush. Mexico stands across the street each morning
and begs me for an excavation. A woman I knew —
but didn’t — dug a hole in our yard and rocked me to
sleep among roots sucking dry the water lapping our
feet. Twenty-one years ago, I was the river running
south beneath her skirt.
Yes — she was wearing a skirt. She was running to
have me. She shot the darkest glob of spit over
chicken wire, barefoot. REM whispered these
visions to me the night before I found her molding
in my mother’s cabinet. Her cocaine labor made
stern typography on a paper copy. It was here that I
became privy to my status at birth: a splattering of
red put up for sale. The file describes me fish-
hooked between addiction and a dying breath. In the
reduction of events, my birth was — is — factual. But
who did the work? She is as enigmatic as a blank
And so it is for her that I slip into the front yard and
pull jutting weed necks from the dirt. Dogs find
ample cause to shit on this particular plot of land,
located five miles north of the Mexican border. As such, I
call my front yard slightly less than Eden. The
longer I stand there, the longer I fill with
My folks inside, with their roots deep in the muds
of Sweden and Ireland, took up people-watching as
a means to pass the time. Their aim was not to
search, not to stare too deeply at any one subject.
Merely to cast a parting glance at walking shadows.
I took on this family tradition, though my aim
remains staggered. I search, cast glances that
say walk back here for a minute so I may see your face,
search for clues in the footfalls of expanding
When I pass a storefront window, I see a mesh of
every dune I’ve eaten from my family’s plate. A
pale hand reaches out from the glass, asks for the
tongue I purged years ago.
—Originally published in earthwords
An Interview with Spencer Williams
Natalie Eilbert: The poems in Alien Pink lead us through all kinds of transformation. There’s the more obvious physical transitions, but there is also the reconciliation of trauma you contend with. There are many histories contained in this small volume. When did you start writing into this chapbook? And in considering transformations and complicated histories, when did you know you were done?
Spencer Williams: I began writing these poems on the cusp of coming out as a trans woman in the winter of December, 2015. During this period, I had also become slightly obsessed with finding my birth mother on social media, perhaps as a way to distract myself from further interrogating my gender and driving myself mad. Although my search proved to be unsuccessful, I was able to excavate some details about her that I had previously not known through medical files and adoption papers, and those documents provided a starting point for a lot of these poems. Because there are a lot of holes in the history of my birth mother, and what I know to be true about her, I had to use my adoptive mother as a resource to paint a fuller picture of her for me. It was all very strange, to untangle all of the complicated emotions I felt about being abandoned by a woman I knew next to nothing about. But somehow, in writing poetry about her, I felt as though I had formed some kind of psychic bond with her, which was further complicated by the fact that I didn’t know if she was still alive. I still don’t know. cue Twilight Zone theme
On the flip side, writing poems about my transition was initially a struggle because I was trying to write through something that was currently happening, without the benefit of distance or hindsight. I also found it impossible to try and write about anything else, with the exception of my birth mother. Ultimately, if we are talking about transformations, the poems that I wrote about my transition all pointed towards a frustration of feeling like I had already transformed, and it was up to other people to decide whether or not they were also going to transform to accommodate my “transformation”. I’m using air quotes because I’ve always been hesitant to refer to my transition as a transformation, because in my head I have always viewed myself as woman. But publically, it very much felt like I was being viewed by others through different eyes, as if they saw me step out of my place wearing someone else’s skin. As a result, this entire period was mediated through Prozac and Chipotle. To be honest, I was also pretty certain that no one would ever read these poems except me, so I felt like I had all the time in the world to poke and pluck and play around. And then I went to a workshop at NYU for a summer and was encouraged to close my eyes and click submit, which was horrifying. And now I’m here answering this question! So scary is good. Scary is very good.
I knew these poems were done the minute I knew I had to write towards a deadline. Just kidding. I suppose, in a weird way, these poems will never really be finished. That sounds so pretentious and my eyes are now stuck in the back of my head. But I imagine I will continue writing these poems in new shapes and new forms, as my body also begins to take new shape and form. Ew. What I mean is that as a pre-operative trans woman with limited funds, there’s only so many things I have control over in regards to appearances, which is why I am banking on marrying a multi-millionaire ASAP. But once my physical begins to shift, (and I want to stress that choosing not to alter anything physically in no way invalidates someone’s gender identity) so too will the content of these poems. But for the foreseeable future, the only thing that is shifting is the girth of my stomach as I continue to consume burrito bowl after burrito bowl.
NE: These poems play with form in diverse, unpredictable ways. The lines beg length in poems like “Linda” and “In Which I Can’t Help Dream About My Own Death,” or else the lines clip and spill as in “Seasons” and “And God Created Woman…” What was the process of forming these poems? Did they follow a certain internal law or notion you had about the work?
SW: This is going to sound so new age Gwyneth Paltrow-y, but a lot of these forms were influenced by the amount of details I remembered in certain dreams that I was having at night. So with “And God Created Woman…” the lines were clipped more because there was no linearity to the nightmare that I was having. The formats of these poems were also influenced by the clarity with which I viewed myself on any given day. Dysphoria is a bad bitch that isn’t afraid to knock you sideways, and there were a lot of days where I couldn’t make out my image as clearly as other days, in the mirror or in conversation with others. So in formatting a lot of these poems, I wanted there to be a movement that was hard to place. And naturally, as I became more solidified in myself as a trans woman, certain experiences that I had in the past, prior to publicly transitioning, took new shape in how I perceived them post-everyone-learning-that-I-am-a-woman. With “Linda,” I was trying harder to retrace my steps and really get every detail.
But I’d like to think that a lot of these poems exist in a pretty lawless state, which I take comfort in. If I am living outside the lines of a strictly coded binary, I want my poems to exist there with me too, outside of the confines of expected language or traditional structure. Is that cheesy? Let’s keep things cheesy.
NE: You have such an original and staggering relationship to narrative. I sense a need to tell the story of the personal, but in doing so, you must honor or at least pay homage to the rupture associated with the personal. Sometimes there’s an attention to chronology, as in “I Imagine a Scene in which I Prepare to Tell My Mother She Has Lost Her Son and Then Tell My Brother Instead,” but in other poems, you freely dissociate, as in (ironically) “I Remember.” How do you understand narrative and chronology to be working alongside or against your memories in this collection?
SW: I have a very good memory which is why I can’t EVER LET THINGS GO. A lot of these poems play with the notion that not everything we remember is exactly how they happened. So a lot of these poems, like “I Imagine a Scene…” have details that I can still see so clearly interspersed with details that I have fabricated and spiced up. For example, I’m pretty sure we don’t have grackles where I grew up. But the word grackle is delicious. Also, I don’t drink beer, but I do eat a lot of deli cheese slices. As I’m writing this, I’m also writing my online dating profile. With that in mind, I guess I don’t really pay attention to chronology until after the poem is written. If I see similar tissues, the instinct is to immediately sew them to each other. My mother disagrees, but I like to keep things tidy (in my work), and pointing to chronology allows me a certain degree of cleanliness on the page. Of course, other times all of that goes straight out the window, because I like to embrace messiness too, and my mother (and roommate) definitely agrees with me here.
In terms of narrative, I always have to have some kind of story I want to tell or a memory that I want to pry open before I begin a poem. In fact, I never sit down with the intention of writing a poem. I always want to cement certain details of memories or conversations that I can return to later and think about, and from there the poem usually begins. So in a way, the poems that I write always come out of mini-narratives which I have lived, that begin to take on their own narratives once I re-open Word. I guess this is my long-winded way to say that my narratives are always informed by memory, be it a collective historical memory of my community, or a personal memory born from the day as it is experienced.
NE: You have a background in film. How has that played into the poems in Alien Pink? Why do you think that is or why that isn’t? And who are your film influences? Do you think a certain kind of film, or a specific film, is most suited for poetry?
SW: I have a BA in film and I could not even tell you what the fuck a scrim is, or how to effectively set white balance. I guess I just really like watching and thinking about movies, especially in my underwear, alone in my apartment with the AC on, with a family size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos spilling crumbs into my lap. No, but in all seriousness, I think film played an especially important role in how I thought about describing images when it came to these poems. For example, I LOVE the movie Suspiria by Dario Argento, because every frame is so specific in terms of lighting and color that you could literally pause the movie at any second and put whatever frame you landed on in the MoMA as its own piece. I suppose I try to do that with poems. That’s not to say I think my poems deserve to be put in the MoMA, but I do like teasing out specificity in details, though whether or not I’m successful at it is up for debate.
I also try and watch any film with transgender characters in it, and I have a lot of thoughts about the state of cinema as it pertains to the transgender narrative, which is also the narrative that is centered in Alien Pink. I wish I could say something very academic about the relationship between viewer and image to impress you, but all I’m coming up with is how transphobic I think The Danish Girl is. The Danish Girl is fucked up (and not in like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of fucked up) in regards to trans representation. Dressed to Kill is fucked up in regards to trans representation, no matter how pretty the colors are or how great Nancy Allen’s hair is. Any film that puts a dress on a cis-male actor and tells us that this is trans representation is fucked the fuck up. This is turning into a rant, but the implications of a cis-man co-opting a trans woman (or man)’s body deserves multiple anthologies chock full of critique and analysis (BY TRANS PEOPLE). Basically, anyone that says film doesn’t influence public perception or ideology outside of the theatre is full of shit and is not your friend.
A lot of the poems in Alien Pink were influenced by horror films, specifically Italian giallo films like Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Don’t Torture a Duckling. I’m also inspired by awful B-movies like Don’t Go Into the Woods and Nunsploitation films like . . . Killer Nun. A lot of the poems in Alien Pink are covered in fake movie blood, at least in my mind.
My brain is telling me to tell you that experimental films are best suited for poetry, like the work of Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage, in which the image is divorced from linear narrative and simple interpretation. However, my heart is telling me to tell you that any kind of film is most suited for poetry. A lot of people that I know consider Terrence Malick to be the master of poetic cinema, which I can neither confirm or deny seeing as I tend to fall asleep through most of his work. There are a lot of recent films, such as Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (streaming on Amazon Prime!) or Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, that I personally find poetic in the way that they investigate silence and traverse through the vastness and trappings of space. Or even the contours of the face. I can feel eyes beginning to roll already, but I truly think any film that resonates with you for any reason, be it image, sound, or narrative, can inspire language in anyone. Is that a cop out?
NE: Who are your poetry influences? How have they shaped your work?
SW: Fuck! So many! Before writing any of the poems in this book, I was tearing my way through Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, which destroyed me. I also love the work of Jericho Brown, Morgan Parker, Aziza Barnes, Kokumo, Eduardo C. Corral, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Dominique Christina, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Miguel Murphy, Leah Laksh Piepzna-Samarasinha, and so many others. During the revision period for Alien Pink, I was reading the anthology “Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics” and I found myself trying to converse with the poetry that I was reading there. It’s such an amazing and crucial anthology, and in my interrogation of my own gender identity, I found myself returning again and again to the experiences of other trans and genderqueer people to see how my experiences differed in terms of privilege and access to recourses, and how all of our experiences intersected. It’s important that I’m never speaking as a trans woman for ALL trans women, and reading that anthology was a great reminder that even as I write about the trans experience, I must also continue to check my perspective as a Mexican trans woman, and stay in my fucking lane when it comes to other trans narratives I’ve never lived through myself.
NE: For the person about the crack open Alien Pink, what, more than anything, would you like them to know about the poems?
SW: I want the cis people that will read this to understand that these poems aren’t going to do any kind of work for them or give them an easy way out of accountability for the work they have or have not already done. Ultimately, I wrote Alien Pink to purge myself of frustrations that I have in conversing with cis people who will never be able to view things from my vantage point. And those frustration still exist daily. The truth is that I don’t know how to convince anyone that my humanity as a trans woman is not up for debate. I don’t know how to tell anyone that their FB comment conversation about whether or not trans women are valid is perpetuating violence. I don’t know how to inform others that they do not possess the range to think critically about gender and violence imbued in binary systems. I do not have the language or power to do any of these things because my position in society as a Mexican trans woman is one of extreme vulnerability, one that is constantly being tested and threatened. But I’m hoping that maybe the poems here might offer some kind of insight into the life that I live, and maybe, just maybe, inspire empathy or something close to that.