Robin Gow reclaims the label “degenerate” in service of honoring queer narratives in religious contexts. A native of rural Pennsylvania, they are the author of the poetry collection Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books, 2020) and the forthcoming young-adult novel A Million Quiet Revolutions (FSG, 2022).
Robin and I caught up virtually to discuss the intricacies of queering Catholic saints, a generous gaze toward the body, launching a poetry collection in a pandemic, and crossing over into YA literature.
The Rumpus: Remarkably, the first time I ever heard you read was via the Tolsun Books Reading Series. I called into Zoom on my phone while floating on a pontoon boat. I blame the pandemic for that absurd statement, but honestly, virtual readings are smashing barriers to how we attend poetry events.
Robin Gow: That’s one of few good things that came out of the pandemic! It was neat to attend the online readings and meet the talented Tolsun editors who worked on Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy. I also hadn’t really gotten a chance to read from the new collection yet. I’ve done a few readings before but a lot of the time people can’t attend if an event is hosted in New York.
Rumpus: Your book’s title, Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, is campy and playful, but it’s also the perfect prism to spotlight this collection. How did you land on it?
Gow: The title actually came before the book. For a longtime I’ve been thinking about the idea of coining queer saints. What aspects of their lives I would worship, and which ideas are worth venerating. I love the word “degeneracy” because it speaks towards what is always on the margin. There’s this trans YouTuber who makes videos about trans history. She made an essay about degeneracy and where the word came to me from—that was six months before I started writing the book. I would take down notes specifically about degeneracy, which then became aligned with the saint poems. There are so many instances in Catholicism where they love to declare, “we condemn the degenerates.” The other impetus behind the title is that I love reclaiming the archaic kind of ridiculous things that the Bible says.
Rumpus: The saints in Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy range from the sacred to the mundane to the profane. They’re so embodied and approachable. How did you decide to write a collection revisioning the lives of saints? What is your own relationship to Catholicism?
Gow: My relationship to Catholicism is complicated. I was raised Catholic and my family was very involved in the church. It was really woven into the way I grew up. My dad helped build sets for Bible school. My mom read saints’ stories to us before bed. That’s probably where my fascination began, because there’s a part of me that remains connected to those things. I felt like I still deserve to have that part and I’m going to fuck up the things that don’t serve me. People use religion as a vehicle to express their own traditions. For that reason, it’s really interesting to inject queerness into that mix of reclaiming what’s often forced on us.
Rumpus: Catholicism often co-opts existing cultural traditions. One day a festival is pagan and the next it’s a saint’s day. Did colonialism rear its head in your research at all?
Gow: Definitely, I did a lot of research in undergrad specifically about its effects. I minored in Spanish and researched the Virgin of Guadalupe. There’s an ancient goddess associated with the symbolism used with Mary, but the narrative is often that Mary arrives on the scene and then Indigenous people converted to Catholicism. If you reframe the story, the Indigenous population ingeniously disguised and maintained their culture to preserve it during the Spanish invasion by finding a “Mary” who looked like them and not the invaders. There’s still violence there, and I don’t want to claim any authority over that story because Christianity was forcibly introduced, but I am interested in the ways saints preserve pieces of culture across the world. The same goes for Saint Brigid in Ireland. Though not a result of the same colonizer kind of invasion, Saint Brigid is basically just a pagan goddess who got transformed into a saint so that people could keep celebrating her.
Rumpus: So many people are fascinated with the Virgin Mary. Why do you think that is?
Gow: It’s interesting she’s not viewed as God—she has so much goddess-adjacent energy. Naturally, people want to connect to the divine feminine in some way. Religion doesn’t have the same kind of power without it. I’ve always been especially fascinated with female saints. Religion itself is extremely patriarchal, but the saints allow women to feel powerful and divine.
Rumpus: Do you consider the project of your book to promote erased or forgotten voices?
Gow: Definitely. I always knew I wanted to write a queer saint holy book. I actually started by rewriting Catholic prayers, though they aren’t in the book at all. That’s when I landed on the saints because so many elements of their stories are already queer. Queer as in: strange, obscure, and exciting. There’s no way in all the centuries of religion that queer people didn’t exist. I think about St. Francis all the time. Sure, peoples’ notions of gender and sexuality were not like ours, but there’s a queerness that I feel from him. I hope that he was gay. So much tells queer people they can’t feel connected to divinity and spirituality. I hope my own work makes space for reunification.
Rumpus: How do you envision gender identity in relation to the Catholic Church?
Gow: It’s really interesting that some of the Catholic Church’s strictest teachings are on gender. Then, of course, the policing of women’s bodies and AFAB people’s bodies with abortion. A lot of my project with gender is a big fuck you to the idea that there’s something inherently degenerate or wrong. I actually don’t mind being called degenerate—that’s kind of exciting. I do think a lot of it was to say, genderqueer people and trans people and queer people are divine in some way. Inherently, just because of their weirdness.
Rumpus: The poems often seem to reconcile an outdated, harsher past with the current moment. You write, “a world has to be founded on the pain of a man because pain of a woman or queer is never believed.” What moved you to write about the saints in this moment?
Gow: I used to think that things are always getting better over time. In the present moment, we’re realizing things often grow worse because the system is not designed to value marginalized people. It’s designed to police all kinds of “non-normative bodies.” That’s part of the reason why I’m interested in history as a source of poetry. Our particular political moment right now continues to reveal how things have been getting worse in ways that this specific administration has brought to a head; however, these things have existed all along.
Rumpus: A lot of queer people raised with religion are made to feel like they have to give up who they are in order to participate. Your rewilding of religion is really refreshing for me. What was your research process like for selecting the saints?
Gow: Honestly, a lot of it started with Wikipedia. It’s super interesting; somebody sat down and compiled a super specific list of saints—those things don’t just materialize. For instance, one will be “Saints for Ailments” or “Saints for Natural Disasters,” or “Saints for Everyday Phenomenon.” I would enter the story with what the saint is a patron of. Another part of the research involved looking through my mom’s old saint books. What’s exciting about writing poetry is that if I wanted to change one a little a bit it was okay because I’m not writing a history book. I’m remaking some queer saints. That was what really allowed me to explore. I went down Google rabbit holes. There’s also a genre of YouTube videos by old priests who hardly know how to use recording equipment. It must be really boring to be a priest, so some of them are sitting around making YouTube videos.
Rumpus: How did you know when you had enough stories for the book?
Gow: I’m really disorganized with writing poetry. I just had one big, long, scrolling document that I would write in every day.
Rumpus: That sounds like a really generative process!
Gow: It was neat to look at, but when I tried to make sense of it, it was horrifying. The document was something stupid, like two hundred and eighty pages. I stopped when I felt like I couldn’t write about saints anymore. I was also super, super bored because I was recovering from top surgery—you can’t do anything. So, I sat there all day and wrote poems about saints.
Rumpus: Writing a book about queer saints while recovering from top surgery is a fascinating juxtaposition!
Gow: It was! It felt very healing to acknowledge this is an important moment for me and I’m going use it to write some super queer saint poems.
Rumpus: That’s wonderful. Even in moments of violence, I really appreciated your generous gaze toward the body. When St. Agatha’s breasts are torn off by “a flock of unknowably Angry Men,” she remarks, “making a body feel alive is a process.” What a wonderful way to embody transition with language.
Gow: One thing I wish that people would have taught me when I was younger is that growing to appreciate your body is a process. Gender expression can oscillate—you can feel different sometimes, or celebrate it other times. Some days I’ll wear a dress and makeup and other days I’ll be a little more butch. That was a process I was coming into when I was writing this book. I came out first as a trans man and now I identify as nonbinary. Binaries push themselves on us so much in every corner of our lives that it forces us to make this one choice. A lot of the book is also about accepting the gray areas. When I imagined Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, I imagined these saints as somebody whose pronouns shift constantly and can’t be pinned down.
Rumpus: Yes! I also resonated with the dissolution of the binary in the book. You write, “in high school when I loved a boy and thought I was a girl I would sometimes look at bridal magazines… I wanted a photographable future.” I was struck by the speaker’s desire for legibility. Is another facet of your work to push back at the limited binary system?
Gow: Yeah, definitely. I want younger queer people to know that they have brilliant futures that might not even be imagined yet. I do think about how when I was younger, I “did” heterosexuality and cisgender things because I thought this is what you do. It never made me happy. I didn’t know what any other kind of life would be. I like the idea that there are things that haven’t been lived or imagined yet—that’s exciting. It can also be alienating, which is another reason I enjoy absurd things. I’m probably not going to be visited by St. Lucie, but I like to imagine it via poetry. It’s nice to think about that kind of future.
Rumpus: Another idea the collection orbits is fathers, fathering, sons, and masculinity. How do you think your collection speaks to the current state of masculinity?
Gow: The collection portrays a complicated relationship with masculinity, which is rooted in my own impulse. I had a very close relationship with my father when I was younger, and I don’t really anymore because of queer things. I got a lot of ways I express gender from him. He’s very in tune with nature and cares about hiking. Sometimes I consider: what would I do if I could salvage things from the masculinity of my father? Because there are so many good things.
Yet, bitterness haunts the book: masculinity swells to this destructive force. There’s also these beautiful elements of masculinity that carry forward. God the Father in the book symbolizes ways that masculinity crushes men. I’m not super sympathetic to men who are cruel, but I do think toxic masculinity harms them, too.
Rumpus: Absolutely. It’s difficult to navigate masculinity within the nuclear family.
Gow: Also, being a queer person has often felt like parenting myself in a lot of ways. Just expressing myself as not straight—as trans—I’m starting over from the script I was given. So, there’s something of that and the idea of fathers.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Gow: Right now, I’m working on my first YA book: A Million Quiet Revolutions, coming out next year from Farrar Straus & Giroux. It’s a verse novel about two trans boys who fall in love in high school. Part of it’s an act to remind myself that imagining other futures are possible. The next generation has a lot of amazing queer lives to live. I wrote from the place of imagining the perfect story I could have read when I was a sophomore in high school. We don’t see a lot of stories about trans people loving each other. It’s been a really exciting project in the midst of a hard time.
Photograph of Robin Gow by Robin Gow.