I first met Stacey Waite at the Young Writers Institute, a creative writing program sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project. At the time I knew her first chapbook, Choke, had been the winner of the 2004 Frank O’Hara Prize in Poetry, and that she was a poet and a teacher I wanted to know.
Stacey Waite has published three additional collections of poems: Love Poem to Androgyny (Main Street Rag, 2013), winner of the 2006 Main Street Rag Chapbook Competition; the lake has no saint (Tupelo Press, 2010), winner of the 2008 Snowbound Prize in Poetry; and Butch Geography (Tupelo Press, 2013). Waite’s most recent scholarly book, Teaching Queer, was published with the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017. The editor of Ways of Reading, a composition textbook, Waite is an accomplished scholar of composition, pedagogy, and community writing. Recent essays have appeared in Literacy in Composition Studies, Peitho, and College Composition and Communication. Waite is also a senior poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly.
I feel fortunate to have had this conversation, where we discussed language, self-knowledge, and poetry as connection-making.
The Rumpus: Can you start by sharing a bit about the evolution of your identity as a poet—writing and embodying those poems—and how being a poet informs other aspects of yourself, including perhaps your identity as a teacher? Are poetry and professorship two different kinds of performance art for you? Is this a fair characterization? Are they even two different kinds?
Stacey Waite: I think I have to go back to being in junior high, to the year I decided I was really going to try to be a girl, to once and for all wear the “right” clothes, put on some eyeliner, spray my hair up with all that Aussie Spray of the 80s, and be the girl they kept telling me I was born to be. It lasted exactly nine days. Every minute of each of those nine days, I had to cope with the clothing, the jewelry, the smell of the hair product, by pretending I wasn’t me. I thought, “You can do this. It’s just like being in a movie about a girl.” But I couldn’t do it. On the tenth day, I was looking in the mirror and I thought to myself: “Well, I either physically and emotionally suffer in my own skin every day for the rest of my life, or I embody all of whatever the hell it is that I am and suffer the consequences of that embodiment.” I chose the consequences. Some of them have been bad, even violent, consequences. But the question you ask here is about one of the positive consequences of my choice, which is that I embody all of it.
When I read a poem out loud (mine or anyone’s), I do it very much in my body. When I am teaching, I do it very much in and from my body. At this point in my life, I almost don’t think I know any other way to do it. I don’t always like thinking about teaching or reading poems aloud as “performance.” Art, yes. Dangerous, yes. Important, yes. But it’s more intimate for me than performance alone can carry. It’s an embodied exchange. In this sense, I think of every poem as a moment of and in my body. And to truly share that moment, the body—the mouth, the hands, the shoulders, the nervous twitch of fingers—has to offer the poem, not just the sound of the voice coming from the body. All of which to say, for me being a teacher and being a poet is a material, embodied experience. That’s what makes it powerful; that’s what makes it terrifying.
Rumpus: Do you remember when you first realized you were a poet? When you first realized you were a teacher? What did your early poems teach you about yourself, and likewise, what did the first classes you taught teach you about yourself?
Waite: I wrote poems very young. It began with the rhyming kind in child-made birthday cards for relatives and school projects. At the start, there was kind of a magnetism between me and words, but as time passed, poetry became more about survival, about becoming more and more aware that if I was going to attempt to move through the world as myself I needed a way to both process the trauma of that movement and a way to imagine the world as other than it was for me.
I definitely thought I was a poet really young, but when I got to high school and had to read Dylan Thomas and Ralph Emerson in my very first poetry unit in school, I began to think poets were always dudes and always dead. I began to think that maybe all the broken lines I was writing in all those old “salt and pepper notebooks,” as my mother always called them, were not poetry at all.
Both my mother and step-father were high school teachers, and from a young age it had always been my plan to be a high school English teacher. Maybe it was because so many of my own English teachers had opened survival doors for me through language, or maybe it was because of how much I idolized my step-father, or both. It had never really occurred to me that I was much good at anything, other than sports and writing, and taking care of/with other people. Even now, those are my most basic skills as a human being. Because sports were a gender nightmare, I knew I wouldn’t do them forever. It wasn’t until college that someone took me to a real live poetry reading (Denise Duhamel) and I thought to myself, “Oh my god! Someone is paying this brilliant, hilarious woman to teach poetry and write feminist poems about Barbie dolls!” Life changed forever. Poets were alive. Some of them were even funny. I started to think about being an actual poet. I still don’t quite know if I am a poet, exactly, but that force between me and words is still there. Now I really understand that force as being more about connection than words. In that sense, writing poems and teaching writing are both deeply relational processes for me; they are both one way of expressing that care of/with other people. I felt so alone as a kid, and writing made me feel less alone. Some days, I wonder if that’s what motivates just about anything: the need to feel less alone.
Rumpus: How do you think about feminism and queerness, in relation to yourself and to your work? Are these terms you embrace readily, with qualifiers, or are there other words you would prefer to use to speak about your life and art?
Waite: I am one-hundred percent a queer feminist human who writes queer feminist poems. Except for the occasions on which a select few people have tried to harm me (or other trans and non-binary people) with twistings of the terms feminist or queer, these are words that do describe my poems, my teaching, my life. One of my earlier poems, “Butch Defines Feminism Under the Following Conditions,” really tries to name what some of the problems might be with linking feminism to some limited category of “woman.” Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble already taught us all the ideas that appear in that poem. Butler wrote a book chapter, so I guess I tried to write the poem version. Butler is the better theorist, of course, but the poem might be more accessible than theory—at least I hope it is.
Rumpus: In your early poems, many of which appear in Butch Geography, you strike a keen balance between slow, tender, lyric moments, and riveting, fast-paced narrative encounters.
Were there particular writers you were emulating as you made those early poems, or writers who extended you a certain invitation? How did you know when your poems were ready—when you were ready—to step onto the stage of the published page?
Waite: I was first writing Butch Geography back in 1999, and it didn’t come out until 2013! This was back in Pittsburgh when I was getting my MFA, and back then, I read a lot of what you are calling, “slow, tender lyrics:” Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, Ralph Angel, Richard Blanco’s debut collection. The poets I was closest to, as poet-buddies, were more lyric than I would ever have described myself to be. As I have written longer, I have come to see the categories themselves as flawed. One of the reasons Butch Geography took so long to publish was that a few editors really felt it was two books: one lyric book and one more narrative, chronicling kind of book. I just couldn’t get down with that, as I can’t ever seem to get down with anything that asks me to be one thing, to settle in, to accept a moment of stillness as still. It’s not that there’s not value in that; it’s more that it doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t feel like me at all. So I write books that should probably be two books, or three. Who knows? Even with Teaching Queer, I just couldn’t write a book of pedagogical scholarship that was one thing, or trying to be one thing. Of course, this makes it very hard for me to know when a book is done, because I often have a lot of early readers asking me for more cohesion, more one-ness.
I do know how I know a single poem is done. A poem is done and ready for a public audience when I can read it out loud and not immediately wish I hadn’t. For me, the test is always reading aloud, hearing the poem said in my own voice, feeling a room respond. I can hear in the room that the poem is done, or not done, or in some cases, will never be done. In those cases, sometimes a poem comes with me to a public reading for the first time, and it is also the last time.
Rumpus: Could you talk a bit about how your later poems grew out of your earlier work?
Waite: The poems from the lake has no saint are sort of made in a different world from the poems in Butch Geography. The poems, of course, still grapple with gender, desire, childhood, and the body—all the things I keep writing to write through/out of/into my entire life. But the lake has no saint grew out of the fractures of grief, the kind of grief that renders the body a fragmented vessel, its permeability and vulnerability suddenly fully visible. I had a hard time in those days feeling like I could complete a sentence or break a line. Each of those acts felt like finalizing the loss. I was living with an intensely brilliant artist at the time, and I also really felt like having so much visual art around me those years pulled me towards a kind of interrogation of language that took on not just meaning but form, sound, and structure. I have more of those poems, but the truth is I am not sure I will ever go back to them. There are still some poems that never quite leave the pencil markings of my notebooks, some poems I can never bring myself to read aloud in a room with others, some poems that needed to exist but not travel.
Rumpus: How has and does marriage inform, shape, or steer the poems you’ve made since entering into this partnership? How about parenthood? And the Great Plains? That region, that landscape: What influences does the place you make your home bring to the poems you are making now?
Waite: That’s such an interesting question. Because I am such a relational human being, I feel like I am continuously challenged, transformed, and revised by the people and places I love. If I am being honest, when I left Pittsburgh, I had a real fear that I would never write another poem again. Pittsburgh was my writing home. Every published or public thing I had ever written felt like it was born of my nearly a dozen years in Pittsburgh—a city I still love, a place that still tugs at my sense of home and belonging. So when I got to Nebraska, I felt overwhelmed by the open sky (hard to see anything in Pittsburgh past the next hill in the neighborhood!) as if the hand of some imagined God could just grab me up from the street I was walking on. I felt small, and then of course I learned I could still write from that small feeling, still find a hill to hide in while I tried to think about the meaning of this terrifying, embodied life.
I won’t get to talking about my marriage too much as to not embarrass myself with cheesy clichés in a poetry interview, but I will say that having someone in my life who makes me feel every day like my words matter makes it easier to write poems, or do anything really. My kids, whoa. Talk about new perspectives on gender and the body, and vulnerability. It’s hardly speakable really. But I will say that right after my son was born (a poem in the manuscript I’ve been working on most recently chronicles this), I had run into a poet at a conference who said, “You’re not going to write poems about your kids now, right?” And it filled me with so much rage, and so much insistence that I would indeed do that very thing. These are things people to say to “women” poets, as if writing about my kids is always already sentimentalized or reductive, as if being a parent is somehow the opposite of being a poet. And, well, it ain’t. I mean, I have way less alone time to write, but the actual parenting is just like writing: hard, interesting, layered with the failures of language to capture who we are. I write about my kids the same way I write about anyone or anything else: to try to understand who they are, who I am, how we make our world together.
Rumpus: Could you talk about the role of the poetic sequence in your body of work at large? Did you always gravitate toward sequences?
Waite: In terms of my being drawn to sequences as a poet, I think some of it goes back to gender. Gender is about repetition. I love Butler’s way of describing this: “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory framework that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” I am highly drawn to repetition (which, for a poet, is also another way of saying re-vision) as a writing practice, a kind of revisiting, a purposeful, attentive return. To my mind, even my poems that aren’t technically in sequence are an enactment of this continuous move to come back and see again.
Rumpus: In your work-in-progress, A Real Man Would Have a Gun, what are you most proud of or excited about? How has this stretched you as a poet? If you had to choose just one poem to serve as the “heart poem,” which poem would it be, and why?
Waite: The new manuscript takes masculinity as an idea/action/language that invites me to revisit, to understand again its humor, its charm, its terror, its danger. After all, most tributaries of gender are all of these things, filled with so much laughter and pleasure, so much violence and dread. The poem, as an artful lens of analysis, allows me to try to capture these paradoxes in order to see them again, to invite readers to do the same. So in this sense, I am proud of this manuscript’s patience, its willingness to both celebrate and indict in small, slow movements what masculinity leaves in its wake.
It’s a tough question to get to the book’s heart, mostly because it feels like it might have more than one heart, like an octopus. But so as to not be the person who evades the question, I will say that “The Four Nights She’s Gone” is one of the first poems I wrote in this collection, and in a way, the poem is a kind of root from which the others grew. In that way, there would be no book without that poem. I am grateful to it for bringing me the locations to which I needed to return.
Photograph of Stacey Waite by Hannah Gerrard.