The Community Aspect of Poetry: A Conversation with H. Melt


When I spoke with Chicago-based artist and poet, H. Melt, they were excited about seeing an article that included their newest poetry collection, There Are Trans People Here, on a list of books to read about love. “That’s the first time I saw my work referred to specifically as a collection of love poems,” Melt told me, “And me as a poet who writes about love. Valentine’s Day is coming up in a few days, which is my absolute favorite day of the year, so that was a nice surprise.” I am a person who typically shrugs off the holiday. When Melt told me they had already started making valentines for people and had planned on spending the holiday with friends, checking out houses in their neighborhood that “go all out” with decorations, I was reminded of how much I had enjoyed exchanging valentines with classmates when I was little.

Because There Are Trans People Here is a collection of poems that celebrates “communal love,” as Melt says, “and trans people loving each other,” I am not surprised by their ability to reclaim the love commodified by corporations on Valentine’s Day. Like their valentines, these poems, and the messages they carry, are worth sharing with the people you love. Melt’s poems show how trans love and care are radical acts of resistance in a world that repeatedly attempts to erase their existence. In this collection, Melt dares to call out the violence of anti-trans legislation and transphobia, pays homage to their trans lineage, and imagines the possibilities that come with prioritizing healing, growth, and transformation.

Melt, a writer, artist, educator, and cultivator, is the author of The Plural, The Blurring and the editor of the anthology Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation. It was a pleasure speaking with them over the phone about the power of poetry, education, intergenerational trans collaboration, and collective liberation.


The Rumpus: You highlight the love and support you’ve found through your chosen family and your trans ancestors. What’s been your process of finding the people, spaces, books, etc., that make you feel safe, seen, and loved?

H. Melt: It has been primarily through poetry, more specifically, communal workshop spaces here in Chicago, which were some of the earliest spaces where I felt validated and listened to. Really, these were the places where I was beginning to realize that I was trans and where I sparked a friendship and mentorship with another trans person. In my first book, I wrote about my relationship with that person, Greyson, another trans poet younger than me. To this day, I still get messages from people who knew them. They’re no longer alive, but I wrote this essay about them and our friendship through poetry. I had published one of their poems in a zine that I was making about transformation. Poetry is the heart of it all, and I think it was my love of poetry that allowed me to figure out who I was and explore that in spaces with other people.

Rumpus: What is it about poetry that you feel particularly drawn to?

Melt: I think it’s the community aspect of poetry. I’ve always written my favorite pieces in communal spaces. I’ve always felt the greatest power from poetry at readings or in spaces with other writers. I think poetry lends itself to community and getting to know people intimately. Poetry requires vulnerability. Fortunately, I met a lot of fellow poets who were open to that and who treated that vulnerability with care.

Rumpus: You ground your poems in everyday places such as hospitals, camps, and bookstores. Do you think poetry focusing on how the speaker orients themself in a location can help people understand how gender, race, and sexuality intersect?

Melt: Absolutely! Place is definitely a huge part of my work. The visions of the future that I’m conjuring in the poems are based on real places that I’ve seen and little moments, interactions, and affirmations that I’ve experienced in my life or that I wish to experience. Some of the ideas in the book, that I originally thought at the time of writing, were dreams or weren’t part of my life, [but] in the years since writing those poems and publishing the book have become a reality. For example, with the poem “At Trans House,” I now live on the same block as one of my trans friends, who I’ve known for about a decade. I think, for me, that was the solid ground I had to imagine. I had to imagine my dreams and my future as a trans person happening in a place. Part of that may be my location in Chicago and Chicago poetics being very rooted in place, but that was the solid foundation I needed to contain and hold a lot of my ideas and imagination.

Rumpus: When you’re reading it, it makes it real, especially the different places where you have a negative experience, say, on the street carrying flowers in an earlier poem, and later in your imagined experience in “On Trans Street,” you center trans joy. I think that it challenges readers to imagine, “Why not? Why couldn’t you have that?”

Melt: Yeah, it’s also kind of like a garden. Rooting the poems in place is sowing. Writing these poems in the same place is like planting the seeds without knowing what will grow, what will pop up from the ground and when, what will die off, what will survive, and what beauty will arise. That’s something I wanted too. I unintentionally made this argument through references to the natural world throughout the book, particularly flowers and plants, that transness, questioning who you are, trying to find your ancestors and your lineage, all of these things are very natural. There’s this idea that trans people are not natural, and that just is not true. You have to be in the right nurturing environment, which, luckily, I found through poetry, to have that flourishing.

Rumpus: You write about cis violence as well. How did you find the balance between recognizing the microaggressions, discrimination, and violence endured with the trans care necessary to thrive and the possibility of an inclusive and intersectional future full of pleasure and protest?

Melt: That is the balance I was striving really hard for in the book. The reality is that experiencing violence, discrimination, and trauma can and does coexist with a life filled with kindness, love, and celebration. Those things are not always in opposition to each other; they coexist. I think that our lives are simply reflections of that. I wouldn’t want to live in a trans utopia, and I wouldn’t want to write a book or poems that are fighting for a world exclusively centered on trans joy because, at this moment in time, that’s just not realistic, and that’s not what I’m fighting for.

I’m envisioning a world where the violence towards trans people is acknowledged and is protested, and there are creative, communal responses and support to eradicate that in the future. Also, you can go from a protest to a dance party. You can go from a protest to a moment of caring for your hurt friend in that space, so I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. I certainly like to live my life going back and forth between those, even on the same day, and that’s okay. I think it’s important to acknowledge that most people are grappling with difficulties while also having deep care, love, community, and family in their lives. Even within a protest, there are moments of joy, moments of celebration, moments of humor, care, nourishment, and friendship. We don’t have to live in ways or protest and organize in ways that will tear us apart. That’s a huge lesson: Sustain the work and sustain community.

Rumpus: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “At the Chicago Marathon.” You write: “I hand him the trans flag / he wraps it around / his new chest / like a cape.” Why is the trans flag an important symbol for you?

Melt: Flags, in general, are interesting visual representations of community. Usually, it is people from those communities creating flags. We know that Monica Helms, who is also in the book, created the trans flag. That poem is a good example of using the real, using a concrete place to imagine trans people as superheroes.

One of the interesting things about the trans flag is that, especially at the time, as I talked about in the poem, many people didn’t know what it meant. There’s something about being in a community with people and people not necessarily knowing your codes, symbols, and language before it has been commodified and taken up by mainstream culture. One of the book’s arguments is that there are trans people, gender non-conforming people, and people with all sorts of genders literally everywhere. I think that him running with the flag and me giving it to him as a spectator while cheering him on as a friend and being able to share this part of ourselves with each other, with a whole city, and people from all around the world was a moment of pride.

Flags are often connected to countries, states, and governmental entities or places with specific borders, and it’s important to challenge this idea. I was not handing him an American flag; I was not even giving him a Chicago flag or an Illinois flag. Later in the book, in “I Don’t Want a Trans President,” you see this challenging of state borders, of what representation actually means, and what a sort of surface level, shallow, or even harmful vision of power can look like. Throughout the book, one of the things that I’m trying to do is argue that I don’t want to see a world in which trans people are in powerful positions where they’re advocating against their interests and oppressing other people, so that’s also part of the reason why I don’t believe in this vision of trans utopia.

Rumpus: Can you talk about your direct, minimalist style in There Are Trans People Here? Do you think your minimalist approach lends itself to visibility?

Melt: In my life, I’m not a minimalist at all. I have so much art with loud, bright colors and work with strong images. I also wear clothes with a distinctive style. In my poetry, I just want to be as clear as possible. And I want to make sure that my messages are communicated in ways that people can easily resonate with and understand. Part of that is arguing for clarity of self. There are so many people constantly questioning and debating trans existence and seeking to complicate our lives. That isn’t a technique that I want to see reflected in my work. I want a world in which it is not difficult to be trans. I think that my work reflects that.

Rumpus: Edward Hirsch says the modern ode “represents the claiming of an obligation, some inner feeling rising up in urgent response to an outer occasion, something owed.” Would you say this is true of “Ode to TERFs”? Why did you choose that form?

Melt: Yeah. I love the form of odes. I think I fell in love with them after reading Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium. The deep irony of “Ode to TERFs” is that the poem is really an anti-ode. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of spaces where trans people have the reach and the audience that transphobic people do. The simple act of writing an ode to something and having a little bit of perhaps naïve hope around people’s ability to transform—yeah, to me, it’s just a really interesting form because it is a form rooted in love. Even the anti-ode is rooted in love; it’s a very sarcastic but also an instructive poem. I think I needed to give them space in a way that felt humorous to me. And an ode just lent itself to that form.

Rumpus: I like how you have a mixture of emotions. In the last stanza, you write, “we are living / in a new world. / you can join us / or become extinct,” which packs a punch.

Melt: I think that as public opinion and culture shift and as more trans people can build community and have access to the resources and support they need, the more the views of TERFs will become minuscule. The reality is that they are a small group of people, but their influence, voice, and audience are large, especially in comparison to trans people. It’s hard to debate someone’s existence when they’re standing in front of you or you’re sharing space with them.

Transness isn’t a debate. People keep setting up these debates about whether or not we exist and deserve to live and have basic rights. It’s so extreme that it’s almost funny, if it wasn’t so harmful. Their ideas are so ingrained in legislatures all over the country and in our schools. We see books like Gender Queer being banned and targeted. There are so many overlaps in the thinking between TERFs and white supremacists. They’re all rooted in these biological ideas of who matters, who counts, who is important, and who deserves to exist in the world. They’re about crushing self-determination and liberation. I’m just ready for them to drift away. Persecuting people for their gender nonconformity is not new. But I’m certainly ready for a world that embraces trans people.

Rumpus: When we were emailing to set up this interview, I said I was excited to see that There Are Trans People Here includes a study guide. What are your hopes for this study guide?

Melt: Teachers are some of the most influential people in young people’s lives. There’s so much that educators can do to liberate people. I know that trans history, trans culture, and trans art are not a standard part of the curriculum, especially for young people and teenagers. I wanted to create a framework and curriculum, along with another educator, Rabiya Kassam-Clay, to give people ways to use these poems in their classrooms, in their community spaces, even at home in a way that creates supportive environments for trans young people. Teachers often do a lot of that work; literature and poetry are just one tool in showing people that it’s okay to be trans and that trans people are lovable and have this long history. And that it is worth living, worth staying alive; there is a future. One of the things that art and literature have taught me is that there is a future for trans people. I hope sharing that along with trans history and experiences from my life is healing for other people and gives teachers another tool to support their students.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for educators who want to support their trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming students?

Melt: First of all, don’t make assumptions about your students. Be open and sensitive. Listen to what students are developing or articulating about themselves. Allowing young people the space to grow, try things out, experiment, and interact with real-life trans people creates a nurturing environment. A lot of teachers do that well. It’s just about adding to their reality that they have trans students, and teachers should be thinking about their classroom, their lesson plans, and what they’re teaching in ways that can reflect the students they’re serving.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for trans kids?

Melt: I don’t know if I have so much advice as testimony. I’m here to remind trans people, and to show trans young people in particular, that they can exist. They can have a supportive, loving community. They can create and imagine lives for themselves where they exist long into the future.

It can feel very lonely to be a trans person, especially if you don’t know other trans people, or are in a place where trans culture and community are not visible, present, or close to you. My biggest advice would be to find other trans people and find community, because those are the people who will support you and direct you towards what you need, while encouraging you to live your life. Finding community is everything. Whether online, through text messages, video chats, or in person, there is a community ready to support you.

Rumpus: Where do you think trans poetics could or should go from here?

Melt: I guess I’ll speak to my own poetics and my relationship to trans poetics. I’ve seen my poetics shift with the way that I’ve seen my relationship to transness shift. The way that I write about it has gone from this recounting of real-life experiences of pain, trauma, and violence to not negating or denying those things while also allowing myself this space to imagine what a world would look like where those experiences are minimized, are not the center of my life. In this book, I tried to inhabit the moments of joy in my life by reflecting on the past decade of being an out trans person and realizing how far I’ve come. It’s been a period of reflection, and in that reflection, I’ve been working on healing those painful moments or giving myself space to see the moments of love, care, and community. And that’s been really beautiful. In terms of trans poetics, I want to see trans poets continuing to support one another, uplift each other’s work, and allow ourselves to write into the many different stories we have to tell.

There hasn’t been enough desire to create spaces for trans people to celebrate other trans folks within literature and poetry. In the past year, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been invited into workshops where trans poets were the teachers, mentors, and workshop leaders. Those spaces were incredibly beautiful and healing. I hope that we see more mentorship between different generations of trans poets. I hope to do that work as well.



Author photo by Mercedes Zapata


Kate Carmody is a recipient of a CINTAS Foundations Grant supporting artists of Cuban descent and a residency at Ragdale. Her work has been published in Potomac Review, Essay Daily, No Contact, and Los Angeles Review, among others. She teaches writing courses nationally and lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and dog. The three of them are in a band called Dadafacer. Find her at and on Twitter at @KateCarmody8. More from this author →