June 12, 2017
POETRY INTERVIEW WITH NATASHA DENNERSTEIN
Interview by Jennifer Parker
Natasha Dennerstein is a glamorous woman somewhere north of 40. She’s also a poet, an artist, a wife, an Australian ex-pat and a person with multiple degrees. Please, don’t call her a Trans Poet. Seahorse (Nomadic Press 2017), her latest chap book, will make the reader think about what it means to transform. 'When asked, Dennerstein will say she is "a woman who was not born as such." Before making her home in the United States five years ago, Ms. Dennerstein worked professionally as a psychiatric nurse in Australia. Natasha manages to give us plenty to unpack in 18 poems each with Epigraphs ranging from Shakespeare to Lou Reed. In her poem, Father Time Sure Gave Her a Spanking, Dennerstein gifts us four lines from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 60” before slapping us with the reality of the life of the average trans person.
No template exists for an aging trans woman: we generally
die before forty–five—by suicide, by neglect, by being
strangled and locked in the trunk of a Buick Riviera...
Dennerstein is referencing the horrors that so many trans people face. Estrogen, her poem about the female hormone, I found infinitely relatable. As any cis gendered woman knows, it is the hormone that chases us from puberty to menopause, defining how the world sees us as female. No woman is immune from the pain of the beauty industrial complex in Much too Fast:
with electric needles—regularly and painfully—like prolonged dentistry;
your punishment for daring to try to be a girl.
It is difficult not to ascribe adjectives like raw, vulnerable and angry to Dennerstein’s poems. It is still a collection of poems for anyone who has ever undergone change, been misunderstood or had to reinvent themselves.
Do you remember when you first started writing poetry?
Yes, I do. About 10 years ago I had a crack at poetry, even though I didn't think it was something I was interested in: I wanted to be a novelist. One of the very first poems I wrote was strong. I had been a nurse for 20 years and was getting compassion fatigue and burnout. I had a lot of feelings about this career and they all worked themselves out in the poem, called Emergency! The style of the poem was influenced by brilliant British poet Simon Armitage, who I had just read. The poem ended up getting published in a journal, so that early recognition got me started on the path to becoming a serious poet. Here's the poem:
She goes to work every afternoon in the Emergency Department
and she boards a superceded vessel on a treacherous sea
and the captain is a colossal squid
and the crew are diagnosed with drug–induced psychosis.
The patients are squawking fledglings abandoned in the nest
and their wounds are gaping mouths. She feeds
them Diazepam, Oxazepam, Lorazepam and other pams
but they're still hungry for blood and intravenous fluids
and they still want changing. She is
the Indian Godess Kali with many arms and a blue face
and she smokes secretly, privately, in the fire escape
and the smoke is saffron. The accident
victims have pizza faces and butcher–shop limbs
and their cries are winter waves smashing on graphite rocks
and their car-wrecks are a pasta of metal and flesh.
She is a hungry dog and she wolfs down her tea
and her tea is a piece of putrid meat. The patients
can harm themselves and can not heal themselves
and they run in screaming: “it's an emergency — I'm in love!”,
and the intercourse is an addiction and the pregnancy is a trauma
and the child-birth is a piece of litigation waiting to happen.
And they all say “ help me, help me” and she can not help them
and their cries are stones in a bottomless well. She
gives them a drink of love — 125 mls in a styrofoam
cup – and they are healed. Their wounds are pink
zippers and their skin is a leather garment and
they are all done up and they are going home. She is
going home and she abandons the vessel on a paper life-raft and the
life–raft is made of medical journals and last years Womens
Weeklys and newspapers and the forecast is for rain.
First published in the New Zealand literary journal Landfall
Reprinted with permission
What was the impetus?
The impetus for my poetry–writing was really the fact that I could work out an idea or thought in the brief space of a poem: the brevity of the form appealed to me. I had a lot to say and poetry was an ideal medium for me to express my concepts/ thought processes in 15 lines or so. The form suited my needs. I was also delighted with wordplay and sonic experimentation and poetry was also ideal for that.
Was there one person who particularly influenced you?
I would say three: British Simon Armitage, American Mark Doty and Australian Dorothy Porter.
Simon for his clever word experimentation and his subjects of real life: women's prisons, drug addiction etc. I was astounded to see that gorgeous, literary poetry was written about grimy day–to–day subjects, subjects that interested me.
Mark for the LGBTQ element and the subject matter of drag-queens and AIDS. His lush, lyrical poems have a discursive, meandering quality that I greatly admire.
Dorothy Porter (RIP): her gritty, lesbian, noir detective novels-in-verse were a revelation to me. I didn't know you could do such a thing! I so want to write a gritty novel-in-verse of my own.
Would you classify your poetry under a style or genre?
If I had to describe my poetry I would say that it is edgy, social realism with evidence of classical form underlying it.
Do you see confessional poetry as a style or a trope?
I do and I have always run away from it. Having said that, Seahorse is pretty confessional, which is a departure for me and one that I won't be going back to. Notice that I play with the "I." The early part is in second personal singular with the "you" doing the work of detachment. The moment the narrative switches to "I" is after the gender-confirming surgery, even before the anesthesia has worn off. Two thoughts came to mind. One was having read Adrienne Rich saying that 'The "I" is always a dramatic "I." 'The other was remembering how Berrigan, the poet, played with the "I" voice, having an unstable, unreliable narrator so the reader was never sure where the "I" was located.
In the past I have buried any sort of confessional writing by using "she." I have found myself easier to write about in the third person.
What tropes do you feel are used too often in contemporary poetry?
*ode to my hard-working mother
* memory of my childhood home
*I was abused and I'm really fucking pissed, motherfuckers
*nobody understands me because y'all are stupid
*things are not what they used to be
*you really hurt me—you asshole—and I'm gonna tell the world what an ass-hole you
*I was born in this place and belong here more than you outsiders
What do you want to see more of in contemporary poetry?
I like work that is poetic and accomplished that concerns itself with contemporary life as it is lived in 2017.
At what point did you realize technically and thematically that you had a Chap Book?
Well, "Seahorse" was kind of written-to-order, actually, or commissioned without it being spoken. JK Fowler and MK Chavez of Nomadic Press (and one or two others) made me feel by their warmth and acceptance that my voice was important, valuable and necessary. Half-way through the cycle or suite of "Seahorse," Nomadic saw it and let me know that it would be published as a trans-themed chapbook. It was the exact right moment in time, too, politically.
The cover of your Chap Book is a seahorse on a carousel pole. Can you talk about the meaning behind it?
The cover art is by Arthur Johnstone, an artist who has worked a lot with Nomadic. I picked the image of the seahorse because the female of the species has an organ, an ovipositor, via which she impregnates the male of the species with their eggs: a sort of reverse of human reproductive gender roles. The horse motif appears elsewhere in the text as a carousel horse, trapped on machinery going around and around with no way off. So, there are seahorses and carousel horses in the body of the text, a sort of leitmotif.
Have you always found poetry a means of expressing grief and disappointment?
I think poetry can express grief and disappointment well, yes, as well as it can a variety of other stories and other subjects.
Do you think it’s possible to separate the subject matter of poetry from the poet?
If the subject of a poem is not personal—like an historical poem or an ekphrastic poem—it is not ostensibly about the poet's life, but the poet reveals herself in her tone of voice and world–view sometimes. I like poetry that is not ostensibly about myself, although I am aware that often my poem's reveal my tone and humor even if they concern themselves about outside matters. So, the answer to the question is yes and no.
What gives you artistic sustenance?
Just the world. I take inspiration from the world around me when my antennae are open. I can see an abandoned building that will set off a train of thought that works itself out in a poem down the track. Or sometimes a snatch of overheard dialogue on public transport will do the same thing, just one phrase. Sometimes I will figure out what I think by reading about it in a poem I've written. I also get a lot of sustenance from the literary community in The Bay Area—lots of feedback and appreciation in writing groups and performances.
What’s next for you artistically?
I play around a lot with visual art without ever having been a visual artist. I do a lot with cellphone photography and photo collage and photomontage. I have a novel–in–verse coming out later this year, which is in the final editing phase. I am also working on a prose novel which has been a long time in the pipeline. I intend to work on the novel as my next project.
People often ask me "What does it mean being a trans poet?"
How I look at it is like this. I am a poet first; I write a lot of poetry and am invested in being a good poet, a sound wordsmith. I also happen to be trans and sometimes that informs my work and sometimes it doesn't. It was really important to me to be respected as a poet first before becoming known as a trans poet, which, I felt, could be limiting. So, I had a fair amount of publication under my belt well before I started writing about ostensibly trans subjects and themes. I think, also, that being trans invests my work with a certain viewpoint, a trans angle, if you will.
To some degree I have taken my cue from Mark Doty, a gay poet who is known as a poet first and a gay poet second. He has always been out as being gay but not necessarily always stressing that aspect of his life. He is well–respected with many publications and a career in academia.
The word Trans has a complicated etymological history. Language evolves, do you think there will ever be another word besides Trans?
About the word "trans."
First there were "drag queens" then "transsexuals," called in other cultures "ladyboys" and such. Then the term "transgender" came into use. Now people prefer the term "trans." People seem to hate the word "tranny" as it is used in pornography and on the street. Trans girls used to always call each other "tranny" and it was never a slur. It's all fashion, political correctness and semantics.
I prefer the words "a woman/man who was not born as such" to stress the fact that I am a woman, but that I just wasn't necessarily born this way. I can't imagine this term ever gaining traction because it is too unwieldy, but I believe it contains the essence of the meaning of the concept.
No doubt another term will replace "trans."
Note: Her debut collection of poetry, Anatomize, was published by Norfolk Press in 2015.