May 6–12, 2019
Robin Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, the Gateway Review and the Roanoke Review. He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Adelphi University and currently serves as the editor-at-large for Village of Crickets and the social media coordinator for Oyster River Pages. He is an out and proud bisexual transgender man passionate about LGBT issues. His poem “Exhibit: Spontaneous Sex Change!” was selected by Rowan Ricardo Phillips as the winner of the 18–22 age bracket in our Whitman Bicentennial Poetry Contest.
Exhibit: Spontaneous Sex Change!
What is it then between us?
Step up to the portraits to the oval frames of Woman/Man they are images of you oscillating between genders in a bow in a bow tie white & black turning 17 & swallowing with good sex medicine. Check the tag on your back it should say you’re M/F. your [’re] tongue is the light switch to the whole museum. pink & blue glow into lavender into teal, that’s not natural, a natural in between body. & they’ll tell us that we’re illusion we’re illustration that we’re no one’s mothers/ fathers. painting a self- portrait on our dinner plate of our imagined childhood. Schoolyard where our name was one name & no one knew us otherwise.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’m doing research on the Institute for Sexual Science, which was an institute in Berlin, Germany, that pioneered a lot of queer/trans rights and medical advocacy. On the transgender digital archive I found a book by the lead doctor, Magnus Hirschfield. It’s a very strange mix of theorizing queer identities and experiments he did on guinea pigs to develop hormones and gender-affirming procedures. There was a specific chapter called “Spontaneous Sex Change” where Hirschfield was exploring accounts of people claiming to have changed sex in an instant. It was wonderful and strange but also comforting to know people have been fucking with the idea of binary gender and sex forever. I started thinking about the idea of how those people described would have had to exist between “sexes” for a moment. As an intersex person, this excited me. I wanted this poem to both illustrate and mess with binary gender/sex. I use the columns and the poem can be read a few different directions as an attempt to add to those blurred lines.
What are you working on right now?
I have a whole bunch of side projects, but most recently I’ve been trying to write poetry from the voice of a black hole. I love science and I’ve found doing research on scientific subjects often informs my work.
I’m also working on my first full-length collection, called Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy—it’s poems about saints but also about being queer and loving the strangeness of Catholic saints.
Also also, I’m writing a young adult verse novel about two high school trans boys who fall in love and are obsessed with history.
What’s a good day for you?
I think a good day for me would be a day where I give myself patience with my poem drafts. I write three or four poems in the morning each day as a practice, mostly just for myself to return to later. On a good day, I would also teach. I’m an adjunct professor and there’s nothing more exciting than sharing poetry with students. I love to watch people realize the possibilities of poetry. A good day also would include a walk in the park or the woods. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and though I adore the city I find myself needing a little bit of nature during the day. Since this is a good day, I would also read a collection of poetry before bed.
What brought you to New York?
I have always been obsessed with New York’s literary mythology. In high school I used to take a bus up to the city to watch poetry readings at Bowery Poetry Club. I always tried to hype myself up to sign up and read at their open mics, but I never did. I wanted to live in New York for undergrad but I couldn’t have afforded it. The literary world in the city is just so vibrant—I knew I would have to live here at some point and when I got accepted to Adelphi University’s MFA program it made sense to move here. It’s so cliché, but one of my favorite books is The Catcher in the Rye and I read it like once a year.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I don’t think I have a “home” really, but right now I’m living in Mineola, NY, and I’ve been here about a year. I say I don’t have a home because I feel more of a connection to places like Brooklyn or Queens than I do to Long Island even though I’ve never lived there. I do love that I can walk to the LIRR where I live while also being able to drive to the beach. I’m moving in June, hopefully to Queens once all the papers are signed. Mineola is strange because, being from rural PA, I thought New York would be better for being a queer trans person. The city definitely has more resources, but Long Island feels isolating. Long Island does have a wonderful trans resource center, but it’s still difficult navigating this space. In the town I’m from in PA, there’s literally one main street and not much else so I can get overwhelmed by the amount of things going on constantly. It’s exciting, for sure, but sometimes I’d like to see a cornfield or some cows just for a second.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Brooklyn is fabulous! Most of the professors in my grad program live in Brooklyn. We’ve gone to their apartments to have workshop classes. There’s so much quirky wonderful art. My partner and I also just went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We walked around for hours taking notes in our journals—so many flowers!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, poetry community means uplifting and supporting other poets. I definitely have found that in the city and through my MFA program. I look for places where poets are generous to each other and that’s what I’ve found at workshops and events in the city so far. By “generous,” I mean with time and care. Specifically, I’ve gone to a few “Office Hours” workshops run by the poet Sarah Sala at the LGBT Center’s Bureau of General Services–Queer Division. These workshops include people at all points in their poetry lives and it’s exciting to come together in that space.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
When I was a freshman in college, I read Hettie Jones’s memoir about the Beat era and her writing is what made me want to learn more about how women poets are underrecognized in so many literary movements.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In high school, Anis Mojgani’s spoken word was the hook that brought me into poetry. I love the way his poetry is often woven with magic and childhood fantasy. I also love women Beat poets (I like the men too, but not as much). Specifically, Elise Cowen and Diane di Prima were ahead of their time and I don’t think we recognize enough the role of women poets, especially in the Beat era. I did a lot of research on Cowen for undergrad and she blends sexual and sacred imagery in marvelous and sometimes disturbing ways. Depending on what collection I’m reading, I think my mentors change—right now I’m thinking about Jos Charles, though, and the way her poetry urges me to think about more ways I can play with language, and Natalie Diaz whose control of surreal elements in her poetry is something I want to be able to come close to someday.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I have read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds probably eighteen times in the last year and each time I have a different experience. The layers upon layers of language and meaning that each poem contains is just astounding. I also just read Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, which was also astounding. I find images from the collection bubbling back up in my head throughout the day.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I have read parts of Leaves of Grass, but not the whole thing all the way through—which is why I wrote the poem. I somehow haven’t read any book by Ernest Hemingway.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read one poetry collection and one fiction book at a time. For fiction I don’t take any notes and I just chill with the book. For poetry I’m crazy and methodical. I keep a notepad next to me and I respond with poetry to just about every line of other people’s poetry. It’s like a poetry conversation. I prefer physical books because I write all over them. I can’t borrow books from people because it’s against my nature not to write in a book. I’m not taking deep craft notes—I’m usually just excitedly circling and writing, “Yes, yes! That’s amazing!” I don’t plan reading at all; I just always need to be reading a poetry collection, so if I run out, I ask friends or bookstores for suggestions. When all else fails, I pick a book of poetry up because it has a cool cover.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Something I’ve been meaning to write about is being autistic. I don’t know where and how that would look in a poem. What does bringing that into a poem do/look like? I mean, whatever I write is informed by me being on the spectrum/being neurodiverse, but I want to use the poem as a space to probe the notion of what neurotypical/non-neurotypical means.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’d like to read in a hot air balloon someday. It seems stressful at first but then possibly exciting. More practically, I’d like to read in the botanic garden in Brooklyn. I didn’t bring a book last time I went!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I think there’s a lot of stunning bookstores. I love them because they’re independent and work hard to support the writing community in New York. Specifically, I’m thinking about Greenlight, Unnameable Books and Books Are Magic.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate softness,
And what I crumple, you press,
For every petal of me as good burst from you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I would have moved to Brooklyn
by now if I had saved more quarters. It’s no biggie
but sometimes I think I’ve been planting my pen
in the yard and hoping it will grow into a father.
Back last September I fucked a guy named Jack
and he called me “Rob”
instead of “Robin” which felt wrong. Some sin
against the full name. I love
every single thing about birds, but especially the way they haunt us
like a Dodger.
Because there’s poetry growing here!