Poet Of The Week

Wren Hanks

     September 18–24, 2017

Wren Hanks is a trans writer from Texas and the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2016, Gigantic Sequins, Drunken Boat, Jellyfish and elsewhere. He received a fellowship from Lambda Literary for its 2016 Emerging Writers Retreat and has a third chapbook, gar child, forthcoming in 2017 from Tree Light Books.

Excerpts from Ghost Skin

The ghosts bear wood chips and plants dangling roots. They smell like hops cooking down in wort. They smell like pumpkin guts. Go find her, I whisper, the one who is hurting worse. Go find her. But the ghosts stay with me, pulling the ragged quilt over our knees. We play checkers and they don’t let me win. We play chess and they neigh like wild horses when I capture their knights. They turn soft all over, knowing I am sharp as a hummingbird beak. I try to pierce them with my fingers, but they give.

The ghosts drape themselves across my shoulders like fur collars. When I fight the ghosts are impressed: by the noise, by the steam my breath makes in the cold loft. When I fight they are striped finches hiding eggs in my clothes. I am no good at fights and the ghosts can see this. When I sulk, they join me in the bathtub as freshwater eels, catching bubbles with their teeth. They hold me like a tailored suit when my body wants to be invisible.

The ghosts style themselves after my high school glamour shots. They blow their memories into conch shells and become blank slates with veins laced like mildew. I draw copper wings on their eyelids and tell them stories: Once I was a mermaid in my grandmother’s sewing room. Once I was the shape chandeliers make on the ceiling. I zip them into dresses that no longer fit me, dye their long hair red then redder redder.

Once I dated a man who loved my chivalry. How I’d fade into the lights, something solid in the background. Isn’t that what a gentleman does: fade almost out of sight. Love the animals of the world without teeth. Isn’t that what a gentleman does: kiss your man when he tastes like veal. Wear dresses that trap shadows on your breasts. Freeze in gauze tights and feel goosebumps rise on your legs. Isn’t that what a gentleman is: a collection of tightly packed snow. Beer frosting your throat.

Try on a men’s button-down and admire yourself in the full-length mirror.

God, the ghosts say, you almost look like you exist.

—From Ghost Skin, Porkbelly Press, 2016.

Tell us about the making of these poems.

I wrote this series, which became the chapbook Ghost Skin, while finishing up my MFA at the University of New Orleans. I wasn’t out as trans yet, and reading this series over now, it sounds a bit like an SOS: “My body isn’t a home. Ghosts, please advise.” It startled me how fast this series grew from one poem—“[The ghosts drape themselves across my shoulders like fur collars]”—into a mini-collection.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a chapbook, The Rise of Genderqueer, that’s my response to the Family Research Council’s “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement.”

I’m currently working on a full-length collection about a trans tin man that’s totally letting me geek out on the Oz books. (For instance, did you know that Ozma is canonically a trans woman?) I’m also trying my hand at memoir after a long absence.

What’s a good day for you?

The rare Sunday I get to spend at the Brooklyn Public Library with my wife, writing poems, checking out way too many books and eating lemon chess pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds.

Or a day like one I just had in Iceland where I’m not actually writing but everything feels like potential poem fuel: spotting minke whales in the harbor, buying a dysmorphia-repellent vest, drinking a black IPA, watching the northern lights vibrate above me.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved back to Brooklyn from New Orleans in August 2016 to be an assistant publicist for a nonfiction publisher. I’ve since become the publicist for the Feminist Press. Brooklyn’s my home; I always planned to come back!

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I originally lived in Crown Heights in 2011. At the time, I didn’t know anyone else living here; now it seems like every other person I talk to lives in this neighborhood. It’s gentrifying rapidly, and there’s no denying I am a part of that. My wife and I live off the Utica stop on the 3/4 trains. I love how close we are to the central branch of the BPL, that our street is tucked away from busy Eastern Parkway, and our friendly building. I’m not as crazy about how long it takes to get to my job in midtown Manhattan during rush hour compared to the previous neighborhoods I’ve lived in: Williamsburg (in 2008 when it was only low-grade hipster) and, improbably, the Upper East Side.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

My defining Brooklyn experience is plucking my cat Duncan from a bag of kittens on Bedford and N. 5th in the dead of winter. When I picked him up he immediately latched onto my raspberry coat and fell asleep. Then, I did what one does when they want their roommates to agree to something (in this case, letting me keep this unimpressive kitten)—I teared up. I’ve moved between three states since I found Duncan ten years ago. As corny as it sounds, having him has been a bit like taking Brooklyn with me wherever I go.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

Honestly, it’s hard to top the poetry community I had at the University of New Orleans MFA program. For me, a poetry community is a group of writers who feel invigorated by each other’s successes. We may be competitive at times, but we’re out there rooting for each other, making space for each other’s writing whenever we can. My fellow UNO poets are still my best readers. I turn to them when I can’t make sense of a poem or series, and I hope they’d do the same. I have strong connections to individual Brooklyn poets, but I haven’t been back long enough yet to establish a community. I’ve felt very welcomed by Brooklyn venues and reading series (thank you Ditmas Lit, Final Fantasy, and Berl’s Poetry Shop!). I’m actively seeking poet dates, writing groups and reading buddies. Fellow Brooklyn poets, please reach out. I’d love to meet you.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Sarah Bridgins is a fantastic poet and a dear friend who co-runs the Ditmas Lit reading series. Vanessa Jimenez Gabb—do yourself a favor and read her collection Images for Radical Politics. Niina Pollari, whose book Dead Horse is funny and sad in all the ways I wish I could be funny and sad. Cat Fitzpatrick, author of the excellent Glamourpuss and a champion for trans poets through the Topside Heliotrope imprint.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Marie Howe, whom I had as an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence, once closed the door to her office and made me read her my poem over and over until I could tell her which lines rang false. Up until then I’d coasted on having a bit of raw talent; Marie taught me truly good writing is work. Carolyn Hembree, my thesis advisor at UNO, never let me get too comfortable with my manuscript. She challenged me to write leaner, more rhythmic poems that tapped into an honesty I’d never been able to access before.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast continues to fill me with envy, with awe. Aziza Barnes’s i be, but i ain’t makes me so grateful to be writing right now.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick. Still ashamed.

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?

Usually, I read new poetry books out loud in their entirety, in one sitting. Right now, I have a stack of books on my coffee table in a loose order of when I’m planning to read them, but I tend to only read one (non-work) book at a time. Otherwise, I’ll get overwhelmed and end up not finishing anything. I don’t have an e-reader; I need a physical book I can dog-ear and fill with longing.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I want to write a poem from the perspective of a dinoflagellate! Inevitably, I’d write a whole series, because I’m terrible at knowing when to quit.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

My favorite place to write is Firefly Farms, home of the Sundress Publications residency. During my first Sundress residency, I wrote an entire chapbook draft in two weeks.

I love writing on trips when my routine is shaken up a bit. And I’ll happily write on the beach if you can pry me out of the water.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Prospect Park for how spooky it gets at night and the amount of pink-champagne-in-a-can I’ve ingested there. I love Metropolitan—it’s the one bar where I always run into people I know. The abundance of sunflowers in Red Hook makes me feel like a prince every time.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate each shark sighting in the Hudson,
And what I identify as dogfish you regard as Great White,
For every friendly fin to me as good as blood bath to you.

Why Brooklyn?

Home, home, home, he whispered in his sleep.