Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Joshua Jennifer Espinoza

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

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I want to talk about the concept of “trans poetry”—there’s this idea that everyone who has a conflicted relationship with the gender they were assigned at birth is “trans,” when trans is something that really emerges out of the enforcement of a white, western, colonialist gender binary. This is something one of my favorite writers, Manuel Arturo Abreu, discusses brilliantly in their forthcoming book Transtrender. Trans is not a stable or coherent identity, and people who fall under the umbrella of it have wildly varying experiences with gender and with oppression under the gender binary—this makes it impossible for there to be such a thing as “trans poetry,” and yet any person living outside of the binary is assumed to fit under this label. This has the unfortunate effect of erasing some of the most marginalized trans and gender non-conforming voices and subsuming them within a genre whose concerns are mostly based in whiteness, in neoliberalism, in gender essentialism. If we are going to group all of these people together and call it “trans poetry” the least we can do is move the most marginalized voices to forefront and complicate our understanding of what it means to be trans.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

The world is intense and upsetting—if anything I think my writing attempts to bring a sense of levity to the situations and feelings I describe. I also like the idea of taking the chaos and intensity of the world and trapping it inside of a poem. Somehow that makes it feel more “safe”—or, if not safe, at least legible.

Do you differentiate between poetry/art and “political” poetry/art? If so, how do you make that distinction?

No. All art is political. All poetry engages with the world and comes from the world. A work of art doesn’t have to be explicitly political for it to reflect a political reality. When people talk about political art, what they usual mean is didactic art, art that comes across as “preachy” or whatever. I find artists who complain about work like this and who strive to only make the most aesthetically pleasing apolitical art to often be the most preachy and political of all. Their political statement is one about the supposed purpose of art. Overall I find the distinction to be fairly pointless. All art is an attempt to make someone feel, think, or do something.


Joshua Jennifer EspinozaJOSHUA JENNIFER ESPINOZA is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The Offing, The Feminist Wire, Alice Blue, and elsewhere. Her first book I’m Alive / It Hurts / I Love It was released by Boost House in 2014, and her full length collection There Should Be Flowers is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.