It’s late summer.
Wet asphalt simmers in still heat, glazed neon by barlights. Trains screech to a halt overhead, crowds jostling out onto the platform between groans of friction, fumbling in the humid air. Cars gravel past suspended construction and raucous laughter. It’s late; night purses at the mouth of the station, tightening around a well-lit street corner.
Scene 1: I pivot around the balustrade, careful to avoid eye contact with several men gathered there. Half-remembering, half-fabricating reports of an attempted rape that happened here sometime in the last year, I look down, walk fast, cross streets frequently on the straight five-block walk home.
Streetlights pool at intersections, leaving sidewalks black on 41st Avenue. I choose the darker residential road, avoiding Roosevelt Avenue—a learned behavior. Under the tracks on Roosevelt, men gawk at midday, emboldened, their voices drunk with intent. I choose the darker road because my experience suggests that other women frequent this bystreet. Women being more likely to intervene on behalf of another woman—that makes this street safer.
On most nights, I’ll pass three or four women on this route—all walking home while avoiding the brightly lit avenue one block down. When I sense that same terse awareness of passersby in another woman, I cross the street out of respect; I grant her space, understanding that we’re both safer for the other’s presence. This, too, is a learned behavior.
Scene 2: She emerges from the same station, minutes before. Considers the same mundane choices, comes to the same conclusion. She pauses her music, leaving her headphones in, to be better aware of her surroundings—routine practice in charged space, as smooth as muscle memory.
She may have come from work or friends, may be going home or going to excite intimacies. She glances at her phone in passing, making note—in the back of her mind, behind the insignificant details of the evening that has led her to this street at this hour—to text her friend, sister, or mother when she gets home.
Stepping back into darkness after passing a stray porchlight, she notes a shadow advancing behind her, cast into the hooked fingers of a wrought-iron fence. A passive part of her mind becomes active. She looks over her shoulder, makes fleeting, electrified contact with a fast-moving figure, fifteen feet back, in full illumination. Sees height, dimensions; hastens toward the next intersection preparing for an impact that doesn’t come.
I’ve crossed the street—a hollow attempt to avoid being made the dark figure in another woman’s late-night fantasy. She and I share the same precautions, the same steering fear. In dim light between intersections, the slim difference between our bodies is the pace at which we walk, a function of height and leg length.
As I write this trans-specific take on an experience shared by women, I find myself already writing for the subset of cis men who will inevitably be thinking Not all men! To their credit, their objection unwittingly proves one of the points I suggest in this essay: that reality is an inherently individualized orientation, the subjective experience of living in a singular set of social coordinates. Many women experience heightened awareness when walking alone on a dark street at night—which comes to a head when a stranger (especially one perceived to be male) passes. Many men, when confronted with this reality, experience it as preposterous because they believe themselves to be harmless.
Today, the president of the United States is a rapist.
Today, for the first time in recorded history, survivors of sexual violence are speaking out about their experiences on a mass scale and holding men accountable for their actions.
This cultural shift is being discussed as engendering both a culture of freedom (for women, many of whom are survivors) and a culture of silence (for cis men, many of whom have perpetuated sexual violence or would sympathize with someone who has). As the #MeToo movement intensifies—along with the political regime that has, in part, contributed to its entering into public discourse—the importance of “speaking truth to power” has never been greater; incidentally, truth has become increasingly obscured as beneficiaries of a culture of silence fight to regain control of the narrative.
This is the inherent dichotomy of the moment: even as we (a tenuous and heterogenous alliance of women, survivors, queer and trans people, people of color, et al.) have achieved a critical mass of visibility and collective power via the ability to tell our stories, the highest offices in our government are actively trying to brand them “fake news.”
Today, reality is at its most frayed.
In The Transreal: The Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities, performance artist and scholar micha cárdenas describes “the slipperiness and multiplicity” of an instance of passing, fleetingly, as cisgender—how “someone’s perception of one’s gender can shift back and forth rapidly, like a kind of shimmering mirage, or can be multiple and incongruous.” Cardenas’ decision not to specify whether she’d been interpreted as a cis man or a cis woman—more than simply an assertion of privacy—explicitly highlights the “multiplicity” that underwrites every instance of passing as one or the other. More than just the progenitor of the transreal, the trans body is the exception that proves the rule: that every iteration of perceived reality could more accurately be described as one of several coexisting realities.
While Cardenas’ experience of the ongoing and non-linear restructuring of power associated with medical and social transition precipitated the transreal as a mode of describing her lived experience as a trans woman, the transreal may also shed light on the constantly shifting nature of reality as a concept. Cardenas defines a reality (always singular, subjective) as “something that limits and enables action but also takes its shape through belief,” suggesting that a reality exerts control through establishing limits of believability.
Though this theory was published nearly 10 years ago—long before 2016’s tide shifts—Cardenas’ definition of reality portents the ongoing war of representation in government, news media, and literature. This administration’s attempts to control the flow of information by eliminating previously established government webpages on LGBTQ rights, HIV/AIDS research, and climate change—as well as accusing media sources of spreading “fake news”—are evidence enough for the limiting capacities of a reality. If reality remains considered to be objective, then the party that can wrest control of the narrative wields enormous power.
Cardenas goes on to further elucidate the enabling capacity of a reality, associating it with Jose Esteban Munoz’s speculative project in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity and “those creative forces that generate utopic ideality to change what is real.” As Cardenas’ has suggested, at the core of every change is the idea—a unit of belief that makes seemingly impossible change seem possible. Munoz affirms this notion, labeling desire a key component of this ideation:
Queerness as utopian formation is a formation based on an economy of desire and desiring. This desire is always directed at that thing that is not yet here, objects and moments that burn with anticipation and promise. […] And thus past pleasures stave off the affective perils of the present while they enable a desire that is queer futurity’s core.
If conceiving new realities is the precursor to enacting change, then an idea itself is preceded by desire for better; thus, change is the mobilization of utopian desire through the creation of “moments that burn with anticipation and promise” that coexist with and transform contemporary realities of state violence and suppression.
As writers, artists, and scholars we create realities in a tangible way everyday through our practice; however, in the face of the impassioned belief the Trump administration has accrued through constructing its enabling reality, it’s not enough to simply stake a competing reality and “speak truth to power,” debating its absolute truth. Cardenas posits that, in most effective art engaging the transreal, “there is always an element of play with believability rather than a rigid attempt to establish a perfectly seamless reality.” A more effective method of resistance may be an art practice deploying multiple, mutable, simultaneous realities, thereby subverting the imposed ‘objective’ reality.
Structures of power operate at all levels of daily commerce.
Even in literary communities dominated by liberal ideology, reality is frequently deployed as a function of value and weaponized against marginalized voices under the guise of “constructive criticism” or “devil’s advocate.” We’ve all been in a workshop where a white cishet man has derailed critique to question whether some detail from a marginalized narrative is “realistic.” Realism remains a signifier for literary merit within the lens of power and privilege because white/straight/cis/male/able bodies experience the world in common ways that become standards by which realism is defined for all narratives.
These controlling narratives directly contribute to those that rationalize and institutionalize hierarchies through policy and policing. The images we create/consume have the capacity to create reality by affecting beliefs; images of women, queer and trans people, and people of color affect our perceptions of actual marginalized people. Realism as a cultural virtue rewards artwork that upholds these controlling narratives while simultaneously delegitimizing works that challenge hegemonic structures of power.
As writers and editors living under the threat of fascism, we have to do better than simply reproducing the reality we’ve been fed.
During the first week of January 2018, in the wake of the first full year in which the effects of the 2016 election began to take place, myself and a handful of friends founded Bomb Cyclone as a response to the rapid deterioration of international relations and global climate infrastructure we’d witnessed over the previous year. We devised and revised dozens of working definitions for ecopoetics. The increasing inadequacy of traditional ‘nature poetry’ to address global existential crises caused by climate change—as well as the inextricability of several resolutely human crises that contribute to the political landscape in which we make art—led us to a broadened definition: work investigating the ethics of personhood and place.
One consideration that went into this definition was the human element—so often removed from poetry which objectifies nature as an other. This concern for human existence is what Cardenas suggests separates her theory of the transreal from the aesthetically similar speculative realism. While the latter imagines nature as an objective truth beneath the trappings of human occupation, speculating upon the end or undoing of humanity, Cardenas conceptualizes the transreal as “powerfully invested in politics, ethics, a human subject, and the abilities of the imagination to produce multiple realities” to the end of affecting change on a human timescale. At BC, we live by this speculative project, making space for work that treats the human element as inextricable from ‘nature.’
In Nicholas Bon’s aptly titled “It’s Never Just a Cacophony of Flowers,” published in BC’s inaugural issue, the poet wanders through the machinations of waking, commuting to work, returning home, plugging in, logging off, sleeping (rinse, repeat). From the first two lines, they map these movements onto the landscape of suburban America, overgrown with structures symbolizing at once humanity’s imposition into nature and our active participation in weaving the fabric of nature around us: “If America is beautiful, it must/ be somewhere in the seams.” With almost anthropological attention to the minute actions that make up a life, they experience themself throughout these processes from a distance, as a function of the landscape. Returning to an image of two figures in a room, they admitting “I’m afraid/ that one of them is me”; this culminates in complete disassociation:
Picture a sci-fi movie where two
characters occupy a small room.
One breathes oxygen while the other
survives on carbon dioxide.
They must sync their breathing
precisely in order to survive.
Bon’s speaker follows their desire for connection (to self, to environment, to others) through multiple shifts in reality until, finally, in their disossication they recognize themself as one of two codependent organisms in fragile symbiosis.
Gia Gonzales’s long poem RENDER SLEAZE also enters ecopoetics through manipulations and multiplications of self in a man-made environment; however, unlike Bon’s erasure of self into landscape, Gonzales’ speaker mass-uploads herself onto the internet. RENDER SLEAZE begins, suggestively, with the speaker “sitting in the kitchen/ And thumbing her device,” a gesture expressing both isolation and lust—two affects which become increasingly intertwined as the poem progresses (“She rubs it in the ladies’ room/ And goes to bed alone”). An extended aestheticization of self ensues, with the speaker adopting various personas taking cues from the highly exaggerated performative affects of online cruising; these polyvocalities explicate desire as well as ambivalence, proximity as often as distance:
*superimpose grid upon encounter adjust for closeness*
long-scented & low-collared recalling a first then later moment
*superimpose alternative full-petaled how egregious*
approach so academic now very slowly rotate…
Through repetition and variation of these affective gestures, the speaker is subsumed into an online ecosystem, an echo chamber of her own creation, where her gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age become currency. The implicit critique of each of these structures of power and the culture of dubious—and frequently absent—consent in which they’re situated resounds with each refrain of ”PLEAZE RENDER SLEAZE!” This purified expression of desire invokes the utopian affect of online queer cruising that remains always not-yet-here, framing sexual exploration as an interface for belonging and space-making.
In one of the most exciting examples of transreality that have been showcased by BC in our two issues, Kinsey Cantrell’s “of wanting the want where was” transforms before viewers’ eyes as the video flickers between coexisting textual dimensions. Watching the video alone, the speaker’s monologue begins to take shape visually: from the first slide, the text begins to mutate—becoming bold, italicized—then evolve into various iterations marked in the transcript by slashes, before collapsing onto itself, simulating entropy. The transcript elucidates what the visual effects of the video express: a robot speaker contemplating suicide while experiencing the beginnings of a malfunction that can only be properly understood as sentience:
damning myself with every defeated agreement am i complicit
in weakness in my own obsolescence my forced recrudescence/senescence
i am not wasting more time with self-pity i do not want to be
bod y b ody anymore
The speaker’s consciousness unfurls, probing the implications of their creation, their functioning, and ultimately their descent into the depths of human self-awareness. The robot speaker’s desire for agency is what attracts them to their implied self-destruct button, but in the process of considering their lifetime of (ab)use (can one who’s been created for a function ever consent?) begins to reframe their sadness—their malfunction—as joy.
Each of the aforementioned works addresses contemporary social and ecological crises in terms of our built environments, digital spaces, or artificial intelligence, positing that these interfaces humankind has created to provide shelter, companionship, and understanding are not so different from animal enactments onto their surroundings: a den for shelter, a mate for companionship, utterances in language for understanding. Each resists those power structures that have dictated our lives by defining what has been considered objective reality. This is not to say that everyone should go write transreal poetry; merely that the tenets of this speculative project—starting from the premise that multiple simultaneous realities can coexist—shed light into the structural violences of this time in our country.
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Valentine Conaty is a Birmingham-grown artist and editor based in Queens. She is the founder and Editor in Chief at Bomb Cyclone, a journal of ecopoetics. At work, she supports poets, small presses, and literary nonprofits in planning events at Poets House—among the nation’s largest public poetry libraries. Work may be found in Anomaly, The Operating System’s Ex-Spec Po series, and Glass Poetry’s Poets Resist series— and forthcoming in Petrichor, Prelude, and REALITY BEACH. Find her on Twitter @queertrix.