Poet Stacey Waite maps ‘Butch Geography’
In “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport,” Stacey Waite wrote not only the best poem I’ve ever read about being patted down by the TSA but the best I can imagine reading. And I say that as someone who, unlike Waite, has never felt mistaken for a woman.
That last word isn’t a typo. Waite’s most recently published collection, 2013’s Butch Geography, contains 65 poems, four of which have titles beginning “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man.” But one is titled “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Woman by a Therapist in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.”
Her verse is fierce and plainspoken and proudly transformative, but he can also be painfully funny. The poem in my first paragraph is evidence of all these things. It begins “It’s like being born again, these metal detectors / are like traveling through the womb, the buzz / goes off to indicate the birth of trouble.”
When that buzz comes, Waite expects Jimmy the TSA Agent to yell “Female Search” to summon the “large woman” TSA agent who pats down woman passengers. But no, the search is conducted by Jimmy himself, who makes “the face I’ve seen before, / the ‘holy-shit-it’s-a-woman’ face, / the ‘pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits’ face.”
Embarrassed, but afraid of the consequences of admitting what he regards as an error, Jimmy gets angry:
so that when he is patting her down now, he does it with force,
he wants her to feel he is stronger than she is,
he wants the metal detector to stop being a gender change machine
from which this woman, who is also me, immerges.
As well as being an award-winning creator of both written and slam poetry, Waite is chair of the graduate program in the Department of English at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska. He will be reading from her new poetry manuscript “A Real Man Would Have a Gun” and signing copies of Butch Geography at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18, at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. In an email, I recently asked some questions about Waite’s work and teaching.
One of these was “do you have a preferred pronoun?”
Waite admitted to getting that one a lot, but wrote that it’s “a great sign for some level of progress in people thinking more about our tendency to make assumptions that we ‘can tell’ who another person is.” But she also wrote that “no particular pronoun (he, she, ze, they, etc.) feels more right (or more wrong) than another when it comes to my experience of myself.”
He explained that she does mind “when the pronoun someone settles upon referring to me as makes them assume other things about me.” She cited her new manuscript, which he called “an exploration of masculinity” and those “moments where men assume I share their experience or perspective because of my performance of masculinity,” a presumption she said he finds “frustrating and illuminating.”
Thinking of the videos I’d seen of Waite performing her poetry online, I asked if he thought academia concentrates too much on poetry as words on a page, as opposed to its spoken and performative aspects.
Waite replied that, for her, “poetry has always been an out loud experience,” but that this isn’t to say he doesn’t value it on the page. “It just means that I believe that if a poem doesn’t sound good read aloud, it might not be a poem.” She believes that poetry should be taught to children more like the way they’re taught music than the grade school subject called “English.” This, he wrote, “could also mean more young people would appreciate the beauty and horror of language, the perplexing depth of complexity in language, and the paradoxical space a poem often reveals.”
I concluded by asking him about her 2017 book “Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing (Composition, Literacy, and Culture).”
Waite called it both “a theoretical book about what it might mean to take a queer approach to the teaching of writing” and “kind of a long poem,” describing it as “taking narratives from my early education and my experience as a genderqueer person” and weaving them “in and out of the more conventional ‘scholarship’ type work in the book. It’s a strange read, but worth it I hope.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.