A conversation about creativity, muses and non-binary expression in poetry

ARTIST & MUSE: Kelly Williams, winner of the V.Press Prize for Poetry, in conversation with Taylor Shatford.

“With your writing, you take the reader into that space. You know, you create such vivid imagery that you end up there with them.” – TS

My collection titled ‘ynygordna’ was inspired primarily by my partner, Taylor Shatford, and uses non-binary pronouns throughout in order to discuss gender with rule-breaking effect. The following article outlines a conversation between Taylor and I about the collection and the ever-important themes of queerness, gender identity and non-binary pronouns that run throughout it. Sit back and enjoy the chatter between two queer, long-term lovers.

K: What are your thoughts on the collection as a whole?

T: I love it, I think it’s great representation. *chef’s kiss*

K: Yeah? Thank you! Could you elaborate on what you mean by representation?

T: There’s not a lot of poetry + literature in general that uses non-binary and third gender pronouns. So yeah, I think it’s great representation because it’s an under-represented space within the community. You see a lot of characters and narratives that are explicitly and covertly like homosexual, so you’ll have gay and lesbian people, but you don’t have a lot of people that go under, like, the trans umbrella.

K: Yes! Yes.

T: So yeah, I think you did an amazing job.

K: Thank you very much!

T: You’re welcome.

K: So, what did you think of my representation of you?

T: It’s very humbling. *laughs* I still can’t believe that you wrote it, it’s really sweet. I think you did a really good job.

K: Thank you! *laughs*. What is it about you do you think I best captured?

T: Ironically, the way I present myself is rather androgynous.

K: Yes!

T: *laughs* so yeah, it kind of ties in with the entire theme of it, uh, yeah.

K: Were you happy when I used that as the title?

T: Yeah. I remember when, because we were literally, in my kitchen talking to my dad about it *laughs* and he was trying to help us because you said you weren’t sure what to call it. So, I’m fairly sure that’s where we came up with it… is that where…?

K: Yeah that is where we came up with it, actually!

T: I remember that day! *laughs*

K: *laughs along* so do I! So, what does androgyny mean to you? I know to a lot of people it means a physical expression, but to you does it mean anything else?

T: Yeah, physical appearance is a big part of it, because it’s an outward expression. However, it’s also an inwards expression and it’s the way that you make yourself happy. You got to do you! So, if that’s looking like an androgynous being, then so be it, you know?

K: Exactly, I completely agree with that.

T: So yeah, it’s not just like a fashion trend. People specifically look for androgynous models etc. But it’s not just about like, fashion and it’s not just a trend. For some people it’s about how they choose to express themselves.

K: Absolutely.

T: Both inside and out.

K: So, you’re saying that it’s not just about physicality then, but it’s also a form of identity.

T: Yeah, I think so.

K: Yeah, good! You mentioned earlier about the trans umbrella. Is that something you would use to classify androgyny, or would you say that is separate?

T: I think it’s up to the individual.

K: Yes.

T: If they don’t want to be under the trans umbrella, they don’t have to be, but likewise if they feel like that’s a safe space that they belong then so be it. I mean, you could go into, technically it’s a different gender and a different expression to what you’re assigned to at birth. If you choose to not be included in that, that’s your choice. You can choose whether or not you want to be associated with that label, and that’s okay! For me personally, I think sometimes it can step on the toes of transgender people who need to have that representation as well.

K: Absolutely. I think when I wrote this collection I had in mind gender as a third party, and for me I think that people who identify as trans are very much, well, trans and not identifying by non-binary, genderqueer etc. so that should be respected and given the rightful label, or not, that they choose. That’s important, and I think tarring everyone with the same brush, especially when it comes to trans, genderfluid, non-binary and genderqueer identifying people, would be a mistake.

T: Yeah.

K: So, I agree with you there. I think that ynygordna is targeting more the, kind of, grey space of gender or purgatory of gender, if you like, where identity and gender doesn’t necessarily have a label.

T: Like, if you don’t want a label, don’t have it.

K: Exactly, exactly. For a lot of people, using the right label can be validating and enlightening; but for some others it can be limiting. If you don’t fit all the ‘checkboxes’ of an identity, for an example, you can spend years thinking you don’t have all of these things but actually, what I tried to express with this collection (and especially through the non-binary pronoun) you can create your own labels and your own ways of identifying.

T: Yeah, you’ve got to do what’s best for you.

K: Exactly.

T: If that means creating a whole new bit of language, then do it.

K: *laughs* exactly! Had you come across ‘ve/ver’ before as non-binary pronouns?

T: Um, I hadn’t. No. The only ones I had come across were ‘they/them’. I think it’s really interesting, yeah, I think it’s easier to grasp for a lot of people because they think they they/them, is, plural. Technically it’s not because Merriam Webster has stated that it’s not, but, okay. *laughs*

K: *laughs* yeah! Absolutely, when I wrote this I had a conversation with my tutor about should I use they/them because it’s what a lot of people recognise, and I decided in the end not to because the risk of it being taken as a group of people was too much. And because I was basing this collection on you and our relationship, primarily, it felt a little bit too crowded when it should be a personal thing. So, for that reason I went with ‘ve/ver’. Plus, it drew more attention to the use of a pronoun that isn’t used elsewhere, whereas ‘they/them’ has been used a lot.

T: Yeah. I guess it would be really interesting to see if you can change all of the ‘ve/ver’ in this collection to ‘they/them’ and see if it still has the same impact.

K: Yeah, because a lot of the poems are really intimate, for example Bemme is extremely intimate, and it talks a lot about specific imagery that I based on you. So, a lot of ivory and cheekbones…

T: *laughs* angular.

K: *laughs* chiselled! So yeah, that one I don’t think would fit as well because when you put a plural pronoun in there, unfortunately, due to the nature of literature it would become about a sea of people. Whereas when I use a single pronoun, it becomes more focussed and intimate on a single subject. Not only that, but ‘ve/ver’ and the sounds that they produce contribute to a lot of alliteration, syllabic mirroring and embedded half rhyme with the words I chose, so removing them would cause some issues in the editing process. *laughs*

T: Yeah, that’s true.

K: I mean, what do you think about that poem specifically? It is directly about you after all. *laughs*

T: I feel like you really capture, like, my quirks in it.

K: Yeah?

T: Yeah, *laughs* like my constant need to be clean.

K: *laughs*

T: And my love for origami, too.

K: Yeah.

T: Which is interesting because a lot of people probably wouldn’t know that, and they’d think of it as just imagery whereas it’s actually something deeper than that.

K: I mean your love for Japanese culture is one of the things I love most about you.

T: Aw, thank you.

K: So, when I wrote this collection, and especially this poem, I was trying to home in and really emphasise the delicate and creative parts about your personality. Because the title of the poem, being a mixture between butch and femme, I wanted to take those quite often ‘stereotyped’ aspects of your personality and craft them into something that melds them together. I viewed origami as one of those interests that really revealed the creative and delicate side to you.

T: Yeah.

K: Origami, too, is a creative technique that can be malleable, fold and change. Just like gender, it’s something that people can be creative and free with without feeling the need to be restrictive.

T: Well, thank you!

K: You’re welcome. And if you notice, as well, the visual form of the poem is…

T: It’s like an arrow.

K: Yeah, exactly! It’s like it’s folding and changing. Most importantly, it’s not straight.

*both laugh*

K: Is there anything that surprised you about the collection when you read it for the first time?

T: I mean, not much surprised me. I’ve read your poetry before, so there’s some things in there that are classic Kel.

K: *laughs*

T: Like ‘Small Dick Energy’ and ‘Taking Back the Phallus from Stanley Kubrick’, for example.

K: Why are they classic me? If you don’t mind me asking.

T: Some of the language in there is so like, in your face. It’s like when one of our friends bought the collection and was like “I don’t think it’s… family friendly”. *laughs*

K: *laughs* yeah, bless him.

T: So, yeah, you’re not quite family friendly, sometimes. Which I think some of your open mic material was of that same kind of theme.

K: Yeah I agree, I think I’m not family friendly sometimes. *laughs* and especially with this collection, there are quite a few that fit that description.

T: *laughs* yeah.

K: There’s also quite a few that I tried to be more sophisticated in tone because I wanted to make a point that gender can be like that sometimes. It can be not family friendly, and for a lot of people there are people in their family that this will never be considered ‘family friendly’ for. I mean, I have members of my family that are an example.

T: Yeah.

K: So yeah, no, I completely agree. I think it’s important to be taboo.

T: It was nice to see you quite vulnerable, as well, in some of the poems.

K: Aw, thank you!

T: That’s alright, just wanted to get that in there. *laughs*

K: Which poems was I vulnerable in?

T: The first one.

K:Getting Over it’.

T: Yeah.

K: That was the hardest one to write, and I wrote it first for that reason. I just wanted to get it out of the way.

T: I mean that’s fair enough.

K: All of my tutors were extremely supportive. I did the most drafts on it, as well, because the original poem was so excessively raw that it felt like publishing a slice of my heart.

T: Wow, yeah.

K: So, I felt I needed to be a bit subtle about it and give myself time to apply poetic techniques and structure to it, so it felt less like I’d just cried on the page. *laughs*

T: *laughs* we don’t want that.

K: Yeah, we don’t want that. *laughs* but I’m glad I did it first, because then I was able to have an end poem in mind, too. It helped me structure the whole collection right from the start. In the last poem, I actually used THE word.

T: Yeah.

K: If you’ve read the collection, you’ll know what that word is. For a long time, I couldn’t hear or say that word.

T: Yeah.

K: But now I’m here, and I’ve published it in a collection.

T: You have, and I’m immensely proud of you for that.

K: *pause* thank you so much. So yeah, I can definitely see why you thought I was vulnerable in that one. *laughs*

T: Yes. *laughs*

K: I mean, I still am.

T: Bless you, honey.

K: I’m okay, though. So, was there anything you wanted to say about the collection?

T: Everyone should go buy it.

K: *laughs*

T: It’s an amazing collection, Kel did an incredibly job on it. They worked really hard on it. It’ll change your life. *laughs*

K: *laughs* I’m going to make that the title of this article.

T: *laughs*

K: So, which is your favourite poem and why?

T:In Club They Shooting’. I don’t even have to think about that one. It made me cry.

K: Bless you.

T: It’s so, yeah, it’s just… I’m going to cry again.

K: Why did it hit you so hard?

T: I think it’s because you used straight up, cold, hard facts. I mean, even the title is a text message from one of the victims to their mum. I think that’s one of the things that really hit me. Obviously, it was an awful thing that happened.

K: Yeah, I mean for those of you who don’t know, ‘In Club They Shooting’ is about the shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a gay nightclub in Florida in 2016. It’s about the victims that lost their lives that night. I wanted to refer to that because it was so recent.

T: Yeah.

K: People like to say that we’re not in danger anymore, that people aren’t dying anymore. I think people needed reminding that prejudice still exists very much so amongst the LGBTQIA+ community, and that shooting scared every single one of us. That was meant to be a safe space. So yeah, I wanted to hit people hard with that one. It was chaos, it still affects every queer life even now.

T: It makes you feel like you are in danger, because being in a community that is targeted like that is scary. If you’re not in the community, you probably won’t understand it as much as somebody who is in the community would because your life isn’t threatened if you go to the wrong country, or the wrong street in a city.

K: Yeah.

T: You could get stabbed, you could get shot, just for looking different. I mean, we get heckled by people a lot. That’s another reason why it hit me so hard because these things are still happening to people that are just living their lives. They were shot for no reason. That’s probably why that’s my favourite one, it slapped me across the face, dragged me through a bush…

K: *laughs*

T: …and screamed “look at this!” *laughs*

K: I mean, there’s even a bit in the poem where I name the count of victims, both dead and injured, from that night. I put them right next to each other. I used the imagery of them lying side by side, because that’s how soldiers are laid after death. They were soldiers. They fought every day for the right to love, and they were in a safe space when they were taken.

T: The thing is, too, with your writing, you take the reader into that space. You know, you create such vivid imagery that you end up there with them. That’s also why it’s so hard hitting because you feel like you’re there in the aftermath looking in. It almost feels like an intrusion.

K: Yeah. I mean, that night was an intrusion. It was an intrusion on a safe space for queer people and people who were just dancing. It was an invasion on their space, and it should never have been a space for such violence and casualties. So yeah, I’m glad that one is your favourite because I did so much research for it, too. The haunting feeling that I got when I read the victim’s text still gets me when I read that poem back.

T: Same here.

K: This is why Pride is so important.

T: Yeah! It’s not just a fancy festival you put on in a few cities every year. It’s a celebration of Stonewall, and the anniversary of it. It’s needed to remember the fight that we had to do, and people still have to fight. Everyone has to.

K: I think it’s worth mentioning, especially considering the Pride month we’ve just witnessed, the black queer community right now.

T: Oh, absolutely.

K: Marsha P. Johnson is more valid than ever. Two more trans people have died.

T: Without Marsha P. Johnson and Storme De Larverie, we wouldn’t have Pride. They’re the ones that fought for us. Both black, queer and icons of the LGBTQIA+ community.

K: ‘No Pride for any of us without justice for all of us’ was Marsha P. Johnson. And, absolutely right. There’s nothing for us as an LGBTQIA+ community without justice for every. single. one of us. No matter who you are. That actually brings me to another poem in the collection… hang on, let me just find it.

T: It’s Stonewall Inn, isn’t it?

K: Yeah. It’s right at the back.

T: Yeah, I feel like the further you get to the end, the more hard hitting they get. They become more historical and factual.

K: ‘Stonewall Inn’ is literally about the Molotov’s that were thrown in 1969; the first Pride. The riot. Pride was and still is a riot. Especially among the BLM protests, now, more than ever.

T: Absolutely.

K: Those themes, thankfully, will live on in my collection, now more than ever, and I’m so glad that people might find some solace in my writing.

T: I’m so honoured to be a part of it.

K: Aw, thank you so much! Well, that brings us to a close I guess. Is there anything else you would like to add?

T: I’d like to say thank you, thank you for representing the community in the way that you have. Thank you for writing it about me. *laughs*

K: *laughs*

T: But yeah, thank you for giving us all the representation that we need.

K: You’re very welcome, and I love you.

T: I love you too.

  • recorded and transcribed by Kelly Ann Williams

You can buy a copy of Ynygordna in the V.Press Shop.

You can follow Kelly on TWITTER @kelannwil

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