Trans joy and pain gently mingle in poet H. Melt’s new chapbook There Are Trans People Here, out this month from Chicago’s Haymarket Books. The poems in this collection give the reader a sense that all the pain and suffering the world inflicts on trans people is something that can be overcome, transformed, and understood. Though our lives are far harder than they should be, we still find ways of living into the world we wish to inhabit, building new possibilities while still mourning those who will not get to be there to celebrate with us. When I spoke with Melt last month, they explained that while grief is a familiar emotion that settles heavily on trans people, “I need to know trans joy exists in order to imagine myself living in the future.” It’s a delicate, emotional balancing act, but one that feels natural in the writer’s lucid, patient prose. Melt has published several previous chapbooks, including 2018’s On My Way to Liberation for Haymarket, and edited Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). In their writing, quotidian struggles like accessing trans-affirming health care and dealing with hostile landlords are balanced with paeans to as-yet-unrealized spaces like temples, museums, and entire cities that meaningfully reflect our messy, overabundant lives. Melt emphasizes that the goal is not to create utopias, free from adversity, but to instead keep imagining what feels possible to build toward worlds we may yet inhabit.
There Are Trans People Here comes paired with a study guide (coauthored by Melt and educator Rabiya Kassam-Clay) and features pieces of a collaged poster of trans people from the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art as section breaks; it’s an ongoing invitation to both trans and cis people alike to imagine what it will take to ensure that trans life can flourish.
In a recent interview, the author discussed being inspired by the range of trans life, imagining real-life spaces that can affirm trans experiences, and the dual role of happiness and pain throughout their poems.
Annie Howard: Collaged images of various trans people appear as section breaks throughout the book. Can you explain how and why they appear?
H. Melt: All of the images are from a collage I’ve had for many years. It’s a poster created by Chris Vargas, founder of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art, and one of his projects was to make a poster with a couple hundred trans folks in one place. It sits right above my writing desk, and it’s something that I look at every day, always in my line of sight. It has historical figures, it has people at protests, people in costumes that they’re performing in, screenshots from TV or film. It’s just a beautiful portrait of the range of the trans community: it has athletes, filmmakers, artists, writers. It’s led me in so many different directions and made me curious about so many different people. There’s also Chicago folks in the poster, people that I’ve known and worked with personally, other people who I admire, people whose art and literature I’ve watched or read or listened to. It’s a piece that keeps on giving and always sparks my interest.
Very real places, like spas, city streets, and temples create settings for many pieces in the book. What’s the goal in writing about these kinds of environments?
Place is a central theme in my work. Edie Fake is a huge influence on that, and Memory Palaces in particular is a big influence on my work. I was trying to think about some of the experiences that I’ve had in various spaces, as well as the experiences that I wish I could have in places where I can’t feel affirmed, including the temple I grew up going to. There’s a poem, “All the Missing Sweetness,” about my relationship between gender and Judaism, imagining a trans temple that is rooted in anti-Zionism and Palestinian liberation, transformative justice and repair, and queer and trans joy, while also still practicing the tenets of Judaism. I was trying to create some of the spaces that I needed, but also reflect some of my real experiences in some of the existing spaces that I’m not able to be a part of.
Virtual reading hosted by Madison, Wisconsin’s A Room of One’s Own bookstore
An online reading and book release party. Tue 11/16, 7 PM on Crowdcast, go to roomofonesown.com for details, free registration required.
Teaching Trans History with H. Melt and Rabiya Kassam-Clay
A webinar geared toward K-12 educators (but all are welcome to view). Hosted by California’s ONE Archives Foundation. Wed 11/17, 7 PM, registration and details at onearchives.org.
One of the key themes working through the book is the way you write about the twin realities of happiness and trauma within trans life. Why are those seemingly disparate forces so important to consider together?
I don’t think that joy and grief are separate. In the study guide, one of the themes that [Kassam-Clay] picked up on was the dual presence of both death and the future ringing throughout the collection. I didn’t try to write poems that were utopian in any way. Even within the moments of joy, like in the poem “Trans Care,” which is largely and mostly about people caring for me, it still starts in a place of being denied the health care that I’m asking for, dealing with these intrusive questions and painful experiences to get to the loving and affirming experience of feeling cared for.
It was a challenge for me to center trans joy in the poetics. It was reflective of a shift that I was trying to make in my own life, and something that I want to see more of generally in trans art and literature. In “On Trans Street,” there’s trans music, dancing, health care, and teachers, but there is still mourning that we’re going through. It’s not that violence isn’t happening. It’s not that people aren’t dying. I don’t want to create a world that’s purely utopic.
But I want to think about what would it look like to go to someone’s funeral and have their chosen name be used in writing and not their dead name. What would it mean on Trans Day of Remembrance to have zero murders to remember and commemorate, and instead be able to honor people dying from natural causes? There is a particular joy in being able to grieve. I’m deeply disinterested in the idea of separatism, and I don’t think that joy and pain are separate entities. There are many painful elements of being trans, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not also a lot of joy.
There Are Trans People Here by H. Melt
Available from Haymarket Books, haymarketbooks.org