“Writing about People You Know Is Never Easy”: A Conversation with DUALITIES Author Jason Phoebe Rusch, Interviewed by Shannon McLeod

I met Jason Phoebe Rusch after I read an essay he wrote for Luna Luna, connected deeply with it, and realized that we lived in the same city. I shamelessly reached out to him on Twitter in the hope that we’d be friends. Back then, I knew him as just “Phoebe.” When we first met up for drinks at a Mexican restaurant, Jason was in makeup and a dress and was wrapping up a seemingly very hetero date. Since then, we’ve grown to be close friends, and in the fall of 2016, he came out as trans. Over the past couple years, we’ve read one another’s writing for feedback and support, so I got the chance to read a few iterations of this manuscript before publication. The collection was previously titled Two in One Flesh, and while I loved that title, Dualities seems to better encapsulate the collection’s eclectic subject matter.

Dualities is structured in four distinct sections: “Lake Forest,” “Lovers,” “Questioning,” and “Becoming.” As the new title suggests, the collection explores a range of dualities that have shaped Jason’s life. Many poems are about sexual identity (loving both men and women) and gender identity (having grown up presenting as a woman and now living as a trans man). Others examine Jason’s childhood in an affluent suburb as the child of working-class parents. There’s also a section about Jason’s experiences in Haiti that reflects on racial privilege. In short, Dualities is ambitious, multi-faceted, and incredibly compelling.

Jason received an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writing Program, where he received Hopwood awards in screenwriting and nonfiction as well as the Chamberlain award in creative writing for short fiction. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, and Lambda Literary’s poetry spotlight, among other publications. Most recently, he has been awarded a 2017 fellowship from the Luminarts foundation. Dualities is his first book of poems. He can be found online at jasonphoeberusch.com.

 

 

Shannon McLeod: What went into coming up with the title of your collection, organizing the sections within the collection, and the titles of individual poems?

Jason Phoebe Rusch: There’s this professor at Princeton named Robert P. George who wrote an essay called ‘Marriage and the Illusion of Moral Neutrality’ which I had to read in my Christian Ethics class sophomore year. It relies on Genesis 2:24 / Mark 10:8 (the passages about man cleaving to his wife and achieving two-in-one-flesh union) to argue that all sexual acts outside of married cis-heterosexual P in V “instrumentalize” human beings, or reduce them to instruments of sexual gratification. My poem “Two in One Flesh” is in response to George’s article, because obviously it’s absurd to argue that two human beings can only meaningfully connect in missionary position, or that this particular kind of coitus is somehow mystical/holier/superior because it could potentially produce offspring even when it’s being engaged in solely for intimacy and pleasure.

I also wanted to explore the idea of being complete within oneself rather than needing some complementary energy to achieve wholeness. Transitioning has been a process of reckoning with and growing into myself and learning how to cope with solitude. EE (Elizabeth Ellen) wasn’t sold on the title so I proposed Dualities, which perhaps like you said encompasses the theme of gender liminality more clearly. I debated over whether to include the poems about Haiti, but then they seemed to fit with the poems about the North Shore of Chicago where I grew up, which fit with the poems about my father and white male rage and my own grappling with what it means to be a white man.

SM: You studied fiction in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, though the majority of the work you’ve published has been poetry. Can you talk a bit about how your experience in that program shaped your writing?

JPR: Attending Michigan was an incredible privilege and so to be honest about how unhappy I was there feels like biting the proverbial hand. I love Peter Ho Davies and his mentorship has been incredibly valuable, and I have a great deal of respect for Eileen Pollack. I love the small handful of genuine friends I made across the three years. But the experience overall really reinforced my self-doubt. I came into the program with the first draft of a novel loosely based off of the history of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where I was staying in January 2010 when the earthquake happened. The project is inherently flawed in a number of ways: the problem of my positionality, the ethics of auto-fiction, the ethics of writing about something as truly horrific as the earthquake, the lack of a singular narrative arc.

I’m a thin-skinned person prone to taking things personally and it often felt like my cohort members, the white cis men at least, weren’t genuinely interested in helping me to navigate this material in the most responsible and productive way possible so much as demonstrating their own ability to be cutting and clever.

At the end of my fellowship year I fell in love with a first-year poet. I hadn’t written poetry since undergrad, but his love of poetry inspired me to engage with the genre again. Also, I felt insecure and wanted to impress him. The relationship didn’t last but now I have a book!

SM: We’ve bonded over the fact that we’re both highly sensitive (dare I say overly sensitive?) people. Based on your experience getting to know both the writing and the personalities of your classmates in the MFA program and other writers you’ve met in the literary community, do you think sensitive people make better writers?

JPR: Not necessarily. Speaking for myself, my sensitivity tends to be an impediment to really listening to and understanding people in the way I’d like to be able to, for the sake of making better art but also of being a better friend and someone who can be of real service to others. I’m working on being less in my head. One thing I will say of being extremely introspective and socially anxious is that it inclines me to be patient and forgiving of people’s flaws (unless their behavior causes harm to someone I care about). You exhibit this kind of unconditional compassion and care that I value so much and that’s one of the many reasons why I felt an almost instant kinship with you. You also write compelling, rounded characters, and that probably has to do with your sensitivity. However, I’ve met plenty of cold and/or blunt people who are also great writers, so I don’t think I can generalize!

SM: The section “Lake Forest” includes several poems about your father, a member of the Church of Scientology. I gather from these pieces that a lot of your interactions with him involved manipulation. It seems he was trying to instill in you his prejudices, his insecurities, and his religious beliefs. The poem “Scientologist Family Counseling” describes undergoing e-meter sessions with your father. The final stanza, after a session, includes the lines, “And so too, at home: me spooning extra sugar into Cheerios while my father / intoned, for what part of this incident are / you responsible.” This poem makes me think about how much religion is used as a means to control others, especially children. I also know you identify as Christian now and have strong spiritual beliefs. How has your upbringing complicated your relationship with religion?

JPR: I was not raised religiously. My mom stopped going to church when I was two. Her boyfriend throughout most of my childhood was a secular Jew. My father was always pretty authoritarian and would lecture me about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology but it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school, when I told him that I was seeing a therapist who had prescribed medication, that he coerced me into engaging with his religion in a more substantive way.

This May, my dear friend Emma James and I will be co-curating an exhibit and reading series in collaboration with Sibling Rivalry Press called ‘You Undo Me,’ which arose out of a conversation we had about my friendship with a biblically literalist Christian. Although I cared and continue to care about this person, and know that she cares about me too, her ideology does not allow space for me to exist as myself. Likewise, it’s difficult for me to accommodate her worldview. She sincerely believes that I could be straight and cis if I prayed more and went to conversion therapy. My father sincerely believes that psychiatry and psychiatric drugs are evil and that I was harming myself by seeking the help I needed. People become violent when their sense of identity, the core beliefs that keep them tethered, are threatened. I hope that I never wield my faith as a weapon against people who don’t share it.

I converted in college when I took a class in Christian Ethics and became close friends with my preceptor’s wife, the Reverend Tara Woodard-Lehman. Shortly afterwards I took a class with Elaine Pagels, who studies non-canonical gospels that were labeled heretical by the early church fathers. I also grew close to Sitraka St. Michael, a queer Christian who later attended Harvard Divinity School. All of these Christians devote themselves to scriptural study, but read the bible as a collection of documents within a historical and political context. These stories have been doctored and translated by human beings who had the agenda of building a patriarchal system of social control, but Jesus himself was deeply radical. My thinking is also influenced by liberation theology. I believe Jesus calls on us to create the kingdom of God here on earth, not only in the afterlife. Many Christians would say this makes me too “worldly” but I don’t think loving your neighbor is the same as loving power.

SM: You have a poem, “Local White Liberal Takes On Crucial Role in Rescuing Out-of-Commission Golf Cart,” about joining a group of strangers on a college campus to help push a broken golf cart and finding satisfaction in aiding this minor cause. I think this poem is hilarious. Especially these lines:

The task gained momentum and
gravitas, grew tragic and noble as Sisyphus, a rock anthem played as we smiled at
each other in slow motion and I felt myself
enveloped by endorphins, a bubble of glowing
like the light in the produce aisle at a co-op

But you’ve said you felt worried about how the poem would make you come across. How do you think monitoring how you appear to readers influences your poems? Do you try to keep yourself from doing too much filtering?

JPR: Guilt, especially white guilt, is such a self-absorbing and useless emotion. My hope is that in writing about my own racial neuroses honestly I’m helping to dismantle it in myself and others. My fear is that I’m actually just reifying and therefore reinforcing it. This poem is meant to make fun of the banality of neoliberal virtue signaling as well as my own limitations, but the danger with anything satirical is seeming endorsement of the very thing you’re interrogating.

SM: Many of your poems are about gender identity. It’s interesting to see how you refer to yourself as a woman and a lesbian in some poems in the early sections of the book, when this is not how you currently identify. Then, in a poem from the “Questioning” section you write:

I can’t be your boyfriend,
can I be your boyfriend? Am I genderqueer
or just afraid of losing you to a real man
with a penis?

And from the the poem “No Reflection” in the final, “Becoming,” section: “I’m told hormones will help me recognize myself in the mirror. But I have so many / selves, which one will I choose?”

Your book leads the reader through the different identities you’ve inhabited. What is it like for you to see these poems collected in a way that reflects these distinct chapters of your life?

JPR: Lots of trans people joke that they’ve been every letter in the LGBT alphabet soup. It’s funny looking back at how I presented as a child, before it was bullied out of me; I dressed like a queer man, which I am, in turtlenecks and berets, and was never particularly butch, but that was the only model of gender non-conformity seemingly available to me then. I felt different from girls and different from boys and attracted to both in different ways. It was confusing and there wasn’t much language at the time except the label “bisexual,” which sort of fit but also implied that the people who fell under it were somehow divided or split, that there were two genders and I would always be longing for one while I was with the other. I spent so much time scrutinizing what set of genitalia I was more aroused by when what really matters to me (and what I hope will matter to my future partners) is the person attached to those genitals. This is not to say that I’m above superficiality; I realized around seventh or eighth grade, as the bullying intensified, that the way I thought about other women was objectifying and uncomfortably similar to how I heard men talk about women’s bodies, and I hated myself for it. I was also disturbed by my persistent fantasy of having a male body.

When other trans-masculine people talk about wanting to be more masculine from a young age, I can’t relate. I wanted to be more feminine, both because then boys would theoretically be more attracted to me and because I couldn’t see anything about men worthy of emulation. My mother, while imperfect, worked so hard to make my dreams possible. She knew how to be a good friend, a support system for others. My father loved me too in his own complicated way but was profoundly selfish, disappointing at best and abusive at worst. I hated to think that I was more like him than her. Accepting that I’m a man, learning to hold myself accountable while also allowing myself grace, has honestly been more painful and difficult than coming to terms with the social stigma of being trans. #MeToo has also been a strange moment to grapple with, because despite having a neckbeard strangers still read me as a woman at this point in my transition and I still get unwanted attention from creepy older men and then of course there’s the twenty-eight years of experiences I had presenting as a feminine woman, and I’m twenty-nine.

SM: Has coming out as trans (and/or starting T) influenced your writing? Has it influenced the reception of your writing?

JPR: There’s an expectation for any artist who is not a cis white straight dude to become a talking head on their own marginalization. I’m honestly more interested in writing historical fiction set in Haiti than I am in the self-excavation I’ve been doing, although it’s been healing in some ways. As for starting hormones, I think people maybe believe me more than before, although there’s still the attitude of, “well, if you were good at being a girl and you’ve mostly dated men, why do you need to transition?”

SM: In your collection, you explore personal relationships with both writers and non-writers. Do you find it easier to write about non-writers, who maybe care less about what’s being said about them in the relatively-small literary world? Or is it easier to write about fellow writers, who might better understand the process of mining personal experiences?

JPR: Writing about people you know is never easy, whether they’re people you still care about and respect or people you’ve burned bridges with. If it’s someone you still talk to and are on good terms with you can run it past them, which is potentially awkward but avoids causing harm. I’m still friends with the writer I dated, but not with the non-writers I’ve dated. In some ways I regret the pettiness and vindictiveness of the way I’ve written about my longest-term relationship. Hopefully Cards Against Humanity really is punching up more than they punch down these days, out of genuine commitment and not just to save face. With Trump in office they’ve definitely got good fodder.

SM: What was the editing process like, working with SF/LD Press?

JPR: EE and Aaron Burch have been very supportive and given me a lot of creative freedom and control over the book’s design. Chelsea Martin’s cover art is so beautiful and thoughtful and I really appreciate her sharing her talent.

SM: What are you working on now?

JPR: Holding down a job! Establishing and maintaining a routine! Mental health! Artistically, I’m still working on the Oloffson project, which has turned into a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. I’m also doing research for a novel about the Polish regiment that defected from Napoleon to serve Dessalines during the Haitian revolution.

Finally, can I just share a few lines from the collection’s last poem, which I think are incredibly beautiful?

You do not need to reconcile
or explain yourself
even to yourself today, you can rest. You can
wear no face at all.

 

 

***

Shannon McLeod is the author of the essay chapbook Pathetic (Etchings Press). Her writing has appeared in Tin House Online, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Joyland, Cheap Pop, and Wigleaf, among other publications. She teaches high school English in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can find Shannon on twitter @OcqueocSAM or on her website at shannon-mcleod.com.

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