On either side of the blank: A Conversation with Laura Buccieri

Laura Buccieri is the author of the chapbooks Songbook for a Boy Inside (Belladonna* 2018) and On being mistaken (PANK Books, 2018). Her poems can be found in Lit Hub, Metatron, DUM DUM Zine, Prelude, Cosmonauts Avenue, Lambda Literary, Word Riot, Apogee, and elsewhere. She is the Publicist at Copper Canyon Press & holds an MFA in poetry from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and on Instagram at @lauruhboocherry.

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Marcene Gandolfo: On Being Mistaken explores intersections of gender and language. How have your own associations between gender and linguistics shaped the poems in this collection?

Laura Buccieri: I think gender is fluid, but (the English) language isn’t. I notice the binary (male/female) often: a barista calling me sir/miss, the doctor saying my current medical condition happens mostly in females, having to pick the male or female drop down menus when online shopping, etc., etc.  And when the binary isn’t being used, English just sort of omits gender. When I’m booking an appointment for my haircut online, they ask if it is for a long or short haircut, not female or male (which in most people’s minds denotes long or short). Gender neutral bathrooms are a very obvious way language (or pictures) omits gender. I don’t think the binary or omitting gender seems like the answer to how I actually identify. Language and gender have also come up in places like The Wing—what does “female” or “female identifying” mean? Is English ready to define/expand the definition of gender? It’s also interesting to look at gendered speech. In college I took a linguistic anthropology class, and we looked at how speech was inherently gendered. If I remember correctly, women say “um” more and take more pauses. Men tend to interrupt more and exaggerate. I often think of that in terms of how I present. Do I change my speech in order to fit the gender I feel in any given situation? Language has the ability to shape how we experience gender. Kids have come up to me and asked if I’m a boy or a girl, and I always ask them what they think. I remember one boy saying (while we were on a basketball court), “Well you can play basketball like a boy but look like a girl, so I guess girl.” Another one said “boy” because he was a boy and we were getting along. I never correct them, but it is interesting how much power language has to define a relationship. Does seeing someone as male or female influence how you talk to them, what you expect of them, the power dynamics in the conversation? I hope the poems in my collection challenge and explore how language and gender function and react together.

MG: In the opening poem, “what does gender have to do with a table,” the repetition of binary, gendered terms produces an assaultive effect, which reinforces the poem’s violent imagery. In my reading, the poem suggests that gender conformity is a kind of violence against human identity. Could you elaborate on this idea?

LB: The poem mentioned above originated when I was reading a Lorca poem in Spanish and in English. The thing that stood out the most was the fact that in the translation into English, gender wasn’t present in the nouns. There was no way to translate that aspect of Spanish. The table was just a table, not a male/female table. The moon was simply a moon. And the male child was suddenly just a child. I wondered what would happen if gendered nouns were present in English. Would that make gender omnipresent? Would that be positive or negative to the fluidity of gender? Would people not think about gender as much, since they are gendering most nouns? Might it just become background noise? Or, would it make gender even more stringent? There is violence in the way language relies on the either/or so often. That either/or choice that happens in language is so violent because it leaves out a lot of what’s really going on. It doesn’t give people time to stop and asses what’s actually happening. Instead we are left with I’m happy/sad, free/trapped, sick/healthy, gay/straight, male/female, etc/etc. If English speakers attached the binary gender to simple nouns (table, sky, bed), I wonder if that would force them to dig a bit deeper when trying to gender something as complex as a living, breathing human?

MG: In “green screen,” the speaker wrestles with media images, unrealistic expectations, and personal identity. How do you view media’s role in promoting gender expectations?

LB: I try to surround myself with media outlets like them, movies like Princess Cyd, TV like Vida, books like Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, music from Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess, podcasts like Queery and Still Processing, and follow queer artists and activists on Instagram. That’s media I can identify with. Mainstream media has to appeal to the mainstream, heteronormative culture, and I just had to realize one day that isn’t for me and I had to look elsewhere. I’m extremely lucky to have found the media that I did—they try to represent a mindset I can identify with.

MG: In “St. Rays,” the speaker depicts her coming of age in a Catholic community. As she reflects, “10 hail marys / i realize i’ve always / been a woman praying / to other women,” the speaker suggests she has discovered her sexual and spiritual identity. In your experience, how does the feminine reveal itself within patriarchal institutions?

LB: I went to a Catholic school K through 12th grade. I’ve always thought women like Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary seemed very strong, emotionally and physically. Giving birth to Christ seems like it would take some strength, no? Watching Jesus die on the cross absolutely takes strength. The nuns that taught me were the toughest, strictest authority figures at school. They kept everyone in check, yelled like crazy, hit their hands on the desks. On the one hand you have these strong, Catholic, female figures, but on the other hand, you have these same women being told they aren’t enough. They are not allowed to be priests, they are not able to decide a lot about their bodies, and they are generally treated as lesser than their male counterparts. I was, and still am, confused by this. It almost set the expectation that, as a woman, you can be the strongest possible person you can be, but that’s still not enough to be in a powerful role, to make decisions, to be someone with agency.

MG: I’m interested in the way your experimentation with space and form relates to your larger content. How does your play with white space relate to larger themes that explore gender and public space?

LB: Space is a form of control. There are omissions and deliberate words that go unseen in those spaces in my work. I hope that forces the reader to insert their own words; or actually, I hope it shows them where their mind could go— based on what words they consciously or unconsciously insert. I hope the spaces emphasize the words on either side of the blank and force the reader to rely on those words more than they might otherwise have had to. What happens to the function of words when a reader is given a pause via a blank space? I hope I’m giving words space to expand, giving them a chance to take up more room than they have in the past, giving the reader time, forcing the words to linger a bit longer. Letting words seep into those blank spaces gives them power, allows them to take up space. I like to frustrate the reader a bit too, get them to look at a word or a concept from a different point of view. Force them out of their mind a bit. Also, I like to think of these words in my poem as existing in public. They are out there on the page, unprotected, unexplained. Making space around the words, the spectacle-like nature of that, is a bit how I feel in public, like there’s a lot of space around me, nothing to compare me to, easy to look at for a little too long, something to figure out.

MG: What is next for you? Are you engaged in a new project? If so, would you like to tell us about it?

LB: Yes, I just published a new chapbook, Songbook for a boy inside, with Belladonna Press. The chap deals again with gender, but also in love, in the body, in the home. I had a lot of fun writing it and loved working with the Belladonna team.

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Marcene Gandolfo
Marcene Gandolfo

Marcene Gandolfo’s poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and RHINO. In 2014, her debut book, 'Angles of Departure,' won Foreword Reviews’ Silver Award for Poetry. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.

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