- Rachel Stempel
Interview with Robin Gow
CW: Sexual assault mention.
I also think poetry is an act of community. I don’t really believe anyone writes alone. Everyone is influenced and shaped by the voices around them so I hope this collection is a gesture of community to the trans poets before me and those writing right now.
Staff Writer Rachel Stempel interviews Robin Gow on their forthcoming poetry collection, Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books, October 2020), the erotic as community-building, and their pug, Gertrude.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, is forthcoming winter 2022 with FSG. Gow's poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review. Gow received their MFA from Adelphi University where they were also an adjunct instructor.
RS: Your debut full-length collection, Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy, explores a subjugated queer history of Catholic sainthood (and of spirituality and pre-Christian cultures). It can read as a kind of reclamation—was that your intention? What did the processes of researching and writing this manuscript mean to you when you began this project? Did that meaning change over time?
RG: For me, titles usually come first before I write a book. I got really into the word “degeneracy” because I watched some YouTube video essay about it and I guess I clung to the word because I liked the idea that my existence as a trans person could collapse society or something.
I don’t know if it’s reclaiming. The history of the word “degeneracy” is steeped in the Nazi/ Eugenics propaganda that certain people can “degenerate” humankind (where humankind means straight, cis, white, able-bodied people). I don’t know if I then could reclaim that but I can say yes, as a queer person I do want to topple how we think about gender and sexuality to the point where the categories of trans and cis and straight and gay don’t make sense anymore. Early in my transition, I was such a respectability politics asshole and I didn’t even see it. I really thought I could present myself in a way that would make people accept me and then accept all of us. I tried to be super polite in explaining trans-ness in really simplified terms to anyone who would listen, especially at my undergrad and in that surrounding community. This isn’t to say anything against people who do that; I still do that sometimes, but I don’t know if that pushes people towards really understanding transphobia, especially when you add in how trans people of different races, classes, and abilities experience being trans in vastly different ways.
At the time I was writing this book, I was kind of angry about all of that. I was like, “Well, fuck you, I actually want to be a degenerate decadent genderfuck.” I’ve also spent most of my adulthood as a sex worker with a brief hiatus in grade school and I felt ashamed of it for awhile. For me, doing sex work is like a reclamation of my own sexual autonomy as someone who was raped and abused as a girl to be able to control and celebrate those aspects of myself now and I think that’s also part of why I love the word “degeneracy.” When I started writing this book, I was recovering from top-surgery and I felt very alone. I couldn’t move much and I was grateful for the company of amazing friends but it reminded me that my family couldn’t serve this role for me and I felt a void there. I looked towards saints because they had always been my tie to Catholicism growing up. I hated church mostly, but saints are pretty cool and they’re often pockets where different cultures clung onto their pagan roots. They are also where I find room for queerness. So, I imagined a saint’s rebellion parallel to the rebellions I was feeling in my life.
RS: When you started writing this, did you picture it as your debut full-length collection?
RG: Yes, since I started writing poetry I’ve said vaguely “I want to write about saints.” I didn’t know it would be this… hedonistic.
RS: How does one fall down the rabbit hole of sainthood lore?
RG: You start with one Wikipedia page and you can follow the saints into eternity. Looking for patron saints, there are whole databases. Catholics in theory are Christians but I think they’re secretly pagans. I mean, they love this pantheon of icons to pray to for everything. Honestly, just start by Googling “Patron Saint of ___” and insert anything there I bet there’s something. I recommend “Patron Saint of Dogs” to start.
RS: On your cover art: why Saint Lucy?
RG: My first saint poem I wrote in 7th grade about Saint Lucy but it was awful and a ballad. I have always been drawn to her creepy “eye-ball on a plate” imagery. Basically, to catch people up, Saint Lucy had her eyes gouged out by Roman guards after she refused to renounce her Christianity and thus, people have been depicting her with the eyes on the plate for centuries. David Pischke painted this in the style of a Francis Bacon series called “Screaming Pope” that we both thought was the aesthetic we were going for. I love how… goth Saint Lucy is. Like, here is my pain on a plate; look at it.
RS: Our Lady has some sexy poems, which ask the reader to interrogate relationships between religion and sexuality beyond strict readings of the Old Testament. Can you talk a little bit about how this book, and your writing in general, navigates the dominant culture’s view of queerness as a form of perversity? How is the erotic a weapon but also a force of community?
RG: I guess I navigate the dominant culture’s ideas of queerness as perversity by flaunting how happy queer and kinky people can be and the kind of community that could exist. “Degenerate” points towards an unraveling of society because of how certain people live. Considering what our society is like, I want it to unravel in a good direction for once. As far as “weapon,” I’m not sure it is a weapon or a force for community for me, but I do think that celebrating queer sexuality can be a way of rejecting the decades queer people have been forced to keep our love secret. I also think poetry is an act of community. I don’t really believe anyone writes alone. Everyone is influenced and shaped by the voices around them so I hope this collection is a gesture of community to the trans poets before me and those writing right now.
RS: In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Audre Lorde writes that the erotic provides “the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual” and the “fearless underlining of [her] capacity for joy.” How would you define the erotic, within Our Lady and for yourself? Do you see the term as a placeholder for something else we don’t have a word for?
RG: I think defining the erotic in my collection is easier than for myself. For myself, I have no idea what the erotic is. I feel pretty disembodied most of the time. Maybe it is the seam where my body meets my poems—where those worlds are briefly the same. For this collection, though, I think the erotic arrives when speakers and saints discover that if they collectively disown the patriarchal God the Father at once that he can’t hurt them—that they can thrive and fuck and love without him. They can empty him of his power in their intimate moments together. In that sense, it’s completely a fantasy. Maybe it is then ultimately about something between healing and survival. There’s also something erotic about being so submerged in writing that you don’t filter yourself—that’s where a lot of the structures in this collection come from.
RS: You also have your debut Young Adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2022. Is your experience writing YA vastly different than writing something like Our Lady?
RG: The writing experience is very similar and also very different. I’m kind of obsessive. I write at least four poems and at least four to six pages of my YA projects a day, so that physical part was the same. Also, I did a lot of research for both. I guess where they diverge for me is for YA, I am writing partially to a past self and for poetry, I am almost always writing to a future self. That might be a lie though because Benny tells me I write all my poems to my father, which I probably do. Maybe I’m writing towards a future where he understands me. There is a sex scene in my YA book and it’s in a totally different realm than the sex in my poetry. It’s not fantastical. It’s tender and affirming. It’s not about unraveling like the sex in my Our Lady poems is—it’s about closeness.
RS: What’s Gertie's favorite poem of yours?
RG: Gertie doesn’t like my poetry very much. She’s a fan of the classic bisexuals like Lord Byron. I had that phase too, so I’m hoping she at least starts reading some more contemporary poets. I gave her Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities because she kind of stans his pug, Mr. Giles, on Twitter. We’ll see if she gives it a go.