By Elizabeth Gracen:
It's once again that time of year when we celebrate Pride Month, and in an ever-increasingly hostile environment fueled by hatred, shame, and cruelty, Flapper Press is honored to celebrate the many individuals and organizations that continue to support the LGBTQIA+ community by offering help, a safe space, opportunities, and important resources.
Sundress Publications first came to our attention last year when we nominated our writers and poets for the organization's excellent annual Best of the Net competition—"an awards-based anthology designed to grant a platform to a diverse and growing collection of writers and publishers who are building an online literary landscape that seeks to break free of traditional publishing."
When I read about the Sundress Academy for the Arts' 2023 Trans/Nonbinary Retreat to be held June 9–10, I reached out to Erin Elizabeth Smith to talk about the event, Sundress Publications, and the work they are doing to promote diversity, the arts, and the LGBTQIA+ community.
Please Meet Erin Elizabeth Smith and the poets and leaders for this year's Trans/Nonbinary Retreat!
Elizabeth Gracen: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your recently announced event: the 2023 Trans/Nonbinary Writing Retreat. Please tell our readers a little bit about the retreat and why SAFTA is offering it.
Erin Elizabeth Smith: This is our second year offering the trans/nonbinary writers retreat. Its mission is to provide a safe and generative space for trans and nonbinary writers to work with, be in conversation with, and celebrate other trans and nonbinary writers. As part of our mission here at Sundress, we work to lift up the voices of writers from traditionally marginalized communities, and we have offered LGBTQIA+ outreach through a number of different programming events throughout the years. This particular retreat felt all the more important considering the intense legislative and cultural targeting of transgender and nonbinary people throughout the nation, and particularly the Southeast, and holding this virtual space felt like an opportunity to focus on joy and creativity.
EG: From your poster and description, the workshop will focus on generative poetry writing. Would you explain the process of creating generative poetry? Why is this the focus for the summer retreat?
jason b. crawford: Generative poetry is the act of creating space to generate poetry. The generative aspect is being in a space that allows for us as writers to feel safe enough to put words to page (not notes app when it comes to me). This space should also challenge our ideals of what is possible within a text while not disregarding what we already know. The key to these spaces is the feeling of vulnerability and safety to grant us access to writing in general. Secondly, generative writing spaces such as retreats, workshops, etc. offer prompts, exercises, and ways to think outside of your norm.
A poem can be birthed out of the craziest places, even if that is just a first draft and the final looks completely different, the idea is to write something on that page.
Many workshops I have attended focused on a teaching aspect of learning a craft but not exercising that craft. It becomes a non-hands-on model, which doesn't allow a person to try or make the mistakes in order to not make them later. I could tell you all of the properties of a sestina, but until you are in the trenches of writing one, you will not understand the beauty of the form. We do not just want to teach you the writing practice, we want you to use it.
EG: With all the horrible, anti-trans legislation being passed across the United States—some of the most restrictive right there in Tennessee—the LGBTQIA+ community is fighting for their lives. Please share your thoughts about this and why you believe the power of poetry can help the community.
Remi Recchia: Thank you for this question—you’re absolutely right that there’s been a tidal wave of anti-trans legislation in the U.S. I’m not sure that it’s so much the power of poetry that I believe will help the trans, nonbinary, and otherwise gender-conforming community than it is the power of visibility. As a heterosexual, white, binary, cis-passing trans man, I hold a certain amount of privilege. People generally treat me with respect (when they don’t think I’m ten years younger than I actually am). I don’t experience racism or xenophobia. My colleagues and boss frequently act as if I’m the expert in the room even when I’m not (and, of course, I’m usually not).
My privilege is absurd in a way, though, because in every public bathroom, in every doctor’s office, in every legal setting, I am eminently in danger. My physical safety frequently goes from zero to sixty. I’m not protected under state or federal law. Three years ago, I almost died of kidney failure because I avoided going to the doctor for a UTI until it was an emergency because I knew how I would be treated: horribly. And I was: horribly.
If people are so cruel to me when they find out I’m trans, then, why do I write about it? Why do I publish poems about my dick and essays about my marriage? If I’m so private, why would I disclose my body over and over and over again?
When I was nine years old in arts and crafts, I was instructed to choose two adjectives to describe myself and write them in marker on a paper plate, which I was then to decorate with glitter glue and macaroni. The two words I chose were “loud” and “important.” I knew I mattered then, and I know I matter now.
Living in a relatively small town in Oklahoma—which I love—I am the only trans person that some of my friends and colleagues know (as far as they’re aware, anyway). I have seen, with my own eyes, the productive effects my visibility has had on cisgender people’s understanding of trans issues. If you don’t know anyone who’s trans, you don’t know, for instance, the real ramifications of a “bathroom bill.” You assume that those with penises should use the men’s room and those with vaginas should use the women’s room (obviously I’m being reductive and even anatomically incorrect on purpose). You don’t know the humiliation of dead-naming or misgendering. But when you have a friend who’s trans, a friend sitting next to you who is angry and hurt and has a voice with which to express those feelings, you start caring more about transphobic legislation.
Erin and the rest of the staff at SAFTA has been so generous in uplifting my and other trans and nonbinary writers’ work. Trans- and nonbinary-focused writing workshops, residencies, and retreats such as this one are vital to visibility. They echo what I knew twenty years ago before I fully knew myself: We are loud. We are important. We matter.
EG: You have an impressive lineup of instructors and speakers for the retreat. Can you tell us a bit about them?
EES: Our writers for this year’s retreat are, as always, utterly amazing, kind, and wildly talented.
Ina Cariño is a 2022 Whiting Award winner with an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University. Their poetry appears or is forthcoming in the American Poetry Review, the Margins, Guernica, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Waxwing, New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman fellow and is the winner of the 2021 Alice James Award for Feast, which was released from Alice James Books in March. In 2021, Ina was selected as one of four winners of the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest.
Remi Recchia, PhD, is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a book editor and also works as a technical editor. A five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared in World Literature Today, Best New Poets 2021, and Juked, among others. Books and chapbooks include Quicksand/Stargazing (Cooper Dillon Books, 2021); Sober (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022); From Gold, Ghosts: Alchemy Erasures (Gasher Press, 2023); and Transmasculine Poetics: Filling the Gap in Literature & the Silences Around Us (Sundress Publications, 2024). Remi has been a Tin House Scholar and Thomas Lux Scholar. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University.
EG: Sundress Publications is your baby, and something I am sure you are quite proud of. You’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in the early 2000s that is currently located in Knoxville, TN. Congratulations on 20 years of terrific work! How did the Sundress Academy for the Arts come about?
EES: Starting a writers residency was a dream that I had had since I was in my early twenties. When my partner and I had the opportunity to buy a farm in Knoxville, we went all in, renovating a 60+ year-old home with the help of literally thousands of volunteer hours. We spent every weekend fixing up the house, building a barn, fencing, clearing land, etc. It was very much a labor of love and still is, considering the fact that Sundress is an entirely volunteer-run organization.
We wanted to be able to create a physical space for writers to focus their energies, be a part of the Appalachian wilderness, and enjoy the artistic and creative communities here in Knoxville. As our residency program has grown, we have also worked to create ways to bring our residents in conversation with larger communities through workshops, retreats, generative writing events, and a nationally recognized reading series.
EG: What SAFTA projects can we look forward to over the coming year? Please tell our readers how they can donate to the terrific work that you are doing.
EES: Each month we hold free virtual workshops and generative writing events called Poetry Xfit. These events are listed on our website at www.sundresspublications.com. If you are in the Knoxville area, the Sundress Reading Series will return in August, but be on the lookout for our call for readers shortly.
While this year’s trans/nonbinary retreat is at capacity, we will be announcing our workshop leaders for next year’s retreat in spring of 2024 when we will also open for fellowship applications!