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Artists are generally required to open up your inner self to the world, but being a trans artist specifically often involves a greater sense of vulnerability. Because trans rights are so often discussed and trans perspectives are so often shouted down or violently obliterated, it is often a frightening undertaking to be in public about your emotions and lived experiences as a trans person. As a poet and trans woman, Jennifer Espinoza (also writing under the pseudonym J. Jennifer Espinoza) sees creative expression, and specifically poetic form, as a way in which you can truly exist on your own terms, apart from the expectations and demands of a world that constantly asks transgender people to to justify existence.
“Marginalized communities are being put in this position where we have to explain ourselves to people who have power over us or have their boot on our necks,” she explains to Observer† “I think there’s something about poetry that allows you to enter a space where you can still have arguments and rhetoric, but it’s on your own terms, and you can come up with your own logic in a poem. In that sense, you can get out of that dynamic of defending yourself on someone else’s terms, because that’s always a losing battle when you’re defending yourself based on language and rhetoric designed to shut you out.
In poetry collections such as I am alive. It hurts. I love it. and There should be flowersEspinoza softly but honestly captures the frequent whiplash of trans experience, while a more direct political speech is offset by images of stunning beauty and lyricism. Her poems embody that idea of coming up with your own logic, as Espinoza’s words precisely define and outline a worldview steeped in devotion and grace, but unafraid to defend herself when necessary. While her work confronts the frequent horror of life as a trans person, her writing contains a tremendous amount of love and care, a reminder that gentleness is sometimes a political necessity in a society so cruel to the marginalized.
All humans evolve drastically over time, but the journey of transition gives you a unique insight into the often fluid and unpredictable trajectories of life. In front of Espinoza, the process of finding her voice as a poet is inextricably linked with the parallel journey of finding her voice as a trans woman. “Like many trans people, I chose a few things to throw myself into and forgot about everything else, so I read voraciously as a kid and really loved writing,” she says. “A lot of my poetry in the beginning was about escaping, but also about finding alternative ways of being and living when I was literally unable to express who I was. When I started taking poetry seriously and handing in work, I realized that if I presented myself in this way, as a poet, who am I presenting? Who is the poet? Who is the speaker?”
“This happened while I also had other realizations. I came out of a really bad fog in early 2012 and realized that if I’m not going to kill myself I’ll have to switch. There are currently no more options. When that happened, my poetry blossomed and I felt ownership of my voice, where in the past it felt like me and the poet were two different people living in the same room.”
If you’re trans, it can be easy to look back at parts of your life and cringe, or to feel generally disconnected from your pre-transition self, embarrassed by how messy you may have been or how much you tried to deny your own truth, like an artist who has documented her own growth, Espinoza has felt those kinds of complex emotions when she returned to early poems, when her sense of self-knowledge may not have been as highly developed. Now she is able to integrate past and present selves by conceptualizing the poet and the person as two interconnected but different entities.
“There’s almost a separation between me, Jennifer and the poet. I don’t like to think of myself as the speaker of my poems, even though the content of my poems is very much borrowed from my life. I like to distance myself, so I use a pseudonym so that I can distinguish the poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza from the human Jennifer Espinoza. So here’s Jennifer in the middle, here’s this past self that I’m trying to figure out what to do with it, and then this is as a poet self that’s somehow less than me, but more than me at the same time.”
Espinoza’s deliberate separation between poet and person stems not only from a self-reflection urge, but from the concern for safety that all transgender people carry with them. “We all know that visibility is a pitfall for transgender people. Visibility without protection is just having a target on your back. That’s something I struggle with a lot because I want my work to be read, available, but I don’t want to target myself. I think it also gives a sense of security to create that distance between myself and my work.”
Even if there’s trepidation about being a trans person, be it in your artwork or just out in the world, the uniquely inventive power of poetry makes it worthwhile for Espinoza. “Life is hard and poetry can sometimes allow us to transcend, if only for a moment, and create an alternative space that coexists with but outside the current reality. A poem can be a doorway to a moment or a space of safety or peace of mind or something I don’t necessarily have full access to in the normal world.”