Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: S. McDonald

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: S. McDonald

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

S. McDonald’s debut collection of poetry Confessions of an Empty Purse (Frontenac House, 2010) is a startling book of poems that uniquely splices all of the intricacies of an individual caught between genders, manifesting the depths of transition into one seamless, well-manicured confessional. McDonald’s poems are written in an incredible narrative style, filled with semblances of normality, fantasy and suicidal tendencies.

S. McDonald was born, raised and continues to relentlessly live in Toronto under the guise of what’s known as gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “zir.” McDonald explains it was something that began a few years ago with some trans-people, in order to get away from the traditional “he” or “she,” to be more non-specific about not only what gender one is, but about gender in general. McDonald admits that the “gender-neutral pronoun” philosophy has not completely caught on with all trans-people, sighting that many still have a lot invested in the male/female paradigm, but it’s a way of expression McDonald likes and finds useful.

Ze is the love child of Christine Jorgensen and John Rechy and the spiritual godchild of Jacqueline Susann, and has performed zir alternative spoken word performance pieces at The Calgary International Spoken Word Festival, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s annual Rhubarb Festival, and at Paddy’s Playhouse. Zir debut poetry collection Confessions of an Empty Purse was one of ten manuscripts chosen as part of Frontenac House's Dektet 2010 competition, using a blind selection process by a jury of leading Canadian writers: bill bissett, George Elliott Clarke and Alice Major.

For more information visit S. McDonald’s blog. Copies of Confessions of an Empty Purse can be ordered from the Frontenac House website.

TTQ- The opening page of Confessions of an Empty Purse states "confessions of an empty purse is a poetic transmemoir of passion and fear, laughter, nightmares and dysphoria, preservation, degradation, dreams and pride...and it really happened. I was—am—there." Your poetry speaks a lot about suicide as well. Talk a little about your life trapped between genders. How are you feeling about yourself today and how therapeutic was it for you to write this book?

SM- Living between genders, from as far back as I can remember, made it difficult to lead what I would later call “an authentic life.” As I couldn’t live in the gender I felt I truly was (female) it left me with not wanting to really live my life, in any real way, at all. Many of those years were just empty space and not a small amount of self destruction.

Much of Confessions of an Empty Purse was written during the time in my life when I was trying to physically/emotionally transition in the world as a woman—the highs and the lows and everything in between. It also brought to the surface
memories from my childhood and adolescence that I hadn’t thought of in many years. That was a hard place to revisit but it also reminded me that, no matter how crazy it seems, I still had a very real hope then that once I became an adult I would indeed somehow become the woman I knew I was.

Hope. In my poem “transsexuals on parliament” I say that I was almost twenty at this point and everything still seemed possible / this would radically change and come crashing down about me when I did turn twenty. This did indeed happen, and it more than set the stage for the next 25 or so years of my life. That’s why, even though as a Roman Catholic suicide was verboten, it was still something that was always there for me to touch and consider in a sort of “backdoor” way to deal with my gender dysphoria (which is, I know, a loaded term for some trans-people, but one I‘m comfortable using in relation to myself).

Writing this book was, ultimately, a cathartic experience for me. When I began, I truly thought my life was headed in a very bold and definite direction, and by the time I’d finished it my life had taken some turns I hadn’t expected. I’d never presume to speak for any other trans-person but the decision I made not to transition, or rather detransition, was both the defining sadness of my life and the reason why I’m still here.

TTQ- Is it a fair statement to call Confessions of an Empty Purse a kind of self-help book for others thinking about or living a transgender lifestyle? What kinds of feedback are you getting from the transgender community concerning the book?

SM- Honestly, I think Confessions of an Empty Purse reads more like a cautionary tale than a self-help book. They are, of course, very specifically my own experiences, but I think that if they can in any way “help” another transgendered person it might be that it’s a very different kind of narrative than what’s already out there. The fact that it doesn’t end with GRS (Gender Reassignment Surgery or “sex change”) and moving into living my life as a woman is in of itself unusual. There are many trans-people who ultimately don’t end up transitioning, or rather detransition, and our stories need to be heard too. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I still and always will self identify as transsexual. It’s just the way I’ve chosen to live out the rest of my life is different than how I’d hoped and planned. That’s life.

I’ve not gotten much feedback at all from the transgender community, but I really believe that this has more to do with the type of person I am and the life I’ve had. I‘ve always led a fairly isolated life with a profound need to be by myself and withdraw from the world. I’ve never been close to more than a few people at a time at any point in my life, and being connected to a community of any kind just isn’t a part of my makeup.

One experience though: at the first book launch and reading the “Dekteters” did as a group in Edmonton this past spring, two young trans-women came up to me after the readings were over. They had enjoyed my reading and had bought copies of my book and brought them over for me sign. One was the “spokesperson” of the two as the other was much too shy to speak to me directly. It was a very touching moment for me, as in many ways I had written the book I wish I had been able to read at the same age as these two young trans-women were, and here they were, all these years later, buying this book that I had written. I had an odd feeling of reaching across time to the person I was and wished I’d been able to become when I was in my twenties.

TTQ- The two prominent figures/heroes you mention repeatedly in your poems are Dr. Renée Richards and your mom, Mary, who you lost in 1997. How big of a role did each of these two individuals play in your life and in your gender transformation?

SM- When I was a teenager the Dr. Renée Richards story broke big. She was all over the media for a time and was, in her words—and I agreed—“the heir apparent to Christine Jorgensen.” She appeared on television and most prominently in People magazine. I read everything I could about her with equal parts fascination and concern. As much as I loved the fact that suddenly there was this high profile transsexual saturating the media, Dr. Richards was somehow an affront to my highly judgmental and gender-terrified teenage trans-psyche. I projected heavily on her all my own growing dread in facing the fact that I’d never be able to “pass” as a women and just what was that going to mean about my life and dreams to have a “sex change” when I “grew up”.

Also, as much as I projected on her and judged her appearance she was, as I say in my poem “Dr. Renee Richards or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love the gender variant,” “she was she and that’s all that really mattered.” So ultimately it didn’t matter how much I projected on her or disagreed with her view on this or that, it was the fact that she was a visible transsexual bravely out in the world in the 1970s meant the world to me. That feeling was also extended to include other transsexuals of that era like Jan Morris, Mario Martino and especially, Canary Conn.

Some of the hardest things to write about were anything to do with my mother. We had a very close and loving relationship, and she was as supportive and understanding as she could be with this child she had that seemed to have come from another world. She was my first best friend, and as I grew older we had a very girlfriend-like relationship. Even so, my transsexuality was not something we ever discussed. I didn’t really understand this until after she died. I was 36 and had never made any real attempt to deal with my transsexuality as an adult, and then I suddenly realized it was because it was something that I could do now because it couldn’t hurt or embarrass her. Even though I didn’t make a solid crack at transitioning until I was in my mid-40s, I really don’t think I would ever have gone as far as I had if she’d still been alive. I still miss her, everyday.

TTQ- How difficult was the process in finding a publisher for Confessions of an Empty Purse, and how much of a charge was it to receive such favourable praise for your work from the likes of bill bissett, George Elliot Clarke and Alice Major?

SM- When I sent my manuscript off to Frontenac House for their “Dektet” competition I knew that I was sending off the best of what I had to offer as a writer and poet. I knew that, no matter what happened, I had given it my all and I couldn‘t have asked for anymore from myself. Actually being chosen as one of the ten books to be published as part of “Dektet” was something else, though. It made me realize how much I really wanted not only to be published but for it to be these particular poems and stories. Knowing that the likes of the jury, bill bissett, George Elliot Clarke and Alice Major had such incredible things to say about my book was truly humbling. These are poets I’ve read and respected, so for my work to be chosen by them was thrilling.

Oh, and as an added, wonderful bonus my artwork was used for the cover of Confessions of and Empty Purse. I’ve always drawn all my life, but the only things I’ve ever drawn are women. Not in a strict or “realistic” portrait sense, but from how I’m feeling that day. All the women I draw are representations of me, of course, and have a more or less a comic-book flavour as one of my original inspirations for drawing came from my love of Betty and Veronica comic books. The artwork in those comics, especially in the ’60s and 70’s, and specifically the work of the artist Dan DeCarlo, had a profound effect on me, and absolutely informed the way I draw. It was so thrilling for me that when I asked Frontenac House if they’d consider using one of my pieces for the cover they enthusiastically agreed.

TTQ- Do you find there to still be a lot of homophobia out there in the city of Toronto concerning the transgender community, and what future poetry projects are you planning or currently working on?

SM- There is still much homo/trans-phobia in the world. I’m basically a loner and always have been. I’ve never, ever been much of a “group” person, and as such have never felt truly connected to any “community,” even though there have been times in my life that I’ve tried very much to connect myself to the gay and especially the trans community. There is such schism within the LGBT community at large and, from my experience, the individual communities themselves, and that’s something that I always found hard to deal with as confrontation tends to make me panic.

I’m collaborating on a play with my friend, the writer and poet David Bateman, as well as a new collection of poetry that explores my decision ultimately to not transition and letting go of my dream to physically live my life as a woman, as well as delving deeper into my life with my mother and our/my Catholicism. Oh, and my love of black chiffon marabou trimmed nighties. (I’m kidding.)

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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