I first had the luxury of reading A Queen in Bucks County as a summer intern at Nightboat, sent off to proofread the PDF at a local coffee shop. I was flushed beet red and filled to the brim with awe for the next four hours as I became seduced by what is now one of my favorite epistolary works.
Over the course of an interview, I got to ask Kay questions that lingered within me for months after my initial reading. We discussed the social efficacy of New Narrative, sex writing as means of seducing your friends, dialectical thinking, and being “buoyed or cowed by the social” while still remaining in it. We also discussed Kay’s first book, Kissing Other People Or the House of Fame (published in the United States by Nightboat in April), and what the syntax of a dream can look like. Dinner’s ready!
—Ryan Cook, Nightboat intern
Ry Cook: I wanted to start off by talking about the self-proclaimed “epistoslut” Turner, whom you describe as a “heteronym of the author, a persona in a bag.” How did this persona birth himself? And what did this persona allow that a lyrical “I” could not?
Kay Gabriel: Okay, let’s talk about Turner. He’s the author of the letters; his life is co-extensive with mine, mostly. He’s a literary drag act. For a while, when I wanted to say something slutty, campy, and cutting, I said it in his voice.
There are at least three, maybe four, problems that Turner solves for me. One is the formal problem of literary realism. Turner’s speech deviates from strict sense all the time. He loses the subject, he wanders into reverie, he narrates his fucking, he collages pop culture into his letters, he lapses into verse. There’s a formal elasticity that I found I could write in if I didn’t operate under the tyrannical constraint of writing in propria persona. Nobody thinks about the lyric I as a tyrant but, like, come on.
Another is that Turner allowed me to talk about my life without giving a transsexual autobiography. Even when people are too polite to ask for one, people, especially cis people, want to know the titillating details of somebody’s sex change. Frankly, they’re fucking obsessed. They’re even obsessed with genital status, though they pretend otherwise; thank god media norms have moved on from referring to trans people as “post-operative” or whatever. When I discovered Turner I realized I could release some of that pressure.
Third, I mean it when I say that Turner is a way of seducing my friends without having to deal with the consequences. There’s so much play in the character. He’s Turner as in Lana, get up, or as in a formal volta.
Fourth, Turner knits together a thesis that runs through A Queen in Bucks County, which is a sense of how gay and trans identity feed into each other—historically, socially. I didn’t have to change that much when I told episodes in my life as if they had happened to Turner, which itself is sort of remarkable.
RC: “Turner is a way to seduce my friends without having to deal with the consequences.” Can you talk about the pros and cons you encountered while writing in the vein of New Narrative in a search engine-enmeshed world? Did anyone write back?
KG: Yes, people wrote back. I sent the first few poems that I had already written to the poet Nathaniel Rosenthalis and then he wrote letters to Turner and then I wrote back to him, he’s the Niel in the book. And Jo Barchi wrote back too. Jo has a whole series of letters in their manuscript book All I Want and Other Letters and some of them are addressed to me and some to Turner.
If it’s okay to do a strong reading of New Narrative, I think the most New Narrative thing about this book is that it’s socially efficacious—it comes out of a social world, sure, but then actually it has effects, clearly, upon the people within that world, they do something else because of reading. The book produces social effects, it doesn’t just collect them. I couldn’t have counted on producing that kind of effect, but I’m reminded of the text-metatext distinction that Robert Glück makes in “Long Note on New Narrative”: the metatext is a running commentary that excites readerly exchange and its point of view is based on the future. And then also its effectiveness derives from some kind of libidinal charge. The epistolary has a libidinal charge; Turner does too. In a sense, writing him a letter back is responding to the seduction.
I feel like I should say as well that the nearest literary precedent for A Queen in Bucks County is Dodie Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker. I don’t think the search engine really matters that much here, unless you think I should be afraid of people finding out that I fuck. What career am I protecting? Oh, I’ll never run for office. Oh no.
RC: You said “I wrote Bucks County on a diagonal from trans literature, because I don’t appreciate being first outed then hailed as pretty but dumb or hopelessly abstract, which I expect will continue until I scare the haters off pornographically.” What was the first time you encountered a piece that, similar to your own, used the erotic as a means to defamiliarize or go beyond just being hot—and how did it make you feel?
KG: I don’t know about the first, but I think about Chip Delany all the time here. Actually, maybe it was the first. I read Times Square Red, Times Square Blue when I was like 20 and it totally changed how I thought about sex writing—how casual it could be, how various, and how it could stage a way of thinking about people and space. Delany uses sex to think about relations between people, what makes them possible or impossible in the first place.
Also: it’s still hot! All the thinking doesn’t make it any less so.
RC: I wanted to talk about one of my favorite parts of this book: the final poem, “The Opposite,” which felt like a corset pull for the entire piece—themes and images tightened and opened up a new sort of space for me to explore Turner, Kay, and the future of the social. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to include this as an ending?
KG: It’s funny, I’ve never read this poem out loud, but I believe in it totally.
Incidentally, usually when I perform the book I end with “I Could Go On,” which is a love poem to the poet Jo Barchi. And “I Could Go On” is in that sense a second ending to the book, the performance ending. It’s related, though; it’s like the pop song version of “The Opposite.” In “I Could Go On,” I give voice to all kinds of things that “I” want, or that Turner wants, which are not just narrow, personal desires, and that sense of wanting is part of the same capacious sensibility that animates “The Opposite.”
The refrain in “The Opposite” is “not the opposite of a good time.” And I repeat that enough that I go breathless.The point of “The Opposite” is a kind of dialectical syntax, the double negation that’s classically the pivot of dialectical thought. I think that poems are a way to do dialectical thinking; I think that poems do that better than almost anything. And by dialectical thinking I mean the method of making sense of a world whose social logic is one of contradiction and antagonism. That world changes, when it changes, because opposing forces transform each other—because some kind of transformation in social life makes possible a previously inhibited solidarity between different social groups, for instance. That’s a Marxist theory of how the world becomes other than what it is.
At risk of overly editorializing my own project, I think that probably the whole book is contained in the line: “If I am buoyed or cowed by the social I am still in it / a queen in Bucks County,” which is also the only time the title appears in the book. I’m not not doing realism in this book. The realism isn’t limited to narrating empirically apparent, already and obviously existing reality.
RC: I would love to talk about your other work that came out in the US recently, Kissing Other People Or the House of Fame. In the notes section of this book you mention that the title poem is a serial poem sustained between April 2019 and April 2020. What was your process like for adapting your dream journal into a poem? Was there a series of rules you followed beforehand in order to dream in poetry?
KG: Actually, totally the opposite. I didn’t “dream in poetry.” I developed a practice of journaling my dreams in as great detail as possible, and then I attempted to preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the syntax that I wrote down in the journal. So instead of trying to make my dreams conform to already existing standards for what makes interesting and poetic speech, I wrote a book using the dream syntax that I had already, and largely not consciously, produced.
Yours is a similar question to one I sometimes get asked about the book when people find out about my extensive dream journal practice, which is whether I try to lucid dream and to control the content of the book that way. The answer is absolutely not. The point of this type of practice, for me, is to be driven around by my symptom, not the other way around; the interest for me is in a sense how little control I have over the content of the book. In that sense, it’s almost Cagean. This is more or less one of Bernadette Mayer’s experiments, by the way, so anybody else could try it as well.
RC: I would like to take the question between poetry and organizing a step further—like A Queen in Bucks County, Kissing Other People Or the House of Fame deals with the relationship between representation and class. How do dreams play a role in that dynamic? Do you think that dreams are political?
KG: I think that dreams are social, as in, I think that dreaming is a social, not a private, act. That’s the thesis that I argue for, so to speak, in Kissing Other People. And in a society riven by class war, that social world will be highly politically antagonistic, though surely in a variously repressed, displaced and sublimated way.
Let me put this a different way. In his book Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelley says that none of the great left theories of social transformation have yet addressed the need for a “revolution of the mind” with the same clarity and urgency as aesthetic and cultural movements. He’s talking in particular about surrealism and Black experiments in surrealism, but you can generalize the point. In a sense, both Kissing Other People and A Queen in Bucks County use their formal devices—dream language, pornographic writing, direct address, the epistolary, whatever—to wrestle outside of the sometimes dire constraints that everyday language places on thought and consciousness. This project isn’t a direct translation of politics, but it has I think a thorough political orientation.