A performance by j/j hastain at AWP

The feelings that arise while watching j/j hastain perform cannot be summed up easily. Perhaps: disorientation, perplexity, concern, empathy, or intrigue. Some may find themselves disturbed or entranced by the shifts in individual emotions and collective energy occurring in the room. Viewers may progress from one emotion to the next or feel all of them simultaneously. In my experience attending KSP’s recent AWP panel, “I Am We As You Are Me: Exploring Pronouns In Experimental Poetry,” I experienced a surprising range of feelings—and deeply appreciated every moment.

Presented as part of a panel discussion on pronouns, the performance took shape as an elaborate ritual that featured an audio recording of hastain’s words playing while xe moved almost spasm-like around the space and played the violin–violently, intensely, and with a sense of real pain. With xir violin at times seeming part of xir body (“my own curvy woodie”), hastain acted out the lifelong struggle of being a musician with perfect pitch yet being forced to play—and in fact, lead others in playing—in a frequency that was out of balance with nature.

“As a musician who started playing the violin at age 2–3 and was singing before that, my earliest exposures were to 440 hz tuning (because I was exposed to instruments already tuned to 440). The more in tune I was to 440, the more out of tune I was to my nature.”

This sense of being out of balance was not confined to hastain’s identity as a musician:

“The 440-A tuning fork was basically shoved up into me: disorienting me, raping me, from my childhood all the way up through my adult life. Every day: soaked in the disembodying ‘A.’ Even my own curvy woodie (my violin), that grand and prehensile extension, came as conduction of a resonance cosmically broken from the body-to-cosmos relation. This fact of me being in dis, every time I was ‘in tune’ to world-norms and standards, really fucked me up! It’s no wonder why I identified for so long more as a cyborg than a woman.”

The audience was thus invited to witness and encounter the poet’s vulnerability, to experience in some small way the discomfort and pain of a person forced to interact with the world in a way that does not fit, whose gender has been thrust upon xir, someone who is fighting to retain agency over xir own identity, despite the constraints society imposes on xir on a daily basis.

The performance played out in a very visceral way the issues surrounding pronouns in experimental writing. Through the piece, we witnessed the poet’s need to be in control of xir body and the way xe identifies and presents xirself to society. The pronoun is not incidental—it is an important signifier of identity and being in the world.

As hastain writes:

“Regarding me, I only want pronouns that feel like they are co-creative with me: pronouns as procreant intelligence with a procreant agenda. Pronouns: the inclusive, non-gendered mother (creatrix) inside of you: more like the immediacy of DNA than like any shroud. Some pronouns accurate to me are recreational, others are relational. Some pronouns are private (reserved like safe-words in kink for certain enabling uses)….Wearing my pronouns is not something that comes from outside of me and is put over me by someone else, by some other agenda; this is not the effects of acid rain on skin, this is not like gossip. For me, pronouns can’t be what someone else said about me or did to me. I need my pronouns to feel like they are inside: as essential to my wholesome livelihood as my functional organs are. Whether the pronouns are naturally inside of me or whether or not I put them in there by hand, it needs to be me who has done it.”

After the movement and music subside, and the ritual comes to a close, everyone in the room, along with hastain, is faced with a new understanding of the role of the pronoun, knowing that xe has regained control over its usage:

“Cosmos is vast and inclusive. My violin, my dick: heartwood that can be played. Having finally gotten here where my gender my body, my pronoun can play…”

Photos provided by j/j hastain; text by Valerie Witte.

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