A Conversation between Jay Besemer and Evan Williams – Chicago Review of Books


Rejection letter erasure poems recently took over literary Twitter/X. Writers scribble over rejection letters they’ve received, omitting words and phrases until another message emerges. That message is often brutally funny, as if a barefaced NO lay submerged beneath the carefully crafted letter all along. 

But these erasure poems do more than give writers a cathartic chuckle. Take, for instance, Francesca Leader’s “fit / your work elsewhere / thank you.” Or Lisa Alletson’s “consider / this as a judgment of / you / you / are / small / and / no / good.” These poems ask what it means to be an artist who hasn’t found a home for their art. And through the act of sharing on social media, these poems transform a space of rejection into a space of artistic community and care.

Chicago-based poets Jay Besemer and Evan Williams are also interested in erasure poetry as a space of communal processing. In a recent email exchange, they discussed Besemer’s book of two long erasure poems, Men & Sleep, and how erasure poetry can act as a space of finding and expressing one’s sexual identity, exposing hidden violence, and doing necessary trauma work. Erasure poetry is just the beginning in this wide-ranging conversation. As the two consider “care that reciprocates,” they touch on queerness, wilderness, sapphire rings, and finding a home for oneself and one’s work. The edited transcript of their digital conversation is courtesy of Besemer, Williams, and Anne K. Yoder.

— Elizabeth McNeill, Chicago Review of Books Daily Editor

Evan Williams

I’ve been thinking about Men & Sleep for a week or so, and I just love it. When it came to me, I was so shocked by its size, the smallness of the object. I’d seen the book in people’s tweets, of course, but somehow it impressed upon me a grand sense of physical scale. It was incredibly charming, being swamped by that subverted expectation. 

Cards on the table, I am enamored with erasure poems. Reading them is like witnessing the middle of a magic trick, the lack of context for the reader mixed with the sense that, though the poem is on the page, it could still rearrange itself, conjure the faded and implicit remnants of the source text to become something entirely other than itself. And, of course, there’s the obvious fact of elision or exclusion at play, the smack of censorship and redaction. Or, in a more optimistic description, the fact of choice and its expansive possibilities. That dichotomy feels especially relevant in a queer literary context. How is erasure functioning for you, in Men & Sleep, in poetry more broadly, in your experience of queerness, beyond? 

Jay Besemer

I think I may need to give a bit of history of erasure and me, because I’ve been doing it or something like it for my whole life. I started as a young kid, maybe 10 or 12, cutting photos and text from the newspaper, pasting them on paper, and painting them out and over. I called this “The Mess-It-Up News.” It was play, but it was also an outgrowth of the pre-conscious realization that the media wasn’t really for me, or representative of me. My activity was a way to reframe or re-make the overarching social narrative as represented by newspaper stories. Of course, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but… 

Later, in high school, I found the poems and collages of the Dadaists and Surrealists. They instantly made sense to me and I felt affirmed – like I’d found my people. In those years – childhood, teens – I knew I was queer, even knew I was trans, but I did not have much access to the terms now extant. I knew about transsexuals, but never dreamed that category would ever include me – that is, that I could ever access the kind of processes and support to physically and legally exit the sex I was assigned at birth. I was a kid in the 1970s, a teen in the 1980s. I began to transition in 2014 at the age of 43. My whole identity may be said to be an erasure and collage. I address this in detail in my unpublished book On Being Half-Imaginary.

When I was doing exquisite corpses and collaborative collage with my art and poetry geek friends in high school, I was semi-out as bisexual. Now I suppose the best fit term for me is demisexual, because I am mostly asexual except with my spouse, but when I do experience sexual desire for another person, their gender, appearance, and genital arrangement does not particularly matter. Attraction starts in relation, in connection and the flow of energy, not in appearance. It’s easiest to just say “queer,” honestly. It’s possible that one might draw a parallel between erasure/collage and my sexuality – as in, erasure and collage being not only reflections of the way I move through the world, but also something of an outgrowth of my experiences of intimacy and desire. I often give my collages or visual erasure poems to friends and loved ones. I’m like Joseph Cornell in this, as I was just reminded. 

Men & Sleep is one in a long line of erasure projects that I’d been undertaking seriously since about 2009. It continues work with pedagogical texts from the late 1800s to mid 1900s. Earlier projects were more concerned with exposing the violence hidden, and not so hidden, in those texts, in the form of white supremacy, eugenics, and misogyny. Queerness was not even spoken of! At first, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I focused on getting the poison out, as it were – like sucking venom from a snakebite. I had to purge the death from the foundational texts of US society, especially the version of it that had formed me. It was related to, and concurrent with, much of my heaviest trauma work. But before too long, I realized I was taking too much of the toxic filth from the texts into me. I stopped focusing so much on that content in my erasures, beginning to transform them out of their state as weapons of propaganda and conditioning, into something more aligned with life. That’s when the work that eventually led to Men & Sleep began.

Thank you for what you say about the vastness of Men & Sleep contrasted with its compact size. It’s exactly the feeling I had hoped the book would generate in people who came to it. I wanted it to feel like being in a huge old forest with soaring trees, wet bark – the temperate rainforests of the Northwest, maybe, or the old riparian woods along the Appalachian, Allegheny, and Blue Ridge Mountains. I have actually lived in those woods, and was trying to put the sensory and emotional experiences of that onto the page in non-descriptive, anti-narrative ways. It seems to have worked! 

Evan Williams

Talk to me a little about the “old riparian woods,” about your relationship to nature. I’ve seen you talk about your garden a lot lately, and wonder about that as well. I grew up in a very rural place full of cornfields and forests, and I often felt cared for by those spaces. When I came to Chicago, I strongly felt the absence of that natural hug; keeping plants has been a good substitute, a more active giving of care that reciprocates nicely. What is it to garden in the city, to write into a sense of the natural world when away from its stronghold(s)? 

Jay Besemer

Well, when I was an undergrad and grad student, I was a pretty hardcore Wiccan. I’m now back to the more organically pagan (no cap) origin point behind all that fancy foofaraw, which I’ve always been in relation with. I think in some ways my autism is involved in my closeness to the living world around me, because I am always sensorily steeped in what’s happening, I notice things, I have deep focus on details of my surroundings, pattern, color, scent, sound, and touch. I am especially permeable when I’m out in it. So it’s easy for me to feel that thing you said so well, care that reciprocates, when I’m in the forest. 

So, some history. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, but my father lived in the Southern Tier of New York state. He is a farmer-musician. I have always toggled easily between rural and urban modes, because it’s a familiar movement. My dad taught me so much forest knowledge and growing lore, not only directly but sort of passively, from pointing out this or that bird, tree, medicinal or dangerous plant… I didn’t realize I had taken in so much until quite recently. Significantly, through him, I also found access to solitary wandering in the woods, which was my first encounter with the forest’s care that reciprocates. I have always felt completely safe in the woods. I always had the sense that the forest would look after me. 

In the mid-to-late 90s, I had friends from my old coven who lived on some land in the Blue Ridge, in Virginia. They would host gatherings of our extended Wiccan community. My ex and I lived in DC at the time, and in the summers I would often spend a few weeks or a month on my own visiting them. I camped in a gully on the other side of the long driveway up to their mobile home from the more undamaged area of the poplar woods lower down. There was a spring there, and lots of mountain laurel, red efts, watercress, nettles we ate for greens. I would sit there in these woods for hours, silent and motionless, and see what came along. I was getting attuned to the rhythms and flows of the life around me. I think that experience changed me, because I draw on its teachings a lot. It shows up in my work even more than more recent experiences have. 

Now, about gardening. I think one of the things that my experiences have given me is a sense of supersaturation in the zone where the built world and the pre- and para-built world blur and mesh. Because they do, more and more, for better and for worse. The Quiznos coyote told us that. I think I carry the forest with me, within me. I think my father’s organic market garden I learned so much with is in my body, too. It has been an imperative, something really vital (literally so) I have worked toward.

I find it interesting that you link writing and gardening in your question. They are very similar! Did you do that purposefully, from a sense of your own gardening and writing being alike? I mean, one thing that they share for me is that I need to do them. I need to put something living into the world. In overlapping yet distinct ways, both writing and gardening do what you described, offer, convey, and provide care that reciprocates. 

Evan Williams

It seems true, though I’d have trouble articulating it clearly, that there’s a link between family, writing, and gardening, at least for me. My Gram – who single-handedly ran a roadside motel well into her 80s the best garden of anyone I’ve known. We spent hours and hours in it, and I’ve got her garden diary (bee prevalence, tulip health, stone placements, etc.) on my desk now. I pull lines from it with relative frequency as starting points for new poems. 

I love what you say about feeling especially permeable in the woods, being attuned to the rhythms and flows of the life around you. Reading Men & Sleep feels very much like this, watching details flit by, watching the life of a forest swirl around. The effect stayed with me a long while after reading the book. How do you experience the attentive urgencies of nature outside of the forest and garden?

Jay Besemer

This is hard to answer because mostly these areas of interface are what I have access to these days. On the other hand, I could be accidentally reductive in my interpretation of the question. We witness a lot of positing of transness as being not-nature, against nature, a rejection of patriarchal god’s little edenic garden state. I can’t take “nature” as the abstract, untouched nonhuman, but what if what makes me human is actually the bacteria I carry around and rely on? Those bacteria are part of the attentive urgencies of nature, as are viruses like Covid. 

I could say that I experience these urgencies in general by living in this body in this world, but I’m not sure that’s what you are after. But disability, especially in the form of chronic illness also places me right at the action zone of the attentive urgencies of nature. 

I also think that my difficulty in answering is a matter of my experience not fitting into the commonplace conceptions and language of the role of the human in nature – over nature, specifically – overdetermined by the white protestant Xi’an settlers (among whom are my direct ancestors). I have never fit that worldview or wording, landing as I said on wiccan concepts as a first approximation of my actual relations with the living and nonliving beings, energies, and processes I share worlds with. All these relations are constantly changing, though, and wiccan thought now feels too limiting. 

Evan Williams

On a gloomier note, I’m curious about your understanding of the woods as a fundamentally safe place. It feels true to me, but I also contend with hypermasculinity’s claim on the space, and, to circle back to queerness, the conservative politics often aligned with rural hypermasculinity, which can veer toward a violently anti-queer worldview. How do you think about those dynamics, how do you maintain the space as one of wonder and emotional enlargement? 

Jay Besemer

I just move through with the knowledge that I belong there even more than the entitled white patriarchal extractivist dominator does. But in general, my more formal spiritual relationship with “nature” was centered on a very queer, very embodied group presence in both public and private wildish spaces – woods, etc. – where, if there were people who wished us harm, they did not threaten us directly. They were, I suspect, afraid of us! Rumors of naked gay witches in the woods were both true (if exaggerated) and self-protective. We had ties with Radical Faerie groups, as well. 

More recently, I have a relation of care that centers learning with the woods, giving to it, not taking from it. I learned some of this with my father, who was a subsistence hunter and catch-and-release flyfisher. I never cared to hunt or fish, so my relations are different again from the life cycles he was involved in when he was active. 

In considering your question, I thought a lot about the history of Hampstead Heath as a site for outdoor casual sex between men, a type of queer autonomous zone, though also a site of violence in the form of assault and police entrapment. I also thought about the more local sex in the forest preserves and other public natural or quasi-natural places like city parks. Obviously this stuff is prohibited, so it isn’t exactly safe, but I’m interested in the way queer community can be created in these woodland spaces. There is potential safety as well as potential danger, given the out-of-the-way locations that can be reached in some of these settings. 

I am reading Ronald Johnson’s valley of the many-colored grasses right now, and it centers more of an erotic relation with nature than in nature. That is very queer to me: love between human and non-human (non-animal!) beings. Superqueer! I think I have to emphasize the importance of reading other queer relations with nature in my reachings for my own understanding of my relations with it. 

Evan Williams

Lastly, I want to talk about rings. My sapphire, which is just a normal sapphire, is one of only two rings I’ve ever worn with any regularity. With astounding potency for such a small thing, it’s put me in close touch with a more ideal gender presentation. It came to me through my partner, Ruby, which lends the whole thing something special, the fact of being seen more deeply than I had seen myself in this instance. You mentioned you wear a star sapphire and a black sapphire daily, can you tell me the stories of those rings? 

Jay Besemer

I actually don’t wear the black sapphire every day, just the star, but I do wear a blue quartz every day. I like blue stones. Also green, particularly chrysoprase, which has great meaning to me. 

“Ruby gave me a sapphire” is one of the most beautiful ideas I’ve encountered in a while. I like thinking about that, and your Gram’s garden book living so actively with you, so thank you for those little surprise presents from our conversation! 

See Also

Evan Williams 

It’s funny that you grabbed onto “Ruby gave me a sapphire,” because much of your email made me think of Ruby, with whom I talk often of conceptions of magic in the natural world. She has this wonderful idea that everyone should be assigned a tree to care for at birth, along with a social security number and other bureaucratic necessities. Relatedly, I learned recently about the Tree of 40 Fruit, which I found quite beautiful and thought you might enjoy. I’m curious, if you were to take care of a single tree for the rest of your life, what sort of tree might that be?

Jay Besemer

I have a specific tree I wish I could still take care of, and maybe I take care of its memory. It was a willow in Delaware Park in Buffalo, New York that took good care of me when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time in that tree. In 2014, I returned to Buffalo and the park for the first time in 30 years, and found that the tree had been cut down. New willows were being planted, but my kind old tree friend was gone. I was really bereft. I don’t know why I expected a tree to remain undisturbed in a city park, especially a city as developer-dominated as Buffalo – it’s like Chicago, Jr. – but it was a shock to see the empty place where it had been. There were sawn trunk segments around, though I don’t know if they belonged to my tree or one of the other willows. I didn’t want to think that it had been cut down that close to the time of my visit! But I suppose it’s possible. I felt like someone finding a loved one’s corpse, though, whether the chunks were from my tree or not. 

The other tree I’ve been thinking about a lot is a tree on the old dairy farm I tweeted about a couple days ago. It is an apple tree, one of the tart green variety, though not the right size or shape to be granny smiths. That was another tree that sheltered and held me, though it was less of a refuge than the willow. I didn’t need as much of a refuge when I was staying with my dad. I spent a lot of time reading in that apple tree, eating the apples, of course. So maybe I take care of that tree in memory, too, though I don’t know for sure that it’s gone. 

I have been reveling in the rain because we so badly need it and because I love it. But this morning, I was working outside on the roof, dismantling one of the braided rag rugs I made so it could be washed and remade. I like the on-and-off sun.

Evan Williams

Thank you for this. I’ll follow up with an easier one: Are you working on anything new you’d want to discuss? 

Thinking about the “on-and-off sun” at the lake today. Though it’s not what you meant, it’s a really beautiful way to describe the experience of swimming (head underwater, head above water, head underwater again). 

Jay Besemer

I don’t know how to answer the question about what I’m working on now because I’m working on things that I haven’t found a good way to talk about. Mostly I’m leaning into prose, which also involves reentering old projects and seeing if and how they can be revised, brought to readiness. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing. I guess we’ll find out. 

In more familiar terrain, I am slowly building a new prose poem collection, and have a silly daily practice I call the “Five-Year-Diary” project. Every day I put a fragment/very short poem (prose or lineated) in the appropriate day of a five-year diary. I don’t look at the previous entries, I don’t try to make anything coherent or cohesive – I just put the words down. Sometimes it’s just that – only a few words. No pressure. It’s lots of fun, actually. At the end of the five years, I’ll have a lot of raw material, though! It’ll keep me busy for a long time! 

Evan Williams

I think a lot about Mary Ruefle’s idea of the lifelong sentence, and how each book just adds on, in constant conversation with those surrounding it.

I had a professor once who told me he was working on a lifelong, book-length poem, adding one new line a day for the rest of his life. Your five-year diary project reminds me of that, what a terrific way to document, to accumulate the heft of a day – of days – lightly. 

I usually close my interviews with a look ahead, so, without ado: What’s something (or several things), abstract or concrete, in your life now that you hope will remain in the future, be it near or far? 

Jay Besemer

I hope I can keep finding a home in and for my work. I hope I can find a way to keep working and sharing what I make, in adaptation to my body’s changing capacities. 

I hope there’s a world that can hold me, and the people, beings and places I love.

Men & Sleep
By Jay Besemer
Meekling Press
Published April 4, 2023


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