An Interview with Joy Ladin

Annie Kantar

Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, is the author of six books of poetry, including newly published The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. She is also the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, a situation she discusses in her memoir, Through the Door of Life; A Jewish Journey Between Genders. She taught at Tel Aviv University in 2002 on a Fulbright scholarship, and has also taught at Princeton (from which she received a Ph.D. in American Literature in 2000), Sarah Lawrence College and Reed College.

Annie Kantar is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poems and translations have appeared in literary journals such as American Literary Review, Barrow Street, Poetry International, and Tikkun. In 2011, her translation of With This Night, the final collection of poetry that Leah Goldberg published during her lifetime, was published by University of Texas Press.

We conducted our conversation via email over the course of August, 2012.

Annie Kantar: You’ve chosen to be very public about your transition—writing a memoir, giving talks, etc. When you returned to Stern College as a woman, it would have been much easier, wouldn’t it, to have quickly moved out of the spotlight? Did that seem a possibility to you?

Joy Ladin: In some ways, it would have been easier to try to be as little in the public eye as possible after transition. But I didn’t really feel that that choice was mine to make. As you know, I felt awful about the suffering my gender transition had caused my family. When my transition was still private, I often prayed that some good could come of it, something other than suffering for those around me. The opportunities to speak, teach and write about gender identity issues that came my way seemed to be answers, albeit personally difficult answers, to those prayers. I was also acutely conscious of the uniqueness of the position from which I could speak to these issues. As the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution that had just welcomed me back to teaching, the spotlight caught me at the corner of gender identity and Judaism, and gender identity and traditional religious worldviews. Most trans people who find themselves there either find it difficult to be public about their experiences (there are many trans Jews living in hiding in the Orthodox world) or flee toward the somewhat more accepting secular world. Few can tell their stories, and fewer still have hopeful stories to tell about acceptance of transgender people in traditional religious institutions. Because I’ve never been Orthodox, I didn’t suffer much from the harsher criticisms my transition received in those quarters, and because I had tenure, my life literally depended on my staying at Yeshiva University. Given all those circumstances, it seemed imperative that I accept the role I had been given, the role of representing hope for transgender Orthodox Jews and other traditionally religious trans people.

AK: When you transitioned, you experienced some of the worst venom, and some of the most embracing compassion, from people in the Orthodox world. Has this illuminated or changed any of your own notions of Torah, Jewish observance, faith?

JL: At first, I didn’t feel I learned anything from the angry, sometimes abusive comments about me from Orthodox Jewish leaders. That kind of attitude is what most trans people (and, I might add, gay and lesbian people) expect from traditional religious communities, and because I don’t live in the Orthodox world (I only teach there), those voices didn’t feel to me like either a betrayal or an excommunication. They didn’t affect my personal relationship to Judaism or Jewish community.

But after years of communication with Orthodox trans Jews, I have learned something from these reactions. I think that one of the great things about Orthodoxy is community—I have seen and heard innumerable examples of real caring, real communal concern in the best sense in the Orthodox world, community in a vital sense I don’t see much outside that world (though I do see the word “community” thrown around a lot). But I think that sense of community is also one of the things that can make Orthodoxy hurtful not just to trans or gay people, but to anyone who doesn’t fit in. The basic problem—and this is a problem built into the Torah, which charters the Jewish people as a religious community—is that communities always have norms and conventions that define boundaries, identities and appropriate behaviors, and in religious communities it is very easy to confuse human norms and conventions with Divine will. Often this is done explicitly, as when trans or gay people are told that they aren’t welcome in synagogue not because there is some halachah that forbids their presence but because they will make others uncomfortable and thus disrupt the worship of the community. The Torah, of course, commands us to not only endure but embrace this discomfort, to “know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers,” to love others as we love ourselves. Those are great ideals, but they run directly counter to the way communities actually work. Communities emphasize the divide between us and them; they make it easier to love actual neighbors, and harder to love anyone who registers as strange. And so the communal aspect of Orthodoxy sometimes ends up leading to religiously rationalized behavior that, from the outside, clearly runs counter to the spirit and sometimes letter of Judaism, as when LGBT Orthodox Jews are counseled by rabbis to kill themselves.

Of course, there are innumerable exceptions to these tendencies among both Orthodox Jews and in Orthodox communities. But what I’ve learned from my students’ responses to me is that not only are there individuals and communities that happen to be better at reaching out to people who seem other, at responding to difference with compassion rather than rage, but that this tendency is alive and well in both the Torah and traditional Judaism. I’ve never—never—been treated with anything other than respect by any Stern student, including students who feel strongly that a trans woman shouldn’t be teaching at Stern. I’ve had many students say to me privately and assert publicly that Judaism is not about judging others—judgment is for Hashem—but about recognizing suffering and responding to it with compassion. I’ve had students tell me that though they don’t understand my identity or the way I’m living, they were taught to recognize and respect the image of God in all human beings. I began to see this aspect of traditional Judaism in the way my Dean, Karen Bacon, one of the great heroes of Jewish women’s education, treated me after I sent her a letter announcing my transition. She met with me publicly, in the Stern community’s favorite kosher restaurant; she rose when she saw me for the first time dressed as myself (as a woman), took my hand, told me I looked beautiful, and assured me that I didn’t have to worry about providing for myself and my children, that I would be kept on salary and full benefits. She also told me that she still considered me a member of the faculty, and that my writing and travel would continue to be supported. In short, though I’m sure she’d never met anyone like me before, and though it must have been a shock after years of working with me as a man, she treated me with absolute respect as a human being. To me, such behavior is a window through which the true light of Torah shines.

AK: Ezra Pound’s proclamation that “all times are contemporaneous” seems especially true when it comes to Torah—the collage of commentators (many of whom disagree with one another) on a single page of the Mikra’ot haGedolot, let’s say. Does this atemporal, often equalizing, aspect of Jewish tradition seem to you post-modern? In what ways (as a scholar or poet) do you feel you’ve drawn from this tradition?

JL: I love the atemporal Jewish approach to textuality. It’s the foundation of my second collection of poems, The Book of Anna, in which the title character, a concentration camp survivor, narrates her experiences in the camp using a collage of language drawn from sacred Jewish texts. But Anna also challenges the atemporality of that tradition, asking whether these words and voices really stand outside time, whether they speak to all historical moments, including the Holocaust. Her textual collages also raise another question. The stronger traditional voices are in her narrative, the weaker her own voice and self—so do these voices gird us to face the horrors of history, offering us transcendent vantage points from which to regard our individual sufferings, or do they threaten to dissolve us into ahistorical babble?

I think my “diction collage” poems, the poems in Transmigration, Coming to Life and The Definition of Joy which are composed exclusively from words found in non-poetic texts such as women’s magazines (Cosmo Girl, alas, being a favorite source) and the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “joy,” also represent an adaptation of the atemporal, decontextualized traditional Jewish approach to textuality. (The “Democracy is Burning” sequence in Coming to Life was a failed effort to push this approach in a different direction, to fuse language from Leviticus and the September 11, 2001 edition of The New York Times, the former representing the sacrificial, blood-and-ashes worldview we see in many fundamentalists and the latter the secular worldview.)

I generally don’t think much of “post-modernist” as a critical category. It’s never been historically or formally defined; I’ve seen arguments that Chaucer is post-modern, and you could certainly (wrongly, though, I think) make that argument about pages of Talmud. More importantly, most of the poetic techniques that get labeled “post-modern” were pioneered by the modernists, and most of the modernists’ experiments were anticipated by nineteenth-century poets such as Dickinson and Rimbaud. In general, I see “post-modernist” being used as a substitute for a real sense of poetic history among American poets (I’m not sure how it’s used in other countries).

Until American poets account for the ways in which modernism laid the ground for later practices and how it emerged in response to earlier poetic conventions, “post-modern” won’t have much meaning for us. The modernist “make it new” approach to poetry—the framing of each poem as a unique creative act, rather than a response to inherited techniques and conventions (which is how poetry was seen in the nineteenth century)— both liberated American poets and created an ongoing amnesia about the American poetic tradition. (Most nineteenth-century poetry disappeared from the canon in the wake of modernism.) Most American poets don’t grow up with a sense of the history or development of American poetry, and critics haven’t managed to produce a coherent account of American poetic modernism, much less what grew out of it (though Marjorie Perloff works hard to fill some of those gaps). Without a strong sense of modernism, it’s hard for American poets to recognize the degree to which we are or aren’t “post”-modernist.

AK: Then again, Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” dates back to the inscription on the bath tub of King Tching Thang from the Shang Dynasty! And the Cantos are in constant conversation with Pound’s Roman and Greek predecessors… Actually, I’ve never really understood “Make it new” as an invitation to invent a new poetics out of the air. Pound’s ABC’s are nothing if not a call to read, read, read, don’t you think? The phrase reminds me more of what Thoreau said: “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.” After which he sighs, “I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages.” The heroic ages, then, come from a freshness in the mind of the writer. As do the poems.

JL: That’s a great point—the modernist trail-blazers were steeped in their literary predecessors, and Pound made a fetish of it. But “make it new” became a formal principle, an assumption that innovation was more important than continuity. Convention-based poetry is always written in direct relation and conversation with what came before; it’s awfully hard to appreciate if you don’t know the conventions that are being riffed on. But modernist poetry—Pound’s “Cantos” are a prime case—decontextualize even what they use of the past, and since the first couple of modernized American poetic generations, the percentage of poets writing out of a deep knowledge of poetic history and tradition keeps dropping.

AK: Well, Pound certainly didn’t have a problem with authority—he just invented his own authority—himself! I wonder, has your sense of authority as a writer changed as you’ve transitioned? Is that sense of authority different when it comes to writing poetry versus criticism?

JL: Before I transitioned, my sense of authority was completely disembodied. When I spoke as “Jay,” I knew I wasn’t speaking as my true self, so in my poems I adopted a number of strategies to claim authority via displacement. The persona strategy of The Book of Anna grew out of many earlier persona poems, and when I wasn’t writing in persona I often tried to avoid writing from a specific perspective, to avoid the word “I.”

That’s one of the reasons that in my twenties and thirties I kept reading and rereading what otherwise might seem like an odd combination of poets: Dickinson (many of her poems are presented as third-person phenomenology about “the Soul”), Auden (whose work in the thirties and early forties generally replaces “I” with an engagingly personal and wide-ranging “we”) and Eastern Europeans such as Popa and Holub, who adopted extreme impersonality to avoid censorship. In criticism, of course, that kind of disembodied authority (I think it’s usually gendered male, but most traditional critical rhetoric tries to erase embodied perspective) is standard, at least among the old-fashioned critics I prefer.

Anna liberated me by being so utterly not-me, not just in her life circumstances, but in her poetics and fearless attitude toward language and life. Anna said things I would never say in ways I would never say them, taking risks with diction, disjunction, narrative compression and dislocation that scared me. She wasn’t afraid the narrow limb of poetic meaning would break—for her, all meaning was broken, and all claims to the wholeness of meaning were either history-erasing lies or naïve expressions of existential privilege. Anna was angry at everyone; I was afraid to admit that I was angry at anyone. Anna was shipwrecked in the terrible after of the survivor; I had never tried to survive, never tried to exist.

Anna was also my most extended (five or six years) effort to write as a woman. Anna isn’t concerned about gender, she isn’t feminine or “like” any actual or conventionalized idea of womanhood I know. As a result, Anna exploded my then-stunted ideas of the possibilities of womanhood; she was a woman by virtue of biology, her life was profoundly marked by gendered experiences, but the identity of woman didn’t matter much to her. She was herself, and her gender identity was defined by who and what she was, rather than being a convention into which she stuffed herself. I think she enabled me to continue living as a man for another few years, by giving me a way to regularly stop being what I seemed to be.

Though I’ve started saying “I” in my poems since transition, I don’t feel comfortable laying claim to first-person authority. You can see my discomfort in my frequent adoption of the second person, which enables me to speak with disembodied authority about the intimacies of “you” (who is clearly to some extent me) in long sequences such as “Maiden Voyage” and “Coming to Life.” I think I’m still trying to learn to speak in the first person—I’m not sure I’ll ever know exactly what I mean when I say “I.”

I’m not sure about my critical rhetoric. I’ve written a long autobiographical essay about how gender identity affected my growth as a poet which says “I” constantly, and seems claustrophobically self-centered, but most of my critical writing as Joy seems to cop the same disembodied authority as my “Jay” criticism. Not coincidentally, my dissertation, later published as Soldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern American Poetry, is a study of authority in American poetic language. I see modernist techniques, most of which are alive and well today, as responses to poetry’s loss of its nineteenth-century cultural authority. I don’t say this in the book, but I suspect that American poets’ obsession with first-person writing is also a response to loss of authority. To paraphrase Rahel, we can only tell you what we know about ourselves, because we know that poetry no longer speaks for or to larger American society. Of course, individual poems and poets can address themselves this way, often with great success, as in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but for the most part society isn’t listening—and that makes the authority of poems that speak other than personally brittle and constantly subject to question. Irony and non sequitur are favorite ways out of this trap—by being ironic, American poets say, “I know you won’t take what I’m saying seriously—but I beat you to it, I don’t take my language seriously either,” and by writing in non sequiturs we keep readers too off-balance to question what we’re saying.

AK: Yes, poems that often have lots of smarts, but not a whole lot of wisdom or insight. (By wisdom, I don’t mean that the poems necessarily reach a resolution—but they do semi-consciously dip their toes into something more expansive than they know themselves to be.) I know that you, too, look for this in poetry. It’s certainly there in contemporary American poetry, crossing a whole range of aesthetics—and one finds it almost to be a prerequisite among the World War II and post-World War II Eastern European poets, for example.

JL: I agree. I think that there was a movement toward wisdom in American poetry in the 1960s, led by Robert Bly among others. I think the Naropa Institute folks would also see themselves in a wisdom poetry tradition, as would other Buddhism-influenced poets such as Robert Hass. I usually turn to Tomas Transtromer’s poetry when I want a pure poetic example of writing from and to “a place that’s greater, more expansive.” It is something I aspire to, particularly now that I seem to have outgrown trying to write my way to a sense of self. I want to write poems in which the self (dare I say “my self”?) is a door or a window or a launching pad or a stepping stone toward that greater, more expansive place.

AK: Your last three books are largely heteroglossic in nature—pieced together from phrases you’ve found in women’s magazines. In what ways has this approach been useful?

JL: I have been trying to learn how to write as myself, and as I’ve suggested above, that’s been a struggle. The heteroglossic approach that I’ve adopted in many poems is a short cut to what most poets my age already know about themselves, such as what kinds of words they use, what kinds of tones feel right to them, what perspectives and images ring true. I’ve been trying to figure that out, and like other aspects of my identity, these have grown from the outside in. By making myself work with language that isn’t mine, I discover what language can be mine. I don’t seem to be doing that at the moment, which may be why I’ve felt a bit lost since finishing my last, still-unpublished collection, Fireworks in the Graveyard. Fireworks includes some heteroglossic poems, but most of it consists of other kinds of writing, including, to my surprise, nature-oriented poetry. It’s at least a step toward writing as myself—hopefully, a large and growing self, but a self that I write from rather than toward, as in the heteroglossic poems.

AK: Until you transitioned, you were living in daily dissonance between who you are, how you must behave, and how your environment sees you. I imagine that this must have complicated your sense of embodying a so-called “lyric I.” As a poet and scholar, how has this “I” changed over time for you?

JL: As I mentioned earlier, living as a man made it hard for me to feel that I ever said “I” in good faith, because “I” referred to a boy or man I knew I wasn’t. I’m happiest with my use of “I” in Psalms, in which “I” is inseparable from its relation to “you,” God. (Those poems are my most extended foray into “wisdom poetry” too.) I have always talked to God in the first person, and so that “I” seems real to me in ways that it still doesn’t in other contexts. But even here, you’ll notice my psalms, though very personal, are also depersonalized, stripped of specific autobiographical reference. The “I” is mine, but I was also hoping (praying, you could say) that others would feel they could adopt the “I” in the poems as their own. This is one of many things I was trying to learn from the biblical psalms I took as my extremely daunting model.

I have a hunch that my half-century without a real “I” means that I’ll never take my “I” that seriously. At least, I hope so!

AK: It was clear to you that you had no choice but to begin living as a woman. Yet, transitioning may very well be one of the most radical affirmations of a self: though many people were bound to disagree, you essentially proclaimed that you are who you deem yourself to be.

JL: Yes and no—sometimes I feel that I am asserting myself through transition, and I counsel other trans people to approach transition that way. More often, though, I’ve felt that I’m living in the only way I could continue to live, the only way that wouldn’t be shuffling my feet in the waiting room for suicide. I’m not living in such a dire, defensive position now—I don’t pay attention to people (other than my children, with whom I still have these conversations) who question the validity of my transition, those who say I’m mentally ill or an affront to God, or the conservative and feminist essentialists who insist that no one born and raised male can have a clue about what it means to live as a woman. I am what I am, and I couldn’t be otherwise. Most of my existential angst is now aspirational, a desire to act like the person I wish I were. These aspirations aren’t about gender—they are about tikkun olam, honesty, service to God and human beings, all the problems and shortcomings that are highlighted during Elul and the High Holidays.

I don’t think I will ever feel I AM the person I wish I were, but I’ve learned that I can try to act as though I were that person—and that the self I create through my actions is as or more real than any essential self.

I think that imagination is essential to the ways in which we understand and relate to others. Empathy and sympathy both require us to imagine others’ sufferings; negotiation and other forms of dialogue require us to imagine perspectives different from our own. When people relate to me as “Joy,” they are either imagining their way to a sense of identity that is independent of gender (male or female, I am who I am) or one that paradoxically includes the mutability of gender. When people reject my identity, I think they are rejecting that call to re-imagine not only me but identity in general. But my transition has demanded imagination from me too. I had to imagine that I could really be a true self I had never been. All relations to ourselves are acts of imagination. We have to imagine selves out of the ever-changing cacophony of experience, and locate those selves in imaginary trajectories leading from who we were to who we are becoming. Tikkun olam requires us to imagine that what is can be different, and to imagine how the brokenness of the world can be harnessed to heal that world.


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