Identity by way of Metaphor: A Conversation with Adrian Silbernagel
The author of “Transitional Object” on his poetics process, book, and practice.
An interview with the author of The Operating System’s newest Kin(d)* title, Transitional Object.
“If a poem is, as John Donne would have it, an argument with God, then the poems in ‘Transitional Object’ evolve the argument into a softer, more considerable inquiry. Here, we experience the chutzpah and agony of language, their bleeding together a kind of romantic undertaking.” — Natalie Eilbert
“Some books create a feeling of gratitude and recognition whose intensity is startling. ‘Transitional Object’ is one of those.” — Jay Besemer
“These are muscular, embodied, deeply sensate works, alive with the passions of being, rich with both the tensions and wisdom of body and mind. Silbernagel is an important new voice, and his vision is one that we have not yet seen, nor will we see again soon.” — Marya Hornbacher
“Adrian Silbernagel’s ‘Transitional Object’ offers a means by which to both shatter and make solid, to create ‘me’ in flux. Between the maker and the made, the poem is written to this you who is a hole and wholes and holy, that ‘for the life of me / requires so many more bodies than this.’” — M.J. Gette
Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
My name is Adrian (he/him/his). I’m a queer, trans poet.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
Poetry, to me, is radically autonomous speech. It is autonomous because it cannot be paraphrased. It speaks for itself. Nothing and no one else can speak a poem’s meaning for it, not even its author. Poetry is also critical, in that it troubles linguistic convention, and the habits of thought and language that structure and condition our experience of the world. Furthermore, poetry elevates and illuminates everyday words, objects, thoughts, and feelings so that they can be seen and felt in a new, different, and sometimes powerful way. I’m a poet because I can’t imagine any other way of being / striving to be.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I have been writing creatively, and writing poetry, as far back as I can remember. As a kid I wrote stories, poems, letters. As a teenager, my poetry practice became a means of exploring and articulating thoughts and feelings I didn’t feel like I was allowed to speak about. It feels most natural to call myself a poet because poetry has been the most consistent and stable organizing force in my life and person, more so than any other belief system, community, identitary label, or interest. No matter what else I’ve done or been or been about, my commitment to poetry (while this relationship has evolved) has been unwavering. “Devotion” is a good way to describe my relationship to it.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
I guess I’m kind of an agnostic with respect to the “purpose” of art. At times I feel like I can kind get behind Adorno’s notion of “autonomous art”: art that invites critical reflection and introspection, that rejects the posture of passive consumerism, that asks to be read slowly and on its own terms. The saying “no ethical consumption under capitalism” applies to art as well, and in the current political and economic climate, and in the age of social media and the infinite scroll, art and the conditions required to achieve and/or appreciate it become the mark of privilege. Because art takes time, and time is money, most of us are lucky if we can “afford” a serious creative practice, to say nothing of opportunities to get our work out into the world. Every artist has a unique set of circumstances (privileges and personal or systemic barriers) that they’re creating within. Right now I am in a good enough place, emotionally and materially, to have a fairly consistent writing practice. This is a huge privilege. During the first few years of my transition, however, job, housing, and financial insecurity coupled with the social and emotional implications of transitioning in a place like Lexington, Kentucky, put a halt to my creative practice. It was the longest break from writing I’ve ever taken, lasting about three years. The last poem in Transitional Object, “Species Dysphoria,” was actually the last poem I wrote before beginning my transition. After that I was too busy fighting off panic attacks, self-medicating, and trying to keep a roof over my head to even think about poetry. Accessibility is an issue in publishing just like in healthcare. Why are certain people groups more prolific (or published or widely read) than others? The same reason why certain groups have longer lifespans and lower risk of ailments than others: because they don’t face the same institutional barriers. So maybe art is kind of the cultural equivalent of a blood pressure cuff. It gauges and monitors the health or vitality of a society/culture, the individuals and groups and institutions and power structures that comprise it.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I am constantly on the lookout for links, repeating images or metaphors, contiguous layers between poems that might suggest a greater unity. I could probably guess where (or which part of my upbringing) this teleological impulse comes from. Hah. As for Transitional Object in particular, it didn’t occur to me until late in the game (after the poems in the manuscript were already written) that I had a book. I had been operating on the assumption that the earlier poems in the book belonged together, while the later poems (despite being in a dialogue with the earlier ones, and despite both groups of poems being obsessed with the same questions and ideas) belonged to a separate work, given that their speaker was now a different person, with different beliefs, values, desires, different ways of thinking and speaking about their person and relationships and experiences. I was still on my “break” from poetry, and deep in the throes of early transition, when it occurred to me that the impulse to quarantine the earlier poems from the later in this way originated from an idea of selfhood (as a stable or “reliable” narrative subject whose identity, desires, core beliefs and values endure through time) that didn’t arise from, or correspond with, my own journey as a queer trans person. My story, my person, is, at least by all appearances, fragmented, discontinuous, a multiplicity of selves that exist in relationship with one another and with Others. So why should my book and its speaker be any different?
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
I’ve never had success writing about (or even writing around) a predetermined subject or theme. Most of my poems start with a single line (which often gets cut during revisions) and I discover the poem as I write. Similarly, it’s always during the writing and editing processes that links or connections to other poems emerge.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
In the formative stages of a particular poem, I try to write, as often as I can, in one-to-three-hours sessions. These time restrictions, while somewhat arbitrary, provide a balance of structure and play that’s conducive, for me, to writing poetry. In the editing stage, I’ll just edit until I feel like I’m running up against burnout. At that point I step away, and stay away until I’m able to come back with fresh eyes and a less codependent attitude.
As far as influences, there are countless writers, thinkers, and artists who have influenced my work in one way or another. This list is by no means exhaustive, and the names are listed in no particular order: Theodor Adorno, Judith Butler, Helene Cixous, Chogyam Trungpa, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tessa Rumsey, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Antonin Artaud, Bas Jan Ader, Marya Hornbacher, M.J. Gette, Jay Besemer, Elæ [Lynne desilva Johnson], Daniel Reetz, Aaron Asphar.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
Deciding on a book title was one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the whole process. I went through several, initially landing on “On The Origin of Species.” This title pointed to the themes of evolution, differentiation, and hence personal identity by way of metaphor (speciation as individuation), but ultimately I decided, after some nudging from the brilliant M.J. Gette, that this Darwinian title wasn’t really continuous with the book’s imagery and symbolism, which draws more on psychology/psychoanalysis than on biology/natural science. So while evolution in a biological sense is certainly present as a layer of the work, it’s not the book’s central idea either. There was something else, too, that the Darwinian title was lacking, which I’d eventually realize was the book’s relational dimension: that push and pull of self and other, I and thou, that animates the poems. But at the time, “On The Origin of Species” was the closest I could get. It was months before the title “Transitional Object” came to me. I was in a therapy session, and the therapist mentioned something about transitional objects: objects that children identify with and assign meaning to in times of change, or in the absence of a parent or other important Other, and it just clicked.
Initially the section titles mapped onto the four stages of speciation in Darwin’s sense. Those section titles went away when I got rid of the Darwinian book title. I kept a reference to individuation (a Jungian term for the development of the Self) in the first section title, but the other three were replaced with titles that draw attention to various aspects of that development through more common, less jaron-y language.
What does this particular work represent to you …as indicative of your method/creative practice? …as indicative of your history? …as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
First and foremost, this book represents, for me, my commitment to poetry: the choice to write poem after poem after poem, with no guarantee that said poems will turn out, much less culminate in a book. It represents the hours and days and weeks and months and sacrifices and solitude that the writing life entails.
Secondly, because Transitional Object loosely documents a decade of experiences that culminated in the decision to transition, a decision I came to after the last poem in the book was written, it quite literally represents a previous life (or lives), a previous self’s (or previous selves’) journey to the threshold of that decision.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
The structure of Transitional Object mirrors traditional narratives. At first glance, the book is a coming-of-age story told through poems. However, coming-of-age stories presuppose a numerically identical self that persists from time x to time y, a notion that the speaker can’t quite buy, much less live up to. So the book calls forth these assumptions, only to call them into question. As the speaker struggles for definition or commitment, from the beloved or the world or their own person, they illustrate the deeply relational nature of the self, a fact that the speaker both mourns and relishes in. The poems mirror this struggle; they engage with and interrogate one another with the toughness, adaptability, resourcefulness, and self-compassion that, for me, defines queerness.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
In my mind, the best possible outcome would be for Transitional Object to find readers, even a single reader, who would read it from beginning to end, and upon arriving at the end, feel compelled to read it again. And upon re-reading, would think harder and more critically and more compassionately about themselves, past and present.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
As a white, able-bodied trans man who comes from a middle class upbringing, I have a duty to recognize my privilege and wield that privilege for good, whenever I can. I have a duty to never stop learning, to search out my biases and apologize for my mistakes. The danger of “remaining and producing in isolated ‘silos’” is that in so doing we lose sight of our own and each other’s intersectionality, each other’s particular humanness.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
I guess you could have asked what I do for a living! I manage a coffee shop in Louisville that is part of a coffee shop chain and roaster called Heine Brothers’ Coffee. Yes, Heine as in hiney. We are local, organic, Fair Trade, as well as body positive. I have an incredible staff, wonderful regulars, a supportive employer, and I couldn’t be happier.
Adrian Silbernagel is a queer, trans poet. He grew up in a small town near Fargo, North Dakota, and considers North Dakota home. He earned a Master’s degree in philosophy from Texas Tech University before moving to Kentucky. Right now he lives with his partner and two cats in Louisville, where he manages a coffee shop, works on poems, and occasionally travels to other parts of Kentucky to give talks on trans issues and on his experience as a trans man. Adrian is a contributing editor at The Operating System, where he runs a web series on creative process called Field Notes. His work has been published in The Columbia Review, The Atlas Review, TYPO, PANK, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fruita Pulp, and elsewhere.