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Poetry Escapes The Beauty Bind In 'Wound From The Mouth Of A Wound'

Poet torrin a. greathouse
Tarik Dobbs
Poet torrin a. greathouse

What does it mean to be beautiful as a trans and disabled woman?

Poet torrin greathouse, who is trans and disabled herself, explores that question in her debut collection. It's called Wound from the Mouth of a Woundand it came out this month after winning the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, a contest for Midwestern poets.

/ Milkweed Editions
Milkweed Editions

The book began to take shape in 2016. She was going to therapy at the time, and, she says, "witnessing parallel lines in the ways in which trauma, disability, and transness are all medicalized in similar and different and overlapping ways."

As her poems coalesced out of this introspective span in her life, greathouse says she noticed something: Poetry is often drawn to beauty. So as she mapped out a life at the intersection of all her identities, she began to wonder: What it would mean "to not write towards beauty as a trans woman but to write towards ugliness?"

"For trans women, beauty is a double bind," she says. So she wanted to embrace ugliness, rather than relying on the expectations of beauty.

In Wound from the Mouth of a Wound,she explores that idea by deliberately placing what is considered ugly or taboo right next to pure and intimate joy.

Here's an excerpt from "An Ugly Poem".

Once, I searched for softness on my tongue, ground

my father's anger, sourmash cavities from my teeth.

I just wanted to talk pretty enough to be mistaken

for what I was. Hot flush of girlish blood. I edited all

my ugly out, made a perfect poem of my soft & lacquered

mouth. Now, I'm looking for the ugly of my tongue,

lolling serpent curled in the slick of my jaw, searching

for its own teeth.

"There is a very large cultural imperative to be beautiful and presentable in a very specific way. and it's kind of a trap," she says, adding that trans women are expected to be feminine, but only up to a point.

Hot flush of girlish blood.

"If we're not feminine enough, that is a failure. But if trans women are too feminine, that is also seen as a flaw. It is seen as a caricature of womanhood."

my soft & lacquered


In her poem, greathouse confronts these notions of transness by leaning into and embracing the details of terror.

lolling serpent curled in the slick of my jaw, searching

for its own teeth.

"One thing for me that is important is this book existing as a signpost that it is possible to be and move in the world as someone who is trans, who is disabled," she says. And she's aware of the role her identity plays within the publishing world — in that it usually doesn't.

"If I did not exist at my particular intersections of identity, [this book] would very likely have been published quite a long time ago," greathouse says. She'd submitted the manuscript to several other publishing opportunities, and found most people unwilling to take a chance on it. And even though the publishing world has not easily included poets like greathouse, as a white trans woman she recognizes how she herself benefits from the literary landscape. "If you look at the trans women who are published, the majority of books by trans women are still books by white trans women, and that is a fundamental failing of our industry."

Growing up, she saw that books like hers were hard to find. The first time she read another poet who had overlapping identities like hers, she was around 22 years old. "That was only only four years ago," she adds.

That poet — Kay Ulanday Barrett — later wrote a blurb for Wound from the Mouth of a Wound: "... If you are a kid unloved no matter what checkbox you're forced to fill, if you want to feel like a constellation, the exploratory grace and vastness of it, torrin greathouse will keep you reading, keep you alive."

Indeed, this was at the core of greathouse's aim for the book. "I would hope that these poems can make a reader feel less lonely."

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Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.
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