A Book Is a Spell
I’m working on the book version of the Valatie essays.
Back in January, just a few days after moving to this sublet apartment in the village of Valatie, I logged into Facebook and posted a short essay about what it felt like to move from NYC to this tiny village. The response surprised me. The next week, I posted another essay, and another. As the weeks passed, my writing deepened, became more sure. I wrote about my menstrual cycle, my trans body, my infertility, and all of the gaps and erasures that form spaces for grief and wonder to meet.
You, the readers, met me wherever I felt called to go with my words. You shared your own stories. You named what had opened up for you, what had arisen, what you felt when you read the piece. I trust my writing now, in a way that I couldn’t have imagined back in January. And it is because of you.
I’m taking a chapbook class with the incredible Ariel Gore. What’s a chapbook? It’s a little book, sometimes self-published, sometimes published by an independent press. Often, though not always, of poetry. Mine will be of essays.
For me, the crucial thing about a chapbook is that it is a nourishing and satisfying literary snack. A light meal. It’s not the three-hundred-page tome haunting you from your bedside table for not ever quite feeling up to getting through it. It’s not even the novel you devour over a weekend. It’s something you might curl up with on a Sunday afternoon and take in slowly, savoring it for an hour or two while drinking a cup of tea. You can read the whole thing in one comfortable sitting, and emerge satisfied and transformed.
I revised the essays, reorganized them, and began the laborious process of laying them out in InDesign, a software I barely know. Self-publishing this way makes it difficult to get much distribution, it’s not the best option if you want to make money or even get your work into the most hands. But you do get to make every single decision about how your reader encounters your work. Not just title. Not just cover. Font. Spacing. Margins. Paper texture and thickness. Title pages. Everything. You get to make a tangible object that has the ability to set off a transformative experience. In other words, you are casting a spell.
“I want the reader’s experience to be spacious and unhurried,” I told Shea in the Catskills, as we looked through her artwork, deciding what to include in the book. Shea’s artwork will help to manifest the intention of “spacious and unhurried” into physical reality as the book comes together, then help it come alive in the reader’s embodied experience when they encounter the book. I always feel braver when my words are next to Shea’s images. More magic.
I’ve been thinking about books as spells, books as portals. Recently, for the first time, I specifically purchased a first-edition hardcover. It was Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, a book of poetry that he wrote and published in the wake of the death of his partner, Roger Horwitz, to AIDS in 1986. I never specifically sought out a first edition before, and it felt strange to do so. Yet, holding this book in my hands, I encounter Paul in a new way. I see that he wasn’t famous when this book was published—it was his next book, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, that would place him more fully in the public eye. I note that he looks so young in his author photo, that his author bio is still quite short, that the cover design is perhaps humble by today’s standards. This book of poetry is raw, searing, direct—words of the heart whose urgency has little time for conventional form. Some of his contemporaries in the poetry world sneered at it for that reason. Paul poured out his love, grief, and rage on the page and published it. Raw. Seeing this first edition, seeing how he didn’t yet have the profile he would later have, I feel what an act of courage this was. What a commitment to love.
The queer ancestors often speak to me in books. They speak to me when I read their books in the normal way, but they also speak to me through bibliomancy. When I ask them for guidance and open to a page, they come through. Once, even before I felt like I fully believed in this sort of thing, I picked up Judy Grahn’s 1984 Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, which, though admittedly a bit dated today, is an invaluable invitation to connect with ancient queer cultures and mythologies. I don’t remember what I asked the ancestors, I think I wanted to know if they were there for me, or if I could commune with them as a gay trans man—a form of queerness that may have not been named as such in other times. I asked them, then opened to a random page. My own name was the first word I saw: “Finn’s,” mentioned as the name of a drag bar in San Francisco. And later on in the page, “Finnochio and faggot are both very old terms referring to Gay men and sacred fire as one and the same.”
Chills. Then warmth. Deep, deep warmth. Ground beneath my feet.
Another time, this one even more unexpected: A couple of years ago, I used to draw a slip of paper with a word on it every morning and do a freewrite based on that word. It was part of my commitment to establishing a writing habit, taking my writing more seriously. But one morning, I was in a mood. I wasn’t feeling it. I drew the slip, “Alcohol,” and thought, ugh, I really don’t want to go there today. I made a hasty bargain with myself: I’d draw another slip and write something that included both topics, perhaps more specificity would help me narrow down. “The Moon.” Ugh! Who ever heard of writing something about alcohol and the moon together? I was half-awake and cranky. It felt impossible. Procrastinating, I turned to Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (ed. Philip Clark and David Groff), and opened to a random page. I opened to “Moonshine,” by Arturo Islas. A gorgeous short poem that unquestionably addresses both alcohol and the moon. The exact little kick of encouragement I needed.
I’ve been saying that the current series of essays is broadly about finding home in body, place, and time, and perhaps this is why I’m so fascinated with books as tangible objects today. They link us to the past, they link us to the future—but this magic happens in a specific place and moment that we settle in and open the book. It happens in relationship.
How can I learn to create a tangible object that will weave together an experience for someone else at a place and time I may never see? I’m excited to find out.