Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been featured in Denver Quarterly, PEN America, Lambda Literary, The Offing, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of two collections—i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (boost house 2014), and THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS (CCM 2016).
TBL Author Q&A Series: Jennifer Espinoza
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path? How has it gotten from where it began to where you are now?
I’ve been writing since I was about six years old. It started off as short little stories—I was a very imaginative, head-in-the-clouds kind of kid, always worried and anxious, always wanting more from life. So, I would come up with these bizarre scenarios and construct narratives around them. At this time, I didn’t know much about poetry, but I knew I felt restricted by the boundaries of prose.
Early on in high school, I got into poetry and began writing almost every day. It felt like finally having a space to be myself with no shame, no fear of reprisal, no adherence to the laws of this world that I saw as fucked up and absurd. Eventually I began to post my work on the internet, and I found a sense of community with other writers who were doing the same. I sidestepped the academic world and truly created my own path this way, and it has led me to this wonderful place where people seem to care about and connect with my work.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
Even before I was specifically writing about my identity as a queer trans person, my poems always came from a place of questioning, of pushing against and through barriers, of bemoaning my inability to function in a world whose rules made no sense to me. I think in the beginning my work was very internal and focused on my poor mental health that came about as a result of trauma related to said inability to function. Once I finally came out, my work transformed almost overnight. I felt more free to express all of this shit I had been holding on to for so long, and there was so much extra room for me to run wild through a poem.
My poems also became much more confident, more sure of themselves. I began to use them not just to make sense of my feelings, but to actively try and connect with other humans in a way that did not seem possible for me before. Very broadly, the themes I find myself up against include gender, sexuality, radical politics, etc.—but really what is it at the root of it all is the idea that this world is not okay. It is not safe for people. No one has the room (or the language) to be themselves, to love, to experience joy, to embrace humanity. I don’t want to change the world—I want a new world. This is what my work is about.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
Being open in every sense of the word—open to life experiences, open to emotions, open to the idea that you, as a poet, are channeling some kind of necessary magic into the world.
Can you give us a glimpse into the themes and particulars that you associate with writing? How have you changed as a writer over the years?
I used to go back and forth between viewing writing as a way to document feelings, and writing as a form of action against injustice. I eventually realized there didn’t need to be a distinction between two—telling your truth as an outsider is a political act, and when you do so you create the possibility of inspiring others like yourself to speak their truths and reshape how we view the world.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
The love and care I’ve received from so many fellow contemporary poets and writers has made it possible for my voice to be heard in a way I’d never dreamed possible. I’m a very socially withdrawn person and I have a hard time trusting people, so the idea of community can sometimes seem scary, or far away, or even impossible, but I’ve been so fortunate to experience a great deal of support from people whose work I deeply admire, and that has made all the difference for me.
What guidance might you give to emerging writers/artists?
Set a path for yourself and embrace all the ways you will stray from it. Sit with failure and use messiness as an opportunity to disrupt the status quo. Take all advice from other artists with a huge grain of salt. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s a right way to create. Listen to your intuition—you know what you’re doing.
Have you ever felt any conflict being a transgender person and being a writer? Have you ever had any doubts about writing about your identity or felt that you had to choose one over the other?
I’ve definitely internalized to some extent this annoying idea that writing about identity is trendy or cheesy or cliché. I’ve reacted to this in the past by attempting to create more “universal” or “apolitical” (ugh) work, but it never works out because nothing is apolitical and everything a person creates emerges from their lived experiences, as well as the ideologies their personhood is constructed within. Being a transgender woman is not some essential thing that I am—it’s my contextual position within a society whose structure relies on a fixed gender binary. So, with that all in mind, I finally arrived at a place where I could say “fuck off” to anyone who criticized my work for being too caught up in identity.
Do you have a collection or piece of work of yours that you are the proudest of or feel the most partial to?
Out of everything, what I feel most proud of is the fact that I am a 30-year-old transgender woman who is alive and thriving in a world that wants to see me disappear. Because of this, I don’t feel as though I can pick a favorite piece or collection of work—they all exist together as evidence of my enduring love for myself and my passion for life. In other words, my survival is the poem I am most proud of.
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