Ying, Yang, and Beyond: Short Poems of Sex and Gender in the 21st Century

Edited and introduced by toki
Yin and yang. Black and white. East and West. Us and them. Ones and zeroes. We are conditioned—some even say biologically programmed—to seek out dichotomies, to view our world in terms of binary opposition. One of the most obvious dichotomies is a biological one: as one of Western civilization’s most influential creation narratives states, “Male and female created he them.” Biological differences, anatomical, chemical, and genetic, amount to sometimes obvious but relatively small variations between the sexes, yet we attach great value to these differences, and since our earliest history, they have influenced societal and cultural expectations, the gender roles we assign to each other and ourselves. But such things are not as simple as they often seem.

History and literature are rife with examples of individuals defying their expected gender roles, or even abandoning them altogether: think woman warriors like Joan of Arc, or the French Chevalier d’Eon, an intersex diplomat and spy who lived half a century as a man and then shocked society by taking on the habits and dress of a woman for the next 33 years. History is also rife with shifts in gender roles: for example, nursing is often seen as an occupation traditionally held by women, and men account for only 10% of nursing professionals: in 2011, there were 3,500,000 employed nurses, only 330,000 of whom were men (Landivar, Liana Christin. ‘Men in Nursing Occupations: American Community Survey Highlight Report [http://www.census.gov/people/io/files/Men_in_Nursing_Occupations.pdf]’. U.S. Census Bureau, Feb 2013.), but prior to the nineteenth century, nursing was just as often the work of men—even more so in theaters of war; only when large-scale conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War necessitated extra care for wounded soldiers did women expand their roles as nurses, and by World War I, nursing had become identified with women to the extent seen throughout most of the 20th century (Thunderwolf. ‘Men in Nursing Historical Timeline [http://allnurses.com/men-in-nursing/men-in-nursing-96326.html]’. allnurses.com, 25 Feb 2005; Weatherford, Doris. ‘The Evolution of Nursing [http://www.nwhm.org/blog/the-evolution-of-nursing/]’. National Women’s History Museum, 16 Jun, 2010.)—and did you know that the colors pink and blue have been associated with girls and boys respectively only since about World War II? Before that, blue was for girls and pink for boys. And even those assignments date from around the turn of the 20th century; look farther back, and you’ll find no such association between colors and biological sex (Maglaty, Jeanne. ‘When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/]’. Smithsonian.com, 7 Apr 2011.). Although biology does play some role in our perception of sex and gender, anything more than a superficial examination shows just how much is purely cultural and, being subject to the whims of the zeitgeist, is thus open to change.

In modern times, beginning with the Enlightenment, and especially since the late 19th/early 20th century, we have seen movements like feminism, intersectionalism, and postmodernism, along with scientific advances, bring to light information, ideas, and lifestyles that were before hidden or suppressed. Along with the increasing equality of men and women, and an intermingling of their social roles to a degree previously unheard of, we are also learning no longer to ignore the one percent or more of humanity—over seventy million people in today’s world—who are born intersex, “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” (Intersex Society of North America. ‘What is intersex? [http://www.isna.org/]’. ISNA, n.d.), and we are becoming increasingly aware and accepting of the lifestyles and issues of the transgender members of our society, “those persons whose identities, practices, or beliefs concerning sex/gender are not adequately served by society’s traditional expectations regarding the sex of a person determined or assigned at birth” (Saldivia, Laura. ‘Reexamining the Binary Construction of Sexuality [http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/sela/SELA09_Saldivia_Eng_WV.pdf]’. Seminario en Latinoamérica de Teoría Constitucional y Política, Asunción, Paraguay, 12 Jun 2009. Yale Law School.). Such acceptance, or at least willingness to question tradition, is especially obvious among younger generations today. In amateur internet literature, gender role reversal and ‘genderbending’ (the portrayal of one or more established characters as possessing a different biological sex) are common, and youth icons like musicians Miley Cyrus and Gerard Way have been quite public with their gender fluidity, sometimes paving the way for fans to accept their own. But despite such progress, there is still room for growth: yin and yang each contain the other; they swirl in constant motion, meeting in the middle, mingling, mixing, transforming, carrying within them reminders of their origins in taiji, a “state of undifferentiated absolute and infinite potential” (Wikipedia contributors. ‘Taiji (philosophy) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiji_(philosophy)]’. Wikipedia, 5 Oct 2015.).

When I first conceived of this special feature for Atlas Poetica, I had a number of hopes and expectations, and although some weren’t met and there were many challenges along the way, I think this has turned out to be an exceptional collection. Drawn from all aspects of life, these poems touch upon transgender issues, intersexuality, gender (in)equality, gender roles and expression, and more. Although the collection includes 25 poems in the tradition of previous ATPO special features, I’ve strayed somewhat from what readers might be accustomed to: not only have I included a sprinkling of four-line ryūka and long-lined gogyōshi amongst the predominant tanka, but I also chose a handful of sets and sequences to publish as single pieces, each tanka within them serving as but a verse of a larger poem. Moreover, expecting that this niche subject might not draw enough submissions, I allowed for the possibility of publishing more than one poem per person to fill out the collection, and so while there are 25 poems, there are only 24 poets represented.

It’s my sincere hope—indeed, it’s my expectation—that readers will not only enjoy these poems aesthetically and emotionally, but that they will find themselves on occasion challenged, possibly confronted with aspects of human nature unfamiliar within their own lives, and that the collection might serve as a prompt or focus for reflection and discussion, both as literature and as social commentary.

1) Tanja Trček

he strips off
the short skirts
from those high, thick walls
and makes a window big enough
to come out

2) Lorne Henry

more glamorous
than the audience
he sang
swivelling his hips
jewels glittering

3) Margaret Van Every
‘Rebecca Turned Beckham’

one day she
the next day he;
we were slow to match
pronoun to gender
and oh, which bathroom

when Rebecca became Beckham
in 1979
lived with gorgeous Lucy
who worshipped him
the office was confused

she was a new man
the curious went
to the office pool party
to see his breasts
or lack thereof

4) Carole Harrison

from the goddess’s
sacred spring—
Hercules, slayer of giants,
father in a peplos

Editor’s note: In Hellenistic Greece, a peplos was a garment associated primarily with women. According to myth, Herakles received numerous gifts from the gods upon returning from war, among them a peplos from the goddess Athena; this peplos was “an integral part of the hero’s gear” and remained associated with him in many tales. (Source: Nicole Loraux, ‘Herakles: The Super-Male and the Feminine’, in Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World, ed. by Halperin, Winkler & Zeitin, pp. 33–40.

5) Pravat Kumar Padhy

the temple steps
lead to the corner end . . .
with Ardhanarishvara
the devotees divinely sense
the softness of the stony carvings

Author’s note: The name Ardhanarishvara means ‘the Lord whose half is a woman’. In Hinduism and Indian mythology many deities are represented as both male and female, manifesting with characteristics of both genders, including Ardhanarishvara, created by the merging of the Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati.

6) Tracy Davidson

my child asks
what hermaphrodite means
and why
other children laugh
in the changing room

7) Debbie Strange

this (wo)man revered
by one culture
how could (s)he be
so reviled by another

8) Grunge

left wondering how
i should feel when i say
i’m trans and they
assume i was born my
preferred gender

9) Barbara A. Taylor

our hearts are pierced
in daily conversations
lives ripped apart
and pains unstitched
by personal pronouns

10) André Surridge

wheat field
seed heads this way
& that
the uncle who became
a distant aunt

11) John Tehan

long grounded deep
in the cave of the masculine
eventually he came to court
and woo the feminine
he found languishing there

12) Richard St. Clair

my cult confessor
laughed in scorn
when I told him
my desire to wear
women’s clothes

13) Tracy Davidson

she yells at me
for holding the door open
for being sexist
dressing my daughter in pink
I point out it’s a boy

14) Laura Maffei

I’d like to be a man
not for a day
but for a night
just to take a walk
alone in it

15) Bruce England

Simonetta Stefanelli
married Al Pacino
in The Godfather
she was blown up
after her nude scene

16) Chen-ou Liu

a senate claims
women can block rape sperm
with willpower!
throughout the night, I hear
walnuts hitting the ground

17) Gerry Jacobson

synagogue for Kol Nidrei
the men
put on the prayer shawl
together the women watch

18) Autumn Noelle Hall

stay-at-home earth-mother
radical feminists
for the right to love her kids

19) Matsukaze

and the women
snicker every time
he tells us
he’s a ‘male’ nurse

20) Patricia Prime

identical twins:
both musicians, one is lesbian,
the other
transgender, live on a farm
where they keep unshod horses

21) Sandra Renew

she strikes the match on the sole of her boot
sucking in smoke she lights her pipe
she counts the dresses in her cupboard . . . none
back in the day, can there be doubt?
dykes made disappointing daughters

22) Britton Gildersleeve

perhaps a no one
neither girl in ballet pink
nor barefoot ‘tomboy’
I might have been someone else
if the world had not conspired

I might have been wild
might have climbed the night’s thermals
no gendered naming
I might have learned my true name
unlocked dark and secret doors

instead, lariats
polarities pink and blue
bound my bloody feet
until I gave up searching
gave up wings gave it all up

23) Briony James
‘convex images’

wishing away the lumps
chasing childhood
of this woman
still the boy inside

my mirror image
twins so different
he stares
with my eyes

tangles in my hair
much like the brassiere
I reluctantly

we are one
he and I
his voice
while I scream

24) Kath Abela Wilson

no rules
multiple choice . . .
the wind answers
with its own
hidden motivations

25) M. Kei

Vincent Van Gogh
on the subway,
I whisper in his good ear,
“We are all beautiful.”

Biographical Sketches

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, guest editor toki likes listening to the music of the spheres, pondering the interstices of the universe and taking long walks in liminal spaces.

Tracy Davidson lives in England and enjoys writing poetry and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies, including: Atlas Poetica, Modern Haiku, A Hundred Gourds, Mslexia, Poet’s Market 2015, The Binnacle, Journey to Crone, In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, Ekphrastia Gone Wild and The Right-Eyed Deer.

Bruce England lives and works in Silicon Valley. His haiku writing began in 1984, and his serious tanka writing in 2010. Other related interests include haiku theory and practice. Long ago, a chapbook, Shorelines, was published with a friend, Tony Mariano.

A native of Tulsa, Britton Gildersleeve spent much of her life in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She thinks this explains a lot (like her life-long love of non-Western poetic forms). For twelve years she was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, where she also taught. Her award-winning creative non-fiction and poetry has appeared in Atlas Poetica, Haiku Journal, New Millennium, Nimrod, and many other journals. She has three chapbooks out, and blogs at http://blog.beliefnet.com//beginnersheart/.

Grunge is a gay Indo-American blog writer, with an interest in bugs, body modifications, and the end of the world.

In our increasingly digitized Universe, where we are bombarded by choice, the issues of gender can be both complex and confusing. Encountering the struggle through her children and their friends, Autumn Noelle Hall believes the compassionate keys to the doors of acceptance and understanding are an open mind and heart. Her writing and her life are attempts to push both the boundaries and the definition of normal and to broaden the gateways of inclusion.

Carole Harrison lives in country of Australia. Her poetry is published in various on-line and paper journals such as Atlas Poetica, Eucalypt, Ribbons and Moonbathing.

Lorne Henry lives in countryside New South Wales, Australia, and much of her work reflects this. She has been writing haiku since 1992 and tanka since 2007. She has had much of it published in several magazines.

Gerry Jacobson writes tanka in the cafes of three cities: Canberra, where he lives; Sydney; and Stockholm, where his grandchildren live. He just published a chapbook, Dancing with Another Me, a collection of ‘tanka prose’ pieces about dance.

Briony James has spent a lifetime in the arts from music and literature to tattooing, painting, and textile arts. Transplanted from the east coast, she found water in the desert to feed her soul. Currently a docent at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, she spends her time amid art and music and poetry, eternally grateful to her Muses.

Chen-ou Liu is currently the editor and translator of NeverEnding Story, http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.ca/, and the author of five books, including Following the Moon to the Maple Land (First Prize, 2011 Haiku Pix Chapbook Contest) and A Life in Transition and Translation (Honorable Mention, 2014 Turtle Light Press Biennial Haiku Chapbook Competition). His tanka and haiku have been honored with many awards. Read more of his poems at Poetry in the Moment, http://chenouliu.blogspot.ca/.

M. Kei is a tall ship sailor and award-winning poet who lives on Maryland’s Eastern shore. He is the editor of Atlas Poetica : A Journal of World Tanka. He was the editor-in-chief of Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, Vols. 1–4, and the editor of Bright Stars, An Organic Tanka Anthology. His most recent collection of poetry is January, A Tanka Diary. He is also the author of a gay Asian-themed fantasy novel, Fire Dragon. He can be followed on Twitter @kujakupoet, or visit AtlasPoetica.org.

Laura Maffei is the editor of American Tanka, the journal she founded in 1996, and the author of the tanka collection Drops from Her Umbrella (Inkling Press, 2006). Her tanka have won awards and appeared in many journals internationally over the years, as well as in anthologies. She has also published fiction, free verse and sonnets, and was a finalist for the Nemerov Sonnet Award.

resides in Louisiana USA
a classical vocalist and actor
lover/composer of tanka, sedoka,
ryuka, and senryu

Pravat Kumar Padhy, Ph.D., a graduate from IIT-Dhanbad, loves to blend science with literature. His short-form Japanese poems have appeared in The World Haiku Review, Lynx, Four and Twenty, The Notes from the Gean, Atlas Poetica, Simply Haiku, Red Lights, Ribbons, Haigaonline, World Haiku Association, The Heron’s Nest, Inner Art Journal, Skylark, Shamrock, A Hundred Gourds, Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Invitation, Magnapoets, Bottle Rockets, Mu International, Frogpond, Acorn, Kokako, Presence, Issa’s Untidy Hut, The Bamboo Hut, Modern Haiku, tinywords, etc. Recently his tanka have been anthologized in Fire Pearls 2and Bright Stars, edited by M Kei.

Patricia Prime is co-editor of Kokako, Reviews/Interviews editor of Haibun Today and writes reviews for Atlas Poetica, Takahe, Metverse Muse and other journals. She was one of the editors of the tanka collection: One Hundred Tanka by One Hundred Poets and is one of the editors with Dr. Bruce Ross of the forthcoming world haiku anthology: A Vast Sky. Recently available from Alba Publishing, UK, is a collaboration of tanka sequences and haibun with French poet, Giselle Maya, entitled Shizuka.

Sandra Renew was born in the mid-20th century and lives as a feral lesbian poet still.

Richard St. Clair (b. 1946) is an internationally recognized composer of modern classical music in addition to being a published poet of tanka, haiku, and renku. He has also composed sonnets, sestinas, virelais and other western short forms. A retired concert pianist, he is an amateur radio enthusiast and science and history buff. He is a Shin Buddhist by faith.

Debbie Strange is a member of The Writers’ Collective of Manitoba, The Manitoba Writers’ Guild, and several tanka and haiku organizations. Her writing has received awards and has appeared in numerous journals. She is also an avid photographer whose images have been published and exhibited. You are invited to see more of her work on Twitter @Debbie_Strange.

Born in Hull, England, André Surridge lives in the city of Hamilton, New Zealand. He is the winner of several national and international writing awards and his poetry has been widely published and anthologised.

“Each day demands that I write and that my fingers touch and feel the earth.” Barbara A. Taylor ‘s free verse poems, renku, haiga, haibun, haiku, tanka, and other Japanese short form poetry appear in many international journals and anthologies on line and in print. She lives in the Rainbow Region, Northern NSW, Australia. Her diverse poems with audio are at http://batsword.tripod.com and most recently, at http://batsword.webs.com.

John Tehan lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he reads some, writes some and ponders this and that. His tanka and other poetry have appeared in Atlas Poetica, Ribbons, Bright Stars, Reflections and PrimeTime Cape Cod, as well as in several ATPO Special Features. In his spare time, John enjoys nurturing and communing with his eternity plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which is happily proving true to its name.

Tanja Trček lives a simple, earthbound life on the edge of a small village in Slovenia. She likes to read and write poems, drink tea, and plant vegetables and flowers. She feels most at home in wild lonely places, preferably close to the mountains or the sea.

Blives in the mountains of west central Mexico. She has authored two books of tanka: A Pillow Stuffed with Diamonds/Una Almohada Rellena con Diamantes (bilingual) (Librophilia, 2011) and holding hands with a stranger (Librophilia, 2014).

Kath Abela Wilson grew up in Staten Island, New York. Two close family members are openly transgender. She says “it’s deepened my awareness, increased my openness to the individual proclivities we each have, and the pleasure and freedom involved in being who we are, and knowing it.” She wishes for all, what her life in Southern California fosters: an openness and ease that fosters individual creativity.

© 2015