Show, not tell

  • Posted on April 18, 2014 at 8:56 am

It’s Easter. Two years ago I dug around the story, and was reminded today by a Facebook image doing the rounds saying that Easter comes from the goddess Ishtar. I knew this to be wrong, because I’d dug around Eostre instead. The poem is here, if you already need a digression!

At the time I felt the poem may be a little obscure, because most people were still just starting to realise that my transition was something real, and my objective in writing poetry was to lead not push. I could write prose, which is why I started this blog, but some people don’t like to be told, because they come head to head with their idea against mine, and that’s uncomfortable. Poetry that just ‘says it’ can be boring. A picture of a witch is just a picture, take it or leave it. But that familiar optical illusion that can switch mentally from being a drawing of an old woman in furs, to a witch’s head, is fascinating.

Sometimes we just can’t take being told

This week I took my poem Unspoken to a workshop, and resisted the temptation to say what it was about. I had dared to read it on local radio last year, but revisiting it, I still felt I needed reassurance and feedback. It still means something real and deep to me, it is still relevant, but it is all ‘show not tell’, and it is precisely about those things you can’t say because they could undo everything in an instant.

This reminded me very much of the whole business of coming out, of learning and speaking my truth. It felt subversive (something I like about poetry, but which felt uncomfortable to live out). I am not alone in the way I behaved, and I suspect this is a feature of many trans* people’s lives when they are working out how to tell the world that things need to change.

So this blog is for people coming out, for their friends and families. You can’t just be told, you need to realise a few things first to prepare you for understanding. For anyone to transition may be to find peace and authenticity, but it is one of the hardest things to do, because you know it won’t be understood.

And this is why we start wearing bits of the ‘wrong’ clothing, jewellery or make-up, begin to soften in our ways, and why things appear in our wardrobes that ‘shouldn’t be there’. For people transitioning female to male, that may be a lot less obvious, rather ‘why don’t you like doing that any more?’ It may not be the best way to do this! But what many of us are trying to do is introduce new ideas about ourselves, new ways of seeing us, new understandings of being the same person looking different, feeling better. You might just se this as weird or even disturbing. It may not be what you want. But what we are trying to show is that we have to change, we want you to notice, and we need you to ask, so we can be open without thrusting it on you. This conversation can lead to shared understanding and travelling forward together, or it may lead to separation and loss. We don’t intend to hurt anyone by coming out. After all, we are only being true to ourselves.

To you it probably seems like deception. We are writing poetry in our lives, and you want the classic story with a happy ending.

Deception was an unfortunate keynote in the divorce petition against me. It was felt necessary, it wasn’t a grudge. But it was there; it was the remembered thing. Shoes were in the wardrobe, and that meant I was going out. Without permission. How embarrassing. My gender dysphoria was an unacceptable behaviour. (Popular link to my page on behaviour, here.) But I remember wanting desperately to be discovered from hints so that a legitimate enquiry could be made, for me to explain. There were things left sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately, stuck in a drawer, trapped in wardrobe doors. Nail varnish left on, beads worn with my old clothes, new mannerisms, books and leaflets on trans* issues; all sorts.

My ‘Unspoken’ poem obviously spoke, because my fellow poets in Brighton picked up on the emotions, the situation and the meaning of the poem quite easily. I still feel embarrassed about my hints before coming out. So I wrote another poem:

Show not tell

Was I really learning the art,
poet in the making, risk averse?

A skirt caught in closet doors,
an obvious symbol without reason.

Without rhyme, hoping to scan as
pent… something, I am… bic

in hand, but blocked, right as
blocked, wrong to be spoken.

So the coloured skirt, in draft
as a chill wind stirring flowers

invisible but spoken, my self
trying to show, not tell.

Once again, this is a poem where the sounds of the words and how they join, really matter. Find the words that carry two meanings. It’s just another way of saying that when we communicate in a way that invites enquiry, it can be because we have something to say that we can’t just speak out on. We need your wanting to understand.

So if your spouse, or sibling, or child, or parent or friend is acting strangely, and you know something isn’t right any more, ask what they are trying to show you so that you can see, not so that an explanation and justification can be given and things go ‘back to normal’.


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