For this conversation, I invited LittlePuss Press publisher Casey Plett and poet, performer and zine-maker Joss Barton to talk about trans culture, DIY publishing, writing, readership, performance and community. I admire the hell out of Joss’s writing, I think the LittlePuss list is tremendously exciting, and I’m glad to get each of their thoughts on the state of trans culture and the meaningful interventions that DIY publishing can make right now in a political situation of right-wing anti-trans moral panic and widespread liberal cowardice. Joss makes reference to the work of Mira Bellwether, author of the zine Fucking Trans Women, who passed away last December while we conducted this interview; the zine is available at fuckingtranswomen.org. You can find Joss on IG @ganjacum_ and on vimeo at vimeo.com/user40935030. You can find LittlePuss’s books at LittlePuss.net. —KG
KAY GABRIEL: Can each of you talk a little bit about the publishing that you’re doing now and that you’ve been involved in recently—Joss, of your own work, and Casey, of the LittlePuss Press books? What kinds of writing, editing and/or publishing have you been involved with in the past, and how is your current project different?
JOSS BARTON: Well most of the publishing I have done has been DIY and independent, dare I say, limited edition? The two major zines I have self-published (The Wagons Ain’t Here Yet… and The Summer I Got Bit) were imagined and materialized as small printings. I don’t think I printed more than 100 copies of Wagons and only 200 of Summer. Coming of age as a writer through the early years of Tumblr, I always found my work resonated most with an underground, queer and trans and radical punk audience. Yeah, I would submit work here and there to publications but most of them would pass on my work, but when you see (and feel that delightfully twisted high of) a very long Tumblr activity log on a piece, you can’t help but understand that as trans women we were and still are writing from the future and that work hits people, especially other trans folks, in incredibly raw ways. All that to say, I said FUCK IT to submission portals and started self-publishing my own work.
Currently I am working on what will be my third and last zine GOODBYE TO A DREAM BELIEVED! It is best described as a meth- and amphetamine-fueled goodbye letter to my former home, St. Louis. I’m also developing another stage production performance of it.
CASEY PLETT: The most recent book we published at LittlePuss was Cecilia Gentili’s Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist, which is the first new book LittlePuss has put out (the first book we published was a reprint of an anthology that Cat Fitzpatrick [the other half of LittlePuss] and I had co-edited). I think Cat and I are really invested in working with authors to develop books together into something that, like, has to exist. So with Faltas, Cat had approached Cecilia after one of her storytelling gigs to be like, your work is amazing and I think you would write a great book if you wanted to do that. Cecilia wasn’t sure, but after some years went by, she came up with the current format of the book, letters to individual people she knew from her childhood, and that was the key, and the book flowed from there—she would write a letter and then talk about it with Cat, and then write another, etc.
This is different to me from a more conventional process of, like, an author writes a book, submits the book, and then the publisher decides whether to publish the book. I think with LittlePuss we’re interested in seeing what happens working outside that standardized process. It’s exciting for me to work with authors to consider, like, “How should this book exist as a thing in the world? How do we make something real and not-bullshit and beautiful together?” We ain’t ready to announce what’s coming next down the pike but there’s a few writers we’re currently working with on new books for hopefully next year, so—watch this space (and when I say “watch this space” I mean “go to littlepuss.net and subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom,” natch).
KG: In the work that you publish, what do you think is possible to say that couldn’t be said in a different, more professionalized publishing context? What do you think people find challenging in that work, and what do they resonate with?
JB: For me I believe my zines as well as my stage performances invite readers into a truly transsexual world where trans women make the rules and hold the power. Institutions have historically proven to only offer trans narratives when they’re either easy to digest for the cis public (the entire canon of trans memoirs) or when it provides some kind of guilt relief for systemic trans misogyny and virulent transphobia (think ANYTHING RYAN MURPHY!). For independent trans artists, especially trans women/femme artists and writers and performers, our work must be polished but subversive, but not too radical. We must be fuckable but never holding the upper hand to cis desirability. We must be responsible and respectful and always able to take every ounce of unwarranted and unasked-for criticism and critique as if we all just stepped off the open mic circuit for the first time. So for me, my work, my zines, my practice is all a way to say NO, in this world I am building, I am refusing to be polite or responsible or respectful or passed over. In my world, trans women are the blueprints, and we are fully humanized in both our spectacles of glamor or prophecy or pussy while unapologetically surviving and loving perfectly and imperfectly. I want to write and perform work that shows that we as trans women are flawed but also flawless. My mentor, the late and one of the true prophets of the world, Patrick Haggerty, once told me after a gig in New Orleans that he saw my work as raw and rude. That has stuck with me especially coming from the queen of raw and rude! Lavender Country was so raw and rude it was blacklisted for decades! We need trans people to be more fucking raw and rude! Our very existence is being used to fuel a white nationalist takeover, so if there was any moment in time for our work to burn down the walls it’s fucking now. And that is also where my work diverges from the sterile incubators of literature and art: it’s making very clear demands for our collective liberation and survival.
CP: I’m not sure what the work’s saying that couldn’t be said in a different, more professionalized publishing context—but maybe I don’t think it could get there in a more professionalized context? (Maybe that’s splitting hairs, idk.) I think in those contexts, by the time an editor or publisher at a big house gets eyes on something, it’s already within these confines of what a book needs to be and what it can do. And it’s very hard within that system—even for individuals committed to trying to “look for new stuff” etc., to put a book together that breaks those confines. Not to say it can’t happen at big pubs, but I don’t think we see it as often—we rarely see it for trans women writers, and Cat and I are very interested in making dynamic, confine-breaking work.
Like, I think a lot of how Cat worked with Sybil Lamb on her novel I’ve Got A Time Bomb, for example. Sybil had sent in all these zines to her and the idea was to publish a collection of those zines. Cat was like, “I think there’s actually a novel I can see in here, what do you think about writing a novel,” and Sybil gave it a shot and she did it and the two of them worked together intensely bringing it across the finish line and the end result is this gorgeous, horrifying picaresque that is that book. I can’t see that process being replicable at PRH or something.
As for what people find challenging/resonant, I dunno. I think I’d hope that what is challenging is also resonant. I think with Faltas specifically, what’s resonant is the truthfulness and honesty in which she wrote the book—Cecilia really excised all the bullshit that can easily come with writing memoir. Like, not trying to look like a good person and being more interested in the truth and reality of what was going on. (I say this having trouble with such things when I myself am writing memoir-ish stuff.) And maybe some readers will find that challenging because she talks about a lot of brutal, hard stuff at the same time, but I think as long as someone’s compelled to keep turning pages, being challenged is good.
KG: At whatever scale—100 or 10,000 readers—who do you think finds their way to the work you’re putting out there? And who do you think isn’t reading it currently but ideally would be?
CP: Oh man, after thinking it about for days I still don’t know. Like, I see a lot of trans women come to our events and that’s cool and I can maybe grab onto that. But also people buy our books online and the orders come through our store and I’m like, “I wonder what kind of person you are, I wonder what you’re about, what you love, what moves you, what keeps you up at night,” and I have no clue! It is cool and a mystery and emotionally there’s something to that I maybe wanna keep that way.
JB: I feel my work is primarily being read by queer and trans folks, especially trans women/femmes. I have heard from people who have bought my zines or seen my stage performances that they came to my work because someone gave them a zine or shared a poem of mine with them. I absolutely love hearing that! It confirms for me that writing and producing work about and for trans women/femmes works. I think the audience I would hope begins to experience my work would be both readers from the academy and the Gen Z trans kids. The academic poets and performance peers because I want to see more underground and DIY poetry to be understood and taken as seriously as institutional poetry. I imagine how much my work could have been enhanced if I had been able to read work from underground radical trans artists during undergrad. And now just writing, how my transition could have been different as well. That’s why I hope the younger generation also reads my work. What I am trying to convey with my work is based in these concepts of love and loss that are timeless human conditions, but there is something so powerful when it is framed around a transsexual consciousness, a femme trans emotional experience, that could possibly work as a lamp for a reader who is beginning to understand their transness.
KG: Since Harron [Walker]’s article about LittlePuss came out in the Times, I’ve been thinking about that infobox in the middle in which, in the middle of an article about a trans literary press throwing a party full of “drunk transsexuals,” the Times advertises one article about the increase in the number of people who identify as trans, a second about trans people feeling politically under threat, and then two articles about trans medical care that repeats the political opposition to accessing medical care as if it were science. And that feels like an extraordinary snapshot of the different aims of very mainstream liberal journalism right now: on the one hand, occasionally buttressing trans cultural creation under the banner of respecting social difference; on the other, more or less repeating the talking points of Jesse Singal and other right-wing liberals in attempting to limit access to trans medicine, as if the threats to trans safety were somehow separate from the concerted attempt to limit, or block entirely, access to transition care.
What’s your sense of how trans publishing should approach this problem? How do you approach it personally? Given this political situation—middle-class liberals offering both weak opposition to and unwitting support for conservative and far-right anti-trans political programs—what kind of intervention do you think trans writers and publishers are making?
CP: Cat and I haven’t been able to really talk about this yet, so this is just me spitballing and not representing the two of us: while I doubt there’s a good/easy answer, I think one thing that steadies me despite its bummer aspect is that in a lot of ways this isn’t new. I always remember seeing an Atlantic magazine cover in 2008 with the headline “A Boy’s Life” and a panicky article about a young trans girl. The deck for it seems plucked right from present-day, maybe even that same infobox. In a certain light, it’s the same old exhausting thing it’s always been. (I realize it’s complicated because of how the right is targeting us in a way that is definitely not the same old thing and can’t neatly be separated from the middle-class liberals “just asking questions” stuff.) Basically, I hate that some higher-up at the NYT put that infobox in there, and I’m also not terribly surprised.
I think that when it comes to these institutions, we’ll always probably get the same occasional bits of recognition from one hand while receiving scorn and shit from the other. I’m not really expecting either situation to change? Maybe it will some day, and that’ll be great if it does. But I sort of move forward in my life with that attitude as my baseline. I’ve said yes to things because I wanted them materially and no to things because I couldn’t deal with it on principle. As artists, we probably all have personal decisions to make regarding this stuff (if we’re lucky enough to be presented with them as decisions), and it’s rare I begrudge any trans artist for how they choose to do so. Having said that, I definitely never want to need these institutions, and I want an ecosystem of trans writing that can exist without them. That’s probably part of my hopes for LittlePuss, to be a helpful part of such an ecosystem, when you speak of interventions.
But it’s thornier as a publisher. Like, when it’s just me as a writer, it’s my shit, my attitude mostly affects me, and I’ve been used to calling those shots and building an artist’s life for myself that way over the years. Now as a publisher, my approach to these questions affects a constellation of other people (like yourself, being featured in that NYT article!) which demands more thought and is harder but necessary. Like I said, Cat and I haven’t been able to talk yet, so I might have more to say here, but those are my first blush thoughts, and I would also very much welcome yours should you have them!
JB: I agree with Casey. I believe we as trans people will always have to navigate these bizarre situations where mainstream cis neo-liberalism is simultaneously applauding and choking us. As trans publishers and as trans artists I think our job is to be as unapologetic and uncompromising as possible in creating the work that speaks the most to us and our people. I say this as the forces working against us are being just as brazen in their language and their rhetoric that depicts us as dangerous and evil. I think that trans creators and artists and audiences are making the interventions big and small they need for their communities. Personally, one of the most interesting interventions I think I use is encasing myself in the t4t shitposting online, where we (trans women/femmes) are making content that speaks only to us and runs the gamut of dissecting everything from chasers to ’mones to sex work to drugs to relationships and everything in between. I don’t think this particular brand of trans creation is necessarily the most important or even subversive against the agendas you mentioned but it gives me a bit of comical reprieve from the discourse that I personally need or else I would spiral at every opportunity when another TERF is born.
But I can’t in all certainty know what we as trans folks need in order to stop it, I think we are all doing what we can with the power and capacity available at our disposal. If I could try to summarize anything it would be that we have the ability to publish and create work that is meaningful to our communities and we should know and own the fact that this work is important and will continue to change the lives of trans people for generations to come. Look at what Mira Bellwether (HOLY MOTHER!) did with Fucking Trans Women! She created something so beautiful so powerful and so important it will long outlive all of us. That tenacity to make work that is unashamed of the beauty and the power of who we are as trans people, as trans women, is something we need now more than ever.