Folger Shakespeare Library presents “To Enter the World,” (Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m.), a virtual poetry reading spotlighting the work of transgender poets Stephanie Burt and Taylor Johnson, focusing mostly on regional and gender identity.
Burt, 49, accomplished poet, transgender activist, and Harvard professor grew up in Washington reading science fiction and silently wishing to be a girl. She says, “A lot of my friends today are people who read sci-fi and don’t read a lot of poetry, so I want some of my poems to be fun for those friends too, and not just people like me who read so much poetry that we make it our job.”
The reading won’t be a stodgy event. Burt plans to share selections of older and new works featuring trans figures including her usual retinue of talking animals, flowers, and superheroes all finding one another and establishing a kind of emotional and sometimes erotic solidarity.
“I hope it’s accessible. I hope it’s fun. And for those who know my work, I do take requests.”
Fellow poet Johnson, 29, who received the prestigious Larry Neal Writers’ Award in 2017, and whose first book, “Inheritance” — a collection of poems rife with surveillance, identity, desire, and transcendence influenced by everyday moments of Washington, D.C. living — came out just last week, is eager to share their work too.
A D.C. native who now lives in New Orleans, Johnson began reading poetry seriously at 15. “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” made a terrific impression. “Incredible, it was the erotic and devotional that struck me. After that I did poetry slams. I wasn’t so great but I kept on going. Then I continued writing and studied poetry at Oberlin College in Ohio.”
Place features prominently in their work. In fact, Johnson describes D.C. as their greatest muse: “It’s where my people come from. My father’s family goes back many generations. For me, much of poetry is about observation. Walking through the city from an early age, really inspired me. Now it’s nice to learn the landscape down here in New Orleans and let it speak to me as well.”
While Johnson wouldn’t classify their work as political per se, they understand how the personal can be perceived as political. And when they refer to “trans” – it’s always short for transcendent: “I don’t really believe in gender. I use the pronouns they/them as well as he/him so people can read into that whatever way they want.”
Place is important to Burt too: Manhattan, Cambridge, New Haven, Minnesota, and now Belmont, Mass., where she lives with her partner, two children, and two cats. She writes about coming-of-age in D.C, trans identity, family, and the idea of the public good.
Wednesday’s reading is part of Folger Shakespeare Library’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series, now in its 52nd season. It will be moderated by Oliver Baez Bendorf, a queer, trans, Latinx writer, with a Q&A to follow.
Both Johnson and Burt enjoy the question and answer format. Johnson says, “I like good questions and being in conversation with people. That’s how we build community.” And Burt adds, “Q&As are fun and interactive. I like learning about people and there’s not a lot of prep time involved.”
Whether via Zoom or in person, poetry readings are really for the people who show up, says Burt. It’s about the audience. “Some of us are Zoomed out. I teach via Zoom, hangout with friends via Zoom, and play Dragons and Dungeons via Zoom. Still for those who come to the Folger reading, I’ll do my very best to give the experience that makes you glad you showed up.”
There is a minimum $5 price level and a suggested ticket price of $15. More info can be found at folger.edu/poetry.