Pride Spotlight: Jennifer Espinoza’s Poetry Creates a World Where Every Trans Person Is Safe

Poet and winner of the 2017 Pushcart Prize, Jennifer Espinoza believes in transcendence through poetry, which is needed now more than ever.

J. Jennifer Espinoza J. Jennifer Espinoza

Pride Spotlight: For Pride Month, Observer is celebrating a variety of queer creatives with our Pride Spotlight series. 

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Being an artist in general requires opening up your inner self to the world, but being a trans artist specifically often comes with a greater sense of vulnerability. Since trans rights are so often seen as up for debate, and trans perspectives so often shouted down or violently erased, to be truly honest in a public way about your emotions and lived experience as a trans person is often a frightening endeavor. As a poet and trans woman, Jennifer Espinoza (also writing under the pen name J. Jennifer Espinoza) sees creative expression, and specifically the poetic form, as a way in which you can truly exist on your own terms, apart from the expectations and demands of a world that constantly asks trans people to justify our existence.

“Marginalized communities are put in this position where we have to explain ourselves to people who have power over us or their boot on our neck,” she explains to Observer. “I think there’s something about poetry that allows you to step into a space where you can still have argument and rhetoric, but it’s on your own terms, and you get to invent your own logic inside of a poem. In that sense, you can step out of that dynamic of defending yourself on somebody else’s terms, because that’s always a losing battle when you’re defending yourself based on language and rhetoric created to shut you out.”

In poetry collections like I’m Alive. It Hurts. I Love It. and There Should Be Flowers, Espinoza gently yet frankly captures the frequent whiplash of trans experience, as more direct political address is offset by images of stunning beauty and lyricism. Her poems embody that notion of inventing your own logic, as Espinoza’s words squarely define and outline a worldview that’s suffused with devotion and grace, but unafraid to defend itself when needed. Though her work confronts the frequent horror of living as a trans person, her writing contains a tremendous amount of love and care, a reminder that gentleness is at times a political necessity in a society that’s so cruel to the marginalized.

All humans evolve drastically over time, but the journey of transition gives you a unique insight into life’s often fluid and unpredictable trajectories. For Espinoza, the process of finding her voice as a poet is inextricable from the parallel journey of finding her voice as a trans woman. “Like a lot of trans people, I picked a few things to throw myself into and forgot everything else, so I read voraciously as a child and was really into writing,” she says. “A lot of my poetry early on was about escape, but also about finding alternate ways of being and living while I was literally unable to express who I was. When I started taking poetry seriously and submitting work, I realized that if I’m gonna be presenting myself in this way, as a poet, who am I presenting? Who is the poet? Who is the speaker?” 

Jennifer and her wife Eileen Elizabeth Espinoza on their wedding day. Deanne Barrier

“This was happening as I was also having other realizations. I was coming out of a really bad fog at the beginning of 2012 and realized, if I’m not going to kill myself, I need to transition. There are no more options at this point. When that happened, my poetry bloomed, and I felt ownership over my voice, where in the past it felt like me and the poet were two different people living in the same room.”

When you’re trans, it can be easy to look back on parts of your life and cringe, or to generally feel disconnected from your pre-transition self, embarrassed by either how messy you might have been or how much you tried to disavow your own truth, as an artist who has documented her own growth, Espinoza has felt those kinds of complex emotions upon returning to early poems, when her sense of self-knowledge might not have been so keenly developed. Now she’s able to integrate past and present selves by conceptualizing the poet and the person as two interconnected but distinct entities.

“There’s almost this separation that occurs between me, Jennifer, and the poet. I don’t really like to think of myself as the speaker of my poems, even though the content of my poems is very much drawn from my life. I like to create distance, and that’s partially why I use a pen name, so that I can distinguish the poet, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, from the human being, Jennifer Espinoza. So here’s Jennifer in the middle, here’s this past self that I’m trying to figure out what to do with, and then here’s this like poet self that is somehow less than me, but more than me at the same time.”

Espinoza’s purposeful separation between poet and the person comes not just from a self-reflective urge, but from the concern for safety that all trans people carry. “We all know that visibility is a trap for trans people. Visibility without protection is just having a target on your back. That’s something I struggle with a lot, wanting my work to be read, wanting it to be out there, but not wanting to make myself a target. I think there’s a sense of safety in creating that distance between myself and my work as well.” 

Even if there’s trepidation that comes with existing as a trans person, whether in your artwork or just in the world, poetry’s uniquely inventive power makes it worthwhile for Espinoza. “Life is hard and poetry can sometimes allow us to transcend, even if just for a moment, and create an alternate space that exists adjacent to but outside of the current reality. A poem can be a doorway into a moment or a space of safety or peace of comfort or something I don’t necessarily have full access to in the normal world.” 

Pride Spotlight: Jennifer Espinoza’s Poetry Creates a World Where Every Trans Person Is Safe