About the Author Pilar Quintana is a poet and artist, a member of the Grey Court Poets and the Arts Institute Group of the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts. Pilar has published poems in MethuenLife, Athens GA's Word of Mouth, and the anthology Songs from the Castle's Remains (CreateSpace, 2013); and co-presented a panel at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival on how LGBTQ poets are responding in our new climate of marriage equality and transgender rights.
Would you tell us a little bit about your experience growing up as a genderqueer person?
My parents were Cuban immigrants who were proud of their heritage, but also very eager to belong. Like many immigrants, they Anglicized their names to make them less intimidating. They spoke English at work, but at home they spoke only Spanish until I started school. It wasn’t just because they wanted me to learn Spanish. It was because they didn’t want me to learn English with their Spanish accent.
I was always aware of this unexplained need to “fit in.” Not be marginalized. Not stand out for the wrong reasons. And to excel at whatever I did, so that if my differences were noticed, they would be excused. At an early age I realized I was both queer and genderqueer. I learned to keep my sexual and gender identities hidden. And I became very good at it.
In the mid-90s two things happened that turned my life around. First I developed panic disorder. My body gave me such powerful physical symptoms that I became preoccupied with my own mortality. It was like my body was telling me that life was too short to keep denying myself. And then my mother died.
My mother was one of the strongest and most beautiful influences in my life. But she was also the main reason I kept who I was hidden. Her desires for normality and perfection were the result of the way she had been raised: strict parents, Catholic upbringing. But she was also an outspoken activist and educated businesswoman in an age when women were expected to keep house and raise children. I could argue that it was her courage and determination to be herself that I emulated when I finally came out.
The truth is, however, that when I was young I was afraid to come out because of what my family would think of me. And the reflection I believed would be cast on them if everyone knew. It seemed like such a stigma at the time. As a youth I was tempted to move away, but when my family hit financial difficulties I chose to stay and help. I thought I could handle it. I had played the female role at Catholic school my whole life. I invented an alternate suitable feminine persona in order to get and keep a “good job.” But as the years passed, I found it more and more difficult to keep pretending. The long hours meant that most of my waking hours I was putting on a persona–and one that I didn’t particularly like. I began to lose sight of who I was. And then I developed panic disorder.
It took me many years of therapy to figure out what I had been doing to myself. My perceptions of what or who people expected me to be, whether it was family, friends, society, or church, had shaped my choices. Who am I today is a result of learning to accept my ambiguities and realizing that if I am going to define myself in comparison to others, I have to stop allowing them the final say as to who I am or should/should not be.
My poetry is cathartic. It bears witness to what transpired in my past. It also allows me to reach out and express my humanity.
What has been the role of religion in your life?
I have written several poems on religion and its influence, for better or worse, on me. It’s been an ever-present force. My mother was a very strict Catholic. I went to all-girl Catholic grammar and high schools. I struggled with the belief that I was damned from puberty on. I expect that’s probably pretty common for people in my situation. After high school, I became an atheist, convinced that I had no need for a God so cruel that he would create abominations like myself, doomed to loveless lives of self-denial.
It was only after I developed panic disorder that I began to separate God from religion. As I came to peace with myself, I realized that my Creator–and I do believe I have one–never meant me to suffer. It was my own erroneous beliefs, and those of others who preached in his name, that had filled my head with hatred and self-doubt. My God is love. I feel very much loved.
Who are the Grey Court Poets?
The Grey Court Poets is a group I am proud to belong to. We are a grassroots Methuen, MA-based poetry writers group that seeks to enhance our growing cultural community by providing an outlet for creative people living in and around the area; and by sponsoring and taking part in public readings, workshops and literary festivals around the Merrimack Valley. Our first anthology Songs from the Castle’s Remains is available on Amazon.
What are you currently working on?
I will be presenting at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival this Spring. My panel presentation this year is called: Master/Mistress/Mystery: The Poetry of Gender Nonconformity. Here is more on the panel: The freedom to define what gender means has expanded greatly over the past century, with fashion, feminism and LGBTQ liberation each opening new doors. Psychology recognizes that gender identity is not always guided by appearance, while surgical procedures and hormonal therapies allow those of us who make that choice to express our gender identities in physical terms.
How do poets explore and reveal gender in these changing times? Can imaginative use of poetic tropes help us as individuals and as a society better understand masculine and feminine, and their every combination, even as each generation redefines these terms?
Four gender nonconforming poets (CA Conrad, Joy Ladin, Steven Riel, Pilar Quintana) will read from their works as they discuss how poetry interprets otherness, revealing the individual behind outward appearances and actions, allowing for understanding and acceptance, and enabling us to define who we are for others, and for ourselves.
The 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival will be held April 29 – May 1 in historic downtown Salem.
I fear the worm
because it has no gender.
It chooses its gender at will.
It will never be told
what is proper behavior
what is proper attire
what befits it.
I fear the worm
because it is
Free of titles
and Spanish adjectives
that make it so
I can never be happy
unless I am
reluctant to concede
calls the worm “he”.
But it is no more a he
than the earth it penetrates
is a she.
It is an ambiguous thing
and gives birth as it pleases.
Cover your shame
with fig leaves
and call yourselves
The worm plows the earth regardless.
Answering to no one