"#morelove. always":

Reading Smokii Sumac's Transmasculine First Nations Poetry on and beyond Social Media

 

 

JAMES MACKAY

 

 

queer bright

ktunaxa and proud

two spirit is a

responsibility a

relationship with

all of creation

but most of all with myself

and i'm just learning

to be kind to be

unapologetic so

please let me breathe deep

into who i am

            (Sumac 14)[1] [2]

 

Smokii Sumac is a member of the ?Akisq'nuk Band of the Ktunaxa Nation as well as a citizen of Canada, a poet whose excitable generosity of spirit shows in the dedication of his debut collection you are enough: poems for the end of the world (2018) to more than 125 individually named people (some of them likely non-human). In a review essay written for Transmotion in 2017, and therefore coterminous with the creation of that book, Sumac describes himself as follows:

I am queer, nonbinary, transmasculine, and a poet. I am a writer, a PhD Candidate, and an instructor of Indigenous literatures and creative writing. I am cat-dad, an auntie, an uncle, a sibling, and a child. I am hyper-aware that even as I write this, my experience of gender is shifting, changing, and growing. ("Two Spirit and Queer Indigenous Resurgence" 168)

This series of identities is given in a way that both complicates and refines Sumac's original description of himself as Two-Spirit, and goes a long way to explaining the joyfully expansive sense of multiplying identities that resonates throughout you are enough—which also includes reflections on being a recovering addict and self-harmer. Sumac is clear that Two-Spiritedness in itself is not a noun of identity so much as it is a verb of performing responsibility, and that this responsibility is specifically decolonial. In so doing he shares in a long lineage of Two-Spirit writing that seeks, in Qwo-Li Driskill's phrase, "a return to and/or continuance of the complex realities of gender and sexuality that are ever-present in both the human and more-than-human world" (55), and which have been disrupted by the colonial project.

            There are also some distinctions that need to be made when thinking about Sumac's writing in such a context. Much previous scholarship on Two-Spirit voices has concentrated, rightly, on the ways that creators such as Chrystos, Beth Brandt, Maurice Kenny and Paula Gunn Allen primarily work to overcome erasure. Such an attitude can be detected in the defiant title of Chrystos's first collection, Not Vanishing (1988), or when Janice Gould describes a feeling of "being disloyal and disobedient to the patriarchal injunction that demands our silence and invisibility," for example, just for "speaking about lesbian love" (32). Craig Womack's novel Drowning in Fire (2001), published only twenty years ago and one of the first full-length novels with an LGBT Native American protagonist was marketed as "groundbreaking and provocative." And Lisa Tatonetti, in an overview of thirty years of the journal SAIL, observes that academic criticism's explicit engagement with queer contexts did not emerge for the first twenty years of the journal's existence: it is only with Qwo-Li Driskill's 2004 essay "Stolen From Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic" that "conversations about sovereignty and sexuality entwine" (Tatonetti 154).

However, a strong focus on erasure does not quite do justice to the current situation. Sumac is not contemporaneous with the group described above, but is rather a part of a new generation, inheritors of decades of activism. While homophobia, transphobia and settler erasure of Indigenous identities very much remain active forces in 21st century Canada, Sumac and his peers are able to access far greater resources and longer traditions of LGBTQIA+ (and particularly Two-Spirit) writing. With the sole exception of Max Wolf Valerio, discussed by Lisa Tatonetti elsewhere in this special issue, there are almost no literary transmasculine Indigenous forebears for him to draw upon. Yet there are far greater resources than would have been available even a decade previously, including historical recovery work and contemporary trans* Indigenous groups.[3] Gwendolywn Benaway demonstrates this in her essay "Ahkii: A Woman is a Sovereign Land" not only by being able to discuss trans* historical personages and provide archive photographs of trans* people, but also by noting that one of the problems she encounters is that her interlocuters "don't want to wear the label of racist or transphobe" (114). In other words, while people with transphobic views continue to have powerful platforms, it is transphobia that is now increasingly seen as a cause of shame in mainstream culture. Sumac's short career as a writer also includes working with an entirely Indigenous publisher, Kegedonce, which had been promoting First Nations voices for twenty five years when it accepted his manuscript. He has also won Indigenous Voices Awards in both the inaugural year of that crowd-funded Indigenous-only prize and the following year. All of this makes for a better and more public support system than any Indigenous trans* writer of even a decade previously could have enjoyed.

            In this article I explore the effects and ramifications of one specific venue for that community. Sumac's poetic practice is, I would argue, intimately bound up with social media. In an interview we conducted in February 2020, he confirmed that many of the poems from the collection were first posted to his Facebook account under the hashtag #haikuaday and that publication had not originally been a goal (Mackay, 120). It was only after meeting people who had enjoyed the poems that he decided to collect them, and his publisher also approached him after becoming aware of the poems on social media. He was also clear that social media affected the form, stating in interview that "At one point my editor said, 'I don't know why you have a period in some places and why in some you don't.' And I said, 'Well, because they were all written on Facebook!'" (120). As I explain below, even the cover of the collection is inspired by social media, being modelled on an Instagram feed. Clearly Sumac is comfortable within digital environments, and finds them both nurturing and sustaining. One could even argue that the social media environment has worked its way into the very language of the book: in creating the word cloud I explore in the final section, I discovered that the second most common word in the book, iterated 76 times across 98 pages of poems, is "like."[4]

There are many further ways in which spaces such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter are very far from being neutral areas for self-exploration. Designed to maximise user interaction, the better to generate data to sell to their customers, the platforms utilise complex machine algorithms to determine the placement of content within the feed, literally determining how many other people will see anything self-published on the platform. The result is the creation of millions of mini-communities, each centred on one person, in which the platform and the individual collaborate to filter out unpleasantness. The environment itself is characterised by, among other things, the haptic experience of users sliding their finger across a smartphone and receiving feedback in the form of vibration and sound alerts, the stress on "clean" design elements in each of the major platforms, and the fact that these platforms are available 24/7, often as an escape from boredom or stressful situations, all of which further serve to alienate the user from everyday life in the service of multinational corporations' mission to monetise everyday life.

In this article, then, I intend to explore the ways that Sumac creates a Two-Spirit transmasculine role for the 21st century within such an environment. I begin by looking at the cultural implications of Sumac's choice of cover images, comparing these with the choices of his trans* poet peers, and use this as the springboard to a discussion of Sumac's use of social media tropes, particularly hashtags, that situate his poetry as the product of a specifically digital environment. This, I argue, is simultaneously a welcoming space for trans* and Indigenous people to find community and develop communal identities unaffected by physical distance, and also a space that carries particular dangers not only for both groups, but also for creative artists, in its flattening of affect. Finally, I look at the poet's use of natural environments and images, and the ways that these function to balance and indigenize a shifting and uncertain digital no-space.

 

Cover Story

Recent years have seen a surge in the number of poetry collections, chapbooks and anthologies of poetry by writers who identify as trans*. While this genre cannot be said to have become widespread enough to be predictable, a certain sameness does seem to have crept into the covers for trans* authors' work. In making this statement I draw on two sources: the GoodReads list titled "Poetry collections by trans / nonbinary / genderqueer etc. non-cis authors" (Takács 2017), which as of June 2020 contained a sampling of 139 such collections, and the finalists for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Transgender Poetry since 2015 ("Previous Winners"). Four major strands of cover design stand out. First, as is common in 21st century publishing, some collections, such as those from Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Kari Edwards, Elijah Pearson and Melissa Jennings, opt for simple typography as the major visual element of their covers (Figure A). A particularly common trope (which may also reflect general trends in poetry publishing, but seems particularly motivated in the case of transgender authors) sees covers use abstract or non-figurative art to suggest concepts of change (Figure B), with a positively deleuzoguattarian visual language that emphasises rhizomatic lines of flight (Ching-In Chen, Xandria Philips, Andrea Abi-Karam), holes (Jos Charles, Yanyi), or maps and/as rhizomes (Ryka Aoki, Ashe Vernon & Trista Mateer). Other covers depict the human figure, but use stylized art to situate it as becoming or escaping, as in the examples from Gwen Benaway, Joy Ladin, Kayleb Rae Candrilli and Max Wolf Valerio, as well as TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson's edited collection (Figure C). This trend is developed in the last major strain of cover art, where the poet them/him/herself is the subject (Figure D). As can be seen from these examples from Vivek Shraya, Morgan Robyn Collado, Pat Califia, DarkMatter, Dane Figueroa Edidi and Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, the self-presentation is designed to highlight a singular identity as genderqueer and/or trans*. These photographs emphasise the writer's completeness, self-awareness and comfort under (or in defiance of) the world's gaze, something that suggests a journey either finished or at least having reached a way station.

 

Of Mongrelitude, Julian Talamantez Brolaski 1395185 21939895 35014002. sy475

FIGURE A – Typographical covers

 

https://www.spdbooks.org/Content/Site106/ProductImages/9780932716866.jpg36904326https://images-production.bookshop.org/spree/images/attachments/883468/original/9781643620084.jpg?158855785433258761. sy475 14289386https://images-production.bookshop.org/spree/images/attachments/6293157/original/9780300242645.jpg?1588364664https://images-production.bookshop.org/spree/images/attachments/8239093/original/9780932716897.jpg?1588012219A Place Called No Homeland - Kindle edition by Thom, Kai Cheng ...

FIGURE B – Rhizomes, holes, maps, lines of flight

 

39741858Impersonation by Joy Ladin (2015-04-03): Amazon.com: Bookshttps://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51uSrBIxx1L._SX479_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTroubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics ...38890562. sx318     

FIGURE C – Abstract bodies

28818619 22736645 125484 25599599. sy475  33808505 40033196. sy475      

FIGURE D - Portraits

            you are enough: poems for the end of the world (2018), Smokii Sumac's debut collection, clearly stands at a distance from all four of these possible trends. As in

41677143. sy475 Morgan Robyn Collado's cover, reprinted here, the poet becomes his own subject in a number of poses. But where Collado's photos are staged performances of her identity as a LatinX working-class femme, Sumac's are candid and seem like a collage of personal photographs. Unlike almost any other trans* poet that I have been able to find, Sumac's cover—which he confirmed in our interview he was heavily involved in designing—does not frame the body as either in a state of becoming via abstraction, or in a state of arrival via decisive self-presentation to the camera. Rather, these photographs create a multi-faceted and intimate portrait, with Sumac presenting in different shots as butch, femme, Indigenous, white-passing, playfully queer, or serious. The flatness of the format and the non-chronological sequencing of the images means that no identity is privileged, with the possible exception of the first top left photograph of Sumac wearing some particularly gorgeous "watercolor earrings" by Navajo jeweller Meek Watchman, which clearly signify as American Indian art and hence emphasise indigeneity.[5] Certainly there is no sense of a journey with either definitive start point or destination. Instead, the interleaving of photos of landscape and natural features declares a more definitive sense that the poet has nowhere to travel to, since he already belongs to this Indigenous land.

Significantly for the discussion in this article, the grid of squares pattern is also very reminiscent of the Instagram platform. Indeed, some of the photographs show up as posts on Sumac's publicly available Instagram account. Instagram also gives further evidence of the fact that he takes great care over visual as well as verbal self-presentation, as the following screen shots of artfully staged and arranged photographs attest:

           

 

           

Sumac, as a millennial and digital native, is at ease with the visual grammars of the internet, and his Instagram presence shows some familiarity with the specific form that poetry has taken in the social media age, while the cover design analysed above demonstrates the interpenetration of social media and poetic presences. In itself this is not surprising: Sumac is a millennial writer, after all, and it is almost part of the job description for a modern poet to keep their social media game on point. However, as I indicated in the introduction, such digital spaces are far from neutral.

 

Being Two-Spirit and Trans* Online

 

Something most cisgender people won't know about, when they read this story, is the wealth of knowledge and connection that the internet has given transgender people (and Indigenous people, for that matter, and I'm sure there are many other people who face different forms of oppression who can say the same.) (Sumac, "Just Make Me Look Like Aquaman")

 

            There is a surprising lacuna concerning digital spaces in Jack Halberstam's otherwise comprehensive discussion of gender variability, Trans* (2018). Although he thoroughly discusses issues such as the perceived tensions between radical feminist ideology and trans* identities, the difficulties of representing the transitioning body, and the challenges that trans* identities throw up for concepts of family relationships, the digital landscape is mentioned only briefly and always in dismissive asides. Indeed, Halberstam seems to find anything to do with the internet annoying: the fact that "today Facebook famously offers you fifty-one ways of identifying yourself on their site" (6) comes in for some mockery, while in a chapter on the difference between the various generations of trans* people there is a clear resistance to pesky youngsters "increasingly discover[ing] information about themselves online" rather than learning directly from older activists now seen as "as potential predators [...] and viewed with suspicion" (64). This may reflect a changing dynamic in the 21st century. Surgical and hormonal interventions to correct and reassign gender have been available throughout the 20th century, beginning with Karl Meir Baer's pioneering surgery in 1906, and continuing through such cases as Alan L. Hart and Michael Dillon, while trans* people have been recorded throughout human history, including ceremonial or sacred third gender roles such as the Omani khanith, Indian hijira or Thai kathoey. But as Halberstam observes:

If I had known the term "transgender" when I was a teenager in the 1970s, I'm sure I would have grabbed hold of it like a life jacket on rough seas, but there were no such words in my world. Changing sex for me and for many people my age was a fantasy, a dream, and because it had nothing to do with our realities, we had to work around this impossibility and create a home for ourselves in bodies that were not comfortable or right in terms of who we understood ourselves to be. (1)

Given this history, it is easy to see that the digital interconnectedness of the 21st century has changed trans* lives in the West out of all recognition. As opposed to having to seek out specific locations and subcultures usually based in heavily populated urban centres (for instance the New York ballroom scene or the Polari-speaking drag cultures of 1950's London), young trans* people are now easily able to connect with one another across the planet, to inform themselves about gender dysphoria and their legal rights, and to investigate multiple possible modalities of trans* expression. In previous decades the common trope of being "born in the wrong body" continued to reinforce a binaristic view of sex, in that the trans* body was seen as an error of biology that could be corrected, with the surgically altered body sent out to fulfil a destiny as a now heterosexual woman or man (it should be understood that I am discussing public perception here, not reality). But with the coming of the internet and its potential for building communities of often anonymous yet like-minded people, new potentialities for trans* figuration came into view. As one of Richard Ekins and Dave King's informants, Janice, puts it, "It was the Internet effect: that no matter how small a minority you belong to, you could at last find your community" (28). Andre Cavalcante makes the point that in the digital age transgender people have had "access to hundreds of transgender themed websites, online forums, and chat rooms in seconds," and that as such the digital world has formed a welcoming space for trans* people to experiment with different identities (114). Indeed, the internet is "central to surviving and thriving" for trans* people, Cavalcante argues, as it is often easier to work, date and just hang out in virtual spaces, which provide space not just for big issues such as "gender reassignment surgery and political advocacy," but also for "the smaller, mundane issues that define everyday life such as clothes shopping" (117; 119).

Sumac clearly participates in such digital economies. In one poem, for instance, he describes himself as a "trans tribe grindr dream" (33), while in another he mentions learning from the online magazine Autostraddle, while yet another mentions "Chase Ross, youtuber and trans 101er" (36), referring to the author of a Youtube series that includes such titles such as "Pre-packed Underwear for Trans Masc Folks (GMP) Review" (2019). The entire poem is even dedicated to a web company, Transthetics, which manufactures products for transmasculine men. Such positioning in virtual spaces does not only take place in poems focussed on transition. Advocacy and political work for First Nations and environmental causes also requires investment in digital identities. So one poem mentions, for instance, the hashtagged campaign for "#justiceforcolten," referring to the campaign following the acquittal of Colten Boushie's murderer (43), while others mention "Trying to stay offline / news i can't look away from" (52), and a morning routine where the poet needs to "block a few people / unfollow more / politics" (91). More significantly, the entire collection is structured into six sections, each titled with a hashtag – "#nogoseries": "#courting"; "#theworld"; "#recovery"; "#ceremony"; "#forandafter" – suggesting a view of the world heavily mediated by social media experience. Additional evidence comes in the form of an essay written by Sumac in 2015 about the #IdleNoMore movement, in which he recalls "tweeting and Facebooking the hashtag along with thousands of people across the world," and states that "For me, Idle No More created a sense of Indigenous community that I had never been a part of before, and it did so through social media" (98-99).[6] Although as I will explore later in this article Indigenous identities have a complex relationship to the digital world, Sumac clearly has found social media to be as nurturing a space for First Nations collaborations as it is productive for the development of trans* identities, as he explains in the quote that begins this section.

However, if the digital landscape in Sumac's work is generally positive and uplifting, that does not mean that there are no challenges to negotiate. While the studies I previously quoted held that the online community of the 1990's and early 2010's contained revolutionary potential, others argue that the effect of social media and increased trans* visibility has been to "unqueer" trans* discourse through a fixation on narratives of passing (Siebler 81). Kay Siebler, for example, suggests that "Transgender bodies are discussed, displayed, and regulated much more rigidly on the Internet than the physical bodies of others within the queer community" (83). Some of the blame for this, Siebler suggests, can be placed at the door of dating apps which prioritise physical description, on chat room discourse which centres on shorthand such as A/S/L, and on companies which seek to profit by selling products designed to assist in passing. We can see ripples from these pressures in the four poems that finish the #courting section of you are enough. The section as a whole has been structured around questions of love, consent and acceptance (particularly in the central poem "at 29 i lie naked on the beach and think of you," to which I return below), finishing with the poem sequence "haiku / consent series or / #makesexgreatthefirsttime" (27-31), and its imperative to "forget the bad sex / I want to read the good."[7] The last sequence takes up a specifically trans* journey into sexuality, with the first poem consisting of the speaker's first use of the app Grindr following a name change and beginning HRT. In this interaction he is literally reduced to a body part:

question \ \ ftm / / question

"do you have a penis or a vagina?"
question
"i love bonus hole boys" (33)

 

The four poems seem to have been ordered in line with the poet's transition. In the first the poet is a "bonus hole boy" who has his lover "slide into you" (the poem is written in the second person). In the second he mentions purchasing a strap-on harness as a replacement for one stolen by a previous lover, but specifically ties it to a queer rather than trans* identity by mentioning learning how to wear a harness from the magazine Autostraddle. The third poem is a depiction of mutual erotic ecstasy ("we didn't even / notice / the power was out"), while the fourth and final poem, self-explanatorily titled "'do you want to take the Cadillac for a ride?': Or: a love letter to Transthetics / the company that made my prosthetic dick," makes the speaker's pleasure in his new penis clear ("I look down // and I am transformed" (36)).

            Siebler sees such narratives as reinscriptions of conventional ideas of gender. While trans* visibility has increased, and there are many examples of entirely positive representations of trans* experience in contemporary media, the inherent reductionism of digital chatrooms feeds into a general emphasis on the correction of the misgendered body. Siebler argues that "Today transgender people see hormones and surgery as a way to 'pass' in a heteronormative world that mandates a rigid gender/sex binary" (77), becoming willing and active consumers within a capitalist model that sees trans* bodies as sites for profit. Sumac's poem, in such a view, partakes of the fantasy that a pharmacocapitalist product is necessary to transform and thus improve a person, literally becoming an advertisement for a company where the owner, himself a transman, promises that "where there's a willy, there's a way! :)" (Alix). Chase Ross, the YouTuber Sumac mentions, is one among many who have posted regular updates on their transition over a ten year period: such video series, structured in part to fit the algorithmically-controlled environment of Youtube, form a kind of spectacularisation and regulation of the ftm trans* body.[8] Sumac, too, confesses to having made – but not posted – a "this is my voice 1 month on T" video, and to have spent much time on the trans* internet watching such transition videos. Where Susan Stryker sees a potential in trans* studies to "denaturise and dereify the terms through which we ground our own genders," the digital world has in Siebler's reading ended up re-reifying precisely those concepts of gender that emerged from the Enlightenment period of taxonomisation that is so bound up with colonial and imperial thinking (63). To say this is not in any way to invalidate trans* personhood, but it is to ask whether trans* identity is not itself in danger of being colonised by an overly medicalised capitalist discourse which uses marketing techniques to externalise and "solve" a specific mode of being. If Sumac's aim in you are enough is to find a way to a poetic identity that is not only transmasculine but also "queer bright / ktunaxa and proud / two spirit," with that poem's implied challenge to whitestream cultures, then this flattening of potential represents a real danger to his project.[9] Sumac's resistance to this discursive reductionism can be seen at the end of "'do you want to take the Cadillac for a ride?'" where the speaker's transition is not in fact achieved with a prosthetic, but rather with a sexual connection to another person – "and with her, I am transformed" (38).

A similar issue might exist with the sense of "Indigenous community" that Sumac found through social media and hashtag activism. The phrase, which also turns up a lot in discussion of the similarly internet-boosted #NoDAPL protests, carries inherent challenges in its singularity, given the wide diversity of Indigenous cultures found in North America. Gerald Vizenor, for one, has warned frequently and loudly of the dangers of collapsing all tribal identities into a single indian signifier: however, in this case the pressure is less one created in the self-justifications of settler societies, and more the result of a specific and ever-narrowing tendency of digital spaces towards monoculture. As of 2020, most of the top social media sites most visited from the Canadian region (e.g. Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube) use some form of algorithm to rank and prioritise content, as do commercial sites such as Amazon. (Wikipedia, the main searchable source of algorithm-free information, has its own issues with a non-diverse editor base.) This environment introduces an inevitable and systemic set of biases. The racist and misogynistic potentials of Big Data processing have been comprehensively covered by researchers such as Safiya Umoja Noble, who notes that many "algorithmically driven data failures [...] are specific to people of color and women" (4). But the more subtle and insidious effect of social media is in the filtering and narrowing of experience and of the potential for expressions of difference in communal "bubbles" defined by a high degree of social homophily, especially in the context of a platform designed to maximize user engagement via manipulation of dopamine release in compulsion loops (Deibert 29). In the context of First Nations cultures specifically, there is a potential danger of a loss of cultural diversity within a heavily online group, driven away from tribal plurality by the algorithm into a pan-Indian average of user preferences.

There is a specific danger for Indigenous Two-Spirit youth in the existence of highly stratified digital spaces, moreover. This is exemplified at the start of Joshua Whitehead's novel Jonny Appleseed (2018). The eponymous Jonny, "Two-Spirit Indigiqueer and NDN glitter princess," moves in the first two pages from masturbating over late-night silent pirate TV showings of Queer as Folk, through listening to "Dan Savage and Terry Miller on the internet telling me that it gets better," to hooking up on the internet via "Facebook and cellphones [and]... chatrooms on a gaming website," to "the photo-sharing apps and cam sites" that allow him to make money as a virtual sex worker (7-8). While the internet has allowed him to self-actualize, it also leads to his leaving the reserve—where he has been the subject of homophobic abuse and assault (91-92)—and operating in a Grindr world of non-Natives that constantly fetishize his First Nations citizenship ("everyone on that damn app was obsessed with New Age shit like [...] hipster shamans who collect crystals and geodes looking for an NDN to solidify their sorcery"(18)). As in Sumac's poetry, the digital therefore becomes a space that is both appealingly accepting and potentially threatening both to tribal autonomy and also tribal nations' cultural integrity. How Sumac navigates this challenge from online no-space will be the subject of the final part of this article, but for now I want to turn to a third area in which the digital space may be said to influence production—in this case not just to content but also to form.

 

The poetry of likes

The popularity of poetry on social media, particularly Instagram, in the past decade has been unprecedented. While popular poetry has always existed, the sales of poets who first came to prominence via the Instagram platform have been incredibly strong, especially in the case of previously unknown writers. The standout is Rupi Kaur, whose collections milk and honey (2015) and the sun and her flowers (2017) have not left the Amazon top ten list for poetry sales since publication. Her publisher, Andrews McMeel, has become a central player in poetry publishing, having published collections by r h sin, Amanda Lovelace, Courtney Peppernell, Najwa Zebian and Pierre Alex Jeanty among many others. Often these writers are labelled "Instapoets," a term that both recognizes their emergence from the Instagram platform and also serves to denigrate much of their writing as instant and disposable—for this reason, the label is frequently rejected by poets such as Lang Leav (Shah). However, there are commonalities in this group beyond their mode of production.

Posts to the Instagram platform depend on visual appearance for gaining likes and shares. The power of the instant feedback loop such likes provide can be seen in the fact that Instagram executives in 2019 felt the need to begin hiding likes on accounts based in Canada, in a bid to protect the mental health of its users (Yurieff). As mentioned before, such likes have a physical effect in the dispensation of dopamine, and it seems reasonable that this would affect poetic practice, encouraging writers to reach as wide an audience as possible by removing complexity from their work. The Instagram feed of Tyler Knott Gregson, where he has published over 3,000 typewritten poems and almost as many daily calligraphed love haiku, shows the rote mechanical effect of such a practice (this is only a short excerpt):

Gregson is unashamedly commercial, as are his fellow Instapoets r.h. sin (Reuben Holmes) and r.m. drake (Robert Macias), the latter of whom in fact denies that he is a poet at all. A better example of the pressure to produce particular types of content can be seen in the Instagram feed of the Dené poet Tenille Campbell, who Sumac name-checks as an inspiration in finding self-love (36), and with whom Sumac collaborated on the essay "Just Make Me Look Like Aquaman." Campbell, a photographer as well as an academic and poet, curates her feed to alternate between images usually drawn from nature, and short poems, as in the screengrab below:

If, crudely, the success of a poem on Instagram can be judged by the number of people inspired to demonstrate that they like it by clicking a heart icon below the poem, then it is very noticeable that the longer and more complex nature poem at the top of this selection had garnered only 403 likes by the 3rd August 2020, and the poem at the bottom with the racial signifiers gained 749. The middle poems, on the other hand, with their lack of specificity and superficially feminist message, had scored 834 likes for the right-hand poem and 1,136 for the one on the left. In other words, the more the poem fits an image of a self-empowered and sexually autonomous woman, the more cultural capital it accrues—and, unlike previous generations of writers, social media poets receive such feedback in real time. As Millicent Lovelock remarks in a conference paper, à propos Rupi Kaur:

her frequent use of simple, direct, and unambiguous language on the subject of trauma and healing can be understood [...] as a reproduction of a pervasive neoliberalism which centres the self as a site of labour and ignores the specific societal conditions which might produce trauma.

Instagram's machine learning generated algorithm prioritizes posts for display that other users are more likely to "like," based on a complex series of factors including who else has already liked those posts or other posts by the same user with similar hashtags. The effect for any one writer on any one poem is arguable at best, but the overall pressure is undeniable. And this is not just true as regards content, but it also applies to form. Instapoets specialize in short poems that are brief and direct, such as the haiku—at least, the anglicized version of the haiku, which requires only attention to syllable count and often does not pay attention to the Japanese form's requirement for kigo or kireji—and simple free-form verses formed from one or two sentences with little or no attention paid to metrical patterning.

            Facebook, where Sumac's poetic journey began, differs from Instagram in that there is less of a visual element and users are mostly only broadcasting to "friends" and followers on the site (hashtags being only a small element of Facebook interaction), meaning a more focused audience, but the pressure towards small word counts and direct statements exerted by the "like" function and by the requirement to generate a poem for public consumption per day still remains. Some of Sumac's poems certainly have the direct simplicity of Instapoetry, as in this example:


offer what i can
but emotional labour
takes its toll
rest now (61)

 

Or this:

 

"we have everything we need"
when you said it that first time
it took everything to try and believe
but when i woke up today
angry that they tried to make me forget it
i think i understand

i am everything i need (67)

 

Claire Albrecht coins the term "therapoeia" to describe the trend of social media poetry, driven by the pressures outlined above, towards "readymade self-love and acceptance," particularly poetry created by millennial and Gen-Z writers in Western societies among whom levels of anxiety and depression are at an all-time high (Albrecht). Sumac, who devotes one of the six sections of the book to "depression and addiction" and who has been open about his own struggles with such conditions, certainly enters this mode many times. These fragments are not presented as discrete poems, and this fact forces them into dialogue with the greater complexities of identity and belonging in other poems in the collection: nonetheless, their existence demonstrates that Sumac's poetry is subject to some of the flattening of affect observed in Instapoetry. While the digital environment that shaped his early poems certainly has not had a completely deadening effect on his writing (one only needs to compare Sumac's syllabic control to the free-form chopped-up prose of a Courtney Peppernell to see this), certainly it makes sense to situate him within this community of digital creatives.[10]

As with the previous discussions of online trans* and pan-Indigenous communities, it is not my intention to demonize social media poetry. Not only is poetry publishing globally in a rare rude state of health following the success of the Instapoets, but the genre has created an opening for voices who have rarely been at the forefront of English language writing in settler cultures. Young female voices of colour from immigrant communities are particularly strongly represented, including Rupi Kaur (born in India), Najwa Zebian (Lebanon), and Lang Leav (Cambodia), none of whom, crucially, centre their writing on their experience as ethnic or gender minority subjects. As Leav pointed out to me in an email, the seemingly unmediated level of access provided by social media has also allowed for a generation of working class voices to be appreciated by a wide audience, where such voices might have been either excluded or ghettoized. It might also be observed that the "perform your truth" ethos of the new poetry (which also owes something to slam poetry events) benefits writers like Sumac, and other trans* poets on Instagram such as Mia Marion and Hunter Davis, in creating an audience willing to appreciate and celebrate his identity as a queer, nonbinary, transmasculine, Ktunaxa citizen. However it is obvious that an uncritical set of therapeutic generalities also carries the danger of forming what Lauren Berlant calls an "intimate public": a body of sentimental texts bound by a common recognition of pain, which gives its readers "permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire" (Berlant, loc 197). Such an intimate public is "juxtapolitical" (loc 103) rather than political, usually expressing a desire to return to the conventional—one can see how the hashtag #justiceforcolten might not easily garner likes within the bright and happy space of Instagram in the same way it can do on Twitter.

         This is where Sumac can be clearly differentiated from the crowd of Instapoets, for you are enough is by no means purely in the mode of therapoeia, and it certainly does not always insist on establishing commonality. To explain, I compare two representative poems.  The first is from Atticus, a leading Instapoet:

 

Don't fear,                                                                her father said,

sometimes

the scary things

are beautiful as well

and the more beauty

you find in them

the less scary

they'll become. (loc. 737)

 

We are not told who the anonymous "you" of the passage is, but there seems little from the context to suggest that this is a specific person. Rather, as with the omnipresent "you" in r.h. sin's poems, this is a generic female addressee given as few markers as possible, the better to provide a blank space for the (coded female) reader to identify with. By contrast, here is a typical excerpt from Sumac on the same subject:

 

when the rest of the world grieves for a world they think is gone,

when we've awoken to a nightmare we didn't think was possible,

when i am afraid that i can't make it to the next sunrise and i

don't know if the tears will ever stop,

when smiling seems like it might be a failure.

 

on days like these i find strength in your presence—

like a lighthouse on fire in a storm i

couldn't find my way out of alone.

 

You once told me the kitchen floor is the best place to cry;

("there are hierarchies of grief," 46)

 

Both poems deal with finding the strength to move through difficult emotions. However Sumac's poem is a threnody dedicated to specific people, as evinced by the precise details that collect throughout—"your generosity flowing from fingertips on that piano you don't play." These form a private set of symbolic images, which cannot be fully comprehended by anyone who does not know the intimate details of the relationships being shown. Indigenous signifiers threaded through the poem ("i think of how you taught me to carry and take care of / the feathers" (47)) also explain what is meant by the titular hierarchies of grief, how the individual's grief is given context and weight by wider griefs at the loss of "a world." Here we see how Sumac's poetry, emerging from an online space, nonetheless avoids the weightlessness of much social media poetry by engaging with tradition and ethnicity embodied in natural imagery in phrases such as "[you] showed me where your little star so / strong brought down a tree so we could be with the / water" (47). And it is to water that I want to turn in the final section of this article, to look at the ways that Sumac uses natural spaces and ceremonial imagery to ground his poetry even in the digital context.

 

Smokii on the water

The illustration overleaf is a word cloud made up of all the words (including poem titles and individual poem dedications but excluding acknowledgments, section titles and copyright information) in the collection you are enough.[11] Such word clouds, as Samuels and McGann have argued in their article "Deformance and Interpretation," continue the work of traditional criticism in deforming the text to reveal and interpret hidden codings (152).

In the words of Amanda Heinrichs, they "suggest both an immediate, impressionistic 'grokking' of the underlying 'data patterns' of the thing they remediate and they invite the reader to perform the searching, delicate, sometimes-clumsy work of meaning-making that is close reading" (408). Certainly such digital methods seem appropriate to an author whose practice I have argued is very much bound up with digital contexts. And indeed a list of the most common words in Sumac's writing, in order of frequency, practically becomes a new poem in its own right:

Word

Weight

now

82

like

76

just

61

love

58

time

53

know

52

will

51

one

45

can

44

see

41

still

39

think

39

enough

33

way

32

back

31

First

31

Home

30

 

This "tabular poem" already shows the simplicity of language in Sumac's poetry and its major themes of desire and the (re)claiming of space as home. A look at the full database confirms this initial impression: the vast majority of words are common monosyllables, and the primary verbs almost all express either emotion or introspection for personal growth ("love," "know," "think," "feel," "need," 'breathe," "learn"). But a second word cloud, this time concentrating on nouns, is more revealing:[12]

Many of the most significant words of the collection, as can be clearly seen, are to do with time and seasonality. In particular, the combination of "moon," "time," (and time-related words such as "today," "day," "night"), "heart" and "body" show, I believe, Sumac's investment in a cyclical temporality and in images of renewal: one poem-fragment reads, for example, "this will be last time / the next time we come" (20). The frequent use of "way" and other travel signifiers also show that Sumac, a poet who is deeply invested in ideas of home, sees being "at home" not as stasis but as a form of movement, often in the form of interior development. Of course, these sentiments are shared widely in therapoeic social media poetry. Take, for instance, this untitled poem by r.h. sin, though there are an almost infinite number of possible examples:

10.8k Likes, 60 Comments - r.h. Sin (@r.h.sin) on Instagram: “from the book  “ i hope this reaches her i… | Tattoo quotes about strength, Flower quotes,  Words quotes

More interesting is the prominent appearance of the word "moon". Another excerpt from Sumac's poems demonstrates the personal symbolism behind this word:

 

and so i chased the sunset driving against my instinct back east and
south and up that big hill past the teaching lodge where i went to my
first full moon ceremony to pray for the journey this body was about to
start

 

While the moon functions as a female symbol in many cultures, frequently due to a cultural association between menstrual and lunar phases, here Sumac relates such natural cycles to his transition to masculinity. As he puts it in his article "Just Make Me Look Like Aquaman": "The gender binary has consumed my ability to understand that the moon is not judging me; I am. The moon still shows her face to me. The moon still holds me like the tides." The same article also states that this was his only full moon ceremony, implying a potential goodbye to femininity.

As can be seen from the second word cloud above, other words relating to natural phenomena ("skin," "sun," "fire," "blood") are used frequently in his writing, nowhere more so than in the "#ceremony" section, in which poems on just the first page celebrate "the kiss of the prairie moon," "river rocks" and "tap[ping] the snow off cedar" (85). Such use of natural imagery within a ceremonial context serves to ground Sumac's writing in a specifically Indigenous, land-based system of belief, and acts as a strong counter-measure to the digital flattening effect traced above. It is also significant that in his poems Sumac gives very few details about the actual ceremonies. This honours the spiritual imperatives against sharing with outsiders common across pan-Indian religions, allowing Sumac instead to discuss the spiritual and ethical lessons learned from the land ("the mountains told me / carry knowing in your body (92)).[13]

For a special issue primarily concerned with trans* and Two-Spirit writing, perhaps the most significant natural symbol Sumac uses—another word that is repeated frequently—is "water." This focus on water imagery may reflect elements of Ktunaxa cultural understandings and/or Ktunaxa politics, as like many First Nations the Ktunaxa government are often in negotiation with settler authorities for de jure and de facto access to and use of waterways within their ancestral homelands (see, e.g., Locke and McKinney 204). More, it should be remembered that the collection was written in the shadow of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, hashtagged #noDAPL, in which the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies argued that the proposed (and now operational) oil pipeline represented a serious threat to the tribal nation's water supply and to waterways guaranteed under treaty, so water was a major element of pan-Indigenous discourse at the time.  However the poem "at 29 i lie naked on the beach and think of you" (24), perhaps the most confrontational piece in the entire collection, shows that Sumac feels he has a more direct and intimate relationship with water. In this poem, placed within the pivotal "#courting" section and one of the first poems in the collection with a specified title, Sumac's speaker remembers an ex-lover ("and i saw you on instagram smiling at pride. // you, the baby dyke / that doesn't even like going down").  The speaker undresses himself on a beach and walks to the water, observed by a voyeuristic older man who "just sits, his erection and my knowing / between us," a form of attention that places him in a position of power, and in fact seemingly empowers him towards the realisation that "i am someone you could never understand." Although the "you" of this statement is superficially the ex-lover, it also seems to be aimed at the reader and maybe even contains a realisation for the speaker himself, as in the next line he enters the cold water, which absorbs his tears of loss and anger. After a momentary dissolution into pain, the speaker is reborn—an idea that, Sumac makes clear, is not an uncomplicated one for an adoptee ("this gasp is like the one i took bursting forth from the womb of a woman / who wouldn't even look at me"). The poem ends with the speaker celebrating his "ktunaxa skin," buoyed up by the water.

The significance of this image-memory for Sumac can be seen in the fact that, after entering transition, he re-staged the scene of stripping off and entering the water in a photo-essay collaboration, ""Just Make Me Look Like Aquaman": An Essay on Seeing Myself," which appeared on the blog "tea & bannock" in February 2020.[14] Although the voyeuristic male gaze is absent, Sumac in the series of photographs for this piece is again being witnessed, this time by the photographer Tenille Campbell, and again sees a bald eagle (mizigi) flying overhead. In a progression of images, he disrobes and eventually faces the camera. In the accompanying text, Sumac discusses harder truths about his life that are only glanced at in the poems of you are enough—"the molestation at 12, the rapes at 15, 17, 21"—which clearly underscore the elements of rage and grief in the earlier poem. As in "at 29 i lie naked on the beach and think of you," Sumac as "Aquaman" again conveys an experience of transcendence, but this time frames it more academically in terms of overcoming more familiar representations of Native American peoples in mainstream culture ("Too many people still want to photograph the Indians with their own Edward Curtis-like agenda."). A transmasculine man, his breasts clearly on display, standing thigh-deep in the ocean with his prosthetic penis touching the water, is nobody's "vanishing" Chief Joseph: Sumac affirms his Two-Spirited transmasculinity as being a native product of North American Indigenous lands, a gesture of profound survivance.

 

Conclusion

At the beginning of this article, I demonstrated the ways in which Sumac's art was founded in, and is in some ways a product of, a digital landscape, particularly of certain social media platforms. I argued that this landscape continued to have an effect on the finished product, and that this could be seen in the cover imagery, the actual form and language of the poems, and in some of the ways that Indigenous and trans* themes were approached in the poems. I gave some air time to the arguments of Kay Siebler, who argues that a loss of queer potential was occurring through an algorithmically driven pharmacocapitalist environment that enforced a new form of gender normativity for young trans* people, and extended this discussion to incorporate concerns regarding the algorithmic manipulation of Indigenous communities online and the flattening of affect seen in popular poetry generated for a click and like economy. I am aware of the risk that, being as I am a white male cishet Gen-X scholar born into privileges of class, race, sexuality and gender, my negative feelings about social media and changing identities may simply reflect the usual generational concerns about a changing world and young people today, but I have provided evidence from a number of different sources to justify this investigation. As someone who is not Ktunaxa or First Nations, and cannot bring either detailed knowledge or experience of ceremony to bear, I have also chosen to focus on those elements of Sumac's poetry which particularly stand out to me, which I acknowledge may also be a by-product of my having been in the limited digital Facebook audience for early versions of some of his poems.

What the final section of this article begins to demonstrate, however, is the way in which Sumac's work not only embraces all of the identities to which I referred in the introduction, but also starts to weave them into a coherent whole. Water and moon imagery, both universals but ones that carry particular meanings in the poet's recovered Indigenous culture, serve as springboards to assert a selfhood that can incorporate the poet's trans* present and future without rejecting his female past, an Indigenous futurity that does not ignore the poet's out-adoption and upbringing, a queer sexuality that refuses to settle into a singular label. As such, it presents the strongest possible challenge to Siebel's contention that the multiplicity and potentiality of queerness is challenged by contemporary normative trans* digital cultures, or similar concerns about the homogenising effect of digital culture on Indigenous nations. I would also contend that Sumac's writing should make us re-evaluate the practice of more mainstream/commercial Instapoets who have emerged from the social media bubble. The hashtag is a potent organising principle in Sumac's collection, both in the section names and in the #haikuaday with which it began. It should also draw our attention to the arrangement of the poems, where it is not even entirely clear where one discrete poem ends and another begins. As with hashtags in the digital world, the hashtags in Sumac's work serve to restructure the poems away from being singular units and into becoming fluid and interlinked units of a larger discussion, removing impediments to a free flow of energy and desire across his writing. As such, it represents a potent evolution of Indigenous writing into the interlinked realities of a digital world.

 

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Notes

 

[1] I would like to thank Smokii Sumac for his generous comments and feedback on an earlier version of this essay. The editors of this special issue, Danne Jobin and Kai Minosh Pyle, also gave me feedback that improved the final version, as did the anonymous peer reviewers. My gratitude to all.

[2] Sumac's collection you are enough: poems for the end of the world (2018) contains multiple untitled poems, and it is not always clear from spacing, page layout, etc., whether poems are meant to be taken separately. In this article, therefore, I will mention when a poem carries a distinct bold-text title (e.g. "five months" (90)), but will otherwise reference as though the book were a single poem.

[3] In this article I will follow the practice of Jack Halberstam in using the term trans*, where the asterisk stands in for such terms as transsexual, transgender and/or transitioning. As Halberstam explains it, the "asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity" (4). As will be seen in this article, such a refusal of narrow categorization is entirely in keeping with Smokii Sumac's poetic persona.

[4] Sumac is not the only poet inspired by this environment. Take AE Stallings's "Sestina: Like": "So we like / In order to be liked. It isn't like / There's Love or Hate now. Even plain 'dislike' // Is frowned on: there's no button for it. Like / Is something you can quantify: each 'like' / You gather's almost something money-like."

[5] Sumac credits the artist in the original Instagram post of this photograph. The description of the earrings as "Watercolor" is from Watchman's "Arial Poet" artist statement.

[6] This article was published under a different name, and is still listed as such on the journal website. However, I have chosen to follow the guidelines to avoid deadnaming in academic citation suggested by medievalist Jonah Coman. As Coman writes: "[C]oncern about your readers' ability to retrace a citation when it appears under different names is mostly misguided, and at worst malicious. The availability of quick information-finding technology enabled by the spread of the Internet has made ethically-informed citation practices possible and imperative." In other words, if any researcher wants to find the article, even though it was published under a different name, it should take them no longer than a minute to do so.

[7] There is an untitled poem on page 32 but it does not appear to be a part of the preceding sequence.

[8] The dependence of trans* Youtubers on the algorithm can be seen in the regular articles about algorithmic homophobia when a change results in the demonetization of trans* creators. See, e.g., Priddy.

[9] Sumac clearly thinks of his transmasculinity as being within but not supplanting the concept of Two-Spiritedness. This is not the only possible understanding of the relationship between these two labels. Joshua Whitehead, in an open letter titled "Why I'm Withdrawing from my Lambda Literary Award Nomination," states that "My gender, sexuality, and my identities supersede Western categorizations of LGBTQ+ because Two-Spirit is a home-calling, it is a home-coming. I note that it may be easy from an outside vantage point to read Two-Spirit as a conflation of feminine and masculine spirits and to easily, although wrongfully, categorize it as trans; I also note the appropriation of Two-Spirit genealogies by settler queerness to mark it as a reminder that Western conceptions of "queerness" have always lived due in part to the stealing of third, fourth, fifth, and fluid genders from many, although not all, Indigenous worldviews."

[10] Peppernell's Pillow Thoughts series is known for its colourful backgrounds more than it is for verbal dexterity. A sample:

[11] This image was generated using the open-access platform wordclouds.com.

[12] Given that word clouds can seem like a short cut, or even automation of literary critical work, I found it interesting how much interpretation was involved in this process. I needed to compensate for, first, the fact that in English a word such as "love" can be a noun, a verb or an adjective, dependent on context. This required using the word search function to go through the manuscript and make individual decisions. I also decided to add the scores for singular and plural forms of the same noun together, in order to more accurately reflect its importance in the manuscript, and ascribed the score to whichever form appeared more often. I mention all this to reaffirm that this is a playful and deformative practice of interpretive criticism, not an attempt at scientific objectivity.

[13] There are scant references to ceremonial signifiers such as sweat lodges, powwow and four directions, but these are not explained in detail. This decision likely also reflects the poems' intended largely Indigenous audience.

[14] I will not reproduce the images here: they should be seen in their correct sequence and context.