Poet's Award-Winning Debut Collection Explores Gender Formation

Mar 22, 2019

Growing up in Chicago, recalls S. Brook Corfman, he was unsure where he fit in a world where everyone seemed to be either male or female. 

“It was not quite clear what gender-wise I wanted, and it was not clear to anyone else sort of how to respond, per se, in the early Nineties,” says Corfman. The poet, now 28 and living in Pittsburgh, revisits that time and those issues in “luxury, blue lace,” his first full-length poetry collection. It was published by Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press as the winner of its 2018 Rising Writer Prize. (Corfman, who goes by “Sam,” is comfortable with both male-gendered pronouns and the gender-nonbinary “they.”)

The 71-page collection was inspired by a graduate workshop at the University of Pittsburgh led by acclaimed poet Dawn Lundy Martin. Corfman’s research on a somewhat different topic (“the media obsession with trans kids”) led him to dig deeper into his own childhood.

One thing he recalled was his juvenile art-making. At age 8, he says – right around the time he gave up his Little Mermaid lunchbox – his characteristic drawings of “happy kids jumping around” gave way to a sort of rudimentary abstraction: lots of geometric shapes.

Corfman calls one untitled poem from the collection “a kind of tender direct address to myself as a child, and the kind of moment at which I gave up a kind of pleasure, a kind of dream of one sort of variable future.”

Little daughter,

what did you know when you felt unnamable

 

pressure, drew shapes

instead of people, faces

 

that became blue triangles,

red squares.

 

Today I tried to draw those shapes again,

arbitrary circles,

 

and with each attempt thought, how

when I cannot even steady a line.

The “shapes” in the poem, Corfman says, become metaphors for the different forms a life can assume.

Corfman adds that his youthful art projects continued evolving. “In high school, for an art class I drew these big canvases of, like, circles and green triangles, and they were always in chains and it was all -- in looking back, it’s very kind of dramatic.”

It’s generally inadvisable with any given poem to assume that the “I” represents the poet who wrote it; the poem’s teller is often a persona. But Corfman says “luxury, blue lace” is autobiographical.

“The ‘I’ is, I think, always me -- which doesn't mean that the ‘I’ is always me now, or consistent throughout the book per se,” he says. “The big question of the book is like how many I’s live in the same speaker over time.”

Much of the collection interrogates our culture’s need to assign a single, unvarying gender to each individual. In the poem “(The Crisis II),” Corfman writes, “When the therapist guesses my sexual role as if such a thing were certain, it’s not important whether she was right, I think, even though she was.”

Corfman says that one “anxiety” expressed in the book “is having to define yourself. Having to be put in a position in which you have to then say, ‘This is the role,’ right?” He adds, “What do we sort of lock ourselves into by saying ‘This is true now,’ without having a shared understanding that it might not be true later?”

“luxury, blue lace” has already gotten national attention, with a review in Publishers Weekly, which called it “an extraordinary debut.”

“That was for me, the first moment that I had like a stranger reading the book,” says Corfman. “One of my anxieties and difficulties writing the book was all about how much complexity can you give to a reader, and really trusting that I could give this kind of, what felt to me sort of like immensely complex and indeterminate space of gender formation, to a reader. And that review, I was like, ‘Oh great, like, you got it.’ So that was a really wonderful.”

On April 11, Corfman and Pittsburgh-based journalist, poet and memoirist Brittany Hailer will read their work at Alphabet City, on the North Side, accompanied by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The program, titled “In Memory Of … Remembrance” and dedication,” thematically explores composer Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations and Leonard Slatkin’s “Kinah.”