Claudia Cortese

Poet & Teacher

My 2016: Books, Games, Terrors, Cows

Best poetry book I read: One of my besties, Grey Vild, wrote a book last summer called Ain’t Never, which he has not published yet and is still working on. This book shook me with its grief and myth, its excavations of growing up in small-town Ohio, trans and Othered with death razoring the edges of countless moments, and how memory is myth and history and political and so (un)bearably personal. (“In rivers & dry creekbeds, in the cul de sac of pines down the street from my childhood home where we drank warm beer & smoked weed before reporting for curfew. You & I are an old trading grounds. the unspeakable things that happened there. They are not, they will never. be called history. You and I. are billboards that advertise Hell Is Real.”)

Best novel I read:  Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow Bird, a retelling of “Snow White” that is really about whiteness, miscegenation, rape culture, beauty, and how the lies we tell to survive may also be the ones that destroy us. (“She got her eyes from me, and when I talk, she dissects me with my own gaze.”)

Best nonfiction book I read: Eiizabeth Hall's I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris. In a review I wrote, I said, I want to read Hall’s book on the subway, in a hallway, at a coffee shop—anywhere someone can see the jacket. 2016 may well be renamed the Year of the Pussy, which means that yet again, our bodies have been politicized. I want passersby to see me reading a book that charts how women have been hidden in plain sight for centuries, which is what this volume is ultimately about (well, that, and also porn and the poetry of the pussy and anti-rape clits). We have been both everywhere and nowhere at once. Our bodies have been displayed and desired and debased, while our particular traumas and particular pleasures have been erased. (“my cunt pressed to the skin of the city. . .”) 

Best trip: Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for a writing residency at Dairy Hollow colony. My dearest Traci Brimhall picked me up from the airport in Kansas and we drove for two hours through Missouri and Arkansas and I realized that I thought I had seen many cows in my life, but in truth, I had seen very few, and she laughed as I exclaimed, “OMG the cows are taking baths together! OMG they are cuddling!” as we drove by farm after farm with heifers nuzzling each other in shallow pools. And then a week of sitting with Lucy and realizing she is 80% self-hate, 5% Twizzlers, 5% pathological whiteness, and 10% rape culture’s gaze turned outward. I had never written so much—I sat at a desk for 8-10 hours a day and waded through words and beauty and disgust, language that appeals and repels--that mythologizes what it creates and destroys what it mythologizes.

Worst moment: Tuesday, Nov. 8th, sitting with friends in my living room as we drank whiskey and watched PA go to Trump, OH go to Trump, WI go to Trump, FL go to Trump, and the churning in my gut, part rage, part terror, all trigger as I witnessed white people across America voting for a racist, a rapist, a man so like the teenboy who drew a stick figure of me hanging from a tree with a noose around my stick neck because “that’s what I do to dykes, bitch,” a man who was the rapists of my girlhood—those fragile, fearful, terrifying, spit-filled, angry boys . . .

Best moments: 1) Driving route 80 from New Jersey to Ohio with Grey Vild and Boris Tsessarsky, playing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It” at top volume as we belt out the lyrics, not caring that none of us can carry a tune. 2) Reading a poem that I wrote for my family on Christmas morning, a poem about handmade ornaments & sled-riding on snow days and my bratty, 8-yr-old response to my mom getting me the wrong doll for Christmas in 1989, and looking up when I finish reading the poem aloud and seeing tears stream down my mother’s face. 3) Playing a game at Liz Martin’s birthday party that involved creating partners for each other and choosing the best one, and having Liz create for me a female yoga instructor who builds her own boats, and though I love my Boris and he is my forever-sweetie, Liz describing a lady who takes me sailing around the world made me feel seen and understood. 4) Watching Boris's film, King's Highway, on Halloween at the Montclair Library and realizing that, after five years of hard work, my sweetie did it: made a complex, lyrical film about the most famous ghost in New Jersey 5) Protesting Trump four days after the election and spotting two girls who looked about 14 holding hand-written signs that exclaimed, “Queef on Him,” and realizing girls will save us.