Spring 2023


Fly-Trap Poetics:
Alienation & the Refusal of Empathy

torrin a. greathouse (RWW Faculty)

Fly-Trap Poetics:
Alienation & the Refusal of Empathy

Before I begin to discuss craft, permit me two digressions. One: I was homeless for the first time at seven years old; from 2001–2002 my family spent nine months living in a second-hand 1990 Winnebago Warrior 28, my parents sleeping in its fold-out bed, my older brother and I in a leaky pup tent. The Winnebago was sturdy but unlivable under better conditions—the eroded seal on the door produced a constant draft and the carpet was beginning to rot through. In the humid summer months, we were forced to buy several pitcher plants and a Venus fly trap to control the clouds of flies incubating in the carpet. When the discount model home that my parents had scraped and scratched to afford was finally built, we abandoned the Winnebago and the plants along with it. I didn’t return until two summers later. What I found in that decaying heap was the fly trap. It was the only thing still living—as if out of spite.

Two: After the publication of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, I began to read reviews of the collection, oftentimes written by well-meaning cisgender and able-bodied writers, and though the poems in this book were often directed, in part, to the reader who did not resemble me, I often found these reviewers seemingly willfully ignorant to the heft of my poems’ rhetoric, distracted by the lyric performance to the detriment of my work.

Concurrently, I’ve witnessed the slow creep of transphobic and ableist sentiments into the mainstream. As the pandemic has gone on, more and more people—even those who consider themselves progressive—have abandoned masking and other basic precautions, signaling a lack of solidarity with disabled people across the country. And now, before the close of January 2023, 246 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed across the country, with 238 of these specifically targeting trans people. As these bills work their way through state legislatures toward becoming laws, I have been forced to begin making a mental tally of states where, in the future, I might be unable to live or perform without being jailed. Meanwhile, murders and hate-crimes committed against trans people doubled between 2017 and 2021 and continue to rise. What I’m trying to say is that I no longer have the patience for subtlety while people are dying.


torrin a. greathouse

In her visual craft essay series “Trap Poetics,”[1] poet and theorist Ava Hofmann attempts to formulate a critical conception of trans poetics outside of a neoliberal assimilationist conception of transness.[2] This notion centers a mode of underperformance, of failure, of weaponization. As Hofmann puts it, “trap poetics is the death defying [sic] beauty of putting on an unconvincing show.” In this way, perhaps she intends for trap poetics to serve as a textual embodiment of the Bad Tranny archetype; the trans figure (in nearly all cases a trans woman) who fails to meet a cultural standard of purity, fails to perform gender norms, fails to convince a cisgender audience that they are worthy of survival, and thereby begins to represent—within a cisnormative ontology—a failed woman, yet also a failed man. The failure of a writer of trap poetics to meet the expectations placed upon them (via a deliberate under-performance) constitutes a strategic breach of literary decorum, defined by poet and critic Karen Jackson Ford as the means by which individual poets “practiced their own unconventional mode, excessively intensifying its indecorous aspects in an act of self-recovery and assertion against social negation.”[3]

The second essay in Hofmann’s series extracts the thesis of the first, extrapolating upon various terms and claims. I am particularly interested in her assertion that trap poetics is:

[T]he weaponizing of failure and underperformance in order to implicate the reader into their position as audience; but also, it’s the recognition that this weaponizing is itself always a failure, and that this failing is also always a weaponizing. It distinguishes itself from the performances of the neoliberal lyric through the ways in which, in the crush of this loop, trans writers stake out negative spaces of failing to fail at performance, spaces wherein the cis audience’s attempts at (voyeuristic, selfish) understanding are forced to encounter new forms of dis-understanding.[4]

A rhetorically dense proposition, which must—necessarily—be expanded and further defined. What interests me in this thesis is two-fold: the implication of the (cisgender) reader into their position as audience, and the notion of failure and weaponization existing in a reciprocal relationship.

The first of these, though Hofmann does not explicitly state this, resists a certain mode of empathetic reading, which privileges those poems that incite a limbic system reaction, allowing the reader to project their own emotional reaction over the poem’s narrative and emotional content, in order to achieve a sense of catharsis. This relational understanding becomes a particularly dangerous territory when applied to writers outside of the white abled cisheteropatriarchal cultural center—those statistically proven to evoke less empathy from those in power. By rejecting empathy as an imperative, and instead indicting your audience, Hoffman suggests that we might force the reader into a state of dis-understanding, which she defines thusly: “Dis-understanding is imagining those possibilities excluded via understanding. It redirects the burden of cisness back onto the cis. Understand that you do not need to understand.”[5]

“This relational understanding becomes a particularly dangerous territory when applied to writers outside of the white abled cisheteropatriarchal cultural center. . .”

This chimes with German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the “alienation effect.” This theory, derived from the idea of defamiliarization as proposed by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, focuses on the importance of interrupting an audience’s passive engagement with art, in his case theater, and confounding comfortable empathetic identification with the world and characters presented in the work. As Brecht put it, the alienation is enacted when a performer “...attempts to act in such a manner that the spectator is prevented from feeling his way into the characters. Acceptance or rejection of the characters’ words is thus placed in the conscious realm, not, as hitherto, in the spectator’s subconscious.”[6]

Much of my current project, DEED, aims to engage this mode of anti-empathy dis-understanding, meta-poetically reminding the audience of their roles as readers and interpreters of the text. Within these pieces, the speaker acts to preempt and subvert particular hegemonic readings of the poem, while also disrupting the vicarious catharsis a certain kind of reader might seek out in my work. Often this takes the form of invoking an unnamed—but assumed—reader, such as in “Root,” when the speaker says:

The first time I was struck

you might say, depending on your
age & class & history, that I
was asking for it.

Or the way “A Dead Shark Isn’t Art” directly names this vicarious audience relationship: “How long / have I been trying to write this poem back to them? To make / sense of all my memory’s violences & the reader’s hungry eye.”[7] These gestures, though, are not only an indictment but also a weaponized failure to provide what a certain reader seeks. If this is true, then each time a poem within DEED performs an apology or redirects itself, most often away from sites of violence—with “I mean” as the vehicle of this re- or perhaps mis-direction—this too is performed failure sharpened to a blade.

Regarding this rhetorical loop of failure and weaponization, Hofmann makes clear that she does not mean only the non-fulfillment of kyriarchal expectation, as she goes on to expand her definition of failure:

When I say failure, I speak of a poetic redeployment of failure—throwing cis society’s perception of trans people as failures back at them in incredible and vindictive displays of ruinous beauty. This is deeply linked with ideas about underperformance—it is the signal shot through totally by noise… It is being forced to be reminded of the material mess of language and the violence it contains.[8]

It is not simply the act of failing to conform to expectations but the weaponization of an expected failure already projected upon transgender subjects. It is the act of calling attention to these demands placed upon us, and the open flaunting of them. My poetics is deeply rooted in exploring “the material mess” of language as the site of cisgender societal failings[9] and the violence they produce—through an examination of both etymology and transphobic speech acts.

“My poetics is deeply rooted in exploring “the material mess” of language as the site of cisgender societal failings, and the violence they produce—through an examination of both etymology and transphobic speech acts.”

Etymology has been a particular source of inspiration throughout this manuscript, a kind of perpetual historical and linguistic failure to draw from. I counter these gaps and violences that linguistic histories contain and produce through a variety of methods. By generating alternate etymologies, often to fill a gap created via the erasure of queer histories:

Let’s call this a kind of etymythology,
post hoc history; let’s call Artemis
the root. For her wild heart. Her failed

By pointing out the unspoken social implications of an etymology: “The root of the word religion is a Latin verb / meaning to bind. As in, the worshiper is bound / to their god.”[11] Via the production of false etymologies via pun:

A man
asks me if I’m a sissy & I say
”Yeah,” thinking he means
like Sisyphus, right?[12]

Or by presenting the possible violence they contain without comment:

You might imagine strike
a word with many tails—one
the Dutch strijken: to smooth or

rub, as in a cowlick, a child’s

In addition, there are several poems in DEED’s final section—“In an Operating Room Outside the Cis Woman’s Imagination,” “There’s No Trace of the Word ‘Transgender’ in Adrienne Rich’s Biography,” and “A Novel Dysfunction”—which are intended to serve as structural and linguistic critiques of influential transphobic documents, from within both the worlds of poetry and of medicine. These poems hijack the rhetoric and structure of these documents, respectively, through paraphrase and direct quotation, to reveal the logical flaws implicit in these works’ attempts to enable a social formation of trans people as ontological failures.[14] Here, the failings of this language and rhetoric are redeployed, indeed weaponized, against the cisgender subjects that produce them.

“Put more simply, I am not yet willing to abandon overperformance as a tool, supplanting it with under-performance alone.”

I want to be clear, despite the inspiration I have drawn from the notion of trap poetics, I doubt Hofmann herself would consider my writing to rest under that banner; my poetics are too entrenched in the mechanics of received form, the double-edged sword of beauty, and the political potential of the lyric mode to fully embody the unconvincing show that characterizes trap poetics. Put more simply, I am not yet willing to abandon overperformance as a tool, supplanting it with under-performance alone. I believe that the lyric poem—as discreetly separate from “the neoliberal lyric” that Hofmann theorizes trap poetics as existing in opposition to—bears the potential for sneaking a political sentiment into the hands of readers who might otherwise reject it, a kind of smoke screen for the poem’s intent.

This approach is tied to what Solmaz Sharif recently referred to in an interview with Mizna as the “didactic moment,” or “didactic angle,” wherein “as one is writing the[ir] poems, they are also exposing people to this information.”[15] She goes on to provide Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead as an example of this:

Rukeyser is writing a lyrical masterwork that is formally rigorous but simultaneously educating the reader on this labor disaster.[16] And the point of that education, actually, is to change labor policy; as in, she has an agenda behind the writing, which flies right in the face of the poet’s “job” as one that meditates in and marinates in capability.

Perhaps this rejection of the poet’s job constitutes, in Hofmann’s words, a weaponized failure, or else a breach of poetic decorum. Regardless, this conception of formal and lyrical rigor is fundamental to the political work of poetry—and vice-versa. Rather than the two things―the craft and politics of the work―being diametrically opposed, their conjunction is central to my conception of how my poetry functions in the world. The formal and lyric flourishes allow me to trojan horse my politics—like a form of quiet agitprop—into rooms where my voice, where the experiences of those like me, would never otherwise be heard. Or, as I once said to Sharif in conversation: Maybe, lyric is the sugar in the fly trap’s mouth. The poem, a hungry biting thing—alive out of spite.


torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk poet and essayist. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Their work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, The Rumpus, the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, and The Kenyon Review. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Effing Foundation for Sex Positivity, The Ragdale Foundation, Zoeglossia, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Her debut poetry collection, Wound from the Mouth of a Wound (Milkweed Editions, 2020), was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, CLMP Firecracker Award, and winner of the 2022 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.


[1] Note, Hofmann makes this important delineation in the first essay of the series: “Cis people: call it ‘t-poetics’ or else I’ll get mad at you.”

[2] Hofmann, Ava. Trap Poetics: Part 1. Action Books. July 28, 2020. https://actionbooks.org/2020/07/trap-poetics-part-1-by-ava-hofmann/

[3] Jackson Ford, Karen. Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. University Press of Mississippi, 2009, 12-13.

[4] Hofmann, Ava. Trap Poetics: Part 2. Action Books. August 5, 2020. https://actionbooks.org/2020/08/trap-poetics-part-2-by-ava-hofmann/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brecht, B. (1961). “On Chinese acting.” Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1), 130–136.

[7] Both of the referenced poems are forthcoming in The Georgia Review in late 2023.

[8] Hofmann, Ava. Trap Poetics: Part 2. Action Books. August 5, 2020. https://actionbooks.org/2020/08/trap-poetics-part-2-by-ava-hofmann/

[9] i.e., the failures implicit in cis(-endosex-)normative language, and the general notion of a Platonically ideal “normative body.”

[10] greathouse, torrin. “Etymythology.” The Southern Review, Spring 2022, 237–38.

[11] greathouse, torrin. “Aubade Beginning in Handcuffs.” Poetry. October 1, 2019. www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/150927/aubade-beginning-in-handcuffs

[12] greathouse, torrin. “I Was Looking for Dick & All I Got Was This Lousy Poem.” Breakwater Review. November 2, 2018. www.breakwaterreview.com/iwaslookingfordick.

[13] From the poem “Root” cited above.

[14] At being cisgender, at “passing,” at performing gender (both assigned and otherwise), at procreation, at sexual “normalcy,” etc.

[15] Sharif, Solmaz. “Reading an Experiment into a Poem.” Edited by Tarik Dobbs. Mizna 22, no. 2 (2022). https://mizna.org/literary/tarik-dobbs-interviews-solmaz-sharif/.

[16] The 1931 Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, which occurred in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of workers—most of whom were Black Appalachians.