Found in the Rhizomic Field: How Serena Chopra Unearthed My Philosophy

By Summer Intern Herman Chavez

Editor's Note: This is the fifth and final in a series of posts written by Lit Fest 2019 interns tasked with sharing notable experiences during the festival's two weeks. You can read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

There are two things I have known for a number of years: that I am queer, and that I am a writer. I discovered these identities after solidifying what I was already aware of: that I am male, that I am Latino, that I am bare-faced and embracing. When I knew that I was queer, and that I could write about being queer, I became inherently interdisciplinary. I became a queer male Latino writer, bare-faced and embracing, all at once. It was too much not to share. That is what my poetry is: a direct relationship between being and expression. It used to be only for myself, where I thought the reader might participate at their own discretion. That is no longer in my control.

I recently believed my writing to be a mix of Judith Butler’s and Frank O’Hara’s philosophies. Butler drew me in because my identities are a product of societal constraints; in creating my poetry, I am both revealing and subverting what society has done to me, creating the art that they don’t want to see. Performative theory tells us that social bonds and actions come as a result of language working as a vehicle to perform certain identities. I apply this same concept to all my identities—I am as much real as I am socially constructed, and to understand my art, you must understand how I came to be. But who is “you” in this case? This is where I mix Butler with O’Hara. Personism, a movement founded by O’Hara, explains poetry intimately addressed for one person, meant to preserve love in the poem’s world without allowing the author to fall too deeply into feeling.

Here I discovered who my “you” is. Who I write for. It is never myself nor a whole bastion of readers, for “timelessness” nor for any conceived “canon.” I write for the singular “you,” the intimate connection between myself and the one consuming my art. The “you” is you, reading these words and wondering where I’m going. You can see where I do not fulfill the requirements of either performative theory or of personism: how can I subvert my societal construction if my writing is not directly challenging my self-performance? And how can I be intimate with the “you” of my poems if the majority of the “you's" reading my work are strangers? This is what has made my style and voice so problematic. I know I am writing for one, and I know I am writing through and with performance, but otherwise I cannot ascribe to any form or school; it doesn’t fit, like none of my identities seem to fit together.

Then I walked into Serena Chopra’s craft seminar and was told that everything I knew was wrong. She told me that queer doesn’t have to mean gay. That nothing has to fit together. That my writing is allowed to be illegible and paradoxical. I wrote narratives for this “you,” hoping that they would somehow know what was going on. I took the teachings of Butler and O’Hara and forced my writing to have a semblance of them, all to answer the question “what kind of poetry do you write?” Forcing never made for good writing, though. Chopra made that clear when she looked me in the face and asked me to give her the etymology of the word “queer”—all I could do was stare blankly as a pride flag waved in my head.

Queer means “to twist.” To puzzle. A curiosity. We know that it has been used as a synonym for “odd” and now as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+ identities, but all the way back and down it means to twist. Queer and hybrid forms are subversions of form, unpredictable and curious. Like a plot twist in a story, our expectations of form are twisted when we write in queer form.

Why? Because we don’t fit in, and neither should our writing. Language is the way that humans order logic, so by creating a new form of language, we create a new logic. One that takes the dominant identities and dominant forms—like reading a book cover to cover, left to right, and in English with perfect grammar—and flips it on its head, removing the binary of right and wrong and instead creating a relationship with imagination. This type of logic is transformative and radical. It creates movement, consists of experimentation and failure, and most importantly is multiplicitous, perhaps even contrasting itself in its work. Dominant identities and forms cannot read queer forms, and as queer writers, we must make the illegibility present and tangible. We do not need exactness or solutions… rather, we need feeling.

This was overwhelming. As those around me nodded along, I could only stare wide-eyed at Chopra, who had bestowed a clarity before me. Of course I was a writer of queer forms. What else could I be? My writing was all about subversion and experimentation and identity—it was almost as if Chopra was listing off the traits of a poem I’d finished a couple days prior. As I sat there, I saw how queer forms trumped my conceptions of performative theory. My next question, though, was with personism: where was my “you” in queer forms?

I didn’t have to ask, because Chopra provided an answer just as the question began to form in my mind. In queer forms, the reader is invited into the poem with intention. This intention is to preserve their desire and imagination, and allow them to take what they need from the writing. The author’s intention is not the driving force, because the writing is not for the author: “At the end of the day, your book is for your reader,” Chopra explained, and whatever happens between them and your text happens. To understand how this happens, though, we have to understand how queer forms manifest.

The reader is within your rhizomic field of resonances. To understand the field, think plants: trees have rhizomes, which are expansive connections shooting out from roots that connect trees to trees between hundreds of roots. Queer forms are like this network. Each tree is a node, and each root connection is a membranous precinct. The nodes are the anchors of the text, the multiple elements of the writing, and the precincts are where your readers enter. These operate as constellations—you only see them if you know how to make them out, and you must spend time creating connections between each one. More importantly, each reader’s constellation can be different. When I look at the stars, I tend to construct dogs in the night sky—screw Orion. 


Here’s an example of a rhizomic constellation. Notice how each node is whole and each precinct is dotted. This is my constellation. Maybe you, my “you,” will look at this constellation and attach the top right node with the top left node, even though I started somewhere on the sides. This is how queer forms replace my attachment to personism. My “you” is everyone and one person at the same time because each person that reads my work will have a different conception of it, and that is what it is meant to be. 

I recently wrote a poem about a relationship through the lens of self-critique. When I submitted it for workshop, one person told me all they saw was sex. Another read it as a battle for self-actualization, where both relationships resided within the speaker. Yet another saw a love story that refused to admit it was, in fact, a love story. None quite matched what I originally thought, but I wasn’t upset in the slightest. I was pleased—shouldn’t all writing be that way? Shouldn’t each reader step into your world and take whatever it gives them? I didn’t care that none of my readers came to the exact conclusion I did. I wrote the poem in a queer fashion and it did its work: it was read in a queer fashion.

After the two hours I spent with Serena, I affirmed that my writing style is that of queer form. More than that, my philosophy is queer. I exist in multiplicity. I express myself in subversion. And I invite you to enter my precincts and understand for yourself what I mean for you… hoping that we both end up queer in the process.

Herman Chavez is a rising sophomore at Colorado State University studying Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts, Cello Performance-Pedagogy, and English. He is interested in exploring creative expression and social change through language, music, education, and interdisciplinary art forms. Chavez comes to Lighthouse from the Diversity in the Arts program as a part of its inaugural cohort, and Lit Fest 2019 was his first taste of what Lighthouse has to offer the Denver creative community. He is currently a founding editor of Cicada Creative Magazine and the co-managing editor of Spiritus Mundi: A Collective Memory.