“Periodic” is a monthly column by poet Franny Choi. Every month, she writes a short column on the first day of her period—a check-in that might cover issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. This series is an experiment in occasional writing and an exploration of what it means to write about menstruation with a queer imagination.
I’m writing this to you on the first day of my first period of the lunar year. Which I guess is a sort of personal New Year’s. Last night, with a friend, I jokingly called it a going-out-of-business sale (“Everything Must Go!” and so on). But it would probably be nicer to think of the year’s first period as something more like the traditional household deep clean that some Asian families do at New Year’s—a way of sweeping out the old to make space for what’s ahead. A ritual not just for discarding, but for preparation.
I don’t know. Something like that.
I understand that, as a poet, writing prose about my period comes with the danger of getting real sappy real fast. I feel especially aware of the danger of slipping into melodrama because this whole thing started as a kind of joke. When asked if I’d like to write a monthly column for Palette, I sent in two proposals: one was something respectable involving poems as a lens to think about conversations in current politics. The other was: Wouldn’t it be funny if I did something synced up with my other monthly activity? Needless to say, I was a little surprised when the editors wanted to go with this one.
To be fair, the only thing I love more than a good gimmick is a good gimmick that pivots (successfully) toward the profound. The real worry here is that this particular gimmick is the product of a dangerously boring kind of feminism—pussy hat feminism, cis (hetero, white) feminism. The kind of feminism that starts and ends with saying “I, A WOMAN, MY PERIOD” in public. And yes. This is almost exactly the kind of thing I would have thought to do in college, when I stopped shaving my (already sort-of hairless) armpits and wrote weird slam poems about my vagina. It’s all a far cry from the rich, rigorous thinking happening in trans studies circles, especially recently, about gender and reproductive processes.
As an experiment in being kind to my 19-year old self, I’ll say that writing about my body was the first way I knew how to be a feminist. In my college’s spoken word poetry group, I took up my anatomy as a kind of battle cry in my poems. I did this, mostly, because I felt so overwhelmingly angry about all the years I’d been made to feel shame about it. So I wrote poems—which, I have to remind myself, were the most honest and complex poems I could come up with at the time—in order to try to defend my body, along with all its strange leakages.
In one of the first poems I ever read in front of an audience, during my sophomore year of college, I wrote, “I am not a wicked person / and neither are my hips.” Aside from the disturbing implication that my hips are people (just not wicked ones), I feel, mostly, tenderness for the young woman who wrote that line—for what she needed to say to an audience as a pretext for saying it to herself: I’m not bad. My body doesn’t make me bad.
And so, in some of these poems, I tried to write lovingly about menstruating, too—as a way of trying, if sloppily, to love myself, as a person with a uterus and as a woman.
The problem, of course, as always, was in yoking the two together. The more I learned about queer/trans theory and activism, the more uncertain I felt about my ability to write about my body in ways that wouldn’t alienate or silence my trans loved ones. So, for a few years, I stopped. Or rather, I stopped writing about menstruation in explicit terms and began transforming the body in my poems into all sorts of other things: robots, squid, riverbanks, marionettes, wolves. I wrote a book about cyborgs, taking on the personae of androids whose femme bodies and identities had been constructed by their makers, but who were too non-human to have truly coherent genders. And my own gender identity began to shift, as well, or at least to get shiftier—to feel more mutable, harder sometimes to pin down.
I should clarify that I don’t bring up this period of period-silence with any sort of regret or martyrdom. I believe it is perfectly legitimate, and maybe even very responsible, to hold off on saying stuff in public while you’re trying to figure out the language for your experiences. To not feel a breakneck urgency to comment on a narrative about one’s body is, after all, an overwhelming privilege. This is also not to say that I’m writing again now because I’ve come any closer to figuring anything out. And all the anger of my early twenties is still here, especially as the autonomy of women, trans folks, and queers over their/our own bodies is rapidly being legislated away. But I’m back with, if nothing else, more curiosity, more questions, and, hopefully, more love for the thing my body does every month. More jokes, too, for better or for worse.
I’m trying, with all of that in tow, to figure out how to write, now, about my body and its leakages—not just the parts that leak out of me, but the porousness of my body’s demands for coherence. That is, I’m trying to write, not how about menstruating amplifies my womanhood, but to ask: given the strangeness of gender, given that I am a woman and also a queer person of color and a cyborg and a squid and a riverbank, how might thinking about what leaks from my body help me think about other kinds of leakiness, too? Yes, it all started as a big joke, but I’m hopeful that writing with a spirit of play will help to give this series the flexibility it needs to stay unstuck in a number of ruts, including and especially trans-exclusive ones. To discard what needs to be discarded, and to prepare for what I haven’t yet begun to imagine.
In that same sophomore poem, I wrote: “please understand that this / fleshy starfish cookie-cutout / is not the infinite unknowable that I am, but still it is holy.” It’s comforting to know that 19-year-old Franny was starting to think porously about it all, too: the menstruating femme body as both not-wicked and also not-everything. I’m hoping that she’ll guide me through this, and that, by asking some of these questions, I’ll be able to give her a little comfort, in turn.
In any case: Normal flow this month. No cramps. Happy Year of the Pig.