The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones talks to K. Iver about the grip of loss, nostalgia, and gender, all set in the backdrop of rural Mississippi in the early ’80s in their debut collection Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco, which won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2023). Read on for a conversation about gestures of mythmaking, grief, the book’s arc, and more.
Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco by K. Iver: Memory and Mythmaking
I.S. Jones: First, congratulations on Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco being selected for Milkweed’s Ballard Spahr Poetry Prize by Tyehimba Jess. Walk me through the process of you sending out your manuscript. There is an extended period from when you write the book to when you find a home for the book. The turnaround seemed pretty fast. How many presses or prizes did you send Short Film out to for publication? Did you edit the book in between sending it out? How much time passed from when you finished the manuscript and felt ready to send it out to when Milkweed finally selected it? What was your journey like sending a manuscript out for a book prize instead of querying an editor or a specific press?
K. Iver: It was fast. I had submitted to three or four prizes the previous fall, and I don’t think the book was ready then. I reordered and edited some of the poems. I had workshops with Steven Espada Dawson, who also writes about grief, mental illness, and class. He helped me order the book differently.
I submitted to two more presses in the spring after a major reactivation of trauma in December, when every wound from Short Film had opened, every wound including denial of consent (informed, enthusiastic, immediate, and obvious) and abandonment. These events took place around the same time of year as Missy’s first disappearance in Short Film. I remember driving to Paige [Lewis] and Kaveh [Akbar’s] house the first week of December, thinking I’ll feel better around friends who’ve known me a long time, and then feeling worse every day. In the mornings, Paige was writing, Yael, their non-binary epic. I tried to write alongside them but had no room for poetry, not even for revising or editing. The thought of returning to “Short Film” and the themes of it and the vividness of it was unbearable. I thought, “I’ve gotta finish this, or at least make it decent enough to send out to contests.” When I submitted it to Milkweed in February, I was hoping never to have to work on it again. It felt like divine permission when I got the “Congratulations!” email from Milkweed, informing me it would just be another month of editing. I was so relieved to have that deadline and move on to my current projects.
IJ: I appreciate what you’re saying because so much of the book has lived in you, right? I mean, over the decades. Especially poems in which you moved through a different life before you transitioned. Now you’re alive in a new life where you are negotiating your gender in more complicated and immediate ways. All that manifests itself in the book, and by finally publishing the book, you’re allowed to let that go. So, thank you for that. How has your relationship with the editors over at Milkweed been? This professional relationship between you and the editors might be different if you had queried the press or engaged differently, right? Because Tyehimba Jess selected the book, and then after that, he, so to speak, passed on that relationship to the editors. How was working with the editors at Milkweed in general? Would you say it was an overall positive experience working with the press?
KI: Absolutely, yes. I mean, more than I could have dreamed of. Bailey Hutchinson held my hand through this process. I brought in a team of sensitivity readers who are trans and nonbinary that included KB Brookins, Jason B. Crawford, and Maya Carter. I got lucky with their generosity as well. Bailey was patient with my anxieties about how this book comes across. I’m an obsessive reviser and editor. In the middle of the night, I would email Bailey and ask, “How about ‘shake’ instead of ‘melt’?” She got so many emails like that, and her responses were affirming.
She wrote the description of the book as well. I shook when I first read it. For all the reasons I started writing—to see myself and my interior—that was its own affirming takeaway.
IJ: The book’s cover is “Inside Sound. o2” by the visual artist Pace Taylor. You stated that the image best represents “A Short Film” because it looks like an old movie marquee. The relationship between the cover and the body of the book feels symbiotic for how you and the visual artist are both trans, but then also how the sharp pops of color, grainy lines, and the somber, protruding eyes effortlessly translate the book’s intention. Talk to me about choosing this piece specifically as opposed to some of Taylor’s other work.
KI: I had a lot of dreams about how I thought the book would look. How it looks is very different than how I first envisioned it. A year and a half ago, when I submitted the book, I thought of Pace drawing an image of Missy or having some likeness. There wasn’t much time for that with this publication. I had other paintings in mind, but I had not communicated that to the design team, only design elements I liked: fonts from the 60s and 80s, minimalism, high contrast, easy-to-access geometry.
And the designer, Mary Austin Speaker, took all of that into account. She chose a painting I wouldn’t have. When I first looked at it, I thought, “This is not what I expected.”
And then when I read over Tyehimba’s [Jess] blurb for the book, and he said something about the speaker wrestling with ideas of mortality and transgression, I thought, “The expression on that face is wrestling with a lot of something.” The book is about me and my grief, not necessarily another person, but how I built this memory of a person. And so, I’m very happy with the cover. It grew on me. I love the old sixties font, and I hope that readers can see a relationship between the visual rhetoric, you know, and the inside of the book. I’m thrilled that Pace is the artist for the book as well. They’re one of my favorite living artists. You and I have talked about tenderness a lot, and I think they’re good at capturing it in so many of their paintings.
IJ: Even if I didn’t know the book’s premise, a lot of that is captured in the cover, mainly because the eyes are the focal point of the cover itself, which I think is essential. The book begins with a self-creation myth, “Nostalgia,” but nostalgia is crossed out. Which I think is important for how the opening poem is meant to be read: “In the beginning, in a hospital in north Mississippi, a mother holds her new baby and calls this day her happiest. The baby is you. The mother is surprised you’re here with only a heart murmur. She says having lived through her bloodstream’s birth control and, later, tequila, you must be a fighter.”
Several very intentional choices are made in this opening, as, you know, an opening poem sets a precedent and tone for the entire book. The poems in this book seem to be ordered in a thematic way. I’m curious about the choice to use the second-person point of view. There’s a split between the person you were and the person you are coming into. There’s an active conversation between your past and future iterations. I’m curious about the choice to have “Nostalgia” open the book as opposed to some other poems such as “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name” or even “Short Film starring my Beloved’s Living Body.” Why did “Nostalgia” feel like the right choice when you were ordering the manuscript?
KI: I had ordered my other submissions that way. I had other submissions starting with “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name,” which is a request when I’m reading in front of people, and “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Living Body.” This was my first submission where “Nostalgia” was the first poem. I think it came through after workshops with Steven [Espada Dawson]. Steven [Espada Dawson] got a good look at the manuscript and offered a thorough feedback letter with edits.
So much of what I’m trying to write about, then and now, is how our collective struggles for power can easily infiltrate our intimate and familial settings, and those seeds can germinate in our queer relationships.
In the so-called queer-chosen family, we often recreate the same family patterns in those early relationships—if we’re not careful and we’re not actively working on how we process early traumas. I think nostalgia, especially collective nostalgia, is such a dangerous space to inhabit, as it relies on fantasy. We’ve been inundated with so much nostalgic rhetoric in the last 10 years, especially in our public. And I was inundated with it growing up. This collective nostalgia was a great source of unnecessary pain that influenced how both Missy and I processed our desire and relationships. Because the book is so narrative, I did think it was necessary to begin here, to set up my queer origin story.
IJ: I’m curious about the intersection between what feels like more contemporary mythmaking. There is grief, desire, and the divine. All of this is situated in what feels very Southern, rural, and queer. The framework is meant to mirror quite literally a movie. In terms of how many of the poems are prosaic blocks or long streams of text, I don’t see different forms, but the poems stay very faithful to the movement of language as opposed to, maybe, other mediums. From the beginning, was there an intention to craft this origin story with the basis of a film as the foreground? Or did the book have different shapes or forms before it arrived where it’s at right now?
KI: It wasn’t the original intention. I had just decided to go with the way my brain works. Once I accepted it, after many years of workshopping with high-lyric poets and trying to use some of their techniques, my writing improved. I was in poetry workshops with Paige Lewis for five or six years. I was inspired by the surreal and constant experimentation of syntax in their poetry, but I couldn’t successfully use it myself, at first. When starting the book, I decided to go with the style in which my brain naturally processes memory and language, the way it’s constantly playing films. My memories have been tested as accurate and reliable. It’s tough to lie to me and I always figure out if I’m being lied about because I remember almost every conversation and personal experience I’ve had. Lying happened a lot in my childhood, and I understood very early on that when people were telling me this didn’t happen and you didn’t feel this way, I needed to start writing stuff down and making the archive of my brain visible. That’s what I’m still doing with this book: so many people told Missy and me that these things didn’t happen, and we didn’t feel this way. Writing poems for me was a way after being a journalist of my own life, and asking myself the questions I was asking politicians when I was a young reporter: who, what, where, when, and why, and what are you getting from it?
I had to ask myself: What am I getting from this grief? What am I getting from reliving this stuff so much?
When I understood, you know, when I started seeing professionals who’ve pioneered research in my mental diagnosis, I understood that I need to work with what’s going on in my brain and understand that while I’m actively not trying to relive my past, there is a part of my brain that thinks a lot of the stuff that’s still happening. And the only way that I can reframe that is to watch the movie, understanding that I’m no longer in the film anymore, right? When I was writing some of the most mournful poems, however, I felt I was an actor. And, again, in December, when I had finished writing these poems, I was no longer in the theatre watching from a safe distance. I was back inside, and all the actors seemed living and breathing. There were mornings I’d wake up literally thinking I was 15 again, and Missy was alive, had disappeared, and I needed to figure out what I’d done, could have done differently. Now that almost a year has passed since the reopening of those wounds, I’m glad I can literally close the book, and other people can open it if they want to bear witness. It’s been healing for me to share it and have just a few other people watch the film alongside me and confirm that this happened, and I did feel this way.
IJ: There were two poems specifically I want to focus our attention on: “[Boy] Meets Girl” and then “Boy Meets Them.” When the book begins, we know that Missy is no longer with us because of the poems “Who is This Grief For?” and “For Missy Who Never Got His New Name.” I think with a book like this, what I find so satisfying is how, as a reader, I get to experience Missy as a living person.
For me, at least, that second title indicates that Missy did not live long enough to know their new name, to be able to grow into their second life, the life that they crafted in their image, right? It reminds me of something I read online a long time ago about what it means to move through a trans body and go through what some people often refer to as a “second puberty,” To be trans is to have a piece of Divine. To be trans is to be able to reimagine and recreate yourself in your image, which is why biblical references can feel so apt.
Going back to my original point, I love how the readers move backward and forward in this nonlinear timeline. In some poems, Missy is gone; in others, Missy is as alive as you and I are in this moment. Especially in the poem “[Boy] Meets Girl, ” the speaker and the beloved are literally talking back and forth with each other. I’m curious about the stylistic choices in “[Boy] Meets Girl” versus in “Boy Meets Them” and how the speaker is changed between the two of them, right? In “[Boy] Meets Girl, it feels as though K. and Missy are both the speaker, but in “Boy meets Them,” that is not the case. Can you talk about the choice between those two narrative styles? As a reader, they feel like sibling poems to each other in many ways.
KI: I wanted “[Boy] Meets Girl” to mirror the style of how we talked. Missy had this very quiet confidence about him, and I was hoping that poem could mirror that. He didn’t say much, but when he talked, it felt important, it felt significant, you know? And the way he spoke to me made me feel significant. I’m hoping the poem expresses that. We would often replay these memories to one another because both of us were in the closet. So we were doing what I’m doing right now with my poetry, saying, yes, this happened: we fell in love even though everyone around us said we weren’t in love. Because he is no longer here and can’t confirm how he would feel today about me or anything, I want it to be clear that it was my imagining of how he would feel and what he might want. And I’m doing similar things like in “Anti-Elegy.” I’m trying to establish that this is my logic, not his. So much of my grief now is filtered through my gender, my experience with gender right now. Today, I celebrated a month on testosterone, and I think about him every day when I put it on— the gel on my shoulders.
I had a long FaceTime with Haolun [Xu] the other night, and realized he was my only friend who asked me what it was like being on testosterone after grieving someone transmasc. He asked me, “Do you think about Missy?” It felt so good to hear that question. That poem “[Boy] Meets Them” was the start of that kind of grief, what it’s like to have my first teacher of another way to be, the first trans person in my life who, a trailblazer in the time and place he lived, not be here to witness my transition. I’ve been meditating on that particular grief lately.
IJ: The way “Boy Meets Them” begins: “You wouldn’t want me now. Not like that. / If you made it to 2020 instead of 2007, / we’d compare jowl lines & we don’t feel / almost 40, but the young somehow look younger.” There’s a way in which the speaker doesn’t self-aggrandize them in Missy’s eye. They come out and say: “Obviously if you were still alive, we would be in love and be together.” The speaker admits, “I don’t know what would happen, but I’m very confident that this is probably true: you probably would not want me as I am now.”
KI: Based on the Missy I knew in the early aughts, in the 1990s, he had a type, and it was not how I present now. I was in a very exaggerated costume of femininity, and I say ‘exaggerated’ because, for me, it felt like a performance that didn’t feel empowering. The mother that I had who is depicted in these poems had the traditional expression of hyper-femininity. I didn’t know how else to be, having watched my mother figure out her place in the world. I watched her get attention and power from her beauty. I grew up thinking beauty was unnatural because of the work she put in. Missy liked those markers of high femininity. He liked the product of that work. I couldn’t assume how he would feel now. It’s important to note that I wasn’t in love with him before he died. We were friends, and in his last year, he wasn’t himself. I was concerned about him. He had tried time and time again, even in his last year, to start dating me again. Because of the events earlier in the book, I knew how it would turn out. I knew that this was a dance we couldn’t do anymore. I was there for him as a friend and would’ve done anything to make him happy and feel good, at least in my presence. I imagine that if he had stayed alive, that’s how we would be now; we would be sharing notes about our careers and romances. I would tell him about recent trans lovers and how experiences with them have been tender in ways I never dreamed possible, not even a year ago. I imagine he would be proud of what I’ve done. That’s what, I hope, this poem gets at. I think a lot about how Claire Schwartz talks about grief and how she once said, “When someone dies, our relationship with them doesn’t stop. It just changes.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t have a lot of ancestors I can call on for comfort. Missy has become one of those higher powers for me, not only when I experience grief but also joy. “Boy Meets Them” was the first time I tried to engage in that prayer.
IJ: Thinking about the book’s trajectory and arc, it was a very sound and smart choice to have that poem appear so close to the end. We hear from Missy, but also, there is a construction of who Missy would’ve been had he lived to be 38, 39, going into his forties. Previously you talked about the mother, and there were two poems I wanted to discuss to that end: “Jane” and “A Mother’s Advice,” which may not exactly be sister poems. Still, they feel like continuations of each other in ways that allow us to understand the speaker’s relationship with the mother figure. For me, as a reader, it was very satisfying.
In “Jane,” the speaker says: “as I do most animals who are more deserving of poems / than this mother whom I can love only // when imagining her scuffed mary janes / her double braids undone after she’d jumped // on Carolyn’s back after Carolyn had stolen her / ballet costume […]”. In this depiction of the mother, specifically in “Jane,” were you mindful or worried of the ethical ramifications when speaking about the mother figure? This poem is so successful because we’re given a window to all her complexities.
KI: So many people assigned female at birth have this relationship with their mother where they feel like they’re constantly being chiseled, right? Like a slab. We’re marble—perfectly beautiful in whatever shape we come in, but our mothers need to cut away at us because of the way they’ve been traumatized by how the world sees them, and they want to protect their children from that experience.
So often the damage from that is a hard-to-shake inner critic. There were so many times when I saw my mother while I was performing high femininity, she would ask me, “Where’s your lipstick?” I would be looking plenty feminine in a t-shirt and jeans, but she had a hard time accepting me in any way. My appearance was just one. But as far as her representation of femininity, she enjoyed it. She seemed less “herself” without it. She didn’t go to college. She married young to run away from home as you would from a house like the one she grew up in. These poems about her were me trying to find her humanity because she put the speaker, and I have been put, in harm’s way many times.
She, more than anyone, has had me contemplating what it means to forgive the unforgivable and how challenging it is: the idea that anything worth forgiving might have to be unforgivable. The greater the harm, the harder it is to forgive. I’ve just been reading some philosophy on that; those ideas are Derrida’s, not mine. One way I can love the mother is to imagine her as she was a child trying to make sense of the world, of what was being done to her. I’ve thought about how she might feel if she reads these poems. I understand that without a whole picture of the way someone (myself) comes to be in the world, I would just be talking about the harm she’s done to me, leaving out the harm done to her by a very fascist, patriarchal system of thinking and behaving in a household. I would feel ethically compromised about that. Even though I don’t speak to her, I want to love my mother, and this is one way I can write into that love.
IJ: There’s a profound amount of empathy in the way you seek to understand why the mother figure in the poem is the way she is. You hold that in one hand but then in the other hand, acknowledging that she carried her wounds into motherhood and then tried to force her children to inherit those wounds. I’m thinking about these lines from “A Mother’s Advice”: “when you were on / all fours / I’d let you // crawl over me / on // hungover mornings // if I hadn’t rolled up // a newspaper / to swat // your head as if / a fly.” I agree that empathy allows us access to a complicated mother figure. The speaker’s attachment to the mother figure is further complicated by this history that exists in memory, even if some people try to tell them that their memory is not valid. These ruptures indicate how memory is moving through the poem even though the memories are marred by intimate violence. The speaker holds both truths simultaneously: “I know what happened to me, I was there, I felt it, and I saw it.” These poems are memories that are governed by feeling. There are facts, but feelings are at the forefront.
KI: I want to give her a chance to speak in a way she would. She wouldn’t speak in hypotheticals, but she always had some advice, some improvement for how I should live and be. The advice came to me as if none of the other things had ever happened. As if I had grown up in Leave It To Beaver land, which was like fantasy-driven nostalgia for how families used to be or should have been, but it’s not the family she grew up in. It’s not the family I grew up in. It certainly wasn’t the family my grandfather, who hurt us both, grew up in. She had this advice as if she was talking to someone who wasn’t damaged, as if she herself wasn’t damaged. Many movies about mother-daughter relationships and coming-of-age narratives hit on this idea. I also wanted it to end with a phrase that she would actually say: “Get up now, Kelly, it’s high noon!” She would say it in a long-drawn-out southern accent [laughs]. Whenever she said that I would always feel a sense of foreboding: Here’s the day. Here’s another day in which I have to be present in this house where unspeakable pain has taken place, still takes place.
IJ: What is the speaker’s relationship to masculinity in their own body and the external world? I’m thinking specifically about the poem “Body Mark:” “Whenever a man follows me too close, / I think of the nights my mother unrolled the day / with her pantyhose, having been chased around a desk / and the afternoons she insisted on posing outside the car / so fifth-grade boys would gawk, glazed as her hair frost.” There are different moments throughout the book in which the speaker negotiates the performance of masculinity as well as the performance of femininity. The speaker makes language for their gender identity and relationship to gender in real-time. How does the speaker negotiate their relationship with masculinity both internally and externally?
KI: One of the reasons it took me so long to medically transition was the fear of being like my father and like these men who hurt my mother, my grandmother, and me for so much of our lives. I’m only in my first month of T, but in the last couple of days, I’ve been starting to understand some things about men that I didn’t before.
I don’t know if I have the language for that yet. However, healing my own Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine has been something I’ve been actively doing this year. I attend five or six meetings a week with queer addicts across the country on Zoom. One of them is themed “Healing Masculinity.” There, I hear many origin stories about how our relationship with our masculinity feels broken or severed, or we have ideas of what masculinity means, and they’re often limited. I’m not even sure what it means anymore. I know that in my origin, in my family, in the culture that I grew up in, the state I grew up in, and in this country that I grew up in, there’s been an abuse of power that I’ve still yet to heal from. So much of that has come from male anger and male aggression. More and more this year, when I try to use the language of healing from the ideas of masculinity, the term becomes increasingly amorphous, as do ideas of femininity.
IJ: In the second installment of The Legacy Suite, I’m looking forward to returning to this question and seeing how your answers may or may not change, as you’re still living through the answer to this question. I’m looking forward to seeing how you negotiate the answers again and where you arrive when we return to this again.
There are so many grounding artifacts that move through the manuscript, especially the red Bronco. The place where it becomes most apparent is in the titular poem “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco:” “Still, I need you to stay with it, / this wide frame of a salvage yard, / our Bronco’s new home of rust // eating red. Watch everything I love now // flattening.” Missy is moving through the manuscript as a pillar for the speaker to make language around their gender, grief, loss of time, etc… The red Bronco’s doing that too. Rust is a very apt way of measuring time in the poem. Did you always know that the Bronco would be a grounding artifact, or as you moved through the manuscript, did it just keep coming up naturally?
KI: I did not, Itiola. I think it’s partly because I decided to go with my obsessions and with my cognitive processing. That was one of the last pieces of advice I got from Kaveh [Akbar] in workshop at FSU, where he would underline the parts of my poems that registered as obsessive. He knew the way my brain worked. I’m grateful for that permission because I don’t think the things we obsess over are insignificant. I think they come up because there’s some energy; there’s something charged underneath them. So much of what we remember becomes our waking dreams trying to tell us something important. I think I figured out why this automobile is so important to so many of my poems because it kept coming up in them, naturally.
A thing about Missy is that he loved the uniform, and he often went through the world with so much discomfort and tension in his body. He came of age in a specific time, place, and cultural landscape that did not acknowledge his gender, but in uniform, he seemed different: in his ice truck uniform, in his army uniform (which I had a lot of grief about). I remember seeing him in so many places where he worked. From the outside, the work outfit became a way to modify something before the surgery that he wanted for so long. The car, the Bronco, was an extension of that. When he was driving, he seemed so comfortable, in both the ice truck and the Bronco. When he was around his car, leaning on it, his body just seemed more relaxed, centered, and protected in a way almost like another uniform. I also think about the Bronco as a horse and what we do to horses. What do we do to these wild, beautiful creatures who are just fine roaming the wilderness themselves, and how we break them.
One of the compulsions of writing these poems came from the need to build and preserve the memory of who he was in his wildness and his trueness, because it was erased from his funeral and his obituary. In the way people talked about him when I went back home, his funeral was about someone I didn’t know. There was no arguing with how he looked in his Bronco, how he leaned on it. There was no arguing with those images, but we didn’t see that at the funeral. His obituary is about someone I had no idea existed. I don’t want to project how they felt, but I know other people who loved him saw him for the self he wanted us to see. I mean, even strangers saw it. It’s just the people who needed him to be someone else—his mother and people at his church—who refused to see. Again, I think there’s just no arguing with these objects that he touched and that held him. One of them was the Bronco, which was one of the most significant for me.
K. Iver is a nonbinary trans poet from Mississippi. Their book Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Their poems have appeared in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, TriQuarterly, The Adroit, and elsewhere. Iver is the 2021-2022 Ronald Wallace Fellow for Poetry at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. They have a Ph.D. in Poetry from Florida State University.