The Privileges and Pitfalls of Show and Tell

A few weeks ago, I wrote a poem about teeth. I’ve always been attracted to teeth that had personality – teeth that were crooked, missing, or gapped. Teeth are attractive invitations to kiss. These particular teeth were complicated, and they belonged to a woman who I briefly (complicatedly) dated.

My instructor loved the poem, but something he wrote in his feedback made my eyebrows rise. He asked about the subject of my poem, and suggested that perhaps it was written from the perspective of  a mother to her child. Had I received this heinously inaccurate feedback a few years ago, I would have internalized the misstep as my own. Maybe my reader didn’t get it because I didn’t give it in the right way. I would have retreated with the sure thought that I was a bad poet.

This time, as I read back through my work, I know things are different. The references are clear, and the imagery is concrete and erotic. Lips, hands, bodies, teeth, all smashing together like a car crash. What about that is maternal, exactly? I’m showing, not telling, just like he instructed me to.  My only real mistake, I guess, is using the pronoun “she.”

The editor in my mind reminds me: "Don't just SAY you're writing about queer sex." So I don't. I write queer the way I experience it, not as "a queer experience" but as a queer, experiencing. Unfortunately, the dangers of showing and not telling for a queer poet are ever present. If I don't "tell" I’m queer, queer visibility will be erased from my poetry. This forces me to make one of two choices.

I could highlight my otherness, and be an official “LGBTQI Poet.” The straight gaze coerces me into telling myself in this biographical way; otherwise I won't show up on the page. Maybe I’ll just have to tell it straight (or to straight readers): “Dear reader, this poem was about queer sex.” It's an un-poetic corner to be backed into. If you won’t see me, how do I show you who I am? Do I really have to just tell you?

My instructor advised me to amend the mistake by adding “my lover” to the title. I imagine applying this advice to some “canonical” works of literature. “Shall I compare thee, my (gay) lover, to a summer’s day?”

Is a poet still poetic when they have to tell-all?

My other choice is to allow myself to be put away in the figurative closet, and accept that most people will mistake my female lover for my daughter, sister, or “special friend.” I could accept that my voice only lives while wounded, that my voice is ripped and fractured as soon as it breaches the borders of my pen.

The heteronormative gaze has buried the real lives of many writers before you and I, either by overlooking or fetishizing homoeroticism in their work. (Poor Sappho can never just sing a love song without it appearing on a tabloid the next morning).

I imagine an archaeologist digging up my poem in 100 years, dusting it off gently. All that is legible is a fragment about a woman’s mouth and the word yes. The archaeologist notes: “the poet writes about his lover.”

Of course, the subtext here is: who is allowed to write from their center of experience without fear of being misunderstood, rejected, attacked, invisibilized, or marginalized? As a counter-oppression workshop facilitator, my instinct is to close this essay with something constructive. Perhaps I could give you some tips on how to move forward from here, how to read with queerer eyes or write with queerer words…sorry, not today. Today I show, and won’t tell.

There is an open wound that can’t close: the wound in my voice, and the voices of other queer, trans, femme, disabled, displaced, and POC writers. Our voices, bruised from running into walls. Our voices, strained from being forced into boxes. Our voices, crushed from being called inauthentic and inaccessible when we refuse to pander to our stereotypes. Our voices, raw from telling readers “I exist, I am real” over and over.

I am showing you the wound. I’m not going to tell you how to receive it.


Suzahn Ebrahimian is a queer, mixed(up) writer who survives mainly on tragedy and queer theory. Previous publications include multiple poems, essays in Tidal and The Militant Research Handbook, the art-book Pointless Chores (QbyQ Press) and the collaborative myth E//O (Publication Studio Hudson). Suzahn is also editor and program director at QbyQ Press, a small community based independent press and publisher. In September, Suzahn will be moving to London, England.

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