Interview: Caroline Earleywine

Editor Sam Preminger, Interview, October 7th, 2020

"writing is the first way I learned how to be brave"

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Caroline Earleywine is a poet and educator whose chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, will be hitting shelves this October. Over the past month, NAILED’s Sam Preminger has had the pleasure of corresponding with Caroline to discuss poetry, queer identity, countering hatred, and more.

To read Caroline’s poetry, click here.

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Sam: Your book, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, often orbits around the idea of gender presentation or, more exactly, how a person’s appearance affects the ways other folks will see (or not see) them. How does this relate to, and differ from, a sense of internal identity in your mind? 

Caroline: To me, having a good sense of style means wearing things that not only look good but obviously feel good, that fit your aesthetic and personality. To me, that’s a sign of someone who knows themselves very well and is comfortable with who they are. I think a lot of the outward awkwardness you see teens experiencing with style is because they are trying on not only all different kinds of clothing, but all different kinds of people they could be. They’re trying to figure out who they are.

I read somewhere about this idea that people experience a second adolescence when they come out of the closet for the first time, even if they are well into adulthood. I related to this as someone who was very much an adult when I came out, and who definitely experimented and floundered some with my style. I was experiencing things that teenagers often do, like dating and falling in love for the first time.

This concept of the second adolescence makes a lot of sense to me — coming out is an opportunity to reevaluate how you present yourself to the world, and ultimately a chance to re-examine who you are and what outside representation feels aligned with that. There’s this show called Suited my wife and I started watching about a place that specializes in making custom suits for transgender and queer bodies, and it’s an emotional moment seeing people feel comfortable in their skin and validated in their identity for the first time.

 

Sam: A second adolescence – yes! As someone who also came out as an adult (and still flounders to find an outfit daily) this resonates way too clearly. Seeing as you’ve written the book on this process, I have to ask: do the fashion struggles ever end?

Caroline: Never! Ha, but I do think that the struggles continue as long as the growth and discovery continues. Maybe at some point I’ll settle into myself a bit more, but I hope not too much. I hope I’m always discovering new ways to portray different aspects of myself through fashion, however awkwardly. I do feel that I am much more aware of what clothes feel more like me, and I’ve watched my wife go through the same process. I think we are both better equipped to dress for events and not feel so awkward.

 

Sam: Throughout the collection there’s also an emphasis on queer youth, be they your present-day students or memories from your adolescence. What would you most want young, gay readers to carry with them when they walk away from your work? And conversely, what would you most want others to discover about them?

Caroline: I get emotional when I think about queer youth, because I came out as a teacher and the most LGBTQ people I was around were my students. Their bravery was largely my inspiration. What I would want other people to discover about them is that they are resilient and beautiful, but they also deserve to be trusted and given the space to tell us who they are. We need to continue to give them that space to grow and rediscover, and to come out multiple times if they need to, and recognize that to know who you are in this world is a great feat, and it’s one that should be honored and applauded.

It would be my greatest hope that queer teens would walk away from my work with a resounding feeling of being seen and celebrated. For those who need it, I also would want them to see an example of an adult queer life filled with joy and love, and make that life feel more possible for them.

 

Sam: That’s a beautiful sentiment, and one which shines throughout your poems. I love this idea of expanding our inspirations to not only include elders and peers, but to also look towards younger generations for all we can learn from them. Would you be willing to share any of the lessons your students have taught you?

Caroline: One of the biggest lessons they’ve taught me is the importance of celebrating each other, especially within a chosen queer family like in our LGBTQ club at school. When a student came out to his family, they painted him a transgender flag with his name on it and threw an impromptu party. When there were some students in the club who were down and being bullied, they created a hashtag #StrongerTogether and started posting uplifting photos on the instagram, holding up signs of encouragement.

They’ve also taught me a lot about respecting where people are on their journeys. They are always sensitive about those who can’t be out and finding ways to still make them feel included and validated. That sometimes looks like making a version of a t-shirt or pin without the rainbows so students who can’t be out at home can still feel included.

I’ve also learned about the importance of visibility from them, even in simple ways. When a lesbian student in one of my classes found out I was gay from overhearing a student ask something about my wife, I watched her eyes light up from across the room. She immediately stood up and walked over to my desk, looking around. When someone asked her what she was looking for, she said she wanted to see a picture of my wife, of my family. I’ve kept a framed picture of my wife and our dogs on my desk ever since.

 

Sam: This is absolutely charming, and inspirational to boot. To shift focus for just a moment though, I want to make sure we get to discuss the way cultural geography informs the poems as well. Specifically, your relation to the South seems fraught throughout the collection. What is your relationship to the South like today? How has the process of writing this book affected it?

Caroline: I definitely have a complicated relationship with the South. On one hand, there’s the obvious problematic history and present. There’s the confederate flags, the bathroom bills, the fact that until five years ago, I couldn’t legally marry and up until a few months ago, I could legally be fired based on my sexual orientation.

But the South is filled with my favorite people. Arkansas is such a beautiful place — I feel like I sometimes take for granted the nature and scenery. And there are organizations here in Little Rock doing such important work, like Intransitive, which is a Trans migrant led organization working on providing education and celebrating Trans resilience. There’s Decarcerate that’s working to end mass incarceration in Arkansas. There’s also Lucie’s Place, which is the state’s only shelter for  LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

While I was writing this book, my small Arkansas hometown threw its first ever Pride celebration. That’s something I never even dreamed of seeing. I went with my wife and parents and brother, and it was a very emotional day, just watching and witnessing. It was a great reminder of how resilient queer folks are. It also felt like a full circle moment to be standing in the place that had raised me with such homophobic messaging and seeing the queer youth of present day in that same space,  being celebrated. I started to write about it and hoped to include it in the book, but it just wasn’t enough time to process it for me.

 

Sam: Holey Moley – that celebration sounds like such a wonderful, and powerful, experience. And thank you for sharing information on those organizations! Links are included above and I want to encourage all of our readers to explore the work that they do / get involved if they’re able.

So often it seems intuitive to love individual people and so much harder loving people at large, especially when it comes to problematic policies. Given your experiences living among your favorite folks while witnessing hateful practices in those same communities, have you picked up any tricks for navigating this dissonance? 

Caroline: To be honest, I am pretty careful of who I surround myself with and share space with. That being said, it’s obviously unfeasible to completely avoid those people who support those problematic policies, and that isn’t unique to the South — you can find those people anywhere. A strategy a friend taught me was to approach conversations with people who may say problematic things with curiosity, which tends to lead to more productive conversations. This is especially helpful in practicing breaking white silence when it comes to racist remarks. I’m not sure I would recommend this in the most overt cases, though.

Another thing I keep in mind that really helps me get through, particularly when it comes to homophobia, is realizing that other people’s bigotry has absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. I know that seems obvious, but there are days when it feels especially personal, and reminding myself of that fact helps take some of the sting and power of it away.

 

Sam: While reading these poems I noticed that there sometimes seems to be a sense of shame and uncertainty surrounding gender presentation / fashion choices — I’m thinking of ‘Sometimes I Feel Sorry For The Clothes I Buy’ specifically — but putting this book out in the world is a mark of tremendous courage, of confidence in yourself and willingness to face any adversity that might follow. I’m so grateful you’ve decided to do so as will be, I believe, many many readers, but still… where does that courage come from? What led you to want to share these vulnerabilities with a wider world?

Caroline: I definitely do have some nerves about this book being out in the world, but writing is the first way I learned how to be brave. I was a pretty shy kid, and I grew up in a culture where feelings and struggles were largely not discussed or acknowledged. Writing was a place where I could work through my feelings and practice saying what was so much harder to voice out loud. It’s still that place for me today.

I also think about how much reading connects us, and how important LGBTQ stories are. Visibility is powerful. My life would have been completely different if I grew up right now, when queer stories are finally becoming more widely shared and celebrated. And there’s still a long way to go with that, so if I can be even a small part of that conversation, of that progress, then I’m going to do it.

 

Sam: It really is so revolutionary to be seeing more and more queer stories (and creators!) get the recognition they’re needing. I agree though that there’s still a long path ahead. In your opinion, what is the conversation most missing at this time?

Caroline: I don’t know if it’s so much about conversations that are missing, but there are conversations that need to be more amplified and celebrated. The writers are out there, and the art is out there. I think within the queer community, we especially need to be amplifying people of color, especially Black and transgender stories. This is outside of the realm of poetry, but the show Pose is such an important show for not only the stories they are telling, but the fact that transgender actresses are playing transgender women, and they are absolutely incredible. The fact that none of the transgender actresses on that show have gotten an Emmy nomination is abhorrent.

I just finished reading a young adult book, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, and it was such a beautiful Black queer prom story. I have Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas on my nightstand to read next, which just this month was the first fiction book focusing on a transgender character by an openly transgender author to ever make the New York Times Best Seller list. It’s so great that it made the list, but I am certain it is not the first book of its kind that deserved such an accolade.

I’ll always wish for more queer women stories in mainstream media — what’s mostly been focused on are stories featuring white cis men. But one place that I feel there is a lot of new queer women representation is in music, especially pop music, which is really exciting. (Kehlani, Janelle Monae, Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, King Princess, etc.)

 

Sam: Any of the poems gathered in this book could stand quite effectively independent of the collection (which is not to say that the collection as a whole does not create a sum greater than its parts because damn…it most definitely does). What I’m wondering, rather, is when the moment was that you realized this needed to be a full-length collection? What triggered the recognition that you were crafting something larger than one page could hold?

Caroline: Thank you for that! The process of writing this book started with my thesis in graduate school. I had a classmate compliment me after a workshop when he found out I was gay, but hadn’t really written about it or shared any pieces about it in workshops. He thought it was very cool I hadn’t, and I got that messaging right away that it was okay to be gay, but that I shouldn’t be annoying about it or “make it my whole personality.” This definitely triggered something in me. After I processed that exchange, I made a commitment to myself to write about my queerness more. About half the poems in the book I wrote during that program, including the title poem that ultimately led me to my theme.

I knew it was something I wanted to grow when it became an obsession, and I couldn’t stop coming up with possible poems that would fit into the world of Lesbian Fashion Struggles. I was excited to sit down and write in a way I hadn’t been before. It was a different feeling than when I was working with my thesis, which didn’t feel so cohesive and thought out. Since the theme was so specific, I felt early on that it would lend itself well to a chapbook, though it is on the long side for a chapbook. Though there are plenty of heavier moments, this is a collection that allowed much more playfulness than I usually allow myself in writing. That stretched me in a way I really enjoyed. Through writing it, I was also able to process some of my own impostor syndrome and internalized homophobia that the exchange with my classmate brought up.

 

Sam: That sense of play is so welcome in the collection and I think it’s doing a lot of work to help readers navigate the heavier topics interspersed throughout. I’d like to backtrack for a moment though because I’m especially curious about the message that gay people shouldn’t “make it [their] whole personality.” It’s a message I believe most queer folks are familiar with and its one of those especially insidious strains of homophobia that crops up in people of all identities. Do you think it’s possible for gay people to not let their sexual identity influence their personality? Can we create art that isn’t gay art?

Caroline: I think assimilation is always possible, but I also think it’s impossible to grow up in a heteronormative society and not be affected by that as a queer person. But that doesn’t mean that there is a specific “gay personality” — the gay experience is as vast and unique as the human experience is, which I think isn’t always understood. My experience as a woman, as someone who is cis, as someone who identifies as a lesbian, as someone who has an accepting family, as someone who is married, etc., makes for a very specific kind of experience.

I definitely think that queer people are under no obligation to write specifically about their queer experiences, and that their audiences shouldn’t be limited to LGBTQ audiences — I understand how that can be limiting. But any art made by queer people is inherently queer art.

 

Sam: Well, as one queer artist to another I want to thank you so much for sharing your writing, your insight, and for taking the time to chat with NAILED! Of course I want every person reading this to go get a copy of Lesbian Fashion Struggles right away, but are there other places people can find your work as well? Any new projects on the horizon?

Caroline: Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me! Well I’m working slowly but surely on a full length collection. Something I would really love to do is get involved with GSA’s around the country — I know that our club is struggling trying to navigate how we can support our students virtually. I’m starting to reach out to clubs about doing a reading/writing workshop with GSA’s via zoom. So if anyone would be interested in that, please reach out!

 

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Header image courtesy of Cristina Troufa. To view her Artist Feature, go here.

Caroline Earleywine teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, NAILED Magazine, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs.
Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is out now with Sibling Rivalry Press.

You can buy it from Sibling Rivalry here.
You can buy it from Caroline here.

To reach out about readings, particularly with GSA’s and queer youth, email her at [email protected].

 

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Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a Portland-based poet. Their work has appeared throughout various publications and they hold an MFA from Pacific University.