Prolific trans writer Roz Kaveney: ‘Pain gave me a dark sense of humour’
Over the course of her life – she’s now 72 – Roz Kaveney has been a prolific writer.
From science fiction writing with Neil Gaiman to book reviews for newspapers, comic reviews and general criticism, much of Roz’s other writing has been critically acclaimed and award-winning. In 2016, she won the Best Trans Fiction Lambda Literary Award for her novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull, which was finally published in 2015 – 27 years after she wrote it, with the backing of fellow authors Gaiman and Kathy Acker.
She was also the deputy chair of human rights group Liberty, and a founding member of the Feminists Against Censorship network of women that began in 1989.
But when Roz went to Oxford University in the late 1960s, she was harbouring dreams of becoming a poet. However, after sharing a flat with the poet Christopher Reid and “hanging out in poetry circles”, she felt she “wasn’t all that good”.
Another factor was that she knew she was “probably going to transition”, and her friends were warning her that her career would suffer, and that she should wait until after university to come out and transition.
“I had a lot of long talks with my elders back in the sixties, and they very much said: ‘Look, don’t transition until you’ve done university. Your life is going to be better if you leave it a couple of years. You’ve got time,'” Roz recalls.
“And there was this whole thing about finding an authentic language to write about being trans, to write as a trans woman,” Roz remembers.
“Then things got complicated, because I started to transition in my last year at Oxford and then got persuaded to desist by feminist friends.”
In the end, it wasn’t until her late twenties that Roz fully came out, and the regret of those lost years is audible now.
“I took more time than I probably should have done, but I did transition, definitively, in 78, 79,” she says. Roz went to the US to transition, and ended up being “let down by friends and having to be a street hustler to survive, while being this rather posh-voiced Oxford graduate on the streets of Chicago”.
That experience, which she describes now as “instructive”, Roz turned into a comic novel. It wasn’t to be the last time that Roz used her dark sense of humour to survive. But it was only after she turned 50 that she began writing poems.
“The crucial thing that happened between about 1999 and 2008 was that a whole bunch of my friends, especially my women friends and women mentors, died,” Roz explains.
“So, I started writing poems about death. When my friend Mike Ford died, suddenly and tragically, I organised a memorial meeting for him and wrote a poem for it completely out of the blue.”
A little while later, it was the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Roz, a member of the Gay Liberation Front’s (GLF) “trans group” and one of those who penned the GLF’s TV/TS and Drag Queen manifesto in 1972, wrote a poem about Stonewall.
“There was a huge kerfuffle going on at the time,” she says, “which was very much people trying to write – as they still do – trans people out of the Stonewall riots.”
There was also a political reason for this: various gay American men, like John Aravosis, were trying to get a non-discrimination act through Congress and thought that removing trans people from it would give it a better chance of getting through, so were “trying to write trans people out of history a bit”, Roz says.
Queer historians like Susan Stryker were already focusing on the historical scholarship of trans people’s involvement in the early days of the modern gay rights movement, so Roz decided that what she could do was to write a poem.
“Stonewall, a poem” was the result. It begins: “When there is a riot / is like / when there is a crisis / in a lot of lives / It is when a hinge creaks, / when a hinge swings, / and things change.”
It was one of the first half a dozen poems that Roz wrote, and she was asked to read it at multiple events, where people would ask her what other poetry she’d written. At the time, she had to say “well, not very much”.
Now, two decades later, Roz is so prolific as a poet that 100 of her poems, from 2009 to 2021, were recently selected and published in a new volume.
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Containing poems about art, sex and love, transness, the world and the dead, the volume is dedicated to Roz’s friend Mike Ford, whose death sparked the beginning of her poetry writing. “Death stole you sudden and for years we’ve / cried / I cry unfair. And so I owe you rhyme,” the dedication reads.
Like her experience on the streets of Chicago, Roz Kaveney has used many dark episodes from her own life in her writing.
Another book of hers that was published recently is a collection of ballads, Nightsongs and Neckverses, which deal with topics like violence, murder, raising people from the dead, and child slavery. But while the themes are heavy, the poems are also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. How does Roz manage the balance of using humour to cope with things that have been quite difficult?
“I mean, it’s how I’ve survived all these years,” she says frankly. “Various awful things have happened to me, and I’ve developed this very dark sense of humour. Which is a classic feature of being queer. It’s gallows humour, and I love it.”
Roz says she was “lucky” in that relatively few of her friends died during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties (although she still names a long-ish list of those she knew who died), and that she didn’t lose many friends when she transitioned. Death, though, has remained one of the persistent themes throughout her poetry.
“I’m very aware of the fragility of every day,” Roz says. “And laughing is one of the ways to cope with that. Because otherwise, what are you going to do?”