A Writer’s Insight: torrin a. greathouse

torrin a. greathouse’s poem, “Etymythology,” appears in the spring 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses the biomythological space, freedoms afforded by the punk aesthetic, and Springsteen as butch icon.

Jake Zawlacki, editorial assistant: The poem starts off with the reader’s position being shifted around “wrong in the wrong direction—”. Later in the piece we move in crowds and then across both myth and time. How did you envision space and location to be working in the poem?

torrin a greathouse: I often imagine my poems existing in a biomythological space—that being the interstice of biography and self-mythologization—a space in which time is both linear and perpetually cyclical, my life moving forward with myth looping in the backdrop like reruns on TV. In this poem, I’m particularly invested in not allowing the reader to settle in or become comfortable, that opening phrase offering a labyrinthine expression of the inherent complications of being a butch trans girl growing up without a notion of either concept, then having to come to terms with not only being trans, but being gender-nonconforming in a wholly different way than the gender-nonconformity read upon my body as a child.

JZ: You frame epithets to look at their lack of etymology. I’m always stuck on the issue of how potentially harmful words can be put to best use in creative works. Care to finally resolve it for me?

tg: I’ve long been fascinated by words without histories, or words without a traceable history for how they came to mean what they do in a contemporary context. How do we reckon with the blood if we can’t find the opened vein? This is the case for many queerphobic slurs, which creates a ripe ground for formulating my own “post-hoc history,” by which I can suck the poison from the wound that term has created in our language. To me, this is an act of reclaiming these slurs, not just at a personal level, but on the level of linguistics. What does it mean to insist these words are mine and have been mine since the days of myth?

JZ: Additionally, I’m really interested in this etymology of “Butch” that you provide in the poem: (237)


how butch slipped its way into signifying

manliness. By way of knife & blood &

outlaw myth. Cassidy—butcher & a legend


The term has been used to describe a particular stereotype with varying connotations, but your poem seems to add an implied coming-of-violence to the term. Is there a certain coming-of-violence or objectivity of violence the poem is pursuing? Or am I overreaching?

tg: The term “Butch” was originally derived from a nickname for butchers, then came to signify manliness due to the gunslinger and outlaw Robert LeRoy Parker—formerly an apprentice butcher—better known to history as Butch Cassidy. While we can make potential guesses to how this word became used in its contemporary sense, there is no definitive record. We simply don’t know how this term came to mean the object of violence, rather than the one who dealt it. Which led to the project of this poem, the attempt to reckon with and rewrite this etymology while also reckoning with the complexities of my gender expression, both past and present.

JZ: The poem works with Artemis and Christian mythology to complicate this “etymythology.” For whatever reason I was thinking of the blades often used in folk stories of dragon slayers, but also Daedalus whittling away Icarus’ wax wings with a little knife, even though I’m pretty sure I’m adding details that don’t exist, a post hoc reimagining perhaps. Did you have other myths in mind when writing this?

tg: In the writing of this poem, I wasn’t particularly interacting with any other myths and legends—but funnily enough I have actually used the story of Daedalus as a space for reckoning with my own transition. In my second chapbook, boy/girl/ghost, there is a poem titled “Self-portrait as Daedalus, Writing the First Draft of His Autobiography” in which the space between Daedalus and his son, Icarus, and the Minotaur and Queen Pasiphaë begins to collapse as the poem struggles to make sense of my mother and father’s influence on my gender and my ability to express it authentically.

JZ: Springsteen and punk rock seem to be antithetical to me, but I am not well-versed in either. Does this contradiction play into the complex and sometimes paradoxical notion of etymology? Or am I reading too much into it?
tg: The two are aesthetically divergent, but in terms of politics, they’re far more similar than you might think! Springsteen has spent years writing protest songs against American wars, against capitalism and wage theft, and to try and make visible the struggles of the working class. But more important than this overlap is the way these two have played a role in my gender expression. As a young, closeted trans girl, punk’s fluidly gendered fashion offered a space where I could explore with less chance of violence for deviating gendered norms, meanwhile Springsteen is deeply beloved by dykes—myself included—to the point that there have been multiple prominent zines written about him as a butch icon. I don’t think I could write honestly about my butchness without paying homage to both of these formative influences.

JZ: The poem also seems to be building towards something throughout. This appears to be working with the linear aspect of etymology and its implications of evolution, growth, expansion, etc. How did you come about structuring the poem?

tg: As I mentioned earlier, the poem is interested in a kind of micro and macro structure of time, in which there is both linear progression but also an ever-important cyclicality. It was my hope that the poem could use this complex temporality to display both my movement from childhood to early transition to now, the way my gender expression has shifted in each epoch of my life, and the various switchbacks and missteps that have happened along the way.

JZ: It was such a joy to dive a little deeper in this poem and I look forward to reading your future work. Do you have anything in the works at the moment? 
tg: This poem, as well as my other poem in the issue, are part of a second collection—titled DEED—which I’m currently submitting out to publishers. The book is an exploration of sex, desire, excess, and the politics of desirability, as well as the ways legal, carceral, and medical systems interrupt and complicate that desire. I’m also working on the early stages of a memoir-in-essays exploring my relationship to horror media through the lens of my transness, disability, and survivorhood.

torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk and MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in PoetryPloughshares, and Kenyon Review. A 2021 National Endowment for the Arts award recipient, she is the author of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound.
Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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