MILO MUISE’s recent collection, TL;DR, was selected by Hanif Abdurraqib as the winner of the 2021 Newfound Prose Prize. In this interview, RAGE HEZEKIAH and Milo Muise connected about humor, punctuation, and how environment shapes who we become.
Rage Hezekiah: First, congratulations on this stunning book! It’s rare that I read a book cover to cover with such urgency, and this was the case here. I loved it and I’m excited to talk with you. The title and form in TL;DR are compelling, how did you come to name this book, and how does the form give meaning to the title?
Milo Muise: For those who aren’t terminally online, TL;DR stands for “too long; didn’t read” and is often used to preface a quick summary at the end of a long block of text. It can have a cheeky, self-deprecating quality to it, acting as a stand-in for “Sorry, I got a little carried away there! *eye roll*” I was frequently rolling my eyes at myself while I was writing this book. Does anyone really need this? From me? Of course, on some level, I thought the answer to those questions was yes because I kept returning to the page, but that initial ambivalence was key.
Early on, I was unsure about including a piece of contextual information about the gay trans man Lou Sullivan. I deliberated for a while, writing into my internal debate, and almost cut the whole section before realizing that my ambivalence was the point. This opened the door for me to explore and push back against the ways ambivalence is often stripped from trans experience in favor of Certainty and Euphoria, as if our identities are so fragile they can’t withstand humanity.
TL;DR is also poking fun at the way trans narratives get boiled down (especially by cis media) to these boring, safe platitudes (I always knew, Trans men are men, etc.) as if it’s possible to quickly sum up the entirety of one’s trans experience, nevermind trans experience more broadly, in a one-sentence tl;dr. I come to essay via poetry, and the kind of multiplicity enjambment allows heavily inspired the book’s form. I wanted each sentence of the book to stand on its own with a sense of finality that is then complicated or undone by whatever follows. The book is essentially 60 pages of tl;drs, and in their sheer quantity they subvert the usual purpose of these summaries and show everything that remains outside the frame when we limit ourselves to oversimplified, bite-sized communications.
RH: I love that, and I appreciated that TL;DR is a compilation of short, declarative sentences, separated by lines of white space. The book starts with “I knew better than to expect euphoria,” and ends with “I can be generous.” I’m struck by the simplicity of these sentences and their power. Can you talk about the arc of the book as a whole and your choices around the beginning and end?
MM: The beginning of the book was always clear to me: I knew I wanted to open in my bed, depressed, having just gotten top surgery. There’s an expectation in the cis imagination that when a trans person receives gender-affirming care, they’re immediately (and indefinitely?) happy, and if they’re not, something is wrong. This thinking can be internalized by trans people, who become panicked if they experience anything other than unilateral joy post-surgery/hormones/what have you. I had read up on the aftereffects of anesthesia as well as the variety of complex feelings that can arise after a major medical event, but even though “I knew better to expect euphoria,” I was still shocked by the degree to which I was depressed, and the extent that depression troubled me. By starting here, I’m setting the stage for my confrontations with other myths that inform our cultural understandings of transness, but I’m doing so from a personal, embodied place, which I consider a generous one.
The book is structured by an affective and intellectual progression rather than a temporal one. My coming into my transness wasn’t a linear process and features a number of unknowns due to the limits of language and memory. Regardless, I didn’t want to write a straightforward memoir about discovering I was trans. I was more interested in investigating the concerns of my early-transition self and how those concerns morphed or resolved over time (and continue to do so—there are many sections I would revise if I were writing TL;DR today!). The book is showing the transformations that occurred after I began transitioning, transformations that extend far beyond the body (but of course also include it).
Generosity is a fraught concept at the start of the book. It almost feels like an imposition, something I am obligated to extend to “The Youth,” for example. There’s still a wryness to the generosity that shows up at the end, but my hope is that it isn’t received as purely flippant and that the reader sees the book, at its root, as an act of generosity.
RH: I love the both/and that’s implied there. The truth of generosity and also the wryness you talk about. It’s one of the many pleasures of reading this collection.
In terms of a sense of place throughout the book, you move from your recovery bed following your top surgery, to the hospital you stayed in high school, to writing camp, to a music festival in rural Oregon, among other places. Can you speak to the importance of place in the narrative?
MM: So much of this book is about how our understandings of ourselves are co-created by our environment. I’m interested in the ways place helps create a narrative we are compelled to live by, an identity we shape to navigate that particular space. Early in my transition, I was obsessed with the question of whether I was always trans, whether I was ever a girl, and what I would have called myself if my, say, eight-year-old self had known about transgender people. Over time, those questions (and their implicit concern with the authenticity of my trans identity) became less important to me, and in their place, I turned my attention to the social, cultural, and familial forces that shaped the way I understood myself. Many of the places that appear in the book—the eating disorder hospital, bathrooms, dating apps—are highly gendered spaces where those forces were especially strong. In the book, I work to make those forces more visible than they were at the time I was experiencing them.
As I transitioned, I became viscerally aware of how much where I was and who I was interacting with impacted the way I was perceived and gendered. I found that really destabilizing, to the point where I severely limited my social interactions for a few years. I wanted to exist beyond place, beyond that site of co-creation. There’s a trope-y thought experiment that a lot of trans people put ourselves through when we’re trying to determine the validity of our identity: if I was stranded on a desert island, totally alone, would I still be trans? Would I still want [x] name, [x] medical intervention, etc. etc. etc.? I was beyond asking those questions, but I wanted to live on that island away from other people’s contaminating perceptions of me.
Where I was changed who I was, at least to others, making place a vital component of the book’s exploration of identity.
RH: That’s so interesting, that idea of “existing beyond place, beyond that site of co-creation.” I identify with needing that space away from others to carve out an identity that feels authentic. Thank you for sharing that.
There were times I laughed out loud reading this book, in part because I felt the wit was so sharp. I’m curious about your relationship to humor in your writing.
MM: I appreciate the use of “sharp” in your question—I like humor that has an edge. I try to use humor as if I’m popping a balloon with a pin, puncturing a fantasy of who I am, or how the world is. The laughter comes from shock and surprise as much as it does from comedy. It’s a tool to keep things a little off-balance and to keep the audience engaged in the question of where they’re positioned in relationship to the joke.
At the same time, I also value humor beyond utilitarianism. Humor is fun, and part of the fun is its frivolity. In terms of queer stories, the trauma narrative reigned for a long time, and in response, the era of queer joy is now upon us. This can be a valuable mode, of course, but at times can feel too reverent and precious for me to truly access the joy being described. One way of putting it is that the discourse around queer joy does not let me be “unclean with joy,” as Hélène Cixous once wrote. Instead, I find myself pursuing queer fun in my work, embodying a permissive playfulness that lets me explore my trashier, raunchier, and impractical preoccupations alongside the serious.
RH: Queer fun! Yes. Playfulness is essential, and that sense of play and levity is present throughout this book. Thank you for that.
I also appreciated the use of punctuation, from the semi-colon in the title to the use of parentheticals and italics. Can you speak to how you made intentional and/or organic choices about punctuation?
MM: During the first few years of my transition, I wrote a cycle of poems devoid of punctuation: no commas, no periods, everything lowercase, and so on. I was thinking of punctuation as a sort of boundary that allows a phrase to make sense, related to gender as a box that gives us a way to understand/compartmentalize our world, and I wanted to see what would happen if I removed that form of sense in favor of line breaks—a different kind of boundary, one denoted by space and open-endedness, without a symbol or finite placeholder.
I bring this up because it’s another way my thinking has changed since that time. While a useful experiment for that project, it gave the poems a flat, deadpan quality that would have felt limiting here. I wanted to give TL;DR’s “I” a sense of dynamism, an ability to speak to different audiences at different times, to traverse a variety of moods and tones. The punctuation and stylistic choices are what give the “I” its agility and allow the reader to interpret its multiplicity.
The parentheticals in particular were an organic impulse that became important to the voice. They allowed me to bring a level of self-awareness into the text, to address the audience’s potential critique, to double-back on my own pronouncements, to complicate an idea that risked oversimplification. Noticing how many different moves I could accomplish just with parentheses clued me into other ways playing with punctuation could reveal different facets of my speaker.
RH: I’m so glad I asked! I’m struck by what you shared about dynamism, and I feel like I’ll be thinking about that for a while. I still have much to learn about the power of punctuation, I’m going to take this all with me. Thank you.
I’m curious about your experience of putting this book out into the world. How has it felt for you?
MM: It’s been beyond incredible. Working with Newfound Press has been a dream, and their massive support of TL;DR means so much to me. I’ve especially loved hearing from trans readers about the moments that resonated or unlocked something for them about their own experiences. It’s still surreal to go over to Powell’s Books and see TL;DR displayed on the same shelves as some of my favorite books.
RH: So cool. That’s the dream, right? What are you working on now?
I’m working on placing my essay collection, currently titled Why I Love the Door. I jokingly call it my “Scorpio moon book” because it’s intense and really, uh, goes there. It features eight formally distinct yet thematically interconnected essays, each one organized around an inscrutable puzzle that has dominated my life, including Massachusetts oddity Lord Timothy Dexter, the ethics and efficacy of self-injury as survival strategy, and Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata (a problematic fave from when I was eleven). It’s also very funny.
RH: I grew up on the north shore of Massachusetts, and I’d never heard of Lord Timothy Dexter until you mentioned him. I love the idea of this being your “Scorpio moon book.” I look forward to reading your new collection and it’s been a pleasure to connect with you. Thanks, Milo!
MM: Thank you for such a lovely conversation, Rage!
Milo R. Muise is a trans writer. They hold an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Idaho and are an alum of the Tin House Summer Workshop. Selected by Hanif Abdurraqib as the winner of the 2021 Newfound Prose Prize and the recipient of a 2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship in poetry, Milo’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, HAD, Prelude, and elsewhere. Their debut chapbook, TL;DR, is out now with Newfound Press. They live and teach in Portland, Oregon.
Rage Hezekiah is a poet and educator, who earned her MFA from Emerson College. She is a Cave Canem, MacDowell, and Ragdale Fellow, and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her newest collection, Yearn, is a 2021 Diode Editions Book Contest winner. She is the author of Unslakable (Paper Nautilus Press, 2019) and Stray Harbor (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and she serves as Interviews Editor at The Common. You can find out more about her writing at ragehezekiah.com.