The Poetics of Liberation

side by side series of the cover of Captive Genders

Is it even possible to define a poetics of liberation? All liberation movements necessarily overlap: trans liberation, queer liberation, Black liberation, theologies of liberation—the list goes on. Each segment of liberation discourse requires its own nuances. So what does it really mean to be free, to be liberated, or to engage in processes of liberation? And how do so-called “liberal” politics interact with those processes? The growing prison abolition movement brings another dimension to these questions. In Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, an anthology edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, many different voices come together to address the issues with stark clarity and, in spite of it all, radical hopefulness.

More a constellation than a collection, Captive Genders offers a multiplicity of perspectives, all in relationship with one other. It balances historical analysis, firsthand accounts and poetry by formerly and currently incarcerated people, updates from current frontiers of the struggle toward a more humane justice system, and potential next steps toward the ultimate goal of a future free from all manifestations of the prison industrial complex. And while focusing on the relationship between contemporary trans/queer experiences and the prison industrial complex, the anthology covers a broad scope of other liberation issues ranging from the criminalization of “loitering” in public spaces to the struggle for Hawaiian self-determination in the face of ongoing imperialism.

What does this approach of overlapping scopes mean for examining a poetics of liberation? The term “poetics” is traditionally used for literary theory, but its meanings stretch broader than just “an approach to genre or lyrical technique.” Captive Genders is both a political and literary text, and the one does not exclude the other. In both its content and its form(s), the anthology offers a poetics of liberation grounded in collectivity and multiplicity. The making of necessary new systems of justice and wellness will not be a single act of creation; it will be—and already is—an ongoing act of collaborative composition. In this way, a potential poetics of liberation emerges as ever-evolving actions of manifesting that are true to the full scope of poiesis, which can refer to any creation or production, not just poetry. In other words, this broader sense of a “poetics” is about more than expressing ideas in writing—it’s about actively bringing liberation-oriented forms of living into the world. In Captive Genders, that kind of praxis necessarily goes into the creation and presentation of the text itself.

In the foregrounded acknowledgments to the book, the editors make it very clear that they are not aiming to present a static manifesto or authoritative text on the interconnected struggles of trans equality and prison abolition. Instead, they offer an overview of their process and their own questions about the limits of their scope with refreshing transparency, eventually concluding:

[W]e collectively covered a lot of important ground that will make room for even more organizing and writing in the future, and we invite you to join or continue your participation in both. Ultimately, Captive Genders is a powerful offering of struggle, innovation, comeuppance and sorrow; a call to arms and a cry for true, self-determined justice.

Here, Stanley and Smith set the tone for a book that radically invites the reader in as an equal. Centering voices of those impacted by the prison industrial complex rather than situating itself in academic research contexts (though using plenty of research and statistics to back up its claims), the anthology lends itself more to the environment of the community book club than the academic seminar room.

This orientation toward community means that individual readers are also part of the poetics—the multifaceted bringing-into-being—as active participants and potential agents of change. Noname Book Club chose Captive Genders alongside Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? as their readings for the month of July. A shorter and more straightforward volume of history and analysis, Are Prisons Obsolete? offers an abolitionist perspective that centers critiques of racial capitalism. Part of the ethos of Noname Book Club is to popularize the idea that you don’t need a degree in social sciences—or any degree—to be able to engage with political theory as a way to inform praxis and vice versa. Building a community of readers through formal book club chapters and informal social media engagement, as well as a new political education series with a free monthly essay, Noname has contributed incalculably to this ongoing poetics of liberation that lifts up not only collective solidarity, but also collective learning. Collective learning—abundant with many voices and lived experiences, embracing nonhierarchical sensibilities, and always willing to admit its own incompleteness—seems to lie at the critical heart of Captive Genders.

It is, then, much more than a strategy. Collective learning is an essential layer of the wider liberation-seeking worldview, which favors communication grounded in relationality rather than the stark individualism that often characterizes contemporary neoliberal attitudes toward “freedom.” But how does that ideological shift play out in lived experiences? In one of the final portions of Captive Genders, Che Gossett offers a broad conversation titled “Abolitionist Imaginings: An Interview with Bo Brown, Reina Gossett, and Dylan Rodriguez.” In response to a question about how abolitionism engages with the “current prevailing ‘post-racial’ and neoliberal ideology,” Professor Dylan Rodriguez of UC Riverside describes a way of thinking about the logic of abolitionism in relationship with teaching and learning:

In my interpretation of it, the logic of an abolitionist position is that it is a direct and radical historical confrontation with the living legacies of anti-black racial slavery, racial colonialism, white supremacist nation-building, as they’ve differently converged in a nation-building project. So one of the most compelling political alternatives abolition can offer is a pedagogical commitment to learning and teaching how these systems are central to our everyday, historical present.

This notion of a “pedagogical commitment” is what a poetics of liberation necessarily puts forward: asking more questions, diving deeper, and always wondering which voices are still being left out of the conversation. With its intentional form(s) of collectivity and multiplicity, seeking breadth while centering the most marginalized voices, Captive Genders acts as an excellent framework for a thorough yet accessible nonfiction book. And, more importantly, it reflects the emerging shape of the movement itself.

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