“We are this horrible animal, all of us”: An Interview with Gina Tron

side by side series of the cover of Star 67 by Gina Tron

I read Gina Tron’s new collection of poems, Star 67, in the days leading up to the election. It wasn’t easy. The poems in this book, especially those in the first section (there are three) play with the idea of seeking disconnection and connection simultaneously in the aftermath of trauma. Accordingly, they read as scattered (literally, across the page), abstract, and at times impenetrable. Maddeningly so. But it seemed fitting that I would read these works about violence—specifically, American violence—and its aftermath at a time when the constant overload of the news cycle prompts almost daily rituals of disconnection, and when the American public is seemingly becoming aware of its propensity for and propulsion toward violence.

In 2010, Tron survived a sexual assault. She reported it and testified in two grand jury hearings before seeing the case thrown out and her attacker, a serial rapist, walk free. The aftermath of that event informs both the stories and emotional fingerprint of this collection, evidenced in narrative stanzas describing the NYPD’s reaction to her rape and an overall tone of both anger and disassociation. But while Star 67 might be biographical, it is also universal, in that the stories and thoughts and feelings and fantasies Tron shares are by no means unique. They’re owned by many—something the author knows intimately due to her four years reporting on true crime for Oxygen. (Like her poetry, Tron’s nonfiction practice is relatively bleak. In addition to writing about murderers, cults, kidnappers, and rapists for Oxygen, she broke, for example, the story of Vermont’s heroin epidemic in 2013.) In this new book, Tron harnesses her professional and personal experiences to explore American violence (violence toward women in particular); fantasies of revenge; the arc, post trauma, through phases of disconnection and connection; and the surprising societal prevalence of these universally applicable themes.

In the poem “My Vows,” Tron writes: “Too cute / to walk the street / without realistic fear / of getting raped / a 6/10 piece of loot / of meat.” In “Class Exercise,” she recounts the experience of being groped by her classmates as a teen. In “Slut Clock,” she pens short, enjambed lines swimming in white space that report the police and judiciary response to her rape, how she would “look for that detective / who said I dressed like a slut / force him to dress / like I did / which was not slutty (by the way).” A preoccupation with revenge fantasies is prevalent in Star 67—or, rather, the collection is preoccupied with just how enamored of revenge fantasies and vengeful violence, a genre that includes events like school shootings, Americans are. The poem “Trench Coat” references the Columbine shooters. In “Bellicose Butterfly,” Tron adopts a narrative form as she writes of a man who muses that if he is diagnosed with cancer, he’s “gonna mow down / that bitch who rejected me,” and of a woman who says that if she knows she’s about to die, “maybe I’ll gun down my rapist, cram the barrel into his garage / turn on the gas / until his eyes bleed.” Later, she writes, “It’s the American way.”

I worry, citing those lines, that this book will be reduced solely to the violence it deals with. That it will be misunderstood (another concept Tron is familiar with—she wrote a piece for VICE in 2013 about being wrongly identified as a potential school shooter post-Columbine). The overall arc of Star 67, though, however riddled with bullet holes and stab wounds, isn’t a depressing one. Instead, it depicts a speaker experiencing trauma, growing up, and, in the process, finding a voice that while not necessarily optimistic is capable of reflecting complexity and beauty back to her readers. This arc is visible in the poetic structure and content of the book’s three sections, titled “Dial Up,” “Busy Signal,” and “Re-Routing.” The content of the first is trauma heavy, and the structure of the poems here reflects the scattered mind of a teenager—copious line breaks and fragmented sentences as if the speaker was cut off mid-thought, are interspersed by rare bursts of clear narrative stanzas, giving the sense of memories viewed from afar. In “Busy Signal,” the speaker becomes introspective and emotive, as in “Dreamscape,” where Tron writes of trying to “control my dreams / shifting settings / a film director / my mind’s screen flickering / images into yours.” In the last section, “Re-Routing,” the speaker gains both clarity and anger. The poems are more consistently narrative, the lines tighter and more controlled, and the thoughts coherent and volatile. In the poem “In Bloom,” for example, Tron writes of the odd correlation between springtime and heightened crime: “magnolias blossom / and refrigerated rage / thaws out / ready to bloom.”

Whatever the speaker or writer’s personal growth, her view on American society as a whole remains consistent. Rage, distaste, and pain permeate the pages of Star 67, as does a detachment regarding the violent tendencies of this population. In the poem “Another Week in America,” Tron writes about how each of us is in proximity to someone who has either killed or been killed. “I used to think killing / was rare / but it’s not. It’s dotting the landscape / like pine trees / and Targets.” If we are to rest on the definition of the genre guest editor Major Jackson offered in Best American Poetry 2019, American poets “write in the wake of a long tradition of resistance.” In responding to American violence with both intimacy and anger on the page, Tron engages in just such an act of resistance.

Mercedes Williams: In your work for Oxygen, you write about true crime. Star 67 isn’t necessarily true crime, but it is violent. It draws on those themes, addresses crimes like rape, and gets cozy with the distinctly American urge for narcissistic revenge killings. Have you always been interested in these topics?

Gina Tron: Absolutely. I guess I’ve always been really interested in morbid stuff. In elementary school slash junior high, I would watch a lot of slasher films and horror movies. My grandma introduced me to horror films and sci-fi, and I remember studying serial killers and stuff in junior high and high school just for fun. At that age I wanted to be a criminal profiler, but then I realized I had to go to a police school, and I didn’t want to become a cop, so I decided not to do it. I’m not a criminal profiler, but I ended up going the route I wanted to. I found a way, I guess.

MW: “Star 67” is both a Drake song and a phone dialing mechanism that obscures the caller ID. Which one informed this collection?

GT: Is it!? Here, I’m trying to explore, in part, unhealthy ideas about love and how stalking or preying on people is kind of mixed up with our ideas about love. Violence mixed with admiration. [The poem] “Submersion,” I based that on Scream. [As a kid] I really was hoping that somebody would stalk me in the way that she was stalked in that movie, that somebody too would like me enough to want to stalk me. I did get some phone calls at my house when I was a teenager that were hang-up calls, and I would try to star 69 them to see who had called, but they had blocked their number, so they had star 67ed. And of course, I did a few of those myself.

MW: It’s not an uncommon desire, right? I feel like it’s so internalized.

GT: It’s very common that people end up killing people that they claim to love. Also, star 67 and the whole star 69 things, I’m trying to do some play on disconnection or disassociating, so kind of trying to connect post-trauma but not being able to fully connect.

MW: Is this collection in part a trauma response?

GT: Yes. I would say [it’s] trying to connect and maneuver post-trauma, the kind of traumas that we all to some degree go through.

MW: Such as? 

GT: Well, definitely the sexual assault is one of them. And in the poem “Class Exercise” I wrote about a time in middle school where you had to raise somebody up, and I remember being groped by a bunch of boys in my class. I mean, they had to hold you up anyway, but I remember some of them grabbing my butt in ways they shouldn’t have. I [was] very confused by that because I didn’t think that any of them found me attractive. I didn’t really understand. I wouldn’t even classify that as trauma but just being exposed to how creepy men can be, [which] is a lot of what “Dialing Up” is about. And the last three poems in it are about being sexually assaulted and trying to deal with the aftermath of that and deal with reporting that. But some of the poems are just about violence in general, and not mine specifically.

The “Slut Clock” poem is specifically about [being sexually assaulted], and a few others around it are too. Through this book, I’m trying to deal with my own female aggression. I think people that identify as women are told to not express aggression. I mean, [“Slut Clock”] is basically a murder fantasy, of murdering the police that slut-shamed me.

MW: There’s so much violence in this book, but I don’t see fear. I see it in a few small places but overall it’s not a fearful book. If you were to categorize this collection’s relationship to violence in a few words, what would they be? 

GT: I guess it would be a detached view of violence. It’s kind of detached, or matter-of-fact. I guess also an angry approach? I don’t feel fearful in any of these poems, that’s for sure. I know that there’s a lot of rage in “Slut Clock,” a lot in “Re-routing.” So then both a rageful attachment and a detached view, if that makes sense.

MW: It does. You can only hold so much anger for so long without having to slip into something a little more comfortable, like detachment.

This is a biographical work in many ways, but it’s also about America. In the poem “Bellicose Butterfly,” you describe revenge murder, or fantasies of revenge murder, as “The American way.” Do you think generally speaking Americans, America, and American women, in particular, have this certain “way” about death and murder?

GT: First of all, I think that women love true crime. In this poem specifically, I’m talking about mass shootings. How sick and narcissistic we are as Americans. If we feel wronged, or if things aren’t going our way, we want to go out in a blaze of glory. I’ve been guilty of some of those thoughts to the extent that—I’ve had cancer, and I would never do this—but I’ve had fantasies where I’m like, If I really have terminal cancer, maybe I would kill the guy who raped me before I kill myself. Which is pretty sick. Part of it is like, I want to get rid of one shitty person so he doesn’t hurt other people. But a lot of it is self-absorbed. I’ve been wronged, there was no justice, people must die. That’s the mindset of a lot of people that shoot up the mall or their school. I didn’t get enough girls, I didn’t get enough whatever, you know? Being raped is a more legitimate wrong, but it’s still on the same wavelength of, I was wronged, so if I’m going to die I’m going to take others out with me. It is a very American thing. Mass shooters and that way of thinking are statistically more prevalent here than they are in other countries.

MW: That poem in particular was fascinating to me. I thought it was interesting that you equate, almost, a mass shooter and a rape survivor. Rape, like you say, seems like a more legitimate reason to want revenge than whatever motivates a mass shooter. But nevertheless, you equate the desire for revenge produced by those two separate circumstances. Do you see those as equal? The fantasy as equal?

GT: I don’t think that they’re equal. But I do think they come from the same American place. I know in other countries people kill people who wronged them. It’s a universal thing. But I don’t know if it’s to the same degree. I think it’s very built into [Americans], for whatever reason, that if you’re wronged or you feel wronged—that’s the key, they haven’t all been wronged—I’m sure that people in other countries have similar fantasies, but I don’t know that they’re as vicious as ours, if they’re as motivated by infamy or revenge to the degree that we are.

MW: In 2013 you wrote a story for VICE about Vermont’s heroin epidemic. At that point, it hadn’t really been reported on. And you kind of shattered this illusion of Vermont as this bucolic, green, beautiful place where everything is just cows and red barns. In Star 67, you are writing about violence as if it is an everyday thing. In doing that are you hoping to shatter perceptions of safety in a similar way, to complicate them in some way?

GT: Even people who are obsessed with true crime still think of it as the “other,” or like of murderers or these violent acts as something that is separate or removed. And I think that’s really unhealthy. I write about mass shooters or other killers. I don’t research them because I want to cast sympathy on them, but I want to humanize them to the degree that we realize not that we are all capable of those acts per se, but that they’re not different from us. We are this horrible animal, all of us, and there’s no black and white. It’s a gradient scale. I think there’s just a puritan idea in America of who is good and who is bad. Who the victims are and who the perpetrators are. And there’s no room for, “Well maybe everyone has some of these thoughts to some degree.” I think that putting too much distance between you and these people makes it harder for us to actually prevent things [like this] going forward.

MW: One other thing I noticed about this collection is that there are multiple references to 1990s and early 2000s tech. You reference the Angelfire websites and screen names and even just terms like dial-up and star 67. Is that a nostalgia? How does that tie in to the overall violent theme of the book?

GT: I wouldn’t say I had a stalker, but as a kid there was someone who messaged me very creepy things online, like, “I’m going to rub against you in the hallway in school” and, “I’m watching you.” Stuff like, “I love you.” I remember kind of liking it because I had never even kissed a boy. So I started this whole thing off by thinking I want to explore my relationship with stalking, or love slash stalking, through technology, which just happened to be mid to late ’90s technology at the time. That’s why it’s like that. It’s not so much nostalgia. I kind of like how it represents distance because obviously it’s not face to face, or somebody was coming up to my house and threatening me. I don’t even think that person necessarily went to my school.

MW: You put a lot of yourself into this book. And knowing what we know about stalkers and serial rapists, it’s possible that some of them would check back in on you, and your work. Do you think about that at all, when you’re writing? When you publish?

GT: For me, writing has always held a lot of power. It’s been my way of getting through difficult times or ordeals, finding validation, and also just my way of saying “fuck you” at times. So, this would definitely be a “fuck you” time. I feel passionate about writing about situations in my life when others had control. I like writing about those situations in a way where I have control of it now, even if it’s just in my own writing. If any of these people check in and see that, I hope it upsets them. That would be dreamy. Also, I don’t feel like the serial rapist person even bothers to check in with me. He got away with it. I’m sure he’s more focused on continuing his patterns and sexually violent compulsions.

MW: You’re a very funny person—I know this because I follow you on Twitter. And yet your work is very serious, and also sometimes funny and difficult to digest because we’re talking about rape, murder, abusive partners, roadkill, car crashes. And both your humor and your poetry seem to come from a place of intensity. At what point do you get to level off? To say, “I’m funny enough, thank you, I don’t need any more trauma?” 

GT: I think that I’ve always had a dark sense of humor, for sure, but the more trauma I go through, the funnier I get. Which is both terrible and good I guess. I definitely felt that way a few years ago. I’m friends with a fair amount of comedians and they’re all miserable people. I think a lot of funny people aren’t happy. Not to say that I’m unhappy, but, you observe things that are absurd in a bad way, so you can point out those absurdities through humor. I guess I try to be funny in everything I do, because with death and serious topics, joking a little bit about stuff—in a way that’s not demeaning anybody or the topic—is a good way to bring people in. If you can laugh at the absurdity of things then it’s a little less uncomfortable.

This piece was originally published on November 12, 2020.