Madison Godfrey- Dress Rehearsals | Sydney Writers' Festival 2023

interview by Natalie Bühler

Date: Tuesday, May 25 2023 

Location: Media Room, Sydney Writers’ Festival

“It feels like a book that has taken my whole life to make,” Madison Godfrey says after we settle at our interview table. We might look a little forlorn in the cavernous attic space assigned to us, floating somewhere above the hustle and bustle of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks, were it not for their purple gingham dress, perfectly matched eyeshadow, and infectious energy instantly filling the room.

“Having Dress Rehearsals come out in March was such a big moment, not just for me, but also for my loved ones and my community,” they say. “It’s been a really big year, putting that into the world and having it finally meet people.”

The writer, editor and educator lives in Boorloo/Perth with their rescue cat Sylvia (who gets a shoutout at every opportunity) and has just released their second book, Dress Rehearsals, to widespread acclaim. A “memoir made of poetry”, Dress Rehearsals was the first book published by Allen & Unwin’s new imprint, JOAN, curated by the inimitable Nakkiah Lui, who was also in conversation with Godfrey in this evening’s event. Dress Rehearsals is made up of prose poems, which Godfrey describes as “poems that are dressed up like paragraphs”, coming together in “a book that plays dress-ups with what we expect of genre”. Godfrey’s passion for the form, which is cleverly taken up in their poem ‘Ugliest Girl at the Party’, also forms the basis of the PhD they’re currently completing at Curtin University.

Separated into three parts, Dress Rehearsals moves from memory to present, from mosh pits and laddered tights to baths with Femme Fatale, a semi-fantastical character visiting the speaker of the poems, from a questioning girlhood to a self-assured non-binary adulthood marked by joy. Those paying attention to Godfrey in the media and at the festival’s opening address will have noticed their consistent emphasis on joy.

“I wanted to write a book that didn't just document trans experience as always being shaped and defined by dysphoria, struggle and sadness,” they say. “I wanted to write a book that gave me permission to document the joys of being non-binary and the joys of being feminine.”

“This is a book that is very specifically about my experience of finding joy and of learning, unlearning, and then relearning my femininity on my own terms.”

Writing the book also allowed them to “pay a visit to little Madison, and to relive some of those experiences with language that I just didn't have within my reach then”. This was a painful process at times for Godfrey, reflected on the page in the anger at sexual violence and its casual dismissal experienced by the speaker of the poems.

“It wasn’t until I started putting the poems into a sequence that I realised how much those formative early experiences were so clearly echoed in the third part of the book,” they say.

Was it cathartic? “Eventually. But before it was cathartic, it was confronting in that I could see for the first time how everyone I’d ever been, became everyone I am now, and how that rage made me so small.” They point to a line in the book, where the Femme Fatale talks to the speaker:

“She says, it may seem easier to stay angry / but that will split you open / will turn your tenderness into an emergency. Femme teaches me how to be a menace to everyone other than myself.”

While anger undergirds a number of the book’s pieces, Dress Rehearsals is by no means an angry book. Indeed, as described in a review in the Guardian, it is “sensual and often funny”. Pleasure, says Godfrey, is often perceived as purely sexual, but “when we always expect pleasure to be this really sexual, sensual experience, it takes away from the way that pleasure is also tiny and an everyday moment and doesn't have to be erotic.”

That’s not to say that Godfrey shies away from the erotic in their writing, however. They describe aiming to create something “really forthright, really forthcoming” while avoiding the traditional trappings of shame when discussing sex and bodies.

“A lot of people are saying – and I agree – that it’s a book with a lot of bodily fluids in it,” they say. “I think for me, the place that this erotic sense comes from is that I wanted to document the body beyond a dominant gaze as thoroughly as possible. For me, that includes menstruation, that includes the spit of a mosh pit.”

Are these descriptions intended to be erotic? “I’ve never thought of myself as an erotic writer,” they say. “I think giving myself permission to sit with all the excess and grotesqueness of inhabiting a body meant that the erotic was produced by accident almost.”

Godfrey was pleased that the book was perceived as ‘often funny’, having worried while writing it “that nobody else would find it funny”. Humour, they say, is another extension of their focus on joy.

“I think the relationship between queerness and humour is interesting because historically, people who exist on the margins of identity of any sort would be laughed at – it's something that I've encountered myself as a queer person. I want to rewrite being queer as something that can be joyous, and that I can be funny and I can experience humour. But that I can also make jokes that are relevant not just to queer or non-cis people, but relevant to a whole spectrum of identities.”

And what brings them joy at the moment? “I think one of the real joys right now of this week is meeting people who've read the book.” They look up at the steel beams dissecting the ceiling, towering five metres above our heads. “I have a wordless amount of gratitude, to know that anyone's read these little poems. They mean so much to me. The fact that they mean so much to people I've never met – that is the biggest joy I could ever imagine.” They end our interview by thanking me for reading their book, before running and twirling joyously around the enormous room.

Natalie Bühler is an emerging writer and arts administrator living and working on unceded Gadigal Land in Sydney. She works for Red Room Poetry and is pursuing her postgraduate studies at the University of New South Wales, where she is also an editor at Unsweetened. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cordite, Tint, Blue Bottle Journal, boats against the Current, and the Tinted Trails anthology.

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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