Ortiz writes Cindy Crawford prose.
Here’s the longish gist of why I kept wanting to call the cops. As a public school teacher, I’m mandated to report child abuse or neglect. If I even suspect shady shit, if I get even a whiff, I’m supposed to pick up the phone and tell. And I have told before. Through EXCAVATION, Ortiz geo-meticulously tells the type of story that creates the epic need for mandatory reporting laws.
She tells about being a semi-normal eighth grader in North Hollywood. (I say semi-normal because Ortiz is way smarter than almost everybody. She’s also the only Chicana child in a bookish but falling-apart alcoholic family. Her intense IQ and only brown childness are a little unusual.) Partway through her first month of eighth grade, Ortiz’s advanced English class gets a new teacher, Jeff Ivers. Ivers quickly and unfairly seduces Ortiz and involves her in a five-year relationship that brands her. Ivers gets off on her lack of agency. He encourages her to keep secrets that wind up hurting her in big ass ways for a long ass time. He’s gross. He’s crass. He’s the kind of man who chews tobacco and wears sweats in public. The worst. A total cochino. But he tells Ortiz she’s ageless, mentally stimulating, and talented. And that’s so mean because while those things are true, Ivers uses them to emotionally chain her up. Because of her age, it’s impossible for her to understand her manipulation and its consequences. How evil. How rude. How the opposite of a teacher.
As I stared at my MacBook screen, my skin tingling at the tragedia unfolding before me, I reminded myself that while it was too late for me to tell, at least Ortiz is telling now. EXCAVATION tells and untells and trumps untelling by telling in a way that can’t be undone. No takebacks.
A CONFESSIONAL, ARCHAEOLOGICAL VERBOCOLLAGE USING THE LANGUAGE OF WENDY C. ORTIZ’S EXCAVATION
‘You can’t tell a soul. I don’t care who you trust. I’m totally fucking-A serious.’
‘You’re not telling a soul, you’re not writing a word of this down anywhere, right?’
‘You can’t tell a soul. I don’t care who you trust. I’m totally fucking-A serious.’
‘You’re not telling a soul, you’re not writing a word of this down anywhere, right?’
‘You can’t tell a soul. I don’t care who you trust. I’m totally fucking-A serious.’
‘You’re not telling a soul, you’re not writing a word of this down anywhere, right?’
‘You can’t tell a soul. I don’t care who you trust. I’m totally fucking-A serious.’
‘You’re not telling a soul, you’re not writing a word of this down anywhere, right?’
My lover was a twenty-nine-year-old man.
He had a knee injury.
He had shoulder aches and caught colds often.
He was a sports fan, not a player, and his body was beginning to show it.
He got winded during sex and sometimes couldn’t reach orgasm.
Ortiz exposes her story through strata. Her story isn’t an onion. It’s a cronut.
EXCAVATION’s strata mostly take the form of the most elegant journal entries ever written, and Ortiz titles these entries by month and/or season and year. The entries microdetail her unfair seduction. They reveal tastes, textures, conversations, drugs ingested, how frayed were the cutoff shorts she was wearing, who came, who didn’t, and how dirty the walls were. The entries communicate the weird rainbow of emotions that a young person experiencing a type of sexual abuse (but doesn’t get it) goes through. If you’ve gone through such a thing, you’ll find the colors inside you matching the colors evoked by these passages. Mine matched but were not identical.
These strata from Then seismically shift as Ortiz’s post-teen, but not always necessarily adult, life crashes through. Twenty-six pages in, the first in the series of post-teen segments, all titled, “Notes on an Excavation” appears. These notes contrast Ortiz’s Thenness to both her Laterness and Nowness. The notes’ continued appearance creates a spiral that gives the reader a more whole understanding of Ortiz’s cyclical evolution. Her prose creates this effect for myriad roles: mother/daughter, child/adult, the person in pain/the person causing pain… This spiraling follows Maureen Murdock’s response to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: the heroine’s journey. In this pattern of storytelling, the heroine makes and destroys herself and her home endlessly. This pattern is uncannily double-helixish: life-giving. Jill Soloway has written that if the hero’s journey is an arc, then the heroine’s journey is a circle. Well, Ortiz’s story demonstrates that the queer shero’s journey is a cronut.
Through her notes, Ortiz literalizes EXCAVATION’s archeological motif in lite and fluffy and deep and whoa ways. She appropriates Curious George’s adventures with shovels and pick axes and then she goes on to rattle the feminine bones brought up from Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits. Claiming her queerness is key to her journey, and Ortiz fuses her identity with that of LA County’s queer Eve, the La Brea Woman. Through the LBW, Ortiz grabs her queerness by its ankles and yanks it from the sludge, wipes it off, nurtures it. The La Brea Woman is the only homo sapiens to have been dredged from the pits, and Ortiz explains that the LBW, this archetypal mystery, is, “10,000 years old. [She] is thought to have been between the ages of 17-25 when she died. Someone unearthed her, freed her body from the bitumen.” Aside from that, who knows what kind of bitch she was. The tar pits are perhaps the real and metaphorical hole(s) in EXCAVATION’s cronuticity, the void(s) into which everything falls and everything emerges, rather like the ultimate black hole that rests between Woman with a capital W’s legs. Everyone’s legs. We are all women.
AN EIGHT QUESTION INTERVIEW WITH WENDY C. ORTIZ SINCE SHE WAS AN EIGHTH GRADER AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK
MYRIAM GURBA: While reading EXCAVATION, I gleaned a sense of meticulousness, that the writing of your memoir was done with a meticulousness not many archeologists of the personal are capable of. Hence, I got a feeling that EXCAVATION had gone through many, many transmogrifications. Describe some of the earlier forms the book took and how it morphed into its “ultimate form.”
WENDY C. ORTIZ: The earliest form of the book was a straight chronological narrative of events. That version included nearly everything from the handwritten journals I kept during the span of time the book covers. I edited it further and further and in the last few years decided to add the dimension of the contemporary, where I/the narrator is now. Both Kevin Sampsell and Tina Morgan (my editors at Future Tense) had a large hand in winnowing down the content and helped with chapter placement.
MG: When I’m admonished not to do something, especially not to tell something, that’s exactly what I want to do. As Ivers gives you commandments not to tell, you break them verbally and scripturally. You speak and write and write and write and write about what is happening between the two of you. Why did you not heed his command? How has it felt to divulge what he intended to remain unspoken and how does it continue to feel to divulge a story rooted in secret? Did his command heat your desire to tell?
WCO: Part of not heeding his command was my own power play. I knew he couldn’t keep me from writing; the idea itself was absurd. Writing was also mine; I claimed it early and there was no way he was going to keep me from it.
The people I hold dearest in my life have known this part of my story for years, so this book, while it describes the relationship in detail, doesn’t feel like I am newly divulging. That may also be a coping mechanism I’m using to keep from feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I have a memoir out in the world, about a particular time and place when I was young and often felt powerless.
In much of my work I feel I’m divulging stories rooted in secret. There’s a chapter in the book about my Jungian analyst and how she posits that living with secrets is “my inheritance.” If secrets are my inheritance, I can use them to offer stories I haven’t read already, that at least try to go deeper into my own experience as a way to connect with others.
I can’t say his command heated my desire to tell. I’ve left “clues” in plenty of my essays, fiction and poetry over the years as I worked this book out in my head and on paper, so the desire to tell my version of the story was always present. In fact, I can say with certainty that he, the teacher, has no bearing on my telling this story now.
MG: As a teacher and a sex trauma survivor, this book was wrenching for me to read. When I was getting my teaching credential, one of my credentialing teachers introduced me to the legal concept of in loco parentis. In loco parentis kind of means that in the absence of a kid’s parents, grown ups, like teachers, who’ve been entrusted with a kid’s care serve as the kid’s stand-in parents. I remember thinking about the gravity of this responsibility and how I had better make flippin’ good choices when I became responsible for creating my own classroom universe. If we apply the concept of in loco parentis to Ivers, it reframes what he did as incest. What are your thoughts on this interpretation?
WCO: This premise makes me conscious that this particular story doesn’t tell readers about all the teachers I had whom I admired greatly, who did serve well in loco parentis. I was a kid who needed that. The word incest designates a violation related to biology as well as a violation of trust, and family. Teachers have parent-like responsibilities of protecting and guiding our children, so, while the interpretation may sound startling, I think it’s apt. And certainly if it were viewed this way by society, we might be doing more to confront these violations.
MG: In EXCAVATION you critique the Los Angeles Unified School District by writing, “It is as simple as typing ‘teacher guilty’ into a news outlet’s search field. A stream of articles featuring teachers suspected or convicted of preying on their students appears. Often, they rise to the top, becoming interesting news, even as these stories become more common.” This critique alludes to the criminal justice system’s handling of such cases but I wonder what your thoughts are on alternative forms of justice. Clearly, students’ souls get so injured by the abuse and/or failure to report sexual abuse and I’m curious about how you think restorative justice could be applied to cases where kids have been put through shit by an educator.
WCO: The concept of restorative justice is intriguing to me. If one motive of restorative justice is to help victims feel more safe, secure and find healing in the process, I have either fashioned or fallen into my own mode of restorative justice. In the book I describe tools such as therapy, feminist self-defense classes, aligning myself with communities of queer people, and even interpersonal relationships which I discovered later had their own value in helping me achieve safety, security, healing. There’s a certain amount of privilege in claiming these modes of restorative justice, though. What kind of restorative justice could we imagine for, let’s say, the kids of Miramonte Elementary in Los Angeles? This is something I’ll continue to think about.
MG: Your writing style dazzles with efficient elegance. How did this style develop? Is your style the result of a lot of conscious decision-making or did your style more organically pair itself with your content?
WCO: Thank you! The style developed over time. The contemporary chapters have a slightly different voice, but one that doesn’t split too far off from the underlying voice of the more chronological telling of events. I have a lot of different voices in my different writings so it seemed important to not pair the two most divergent! There was consciousness in maintaining a certain tone, which translates into a style, so, weirdly, it feels like a combination of both decision-making and organic pairing of style plus content.
MG: EXCAVATION debuts this summer, and I think one of the most exciting things for many writers when their work “comes out” is to learn about the effects their work has on others. How do you hope EXCAVATION will affect readers? Is there anyone that you hope does not read the book? Also, do you have an “ideal reader” in mind? If so, describe this ideal!
WCO: I hope readers will come away from the book with a more dimensional understanding of how a complex situation like this one might play itself out. My hope is that there will be some discussion around adolescent girls’ access to power, agency. If a reader considered female adolescent sexuality anew after reading this, I would feel like I’ve affected someone. I’ve already had the experience of receiving emails and facebook messages from women who have been in similar circumstances, describing how eager they are to read a book that might offer the girl’s version of events.
My ideal reader is anyone who is curious, open, and interested in learning about experiences outside of their own.
MG: One of my favorite questions to ask artists and writers and stuff is the influence question but in order to twist that line of inquiry, I’m gonna ask a variation. What influences have you abandoned? What influences on your work do you see emerging?
WCO: I like your twist and it’s made me see that it’s difficult for me to abandon influences. There are plenty of writers and other artists who’ve influenced me at different points in my life who I don’t feel so directly influenced by now. And yet the evidence of their influence is in my older work, and might even be spotted in an unconscious word choice or sentence structure I use now. If pressed, though, I would say that I’m in the process of abandoning all influences that would keep my writing in “safe” territory. I’m much more interested in writing what are my harder, darker truths, which often involves an element of risk, an influence I’ve been working with more consciously since the beginning of the year when I read a peer’s work, my heart leaped into my throat and I knew I needed to go the route I’d been afraid to go with this next stage of writing.
MG: There are many ways to be a feminist. One way is to serve as a literary feminist. How does your lived experience with feminism impact and/or intersect with your work as a literary human being? How do you balance being a good writer with being a good human being?
WCO: One of my mentors, Eloise Klein Healy, has influenced how I feel I serve as a literary feminist. I’ve known her for 14 years now and have observed how she operates in the world among her colleagues, friends, and students. She’s modeled, for me, a way of being in the literary world, starting from a place of openness, inclusivity, curiosity, warmth, generosity. Eloise is rooted in feminism.
When I was living in Olympia and becoming rooted in third wave feminism, I looked for ways to underline the intersections between my feminist identity and my literary identity, whether it was in small writing groups with other women, participating in feminist conventions like Foxfire, reading at the first Ladyfest. When I took the reins of a small handbound literary journal passed on to me by another writer, I considered myself a feminist editor, from procuring the work that would go into the journal, to sitting in my living room hand-binding all 100 copies of each issue. It was a natural progression to start organizing readings with a friend once I was back in Los Angeles. I too feel rooted in feminism so it feels present in any project I’m involved in.
If we agree that being a good writer and a good human being in part involve some measures of openness, inclusivity, curiosity, warmth, and generosity, both in writing and in relationships with others, I assume I’m maintaining some sort of balance. I don’t know “how” I balance the two, but I do know that trying to do it seems to require consciousness, self-care, and a respect for my own work. I hope I’m succeeding.
Virgie: OMG I love taco trucks and Frida and donuts! So, we share a similar interest in the discussion of bodies in our work. Bodies feature prominently in your poetry. Can you talk about why and how.
Baruch: I feel our bodies are such powerful and yet absurd things. We are so rough on our bodies, it angers me that we’ve spent so many centuries shaming, hiding, destroying them – especially the female identified body. Inspired by some of my hero writer/performers like Sonya Rene Taylor and Denise Jolly, I began to explore my own relationship with my body and that sparked Notes From My BackFat. Instead of hating my body I decided to have a conversation with it, turns out all my parts had something to say, those voices have helped me love myself more.
Virgie: Actually Michelle and I were on the bus yesterday after getting a massive sandwich at Molinari’s and I asked her what she’d want to ask you and here’s what she said: how has being part of open mic culture influenced your writing?
Baruch: A lot. So many snobby asshat writers scoff at even the thought of an open mic. Usually those people’s writing will put an audience to sleep. I know that criticism stems from fear in the weakness in their work, but open mic culture keeps you on your toes. Sometimes I go to an open mic just to read something new, raw, and I seek a nurturing open mic audience for that. Sometimes I go to test myself as a performer, so I go to the open mics where the audiences need more for you to wow them, and if I end up bombing or putting them to sleep, I know I gotta go home and work harder. I do have to state though, that I’ve done the work to find a place where I only let the audience or open mic audience influence my work so much, or half way, I guess what I’m trying to say is, being part of open mic culture has greatly influenced how I work on my writing, but I feel I’ve done a pretty good job and not letting it affect my writing.
Virgie: Favorite artisanal dessert?
Baruch: I will wrestle a wolf for some fancy tiramisu. And I will punch a wolf in the face for a well made mango mousse. Just kidding, I would never harm a majestic creature, unless they’re like a big human silver daddy that identifies as a wolf when doing sex fantasy play and he asks me politely to punch him in the face, then I would, then let him watch me eat some mousse.
I’m a sucker for good plain old-fashioned cheesecake with some bitter black coffee.
My mother used to make me a lime ice cream cheesecake dessert every year for my birthday. One day I pissed her off and she swore to never make it again. She has kept her word for the past 13 years, and I miss it extremely. I mean it was an out of this world dessert that she came up with herself, so epic, that when I visited with my cousin who I hadn’t seen in 20 years she said, “does your mom still make that lime dessert she made up? I still remember it, it is the most delicious memory I have of our childhood in Mexico.” She was crushed when I told her my mother no longer made it. Never disappoint a Mexican woman.
Virgie: OMG I totally would have said tiramisu too! Also, agree re: disappointing Mexican women. OK, if an actor were going to play you in your biopic who would it be and why?
Baruch: He’d have to gain like 60 pounds but, Demian Bichir! The why part – I honestly have never seen a Latino actor who looks like me in Hollywood. He is the Mexican actor that comes the closest, he’d have to grow a thicker beard, and eat a lot of donuts, but with a belly and more meat on his bones, he’d look like me, I think.
Virgie: Damien’s pretty hot but you’re hotter. Speaking of.. I’m currently obsessed with not only you but also Game of Thrones. It took a while to get over some of the betrayal and all the brutal and gratuitous torture, but now I can totally eat nachos while I watch it. Thoughts on Game of Thrones?
Baruch: Aw, man, here comes confession time, just for you Virgie Tovar, I have never watched more than 4 minutes of Game of Thrones. I’ve tried, so many times, and could not get past 3 minutes, I know everyone is going to hate me for this, but it does not interest me, I thought it would be good to come clean. It’s hard for me to get excited about a show where people of color are completely missing from the main character line up, I mean this show has more dragons than people of color up in them castles. I’m more excited about Michone from Walking Dead. I’m more excited about Adventure Time. I’m more excited about the comic book Saga, yes they are aliens, with horns and wings, but the main characters are aliens with horns and wings that are drawn to look like people of color, (eh, they look like hipster Latinos, but hey, I’LL TAKE HIPSTER LATINOS!). I also have never been able to sit through an episode of MadMen, Girls, and How I Met Your Mother.
Virgie: That’s real. The dragons critique is tres on point. Thanks, Baruch!
Baruch Porras-Hernandez is a writer, performer, and organizer, based in San Francisco. He has performed his writing all over California, and featured at shows in Washington D.C., NYC, and Canada. His poetry appears in Aim for the Head anthology of Zombie Poetry, –Write Bloody Publishing, Divining Divas – Lethe Press, Flicker and Spark Queer Poetry Anthology –Low Brow Press, Tandem – Bicycle Comics Press, Sparkle and Blink -Quiet Lightning Press, and is forth coming in Multiverse, anthology of Superhero Poetry, also with Write Bloody Publishing. For the past 5 years he’s been the curator and head organizer for The San Francisco Queer Open Mic and regularly puts together literary shows and festivals, most recently the ¿Donde Esta Mi Gente? festival of Latino Poetry and Spoken Word. He has been a resident artist at the spoken word program at the Banff Center in Alberta Canada, and the A.I.R. Program at The Garage, a Space for Performance Art, in San Francisco. He was born in Toluca, Mexico and grew up in Albany, California. baruchporrashernandez.wordpress.org
We here at Radar were super curious about what exactly a 19 year old queer Mills undergrad from New York thought of and learned from our June 21 event Step Back: A Walking & Reading Tour of Queer Old North Beach. So we asked our intern, Eileen (read more about her and her favorite pizza.. maybe nachos.. toppings at the end of this blog). The walk was led by historian, Nan Boyd, and at each stop we got a lil history and a reading or performance from one of Radar’s favs: Kat Marie Yoas, Raquel Gutierrez, LOL McFiercen, Rhiannon Argo, Lil Miss Hot Mess, Mason J and Maryam Rostami. Over 100 people showed up and we filled the streets of North Beach with the sound of raucous history nerdery, sequined gowns and neon.
Text & (most) Photos by Eileen Sochias
If you didn’t attend RADAR’s Step Back event this Saturday, you might be a bad homo. It was like those “historic” class trips you took in eighth grade except that it was actually entertaining and not in Philadelphia. Also the people on the walking tour were actually excited, probably because the tour didn’t bore you to tears (and there were no duck boats). So maybe more along the lines of some touristy event except there were at least a few native San Franciscans in the group so we weren’t Americans-in-Paris kind of obnoxious. The performers were what made the event more than just another historic tour; there was everything from drag queens to a hilarious comedian and even a stripper (first stripper experience by the way). If I didn’t have such crippling social anxiety I would say it was the only way I would have wanted to spend my Saturday.
However, a hundred people squashed into a bar in the city is one step down from standing-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff kind of terrifying for me, even if most of the people were queer and attractive. But stepping outside your box is good for you, or something. Kat Marie Yoas (who performed “The Lesbian’s Guide to Self Care”) hit the nail on the head when in describing Californians she pointed out that the second thing you’re asked around here after “what’s your name?” is “what’s your sign?” and usually with a more intense curiosity. I always thought this was kind of funny; the South has Baptists, and California has the Zodiac. It was performers like these that made the tour a perfect blend of queer history and modern representations of the fruitions of this history.
Things I learned:
-SF claims itself home of the first GoGo dancing. (Haha what? people have been moving naked since the dawn of time.)
-The first gay bar in SF was started in the 30’s.
-Lots of cops were paid off to keep gay bars in business.
-These bars were a place for queer visibility.
-Eye of the tiger (the actual Survivor video, not the Rocky one) was filmed around the streets of where we were in North Beach.
In all seriousness, it was an amazing thing to hear about history that I actually identify with. To an extent, you can identify with any history in that all of it is human, but where you can claim the history of a people is an interesting topic to ponder. I am certainly not native to San Francisco, but I am queer and to be able to hear about the history that led up to me being there at that exact moment, listening to this specific group of people talk and share ideas was special. It was a very respectful and interactive reflection upon San Francisco’s role in queer history (queer women’s history in particular) and will probably serve in stark contrast to the pride events I will be embarking upon this weekend.
Eileen feels really weird about writing about herself in third person. She currently attends Mills College and is going into her second year. She is interested in words, speaking them, singing them, writing them and reading them, she can even read a few in French. She is anxious most of the time and would almost always like to be eating nachos. She is also from New York. She is also wondering if this is what a bio looks like.
-Cheese -Guacamole -Jalapeños… On second thought, I am describing nachos.
Poet Samuel Ace spoke to Juliana Spahr and David Buuck about their collaborative new book, An Army of Lovers (City Lights), on the verge of its release and their subsequent reading at The RADAR Reading Series this Tuesday, October 15th.
SAMUEL ACE: Juliana – back in your 2001 book /Everybody’s Autonomy/, you talked about “the communities that works encourage… ” Now, in 2013, for both of you, how have your perceptions of writers and their communities, changed? Do you see an evolution? Are you hopeful or discouraged?
JULIANA SPAHR: I don’t know. That book feels so out of date to me that I can’t stand to look at it. That said, community formations still feel crucial to me to understand how poetry and other than realist fiction circulate in the US. And I don’t think you can understand literature without understanding these networks. I’m neither hopeful nor discouraged about this. It just seems an obvious fact.
SAMUEL ACE: Who are the writers/thinkers who motivated your own thinking about community and poetry?
DAVID BUUCK: This would make for an impossibly long list, from Antigone to Marx to Stein to Cesaire, from third-world revolutionaries to European anarchists to Cultural Front artists to feminist performance artists to avant-garde jazz to Latin American novelists to postcolonial theorists to contemporary poets to our comrades in the recent political movements in Oakland to to to…
SAMUEL ACE: You both teach at the college level in California. And both of you have considered deeply the problematic relationship of the academy to the practice of poetry. Could you talk about some of the methods you use with your students to engage them and their work beyond the academy?
JULIANA SPAHR: At the most simple level, I start each graduate class by having everyone share what sorts of poetry events they went to in the last week. I’m trying to suggest they should go to something without mandating it. It often doesn’t work. But sometimes it does.
DAVID BUUCK: I teach composition (and not poetry) but still use so-called creative writing techniques to investigate all kinds of questions both inside and outside the classroom.
SAMUEL ACE: The “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” chapter reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and his meeting with the writer Nick Green. As Green becomes more and more inebriated, he starts to make sweeping, negative and gossipy comments about the poets and poetic practices of his time. Orlando, hoping to be initiated by a ‘true’ poet, has most, if not all, of his projections shattered about the nature of writers, and the art of poetry, especially after his aspirations are cruelly (and publicly) made fun of by Green. In your chapter as well, poetry and the poets who make poetry (especially avant-garde poetry) are roasted and satirized by their own drunken attempts to find meaning in what they are doing. Could you talk more about these characters and the project/projections of contemporary poetry?
JULIANA SPAHR: We thought of this piece, which keeps the realist fiction form of Raymond Carver and just puts different words in the mouths of each character, less as a roast and more as playful investigation. We don’t hate the Carver, in other words. And we don’t hate the avant garde either. But are more fascinated by the limitations and possibilities of both Carver-esque realism and the avant garde.
SAMUEL ACE: I know that both of you are at Santa Cruz at the Revolution and/or Poetry Conference. What are your expectations for the weekend, or, if you are looking at this post-conference, are you energized or disillusioned or both and why?
JULIANA SPAHR + DAVID BUUCK: Cautiously energized. Somewhat in love. Hoping it will lead to new and better forms of transnational solidarity. Planning to fly over for the next big UK antagonism and follow Sean Bonney around. Planning to work harder to extend the work (both artistic and political) beyond the local scenes and movements. Planning to have a less blinkered view of the world.
SAMUEL ACE: The collaborative process between Demented Panda and Koki is at the core of the book – their earnest meetings at a border land over an entire summer, their individual practices and stutters, their connection to their bodies and their own writing and/or art practices (and how those practices might literally be sickening them). In the title chapter at the end of the book, something fantastical (dare I say /transcendent/?) happens as the result of a spell they use in their last ditch effort to make something happen in their collaboration. That spell seems to owe much to CA Conrad’s somatic(s) practice, as well as other incantatory practices. Could you talk about what happens here in reference to all that comes before? And what is finally left here for poetry?
JULIANA SPAHR + DAVID BUUCK: This story might be saying, as most of the book might be saying, that as much as you talk about how poetry doesn’t do much, it does do some things. Although these things it does might not necessarily be nice or comforting. At the least the book seems to be saying that poetry might possibly fuck up your body. And it seems to also suggest that it might lead you astray and into the war machine, whether you like it or not. But yes to the debt to CA Conrad. For sure. I’d add that that chapter grew out of various hypnotherapy templates, which are an interesting form of language use, just weird and new-agey enough to befit our anti-heroes in their quest to find new multitudes with which to merge.
SAMUEL ACE: (I asked two writer friends here in Tucson what they would like to ask you both if they had the chance. Here are their questions):
What are the characteristics of an interesting work on-site? What makes a particular site worthwhile for attention? What factors go into a successful performance/ interaction on site – and what’s an alternative way of valuing an interaction in lieu of any kind of record?
DAVID BUUCK: Any site could be potentially interesting for art and/or intervention, though as we discovered (and is somewhat lampooned in the first chapter), this doesn’t mean it is easy, or that all site-work (writing, performance, actions, whatever) will necessarily make for *good* or interesting results.
Who is your /we/?
DAVID BUUCK: Our we is utopian, an impossible yet necessary aspiration (if it is to move beyond two friends to some kind of revolutionary collective) and in the book we hope that by the end this we becomes expansive and alive, if however unwieldy and unpredictable as any army of lovers would be in our time—
Samuel Ace is the author of three collections of poetry: Normal Sex (Firebrand Books), Home in three days. Don’t wash., a hybrid project of poetry, video and photography (Hard Press), and most recently Stealth, co-authored with Maureen Seaton (Chax Press). He is a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, two-time finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, winner of the Astraea Lesbian Writer’s Fund Prize in Poetry, The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the Firecracker Alternative Book Award in Poetry. His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared in or is forthcoming from, Ploughshares, Eoagh, Spiral Orb, , Kenyon Review, van Gogh’s Ear, Rhino, 3:am, Trickhouse, The Volta, and others. He lives in Tucson, AZ and Truth or Consequences, NM.
Juliana Spahr + David Buuck read alongside Phoebe Gloeckner, Holly Hughes and Jerry Stahl at The RADAR Reading Series / LitQuake Edition Tuesday, October 15th at the San Francisco Public Library.
Carmella Fleming is a poet currently living in Berkeley California. She will be appearing this month at The RADAR Reading Series on August 27th at the San Francisco Public Library. I asked her a few questions about her work and she provided me with some real talk about bouffants, sestinas, and Gertrude Stein.
What is your name?
Carmella Suzanne Fleming
Where are you from?
I was born in Washington DC and I grew up mostly in rural Iowa.
Name three ways you self-identify:
Goth, gay, and cuckoo bananas.
How would you describe your writing style?
I describe my style as ironic, terse, dissonant, and at times sassy. This is true of my creative nonfiction. With my poetry I try to embrace language for the sake of language as well. My writing is often high-pitched and childlike, but deals with adult themes.
What is your literary background and what have been some turning points in your development as a writer?
I basically have no literary background. I wasn’t raised reading much. I was a slow learner in school and my reading skills were not so great until I was older. My high school also had little requirements for English and so I am not “well-read.” I didn’t start writing creatively until about 4 years ago. As of late I’ve been cultivating a background in women’s and queer literature, and postmodern poetry of the U.S. mostly.
One turning point for me in my writing was taking a poetry workshop a couple of years ago with Ali Liebegott. That was my first poetry class, and it got the sparks flying for poetry. I wrote my first Sestina with Ali!
The biggest turning point for me as writer occurred last spring when I attended a queer writer’s retreat called MADCAP. I was camping in the middle of four-day rainstorm in rural Tennessee, reading and writing in an old barn with forty queer writers, none of whom I had met before. It was powerful. The experience was too big to represent here.
What is the writing community like where you live now?
It’s just so great. I have been well supported. I feel like I have three writing communities. First, I have all those queer and/or weird writers hanging out in the Bay Area, like the organizers of the Oakland reading series, Manifest, and the RADAR folks. I’m always forming new writing groups with strange people in the area.
Then I have my graduate community at San Francisco State University. They are an excellent group of people. Graduate writing programs have a bad reputation, for being too cutthroat, unsupportive, and homogenizing, but I’ve found the opposite. Workshop is a blast! My voice and individuality are cultivated there.
Finally, Sharon Coleman, a local poet, professor at Berkeley City College, and curator of the reading series Lyrics and Dirges, was crucial in my development as a poet and provided community for me. Her students have been of great support and inspiration at readings and in critique groups.
Who is your favorite literary hero or heroine?
Gertrude Stein. Her writing has been a huge influence on my style. I have a deep appreciation for my forequeers. In a literature class I recently wrote a paper on Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Butch/Femme Eroticism in Tender Buttons. It was great fun. I like to think about Gertrude Stein, a lot. Asking what would Gertrude do can really get me out of a rut or bout of insecurity. She was bold. I like that.
Who are some contemporary writers or artists that inspire you?
My biggest inspiration has been Jamaica Kincaid. I read Annie John in high school and it blew my mind. Now I read At the Bottom of the River on a semi-regular basis. Kincaid gave me permission to be brief, direct, and terse. I admire the ways in which she explores experiences of childhood. She has a keen ability to expose power dynamics in her writing through very subtle methods. These are things I try to accomplish in my writing.
I am interested in writers that use history, archive, and found materials in their writing, like Frank Bidart. His use of letters and medical documents inspires me. The poem “Ellen West” is one of my favorites. I enjoy a good historical document, real or imagined.
My friend Caitlin Rose Sweet is a visual artist who inspires me. Caitlin does craft and textile work and she deals with some of the same themes that I do. We both like to question what is high and low art, and Caitlin fiercely identifies as a queer artist. A lot of queer artists and writers are hesitant to be labeled as a “queer artist,” but I, like Caitlin, am very proud to claim that title.
Then there’s Woody Allen…I could go on and on, but I’ll stop.
What are the biggest influences on your poetry and why?
I think my not being “well-read” or raised with a lot of literature gives me a fresh and nuanced perspective.
Comedies such as Anchorman and Zoolander influence me, however strange that might sound. Humor is important to me in my writing, and the ways in which those folks use language are so new and creative. In Anchorman, for example, when Ron Burgundy says that he will “get married on a mountain top with garlands of fresh herbs,” he takes a cliché and kind of explodes it.
What are some recurring themes that haunt your work?
Queerness, lesbianism, childhood, depression, time (I am obsessed with time), sex, disappointment and irony, and love.
Where does your work appear?
My work appears in, Milvia Street, Faggot Dinosaur, and the forthcoming Vincent Van Go-Gogh. I also have three self-published chapbooks, one of which is a collaboration with the photographer Elisa Shea. The chapbook, “We Just Got Here” features her photography alongside my poetry.
Tell me about “Let’s Be Loose and Relaxed”…
Let’s be Loose and Relaxed is a reading series that I started with my friends Lucien Sagastume and Elan Dia. We wanted to showcase queer writers. I personally wanted to focus heavily on poetry. It’s a laid back environment, hence the title. It also at times has turned into a dance party. The next reading will be in September.
What is the secret to big hair (Like the bouffant you are wearing here? )
A bottle of hairspray, a comb, and some positive self-talk.
What are some upcoming plans, projects, ideas, or events that you are excited about?
I am excited to read at the RADAR reading series with Dodie Bellamy, Alejandro Murguia, and Stephen Boyer. I am a student of Dodie’s, and I met Stephen at MADCAP. I couldn’t have picked a more exciting group of people to read with.
I’m looking forward to Dodie Bellamy’s new book, Cunt Norton to come out. It’s a follow up to Cunt Ups, but in this case she cuts up the Norton Anthology of Poetry with pornographic material. That’s quite a radical project. I love it.
I am working on a manuscript right now. It examines mental illness from what I hope is an odd perspective. It’s humorous. It features a lot of archival materials that I am so into right now. I’m having fun playing with psychiatric medical documents, getting my kicks where I can.
Shawna Elizabeth is a PhD Candidate specializing in Queer Theory. Some of her writing can be found online at femmetheory.com and she has also been a Guest Blogger for Ironing Board Collective- http://
She is originally from Canada.
Oakland academic Essence Harden interviews RADAR SPECTACLE performer BRONTEZ PURNELL.
Tell us about you’re recent work “New Diaspora” and “Other Dancers” at the L@te series at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM). How does blackness, queerness, and collaboration inform your work?
New Diaspora was a means to celebrate the different Black talent going on in the Bay right now. It was inherently a very queer night also. I grew up in Alabama and have always been challenged/ curious about the lives of Black people in terms of place/environment/time period. Other Dancers was a means to celebrate the different experimental choreographers I know. there were some people involved in Other Dancers whose work i had never even seen before. i just got drunk at a bar with them and it was like “oh! you do performance? KOOL! would you be a part of this?” Blackness, Queerness, and Collaboration inform my work INFINITELY.
Speaking of “New Diaspora” I really loved how you ended the night with a decompression of energy by leading a group-follow dance onto pillows. How is community reconciliation significant to your art?
I went to speak to my friends class at Berkeley about community healing thorough art and i think its as simple as getting a group of people (no matter the number) in a space together moving towards a common goal or feeling however fleeting it may be. Its essentially about togetherness and intention.
Tell us about the making of “Free Jazz” your inaugural dance film from the Brontez Purnell Dance Company? Particularly the “cut n’ mix” of aesthetic choices involving punk, cosmology, the African Diaspora, and temporality. How has studying theatre and dance informed your current project?
I was obsessed with doing a dance movie cause like who does that? Particularity in Black and White Super 8 cause im a slave to aesthetic. I was doing work and making pieces at Cal State East Bay and was really excited about it so i wanted to put the work i did in a form that could live forever and encapsulate a certain period in my career. All my work is informed by whats closest to me. I think about things like sex, religion, community 24/7 and the film is a subdued response to my raging obsessions. Maybe it gives them more of a context for myself.
I loveeee novella’s, tell us about your upcoming work?
It’s called “Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger” its not a novella as much as it is an exorcism of the ghosts of my reckless first 30 years on the planet. I found a publisher but editing is kicking my ass. I decided not to change to tittle ever cause i fell like trying to pander commercial appeal for a book thats about a black punk rockers romp through life is somewhat delusional. Plus i see it living on in that N.W.A meets feminism category of literature.
I think what’s really incredible about your art and you as a person is the inescapable visibility you give to the complexity of being Black, queer, male, and a politically radical punk. Can you talk about being a radical Black queer punk and how these and other positionalities continue to inform your art?
Its hard cause at 30 im finally starting to feel semi-comfortable in my skin and what i will allow and not allow. Even though im rightfully a cross section of all these varied identities i dont trust MOST Black people, MOST punks, MOST queers and don’t get me started on men. Its been an interesting journey finding out who my people are. One example was i took a dance class at Berkeley and this other queer black male student found out i was from Alabama and had all these romantic notions of Blackness and the Deep South (he had grown up in California) and he said something about wanting to move to Atlanta- now growing up down South i have my own prejudices. In inadvertently blurted out “dude, first of all if you HAVE to party down South go to New Orleans NOT Atlanta. I CANT with Atlanta. I know all the shows on TV make it look fun but its the WORST mix of East Coast attitude and Southern boredom. If i wanted a bunch of stuck-up Black people telling me to go to church all the time i’d watch BET…..BARF”- and i look up and im like “holy shit- i just scared this kid”- this is one example of how my radical, black, punk rockness gets me in trouble and i wouldn’t trade it for the WORLD…….
Essence Harden is a current graduate student in the department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. When she is not researching articulations of Black masculinity through 1980/90′s hair and styling practices you can find her reading sci-fi and eating bagels in her back lot/garden.
Rhiannon Argo will be a guest performer at the Free Sister Spit Kick Off Show at the SFPL on March 31st. She is a Lambda Award winning writer, a schooled librarian, and a seasoned Sister Spitter. She is the author of two works of fiction, The Creamsickle, and Girls I’ve Run Away With, (coming September, 2013), a novel about two teenage girls in love and on the run. She is fundraising to publish her second novel and launch a new queer micro-press HERE.
I’m DIY-Publishing my New Novel, and Starting a Micro Press, and It’s so Much Fun!
By Rhiannon Argo
I want to tell you all about my recent journey into DIY publishing and starting my own micro press called Moonshine Press. Originally I never thought I would go this route to publish my work, but now that I am, I’m loving every moment of it!
Here are some reasons why:
1. Growing my queer writer community:
When I first began to research the possibilities of DIY publishing, I got a generous amount of encouragement and advice from other writers who had first-hand knowledge about the process. Many of these writers I’d only known vaguely before through social networking and I was super excited to find everyone so supportive and eagerness to share their tips and tricks! Even when the idea of starting Moonshine Press, was just a spark of an idea in my mind, I already felt buzzed with excitement at a new sense of writer community growing around me. I knew that should I decide to go forward with Moonshine Press that the powerful connections and sense of artistic community I was feeling would also grow exponentially.
2. Being pro-actively engaged in the entire process of making a book is magical
I went the traditional publishing route when I published my first novel, that is to say I queried the hell out of every queer-friendly small press in existence, dumped a lot of money into photo copying and postage, and wrote silly pitch letters that often resulted in me toning down the hella queer, radical, gender-bending, sex work-y, trash-mouth-y, aspects of the book. It took me nine months to snag a publisher and then it was over six months until my novel even saw an editor. Guess what!? When you DIY publish you don’t have to be on someone else’s time schedule! You get to make things happen as quick as you are humanly capable. YOLO, people!
With my first press there were also creative differences. They were generous in letting me design the cover, but everything else they did their way. I learned in college that the author never gets to give creative input on their books look, and that you should just keep your mouth shut and appreciate how lucky you are that you even have a publisher at all. But, guess what!? Now, I don’t have to silently disagree about the look of my finished book! I’m the boss woman and I get complete creative control. Totally BOSS!
You could look at DIY publishing VS. Traditional publishing like this: Sometimes people equate writing a book (or finishing an art project) to “having a baby”, like after publishing/birthing the book authors may even experience post-partum depression. Using this analogy, my experience with traditional publishing was like having a baby while hooked up to all those monitoring and drug inducing machines in a sterile hospital, like how some researchers have theorized that the hospitalization of baby birthing often makes the mother feel like she’s not even a participant in the birth. On the opposite side of that coin, I would say DIY publishing is like a home birth, and you’re in charge of the journey, it may be more painful because perhaps there’s more grunt-work involved, but the end result is more gratifying.
3. The publishing landscape is dull and desperately needs new queer presses focused on the next generation of edgy, radical, queer, and feminist voices.
I know a lot about the small press options for queer writers. I’ve got a list I would be happy to share with you. I’ve done research galore because after publishing my first novel on a press who was not exactly a good match for my work, I wanted to know everything about every small queer-friendly press out there, so I could find one that made me and my work feel like we had found a nice, cozy, understanding home, a press with an audience that was also my audience.
I took my short list of queer friendly small presses and I started crossing off the ones that my work just wouldn’t fit in with. During my research I noticed that of all the LGBT specific presses the majority were gay-male oriented, headed by gay male editors, with often times only a few lezzie authors in their catalogs. This is not a complaint, just pointing out the fact that while there may be a handful of LGBT friendly presses, there are less female focused ones, and even less QUEER-view- female focused ones. My narrowed down list provided me with two options that I felt good and excited about. Those are two options too few when you’re pitching a book and interested in a timely timeframe, with the knowledge that many small presses only publish a few titles a year, and are backed up far into the future.
I was bummed. Why can’t I have as many options as those straight, white, hetero-normative, writer MEN have!? Why don’t I get the luxury of querying hundreds of agents and presses that will “get” my work? I moped around with these thoughts for a little while and then the question, Hey why don’t you just start your own fantastic radical press and stop complaining, dummy?, popped into my head.
“Hey, why not?”
I made an appointment with my psychic via Skype (my Skypic), and she shuffled her cards, and meditated on my handful of name suggestions for a potential press, including naming it after Moonshine Road, where my mom gave birth to me in a tipi during her feral hippy days. The cards were complimentary and on that fateful day Moonshine Press was born!
4. Working with, and even paying, other queer artists:
To get Moonshine Press up and rolling, and afford the publication costs of publishing its first title, I needed a chunk of cash. I started a fundraiser that’s been going great so far. The campaign is basically just a way to pre-order the book. Extra pennies thrown in my wishing well go towards growing the press, such as, publishing future authors, and sending the Moon Babe Writers on future tours. Right now it’s the last week of the campaign my fingers are crossed that funds will go over the goal and Moonshine Press will be able to grow, grow, grow!
The awesome thing about the successful fundraiser is that I get to hire, and work with, other queer artists and writers to help me publish the novel. For example, my layout person is Allison Moon, a lesbian author who has had her own DIY publishing successes. I’ve hired a queer graphic designer, web designer, photographer, cover model, and copy editors, and my book cover designers run a small, queer press themselves in Vienna, Austria! Lastly, I get to print the book with a small, non-corporate printing company, with DIY and leftist leanings, that uses recycled paper and soy based inks.
With all this queer love going into the publishing process of this novel, ranging from other rad queer artists helping me design it, to each generous contributor to the fundraiser, I know that holding the finished product in my hand will feel super powerful! Like the books journey to print was truly a collective effort made possible by the support of an utterly special community.
If any of you reading this want to explore DIY publishing options just holler at me, I’ve got tips and pats on the back to share. But be forewarned that it’s a ton of work, but if you like this sort of work, than the process is wicked fun and rewarding.
Let’s destroy the gatekeepers! Their gates are so damn boring! Aren’t we all sick of men dominating the publishing world!!?? (And if you don’t believe me about men dominate the publishing world, because you live on another planet, than check THIS out.)
Hey, I’m blogging this from an airplane right now and they’re also dominating First Class, to the max! I’m thinking this is because they own all those media companies, websites, newspapers, film companies, book review sites, magazines, and blah, blah, blah. Lez wiggle into first class and do an impromptu reading. Make them squirm.
There are so many fun things happening this weekend! Follow my lead:
On FRIDAY I’m going to see Sister Spit alum Brontez Purnell’s new performance THE EPISODES with Anthony R. Lucas and Sophia Wang at The Garage. I LOVE Brontez The Writer (pick up a copy of his zine Fag School at your local DOWN AT LULUS retailer), and Brontez The Musician, so I’m really excited to experience Brontez The Choreographer.
On SATURDAY I’m going to the GRASP Showcase. As the invitation describes: “Girls Rock After School Program (GRASP) is a 10-week program for girls 8-18 years old. Students attend instrument lessons, form a band, collaboratively write an original song, participate in workshops, and perform with their band at a live showcase.” Girls Rock Camp is an AMAZING organization- give’em your support.
SATURDAY is all about the tweens because in the evening I’m going to Micaela, Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Cheena Marie Lo, Kate Robinson and a musical performance by Maddy MADLINES Clifford.
And before I head home I’m going to go see Brilliant Colors at Hemlock!
On Sunday I’m spending the morning at my home away from home, DOWN AT LULUS. DOWN AT LULUS is a salon and vintage collective started by Tina Lucchesi and Seth Bogart. I’m a buyer for the store and each season we host a HUGE dollar sale.
THEEENNNN I’m going to the first show of the Black Salt Collective!
Black Salt Collective is the work of Fanciulla Gentile, Grace Rosario Perkins, and Adee Roberson.
These TALENTED LADIES will be selling their wares, exhibiting their works and unveiling their window display installation at ATA. I’ve got to be there by 5pm so I don’t miss the performance by LA-based musician Jeepneys!
So, please excuse me if I sound a little like THIS today- but there is just so much you CAN’T MISS!! See you this weekend.
Amber Dawn will be reading TONIGHT in the Latino Reading Room at the Main Branch of The San Francisco Public library at 6pm. FREE!
Amber Dawn came to my house for an interview one rainy February afternoon during the last term of my MFA in Vancouver. “It’s so weird to be here,” she told me. “I used to have friends who lived in this house. It was a bit more punk rock then. I even broke in through that back window one time,” she told me. As if she wasn’t badass enough already, Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker, activist, and performance artist whose first novel, Sub Rosa, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Her poetry chapbook How I Got My Tattoo won the Eli Coppola Chapbook Prize from RADAR Productions in 2012, when she also won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Writers. In her forthcoming book How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn tells her story of working in the sex trade in Vancouver through nonfiction and poetry. I spent an afternoon with Amber Dawn where she talked about her star-crossed relationship with memoir and poetry, and her commitment to community activism.
I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about writing and publishing a mixed-genre book like How Poetry Saved My Life.
Well, I first of all did not say to myself, “I want to write a mixed genre prose and poetry book” and set out to do that. If someone asked me to write out my life story, or a chunk of time where I worked in the sex trade, there’s no way I could stomach it. I also just don’t feel like my story is best told through a chronological view of time. I don’t think that most people’s lives are that tidy, and mine certainly isn’t. So I just started writing bits and pieces, mostly therapeutic to begin. Then, when I got to grad school I tried nonfiction with Andreas Schroeder for the first time. That’s when I really started to write my story, in that class. But where I did most of my writing was to submit to sex worker festivals in the United States that were. I would often write just to be able to be in those shows, I was so desperate for community. It was great to leave the city and be more anonymous. And eventually realized I had a book’s worth of writing. And even then I sat on it for a long time because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put it out in the world. So I didn’t set out to do it. If I had set out to do it I’m sure I would have failed. [laughs]
I’m so glad you did. I wanted to ask about some of your poetic techniques—I really liked how you used glossing and drew from such a diverse selection of poets. Are they pieces that have been with you for a long time? Is the form something you crafted yourself?
I love a glosa. One is an Irving Layton quote, which is almost cheeky—Layton is one of those “fellas,” who has been widely canonized. But the other two glosa quotes are from feminist poets Beth Goobie and Lucille Clifton. I was a late reader; I didn’t really start reading until I hit my mid-twenties, and so I felt I should get caught up, especially with the Canadian canon. And once I did that, I pretty much went right for lesbian feminists and more radically-identified poets, which is still what I read a lot of today.
I was lucky enough to help you copyedit the manuscript of How Poetry Saved My Life one afternoon. When you write, do you have an imagined first reader? Do you often show things to groups of friends, or to your wife? Who gets to see things first?
Vancouver is a very transient place; I found that my community in grad school dispersed pretty darn quickly. So I’m in the lurch, to be honest. Luckily enough I’d say maybe forty percent of this book was stuff that I had worked on when I was at UBC. People in your undergrad or in grad school in creative writing right now: do not undervalue the creative writing classroom! As much as it might drive us all crazy at times, it is such a tried and true structure and the idea that there are other people there to take interest in your work, and vice versa, is such a powerful thing. So no, I don’t really have first readers. I do have women who I think are elders in the sex work activism movement who I can check in with, which has been really helpful. And I read a lot at community events. I think that’s a great pilot audience. I find community readings very helpful.
What does it feel like to have a poem come to you? Is there a part of you that observes and says “I have to write about this,” or is your process more about sitting and looking out a window and the poems arrive?
I have this terrible joke that I tell about the Canadian poem. Canadian poets have their ideas come to them when they’re like, kneading bread dough and looking out the kitchen window at some snowy vista. That’s how the Canadian poem happens. Maybe there’s like, a red-winged blackbird that flies by or something.
I wonder what that would be like. That would be nice.
I know, right. That’s not my experience. [laughs] Poetry is my first love in terms of creative writing. As much as it sounds a little west coast woo, poetry is the closest thing I’ve had to a spirituality. Says the ex-Catholic. I can’t write poetry as often as I’d like because I have to be in a fairly sound place in myself, an almost meditative-level state. I have to feel as though my sensitivity towards language is resonating at a higher place than when I’m writing prose. Going to readings really helps; it really helps me reach that place, listening to other poets. When I don’t read books of poetry or go out and see other poets it’s almost like I lose a language. Poetry doesn’t keep pace with the rest of the world, so I have to slow down to meet it.
What’s it like, by contrast, when you’re writing your nonfiction?
Oh it’s fast. I can’t keep up with the ideas. I usually have a fairly good outline and character sketches and I’m ready to go. And I could do it anywhere. I could be in a cafe, I could be in bed with my laptop. It could be noisy, it could be quiet. I could have only an hour to write or I could have the whole day and something will happen. Poetry’s not at all like that. I feel like I really need a whole week just to settle into writing poems.
You definitely get a sense of that when reading your work. Do you have a process, for your nonfiction, where you decide what to share and what you don’t?
Nonfiction for me is the complete opposite of poetry. I think that in this book a lot of the nonfiction, with the exception of a few pieces, was me responding to some sort of call. I’m also an activist, and a woman that’s had some stigmatized experiences. I’m very keenly aware of the communities that I came from that have many day-to-day barriers to finding their voice, which I do not—I’m privileged that way. But I listen to people. There’s a piece called “Ghetto Feminism,” which is something a lot of my sex worker friends and I would talk about—wanting to be activists but not feeling like we have the political chops or the research-based knowledge that we need to be activists. Towards the end of the book there’s a piece called “To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005″ which I actually wrote for “Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme” (Arsenal, 2011). I wrote it specifically because it seemed like, at that time, every sex worker I knew was breaking up with someone and feeling discouraged about relationships. There’s always been some sort of call, and I’m trying to address it through my nonfiction. It’s probably the only reason why I write nonfiction. I never would write nonfiction about like, whales or something. [laughs] I’d never write out my travel journals. Writing is activism. There’s no other reason for me to write nonfiction, I think, than making some sort of statement that I hope will help the communities that I have in mind when I’m writing.
Further to that—do you know Louise Halfe at all? She was the Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan, and writes a lot about survivorship. She once said writing is a part of the work, but it’s not what’s going to heal you. I was so moved by your pieces about queer funerals and Trans Day of Remembrance in your book, and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your experience of writing through grief.
Yes. Well, first, I disagree with that quote. That you can write about fear, or grief, or whatever the emotion is, but it won’t heal you—that wouldn’t be a credo I could adopt. My writing doesn’t live in isolation. I’m not very precious with my work; in fact, I’m quite the opposite. I want things to be seen as soon as possible. I’ll read something that’s raw at events because I think that writing, for me, is a call-and-answer. I want to be a part of the dialogue. That’s why I write. I want to be a part of dialogues. I’m not a very good political speaker, as I mention in “Ghetto Feminism”—I get really flustered very easily. I don’t like to talk with a voice of authority, but I do like to talk in a peer-to-peer way and I feel like writing allows me to do that. So bringing stories of grief and loss to my community feels like the right venue. And when I say my community I mean queer and allied communities, survivors.
Did it feel therapeutic for me in any way to sit down and write that story out? No. It felt like cutting my eyeball open and pouring some lemon water on it. But once I got out there and started reading it for people, and getting responses—that’s healing.
I’m not an extrovert either, so writing’s kind of what I’ve got to join in the conversation. Especially with grief; I’ve had a lot of grief in my life. Writing nonfiction and nonfiction poetry has been great to show people that I’m present and that I share some of their experiences and am willing to speak out about it.
Reading “How To Bury Our Dead” has been really rewarding for me because a lot more people knew Shelby Tom than I I had realized. I had such an isolating experience when she was killed because I was working in a massage parlour in Surrey and I just felt like no-one acknowledged her death besides other working girls. None of my queer friends knew her and there was this big divide between my queer friends and my sex worker friends. That story actually helped me start to bridge those two communities a little bit more. I’m so glad I wrote that. It was extremely helpful for me.
I know you address themes of grief in the poem “How I Got My Tattoo,” and that’s the title piece from the chapbook that won RADAR’s Eli Coppola chapbook contest. Can you talk a little bit about the chapbook, and the prize—is it included in How Poetry Saved My Life?
Mhm. You’ll see a lot of overlap between the poems in the chapbook. The Eli Coppola prize is a funny thing, because I tried to apply a few years in a row. In my work desk, I had an envelope with the RADAR address written out, stuffed full of papers and my cover letter. And two years in a row I didn’t send it. I’m so insecure about my poetry! I’ve been really blessed with people like Rhea Tregebov and Kate Braid who have supported me, but my poetry never got published in literary journals—there’s been a lot of rejection, and I know part of it’s the content. How do you just put one of my poems in with, the other poems that in appear in the Fiddlehead? I get it. I’ve been a curator and sometimes it’s not about the quality of the work but about the fit. But I do have such insecurity about my poetry and I was so happy to win—I never get anything for poetry! [laughs] Me and poetry are like star-crossed lovers or something! I love poetry but it doesn’t really work out between us, so it was really nice to receive recognition.
That’s so great. Do you have any wishes for How Poetry Saved My Life? What are you doing next?
I wrote this book really with survivors in mind. I think sex worker is one of many examples of a stigmatized identity where the speaker—in this case, me—takes a risk and sticks their neck out to tell a story. So I wrote with those people in mind—who are many people. Many, many, many more people than the literary marketplace might realize. Not my publisher [laughs]—they’re great.
I’m really excited to go to different cities. I have been making contact with sex worker activist groups in Toronto and New York so hopefully I’ll connect with those communities as well as book lovers and readers as I go. That’s always huge for me, when other folks, especially women, approach me after a reading and tell me how hearing me read has been positive. That makes it worth my while. Why stick your neck out unless it’s going to do something positive for others? So, here I go. . .And then I’m sure I’ll crash, and cry. [laughs]. The crashing and the tears are a part of it! I’ll have the queer bookstores and places where there’s going to be a lot of sex workers in the audience, and then I’ll have Ottawa Writers’ Festival, where I might be introducing ideas to people as opposed to sharing experiences with people. So, we’ll just see how it all plays out. As for what I’m doing next, I’m looking forward to returning to speculative fiction.
I feel that way too. I grew up in a very small town in Ontario called Crystal Beach and it was an amusement park town for 100 years. The park closed in 1989. So the book is set in 1990, the year after the park closed and there was an economic decline prior to the park closing but when the park closed part of the town basically became a ghost town, and it’s very small to begin with. So my story’s about a disillusioned twenty-something protagonist, quite in debt financially, who returns to live with her mom in this small town because she’s sort of run out of options. And magic ensues. For folks that read Sub Rosa, they’ll know that it was pretty overtly about sex work. This next book much more allegorical, with subtle messages about queer suicide and mental health. It will be one of those books that readers can take to whatever level they want—a plot-based page-turner or a deeper look at queer identity and melancholy. It’s going to be a lot more speculative than Sub Rosa was.
Leah Horlick is a writer and MFA candidate in poetry in the Creative Writing program at UBC. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown, 2012),was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award.
I had the pleasure of reading with poet Stacey Waite last year at the University of Nebraska, where she is a professor of English. I loved her whole jam – great, strong narrative poems about gender, an elegant balance of humor and pathos, delivered with dynamic, accessible panache. All her collections have won awards - Choke the Frank O’Hara Prize, Love Poem to Androgyny the Main Street Rag Chapbook Competition, the lake has no saint the Snowbound Prize from Tupelo Press. Her latest, Butch Geography, is no doubt fated to pick up some honors, and we are honored to have her at RADAR tomorrow night! Check out her poem The Kind of Man I Am at the DMV here and now on the RADAR Blog, and later in the pages of Best American Poetry, for which it has been selected!
The Kind of Man I Am at the DMV
Mommy, that man is a girl, says the boy
pointing his finger, like a narrow spotlight,
targeting the center of my back, his kid-hand
learning to assert what he sees, his kid-hand
learning the failure of gender’s tidy little story
about itself. I try not to look at him
because, yes, that man is a girl. I, man, am a girl.
I am the kind of man who is a girl, and because
the kind of man I am is patient with children,
I try not to hear the meanness in his voice,
his boy-voice that sounds like a girl-voice
because his boy-voice is young and pitched high
like the tent in his pants will be years later
because he will grow to be the kind of man
who is a man, or so his mother thinks.
His mother snatches his finger from the air.
Of course he’s not, she says, pulling him back
to his seat. What number does it say we are?
she says to her boy, bringing his attention
to numbers, to counting and its solid sense.
But he has earrings, the boy complains,
now sounding desperate, like he’s been
the boy who cried wolf, like he’s been
the hub of disbelief before. But this time
he knows he is oh-so-right. The kind
of man I am is a girl, the kind of man
I am is pushups-on-the-basement-floor,
when the kind of man I am drives away
from the boy who will become a boy,
except for now, while he’s still a girl-voice,
a girl-face, a hairless arm, a powerless hand.
That boy is a girl, that man who is a girl
thinks to himself as he pulls out of the lot,
his girl eyes shining in the Midwest sun.
Catch Stacey Waite tomorrow, March 6th, at the RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library. With Chavisa Woods, Bruce Isaacson, and Eli Coppola Chapbook Prize winner Amber Dawn. 6pm, free.