Mimi will be reading at the November 4 Radar Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library. We asked her some questions about dating, writing and advice for artists.
Tell us about something that challenged you during your last (or a current) project.
The worst thing about writing the first book (The Gift of Freedom) was that I had to finish it according to an external deadline – tenure. At some point I found I wasn’t writing to answer a question about liberal empire, or to close the circle of the argument, but to meet an institutional metric for a “productive” scholar. And even though I was writing with friends confronting the same metric –we would literally sit in a room together and write for hours, next to one another, chatting about a sentence one minute and leading each other through some stretches another—it was still an incredibly isolating experience.
The moment I remembered that I had an intensely satisfying creative and intellectual life long before I came to the academy was transformative. A feminist literary scholar named Janice Radway came to my campus and in a lecture discussed my work as a zinester (with particular reference to the Race Riot compilations, and feminist critical theory in my zines) and its relationship to my scholarship now. I had been feeling so under seige on the tenure track that I cried for a few days afterward, because I understood so acutely what I had been missing for the last few years – which was writing to the question, for the argument, and of course, for myself.
You get to have an epic dream date with anyone dead or alive: who are they and where do you go on your date?
My friends reading this would know it’s a lie if I chose anyone but Keanu Reeves. That said, I have no idea what an “epic dream date” would be, and having only been on a few “proper” dates, and it seems like it would be awkward to go on a grown-up, straight-person date with Keanu Reeves.
But pretending as if this isn’t the most awkward question, we could just go to a punk show on his motorcycle (or if he still has access to that time-traveling telephone booth, we could take the booth to the Hong Kong Café to see The Bags or The Go-Go’s in 1979), and then spend a few hours going through the boxes of zines and records in my living room I haven’t made time to read or listen to yet. After that, we could choreograph a mash-up of a movie-fu fight with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” dance and put it on YouTube as a performance piece. I hope he kept his sleeveless denim jacket from River’s Edge, because I would wear the crap out of it in the video. (Also I would be wearing Madonna’s boots from Desperately Seeking Susan, since those are the most epic shoes.) And then we could make a 24-hour zine about making art and getting older, and I could impress him with my carefully hoarded Letraset collection.
I should note that I am answering these questions with a cold fogging my brain. The other night, while otherwise wiped out on Advil, I randomly started a site to archive all the responses to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby.” I am totally a good time, Keanu.
Give us one piece of advice you want to share with artists – about life, bills, process, editing, brainstorming, anything.
I don’t have advice as much as I have “random questions about the nature of work.” How do we reproduce troubling measures of civic and capitalist productivity through binaries of activity/passivity in our cultural work? How do we evaluate an artistic process or object or experience? Through what measures of value, accountability – and to whom? As a scholar, I hear from both administrators and activists that the intellectual labor I do “should” yield concrete outcomes – whether in publications or grants, or in something measurable as “social change.” I worry about what these utilitarian (and sometimes authoritarian) demands mean for us, especially because I want to hold out a place for creative and intellectual labors that are slow to unfurl, or otherwise appear to the efficacious eye as useless, obscurantist, impractical, marginal, or wholly unproductive.
How’s that homework/stuff you’re supposed to be doing for your job looking? You should really stop all that productivity and come watch RADAR’s August reading series because it’s now on YouTube! Don’t worry, you’ve got the rest of the night to do work/school related things. This will only take about an hour, plus you get to feel some things that aren’t task related panic.
Here’s the thing about Jamie: she’s amazing. Make yourself a cup of tea, bust out that old foot bath thing you never use and have yourself some bliss listening to her words.
Finish that tea before you commence this video, because Kate is so funny you will definitely pee it out. Also includes sporadic feels.
Do you have any idea what a tintype portrait is? Neither did I. But they’re fascinating and so is Kari’s creative process in general, check it out.
Go hide your credit card. Do it. Do it now, because there is some possibility that you are like me and will use your designated taco money to purchase Ariel’s book somewhere on the internet immediately after seeing her perform.
Now go out into the world a creatively stimulated human and do those things you’ve been needing to do/maybe go to sleep and just do it in the morning.
RADAR interviewed Ariel Schrag, author of graphic novels Awkward, Definition, Potential and Likewise. She has written for TV shows such as The L Word and HBO series How To Make It In America. She recently published her first novel Adam. She will be attending RADAR’s August reading on the 12th.
R: You did a tour with Sister Spit, right?
R: And was it just one tour or a couple?
A: I just did one tour in fall of 2009.
R: Had you already started your work for Adam, or how has your work changed since your tour with Sister Spit?
A: I think when I went on Sister Spit I’d written maybe like around 60 to 100 pages of Adam, I was really just at the beginning. And I was reading from short comics on that tour so I wasn’t doing any preliminary Adam readings.
R: So for the comics, you are at a projector type of thing reading along?
A: Yeah, basically starting around 2005/2006 a lot of cartoonists who had previously had to use slides to show their comics and read them all began using Powerpoint or other various software programs to use kind of rapidly on the computer through images. What most cartoonists would do is take a page of comics that had may twelve panels on it or six panels on it and then in Photoshop go in and separate the panels and turn it into individual slides that you could then put onto a Powerpoint. Some people would erase, if you had a lot of text in your comics it made sense to erase or to take out and photoshop the text so that people wouldn’t be trying to read too much at the same time as you’re reading. But yeah! So basically the idea is just that you read the voices and whatever missing text there is along with the slides and I would also include a musical sound track so music would be playing at the same time and it was super fun.
R: We’re you the only one on the tour who did that type of thing?
A: On our particular tour I was the only cartoonist doing that but Michelle’s definitely had other cartoonists on the tour.
R: So the next question is totally different. You moved from the bay to New York awhile ago, right?
R: I recently moved from NY to the bay and I’m wondering how exactly New York, the stereotypes that you think of when you think of New York, how it lived up to that and how it was different than you thought it might be?
A: I think my main motivation for moving to New York when I was 18 was this whole idea that it was this creative hub where if you wanted to be a writer this is where you go and I was definitely not disappointed. I found myself surrounded by people excited to do interesting things. So of course when I first moved I had to kind of work a string of pretty shitty jobs but, you know, whereas I had worked at a movie theater in Berkeley and most of the people I worked with, you know some of them were creative and had other pursuits, a lot of people were totally happy to just work at the movie theater. And when I moved to NY and worked at the Film Forum, I felt like everybody was like really intensely working on something else at the same time. I remember I came in one day to work and my coworker was reading Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor, gosh I love that book, he then introduced me to what would then become one of my all time favorite books. That was just sort of like the type of environment that felt like everyday you would meet someone who was doing something exciting or would introduce you to something exciting. You need to feel that way you know, and now I’ve been here, I don’t know 15 years or something and I’m always meeting new and exciting people.
R: Mmhm, I feel like the level of productivity in NY is a little higher.
A: Berkeley’s great and I’ll always have a fondness for it and could see myself maybe living there when I’m older but I don’t feel the same kind of creative energy. Obviously some people in the bay area have it but I think, for the most part, you tend to find a type of intensity more often in NY.
R: What brings you to the bay at the time of the August 12th reading?
A: I’m coming out for the RADAR reading and also I’m going to visit my family and then go to spend some time in LA as well to visit friends and I’m going to be pitching an animated television show that may or may not happen but that is my August California visit.
R: Very cool. Where are you at in the production of Potential?
A: That is now working with a new director named Matt Wolf who is really awesome. He recently had a narrative documentary film come out called Teenager about teenage living in the early 20th century and it is based on a book. He also is currently working on a documentary for HBO about the artist behind the Eloise books and he also grew up in the bay area and we’re now collaborating on the Potential film right now. We’re adapting the script based on his vision for it.
R: So, you’re pretty established in what you do, I was just wondering, as someone who isn’t so much, do you ever find yourself stunted by the expectation that you continue creating things because it’s how you make your living? Or I guess another way of saying that is how do you come up with your ideas when other people are expecting you to create ideas?
A: I mean I think there’s always going to be, you always have to find a balance. Most people have to find a balance between kind of art and commerce and when I was younger I never wanted art to have an expectation of money around it, that felt really stressful, and so I’d always planned to be a high school biology teacher and I would do comics on the side and so that was sort of, my plan for awhile. As it turned out, when I finished college, I was originally planning on looking into teaching, possibly teach for America, when I had the opportunity to write this Potential screenplay. Because of that, I was paid to do that which meant that I only needed to sort of work other jobs for a time and then the Potential screenplay led to a job on The L Word where I was then making a lot of money doing something that I really enjoyed and so I sort of found myself going down a path of making money through writing. And what I found was, I liked the idea that I could have jobs that were writing but done for money, such as working in TV. But then I could also do my own private projects on the side. So that way I wouldn’t have to feel so much pressure or stress around the things that were more personal to me but could pursue the other avenues and I found that they helped each other. Working on The L Word allowed me to get a book agent that helped me sell my books so the two could kind of help each other in a way that a separate career could not help my artistic projects. But it is definitely, it can sometimes be stressful when you’re working on a more commerce-type job and you kind of conflate the act of creating with something stressful or something that you need to do for money. And I don’t like when I get that feeling but I think that it’s just a painful part of the way it is and no one’s jobs are ever going to feel perfect at any point in time. So I just try and sort of make it work and set a balance between staying afloat with various types of work and working on stuff that is important to me.
R: And you still teach, right? I read somewhere that you teach at The New School, is that still a thing?
A: Yeah, every spring I teach a graphic novel workshop at The New School and I really like teaching sort of random comics classes just two hour comics classes at colleges throughout the year and I find that, that’s not something that I just do for money. Obviously I like the money but I also really like getting to meet new people and it’s fun to engage with people that are really excited about comics. And I also don’t feel burnt out on it because one class a year is really not that stressful.
R: You could always come to Mills College.
R: How exactly for Adam, how did you come up with the premise? Are you scared that it could perhaps become a guide for a cis-male into that queer world?
A: (laughs) Do I think that somebody would read it and be like “oo this is what I can do.”
A: No, I don’t. Or, maybe, I mean who can say? I guess that person could be out there but I think there’s a big difference between the scenario my character Adam finds himself in which is that he is at first mistaken for a trans guy and eventually throughout the book ends up allowing a girl that he has a crush on to believe that but there’s a big difference between coming at that predicament that way than being some cis-straight guy with the ambition to infiltrate the queer scene. I honestly feel like most straight cis guys are just not that interested in infiltrating the queer scene. My character wound up in that situation because he gets ostracised from his group of friends at school and he gets to spend the summer with his sister who happens to be gay and this happens to be the subculture that she’s living in. I mean it’s really very circumstantial, this hook of cis straight guy pretends to be trans is not say that it’s like a how-to or anything like that. I do feel that it is in many ways a guide to a cis straight guy understanding queer culture and trans identities, more than they would have before having read the book.
R: Do you know what you’ll be reading on the 12?
A: I’m not sure yet, I haven’t decided.
R: If you could eat one thing right now what would it be?
A: Maybe like a duck in orange sauce, with some rice on the side.
Ariel will be reading at RADAR’s August 12th reading.
Too much time on your hands? Need more summer reading? How about for the price of free? We love our RADAR Monthly Reading Series because we love the people who come to our monthly reading series! We want to celebrate the books from our City Lights Sister Spit imprint and so we are giving away a copy of Beth Lisick’s Yokohama Threeway during our AUGUST 12 reading. Head to the Radar Facebook page to enter. We will pick someone at random and announce the winner at the August 12th reading!
About the Book:
Peering into life’s cringe-worthy moments, best-selling author Beth Lisick excavates territory that most would rather ignore. Funny, odd, deeply personal, yet somehow universal, these are the kind of memories that haunt us all, the small, awful moments of shame and humiliation that we’d rather forget than relive.
Beth Lisick has made a career of opening her life to her readers in all of its messy, smart hilarity, but this type of story doesn’t usually find its way into a memoir. With her trademark humor and sly intelligence, writing in short flashes the way these episodes tend to pop up in memory, Lisick recounts her most embarrassing moments with gusto. From a trick she played on a neighbor thirty years ago to what she accidentally blurted out at last night’s dinner party, she explores the bad judgments and free-floating regrets that keep her up at night, and the result is a daring, candid and wickedly funny collection of embarrassment embraced, the triumph of humor and perspective over everyday mortification.
Make sure to head to RADAR’s August 12th reading to collect your prize and watch some amazing performances. The event will be held at the San Francisco Public Library in the Latino/Hispanic Rooms A/B from 6-8 pm.
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.