38 minutes ago
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Last year I interviewed Carina Finn & Tim Jones-Yelvington for ep magazine. I'm not sure what happened to the magazine, which seemed like a really great idea (it was partially supported via google docs). I fear that like many new magazines it went the way of the beast. In any case, I was working on my CV today and remembered the interview and took it upon myself to totally steal the text of the interview from the magazine, which I think you have to pay to see, but I'm not sure anyone actually did that or at least won't do it anymore, probably. To the editor, Robert--if you want me to take this down, let me know! But you have to send me that print contributor copy you promised me that I never got, first!
<3 Enjoy. This was a love-labor of several days. ***
Introduction by the editor:
I originally asked Carina Finn and Tim Jones-Yelvington to do this because I love their “writing off writing,” work that isn’t one’s typically defined ‘work’, and wanted them together in the same room. Tim’s twitter feed, his literature performances, and Carina’s blog were interesting and important work that I wanted somehow to get smashed together. I asked to ‘interview’ them, but really wanted to give them something to write about, which is what the ‘questions’ are. I love the Goolge Document as a collaborative media and saw it as the perfect medium for the endeavor. Being able to see the other writers move their cursors across one another, next to each other, and even seeing them pause on top of one another, blinking, is a form of digital intercourse: a form of pornography for the observer and an orgy for the participant.
I asked Kate Durbin to co-interview with me because I’m a huge fan of her performance/personae/presence. I honestly didn’t think she’d be able to do it. I am positively thrilled that she was able to help me give Carina and Tim something to write about, asking follow up questions and joining in the fray if she wanted.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t participant in the live writing of this piece, as I was traveling across the country, but was able to follow Tim, Carina, and Kate’s “brain sex” through facebook and twitter. I’m very happy with the outcome, and hope you all enjoy it too.
-Robert Alan Wendeborn
Question: Art & Design are often influential in the world of fashion (Schiaparelli), and you are both influenced by fashion, how do you feel its influence on the words you put to page? How do you feel its influence in the way you read the words aloud?
(insert image of lobsters)
I was really excited to see Robbie quote Schiaparelli here, because just last week I decided to name my new iPad after her. Schiaparelli plays a really prominent role in one of my favorite books, “The Show That Smells” by Derek McCormack. Derek’s book is really artful, subversive camp. And it is also one of the most gorgeously audio-visual books that I’ve read -- both in terms of its acoustics, stuff like its use of repetition and how it sounds aloud, and also how text materializes on the page. One of his most awesome tricks is that he uses the “O” figure to represent sequins -- and blood-soaked sequins are bolded! It’s fucking fantastic. Which I guess is my backwards way of getting at the first part of this question, about how fashion influences the words I put on the page, and part of the reason I think I am answering backwards is because I maybe kind-of came into this backwards? I actually did not know I was interested in fashion initially -- the reading couture came more from my longstanding interests in theatricality and costumery, and wanting to do something to innovate the site of the live reading and make it more accessible and entertaining and engaging for spectators/audiences/participants, etc. And then as I have proceeded, what has happened is that my practice around dressing up for live readings has awakened this interest in surface and aesthetics and visual culture and-fashion that I maybe sort-of knew might be there (Kate has reminded me that as an eight year old, I created these somewhat astonishing fashion illustrations: http://bigother.com/2011/03/14/91-book-of-models/), but hadn’t really tapped into? And so now that has begun to influence the texts I am creating -- their content is shaped by some of my fashion and makeup-related obsessions in really direct ways, like writing pieces about sequins, but they are also becoming more audiovisual, I would say. Not just in terms of using audiovisual elements at live readings -- ie I have begun writing these dance pop songs for live performances and have been figuring out how to record them -- but also in terms of the auditory and visual elements of the texts themselves. When Carina asked me to be on a poetry and fashion-oriented panel proposal for AWP, I was initially like -- Shit, I’m not really a poet, but I would love to do this, and then Carina was like, Fuck genre. But as I have been thinking about it, I have been thinking about how the work I am creating -- including my prose, but also my first, somewhat tentative forays into shit with line breaks -- is increasingly resembling poetry the more influenced I am by fashion. I think there is something there, something having to do with audiovisual aesthetics and their relationship to, like, what I am interested in writing right now.
Carina: Tim, I think you’ve nailed it in saying that writing becomes more “poetic”-seeming when it’s influenced by fashion -- I think it’s less a matter of fashion itself than a quality of having been fashioned. A poem is something that, like a great piece of couture, is structurally nuanced, extravagant/decadent, & fits its subject perfectly because it was literally made for/(of?) it. I’ve always thought of outfits as something that one composes, as an articulation of surface that is directly influenced by time & context (“real” or “imagined”) & selfhood, & I think of poems in exactly the same way.
Question: “What is the princess going to wear?” was the biggest fashion question of the past few months. The princess wore a dead dressmaker’s dress in her wedding and everyone misses the dressmaker. Is a dress more the dressmaker’s mourning the fabric, or the celebration of the object, the inhabiter of the dress? When you dress yourself, do you feel that you are the object of celebration or wrapped in mourning?
(insert image of gilded feather dress)
Carina: I think mourning is a celebration of the object, & the object is the inhabitant of the dress which is also the dress itself. The princess wouldn’t have been a Princess without that dress, but that dress could not have existed without the princess. I often lament the fact that I was not born into royalty & that I am too volatile a person to ever marry into it. I mourn that every day with my dress, but I also celebrate it, because while I adore ballgowns & tiaras, sometimes I want to wear a lot of mascara & ripped hot pink fishnets.
Tim: What stands out to me about this question is that weddings and mourning are both rituals (or rather, we have rituals for observing each, ie mourning is ritualized through funerals), and those rituals involve fashion. The cultural theorist Judith/Jack Halberstam talks about something she calls “queer temporality,” this idea that because queer folks do not necessarily participate in the rituals that give direction to and demarcate the lives of heteronormative folks, ie weddings, babies, that whole trajectory, our relationship to time is distinct, perhaps more related to the momentary. One could say that some of these rituals, maybe weddings in particular, are about placing a distance between heteronormative bodies and the inevitability of death, of distancing death’s sort-of constantly-looming spectre or assigning it to “othered” bodies, ie the unmarried, so that queer folks are associated with death in the dominant culture’s imagination. So that then for “stigmaphile” queer folks like myself, there is possibly value in claiming, as an activist stance, the threat we pose via our association with death?
That said, I have lately found myself more interested in how marginalized or oppressed communities ritualize resilience and survival. For instance, escapism -- I would say that escapist writing (much of which is probably “genre,” right?) is dismissed by much of the literary establishment, and escapism in political practice is definitely poo-pooed by the old left or old school Marxism, where it’s all about maintaining a stance of disillusionment toward any cultural practice that might distract from the revolution. But I think escapism has a special value for oppressed folks, because there is so much power in being able to literally create a reality in which we are at last the authorities on our own lives and experiences. So one concrete example is dance music, particularly house. I’ve developed an obsession during the past year and a half with classic house music, which was created in Chicago by a community comprised largely of black queer men and trans women. House dancing is not explicitly political in terms of having anything to say about structural inequity or political economy, but the space created through house dancing, the communion of bodies, is very radical in terms of its inclusivity, and in terms of creating a space for folks weighed down by oppression to just shake that shit off, literally, and enact fierceness.
I have been thinking about my own performance through fashion more and more in terms of ritual, and in particular, in terms of ritualizing shame and fear, but also resilience and ferocity, related to gender deviance or “otherness.” I invite a lot of external attention when I dress up -- some negative and some positive. I feel very vulnerable in one way, probably the most vulnerable I have felt since middle school, because I have to worry about my safety traveling from place to place, but invulnerable in another, in that I am able to access a confidence I can’t access in normal dress. As one my friends described it, I preen and strike poses, and am more physically aggressive, and the clothing feels like this profoundly liberating permission to do all those things.
Judith Butler is famous for having shown how our unconscious, everyday rituals of gender continually reproduce the very notion of the gendered interiority to which they supposedly give expression, and for noting that drag queens’ explicit performance of exaggerated gender calls attention to our more implicit assumptions about gender by disrupting its “naturalness.” At the same time, what is interesting to me is is that if you listen to the actual discourse of many drag queens, how they talk about themselves, they often sound much more invested in producing “authentic” gender than they do in destabilizing gender categories. There’s a lot of talk about “realness,” and you can argue that it’s a hyper-realness, but it does seem to be true that for some queens, the emphasis is on inhabiting what they see as an “authentic” femininity. And yet at the same time, most of them are very intent on clarifying that they are solely performers, that drag queens are not trans women, they constantly reinforce this separation between themselves and their characters. So there is this fascinating sort-of ongoing tension between performance and artifice and “authenticity” and essentialism. And what is interesting for me is that the way I think about my own performances is almost like the exact opposite -- I have no investment in “authentic” gender. If anything, I’m trying to do deliberate “gender fuck,” or like, “hybrid masculinity,” to present something that cannot be fully reconciled w/ existing categories. And I am also very clear that I am not performing a distinct character, I have very deliberately not created any other name for myself than Tim Jones-Yelvington, and sometimes TJY. There is definitely a level at which I think about what I do onstage and in costume as another expression of my selfhood or identity. What I have been tyring to figure out lately is... You know, there is this critique that folks like Johannes Goranson put forward, a critique of the idea that interiority is what differentiates “good” art from “bad” -- and I very much understand why the sort-of capital A “Authentic” and the rigid psychologization of character and the self as some kind of inalienable inner core, all the sort-of Eurocentric, universalizing ideas about the self that we have inherited from the Enlightment, I absolutely get why that is constraining, and why the rejection/policing of aesthetics that deal solely and deliberately in surface and the superficial is problematic, but I am also like... I like emotion. I write emotion. And some of my ways of thinking about myself might sound a little bit essentialist in terms of, like, sometimes I do feel like when I dress up, I am expressing something externally that is usually hidden inside me. I think this is maybe not what people expect me to say, because they “read” my performance as “insistently surface, rejecting bullshit, I'm-so-deep subjective depth models of identity,” as my friend/undergraduate professor Missy Bradshaw described it. And I definitely still embrace ideas about identity as performance, and identity as socially constructed and mediated, etc. etc. But maybe what I am trying to articulate here is that I’m really sick of the terms through which this entire discussion is framed, like surface = shallow, disposable, meaningless, and interior = profound, deep, meaningful. I feel like what I do on the surface of my skin has a relationship to my insides, and the level of intention I put into painting myself, the kind of detailed, deliberate work that involves, which probably most people will never fully understand or appreciate, I consider that fucking profound. I face something when I do my makeup, like literally, I face MY FACE. So I’m like, Why can’t I call something that is flat, that is on the surface, “deep,” if I feel it deeply, whereas I think maybe Johannes, if I read him accurately, is like, “What is wrong with flat and disposable, let’s embrace flat and disposable.” (This might have something to with the distinction between “camp” and “kitsch,” or my own appropriation/reinterpretation of camp and Johannes’ retheorizing of kitsch, although I am not sure I am ready to stand behind/defend this statement)
I think both of these are important strategies. ...I guess part of what it comes back to is that at least in terms of, like, feminist and queer theory and activism, I have been influenced in equal parts by folks like Adrienne Rich or Patricia Hill Collins, folks who have been called “standpoint theorists,” who emphasize the authority of personal experience, as well as by more “post-structural” queer theorists and the like who question the notion of a stable self. And there is also much about the liberation movements of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, those movements that have been dismissed by some as “identity politics,” that I still actively embrace, while also maybe embracing some politics that are more associated with a so-called “post-identity” way of thinking. And these things have never seemed mutually exclusive to me (indeed, some of the folks involved in so-called “identity politics” were far from essentialist in how they thought about identity, and actively enabled Queer theory and activism). I feel like I can embrace the authenticity (with a lower-case A?) of my personal experiences and others’ experiences and also acknowledge that experience and identity are historically situated and socially mediated. This is maybe why I have been so drawn to the new narrativists -- authors like Dodie Bellamy, Steve Abbott or Bob Gluck -- who I feel actively explore the relationship between experience and personal narrative and liberatory politics and theory, fluid identity, artifice, etc. And I think part of how that connection is forged is through the body. When you really, like, foreground the body in your writing, it destabilizes these dichotomies between intellect and emotion and interior and exterior and body and self, etc, which I think many of us feel are total bullshit.
I know I’ve already babbled on way too long in response to this question, but I also want to address the part about whether I make myself “the object” of celebration. I said above that I think about my performance attire as another expression of selfhood, a way of expressing things I cannot express in ordinary dress. This is true, but it is also true that I think about myself in costume as something quite separate from myself. But not as a separate character. More as a separate object. I became aware of this recently as I was looking at pictures of myself online. I was like, What does my compulsive desire to look at these pictures say about my level of self-obsession? And then I realized that I did not feel like I was looking at “me,” necessarily, but rather that I was looking at something I created. There is still ego involved, for sure, but I think it is more like the ego of looking at a text I’ve written, or a painter looking at one of his/her paintings. I find that turning my body into one of my canvases performatively foregrounds the role that ego inevitably plays in all of our acts of creation. The lit establishment’s obsession with authorship and subjectivity definitely needs to be fucked with, like some of the conceptualists like Vanessa Place have done so gloriously, but when I write, I still feel a desire for acknowledgment, absolutely, if I’m being honest, and I think walking on stage in a getup that screams LOOKATME! dramatizes and calls out that tendency which resides in all of us.
Kate: Okay, so I know all these royal wedding questions aren’t for me, but I just had to chime in and say that my next book, inspired initially by this outrageous collection of snuff boxes I saw in the V & A Museum in London, is all about the royal wedding. It’s called ROYALS. I guess it’s conceptual poetry, but I think of it more as conceptual art, mostly text-based. Right next to me right now are the latest issues of US Weekly and People, all about the supposed, salacious affair between Pippa and Harry. And those insane Treacy-esque wedding hats! So I am glad you all are talking about the princess, and her couture! I also want to say a little something about this distinction you are making, Tim, about conceptual art a la Vanessa Place (who I’ve worked with on The Polished You, and who has written some ingenious work for the Gaga book, and who is just a genius period)--I don’t really believe, as a conceptual artist, that one has to totally do away with individual authorship necessarily. Or, more specifically, I like when that line gets super messy, like with Place’s Factory Series, or any number of the collaborative projects I’ve worked on like my project Excess Exhibit with Amaranth Borsuk, but I think there is still something about owning one’s own gestures that is important. I think this relates to what you are saying, Tim, about LOOKATME! I also think of Duchamp, of course--when he put his stamp on the Fountain, that was really his LOOKATME! gesture. I think it’s just a matter of where we are putting our stamp--like how many steps back we are taking before drawing our circle around the thing, whether we wrote the thing or not. But that intentionality is where ART lies. I know that’s so meta. I’m teaching a meta-fiction class right now; it’s making me a little meta. Also, this interview is kind of meta. I don’t even believe in meta, though, so what am I even talking about.
Question: As a writer, is the page something you mourn or is it the object through which you adore/worship/aggrandize your subject/other/reader or something else entirely? When you see the words on a page are they more a form a blood/wound on flesh or a form of gilt/filigree/pigment for decor?
(insert image of text on page)
Carina: O, the page. I think the page is my deathbed. I think words are delectable slices in my flesh. Or the page is the stage upon which I can be unabashedly dramatic, & words are my vaudeville act. Or it’s one of those outfit-making-machines like Jane Jetson had, of which I have always been super-jealous. The way I think about it changes all the time. One of the lessons I will one day write down in my golden book of how to be a poet is that every poem should be a revolution against the last one. My relationship with the page is very wrapped up in that lesson.
I would love for my texts to be both these things. I actually think both desciptors fit what I’ve been attempting with my most recent set of texts, which are more directly influenced by my performance work than what I’ve written previously. I’ve been calling this project LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE, and the written text portion has a few interwoven, recurring threads -- I’ve been working on a series where I’ve been “sequinizing” theory, sort of bedazzling theorists like Barthes and Deleuze (sorry, I think we need to make a bedazzled copy of 1000 plateaus. like, literally with sequins & rhinestones & puff paint!) KATE: Um, yes! and Sontag by replacing key words in their texts with either the plural noun “sequins” or conjugations of the verb “to sequin.” I think the goal is to bring these theorists’ work into conversation with my text(s) (both performed and written), to perform theory through my text via appropriation, as well to call attention to the ways that theory functions aesthetically, that theory has an aesthetic dimension as well as containing ideas and content. Because my approach to theory is to take what I like, what resonates either content-wise, ideologically, or in terms of aesthetic qualities like its syntax or acoustics, and not get too hung up on orthodoxy or striving for 100% comprehension. I feel like “one lit theory to rule them all” is sort of dumb straight boy’s game. I prefer enriching discussions to polarized debates. Then the next thread in the LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE text is sort of its emotional core, a series of stories about a teenager named Carl who is a mess of feelings and hormones, who develops an infatuation with my (TJY’s) internet persona. And then I am also working on a series of TJY celebrity autobiographies that are appropriated from famous women who have experienced extreme violence -- including Judith Barsi (a child star who was murdered by her father); Lani O’Grady, who starred as Mary on “Eight is Enough” and coped for years with mental illness before ultimately dying from a drug overdose; and LaToya Jackson. These are all converted into survival narratives in my text. My hope with all this is to combine all the shit that most interests me -- so performativity and ornamentation and glamour and camp, but also experiences of shame and marginality, as well as the organizing ideas of theory. I feel there is both wound and filigree in this, yeah?
Question: We assume the princess wore white for a reason. And what reason, do you presume, is that? Was this too conservative a move for the princess, or ultimately a subversive choice? Is it possible for tradition in writing/art/fashion to be subversive?
(insert image of redvelvet weddingcake)
Carina: I think the princess wore white because it flattered her complexion. If she had looked dreadful in it, they’d have put her in eggshell or ivory. I think tradition in fashion is maybe the most subversive kind of fashion, like if I were to wear hoopskirts or a corset or bloomers. I also think that’s true of poetry. Last week I wrote, almost exclusively, sonnets, aubades, and pantoums, and I felt very rebellious and subversive indeed.
Tim: I think it is difficult for me to consider this particular example without talking about the State, because it was a State wedding, and so much of the ritual and symbolism at such an occasion, including the fashion, is about nationalism and nation-building. And we’re not just talking about any nation, we are talking about what was formerly one of the great imperial powers, a nation with a lot of culpability in imperalism’s legacy of racism and global inequity, which we are still living with. To get back to ritual and fashion, Anne McClintock has this great book called “Imperial Leather” where she talks about the role fetishized fashion objects played in imperialism’s spread. She talks about the European explorers who arrived on “foreign” shores, and how fashion objects like leather, uniforms, weapons, helped them navigate their fear of engulfment by this feminized, “othered” landscape. So I think about the Eddie Izzard sketch, where he’s like, “Do you have a flaaaaag?” I also read Johannes’s colonial pageant book in terms of this history. I think you can absolutely work subversively within traditions, because what is it we are subverting if not tradition, the dominant culture? I feel like the definition of subversion is that it works within the confines of our existing systems and our existing dominant culture in some way, this is part of what differentiates subversion from revolution. (Although whether or not we can ever truly function outside the dominant culture and its institutions and systems is, I think, arguable, but that’s maybe a different conversation). I think the symbols and fashions of the State and colonialism can absolutely be used subversively (Johannes certainly does this in his book). As for whether or not Kate Middleton’s dress was subversive, I don’t really see it. I am always willing to consider a “reading” that suggests such, but personally, I found her dress pretty but dull, and was far more transfixed by the parade of wild hats. (I love the sound of the word “milliner,” I would love to claim it as one of my self-descriptors). I think there are probably things Kate Middleton herself could do to subvert such an occasion as the royal wedding, but for the most part, I look to spectators’ “readings” of the event for the most subversive takes. For instance, if a fag blogger like former Club Kid James St. James “camps” the royal wedding, upends it hierarchy and self-seriousness by writing about Kate and Pippa in ALL CAPS and calling them FABULOUS and claiming they’re his BEST FRIENDS, that I see as subversive.
Kate Durbin: Her dress was not subversive, but it was beautiful. And she was very skinny because she starved herself, and if you read her aura you could see she was very scared. I am worried about Kate Middleton, how they are trying to cram her into Diana’s death narrative, and that is why I am writing ROYALS. But now I have questions for you, Tim and Carina. My first ones have to do with your teenage years, inspired by Carina’s piece “The Absolutely Unabridged Journals of a Teenage Poetastress” (nice reference to Plath’s Unabridged Journals which were essentially my Bible in Bible college, Carina).
How old are you both now, where were you then, and what was your relationship to both fashion and to writing? For example, I was obsessively reading The Bell Jar, counting my Prozac, and in hopeless love with my best friend, a skapunk kid who only had the hots for dumb, rich, clean Abercrombie girls. I was also listening to Courtney Love, No Doubt, and Seven Year Bitch, and writing speeches about my passionate love of nailpolish. I’d never even read a poem except for some e.e. cummings. You?
Carina: I had a very Plath-y teenagehood. I spent most of my time riding horses, reading Ariel and the Bell Jar, and making out with boys. Also, counting Prozac, puking, wearing different shades of lip gloss, and listening to Avril Lavigne. I wrote lots of really angsty poetry in these bizarre forms that I would make up, like spencerian sonnets in iambic heptameter; I was (and still am) really obsessed with sound and form. I read lots of Plath & Sexton & Dickinson & Romance Novels & Camus & Voltaire. I also liked to pretend I was Mimi from RENT & smoke cigarettes in the bathtub. My fashion was ridiculous. My walls were covered in collages of Vogue cutouts, & did absurd things like wear my mom’s leather girdle to school with oxford shirts and knee-high boots. Often I’d wear riding clothes to school & get made fun of for it, but now when I wear riding clothes to poetry school it’s like, ooh, Ariel-chic! Now I’m 22. I’m pretty much the same, +/- a few things
I probably would’ve been singing Rent songs w/ Carina. ...Um... I feel like starting with broader stuff, kinda? ...Like teenagers and adolescence are a major obsession or focus for me writing-wise, in terms of content (but also language, to a certain extent, because I like to inhabit teenage voices). Part of what draws me to adolescence is, I think, this hyper-emotive thing, like operatic or histrionic emotions. I feel that because of the systematic adultism in our dominant culture, experiences and voices of adolescents are not really taken seriously or valued in a real way. Kate, your amazing blog essay on the teenage girl as hysterical demon or whatever it’s called is one of my favorite pieces (mine too!) (thanks guys!) that makes a critical intervention in our thinking around adolescence in writing and lit, and in a totally different way, I really appreciate some comments that Dennis Cooper has made about critical reception to his work that foregrounds the voices of adolescents vs. his adult-voiced work that critics have embraced as more “mature.” Carina and Kate, I think it’s really interesting how similar your teen selves were/are, and that I have for whatever reason felt really drawn to you both, like maybe I would’ve been friends with you in high school? A lot of the shit I wrote back then features intimate friendships between sort-of more sarcastic women and real earnest, romantic gay boys... shit that kind of makes me gag now because it is so, like, Sex and the City or Will and Grace or something, I loved both of those shows in high school! I was actually watching an episode of Will and Grace the first time I convinced my mom to let me shave my legs, because I was like, look at Grace, she’s really perfect, and I bet her legs are perfectly smooth. I bet they were, too. I, too, loved those shows. I mean I still watch SATC episodes all the time on DVD, let’s face it. But I try and pretend the movies didn’t exist. like trading in tropes that I find I don’t really want to be associated with now, being this queer transgressive-identified person who is very critical of the construct of the white middle-class gay male ideal that Will Truman in particular embodies, but... I forget where I was going with this. I was going to say that in high school, I was maybe in certain ways similar to you two in terms of, like, embracing pathos and drama to a degree, but I was also quite different, I think, in that I was this super-earnest idealist romantic. Like in addition to some of the obvious gendered differences, my approach to drama was more... uptempo. I was really involved in church-based progressive political work, and so everything was about God’s vision for a new heaven and Earth grounded in social justice, and being involved in activism to create that shit... but I was also, like, constantly mooning after nonexistent crush objects (and one or two existent one also), and when I write adolescents, that is still the first place I go, like desire and obsession in that “Something is going to happen that will change my life forever!!!” kind-of way that is maybe only imaginable for adolescents. The drama of that. I often feel like there is a piece of myself, like, broken off and left behind in that part of my life, or like I’ve got emotional reside from adolescence that I carry everywhere, that feeling of really intense unrequite-able longing. There is a recurring theme in gay lit -- and I think here I actually do mean mainstream gay fiction more than the more underground queer lit that usually interests me -- of adult men pining after idealized young men, and I think this is perhaps because there is indeed a dissatisfaction many of us feel with our own adolescence, maybe related to not getting the same kind of action a lot of our straight peers got (I want to acknowledge here that I’m speaking in problematically broad generalities). There is this notion, maybe, that we can rewrite our own pasts to make old fantasies come true. You asked about lit -- I was really into anything that went with the whole earnest activist thing, so Toni Morrison I still like Toni Morrison--she’s a bad ass. Beloved is so fucking creeptastic and Song of Solomon has the best ending of a novel I’ve ever read. Also she never got an MFA which is why her books are so gloriously weird, I think...... Tim: I STILL love both of them. and Arundhati Roy were like the height of literature for me. I remember also writing an A.P. English paper where I used some feminist writing about Frankenstein as a reading of “Paradise Lost” and the monster as Eve brilliant to make some argument about the monster as also being a penetrated queer man, and penetrated folks like women and queer men having some shared stake in transforming heteropatriarchy, as we are both cast as filthy and fallen (So I guess even before I knew I liked to take it up the ass, I was already interested in trying to claim a politicized, “feminized” identity toward deconstructing some of the gross misogyny that is so rampant in mainstream gay male culture). Tim, you’re amazing and always have been. I love Frankenstein too, and of course Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. Also--weren’t you drawing wild fashion photos in your grandma’s car at like age seven? I love it! We should post some of those here. You also asked about our teenage fashion -- I am thinking the less said about this the better. I am remembering one year with Abercrombie sweaters with stripes across the center, another where I wore rainbow toe socks with birkenstocks, and a third where I decided I was going to go around in black turtleneck sweaters to look more like Will Truman. I guess it’s all about the ongoing negotiation of identity, which has its own poignancy, but I wish the identity I’d been performing through clothing we’re a little fiercer, more of a wild “outsider” persona in some way. I mean, I just love looking at teenagers on public transportation and seeing what they’re wearing, how awesomely self conscious and put together it can be, down to the tiniest details.
Kate Durbin: Oh we totally all would have been a gang in high school. Poet Becca Klaver and I joke that we would have been the slip dress sluts gang--you two would have looked super sex in slutty slip dresses with us a la Courtney Love/the Delias catalogue. omg YES Delia’s catalogue! I used to wait for it in the mail. I remember all the amazing colored plastic raincoats and Esprit sandals in the Delias catalogue that I would just stare at for hours. I don’t even remember the sweat shop thing, though! That catalogue sucks now, pretty much.
Carina, I am reading your “Unabridged” piece right now and thinking about your teenage years--by the way, you are fucking amazing, and I also read Wuthering Heights in my college dorm room bathtub and smoked cloves. I even did a peformance art piece in that bathroom for my photography class, where I put a rose in the toilet as a reference to bulimia and wrote Plath and Marge Piercy quotes on the mirrors in lipstick and took blurry pictures of Barbies and stuck them on the stall walls. I also stuck flowers from the dollar store in my Prozac bottles.
I’m inserting myself into the middle of your question, because I’d like to take a moment to say how lovely that piece sounds, & that I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a bathtub at Oxford while smoking cloves, I believe, as well!
Tim: I made a “literary collage” in high school of quotes demonstrating Kathy’s (from Wuthering Heights) degenerating madness and glued a bunch of Advil tablets to the paper. I feel like Advil seems like a really intense drug when one is in high school. I remember reading this novel Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes, who wrote for Vogue at the time, & I was totally obsessed with it/her, & in the book the main character used the term Advil-y as a synonym for “suicidal.” BB is totally the updated version of Valley of the Dolls, one of my fav novels--I am so obsessed with 60’s L.A. Valium-chic, a la Play it as it Lays. I had an ex-boyfriend who told me he was worried about how many films I watched about depressed, rich housewives with their eyeliner smudged sitting around chain-smoking in lingerie and crying. Of course, they remind me of my mom.
Maybe? There were a lot of students at my high school using far more intense drugs, but I was mostly separate from or shielded from a lot of that. OH, I probably should have said above that I went to high school at this super small (100 students total) progressive education high school in lower Manhattan started by a commie dyke leftist who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and John Dewey, and that experience shaped me in a shit ton of ways. I lived in the midwest until I was ten, and I think that no matter how sort of voraciously I identified as a New Yorker, I just never had that particular disaffectation and toughness that comes from having grown up there, and also, I was commuting to school from the suburbs every day, so I was never 100% part of the community. Another oddball aspect of that experience is that the more sort-of archetypal white middle-class suburban teenage experience depicted on shows like Dawson’s Creek (I was so obsessed with that show--although it pissed me off when people said I looked like Michelle Williams, who at the time I meanly called “duck face” Tim: Jen was my favorite, even then. Kate: I love Michelle Williams now. I feel I relate to her on a romantic level--not that I am “into her” but that I do romance like her. And I am still not over Heath Ledger’s death!) which is probably a living hell for a lot of folks, was actually more like fantasy material for me, and I was not alone in that. A lot of us -- at my high school I mean -- used to talk about “real school” and what it would be like to go to “real school,” and have letter jackets and a prom and class rings and all that paraphernalia. There’s something to that, I’m sure, our association of that very particular set of white, middle-class, suburban images w/ “real.”
And now I must insert myself into my own question yet again and say that recently I was at an art opening in Chinatown (L.A.’s Chinatown, Jack) with my friend Mathew Timmons who wrote the amazing New Poetics and we saw this show that consisted entirely of classic book covers with the genders reversed. So Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was, of course, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. It was, perhaps, referring to you, Carina! [Also, Moby Pussy was probably my favorite book cover].
Moby Pussy sounds amazing.
I second that.
Anyway, Carina, I just read your reference to Dion from Clueless Dionne and I were both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials. as a yoga instructor in your “Unabridged Journal” piece. She would be a good one--you are right! So how do your teenage obsessions factor into the work you are doing now? Do you see a direct parallel? I guess what I mean is a sort of radical aesthetic philosophy of teenage pop cultural referencing and maybe even a stance of teenage rebellion? By the way, I used to write down all the slang from Clueless while watching the film over and over and then I would memorize the words and their meanings (she’s such a betty!) like a school vocab test. Perhaps this was my earliest form of poetry, since now I am writing conceptual fashion magazines that contain the scripts of reality TV shows like The Hills!
Right? I feel like Dion would be such great motivation! In a lot of ways, my teenage obsessions are still really present in my work & in my life. I guess it would make sense to say that I started off being a teenage girl all wrong. I didn’t attend school very often until 8th grade, so I thought it was really like on Boy Meets World, & Topenga was my idol -- she was smart and outspoken and had perfect hair and great outfits. Topanga was awesome -- it was actually very frustrating to me how they diluted her distinctiveness over time, my friend Amber and I actually turned it into a verb to describe the sitcom phenomenon of fierce women characters who go all blech in high school -- Topanga-ing... like in that one Harry Potter book where Hermione doesn’t really get to do anything badass, and instead gets mad and throws birds at Ron? We were like, “They totally Topangaed her!” ...I might feel differently about this now, though, I think there is something to be said for claiming in a politicized way some of those “weak” and pathologized aspects of girlhood, which you have both done in really great ways in your work. But there was also this sense that she was just the girl character, that that was a different thing. I used to organize protests & write political speeches as a form of “rebellion,” I guess, & when nobody paid legitimate attention I started piling on the eyeliner & turning my body into this physical representation of how ridiculous I felt. In poetry, the teenage girl voice is not, and has never been, a valid or “legitimate” mode. Ha, I hadnt even seen this yet when I wrote what I said above. I’ll often refer to my work as a giant temper tantrum. It’s the same temper tantrum I’ve been throwing for years. Which is also, I think, very in keeping with these reality show girls -- people see them as privileged brats, but maybe they’re just acting out their poetry in a less “literary” but no less “legitimate” forum?
Kate: Ooh yes! Yes! There’s nothing more illegitimate than reality TV. It’s even considered “illegit” in the fashion world--like, the designers I know don’t want their pieces to be shown on reality TV. But teenagers writing poetry, acting out their histronic emotions, like Tim talked about above--or those of us who are no longer teens writing it “teen” as an intentional, radical aesthetic strategy--that’s not really any different than acting out histronic emotions on a reality show. There’s also that nice blurring between real and faux, and the amping up of “feelings” that happens on reality TV--same as teenage poetry. And it’s such an low brow, messy genre of TV. Brillz, Carina!
Also, why didn’t you attend school until 8th grade? Were you homeschoolled? I was through jr. high. I had this ridiculous former life as a child actress, so I pretty much attended school for a few hours a day in the morning & then was carted off to new york nearly every day for auditions/shoots/etc. it’s a whole other chapter of my life that I used to be really, really ashamed of. When people in school would ask if it was me in a commercial they’d seen that morning I’d be like, nope, wrong girl! even though it totally was. Now that I’m sort of starting to come into my identity as an artist in general, though, I’m realizing that it was pretty fundamental to the formation of who I am as a writer. Tim: I was in the New York City Opera’s Children’s Chorus -- we played the child parts in all the operas. It was great, professional performance experience that I was able to do without it taking over my life in a bad way. I cannot say enough good things about it. I, too, had this image of “school” as something sort of like Sweet Valley High. I actually went into 9th grade thinking I would be a cheerleader and popular. omg me too! (I wasn’t) Then I saw this sexy, super wealthy Mexican-American girl in my choir class in the back with ripped baggy jeans and a gash or purple lipstick like a bruise and she had on headphones and she let me listen to them and she was listening to 7 Year Bitch. I knew then I would never be a cheerleader. She and I dropped acid together and hunk out with loser cokehead guys until she got pregnant and dropped out of our Christian high school. I always got A’s though cuz I still cared about being smart and I loved literature and wanted to be a writer, even then. I felt like such a misfit. Yes. I think poetesses have this specific genetic tick/glitch.
So we’ve talked about histronics, let’s talk about another taboo or ick-ick-illegitimate topic (ich ich? Plath?). What is the relationship between fashion, writing, and rot? Johannes Gorannson talks about this all the time, and I know you studied with him Carina. Are you friends with Johannes, Tim, and/or familiar with some of his and Joyelle’ McSweeney’s theoretical stances about art as waste, contamination, decay, etc.? They are also both obsessed with Rodarte, who of course make lots of beautiful, decaying rags (I saw their Black Swan costumes at the MOCA Pacific Design Center a few months ago and was essentially drooling blood). Do you relate to their ideas?
I will talk about Plath to anyone & everyone all day long. As part of a bizarre initiation ritual at my college, I actually dressed up as her -- I wore a babyblue cardbord box oven on my head all day. & so, to get to your question about fashion/writing/rot, I will refer to Lady Lazaurs, which is all about that, & also to The Applicant, which is my favorite Plath poem. In both of those, the processes of roting & being fashioned into an ideal are synonymous in terms of the female body. My concept of the grotesque has a lot to do with the fact that beauty necessarily involves death, because I have this very old-fashioned pastoral concept of beauty as that which comes from Nature, and is therefore kind of an embodiment of death because that which is Natural has to die.
There are obviously a lot of ties to Joyelle’s theory of the Necropastoral in that last statement, which I generally think is pretty rad. I have all of these very romantic ideas about a kind of inherent pastorality of writing that is at once “natural” & is also a costume, because the natural is like, so sublime that it’s impossible for mortals to view an unadorned/unadulterated version of it without turning to stone or something. I love excess, accessories, puke-y pinafores, etc., but I’m really a “purist” at heart; there are a very select few poem-entities that I think get at something like this retina-burning unblemished sublime, but I also think they’re really dangerous things to carry around. Of course, that’s part of their appeal.
I’m really intellectually stimulated by J & J’s writing, as I think some of my earlier answers reflect (at least with relation to Johannes), and personally am interested to some degree in decay in terms of decay’s relationship, in the dominant culture’s imagination, w/ death, shit, and “the Other.” There’s a relationship there for me to Queer politics and theory, in terms of Queerness being a dead-end street or polluting agent re: heteronormative reproduction and capitalist production, etc. And I am also very interested in politicizing Queer aesthetic practice around claiming shit that is ornamental and excessive and has no use value, and I think this has some relationship to what J & J have written abt rot. But at the same time, I can’t totally deny how generative the fashion work feels to me right now, and how it allows me to inhabit my body, is very much about embodiment, in a very pulsing, hyper-alive kind of way. Because I am also interested in practices like drag and gender fuck as sites of survival and resilience -- of ritually theatricalizing shame and fear as well as resilience and fierceness, as I said above.
I can’t remember who said this, but someone very smart talked about how fashion was essentially a big fuck-you to nature, and I liked that. Because it’s all about unlimited vitality--and sometimes dying is the most vital thing we can do.
Yes, Kate! Tim, I think this speaks a little bit to your point about a kind of “Queer” temporality/aesthetic -- there’s something, for me at least, in the practice of being a writer that’s a very obvious attempt at trying to transcend natural death. My friend CJ (whose work is elsewhere in this magazine) were really obsessed with the idea of the books one writes as horcruxes, like in Harry Potter. You write a book & shave off a piece of your soul & put it inside of this immortal body, which you have created via a sort of partial/failed suicide. Following that drive necessarily puts one outside of “normal” time and aesthetics, I think.
Speaking of dying (hah!), what was it like studying with Johannes and Joyelle, Carina? Did your work change radically?
It’s really strange & wonderful & terrifying. They’re incredibly generous poets & teachers (& people), & run workshops unlike any others that I’ve heard about. You work really f*cking hard. You read a ton of theory & a ton of poetry & write a lot & most of the time the week’s work sends a lot of us into these really delightful existential crises (or at least, that’s how I react).
Carina -- do prose folks have much access to poetry courses at Notre Dame? You can switch genre for one workshop, but Joyelle also teaches a prose workshop, which I’m sure is absurd in the best possible way.
It was a weird transition when I started studying with them. My undergrad mentor, who is still a very dear friend of mine & literally in a lot of ways the reason I’m a “poet” at all, is like Johannes’ complete opposite in some sense, but they’re very similar teachers in that they’re both about showing you where the path is and how to get there and telling you where a few (but not all) of the dangerous parts are and how one might navigate them.
It’s strange to talk about Joyelle & Johannes as teachers because I remember being terrified of them at first, but soon found a lot of comfort in the fact that they obsess about a lot of the same things I do. They’ve introduced me to a lot of great art that I probably just wouldn’t have come across on my own, and in a way gave me permission to find a critical/theoretical voice that worked for me. I think this has been the most significant change in my work -- I’ve always been interested in that kind of writing, but felt like my aesthetic didn’t “allow” it. If there’s one thing they’ve taught me, it’s that there’s really no one to tell me I’m not allowed to do anything. That Great Literary Critic/Arbiter of Taste in the Sky doesn’t exist.
Tim, how has your performance style evolved in the past year or so? I saw a photo of you with a Barbie on your head on FB recently, but mostly what I mean is I once read that you saw the words on the page and the performance as separate and you didn’t really consider yourself a performance artist. Has that changed at all? I know you made TJY t-shirts via American Apparel this year too--a gesture which seems performative to me (but of course I do think of myself as a performance artist), especially in that they had to be ordered online via that site as opposed to handed out at events--though that too would be performative, considering that is more a rock concert gesture than something done at poetry events.
I feel like that comment I made about the text and performance as separate was not fully clear, because Molly Gaudry also asked me a question about it once that showed that maybe she hadn’t read it as I intended. What I meant to say was very specifically that I did not want my costumes to be directly representational of the stories in a sort-of obvious way. I mean like similar to interpretive dance that is directly representational of a song’s lyrics. I mean like wrapping my arms around myself and tumbling to the ground when Tiffany sings, “You put your arms around me/Then we tumble to the ground.” I don’t want to, say, write a story about a cat and then wear a cat costume. That’s a dumb example, but hopefully it clarifies what I mean. Most of the time that sort of one-dimensionality is not what I think of as constituting compelling art, although I am certain there is probably compelling work out there that contradicts that, probably through a very deliberate, aggressive, hyper-one-dimensionality. But most of the time with my own stuff I am looking to create something where there is an enlivening tension, or an undercurrent that pushes back against the surface, or something unexpected, some movement or shift. So the costume should in some way add something, or shift something, not just bring more of the same. I am certain the minute I say this I will look back and feel differently.
I shied away from the performance artist label at first, I think, because of stigma associated with it (and I also had this sort of idealized notion of lit people creating our own entirely distinctive mode of performance), but at this point I’m totally willing to claim it, I’m definitely a performance artist. You totally are! Incidentally, I feel the exact opposite way about the performance artist label -- I don’t feel like enough of a “legit” performance artist to claim it, but it’s something I aspire to. Yesterday I was watching the Martynka Wawrzyniak video (“Chocolate”) that Kate posted yesterday on FB & thought yes, this is Art, I want to do that, & I feel utterly incapable of it.
I know what you mean, Carina, I feel like I have not been able to achieve anything even close to my aspirations, performance-wise. And I also feel really shamefully ignorant about the history of performance art -- like Laurie Anderson is the full extent of my knowledge of the old Manhattan “downtown” scene, for instance, I’ve never even read or heard any Karen Finley. I need to create a performance art to-do list for myself.
I’d start with Body Art Performing the Subject and go from there. But also, your life is a performance, so maybe start there, actually. Also, good, Tim. You came out of the closet! And that reminds me that I totally want to see both of your closets. Should you take pictures of your closets and include them in this interview? Along with the image of Carina as with the oven on her head?
I should take a picture of the giant, stuffed bin full of performance attire that I keep under our bed to convince my partner that I’m not taking up more and more space in our super-tiny apartment with my outfits.
Tim, I know in the beginning they called you the Lady Gaga of Chicago Lit Scene. As I mentioned to Carina the other day on FB, you two need to send me some work for Gaga Stigmata like, yesterday. However, I know you had some issues with her DADT stance, etc.--namely that you don’t think queers should go anywhere near the military industrial complex in any form. Do you still feel comfortable with this title? What are your thoughts on Gaga now, and her relationship to the queer community?
For some reason, I never feel like answering questions about how I think about my work in relation to Gaga’s, even though I sort of brought them on myself by tagging myself that way (It was “Lady Gaga of the Chicago lit scene,” initially). I think it is maybe that calling myself (or rather, asking my friend Mary Hamilton to call me) the Lady Gaga of the Chicago lit scene was itself a performative gesture, and part of what I revel in w/ Gaga is how deathly seriously she takes her performance, and how when she talks about her performance, she does it using language that is actually surprisingly essentialist given that what she is doing is so de-essentializing, in terms of gender identity and expression and the body in particular... and I think if we ever heard her “explain” herself, really, in analytical terms, she would cease to be Gaga, in that Gaga IS the unresolvable conversation about Gaga, and the way she sort of fucks up the entire distinction between the external and the internal. The way she repositions superficiality as a kind of deep authenticity sort of throws all the categories into disarray. One way of responding to your question is to say that I experience her via three modes -- one is the fan who draws pleasure, another is the cultural producer and critic who says the kind of shit I just said above, and the other is the Queer activist who is maybe more likely to be critical abt the military thing, or, to offer another example, cosign the argument that Latoya Peterson put forth on the Racialicious blog, in response to M.I.A. and Grace Jones’s comments about Gaga, about how the liberatory feminine grotesque as performed by Gaga requires a degree of white privilege b/c of the ways in which women of color’s bodies are positioned as always already grotesque. But then at the same time, I think I am sick of having to parse out all these different sort-of domains of response as separate in a way that, like creates a dichotomy between the fan who draws pleasure and the critic who analyzes. I’m kinda over that. Which is maybe why I resist the question. I’m annoyed by my inability to find a response that doesn’t reinforce some distinction I’m tired of reinforcing.
Fair enough, Tim. I like your nuanced approach. It’s true that she operates from a position of white priviledge, though I’m not sure what she can do about the fact that she is white. Of course not, it’s more about acknowledging, if we are embracing her in a feminist political space, the particularity of what she’s doing and its limitations. The grotesque simply will not be liberatory for all women. And all women who perform the grotesque will not be received in the same way by the dominant culture, because race and racial privilege shape that reception. Grace Jones will never be as mainstream a figure as Gaga. Spray-tan?
Lol Carina! She has dressed as a man. I’m surprised she hasn’t fucked more with her skin color, but she has glued pearls all over her body and dressed as a cyborg, so...She was a LOT oranger in “The Fame” days. True!
Also, Grace Jones isn’t/wasn’t as mainstream because she doesn’t write bubblegum pop. That’s the big thing with Gaga that makes her approach unique--that she chose to take Britney Spears-ish hits (I mean, she wrote for Spears, literally) and make herself a meta-pop star via that tradition, instead of pushing the boundaries musically within the popular realm. That’s why I see her as a conceptual artist, actually, along the lines of Duchamp. The music is the urinal, Gaga took it into the museum. Although, actually, she took it out of the museum, and onto MTV. Well, to be more specific, she took pop music and “pop” in the MTV sense and made it it’s own aesthetic category of fine art, which no one had done as strategically and intentionally on as wide of a scale before. So different from Jones, or Madonna, or anyone she’s been compared to. Which isn’t to say that Jones doesn’t have a point that maybe if Gaga was black, she would not be able to get away with wearing what she does (i.e. the grotesque). But I think we need to remember that it’s actually pretty incredible that she already gets away with wearing what she does and still manages to have all these top hits and also be one of the most powerful people in the world. I mean, it’s weird, right? It shouldn’t be...but it is! So who is to say a black woman couldn’t do that? I like to think it’s totally possible, although sure, a step harder!
Personally, I think the most interesting way to approach Gaga’s interaction with race is to examine her collaborations with Beyonce, and the work she did in particular in the Telephone video, where she attemped to shake up the “static” image we have of Beyonce. I mean, that was her intention with the video--it’s supposed to be about Beyonce, she says, which is such a unique approach to a collaboration. I also think B’s post-Gaga videos have been really fascinating, liberating, and obviously Gaga-influenced, such as “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Girls: Run the World.”
But I think even with race Gaga is a flickering signifier. And arguing that women of color’s bodies are already positioned as grotesque--I think we could also argue that so are all women’s bodies. But that’s also a dangerous stance, and I think Gaga’s approach that fame is something inward, that no one can tell you how you see yourself, that you claim your own identity and be re-born and re-born speaks to moving beyond just seeing oneself as culture sees us. That’s what she was doing with Beyonce. And since Gaga flickers constantly, via her various fashion choices and in particular her “new race” she’s created via the Born this Way era (in particular with her body modifications a la ORLAN or Matthew Barney, but also her blue pubic hair performance, her bald performance, her pregnancy performance, etc), I think it’s arguable that she’s dealing with race in a way that is not totally easily relying on her white privlidge. She’s aiming to be post-post-post, I think. But yes, she is still white. No doubt there.
I have to say, like, what are we even -post anymore? my horoscope today said that I’m highly psychic right now & my premonition is that it’s time to make up something entirely new, because prefixes are very last-season.
I love you.
Okay, Carina, Andrea Quinlan via FB wants to know about your blogging process, and it’s relationship to your poetry and aesthetic stance. Wait--what is your blog titled again? It’s Gaga-related, isn’t it?
Right, so, I started my blog because everyone was like, “it’s important for a writer to have a blog,” & I was like, bitch please. So one night I was having a total poetry freakout temper-tantrum & started this blog, Blah Blah B*tCh3$zz, actually after reading something on Gaga Stigmata & watching a bunch of Gaga videos. Initially I had this persona, “Lady Blog Blah,” because my freakout was about the lyric “I,” specifically, & it felt impossible to blog without some unfixed exterior vehicle for it.
My blog is where I work through a lot of the critical/theoretical things I’m thinking about at any given time. A lot of times I’ll write about things I read in the news or see on the street. I wrote a lot about the revolutions in the middle east, because I was really affected by them but didn’t feel like I, some white girl at poetry school in the midwest, had a “right” to be so affected -- but everything about the blog voice is ephemeral. Lady Blog Blah is kind of the ideal “I don’t give a f*ck” version of my writing self that has absolutely no filter, as opposed to the very flimsy & ineffective one I wear out in the world sometimes.
Oh, Carina, I feel the same way about the revolutions in the middle east. Also weren’t we going to wear glitter burqas to AWP after my NO BIKINI piece? I really want to. Yes! Can we?!I have a few burqa performances I’d like to do. And I think it’s dumb to assume--though people do--that white girls cannot feel the plight of women in the middle east. I’m not saying our experience is the same as those women’s--it’s obviously different in a multitude of ways. I mean, duh. But it also bugs me when people try and justify the oppression over there, calling it religious choice or whatever. Fuck that shit. I know fashion slavery when I see it, and I know internalized oppression when I see it, because I lived it as a Christian woman for years. So liberate the burqas, baby! Also, I am not very good at cultural sensitivity, because I am not sensitive to my own culture so why should I be sensitive to someone else’s? I believe in understanding vs. ignorance, though--that’s the difference, I think. Seek ye first to understand as best you can, then rebel like hell. <3 I think for me it’s less about “cultural sensitivity” in the way that that term is usually defined and positioned than it is solidarity politics -- and I feel like respect for others’ self-determination -- both individually and as collectives -- is ultimately my highest value, where feminist activism is concerned. If women activists from a particular place are telling me that donning a particular form of dress has meaning for them, then I honor that, full stop, and if they’re saying that their political priorities are distinct from what a “Western”-dominated global feminism might identify as their priorities, then I feel I’ve got a responsibility to listen first, and also, I think the policies being passed in places like France regulating women’s dress are racist bullshit, period. that’s true. TOTES! I think the thing we need to understand about “cultures” is that they are not monolithic and neither are individuals’ ways of negotiating their decision-making processes within them. Thinking about a particular culture’s practices as oppressive in a totalizing way that situates that culture as fully separate than our own carries with it a lot of the same problems as taking our own experiences and priorities and universalizing them. Women veil for a shit ton of reasons that have to do with the complex interaction of local and transnational cultures, and I think we are beholden to listen to what those reasons are in a given situation or context in respect for folks’ agency. I mean, think about a similar object from U.S. dominant culture, ie something like lipstick, and how lipstick-wearing has been a site of both oppression and resistance.
Oh yes, I agree completely. Completely. That’s sort of what I meant, but you articulated it much more clearly, Tim. I think, though, that it’s important to take note of a widespread virus of oppression when we see it. Because so often it spreads insiduously. That’s what my sub-culture was like growing up (Evangelical Christianity), and patriarchal oppression was a real “thing” and it was really bad, and I totally believe it was hurting all those women even the ones who thought they were liberated. But if they don’t want to be liberated, that’s their choice. And I could be wrong. It’s always important to acknowledge that we may be wrong. And also to take things in context, and to consider their relationship to individuals, and to realize that meanings are fluid and change-able just as liberation is individual and personal just as it is also cultural and universal. Anyway, it’s complicated. That’s your point, I think. And I’m totally with you on that. And it’s ultimately all about freedom. This is why I am going to wear glittery red star nipple pasties and American flag underwear to the Government Hooker fourth of July party my friend Stephen van Dyck and I are having.
I appreciate that you talk about your own personal experience with religious fundamentalism. I think if we’re talking about relationship-building toward some kind of social/political transformation, then owning our own social location is the place to start. “Veils make me uncomfortable because they remind me of my own experience of religious fundamentalism” is I think a lot more productive than “Veils are wrong.” It isn’t that we cannot speak to issues that do not directly affect us, it is that we need to be very mindful of how our position of power vis a vis others, including those things of which we may not be conscious, that have nothing to do with our intentions, shapes the context in which we are speaking. Where movement building is concerned, I also very much believe in meeting folks where they are at. Because I’ve made an explicit commitment to be an ally to racial and economic justice movements, I am often in spaces with activists (of all races and classes) whose values around sexuality and gender differ quite a bit from my own -- and I mean folks who may be great allies to LGBT/Queer communities and organizing, but who would probably be a little bit freaked out at first if they knew the full extent of my interests re: challenging various sexual moralisms. My mom, for instance, is one of the fiercest progressive activists that I know, and the first and most major source of all my own politics. Yet some of the practices I might claim as liberatory she might see as demeaning. But I respect her values system. For me, respecting the values of those with whom I’m engaged in movement-building is paramount. I may just be repeating myself at this point, but I think it’s important to note that if we are not careful, our claims about others’ practices can become as rigid and overzealous as the orthodoxies we’re criticizing.
Agreed, Tim. I think sometimes it’s more about acknowledging the thing exists than anything--because in totalitarianism, or fundamentalism, its the pretending that really diminishes. That’s what it was like in my experience--not just with religion, but, frankly, the end of my marriage too, and it was really tragic. No one should ever tell anyone how to behave or not, but we should all feel free to say when someone does or doesn’t do something that makes us feel diminished. I guess what I am trying to say is, can we all just please feel free to always talk about things? I mean, nicely and with kisses of course. But it’s also okay to raise our voices.
Oh and I want to be clear that I love veils. I think they are fucking fabulous. As are burqas. I want one, really! We should make a threeheaded burqa and wear it together to AWP. Also, you know what else I think is fucking fabulous? You two.