"The most radical thing I could think of to do was to make it ordinary": Tyler Coates Interviews Melissa Gira Grant
Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work is an indelible text, both an incredible introduction to the world of sex workers and a radical examination of the stigmatization sex workers face. The most powerful aspect of Playing the Whore, however, comes not from Grant’s desire to document the experience of performing sex work; rather, she redirects the focus onto the economic and political factors that fuel an underground industry as well as the conservative and feminist forces that try to silence the voices of those who actually perform the work. Having known Grant for years, and having read her personal writing for nearly a decade, I was eager to talk with her about her interest in the culture of sex work, how she separates her own experience as a sex worker from her journalistic approach, and about the connection between performance and sex.
Tyler Coates: I know you’ve been writing about sex work and doing activism for years. Were you an activist first, and did your activism evolve into reporting? Or are your writing and your activism even separate things?
Melissa Gira Grant: I was writing about sex work way before I was an activist. In high school I made the mistake of trying to write a paper about Victorian prostitution for an English literature class, and I was very nicely told by my teacher, “Just because it’s written in English doesn’t mean it’s English literature.” This social study of London poverty was not an appropriate book for me to engage with in our class. But there was nowhere else for me to engage with that kind of book in my public high school in suburban Massachusetts. I submitted it with an application to the New School. I got in, but I couldn’t afford it. I went to a public university instead, and sort of cobbled together an education on sex and writing and things I was interested in.
I started doing activism as an undergrad, as part of a campus occupation when UMass cut affirmative action. I also got involved with a group of women who were setting up a food bank and an underground syringe exchange, and some of them were sex workers. There was some trans activism at UMass in 2000, which was really, really early. It was a time when I don’t think there were enough of us — whoever “us” is: queer people, sex workers, feminists, people who didn’t fit into any other communities very well. I wanted to be working in those spaces. Ultimately, I dropped out of undergrad and moved to San Francisco. I thought, “If this is what I’m interested in, that is the place to be.” It was where people were having those conversations, and there was more opportunity to do sex work there. That’s the mystery behind putting the book together; I look at it as the culmination of the period between 2003 to 2013, about ten years’ worth of thinking.
What was your attraction to these stories and experiences? What drew you, as a teenager, to a book about Victorian prostitution?
It was something about women’s role in society, and the idea, as this historian understood it, that prostitution was a way for men to have an outlet for their sexuality outside their marriage that wasn’t disruptive to their marriage. Contrary to the thinking that prostitution was this sort of permissive, wild free-for-all, he understood it as very raw, very patriarchal — not in the sense that women are exploited, but in the sense that we don’t want to be honest about sexuality as a culture. This was another mechanism that existed; good, bad, or indifferent, this is something that was going on.
My feelings have changed, but that idea was very novel at the time. I’ve gone though stages where I think sex work is interesting because of sexual politics. There have been times when I thought of it as a process of sexual liberation, which I don’t really believe anymore. Now I think of it as the canary in the coal mine: so many issues surround sex, and if you want to understand our society’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality, this is a good entry point.
It’s somewhere between identity and behavior. There are some sex workers who think, “This is who I am,” and some that say, “This is what I do.” That’s really confusing for many people! We want to believe that sexuality is something that defines you, and when you go outside the box — and sex work is outside the box — that’s just who you are.
You invoke the words of Sylvia Rivera, who was present at the Stonewall riots and described sex work as “the only alternative that [trans people] have to survive because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable.” It’s a play on the old narrative of why people go into sex work: there’s a certain sense of desperation there, but the same people who are against sex work and arguing that it’s exploitative are usually the people who are creating the desperation by discriminating those they are trying to save.
Right, because the world that we bring them back into is just as sexist and transphobic as the one in which they were doing sex work.
It’s bureaucratic almost, like the foster care system. We take children out of a dangerous situation, but then we don’t really put the same effort into keeping them safe and protected within the system.
I’ve read so many stories of girls who leave the foster care system to do sex work. It’s a different way of looking at criminalization, too. In the conversation about over-incarceration, there’s always a focus on men, and I wanted to bring sex work back into that dialogue. But it’s also a broader understanding of criminalization; it’s not just about the laws on the books, but also the laws on the streets. There’s social criminalization, such as in Sylvia Rivera’s case — the sense that you’re punishing me because of your attitudes toward me.
It’s dark, and confounding, and it’s part of the reason why writing about it is so hard. A lot of the popular, familiar narratives about sex work are usually memoirs that paint sex work as fun, hot, sexy times.
Or as wacky, or how awkwardly funny it is.
Yes. “My craziest client! My wackiest experience!” I definitely tried to write a book that had some wit to it so it wouldn’t just be a horror show. I wouldn’t have been able to write it if I didn’t, much less ask people to read it. But the humor is reserved directed toward the police, or the do-gooding women who remind me of people out of the 1800s. The criticism of the book has mostly been from people trying to qualify my right to tell this story on that trajectory. It’s not a story of abject victimhood, and it’s not my funny-wacky-time-as-a-sex-worker story. That was the most radical thing I could think of to do: to make it ordinary.
Do you think people are responding to your experience in that way because you didn’t feel victimized by the work?
Well, my own experience isn’t in the book, so they can’t vet it directly. The result is an indirect process of vetting that’s going on, and they suggest that I’m either insufficiently depicting the total victimhood of these people or insufficiently presenting an erotic, sensual narrative about sex work. There’s a massive crack between those polarities that my book falls into.
The book certainly acknowledges those extremes, but mostly suggests that sex work just is.
It is all of those things! But a lot of the time, it’s work. Work can be boring. And it sucks, but it sucks in a way that isn’t robbing you of your personhood. It sucks in the way that you have to go do something for someone else for money, and you know that they’re making more off it than you are, but that’s life under capitalism. What are you going to do, you know?
Let’s talk about the phrase “sex work.” It’s an inclusive term — it includes male, female, and trans communities — and it also runs the gamut from stripping and porn to someone working on the street. It’s definitely difficult for a lot of people to grasp all of those things as the same thing, and I imagine there are people who don’t want to see working in porn and prostitution to be in any way similar. But it’s even broader than that. I watched Nymphomaniac recently, and there’s unsimulated sex performed by “body doubles” — people who work in porn. Is that sex work? Is it acting, because it’s a legitimate film that premiered at a film festival? You write in the book about sex as performance, and I see a performative aspect to stripping or porn, but I wonder if many people can apply that to sex workers in other venues.
Well, a lot of work is performance. Arlie Hochschild wrote a lot about emotional labor in the ‘80s, especially about stewardesses. It’s another kind of labor you participate in: whether it’s fluffing someone’s pillow in first class or making sure the baby in business class has its apple juice, it’s done with a smile. But we don’t always recognize that labor as labor across the board.
I know people in porn who don’t want to be considered doing anything close to prostitution, and vice-versa. It’s more for when sex workers are organizing for political purposes; this is an umbrella term that’s useful. We all experience stigma in ways that are common, we all experience criminalization in ways that are common — but also in ways that are different. The thing that connects this group of people is that none of our work is considered legitimate work. The thing that’s tough is that it’s not a term people use at work. I can’t think of anyone who would say to a customer or to a fan, “I’m a sex worker.” Sometimes you don’t want to acknowledge with your customer that you’re participating in work.
Then it’s not sexy. It’s actual work.
They want to believe you’d be hanging out with them without money being involved, I guess? But sex work is a lot about marketing. People assume that sex workers are totally DTF one-hundred percent of the time because the way they must market themselves is based on how authentic your experience with them will be. There isn’t a corresponding text to go along with an ad that says, “Well, this is how I marketed myself, and this is how I really am.”
The Internet has made that even more complicated. I follow a lot of porn actors on Twitter and it’s interesting how much of themselves they put out there. I’m sure they’re keeping tons of stuff online.
As we all do! We’re people who write on the Internet!
Yes, but the audience sees the tidbits of their lives they choose to share and assume that’s all there is to them.
Yes. The ten-percent they see becomes one hundred-percent of your identity.
When [gay porn star] Conner Habib tweets, “I woke up this morning with a hard-on,” is that Conner Habib being honest, or is he performing? Or Stoya, when she Instagrams her cats. That’s interesting to me, the way people are fucking with those boundaries.
But that’s also where criticism gets tricky. When people read the book and say, “Oh, but you can’t forget about people who are forced into this,” OK, then let’s talk about what that means. Sometimes they mean people who are legitimately forced, and sometimes they mean people who are doing a job because they need money. Is everyone who is doing a job because they need money “forced?” Where does that stop? Then you’re basically saying these people believe they are consenting to something when they’re being forced into it. The suggestion is that they don’t actually understand “consent.”
And that also suggests that you’re smarter than them or know what’s better for them.
You can’t project people’s consent onto them, or their bank balance or their student loan debt. You literally don’t know. And they aren’t required to tell you.
But we do that all the time, especially with famous people. I’m not talking about movie stars, but reality stars that take advantage of their celebrity status because it’s one of the few things they have. We don’t discuss the systemic reasons why they are in the positions that they are in.
Look what happened to Belle Knox, the Duke student who was outed for doing porn. She embraced it, although I’m hesitant to use that word. She went on The View, but was that more about trying to control her own narrative? That happens to reality stars, too; everyone wants to weigh in on your existence, and your options are to either withdraw and let people say whatever they’re going to say about you, or get in there and try to figure out a way to redirect the attention. If this is their fifteen minutes, I don’t blame anybody for getting what they can out of it.
There’s the idea that the fifteen minutes is always about to run out. Couldn’t you extend that notion to sex work?
Very few people want to be doing it for a very long time. I know many people who have retired from sex work because they are just tired of living under the fear. You never know when your savings may be seized as evidence of a crime. You never know when your partner or family may be harassed because of your work.
Because you were once an activist and a sex worker, and because you’re now documenting the movement, you’ve become a face of it. How do you write about a group of people, who may not have the platforms through which to tell their own stories, without speaking for them? Instead, how do you speak with them?
What often annoys me when I talk to people is when they say, “Sex workers are so stigmatized… but aren’t they just normal people, too?” It really sucks to perform normativity for people. What you’re basically telling me that you don’t consider me to be as good as you are, and now my job here is to argue my humanity. It’s a hard place to be.
The place where I start is to say who sex workers are and what they want, and how they expect to make those things happen. That’s factual. I approach it by recovering history and finding things that have been left out, and then using what power I have to give those gaps attention. I don’t want to talk about how sex workers who are experiencing stigmatization, or criminalization, or whatever difficulty — I want to talk about the people who are creating those difficulties. Let’s report on them and try to figure them out! I don’t think we accomplish much when we try to reverse stigmatization. Why don’t we go to the source, and ask how we function as a society who is creating this group of people who are deemed to be others. They must be serving some function — maybe not a great one — but why else would they exist?
For me, it’s never been about accurately depicting a group of people. No one person can do that. What I can do is fill in the gaps that have been erased and then redirect the focus. I’m sure people love us — you and me included — and want the world to be better for us, but it’s a lot of work to perform for the acceptance and tolerance of others. That’s too much of a burden.
Tyler Coates is the Deputy Editor of Decider. He lives in New York City.
We’re hiring! (again)
We’re looking for an intern to start Sept 1 and continue through Jan 1. We’d like you to be currently enrolled in college, ideally in the NY metro area. The position entails a maximum of 5 hours of work per week that you do at home, or wherever you like to work, and pays $10/hour. You’ll also check in with me (Emily) once every few weeks about ongoing projects and we’ll have a quick coffee. Responsibilities include:
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The Binging And Purging of Melissa Broder
A Facebook event set in the future marks my departure from NYC to LA. I pray to Saint Katherine (Durbin) and tweet at Brett Easton Ellis (not really; I’m scared): “I’m ready, I’m ready,” I think. Los Angeles is where Melissa Broder now resides, and I think it’s having an effect on her poetic mysticism. In 2011 I was hosting a high-end fashion event in Beverly Hills, or so I wanted to believe. In reality, I was being exploited by an ex-Wall Street trader who had launched a bespoke men’s clothing start-up and wasn’t really paying me to measure mens’ shoulders at fancy scotch tastings. But I did it anyway—for the glamour, of course! Driving down Sunset Boulevard in a rental car, I was stunned by the city’s glassy emptiness. Responding to my crush on LA, my fashionable colleague said, “If we moved here, we would have to bleach our teeth and dye our hair and starve ourselves.” Fine. I was temporarily gripped by starlet fever. The whole city was a movie set. All the plain old white dudes at the party were bigger than themselves, inflated with good air: “Nice to meet you. I’m the most important doctor in all of LA. What’s your name?” It didn’t necessarily bother me. We were all mutually pretending.
Now I’ve read a book that doesn’t pretend—like LA perpetually does—that life is long, lustrous, and astral—from an author living in a city that’s pure pretend. The LA feeling is back, but wearing dark, dark shades this time. When before Broder’s poems were whimsically manic and surreal, now their dreaminess holds a nightmarish scalpel. She confronts death and the spectre of an aging self in the context of a culture that more than ever worships youth and commercial extravagance, in spite of heinous economic disparity and an aging population. Though the concerns are contemporary the objects of the poem are more like what you’d expect from a druid sorceress. An “I” and a “she” take turns as speakers, but also collapse and become consciously estranged at times:
A separation of the speaker
from across time
So I am me who is no one
in black velvet hunched over
—from “The Other Exists as a Perfect Embodiment of Your Desire”
In the prelude poem, the scarecrone figure sorts objects “too old for our humanity” and sees a young girl ingest it. The object induces vomiting and the scarecrone figure helps it along, as if the vomiting is the creation myth for the world of the book. This is one of the most moving images in the book, so I’m being vague so as not to spoil it. In a way, this book is 83 pages of binging and purging on Broder’s various potions. The opening poems are spoken by an amorphous “she” in a pre-body, pre-verbal but conscious amniotic space. From this womb, she searches struggles with agency and how to be a “me” on her own terms. People and language (“peoplewords”) replace the “milky chord,” but prove themselves to be also unsatisfactory. The speaker seems to long for a rebirth (by choice this time), or a divine explanation for what keeps her on earth. Then she demurs (this happens a lot) and wonders if she would even hear the divine if it called her name, if she even wants to hear it.
but I cannot feel the nod
I will not get to feel the nod
and if I feel the nod
it isn’t it
—from “When I Hear the Word Serenity I Think Doped”
Until reading Scarecrone, I hadn’t thought to assign a consistency to a book. This collection of heart-fucking, hypnotic poems, however, goes down like a viscous elixir. Broder’s apothecarist methods of blending intimate revelations with creepy imagery create a sweet and metallic castor oil. If you’re morning sick and miserable (which I often am), you gulp it down obediently. That’s how I felt reading this book: like a village midwife was giving me some harsh, age-old medicine. Like Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, I developed strange hungers as I progressed. Raw meat, molasses, ink, styrofoam, cherry cola. Using metaphors of consumption to describe this book feels right, as Broder’s “I” is often eating and sucking and wanting to be stuffed—all while asking why a body—drippy, porous, and needy as it is—deserves consciousness or—dare I say—a spirit. Her existential questions are a lot like Albert Camus’. Their existentialism is cosmopolitan. Absurdity is best experienced in the theatre of the urban. While Camus cast his questions into an aesthetic void, Border’s is self-consciously agnostic.
In “Varieties of Religious Experience, she writes, “Even when I have / a man in my holes I / am leaking and begging for other.” Eleven lines down she writes:
God was showing me
the code through a prism.
I fractured the glass
on purpose because
I did not want to know
In my movie screen mind, I superimposed these poems upon the image of a white horse rolling on her back and kicking her mighty legs in the air. Is it for pain or glee? This slow motion clip appears at the beginning of Andre Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, Andrei Rublev, after a Russian peasant has a similarly turbulent Icarus moment in a hot air balloon. Ecstasy forms an aura around suffering in these images, much like what happens in Broder’s poems. It’s not as simple as sexual surrender as a salve, though that idea is there as well. “Lay me up / so I may know my power- / lessness and therein find / my iron.” Over and over again radical submission to a powerful force like love, God, or sickness turns out to be a botched baptism. There’s no going back into the womb. No being born again. No such thing as consensual consciousness. However seduced by religious archetypes, beautiful flowers, and the everyday comforts of the first world, we are too immature to consummate our love for life. Living is a kind of statutory rape to which we can only become ultra-wise to the absurd. It’s a book that undoes its cruxes over and over. Eats the cake, throws it up. The eyes of the scarecrone open as the eyes of the baby girls shut ad infinitum.
Monica McClure is a poet living in Brooklyn. Her most recent book is Mala.
Sari Botton Interviews Samantha Irby. (I cried reading this)
- Irby: My dad’s lawyer brings her dog to the animal hospital where I worked, and I was in Chicago magazine, which is like the type of magazine your Jewish lawyer orders for her office. My dad used to drive her to the airport, and he’d have me in the car with him. He was like her chauffeur. And one day she was like, “I checked out your blog, and oh, the language, and oh, whatever,” and you could tell that she was waiting for me to apologize. So I just didn’t say anything, and then we had an awkward silence, and I was like, “What do you want me to say? Sorry? Or I’m ashamed? Tell me what you want, ’cause I don’t have the deference thing because there’s no parents around to shame me, so I get to look you in the eye as an adult and ask you what it is you’re trying to do to me. How are you trying to make me feel?”
- Rumpus: Wow, what did she say?
- Irby: She didn’t say anything. She just stood there and was just like, “Well, it was shocking to me.” And I was like, “Okay, but what am I supposed to do with that? Do you want me to tell you I’m sorry? I’m not sorry. I’m sorry you read it. If you can’t be supportive, I’m sorry you read it.” I don’t want anybody to put their shit on me.
Laia Garcia interviews SCARECRONE author Melissa Broder
Melissa Broder is a poet. In Scarecrone, her latest collection, she writes poems about right now, modern life, not about phones and cars and computers but the way we feel. The things we tell ourselves to survive, the way we frame our experiences so that we may live with them. When you finish reading her poems, it is very likely that lines that you have just read will bounce around your brain, like lil’ ribbons attached at the bottom of a kite (and that’s how you know it’s real). She also has an amazing twitter account that you should follow because we all need little bursts of poetry in our daily lives. We talked over email about life, magick, and teenage girls.
Laia Garcia: Did you always know you want to be a writer or were there other times were you were seduced by other things?
Melissa Broder: I started writing poetry in third grade. My teacher Mrs. Hovey said I had talent. That kind of positive feedback felt good, because I was otherwise a bad student (spacey, always daydreaming, typical poet). So I kept writing. Also, the act of writing just felt good. As an anxious child who never felt comfortable in her own skin, writing poems offered relief—and poetry still functions that way for me. I fantasized that one day I would grow up to be a poet. At that time the only poetry I had read was Shel Silverstein. My first poems were rhyming poems.
Here is one of my first poems:
The Candy Shop
When I walked into a candy shop the first thing I saw was a lollipop
I think I’ll have some Lifesavers, or maybe a cookie with five different flavors
How about a peppermint stick, or maybe a chocolate Twix?
Cherry candy would be dandy
A chocolate sweet would really be a treat
[something something I don’t remember this part]
How about a cake with honey?
Oops I forgot I didn’t bring any money
Ah, I love this! There is something about it that seems unmistakably yours, even at a young age. Indulging in this fantasy and then real life hits and you’re just like “oh, oh well,” which is a feeling I get in a lot of your poems I think, and why I relate to them. The feeling of “ugh, the world” but instead of “woe is me,” it’s more of an… “ok it is what it is and move on” kind of reaction. More of a fighting feeling, not so much to belong but to exist in the world the way you are.
Yes, it’s a real struggle for me in reality. I think I’m just wired to want out—not in a suicidal way, necessarily, but in a shift-in-perception way. In a relief from self way. I’m always looking for secret vehicles and passageways out. Sometimes the vehicles are dangerous, or like I get hooked on the vehicle itself. I attribute the feeling of escape or pleasure to a particular vehicle, rather than the destination or something that already exists somewhere within myself, and kind of move into the backseat. I forget that there are other vehicles or life outside it. But poetry is one way of getting out of myself that has never hurt me. It can be slower than the other vehicles, but it is very powerful.
Yes, that makes perfect sense. I think in the end everyone is trying to find that vehicle. Sometimes I just want out of my brain, like how nice would it be to turn your brain off for a little while and exist in this sort of, white-out room bliss with nothing else invading your being? I am still looking for my vehicle though, or maybe I just need to take it for a tune-up. (I don’t drive and therefore I’m bad at car analogies). But anyways, I feel that when I read your poetry and I think it helps me escape also. I’m sure it helps a lot of people escape, I mean, that’s why we all read, right?
I recently moved to LA (Venice) and am deep in the car game. One of my favorite things is to drive around LA with the sunroof down and listen to rap. It gives me white-room bliss (you gotta learn the traffic patterns so you can get the open road, but it’s there). I mostly bike and walk everywhere in Venice, but once or twice a week I get out of my neighborhood and go driving and it’s the best.I’m really glad my work helps you (and maybe others) escape. I am all about escape.
I guess having said that, it’s obvious that you write for yourself. Does it ever surprise you when other people identify with your poems and are like “THIS IS MY BRAIN HOW DID YOU GET TO MY BRAIN”? Like the things that are truths to you are also truths to other people. Does it make you feel less alone in the world, like there is a gang of souls roaming around that you are a part of?
Like, I will fangirl out for a minute, because I think it’s important to show people appreciation but in “The Purpose of Ritual” when you say “What does it mean to be so sick/with want that you create rituals/which lead nowhere?” I don’t know what it means but I know what it’s like to ask myself that and also to create the rituals and it feels like something so private and then BOOM! I read that and I understood my feelings and I also felt somewhat validated. Anyways, that may be one of my favorite poems in the book I think.
Thank you for fangirling! That’s the cool thing about poetry. Your rational mind doesn’t have to know what it means. It’s something to be experienced. You can absolutely understand something from a very deep place inside yourself that your logical mind can’t touch. And that’s the place I try to write from. It has to feel true to me. But bones true, not brain-true. And yeah, it’s a blessing that people identify with my poems. That’s all I can say about it. I feel like it’s a great blessing. It’s a supreme gift to give that to an artist.
Have you been in touch with Mrs. Hovey since the third grade?
I’ve thanked Mrs. Hovey in all three of my books. And last year I tracked down her address and sent her a thank you card. She emailed back! I hadn’t spoken to her since I was eight, so that was cool.
Do you think your childhood fantasy of growing up to be a poet matches up with your life now?
It’s very hard for me to view anything that is happening to me as real. Like, when good things happen I either worry about losing them immediately or that I will never create something as good as that particular piece again or that ‘it’s over’ or ‘I’ve lost it’ or ‘this journal that I never imagined I’d be published in is now publishing me, so it must mean they’ve gone way downhill.’ Yet in spite of this self-torture, I try to be grateful, because it is super cool to have a dream and then to have the dream come true. Like, here is an example:
The first time I did a paid reading was at a University in Albany. The reading was to last for 30-40 minutes. But instead of being excited about being paid for my poetry in a university setting I was terrified of having a panic attack. I get panic attacks when I’m in situations where I feel like it would be ‘weird’ if I just left or took a break. And this was a long reading. And I felt like because they were paying me, I couldn’t just walk away from the podium or excuse myself to the ladies room if need be. And in worrying about the panic attack I absolutely gave myself a panic attack. With the second or third poem came shortness of breath, heart palpitations and dizziness. By the ninth poem I was like in full unreality. I managed to power through to the end and no one knew. Afterwards, I felt like I was tripping. I then had to brave a long dinner with my host, another poet and their friends and families, which was terrible, because I was still anxious and having trouble swallowing. But I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a window of the auditorium where the reading was being held. The snow was coming down outside and it was dark out. I saw my reflection for a second and kind of gave myself a nod and thought ‘You said you wanted to be a poet when you were a little girl, and look! You’re a poet!’
"Yet in spite of this self-torture, I try to be grateful" This is so true. It’s weird how those feelings can coincide even though they are seemingly opposite. Like you look in the mirror and think nothing is ever right, nothing is good enough and then there is the disembodied part where you look at yourself from the outside and say "but look where you are" and despite knowing that, the fear and all of the ugly feelings remain. Sometimes I wonder if those feelings are really the way to creativity, even if it sounds like, SO "tortured artist," because what kind of things would you create if everything you made and said was PERFECT! How could it ever go up from there? I like that you said "grateful," I think "grateful" is a good word to remember.
Oh hell yeah. You need the weave in order to make art. At least, I need it. The weave between darkness and light. The braid. Containing multitudes is a bitch, but it’s that bothness of life that creates the friction for me. I’m not good with emotional pain. I’m wired to reach for false lights to get out of the darkness. And then the lights go out and it’s darker than before. But poetry is healthier, because it’s a synthesis. It doesn’t try to stamp out the dark. Or I don’t when I write. Poetry’s got the light and the dark. It’s sustainable.
I was reading your essays about writing for HuffPo and “Scarecrone” made me think of the piece you wrote "The Poet is a Scarecrow" where you quote the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “You need only be a scarecrow for poems to land on.” Do you feel like the poems exist somewhere within you fully formed and you just have to extract them or it more like the idea is there and through words you have to build it a path to come out of you…
Any poem that knows where it is going to end up is probably not a great poem—at least in my experience of writing poems. There has to be an element of magick. It’s just up to me to get my conscious mind out of the way, to channel, to let the the music and my guts do their thing. So I definitely don’t go into poems with an idea. I can’t go in from the head. I go in with a line that I feel, that comes from a dream state or a meditation. Or I take a pile of nouns that aren’t my own, and juxtapose them, and see which story feels true. But true on a bones level, not logically. I feel my way in. I let alchemy do its thing.
So yes, I think my strongest poems are fully formed within me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need chiseling. I’d say I birth the poem from the guts and heart, but then I use my head to edit it.
I like that you said “magick” because sometimes I think poems are like spells, and how do you write a spell?! It’s all so mysterious. Do you set time to write every day? Are there ever poems that feel like they are being more difficult or us that not something that ever comes up?
I try to read poems and write poems every day. But again it’s usually off the cuff—I’m not sitting down at my typewriter with my cats and a shotgun. I don’t think about difficulty when I’m writing, so much as feeling truth. Like I ask, does this feel true? And I don’t mean true in a ‘did this happen’ sense but in a ‘deep in the bones’ sense.
What are you currently reading? Is there a poem written by someone else that you find yourself going back to for inspiration or strength or pleasure or whatever?
I am lucky enough to have received an advanced copy of Dorothea Lasky’s Rome, which comes out in September. #blessed
So many poems. Here is one I love.
Do you write in journals or on a computer/typewriter now? Does it make a difference?
Usually now I write poems on my iPhone in Simplenote. I like the informality of writing on an iPhone, often when walking. It gives me more space for play, rather than sitting down at a desk and writing Poetry with a capital P. That’s way too much pressure.
Are your tweets linked with your writing process or are they completely separate? Like do you think of something and open twitter and do it or do you extract things from your writing and then tweet them…
My tweets are their own entity. I tweet from my brain. I tweet from my ego. I try to be clever, crafty, calculated. I don’t want any of that stuff to touch my poetry. Which isn’t to say that tweeting isn’t an art form. I love it very dearly. And occasionally there is some overlap. I think maybe three or four years ago there used to me more. But as time goes on, the place I write poetry from is very different.
"Hi Humanity" is another one of my favorites in Scarecrone, and although it has nothing to do with the internet, it seems like a poem of now that couldn’t have been written in any other time and it feels like it’s maybe a secret code of communication for all the Tumblr girls that will reblog and add “THIS.” at the end because nothing else needs to be said. You’ve contributed to the Illuminati Girl Gang zine, have you explored the tumblr universe adjacent to that world beyond that? Are you a “Girl at Night on the Internet”?
I am so a girl at night on the internet. And all the time. But especially at night. I have a few twitter accounts but I don’t like to tweet from my primary account until after 7 PM PT. If I start before that, I will be on it all day. It’s like people who try not to have their first drink before 5 PM. So yeah, I don’t start tweeting on there till 10 PM ET when all of the East Coast nerds are in bed, hehe. I have a lot of other ‘rules’ when it comes to twitter that I often break.
I have a Tumblr that I mostly use to collect images that resonate or that I use for ekphrasis. I love teen girls and am a teen girl. I think a lot of people are.
What were you like in high school? What sort of things did you have up on your teenage bedroom walls?
Emotionally, I was a lot like I was as a child and lot like I am now: anxious, not totally comfortable living in a body or on the planet, escapist, prone to fantasy. I sought refuge in cigarettes, an eating disorder and poetry. I fetishized the hippie culture of the late 60s and felt aligned with bands like Pink Floyd, who seemed to be asking what I was wondering, which is, does anyone know what’s really going on here? I asked people if they knew ‘the truth’. In college I got very into psychedelics. For a while I thought I was Jim Morrison reincarnated. I wore bellbottom jeans and orange platform sneakers and gained 40 pounds. I was deep into astrology (I’m a Virgo with a Scorpio Moon and Sagittarius Rising). I came from a pretty sheltered, privileged, non-religious Jewish upbringing and fell in love with a boy who came from the same kind of background. We drove across the country to Angelfire, New Mexico and took Peyote in a teepee. I had all of the bad headshop art: the ‘Dead at 21’ poster with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain together in heaven; the Pink Floyd naked ladies with the album covers painted on their backs. It was black light wonderland.
Wow! The naked Pink Floyd ladies! All the dudes in my freshman year of college had that up on their wall, that’s so amazing. Are you still wondering if “anyone knows what’s really going on here” or have you moved on to other questions? I’ve found that my main interest as of late is “what is real life?” but I still haven’t figured it out.
I don’t practice any one religion, or maintain any strict religious beliefs, in a hard and fast way. I see many aspects of many religions as symbolically useful, archetypically useful, often beautiful. Most of them seem to be pointing at the same stuff, which is ineffable. I do have a god, but I can’t say what it is. And my relationship with it keeps changing, like all relationships change and evolve. Also, I have a morning meditation practice, but it’s not drawn from any one tradition. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just the act of doing it every day—of taking the ten minutes to be still before I touch any technology or let the world into my brain or let my brain into the world. A lot of times my brain doesn’t shut up until the last minute of the meditation. Like, a lot of times I’m meditating on how fucked I am. But if I skip the practice, my day is inevitably worse. This isn’t a woo woo or mystic thing. It’s me who makes the day worse, not some deity in heaven. Meditation gives me like 3% more chance of pausing before acting. And maybe like 4% more space in my mind. But that’s everything.
Did you also know there is a “Scarecrone” Magic, the Gathering card? (I’m sure you do). I think the card is a poem.
That Magick the Gathering card is cool. I didn’t know it existed until after Scarecrone was on its way to the publisher. But physically she totally embodies the fear at the heart of the book.
Laia Garcia is a freelance writer and stylist. She knows it’s a strange combination.