This interview is part of a series that seeks to move queer inspiration in the present to the forefront of a conversation on what makes us want to live. Who amongst our peers makes us feel lucky to be alive here, right now, despite the particular everyday horrors of 21st century life? What of our own art couldn’t exist without our peers, those living and creating in response to our world as we live in it? I’m truly thrilled to get to interview these queer artists on these questions and more, drawing lines to connect what we make to what has been made. Nostalgia gets boring: there is so much to love for decades long past, but we’re here NOW, and until time travel becomes an option here and now is where we’ll stay. Let’s hear it for here, let’s hook-up our hearts, let’s turn each other on to what is living just next door. —Gina Abelkop
YOU MAKE ME FEEL #5: RAE GOUIRAND
Rae Gouirand’s first collection of poetry, Open Winter, was selected by Elaine Equi for the 2011 Bellday Prize, won a 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award and the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award, and was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, the Audre Lorde Award, and the California Book Award for poetry. Her new work has appeared most recently in American Poetry Review, VOLT, The Brooklyner, The Rumpus,New South, Hobart, ZYZZYVA, The California Journal of Poetics, Barrow Street, The Hat, and in a Distinguished Poet feature for The Inflectionist Review. An editor for OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts, Gouirand has founded numerous community workshops in poetry and prose online and throughout California’s Central Valley and served as an adjunct lecturer in the Department of English at UC-Davis. She is currently at work on her third collection of poems and a collection of linked essays. (allonehum.wordpress.com)
Tell me about one particular song/film/book/poem/piece of art (made by a peer in the last 5 years-ish) that has recently undone/inspired you. What about it was so striking to you? What in your life made you so open and receptive to this particular piece of art at that time?
I’m going to cheat a little and bring up both of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs—Fun Home (which came out in 2006, I think) and Are You My Mother? (which followed in 2012), because I really want to say something about why I still can’t stop crying (weeks now after the headline) about the fact that she just won a MacArthur. She has set the bar so necessarily high for memoirs of all sorts (most especially those about sexuality and identity and family—the ones that really tend to get my attention most wholly)—and she’s done it using tools and methods of the most human scale, tools that emphasize the humanness of the hand behind the work, the hand between the mind and the thing it imagines and makes.
I mean, of course we’re all our hands, but when are the hands in front? When are we looking at them? We spend so much time looking at the mind, or the thing.
I started reading her strip Dykes To Watch Out For as an undergrad because it ran in one of my campus newspapers—the storylines of her midwestern, existentially strained, narratively interconnected characters were there in my head before many other queer characters appeared. By the time Fun Home appeared, I had been leading intensive creative nonfiction workshops in my community for years and building long-term conversations with my students about how we might imagine new spaces that ‘the story’ might occupy—especially the autobiographical story. Especially the difficult autobiographical story. (Which easy ones are worth telling/finding form for?)
Bechdel’s hand has always touched me—probably moreso than any other graphic artist/writer whose work I love. The space of the graphic memoir is such a cool one—I mean, there are so many books out there that are just incredible examples of what that space can do for personal narrative. Images present in an order, sure, but they hold—and the narrative lifts the story through time to forge a story of sense moreso than a chronology of events—to make a story that is not the story of what happened, but the story of how the narrator came to see and execute the storytelling. The two stories are simultaneous in the work. That’s where so many people’s brains are these days, often in far less effective or meaningful ways—in that exploration of how a story that is layered vertically, that arranges itself around resonance instead of progression, might ultimately tell something that otherwise goes untold, or awaken feeling that might otherwise get flattened by traditional narrative. Some people call this ‘lyric’ and (I think) aren’t thinking critically about what lyricism actually evokes. I would call it storytelling of the most moving kind. One of the many things those two books taught me is that it is sometimes more powerful for writers to turn away from language to evoke some scales of content—that the absence of language can in fact prove a powerful carrier in any story where speechlessness or silence pays a role. I had learned to think about and pressurize that paradox as a poet before those two books came out, but not as a storyteller.
And then there’s the fact that the author’s handwriting is right there in the image—in Bechdel’s case there are even chapters that sample the handwritings of her earlier self. I mean, what is there to do with that other than feel? Handwriting is so fucking sexy and bare and right there. (One of my backburner projects is a long photo essay about all the handwritings that have come into my life.)
Tell me about three of your favorite contemporary artists (writers/filmmakers/musicians/theorists etc): what makes them one of your favorites? How did you discover their work? Did you discover additional artists/art via these people?
Jeanette Winterson: I am absolutely in awe of her ability to throw her voice, both in fiction and non-, and to shape texts that are like bodies of feeling. It was my dear friend Emily, as soon as we’d met in the summer of 2006, who insisted that I should read The Passion, and then the other novels—that whole summer I stayed up until the middle of the night most nights reading that prose, dogearing just about every other page. The first time a writer’s entire prose catalog had awakened that kind of hunger in me. While Winterson’s work itself didn’t lead into my reading other authors, Emily moved across the country the next year (to do an MFA in prose), and our already heavily reading-centered friendship moved to the mail system—in the eight years since, she’s put some of my other absolute favorite authors in my life, including Clarice Lispector, Cesar Aimee, Rikki DuCornet, Joanna Klink, and Mary Ruefle—so I always think of Winterson’s work as being right next to the other books that have come from that hand. It’s ALL hands, isn’t it. It’s important to have at least a couple of friends to whom you are so connected that you would unquestioningly take in absolutely anything they put into your life—Em is that kind of friend for me. I teach from Winterson constantly—she knows more about what the body and the voice have to do with one another than anybody else, and her intelligence is so hot it reorders the surfaces it touches. She thinks in every direction. I think of Winterson and I think of lava: the earth making itself in the most dramatic, changing ways.
Philip Glass: I think I first heard Glass’ work in music theory class when I was 15 or 16, and though I’ve drawn a lot of sounds close in this life, it’s his circular territory, his slow progressions, his long-term now, that feels closest to a live realization of process to me. Creative practitioners need space that is open and constantly opening—something we commonly call practice—to find a relationship to time that has different allowances than that version of it we commonly call ‘real time’ will allow. We get it, instinctively, as artists—that one of the primary reasons we create art is to heal time, to reassign moments their due proportions in our memory or in our attention, to make centers that we can go back to. Like graves. Like water. To assert a different kind of time that is real on the inside and to argue its equality with, if not priority over, the time we spend our day-to-day lives trying to mount. The long now (thanks Brian Eno), or longer now, that we create in our work, and in the process of developing and realizing our work, is itself a state of understanding so profound it has the power to puncture all kinds of limitations in our creative and human lives. This is why I believe in putting process first, in the front of our attention. Craft is what comes when we give our WHOLE attention to something, when our engagement with it is complete, when we are working from within the long now. It cannot be gotten to from outside of process. Knowing, in the foreground of our minds, that there are alternatives to resolution both in our individual works and in our overall approaches to working in general, is I think the single most important idea we can carry in pursuit of sustainable, human, restorative, integrative, real creative lives. If we point ourselves at something that is gotten to through exploration and not by controlled avoidance of it, the work doesn’t stop, and doesn’t throw us. It shows itself. I believe that is the holy place of art. That is the place I want to live. I think it was because I loved Glass that I could love Stein without ever having anyone guide me into her work. I don’t know that I would have felt ready to hold her on my own but man am I glad I stumbled into her that way. I’ve always had this feeling it might be horrible to be taught anything about Stein.
Maggie Nelson: one of my more recent favorites. I am enamored with her criticism and her poetry, but it’s her essay Bluets that really undoes me all the way and makes me feel like I need to pay attention to every single thing she makes moving forward. I’m a forms junkie—maybe partially because I think more like a composer than a lot of people who makes as many sentences as I do. I experience actual ecstasy when I come into contact with work that forges new bodies for the kinds of sense that are most eager to push their ways into the conversation. It’s not a question of genre, or of genre-crossing (everyone’s favorite subject at the moment, it seems) so much as a question of us coming to understand through the birth of new forms that poetry and story and essay are not the traditions themselves but the types of work, the forces, that are performed or located through formal exploration and attempt. Bluets demands its intimacy the way poetry does—associatively, vertically, accumulatively. It juxtaposes the pieces that collect to light up its center without claiming evaluation; it makes space for the reader’s emotional acceleration in a way I find quite rare. It presents a longer now too, as a text—a radiant, pained turn around the question of what love and desire are at their cores, and what unavoidable overlap lies between love and elegy. It’s still rare that books, even autobiographical works about selves, behave like life itself with all its nonlinear routes to sense and feeling. I am so turned on by work that allows its content to be exactly as insistent as it is on all levels, and that allows its content to refuse the forms and styles of resolution that we’ve already figured out. Bluets changed me as a reader, and has changed my relationship to everything I’ve read since.
Tell me your favorite things about the loose community of artists that you’re a part of, if you’re a part of one in some way, shape or form. What is most exciting about the work you see coming out of this community? Do you make work in response to any of it? What do you wish to see coming out of this community that you feel is lacking or underrepresented?
I’m pushing this question over towards ‘how do you experience community?’—because belonging/not belonging to (or being a ‘part of’) something feels like a separate issue from community for me. I don’t think you gain admission or belong to community—I think you draw and support community, or move as part of a tribe, through your actions and words. That you either are community, or you aren’t. I feel like I’ve always sort of had this attitude, but that it became clear to me that it was an attitude I had when I started doing residencies on a regular basis in my early 30s—because (as anyone who’s ever done a residency with other experienced residents will tell you) there is an instantaneous synergy that makes itself felt when people come together to practice focusing a certain kind of aloneness. Sometimes community is about simultaneity. I think that’s why you can sometimes know community absolutely instantaneously or spontaneously—how it’s possible to meet someone and know in a complete way that they are kin.
I would rather do just about anything besides make small talk, though I am more than happy to make larger talk. I want to have conversations that matter, and then I want to go home (or have the next conversation). Classic introvert. I’m great at road trips. While I actually have a huge community of people I’m really close to, they’re kind of rarely in the same place—except for my students in my local, on-the-ground workshops in the Central Valley. My day-to-day community lies mostly with them these days—almost all of my closest friends are scattered across the west coast and the rest of the country and the world, and I regularly fly or drive off for a long weekend for face time. Something clicked into place a few years ago after I connected with a band of writers in an online workshop I was taking where I stopped feeling like my life was thinner for the fact of the distances between me and a lot of the people I love, because the currency of our exchanges and relationships was pure gold, and the strongest most instinctive stuff I’ve ever found.
And yes—I write in response to my students all the time. When they blow me out of the water, when they hit the place of instinct and hold it up for those around them to feel into, I take the awe I feel back into my own work. I push myself in the directions that light up for me. Teaching is ultimately a commitment to relating. It’s also a commitment to long-term study, I feel (and I am so greedy for that fact of it now that I’ve spent 15 years getting used to how incredible it can be). I feel very lucky to be able to come at it from my own angle, and to invent as much of it as I want to be doing—my students find me, and I find them, and we work that circuitry for as long as we want. Others’ pages are a place I live and walk daily, and unlike so many teaching writers I have never once felt like the time I spend supporting others’ work is a drain on my own creative energy. Never, not once. I am more energized by the live interactions with my student’s works-in-progress than I am by anything else that is a regular, ongoing fact of my life. I hope I get the chance to talk about this publicly in depth someday, because I have a ton to say about it.
It’s a privilege to be granted access to others’ live questions, to hold the formless stuff alongside them as they’re finding the body for it that it wants—that’s my city. There is nothing lacking in my city. There is only what is on the way, and it is fact.
How do you build and/or define your community?
Almost all of my deepest connections at present have been borne from books, correspondences, and acts of reading and writing (though I am the first person to acknowledge that there are many, many different styles of inscription, just as there are many, many ways that people are capable of reading one another). To build my community, which is a community of both incredibly beloved familiars and far more numerous strangers with whom I share my charge, I teach, I read, I try to show up and mirror my part, and I listen. I don’t buck it when someone shows me where they are. I apply my attention and my hand. Your community sees you and says YES.
For the last year I’ve been working really hard on learning to say things just once, and to focus on saying only the things that most need to be said. I find that most of the people who end up in my inner circle are similarly concerned with letting their expressive capacities count for more and more with time—speaking at the most multilayered vertical turns and otherwise committing themselves to listening. I trust people who can talk and talk and talk, and then stop talking. Who recognize the equality of those two spaces, and who demonstrate equal kinds of respect for those who are forming words and those who are turning them inside.
Tell me about an instance where a piece of art you’ve made directly responded to art made by your peers. How did your response engage (or not engage) with the inspiration?
For many years—for more than a decade, in fact—I was haunted by some unnecessarily obstructionist feedback given to me by a writer I took a series of workshops with as my much younger self—someone I allowed to convince me that I did not have the tools to tell a story that had any meaning whatsoever because I didn’t want to do the same things on the page that she did. I can’t even begin to explain the impact that that judgment had on my life or my vision for what I might accomplish as a writer in my 20s and the first half of my 30s.
Things shifted for me in a huge way when Lidia Yuknavitch’s ‘anti-memoir’ The Chronology of Water came out in 2011—it was certainly not the first book to embrace an approach to storytelling that privileged its vertical elements, the associative aspects of sense that upset temporal organization, but the first one I read that did that while also writing straight into issues of love and reckoning, of making a space for oneself in the world, beyond survival, on one’s own terms. It’s become a cliché to talk about how affected one is by that book in certain circles, but it’s true—before I was even done, I realized I knew more about story than I’d ever understood. I remember closing the covers on the pages and realizing I could point myself toward my impossible story and my impossible telling, that there was a space for me in the impossible that I wanted to claim. I just had to refuse to take my eyes off the horizon.
I’m writing that book right now (alongside a third collection of poetry and something that seems to want to think of itself as the libretto for a feminist opera). It might be the only complete risk I have ever taken in language. It’ll definitely be awhile before it’s done done, but I just gave my first reading from that manuscript-in-progress this October in Los Angeles.
I just have to say—I’m awfully glad (now) that I had to realize on my own terms that what I am ultimately after as a writer is my own way of making meaning rather than the replication of someone else’s. In some ways, that writer who outright rejected what my young self was trying to do on the page made me the teacher that I am, and there is nothing—absolutely nothing—in my life that is a more important reflection of my intentions in this life than my teaching.
You get to curate a festival of art/writing/film/music/etc. What living artists do you invite to present/perform at your festival?
Instead of a festival I’d organize a retreat. A truly massive retreat devoted not to performance of existing work, but to live, beginning things. Unknowns. The agreement for admission would be: we are here to pursue our creative processes as equals. We are not here to expand our networks, promote our brands, upload or spin our experience anywhere, or fill the air with our backstories. Cell phones would be prohibited. So would asking for feedback on anything you opened up. In fact, maybe all talking would be disallowed, except (when necessary) to oneself. Maybe you wouldn’t even have a clue who else was there unless you actually knew them. That would kind of be ideal, actually—people are most interesting and trustworthy when they are not focused on being their names. Maybe names would not be allowed. Everyone would just be there to practice side by side in the field. The only requirement other than active pursuit of new work would be that everyone would need to bring ingredients and equipment to make the very best dish they knew how to make: you would make a big batch of food exactly once. I guess we could talk about the food itself—we would probably have to—or maybe we wouldn’t—but all eating events would be potluck and spontaneous too. I would invite say five people I knew who would want to be there, and invite them to invite five people they knew that would want to be there—word would be spread via individual contacts instead of by disembodied blitz. The whole thing would take place either on the coast or in the desert, in winter I think—someplace with lots of fireplaces and windows out and huge amounts of space outside. Even if no one officially planned any of it, it would be exactly what it needed to be.
(Noting here that if I ever fall into a pit of several million dollars, one of my bigger dreams involves starting a long-term residency program where residencies *start* at a year. I have big feelings about the power of strays and wanderers to transform one another, and would love to start a residency that people actually moved into in order to meet that fact head on. I can’t even begin to imagine the work that might come out of such a community—that a longer residential commitment would free for people who wanted to build their lives together for awhile knowing that was something they were all equally committed to. Family looks so many ways.)
What are currently some of your favorite venues (magazine, journals, presses, youtube channels, websites, zines, libraries, museums, collectives etc) for art? What makes these venues particularly exciting/fresh/engaging?
Sarah McCarry’s Guillotine chapbook series makes the most gorgeous tangible containers for terrific conversations and essays about ‘revolutionary nonfiction.’ I am so moved by her vision for the series—I just wish Kate Zambreno’s Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, & Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write would come back into print because every single one of the chaps Sarah has put out so far have blown my mind. I always come away from reading them asking what other forms we can give bodies to as series. I want to give the whole catalog to every nonfiction writer I know.
Chris Wells’ arts revival community The Secret City (‘We worship art’), which hosts these huge, high-energy, amazingly grounding themed art events in NYC, LA, and Woodstock. I often trek down to the LA services. There’s nobody else out there doing what Chris is doing in creating these rituals around art and community—he has a vision so good you only have to go once to feel like you’ve been there your whole life. I am sweet on spaces where strangers walk in knowing that the strangeness is a temporary illusion. It’s not a church but it might as well be given that so many of the observances of art (ritual, memory, meditation, the asking of big questions, the bringing together of pieces in ways both beautiful and chaotic and strange) echo the stuff of services.
The Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, with its emphasis on action and large-scale outdoor pageantry. When I see things that move me to a speechless place, I often find myself asking ‘what is it made of?’—and that comes from them.
Motionpoems. If it’s possible to have a giant crush on a whole team project, I definitely do on this one. A bunch of filmmakers vie to make films of poems—and the films are amazing. People worry about poetry going out of style, losing its place among the faster ways we spend our attention. But poetry is style. And motion. And now. Such a hot project. If they filmed something of mine I think I’d go permanently red in the face from the pleasure.
FC2. Could their catalog be any more inspiring, with Noy Holland, Magdalena Zurawski, Susan Steinberg, Lucy Corin, and all those other kickass people on their list? There are so many outstanding presses out there pushing absolutely necessary work into the world but it’s hard for me to imagine how different my headspace for prose would be without the FC2 catalog.
I can’t really talk about journals, because I am a big fan of so many of them—but maybe I’ll say that the ones I have been feeling the most lately are Granta, [PANK], Tin House, Conjunctions, and The Volta. Among at least 30 others. I subscribe to a ton. My friends Katie and Ryan (both poets and writers of unreal talent) publish one called The Concher that comes inside a box of gourmet homemade truffles that coordinate with different sections of poems, the recipes for which they’ve been developing since we were all in graduate school together at Michigan, but they have a toddler now so I have no idea (they have no idea, I’m sure) when the next issue will come. It will come at the exact right moment, if I know anything about poets. Also—I had the honor of editing the last issue (#33) of OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts, which has as its editorial vision an ever-changing chain of editors whose visions for queer work shift from issue to issue. I could not love this model more or feel like it could better serve the work it’s presenting. Matthew Hittinger (who serves as Managing Editor) edited #32 and handed it off to me for #33; I handed it off to Wendy C. Ortiz for #34.
Please share five links to art that we can view online (website, music, video, writing, visual art, etc.).
francine j harris’ poem ‘Canvas’ (which recently won the Boston Review Poetry Contest)
Jordana Rosenberg’s essay ‘Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day (One of my favorite essays this past year—I love how it warms that shore where the risks of close reading and personal narrative actually become indistinguishable from one another.)
Video tour of Museum of Zoology and Natural History/La Specola, Florence:
(There are some great shots from the collection starting at 1:45. La Specola is home to the largest anatomical wax study collection in the world—it’s an incredible place to think about how some of the most impossible things survive.)
The Circus Oz Living Archive (Circus Oz is a big politically charged/queer-ish circus out of Melbourne.)
Cobi Moules (I met Cobi when we did overlapping residencies at the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2012—I’m more moved by his paintings than I can say. Some images change what it is you see in the world around you or in yourself, moving forward—his work is that for me. )