VI KHI NAO: What is desire to you?
KRISTIN SANDERS: I feel like desire is the force that moves the whole world. It’s one of the only things I’m interested in writing about, thinking about, talking about. It’s universal, yet so shrouded in mystery. Adults seem to approach it as a problem to be solved, or lose their curiosity about it as they age. I’m particularly interested in how it morphs throughout our lives. Desire seems to me one of the only worthwhile subject matters. I connect in particular with writers, books, and films that have a similar thematic approach.
VKN: Do you think porn is the opposite of desire?
KS: That’s an excellent question. My gut says no, but, intellectually, I think I’m supposed to say yes. Because porn is so dry, so sterile, so individual. But a lot of desire is born out of porn, or porn is the place where desires are fleshed out in the imagination, and that seems not only okay, but possibly important.
VKN: What do you mean by that? Could you clarify? “Porn is the place where desires are fleshed out in the imagination, and that seems not only okay, but possibly important.”
KS: My feelings on porn are complicated, but above all, I think we need to be more open and honest as a society about our porn watching habits, how they affect our sex lives, how they affect the way our young people are learning to view (and treat) each other. Porn has some unhealthy characteristics (the increasing violence against women, the lack of female orgasms, etc.) but it also has healthy characteristics (being able to see lots of body types, the idea that desires or kinks aren’t bad things). I think about how early sexual research, like Kinsey’s, found that some women didn’t have orgasms or masturbate, and I think about how past generations of women didn’t talk about orgasms or pleasure or sex, and how porn can teach (has taught) plenty of people how to have that pleasure–and this is where porn can have positive effects. Not without negative effects, too, of course.
VKN: What is pleasure for you?
KS: I think by “pleasure” I mean, first of all, a sense of comfort and joy in one’s body and, second, one’s ability to orgasm.
VKN: Why do you think people become impotent? Their inability to access a particular kind of pleasure.
KS: Well, that’s a great question and it throws a wrench in my feelings about porn, because plenty of people become impotent from watching too much porn.
VKN: Why do people become impotent from watching too much porn? Is it related to the threshold of pleasure? Like one’s tolerance for higher dosage of cocaine. Is porn similar to addiction to drugs like cocaine, coffee, sugar?
KS: I recently had a conversation about this very thing with a colleague at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, who does porn studies. I need to read some of his research. But basically, he was saying that porn shouldn’t be looked at as a medical addiction, but as a cultural phenomenon. And he was making comparisons to hysteria, as in, the way we feel about hysteria now (that it was made up, purely cultural, a product of the times) is how we’ll feel about porn addiction in the future. I think that’s a valid point. I’m not well-read enough in porn theory to fully articulate his point. I always thought that porn creates impotence in men because the women are too fake-looking, the actions are too performative, so “IRL” women can’t live up to the unrealistic porn fantasy world.
VKN: What will cure hysteria?
KS: Well, what did cure hysteria was orgasms! Do you know that story?
VKN: No, please share.
KS: Victorian-era women were “hysterical.” They’d go to their doctors, who would manually stimulate them to orgasm as a “cure.” It wasn’t considered “sex” in the Victorian era because it didn’t involve penetration, just clitoral stimulation. The doctors couldn’t meet the demand, so vibrators were created–first they were hydro-electric! Vibrators were sold in women’s magazines as mental-health tools. There have been some books on this topic and also a film a few years ago, Hysteria, which I haven’t seen yet. But I read a few of the books.
VKN: Porn creates impotence in women too, yes?
KS: Yes, true. This is less researched. It bothers me that there’s not more research on how porn affects women, as if women aren’t watching.
VKN: If you were to be granted directorship to more research on how porn affects women, what kind of studies would you desire to curate?
KS: I’d be interested in how viewing porn affects different women’s abilities to orgasm with a partner. I’d also be interested in how viewing porn creates the sense that a woman (or girl, or anyone identifying as female) views herself as outside of herself, as a performer. Naomi Wolf writes about this in The Beauty Myth: our society teaches women to perform their sexuality, to watch themselves, rather than to feel sexual from the inside out. It’s easy to learn the pornographic gestures of sexuality, yet it’s hard to create actual intimacy.
VKN: What is an ideal desire for you? It could be carnal, emotional, intellectual or a combination of all three. Even spiritual or religious, too.
KS: An ideal desire would be an emotional, intellectual, sexual connection–what I would consider “being in love.” I haven’t found it yet, in a lasting, healthy way. I think we all desire this. Some have found it. Some found it, but it changed, or disappeared. It has taken me thirty-three years to realize, and to be able to articulate, that the sexual connection can’t be there for me until the emotional and intellectual pieces are there. As a woman raised to be very “nice” and to want to be desired, and also having watched too many romantic movies, I often haven’t advocated vocally enough for this order of things, which leads to a lot of regrets. Or, in a more positive vein, to writing CUNTRY!
VKN: Do you think our culture lacks desirable “intimacy”? What do you think is the best way to be intimate with another? To express vulnerability without being exploited?
KS: I do think our culture lacks intimacy. I think what I liked about living in New Orleans is that it’s such a sensual, intimate place. Neighbors are out on porches. The humidity envelops you. I got really into zydeco and Cajun dancing in Lafayette, and you would become intimate with the sweat of your dance partner. I feel an intimacy in my New Orleans friendships. Lately I’ve been living in California, where I’m from, and I feel less of an intimacy. People are not out on their porches. People aren’t dancing in the streets. But at least they are out on beaches, lying in the sand, so that’s a start. I couldn’t live in a place where people don’t touch each other.
In the context of the bedroom, I have complicated feelings about expressing intimacy and vulnerability. It’s very hard. Someone once told me I can’t find a romantic partner because I don’t come off as vulnerable. On the flip side, I recently experienced having a potential partner find my vulnerability and emotional openness unattractive.
VKN: How did that make you feel, Kristin?
KS: Awful! It was unsettling. But a younger version of myself would’ve never had the courage to say, I’m uncomfortable and here’s why and here’s what I’d like. I think women–from a young age–need so much help setting their boundaries and saying what they’d like. I wish I had spoken up many times in my life. In a way, writing has helped me find my voice, but it’s in writing where I feel the most expressive, where I can be loud and impolite, where I don’t have to worry about being “nice.”
VKN: Why is it hard for you to express intimacy and vulnerability in the context of an actual bedroom?
KS: I think because I’m so aware of performing, of being watched, of being an object. Wanting to be a good object. It’s hard, nearly impossible, to shake that off.
VKN: How long did it take for you to write CUNTRY? Are you happy with it? How would you like the readers to receive it? What kind of conversations would you like to have with others?
KS: I’ve been writing pieces from CUNTRY since 2012. I would like it to be received as an uncomfortable hybrid text exploring difficult territory. I’m very open to having conversations about porn, female objectification, orgasms, “intimate justice,” etc. with whoever feels compelled, after reading the book. These are conversations I have with most friends, with family, with partners, with strangers. It’s very comfortable for me to talk about this stuff.
VKN: If you had the authority to curate the perfect childhood living in a internet-porn-watching generation, what would that look like?
KS: I like that question. I think it’s a question that most parents have. (And I’m not a parent.) I would have very honest, sex-positive, non-heteronormative books about sex, all around the house. And when they came of porn-watching age (I think I was ten?), I would talk to them openly about it. Avoiding shame. I read an article once where a dad explained to his son that porn is like “professional baseball” but that when he and his son played their version of “baseball” in their yard (throwing a ball back and forth), that was baseball, too, and it was fun. His point was that we should teach kids that porn is a very performative sex, like “professional” sex, and that’s not what sex really looks like.
VKN: We live in a culture of shame, too, yes? Is it born out of porn? And internet?
KS: Yes, shame for sexuality, but also other things: for being a woman, for looking a certain way, for not fitting in, for being “out of the norm” in any way. I feel like porn is a place where people momentarily feel no shame; that’s the erotic release of it. On the other hand, the internet is a very shaming place. I suppose “the internet” is different from “internet porn” (in my head, at least).
VKN: When I read your CUNTRY, the intensity of its language made my eyes busy and it took me a while to focus. It was like I was at a candy store and there were so many items on the shelves. Was that intentional?
KS: I love that. Do you think that feels a little like looking at porn? There are all these options of which video or image to click on?
VKN: Yes, in some ways. My education on porn is very limited because my preferred way of being is horizontal. It’s hard to watch anything horizontally. I don’t think humans are designed to be vertical and despite what they say about fucking, fucking is a very vertical place to be and that can be very exhausting. I grew up watching a lot of Hong Kong soap opera–I suppose that can be very pornlike, too. But instead of sex, it’s replaced with emotional horniness, which is just as dangerous and detrimental for a young girl to see preconceived notions of what love is supposed to be like, when it could be anything.
KS: I agree with you on the horizontal. I’m into the horizontal: naps, reading. I agree with you on the damage of “emotional horniness” and the preconceived notions of love, desire, sexuality, etc. I mean, porn is just a form of media. One thing I’m saying in CUNTRY is that country music is as damaging as porn. Disney movies are as damaging as porn. Hong Kong soap operas are as damaging as porn. All in their own ways, of course, but ultimately, as media, they tell us stories about ourselves and others that seep into our subconscious and affect us.
VKN: Also, when I read your work, your language is incredible accessible. You use a lot of one syllable or less multi-syllabic words and the speed in which they arrive to my consciousness–I had to step back and oriented myself to the landscape and body of your work. Most poetry requires me to scrutinize and I think your work compels me to have distance.
KS: I like that. Yes, I’m not asking you to scrutinize the meaning too much; I’m asking you to sit there in the discomfort with me.
VKN: You use the rhetorical device of repetition frequently. Was it a way to inculcate discomfort in the readers? What are you hoping to achieve with it?
KS: It’s probably the Gertrude Stein in me. But actually, I feel comforted by repetition. I can see how it adds to the discomfort though, but maybe that was more me offering the reader a hand to hold.
VKN: There is lots of textuality to your CUNTRY. As if you were trying to create incisive, sonic, visual tapestries, encouraging readers to use it as a table runner for their imagination or reading table. Did you conceive your work to be in this fashion?
KS: Sure–I’m interested mostly in the readers who can say, “Oh, me too!” to various moments in the book. I like the image of a table runner. You can put whatever you want on top, layers of your own experience or your own disgust, shame, desire, difficulties. I was also interested in giving language to much of what we can see in porn. It’s more disgusting, more powerful, when we see the words, isn’t it? Pornographic images float by on an almost daily basis (in magazines, billboards, TV, ads, social media.) but to put words to what we’re seeing, to name the acts, feels unspeakably wrong.
VKN: My favorite poem of yours came from page 17, “How to Write a Country Song.” It looks visually compelling, but also sensorially compelling, too. What inspired you to conceive of it?
KS: I actually did move to Nashville to write feminist country songs in 2013. My uncle is a Nashville Hall of Fame country songwriter there, so it wasn’t a far-fetched idea. But the whole process, the whole industry, angered me so much. A lot of CUNTRY came out of that failed experiment. I developed an even stronger appreciation for literary writing.
VKN: Why did it anger you? What about the whole industry?
KS: I don’t like to be told how to make art, or what I can and can’t say.
VKN: Will you break down a poem for us? Tell us its history, where you were when you wrote it? What went through your mind? Whom did you talk to or books you read while writing it? The poem on page 26, perhaps? “Dead Dog Country Song”?
KS: I wrote “Dead Dog Country Song” in 2009, while in my MFA program at LSU. I was influenced by Laura Mullen, my professor, and writers like Ariana Reines (her book The Cow, for instance). I was just beginning to write very openly about sex, porn, etc. This was my first poem broaching the subject of porn. I remember writing it in my Baton Rouge apartment, and wanting that repetition (which felt comforting, and held the poem together in a more traditional way) while also wanting to convey the bad, confusing feelings of pre-teen sexuality. I had experienced some male peers belittling my focus on sex or the words I used. That poem was my first moment of feeling really empowered. Writing–where I can say gross things, be weird, be angry, be excessive, be honest–is my most empowering space.
VKN: I am glad you turned your pen into a sword, Kristin!
KS: Thanks, Vi!
VKN: You are teaching soon and will re-enter the academic world, yes. If men or women were behaving misogynistically in your classroom, how would you like to respond?
KS: Oh, I can shut that down so fast. I hate to toot my own horn, but I’m a great teacher! I think I create a nice classroom environment where students feel comfortable and respected.
VKN: What makes you a great teacher, Kristin? Please do toot! Go for it! Tell me all about it.
KS: I genuinely like and care about my students. Each one. I think they sense that. I’m interested in their growth as writers, readers, thinkers, but also citizens. I love to have classroom conversations about whatever they want, or, if I’m guiding the conversation, I’ll make sure we hit on topics like consent, healthy choices, gender and sexuality as a spectrum, the bell hooks definition of feminism, etc. If you have me as a teacher, whether college or high school, I’m going to make sure you don’t have misconceptions about feminism. But I also want to make sure their questions are answered and that they know they have an advocate on their side.
VKN: Are you working on another book?
KS: I’m working on a novel.
VKN: What is it about?
KS: Oh, high school, sexual assault, feminism, women’s art. That sort of thing.
VKN: Very light things!
KS: Ha! I’m probably too influenced, as I’m sure many female writers are right now, by Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick.
VKN: Since we are so desensitized by porn images, do you think porn will be obsolete, like paper books?
KS: Oh gosh, yeah, I can kind of see that happening. And women in vending machines become the new thing! (That’s one of my favorite things you’ve written, Vi.)
VKN: What makes you sad?
KS: Feeling alone, or misunderstood.
VKN: When were you most misunderstood, Kristin?
KS: Actually, when I was publishing pieces from this book and awaiting its publication from Trembling Pillow Press and teaching high school, my writing was misunderstood. Parents didn’t like it. I sort of get it, the writing is uncomfortable and pornographic, but I also think the parents could have had conversations with their teenagers about the topics I’m dealing with rather than calling the school to complain. It seems like my art was creating a good opportunity for a rather difficult, yet necessary, conversation.
VKN: I am so glad your work is creating all kinds of conversations, even if that conversation involves complaining. It hope it means people care!
KS: It’s weird to think of poetry having that much power in the world. I guess that’s a good thing! I think the underlying message in all of my writing is the importance of open, honest communication, the need to not feel shame around sexuality, and the importance of everyone being able to state their boundaries and feel those boundaries are respected. I’m using a certain type of language and storytelling to get to a place (for myself, and my readers, I hope) of more healthy, positive feelings around sexual connection.
Kristin Sanders is the author of CUNTRY (Trembling Pillow Press 2017), a finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series, as well as two chapbooks: This is a map of their watching me (BOAAT 2015), and Orthorexia (Dancing Girl Press 2011). She has taught at Louisiana State University, Loyola University, New Orleans, and, currently, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She is a poetry editor for the New Orleans Review and a contributing writer at Weird Sister.