August 2004

Jen Crispin

features

An Interview with Michelle Tea

The much beloved Michelle Tea is nothing if not prolific. Author of three memoirs, a book of poetry, editor of two anthologies and contributor to dozens has most recently collaborated on an illustrated novel, and has been working on both a screenplay and a science fiction novel. Her work is often brutally honest, both about growing up in impoverished Chelsea, Massachusetts, and in writing about her sexuality in a way that often gets her labeled "transgressive." She was awarded a Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and was co-founder of the now legendary all-girl poetry roadshow Sister Spit. Amidst unpacking from a recent move and the umpteen writing projects she seems to have going at any given time, Tea answered some questions about her reading habits and recent projects.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

I was REALLY blown away by The Outsiders. I had never read such a strong, authentic first-person narrative before, and was struck that it was the voice of a poor person, someone misunderstood by and on the outside of culture in much the way I perceived myself to be. It was stunning. The book report I did on it was practically a re-write of the novel. It was like 12 pages, my teacher was stunned. Literally I slept with it and wondered if I could be in love with a book and was that weird, my feelings for it were so strong. There are words I use in my writing today that I learned from the book. Ornery is one, used to describe Soda Pop's pony. Also I loved Judy Blume but always felt at a meaningful distance from her characters, who were these middle-class girls who lived in owned houses in the suburbs and read the New York Times (or their parents did) and had summer houses in upstate New York and shopped at Macy's. Still, I remember reading an interview with her in a kid's magazine where she was asked how she was able to render teenageness so believably (being not yet a teenager myself I could only assume her rendering was authentic; in fact I think I learned what to expect from my teenage years from her and it was kind of a rip-off in a lot of ways since the class difference really did change everything) and she had said you just have to really remember everything and I think that immediately inspired me to look at my life with a different, recording eye. Because I have always known I wanted to be a writer.

You've spoken often about what an impact Eileen Myles has had on your writing. What other authors have impacted you?

Well I continue to be impacted by writing all the time. I'm constantly learning how to write and write better from reading. And from looking. I feel as impacted by Nan Goldin's photography as by any piece of writing. I'm profoundly influenced by the largely queer, largely autobiographical literary community I'm lucky enough to be part of here in San Francisco. Just last night I was at such a fantastic reading -- Anhoni Patel, a girl who is working on a really well-crafted novel about Los Angeles and what a cesspool it is, Jennifer Blowdryer, who is so fucking funny and wise, seeing her live is to be treasured, Matt Bernstein Sycamore, whose book Pulling Taffy is a new favorite, it reminded me in crucial ways what writing is and what needs writing can serve, and Marvin K White, whose poetry is so heartfelt and clever. Man. That's just an average night of literature in San Francisco, shit like that happens weekly here. Isn't that great?

If you were to teach a college course in literature, what would you require your students to read?

Well, absolutely Eileen Myles. Diane di Prima, her life as well as her work. I would make them read Darcey Steinke's Jesus Saves, just to traumatize them a bit with reality. Let's throw in Dorothy Allison as well. Let's have the course be the female experience in literature. Contemporary female experience. Well, white contemporary female experience. But I want more than that anyway. Herculine Barbin: being the recently discovered memoirs of a nineteenth century french hermaphrodite. So incredible. Stephen Elliot's A Life Without Consequences, about growing up a ward of the state of Chicago, in and out of group homes, on the street. The Race Traitor anthology which challenges notions of whiteness and was sort of mind-blowing for me, having been raised in a very racist environment and constantly searching for new ways to unlearn and to understand that experience. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar for sure and why not some poems too. I would teach the poetry also of Meliza Banales. Donna Allegra's Witness to the League of Blond Hip Hop Dancers. Kathryn Harrison's Thicker Than Water. The scraps of text in the art of Raymond Pettibone. The surreal erotica of Ian Philips. Marci Blackman's Po Man's Child. Dodie Bellamy. ArieI Gore's teen memoir Atlas of the Human Heart. I guess I would throw in Nickel and Dimed, for all my problems with that book. We would talk about the problems. And The Outsiders, of course. Doesn't that sound like the best class?

I would totally sign up for that class. What about you? If you were to ever go back to college, what would you study? What do you want to learn more about?

Well when I tried to go to college it was for psychology. I was going to major in psychology and minor in women's studies. I think now if I went to college I would want to still study psychology but also I'd like to study art history. I would like to understand art better.

And now for something completely different. Does it upset you that you are kind of pigeon-holed as a gay writer? Or does being assigned to a niche actually make distribution easier?

Well yeah, both. It's a double-edged sword, definitely. I'm totally against gay and lesbian shelves in bookstores, and I think they will become especially useless and people's queer identities evolve. At this point, as a queer girl with a boyfriend, I wonder about the assumptions being made about me if I get pigeon-holed 'gay'. At the same time, the queer community, in particular the female queer community -- to make a giant generalization -- has given me any sort of career that I have now, and I appreciate that so much! I was just invited to be part of an Olivia literary cruise! I mean really -- I have not yet in my life had the disposable income to spend on a cruise, I've been pretty fricking broke my whole life, and sure at some point I might have that kind of money laying around but would I spend it on a cruise? Probably not. And yet I totally want to go on one, what a bougie fantasy. And now I get to, because I'm queer. A queer writer. So I feel totally privileged to have come up in a community that is truly a community, where people feel loyalty toward one another and want to give each other a leg up. It's fantastic. And I wish that all marginalized writers had more access to mainstream resources, but really, the resources that my marginalized community shares with me are pretty wonderful. At the end of the day I'd rather be a queer writer, pigeons or no pigeons. Oh and I do love pigeons.

I actually just finished reading your book of poetry, The Beautiful, and was wondering if you've read much Rumi?

No, I haven't read Rumi at all! I know I'm missing out. My favorite poet is Eileen Myles and also Ali Liebegott who isn't published yet but has her first book, The Beautifully Worthless, coming out this winter. I'm also really influenced by the community of queer poets I've been stewing in for the past decade. I'm about to dig into the poet Ellyn Maybe's collection Walking Barefoot in the Glassblowers Museum. Her last book, The Cowardice of Amnesia, was really something. She's a great poet.
(Editor's note: Tea and Rumi have now been properly introduced, and Tea swears that she intends to keep up the relationship.)

It seems like everyone who reviews or mentions your book of poetry chooses "the beautiful" to pull excerpts from. Do you think that is your best poem or do you think it's just the most reader-friendly?

Well it's got a real direct point. And it starts sort of musing and um poetic and then it gets blasty and loud and yells at America, so it's like part regular poem and part slam poem. And it's funny. You know it's the most recently written piece in the book I think so I like it best cause it's the least ancient. Maybe it's just the best one. I'd believe that. Poetry can be so vague and personal and I really love that about it but I think it's also what makes people think they don't 'get' poetry. It's often ungettable. But a straightforward rant is easily grasped. People understand it and then they're not being made to feel stupid by poetry and don't resent the poem. I mean of course it is never the poem's fault when a person feels dumb cause they don't think they get it, but you know the cycle of literary abuse I'm talking about, probably.

Certainly! On the other end of literary abuse, in an interview with afterellen.com, you mention wanting to write a science fiction novel. Have you started doing any writing for that? I would love to see you bring your sensibility to science fiction.

Well I did write the first chapter of a science fiction novel, introducing the characters and the landscape they're inhabiting, and I've got the plot mostly worked out in my head and it's complicated. I'm sure I'll go back to it but for the moment I'm concentrating on the story of this teenage girl who lives in Saugus, Massachusetts in this whacked out family and it's all about, um, reality television and family and working at the mall and being self-destructive and probably love too. I'm really loving working on it.

I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for both of those. In the meantime, in the "It's probably hopeless, but I have to ask anyway," category: Is there any chance of another Sister Spit road tour?

Probably not.