An Interview with Trisha Low
Like a moth to the flame, Trisha Low is hard not to notice, much less look away. Maybe it's because she is a futurist-inclined, teenage-girl-defending, performer-cum-writer whose work stretches the boundaries of everything for which women are both shunned and condemned: confession. Maybe it's because she relishes that professed title of being "just another feminist, confessional writer trying to find a good way to deal with all her literary dads. Whatever the reasoning behind the madness, Trisha Low is nothing if not fascinating, challenging her audience into a new dimension of feminine identity, sexuality, and erotic romanticization. Her work is the antithesis nightmare of the Bukowski and Kerouac-worshipping sect and a dedication to the internal states of girls, whether through the realization of themselves being watched, or the sexual fantasizing of rock stars galore.
Which brings us to her first book, The Compleat Purge, an exploration of culturally determined boxes, what it means to commit suicide on an annual basis, and as Daphne du Maurier so poignantly noted in Rebecca "...what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women." Social constraints be damned, Trisha Low is bound to at least cause you to raise an eyebrow on what it means to falsely heal societal wounds, bathe in the grotesque, and manically wonder what it means to confess.
First off, I love that you call yourself "just another feminist, confessional writer trying to find a good way to deal with all her literary dads." I love this phrase for so many reasons, but mostly for how women's writing is always put in this tiny ghetto of "feminist works," but also how women's writing, especially first person narratives that deal with reflections and experiences, usually get labeled as "narcissism." Is this something that influences the way you write at all?
You know, narcissism is something that I think a lot about and am deeply indebted to, especially in the thinking of Kate Zambreno, Kara Jesella, Barbara Browning, and many, many others who quite honestly will probably speak more eloquently about it to you. Maybe a good place to start would be the original literary dad, Freud, whose conception of feminine narcissism is one pretty straightforwardly of phallus envy, where woman, lacking a dick, seeks to constantly decorate herself in order to make up for this lack, to attach artificial substitutional parts to herself so she becomes phallus. So in a way this accusation of narcissism has always been a hyper-masculine mode of trivializing femininity as something deeply rooted in lack, constantly painting its nails and attaching its hairpieces to make up for it, but I also think this is boring. I'm secretly a structuralist, and for me narcissism is the ultimate form of feminine nihilism, so I'm more interested in its formal qualities.
Narcissism to me speaks more toward a self-staging of my own life into vacant serial production. It's a process wherein the noisy distortion of looking at myself with such intensity for an indefinite period of time becomes a series of architectural markers, a plastic Mattel style, via its very efficacy. Narcissism as a process kind of takes a grand narrative structure that one should have regarding an identity or life, or a social expectation can paradoxically become one where constituent parts fade out the bigger picture, in favor of an oversaturated field of references, even if all of those references are about cute boy bands and Hello Kitty. Looking at myself really yields over-exhausted iconography, but it still lures you into that gushy emotional feeling too, techno-aesthetic melodrama. I'm interested in sitting right there, between the style of a pixelated heart: "I love you, I hate you, let's get a Coke," and the deeply desperate feelings these forms can also often elicit. Pretty much exactly like that Frank Ocean mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA, or Sailor Moon's tearful anime eyes. I just got a "nostalgia, ULTRA" tattoo under my Columbine tribute tattoo. Wanna see?
I was at the opening night of the One Direction movie, you know, 1D3D? I had the same sparkly fangirl backpack as a twelve-year-old in line, and I spent five minutes watching her watch me apply lipstick in my compact. On the brighter side, the feral intensity of that teen girl gaze is what I think can really weaponize narcissism, too. Like, sometimes I like to think about Tumblr, the ultimate zone of teen girl boredom and selfies as this giant mechanic assemblage with this languid temporal quality of waiting and scrolling and waiting and scrolling and how it's this long moment that allows for a resistance to emerge and hold. But also I think about how Tumblr is just this processed excess of demand and desire, and it's this very pressurized excess that literally flattens IRL persons like Harry Styles and Ryan Gosling into paper-thin templates. Almost like you can leach the life out of these characters, so instead there's this vampiric community of sublimely narcissistic adolescent flesh, and I would be more than happy for the world to end with its knees buckling to this heterogeneous mass.
The phrase "literary dad" is also interesting. It reminds me of this whole trend lately of literary dads penning pieces on how literature is dead or dying. The Atlantic did that piece, "Literature if Dead (According to Straight, White Guys At Least)." How are you dealing with all those literary dads?
Baby, I'll be whatever you want me to be. Oh wait, that's really all just one option, but the literary economy made me that way. Whatever, don't ask me. I don't know anything, I'm just a little girl.
The Compleat Purge is a collection of notes, or really, your last will and testament. Why is it that you decided to kill yourself? Particularly, annually?
I mean, apart from the more banal fact that I think about it all the time as like, a young person who wears a lot of black mesh and has certain tendencies and preferences like, oh I don't know, The Cure, or Elvira and stuff? I guess I'm interested in remains, remnants and fantasies around a woman's private life. There's a particular fetishisation of a deep cultural impulse to find the "authentic" truth of a woman's life, particularly after they have taken their own: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf. I was interested in playing with those assumptions and clichéd conceptions about women's writing and that deeply problematic fascination that is more about the reader than the writer. I'm interested in revenge fantasies -- and what better revenge than the manipulative suicide note -- playing off the tension between being the ventriloquizing victim playing aggressor and playing victim in order to be aggressor. I mean, another way to look at it -- and the way I prefer -- is that we're all already dead, right? As for annually, it's a good way to spring clean. Think of all the objects I have to account for. I have so many detachable parts. But I also like the idea of annually force-feeding the reader remnants of my autobiography. Corpse under the tongue, you know.
I also have a particular interest in eighteenth century epistolary fiction: Pamela, in particular, which was obviously written by a man, Samuel Richardson, but poses as a collection of ephemera and letters that comprise a novel. The will and testament being such a stringent legal structure is very different to the gushy epistolary, but it's exactly this form that lends it "legitimacy" as a conceptual apparatus. The question of notes versus a last will and testament is really one that is about genre. I think the thing about space and genre is that one has to pay attention to how those spaces become demarcated in the first place, right? So just to nerd out for a minute: the demarcation of living space in the eighteenth century changed with the rise of literacy. Things were more baroque, there were far more subdivided and specialized spaces. For example, the "closet" or "cabinet," which was a woman's writing and reading study. The place where novels like Pamela were fantasizing about a woman's private life, and representing it as "authentic" or "true" take place, leading neither to the eroticization not of the woman, nor the fulfillment of any kind of voyeuristic desire, but the eroticization of the space itself, the space of the closet, much like the genre of the confessional, or maybe a virtual space like LiveJournal. I'm interested in the reader's fantasy of my life, I guess, which in turn tends to lend itself to one trope or another.
Let's talk about the title: The Compleat Purge. What was the idea behind it? It does seem to nod toward the confessional nature of your book, but also to compulsive behaviors that most teenage girls seem to experience, whether actually binging and purging, self-harm, or the act of verbally spilling your guts.
There's that nice little tension there between the "eat" in "compleat" and "purge," isn't there? The "compleat" is styled after archaic amatory fiction, really, and I do love that overwrought style, the accumulation of it, like makeup, or hairspray -- gushy style from the eighteenth century until present day and all that. Mostly I'm interested in the processes behind compulsive teen girl behavior because I'm basically still fourteen. I never left an adolescent state. I also think people are less likely to think about the processes behind such behaviors. Not a fix or a cure, but the cyclical feedback loops, multiplicities and complex coping mechanisms these behaviors produce and torque throughout a lifetime, these modes of being and how much they bleed from presentation of self, to emotional life, to professional obsession, and blah, blah.
I know that any comparisons to Marie Calloway are probably too easy, but I do like the idea that these raw confessional pieces of writing are making their way into the public and that readers of the books are going to have to deal with the fact of the messiness of womanhood in the most accessible way possible. It kind of reminds me of Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca: "Men are simpler than you imagine my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone."
I think Marie and I are engaged in parallel projects, and I don't think any comparison is easy. I think we both like an elaborate conceptual joke. I do like that what people want out of work like this is exactly what makes it socially unfit for consumption. It's this social unfitness that is dictating its very form. There's a passivity to this writing, but as poet Holly Melgard once said very generously to me, it's not about sufficiently performing a feminine mess so much as how one can in their radical passivity make a mess, and that a full materialization of this concept is always going to be a guaranteed failure. I think it's also worth remembering that work like this, although passive aggressive in a certain way certainly has consequences, ones that mean that the work is often demonstrating (in eliciting certain reactions) what we might want to move beyond. So the work's successes are exactly what prevent it from existing in the way that it was designed to. It's following a sacrificial structure as damage done to myself and others, family, past lovers, but like all sacrificial structures it stays on the surface. It's a mask for something messier than that. Whatever, I'm a masochist. Like my friend Josef Kaplan says, "I am interested only in the successful, annihilative manifestation of the poem, as an absolute violence, where worth is gauged by how much damage that poem can do to both itself and others -- preferably with regards to interpersonal relationships and employability." I mean, basically. Only Josef is a dude so he has recourse to options I'm not privileged enough to have, like being belligerent or having a speaking voice that people listen to at all. We both like our complicity though. His aggression is no more attractive than my passivity, you know?
The book feels like a collaged manifesto meets a performance piece, or a collection of diary inserts meets an exorcism. How did you decide to structure the book?
I really like a three-act tragedy and an operatic arc, less in the cathartic way and more in a melodramatic way so there is time to set up manipulation and booby trap the emotional tenor of the room. There's something there that's homage to theatre, but also to durational performances that have a clear three-part progression to them. Samuel Richardson wrote three epistolary novels. I like setting up a room in that way. I will say that the book exists in many levels of performance, from the book form itself (that glossy cover will not hold a stain) to the way I read from it, to the silent reading experience of it, to my behavior as a woman and a poet more broadly and outside the context of the book. I don't like exorcism movies. I always preferred long high-school-cliché franchises like Scream and Friday the 13th. I was thinking a lot about the wound, and the structures of healing and reparation though, this idea that a piece of writing could be a salvation in some ways, or an address to heal the feminine wound or whatever. The book functions like a Band-Aid -- or it tried to replicate those mechanical and actually totally ineffectual placebo healing processes we develop and constantly reiterate. To falsify the overarching narrative of salvation, I guess and subsume it to an overwrought, noisy and intuitive imaginary logic. I have this gigantic crush on the artist Banks Violette. I'd marry him in a heartbeat. Or whatever, really whatever I can get. But he talks a lot about the strip-mining of subculture images and the contradiction between the increasing strip-mining of say, the classic iconography of a heavy metal subculture, skulls, churches, motorcycles, all while the increased investment of belief in these images as they begin to get really, really flimsy. That's how I feel about how I made the book. That's how I feel about "recovery" or "healing" or "reparation." For a lack of a better word, it's so high-pitched, the sharpness of that new belief, the second time around. It's so fucking hot.
Most writers hope to be published and recognized for their work, which sometimes has its downfalls. How do you walk that razor's edge between honesty and expression? Reflection versus narcissism? How does the desire for attention that all writers experience become something you deal with in your work?
There's no good way to know for certain if I'm not lying. Or something.
What do you want your readers to take away from The Compleat Purge?
They'll probably take away from it what they went in expecting they'd take away from it already, which is simultaneously a problem and like, god, just soooo not my problem, NBD.