No, it don’t feel right

Looks like it was also used as the cover of Poems of Laughter & Violence, one of his zillions of volumes of poetry. The photo is by Eugene Doyen.

Lately the idea of—the fact of—emotional repression is popping everywhere I look. It’s something I’ve been doing some hard work on recently, learning to feel and name my emotions and not hate them and not be too scared to express them to another person—but the more awareness I have of this, the more I realize how common this problem is.

For instance. I wanted to tell you about this book I’ve been reading, an old RE/Search book from 1991 called Angry Women. The RE/Search books contained long-form interviews with fascinating artists of different kinds; some of my favorite people in the world have been profiled and probed in those books. I’ve got a framed picture on a shelf of the one and only Billy Childish, standing with Tracey Emin (his ex lover who went on to make a career out of more or less making fun of him) in a kitchen. It looks like a snapshot taken at a party in someone’s house, in the middle of some joke that’s making them both laugh. She’s wearing a 40s-style halter-tie bathing suit as a dress and he’s smoking a cigarette and smiling with his eyes. Point is, the photo is on the back cover of a RE/Search book that included an interview with Childish, and I loved the picture so much I tore the cover off the book and stuck it in a frame. 

A few months ago I ordered this Angry Women book from my friend Karen who runs an excellent secondhand books business, knowing it was the kind of book that would have made a massive impression on me if I’d read it as a young woman when it first came out. Sure enough, it’s packed full of enough ideas, photos, and inspiration that I think I’ll be carrying it around with me and picking through it for some time to come. One of the conversations is with the writer Sapphire from before she published her devastating novel Push, which inspired a bidding war and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, when she was still an underground poet whose “uncompromising writings deserve much wider publication,” as the RE/Search editors put it. The poem they reproduced alongside her interview, “Mickey Mouse Was a Scorpio,” which describes childhood sexual abuse, is so blistering it will melt the hair off your head, but in this context it feels like a natural extension of the zero-bullshit interview she gave, in which she aired dark family secrets that the people in her family still actively denied. 

(It’s superficial and me-centric, I guess, but I feel so proud and pleased to look at the pictures of Sapphire in this book and see that I have a long black dress and a wire-wrapped quartz necklace just like she wore here, in 1991. Like, Sapphire saved her own life with her art and her bravery, you know? And maybe in some small way I am like her. I like the thought of that.)

My scan of a photo of Sapphire from the book (photo credit: Chris Buck)

But yeah, the most refreshing— and frankly useful, even life-giving—thing about these artist interviews is their emotional honesty. I’ve always needed this from art: Songs, stories, poems, and essays in which the creator tells me just exactly how they feel. It gives me life. And yet talking about my own feelings can sometimes feel impossible to me. The word feelings, the word emotions: These have felt like such embarrassing things to say. Isn’t it loserish to be sloppy like that? Aren’t me and my big brain above that sort of thing? As I come to recognize this kind of thinking as a problem, I’m also realizing that I didn’t come by it naturally. It was passed on to me and has been reinforced on many levels, and it has hurt me badly, at times even sapped my life-force. And you know how that makes me feel? PISSED!

When you learn a new word, it has a way of showing up everywhere all of a sudden, as if for the first time. Similarly, when I opened the book just now to see which artists I wanted to tell you about, what did I see but this big pull quote from the performance artist and writer Karen Finley on heart v. brain:

“That’s the ‘male’* way of dealing with suffering: ‘thinking’ about it instead of feeling it. And my way is to feel it, acknowledge it. As a culture we kind of have the thinking part down pat, but not the feeling…”

It’s true, I think. (I feel that it’s true. Ha.) As a society, we really have a hard time feeling our feelings and not hating ourselves, or other people, for having them. Intellectualizing them is easier for a lot of people, as it takes the edge off the discomfort and pain—and doing so is often rewarded socially, while showing an honest emotion might well get you shamed or mocked right out the door.

Intellectualizing is one of those things that sounds kinda good but really isn’t, like perfectionism. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a creative type brag about being a perfectionist, as if it’s a good thing to be so afraid of making a mistake that you never let a piece of work out into the world or even start working on it in the first place. It’s really just more fear: Fear of messy human stuff, like emotions and missteps and having an outburst when you were trying so hard to be polite. If your idea of being polite is never saying how you really feel because you’re “expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit” (thanks Kevin Barnes), then cut it out! Name those feelings and get ’em out there!

*The conversations in this book are a little heavy on the gender binary approach so prevalent in 3rd-wave feminism, except for when the queer artists are talking. For instance, a performance artist and playwright named Holly Hughes, who I’d never heard of before I read this interview with her, talks about her public identity always being tied to her identity as a lesbian, and how reductive that can be for an artist when they are trying to express a range of ideas and feelings, including more “universal” life experiences, like her waitress job at Red Lobster. Andrea Juno, the editor who conducted most of the interviews in the book, says to Hughes, “It’s a trap for women to think they’re that separate. If you start defining what you ‘are,’ you start getting so many exceptions that any argument can be whittled down. Actually, there’s nothing you can say that women are, that men aren’t (and vice versa).”

Body horror

Oh fuck, my body’s rejecting me.

—Zipper Mouth, Laurie Weeks
Judy Davis in The Dressmaker (2015)

I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.

The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way. 

The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”

Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. (I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the unnamed lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag.) An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts. Her consciousness gushes forth. 

Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion: 

“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.” Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird.

In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”  

Three months after I finished this novel I don’t find myself thinking about it; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!

Towers of Strength and Sanity

This weekend was the occasion for a major clean-out around here; Joe and I hosted a reading and party in our home / zine library, and we expected (and very happily got) a larger crowd than we’ve had for these events before. In order to get the downstairs ready for a bunch of people to comfortably sit and stand and eat and gab and listen to zines being read from, we had to sort through and put away piles of books and other junk before breaking out the big guns: a duster! A vacuum cleaner! A rag to wash the stupid molding! Maybe you’re supposed to do this stuff more often than every, uh, six weeks, but that’s alright. The place looks pristine now, very calm. And since I took the opportunity to do some real organizing, I decided to make a project out of dealing with some of the many books that I own.

I actively try to keep from acquiring books. I use the library for most of my reading needs, I no longer allow myself to hoard magazines, and even though I review books for work and therefore receive a fair number of them in the mail, I give almost all of those away after I’m through with them, too. But still. I have a ton of fucking books. The large bookcase in my front room holds all the books that are dearest to me, the ones I have a hard time imagining not owning because I loved them and, in many cases, still refer to them often enough, in my own writing or in conversation with someone who is politely humoring me. In the other downstairs sitting room is a pretty and tall but narrow bookcase I bought years ago that is called a “ladder bookcase” because it’s made to look like a step ladder propped against the wall. Most of Joe’s books live on that one. His and mine started out huddled into two separate collections on those shelves and have now sort of blended together, I notice, seemingly on their own at night while we were asleep. There’s also an end table in that room where I stack up library books I’ve checked out, magazines we haven’t finished, and zines we’ve gotten at events that we haven’t yet read and filed away in our zine library. There’s another small bookcase in the bedroom, and that’s the one I want to tackle because it’s the place where I keep books that are still … live. They’re ones I haven’t started yet or that I did start but haven’t finished for one reason or other. I looked all these over with a very critical eye and found a couple for the donation pile right off the bat. I have also made a small stack of books that I am interested in reading, at least in part, but don’t want to keep like trophies afterward, and in fact am already tired of looking at. It’s time to read them and be done with it.

The first book I want to finish I probably will keep, though; I bought it at a very nice used bookstore in Kutztown, PA called Firefly when I was there for a visit and a stroll around town on Saturday. It’s a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called The Discomfort Zone. (I got the reference in the title just now! To get it yourself you’ll have to read his essay “Two Ponies,” a wonderful piece about Charles Schulz and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and Franzen’s own family.) Since I got a lot out of his other essay collection, How to Be Alone, but haven’t kept up with his career enough to realize he’d put out a second one, I was happy to find it. I’ve also been picking through Kate Zambreno’s novel, Green Girl, for several months in very small portions at a time. I don’t know why I have been reading this book in this way. I like it, relate to the poor main character shamefully strongly, and think Zambreno is an enviably good young (as in under-40) writer. Her essay “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time” stunned me with its breadth and depth of feeling and experience (and again, for me, relatability, that much-maligned concept among literary folks, but an idea that certainly feels significant to me, for at least some of the reading I do). Now I’m wishing I had hoarded the issue of Frequencies it appeared in, but here’s an excerpt for us both to enjoy. I guess I’ll continue picking through her novel at my strange slow pace; no need to rush it, if that’s how I need to take it in.

After that I’ve got a few lesser books to work through. There’s a book of interviews with female rock musicians that was published in the ’90s called Women, Sex and Rock’n’Roll: In Their Own Words by a music journalist named Liz Evans. I found it at a thrift store and it smells very strongly of cold cream, which makes me think incongruently of my grandmother every time I pick it up. As the title indicates, the interview portions of each chapter have a conversational feeling because they’ve been left in the voices of the speakers, which makes for pretty good reading, but I’m not terribly interested in all the artists featured in it. I’ve read the Tori Amos essay already (good old Tori, she’s so WEIRD) and the somewhat baffling Kristin Hersh one too, and will probably want to read Björk’s entry and Dolores O’Riordan’s one and maybe Tanya Donnelly’s too. Then it’s back to the thrift store with the ’90s ladies of rock.

I also have this pretty little book on entertaining that I bought at a library book sale for a quarter. I acted like this was a joke purchase but it did actually occur to me that maybe I should bone up on my entertaining skills if I’m going to keep hosting people in large-ish numbers at my house. I won’t name the book because I want to tell you honestly that it is pretty terrible, advice-wise, and I don’t wish to be nasty toward the lady who wrote and published it through her own press like 18 years ago. One of the tips for cleaning up before a party is to get a bunch of bins or boxes and fill them with your clutter—including dirty dishes!!!!—and then hide the containers in the basement. I feel that my hostessing skills, boisterous and haphazard as they are, have already moved lightyears beyond disturbed-sounding advice like this, and yet I can’t stop reading through the tips in the book. I guess there’s a small part of me that still, even after years of conscious un-schooling in the values of our dominant crap-ass culture, feels a pang of longing at the idea of “self-improvement.” As a teenager I loved reading the kinds of women’s magazines that make me feel disgusted and bored when I see them now; back then I used them as a kind of rule book on how to be, and I still get a certain pleasure out of the idea that I could use “tips” to better myself, backwards as that idea is. These days, I find the best rules for living in slightly loftier places. Take this eye-opener from that Franzen essay I mentioned, “Two Ponies.” After talking about Charles Schulz and his work and early life, he has this to say about the man:

“Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them.

Emphasis mine. Because: THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT, and ain’t it the truth?

The final book in this little stack—I’m making myself deal with the whole stack before I get back to my library books, which I’ll tell you about in another couple days; I made some GOOD finds there last week—is an Anchor Book of New American Short Stories anthology from 2004, edited by Ben Marcus. Don’t know where this book came from, if it was initially Joe’s or mine, or even if I’ve read any of it yet. I know I’ve read “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” by Mary Gaitskill, but I read that one in her own spooky collection, Because They Wanted To, years ago. (All her stuff is spooky, and so uncannily true.) I need to read the A.M. Homes story, “Do Not Disturb,” because I can’t remember whether or not I ever have, and she’s one of my all-time favorite novelists. Looks like Lydia Davis has one of her signature, very short pieces in here as well, which I’ll also read. The rest I can do without. Gotta clear the shelves for more books.

Till next time, K

Go Forth

My interview with my pen-pal and friend Sacha Mardou is up on The Believer magazine’s blog today. She’s so interesting to talk to. As the interview went on we started to hskyave a side conversation about herbalism, among other things that weren’t quite fitting for the interview, which was about comics and music, mostly. Ya know, art. But we enjoyed having that other conversation so much that we’ve decided to keep on having it and turn that into a zine. I’m excited for the results of that collaboration; the projects she and I have worked on together are always things I’m especially proud of. Meantime, give Go Forth: An Interview with Comics Artist Sacha Mardou a look!