F WORD WARNING
Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
lives between Peoria, Illinois and Iowa City, Iowa. She is a writer, musician and cook. Her work has recently been anthologized in Nasty! Volume 2, Hexing the Patriarchy and Satan Speaks!. She believes in garlic, onions and Feline Satan. Her twitter is @JeanBava and her full publication history can be found at www.thursdaysimpson.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
When I was a kid and throughout highschool I always wanted to write. Mostly back then I would listen to Opeth’s album Damnation or Tiamat’s album Prey and try to come up with my own poetry but it never really happened. But eventually in 2008 I was enrolled in community college and playing in about 10 different bands. I wasn’t really happy playing music so I started thinking about writing again. One of the nice things about writing as opposed to film making or playing music is that there is no recording or filming process. It’s like pure expression, no strings, no tuning, no effects or cables. Sure, you need a laptop and there is always so much revision and study involved. And writing is such a more long term thing than music. A manuscript might take more than five years to go from draft number one to publication as opposed to an album getting written, recorded, mixed and released in a year or two. It’s not that one medium involves more or less work, they’re just different. And the process involved with writing really kind of seemed attractive to me back then. I could sit and read and then write on my computer and email my work to publications instead of constantly practicing and trying to get my riffs recorded on good audio and find a label’s mailing address and trying to get their attention and going on the road and all of that.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
That’s a good question. In all honesty, I’m not sure I can say I remember a single moment where I realized, “Oh, poetry is a thing.
There are several things that do come to mind, though. Growing up in Galesburg, Illinois one hears a lot about Carl Sandburg. He was born here and a lot of things are named after him. I actually won a poetry contest in the 7th grade put on by his estate and his daughter gave me the prize at a ceremony held at his birthplace.
I think also in the 7th grade our class did a poetry unit where we read poets like Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes and Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe. Looking back on that now, it’s so weird. It was a Catholic school, so we were getting all of this militant right wing anti abortion politics, books like Harry Potter were banned.But we also read poets like Nikki Giovanni and learned about Oscar Romero.
Then once I was in public highschool, I think I started to hear people talk about poetry as something one did to express themselves. Or as a valid art form unto itself. Some people from my highschool used to get together both in person and online and workshop eachother’s poetry. They were who told me about Sylvia Plath and poets like that.
But it was really more professors at my community college that made it start to click for me. One guy was an eldergoth from the 80’s and also used to play music before he became a writer. He really helped me take poetry as something I wanted to do and turn it into something that I did. He taught, “America,” by Allen Ginsberg in class one day and I went out and got a copy of Howl. The title poem, Howl, really fucking blew me away. I think that’s the poem that really made me fall in love with poetry.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
At first, very much so. That’s all we were taught in community college. The only non intro lit course was a two part Fall-Spring British Lit survey. I really didn’t like Beowulf or Canterbury Tales or the The Faerie Queene. I loved Shakespeare but didn’t really like Donne and Marvel and etc etc.
And after a month or two of the Enlightenment guys, I really fell for Wordsworth and Coleridge and Byron and the Shelley’s. I read their stuff for the better part of Spring 2010. Then a friend of mine that recently graduated from Western Illinois University asked me to help her run a local writing workshop. And while we were hanging out and planning it she showed me all of the texts they worked on at Western and let me borrow Richard Siken’s book, Crush. And after reading him I fell in love with poetry all over again.
Then once I transferred to the University of Iowa to finish my BA I chose a poetry writing course based on the instructor teaching Siken and Frank O’Hara. The Writers Workshop offers a series of creative writing courses for undergrads that anyone can take. And the instructors are all graduate students currently enrolled in the Workshop. We also studied Jeffrey McDaniel and the Dickman Twins and people like that. She also directed me to poets like Sharon Olds, James Wright, Franz Wright.
In other classes in the English literature department we read people like James Baldwin and Marilynne Robinson and Mary Swander and Raymond Carver and Jane Smiley.
During my last Semester there, Spring 2013, I started reading Maggie Nelson. She was around Iowa City for a bit in 2010 or 2011, guest lecturing and things like that, while she was publishing her book, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions, through University of Iowa Press. So by 2013 everyone in Iowa City was reading Bluets. That book really changed my life. I read everything else Maggie Nelson wrote and then read every author she cited in her work, Simone Weil, Eileen Myles, Cookie Mueller.
Then after reading authors like Dodie Bellamy and Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus I started making friends that shared a love for similar writers. And then I more or less started getting plugged into communities of actual contemporary writers my own age doing the coolest fucking shit.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
It varies! I hate doing the same thing every day. But, I do prefer to write in the morning, first thing. I always hydrate first thing every morning. I’m obsessed with drinking water. Then I either make breakfast and a pot of tea or coffee or just start in on whatever project I’m working on. The longer each day goes on the more shit comes up. And I really need to focus when I write. So I like to get it out of the way first thing. Then it always isn’t in the back of my mind as I do everything else during the day.
In general I try to pattern my work ethic after my favorite athletes. Interviews with Kevin Durant or DeMarcus Cousins or Nyla Rose have taught me so much about what it takes and what it looks like to pursue greatness.
5. What motivates you to write?
I think it’s almost always been work that I admire. Sometimes it’s an interpersonal thing, a breakup or a great hookup or whatever. But almost always it’s because I’ve seen a great film or read a great book or watched a great professional wrestling match or athletic contest.
I really like raw, physically immediate work that takes real risks. That’s why I love pro wrestling so much. It’s such a physical, emotional form of storytelling. A great match from Mitsuharu Misawa in a lot of ways reminds me of a novel like The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich or Like Being Killed by Ellen Miller. Or more recently, Tessa Blanchard’s match with Sami Callihan. Tessa really connects with the audience with her tears and really honest cries of pain throughout that contest. That same feeling and emotion is present in Colt Cabana’s recent title defense against James Storm or in just about anything that Pentagón Jr. and his brother, Fénix do in the ring.
Same with the New Day, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods and Big E. I think they’re just about the most talented artists working in professional wrestling throughout this entire decade. There is so much artistic brilliance in their matches with the Uso’s or in Kofi Kingston’s main event work in 2019.
Besides wrestling, films like Night of the Living Dead by George Romero or Living Dead Girl by Jean Rollin really direct my artistic goals. Something raw, real, honest and immediate and emotionally and psychically potent. That’s what I’m always trying to chase and pursue in my own work.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think my passion for literature and video games and athletics and film have always been more or less intertwined. When I was about 5 or 6 I started watching the Universal Monster Collection on VHS and got obsessed with horror. I read all of the Goosebumps and Fear Street books from the Galesburg Public Library. I watched the Star Wars films on VHS and then read all of the Star Wars books at the public library. I watched Tales from the Cryptkeeper and Are You Afraid of the Dark and read all of the affiliated franchise novels that the library had.
I first became aware of professional wrestling after renting WWF Royal Rumble on the Sega Genesis. In 1993, 1994 and 1995 the only way to watch wrestling for me was from renting VHS tapes. So anytime I got any money I would rent as many wrestling tapes and horror films as I could afford and watch them over and over.
I didn’t have a computer or access to the Internet until 1999. So mostly every second of my free time was either spent at the library researching films and books or at rental stores reading the VHS boxes.
Crying is a really important spiritual activity for me. Victor Wooten defines crying as something we do when we aren’t able to express our emotions through language. I’ve always cried a lot, regardless of age. My favorite thing to do on my days off is to make a pot of coffee and listen to music or watch a film or listen to an audiobook and cry my fucking eyes out.
The video game Final Fantasy 7 really changed me. I played it fairly soon after it came out in 1997. I became so obsessed with the game. I cried when I played it and I cried thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it. The way it combines such lyrical music with so many incredible greens and blues in the color pallet just really connected with me. I read the strategy guide cover to cover so many times. Video game strategy guides were actually one of my favorite literary genres as a kid. I never owned too many games, but I could afford the strategy guides. So I just read them cover to cover, over and over.
So much of what I do now is born directly out of my obsessions from when I was a child. An interest in Universal Horror led to an interest in the 80’s slasher franchises, that fed into an interest in George Romero’s body of work and so on. Then once I was in college and started to learn about politics and theory and history, horror was such a perfect exploration ground. George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead became a renewed obsession. I started thinking of 80’s slasher films as Reagan morality tales.
Coming out of the closet and living publicly as queer and trans for me was very much tied to learning about AIDS in the 1980’s. Reagan’s policies really effected my family in a lot of negative ways. Rick Perlstein wrote a really great two volume work that traces changes in right wing politics from Eisenhower through the 1976 Republican Convention. Those books were such great companions to The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy or I Love Dick by Chris Kraus and In One Person by John Irving. Artists like David Wojnarowicz tie so many things together. My mind has always worked in a language of synchronicity and probability and chance and myth. Things like Baseball statistics have always been incredibly meaningful to me. And the way David Wojnarowicz ties things like country music to masculine queerness really made me feel validated as a thinker for the first time in my life.
And during times when I really thought my writing was over and out, especially in late 2012 and late 2013, watching Are You Afraid of the Dark and some of John Carpenter’s films like They Live and Prince of Darkness really helped get my mind and heart together again. The same with 1931’s Frankenstein. I watched that film over and over as a child. But when I watched it during the fall of 2014 it was like seeing it for the first time. Boris Karloff’s performance is just something special. His unhinged screams during the fire at the end of the film really effected me in a profound way. You can watch that film alongside reading Chris Kraus’ novel, Summer of Hate, and learn a lot about violence in our society.
So yeah, the obsessions and concerns in my work now are very much reflected in my obsessions and concerns as a five year old.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many! I think more than anyone, my favorite contemporary writers are Ariel Gore, Tiffany Scandal, Erika T. Wurth, Juliet Cook, Leza Cantoral, Christine M. Hopkins, Kristen J. Sollee, Joanna C. Valente, Nadia Gerassimenko, Juliet Escoria, Ingrid M. Calderon-Collins, Monqiue Quintana, I could go on forever.
Helen Oyeyemi is a genius. Sybil Lamb is a genius. Patrisse Khan-Cullors is a genius.
I also like Koji Suzuki’s novels. Edward Frenkel is another favorite. Karyn Crisis is writing and publishing a series on traditional Italian witchcraft that is excellent. And I do enjoy Haruki Murakami as well. Marisha Pessl is another favorite.
More than anything, I love how publishing is changing. Ebooks and audiobooks and the Internet are opening up so much to so many people. You no longer need to live in New York City or go to college to have access to a life in literature.
Technology is making literature accessible and possible for disabled persons as well. You don’t need a ton of shelving and space to store your books, you can read / listen while you cook or work or whatever. An average SD card can hold about 5 public libraries worth of books.
In general I just love where contemporary literature is right now and hopefully where it’s heading. Art seems more accessible than it’s ever been.
8.1. Why are they genius?
Helen Oyeyemi’s book, “White is For Witching”, is a novel that is as expertly written as it is affecting. I love books that aren’t fixed. Those Comp 101 tropes of, “Reliable narrator, unreliable narrator,” or, “Now class, to write well, we must first prepare an introductory paragraph with our thesis statement,”
Just turn me off.
I love it when an author jumps deep into the psychic mass of human bodies. The psychic and physical realities of humans don’t correspond at all to those 101 concepts.
And Oyeyemi’s, “White is For Witching,” to me is just about the perfect book. Everything in the narrative is always changing. Every sentence just feels so profound and impactful. It really challenges the reader to kind of move beyond the literal text and engage with the narrative more with one’s psychic senses or within one’s innermost being.
Sybil Lamb’s book, “I’ve Got a Timebomb”, is a novel that, to me, recalls Kathy Acker’s non-linear style. But Sybil’s novel specifically frames Acker’s queer, disjointed virtuosity within a transgender, W. Bush era framework.
As with Oyeyemi’s, “White is For Witching,” its rather difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, sentence to sentence. And that forces the reader to both rely on the depth of the language itself and also on their own psychic ability to sense what is happening. And as the novels continue, they each create such a powerful impact and resonance within the reader. Or at least they did with me. They changed my fucking life.
And Patrisse Khan-Cullors book, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” is one of the most profound works I’ve ever read. It’s in part memoir and part contemporary history. I think if someone was only going to read one book published in the 2010’s, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” is a book that person should choose.
I think for a lot of white people in the United States, we really ignore what’s going on around us. We don’t confront our white privilege. We don’t confront that our white privilege is sustained by institutional racism. We don’t confront that horrific violence is forced on people of color.
Throughout her book, Patrisse Khan-Cullors candidly talks about her life and the lives of those around her. And through her writing, she almost kind of gives the reader a choice. By describing the horror and violence of racism, the reader can either choose to be horrified and repent and commit to change or they can continue to block it out.
The narrative also is about the author’s journey as a queer person. She talks about the realities of being queer in highschool and being queer as an adult.
I think, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” is a book that has incredible power. If anyone doubts the ability of literature and narratives to change lives, “When They Call You a Terrorist,” can shake them from that complacency.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
So, I think for me writing is the most accessible art form. You can do it alone, you don’t have to have a lot of friends or a lot of gear and money and things like that. You don’t have to go buy a guitar and learn how to tune it and replace your strings or learn about what a sine wave and a square wave are and etc etc.
You can go out and read books from your library or find ebooks and audiobooks online and dive in and start getting inspired. Also, libraries carry a ton of ebooks and audiobooks besides physical books. And if there’s something you want that they don’t have, they can almost certainly get it for you.
There’s no equivalent with guitars and drum machines and synthesizers. You kind of have to buy them or maybe at best rent them from a music store. And renting in that context costs money.
But libraries also have laptops you can rent for free and write on. You could base your entire writing career out of a public library if you couldn’t afford books, an internet connection or a computer.
You can just start reading and see what inspires you and go pursue it.
The Internet really helps one connect to other readers and writers and is such an excellent way to find and build communities.
Though, I don’t mean to act like writing is high up on the platonic list of ideal art forms. I live a fairly monastic life and I enjoy that way of living. Writing is a long term game. It takes months and more often than not years to write and draft and edit and revise and get rejected and get rejected and write and revise. It appeals to my temperaments.
And revising is as simple as reading and re-reading, deleting, re-framing, re-stating, seeking clarity and things like that. You don’t have to listen to abunch of audio on abunch of expensive equipment and twist and turn abunch of knobs and worry about re-recording a part or how something’s mixed or anything like that.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
More than anything else, one becomes a writer by first reading and then writing and then going back and editing what one has written. The hardest parts about being a writer have more to do with time, money, stress management, real life shit.
When I was living in Iowa City, some of the best advice I got came from reading the memoirs of writers and artists that I admire. Especially Jeanette Winterson and David Lynch and Ann Patchett.
It’s easy to see ourselves as these nobodies and our heroes as deities. But just to share a small part of Jeanette’s story. After she was kicked out of her parents house for being gay, she used to go to the library every day and get books to read. Back then she thought it was required to read every text in alphabetical order, so she started with the first book in the A section and started working her way down the lines.
Eventually a librarian noticed her habits and told her that she can read any book she likes at anytime. That no one is required to only read books in alphabetical order.
I bring this story up because our crisis’ really hurt. When we lose a job, we feel like it’s the end of the world. When we go through a breakup we feel like it’s the end of the world.
And we feel like that because things really fucking hurt.
But one thing we don’t realize sometimes is that our heroes, the pillars of art, have gone through the same things we’ve gone through. David Lynch had to put Eraserhead on hold for more than five years because he was broke. He talks in his memoir, Catching the Big Fish, about going every day to the local Big Boy and drinking a milkshake while he thought about his ideas.
You have to imagine David Lynch not as the creator of Twin Peaks, but as a broke twenty something loser hanging out at the fast food restaurant every afternoon, starring off into space, dreaming about someday making movies.
Professional, capitalist culture teaches us that such dreams are shameful. We’re all taught to laugh and scoff or at best feel sorry for the girl heading out to LA to become an actress or the person living in their parents basement working on their first demo.
The hardest part about being a writer is learning to not give into all of that shame. A lot of people will talk a lot of shit about you. That will only ever increase in its intensity as you publish and do your thing.
Once, I sent a story to a publication and paid 3 dollars to have the editor give me personalized feedback. And this fucking guy sent me his feedback by gleefully ripping my work to shreds, sentence by sentence.
A couple of weeks later, that exact same piece helped me get accepted into a nationally recognized MFA Program with an offer including full funding.
I didn’t accept the offer because I hate college, but that’s a different story.
The point I’m trying to make is that you just have to never give up. Ever.
Read the books that interest you.
When you get an idea for a piece, write it.
And finish it.
No matter what, finish what you start. No matter how hard it is. You can always edit it later.
Then after you finish writing something, read some more books that interest you. Watch films that interest you. Pursue anything that interests you.
And read books that maybe don’t interest you. And read the books that interest the authors you really like. Read people’s bibliographies. Get the books referenced in their research and read them.
And everytime you get an idea, make a note about it. And when you have time, work on it and do the best job you can.
I think doing one’s best is great advice. Whenever you’re writing, just do the best you can. If you don’t have time to write, just make sure you write when you do have time.
Never give up and always do your best.
That’s where editing really comes in. There isn’t a writer that’s ever lived who doesn’t have to revise their work. In the moment, things seem so impossible. Our sentences always feel so bad.
But one thing you’ll notice, if you don’t give up, is that six months or so after you finish a draft, you’ll come back to it and see what you need to change.
And then six months or so after that, you’ll come back to your piece and see more things that you can improve.
Sometimes that six months only takes a few days or a few weeks. Sometimes it might take a few years. Writing can be a very mysterious process.
That’s why no matter what, you should always just do your best each time you’re sitting down to write. Do your best and let the gods sort out the rest.
If you want to go to college to study literature and writing, go for it. If you don’t want to do that, don’t.
If you like workshopping with other people, do it. If you don’t like it, your editors will let you know what you need to change and how to improve your work.
Some of my favorite writers are highschool dropouts and some of my favorite writers have multiple PhDs. The secret to writing is figuring out your own process and investing in it and devoting yourself to the work of reading and writing and editing and revising. And most importantly, the secret to writing is never giving up. Ever.
When people tell you that your work is shit, just move on. Never delete or destroy your own work. Just file it away and revise and edit it later on.
And I think it’s also important to be open to change. Both changes in your style and changes in your methods and changes in what interests and motivates you.
You might find that you start out writing poetry but want to write more fiction. Or you might start out wanting to write scathing, sexy queer non fiction but end up writing high fantasy novels.
Go with your gut.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’m in the process of finishing up a novel that’s tentatively called, “Like a Razor.” It’s mostly about a young, out of work mathematician dealing with the loss of his primary partner in a polyamorous relationship. There is also a lot of professional wrestling & Satanism related esoterica and mystery involved.
I’m also working on putting together a couple poetry collections. And hopefully also a non-fiction collection dedicated more to examining spirituality and strategies for activism.
And hopefully all of these works will have a soundtrack that I’ve composed and recorded myself.
Thank you so much for this opportunity! I very much appreciate it