Pride month special, y’all!
This June has been a real highlight for me, writing- and reading-wise. I had 2 bookish pieces published (including an epic Pride reading list I’m kind of proud of), and I got to talk to Nicole Dennis-Benn about her new (very big-deal and very great) novel Patsy.
And the good good gay stuff kept coming, because a couple of months ago, I was contacted by Animal Heart Press asking if I’d be interested in reading poet Marisa Crane‘s latest poetry collection, Our Debatable Bodies, and speaking with her as part of a blog tour. I have never been part of a blog tour before, but I googled Marisa and read some of her poems, and I really loved them. So I said yes, and it was a great decision on my part, because I loved the book and I loved Marisa’s thoughtful and heartfelt answers to my questions even more.
Our Debatable Bodies is queer through and through, with gorgeous stanzas, punchy imagery, and a lot of hard-fought love. Below is my conversation with Marisa, whose answers to the questions are poetry in themselves. It’s a long-ish interview but it’s really worth reading the whole thing. If you haven’t already read Marisa, I hope you find as much inspiration from this conversation as I did, and that you pick up Our Debatable Bodies and/or seek out her poetry online. (You can start with her website here).
Happy Pride month in all its messy, complicated, tangly and weird and beautiful glory, everyone.
Pages and Bones: One of the best things about a collection of poetry (in my opinion) is the nature with which images and words repeat across different poems. In Our Debatable Bodies, some of the repetition I noticed involved the act of confession, the image of the mouth, the word ‘language’ and how important language is, and the making of lists. Is repetition (or maybe it’s better described as cyclical imagery) something you strive for in putting together a collection, something that happens subconsciously, or both? Can you talk about some of the specific imagery like lists and mouths, and how you use those images to craft narrative?
Marisa Crane: I’m going to be honest, (oh, another confession!!), the repetition, or cyclical imagery as you call it, is not intentional. I think for the most part it’s a manifestation of my neuroses—I am a compulsive list-maker and no matter how many tasks I check off throughout the day or week, at least five more take its place almost instantaneously. Most likely my list-making behaviors are due to my own unhealthy attachment to my anxiety, to my own negative feelings, but that discussion is for another time and place.
Writing, whether it be poetry or fiction or CNF, is a way for me to move my insides to the outside. It’s like throwing up in the middle of the street after a long night at the bar. And when I nail a piece, the throw up still may look unappetizing but upon approaching you notice that it actually smells more like caramel brownies? Or something else that’s more appetizing than vomit? And you’re shocked and thrilled to find that you are enjoying this display of human detail out on the street. I realize this isn’t the greatest image I’ve ever come up with, but I think you know what I mean. It can be satisfying to show people who you are in a way that makes sense. I spent so long with at least one limb in the closet that saying the truth feels like a luxury. I want to out-truth, the truthiest of truths, if I can. Simply because it feels damn good.
Further, I write about the things that antagonize me. I’m one of those people that can’t shut up about their feelings, good and bad. I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t tell my wife every little thing that moves me. I have enough self-awareness to recognize that this can grow exhausting for the receiving party. So I often take to writing (and ahem, Twitter) when I have something to express. This is probably why so much of my imagery is surrounding confession and the mouth—if you break it down, every emotion we intentionally reveal is a confession. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, like I’m gay or I cheated on you or I crashed your car into a tree, in order for it to count as a confession. It can be as simple as, I’m here. Maybe that person already knew you were there for them, but saying the words is an act of transference—your feelings now live inside them. Not necessarily forever, but for now. And that’s all we have. Every moment, we have the choice whether to bury something deep within ourselves or to release it into the wild world.
Lastly—and I’m sorry this answer is so long—I think that I speak of language so often in my poems because words are some of the most powerful things we have and we as a people probably shouldn’t be trusted with them. Whoever invented the “sticks and stones” rhyme couldn’t have been more wrong. Words can ruin, words can dismantle, words can kill. In August of 2018, Jamel Myles, a nine-year-old boy from Denver, hung himself in his bedroom after he was bullied for being gay. In my poems, I am searching for the language to express this horror, and I am examining the language that led to this horror.
P&B: What does the concept of confession mean to you as a writer, and what does it mean to you as a queer person?
MC: As I think I made pretty clear in the previous question, I’m a big fan of confessions. I think including them in my poetry can work to enhance the bond between the reader and I. Vulnerability goes a long way. It gives the reader permission to be vulnerable, to explore themselves in ways they maybe never had before. Plus, people are nosy. That’s just human nature. We want to dig into each other and dust off what we find. I want to give people that satisfaction knowing that they got to peer into my life for a bit. I honestly wouldn’t know how to write any other way.
As for my fiction, I also find myself writing a lot of tension surrounding what is said vs. what isn’t said. More specifically, what someone says they want vs. what they actually want. I find that absolutely fascinating to explore. Sometimes I like to mess with the value of confession. I’ll make my narrator consistently over-share to the reader about their needs, but then have them behave in a way that deliberately sabotages those very needs, mostly because that’s how people really behave. The drama is in the denials. No one likes a self-aware protagonist, now do they? But we certainly want self-aware lovers and friends and family members. There’s a revelation in here somewhere, I just know it.
Confession is complicated for me as a queer person, for all the reasons that people smarter than I have already articulated. People (cishet individuals, mostly) tend to equate queer representation with coming out stories and while this is certainly an important narrative, it’s not our only narrative. Not to mention the fact that coming out isn’t something that occurs only once—it’s usually an ongoing act, and it’s an ongoing act because heteronormativity says, Everyone is cishet until proven otherwise. It’s really hard to live in a space like that. We are fully realized people with problems and failures and joys and triumphs that have nothing to do with being queer. Hate to break it to the straights, but their problems are not unique—our cars break down, our pets get sick, our friends ditch us, our money is tight, our boss is a dick, our alarm goes off too early, our exes creep on our Instagram stories, etc. I wish we were exempt from having to deal with these painfully dull facets of life, but we aren’t. So while I recognize that queer confession can encompass other things like coming out to family or perhaps confessing queer desires to a religious leader, I also want cishet people to understand that we may have secrets we are aching to disclose that have nothing to do with our LGBTQIA+ identities. And maybe that’s what scares heteronormative devotees the most—because then they have to grapple with the fact that we are human after all.
P&B: Gender and gender presentation is something you explore in several of the poems in Our Debatable Bodies. Many of the moments that include gender exploration are triggered by an outsider making a comment, whether it’s the man who ‘complimented my muscular arms/ then reassured me that/ I still look like a woman’ in ‘Who is the Boy and Who is the Girl?’, or ‘The Old White Man at OB Noodle House Calls His Son-In-Law a Fag.’ Can you talk about exploring the intersection between an internal sense of gender and an external presentation of gender? How do sexuality and gender overlap for you in these poems?
MC: So, I’ve been writing poems about my gender fluidity for years and years, but I never actually referred to myself as non-binary until recently. For a long time, I didn’t possess the language to appropriately label my gender identity—I just knew that I didn’t feel like a woman and I didn’t feel like a man, or, sometimes I felt like both a woman and a man, or, sometimes I felt like gender made no sense to me and that I didn’t even belong anywhere on the spectrum. Either way, I’ve been comfortable with my external presentation of gender for quite some time. I dress and walk and talk however feels most natural to me and I don’t usually give it much thought until someone, usually a stranger, usually a white cishet man, makes note of it. Then I’m brought back to a reality in which I have to somehow make sense of the fact that strangers are not only considering my body and my face, but also the fabrics I put on my body and how my body moves through space.
Men love to flex and comment on my muscles when they see me. Men love to call me “dude” and “bro” when my hair is up and they love to call me “pretty” and “sexy” when my hair is down. I think it scares them how vastly different I appear (to them) simply by changing my hairstyle. It’s likely that this stirs their own internalized homophobia since they have the capacity to be attracted to a female-born individual that they sometimes mistake for a man. But as I said, I don’t typically have a hyper-awareness surrounding my gender expression, so it is often jarring when someone makes an unsolicited comment about me and my appearance. It always feels like a violation, like just because someone can physically see me doesn’t mean they have permission to speak on the subject of Me.
P&B: I love the poem ‘The Night the Sun Wouldn’t Stop Setting,’ and especially the lines ‘the way joy works is it leaves/ the house naked & strolls through/ the streets behaving as if donned/ in a three-piece suit. You are my joy.’ There’s so much audacity in this description of joy; that feels fitting when describing queer joy, which is often hard-won. Can you describe the process of finding and making joy in poetry, and/or what queer joy means to you generally?
MC: Thank you! I think that line came to me because I was thinking about how sometimes joy can sprout from a space simply by rearranging your perspective. Joy doesn’t care if you view it as obscene or inappropriate because joy is confident, joy is sexy, joy knows exactly what it has and who it is. Sometimes when I’m feeling down about something really insignificant like, say, my wife and I are in a fight about how long I’m taking to do my hair, I try to reframe my frustration. It doesn’t mean that I stifle it or ignore it but I contextualize it, and I remember how grateful I am to even have the opportunity to love someone so much that I am willing to put dry shampoo in my hair instead of washing it before a party.
I think you nailed it with the “hard-won” description. Hard-won joy, such as queer joy, often tastes better than a joy simply given at birth. And the appreciation of such joy doesn’t begin with your own—it also comes from educating yourself about queer history so that you can honor those who fought for your civil rights—something I admittedly didn’t start doing until a few years ago. I had a magnifying glass up to my closeted (in certain spaces) sexuality that it was difficult to look outside of my own turmoil, something I find regrettable but probably necessary. Now I absorb anything I can about queer history in efforts to play catch-up. I feel connected to and moved by the brave transwomen and drag queens at Compton’s Cafeteria and all of the people rioting at Stonewall. In a way, I feel like queer activists are more my ancestors than my own great grandparents, who were likely racist homophobes. This isn’t me trying to disclaim my white ancestors’ cruelty; I acknowledge and mourn my colonizing, slave-owning history—but I also find the concept of choosing one’s own family enticing. I recently watched a documentary about San Diego gay bar history and I couldn’t stop crying when a group of older women sat in a table at a current-day lesbian bar and talked about how unsafe it was for them in the past, tears streaming down their cheeks. A woman told the story of getting arrested simply for being present in a gay bar. A man relayed his arrest for being dressed in drag since a law against cross-dressing had been enacted in 1966 in San Diego. I listened to people talk about how they had to have “bar names,” different, safe names for when they went to gay bars. I felt both incredibly close and incredibly far from them.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t take my right to marry my wife lightly. For the most part, we are able to walk down the street and hold hands and kiss. We know that we can frequent gay bars without being arrested and/or assaulted by the police. When I look at her, I feel like a big screaming ball of light, full of pleasure and bliss and gratitude and love. And don’t forget joy, the queerest of joys. It’s a joy that reaches back generations and generations and gives every queer person’s hand a squeeze.
P&B: In a similar vein, Our Debatable Bodies seems to progress from poems that are more angry and sad about the ways in which queer people are still policed and discriminated against, to poems like ‘I Unlock My Phone to Type a Complaint About the Overcrowded Farmers Market in My Neighborhood’ and ‘Upon Listening to Vance Joy’s “Wasted Time,”’ which contain a lot of optimism and joy and gratitude. Can you talk about this progression and holding space for the spectrum of queer emotion within the poems?
MC: I’m afraid I’m going to misattribute who originally tweeted this (and I can’t find it on the big internet machine) but I believe it was Chen Chen who said that sometimes joy is the greatest form of resistance. It’s such a simple but beautiful idea. Something I had never considered before. I mean, what makes a childhood bully more angry than when the person they’re bullying laughs in their face? It fills the bully with uncontrollable rage. Why? Because it shows that no matter what that bully does, we refuse to be extinguished. No matter how many times this oppressive heteronormative society tries to bring us down, they will never win. We will smile, cheer, sing, dance, embrace, kiss, fuck, and love and love and love and love and love. I think I realized, as I discussed in a different answer, that my queerness doesn’t mean I only write about the homophobic experiences I’ve had, that I reduce the spectrum of queer experience to hate crimes and microaggressions. Our turmoil is only a part of the puzzle. We deserve love and happiness and joy and if I want to write a poem about delighting in my wife’s butt in a certain pair of leggings then I not only can—but should—do it.
P&B: Finally, I’d love to hear about the poets/writers you are reading that you love, and where, if anywhere, you first saw yourself represented on the page?
MC: This is my least favorite question because it’s so hard not to provide you with a list of hundreds of writers! Honestly, I love so many writers and here I am, going on about language again, but I fear I don’t have the language to properly describe the brilliance of these writers and how their work impacts me so I’m not even going to try.
But I will list a few poets that I absolutely adore: Paige Lewis, Kaveh Akbar, Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, Chen Chen, Ada Limón, Brandon Melendez, Logan February, Alex Dimitrov, Hanif Abdurraqib, Ocean Vuong, June Gehringer, Bradley Trumpfheller, and so so so many more.
Some prose writers that move and inspire me: Tyrese Coleman, Mary Miller, Mary Robison, Ottessa Moshfegh, Elizabeth Crane, Jenny Offill, Justin Torres, Rachel Khong, Rivka Galchen, Deb Olin Unferth, Matthew Burnside, Celeste Ng, Alex DiFrancesco, and many more.
I don’t remember the name of the book and I can’t seem to find it online, but my mother bought me a YA collection of stories when I was maybe 11 or 12. I doubt she realized at the time because it’s not like she bothered to read the book before purchasing it but there was a lesbian story in it about two girls who meet online and become pen pals before eventually meeting. Their letters to each other were some of the most delicious and tender letters I’d ever read. And to this day I’m sure they would still hit me the same way. I remember the moment I realized these two girls weren’t just friends. I must have reread the same paragraph fifty times. Both to reaffirm what I already knew to be true and to re-experience that moment of queer recognition. It was so romantic and raw. When my mom asked me how the book was I remember fumbling over my words and saying something noncommittal for fear of giving myself away. I read that same story every night before bed and didn’t dare admit to myself why.
Don’t forget to check out Our Debatable Bodies, out from Animal Heart Press now!
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