Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking On an Army

Let's get all of the gushing out of the way first: Rachel Maddow is fucking adorable, and everyone and their mom has a crush on her. Okay. Moving on. Maddow's debut book, Drift, is about how the United States military has grown over the last 40 years and how the constitutional restrictions that once prevented any one American from declaring war on another country have disappeared. Drift is textbook-comprehensive, covering nuclear weapons, post-Vietnam policy changes, and the evolving power of the presidency. Thoroughness, however, doesn't make the book dry. Maddow keeps the serious content light when she can: "It's like they thought it was magic," she writes of the 1996 vice presidential report on the Department of Defense. "You half expected the pages of that Al Gore report to shake loose a little glitter, a smiley face sticker or two." Her political ideas transition well from television to the written page, and Drift is all new material. You'll find little repetition from The Rachel Maddow Show reruns.

Maddow doesn't know how to fix the problems within the US military, but she offers eight "to-dos" at the end of Drift - solutions like raising money for each new war and shrinking our nuke supply. One of her suggestions expands on "Colin Powell's cautionary 'Pottery Barn Rule' - you not only own it if you break it," she says, "you own it if you build it too." Simple stuff. Common sense. The sort of thing you shouldn't have to say.

Maddow and her book have been well received on this book tour, especially in Seattle. How many other authors get a standing ovation at Town Hall before saying one word? "It's so nice to actually see an audience," she told the sold-out crowd last week. "Usually if people are watching me talk, I can't see them."

In person, Maddow is just like her book: witty, honest, and completely endearing. As she talked onstage about her different career steps, Maddow impersonated herself being drunk, which was almost as funny as her impression of Ronald Reagan having a temper tantrum while writing in his presidential diary. More than anything, she seemed genuinely interested in conversation as she opened up the room for questions. She talked about social justice. She talked about how Dick Cheney can be both a villain and a man to be admired (her book bears the dedication: "To former vice president Dick Cheney. Oh, please let me interview you"). Maddow discussed the ways in which her book will hopefully provoke more conversation about the military. "There are lots of ways to worry about nuclear weapons, and I worry about them all," she said. "Which makes me no fun at a dinner party."

Though American politics are dear to her heart, Maddow admitted to me in a post-reading interview that she didn't enjoy the book-writing process or "the nuances of procrastination" that came with it. "I needed to commit to starting to write," she said. Her distaste, though endearing, doesn't show in the text. Drift resonates with an overwhelming sentiment: Our military situation sucks. So let's fix it."

(My article is also featured in the April 25, 2012 issue of The Stranger.)

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Mothers Mothering Daughters, Daughters Mothering Mothers

Coming out stories are common. But incredibly well-written simultaneous mother-daughter coming out stories are very rare and kind of awesome. Chana Wilson's memoir Riding Fury Home relates over 40 years of her life - starting at age 7 with her mother, Gloria's, first suicide attempt and electroshock treatments - in honest and unapologetic language.

Gloria's tale of emerging queerness is riveting, and Chana's accounts of Gloria's pain, depression, and journey through a cruel therapy program are heartbreaking and heartfelt. She inserts comic relief in all the right places, like secret jokes at a funeral. When Gloria admits her pro-lady tendencies and confirms she has no interest in men, Chana says, "Well, Mom, I hate to tell you, but you're not bisexual, you're a lesbian," to which Gloria is "pretty damn nonchalant: 'Guess so, honey.'" Many of Chana's discoveries about Gloria's life unfolded through a series of radio interviews between the mother and daughter that Chana recorded in 1974 for KPFA-FM in Berkeley. (You can listen to original interview clips on the Riding Fury Home website.)

It is Chana's childhood that sticks with you. Her journey seemed to go backwards, starting with when she was forced to run a household as a young girl. "First, I was the mother and she was the daughter," Chana said to the crowd at Elliot Bay Book Company for her reading last night. "When we came out, we were like two teenagers. Then, when I needed it, she mothered me."

(You can also read my review on The Stranger's website.)

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Everything Reminds Me of Everything

(Below is a review of last night's incredible Sister Spit performance. The review is also published on The Stranger's blog, SLOG.)

It's unclear whether Dorothy Allison planned to celebrate her 63rd birthday with eight other freakishly talented writers, a platter of gluten-free cupcakes, and a standing ovation, but damn it, that's what she got at Hugo House last night.

Sister Spit host Michelle Tea's bubbly energy jump-started the night, as she assured everyone that she was only on her first Red Bull of the evening. (Read my interview with Tea and Allison here.) Later, with the deep, whispered voice of a phone sex operator, Cassie J. Sneider lamented the loss of her family's car antennas. Erin Markey belted out songs from her one-woman musicals (one about a baby named Secret with no labia). Brontez Purnell shouted things like, "I had totally been fucked by a ghost." Our own David Schmader wooed the crowd with tales of medical discoveries and sheet cake. In an intense Southern drawl, Allison read from Bastard Out of Carolina, which was also celebrating a birthday (20 years in print). The room replied with hushed awe.

The night ended after Allison's birthday cupcakes, but not before she made an announcement: "The entire company has promised me lap dances." The group has only been on tour for 11 days, but already they have story after ridiculous story from the road - Tea described an 8-year-old boy from California who was shocked to realize the tour members were all queers. Tea said she tapped the stricken boy on the shoulder and told him, "Now you're gay, too." The boy responded, "I'm going to go tap more people!"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tour de Force: Trash-Talking in Strangers' Basements with Dorothy Allison and Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea and Dorothy Allison have spent an awful lot of time sleeping on strangers' basement floors. Tea co-founded Sister Spit, originally an early-'90s all-female open mic, with Sini Anderson at a time when spoken word was, as Tea said in a phone interview, "hot and not cliche yet." The open mic spent several years grounded in San Francisco, during which time Tea had gone out on tour with her amateur punk band. After living out of her van with bandmates as they rambled across the West Coast for a month, Tea told Anderson that Sister Spit should try the open road. "If my shitty punk band could go on tour - and we sucked - then we could bring Sister Spit on tour," she told Anderson. "Sister Spit is so much more universal than a band."

The first Sister Spit tour in 1997 was a financial shitshow and a logistical nightmare. Partway into the tour, the van irreparably broke down at midnight on the border of Alabama and Mississippi. "Oh shit, we can't fuck this up," Tea thought. "Eileen Myles has trusted us with her life." The group had to split up. Some writers went on ahead in a cargo van with no seats, an illegal but necessary move. Everyone else got into the "little soccer van" that writer Tara Jepson's stepmom offered. Throughout the month, the ladies would ask to make long-distance calls from the strangers' houses where they were staying, contact the promoter in the next city, open up their word road atlas, and say, "Okay, we're in Athens, Georgia - how do we get to you in Virginia?" By the time the artists got back to San Francisco at the end of the month, they had made enough to give everyone $80, which, according to Tea, was a total shock; she was surprised there was any money left at all.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Allison experienced her own chaotic tours. "I'm part of that generation that all piled into a car and drove," she says, reminiscing about the '90s tour for her book Trash. For six months, she shocked the small towns of Georgia and Mississippi with her bold words and black leather chaps. "Let's remember we were in the heyday of 'take revenge on your ex-girlfriend in your poetry,' a phenomenon, an art form," Allison points out. "When you're on tour, you can take revenge on your ex-girlfriend-as-of-two-days-ago. She said something bad about you in Atlanta, and now you're in Nashville."

Twenty years later, Allison has joined Sister Spit for the first time. She looks forward to being surrounded by artists who will "provoke one another and shape each other's work" out on the road. Besides Tea and Allison, the 2012 Sister Spit tour includes Justin Vivian Bond, Erin Markey, Brontez Purnell, KitYan, and Cassie J. Sneider. Keeping with tradition, the tour kicked off in San Francisco on April 1 and began the monthlong trip across the country. Seattle is the 11th stop of 29.

Sister Spit has grown up. Its first publication is schedules for fall 2012. The anthology, which Tea will edit, features a variety of pieces - poems, snippets, tour diaries - written by folks who have traveled with Sister Spit from the '90s through today. Just like the tour, the anthology will include some of the new stuff and some of the classics. Both Tea and Allison agree that the 2012 tour is much more civilized. No strangers' basements, no ex-girlfriends' couches, no towed vans (fingers crossed). The one thing concerning Allison, naturally, is shoes. "You can't take that much in a little van, so I have to figure out what type of shoe will work from Tucson to Portland to Minneapolis," she said. "I have just enough room for one pair of high heels." Then, in between performances, "Justin Bond and I can sit around and talk about them." (Unfortunately, that's a conversation we'll miss at Hugo House: Bond won't be joining the tour until after Seattle.)

Listening to Bond and Allison commiserate over footwear is something Tea has wanted for some time. It took five years for her to secure a two-week period to bring Allison out with Sister Spit. "If someone asked me in my wildest dreams who I would bring on tour, I would say Dorothy Allison and Justin Bond," Tea said. "It's a total dream tour."

(This article was published in today's issue of The Stranger. Read it on the website here.)

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inside/Out: Eileen Myles Does Jekyll and Hyde, Plus Snowflakes

In her newest book of poems, Snowflake/Different Streets (Wave Books), Eileen Myles uses just the meat of her ideas and discards the rest. To ensure her meaning across across without any frill, she provides the fewest words possible - almost every and has been replaced with &, with with w, and because with cause. Even the poems' format adheres to this stripped-down style. Myles writes in thin strips down the center of her pages, leaving the remainder of the page blank and ripe with questions.

Myles's creation is really two books in one, a Jekyll and Hyde collection. Snowflake (labeled "New Poems") goes first. Then, halfway through, the pages flip. The reader turns the book upside down to read Different Streets ("Newer Poems") and continues to drool.

Everything about Snowflake feels lonely. The poems either portray isolated contemplation or report from the outside of human interaction. In "To Weave," she describes early-morning sex that she doesn't necessarily experience herself. In many pieces, Myles even beats herself up: "I don't know myself/and that's a sin" ("No Excuse"). Snowflake feels raw, describing bare emotions and all things natural and earthly. Myles writes about road trips, storms in Iceland, a dog's death, lambs, rabbits, fleas, and naps.

Snowflake depicts singular emotions - individual reactions and moments. Different Streets describes stories and togetherness. Myles writes about relationships, self-awareness, birthday parties and heartfelt cards, conversations, "our endless/sound. Our connection" ("Mitten").

Myles is a master of language. She pulls multiple meanings not only from words and phrases but also from syllables: "I do a lot of/wrong reading," she writes in "Rock On," "stretching a meaning (my name)/into a world/view. If/it calls Ei/leen/I look up."

Both parts celebrate imagination. On an untitled page in Different Streets, Myles writes four lines: "The new poems/are poems of healing./But first I'll/be funny." It's unclear whether this is an afterthought (describing the previous pages) or a disclaimer for the next set of poetry. The preceding poems are about pencils, and the one immediately following is about a dog in a barbershop. So who knows? And honestly, who cares? She invites readers to interpret it either way.

Buy a copy of Snowflake/Different Streets here.

(My review also appears in the April 4, 2012 issue of The Stranger.)