Michelle Tea on Sister Spit, Dorothy Allison, and Valencia: The Movie
Michelle Tea is the literary purveyor of fucking bring-it. She's co-founder of the hilarious, moving, queer roadshow Sister Spit, which is also the title of the first book released under the City Lights/Sister Spit imprint; she's the author of several memoirs, a novel, a poetry collection, and a forthcoming YA fantasy book from McSweeney's. In addition, she founded RADAR Productions, a literary nonprofit that nurtures queer artists through readings, a writers retreat, and more. We caught up with her in the midst of all these goings-on to ask her about Sister Spit the book, how blog comments are the bathroom graffiti of the Internet, and Valencia: The Movie, based on her iconic, award-winning book.
Can you talk a little about the City Lights collaboration? Is the Sister Spit book your first foray into publishing?
Sister Spit Books will be an imprint of City Lights, a series, or a press-within-a-press. Through RADAR, we support writers at all these different stages of their careers -- we do the monthly RADAR Reading Series, we do the annual Sister Spit Tours, we bring writers to Mexico and make them finish their books, but then once their book is done we sort of fall off. Through this collaboration we'll be able to actually publish some of the books we've been helping bring into the world, which is totally amazing. The Sister Spit collection is our first publication, and it will be followed by a reprint of Ali Liebegott's award-winning epic poem, "The Beautifully Worthless," and her new novel, Cha-Ching!, both out in time for the Sister Spit tour this spring. It will be past and future Sister Spit writers, because I won't publish anyone who isn't able to come on the tour and promote it. We gotta sell these things!
How did you select the pieces that went into the Sister Spit book?
There were a few pieces that didn't seem to go with the overall vibe of the book, a sort of funny, punchy vibe. These heavier or more poetic pieces will go into the next volume. Because Sister Spit brings new people on the road each year we are constantly generating new material, and the writers in this first anthology are only a fragment of all who've come on the tour since the '90s. It's the first in a series of samplers.
If a newbie wants to be a Sister Spit or Radar reader, what should they do?
I guess you've got to get my attention. If people contact me about reading at RADAR, I put them on the list I curate from. I pick from the list a lot when I am putting shows together, but I am also thinking about who has a new book out, who from out of town is passing through, etc. I only have four slots a month, and I'm already booked until June. With Sister Spit it's even tougher -- I've got to be pretty familiar with your stuff and think it works for the overall vibe of the tour to invite you. Like RADAR, there is a long list of people I already know who I want to bring on tour and I wonder if I will ever get to them! I'd say your best bet is to do your own thing -- write your book, start your own series or tour, and then I'll come chasing you!
What was it like to pal around with Dorothy Allison?
It was fucking awesome. She is such a right-on lady. She is totally genuine, totally sincere, a hilarious person who loves to tell stories and has had such an incredible life; she has lots of stories to tell. It was really special to get to spend so much intimate time with her. Everyone in the van knew how lucky they were. I love that woman.
You've got a lot going on right now. Is there one thing you're most proud of?
I guess I'm probably the most proud of RADAR, in general, because it started as just me putting on readings for like a decade, living below the poverty level, no one making money, and we have grown so much we are really able to make a difference in the lives of writers I love. We gave away $60,000 to writers just last year, which is bonkers. The RADAR Reading Series is coming up on its 10th year. We are seeing the books people worked on at our annual writers' retreat come into publication (so far Maggie Nelson's The Art of Cruelty and Justin Chin's 98 Wounds, but soon books from Nicole J. Georges, Sarah Fran Wisby, Daniel Levesque, and Lucy Corin will all be published!). So that's the big thing. That, and the Valencia film project, because it's this giant undertaking people said could not be done, and we did it, and it's amazing, and I can't wait for it to begin screening. So many people put their little queer hearts into it, and it shows.
The xoJane pregnancy series, while hilarious, seems emotionally exhausting. Also my mom loves it. What's been your biggest "aha" takeaway from the experience. And your biggest "WTF" moment.
Hi, Mom! It's not exhausting, it's actually really fun for me to write it. Having deadlines is exhausting, always, but the actual writing for that sort of energizes me. I really love first-person writing, so to have an outlet for it is awesome. An "aha" moment is that writing about a happy relationship, the one I have with Dashiell, is actually creatively engaging and resonates with readers, which is rad. I have mainly only written about the shitty things that happen in romance, so it's a revelation and I am so grateful with how generous Dashiell is in letting me tell stories about her! The "WTF" has probably been the reader comments -- they are so nice! I tend not to read comments because I just figured blog comments are like the bathroom walls of the Internet, but I have been super touched by how kind and supportive readers have been.
You joked in the pregnancy series, "Yay! A new life experience to exploit!" Since you write about your life so much, are there any times you've written about where you looked back and thought, "Well, that was a mistake!"
It's not so much I've thought it was a mistake as it is looking back and saying, Wow, I wouldn't do that now. Or, I would do that differently. I feel more sensitive to the effects it has had on others, and also on myself. I'm a bit more private than one would suspect from my writing, in that, I want to have my cake and eat it too -- I want to be able to write what I want to write from the inside of my little bubble of denial, and then I don't want to have to talk to strangers about my sex life, or if I'm pregnant. I think this disconnect might make sense to other people who write about themselves and to no one else. But, I don't regret anything, and I'm sure I'll do it all again, in some fashion.
Have you always gone through local publishers for your books? If so, why?
I've published with the people who have wanted to publish me, because I want to get my books out into the world and move on to my next project. Locally, Jenny Joseph from Manic D saw the creation of my poems practically in real time as the host of the long-running Poetry Above Paradise open mic, so when she offered to publish all the chapbooks I'd written in my 20s, it was perfect. Lauren McCubbin had hooked us up with Last Gasp for Rent Girl, an Stephen Elliott had hooked me up with MacAdam/Cage for Rose of No Man's Land. Really, I've always gone through friends. Inga Muscio hooked me up with Seal Press, Eileen Myles with Semiotext(e), Vendela Vida with McSweeney's.
If someone came up to you and said, "I want to do what you do!" what advice would you have for them?
Hmmmm. I do a lot of things. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to have a place to perform, start a performance night. If you want to travel, book a tour. Support other writers as much or more than you look out for yourself and see where that brings you. Get ready to work for free for 10 years and then be underpaid for the remainder. Be fairly cheerful about it because at the end of the day, you get to be a writer, and you get to share community with other writers.
Valencia: The Movie ... Still happening? I saw a film still involving a fisting scene, but that's it.
It's still happening! In fact I am on my way to a private screening with some of the filmmakers. It will start being shown in 2013. I don't want to say too much because I don't want to jinx the project for the literally hundreds of people involved in it!
Catch Michelle Tea at the book release party for Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscences from the Road on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at City Lights, 261 Broadway (at Columbus), S.F. Admission is free.