When taking the stage at the Poetry Project reading on October 24, Jackie Wang is wearing a neon leotard. She reads a series of poems that bring to mind dark and chilling imaginary dreamscapes, perhaps of Jackie’s childhood dreams. But in her presentation she carries the room like she’s the audience's fairy godmother, her soothing voice reminding us we’re safe with her.
In her writing as in her speech, Jackie Wang is like an old, wise grandmother but with the demeanor and liveliness of a young woman. She dresses in bracelets and accessories that I can only assume are relics or gifts from friends and lovers, and she seems plagued with worries. Yet she easily laughs off any offense, and always has loads of thoughtful advice in store.
Jackie Wang is a writer, poet, musician, and academic whose writing has been published by Lies Journal, Semiotext(e), HTML Giant, BOMBlog, along with numerous zines, such as those by the Moonroot collective. Her essay “Against Innocence” provides insightful analysis on penal and race theory. Her blog, Ballerinas Dance with Machine Guns, reads like a journal that explores writing as process, the personal as political. She’s currently writing a book for Semiotext(e).
Originally from New Port Richey, Florida – “people call it New Port Nowhere” – Jackie moved to Cambridge, MA this fall to start a PhD program in African and African-American Studies and History at Harvard University. I met up with Jackie to talk about how she became a writer, how feminism and radical politics has fueled her, her brother’s incarceration, writer’s block, and how she ended up at Harvard.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
In middle school, I decided that I wanted to be a music journalist. I taught myself HTML so I could make band fan sites, and my dad would take me to shows. In high school I was the editor for the entertainment section of my school newspaper. I would get free concert tickets, free CDs, and I would interview bands and write music reviews.
I wrote to the music editor of weekly newspaper in Tampa, Florida. I remember writing him, saying, “I want to be a music journalist when I grow up! What do I have to do?” I don't even know how I figured out the logistics of it. I would contact the bands' PR agencies, send them clippings, and would tell them the circulation of the publications I was writing for. I would write for local magazines and online music magazines too.
Did you get money for it at the time?
Probably not? I did make money doing a few freelance gigs for a local magazine but it was mostly the drive. It's confounding to me now – what the hell was I doing? I remember watching Almost Famous with my dad and him saying, “Oh that's you!” Cause I was chilling with all these bands.
It seems here's a period between 13 and 19 when certain people are incredibly prolific for their age, and sometimes their careers take off and they become somebody like Tavi Gevinson. I feel like many of us struggle to maintain that level of productivity in our twenties.
Yes, I was way more prolific as a teen than I am now. Something happens once you start writing for a defined audience or when you're closer to spheres of legitimacy – you psyche yourself out and internalize expectations. When you're young it's very playful, and it's enough to just be curious and motivated.
Were you close with your peers in Florida?
I was kind of on my own tip. I remember wearing Chuck Taylors in middle school when no one else had those shoes. People would call me a satan worshipper, but I was like, “I'm emo! I'm not a satan worshipper.” I was also vegan.
When I went to high school, all of the older indie kids would ask me, “Where are you from? Who are you? How do you have such good taste in music?” Because I had all these band patches on my backpack. They thought I was a freak from another planet.
And then I became friends with people who were mostly older than me. My circle of friends primarily consisted of people outside of my school. I befriended a lot of local bands. The guy I dated in high school was the singer of a experimental grindcore band called Shed for You.
When did you start becoming more interested in literature?
My interest in literature developed alongside my interest in politics. I read a lot of zines, some of which were very literary. The bands that I liked were also literary. So I guess that sparked my interest in literature.
I got really into bands like Milemarker. One of the singers of Milemarker, Al Burian, made a zine called Burn Collector. It's a classic zine that started in the mid-90s.
Al Burian's Burn Collector was the fucking shit. His zines were collected into books and I read them over and over and over again. It started to frame the way I thought about the world. I would sometimes think to myself, “What would Al think about this situation?” He had a very funny way of perceiving people and events. Little things were very profound for him, and funny, and tragic. I liked conjuring him when I was moving around in the world.
Burn Collector opened up the world of zines for me and then the world of zines opened up the world of politics. So then I got into feminism and anarchism.
Do you remember any books that were especially significant at that time?
In terms of feminism, bell hooks' Feminism is for Everybody was one of the first feminist texts that I read, and it was really formative for me. And then I got really into Samuel Beckett, the playwright and novelist. In high school I worked at this grocery store Kash & Karry, and I would recite lines from Waiting for Godot to myself.
How did you get into radical politics, beyond private reading?
A lot of the friends I have now I met through the anarchist LiveJournal community. When I was 14–15 years old I became internet friends with Moxie Marlinspike. He would mail me zines, and his CD A Hitchhikers Guide to the United States, which consists of audio interviews with people he met while hitchhiking. I loved that shit. I loved reading his sailing stories, and his hitchhiking stories, and his writings about post-scarcity anarchism.
Through the LiveJournal community I found out about things that were going on in the area. I got involved with the St. Petersburg Food Not Bombs. This is the standard trajectory, right? You get interested in CrimethInc., and then you find the local Food Not Bombs, or you start a Food Not Bombs. When I was 18, I started the Sarasota Food Not Bombs, in Sarasota, Florida. And I would organize protests, but I would always have to goad my friends into going to them. At 16, I tried to start a feminist group at my school, but it was basically my friends humoring me. I would print out articles for us to discuss, screen films, and so on.
So your role within your group of friends was to take these influences from elsewhere, things you read on the internet or by people in other cities, and bring them home.
I guess so. I was importing ideas, culture, political models, and veganism into my suburban friend group. I radicalized some of my friends and some of them became vegetarians and vegans.
When I was 16, I went on a road trip with one of my friends who's a little bit older – she had a car, and I had gumption. I told her “Let's go stay with these anarchists!” We'd just show up, we didn't plan anything. At this time, that was the culture; you'd just find the infoshop or the local Food Not Bombs, you'd ask around and find a place to stay. It was very porous and open. I don't know if it works like that anymore, maybe the internet has changed the way people find each other.
We'd drive to Asheville, NC, and meet anarchists there. One time when we were there, I remember reading this zine, Hot Lead is Medicine. Did you ever read it? Oh my gosh. It's just a perzine, but my memory of it is still very vivid. In it the author “Texas” uses his personal experiences with addiction to analyze the violence of capitalism. The zine advocates revolutionary violence, discusses beating up cops – it was super extreme. I remember wanting to write the author and argue with him about the politics he was promoting in this zine. He was very heroin chic and cool and all violence and sex appeal or whatever, while I was nerdy and cerebral. It represented this big world of anarchy that I wanted to be a part of.
The world of anarchy that zine represented was very seductive. I always resisted the cool kid-brand of anarchism, particularly its aesthetics. I feel like the aesthetic that certain graphic-designer anarchists popularized is kind of cold, a little bit American Apparel. It has this very commercial, inhuman feel to it. And I was really into the sloppy cut-and-paste, like, a warm, fuzzy aesthetic. The pre-graphic design anarchist punk aesthetic.
It's interesting that Rookie, Tumblr culture, teenage girl producers tend to be much more in line with the punk cut-and-paste aesthetic than former punks who could now be described as insurrectionary anarchists. Who they speak to is more of a suburban nobody.
Subjects without attributes. I was always the opposite in that I’ve always been invested in the personal voice, speaking from a place, or imbuing my writing with emotional qualities, cultivating a sense of intimacy, rather than distancing or being cool or coy. My sensibility was always pretty different. But I'm open to everything.
Did you go to college?
Surprisingly, yes. When I was in high school I kind of stopped caring about school, even though I did alright. Like, I was always in advanced classes. But I would skip class a lot. I always went to public school so I didn't have a spectacular education or anything like that.
Well, a lot of shit – family stuff – happened when I was in high school.
My brother went to prison when I was 16 – he was 17 when he got arrested. My brother was allegedly selling marijuana when a group of white kids attacked him. These guys were known to jump people. They would call and act like they wanted to buy some weed and then they would rob drug dealers. Whatever happened that day, my brother got jumped by these kids and shit went crazy; he ended up being charged with shooting and killing one of the guys.
The juvenile sentencing laws in Florida are extremely harsh. He got life without parole when he was 17, which is fucking outrageous. In most countries in Europe, the maximum sentence you can get as a juvenile is eight years, and the cut-off age for being a juvenile is 21 or 23. The sentencing laws in the United States are really whack in general, but especially in Florida.
I often say graduating from high school is my greatest accomplishment. Because of how totally chaotic that period of my life was.
My dad was also laid off from his job soon after this happened so everything was unstable and precarious at the time. I missed a lot of school around that time. The kids who jumped my brother were threatening my family. They broke one of our windows and came through the door with a gun and threatened my dad, so my parents said it was not safe for me to go to school or to be at home. I had to stay at friends' houses for a while. It was a very difficult time.
My brother's case became a local spectacle, because it's rare that something like this happens in New Port Richey, Florida. There were all these sensational stories about it in the newspapers. Kids from the high school also came to the trial.
This must have had a huge impact on you, experiencing the corrupt legal system from the inside at such an early age.
Not only did I learn how racist the criminal justice system is, but also how theatrical and performative it is – it's just a charade. I guess they call it Cowboy Justice. The prosecutor had all these antics; he was known for being corrupt. At many of his trials he gets jailhouse snitches to testify, which is something sleazy prosecutors do. He does this performance during the trial where he brings out the jailhouse snitches and, after they give their testimony, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, there's an honest man in the house of thieves! Why would this man lie?” The prosecutorial antics were unbelievable. He used all this racialized terminology to refer to my brother. Repeatedly, he would call my brother a gangster, a thug, and he would reference rap culture.
All of this relates to the politics of innocence, which I wrote about in my essay Against Innocence. The way that the white kids were portrayed in the media was so different than how my brother was portrayed. The media emphasized that they like baseball and video games, and generally humanized the white kids, even though they were known in the area for jumping people. One of the kids who jumped my brother killed multiple people and eventually killed himself. One of them is missing. In some ways, I'm like, well, if my brother did get out, it's possible that they would've tried to kill him because they did kill people.
It definitely shaped my thinking. I mean, I just have such a visceral reaction to prisons and courts and the criminal justice system in general. The ways that these systems operate is so unsettling. You feel totally powerless when you're ensnared. Once you're caught in the bureaucracy it's really difficult to disentangle yourself from it. The appeals process is totally maddening as well. My brother had an appeal in February – an appeal that had been in the works for nine years. It basically took nine years for him to even get a hearing after the incident happened.
Not surprisingly, the appeal for a retrial was denied. The evidentiary hearing was pretty bleak because the judge worked with the man who prosecuted my brother. Everyone in these local courts have all worked with each other or are in cahoots with each other, so it’s basically impossible to get an unbiased hearing or trial. Even if you do, the courts in these smaller counties in Florida are pretty conservative and pretty harsh when it comes to punishing people and putting people away.
But you still managed to go to college?
Senior year I decided that I did want to go to college. I wasn't doing very well in high school so I had to turn everything around very quickly. I decided I wanted to go to New College of Florida, which is this small, liberal arts school in Sarasota. That was my fantasy.
I went to New College, which was a great place for me. I was very happy there, actually. It's very small, 750–800 students, so you know everyone there. It's basically a giant family. People are pretty radical. I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time. I mean, I had friends in high school, but I had a lot more intellectual and political stimulation in college.
I had a girlfriend that I lived with from freshman year of college to senior year of college. That was my social world, being holed-up with my girlfriend Persephone and my other lesbian friends. I lived in this house with Persephone and my best friends, Cindy and Jaclyn, who were also dating each other. We had this little lesbian enclave near the bay. We even had chickens. It was probably the most domestic my life has ever been, which it's funny because people are usually the opposite; when they're in college they're unmoored and free, but I was tied-down and holed-up.
I had a really great undergraduate mentor. This old woman, Chris Hassold, who was a strict art historian and psychoanalytic feminist. She had no children, no husband or family or anything. Her students were like her children. She was hard to please, so you kind of had to prove yourself to her before she would give you her attention. I had to go through the process of proving myself to her, and then she loved me and took me on as a student. She kind of turned against me at one point when I outgrew her analysis. Her knowledge of feminism stops in the 80s, and I got more interested in race and post-colonial theory, that was pretty outside of her field of knowledge. I wanted to do a more experimental thesis project. She didn't know if I could pull it off and threatened to fail me, but ultimately she said it was the best thesis she'd ever sponsored.
What was the thesis on?
It was on race, gender, and the practice of writing. I was reading theory as literature – lyrical and poetic theory – and talking about feminist and anti-racist discourses that resist a phallocentric, masculine discourse. I was really interested in the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, who's a Vietnamese, post-colonial feminist theorist, and also Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigiray, bell hooks. I was interested in writing that theorized from the personal.
Lies Journal published your essay Against Innocence, which later got picked up by Semiotext(e) as part of their Whitney Biennial pamphlet series. What was the process by which you ended up writing it?
I wrote Against Innocence while living in Baltimore, where I moved after I finished my undergrad. I was part of a really nurturing and stimulating feminist and anti-racist political community that I found through the Baltimore feminist reading group. I became friends with a lot of super bad-ass feminist intellectuals there.
The feminist reading group became my best friends. Some of the people in the group had gone to the feminist summer camp that happened a few years prior, where a lot of the feminists involved with Lies Journal and the New York feminist reading group all met each other. The feminist summer camp seems to have generated a lot of the feminist projects that were happening at the time. I knew some of the people who were involved with Lies Journal, and they asked me to write an essay.
I had been thinking about a lot of the things that I wrote about in the Against Innocence essay. At this point, they were just nebulous ideas that were floating around in my head. Occupy was popping off at the time, Troy Davis had just been executed, there was a lot of energy but it was also a very depressing, politically bleak time. 2012. It was simultaneously the most hopeful and the most bleak of times.
I wrote the essay from a guerrilla office in the John's Hopkins library. Someone who had two offices gave me a key to one of their offices. I had no personal space in the punk house that I was living in, so I would do my work in this office that didn't even belong to me. Multiple people gave me feedback on it, there were several drafts. A lot of the ideas were developed in conversation with other people. The Baltimore Feminist Reading Group members, and my friend Lawrence Grandpre, with whom I would discuss afro-pessimist theory. My conversations with him helped me clarify my thinking about race, incarceration, and the politics of innocence, particularly anti-black racism in the United States. I'd thought about prisons for a while because of my brother.
What about afro-pessimism interests you?
My thinking on afro-pessimism and social death has changed a bit over the last couple years. At the time, I was really interested in the work of Frank Wilderson. I've basically read everything he's written – both his academic and autobiographical work. He uses film to analyze racial structures and anti-blackness, not just in the United States but globally. He advances a critique of civil society and a theorization of the psycho-sexual dynamics of anti-black racism; it starts from the conviction that slavery was an event that has implications for and continues to live in our present moment, because slavery, ontologically, has restructured the world. He argues that there is a global anti-blackness that produces blackness as social death. And he understands slavery not as a historical event but as an ontological event, a rupture. So when he talks about anti-blackness it's not just an economic critique, but it's an ontological critique, it's a psychological critique, it's about how anti-blackness structures white subjectivity, and how whiteness and civil society relies on the disposal of black bodies to constitute itself.
He's very pessimistic and bleak in his understanding of politics. To him, all politics proper reinscribe this structure that he's critiquing. In most of his essays and books he makes the same analytical gesture: he'll point to some someone's effort at critiquing racism or anti-blackness, and then demonstrate how it fails, because everything anyone does on the terrain of civil society just buttresses it and thereby reinforces anti-blackness.
As I was becoming more and more invested in these afro-pessimist critiques I became very depressed, because it is somewhat nihilistic. I mean, what's so powerful about the afro-pessimist critique is that it totally changes the way you look at the world; it deconstructs how you understand everything and you do feel like your world is unraveling in some ways – you have to reorient yourself and rethink categories. It can lead to this overly-deterministic way of seeing the world which can be very depressing if you are invested in activism or any form of politics.
The afro-pessimists, especially Jared Sexton, have been engaged with people like Fred Moten in debates about afro-pessimism versus black optimism. Fred Moten takes a black optimist stance that emphasizes the improvisatory socialities created in black music and poetry; I've since become obsessed with Fred Moten's work. I don't see them as diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive, I still find value in both perspectives, so I wouldn't say I've switched sides or anything. They're operating on different registers and have different affective dispositions.
When I wrote Against Innocence, I was deeply engaged with the work of Frank Wilderson and Saidiya Hartman. Occupy was popping off. Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, Oscar Grant, also the London Riots. My housemates and I followed the London Riots closely. We'd read articles and argue about them. We were constantly having these debates about politics, critiquing insurrectionist thought, and we kept up with the news religiously. And, like I said, I was having all sorts of other conversations with people in Baltimore as well.
Do you have any mentors?
I feel like I actually can't have a mentor because I would probably “cathect” onto my mentor and it would be too psychologically consuming. Although I've always fantasized of having a mentor. However, I do have a lot of people I would call ‘fairy godmothers’ – they're not really people who mentor me per se, and they're not even people who are motherly, but they are people who come through in times of need, which is the role fairy godmothers play for what I call the Lost Girl. Chris Kraus is one of these people for me. Bhanu Kapil is another. She's a writer who teaches at Naropa. And then I have some older lesbians who sometimes take care of me. There's this couple in Glasgow, Scotland – Nosh and Cloudberry – who took care of me when I lived in Scotland for a few months. And my friend Beth Williams in New Mexico.
I've always wanted a mentor though, someone who cares about me enough to invest a lot of time and energy into me, sees my potential, and wants to enable me to flourish or turn me into an intellectual baller.
Maybe you need to find a partner who's a few years older.
I definitely have the fantasy of being in a power couple, or being psychically fused with someone who’d want to work through ideas and scheme. That's the goal, eventually. Not to be in a power couple per se, because I'm critical of the couple form, but to be in an environment where I'm around a lot of motivated, really extreme people who want to take it to the next level.
I've become accustomed to sharing my life with other people, whether it's through collective living situations or long-term relationships. That's how I operate – I feel like I need a high level of intimacy and exchange to feel charged and motivated so it's kind of weird to now have this monadic (but also nomadic) lifestyle.
I miss having a crew to roll with and feeling embedded in some group or social formation.
Does that exist in the poetry world at all?
There is a community feel in the poetry world but there's not an emphasis on sharing your life with others, like in the anarchist scene.
You started a PhD program in African and African-American Studies and History at Harvard this fall. How have these first few months been?
I still have moments when I pause and think about where I am and how I got here; being at Harvard is hard to get used to because it's in contradiction with my internal sense of self. It's a paradox. I could never have imagined that I would end up at Harvard. When I started getting depressed over the last couple of years, it was always hard for me to conceptualize one day into the future, let alone think of my life having any kind of trajectory whatsoever.
I've actually liked it more than I anticipated I would. It's been a while since I've been really busy and intellectually stimulated and I kind of need that to exist. I need to have intense conversations with people about what I'm reading, to be thinking with people; it's also nice having a fixed schedule. It's so different than the structureless lifestyle I've had for the last four years. I like it, and I'm surprised that I like it. I like my classes, I like my professors, I like sitting in the library reading books. I know I'm kind of a freak in the Harvard context, but it's whatever. laughs.
You've previously talked about being plagued by writer's block. How it gives you anxiety, and induces a sense of failure. It's fairly typical for writers to go through periods when writing becomes really painful, or impossible. It's horrible to be in incapacitated in that way. At the same time, many of the writers I admire have politicized their writers block, repurposed it as something connected to their other struggles.
Writers feel illegitimate claiming the identity “writer” when they're not producing work. They might feel, “I'm not even a real writer, I'm not writing right now! I can't write.”
Writing has become very fraught for me in the last couple of years. Anxiety-inducing, perhaps even the source of my depression. I'm not really sure exactly what precipitated it, although I have some theories. I think being uprooted and removed from my social circle, lack of political meaning in my life since moving to New Mexico, and being removed from the things that were sustaining me in Baltimore. I also got out of a three-year relationship that was physically and emotionally abusive and totally destroyed my self-esteem. And at the same time I was trying to grapple with the end of that relationship and moving across the country, I was also trying to work on this Semiotext(e) book.
I received a lot of recognition in my early twenties – I've been approached by four different publishers about publishing a book with them. I'm constantly receiving solicitations, invitations to do talks, and it has totally fucked with my head. Not in the sense that I've developed this big ego or anything, but thinking about the audience and their expectations has been anxiety-inducing.
The more I come into contact with these spheres of legitimacy or respectability, the more I feel a disjunction between how I identify and the contexts that I exist in.
I don't know how to reconcile other people's expectations with how I perceive myself. I feel afraid of disappointing people, I feel like they're gonna find out that I'm not the real deal. There are all of these neurotic, negative thought patterns that emerge when I try to write or think about writing. So I've become pathologically avoidant of writing. It's pretty wild how inactive I’ve become since I've become really depressed.
The way I thought and lived a few years ago has basically become unintelligible to me. A few years ago writing and creating things was default – I was constantly producing. After I finished my undergrad, I wrote a draft of a novel, two poetry manuscripts, and would write an essay a day about books, current events, films, whatever. And now I feel like I can't even look at my emails. Hopefully it's just a phase.
I never used to be afraid of failure, it was just part of doing your own thing, outside an institutional context, without any expectation of recognition. But the stakes were lower then, things were more playful. I was free to experiment because I was toiling in the shadows, there are no stakes when you're not trying to be someone great or do something profound or amazing. You're just doing your thing because you enjoy it.
And it's not like my work has been systematically rejected by the literary world or the radical world. I pretty consistently receive positive feedback from people, and they tell me my work inspires them and has a positive influence in their lives. So that's good, that's why I like writing and sharing.
Do you feel that poetry comes to you more easily?
I've always been pretty lyrical in my thinking and approach to my work. I'm kind of intense and I value emotionality in writing. And I like trying to find the register that feels natural or comfortable for me. I tweet my dreams on Twitter. I'm always kind of half-conscious when I'm tweeting my dreams but I value that headspace and feel like I can access something different when I'm writing in that register. In that sense, you could say it comes naturally.
I guess I do have a confidence or a level of trust in myself and in my writing that enables me to write in a way that sounds self-assured even when I feel like I'm overwhelmed by self-doubt. I don't acknowledge the validity of anything I do and constantly cut myself down and beat myself up and feel unfree. I should be freer. I think that I have an unconscious willfulness.
Self-doubt is usually the point of departure for a lot of my work. I always have to write through that doubt. Sometimes I sit down with an idea for an essay, and I'm so paralyzed by self-doubt and that I have to incorporate the doubt into whatever I'm working on in some way, or else I can’t move beyond it. I resent that I have to do this, but I also question the motivations for bracketing that experience because the excision of self-doubt is political (in that it’s gendered and racialized). And a lot of women are plagued by self-doubt and specifically anxiety around writing or asserting any kind of authority in their writing. Owning that doubt can be a political gesture.
In Against Innocence you write about white space or colonized space as a place where certain stories just don't matter or aren't interesting. It seems this fraught relationship you have to yourself and to producing your views of the world are so intimately connected to that. That is the experience.
I guess it can be generative in some ways. I've always been suspicious of writers that feel comfortable in language, which is why I've been drawn to Samuel Beckett, Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector. All these authors have a fraught relationship to language. Kafka as well.
Really hating the writing and still having to do it.
Right. There's this Samuel Beckett quote, “The writer is like a fetus trying to do gymnastics.” Writing is the impossible yet necessary task. In some ways maybe this friction is the lifeblood of my writing, this struggle to utter anything. Maybe I resent people who don't have self-doubt because they seem like they can get to a place that I can't because I have to wade through the quagmire of self-hatred before I can even begin to start doing the thinking and the work that I want to do.
Since moving to New York, I've become more aware of how many freelance writers in this city rely on various cocktails of stimulants and benzos for work. I mean, the same was true in college, but after growing up in Finland where pharmaceuticals are less common I'm still surprised by the extent to which people do drugs on a daily basis. What's your relationship to drugs and work?
I actually think prescription stimulants are bad for creative writing, although it can be good for philosophy. I remember reading an exchange between Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre about Sartre’s writer’s block. De Beauvoir tells Sartre, “You used stimulants for decades to write your philosophy books,” and he's like, “Yeah but I can't write novels on them.”
There's also an interesting interview with Susan Sontag that was published in High Times where she talks about drugs and writing. She was also on stimulants but tried to regulate her reliance on them, because she's skeptical of the quality of writing that she produced on them. Derrida also relied on stimulants.
I've known a lot of people who are Adderall addicts and I find them annoying when they're on it. Not that they aren't wonderful people, but it's hard to have a conversation with someone who's all hyped up. I tend to feel anxious on anything that's an upper – coffee, stimulants... Maybe if I weren't so anxious it would be more appealing to me.
Benzos – I try to stay away from those as well because I know people who've had serious issues trying to quit benzos, though I understand the appeal. Sometimes I'm like, fuck, I wish I had Xanax right now so I could just shut off this thought loop.
I do think people should talk about drugs more. Drugs are ancient – they’re a fundamental part of the human experience. I don't know why there's a gag order on talking about drugs. Everyone's on pharmaceuticals, and recreational drug use is so common. I mean, I understand why people hide their drug use. But it seems that in the past people have written and talked about drug use and altered states of consciousness more. We're all becoming biomedical monsters – it’s a mark of our time. I’ve relied on Ambien to sleep since my early twenties because I've been insomniac since I was twelve. And I've taken antidepressants in the past but I'm trying to survive without antidepressants, so I'm exercising and taking Omega-3 supplements. laughs.
There was a lot of internet drama around the alt lit scene last month, when people spoke out about being raped and sexually abused by these alt lit figures, Stephen Tully Dierks and Tao Lin. Were you following this?
I mostly get the digest from writer friends. I've never really been in the loop with the alt lit writing scene.
You've mentioned that some of your intimate relationships that were simultaneously creative/work relationships were similarly exploitative or abusive. How do you navigate your various identities as a poet and writer in these literature worlds that so often are dominated by misogynists?
Oh my gosh. It's totally crazy-making, the world, the writing world, especially as a woman. I feel like the only way to not let it corrode you psychically is to not be embattled with these patriarchs and gatekeepers, to not seek recognition from the white male literary establishment. That's a lot easier said than done. There's an erotic dimension to this power dynamic, and the women who are embattled with these patriarchs sometimes have intimate relationships with the men who are in positions of power. The closer you get to that power, the easier it is to be taken advantage of. Proximity can destroy you. It’s easier for me to maintain distance because I'm not very interested in men romantically.
I don't really put my hopes in the literary world. I'm never surprised when it comes out that there's all this sexism in it. I have one foot in the literary world and one foot in another world, the political world maybe. I've never really felt that the forms of life that I am looking for or that I'm trying to create will emerge out of the literary world. Oftentimes I feel like it's full of people who only care about social capital. There's nastiness in any world or subculture but I never really felt that the people in the literary world are my people even though I probably spend more time in a literary context than anywhere else. Maybe my disidentification with the literary establishment enables me to maintain healthy distance.
What has enabled me to maintain my sanity over the years is being part of a strong feminist friend group, especially since living in Baltimore. I really don't know where I would be without that grounding in my life. If it weren’t for my feminist crew there would be no way for me to confirm that what I think and experience is valid or real. It must be really hard for people who don't have that because the psychic isolation can drive you insane, make you feel that you don't exist and that none of your problems are real.