Sister Spit is coming. The queer, feminist-minded, spoken-word tour will land at St. Cajetan Event Center on the Auraria campus Friday night, and at the helm of the event is founder, author and icon Michelle Tea. From her debut memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America to Rose of No Man's Land, her young adult fiction, Tea consistently produces bold, thrilling and confessional work.
We caught up with the San Francisco-based writer in advance of the show to talk about writing her memoir, organizing tit-ins in Tucson, and how to deal with Mercury retrograde.
Westword: Where did the idea for Sister Spit come from?
Michelle Tea: Well, it started out as an all-girl open mic in 1994 and that was a moment when there were a lot of open mikes all over San Francisco and spoken word was really popular. But they were really very male-dominated and a lot of the male poets were of the Charles Bukowski/Henry Rollins school so there was a lot of obnoxious drunk dude energy at all of them. And I was introduced to Sini Anderson who was a slam poet from Chicago who had just come to town and she had told me she wanted to start an all girl open mic. Friends pointed her in my direction as somebody who will know what the scene is like and who she should invite and stuff like that, and when we were meeting we just really hit it off and we were like, "Oh, we should do this together." So we did Sister Spit as a weekly open mike for two years and it was really successful, but then towards the end there were just less people coming. We felt a little burned out and so we called it quitsm but knew that we'd come back to the project in some fashion and in that intervening year I was in a band.
I was the drummer in this band and we went on a tour of the West coast and we weren't a very good band and I was a very poor drummer. But regardless of that we were able to go on tour and have this wonderful experience on the road and go on a road trip and meet people and see the world in this particular way. I ended up quitting the band, but I really didn't want to quit that experience and I thought, god, there are so many bands that manage to go on tour every year, these little DIY punk tours. Why couldn't we do that with poets? The writers that we know are so talented and with a band your audience is only gonna be people who like that music. I think that storytelling and poetry in a way is sort of universal so we took this massive chance in 1997 and we went out on tour with nobody really knowing who we were. We had Eileen Myles with us, she was really the only person that had any kind of literary career where people might recognize her name, but it was a fantastic tour. We did really well; we had crowds everywhere we went. Sometimes we had crowds that really astounded us. We got press. We had lots of tragedies as well, like we lost our van that we had spent a year to fundraise for. It died on the road and we had to sell it for parts, which was very stressful. But we did it, and at the end of that month we were able to give everyone $80 for their month of work. And so that felt like a success when we weren't even sure if we were gonna make it across the country.
How would you describe the Sister Spit energy?
It's definitely really irreverent. It's definitely high energy, not low energy. It's not a serene poetry reading. There's a lot of bloopers, there's ad-libbing, there's conversation with the audience. There's a sensation that the people who are reading are kind of speaking to you directly. There's a sort of comfortableness that our performers have with themselves and with the audience and with their own material. There's definitely people who have the ability to be shocking without overtly trying to be shocking, because nothing is more boring than that. Just people who are able to make these kinds of connections and be so daring and honest that you get a thrill from watching them and wonder how they're doing that on a lot of different levels. Definitely people who are not necessarily queer, but they need to have a real tight familiarity with queer culture. And people who kind of come out of a feminist background in a way that is in their work but not in a way that's didactic, but just sort of informs their work in a broader sense.
What will you be reading from on the tour?
I will be reading from my blog that I've been writing for xoJane.com, which is Jane Pratt of Sassy and Jane magazine fame, it's her latest web magazine. And it's called Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea and it tracks my attempts to get pregnant, which I've been working on since October.
How did you get involved with Jane Pratt? Have you known her for a while?
You know, no, what's really funny is that when I was in my twenties and living in Tucson, Arizona I started a chapter of Queer Nation that was a very odd chapter. It was basically whatever activism we did was just totally 100% dictated by whatever I was upset at at the time [laughs]. There was no consensus, it was just like what bothered me, that's what we did. So I was really bothered by living in hot hot Tucson and how women aren't allowed to take their shirts off. So we did this series of protests called tit-ins where all these women took their tops off and we really got a lot of attention in Tucson and we even got arrested and got to bring it into the court system, which is what we wanted because we had a great lawyer. It was very clearly unequal protection under the law and we had a great argument, but no one wants to rule on that. So they kind of threw it out of court and said it was freedom of speech. But during that time we were getting a lot of media attention and Jane Pratt had her talk show, The Jane Pratt Show, and I was contacted by them and they flew me to New York to be on an episode called "Boobs, What's the big deal?" [laughs]. So I did meet her that time, but we don't really know each other. That was before I had a writing career or anything like that. I was contacted by Emily McCombs, who's one of xoJane's editors, and she just contacted me on Twitter actually and was like, "Do you want to write for us?" And I was like, "Oh my god, I'd love to." I'd been feeling like I really wanted to write about this experience and suddenly I had this really great opportunity to do that.
How is it different writing online versus writing books?
I guess the most obvious, immediate difference is that you know you're writing for a very immediate audience. There's a way when you're writing books that even though you hope that that book will be published there's always that possibility that it won't, or that it will take a million years to get published. And so you're kind of just concentrating on the story and you're not necessarily thinking of the audience. But I'm really aware of my audience when I'm blogging because, you know, it's gonna go out there and people are gonna read it immediately. And I really like the audience that has kind of made themselves known as readers for this blog. I think they're so cool and I really enjoy writing for them. So that's really different. The immediacy, you know. It's not really edited. That's kind of scary, but I'm a really impatient person and I hate editing, to my detriment definitely sometimes. It just goes up there with a lot of typos [laughs]. I just learned this week that I actually have been using the word "nonplussed" incorrectly my whole life, so I'm learning a lot also from it [laughs].
Most of your writing is really personal. How do the people in your life react to that? Do they like being written about?
Some people have. A lot of people have not. When I was younger and I was a lot more kind of hurt by life and hurt by a lot of the experience I had with people and I didn't really care about how they felt about it. I had a certain amount of bravado when I was younger and I'm grateful for it, because I wouldn't have been able to write what I wrote in the way that I wrote if I had been very concerned. But at this point in my life it's a lot harder. I definitely feel really sensitive toward the people around me and I don't want people to be uncomfortable or have their lives made difficult as a result of my writing. I was working on this really long, involved, strange, experimental kind of memoir and one of the focal points in it was an eight-year relationship I was in. And my ex just couldn't handle it at all. So I had to figure out what I was gonna do, because it was a major part of the book, and the pros of just putting it out there regardless were really smothered by the cons of just having this thing in my life where I'm gonna have to just know that this person's pissed all the time and have to interact with them about it. So what I did was I went into the book and I just took that relationship out of the book, which was about 250 pages, and it's making the book even more experimental but I'm sort of embracing it as this opportunity to write about the difficulties and strangeness of writing memoir. So we'll see what happens with it.
As far as my blog, my girlfriend Dashiell, who I write about in the blog, she's really amazing and I really check in with her all the time. It's much more important to me that she feels comfortable and she feels good about what I'm writing than that I write it. So I really check in with her to make sure that her anonymity or her comfort doesn't feel very compromised. So right now she really likes it and I really like writing about us. Historically it's always been easier for me to write about difficult relationships so it's a real treat to be so in love with someone so wonderful and feel inspired to write about it.
The memoir you were talking about writing, is that Come, Armageddon, Come?
Yeah, although now I've changed it back to its original title at the urging of Ariel Schrag, who I respect and love, and it's now called Black Wave. And now it'll be out probably in 2014 on Sister Spit Books.
You also have a young adult fantasy book, A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, coming out on McSweeney's. How is the process of writing fantasy different than memoir?
In some ways it's harder, in some ways it's easier. The good thing about memoir in a way is the story is already there for you. You're not really creating the story, your job is to sort of tell the story in a way that's really artful and creative. But with this you still have to be artful and creative but you also have to come up with everything from the ground up. So that's really challenging, but it's also really freeing to just be able to indulge my imagination in a way that I have never done before and I feel really inspired to do that right now. It's a relief, really, to not be writing about myself. Also, that urge and desire is still there, but I have to temper it because I don't always love the results of having a ton of work about myself out in the world. I'm also writing another young adult book called Little Faggot that's about a little faggot who runs away from his home in Phoenix, Arizona and has an adventure rather than killing himself. And then I will return to the weird memoir. But even this memoir Black Wave, I've fictionalized it so much. I mean, it's occurring in the '90s, but it's a '90s when the world is actually ending. So there's a lot of fictions in it that kind of temper the whole writing about myself thing that can feel complicated at this point.
You used to write an astrology column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Body + Soul magazine. Do you have any advice for people when Mercury is in retrograde?
Oh, it's so terrible! I mean, there's just nothing we can do except persevere and suffer together and cut each other slack when shit fucks up, because it's going to. And just wait, because it will go out of retrograde again like it always does and then it will go in like it always does. We have this huge curse, we always tour during a Mercury retrograde. I can't tell you how many Mercury retrograde tours we've done. We toured Europe on a Mercury retrograde and it was, like, awful [laughs]. I mean, it was awful for me, but the people on the tour actually had quite a lovely time, but it was difficult as the tour's sort of leader, and a lot of it was just classic Mercury retrograde stuff. So I am traveling with my little astrological calendar that tells you everything that's happening astrologically every single day, so we can concentrate on what else is going on, what's in our favor, what's gonna help us conquer Mercury retrograde on that day. Mars is retrograde right now, too, which is also horrible.
What does that mean?
Mars is like your energy level, it's your ambition, it's your drive, it's the mechanics of what makes things go. When Mars is retrograde it's like you don't have the energy for things, you don't understand how to go straight ahead, your efforts are blocked. It's tough. And to have that and Mercury together is a hard time right now. But they go direct in April, both of them, so there's a light at the end [laughs].
So what happened on the European tour that was caused by Mercury in retrograde?
Well, you know, was it caused by Mercury in retrograde or was it caused by total irresponsibility? And which is which? The thing that was the hardest about that tour was that the person we got to be our van driver through continental Europe, who was the only person on the whole tour who was actually guaranteed to get paid was this crazy, mean, alcoholic crusty punk who lived in a van from Slovenia. And she was just terrible. She hated us and her drinking just got worse and worse and she was less and less able to hide it from us and it was very stressful. We missed a boat because of her. We had to drive our van onto a cargo boat and take it across the Baltic to get to another show and we got lost in the forest of Sweden, just lost in this forest. It was crazy. And then we ended up getting on this other boat instead that was filled with truck drivers and trucks and we were the only females on the whole boat. It was really intense. So yeah, it was very hard. It's just hard to do a DIY tour for Sister Spit because it's a very expensive tour. So we were just performing in a lot of squats with a lot of sliding scale cover charges, a lot of no one turned away, and to a lot of people who feel entitled to get art for free. So we just kept losing money, which means that money was coming out of Sister Spit's parent organization, which is RADAR Productions, so we just lost money and that's just very stressful for a small, queer, literary organization to lose money.
Why do you think that is that people feel entitled to get art for free? You know, I don't know. I think that there's this really cool idea that's like anti-establishment, anti-art world, anti-capitalist about how art should be free. And I think that's a cool concept, but it doesn't actually get applied to the echelons that could be most helped by it. It's not like suddenly Damien Hirst is selling his work for $3. It gets applied to really low income artists who are struggling to make it anyway. So it's a kind of idealistic idea, but where it gets applied is very harmful to art and artists. I donate my time as a writer and artist all the time, but when you're on a tour like that that's not the time for that, that's the time for people to show their appreciation and support of what you're doing by, you know, paying at the door. It's extra stressful and insulting in situations where we have these huge audiences where they're all drinking beer and they're all smoking cigarettes and you can just see what people's priorities are. It's extra irritating and annoying in sort of politicized communities where you're like, really? You're not gonna pay these artists who traveled thousands of miles to share their work with you? So that was the mindset that I was in on our European tour. I was very bitter and I don't like being bitter because I'm a very optimistic and positive person, but that was a very rough experience.
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What do you hope that people get out of coming to see Sister Spit?
I really hope that they get a great literary entertainment experience, you know, that they're able to have their minds blown a little bit and really have that experience of relating to people who are reading. I think that's a cool thing that Sister Spit does is the people that we bring, sometimes it's the same person and the same piece, you're both really identifying with them and really kind of getting your mind blown by them at the same time. I think we do a good job of provoking people to think differently and also just really reflecting back to our audience their lives. A lot of our audiences are queers and feminists and outsiders that in general don't get their lives reflected back to them. And I hope that people find their next new favorite writer and artist who they're obsessed with.