Michelle Tea: A Writer’s Passion
“I hope to start building up the careers of a lot of writers I deeply believe in, but because of their outsiderness in the literary world do not have careers at the levels they deserve.”
I recently had the great fortune of attending the ninth birthday celebration of RADAR, a “San Francisco-based non-profit that produces literary happenings around the Bay Area and beyond” founded by Lambda-award winning writer and queer culture-curator Michelle Tea. The line-up of readers, including Ellery Washington, Ariana Reines, Justin Torres, and Zachary Drucker, was stellar; I left feeling completely full, and not from the entirely vegetarian hamburger cake served in honor of RADAR’s birthday. A recent transplant from the rural South, where queer literary events frankly just don’t occur, much less in the public library, it was a raw and energizing experience for me to witness the queer literary power drawn together that night.
Michelle Tea recently signed an imprint with the legendary City Light Books, and I had the enlightening opportunity of interviewing her about money, work, activism, sustenance, and her new imprint.
First, in your words: who are you? Where are you? Why are you here? What work are you doing?
I’m a writer and also a literary organizer/activist. Sometimes the literary organizing I do, which prioritizes the work of queer, working-class/poor, feminist, and variously marginalized people feels like activism! I am the author of four memoirs, a novel, a collection of poetry and the forthcoming YA Fantasy novel A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, out this January on McSweeneys. I am the founder and Executive Director of RADAR Productions, a queer-centric literary nonprofit based in San Francisco that runs a monthly reading series at the San Francisco Public Library; an annual poetry chapbook contest; the annual international Sister Spit performance tours and the annual Radar LAB -a free, queer writers retreat in the Yucatan open to the 400+ writers and artists who have performed with RADAR or Sister Spit over the past 9 years. I also am the editor of Sister Spit Books, an imprint of City Lights that will begin publishing this fall, starting with the anthology Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscences from the Road, and followed by two books by Ali Liebegott: her Lambda Award-winning The Beautifully Worthless, now out of print, and Ch-Ching!, a new work. I’ve edited anthologies on class, fashion, first-person narratives and queer female fiction; I write for magazines such as The Believer, and blog frequently about literature at radarproductions.org, and about attempted pregnancy at xojane.com. I also teach and lecture.
It doesn’t take much to realize that you work hard. How do you sustain this level of work? How do you nurture and sustain yourself as an artist?
I think that cliche about work you love not feeling like work is true. While I definitely can feel overworked and like I need a break, in general the work I do feels like play to me. I did this work for a decade for free, so to be getting paid to do it all now seems like the biggest lotto win ever. I make sure to take weekends off (though I usually work a little every day, inevitably) and prioritize my personal and emotional life as much as my work life. And I have a lot of support – RADAR’s former managing director, Elizabeth Pickens, created an administrative structure for the work we do, and I’m lucky to have Ali Liebegott as RADAR’s new managing director. RADAR feels like a family business, which is great, because everyone has been involved from the inception and is really personally invested in its growth. And the work I do at RADAR does nurture and sustain me artistically, because I am always working with, listening to and reading the work of some really brilliant and inspiring artists.
I saw that you have a pregnancy blog. Are you pregnant, or still planning on getting pregnant? Any thoughts/feelings/hopes/fears about how pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing may have on your connections to the queer community, as well as on the work that you do?
I am planning on getting pregnant, adopting a baby or getting my girlfriend pregnant. I have no fears about how it may impact my work or connections to any sort of community; I think my community connections would only broaden with the addition of a kid – there’s not that many more people out there who I am sharing a profound experience with. So that will be cool. My travel schedule will likely be interrupted, but I actually would sort of welcome that – slash – enjoy tweaking the structures to accommodate a baby!
Why the emphasis on reading and performance?
I started writing at and for the spoken word open mics that proliferated in San Francisco in the 90s, so reading and performing as always been inseparable from writing for me. Live readings are really community building, both for queer communities and literary communities and both, and they are great ways to introduce audiences to new writers. Especially for writers who aren’t published yet or are on small presses that don’t have the resources to tour or heavily promote their authors, being able to read your work well and travel with it is necessary for your career. I won’t even publish anyone who can’t or won’t come on Sister Spit, I just can’t afford to.
I read that RADAR gives cookies at literary events. Where do you get your cookie recipes? Any that you are willing to share?
I steal them from cook books or sites like Epicurious. My favorite is Martha Stewart’s cookie-a-day on her web site!
How did you come to see yourself as a writer?
When I moved to San Francisco at 22. I had dropped out of college and knew I wasn’t going back, and that I needed something to make my life meaningful. I’d always written, ever since I was a child, all through my teenaged years, but i didn’t know how a person became a writer. When I found the open mics in San Francisco I was like – oh, you write, that’s how you become a writer. And because you write, you’re a writer.
What do you think writing is?
I think writing is writing.
How do you place writers’ work within broader activist efforts, such as feminism, social justice, class inequity, racial disparity, etc?
I think being a writer and being an activist are mostly two different things. Sometimes you get lucky enough to do piece of writing that functions as activism – a piece of journalism I wrote for The Believer about camp trans and the efforts to include to include trans women in women’s spaces felt like a piece of activism. I think a lot of journalism functions as activism.
How do you feel about money: making it, spending it, charging it?
I love money! I would love for everyone to have lots of it. I myself never pass up the opportunity to make some. Spending it can be a challenge – being broke for so long can make you feel like you’ve got to hoard it, but I really believe you have to let go and trust and spend it! I’ve had to do a lot of internal work to get okay about money – its existence, not demonizing it, hating people who have it, etc. I do a lot of free work and always will, to support various communities I’m part of, but there are certain cases when it’s okay to demand you get paid. I recently opted to not speak at the Ivy Q conference by and for queers at Ivy League colleges, because they wouldn’t meet my normal, modest speaker’s minimum. I was like – really? Is an Ivy League conference trying to not pay me? I think I’d rather not, then. I love money.
How do you connect worth to your work in ways that sustain and nurture you?
Well I am very grateful to be a writer – to have been born with this particular condition and its attendant compulsions. I feel grateful that I have a purpose in the world, and that it often feels larger than myself. It’s great to have a passion to organize your life around, I don’t know what I’d do with myself otherwise! I feel romantic to be part of a people that includes so, so many millions of others through the ages. Writers.
Recently you joined with City Lights to edit your own imprint. Why City Lights?
You know, City Lights was my dream choice, because they have such great integrity as both purveyors of literature and as activists! They really do have a political stance and it is evident in what they publish, AND they have great literary taste. It’s not always easy to find both in one package. They are the result of a great, San Francisco outlaw literary tradition, they are their own legacy and I think Sister Spit is like that, too. I didn’t ask City Lights first, because I was intimidated, they are so, so great. I asked some other places first that I thought might be open, also good matches, but they weren’t able to take it on. I think because City Lights are so established and stable they are in a great position to take a risk. And I felt like such a fool for not going straight to them. Elaine Katzenberger could instantly see what a fantastic idea it is, and said yes. And I was like, oh right. They’re visionaries.
What hopes or intentions do you have in regards to your imprint?
I hope to start building up the careers of a lot of writers I deeply believe in, but because of their outsiderness in the literary world do not have careers at the levels they deserve. I hope that whatever cache my name might have combined with the decades of integrity City Lights have built will inspire people to take a serious look at these writers. I hope that the books sell and that the imprint is wildly financially successful, so that City Lights will allow me to publish even more books a year!
Photo: Amos Mac