Tim Jones-Yelvington: On the Joys of Melodrama
Author: M./Maybe Henry Milks
February 15, 2017
“Outsized emotions and shocking, arbitrary plot twists remind what it feels like to be a rageful, shameful, obsessive and infatuated queer boy.”
The first time I saw Tim Jones-Yelvington read, in 2010, he was reading what is now the title story of his first collection This Is a Dance Movie!, and he performed it with the help of a frighteningly lifelike cardboard cutout of Taylor Lautner. This was before he developed the drag persona TinTim and became known as “the Lady Gaga of Chicago’s lit scene” (it was the height of Gaga’s reign at the time). Since then, Tim has been publishing steadily, including two chapbooks, Evan’s House and the Other Boys Who Live There (2011) and Daniel, Damned (2016).
Finally, his long-awaited first book is out. The stories in This Is a Dance Movie! recently published by CCM/Tiny Hardcore Press, feature characters such as Adam Lambert and Matt Mitcham; Terr-bear, the stolen stuffed bear; Abner, “a child who wanted to get slimed”; and Chore Boy and the Brawny Man, who are worried about their special friend Snuggle Bear, caught up as he is in a toxic relationship with Mr. Clean.
Jones-Yelvington is also celebrating the release of a new chapbook of cross-genre writing. Become on Yr Face, which won DIAGRAM’s 2016 Chapbook Contest and was released in January, is a series of imagined becomings, ranging from becoming girl, becoming boy, becoming teenager, becoming sexbot, supermodel, and insect.
Drawing on New Narrative, avant-pop, and performance art with a heavy dose of camp, Jones-Yelvington’s work delivers a rush of fantasy, comedy, theatricality, perversity, big beats, and big feels. I’ve known Tim for several years now; we co-hosted a queer reading series in Chicago and have traded work back and forth for some time. I am always thrilled, challenged, and impressed by Tim’s work, which has come to inform my own quite strongly. This interview was conducted by email in late October.
One of the things I love about your work is the delight it takes in narcissism. You’ve created a celebrity avatar of yourself [I’m referring to the as-yet-unpublished manuscript Strike a Pose: Memoirs of a Lit Diva Extraordinaire, in which the author constructs a literary celebrity named TJY]; in “Becoming Supermodel” you take on the persona of a supermodel. What interests you in exploring narcissism?
I hadn’t thought about describing this as narcissism, the word I’ve used is “vanity.” I always find myself drawn to the practice of weaponizing stereotypes, based on the idea that negative representations of queerness have a radical potential that positive ones do not, because they are more threatening. With vanity, I think this plays out on a few different levels. One is questioning the values of mainstream respectable literature. When I first saw your question, I decided to take a quick look at dictionary definitions of narcissism, just out of curiosity. One definition of a narcissist is someone who cannot distinguish the self from external objects. In my writing, I’m very interested in challenging this liberal humanist mandate that we’ve received from literary fiction in particular, this requirement or expectation that in order to be good art, a character must have a certain kind of deep interiority that is only expressed indirectly through the actions they take during the story, and figurative descriptions of their external environment. My friend the poet Ji Yoon Lee once said something to me like, “Why do we only accept the humanity of a certain kind of human?” At the time, I was wrapped in fluorescent duct tape with googly eyes glued all over my face. I am drawn to characters whose feelings are over the top, transparent, worn on the skin, who in a way turn themselves into objects.
I think another element of this is the role that vanity plays in queer resilience and survival. I’ve described my poetry chapbook Become on Yr Face, in which “Becoming Supermodel” appears, as a series of queer fantasies of becoming. When the work is narcissistic, I think the self that I’m obsessed with isn’t necessarily my current or “actual” self, but something more fantastical. Some of these fantasies are as violent as they are liberatory, and aware of their own contradictions or impossibility, like the line that ends Supermodel, “There is no suite in Peru.”
Many of the stories in This Is a Dance Movie! take up the subject position of adolescents coming into queer sexuality. In our panel at this past AWP, you addressed some anxieties about writing about teens as an adult who works with youth. What compels you to write adolescence/adolescents, and how do you negotiate those anxieties?
On our panel, I was talking about the idea that adultism is a real system of oppression that privileges adults over young people. I think that a lot of people are aware of issues like adults talking over young people, or not taking young people’s perspectives seriously, but I’m not sure how many of us, even in radical and/or progressive circles, really think about this in terms of systemic oppression, that structurally and institutionally, youth are denied an influence in the policies that affect them. So I just think that as adults writing about young people, we have some responsibility to be mindful of that power dynamic, as we would when writing about other marginalized experiences that may not be our own. At the same time, youth is one of the few oppressed identities that we all pass through or experience during some portion of lives, which shapes us and sticks with us. I also think that adultism has as major cultural component that intersects with other oppressions, and that the social construct of the child or young person, i.e. someone immature, someone we assume cannot take care of themselves, is an idea that we project onto a lot of other oppressed groups, like queer folks, women/femme folks, the poor, people with disabilities, etc. So I think that a lot of queer people have a distinct relationship with youth and adolescence, because we may not be viewed by the dominant culture as fully adult (especially if we party past our prime, or don’t have kids, or stable employment, etc.), and because for many of us, adolescence was a really formative time, like the location of some defining trauma or awareness of “otherness.” So for me, unrequited adolescent longing seems to be a big recurring theme, and one that I think appears in several of these stories. That jittery excess of teenage feeling, I’m very very drawn to that for some reason, it’s been something that haunts me.
But in terms of negotiating that anxiety about the power I hold vis-a-vis actual young people…the manuscript that I am working on currently is a set of stories that are loosely connected by the theme of queer evil. For a few of these, this has meant writing into the perspective of the adult who finds young people desirable. What I have found interesting is that although I thought these stories, and my interest in queer evil, were about one thing—about that radical weaponization of threatening stereotypes which I mentioned previously—I’ve realized that these stories are actually about something else entirely, which is anxiety about mortality and my own aging, expressed through characters that have a deliberately troubling and predatorial relationship with young people.
Queer evil! Yes! I love the Pretty Little Liars sequence in Become on Yr Face. Have you returned to that show now that A has been revealed to be a deranged trans woman?
That reveal was messed up, but I still watch. Maybe it’s some kind of special masochism, but it feels like I’ve invested too much time not to see it through to the end. The show’s dramatic momentum has thankfully improved since then, there were some rough seasons. Speaking of weaponizing negative stereotypes—Not being trans, I don’t feel like the trans murderer trope is one that it would be in any way cool for me to “reclaim.”
My Pretty Little Liars–influenced poem, though—which also exists in a much more extensive prose form that will be in the queer evil manuscript—came out of a period of time when I was spending a lot of time reading and chatting with women poets associated with the “gurlesque,” like Kate Durbin and Lara Glenum. I was really drawn to the various ways in which they and other gurlesque poets were claiming and occupying an objectified adolescent femininity and using that to channel something threatening and radical. The PLL poem was me figuring out how to feel about the power dynamics that exist between adolescent women and myself as a cis gay man, like how much of my appreciation for both that show and gurlesque poetry was about identification vs. appropriation vs. some kind of fucked up, fetishistic gay male gaze. So I think that takes on some new dimensions in light of the show’s trans reveal, especially given how often I’ve performed my PLL piece in drag, and given the vexed politics around the relationship between cisgay drag performances and trans politics and communities. And of course there are all the other very relevant critiques of the gurlesque movement and how a lot of that work seemed based in a conception of adolescent femininity that was narrowed to white, cis, hetero and middle class experiences.
In a few stories in This Is a Dance Movie!, you adopt the perspective of a fan who is attempting to have sex with gay celebrities as part of a research project. In addition to providing analysis on the social construction of celebrities, these stories also illuminate the role of the fan in that construction. We both have an interest in fan fiction, and in using fan fiction strategies in our work. What interests you in fandom and the role of the fan? What fandoms do you consider yourself a part of?
I don’t think that the narrator of those stories would self identify as a fan, but rather a critic. But his facade continually unravels, and he reveals himself to have less than objective feelings about the celebrities he seduces. That protagonist is very emotionally defended, neurotic… his voice feels extremely self conscious to me, very 20-something. I find that to be true of several of the stories in this collection, most of which were written between 2008 and 2011. I feel like at that point in my life and development as a writer, I needed a lot more scaffolding to permit my weirdness. These days, I’m more likely to just begin with the swoon, and run with it.
Which is what I love about your work on fandom, like in your chapbook “The Feels,” how you lean into that swoon. I watch way too much television, and have made the decision to reject most of the respectable “prestige shows,” both because their deliberate pacing bores me and also because of their heteromasculinist bias, like how are we still not over the idea that there is something inherently interesting about dudes doing bad things? I grew up on soap operas, and am a big fan of melodrama. I always say that all of the shows that I watch are either melodramas about teenagers, melodramas about superheroes, melodramas about the music industry, or melodramas about politics. Outsized emotions and shocking, arbitrary plot twists remind what it feels like to be a rageful, shameful, obsessive and infatuated queer boy.
That said, I don’t know that I can say I’m a part of any actual fandom, in terms of participating in a community with other fans. The closest I got was when I was recording weekly Youtube videos reviewing episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and interacting with that show’s fans on Reddit. And there were so many wonderful people involved in that fandom, but it just started to exhaust me and kill my interest in the show, all the constant discussion and rehashing and defense of why this or that queen did this or that, why this or that queen is underrated, etc. I’m also a little bit weirded out by the part of current fan culture that’s about “stanning,” like the idea that it’s your duty to viciously attack anyone who criticizes your favorite singer/actor, etc. Like there’s that meme that says: Haha, your favorite is problematic! —Whereas I feel like back in the day, we just took it as a given that like duh, no shit, every pop culture product is in some way “problematic.” —But at the same time, I don’t always have the patience to hang around with intellectuals and activists who can only consume pop culture through a critical lens, without any earnest joy…. But maybe I enjoy my fantasy of the obsessive fan more than I do the reality?
Your fiction often draws on film and TV genres like the dance movie and the procedural crime show, and you also work with everyday forms of writing like blog posts and online personal ads. Then, of course, you’re also writing in and between fiction, poetry, performance. How do you think about genre and form when writing?
I don’t think I’m anti-genre or anti-form… I think I like the idea of form and genre as tools or like part of a palette that you can paint with, push back against, fuck up or fuck around with, bend and break and recombine, etc. Which is maybe how I think of gender? Like I have great respect for folks whose primary commitment or identity is breaking binaries, but I’ve always felt a little more interested in exaggerating them, which is where I got that line in my “Becoming Sexbot” poem, “Extragender my mechanipubes.” I was thinking about and rejecting the idea of the gender ambiguous robot, in favor of something saturated in gender or genders.