photo by Karen Tongson
In September I got the opportunity to interview Tegan and Sara at Lambda Litfest, on the occasion of the release of their new memoir HIGH SCHOOL. They are wonderful, as is the book! I will write more about this in the next installment of Name Dropping, my occasional TinyLetter.
My short story “Take Us to Your LDR,” a weird LDR alien sex simulation queer/trans breakup story, forthcoming in Epiphany Journal, has nominated for a Pushcart Prize — thank you, editors!
photo by Temim Fruchter
In late October I visited Brown University for their new Authors in the Archives series and read with Lauren Russell, whose forthcoming work of documentary poetry DESCENT is going to be major. I shared work from The Feels (which draws on fan fiction from An Archive of Our Own), Proxies (which draws on court documents and media reports related to the Slender Man Stabbing), and a new, in-progress long essay called The Hooded Figure, which is about finding love while digging through the archives of Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian and simultaneously studying Philip Guston’s hood paintings.
Speaking of Dodie, my 10,000 word profile of her is forthcoming in Dodie Bellamy Is On Our Mind, to be published by Semiotext(e) in January 2020. (Save the date: NYC book launch will be February 27.) More on this book:
Dodie Bellamy (b. 1951, in North Hammond, Indiana) has lived and worked in San Francisco since 1978. A vital contributor to the Bay Area’s avant-garde literary scene, Bellamy is a novelist and poet whose work has focused on sexuality, politics, feminism, narrative experimentation, and all things queer. In her words, she champions “the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the fucked-up.”
Dodie Bellamy Is on Our Mind is the first major publication to address Bellamy’s prolific career as a genre-bending writer. Megan Milks made several trips to San Francisco in order to spend time with Bellamy and craft a provocative and fascinating profile of the writer. Originally delivered as a lecture at the Wattis Institute, Andrew Durbin’s text takes the form of a personal essay, expertly weaving anecdotes of his own encounters with Bellamy’s writing with insights into broader themes in her work. Academic Kaye Mitchell takes a close look at the role of shame and its relationship to femininity in particular texts by Bellamy. And Bellamy and her late husband Kevin Killian offer deeply personal, emotionally wrenching ruminations on topics from the mundane (drawing) to the profound (mortality). These texts, alongside archival photos and a complete bibliography make, this book an important compendium on Bellamy.
I’ll be giving a talk about Kathy Acker, desire, and im/maturity at the upcoming Trans/Acker symposium, organized by McKenzie Wark, at The New School, on 11/22. Also appearing: Marquis Bey, Kay Gabriel, Juliana Huxtable, Grace Lavery, Torrey Peters, K. K. Trieu, and McKenzie Wark. (Our talks will be published on Public Seminar.)
And I have some gossip. More soon in the next Name Dropping….subscribe here.
Below find, in order, one dispatch from Communal Presence, some news, and a pile of enthusiasms.
Last weekend I was in Berkeley for Communal Presence: New Narrative Writing Today, featuring the legends of New Narrative past and present: Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, Renee Gladman, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, Gabrielle Daniels, Matias Viegener, Roberto Bedoya, Rob Halpern, Gail Scott, yes yes and so on. Seeing all of these writers together in the same room was exhilarating and historical.
In the first plenary, devoted to Kevin and Dodie’s recent anthology Writers Who Love Too Much, Gabrielle, Matias, Roberto, Dennis, and Eileen each briefly shared their own histories and entanglements with New Narrative – how they found it, how it found them. Gabrielle, chronicling what she described as her “apprenticeship” with Bruce and Steve Abbott: “It was a time for my mind to be blown.” Roberto, on “being inside and outside of aesthetic ordering,” particularly as a writer of color: “in and out is a porous terrain of imagination.” Dennis: “Sometimes I was part of [New Narrative], like Kathy Acker, and sometimes we weren’t….now I’ve become lifelong friends with these writers.” Matias [I’m paraphrasing]: “all of us were thrown into these [given] families and then you get a choice, but so much randomness is involved…so many of the people here have become fixtures in my life, and it’s kind of miraculous.” Eileen: “I feel like I’m just hanging out with my teachers…in New York I had learned that you hung out with people who had what you wanted. Each of these guys had what I wanted and I happily took it.” Eileen on meeting Dennis: “We didn’t meet, our magazines met” (Eileen’s Dodgems meeting Dennis’s Little Caesar).
Later, Renee Gladman, in a panel called “New Enactments”: “To be in narrative now is to be in an already fractured state.” At the final marathon reading, she read a stunning piece that got cut out of Calamities; in it, she engaged with Gail Scott’s notion of “a community of sentences” to describe this whole moving architecture of interacting, communal language.
My panel was also a highlight! Sam Cohen and I organized “Bad Boundaries II: Ethics in New Narrative Writing” as a continuation of a panel we put on for the most recent &NOW Festival (2015 in Los Angeles). Maxe Crandall started it off with with a presentation on Poets Theater. “Why is Poets Theater ‘over,’” he asked, “when New Narrative is ongoing, ever-relevant?” He suggested that it may relate to a new cultural investment in the star system–“Poets Theater dies when the star system becomes real.” Three performances on Saturday revived Poets Theater works by Carla Harryman, Kevin Killian & Brian Kim Stefans, and Camille Roy; I trust Maxe (et al.) will keep the medium alive in new forms.
Our panel continued with Nikki Darling, whose paper made connections between New Narrative, magical realism, and experimental fiction as a whole, working to situate both Gloria Anzaldua and Lidia Yuknavitch within the tradition.
Then Sam and I read part of our chapbook in the works, which collects the two stories we each wrote about the other after our difficult breakup in 2015, and a conversation we’re calling “Processing: On Revision and Repair.” For the panel we read modified excerpts from that conversation, doing a kind of mutual overshare via public processing. The chapbook is an exercise in accountability and repair, and it’s a polarizing project: are we only poking at each other’s emotional leftovers, or are we working toward a new queer intimacy? We think the latter. Here we are with Stephen and Nikki post-panel.
Our panel competed with other good-looking panels, and there was much I missed overall. At the Saturday plenary, Rob Halpern and Camille Roy each read deeply affecting back-to-back pieces documenting care and grief for a lover’s gone body. And the opportunity to finally see OG New Narrativists Bob and Bruce read was a gift I don’t take for granted.
NEW OLD NAME NEWS
Presently going by both M. and Megan. For now I am liking holding onto my history in my name as I shift into a new embodiment.
I’ve got two books in the works and recently signed with Rachel Crawford at Wolf Literary Services, joining some of my favorite peer contemporaries: Tom Cho, Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sarah Gerard.
I’d been working on a Best-of-2016 (yes, 2016!) type post that got sidetracked repeatedly by national and world events. Now I’ve turned it into an early Best of 2017(+), and I have beaten you all. Here are some (mostly) recently published books that have delighted and devastated me the past, oh, year or so.
Myriam Gurba, Mean Gurba’s first memoir is officially out in a week or two; I’ve got a review forthcoming in 4Columns, so more TK. But for now: the links Gurba makes here between her own experiences of sexual assault and a much broader rape culture that pervades everything have new timeliness in connection with the Weinstein fallout and the #metoo movement. If you know Gurba’s work at all, you’ll be expecting clever, crass humor and Mean has it in spades: the book is both devastating and devastatingly funny.
Some things to report, plus calls for submissions…
The latest issue of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose & Thought is out, with art by Xiaoze Xie; poems by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Dorothy Chan, Alain Ginsberg, Nazifa Islam, Moira J., or Gaagé Dat’éhe, and more; nonfiction by Anne Yoder, Kristin McCandless, and Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Jill Talbot; AND . . . fiction (<–my section!!) by Lily Hoang, Jennifer Morales, and Cecca Austin Ochoa. Lily’s “The Mystical Adventures of the Happy Cat” is a delightful and eerie fable starring one Happy Cat; Jennifer’s excerpt from Junction/Flame on the Mesa is a sneak peek at her current novel, which houses a lesbian pulp novel within it; Cecca’s “Transient” gives a glimmer of queer utopia to a homeless youth at a farm called Fog Orchard.
Submissions are now open for our next issue. We read twice a year; deadlines are March 1 and September 1. Consider submitting your work!
(art by Kristen Stone)
I’ve rebooted Name Tags, a column series on issues related to names and naming, over at Entropy, and am looking for contributors. Here’s the Call for Submissions. This CFS may be familiar: it’s a new iteration of a column I edited for the Land Line Quarterly from 2011-3.
Speaking of names, I’ve dropped the Henry from my nominal identity — it just wasn’t sticking. I’m currently publishing under the names M. and Megan until further notice.
I’ve been writing for a new arts criticism site, 4Columns. My most recent review, of Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s essential Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing, 1977-1997, was recently posted in full on Dennis Cooper’s blog. Alright!
Speaking of New Narrative, I’ll be at the upcoming Communal Presence conference at Berkeley in October, appearing on a panel called Bad Boundaries 2: Ethics in New Narrative Writing Then & Now, with Sam Cohen, Maxe Crandall, Nikki Darling, and Tim Jones-Yelvington. Sam and I will be presenting work related to our collaborative chapbook project in progress, Bad Boundaries (which collects a story by each of us as well as a conversation about breakups/conflict, writing the ex, and accountability and the duty of repair).
Thanks to a tip from Sam, this spring I took a psychomagic writing class with the genius Laurie Weeks, author of the great Zipper Mouth (Feminist Press), whose short story “Swallow” is included in the above Writers Who Love Too Much. I read “Swallow” in 2005 thanks to one Andrea Lawlor gifting me a copy of its original publication in a 4×4 tiny journal; it CHANGED me. So it was exhilarating to work with her for a few months as part of a queer feminist art cabal in South Williamsburg. We even had our own tincture (thanks, Grace!). I wish I had taken some photos; it was a dreamy and powerful collection of wild weirdos, a lifeboat during nervous times.
I’ve also been contributing a bit to the New York Trans Oral History Project. My conversations with musician Eli Oberman and artist/writer J. Soto are now available in the archive, alongside many other treasures. I believe the project is still looking for more volunteers.
My essay “Itchy Occupations: Toward a Theory of Parasitic Writing” is now out in New Theory, a new journal of inter/crossdisciplinary art and thought. It thinks through the metaphor of “parasitic” writing from a queer biopolitical perspective. Here’s an excerpt:
A parasitic mode of writing is organized around imposition, infection, and itch. It sucks, it burrows, it produces chronic irritation. In contrast to the pure machine of conceptual writing, parasitic writing insists on impurity, transcorporeality, bad boundaries. It is a minoritarian mode, exploiting power asymmetries and enacting imposition: the self-body-text—understood in a post-Enlightenment western context to be bounded, sovereign, impermeable—recognized as permeable; violable.
This essay went through MANY DRAFTS! …
… My interest in the parasite as a figure of possibility for writing emerged from my experiments in appropriative writing as well as my experiences with parasitic infections, which included two rounds of scabies and a summer of bedbugs, all in a fairly short rush of time. During this time I developed an intimacy with my parasites. My scabies mites, for example—I’m using the possessive pronoun, they were mine, were part of me—and they were also a symptom, or evidence, of my participation in queer sex culture. My mites were bred from sexual intimacy, they had breached bodily boundaries, they were reproducing inside of us. My then-partner and I called our scabies our gaybies. I was proud of them, their tenacious circulation through various bodies in my community.
At the same time, they were eating us from the inside, leaving behind a miserable itch. Itching is reproductive, regenerating itself; you might scratch to stop the itch, but doing so only revives it—which is why we often use the word “itch” as a verb meaning “to scratch”—they are the same thing.
Is itching pain, or is it—something else? Heightened sensitivity? New awareness? In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai explores the political valence of irritation, which, she says, “might be described as negative affect in its weakest, mildest, and most politically effete form” (181). Looking at Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, she analyzes the chronic irritation experienced—and provoked—by Helga, a young woman of mixed race and mixed nationality moving through various settings during the Harlem Renaissance. In Ngai’s reading, Helga’s irritation irritates the reader because it is always there: despite encountering what we might consider minor and major instances of racism and sexism, Helga registers them all as equally, vaguely annoying. Their effects come to the surface not as expressive outrage but affective rash, a mild allergic reaction to which Ngai confers political valence.
Following Ngai: what it would mean to irritate a text in a more parasitic fashion, that is, to burrow inside it like a scabies mite, to eat it from the inside, to make it itch?
[bring in Derrida and Lippit on animetaphor, animals exceeding language?]
Yes, all of this got cut.
Over the past few years while writing and rewriting this essay (while doing many other things!) I have read quite a few books on parasites. In addition to those cited in my essay, I will take this opportunity to shout out Rebecca Adams Wright’s brilliant short story “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Alien Parasite.”
Also Mira Grant’s Parasite (#1 in the Parasitology Trilogy), which is NOT v good, tbh, but for the following exchange of dialogue, which gave me light when things got dark:
“Sherman? You’re really a tapeworm? You’ve been–”
“I’ve been a tapeworm the entire time you’ve known me, pet.”
I’ve just returned from my fifth WIFF film in four days! When I was describing my film choices to friends last week, I noted that they were all about…girls. But I didn’t mean it in an objectifying way! I meant: adolescence. Coming of age. Coming into girl identity, sexuality, queerness. Most of them, anyway. // RECAP!
First in my lineup was Mate-Me Por Favor/Kill Me Please (dir. Anita Rocha da Silveira, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers), a feminist serial killer film that follows a group of four teen girls navigating adolescence in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro as it is impacted by a series of rape-murders in the area. The girls become morbidly fascinated with the murders, treating each new one as spectacle, as gossip; the protagonist, Bia, becomes especially fixated, strongly identifying with one of the victims after finding her near-dead on the way home from school–and even seeming to become her at times. The film emphasizes the vitality of Bia and her friends, their desire to live and be in their bodies, sexually, violently, amidst the death culture surrounding them. Notably, there are no adults on screen in this film. The last sequence, including the film’s last, long shot is stunning. This film, da Silveira’s debut, shares many themes and strategies with Sofia Coppola’s work, especially the commitment to capturing transitional zones of girlhood, and the use of big swells of pop music, though Kill Me Please has more nerve, I’d argue, with perverse black humor and unexpected moves in narrative logic. Bonus lesbian makeout scene.
Sunday I saw The Fits and Viva back to back. The Fits (dir. Anna Rose Holmer, #fuckyeswomenfilmmakers) is about girls on a dance team in Cincinnatti who start breaking into fits one by one. Gorgeous and unsettling, the film’s narrative seems informed by the story of the girls in Le Roy, NY, who broke out into tics and seizures several years ago (though those girls I believe were all white). Like Kill Me Please, The Fits explores the (Black) girl body as spectacle and as site of sometimes violent intensity. The film does not pin down the cause of the girls’ convulsions, but suggests they originate in a desire to perform belonging. While the fits make for a strong hook, the film centers on tomboy protagonist Toni, and her longing to be absorbed into the girl group; among my favorite moments were the sequences where Toni tries transferring the movements she’s learned as a boxer to group dancing. It’s a sweet story, the camera capturing Toni’s anxieties and determination to get those sequences right with tenderness. Almost entirely all-Black cast.
Viva (dir. Patty Breathnach) is a straightforward film set in Havana, about a baby drag queen, Jesus, whose new gig as Viva gets cut short by the sudden return of his long-gone alcoholic and abusive/homophobic/overall jerk father. A sumptuously shot, compelling film with fantastic performances, if fairly predictable as far as story goes. Thoroughly enjoyable and quite moving but I wasn’t blown away.
First Girl I Loved (dir. Kerem Sanga)—two girls fall for each other; one girl’s best guy friend gets jealous and homophobic/abusive; Cameron Esposito has a supporting role. I found this film pretty engrossing and I expect teens will love it: really commits to its characters’ big feelings. A solid portrayal of one teen doing her darnedest to pursue her queer desires with little support.
I wrapped my lineup with The Witness (dir. James Solomon), a riveting and emotionally difficult documentary that offers a powerful corrective to what we think we know about the Kitty Genovese case. The film follows Kitty’s younger brother Bill, 16 at the time of her murder, now in his late 60s, tracking down the facts and misinformation surrounding it. The New York Times comes away looking ugly and opportunistic, and those “38 people” who reportedly did nothing, the primary example for what has passed into common knowledge as “bystander apathy,” come away partially vindicated, as is Kitty, whose life, so fully erased by her death, gets recreated here through Bill’s witnessing. I have more to say on this film—to be continued, in a series of essays on reenactments in film.
My short story “AB 469: A Po(r)ny-ography in Three Parts” is now out in SPECS 7: The Unicorn Issue. The story is a response to a remark made by a legislator during a public hearing on trans-discriminatory changing room legislation proposed for Wisconsin public schools last October: “Would you feel uncomfortable changing next to someone with totally different body parts?” Taking a flight of fancy, it imagines shifting from “discomfort” to desire through select Katy Perry lyrics and My Little Pony fan fiction.
While I stand by what is essentially a satirical pornographic lesbian locker room fantasy written as a response to this specific situation, which was, at the time I wrote it, safely distant, I don’t pretend it is a comprehensive or adequate response to the oppressive reality of bills like HB2 or the broader climate of transphobia being expressed in various ways in U.S. culture right now; I stand in solidarity with trans and gender nonconforming people, and particularly trans women, who are affected by this legislation and this climate.
This Unicorn issue is truly magical. My por(n)y-ography shares space with Tim Jones-Yelvington’s brilliant One Direction avant-fanfic; JD Scott’s poetic sequence written to/with the Scribe Angel Siriel (Siri’s older sister); Sharif Shakhshir’s terrific “Unicorn Hunting,” a coming of age unicorn diaspora story in the form of an Assassins game; Shamala Gallagher’s prose poem “Untitled (Unicorn & Cheetos Poem)”; Minal Hajratwala’s poem “Operation Unicorn: Notice from the Department of Taboos” (I’m letting these titles speak for themselves); among others; and Brett Boyko’s cover art, titled “Genderfluid Unicorn Blues.”
Thanks to SPECS editors Kristen Arnett and Cathleen Bota, and everyone else on the team, for putting this creepy campy delight together and including my work in it.
As bonus material, here’s an essay I started on Robot Unicorn Attack several years ago and never finished, but will call finished now. Return with me now, to 2011!
Robot Unicorn Attack is a free online Flash game released in 2010. It features anachronistically crude graphics and two movement options: jump or dash. When you dash, you make rainbows. The soundtrack is Erasure’s “Always.” The game is gay.
A gay game, it offers the promise of winning under threat of death.
The song “Who Am I to Feel So Free” by MEN, released in 2011 with lyrics by artist Emily Roysdon, charts a brief and selective history of queer/trans feminist politics.
changed our names
used our hands
discovered options better than a man
and prosthetic sex
we built this world and we are asking your best
The song’s chorus is strikingly ambivalent: “Who am I to feel so free” can be read as a fist-pumping protest chant, expressing entitlement to be/feel/act free. At the same time the wording conveys an acute awareness that this entitlement is shaky, dubious. In this sense, the question is posed as genuine doubt: Who am I to feel free when my freedom and the freedom of others is perpetually under attack?
The song’s ambivalent relationship to freedom is enhanced by Shearon Van Riggins’ use of gameplay footage from Robot Unicorn Attack in their unofficial video for the song. The version of the song used here features vocals by Anohni, whose performance emphasizes the chorus’s ironies.
In the video, the song narrates our unicorn’s three attempts, and failures, to win. S/he is so free, it’s exhilarating to watch. S/he makes rainbows; s/he blows up but survives to run free again: I feel so free / I could never die / never die.…then the final death coincides with the last repetition of the chorus. Who! / am I! / to feel so free!: kaboom. Robot Unicorn has died.
Juxtaposed with the ambivalent lyrics of the song, the game’s win-or-die / win-then-die / always-die narrative archly comments on the teleological properties of gay and feminist liberation discourse, the rhetoric of which proposes a kind of utopic freedom enabled by winning again and again. The video is a giddy performance of both this utopic possibility—run free, robot unicorn, run free—winning!—while also relishing in crashing and burning, the queer art of failure. The video expresses camp resignation for the failures of gay and feminist liberation politics, amplifying the song’s ambivalence in fascinating and generative ways—ways that call out our failures to achieve collective freedom and coalition through intersectional justice.
Who is this robot unicorn, that s/he should feel so free? Whosoever rainbow-dashes alone, meets failure.
I want to be with you / make believe with you / live in harmony / harmony / always.
My third chapbook, The Feels, is out now in the latest issue of Black Warrior Review. The Feels is a collection of crossgenre writing that grew out of my Fan Fiction and Affect workshop for the AW Mellon Art & Scholarship series last year at UW-Madison. It features Melissa Etheridge lyrics upsetting / or feeling with / William James’s classic theory of emotion; feel extractions from One Direction fan fic; some dirty drabbles; and the Feel Machines (e.g. writing exercises) used to make these treasures. Many thanks to BWR for giving a home to this teary-eyed monster!
And look how gorgeous the issue is, with cover art by Amandine Urruty:
Other treats include fiction by Kate McQuade, Jill Rosenberg, Sequoia Nagamatsu, and LaTanya McQueen; poetry by Rhiannon Thorne, Jennifer S. Cheng, Mary-Alice Daniel, Patricia Colleen Murphy, Mark Baumer, and Anne Marie Rooney, nonfiction by Maria Perez, Will McGrath, Shelley Puhak, and Rochelle Hurt, and…
a special feature on Clairvoyance with work by Claire Hero, Caren Beilin, Karyna McGlynn, Allegra Hyde, Arisa White, Susan Briante, Kendra Fortmeye, and Rachel Levy. Fantastic issue, all around! Purchase here.