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.
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.
From 2012-13, I edited a column called Name Tags on issues and experiences related to names and naming in The Land Line, a Chicago quarterly—I am hoping to resuscitate this column eventually, maybe even soon, in a new form. At the time (and still), I had seen so many friends and partners move in and out of names, as artists, as trans people, as various public and private selves, and I was interested in learning about other people’s relationships to their names.
I was also chewing on the problem of my own name—and this problem, which is also opportunity, has become more of a dilemma now that my body’s in transit. My given name combines the common (Megan) with the unusual (Milks) and so I’ve had the experience of being called something both regular and strange much of my life. I’ve published under this name for more than fifteen years, but it has never seemed quite right—in some ways it has an “unauthorly” feel—it is quirky and clunky, a limerick’s false start. And yet it sticks in the mind, a certain advantage. I remember struggling through my first painful short stories in college and thinking to myself: Megan Milks is a funny name—why suffer so hard to write serious, Literary stories? Whether this was a form of nominal essentialism or a way of coaxing myself into queerer terrain, well, whatever.
This weekend I had the pleasure of interviewing Eli Oberman for the NYC Trans Oral History Project. Of the many experiences and insights he shared, an observation he made about dysphoria has stayed with me. He was talking about his relationship to music as a form of expression, and made the point that dysphoria doesn’t necessarily have to mean the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body or gender; it can account, too (or instead), for the feeling of being locked outside of language, of not having language to describe your experience. I am feeling this kind of dysphoria around my name right now. I feel unlanguageable. 😦 Not that “Megan” is the wrong name but that there is no right name to come into. People have been (at my direction) calling me different names; I have been introducing myself in all kinds of different ways; it is starting to really itch.
After many conversations with many friends over the past I don’t know how long, I have tried out and discarded the following names: Mason, Masen, Mazen, Madigan, Madegan, Zachary, Fred, Zig. Sig. Sigfried, M. Gay, Carroll, Question Mark Milks. I’m probably missing a few. Thank you, everyone, who has offered input and advice during this time.
What’s in a name? A rose is a rose is a – OR – Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul (Gertrude Stein). For a semester, I tried on the solid letter M., but ultimately it felt too anonymous, too coy; the double M of M. Milks too thick. Also, Facebook would not let me have it—their name policies don’t allow for single initials. This is how I came to use “Maybe Milks” as my Facebook identity for a few months, until Facebook flagged me and asked for documentation I didn’t have. So I became M. E. Milks, for a time, though that did not reflect what I was going by either.
I still like Maybe as a marker, of both doubt and possibility. And I keep coming back to Henry as an option. Maybe.
DAVID: And who is Henry?
TRACY: I have never met anyone called Henry.
DAVID: So. Who is Henry?
TRACY: I don’t know. Henry is in the cinema, in movies people are called Henry.
DAVID: Which movie?
TRACY: I don’t know, all movies, any movie. They’re always called Henry.
I am currently reading the ARC of Writers Who Love Too Much, the forthcoming anthology of New Narrative writing edited by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, and just came upon this piece by Leslie Dick which is all about Henry, a name that shows up in this character Tracy’s dream.
I like that Henry links me to Henry James and thus marks a literary and nonfamilial heritage. Though I don’t think of him as so strong a literary influence as much as say Kathy Acker or Samuel Delany, Dodie Bellamy or Dennis Cooper, I have a deep appreciation for his work and feel an affinity for him as someone who wrote often about women, who dabbled in horror, who enjoyed the pleasures of cross-generational relationships, who has been read as both asexual and queer. My sentence structures are not nearly as complex and circuitous, my work rarely hinges on indirection and ambiguity; and no, I’m not claiming to be “The Master” (gag), but: I too write often about girls and women. I too dabble in horror. I too have a relationship with both asexuality and queerness. Henry! I’m you! You’re me! In part.
DAVID: So you were Henry, all the time.
TRACY: Henry is me, me as a child, not not-castrated, but not castrated either, and it’s me the powerful woman,…Henry is her and me—which isn’t that surprising, since on some level I identify with her.
I tried to get Facebook to allow me to use Megan/M. Henry Milks as a name but the slash wasn’t approved. It is difficult it seems to have an unstable identity. Facebook wants to stabilize it. I’ve capitulated; now going by M. Henry Milks on Facebook and in most professional contexts. The M stands for Maybe. It stands for M. “M. Henry” links me to Chicago, and to food; there is a popular brunch restaurant in Edgewater named M. Henry.
It also stands for Megan. While I have never felt I am “a Megan,” whatever that means, as I have tried out various alternatives, I’m appreciating its sounds and cadence more and more: especially when pronounced what I consider the American way—a short e, not the Irish e that bends into a long a. I like the hard g. I like the way the two syllables can be delivered as either spondee or trochee (yes, I’ve been teaching meter this week). Is this a form of grief? Maybe. I haven’t decided whether to kill it or not.
Ideally I’d use a string of names to reflect my divine multiplicity, like Maybe Megan Henry Carroll Magnes Upton Milks. Upton aka Uppie was my maternal gay great-great-uncle; Magnes riffs on my grandmother’s name Agnes; Carroll’s a version of my mother’s middle name. Hashtag matriarchy. Hashtag nonbinary.
This is all to say that you can call me any of the following: M. Henry, M., Henry, Megan, Megan Henry, Henry Megan, Maybe Henry, Maybe Megan, Maybe, just Maybe. For now.
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 will be reading with Jeanne Wright, Alaura Seidl, and Lauren Russell this Thursday in Madison. We’ll be sharing work produced during Lauren’s six-week documentary poetics workshop, in support of a zine collecting that work. There will be pizza! And opportunities to work with erasure, collage, etc. throughout the event. I’ll be sharing poems from a new project related to the Slender Man stabbing case. Join us! Party starts @ the Arts & Literature Laboratory (2021 Winnebago St) at 6 pm. More info here.
My essay “Notes Towards an Essay on Bad Laughter” is now published on The Spectacle. In it I explore laughter that is in the wrong place at the wrong time; laughter that means to be something else, laughter that performs the wrong feeling. Thanks to the editors, especially Meghan Lamb, for the invitation!
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.