Michelle Tea and Her Provocative Queer Lit Roadshow

From Sister Spit, the hilariously feminist, genre-busting literary roadshow, comes an anthology featuring a who's who of queer and queer-centric writers and artists
By: Diane Anderson-Minshall
October 12 2012 9:03 AM

From Sister Spit, the hilariously feminist, genre-busting literary roadshow, comes an anthology featuring a who's who of queer and queer-centric writers and artists. Co-founded in 1997 by award-winning writer Michelle Tea, Sister Spit is an underground cultural institution, a traveling writers' cabaret that brings a changing roster of emerging writers and some of the most important queer and counterculture artists of the day to universities, art galleries, community spaces, and other venues across the country and worldwide.

The first release under the City Lights/Sister Spit imprint, Sister Spit: Writing, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road captures nearly 15 years of the provocative, politicized, risk-taking queer roadshow with poetry, personal narrative, artwork, and fiction from Sister Spit superstars, including Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Michelle Tea, Cristy Road, Harry Dodge, Ali Liebegott, and Lenelle Moise. SheWired caught up with Michelle Tea to talk about who is missing from the book, the impact of 15 years of Sister Spit, and the craziest experience the women had on the road.

SheWired: I love that Justin Vivian Bond called Sister Spit the underground railroad for burgeoning queer writers.  Is that an apt description? What do you think the impact of Sister Spit has been?

Michelle Tea: There are a lot of impacts — the amount of exposure it gives our performers is amazing, we've had writers sign with literary agents who have been in the audience. For the audience it is an explosion of queer-centric entertainment that both turns people on to artists and writers they’ve never heard and the chance to hear writers they already love. I think that when people hear Sister Spit they know what they're getting — irreverent, hilarious, sincere, possibly offensive, heartfelt, and real stories. And queer and literary audiences all over the country are hungry for it.

Because Sister Spit has become sort of an institution, did you have trouble encapsulating 15 years of history in this new anthology?

Yeah! There were individual pieces of writing that really stood out in our shows that I had a hard time placing in the anthology and had to leave out —but there will be more. And I found I couldn't include people from upcoming tours because I didn't know them in tour-context yet.

You have so many great Sister Spit folks in the anthology. Was there anyone you wanted to get in the book but couldn’t?

Oh God, yeah like really everyone who ever came. It was hard wrangling people down, so I missed Ariel Schrag, and of course I wanted [co-founder] Sini Anderson but she lost her notebooks from the ‘90s, which is so upsetting. We have audio recordings I'll likely transcribe for the next volume.

It’s interesting that you’ve been taking Sister Spit (the tour) to colleges around the country, but Sister Spit is really what you did in the ‘90s instead of college. How did skipping college shape you as an author?

Yes, it's so, so true. The morning after our UC Santa Cruz show we had a panel about class, and while talking about all the real and class-based barriers that kept me from attending I was struck and said, “You guys, if I had gone to college none of us would be here right now.” It never stops thrilling me that I get to perform and also teach in colleges yet never attended. I know that you learn a lot outside that system and I feel proud that Sister Spit gets to bring some of that perspective and life experiences into schools. Our artists are often self-taught and come from working class backgrounds also.

Sister Spit was progressively pro-trans before most organizations were. I’d love to hear how many authors came out as trans while on Sister Spit and what the reception was like from audiences.

Sister spit was always pro-trans women, but I did struggle for a moment around trans men, because it had been so important to me that it was a female project. That was what I needed it to be, and I felt that the world needed that, too. But of course that shifted with time. I didn't want to lose the voices that had really built Sister Spit's aesthetic, and as I felt the world needed an all-girl troupe at the beginning, I now feel the world needs trans voices and visibility and inclusion. And once you bring trans guys you're like, Well why wouldn't I bring any guy who fits with Sister Spit? And that's what I do.

Tell me about the biggest drama that you encountered on the road?

There is no single biggest drama from Sister Spit. There are millions. I guess the ultimate was our van dying for good on the Alabama-Mississippi border at midnight on a Friday night. We all had to cram into one hotel room — we were so broke, we had to all sneak into it. We sold the van for parts; the engine had cracked. We unloaded all of our belongings and had to leave a lot behind. We finished the tour in a cargo van it's illegal to transport people in, so we were all flopping around in the back. The logistics of getting to that van were so convoluted and in order not to miss a show we had to drive without stopping and someone had to pee in someone else's French press.

How about the hookups and breakups among the performers?

Let me do the math: there have been eight substantial hookups on Sister Spit, some of which lasted for years. As for break ups inspired by or occurring during a tour, that number is 12.

Cooper’s piece in the book talks about being a shitty capitalist, which I think a lot of queer creatives are. Did the Sister Spit tour ever make money? Or was it always a labor of love?

In the ‘90s we didn't make money. Like Cooper, I was a shitty capitalist and so was Sini. I had a really bad relationship with money and sort of didn't want it to taint Sister Spit; really I just had no faith in being able to make any that I couldn't bear for finances to be a necessary part of any of my projects, for fear they wouldn’t happen. Sini had more goals for the tour to have an income and — gasp — pay us for our work, but it was still difficult to make that happen. Now the Sister Spit tours are totally different. Everyone gets paid well and we stay in hotels, not on strangers' floors.

I love Rhiannon’s tale of your bad Slovenian driver Sabine and getting dumped and lost in Paris. How often did things like that occur?

That's one of my favorites too. Honestly, things like that did not happen often. That was an outrageously bad situation. Usually our road managers are people I know and know to be good vibes on the road, people who are friendly and want to keep peace in the van. But because we didn't have anyone to drive our van in Europe we hired someone from the sort of punk band touring underground or whatever, and got this crazy alcoholic entitled monster. Normally Sister Spit has a lot of peace and love.

Tell me more about the Sister Spit imprint of City Lights. How did that come about? Are you curating the books on the imprint?  

In recent years Sister Spit has been absorbed into my literary non-profit, RADAR Productions. For years we've helped queer writers at so many stages in their work — presenting them at our monthly series, taking them on tour, bringing them to our writers’ retreat in Mexico, offering completion grants. We were doing everything but publishing, and I watched us lose presses and watched existing presses scale back their output. I was concerned that these great books I was aiding would not find a home, and so I got obsessed with publishing. Rather than jump in over our heads and start a press outright it seemed better to find a publisher I loved who could see the benefit of a Sister Spit imprint. City Lights is a dream come true. It is a heroic institution, and I'm blown away to get to be working with them this way. I get to pick three books a year. We have books coming up from Ali Liebegott, Beth Lisick, Dia Felix, Lenelle Moise, and me.

I know you have been blogging on XOJane.com about your attempts to get pregnant. XOJane seems like a very different audience for you. What’s the reaction to your blog been?

I've only had great feedback from blogging on XOJane, both on and off their site. I really love the girls who comment on the blog, they're so super supportive and helpful. It’s been a 100% cool experience. I see XOJane readers as descendents of Jane magazine readers who are of course descendents of Sassy readers!

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