Hold all the shadows
Be about a flower
Communicate what’s at stake
When we first met at a conference in Oakland, Trisha Low was showing a poet how to shibari tie his girlfriend. After demonstrating a chest harness tie, Trisha pushed a grocery bag of extra rope into their hands. The gesture looked how it looks when someone insists you take home extra food after they’ve made you dinner.
Trisha’s first book, The Compleat Purge, is hard to digest—it’s a suicide note epistolary that includes Last Will and Testaments and letters to various loved ones. Five years later and her new book Socialist Realism looks uncharacteristically reader friendly. It might even be called a memoir, which I suspect Trisha would hate, not because she hates memoirs but because the book is weirder than that. In Socialist Realism we’re with Trisha riding shotgun in her lover’s car, in church with her mom in Singapore, at a May Day protest, at a house show in Philly, in London visiting Freud’s old office, among other places and times. Most of all we’re with Trisha while she obsesses over what comes next, considering utopias and collective futures, the “just-not-this, or literally-anything-else.”
CLAIRE GROSSMAN: One of the first times you read from this book, Socialist Realism, you told me you were “reading straight,” meaning (I think) that there was no fake blood involved in your performance and that what you were reading might even be mistaken for “nonfiction prose” or a “personal essay.” What changed between your first book and this one?
TRISHA LOW: So many things changed! I met you, for one, I moved to the Gay Bay Area. I am no longer obsessed with innovating methods of my own self-destruction. I don’t know—in some ways, everything changed. The aggressive performances I was giving from The Compleat Purge had started to feel routine rather than risky. With my last book I wanted to confront audiences with bluntly wasteful affect, to expose the violent truth at the heart of a cliché. But once something gets too practiced and well calibrated it doesn’t have the same raw force. I wanted to write something next that felt radically different—where the core of what I’m interested in—our performances of ourselves in the social world, identity-related friction etc.—was still intact, but where on the surface it looked almost contradictory to what I had done before. If there’s anything musicians like Bowie have taught us, it’s that there are many ways to be experimental; some are more easily identifiable than others.
I joke in the book that I got soft when I moved to California but it’s true. The main thing happened between The Complete Purge and Socialist Realism is—not to be dramatic—but I let myself want to live. Given the state of the world, it can feel really fucked up to want pleasure that feels normative—to be loved, to make a home.
And just because I was lucky enough to be able to move to California and learn how not to be miserable doesn’t mean I won’t always be suspicious of the quest for “the good life.” California’s racist, colonial history is evidence that someone’s good life usually comes at the cost of someone else’s. Sunshine and water can make it easy to forget.
If The Compleat Purge is nihilistic, like punk, Socialist Realism is more like the hopeful sentimentality of a country song. It has that saccharine escapism inherent to the stories we tell about our all-too-human lives, how we smooth over our flawed choices.
CG: This makes me think of this poem, which in some way is about being okay with sentiment and what it can hold. Maybe that is why you identify as a poet, because you can do the song and think about it, too.
I found a Gchat from you where you say “lol who wants to convert anyone to poems / not me / it’s more like / u have to electively fall into the pit.” Is the pit part of this book?
TL: What was I even talking about? I don’t remember! But I do love that Juliana Spahr poem. Especially this part:“The room will be dark. The light will be on in the hall. There will be shadows, in other words. And the singer will know about these shadows at this moment and know they had agreed to be with shadows.”
I think that’s similar to what I was calling “the pit.” Which is to say, I have no attachment to “poems” as a lyric form per say but I want my book to do what I think poetry does, which is also what a polemic can’t do—hold all the shadows, show all the parts within an affective vortex.
CG: You often talk about art in terms of “stakes.” When I hear you talk about a reading or a book that you didn’t like, I know the worst thing is when you say “I just couldn’t tell what the stakes were.”
The question of stakes is a through line in Socialist Realism. This is how you talk about works of art throughout the book: Chris Burden’s early work, for instance, has no stakes by your estimation.
Your book clarifies what you mean by this judgment:that a lived politic (“the stakes you’ve decided upon for how you want to live”) is a position someone might also take up in art or writing. Is that right? Can you talk about what you mean by stakes, and what the stakes of this book are for you?
TL: Way to call me out for having judge-y opinions about other people’s writing! Probably though, at a reading, “I just couldn’t tell what the stakes were,” is the meanest thing I would say, probably at the back of the room, gazing upward to the heavens and chugging chocolate milk for strength.
I think we tend to consider the idea of “having stakes” as being more explicitly political, so for example, materializing oneself as a subject, or fostering solidarity can be a stake. But to clarify—when I use the term I’m not exclusively talking about content or subject matter—what I’m referring to is more like a clarity about what the writer is trying to accomplish.
Like, honestly if what’s at stake in your writing is communicating the sublimity of nature, or I don’t know, flowers, then that’s great. If what’s at stake in your writing is a demonstration of the emptiness of form, more power to you. I’m very into formalist stakes! And if what’s at stake for you is the emotionally volatile arc of young white girl’s coming-of-age in New York City then like okay, I guess. It’s really about whether you can make me feel, as a reader, that what’s at stake for you is a question of importance, even if I might not care about it. It’s kind of the bare minimum for what I want out of any art.
On the other hand, what’s at stake is also what you’re willing to put at risk in reality. If you’re a white dude artist, it’s possible that you’re interested in the concept of the uselessness of art or the dexterousness of language in and of itself or whatever—so all you might be risking is like how seriously people perceive you as an artist—that’s not nothing, but it’s a privilege. If you’re a woman of color writing about assault, then what might be at stake is not simply the issue you are presenting but your physical safety moving in the world. Stakes can be a palate of what writers are willing to be accountable for with regard to their material position. Generally, though, I’m of the opinion that if it doesn’t feel bad then you don’t care enough, so work that doesn’t feel like it’s risking something isn’t interesting to me. If something is taking a risk, even if it fails, mostly I can respect it.
I mean, for me, stakes are also historically about possession—about what’s gained and what’s lost—so they’re necessarily a win-lose situation. In this sense, the stakes of Socialist Realism are all about, well, the stakes—how even if we claim them, they often turn out to be contradictory—and the complexity of the moments wherein we’re forced to forsake one for the other.
CG: Can I suggest “the stakes are the stakes” as the flap copy for this book?
TL: Don’t make fun of me! I can’t think of a better way to phrase it just yet. I’m a closet structuralist so maybe it’s good for my work to aggressively embody the thing I’m trying to address.
CG: No, it’s very you. The stakes as how someone moves through the world—this comes up a lot in relation to queerness in this book. You write, “You can’t demand your queer cred alongside the lack of scrutiny that comes with your straight white boyfriend.” I often have some variation on this thought, then feel like it’s 1989 and I’m one of those lesbians heckling Eve Sedgwick about having a husband. Are we humorless lesbians?
TL: Ugh, this is going to sound like a cop-out, but it’s complicated? I’m just kind of crotchety about is how “queerness” as an identity has become so utopic and expansive that it can seem meaningless. If everyone is queer, then we risk erasing the consequences that come with actually practicing homosexuality. But neither am I willing to go so far as to want to revert to an essentializing perspective.
I own multiple pairs of overalls so there is at least some humorless lesbian in me. And obviously like everyone else I have a complicated relationship to the radical feminists of the second wave. I jerked off to all the degrading S/M scenes in my library copy of Dworkin’s Pornography: men possessing women instead of being horrified/revulsed by them—they were so lewdly detailed! Second wavers said a lot of fucked up things but I do think there are ideas in their work that can be torqued and reapplied in this moment (my friend E Conner pointed out to me that Jail Flanagan on this issue is great).
I guess I feel caught between. I don’t feel old, but I get a strange feeling that’s more like, I don’t know, an unwillingness to let go of some older forms of thinking. I think its amazing the way I see a lot of younger people fucking with gender – able to totally eschew it even, to forcefully live reality into what we want it to be. Can we hold a flawed history and an idyllic future within ourselves in an ethical way? It’s a real question—I don’t know how but I want to.
What I do know is that in the rare moments where older writers/theorists can acknowledge their mistakes, I find it touching and humbling—like like Donna Minkowitz did recently—speaking about her botched reporting of Brandon Teena’s murder. When I heard Judy Grahn read last year, she spoke towards her work on menstruation being called essentialist and instead of immediately disagreeing on a theoretical level, or being defensive, just said “when that happened, it really hurt my feelings, and so I took the time to think about it a lot.”
CG: Your book is sort of obsessed with the question of how to resist in common without minimizing how people are differently vulnerable, differently positioned. That glossing-over in terms of “queer experience”—whatever that is—is what produces the uneasiness that you constantly return to.
TL: Yes, totally! My hesitance around “queer” as a marker might suggest I would prefer everyone commit themselves to a static identity—when in fact, it’s the opposite. For me, identity should move according to your circumstances and account for lived experience, material suffering etc., but in practice this isn’t always that simple. All kinds of identities are applied and experienced differently in endless numbers of places and contexts. Life never really lives up to our labels for it.
Andrea Long Chu tweeted a while ago this notion I really like: “heterosexuality is, strictly speaking, impossible, but that doesn’t mean everyone is queer, it means that str8 ppl and queer ppl rep several different kinds of nonheterosexuality, the qn is not are you str8, the qn is, which district of nonheterosexuality do you pay taxes in.” I think that’s a really good analogy because if you are only going to pay taxes in one district of nonheterosexuality (i.e. you are oppressed in one way under heterosexuality) then you can be getting tax breaks in both.
Not to be blunt, but people seem to be attached to identity markers these days as as a preemptive defense against political disagreements. Like, don’t @ me I’m [insert identity category] kind of deal. But no one’s subject position is immunity against acting in a fucked up (racist, misogynist etc.) way against another. And a politics is not inherent to any identity? I like to think that the basis of our politics shouldn’t just be about a shared characteristics, it should also be recognizing that we don’t always have common experiences despite our similarities, and recognizing this is a better way to be on the same side.
I wish I didn’t feel this way, but to some degree, I do feel attached to suffering as some kind of proof of identity, insofar as it’s our reality. Rosemary Henessey writes in Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, “a radical sexual politics is more than a refusal or a resignification of the law. It is also a ruthless interruption of the often less visible relations of labor that have made use of dominant as well as counter-hegemonic sexual identities.” Of course I want to work towards a radical sexual politics—but one that isn’t just some loose freedom of sexuality/identification. What it would mean is something much more complicated—a world where an expansive queerness or experimenting with gender identity isn’t tied up with capitalism’s swift reappropriation of outsider culture or disproportionately compensated labor or any other kind of material suffering. But what would that even look like?
That’s a lot of what Socialist Realism is about—how although desire in and of itself is not liberatory, it’s still necessary—it allows us to keep imagining and theorizing and striving towards a kind of dreamy liberation that is wonderful, even if it ends up ultimately being impossible in this shitty world. As Judith Butler says in this conversation with Sara Ahmed that I see on Tumblr a lot—refiguring the question of “‘Who do I want to be?’ to the question, ‘What kind of life do I want to live with others?’” And of course, I will continue to imagine what that better life could look like. But that’s not the world we currently live in. I think we have to be able to acknowledge that too. We have to be realistic. Ha ha.
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