Michelle Tea on Sister Spit, tit-ins and how to deal with Mercury retrograde
Sister Spit is coming. The queer, feminist-minded, spoken-word tour will land at St. Cajetan Event Center on the Auraria campus Friday night, and at the helm of the event is founder, author and icon Michelle Tea. From her debut memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America to Rose of No Man's Land, her young adult fiction, Tea consistently produces bold, thrilling and confessional work.
We caught up with the San Francisco-based writer in advance of the show to talk about writing her memoir, organizing tit-ins in Tucson, and how to deal with Mercury retrograde.
Westword: Where did the idea for Sister Spit come from?
Michelle Tea: Well, it started out as an all-girl open mic in 1994 and that was a moment when there were a lot of open mikes all over San Francisco and spoken word was really popular. But they were really very male-dominated and a lot of the male poets were of the Charles Bukowski/Henry Rollins school so there was a lot of obnoxious drunk dude energy at all of them. And I was introduced to Sini Anderson who was a slam poet from Chicago who had just come to town and she had told me she wanted to start an all girl open mic. Friends pointed her in my direction as somebody who will know what the scene is like and who she should invite and stuff like that, and when we were meeting we just really hit it off and we were like, "Oh, we should do this together." So we did Sister Spit as a weekly open mike for two years and it was really successful, but then towards the end there were just less people coming. We felt a little burned out and so we called it quitsm but knew that we'd come back to the project in some fashion and in that intervening year I was in a band.
I was the drummer in this band and we went on a tour of the West coast and we weren't a very good band and I was a very poor drummer. But regardless of that we were able to go on tour and have this wonderful experience on the road and go on a road trip and meet people and see the world in this particular way. I ended up quitting the band, but I really didn't want to quit that experience and I thought, god, there are so many bands that manage to go on tour every year, these little DIY punk tours. Why couldn't we do that with poets? The writers that we know are so talented and with a band your audience is only gonna be people who like that music. I think that storytelling and poetry in a way is sort of universal so we took this massive chance in 1997 and we went out on tour with nobody really knowing who we were. We had Eileen Myles with us, she was really the only person that had any kind of literary career where people might recognize her name, but it was a fantastic tour. We did really well; we had crowds everywhere we went. Sometimes we had crowds that really astounded us. We got press. We had lots of tragedies as well, like we lost our van that we had spent a year to fundraise for. It died on the road and we had to sell it for parts, which was very stressful. But we did it, and at the end of that month we were able to give everyone $80 for their month of work. And so that felt like a success when we weren't even sure if we were gonna make it across the country.
How would you describe the Sister Spit energy?
It's definitely really irreverent. It's definitely high energy, not low energy. It's not a serene poetry reading. There's a lot of bloopers, there's ad-libbing, there's conversation with the audience. There's a sensation that the people who are reading are kind of speaking to you directly. There's a sort of comfortableness that our performers have with themselves and with the audience and with their own material. There's definitely people who have the ability to be shocking without overtly trying to be shocking, because nothing is more boring than that. Just people who are able to make these kinds of connections and be so daring and honest that you get a thrill from watching them and wonder how they're doing that on a lot of different levels. Definitely people who are not necessarily queer, but they need to have a real tight familiarity with queer culture. And people who kind of come out of a feminist background in a way that is in their work but not in a way that's didactic, but just sort of informs their work in a broader sense.
What will you be reading from on the tour?
I will be reading from my blog that I've been writing for xoJane.com, which is Jane Pratt of Sassy and Jane magazine fame, it's her latest web magazine. And it's called Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea and it tracks my attempts to get pregnant, which I've been working on since October.
How did you get involved with Jane Pratt? Have you known her for a while?
You know, no, what's really funny is that when I was in my twenties and living in Tucson, Arizona I started a chapter of Queer Nation that was a very odd chapter. It was basically whatever activism we did was just totally 100% dictated by whatever I was upset at at the time [laughs]. There was no consensus, it was just like what bothered me, that's what we did. So I was really bothered by living in hot hot Tucson and how women aren't allowed to take their shirts off. So we did this series of protests called tit-ins where all these women took their tops off and we really got a lot of attention in Tucson and we even got arrested and got to bring it into the court system, which is what we wanted because we had a great lawyer. It was very clearly unequal protection under the law and we had a great argument, but no one wants to rule on that. So they kind of threw it out of court and said it was freedom of speech. But during that time we were getting a lot of media attention and Jane Pratt had her talk show, The Jane Pratt Show, and I was contacted by them and they flew me to New York to be on an episode called "Boobs, What's the big deal?" [laughs]. So I did meet her that time, but we don't really know each other. That was before I had a writing career or anything like that. I was contacted by Emily McCombs, who's one of xoJane's editors, and she just contacted me on Twitter actually and was like, "Do you want to write for us?" And I was like, "Oh my god, I'd love to." I'd been feeling like I really wanted to write about this experience and suddenly I had this really great opportunity to do that.