Nothing Scarier than a Brown Titty: MILK AND FILTH, Prince, and the problem of Innovative Latin@ Writing: Vanessa Angelica Villarreal with Carmen Giménez Smith

Vanessa Angelica Villarreal: Hi Carmen! Thanks for agreeing to talk with me—I loved Milk and Filth. I’d like to focus the conversation around innovative writing, and what that term might mean, especially with respect to Latin@ work, which is often thought of as continuing to exist in that documentary, expressive, or lyrical phase. What does it mean to innovate as a Latin@ writer in your work?

Carmen Giménez Smith: Thanks for this question! I would begin by saying that I’m starting to get past the point of being in the conversation. The conversation doesn’t evolve, and it hasn’t evolved in years, not since Silliman. There are no contra-discourses with regard to this question. The avant garde doesn’t, and hasn’t, successfully addressed the implicit racism in the ideas surrounding conceptual writing vs. “expressive” writing and the problematic ways we think about the uses of language as a binary.

VAV: Why are they problematic?

CGS: Part of this question is how the term “avant-garde” is deployed, how conceptual vs. expressive modes of writing serve to create distance from the subject. Let’s take modernism, for example—this idea of the “erasure of the self” is actually American exceptionalism. Being “against expression” and “against nationalism,” if you’re already translucent, is easy. For instance, how does a black man become invisible in a culture where part of his existence is predicated by his visibility? Although his visibility is paradoxical, he is visible as Other. He is visible for his blackness, where invisibility is most valuable when it comes to existing within a hegemony.

VAV: Absolutely. This idea of the brown body as always being Other, as always being abject, as always being radically visible, radically embodied in a society where radical embodiment often means subjugation and isolation, that seems to be what Milk and Filth is in conversation with. In the book, your speaker is also radically embodied. She shits, she bleeds, she stinks, she lactates. The feminine body is a source of both magic and filth, as a holy thing because she is a creative force, but also an abject thing. Can you talk a little bit about this?

CGS: Sure. This book is definitely a second-wave book. It’s influenced by the politics of second-wave feminism, and how our teachers—or my teachers, since I went to school in the seventies and eighties—were students of original second wave feminists. This was a time when French post-feminism was making its way through women’s studies too, but at the end of the day the book deals with the central questions of the second-wave, those conversations that still never got answered.

VAV: Right, the assumption that somehow we’ve moved on from those conversations. I love the over-earnest sign-holding second-wave feminist in “Radicalization.” I almost picture a young Carmen. There’s an endearing, wry humor there.

CGS: (laughs) Well, actually, the young Carmen is the one seduced by the sign-holding feminist. It was very much a representation of my journey to feminism; I was raised in a very traditional Latino culture, and so therefore had to be kind of closeted about my feminist ideas. That’s why there’s that homoerotic scene at the end of the poem—I am seduced, in a very literal way, by feminism. The anti-feminina eroticizes that impulse. But yeah, it’s meant to be funny—there’s UGG boots in it! And to me, those boots conjure the idea that feminists now are encouraged to be egalitarian consumers, to buy into this idea that equality happened already instead of continuing to make sure our daughters aren’t sexualized and raped, that they’re properly respected and cared for, that they make the same amount of money as men do, those old conversations, the “old problems” of the second wave.

VAV: Right! I think this is the kind of central conflict of the speaker in Milk and Filth, this idea that the brown female body both is both a little bit magic and little bit filth, both holy and radically sexual and human. What are the conflicts you see central to that speaker?

CGS: Well, this goes back to some thinking I’ve been doing about Prince—who I love—and thinking about Prince in contradiction to Michael Jackson. Part of what Michael Jackson did to become as successful as he did (which is also different from Stevie Wonder, who had also been working since he was a child, just as Michael had always been as a young boy) was that he totally desexualized himself. He had to completely desexualize himself to do something to counter the racial narrative of the black male body being dangerous. Even though it was possible that he was a sexual predator, his public image was sexless, and that is what made him really palatable to the masses.

What Prince did, though, which is what I’m more drawn to, and interested in, is that he played into his identity fully. Even with Purple Rain, which is a record about class-based positioning, he took his invisibility as a black man and worked fully with it, which is why he was able to reinvent himself with every new record. And I thought, “that’s hot! That’s smart!” So to bring it back to the book and the spirit in which I wrote Milk and Filth—I don’t want to de-eroticize my body or erase my body. Prince made his body and sexuality a central part of his work. Every single one of his albums is a reinvention, like David Bowie, but even David Bowie desexualized himself like Michael Jackson.

VAV: I totally see that. But I’d say that David Bowie’s desexualization was more radical, since he was playing with a sexualized androgyny, whereas Michael Jackson’s sexlessness was safe and sanitized for public consumption.

CGS: Exactly. Every single one of David Bowie’s songs is about sex. He was definitely singing about sex, and I remember listening to that when I was young and thinking, “I really shouldn’t be listening to this.” (laughs) Whereas Michael Jackson, even his voice and his affect is safe and desexualized.

Other major influences are Ana Mendieta, who was was very much a vanguard in that she used her body as a text. Her own blood, her own body as a text. Her work is not just a feminine embodiment, but also a Latina embodiment. She deals specifically with the details of biography, exile, and how she put her body in all these painful, physical spaces and infiltrations. That work was also super-influential. I wanted to write a book that did that. That did in poetry what Ana Mendieta, Gloria Anzaldúa, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, did—women who really used the self in an almost abject subjectivity to make arguments and claims about the female body. I was also pointing to second wave discourses.

For instance, the anthology No More Masks was so transformative in the way it tracks all kinds of feminine subjectivities. I’m not lampooning, but rather I’m adapting them in my book. It’s part of how I’m idealizing these old subjectivities, rediscovering them.

VAV: I only just discovered Ana Mendieta while reading your book. I feel like I’m just discovering so much about innovative Latino art recently. Like, I know all about John Cage and Laurie Anderson and other performance artists in that very white, middle-class, “avant-garde” lineage, but why have I never heard of Ana Mendieta? Why isn’t this part of the canon?

CGS: Right. It’s incredibly hard for artists of color to connect to this lineage because there’s nothing scarier than a brown titty. It goes back to this kind of puritanical ethic, and luckily, there are lots of poets who work against this, most importantly Dodie Bellamy, who is truly navigating female sexuality in an uncoy way. There’s a kind of performative aspect to being scandalized by the female body, by the brown body that is problematic, overly coy. Coyness reads to me as squeamish. That’s why Joan Rivers is in this book. She’s not squeamish, not coy. The Joan Rivers I’m talking about is the classic feminist comedian Joan Rivers from the seventies and eighties—not the Joan Rivers now who is kind of problematic—but who, nonetheless, addressed the shittiness of the female body and the cultural disgust with it in this funny, unpretentious way. The female body has always been a source of filth and disgust. It’s a cultural-historical disgust—I mean, it even comes from the bible. It’s not an invention, it’s real. And this is why feminism has to be an ongoing civil rights movement.

VAV: I like this idea of Milk and Filth as a kind of activist text. I see current Latin@ writing as a kind of activism as well. Which brings me back to this question about innovative Latin@ writing—how does an emerging Latin@ writer navigate the writing world as a writer of color? What does it mean to be an innovative writer of color?

CGS: To me, it seems very easy to suggest that writers of color are “expressive,” which is really just saying that their otherness is an obstacle to that very desirable translucency of hegemony. To me, it’s white privilege when white writers feel they can write about race. It’s scary to them, race and its issues. But still, white writers aren’t doing enough. Being inclusive and generously including people of color in their anthologies and canons isn’t enough. It’s still a very small list, and you need very specific qualifications to get on that list. Some of them are social. That’s the great problem, the paradox of the poetry world. It’s a class-based world, with class-based expectations. It’s an expensive and frivolous profession that only a few can afford to risk. If you’re getting an MFA, you’re probably going to adjunct for 10-20 years if you’re lucky and know the right people, which puts people of color at a disadvantage in that world to begin with. People of color are taught not to take risks, even when they have access to public forums, access to agency. This is why the ball is in the court of the “avant-garde.” We’ve done the work, written the books that should be in the canon, books that everybody should be reading.

This is why I think the Nuyorican school is so disturbing to the poetry world. Here are these poets, these artists, that despite their class position, continue in the tradition of the spoken word with no schooling or training, and they’re out there making art without anybody’s permission.

VAV: It’s funny you mention the Nuyorican poets. I remember picking up a big fat anthology of Nuyorican writing and being told much later that it was trash, that I should be reading real poetry. Which brings me to Noemi Press—what role do you see Noemi Press in? Does it fill any gaps in the poetry world that you see?

CGS: Noemi Press really just came out of wanting to run a small press. In some ways, it was my own narcissism at work, but it was also because there are so few small presses run by women of color. That’s a problem. Right now the thing that’s most exciting to me about Noemi is that it still has no identifiable aesthetic. We publish all kinds of books, and we have a very diverse staff—culturally, ethnically—which is what makes Noemi so open and flexible.

VAV: Now that Milk and Filth is out in the world, what can we look forward to from you in the future? Any new projects on the horizon?

CGS: Yeah, I definitely have some pet projects. The Akrilita series I run with Juan Felipe from Letras Latinas is definitely one of the projects I’m most excited about, as well as the Infidel Poetics series (named after a book by Daniel Tiffany). With regard to Noemi, it definitely took up a lot of my own money before it became self sustaining in the last couple of years. I definitely have credit card debt because I was stupid about how to run a small press. But I’m really happy with how it’s progressed, and I see it as being a part of a literary citizenship.

___

Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of four collections of poetry, Odalisque in pieces (University of Arizona Press, 2009), The City She Was (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011) and Goodbye, Flicker (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds (University of Arizona Press, 2010). She is the recipient of a Juniper Prize for poetry and a fellowship from the Howard Foundation for creative nonfiction. She is the publisher of Noemi Press, the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, and an assistant professor in the MFA program in creative writing at New Mexico State University.

Timber Journal Editors Recommend

Our editors have been reading a lot and, in the grand tradition of other people telling you what’s good in the world, they wanted to share the books that have moved them this year. Here are their recommendations.

Loie Merritt, prose editor, recommends Jean Toomer’s Cane

“The 1923 novel Cane by Jean Toomer has not only rocked my world but continues to influence my pursuit of knowledge throughout this current racial crisis in America. Told through multiple vignetted perspectives and in a truly hybrid form, this Harlem Renaissance masterpiece is a fine example of how modernism has positioned itself as completely relevant for our work [or at least mine] as socially aware, politically active artists today!”

 

 

 

Kolby Harvey, arts editor, recommends Alexander R. Galloway’s Gamine: Essays on Algorithmic Culture

“The only thing I’ve read this semester was a theoretical book on video games, but it was really good. It was called Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture by Alexander R. Galloway. It’s the best theoretical approach to video games as their own medium I’ve yet to encounter.”

 

 

 

 

 

Katie Woods, associate editor, recommends Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Pauline Reage’s The Story of O

“The Story of O rocked my world with its exploration of pain and sex slavery but I don’t know how to be more articulate than that right now because I am still reeling from it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexis Renee Smith, poetry editor, recommends George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

“Mostly because she’s a genius and I can’t stop, I’ve been reading a lot of George Eliot this year. I recently finished her novel, The Mill on the Floss. This work exposes with unflinching patience societal female oppression in 19th century rural England but it doesn’t say ‘look this is bad’ — it says ‘look this is how it is’ — that’s why it’s unflinching. Eliot is also just a good storyteller.”

 

 

 

 

Adrian Sobol, managing editor, recommends David Remnick’s King of the World

“David Remnick’s King of the World begins with one of the strongest opening paragraphs I’ve read in a book, period, and that’s still just the prologue. This is an immersive and compelling portrait of not just a young Muhammad Ali working his way toward the heavy weight title but a nation coming to grips with black America.. Throughout the book, Remnick manages the most incredible feat of putting you into every boxers’ life, so by the time they get into the ring you’re at once celebrating each of Ali’s victories while also leaving you broken over his opponent’s loss. That’s a knot of reader sympathy most books can only dream of. “

[Top]

TJS2WP&PI (Timber Journal Summer 2014 Web Prose & Poetry Issue) TOC (table of contents)

 

TJS2WP&PI


Prose

“July in Montana” by Jon Chaiim McConnell
& companion interview

Audio of “Tunnelling” by Tania Hershman

“The Tub” by Taylor McGill
& companion interview

“FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT” by Rose Wednesday
& companion interview

“Common Usage” by Reem Abu-Baker
& companion interview

Interviews with members of the Rutgers & Columbia MFAs

“A Shopping Center at Night” by Matthew Barrett
& companion interview

“Some Filament Abroad” by Anthony Martin
& companion interview

“Rivers” by Melanie Madden
& companion interview

“NOAP Notes: Narrative, Objective, Assessment, Plan” by Shira Richman
& companion interview

“Leaves and Pinecones” by Eric Hawthorn
& companion interview

Poetry

“How to Lens: Music as Mediator in Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape” (a review by Alexis Smith)

“Nocturne with Boy Throwing Stones at Stars” by Doug Paul Case

“Jezebel and Zephyr: The Last Proto-War Comedy” by Jessie Janeshek

Poems by Tony Mancus

Translated Works of Dolores Dorantes by Jen Hofer
& companion interview

[Top]