michelle tea

The Rumpus Interview with Michelle Tea

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Michelle Tea is an author, performer, public speaker, event producer, educator, activist, and now, with her new Sister Spit imprint at City Lights Publishers, the editor of her own press.

I’ve known her for nearly twenty years, having toured in the legendary and debaucherous Sister Spit van in the ‘90s, as well as its more sober, modern version a couple years ago. We’ve only gotten in a fight once, but it was really the fault of alcohol and those clowns from Boston. And I do mean literal clowns who had been doing their clowning in Harvard Square, and then whisked us away to party at someone’s house after dildos were brandished and bottles went flying at the bar. I had the keys to the van or something? Neither of us can remember the details. Anyway, we’re here to talk about her new adventure in publishing, not the reckless shit we used to do. That has been pretty well-documented.

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The Rumpus: Wait. Do you feel like you do anything reckless anymore?

Michelle Tea: If I talk about the bad old days of crystal meth for too long, I start getting like, “Oh…speed…that was delicious…” But in general, I don’t so much. Or wait—maybe the recklessness just occurs in a different sphere so it doesn’t look like bottoming out. But really—isn’t trying to have a baby sort of a reckless thing to do? I have had the occasion of coming into money and spending some recklessly, like on a purse. At this point, shopping and the spending of money on things like Botox gives me the rush I used to get copping drugs on the street. Or, making other people cop drugs for me on the street. I didn’t like to do that. I wanted to protect my reputation.

Rumpus: Always too classy for that. So what are you wearing right now? I’ll get to the publishing stuff in a second, but I ask because I admire how your personal style has evolved over the years.

Tea: Oh, well thank you! The admiration is mutual. I am wearing a pair of skinny jeans that were too girly for my girlfriend, so she gave them to me, and a really cute sleeveless blouse from Topshop that is all thin black pleats with a crocheted lace collar. And a hair elastic from H&M with a copper metal bow, and a pair of black flats I bought at Ross! I wasn’t going to tell anyone that’s where I got them, but why not? I love clothes so much, I look forward to getting dressed each day with considerable excitement.

Rumpus: One more very personal thing. How much coffee have you had today?

Tea: Other than the joy of putting on clothes each morning, coffee also gets me out of bed! Currently I am staying with my sister and her family, and they have an espresso machine, so I drank espresso. I like a big, full cup of something, so I put it on the biggest setting and drank it, and then went to a cafe and got a regular coffee and you know what? I’d forgotten my wallet (by which I mean the Moleskine I keep stuffed with money and cards) and couldn’t pay for my coffee, but the cafe guy gave it to me for free because I was pushing a stroller with a baby in it! The baby isn’t mine—it’s my nephew Jude—but I really think it makes the world want to give me things when I’m pushing him around. Anyway, I couldn’t finish the coffee because it made me sort of sick! But I went back for an ice tea later.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about that new baby! Not your nephew or the kind where a friend puts another friend’s semen inside you, which you wrote about so enjoyably for the Jane blog, but the Sister Spit publishing deal with City Lights. Congratulations! How long have you been dreaming of this?

Tea: I’ve been dreaming about having a press forever, like the ’90s. I’ve always known so many great writers who aren’t as connected to the publishing world as they should be, and I have the energy and the enthusiasm to sort of gather and promote people, so I’ve always thought someday I might embark on a big project like that. When I learned about Dennis Cooper’s imprint for Akashic Books, Little House on the Bowery, I was like, “Oh, that’s something a writer can do! A publisher might let a writer publish other writers!” And so it’s been brewing in me, and with the sort of collapse of the publishing industry as we knew it, I wanted more than ever to be helping produce books. I used to advise writers to just write their books and it will find a home, and suddenly that didn’t seem as certain. I figured it was time to act. I considered a small press through RADAR, my literary non-profit, but rather than reinvent the wheel and stretch our scant resources, I pitched the idea to City Lights and Elaine Katezenberger—really one of my role models and heroes in the publishing industry—was really into it. It’s a genius fit, Sister Spit and City Lights. We’re both oddball San Francisco literary outlaws who have become unexpected institutions.

Rumpus: I read that you didn’t approach City Lights first because you thought they were too good for you. I thought you were over that shit.

Tea: It’s true! I was intimidated! Intimidated by their whole operation, by Elaine, Lawrence [Ferlinghetti], all of it. I have always had great relations with them, but thought maybe they were a press that people wanted a lot from all the time—and they are—and I was scared of being another writer nagging at them. I’m glad I got over that fear and set up a meeting. People—aim high!

Rumpus: This first book is the Sister Spit anthology, a collection which includes many writers in your traveling band of gypsies over the years. If you looked at the table of contents, would you be able to list everyone’s astrological sign?

Tea: Hell yes! I’m in Los Angeles and don’t have a copy of the book with me but let’s see if I can do it! You’re a Sag, of course, as is Nicole J. Georges and Eileen Myles. Blake Nelson is a Virgo; Samuel Topiary, Myriam Gurba, and Cooper Lee Bombardier are Tauruses. I think Kat Marie Yoas is, too! Harry Dodge and Cristy C. Road are Geminis. Ali Liebegott, MariNaomi, Sara Seinberg, and Rhiannon Argo are Leos. Sara and Rhi even have the same birthday! Tamara Llosa-Sandor is a Libra. Tara Jepsen and Ben McCoy are Scorpios. Me, Lenelle Moise, and Kirk Read are Aquarians. I think that’s it!

Rumpus: You’re so good. And I’m sure you’ve done at least one tarot reading for everybody. The press really is the next logical step in your Life’s Work, being such a tireless supporter of queer and fringe writers. Get us excited about what else is coming down the pike on Sister Spit. (And I thank you in advance for publishing the manuscript my old publisher thought was too experimental.)

Tea: Yes, we are publishing your excellent book, Yokohama Threeway, a collection of cringes. I loved those pieces that you read on the last Spit tour you came on (three of them are included in the anthology!), and I am really excited to put them out! We are reprinting Ali Liebegott’s award-winning book-length poem “The Beautifully Worthless,” which fell out of print when the indie queer press that published it went under. We’re publishing her new novel as well, Cha-Ching!, both of them this spring in time for the April tour. Dia Felix is a poet, writer, and artist who wrote a really stunning, sort-of-haunting novel called Nochita, with this amazing little-girl-in-a-bad-situation narrator. Lenelle Moise is the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts and performs her work all over the world, but does not yet have her first print collection, so it’s an honor to get to be doing that. I’m having to be cagey about what’s after that because I think I have a lot of options—there are a lot of great books in the works—and I’m not sure who will get slated when. But I am really inspired and, not to sound ungrateful, but wish I could do more books each year! Oh, and I will publish something of my own, too.

Rumpus: Oh, thank god. And what would be a good catchphrase for Sister Spit Press? And do you mind saying it in that accent like when you’re doing your mom?

Tea: Sistah Spit: they might be a little diff’rent but they’re real good kids, and funny—oh my gawd, I laughed my friggin’ ass off! When they weren’t makin’ me sort of uncomf’table, that is.

Rumpus: What are you made of, Tea? And by this I mean, what qualities in your constitutional make-up allow you to take on so much and be so consistently generous? And I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. I already did that once in Detroit. I’m joking. I never did that.

Tea: Oh man, I think it is all astrology! Because I have been like this my whole life, like trying to start daycares and art fairs and carnivals and theater companies and haunted houses and newspapers, seriously since I was in second grade. I’m just still happy that I’m finally an adult and can do it!

Rumpus: Hey, you’re a writer! Paint a picture in words for us of Michelle Tea, circa 2042. You don’t have to do the whole year. Just waking up one morning and then what?

Tea: Wait, let me do the math so I can figure out how old I’ll be…seventy-two! Oh wow! Okay, my girlfriend will be of retirement age and our kid(s) will be adults, so I hope I have passed a bunch of torches to some really amazing high-energy girls/queers and am living in Venice, Paris, or the South of France with my love. Still writing and publishing, though. I guess waking up some place warm and having coffee outside with my love, and then being lazy all day until she has to walk the dog or something, and then I’d do some writing and e-mails. It’s really hard for me to be lazy unless I’m with my girlfriend, and then it’s really hard for me to work, so I sort of think when she retires, I’ll retire.

Rumpus: And some time before then, I will look forward to the launch of your signature fragrance.

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Sister Spit will be touring its new anthology over the next month, beginning on October 18th at Skylight Books in LA, and with stops at City Lights in San Francisco on October 24th and Pegasus Books in Berkeley on October 25th. For full tour dates, click here.


Beth Lisick is a writer and performer from the San Francisco Bay Area. More from this author →