I knew I was going to love Chelsea Martin’s essay collection, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life, as soon as I finished the introduction. The last sentence reads:
It has been with this embarrassing and self-inflicted confidence that I have written this book about myself, hoping to expose myself as the piece of shit I am, but also show how sweet and beautiful shit can be.
I’ve always been fascinated by art that is willing to engage with the dirty underbelly of the body, femininity, sexuality, America, and coming of age, and none of these realms escape Martin’s careful eye. In Caca Dolce, she lets the reader in on a singular life, from childhood to the present: toilet paper and truth or dare, a personal pact against spoons, dangerous teenage liaisons, obsessive art, sexual confusion, class struggles, and pizza barf. Martin, who has published four previous books, brings similar levels of frankness and levity to each of her subjects, with conclusions both artful and unexpected.
In August, we spoke about the myths of cultural capital, romanticizing the teen years, and the development of artistic voice.
The Rumpus: “How to Bullshit” really elucidated the experience of growing up in a way that was rich, not monetarily but in “cultural capital.” I’ve read recently that Oh, cultural capital is actually as important as monetary capital. I think that’s a lie.
Chelsea Martin: There’s not a ton you can do with cultural capital if you don’t have resources. The cultural capital, if you have the connections and means to get somewhere with that, is great, but usually, if you don’t come from money, you won’t have rich friends, you won’t have people in your life who go on to do the same kind of things you do. So you kind of miss out on all that built-in structure that helps you go up.
Rumpus: That reminds me of something you said in the essay, that it’s also about time: “I was in an economic no man’s land, rich in education and opportunity, poor in money and time.” It’s really hard to work an irrelevant job while people around you have time to focus on art.
Martin: Right, or just spend time thinking about what they’re doing and not have to rush through projects because they don’t have the time to really consider things. I think time is really undervalued by people who come from money because they just have the time. They never don’t have the time. They don’t have to work shitty jobs that take up all their time. If people from money chose to have a job, they’d choose something cool that helps them. They don’t just have to do it for the money.
Rumpus: In “A Year Without Spoons,” you talk about using advertisements to create art: “I knew I had something to say but I didn’t trust myself to find the right way to say it yet. I took other people’s words and images and tried to find a way for them to fit me.” Now you have such a distinctive creative voice—do you remember the first project that you really felt was in your own style?
Martin: The first thing that comes to mind is this chapbook I made in college called Dream Date. I was at the end of my senior year, and I was at a point where I was taking writing classes just as electives, I’d finished my requirements, so I was just doing stuff purely for myself, and I wrote this series of poems that I put together in a little book. I did my first reading from it. I had been really nervous because I felt like it wasn’t what my writing instructors were telling me was cool in literature; it was my own kind of voice.
Rumpus: Do you think that taking those workshops helped you develop a voice or was it more of a hindrance?
Martin: I went to an art school that had a writing program that was not huge; there weren’t that many people who were like, This is my first-choice writing program. So it was a pretty diverse group of people, and none of us were doing anything remotely similar. There were playwrights and people who were really into the horror genre. So we had to accept all these different things. I loved workshop. I loved the time to look at other people’s work and talk about it and I think that was really valuable, kind of like therapy, just talking it out. (I’m guessing—I haven’t really done a lot of therapy.) But I’m coming from a different kind of workshop experience than most writing programs. There’s a lot of writing workshops that sound really limiting, and they only teach one kind of writing. I never understood what the appeal of that is.
Rumpus: Your essays, especially in the beginning of the book, were really evocative of a certain era, a coming-of-age in the time of quarters and TP-ing houses and this general outdoor rowdiness that doesn’t necessarily seem to exist as much anymore.
Martin: I got the idea of toilet papering from my mom, who was obviously from a different generation, so I think that was going on when she was young, too. I have younger siblings, nine and thirteen years younger than me, and they didn’t really do that kind of thing. I’m not really in a town like that anymore, either. That kind of thing just comes from boredom and not knowing what to do and wanting to hang out with your friends and do something. Young people now are probably just talking to their friends or on Instagram.
Rumpus: It was more possible when parents didn’t keep as close track of their kids. You could just run around and commit nonsense.
Martin: Yeah I think parenting is probably a lot different now; parents are probably a lot more worried and concerned about what their kids are doing.
Rumpus: You wrote: “I was feigning melodrama to cover real melodrama.” It seems reminiscent of this idea that it’s, like, cool to not have emotions, but I’m glad that so many artists now are reclaiming emotion.
Martin: Growing up, I definitely felt really embarrassed of having emotions and I never wanted people to know how I felt. I worked really hard to have a straight face, despite whatever I was feeling. It’s completely changed, culturally, I almost feel like it went too far in the other direction where people have these personas that are sad or pathetic, and it feels almost like an act. Or it might not be an act, but they know that people will respond to that so they’re using it to be cool. Pretending you don’t have emotions is probably more unhealthy than expressing one emotion more than is completely honest? It’s an interesting change.
Rumpus: I hadn’t thought about it that way before, that you could go so deep into the feeling of the emotion that it’s kind of a caricature of the emotion.
Martin: Yeah, it’s super weird. It almost encourages more sadness or darkness. It’s kind of cool because then you don’t have to be afraid of reaching out or being like, I’m sad too, and I don’t want to be. It probably has more positive aspects than negative ones.
Rumpus: You also wrote: “I stayed up for several hours, trying to figure out the best way to appreciate being wrapped in his arms, while believing that I was likely to never going to experience this physical arrangement with anybody ever again.” That line captured this kind of nostalgia for the present. Do you think that emotion is more endemic to youth or do we keep experiencing it throughout life?
Martin: I think it’s probably a personality thing. I know people who really romanticize last year or last month and are like, Things are just never going to be like that again. And I don’t think it has anything much to do with time we’re in; it’s just your experiences and what you choose to dwell on. But I think that, for me, I was conscious of the fact that people always told me the teen years were your best years. I think, especially in a small town, that’s when you should be doing exciting stuff or being crazy, and making the stories you’re going to be thinking about for the rest of your life. So that was my thought process at the time: This is my story. This is what I’m going to remember as the best time in my life! But it was just this pathetic night. And I think I grew out of that because that didn’t actually turn out to be true. My teen years weren’t cool. My twenties were way better. So I’m not going to feel nostalgic for right now because I can hope that it’s going to be cool later on, too, and it probably will be.
Rumpus: I love your reflections on men and the trash ways that some men treat people, and one line that really stuck out: “I was sick of the way these grown adult men projecting their problems and insecurities onto me.” That is so a) true, and b) crazy, that grown men are allowed to get away with doing that to women, especially young women.
Martin: I don’t think that the men in my life, particularly the ones I was talking about, knew they were projecting things onto me, but they totally were. I think it is pretty manipulative, how you can’t call people out a lot of times for that kind of thing. They do have a kind of logic they’re working with, and it can make sense, so it’s hard to say, “Step back and look at yourself, there’s other reasons you’re doing this shit.”
Rumpus: In the essay where the guy claimed he was going to offer you a job, you say, “I followed him into his apartment, not wanting him to feel stupid, preferring for some reason to take the feeling of stupidity that was quickly expanding inside of me and enlarge it even further to accommodate this strangers baseless request that I not make him feel stupid.” That made me think a lot about the internal backpedaling or modifications that women so often make for men’s behavior. Have you found ways in your life to curb that?
Martin: It’s a process, for sure. Especially in the moment, it’s really hard to find the courage when you’re in such a confusing situation. Going through all this processing that women are conditioned to do to take care of other people—what’s going on, what are they feeling, what are they trying to get from me, is it worth it if I do this and this, what are the consequences. My worst nightmare is just being stuck in that process and then losing my opportunity to stand up for myself and do what would help me. A thought a lot of women have (and I had in that moment) is, I can handle more emotional trauma right now, and this guy is asking me to so I may as well just do it. What I’m working on is being quicker about being like, I don’t actually have to do that. That doesn’t benefit me. I‘m going to prioritize myself, instead of some rando.
Author photograph © Ian Amberson.