The Rumpus Interview with Beth Lisick


When I moved to San Francisco in July of 2009, Beth Lisick was one of the first names I came to know. Whenever I move to a new city, one of the first things I do is get a library card, and in this case, I checked out a handful of books by local authors. Among them was Monkey Girl, Beth’s first collection of stories, put out by Manic D Press. How quintessential SF it was: bizarre to the point of revelry (and beyond!). I think I knew people could be and talk like that, but I definitely didn’t know books could be like that. What in the world am I holding? I thought. Four months later, I was onstage for the first time, awkwardly telling one of my family stories to a roomful of people—among them, Beth Lisick.

Of course, I knew she would be there. It was Beth’s show: Porchlight’s Open Door, which she co-founded with Arline Klatte. How could someone so unabashedly weird be so charming? The ease with which she and Arline spoke to the crowd, lacing acts together with perfect impromptu anecdotes, was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was intimate, funny, slightly self-deprecating—in short, everything I hoped to be.

I went back to Porchlight every month for most of that year, and I don’t think I can overstate the impact it had on me. Not knowing anyone in the area, I, like so many others, found myself able to participate in a sense of community that’s created when people come together to share their life stories. I laughed, I cried, I thanked my stars Beth and Arline.

Shortly after that first performance, I had the pleasure of profiling Jennifer Joseph, publisher of Manic D, who told me stories of the open mic scene of which Beth was a part. According to Jennifer, Beth just sort of showed up one day and had all of her stuff memorized; she would almost flail around the stage, dramatically enacting her tales from suburbia. I had to smile—that did sound about right. It also gave me hope. Beth’s story seemed so similar to mine—or to the one I wanted. When I finally ended up interviewing her, some time later, I already knew she sometimes put on a giant banana costume to pay the bills. I can do that! I thought. I want to do that! I think I even sent her an e-mail, saying if she ever needed someone else to dress up in that thing I would be there, banana split!

The day we met up for this interview was a huge day for me: we both performed as part of “Undercover Presents: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.” I was beaming the entire time she belted “Tombstone Blues.” In her way, perhaps without her even knowing, I very much owed my ability to stand on that same stage—the courage I needed to build up, the belief in myself to even attempt recitation—to Beth.


The Rumpus: Let’s talk about Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames. Was it your idea? Was it City Lights’s idea? Michelle Tea’s idea? How did you come to put together your shames?

Beth Lisick: I started writing a novel after I wrote Helping Me Help Myself. I was like, I’m done writing personal stuff. I was also on a very tight deadline for that book: I wrote that book in a year, they edited it immediately afterwards, and it went out. I felt like I wasn’t able to put the time into that book that I would have wanted to. You know, it is what it is, but I felt so done writing about my life.

I encountered so many problems when I was writing that book, because I was trying to always figure out, What do I want to reveal? What don’t I want to reveal? I don’t want to make myself a likable character with a few foibles; I just felt like I could see all the tropes and I couldn’t figure my way out of them. For humorous essay writing. So I started writing this novel, and when I was doing that, I was like, Yeah, I’m done with that nonfiction stuff and done with memoir. And then I was like, God, how weird that I never wrote about that thing that actually makes me feel a lot of feelings, and then, Wow, I never wrote about that one either. And I started—I decided to just write a list of all the moments in my life that I’d never written about.

So one thing about this book is, I’ve never written about any of these moments ever before, and they had to be something that, when I thought about them, they elicited a physical cringe in my body…some kind of bodily reaction to thinking about it and writing about it. So, I was on a flight from San Francisco to New York, and I made a list, and by the time I landed I had like sixty things, and you know…it was things that I think about way too often…

Rumpus: How close to the average do you think that is?

Lisick: Exactly! That’s what I want to know: is this just what the messiness of being a human being is—that we just churn these things over in our brains? There’s a piece in the book about walking up behind a woman at a public bathroom, and she’s trying to get the sink to recognize her hands, and it won’t, and I say something like, “Maybe it thinks you’re invisible.” And I was trying to make a joke, and she was crying, and she was so mad at me, that I just started laughing. Like, Why are you mad at me? And I’ve thought of that woman a hundred or more times. Why didn’t I apologize? Why didn’t I go up to her and explain: “I’m so sorry, I was trying to make a joke; it looks like you’re having a hard day.” But instead I was just like, Ha! Why are you yelling at me? Oh my god! You know, and I walked out, and I just feel like I behaved inappropriately, and I felt bad for her.

So, things like that were just interesting to me: how often we think about these moments, just these very small moments. It’s not the basis for an essay—it’s a moment. And it’s a little feeling that somehow, for me, the things like shame and failure and when you didn’t do something right, are way more who I am, than my successes and the triumphs that I’ve had. When I think about who I am as a person, those are the things I feel like really make me who I am. All that shit.

Rumpus: I’m super interested in that. People don’t think about identifying with those things.

Lisick: You don’t want to because you just want to push them aside. You know what I mean? Like when I think about writing about seeing all those jocks tease my brother at school, because he has disabilities and stuff, and how I never—you know, he’s older than me, so I was intimidated by the boys that were teasing him, and so I never did anything about it. I never just said, “Yeah, just shut the fuck up! Like, what are you doing?” Why, you know? Sometimes I would go up to him and start talking to him, but I never said anything to the people who made his life miserable. And, oh my god, I will have that with me until I die.

Rumpus: How does that affect you and your future reactions to people? Also, publishing these anecdotes—did you have reservations about that? When I make bold statements about myself, I feel like I do it with a future reckoning in mind—like, I said this, so now I have to deal with it.

Lisick: Oh, that’s interesting. I felt like, for me, I had a moment with writing at one point where I just thought… I forget what the exact thing was, but I thought, Should I write this now or should I save it for later when I can figure out where it goes? And I decided I want to write everything I can possibly think of now and trust that, in the future, something else will come to me. You know, I don’t want to be saving things up and safeguarding things; I just want to be able to push everything out there and hope something else is going to come up. So I think with this I was so determined that I was just not going to write about my life again, and when all of this stuff came up and I was like oh my god, why don’t I just try to write it all instead of just using it in parts in my novel, or whatever; I was like, let me just write it as what it is in my brain: shame, regret, false pride, just the moments that make me feel not good about myself… why don’t I just put it all out there.

Rumpus: What was the process like? How do you feel now?

Lisick: I actually… I have never been in therapy and I feel like I had this thing where I don’t want to say that this was therapy, writing this book, but only because I feel like that’s somehow looked down upon. Like, Oh, you’re not supposed to make your poetry or your writing or anything therapy, but: writing can be therapeutic. Cathartic. We get so much from writing, you know? You get so much when you’ve written something, that I just felt like if that’s one of the words that’s used to describe it, fine. Because I think it really was for me, to think about it and write about how I wanted to have it come out…

Rumpus: It was really fun to read.

Lisick: Oh, good. That’s what I want to do: I want to write something that’s fun to read.

Rumpus: How was working with City Lights? Are you so stoked to have a book out with them?

Lisick: Whenever I used to teach at this summer school at the Stanford campus, for kids who were going to be seniors in high school, but they’d come from all over the country, one thing I would do is take them on this field trip to City Lights. I’d arrange these vans and I’d give them the tour, and then we’d go up and sit in Ferlinghetti’s office, and every time we did it, just seeing these kids see that place—these were kids who had never—because most of them are not from the Bay Area—so they’ve never heard about the Beats, or City Lights, or any of that—I just felt, every time I did that with them, every time I go in there, I have the same feeling as these seventeen-year-old kids have, you know? And so I love thinking about the weird ways things come together in your life as you age, and how what I feel like is happening for me, is that the spheres of interest and the people that I’m interested in are making these weird rotations that are on some strange axis where they run into each other, and things sort of coalesce and come together in very interesting ways.

I met Michelle [Tea] at an open mic almost twenty years ago, and now Michelle has an imprint [with] City Lights. In a way, I can’t believe that it’s real, and in some way, I’m like, That is real, that’s how it works. The world is so strange that maybe it’s perfectly logical. You keep doing your thing, and you’re kind of having these relationships with these people, and the years go by, and you’re still doing it and they’re still doing it, and you’re still doing it, and they’re still over here, and all of a sudden you’re all together making something. So it kind of…I’m awed by it, and then I’m also like—you know what? Yes, I’ll be bold enough to say it makes sense in this way that makes my brain crazy. You know?!

Rumpus: Amen to that. It makes me want to ask how this book is different from Monkey Girl?

Lisick: It’s weird, because I feel like it’s almost similar.

Rumpus: I feel like it’s sort of a return to Monkey Girl.

Lisick: I do too! I think what happened was, all those things were like “first thought, best thought”; just wrote out whatever I was feeling. I mean, those are all the very first things I had ever written, and—

Rumpus: It feels like that, but it feels so good.

Lisick: Yeah, and then I just tried to do different things for a while, like when I got an agent, and she asked me, “What kind of book do you want to write?” and I was like, “Well, I love reading these humorous essays by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, and so I want to try doing that.” And I think part of me is very much in those books, but I also—I’m just weirder than that! You know? I’m just weirder, and I’m just not as linear, and…so it feels really good to me to be like, okay, I tried that, I did those things—cool—but this actually really feels like me.

Rumpus: I really like Monkey Girl a lot and I liked this book, too, so much, and it really reminded me of that early writing. It also makes me want to ask this question, which, feel free not to answer, but: when did you know you were special? Can I ask you a question like that?

Lisick: I don’t know…that’s a pretty funny question.

Rumpus: Or different. How are you the one who’s authoring this unusual book of inverted self-defamation?

Lisick: I mean… it’s a hard, okay? I’m going to answer that question in a different way because I can’t say, Evan, you know I first realized I was special… But—

Rumpus: That’s my curveball for the evening.

Lisick: I know—I love it, I love it. If you’ve read my other stuff or know, I was a jock. I was a homecoming princess. I was on the school newspaper. I was the class vice president. I had all the markers to just be, like, a regular, successful person in some other realm. The only way I see myself as a successful writer is that I’m still writing. I write and that’s what I do. So that feels all right, I have to say; you know, it’s not monetary, it’s how you feel. But I think that I had all these markers to be successful in a way that is more in tune with where I’m from: upper-middle-class suburb, and people who buy houses in the suburbs, and you know—that whole thing.

Rumpus: So what changed your view of success?

Lisick: I think that what it was was that I had a very great family life, home life, wonderful parents, and so it was really easy for me to do the things that you do as a suburban kid in California. Nothing felt torturous about me; there was nothing inside of me that felt like, Oh, I can’t believe that I’ve got to go play soccer, or anything like that. I was like, Oh, it’s what we do. And I think it was just…you know, maturing, getting older, figuring out who I was. And I didn’t know any artists, I didn’t know any writers, and when I went away to college, my boyfriend was an artist—a painter— and I was almost like, How dare you? Who gave you permission to think that you could make art? Like, why does anybody care? I mean, I care what he painted—I loved what he painted—but I just thought, How did he get that self-confidence to think that anybody would care? 

And then when I went to the open mic at the Chameleon and I saw Bucky [Sinister], Michelle [Tea], Justin Chin, Dominique Lowell, the lady who was the vampire, Danielle Willis—just all these crazy cats—I was just like, Oh my god! I love this, and I also feel like if I just go in there with my stories about gated communities and orthodontists and whatever, I’m just a totally weird voice to them. And so together, we’re just all these weird voices doing our thing. When I thought of it as being “one of the voices,” then I felt better. I don’t think anyone needs to hear me or read me, but I like to hear other people, and if I can just be one other voice, then that feels good; that’s enough for me to keep going. I’m just one of the voices in the chorus, so here’s mine. You know? And I still have to remind myself of that, because I don’t always feel excellent about myself. I think that was a big thing.

Rumpus: I think that’s my favorite thing about Porchlight: I always come away feeling more human, even on nights when the stories aren’t as good as they could be. Like, how many times have you left one of those shows just feeling like one of the luckiest people? To hear all those stories and to know all those people? And yet that feeling is just as much about community and about the fact that everyone has a story, or a voice. Or an experience. I know how much time and energy it takes to put on a show like that, and eleven years is a long time! Especially in San Francisco. How has Porchlight affected your own work, or your own ability to work?

Lisick: Doing Porchlight and meeting all those people and hearing all those stories has definitely affected my own writing. I love to see how people construct stories about their lives. The things they want to share, versus the things they are either too embarrassed to share or things they think aren’t important to the story, but I think are. We all have the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, and when you do that in a public way, you’re forced to look at it differently.

Because Yokohama is a collection of so many personal stories, I felt like I could approach them more intuitively than I have with my more recent writing. I wanted them to feel true and real and be funny or odd in their truth. Another thing about doing Porchlight, is that we can usually tell when someone is stretching the facts too far because they think it will be a better story. It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think, but when it does, boy does it stink. Porchlight has brought my bullshit detector to new heights! And it’s definitely made me a better writer and storyteller.

How about you with Quiet Lightning? Has your writing changed in any way?

Rumpus: More than anything, I think seeing so many different kinds of writing every month has opened me up to the possibility of expressing myself however I want. Or to the permission of it, maybe. I get to see what people have to say and also how they choose to say it. I don’t know…I feel like I could go on about that for days. The way all the pieces come together to make a larger piece of art is something that’s really stuck with me, too, in a broader sense; to be part of the larger community and actually to write things in order to share them—that’s not something I’d ever planned to do. I was a hermit before I moved out here and wrote all my journals for my drawers. You know? So organizing Quiet Lightning really forced me to be in the public, addressing crowds on a regular basis, which was definitely not something I was used to. I was actually writing fiction before I moved, and now I’m writing poetry. Or something like poetry! So I guess it’s changed a lot.

Lisick: I was going to say I can’t imagine you being a hermit, but yeah, when you’re writing, you have to be a person who enjoys spending time alone. And the thing about sharing has always been a huge part of my writing, too. When I don’t feel great about myself, I can be really critical about my writing. Why are you spending time on this self-indulgent crap? It’s so stupid because when I love a writer, I feel so grateful they spent time on their self-indulgent crap and were brave and generous enough to share it with everybody. There aren’t many things I love in life more than reading and watching and listening to stories.


Featured photograph of Beth Lisick © by Allison Michael Orenstein.

Evan Karp is the founder and executive director of Quiet Lightning and the founding editor of Litseen. He writes literary columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and SF/Arts. More from this author →