Tripping the Ekphrastic Fantastic: Talking with Miah Jeffra
I first met Miah Jeffra in 2014, when we were Lambda Literary Fellows in Randall Kenan’s nonfiction cohort. Yes, that Randall Kenan. He called us possums, after Dame Edna, and gave us each a song (ranging from Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”). The nonfiction crew was massively talented, and the workshop experience was incredibly generous and generative. Most of all I remember our cohort crying together at 3 a.m. in a darkened room while we professed our love for one another, and the champagne toast Miah brought out for our last class, and our escape for In-N-Out Burger in LA, far away from the locked halls at American Jewish University. After Lambda, Miah invited me to join Foglifter Press, a true queer literary adventure, publishing everything from the Queer Ancestors Project anthologies (for three years in a row) to an epic queer/trans biannual journal, and now works that address life in the time of the coronavirus.
Jeffra’s new hybrid collection, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, is a book that merges images and essays, art and life, theory and memoir, fragments, flickers, flashes, and reconstructions. Jeffra doesn’t just speak back. They ingest it, meld it, write epistolaries to art and art’s makers. Art, here, is visual, sonic, written, and yet it is also family history. And yet, there is the gentrified mess a culture feeds you, art included. “When you see a lie over and over again, you begin to believe it is true.” Jeffra certainly asserts bold critiques with this book. Of Times Square: “It now exhibits a soulless glow, a spotless silver and glass, with tiny glimmers of a history blown out with neon advertisements, heteronormativity in LED.”
However, where there is critique there is also antidote that is not a “sanitized” gay identity that is “universalized as white,” to quote José Esteban Muñoz. Jeffra writes of a friend, Kevin, from their Atlanta youth, “If only he could have flipped his wig once on that street, to embody, fully, the temple that was his self, that sacred thing. That beautiful animal.” Jeffra mines both family history and canonical queer art to reconstruct the real. The act of creation from literal—”Screaming and bleeding and snotting and pooping, folded up like a lawn chair”—to metaphorical, musings on Frankenstein, the monster and maker. This book’s queer immaculate conception is a loving three-way between visual art, queer icons, and family history.
The Rumpus: Is there one essay that launched your collection? Or did the concept come first?
Miah Jeffra: Actually, I began writing early drafts of the essays to fulfill a promise I made: for one year I would write a brand-new work specifically for any lit series I was invited to read for. Some of them had themes, so I would adhere to the parameters. It was only after I wrote a dozen or so that I began seeing a common thread occurring. I was delving into the personal—memory, family, selfhood—more than I ever had. Many of the writings were ekphrastic. The idea for the book emerged out of these exercises. Some of those first essays ended up in the collection. Most didn’t. However, I owe those exercises much gratitude.
Rumpus: I see these essays working as queer tribute. Do you? They build and expand, create something entirely new, and at the same time they’re in conversation with works that range from Mickalene Thomas to Madonna to Keith Haring and Felix Gonzalez-Torres and beyond. Please tell me more about the family of art and thought and lineage that you’ve created here.
Jeffra: I definitely see these essays working as tribute! A nod to my queer ancestors and current revolutionaries who left their mark when it was even more difficult to do so. The essays are designed to reflect the spirit of their artworks while also serving to further queer subjectivity, on themes related to my own life and observations, to bring them into the present. We can still grok so much.
Rumpus: What did writing this collection look like? You mentioned “writing ekphrastic poetry first” and “finding themes through lyric fragments.”
Jeffra: After I saw the connections in some of those early essays, I then created a methodology for the rest. I know that art plays a front-and-center role in the way I perceive the world, and I knew that I wanted to be in conversation with my queer artist ancestors and contemporaries. So, I selected artworks that had a profound impact on me, and wrote ekphrastic responses in lyric first, to understand how I was moved by the work. I probably wrote fifty of these. Many days at SFMoMa, local galleries, surrounded by my art books. I scattered them all on a table while I was a resident at Ragdale, and stared; motifs, themes, governing phrases began to emerge. From there, I discovered the heart of the collection. And then I wrote the rest of the book. It was a blast!
Rumpus: “Leaving a Mark (after Felix Gonzalez-Torres)” particularly struck me emotionally, with the images of Michael, gone so young, Torres’s giant pile of Hershey’s Kisses glinting in the corner as a tribute to his deceased lover, and lines like, “In the generation before us, Irwan was supposed to die. But he didn’t.”
You ask “can art leave a mark on behalf of lives not gone, but unseen?” What is your answer to that?
Jeffra: I don’t know the answer. I hope that the collection in some ways makes an attempt. But I’m not sure. I honestly ask that question to the reader, in hopes that they know how, and that by bearing witness to the question they will work to make a mark for those unseen. Art has this ability, to arrest the eye, to demand attention for that which may go unseen—to point, to make us stare, to make us aware. But representation is tricky, even dangerous, as I also explore often in this book. What is the responsibility of the writer who is trying to make a mark for those unseen? Should it be this writer? To answer your question: I believe it can, but I’m still working on that measure of belief. I want it to. I think all decolonial artists want it to, yeah?
Rumpus: What do you mean by decolonial?
Jeffra: I am very dedicated to decolonizing literature and the literary community, at large. Much in the way that all institutions have been governed with a colonial mindset—one of white, male, cis, heteronormative supremacy—literature and publishing, even craft rules, have largely been derived from this privileged default. If it was straight white cis dudes who historically got published, and who we studied in school, who were deemed as the greats, then naturally we emulated their concepts and craft techniques. And while I don’t eschew these legacies completely, there is so much opportunity to deviate from that and find other ways to make meaning that appeal and serve folks with just as much power and effect. We need to celebrate the many techniques and strategies for making meaning. I try to play with craft and ways of seeing, to practice my dedication to this effort.
Rumpus: Is that why you founded Foglifter, the queer journal and press, in 2016?
Jeffra: Absolutely. There was a need to provide a platform for queer and trans writers who were writing for their queer community, and not primarily for a presumed default straight cis audience. It’s frustrating being a queer writer sometimes, because you are embraced for your diverse voice in theory, but are constantly being told that your work is “inaccessible,” or “doesn’t reach enough of a wide audience.” Well, that is a colonial mindset working right there, however unintentional it is. Foglifter celebrates this need to provide a broader idea of what literature is.
Rumpus: How has writing and art sustained you through two different pandemics (the AIDS crisis and COVID-19)?
Jeffra: Funny enough, I mostly resorted to performance for the AIDS crisis. The body was both a medium and that which was subjugated—it made sense for me to create movement. I felt my body was so politicized in my early years as a queer artist. So, it felt intuitive to use it as a political vehicle for making meaning. Lots of culture jamming, using hip-hop, improvisation, dance theatre, jumping up and down in all kinds of ways. However, my knees aren’t what they used to be. As for COVID-19, I’ve only begun writing during shelter-in-place since late April. It took me a moment to get there. Thank goodness I got back into it, because the anxieties fortunately coalesced into some decent synthetic thinking, and I felt I was consulting my wisdom for the first time in a long while. I’m not yet sure what I’ll discover, but I’m open to where the writing takes me.
Rumpus: I’m tickled that you wrote a letter to Keith Haring after scrolling through Casual Encounters on Craigslist (RIP). “I didn’t know how you felt about all this binary bullshit until much later, Keith.” By repeating his name, it feels like you are calling him back. Is ekphrasis then an incantation, a way to call our queer ancestors back?
Jeffra: Yes! Incantation needs to make a comeback anyway! However, I believe that is one of the defining characteristics of looking at any art, at any cultural production, not only the ekphrastic—it summons our history, our legacy as a continuum of the humanities. I say “humanities” very specifically. Another thing: I like to be in conversation with my ancestors, the ones that guide me. They are my angels, my devils, the ones I consult. I like feeling them on my shoulder, on the rim of my beer glass, on my t-shirt. They help me so much, so I keep them close.
Rumpus: You’re one of the hardest-working people I know. Your commitment to teaching, to literary activism, and to carving out space for queer, trans, BIPOC voices is admirable. How do you balance your community activism with creating art? Or do these two things inform each other?
Jeffra: I feel I should be asking you the same question! [Laughs] Let me work backward here. The two definitely inform one another, though they often speak in slightly different languages.
Community-based activism utilizes a very specific lexicon—a more political one—since it is working towards precision, especially to communicate with and subvert oppressive structures. It needs to have an almost scientific dedication to representing people’s identities and needs with accuracy, and it navigates the language of institutions—law, medicine, education, civics. This clarifying of complex processes helps me when I attempt to synthesize my actions and observations into wisdom, into writing. Art’s language, however, is more complicated, as it seeks to render the complexity of experience in an authentic and holistic way, perhaps ignoring the potential trappings of precision.
I have not found the balance of activism with art, nor have I gotten close. I imagine that will be an ongoing effort for all artivists. The Bay Area in particular has made that effort difficult, because you cannot leave out fiscal concerns in that effort toward balance. On top of all that, I am terrible at saying “no.” I care so deeply about all of the work I do—the art, the educating, the editing, the activism—that I consistently take on too much. So, you’ll be getting no insight from me with this question, though I like thinking about it. If you have any suggestions, send them my way. Help!
Rumpus: At a recent Nomadic Press reading, you mentioned that this is “a book of forgiveness.” Can you expand on that?
Jeffra: I used the book as a way to cultivate forgiveness for those I love. We all have that experience of being hurt by those we love, yes? In the past I would brush away the need to forgive, because I loved them and they were a part of my life. I would dismiss the hurt, chastise myself for being “sensitive.” But I realized that forgiveness was a way for me to experience those people with something akin to liberation, and to give my heart more freely. And who in the book am I forgiving most? Myself. When we don’t deal with hurt, we tend to transfer it—like energy—into something else, a violence. I have been a culprit of this violence many times. I could explain what that was about, but I rather folks read the book.
Rumpus: You also mentioned deconstructing craft and asking “is craft serving the intent of my narrative.” How do you deconstruct or unlearn/re-envision it? What are your aesthetic impulses?
Jeffra: Craft is a wondrous thing, and a dangerous thing. Like any tool, the more you practice it, the more you wield it unthinkingly, for a desired effect. However, if you rely on it to the point that you don’t listen to your own artistic genius, you can lose the magic: your authentic voice. Craft is a tool, not the artist themselves. I think we have the tendency to conflate these, at times. So, when I notice that I am problem-solving a work-in-progress by relying on craft skills instead of artistic genius, I take a step back and breathe, and summon the artist to the forefront of the process.
I try to listen to every story—its intention—to understand how it needs to be crafted. Sometimes it needs to be lyric, sometimes expositional, sometimes absurdist, sometimes achingly earnest. I think: who is speaking? I think: how does this story serve itself, and who does it serve? From there, I read works in conversation with the themes I’m wrestling with. Sometime after, I choose the voice, the architecture, a craft that works for the particular project. The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! is perhaps one of the most consistent projects I’ve written, aesthetically. It was my story.
When I write fiction, however, I’m all over the spectrum. My forthcoming short fiction collection, The Violence Almanac, is an example of that spectrum—wildly different aesthetic experiences in one book. I was initially worried no one would be interested in such a motley patchwork. Kaleidoscopic comes to mind. I reckon I will not be a writer known for an aesthetic stamp, like Hemingway or Carver or July. My characters are often different from me, their stories are different, and the way their story is written needs to serve them, in language, structure, point of view, and craft. There is no pinnacle of craft that I should be reaching, anyway. That’s institutional thinking, and I try to eschew it for the sake of making honest, character-driven work. I think this is where the activism informs my writing, come to think of it.
Rumpus: Thank you, Miah! So much good food for thought. Ekphrasis as a means to call back queer ancestors. Deconstructing craft. Writing a new essay for each reading. If we “don’t deal with hurt we could transfer it into violence.” Forgiveness as liberation.
Jeffra: And love!
Rumpus: Yes, and love.
Jeffra: I love you!
Photograph of Miah Jeffra by Sean Mikula.