Pick Your Pleasure: Talking with Liz Asch
Liz Asch’s book of erotica, Your Salt on My Lips, out now from Cleis Press, slams into the sweet spot between poetry and raw body courage. A painter, essayist, podcast creator, and licensed acupuncturist, Asch threads all of these practices into her confident and savory collection. But the stories are not autofictiom; it’s more that her brave exploration into the corporeal self and spirit imbue every part of her life.
The heart wants what it wants, even if in a dark bar, watching people perform with sex toys on a mechanical rocking bull. Asch and I talked about the tension between erotica and “literary” fiction, writing on the body, and the courage it takes to write about all that is wet and confusing among humans (and a few supernatural creatures).
The Rumpus: Gerhard Richter famously said, “Art is the highest form of hope.” How do you see erotica as a form of art? As a form as valid as, say, “literary fiction”?
Liz Asch: I am a big Richter fan, love his work, and I appreciate his statement here. In art we get to create whatever we want, and it can become a vehicle for desire, for hope, for fantasy. Erotica might be a low-brow form of writing in some people’s estimation, but what power it holds—it takes us right to the pelvis, the core of the body, and shoots to the heart, where our desire lies. It engages the nervous system and the five senses—sex unzips us to each other. My hope in writing sexually and sensually liberating erotica is that it reintroduces us to sexual power, radical consent, and embodied desire, which I believe are some key ingredients for healing from trauma and claiming one’s erotic self. Art imitates life and the reader or viewer imitates art. We are creatures who mimic. My hope is that I’m offering an eclectic array of examples in which lust and longing and healing and libido are normalized. I think we could all use more of that. This book is a grab bag of it. Pick your pleasure.
Rumpus: Your book is an anthology of points of view, personas, eras, and genres. Did you always intend on a varied collection, or did it evolve into its current form?
Asch: Both. “The Lemon Tree” story was the first erotic story I ever wrote. I didn’t even call it a story at the time. I was just playing with sensuality and time. I got positive feedback on it in the class I was taking with Lidia Yuknavitch at the time, and I felt emboldened to keep playing. I wrote some intentionally erotic stories and got a thrill from publishing them in BUST and in a Cleis anthology, using pseudonyms. During those years, whenever I got an idea for an erotic story, I’d jot it down and take a few notes. Then, on occasion, I’d dig in and write, flushing out characters and building scenes. My plan was always to have this really varied story collection, which is atypical, as erotica collections are usually just lesbian or just gay men or just about bondage or something, you know? This book was all over the place in gender, orientation, and sex acts, but also in tone and style and form. But that’s what queerness is all about, in my opinion: variance and inclusivity. Because of that I subtitled the collection “(mostly) queer literary erotica,” so the reader gets a heads up that there is heteronormative sex in the mix as well.
Rumpus: You paint in watercolor, acrylic, and oils, depicting forms from nature and abstract gestures in a dancelike flow. How do you see your art and stories in Your Salt on My Lips influencing each other?
Asch: I’m a glutton for sensuality, or eros. I love sensuality in movement, in line, in color, in flavors. It’s something I see as enlivening and restorative. Eros is the part of us that connects to the soul. It’s a medicine that slaps our consciousness awake. When our inner eros or sensuality is asleep or distant (from injury or trauma or what have you), we suffer. As someone who struggled with severe depression throughout much of my early life, awakening and activating my senses is a key part of my self-regulation practice. Making art keeps me engaged, present, and turned on (not in a sexy way, this time!), opening to life, with circuits firing.
Rumpus: Dan Savage once wrote, “The expectation of lifelong monogamy places an incredible strain on a marriage… But our modern concept of love has at its foundation not only the expectation of monogamy but the idea that where there’s love, monogamy should be easy and joyful.” Your stories about the birthday parties of a lesbian couple, who brought in one man, then two, address this concept in a very hot way. What was your intent in that set of stories?
Asch: Sweet. I’m glad you found that hot. This book began as a challenge to bust sexual taboos one at a time. I was writing it as a quiet, private act of subversion, which was an attempt to confront the taboos I was holding inside myself. Like coming out as a lesbian at a young age and being attracted to androgyny, and also to cis and trans men, exploring what bisexuality means, and now we have the term pansexuality, which is perhaps more inclusive. Queerness is inherently inclusive, and when it gets turned around to become exclusive, I think something in it is corrupted. In the book, you will find characters who are together and others who are just having a short-lived experience. You will find gay, lesbian, asexual, trans, and unidentified characters, and a lot of subversive play around that norm that Dan Savage references—that monogamy is the moral way to couple up.
Rumpus: Not to make you into a porn director, but there’s a lot “directing” that happens in erotica, moving bodies around and controlling the pacing. What was your revision process like?
Asch: I did feel like a porn director writing this book, but with invisible people! I made animation films in college so I’m kinda used to that. My process included questions to myself like, how would that dancer leap onto that bull, and wait, could they do that, can three bodies do that? My editor and I hired sensitivity readers for guidance for the stories with characters of culture and marginalized genders.
Rumpus: In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses writes about pacing as power: “To modulate breath means more awareness of when we speed up or slow down or pause… and the effect of sharing breath with a reader.” If the intent of erotica is to create an otherworldly sensual state so the reader can visualize and “participate” in the scenes, how do you use pacing in your stories?
Asch: I do aim to write so that the reader is present with their senses, and breathing alongside the characters, and that requires using highly sensory language, which I try to do throughout the book, playing with tone and setting and style and form. When I took a workshop with Tom Spanbauer, he called that kind of writing “OTB” (on the body), which I understood to be where your language brings the reader to the character’s body, and by proxy they get more in their own body, which is meant to amplify how they empathize and relate to the story.
Rumpus: I haven’t read an erotic story that involves consent, as in asking for it, before reading some of yours. How do you see consent versus the fantasy element of erotica?
Asch: Yes, I really wanted consent to be intrinsic in this book, and to take all kinds of forms, both intra-personally and interpersonally. I wanted these characters to know what they wanted and to be very able to state their needs and wants. To me, that is fantasy, as much as having wildly satisfying sex. The thrill in the voyeurism of raunchy, fulfilling sex is matched by the vicarious empowerment of voicing and receiving clear desire and consent.
Rumpus: The history of erotica and its good friend, masturbation, is steeped in repression from Church teachings to censorship laws. What taboos were you fighting against as you wrote these stories, even from your own upbringing?
Asch: I grew up very sexually afraid, repressed, and taboo-stricken. I did not experiment with sex much as a teen, and then freshman year of college, I came out of the closet. Realizing I was queer was so liberating; I felt desire in a way I never had, and I grew a sense of comfort in my body that I’d never had under the male gaze. I started picking up women in gay bars and having flings with classmates on campus. I didn’t feel the pressure to be in a relationship back then and that was liberating, too. Once I did start having girlfriends, I fell victim to “lesbian bed death,” as they say. I had terrible communication skills back then, because I was just a kid, and didn’t know how to state my needs or desires or resolve conflict. I either bailed without explanation or I remained in the relationship feeling imprisoned and shut down. It’s only been in my thirties and forties that I’ve learned to improve upon those things, but I still can’t speak up as articulately as my characters. It’s a life goal.
Rumpus: I read Art Sex Music by Cosey Fanni Tutti, who was a sex worker and a performance artist. (She also did a lot of laundry and cooking for her male partners.) She received grants for her sexually explicit, groundbreaking performance work yet was disowned by her family when her sex work was publicized in a tabloid. There are still taboos about writing erotica versus writing sexually explicit scenes in “literary” novels. What made you want to break that taboo?
Asch: It’s true. Erotica is on the wrong side of the tracks from high literature. I don’t care. I might write more books that play at the cusp of erotica and the literary novel. But this book I felt needed to be what it is: a breaker. It breaks stereotypes and expectations and form and norms by making the scandalous and licentious ordinary. I have so much admiration for transgressive artists like Cosey Fanni Tutti who play with the paradoxes we get trapped in. I hate everything about stereotypes of “women’s work,” and I’m also really good at some of that stuff: the nurturing and caretaking and being of service. How do we navigate that? Sex sells, and she sold it. Good for her. How else was she supposed to survive as an artist? Sex sells because we crave knowledge of it and we harbor animal desires. Why do we pretend it doesn’t interest us? Or that we don’t want exposure to it? We are so curious about it, and so afraid. To me, that’s prime material for art.
Rumpus: In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje, a sensual writer, talks with Murch about seemingly accidental moments in film. One example he gives is the end of After the Rehearsal by Ingmar Bergman, which has a “blunt cut to black,” described as “the power of a quick unfinished detail.” What “accidents” did you leave in your stories, since so much of sex involves experimentation, fumbling, etc.?
Asch: I love that you describe Ondaatje as a sensual writer. I agree. I just checked out that Bergman scene online. A relationship is ending and the film just slams shut with that cut to black, form imitating content. I think I am a cut-to-black kind of writer. I like a blunt cut. Some of these stories do end sharply. Juxtaposed to the next story, there is often a very different style. As for fumbling, there are moments where the characters show nervousness or tension, like when they mutter to themselves to play it cool or struggle to envision how an encounter is going to go, or embarrass themselves a little with awkward communication. The aim is to titillate the reader, and possibly show them something that turns them on that maybe they weren’t aware they find hot. These characters are gussied up with sex and communication skills that are bigger than life. They mostly model exemplary sexiness while hopefully seeming somewhat relatable inside.
Rumpus: How are your stories a conscious way to fight against oppression?
Asch: I get reactive when hidden things stay hidden at someone else’s expense. I have a primal urge to disclose and reveal. When I learned of the AIDS crisis in tenth grade, in 1991, I joined a local AIDS education and resource organization as a volunteer, wore a red ribbon on my scrawny chest every day, and started a club at my conservative Southern public high school to destigmatize HIV and AIDS and to provide sex education. The principal forbid our group to discuss sex at club meetings (remember, this was back when abstinence was the only form of sex ed.) so I went to a faculty meeting and delivered my safe-sex presentation to all the teachers. I had never had a relationship at that point. Ha! But I was impassioned to talk honestly about sex because the risks of keeping it quiet were too huge, too full of sorrow and suffering. Language is education and education brings with it the power to destigmatize and that is a beautiful thing. So, let’s all do it, okay?
Rumpus: Lidia Yuknavitch and Tommy Pico write “erotica” in the creatively sanctioned forms of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Are you trying to make erotica more of a creatively sanctioned form, or doesn’t that occur to you as a goal?
Asch: Erotica absolutely deserves a place at the table of high art. Maybe it’s left out because of our puritanical tendency to demonize the body, and unions, and lust, and desire. We hypersexualize so much consumerism in inappropriate ways, but healthy sexual expression is still so taboo and demoralized. Culture is playing with it in such progressive ways right now, though; it’s exhilarating. I feel like the world was one world before “WAP” came out and another world after. Never has the wet ass pussy been so large and in charge. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion rewired all that bravado that the dick colonized and gave it back to the OG sexy sex organ: the vulva. The world would be a better place if Lidia Yuknavitch and Tommy Pico and these artists were in charge of writing a new cultural morality code. I mean, in a way, they are.
Rumpus: As are you!
Photograph of Liz Asch by Wayne Bund.