Local Author Michelle Tea on Open Mic Scenes, Fantasy Books, and Her New Anthology Sister Spit
Author, editor, and female activist Michelle Tea may be well on her way to becoming a household name. Known for her sheer honesty and relate-ability about growing up in impoverished Chelsea, Massachusetts and dealing with her sexuality at a young age, Tea is the author of four memoirs, including the bestselling Valencia, and an upcoming young adult fantasy book entitled A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek. In addition to her writing, Tea is the founder and executive director of literary nonprofit RADAR Productions. And as if that all doesn't keep her busy enough, Tea is also the co-founder of the lesbian-feminist spoken word organization Sister Spit.
A little background: The SF-based group started out in 1996 as a weekly, girls-only open mic forum about varying sexual and gender identities. The females of Sister Spit ditched the small stage and took their popular act on the road. And in 2007, Tea revived the tour (which now includes men), renaming it Sister Spit: The Next Generation.
Most recently, Tea collaborated with City Lights Publishing to launch a Sister Spit book series about life on tour. Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscences from the Road, which was released last month, consists of short stories, poems, photographs, and doodles. From Blake Nelson's hilarious, yet detailed 'Tour Diary' to Lenelle Moise's flashback to her unnecessarily strict Catholic school, the book brings laughs, tears, and continued hope for change.
Diehard Michelle Tea fans, take note. The book release party takes place on Wed. 10/24 at City Lights in North Beach and on Thurs. 10/25 at Pegasus Books in Berkeley. But first, we get the lowdown from Michelle Tea herself.
What inspired you to start the Sister Spit group?
It began as an alternative to the majorly hetero and seriously male-dominated open mic scene at the time. I participated in it, as did other girls + queers, but there just weren't enough of us, and I figured that probably a lot of girls or queers didn't want to have to listen to a bunch of offensive drunk dudes in order to read their poetry. So I started Sister Spit with Sini Anderson as a girls-only alternative, and on our very first night, our sign-up list went off the page.
How would you describe Sister Spit in one sentence? One word?
Sister Spit is an ever-changing lineup of writers and performers whose work is literary, fearless, and hilarious and always informed by the lived experiences of its queer or feminist creators. In a word: unpredictable.
What is Sister Spit's mission?
The mission is to broaden the careers of artists who are published on small presses with no touring budget, self-published, or not yet published. We've cultivated a national audience of people who are hungry for irreverent, powerful, and funny work that does not shy away from making bold claims towards feminism or queerness, but it is also not beholden to any particular idea of that. And I get to go on a road trip, which is rad because I myself don't drive.
How did you get involved with this spoken word performance art?
I came to San Francisco with a vague plan to become a writer, and when I got here, the performance poetry scene was exploding throughout the city. The scene was very accessible and people with more of an outsider-y voice were actually prized. I quickly became the girl who was really angry and feminist and queer and would read poems that talked shit to men or were sort of breathless and hyper about being a dyke and falling in love and fucking shit up. And there really was a place for me in that scene, which was kind of incredible.
Tell me a little about the book Sister Spit.
Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road is as close an approximation to seeing Sister Spit as a book can give you. There are a bunch of pieces that to me are Sister Spit classics, the work read by performers while on tour. Ben McCoy's 'French Drag Queens, My New Best Friends' is one of the most important pieces performed on our tour, a really frank description of some of the bullshit trans women go through in our culture, told with the biting humor that both Sister Spit and Ben McCoy are known for.
Although you edited the book, you also wrote your own excerpt for it entitled 'Black Wave.' What was your inspiration?
'Black Wave' is an excerpt of a novel-memoir I'm publishing on Sister Spit/City Lights in 2014. Its inspiration was a desire to write about my own experience combined with my desire to write fiction—something apocalyptic. So I wrote the memoir about my life in SF in the '90s. It becomes very magical towards the end and very meta and self-referential. Its message is that it's f***ing hard to be a queer person, a female, a poor person, and a writer.
I'm working on the skeleton of a new memoir right now, while also doing another heavy edit of 'Black Wave' and looking forward to the publication of my first in a series of young adult fantasy books, A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, which is coming out this January. I also just finished post-production on a film adaptation of my memoir Valencia. And RADAR, my literary nonprofit, will be bringing programming to the East Bay! Lots of exciting things in the works. And in the midst of it I'd like to have a baby and go to Europe with my girlfriend.