Monday, January 5, 2015

Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade on "memory work", female sexualization, and writing a collaborative memoir

I am still exploring—as I am still unsure.

JMW: For the last couple of years, we’ve been collaborating in prose, but it wasn’t until we’d written a dozen essays or more that I realized we were writing what feminist Frigga Haug would call a “collective work of memory.” It seems we do so much communicating through our collaborations that we don’t often have a chance to talk about the things we’ve written or why we’ve written them, and that’s one of the reasons I was so excited to be invited to have a conversation with you for Essay Daily.

Let’s talk about feminism and collaboration! I thought, and I knew you’d be game because you are one of my favorite feminists, the poet whose work most profoundly shaped my understanding of how theories of the third wave could be put into literary action. Back in 2009, when I was a PhD student in the Humanities program at the University of Louisville, I was asked to teach a course called “Humanities Perspectives on Sex Roles in Society.” The course was one of the first women’s studies classes added to the university catalog in the mid-1970s, but there weren’t always enough qualified faculty members available to teach it. Since I had completed a graduate certificate in women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh a few years before, the chair of the department thought I might be a good person to pick up a section or two of the course. I ended up teaching ten sections over the next three years and loving the experience from start to finish.

In my early research, though, trying to develop a class that would satisfy both the literature and the gender theory components of the course description, I came across an essay by Michael Messner called “Becoming 100% Straight.” The author is a sports sociologist who has conducted extensive interviews with a number of gay athletes, including Tom Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games. Messner is a self-identified straight man whose evolving friendship with Waddell, a formerly closeted athlete who came out following his retirement from professional sports, led them both to reflect on what it meant to claim their adult identities as “straight” and “gay,” respectively. Talk about collaboration! Messner’s essay was the first I had ever read in which a heterosexual author so scrupulously examined his own sexual identity, his own “becoming” rather than simply “being” straight. And when I taught his essay, I also taught your poem, “When I Was a Lesbian,” in which you took a similarly fluid view of sexuality and incorporated some humor as well:

Sometimes I think I gave up
too fast, that Jo was wrong—I wasn't a scorned hetero
fed up with men. I was just a Ben
Franklin, my kite in the air
night after rainy night, then
sick in bed with a head cold
the one time lightning was meant to strike. 

As a gay person, I was very familiar with coming-out narratives, and I knew that in various contexts, even the odd, informal gathering, I would be called upon to recount my own version of “when I knew.” Since my sexuality was the aberrant one, I would be expected to account for it in some way. In fact, one of the first Christmas presents my partner Angie and I were ever given was Robert Trachtenberg’s playful compendium, When I Knew, which featured anecdotes like “I knew in my 20s when I kept waking up with women” (female author) and “I knew when the newscaster announced that Judy Garland had died, and I fainted. I was nine” (male author). The stories were amusing, but they all treated being gay as a single, stable, definitive fact that simply needed to be acknowledged but not necessarily explored. And by implication, being straight was also a single, stable definitive fact that, already presumed by most everyone, warranted no acknowledgment or exploration at all.

But in my typical, long-winded way, here’s what I’m getting to: in his essay, Messner referenced a practice called “memory work” in which he and a group of other men of various sexual identities got together and wrote in response to various topics as charged with formative associations as “body hair” and “locker rooms.” Then, they would share their writing aloud and discuss places of overlap as well as divergence. He said this memory work group was based on the book, Female Sexualization: A Collective Work of Memory, written/compiled by Frigga Haug in 1987. What I remember thinking then, as I tracked down the English translation of Haug’s work, was How amazing would it be to write with another woman about “female sexualization”? What would be a more exciting feminist or literary enterprise than that? Three years later, I met you.

DD: This is a wonderful way to contextualize our work, Julie! I know that many times when we meet in person we have lists of things to talk about and almost never get to them all. I am so glad we have our writing to go where we don’t have time to go in person. I’ve always thought that I could articulate so much better writing than speaking. I remember when someone suggested that I use a tape recorder for notes about poems, I said, “But my brain goes to my hand, not my voice.” I know that is not entirely true and certainly not scientifically true, but I know I am more comfortable with a pen or keyboard when free-associating.

I didn’t know about your class or Frigga Haug, but it all makes complete sense to me. I think I prepared for your awesome presence in my life by trying my hand so many times at prose. I have written three unpublished (un-publishable) novels all based on some aspects of my own life, but in prose I felt I had to lie in a way that I didn’t in poetry. I didn’t lie well, as in “the lie that tells the truth,” a phrase coined by John Dufresne. I lied to make a plot happen, I suppose. Until we met, I hadn’t thought of memoir as an option for me since I gave so much away in my poems. I guess I thought I was all tapped out—that the stories I wanted to tell had already been told in poems. But the beauty of our collaboration is the going deeper (in truth or memory) and uncovering gems I’d buried. I sometimes am afraid I’ve gone too far in subject matter (bringing up child molestation, as a recent example), but you came back with an extremely touching vignette. I trust our process the way I don’t always completely trust my solo work.

I have written collaborative poetry volumes with a straight woman, a gay woman, and a straight man—I use these terms loosely, and as a way to honor the way the poets self-identify. I was a full-fledged believer in the process when I met you, but wasn’t sure it could/would work in memoir. Of course, it has been magical. I guess I had privileged the memoir as a sustained single point of view, but here we are, the two of us, writing in the first person. How does it work? I am not entirely sure, but I am thrilled that it does. I remember in the early days, I thought one of us would have to be in italics for clarity. But then we learned that our voices stand on their own just fine, and blend with each other just fine.  

Now I want to write an essay with you on those charged topics—body hair and locker rooms, indeed.

JMW: Me too! Let’s do it. I can’t believe, considering all the aspects of “female sexualization” we’ve touched upon already in our collaborations, that body hair and locker rooms have yet to be plumbed.

When I first read Messner, I tried to imagine how the feminist practice of “memory work” was different from the literary practice of memoir writing, and the only difference I could discern was that memory work implied a collaborative component. You couldn’t do it without at least one other person present. It reminded me of the consciousness-raising groups I have read about in feminist literature of the second wave, except that memory work seemed to take the idea of a kind of intimate group sharing—basically, as I understood it, women just sitting around in a circle talking and listening to each other, with empathy and without judgment—and brought writing into it. The participants wrote first, then shared, then talked about what they had written. Maybe they were like us and felt their brains went to their hands, too, more comfortably than to their mouths.

We don’t often talk about what we’re writing in our collaborative memoir since we’re not sitting in the same room when we make our entries. It actually occurs to me that the memory work technique of simultaneous writing might be interesting to try sometime. Instead of writing in response to the other person’s words, we could free-write at the same time in response to the same topic—back to “body hair” and “locker rooms”—and then add another dimension to our work by discussing what our free-writes have in common. Should we try it now? The first 250 words that come to mind when we hear the phrase “body hair”? And we agree not to share them with each other until we’ve each finished our entry?

DD: Let’s!

[Twelve hours later]

JMW: As a child, I lived in a binary world. Every known thing could be parsed into boy/girl, man/woman, had/lacked. The boys who became men had a mystery appendage. They grew hair on their faces and under their arms. The girls who became women were smooth and spare. Perhaps they were missing something? My grandmother had a mole above her lip, just as I did. She let me sit beside her and rub it like a genie’s lamp. Her mole was downy with soft brown hairs. Once, I asked her why she didn’t have it removed, and she said sweetly, “It’s part of me. God must have put it there for a reason.”

When I was eleven or twelve, my armpits began to sprout hairs. I didn’t know this could happen to girls and tried desperately to hide it. For more than a year, the hair grew—longer, darker, a musky thicket. One day my mother noticed it peeking from my nightgown’s cropped sleeve. Horror registered on her face. I thought she was going to take me to the doctor, but instead, she took me to the bathroom and trimmed it with scissors, then lathered me and shaved those hollows to a fine stubble. “Why did you let things get so out of control?”

I was supposed to be smooth and spare, but what had come effortlessly before would require so much work thereafter. No sooner were my armpits razed then I felt the mole on my face began to prickle.

DD: Whenever I am tempted to wax, I take strength in Frida Kahlo’s moustache and uni-brow. When the last beautician burned my skin, I decided better to be hairy than red and bubbly. Why is it that a long ponytail is sexy, but thigh hair is gross? The first few times I shaved my legs, I stopped where my ankle socks did—then my friend called me a Clydesdale. Even in jokes, a young girl’s leg is compared to a colt’s. I never gave my pubic hair much thought until The Sopranos’ Feech La Manna was released from prison after twenty years. The biggest change? Shaved pussies. After he returns from a whorehouse, he says, “It’s like the Girl Scouts over there.” Not one to watch porn, I took a gander to confirm the mobster’s observation. I had been flowering like the Everglades, if the Everglades had been left undeveloped. My husband had been downloading smut, taking note of the disappearing bush. Maybe he thought I was a menopausal monster, with my new lip hair and wild grass in my underpants. I thought about my singed eyebrow and didn’t want to take a chance with more delicate skin. This is not why our marriage failed—or is it? I refused to be a poodle, primping and curling some of my fur, getting rid of the rest. Diego Rivera was an unfaithful husband, cheating on Frida with many women, including her sister Cristina. Kahlo’s portrait of Cristina highlights eyebrows arched and tweezed.

JMW: The first thing I notice when I read our “simultaneous-writes” is that we each have a kind of signature approach. I think it’s fair to say we’re both pretty associative—par for the course perhaps as writers who claim poetry as their first genre—and we both tend to privilege juxtaposition over chronology. But without the back-and-forth approach of our typical collaborations, I see how I almost always leap back in time to childhood. My parents wanted me to be a pediatrician, and I convinced them I could still be a doctor who worked with kids if I became a child psychologist. (I wanted to work with the mind more than the body…) But really, everything begins for me as bildungsroman. I have this unwavering impulse to go back to the beginning of a life—my own, a character’s, a historical figure’s, and to trace patterns in early experience. I’m always looking for what forms us—not so much how we get born as how we get made.

Your entry starts in adulthood, and there is that almost immediate intersection between the self and the culture. “High,” “low”—those distinctions don’t matter. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with your poems. To me, they are equal parts literature and cultural studies. In the first sentence here, there is you—this essayist/memoirist/autobiographical speaker—however we want to contextualize that strong female voice—and there is also Frida Kahlo. And then, all of a sudden, The Sopranos is there, too. And it’s true, Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite painters, and The Sopranos, which I just finished watching seven years late, is my all-time favorite television show—but I wouldn’t even have to recognize these references to see what’s going on here: a woman making sense of experience in light of the culture that has shaped her—that ultimately shapes all of us, whether we choose to be reflective about it or not. And if I didn’t know those references—Frida, Feech La Manna, Diego Rivera—you better believe I’d look them up.

DD: I know we have talked about how some writers are reluctant to use the wise child-narrator. And one of the things I absolutely love about your work is that unabashed desire to make sense of early experience. Your entry here, like other poems and essays about early life, incorporates an alternate mother figure. Most obviously in your essays about other people’s mothers, you become fascinated by different ways of parenting. Juxtaposed to the harsh mother with restrictive senses of beauty, the grandmother with the mole becomes a fairy godmother/a fairy witch-mother who gives permission to the young child to be truer to herself. As true as a woman in our culture can possibly be, that is. The binary is also another of your tropes—which I have come to expect and enjoy in your work. You are terrific at binary-busting!

This might be too grandiose, but I wonder now if I too am an alternate mother figure? A child-free mother of sorts? If I am in that role in any way, I am happy to be there.

I am indeed obsessed with high art/low art and, of course, how women’s bodies are consumed in our culture. I am still exploring—as I am still unsure—how these body expectations coexist with feminism. It may be a second wave/third wave split. I’m thinking of bell hooks referring to Beyoncé as “a terrorist especially in terms of [her] impact on young girls.” I know I am also bringing in race here, but I was fascinated by Janet Mock’s idea that Beyoncé is actually empowering young women. When Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus asking her not to “let the music business make a prostitute of you,” I thought it was great. But it mostly backfired. So I am learning as I go and trying to make sense of women adornment and body modification as a feminist gesture. I am sucked in myself with hair dye, for example, and am always negotiating the beauty industry, especially as I age. But maybe it is time to go back to the locker room? What do you think?

JMW: Yes! But before we do, two things: I hadn’t consciously recognized you as an alternate-mother figure until now, but I don’t think it’s too grandiose a notion at all. And a “child-free mother” is about as binary-busting as it gets! For a long time, perhaps even before we met, I knew/anticipated you as a kind of fairy godmother, though. Often, when we write about fairy tales in our collaborations, I choose Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz as my literary avatar. (Surely, L. Frank Baum counts as a writer of modern fairy tales…). And then, almost as soon as Dorothy arrives in Oz, who should come to visit her by her de facto fairy godmother Glinda, “The Good Witch of the North.” (For all we know, Glinda is from Rhode Island!) Finding a tenure-track job in this market felt miraculous to me on its own (and what better analogue to an academic job search than a cyclone?), but landing in Miami (as colorful and bizarre as any Oz) to teach alongside my favorite living poet was a dream come true and a rite of passage to my Grown-Up Life as writer and teacher. You were here to welcome me and initiate me fully into this new phase of my life, and perhaps from there, our writing together was inevitable—merely a matter of time.

My second thought, before I forget, is this: If they want a title for this conversation at Essay Daily, which I hope they do, I think you’ve given it to us in the preceding section. It has the ring of a shared, resounding truth about it. This is perhaps even the credo of all our collaborations to date: “I am still exploring—as I am still unsure.” Yes! And yes!

Locker rooms? 250 words? Simultaneous-write, then share?

[Twelve hours later]

DD: In the locker room at the YMCA, some women dry their hair wearing only bras and panties. Others, like me, take great care in changing clothes so hardly any skin shows. Occasionally a naked woman will walk by talking on her cell. She is older, with an air of importance, sounding all business. I make myself avert my eyes though I am curious—who among us loves herself enough to bare all? I am tempted to describe her but resist my own male gaze emanating from my female eyes. Though I am judging her, this naked woman might be a real judge. Though her pronouncements are crisp, her actual words are muffled by the running showers’ obbligato, flip flop slaps, the hair dryers’ whir. Judge Judy, now seventy, wears a bikini on her yacht. She says she has no patience for a pudgy husband. Repulsed by flab, she and her guy work out in order to stay attractive for one another. My first locker room was full of terror. In junior high I hauled all my clothes in a gym bag and changed in a shower stall, my sneakers squeaking with water as I sloshed along to my next class. The girls with perfect bodies pranced before the mirror laughing at anyone not in their clique. How I hated them, how I was sure I’d show them all one day. But show them what? I am still wrapped in a towel, a spectator, my shame stored behind a combination lock.

JMW: The locker room was supposed to be a safe place that was “just us girls.” That’s how the older women spoke about it, even though they were no longer girls themselves and their bodies, truth be told, were as different from our bodies as the boys we knew on the other side of the wall. I never understood the grown woman’s impulse to infantilize herself—why mothers of little girls referred to their own trips to the bathroom as ventures to the “little girls’ room.” Before I had words to describe their words, I was bothered by them. Did these women want to be like us again? Did we want to grow into them?  

No, I never felt safe in the locker room. I never felt “free to be you and me,” to change my clothes without self-consciousness and stand chatting casually with other naked women and girls. But I never felt threatened either. Nothing as traumatic as what happened to Carrie ever happened to me. There was, in place of trauma, a perennial uneasiness, a deep sense that I didn’t belong. But I knew I would be out of place in the boys’ locker room, too. Exposure wouldn’t be any easier on the other side of the wall. Nakedness was nakedness after all. Does being gay explain it?  Not completely. I loved girls with their clothes on all the time. I think I wanted—as I have always wanted—to find a third way to move in this world.

DD: I think the “third way” is writing! That revelation (nakedness) clothed with words.

JMW: I couldn’t agree more! And here we are, writing…

Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women's Voices Chapbook Series; Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature; and Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series. She lives with her spouse Angie Griffin in the Sunshine State and teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.

Denise Duhamel & Julie Marie Wade have published collaborative essays in Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Green Mountains Review, Nimrod, No Tokens, poemmemoirstory, Quarter After Eight, The St. Ann’s Review, and StoryQuarterly.

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