11:44 am Jun. 21, 2012
“[I] decided to call this reading 'Shameless,'" writer Melissa Febos said in a smoky drawl from behind the podium at Housing Works on Tuesday night.
"Yes, because it’s pride, which signifies the absence of shame, but also because it’s about identity—and sex.”
“Sex” was tacked on to the end of the sentence, treated like a naughty punchline, hanging there as some sort of sign of what was to come. Febos recently published a memoir about her four-year stint as a dominatrix. On Tuesday, she wore a red sheath dress and nude-colored platform heels. Her hair was tied in a tight ponytail, and a tattoo of Billie Holliday peeked out from the underside of her left arm. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a whip and she'd be ready for work.
“I can’t say I’m proud of everywhere I’ve ever been … or anyone I’ve ever done," Febos continued, the "anyone" another sly punchline, “but I don’t have a lot of shame about it.”
In celebration of Pride Week, Febos was moderating a reading featuring fellow queer writers—Katrina Del Mar, Kelli Dunham, Pamela Sneed, Rachel M. Simon, Ariel Levy, Shelly Oria and Laurie Weeks.
Febos first introduced poet Rachel M. Simon. She's currently working on a book of sports poems, and read one, titled “Naming Rights,” about Wrigley Field.
“Wrigley is a place where you can no longer chew. Come inspect the pitching roster as we entirely annihilate opponents eschewing nuance park or endless erection field. Oh, the bulky cups,” she read.
Words and phrases like "fisting," "finger-fucking" and "cunnilingus," were happily deployed throughout the evening and then often met with uproarious laughter rather than uncomfortable squirms. Yet the stories were rarely just about sex. They touched on subjects like racism, drug abuse, oppression, identity, relationships, and even death. Sex, however, always seemed to sneak in somehow.
Some stories barely reached raunchy—like Oria’s, about a troubled marriage, or Weeks’, about a drug-addled psychotic who develops an unhealthy fixation with Judy Davis—while others were steeped in erotic detail. Artist Katrina del Mar, who followed, abandoned subtlety for rampant sexual innuendo, her prose and poems sometimes reading like a romance novel.
“A girl looked at me and wanted to take a walk into a gorge,” she said, “and I was like, yeah I’ll take a walk with you" ; “I’m hungry for your kiss./ I want to devour you./ You grasp me closer and move into me to bite.”
Kelli Dunham is a self-described “ex-nun, gender-queer-ious ex-nerd comic” and she was the partner of the recently deceased writer Cheryl B. Dunham led with an anecdote from B's funeral, where one mourner read one of B.'s poems about “going down on someone while going down the Jersey Turnpike.” Dunham then read an excerpt from B’s memoir, My Awesome Place, which will be published in October, according to Dunham. B died from an adverse reaction to chemotherapy. In the scene, B describes a visit to the doctor to take a bone marrow sample from her pelvis. B’s interpretation of Dunham’s support was particularly interesting:
“An uncomfortable intimacy took over the situation as if we were participating in a surprise three-way. [Kelli] was caressing me, with the doctor working up a rhythm, the tool thrusting in and out my backside.”
New Yorker writer Ariel Levy brought some balance to the tone of the evening. She read from an article she had written about the Van Dykes, “a lesbian separatist van gang,” Levy said, “devoted to freedom, feminism and … uh, fisting.”
Levy described how, for the Van Dykes, queer identity wasn’t so much a matter of sexual preference as it was a political ideology.
“Like her contemporaries Malcom X and Muhammed Ali, [Van Dyke] wanted a name that reflected her emancipation, not a reminder of her past as chattel,” Levy read, “Van Dyke was perfect. Not only was it accurate (they were, after all, dykes who lived in a van) but it had grand potential. Perhaps they could persuade every lesbian in America, in Canada, in the entire world to cast off the slave name she had been given at birth or taken at the altar in favor of this tough sounding moniker that claimed, ‘Your eyes don’t deceive you, I am a real live lesbian.’”
Women of all kinds, Levy explained, embraced lesbianism as a feminist gesture protesting male supremacy.
Levy exited and Pamela Sneed got up to read. Sneed, a statuesque, black woman with a broad stance and near-perfect posture, was arguably the most effusive speaker the night. She regaled the audience with stories about her travels, activism and most notably, her exes.
“She collected women like trophies … I knew I should have never gotten involved with that woman. I knew!” Sneed said, stomping her foot, “She was a baaad butch.
“But somewhere inside she flew me to a different country, and I started speaking in languages I’ve never known before,” she said with a booming voice.
Sneed characterized her relationship with another ex as one outlandish sexual encounter after another.
"You know how everyone writes all those terrible poems about ex-lovers,” she said. “Well I wanted to write a different one to say that I liked her… because she was an insatiable fuck.
“Once, she and I fucked so hard in the parking lot I was late for the plane and then when I entered the terminal I discovered I was at the wrong airport.”
Sneed offset such bawdiness with discussions of exploitation, politics, and race.
“I kept on saying that they were all related—these deaths. Symptomatic of a deeper ill. America’s implosion. No accidents but a deeper wound. A reason why these pop stars' faces are coming back bloated, pill popping, disfigured, underwater submerged, looking like the newest versions of Emmett Till. Two days ago it hit me how it all relates, dogs connected with the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin carrying no weapon, a crime of race, hatred, and violence. And then it dawned on me, hit me again that we are living in a state of emergency.”
She paced in front of the podium, waving her arms, challenging the audience to back away from these issues.
After Sneed was back to her seat, Febos leaned in real close to the microphone and said, “I feel a little drunk after that.”
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