I’d owned my paperback copy of The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America for about a year when I found out Michelle Tea was coming to my city for a reading with the Sister Spit tour. Only a year and yet the thing was falling apart. I had read it repeatedly, I had read it out loud to my sister in the car, I had lent it out only to start asking for it back nervously after a week or so. I probably arrived at the reading 30 minutes early, anxious that I get a good seat—all the better to hang on every word of this writer I loved.
But it of course was not just Tea I encountered that night. It was the entire Sister Spit crew, a collection of writers and artists who piled into a van and drove across America, reading their racy, provocative and deeply personal stories and poems and putting on a hell of a show. I left that night with a massive stack of books I had bought at the merch table, and I have followed the careers of writers like Beth Lisick, Justin Vivian Bond, Eileen Myles and Shar Rednour over the years.
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Sister Spit is still going strong—I saw them earlier this year in Philadelphia—and the cast of performers continues to evolve and change. But now they are also a publishing imprint of City Lights, and their first season brings us a bold anthology called Sister Spit: Writings, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road. I spoke with Michelle Tea, who is leading the Sister Spit imprint, about the move to publishing and what makes a Sister Spit writer.
I'm interested in this move into publishing for Sister Spit. How did the imprint with City Lights start, and what is the mission of the imprint?
I'd wanted to publish for a while; through the various writing communities I'm a part of and years of touring North America with Sister Spit, I am in touch with a lot of excellent writers—many of them marginalized through queerness or class—without great connections to publishing. And I hated it, I wanted to help their work get out there. This started feeling more urgent when the literary non-profit I founded, RADAR Productions, began a writers' retreat each summer. Writers apply with works in progress, so I was getting close-up looks at all these great projects. I'd thought about starting a small press through RADAR, but we have limited resources and I thought maybe an imprint could be a boon to a press as well as to us, since I have a built-in publicity mechanism with the tour. I pitched the idea to Elaine Katzenberger, and she was all for it, which is amazing. The mission is to publish the writers Sister Spit organically works with; I won't be publishing anyone who isn't right for the tour. So, primarily but not exclusively writings that are informed by a queer, feminist outsider perspectives.
What makes the performance aspect so important for who you decide to publish?
A reader can make a great piece of writing sound dead if they read it badly. I've read things on the page that inspired me, then hear the work read aloud by its creator and [it] totally left my body. With the changing publishing industry, writers are expected to be promoting their work more than ever. So I think honing that skill is smart for everyone, even though I know it's a little unfair to expect a person to be a great writer and a showman. But like Joan Crawford said to Christina, “Ah, but nobody ever said that life was fair, Tina.”
I liked that your introduction talked about class and money. So many writers clam up about money, advances, the economics of publishing. That's disappointing, because it creates this allure of the six-figure book advance, rather than talking about the day-to-day of trying to make a living from your art.
Yeah, Sister Spit has always been a very working class escapade, though not entirely. Because me and the co-founder, Sini Anderson, were self-taught, didn't go to college and came from broke families that was really in our own work. We gravitated toward others who expressed those experiences, because we personally felt the need for it.
I think it's important to know that you don't need to be all hooked up in the world to create culture, you possess what you need to create a place in the world for you and your people. It might be a lot of work, but hopefully it's fun, too. I am so grateful that I get to make my living doing this stuff, after more than a decade at not making anything!
As you mention in your foreword, there isn't any one thing defining a Sister Spit writer. You have a spectrum of genders, sexualities, races, classes... So how do you know when you're reading someone's work whether they are a Sister Spit writer or not?
My feeling that someone is a match for Sister Spit has to do with so many factors that it winds up feeling really intuitive. Largely, it's my own taste. I'm drawn to art and literature that privileges personal experience, but it has to have a great, unique voice. It's never enough to have lived through anything, you need to have a je ne se quoi about the way you put it into words and, for the purposes of Sister Spit, you need to be comfortable and dynamic reading it on stage.
There is a common contemporary culture of writers and thinkers who are really in the world and also creating their own little worlds of culture and sub-culture, whose lives have been marked by an experience of or deep consideration of social injustice, who get queer culture, radical politics, feminism and wildness. This knowing is the backbeat of their work, whatever the content is. That's what I'm looking for. I know it when I see and hear it.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.