Labia Versus the Machine: Round Two.

19 Dec

Today I’d like to talk about want. We performers are sometimes merchants of desire. Part of our power lies in the fact that we outwardly embody what others secretly seek. The stage is a kind of rounded glass for whatever we say and are in its purview: desire is magnified.

This poses an interesting problem. I’m not going to speculate or moralize about the responsibility of performers to admirers, who often see our offstage selves through this same distorted lens. The main point is, since we’re onstage, we get a little extra glow to many outside eyes.

Women are susceptible to particular hazards when it comes to this phenomenon. Can’t say why in all instances. I was thinking about this today, on the bus ride from Charlotte to Richmond, and the bus ride from Richmond to DC. Quiet, quiet rides. Almost empty buses, small snow and, other than the cows, hibernating life in the world beyond. The sudden glut of new books of mine kinda messed with my last-minute packing scheme, so I didn’t bother disturbing the stacks ISO iPod, &c. I mostly sat and let my brain traipse.

Here’s something fun to talk about: When you’re a woman performing onstage, you’re not only taking on general glamour. You’re also embodying the history of women who’ve taken the stage before you, and the remnants and mutations in yourself and your contemporary audience.

For much of human history, in much of the world, a woman who performed (especially one who toured from place to place) was seen as available. Actresses, women who worked in the circus, comedians, singers and musicians… Regardless of their subject matter, they were all seen as being one small step away from prostitutes. Why wouldn’t women of this nature be available? In most cultures, it’s normal for women to be static, and overseen by some authority. When a woman isn’t – especially when she puts herself on display in public – she is open.

It might seen contradictory that a woman who takes agency, one who attempts to own her own voice, winds up being sexualized in a different way than her male counterparts. It can be overwhelming when folks read different meanings into your work and self onstage. It can also be tremendously flattering, for women and for men. All of us seem to like and need that, much of the time.

Main thing to know is where you stand. If you have a clear idea of what your heart and body and all else want from interaction with folks offstage, you’re less likely to be taken off-guard after you disembark once you’ve done that vulnerable poem about your family member dying, that euphoric poem empowering nerdiness, &c. Let’s be real. We come offstage, we’re vulnerable. Whether we feel like superheroes or tiny worms.

Know where you stand, and say it. Be clear on what you want before you get up there. Learn to recognize trends in fans’ and peers’ behavior so you can go with what you actually want, and who you actually want to trust, when you need someone.

Please don’t let fear own you. It’s natural to be aware of folks who are trying to prey on you, but I promise most of this is conditioning. If you find folks approaching you aggressively, you have a number of different responses that might be effective. Sister/brotherhood, wit, physical training, mental and emotional control, common sense… While these methods aren’t failsafe, they tend to work. Do what you need to take care of yourself, but please don’t feed fear haphazardly.

It’s also okay to want to kiss and grope and sex people.

For women especially, although this has definitely been the case for some men: be cautious when dealing with fellow poets. Some men get pushed out of the poetry scene by peers, but it happens to women more often. Most folks who’ve been around for a long time would argue, I think, that women who are new to the scene should consider their options very carefully. If you don’t have a solid professional rep and connections of your own when you get involved with someone else who does have those contacts, you risk losing all that work should y’all break up.

A lot of women get waylaid by sex and romance in this and every profession, it seems. I’m a big believer in the potential of the genitals and heart to bring joy. But I guess a part of me thinks there are things I do that matter outside of all that. ❤

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