Writing from on the Road: A Q&A with Sister Spit’s Michelle Tea

Both sentimental and side-splittingly funny, Sister Spit: Writings, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road (Sister Spit/City Lights), is a collection of stories coming out this month from Michelle Tea’s legendary feminist performance art collective, which performs around the country with a featured group of talented feminist writers, beat-boxers and trapeze artists alike.

Told through a series of essays, drawings and diaries from various caravan contributors, Sister Spit is a sharp, sassy take on the tour experience. Reading it feels like taking a road trip with your best friends at their brightest, sans the backseat bickering and rest stop bathroom breaks. A quick read that’s endlessly entertaining, it’s an opportunity to eavesdrop on some of the best feminist writers and performers in the Bay Area.

ZYZZYVA spoke via email with Michelle Tea, the anthology’s editor, about everything from Sister Spit to Sleigh Bells to sub-par lodgings.

ZYZZYVA: Can you talk a bit about the book? Why did you decide to put together this collection? Why now?

Michelle Tea: The book is a like a Sister Spit candy sampler, with a bit of work from a variety of writers and artists who have traveled the U.S. with us since our maiden voyage in 1997. There is classic work —pieces that people performed on the road— as well as new work and (my favorite) tour diaries! Because I really love bringing graphic artists and poets who work with visuals, we have a lot of images as well.

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Also, Sister Spit anthology was a great way to kick off our collaboration with City Lights, a great way to provide an overview of the sort of writers and work you can expect from this imprint. Plus, we’ve been traveling for so long —15 years, on and off!—and have worked with dozens of incredible writers, so an anthology is sort of a no-brainer. Though it’s no substitute for our live shows! Many of these pieces were made to be performed live, and though they still soar on the page, I encourage everyone to come out and see our show when we pass through your town!

Z: How do you feel the tour has changed since its inception?

MT: The open mic began in 1993 and ran weekly for two years in San Francisco, and the tour began in 1997. It has changed a lot! Firstly, though it was born out of a collaboration with poet and filmmaker Sini Anderson (The Punk Singer) I now curate and host it on my own, with her blessing. Sister Spit began as a female-only project that was both a response to the male-dominated spoken word movement of the ‘90s and also a reflection of my dyke-centric community and culture. I opened it up to include trans men because so many of Sister Spit’s past performers have transitioned to male and the formerly female culture I used to participate has really shifted to be more genderqueer, so Sister Spit needed to reflect that.

After bringing a trans guy who didn’t even identify as queer at all and really moved through the world as a straight man, I was forced to rethink the deliberate omitting of non-trans straight guys, and we brought Blake Nelson, who authored the classic ‘90s novel Girl, which had been excerpted in Sassy Magazine. So now, Sister Spit brings whoever I feel fits with its mission of bringing cutting edge-queer-centric, feminist-informed work that in spite of all that manages to be irreverent and free of any dogma!

Also, in the ‘90s, I was very, very drunk all the time, and this had a HUGE impact on the culture inside the van, the planning of the tours, everything. It was mayhem. We were also operating with zero budget, no cell phones, no Internet, etc. Sini and I were living below the poverty line, and it is truly a miracle that we were able to make Sister Spit happen. But as a result of all of this no one got paid, our vans broke down and died, we slept on strangers’ floors and were late to our shows. Charming when you are 20-whatever. Now we are able to pay our artists around $2,000 for their month of round-the-clock work. Its’ still not enough, but we’ve managed to lure folks like Dorothy Allison and Justin Vivian Bond into the van. We stay in hotels now and we rent our van, so it doesn’t break down.

Sister Spit operates under the auspices of my literary non-profit RADAR Production, a 501(c)3 that allows me to have a managing director working on the tour, as well as a fleet of interns. We have gotten grant funding the past couple years that have allowed us to bring our show into communities that otherwise would not have been able to meet the minimum amount we need to charge to keep the tour operating at this new level.

Z: Why did you pick this particular set of stories to represent Sister Spit? How did you go about choosing stories?

MT: I put out a call to everyone who has toured with us and looked at what came in. Most all the pieces worked well together; there was some poetry and also some prose whose darker tones felt hard to place within the overwhelmingly sort of exuberant writings we got, so I left those out, but only for now. New anthologies will be published in the future, so I’m comforted knowing I can include them in the next collection. It’s important to showcase the darker content of Sister Spit, which can sometimes get lost because our writers are so funny. But I have always maintained that we are not a comedy show; as queer and feminist writers a lot of our stories and experiences are difficult and that has always been a crucial segment of our live shows, and will be a crucial element in what we publish as well. I always have an eye for those writers who have the grace to balance tragedy and humor, cause that’s life, right?

Z:. Do you have a favorite piece in the collection? Is there one that you think best illustrates the Sister Spit experience?

MT: Oh man, in no way can I pick just one, not as a favorite and not as one that defines Sister Spit. If they weren’t all distinct voices our shows would not be a success, because they’d all blend together, and that is not the case. I love Elisha Lim’s “The Hing Moon Lesbians of the Sacred Heart” because it really has that first-person voice Sister Spit was so inspired by and it comes with visuals, which I love … I totally cracked up reading Blake Nelson’s “Sister Spit 2011 Tour Diary.” Cassie J Sneider’s “Art Show” is a collection of art pieces that include text. I think they’re really innovative yet build on the traditions of comic strips and punk art a la Raymond Pettibon and Ralph Steadman. Sister Spit has always prized women who create sort of gross art.

Z: What was your most rewarding experience on the past Sister Spit tour? Most challenging?

MT: Honestly, being in the van is always the most rewarding aspect of the tour. Just being literally surrounded by these exceptional artists, surrounded by their bodies and their voices, being immersed in them and the conglomerate culture we build together. We create our own atmosphere, and it is an experience wholly unlike any other. I mean, I didn’t go to college or summer camp so maybe it is like that, but I doubt it. The closest I can come to describing it is a slumber party or group acid trip. I feel giddy on the road with these people, because I truly believe they are brilliant writers, and artists and thinkers, exceptional people living exceptional lives. A real highlight of the last tour was our show at CIMMFest in Chicago, because it was one of only two shows where we had both Dorothy Allison and Justin Vivian Bond. Dorothy read “River of Names,” a very difficult piece she rarely reads and it is sort of a signature piece and special for us all to bear witness to it—that’s what it felt like, bearing witness. And then Justin not only read an excerpt from Tango, V’s memoir, but jumped on a piano sort of unexpectedly and sang for us, and it was so spontaneous and felt really precious.

The most challenging was probably dealing with some of our more sub-par housing situations, needing to advocate for us all when a college put us up at a sort of dangerous feeling hotel with blood on the walls and creepsters lurking in the parking lot. Being on tour is exhausting and no matter how wonderful and fun a show might be, you are sort of living to fall into bed at the end of the night. When the bed you’re falling into has suspicious stains on it and is totally gross you get really depressed really quickly.

Z:. What was on the Sister Spit van’s road trip playlist?

MT: We listened to a lot of Azalea Banks. Crazy showtunes, for sure. A lot of punk. Everyone kind of had their own music they liked. Dorothy’s was classic rock mostly, and some country. Cassie J Sneider and Brontez Purnell did a lot of punk bonding, and then Brontez and our road manager, Jerry Lee Abrams, both were heavy into dirty dance jams. Erin Markey also liked the dirty dance jams, but then added the bizarre show tunes and made us listen to Heart’s “All I Want to Do Is Make Love” a sick amount of times after having dreamt of it. Justin Bond let us listen to a sneak preview of “Silver Wells,” V’s upcoming new album, and that was very, very special. I kept wanting to hear Sleigh Bells, because every town we pulled into they had either just been there or were playing right after we left.

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