My vision flashes. We are sitting in the town square outside of the town hall in Copenhagen, seven in the morning, our bikes piled around us. I am wearing a green boiler suit fishnets pink high heels makeup worn from the night and the boys I’m with are dressed up in pretty sweaters skinny pants asymmetrical haircuts. The man in the 7-11 hates our kind: “High society of the gays!” he says angrily as we enter to buy our coffee. He is already the second person who has been rude to us since leaving the Copenhagen Queer Performance Festival, held in the comfortable enclave of a children’s circus school. I’m shocked. Copenhagen is one city where homosexuals can get married with the same rights as heterosexual couples, just over there in the pretty town hall behind us. (I was married here, in a black tie, just one year ago. We stayed in the bed and breakfast coincidentally named the blue house. Afterall, that would be the shape of our lives, or so we planned.) With our 7-11 coffee, we had retreated to the benches in the square but not before a group of students try to block our way; they pointed their fingers and shrieked with laughter. I was surprised to see two women among them. Now a drunken man approaches and says, “I’m going to take a photograph because … you look like a fucking freak.” This time we are the ones to scream in laughter. Then his expression turns sinister and he says to me, “you have a nice dress on, nice makeup. Can I come on your face? … you guys like to stick sofas up your asses?” I tell him he better leave—the kind of response I would give a person I’m about to throw out of White Trash. We are relieved when the fourth man to approach is only thumbing his nose, which in the parlance of our time means he is trying to sell us some white powder. He leaves us alone when we shake our head no. Later, alone on my bicycle, I ran into the dealer again. “Hey, I want to talk to you,” he says. The quiet corner, iron bakery sign, brick cathedral, asks me if I “wanna touch big dick?”
My vision flashes. I’m held standing by the force of bodies pressing against me, their sweat mingling with mine, our arms above us to catch the next body that will come crashing with the force of an ocean wave. We are focused on the band, the intensity of sound blaring from the speakers, but we are there not only to be as close as possible to the musicians but also because we need to be touched, and here in this mosh pit we can touch and be touched; we can fall, physically supported without asking for it. Humans need that and sometimes need to be reminded that we are there for each other in the most basic physical modes. I fight to climb up on top; I ask two boys to lift me up. I want to sail on this crowd, because simply surviving is not enough for us in this world: we want to feel that we are surviving. We are struggling to breathe and to balance, not to be pushed under and down. If we fall we will be trampled, and yet, we know, we will be lifted up if they see us. They will fight with their elbows and we back against them but they will carry us on their hands and scream with joy as we are hoisted. We want to hyperbolize our experience of existence in this world, except in no other public place can we physically express the intensity of our desires; the anger, frustration. Pure violence is an inappropriate illustration of it (most of us are lovers not fighters); perhaps through dance (but so many people are shy) and perhaps through sex (but that is generally private). Here in this pit there is a collectivity, with a common love of the band on the stage, which we love more than we ever have at this moment. Our common goal is survival; to breathe, to keep one’s head up, to gasp a breath of air in and to make sure that guy’s elbow doesn’t hit you in the eye. And when you see someone going down towards the ground there is this moment of notice, of understanding and consciousness; are they okay, are they actually going down, do we pull them up? To surf on thousands of heads and arms, to be carried, to be touched, to fall completely under the control of their energy and their force—this is bliss. Like anything we do in life, the best technique is to bend and be bent; let your body fly among and within; let it be smashed into the people around you; put aside all the things we are taught in social situations (to retain a private boundary) and to simply be a body in a wave.
My vision flashes; I am on the cool cement floor of the Supper Club in Amsterdam for an instant before climbing onto the next table, the next one I can see in my limited vision behind my mask; one eye is completely covered—I barely remember the feeling of skin on concrete except in the bruises afterwards. The Supper Club is bright white and as I emerge from my mask of nylons, the light seeps through brighter than I expect. Customers are lounging on couches while they eat an elegant prefix meal, listen to lounge/electro/house and have their feet massaged as they watch people like myself dance around, perform a little show. I roll on their couches with my knife as I rip my “skin.” Reverso performs after me; he puts on a baby doll mask and decorates his face in makeup, finishing the scene by washing his entire body in a bowl of raw meat floating in intense beat juice, pretending to vomit out the filth of this body obsession. The meat flies everywhere; he hits some guy in the face with his flying high heel and another with a raw piece of steak. Somewhere in all of this is a little joke on all of “them” who come to enjoy “us” for the night; this is juxtaposed with the pompous opinion expressed by some artists as they walk down dark streets dressed to the nines: “what a bore this fucking city would be without fabulous people like us.” Frankly that kind of talk is banal but when approached by drunken English football fans pissing on their shoes, whistling and yelling and talking about you fags or the women wearing a thousand euro outfit bitching at the coat check girl—who happens to be a dancer formerly in the royal ballet, perhaps on stage in front of this very woman—you realize where each can no longer relate to the other. When you’ve worked as a server for years …and rarely get served … we somehow become positioned against each other, each arrogant in our own ways. In the white Trash and just about every club I know, most of the staff are queer/artists/ misfits/crazy/poor and we don’t need to pay 60 euros for a meal to watch each other perform. Staff are speaking Spanish Dutch English talking about the lands they came from, the flavorful cultures they’ve known, “the Dutch, these people they’re …” the coatcheck girl is saying. A woman interrupts her, anxiously asking where the ladies is. The two bathroom doors are marked “Straight” or “Gay” and they are both equipped with stalls and urinals. What will she do?
My vision flashes. Ivan and I are sitting in Let It Bleed, the wall of images in the background. We are making a practice interview for his documentary “Berlin Manners,” which is about burlesque today in Berlin. His is an invitation to think clearly about who I am as a performer and what I am doing in the burlesque scene. I have a hard time answering at first, since “burlesque” was a kind of incidental, something I did not exactly intend to do. Life led me here to this moment but burlesque never held any special fascination for me like it does for some of the other girls I see involved in the scene. I realize I am not a twenties or thirties revivalist; the costumes are incredible but I’ve never cared to collect them. What fascinates me more is the edginess of burlesque at the time and more generally the edginess of any performance art within its historical context. I try to explain to Ivan that my first love is text and an author does not necessarily have an image that can be put on the wall. I find myself (almost) shy as I explain I am a writer; the people who first crossed my life and fanned that intensity of passion were not burlesque dancers punk rockers or movie stars, but were feminist writers like Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Anna Castillo and Sandra Cisneros. No one here seems to know who they are or to care but for me they were the most revolutionary, most profound women who were working through art and their art was political and their lives were about expressing their politics through their art. I ripped through their words, I understood those women. Even just ten years ago, trendy academia was only beginning to talk about feminism and women of color. I still think of my teachers at Berkeley—Laura Perez, Ananya Roy, Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcon, and of course June Jordan—as my revolutions; they were the women who first showed me texts that would have meaning for me like nothing ever had before. The women who’ve contributed to the anthology “Colonize This!” are my age—and we are the generation of feminists whose lives have been literally altered by This Bridge Called my Back. Here in Berlin there are times when I begin to wonder what exactly it means to be edgy anymore. But text still guides me. I am reading June Jordan’s blueprint for Poetry for the People and June says poetry speaks the truth. This must be what it means to occupy my real body. We are not trying to recreate ourselves. This talk with Ivan reminds me that most of my life has been about finding the right words, writing them down. Suddenly finding the right word doesn’t matter so much as simply communicating an idea in whatever way possible. Broken German … stunted English … and then there is dancing, a complete loss of words, letting my body speak for me, and that it quite scary indeed.
My vision flashes. I am preparing for the creative writing course that I will be teaching this fall at the Volkshochschule. I’ve finally finished the horribly English book Eats Shoots and Leaves on the importance of punctuation as guideposts for readers. “Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling,” writes Lynne Truss. I do find her book to be helpful and even fairly entertaining, but I note the difference between her concern with retaining some sense of “tradition” within the English language and June Jordan’s poetry for the people. Jordan writes, “Omit punctuation and concentrate on every single word. If you think you need a question mark then you need to rewrite so that your syntax makes clear the interrogative nature of your thoughts.” Jordan continues, “In traditional Western poetry, the rhythmical organization of words has been measured in relationship to the horizontal line. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables discernible in a line of poetry has been analyzed in order to determine whether the line follows an iambic or a dactylic or an anapestic metrical arrangement. In the 1960’s, we, black poets, developed a different kind of rhythmical structure for poetry. I call it vertical rhythm. Rather than depending only upon a distribution of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line, the rhythmical structure for black poetry depends upon the exploitation of musical qualities inherent to each work and existing between and among words as well.” Somewhere in these two angles on punctuation, I glimpse the crux of why white feminism has been rejected by black feminists and perhaps why I made it such a point to read and be taught by nonwhite feminists. If we believe that good writing speaks the truth, and we believe that we are all capable of speaking the truth, then we must also believe that we are all capable of good writing, whether we adhere to traditional standards or reject them.