Published on October 7th, 2013 | by Michelle Tea4
MUTHA interviews BETH LISICK
I first met Beth Lisick in like 1993, at a poetry contest that would determine who got to perform their poems on the main stage at Lollapalooza. After watching her take the stage I knew that my chances of having bottles flung at my head in a giant amphitheater were nil. She performed as if an electrical surge was running through her body, but also like she was used to being possessed by electricity – there was something controlled and deliberate about the dynamic way she delivered her piece. She was wild and electric and yet totally in control. After the show, while the judges deliberated, a mutual friend dragged us toward one another by our bony wrists. “You two have got to know each other.” Beth’s poetry was terrifyingly smart, even snarky, but she was the friendliest girl, as excited to make a new friend as I was. I think we may have both been wearing our hair in 90s kinderwhore pigtails, but she was for sure wearing a shrunken Hooters t-shirt, which I thought a shockingly daring implementation of irony.
Thankfully, neither Beth nor I won the Lollapalooza showdown, because main stage poets really did have bottles flung a their heads by crowds too riled up for the Beastie Boys to sit through literature. But since that night Beth has gone on to publish bunches of books and perform her constantly electric, funny, personal, vulnerable and weird work all across the globe. Her collections Monkey Girl and This Too Can Be Yours are compilations of the short pieces she prolifically busted out throughout the 90s, hilarious explorations of ennui, reflections on a not-to-distant adolescence, traversing social scenes in your 20s. Her collection Everybody Into the Pool continued her compulsively readable personal essays, bringing us into her more adult world of having a kid, a drag king babysitters and a job dressing up as a banana to hand out fruit to financial district passersby. Helping Me Help Myself is an incredible account of a year spent trying to improve essentially every area of her life, by seeking the assistance of gurus such as Richard Simmons and Sylvia Brown, among others.
While doing all this writing, Beth has also been the co-curator and host of the long-running Porchlight storytelling series in San Francisco. She formerly fronted the band The Beth Lisick Ordeal, which was, contrary to the band’s moniker, quite delightful, a loungey act with Lisick on the mic cooing about phenobarbitol, among other things. With the writers Tara Jepsen she has a long-running sketch comedy collaboration which has resulted in short films, two-woman-shows and, after a successful Kickstarter campaign this summer, a web series in the works. She’s acted in a bunch of short films, including Stepsister, which screened at Cannes this year.
Beth’s latest book just hit bookstores – Yokohama Threeway: And Other Small Shames is exactly that, a collection of gently humiliating moments that keep the author awake and cringing at night. It has all everything that everyone loves about Beth’s writing – weird humor, shamelessness, bold vulnerability, an eye for sick detail, outlandishness. It’s out on the Sister Spit Books imprint I’m editing for City Lights, which is perfect because Beth has toured with Sister Spit in the 90s, and back in the 00’s, and will be hitting the road with them again this spring. People in the Bay Area can come to her book party this Sunday, October 13th, at the Edinburgh Castle. Here she let me grill her about one area of her life she does not write about regularly – being a mom. – Michelle Tea
BETH LISICK: I was 32 and it was a surprise. My boyfriend and I had been together for a few years and had talked about maybe having a kid “someday” but we weren’t thinking of that someday being so soon. We gave it a few hours and then decided to go for it. I think because we were so sure we wanted to be with each other, it made the decision a lot easier. It came down to: how absurd would it be to have an abortion and then wait to try later when we thought we were ready. We both knew we were never going to get to a point in our lives where we felt like we had it all together, so why not do it now when we were certain we didn’t have it all together.
MUTHA: What were your feelings toward having a kid before you got pregnant? Did they change once you were pregnant?
BETH LISICK: I was never very into babies or kids. When I got pregnant, it was weird. I had to trust I was making the right decision for my future self when my current self was like, hmmmmm. Kind of like when you have to catch an early flight, so you stay up too late the night before getting everything ready for yourself even though you’re tired and don’t want to do it. Then when you wake up, you think you’re a genius for having gotten your coffee all ready to go. For me, deciding to have a baby was a new step in mature thinking. And once I was about three months into the pregnancy, I was really happy we were doing it.
MUTHA: What was being pregnant like for you? What did you crave? What was the weirdest thing? The most surprising?
BETH LISICK: I really loved being pregnant. I’m into human bodies and the strange things they do, so it was fun. Things turn different colors and change shapes. It was like taking a trip in my own skin. Your clothes look hilarious on you. I had cravings for citrus fruits and I think I ate ice cream every single day. The most surprising thing was probably how much I ended up liking it. There were a few moments where I felt really dumb. Like, not dumb in the brain but just dumb and exposed. Part of me likes to blend in to a crowd and all of a sudden everybody in the world could take one look and know something about me. A man’s seed has been inside me and I was growing a human!
MUTHA: How did you pick your kid’s name?
BETH LISICK: We decided to go with the names of our oldest living relatives. Girl was Lucy and boy was Gus. We had a boy and it was extra great because Eli grew up very close to his grandfather Gus, whose full name was Gustav. We named our son Augustus.
MUTHA: What was your actual birth like? Would you do anything different?
BETH LISICK: It was pretty fast. My water broke around 11pm, we went to the hospital at about 1am, and Gus was born five hours later. I didn’t make a birth plan except to try and do it naturally if I could. There weren’t any complications, so that worked out.
MUTHA: You were touring while pregnant, and actually using your way-pregnant belly in physical comedy routines!
BETH LISICK: Yes! Like I said, I think a pregnant body is fascinating and also very funny-looking. I did stuff with my comedy partner Tara where we were in leotards walking and dancing through bars and clubs. I always loved it when people realized that it was my real belly and not a fake one. Eli and I had a band and played a few shows. The sketch comedy group I was in had a bit where this woman was pregnant with the devil’s baby. We had been doing it before I was pregnant, but it really took on a weird cast when I was actually pregnant. Me holding my belly and this pre-recorded track in a demon baby voice saying, FUCK OFF! IT’S THE ENDTIMES!! and me sobbing and sobbing. There was a show where a woman was so upset by it that she walked out. It was kind of disturbing. But we’re all disturbing, aren’t we? Who walks around wanting to be cute all the time?
MUTHA: I feel like you had a baby outside of a larger community of people you relate to having babies. Is this true? Was that hard or no big deal?
BETH LISICK: That is true. Even though 32 is not that young, there weren’t many writers and performers I knew who had kids. I didn’t think it was a big deal, though I did get a few reactions that were like, “Ugh. Really?” Even though I liked being pregnant, I wasn’t into talking to other people about it, so that worked out because there wasn’t really anyone to talk to. About halfway in, I found out that a woman I knew in Oakland, a musician, was also pregnant with the same due date. We didn’t hang out much while we were pregnant, but our sons were born within five days of each other and now are best friends. Having someone to relate to after I had Gus was fantastic.
MUTHA: You write about your life almost exclusively, yet you haven’t written at all about the experience of being a mom. How come?
BETH LISICK: Having a kid is so strange because it’s a huge deal but, at the same time, not a huge deal at all. We were all babies, babies are humans, humans are everywhere. Get over it. That’s kind of how I felt after I had my son. My feelings about it are so complicated and contradictory, but I will try to figure out how I feel right here in front of you.
Some of this is very embarrassing, but I am so resistant to being labeled as anything, even things that seem totally obvious. Like, I don’t even feel like I can 100% say that I am a woman. I feel like a big man sometimes! Am I a writer, performer, actor, filmmaker, comedian? I do all those things, but none of those seem to fit me because I don’t think I do any of them with any great discipline. You, Michelle Tea, are a writer. You write blogs and essays and articles and books. You truly have something to say and are compelled to write. I only write if someone asks me to and it pays, or if I have the occasional idea that seems original or unique. I don’t feel the need to write that often about my opinions or experiences. I don’t write personal Facebook posts or tweets. Also, it just feels uncomfortable to me to be put in a group, so after I had a kid, anything that was called a MOM anything, I wanted nothing to do with. Mommy blogs, moms’ groups, mom’s night out. I identify as being a mom with my son, not so much with anyone else, and definitely not in a public way. Even my mom friends and I don’t talk that much about being moms. They probably have other friends they talk about mom stuff with, but I’m just not that interested in it. I realize this makes me sound kind of creepy, but I’m just trying to be honest and figure it out. And maybe this is why Sister Spit was the only group I ever felt comfortable being in. It was all over the map, so it felt like a good fit.
MUTHA: I just have to interrupt here and tell you that you are indeed a writer. Okay, continue.
BETH LISICK: The other gigantic piece, the biggest one, is that I believe my son is his own person and should not be the subject of my writing. This is where some big contradictions come in because obviously I have written about other people in the world I know. I’ve written about my husband and family a little bit, I have even written two things in books about Gus when we was very small, but it didn’t feel right. He doesn’t have a choice that his mom is someone who writes about her life. The least I can do is not bring him into it.
Maybe if he were a hammy kid, I’d feel a bit differently, but he’s pretty quiet and private. He doesn’t like getting his picture taken, so I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t appreciate an essay being written about him, or one about my struggles, triumphs or SILLY FOIBLES parenting him. And again, the eternal flame for me as a writer: Do I really have anything new to add?
Sometimes I think I do. I might like to write about my experience with Brooklyn public schools and how segregated they are, the reactions both black and white people have had to my son going to what’s commonly referred to as a “black school.” But even that that would bring him into it. So then I weigh this: how important is it really for me to write some fucking online essay about how surprised I was that many liberal white people in Brooklyn are pretty racist? Not very. Heard it before. We all know it. Now if I were an amazing thinker or was bringing something so new that it felt important to be heard, I could see doing it.
To sum it up: the combination of my son liking his privacy, me not feeling like a mom in a public sense, and the world not needing another first-person essay about pre-teen sexting, standardized tests, pinot gris with the ladies, accepting your middle-aged body and face, and even racism, as seen from the perspective of a white mom in Prospect Heights, means I don’t do a lot of writing about being a parent. I’ll leave it to other people who feel confident that they are contributing something new.
MUTHA: What have you found to be the reality of being creative and working creatively and having a kid. How have you figured out how to do it?
BETH LISICK: I like this question because it’s about more than time management. Not only are you trying to schedule the hours you need to work, but when you get those hours, can you tap into the weirdness you need? Can you summon the imagination required, at will, when your kid is in school or sleeping?
One thing that helps a lot is collaborating with people on projects. Another creative person can help you get there! Writing is hard because you are so inside your head and it’s difficult, for me at least, to make room in there to be spontaneous sometimes, but being a parent is also very grounding. Historically, for me, the more grounded I am the more comfortable I feel taking creative risks. Think about it like astral projecting, a hobby of mine. You can be nice and warm and safe in your bed, but you can do anything when you’re out there because you always get to come back to that warmth and safety you know. I am not above using my kid as a springboard to to get me where I want to go creatively. It’s about time he gave something back!