Showcased yearly at UCR and on the road since 1994, Sister Spit visited our campus on Wednesday for an entire day’s worth of queer, outsider literature and performance. Showcasing the best poets, writers, advocates and performance artists, the picaresque group kicked things off with an intimate Q-and-A session and ended the night with a series of raucous, individualistic performances from poets, drag queens and luminaries from all walks of life.
Represented by a group of variety and engaging individuals, Sister Spit’s visit to UCR gave oftentimes marginalized and sometimes outright mocked individuals a chance to speak and perform in a rapturous roar, the individual voices harmonious, yet distinct.
Away from the sweltering heat of the midday sun, a dozen or so students and attendees gathered in the air-conditioned HUB 269. The panel faced the audience, with the panelists at ease with the confidence of a group that had bared their hardships to countless crowds across the nation. Virgie Tovar, author and de facto emcee, introduced the panel with a brief discussion of Sister Spit’s history, which was created by famed author Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson. Tovar expressed the importance of “queer, outsider lit” to the audience, explaining how many of the panelists showcased had work that often broke established molds or ran counter to the modern zeitgeist of society. Author Kate Schatz humorously ran counter to Tovar’s initial statement, explaining how her newest book, “Rad Women A- Z,” has been met with critical acclaim and acceptance. Panelist Thomas McBee interjected, commenting on how his work deals with being both an insider and an outsider, and his search for inclusiveness.
Though hard to hear at times, the questions drew loquacious responses from the panelists, with Australian author Tom Cho often responding at great length in his dulcet accent, with the audience hanging onto every word. The responses given were so in-depth that Tovar had to encourage those in attendance to continue asking questions midway through the presentation. While certainly intimate and personalized, with the attendees and panelists almost a one-to-one ratio, the Q-and-A was comparatively milquetoast in contrast to the performance that would come later in the evening.
The sun set, the air cooled and a crowd of excitedly chattering students and alumni gathered outside the doors to HUB 302 at 7 p.m. While the panel had been informative and illuminating, the live performance was the true centerpiece of Sister Spit’s visit. Tovar stood at the helm of the auditorium. After a brief introduction by Susan Straight, the head of UCR’s Creative Writing MFA program, Tovar welcomed the crowd to the event, briefly describing Sister Spit’s “crunchy, punk rock roots” when all the performers had for transportation was a constantly overheating van. After a brief reflection on how far Sister Spit has come since the ‘90s (now they have a working van), she invited Schatz to the stage to begin the presentations.
Schatz explained that “Rad Women A – Z” was inspired by her young daughter. The book serves as an aide to both learning the alphabet and about brave and talented women throughout history, and she read aloud her passages about the abolitionist Grimke Sisters and revolutionary gender theorist and author Kate Bornstein. Accompanying her reading was a projected video of the women in the book, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. A guest reader was brought up to read the entry for the letter “X,” which is for “the women whose names we do not know.” Schatz ended her presentation by asking those in attendance how they are “rad.” One attendee remarked that she had recently cut off nine inches of hair.
The next reader was poet and renowned drag queen Mica Sigourney, who is also known by his alter ego VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! As he took the stage, he remarked on the noise coming from an adjacent room, encouraging those in the hall to make as much noise as possible to outdo those who were in “the wrong room.” His first poem was on the subject of faux-leather couches, and he recited each line with clamorous energy, only to suddenly fall silent and repeat the word “nagahide” ominously several times throughout the reading. He also performed a piece about AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, switching settings between San Francisco and New York, before ending his performance with a short poem about fried rice and cocaine that drew peals of laughter from the audience.
Tovar gave the next presentation, talking about her work in “fat activism,” explaining how she works to dismantle the constraints of diet culture, humorously remarking on how the “granddaddies of diet hated masturbation.” Her message was one of empowerment and comfortability with one’s own looks, and her presentation drew laughter and applause.
Poets Tom Cho and Myriam Gurba were the next two performers, and their readings were as hilarious as they were irreverent. Cho read several pieces from his book “Look Who’s Morphing,” painting bizarre images and scenarios with his words that would have been at home in a William S. Burroughs fever dream. His energetic, surreal words painted nigh-unimaginable scenes, which included ninjas attacking a call center and a unique reimagining of the plot of “Dirty Dancing.” Gurba delivered all of her poems in a drawling, laconic voice, her pauses for dramatic effect punctuated with raucous laughter from the audience. She recited prose of queefing, eczema and Christians’ fascination with the lowercase letter “t,” her monotone droll contrasting with her offbeat humor.
The next reader was local poet Felix Vargas, who talked about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness before becoming a punk rock enthusiast and poet. I couldn’t tell where one poem ended and another began, as he delivered his prose in an emphatic ramble that was pure stream-of-consciousness.
The final readings were from Lambda Literary Award nominee Thomas Page McBee. He read the prologue from his book “Man Alive,” which poses the question “What makes a man?” He described his book as an “adventure story on how I quit being a ghost,” and his reading of the essay “Tenderness Too” talked the difficulties of gender transitioning and the special love he and his girlfriend share. His words were moving and heartfelt, and the audience was enraptured by his discourse, greeting the conclusion of his essay with thunderous applause.