The Poetry Project

Love’s Procedure: an interview with writer Camille Roy

Dia Felix

What are you into? 
Do you enjoy American Literature?

Camille: I don't know what literature is.
Eileen: Oh good. 

Writing as laboratory, record, and direct experience. Evidence-based. 
Delicious data, sugar in our mouths. 
Writing as feast. 
Writing as the hall of justice. 
Writing as time travel.
Writing as a sense (of possibility.)
Writing as we are conveying ourselves to a new future using our imaginations.
Writing as stimulant.

The work cannot be a commodity. 
But here I am promoting it, because I want you to know.

A Conversation

On the occasion of the publication of Honey Mine, an expansive collection of 3 decades of Camille Roy's creative work, I took the opportunity to interview writer and, I'll just tell you—dear person, teacher, mentor, and friend—Camille Roy. Honey Mine, edited by Lauren Levin and Eric Sneathen and published by Nightboat, presents this highly influential poet, playwright, essayist, and fiction writer across a broad range of era and genre. It feels both youthful and eternal. Forever young. It takes you on the road, to the farm, and into the boudoir. Camille—is it Camille?—builds and documents worlds she makes with her friends. I want to play, the book says, as it conveys you on a bumpy, delightful safari of queer women living on the hungry, horny, jagged edge. It stings, it slaps, it soothes. The book and attendant attention on her work are overdue, but also maybe this is a great time for it, maybe what we need now is this moist, sticky, filling, electrifying work, brain-tugging but also knife-into-princess-cake pleasurable. On its turbulent ride, you might remember that danger need not be serious, survival need not be solemn. Because everything is at stake, we might as well laugh about it. I'm very very into it if you ask me. And maybe it's a great time to talk to Camille herself too—after years of distance from a primary writer-identity, this major book project was a way for her to reflect and see, as she'd say, if she enjoys it. This conversation has been passionately and agonizingly edited, for length and to make me look less like a fool.

Dia Felix: One thing that really strikes me about the work is the immensity of it and the amount of work in it. It's a pretty big book and it covers a lot of years and decades of your writing. What was it like for you to look back at your work in this way?

Camille Roy: What I see in the book is this very intense struggle to assemble my consciousness. Many things made that challenging. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with the reality of the South Side of Chicago not reflected in any media and being unable to tell people who didn't grow up there what it was like—this was just one of these areas that created a strange feeling in my consciousness. And then to grow up with this family, a sort of bi-class family … Parents who met in the Communist Party, and who had these two different class histories which never got integrated or talked about. My father detached himself from his family and my mother did too. Then becoming a lesbian and having my partner be an incest survivor and a prostitute … I felt catapulted into these realms in which I didn't have the language to describe my experience. I just didn't have it. One reason why the realistic prose of feminism with its commitment to accessible representation didn't work for me is that my relationship to language was so fractured. I had to depart from that political legacy and go into a more experimental direction in order to make something that was authentic to my fractured experience. But my work is political. It’s important to me that it be accessible to people who don't read with the theory background of an MFA, you know? I want people to get it on an experiential level.

When I look at the book as a whole I feel delighted that I have had to explore all of these different aspects of the American situation. It’s a very American story, not just a lesbian story. This unrepresentable history that I was given just ended up being my … legacy. Not legacy. It ended up being my situation. Going through the whole mess of it was incredibly rewarding. I got to tackle the American beast. It was so challenging, yet I was lucky to have had all of those angles and avenues, because it's not just one story. It opens out into lots of different stories. I am so excited that I had the chance to do that. It’s also amazing just how much things change with the passage of time.

DF: What changed?

CR: At the time that I wrote many of these stories, I felt I was violating taboos, I was writing something forbidden. But after enough time passes and people start to die, you realize you're just making a record of your time. After a person dies most of the time the secrets don't matter.

DF: In terms of your family of origin, or your friend or community group?

CR: If we're talking about privacy, most of the time, 6 months after somebody dies, their secrets don't matter anymore. They're not secret to any person. Ultimately you have simply represented a moment of time that would otherwise be lost. And there's something tender about that. It’s also exciting, to bring people to life in their sexy prime. And I had no idea that is what I was doing! I was just jotting down stories that I hoped people would enjoy (even though hardly anyone paid attention). Over time, everything changes, and it begins to seem like this record might be of value. It's so interesting how things change and how many things disappear. Basically, everything changes, and everything disappears. Until you actually go through this, it doesn't seem possible.

DF: Like how we forget that life is a flash, that it will be over before we know it? I definitely do. I want to remember but I forget constantly.

CR: Right. There's a quality to your present-day life, it feels so vigorous, so sturdy and grounded, that you can't really imagine that it's going to be wiped away, right? But it is, it's all going to be wiped away. That's the human condition. I discovered this aspect of what it means to make art decades late. "Oh, this is what I'm doing! I'm making a record for when we're all wiped away. "

DF: Why do you think you are compelled to make this record?

CR: I am happy that I am representing communities and experiences that don't typically get represented. Whether it's having Communist parents, or growing up on the South Side of Chicago, or being part of a sexual underground community—these experiences, when they're lost they're really lost because they don't get recorded into the dominant culture. Also, having grown up in a lefty community that had its roots in the Communist party, I have faith in underground communities. I trust them, I know they can be these reservoirs of serious and thoughtful new values for the next period. For the coming historical world. There’s much to be learned. We all spend a big part of our lives just absorbed by the apparatus of capitalism, trying to extract enough value for us to survive. We all are stuck in this and the people who are not stuck in this daily routine, those who have trust funds, they're stuck in other ways. It's not escapable.

DF: It's not escapable.

CR: Being able to access these subcultures, whether they are political or erotic, and learn from them, has a great value. It helps you with the question of how to be a person. How to be a person. One of the weirdest things about our contemporary moment with social media is that there's an endless array of lessons in how to look like a person but not that much in terms of how to be a person. Our communications are instantaneous, and those things are harder to communicate instantaneously. So. I hope that people enjoy the book. There are chunks of it that are really funny and full of unexpected events, which reflects the way that life outruns your sense of what kinds of things can happen to a person.

DF: I find the work to be a very sensational experience literally. A strong experience, destabilizing and thrilling. I have to calm down when I read it. Has there been anything that has surprised you about the reception about this work, or maybe as you've worked with your editors, or shared with new readers?

CR: One thing that's interesting to me is that the work has such a strong sense of being in the present, of being an experience. People are not relating to it as being old. There's nothing that's been written about it that says, here's this work from 20 or 30 years ago and it's still so interesting. That's not what people say.

DF: Not like, "This vintage work, what do you know, it still holds up…"

CR: Right! They don't say that. It's like they experience it in the now. It is the act of turning to experience over and over as something interesting and worth trusting. Because a lot of my life was not part of the representational architecture of the culture, I had to find myself in the moment over and over again. So, the book I’ve written does this.

Also, I hope that for queer writers the narrative strategies and approaches to material which I use are useful–the book as a tour through literary experiments. They are projects in amusement and daring and exhilaration. Why not try things out? A book just belongs to everybody, it is a project of community life. It pleases me that some people who are in the book got to read about themselves in their sexy prime and were delighted.

DF: Speaking of that sort of thing, like truth and real people—one thing that as a reader is so fun, and wild, is that there's this perfume of veracity and truth, and there's this complete trust, so I don't know exactly if Dusty or Agatha or anyone is quite a real person, but I completely trust what you're giving me. And I wonder about that. Like it's not journalism, but has this truer-than-truth or realer-than-reality feeling. Where is the non-fiction in what you do? Or do you think about that?

CR: I'm interested in real conditions. The stories are investigations of real conditions. There is a political aspect to my motivation, because a lot of the conditions that I struggled with didn't have much hold on the imagination of the culture. When I find the thread of a narrative through circumstances and characters I have been ruminating about, I get excited because this thread will allow me to investigate the conditions. The material of my life is shaped around this sense of an investigation. It's not necessarily serious. It may be just comic! I’m not exploring my wishes or fantasies. I'm actually more interested in what has frustrated my wishes and fantasies.

Overall, I promiscuously use both the real and the fictional in order to pursue this investigation, and I attempt to make this investigation as effective as possible. In my own sly way, I'm making a case to the reader, and I will shape events and shape the story–I'll fictionalize it–in order to make the absolute best case. Only it's not like a linear argument that a lawyer might make, it's some other sort of case. It's more of a scenario of surviving the challenges of life. For example, I used to ruminate about the fact that the first person I came out to was very possibly a serial murderer. I used to fret about it like I was complaining to the world, as in, why are you like this, world? Look what happened to me! I could have been killed! And then I realized to myself, man, that would make a good story. Plus, it would be funny. I could take this terrible situation and bring out the humor of it, while at the same time registering some truth about what life is really like, in a piece of fiction. When I did that, after I wrote the story, the complaints and ruminations in my head just stopped. Most of the stories have something like that in them. To me, discovering the story is like discovering that thread. Then there's a certain kind of raw delight in pursuing it because it allows me to go through all these situations that in ordinary life people resist encountering, may find awkward, may be embarrassing. Some of these situations are so comic. There's so much of what forms us as people that we don't want to admit. The challenge is being able to handle that material, being able to work with its inherent comedy, so it's not a lugubrious wad of just your pathetic feelings.

DF: Man you are on fire. I mean it does occur to me, like, how do you know you're a writer? When a close encounter with a killer leaves you with a sense of enrichment! Like you can take the slings and arrows of the dangerous or embarrassing things that make up your life and personality and sort of be able to accept or embrace them because you need them to do your work which is to write about them. It just feels like an essential part of the vocation or avocation. It also feels pretty spiritually advanced, to separate yourself from the pain and humiliation of life, and rise above to see it as material.

CR: Yes, and here's another thing. There's this cultural desire that women have lives that are characterized by niceness, safety, and domesticity. When women’s lives veer radically from this it causes anxiety and upset. I think that everything about this is fake. It’s fake even with regards to the lives of women who experienced more protection than I did. I want this book to break this mold and allow the unruly truth to swirl out, make a mess, cause commotion, and create disturbances. People are squeamish about women and the best thing to do with that is turn it into a kind of comedy. It’s basically just there, as available material, in the discrepancy between the experience of women and the ridiculous lengths that people will go to misunderstand that experience.

It’s dangerous out there for unprotected women. There's this whole set of conventional understandings of how women are victimized, how pathetic that is and sorrowful and damaging. I don't want to undermine that, but I do want to enlarge it to be an area where character is developed and tested. There is a brutal nobility in survival. It should be admirable! And it's not considered admirable, it's just the pathetic lives of women, limping along. I say, let's admire these witty survivors with their comebacks and their survival strategies. Let’s admire the girl with a switchblade in her pocket. This relentless sentimentalizing of women’s lives throws a blanket over all of this. Instead of being interesting, women become a class of unfortunates. Reality is fucking interesting, you know?

DF: It is interesting! It's the most interesting!

CR: Humans are terrible. Sexual predators are all over the place and life too often is like a combat. So, let's rejoice in our survival strategies and our survival stories, you know? Not just the survival strategies of men, but the survival strategies of women. It's tiresome, the way these things are repressed.

DF: Totally! You're making me see the work in a new way now, as a kind of exciting alternative to sentimentality. Anti-sentimental. Like there exists this world of literature that might purport to honor women or tell the truth about women but often it's not very gay first of all, and it does maybe have an overly optimistic, I'm generalizing, sense of sentimental triumph. Where your work is true to the danger of the truth of women, queer womens' lives, and it refuses to be safe or sentimental. But it is kind of triumphant. A more experiential, original kind of triumph. Something like that.

CR: What I'm saying is that you don’t have to match a sentimental standard to be good enough. You don’t have to be good at all, you just have to be good enough. Sometimes you are just good enough to live another day and that's all you get. That's all. And it’s interesting, just that is interesting.

DF: Speaking of living another day, one thing that occurs to me as I read is how different, how much more secret things were, how much weirder it was to be a queer woman in the sort of time zone of these characters in the 80s and the 90s. And just the dangerous, unspoken, underground part of it, and I guess I just wonder what you think of that and as you revisited this writing and that time, what you think of what it is to be queer now or come out now versus then, what do you think has changed, do you think people are more free now? And have things been lost?

CR: One of the things that I liked about the old days is that being in an underground created a lack of seriousness. Butch femme, for example, was for pleasure. There was no larger cultural source of authority that supported who you were, and so there was a playful quality, "this is all a way that we're amusing ourselves." There was a trashy aspect to our culture that I loved, it had expressive freedom and a lot of potential for spontaneity. Identity can be constraining. It’s a structure that exists over time; if you are committed to having it in this present moment and in the next and then the next month and in the following year and so on, it’s harder to be spontaneous. If your identity is only recognized in an underground community, those constraints are not as strong.

DF: Like, does the identity lead the experience or does the experience lead the identity? What did you call it before with Eileen? I took a note. You called it, "being captured by what we resemble."

CR: Right. When you are in an underground you don’t find yourself among the streams of images that manipulate people. You’re not anyone's ‘target audience.’ So, my identity becomes how I play with my friends. It seems to me that if you have a label with your gender identity at your corporate meeting, then in some strange way that makes you take your gender identity more seriously. And for me, I happen to like being more playful. I just prefer that, it's my taste. Does that make sense?

DF: It makes sense and it just sounds really good, this idea of playing with my friends, sounds like a great way to have sex, find identities and try them out, have experiences, keep it moving. Which brings us back to life being a brief flash. Or maybe not brief, but definitely a flash…

CR: Right. In a life, there's time—hopefully one has time—to approach these things in various ways. One thing I liked about the on our backs crew, and the whole on our backs aesthetic, was how playful it was. Even the name, on our backs, sounded like an invitation to somebody's crazy party. Let's have a party and we'll all be on our backs!

DF: That's so good. This has been so good. Thank you so much for doing this with me. Is there anything else you feel like saying, anything that's come up?

CR: As you know I haven't identified as a writer in about ten years, so this has been an interesting period for me. Getting back in touch with writing. My project is to see if I enjoy it.

DF: I like this guiding question of 'is it enjoyable' as a way to see what you should do. It's easy to get caught up in 'what ought I do' or 'what works' or 'how can I survive'? It's a good thing to remember to keep enjoyment as a guiding sense.

CR: It is!

#268 – Spring 2022