Featured Fem | Meet C. Russell Price

C. Russell Price is a genderqueer poet based in Chicago but originally hailing from Virginia. Their chapbook Tonight We Fuck The Trailer Park Out of Each Otherwas published by Sibling Rivalry Press on June 21, 2016. Previous publications include: AssaracusCourt GreenGlitterwolfMiPOesiasWeave, and elsewhere. They currently work at The Offing, Story Club Magazine and Triquarterly. They are a 2015 Lambda Fellow in Poetry.

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C. Russell Price

THE FEM: “Ars Poetica: [We’ll Take Our Turn Singing/Dirty Rap Songs]” reads kind of like your personal statement about the type of poetry you’re going to be writing. One line I particularly love is “The best of all the dirty words is: / complacency—next to:  normative—next to: / meta.” When you set out to write a poem, do you say to yourself, “Okay, here’s how I’m going to challenge all the complacent, heteronormative bullshit”? Or is it more subtle than that?

C. RUSSELL PRICE: When I start a poem, I don’t set out with any agenda or anti-agenda—I usually start with a line that I can’t get out of my head. For that poem it was “E. Bishop, the baddest of all bitches, said write it—Yoshimi, it would be tragic if all those evil robots win” and I just sat with it forever. That’s when complacency came in, that’s when the rage started to pulse. The poem also sprang from reading so many atrocious poems about the holiness of domesticity or meditative mundane moments.

At the time, I was the poetry editor of for a prestigious university journal and the slush was comprised of a lot of those poems. My grad school cohort was writing those poems. I was exhausted by the silence in the poems. I was exhausted by wasting the page for what? For me to be like, oh how sweet your kid threw a goddamn ball? What does that achieve—what does that dismantle? Why am I reading about a dead fish as a metaphor for hetero marriage woes? Why should I give one fuck about how introspective a poem is—how oblivious it is to the world it exists in—how oblivious the writer is to what is at stake?

Maybe down the line I’ll turn to writing poems like that, but for now—I’m so furious at the world that I have no space for that kind of bullshit. I also get flack for profanity in my work or graphic details or straight up abrasiveness and, frankly my dear, if the word fuck irks you more than systems of oppression, I don’t want you as a reader.

THE FEM: One of the things that strikes me most about your poetry is how you fuse different worlds, the highbrow and the lowbrow, the tragic with the mundane. In “Get Behind Me Satan”, you write, “O Batman! O black pearl!” and the way you use religious language to talk about popular culture reminds me of mid century queer poets like Allen Ginsberg or Frank O’Hara. With those poets, it would probably be called “camp”. Would you describe it that way?

C. RUSSELL PRICE: I’m a die-hard camp lover, but I’ve been exploring how New Narrative theory factors into my own work. I’ve been reading a ton of queer and feminist criticism—I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with the politics of my poetry because I am constantly shifting. What’s fun about the poem you picked out is that all of the images are drawn from heroin slang and terminology.

I might describe my poetry as pop more than camp—I think camp gives a kind of playful connotation that I don’t really feel is in my work. Or I mean, if you do think it’s playful, it’s more of a Choking Game playful than a tickle fight. I fucking adore Frank O’Hara and his work has been the most influential and important to me not only as a writer but as a queer person, but I think Thomas James and Tim Dlugos are also major influences worth mentioning.

I was exhausted by the silence in the poems…What does that achieve—what does that dismantle?

THE FEM: Some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book come when you write about your experience with self-harm in “Lemoncuts and Paperjuice”, and it’s hard to talk about that without talking about the legacy of other confessional poets like Sylvia Plath. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to write about some very personal, very emotional subject matter in a raw way? 

C. RUSSELL PRICE: Next to “Sweetwater, Texas,” that was the toughest poem to write. Not because of its subject matter, but more of “how can I write about this without it being woe-is-me” while respecting and honoring the work that so many confessional poets did before me.

I’m glad you brought up Plath—her journals were a major influence in how I approached the darker subjects in the book. To be perfectly honest, if I wanted you to give a damn about the beloved in the book, I wanted you to know as much about the speaker as possible. I think that by being open about addiction, self-harm, etc…it paints a more vivid and realistic picture of desire. The book is so damn full of hunger, for the other, for the world, but mostly for this body to fit into all this mess on its own terms and how it is.

I think there’s a heightened drama to reading the fuck poems in the book while knowing that the other is not perfect, or more importantly, flawed enough to strip down regardless of the observer’s thoughts of the other’s body. Here it is, me, all bruised and blossom, all scarred and glory.

As for it being raw—I didn’t want to pussyfoot around the subject, I wanted to take that shame and throw it on the page and just be done with it. There are a few poems in the book that I won’t perform—“Lemoncuts and Paperjuice” is one of those. At the same time though, I read “Sweetwater, Texas” at every event, cry every fucking time. It’s a rough poem about queer suicide in my hometown. I honor the dead by reading that poem. I try and try and try and try to accept my past shortcomings by putting the hard work on the page and the stage.

THE FEM: I also really love that even in these moments of sadness, a sense of humor comes through. I’m thinking of how even at this very dramatic moment at looking at the damage you’ve done to your body, your first thought is, “Goodbye, beach and any possible porn career. / Poor boy, no one pays for a dented-car stripper-trick.” It’s at once deeply sad and deeply funny, and it reminds me of the short stories of Lorrie Moore. Where does that fusing of humor and sadness come from and how did you make decisions on what was appropriate and what was too far?

C. RUSSELL PRICE: Damn—you are spot on with catching my influences. I was reading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore while finishing the manuscript last summer. Creepy how that comes through. I think the fusing comes from my own fucked up sense of humor and really trying to grasp the range of what a body is for and for whom.

As a southern writer, I feel like it’s in my blood to love freakishness while still poking fun at it. And really—what else is there to do once the damage has been witnessed, but to laugh at your younger self’s stupidity. A lot of the book makes excuses—like, the dude will love me if the world is fucking over, or friends wouldn’t have offed themselves if I had been more proud of my queerness, or maybe this body would fit in more with a different animal between its legs.

I didn’t want to pussyfoot around the subject, I wanted to take that shame and throw it on the page and just be done with it.

Poetry is the only place I can correct the fuck-ups I’ve made, it’s the only place to let a new life veer into something better than what we’re stuck with. I really don’t think anything is “too far”—like, I already wrote about gangbangs and dealers and body probs—so, like, everything else feels pretty tame. I am working on some poems dealing with sexual abuse, southern shame, and generational trauma but I’m not really cool with them because the stories belong to more than just me.

I know my body and what I’ve done to it, I am the only one who has the right to write about it in such a way—it gets really complicated when other bodies come into play though and I’m having a hard time navigating who can claim ownership of not only joy but grief.

THE FEM: I love all of the references to popular music in the book. I love that you’ve got a poem called “The Only Living Boys in New York,” and I love the little quotation of Third Eye Blind “Jumper”, a song that I immediately recognized by the line “step back from that ledge, my friend” but had to look up because I would never know its title. You’ve even included a playlist at the back, which I have to listen to because it looks great. What was the thought process like choosing songs, both for the text and for the playlist?

C. RUSSELL PRICE: The playlist is made up of songs that the other in the book and I shared with one another. We’d be drunk and chilling and then—hey listen to this song. And I, fool, would think every love song was for me. That when the singer would croon it would be him crooning to me and using the song as a vehicle for his inexpressible (or inaccessible) queerness. I’ve got a deep love for acoustic covers, but a greater love for when covers don’t alter the original pronouns of the song. Like “There She Goes” or “Valerie”—when a woman keep’s the pronouns feminine, I find it honorable to the original version.

When a dude covers a song though and changes the pronouns (srsly look at how more frequent dude acoustic singers do this!) to fit a heteronarrative, my blood fucking boils. Like, what? You can’t rip someone else’s art and keep everything but the gender of the beloved? Get the fuck out of here.

CRussellPriceWorkspace
 Price’s workspace

The weird thing about “Jumper”—when I was 8 or so and starting to gain consciousness of my body/gender/sexuality/whatever, I was watching Dateline with that stud muffin Tom Brokaw and he did a segment on a gay teen who almost committed suicide but saw “Jumper” as his saving grace. The guy listened to it on repeat whenever he would get down about how society viewed queerness. A goddamn song saved him when nothing else could, no one else could, and I found it as close to God as I could wrap my head around. This was the goddamn 90’s after all, so there wasn’t any It Gets Better or any of the social progress that we’ve made in the last five years or so. I don’t think I really understood how much I connected with that dude until I got to my early 20’s, but fuck, I think about that segment all. the. damn. time. Thank you, random guy, thank you Tom Brokaw.

On the process for compiling the playlist: they were all songs that I listened to on repeat while working on the poems. I align with Fiona Apple’s view that each song is a world in itself and that’s how I feel about the poems. Though, yes, they are interconnected in strange ways—the rules of each one is different. The soundtrack of each poem correlates to a song in the playlist. There are songs to fuck to and there are songs to slow dance to and there are poems for all those weird, hard moments in between. Music is my greatest influence and controls my writing. I just finished a collection of apocalypse poems (told through a hyper queer lens) called HUMAN FLESH SEARCH ENGINE and a few of the songs on its playlist so far are:

“I Think We’re Alone Now” – Tommy James & The Shondells
“Summertime Sadness” – Miley Cyrus’ cover of Lana Del Rey
“Roses” – The Chainsmokers
“Gooey” – Glass Animals
“La Vie en Rose” – Louis Armstrong’s version
“Steal My Sunshine” – Len

The music sets the mood and tone for the poems, my next book is strangely uplifting, strangely joyful given the doomsday setting. There’s a lot of bubblegum pop playing when the apocalypse happens and I’m a little karaoke machine scrawling away in the corner.

 

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