Sarah Fran Wisby on Being Astonished and Laughing Maniacally
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I enjoy telling people I’m a cashier at a grocery store, because it separates the wheat from the chaff: people who have worked service positions or otherwise come to understand that we are not robots or idiots but fully human, intelligent beings, vs. people who don’t seem to have made that connection, who cannot see beyond their own class blinders. If they still seem interested and curious about me, then I’ll confess that I’m a writer.
Back when I was doing sex work I greatly enjoyed seeing the looks on people’s faces when I would answer that entirely bland and innocent question with matter-of-fact honesty. I have always enjoyed subverting cultural expectations, and at my best I feel excited about leading people through their initial difficulty in confronting otherness, particularly in the realms of gender and sexuality. Other times, of course, I feel exhausted and discouraged by this task.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My biggest problem has always been overcoming inertia: getting out of bed, leaving the house, things of that nature. Depression runs in my family and I struggle with it daily. Sometimes I even try to turn it into art. In 2011 I got funding from the SF Arts Commission for what I called the Wake-Up Call Project, in which I amassed a small army of volunteers from my community to call me in the morning and talk to me until I was out of bed, putting the kettle on, and turning on the computer to start my writing day. So that’s where your hotel taxes are going, visitors to San Francisco!
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Come along then, I could use an intern to make me coffee and clean my house and send out my poems for me…. Oh, that’s not what you meant?
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
It used to be that when I would meet someone at a party or a protest or a bathhouse and they would say, you look familiar, where do I know you from? I would say, Well, I’m a writer. I read and perform my work around town…. And they would interrupt, No, no, I know! You’re the 10 items or less girl!
So now I lead with that: Well, I work at Rainbow… And often they interrupt, No, no, I saw you read at blah blah blah! You were great.
So I suppose that is one measure of success. But I kind of hate the word success, and all that it implies. On my earliest report cards, my teachers would write, Sarah has trouble living up to her full potential. I mean, what the hell! You’re gonna saddle a kid with that? Both my parents are perfectionists in their own way. So I will always know I could do better, will never be satisfied. There are worse things, I suppose.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
This is an oldie but goodie:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I don’t know much about my ancestors but my 93-year-old grandmother is pretty special. She grew up in Iowa during the depression and her mother wanted her to be the next Shirley Temple. So from a very young age she was given singing and dancing lessons and groomed in a certain kind of show-stopping femininity. She toured with a dance troupe in her teens and went to big bad cities like Chicago and Des Moines. Her stage name was Rita Kent and she was quite glamorous. But she never liked that life and really wanted a family, so she broke her mother’s heart by falling in love with and marrying my grandfather. Now she’s outlived two husbands and two sons and is still stubbornly independent, narcissistic, and fully in possession of her sharp critical faculties, in addition to being a whole lot of fun. I see a lot of her qualities in myself, for better or for worse.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
When I was ten years old I wanted to be an adorably sexualized child actress, like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby or Jody Foster in Bugsy Malone. I idolized my Aunt Barbara, the eldest daughter of the aforementioned grandmother, who was a model and commercial actress for things like the local snowmobile shop. Once she even landed a nationwide Softsoap commercial, which featured her perfect hands and lovely voice, if not her face.
To discourage me from wanting to be a model, my pragmatic working-class mother suggested I walk around with encyclopedias on my head to improve my posture, which I took to doing incessantly. Finally, she broke my heart and ruined my life forever by telling me we didn’t have the money to pay for a modeling portfolio, which cost $300, without which my career was dead before it started. I suppose I could have launched my own fundraising efforts, lemonade stands and bake sales. Knowing myself, I think I probably did try, but was easily daunted, and rather than risk utter failure, decided to cut my losses and focus on my other main talent, which was writing, which had the plain advantage of being free.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Running away from civilization in a dress with velvet bows, I trip on a gnarled root, fall into a rabbit warren and am adopted by the softest, kindest family in the world. They nurse my wounds, feed me tender lettuces, and curl up around me while I read them bedtime stories. At the end of the week they beg me not to leave them, but I tell them I must seek my fortune in the human world. They tell me I can come back anytime, that I will always have a home with them, where I am loved unconditionally, but no matter how many times I wander, searching, through the forest on subsequent occasion, even running, even desperate and in tears, I never stumble upon my rabbit family again.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I might perform a mobius striptease — endlessly and awkwardly unbuttoning one mysterious shimmering garment.
(I stole that pun from Bana Witt, who wrote a book called Mobius Stripper, about growing up and doing sex work in San Francisco in the 1970s.)
How much money do you have in your checking account?
As of this writing, $27.50. Living on the edge!
What’s wrong with society today?
The idea that markets can or should regulate themselves has really done a number on society and on the planet. Rich people have always been greedy, but have they ever been quite as short-sighted and sociopathic as they are now? The kind of work that gets rewarded monetarily by our society just happens to be soul-killing, planet-killing work, while teachers and farmers barely earn enough to survive? Really? Really? And you have the nerve to complain about the price of organic tomatoes? Sorry, I forgot where I was for a second.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
I’ve been on a lot of different anti-depressants — currently, Cymbalta is working for me somewhat well. I’m a big fan of the names they give to pharmaceuticals. There’s at least one well-paid poet behind the scenes at Eli Lilly! Cymbalta makes me picture a placid swan effortlessly navigating a dark and choppy Baltic Sea.
What is your fondest memory?
Being young and in love and new to San Francisco, when every outing was an adventure! Luckily I can still recreate that feeling by going to the coast, hiking along a cliff, or even, some days, just deciding to walk down a different street on my way to work.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I fall in love at least once a day, usually when the first cup of coffee is kicking in.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I’d like to see some real alternatives to capitalism arise. I don’t think life on earth can survive much more of the current status quo. I’m horrified to think, as many people do, that it still has to get worse before it gets better.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
It is necessary to be astonished regularly if one is to live a rich life. Certainly there are other ways to be astonished — spiritual practice, mountain climbing, being around children, hanging from fleshhooks — art is just one path. Then again, I’m not sure there is a limit to what can be considered art.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
I like to say please and thank you. I find politeness extremely sexy. Sometimes in the thick of things I like to laugh maniacally, like a villain whose diabolical plans are coming into wild fruition. This can be a little disturbing for people, which is why I’m going public with it, to warn potential suitors.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two novels. One is a graphic novel based on a real-life sexting experience with a stranger; it’s sadomasochistic, sweet, and ultimately sad. The other novel is a little harder to describe — it’s about the difficulties of friendship. And I’m finding that one of the difficulties of friendship is that it’s hard to write about. I have a very real fear of losing actual friends if I portray their fictional counterparts in an unflattering light. I’m also working on collecting some of my shorter pieces in hopes of bringing out a third book of prose poetry.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’m pretty interested in the nonfiction poem/essay, which has really come into its own lately through writers like Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Sarah Vap, and tons of others I am forgetting. I am grateful that poetry is thinking big thoughts, and that women are doing the thinking, even though I’m pretty sure they are also still doing the laundry.
I’m also interested in letting my work get more and more performative, theatrical. I’ve been memorizing pieces, adding props and costumes, but I need help. I hope to take an acting class, if only to learn what to do with my hands on stage.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I would make it so that everyone could afford to live here, and that no one had more access to basic needs than anyone else. I would also build a high-speed train between here and Chicago, so that I could visit my family more often.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
In San Francisco it means my fur coat, a mason jar of booze in my purse, and some friends to share it with. Ideally a hill or a rooftop, a big goofy full moon, and a word game or a sing-along.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
The strangest, scariest thing I ever saw with my own eyes was the debut of the Stealth Bomber at the Chicago Air Show when I was a kid. It came in low and silent across Lake Michigan from the Michigan side, did a slow turn for us like the creepiest runway model ever, then sped up and disappeared toward Wisconsin, a red glow trailing from its backside if I remember correctly.
The strangest, loveliest thing I’ve ever seen? I’m sorry to say I did not see this with my own eyes — a man on the internet with two penises.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
If I were that poet working behind the scenes at Eli Lilly, I like to think I could retire on 50 words in five years. Ten drug names per year, I think I could do it! And let’s say I could live on 50 dollars a day for the rest of my life, that includes rent, food, everything. I have no idea if that’s realistic or not. And let’s say I live to be at least 93, like my grandmother. How much would Eli Lilly have to pay me per word for this glorious plan to work out? Can some numbers person help me with this story problem? And can some ethics person help me here: just how incompatible is this fantasy of comfort and stability in old age with my dream of overthrowing capitalism?
What are some of your favorite smells?
I love the smell of skunk (at a distance), fresh mint, vanilla beans, sweetgrass, woodsmoke, vetiver, gardenias, my old dog’s paws, certain people’s underarms…
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d like to go on one of those hiking tours where you hike from inn to inn, in Scotland or maybe someplace sunnier, where they carry your luggage in a van and you sleep in a featherbed and eat a warm meal every night. Though, right now, having just gotten back from a three month book tour, I don’t really want to think about traveling. Could someone just take me out to dinner at the French Laundry?