Trisha Low on Being Okay with Being Okay and Making Pure Gestures of Refusal
Trisha Low is a poet and performer. She is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013). She lives in Oakland and is currently working on a book entitled Socialist Realism.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Someone once told me that in Germany it’s culturally unacceptable to not have a hobby. Like, you have to have a capital H hobby that you do after work, or else everyone will think you’re a real weirdo. When they meet strangers, people really ask each other ‘What’s your hobby?’ as though it’s a real question that you can get a real answer to, like I don’t know, bricolage or quilting or tennis? I get confused about which thing is my hobby, sometimes it feels like the thing I do from 9 in the morning to 5 but that part pays the bills; plus, then also how weird would it be to be a person who really cared about their job and stayed there past time and came home to do… what? What do people do when they come home from work if they’re not reading or writing? I mean I do other stuff too, like go to the gym, or watch TV but that doesn’t take up that much of a day.
Fuck it. I don’t know. Either I have a lot of hobbies or I have a lot of jobs, depending on how I’m feeling. I write soundbites and listicles, most often to sell small press books that people should read at the only non-profit distributor of literary books, Small Press Distribution, sometimes also for women’s blogs or magazines. Sometimes I write things, or make things or traverse some tortured emotional landscape that I’ve unnecessarily created for myself. Sometimes I make cakes. Like many other women I admire, I also recreationally cry.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I really like placing myself in proximity to situations, persons and objects that are cruel to me, aesthetically, interpersonally, imaginary or not. ‘Struggle’ is a weird word because that suggests this is negative, which it definitely isn’t, it’s often productive. Things that come along with it like, guilt, balance, intensity, those are the things that get really difficult. As time goes on though, it seems like that struggle is changing. Ironically it’s becoming something more like, I don’t know, being okay with being okay, which is much harder than it sounds.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Kill your boyfriend.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I can’t really call her my ancestor because she’s still alive but I love my grandma on my mother’s side very much. She grew up in Hong Kong — her family was poor so she asked them to give her away to the all girls’ orphanage there because she knew it was the only way she would get an education. She became an investment banker and businesswoman in the 50s when it was unheard of for women to be breadwinners in the family (but she was, god bless my pretty, useless photo-journalist granddad). She lived through the British occupation and colonial rule, the Japanese occupation and World War II — hated both equally and referred to both as pigs.
She taught me a lot of really weird stories and rhymes when I was little. In one nursery rhyme about preparing the house for the Mid-Autumn festival, there’s an abrupt turn at the end where a white British official and a corrupt Chinese bureaucrat both drown to death — the former sinks because of his cruelty and greed and the latter floats because of his treachery and betrayal. She also taught me a lot about the politics and history of China in the Tang and Qing Dynasties — both had women Empresses who were cruel and manipulated their domestic positions in the Court Household, their favor with powerful men as concubines or mothers or servants etc. to eventually seize power and rule independently. She never left out any of the gory bits, like how Wu Zetian, the first woman Empress of China executed two rival concubines by chopping off all their limbs before sticking their stump bodies in giant vats of wine so it took them weeks to die. Or the part about the evil concubine who invented a fatal contraption that was just a giant copper cylinder she would fill with burning coal till it was red hot — she managed to convince the Emperor to strap all her political adversaries to this contraption so they roasted slowly to death while they sat and watched. My grandma is now 93 and still one of the smartest people I know. She likes to spend her time listening to the stock market on the radio for hours.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old?
Cruella de Vil.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
For me, a week in the wilderness will never happen unless there is massive ecological disaster and we all have to retreat into the last vestiges of nature. I really like playing that game Apocalypse Teams where you imagine which one of your friends you’d actually want on your team at the end of the world and which ones you’d put on the ‘okay to eat’ list. For example, Friend A can be on my team because she can make a bow and arrow out of a stick and a piece of flint (I’m looking at you, Holly Melgard), but Friend B is kind of soft and a whiner, and the hard rule is no whiners so he’s getting left behind no question. I’m looking into getting arsenic pills to keep in my earthquake preparedness kit though, just because I have control issues and it seems smart to have an out.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
I have really bad asthma and was a compulsive smoker for about ten years so I’m on singulair and a ventolin inhaler. I spend at least 5% of my waking life worrying that my inhaler will run out and I’ll suffocate to death. But I’m kind of taken by breathlessness generally or interested in all the valences of it, maybe because of the asthma so I often let myself get dangerously breathless — I spent a lot of my childhood hooked up to a nebuliser. Breathlessness is a matter of binging and purging on air, you get the heightened sense that it’s life-giving, the fabric of it becomes material. Breathing and then not breathing. It’s a very specific space between the two, one that’s kind of simultaneously unbearable and languidly endless. It’s a bit like one of my favorite sentiments from the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited — “Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”
I had a lover who’s also a writer. Two of my favorite things were about his writing practice — I think he still does this — sometimes he watches videos of different kinds of bugs swarming before he writes and then when he does actually write he doesn’t… breathe. Like, he has to actively stop writing to take a breath.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Google it, it’s probably definitely somewhere on the internet.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I don’t think art is necessary. But I do think it can force people to face or experience things harder, sharper, different; complex, or shaded over, or doubtful or inflated or violent or obfuscated or bloodless. You can see the ugly, useless, trembly, extraneous parts in art, the things that you have to trim or score away if you’re actually trying to enact or implement something, for example, trying to make an argument.
Sometimes I get excited that art can be a socially acceptable way to psychologically manipulate and emotionally destroy other humans in the audience or enact revenge fantasies. I like how it can be confrontational or accusatory like that. Jasper Bernes once summed my whole deal up to me — “Poetry won’t save a whale but at least it can ruin a life.”
To be honest, though, the thing I love most about art is that it can be a pure gesture of refusal. It’s art. It doesn’t have to do anything. In fact, it kind of aggressively can’t. That’s the point.
What are you working on right now?
I moved to the Bay so I thought it would be a good joke if I wrote a book called Socialist Realism and then I actually started writing a book called Socialist Realism. It’s a series of sketches on the idea of home –– related to things like, the expectations of domesticity, the impulse to return to a place or find one even while trying to escape it. What the fantasy of home could mean. The ways we deny desiring it or do, and how that can become symptomatic in the political, the aesthetic and the really nasty place in between the two.
What kind of work would you like to do?
I’d like to learn how to use a mixer, do more sound manipulation — I like performing but I kind of always just worked with what was instinctive. I’d like to have a bigger toolbox of skills I could use to create or calibrate very specific kinds of experiences for audiences. I’d like to learn how to make things while being comfortable or calm and not just while trying to scrape parts of myself off the floor or out of the bath. Most importantly though, I don’t want to just keep doing what I’m already doing or what I know. I feel like it’s so possible to slip into making things the same way your entire life, but where’s the fun in that? Life is awfully long.
What kind of writing do you most admire?
I like anything that has stakes, virulently, and comes at a risk to the person writing it. I don’t like George Eliot.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Old Spice, mothballs, coffee + cigarette smoke, my grandma’s spice blend for laksa (Singaporean curried noodles), in-the-oven pastry, the burning flesh of white men.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I wish there were places you could get really good noodles at 3AM, and places you could watch really weird, old film stuff at 3AM, which are the two things I also miss most about New York.