Kristen E. Nelson is the author of Write, Dad (Unthinkable Creatures Press, 2012). She has recently published work in The Volta, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Tarpaulin Sky Journal, Trickhouse, and Everyday Genius, among others. She is a founder and the Executive Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, a non-profit writing center in Tucson, Arizona; a production editor for Tarpaulin Sky Press; and an editor for Trickhouse. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and teaches writing. (Full disclosure: Kristen is also my boss, my friend, my platonic wife, and my bro. – tc)
Photo credit: Sarah Dalby
TC: Hi! Will you tell me about your experiments on my body project?
Kristen: I am answering your questions while I’m on a plane on my way to Mexico to officiate my cousin’s wedding. As I look around the plane, I notice how the women on this flight present themselves to the world: the stewardess wearing blue eye shadow that matches her blue uniform; the passenger one row ahead of me with French manicured toe-nails, died blond hair, and a rhinestone leopard print cowboy hat; a young woman with black hair and a black hoodie a little hunched over in her seat; someone’s young daughter wearing pink.
The Experiments on My Body project began with observation of my own female body and other female bodies. Can we observe these bodies without judging and/or over-sexualizing them in order to discover the root of how we are all trained to modify and “dress up” our bodies? How and why do we develop different ideas about what is a beautiful way to present our female forms and what are the negative (or positive) ramifications of these ideas we develop?
The project began with “care packages” sent to female artists. Each package contains a photograph of my body, a letter discussing my memories and engaging the individual artist with details of their own art projects, and objects relating to one or more of four categories: pain, hair, weight, and make-up. The intention of the categories is to define pervasive, accessible, and socially acceptable body modification—tattoos and weight loss versus scarification and breast augmentation. For example, a package may contain a close-up photograph of my un-waxed bikini line, a letter describing a first experience of getting a bikini wax, and objects such as fashion magazine clippings, wax strips, and a tarot card which relates to the theme discussed in the package. The packages are designed to prompt conversations between artists on how women are expected to modify their bodies in order to achieve “beautiful.” My intention is that participants in the exchanges will turn the correspondence into a series of live multi-media performance including video, photography, movement, spoken word, and music. Audience members will be encouraged to take the stage to share their own stories of body modification. There will also be an EOMB website, which will archive submissions on these same categories (pain, hair, weight, and make-up) from the public.
I was thrown off course of EOMB about a year ago when a grant-maker’s panel comments included this reason among others that the project should not be funded: writing about a woman’s body “is not relevant or innovative.” I was shocked and really angry. It has taken me a while to reengage with the project with new energy and without that angry cloud following me around. But I have reengaged and am in the process of writing and designing another round of care packages. I’m still recruiting female artists to participate. If anyone is interested they should email me at email@example.com
TC: EOMB sounds like a fantastic project – what has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of the project? What has surprised you? What has scared you and/or made you feel vulnerable? How did any/all of these influence the work?
Kristen: Hey, thanks. I believe it has potential and relevance. So far, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the project is the same thing that made me feel the most vulnerable: working with Sarah Dalby Mason, the photographer who shot the photos in the categories of pain, weight, and make-up. The project was in its infancy at the time of our first photo shoot, I had little sense of where it would go, and Sarah and I had only just met. It was terrifying to take my clothes off and pose for photos while talking about the parts of my body that I felt were imperfect. After a few hours while waiting for the right light, Sarah and I sat and talked and she started to open up about the parts of her body that she disliked. She shared a few stories about how she developed different ideas about feminine beauty, and I had an epiphany moment. That conversation was exactly why I was starting the project—connection, opportunities to communicate, shared vulnerability and compassion and celebration.
The most surprising thing is that I have only received two responses from the 12 female artists I have mailed packages to so far. Several of these women agreed to participate in the project and were eager to discuss it. However, they never did engage or respond to their care-packages with their own stories or experiences. I’m trying to figure out if this is due to the vulnerable content of the project, the open-ended nature of correspondence, or for some other reason. So this is in the process of influencing the work. But the responses I have received are phenomenal, especially a hand-made book from Deborah Marie Poe. She doesn’t do anything halfway.
TC: You talked a little bit about the critique that writing about women’s bodies is not relevant or innovative (whoa) – what is your response to that (other than the project, which is obviously the best response) but can you say more about how/why you see EOMB and other writing about women’s bodies as relevant and innovative?
Kristen: I think my best response to the ignorance and misogyny imbedded in that comment was a poem series I wrote that was originally published in The Dictionary Project and reprinted in The Feminist Wire.
And here is another response: A few weeks ago, I had a dream where I was beating a man with a wooden baseball bat while he was trying to crawl away from me through all of the rooms of my house. Several of my female-bodied friends were standing around in different rooms of my house bearing witness to this violence—my violence. By the end of the dream his entire body was bloodied, I had knocked out all of his teeth, his face was gory and unrecognizable, and he could not move. This man in my dream was the man, who in my real waking life, broke into my house 5 years ago and molested me in my bed on my 30th birthday. I believe that women need more opportunities to figure out why we think about our bodies in the ways that we do, to dig into trauma that our bodies have experienced, and to beat the fuck out of some of these experiences while other women bear witness.
And here is another response: The other day I got a rush of energy to work on this project. I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere working on a restricted horizontal surface, and posted all of these photographs to a very large wall in my house. This project takes up a lot of space. Then I remembered to look up and my girlfriend, who I have only been dating for a few months was looking at the photos. I said, “OH! Here are all the ugly parts of my body.” She said, “Here are the most beautiful parts of your body,” and then she kissed me hard on the mouth. I believe that women need more opportunities to figure out why we think about our bodies in the ways that we do, to bravely display our vulnerable forms, and to have a beloved kiss us hard on the mouth and tell us we are beautiful.
TC: In addition to being a writer, you run Casa Libre en la Solana and you have for 10 years now – is this a feminist act? Why or why not?
Kristen: Casa Libre is a non-profit community writing center in Tucson, Arizona. We hold writing classes and workshops, reading and performance series, symposiums, book release celebrations, and other events concerned with arts and letters. Folks can find out more at www.casalibre.org. Casa also shares space with a small community of artists and writers www.228n4th.com. I am a founder and the executive director of Casa Libre, the owner and caretaker of 228n4th, and I live there.
I am a woman, I founded my own business, and I am in charge of it. I think that is a feminist act, but I really had to think about this before answering your question. Also, Casa Libre’s mission and philosophy is guided by feminist principles. Casa Libre is a place that fosters equality in terms of gender (all genders, not just male and female), sexuality, race, religion, age, and other distinctions. I use the word “foster” carefully here. There is so much more work to do to move the human race closer to equality, but at Casa Libre we are conscious in our efforts to manifest this. Casa Libre is also a non-profit business guided by its service to the community, not its ability to make money. It is also a queer space, a nurturing space, a comfortable space, and an inclusive space. In-flight still without a dictionary handy, I can’t look up the term “Feminism,” and I find myself wanting to do that. I keep thinking of a bumper sticker that my mother had on our old Chevy Impala growing up that read, “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people, too.” (A paraphrase of historian and activist Cheris Kramarae’s remark “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings”). I grew up in a matriarchal family and in a household of mostly female-bodied people. My reaction to that bumper sticker as a kid was, Wait. What? Who didn’t think that women were people? I had never met the people that the bumper sticker was written to contradict. The feminine was celebrated in my home. I didn’t understand that message for many years…and then I did. I believe Casa Libre and 228n4th are both extensions of the home I grew up in—a place that nourishes the feminine but also “otherness” and “difference.”
TC: One of the things I continually admire about you (as both a boss, a landlord, and a friend) is your ability to welcome others – how your capacity for love and generosity is almost endless (while still maintaining clear communication and boundaries – this is the magical part). How do you do that? Can you explain a little bit about your life’s philosophy and how it guides you?
Kristen: I was raised by a single mom in a lower middle-class Italian family in Mount Vernon, NY, and she is the one that taught be about abundance. For a few years, after my mother and father divorced, we were poor. The thing is that I did not know that we were poor, because we always had enough to share with other people. My mom took in neglected kids, troubled kids, kids who were wrestling with addiction, kids who were fighting with their parents. This wasn’t through a foster care system or any other official program. She just did it. Sometimes they stayed for dinner; sometimes for a few years until they got back on their feet. She fed them, clothed them, taught them how to move fluidly through the world, trusted them, and loved them. There were times growing up that I resented sharing my home and my family. But from this I learned that if you have enough to share with someone else, you have more than enough. This has been one of the guiding principles in my life, before I even knew how to recognize it. If you live this way, there is always room for one more person at your dinner table, there is always time for one more conversation about someone’s wounded heart, there is more space in your life for love and friendship. I mentioned my Italian heritage, because I know this influenced my ideas about home. My family and my culture is one of welcoming and hostessing. If someone knocks on your door, you welcome them in, you hug them, you feed them, and you talk to them. It doesn’t matter much who this person is: the plumber, a neighbor, an invited guest, someone lost and looking for directions, or a family member. This is what you do regardless: welcome, hug, food, conversation.
I also really believe in the Wiccan principle of threefold (whatever you put out into the world, will return to you times three). This is the same idea I learned in the Girlscouts with the penny song: Love’s just like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Spend it, lend it, you’ll have so many. They’ll roll all over the floor.
The clear communication and boundaries have been a lot harder to figure out. I did not have these in my 20’s, which were filled with some serious abuse from friends and lovers; resentment and lashing out from me; and a whole lot of lessons learned. Sometimes people take too much or take advantage of me or take things the wrong way. I do not think that I have the balance of generosity and self-care mastered yet, but I am paying close attention to it. I care about figuring it out.