Monica McClure is a writer and curator based in NYC. Described by Craig Teicher for NPR as “the poster girl for a new generation of poets,” Monica’s writing has been featured in The Awl, Huffington Post, The Believer, The Stranger, and elsewhere. She has performed at the Museum of Modern Art, Silent Barn, Dixon Place Theatre, and the &Now conference at California Institute of the Arts. Publisher’s Weekly awarded her poetry collection, Tender Data, a starred review. Currently, Monica is a creative director for LAMM, a design collective that creates experiential content for fashion, beauty, and other e-commerce brands.
Hi, Monica! I’m so excited to discuss your work today. I’m obsessed with Tender Data—your collection is simply fabulous.
I first want to talk fashion. Within this context of women’s issues, race issues, and gender and sexuality discourse that the collection presents, there’s also fashion: Mercedes Benz Fashion Week (“Luxe Interiority”), W Magazine (“Luxe Interiority”), “red cowgirl boots / and dragging a feather boa on the ground (“Girls Room),” belly rings because “The bellybutton was the / erogenous zone of the early 2000s” (“Chiflada”), etc. Can you talk about this intersection of fashion and poetry? In your collection, fashion brings out what is unapologetically woman and what is unapologetically sexual—what is the truth. Fashion also brings out the speaker’s persona—the speaker’s chiflada. What do you think about all this?
Dorothy, omg, the sentence “I first want to talk fashion” actually made me smile. I grinned so big. In this room by myself. Fashion is a poet’s best friend. Brands are readymade symbols. Plus, describing material adds viscerality to a poem that makes the whole body respond. We all know what it’s like to wear clothes. Even a reader who doesn’t care about fashion knows what it’s like to live in a fashion obsessed culture. Our references might be different. For example, I was thinking of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video when I wrote that line about belly-buttons. But someone else might think of the belly ring trend. Those dare-to-dangle butterflies. See what I did there? I wrote advertising copy. Because that’s what I do for a living! And i’m interested in how poetry became the language of consumer desire. Advertising is the art of concise, suggestive language and imagery.
To answer your question, in Tender Data I was exploring different experiences of passing—racial passing, class passing—and references to fashion culture served that purpose. Cultural capital is the only ticket poor people have, and mastering it is a matter of survival. For me, at least. I like what you said about fashion bringing out a truth. Even if it’s a lie, a story you curated about yourself, it reveals a desire to tell that story. It raises questions.
More specifically, in “Epic to Lyric,” the speaker states, “You can adorn yourself with euphemisms / but underneath there is an unrepresentable truth / All you want is to express yourself / through fashion / like a canary racking itself / against a barn.” Then there’s the lines, “Psychology makes me truly a woman / What subject could invent / itself and presume / to be monitored in this aridity.” I love the discussion that opens up here regarding poetic truth and persona. How do you define poetic truth? And how do you define your poetic persona?
Some of this is sarcastic. I’m throwing some suspect theories out. Such as the idea that fashion is about self expression, or that self expression is possible, or that there’s a stable self, or that if you succeed in figuring out your drives and externalizing your inner life, you’re set free. Thus, the canary racking itself. A pretty image. But violent. Like fashion images often are, because they reflect violent things that men want to do to a woman’s body. That line about psychology comes from thinking about the ways analysis has bolstered gender essentialism. Think about how that whiny baby Jordan Peterson is using Jung right now. And the line about surveillance is a reference to the inner male spectator that John Berger identified. I have a really overactive inner male spectator. Every time I’ve tried to escape the male gaze, I’ve found it’s harder to escape my own male gaze—which is sharper because it’s had to be smarter. Again, to survive. So I like to fantasize about emptiness, aridity, the possibility of true self invention in the absence of influence.
Poetic truth is intuitive. If it feels true, it is. It feels true when it’s based in sincere curiosity. People sometimes see my work as overly affected. But I really do write what I think. And my thinking is often paradoxical. I don’t trust people who are certain of things. I don’t trust people who begin their sentences with the word “no” instead of a nod or a “yes” to show that they can accommodate more ways of seeing, even if it doesn’t feel true to them. But I think if you’re a poet, you’re paying attention. And that makes your reflection true.
There is a lot of posturing in this book. But that posturing is meant to expose itself. I think I would define my poetic persona as a voice that sounds absurd but is actually sincere. A lot of denial and acting goes into living in this world. I wanted my persona to draw attention to that.
When I read this stanza in “Tender Data,” I literally screamed: “I may straddle the two Os / in the Hollywood sign / and jump.” Then there’s your Foucault reference in “Luxe Interiority”: “Michel Foucault says / there is no such thing as outside / But that’s exactly / where I need this thing to be.” It seems that with all this “tender data,” even when we’re outside, say by the Hollywood sign, we don’t really feel like we’re “outside.” Could you talk more about this and perhaps expand on the definition of “Tender Data,” which defines the collection?
I’d just read about Peg Entwhistle in Hollywood Babylon (a deliciously unreliable source). She’s the 1930s Broadway actress who jumped off the “H” in the Hollywood sign because the rejection was all too much for her. Was she dying for art because the crude star system had shaken everything she learned about acting from the stage? Or maybe it was the opposite, and she was mad for fame like everyone else. I liked her as an allegory for the shift, or the split, from theatre (art) and the movie industry (entertainment). Some people blame the weather in LA, maybe it was a Santa Anna summer, for her desperation. I guess I find that romantic like modern Naturalism.
When a person can’t tell the difference between their loss and the losses of culture, that proves there’s no outside. I think feeling like there are no boundaries between your feelings and everyone else’s is one way to experience truth. I likened my “I” to her because writing a book, though it feels like externalizing, is just as much an act of recycling what you’ve internalized. Filtering the universal through your paradigms, a performance like acting. And acting, when it’s good, is not acting: it’s truth. I think the perspective of this book is prismatic, so the reader finds lots of edges that feel like their own. Maybe we’re not supposed to know the difference when we read. In fact, I didn’t even write that line. Ben did. Then I riffed on it. I don’t think this book is outside much, because, though it’s comprised from other sources, the data is tenderized by a sense that they’re mine. They are in my inbox, in my heart, in my feed, in my memory.
And what do you currently hold tender? What are some of your current obsessions (they don’t have to be literary-related)?
I try to hold everything tender these days, especially because my life is more structured around self-preservation than it’s ever been, and that sometimes feels bad because of how little energy it leaves for worrying about others. When I had nothing, it was easier to give everything, spiritually and emotionally. But, paradoxically, one has to have something to give something away. I’m not given to obsessions much these days. Or I don’t let myself. I feel like I can’t let go of too many reigns, and that’s the rapture of being obsessed. It subsumes everything else. But I think I am most preoccupied with thinking about poetry’s role in mass culture. In an almost strategic way. I’m thinking about how to get poets and poetry workers paid and recognized, should they want that.
Can you talk a bit about your current projects?
I put together two shows that I like to think of as poetry-based immersive experiences. With my collaborator, Laura Marie Marciano, I built events two events, Twinnish and D’avila, that attempt to physically manifest the world, the psyche, of a poet’s work, through performance, film, and installation. We hosted two at Artbook at MoMA PS1, and now we’re looking for a bigger space. I’m also working on a memoir, which I’ve just gotten around to pitching. An excerpt was recently published in Verse. And soon I will be publishing a long essay in four parts about Fashion and Poetry for Gramma that will eventually be published as a chapbook.
I’m also obsessing over these lines from “Girls Room”: And I only feel truly fabulous / in the presence / of someone less girly / This is my romance with gender / I play it with semiotic excess / in long seasons / I silent act and forget sometimes / to come out.” There’s also the “object-choice” and “object-identification” in “Ash Blondes.” Can you talk a bit about these ideas of “Women as sex object,” “Women as sex subject,” and how we reverse these ideas of “Women as sex object” into something greater that has agency? I love your speaker’s “semiotic excess”—this excess seems to be really where she defines herself and fashions herself. She is powerful.
Yes, well, I took a class on intertextuality that gave me a language for talking about gender identity. I don’t see it as such a duality, really — that women can transcend objectification by embracing their sexual agency. But I do think it’s interesting that a choice is really nothing more than an identification, and in that way, the objective/subjective binary collapses. I think unruliness is important. Unruliness challenges power. I think it’s powerful to resist neat binaries. I mean, we are in an age where subversive identities—drag queens, trans identity, queer identity —are so overdetermined. Midwestern teenagers love RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that struggles with its conservatism over allowing female-identifying contestants to compete in drag. And gay marriage is a liberal victory. And my corporate office puts a rainbow flag up for Pride Week. And the truth is, it’s only truly subversive to be poor and brown. And that’s how it’s always been. If you’re white and financially sound, you can feel fairly safe being anything. Maybe not comfortable. But pretty safe. Maybe that’s a controversial thing to say.
And now a super fun question: describe your dream fashion line. In relation, if you created your own fashion line, what types of pieces would it consist of? What’s the aesthetic?
I am gonna do it! My mom and little sister got me a sewing machine for Christmas. Thank you, mom and little sis. So I want to make a lingerie line that features poetic texts. Just whatever poetry strikes me. Mary Anne Carter, a Seattle based graphic artist, printed my poems on underwear, handkerchiefs, back patches, and pillow cases. That’s how I got the idea. Also, I love the idea of sewing talismans into clothing. Kim Kardashian had a piece of her father’s shirt sewn into her wedding dress. That designer in Phantom Thread sewed secrets into his garments, imbuing them with prophetic power. I think clothes do that anyway. They soak up your desires and help you realize them.
And to end, can you give me the following: 1. Your top three designer brands, 2. Your top three current favorite quotes from the Internet, 3. Your top three feminist heroes, and 4. Your top three favorite authors right now?
This is hard. I can’t choose. I loved Zac Posen’s early work. Well, I love his drapery work to this day. I love Elisa Schiaparelli. She planted seeds in her clothes, thinking they’d grow faster near the warmth of her body. And she designed skirts for men in the 20s. Oh, also, she wrote sensual poetry that scandalized her family. She is my favorite designer ever because her path to design was hyper intellectual and aloof. I love Jean-Paul Gaultier, Balenciaga, and Chloe. My favorite designers of the moment are Maki Oh and Women’s History Museum. Top three feminist heroes: Gloria Anzaldua, Dorothy Day, and Valerie Solanas. Top three favorite authors right now: Fred Moten, Lydia Yuknavitch, and Mariana Enriquez. As for internet quotes, I have a confession: I’m not much of an internet person.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Common, Diode Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.