An Interview with Kate Evans
by Kimberly L. Becker
Kate Evans is the author of two novels (For the May Queen and the soon-to-be released Complementary Colors), a poetry collection (Like All We Love) and a book about lesbian and gay teachers (Negotiating the Self). She also has another novel, as well as a memoir in progress. A California native, she teaches at San Jose State University. You can read more about Kate and her work at Being and Writing http://beingandwriting.blogspot.com/
A poetry writing workshop is one of the settings in Complementary Colors. A character says, “I felt there was something elemental, crucial, tangible about the making of a painting or a poem that seemed—what?—sacred?” Does the poet have a vatic role that is above or beyond gender?
That’s kind of cool to think so, but I really don’t know. I do think words are magic. So maybe poets are sorcerers. That line from my novel is spoken by the narrator, Gwen, when she is just opening up to the world in a new way. It’s a transformative time—and poetry plays a big part in her transformation. But it’s not like someone waves a magic wand or one poem does the trick. She’s ready, she’s open to seeing the world in new ways, which is why it’s suddenly possible for her to write poetry and to fall in love with a woman for the first time. So perhaps that’s what’s beyond gender: when you are in a transformative state where supposedly common-sense boundaries begin to morph. Certainly poetry does have the potential to help us see something in a completely new way. That sounds akin to a spiritual experience.
The novel is infused with poetry; some of your poetry has a narrative quality. Are genre boundaries permeable? Are gender boundaries likewise fluid?
The etymology gives the answer since both genre and gender come from the Old French for “style”—and since style is fluid and permeable. Style is a conscious and unconscious choice. It’s not fixed. It’s not biological. Wasn’t it Gloria Steinem who said, “All women are female impersonators?” And I’d add that all men are male impersonators. Well, not all—some men impersonate females, and vice versa. Then there are all the juicy identities that don’t fit into any rubrics. I love the way transgendered and gender-queer people have entered the realm of the voiced and visible. I love the way falling in love with whomever is becoming less and less of an issue for younger generations. Today’s world seems more fluid about genres in general, what with fictionalized reality shows, faux memoirs, prose poetry, and rap/hip hop/performance poetry/music. I celebrate porous boundaries because I think they provide us with fresh thinking and less rigidity. Flexibility is the essence of intelligence.
Your work is filled with physical details of the female body. Do you consider your own body of work to be distinctly feminine/lesbian?
I’m quite femme and so most people assume I’m straight. Then there’s the whole bisexual identity: If I’m with a woman, people assume I’m a lesbian. If I’m with a man, people assume I’m straight. I like how my way of being in the world can tweak people’s assumptions and can foster dialogue. Once I was teaching a class fall semester, and in October, on National Coming Out Day, I came out to the students as someone in a relationship with a woman, which I was at the time. Later, I heard through the grapevine that a few of my students had complained that I had “tricked” them. Next class session, I began a discussion with these questions, “What, exactly, was the trick? If you were tricked, what were the assumptions you were holding?” I think this central issue about what our bodies supposedly tell the world is important in a lot of my writing. I’m also very interested in the sensual nature of experience, particularly in my poetry but also in my prose. I suppose I think of sensuality as feminine in the metaphorical sense. The perfect sensory detail in my own and others’ writing makes the word and world come alive. Sensory, sensual, the body, the lived and smelled and seen and tasted experience, Audre Lorde’s idea of “the erotic”: all of these related aspects of writing and living are important to my work.
You were with the same partner for many years. Now that that relationship has ended, are you glad for a poem such as "“Two Women on a Summer Morning” that describes two women lounging in bed or is it too painful a remembrance of intimacies past? Is poetry—the writing and reading of it—an act of intimacy?
Yes. Public intimacy. I think most poets are a bit exhibitionist. And readers are voyeuristic so that works out! As far as my personal pain, I have not revisited those poems since our difficult break-up. But when I’m ready to do so, I doubt I’ll ever regret having written a single one. Those poems evoke, I hope, some important aspects of the human condition that transcend their specificity. They explore love, connection, pain, mortality … all those big, juicy issues that writers have grappled with forever. And as far as their specific qualities, I’m sure at some point I’ll be grateful to have a poetic record of that time in my life.
Your poem “I Have No” is about not having had children. Does living into--or abdicating--certain roles define gender?
I so often hear people say, “Having a child was the most defining moment of my life.” That’s what I’m trying to capture in the poem—the question of, Who am I since I don’t have kids? But I guess the poem is more, Who am I not? There are some gender resonations in the poem, particularly when I say I’ll never be the queen commanding my subjects, and that my legs will always be less like my mother’s and more like my father’s. A woman who does not have children is looked upon in a suspect way in our society, to be sure. Our society tells people, especially women, that to have a child makes you complete. Being a mother is purported to be the quintessential womanly experience. All I know is that many women I see with small children are totally stressed-out. I think that’s an insanity in our society. We no longer have extended families that live together who can all take part in the raising of the kids and the tending to the old and infirm. Instead, women are having to juggle jobs, soccer games, meals, cleaning, bed times, homework supervision and visits to the bedroom to take care of their ailing father, or the nursing home to see their elderly mother. If this is what a woman is, you can have it. Even Virginia Woolf who had servants and no children knew the crucial importance of having a room of one’s own. The insanity I speak of is one that keeps many women embroiled in caregiving and distanced from their artistic, authentic power. That said, I do think caregiving can be a beautiful, crucial force in the world. It’s just that so much is expected of women that there’s a huge imbalance in many of their lives.
You describe (in your memoir in progress) your father’s illness as his vocation. Is writing your vocation? If so, does your bisexuality affect your sense of responsibility within that calling?
My father was ill for more than twenty-five years with a lung disease. Each and every day for all those years he religiously followed a regimen of medication and percussive therapy. I think writers can learn from that—such as writing every day whether we feel like it or not. In a way, my health is at risk if I’m not writing almost every day. I feel imbalanced, out of sorts. So perhaps it is my vocation. It’s not always inspiration and flow. Very often it’s eking out the words on the keyboard, or staring off into space but not getting out of the chair. My bisexuality definitely informs my calling in the sense that I write a lot about my lived experience of having loved both women and men. And I do think with Negotiating the Self, I felt a sense of responsibility in that it is a study of lesbian and gay teachers, and it was important to me to try to express as best I could what these teachers were telling me. As far as my creative writing, I’m not sure I feel a responsibility, per se. But it’s definitely a bonus to feel that someone might read my work and think, “Oh, now I can empathize with a person who’s not like me” or “Wow, I see myself.”
[You alluded to your book] on lesbian and gay teachers called Negotiating the Self. Do you see your poetry as an extension of your teaching, not in an overtly didactic sense, but “simply” in being the work of an openly bisexual woman?
I think it’s the other way around: I see my teaching as an extension of my poetry. I was writing poetry and prose for years before I began teaching. I began writing as a child. Words have always been very important to me. Deep down, I’ve always known that words say less than we want and more than we mean. This slipperiness of meaning is an essential understanding for teaching: We never really know exactly what we are teaching. Teaching isn’t taking an idea from my mind and dropping it into the brain of a student. Teaching is relational, it’s dialogic, it has slippery magical elements that aren’t about logic or force or linearity. Just like poetry. And that seems true for sexuality and identity as well. As an out bisexual teacher, I never know quite what I’m teaching about that particular identity as I implicitly or explicitly come out. Being out is never a single act. It’s, as the title of my book says, an ongoing negotiation. Judith Butler said it was tiring! But it can also be exhilarating.
In “The Archies” you use the well-known comic strip to expose heterosexual stereotype. As a bisexual woman are you also subjected to stereotype?
Thanks for that reading of the poem. It’s not the way I thought about the poem, but I like that insight. Writing the poem, I was trying to capture what it felt like for me as a kid to read those comic books. There was something titillating about them, the curvaceous bodies, and mini-skirts and dates with Archie. Yeah, now that I think about it they were like a textbook for Heterosexuality 101.
As far as others stereotyping me, as I said [at the outset], I present as femme, which most people read as straight. So that’s how I’m stereotyped. Of course when some people find out I’m bisexual (or a bisexual lesbian, as I used to call myself when I was in a long-term primary relationship with a woman, which has since ended), I’m sure stereotypes figure in the way they might treat me. I have been the target of a few homophobic events, usually related to being an out teacher. Once a student wrote an epithet on the window of my car. I’ve had two students over the past five years complain to my chair about my being out. One of the complainers conflated lesbianism with hypersexuality by saying absurdly, “She’s sexually inappropriate in the classroom.” I supposed the cover of my poetry book with two women kissing arouses all kinds of homophobic anxieties in some people. So, yeah, that’s a stereotype: The idea of “lesbian” or “bisexual”being somehow more inherently sexual and inappropriate than “heterosexual.”
“My Father's Ashes” reads in part: "I see the earth then, the way it’s a surface we stand on." Do you conceive of the earth as female, a mother to whose body we return? Is there any correlation between queer and environmental activism?
I guess I don’t think of non-human things as female or male. Maybe it’s because I’m not Jungian—and I wasn’t raised French and therefore don’t have to ascribe genders to chairs and turnips! Perhaps the only exception is the ocean. When I’m swimming in the sea I think of it as a womb. I am very Whitmanesque, though, in my feelings about death—that you will find us after we’re gone in the leaves of grass. As far as the activism question, I think all activism is somehow related. Activism means you care about something beyond the individual—and you are willing to act on it.
From your poem, “Remnants”: "Driving the dusky road, / we see at the town limit two men hauling oranges / to their truck, done for the day. We stop, keep / the engine running and buy two bags, just for the glow." In a world where a 15 year old homosexual boy is shot execution-style in a classroom, are you aware when you write of the body’s vulnerability to violence? How do you continue to write for the glow of it?
Yes, I’m consciously or unconsciously always a little aware of there being a threat in the world because of who I am, both as a bisexual person and as a woman. In Complementary Colors, Gwen witnesses overt homophobia for the first time in her life when she enters a café with two butch women and several guys derisively call out “dykes.” But that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with one of those women and desiring to hold her hand in public. In my first novel, For the May Queen, the narrator Norma—who is a straight woman—complains that she doesn’t feel free to travel the world in the way of her male friends because women are more at risk. She dreams of being as free. I think an urge for freedom is a human impulse. So even though we may be fearful, we must live anyway. Living is a testament to the human spirit. The human spirit is the glow.
Thank you, Kate, for your words and witness.
Kimberly L. Becker, of Cherokee/Celtic/Teutonic descent, is a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Her poetry appears in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently Hobble Creek Review, Red Ink, Yellow Medicine Review, and I Was Indian (Foothills). She is happiest when within sight of the North Carolina mountains.