Liner Notes: Madonna, Poetic Activism, and Writing Sex With James Caroline

Mary of Christ

If you cut night’s throat
she would tumble from the open neck
come steaming
purring at tables end
or bed post
or desk chair.
Silent stepping and wet lipped
curling up to your wish
the way most men
believe in nothing.
How they forget Mamas milk
trade soft pillows
for steel
for rigid fucking in bought rooms
for things that break.

Kissing the hollow dip
in your throat
she whispers
I remember when
you were a bloody
crying thing—
soft-dicked and hungry
for the idea of my body.
I dreamt you perfect.
Look at you now
barely flesh,
always staring at the gasp
of storm clouds,
at the screaming promise of
your Father
calling you home
with a sharpening stone.

The work of Boston-based poet and performer James Caroline is a rare mix of literary craft and vulnerability. With the intensity of his live shows garnering comparisons to Patti Smith, James has performed on three continents, competed in three National Poetry Slams, and represented the Cantab Lounge in the first ever Individual World Poetry Slam. He has twice been voted Best Local Author in aBoston Phoenix poll and won multiple Cambridge Poetry Awards for Best Slam Poet, Male and Best Erotic Performance Poet.

James has facilitated workshops and performed as a guest at Hampshire College, Emerson College, Sarah Lawrence College, Berklee College of Music, Brandeis University, Mount Ida College, and Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, among others. He taught and was a featured artist at The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans as well as the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival.

During the spring of 2004, he directed and performed in Musician and the Muse, a performance of poetry and music at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, featuring Nicole Terez, Tom Daley, Regie Gibson, and Iyeoka Okoawo. He was also commissioned to write the vocal text and act as artistic sound director for the Naked Truths; Voices of Shame, Sexuality, and Eating Disorders in Women, a play performed at HERE multimedia center in Manhattan. Selected publication credits include The Lifted Brow, The Cascadia Review, Quarry, Subliminal, A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, and Painted Bride Quarterly.
He is currently working on a collection of poems, Live, From the Killing Jar, and a novel in verse based on the myth of Dionysus.

What follows is the second interview in a series called  Liner Notes.  This collection of conversations digs for a poem’s point of view, the politics at play in the given piece, and the writer’s ideas about craft and community.


People frequently say that writing about sex is difficult to do well, but you come back to it a lot in your work.  Is that something you do consciously, or is it just what comes up when you write?

I think that being queer–being gay, being a faggot–I learned really quickly that doing poems that are sexual, or about sex, or sexualized, was political. I think it’s more effective in checking people on homophobia. When you’re actively talking about rimming a guy’s asshole or fucking a guy then you can really see who’s uncomfortable.  I’ve done a couple [performances] where the audience was with [the poem] until they realized I was talking about a guy. I’m not going to say that I enjoy that, but it’s interesting.

I love to push buttons.  I have a lot of poems where [doing] that was the goal.  Consciously, I wanted to push people out of their comfort zones.  It’s not fun, but I love when that happens to me.  I really get off on it.  It’s not fun, but it makes me think.  I also like sex. I’ve always been a hedonist and a sensualist.  I think that’s why I cook.  You know what I mean?  Food is such a wonderful pleasure.

Do you find that straight writers who try to address sex often have a much harder time with it than queer writers?

Let’s be clear here–straight male writers.

No matter how we look at it, right now we’re still a racist, misogynist culture. Even with the best intentions, [writing about sex] can still come across as a little creepy or sometimes a lot misogynist. I hate the word “privilege”, but we do still live in a patriarchy where strong women are seen as bimbos or ogres.

Reading submissions for the upcoming gender, sex, and sexuality issue was a little dangerous in that way.  I came across a lot of writing that seemed certain it was being progressive in talking about sexual empowerment that really just flattened the issue to the point of misogyny. But that is the danger of writing about sex–that it can be cartoonish.  Or on the other side of that, it seems angry. Most of the poems about sex I’ve had success with are my “angry” pieces.  Do you find people expect that of you as well?

A lot of my poems that are sexual in nature are angry, or at least aggressive.  I don’t know why that is.  Maybe because we’re told that it’s not right.  There’s still this push in queer culture for the white picket fence and the need to prove that we’re just as normal as straight people.  I’m not into that at all.  And I’ve never written a sex poem in the voice of a woman. I don’t even know how to research that…I do have the “Mary of Christ” poem, but that’s more about how mothers are sexual.  [I've had friends say to other friends] “Jamie is kind of bored by gender, so the fact that it’s important to you just doesn’t register with him. It’s going take awhile for him to understand that…”

It’s funny that you say that you’re bored by gender but sex is so interesting. Can you elaborate?

I hate it; it’s so cheesy.  So much of my writing and how I live and the world around me and my expectations were dictated by the music that I got into and the family that I grew up in, and when shit goes down we come together like good old southern Indiana people, just vicious when it comes to standing up for one another. Between my mom and my sisters, I just thought men were pussies. And technically, what I should say is that they are big giant sets of testicles.  Hal Sparks has this bit where he talks about how we call people who are weak “pussies” and we call people who are gutsy “ballsy”, and he’s like “my balls are the weakest part of me” and vaginas are malleable, they can take it… I was like amen, yes it’s true.  But anyway, I grew up with these strong women.

Most people get into grunge but I discovered PJ Harvey, just this really raw guitar, and Patti Smith, and none of those women make a big deal about their gender.  It’s not used as a weapon.  It’s used, but in a really brilliant, intelligent way.  And even Madonna.  I related to her anger.  I just feel like she was really bored [with gender roles], like, I’m gonna play your game but I’m gonna win.  And she’s a total narcissist, but god, she changed everything.  And David Bowie, talk about fuck gender.  God love him.  I grew up a punk rock kid, and most of my friends came out as bisexual really early on and then later came out as gay.

Growing up, gender wasn’t a big deal, and coming out wasn’t particularly hard for me, but it wasn’t about shocking people, it was really about claiming my own space, aggressively, as I do everything.  I understand that gender is important because we live in a world where it is part of the dynamic and part of the culture, and you have to pick, right?  But it’s so boring to have to pick.

I took a bunch of AP courses in high school where we did all this reading on nature vs. nurture and the one thing I’ll never forget is little girls are spoken to more, little boys are held more.  Isn’t that weird? I think gender is nurture.  Too much really.  It is cool to see tomboyism really encouraged but I don’t think we’re going to see little boys being feminized for along time, if ever.  Although there are a lot of [feminized] aspects of the gay scene that drive me insane–the music, the clothes–that are very feminized, and I never wanted to be a part of that.

Isn’t that what it comes down to, at some point, [that you're] just attracted to someone because they are just vital, they have all the qualities you respect, and it’s not just about gender or first impression? I’m proud to say that the people I am close with sexualize that [vitality].

I’ve encountered a definition of queer writing that says it is characterized by speakers with an indeterminate gender. Would you agree with that statement?

I don’t know. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of queer writing, especially not gay male erotica. I did a reading for this book called Pulp.  It was all pieces of gay pulp fiction.  It was a blast.  There was some amazing stuff in it.   It’s like Anne Rice on crystal meth.

I don’t really mean writing for gays, I mean writing that happens to be by queer writers.

I haven’t encountered a lot of writing I’d categorize that way.  To be honest, a lot of my queer friends are doing confessional work, so I feel like I always know what gender their speaker is.

Do you think your gender functions as a signifier in your work or is it more about your sexuality?

It depends.  In the poem in the issue, “Blame It On the Song,” that’s where that poem began.  I was exploring the difference between those two things, and the tension between the two.  In college, I got really into this band called Songs: Ohia.  Jason Molina [the singer] is this country boy from Indiana who has the voice of a Marlboro-smoking angel.  That’s what I’m talking about at the start of the poem.

You come back to religious imagery a lot, as well as mythological imagery.  You have a lot of Catholic imagery and then there’s also the hedonist imagery, so that creates a tension in your work.

I mean I don’t think you have to memorize prayers to talk to god. And I waver back and forth about whether or not I believe in a god or gods, but I feel really connected to ritual.  How I started writing about Dionysus was when I was in Turkey, I was going to write about Apollo and a friend of mine was like, “No, this is your guy,” and I was like, “yeah, yeah, sensualism, depravity, of course,” but then I looked into the mythology and it blew me away.

Would you say you use myth and religious ritual as an access point for your life?

Yes, definitely. “Mary of Christ” is definitely about my mother in a lot of ways.

How did your poetry get you involved in activism?

That was an accident really. I was involved in the slam community, and I hadn’t really encountered a lot of homophobia but then…I did a couple of shows and workshops at Brandeis and I got asked to be a part of this rally right when Prop 8 was passed.  A lot people were just scared and hurt, and obviously something like that would never get passed here [in Masschusetts].  It was this huge rally, and from there I got involved with sit-ins and learned how to take care of myself legally and what to do when cops are involved. It was just inevitable, being someone who’s not afraid of being pissed, not just for myself, but on behalf of others.  It didn’t feel like just a platform for me, it was for everybody.  I wish there were more ways for poets to get involved, but I don’t think poetry by itself is activism. A lot of the work I hear that calls itself political is simply not challenging anything or anybody.

When you got involved in slam, did you encounter a lot of political work?

This kid at the Lizard Lounge did a poem called “Why I Hate Sodomites” and two of my friends started crying.  The next week I came back and slammed a poem called “Smoke.”  ….I got up to perform and thought I’m going to get my ass kicked but I started doing this poem and these kids started jumping up and I thought they were going to hit me, but then they started cheering and I was like, “Wow, this is what slam can be like.”  And then this wonderful girl who had been with the guy who read that hateful piece got up and did this poem about what she wished he had done,which was apologize.  A friend of mine apparently went on a date with this guy recently, and he’s now a devout Muslim who gets colonics, so go figure.

I’d been this stupid punk kid in a small town and it was cool to have a platform to be pissed.  One of the reasons people took to my work is that I am willing to be vulnerable and I always try to humanize what I’m examining in a poem.  The reason a lot of political poems fail in performance and on the page is because people fail to humanize what they’re talking about.

I won my first eight slams.  I came out of the gates quick.  And I got a lot of respect from people who I really respected, and I started going to the Cantab  and that was another layer to it.

What would you say the difference is between the readings at the Lizard Lounge and Boston Poetry Slam at the Cantab Lounge?

How they’re run. Lizard lounge is really sexy; there’s music, it’s a lot more laid back.  And then you have the Cantab, which is run like boot camp.  It really is a writer’s community, whereas lizard is more of a community.  Lizard is more of a respite to me, and Cantab is more like work.  There are good things about both, which is why they’ve both been so successful.

What do you think the new reading at Radio brings to the table for the poetry scene in the Boston area?

The workshop is the best part I think.  There are a lot of younger people who are new and really hungry. We’re doing more than just poetry there: we’re doing one man shows and musicians starting in June.  And maybe at some point in the future, we could find a venue that’s open a little later where we could have a variety show, kind of like Tourettes Without Regrets.