Interview: Wendy C. Ortiz

"Beautifully Disturbing": An Interview with Wendy C. Ortiz

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine

Specter published Wendy C. Ortiz’s Black Car Land in 2011. Drawn in by the ease with which her narratives unfolded like delicate layers, we went back for second helpings in 2012 when we published Jumbo’s, a lap dance in a “musty shoebox in a mini-mall” where a woman who danced to “Warm Leatherette” shed her clothing as Wendy shedded the incongruent pieces of her life — the half-hearted dates with men, the university job.

When not interning to become a licensed psychotherapist, the Los Angeles based writer can be found exploring medical marijuana dispensaries as research for the column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, curating  the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood, and penning essays for New York Times, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, PANK, The Coachella Review, among others. And let’s not forget, her book EXCAVATION: A MEMOIR, will be published by Future Tense Books in summer 2014 and HOLLYWOOD NOTEBOOK will be published by Writ Large Press in fall/winter 2014.

In this interview, we talk about Los Angeles writer communities, the DSM-5 as a dystopian text that also inspires intriguing art, creative cross-pollination, zines, queerness, and a few upcoming projects.

–Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Senior Editor

Rasheed

Mix Tape. Just a really awesome piece of writing in The Nervous Breakdown. My favorite was “Losing My Religion”. The narratives were honest and beautifully disturbing. I was most excited about the use of the mix tape for the narrative structure. Can you talk about the ways you innovate with both structure and narrative? Particularly, why did you choose the mix tape as your narrative’s structural muse?

 

Ortiz

Thank you. I love when people write “disturbing” in reference to my work. “Beautifully disturbing”? Even better.

 

I can’t say that I set out to innovate with structure and narrative. This piece came together when I was thinking of a soundtrack to the four years I spent entangled with my English teacher. I find myself writing often with particular music in mind.

 

Since I’m of the generation that made actual mix cassette tapes, it seemed appropriate to use it as a structure. I wanted the soundtrack of ages 14-18 to be three-dimensional for myself and readers.

 

Rasheed

I have read your Modern Love piece in the NYTimes several times. Each read reveals something new. I guess I am most struck and happy by how understanding your ex-husband is. What kinds of responses have you gotten to Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling? You mentioned being a “late bloomer”. Do you feel that coming out as a 30-something has any effect on how “at home” you feel in queer communities?

 

Ortiz

My response to this question could be book-length. My coming out “late” definitely impacts my sense of feeling at home in queer communities. The paradox is that I’ve been amid queer communities for at least half my life. I understood and described myself as bisexual for a number of those years. In my twenties I feared calling myself something other than bisexual because I had not been in (an above-board, obvious, romantic or sexual long-term) relationship with a woman. Years later, when I was married, I was working on an anti-oppression training with one of my best friends who asked me to help facilitate with her and she not only called me “queer” but engaged me in a conversation where I had to face why I had not been thinking of myself as or claiming the identifier of “queer.” Her response—thoughtful, warm, generous—helped me to claim it, finally.

 

With regard to how I feel “at home” in any community, I have to say this is the topic of an essay I hope to have out in the world soon. My experiences in groups and communities have sometimes left difficult and conflicted stuff in my psyche. The residue is something I have to contend with continually because I want to participate in various groups and communities, queer or otherwise.

 

Rasheed

To carry on from the previous question, I asked Victor LaValle a similar question that I want to ask you. How do you summon the courage to tell your stories, very personal stories like The Fence, Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling and others?

 

Ortiz

I have the courage in my late 30s and now at age 40 that I did not have in my 20s. To be honest, some of it—maybe most of it—is a feeling of what do I have to lose? The writing I put out into the world that most resonates with readers (who tell me, either privately or publicly) is the writing that’s most honest and personal and often pains me as soon as it’s published. I felt nauseous for two days after “Mix Tape” appeared on The Nervous Breakdown. And yet friends and strangers were commenting on it days after, accepting and appreciating the disturbing bits.

 

With “The Fence” (which is an excerpt from a much longer essay), I published with the knowledge that other women would find something that resonated for them. Abortion stories are not black and white. They’re complicated and multi-faceted. I’m interested in lessening the stigma around such stories. I hope that other women in turn want to share their own.

 

Rasheed

You are one of the co-founders of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series and have continued as curator. Talk a little about the intention behind creating this series back in 2004 and how series has shifted in the past almost decade. What has been your most challenging experience with this reading series and (possibly) more importantly, what has been the most rewarding experience? What is the origin of the reading series’ name?

 

Ortiz

The original intention was simply to have a reading series in a bar—not a bookstore, not a library, not a sterile room somewhere, and to invite writers we wanted to see read. My friend, writer and critic Andrea Quaid, and I lived in the neighborhood and approached the Good Luck Bar. They were amenable and have been for the last nine years.

 

In the beginning we did some dreaming—who would we move mountains to have read? This is how we eventually hosted writers like Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Chris Abani, and many others. When Andrea began work on her Ph.D. and left Los Angeles, I took the reins. In the past several years the shift has then become more about my dream list, in combination with the desire to support fellow writers at various stages in their careers. The line-ups themselves have maintained consistency for the most part in that they feature two emerging writers and two established writers, with some variation here and there. I still attempt to have two poets and two prose writers at each reading.

 

I keep the reading series as simple as possible, since this is essentially unpaid work my partner and I do for the series. Because we keep it simple, there are few challenges, and the challenges that exist are kind of minimal, maybe only challenging in the moment—like when a writer goes to the mike and sifts through papers not knowing what to read, or goes over the time allotted.

 

Most rewarding is having people approach me after a reading to say they’d never been to a previous Rhapsodomancy reading but now they’re hooked—they love the series, the venue and the format; when writers I had no previous knowledge of contact me to read from around the country; and also when I get on the publicity managers’ lists at independent presses and bigger publishing houses because their authors requested to read at Rhapsodomancy. The six nights a year the reading occurs is a reward in itself, too.

 

Rasheed

In 2012, I was upstate for a photography residency and spent a lot of time reading about artists and beauty of cross-pollination — artists who work “within” their selected mediums while also pursuing curiosities in other domains. It was rather validating because while visual art is my core, my curiosity leads me into the realms of religious history, neuroscience and memory studies.  In tandem with writing, what are some of your other curiosities?

 

Ortiz

Cross-pollination makes for the best writing! That said, I admit to wanting more cross-pollination in my life than I’ve had lately. My focus has been narrower since having a child. It’s just starting to widen again now that my daughter’s becoming a being that can listen and talk and put on her own shoes. What you describe sounds incredible! Of course your curiosity would lead you to these rich places. It makes me think of my dear friend and incredible writer Karrie Higgins, who’s had recent work in Black Clock and DIAGRAM—she has always naturally cross-pollinated and the stories she tells are more complex and richer than most. She is who I look up to when I think of where I want my writing to go next, further.

 

My own curiosities extend to astrology, the occult, serial killers, domestic terrorists, archetypes, symbols…and on a lighter note, I’ve become interested in clothing-making and plan to take some sewing classes soon (not my first time). I’m a sucker for fabrics and patterns and want to create my own clothing, and my daughter’s, if I can swing it. It’s occurred to me too that this is a connection I have with my late grandmother, who was a seamstress in factories in downtown Los Angeles before I was born. She made all my mother’s clothes when my mother was growing up, including a wide range of beautiful dresses into her early adulthood. I’m curious about what the connection to my grandmother will look or feel like once I get to sewing regularly.

 

Rasheed

You are a McSweeney’s columnist! Congratulations! Just read the first column, Finding the Natural Way and am anticipating what may come next. What prompted your interest in Los Angeles’ dispensaries and the which you referred to as the “semiotics” of weed culture? What should we expect from future McSweeney columns?

 

Ortiz

My interest was prompted from simply driving all over Los Angeles seeing dispensaries pop up. The interaction between the culture of the medical marijuana dispensary and its consumers and surrounding neighborhood interest me. If I were an ethnographer, this is a project I would want to be working on full-time. Also, the names of the dispensaries are a source of pleasure, as they’re often witty or trying to be. I’ve often just wanted to catalog the names. Future columns will have me visiting and documenting the culture in and around specific dispensaries, getting my own medical marijuana prescription for the purpose of entering the shops, and hopefully going to a hemp convention for a taste of the wider culture beyond dispensaries.

 

Rasheed

Oh, I have more around McSweeney’s because I read a comment on your tumblr where in reference to the McSweeney’s honorable mention, you wrote, “Here’s to flying under the radar & getting my signal picked up!” All creatives struggle with not being selected, not winning, not being noticed, being small and unanchored. Can you talk about your path to “getting [your] signal picked up” and any hard lessons you’d share with creatives?

 

Ortiz

Another McSweeney’s columnist, Jason Harrington, congratulated me on being chosen as an honorable mention in the annual column contest by tweeting to me, “Honorable mentions do it better. It’s not honorable mention, it’s winning under the radar.” I totally appreciate this sentiment. I grew up listening to Dusty Street, a d.j. on L.A.’s radio station KROQ and her signature line during her every show was, “Fly low and avoid the radar.” I think in some ways I’ve avoided radars and other times, the radar avoided me. For years I sent out only poetry, keeping all my prose—books’ worth—quiet, silent, then wondered why my prose wasn’t being published anywhere. I had been avoiding the radar. Since I began sending my prose out more regularly, a few different radars have picked up my signal. It’s a boon, it’s a joy, and it’s also scary. My hard lessons are still being taught to me, it never ends. I can’t say there’s any one thing I can point to and say, here’s how to get your own signal picked up because it’s not just up to me or you—there’s the radar, the person or people playing with the knobs and dials on the particular radar, and then there’s you, flying, above, below or in range. I mostly feel I’m content with flying under the radar because it’s where I find my people, fellow creatives who know what it’s like there. Then again, I don’t want to get too comfortable there—wouldn’t it be exciting to change up the airspace? (And with that I will end this overly drawn-out metaphor!)

 

Rasheed

When did you begin writing? Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote and your first writing fan?

 

Ortiz

I started writing around the age of six, in a Mickey Mouse diary. We were tasked in first grade to write a ghost story and I remember enjoying the process and getting positive feedback. In second grade I created what was my first zine—my mother helped me photocopy it and I sold it for twenty-five cents to friends. So maybe she was my first writing fan. In sixth grade I won a ribbon for a poem I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. The first fan outside of my family and select teachers was the father of a friend. I was fifteen and had created a zine I called Sighs From the Deep Sea. There was Khalil Gibran quotes, record reviews, and stream-of-consciousness writing. I sold it in record stores and to friends. My friend Nikki’s father, a psychiatrist (!), typed up a positive response and gave me a check with the message to continue writing. Mr. Campbell, then, was my first fan out in the world.

 

Rasheed

I am really interested in hearing more about the zines — particularly if you see yourself ever working in that vein again or any other DIY lit- publishing environments.

 

Ortiz

Zines! I wrote a series of three in the 1990s (Freefeeder) inspired by nomy lamm’s I’m So Fucking Beautiful. I haven’t made any since but I love the thought of compiling one, especially since technology has advanced quite a bit since my last zine. I’m inspired by Myriam Gurba, who has a couple of zines out that she sells on Etsy, and also by Chiwan Choi, who with Writ Large Press has been creating DIY lit-publishing projects like one that is a compilation of people’s writing that was shared at their recent DTLAB fest, and posting “poetic problems” for people to “solve” which will then be compiled into a zine.

 

If I feel inspired to get something out quick I admit I’m more inclined to use tumblr at this point, but I also like the thought of creating something on the fly that I can hand out at a reading. So yes, I could see myself working in that vein again.

 

Rasheed

I like this idea of tumblr as a digital zine of sorts. Does your daughter seem like she may lean toward the literary or visual arts? Any zines in her future?

 

Ortiz

Ha! Still hard to say. She’s starting to take off in terms of imaginative play and I listen to hear making up stories with her toys in her room by herself. Since I was an only child (as she is), I can see her finding solace in books–she loves sitting and “reading” them for stretches of time–but she is also very social and extroverted so I’m not entirely sure where she will lean. I still can’t even determine if she’s left- or right-handed.

 

Rasheed

Asking you what’s next seems silly because you have a book and McSweeney’s and a host of other things happening, but what is next for you in the next few months? Where do you imagine yourself in the next five years?

 

Ortiz

I have a few intentions in the next few months. One is to focus on editing Excavation: A Memoir, just as soon as I receive notes. The second is to make some headway on my second memoir based on the Modern Love essay. I have what is looking like a collection-in-progress of music-related essays so I want to keep working toward that as well. I have a fantasy of collaborating with another writer on a project, and Karrie Higgins (mentioned earlier) always comes to mind when I press this idea deeper. I also want to be open to surprises—wonderful chances like this one, being interviewed by you, readings, etc.

 

In the next five years I’ll have finished my intern hours, passed exams and become a licensed psychotherapist. It’s long been my intention to work half-time as a writer, half-time as a psychotherapist. My daughter will be in school and I can hopefully devote myself more to both writing and the work of building a private practice. I also hope a writing studio or Airstream trailer in my driveway is in the works by then. I’d like to imagine another two books being published in that time frame as well. A girl can dream.

 

Rasheed

I want to talk about your therapy work for a moment. There was an article in the New Inquiry calledThe Book of Lamentations which discusses the DSM-5 as a dystopian novel where everyone is sick and everyone is abnormal and in need of realignment.. So I am curious about how you make sense of the DSM 5 as literary text and as a professional text. And how might you approach your emerging psychotherapy work given your own experiences?

 

Ortiz

Here is where I probably differ from some psychotherapists: I believe the DSM is a compulsory text that is a reference in a medicalized industry of managed care. I utilize it as that (when I absolutely have to) but I don’t necessarily subscribe to it. It’s extremely flawed in a myriad of ways. As for the article in TNI: it’s on my list of over 500 “read later” articles because when I initially read the description I laughed out loud. It sounds about right.

 

Also, I haven’t even purchased the DSM 5 yet.

 

Rasheed

I am waiting to purchase a copy. I’m working on a conceptual piece where I am reorganizing the texts and creating some fictional indices. Very interesting to hear from practitioners about the text. I think holistic texts – reference text – diagnostic text and the power they hold as information regimes are really astounding.

 

Ortiz

In terms of my psychotherapist work and my own experiences, I certainly feel like my experiences inform how I work but my approach overall is to let the client lead, and that the client is the expert on their own experiences and what works best for their situation. I never imagine that I totally know what they’re going through. There will always be resonances in experience when I work with clients and that helps create certain a certain intimacy but I don’t want to imagine I know more than they do about their own situation. I want to remain in a state of curiosity about my clients’ experiences. This works well with writing, too.

 

It makes me think of what you said about cross-pollination, and how your processes inspire mine (among many others’, I’m sure!). And, selfishly, I can’t wait to see your conceptual piece. There should be an entire show of conceptual pieces based on the DSM.

 

Rasheed

There are so many fascinating elements of the DSM. I was just reading the protocol for how to change definitions and diagnosis and just really great stuff to play with.

 

Ortiz

Agreed that the DSM is fascinating and could/should be used more as a text to inspire art than diagnose people.

 

Rasheed

I want to go back for a second. You mentioned wanting to remain curious about your client’s experiences and that being akin to your writing. What’s the connection with curiosity in your therapist work and your writing?

 

Ortiz

If I remain curious about a person or a character instead of receiving them through my pre-conceived notions, there’s space for the person/character to be more fully themselves and surprise me, to introduce me to new ways of thinking. This is harder to do with memoir because I’m often trying to write from a place of where I once was, which I’m curious about, but the identity I write about might be more ‘fixed’ if I’m writing about a particular place and time. With fiction, which I write much more slowly, it’s much easier to stay in that curious place so the characters can emerge and tell me where to go next.

 

Rasheed

This is definitely a selfish question (but, I imagine it can be useful to others as well!). I want to be a writer. I’ve been writing covertly for a few years. I’ve been in the visual arts — installation, bookmaking, photography, but am trying to make this transition to an artist-writer. The story I’ve been working on for the past 18 months about this young woman who gets pregnant by a Hasidic deli owner. They steal a mitzvah van and start a new religious movement. Any advice on how to get myself moving?

 

Ortiz

Wow, you have a wonderful starting premise already. And, I’m envious that you have a background in visual arts, which I absolutely do not have. The advice I would offer on how to get yourself moving is to come up with a list of questions and I can help with that. Where did your premise get born? What would the young woman say about religion before meeting the Hasidic deli owner? Using something Jungians call “active imagination” I would create a notebook of monologues and dialogues these characters have singly and with one another and possibly with other people close to them. Essentially these “active imagination” dialogues or monologues are a kind of freewriting where you just give those characters space to speak to you and through you. With your visual arts background I’m also imagining things like going out into the world as one of your characters and taking photos from that character’s perspective, making a book based on an event in one of the characters’ lives…experiments to keep you connected to their inner worlds.

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a seminar offered when I was in my mfa program in which the writer Alma Luz Villanueva would encourage you to attend the seminar dressed as one of your characters. I’ve asked someone I know who teaches acting to consider teaching acting to writers who don’t want to act but want to “learn” their characters more. It’s something I get more and more invested in because I have a fictional character who I can’t access easily–she needs more space and a certain kind of space that maybe “becoming” her requires.

 

Rasheed

That is really helpful!

 

Ortiz

I’m glad I can help!

 

Rasheed

Before we let you go, what are you reading right now? What are you listening to?

 

Ortiz

Reading right now: Teresa Carmody’s Requiem (Les Figues Press); Greenhouses, Lighthouses by Tung-Hui Hu (Copper Canyon Press); How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others In America by Kiese Laymon (Agate Bolden); On the Struggle to Self-Promote: Notes from the Trenches (Vol. 2) by Kiini Ibura Salaam; Gestalt Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. As well as a shit-ton of magazines.

 

Listening to: nothing new, I’m sad to say. Blame my book-buying budget and how it never seems to extend to my itunes budget. Typically I’m listening to 70s-80s Talking Heads, hippie music I won’t even name, commercial radio stations for whatever messages they might send (I think of the radio as a kind of oracle), or a mix list of music my daughter happens to love that features Gossip, Haircut 100, Michael Jackson, M.I.A. and Harry Belafonte, among others. Also, disco. For an essay. Seriously.

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