Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interview with Nomy Lamm

Nomy Lamm is a legend.  In the 1990’s when I was a fairly successful zine writer, I often became penpals with other zine writers – we seemed approachable to each other, like instant friends, so keeping in touch felt natural.  Not so when I read Nomy’s zine “I’m So Fucking Beautiful,” started in 1993.  I didn’t feel like I could just send her a letter like “so what are you into?”; I felt like she was eons ahead of me in intelligence and experience, and that I’d do better to learn from her than to try being chummy with her.  We were acquaintances when I moved to Olympia in the early 2000’s, and recently she did me the favor of letting me sell some of her zines at a friend’s table at the SF zinefest.  I’m quite happy she is letting me interview her

In 2003 you recorded the album Effigy, featuring the accordion.  What led you to shift your focus from writing to music?  Have you played accordion for a long time?  I could be wrong but I find the accordion to be a particularly Jewish instrument.  Do you agree?  If so, does your choice of that instrument have anything to do with your interest in your Jewish culture? 

I’ve been writing since I was a kid, I’ve also been singing, doing theater, writing songs and plays and musicals and making up dance routines, drawing portraits and comics and writing poetry and short stories and crafting things, it’s just how I like to spend my time.  From a young age I had a lot of energy that felt stuck in me and needed lots of outlets.  As far as what the world sees, it’s just what has a venue at different times.  For example, I have been drawing for my whole life, but only every so often does that stuff make its way into the public.  My zines got some attention when I was in my late teens, and then a few years later my music started getting more attention. I was writing and performing music when my zines came out – in fact I wrote the first issue of ISFB because my band was playing a show and I was kind of coming out as a fat activist, I wanted something written to give people to explain my perspective.  I was still writing zines when I started recording and putting out albums.  The past few years I’ve been focusing more on fiction but very little of that has made its way into the world yet. I’m hoping soon it will. 

I started playing accordion around 2000, originally I figured out how to play a miniature one for a drag performance, just a simple oom-pa-pa.  Soon after, I found a mini-accordion at a shop on Valencia when I was visiting San Francisco (I lived in Olympia at the time).  I did everything I could with that tiny accordion, wrote a bunch of songs, learned some covers.  Then I moved to Chicago and bought a full size accordion and found out I was playing it backwards.  Which I’ve never changed, I was too far into it to switch.  As far as the accordion being a jewish instrument, yes, I associate it with klezmer, but an interesting thing about it is that it’s used in lots of different cultures’ music, people from lots of different backgrounds – Jewish, Mexican, Roma, Polish, French, Italian, etc -  come up to me and say things like, ‘that totally reminded me of my grandpa!’  People have these emotional familial connections with it.   My mom’s aunt and uncle both played accordion, that’s the non-Jewish side of my family.  My great-uncle was kind of a white cowboy, my great-aunt played in cabaret-type shows.  I think there was a time, historically, when lots of people played it, it was the thing to do to have your kids take accordion lessons.  Ghandi played the accordion!   And then it fell out of style for a long time.   So it feels nostalgic and personal for people now.  I feel it.  I think what I do with the accordion feels very Jewish. 

What is your favorite medium to work in?  Visual arts, spoken word, music, writing, or, if this counts in this category, activism? 

Drawing is the most private for me usually.  It’s very meditative and introspective.  Singing is healing for my body and helps me get out big emotions.  Writing is perhaps the most difficult for me but it lets me enter another world and work things out, set things up how I want them and move them around.  Activism, I try to let that be a part of everything I do and not something separate.  Activism as in, action that moves me in the direction of healing not only for myself but for the world.  I often feel discouraged about my ability to make a difference in the world in concrete ways, so I mostly just do what comes naturally and put it into the world and try to find places to make connections across barriers.  Just recently I’ve started co-teaching a creative writing class at the SF county jail.  This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and been intimidated to try, because it means entering such an intense institution.  Those kinds of environments are difficult to navigate.  I finally found an opportunity to teach in a jail that feels accessible to me, I’m working with someone I know and have connected with, so entering into the project I was able to ask her questions like ‘when we go into the jail are we going to be hustled down a long hallway really fast? Are they gonna pat us down?’  It’s just helpful for me to know what to expect in terms of what’s going to be required or expected of my body.  And then once I’m inside, I get to encounter all these amazing people who are stuck inside this institution all day every day.  It feels gratifying, healing to me, to be able to connect with the women inside, to encourage and hear their perspectives, to hold them with me as I walk back out into the sun.  I don’t know that I’m doing anything huge, but it is a concrete action that I can take and feel some healing across barriers.  I also do a lot of work around disability justice, with queers and people of color with lots of different types of disabilities, and most of this work is also arts-based, exploring sexuality and social justice and embodiment.  Art is the medium for most of my activism.  I also try to think strategically about where my little bit of money goes, you know there’s so much crowdfunding going on right now, everybody is struggling, and reaching out to each other for help.  So I try to specifically donate towards people’s medical bills, towards people who have survived really awful things and need support to get through it, towards art by queer and trans* people of color or youth in the sex trade… those are the directions my heart is pulled. 

The Transfused was an amazing musical you penned with the strong collaboration of the Need as well as most of the neighborhood.  I remember you and the cast marching in the Lacey parade in your costumes the summer the musical was showing at Capital Theatre.  Did you have any disconcerting interactions with homophobes that day?  What about in general?  Have you encountered much homophobia or fat-shaming in your day?  Or has your evident pride in yourself kept most of that at bay?

It was actually not part of any official parade, but after the closing matinee of the Transfused, after the Q&A, we took to the streets in costume with some of our props and a couple hundred audience members, and marched around downtown singing songs.  We went into Lakefair, which is a very not-queer, not-political environment, and we were going to try to set up our tripod – the ‘power station’ in the show – and sing around it, just for fun, to make a spectacle, to claim space.  But the police recognized the tripod as what was used to block intersections during the May Day protests.  You can set up a ten-foot tripod in an intersection and hang a person at its apex, and then the police can’t move it without harming the person, so it’s an effective way to block traffic.  Police were immediately like ‘no way, you can’t do that here,’ and they took the poles from us and were using them like a battering ram to get through the crowd.  We left Lakefair, and ended up marching to the bus station and singing songs there.  We had to go reclaim our tripod from the police station in the morning.  Meanwhile, the Olympian ran a story that the police headed off an anti-capitalist protest at Lakefair.  They had projected that they knew exactly what we were up to, and yes we were inspired by those protests, we were connected to those movements, but it wasn’t exactly an anti-capitalist protest, that’s not what most people involved considered it to be.   People wrote letters in response to the Olympian saying ‘that was a celebration of community musical theater!’  It was kind of funny, and to me felt subversive.  As far as homophobes, that I don’t remember. 

I have of course encountered homophobia and fat-shaming but have mostly managed to keep it further than arm’s length from my personal reality.  I’ve received a couple really evil emails over the years, telling me I’m so ugly and disgusting that I should die, that kind of shit.  But for the most part I don’t experience or take in that kind of shit because I’m pretty strategic about who I let in to my world, who I’m open to and allow myself to be touched or influenced by.  Interestingly, I have this sense that my disability protects me from a lot of that stuff, because people have this built-in pity mechanism, where they’re like ‘don’t look,’ or ‘oh wow you’re so strong.’  Also whiteness and education protect me, I don’t have to experience quite as much hatred coming at me as a lot of people do.  

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been writing a book called “515 Clues,” it’s a collection of short stories that are all interconnected through moments of trauma and transformation, connecting a handful of girls, queers and trans*people across boundaries of time and space. I’m trying to create this magical object, I know how I want the book to look and feel, like something old-fashioned and otherworldly.  And when you get absorbed into the specifics of these characters’ stories – a 13 year old girl in the Midwest coming to terms with her gender and sexuality, a transgender klezmer musician in eastern Europe in the 1880’s, a group of children in a Shriners hospital, a brother and sister hiding in a cupboard telling family survival stories – the idea is that you also connect into that place in yourself, the place where you are most alone but also most connected to the universe.  Do you know what I mean?  I think it is a very universal feeling, and a space I’ve spent a lot of time in my life, that aloneness that is so painful and magical.  So I’m trying to share that with people, create something tangible in the world that allows us to find each other in our most vulnerable and powerful selves.   I received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to help me finish my manuscript, and then another smaller grant from the National Queer Arts Festival to create a performance event based on the book, called “515 Clues:  A Kabbalistic Collabaret.”    I’m also working on some collaborations with my partner, Lisa Ganser, who is a film maker, some short movies and mixed media collaborations.   I’m also excited that the Sins Invalid film about disability and sexuality was just completed and is starting to make the rounds to film festivals and universities and such.  I’m featured in the film, and it’s been in process for about six years, so it’s exciting that it’s out in the world.  Check out for more info. 

What is your favorite book, song, band, movie, celebrity girl crush?

I’ve made lists like this over the years but it’s been a while since I’ve added much to them… books I’ve been moved by include The World to Come  by Dara Horn, La Batarde by Violette Leduc, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick, Touba and the Meaning of Night by Shahrnush Parsipur, I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine… oh and I really love Amber Dawn’s new book, How Poetry Saved My Life.  Bands/musicians I love include Laura Marling, Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, Nneka, Bikini Kill, Cee Lo Green, Antony & the Johnsons, Tinariwen, Lole y Manuel, Chavela Vargas…  I saw a really fabulous performer last summer who lives in Seattle, named  dåko’ta, I highly recommend their music & poetry if you haven’t heard it.  oh and I love DavEnd’s music.   My favorite songs – “mother” or “oh yoko” by John Lennon, “bathysphere” by Cat Power, “maybe this time” from Cabaret, “I’m gonna be strong” by Cyndi Lauper, “you lost me” by Christina Aguilera … that’s a lot of really sad dramatic stuff...  For many years I said that “Man Facing Southeast” was my favorite movie, it’s an Argentine movie, it’s so good, but make sure you don’t get the dubbed version.  I love “Running on Empty” with River Phoenix.   And “Mysterious Skin” with Joseph Gordon Leavitt.  Watch out, that one will fuck you up. Celebrity girl crush… probably Christina Aguilera.  Or Cyndi Lauper.  Christina is just such a phenomenally good singer.  And Cyndi Lauper, she is so magical and weird, she saved my life when I was a kid. 

I may be behind the times, have you completed your MFA yet?  If so, was it a challenge to have to work w/in certain academic confines like that?

I did finish my MFA, about a year and a half ago now.  Yes, it was a challenge but also it was nice to have structure and support.  The school was losing a lot of funding and teachers didn’t have a lot of time for us, so I didn’t get the kind of mentorship I was really hoping for.  But, it was an opportunity, it was free, and I learned a lot of useful stuff, mostly just by taking the risk of writing and getting feedback, creating work that was not intended for immediate publication so it could develop and deepen over time in relation to the ways I was growing. 

If you could impart any one message to our readers, what would it be?

Hm.  I guess just, be authentic.  For me that means that my breath is in line with my gut and my heart.  Or as I say when I teach voice lessons, that you feel something, you let it out, it lands somewhere, it’s part of the world.  That doesn’t mean there’s not also self-consciousness, or self-editing, or feelings that feel too big, or numbness, but that there is still a circle, a flow, a connection that feeds something bigger that has our best interests at its root.  Life and love and growth and healing and deepening into balance.  I grew up having to dissociate a lot to get through the world and I know how easy or how necessary it can be to play a role, to be tough and guarded and negative.  Or just separate from your own self.  And those are authentic ways of being too, sometimes that is absolutely what is required.  It’s a subtle balance that each person gets a whole lifetime to feel out for themselves.   So really, I’m not giving any advice.  Just saying, good job for being here. 

Anything else you’d like to explain about yourself?

I recently lost my cat Jezebel, who was with me for eighteen years.  She was probably 21 years old.  I didn’t know her as a kitten, we found each other in a punk house I lived in in the mid-nineties.  In the last days of her life, she was teaching me about softness and sharpness.  One day when she was really sick and couldn’t move, we lay together on my bed in the sun, she was on my chest just melded into me, and I could feel us as this dark vortex surrounded by light, it felt so sweet and so comfortable and so soft, I just wanted to stay like that forever.  And then, in that open space, I received more information, that you can’t be alive and stay soft like that forever always, because softness leads to decay.  There has to be sharpness to balance it, to give definition and impetus.  Sharpness can be a movement or an idea, it can be an interruption or a calamity, a lesson or a loss, a push or a conundrum.  The next time I lay in that position with Jezebel, she wanted to rest her face right on top of mine,  and I could feel her sharp little tooth pressing into my nose.  Soft and sharp.  Now I keep a teacup on my altar, in it there is fur from her leg where they shaved it to give her the injection to put her down, and a needle I used to give her fluids the day before she died.  Soft and sharp.  I miss her and am so grateful to her for so many things.  I continue to assimilate this lesson.  

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