The first time I met Portland performance author, Jennifer Robin, she sat down in the darkened Rum Club on Sandy Blvd in Portland fresh off the TriMet bus wearing a gold long sleeved onesie with black thigh high boots and a string poncho. She reminded me of a praying mantis. Her limbs are long and thin, and she hangs her eyes low when she focuses, watching with an uncomfortable intensity under heavily blackened eyelids. I felt off kilter. Jennifer is sharp. Her ability to jump into dark abnormal psychology to rare French cheeses can happen faster than you can order a Zacapa Manhattan. She’s a rare bird as my Nana would say. A philosopher, a performer, painter, lover, at times an amused sista’ and without a doubt, as people stopped by to say hello and take photos with her, Portland’s very own muse. She is a reflection of all that is grotesque and beautiful under any big city’s dirty underbelly and she spends most of her waking moments haunting each and every one of those places for her stories. Many of which you can find in her current book Death Confetti by Feral House.
In her latest book, Jennifer Robin writes ”I’d better assert this right away before you get restless. Civilization is a nightmare illusion, a three-dimensional spreadsheet perpetuated by machines that hypnotize meat.”
For close to twenty years now, Robin has gyrated, groaned, slithered and slaved on stages and sound booths near and far, performing her vignettes with bands and in bands, comedy shows and cabarets…non-stop. She’s a dystopian poet as much as a utopian critic and her monocle dissections of every slice of life is what I like to call her uncircumcised tips. It’s a thing of wonder to watch her spin a piece of toast into a recipe for a flame retardant wasteland in under 100 words.
I’ve seen your writing described as anything from Bizarro reality to creative non-fiction. How would you describe it yourself?
I compulsively write about people. Death Confetti was composed of character sketches of people I’ve known. What all of them have in common is that they flirted with chaos, or manifest chaos.
Sometimes I’m on the street or at a bar or cafe and see a person I need to talk to. I’ll hover like a blood-sucking mosquito around a person, watching, listening, until I get up close, and I engage, and let them be whatever they need to be.
Just as often, people come to me and they confess. They seem to be the right ones. I don’t often feel like a confession is a waste of time.
Sometimes they are rich. Sometimes they are devastatingly poor, homeless. What they’ve known since birth has barely been above a subsistence level of living. Some of the poorest in money have been the richest in enthusiasm, ready to gamble everything they’ve got for a drug or chance to go home with the bad boy in the bar.
Some readers say my descriptions of people are harsh, meaning “warts and all.” One reader wrote me an angry letter saying I write “poverty porn.” To me, warts and all is what a love letter is about.
If you are only going to write a feel-good view of what you’ve seen, where life is always one emotion and you are always the hero, are you doing life justice? I want to see the gray spaces, the spaces where uncomfortable emotions surface. At the same time I want to make it funny. I want the end-feeling, what you go to bed with, to be up rather than down.
So what I’m rambling about here is what drives people, what they feel they need to give up, throw up, what they cling to when they least expect to—it’s these smaller, before-my-eyes dramas that fill me with meaning. Stupid things, embarrassing things like pooping pants, a man obsessed with Marie Osmond. Weird things. Desperate things.
A lot of Jennifer Robin fans don’t know you have another book besides your current Feral House release Death Confetti. A semi fictional story of a young woman published many years ago called Bouzi. How did the almost twenty year age gap in publishing differ with our current use and abuse of social media?
I started sending out material as a teenager. My first ambition was to be a reporter, so I sent incredibly nerdy editorials about Reagan- and Bush-era covert ops to newspapers. By the time I was in my early twenties, I’d gone full-bohemian. It’s a disease many never recover from—the wine, the existentialism, the love of men with dyed-black hair.
I wrote Bouzi when I was 23. It was accepted by the publisher in 1998, and released in 2000. Over the course of sixteen years I kept writing books. One was a novel where I end up in a shopping mall ruled by a dictator 100 years in the future. Another was about a mad scientist who decides the Earth would be better off without the human race, so he invents a virus to eliminate us…but he fails! He’s a sexy arch-villain. He gets famous like a pop star, in a Charles Manson way. The book was a satire of the media as much as it was a satire of the Angry Young Man. Another book consisted of rants about products and services, like letters to the editor gone wrong. Perhaps the only thing my books have in common with each other is that they make fun of being alive.
For nearly two decades after, I tried to get published the old-fashioned way. All-nighters at Kinko’s. Press kits. Saving up money for postage. Long waits—sometimes a year—for an answer from a publishing house. In our age of instant messaging, can you imagine waiting a year for an answer?
So how to break the hymen of fame? The odds were staggering that I wouldn’t. I was a nobody, no connections, a self-taught novelist from a dying factory town in Upstate New York who moved 3000 miles to a timber town in Oregon to make performance art with kids from even-smaller farming towns. Sending work to random names in New York City wasn’t working.
In the past three years, I became a professional stalker—online! I pursued connections with writers I like, and a few I don’t like. It’s like Cheers, where “Everybody knows your name.” All the hip writers and publishers know each other, study each other—online..
I wrote online every day. My non-fiction received a huge response. This may be because in our age of Reality TV, the weirder one’s life, the more people want to read about it, and I have lived through some weird scenes.
This is how I got published after sixteen years. Feral House approached me on Facebook to write Death Confetti. They told me the things I write are beautifully disgusting.
I use Facebook addictively. I have a Facebook problem. I use Facebook to write rants, one-liners, and transcribe phone calls from my mother.
I get instant feedback. Some call it jacking off. They’re right. It’s online consensual sex. Word-cum can be medicine. Being a performer for 20 years, I recognize online media as a stage.
Artists in the New Media are commandos.
I know from following your Facebook columns, there are a few re-occurring themes that pop up. Semi violent ex-boyfriends living in questionable habitats, conversations with your childlike mother back east and surviving the brutal economic divide now occurring in cities such as Portland. How do you find some semblance of positivity?
Unless you are a born sociopath, you crave positivity. Our brains get a drug-like hit from giving and receiving love. I feel that high when I’m onstage, connecting to an audience. I feel it when pieces I write hit people, people I’ve never met in person. With writing, I feel I have a purpose. I even use the word destiny. I make fun of “destiny”—say it’s mumbo-jumbo, but writing IS my calling, my disease, maybe even my religion.
I know you think of yourself as a performer first, above all else, and seeing you live is an exceptional experience in the Portland literary scene. I’ll admit the mother in me worries sometimes you’ll hurt yourself in your massive heeled cloud boots while you lunge on the stage groaning about Slurpee Cum-Shots. Have you ever been hurt during a performance both in bands or as a reader? Please tell me it involved something as benign as a banana peel for that would make the best story.
I cannot think of even a minor injury. I’ve done a lot of things: being a zombie, wrestling people, speed-drinking a bowl of powdered baby formula, having sex with a drum kit, but I’m still not able to remember an injury that carried on afterwards other than loudly ringing ears. I’ll have to claim hearing loss as my injury, because a lot of my collaborations have been with noise musicians.
I’ve also noticed your following as predominately male. You and I have spoken on this many times before. Why do you think your particular brand of writing appeals more to a certain audience? And I’ll admit, I sometimes feel protective when I read the comments below your posts. Some men believe you’re trying to somehow hook up with them via Facebook because you’re wearing polka dot tights. Does that ever drain you, frighten you or are you simply used to it after twenty years on a stage?
Things get complicated when you decide to look like a woman, a classic lipstick and heels woman—what I call female drag. No one is “born this way.” It’s a conscious decision to apply makeup and form-fitting clothing in a style that is socially defined as “sexy.” I have fun with sexy.
Then there’s the persona. I have a low voice. Telemarketers call me mister. I write a lot of things that people call “aggressive.” I don’t come across as easily offended. Male readers tend to be turned on, in an intellectual and physical sense, by a woman unafraid to discuss death, politics, the bodily functions we ALL have—with humor. Male readers are turned on by satire: If a woman can eviscerate something with her words, she’s a sport, she’s fun, probably fun in bed.
For creative projects, this gets more tricky. I’ve learned to say no to pretty much ALL favors, rides, and things that sound like “getting coffee to discuss the potential of being in a band together” with men. All a woman has to do is say “no” to a man and if he is not in control of his emotions, he can make her life a living hell.
Learning to be my own PR person, sound engineer, graphic designer and editor is the price I pay to not have to deal with wackos, stalkers, puppy love. On more than one occasion, men have tried to get other men to believe gossip about me regarding money and sex—after my rejecting their advances. It’s what happens when a woman decides to be a public figure.
It wasn’t easy, but over time I’ve attracted women readers. Like the men, many women feel closer to me when I reveal my vulnerabilities. Some call me “heroic” and “fearless”—for revealing my flaws. For years I had to poach the online readership of other writers for women—in a way that felt predatory—but it was necessary.
Who are you a fan of? Have you ever met some of these idols and if you did, please tell me you said something absurd like the rest of us humble dumbasses probably would.
As far as writers making me feel I have to up my game, I admire the work of Rod Serling and the British essayist and screenwriter Charlie Brooker. What Serling did with the Twilight Zone, and what Brooker does With Black Mirror and Screenwipe (and pretty much everything he produces) gives me such a run for my money, I start to suspect that the money is in another galaxy.
When I was 22, I met Michael Gira of the band Swans. He was on a tour to promote a book of his dark short stories. How dark? He makes Celine look like a Teletubbie. Standing next to Gira, my heart started pounding in my ears. I asked if he would let me interview him. I could barely shove words out of my mouth without sounding like I was whimpering.
When I was 28, I met Douglas Coupland (Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma) at one of his readings. I was so weak in the knees that I found myself unable to stand. I nearly hyperventilated. He tried to calm me down by complimenting my metallic cowboy boots.
The most famous writer I’ve ever met was a songwriter—Debbie Harry of Blondie. It was 1993. We were sitting next to each other at a disco club called Jackie 60 in New York City, both audience members for a Genesis P-orridge show. I recall Genesis doing some howling and chest-slicing for the set.
I knew right away that it was Debbie Harry next to me. It’s not the kind of thing you mistake. That woman’s skull is one of a kind. Despite this, she reminded me of my mother. My mother has those Slavic bones, the thick makeup on widely-spaced eyes, the bleached hair. All through my growing up, other kids in school would say, “Your mother is Blondie! Can we have her autograph?”
So I tried to play it really cool and not look at Debbie too much. I felt I looked cool. Everything was cool. It was the phase of my life where I had blue hair, only wore silver, and drew an infinity sign on my forehead. I spent days in the East Village in the thick of summer, walking in circles and trying to flash people with my unshaved beaver. I had so many hormones. I could not stop flashing.
I sat next to Debbie and smiled, a discreet doctor’s office smile, but didn’t say anything dorky like, “Hey, I like your work.”
To be honest I spent the whole time we watched the show thinking to myself, “This feels like sitting next to my mother, but my mother would cover her eyes at the mutilation…and the genitals, too.”
I once saw a picture of you loading a dishwasher and it struck me as so mundane for a person that seems so larger than life on a stage. I’m sorry you no longer have a front lawn because those lawn mowing updates on Facebook always made me laugh picturing you in full drag pushing through thigh high grass. What activities have you done recently in full Jennifer Robin that one might chuckle over?
I loved writing those suburban lawn-mowing updates. It was the activity I hated doing the most on a regular basis, but because I hated it so much, I got a twisted sense of relief at finally doing it—and an oxygen rush.
Recently I washed out a cat litter box as Jennifer Robin. I searched every pocket of every coat for half an hour for bus fare as Jennifer Robin. I cleaned rotting vegetable goop out of a crisper drawer “in costume.” I spent a day searching for pre-menopausal supplements online, and ordered one called “Women’s Passion Booster”—and I considered taking male hormones to grow more muscles—all dressed as Jennifer Robin! My finest achievement may be convincing others that nothing is unusual for Jennifer Robin to do.
Where do you go now post Death Confetti? Is it a launching pad or is it a steady as you go turtle race to an imaginary finish line in the sky? What would you love to do? What’s on Jennifer Robin’s bucket list?
I go on instinct. I don’t plan far ahead. I’m working on two books this year, which are very different from each other. One is fantasy, and the other is direct reportage, where I have to dare myself to go out and interview people from all walks of life in a way that I hope would make Studs Terkel proud.
I’d love to meet John Waters, make a lot of wacky video versions of my short stories, and record albums. Is there a chance I could be a female Captain Beefheart?
Jennifer Robin’s books can be found at Amazon, Powell’s and Feral House. You can read more here….
And if you’d like to part of the new Commando simmering in uncircumcised tips, this is where she shares her new confetti.
Diana Kirk is the author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy by Black Bomb Books. She’s also been published in Thought Catalog, Nailed, Black Orchid, The Psychology of It and Literary Kitchen. When not interviewing cooler people than herself, she’s often working on her own street cred while eating cracked crab and overpriced cocktails in the Pacific Northwest. You can find her here…www.dianakirk.wordpress.com