By Elizabeth Hoover, Fourteen Hills
Drew Pisarra spins you up, down, and all the way around in these magical realism-esque, winding tales that compile his newly published collection of short stories, You’re Pretty Gay. These stories waver between creative non-fiction essays and obscure mythical fables, and Pisarra transitions between the two genres in completely unexpected yet seamlessly crisp leaps. Reading these stories is like being blindfolded on a rollercoaster, not having the faintest inkling of where you are going or where the hell you're going to end up. Pisarra then hits you with powerful endings, uniquely turn-you-on-your-head punches causing you to reflect on the stories as meticulously calculated and remarkably thought-provoking. You want to read them again and again to discover deeper meanings you didn’t catch the first time. A goldmine of plot lines, characters, and narratives confront the limiting and pervasive structures of heteronormativity and gender role conditioning in brilliantly interesting story lines. Empathy, compassion, brute honesty, laughter, intimacy, vulnerability, and tears: nothing is contained, censored, or safe.
14H: You’re Pretty Gay opens with a Gertrude Stein quote: “If you are looking down while you are walking it is better to walk up hill the ground is nearer.” When I visualize someone looking down while walking, I conjure images of someone potentially struggling with anxiety, social phobia, or depression... or perhaps they’re lost in an introspective reflection or delicious daydream and are finding comfort in staring at the ground while they walk. However, this Stein quote seems to speak more to perseverance, a commitment to following a path that seems promising no matter how downtrodden one might feel. What is your interpretation of this quote and why did you choose it to introduce this collection of your short stories?
DP: As you’ve noted, Gertrude Stein is a master at crafting quirky phrases that contain myriad meanings. Sometimes, they even cause an internal double-take. There’s a comedy in some of her writing that makes me laugh (though I can’t always pinpoint why). For quotes like this one, any singularly definitive reading tends to make the line shrink in scope. I mean, what if it only means what it says? It’s still pretty brilliant. I will say, there’s an inherent absurdity to this statement that cracks me up. I’ve been a fan of Stein for so long that kicking off my book with this epigram struck me as a simple way to give thanks. I may not be able to get someone to read her 900-page epic The Making of Americans (which I greatly admire) but perhaps I can intrigue them enough so that they’ll check out her early story collection Three Lives. After they’ve read my book first, of course.
14H: Given the magical realism in your stories paired with their enthrallingly curious, unpredictable narratives, I found myself reading heavily into areas that seemed to me as acutely symbolic. In your first story, “Fickle,” the narrator reflects, “Back when I was in high school, hitchhiking, that’s when I met my first boyfriend.” As their relationship fizzles yet persists in an anticlimactic way, the narrator changes his boyfriend’s name many times. I felt this was symbolic. If so, what are you trying to convey here with these characters and their relationship?
DP: At the time, I think I was writing about the fluidity of love. But what this story says to me now is that, in love, as elsewhere, we’re often doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Each new relationship, which should be a new beginning, can just as easily repeat the same old, counterproductive pattern. So what difference does it make if your new partner’s name is Matt or Mac or Dan or Dick when you’ve remained unchanged by who and what came before? And while “Fickle” is definitely charting affairs of the heart, I think this story also taps into America’s eternally youthful and willful naivete.
Some days, it’s charming. Other days, it’s pretty sad. Lately, it seems insane.
14H: In “The Child Criminal,” two young boys are beaten by their headmaster for engaging in an intimate act with each other. After the headmaster beats them, the older boy of the two “imitated the master’s gesture, and it seemed purer, clearer. Since it was an imitation, it represented power more clearly than power ever could itself.” We then receive an anxiety- riddled inner monologue of the younger boy expressing internalized ideas around what it means to identify as female as well as what it means to identify as male. It felt as though he felt he needed to become feminine in order to keep his relationship, or to some degree embody hurtful, stereotypical notions of what we’re taught being a female is. This monologue emotionally impacted me, reflecting on some of the conditioning I’ve grown up with around how I can or cannot be as a woman. Can you tell us a bit about the symbolism of the older boy taking on the role of the master and the younger boy’s reflection of it being, “No less terrible in its way. No less delicious”? Can you tell us more about this monologue?
DP: When I was growing up, queer male role models were few and far between. Back then, people would sometimes ask who the man and who the woman was in a gay relationship. Which was code for dominant and submissive. As if there weren’t dominant women and submissive men. Or power bottoms and passive tops. Personally all I wanted to do was to escape that preordained paradigm. Which was one of the appeals of Jean Genet (who inspired this story). In his plays and novels, Genet often exposed the inherent perversity of socially prescribed roles based on race, gender, class... “The Child Criminal” is specifically indebted to his radio piece of the same name. At the time, that script wasn’t translated into English and since I didn’t know French, I decided to build a monologue from a brief synopsis that mentioned the glamorization of juvenile delinquents in a reform school. Yet while I kept my own “Child Criminal” in a juvie setting, I transported the action to the U.S. To underscore this change, I had a customized Cub Scout uniform made for my performances. (I believe my troop number was 666.) I even went so far as to dye my hair blonde to invoke the actresses who’d played Peter Pan: Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby, et cetera. I was a man playing a woman playing a boy. So am I feminine or masculine? And why not both? Or why not something beyond?
14H: There is a magical realist and a bizarre and surprising narrative quality to your work that is reminiscent of some Etgar Keret stories. What authors, people, places, things, memories, obsessions, dreams, concepts, or thoughts inspire your writing and your use of craft?
DP: Lately I’ve been finding inspiration in the molecular level as I’m literally in the midst of a sonnet series inspired by the periodic table of elements. I’m pairing each element with a different man from my past. Have I slept with 118 men? Why yes, as a matter of fact, I have. But the series isn’t restricted to bedmates and includes men who’ve incited feelings of longing as well as those with whom I’ve shared intimacies that weren’t exactly carnal. To me, Periodic Boyfriends (working title) has come to exemplify how everything can inspire – whether it’s selenium (an element used in dandruff shampoo) or oxygen (an element we can’t live without), a one-night stand or a long-term love.
14H: While reading your stories, I often felt as though I were picking up puzzle pieces that seemed to come out of nowhere and couldn’t possibly be a part of the same puzzle. But by the end of the stories, I saw the construction of a complete, well-crafted, cohesive puzzle. I’m curious about the writing processes you went through when writing these stories. Can you talk a bit about what these stories looked like in their beginning stages and how you developed them?
DP: The earliest stories in this book started with me and a tape recorder. Weeknights after ten, I’d head over to Beth Harper’s Portland rehearsal studio where I’d tell stream-of-consciousness stories to an audience of one: Namely, me. My starting point was always the same: “What Scares Me the Most.” First it was Hell. Then it was Violence. Then it was Death. The answers changed, month to month. My process, however, was pretty consistent: Transcribe the more interesting parts of my ramblings. Build on that. Move on to the next fear, the next story. There was something about creating late at night that let loose an unexpected logic, one that was instinctual and imagistic. And while I no longer talk my pieces into being, I do remain drawn to finding subconscious associations. I couldn’t write a good, strictly linear narrative to save my life. And I don’t know that I want to.
14H: Reading your work, I found myself jumping from sad feelings to laughter with not much space in between. Sometimes I felt a mix of both. Tell us about the role of humor in your writing, particularly in this collection of stories.
DP: One of the greatest joys in life is causing someone to laugh so hard they piss on themselves. I admit once I took it further and got someone to laugh so hard that they pooped in their pants. But laughing that hard will obviously result in a certain discomfort. Who still feels pleasure while sitting in soiled underwear? And how do you deal with the aftereffects of such a momentous – and monstrous -- release? And yet, having gone that far, isn’t it hard not to continue to laugh? I used to think of humor as a way to get the audience or the reader to let down their defenses so I could deliver a more effective gut punch to their psyches. Now I think humor’s baked into everything we do. You can’t keep it out of the story. Even if you try. Because humans are inherently ridiculous. I’m looking at you, mirror. But hey, guess what? I can take a selfie and still have my eyes on you.
14H: Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer. When did you start writing? What genres and forms have you experimented with? When did you start writing short stories?
DP: My beginnings as a writer are pretty strange. When I was in my 20s, I was living in Baltimore and I developed a crush on a guy in the local chapter of ACT UP. He had the most beautiful neck! One night, I overheard he was moving to San Francisco so I summoned up the courage to tell him, I’d wish we’d had a chance to get to know each other better. He said, “Well, I’ve got a week left in town. Let’s hang out.” And we did. Every night for a week. It was wonderful. When he moved out west, I promised I’d write him letters but since I hardly knew him I didn’t know what to share. So I recounted my dreams – often nightmarish vignettes that struck me as cryptic to the core. He, in turn, passed these pages on to his new boyfriend who was something of an impresario of queer ‘zines. Unbeknownst to me, this lover then published a long excerpt of one of my letters in his publication HOMOture. When my former crush forwarded a copy of it my way, I was mortified because the dream now seemed so easy to interpret. I felt exposed. But I was now a published author. And I thought, well, I guess I can write something worth publishing. And that part felt very good. And since that first piece was so naked, I’ve generally brought the same spirit to my other literary efforts -- be they poems, plays, essays, or stories. Hide nothing. Tell it as true as you can.
14H: You’re Pretty Gay was released in June 2021 and can be purchased on Amazon. Where else can we purchase a copy? Can we expect other forthcoming work from you? Lastly, are there other contemporary authors or books that you find so delightful you think we should know about too?
DP: The book can be purchased at a number of bookstores, ranging from Powell’s (in my old stomping grounds of Portland, Oregon) to the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division (here in NYC). Another option is Bookshop.org, an retail site supporting indie bookstores. That said, I think I’ve shared enough about myself so let’s jump to some other writers. Last week, I finished Jeanne Thornton’s just-released Summer Fun, an ingenious epistolary novel in which the main character pens fan letters to the leader of her favorite band. I’ve also recently become enamored of R.K. Narayan, an early 20th-century Indian novelist who I discovered this spring, and rekindled my passion for Samuel R. Delany who I’ve long enjoyed. (His Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Dhalgren are equally revelatory.) Final recommendations: Julie Poole’s Bright Specimen, an exquisite poetry collection that came out earlier this year, and Angie Morrill’s Rabelaisian roman a clef TWENTYTWENTY slated for release in the not-too-distant future.
Drew Pisarra is a 2019 literary grantee of the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, Drew Pisarra has also won grants/commissions from the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Curious Elixirs: Curious Creators, Imago Theater, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, the Portland Art Museum, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council.
You’re Pretty Gay marks his second collection of short fiction. The first, Publick Spanking, was released by Future Tense Books and was hailed as “mesmerizing” by Puck Magazine and “brutally real” by PDXS. His subsequent book, the sonnet collection Infinity Standing Up, was published by Capturing Fire Press and lauded as “brazen and lusty and often amusing” by The Washington Post and “by far one of the most relatable volumes of poetry currently in print” via Valley Voices.
An award-winning poet and playwright, Drew Pisarra once toured his one man shows (“Fickle,” Queer Notions, The Gospel According to Saint Genet) around the United States before abandoning the form altogether and switching over to television for nearly a decade. There he worked in the digital sphere on behalf of such iconic shows as Mad Men, Rectify, and Breaking Bad
Additionally, Pisarra is the co-founder of Saint Flashlight (with Molly Gross), an art activation project that finds inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces. Their work has been produced by the Poetry Society of America and the Poetry Project and featured at O, Miami Poetry Festival and Poets House NYC.