Duty of Care: A Q & A with Sinister Wisdom Guest Editor Alexis Clements

Duty of Care: A Q & A with Sinister Wisdom Guest Editor Alexis Clements
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Writer, activist, and creative producer Alexis Clements edited Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations. Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations published on July 4, 2016, the exact fortieth anniversary of Sinister Wisdom. Founded in 1976 by Catherine Nicholson and Harriett Desmoines, Sinister Wisdom continues to publish work that celebrates—and challenges—the sinister wisdoms of lesbians around the globe.

Alexis joins a long line of guest editors of Sinister Wisdom. Beth Hodges guest edited the second issue of Sinister Wisdom published in the fall of 1976. In the “Notes from a Guest Editor” of Sinister Wisdom 2: Lesbian Writing and Publishing, Hodges wrote, “The process of getting an issue out is as exciting as falling in love—and for the same reason, that the actuality is never exactly what one anticipates.”

Falling in love continues to be a metaphor that resonates with me to describe editorial work. Sinister Wisdom continues to welcome proposal from guest editors to “fall in love” with materials and topics for issues of Sinister Wisdom. The guest editor tradition at the journal is one that I continue and promote as editor and publisher. Guest editors of Sinister Wisdom expand the reach of the journal and bring in new authors and new ideas to subscribers. Guest editors are part of a vital long-term strategy for Sinister Wisdom to continue to thrive as a journal promoting lesbian art and literature.

This interview with guest editor Alexis Clements explores some of the ideas and concerns Alexis brought to Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations. Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations is a smart, informed, and engaging issue—and Alexis is a writer, editor, and activist to know and admire. Her achievement in Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations is but one of many in her career. I anticipate many more important contributions to our cultural conversations from Alexis. Read this interview and learn why.

Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations, edtied by Alexis Clements
Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations, edtied by Alexis Clements

Julie R. Enszer: Tell me about your relationship to feminism and lesbian-feminism.

Alexis Clements: I don’t know when I first heard or related to the term feminism, but I can remember the very beginning of coming into a feminist consciousness. It was in sixth grade, and I came to a very clear understanding of what sexual harassment was, even raising the issue of its existence in my school with my teacher and classmates. After reading the essay collection I Still Believe Anita Hill a couple of years ago, I realized that the timing was exactly right to credit the Anita Hill trial with that early consciousness. Despite the cruel and deplorable attacks on and dismissals of Hill, it’s clear that many people were better able to articulate what was happening to them thanks to that particular public spectacle. It’s good to see that she’s recently, though certainly belatedly, been getting the credit she deserves for helping to shape the conversation around sexual harassment.

A lot has changed in my life and my feminism since then, thanks in large part to my experiences with the writing, cultural production, public actions, and thoughts of so many others. And I hope and imagine that it will continue to change with time.

Feminism for me, today, means working towards an end to all forms of oppression and continuing to build an understanding that all oppressive forces are deeply enmeshed with one another, whether it be patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism, cissexism, racism, classism, ageism, or any other -ism that ultimately seeks to create and maintain hierarchies that deny people their full humanity or access to shared resources. And it’s most certainly with deep credit to many women of color that I owe my clarity around the intertwined nature of oppression - women like those in the Combahee River Collective, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lorde, and, more recently, women such as the three founders of Black Lives Matter (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi).

Where other feminisms come in for me, feminisms such as lesbian-feminism or trans-feminism, is in thinking about what it means to be a permanent minority within the larger culture, but also within social movements. It means challenging intra-group assumptions and behaviors; it means keeping an eye out for places where people are being asked to assimilate or step back; and it means asking how we as feminists and also as a society can live with difference.

I wouldn’t currently say that I identify as a lesbian-feminist at this particular moment, though I relate strongly to the politics. The reason is that I’ve recently started to shift away from identifying as a lesbian, though it’s certainly still in the mix. Working on this journal issue and also on the film project I’m still working on, which focuses on spaces where queer women gather, has pushed me to think more about how a desire to be part of a community can lead to assimilation and partial truths. My own sexuality definitely leans toward women, but not exclusively, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I choose to embrace one identity or another - an essay for another moment, surely, but certainly a topic that I think many writers in the volume are also thinking about from a variety of angles, be they political, sexual, racial, or gender identity.

Julie R. Enszer: When you started editing Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations, what excited you most?

Alexis Clements: I was most excited about inviting others to write about and reflect on questions that I’ve been turning over and over the past few years. I wanted to hear what people were thinking and feeling, and it was very rewarding to get to put some of their expressions into the volume. I was also very excited, having worked with and spoken to queer women of many generations in the past few years, to challenge some of the persistent assumptions that continue to swirl across generations and groups of women, and have lead to a frequent inability to recognize each other in our shared struggles. The lack of a widely articulated queer women’s history makes it very difficult for those of every generation to see just how many threads stretch from across the 20th century to today, but they’re most definitely there and worth noticing.

Julie R. Enszer: Women love the cover of Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations. More than one woman emailed me and said, “That is a picture of ME on the front cover! I love it!” Tell me a little bit about Clarity Haynes and her work and why it inspired you for the cover.

Alexis Clements: The main reason for including the painting on the cover is because it’s gorgeous, and at our launch event for the volume I had the great pleasure of meeting Janie Martinez, the subject of that particular painting, who is an artist in her own right.

But I also wanted to include it because I had the chance to learn a lot more about Clarity’s work, which you can read a bit more about in the volume or on her website. Clarity invited me to her studio a little while back, and it was wonderful to hear about her evolving process and practice over the years. Her current work is on a grand scale--some canvases extending over six feet across. I find her paintings beautiful and strange and discomfiting and inspiring all at once. They are rightly spoken about as being portraiture, figurative painting, and landscape all at once.

Beyond what you see on those canvases, though, I was intrigued by the arc of her work and her relationship to being in women’s spaces, to lovingly bearing witness to her subjects, to creating a new kind of space in her own studio (where a friend of mine recently sat for her and spoke about how good it felt to be present there), and this narrative she has of doing this work for years now--the ways it’s shifted, the ways it has remained the same or similar.

This volume, for me, was very much about time, change, intimate thoughts and conversations, making presence known, and caring (both in the sense of taking care of and giving a shit). And Clarity’s work has all those elements. It was the perfect fit.

Julie R. Enszer: One challenging issue facing our community right now is continued debates about gender identity and the meanings of lesbian. Can you talk about your perspective on that issue?

Alexis Clements: I have lots of thoughts about this, as you can imagine from my earlier answers. But the best answer I can give at the moment is to say that the entire volume I put together is intended to specifically question whether there is or ever was a stable sense of what gender is, even within lesbian communities, and also if there is or ever was a stable and singular meaning to the word lesbian. I’m of the opinion, based on a fair amount of research, that neither was ever all that stable or clear cut below the surface, and sometimes not even at the surface. And that’s a subject I’m fascinated with at the moment.

Julie R. Enszer: What are you most proud of in Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations?

Alexis Clements: Mostly I’m grateful for having been given the chance to put the volume together (thanks, Julie!), and that so many people responded to the topic. Nuanced and complex conversations, like the one I see happening between the writers who participated in this volume, don’t lend themselves to short videos or quick articles on the internet. People pay attention to printed text in a different way. Connections can be drawn on paper that would be dismissed quickly online. And so I was really glad to be able to help facilitate that conversation on the page.

Julie R. Enszer: What advice would you give to future guest editors?

Alexis Clements: Be a little bit uncomfortable; make sure the work isn’t all easy or familiar.

Alexis Clements is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY, where she co-founded a queer writing group and publisher, Private Commission. An alumna of the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, she has been awarded a Dramatists Guild of America fellowship, two Puffin Foundation Artist Grants, a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, the Source Theatre’s Washington Theatre Festival Literary Prize, and she has been a resident at the Millay Colony. She is also founder of the multi-disciplinary arts project New Acquisition, which produced projects from 2007-2010.

Her creative work has been produced and published in both the US and the UK. Selected productions include: The Elephant in the Room (LaBute New Theater Festival, St. Louis, MO), Conversation (Fringe Festival: Philadelphia, PA); Enough! (Highline Park: New York, NY); Place ReImagined (Women’s Project & River-to-River Festival: New York, NY); Dance Away Your Debt (FIGMENT Festival: Governors Island, NY & Dance Parade: New York, NY); Spitting Against the Wind (Brooklyn Arts Exchange: Brooklyn, NY & Dixon Place: New York, NY); Your Own Personal Apocalypse (One Million Forgotten Moments Project: New York, NY & Chashama: New York, NY); Causality (Towngate Theater: Wheeling, WV); The Interview (Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Scotland, UK); Three Choices (Pomegranate Theatre: Chesterfield, UK); and Pieces (Riverside Theatre: Iowa City, IA).

She served as a fellow at the Cultural Strategies Initiative, and also as a co-editor of Women in Theatre Magazine Online, published by the League of Professional Theatre Women. In 2010, she co-edited the two-volume anthology of plays, Out of Time & Place, which includes her performance piece, Conversation. Her plays, Pieces and Three Choices, have been published by KNOCK. She has also written and published a selection of short stories which have appeared in literary magazines and collections, including The Guardian and two different anthologies published by Route (UK), Bonne Route and Ideas Above Our Station.

Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Salon, Bitch Magazine, Autostraddle, American Theatre, The Brooklyn Rail, Two Serious Ladies, The L Magazine, Nature, Frontiers, and In the Flesh. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.

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