Sister Spit: Sisters, Misters, and Tale Spinsters

Originally published March 18, 2011 in Just Out.

Michelle Tea. Photo by Amos Mac.
By Erin Rook, Just Out

Created as an alternative to the drunken misogyny of the early ‘90s spoken word scene, Sister Spit is a subcultural institution. The all-female open mic night Michelle Tea established with fellow queer writer Sini Anderson in San Francisco in 1994 has grown into an influential national tour of queer, feminist and otherwise radical writers and artists.

“I remember when I first heard of Sister Spit I was like 19 years old. I was so excited that it existed and I was really interested,” says Amos Mac, co-founder of the trans-male quarterly Original Plumbing magazine and member of the 2011 tour. “So being part of the tour now is just kind of full circle of evolving as an artist and evolving as a person.”

Sister Spit has certainly evolved since its early Rambling Road Show days. Most visibly, the tour has gotten more masculine, reflecting Sister Spit: The Next Generation’s all-genders and trans-inclusive model. The 2011 lineup is the first to include a straight cisgender man—Portland native Blake Nelson.

“[Nelson] had sent me an email that was like, ‘I wish I was a lesbian so I could go on Sister Spit,’ and I was like, ‘Well, you never had to be a lesbian and now you don’t even have to be a female, so why don’t you come with us?’” Tea says. “This tour is a totally new sort of tour for Sister Spit. Voila!”

Sister Spit has also become more sustainable over the years. These days, Sister (or, as Mac puts it, Mister) Spitters stay in hotels—no more seeking crash pads on the mic during the show. The first year Sister Spit toured, each member got about $80 at the conclusion—not nearly enough to break even. Now, the tour is financially stable enough to invite more established writers such as Dorothy Allison.

“I didn’t realize what an impact those three, four years of touring had 10 years prior,” says Tea, recalling the way fans clamored for the tour’s return long after the end of its first generation.

“I was really shocked that the people who were asking for Sister Spit were all these different ages,” including those who had seen past tours, those who just missed it and those seemingly too young to even know about it, Tea says. “It was really cool to see that we had made this impact on the culture.”

It was at that point she realized that the name Sister Spit—despite, or perhaps because of, what Tea calls its unintentionally “funny second-wave kind of granola lesbian” connotation—meant something to people.

“The name recognition means a lot,” Tea says. “It suggests a certain type of performance in terms of both quality and content.”

The van is full of quality, all right. Take Nelson, who earned his Sister Spit cred by the mere fact that his first novel, Girl, was excerpted in Sassy magazine. It can’t hurt that he has since written Gender Bender, in which a teenage boy and girl switch bodies, or that his novel Paranoid Park was made into a film by Gus Van Sant.

Nelson and Mac won’t be the only men in the van. They’ll be joined by Kirk Read, author of the queer coming-of-age memoir How I Learned to Snap. Mac, who made an appearance on the second half of the European tour, will be sharing photos from Original Plumbing as well as photos and a letter from the first issue of Translady Fanzine, featuring artist and transwoman Zackary Drucker.

“I am a huge fan of [Mac’s] whole deal,” Tea gushes. “His photography is beautiful and fun and striking, his vision as a trans person of how he wants to place trans culture kind of front and center in the larger culture is completely excellent, and I think he’s really visionary.”

The guys will joined by writer and teacher Ali Liebegott, author of the book-length poem The Beautifully Worthless and a four-time Sister Spit veteran.

“If I could take her on every tour I would,” Tea says. “She has such a great mixture of wisdom and she’s totally smart and a smart ass. You never know what you’re going to get from her, she’s like a loose cannon in the best way. And she drives.”

It’s a good thing Tea can’t take her favorite writers on every tour, however, since she’s already booking future bills in her head. The lineup for 2012—featuring Dorothy Allison, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and Kit Yan, among others—is already posted on RADAR Productions’ website.

This time around Tea was lucky to nab Myriam Gerba, whom she calls a “wacky and really smart” writer and high school teacher and Mari Naomi, a graphic novelist and visual artist. In addition to the folks in the van, Sister Spit’s two Portland shows will include performances by local writers and artists Nicole Jorges, Chelsea Starr and Matilda Bickers.

While Tea has no problem rattling off the glowing qualities of her fellow tour mates, she had not decided, just days before the tour began, what she would be performing. Will she share excerpts from her upcoming young adult novel featuring mermaids and talking pigeons, her apocalyptic memoir hybrid, her collaboration on the Beth Ditto memoir From Coal to Diamonds or something else entirely? There’s only one way to find out.

When it comes to Sister Spit, Tea says, “You never know what you’re going to get but you kind of know you’re gonna like it.”

Sister Spit: The Next Generation, Monday, March 28, 7 p.m., Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., $10 in advance from brownpapertickets.com, $12 at the door; Friday, April 1, 7 p.m., Lewis & Clark College, Evans Auditorium, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, free; radarproductions.com.

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