Sara June Woods Wants to Write About Being Fucking Weird: The Autostraddle Interview

I met Sara June Woods in the summer of 2007, long before the “trans tipping point” and well before she would find herself at the #1 slot for Gay & Lesbian Poetry on Amazon.

If you look up the Wikipedia article on “Mid-00s Indie Queer Folk”, you would find a snapshot of the night Sara and I met. I was performing as a(n abjectly terrible) folk singer-songstress on tour with Jordaan Mason (the genderqueer Canadian novelist and musician who just released their new album Form Less & you should definitely be listening to it) — we had just broken up a few months earlier, and were taking turns singing songs about each other. I was selling fundraising compilations for Camp Trans (with literally all proceeds from that fundraiser going into the gas tank). We were all very excited for the world to end in 2012. Shortly after Sara’s set the show was interrupted when a girl in the audience said something vaguely transmisogynistic, then after being called out locked herself in the trunk of a minivan crying for several hours while Jordaan and I shared cigarettes with (renowned stand-up comedian and internet celebrity) Red Durkin on the porch.

2007 was a strange time.

Fast forward nine years. A few months ago I stumbled upon Sara’s writing project Sea-Witch. No longer performing indie-folk in tiny apartments across the midwest, Sara June Woods is a prolific writer and artist based out of Portland. Sara’s writing is phenomenal — her poetry swims languidly through dreams and images, creating stories that are deeply intimate with a unique vision of the world. It was only after doing a little research on Sara’s work that I realized we had already met nine years ago, in that cramped apartment in Bloomington. After announcing the release of her newest collection Careful Mountain, I took the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend.

A lot has happened since 2007. The car I drove on that tour has been scrapped for years. The world didn’t end in 2012. Camp Trans is dead — though to be fair, so is Michfest. Sara and I had a lot of catching up to do, but for Autostraddle’s sake I did my best to keep it to writing and like, queer trans stuff. Here’s how it went:

M: Hi Sara! First things first, could you tell me a bit about yourself?

SJW: Yes! Hi, hello. I’m a writer, artist and (former?) musician. I grew up in southern Indiana, but I’ve lived in Nashville and Toronto and Chicago and Portland. I have a master’s degree in library science that I used for five years and now I don’t use it anymore. I’ve done a lot of different things over the years and been in a lot of different scenes. Right now I live in Portland with my girlfriend Irene, and I’m making whatever living I can doing freelance writing and graphic design work. Hm. What else. I like stick n pokes and don’t trust the government just like any good transsexual fuckup. Anything specific you want to know?

M: I was starting this AS interview, I think, with a little spiel on how we met.

SJW: Yes. Totally. I was pretending to be some sort of vaguely bisexual indie folk ukulele twee boy at the time? Living in Bloomington, IN and sewing patches on my clothes and doing college radio and going to noise shows and whatever.

I hosted you and Jordaan Mason and Kristina Born playing a show in my apartment — gosh, probably not very many people came. That apartment was so tiny. It was on the second floor of a big house and you entered by climbing these wooden deck stairs on the back of the building. I lived there with my ex, who will remain nameless. I was probably a very dorky, twee little thing doing a bad impression of being a straight boy.

M: You describe yourself as a “(former?) musician” — could you tell me a bit about your relationship to music and creation today?

SJW: Sure, yeah. I wrote songs and played them on my little ukulele for about seven years, in a twee folk project that got increasingly weird and confusing (example: in 2008 I composed a concept album with all autotuned vocals about horses going through Y2K). When I moved to Chicago in 2009 I tried to start a band, like a real band to play my new songs with and I did that and then realized that I hated moving drums and broke up the band. Around the same time that was dissolving I had gotten into going to literary events and had gotten plugged into an internet lit scene where people were making diy lit mags and publishing their friends and I was getting more and more into the idea of writing things to publish rather than writing songs. Eventually I think it just sort of took over as my main creative outlet. In part because I have become more and more incapable of actually going to music shows. My anxiety level is way too high in crowded spaces like that. Readings are just a lot easier. And shorter.

I’m still fed a lot by music, Jordaan’s music in particular has always been an inspiration to me, and we’re still close friends.

M: I remember that concept album!

SJW: Hahaha oh god did you actually listen to it?

M: I think in the DIY indie folk scene it was an imperative to listen, and at least pretend to love, everything anyone you know ever created.

SJW: Totally. I was really into concept albums. I still am with writing but now they’re called books and people tend to think it’s not weird to put together a lot of short pieces about one thing.

M: What other strengths do you find in the written form that came up short in music? Are there things that were easier said in song?

SJW: I miss vocal harmonies. I always loved harmonies. They’re magical. When I wrote songs I never edited them, though. I was making album after album of first drafts. I think writing taught me how to really polish something. It also allowed me to focus a lot more deeply on figuring out what I really wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

M: You said you’re fed a lot by music. From what / where / whom you get your drive? Your inspiration?

SJW: These days there’s a small list of stuff I really deeply love and am inspired by. Renee Gladman‘s books, Bhanu Kapil‘s books. Porpentine‘s video games, Jordaan’s books and music, my girlfriends Irene Milsom and Prairie Faul and their beautiful writing, art by Aidan Koch, Agnes Martin and Henry Darger. Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl was really incredible and moving to me. My friend Carrie Lorig‘s poetry. Kate Bush.

Also like, just feeling really really incredibly broken a lot and trying to survive.

Oh and I’m really inspired by all of my local pdx trans girl friends, much love to Viri, Izzy, Aspen, Jade, Iris, Myra, Dani, Jaci, Phoenix, Joli, everybody y’all are so good ! I actually feel like I have some community where I fit for the first time in a long time and that’s been really amazing for creating things.

M: You’ve lived a lot of different places the past few years. How does place interact with your creative work?

SJW: I haven’t been much of a “location” writer. I think I create art socially to some extent. I think it’s reflective of who I’m around a lot more than it is what I’m around. I think part of this is because performing writing live is really important to me.

M: Why is public performance so important to you?

SJW: I think I got hooked on performing when I was doing music. That was always sort of the final test of a thing I made, when I performed it. When I switched over to writing it made sense to keep doing that. Also I think it’s a part of who I am and how I work creatively. Like I said I think I’m someone who creates work socially to some extent. I think I need to have an audience. I like attention. I’ve always been kind of a performer and kind of an exhibitionist.

M: As a trans woman, you have a body of work that encompasses transition — how has that transition affected how you present or perform your work?

SJW: Oh gosh, well, it’s majorly changed it. It’s hard for me to not want to disown my pretransition work. Some of it I very much do now disown and some I have come around to have a grudging love for again. My work itself has gotten a lot more political. I have gotten a lot more political. Coming out and experiencing what it’s like to be an out trans woman radicalized me quite a bit. As far as performance, I am in a space where I am much more frequently perceived as an other during my performances and I think I might be a little more antagonistic toward the audience because of that. I think I feel a little less desperation to be liked and a little more “fuck you if you don’t like me.” I think I enjoy flaunting my monstrousness. I think I enjoy playing into being a freak show a little bit.

M: There’s something there between trans womynhood and an affinity for monstrosity.

SJW: I love trans femme monstrousness. Elena Rose’s poem The Seam of Skin and Scales and Susan Stryker’s Letter to Victor Frankestein Above the Village of Chamounix are always my go-to examples. The book I’m working on now engages with that a lot.

M: About Sea-Witch — ostensibly about a woman living inside of a witch-god — on first read I thought to myself “damn, that is an astute vision of what it means to be a trans woman.” A description of one of your earlier works — I think Wolf Doctors — includes “cities that have transformed into girls, but who perhaps would like to transform back once again into cities” — you keep giving me these little quips encompassing weird uncomfortable transsexual life.

SJW: Hahaha I don’t know who wrote that line about Wolf Doctors but it’s bullshit and I wish I could tell them to change it. The poem they are referencing is about a city that changed into a girl but nowhere once does she say she would like to change back.

M: WHOA JEEEEEZ THAT IS TRANSMISOGYNIST AF

SJW: I know!!!! To be fair they didn’t know I was a girl when they wrote it, but like god damn.

Also, after I came out I refused to read that poem at readings because it felt WAY too on the nose. It’s embarrassing how obvious some of that old stuff was looking back.

M: If the performance aspect has changed so much, do you find your creative work post-coming-out to have changed? What’s different? Does work come by easier?

SJW: I think the big shift in my work happened about a year after coming out. The only difference between my work immediately before and after coming out was just like I was more comfortable using really gendered imagery in certain ways. A year after coming out was when I had been done with Careful Mountain for awhile and started working on the things that would eventually become the beginnings of Sea-Witch. I had consumed a lot of things about what it was like being a trans woman and I had experienced being a trans woman around other trans women and was really excited about that bond and really frustrated by how little any of the things I was reading about trans women represented my experiences. I wanted to make super weird super trans art. So the shift went from writing about like “I’m a girl!” to like “I’m a trans girl and that’s amazing because we are amazing but also everything is REALLY fucked up”

Also I won’t name names here but there was an encounter with an editor who told me I needed to write more realistic things and not be doing like surreal stuff because it was politically important for trans people to be writing realistic narratives from our own perspectives. And I just felt like, that’s so boring. My own perspective is pretty fucking weird. Being me is pretty fucking weird. So yeah there was maybe some spite involved.

M: You consumed a lot of things about what it’s like being a trans woman — what did you read? What informed that for you?

SJW: Well, a lot of topside stuff. Nevada and A Safe Girl to Love are both amazing books but they aren’t anything I could ever write. Which is good, because they already exist so I don’t have to write them. Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got a Time Bomb was exciting to me. I love Sybil’s work. I love the way she tells stories. Super early on I also read like a ton of blogs and forums and you know, like all the internet mess you find when you start googling things and clicking links. Terrible stuff. I also wandered into a bookstore near me in Chicago and came out with a Kate Bornstein book that ended up mostly being about Scientology and a Claudine Griggs book that ended up being literally only about genital surgery.

M: I think Imogen Binnie’s Nevada coming out was a watershed moment in “trans lit” — if there is such a thing — when trans women were writing books with a trans audience in mind. So next question, obviously: Trans Lit. Is it a Thing? Where does you work fit in to this genre that does or doesn’t exist?

SJW: Well. It is certainly trying to be a thing. We definitely are talking to each other. We definitely are publishing each other. So it seems like it will only become more of a thing. It’s always weird to define a genre by identity. There definitely isn’t any stylistic cohesiveness. To some extent I think I want to put myself in that box though. I want trans people to read my books. That’s really important to me. I’m just hoping I can create my thing the way I want to and people who are interested in trans writing will go with me on it. Because honestly I’m not really interested in writing a book for small press book nerds. Like I am a small press book nerd so I don’t have anything against that, but it feels more important for me to want to connect with other trans girls.

M: Do you find limitations to the genre? How would you like to see it grow?

SJW: I think I definitely find limitations. I think it can grow though. It’s very very young in a lot of ways. I want to see more weird shit. I want to see more trans writers of color. I want to see people writing very unique books. I’m worried it will go in the direction of like, who can be the first trans writer in the New Yorker or whatever (have they published a trans writer? Never mind I don’t even care). I guess I just want it to be really vibrant and I want us to be creating for ourselves.

M: Are there any writers you think we should be paying attention to?

SJW: In addition to the folks I mentioned earlier in this interview, I’d say Venus Selenite, Claire Grey Alexandria. Vivek Shraya‘s stuff is amazing. I’m excited about Biyuti Publishing. Dane Figueroa Edidi, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Charles Theonia, Sung Yim. Jamie Berrout‘s short fiction and poetry is really great. There’s a ton more stuff I need to read. Oh and I love Jeanne Thornton‘s books.

I just realized I answered with all trans writers because that’s what we’d been talking about. There are probably some cis people I like too.

M: I mean cis people are alright I guess. They’ve had a few good books but I think cis literature is getting a little played out.

SJW: Definitely.

M: Alright. You and I first met nine years ago. A lot has happened since 2007. What will you be up to in 2025?

SJW: In 2025 I plan to be really upset with Charlie Kaufman for how badly he bungled the Sea-Witch film adaptation. This of course while I’m still living in near-poverty with my girlfriends and our dogs.

M: So, trans lit and capitalism are still around in 2025?

SJW: I figure if I keep my sights set low I can be pleasantly surprised when the revolution comes.

That was referring to capitalism, not the downfall of trans lit. For the record.

M: When’s your next reading?

SJW: I’ve got on August 15th in Portland! I’m especially excited about this one because my girlfriend Prairie is going to be reading with me, and she’s a fantastic trans poet. Also Serena Elisheva is one of my favorite local musicians.

M: Is there anything you’d like to divulge? Any poignant anecdotes to leave AS’ readership with?

SJW: Oh gosh. Hm. Well, I feel like it’s relevant to talk about how I recently stick n poked the word “gay” on my foot and now all my friends want me to tattoo the word “gay” on them so I’ve been making the rounds in Portland, tattooing “gay” on people’s feet. It seems like it’s becoming a thing?

M: Okay that’s the title. BREAKING: Viral Gay Podiatric Tattoos Hit Portland.

I have a tattoo on my foot right there. It hurt more than anything I’ve ever felt. That right there is a dedication to homosexuality.

SJW: What can I say, I’m committed.

~~~

Sara June Woods’ latest book Careful Mountain is out on Civil Coping Mechanisms Press and available at Amazon. You can subscribe to Sea-Witch, her novella-in-progress over on Patreon, to support Sara directly and read her new work regularly as it comes out.


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Mahdia Lynn is a speaker, educator and writer. She is the Executive Director of Masjid al-Rabia--a women-centered, LGBTQ affirming mosque and advocacy organization in Chicago--and is a prolific advocate for disability power and LGBTQIA+ Muslim inclusion. You can visit her website or find her on Twitter.

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