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An Interview w/ Laura Marie Marciano & Monica McClure of Gemstone Readings | Luis Silva

An Interview w/ Laura Marie Marciano & Monica McClure of Gemstone Readings

Since February, Gemstone Readings has become known for hosting events featuring writers such as Bunny Rogers, Mike Bushnell, Lucy K Shaw, and Cassandra Gillig. Last Friday, they had a media launch for their new website and poetry videos featuring the work of Kate Durbin, Natalie Chin, and Stacey Teague. Below are some questions I sent to Laura Marie Marciano and Monica McClure about the work they are doing at Gemstone and about the video reading of McClure’s poem “Petocha”.

When did you first conceive of the idea for Gemstone Readings? What was the inspiration for starting it?

Laura Marie Marciano: I guess that is a hard question to answer.

I think I was feeling a sense of frustration with the types of readings that were happening—they seemed to be lacking some kind of magic and inclusion.  It was the same thing and the same people and the same venue.  It was winter and it was real cold. I was thinking about the Olympics since they were about to start. I thought we needed some mystical sort of reading to happen so that people would feel alive again. So I organized this “Reading for Oksana”, (the Ukrainian figure skater from the 90s) to be held in the basement of Unnameable Books around the themes of cold hearts and sadness. And I had Bunny Rogers sing. And the heat wasn’t working so people had their coats on. And Ben Fama read. And it just made sense.

Then I wanted to keep going. And I wanted to make sure more people were included that hadn’t been before, specifically female identified. And I wanted to bring in my background of performance art and media art. I sort of wanted it to be like the Babysitters Club only for poetry—if that makes sense. So it was always there, I guess, and then it happened.

Monica McClure: I came to know of Gemstones when Laura created the “Last Petal On A Dying Rose” (as I think it was also called) reading for Bunny. I’d been thinking about Bunny’s Sister Unn installation for this essay I was writing about immortality online. Eternal love and longing encapsulated in digital icons played a part in my thinking about it. My partner, Ben Fama, read as well. I remember liking the 90’s kitsch of Oksana. For me, the Olympics will always be Oksana, Tanya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and the Magnificent Seven US Gymnastics team. Everyone on the reading was young. It’s important to stay in tune with what young people are doing. Laura’s poems felt very kindred to my poems in Mood Swing. They were investigating a vexed femininity, both fabulated and actually experienced.

How did your team come together?

Laura: I saw a picture of Monica on Facebook and she looked like she knew about magic. I asked her if she wanted to read at the next Gemstones event. She agreed. She came in her cheer-leading skirt from high school. She was a really kind person. I could just tell. And she was like maybe the friend I had always been looking for as a teen. Like I was a loser with a cool kid inside and she was a cool kid with a loser inside and we needed each other. But I was in Rhode Island and she was in Texas when we were teens so that was impossible. Then Brooklyn and poetry made us know each other. I don’t know. I am kind of a romantic so those things matter to me. I wanted to work with Monica because not only was her poetry incredibly strong and informed, and not only did we seem to share similar aesthetics, but like I said, she was kind. And kindness matters to me. Oh and we were the same age. We are getting on in years.

And Harry Burke, who designed our website, I met him in Paris. I was so bored in Paris and I had no idea who he was, but I saw through mutual friends that he was there too. So I asked him to hang out. We met in front of Notre Dame and I just read poems to him off my phone and helped him buy a gift for his mom at this corny bookstore. Then I messaged him a couple months later and told him I hadn’t forgotten him and hoped he would help me with all this. And he was down. And it worked out.

Monica: I was thinking of starting an all-girls performance and interview series that invited a range of female artists, from stand-up comics to poets, to do their thing and then discuss, among other things, what it’s like to be a female artist in 2014. I thought it would be a good way for us to compare notes on the challenges presented by sexism within our respective practices. Laura’s project, by inverting the usual reading gender ratio, seemed to be filling that gap, so I just tacked myself onto her series. I like promoting arts events, so I joined as her PR agent / Lady in Waiting.

What type of poetry are you looking for? How do you choose which poets to work with?

Laura: I am looking for poetry that is sincere and emotive and visionary. I guess that is kind of non-specific but I am not really into “word salad” or anything that seems contrived or overly cerebral. And as for poets—I look for poets who I know and respect, but also, for poets that haven’t really been discovered yet, or, who are hiding online or in their bedrooms. I want to bring those “gems” out—hence the name. I know. Lame. And it’s way better if they are female identified. I am specifically trying to make the readings 90% women and 10% men cause that seems like a good way to turn the Broet model on it’s head. I hope anyway.

Monica: I like polyglossic work that bends genres and rethinks the way poetry can be performed. I grew up in a church that was orthodox and thus against entertainment from a theological perspective. Sometimes poetry readings take the same attitude, as if to be entertaining is to degrade the purity of your worship of the poetic Word. It helps me continue to love poetry when the content makes an effort to address the contemporary. You see, there is no difference between “universal” and “specific.” One’s specific is universal, whether it’s your feelings about the dust bowl or your feelings about Kimye. In fact, in both of these examples is an opportunity for socio-economic critique, illumination, and disambiguation—whatever you want. It’s art. Let’s expand the art context. So what if pop moments are transient and commercial? Our commercial and cathectic investment in these moments define our lifetimes, which are transient but all we will know. Alright, Imma stop.

Are there any visual adaptations of poetry that you have looked to for inspiration?

Laura: Not particularly. I pay attention to visual culture, and pop culture, and the emotional architecture I am existing within at the moment—I think what is in the immediate is most often my biggest source of inspiration. I of course admire a lot of visual artists and poets—but each project we undertake at gemstones is going to be an extension of the poet we are working with in the moment—their vision.

Monica: I like what alt lit writers (I always want to say kids) do with New Hive. I like Ana Carrete’s, in particular. Large segments of Tumblr are visualizations of poetry. There are tumblrs devoted to pictures of pages from poetry books. I love the recontextualization of a literary artifact as a visual object that can trend and travel across screens everywhere.


There are always two strains in every conversation about pairing poetry with visual and performance art. There are those who see endless possibilities for artistic expression and audience engagement. And then there are those who oppose it by saying that it’s merely a gimmick. What do you see as the possibilities? And how do you make sure the the visual and performance components are not just flash but actually achieve a significant and unique experience?

Laura: I was at a reading in Chicago last winter that was an off shoot of the MLA conference. I saw some real successful poets that I admire doing a reading that was sort of like improv where they would play off one another and read parts of poems dramatically and with movement. And, even though I admired so many of the writers, it was not good to me. It was like some 1970s time warp. I thought it was completely a gimmick, and an inside joke, and no one in the audience was really that engaged. I think it maybe meant something to the readers, but they weren’t taking care of the audience. To me, if the artist is going to engage the audience with performance, with visuals, they better have thought about it. And they better have prepared. And it better be careful, and delicate, and something they have been working at and wanting to present.  I think it’s about intentionality and planning and effort. There is always room for what happens in the moment, but visual art is hard effing work. And it should show.

Monica: I tend to draw more from stand-up for my performances, I think. Not in the sense, that I am funny, because I am not, but in the way that the form presupposes that the performer is appearing as her real self and then complicates that interplay between audience, performer and art context. Performance poetry most often fails when it’s mired in the tropes of 70’s and 80’s performance art, as Laura pointed out. Collaboration is successful when all the elements converse with each other. That’s a vague way of saying that there needs to be a reason the forms come together. A reading in front of a projection fails when the poetry and visual points don’t connect on a theme, mood or concern. When Ben Fama read at The Atlas Reading Series, Andrew Durbin, who understands his work well, knew that looping video of a night-time drive through an urban setting was the right image for poems about dystopia, modern despair, and endless scrolling. We have to also think about how people receive stimuli and consume information. Ancient Greek performance art confronted the populace in its space (public squares, etc.), and while we create a space like that by holding readings and performances, we have to consider that most of the time we are online looking at YouTube videos. Our society of spectacle is the one Guy Debord outlined, plus endless scrolling. I think it’s hard to make an interesting statement by being theatrical in a public space, though I do see it done from time to time.

People also have a similar love/hate dynamic with standard reading events. What makes a good reading? What makes a bad one?

Laura: I hate snobs. Any reading that feels like it’s snubbing me or doesn’t want me there—that’s a bad reading to me. I think you can be like with it or not lame and still be inclusive. Our reading on Friday night lasted a long time because people were sticking around and we created a sense of home. I think getting people to stick around means something. I don’t know what you think, Monica.

Monica: Sometimes I think it is as simple as the readers liking their work, and that work being good. A well-curated reading is one that threads ostensibly different kinds of poets together with a keen insight—previously unapparent. Let’s see. What did Harry Burke and I have in common on Friday? I read about growing up in rural Texas with some bad Chicanas I thought should be celebrated. It was like a ballad. Harry read cutting poems about the absurdity and loneliness of being a young person, a citizen in a global society, an agent and a conscript of an online and offline setting. We both were engaging in a kind of poetic exegesis that examined the symbols of a particular socio-historical moment, just very different ones.

Is it difficult to find an audience for poetry? Is it difficult to keep them engaged? How does adding visual and performance components to poetry help with both?

Laura: The audience is so small for poetry. I think adding visuals and performance, coupled with this sense of “girl power” or whatever, has gotten a tiny piece of our already small audience more excited, and the hope is, with videos, and visual culture, a broader scope of viewers might pay attention to poetry. I want them to pay attention to poetry like they pay attention to Nikki Minaj’s newest video. And it’s not me trying to be that. It’s just what I am already into, and what I think could be a nice marriage. Maybe it’s about media seduction—or the way “video killed the radio star” or something. And that probably makes some people really mad. But fuck those people. Because maybe they don’t teach bored 20 year old kids at a liberal arts college who hate poetry. And maybe they don’t get how excited those same students become when they witness this marriage. To me that is exciting too. It’s exciting when Beyonce writes a poem—even if it sucks. You know what i mean?

Monica: Like I said, the way we interact with art is different. Poetry is great and always has been, but it needs a new brand. I mean, I hate capitalism, but I have to employ its marketing apparatuses to keep the thing that keeps me alive in this world in this world. Art has to stay. It’s easy for poetry to stay good because it can’t sell out because it is literally worth no money. That’s good news for the poetic imagination.


How did you choose which poem to create a video reading from?

Monica: I think “Petocha” is the most fun to read because I wrote it to be read aloud for a series called TriLengua that asks poets to read translations or non-English. The only other language I know besides English, is Spanglish, so I wrote in that language. Its themes are quite explicit: female sexuality, indigenous mysticism in conflict with colonizer catholicism, Chicano/Tejano culture, true matriarchal families bucking against the patriarchal culture to which they belong, shame, sexism. I think it worked remarkably well as a screenplay because each stanza moves it through a different psychic state. We may have borrowed scenes from its sister poem, “Chiflada” (on the website) because it’s more cinematic. At one point I am in a nail salon, another in an American Legion Hall, another in the bleachers of my high school. We ultimately  picked “Petocha” for its vocal texture, I think.

Can you describe what the collaboration process is like between director and poet?

Laura: I heard Monica read “Petocha” at our gemstones baseball reading. I thought “fuck this is amazing.” My friend Anna Carnochan, who is a video artist, was there too. She loved it as well. I approached Monica and she was totally down. We started to make lists of ideas and email them to each other. We were all on the same page. It came together pretty easily. I am sure if we had different aesthetics, or Monica wasn’t so chill, it could have been a nightmare. It seemed natural.

Monica: Laura gets me as an artist and we have similar curatorial goals. Greater access to artists is one of the best things about living in our time. The mystique of the author has always interested me. Like a music video, you see the artist embodying and moving through their own work in these videos. Well, certainly in mine. I think it’s a pleasurable way to interact with a poem. When Laura, Grace, and Anna showed up at my house I was like “Oh fuck,” because I had been crying all night and was existentially hungover. The nice thing is, from the very beginning, I felt comforted by the generosity of the Gemstones’ mission. Like-minded people working together is quite therapeutic; all of our attention easily turned towards the thing we were creating.

How deeply did you discuss the poem?

Laura: Monica explained to Anna and I what “Chiflada” meant, this idea of a girl behaving badly. We talked a lot about what that meant across cultures. I could relate to it because I grew up in a pretty traditional Italian-American family. It was about double standards and being “too sexy” or “too bratty” or “too lazy” or “too boyish.” It felt like we had lived a similar experience in some ways and the discussions were a lot about our families and upbringings. I started to think about early sexualization, and as a Catholic, being ashamed of your body. I wanted to try and bring that out in the video. The lines “somebody wanted to touch me, but didn’t” compared to “can somebody touch me if they want to” in Monica’s poem grabbed me. It was like as girls we became what they didn’t want us to be, what they tried to stop us from becoming. It’s a thirst, I guess, for the forbidden. It’s quite compelling that juxtaposition, and I am hoping it came across in the video. I wanted the images to work against the pain and sadness of the words. I wanted people to feel a little bit fucked up after viewing it, the way us Latin/Catholic girls feel our whole lives. Like walking contradictions…

Monica: What Laura said. The sexism inherent in the word chiflada as I understand it, unlocks the poem “Petocha.” Though, I should add that “Petocha” is a word my guy friends in Mexico City made up, which I never quite understood but imagined to be like a grown-up chiflada. What a little girl who is chiflada becomes, perhaps. “Petocha” is more empowered, but also sexist. It has been bestowed by men to describe a girl who is “ down,” and not prissy or concerned with what girls are presumed to want: boyfriends, shopping sprees, whatever. The petocha is brave, tough, brassy, fun, and tomboyish. She likes NSA sex and arm wrestling at parties.

Is the interpretation that viewers of the video have of the poem supposed to be the same as the readers of the text? Or do you intentionally allow there to be a difference?

Laura: When we were walking around on the streets I felt like I had to protect Monica from gross men and also snobby women who don’t get it. There is a lot of visual sexuality in the video, that may not come across in the poem. This is intentional because this is the entire troupe of what it’s like to grow up in this kind of culture. There is a push and a pull. I wanted the viewers to hear all the history that is in Monica’s work, and then actually see this idea of Chiflada embodied—to want to be wanted—because you were told that was wrong, and to repress it, your whole damn life. It’s incredible to think about how women are judged for this, specifically in the kinds of worlds we both grew up in. And then there will probably be other women, our contemporaries, who judge us for this work too without thinking about that. Who won’t “get it” unless they really concentrate on the words and how they couple with these images. I guess it’s a bit controversial, but that’s a good thing.

Monica, do you think of “Petocha” as your signature poem at this point in your writing career?

Monica: I read it with fire at AWP after taking the mic out of a white male publisher’s hand before he could introduce me. I was tired of this kind of showy broey thing that was happening onstage. There was one non-white voice on stage (1.5 if you count me). It felt like a necessary discordancy. Jennifer Tamayo was heckling me, but really she was heckling everyone who didn’t like it / didn’t get it. She yelled all the Spanish words with me. Afterwards, a woman attacked me- like really got in my face. She said, “What did you think you were doing up there- with that irony? My friend who speaks Spanish is very upset and had to go outside.” I’m not sure what she meant. It’s a poem that stays in the realm of the abject, but intends to liberate the subject from the structures of oppression it cites and enacts through a persona. That’s the contradiction that can’t be dissolved into a whole. No one comes off looking good in this poem, not even the “petocha.” I don’t think in those kinds of moral binaries. That upsets people, I guess. Anyway, I surprised myself by saying, “It’s my language and my culture and my subjective experience, so I can do whatever I want with it.” It provoked a lot of good conversations that weekend, and at that moment it was my signature poem.

How does one poem come to the forefront of the others? Do you think when writing it that this will be your title poem or this will be your Prufrock or this is the one that you want people to read if they only ever read one of your poems? Or do you read them at events and notice that one of them gets a bigger response?

Monica: I often get that feeling when I am writing a poem. I recently wrote “Mala”—the poem I meant to write when I sent this manuscript to Poor Claudia, but couldn’t yet write. I was calling it the best poem I’d ever written (to myself), the one that would be the final word on this whole excavation of my coming of age story. I was aware it was a delusion, but as a sensation, it was a helpful one. Usually, I see how people respond at readings to determine which poems are good read aloud, and then I read those again. I want the audience to audibly respond, because that is gratifying. However, I also realize that some good readings get no noticeable response. Maybe just a tremor of energy. I read whatever I want, is the short answer.

You’ve published two chapbooks. Do you ever see them as markers of where your interests in style and subject were at when you were writing them? Did those interests change?

Monica: The concerns overlapped a bit. Mood Swing was about articulating my bad feminism, the oppression of a female biological reality, the political threat of the Republican Party to women’s rights. It’s also an experiment in persona with super sneaky references to Barthe, Lacan, Derrida, and Bakhtin. It’s written in a bratty voice-like a conservative neoliberal’s worst female nightmare is what I was going for. Anyway. Mala is nostalgic for the early 2000’s when I would have been transitioning from childhood into personhood. It’s personal, whatever that means. I think its time specificity and ostentatiously autobiographical material distinguish it from the first chapbook, but they are both about “alienation of and from femininity” to quote Adam Fitzgerald’s review of Mood Swing for The American Reader. I mean, they’re both about inhabiting contradictory identities.

It seems that videos readings and reading events are creative products that also function as publicity. What do you think of creative performance as publicity? Or publicity as creative performance? Is the promotional product that is created to publicize the work just an afterthought that doesn’t really touch the writing you do when you are alone at your desk? Or does it become just as important?

Monica: Publicity is so meta now. We are so aware of it. It’s so aware of itself. So much creativity goes into publicizing a show or a product. Sometimes I think the performance that publicizes and the performance being publicized are inextricable because we are so visible online. Instagram is our collective, public diary. This is kind of the same question of having an audience in mind while you’re writing. I don’t, but I am conscious that someone will probably read it online. So I can’t help but think how it will be disseminated through all my social media outlets. It’s not an afterthought, but it is the natural next step. As I’m writing, I do sometimes feel compelled to snap a picture of a stanza and post it to my tumblr as a way to frame my concerns for readers. To be honest, I want lonely girls online to find my work. I wish I’d been able to find poetry online when I was a teenager.

Do you ever think of poems as something like album singles? Or the two chapbooks as mixtapes? And if so, would that make your forthcoming book, Tender Data, like an upcoming album or a VMA performance?

Monica: Yes, Tender Data is my VMA performance. It’s going to be all those books were and more. Chock full of data, too.

Any funny behind-the-scenes stories from the production of the video?

Laura: Yes the Park Slope moms in the nail salon were SO PISSED we were filming. They were like not having us at all. It felt kind of wonderful to interrupt their day. The nail technicians, on the other hand, were glad to have us. One asked us to make her famous. I hope we do. Shout out to 7th Avenue Nail Salon.


Tender Data comes out in 2015 from Birds, LLC. In the meantime, go checkout Gemstone Readings and buy Mala from Poor Claudia.


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