(INTERVIEW) Lillian Paige Walton interviews LA Warman
Visual artist and author Lillian Paige Walton interviews poet, performer and teacher LA Warman about her newest novel, Dust (Impatient Press, 2022). Their discussion explores writing about the ‘seemingly infinite’, influences ranging from bell hooks to Tamara Faither Berger, killing linear thinking, suffering as political act, and approaches to teaching creative writing.
On a cold evening in 2019, a Brooklyn dance floor was packed with uncharacteristically still bodies. The crowd’s rapt attention was aimed at poet and instructor LA Warman, who read from a small turquoise paperback from behind a DJ booth. LA’s eyes remained calmy fixed on the book between her fingers as she read aloud soft deadpan. Only the phlegmatic poet’s mouth bore traces of her amusement as the room erupted in joyous laughter. The event––a launch for Warman’s debut erotic novel Whore Foods (Inpatient Press, 2019)––foreshadowed the poet’s success to come; the now cult-classic book, with an infamous cover image painted by Sabrina Bockler, went on to sell hundreds of copies in bookshops around the world and win a Lambda Literary Award, which Warman accepted from her computer in 2020.
Warman’s relationship to poetry is hybrid, unconventional, and largely self-taught. She has a healthy distrust of academic institutions, which she makes clear as the principal and founder of Warman School, an online poetry program quite unlike any other Zoom school you’ve seen before. On the first day of the class offering titled Write Depression, Warman intoned softly, “You don’t have to do the homework. You don’t have to keep your camera on'' –– and slowly, one by one, each face in the Zoom grid was replaced with a black square. It was as though a collective sigh had been released. In some ways, Warman School is as much of a school as it is an attempt to actively undo years of trauma students have faced within academic institutions. In a recent Warman School Instagram post, Warman asked prospective and current students to finish the sentence:, “Classes feel inaccessible to me when…”. Students sounded off in the comments, with replies ranging from prohibitive costs, to the exclusive academic jargon they have encountered in university settings. Warman responded in enthusiastic agreement to their complaints, often in all capital letters. “YUPPP”. For her, this is valuable insight into what she is actively working and pushing against.
Warman’s penchant for pushing extends to her writing practice as well. Dust (2022), her newest novel with Inpatient Press, marks a radical departure from the refrigerator orgies that once endeared Warman to international audiences. The Post-apocalyptic desert landscape serves as the stage for two longtime lovers seeking to postpone their death in this violent and empathetic work. Like Tamara Faith Berger, Warman is a fresh disruptor in the genre of erotica. She places the reader into a position of close emotional proximity rather than distance and shows us just how fine the line between repulsion and arousal can be. Simultaneously haunted and heartbreaking, the book speaks to Warman’s range and depth as a storyteller. It emerges from the depths of the black screen, with pages pooling and dripping with heat and moisture like the caves in which the nameless lovers seek refuge. Her spare prose carves a window into the lives marked by need, desire, choice, and the vapours which sustain them. Transformation is possible, Warman says. Sex can be new. Dust affirms that there is indeed life to be found at the end of the word.
I contacted Warman on a quiet weekday evening in between her classes to chat about her newest novel, monogamy, and destruction.
–– Lillian Paige Walton
LPW: Novels are endurance works –– both for the writer and reader. In Dust you take on the additional challenge of writing about the seemingly infinite, the mundanity of survival. How did you keep the process of writing fresh for yourself?
LA: It is important to me to not write anything at all until I feel that I must. This keeps it fresh because it is in no way required or habitual or daily. It appears when it is necessary to emerge. For me it is important to stop. Important to do nothing at all.
I generally work in the epic form and feel writing is never ending, they are merely cut off when I desire to publish them. I have works that I have been writing for years and return to when they feel right in my body.
LPW: You chose to work with Canadian author Tamara Faith Berger on the manuscript for Dust. Can you speak about your decision to have TFB on as an editor and what it was like to work with her?
LA: I have long admired Tamara Faith Berger for saying the unsayable. For being messy, for being violent. Sometimes I’m too sweet. She challenged me to be a cannibal. She encouraged the sort of suffering that is daily, organic. She told me to go further when I had stopped. I got really stuck in this book over the three years I wrote it, I thought I would never get out. She told me there isn’t an out, there is a way we go in and never get out.
LPW: This ‘daily, organic’ suffering that you describe seems to be at the core of Dust. I get the sense that the greatest hardship for the book's sole two characters isn’t simply survival in the face of an unnamed apocalyptic event, but the difficulty of sustaining desire over time, or in the face of the inconvenience of one another, their traumas, their humanity.
LA W: Yes, and desire in all forms. Do we even desire to survive in this society? If all of our needs are taken care of and there is no audience, how do performances of love and desire change? I don’t know if the book answers anything. There is a point where we all have to choose to survive, to continue to exist. Choose to try to love when there is every reason not to be vulnerable.
LPW: The word ‘choose’ appears often in your book. You write, ‘We are going to sleep and we choose to sleep next to each other.’ I love your usage of this word because it is an affirmation of autonomy, and because it addresses a reality of sustaining long-term relationships. Individuals make the choice to come together, and as you said just now, to choose to try to love. Yet so rarely is this trying depicted within the genre of erotica. In ways it seems inherently unerotic. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
LA W: There is a trope of “lesbian bed death” in long term relationships. This is often framed as a way to de-sexualize lesbian relationships, but what if bed death was the goal? What if that next level of comfort and partnership could be sustained across years? I don’t believe the couple form is necessarily positive or desirable, but I do think there is something special in long term lesbian relationships in whatever form (friendshiphsip, mentorship, romantic). It is a new way to create a family. It is a family based on choice. There is no such thing as unconditional love. We choose when to love and when to give care. As they say, you can’t choose your family. But in this lesbian society, we can. There is an openness to our arrangements. It is one that encourages change. As long as hormones and other altering drugs stay openly available we will be able to choose when to change our bodies. Desire is in the change. Watching your partner's growing clit worm out of her body shows the way our edges and genders are always porous.
LPW: You’ve told me that you don’t see the point in making work that isn’t political. Talk to me more about this.
LA W: Black feminist writers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, and others have taught us the personal is political, care is political. Through this lense, I wonder even what it means to be white and make political work. I think a lot about suffering and what it means to suffer. Suffering as a political act. I never get why work by non-white creators is often framed as inherently political whereas work by white people can exit that framework. To make apolitical work is one of the biggest privileges. To make work that can be described as apolitical feels very white. I want the destruction of society, is that too much to ask for?
LPW: No! That actually leads into my next question: Dust is set in the wake of a catastrophe –– what is killing us? What is killing you?
LA W: Capitalism is killing us. Choosing not to change is killing us. Mass death was created because people chose to not have an equal society, they chose the existence of surplus. Capitalist isolation is suicidal. I want to kill surplus. I want to kill linear thinking. I want to kill profit.
LPW: Do you see a correlation between your writing, community work and activism?
LA W: Writing emerges from community. I only have language because of what I have witnessed and learned. The writing represents where we are right now in this moment. The language has been given to me through collective spiritual rituals I have experienced as well as organising work. Writing is equally important to me as any other work I do, but writing in the world does different things. Writing erotica doesn’t abolish prisons. Writing erotica doesn’t do anything to chop off the head of white supremacy. Knowing this, I must also do labour for these means in addition to writing. Writing can be public, writing can speak. As a white person in organising, I try to keep my labour large and quiet.
LPW: You mention Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, and Tamara Faith Berger. Who has influenced your approach to writing most deeply? Whom couldn’t Dust exist without?
LA W: Dust couldn’t exist without my mom. Taking care of her during her late stage cancer has taught me so much about what death looks like. Speaking to the amazing lesbian chaplains at her hospital has taught me how to experience grief in my body. I was homeschooled so my mom was the person who first taught me how to write. Because I didn't have any other teacher for most of my childhood, everything I do drips of her. I never really learned how to write an Essay or write in any sort of academic way which has freed me from so much that people work to get rid of. I am free from grammar, free from structure, I can be chaos. The main literature I read as a child was the Bible which teaches me that all writing is poetry.
LPW: You are the founder and principal of Warman School, which offers courses like ‘Write Depression’, ‘Write Death’, ‘Erotics’ ‘Lesbians’ and now, ‘My Past.’ The school has expanded to host guest teachers, such as Gabrielle Octavia Rucker and Hiba Ali, for new workshops. How do you decide what course offerings to introduce and who to bring on to teach? Do you find your own approach to teaching has changed over the years?
LA W: I teach what makes me nervous. I teach what I don’t want to talk about. I teach my fears. My scope is limited so I always try to reach outwards. I often hire people to compile reading lists and resources that reach beyond what I can see or touch or understand. I noticed my God class was leaning towards my ex-evangelical biases so I hired a techno loving rabbi to expand the course. In this same way, the teachers I hire are skilled beyond me. They see what I do not see. My approach to changing has definitely changed over time. The depth of my unknowing is now central for me and I don't feel the need to control the rhythm as much. I trust the “students” will take it where they need to go and arrive at a place I could never imagine.
LPW: What can we expect going forward? For your writing? For Warman School?
LA W: Space for lesbian cruising. Space for the end of the world. Space for death. Space for her. Space for me. Lots of space. Maybe even some ease. Maybe even giving up.
Dust is available for preorder via Inpatient Press here. -
LA Warman is a poet, performer, and teacher currently based in New York City. Warman is the author of Whore Foods, an erotic novella which received a Lambda Literary Award in 2020. She is the founder of Warman School, a non-accredited and body based learning centre. The Warmyan School has taught over 500 students online and in person. She teaches topics such as erotics, death, depression, and god. Pitchfork named her piece ADMSDP one of the top 100 songs of 2020. Warman is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers and Poets at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She has had performance and installation work in shows at MOCA Cleveland, ICA Philadelphia, Time-Based Art Festival, Poetry Project, and Open Engagement. Warman has presented performative poetics research at Brown University, Hamilton College, Reed College, Hampshire College, and others. She is a founding organiser for the Free Ashley Now survivor defence campaign.
Lillian Paige Walton is a visual artist and author of the short story collection Meter-Wide Button (Sapp Press, 2022). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Art Paper, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Behind The Times, and Wyrm.
Text: Lillian Paige Walton & L.A. Warman
Images: Image 1: Impatient Press, Image 2: Tyler Jones