Last week, I was lucky enough to have an interview with Evan J. Peterson, the multi-talented poet, author and educator from Seattle. Talking to Evan was such a great joy that I had to tell him at the end of our interview, “I wish I could just sit here and listen to you talk.”
Evan is the author of numerous pieces of poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction and nonfiction. He has recently performed a reading at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in NYC, part of the Assaracus Journal, after which two of his chapbooks were reviewed in the Out In Print blog.
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
I’ve always been a storyteller and an imaginer. So when I learned how to write, I began writing stories and they continued until I got tired of them! I decided to become a writer in college. I always wanted to become a poet and a writer, and thought that I had to have a “real” job, but luckily I have always enjoyed teaching. Now that I teach college, I have a lot of freedom to create my own curriculum, so we’re steeped in the arts and provocative texts.
How did life responsibilities and your job as a creative writing teacher impact your productivity as a writer?
It used to take a lot of my time until I got the hang of it. Now, I try to find opportunities to write alongside my students. In my work as a creative writing instructor, I often write while they write in-class. Sometimes, when they ask, I’ll share what I’m working on with them. And my productivity outside the classroom is still high. I’m blessed to generate new work requested for events in Seattle, including readings at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival and Richard Hugo House.
So do you try to control the flow of your work?
With the poetry, not so much. I have hopes for it, and maybe places I want to end up in a poem, but I let those flow freely as much as possible.
I am slowly working on a novel that follows the structure of the Tarot, so a basic structure is there but I have no idea what will happen to the characters in the meantime. I know that, for instance, in chapter 13, the Death card, the main character must give something up, and it’s going to hurt him deeply. But what he loses is still up to the imagination. Oh, and someone’s going to die. But these two events won’t necessarily have an obvious connection at first.
Do you consider yourself to be a controversial writer? And if that’s the case, what makes you one?
At the risk of sounding pompous, I consider all writers controversial. We’ll all offend someone, even if we offend by being crowd-pleasingly tepid and predictable, like Nicholas Sparks. But I do pursue uncomfortable concepts, absolutely.
I am interested in sexuality. Sexuality is always controversial. I think I am as likely to offend people who have a hyper-erotic approach to sexuality as people who are conservative. When I see absurdity, I talk about it.
So, even in a Western country, you think that sexuality is a controversial topic?
Yes. And it’s because of the way people approach it. It’s always an extreme; they are either obsessive about it, or prudish. Personally, I like the middle ground.
What inspired you to write “Piss Test Cathedral”?
“Piss Test Cathedral” is from a collection of poetry in the voice of a Frankenstein monster. In the order, “Piss Test Cathedral” shows up when the monster is going insane, and has become obsessed with creating films as well as medical procedures and surgical instruments. So, the “Piss Test Cathedral” itself is a supernatural space. That is, it’s a movie set, and it’s also a temple, and also a surgical hospital. And I really like the idea of magical spaces that change depending on who walks into them. The space conforms to whomever enters it.
What inspires you in general?
I love monsters! I love how they break categories and expectations, that they have a pass to do what they want. They fascinate me. Beauty inspires me as well. I like - I love - great beauty, as well as great ugliness. It’s the mediocre that scares me.
In your opinion, what is the impact of a controversial lifestyle on a writer’s marketability?
I think it makes us more marketable, in America and abroad. So, just as I am fascinated with monsters, I believe that most people are interested in outsiders. I think it is because I am queer that I love monsters. They’re outsiders, they’re judged, they’re abused, but in many ways they’re also free.
Define gender in your own words.
Gender isn’t real. It’s an idea. It’s a set of boundaries and rules that used to work, but they’re no longer necessary and have become oppressive. Women all over the world have been realizing that these rules are unnecessary, but men are suffering as well. The neurotic need to be “strong” like stone all the time - this is oppressive to boys and men. It keeps us from being whole, balanced individuals.
Why do you think society accepts to read a book written by a man about infidelity and frowns upon the same concept when discussed by a woman?
Because women are judged by their purity and men are judged by their power. I don’t want to be judged by either.
And what do you want to be judged by - if anything?
If I’m going to be judged, I would like it to be by the way I inspire and help others.
Do you think we live in a misogynistic culture? Why?
Yes. In fact, I think homophobia is ALWAYS a form of misogyny. It comes back to measuring a person’s worth. Women are still punished for acting like men, and men are always punished for acting like women. And if you don’t want to be a man or a woman, you’re treated as a monster.
Why do you think women are left behind? Why aren’t there as many memorable women in history, in science and in politics as men?
I don’t think they’re always left behind, but certainly more often than men. Let’s look at the countries that have been led by women: Britain, Israel, India, Germany, Jamaica… what do they all have in common that we don’t? I’m not sure. Perhaps their cultures are less diverse than ours, which is curious that this would lead to putting women into power. It may be that the rest of us, certainly Americans, are still just too comfortable with our status quo. There’s a reason why we had a black male president before we had a white female president. It is unacceptable to pick on African Americans, and that has come from a long and wounding fight, but unfortunately it’s still acceptable to pick on women, particularly in business, where money is concerned, and money rules America. We are not communists, we are capitalists. I believe that in America, for any group to gain power, they have to make it financially attractive. When it costs more to subjugate women than to treat them equally, that’s when women will be equal. Same with every other form of inequality. Boycotts were ESSENTIAL to the African American Civil Rights movement. Stop paying the people who dehumanize you.