Media Diet: Holly Hughes

A defunded, lesbian performance artist that loves Martha Stewart

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She may say that meeting girls is the only the reason she performs, but the impact of Holly Hughes’ work is felt way beyond her bedroom. Even though the National Endowment for the Arts cut off her funding in 1990 because of the sexually explicit nature of her work, she continues to spin wry, sassy, and brutally honest political parables from her web of personal experience. Clit Notes (Grove Press, 1996), her new collection of essays and performance texts, chronicles her journey as an artist to find a language to express her forbidden sexual desires. Editorial assistant Rebecca Scheib caught up with her in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

What magazines do you read? 

Even though there is little hope of my having a garden in the foreseeable future and the closest I ever come to cooking is stirring up the fruit at the bottom of my yogurt container, I subscribe to a bunch of gardening and cooking magazines like Horticulture, Garden Gate, Organic Gardening, Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, and Saveur. And, of course, Martha Stewart Living fills in all of the cracks in my life. I find magazines about things I actually do—like theater—or who I am—lesbian—vaguely depressing. There’s no news in those rags, just stories about gay bashing and theaters going belly up. By now that’s really not news, but what Martha Stewart’s doing with her hydrangeas is!

What books are you enjoying now? 

I have mauled several copies of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s S/HE in the last year. S/HE is made up of what I’d call short personal prose poems about Pratt’s relationship with a butch woman who is so transgender that she calls into question our definitions of masculinity and femininity. I also really like Pratt’s book Rebellion, which is a series of essays about growing up white in a small town in Alabama, and how that relates to being a lesbian and a feminist. I’m always interested when someone takes abstract ideals to which we pay lip service—”we” being people who read Utne Reader or Organic Gardening—and shows how they translate into everyday life. I’m depressed when I’m between books, but I’m a lazy reader. Since I’m a “bottom,” a book has to sweep me up and throw me on my back and have its way with me or I’m outta there pronto. I’m not passive about reading—I will lift my hips for it—but the book has got to initiate things.

Which authors have had the most influence on you? 

I like most anything by Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark, her book of literary criticism, is particularly smart. Her language is so exquisitely dense and rich that it makes me laugh when right-wingers complain that she’s replacing Shakespeare in the canon. As if Toni Morrison is Highlights magazine! I also love Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America and his book of essays and plays Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness. I admire the way he doesn’t see a contradiction between being an artist and being an activist, and the way that he views his celebrity as a soapbox, without any apologies.

Is there a film you’d like everyone to see? 

Desperate Living, by one of the world’s greatest lesbian artists, John Waters. How does he manage to take every stereotype in the world and use them in ways that are deliberately offensive—and yet give me this great sense of hopefulness? Dare I say it?: I walk away from John Waters movies, and this one in particular, with a warm fuzzy feeling.

What performance artists are currently influencing you? 

I love most everything that has come out of the WOW Cafe in New York City, also known as “the Home for Wayward Girls”—for refugees not just from mainstream culture, but from lesbian feminism too. There’s Carmelita Tropicana, who describes herself as “the national songbird of Cuba,” who has done several pieces about being an immigrant to the U.S. and a lesbian. She takes on all of the signifiers of Latinas—hairstyles, big fruit on the head—then reshuffles the deck and attaches new meaning to the images. Or the Five Lesbian Brothers. They deconstruct and subvert stereotypes of lesbian life—like the fact that it is always represented in the popular imagination as a tragedy—in hilarious ways. I had a great interest in self-expression before I stumbled into WOW in 1983, but it was only after I’d been there a while that I started to develop a self that was worth expressing.

Where do you get your news? 

I really don’t watch TV, because I can’t be trusted around a television set. If I start watching, I can’t stop. I get some of my news from my girlfriends on the phone, and the rest I make up. But I also read alternative publications, like The Village Voice and The Nation. As much as I grouse about them, which I do, I feel dependent on them as an antidote to the corporatization of the media. Big corporations are gobbling up everything in sight, and most newspapers read like employee newsletters for Exxon.

Where do you find inspiration? 

Deadlines. It’s the only way I get anything done. Once I waited and waited for inspiration and all of a sudden I realized that ten years had gone by, and I hadn’t been inspired! I’m rarely inspired, really; I’m merely hysterical.

What are the sources of your best ideas? 

Other people’s work, the artists that I’ve mentioned, and, of course, Weekly World News—the source of all artistic inspiration.

What is your most creative space? 

Wherever I happen to be, with a deadline. I like to write in bed, because it seems less scary. I don’t get as caught up in the anxiety of feeling like I’m not a real writer if I’m in bed.

After the NEA defunded you, you said you were trying “to recover women’s sexual power in a fucked-up context.” Do you feel like you’ve made progress?  

Yes, I think that in the last few years there has been an explosion on the literary scene of representations of sexuality by women—and by queers—that feels like it’s expanding the language of desire. That really feeds me. I feel like I can go farther, both in bed and out of bed, as a result.