When poetry is spoken aloud to an audience, we often call it a “reading,” but when poet Andrea Abi-Karam reads it is more than mere recitation. Instead, their punk protest ethos mixes with mylar and medical staplers to create a performance event. A trans Arab-American poet based in New York, Andrea’s first book EXTRATRANSMISSION (2019) approaches the US war on terror by way of considering its “signature injury”—the traumatic brain injury—and the new selves that it produces. In the soft paperback pages of their newest book, Villainy (Nightboat Books), they call on the work of artists such as David Wojnarowicz and Ana Mendieta, speaking in the space of grief and outrage against community loss and state-sanctioned violence.
For this interview, Andrea and I sat down together to discuss their time on tour with Sister Spit, performance poetry, and queer and trans modes of resistance.
Katie Brewer Ball: What does villainy mean? Is it like a villain?
Andrea Abi-Karam: Well I would say you’d have to read the book to find out what it means to me. Villainy is not a super commonly used word. But part of the conceit behind embracing the archetype of the queer villain was to mutate the idea of a terrorist, to mutate that and claim it and reformulate it.
The urgency and energy of Villainy, which is both apocalyptic and sexual at moments, carries over from your first book. I am thinking of lines like “I WANT A BETTER APOCALYPSE THIS ONE SUCKS.”
I’m desperate to put that on a t-shirt.
Yes! Which leads me to ask about the performative nature of your poetic practice.
I started developing a performance practice directly linked to my writing practice fairly early on with more simple gestures. Reading just really loudly, yelling in a punk way or throwing pages on the floor or walking around a room while reading pages and handing them off to people, letting the pages go and letting them be taken up by others. So an early effort to flatten the line between audience and performer comes from my experience playing in punk bands, which is really fun. I mean I’ve been doing all-caps things for quite some time now, and that is definitely a key piece of the performative writing aspect. And also how I translate the different registers of all-caps intensity and quieter, interior voices when channeled through the body in varying volume.
”ABSORPTION” is the piece where I printed out the poems on stickers, actually mailing labels, because at the time I worked for Nightboat and my room was filled with envelopes and mailing labels. I printed out the poems on the mailing label paper and I stuck it to sheets of silver mylar and then during performances I would read the page and then use the medical stapler to staple it to myself. And because the sheets are reflective it would reflect the projections I used of a glitching, fractal disco pattern back to the audience. This piece in particular is a lot about ANTIFA and confronting rising fascism in the United States. The reflection back is an effort to be a call to action, an invitation and demand to the audience to do something.
How did you decide to include the stapling?
I was preparing to go on tour with Sister Spit in the spring of 2018. Going on tour with Sister Spit was something I wanted for a really, really long time and I was thrilled when I was finally invited. It felt like the biggest deal in the world. Like I’m making it, I’m going on this tour that I’ve admired since I was a teenager. This is huge. And because of the weight of meaning for me, I felt like I had to do more than just read. I wanted to develop my performative gestures into something more all-encompassing. And I—actually, have you been to the High Fantasy drag night at Aunt Charlie’s in San Francisco? I saw this Halloween queen do a drag performance where whenever she got a $20 she would use an industrial stapler and staple it to her forehead. You know, a wall stapler for construction, like you would get from Home Depot.
I was floored by this. I was so impressed. I thought it was amazing. I didn’t feel like an industrial stapler was right because I was going to go on tour for two weeks, and that would probably cause a lot of things, like infection. Connecting to themes brought up in my first book, EXTRATRANSMISSION, I’ve been interested in taking down and rebuilding the medical industrial complex, things like being trans and having to interact with health care.
Yes, and I bet the staples are different actual sizes.
I had a friend who was a pro-DOM and she was like, “I have staplers and piercing stuff, come over and let’s experiment.” So we did some experiments with stapling stuff of different thicknesses to my body and then removing it—because you can get a remover. Which is very important to have! After that training I got a bunch of medical staplers from a vet supply company, because you can’t buy actual medical supplies without a license. I got a box of them and tested out several materials before I decided on the mylar and the sticker paper. The staples had to go through the mylar and the stickers or else they would maybe fall off. You know, I’m open to spontaneity, and sometimes they did fall off and it was okay.
How did the audience respond?
The audience was really into it and also kind of shocked. I mean it was a total adrenalin rush and I was also like I hope this works, I hope all these things stick to me.
And then you kept experimenting with the staples after that?
I kept experimenting while on tour. We had a projector and I was interested in pushing the use of the mylar further and projecting light at it. And I worked with the tour’s tech person, Jerry Lee; he’s amazing. Also a Leo, like me. He helped me with the projector and I picked this kind of glitchy disco glimmery GIF that just repeats in cycles and the colors are ‘80s blue and purple. It kind of shimmers and reflects back at the mylar. I also experimented with projecting GIFs of Ana Mendieta from some of her film stills while I was reading those pieces.
Mendieta appears a lot in Villainy.
Yeah. I mean I was first drawn to Mendieta’s film works at an exhibit I saw at BAMPFA in 2017. I think I saw it maybe five or six weeks after the Ghost Ship fire happened, a fire at a DIY space during a show that killed thirty-six people, many of whom were my friends. The Mendieta exhibit was all Super 8 projected on the walls. I went around the room and I would sit in front of one for a long time. I just felt overcome with the need to write about the experience of seeing this work. I was conflating my own grief and my own community’s grief after the Ghost Ship fire with the premature loss of Mendieta’s life due to patriarchy. In some ways I was channeling her, I don’t know if that is appropriate to say, but that is what it felt like. And she foregrounds the body, her own body, the brown feminist body on the screen in many different ways. There’s a scene in the film Blood Sign where Mendieta paints a tall vertical tombstone or frame for the words “There is a Devil inside ME” with an excess of red paint on a white wall. And I love the paint on the walls, her own hands dragging on the walls with the paint. All the work is so immediately visceral and durational. I found the fact that she commits her own body to it very, very powerful.
Yeah, dragging. Even though that is not the specific gesture you are doing with the staples, in its duration, there is the possibility of skin getting caught and kind of slowly ripped through the repetition.
Staples are supposed to be used to close wounds, not create them. And there is this perversion happening with how I decide to use the staples.
When in medicine do staples get used?
I mean I don’t know all the protocols, but it is used to bring two edges of skin together. And . . . you can just pry them out.
And so Villainy is also in-part a eulogy for all the people lost in the Ghost Ship fire.
I had never experienced such a shock wave of grief like that in my life. It was sudden and huge in scale for me and everyone I was still surrounded by. It felt extreme in every sense of the word. In order to survive I was really thrashing myself against limits. The limits of what I could stand. Exploring deeper things, kink with partners. And you know, exploring more body modification things, techniques on stage. I mean, I was depressed for two years. And previous to that I didn’t know, I didn’t have tools to survive something like that in a healthy manner.
It makes me think of the staples. Just pushing yourself to the limits but also bringing two edges together as a kind of healing gesture. Even if it is not something that ultimately fixes anything or disappears the wound as though it never happened. But it does make me think of writing as a kind of like a medical staple or something . . .
Writing was the through line of living for that moment. I had a residency (ELEVATE) that January (2017) in a decommissioned elevator in a warehouse of art studios. In this decommissioned elevator that didn’t go up and down any more. I would bike myself to the elevator every day and sit there. Sometimes I’d write, but sometimes I’d just sit there. It felt important to have a place to go.
I’m thinking about that David Wojnarowicz line: “I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying my rage like a blood-filled egg.” And just the relationship between rage and grief and queerness and nationalism and colonization. Who were you in that elevator with?
What books did I have with me?
Yeah. What books? I’m also curious about the desire to go to extremes, to bodily extremes. Do you get that feeling too when you are reading other writing?
I had volume three of Bædan, the journal of queer nihilism that put out three or four issues. I had Terrorist Assemblages by Jasbir Puar. When I was on Sister Spit tour, I had The Right To Maim, also by Jasbir. I’m trying to remember.
Were there people that you weren’t currently reading but were kind of there with you?
I really love Juliana Spahr’s book That Winter the Wolves Came. It has two different long sequences about protest and collectivity. They’re both really complicated. They’re not the typical call to action, like let’s hit the streets. They hold a lot of layers of social and political complexity in them.
As I was reading Villainy, especially “Temporary/Autonomous/Desire,” your San Francisco Pride poems, I was thinking about your outfit at The Poetry Project New Year’s marathon reading in 2019, everyone packed into the St. Marks Church when we could all be packed in together. You were wearing your bright red leather trench. There is something about attention to the aesthetic in reading that I don’t think is necessarily where every poet goes.
I’m into spiky fashion and queer leather and outrageous looks and every so often an element of club kid. But different. I see queer fashion and the role it plays for me as one of adornment and resilience. Leather is another layer of skin, very protective. And spikes are a deterrent. So it’s a kind of armor.
I like thinking about fashion as protective, as opaque and reflective. Like you can’t get in here unless I let you. It’s a kind of mirror ball.
Yeah and you know there is all that stuff about dazzle makeup and having reflective and asymmetrical makeup as being a mode of resistance, like not being able to be picked up by surveillance and facial recognition. Being shiny and glittery as an act of resistance to the surveillance state.
There is something aesthetic about your writing in that same way. I’ve heard you talk about your poetry through the lens of punk . . .
What you said about bringing out the aesthetics to amplify the text. The visceral acts of performance including the look is all about amplifying the text but not obscuring it.
That makes sense. And the kind of nihilistic apocalyptic deeply pleasurable urgency gets brought out through the performance as well . . .
For the piece “HOLD MY HAND,” which is in nine short parts, I wanted to do something different from the stapling. I felt compelled to transform that piece into performance in part because David Wojnarowicz has a lot of performative works. I was really drawn to the red sutures that he did to close his mouth around censorship during the AIDS crisis. I was very drawn to that image.
Red comes up a lot in Villainy in the Mendieta pieces and the Wojnarowicz pieces. I was formulating a way to incorporate red something, red wire, red yarn, red string. And I wanted to do something about hands. Originally I planned to get red suture to sew my fingers together, with one final stitch above my heart, and then moving my fingers along the suture. I talked to some friends who are medical professionals and they were like “please do not do that.”
Thank god for friends.
There is also a really fun thing that happens when I try to conceive of a performance and unexpected things happen in the search for materials. It’s the day of the show and you are missing something that originally you imagined and you have to adapt and do something else. I didn’t do something with literal sutures, but I was thinking about piercing needles, needles that are used in kink piercing play, and how to incorporate those into the performance because there is an element of queer cruising and sex in both my work and Wojnarowicz’s work.
What I ended up doing was I pierced my fingers, all five of my fingers on my right hand and then I used a red wire, and I wired the needles together and then I moved my hand around. And while the piercing and the hand was happening I had a cassette recorder and a tape of my voice reading the poem and then also this guitar riff that I composed for the poem. I was kind of playing with this idea of queer anti-temporality and the experience of analog media.
I remember Eileen Myles saying something like, all of a sudden in the ‘80s people were into performance and so that was what poets did. We just performed. Are there other parts of Villainy that are going to be performed?
I made a performance video (EDGE SPACE 2021) of six minutes of Villainy last summer that was screened at the Brooklyn Art Book Fair. Video has not really been my medium but the constraints of the pandemic left me with no choice. I worked on a performance video that involved a lot of lube and a suture pad and kind of contorting the suture pad. And then cutting off the sutures. It was a practice suture pad; there was a line of sutures across two pieces of a suture pad that were separated and then I poured lube on it and I was playing it up, because some of the scenes are the sex scenes of Villainy. I cut the sutures off for the following scene about orders and disconnecting.
And the suture pad looks like a kind of swatch of flesh that you are playing with?
Yeah. I am kind of interested in doing a movie of Villainy.
Adapting it for a feature film?
There is this poet, Hala Alyan, who has been in a couple of short films that have been directed by Darine Hotait, and they are both Lebanese. Darine is a filmmaker and Halal is a poet. She writes the scripts and then they get made into films. They are incredible. I think that could be interesting. There are so many interesting characters in Villainy. They are not so much disembodied voices merging, but they are more characters with slippage between them.
I want to see that.
Katie Brewer Ball is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. They are currently working on a novel about arctic ice islands and teen theater queens in the 90s. Their writing has been published in Little Joe, Bomb Magazine, Dirty Looks, ASAP/Journal, Artforum, and by BOFFO and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Brewer Ball teaches Performance Studies at Wesleyan University.
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