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Chelsea girl
Spoken-word-performer-turned-writer Michelle Tea spins tales of poverty and sexual outlawry based on the wild ride of her past. Sometimes, what looks ‘transgressive’ is just plain necessary.

When the San Francisco Chronicle published an interstellar map of the city’s literary universe last year, charting the various genres and subgenres of the region’s writing luminaries and placing postmodern boy-genius Dave Eggers at the center of the cosmos, there was one notable omission: a writer and Chelsea native named Michelle Tea.

Michelle Tea is an underground storyteller, spoken-word performer, femme dyke, cross-country-tour booker, and literary curator. She is 33. She has a wide grin, feline features, and heart tattoos — small red ones with black outlines above her knuckles, and a crimson, anatomically correct one complete with exposed ventricles drawn above her own. She writes about the people in her life, but changes their names. She writes about herself, but isn’t a diva. She writes about astrology, but isn’t an astrologer. She writes about prostitution, but isn’t a whore — anymore.

A streetwise sylph with ink-stained arms and trademark cat-eye specs, Tea first made a name for herself back in the mid ’90s, unleashing her stream-of-consciousness anecdotes and imagistic poems at San Francisco’s open-mike nights, then co-founding the all-girl spoken-word night and subsequent road show Sister Spit. But Tea is best known for her triptych of memoirs — The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (Semiotexte, 1998), Valencia (Seal Press, 2000), and The Chelsea Whistle (Seal Press, 2002) — three semiautobiographical works that together paint a portrait of a young, blue-collar girl marooned in a dumpy Boston suburb, hanging with social outcasts while discovering she likes girls better than boys, and settling in the boozy girlfriend-swapping queer scene of San Francisco’s Mission District.

Since the success of her memoirs has afforded her more writing opportunities, Tea’s become something of a dyke princess among the small presses. She just finished hopscotching around the Northeast to promote three completed projects: The Beautiful (Manic D Press), an unexpurgated compilation of the poetry chapbooks she first read at open-mike nights in the early ’90s; Without a Net (Seal Press), a collection of essays she edited about being poor, written by working-class women; and Pills, Chills, Thrills, and Heartache: Adventures in the First Person (Alyson Publications), a frenetic anthology of 37 speedball discourses she co-edited with friend Clint Catalyst. This summer, even more of her projects will see print, including Rent Girl (Last Gasp of San Francisco), a graphic novel illustrated by artist Laurenn McCubbin about the several years Tea spent working in the sex industry; and a selection in Bottoms Up: Writing About Sex (Soft Skull).

Tea has written extensively about sex, often lesbian and sometimes paid, which consequently gets her work labeled "transgressive." As friend and fellow "transgressive" writer J.T. LeRoy explains, "If you say ‘fuck’ when it’s actually not a swear word, but describing an act between two people, it’s ‘transgressive’ in the mainstream world." Tea also writes about drinking, stealing, traveling, and being broke — which is probably why the word "bohemia" also turns up in descriptions of her work. "I don’t know what bohemia is," she laughs. "I’ve just been poor!"

Tea’s work has frequently been ghettoized in the gay-and-lesbian-studies section of bookstores, but her soft covers could just as easily fit in the biography or fiction sections — or, heck, next to the cash register. Why? Because her first-person stories, though graphic, are essentially concerned with universal themes. She writes as if "‘gay and lesbian’ and ‘transgressive’ are ways to describe things that happen in life," e-mails friend and poet Eileen Myles, to whom The Chelsea Whistle is dedicated. "I don’t think it would occur to Michelle that she needs to make that shit up. She’s in it. I don’t think for a moment she would describe her own world or world view as transgressive. The language in itself sets up a boundary that some little daredevil might bust. But Michelle is not a little daredevil. She’s one of the most level-headed people I know. That’s what’s so cool about her. She’s not outside of anything at all."

IF IT WEREN’T for the fateful toss of a coin, Michelle Tea could be nude in an arid Arizona desert right now, facing a canvas with red-berry paint under the unforgiving sun. Instead, she’s sitting at Central Square’s 1369 Coffee House in a cold and rainy city, sipping chamomile tea and fretting about the five-day forecast — more rain, clouds, even a snow flurry or two. This is the first day of her two-weeks-plus "The Beautiful Without a Pill" tour (a titular amalgamation of her recent projects), and she’s a little concerned about the wet weather — she has packed only open-toe shoes. She points under the table to the dark socks she’s tucked inside a pair of heels.

In 1993, Tea drove cross-country to Tucson to be with her irritable girlfriend, a firecracker dyke Tea calls "Liz" in Passionate Mistakes. The non-monogamous couple shacked up there while Tea supported them working as a prostitute — a lucrative gig with a one-day workweek, something both women had done in Boston. But when Tea returned to Arizona after a stint in Provincetown, Liz had a boyfriend. "She was trying to figure out how she could have both of us," Tea now says. "It was a real awakening to what a psycho she was."

Passionate Mistakes closes with Tea eating a fried-seaweed-and-mustard sandwich and learning about her lesbian lover’s beau. Looking back, she says, "I was in the throes of a lesbian-feminist nervous breakdown." She’d heard about "a lesbian separatist commune" outside Tucson and contemplated joining. The other option was San Francisco, a queer mecca with a romantic literary legacy where a long-time pal lived. So Tea tossed a coin. It chose San Francisco. "The coin," she says, "never lies."

True enough in Tea’s case, since the oracle served her well. So here she sits, in Cambridge, sticking her fork into a slice of apple pie and sipping chamomile tea. She’ll be reading round-robin style this evening with two other poets from The Beautiful, a compendium of old, unedited poems from DIY chapbooks that Tea literally had to dig out of the closet when Manic D Press offered to publish them. Tea has a huge following in the queer community — local gay newspaper Bay Windows called her "a queer household name" — and so The Beautiful isn’t so much a mastery of verse as it is the literary equivalent of excavating a rock band’s rough, unfinished demos. Sketches of her future stories are here, scribbled in rambling stanzas that eschew proper grammar for evocative images and wry, bitter observations. Tea wrote the title poem on the road with Sister Spit after navigating Middle America, which she refers to as "the belly of the beast."

... oh america i love you.

i just want to

go on a date with you

and you won’t even give me the time of day

stuck up bitch

think you’re too good for me america

i could have anyone

canada, london


Is in love with me

But it’s you i want,

america ...

fuck you


you’re just so emotionally unavailable

you act like

it’s everyone else’s

fault, you’re a really bad

communicator and you have

serious boundary issues.

i think you’re really fucked up


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Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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