Elisa Albert on Menstrual Cycles, the Music Industry, and the Myth of the Tortured Artist
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On the lure of the menstrual cycle:
EA: I think we all grow up marinating in this idea that if we talk about our periods or we inhabit them fully, then we’re putting ourselves at risk of not being able to play hardball in the world and be people as well. It’s really fraught. But as I’ve lived my life in this body, this menstruating body, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the cycle and wanting to understand it better, and understand myself better, and support myself. Working as a full-spectrum doula and everything I’ve been privy to in that realm, it was so obvious to me when Aviva first burst into my consciousness. This is someone who wants to be pregnant and it’s not happening easy, effortlessly. The menstrual cycle is everything. It has to be dominating. So I wrote the first chapter and I was like, fuck yeah.
On art versus commerce, in publishing and music:
EA: I’m obsessed with music, and it’s untouched for me in terms of industrial cynicism. If you’re around books and the book industry and writing for decades, you get a little cynical. I’m a voracious reader and I love what I love and I hold it dear, but it’s a little bit spoiled because you know how the sausage is made. Whereas with music I’m free to be a pure fan, to rock out and be happy and not be at all worried about the industry or the bullshit.
So it was fun to write about music and be super involved with music during the writing of the book, but sort of export some of what I know about the perversions of the publishing industry. I think all [creative] industries are essentially the same in the ways they’re messed up, in art versus commerce and the way a true artist is sometimes sidelined because they’re a little inconvenient… All industries are corrupt and suspect. If we were plumbers and we went to the plumber convention, I think we’d be having the same status and power struggles. Systems are the same. Power abuses are the same. The dynamic of exploitation is similar no matter where you drop down in life.
You have to be doing the work because you take pleasure and satisfaction in it. Not so you can elbow or claw your way to some perch or push someone out of the way or achieve some kind of plateau status where you’re unassailable. That doesn’t really map to plumbing, I guess. But if you take pride in your work and you’re good at it and the journey is the destination and it’s process over product and you’re lucky enough to make a semblance of a living at it, then all the rest is noise. That must be true in other creative careers.
On the myth of the “tortured” artist:
EA: I don’t think artists have to be tortured. That’s the other big theme of the book. To be a true genius you don’t have to die at age 27. How do you care for your gifts and share your gifts and engage with what you have to offer without self-destructing?
MK: The only other artist I’ve heard you talk about more than Ani di Franco is Amy Winehouse.
EA: And they’re so different. And they’re both so fundamental to my musical affinities.
MK: I hadn’t considered that Amy needed this costume to arm herself.
EA: I was obsessed. Something about her willingness to not give a fuck. And I needed that energy for this book somehow. Even though I don’t think it’s necessary for a great artist to self-destruct, I do think there’s something irreconcilable about being that pure and that raw and that genuine an artist who’s not interested in being anyone but yourself. Who’s not trying to cover it up or be someone else or ape something, to give the people what they want. What if people don’t like me? I don’t give a fuck if people like me. The work is more important, the integrity of the work is more important.
But it’s unsustainable. I think in life if we’re gonna survive we have to compromise. We have to sand down our roughest edges. We have to learn how to be okay, how to get along in the world and in your life and survive. And get to be a reasonably happy elder if you’re so lucky. I don’t think you can do that if you’re like “everything is fucking bullshit” all the time.
Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night Is Different, and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot. She lives with her family in upstate New York. Her latest novel is called Human Blues.