This isn’t a lesbian club, the bald-headed bouncer spat before tossing us onto the icy Montreal street. The details before and after are hazy. I may have fallen for a stripper named Star who led me across the lit-up tiles of Super Sex toward a velvet-roped alcove. I probably whispered, “It’s finally happening!” like a pubescent boy about to get his first hand job. I don’t remember how my wet-dream-come-to-life was intercepted by this thick-necked Canadian in a leather jacket, or how the drunken argument ended with me stabbing a half-smoked Camel into his chest. What I remember is the moment I screamed, “I deserve to have a lap dance!” and his sneer as lesbian crumpled on the slick of his tongue.
When my editor at Third Man Books called last month to discuss updates about my book, I felt a similar tingling of giddiness as when I had followed Star into the astral guts of the club over ten years ago. This is really happening. My book is going to press. I had written it though my pregnancy, through morning sickness, through the bleary first months of motherhood. It was deeply personal in a way I hadn’t allowed myself to experiment with before, in its narrative and making. And while the book isn’t explicitly about motherhood, (it addresses many themes around sexuality, including pornography) it felt connected to its energy of creation and transformation.
“They’re not going to print it,” my editor began to explain, a weariness in his voice.
Every time I tell the strip club story, I notice how much pleasure I take in describing the details: how after being physically removed from the premises, I rose from the cobblestones like a WWF face-turned-heel and rushed the bouncer, burning cigarette in hand. I especially like to describe the neon sputter of the cherry as it sparked into his shoulder. There’s a sense of power in owning the details and repositioning myself as the hero (I’m well aware that feeling entitled to a lap dance is far from heroic, and that my self-defined role as protagonist relies on the women who were working and making a living in this space, who I have relegated to the background of this story). But I’m beginning to suspect that my motives in compulsive retelling might be more complex. Or rather, I question how it can be empowering to relive a story in which I literally fight to be in a space that doesn’t want me.
Lithographics, a Nashville-based printing company, refused to print my book because they found the content to be inconsistent with their values. More specifically, an employee “googled” the title of my book, linked it to the porn star, and refused to take part in printing it. Other workers jumped on board until a sales representative, fearing that his client, Lifeway, the Amazon of Christian paraphernalia, might take issue, convinced management to pull-out. It left us with a minor mess on our hands and in search of plan B. We had worked with the printer for months, having chosen them because they were both local and had the equipment necessary to make the elaborate cover, complete with tear-out features and fancy French flaps. But I wasn’t disappointed because it meant starting over with a new design, or that it might push back the publication date. I was disappointed because yet again I was being pushed out of a space that I had been misled to believe I had access to, the reasons given kept purposefully vague.
As much as I’ve returned to that night at Super Sex, I still feel confused about whether or not I truly ‘deserved’ to get that lap dance (aside from the problematic fall-out in which I am clearly in the wrong.) My friend and I, in our naïve view, had signed the invisible contract: we paid the cover; we tipped generously for the watered-down vodka cranberries and pushed our sweaty ones across the stage toward tired-looking dancers. We were annoying but we were rookies. And being a rookie (and sheltered by varying degrees of privilege), I hadn’t yet encountered the kind of misogyny that thrives in spaces where moral ambiguity benefits whoever happens to be in charge. The kind that feeds into the tape loop: You should have seen it coming. You were asking for trouble. You were a fool to expect anything different.
This ambiguity is what I want to write about. The most pernicious encounters with sexism or misogyny in the literary world tend to be cloaked by a sticky haze: the MFA program that gives special third-year fellowships to the only male students in the cohort, one of whom is so obviously under-qualified that it is later explained that he needs the extra support. Or the writer’s conference where a male poet’s sonnet about snow is praised for its formalism while a woman’s poem dealing with sexuality is scrutinized for its content. In both cases, explicit acts of sexism and misogyny can be transmuted under the lack of transparency into justifiable acts; the MFA program has no written or verbalized criteria for their fellowship and the conference instructor, when confronted, can say that the woman’s poem offends his aesthetics.
There was no statement in Lithographics’ agreement with Third Man that restricted content, just as there was no sign in Super Sex’s champagne room that prohibited women from receiving lap dances. But as my editor reminded me, there is a thing called Right of Refusal, such as when a bartender denies your drunken ass that sixteenth shot of tequila. Lithographics is protected by this, allowing them to deny any project that does not comply with their morals, no matter how elusive or malleable. And of course I can understand this logic. (At Super Sex, for all I know, Star could have privately asked the bouncer to step in). However, what remains unsettling, aside from the fact that they agreed to work with Third Man knowing the title (and the irony that Ron Jeremy is a religious conservative himself), is that their defense and vague definition of morality leaves me to speculate about the true reasons.
My book is a feminist book. It has poems about past lovers; about being bisexual. It is also a book that seeks to upset misogynistic representations of women and could be even described as feminist erotica. So on a personal level, the refusal can’t help but feel connected to old-school sexism and homophobia. It reminds me that the place I have called home for six years is as firmly set in the Bible Belt as a confederate flag buckle at Kid Rock’s waist. It also feels like a misbranding and misrepresentation; my book is neither pro- nor anti- pornography. Rather, it uses pornography as a starting point to talk about sexuality, agency, and identity; the poems about pornography set adjacent to poems about motherhood, coming of age, and politics.
Morality and exclusion have always kept close quarters. This year a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed in Tennessee, including a law that allows therapists to refuse clients based on their sexuality. It is disturbing at every level to see laws passed whose only purpose is to bully and disenfranchise, all under the hazy language of moral righteousness. Nashville, the more progressive city that it is, couldn’t be further from this culture. However, I think it should be concerning that one of the few printers in Nashville has made a point of excluding work that conflicts with its unwritten doctrine—or rather, the doctrine of its employees. I don’t ever expect or hope to be accepted with open arms by these industries (in fact, I would start to question myself if a company whose very name connotes pro-life propaganda embraced my work). But when a business operates publicly and has the right to define what is printable and what is not, I believe there should be a more defined level of accountability and transparency.
Years later, I still haven’t had a lap dance and it feels almost integral to my identity that I both keep trying and that most importantly, my desire is never gratified. In this way, I recognize that resistance is inevitable and also necessary to the work. It forces us to name what we want and to create it for ourselves. However, now I prefer to seek out literary spaces that create the kind of community I’d want to be part of, rather than scrambling to storm my way into the club. I’m lucky to work with presses like Saturnalia and Third Man Books (Jack White has recently been in the news speaking on behalf of equal pay). I’m grateful for places like VIDA that keep the literary world accountable and transparent.
And yet, sometimes I want it to be easy. Sometimes I wish my work could be read on its own terms without the lens of gender or sexuality. Sometimes a person just wants a goddamned lap dance. But it was never meant to be easy. This is why we do what we do. This is why I will send my book into the world swinging both fists, ready to throw down or rise up, dancing wherever it’s welcomed in.
KENDRA DECOLO is the author of My Dinner with Ron Jeremy, published by Third Man Books in August 2016, and Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and named “Favorite Nashville Poetry Book of 2014” by the Nashville Scene. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Third Man Books’ Language Lessons Vol. I, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Millay Colony, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is book editor at Muzzle Magazine and guest teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.