Gender Failure: In Depth With Rae Spoon & Ivan Coyote

Posted by Wayves volunteer 10/04/2013

By Bobbi Zahra, for Wayves.

Neither Rae Spoon nor Ivan Coyote is a stranger to Halifax (lucky us!), and in advance of their upcoming show, Gender Failure, at the Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen Street – a  neighbourhood known by many as an alternate cultural mecca:  New York City may have ‘off-Broadway,’ but Halifax has Gottingen and the neighbourhood around it, up to Agricola.  Do yourself a favour and find out what’s happening there in any given week – but I digress.

We are here today to have a few words with Spoon and Coyote, to whet your appetite for their April 20thappearance.  No thanks to their often frenetic travel and performance schedules, we didn’t get to sit down and do this over a beverage of some sort… but thanks, indeed, to the wonders of technology, because we did get to connect electronically and by phone!

Wayves:  Rae, thanks for taking the time for this, and let me be among the first to officially welcome you back to Halifax – you’re not quite here yet, but you’re getting closer, and we’re pretty happy about that.  Let’s jump right in to it – where are your favourite places to perform?

Rae Spoon: I’ve gotten friendly with a lot of places and really like playing in Europe – it’s a cool place to be a performer.  I live in MTL because I’ve always loved playing here.  In Halifax, the Bus Stop is a good size – you get more people out than we might expect in a venue that size.  GF is more literary and better suited to a smaller venue.  There seems to be a lot of support for live music in Halifax. 

I look at a bunch of criteria, but it’s really important for venues to be accessible. Accessibility more and more an issue in the queer community – groups in TO will boycott things that aren’t accessible.  If I am choosing the venue, I try to achieve this. (More after the jump ...)

W:  You started out singing country and have since added other genres to your repertoire.  Do you consider that any one genre is your musical home, or will you resist an innate audience urge to pigeonhole you?

RS: The base of it is songwriting – the last few songs could be recorded in a number of genres.  For me, it’s about my bringing my songwriting to a genre.  Singing and songwriting are my strengths, and the genre isn’t so important. My Prairie Home is more folky than country.

W:  Both your music and your writing have gotten the attention of awards programs, for which congratulations (Rae Spoon has released seven solo albums and three collaborative albums over the past ten years. They have toured extensively in Canada and internationally and have been nominated for The Polaris Music Prize, CBC Radio 3 Bucky Awards, and the Galaxy Rising Star Award).  Do you consider yourself first a performer or a writer? Do you get more pleasure from one than from the other?

RS:   For music, I wrote songs before I performed them – when I first wrote, I was very shy and hated performing.  I don’t really consider a song finished until I can play it for an audience and see how they think about it.

W:   How autobiographical is your music?  Or am I reading something into some song titles that just isn’t there?  Besides “My Prairie Home,” for instance, which is very much about you, how much of you is reflected in earlier music, and how much is simply character-driven? 

RS:  My Prairie Home is of course autobiographical; but then, the music is all fairly autobiographical. The goal of the song, though, is to somehow reach people with room for their own story, their own interpretation.

W:  Ivan, since joining forces with Arsenal Pulp Press in 2000, you’ve released 9 books, covering genres from memoir to young adult to some pretty serious scholarly work with Zena Sherman. Every one of them has been nominated for, or has won a literary award. Then there’s the music – which we have yet to hear in Halifax, sadly. And of course, performances such as the Gender Failure collaboration and your own solo shows. When do you sleep?!

Ivan Coyote:  Finding a work and life balance is increasingly challenging. I say no a lot more.  I create boundaries.  I don't take gigs where I am not paid a living wage, or that I don't feel will be well-organised or well-attended.  Even still, finding time to create and just live is a struggle some days. Every morning, I wake up to a full inbox, and there is no possible way I can do or be or answer or give every bit of advice I am asked for. Letting go of feeling like I have to or even can is a daily juggling game.

W:   And Rae, following up First Spring Grass Fire, which was a Lambda finalist in the Transgender Fiction category, you have this new collaboration with another literary star, in the just-published Gender Failure (which readers can pick up at Venus Envy in Halifax!) What works better for you – collaboration or working on your own?

RS:  My first book was written for the director of My Prairie Home.  I hadn’t planned to write a book and just wanted to tell her some stories.  I was actually trying to map out the film when I wrote that book.  With Gender Failure, we already had a performance that we thought might have something more.  I like doing both, and working with Ivan provides some unique stories.

W:   Rae, what authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

RS:   People suggest books to me – and now that I have a book, I have become friends with other writers, so I read pretty much anything, and take suggestions.  Miranda July has a book that has taught me that you really can write any way you want.  I liked the book but mostly I liked that you could write in your own voice.  There was room for my voice.

Q: Ivan – same questions.  Who do you like to read? What book(s) have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

IC:  I like a lot of Canadian authors. I like the sensibility, the pacing the sense of humour, it is familiar. Right now, I’ve just finished Joseph Boyden's new book The Orenda. Now reading Emma Donaghue's Frog Music... Lidia Yuknavitch, from Portland, OR – I love her book, The Chronology of Water. Jeannette Winterson. Dorothy Allison. The books of my peers and fellow road dogs and writer pals. Some poetry. Tom Spanbauer, pretty much anything he ever wrote. I am one of those writers who are influenced a little bit by every single thing I read, even directions in a manual. I soak it all up and then have a think on it, and it will pop up somewhere in my work, even subconsciously.

W:   Do you read your reviews? Do you respond to them, good or bad?

RS:   I sometimes read the reviews, but I’m not inclined to correct errors like someone thinking that I use autotune if I don’t.  You know when you make something that not everyone will like it.

W:  Rae, I know you’ve had speaking engagements at universities, including guest lectures and speeches.  Given those experiences, and engagements with GSA groups, is there perhaps a workshop in the making for high schools?  I’m thinking to when my daughter was part of her high school’s GSA, which was sometimes challenging but also affirming.  If you haven’t already got it waiting in the wings, would you hop on board if a school approached you?

RS:  There’s a music workshop with LGBTQ in Edmonton associated with the Gender Failure tour.  I’ve also done music workshops at the Youth Project in Halifax, and really, I do workshops & GSA conferences as I’m asked.  It’s important work – at my high school, we cobbled together a group of about 20 people, including those who were goths, who may have been technically straight, and who were doing GSA work.  People can contact me, and I’d be happy to do it. I try to fit it in when I can.

W:  You’re both clearly connected to the community in a deeper way than just tours to support your own current work.  Ivan, how did you develop the “One in Every Crowd” presentation? The idea is brilliant, and I cannot imagine an adolescent who wouldn’t benefit from it. How do you let schools know that this is even a possibility for them? What’s the best thing you can think of that’s happened from one of those presentations?

IC:   I started going into high schools about 15 years ago, just as an artist and storyteller. While doing those shows I realized the potential of art and writing in schools, so I wrote a show that was designed to get the youth thinking and talking about how they/we treat people who are different, in all of the ways that we can be, whether that be race or gender or gender identity or sexuality of class or ability. The show works, so often I think I get more bookings by word of mouth through teachers or school staff and of course, the kids themselves. The young adult book (also called One in Every Crowd) also helps get the word out about that show, and I also have a booking agent who helps me get it into schools.

W:  Ivan, you’ve been a writer-in-residence several times – what do you like about that? I’ve read in an essay you wrote a couple of years ago about the pleasure you seem to get in coaxing people’s stories from them. It’s almost as if you’re helping in a birthing process.

IC:  I like doing residencies because it gives me a solid length of time in a particular writing and academic community. I've done one in Ottawa, London, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. I like running into those writers years later and getting a chance to catch up on what they have done with their work, and how their writing has developed. Many of my former mentees have gone on to publish or do great things. I like bearing witness to that.

W:   What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?

RS:  I’m proud of My Prairie Home – it was a really big project, we worked on it for 5 years.  To see the film finished and to see the good reception has been very relieving to me.

W:   Ivan, what do you think is the best thing you’ve ever written? Have you published it? If not, why not?

IC:   I hope I haven't written the best thing I have ever written yet. I also think the true task of a good storyteller is to pick the perfect story for the perfect crowd at the right time on the right night, so in that way, I have no "best thing" I have ever written. There is the best thing for that reader or that audience member to read or hear at that given moment. I also don't rate my work, or think about it in that way. I have what I am excited to write about or perform, what I feel moved to think about or work on, and what I have performed or published. I always tweak stories when I do them live, even very old ones that were published years ago.

W:    Let’s talk details: How many hours a day to you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)? Do you write every single day? Any writing rituals? Ballpoint, uniball, fountain pen, computer…?

RS:    Songs come fairly easily to me.  When I’m at home, I do more songwriting – I have all my gear here. Most of my days lately are traveling and administration.  There is a lot of business stuff that has to be attended to.  I’m writing fairly constantly, including articles for various publications.  The film has been doing really well, and there’s been a great deal of attention recently – I control all the rights to my music, and Arsenal is very respectful of me.  I don’t think I’ll ever become “a pundit” or representative of the trans* generation, and I’m ok with that.  This is my story, and there’s room for other narratives.

This whole process is dependent in some ways on a publisher’s choice of editor … and songwriting can give me an immediate response that I don’t get from a book.  I can share parts of it with others, but until the whole is put together, it’s a process.

W:   You have a pretty punishing schedule ahead of you – it looks as if you’re finished the Gender Failure tour in just a couple of weeks, in Ottawa; but then you have  just a couple of weeks before you’re off to Europe.  Do you get much writing done on those trips, or is it just about the performance?  What’s up next for you?

RS:   I do get some writing done while traveling, and I even record while I travel.  I’ll record some horns, for instance – I work as I move.  I don’t write as many songs while I travel, but I seem to always be working on something… write new songs.  The funding process for making albums is really long… trying to figure out where the music is going, and the kind that I want to make next.  I’ve worked on 2 scores for film/tv since My Prairie Home came out and probably will do a bit more of that.

W:   Why should people go to see GF?

RS:    The likelihood of our being together in Atlantic Canada is rather low… we started to write a show about being trans*, but the more I thought about writing this, I realised that it’s made more complicated by gender identification.  Everyone has SOME sort of gender expectation that they sometimes feel they aren’t fulfilling.  There’s a storytelling/presentation element, but a visual element.  This isn’t a “queer” show, or a “trans” show, but a discussion about the gender binary for everyone.  People are more than welcome to bring their parents!

Editor's Note: Bobbi Zahra is mostly a theologian, always an ally, and a great appreciator of excellent writing.  She lives and works in Halifax, where she is often very outspoken but only rarely wreaks havoc. You can read her previously published Book Review of Gender Failure for Wayves here. 


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