Tim Jones-Yelvington on Queer Shame, Camp Emotion, Belonging, and Hope in Colton Behavioral Therapy
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Camille Rankine beautifully writes that you “interrogate the very notion of beauty, its construction within a white supremacist world, and the how the cages our culture has built of it can hold us captive within our own minds.” In Colton Behavioral Therapy, you’ve created a world of both always and never where these impossible, conflicting, and toxic societal standards of gender and identity are imposed, and at the very least, self-enforced. Do you think there is any way to exist within this system that doesn’t lead to alienation? At one point in the book, the narrator says he wants to die and questions whether or not “the culture” implanted his desire(s). Can you talk to us about how this essential question guides this work?
Tim Jones-Yelvington: In terms of this chapbook's exploration of the nexus between whiteness and queer shame, I think that the phrase "I want to die" is actually very revealing. When that phrase appears in the manuscript, I wasn't necessarily intending for it to be suicidal ideation (I've had the privilege of having never felt truly suicidal), but something that is more a kind-of queer performative histrionics, a very hyperbolic expression of my own shame and self-abjection within a certain mode of queer aesthetic excess. When I am fully aware of myself as a desiring body, I don't necessarily want to die so much as disappear, feel less visible and exposed. On the one hand, I think some queer people are attracted to that kind of camp emotion because all of the ish that we've been asked or forced to sublimate leaves us with all this roiling desire/shame/rage that we've transformed into theater. Which is a tradition that I love and embrace. But on the other hand, how real is the threat to me as a white cisgay? If I am exaggerating harm, isn't that definitional white fragility? My favorite figurative image in this chapbook is porcelain, because of its many interlocking and seemingly contradictory meanings. Our culture has turned "porcelain" into an adjective that means something extremely delicate and fragile, when in fact "porcelain" the noun refers to a substance that is one of the most durable ceramics. This seemed to resonate with how I understand whiteness and hegemomically masculine white beauty ideals—whiteness either projects its durability while becoming fragile when called out, or else centers its fragility to keep its power structures durable—in addition to serving as a descriptor of the texture of Colton Haynes' face in high gloss modeling photos. I wanted to create a space to talk about the simultaneity and interconnectedness of social anxiety, queer shame and white privilege and fragility within my lived experience, without centering white hand-wringing in that too-familiar, space-taking way that does little to contribute to collective liberation. I also wanted to find some space to empathize with Colton Haynes, who is himself gay and an anxiety sufferer, while still questioning the fuck out of him and the shame/desire his images evoke in me.
SM: In some ways I read this book as a warning of what happens when our criticism comes up against our desire. There is the lonely, othered isolation of “everybody but me belongs,” which makes me wonder if anyone is capable of ever really belonging? You write: “Lately I’ve been thinking about the privilege to transgress without consequence. How our white-authored queer abjection is enabled by abjection’s association with blackness. Identities/communities our work makes invisible.” What role do you think social media plays in this manuscript and in the larger communal landscape of privilege? Does the access it provides outweigh the destructiveness of everyone always looking and always watching?
TJ: Is anyone capable of ever belonging? I work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors where there is currently a lot of fad-ish talk about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), much of which is bullshit but a sliver of which is meaningful. And one of the ascendant terms or concepts in that space is this idea of “racial belonging,” which I believe comes from John Powell who runs the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. It’s an attempt to address the insufficiency of “inclusion” that is tokenistic or that forces various peoples or color to assimilate in ways that are traumatic. I am a little bit suspicious, not of John Powell’s research or of the concept of belonging, which is definitely richer and more meaningful than “inclusion,” but rather of some of the institutions taking up “belonging” as their new DEI framework, because it seems like they are probably using it as yet another way to avoid dismantling unearned power, and that what actually needs to happen is that the white supremacist structures that they are trying to diversify probably just need to get burnt the fuck down. Where was I going with that? There is probably some French theoretical perspective on the impossibility of belonging and our fundamental condition as one of alienation, and that is probably appealing to a lot of poets because POETS, but that is less interesting to me than rethinking and embracing a concept of belonging that maybe embraces its own seeming impossibility. I care deeply about community building, however constrictive or exclusionary most communities seem to be at constant risk of becoming, resistance communities included, and would like to think that we have an invitation to participate in and forge belonging as an ongoing, shared process rather than an endpoint. Collective visioning, action, reflection, etc., are very difficult work but can be fulfilling.
In terms of social media specifically, I definitely do still think it has been able to facilitate pathways to community and resistance that wouldn't have been possible otherwise, and yet there are also a lot of problems in terms of violence (targeting, doxxing, bots and trolls, etc.), performatively woke allyship that is disconnected from contribution to offline struggle, corporate cooptation and surveillance, etc., but I think I still come down on the side of it being a tool, and that we need to find ways to utilize it that reduce its harm. When it comes to one of the other topics in this chapbook, though—anxiety and social anxiety, I have begun to believe that social media's impact may be more wholly, categorically negative, and I'm not entirely sure what to do about that except to try to consciously contribute to "IRL" communities.
SM: The power dynamics of shame and imposter syndrome and basic survival are constantly present throughout this book. The narrator struggles because they “don’t know you anymore,” which made me wonder if we are truly capable of knowing anyone in the way this narrator desires to know Colton? So much of this narrative takes place in the mind and is an act of thinking rather than doing. The speaker is constantly searching for evidence. Do you believe that there is an intersection at which reality/facts and belief/feelings can meet and co-exist? Can the “I” ever reach that place?
TJ: Thinking about this question, I keep getting hitched up on the phrase, "the way this narrator desires to know Colton" because I am wondering, "Does he?" He wants to meet him, become him, touch him, become liberated from desiring him, yes, but does he (or rather, do I) want to truly know him? I don't think so. I would not anticipate that I share enough values with Colton Haynes to want to be friends with him, for instance. But maybe those tensions are related to your question. There are only one or two "Coltons" in this chapbook that are actually Colton. The majority of the situations described in the text, which are all adapted from my own, real life Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worksheets, are about other relationships that I felt anxious about: Random people at my gym, a waiter at a restaurant, my favorite author Derek McCormack, the poet Christopher/Loma Soto, my mother, my partner, our daughter and her two moms. "Don't know you anymore," for instance, actually refers to anxiety about interacting with my longtime, childhood best friend. By filtering these relationships through the specter of Colton, I've attempted to give them greater resonance through shared culture and myth, and I think this also invokes the specter of mass media to address how anxiety and shame mediate my relationships and are barriers to intimacy. I'm not sure whether this answers your question, but it feels related.
SM: I am so impressed with and drawn to the last several pages of the manuscript where the language is so sparse and weighted and gut-wrenching. Can you talk to us about the shift in form throughout your work and what you hope the reader walks away with?
TJ: This was one of the most exciting questions for me because I love to talk about form and its relationship to queerness and politics. Pretty much from the moment that my therapist handed me Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worksheets, I knew that I was going to want to appropriate them for a writing project... which, I'm not sure what says about me. I feel like my best work usually comes from rubbing a few seemingly disparate elements up against one another in order to create a space that is frictive and generative. I think that one of the things that formal play or innovation can accomplish, particularly texts that are self-conscious about themselves as texts, is to connect the personal/individual with the shared—communal, cultural, historical, political, theoretical, spiritual/cosmological, etc.—in a way that I think actually enables a different kind of truthfulness than personal experience alone, and that also engages and implicates the reader and their own experiences. So for this chapbook, it felt like a very strange but fertile triad to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worksheets as the form (a clinical instrument associated with the violence of the psychotherapy establishment that I nonetheless found really personally helpful and transformative), Colton as the engine (the mythic pseudopoetry of "beauty" in pop culture), and my personal anxiety confessions as the content.
The final section that apparently wrenched your gut (lol) was intended to evoke hope. Ending in a place of shame and abjection didn't feel like enough overall shape or movement to me, especially with my embedded critique of the relationship between the long tradition of queer abjection lit and whiteness. But I also didn't want an unearned redemption or overdetermined, conservative, controlling type of hope, but rather some promise that evokes more fundamental mysteries beyond what is immediately available and knowable to us. For that reason, most of the imagery in that closing section invokes art and queer fantasies of becoming. And actually, some of these are taken from the most appealing, pre-fame anecdotes from Colton's childhood, like running naked through the corn. Or the line about kissing your shadow, which has since been installed, along with lines from a number of other queer poets, on the artist Sarah E Brook's sculpture "Viewfinding," and which I realize now was inspired by Colton's favorite literary quote from the writer Ben Loory, which he included during one of his "coming out" interviews in Entertainment Weekly: "Once there was a man who was afraid of his shadow. Then he met it. Now he glows in the dark."
I have been reading Adrienne Maree Brown lately, and her writing and framework derived from Octavia Butler have me thinking about our calling to use the tools of our artmaking to render visions of collective liberation that we co-imagine, but that are at the same time beyond our capacity to imagine, especially to the constrictive evaluative expectations of structures like the nonprofit industrial complex, academia, or big 5 publishing.
SM: What are you working on now and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
TJ: I've been in a little bit of an in-between space for nearly two years that is the result of some personal challenges (primarily with family), acquiring a new puppy, and accelerated responsibilities in my paid work. In 2018, I hiked the Des Plaines River Trail, which runs for a little over 56 miles through Forest Preserves in the west and far northwest suburbs/exurbs of Chicago, ending at the Wisconsin border. I have some initial scattered bits of poems informed by this experience, which I hope to use to forge a historically and politically situated and embodied approach to queer eco-poetics that explores my love for hiking as a queer inheritor of a settler colonialist State. Colton Behavioral Therapy was really a transformative turning point for my work in terms of unlocking new pathways for writing toward vulnerability, embodiment and accountability for whiteness. These are practices I hope to continue in future work.
Colton Behavioral Therapy, winner of the 2017 Gazing Grain contest judged by Camille Rankine, is now available for order: HERE
Tim Jones-Yelvington is a Chicago-based writer, multimedia performance artist, and nightlife personality. His multi-genre novel Strike a Prose: Memoirs of a Lit Diva Extraordinaire, available from co•im•press, was a finalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction contest and the Noemi Press Book Prize, and runner up for the 1913 Prize for First Books. He is the author of two short fiction chapbooks—Evan's House and the Other Boys Who Live There (in They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, Rose Metal Press) and Daniel, Damned (Solar Luxuriance Press), and one full-length fiction collection, This is a Dance Movie! (Tiny Hardcore Press, selected by Roxane Gay). His debut poetry chapbook, Become On Yr Face, was winner of the 2016 DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press chapbook contest, and its followup, Colton Behavioral Therapy, winner of the 2017 Gazing Grain contest, judged by Camille Rankine. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Puerto Del Sol, Harpur Palate, and others. From 2010-12, he guest edited [PANK]'s annual queer issue.