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Interview with Sallie Fullerton

Sallie Fullerton is the recipient of a Fulbright Study/Research grant in Creative Writing, which has led them to develop their project in Montreal. It involves documentary poetry, focusing on the shifting lesbian scene in the city through the decades. They received an MFA Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2021. Their poems have been published in several online publications, including Frontier Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and Slanted House Collective.

It’s my third time meeting Sallie Fullerton. It’s my first time meeting them without anyone else there. Facing the Second Cup Coffee menu, I somewhat peer-pressure them into getting a dirty chai with me. We’re steps away form Concordia’s Loyola Campus, where we will head after the interview for the Feminist Media Studio open house. This is one of the several labs Fullerton is associated with during their stay in Montreal.

The interview starts with me learning something new. Apparently Stevia is natural, as opposed to the two Splenda packets I’ve ripped apart on top my latte, like a sacrifice. In a bit, Fullerton will tell me about how they work as a barista at times, and I will realize none of my choices in that coffeeshop so far must have been read as neutral. It’s hard to feel judged by Sallie Fullerton, due to a very considerate disposition, but it’s also easy to pick up on that fact that they could put that consideration to use and write a devastating poem. It’s intimidating in the way the poets you trust to be poets are.

I ask them if they’ve read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

SF: A teacher in high school gave me a copy. I never gave it back, I don’t know if I was supposed to. But I read it in high school and not since then… I think I was excited for reading something that felt really grown up, maybe. I don’t remember detailed impressions but I think I remember being excited by it, whether or not that’s because it was a gift, or because I felt, like, important that a teacher gave me something, or because it was the subject, I don’t know. But I do love Virginia Woolf, I found out later.

Turns out their favorite Woolf book is Mrs. Dalloway. We stray from the interview questions a bit, discussing Woolf as a whole. Namely, the toughness it can ask from its reader. Fullerton clarifies that they find Woolf brilliant, and the cult of personality intriguing, but a windy one-page sentence can be dense to get through, and actually get.

SF: I love the modernist writers but I assume it’s its own kind of weird rabbit hole you can go into, and you start reading Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf, and you do need to be feel strong enough to do it. You can’t like– it’s not casual. These books need a class or a professor behind them or someone to light the fire under you a bit.

It’s the second time Fullerton has brought up a teacher or a professor in our conversation, so I move up my question about mentorship.

SF: I lean heavily on it. Almost– to the point where I sometimes have trouble writing outside of writing community, or outside of an institution, outside of proximity to other writers or, like, being kind of seen. It’s unfortunate but I think that I do have trouble existing alone in writing, you know. In some ways that’s really good because it’s nice to have a communal writing project or practice, but it doesn’t feel like a real artist artist, the one that’s, like, alone in their head and kind of crazy and ripping their hair out, writing all night. I don’t have that. I think my mentors have been hugely important and the only reason I did this is, keep writing poetry I mean, is because of a string of one person to another that encouraged me to do it. If just at any point that string was broken, I don’t know that I would have.

We turn our attention to non-academic writing communities. Fullerton shares that even inside academia, when they taught creative writing, it seemed that students took those courses seeking a space that allowed them to step out of their scholarship and their lives, and into a more direct relationship with their writing and other people. I point out that even then at the end of the term there is a grade, and throughout, the idea of an instructor among the group is very much felt.

SF: I’m actually just remembering that that’s how I got into it. In college I wasn’t a creative writing major. I think I tried to be one and my thesis got rejected because I got a B in a class and also I was trying some crazy thesis that was like, I made a handmade book and they were not OK with it. So I wasn’t a creative writing major, I only took about two or three creative writing classes in all of undergrad, But I did meet with this group, I think was called Writers Block, and it was like student-run. You’d meet terribly hungover, it was like on a Sunday morning, so you know. And then you just kind of sit into a self-directed– we’d all just write together in a room and then share and that was that. Sometimes there were problems but sometimes it was totally just… we’re just all safe together writing, and then whoever wants to can say what they just wrote, and it was all different genres, it wasn’t genre-specific, and that was my writing practice. I don’t even know how I ended up there. I don’t think I even had friends that were doing it.

For a while we reflect on how nice it can be to share and not be workshopped, to have writing “just kind of be.” In a way, to not invite anyone to have the power of opinion over it. This, of course, leads us to power imbalances in writing communities.

SF: I’ve definitely been in workshops in grad school that I’ve felt like super weird in. There’s a professor that will go in with a set of things that they like and a very specific style of writing that works for them and then kind of put that onto the class… and they’re really bad at hiding their favorites, so you just end up feeling like you’re in a room full of people just trying to get this professor to say one nice thing. Everyone’s writing is shifting towards… this felt like something that would definitely homogenize an entire classroom, right, to all have the same voice and same style. And because you start to feel– I was one that he did not like, he definitely didn’t like my style. I remember kind of going insane thinking “how do I get him to like anything I like?” Not that I have to write for someone but at a certain point just feels brutal to go in all the time and have your stuff ripped apart, so I was like ‘OK so this one I’m really gonna try and have it not be ripped apart’ and then, not even kind of realizing it, I’m writing for one specific person in a style I don’t even really like…because I just didn’t want to leave crestfallen, I just wanted to feel good. That was a bummer.

We arrive to what I think of as the meat of the interview. I ask Sallie Fullerton if they have a room of their own.

SF: OK, I have tons of rooms for the first time. I’m living in my own apartment and it’s a big apartment; it’s got a front room, a little tiny bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and then you can go back through. It’s five rooms I can just move from, and of course I stay in one of the rooms all the time. I could keep moving around and theoretically each room is for a different state and then you can move through space in a way that structures your time, but that’s very… with wonderful poetry, you have a good desk room which is never where it’s gonna happen. The people I’m renting from thought ‘oh you’re coming here to study, you need a desk.’ I’m like, poetry is gonna happen in the windowless kitchen. The worst room of the bunch, really, is kind of where I’ve camped out to do all my stuff… I could be given this huge beautiful mansion and I will find the small, tiny airless closet that will feel good.

I simply have to ask why.

SF: I don’t know. I think it’s not very distracting. Maybe it’s cozy. I like being contained. My last place, I was sharing a very small apartment with my partner. I didn’t really have a room, I had a desk that just facing a wall in the corner of our living room and I wrote nothing there at all. Because it was too public. So I think you just kind of end up somewhere and then you can’t– it’s like when you sit in your seat on the first day of class, you know, and then you keep sitting there. I sat down in the kitchen and felt better and so I stayed there.

Fullerton’s current work has to do with a documentary poetry project centering on the lesbian social scene in Montreal. They state it being so community specific is somewhat unusual for them, often producing insular work. Using oral histories and archives, Fullerton’s research spans the last five or more decades. They describe it as a collage. From different passages and interview, they pick out parts to weave together into a narrative that evokes a more immediate sense of lived experience. They list ethical considerations on writing with many voices, such as fabrication or decontextualization. I hear them speak, and I’m struck by how much it reminds me of Sina Queyras’ objective with Writing Beyond The Room. I do my best to articulate this to Sallie Fullerton, and we have a “delightfully vague” aside about digging into the past and communicating about it as Frankenstein-like reconstruction. They bring up a good point about documentary poetry.

SF: It’s all constructed history…I think documentary poetry is interested in not pretending like this isn’t a construction. Even a photograph is framed. It’s not– you’re not in a total 360 degrees experience.

Which is something to think about, particularly when you write about encounters with people. We talk about bars next.

SF: They are really important historically, in the struggle to meet safely…I mean, a lot of organizing happened in bars… It’s very linked to any of the political and social projects of lesbian, in this case, or queer community, especially at the time I’m mostly writing about. The 70s or 80s but even I think, now. Bars are usually first adopted as the main space because it’s easy to run them in a looser way, and people can make a community space. Really, you can kind of fill in whatever you want after “bar”, but it makes it a little more fun.

Fullerton informs me of the devastating news that there are no official lesbian bars in Montreal. Their project’s importance seems to have an amplified magnitude.

SF: I think there’s a lot of work being done with lesbian bars right now, in gay bars, for that reason, because they’re disappearing across North America. This is not a Montreal specific turn. Almost every city gets a rapid decline in gated spaces and I think that there’s a really good bunch of reasons, not all of them even bad, but still I think it’s important to try and keep something tapped in of what– of what allowed this kind of more loosely affiliated queer socializing that we see now, that’s like pop-ups and all these things that are maybe less constructed… It was just that one room and now we have a way of life that flows a little more freely and sometimes that’s frustrating, too. You really do want that room, you really wanna go back into, you know, that dark little kitchen. But in another way it’s nice to be able to walk outside.

Eventually, I have to ask the poet how they make a living.

SF: Money helps, definitely, because I need to live. Usually the way I’ve supported myself it’s been either being a part of institution; my MFA was funded so I didn’t have to pay for it, and they paid me and I’d be teaching during that time. Or the year after that I continue teaching or I’m a barista. It’s either– I want a job that’s totally linked to poetry, very involved in my own practice, or something that has nothing to do with it. You can totally leave it at the door, it will not impede on my thoughts too much working as a barista, as opposed to working in a nonprofit, like a desk job nine-to-five…Right now I’m on a full break. Fulbright is this U,S. government grant. They support you for nine months while you do your research and they’re really very hands off about it. So no one’s really watching me. They don’t give you a ton of money and they they give the same amount of money to wherever you go, so it doesn’t go as far in Canada as it might somewhere else. It’s livable and I’ve been able to live alone here, which is… I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. Probably not. Anyway. I think that’s been kind of huge, getting supported in a way that I get to live alone and not be constantly working…when I do work I like when it’s something that’s pretty separate from writing unless it’s teaching. I like teaching because that feels like yours, it helps rather than hinders. Expands on things. Best of all is to be on the ground. The one downside of a grant like this is I can’t work. I don’t have a work permit, only for this specific thing. So I usually would prefer to have some kind of other thing to be occupied, ideally just a few days a week at a coffee shop, but I can’t. There’s nowhere to turn besides your research and your writing… I think I just contradicted myself saying the best of all is not to work but really it’s– there’s a certain point when free time becomes a problem.

The rest of our conversation is political. We start on the topic of how all writing is.

SF: Writing is communication. Writing is needed to disseminate information that you communicate across large numbers, so in that way it’s one of the most basic possible means of organizing… I also think that we talk about documentary poetry, that genre, as fundamentally an activist political genre. It’s intended to elevate or draw attention to often marginalized voices, so in that way writing allows you to take information and get it around and that feels very political and intentional… I mean, obviously there’s some poetry that’s more overtly political or activist-based. Especially the trend of the most popular approach books right now are taking, that focus on a particular issue or are made with some important, deeper message in mind. It always is, but there it’s coming closer and closer to the surface. It feels like that it would have been maybe like– you know Sylvia Plath, you have to dig a little bit…

Sallie Fullerton has two more of my existential questions to untangle. When I ask them if they think they have intellectual freedom, they pause for a while, which I appreciate.

SF: I immediately wanted to say ‘of course’ but then that feels like a question you have to think about. I think when I was proposing this project I felt limited in how I had to set it up because it is a U.S. state department funded program. So, I mean, talk about writing as political. It’s like a diplomacy project that they’re trying to further their political agenda in different countries in certain ways or at least signal that they’re interested in certain things, or I don’t know, but I did feel a little bit trapped trying to figure out a way to describe this project that would appeal to the U.S. state department. Which is a position I never want to be in again… I felt, like, dirty. That didn’t feel very free. Now that I’m here and they’ve stopped looking, I do. We’ll see in nine months when they pop their heads back in…My partner is doing this project on censorship and writing in Romania, so I’m hearing a lot about dictator censorship. Comparatively, very free. I don’t know. Do you feel that way?

Even though the whole interview has felt like a conversation, this moment sticks out to me as the prime example of it. I disclose my thoughts on my own intellectual freedom. Mainly, about how I’m not particularly interested in writing things that are easy to swallow, so I don’t, perhaps to my detriment. Fullerton sympathizes, sharing how it felt to write overtly queer poetry in workshops.

SF: I think I do best when I can work with other queer authors or queer readers. I would write these things and either people would think it was so crazy and zany or gross… to be fair I did use intense, visceral language… or they would just be so totally lost. It was like mind-boggling to me, like ‘wow, no one no one picked up on that’. So I wasn’t told I couldn’t write about these things, but sometimes it was that kind of thing…You’re just looking for your readers. I remember a professor saying that the real purpose of this program is to find one or two people that you like and you respect and who are aligned with your work, and then have lifelong readers. One or two people that the rest of your life you can send work to and get feedback from, and that makes sense to me. Honest review for grad school. I think I got even more than one or two, so I was lucky.

On the topic of queerness and gender, I throw my final question at Sallie Fullerton. Are we in a post-patriarchal literary landscape?

SF: Jeez Louise.

PO’F: I know, I’m sorry.

SF: I think we’re still in a pretty decently gendered literary landscape. I see it most clearly marked in book reviews, in the kind of coded language which can feel at times dismissive. Like calling certain writers like ‘overly confessional,’ you know, the classic critique of the confessional female poet, is still around I think. Now we just say it’s ‘too Tumblr’ or something like that. Maybe that’s what they mean. It’s the same as people critiquing Sylvia Plath for writing about her internal landscape, maybe a little more heavily coated. You have to like dig a little bit more but I think it’s still there, just dismissing certain writing as less important, using a subscript of words that feel gendered and sad.

Our dirty chais long gone, five minutes after 1 PM, Sallie Fullerton and I stand up, and head to the Feminist Media Studio, where we drink even coffee and talk some more about rooms, books, community, and quite importantly, approaches.

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