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Cunt, cunt, cunt: an interview with Laura Theobald and Mikaela Grantham photo

Tuesday, November 12th, I read at the Disorder Reading salon in a hotel bar in New Orleans. Disorder Press had held their readings at this venue for six to nine months without incident. Apparently, however, the month before, a writer, Laura Theobald, author of a Disorder Press poetry collection – KOKOMO – had greatly offended the straight, white male bartenders at this bar with her use of the word ‘cunt’ in her poems. (It should be noted, they were not offended when another poet, Big Bruiser Dope Boy – white, male, gay – read a poem - a poem i took for Hobart - about being paid by an older man to come into a sock so the older man could smell it; in fact, one of the bartenders complimented the reading, saying how amazing it was.) (It should be noted, also, the bartenders at the hotel bar may somewhat be taking a fall for the hotel owner, who instructed one of them to call the Disorder Reading series coordinator, Mikaela Grantham, and instruct her to vet her readers in the future – ostensibly, for the word cunt?) (Also, the bartender said Laura said the word cunt twenty times. She said it nine. But who’s counting?) (Also, remember when Madonna was on Letterman and someone counted how many times she said the word “fuck”? answer: 14. This was in 1994. When people in the culture thought it relevant to count the number of times a woman says fuck. Much changed? Nah.)

As it turned out, Tuesday, November 12th, was the final night Disorder Press would hold their reading series in this hotel bar. Mikaela and her brother, Joey Grantham – co-editor of Disorder Press – read a statement about why this would be the final reading at the hotel bar at the close of the reading. Then I read some poems authored by Charles Bukowski containing the word cunt in them, which seemed fitting since the hotel has a mural depicting Charles Bukowski on its third floor and had previously, recently, hosted a night they called “Booze, Broads and Bukowski.” (I shit you not.)

I asked both Laura Theobald and Mikaela Grantham to talk to me today about what happened, about the word cunt, about freedom of speech and censorship and how women are (often) treated differently (still) than men (often by men, but also by women), meaning: with a lack of respect, as artists and writers and, well, human beings worthy of respect.

Here, also, are some of Laura’s other, non-cunt poems from KOKOMO:

I dreamt about slapping your face again
when I woke up
you were rummaging through my purse for drugs

what are we gonna do about the cops
(let’s kill them)

there is nothing going on
on the internet
people feel the urge to say shitty things to me
and I supposedly love it

I saw you sitting
on the floor drunk
and I just thought
fight or fuck


e.e.: Mik, the hotel bartender (in his call to you at 8:30 am the morning before the reading) told you 'this isn't your feminist hangout.' when he called you on the phone to lecture you. can you imagine if after big bruiser dope boy's reading he had said, "this isn't your LGBTQ hang out." ??? talk about 'offensive.' shit.

Mik: correct. the bartender stated that "this isn't your feminist hangout" after i told him i wasn't going to censor any of the readers. he also stated that he is not a feminist and that all the bartenders are primarily white men..to which i responded: a feminist can be anyone. not just a woman. i think i am more bothered by him saying "i'm not a feminist and all the bartenders here are primarily white men" than him telling me that this reading series isn't my feminist hang out. to me, what he is really saying with this is: you need to curate a reading series where the white men in this bar feel comfortable. 

e.e.: i was thinking about how money came into play in all of this, that because the hotel gave money to you (for the readers) and comped each reader two nights at the hotel, it then, i think, gave the owner the feeling he could dictate rules and sort of ... control you and the readings. nothing is ever free! it was great to get paid to read but i'm totally down, next time, to pay my own travel costs and to not have to deal with men overseeing the words coming out of our mouths. 

Mik: the day i received the phone call from the bartender, one of the things on his agenda to talk about was the money. he told me that the hotel was going to cut the budget. back in february when the hotel first asked me to curate this series i was working on it with the owner's female assistant. they told me to create a budget. i gave them a high number. they told me they weren't going to give as much money as i asked for, but if the series goes well then they would be open to giving me more money down the line. i guess i didn't deliver the kind of literary event they were hoping for because they cut the budget. the money was helpful, we got to invite readers from all over to come read at this event and that was really cool, but we will continue the disorder salon with or without money to back us. 

e.e.: after the Tuesday night reading at which you read your statement saying you’d no longer hold your readings at the hotel, the hotel owner said, during a phone call with you, something like, "i'm not in an ivory tower. you should have spoken directly to me if you had a problem” (rather than making a public scene, i guess), but the truth is, he didn't come to you directly, when he had a problem. he used a bartender to do the dirty work for him. so in the end, he got back what he gave. he didn't respect you enough to call you himself. So why should you have afforded him that luxury?

Mik: the hotel owner and i have had a discussion in regards to this reading series twice. he has never been my direct contact for this series. we only talk casually on the nights of the readings. we have always talked through his assistant, who no longer works for him, or through a marketing person or through this bartender. the only time i have ever had direct contact with the hotel owner about the series was when i asked his assistant if she could ask him to come to one of our meetings so i could talk to him about my ideas. unfortunately, that was the day the banksy was being installed and so he showed up to the meeting late and left early saying something along the lines that because his assistant and i were both women we shared a "sisterhood and could talk more freely" without him around.

The other time the hotel owner and I have had contact about the series was after we publicly announced why we are not continuing our reading series at their hotel. He never apologized for the bartender or himself. He seemed surprised [I was taking the reading series elsewhere] because he has complemented me so many times. Compliments and money don't mean I have to do what you tell me to. 

e.e.: Prior to this incident, Mik, and to writing your poetry collection, Laura, what were your thoughts on the word ‘cunt’? did you have any? did you consider it different, say, than ‘bitch’? was it a word you ever used? Was it a word you found offensive? Have your feelings regarding the word changed in the last five years? The last two? As the culture seems to be narrowing as far as what one can say without fear of ‘offending’ others. And how do you feel about someone saying they're 'offended' by your art or writing? How should we approach a statement like that regarding our work?  

Laura: Hearing that someone was offended by my use of that word was shocking at first and then hilarious. In the poem I reference the fact that I had this certain group of girl-friends who would call each other cunt as a joke. It was funny, I thought. But people really get upset about this. One of those friends cited it as a reason for not wanting to be my friend anymore. I was shocked when that happened too, but it never became funny. Some things are mysterious to me. Like that extreme aversion to the word is mysterious to me. I guess it must be some kind of anxiety about women taking charge of their own bodies. I really don't understand it to be honest. But I'm rebellious I guess so that just makes me want to say it more. 

Laura: I was talking last night to a friend about this sort of. We were thinking about the n-word. And about Louis CK has a bit about using the word cunt. I haven't seen it. Of course, non-black people should not use the n-word because it's hateful. When the word cunt comes out of Louis CK's mouth it's flashy and it makes everyone nervous and excited but I doubt there's any point to it beyond that. It feels to me actually hateful kind of. But what about when a woman says the word cunt? I guess it's meaningful in a different way. 

ee.: i have to admit, i loved hearing Mik say cunt. it does have some sort of ....i don't know. it just sounds good. and feels good. maybe because we're not supposed to say it? i personally don't get offended by words. and i think separating any word only gives it more power to hurt. it also feels very childish and unadult to put certain words on a list not to use. i understand the reasoning, but i'm not sure i back the reasoning. i think context is so important. and should not be ignored. i also am suspicious of referring to writing or words as 'violent.' one thing i thought about that night, at the reading, was how the bartender had said he was uncomfortable. hearing the word cunt. i wanted to say something before my reading like, "get in line, dude!" because as a woman, i'm pretty much uncomfortable every time i leave my house alone. and my daughter is also. hence, buying her a knife for xmas. being uncomfortable is just part of being alive and out in the world. and 99% of the time when i'm uncomfortable out in the world it is due to the presence of men. the inherent threat. so get the fuck in line, bartender! with your discomfort.

e.e.: Have either of you ever been to a reading at which you were offended by something someone read? And have you ever been offended by something you’ve read in a novel or poem or story? 

Laura: (referencing Louis C.K. standup) I don't think cunt sounds round or chocolatey. I feel like, that's just a bad read, or you're thinking of a specific cunt. Like, in theory comedy and sincerity aren't inextricably bound or anything, but I'm just not sold on what he's saying there. Sorry, I feel distracted because my cat is eating a mouse or vole or something he just killed. It's actually disgusting. 

I would say that I've felt extremely uncomfortable during readings before. Once when former poet laureate of Louisiana Robert Cooley was reading a poem, but to be honest I don't remember the content of that poem now. I remember another reading in New Orleans where an older white male poet was reading a poem about a little black girl, like he was trying to imagine her interiority as he was observing her. And I just thought, why are you doing that. 

Mik: it felt good to say cunt that night because i knew it was going to make the bartender uncomfortable because he told us not say it. so i wanted to say it more and more. discomfort is good for you. it is good for all of us. we all need to feel uncomfortable and question why we are uncomfortable with something so that we can grow and change and be better human beings. 

Mik: i don't think i have ever been offended necessarily at a reading, but i have felt uncomfortable. 

e.e.: i agree. 100%. which leads me to another question. Recently a friend of mine said she saw someone post on Facebook about changing offensive words in a short story before assigning it to his/her students. I don’t know if this is a high school or college teacher. But either way, I was shocked, that anyone would think it is okay to change an author’s words. My feeling would be to have a discussion with the students about the so-called ‘offensive’ words. How do you guys feel about this maybe new practice of removing offensive words from texts? Is this of benefit to students? Or are we missing out on opportunities to talk about our history and what makes us –rightly or wrongly – uncomfortable?

Mik: I don't think we should be changing so-called offensive words in texts to censor students. I think that we should use that as an opportunity to discuss history and to explore why certain words make us uncomfortable today. I'm curious what short story your friend wanted to assign.

Laura: I feel like if you think the book is so offensive then why are you teaching it? What's the point of cherry picking an author's words? And then also what is it exactly that you're protecting them from? Or is it a protective instinct, or are you just afraid of getting yourself in trouble. I could almost understand the latter. Universities are really not a safe space for open discourse if they ever were, thanks to capitalism. 

e.e.: The hotel owner, in a call with you after the reading, Mik, used the term “constructively controversial” to describe events the hotel has hosted in the past, including, I guess, the now infamous “Booze, broads and Bukowski” night. What do you think he meant by constructively controversial? Does such a thing exist, in your mind? Laura, you can speak to this also.

Mik: initially the bartender who called me claimed that laura's poem was just being offensive for the sake of being offensive. i think the hotel owner was trying to state the same thing: laura's "edgy" poem doesn't serve a purpose and the hotel's events, such as the "booze broads and bukowski" do. he also stated they hosted an event surrounded around mary magdelene as an example of another edgy thing the hotel has put on. which was an odd thing to bring up. it seems the controversial events the hotel considers "constructive" are curated around sexualizing women. 

e.e.: Agreed! Something else that was glaringly IN OUR FACE Tuesday night, was the fact that in the hotel lobby, taking up quite a bit of space, was a piece of art by Banksy, in front of which, on the hotel floor, was the quote, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Given how much the hotel seems to love Banksy and Bukwoski, I guess we had to assume, constructively controversial meant male-authored/spray-painted art/poems? In other words, it seemed the male-owned, mostly male-bartended hotel felt safe allowing men to decide for themselves what was constructively controversial, but doesn’t seem to afford any female writers or artists that same luxury. 

e.e.: though the male hotel owner DID make a point of stating he has five sisters and a mom so.... you know. supportive of women? or supportive of THOSE WOMEN?

Laura: I guess that makes him an authority on the subject. 

Laura: I think maybe the fact that they're even using the word "offensive" to describe my poem is telling. I don't think it's what they actually mean. 

e.e.: what do you think they really mean? do yo have a sense?

e.e.: Did anyone in the audience seem to be offended by Laura’s use of the word cunt in her poems? Did either of you get that sense? And if they had, would that have concerned you? (By the way, I thought this was the best audience, the most supportive and engrossed and engaged, I’ve ever read for. I really loved everyone I met and spoke with!) did the bartender express any discomfort to either of you that night, the night you read, Laura?

Laura: I think they mean they just don't like a woman going around going "cunt cunt cunt." That it's distasteful to them, whereas, yeah, when Bukowski says it it's in the service of describing a woman's anatomy in a sexual way, which they like.

e.e.: 'cunt, cunt, cunt.' right. but also, apparently some women don't, either. so...which is what your poem is about. a woman not liking cunt, cunt cunt.

Laura: I spoke to the bartenders some before the reading but I don't recall speaking to them after. No, no one has ever said anything to me about that poem, but sometimes when I read it I look out at the crowd and sometimes I can notice people's faces and it seems to me that sometimes some of those faces look less than pleased haha. But then when I get to the line about "sometimes people will think you're trash when you're trying to make a point," I feel like that line is for them and it makes them think about the reaction they're having to the poem in real time. 

e.e.: i have found women to be as censoring or wanting to censor me as men. my thoughts and the way i express myself. maybe it's a human thing. wanting to control others. 

Laura: Or like we're making a bad name for women by flaunting our privilege or something. 

Mik: I remember the day that the Banksy was installed in the hotel. I was trying to have a meeting with the woman who had been helping me put on this reading series. I had asked the hotel owner to join us because I wanted to talk about a budget so that we could pay writers more money. Unfortunately, this gigantic Banksy was being installed and he really only wanted to talk to me about that and the process of taking this piece of public art off of the street, inside his hotel, where only certain people can view it. 

e.e.: i LOVE that line. those lines. "I could tell she thought i was trash. sometimes people will think you're trash. when you're trying to make a point." so good. i love your use of the word trash there. it's a way to discount someone, something someone says. to degrade them. to place them beneath you. so as to not have to think about what they've said. or to converse about it. just, "you're trash." 

Laura: It's improper, it's unrefined, it makes women not respectable to use that kind of language. I really buck against that. 

Laura: Yeah, he stole that art from the public. Bansky should sue.

e.e.: yes, i think THAT was probably their biggest gripe. the lack of refinement. of a woman. which is probably why hillary couldn't get elected. and women are as guilty as men of wanting women to be 'refined'. i find. refined means staying in your place. not thinking too highly of yourself. high enough to express yourself any way you see fit. god forbid you come across ARROGANT. we can (barely) tolerate that in male artists. certainly not in female ones. too threatening. to everyone around.

Laura: Thank you, yeah it is dismissive. Exactly. 

Mik: I think they mean Laura is not constructive and I don't think they took her poems seriously and therefore did not take her seriously and therefore did not take me seriously. And to be honest, if it was a man reading Laura's poem, if Louis CK was reading Laura's poem, I can almost guarantee they would have laughed and laughed and laughed. 

e.e.: the ridiculousness of the banksy being 'installed' in the hotel lobby....even before i found out about this 'controversy,' i wanted to spray paint it or deface it in some way. in the spirit of banksy or art or destruction of what is cherished too much or whatever. after i found out about the controversy, i really wanted to tag it with the word CUNT. i'll always regret i didn't. someone should. 

Laura: Can I join you?

Mik: If that Banksy was still in public where it originally was, you could spray paint it. you could do whatever you want to it if it was where it was originally. but now you will just go to jail if you fuck with that precious graffiti art. 

e.e.: so fucking counter to the original impetus. 

Laura: It's so much absurdity. 

Laura: It's really important to people to categorize things, and yeah there are just fewer categories for women than for men, I think.

e.e.: also it seems like everyone is quick to judge a woman 'condescending'. having too much pride. it's really threatening and dangerous. to all involved. 

e.e.: Do you think women are any better at supporting fellow female artists than men? One of the bartenders referred to “your author,” meaning, Laura, as ‘an asshole,’ and the only time someone said that to me, almost the exact same wording: “your author is an asshole”, it was another female writer who said it, of a female writer. After a reading. (I still have no clue why.)

Mik: The thing is, most of the audience are good friends of mine, or people that are involved in the small literary community here in New Orleans. They come out to the readings, they buy drinks, they tip the bartenders, and they buy books. This night in particular, people actually hung out at the bar later with me and Laura and were talking about how much they enjoyed the reading and in the following days I received texts from people who bought KOKOMO saying how much they were loving it. 

Laura: When I look at Twitter a lot of the time I am thinking about how women authors don't support each other nearly as much as men. There's like a cult of male authors who all support each other and are fiercely loyal, women I don't see that with. 

e.e.: yeah and the night before the reading i was the sole person in there and the goddamn bartender tried to get me to stay and drink my drinks with him. but i took them (both drinks for me) up to the room with me instead. but i bet you brought a lot of people to that bar with your readings, mik! and yes, the night we had the reading, it seemed like everyone was buying drinks!

Laura: Yeah it's like their dismissing me and my reading is also dismissive of your entire audience. 

e.e.: that's interesting. fascinating. in a sad way. i wonder why that is. i have a small group of women writers i feel very supported by. very small group. outside of that, i really have no clue. 

Laura: A synonym for "distasteful" is "unpleasant." I think maybe that is what it's about. Why are you being so unpleasant? 

e.e.: i agree. women should be pleasant. that is what i'm learning, overall, from everyone. men and women, both. to me that means, don't think, don't express your opinions, don't have opinions outside the established group thoughts. which is counter to feminism. counter to everything we have fought for. why can't we disagree and you still support me? respect me? i have the sense men can disagree w each other about topics and still respect one another. a woman gets it from both sides, from both men and women, criticizing her having an opinion. and daring to express it. there is a lack of respect. in that. i think. 

Mik: do men have to think about whether or not they are supporting fellow men artists enough? 

e.e.: good point. i'm going to say...no?

Laura: Right. No. Because a male author is the model author. They're just reading books. 

e.e.: ha. wow. also, the night before the reading, when i was waiting on the bartender to make my drinks, and he was chatting me up, he asked what i was going to be reading and i said stories and he said something about poems and i said, oh, should i read poems? is this a poetry reading? and then i mentioned the bukowski mural i'd seen on the third floor when i went to the fitness center (lol) and i said i had a poetry collection and i said i liked bukoski and he said, "you shouldn't try to emulate bukowski. like, i'm a painter, and i would never try to emulate picasso." so when i left the hotel wednesday morning, i left my poetry book for him, and signed it, "I'm not trying to emulate bukowski. i'm my own CUNT." i wonder if he's burned my book yet. 

Laura: LOL amazing! And also what the fuck is wrong with these guys in particular. 

e.e.: do you mean the male 'artists' bartenders? lol i can't believe they're artists. and whining about the word cunt. wtf. dudes.

Laura: And they make this totally bizarre assumption that because you like Bukowski you must be imitating him? What?!  

e.e.: right. i really want to see this dude's art. not that it matters. just curious. i hope it's constructively controversial.

Laura: I'll bet he has at least one painting of a cunt.

e.e.: hahaha i bet he does! but it's probably very tasteful and not emulating picasso. shame.

Mik: i can't believe he told you shouldn't try to emulate bukowski! not because i think you should! but why was he try to be the authority on who you should and should not emulate!? 

e.e.: i couldn't believe any of the shit he said to me, later, when you told me what he'd said to you, earlier that morning!! 

Mik: he loves to bring up his masters in painting......................

e.e.: can't anyone pay for a masters in painting? or writing, for that matter? i mean, almost anyone.

Laura: t's wild that we're still having these discussions. About how women as a group should behave. 

e.e.: but it seems to be the cause of so much....hate. i truly believe it's why hillary couldn't get elected. and i heard just as many women as men say shitty things about her personality. her fucking personality!

Laura: When you look at the abhorrent behavior that's been tolerated from the current sitting president, it becomes kind of clear.

e.e.: exactly. jesus. 

e.e.: I would like to thank the bartenders who were offended by your use of the word cunt in your poems, Laura, because, to be honest, I might not have sat down and read your collection cover to cover in one afternoon, as I did yesterday. And it’s a really beautiful, beautiful collection. Stunning. It reads as though you wrote it in one long day/evening. How long did you spend writing it?

And how many other manuscripts, Mik, did you read and how did you come to decide on Laura’s to publish? Were you immediately murdered by it, as I was? 

Laura: Thank you. I wrote it over the course of about nine months on my notes app and put it together in a single afternoon. It was bizarre kind of. I almost said that it was easy, but what I was going through at the time was really difficult. Maybe poetry was the one thing at that time that felt somewhat effortless. 

e.e.: i had a similar experience manically writing my poems three years ago. it was the only sense of control i had over everything happening to/around me. 

Mik: Joey and I received Laura's manuscript and read it in one night, called each other and were like "we need this book! we have to publish this book!" and we responded to Laura the next day! It's never really happened like that before. 

e.e.: well, i was so thrilled to be part of this night. and, honestly, i'm glad the bartenders said something ridiculous about your poem and your use of the word cunt, because it's a reminder to us how women are treated and looked at. and i think Mik (and Joey) did an amazing job of addressing all of it head on with their statement. the other reader that night, Kevin Maloney, said it was the best 'performance art' he's seen in five years. my only regret is we didn't close the night by reading your poem, Laura. 

Laura: I'm glad you were there! And I'm so proud of Mik and Joey for saying what they said. Ya'll are the best. 

e.e.: we should all do a reading together soon! with lots of cunts. 

Mik: i wish we would have read laura's poem and we should have done that. i was so focused on showing how hypocritical this hotel was. 

Mik: yes it can be the cunt salon brought to you by cunts

e.e.: showing hypocrisy often clouds my thinking, too, mik. 

e.e.: oh fuck. before we end, how about the male hotel owner comparing using the word cunt in a public setting to yelling fire in a crowded theater???? how about THAT?

Mik: yes. saying cunt inside of a poem is not threatening anybodies safety. it is not the same thing as yelling fire in a movie theater. no ones safety was in danger during laura's reading i assure you. or during the "booze broads and bukowski" event.

e.e.: the safety of the bartenders' views on women were at risk. i suppose. 

Mik: yeah they were scared i guess. 

Laura: Sorry someone came to my house. I would LOVE to do a reading together in celebration of the word cunt.

e.e.: lets do it! maybe we all have to go back to NOLA for the new disorder series when you find a venue? or in another city. whenever. just let me know and i'm there.

Mik: maybe we can really have a cunt celebration. 

Laura: We can maybe do some Yoko Ono screaming.

e.e.: omg yes. i love yoko ono screaming. one of the most vilified women in recent american history. 

e.e.: and now, as is my right as a woman in 2019, I’m going to go listen to Taylor Swift! Constructively controversial.