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Pretty Obscure: Oral Sex & The Tumor Of Consciousness photo

Far West Press recently put out an anthology entitled Pretty Obscure. Jack Skelley and Danielle Chelosky, who both have pieces in the collection, took to email to have a conversation in an attempt to sell 1,000,000 copies. Help us reach that goal by buying one (or several) here.

Danielle: I'll begin. Jack, your piece mentions ASMR. do you watch ASMR videos?

Jack: Thanks, Danielle. No, I’m not really into ASMR. (But I do play a shit load of Terence McKenna videos.) My piece in the Pretty Obscure anthology (“Since I’m Dead I Give Good Head,” an excerpt from “Walt Disney’s Head”) uses the term ASMR to denote whispered kissing (among other varieties of oral sex). Do you ask because you watch ASMR? And speaking of oral sex, your “Mutual Anguish” ends with a blow job – an act which seems to diffuse the poem’s litany of depressive anxieties and insecurities. Or does that blow job somehow confirm those anxieties?

Danielle: I watch ASMR. It's embarrassing. I watch it before bed because the sounds of tapping and whispering make my brain feel smooth. But there are a bunch of ASMR videos that are probably just fetish videos disguised as ASMR. I can't help but wonder if ASMR videos I watch to feel relaxed are what some men jack off to. But I guess relaxation is a neighbor of sexuality. And that connects to your question about blowjobs. Sex is an escape from the depression/anxiety, but of course it also adds to it in other ways... it can only last so long. I realized that something I like about sex is that it's fully immersing yourself in something and you don't have to think about anything else. A lot of my depression/anxiety comes from a feeling of restlessness. With sex, you get to be totally relaxed and invigorated at the same time. It's so sick. I liked what you wrote: "a kind of craniotomy removing the tumor of consciousness." Consciousness as a tumor... so true. there are a lot of surgical/medical procedures in your writing (also lobotomies, endoscopies, etc) — is that something you're fascinated with?

Jack: You’ve pinpointed a couple themes in my piece: Yes, the “tumor of consciousness” is the false consciousness imposed by media – perhaps even by language itself when corrupted by market forces. People’s identities are funneled and fabricated in ever more insidious ways through algorithms… including the juicing of sexual impulse. This is the larger theme of the larger piece, “Walt Disney’s Head” (from my upcoming book, Myth Lab.) For imagination and creativity to survive, they must decapitate – lobotomize, as you say – the doom of metastatic capitalism. But I want to go back to your “Mutual Anguish.” Yes, sex relieves some anxieties while inflaming others. The poem even admits that many fears are illusory: “When I am your girl, what is there / to be so sad about?” And “I’m in a hot sweat over nothing.” Personally, I too veer into “catastrophizing” (from your poem’s first line), even when there’s nothing to worry about. Cringing one day, confident the next. Why the fuck do we do that?

Danielle: Great question. I actually woke up with a cold this morning, and there's something so humbling about being physically sick... it's like, why am I not more grateful and happy when everything is normal? But nothing ever feels truly normal... even in general, it's hard to feel content in an existence with no explanation. but also, with all you said about the media & capitalism & algorithms, it's harder than ever to just exist. sitting still is impossible. we're all temporarily soothed by scrolling. I can't even sleep at night without a stupid YouTube video! but that's part of why I love writing so much — it's an escape from all that, I get to feel calm without any algorithm bullshit involved. Do you feel this way? (I imagine we have some differences; Instagram became big when I was, like, 11 years old... doomed!)

Jack: (Hope yr cold is better soon!) That algorithm bullshit is just getting started. Let’s establish that we are both assuaged/propelled by writing, and sex… and therefore sex writing! But to what degree does sex provide (as writer Susan Finlay phrased it to me) “the form as well as the subject matter”? That is, how much of your sexual identity – dominant in your writing – is shaped by received notions of pornography, romance, pop- and counter-culture, not to mention economics/politics, family and friends etc.? And if you are aware of this shaping, what is your attitude towards it? Should writers accept it or resist it? Is it creative or destructive? Feel free to reference your own works, and I will do the same in return.

Danielle: Hmm. I guess it's hard to say because that stuff is so subconscious. I want to say none of it — that when I think of sex, it's totally untethered to anything else, because sex is such an in-the-moment and personal experience, which is part of why I love it. But I have a poem in Always Crashing that has the lines: "nothing makes me happy anymore except / for cigarettes and touching myself to porn / that always degrades the woman." I felt guilty putting that in because it's something I feel guilty about. Even though "transgressive lit" is "popular" these days, people don't really want transgressive literature. They want to feel comfortable and safe. We're in this culture now where being uncomfortable is not something people want. I liked the recent New Yorker article "All Good Sex Is Body Horror." Lately, our culture has been so focused on topics like consent that it's hard to remember that sex is best when you're actually leaving your comfort zone. I'm lucky, because I'm a 23-year-old girl writing about sex, so I feel like I can say whatever I want without people getting upset. But I'm curious of what it's like for you...

Jack: Good poem. That line jumped out even before you referenced it to me. We’re in the “safe space” of Hobart now, right? So, you were among the first to pounce on a review copy of my novel Fear of Kathy Acker (FOKA). You assigned this cool QA to Andie Blaine in which I defensively state, “The male/het orientation of FOKA can feel shocking. It’s certainly not in vogue and that’s fine.” I was bracing for backlash. But the exact reverse has happened: Female readers have driven sales. It was even adapted into a successful stage play with an all “femme/non binary” cast, director, playwright (Siena Foster-Soltis). Perhaps, like you, I’m lucky too! Or bizarrely anointed by fate, since the novel got its weird resurrection decades after I wrote it. I’m taking all this as a green light to keep writing about sex. (As if I could prevent myself LOL!) And my new book, Myth Lab: Theories of Plastic Love, has some filthy parts… also some very transcendent parts. You kind of do the same in your “Breath Play” poem! It ends with this:

a voice somewhere said it was the kind of color

to get laid down and fucked on. it sounded like it was

coming from above, a god narrating the apocalypse.

We’re past 1,000 words. We could probably go forever, but I guess we should wind this up. So lemme throw the question back at you: Do ever get backlash for sex-positive poems, even when indulging in the “degrading?” And will we in the alt-lit community (Ugh! Hate that handle!) ever finally get past that?

Danielle: It's OK that we're past 1,000 words, it's Hobart and there are no rules. I don't get backlash, I just get shocked reactions. A lot of people saying I'm so "brave" and they "could never do that." And I'm like... yes you can! Are you not horny? You're just lying to yourself. And I don't think it's brave to be horny either. It's just normal. besides, I don't think my writing is as graphic as yours... compared to the horny parts of FOKA, I'm a prude. One of my favorite parts of FOKA was the description of LA as a giant sex organ. skyscrapers are giant dicks. A Japanese businessman bends over and "Americans take turns rimming his asshole." The First Interstate Bank is "the only one that can satisfy [giant Amber Lynn's] yearning vortex-hole-vacuum-infinite-tunnel of gratification." "The downtown warehouse district is the hemorrhoidal periphery to the downtown shopping district, which is the butthole of the city." "Hollywood is pussy and I'm gonna drive there." Sex has many meanings in FOKA. It's a relief because the way our culture treats sex today is so vapid; often it's just pure provocation with no emotion or meaning, which it feels like this excerpt is hinting at.... so much pornography, & very little sex. would you say that's an accurate interpretation? if so, is that something that was happening in the 80s that's coming back now?!

Jack: Yay! It’s no-rules Hobart!! Let’s get more filthy! What are the rules, anyway? It seems that the ostensibly most open-minded venues can react the hardest. With Lily Lady I recently produced a reading of sex-worker-adjacent writing. The event climaxed with a dancer’s “cake sit.” The crowd and the management loved it! But after the top brass saw event photos of a stripper, there was backlash. And this is a literary organization! (I’ll refrain from naming it.) But your delineation of porn-vs-sex puzzles and prods me (and my writing), because I don’t see a bright line between the two. People’s sexual identities are shaped by conditions. In FOKA, the narrator details not just porn, but Catholic school, advertising, TV, etc warping to his lust. Commodity fetishism becomes an actual sexual fetish: It “funneled my desire for naked female beauty into compulsions towards the trappings of magazine glamour. This became obsession: High heels, hot haircuts, lingerie and makeā€‘up thrillingly dethroned mere limbs, lips or orifices.” Yet he remains very passionate. So that’s what confuses me about the generational contrast you posit: Is it really true that today’s young people – despite being more “open” about sex – are having less of it? And in your new novel (Pregaming Grief; I just ordered it!) how do you (or your characters) address this?

Danielle: Well, Magdalene Taylor published a Substack piece last month titled It's Obviously The Phones and I think that's right. gen z was raised with iphones, which make us isolated to begin with, stunt our ability to interact with other people and understand social cues, and they complicate the dynamics of relationships and make them totally unromantic. plus, dating apps are hell, and have ruined the dating landscape! now it's weird to go up to people and chat with them; I've been at concerts with friends where they set their Tinder radius to within one mile so they'll match with someone at the show, and I'm like, dude, just go up to a guy and start talking to him! and they're like, no that's weird! Pregaming Grief definitely confronts the problem of dating apps, especially in New York... it's hell. 

Jack: I’m looking forward to reading about that hell. And I think it’s funny how our conversation circled into sex and writing about sex writing… When you boil it down, it may be the only writing there is.