Lora Mathis is a writer, visual artist, zinester, and musician from Southern California. Their first full-length collection The Women Widowed to Themselves was a Pushcart Prize nominee and published in 2015 by Where Are You Press. Their second, instinct to ruin, currently is available. They coined the term radical softness as a weapon, which explores vulnerability as a political move and sign of strength. Right now, they are working on essays and a fiction collection.
How do you think your gender identity and sexual orientation has impacted your work as a poet and artist?
My gender and sexuality are pieces of me that are in flux, and which I am consistently trying to figure out. Poetry is a space where I can sort through feelings on them and be completely seen. All pretenses are dropped in poetry. There is no hiding in it. Writing and art are some of my main tools for uncloaking shame and shaping selfhood. There is still a good deal of guilt, internalized homophobia, familial values, and societal expectations that I am working through. My gender and sexuality have certainly informed my subject matter and my voice as well, as they are woven into my identity. My work has impacted my ability to expand my vision of myself, explore new ideas of who I can be, and to feel like my full self.
Was it hard for people around you to accept you the way you are? How did you deal with it?
This question sparked a lot of feelings in me. It’s written in the past tense, with the expectation that people accepting me has been something that has already happened, but it is an ongoing process. I am not out to everyone around me. My coming out has been selective. I came out mainly to friends and in online circles, but have not had a conversation with my family or employers. In some ways, opening up to friends and the online public about thoughts I was having surrounding gender was incredibly validating. It allowed me to speak about things I was internally questioning, and to find support in them. But in other ways it was discouraging. A lot of people around me, mainly out of a lack of ignorance rather than ill intention, kept misgendering me. Being referred to as “she” felt like I was being shoved back into a self which society fit me into, and to have my my attempts at having myself be seen in new ways stomped on. That was a couple of years ago. In the last few months I’ve been using “they” as well as “she.” Somewhat out of tiredness. Somewhat out of feeling like I don’t always fit into the space of gender nonconforming. (Although in writing those words out I’m thinking—wait, who gets to decide that??) I rarely feel 100% in myself. I have so many doubts & insecurities surrounding gender. Idk! Some days “woman” stings, other days I shrug it off. Sometimes it feels like just because certain aspects of womanhood feel off just doesn’t mean the term totally does. Other times I am screaming inside that I am “NOT A GIRL!!!”
In the last couple of years, my focus with gender validation has been on creating internal space for me to explore identity, even if others don’t see me through this. Most of the time my head feels so clouded and overwhelmed by this though. Even though gender is a construct and there is no right way to look trans, I know there’s a privilege in me being “cis passing.” I know that those who are visibly trans, especially nonwhite trans people, are subject to violence and discrimination I don’t face. I haven’t had a convo with everyone about my gender thoughts and maybe I don’t want to bc some convos I did have were disappointing in how others ignored the subject. And I know this too is a privilege.
Queer friendship and poetry have allowed me to drop all pretenses and feel totally seen. I feel very thankful for those spaces for allowing me to be confused, in flux, shifting. They don’t require me to feel 100% in my feelings of identity, they support and see me through any stage. It is difficult to share feelings of gender with others when I am still shaky in them and coming into them myself because then others’ questioning and invalidation discourages my process. I am most comfortable exploring things internally and in trusted circles!
One of the projects you’re doing is titled ‘radical softness’, could you explain what it means, and why you began it?
Radical Softness started as a photo series I created in 2015, which, in its simplest intentions, worked to prove that being connected to your emotions was a sign of strength. I made that work at a time where my mental health was at an extreme low, and my head was feeding me messages that I was weak and worthless because I was sensitive. Many societal ideas seemed to support these negative thoughts I was having. But in moments when I had some clarity, I recognized that getting through the days while being severely depressed and working through trauma was not weakness. It took a good deal of strength and energy simply to stay alive. I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and that damaging messages were being fed to us all the time.The idea that strength solely means to be turned off emotionally didn’t resonate with me. I saw strength all around in me, expressed in many ways which society didn’t uphold. There is strength in being vulnerable despite pain. There is strength in the basic actions that get you through the day. Strength looks a lot of different ways. Yes, there is strength in holding yourself together, especially for others’ sake (as men are often told to for their families), but too often the inability to access feelings and view of feelings being “weak” is a disconnection from the self. Being honest, sharing about difficult experiences, takes strength. I laid out the messages promoting vulnerability because I needed physical reminders to combat my negative thoughts and because I wanted to combat the sweep of patriarchal, ableist thinking that wrote off anyone who had emotional reactions.
Do you identify as a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
Yes, I identify as a feminist, although in the last few years I have become less concerned with labels. I hold the political values that feminism often promotes, but I do not run to declare myself a “feminist” in my first breath of meeting people. This is mainly because much of the mainstream feminism is not what I subscribe to. Feminism has become trendy and therefore, watered down. It’s been slapped on t-shirts, used to further careers, made into something which promotes solely white cis women. Feminism has to go beyond a fashion statement, otherwise it’s meaningless to me. Feminism has to acknowledge the system of oppression as a whole, which I think it often fails to do in the mainstream. If we are working for a better world, then it means not just acknowledging gender oppression (or always upholding it as the most important thing to work on), but all measures of oppression. Yes, I’m a feminist, but that’s not where my political concerns begin and end.
Would you concur with the statement that ‘All art is political’? Why/why not?
I think so. Everything we do is political. Politics affect even our simplest actions. Art is a statement of the self and the self is political.
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