at your grave
i think of two things
first shakespeare, then plath
my chest pressed onto the earth
and all of its indifference
“i am, i am, i am”
is that where life is
in between the spondees?
between the stutter
and the affirmation
i am, i am, i am
my heart knocks at
a long abandoned house
is there so terrible an illumination
my life a 60 year long dial tone
knowing no one but godot will take my call
“as dead as the earth!”
that was the first thing!
you entire to yourself as the
our deaths our ownmost possibility
people reciprocate and we anticipate
the they-self waiting all day to be told
she is loved before she can sleep
before i am as dead as the earth
at your grave
How do we talk about the only thing that we all have in common? We don’t. A fear of death, or of the people we love dying, or of finitude more broadly – maybe talked about in that 5am post-party puff – but it’s not usually befitting for sober smalltalk. So when Phil Elverum released his latest Mount Eerie project, A Crow Looked At Me, some people were put off. ‘He released an album about his wife dying? I’m not listening to that. That’s too real.’ Others switched off after the record’s very first line: “Death is real.” A statement so totally obvious, but one in which we have to blindside day-by-day, since it nullifies the life that we’re compelled to keep on living. “I don’t expect everyone to like it, but I did my best”, Elverum tells me. But death doesn’t have to nullify life. After the passing of his wife last summer, he considered quitting music, but he now decides that “I don’t think this is a good note to leave things on.” The decision to keep on living in the wake of death can sometimes be as painful as the death itself, but he tells me firmly that, “I don’t want to live in the shadow of this trauma indefinitely. I want to keep surviving and living.” Though if death doesn’t have the power to totally nullify life, then it certainly has the force to at least abstract it from ourselves. On the album, Phil refers to it as a ‘crushing absurdity’. So, instead of trying to find meaning in an often meaningless world, he tells me that the album is a meditation on “the very prospect of meaning.” He clarifies: “What is symbolic and how trustworthy could it be? What’s up with this mind’s continual organising and mythologising? Nothing is meaningful, and the random death of my wife is proof of that in the most stupid way, the most graceless lesson.” Despite the crow in the album’s title, and the ravens throughout the album who seem to be a sort of harbinger of death, he tells me that, “I rejected, and still reject, significance, meaning, learning.” It seems that life has to be synonymous with meaning and significance, and we have to be intoxicated with life to willingly go along with it. However, ‘when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb’, and seems to be the greatest cause of sobriety. We become unattached from the world of the blissfully living and the meaningful, and can see it as nothing other than fraudulent.
Writing only a month after the death of his wife, neither did he have the hindsight to exorcise his grief with symbolism. As of writing, it’s still been less a year since Elverum’s wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée Elverum passed away from pancreatic cancer. He tells me that, “I am probably too close to this all still to be able to have any useful perspective on it. I’m still in it. I don’t know what I was going for or what happened. I just made these songs of and about my life, a life that continues in the same complex and confusing and joyful and brutal way.” Whatever symbolism can be found in the album, therefore, is unintentional. The birds appear in the album because they appeared in Elverum’s life – nothing more. Though, as a listener and an outsider – it’s impossible not to see the unfortunate symbolism. The outer world seems to have colluded with this specific and domestic death. On Crow, the album’s closing song, Elverum asks his and Geneviève’s child: “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? Smoldering and fascist with no mother.” Four months after his wife’s death, Donald Trump was elected president. As of writing this, it’s been a week since the poet Joanne Kyger (whose poem Night Palace is featured on the album cover) died. Though, now as a father of an almost two-year-old daughter, Elverum is obligated to imbue this apocalyptic-like devastation with life-giving force. He recorded this album in his wife’s empty art studio, using her instruments, to create an album that has received reviews more favourable than the majority of his projects throughout his long-spanning career. It seems almost crude to treat this album as a piece of art.
During the creation of the album, he tells me that, “I really only thought of myself and expressing myself.” Now, since it’s been released, “it is meant for everyone now in the sense that I am offering it for sale to whoever wants it on the supposition that there is the potential for some kind of appreciation there for everyone.” A Crow Looked At Me is, after all, a piece of art meant for public consumption. So how are we meant to listen to it responsibly? How am I, after to listening to an album of painfully private recollections supposed to approach this subject? We talk about a phrase that I found particularly pertinent on the album: ‘conceptual emptiness’. I ask him what he considers to be the difference between this and actual absence. There will, of course, be two types of listeners of this album – those who have had someone they love die and those who haven’t. The latter will only be able to relate to this album through ‘conceptual emptiness’. Or as Elverum explains far more eloquently than I can, that this will be a person with “less hard life experience”, and someone who “enjoys sitting comfortably, noodling around in the mind, talking about theories and philosophy.” While the former, those who are forced to feel an actual absence, will achingly relate to, “the feeling of walking into my dead wife’s drawing studio and looking at her empty chair and her unfinished drawings.” Either way, Elverum’s grief is one that is as gentle as it is brutal. Nonetheless, death after all is real, and it’s not, he tells me, “fun to play around with, it’s not theoretical or interesting. It’s just shitty.” And then: “my cat who has been missing for 36 hours, who I’d assumed was dead, just walked in the door and meowed at me. Maybe it’s relevant?”
There is no act we can ever commit that is so private, separate and singular as suicide. It is a whole and integral contract which severs us from the relational world of living. When we die we leave behind the community of faith which every participant of life enters into. In our state of being alive we are willed by the faith of others, we endure because we have all made a silent pact to. In life we are always a part of something, and we can only see the wholeness of that something when we cease to live. And when someone we love commits themselves to death, what the living one is left with is an entire life, the entire flute of their existence. As human beings, what we simply cannot cope with is wholeness and completeness. We compartmentalise our lives into tiny activities, changing sets of thoughts, conflicts, affairs, ageing and changing. However when death enters into your life your existence becomes monolithic and unbearably full and unfragmented. Of course we’re left with fragments by way of our memories of this person but what we essentially have is something tiny enough to hold in our hands: this little life. It becomes incredibly difficult to compartmentalise again when you are within this empty centre of loss, when death becomes the most prominent part of your life. This is part of the reason why the suicidal cannot believe you when you assure them that things will get better, that it will pass, that this is a hell that they can get through. If you are suicidal then death will pretty much play the starring role in your life and you will have mostly resigned yourself to its wholeness. It is impossible to look to the time where you will be OK just as your mother, brother, friends said you will be. In this state you can no longer believe in the divided rubric of past, present, future – your reality is simply that this is how you have always felt and how you always will feel. You are lugging along your broken and cumbersome body and the only thing that can keep you moving is someone else’s belief in you. The community of faith is the only thing that is steering you. The future is unimaginable but for some reason you are being told to head for it. You get pulled out of bed, someone is running you a bath, you take 20 minutes to put each sock on but you do it because there is someone who believes in your capability to be alive. But mainly you do it because when you say that you want to die there is someone who would doubt their own capability to be alive without you there. This is usually the mother, the ultimate suicide preventer. If you have one, then stick around for her – her unwavering faith in you is absolute and will make sense to you one day. But right now all you can hope for is for your pain to become interesting and vehicular rather than agonising and present, as it will. Though you feel whole and untouchable right now, what we, the participants of this world have is an unalterable commonality. Whether that means being firmly slotted within the community of faith, or the more unfortunate option – of feeling that we do not belong – of feeling that we are in a community of unfaith, we can only ever belong to one of two camps. If you are living thoughtlessly and easily, you are not alone. If you are living conscientiously and difficultly, you are not alone. Although the latter is a far lonelier existence, with prodigious courage and with the brutality of personality we can again find ourselves within a community through our common loneliness. Remember that these are often the most profound. Our condition of aliveness is almost entirely predicated upon it and our relation to it and those within it. This is why it is impossible for any death to go entirely unnoticed as it will always be felt somewhere and by someone. Communities grow smaller and stronger once someone has departed from it. On the day you die your absence will be felt by almost everyone in every community you’ve ever been in. The community of school, work, geographical location – even the girl you never spoke to in your science class will be slightly shaken by your absence. Even if you feel that any sense of community is perpetually outside of you, this is fundamentally and eternally wrong. You unavoidably belong within a structure made up of life-livers and learning to embrace this is synonymous with choosing to be alive.
So, get into the habit of small-talk if you can. First off, good habits such as this are a kind of analgesic. The more you practice something and make a habit of it, the better equipped you are to be alive. Learning to say ‘hello’ to someone you hardly know and to ask them how they are is a blissful kind of artifice which puts us squarely into our community and therefore life. Undo your shyness if you can, there are so many people who want to hear you speak. Secondly, if you are grieving then allow yourself the romance of nostalgia from time to time. Remember smells, dinners you ate together, TV shows you watched together – and permit yourself to beautify banality. It will turn your trauma fantastic and will make the unbearable adorable, if only for a short amount of time. Share these memories. We all want your pain to be easier and we all feel the benefit of your being alive. Together we must ensure that we are creating a culture of empathy and cultivating a community of faith.
Learning to kill for the sake of a name
Right here, now, on this sugarless day.
Lioness with no survival instinct
Calling on the nurse to mend everything
Thorn in a paw, cat cut off your tail
So you’re tardy and hardly on your way
Yawning yourself out of your own clothes.
Healthily you say: pull up the covers
Leave me motherless, dark this day away.
We spit at each other in our spite
Our two bull’s horns knocking together
Tearing, causing blood, violence, not much else.
Clumsily, I try to free you from me
Toasting to good health, I say deathly:
First off, the family resemblance to Britney is uncanny. Derrick’s sat in his home in Las Vegas after a sapping six-day work week, but I am still startled by the alikeness. Even though this is his one day of the week where he doesn’t have to wear that silken blonde wig and the Baracuda-like corset, he is inexplicably Britney. With his short hair and all, right now he’s maybe more of a 2007 Britney – which I assure him is a compliment – but the image of Britney loosens as I begin to talk to Derrick Barry. Out of all the queens I’ve interviewed, Derrick is by far the most professional. He doesn’t interrupt, he is very courteous, and each of his sentences comes to a hush when he decides he has said all he has needed to. The person who often appeared to be oversensitive and tumultuous on RuPaul’s Drag Race is now very composed and sedate. For someone who can take on Vegas six nights a week with such command and confidence, I hadn’t expected Derrick to have found his experience on Drag Race so difficult. He tells me that he felt completely out of his comfort zone in an environment which he describes as ‘adolescent’. When packing his suitcase the night before Drag Race, Derrick tells me that he was breaking down, that he didn’t feel ready to go. He had no hesitancy in telling me so either. This is why Derrick is a Drag Racer that we’ve not yet seen before. As I’ve seen, he definitely has the composure to remain professional at all times, but he is incredibly generous with his vulnerability also. There is no shame in trying something and having it not work, there is no shame in being homesick, and there is no shame in feeling like a victim. Yes, we love drag for these so-called Glamazonians, these self-sufficient beings who can ‘love themselves’ in any situation above anything else. But drag is about the transition as well as the end-product. Most nights Derrick gets to perform as Britney Spears – one of the world’s greatest cultural icons, and Derrick’s personal muse. With all the love he has for Britney – who he discovered one morning whilst eating cereal before school – it’s not difficult for him to love himself as faux-Britney. However he admits to me that he didn’t have the confidence on Drag Race as he does on stage in Vegas. Derrick likens performing as himself to being naked, and when he performs as Britney he feels as though he’s put on a cover-all superhero cape. Although it’s convenient to play someone else, to base your life on conclusions that you haven’t yet come to – but as Derrick is learning – eventually it is necessary to become yourself. In Derrick’s case, he was truly birthed into the world when he first drew on those godawful brows in his final Drag Race episode. A year on from filming now, and not only are the brows well and truly on fleek but it is clear to see that Derrick Barry is finally mushrooming into himself. I listen to his latest single, BOOMBOOM as I write this and it’ll no doubt be the song that gets me out of the house over the summer. As well as the single, he’ll be acting in multiple projects, as well as submitting an audition tape for SNL. Derrick is no doubt learning that he doesn’t just have to play Britney to take over the world.
Today, in almost any photograph of a drag queen that you come across you’ll find Magnus Hasting’s name in the bottom corner of it. In his latest and greatest offering to the world, he asks the most proficient queens around the globe: “Why Drag?” The project has taken many years in the making and is finally ready to be revealed on May 17th, when Magnus’ first book will be on sale. Originally from London, Magnus spent much of his early career photographing the most delightfully trashy celebrities that Britain had to offer. The kind of celebrities used to sell subpar gossip magazines; the most seemingly vapid celebrities whose sex tapes were too gross to go viral – those sorts. Whilst these essential D-list celebrities were being used by the media as empty props, Magnus gave them a bit more credit than that. He tells me about the time he had photographed Katie Price and Peter Andre (our British equivalent of luminaries like Ryan and Trista Sutter). Instead of asking them to vacantly pose, with both abs and cleavage slumping outwards – he gave them the direction to whip all clothes off and to pose on top of a cross in mock-crucifixion. What seems wildly inappropriate on paper is executed with the utmost effectiveness that only Magnus could muster. In the juvenile stage of his career he allowed the public to see these figures in ways that never could have been had Magnus Hastings not existed. The provocative and the jarring remain ever-present in Magnus’ work today, but he ascribes these qualities to people who are far more deserving of them – drag queens. Although there’s nothing that the queer community savours more than a D-list celebrity that was neglected from the heterosexual zeitgeist, Magnus’ work is at its prime when there is a drag queen in front of his camera. His apartment is abounding with photographs of drag queens that he has taken. I am a little distracted by the one of Milk with its striking blue-white hospital colors, which is mounted up behind him – the size of a coffee table. He gives me a tour of each of his rooms, every one of them overclouded by photographs of drag queens. We leaf through his book Why Drag together and he talks in paragraphs which often ramble and rove towards the end. He regularly becomes so animated and effused that he forgets his point and has to start again – which, as we look through his photographs, is how I’m beginning to understand the processes behind his work. As we pass photos of Sharon Needles in a straitjacket and Courtney Act receiving cunnilingus in a bathroom, I feel right at home. For us Gaybies who spent our formative years being desensitised to violence and the ultimate oddness (how old were you when you had to endure Divine inserting a steak into “her own little oven”?) this stuff is hardly new. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of content that we signed up for. However, there is still some shock left in the squeamish straight people of the world. Magnus tells me that whilst his photographs of fishy queens seem to get a universal approval – his bearded queens – or really, any of his queens that show signs of transformation – are shunned away by the straight audience. In fact, a lot of the queens he photographs are keen to erase any signs of transformation. “So, are you going to photoshop that out?”, “can we airbrush that?” are questions Magnus gets asked and then rejects often. This is exactly what Magnus’ photography opposes. Unlike the average celebrity photographer, Magnus has a very warts-and-all approach, which in drag terms means that he will very much let the front of that lace-front wig show.
The end of the world, it will be here soon
Like some far-off earthquake
Palming along and breaking
into my garden
hardening along the coast of Ecuador,
gutting the hot rubies of Colombia.
We seek shelter
Tadpoleing away this right, rushing day
I am here and it is there
Though it gets closer.
The moles uproot and the common robins
yowl and shoot away.
The washing line sways
with the last limp sock
and the places that I feel safe in
are whittling themselves away.
The water from its seabed rises at noon
and laves in my birdbath
lobbing its legs to the end of the tub
and shivering its way among the waves.
Soon my garden will be gone.
I tap at your breast with my pathetic paw
You are gone
You are over there
No you no more
Before I can even leave marks
with my claws.
All our objects becoming artefacts.
It is a fact that all is gone.
Everything chewed up
All in the name of the pain it took
to get you out of here.
The violence it takes to break
from an allwombing tomb.
The war you fought to get over there.
Your mother screaming in a hospital bed
As she tore you from her and let you go.
The common chaos that it took to become yourself
You unhorsed the rider, you divorced the guider
I put my hand in the sock and I look away.
If we’re going by statistics, Adore Delano is the most successful daughter of the Drag Race legacy. She’s far outsold former queens on iTunes and recently became the most followed racer across social media. She’s consistently topped fan-favourite lists and is surely one of the more quoted queens. A few Adore buzzwords in particular: “Party!”, “Fuck!”, “Chola!”, “Pizza!” are irrevocably associated with her drag persona and have cemented her status as one of the most clockable queens. One sign of a great and classic drag queen is their ability to be easily parodied and impersonated. Fans thronged towards H&M’s sale rack to pick up their black-red plaid shirts this Halloween to do just that. The Adore halloween costume was ubiquitous this year, it was as though she’d stepped into a House of Mirrors and reflected back squat Adores, long Adores; fat, skinny, wobbly Adores. Although she has everything an elite drag queen should have – the catchphrases, the easily identifiable look and personality – Adore Delano is much more than just an empty caricature. In the case of some queens, their approach to drag is somewhat like a gayer, more fabulous version of trolling. Although Adore certainly keeps things tongue-in-cheek, she’s one of a few drag queens who aren’t afraid to play earnestly sometimes. Adore Delano reveals how the real person and his character creation converge, and the impact this has upon the man with his genitals tucked halfway up his anus.
Although I’m still not quite sure what I mean by this phrase it’s clear that Adore has ‘star quality’. Whatever that does means, she’s the kind of lady that would win Most Likely to be Famous at any high school prom. However, she tells me that she still gets nervous doing some of the things that fame requires. Despite their gag-worthy outcomes, Adore isn’t the most comfortable in a photoshoot setting. It’s a place that requires her to be vulnerable, scrutinised by strangers and without the control of being able to manipulate her body in the way she would like to. Instead she prefers to be in a much quieter location. Perhaps she is like the loveable Holden Caulfield of drag as she declares, “I wanna live in the mountains ‘cause I hate people.” The sentiment seemed like a far cry away from the pop-punk, party and pizza that I’d been so used to affiliating her with. I like her style though. I can very much relate to a queen who likes to get both crazy and cozy.
More often she chooses music over people. She confesses that she hasn’t had sex in over seven months since, “dick can distract” and she wanted to focus solely on her next album After Party. For a queen that still likes to keep an occasional eye on her Grindr profile, this clearly shows commitment. The word Adore uses is ‘correct’, she remained temporarily celibate because she wanted the album to be correct. Despite only giving us tiny, teasing insights into the work gone into this record, in the way that she describes it, it sounds like it’s going to be technical, precise and sophisticated. Again, far from the PG-13 content in the music of most drag queens. On the differences between her first album, Till Death Do Us Party and the upcoming one, she tells me that “it’s more of a serious take on what happened that whole year and what I was dealing with at the time that I wrote it. It’s less of like ‘party, pizza, fuck, chola’, it’s about the person who created this persona and how they’ve merged into one.” Adore has taken the brave decision to be more than just whimsical. Although there will still be tracks that could make the whole pride float wiggle – such as the trap-style title track After Party – it will also be full of darker glimpses into the life of Adore Delano. She says that, “I do think we need people to talk about the darker sides of what happens when you’re lying in bed at four in the morning crying and thinking about your family that you never see because you’re touring every single day.” Adore isn’t the only one to feel this way, but for now, she is the only one willing to start the conversation. She goes on to say that, “These are all things that we talk about and are kiki-ing about on the tourbus so why not write about it? We’re not fucking cupcakes and taking ass shots in real life, we’re crying in bed. Why aren’t we talking about this?”
Whilst splitting up with her boyfriend, having her father pass away and going through one of the hardest times of her life, she was still selling out shows. She describes it as ‘bittersweet’, struggling with the private adversities of Danny Noriega (the man behind the drag) and revelling in the public successes of Adore Delano. The tensions between the two were in themselves another problem for Adore. She reflects on it being, “weird, after doing it every day, sometimes twice a day, your lives kind of merge and you lose a lot of your boy self. I took a few months break but I was losing my mind. It turned into an identity issue. I’m still trying to figure out who’s who, but I know the experience happened to both of us so it’s like, Adore’s becoming a more real person every day and it’s kinda scaring the shit out of me.” I suppose this must be the trouble with character development. I can now understand the benefits of drag queens to remain cartoonish, but Adore is too nuanced and openhearted not to pursue this difficult commitment.
I ask if she’d ever consider releasing music without the makeup, wigs and gowns – just as Danny. Others have wondered the same and even offered her record deals under the condition that she either release her songs as Danny or with a Black Label name. Instead she assures me that, “I think right now I really want to just focus on breaking boundaries as Adore.” Despite the difficulties and confusions that come of performing as Adore, the relationship between Danny and Adore and its impact upon them both has been decidedly positive. She remembers first discovering Adore and creating her from the “influences growing up that merged into this melting pot.” Among these influences she cites Anna Nicole Smith and Amy Winehouse as well as her Drag Race peers, Alaska Thunderfuck and Sharon Needles. However, her biggest influence has always been her mom. She tells me that, “A lot of what I do as Adore I get from the strengths of my mom. I see all the things she accomplishes and I see how she handles herself in certain situations and if I get into an awkward situation I always think about like, what would my mom do?” It is through drag that Adore can become a part of the person she idolises the most – her chola mom. When she first saw herself as Adore she tells me that, “My insecurities were all thrown out the window as soon as that last lash was glued on. It’s like a superhero mask.” She adapts the simile and rests on: “I’m like a modern day Hannah Montana.”
Adore’s mission statement has always been for drag to break into the mainstream. She may be the closest queen to it and it seems that her quest for world domination will begin in 2016. Despite the initial plan being to release a 22-track album in the winter of next year, talks are now going ahead to release two separate 11-track albums. Adore has in mind a more sombre album for winter and a dancier one for summer. However, a greater audience will require a greater responsibility over Adore’s public image and more caution as she presents herself to the world. This became an issue for some fans over the summer as they accused Adore of ‘cultural appropriation’. I asked her what she thought of these claims; whether she should engage in this conversation or if she thought drag gave her a free pass. She says, “I don’t know about a free pass, I don’t know about drag, I do know about cultural appropriation and I do know about culture. I don’t want to offend anybody but it’s not like I’m just this dumb-ass little white southern kid that doesn’t know about culture.” She points towards the window behind her: “I live in the centre of Mexican culture right now and it’s a very diverse community where I live and I grew up with all types of people. I grew up with cultural appreciation where people were dressing up as cholas and black people were dressing like gangsters and the gangsters were corn-rolling their hair. I think there’s a big difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and that’s my thing.”
Finally, I ask Adore about the sisterhoods she has formed since involving herself in the world of drag. One of the first and most pivotal was with LaGanja Estranja, a formidable duo in their early days of drag. Adore recounts how other queens “were all jealous of LaGanja and I because we would always beat them in competitions and they didn’t know how to do what we did. LaGanja would like fucking dance her ass off beautifully and then I would sing my fucking little heart out and they’d be like fuuuuck. They couldn’t fuck with us, LaGanja and I slayed that town for a little while.” Despite not having the opportunity to perform together recently, Adore says that she would still love to. She calls her “one of the hardest working girls and I’m so proud of her.” Throughout the morning our conversation was intercepted by little pings. I asked who kept messaging her and she tells me it’s the top four girls, the ABCD (Adore Delano, Bianca Del Rio, Courtney Act and Darienne Lake) of drag. This seems to be Adore’s core sisterhood. She tells me, “It’s always been the top four. It’s never changed since the day we were given our phones back. We talk at least every other day and it’s almost been three years now – it’s like get me out of this room, shut up!” Nevertheless she’s aware that “The world needs a person like me, and the world needs a person like Bianca. She’s stunning and beautiful and statuesque in her gown, and I’m a fucking slob that can sing her ass off.”