It was late summer 2008. Jessica Lakritz (Jess to me) and I were sitting in Summer Hess’s house in Spokane eating spaghetti and talking poetry and the particulars of our lives. My memory tells me that was the first time we met, the week before we started our MFA program together at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers. My next first Jess memory was of her and Amanda Maule on my Spokane porch smoking weed and laughing, as pot smokers are wont to do. Jess has always emanated a lightness, a light, and also a depth. So did her poetry. She’s all about measuring the definitions of her life against love and a desire to find her own way through the labyrinth. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when she started posting pictures of nude people with her poetry written on their skin. When I saw the first poem on Facebook, I enlarged the image of someone’s ass, scooted up close to the screen, and read, in black Sharpie, a beautiful poem called “Surrender”:
Start here: bend over
an open window, floor 4
that’s El Raval screaming
in la madrugada, asking
instead of praying like a slave.
I can feel you
listening, the vibrato
of a hive of bees, can you
choose your thoughts?
Don’t answer. I’ve been a blackbird
circling the temples of the soul,
mostly eyes and longing.
And then I appeared
inside la madrugada
of the mind and the blackbirds
around the temple spelled out
over that patient piece of sky.
Every Sunday after that I looked for the latest edition of what Jess had dubbed Sex on Sundaze, a new body housing a new poem each week on the sabbath. Recently Jess visited Portland and stayed with me, so we had an opportunity to hang and talk about this project in more depth. I also got to experience her work firsthand: the way she composes individualized poems, scripts the words onto the skin, and finds just the right light and angle with her camera.
I sent her these interview questions when she got back to Barcelona, her latest expat home, because I think this project is about more than just sexy poems, and I wanted to find out exactly what Jess thinks it is.
Jaime: How did you come up with the idea for Sex on Sundaze?
Jess: One afternoon, a friend and I were sitting around, and he asked me, “How are we going to get people to read your poetry?” This is a thing, because it’s true. Overall, people don’t read poetry. So he, kind of in jest, suggested to me that I write on girls’ butts. I say kind of in jest because there was a certain level of seriousness about that idea. People are attracted to female nudity, and sex sells. Well, anyway, we had a laugh, and agreed to ponder on that idea. A few days later, it was Sunday, and I got home after having been away pretty much all weekend. I was living in a house of six girls in the center of Barcelona. This is important to understanding the story, I promise. So I arrived at my house, and one of my roommates saw me walk in, and she said, “At least somebody’s having sex on Sundays!” It was a joke about the fact that we are six young girls living in the center of a lively and youthful city, and there hadn’t been any action happening for any of us for weeks. My original thought from that beautifully alliterated comment was that we start a roommate blog about our various sex lives, but I am really the only writer in the group, so that didn’t go far in my mind. Not long after that, maybe a day later, I was on a bus, and it all came together in my head suddenly, connecting the sex on Sundays blogging idea to the writing on butts idea: I would start writing on people’s bodies, and it would be sexual in a way, because it would include nudity, though more on the artistic side, and I would post every Sunday a new photo of the poem on a body. I checked the domain, and it turned out that the domain spelling Sundays correctly was taken for porn, but I was already sold on the name, so I just played a little, and came up with Sex on Sundaze. It quickly evolved into writing shorter poems, as the first weeks proved difficult in writing longer poems on people and having them be readable on the body. Over the first month, it evolved a little further into not only writing shorter poems, but that the writing be inspired by the model I write on. So that’s what it is now, and I’m ever-loving it.
Jaime: How has the SoS project changed your poetry practice?
Jess: It’s changed it a lot actually. First of all, as much as I identify as a poet, and have tried to write as much poetry as I could, I wasn’t actually writing that much. Between my day job and my life, I definitely was not making it as big of a priority as I wanted to. Now, I have a weekly deadline. I have to write at least one new poem a week, a poem that I consider good enough to share with the world. Beyond that, it often happens that I have to work within the time constraints of my models, working around their schedules. This can mean that I have to write several poems in a week in order to be able to make it work. It doesn’t matter if I’m not in the mood, or I’m not feeling the inspiration, I still have to do it. Aside from that, as I said, I have been writing shorter poems now. Using the constraint of length can be challenging, mostly because I have never really restrained myself in any way as a writer for more than one poem here and there. Now I feel like restraining myself in this way has helped me in particular where language economy is concerned. Little things I would have been married to before in terms of content I find easier to let go of. It’s pleasantly liberating. And the last thing that has changed has to do with accessibility. If my goal is to expand the reaches of poetry well beyond the world of academia, then I have to consider that when I’m writing. I’m not saying I’m dumbing anything down—I’m just tweaking things so that people will feel connected with what I’m writing rather than isolated from it. Maybe that translates into altering my word choice slightly, or changing the way I say things so that, in one way or another, they will be easier to interpret.
Jaime: Do you see patterns in the kinds of people who are willing to participate in SoS? How would you describe your participants?
Jess: Haha, patterns in participants. Honestly, most of my participants so far have been friends, family, or at least acquaintances. I’m not saying all of my friends willingly offer their bodies; that is definitely not the case. Maybe the pattern comes where it might be expected: my friends who place a high value on art and philosophy tend to say yes. Well, and they have to have a certain level of comfort with their bodies if I’m going to write on somewhere other than their hands or feet.
And what I said about my participants being friends is mostly true, but I have had a few randoms. One I met through Tinder when I was visiting my family in Houston. Another was a sex worker in the red light district of Amsterdam. With her, I just knocked on her red glass door and gave her my quick pitch, and she was pretty excited about it actually. I even offered to pay her, but she declined because she said that she knew the artists were starving and she was happy to provide a gift to the world of creativity. That is the general essence of the pattern I see in participants.
Jaime: Do you have a hope for the way this project will be received by readers/viewers? If so, what is that hope?
Jess: More on the surface of things, SoS is an attempt to get people to see how amazing poetry is by making it visually stimulating and accessible. My hope is that people are actually reading the poems and not just gawking at the bodies, though gawking at the bodies is also encouraged. Bodies are natural and beautiful, you know, what’s not to gawk at?
On a deeper level, the goal of SoS is to entice people fall in love with poetry. For the most part, the general population do not have any interest in poetry and don’t see why they should. Poetry for me is not only a magnificent expression of language, it is a tool for communicating our interior worlds in a meaningful way, a way that will help us all. The help means facing ourselves, understanding ourselves better, understanding others better. This leads to compassion, pretty directly, which seems like a commodity now that the Internet’s disconnectedness and/or anonymity has made it easier to treat people disrespectfully and behave in negative and even cruel ways. I don’t mean to be sentimental or preachy about it, not at all. I only think that the world is missing out on poetry, and so I hope Sex on Sundaze can lessen that missing out, even if just a little bit.
Jaime: What effect do you see this project having on body image, both of your participants and your readership?
Jess: Body image is really complicated. Social media has put this concept of body positivity on the radar, the goal being that people, I think females in particular, will stop hating the way they look just because they don’t look like models and actresses and the like of heavily photoshopped or otherwise “produced” facades of reality. Still, while many of us hear that and would love to fully subscribe to that concept, we continue to judge our bodies harshly, we continue to feel uncomfortable and even ashamed of how we look without clothes by and large. I have seen that first hand now that I’ve been politely asking my friends to strip down and bear their skin, even anonymously. I take the photos, and what I view as a wholly beautiful pic, they might find unsatisfactory because of the way their body looks. Sometimes it seems like they don’t even see the poem on their body because their focus is elsewhere. All that makes me feel shitty, realizing the kinds of hang-ups that are lingering below the surface of pretty well-adjusted people. So I’m hoping the effect will have a hand in reversing that tendency toward negative body image even if it’s just for a couple of these models. The first step might be realizing that there are lots of people in this world that will be attracted to a person even if they don’t look like a cover model, which is going to inevitably build confidence and make people more comfortable with how they look.
One of my models has a long history of eating disorders, and she told me that participating in SoS has helped her become more comfortable with her natural body. By forcing herself to expose her body in this way, by pairing it with poetry, she is 1) seeing the beauty in her shape, 2) not caring as much about what other people think anyway, and 3) getting lots of compliments about her body, which is awesome for the body image department.
Another model told me about how her ex-husband made her feel so ugly and undesirable after she had their daughter because of her stretch marks. She asked me if I would write on her stomach where the marks are because, “Well, fuck that,” she said. “For so long I felt so utterly unattractive and undesirable, like no one would ever want to have sex with me again. But I realized, this is me and these marks are because of sex, so if someone doesn’t want to have sex with me because of the very result of sex, that’s not someone who deserves to touch me.”
And the idea is to provide a wide representation of body types. As you can imagine, it’s been harder to find people with what society considers to be “imperfect” bodies to let me skinprint them up with my poetry, but I’m hoping that slowly that will start to change. I think it already is, and it’s magical and amazing to see the results. What I want is for people to see something like the photo poem over the stretch marks, and let that start a positive energy chain regarding body image, even just a small one.
Jaime: What kinds of responses have you had about the project in general so far, both negative and positive?
Jess: My early critiques had to do with the length and accessibility of the poems. Starting out, I think I was still thinking of the poems in the way I had always thought of poetry, which was that I would just write without restricting myself much in terms of length and diction. But it was clear even in the first month or two that I was going to have to alter that because I wanted people to feel connected with the poems, to get them. The truth is that people were less likely to read a longer poem for a couple reasons. For one, it is physically harder to read a long poem on a body because of the small writing. Another is that we live in a society that cherishes the short-short form. Why fight it if I could find a way to make it work? So I went with it, and it seems like people respond better to it this way. Plus, as I mentioned before, it has been transformative for me as well in terms of my writing.
And there have been people that are turned off by the level of nudity, and of course I’ve been censored by Facebook and Instagram, but that’s kind of the symptom of what I consider to be a “problem” anyway–this unhealthy discomfort with nudity. Making something natural such a spectacle might be in part what has led to these negative body image issues in the first place.
I think the most flattering thing I’ve heard is when people say they have never seen anything like it before. I realize that I’m not the originator of writing on skin, maybe not even poetry, (think the slight variation of tattoos–I even have part of a poem tattooed on my ribcage, so clearly this is a thing that happens). But this exact thing I’m doing, using the body as a canvas for writing poetry temporarily, considering the act and experience of reading poetry on the body in terms of how the canvas itself will affect the reader, well, I feel proud of myself for not only thinking it up in this way, but making it happen. When people tell me they love the project and that it’s cool and interesting, but also innovative and original, I want to hug them and maybe also cry, because it means the goal of opening poetry up to a wider audience might actually be feasible.
Jaime: What’s next for SoS?
Jess: I’ve started collaborating with a professional photographer and friend, Eder, so I feel more confident about branching out with the types of skinprinting I can do. Using the body as canvas yes, but now placing it inside of a scene in a photograph that will add to the poem as it stands written on the body. What I mean is, for example, I live in Barcelona, so I want to use the city’s landscape–the narrow alleys, the arches, the mountains, the beach–in the photos. I want to tell a story in the photo that adds to what I’ve written and where I’ve written it on the body.
I also want to start encouraging people to partake. That’s kind of why I’ve started calling it #skinprinting. The good ol’ hashtag as call to action, maybe? There is something very intimate and liberating and exciting and fun about the act of writing poetry on skin, not just the result, and that is also something I want to share. How exactly I’m going to spread the word, I’m still not sure, but I think it will come to me.
For more about Jess and Sex on Sundaze, visit http://sexonsundaze.com/.