Editors and co-founders of WHICH WITCH, Emma Kemp and Adriana Widdoes, present their correspondence spanning three days at the Saugus Cafe as part of the WHICH WITCH Writers-in-Residence program for &NOW 2015.
WW invited artists to spend time in residence at the oldest restaurant in LA County to work on a piece of writing of their own choosing, culminating in a limited edition print publication which will be produced by WW in the coming months.
In the following correspondence, the editors responded to tarot cards that they pulled for each other throughout the length of the conference. They did not share their letters until after the conference ended.
Thursday, March 26, 6 PM
Hello, here I am. It’s strange. Spent all day rushing between conference panels and readings and performances and “Hi how are you’s” and feeling excited and feeling miserable and now sitting quietly with all of it – all of that – in the booth of a suburban diner waiting patiently for inspiration, trying to write you. I’m sweating. Why do you think we choose writing over speech, text messages over phone calls? The actions seem to imply an intentionality that is more or less never there.
You told me not to order any more food at this place, but screw you – I did it anyway. A BLT with avocado and french fries that made my stomach ache. Lots of coffee. I wasn’t hungry (unusual), but I didn’t know how to start writing this letter to you, dear E, so instead I read the menu first. The menu read deliciously. So many kinds of pies! To hell with writing. What can writing give me that I don’t already have?
Jen stopped through here briefly, so I showed Jen the card that you pulled for me – the wretchedly triumphant 5 of Swords – and Jen said “Think in fives.” I am thinking in fives. When I was five, I was afraid of a portrait. The portrait was a monochrome mixed media collage of the actor Anthony Quinn, assembled by the actor himself in shades of white. It was sickly looking. My father bought it somewhere – I don’t know where – and hung it in the large, hollow foyer of our large, hollow home. I hated that painting. I hated Quinn’s purposefully disfigured face and the way his gaze seemed always directed toward me no matter where I positioned myself in the room. On nights I couldn’t sleep, I would attempt to cross that foyer in the dark, for my mother’s bedside or for a glass of milk. I would wrap my toes around the edge of the carpet where the hallway ended and the foyer began, daring myself to run, stalling. Sometimes I’d summon the bravery and other times my mother would find me in the morning, in a crumpled wet ball on the floor, collapsed from terrified exhaustion.
I begged my father to get rid of that painting, but he refused. His prized possession.
What are you afraid of? I am no longer afraid of that portrait of Anthony Quinn, although it is still just as ugly as I remember. My childhood fears assumed different shapes as I grew older, then morphed into something larger, more unknowable. At age eight, for example, I became very afraid of the Hale-Bopp comet colliding into Earth and incinerating me along with the rest of my 3rd grade class. Then being forgotten, being alone, and eating white-colored foods, in pretty much that order.
Do you remember the Hale-Bopp comet from back then? Do you remember 1997 and Nike Decades and Heaven’s Gate? (I know you do.) I wrote about it in my diary exactly 18 years ago today. I wrote: “I saw a comet in the air. If it hits Earth all life will be wiped out. I really hope it doesn’t hit Earth. I don’t want to die. The entire sun could fit inside the comet, it’s so big.”
Friday 27 March
I’m here, and the coffee cup is missing. It’s fine, it was free. I got it from The Dish Depot, a sort of hoarders warehouse on San Fernando filled to the ceiling with dusty chinaware and crates of ketchup. The manager found me amusing and pawned two dirty mugs to my load. I got home and scrawled WHICH WITCH with a sharpie. I imagined all the rats that had pooped in this mug.
Would WW bring back the plague?
It is 9:00am now, and the same bible group that was here on Thursday has returned en masse. We cannot frequent the hipster bars because we don’t want to support gentrification. We cannot go to these old dives because the customers are racist bigots. Where do we sit at the table? I suppose I enjoy sitting behind these cargo clad dudes, our tarot cards a viscous affront. I can see them, nervously cupping their concealed weapons, ordering wheat toast and home fries well done.
When I opened the box this time, I believed it all a big joke. You told me yesterday this was your card, the worst card of all. The tower of death, imprisonment, banished desire. Did you pull this unknowingly or are you playing a trick? Perhaps I deserve it, but I cannot accept humiliation thrust down from a higher place. Is it late enough yet to introduce the impotent member, the tantric internalisation of ejaculation. I watch Gail, our amazing and steadfast waitstaff, circulate the gun-range mafia beside us. She airdrops scrambled eggs with military prowess. Later I learn her mother too was a waitress here, and served the CalArts crowd in the dead of night. It was different then, she confides.
I am trying to visualise the moment you knew your body would reject this place last night. How did the tail lights look, bleeding together like applesauce? Or were they more like bacon, striated, stringy and fat? When you threw up after the french toast, after a seizure, after Michael, after heatstroke, did you stop and consider writing, ever, as a recital (redefinition?) of this act?
Friday, March 27, 2 PM
Dear E –
Hello again. There’s an episode of Maury on at the bar here. 19-year-old Adriana suspects her boyfriend Johnny is having sex with one of her family members! Oooo. She came on the show with her aunt Georgie so that Maury could give Johnny a lie detector test. I want you to know that it isn’t just Adriana’s name that initially grabbed my attention, it’s that Adriana is fucking beautiful. She has the glossiest red hair I have ever seen in my life and it falls straight down her back, an immaculate feminine valance. She has dewy skin (white), blue eyes, a big mouth with big lips that she uses to shout wildly in Johnny’s face without ever disturbing her mane. Her aunt is squat and likes to express herself by throwing her arms around in the air (I’m not actually sure why her aunt is there) and her boyfriend Johnny is a scoundrel. He failed the lie detector test. Adriana cry-screams without ever smearing her mascara.
You get the feeling that Adriana will still rise victorious because she is so pretty. Or is that just me?
If we believe the Maury show’s narrative about Johnny and Adriana like we believe the narrative of these letters and the entire &NOW conference, then we believe that Johnny is indeed a scoundrel. Well. Johnny and I have something in common. We are both cheats. I didn’t just remember that text from my 3rd grade diary yesterday. I went home and looked it up, then inserted it into the letter later. What am I really afraid of? Yesterday, I left the conference with a headache that morphed into a migraine that morphed into me pulling over and vomiting by the side of the road. Today, I’m greeted by the Chariot card. Car trouble. I thought I might crash trying to get home. I couldn’t see clearly. The pain started first in my skull, like shallow, then moved deep behind my eyes until suddenly the pain was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Have you ever had a migraine? That is not a metaphor.
I feel like an imposter here. I am so afraid of not writing well that I hardly let myself write at all. Will I ever reach my targeted destination? Will I stray the path like Johnny? There are other fears tormenting me besides fear of failure, like fear of regret. Fear of boredom. Fear of bigotry. Fear of shame. Fear of hubris. Fear of manipulation. Fear of the body. Fear of rape. Fear of age spots. Fear of popular culture. Fear of my own love for popular culture. Fear of missing out (FOMO). Fear of loneliness. Fear of abandonment. I can go on.
Will Which Witch save me? I feel an urgency in this project that I doubt anyone else is experiencing. I want to build a community (protective barrier) through making. I want to stay alive as a writer. I want to stay alive. I don’t want to die.
Write me back.
Saturday March 28
El Mundo, the world: A man, an eagle, a lion, a stag. The female body pirouetting in the middle portal, spinning on that lemniscatal axis for infinity. Eternity? These words are not the same. Eternity means no beginning and no end; infinity is something other, it outlines an origin in our post-resurrection existence. What does that mean? On the couch beside me a small child, his face too grown for his miniature body, writhes in slow motion, mouthing take me to church and staring me down. It’s like an impacting scene from Twin Peaks. [Insert: I go home and google the lyrics: I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies, I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife – Offer me that deathless death – Good God, let me give you my life.]
On the drive up this morning, I listened to Brand New in advance of their L.A show with Desaprecidos and Built to Spill. Listening to the ultra-emo tunes of my teenage years smacks me flat. Suddenly I’m back on the bloody-mary-red couch in our family home. Back when the black cat was still alive, when my father still pretended to love my mother, when my sister ate only dry foods. There is a particular way light filters into a room of your youth. You remember it corporeally. The sharp heat bisecting your shin below the knee, dinner on your lap in front of the t.v, untying your dad’s red shoes when he get backs from the tip, not particularly liking the shoes, but owning an exact replica now. Emblematic, regurgitatory, cannibalistic, oedipal. Do you know what I’m talking about?
What did you really think of the conference yesterday? My favourite part was being led by the hand down a dimly lit walkway, whispered to gingerly in front of a crowd. His breath wet my cheek, sharp, strong, filthy. Pussy. He whisper-screamed. Tom and Huck are sitting beside a stream, dragging their fingers through the cool water. Tom asks Huck what their children will be like. Huck replies that he doesn’t know, but he can’t wait to have kids so he can beat them. Sometimes at night he lays down and imagines beating them, making them beg as he unlatches his belt. Tom takes Huck’s hand, drags it down below the water line.
Did you ever really know your father? Can you? As a young child, I used to watch my sister sleep. She was a few years younger than me, slept better. We shared a room, were working-class then. This is East London in the early nineties. My parents had just moved our family of four from a one-bedroom high-rise in Bow. Every weekend we walk down to Roman Road Market, an environment I can’t explain to you because it does not exist here in California, in America even. In puffy jackets strapped into a pram, my mum would bundle us into the pie n’ mash shop on the corner, just past the leather stalls, to get out of the rain. The stench of eel and vinegar stung my eyes even then. All the windows were steaming. Everyone white and unhealthy, poor, post-war, ageing, canned-spam, boiled veg, perms, poor eyesight, yellow teeth, bad breath. In the dead of night I would pinch my sister’s nose as she slept. I wondered if she would suffocate, how long it would take. I’d wait for her to splutter and choke then jolt back in the bed as if deep in a dream, as if I hadn’t been awake at all. I wonder now if my experiments contributed to her constant nervousness, her unexplained anxiety. She would wake in shock, but find nothing amiss. What was I preparing her for? That’s a better way to see it. Other times I would just play with her limbs, re-arrange them, stretch, bend, pose. See how far I could push before her eyes opened up.
I still do not sleep well, but I’m no longer interested in the body beside me. Thinking about it this way, I always chose lovers who were limp and manoeuvrable, even in daylight. I liked to play mom when the stakes were low. Now I’ve no energy for libidinal exploration. Have you traced your contemporary relationship back to its pre-adolescent emergence? What did you find?
[Epilogue: It’s Sunday and I’m reading through these before I share them with you. I just got home from a performance in which a seated lady cut holes in her skirt with a razor blade, swallowed milk from a shallow glass bowl and spit it out into the holes in her skirt, milk running down between her legs and onto the floor beneath her.]
Saturday, March 28, 2 PM
Dear E –
Here again. It’s the final day of the conference. All of our Which Witch crap was stolen from the “writers’ booth” overnight. Is that sad? The notebook I left here for people to write their names and email addresses is gone. The pins you designed so that they looked like two twin babies squished together in a womb and had rush ordered are gone too, and so is the pale green ceramic bowl that you bought to display the pins. Was the bowl expensive? I bet you bought it at a fancy Good Will.
I guess I should’ve seen this coming. Someone swiped one of the two Which Witch mugs/pen holders after the first night of this experiment. “The risks of a 24-hour establishment.” That’s what you said when you told me the news.
Who would want a dirty mug with Which Witch scrawled across it in permanent marker? You didn’t even write the words very straight, and you smeared the ink when you wrote them. I didn’t tell you that when you showed me the mugs, but I thought it.
This morning I gave a woman who I’d never met before a ride from the conference to the diner. The smallest act of kindness to precipitate my final card, Strength. She was interesting – a copyediting freak like me! – but more polite. She asked how we came up with the name for Which Witch so I told her the story. I told her that it took a very, very long time. That it happened during that summer when we were both feeling listless, indecisive. That it began with a text message you sent me while we were both at the Mike Kelley retrospective downtown, and that we kept texting each other stolen words and phrases for the rest of the summer, until – we’d hoped – we stumbled across whatever we’d been looking for. I told her that Which Witch happened at some point along the way, and eventually we realized the name contained ourselves – our hoped for future selves too – neatly, in a phrase.
I just ordered a piece of chocolate cream pie because this particular letter feels very nostalgic. Like sad and lustful at the same time and that’s pie to me.
I’ve been imagining the person (persons?) who stole from us. The Saugus Cafe is open 24-hours and there’s a homeless shelter down the road. Whoever stole the mug probably needed it more than Which Witch does, you’re right. I read in the local newspaper that a homeless community has been growing along the Santa Clarita river wash. According to the Santa Clarita Gazette, one of the dwellings out there even had a shower rigged up, and a living room – I mean, before the police tore it down. I imagine someone boiling water over a fire, then sitting back in their outdoor living room and enjoying hot instant coffee out of our mug with Which Witch written in crooked handwriting on the side – maybe feeling OK, maybe, for a moment. Even if the thief isn’t homeless, I don’t blame him or her. I know what it’s like to covet something you don’t have. I know what it’s like to feel lonely.
Saturday, March 28, 2 PM (again)
Dear E –
Had to write you another letter after I finished my pie because the waitress (Debbi) ended up finding all of our Which Witch stuff underneath the bar. I guess the cleaning staff put it away to protect it from getting stolen by someone from homeless overnight. Is that better or worse than my original interpretation? I love you. I love all of you. It doesn’t matter.