Today we’re joined by Janice Worthen. Janice is a phenomenal poet and writer from Idaho. They’ve been published by The Rectangle, on a shirt for Backwords Press, and had a poem included in bags of coffee for Nomadic Grounds. Janice also edits Night Music Journal and is always looking to publish work by asexual writers (if any of you out there are interested). When they’re not writing or editing, Janice also does photography. They’re clearly a very dedicated artist. My thanks to them for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Please, tell us about your art.
My work is a way to share my internal world, my thinking through the internal and external, in a format that is more comfortable to me than speech. It’s my way of communing, of sharing things that move me, shatter me, anger me, transform me. It’s me extending a hand—a vulnerable act, a gesture of trust. I spend a lot of time with my head in the clouds—thinking about systems, webs of connection, history and its repercussions, the future, the present, the joy and agony of the moment as it’s passing, and myself in relation to all these things—and my work is my way of grounding those thoughts. With each poem, each photo, each sketch, I think I’m really just asking, “Are you there?” I think my work is waiting for an echo. I guess I’m twanging a thread, waiting for the vibration of return.
What inspires you?
Hands down, the underdog. Anyone (or anything) who looks into the face of their own destruction and doesn’t give in. Anyone who, even in defeat, holds on to who or what they are, their joy, their right to be. It’s so easy to give in to fear, to sell out, to back down. But it’s so beautiful when someone stands their ground, turns the tide, shakes the foundation of the powerful. I hope that, in the face of all I fear, I rise.
What got you interested in your field? Have you always wanted to be an artist?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer because writing made me feel real, feel valid. I was a shy, quiet, fat kid who spent most of their time in the library. A kid who clearly didn’t fit the gender binary. I think because of these things it was easy for others to dismiss me, and because difference is so often seen as threatening, to bully and try to break me. But when my voice was a whisper and easy to ignore or speak over, I found my writing was harder to dismiss. My self was harder to ignore and deny. My writing forced others to see me as human. Through my writing, I existed.
But writing was also a way for me to have a conversation, to become a part of all those books that gave me comfort, that fueled my imagination. It sounds weird, but writing felt like a way to give back, to say I hear you. I hear you.
Only recently have I focused more time on photography. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I don’t have any fancy equipment. My degrees are in writing, not photography. But capturing a moment and sharing that moment with those I care about is something that gives me great joy.
Do you have any kind of special or unique signature, symbol, or feature you include in your work that you’d be willing to reveal?
I’ve noticed that mirrors pop up often in my work.
What advice would you give young aspiring artists?
Sometimes the work that you get the most pushback on will make the most difference. Seek out and listen to feedback but always ask yourself what the motivation behind that feedback is. Sometimes people will criticize/dismiss/mock your work when they really want to criticize/dismiss/mock you. And sometimes the work you feel like throwing away will be treasured by someone else who might live in the same moment, the same thought, and the same place as you, even if they come after you. You can be a friend, ally, or even hero to that person. Be open, but also be assertive and bold and confident in your work, your experience, your perspective. Even when it’s hard, keep making your art.
Where on the spectrum do you identify?
I’m an aromantic asexual.
Have you encountered any kind of ace prejudice or ignorance in your field? If so, how do you handle it?
Oh, yes. I’m an asexual in a very sexual field. I’m constantly aware of this. I’m constantly reminded of this. Many in my field consider sex or desire as essential to art, liberation, and even revolution. They simply can’t comprehend and are sometimes hostile towards someone who doesn’t feel or think the same way they do about something they’ve put at the center of their art.
As an asexual, I often feel like I exist outside my own field. Since I’m not willing to participate in the secret handshake, I’m not allowed in the club, a club that is often abuzz and fueled by gossip surrounding sex and desire. Because I’m an asexual, I feel like I’m not allowed to have an opinion on work or artists in my field, and any opinion I voice is invalid. Not only that, but anything I say that goes against the dominant narrative of sex and desire is seen as an attack, not only on the writers and work that value sex and desire, but an attack against liberal or progressive values or even the sexual liberation movement itself. I find this odd because I’ve been accused of being too progressive and consider myself more progressive than many of the liberal people I know. And I see the growing acceptance of asexuality as a victory of sexual liberation, not something at odds with it.
My orientation is virtually invisible in my field. I was once excited to come across a published poem about asexuality for only the second time in my life only to learn the writer is not asexual but felt at liberty to write with authority about my orientation. The 2016 VIDA Count found that The Times Literary Supplement was “one of the few publications to publish asexual people this year.”
Prejudice and ignorance are often expressed through microaggressions, which are common and remind me how invisible my orientation is. A poet I know once said that a way to express disapproval of certain voters is for “us” to stop sleeping with them, as if “we” as writers are sexual gatekeepers, a single unified sexual force that rewards or punishes behavior with our shared sexual prowess, the primary implication being that everyone is allosexual. With each casual comment like this I become unwelcome, not part of the community, invisible.
I came out because I realized it was important to counter the all-too-common assumption that people like me don’t exist in my field. After I came out, it felt like I’d actually been erased (no pun intended) completely. Perhaps this is just perception, perhaps it’s a reflection of my work, but it seemed like people suddenly weren’t interested in reading anything by me, published or not, or having discussions with me about others’ work, etc. I had placed myself on the outside. I could observe but not participate. I often feel like I’m throwing my work at a wall now, but I don’t regret my decision to come out. Others will find me, and I will find others, and we’ll make new, more inclusive communities. That’s how I handle all this: reaching out, standing up, speaking out.
What’s the most common misconception about asexuality that you’ve encountered?
Phew, the most common. I guess in my field, among members of my community, the misconception I most encounter about asexuality is that all asexuals are hostile towards, afraid of, or somehow consider themselves above sex or allosexuals. I myself am sex positive. Sex is great for other people who want and get fulfillment from it, and I think sexual freedom is vital. Sex just doesn’t interest me in the slightest, and I wish others felt as positive toward my orientation as I do toward theirs. It’s funny because many of the people who are afraid I’m judging their orientations and lifestyles don’t realize they’re actually the ones judging and afraid of mine.
What advice would you give to any asexual individuals out there who might be struggling with their orientation?
Find or plug in to your community. Even if you’re an introvert like me, it helps to see other asexuals being their asexy selves and to know you aren’t alone. Join asexual groups and follow asexual artists on social media. Read and watch anything by and about asexual people. Don’t be afraid to find a support system and to cut toxic people out of your life that break you down instead of build you up. Embrace the struggle. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. You don’t have to be certain of anything right now. Don’t be afraid of the present or the future. Just by existing, you are shaping that future. Don’t be afraid of you. This might be easier said than done, but repeat it like a mantra: I am not alone, I am part of a community, I am valid, my experience is valid, my voice is important, I matter, my art matters, I am paving the way for others like me.
Finally, where can people find out more about your work?
I’m on Instagram (at impossibleblossom). I’m also on Tumblr (janiceworthen.tumblr.com), and you can find links to some of my poetry there. I’m also the editor of Night Music Journal (nightmusicjournal.com), and I’m always accepting submissions of poetry, essays, and hybrid work. I really encourage fellow asexuals to send me work and pass along the invite to your LGBTQIA friends!
Thank you, Janice, for participating in this interview and this project. It’s very much appreciated.