Hustling: Mills alum Cheena Marie Lo on being a working artist in the Bay Area

In anticipation of the 2015 edition of 580 Split, we are releasing an excerpt from an interview with Cheena Marie Lo as told to Davey Davis. 

Cheena Marie Lo is a Bay Area poet and Mills alumnus who, like many artists, must strike the balance between working a day job and cultivating their craft. As an admirer of Cheena’s work, I arranged this interview because I was curious about how they navigated being a queer working artist in the Bay Area, as well as hear about their upcoming projects and collaborations. This excerpt from the full interview touches on their post-MFA successes as a working poet and their experiences with cissexism in academic and professional environments.

Davey Davis: Everyone has to pay the bills, artists included. What’s it like to divide your time between your day job and your actual work?

Cheena Marie Lo: Right out of the MFA I was doing a temp job at UC Berkeley, while working at Mills part time as the admin assistant in the English department. After the temp job ended, I kept up the admin work which was like ten hours a week, and supplemented that with part time work at restaurants. I was happy to have that job—I really liked working there, I really cared about the program. I was also happy to have “just one” job. What can I say? I was like, okay, great. I really like doing this whole thing.

DD: Hustling.

CML: Yeah, which, allowed me the time to work on my writing, but it’s also hard to get into that creative space when you’re hustling all the time. I was always so tired. I usually worked at cafes, and always preferred the opening shifts because you get more tips and theoretically get the whole day to do what you will after your shift. Often times though, you’re exhausted after being on your feet and talking to difficult people for seven, eight hours in a row, and you don’t want to do anything except take a long nap. Working on top of being an artist is hard. Even if you have just one job, which is reliable with a fixed schedule, but it still takes up a lot of your time and getting back into a creative mindset after sitting in front of a computer staring at spreadsheets all day is hard. So, the end of that admin job was actually sort of great, because I had just been talking about all of these projects I wanted to work on, but it was going slowly because the day job got in the way.

After I processed what happened, I was like “maybe this is a sign!” And I did have a productive summer. When all of the work/career stuff was falling apart, the creative stuff, the work I care about, was really good. I was invited to read at the Oakland Museum as part of their Friday night programming; I got to read in their Judy Chicago exhibition. I participated in this symposium at the California Institute of Integral Studies called “From Trauma to Catharsis: Performing the Asian Avant Garde” and I presented alongside some writers that I really admire. I did a residency at a local art gallery and produced a small chapbook of work; I went to New York and did a few readings there. And my first book is getting published next year. So it was a weird summer, I spent a lot of it being stressed out about work and making money, but all of the other work I really cared about was going so well.

DD: I wanted to ask about your experiences as a genderqueer person with gender neutral pronouns in professional or administrative environments, like when you worked at Mills.

CML: Stephanie [Young] was so good about my pronouns and it was so great to have your boss back you up. I have to have that conversation with my new boss. I’ve brought it up in job interviews before and I’ve had a bad experience.

DD: What happened?

CML: I said during an interview once, “Something that’s important to me is I identify as genderqueer, I use they/them pronouns, and I was wondering how your department is inclusive of that sort of diversity.” They got super defensive and were like, oh, well, we don’t believe in identity markers, we’re all just people. And I knew then that it wasn’t going to be a good fit. I go back and forth about pronouns at work because oftentimes, my co-workers are just my co-workers. I never see them outside of work or talk to them about anything that doesn’t involve work. It feels like too much to sit down and have “the talk” with them.

DD: Like maybe you aren’t sure there’s going to be pushback, but it’s just not something a lot of people have the energy to do.

CML: Totally. I don’t feel like I need to educate you. I also feel confident that this new job is a place where I’d like to be for a while so I’ll probably try and talk to them about it. Send them an email or something.

DD: Email helps me organize my thoughts. And people feel less like they’re being put on the spot when it’s not in person. It’s funny too, that the knee-jerk response from some people is, “I’m gonna mess up! So I’ll just do it on purpose instead.”

CML: Yeah, it’s like, “I know you’re gonna mess up. I’m just letting you know what I prefer.” And yeah, for some people, they’ll just say, “I know I’m screwing up but it’s just so hard!” But you’re doing something wrong!

DD: That’s kind of where I am, too. I mean, my girlfriend knows and my friends know. At some point you have to let it go. An acquaintance of mine corrects people very aggressively and I like it, I think it’s pretty effective, but I think you also have to have that kind of personality and I don’t.

CML: I definitely don’t.

DD: When you worked at Mills, I’d never seen anyone in an administrative position who used those pronouns and had them in official emails. It made me excited!

CML: I know! It’s funny because I never even told anybody at Mills except for Jess [Heaney] and Stephanie because they are my friends. I sent out an email to close friends and collaborators about my pronouns, like, “Hey, I’m using these pronouns now. Please respect that. Thank you. I expect that you will mess up but it’s okay, just try not to do it a lot. But also if you find somebody using the wrong pronoun, it’s sometimes exhausting for me to correct them, so it would be super helpful if you could.” So I think Jess and Stephanie must have taken that on at Mills which was so awesome because I wasn’t even there much at first, only working on-campus once a week. I’m assuming a conversation must have happened between other folks in the department and my pronouns started getting used. Now I feel totally spoiled because at this new position, I’m going to have to have the conversation myself [laughter]. At Mills, it was great to have colleagues who really took that on and advocated for me.

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