Like Walt Whitman, Steve Miller, and countless others before her, Oakland writer Anna Pulley is many things: A lesbian; a haiku aficionado; a whip-smart, pun-loving relationship and sex advice columnist.
She’s also a human being who, not too long ago, was having a really tough year. In 2010, Pulley’s fiancée dumped her. Within a matter of weeks, her father was diagnosed with cancer. Staring down depression and an accompanying case of writer’s block, Pulley began digging herself out one very small step at a time: Five syllables, then seven, then five again.
The result is a book so funny, you’d never guess at its origins: The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book (With Cats!), out last week on Flatiron Books — and celebrated with a reading April 28 at Pegasus Books in Berkeley — is a hilarious and thoroughly relatable meditation on modern relationships, from the pitfalls of online dating to the realities of sex with a bad back. Self-deprecating jokes about Audre Lorde, performance fleece, and The L Word abound. Oh, and the whole thing’s illustrated with cats.
The book, which contains nearly 500 haikus, can serve as educational material if you like — what lesbians actually do in the bedroom remains, thanks to thoroughly unrealistic porn, something of a mystery to many. But its pure entertainment value is not to be underestimated, in large part thanks to its cheeky line-drawings of perturbed-looking felines, penned by illustrator (and Pulley’s girlfriend) Kelsey Beyer.
Ahead of the book’s launch, we caught up with Pulley by phone to talk lesbian stereotypes, the haiku renaissance, and the challenges of publishing a book with one’s partner.
KQED Pop: You’ve mentioned that you think the haiku is having something of a revival in American culture at large right now. Where are you seeing that, and why do you think that’s happening?
Anna Pulley: I think its popularity sort of comes and goes. It was popular in the ’60s due to the Beats — Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder both popularized them. But then, just in the last 10 years or so, we’ve had a kind of splurge of books: Hipster Haiku, Zombie Haiku, Werewolf Haiku.
I think Instagram is one huge reason people are paying attention right now. Tyler Knott Greggson writes haiku on Instagram and one of the Kardashians favorited one, so he sort of blew up overnight.
And then there’s Twitter. I think because of our generation’s sort of collective ADHD, our lack of attention span, [haiku] is appealing because they’re short, digestible, and really easy to share.
You touch on that in the book — that your job was in social media during the time you started writing haikus frequently, that Twitter started played into your writing that way.
I think it definitely helped that I was doing social media, so I was very primed to have this short-form mentality. And then, you know, my life fell apart. I had writer’s block, and I couldn’t really claw my way out of it. Thinking in short, 17-syllable chunks was something I could do.
The other thing that catalyzed it for me was falling in love with a married woman. [Laughs.] She lived across the country and we didn’t get to see each other very often, so we had this message-based way of communicating with each other. We wrote hundreds of haikus back and forth, for years, communicating in this antiquated poetic form. And that really helped solidify the fact that I was going to be okay: I wasn’t incapable of writing, and I wasn’t this undesirable person.
You play a lot in this book with stereotypes about lesbians — and obviously, since you are gay, a lot of it just comes off as self-deprecating humor. But I’m curious if you were conscious, as you were writing, about where the line is between poking fun and perpetuating these kind of clichés?
Stereotypes are definitely something that have been on my mind. I was nervous I would be perpetuating stereotypes, that lesbians would be mad at me. But I also think that stereotypes are fascinating, and that they have a lot of subversive potential — they force you to look at these underlying causes. Why does society think that lesbian bed death is a thing? There’s been some research that shows lesbians have less frequent sex, but it’s longer. I think there are interesting questions within stereotypes about how we define ourselves as a community.
It’s also funny that probably one of the most common stereotypes is that lesbians are humorless, whereas this book…
And that was probably the biggest one that I was trying to counter. Obviously we can have a sense of humor, but historically, if you look at lesbians, we’re probably protesting something as opposed to mocking it or celebrating it for its humor.
So then it’s, okay, why do we have this legacy? Also, frankly, I embody a lot of lesbian stereotypes, and I think that’s really funny. I’m not burdened by the fact that I own a truck, for instance.
Before this was a book, it was a blog post on The Toast, and I remember reading the comments when it went up — everyone was just so stoked by the combination of cats and haikus and lesbians. Were you surprised by the reaction to that post?
I was surprised as hell. That first post is actually what got us a book deal — the publisher at FlatIron saw it and got in touch. I didn’t have a book proposal, I didn’t have an agent. It was completely shocking. But also, I think lesbians are starting to have their time in the limelight — it’s not that weird to be a queer person in 2016, so I think there is a sense of, “maybe it’s time to learn.” You know, maybe it’s time to learn about Tofurkey and whatnot. But yeah, after that post, I wrote pretty much the whole thing in four months.
Tell me about having Kelsey illustrate the book — what was it like to work on a book with your partner?
Mostly great. We had a lot of fun together; creatively, we were very much on the same page. She was the one who came up with the cat concept to begin with. Wendy MacNaughton was going to illustrate the book but then she got too famous, so it was really helpful that I was dating an artist. Some of the haikus were written for her, or so she could draw certain things — I’d be like, “Right, this one’s for you, I’ll make a haiku about a long-haired butch and it’ll involve John Stamos and it’ll be great.” Some of the financial stuff around the contract was tricky to iron out, to the point where we did wind up going to couples’ therapy. Which is, of course, another lesbian stereotype. So that was also great.
What’s next for you two with promotion? Are you taking the cats on tour?
[After the Bay Area events], I would love to go on a small-ish book tour to promote the lesbians and the cats — New York, Chicago. And then Cat Con is happening in LA in June, so that should be…a whole other thing.
Is that, like, cat videos, or furries, or both?
I mean, can you have a cat festival without furries? I guess we’ll find out.
Anna Pulley and Kelsey Beyer will appear at Pegasus Books in Berkeley this Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 pm. More details here.