Kristin Garth, the author of several superb poetry collections, has built a career out of bringing together elements that seem strange in concert: Libraries and sex; Barbie dollhouses and stripping; Yellow fever and whimsy; Education and depravity. That she usually works with the Shakespearean sonnet form only adds to the friction. The electricity that comes from these matings is contagious for readers and editors alike, which is why she has managed to publish more sonnets than Shakespeare himself. But her work also is a trove of reciprocal socio-cultural observations that empowers the communities whose stories she tells.
The speakers in her poems are always delightfully present and unique, and she doesn’t attempt to portray any of the worlds she describes as being stagnant or stereotypical. And yet, in this, it’s possible for motivated readers to learn about places and people they might never get to engage with in their waking lives. One by one, Garth’s readers expand their notions of normal and become more tolerant and more awake. The power of that in our current reality cannot be emphasized enough.
So it is with her latest book, The Meadow, that Garth bares her courageous story of finding herself in the world of Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism, or bdsm for short. It’s an oft-misunderstood and little known subculture that Garth skillfully introduces and interprets in her book. I sat down and chatted with Garth on a Friday afternoon in the middle of the Coronavirus quarantine. As always, she blew me away with her intelligence and humility.
Amy Suzanne: First of all, your introduction is some beautiful prose that very responsibly addresses any previous conceptions the reader might have about bdsm culture. Tell me a bit about your journey to so succinctly and maturely educate your readers before they enter The Meadow?
Kristin Garth: Thank you so much for saying this about the introduction. It came later to the book out of a concern that I had in writing a book about a culture, in the case of The Meadow, the bdsm culture or one subset of that to which I was exposed. My goal in telling a story is never to be a role model, per se, or instructional or to try to serve as a speaker of a class of people. I am me. I want people to feel their paths as a survivor of abuse, as a sexual person are valid and important. My path was my path, and it came out of my biography which includes child abuse. It’s not the predominant or exclusive path to bdsm, and I wanted to make that clear. This book is my experience only, and my experience is valid and worth telling as are people’s with a positive start in life.
I met so many unique people in my years traveling in this world. They came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, professionals and students, political advisers and recluses. I kept saying to Jeremy Gaulke, my publisher, that I very much wanted to own the personal nature of this story and disavow any idea I was generalizing an experience of people in this culture of which I was only one. Jeremy, who is also the illustrator of this gorgeous book, helped me edit this introduction and really make clear my desire to honor all experiences, even this specific one that is mine.
AS: You break the book into two sections: “Small Town,” and “Sex Object.” How did you develop this structure?
KG: The organization of The Meadow came to me early because of something my publisher at APEP Publications said recently in a reading — he was drawn to the story of The Meadow because it’s an outsider’s story. I never had put it quite that way, but I had organized this book as small town and sex object because I was trying to communicate exactly that. I was a small town girl who, like Alice in Wonderland, stumbled upon a world full of crops and curiosities.
I had a boyfriend who I talk about in my book, Dewy Decimals, who used to spank me. I loved that and craved it more than he actually liked doing it. I called him Daddy before I ever knew that was a fetish or ever heard the word “ageplay” (which is the fetish of taking on or expressing younger characteristics in one’s sexuality, personality and also includes relating to a partner in a paternal or maternal way). I just had these deep desires in the early ’90s when the Internet was a lot less established. I had a boyfriend though who was a computer genius and he introduced me to Internet Relay Chat. He said, “There are people who like what you like here.”
AS: Internet Relay Chat? What is that?
KG: Ha, that’s a great question. I’m very much not a computer person. I’ve gotten better because it’s part of my job in this modern poetry world. But in the early ’90s, I was a true computer neophyte. However, I have always been attracted to intelligence, and my boyfriend was a computer genius — as in he works at Microsoft now and was ahead of the technological times then.
Before the internet existed in its present social butterfly form, there was a network called Internet Relay Chat that had a very simple presentation of black screen and one-color text but it was essentially a series of chat rooms, public and private. The topics that were covered there included things like bdsm but so many others, too. I, as a computer dunce, would never have known about this service without the insider knowledge of my boyfriend. It was how I first connected with the broader bdsm scene.
AS: So he thought that you might find a community there?
KG: He was right. It was very intimidating, though, to go there, as a 19-year-old, freshly returned from a puritanical university, into places where people had refined their fetishes to such a degree. They traveled to parties, and all seemed to know each other, many very intimately. I was a fly on a shackle-covered wall and I was equally curious but afraid. The sonnet “Dangerous” in the book speaks to both.
The arrangement of the poetry in The Meadow illustrates that — the small town voyeur with some failed local experiences one day becomes a traveling sex object. But I was always the inexperienced girl in relation to the people I played with because of my sheltered life and my geography and my age. I wanted the book to reflect that.
AS: Speaking of which, all of your books are so thoughtfully designed, and I’m curious about any advice you might offer to those asking the question of how to organize a larger body of work?
KG: I’m a Capricorn, so I think organization and hard work are everything. I feel that way in manuscripts, too. I don’t have a pat answer that will say how to organize any manuscript because they are all different. A question one might ask one’s self is what is your objective? In The Meadow I really wanted to show a before and after of an individual — hence the “small town” and the “sex object.” In Candy Cigarette, I wanted to tell a story with more turns and facets, so it has more sections. I think organization should be organic in your story telling and shouldn’t feel artificial. If it is done well, I believe it tells a story on its own.
AS: The setting of much of The Meadow is inside your imagination. How do you continually access that part of yourself, and was that, for you, part of what originally drew you to BDSM? The imaginary aspects.
KG: Wow. I love that idea of the imaginative nature of bdsm. I definitely am a creature of the imagination. I think that comes from me having a very strict upbringing. I didn’t get to date until I was 18 due to my parents religious beliefs and controlling nature but I was always very sexual alone and in my head. I had elaborate fantasies and dreams that were very perverse and populated by all sorts of characters that would make me blush to describe.
When I came into the world of the bdsm scene and learned about roleplaying, I felt very at home. I liked being a character in a fantasy and being called a different name. My name in the bdsm world was Scarlet. It was my IRC name that my boyfriend had given me because his was Rhett. It was a name that came to be synonymous to me of lust and desire. When I heard men or women say it, I felt a summoning inside myself.
There is a lot of drama and theatricality in bdsm. My second dom, whom I fell in love with and has many sonnets in this book about him and the beginning and end of our relationship, he was an actor, not by profession (a lawyer by trade). He would call me and always the first words to me were this “Good evening” the delivery of which I wish I could capture in words. It was half-growl, and it made me tingle to my toes. I felt like I was in a dark fairytale with a beast except that as I say in my poem “Your Kind,” I was a beast too, and he was speaking a language that claimed me back from the humans who savaged me in my childhood to a more natural state.
AS: You describe a dom/sub relationship that evolves over time, deepening and impacting the individuals involved. Can you describe how that awareness and experience impacted you and your writing?
KG: Doms and subs have all the iterations of relationships that vanilla people have. Some dominants have only a physical relationship with a submissive. My first dom was a lot more like this. I say often that, to me, he was more of a swinger because he was not into pain and he was specifically turned off by crying or screaming which were things I did because I enjoyed the catharsis of expressing negative emotions. There is a sonnet in the book called “We Are Fucking Happy” that shows our differences. Like anyone who doesn’t want to see all sides of you, he did not love me. None of this was that deep for him.
My second dom was polyamorous which was new to me as a concept. He had a live-in girlfriend who consented to my involvement with him and he played or “scened,” as was said in bdsm culture specifically when sexual or sadomasochistic playing involved an audience, with various people on a superficial level at parties and such.
Over time, I believe he loved me, and our relationship changed him. Bdsm relationships are often filled with rules and a sort of structure or decorum about how the submissive behaves, for example, in public with the dominant. It is all consensual and a show of respect and also a bit of theater.
One time at a bondage club, I was there with my dom, his partner and one other submissive. We were putting on a show where people were watching him do things to us. We had rules about how to sit when we were off stage and in the club to show reverence to our dom. After the show was over, the other girls were sitting in their appointed places and I unthinkingly draped my legs over his lap and rested my head against his chest as if we were at home. He didn’t scold me or correct me; he just gave me affection. This caused a lot of anger from the others, later, who wanted me punished. It became clear he was deferential to me and that became a problem. You can read about that conflict and how he resolved it to the satisfaction of the others in the sonnet “Hellfire.” His emotions for me did not befit my place in that house and eventually I lost that place.
We are all humans and whatever our sexuality, emotions play a part. Emotions are as much a part of bdsm as any sex toy or role you play, even if they are meant to be turned off.
AS: I can imagine that people outside of the bdsm world would wonder why anyone would pursue being a submissive. Why did this appeal to you?
KG: I think that sexuality isn’t something we decide. It’s who we are. I decided to be submissive as much as I decided to be bisexual — which is to say I didn’t. It’s my nature. Being submissive has inherent problems that I might avoid by not submitting and certainly I’ve learned to be more discriminating as I’ve aged. It is not, however, something I can go without.
I think some people have a negative take on submission because they equate it with passivity. Passivity is its own thing. Being passive means you are acted upon without choice and agency. You just let things happen to you regardless of your desire.
I was very active in seeking these dom/sub experiences out. They were about my sexual satisfaction as much as my partner’s. I liked being directed and pleasing. But I was very active in negotiating limits and setting the parameters of a relationship.
For example there is a poem in this book called “Denial.” I wrote it during orgasm denial. That is a practice where the dom says you are not allowed to cum without permission. They may cut you off from orgasming for periods of time. I tried this and wrote this poem under these conditions. The poem is as crazy as I felt. I don’t believe in denial, and I won’t do that again. I make these decisions, how I submit. It’s a very communicative and active process of both parties about deciding the rules of a dom/sub experience. I find that process very hot in and of itself.
AS: In The Meadow, there is a definite sense of adventure. You are traveling to have these encounters, and many of them are quite elaborate. Do you see this book as being one where the speaker in the poems goes on an archetypal quest?
KG: Adventure is definitely a theme of The Meadow! My first time ever flying on a plane of my own free will, was flying to New Jersey to stay with a young woman who was submissive to the man who would become my second dom. We had become friends on the IRC channel where I met this group of people. She was going to be attending a weekend of bdsm parties, one of which was to be hosted by her dom. She suggested I come.
At this point in my life, having returned from Brigham Young University, the Mormon college I attended against my will, I was back in my parents’ home. I didn’t have money and would not be given permission to fly somewhere.
My new friend told me that if I could find an alibi for the weekend like a friend I could say I was staying over with, the money would not be a problem. She told me the group wanted to pool resources and buy me a ticket. I did what she suggested and asked a college friend to cover for me for the weekend. Sure enough, a ticket arrived and I made this trip.
What I saw when I got there was like a traveling circus of pleasure and pain. The parties were at a hotel associated with the Philcon convention which we traveled to with my friend and her dom and some other women. I would learn that a lot of people into bdsm used the conventions as a way to host sex parties and meet up in various cities. At the parties scenes were put on before private audiences. I would have my first scene with my second dom there, a spanking before we ever had a kiss.
I can’t describe what it is to fall in love upon a stage but I suppose actors know. This stage was a living room of a hotel suite where people filled a room to see me get spanked. I had already found out it had been a lie that everyone had paid for me to go to this party. One person had: Him. And I only found out because, though I wanted so much to be with him, he would not make a move in my direction. I confided in my friend that he didn’t like me.
She said that the opposite was the case, he alone had paid for me to come. He wanted me to feel that I chose freely to engage with him. She only told me because she was afraid it wasn’t going to happen. She said you will have to ask him. And so I did. Shy little me had to walk up and ask this very experienced dom to spank me. But when I did his expression was pure delight and I knew how much he wanted me. The chemistry of that scene and people’s reaction to it is clear to me. It all took place to the song “King of the Road”— a lot of scenes have musical accompaniments. And you can read about it in the sonnet of that name. It was my initiation in this circus of desire.
AS: What did you learn as a writer in bringing this journey to life?
KG: The bdsm scene had taught me so much about myself as a writer as well. I feel that being self aware and honest submissive are all strengths of mine as a writer. I love rules and structure and order in the bedroom and in my writing and that shapes my love of formal poetry that I go wild inside the way that my bestial nature really shows itself in restraints. The communication required to be in a healthy dom/sub relationship also makes one more able to talk about sex and I feel that it has freed me as a writer from my puritanical roots.
AS: You underscore in the introduction that this is one person’s story. Why did you feel it was important to stress the individuality of this story?
KG: To me, I would love The Meadow to be seen as a case study of one girl’s path to and experiences in bdsm. I would never seek to speak for another’s experience. I am a unique beast in the meadow, and there are many others. The Meadow is my submissive space and that space is as different to another submissive as our backstories may be.
AS: Author and memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert has talked about asking herself to be as brutally honest in her writing as she asks those she writes about to be. Is this something that you strive for, and how did you develop the fortitude to tell your truth?
KG: I definitely believe in brutal, raw honesty. I think sonnets keep me as honest as I am succinct. The Meadow is composed of primarily sonnets and in writing a fourteen line poem, you cannot waver or wander. You have to be blunt and direct and use every word to its maximum effect. This structure helped me in The Meadow as I feel it does in all my books.
AS: How do you feel the use of illustrations, which are beautiful and graceful, by the way, supports the material presented in The Meadow?
KG: Jeremy Gaulke, my publisher of The Meadow, drew the efflorescent illustrations that accompany the sometimes brutal sonnets. When we first began work on the book, Jeremy was interested in drawing images that reflected more of the brutal imagery: Bdsm racks and the imaginary guillotine from the sonnet of that name. However, he is the one who ultimately decided that the illustrations should be simple and capture the calm of the meadow, allowing my words to be the brutality. I love the pictures and how they play against the work but also capture the peaceful state that the catharsis of pain instilled inside me. The pictures are like palate cleansers in the same way that a heavy scene that made me scream and cry emptied my anxiety and cleared my mind.
AS: I love these lines from “Your Dirty Secret:” “A crimson trail of blood and grinding teeth,
Oh, I have caught those hands much more than red and seen my tissue pulp and drip off neat
unbitten nails too long to buy this bed and breakfast shit from you again.” And I think it is because, here, I sense this strong survivor voice rising. Can you discuss how being a sub helped you gain strength and confidence and voice?
KG: I love that you chose “Your Dirty Secret” to discuss. That is one of my oldest sonnets. I wrote it, actually, during the time of my life of The Meadow, so decades ago. It has that urgency and anger I associate with my very young self. This poem is about one of my failed small town experiences in the world of bdsm. I had a fling involving bdsm with a man who had a very conservative demeanor and kept the kinky part of himself he expressed with me very hidden. He treated me like a whore and would date other people, and I would see him in public with them and try to avoid him. But when we ran into each other in a local bar, him with some conservative looking date, he would find a way to hit on me and try to lure me home. I got tired of being compartmentalized like this, and I wrote this poem. I think the strength of this voice is just pure anger and not worrying if anyone would ever read it. I wasn’t even thinking of publishing at this time. I had one publication at this time in my life, and it was one my first dom submitted on my behalf to an anthology called No Other Tribute: Erotic Tales of Women in Submission. I still lived at home when it was published so it was published under the pseudonym Scarlet.
AS: I find it interesting in the book whenever the BDSM experiences are brought into public spaces and wonder how you managed to convey in the poems that palpable tension between public and private.
KG: Public and private behaviors in bdsm are as loaded with tension and excitement as any private sexual behavior is when it’s brought into the public. I wore a collar in public when I was out of town with my dom, and I felt eyes on me with all sorts of expressions: displeasure, distaste, curiosity, excitement. I felt that everyone knew who I was and it was very honest. I was young and struggled with some of the decorum of the public scening. Sometimes I was chastised or punished. But I enjoyed the openness of this sexuality. When I went to San Francisco and New York, I saw the wildest things. I was naked in public in front of a lot of people who couldn’t touch me but the energy of that was addictive to me. It surely played into my becoming a stripper, which I did for five years post these experiences.