“Change Is Always Possible”: Hillary Leftwich Interviews Mairead Case

Mairead Case is a teacher, writer, and editor in Denver, Colorado. She publishes widely, and wrote the novel See You in the Morning (featherproof), the poetry chapbook TENDERNESS (Meekling), the forthcoming novel Tiny, and, with David Lasky, the forthcoming Georgetown Steam Plant Graphic Novel. Mairead holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD from the University of Denver, and she teaches at Strive Prep, the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the Denver Women’s Jail. She is a Legal Observer with the NLG and volunteers for a community response team supporting queer and trans survivors of violence. Previously Mairead lived in Chicago for a decade, where she worked and wrote for places like Pitchfork and the Poetry Foundation. / maireadcase.com



Hillary Leftwich: You’re a former birthday clown. Explain.

Mairead Case: When I first moved to Chicago fifteen years ago, I was freelancing for places like Pitchfork and Punk Planet. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I had a place that would give me records to listen to every month, and I had a friend who had a friend who had a bedroom with a mattress, and that seemed like enough at that point. I also had a bunch of weirdo clothes that I wore to shows, and one day I realized that if I wore those same clothes during the day, I could be a clown. I could dress up to go to work and just ride the bus as a weirdo with loud shoes and patterns and makeup, and no one would bother me. I could just ride.

Kids are good about diving into what you’re doing along with you, and so I would just ask them how they wanted their face to look, and what kind of balloon animal they wanted as a friend. More than anything else, it was practicing conversation. Sometimes the balloon dogs I made were lopsided, but they came with a story so it didn’t really matter. With my clowning added to my writing, I made a decent amount of money—at least, enough to support my twenty-two-year-old self. I was proud. I was lucky to not need a lot, and that I could work to access everything I needed.

HL: You mentioned Catholicism in an interview I discovered a few years back …

MC: Wow. You went deep!

HL: I did!

MC: Thank you.

HL: You’re welcome. You mentioned in the interview that Catholicism is still a big part of your life. Does it influence your writing other than See You in the Morning?

MC: It’s a big part of my life because it’s a big part of how I grew up. I was surprised when it first showed up in See You in the Morning. I didn’t want to write about Catholicism because my primary motor for it at the time was anger. For example, a while ago a friend from college was cleaning out his closet, and he posted this shirt that we all wore then. It was bright orange, and it said “Gay? Fine By Me.” We fought to wear those shirts. They were the most radical act of acceptance we saw from school administration at the time. But: “Fine By Me”—what the fuck does that mean?

I had more patience then, because I wasn’t sure that “it” really was fine. But then of course I realized that not only is it fine: it’s great, whatever, and it’s not necessarily anyone else’s business either. (Also, LOL at our school being so worried about the word “gay.”) So then I got really angry for a couple years.

But you know what? At the same time, I really love how Catholics think that death isn’t the end. I really love my friends, and I really miss people who are no longer here, and I have no idea where they are but I know they can’t be completely gone. So that part of Catholicism—the bewilderment, not the fixed hell—makes a lot of sense to me. I’m okay with all of this being complicated. Waiting for a grace feels a lot more sincere than saying: never again, and even if I wait forever, because: don’t get me wrong: I’m still really angry. Are you religious at all?

HL: No. I went to a Christian school for three years, so I understand what you’re saying about not tolerating shit. But it all comes out later eventually.

MC: That’s the thing: it all comes in a very painful way years later. After a point you have to live your life, please. After a point we’re too old to feel guilty about what we love.

HL: In Vol. 1 Brooklyn, which I love …

MC: Right?

HL: Hell yes. In an interview there, you said Samuel Delaney’s About Writing says you should write what you know, but not what you know too well. What are some previous examples of topics you know too well? Also, what do you think this means for people working in trauma, or experiencing traumatic situations in their jobs? How do they write about those parts of their lives?

MC: Oh man, that’s a hard question. The example that [Delaney] used was, I forget the exact details—but there was a wound he was around, either on his body or someone else’s, and it went into sepsis. So he knew what this wound was like, and he could describe how it oozed and how it felt and how to treat it, and then he put it into some sort of extra-terrestrial space where another body was dealing with the pain. Basically, take what you know and use it to make another world more real. Sure, write about your own leg in the beginning, but if it’s still your own leg at the end you haven’t done the work.

In turn, I try to start with some thing—some person, some feeling—I know intimately, but then I need to push it beyond myself and my initial understanding of the situation. This is different than telling someone else’s story, and it’s different than making your own story spicier. For example, the manuscript I’m finishing now is set in the Pacific Northwest, because I know those streets and forests so well, and the character thinks about death a lot, and joy, because I do too, but after that everyone is on their own. After that my only job is to keep standing at the desk. It’s the worst.

HL: In your interview at Real Pants in 2016, you said it’s your responsibility to educate yourself on the system and your specific community, if not purely because it will make you a better teacher. Other than making you a better teacher, how do you feel this influences a person’s specific writing community, such as in Denver?

MC: I think we only have so much emotional labor that we can expect of each other without running in circles, or squashing ourselves. And because writing can be easier to approach than say, sculpture, or filmmaking—languages whose equipment can be very expensive and restrictive—it’s easy for people to be casual about giving and demanding this labor. Emotional work is not easily measured under capitalism, and its boundaries are really porous. But if you just pour out all the time, you’ll be exhausted, and worse, you will not be on the level. And if you only ever ask, you’ll be so far away from the work you need to do.

If you are a working writer, I think it’s important that your work functions in your community—whatever that community looks like to you, and even when you fail it. You want to give energy back, to others and to yourself. In other words, yes I love readings and shows, and I genuinely believe that experiencing them is a gift. But that gift does not magically turn into a sandwich. It usually does not turn into rent money. So you must always be aware of your community too—who needs what? How is everyone sleeping? What’s going on? What do you need? I don’t think we have to choose between loving huge parts of our work and staying alive.

HL: Do you feel there are a lot of people in the writing community who are lost or find themselves struggling to connect, and throw themselves into a program and get in way over their heads? If so, do you feel they are doing it for the wrong reasons? Can there ever be a wrong reason, and if so, what would that be?

MC: I think the wrong reason would be to make money off of others. People ask how much money I make teaching at the jail, and the answer is always none. It’s just me, and that’s a choice that I make as a cis white lady with a lot of academic privilege. Admittedly, not being paid means that this isn’t work I can do forever, but right now I can do it fairly easily because I have a bunch of lesson plans to rotate throughout the year, and I’ve been at the same jail for a long time.

That said, teaching in the system is really stressful and forever-shocking—because of the Thirteenth Amendment, which means everything is set up for immediate maximum deliverables, not conversations with humans. Meaning, you can (and I have!) failed in some ways for years, but at the same time there might be someone who always shows up, or someone who wrote something new for the first time in months, or someone who kept a poem and used it to write letters to their kid back home. These things matter. Connecting matters.

But I’ve never thought I could “save” anyone or “give them a voice” (barf), and I never thought that a poem was the same thing as detox or a good meal, or time with your love, or reparations. I am good at this work because I know my place in it, I have emotional resources, and I have the time and patience. I won’t always have those things this way so I won’t always do this work this way, but I will always be an abolitionist.

HL: For my own selfish curiosity, do the inmates you teach look forward to you coming to teach?

MC: Aw yeah, I think so. We all just talk together. I look forward to seeing them too.

HL: I often hear writers; especially new writers, talk about how they want to be a writer as their career. You’ve worked many jobs and you still wear many hats. Do you feel you sacrificed a career for the greater good? Do you feel you have to sacrifice a career in order to do good in the community?

MC: What do you mean by career?

HL: That’s why I put “career” in quotation marks. The American definition of career.

MC: No, to both. So much of it is time. I came up in white indie culture and hit adulthood before 2008, which means I had several years where I thought the world supported independent press in a very fixed way. After 2008, I realized the way is constant but not fixed. I don’t think I chose to be a writer, but I chose to commit to it as work that would make me question and grow and connect and care, and consequently I would probably need to work many jobs, sometimes. This isn’t that radical. It’s just that people who have had just one job forever in this country have more of a platform to talk about their experiences.

And change is always possible—in my twenties, I loved running around because I got to be different people in different places. Now, most of my energy goes into one job where I can be several people at once, and I really love that too.

HL: So, last question. There is a moment on the Women’s Liberation Rock Band comp you wrote about …

MC: Oh, man. You went deep! Thank you!

HL: Absolutely! So, it’s the audience after a song in the 70s, and they’re screaming “Play it again!” They don’t want a new song, they don’t want to go home. They want that moment again. What moment do you want again?

MC: Whoa, tough question. Another person who works with repetition is Wynne Greenwood. In her band, Tracy + the Plastics, Wynne was everyone. She played Tracy as well as Tracy’s bandmates Nikki, Cola, and Honeyface. Tracy was live, and the other three were pre-recorded and projected. My favorite song is “Stitch a Claw.”

Tracy + the Plastics was a deep repetition, a performance about fail-better communication, and also it was exhausting. A lot of people got annoyed and left. I think about that project a lot because in its steadiness it showed how much we’re all changing all the time: our bodies, our families, our chemicals, our everything else. How the hell anyone finds safety in that shimmer is often a mystery to me. You could meet someone for coffee every week forever, every time you’d show up as a slightly different person. So my answer is: coffee with the people I love forever. To be able to show up for that, most of the time (maybe with a few secrets to keep it interesting).

Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Her writing can be found in print and online in such journals as The Missouri Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Sundog Lit, NANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in spring of 2019. She is Prose & Poetry Editor at Heavy Feather Review. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com

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