Mad Science, Dying Worlds: A Conversation with Colette Arrand
Colette Arrand is a transsexual poet from Detroit, Michigan. She is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon and To Denounce the Evils of Truth. She is currently a student at the University of Georgia and is the founding editor of The Wanderer.
Two of Colette Arrand’s Pokédex-inspired pieces appeared in the first year of Cartridge Lit. Below, she discusses these works, as well as wrestling and more, with editor A.A. Balaskovits.
We published “Rattata” and “Cubone,” two parts of your longer project to write (or re-write) all 151 Pokémon from the first generation game. These pieces are so wonderfully startling because, while it’s cheap to say you elevate pop culture, you explore the depth of these monsters, as well as yourself, in each re-telling. How did this project come to be?
I started writing the Pokémon essays, I think, on a dare. When I used to drink, a party trick of mine would be to talk to people about how things they remembered as innocent were either gayer or sadder than they realized. Like how action movie villains are motivated by a desire for the hero’s body, for example. Pokémon was a big part of my childhood—the original games were released on my birthday, the cartoon was an obsession. I think that’s a shared experience for a lot of people my age. But beneath the surface of a fun RPG or goofy anime there was something considerably darker. We, as players, were instructed to go out into the world and collect data on monsters, that data often including a horrific backstory. Mad science, dying worlds, unforeseen transformations, death—all of these things have been part of Pokémon from the start, and the way those things exist in that universe, observed as an adult, triggered certain processes where I’d remember a mood or feeling that I’d never quite dealt with before, but could do in the form of something that was vaguely poetic. Rattata and Cubone were the first two that I wrote—I hastily submitted them to Cartridge Lit as fiction and then changed my mind because there was something in the operating metaphors of those paragraphs that was too true to be labeled as such. And the project got rolling from there.
A lot of your Pokémon essays are biographical, which heightens tension of the reader (outsider) looking into the life of the writer (player). Pokémon was a part of your childhood, but why use it for the lens of what is, perhaps, telling your own story now as an adult?
A few things—first, I’m fascinated by Pokémon as a game that is a series of random encounters. The game sets a goal of catching every monster, but completing this task isn’t guaranteed, as to catch a monster you need to see it. That kind of random encounter is, in a way, how my memory functions. For whatever reason, it isn’t such a great or reliable tool—one of the essays, about Porygon, covers this—and, as such, I’m left with an encounter and its aftermath, a means of framing what is an admittedly incomplete picture. Second, Pokémon is a role-playing game, and what any good RPG asks us to do, whether or not we’re playing as an avatar upon whom ourselves are projected, is to transpose our persons onto the action of the game. Sometimes this is clumsy—western RPGs and their reliance on a basic meter of good versus bad reactions to story events—and sometimes it’s suggested. Without me, the main character in Pokémon is just a boy who has a hat and a mentor who can’t remember his own grandson’s name. With me, the story has a richness that is otherwise unaccounted for. That was true of how I played as a child and how I play games as an adult—my life is the lens through which I look at any object. If I pull that object out and use *it* as a lens, the object doesn’t change so much as the things I observe using that object as an aide do.
You recently published your first poetry / comic book collection, Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon, with Opo Books and Objects. These poems focus on wrestling and how your identity and experiences have been shaped through this art form. This bit, from the first poem, really stuck out to me:
…. wrestling fans
hold up the time Roland Barthes went
to the matches as proof that there’s a kind
of art at work grander than the illusion
I picked up a lot of this repeated in this book: how much there is violence, and beauty, within interaction, physical and not.
I think there’s two pretty common ways of looking at wrestling, at least in the poem you mention—one in which the world exists in the state of kayfabe (everything being real all the time), and one where the viewer knows what’s going on and watches despite or because of that knowledge. In both instances, people are trying to figure out what makes a wrestling match “work,” and, in both instances, the answer is the same: emotion. As a child, emotion was easy enough for wrestling to tease out from my consciousness. Good guys were wronged by bad guys, and I wanted to see justice. As you grow older, the narrative is complicated by who you are and what you believe—Hulk Hogan is usually the first person to cheat in a match, bad guys often have a point to make—so what do you do with that? Furthermore, you’ve got to deal with the fact that wrestlers exist as real and fictitious beings simultaneously. Ric Flair can be a millionaire playboy in wrestling, but his inability to play that character in real life leads him to the circumstances of his life now, where he has to sell off the things he bragged about for so long in order to live. In a way, that’s a kind of hyperreal version of my own life, where I’ve had to sell off things that I loved—record collections, video games, books—in order to eat. As a fan in the crowd, I’m meant to aspire to the man or womanhood of the people in the ring. As a human being, I can relate to those people as fellow human beings. Our pains and joys, regardless of how distinct they may feel because, say, Adrian Adonis is a fake gay man and I’m a person who used to scan as gay and now read far more confusingly, are relatable. The violence of those things can haunt or scar us, but just as often they can produce something beautiful.
You’re uniquely able to tease out sharp edges in what are often considered “fluff” subjects, like video games and wrestling, and some might say that these sorts of things are not worthy of being “art,” since they’re so highly consumable.
The thing about that is that they’re already art, and that things that have historically been counted as art are consumed much the same way as things like video games or wrestling. The amount of time and effort that goes into a public presentation like a video game is mind boggling, and we’re entering an era where that medium is taken as seriously as film or television are, two things that were, at one point in time, accused of “dumbing down” the populace in much the same way games are now and have been for a few decades. But people in fields like poetry or fiction don’t blink an eye at a book fashioned after an object like a film or a movie, and the perception that video games belong to a kind of degenerate trash culture is also changing—too many of us play and write about too many games for the medium to remain “fluff,” which it never was. I think where writers and critics like me come in is in our ability to evaluate a game not just on typical merits, like how well a game’s levels are designed or how responsive its controls are, but emphatically. What a game like Pokémon evokes in a player is just as important as the end goal of being the very best within the universe stored on your cartridge.
What Pokémon essays are you working on now?
Recently, I finished revising a second edition of To Denounce the Evils of Truth, a chapbook that came out last year and promptly disappeared due to difficulties the publisher was having. The full *book* is a long, somewhat agonizing process—I joked on Twitter once that I hoped enough traumatic stuff happened to me that I could finish the book, and life, of course, has provided. But in the meantime, it is nice to have something from the book available in something less scattered than a collection of weblinks and print journals, so I’ve added six essays to the original manuscript and have, in many instances, radically revised some of the pieces. The end result is that I’ve been able to think of the book more in terms of an overall finished piece rather than an essay written here or there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that space next.