Artist and writer Sybil Lamb returns to New Orleans

POSTED BY ON WED, OCT 8, 2014 AT 8:50 AM

click to enlargeSybil Lamb and Casey Plett in front of Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop in the Marigny. - JULES BENTLEY

  • Sybil Lamb and Casey Plett in front of Flora Gallery and Coffee Shop in the Marigny.

Artist, writer, performer, outlaw, explorer, founder and mother to one of New Orleans’ longest-running squats, transgressor, martyr, survivor — Sybil Lamb defies categorization or easy description. Within a certain dirty demimonde, Sybil (or any of the many names she’s known by) is a living legend.

Topside Press, which specializes in the work of trans writers, recently published her novel, I’ve Got a Time Bomb. Largely set in a fig-leaf fictionalization of the post-flood New Orleans its author inhabited from 2005-2008, it’s a rollicking read: wild, brilliant, challenging, upsetting and extremely funny.

Lamb rolled back into town Sunday as part of a Topside tour that’s teamed her with Casey Plett, author of the wry and mercilessly-observed story collection A Safe Girl to Love. Between the pair’s two standing-room-only local readings, I managed to nab an interview with Lamb, whom Gambit art critic D. Eric Bookhardt once calledthe Toulouse-Lautrec of St. Roch … though Sybil has way nicer lats.

You haven’t lived in New Orleans for years, but I associate you very strongly with this city. How New Orleans do you feel?

Am I technically a Yat? I might be. But I’m not New Orleans at all. I’m of the flood. I lived here during the flood, not before or after the flood. I only lived here when everybody else was gone.

This is a delicate subject, because it might seem to be making light of the very real human suffering, but I think there were people drawn to this city, post-K, by the horror. The tragedy and the destruction attracted them. Was that the case for you?

Definitely. Me and my girl who’s Mary-Belle Maybe Kurtz in the book were living in Pittsburgh in a string of different squats. One fell down, got toppled, and we got very angrily evicted from it, and our second one, some people arsoned us. Sort of for fun. So we were homeless on the outskirts of Pittsburgh for a week, and then New Orleans got destroyed. We were like, well, we don’t live anywhere, let’s go not live anywhere down there and see what’s going on. We arrived September 11th.

What’s it like to visit New Orleans now? Do you fall right back into it?

I was expecting to like it less. Because again, I’m from that kind of weird in-between time — the New Orleans I know is everyone running down dark streets, clambering over the garbage and frightening the cops by whipping their cars while transformers are exploding, and then you just scurry into abandoned buildings where no one can catch you.

Your book really captures, for me, a feral post-flood experience that isn’t available any more — a time when New Orleans was so fucked up it didn’t seem possible that the city could ever be any other way.

That’s what I believed the whole time, too.

I’m not trying to romanticize that, but it was unlike anything…

That’s what I believed! And in that sense, watching everything get fixed up kind of alienated me and drove me out of here. Well, that didn’t really drive me out of here, other things helped… it’s all in the book!

What was your path to publication?

Me and [novelist] Imogen Binnie have been friends forever. There’s pictures of me and Immie ten years ago— ten years less pretty, ten years less awesome and hot and self-assured than we are now — hanging out in the woods in Michigan helping trans girls sneak into Michigan Womyn’s Fest so we could all go see Lez Zeppelin.

I didn’t see Immie for years because I accidentally moved to Canada, but when Topside Press came through my town last year, of course I ran out to go see Imogen do her Nevada thing — her frickin’ full-length book she released. That was magical. Afterwards I went out with all of Topside; we went to some bar and got zucchini sticks, and I was like, uh, I wrote some stuff…

I’m not New Orleans at all. I’m of the flood. I lived here during the flood, not before or after the flood. I only lived here when everybody else was gone.

You’ve been doing ‘zines for years…

I did Tranny Punk [‘zine], and I gave Topside the bits and pieces of what I could find of Tranny Punk issues 5, 6, 7… and Tranny Punk 8: How to Kill Queer Scum.

Yeah. People are still arguing about that one on Tumblr.

The other issues had circulations ranging from 25 to 200, and How to Kill Queer Scum I wound up giving out 1,200 copies of. After that, I’d tried to get away from writing ‘zines just about trans-punk stuff, and just wrote stories about my life … stories that were mostly set in New Orleans. Those were the I’ve Got a Time Bomb‘zines. I was aiming to do ten of them, like a countdown, but I only got to number three, and number three was 98 pages long.

So all those were the core of what I submitted to Topside. Then they notified me they wanted to make it into a book, but could I please rewrite some of it, and write interconnecting things, so that it all flowed together as a story? And I wound up adding 140,000 words over two months of just grinding text out.

I’d had a good job, working on storyboarding a comic pitch for Adult Swim — for Bipolar Bear Productions out of Folsom, Louisiana — so that paid for me to just sit on my butt for two months. I got to just hide out and write a book.

That’s a hell of a work rate. How do you divide your time usually between art, writing, and whatever else?

I’m looking forward to getting back to the main thing I do, which is boudoir portraits of all my hot lady friends. That’s my main No. 1 thing. I’m always trying to learn more, to cater more to a visual arts … something.

When I left out of New Orleans the first time, I did a bunch of sales through Barrister’s Gallery down here. An art scout who was working for Barrister’s discovered me at (Cafe) Envie — I was sitting in the back just drawing really detailed stuff in a sketchbook all day long. Now, part of the reason I’m stuck in Canada is that I have a good deal on a great big art studio with a condo kitchen, crown molding, nine foot ceilings, and I live above a nice trashy nasty bar. In the past two or three years I’m making more money than I’ve ever made in my life from my art. That’s become a reality.

You’ve said you hate nostalgia and sentimentality, but being back in New Orleans, here at Flora — aren’t you experiencing just a little?

Oh, I do love it here. I remember a whole lot of — it’s not nostalgia! But so many times I’d be on acid, bobbling around all these multicolored Marigny/Bywater buildings — it was less fancy then, more drabby-fancy: downed palm trees everywhere, big piles of trash — and I’d wander around here on LSD, go to Mardi Gras Zone and buy pig lips and feta cheese, because that was exactly six dollars and sixty-six cents. I’d eat half of it and shove the rest in this water storm-drain thing outside Mardi Gras Zone so I could find it there later. It was a snack stash. I came back and tried to open it back up today, but I couldn’t get the little manhole water thing open. There might be seven-year-old pig lips down there! I want them. They’re rare! The factory burned down!

I like all the people who live here. It’s good to be in a town where I’m just one of a horde of people who have, like, swear words tattooed all over themselves. I miss that. But I need to not get stinking drunk to the point of vomiting bile that melts sinks. Last night I stripped the porcelain off the sink at the house we’re staying at. I think I rotted out the pipes. I’ve got Brundlefly vomit.

I’m from that kind of weird in-between time — the New Orleans I know is everyone running down dark streets, clambering over the garbage and frightening the cops by whipping their cars while transformers are exploding, and then you just scurry into abandoned buildings where no one can catch you.

In New Orleans, you have a lot of legend around you — you’re spoken of as this sort of mythic figure. For you as a human being, is that weird? Does it get you stuff? What’s it like to be on the other end of that?

I’m just in it for the love. It doesn’t get me that much stuff. Let’s see: people buy me drinks a lot. People want me to stay at their houses. Everybody’s really really nice to me all the time. That’s all I do it for, the love. And so we get to tour around and I get to meet all kinds of people who are like “Ooh! You’re Sybil Lamb! …or Lostetta Pukerella… or whatever the hell your name is.” I like that.

When people come up to me and ask me how to go file an affidavit on a blighted house, that kind of thing, I just pretend I don’t remember.

I used to study the photos you posted on Livejournal or wherever, of the insides of the city’s closed-up buildings, weird hidden places and discoveries  you always got access to stuff no one else could. So please: Tell me a secret.

Oh, this is top secret. Topside Press don’t want you to know this, but here goes: Year one they had The Collection out, and it was like, here’s trans writing, that’s what this looks like. And then year two, it was Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, which was getting away from the trans narrative of “Who are these girls, and how do they even do this?” It was trans literature for our own, all the secret inner thoughts of a really smart, geeky, modern 21st-century trans girl in the big city. The lead character in Nevada is like seven years into her transition, so her worries are like, Manhattan, and her girlfriend, and stealing her girlfriend’s car, and buying a sock full of heroin — grown-up transwoman stuff.

So then this year, Casey Plett and I are here to double-team 37 cities. And we are the vanguard of trans publishing, the front line attack. Cutting a swath through 37 cities and leaving broken hearts and burnt villages in our wake … dropping the knowledge. Our books are eerily similar, even though they’re completely different, because we are in fact the two ends of the possible extreme of describing the experience of transwomen having awkward difficult relationships with other transwomen in this modern difficult world. So Topside likes to describe us in their secret internal documents as a teeter-totter. Me and Casey are the board of the teeter-totter, and we occupy either end of it, on the fulcrum of Imogen Binnie. And it’s built on the bodies of other writers — we use them as mulch, to hold the teeter-totter level.

Next year, they’ll probably have three or four girls on tour, in an RV or a bus, and they’ll do 74 cities, and we’ll be completely forgotten.

I’m impressed by how ambitious this tour is, and that after living in a car for a month you and Casey are still speaking to one another. What are you doing when the tour’s over?

When the tour is done October 26, I’ll be sleeping. I’ll have a little nap. Then I have to manifest $8,000 so I can go to Mexico, rent a house and get giant silicon loaf-of-bread-sized blobs put in both my hips, so I can have super-mega-hips. I don’t need a butt — just give me the hips. And I’ll have a villa in Guadalajara, a three-bedroom with a teeny-tiny-backyard with an orange tree in it. We’ll aim for that, this winter. I just have to figure out how to get the $8,000.

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