A Conversation on Rape Culture between Lisa Summe and Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence
all italics are quotes from Melnick’s book
CW: violence against women, sexual assault, rape
Lisa Summe: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me today. How are you?
Landscape with Sex and Violence: You know, even simple questions like this can be complicated for me. Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand how to deserve anything // or how misery and sunlight inhabit the same / vibration in my skin (51). Even on good days, feelings like this can take over.
LS: Yeah, like it’s out of your control.
LWSAV: Yeah. Because sometimes no matter the upright life I’ve been trying to lead / I keep looking for new ways to bluff myself // so hard I’m always pleading for relief, frantically / trying to locate whatever blunt object would sock me // into unconsciousness. I know what it’s like / to be powerless // on a shag rug (59).
LS: I wish you didn’t know what that’s like. Knowing what that’s like, though, isn’t discussed enough, so thank you for making a space for this conversation and giving it your energy. Can you talk a little bit about how the patriarchy perpetuates feelings like this, of utter despair and hopelessness, especially for victims of assault and rape? My understanding is that there are A LOT of components at play. Medical professionals, for example, are just one group who contribute to victim-blaming (which is just one aspect of the problem), further fueling the ways in which society as a whole refuses to believe victims of assault and rape.
LWSAV: I’ll tell you one story as an example: I am holding all my blood in vials on my lap. // The spatter is delicate. / I guess I am bleeding all over the scenery. // I was born in November. // But you want to hear about the clean stretch of pavement / where a beetle once lived // or the surrounding archways that were the kind of architecture / that bodies who have been treated gently like to enjoy (7).
LS: Many turn their heads like it’s nothing. People don’t want to hear about it, don’t want to acknowledge this kind of violence because it could cause them or someone else (the abuser!) “discomfort.” The people close to us and the “professionals” we are supposed to trust are often the worst culprits. And I’m mostly talking about cis-men because they are the ones with the most power. And many of us have intimate relationships with them, sexual and otherwise.
LWSAV: Totally. When victims choose to speak up, not being heard is only part of the problem. What stems from not being heard is, consequently, either being forced to remain silent or being forced to speak up again and again, causing the victim to relive their trauma. It’s like, how can I get you to believe me, to listen? I am going to confess this once // and then I am going to confess it again // in different ways I won’t admit to but never mind. This won’t be the last time // I let the riffraff envenom my body // while they pretend to be heroic (1). Mostly men keep singing / while dark blood collects where I open (13). Exhausting is an understatement.
LS: Men think they’re fucking saviors.
LWSAV: A stray gets into the building and everyone’s got something to worry about / and everyone’s a hero because they are all so fucking concerned // about the dog, but she’s taking her clothes / out of the dryer // and taking her scarf from around her neck and hanging herself / or hoping to // except she’s too afraid of heights to climb higher than her height (36).
LS: One of your strengths is just this, the way you unapologetically reveal misogyny and the violence that comes with it. It’s very personal here, talks to various “yous” directly, paints pictures of the damage (physical, emotional, psychological). You don’t talk around it. You say the word “rape.” Many of the ways you reveal this damage is through various physical landscapes. Can you talk a little bit about how violence and rape culture is conflated with place?
LWSAV: I’ve gotten to this point where I am just going to tell everyone // everything / that’s ever been done to my face (69). Place and rape culture are inextricable simply because no place exists where we can escape from it. There is no safe haven. One of the ways I address those "yous": I imagine how tenderly you’d peel the crime / from what I left exposed // but my formative years were mostly alleyways / and men being brutish so // I’m confused about a lot of things // like, I crossed this burning blacktop for you when / I momentarily thought if I confessed // how long I’ve been open season, slaughtering season / you might shoulder me past city limits alive (52).
LS: And we do not consent to participate in these landscapes, yet we are forced to confront them, to engage with them, often in order to simply stay alive. Even when we “understand” rape culture, analyze the patriarchy, and advocate for change, there is no way to escape or “prepare” ourselves for the dangers we face simply by existing.
LWSAV: Exactly. I was warned more about rattlesnakes / than anything I actually lived with (77).
LS: That’s not surprising.
LWSAV: I didn’t emerge well-trained into this savage vista / because all the houseplants were succulent, and, // while anyone could witness rot writ all over my blighted arrangement, // no one stepped in (2).
LS: This goes back to what we talked about earlier, how we can’t count on anyone to step up to bat for us, to intervene when we’re suffering. We lash out at men, and for good reason. I personally get really pissed off at the media, too, for many reasons, but, most simply, for favoring men and perpetuating rape culture.
LWSAV: Last year everyone wanted to talk about gun violence / and how America was founded on a certain measure of blood // which isn’t a metaphor nor was it / anywhere in California // in the back of a car when a man asked // “‘bout I ram this barrel up your pussy and pull the trigger (73)?”
LS: Jesus. You also discuss sex work openly. My understanding is that violence and sex work are inextricable because of rape culture.
LWSAV: This week everyone wants to talk about sex work / but I don’t // want to hear about how it’s just like waitressing / or the time I watched a friend fold shirts at a boutique (74).
If I could just make it to morning without selling myself // one day I might have some land / beyond this ficus pot // whose heart leaves leak their poison / inside this slummy garage // where I sleep daytimes / in a city I’m sure I’ve mentioned before (63).
LS: It’s fucked up that people will argue against evidence of violence. How do you talk back to people who say that women’s rights have “come a long way,” that we have more than we’ve ever had, that we are bitches, should shut up, etc.?
LWSAV: If there hasn’t been a moment at your job / where for an extra $10 you let a man spit on your face // and cum in your eye // then I don’t want to hear about all the empowerment // I failed to find (74).
LS: Check your privilege, folks. Anything else you’d like to share with us?
LWSAV: I am sad about the world. And I am fucking furious. I am, myself, both an object of grief and a cry for help. But remember // (I almost forgot to tell you) // I lived // in a desert / where palms are signposts of water, not the want of it (86).
Lisa Summe was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Tampa Review, Smartish Pace, Lambda Literary, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She likes cats and running and cookies. You can find her on Twitter @lisasumme.