Did Not Shave Our Legs For This: A Conversation with Kristin Sanders’ Cuntry in Ten Line Dances
by Kristin Sanders
Trembling Pillow Press
85 pp. / $16
[Full disclosure: I know the poet. I love the poet. Nobody asked me to write this. I wanted to write this. This book is powerful. This book empowered me.]
The sleepovers of my youth were cowboy-crusted; all parties cranked to Birmingham’s #1 Country Station, 104.7 WZZK. Each morning, we woke from our suburban slumber in a quaint subdivision—Tanglewood, Countrywood, Mountain Woods, Buckhead—behind bricked and shuttered homes, yards so ready for church they were practically lemon-squared. Here, we stumbled through wealth’s constellation—dollhouse to clubhouse to pool house to minivan. It was a charmed existence, and utterly un-rural.
Yet, it was here where we sang about tractors and trailer parks, worlds far from our reality. And later, it was in this landscape, full of paradox, that we traded our princess-laced pajamas for t-shirt and Soffe short combos. We were beginning to understand what could make us audition-ready, slate us for cheerleader or dance team member, turn us desirable.
My childhood friends loved CMTV—the Cline-calling yodel of LeeAnn Rimes, the fructose feminism of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine,” the sexed tractor of Kenny Chesney, and the “hotter than a hoochie coochie” Chattahoochee of Alan Jackson’s homeland. As we were evolving into womanhood, glued to screens, proud to have graduated from Disney fairytale, we watched, with perhaps the majority of North America’s white girl middle class, what so many in our nation watched. We began to internalize how we would saunter towards our requested sexuality.
By 2007, I had sauntered away from my Alabama, away from this scene. I had gone to the city accused of its own paradoxes, to the city of unique history and manifesto—New Orleans. I joined the chorus of faces popping up there a few years after Katrina. We were the “too many transplants,” lost children, that so needed New Orleans but who New Orleans did not need. I hadn’t realized how much I was joining a tradition of New Orleans pilgrimage, how many short-timers hovered there for a few years to get a fix as they got away from their strange hometown feelings. In 2013, it was in this place, joked city of misfits, where I first heard Kristin Sanders, herself on a mission to disentangle from roots, read poems from her becoming Cuntry.
And at first I resisted her. Sanders’ poems headered and footered the kind of document of Americana I wanted to betray; I didn’t get her. Each poem I heard her read in the Fine Arts Gallery on the University of New Orleans’ campus sucked me back into a repertoire of songs I didn’t want any where near my ears. I resisted her; I rejected the summons.
I couldn’t hear Sanders because I wasn’t ready yet, to go back. I was still trying to run away, trying to pretend my home, that so many American homes like it, didn’t exist or make up any real part of me.
Pretending rather than participating in the real parts of self is one of the major tensions in Sanders’ text. That her speaker cannot trace an origin of real desire that is not scene, that is not screen—be it gingham blouse country music or some bodice-ripped Internet porn—is at once problematic but also substantiate to her sexuality.
Even as her speaker seeks a way “to give the / cuntry object back her voice,” she remarks at just how much her existence and that of other women is one of denial and receptacle and how much we, the female-identifying, bear witness to the betokening of our bodies and minds, so much so that we learn to live in them, know them, vicariously, in poor rehearsal of pleasure.
Later in the text, as the speaker reveals more about her transition to artist, to writer, we realize that even in this quest she feels she must pretend, once more. The speaker recognizes that for many women to participate in art they must deny other written or overwritten parts of self, that they must erase certain territories of self “to prove [they are] real wom[e]n…to prove [they are] real artist[s].”
During my teenage years in Birmingham, I was ashamed I wasn’t any real kind of woman. I didn’t see myself anywhere. I couldn’t muster a peppy personality, meaning I couldn’t cheerlead, meaning I might make a lousy debutante. Many afternoons after school, I would return to my family’s house, one that was away from the popular neighborhoods of the suburban area so many of my young girlfriends were perched in, to stare into a mirror, this screen I had for comparison, at a gap between my front teeth that I swore was widening. During my pubescent growth-spurt, I was gifted a gangly silhouette. I was long arms, long legs, too tall, a pole, so I stood like a beam in photos and clothes hung on me. My lips, too big for my adolescent face, pouted (at least some told me), and I absorbed, silent in my skin, commentary, from women and men, on what kind of body and face I was blessed / damned with. What rolled off their lips, what reviews of beauty courted America’s popular traditions, rioted down my ear canals.
Later, I got hips, later breasts. Later, we got the Internet, and I found AIM, talked to people. Friends first. Then, men. I caught on quick—17, f, Alabama. One of them asked me if I had a cute accent, asked if I would call and read him a page from a book, one of them asked me to send him a picture. I, desperate for feedback, did both of these things. The man who listened to me reading Walt Whitman on the phone told me I had a sweet, naive voice, told me that he wanted me to call him nightly to put him to sleep with my innocence. The man who received a photo of me wrote back, you have those nice dick-sucking lips.
In 2017, a few years after I had displaced myself to Paris to prove I was a real woman, a real artist, I began to feel I had more head-space. I requested a review copy of Sanders’ newly released Cuntry. I read it quickly, in its entirety. And years and years after my AIM login bluesgirl868 was defunct, was an empty shell of a girl, I found myself discovering what I had walked away from in 2013. Through Sanders’ text a part of me was revealed, and I discovered why these first Internet chat conversations had seduced me, had led me to seek popular images of women, why my curiosity about the kind of lips I was said to have steered me towards porn.
Like Sanders’ speaker I am a child of the 90s; like Sanders’ speaker the Internet was my “sibling, bad egg, incestuous desire.”
At fourteen I, like many other million other raging and interrogating bodies behind screens, was searching for what I was, what I resembled in the vitrine of virginity. I, like the speaker, watched porn because I had to see for myself what definitions I was being given.
In the third poem in Sanders’ book, we are in this cyber space, this alien intimacy. The speaker, as a more self-defining woman, is facing porn, is facing society’s questions about her relationship with porn, and she is beginning to shed shame and wield what she can from our culture’s guilting the girl. She begins her argument:
“The images I seek out are scientific. The images I seek out are literary. The images I seek out contain knowledge. The images I seek out are purely platonic. The images I seek out own my sexuality. The images I seek out are just words. The images I seek out are not alive, they cannot be…”
As a middle-schooler, I was tired of not being alive, of faking excitement over the country songs I didn’t know the words to, of talking about cowboys that didn’t turn me on. I was tired of holding up this desire.
So I sought my true one. Eventually, I dug into where I felt I was different. I began my argument—I don’t like country music, I told them.
They, these friends of mine, these girls I spent so many intimate moments with, were not impressed.
My political confrontation to what so many of these young women held dear was not gimmick. Because of my parents’ musical tastes, because of something in me, I was listening to other FM stations, developing girlhood crushes on other types of men—Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Billy Joel. I thought I knew a better music, that I was someone exempt from objectification. I thought that for these men I would make real music, be, someday, the perfect back-up singer.
And accordingly, I defined this presumed difference in fashion statement. For me, my “womanly” choice to wear dark eyeliner was not a mask but spiced me up into another acceptance, made me more interesting than hot, more dark than bright, more real than just average. I thought I was sultry, and I was nearly hell-bent on my resistance to pep, to yee-haw, being sulk. I wanted to be alternative, to wear it completely, to go all the way.
Early on we learn that Sanders’ speaker is interrogating her own affinity to country, to so many images of women posing before the grill of a truck, or any other pastoral device. She scoots herself to Nashville where, while following in her uncle’s country song-writing footsteps, she realizes she “had to go all the way…had to follow [her] objecthood to the birthplace…of the image of boots and cutoff jeans and big boobs and big hair.” She falls into the void, “into the cunt, gaping on the screen.”
In Nashville, she is trying to face her problem face-on, to walk into the screen that seduced her, the hole where she lost some part of her native self, girl in the looking glass. And there, even with revolution in her heart, as an adult woman, she struggles to find her real woman place.
She goes to therapy.
There, the therapist asks her to define her world, to command with words—and so the speaker, listening to him, gets up on a chair, takes the rope he gives her and lassoing the air at potential male threats “[says] out loud: DON’T COME ANY CLOSER…[says] out loud: DON’T HIT ON ME.”
This part of the book makes me laugh as much as it makes me hurt. Here, in the gallows of girlhood, Sanders’ speaker is heeding the advice of a man who knows her reality is being coerced by a macho machine, that for her sense of self to remain safe and intact she must change something genteel in her. That she must harness her body and anticipate aggression: must practice height, dominance, and no, don’t.
Sanders text recalls for me my own departure and displacement, my own search for self and how many times I would need to say to someone—to men, to the industry— no, don’t. In all of my American wish to be alternative, in all of my developing individualism, I didn’t realize that even if I wasn’t trying to peek under the brim of Tim McGraw’s black straw hat, even if I wasn’t dancing for football players, I was still before the mirror, pegging myself to the screen—to be regarded, to be objectified, to be accepted in the kingdom of men. It’s in this moment in the text where I realize how many “cuntry objects,” even if drawn to other genres, are made to contort and slide into the back pocket of a man and his capitalism.
Sanders’ book is alternative; it is not “country.” It is culture’s contortion. It has its word—Cuntry. It has its confrontation—defamatory, comedic, popular, scientific, literary. Once you’ve heard its spelling, you dance with it. You spin through your own word associations, your own sexscapes, your own human rights’ agendas. Even Sanders can’t bridle it.
Cuntry—the book object. Its title flashes in a cloudy pink across its black screen. A woman’s text, containing its pink parts, its big-girl panty taboos.
Cuntry—the landscape. The land of the book, the screen, the song, the Internet, the industries, of America, of desire, where the writer is trying to subjugate the object’s objecthood.
Metaphysically, this is exquisite.
When I met Sanders again in 2018 in Paris, France, when she came to do her Trelex writing residency, we chatted more about her collection—its beginnings, its gutty gestation, its climax. Its anti-climax.
Sanders still has questions about her book. Moving to another country gives you perspective. You look across this “pond,” eyes transfixed with terror one moment, tenderness the next. You try to peel off some plastic-wrapper that’s been keeping you new, fresh, unable to see. You step out of the commercial.
You think about how the yucky feelings you had inside your home country were related to its own machine of violence and scandal. You think about how rape culture is still raping, how shame evacuates the female body from being allowed any space, respected for any of its knowledge and intuition. You search things online, and you know already but you confirm for yourself how profitable the porn industry is, nearly 100 billion dollars per year, and you think of all the bodies and all the fetishes being sold online, being written into perversion’s profit, and you think of how intimacy for almost everyone everywhere now is spliced between the flesh of self and the finger that clicks, taps, types, swipes, zooms.
The image, the zoom is where Sanders’ writing lives, too. Many of her previous publications render the female body in the form of manual: image-body regarded, image-body inspected. She continues this tradition in Cuntry. In “Figure 2.” we are given a contrast. Even as “the cuntry object” is shattering, she is being confronted with a to-do list:
The cuntry object has to be a good one—a very good girl. The cuntry
object has to be danceable, must be willing to tremble and fake. She is
the most fun, an unexpected fill. Pucker and pokeable. Easily packaged,
easily arriving. Applaud her performance.
Opposite this poem, Sanders writes, “I let my imagination lead me along the pages of the porn site. I browse, click on suggestions at the bottom of each video. I look at BDSM, girls tied up, hit, face-fucked, gang-banged. But the image is always so obviously fake.”
I admire where Sanders takes her text, into the ultimate intimate, into an ultimate selfie. It is unique but wired to webs of sameness, the collaging eye regarding self, the young girl who has perused so many images of women. In this way it is contortionist, misnomer, mis-gendered, misidentifying. Yet, it is also so wholly of Sanders and a story that is a version of a woman’s truth, unable to speak for all female-identifying bodies, perhaps, but so anointed with the analysis of body berating box and binary.
Yet, instead of cinching it at the waist, Sanders lets her text expand and bloat with all the bold questions it wanted to pose for the speaker, for gender, for object, for whatever audience it would know. I like that she is so smart to talk to the 90s, to the image, to man, to woman, to desire about failure—“The failure of the Internet. The failure of the addict. The failure of the body to orgasm. The failure of porn. The failure of endless connections….The failure of this text.”
Yet, of course, it, like all of us and like all texts, is incomplete. Yet, of course we find it skewed, centerfolding in our 90s culture hangover.
When I first saw the poet read from this text in January 2013 in New Orleans, I remember asking myself, what is going on here, what exactly is she doing? She appeared to be both having fun and calculating an argument. I was uncomfortable. I wondered, how could she at once conjure nostalgia and nullify it? For me, she was walking around, singing, dropping in on this space where I had remained paralyzed, in this space where I was still girl, image-repressed, sweating behind the knees, before a keyboard wanting to search at once Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Jones, Julie Andrews, Aretha Franklin, Alanis Morissette, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, girl with dick-sucking lips. Or to tap three times X, to see what positions my body might be charged to take in a few years.
When I saw the poet read from this text in 2013, I wanted to look, to hear it. But, much like a woman regarding porn, I didn’t want to like it; I didn’t want it to turn on me or to turn me on.
Exactly, I had thought, withholding. Exactly. This text is not for me, has nothing to do with my image.
I had never wanted to be “country.” I wasn’t going to go back there, wasn’t going to love that music, wasn’t going to coo over it or slap on a smile to dance over a newly waxed gym floor out of social obligation.
Yet, I hadn’t tuned my ears to the critique. I hadn’t listened hard enough to the politic rising from all the media splashed together in Cuntry’s wild parts.
This text was about me, is about me, could be about any of my friends—the ones I lost because we didn’t understand the feminine image the other was appropriating and the ones to which I thought I was so similar.
Exactly, I thought three years later when I read Cuntry in Paris, in safe distance from the American commercial. This text is about a woman trying to fit her body into any market, into any genre. Whether pop object, blues object, rap object. This text is about America, is about the body in America.
In “Daddy’s Money Sung By Ricochet,” Sanders throws fire at the genre that made her sing, brings on her full-frontal critique of the country that, despite displacement, made her write:
…It’s not American not country to be biracial. You are white. You are
white. If you are country you should probably be white but if not we
can work around it (Hootie) (Leadbelly in the Nashville Songwriters
Hall of Fame). Country is a mother and a father and the lineage is
white pavement. And the lineage is no bodies hanging in the trees.
And the lineage is not a mother and a mother OHNO! country is not a
father and a father OHNO! county is ONE thing: that you have a
mother and a father that you were born in America that the mother
and the father are both American that the baby was born from those
two people that gender is two Arctic poles we cling to and no world
exists in the middle.
Sanders knows all of America is locked up in the small ballot of a birthright election, that we are only allowed to off-road in the white public domain of accepted images, wherein women have been reduced to pedestals and holes, men to money and power and dicks, and minorities to the appropriation into these institutions or the bad-luck shadows of counter culture.
Sanders’ book reminds us that it is the screen that shackles us infinitely, that self-worth and desire are locked up in the Internet, and that no relationship is not suffering from it.
That self-pleasure and that self-desire are also locked up in the Internet is another sufferance. In fact, Sanders’ speaker plays with the void of real or realized connection, with screen history, and “the failure of the body to orgasm” in a scene where the speaker, in fact, achieves orgasm: “I’ve never been able to answer if that orgasm stemmed from her, from my sexual desire, or that the moment simply looked like porn.”
Later in the book, in “Country Song of Regret,” Sanders’ speaker reveals another skepticism about the schism between the body responding to real pleasure and the body reciting expectation:
while I laughed and pushed his face away
I giggled and tried not to embarrass him
I am often concerned with not embarrassing a man
doing inappropriate things to me.
I identified with this, remembered how many touches I’ve chuckled off, felt for how many aggressions my body has apologized.
An episode flashed before my head, and I recalled a more caring relationship I’ve known still stuck in its liquid crystal deviation.
One Autumn I noticed an ex-boyfriend of mine hosting a secret. Each morning I left the house to teach, I returned to find my ARC of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa tucked differently under the bottom of a stack of books on our coffee table. He was ashamed to love it; he wanted to look, to listen to it, but he didn’t want to like it. Kissing me goodbye in the early mornings of that semester as I began a new teaching job, he would try to comfort me, calm my nerves, encourage me to have fun, reassure me that if anything I’d be a hit with the boy students.
These words bothered me. His secret bothered me. That he thought he was doing me good bothered me. His mind told him this was a complement, mine that this was an insult, a total absence of understanding of how hard I’d worked to become an academic, an intellectual, a writer, a professional woman, a professional human.
My secret bothered me. I knew what his fantasy was, I knew he was trying to be sweet; for this, I did not want to embarrass him, call him out. For whatever reasons, this time in my life didn’t provide me with the self-confidence to approach him calmly and rationally, so I hid it in a fire in my stomach, with all the other excuses I’d made for inappropriate treatment of my body and mind.
Kissing goodbye, we made, in fact, an image of love, our symmetry telling a story of a couple built in two, equal parts, while our sexualities heaved in estrangement. This is the gesture that the screen makes us gullible to as well, simply looking like love.
Sanders’ speaker is afraid of not looking like a real feminist. Her confessions hurl us into our own complexes. Sanders’ speaker thinks she should know better, that she shouldn’t fall for the tricks of winning someone else’s game. She, as blinking cursor of identity, then writes into the dark center of her webbing ideas: “I’m writing because there have to be others. I’m writing because I like the way I look when I am skinny and objectified as a beautiful woman.”
Beautiful, female-identifying women are all around today, with so many stories. I do not know which stories will count, will stay, will define and which will grow dusty, which will out-date, but Sanders’ speaker helps me feel closer to my story, the scrutiny I’ve bared in the face of parents, peers, and mere strangers, so I will keep her with me.
I read this page again and again, and I feel sure it is the same kind of self-erasure every becoming person experiences when their body starts to sexualize and to fall under any othering gaze:
In high school, because it was 2001, I shave off all my pubic hair. At first my girlfriends and I just shaved the edges but then the Brazilian took over the porn world and word traveled fast if you didn’t remove it all. If you had a “bush.” So in my boy-shaped body, before anyone ever touched me, I removed any trace of becoming a woman.