Trailing clouds of glitter from a surprise Broadway triumph in Kenneth Lonergan’s serio-comedy This Is Our Youth, Rookie magazine founder Tavi Gevinson has expanded her extensive resume to include publishing maven. In addition to compiling the fourth Rookie Yearbook, due out this fall, Gevinson just made her debut as a literary editor. In the July/August issue of Poetry, the 103-year-old magazine that introduced American readers to the likes of Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gevinson curated and edited more than 50 pages of poems, prose and art, including a self-deprecating, funny, charming essay she wrote about her own evolution as a writer and a reader. She celebrates the kind of sincerity adults are taught to reject; her selections are optimistic, unironic, and downright joyful.
Gevinson and I talked on the phone about poetry, feelings, moving to New York, and her ever-evolving personal aesthetic—she is, after all, still 19.
Eugenia Williamson: In the essay you wrote in Poetry, you talk about the embarrassment you felt about liking Sylvia Plath when you were a young teenager and other ways poetry conjures embarrassment. Tell me more!
Tavi Gevinson: I wouldn’t be comfortable writing poetry myself. I wrote about the shame or stigma I felt around it, and [I wasn’t talking about] the challenge of great poets that you study in English class. Where I went to school, there was a spoken word program, and it was a requirement every year. The teacher who ran the program would come in to your class and run a week-long workshop. I was just too embarrassed to share this stuff with my classmates. I didn’t want to expose [myself] trying to be deep or any of that. I just blew it off a lot of the time. The one time I really tried, I couldn’t get through it without laughing at myself.
Now I feel like it’s really silly to be afraid of those things, and I should have embraced something I’m good at, which is speaking candidly about how I feel. It’s kind of funny—that’s something that maybe you naturally have as a kid or is somewhat innate to childhood, the way kids are brutally honest. Somewhere along the line, you’re like, “Oh wait, life is a competition,” and everything is a reality show; everything is an episode of “The Apprentice.” You learn about parts of the world where the currency is how much you can withhold. But eventually, you learn that if you actually communicate with people then you’ll have happier relationships. [With this essay], I wanted to figure out why we’re so scared of feelings.
Why are we so scared of feelings?
I know the fear of being sensitive can be conflated with the fear of being feminine, and probably there’s some discomfort about being [perceived as] juvenile or girly. The other day, my friend was like, “I don’t feel like I identify with girliness, but I identify with sisterhood.” I think I identify with that. I find it tricky these days to identify with certain feminine things, because it’s “feminine” as defined by not-women. It’s kind of funny going through the layers, thinking, “Am I reclaiming those, or am I just succumbing?” So I cut all my hair off.
But the sisterhood aspect of it, or the emotional intelligence part—to generalize, girls are taught more than boys are about that. That is still really important to me. I would fully, open-arms embrace being called a crazy girlfriend. That’s partly why I like Taylor Swift’s music so much. I think a lot of things I like can be sort of shrouded in irony. John Green said something in the New Yorker about why he writes teenagers, and he said it was because teenagers say it and don’t have to say it underneath a million layers of irony and detachment.
[Honesty and authenticity] are what I admire the most in the work of other people and what resonates with me. I also think it’s the most noble and the bravest, approach to making things… The creative process of doing that strikes me as supernatural—not that I’m the barometer of what’s real, and I don’t like things that i’m expected to like just because they’re being honest. That’s why I said in the Poetry intro that these aren’t works that I’d recommend just by virtue of their sincerity, because I also love the editing process and thinking about style and craft.
How did your collaboration with Poetry come about?
It took a few years. [Poetry’s art director] Fred Sasaki emailed me about writing something for the magazine, and then I read the features where artists wrote about poetry. I read the one Neko Case wrote and the one Lynda Barry wrote. I was so intimidated. I wrote something that ended up being part of the intro towards the end of my freshman year in high school. Months later, they said they were going to use it, and I was like, I don’t like it anymore, which is basically why the whole [intro] is about being embarrassed. I got together a group of other writers, poets, people I knew through Rookie, Rookie illustrators and Rookie readers, and then it just took off.
Has trying to shrug off irony and detachment shaped the kind of art you’re interested in lately? What are you into right now?
I just saw [Annie Baker’s] The Flick off-Broadway. The Flick felt unlike any theater experience I’ve had. It spoke so directly to a lot of what I feel and what I think about…I just wanted the play to be three hours long. I wanted three hours more.
The Flick is about people working in a movie theatre. The set is movie theatre seats facing the audience, so we’re where the screen is. The seats go back, and the projector shines all this light on you and it really hurts your eyes and they play the credits music from whatever movie they’re showing. Between each scene, there are little vignettes. It spoke to me about what your tastes say about you, like the movies you like, and also how much loving another person is really you.
I loved that [Baker] could create a language out of references that didn’t feel, like, wink wink, you feel cool because you get a reference. [The references] are so organic to each character, which is also a testament to their acting. It’s just so beautiful.
I’m trying to write something [about The Flick] for myself right now, and the experience of moving to New York and being in a play.
Are you going to continue acting?
Yes, but I can’t say much more about that now.
How has becoming an actor affected your writing?
I love acting and I love writing. Traditionally, one would think of acting as performing, putting on a character, and of writing as getting to the truth. The thing I’m writing now is about how, for me, the switch was going from writing these diaries all through high school that I look back on now [and realize that they’re] not real accounts of what happened so much as romanticized, fictionalized, screenplay versions [of my experiences].
With stage acting, my job was to not try to control things, not try to savor things like I would be if I were writing them down later. I’m so, so accustomed to hoarding memories, which is another reason why I think Taylor Swift is so important to me. That’s also why it was really challenging to me [as an actor] to try to be authentic and respond emotionally and honestly to what was in front of me, even though it wasn’t an expression of the self the way writing is. Also, I was in the kind of work of fiction that I would have exhaustively picked apart and written about and made collages of in my diaries or on my blog or in Rookie when I was younger.
I stopped keeping a diary, and now it’s hard to retrieve memories. I can’t really access them because they’re actually there. It’s like going to a concert and actually enjoying yourself instead of being like, “I’m going to remember the set list and I’m gonna hold up my phone the whole time and just watch it through a little screen.” But building or strengthening that muscle [that lets you live in the moment], the focus and the discipline [required by acting], I hope, has made me a more honest and authentic writer.
You moved to New York last year. How’s it treating you?
I’m so terribly pleased that I’m here in New York and can meet a girl on the street who’s a Rookie reader or read my blog years ago, and we can have a whole conversation and it feels like we already have a common language.
There’s definitely some foggy stuff you have to cut through, but I feel it’s all in your filter, your approach. What makes actually makes me feel excited or successful is having my faith in creativity consistently renewed. Living in New York, you can indulge in the parts that fog things up for you, or you can take advantage of the culture that’s in the city.
For me, living here is weird. It makes me more aware of New York media, but it also makes me feel like I can curate my own world and have access to everything that’ll feed my brain. Kenny [Lonergan] showed me his favorite paintings in the Met on a rainy day in November, and that was very special and overwhelming. I go to readings or go to movies, and my friend was just in town and we went to the Cloisters, but even just walking around feels like getting an education in being over-stimulated.
Being able to block everything thing out is, I believe, the closest thing I have to a religious experience and to childhood and not caring about the world and not being public in any way. It’s the closest thing I have to solitude, which is there’s less of today. Just as we’re talking, I can hear my texts coming in.
Eugenia Williamson is a freelance writer and cat enthusiast. She writes about books and culture and her Twitter is @eugenia_will.