Writing Out The Pain

Poet Lisa Summe on her poetry collection "Say It Hurts", queer breakups, and regional homophobia.
"Say It Hurts" by Lisa Summe. Cover design by Alban Fischer.

In some ways, Say It Hurts is a poetry collection that actually celebrates the relief that comes after doing just that: naming when shit hurts. You might call that sentiment melodramatic, and you might be right, as this book is largely about the author’s lesbian breakups—but I’ll stop you right there. It’s so much more and, I would argue, resistant to these stereotypes altogether. To read this book is actually to both party and trudge through the pages with the poet herself.

The mental geography and emotional gymnastics that characterize Lisa Summe’s narration in Say It Hurts is familiar to anyone who has ever suffered through fraught breakups. Admittedly, I do have a few things in common with our author, having both been raised in Catholic in Midwestern suburbia. That said, these poems encourage the reader to delight in witnessing a stranger’s capital-T Truth, which totally delighted, embarrassed, and affirmed me all at once.

To read Say It Hurts is to be a fly on the wall of teenage sleepovers and other hold-your-breath scenarios that seem precarious as hell as a closeted teen. It is to feel the gravity shift every time you come out to conservative family members, which you will do over and over again. It is heartbreak and funerals and searching for exes in old haunts and in passing cars that look like models they once drove. Lisa lets these truths spill over and dry out in the sun. It’s also to take selfies in the boys department at Gap, with sunburnt “straight” girls in parking lots, and at the symphony thinking of mandolins and sex. We are respectful readers, but we want to scroll through dating apps at funerals too. We too want to confess, “I rely entirely on my horoscope to justify my bad behavior.”

As concrete as this book is, it is resistant to resolution. It is soft, and like the cover image, these poems are unmade and at times make you want to throw the sheets over your head in embarrassment and scream “ok-ok-it’s-too-real!” I think if there ever was a definition for queer writing—no such thing, but if there was!—it might go something like one of my favorite lines from the book: “What it means to write stories with skin.”

I’m grateful to Lisa for saying it hurts, writing poetry that shows a little skin, and for sharing her thoughts on queer love and loss.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Summe.

On Writing & Reading Queerness 

Can you talk about your relationship to queerness and writing? How has writing about queer love and loss affected you?

It’s interesting, though in retrospect not surprising, that I started writing poetry around the same time I was thinking about coming out (in college, 2008). Poetry, for me, totally became a mechanism in which I began exploring both my own internalized homophobia (which absolutely affected my self-esteem) and, a bit later, the queer joy that for me came from being openly in love and in a really wonderful relationship with a woman, all within the same year or so. When I started writing poems, which for me at 20, were very much about sexual/emotional desire, I’d write them about women, and before I’d turn them in for workshop I would change the she/her pronouns of the beloved in the poem to he/him. I don’t have anything that deep to say about it except that this felt bad on an existential level.

I can’t put my finger on what made me want to come out exactly, except for the persistent discomfort and anxiety around feeling like I was keeping a secret about myself from the people around me, which was causing me to distance myself from my family and some groups of friends. The act of writing these poems about desire and then making these pronoun edits to keep myself in the closet served as a catalyst in that they helped me recognize that I was actively hiding important parts of myself both from strangers/my university community and from the people I loved; AND, once I came out later that year also served as a really beautiful medium for expressing my love for my college girlfriend and also the complications of growing up repressed as f*ck because of the religion I was raised with. I have written about so many kinds of loss—some of them really obvious, like the loss of an intimate relationship via a breakup, or a death—but also in a more indirect way, writing about how queer unrequited love or being closeted, for example, can mean missing out on certain social stuff because your feelings for a person that are not returned are unbearable or your feelings about yourself are unbearable.

On Queerness in this part of the country

In these poems, you come out (over and over again), fall in love and break up and fall back into queer love in the Midwest/Mid-Atlantic, a region with a posture toward queerness that really comes to life in your poetry. But you also complicate this narrative with tenderness towards the people you engage with, which I really appreciated. Can you talk a bit about your experience of queerness as it intersects with geography?

Being queer in the Midwest, specifically in the very conservative and very Catholic suburb of Cincinnati where I grew up and lived until I was 20, was really challenging, but I really didn’t understand how dehumanizing it was and how much it drained me until I moved away.

I remember being in the fourth grade and hearing the word “gay” for the first time from a friend, used as a descriptor for something she thought was “stupid,” and that is how I used that word probably up until nearly high school. I didn’t know how to use the word except for as a mechanism to insult someone or something. At first I didn’t actually even know it was referencing homosexuality. And I had no context for understanding any kind of sexuality at all—as the oldest kid in my family, I had no big brothers to learn crude sex things from like some of my friends had.

I’ve always kind of had trouble with the word “lesbian,” a word that I never heard used kindly.

Lisa Summe

One of my earliest memories is a queer memory, from age three—having a crush a girl in my pre-school class. I had always been very aware I was attracted to women, and yet I was sort of unable to understand that I was maybe “gay,” even as a teenager. And maybe that was because I didn’t see other gay people around, so I couldn’t understand queerness in a concrete way. I had fantasies as a kid about becoming a boy somehow (which I explore a bit in a few of the poems in the book), not because I was uncomfortable with being a girl necessarily, but because I knew I was attracted to girls, and the model I saw for getting to, for example, marry a woman, was to be a man. Once I learned about lesbians, this feeling changed. I could be a woman and date women—amazing!! Before that, some of my peers, like in high school, suspected I was a lesbian. They weren’t wrong! But it wasn’t a compliment. So I’ve always kind of had trouble with the word “lesbian,” a word that I never heard used kindly—like the use of the word “gay” in middle school, “lesbian” was at best a joke, and at worst a slur.

This is all to say that I do think homophobia has some roots in geography, and even more in religion, specifically Catholicism (certainly others, too, that I don’t know enough about to comment on), which is also kind of related to geography and place, right? Religions only exist where they can thrive. And isn’t this why queer people who grow up in shitty suburbs flee them?

I often have a visceral response when driving to Cincinnati, and my relationship with it feels really complicated because I’m unable to remove all the bad Catholic and Republican things of the place where my parents live from the city itself. I am deeply uncomfortable with the place I grew up, and it is sometimes very difficult to approach anything near it tenderly and with compassion because I see how it’s damaged me and many others, namely by making people who were different feel like that wasn’t okay–that being who you are is not acceptable. I also try to remember that everyone is a person who is doing their best. And hateful behavior is probably rooted in something very deeply ingrained in them and they have no sense of it being wrong. There are places all over like the suburb I’ve described—it’s not unique to Cincinnati. The hate we experience is systemic. But still, there’s some anger that for me is rooted in Cincinnati itself. It is, like everything, complicated. And I think that’s why we write poems.

“Say It Hurts” is available for preorder here. Cover & interior design by Alban Fischer.

Yes, of course I’m still hanging out with my ex and we’re processing our break-up over dinner at our favorite vegan restaurant.

Lisa Summe

On Queer Breakups

Ok, “Poem In Which Our Break-up Isn’t So Bad” gutted me. Which is to say I get why the book takes its title from a line in this poem. Can you… talk about it? And riff on lesbian breakups?

A lot to say about lesbian breakups [laughs]…to begin with the poem though, tercets definitely felt right in revision, which is what I turn to when what I’m writing feels particularly uncertain/unsure of itself–or just really f*cking treacherous. While this poem is absolutely “truthful” in that it’s autobiographical, it’s also part fantasy, in that the breakup I’m talking about was so painful. But here, in this poem where it “isn’t so bad,” I’ve chosen to highlight the…highlights: namely the teamwork and the ways in which we took responsibility for our actions and communicated directly with each other.

The most important thing to me about this poem is I wanted people to both laugh (the OD’ing on holy basil was a real talk I had with this ex, and she was kinda joking) and feel gutted (thanks for feeling how I wanted you to feel!!!). I think this parallels many lesbian breakups in general, or at least for me is an example of an ideal lesbian breakup, which is that… I don’t know, you can still be a little funny with each other even when you’re hurting. I guess this is to say that my favorite thing about lesbian breakups is when they are really cliché, because that makes me laugh! Even in my heartbreak, when I’m crying, I can be like, “yes, of course I’m crying for a month about this woman I slept with like five times who dumped me,” or, “yes, of course I’m still hanging out with my ex and we’re processing our break-up over dinner at our favorite vegan restaurant and crying in public here and everywhere for like a year and I’m also watching her dog this weekend.” This is precious to me [laughs].

On Queer Bodies

There is so much colorful corporal imagery in this collection: hair in drains, Gap Kids clothes and bowties, tattoos, glow-in-the-dark-condoms. Some of the most powerful imagery, for me, evoked a kind of theatre of the body: How we use it to externalize; manipulate hair and clothes to communicate and express. It can all be so complicated–but beautiful, cathartic and painful at the same time. This quote spoke to me: “How real is the body that does not torture itself in attempts to heal?” How do you think about the body as an instrument of queer expression?

What a beautiful sentiment–the body as instrument. It is both a gift and a curse, for me, to be visibly queer. A gift in that I don’t need to do anything but stand there for people to know I’m queer, which can feel really welcoming or pretty dangerous depending where I am. I’ve had important convos with friends and partners and exes about femme invisibility–also a gift and a curse. To be read as straight, sometimes, is to be left alone, to be unbothered. But it’s also to be ignored. Or to receive attention from people that you do not want or welcome (i.e. cis men). I’ve been called a faggot out a truck window. I’ve also been hit on by women in public. It’s strange to put these things next to each other. It is a privilege to live in a city where I go outside and see lots of people who look like me, which I never experienced before living here.

When I’m in Cincinnati in the grocery store near my parents’ house, I just feel people staring at me. It’s pretty uncomfortable and also kind of triggering. Because a whole thing about growing up there was feeling unwelcome, feeling like a weirdo for being different, but not in a cool way. Which is to say that I think about the body as an instrument of expression very…intentionally. Yeah, I have this gay haircut on purpose and my girlfriend has been touching it up during quarantine. I can tie my bow tie perfectly without a mirror. I love my body hair (and wish it were more robust!). I like myself. And I think it’s because… I don’t know, I’ve deliberately chosen how I want to look and—relatedly—how I want to live, despite all the bullshit along the way. I’m happy and grateful to say I feel so at home in my clothes and in my body. But it was journey for sure.

On Parents and Queer Children

It’s not uncommon for the relationships between parents and their queer children to be fraught, and it’s clear that your relationship with your father–and your partners’ fathers–wasn’t always smooth sailing. Can you talk about making peace with irreconcilable truths about the people that we love? And how to move forward compassionately?

This is a tremendous question, and I’m still trying to figure out the answer. I often don’t know how to make peace with the face that I, for example, have a Trump-supporting father. The closest thing I have to an answer comes from a poem about my dad in section I, “Home for Christmas:”

never ever touch a woman / i cannot unhear it / cannot unsee his stiff body / arms crossed / guarding the kitchen sink / from what / well how do you know you’re gay /i guess i haven’t forgiven him / but am trying / for every thing / a light can show you / it contorts two / maybe / because of how i want things / to look / the light / smooths over the way he asks me / via text / to go to mass with him shushes his politics / lights making him / shiny / so i let them (28)

I think that just being aware of the range and complexity of human emotion (and all the shit that causes our feelings), maybe that’s the answer. Maybe that’s how you be compassionate. And by acknowledging, too, that not everyone is able to be the best version of themselves all the time. In order to walk through life like this, I think you have to believe that 1) people are good and 2) when people do f*cked up things it’s because larger systemic things (racism, the patriarchy, etc.) have caused them trauma and affected their behaviors. None of this is to excuse bad behavior or abuse of any kind on a broader lever. I’m only talking about the relationships in my life and how I approach them both in writing and IRL.

On Apologies

The word sorry carries a lot of weight in this collection, and there are moments when the effort it takes to refuse to apologize seems as difficult as apologies themselves, which I’m sure is relatable, especially for women-identifying folks. When is it important to apologize and when is it important to be unapologetic?

Totally, and, especially in section I, apology is in one corner and the refusal to do so is in the other and they’re f*cking duking it out.

In two of the “coming out” poems I mention refusal—in one a refusal to apologize to my father specifically for coming out to him and for being queer, and in another a refusal to apologize to the church/the world at large for being queer: “I am on my knees & this is no apology. / I am on my knees & my hands are full” (30). Ending the section with those lines was intentional, which is to say that, in this collection, the refusal to apologize wins.

We absolutely need to apologize when we hurt others, even if it isn’t intentional, and that can’t happen unless we have some awareness about how our actions affect others. And I think anyone who is not a cis man is both more likely to recognize (and consider before acting) how our actions affect others and to apologize (and over-apologize) because of the patriarchy’s effect on society at large, which has produced rampant misogyny, which has led many of us to think that however we are is “wrong.” But it’s super complicated, because technically someone could say something that you or I think is harmless is harmful. Like my queerness “hurts” my dad on some level. So where is the line? I don’t know the answer, but one thing I do know is that (nonviolently) standing up for yourself, for your life, for those in it, in order to have the life you want is nothing to apologize for.

On Religion and Homosexuality

I think about the affect of Catholic upbringings on sexuality a lot, probably too much, but I don’t think I’m alone. I remember my first time walking into a church after coming out and how vaguely disorienting it felt. What is your relationship with religion like these days? What advice would you give to others who may be struggling with residual internalized homophobia?

You are def not alone in this! I imagine that many queer people who have been raised in some kind oppressive religious setting have experienced trauma around their queerness/identity, and trauma–well, we carry it with us whether we want to or not.

I have had very visceral bodily responses to being in church since being out, and they get worse each time I go, especially at weddings, which sucks because I love weddings! I can’t really bear to set foot in Catholic churches these days. The only exception really is for funerals. I am not religious and am certainly not interested in Catholicism because I think it’s super hypocritical—Christian principles like treating others how you’d like to be treated are pretty harmless (but, it should be noted that you should actually have conversations with others about how they want to be treated, because not everyone wants what you want, but I digress), but I never saw them being practiced. I think it’s pretty safe to say that even though we are all made in god’s image, things don’t play out that way—the church is openly misogynistic and homophobic. And that’s been damaging to me. And I want nothing to do with it.

Ok, this passage on worship and the body is so sexy, and reminds me of one I asked Deesha Philyaw about in my last interview: “When I finally understood worship, I understood worship. It became tangible. It was soft & easy. It became bodies. There is something reverent about being on your knees & so I will always pull a girl closer to my face by her thighs.”

What is it about queer sex and worship/prayer that just makes so much sense?

Sex with women is the most ultimate light. But I was taught religion or god would bring me the best feeling. But it couldn’t. It is queerness and loving women that has, for me, become holy.

On Saying It Hurts

Love is painful. Queerness is painful. Queer love is painful. You write “so much of love is consumption,” a line that really resonated for me and kind of explains why love hurts. Why is it important to acknowledge that something hurts and express those feelings to others?

I really like your read of that line! If queer love hurts because so much of it is consumption, and if I–the queer person, the lover, the heartbreaker and the heartbroken–am consuming, don’t I always want more? Aren’t I always hungry? Hasn’t whatever has kept me going run out, and if it hasn’t, won’t it?

One time, after a few hours of crying on a day I had been broken up with, my friend Angela brought me over a jar of my favorite peanut butter (Kroger Naturals, Creamy!! Which you cannot get in Pittsburgh!!) and the Mister Rogers Post-it note attached to it said “Lisa, when it hurts, don’t forget, it hurts because it is real.”

In the book, the action of saying it hurts really comes into itself in section III because, as this book is chronological, here I have gone through a(nother) really tough breakup. But the difference, by this point in the book, is that I’ve taken a bit more responsibility for both my actions and my pain and my ex’s pain, and there are poems in which my ex and I process. And I’ve gone to therapy and touch on that some in the poems, too. And I think that’s where I sort of learned the importance of saying the thing. Therapy paired, of course, with many, many years of ineffectively communicating with partners, and then trying a new way. (Though it was too late to help our romantic relationship, this open communication was certainly a key to our transition to a fruitful friendship.) To say it hurts is to say it matters, and this is something you have to do if you’re going to heal.

I think there’s something to be said that returning to “normal” isn’t what we should be aiming for, because “normal” was actually really f*cked up

Lisa Summe

On Queering the Quarantine

Every aspect of culture has changed amid the pandemic, including queer life. The absence of queer social scenes, dance parties and gay bars, community events, pride celebrations, health centers and group support has really taken a toll on the queer community. How do you envision queerness and queer life will evolve in the After Times?

I have really leaned into my introversion during lockdown and, actually, for the first time ever, have learned how to rest without feeling bad or guilty (brought to me for sure by my privilege and that I’ve been able to do my day job remotely, pay my bills, stay healthy, etc.). And I still, a year later, feel a huge sense of relief in not having to show up to places/events. I don’t really like group stuff or loud stuff or crowds. But the things you’ve named are absolute staples in our queer communities. To be honest, I worry that what will happen when things are more “normal” and group things can be a thing, is that because we’ve all been so deprived of…everything…that people will throw themselves into all social situations and opportunities and completely exhaust themselves/get rundown, which is how many of us were feeling pre-lockdown, whether we recognize it or not.

I think there’s something to be said that returning to “normal” isn’t what we should be aiming for, because “normal” was actually really f*cked up, specifically regarding work and “productivity” under capitalism in this country. So while the pandemic and the many kinds of other social and political sicknesses in this country have been undeniably horrific and life-threatening, I’m concerned about the After Times. Because people are still going to be really f*cked up still after a year of isolation, and I think the new novelty of bars and clubs are going to turn into spaces for pretty damaging coping mechanisms to come alive after the year we’ve all had.

On a more positive note, I’ve taken this time not only to rest in new ways, but to spend time reflecting on what things and relationships in my life are worth my time. So my hope for everyone is for us all to do things more intentionally—for people and communities/groups and businesses to be more thoughtful and choosy about how and for whom they spend their time and energy.

On Queer Writers in Pittsburgh

Who are the queer writers that we need to be reading right now in the region? What is some queer literature that has affected you deeply?

Some of my favorite local and nearby-ish writers are Kayleb Rae Candrilli (Philly), S. Brook Corfman (PGH), Alex Dimitrov (NYC), Heather McNaugher (PGH), and Lauren Russell (PGH/Michigan).

I will say that Molly Bolt from Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown has stuck with me. The book is super coming-of-age-y and very lesbian and incredibly witty. It’s both heavy and hilarious. Crush by Richard Siken was the first book of poems that I cared about in a big way. Don’t Call Us Dead and Homie by Danez Smith. GOOD MORNING AMERICA I AM HUNGRY AND ON FIRE by Jamie Mortara. All The Gay Saints by Caleb Rae Candrilli.

Lisa Summe is the author of Say It Hurts (YesYes Books, 2021). She earned a BA and MA in literature at the University of Cincinnati, and an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, Salt Hill, Verse Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. You can find her running, playing baseball, or eating vegan pastries in Pittsburgh, PA. Order Say It Hurts at YesYes Books.

Hannah Waltz
Hannah Waltz works on the U.S. Free Expression Programs team at PEN America, and currently calls Pittsburgh home. A true subscriber to the power of words and stories to promote good change, she's worked at the center of literature and activism at local nonprofits, bookstores and magazines in Pittsburgh, New York, and Indianapolis. She's on the board of ReelQ, Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ+ film festival, and believes in moving queer narratives to the fore.