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Thinking Inside the Box: Anna Pulley's Lesbian Haiku 

Wednesday, Apr 13 2016

Not all illustrated books destined for a coffee table or the top of a toilet tank reference Vita Sackville-West — the British poet, gardener, and sometimes-lover of Virginia Woolf — but Anna Pulley's The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book (with Cats!) does.

If you find that bit of literary flair triggering, know that the book also contains the following haiku about the love lives of women-loving women: "Roses are red, but / I don't support nonsustainable / industries" and "Picture foreplay that / lasts more than a few minutes. / Now, add some crying."

Pulley is a former SF Weekly arts editor — full disclosure: We'd never been in contact before my interview with her and her girlfriend-slash-illustrator Kelsey Beyer, conducted over quinoa salads from Eatsa — who freelances for various outlets, including writing an advice column for AfterEllen. A few years ago, after her father received a cancer diagnosis and her fiancée left her, she was in a "dark place" that wrecked her creatively as well as emotionally. While trying to support herself in San Francisco on a job that paid $6 an hour, Pulley found her way back to writing by putting haiku on the internet.

"They require very little brain power and emotional power, which was the most important thing," she says. "It was this incredible source of inspiration for me, and a really easy way to get my writing chops back. It saved me!"

Having brought herself back from the wilderness, she decided to save the world's lesbians via less-than-exact fidelity to a venerable Japanese literary form. Seeing as how "90 percent of the questions [in her advice column] are like 'She touched my fork, do you think it means something?' Pulley realized there was a flirting crisis leading to a sexual emergency. "I want it to be a call to action," she says of her book. "I want lesbians to come and not be pansies and just go after what they want." (Additionally, as she writes in the introduction, "Maybe I secretly want confused heterosexual men to pick up this book and think it's porn and then be like, 'Ahh, I just read lesbian poetry!' And then join a coven in New Mexico. One can dream.")

Apart from the five years it took Pulley to write hundreds of haiku — about 400 of which made it in — the book came together quite easily. Shortly after The Toast began publishing them, Flatiron Books contacted her to compile them between two hard covers, with Beyer doing the illustrations.

"I had started drawing some lesbian cats for my friend's birthday cards before I met Anna," she says. One had begun calling her an "LHB" — long-haired butch — so she drew a long-haired cat wearing a tie and later a short-haired cat wearing lipstick. Pulley introduced her to Maru the Cat — the Japanese YouTube sensation who's obsessed with boxes — and, combined with puns on the word box, created a "unifying concept that matched the humor and irreverence of her haiku."

Owing to the natural division of labor between them, they seldom fought over the material — and although negotiating the contract proved challenging enough to merit some couples therapy, it led to "some high-five moments" with only a very occasional moment of confusion.

"There were times when there was a haiku I didn't get," Beyer says. "Out of 700."

"She's like 'Who's Vita Sackville-West?' and I'm like, 'Ugh,"" Pulley says, feigning irritation.

In the end, Pulley didn't have to "Knit your feelings for / her using symbols culled from / dream dictionaries" — and, in any case, Beyer's illustrations are hardly incidental ornaments padding out the project.

Thus conceived, The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book contains tweet-able nuggets on a wide scope of topics, from polyamory to rosemary-infused crackers from Trader Joe's. And while many of the haiku could be embroidered on a pillow, it's a surprisingly impersonal work overall. Pulley and Beyer are in an open relationship — of which there are hints aplenty — but when I infer from all the references to witchcraft that Pulley is a pagan, she corrects me. (She had just attended a "workshop-slash-ritual" at Pantheacon, a pagan convention in San Jose, however.)

For the most part, The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book exaggerates generalized clichés for comic effect, as opposed to processing Pulley and Beyer's own intimate lives through light verse. The main exception to this rule is IKEA.

"I remember us putting together a bed frame and it was the longest fight we ever had," Pulley says. "If you can put together IKEA furniture with your partner, you've made it. That's six months of therapy right there."

Throughout, there are nods to yoga flow, Audre Lorde, Hitachi Magic Wands, ex-lovers throwing Boca Burgers, Tegan and Sara, Ryan Gosling, small-batch pickled kohlrabi, and Orange Is the New Black, plus a lot of rhyming puns on Fifty Shades of Grey. Seldom has there been a more charming endeavor at dismantling phallocentrism by yoking the patriarchal energy of the logos to pictures of bespectacled kitties drinking herbal tea — and you can possess these lesbian cats for $14.99 when the book comes out on April 19. Pre-order The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book (with Cats!) and you'll get a 100 bonus haiku, many of which yield penetrating insights into lesbian culture, and some of which involve wordplay on the subject of penetration. But it's not our place here to go too deeply into the topics they address. As Pulley writes, "I can't give away / the secrets but will say it / involves dream catchers."


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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