Call for Papers: Interview with the QMW Project

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With our roots as a lit mag in Utah and the heart of the queer mormon experience, we keep our eyes out for others trying to raise awareness of the culture and experiences of queer mormons. We recently heard of the QMW Project and their call for papers. Their website explains the topics of these papers surround the experiences of queer Mormons, no longer practicing Mormons, and Mormon-adjacent people—specifically those of “queer women, trans and nonbinary people, intersex people, asexual people, and queer polyamorous women that fall into these categories.”

Below you’ll find our short interview with the leaders of this project, Kerry Spencer Pray and Jenn Lee Smith. You’ll also find resource on how to submit and who is eligible. Don’t wait—their deadline is by February 15!

Interview with Kerry Spencer Pray and Jenn Lee Smith of the QMW Project

peculiar: What is the QMW Project? 

QMW: For a lot of reasons (patriarchy, culture, habit), the majority of stories you hear from queer Mormons are the stories of cis gay men. This is made more difficult by Mormonism’s strict sense of gender and gender expression. The stories of queer Mormon women, of nonbinary people, of asexual people, of intersex people, and of trans people are often untold and unheard. We collect these stories because we want to change that.

p: How did it get started and how long has it been going?

QMW: Almost a decade ago in the early days of Secret Facebook Groups, a small group of queer Mormon women got together to discuss their experience and they named the group QMW for “Queer Mormon Women.” The group grew to include nonbinary people, intersex people, trans people, asexual people, and femme people and the name in the group description was changed to “Queer Mormon Warriors” (because all of us have to fight to be heard). In the last year we launched the blog to make our stories more publicly available and we also signed a contract with the University of Utah Press for a book which will come out in the next year or two.

p: We also find the intersection of mormonism and queer identity fascinating (if you couldn’t tell, haha). Tell us a little about what draws you all to this topic.

Jenn: Growing up in Provo and Price, Utah, as a POC tomboy meant never fully settling into a comfortable sense of belonging within the religion. Later in life, post-marriage to a man, I had an awakening to my queerness that was so terrifying and shameful that I told NO ONE, quit my job, and moved to another town. Fortunately, I couldn’t run for too long and found within a racially diverse academic setting the freedom to figure out the race piece. When I came out to my spouse, I found a close, supportive partner to help figure out the queer piece. For me, producing the film Jane and Emma was cathartic in helping to bring to the big screen a woman of color at the center of an LDS film. Now, working on the QMW Project is cathartic for creating a space for voices from marginalized queer Mormons. I watch films and read stories to know I am not alone. If these stories are out there but haven’t been told, then my passion is to help bring them to a larger audience and readership.

Kerry: Queerness can be a much more . . . amorphous experience for a lot of women—especially Mormon women who have been taught their entire lives to subjugate their own needs so completely. When I finally came out to myself, I was married (to a man) and I knew, like, two lesbians (who were not Mormon). I reached out to one of them and she introduced me to people who welcomed me into this vast underground network. Like Jenn, I realized there was a huge need for our stories to be made more public. Mormonism shapes every aspect of our lives and the way we conceive of ourselves and even the things we think are possible. It drastically shaped my life and the lives of all the queer Mormons I know and it’s important to me that we talk about how.

p: We noticed on your site that the QMW project shares the name of a secret Facebook group you were a part of. One of our editors met their boyfriend of three years at an underground, gay-mormon dinner group (and Facebook group), so this speaks to us. What are your thoughts on these groups and how they help or speak to queer mormons?

Kerry: They’re so important to the way we find each other! Queerness is such a taboo subject in Mormonism. For me there was literally not even ONE Mormon I knew for sure I could reach out to. Of course, after I came out, it turned out queer people were everywhere. Many of my friends had been quietly queer and I’d never known (even if, by all rights, I should have, lol). Secret groups provide people the space they need to make connections to other queer people and to discuss the things that feel too taboo to talk about more publicly.

p: What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

Jenn: I hope to gain more knowledge, more truth, and better understanding via the authentic voices of those who have never quite fit into marriage and family discourses of the LDS church. Single people of the church have asked what makes us different. The difference is the persistent shaming of queerness via the language of some in the leadership and via culturally influenced rhetoric of its members that do not target non-queer people. This is a complex issue and we feel it is best explored by the sharing of stories.

Kerry: I don’t want other people to be in the place I found myself. Queer people are everywhere and no one should feel so completely alone. Mormon women are taught to subjugate our own needs and our own voices so completely we forget we have them. Nonbinary and trans Mormons aren’t even given space in Mormon doctrine, which is so completely set on a binary and so blind to the people it leaves out. It hurts us. I want fewer of us to hurt.

p: What’s something we haven’t asked that you want to tell us about the QMW Project?

QMW: We are often asked if this is a safe space for those who are no longer practicing Mormonism. Will we be promoting celibacy and partnership with the right gendered partner? No, absolutely not. We aim to share the real-lived experiences of those who wish to share and if we are to promote anything at all, it will be to show compassion for ourselves and to choose the path that is best for our emotional, physical, mental, spiritual well-being.

p: Where should new readers start?

QMW: We have so many good pieces!

Kerry’s story is here.

We have so much wonderful poetry, but I love this one by Hope Dargan.

I adore this story from Judith Mehr, who spent her life working for the church as an artist and painted so many of the iconic paintings we all know.

p: What things do you publish and how can people submit to the project?

QMW: This first book will be a collection of narrative essays, but we also publish poetry, art, comics, and other essays on our blog. The reason why we titled this the Queer Mormon Project is because we envision several other published works after this collection of essays. For example, there are many beautiful, insightful works of poetry that have been submitted. We hope to collect them into a book of poems in the future. There are submission instructions at our website.

Q&A with Featured Writer Kay Zeiss

QA Kay Zeiss

Kay Zeiss, the poet who graces our pages as peculiar‘s newest Featured Writer, composes her poetry like an invitation. Each line guiding you around a corner, opening a snapshot, a landscape, a person materializing in the smoke. Zeiss is a queer Seattle-based poet and licensed social worker from Chicagoland. She has been found behind typewriters attempting “name your price poems,” curating art walks, and co-facilitating creative writing groups.

When did you start writing?

I started writing on a typewriter in grade school with my dad. He and I used to write eloquent (but probably in actuality, nonsensical) stories in turn, line by line, about anything from earthworms to aliens. Despite an early start, the great majority of my life was spent not writing anything beyond what was required of me throughout my formal education.

I was briefly interested in science writing in undergrad while pursuing a research fellowship as a double major in psychology and biology. However, I did not rediscover creative writing until after I obtained my master’s in social work. A few years ago, I had the privilege of co-facilitating a writing group at the VA. This was the rebirth of my passion for writing, and I was reminded of how deeply I value the art of storytelling as a practice.

Why do you write?

I have a great passion for language generally, but specifically regarding how language helps us to connect with one another. I believe stories in any form are powerful because they allow us to realize we aren’t alone in our experiences. For me, writing has the ability to unlock lexicon gaps and allow for a playground of commonality and interconnection. In searching for the right concentration and combination of words, I hope my writing will convey my unique and simultaneously universal experience.

I find much joy out of creating poetry inspired by random words I learn (petrichor is a recent favorite). Also, a favorite of mine is to take a situation and reason out how to convey the story through nature and metaphor.

Sometimes I’ll write as a means to process what I’m going through, to understand better what has brought confusion, or to let go of the pain of suffering.

What poets and authors do you read?

Li-Young Lee is my absolute favorite poet. His poem “furious visions” is wonderful. Time begins to seem less linear, perhaps more cyclical or circular through the lens of Lee’s writing. His seemingly tangential stories are grounded by the adept weaving of memories from his childhood, young adulthood, and the present. It’s almost as though each moment across a lifespan, across generations, is occurring presently. There is an invitation to detach from our conception of time. As someone who understands intergenerational trauma first hand, I truly value a writer’s ability to convey this phenomenon.

I also adore Annie Dillard (“Total Eclipse,” my favorite story by her; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my favorite book), Emily Dickinson, Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Oliver, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Adrienne Rich, Clarice Lispector, R.A. Sasaki, Italo Calvino, Saul Bellow, Ted Chiang, Rumi, and Rilke. There are so many more.

What’s your writing process?

I treat what I have written in the past few years as an experiment, of sorts. I tend to have a memory, a thought, a feeling, a struggle, or an existential fixation in mind that I want to reason out, toy with, or challenge myself into finding objectivity. Most of the time, I will slip into thought about what sensations or visualizations arise, and try to incorporate that sensory input into my poetry. I spent a great deal of time in the outdoors and commonly will draw on my observations in nature to help my attempts at describing the indescribable.

Sometimes I’ll sit in a comfortable place with a cup of tea and pensively stare at my computer or typewriter to reason out the latest curious thought with which I’ve been grappling. Other times I’ll festoon my hammock within sight of a lake. Always within earshot of the chirping birds.

Writing is one of my favorite activities to foster that sense of flow. Everything else fades away as I get hyper focused on the task of writing. Writing becomes about giving creative expression to an experience with intent to find a voice that will invite others to identify, and thusly connect. Sometimes the words just flow out onto the page, other times the piece requires much editing. I don’t have a structured approach to writing, though.

What inspires you to write?

People. Spirituality. Mother Earth. The elegant, yet unapologetic nature of my cats (Frenchington and Grandpa). The courage of others. Oppression. Privilege. Lexicon gaps. Silos. Capitalism. The turn of the seasons. An impossibly blue and impossibly still tarn. Sunsets. Tibetan singing bowls. The pain brought by the ending of a relationship. Impermanence. The joy of connecting with others. Channeling and practicing objectivity as inherently biased beings. The question, “how do we find commonality?”

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?

I love writing sultry haikus.. with a typewriter.. on heavy, haphazardly torn strips of paper.. There’s something about the intense thumping sound of each key stroke and the commanding urgency and permanence of red ink that is incomparable. It’s super fun, ridiculous, and great practice for my writing process.

Last year, during an art walk in Seattle, I wrote poetry on the spot in the form of sultry haikus. This was my favorite:

Her sway, her rhythm;
You catch your breath, arrested.
A levee breaking.

What effect do you hope your writing will have on people?

I have two hopes as a writer. I hope for my words to leave an image with the reader that’s reminiscent of what I have experienced, and I hope to convey that we as living beings aren’t as different from each other as we may imagine.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

Oh, I don’t know. I try to live my life a day at a time.

What’s it like being queer where you live?

In Seattle, at least when I moved here, it seemed like being queer was more the norm than anything. I remember joking with my friends back home in Chicago that it almost seemed like there was a competition to be “the queerest.” There were so many words queer folk were using as self-descriptors that I had never heard of before moving to the Pacific Northwest, despite being “out” for nearly a decade. People who identify as straight even use the word “partner” here. Back in the Midwest, labeling a person as your partner for anyone who wasn’t your business associate automatically flagged you as gay. I’ve felt the safest living here being out, loud and proud in comparison to other cities. The rainbow crosswalks are pretty cool too.

What makes you peculiar?

I dance to the Muzak down grocery store aisles, my favorite movie is The Lion King, and I also like to eat wild city lavender.

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Kay Zeiss is a queer Seattle-based poet and licensed social worker from Chicagoland. This is the first time she has been published for her writing endeavors. She is currently pursuing her second master’s degree, this one in bioethics. In her free time, if she’s not writing, she’s finding tiny flowers on big mountains with the naturalist and scrambling groups of the Mountaineers.