Michelle Tea and Dorothy Allison have spent an awful lot of time sleeping on strangers' basement floors. Tea cofounded Sister Spit, originally an early-'90s all-female open mic, with Sini Anderson at a time when spoken word was, as Tea said in a phone interview, "hot and not cliché yet." The open mic spent several years grounded in San Francisco, during which time Tea had gone out on tour with her amateur punk band. After living out of her van with bandmates as they rambled across the West Coast for a month, Tea told Anderson that Sister Spit should try the open road. "If my shitty punk band could go on tour—and we sucked—then we could bring Sister Spit on tour," she told Anderson. "Sister Spit is so much more universal than a band."
The first Sister Spit tour in 1997 was a financial shitshow and a logistical nightmare. Partway into the tour, the van irreparably broke down at midnight on the border of Alabama and Mississippi. "Oh shit, we can't fuck this up," Tea thought. "Eileen Myles has trusted us with her life." The group had to split up. Some writers went on ahead in a cargo van with no seats, an illegal but necessary move. Everyone else got into the "little soccer van" that writer Tara Jepsen's stepmom offered. Throughout the month, the ladies would ask to make long-distance calls from the strangers' houses where they were staying, contact the promoter in the next city, open up their worn road atlas, and say, "Okay, we're in Athens, Georgia—how do we get to you in Virginia?" By the time the artists got back to San Francisco at the end of the month, they had made enough to give everyone $80, which, according to Tea, was a total shock; she was surprised there was any money left at all.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Allison experienced her own chaotic tours. "I'm part of that generation that all piled into a car and drove," she says, reminiscing about the '90s tour for her book Trash. For six months, she shocked the small towns of Georgia and Mississippi with her bold words and black leather chaps. "Let's remember we were in the heyday of 'take revenge on your ex-girlfriend in your poetry,' a phenomenon, an art form," Allison points out. "When you're on tour, you can take revenge on your ex-girlfriend-as-of-two-days-ago. She said something bad about you in Atlanta, and now you're in Nashville."
Twenty years later, Allison has joined Sister Spit for the first time. She looks forward to being surrounded by artists who will "provoke one another and shape each other's work" out on the road. Besides Tea and Allison, the 2012 Sister Spit tour includes Justin Vivian Bond, Erin Markey, Brontez Purnell, Kit Yan, and Cassie J. Sneider. Keeping with tradition, the tour kicked off in San Francisco on April 1 and began the monthlong trip across the country. Seattle is the 11th stop of 29.
Sister Spit has grown up. Its first publication is scheduled for fall 2012. The anthology, which Tea will edit, features a variety of pieces—poems, snippets, tour diaries—written by folks who have traveled with Sister Spit from the '90s through today. Just like the tour, the anthology will include some of the new stuff and some of the classics. Both Tea and Allison agree that the 2012 tour is much more civilized. No strangers' basements, no ex-girlfriends' couches, no towed vans (fingers crossed). The one thing concerning Allison, naturally, is shoes. "You can't take that much in a little van, so I have to figure out what type of shoe will work from Tucson to Portland to Minneapolis," she said. "I have just enough room for one pair of high heels." Then, in between performances, "Justin Bond and I can sit around and talk about them." (Unfortunately, that's a conversation we'll miss at Hugo House: Bond won't be joining the tour until after Seattle.)
Listening to Bond and Allison commiserate over footwear is something Tea has wanted for some time. It took five years for her to secure a two-week period to bring Allison out with Sister Spit. "If someone asked me in my wildest dreams who I would bring on tour, I would say Dorothy Allison and Justin Bond," Tea said. "It's a total dream tour."