SONGS OF SUBVERSION: an interview with Vi Subversa by Lynna Landstreet
The following appeared in the Toronto anarchist newspaper Kick It Over #14 Winter 1985/86:
Poisongirls, who recently played in Canada for the first time, at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, are a British band who have their roots in the punk movement, but have grown much more musically diverse over the eight years they’ve been together. One thing that has remained consistent, though, through the five LP’s two EP’s, and numerous singles (I think that’s right) that the band has released, has been their commitment to their anarchist feminist political convictions, expressed through both their lyrics and their involvement in the independent music scene. After releasing several records on the Crass label, they starred their own label, XNTRIX, on which many other bands, such as Toxic Shock, Rubella Ballet, and Conflict got their start. One thing that particularly distinguishes Poisongirls, within the predominantly youth-oriented punk movement, is lead singer Vi Subversa’ s age – she recently turned 50. Also, the band’s emphasis on feminism stands out, since even the politically-oriented punk bands tend to be mostly male-dominated.
The Toronto gig was quite an experience for me, not only because I got to meet and talk to my favorite band, but because it was the first time I’d attempted to organize a show. Even though I didn’t do it all on my own, it was still very empowering to realize that putting on a gig is not some kind of arcane skill belonging only to an elite few, but something that anyone can do – with the advice and help of some friends. I also discovered that ticket prices don’t have to be as high as they usually are. We managed to keep it down to $6.00 – less than a lot of North American bands charge. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of organizing a gig is that you may be deluged with requests to organize shows for other bands, benefits for every political group you’ve ever participated in, etc. One thing that I’ll try to do differently in the future is to hold all-ages shows, rather than using a licensed club, which can make an event inaccessible to anyone under 19 (unless they look older or have fake ID). Although, of course, we didn’t ask anyone for ID, some clubs may insist on having their own people working the door, in which case the organizers have little or no control, unless they want to pass out free fake ID outside (Now there’s an idea!).
I interviewed Vi Subversa, guitarist Richard Famous, bass player Max Volume, and drummer Agent Orange (the latter two have only been with the band a year) before the show.
KIO: On the new album, Songs of Praise, it sounds like your views on feminism have changed a bit.
VS: Well, there’s been a lot of things happened. I first started using the word “feminist” about 10 years ago, and there was an assumption, a sort of magical assumption, suddenly, between women, that we could talk honestly to each other, that we could trust each other, that we could work together. And we did, and I think that we – when I say we, I mean I’m speaking for a lot of women – have actually changed the face of the world somewhat. But meanwhile, we’re not working in a vacuum, and there’s been a considerable backlash. The status quo has, I think, learned to incorporate us, and to defuse us quite a lot. The statement that opens that album is “I don’t believe in the brotherhood of man. No state of grace, no five year plan.” That’s saying that the state of our system politics needs a kick up the ass. We can’t take anything for granted anymore. And then I go on to say “‘I don’t believe in sisters against the men. My sister has betrayed me yet again.” That’s saying the same to us as women. What I’m wanting to say, what I’m wanting to do, is to say that we can’t take anything for granted. I feel like going right back to first principles, to square one. We’ve got trapped in a lot of dogma, trapped in notions of what we think we ought to believe, and what we ought to be doing, and how we ought to be relating to each other. And some of it’s just not true. It’s just not happening, there’s a lot of bullshit about it. So in a way I haven’t changed, I’ve just had ten years of quite exciting and also quite tiring experience. And what I want, and I’m challenging any woman who wants to tackle me about it like you are, is to say: Let’s not give up. Let’s not lose heart because of what’s happened, either in the lies between us or in the backlash that’s coming back at us. Let’s be brave enough to start again, where a lot of women started ten years ago, and indeed ten years before that, it’s ongoing. So that’s where I am, I’m prepared to start again. Whatever we’ve done of value in the last ten years will stay. I don’t want to hang onto any false security about what feminism is.
KIO: I’ve found that a lot of people, mainly because your lyrics are so strongly feminist, tend to assume that it’s an all women band. How do the men in the band feel about that?
AO: Well, it’s nothing if not deliberate.
RF: For me, the politics of Poisongirls comes under the heading of feminist, but it also comes under the heading of personal politics. I mean, the advances in the ways of looking at problems that came through what happened within the women’s movement, I think, is the main change in politics that has happened over the last ten years. And Poisongirls for me, and I’ve been there since day one, has been about trying to make it possible to sing about things that are real. And if that means that that’s defined as feminist, that’s fine by me. I don’t – well, I’ve juggled with the ideas, but I don’t consider myself a feminist, because I don’t think I can, it’s not possible. But I also don’t think it’s impossible for me to be in a band which talks about personal issues from a woman’s point of view. Especially seeing as Vi’s such a strong and fluent thinker and speaker and poet, and in that way, l think that the ideas that go into the band are beyond feminism inasmuch as they’re pushing away boundaries and not stuck with dogma.
VS: Well, I think that, what you said about it being about issues of reality, is that feminism created a context for women to redefine reality, in a way that gave us some space, and that, before that, my childhood didn’t seem to give me much space in the way that it gave boys space. There were a lot of places and a lot of activities that were out of bounds to me. And over the last few years, we have – women in the women’s movement have – been pushing out the boundaries, trying to create more space for ourselves. And of course, this is going to change the view that men have of what space is available to them. They’ve got to share space more. I mean, I work with men, and I’m a sexual being, most of my life I’ve had heterosexual relationships – that’s a horrible word, but I’ve loved men and loved with men. I’ve also had some relationships and loved with women. And all of us are sort of redefining what’s possible. And as women take more space, the reality is that a lot of men, from the beginning and maybe still, are afraid that’s going to leave them with less space, but I don’t think that’s right, actually. I think it’s reclaiming space for all of us.
MV: [first part cut off by being too far from the tape recorder] … Now men are taking on that responsibility too, on a very personal level. That’s a huge problem for men too, and that is incorporated in feminism as well.
RF: I’d just like to say that I don’t think the name “Poisongirls” was chosen as an attempt to mislead the public. People have said, right from the beginning, “Oh, we thought it was an all-girl band. blah blah blah,” and it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to pretend that we’re “girls”. At the beginning it was a pun. A departing guitarist said “You ought to be called ‘Poisongirls’ cause it sounds like “boys and girls’,” cause there were two women and two men at a time. And we’d had fifteen names in two weeks or something before that, and it stuck. That’s how names happen.
VS: I also say to some of the people who say “Oh, you’re not girl, you’re not all girls, only one girl,” l say, “No, there are no girls, I’m a woman.” Puts us all on an equal footing for a start, cause there’s a put-down implicit in the word “girl”.
KIO: Yeah, if you’re not a woman by your age, I don’t know when you are.
VS: That’s right… Another thing that’s happened over the last ten years is that, together again with a lot of women, the men that we relate with have surely learnt a lot. A generation has grown up now with a whole lot of women doing a whole lot of work, at home, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, with a whole generation of children.
RF: It’s hard to imagine that in 1976 the whole idea of women musicians was you know, Suzi Quatro… And that was it. And although it’s still remarked that there are women working in music, at least it’s accepted as a possibility.
VS: Having said that about the ten years that a lot of work was done, I am appalled when I listen to young women of my daughter’s age, 18, teenage women and young women in their early twenties, to hear that they have exactly the same problems. Whatever has been done has been done between ourselves, maybe, in terms of creating a language. But I’m not going to kid myself, I don’t think any of us can kid ourselves, that we’ve made a lot of ground our there. Women are finding themselves at a time of economic hardship, and of an increasing kind of terror in the world, not a lot better off. And that’s another reason for saying, look, let’s start again, let’s just start with all that energy as if we haven’t had any disappointments, start again.
RF: The other interesting thing, which is, again, ten years old, is Rolling Stone magazine saying that the epitome of American feminism is Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. And you just think “WHAT?!” Well, Rolling Stone, I imagine, is a male-dominated industry paper, trying to subvert the term “feminism” to include more-
VS: More sexual availability from young women. That’s it.
RF: But they do it in terms of saying that Madonna and Cyndi Lauper are actually “doing what they want to do in a man’s world, doing it as women” and that’s really the American Way. And, you know, will it happen again? Will people buy it again?
KIO: It’s like they’ve co-opted the word “feminism” to mean something else, something that’s still serving men, serving society… About the song “The Offending Article”, that really started a big controversy, and got you into a lot of trouble. Do you think that shows that people have a hard time dealing with angry women?
VS: With women allowing themselves to be angry, yes. When I was a little girl, before I discovered that I don’t have to go on being a little girl, I was very frightened by anger. I spent a long time in my adolescence and young womanhood feeling that I wasn’t angry, that I looked down on people who were angry, that I’d achieved some kind of a clear state. And looking back now at the things I was putting up with at the time, I was seething angry, I was shit-hot angry! And a lot of the anger that I can draw on now is anger that I can remember. I feel like I was frightened by anger, I felt that anger was somehow ugly, almost obscene, for a woman. When my mother was angry, it was very frightening. When my father was angry, it was somehow O.K., he had a right to be angry. And men have images of anger which are – well, we find it hard to get away from images of angry men, the threatening men prowling around, but what about our anger! So, O.K., in “The Offending Article”, I was surely angry when I wrote that. I was angry because of a certain complacency that I felt was creeping into one of the issues that are a part of liberation, namely the animal liberation movement. I felt that it was becoming sentimentalized, and a hell of an easy one. Especially in England, where everyone loves animals. And nobody was making the connections between the oppression of animals and the oppression of women, who are also treated like pets as long as they’re pretty and docile, etc. etc. And I don’t want to talk about people’s personal lives by name, but I was in touch with a young woman who had a boyfriend who was an animal liberationist, and he screwed her, and she got pregnant, and I just wanted to say something to him and to all those lads who were kind of congratulating themselves on their liberationism, and could not see what was going on between themselves and young women and each other. And sure, there still isn’t a safe and reliable contraceptive, and abortion is something that we have granted by a certain law which can be taken away, and has been, and none of these things should be forgotten at the expense of concern about animals. Sure, making the connections. It’s right, animals are treated diabolically. But that’s what that was about. And I know that a lot of people were upset at the image of a woman castrating a man, or having the fantasy. I mean, I’ve never actually chopped a guy’s prick off. I’ve never even actually met a specific guy whose specific prick I wanted to chop off –
KIO: I have!
VS: – but there are men in this world who have done such things that I wanted to be free to use that image of anger, and not sit on it any more.
KIO: Since it seems to be mainly men who are bothered by that image, how do the men in the band feel?
RF: I don’t know how much of the background of the piece is necessary, but it was written from the heart, and it was also written as a kind of a mischievous piece, in the context of the anarcho-vegetarian elite, who you know, go around London and were getting into a sort of a moral trip.
MV [I think]: And still are.
RF: And still are, and the way that they talk to each other, within the context of “acceptable politics”, acceptable statements, is totally over the top. And you can be totally over the top about war, you can be totally over the top about religion, you can be totally over the top about vegetarianism, but some things you can’t, some things you can’t actually say. And by actually saying them out loud, that these things are real, and are thoughts that go through people’s heads – you know, just like every pacifist has at some point thought “I would like to fucking kill that per son”, or “I would like them not to exist; I don’t necessarily want to kill them, I just would like them not to exist.” Which is the same thing, actually. And I think it was the confrontation of that, that got us as a band into a lot of trouble. Because of that piece, Crass, the band that we’d worked with for two and a half years, sent all our records back, all our artwork back –
VS: Wanted nothing more to do with us.
RF: They were manufacturing and distributing our records at the time, and they put everything into a taxi and sent it to our house. Didn’t talk to us about it, didn’t say anything. Because of that track.
VS: We had to pay for the taxi, too.
RF: And it was dumped on our doorstep when we were on tour. I think that, in terms of the imagery that was used, the fact that it’s misunderstood is because people don’t want to read it properly. We keep getting told that it says “All men are butchers,” which it doesn’t say, it says “All butchers are men”, which is a completely different statement. And O.K., all men might be butchers. We didn’t actually say that, but maybe it would have been better to have said it our loud, and included ourselves.
VS: Basically, it’s an equivalent statement to rape. It doesn’t even say that this woman who might rise up will kill a man, just that she will de-masculinize him. Or terminally humiliate him. It’s an image of reaction to rape.
RF: Active reaction, rather than passive reaction.
KIO: Back when you were still working with Crass, you released a single with them to raise money for an anarchist centre you were trying to start. What happened with that?
RF: We weren’t trying to start it. What happened was that some people came to us and said that they were trying to. Some of the people we knew were implicated in the “Persons Unknown” trial, which was some people who got arrested for having sugar and weedkiller in their house (allegedly to make bombs with). It was all tied up with “The Irish Problem, blah blah blah,” and it was a big test case about Persons Unknown, because they weren’t named. If the establishment had won that case, it would have meant that they would have been able to arrest and try people without even naming them. So these people were held without anyone being told who they were. They were wanting to start an anarchy centre, and it was the time of the Persons Unknown trial, so we brought the record out with us and Crass, “Persons Unknown” and “Bloody Revolmion”, and the money from that went to fund the Anarchy Centre. We didn’t actually have anything to do with the running of it. What happened was that it lasted for about six months, and then it ran into difficulties of energy, because of the old-style anarchists. or the “political” anarchists as they like to think of themselves, couldn’t come to terms with the anarcho-punks, who were a new phenomenon at the time, and they just couldn’t deal with the level of energy that the punks were trying to put in. It was before punks actually became acceptable as some kind of political force, or had some political identity. The establishment politics couldn’t handle them, didn’t know how to handle them at all.
VS: Personally. I was quite skeptical about the likelihood of success, but I think that it was fortunate that the record created enough interest in the idea. I mean, it raised some money, and some people got some experience at taking responsibility for initiative.
RF: It raised about £5000. It was a lot of money then – more than it is now.
KIO: Are those kind of conflicts still going on now?
RF: In London, there isn’t a lot of cohesion at all within the anarchist movement in general, and I think there’ll always be a conflict between the mainstream, or the old guard, and the new energy. But I think it’s more connected now than it ever has been.
VS: I think it’s got something to do with the generation gap. I discovered, when I first started working with the band, that we were up against sexism, that myself as a woman, at that time, playing guitar and singing about the sort of things that I was doing at the time, was quite unusual. And we introduced ideas of sexism, and feminism, into a whole kind of a youth movement, but since then, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that there is just as much wastage in terms of the divide-and-rule division between the generations, as there is between the sexes. A whole lot of experience that the older people do have is lost while there’s that fear, from both sides, and a whole lot of energy that the younger people have is lost to the older people. And the trouble is that it’s quite fun, in a way, to talk about sexism, because it has “sex” in the word! But you talk about ageism and that’s no fun, because who wants to own that there’s such a thing as age, and eventually death? These are much heavier taboos.
RF: So we were going to call it “youthism”…
VS: Youthism, yeah,but that’s not right either. It’s an issue of well, the old phrase, the generation gap, but that’s boring. What we need is a sexy way of talking about that.
KIO: Do you run into a lot of problems with ageism?
VS: I guess so… We have been told, I mean just very recently in New York, by some people in the business who were wanting to work with us that, well, the phrase was “Majors [major record labels] won’t touch you with a barge pole.” and that’s very much because an older woman isn’t considered to be – well, we’re up against a stereotype.
RF: But who wants to be touched by a barge pole, anyway?
VS: Especially with a major on the other end of it! Maybe we should chop their barge poles off.
RF: They’d only get it grafted on again.
KJO: Only if you do it in Australia. [This refers to a newspaper article we had been talking about earlier about a man in Australia who had his penis chopped off and then grafted on again.]
RF: Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be touched by an Australian barge pole! [Much laughter from everyone.]
KIO: But you don’t really run into that problem with young punks?
VS: No, no, because –
RF: This relates to what happened on your 50th birthday, which was that the whole thing got blown as a sham. Before that, everyone –
VS: in the press –
RF: was very cagey about “middleaged singer Vi Subversa, blah blah blah,” and then she came out and said, “Look, it’s my 50th birthday, and we’re going to have a party!” And we had a fucking great party! One of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. And suddenly it’s all changed, it’s like coming out of the closet.
VS: So now instead of saying “middle-aged”, “49-year-old”, or “50-year-old Vi Subversa,” they just say “Vi Subversa”. It’s a great achievement, fantastic. But you see, the whole thing about the young punk movement is that, what’s partly behind it, the “no future” idea, is that, over the age of 20, 21, 25 or 30 – death! And especially young women are saying to me, “Look, it’s great, you give me the feeling that when I’m as old as you I could be doing something as well.”
KIO: In one civil disobedience action I was involved in – we have this tradition here in CD actions of giving names of people you admire so you get women giving their names as Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and so on – but in this one action, against nuclear power, this one woman, about 16 years old, gave her name as Vi Subversa.
VS: Really? Oh, that’s wonderful!
KIO: And then we found out that the name you give goes in your permanent RCMP file as an “alias”, so she’s got that as an “alias”, and I’ve got “Ann Hansen” for mine – you know, from the Vancouver Five. We had the names of all the Five at that action.
VS: When I do see a woman of my sort of age, though, at home in London, who isn’t hiding, it takes quite a bit of courage between us to look at each other and say “hi”. But the more of us there are who do come out like that, the easier it’s going to get. What I was saying before, about some experience, you know, I can be stupid just like anyone else, but women of my sort of age have done some things, we’ve raised some children, we know that some things are ongoing, that problems to do with sexuality don’t stop when you’re 20, 30, 40 even, they go on, and it’s still important, and we have to talk to each other about these things, and the feeling that maybe in the States or in Canada, I don’t know, is that there are more women who are prepared not to hide under a grey costume any more.
KIO: Yeah, the woman who gave her name as Doug Stewart of the Vancouver Five, she always non-cooperates to tally in CD actions, more than anyone else, goes on hunger strikes in jail and everything, and she’s 56, I believe. And my mother is 44, and says that she’s the “den mother of the anarchist community”, she’s still kind of a hippy.
VS: Well, there’s a whole lot of hippies that kind of disappeared in the face of the “punk onslaught,” cause it appeared a bit like that at the time, but it seems to me that things are softening a bit between those divisions now, and a lot of punks who used to talk down about hippies, like “hippies are a bunch of shit” or whatever, are coming to realize that there were a whole lot of things in common. There are some things that have changed, but I think the paranoia between the two is lessening. There’s a lot in common really, between what was happening in the sixties and now, except that I think that hippie women hadn’t had a lot of the benefit of the women’s movement.
KIO: Yeah, my mother’s told me a bit about what happened to women in the Sixties – making coffee and typing leaflets.
VS: That’s right, and a lot of women were left after the hippie period of peace and love with loads of kids that they were left on their own to bring up… There are a lot of people I’ve lost touch with from the Sixties, old friends of mine and I’m finding them again – because their children are coming to our gigs.
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