Tiffany Midge on Humor
In 2016, Tiffany Midge watched from her home “command center” in Washington as her friends, cousins and elders in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stood up to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline … only to see police turned loose, presidential promises broken, and the pipeline still an open issue in the courts today. From that whirlwind, Midge reaped paragraphs of bitter, observational humor that caught the moment, writing for Indian Country Today and other outlets.
“This very small community just all of a sudden making a stand that resounded all over the world like that — that was incredible,” Midge says.
Over the course of three volumes of poetry (including 2016’s The Woman Who Married A Bear), one collection of essays and memoir (Bury My Heart At Chuck E. Cheese’s, 2019) and an ongoing stream of poems, criticism and satire, Tiffany Midge has proven adept at crystallizing moments large and small and cutting to their hearts, and their humor. Take “The Jimmy Report,” a real-life tale of Bellingham’s most flamboyant and motormouthed vintagewear merchant; or the Little Big Horn-flavored listicle “Custer’s Desktop in Hell.” (“1. Toupee. 2. A 10-foot long diameter wreath of elephant garlic to ward off evil. 3. An award plaque of ‘Best Bowel Movement of 1876.'”)
Unwilling to be confined to any one genre, she’s now at work on a young adult novel, with another poetry collection, Horns, due to be published by Scablands Books of Spokane. Tiffany Midge joins Humanities Washington’s virtual Bedtime Stories on Oct. 8, reading new work alongside fellow Northwest writers Charles Johnson and Jess Walter, plus Washington Poet Laureate Rena Priest.
You’ve been active on Twitter for about ten years now. Can you talk about your social media moment, when you went viral with “Thousands of Jingle Dress Dancers Appear at Standing Rock?”
I had written a satire piece, and it was taken as truth in a lot of places, and the article went viral. It was just very strange and funny, and I had all these different reactions to the fact that so many people thought it that was a for-real thing — even though for me, it was structurally very tongue-in-cheek. It seemed very obviously to be just a satire. And what was even more hilarious was the fact that a reporter from the New York Times contacted me and wanted to talk to me about the food being prepared at Standing Rock, just wanted me to give her some background and things like that. But she didn’t understand it was a satire, and she was quite surprised when I told her. They really did have jingle dress dancers go onto the highway there at Standing Rock, and that was reported. And they also had a story prior about thousands of buffalo just appeared in the fields. But of course, it wasn’t thousands of buffalo — it was just a small herd that kind of wandered through there, and that was taken as a very auspicious kind of sign. So I was borrowing from those two ideas. Just the fact that so many people didn’t comprehend the humor was really indicative of how they don’t understand particularities of culture.
For you as a writer of satire, which is more successful: Satire that reaches an audience that understands and laughs with it, or satire that, like this piece, winds up being misinterpreted and taken as an earnest report?
I think both can be useful. It’s good to laugh, it’s good to laugh at ourselves and what we take as gospel or what we take as truth, because it happens so much and so often. So it’s good to be able to expose those sorts of beliefs. Laughing at ourselves is important. And then just laughing at the reality of how ridiculous and stupid people are too. That’s like a laughing-crying situation. But satire goes a lot of different ways. Satire is about interrogating the powers that hold us down, and that’s important, to be able to poke fun at institutions and higher powers — millionaires that are rocketing into space, all these kinds of things. In my world, they’re very obvious, but to other people, they’re not so obvious. So I feel like I’m preaching to choir in a lot of regards. I don’t really know if my audience, the people that I’m trying to target, are receptive or really getting it.
Satire is about interrogating the powers that hold us down, and that’s important, to be able to poke fun at insitutions and higher powers — millionaires that are rocketing into space, all these kinds of things. In my world, they’re very obvious, but to other people, they’re not so obvious.
But I do have one article, “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning The Handmaid’s Tale and America’s Cultural Amnesia.” And that hit a nerve. So I can say it’s really good that article went out into the world and was actually reaching people that weren’t within my choir. They were very oppositional, and I had a lot of hate mail and complaints about that particular article. What was so funny about those reactions was that they were reacting exactly in the way that I was pointing out. Here they were, trying to silence a woman of color for spreading particular ideas, and they were doing exactly what I was saying they were doing.
Do you have a signal to yourself, when you know you’ve written a piece that works? Do you read your own stuff and chuckle at it, and know it’s ready?
That’s a good question. I think that if something resonates with me and strikes me as really true and really funny, then you have sort of an understanding of what’s making the piece work and what isn’t. I don’t have any other editors that look this stuff over. And they’re short articles, under a thousand words. But I was just complaining to a friend of mine yesterday, because I feel like I have brain fog. I haven’t written a really good satirical article in a long time, and of course, my brain’s going to all these different directions all the time anyway. I just can’t imagine that I ever wrote any of the pieces that are in my book, because it’s hard, and I don’t know what frame of mind I was in when I wrote those darn things. But I do try to write one every two weeks for the column that I have here at the local paper. I try to come up with something that I think is edgy and funny. Maybe if that’s all that I did I could manage it somehow. There’s people like Alexandra Petri for the Washington Post, and she just comes up with these brilliant and imaginative things like two or three times a week — just these fantastically sharp pieces about the state of things.
You’ve lived a lot of places in the Northwest. Do you feel like your poetry has a landscape? Do you feel like there’s a place you return to when you are reaching for something to write?
Sure. Childhood experiences — they never seem to get old. They’re always there beneath the surface. And those landscapes where I grew up, those come out a lot as well. For instance, Sharma Shields has this anthology that’s coming out [Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses From the Gloomy Northwest] with all of these Inland Northwest writers, and a lot of the themes of that are people responding to the landscape of the Pacific and Inland Northwest. It’s kind of a Twin Peaks sort of atmosphere that people get into — there’s all these monsters, and we have all this rain all the time, there’s all this moss and fog. I just think that’s going to be a really terrific anthology. I don’t think my work is necessarily of that vein, but it’s definitely a little Twin Peaks sometimes. I mean, things are often a little strange and a little weird, and I gravitate to those sorts of things too — the mystery and the unknown. Psychological strangeness too. I’m just really attracted to that kind of stuff. We have so many serial killers, for instance.
Tell me what you’re reading these days.
I had to read a lot of different books from Washington state authors, because I was judging for the Washington State Book Awards. I enjoyed the heck out of that — my study is still stacked high with towers of books. And I’m reading some young adult novels, because I’m writing a young adult novel right now. Flora & Ulysses is just wonderful, about a squirrel and little girl. She’s so sassy, and the voice is so good. Somehow I just never thought kids could be that sophisticated, have that sense of irony and humor. Of course, an adult wrote it, but still, it’s wonderful to see books written about young people in that way, because of course young people are sassy and ironic, and have vivid imaginations. Why wouldn’t they?
See Tiffany Midge read an original work as part of Humanities Washington’s online fundraiser, Bedtime Stories. RSVP here.