Beauty, Romance, Horror: The Queer Poetics of Leigh Nishi-Strattner’s ‘Bone Honey’

Best known for her vogue triumphs in New York and Portland clubs, Leigh Nishi-Strattner has published a set of poems that celebrates sensory delights

By ANDREW JANKOWSKI

In his now-classic essay collection Ways of Seeing, the late artist and art critic John Berger distilled lightning with his take on classic depictions of the feminine: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her. Put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

In Portland, the poet, performance artist and model Leigh Nishi-Strattner embodies Berger’s sentiment as a queer high femme, concerning herself with validating labors and expressions discouraged by toxic masculine culture. Whether she’s writing poetry, serving looks, or sharing her beauty secrets with one of the world’s biggest magazines, Nishi-Strattner stretches and bends the antiquated binary notions of how a woman can be. In November, the small press Club Soft Things hosted a salon to celebrate the release of Nishi-Strattner’s debut collection of romantic prose poetry, Bone Honey.

Leigh Nishi-Strattner at the publication party for Bone Honey, her new poetry collection/Photo by Alec Marchant

Held at a warehouse in inner Southeast Portland, three dozen people gathered to hear Nishi-Strattner and fellow Club Soft Things poet Gary Gamza, who uses they/them pronouns. Salon patrons ate hors d’oeuvres, drank cocktails, chatted and perused other CST titles sold by publisher Emily Daniels.

The warehouse had one room decorated with gilded tropical leaves, a candelabra, tea and prayer candles, lit by what looked like a red gelled X-ray reader. The other was lit only by a circle of white prayer candles and dried flowers repurposed from the rapper Maarquii’s album release party the week prior. This room, containing an antique upholstered wicker chair that belonged to Nishi-Strattner’s grandmother, was where Daniels introduced Gamza and Nishi-Strattner, describing their work as making the reader feel comfortable being vulnerable.

“The first time I read Leigh’s poetry, I felt that it was honest, emotional, and visually striking,” Daniels wrote in an email after the salon.

Gamza read from 27 Club, an existential crisis seeking space in the queer literary canon. At times, 27 Club read like a stream of consciousness, Gamza’s timbre interrogative and urgent. 27 Club contains works both violent and intimate, laced with double entendres throughout. Selections included “That Dude That One Time,” “Things I Learned About Dick This Month,” “Dying of Patience,” “Dyeing of White” and a comedically short poem with a Fiona Apple-inspired title best summed up as “You Fake Bitch…”

Wearing a white lace dress and flowing blonde hairstyle similar to Mia Wasikowska’s character in Crimson Peak (2015), Nishi-Strattner entered the candle and flower circle, joking that she wore the most flammable thing she could find. Her voice was weary, frayed, haunted and at times felt like she was channeling a force beyond the room. The titles of her selections were prescriptive and hyper-specific. Nishi-Strattner read such poems as “poem for being back on lexapro,” “poem for having another stomach ache,” “poem for instagram, “poem for running late” and “poem for watching her eat a popsicle using all of her teeth.”

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In the Western literary tradition, love and romance were historically considered women’s subjects, in part, because men have been conditioned to be ridiculously out of touch with feelings and emotional health. Western societies from the Dickensian era to now cast women with emotional burdens, like being responsible for the moral development of the family and revealing spirituality through her love—romantic, platonic and maternal. Bone Honey explores longing and desire in nonspecific relationships where love took root, without any pretext of god or man. This person, written by Nishi-Stratter and performed by the reader, lives between cultures and between sexual perspectives, as a sensual Tiresias.

“Bittersweet” is the one word to describe Bone Honey, which Nishi-Strattner says is a fragment of a long-scrapped poem that stuck with her. In an interview two days after the salon, Nishi-Strattner credits Gamza with identifying Bone Honey’s recurring words and themes, like food and mouths. Nishi-Strattner describes her word choices as “really sensual, dark, weird, wet things,” and their recurrences as unconscious. She calls eating “one of the most intimate acts you can do, taking something into your body,” and identifies connections between eating, consumption and sex. Nishi-Strattner connects food not only to family meals, but to their Buddhist temple practices, which—along with traditional dance classes—are her closest ties to her Japanese family history. Most of her Japanese family lives in Hawaii, not Oregon. “When I think of memories of [my family], I think of the meals they would cook, like my grandmother in the kitchen cooking for all her grandkids, or my great-grandmother putting oranges on this shrine, so it’s all very food-based.”

Leigh Nishi-Strattner/Photo by Alec Marchant

In the larger literary world, Bone Honey most closely resembles the perfumaic quality of Mei-mei Bressenbrugge’s 2013 poetry book Hello, The Roses, laying out ingredient words for their full sensory effect. Bone Honey evokes the taboo grief of Maxine Hong Kingston’s short story “No-Name Woman” from her 1976 anthology, The Woman Warrior. One cannot ignore traces of Mary Shelley’s sublime body horrors, especially when Nishi-Strattner is as drawn to the macabre as she is. Bone Honey is a set of myrrh-kissed test strips, where the reader lingers on the sensory words, including “beet jam,” “flower water,” “navy beans,” “silt and fish scales” and “dried tobacco leaves,” among a shopping list of others.

“poem for 11/11”
when i wake up i am ten years younger. as i pour the coffee my skin curls up. o watches the dog and the dog watches me. im spilling cups of flower water all over the house, they are spreading into pools across the floor. the pools become lakes which become fjords which spread toward the ocean in the backyard. to keep dry we huddle on my bed, hitch up the legs of our pants and wade through the living room to the kitchen. we stuff ourselves on grocery store chocolate cake, scrub the reek of sugar from our chins. o falls asleep with his fingers curled in the dog’s fur. she whines. wind whips through the keys of a bone flute, rustles through dried tobacco leaves under a red moon. let me say this: i thought about you every night until three nights ago. i wrote a list of words to describe your body. plaintive. incandescent. necessary. milk. in your photos you are beautiful kind of. you hold my face like a bruised knee. your hands in my hair are two heliotropes blooming. our hair on the pillow is two dark pools. d says, come over, i want to sober up inside you. — Leigh Nishi-Strattner, Bone Honey

Bones, dripping with marrow or bleached by the sun, are littered across several pages, connecting surreal body horrors like blooming pink teeth to aching doomed loves—human, and in one especially heartbreaking instance, canine. Bone Honey also contains contemporary references (such as the Canadian actor-turned-rapper Drake) and catastrophes (the still-dawning AIDS Crisis,for example) peppered in as time capsules. Aside from a specific credit to the poet Hadara Bar-Nadav, Nishi-Strattner is more influenced by the personal, non-academic poetry her friends produce during their relationships; when she seeks poetic inspiration, she still reads a poetry book a childhood friend wrote.

Bone Honey’s shortest poem, “poem for my mother,” was the salon’s clear favorite, and not because of its length or placement in the program. Nishi-Strattner says “poem for my mother” is one of Bone Honey’s newest poems, written as a response to feedback from Gamza that her mother only appeared referentially in the book, “like a ghost.”

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I met Nishi-Strattner at Stumptown Coffee on Southeast Division Street to discuss Bone Honey, Vogue, her history and inspirations across her artistic disciplines, including vogue ballroom. Nishi-Strattner wore an ankle-length black turtleneck dress, black leather jacket and boots, and her mom’s black wool beret from the ‘80’s—reminding me both of a beat poet and an heiress activist—and eyebrows she freshly bleached to match her hair. “It’s not really glam because it burns,” Nishi-Strattner said, repeating Warhol’s quote about staying at home to bleach his own eyebrows. Her nails are short, natural and glossy, healing as she saves up for beauty treatments, like eyelash extensions and a new set of acrylics.

Nishi-Strattner graduated from Portland’s Woodrow Wilson High School, where she co-edited the school newspaper and graduated with honors. She was awarded scholarships—including recognition as a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist—for poetry and Nihon Buyo, a traditional Japanese dance form. She grew up as one of only a few Asian or LGBTQ+ students in her classes. She attended Santa Clara University for two years, serving as an assistant poetry editor for the Santa Clara Review. But Nishi-Strattner had a hard time fitting in at SCU, a private Jesuit university.

“Santa Clara is the type of place where you either fit in and it’s totally for you—like sports and Greek life are big—or you very much don’t fit in, and are like an outcast,” Nishi-Strattner said. “It’s a great place for a lot of people, but I did not fit in.”

Leigh Nishi-Strattner and furry friend/Photo by Alec Marchant

After being unhappy for two years—especially after an incident where she says her dorm’s R.A. outed her in front of all of her neighbors—Nishi-Strattner transferred to Seattle University, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a double major in English Creative Writing and Film Studies. After graduation, she moved back to Portland, trying to get involved with the local poetry scene, which she described at the time as being a bunch of sad white men. Nishi-Strattner told a story about being tricked into a scathing review session by a colleague, who she later learned was put up to it by two other poets who tried and failed to enter a romantic relationship with her. He tore her poetry apart, using the safe space of professional critique to find the most cutting, humiliating flaws in her work. It was an experience that left her shaken about her abilities as a poet. She was demoralized and briefly stopped writing, dropping out of the poetry scene.

“The scene I found was very exclusionary, straight and white, and that’s not the kind of poetry I’m interested in,” she said, “That’s not the attention I want for my poems and they’re not written for their approval.”

Not seeing other queer women of color in Portland’s poetry scene, she pursued other artforms. In 2015, Nishi-Strattner appeared in a film role seemingly written for her: Dead Girl #1 in director Justin Zimmerman’s short film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 short story, The Man Who Loved Flowers. “I’m a ghost of a big deal,” she joked.

Nishi-Strattner joined Portland’s queer club kid scene, performing pop culture homages and political acts as the faux-queen Daphne Fauna. Nishi-Strattner became involved in the Pacific Northwest offshoot of the East Coast’s underground vogue ballroom scene, performing locally and traveling to Seattle for vogue and kiki balls. In 2016, Daphne walked in New York’s legendary Latex Ball’s Face category as a 007—a solo contestant without the backing of a recognized house—walking in a dress she sewed with her mother and designed after Cher’s naked dress from the 1974 Met Gala. Daphne won, posing and revealing to the judges the face that would go on to catch the attention of Vogue’s Instagram scouts.

“It’s funny to me how people can be so threatened by a display of femininity that you have control over,” Nishi-Strattner said, explaining the concept of high femme. “A lot of high femme women and people are giving you this full fantasy, but it’s subversive because it’s not for the cis-hetero gaze, it’s for yourself, or your sisters, or your good Judies.”

This September, Vogue featured Nishi-Strattner alongside other women declared to “possess the rare quality of a great work of art,” photographed by her frequent collaborator, Alec Marchant, whom she met at a party in 2015 after following one another on Instagram (Marchant uses they/them pronouns). In her Vogue interview, Nishi-Strattner professed her love for horror films, extreme 1980’s fashions, classic elegance and wearing sunscreen when using a computer. She initially thought the Vogue scout was a bot, but still sent out her email address. “Everyone has my email anyway,” she joked.

In an email, Marchant wrote about their collaborations with Nishi-Strattner. “Leigh inspires a lot of my ideas,” they said, “I find her look very versatile while maintaining this incredibly absolute femme aesthetic. No matter how much I try to disguise or obscure, Leigh still shines through.”

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Nishi-Strattner has largely retired Daphne Fauna, but still makes appearances at local vogue ballroom events, such as etiquette classes or Portland Art Museum’s fundraising vogue ball, educating people on vogue and kiki ballroom’s East Coast origins by queer people of color. She said that while she met many passionate artists and wonderful people as a nightlife performer, she eventually burned out from performing almost every weekend in similar types of performances. Looking back, though, she’s most proud of the political acts she and her peers brought to Portland bars and clubs. She recognizes the historical legacy of nightlife dance parties and bars as LGBTQ+ safe spaces, but is hopeful when describing queer-led poetry parlors—still scarce in the poetry world—as more healthful and inclusive alternatives to meeting in bars.

“Working with Leigh was sweet, because I got to know her outside the clubs and the scene, which has its place in our social scheme, but you don’t talk poems at the club. You don’t get so deep,” Gamza said in an email, “Her work is juicy, and it’s fun, and it’s raw, and it’s some of the most honest words she’s so kindly offered us.”

Leigh Nishi-Strattner at a reading of Bone Honey/Photo by Alec Marchant

Nishi-Strattner met Gamza through a friend at the mall, and Gamza introduced her to Daniels. She credits Gamza for giving her the confidence to arrange Bone Honey, with its earliest poems written in 2014 and its latest poems written during the final editing stages.

“I was captivated and wanted to see what she could create when given a larger canvas,” Daniels said in an email. “From a personal standpoint I wanted to be able to read more of those poems. I wanted a book of her poems to exist.”

First edition Bone Honey copies have a different layout than she intended. “In my own writing, I don’t particularly like line breaks and dramatic spacing,” she said, “It’s to put you in this scene and let you be fully immersed in it, without being distracted by ‘Oh, am I supposed to read into this line break? Am I supposed to pause at this point?’ I just wanted it to be a rush of stuff all at once.”

Leigh Nishi-Strattner/Photo by Alec Marchant

Nishi-Strattner chose breakless prose to leave room for readers to have their own experience with the poems, in a way to remove her intentions as an author from their reading. She describes her method as reading like screenplay scene-setting, revealing mood and meaning through vivid descriptors that don’t touch purple prose. She chooses not to expend energy breaking apart her words, but recognizes other poets do it well.

“I like writing that immerses you in a scene,” Nishi-Strattner said, “A lot of poetry feels inaccessible . . . or it feels like a chore to get through, or like it’s highbrow, like if you don’t get it, you’re stupid or uneducated, and I think that’s dumb.”

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Bone Honey aligns itself within the high femme queer canon, which prioritizes above all else aesthetics, fashion, the arts and feminine self-expression. She sees high femmes as rebels who reclaim feminine expressions most often maligned by men, like haircare, makeup and impractical fashions. She sees high femmes as reclaiming control under the global creep of fascism the current U.S. administration has inspired. In her explanation of high femme expression, she told a story about a college friend who tried to shame her for wearing makeup to the beach, countering that she wears contour for a light hike.

“Anything ‘feminine’ is very dismissed as not serious, expendable, frivolous, stupid,” Nishi-Strattner said, “To me, being high femme is reclaiming all that, and saying ‘Yeah, I have acrylic nails and I can’t open a can,’ or ‘Yeah, I’m going to wear these eight-inch heels that are uncomfortable,’ or ‘Yeah, I’m going to get individual hairs glued to my eyelashes,’ or ‘Yeah, I’m going to stay home on Friday night and bleach my eyebrows, I’m going to grow three feet of hair and have to deal with that all the time.’ This is just who I am, and I love those women who don’t give a fuck, who are like, ‘I’m high maintenance, I’m a lot to maintain, I’m not going to leave the house without makeup on, I set my hair every Friday night.’

Bone Honey celebrates the impractical, the ornate and the taboo. It exists within a defiantly queer canon, honoring the author and the personal while they are still alive, and while she can imbibe her poetry with her perspective. Paradoxically, it is also a work born in isolation, a trait also inherent to LGBTQ+ works of art and literature. Like the instant-classic music video for the pop singer Ariana Grande’s song “thank u, next,” Bone Honey doesn’t exclude the butch or the masculine in its honoring and centering the feminine. It was written for a specific audience still considered niche, even within worlds of art and poetry. If anyone outside Bone Honey’s intended audience has a bone to pick, they will have to answer to Nishi-Strattner.

“A lot of people—especially cis straight guys—when I have long nails love to question me, like ‘How can you type like that?’” Nishi-Strattner said. “I can type a million words a minute. Try me.”

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