Brassy and beautiful, slathered in best friend sauce, Christina Catherine Martinez is a fifth dimensional woman: an acerbic wit with a wet heart, a Dorothy Parker in architectural glasses and mismatched vintage patterns. To try and pin her with the underwhelming handles of the common creative-multi-hyphenate is like throwing darts at Otto Dix’s portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden from 1926 (which our triple-named force CCM so closely resembles). You may hit it, but no matter how sharp, the common professional epithets—writer, comedian, performance artist, art critic, essayist, some vague producery-type-thing at a tech startup—hardly pin her down. Yeah, she wrote for Artforum.
CCM is the clack of freshly sharpened and painted fingernails on a silver briefcase filled with absurd and definitely illicit dreams, the voice belting out Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” in the middle of a karaoke brawl, a word-charmer that bends exotic vocabulary into dangerously funny poses. She is a pawnshop for subjective realities and a kaleidoscope aimed at a solar eclipse, breaking all that light into hyperspectral color that makes you squeeze out a few hot, wet tears over a crooked smile.
She’s a snowy egret with a broken wing eating a hotdog that squirts all over Joan Didion’s The White Album. Her bright lipstick smears the walls of art galleries. She would never cry over spilt chocolate milk on your Smiths t-shirt. Droll just won’t cut it, Christina Catherine Martinez is laughter spilling in the dark.
Intro by — Andrew Berardini
Girls At Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Christina Catherine Martinez: The American Girl books! I was very into the Molly character who grew up during WWII. She was spunky and wore glasses and was secretly a frustrated performer. I had a Molly doll, but ended up reading the books for every character. Addy was amazing. Kirsten was cool and they should have never retired her doll. Samantha elicited nascent marxist antipathies but I still got through her series.
I was homeschooled through grade school, and we didn’t have a TV, so reading was central in our house, as well as yelling, hair-pulling, dancing, and falling off of things we shouldn’t have been climbing on in the first place. I remember reading and discussing “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” with my mom and my two older brothers, and before that loving the Curious George and Amelia Bedelia books. To this day I deeply identify with George’s simian sense of wonder and Amelia’s utter inability to read social cues.
Shortly after high school a boy gave me “The Seas” by Samantha Hunt. It was the first time I’d received a thoughtful recommendation from someone other than a parent or a teacher, and the first time I really fell in love with a book. The boy, unfortunately, not so much.
GAL: How often do you read?
CCM: I mean, I’m reading tweets and emails and articles and what-not twenty-four-seven. Books? Anywhere from three to seven hours a week. It varies widely depending on what I’m working on or thinking about at the time. If I have several comedy shows back-to-back then I’m mostly walking around talking to myself. If I’m writing or working on a piece then I’m eating up all the words I can, either for research or inspiration. I recently bequeathed my poor, junky little automobile to the city of Los Angeles and now commute to work via train. That’s a solid extra hour of reading per day. I’m really enjoying it. I’d like to extend sincerest thanks to the Los Angeles Parking Violations Bureau for their help in this regard.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
CCM: I had a professor in college who once told his room full of bright-eyed literature students, “If novels were revolutionary, you wouldn’t read them in school.” That’s debatable of course, but he was trying to speak to the double-edged sword that is “fiction” as it is known in the West. Fiction teaches you how to live through osmosis—that’s both the benevolence and the perniciousness of it, you know? Fiction cloaks its values in narrative, giving its lessons a gloss of inevitability. I’ve learned empathy, charity, and sensitivity through stories I’ve been given—about families who keep secrets, about women who don’t know their place, about Jesus of Nazareth—but many of those lessons rode in on the backs of moralism, intolerance, and shame. I’ve worked very hard to fetter those unnecessaries. This has also been done through fiction. Specifically, Tom Robbins’ “Skinny Legs and All” and Chris Kraus’ “I Love Dick”. Both books approach sex in completely different ways but with a frankness and humor that I found totally joyful and liberating.
GAL: Is there any crossover between being a comic and a critic?
CCM: Yes. Possibly too much. We are at a strange moment when comedy is being hailed as the lone finger holding down contemporary society's moral center. At the same time criticism is being mourned as a dying discipline. Some of the most insightful cultural critics are comedians, but criticism-as-entertainment can't be the only mode. When we are desensitized to the rather strange notion that critical information can come in the guise of entertainment, we will demand all of our information in the form of entertainment.
Also that's a lot of pressure for a comic. Sometimes you just want to make the airplane joke... not that I ever have.
GAL: You mention that you were a religious child. Are you still religious? What changed?
CCM: Ooof. A lot of things changed. My reading habits, for one. Meeting people who care deeply about doing what is right and forge their moral compass out of love for their fellow humans, as opposed to fear of an abstract patriarch. Learning about PT Barnum. Tracing the roots of capitalism and seeing it all tangled up in American evangelicalism. Mushrooms.
You know, same old song and dance.
GAL: Is there anyone whom you would say embodies the perfect balance of critic and entertainer?
CCM: A few years ago I saw Wayne Koestenbaum do a performance called Lounge Act as part of the Hotel Theory exhibition at REDCAT in Los Angeles. He's known mainly as a poet and critic, and the performance was billed as him doing "piano miniatures (Scriabin, Chopin, Albéniz, Fauré, Milhaud, Poulenc, and others) while incanting spontaneous Sprechstimme-style soliloquies." There was a baby grand piano and little cups of wine. Sounds highfalutin, no? It was one of the funniest, most expansive, entertaining enterprises I'd ever witnessed. He had a whole room—a gallery—of artists and poets and theorists rolling in their chairs. Really that act would have worked in any room. I think standup comedy is the glamour of being on stage rubbing up against the humiliation of being a human. Wayne celebrates that even in his writing. I had just started doing standup, so seeing that lack of compromise, the pure amount of fucks not being given, gave me the wherewithal to keep plugging away.
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
CCM: My current favorite book is whatever book I’m currently reading! I’m almost done with “White Girls” by Hilton Als. It was the hot hot tome of the year when it came out for good reason; one of those books that both defines and expands a genre and doesn’t trip over its own smartness. So many different people—so many different types of people—light up when I say I’m reading it. I’m also in the middle of Lydia Davis’ “Can’t and Won’t”. Holy cow it’s so good. She’s a master of short fiction and allows her stories to end wherever they need to end, like a lover who says more by silently wiping their mouth and leaving the table in the middle of a meal than trying to argue with you. It takes a rare wit to craft a title and a first sentence and know that the relationship between the two is actually the whole of the story.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
CCM: Oh no no no… this is impossible to answer with a single name. Reading has changed me as a person and my reading habits have changed along with me. As a religious child I idolized C.S. Lewis. As a teenager I ate up all of Kafka and nearly dropped out of school. As a maudlin twenty-something I read all of Edith Wharton. After that I stopped trying to consume writers’ catalogues whole cloth. I’d rather go wide than deep in that sense. In my later twenties I discovered Zadie Smith, Chris Kraus, Renata Adler, Lorrie Moore, Maggie Nelson—contemporary female writers who illuminated the limits all that Modernist sturm und drang has on contemporary life. I looked down and saw that I have a heart and a clit.
That said, if John Berger and Eve Babitz had a baby it would probably be my favorite author.
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot? Where is it?
CCM: Oh god my bed, my bed with the too many pillows. The roof of my building. The train if I can get a seat. This big brown arm chair in my parents’ house.
GAL: Or – can you read anywhere - place is not important?
CCM: If I’m really into something or I’m almost done with a book then yes, I will read just about anywhere—in line at the grocery store, during dinner, in a Lyft, at my desk at work (heh).
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
CCM: I prefer physical books, because I tend to annotate, highlight, and scribble. But do quite a bit of reading and writing on my phone as well.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
CCM: Referrals referrals referrals… authors are always referencing other authors. Sometimes I get into a weird conversation with a stranger at a party and they tell me to pick up a certain book and I actually do it. If an author I like has blurbed or written an intro to a book that I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll probably read it. Last year three different people came up to me after three different comedy shows and said I should read Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up”. I obeyed, of course. My lover-in-crime is a voracious reader and we exchange recommendations often. He recently bought me Juliana Spahr’s “Fuck You, Aloha, I Love You”. She’s a revelation.
GAL: Do you prefer nonfiction to fiction? If so, why?
CCM: I read only fiction for a long time, but the flowering of the essay form has taken up a lot of my reading over the last few years. I’m trying to find a more even balance of fiction to non-fiction. More interesting than the distinction, though, is that obscure place where they consciously overlap.
GAL: If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
CCM: There’s a million categories that fall under the unwieldy genre known as “art writing” and this is where I find a lot of solace and stimulation. Criticism, poetry, politics, narrative and experimental forms all kind of party and hang out there. Wayne Koestenbaum, Bruce Hainley, Chris Kraus, and Dave Hickey are some of my favorite art writers. Gilda Williams wrote a wonderful, unfussy book called How to “Write About Contemporary Art”. Her advice boils down to 1) Get a grip and 2) Is academic gobbledygook the right look for you?
I like diaries and notebooks too. Lee Lozano’s notebooks are incredible. I just read Karma Publishing’s intimate facsimile of her Private Book 1. It’s like spying on a great mind.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to re-read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
CCM: There are two books I’ve re-read the most. One is “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” by Dick Hebdige. A short but incredibly dense study on the origins of punk style that Hebdige traces from from an array of British postwar youth subcultures. If you’ve ever wondered why underground cultural movements are so easily flipped into RedBull marketing fodder this book will tell you, in a series of opaque, paragraph-length sentences. Sounds tedious, but it puts the whole 20th century in perspective and I find that soothing as hell.
The other is “Peter Pan” by JM Barrie. The way he makes syntax pay obeisance to child logic is enchanting every time.
Other books that I poke through a lot:
“Several Short Sentences on Writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg
“My 1980s and Other Essays” by Wayne Koestenbaum
The catalog for Centre Pompidou’s 2006 exhibition Los Angeles 1955-1985. I don’t think any human has actually read this in its entirety.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
CCM: Art & Comedy in the Land of Plenty
An Erotic History of Citrus
Turning Boyz in2 Men
...this is all one title.
GAL: What is the most hilarious book you've read recently?
CCM: Douglas Adams' “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” is more fun to read than most television is to watch. And I love television.
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
CCM: 1) “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos” by John Berger
Call me when you get to the last paragraph and I will weep with you.
2) “Speedboat” by Renata Adler
The goddamn sharpest novel maybe I’ve ever read. If Henry James quit jangling the adjectives in his pocket so loudly his sentences would still never be as cool and clear and heartbreaking as Renata Adler’s. She was a reporter in the 1960s. I throw up my hands.
3) “SCUM Manifesto” by Valerie Solanas
Late capitalism is a formidable beast, and Solanas lived in its maw. She scribbled about the messes of art and politics, made mostly at the hands of men, suffered from Schizophrenia, homelessness, and indictment for shooting a guy named Andy Warhol. Before misandry got co-opted into a fashion statement (evangelist retail chain Forever21 offers purses in the shape of milk cartons labeled 100% Boy Tears—cute!) Valerie was a man hater out of time. This book is radical, impractical, angry, impolite, and utopian all at once.