I imagine the Shrine of the Black Medusa as a space where you can be your full self, with all of your trauma, faults, charms, and questions without thinking about who is judging you for this or that. I know that the reclamation of Medusa as a feminist icon has been a big thing, and as a survivor, Medusa’s mythos resonates with me […] In some ways, she feels more like an ancient ancestor than a myth to me.
Casey Rocheteau (they/them) is a poet, author & visual/sound artist and the creator of the Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot.
Born on Cape Cod and rasied as a sea witch, Casey now lives in Detroit, Michigan. Their second poetry collection, The Dozen, was released on Sibling Rivalry Press in 2016. Winner of inaugural Write A House permanent residency in 2014, Rocheteau resides in a home they won with poems. They currently serve as the Communications Manager of the Detroit Justice Center.
NOTE: This interview took place last October, in the run up to the 2020 US election and was intended for publication then. Between one missed email and beauitfully slow inbox action, I’m excited to share it today… six months later than planned!
Beth: Hey Casey! How’s it going over in Detroit today?
Casey: It’s been grey for a few weeks now, so I’ve just been trying to take advantage of what sunlight we do get. Michigan is really the kind of place where we get at least 5 months of winter weather and we’re settling into that now. As far as the vibe – I don’t know what it is, probably lockdown anxiety, but my neighborhood has been filled with all kinds of construction projects these past few months, so it’s noisy and a little hectic, but generally chill.
2020 has been… something. I know black folks in particular are feeling it. Are you doing okay? What’s getting you through?
Am I doing okay? I mean…woof. It vacillates. Some days I’ve got all of the jokes, and others I’m crying in the shower, but sometimes it’s both. In my day to day life, I am the Communications Manager for the Detroit Justice Center, which is an abolitionist legal nonprofit, and I love my job but the work is already heavy and this year has been bonkers. I think one strange and surreal thing about the past few months that’s given me a lot of hope is that at the start of the year it felt like we were really on the fringe calling for things like defunding the police, but we’ve actually seen a huge swell in support around these ideas and in the reality that it’s a long haul battle to fundamentally change deeply embedded systems.
In my non-working life, I’ve been watching a lot of films. I think maybe once every two weeks I end up doing a double feature where I decide the theme afterwards. So a few weeks ago I watched Scream and Clueless back to back and decided the theme was “virgins who can’t d(r)i(v)e”. I’ve also been listening to music and podcasts a lot. Right now, Kate Bush, Rico Nasty, Prince, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Solange’s When I Get Home are all in heavy rotation. I’ve also been listening to this podcast “You Must Remember This…”. Their most recent season is about Polly Platt, who is truly iconic, but who I had never heard of before I started listening.
Basically, I’m doing my level best not to focus on the insane news cycle or get so caught up in how white supremacy controls every single aspect of life in the U.S. It’s not easy. Both of my parents lived through the sixties and have both said this is the most fucked up they’ve ever seen the country. It also doesn’t help that so many Black folks have died or are facing long-term health effects because of Covid-19 and the bias in our for-profit medical system. Every day I tell myself “control what you can and do not focus on the rest”.
There’s a story of oppression and trauma behind the Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot, whilst the deck itself is an unflinching tool for healing from that trauma, finding liberation. In your telling of the Greek myth, Medusa is an African woman whose beautiful serpentine hair strike fear and desire into the heart of (white) Olympus. She is also a survivor of sexual violence. And while her rapist, the sea-god Poseidon, escapes blame, Medusa is turned into a literal monster for her ‘crime’ – she gets blamed and reviled for her own trauma. This myth echoes the way women, femmes and Black folks – and Black womxn most of all – are blamed, feared, and made monsters today and throughout history. I read this deck’s title as you dedicating your deck as a shrine to this beautiful, powerful Black woman, which feels like such a vital fuck-you to the dominant victim-blaming narrative, and a reclaiming of power – specifically the power that white supremacy and cis-het-patriarchy most fear and revile. In what way is this deck a ‘shrine’, for you? How do you imagine it being used, and by who?
That’s an interesting question because I’ve never thought of the deck itself as a shrine, but I suppose in some ways it is. When I first started putting the cards together, I didn’t have a name for the deck, but as I drafted and re-drafted cards, I saw a clear theme emerging. It wasn’t until I was in Detroit that everything really coalesced. I made this big collage of a very young Angela Davis, which is now screwed in and resined to the table I work at every day, and that’s where the image on the back of the cards comes from.
‘The Shrine of the Black Medusa’ was really a play on The Shrine of the Black Madonna here in Detroit. I love that iconography as well, but the madonna figure is so wrought with a particular kind of meaning and significance that doesn’t resonate with me as a gender queer person who wasn’t raised in a faith tradition. I imagine the Shrine of the Black Medusa as a space where you can be your full self, with all of your trauma, faults, charms, and questions without thinking about who is judging you for this or that. I know that the reclamation of Medusa as a feminist icon has been a big thing, and as a survivor, Medusa’s mythos resonates with me, even more so when I read that some Greeks believed the Gorgons lived on the Cape Verdean islands, where the Rocheteau side of my family is from. In some ways, she feels more like an ancient ancestor than a myth to me. And despite the fact that she’s been cursed with this stone sight, I like to think of her as a figure who would be deeply empathetic to anyone who called upon her for protection.
The tagline I use about the deck is “Look Back to Peep A Future”. I imagine it being used as a way to reach back into the past, whether that’s through the long tradition of tarot symbolism, the fact that a lot of the images on the cards come from magazines that are from the 1960s and 70s, or even as far back as Medusa’s time, to see what potential paths lie ahead of you. While yes, of course, I made this deck for Black Queer and Trans people, because I wanted us to see ourselves reflected in a tarot deck, that shouldn’t deter folks who don’t hold those identities from using it. It’s something I had to point out to one of my best friends, because she was like “oh, I can’t use this deck to read for a white person” and I said “why not? I used a Rider-Waite deck for years and I’m not a feudal French pauper or a jaunty English page!” So really, I see it as a deck for anyone who resonates with the ethos and mythology I’m evoking.
You write “The Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot celebrates the pantheon of monsters within each of us” – my copy (an older edition) says ‘embrace your monsters’ on the box, which honestly captured my heart before I even got to the cards! I’ve been trying to figure out what ‘queer art’ looks like to me, what makes a deck (or any piece of art) queer. Often for me it has to do with confronting monsters, chaos, mess – the parts of us we, or others, most fear. Do you feel that this deck is an expression of your queerness and gender-nonconformity in this way (or in other ways)?
All of my art, all of my work really, is an expression of my queerness, whether that’s sexuality or gender. The vast majority of queer and trans folks have, at some point in their lives, come up against someone or something that has made them feel like they are something other than human, and while that is often a traumatic experience, there’s such a liberatory joi de vivre I feel in queer spaces, when I’m experiencing queer art, or even when I see another queer person passing by on the street. I think that has so much to do with queer liberation being a daily and communal practice. To me, it’s less about confronting the chaos or the monstrosity than it is about embracing it. You’ve got to confront it to embrace it, obviously, but the confrontation to me is the first step towards emerging as a fuller self. One of the biggest lies that the cis-het patriarchy perpetuates is the idea that being a part of the status quo means a neat, ordered existence and as long as you play your role within it, you’re “normal”. The universe is chaotic and filled with all sorts of terrors, and so too is the earth. “Normality” feels like stasis and stagnation, and how boring is that?
In most folklore, monsters are simply fears made manifest, and then in casual parlance we might do something that’s not in line with how we see our best selves and think “oh no, what kind of monster have I become?” In order for that question to become anything useful it has to become something closer to “what fear do I have that caused this behavior, and how do I work with it so it doesn’t hurt other people or myself?” I mean self-help culture is rife with this kind of analogy, but it’s so often framed as “overcoming” fear or “triumphing over” our monsters. That framing is both deeply capitalistic and also categorically goofy. I don’t want to vanquish the chaos or the darkness or my fear, all of that is actually necessary for universal and karmic balance and often comes from a hard-earned need to protect ourselves. To me, that’s probably a very queer idea, because the alternative is to suppress, ignore, sublimate and hide anything other than the okey-doke.
Can we talk about the practice of collage for a minute? I’d love to hear about your process for creating the Shrine of the Black Medusa Tarot, how you approached your raw materials. I love making collage art but find the process really weird – I tend to go through a period of confusion or despair before beginning, and I never know what I’m going to create until it starts coming out on the page. Whatever my original intention, what comes out is always different, so there’s this inbuilt process of acceptance and letting go – letting the process decide the outcome, rather than pre-determined. How is collage for you, what’s the process of creation like?
Oh sure! Whatever medium I’m working in, I start with just a wild amount of source material. Even with poems, I tend to start with a really broad idea and then narrow in. With collage it’s even more loose than that because I tend not to ever picture what it’s going to look like when I start. Even with the deck, where I’m dealing with literal centuries of symbolism, I never set out thinking “okay this is going to be the layout and these are the colors, and I want it to come out looking like this”. Instead, I start by going through magazines and books and just ripping or cutting out anything that I find appealing…and I love looking at stuff so I find a lot appealing. It’s really very archival, the way I work. It’s pulling from a library of images at my disposal and then narrowing things down until I can get a clear sense of like “oh yes, this is the vibe” and then finding little pieces to round out whatever the image is. It’s funny to me to think of it as a formal process because it is so utterly messy and chaotic at first, magazine pages all over the place, with little scraps or figures I’m constantly misplacing. When I’m working on a collage, the feeling is super free and very much the opposite of how I feel when I’m writing. When I’m writing, I do so much re-reading and editing as I go which slows up the actual flow of words. With collage, I will lose myself for hours at a time and not even notice. It feels a lot more like the material is telling me where it wants to go and what goes together more than it does me making decisions.
What is your workspace like, and how do you approach your art and writing practice in general – do you have routines, rituals?
Well this has definitely changed a lot since March. I used to just solely work at my aforementioned table for everything, regardless of what it was. It’s in the dead center of my small house, over by a window so I get sunlight. Since being in lockdown, however, I’ve had to develop multiple workspaces within my 1000 square feet so that I can sort of feel the differences in “okay, I’m on the couch now, so that means I’m relaxing and watching TV” or “alright, I’m in this half of my bedroom so I’m either recording for one of these podcasts, making music, or putting on some kind of drag”. My little table is still my mainstay, where I do most of my work for my day job surrounded by, typically a cup of tea that’s going cold, a seltzer, and a stack of notes from meetings throughout the week. I also tend to do any collaging or painting at that table, unless I really need to spread out and then I’ll use my living room floor.
I don’t have a regular routine for writing or anything other than my job really. I don’t know what it is but I have to make that cup of tea before I can do a single thing, every single morning. I try to get up, shower, stretch, do some qi gong, make a cup of tea and get into it. Lately I’ve been sleeping in a bit too late to do all of that every day, but that cup of tea will get made regardless. I think because my art practice isn’t my full-time job, I’ve been just trying to make sure I set aside time to work on projects, whether that be “okay, I’ve got two weeks of vacation, let’s record an entire podcast” or “alright, it’s the weekend, I finally have time to make my little alien puppets”. The biggest thing for me is that at least once I week I tidy up all of my work spaces. I cannot sit down and begin anything where there’s clutter. I will inevitably create all kinds of chaos and clutter as I go, but I have to start with a clear space.
Are there any cards/images in the deck that are especially important or meaningful for you right now?
About two years ago, my mom said she thought my card was the Magician and that’s really stuck with me, especially because my mom has this spectacular and funny magic to her. She once touched a psychic’s moonstone and it went from opaque to translucent. I also feel like I’m walking with the Hierophant and Aeon cards, taking my time to get to where I’m eventually going.
You’re also an author, poet, sound and visual artist (I’m really hoping we’ll be able to get your books in stock soon)! Do you want to share anything more about your art, anything exciting you’re working on right now?
I have been working on a manuscript for probably four years now called Gorgoneion. It’s almost ready. I’ve been sending it out to publishers, and it’s been a finalist for a few book prizes, but no one’s picked it up yet. It’s been a wild journey with this book because unlike my last book, The Dozen, which was so expansive in terms of time and content, this feels very temporal and focused. It started as an exploration of enemies and conflict as we were transitioning out of the Obama Era to the hellscape that has been Trump’s administration. While a lot of personal poems are in the book, it’s centrally about these moments of division and grabs for power.
Other than that, as I mentioned, I’ve been working on two different podcasts, one for fun called Shook of Revelations, which is just my friend (writer jayy dodd) and I talking about apocalyptic media. We also did a fun sci-fi radio play which I’m excited for folks to hear. The other is called Freedom Dreams, which I’m co-hosting with Amanda Alexander for the Detroit Justice Center. The tagline for that one is “Another World is Only Possible If We Build It”. That’s an interview show where we talk to different people about their work and their hopes for the future. It’s all centered upon abolition, but rather than getting into the weeds about policy and criminal justice, we’re talking about all different kinds of things that make up the abolitionist future we want to see, whether that’s food sovereignty, participatory budgeting, or the Young Lords taking over a hospital in the 70’s to demand better care for people in Harlem. Both of those are still in the production stages, but will be available soon.
I’ve also promised some friends that I will write and record a standup special during quarantine, so that will be my next big creative undertaking.
Lastly, where can folks can find you, how they can support your work?
Also, if you want to purchase the deck, Little Red Tarot is the only place where you can currently purchase it. I’ve gotten several requests from people in the states to start selling them myself again, and I absolutely do not have the capacity for that. However, if you are such an American trying to avoid international shipping fees, please talk to your favorite tarot sellers. I would love to see the deck in shops in the U.S., mostly because I would love it if I stopped getting these requests. Alternately, if you yourself happen to live in the U.S. and sell tarot decks and are reading this, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.