In collaboration with Junior High, a not-for-profit in L.A. dedicated to creating space for marginalized voices in the arts, MEL has produced a special print issue focused on contemporary masculinity. For the Men’s Issues Issue, six men from the Los Angeles area picked someone close to them to conduct an original interview about what it means to be a man today. In these conversations, which will run on MEL throughout the week, they talk about how societal expectations impact them and their work and what they think the best path forward is for men. Next up: Not a Cult publisher Daniel Lisi, interviewed by his roommate, poet and performer Aziza Barnes.
To purchase a copy of the print issue — as well as a tote and pin — please click here.
Daniel Lisi is a multimedia producer working in VR, film and publishing. His and Hollis Hart’s publishing house, Not a Cult, has reshaped L.A.’s literary scene, with the ethos of creating platforms for unique and inclusive work to be shared throughout the world. His ability to create structures for artists to thrive is truly unmatched. He is also my roommate, whom I met about seven years ago by way of the L.A. poetry scene.
What is masculinity to you? Is it programming? Is it nurture? Or is it both? When is it one and not the other?
I do think that so much of it is programming. Did the nurture part instigate the programming? Because when I think about these typical masculine traits that exist now, there’s just such rigidity. It’s the opposite of fluidity, in that if you behave a certain way outside of a masculine paradigm, you lose all masculinity. There’s no choice. There’s no middle ground. If you act queer in any sort of way, or present queer in any sort of way, there are certain people who are like, “You’re completely devoid of any typical masculine qualities.”
I see masculinity not as a kind of stoicism, but a type of patience, waiting and listening to make sure that everything is actually given a time to be understood before anything is acted upon. To me, that’s a very delightful masculine quality.
I like that. A very deep listening is potentially a masculine attribute.
I think that people would argue that’s a feminine quality actually, the nurturer, the caretaker. Is that right?
Well, yeah. If we go to the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, which is a masculine and feminine paradigm, they’d argue that yin is femininity — quiet contemplation, nurturance, nourishment, solitude. Which is interesting, because I think what’s impressed upon femininity is programming to be the gatherer of bodies, the mother to all. I don’t know that that’s an intrinsically feminine thing, but rather programming. Then, for masculine stuff, it’s, I will organize, I will charge ahead, I will instigate.
I can’t see a form of masculinity for myself existing without that feminine paradigm. I can’t see just organizing and charging into an environment. Usually, when that does happen in my life, it comes after a great deal of communication and learning from the people around me. I don’t like to do things purely unilaterally. I like to have a very solid foundation of understanding before anything is done.
I like the idea of it being difficult for you to see masculinity without femininity or fluidity. What is joyful or worth celebrating about being a white man? What do you get that I don’t? Because as a queer black femme creature, I have my ideas.
Very simply, I get left alone. I walk outside, and I can not talk to anybody. If I’m not communicating with the world, the world will not communicate with me, which I know is a completely different experience for more femme-bodied people, where every single day there’s unsolicited and unwanted communication. There’s this absurd respect for male boundaries that doesn’t exist for other people.
You can be invisible when you feel like being invisible. And then, by that token, can you be noticed when you feel like being noticed?
Absolutely. I guess there’s the choice; the world has constructed itself around offering white dudes the choice to comfortably navigate on their own terms. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice that, and that wasn’t an objective perk that’s been manufactured over the course of time.
It sounds fabulous, honestly. When I think about incel dudes and white men that are like, “Where’s my power?” I’m like, “What is your power? What is the thing that you’re hoping to get back that was taken from you?”
What do you want to throw out that lives in masculinity? What goes to the garbage?
That rigidity. The sense that, if you aren’t behaving or presenting in a specific way, then you’ve relinquished your manhood or masculinity — or whatever masculine qualities that you do have.
When you were speaking to incel culture and predominately white men feeling that they’ve been barred from certain aspects of societal living, basically, they’re saying, “Women won’t fuck us.” This is a type of entitlement that exists inside of toxic masculine living that I’d love to see dismantled — this idea that you’re owed something.
There’s a type of tenderness and vulnerability that doesn’t coexist well with toxic masculinity. There are a lot of examples in literature and media of the Stoic Hot Dude who is like Don Draper. We’ve talked about this a lot actually.
This dude turns up and is like, “I know what you want,” and jumps into this fantasy world rather than constructing one with a partner. They just shoehorn themselves in and dominate a situation — which I guess is typical masculine shit.
All of the things you pointed out that need to be thrown out, at their worst, are very dangerous to people, especially entitlement.
Entitlement is such a big one. We’re seeing so many pockets of far-right, white communities rallying together because they feel they’ve lost something they deserve. There’s been some sort of context collapse.
As a black person, I’m just like, “Bitch, what? Where are you even getting that from?” I just think it’s a great practice to step back and ask, “Why do I feel this way?”
Whenever I feel spurned by something or someone, the practice that I like to do is to stop and just go into myself. I’ll take a walk or something, first noticing the physical sensation happening in my body. If I’m carrying tension, stress or anger, it will be present. Physically, I notice that, and then really interrogate it. Why did this start? And, who am I actually upset with? Why do I feel like this situation should’ve been different? Is there actually a problem, or is it just that my expectations have been usurped?
More often than not, of course, my expectations just weren’t hit. It’s all just head-based. Then I realize this isn’t an issue I can take to or throw onto other people, because it’s all me, it’s imaginary. It’s a Daniel problem. I’ve got to let it just be a Daniel problem and work it out on my own, or go visit my therapist, or whatever.
Yay, therapy! There are so many people — men and everyone — that I’d love to give that practice to and say, “Let’s just break it down before you hit me up.”
Yeah, before this is unloaded onto me.
It’s like communal living. Before you hand me all your dirty dishes, think about how they’re yours. You can wash them yourself.
What can masculinity learn from the fluid or the femme? What have you learned from gender-fluid or femme people that’s made your masculinity not toxic, or continually detoxifies it?
Everyone benefits from fluidity. The qualities of masculinity that I have are only strengthened because I’m also integrating feminine qualities — and this is just from a behavioral perspective, not even an aesthetic one. Men can learn to slow the fuck down, take a beat and listen. Take in an environment and don’t take it personally; fluidity or femininity isn’t an attack on you.
What I’ve learned from gender-fluid, trans and femme people has been how to make space. The name of the game is to make environments as comfortable as possible, because the world has built itself to make entire regions uninhabitable for a lot of people. It’s a dangerous time; it’s been a dangerous time. Let’s try to make it not dangerous, and then, let’s take it a step further and make it beautiful and flourishing. What else is there to do except make spaces that are beautiful and allow for everyone to flourish?
On a practical level, what does non-toxic masculinity look like? What is “his” day like? How does “he” interact with people?
Listening has been the thing for me. It’s funny how it continuously blows people’s minds. There’s such a grappling for relevance, especially coming from masculine people: See me. I’m seen. I’m glorious. Look at me. I’m in this room. I’m going to fuck. It’s great. I’m worthy. I’m worthy of fucking. Fuck you, dad. I’m out here. Instead, do the opposite: Yeah, I’m in the space. I’m here. Listening is at the core of that. On paper, it’s so simple: Sit still and actually take in someone’s stuff in totality. If you do have something to contribute, do that instead of overriding it like you have to prove yourself. You’re able to take everything in and go from there without fucking flailing your dick around.
“The End of Dick Flailing” could be the title of this interview.
It always seems like that’s what it is. Dudes who are flexing super hard and coming into social groups and just being loud boys. What is happening? Are you having fun?
I don’t think it actually looks fun. I think it actually looks quite desperate.
It seems stressful.
But I think a lot of people look at that, and they’re like, “Oh, he’s the life of the party. Look at him telling all these stories. What a laugh.” It’s like that man is tap dancing for his life. He’s sweating! Speaking of men who run around flailing, what are some situations on the micro-level of toxic masculinity that you’ve seen or experienced — and what did you learn from them?
I still think I’m guilty of some occasionally — the micro-levels of toxic masculinity, those moments where insecurity arises. That insecurity turns into this aggressive assertiveness, where I’m like, “This is how it is,” or “This is the truth of the situation.” And then, any room for listening or tenderness gets thrown out of the window. I notice that a lot in men. I notice that in myself. That’s something I still look out for very consistently.
The idea of ego preservation is fascinating to me because I just remember that I’m going to die imminently. The flush is fleeting. What is there to protect? We’re already on a foundation built of sand. We’re just going to sink. There is nothing.
This is my favorite way of approaching life: Remember that even if I dig myself in the mud, and get all mad, and get all hard, and get all gnarled, I’m still going to die.
Who do you surround yourself most predominantly with?
Oh my god, I’m surrounded by women. There are dudes in my life, but socially, I’m surrounded by women. I don’t know how that happened. That’s always just been the case in my life though. I grew up mostly with my mom in West Hollywood. I was just surrounded by queer folks, and I feel super grateful for it.
Do you think that men aren’t given tools to deal with their shit, the “man baby” paradigm? If so, why? Is it part of the inherent privilege of being a man?
I do feel really lucky that I’ve found tools in my life to be able to deal with my shit. I’ve had access to therapy, mentorship and a lot of really loving and beautiful friends. In the U.S. especially, I think there’s a great deficit of resources that perpetuate the man baby issue. Also, society benefits from it: Churning out toxic men continues to keep hyper-capitalist patriarchal society alive. I do think that it’s an inherent privilege of being a man — that you can choose to not engage or develop and just continue to be a toxic man baby and still thrive.
Do you feel the paradigm of men being an absolute power is nigh? Do you worry about your relevance as a man? Is relevancy the point or the problem?
I do think that there’s a shift happening, and it’s a celebratory moment. Everyone benefits from not existing under a completely patriarchal society. When I think of a more matriarchal culture, I think of one that cares more about its people and is less driven by capitalist principles of competition and domination. The ethos of our society is destructive and instills this weird libertarian grain inside of people to succeed at all costs — even at the relinquishing of other people in their community. I do think that there’s more of an emphasis being placed on building up entire communities as one flourishing unit rather than just thinking, I’m going to win. I’m going to get mine. I don’t care who I chew out in the process of it. So I hope to see more systems like that being built.
I don’t ever worry about my relevance as a man because the only thing that’s changing is white men being at a center of privilege while everyone else, especially women of color, are very strategically placed in positions of disadvantage. Nothing is being taken away. And if a white dude is conflating equality with their own relevance, that’s an issue. You’re saying that your relevance is contingent on being in a position of power.
When I think about relevance, all I’m thinking about is if I’m happy for myself. Am I feeling good? Is this nice? Is this working? And then that spreads to my immediate circles. Are my friends good? Is my family good? Is everything around me feeling good? What can I do to contribute to that? If there’s something lacking, how can I help build that back up?
That’s relevance: I’m contributing to myself and to my loved ones in ways that are constructive.