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Queer singer Mary Lambert on her poetry collection
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-10-29

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Mary Lambert first experienced what she calls "radical vulnerability" at age seven, when she started a group therapy session at a friend's sleepover.

"I've been in therapy since I was 5," said the queer performer and writer, now 29, who rose to fame after singing the hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' LGBTQ anthem "Same Love" and has a new poetry collection, Shame is An Ocean I Swim Across. "I've always had the encouragement to talk about my feelings and emotional development. I started reading Case Studies in Adolescence when I was nine years old, like a weirdo."

At the slumber party, Lambert and her friends began talking about their parents' divorces, then sexual abuse they'd endured. "I realized I had started a group therapy session for my fellow seven-year-olds," said Lambert. "Every single one of us had been violated by a man or someone older than us already."

Amid the crying and bonding, Lambert experienced "an a-ha moment."

"At that point, I realized how f—ked we all are, and how important it was to be empathetic and compassionate to each other," she said. "I wouldn't have had that moment had I not been radically vulnerable [and] facilitated that sort of environment."

Lambert's radical vulnerability is a consistent presence in her art. After writing "really, really bad poems" in junior high, she fell into spoken word poetry at 18. Lambert won several regional competitions in her native Seattle and was introduced to Macklemore through mutual friends in the spoken-word community.

"At the time, I was planning on applying to graduate school to be a teacher," Lambert said. Soon after, she recorded "Same Love" and her life changed forever.

When the song became a hit, Lambert signed with Capitol Records. "When I got the call, I was working three jobs," she said. "['Same Love'] gave me a four-year pop career, which I embraced and loved. Now I get to tour the country and sing about my feelings!"

She also has a wider audience for her own words.

"[For] my first poetry collection, I went to a printer and started making books myself. It was a DIY, gritty kind of thing," she said. "This time I had a whole team behind me! I'm so excited [Macmillan] wanted to make this book a reality and saw the value in my writing."

However, Lambert refused to rest on her "Same Love" laurels. "I didn't want to get a book deal because I'm a former pop singer. I wanted to get a book deal because I'm a good writer." Over the past three years, Lambert participated in poetry workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions, composing new work and heavily editing select poems from her 2013 self-published collection, 500 Tips for Fat Girls.

In Shame, Lambert opens up about the ups and downs of celebrity, as well as body image, past trauma and mental illness. She also writes about organized religion and faith.

"My family was really strictly Pentecostal," Lambert said. "Then my mom came out as bisexual and we were immediately shunned. I was six or seven at the time, and I went from going to church three or four times a week to going to drum circles and listening to Tracy Chapman!"

In high school Lambert joined an evangelical Christian church, where she remained even after coming out. "It wasn't the community that made the coming out process difficult," she said. "It was the indoctrination of harmful belief systems: there's a 'good' way to live and there's a 'bad' way to live, rather than 'I just exist!' It took a lot of self-reflection and rejecting harmful ideology [for me to] embrace the compassionate, loving God that I believe in."

Lambert still attends church but identifies as Episcopalian. "I feel like they're very radical and current in ideology, but very classic in liturgy, which I love. It's really comforting and reminds me of home."

Although Lambert is releasing Shame with "no expectations," she recently learned it may have a wider reach.

"I'm used to my fan base, which is generally other crying queers or allies … people who are very sensitive and like Harry Potter and are like me!" she said. "But a friend said, 'I don't have any trauma, but reading your book gave me a lens into what women and queer people, or someone with bipolar disorder, might be experiencing.'

"I didn't even consider that, someone who didn't have my experience picking up this book. But now I wonder if it might offer a lens for people who have a desire to connect but don't know how, and who want to be allies. I hope there is a feeling of a friend on the other end."

A friend who staunchly believes in the goodness of people: despite her traumatic childhood, bipolar disorder and "creative differences" with the music industry, Lambert is an eternal optimist. "I never became jaded about humanity. I just don't have that in me," she said.

"For me, I've always seen the best in people. I know that's a double-edged sword, but…I just don't see any other way to exist."

In the meantime, she's working on Shame's accompanying album as well as a musical, while enjoying fall from her western Massachusetts home and writing love poems for her partner. Lambert describes her current state of mind as "blissed out."

"I'm embracing the complexity of life," she said. "There's no wrong way to live as long as you're doing it with compassion and kindness, and I'm practicing that in a way I never have before."

She added, "I'm going to speak at the UN next month, and I'm gonna play football later today. My life is awesome!"

Shame is An Ocean I Swim Across is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold. For more about the author, follow her on Twitter at @marylambertsing.


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