Jul 17, 2020 • 24M

A Conversation with Claire Comstock-Gay, a.k.a. Madame Clairevoyant

Listen now | We discussed the stars, Silvia Federici’s Marxist-feminist recognition of magic, and the beauty of a kitchen without bosses or customers.

Alicia Kennedy
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There are people who view astrology as frivolous, but I am not one of them, and one of the astrologers who makes that feel very easy and defensible is Claire Comstock-Gay, perhaps better known as Madame Clairevoyant, who writes weekly horoscopes for The Cut that toe the line between incantation and prose poem. Her book, Madame Clairevoyant’s Guide to the Stars, has deepened my understanding of myself as a Scorpio with a whole lot of air in her chart, and the cast of characters she invokes—think David Wojnarowicz, but also Kim Kardashian—speak to a rare breadth of cultural understanding.

But Comstock-Gay is not just an astrologer, but a brilliant thinker generally, and she’s been recently lending her kitchen skills to a mutual aid effort in Minneapolis. We discussed the stars, Silvia Federici’s Marxist-feminist recognition of magic, and the beauty of a kitchen without bosses or customers. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Claire, thank you so much for taking the time out to come on.

Claire: Thank you for inviting me. I'm really excited to talk with you.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Claire: Yeah, so I grew up a couple places. When I was a little kid, I lived in Towson, Maryland, which is just outside of Baltimore. And then when I was in fifth grade, my family moved to Concord, New Hampshire. And so what I ate, I feel like my early childhood food memories are really like stereotypical kind of white American mainstream food. Like the strongest

early kid food memory was my mom making bags of frozen mixed vegetables, and I hated the peas in it so much and I would, likem swallow them whole because I didn't want to taste the peas. Chicken breasts and mac and cheese and mixed veggies.

I think kind of that as I grew up, my family's food tastes and the foods that we would eat in the house really changed kind of, along with what mainstream America was eating. So like,

by the time I was in middle school, maybe we would have avocados in the house, or like in high school, we would have sriracha sauce in the house, and so these things that became popular that kind of hit the mainstream, hit my house and my own palate at the same time, I think.

Alicia: Yeah, there's a great book about that called Eight Flavors. I can't remember the subtitle but it's about how things like sriracha, specifically, enter the American consciousness, which is a very fascinating topic. But how did you get into astrology?

Claire: I think I'm a little bit different from what I can tell than a lot of other astrology people that I know. I think for a lot of people, they encountered it when they were young or teenagers and something really great clicked right away. For me, I hated it when I was young; I felt kind of belittled and insulted by all this stuff that I would read about my sign. Like the Sagittarius stuff was kind of like, you're this cheerful jock, which was so sick to me. I was moody and really wanted to be, like, smart and intellectual and it just hurt my feelings a little bit.

And it also just seemed silly, the newspaper horoscopes you would read, like, I don't know, like, “talk to your boss for that raise today.” Nothing to me, this is fake. So then it was only like later on, I was in my early 20s living in New York, and I met all these kind of cool feminist punks who were into astrology and were conversant in it in really different ways than I had known were possible. And so that was kind of when I started to take it seriously even as a thing that I might want to know anything about.

Alicia: Why were you in New York, first of all? What made you move there? 

Claire: Nothing, right? Like, I didn't want to live in New Hampshire anymore. Um, New York seemed cool.

Alicia: Well, what were the ways that they were into astrology that made it compelling to you?

Claire: I think part of it was just being from, like a social universe that felt legible to me. Like all the horoscopes that you read in glossy magazines are imagining you, the reader, as this glossy magazine type of person, or all the newspaper horoscopes are imagining you as this like, professional-class man, basically. And so to see these astrological ideas kind of reflected in a way that I could see myself—that changed things A lot. And also a lot of it was just mainstream astrology, and this is changing some now. But it has traditionally been just extremely heteronormative. All about like, men in the sign are this way and women are that way. And in relationships, it's this way. And if you're a woman, here's what you want when you're getting married, right? Like all these things that just were so icky and gross, and so to see it outside of any of those constructs really helped me.

Alicia: No, I totally understand because like, as a Scorpio—I think probably every Scorpio is really excited that they're a Scorpio. Like, for their entire lives are like, “Absolutely, I am intellectual and mysterious and you know, dark and brooding.” Yeah, like absolutely correct, but then like to get my whole chart and then understand, you know, I contain many different things and have to reckon with that. That was like, that's a good intellectual exercise—to not think of yourself in such a, like, singular way. But yeah, it makes so much sense that it is a really interesting way—like it's embodied differently in feminist and queer spaces, because it is a way of understanding yourself as a plurality, you know.

The first page of your book notes that one of the possible uses of astrology, which are vast and varied, is kind of predicting political unrest, and so was our current moment predictable in the stars or no?

Claire: Honestly, it was. It was really funny. I don't know if you saw this. A few weeks ago, there was a piece in The New York Times that was like, will astrology be canceled since it failed to predicts the pandemic? And astrologers got so angry because for like, literally years, everyone's been saying 2020 is the year of upheavals, change, transformation, and it's funny, right? So like, the simple answer is, yes, 100%. 

That's not really what I do, right? Like, I'm less interested in kind of the societal applications of astrology. Personally—I think this might get astrologers mad at me, I don't know—I think a really good historian is going to be able to predict things, honestly, as well as a good astrologer. It's just different ways of looking at patterns to get to the same thing.

Alicia: And you do have a very unique voice among astrologers, and I might be getting this wrong. Did you start writing your horoscopes for The Rumpus, or—

Claire: I did. Yeah.

Alicia: Yeah. And so it has it always been more of kind of a literary form for you or—

Claire: It has, honestly. And when I started writing horoscopes, it's funny, I really kind of learned about astrology as I was writing; I knew not very much at all, and it was more of kind of the literary exercise of it. And over time, right, I've kind of grown more and more deeply interested in astrology itself. But it is a lot about the mood and the voice and the feeling versus right, like, “it's a good day to talk to your boss.”

Alicia: And you're based in Minneapolis. Now, how did you end up living there?

Claire: I am, technically right across the river in St. Paul. Very important to people who live here and are from here, and to me feels not different at all.

But mostly I just really wanted to live somewhere other than New York. This is a very Sagittarius thing about me is that I love change, and I love moving. And so I’d left New York before; I moved to New Orleans, and then moved back to New York, and then wanted to go somewhere else again. And I moved here specifically because my boyfriend was able to get his job transferred out here, so it was kind of an easy move to make. That was a few years ago, I really didn't like it very much at all at first and like it a lot more now.

And weirdly or not that weirdly, I don't know, all of the uprising has made me like it so much more here.

Alicia: I mean, who would have thought that Minneapolis would be the site, the starting point of such an incredible, you know, worldwide protests. I mean, I sure didn't, but that might be my New Yorker thing.

How has it been to be there during that time. I've seen on Twitter that you've been cooking at a mutual aid kitchen, and I know from doing some other interviews with folks based in Minneapolis—which again, I had no idea I'd end up talking to so many people in recent weeks— but it seems very, very, you know, community-oriented and driven, the work that's happening now, and not just through mutual aid, but like, in all ways, and yet how has that emerged, and how have you become part of that?

Claire: Yeah, so I've been involved through—it was a group that was organized through a part of the DSA here, and this was work that they had started doing previously just to address kind of people's food needs because of the pandemic, and then really rapidly shifted to meet this kind of sudden emergency need that came up. And so, what happened was I got involved kind of right at the start, you know, protests have been going on for maybe one day, maybe two days. So we were like scrounging around trying to find kitchen space in the cities, and so cooking in all these kind of bizarre, random churches using their wacky serrated knives only and glass cutting boards. Just horrible equipment to try to cook these giant meals.

That was to feed people on the front lines and also to feed people in the neighborhoods in South Minneapolis right by the precinct, where the stores were either damaged or just closed down because, you know, they didn't want to get their windows broken or whatever, I don't know. But in that neighborhood, for a few days, people really couldn't access groceries. And so we were making meals for them.

I feel like overall, it's funny—I've been out to protest only a little bit. And my experience of the uprising has really been about this community work, and the mutual aid stuff, and it's so—it's so joyful; there's so much possibility. And I think it's really, it's really euphoric, and really wistful at the same time because, right, we all know, or if you've done anything like this ever before, you know how hard it is to keep the energy going. There's this wonderful moment where everything breaks through and everything is possible, like okay, but once the normal life pressures start to come back, how do we keep it going?

And I think in the kitchen itself—so, after the church spaces, eventually we found a professional catering kitchen that was closed because of the pandemic. And so they let us use their space and that was really, really great, to be cooking in this professional space without any of the bad things about professional cooking. There's no bosses; there's no customers on the other side. There's people eating the food, obviously, but there's nobody holding it over you that there is a paying person that needs to be treated a certain way. And so that was really this magical kind of euphoria, like why is it not like this all the time? Why is cooking food not always like this? Because it could be.

Alicia: Was this your first experience in a professional kitchen or no?

Claire: No, it wasn't—first for a long time. But in my early 20s, I worked for a prepared foods kitchen for a fancy grocery store in Brooklyn. And so that was really funny in a lot of ways. It was kind of, all right, like, not totally restaurant style, but it was a weird kitchen to work in. But it was really fun to be doing a lot of the same things, right, like the same type of embodied labor, but only because everyone wanted to be there. There's no no bosses and so—I keep coming back to this.

Alicia: Well, what influences your politics in this way, you know, the doing mutual aid, you know, hating bosses? How did you come to your kind of political perspective?

Claire: It's such a good question. It's such a hard one to answer at a certain point, right?

It's like, I don't know, this is the world; this is my life. I don't know if I have a good answer for you. 

Alicia: Well, is there any reading that especially was influential for you? Maybe?

Claire: Um, let me think. I'm so embarrassed. Let me look at my books.

Alicia: No, these are hard questions. And I know it's putting it puts you on the spot for this, but I'm always so curious about you know, what, are the moments and the things that are really, you know—to use a very old second-wave term—consciousness-raising for different people. I always go back to my American feminist poetry class in college where, you know, we read this big anthology called No More Masks and we read Anzaldúa and we read Adrienne Rich and we read all these, you know, feminist poets and I was like, holy shit. But, you know, we all have our different moments.

Claire: No, I think that's, that's right. I do think for me— similar, I think, to a lot of white women—got into it through feminism first. And then hopefully, you broaden and deepen that.

[In unison]: So many people don't.

Claire: A recent one that I was reading that was not so much foundational but has kind of clicked things into place right around a lot of this work. I was reading Silvia Federici, this book about the commons. What is it called? Reinventing the World. I really like Silvia Federici kind of on the astrology side because unlike a lot of Marxists, she believes in magic a little bit. She's not dismissive of these kind of non-material things that are still a part of our material lives.

In this one specifically, it was all about this worldwide erosion of the commons, and then all these different little spaces where people are trying to rebuild them, and so this is a really nice example what's been going on here in the kitchen, with so many of the projects happening, I know in Minneapolis and other cities too, as these ways that we're trying to rebuild commons for each other, whether that's about food or housing.

The hotel that was here. They took over this former Sheraton Hotel to house unhoused people who had been displaced by the police because of the riots. And that's, I think such a beautiful example too. Like, there's this huge hotel here. Let's use it for each other.

Alicia: No, that's so important. And when that happened, it made me think of how many hotels here in Puerto Rico were probably vacant during the pandemic, yet the unhoused population was still unhoused. And during this very dangerous time, because we've had a curfew ever since March 15, you know, being policed as well, in that time, and it's like, well, why wouldn't you create an initiative to put people in the hotels and it's like, we know why but—

At the same time, it's just, why isn't this very obvious good pursued. I don't know—it’s very crazy. And then there was another time during the earthquakes here at the end of last year when so many people were sleeping in tents in their yards, and again, it's like—there's hotels here. There's plenty of hotels and you know, just never making—

That's why I think that was such an important moment of this time, was the Sheraton kind of—I don't want to say takeover but you know, right, you know, use proper use of that space, because feeding people, we have that language for it because we have soup kitchens, I think, you know. So with mutual aid kitchens and community fridges and that sort of thing, it's like, okay, like, we understand this, like, we already do this in a charitable way that is translatable into the capitalist world. So it's not as you know, difficult on people's minds, but I do think maybe the Sheraton thing didn't get covered that extensively outside of Minneapolis probably because it is so challenging to ideas that we never really conceive of.

Claire: I think think you're so right about that. Like for some, for whatever reason, kind of because of that charitable model, right, people are really comfortable around food as the site of charity in the way that they're not comfortable with other things. 

I think a lot about around here, kind of in the immediate days after the precinct burned and all of that. There were so many distribution sites set up to get food and stuff to people, which is great. And the need was there, right, unlike in a lot of disasters, I think: There's stuff and it’s not what people need. But it was the stuff that people needed. But it was—I don't know, something about the people who are willing to do that work versus like, okay, but let's get these people housed. 

Alicia: There's a strange unwillingness to house people who need help. It's just, why isn't this need seen as the same as the need to eat food? I don't understand.

To get back to your your book a little bit, I was of course happy—you know, I've already gone over that I'm a Scorpio and all Scorpios are very pleased with themselves—but you cast the Scorpio as the punk and you use Kathleen Hanna as kind of the icon there. And you do include a lot of counterculture figures in the book as well as major pop culture figures. How did you decide on the references? Was it kind of a conscious effort to balance the popularity of the iconic figures or you know, what was the kind of framework you had in mind for how you used people as characters to describe the signs?

Claire: Well, first of all, thank you. I feel like not a lot of people—people talk about

the book as a pop culture book, which it is, but it's not only a book about like, celebrity-celebrities. 

Alicia: Well, it's cultural. It’s just cultural figures.

Claire: This was something that I struggled with a lot as I was kind of putting together the proposal and the structure of the book, because astrology only works in this sense, right? If you have characters to talk about, right? It only works when it's connected to real people. It gets really boring to me, at least when it's just these like lists of qualities, right? It's like, oh, Scorpio, like, dark, like, Okay, what does that mean? I don't know.

And so we’re in real life.  I can point to my mom as a character, right? Like, oh, you know, my mom. She's such a Pisces. It doesn't work when you're writing this book for a general audience. And so the question becomes how to use kind of common touchstones and these common people in a way that's interesting enough to me to write about it. Because a lot of these big celebrities, that's not interesting to me personally. And I also think that at a certain level of wealth, right, you're all a little bit more like each other then anybody else.

I think if anything, it was kind of the reverse, where I had to work to get enough like, actual celebrities in the book to balance it so it wasn't just my own personal canon.

Alicia: That's funny. And so for you, is cooking a political act?

Claire: Yes, I love this question, because it's like so simple and complicated, right? I feel like there's things I have to define and explain to get to an answer. 

I think, you know, in the most basic level, yes, of course it is. It's political kind of in the same way that literally anything any one of us ever does is political and obviously cooking as part of a mutual aid effort, that's political in a different way.

As far as my personal home cooking goes or cooking for other people, right, I think it's political, but it's not revolutionary—and I think those are things you've talked about before—but those are things that we like to conflate a little bit more than is totally helpful, especially kind of broadly on the left. We want everything we do to be radical. And there are things that are not radical that are still valuable and worth doing, and that's kind of where cooking falls for me.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much, Claire.

Claire: Yeah, thank you. This was great.