“The Strip Search” was a piece specifically written for stage performance; the fact that it went on to appear in Strange Horizons and win a Rhysling Award was a nice unexpected bonus.
I’m going to cheat today. I’ve already described the origin of this poem in great detail in an interview I did for Virginia Libraries in 2006. So I’m just going to crib myself:
“The Strip Search” began as a kind of complaint. In my day job I work as a courts reporter; I cover trials, lawsuits, all kinds of court cases. One of the side effects of having this job is that every day at least twice, and probably more often on any given day, I have to walk through a metal detector — after 9/11 all sorts of government institutions stepped up their security, and this is as true for courthouses as anywhere else. Now I like to wear suspenders when I’m dressed up for court. Suspenders are built with metal in them, so I was setting off the metal detector every time I came in. Some of the guards got a little frustrated with me and they started asking me, “Why do you keep wearing those?” My reaction was, “Doesn’t it seem a bit unfair that this heightened and probably justified — at least to some degree — paranoia about fellow human beings trickles down to the point where I’m not free to choose how to dress the way I want to, because I’m upsetting these metal detectors?”
So it’s because of this relatively trivial problem and my thoughts about its larger implications that I was suddenly struck with the idea of the gate of Hell operating as a metal detector. What would the gate of Hell detect? Well, it says “Abandon All Hope,” so no doubt if you entered that gate and you had some hope they would search you to find out where you were keeping it. My mind jumped on that: I imagined what that sort of metaphorical soul-searching — so to speak — would be like, and thus came the poem. …
It actually sat in my notebook as an unfinished draft for a few weeks. Then I was getting ready to perform at No Shame Theatre, an improv theater in Roanoke, and I needed a piece but I didn’t have one ready. I flipped through my notebook — I always carry some sort of notebook with me, since I never know when I might have some spare time when I can write something down — and discovered the remnants of that poem. So I redrafted it and finished it specifically to perform live.
So there’s actually some quasi-choreographed poses and gestures that go along with the poem; thus you haven’t really experienced the piece in full unless you’ve seen me perform it. But I’m glad it’s worked so well for people when stripped down to mere printed words or pixels.