Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This from Hobart's Short Flight / Long Drive Books and the choose-your-own adventure poetry chapbook You're Going to Die Jess Wigent from Fact-Simile. Her book reviews, poems, essays, and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, The Rumpus, Two Serious Ladies, Alice Blue Review, Super Arrow and other handsome journals. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Denver and now lives with her linguist-of-rollerblading husband, Frank, in Austin.
Her essay "To Look Lifelike in a Photograph One Must First Pose as if Dead" appears in Issue Forty of The Collagist.
Here, Jess Stoner talks to interviewer William Hoffacker about post-mortem photography, interactivity with inviting literature, and the ancient, urgent question of truth with a capital T.
1) What made you decide to write an essay about photographs and the people in them? Was the impetus for this piece a particular photograph or series of photos?
The essay is part of a collection of, well, I guess I’m calling it a novel of essays called Because of you I am a photograph. The title comes from this great moment in Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography which comes from something Papageorge said, in accidentally bad French, when he bumped into Henri Cartier Bresson in Central Park. The impetus for the entire project is this one tiny moment from Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, this idea of a “literate projector,” which turns image into text and “enables the user to fail insignificantly / and at the same time show up / behind a vocabulary of How It Is”. And while in her introduction to Dorn’s epic poem, Marjorie Perloff calls the literate projector the “ultimate useless technological tool,” I was entranced and found the futility inherent in that device full of endless possibilities. As for the images, they come before I write the text, or they come after or during, it really depends—in this essay, I was thinking about how I wanted to write an essay about the people who broke me in the past (to be honest, at least for some of them, in a really vengeful way), and then I had previously been obsessed with post-mortem photography, so everything came together, at least for me. Each chapter in the novel revolves around a kind of photography—a family portrait, a mugshot, a photo album, a crime scene photo, etc.
2) How did you choose the photographs included in this piece? Where did they come from?
I knew if I wanted to talk about exes, to talk about people from the past, the only way to do that was to use post-mortem photos—this tradition, to me, is so fascinating and demonstrates so exquisitely the relationship to absence and presence. It was such a heartbreaking and important tradition—the need to have a photograph of someone who was no longer there, so they would always be there. There are beautiful books of post-mortem photographs like Stanley Burns’ Sleeping Beauty and the weird, weird, whatever they are in Wisconsin Death Trip, though I usually find the photographs I’m using by sifting through the Smithsonian’s online archive—the last photograph I used in the essay I found because the caption said “Man with Cat” and I knew I had found what I needed for something that I would eventually write. In getting a “feel” for the photographs I need, I buy all the books that Terry recommends at Vertigo and I’ve also have spent the last two years stealing photography theory syllabi and then reading everything the professors assign. This is how I found Geoffrey Batchen, who I think is one of the most exciting and intellectually and emotionally engaging photography academics; his writings have inspired me to seek out and incorporate different kinds of images and to think around them in ways I would never have expected.
3) In this essay you write, "Photography, some argue, captures too much information to function as memory. It obeys the rules of creative non-fiction: everything is malleable." This made me wonder: can there really be said to be any rules of creative nonfiction? How far, then, are works of creative nonfiction from the reality of events described?
This is an ancient, urgent question. Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing is a revelatory exploration of how we can ever know what we see is what we’re actually seeing anyway, and it invites the question afterwards, of how is it that we can write about what we saw if we can’t even be sure what we know what we’re seeing or experiencing is what it is. There was a nice big fight about this via Triquarterly in November, when they published a previously published essay called “The Facts of the Matter.” I wrote, let’s just call it a “scathing” response, about the author’s insistence that there is somewhere truth with a capital T and that that’s the creative non-fiction writer’s only path. Jill Talbot’s anthology, Metawritings: Towards a Theory of Nonfiction, where the essay was previously published, has pieces from Pam Houston, Robin Hemley, Ander Monson and others which approach this complicated idea in inventive and open ways. It’s one of those things, I think, that we circle around and circle around and come closer to but never arrive at. Maybe I’m just a slave to ontological pluralism, maybe that makes my reasoning intellectually specious or something, but what the hell, I guess I don’t care. That being said, I’ve been nervous about what to call these chapters/essays of mine. Included in them are a whole bunch of things that are my versions of things that happened to me, but I’m not sure about calling them non-fiction, because sometimes I know for sure they’re probably fiction, except that I want them to be engaged in theories of photography, which seems to be in the realm of nonfiction. For the past seven years, I’ve been reading The Blue Cliff Record on and off, and one of the koans goes “When you get to this point, as to whether there is something or there isn’t anything, pick and you fail.” Whatever in the hell that means, that’s what I think, I think.
4) Your bio says you are the author of a "choose-your-own adventure poetry chapbook." What inspired you to adopt this form of children's writing for your poetry? (Do you think more literature should be interactive for the reader?)
Interactivity is my goal, always. And it’s always my hope, as a reader, that I’ll be invited to participate as well. I just want to be invited. Not necessarily challenged or goaded. Invited. Like the book buys my next pint and inebriates me into going back to its apartment or at least participating in its meaning, which seems less than child-like (I hope). There are so many ways of doing this: caring about characters, feeling the need to flip back and forth between the pages of a book. This connects to my wanting to have the physical, emotional, and intellectual connection to a text. I want it all, I want everything, and I feel like it’s fair to expect that, as a reader.
5) What have you read recently that you want to recommend?
I spent the last few weeks reading every piece of fiction online I could find that was published this year to write a year-end-review for Necessary Fiction. All of them, like Justin L. Daughtery’s “What Men’s Deed’s Do” and Anne Valente’s “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” and Saeed Jones’s “Boy, a History” do something to me that made me want so badly to share them with a stranger. I’ve also been listening to Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which the New York Times called “lionhearted” and I do not disagree. I’ve also been plowing through Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen’s Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, which is important and makes me hysterical, like shaking in my car thinking about it hysterical. My to-be-read pile is criminal, but the beginning of this year has been chock-full of romantica (erotica/romance). Kristen Ashley self-publishes her novels and I’ve read seven of them in the first days of the new year. This, in the romance world, is called “glomming.”
6) What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m still working on Because of you, and am in the middle of a number of different projects, including a romance novel and a book about my year spent on an island in Wales. I was lucky enough to watch Matt Hart do his thing in Austin a while back, and have been thinking about poetry a lot lately, because he reminded me of what I forgot it can do, although mostly, I find myself drawn to essaying as I’ve been reading supreme court oral arguments and amicus briefs and the Alabama Constitution and all the ways in which our country quietly keeps people from voting that are criminal and antithetical to democracy. It is utterly miraculous that anything I write ever gets finished.