Christine Sloan Stoddard’s kaleidoscopic and comprehensive artistry is front and center in her latest collection.
MM: Heaven Is a Photograph is a poetic meditation on the camera and photography.
When dealing with two artforms at once, where do you put your trust? Are you a poet working in a photographic tradition, or a photographer working in a poetic tradition? Which tradition do you pull from more?
CSS: I am not devoted to any one tradition. I am a student of many things. I come from a family that was just as likely to spend a day at the public library as at a Smithsonian museum. I attended a liberal arts college but I also went to art school. I have an English degree, a film degree, and
a separate business degree that focused on creative marketing. Courses spanned from
playwriting to electronic literature to video art to corporate presentations and more. In my literature, culture, and translation courses for French and Spanish, we studied everything from Romantic poetry to Surrealist paintings to New Wave cinema.
Then I went and earned an MFA in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice, which only made my blender whir faster. I made
tweets into books and Google search results print-outs into sculpture. I used discarded
camera and computer parts to print into clay tablets. I bleached chicken bones, spray-painted various objects, drew large-scale oil pastel scenery, and cut up old books all for art installations.
My grad school portfolio alone consists of animated GIFs, watercolor paintings,
photo prints, large-scale collages, web poetry, manifestos, and more. Then there’s my professional experience, which has been another form of education. I’ve done staff and freelance work for newspapers, magazines, museums, galleries, theaters, and non-profit arts organizations. I’m not interested in mastery; I’m interested in conceptual exploration, narrative experimentation, and creative expression.
The definitions for these things are more flexible, personal, and relevant to me.
MM: Many of the poems intimately approach the experiences of young womanhood, especially the dual role of being on both sides of the camera, creator and model. Can you speak to why that duality is interesting to you? What is it about being a young woman that allows fluidity between those two roles?
CSS: It’s probably less of a fluidity that’s allowed than one that’s actively encouraged and even forced. We make choices, but some choices are rewarded and others are not. Though the narrator in Heaven Is a Photograph is fictional, I drew from my literal experiences of being on both sides of the camera in writing from her perspective.
That being said, I think most women can relate to this duality of self, even if they haven’t worked as a creator or model. We know about the tensions between our identities simply by existing in a society that makes such conflicting demands of us. We constantly have to negotiate who we are going to be in certain spaces. In each negotiation, we must consider what we will gain and lose. I find myself doing this less as I get older, but I still make compromises. I don’t have the privilege not to.
MM: The poems balance more meditative pieces with narrative information about the
speaker of the poems, a young woman, child of a war photographer, going through an art program. Was there a tension for you between conveying the narrative information, creating the speaker, and simultaneously trying to create beauty, create power of phrasing?
CSS: I don’t think you can write about anything extended or substantial concerning art without mentioning, or at least alluding to, beauty or aesthetics at some point. But I wanted those meditations to happen naturally, not too formally or academically. They come from a young artist, someone still learning, gaining new life experiences, and forming opinions. I’m not a fan of traditional art criticism in terms of the power it holds in the field, but I’m still interested in unpacking ideas about art. I just wish it were done in a more nonhierarchical way and between artists, especially outside of art school. But it so often doesn’t, at least not authentically.
It makes me really sad to see how many people finish college or grad school
and then give up on their art altogether. There might be a few reasons, often a combination, for that. People burn out. A rigorous academic program can make you feel like you’ve given all you have to give. Or they let doubt consume them. Maybe they had particularly nasty professors or classmates. They struggle to make a living and then put most of their energy in
finding and keeping a day job. Making art for the market can be exhausting. Day jobs can be exhausting. Doing both at once is unsustainable for many folks. If your day job doesn’t allow much time, energy, and disposable income for art supplies, it makes sense that you would stop creating art. I know all of these struggles from my own life and what it takes to persevere and still want to discuss art beyond bitching about art school or figuring out how to make
money. That’s partially why I wrote this book.
MM: “unwritten job description” is a shockingly punchy piece in its brevity, especially directly following the almost prose like structure of “radiance cannot be
photoshopped” How much of the collection was deliberately planned like that, for the
pieces to showcase each other?
CSS: To be honest, I don’t normally plan in that way. I mull over a narrative or concept in my mind, mentally refine it, and then commit to it. Then the actual writing begins. From there, most of my process is spontaneous and organic. I write what flows and then edit after an entire draft
is done. Structurally, nothing changed about the manuscript in the editing process.
MM: I think my favorite piece in here is “portraits of friends,” with that incredible closing line, and the image of the chewed paper covering the forest floor. Could you take us through how that poem came to be?
CSS: My real-life journalism and fine art experience informed this piece. There’s a lot of trust involved in the journalistic and artistic processes. In journalism, a source must trust a reporter and a reporter must trust their editor. The editor must trust the reporter and the readers must trust the editors. In art, vulnerability and risk-taking matter, so an artist must trust themselves
to open up and be bold. They must trust their audience to engage with their work and, in a different way, trust patrons, curators, or anyone else they have a business relationship with so they are not exploited. In journalism and in art, the idea of a lone genius truly is a myth.
Systems support (or don’t) journalists and artists and, when those systems work, the journalist and the artist can produce and connect with an audience. A certain amount of trust in that system is required, even if the journalist or artist is still skeptical of it. At the same time, that system can collapse at any moment. Someone—anyone—in any part of it can betray the
journalist’s or artist’s trust. Human error, greed, and selfishness have consequences.
Nobody absolutely has to behave any particular way. We only hope that they do.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is a Salvadoran-American writer and artist creating books, films, murals, and more. She founded Quail Bell Magazine and the Badass Lady-Folk podcast and runs Quail Bell Press & Productions. Her books include Heaven is a Photograph, Naomi & The Reckoning, Desert Fox by the Sea, Belladonna Magic, and Water for the Cactus Woman, among other titles. Previously, she was the first-ever artist-in-residence at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan and an AnkhLave Arts Alliance fellow at the Queens Botanical Garden. Her film Bottled is now available on Amazon Prime Video. Find out more at WorldOfChristineStoddard.com.
Mordecai Martin lives in a small but not tiny house in Philadelphia with his wife Atenea Rosado, and a cat, Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go. He writes about love, miracles, his fellow Jews, madness, and death. He is a founding member of the Golus Kollectiv, a Jewish literary collective operating in the North American Jewish diaspora.