[media-credit id=15 align=”alignright” width=”194″][/media-credit]Though Carol Guess has been in the lit world for some time, her latest project Doll Studies: Forensics immediately grabbed my attention because of the…unique subject matter. It isn’t every day you stumble upon a book of prose poetry that focuses on 18 dioramas of actual crime scenes–meticulously duplicated using miniature dolls and furniture, and perfectly accurate down to the tiniest rolled cigarette. These dioramas called the The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were created in the 1940s by the eccentric Frances Glessner Lee, and intended to help students of forensic science sharpen observations skills needed to efficiently (and correctly) solve complicated crimes. However Guess’ true inspiration came from a book of photography made about the dioramas–the book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz contains a myriad of photographs of the dioramas; the various angles, perspectives, and quiet chaos of each image evokes an eeriness that is also expressed in Guess’ latest book. Through her words Guess lends life to these tiny, inanimate worlds–and whether the stories she weaves in her work are based on fact or fiction…they are mesmerizing all the same. In anticipation of Carol Guess’ visit to Open Books in Wallingford tonight, I’ve asked the author a few questions.
How did you first encounter The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and what inspired you to make these spooky dioramas the muse for your book of poetry?
Let me start by confessing that I left your review copy of the book on a stranger’s porch. When I realized I had the wrong address I drove to meet you, but that book is still located wrongly, randomly, somewhere in the city. That sort of stumbling is how this project started and I suppose how it will end. I was working on a series of prose poems written using the NATO phonetic alphabet, and couldn’t get anywhere with X-ray. So I started researching the history of the X-ray, and discovered a photograph of the first X-ray image of the human hand. From there I started looking at medical photography. When I read the phrase The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death I was instantly hooked.
Did you have much interaction with the author/photographer, Corinne Botz? How is she inspirational to you?
Corinne Botz was my muse for this book. At one point I even included a poem about her in the collection, but I decided that was probably creepy and took it out! Her photographs are so gorgeous, and her research has such integrity. When I began working on the poems in earnest I decided that I needed her approval or I couldn’t proceed. I’d felt this way once before about a project — working from photographs by Loretta Lux. And in fact I’d written to Lux, and got a clipped email back from her assistant, basically saying, “Ms. Lux is very busy, fuck off.” That totally diminished my desire to work from her images, and I just stopped. I wasn’t looking for interaction, just permission to be inspired. So I wrote to Corinne Botz and got a lovely email in reply, saying of course you can write poems from these photos, and I hope your project goes well. Since then we’ve corresponded quite a bit, but what I mostly wanted was permission to use her as a muse — to be inspired. I would never ask another writer permission, but somehow I felt that with visual art I needed to ask. And really, Botz is famous for her research on this topic, and I didn’t want her to think that I was unaware that her book is THE book on The Nutshells. I wanted to emphasize that I wasn’t competing with her, or taking her research without permission, but in fact paying homage to her work in the field.
What was your process as you created these poems–Twin Peaks on the TV in the background? Candlelight and bourbon?
No candles or bourbon, sorry! I wrote the manuscript in a tiny rented office in downtown Bellingham, Washington. I didn’t have any furniture, so I sat on the floor. When I write my surroundings vanish; I’m not concerned with visual elements around me. But I’m extra sensitive to sound, so I have a white noise machine going, plus I wear noise-blocking headphones. I look like an air traffic controller. It’s not very sexy! But the process of listening for the next line is an ecstatic process for me. It’s like religion for some people. A kind of faith. And so writing has to take place alone, and I don’t mind if my surroundings are ugly or stark — they just have to be quiet.
Why did you decide to not include any of the actual photographs in your book? Although I will say it was entertaining (and challenging) to research the dioramas as I read, hoping that I was finding the correct one!
That’s a great question. First, Corinne May Botz already published her photographs and research in book form. Her book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, was the focus of most of my research. So publishing her photos with my poems would be redundant, and also probably impossible — I’d never be able to get permission, or afford it. But it’s also important to me that my poems stand alone. They were written about The Nutshells, and in relation to Botz’s photos — yes. But they’re also poems that do something very different from factual research, photographs, or dioramas. They’re meant to be musical, to evoke fictional characters (some of which I invented), and to tell stories that move beyond the crime scenes. In several instances I took minor characters and brought them to life, or invented characters who existed beyond the frame of the photos. Above all, I was working with sound, with music. I hope readers can engage with the sound of the poems even without knowing the facts of the individual cases.
Which diorama do you find the most fascinating, and which one creeped you out the most?
My favorite diorama is “Red Bedroom.” It’s the most beautiful and intimate. Clearly Marie Jones wanted her bedroom to feel like home, to feel safe and elegant, even though it was also a bedroom where she fucked strangers for money. It was still her home; somehow that duality comes through in the detailed surroundings.
The creepiest diorama? “Parsonage Parlor.” I really identified with the young girl in the scene. She was naive; she obviously knew and trusted her murderer. Her vulnerability comes through even in death.
My favorite poem in Doll Forensics is “Late White”–it’s beautiful, lyrical and eerie all at once. Which poem is your favorite?
Thank you, Heather! “Late White” is one of my favorites, too. I feel as if the first three poems — “Aerial Rifle,” “Late White,” and “Cottage on the Rocks Estate” — are really one poem, a sequence. I wanted the reader to enter the book as if opening the door to one of the dioramas.
If you could have met Frances Glessner Lee, what question would you ask her–what would you want to talk with her about?
I want to know about tone — what was her relation to the victims she depicted? Did she identify with them; was she concerned with domestic violence? Was there a pre-feminist ideology and empathy at work? Or did she truly see her work objectively, as a teaching tool for police detectives? My assumption is that Lee was unaware of her own motives. Botz’s research suggests that Lee really identified with powerful men and wanted male approval almost desperately. I think Botz and I have some of the same questions about Lee: about what motivated her, and whether she ever allowed herself to identify with the women she depicted.
Over the years you’ve used a variety of writing styles in your work–what does writing poetry offer you (and the reader), that can not be found in other forms?
I’m especially interested in prose poetry because it combines the best elements of poetry and fiction. I can concentrate on sound, on creating perfect sentences, but still have enough room to tell a good story and develop a character.
And lastly, what will your next obsession be–any upcoming projects that will prove to be as unique and fascinating as this one?
Thanks for asking! I just finished a collaborative poetry project with Daniela Olszewska. We wrote poems based on wikiHow entries; our collaboration took place entirely over email. We sent half-finished poems back and forth, beginning and ending each other’s work. The result was a book, How to Feel Confident With Your Special Talents, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2014. I’d like to do more collaborations in the future, not just with writers, but with visual artists and musicians, too.
Carol Guess will be reading tonight at Open Books, 7:30 p.m. // Open Books, 2414 North 45th St. // Free