–by Julie Hart
I met Chelsea Hodson last July when she read at The Book Report, a reading series at the HiFi on New York’s Lower East Side. She “reported” on Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth by reading an essay about the boys of her own youth. I bought her chapbook, an essay called Pity the Animal (Future Tense Books, 2014), and read it on the subway home. This line severed me: “I was writing everything down as if I knew what I was seeing.” I almost immediately began my own piece beginning with, “I was writing down my opinions and calling them poetry.” This is the highest form of flattery I know.
Chelsea agreed to come over to my Brooklyn studio and let me interview her. We talked about her recently completed project, Inventory, a Tumblr blog pairing short prose poems with photos of every single thing she owns—all 657 of them. We also discussed her writing practice, Marina Abramovic, her favorite poets, the Tin House summer workshop, and our minimalist aesthetic.
Julie: First, I wanted to ask you about Inventory. How did you keep going for 657 days?
C: Well, when I started it, I didn’t think anyone would read it. But I liked the idea of it being on the internet, a public document. Putting it out into the world helped me feel accountable, so the longer it went, the more I realized it had to be completed. When I started it, I thought, “I’ll do it for a while, but I probably won’t do everything.” The longer it went on, the more I realized, “No, I actually do need to finish it.” But I didn’t realize it was going to take nearly two years to do. I thought it would take maybe a year. I don’t know why. I just started making an inventory, and I started in the kitchen. When I decided to do the blog, I began a narrative and just did whichever object I felt would logically come next. Something in the kitchen would remind me of something in a book, so I would get that book and quote that part, so in that way it became somewhat random. I wasn’t doing it by room; I was doing it by instinct, intuition, what I thought would come naturally in the inventory. Conceptually, it would not be good if I didn’t actually do everything. I just felt, what’s the point if I don’t do the whole thing?
J: What did you do to “muscle through” then? Tricks you had to play on yourself?
C: Constantly. Half the time I’d be struggling. It wasn’t always natural, but I would gain this momentum. There’s this underlying narrative throughout, certain themes that come in and out, so those kept me going. If I got stuck, I could look back at the past two weeks, see what was happening and how that could progress. So that process was inspiring because it was like writing a story. The writing is autobiographical in nature with the artifice of using this object to propel myself forward.
J: Your daily life somehow feels too boring to talk about even though it’s sort of the most important thing, and this is a way to get past that.
C: Yes. The object would sometimes remind me of something from that day, so an unintentional result of Inventory was that it became like a diary. When I started the project, I thought, “Well, I’ll write 20 at a time and then just post them once per day.” But I found that I would spend the same amount of time editing it, because I’d be unhappy with it by the time I’d be posting it.
C: The content was actually better if I felt, “It’s going up today” instead of, “It’s going up in two weeks and I have time to edit it.” It was strange how that happened—editing it didn’t always make it better.
J: I know that when I started a blog, it was mainly just to push the writing out there without thinking any more about whether or not I’d gotten anyone to say it was good.
C: Was it diaristic?
J: A little bit. Just about getting older and feeling the absolute same inside, but the way that you are treated differently as you hit 50. People treat me like I’m invisible. I wasn’t all that visible to begin with; for example, I’ve never been catcalled. People talk about that, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t happen to me. I don’t know what kind of vibe I give off, but nobody ever did that to me. Even when I was younger, I didn’t look really young and vulnerable, I was always…
C: Maybe you just have this strong energy.
J: This tough thing. That’s just how I am, there’s nothing I can do about it. I walk quickly. I walk alone in the city all the time. Once in a while, my husband will say, “Be careful!” And I think, nothing has happened to me yet. When is it going to start? So I was writing about that and hadn’t found anyone writing about that kind of thing before, so I thought, I’m going to just throw this out there.
C: Is this online?
J: Yes, I’ll send you the link: bodyblogbybarb.blogspot.com. To me, it was just write one paragraph about something that came up today and once in a while I would write them a little ahead, but I wanted to just put one up a day. I still like them, they’re still good. They don’t assume you know anything about me, I don’t tell anything about myself, I just throw things down. If you read it long enough, you’ll find out everything.
C: Very similar to my project.
J: What do you think you learned about yourself from your things?
C: I don’t know, it felt so clinical. The emotional, introspective part came from the final performance. I knew what I was writing and I knew how they were connecting, but I had never read them from beginning to end before that day. Even in my head, I never sat down and read all 190 pages. It’s not fully edited, but conceptually I think it’s bad to change anything in it. It’s a daily document and I don’t want to mess with that. But I didn’t always enjoy reading it again, because I felt, “Oh, I should’ve done this for this line,” but once I read it aloud that day, I realized certain connections, certain people that are recurring in my writing, and that mistakes are a big theme for me. I didn’t realize that until I read it aloud. Before that, it was just kind of building and building, just like: “Wow. I have a lot of shirts.” At first, the realizations were banal and not very introspective, but once I was done, I could see how I meant it to be read.
J: What did you learn about yourself from the process?
C: That I can write for at least a half hour every single day. Before, I would think, “I need four hours to sit down and really think.” No one would have noticed if I didn’t post one day, but it became important to me to meet that daily deadline. I’ve never done something every day for that long, even if it was just writing every day privately, I’d never done it consistently every single day. That is important to me, as someone who is always trying to find more time to write. And I always feel like there’s never enough time. I can do it in half hour chunks, hour chunks.
J: Since you’ve done that, have you continued to do little half hour chunks?
C: I do write at least an hour every day, and I’ve done that consistently since the Tin House workshop this summer. As Inventory was building, I was writing more and more. I wrote Pity the Animal while I was doing Inventory, so I’ve always done writing on top of Inventory, but Inventory was like the bare minimum, so if I only had 20 minutes, I’d do Inventory. So if I can do at least an hour first thing in the morning, it makes me feel better— I’ve already done the work I think is most important to me and then it’s done.
C: I workshopped with Jo Ann Beard this summer, and she writes very slowly and methodically. She doesn’t go back and edit, she makes sure every sentence she writes does more than the previous sentence. And she said to try and break out of that, she has an exercise where she doesn’t let herself stop typing, she has to keep typing, even if it’s, “I don’t want to write today. I don’t want to write today.” Eventually something will come out. So I’ve been experimenting with that too. Sometimes instead of writing nothing, I’ll write at least two sentences I’m happy with.
J: I have this little journal that I take with me in case absolutely nothing occurs to me. I write down quotes in here, and I look back through it. If I’ve written something that is an aphorism, I tweet that. So that’s the bare minimum for me.
C: Mine is basically just reading my favorite books. Books that have that poetic voice that gets my brain going in a certain way. Poetry is the thing that most often does that for me.
J: Two or three examples?
C: One I always go to is Vita Nova, by Louise Gluck. If I feel really stuck, I will reach for that book and be unstuck immediately. The first time I read it I just felt so invigorated. It’s the starkest language. It’s brutal—the plainest language, and it’s like a dagger.
J: She was trying to write down exactly what was true about her family or whoever, to be as clear as possible. Something people could not bear to hear in conversation. Any others?
C: When I took a poetry class, I had this amazing teacher named Shelly Taylor. She taught Sarah Manguso’s book, The Captain Lands in Paradise, and that was the first book that made me think, “Oh wow, I want to do that.”
J: In an interview with Luna Luna Magazine, you said you wrote a lot of bad poetry when you were younger.
C: At first, I used poetry as a veil of sorts. You can write it so that it’s autobiographical and yet fictional and that part of it appealed to me—that hybrid nature. I could write about myself but make it about an animal and then no one had to know how I really felt. But ultimately that seemed silly to me. Once I realized that my favorite art was people really exposing themselves as terrible people, as villains—basically anyone who is not a hero and is deeply flawed, that’s my favorite type of thing to read, or art to make, where it’s like: this is everything.
J: I’m not holding back anything. I’m giving it all to you.
C: Yes. Revealing as much as possible.
J: In a Marxist analysis of the modes of production, how would you explain how you keep body and soul together? Or you could tell me about the various jobs you’ve had because of your fatal addiction to art.
C: I’ve had full time office jobs that were very restrictive and tiring, because I prefer to spend my time alone.
J: Even if you are quiet, you are being observed.
C: I was always the assistant, the first person you see. Answering the phones, greeting peo- ple, very easy things to do, but very exhausting for me. At the end of the day I would feel like I had worked 10 hours of hard manual labor. I know how absurd and dramatic that sounds, but that’s how I felt. I just feel so tired by being in an office all day.
J: You have to be ON.
C: Even in the best office jobs. I had great bosses. I would just get so frustrated that the job had taken up all of my energy. Essentially, I work more than full-time now, but mostly from home and in a schedule that I see fit. My schedule changes every day or maybe twice a week, I’ll schedule other work, but I just manage a bunch of different jobs. Some editing, some personal assisting. I’m also a performance facilitator for Marina Abramovic’s current installation, Generator. I blindfold people and put noise-cancelling headphones on them and lead them into a space of sensory deprivation.
J: In Pity the Animal, you write about never sitting in front of Marina Abramovic at The Artist is Present. Was it too much trouble to stand in line?
C: I was afraid. I was much more content, and mostly still am, on the sidelines—being close to things, but not actually engaging. I struggle with that, but I’m always trying to push against that. I went back to MoMA several times and I just thought it was too performative and too intense. I didn’t want everyone to look at me and I especially didn’t want her to look at me. I was so interested in the piece itself and observing it, but I didn’t feel any desire to be a part of it. It was too much. Like I mentioned about office jobs—things that are very quiet and easy for most people or really are very difficult for me. People have said to me, “You sit in front of her, who cares?” It was a lot for me, very intimidating. But that’s why I like Marina Abramovic so much, because I find her to be so intense. People cried. People were changed by it. I thought, I can’t. That’s too scary.
I was interested in why these people felt so moved by it. But I think, as that documentary The Artist is Present shows, they felt seen.
J: Which means that there are people in their lives who should have seen them, who haven’t seen them at all.
Chelsea Hodson is the author of two chapbooks: Pity the Animal (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Beach Camp (Swill Children, 2010). A collaborator with the Marina Abramovic Institute‘s Immaterial and a 2012 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, her essays have been published in Black Warrior Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Lifted Brow, Sex Magazine, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Julie Hart is originally from Minnesota. She has lived in London, Zurich, and Tokyo, and currently resides in Brooklyn Heights. Her work can be found in Five Quarterly, Denim Skin, PANK magazine, The Rumpus and Floor Plan Journal. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.