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The Plaza of the Mind Interview with Stefene Russell

Stefene Russell, actor, poet and author, blew me away when I first saw her in Trent Harris' Plan 10 From Outer Space. In 2007, I found out that Stefene had done a recording of her poetry entitled Radioactive Cat Radio. In my attempts to track down the record I ended up contacting Stefene and she sent me out a copy of the CD for free! Stefene agreed to an email interview for my new Plaza of the Mind internet site. We conducted the following interview shortly thereafter via email. Unfortunately, events in my personal life sunk me into a sort of malaise that I am only now pulling myself out of. For some reason I kept putting off publishing this interview, I can't really say why, but for whatever reason, here it is now, three years later. My apologies to Ms. Russell for my untimeliness.


[The Plaza of the Mind quotes appear in Bold-type, Ms. Russell’s in normal-type]



I enjoyed your article Shoe Jail; it reminded me of the hell I went through as a hotel front desk agent. What was the worst job you've ever had?

I think any customer service job entails a lot of abuse at the hands of the public and lots of pointless paper shuffling. Which is hell for any human being, I think ... but Shoe Jail was awful because immediately prior to that that I'd had a really wonderful job with Pulitzer, writing for the Post Dispatch website. The experience of being laid off, being on unemployment and landing in customer service hell was just an awful experience. I'd had un-fun jobs before that - clerical stuff, retail - but had nothing to compare it to. I guess it's all a great argument in support of what Buddha says, don't get too attached to stuff, suffering is relative and your brain is usually the source of said suffering.

I read that you grew up in a house with secret passages - that sounds incredibly cool. Can you describe?


My parent's house was built by Parley T. Pratt, who was one of the higher-ups in the church; it was one of the first houses built in Salt Lake. He was a polygamist. Their fourth basement step has hinges on it, and you flip it back and it leads to a series of very small, claustrophobic tunnels. You have to crawl through them on your hands and knees; I don't know where the tunnels lead, but I have heard people say that the Temple has underground tunnels and people have asked me if maybe Pratt's house leads to the Temple (I kinda doubt it, actually). Our cats would disappear down there for days on end. It's very dirty and probably full of hobo spiders. My dad went crawling through the tunnels when my parents first moved into the house, and caught pneumonia. He was always threatening to set up a wine cellar down there. There's also a closet on the second floor you can crawl through to get to an Alice in Wonderland sized door, but that just leads to the attic. The family built the house themselves, so that might've just been creative design on their part. All the scenes of Porter Rockwell and Talmadge were shot in my parent's house - that floral wallpaper in the background is original to the house - my dad referred to the pattern as "Bee Heaven."


Did you grow up in Salt Lake City? A friend of mine once visited and said that it was a lot like my hometown Grand Rapids Michigan, except that instead of being built upon the shoulders of Amway it was built upon the shoulders of the Latter Day Saints.

Yes - unfortunately, I've never been to Grand Rapids, so I can't confirm how or why Salt Lake might be similar. But the reference to Amway is definitely a clue. I will get in trouble for this, but I have heard folks comparing Amway's structure to that of the church, and there does seem to be a staggering number of people in Salt Lake who gravitate towards businesses like that - Melaleuca, Usana Vitamins, Avon - Amway, too. I don't know if you'd quite call these Ponzi schemes - I certainly wouldn't tag the church that way - but there is definitely a pyramidal, testimonial-heavy quality the Mormon *culture,* at least in Salt Lake. If that makes sense?


I moved to Portland in the mid-nineties and I met a really cool guy from Boise. He was the one who first turned me on to the Mormon phenomenon. There were very few of them in the Michigan area, perhaps due to their being driven away a hundred years earlier. I then saw Plan 10 from Outer Space and I got really interested when I discovered that all of the bizarre assertions made in that film concerning Mormon philosophy and beliefs in the afterlife were true. I have since met others who are rather obsessed with Mormons though they are not believers. Do you have a similar interest?

I think Boise is sometimes more Mormon than Salt Lake! Maybe they did get turned off by the Midwest after being chased out of here, though I thought there were not many here in St. Louis until I heard someone talking about a weird church with an angel on top that you could see from Highway 40. So I went to look at it, and sure enough, there was Moroni. There is something inherently fascinating about Mormonism - Michael Quinn's "Early Mormonism and the Magical World View," is a great, scholarly book on what some of the stuff that Plan 10 touched on. But of course, Trent's version is much funnier.

Plan 10 paints such an incredible portrait of that city that I am afraid to actually visit for fear that it may ruin the image. What made you decide to move to St. Louis?

Ah, well, there are many versions of Salt Lake City depending on what crowds you travel with. They almost tore down Gilgal (the little park with the Joseph Smith sphinx) to build condos, but the fact that there was a huge mobilization to save it says something good about the place. I think that Salt Lake is a city that can seem very bleak on the surface if you don't know where to go, or if you are not paying attention. If you are paying attention you realize that lots of weird stuff happens there, and that it has a huge capacity for hosting the appearance of the miraculous. But I think Salt Lake is one of those places where you have to be willing to make things happen ... St. Louis is like that, too. You have to be willing to take some initiative rather than get carried along by a culture that is already fairly strong and in place, like in NYC or San Francisco. But that just means that much more is possible and that there is tons of potential. One site to peek at is dooce.com, I love her writing and she has a very interesting perspective on Salt Lake.

I came through St. Louis almost by accident, but knew I wanted to live here immediately. I'm not sure why - part of it is the old building stock, part of it's the people here, party of it is that creative potential... this city has been around since the 18th century, and feels really haunted. I love the Mississippi River, and the fact that St. Louis is so diverse - they call it "The Little Easy," because it has a touch of whatever makes New Orleans strange and corrupt and fecund and creative and mixed-up and beautiful. There is probably a ley line running through it or something. If you look at the people it produced (T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Charles Eames, Vincent Price, William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams ...) it's pretty staggering.


What does a day in the life of Stefene Russell look like?


It's so trite to say ... but it depends on the day ... I think most people who make their living writing or editing look very dull from the outside, since mostly they just sit at a computer and type. The best days are the ones where I get to go out and talk to people. In the last six months or so, those people have included a couple of Catholic workers who bought a bombed-out old crack house in North St. Louis city for $1,000 and spent only $35,000 rehabbing it into a sustainable house that's off the grid; Typewriter Tim, who uses old manual typewriters as percussion instruments - but he's also a massage therapist and works with people with autism; an 85 year-old artist who still paints every day; a mortgage fraud expert in Atlanta; horticulturists at Shaw Nature reserve; some guys who work at a machine shop called Lunar Tool. I also work on a literary magazine, 52nd City (the title refers to the fact that St. Louis was, at least at one point, 52nd in population among middle-sized cities). That's where the "Shoe Jail" piece ran. And I work with an arts collective formerly known as Hoobellatoo, now known as Poetry Scores. We take long poems, score them to music as if they were a film, and then make movies of that soundtrack. We're working on "Blind Cat Black," now, which was based on the work of Turkish poet Ece Ayhan. So three weeks ago or so I was at a bar down the street helping to wrangle zombies for that film. I don't know what's going to happen to the script, but I may be playing a character named "Aunt Sadness," who is an alcoholic flower vendor.


Lately I have been obsessed with Haruki Murakami and Kathryn Harrison: Any authors that you are into?


I have to read both Murakami & Harrison ... have heard plenty good about them and for some reason never got to them, I am ashamed to say. I just got a copy of Jonathan Lethem's new book, "You Don't Love Me Yet," in the mail at work & have been zipping through that; his prose has a wonderful ease to it but philosophically it always some weight to it, too. Other fiction - Steve Erickson, who also gets filed away under sci-fi but who I think of more as magical realism in the apocalyptic American style. I read all of Bohumil Hrabal's stuff a few years ago - I like the Eastern European guys, the Russian guys, the South American guys. But honestly I think I read more non-fiction and poetry than fiction. Joseph Mitchell is one of my favorites; Wallace Stegner I always liked, even though I felt obligated to read him because he writes about the western landscape ... AND he is an alumn of my high school ... AND my little cousin, Wallis, is named after him. Vollman I really like, though partly that is because he came to read at the University of Utah when I was a freshman there, and pulled out a gun loaded with blanks and shot it off at the ceiling and no one had any idea what to do with him. With poetry, I think the only genre I am allergic to is the stuff that was written between 1975 and 1990, the college-prof-takes-his-dog-for-a-walk-and-ruminates-on-students-he-is-attracted-to-and-contemplates-mortality genre. I just finished reading "Poets in Their Youth," by Eileen Simpson; she was married to John Berryman, and knew these other tragic '50s poets - Rob't Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz, R.P. Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, Theodore Roethke ... most of them went crazy or committed suicide (Berryman jumped into the Mississippi) but after reading a lot on that era, I think most of them went insane because of the times, not because they were poets. Rimbaud was the one who got me interested in poetry in the first place, but that's not remarkable - he does that to everyone.


Any filmmakers?


Guy Maddin's one I've just discovered that I really like. Emir Kusturica, especially "Time of the Gypsies." Fellini, of course. Jan Svankmejer really grosses me out, but I still like his movies. And the silly guys, Mel Brooks and that whole crew of '70s madcap guys. Robert Altman. No surprises, I guess? I'll watch just about anything. I'm trying to remember the last film I walked out of, there have been two or three. The only one I can remember really hating was "High Art," but I don't remember who made that one, but I thought it was a real barker. It had Ally Sheedy in it, and she dies from smoking heroin or something.


What was the last really good film that you saw?


This will sound funny, but it was Guy Maddin's "Heart of the World," but it's a short - and I saw it on YouTube!



You did a short called Chloe's Blanket. Where was it filmed?


In Salt Lake. It was made by Lory Smith, who's since moved to NYC to become an artist. Lory was one of the people who helped organize Sundance when it was little bitty - he wrote a book about it called "Party in a Box." I am lucky enough to have a few of Lory's paintings - he gave me one as payment for acting in "Chloe's Blanket," and I would've rather had one of his pieces than money. I don't have enough wall to hang it on right now, but when I move to a larger house part of what I am going to look for is a wall for it ...


Who did you work with on it?


Alex Caldiero, who played my dad in Plan 10. He plays a lawyer, my boss. Saundra Saperstein, who was involved somehow with the Utah Film Commission - she plays a grouchy lady lawyer. And Gyll Huff, who played Porter Rockwell in Plan 10, plays Joe the gay mailman, who poor Chloe has a raging crush on. Lory and his wife and two daughters were in the film too, for flashback scenes of young Chloe.

I have never seen it. Is it available anywhere?

I think the only person who'd have copies is Lory - you can find him at http://www.lorysmith.com/home.html .


Are you anything like the character of Lucinda in that film?


That's a funny thought, actually - people have told me that I am nothing like Lucinda. I'm probably just as hysterical and clumsy and prone to embracing conspiracy theories, but I've never spied on any neighbors dancing in their underwear, I am proud to say.


It must have been cool to be in a movie with Karen Black. She also appears in Rubin and Ed.


She adores Trent (which is easy to do!) She sings a lot, Trent wrote in that Mormon hymn bit in Plan 10 so that she could sing. He also pointed out to me that she knew just how to tilt her head to make her eyes twinkle on camera, which impressed me a great deal. The thing about Karen that I really admire is that she is so immediate and uninhibited (which is why she's a good actor, natch). We went out for Mexican food after shooting those scenes in Gilgal (with the Joseph Smith sphinx) and she and her little daughter got up in the middle of the restaurant to do the "butt dance," which is basically just waggling your butt back and forth, not much to it. But I think I'd be way too inhibited to do that. Of course, this lack of inhibition grates on some people, but I found it totally charming.


You have quite a body of work online from the late nineties. I printed up all of your articles from PIF and am in the process of reviewing them for this interview. [Forgive me for not having gotten through them all prior to writing]. Where do you publish most of your current work?


Oh, gosh, don't apologize for not having read them all ... I'm glad Pif is still around. The funny thing is that when I wrote those for Richard Luck (Pif's founder) he was living in Hawaii. I had no idea he'd ever lived in Salt Lake - I sent in some piece of writing to him, totally blind, and it turns out that he was friends with the guy I was dating at the time. Anyway, I was working for CitySearch as an editor, which was fun, but it didn't give me much of an outlet for weird little essays. I wrote them for $10 a pop or something, but it was mainly because I needed a creative outlet that was purely just creative vs. service journalism. Right now, I'm working at St. Louis Magazine, which does require some writing of service journalism, but it's balanced out by creative writing, and I get to edit the arts section, so I am happy. And then I do stuff for 52nd City. The last piece was called "The Pepperoni," and it was the true story of a woman who saved a scab for 20 years - she still has it, or at least a friend of hers has it - which is really disgusting I guess, but I thought it was fascinating - you know, why someone would do something like that.


You have a very fresh voice in your writing. Where does this come from?


Gosh, thank you. That's a huge compliment. Who knows if everyone feels this way, I feel like I am always battling this hackneyed voice in my head, trying to rewrite all the clichés out of my sentences and look at things as they really are ... which gets harder and harder the more you live in the world. It's so easy to slip into certain turns of phrase or fall back on ways of writing a sentence that feel easy & comfortable. Sometimes when I flip back through old issues of St. Louis Magazine it sets my teeth on edge, because these awful little tics and sentences that are accurate but sound like lies because of the cheesy construction or choice of words. If indeed what you say is true it's probably only the result of being horrified about how embarrassing it would be to see my name attached to the kind drivel that is published in a some mainstream women's magazines, though I would like to blame it on having an altered brain chemistry resulting from my parents' use of psychedelics before I was born.


I wanted to study English and Art at University but ended up being a Psychology major instead due to cowardice. Did you enjoy your college experience in the field I was too big of a coward to pursue?


I'm glad you are doing this site. It makes me sad to see creative people cut off from what makes them happy. Sorry to answer a question with a question - are you doing other art/writing stuff? You totally should, it is clear from this site that you are good at it. I wouldn't call what you did cowardice at all - I think there is a lot of art that gets made outside of academia that is far better than what you find *inside* the ivory tower. My college experience was a little ridiculous - I started out in linguistics because the University of Utah's English program was so theory-heavy, and I hated it. I failed miserably at linguistics (Oscar A. Phonetics still haunts my nightmares). Then I went into the actor's training program, but dropped out of that after finding out how many of the women in that program were either anorexic or bulimic ... and ended up in the good ol' English program, which was okay. So it took me forever to get through school, but I don't regret it.


A very close childhood friend of mine went to art school and I would sometimes visit him. He complained about it a lot and his stories seemed quite similar to the Dan Clowes' film Art School Confidential.


Ah, yes! Some of my pals who went to art school went blue in the face laughing at that movie. It kinda hearkens back to my beef with literary theorists, who do have their place - but these dopey hour-long arguments about what Levi-Strauss meant by this vs. this, arrgh - it seemed like such a huge waste of time. Would've been a lot more constructive to teach us about scansion or syllabics, tools you can actually use when constructing a poem. Art school is a little better than that because you have these objects - paintbrush, pencil, etc. - that you actually have to navigate in space, so you have to acquire some kind of practical skills. Really, at one time painting was considered more of a trade than a "career." That's the one thing I really love about journalism - it's more of a trade, and the pretense just goes way down when compared to poetry. St. Louis is salty & pragmatic enough to have salty, cranky, pragmatic poets, but there were some characters in the English program that drove me crazy, flitting around in their bolo ties and peasant skirts ...


Do you plan on appearing in any films again?


We'll see how Aunt Sadness pans out! And Poetry Scores is going to work on a film next year - the soundtrack is based off a poem I did a long while ago, "Go South for Animal Index" - about the atom bomb. But we haven't even scripted that yet, let alone finished the score.


If you could work with one filmmaker who would it be?


Holy cow. That's a good question ... I think Mike Leigh, the guy who did "Naked" & "Topsy Turvy" - he does a lot of improvisation with actors. And David Lynch. Maybe Mel Brooks? I wish I could say Robert Altman, who seemed to really respect & take care of his actors, even though he put them through their paces.


In an earlier email you stated that you cut out the angels for that storyboard at the beginning of Plan 10. I imagine that the film had a very tight knit family feel to it during the creation process – it is sort of reflected in it.


Yes, you're exactly right - everyone did everything, because we had to. I think if I ever ended up on a real movie set I wouldn't know what to do, I would have a compulsive need to help the grips wind up their wires or serve coffee to everyone.


Did you get a chance to meet Fred Myrow? He also composed the music for Rubin and Ed and the Phantasm films.


You know, I never did, he did all of that scoring work in Los Angeles - Trent really loves him, and that music can get me choked up immediately. It's definitely spacey, but has a kind of innocent music-box quality to it that I always loved. And of course the soundtrack for Rubin & Ed was tops too - I'll have to go look for the Phantasm films, which I haven't seen...


When I was a child I used to stare at this diffuse white backlit light panel on the stove that had a MagicChef logo on it. I used to stare at it repeatedly. I used to love turning that light on and letting that little MagicChef burn into my retina. My parents replaced the oven a few years later even though I begged them to keep that panel. I now spend an inordinate amount of time searching for vintage MagicChef stoves that I might be able to liberate one of the light panels from. What was your childhood like? Do you have any fond or eccentric memories?


I love this story about the Magic Chef stove. I will let you know if I can scavenge some nice part of a Magic Chef stove here, like I mentioned they are everywhere here, because it was their world headquarters (O, St. Louis, how the might have fallen!) I know about a half-dozen people who still use vintage Magic Chefs - apparently they are like the Cadillac of stoves. Anyway, as usual, I digress ...

Too many weird childhood memories to recount! I had a very improvised, crazy childhood - my parents are very eccentric loveable characters who were always keeping things tied together with twine and band-aids. Your Magic Chef story reminded me of my father's roll-top desk, an heirloom handed down to him from his dad (who died before I was born). It was pushed up against a wall in his office, and there was a panel on the back that, when I crawled under the desk, looked like a tiny door. My mom read "Alice in Wonderland" to me every night (I made her do it) so I was obsessed with tiny doors that would lead to some kind of magical otherworld. I was convinced, as a very little kid, that this was one of those doors, and that if I could just get to the other side of it there would be some kind of skeewampus upside-down backwards world there, like Wonderland. So I was always under his desk, tapping at the edges, gouging that wooden panel with scissors (my parents are going to kill me if they ever read this) jiggling it, trying to get it open. It didn't help that my childhood soundtrack was comprised of an endless stream of psychedelic records that my parents still played long after their release - Sgt. Pepper & whatnot - which just reinforced this belief that there was some threshold to the other side that I could find it and cross over. It wasn't like I wanted to stay there forever, but I wanted to see it first-hand. When they finally moved the desk elsewhere, I was in 3rd or 4th grade but still watched them do it because I had to confirm to myself that there was nothing there. It was horrible when emotionally I had to admit to myself that it was just a story I'd made up in my own mind. But I think that everything I've done since then has been another way to try and suss out some kind of alternate reality, some way of trying to find a way to crawl through a tiny, magical door to find an alternative to mundane reality.


You seem to gravitate towards stories that are outside the realm of everyday journalism. How do you find your subjects?


Gosh, I wish I had a better answer to this, because I might find a larger pool of interesting people to write about ... in Salt Lake, it was a little easier, because I knew everyone, and they'd say, "You really need to talk to so-and-so ... " Here, I have to keep my ear to the ground, and eventually stuff pops up. Sometimes people find me. I still find stories though the "you have to talk to so-and-so" method.


Poetry Scores sounds very cool. Do you get any grants to work on your projects or is it all a labor of love?


We're working on our 501(c) 3 status right now - and once that goes through, we'll be applying for grants like crazy! We are all doing it as a labor of love anyway - we do have fundraisers now, in fact there's one coming up this weekend, a screening of our first footage from "Blind Cat Black," followed by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with a live soundtrack by a local experimental band, SHed SHot. Right now, we end up funneling a lot of our own money into projects, and once we are able to apply for grants, it may be the same. But we do it because we love it, so I don't care if I never see a dime out of this. I'd do it anyway, paid or unpaid.


On one of your bio pages it stated that you played in a band - what instrument do you play?


Tambourim - a little Brazilian drum. I played with a samba band called Joia - they do the Mardi Gras parade here every year. If you've ever seen footage of the lovely Carnival parades in Rio, with the big groups of percussionists, that's exactly how Joia plays. They started out as a group of sambistas & then expanded that to include other music in the Afro-Cuban tradition, but it's all drums and all acoustic, usually outside - playing those big Brazilian drums indoors could blow your windows out. They have a new practice space, but we used to rehearse in an old carpet factory and you could feel the floors vibrating when everyone was drumming. I do want to state for the record that it was NOTHING like a drum circle - quite the opposite. More like a symphony. You had a very specific part that you played, and it came at a very specific point in the song. I just picked up a snare drum, which I haven't had much time to fool around with, and even though I type a lot (being a good drummer is all about having well-defined lower arm musculature) I don't have the drumming chops I used to ... there's exercises you do to build up your arms, so that you can play very quickly and precisely. And I'm sure my tambourim chops have all gone to hell!


I listened to Radioactive Cat Radio over the weekend. I really liked it. I like the way you read your poetry, your voice has a very interesting quality to it. Hard to describe - kind of innocent, kind of mischievous. When did you begin to write poetry?


My older sister worked for her high school literary magazine in high school, and because I thought she was the coolest person in the world, I started to write poetry to be like her (I was about 12 or 13). It was really awful stuff. My mom saved it, I'm sure, I'll have to look for it the next time I'm home so I can burn it up in an oil drum or something. I was lucky, though - I had the best creative writing teacher in the state when I finally made it to high school, a woman named Barbara Woll (now Murdoch) who taught us creative writing on the college level - she actually taught us poetic form, and got it through our heads that a poem is not just chopped-up prose, and it's not just whining about how sad you feel, etc. - she exposed us to the Imagists, to Shakespeare, all the good stuff. She made us keep journals, made us workshop our poems and stories and really put us through the ringer. I have her to thank that I ever learned anything about poetry at all. I'm glad you are doing this site. It makes me sad to see creative people cut off from what makes them happy. Sorry to answer a question with a question - are you doing other art/writing stuff?


I've been writing, recording, doing video and illustration since 1991. None of it has ever been published outside of my website. I have started three novels. Two of which are close to completion but were started ten years ago! [It takes me awhile but when I write I write a lot]. I met an agent at a writer's workshop and she was really nice but she sent back my story without commenting on it after she promised me that she would comment on it. I have sent in two other short stories over the last ten years but they were rejected. In 1991 a friend and I recorded some music for a short film we did for a video contest. Last year I decided to post it on download.com and people actually downloaded it. No huge numbers but enough to inspire me to start my Plaza of the Mind as a way to get something out into the universe rather than keeping it all locked away in my basement office.


I'm glad you let it free & unlocked the basement door - I think your site is pretty brilliant. As for agents, they all have their own tastes, so I wouldn't give that any consideration as far as the merit of your work. Ditto with literary mag publishers, in the last few years especially it seems like less and less comes off the slush pile and that people just publish the work of their friends and acquaintances, though that's not always true. I think it's a numbers game - blanketing magazines with submissions until you find the editor/agent with the right sensibility seems to be the approach that works with lit mags. Though that's the old world. I think the future's headed more in the direction of what you're doing, where the cultural gatekeepers will have to listen to what real people say, vs. prescribing works of art from the top down.


I graduated college ten years ago and now have a pretty decent career as a mental health therapist at the local psychiatric unit. I really do enjoy my work yet I know that deep down I need to pursue my artistic side in order to feel whole. I have never stopped creating and I hope that I never will. The dream, of course, would be to make a living doing what I love but for now my life is pretty good [though I work a bit too much]. I am really happy about the Plaza of the Mind and I think that it is a step in the right direction. Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. You don't know how much they mean to me.


My mother drilled Flower the Skunk's little aphorism - "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say nothing at all" - into my head, so I would've kept my mouth shut if I didn't think you were up to something interesting ... You should be really happy about Plaza of the Mind, it's rare to find something as complex and interesting as what you're doing; as for making a living at it, I think that just takes great perseverance ...


What is your favorite style of architecture?


The stuff that came between the fussy Victorian style and the coldness of the Modernist style - which I guess you'd call Art Deco/Art Moderne. It was inspired by Nature, like a lot of the Victorian architecture, but I find Le Corbusier and his idea of building as machine absolutely abhorrent; I think you need the softness of those natural lines, and SOME ornament. Art Deco & Art Moderne buildings are clean and streamlined, but there is still that decorative element. There's lots of it here in St. Louis, though sadly many of those buildings were razed to make way for parking lots. One of my favorite buildings here is the Wainwright Building, designed by Louis Sullivan, who is the perfect example of that in-between style. Isidore Shank's another great architect from St. Louis; there's a very peculiar building he designed here, which looks a lot like some of Frank Lloyd Wright's early stuff but has a touch of the Victorian to it still.


Did you do the cover of your CD?


Yes - there wasn't anyone else to do it! Pretty ham-fisted, it's true, but I kinda liked it.


Do you do any visual art?


My mom almost became a painter, but got a bad grade in an art class; she was so upset about it she decided to become a social worker instead. My aunt is a novelist but also a brilliant painter. My older sister (the would-be poet) is a photographer & jewelry maker. And my little sister Melanie is a brilliant artist, and is working her way towards doing it as a living. I did two pieces last year on antique windowpanes I found while alley-surfing (you'd be shocked at what people throw out of old houses here as trash - Antiques Roadshow should do a scavenger edition in St. Louis). One was a comic strip based on my friend Aaron Belz's poem, the other was for a Hoobellatoo (now Poetry Scores) art auction, based on a line from "Blind Cat Black." Someone actually bought it and hung it in their kitchen, and I was glad, because I don't have anywhere to hang it, I was afraid I'd have to take the thing home and figure out what to do with it! I have a few others I'm planning to work on, more scavenged window panes, with one image on the glass and then drawings on vellum behind so that you get a two-layered effect, and some depth to the image.


I just read your article concerning the deseret alphabet and was wondering if you have seen either of the Work and the Glory films or the Book of Mormon movie. I have recently discovered that there is a huge Mormon film selection. Did you ever get any grief concerning Plan 10 from LDS?


I've seen that crazy Imax movie they show at the Joseph Smith Center in downtown Salt Lake - the cinematography was beautiful, but I've seen photos of pioneers - Joseph Smith himself was a bit of a looker, but the rest of them looked a lot like Harry Dean Stanton on a bad day, especially the ladies. There's actually a huge underground where Mormon film is concerned. A few years ago, my friend Sam Cannon & a buddy of his screened some rather hilarious didactic films made by BYU back in the '70s & did a "Mystery Science Theater" treatment of them. The two I remember were "Johnny Lingo" (a must-see if you can get your hands on it ... you can now buy t-shirts in Utah that say "I am an 8-cow woman") & another called "Blind Love." The guy who made them was named Reed Smoot. He's worked on a number of big budget Hollywood films since. There's another called Saturday's Warrior that I am rather fond of, because it's so earnest. I think it started out as a stage play - it's a musical. Salt Lake Acting Company does a satire of it every year (or at least they used to) called "Saturday's Voyeur" that lampoons all of the big Utah stories from the past year. If they're still doing it, I'm sure Mitt Romney will get raked over the coals. Anyhow - I have to find a way to get my hands on those two films you mentioned, I'm a fan of the Mormon genre. One thing I will say is that every LDS film I've seen is absolutely superlative in terms of execution - cinematography, editing, etc. That ol' Mormon perfectionism thing.


As far as grief - only once. I was crossing the street near the Temple one day when a guy on a mountain bike rode up and started reading me the riot act, how the whole dance scene contained Temple ritual and that it was blasphemous & I should be horribly ashamed of myself, and I was probably heading for outer darkness etc. Of course, I was raised in a secular humanist household, so I had no idea. I just stood there on the street, totally bewildered, and let the guy yell until he tired himself out and sped off. Actually what I got more than yelling was folks who'd split from the church and swore to me that they had been harassed by modern-day Danites, which I found ... well, profoundly creepy.

What is your favorite part of your job?


Oh, gosh. That's easy. Traveling outside the office to go talk to people, turning on the tape recorder and listening to their stories. Tomorrow I'm talking to an artist named Max Key (I love that name). I have no idea what his story is, but I can't wait to find out. I just finished writing up a story on an artist named Edward Boccia, who's 85 and still painting every day. A curator would classify him as an Expressionist, but I think a more accurate label would be mystic. But he's a very funny mystic. I talked to him for three hours - we just sat there in his studio and drank coffee, and he told me about serving in World War II with Bill Blass the fashion designer (before he was famous). His platoon was made up entirely of art-school kids from Pratt Institute and other art schools in New York City, so they were all sketching and he said Blass had a little tiny sketchbook where he was drawing women's shoes and skirts and the like, and the rest of the guys were scratching their heads over it, but that Bill was such a nice guy, they just let him be. Anyway, I feel like listening to people's stories is a privilege and I feel lucky to be able to do it for a living.

Have you written any fiction or do you concentrate mostly on non-fiction and poetry?


I have written fiction - mostly short stories. I think I might lose my mind if I tried to write an entire novel. This may sound weird, but when I write stories I get so sucked into it, it puts me in this weird headspace where I have a hard time discerning between the story and reality - it takes over my life. It scares me a bit, to be honest. Nonfiction you're sticking to facts, so I don't get swallowed up because it's all about reality. Poetry is so short that I can just get in and out, and it comes up directly from my unconscious, so I can sort it out from real life. Because fiction is a blend of the two it's really hard for me to swim though it and feel sane. Maybe it's like that for everyone?

As for your images, do you post them anywhere on line or have you ever had a showing?


I haven't ever posted them online because I'm such a Luddite I've never invested in a digital camera. I've had two showings, I guess - one last August, with my friend Jess Dewes, who's a photographer. She made portraits of St. Louis artists, then I wrote a poem based on the photograph, then the artist made a piece of visual art based on the poem. One of the artists, though, was another poet - my friend Aaron Belz, who was in the midst of writing up his dissertation & didn't have time to make a piece of art. He gave me a poem, and I painted it. It was on an antique window pane I found while alley-surfing. There were 6 panels of glass, so I turned it into a comic strip - one of the other artists, Carmelita Nunez, took it home with her & hung it in her kitchen (I was so proud .. & relieved, I didn't know what I was going to do with it if I had to take it back home with me). The other piece was for a Hoobellatoo fundraiser, and was based on a line of poetry (see any themes here?!) from Blind Cat Black. I have a whole shed full of scavenged window panes, so I used another one. This time I used vellum (since it's semi-transparent) and did a watercolor on it, then attached it to the window and painted on the glass, just to give it some depth. I was lucky that time too, another artist took it home, Andy Tolch (who is a card-carrying Surrealist). And he hung it in his kitchen. Both shows were at Mad Art Gallery, in the brewery district here (right under the shadow of Anheuser-Busch). It cracks me up that these things end up in kitchens. I was flattered that someone wanted to actually take them home & hang them in their house ... & relieved I didn't have to take them home. Honestly, they probably both would have ended up in my basement. So I'm glad they made someone else happy. I have another round of paintings bubbling up from my unconscious, I don't really know what I'll do with them, but the whole process of making a piece of art I find very sustaining - there are no words involved, so that pure conversation with the unconscious seems to happen much more easily. I have a fuzzy idea of what the image is going to look like before I start, but by the time I'm done I'm totally surprised. I think because it doesn't involve language or the left-brain. Anyway, if they end up in someone else's kitchen, that would be nice, but only because I don't need more stuff taking up room in my basement ... I didn't go to art school, and I don't have proper training, so I would never call myself anything other than a Sunday painter - an amateur - but I still like to do it.

Media seems to be getting more and more decentralized - how do you feel about the fact that everyone has the ability to express their opinions now - for better or worse?


Personally, I am really happy about it - the political bloggers here in St. Louis have really given the powers that be a run for their money, & that's really saying something, because St. Louis is at least as bad as Chicago or New Orleans when it comes to corruption and back-door deals. Artistically I think it's great too - the Arcade Fire ending up on the Billboard Charts just being one example. I can't wait to see what happens next ...



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