The camera conjures as much as it contains, photography being an always-pointing medium. In this way, cameras and words are actually quite similar.
I’m only two sentences in and I’ve already messed up, conflating tool with outcome. A camera makes photos but they remain two separate things, machine and picture. Words, on the other hand, make more words, vehicle and product all wrapped up in the same gesture. Words are not pens, pieces of paper, typewriters, laptops. How to compare words to cameras with any hope for sense by the end of this? You don’t even really need any of those objects to make a poem. I can make a poem in my head and you simply have to trust me that it’s there. In this way, poems are like relationships: easily built of things you may never have access to.
Poems do not rely on tools, machines. “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” said William Carlos Williams, in the 40s. I am only one person in a long history of people conflating tool with outcome for the sake of the writing. Just give me a rock and a stone and I’ll show you a poem. A rock and a heart and a thinking mind, full of memory. A rock and a hard place. Poems are everywhere! I can make one out of anything—this shampoo bottle, this sleeping cat—and so, too, with the photograph. I could photograph anything I might possibly hope to contain. And there it exists: contained! Frame, sprocket hole, negative. Or else I put it in the poem, let it seed.
Do poems have sprocket holes? What’s the relationship between film negative and white space? And what of duplication, cropping, or auto enhance?
With words in my hands, I make more words. They self-reproduce—parthenogenesis, if you want to be technical about it. On the heels of these other words I produce more and newer ones, turning one thought into many, contradicting my meaning as if the act itself is how I pump oxygen directly into my brain. My body functions through contradiction, through conjuring and containment. I take a picture of myself and then I age beyond it. “Every picture is of you when you were younger” (Mitch Hedberg). I conjure my self in the poem. I contain my thoughts in words and the white space in between. I look at my negatives and translate them, miraculously, into positives.
The linear progression of time is an inherent factor. But on the page, I sometimes feel the true feeling of being young forever, that I am writing directly into the future from a body that remains, as if language were a vehicle that could opt out of time directly, could simply just go in another direction. Words can always go in another direction!
Once, I had a film camera with a built-in fisheye lens. This camera took all manner of pictures: the sun peeking out from behind a fire hydrant, double exposures of street signs and random fences, poorly lit indoor shots of my cats. I would soon expand to include other film cameras, cross-processing, self-development, scanning at home, exploring things like texture and expired film. But the Fisheye was where it started, taking precious selfies before the word was a category, blurry shots of someone’s leg, a car driving by a little too slowly for a slow shutter. Always get closer to the object, or whatever they say. So I, the subject, would try, regardless of circumstance.
I used my Fisheye camera to make photos, sometimes with a lot of intention, sometimes without. I would line up the lens directly in front of a brick wall, click the shutter, flip a manual switch and take another photo, creating the illusion that flowers could grow not just before the wall but inside its top layer. With this camera I became a surgeon. Aren’t all artists trying to infiltrate our organs, working from the inside out, disrupting the safety of forms?
Then again, form gives you something to bounce off of, containers sometimes providing a method for setting aside dedicated space in which to invent. In a truly free, formless space, it would be very difficult to get close to anything. You would just float, pained and unsure of yourself, unsure of where you’re going or why.
With that Fisheye camera I became a doctor. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed with my power to create that I did not even think twice—click, click—just walked around my town, my neighborhood, my place of employment—click, click—as if I couldn’t be bothered with details, lighting, angles, outcomes. I was in love with the process. I was in love as if I’d made a baby. Every word that came out of her mouth, every new shaking of her chubby little baby arms, every diaper change was enough to blow my heart wide open: this didn’t exist, and now it does. I built albums and albums of photos, including the bad ones, made scrapbooks, the occasional larger print. It was the act of making that I couldn’t get enough of, the dynamic relationship between tool and product, this little machine nestled in my hearthands. Creation transforming into nourishment. In parental terms it was a total disaster, me wanting and needing my babe so much more than it could ever need me. But when your baby is art, it’s okay to not be careful.
The surgeries grew more and more laborious, and I soon switched tools. I took less photos and I wrote and wrote and wrote instead, filling up my time with my language, forcing the two to meet in the middle. Aren’t all poets folding language into time, creating the sense that you’ve aged, that you’ve transported, that you’ve grown shorter or taller in the space of a few lines, a space in which it is difficult to take change for granted? Poems, too, can shift organs, can induce electric shock, can resuscitate the sick, unwell, starving body that reads them.
For a long time, I made my poems in the same vigorous way that I made my photos. Have I stopped? Have I grown satiated, tired, burned out? Have I found new ways to perpetuate abandonment? Conjured and then contained so much of me that I no longer recognize myself beyond the page, no longer have anything to write about, no life to translate into words and empty spaces. Am I living all the white space already, the occasional Oh and metaphor shaping my small life, getting smaller? And what about my own organs? Do I need medical help?
It is hard, in case you haven’t noticed, for me to think about my relationship to tools and making without also thinking about my relationship to myself. I’m talking about an attention that is pre-selfcare industry, just a girl and her body, not getting along. Wishing each other were different, trying so hard to synchronize tool with result. Trying to conjure the most photogenic parts. To contain, to write past, all the overdeveloped stuff.
The space between taking a photo and developing the film, seeing the result—there is this period of time in which you are forced to not know. You are allowed to not know. What relief! Like the space right after the interview, the submission, the attempt: that momentary feeling of having nothing to do because you’ve already done it. A contentedness born despite, or is it precisely through, unknowing.
I will tell you a secret: this is the same content found in writing. No matter how the words grow and double on the page before you, the poet learns to be comfortable with the act of seeing words and still not knowing. Writing is itself a gesture of reaching, whether in panic or to pass the time, to make sense of things but never so much that you bypass all waiting, all development. There is always more, and you have to continue writing regardless. You have to get used to not knowing ahead of time, as they say, even when “ahead of time” really just means you’re in the muck of writing writing writing, when ahead is entirely in the middle and the only way out is through.
It does not always come out correctly from the start. You don’t always get the shot on the first click. You wouldn’t blame the camera—so, too, you must bring a spirit of generosity to language, acknowledging the downside of such expansiveness, its ability to contain nonsense without shame.
I could just as easily be suspicious of words instead of pouring all this time into defending them. Often enough I’ve held a light up to their shiny scared faces, wondering where they’ve really been; wanting desperately, as if I could solve the heartache of the world, to just get to the bottom of their intentions.
I began taking less photos not through some active decision or profound refusal. I just became less interested in that kind of building. Through words, one directly discovers, in a way that simultaneously suggests invention. Was it there or did I make it? I began to search for some greater form of equity through the bypassing of visual consumption. I had become exhausted by visual consumption, having grown so accustomed to certain public discourses, to common descriptions of my own female trajectories, visual-based value, misogyny seeping out of all the cracks and corners, in fact I still sometimes struggle to recognize myself at all. This is an image of me when I was younger, except I’m still there now, waving at the camera, hoping my eyes aren’t closed when I swore I had them open. This is me on the page, happily confusing my body with something else. Say it enough and the thing becomes true, or at least becomes history.
In the kitchen the other night, I peeled and roasted beet after beet, in the mess of it and without a proper vegetable peeler, only to come away slightly deflated when I saw the purple-red wash off my hands instantly and entirely. I wanted to come away stained. I’d already started imaging how money would look being passed from my hands, though first I’d have to get some. This is what I’m talking about: I am exhausted! By looking and by paying for things. Some days I just want to write a poem, the body within it, gendered or not, seen but mostly through metaphor. Metaphor is a lovely way to give your eyes a much-needed rest. Metaphor is like a hammock. It represents so much more than what it is, just string and netting and some available trees. Some days I want to close my eyes and write until my hands hurt. Some days I want to push the lens directly onto the paper, trace its perfect roundness with a pen, spend the afternoon looking at the world one page at a time while the trees hold me up. It is the thinnest of filters, poetry. It is a good method for getting close.