Heaven is a Photograph: Interview with Poet and Photographer Christine Sloan Stoddard

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“Heaven is a Photograph” is a new poetry and photography collection by artist, actress, and writer Christine Sloan Stoddard. The book consists of photographic images accompanied by free-verse poems framed within the experiences of the character of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. She feels drawn to photography—her father is a war photographer—and yet also uncertain of her use of it, her ability to carve a path using it as a medium. According to the official press release:

This collection of narrative poems and photographs tells the story of an art student and her journey of doubt, longing, and questioning. Join her as she finds her power behind the lens.

Christine’s previous book, “Naomi & the Reckoning,” was similarly impactful and memorable. Whilst it contained several powerful free verse poems, the short novelette at the end of the book entitled “Naomi” was its true gem. Funny, honest, and beautifully written, the character of Naomi is fully formed, likable, sympathetic and vulnerable making it a shame that we only get to spend a few pages on her story. Christine’s writing is compelling and although she typically works within the realm of poetry, her short story leaves one wanting much more.

Author, actress, poet and visual artist Christine Sloan Stoddard is the founder of Quail Bell Press & Productions. Christine has published several books. She is a Visible Poetry Project filmmaker, Table Work Press award-winning playwright, and Puffin Foundation emerging artist. She has also been the premiere artist-in-residence the at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Public Library at the Eastern Parkway Branch, and the 1708 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia. She is a graduate of The City College of New York (CUNY) and VCUarts.

Christine recently discussed her career and her latest publication via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in photography and poetry and why did you decide to combine them?

Christine Sloan Stoddard (CSS): My love for photography and poetry has the constant flow of a roaring river after a heavy rain. I’ve gravitated toward art and creative writing in general since childhood. My parents are creative and made it impossible for me to be anything but. I started winning awards as a wee one. By high school, I had a whole body of published and exhibited work, with some performed on stage. Teen Ink, a national literary magazine for middle and high school students, was a huge champion of my writings, drawings, digital art, and collages. But there were others, including university journals and university-sponsored competitions.

When one of my high school poems was selected for Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers, a book later reviewed in The New York Times, I started to think more seriously about having my own books published one day. Up until then, I focused on the publication of individual pieces in magazines, journals, and ‘zines. I’m lucky that I had mentors who helped me see that book publication was possible. A few wonderful college professors and other mentors motivated me to look beyond books, gallery walls, and the stage. The lines between art forms really are blurring more and more. I’m so excited by my current interdisciplinary practice. In quarantine, so much has gone virtual, and while there are certainly things to mourn, we should rejoice for the new creative possibilities.

I combined photos and poems in Heaven is a Photograph so readers can bear testament to the conversation occurring between the words and images. It’s a meta move. The story is about a young woman finding herself as an artist and photographer, so it makes sense for the reader to get a glimpse of her photographs.

MM: How personal is the content in this book and the character you created to frame the work within?

CSS: My father is a photojournalist, my mother is a housewife, and I did go to art school, but my protagonist and I are different people. I crafted this character based upon the paradox so many young artists feel: our impulse to create and our fear of creation. I have a lot of empathy for my protagonist. My empathy, coupled with my imagination, largely wrote the book.

MM: What’s your favorite photograph and poem in the book. Why?

CSS: My favorite photo is the last one because it’s mysterious. It speaks to the mystery and mythology that shrouds the act of art-making. I do think there’s a lot of mystery that goes into making art. As much as I try to explain my work in interviews, essays, and artist statements, there are things I can’t explain. But mystery doesn’t have to involve so much fear. Many artists struggle with reconciling the mystical mystery of art with their fear and longing. This struggle can be petrifying.

My favorite poem in the book is “Unrequited Pixels.” It speaks to the longing artists have to make art, as well as how presenting art can be like giving someone a gift. It’s the gift of insight into the artist’s mind and soul. If successful, this gift may impact the viewer’s mind and soul.

MM: How long did it take to complete this book and how did you find the publisher?

CSS: I already knew the publisher because they had previously published one of my short stories in their anthology Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired By Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath. I worked on Heaven is a Photograph over the course of a semester in grad school, submitted it to CLASH Books, and had it swiftly accepted. About a year and a half after that, the book was published. The poems remained unchanged from the original manuscript, but we did have some back and forth about which photos to include. I had so many options!

MM: You founded your own company, Quail Bell Magazine, so how has that endeavor impacted your creativity?

CSS: Founding Quail Bell Magazine, the namesake project of Quail Bell Press & Productions, has been such an empowering experience. Since college, Quail Bell has provided me with a means of production, as well as a platform and a community. In undergrad, I was keenly aware of the odds stacked against me. There are so many gatekeepers in arts and entertainment. I vowed to learn how to produce my own work, while still submitting work for consideration. Honestly, my business courses in undergrad became a huge asset. Through campus extracurriculars and independent study, I learned a lot about grant proposals, pitch presentations, query letters, and other stuff that’s frankly boring but essential. The business particulars allow creative work to actually reach an audience.

I never wanted more powerful producers, publishers, production companies, and institutions to ultimately decide whether I would create or not. Many young people get discouraged when they hear ‘no,’ or are too intimidated to submit their work in the first place. I know the sting of rejection, but I also know the validation of acceptance. Though that validation feels good, it doesn’t outweigh the satisfaction I get from producing my own work. Different projects have different needs. Sometimes I need to be the producer; other times, someone else does. Either way, I want my work to reach its audience.

I’m lucky that places like the Queens Botanical Garden, the New York Transit Museum, The Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, the New York Poetry Festival, and other big brands have wanted to showcase or host my work. But even if they didn’t, I would still create. I will never, ever allow someone else’s decision determine whether I create or not. My creativity is my power and that makes it sacred.

MM: Does your work as an actress inspire your writing at all or visa versa?

CSS: Definitely. A writer creates stories, an actor interprets them. Or, more specifically, an actor interprets a character within a story. I consider myself a writer first, but my willingness to perform has allowed me to bring my stories to life. Sometimes you can’t wait for others to produce your work—you have to do it yourself! I also act in the works of other playwrights and filmmakers from time to time. During quarantine, I’ve done Zoom plays for Melanie Maria Goodreaux’s “The White Blacks” (Theater for the New City), Amanda DeLalla’s “The Cost of Conquest” (The Dramatists Guild of America), and of course for you, Meagan, when Donna Morales and I performed your play “A Soul to Squeeze” for the Riant Theatre. I was quite happy we could bring the play to its feet at the Long Island Theatre Collective’s socially distanced Fall Fest, too. And I’m looking forward to producing it for Zoom as a Quail Bell production.

MM: What other books have you published and what are they about?

CSS: Well, I’ve been busy in this regard! Publishing has its ups and downs, but I’m always grateful when someone believes in my work. And, of course, I’m indebted to my readers, too.

The next book I have coming out is Two Plays, which features my play “Mi Abuela Queen of Nightmares,” as well as “True Believer,” a play by Justice Hehir. Our plays are the winners of a national playwriting competition Table Work Press hosted last year. “Mi Abuela Queen of Nightmares” is a dramatic retelling of my poetry chapbook by the same title, which was released by Semiperfect Press in 2017. It deals with trauma and mythology through a familial lens. A young woman tries to understand her mother’s obsession with her long-dead grandmother, only to uncover a dark secret that haunts her own life.

Naomi & The Reckoning is my first published novelette. This novelette follows Naomi, a young woman with a physical deformity living in Richmond, VA. Struggling with body acceptance all her life, Naomi also comes from a strict religious upbringing. Purity culture further complicated her relationship with her body and, now recently married, she can’t find sexual satisfaction. Currently, I am producing an audiobook version, as narrated by Donna Morales, and also turning it into a film.

Desert Fox by the Sea, winner of Four Chambers Press prize in fiction, is a collection of short stories and narrative poems from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. The publisher described it as such: “Through the voices of a diverse cast of women, simultaneously real and mythological, Christine Sloan Stoddard’s Desert Fox by the Sea addresses issues of racism, sexism, shame, social inequality, personal identity—all in gorgeous verse and riveting prose. These are tales of modern tragedy, unflinching in their struggle, honesty, and art.”

My books Belladonna Magic: Spells in the Form of Poetry and Photography and Water for the Cactus Woman are both poetry and photography collections. Yet they don’t have a linear narrative like Heaven is a Photograph does. Water for the Cactus Woman is dear to me because it was my first-ever full-length poetry collection and it won a university prize during my MFA days. It’s a bilingual English-Spanish work and explores the interwoven narratives of fictional Latinx and mixed-race women. Belladonna Magic is English-only and a lighter, airier work that celebrates women, their bodies, and the feminine in nature.

Hispanic & Latino Heritage in Virginia is a nonfiction book whose title pretty much sums it up. This book, inspired by my upbringing as the daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant in Virginia, provides a quick overview of Hispanic and Latino influences on the Old Dominion. I wrote the book before I moved to New York City and it was published right as I was settling into my new home.

I’ve had a number of chapbooks published, as well. One of my favorites is The Tale of the Clam Ear (AngelHouse Press). The Tale of the Clam Ear is the story of a mermaid and her struggle to accept her deformity; it offers a child’s magical rationale for not fitting in. Jan Conn’s review of Clam Ear appears in Arc Poetry Magazine 89’s print edition. You can find out more about my books here.

MM: How have you been keeping yourself and your fans entertained during the coronavirus lockdown?

CSS: In many ways, I’ve proceeded as normal. Pre-pandemic, I often spent a lot of time by myself, dreaming, researching, writing, and creating. I completed my MFA in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice at The City College of New York. After holing myself up in the studio, art facilities, and libraries for two years, self-isolation is nothing new. Prior to grad school, I completed a few artist residencies. Same deal there: keeping to myself for hours on end was typical. I found alone time necessary for readying my mind and steadying my hand. When I did go out in public, I relied heavily on the energy reserve I had built during my alone time. Art receptions, poetry readings, plays, film screenings, and other creative events take a lot out of me. I love them, but I need ample time to myself before big events. I have missed events during lockdown. Though smaller, socially distanced events have been popping up, they’re not the same. I’m looking forward to the day when we can safely gather for events as we did in the past.

During lockdown, I’ve been keeping fans entertained by releasing new films and videos, posting photos of paintings, and releasing books through Quail Bell Press.

My short film Bottled, released during quarantine, is now available on Amazon Prime Video and will be premiering at the New York Long Island Film Festival this month. My short film Drunken History, which was written and narrated by my friend Ben Nardolilli, is now available on Amazon Prime Video UK. During the first week of lockdown, I forged a new partnership with musician John Davis and directed 13 videos using his music. All but three of the videos were made entirely via remote collaboration. The compilation of all 13 videos is called Virtual Caress and made its premiere on the NPower Network, a Roku channel. Then there are videos of Zoom plays, poetry readings, and more that lockdown has necessitated. I was especially excited to produce my comedy play “Cyber Cinderella” for Zoom during quarantine.

I’ve been posting photos and videos related to my paintings on social media (mostly Instagram @artistchristinestoddard). Some of these paintings are related to book and animation projects I’m developing; others are stand-alone pieces. As the artist-in-residence of HeartShare Human Services of New York, I regularly make paintings for virtual workshops for adults with disabilities. I might make three small paintings in a single day! I’m also working on commissions for various clients. I just finished a watercolor inspired by a Nikki Giovanni poem and am on mural #3 of a 10-piece mural series due by the end of the year.

The books I’ve released through Quail Bell Press during this time include Her Plumage, The Book of Quails, and The Ghost of Maidenhood. Her Plumage is an anthology of women’s writings from Quail Bell Magazine, and ranges from the humorous to the dark. The Book of Quails, illustrated by the talented Sami Cronk, is a children’s book about quails—yes, the chubby little birds. The Ghost of Maidenhood is an erotic novella with a modern re-telling of A Christmas Carol based in Brooklyn.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

CSS: I hope to keep creating, expressing myself, and telling stories. As always, I have several projects in the works. Right now I’m most looking forward to shooting my film Brooklyn Burial this fall and completing post-production on other film and video projects. I’m shopping around manuscripts and plays and discussing painting commissions with potential clients, too. As much as possible, I’m living in the moment while remaining optimistic about the future.

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To learn more about Christine, visit her official website: www.worldofchristinestoddard.com