Pity the Animal: A Q&A with Chelsea Hodson
Author photograph by Daniel Shea
I first met Chelsea Hodson when I was an Undergraduate Writing Fellow at Bennington’s MFA residency in June. I heard her recite one of her poems at a student reading, and I was struck by the precision of her language and her capacity to hold the audience’s attention—a combination I’ve found to be rare, especially at public readings. Our ensuing discussions were of the literary sort, focused on poetry and the genre known as the “lyric essay”—which blurs the boundaries between poetry and prose, creating something fresh and wholly experimental. It was an exciting discovery that we shared such common interests, as I had taken a course on the lyric essay with faculty member Mark Wunderlich the previous term.
Hodson, an MFA candidate at Bennington (she will graduate in 2017), teaches nonfiction in the workshop program run by Electric Literature and Catapult in New York. Her poems and essays have been published (or are forthcoming) in numerous literary journals like Black Warrior Review, Hobart, The Scofield, The Austin Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Lifted Brow. Her second chapbook, Pity the Animal, originally published by Future Tense Books in May 2014, is an unapologetic, thought-provoking exploration of human submission and commodification that has gained well-deserved attention since its release. Much to my delight, I was able to raise questions about the book and its creation with the author herself.
My Q&A with Chelsea, posted below, illuminates the work of one of the finest young writers in New York and the other writers who have influenced her, both at Bennington and in the literary world at large.
Literary Bennington: From previous conversations I know that you’ve been a part of the literary and publishing world for quite some time. Has that always been an aspiration of yours? If so, what inspired you to pursue your career path?
Chelsea Hodson: It’s only been a part of my life in the past few years, since I began freelancing—the literary world was a mystery to me for a long time. Growing up, books seemed like magical things that wrote themselves. I wrote little books about dogs for myself, and then in high school I made ‘zines about music. I wrote for the school paper and I liked that OK, so I went to college for journalism. I enjoyed my classes, but I could tell I didn’t actually want to be a journalist. I wanted to write poetry, so I did, then I graduated with my journalism degree, and then I moved to New York, because it seemed like a thing people do when they have an idea of what they want but don’t know how to get it.
I had a tough time when I first moved here, but the more seriously I took my writing, the better things got, and the better I felt.
LB: How has your experience in Bennington’s MFA program influenced your work? Are there any specific instructors, visiting faculty members or writers, that have had an impact on you?
CH: I’m really enjoying the program. I’d considered getting my MFA for a few years, but I only applied to Bennington once I felt I had a book of essays in mind I wanted to complete. I’ve had great experiences in the past with mentors, deadlines, and structure, so I thought it might help me produce better work more efficiently, and so far that’s been mostly true. I really struggle to balance schoolwork and freelance work, but it’s great to send those 30-page packets off each month, knowing I put the time in.
I’m working with Peter Trachtenberg this term, and he’s been an excellent editor of my work. In early drafts, I have a bad habit of including lines that sound good out loud but don’t benefit the essay overall, so he’s been helping me to break that habit, amongst others.
I really enjoyed having Sarah Manguso on campus for her lecture and commencement speech in June, since I was her student years ago and I admire her tremendously. I also was very impressed by Benjamin Anastas’ lecture on Muriel Spark, Mark Wunderlich’s lecture on Rainer Maria Rilke, and April Bernard’s lecture on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Coming home from the residency is terrible for me—I resent the rest of the world for about a week, but eventually I get back to work.
LB: What approach or approaches do you find most useful when running your workshops as a teacher?
CH: I like to keep the workshopping short—30 minutes per person. I find that the feedback can begin to tend toward the tedious and/or repetitive after that point. I like to keep it as creative and constructive as possible without becoming too prescriptive. And beyond workshopping, I like to include mini-lectures on things like aphorisms, writing about the body, and poetry’s influence on the lyric essay.
LB: If there is one piece of advice you’d give to young writers, what is it?
CH: I’m not sure what advice I have to offer—how about my favorite James Richardson aphorism instead: “The worst part of fear is not knowing what to do. And often you only have to ask What would I do if I were not afraid? to know what to do, and do it, and not be afraid.”
LB: Your chapbook Pity the Animal examines notions of human submission and commodification by using performance art, sugar daddy websites, wild animals, window displays, and even a YouTube video about Grand Theft Auto 5. What drew you to these specific reference points? Did you have them in mind as you started the essay, or did they develop as the project developed?
CH: They’re all topics and sources that slowly came together over the course of a year as I wrote the essay. I began writing about performance art and porn in a kind of academic, impersonal way, and it just wasn’t working. Once I began writing about my personal experiences with my own body and desires, the essay opened up and became alive to me in a way it wasn’t before. Once I realized I would be horrified to put the essay into the world, I thought, maybe that’s a good thing.
LB: The chapbook includes references to a range of texts including Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Selling Service with the Goods, Joseph Delmont’s Catching Wild Beasts Alive, as well as Freudian notions involving identity. What drew you to these specific thinkers and their work?
CH: Again, these are all sources I came to as I began expanding the personal narrative of the book. I wanted to explore the line between human, animal, and object, so I began researching at the library. The books that ended up being most interesting to me were hunting memoirs and instructional books from the 1920s about how to structure a proper window display (for rifles and vacuum cleaners, amongst other things).
LB:Pity the Animal is also a thorough exploration of the relationship between gender, both physical and mental aspects, performance, and its pervasive influence on the economy. Were there any writers, particularly feminist writers, whose concepts you incorporated into your work that aren’t explicitly mentioned?
CH: Oriana Small (aka Ashley Blue) wrote a porn memoir called Girlvert that I think had a large influence on the chapbook. Her prose is fearless and absorbing—I couldn’t put the book down. I had a similar experience with Tampa by Alissa Nutting, which I also read while writing Pity the Animal. Even though Tampa is a novel, I found a lot of inspiration in the female narrator writing about her most despicable desires.
LB: The work of the performance artist Marina Abramović is referenced throughout your essay and its impact is profound in your examination of the relationship between the female body, submission, and responsibility. Is she an artist that you’ve always admired? Have you always been drawn to her work?
CH: My first experience with Marina Abramović’s work was her retrospective at MoMA, The Artist is Present, which I wrote about. I attended that show several times without ever wanting to sit across from her, I just really felt connected to the simplicity of the piece and the energy in the room as she performed.
After that, I read every book about her I could find. I felt I could have never written the chapbook without her work, so I sent my chapbook to the Marina Abramović Institute when it was published—just as a gesture, I suppose. I never expected anything to happen from that, but I was soon invited to be a collaborator with the Institute, and a few months later, I was hired to be a performance facilitator for Marina’s six-week show Generator—her first solo exhibition since The Artist is Present.
It was surreal to go from studying her work and writing about her to being trained by her and assisting with her show (my job mainly consisted of blindfolding people and guiding them into a space of sensory deprivation). In my chapbook, I wrote about observing Marina performing the mutual gaze, and then a few months later, Marina was training me to do the exercise myself. I felt transformed by the experience, and I think I became bolder as a result.
Marina and the Institute helped me stage and livestream my first long durational performance, “Inventory: Under Objects Under Oath,” at the Imagine Science Film Festival, which lasted over seven hours. It was a really great lesson for me about putting things into the world—maybe no one will read it, or maybe exactly the right person will read it.
LB: Do you have other upcoming projects that you are currently working on? Do they address similar ideas present in Pity the Animal?
CH: I’m writing a book of essays, and the themes are still unfolding as I write.