Building a New Text: A Conversation with Jayme Russell
Jayme Russell is the author of two forthcoming chapbooks: PINKification (Dancing Girl Press, 2017) and PINKpoems (Adjunct Press, 2017). Her writing can also be found in Black Warrior Review, Diagram, Fairy Tale Review, and elsewhere. She received her M.A. in Poetry from Ohio University and her MFA in Poetry from The University of Notre Dame. She is a co-editor and writer at permadeathplease.com.
Jayme Russell’s poem, “Mountain Simulator,” appeared in our Razzle Dazzle! Temple Issue. Below, she talks with editor William Hoffacker about her simulated mountain, erasures, collage, Duck Hunt, and more.
Your poem, “Mountain Simulator,” is based on the indie game Mountain. The opening sections of the poem (“GENRE” and “FEATURES”) are straight from the game’s web site. What else can you tell us about the origins of your piece? How did this game come into your life, and how did it affect you?
My friend Jace started playing and was excited to show me. As soon as I saw how weird Mountain was, I had to make my own mountain. About a week into the gameplay, Jace and I agreed to write about the game separately, to see what would happen. We gave each other updates about our mountains. We planned to combine our drafts. Originally, I was even including our text messages into my writing. In the end, Jace didn’t use his piece, but I wanted to do something with mine. I removed the texts and made things a little more coherent.
I wrote whatever came to mind as I watched. Mountain is so calming because it moves slowly and there is white noise in the background. You don’t absolutely need to use your hands to play. I wrote while my mountain spun and spun, so my poem should show my stream of consciousness. The game affected me because it isn’t actually played; it is experienced. Watching is a kind of meditation.
This poem is a mix of some lines in ALL CAPS, some not, and a few in boldface. At times it seems to take the perspective of a player or observer (“I zoom out and can see the whole glowing orb”), while at other points the point of view appears to be that of the mountain (“another plane just spiraled into me”) or the game (“I am a simulator”). How many speakers are in this poem? How did you organize your ideas about the game?
To me, there are three voices in this poem, though they may all be the player. I’ve only read this to an audience once. I asked Jace and another friend of mine, Chris, to help me read, so that it was obvious that there were three voices. It really did not go well, because the audience consisted of mostly people interested in slam poetry, but I don’t regret it. Sometimes presenting new and unexpected material can be uncomfortable. When Chris read his own dense, long poem the audience was dead silent, as if they had to listen carefully to understand what this very intelligent poet was saying. The audience silence during my reading seemed to be saying this is really, really weird.
To be more specific, though, I think of the voice in plain text as the dominant voice, which is interrupted by the voice in caps. The speaker of the bold text often comments on the ideas in caps. Really, this is all me engaging with the game in different ways. I’m having a conversation with it. I often do this way in my writing. For example, I have responded to Bowie lyrics, Doctor Who dialogue, and Barbie commercials. Depending on my mood, I have different opinions and things to say about the media I interact with. Also, I loved the text within Mountain, as well as the “Saving.” I had to include it.
Your bio says that you are “drawn to visual texts and works of erasure” and that you work with “fragments of text and collage.” When you create an erasure or a collage, what type of materials do you look for and how do you find them? How did your interest in these genres begin?
A few years ago, I was reading a lot of erasure texts and poetry in which the same words kept popping up. I thought of them as fairy tale words: rose, sleep, forest, mirror, etc. I decided to work on erasures for an entire summer, focusing on building a fragmented narrative from the words that I found. I erased a variety of poems and organized my pages into different piles, according to fairy tale. The piles with the most content were about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Because I like the texture of the Wite-Out on the page, I decided to use thick white paint to create a kind of mental fugue for Snow White as she loses consciousness. I think the idea really worked for the opening of the sequence. After later trying dark blue paint and failing, I thought I could bring in color with collage as a kind of border. I sifted through old books and magazines that I found mostly in library book sales, looking for photos that made me think of fairy tales. Then, I carefully placed my erased pages on each collage and took photos in many different ways. This led to some great surprises and made me think of each sequence of poems as continually moving and shifting. The poems are whole but the camera only allows the reader to see part of this whole by moving over and around the text.
I finished organizing my Snow White sequence into a book-length manuscript and my Sleeping Beauty sequence into a chapbook-sized manuscript. I have had some really wonderful editors open to putting my work online, like Fairy Tale Review, Banango Street, Matador Review, and Deluge. However, several editors have been unable to or afraid to publish these erasures. They have had problems with my work because I refuse to cite where my materials are coming from, although I am completely complying with fair use standards. There is a negative stigma concerning erasures because some authors have made poor choices and have only erased the original author’s identity from the poems. Erasure itself has been misunderstood lately. There are some people who see erasure work as offensive to the original authors and others who believe that the original text should have a deep meaning or connection with the erased text. I see erasure as building a new text with existing materials.
Beyond Mountain, describe your relationship with video games. What’s your history with them? Any favorite games? Do you play often?
I am a Mario girl. I can glide through the original Super Mario Bros. I had the dual Mario/Duck Hunt cartridge. It’s the game that I have played the most in my lifetime. At one point as a kid I decided that I was going to beat Duck Hunt. Every level is the same and there is no saving involved. When I finished level 99 I thought I had won, but the level counter rolled over to the first level and the game continued. There weren’t any fireworks. I still find it disappointing.
My parents bought a Gameboy for me long after it had been originally released. Instead of Tetris, it came with Kirby’s Dreamland. So, I have never really liked Tetris. I became much more addicted to Dr. Mario. My other classic favorites are Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Bros. 2, and, of course, Super Mario Bros. 3.
Since having a son, I began playing more multi-player games. We have played so many hours of Mario Kart, as well as all of the PlayStation 2 Lego games: Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones. My son is a teenager now, so he doesn’t really want to play with me anymore. He would rather just talk to me about the specific details of each version of GTA. He has a PS3, PS4, PSP, and a gaming computer. He likes to tell me how horrible Nintendo is. It’s a point of contention.
What writing project(s) are you working on now?
I just wrote a strange sequence of poems from the POV of an amputated arm…
I’m interested in body horror and think it is always in the back of my mind when writing about the body. I have two chapbooks forthcoming in the next few months, entitled PINKification and PINKpoems. They are about the Barbie body and its influence on women over time. I started writing about Barbie when the new collection with different body sizes and shapes came out. In all the interviews that I watched, it was clear to me that Mattel only came out with this line of dolls because of consumer demand. It caused problems for the company. Not all of the Barbies fit in the clothes and the cars now. The bodies aren’t uniform. Mattel representatives still refuse to acknowledge that the product influences girls and their sense of body image. The new Barbies are an insincere step forward.
I am in the process of combining my two chapbook texts, adding another section that isn’t quite finished yet, and pulling everything together into a book-length whole. It’s funny that, much like “Mountain Simulator,” these poems have several different speakers, from commercial announcers to angry consumers to Barbie representatives to Barbie herself.
What have you read and/or played recently that you’d like to recommend?
I’m a poet with a day job as a children’s librarian, so I read a wide range of things. I have read the dark novel Murder Most Serene and the new YA novel Three Dark Crowns, both of which have very different but interesting descriptions of poisonings. I’m on volume 12 of 19 in the manga series Vampire Knight. I have also read Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of my Childhood), Book 2 and Algaravias: Echo Chamber. In terms of videogame-related books, I have to recommend The Mario Kart 64 Poems.
The one game that I have had time to play lately is Mario Run. It’s strange, though, that I cannot listen to the music and play. It must be something about the sound being so close to me on my phone, rather than coming from a television. Nostalgia on a new device.