By Paul Adams
Awst Press sat down with featured author Chelsea Martin for an interview, and we're happy to introduce readers to her thoughts on art, literature, labels, and hand-modeling.
I'd like to start by asking about your reading; what are you in the middle of right now?
I just got my hands on Last Mass by Jamie Iredell and have just flipped through it. It looks insane.
And what was the last book you read that genuinely excited you?
I got to read a galley of Paulina & Fran by Rachel B Glaser. I was really excited to read it and was continuously surprised and inspired by it.
Can you tell us a little about Paulina & Fran? What was so surprising?
The book follows a couple of art students who are equally attracted to and repelled by each other, and how that dynamic plays out for them even after losing touch completely. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be, and I kept feeling surprised by where the book went. It is out on Harper Perennial Sept 1.
What about the under-appreciated or under-recognized? Is there anything recent that really moved you but didn't get the attention it deserved?
So many small press books don’t do as well as I want them to. I guess one example would be Sarah Jean Alexander's Wildlives. I was hoping to see a lot more hype about it.
Well, it's not too late for you to hype it a bit. What's most remarkable about Wildlives?
What is striking to me is that each poem seems to simultaneously embody all of these contradictory emotions: sad, serious, silly, playful, surreal, poignant, apathy, strength, weakness. Like a poem’s tone and meaning could change completely depending on the reader’s mood.
If we could pivot to your own work for a second, I wanted to ask about your current projects. What are you writing at the moment?
I'm working on a novella about an artist who loses contact with her mother and whose life then sort of spirals into chaos, as well as a collection of personal essays.
About your own life?
The essays? Yeah.
One thing I admire about your work is that its able to resonate with the reader's common human experience while simultaneously pursuing those very precise and personal examinations. How do you tease out those "universal themes"?
Thanks. I think most decisions and behaviors come from a basic desire to feel understood. Becoming a CEO of a massive company, talking to a homeless person at a bus stop, wearing makeup to the gym, telling a friend about your unsuccessful attempt at flirting, only wearing clothes that your parents give you... these are all examples of trying to communicate to others who we are, or how we see ourselves.
I like to focus on the tiny, almost trivial examples of this, because they feel so personal and intimate and at the same time illustrate this much larger truth.
So the universal can be found in anything?
I think so, if you give it enough of a chance.
What can you tell me about your book Introduction to Hand-Modeling?
The book is, on the surface, a tips and tricks manual for aspiring hand models. But within the lotion recipes and hand exercises, the author’s personal story is revealed, along with some of the dark relationships she’s made within the industry.
You've written about hand-models, independent arms going away to college, a dental prosthetic...is there something about individual limbs or disembodied parts in isolation that attracts you?
I also did a series of floating arm illustrations for an early chapbook, Dream Date I don’t know. Maybe that's something I'm unconsciously dealing with.
We've had several people featured who work in multiple genres, but I think you may be the one who is most accomplished in the most disparate forms: fiction, poetry, comics, illustration, screen-writing, films, and you even started a design company. Do you have one artistic identity that trumps the others?
I don't really feel that my work is that disparate, honestly. I work in different mediums but I feel I'm coming from a similar place regardless of where or what I'm working in. I guess 'artist' is the term I feel most okay with. I like that it is really broad and almost meaningless.
Is that also what you'd like people to call you?
Thinking about yourself in labels limits what you expect yourself to do. Nonfiction, fiction, poetry, comic artist, graphic designer, conceptualist, minimalist… These kinds of descriptions seem more limiting than useful, for someone who is creating work.
I think labels can be useful when talking about other peoples’ work, and I'm fine with people using any of those terms to describe my work if it helps them communicate or find meaning, but I don’t identify with any of them or prefer my work be described any certain way.
You're definitely our first cartoonist. Can you tell us about Heavy-Handed?
Heavy-Handed is a comic I published bi-weekly on The Rumpus for a little over a year, I think. It was a mostly complete piece of writing when I started turning it into comics. I had been working on it for a while, but it never felt complete, so I decided to try it in the comic form. I had always wanted to try to do a comic, and even though it wasn't what I had planned for that particular project, I think it worked.
What was it like creating a biweekly comic for The Rumpus?
I contacted The Rumpus after I made just a few of them, and they put me on for the biweekly comic. It was really challenging to turn them around so quickly, even with the text already written. I think it was really good for me to have the challenge of the constant deadline.
Do you think we'll ever see a Heavy-Handed book, or was being a webcomic essential to its identity?
The project changed a lot as I made them... that's one difficult thing about publishing before a project is finished. I couldn't go back and edit, I had to commit to what I'd done. The story changed so much for me that the rest of my material didn’t work. So I stopped before the project was complete. I'd like to finish and put a book out at some point, maybe.
Would you consider returning to the comics form?
I think I'll work in comics again at some point. I don't have any projects in mind but I love the form. It's a huge undertaking though, so I think I'd like to be more prepared next time.
How do you think comics are doing at this time, in terms of vitality and respect from the literary community?
My impression is that comics and graphic novels are being taken more and more seriously. There are a lot of exciting things coming out.
Speaking of literary communities, how influential have online literary communities been in your development as a writer and artist?
I think being aware of online communities that support writing has made me more productive. It’s not always easy to find people IRL who are excited about reading, unfortunately. Having these large communities talking about and publishing and sharing writing is really encouraging.
I don't know, despite feeling supported by "online people" I've never really felt a part of an online community... I think it may be part of my personality to reject being connected to a group of people.
But with so many great artists working today, it can be a challenge to find your audience. Can they help with that?
Online communities are valuable in that sense. I think the real advantage online communities have is that outsiders can listen in on discussions without being invited or involved. Anyone can benefit from these conversations if they’re interested.
Of all your writing and art, what are you proudest to have created?
I feel pretty equally proud of and embarrassed by almost all of my work.
Ok, but what about the test of time: if one of your works could go in a time capsule to represent this era in human history, what would it be?
I think if I were actually doing a time capsule I would put something really dumb that was only meaningful to me.
(Follow this link to Chelsea's image. Viewers may find this image objectionable, so we've moved it to a separate, stand alone page designated NSFW. The intent is to support the author without censoring while giving viewers the choice of seeing it or not.)
Yikes! Any context we should know about?
I was asked to take this image off my website a few years ago, after accepting a new job. I took it down and felt bad about my integrity ever after.
Well, we don't have to put that explanation in the capsule. Retain an air of mystery. Thanks so much for doing the interview, Chelsea. Before we go, I just wanted to give you the chance to leave us with some parting words or wisdom, thank-yous, shout-outs, or record corrections. What else is on your mind?
I think I’d like to keep this air of mystery going, so I’m just going to link this video and not explain myself.