Amina Cain in Conversation with Jennifer Pilch

Amina Cain is the author of the short story collection CREATURE, out with Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives in Los Angeles. 

Jennifer Pilch is the author of Deus Ex Machina: A Melodrama and winner of the 2015 Kelsey Street Press Firsts! Contest, selected by contest judge Myung Mi Kim.

AMINA CAIN: Deus Ex Machina: A Melodrama features characters from history, perhaps most prominently, Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerrotype and also the diorama theatre, and the book seems to place the reader in the space of both in very vivid ways. The reader is looking or watching as much as s/he’s reading. What is your own relationship to photography or to the diorama or theatre? And how did you come to write Deus Ex Machina?

JENNIFER PILCH: The book experienced many incarnations, the early photographic image central to them all. The final shape, Deus Ex Machina, seemed a way to “play out” my discoveries and connections made within that theme (and the decades surrounding Daguerre’s invention). Ultimately, however, my love affair with the photograph and its history (to the point of melodrama) were the catalyst for the theatrical format and title.

CAIN: Structurally, the book unfolds in a series of sections, each section named after and in the realm of its “character.” In one sense this is a book of poetry, but it also has a relationship to fiction, and, of course, a play. For you as the writer, what is character in Deus Ex Machina? How did you want to work (or find yourself working) with it?

PILCH: In my research, I went to the ends of what I could learn about each character, and I found what I perceived to be tragedy in all of them. For example, artist/inventor Daguerre was a failed painter and poet/novelist Levy committed suicide shortly after the publication of her book The Romance of the Shop at the age of 27. The idea of a play, one whose title is a plot device from Greek tragedy, seemed appropriate.

CAIN: Also in terms of structure, there’s a movement from photography and theatre to writing/literature. The last two sections are “Amy Levy” and “Thomas Hardy.” I’m curious about this, about what part “the writer” plays here, and about what writing itself might mean in the text.

PILCH: Levy and Hardy were chosen for their connection to photography. Levy had written a book, The Romance of the Shop (1888), about sisters who open a photography shop in London when the death of their father leaves them destitute. Hardy wrote the short story, “An Imaginative Woman” (1894), about Ella Marchmill–a mother and isolated poet–who falls in love with the photograph of a male poet she has never met when her family occupies a vacation home at the sea; she begins a correspondence with the male poet which ends, of course, tragically.

CAIN: I have to say, the imagery in Deus Ex Machina is stunning, as is its language. There are so many lines I’d like to quote from, but here is one: “A cursive D forms to light the darkness.” And another: “If a city can be made without scale– / You see cobbles you cannot feel.” And a third: “Divorced from my body I drag and give it up / as time for presence for prescience for luminous understanding.” And a fourth: “A fine destiny I have pinned to my collar / for now I see the incomplete, encircled all at once.” Related to this, I’m struck by the voices in the book and feel that the language makes contact with ghosts, in a way, with these other realms that include different kinds of vision. I suppose I’m offering observations here more than questions, but when you were writing the book, how did the language of it come to you, and what is its relation to the different layers that are also present?

PILCH: Thank you, Amina. I wanted a language indicative of the 19th century. But initially this language was not plotted intentionally. Rather, my fondness of the century had led me to recreate that timeframe almost like a possession, speaking of ghosts. I realized what was happening after a number of poems had already been written, before the book’s idea was conceived.

CAIN: Who are your favorite writers/photographers/performers/artists? To what books/photographs/performances/works do you feel most in conversation?

PILCH: I will speak of visual art. I am drawn to art on a grand scale, work you can inhabit. In art school, works by Rebecca Horn, Bill Viola, Christian Boltankski, Jannis Kounellis, and, especially Louise Bourgeois made an enormous impression on me. There is something performative about all of them, and the performance may also be seen is the viewer moving through the oeuvre. Perhaps Bourgeois’ Cell pieces have most inspired me–how reflective they are, literally and figuratively, how they are both emblematic of the female experience and open to interpretation, and how a piece, a cell, contains a slice of a memory or a life experience. Photographers? The list would be too long, and as far as black and white photography, would exclude no one.

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