A hybrid forms person: Meet PN's nonfiction editor Rachel May
Rachel May, the newest nonfiction faculty member at Northern, just celebrated the release of her latest work, The Benedictines: A Novel, along with recently exhibiting a selection of her [quilts + text] at the Peter White Library. Rachel May also happens to know a piece of highly classified information about Rufus Wainwright through a very close and reliable source but unfortunately she’s not at liberty to share it, though she did agree to spend a Monday afternoon wandering the shoreline of Little Presque Isle Park with me, discussing artistic inspirations, creative boundaries, and why she’d love to cover a gallery in large swaths of fabric. [Seriously though, she really can’t tell you anything about Rufus.]
Jenna Quartararo: What were your first impressions of Marquette upon arrival? (You mentioned it was mostly snow, yes?)
Rachel May:I got here in late January last year, landing in the midst of a snowstorm. The airport was tiny! There was a garage door through which our luggage was delivered! The snow blew sideways! I remember Professor Wendy Farkas picking me up at the airport, hopping into her truck, and driving through snowy darkness into town. We commiserated about writing dissertations. I thought people were nice here, and it was cold. I still think the same things, but now I've had a chance to see how beautiful the land is -- the pine trees along the lake, the trails through the woods, the hike to the top of Hogback. I love those places.
JQ: Has this setting impacted your writing or your process at all? Do you feel more inspired with your visual or written work here?
RM: Something happens in very remote places, even when they're bustling small towns like Marquette -- a sense of quiet, settling into the writing. It's taken awhile to adjust to all the newness, but now that I have, I love coming back to the pine trees after I've been away, and going for a hike with my dog and returning home to a coffee-and-writing afternoon.
JQ: What are you reading these days?
RM: I'm reading a lot of slave narratives and books about the history of slavery, for the book I'm working on. Also, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, one of those classics I missed along the way and am loving, along with Jennifer Percy's Demon Camp, Dianne Hale's Mona Lisa, (re-reading) Jamaal May's Hum, Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad House, and Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You.
JQ: Since you're both a visual artist and a writer, tell me about how one practice influences the other, whether your process overlaps for each? You'd mentioned that more so now they are tending to overlap, could you explain a bit? What do you feel are the strengths to each medium in your work?
RM: For a while, the image-text pieces were combined but remained self-contained -- so, an image was here, text was here. Now, they overlap and interweave. I'm sewing words into quilts, embroidering a story with images onto cloth, and overlaying or intertwining images on a page with text, either sewing onto paper or manipulating images of my sewn work in design programs with the text. I'm interested in what happens when text-iles are more intimately connected, when they rely more heavily on each other to make a narrative.
JQ: What types of stories are you drawn to, both as a reader and writer? Do you get a sense when a story first strikes you whether it would be better suited to visual or written texts, or does it take a lot of experimentation with both?
RM:Energy! The sense of a text taking off! I love lyricism, powerful language, a voice that rumbles and races forward. & Mmmmmm.....No, I don't know just when a piece is meant to be visual or written. I work on so many sewn things at once, and I move (physically) between my writing and sewing tables. So, something happens as I move my hands to sew, cut fabric, unwind thread, that makes the image of what I'm going to make turn up in my mind. And sometimes it has words in it, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's art and sometimes it's more functional. Sometimes, I go to my computer and write. But inevitably, the two -- sewing and writing -- end up in a piece together, in some form or another. Right now, I'm working on a giant sewn story that works in sewn "vignettes," which I think I'll also translate to the page.
JQ: Could you re-describe that dream project of yours you were telling me about? It sounded so cool, I want to be sure I have the details correct!
RM: I made a series of small sewn postcards a couple of years ago, and one of my mentors, Annu Matthew, suggested blowing them up to turn them into large-scale installations. I'm planning to work on them this summer, when I have the time and someone who can help with the installation tools and skills I need to develop. I imagine them as hanging cloth and thread, through which you can walk or through which light shines.
JQ: What projects are you currently working on?
RM: A fabric book version of my book, The Experiments: A Legend in Pictures & Words, as well as a memoir in image-text and a creative nonfiction book about a 19th century family and the people they enslaved.
JQ: You mentioned you don't think it matters so much whether you define yourself as an artist or writer, could you expand on that?
RM: Did I say that?! Yes, I did....Well, I think it does matter to some people. And if that identity is important, that's great. It's really empowering for young artists and writers to speak that identity, to claim it. I have a hard time claiming the title "artist" partly because I'm not formally trained as such. I've been told my visual work looks like outsider art, because it's rough-edged and embraces imperfection. I like that. Part of me thinks, too, that claiming the title artist puts too much pressure on something that's been a release from the intensity of writing, from the necessity of working and reworking a piece. There's a sense of liberation that I have when I sew, because it's going to be unwieldy and wild. But! I'm starting to dwell in both worlds, to show my visual pieces and to more actively pursue those opportunities. I don't think it matters how I define myself, because I'm now both a writer and a fiber/visual artist, and I see the work as needing both. Neither one stands on its own. Which makes me a hybrid forms person. Who needs color and texture in her hands. And threaded words.
JQ: Can you pleaaaase tell me your secret about Rufus??
RM: No! No, I will NOT tell you!