Provocateur and DIY punk mistress, Janey Smith, eschews the conventional channels of publishing for a more personal guerrilla method in order to reach her readers. Case in point, a couple months ago I received an email alluding to a published piece of mine, to which a pdf was attached, Smith’s debut collection of fiction, Very Ape. Being vaguely familiar with Smith’s work I scanned a few pieces, and one in particular, ‘I Want To Be A Camera,’ seized my attention. Our interview appears after the flash.
I WANT TO BE A CAMERA BY JANEY SMITH
If you were a camera you would see the grass super close, meandering up, out of its seeds, breaking through black dirt flecked with specks of white stuff on it, which is, probably, the unknown, or bits of inexplicable matter to which no one has given a name.
And you would see all of this in slow motion.
And you would see it silently—without any sound so much, not even from the TV, not even from the fractured dirt—and you would slow things down, even more slowly, for analysis. And you might inadvertently see the sky, so that you could refocus, ease the strain of looking intensely. And you might notice, for a moment, before going back into the dirt again, that the sky is so wide and so unmoving on this afternoon that it appears to be absolutely still. And then, moving back down to the dirt, you might, ever so briefly, get a slight glimpse of her face.
And this would be an accident, not part of the show, beyond analysis. But you would see her face slowly, too, and you would get your focus back again, you would slow things down until nothing moved, not even the stillness of the sky.
And you would notice, if you took a wider view, that you are outside. And that everyone is sleeping in the park. And that when the girl, whose face you have focused on, awakens, she will look at you, not perplexed, nor surprised, and blink—as if the sun were too bright or something. And you wouldn’t move because you are there to do work. And she would smile, looking at you, and say, in a barely audible, distant voice, because you have not figured out how to work the volume, “Melanie,” or she’d mumble something that would appear brilliant, by merely moving her mouth or something, because, somehow, you know that whatever she says is touched by the sun.
And if you could blink, you would because the sun is bright. But, still, you notice things, take things in, record. That is your job. But then you would focus on her face again, which hasn’t moved. And it will appear to you that things are momentarily out of focus. But, it’s just “Melanie” stretching her arms way above her face, out of view, but closer to you, closer to that which turns you on and off, closer to that which makes you focus.
And you will get back to the grass. And you will focus on the dirt. And you will notice that she is sleeping again. And you will move yourself down to see things more clearly, you think. And you will notice that the grass keeps doing things, that it grows, and that it bends even when there’s no breeze.
And you will see all of this in slow motion.
And if you took a wider view, you would see her face, too, sleeping on the grass, ignoring the absolute stillness of the still blue sky. And you would watch the grass grow there. And you would keep your focus. But you are focused down there, so focused on your work, that all you see is the dirt. And it is breaking apart.
So, you slow it down for analysis. But you are still down there.
And if you worked for National Geographic or the Discovery Channel, you would see all this grass super close, meandering up, out of its seeds, breaking through black dirt flecked with specks of white stuff on it, which is, probably, the unknown, or bits of inexplicable matter to which no one has given a name.
But you would stay focused. And you would see the grass confuse itself with not all of Melanie, but just a small part of her. Just the part you wanted to see. And because you cannot take a wider view, all you would see is this grass super close, straining forward, in slow motion, confusing itself with her, breaking dirt, mixing and discarding flecks of white stuff without name or purpose. And if you were there with all that precious high-speed film, you might see a single tear, like sweat, snail down the side of her face. But, you don’t have wide-angle. And you are there to do work.
You would inadvertently see the sky again, so that you could refocus, ease the strain of looking intensely. And you might notice, for a moment, before going back into the dirt again, that the sky is so wide and so unmoving on this afternoon that it appears to be absolutely still. And then you would focus ever so briefly on her face again.
And you would focus on her face, for just a moment, not because you are curious—you have a job to do—but because you are a camera. And you would stay focused, unmoving, because now your batteries are low. And “Melanie” would smile, look at you and say, in a barely audible, distant voice, because you still have not figured out how to work the volume, “My eyes are watering.”
And the red warning light would flash. And you would play back all those images that you forgot to erase used in that Animal Planet episode for some reason. And you’d stay on her face—without any sound so much, not even from the TV, not even from the broken dirt—not because you are curious, but because she is there.
And you’d stay focused longer than you should, knowing that you’d probably not see any of this on Cable.
Keith: Gradually and gently the narrative of ‘I Want to Be a Camera’ lulled me as though down a spiral staircase into the mindset of camera consciousness. Immediately after I finished the piece, there was this lingering sense-impression (similar to when you touch an ice cube and the sense-impression of cold lingers on your fingertips) that I had experienced something in slow-motion. My first question regarding this aspect of “Camera” is: Would you consider the slow-motion sensation to be the heart of the story, and by heart I don’t mean meaning or purpose, but the slow-beating rhythm, the IV that drip-drip-drips into the cerebrospinal fluid of the reader, thus downshifting their brainwaves?
Janey: Yes and no. I wrote the story to try to remember something, to put that something to memory, to photograph it, kind of. I believe, in part, that I failed. Instead, I almost erased a memory, generated a certain distance between that partial memory and a real moment that may have been experienced with someone. Things in the story are slow because I am trying to remember a memory. And I can’t, not entirely. So, I kind of reconstruct it. This makes me long for the moment in question, the moment that’s almost lost. So, the slow-motion effects of the story are the story’s methodology, it’s guts. I think it takes guts to look at things with a certain kind of lucidity. The kind of lucidity I’m thinking about is the kind I associate with delirium. On the other hand, very close to the heart of the story is Melanie. She’s its sort of accidental focus. Like the dirt, there are things about her that are inexplicable, unknown. A person’s name is just another surface. At the heart of things, so the story goes, there is only surface.
Keith: Originally, my second question had to do with the relationship between repetition and the perception of time. When analyzing the story for its slow-motion effect I noticed an abundance of repetition both at the micro and macro scale (for example, the word “And…” opening almost every sentence, the back-and-forth of looking up at the sky and down at the grass, the reprisal of the opening sentence about halfway through the story, etc.). The relationship was that if time is generally equated with change, and repetition is the absence of change, then repetition as a device has the power to alter one’s perception of time. However, your primary concern, as stated above, was not with the perception of time but with a memory, which itself is inseparable from the notion of time. So if not to intentionally alter the perception of time, what role did repetition play? Did it instead provide a way to circumscribe the moment you sought to remember, to circle around it like a drug-sniffing dog in order to discover the intoxicating source, that unknown something drawing you back to the memory?
Janey: Repetition, a certain kind of repetition, is everything. I couldn’t write without it. And I don’t think I could imagine time without it. In fact, there probably would not be such a thing as time without it. Repetition is internal to change, too. It marks the condition on which change occurs, but it also constitutes change itself. Repetition in this sense is closer to what I understand to be reiteration, where difference and identity tend to happen at the same time during the same moment, or act. So, for me, repetition is internal to writing, that is, writing is not possible without it. Thus repetition is one of the conditions of writing. In the case of ‘I Want To Be A Camera,’ I pretended to become an image-capturing machine, which is what I am anyway. The only difference, I suppose, is that cameras probably have more feelings than I do–or at least a greater capacity for feeling than I have. Nevertheless, the pretense permitted me to look again, to look, perhaps, more closely, to capture, to record. Thus, I hoped, it would bring me closer to that thing I wanted so badly to get at. Instead, when I read it, and as I wrote it, it made me feel far away and a little lost. It’s this feeling of loss that’s so compelling, that makes me wander all around stuff, hopelessly putting things down.
Keith: The “I” in the title of ‘I Want To Be A Camera’ suggests a human-centered narrative, yet the human imprint has been all but erased. Nothing indicative of the human body enters the camera’s frame as an extension of the camera, and more pointedly, when Melanie reaches foward, she reaches not toward the camera’s hair or face, but “closer to that which turns you on and off, closer to that which makes you focus.” Not once does the second-person POV break character as camera.
You said you “pretended to be an image-capturing machine.” And you did so by owning it completely, removing any reference to your body or to yourself, even stripping any trace of personality for the imperative of “work” (i.e. the camera’s own movements aren’t governed by choice but by an impersonal dictum: “…you are there to do work”). All that remains is the aperture of the camera, or pure awareness. Was this a way to sever identification with ordinary consciousness and so achieve (to paraphrase an earlier statement) “lucidity by delirium”? (Would you consider the latter a form of defamiliarization?)
Furthermore, is it possible you removed yourself from the moment, i.e. turned yourself into an aperture of pure awareness, so that you would not get in the way of the moment, not become an obstacle in the attempt to capture the moment? And perhaps this very action of removing yourself in order to record clearly is what resulted in the sense of distance, the “far away and a little lost” feeling, and is also what nearly caused the memory to be erased? Or does the erasure sentiment have more to do with the limits of language and the inability to capture the ineffable, i.e. that the instrument of language alters the ineffable in the very attempt to capture it?
Janey: You know, I don’t associate the “I” as human. I kind of think of it as a stick figure or a cardboard character. When I write “I”, I think: “funny cardboard character, you are flat.” And then the “I” bobs around all cute until something happens. So, I don’t know if the “I” belongs to that which is human. As for its erasure, I don’t know. How do you erase something that’s not there, really? I mean, if I pretend to be a camera, then I can do things. Not by myself. But by things that are close to me. That’s what gives me my focus, I guess, these floating things that are there sometimes. The decision to pretend to become a camera was made because it was easy to do. It’s easy not feel anything or think anything. It’s very fashionable. But, I disagree with you about that which remains. Although you can see stuff in the story what you do see has little to do with light or awareness. I mean, light doesn’t really enter the story. And, as a camera, I really don’t know anything. Which is kind of nice, really. It’s like being human or something. So, pretending to be a camera was a way to become familiar with a moment that had passed. But, it didn’t work. On the other hand, the camera never removed itself from anything. Instead, the camera became a moment. And as such, it was both inside and outside the things that were all around it. So, I don’t know. I don’t know why I forget. Or why I try to remember. Nevertheless, I am attracted to words. Because words have no limits. Which is why, I guess, they are dependent on very strict rules and conventions. Sometimes I think that it is language’s indefiniteness that seems to horrify people. I don’t know why.
Keith: Your blog address: http://weusethecutetodestroytheinnocent.blogspot.com/ appears at the end of your collection Very Ape, and seems indicative of your collection over-all. Has “Camera” been spared such a treatment? Does the wonderful sense of tenderness and innocence that pervades “Camera” frollick in an irony-free playground of language? Or has the innocene of “Camera” been violated beneath the monkey bars by pop-cultural references to consumerism in the guise of electronic gadgets and broadcast media, i.e. digital cameras and Animal Planet?
Janey: Certain kinds of tenderness and innocence pervade all the stories that belong to Very Ape. I can’t help it. As much as I like to destroy things, I also want to make things wonderful. The blog address is indicative of nothing, really. It’s just there. I like stuffed animals. I like destruction. I know this society sucks. And I know everyone is sick with desires to put themselves on TV, become famous, cultivate some kind of marketable personality or something. Artists and writers are afraid. That’s cool. So, although there may be moments of irony or something in the stories of Very Ape, I am not trying to pretend I don’t care. It just kind of happens because I have all these personalities or something. What is nice is that consumerism is all around me. It’s logic is everywhere. If aspects of it enter the stories, that’s okay. It makes it easier to write stuff. Because writing is like advertising. And so I am just making all these ads. I use pop references and stuff because it is easy to do. And I just like doing whatever. I like destruction. I like to think of myself as a billboard for my neuroses. So, I guess you could say I am a cliché. And that’s okay. Really. I mean it. I really, really mean it.