The Only Piece of Trash Atop the Highest Mountain: An Interview Between Hannah Regel and Stacy Skolnik
Hannah Regel: OK, so maybe to start you should explain what www.mrsblueeyes123.com is.
Stacy Skolnik: mrsblueeyes123.com documents the poems that I generated on my now banned Instagram account @mrsblueeyes123 where I was producing and releasing erotic poems--well, would you call them erotic?
HR: Yes, erotic and sexy.
SS: OK, so I was releasing erotic and sexy poems and nudes or...often just selfies. Many of the images were not, I think, that provocative. So I've been quite shocked at how this project has evolved and been received. I mean, there is a photo of, like, basically my vagina so I guess that's...that. But also, I have a vagina. And so do a lot of other people. Is it a secret?
HR: There’s something about the aloofness with which you interact with the content. Instagram was perhaps a bit more salacious than the current format of the website just because of what the work was placed up against. Like, when you go onto the website you expect it. Before, however, when it was on Instagram, an image of your bum might appear on one’s feed unexpectedly, next to a picture from their cousin’s wedding.
SS: Haha, right. Yeah, there are a few photos of my bum. I started the project initially as an exercise in freedom and as an expression of sexuality. I had recently, about a year or year and a half prior, opened up my marriage, or my relationship, I was a newlywed, and I was sort of exploring different ways of practicing freedom. I’d just read Foucault’s History of Sexuality and was intrigued by his idea that freedom is something that can’t be given or distributed or had. It must be exercised. But as I progressed with the collection a lot of the posts started to be taken down by Instagram due to either people or robots (I think it was people because often it was like, old posts that had been up for months at a time that were later being removed). And as this happened more and more the content sort of shifted away from pure expressions or enactments of freedom toward contemplations about censorship and being...well, disallowed. And then, before long, the account got banned by Instagram completely. I tried to get it back online but it wasn’t ever restored. By the time the account got banned, I had generated over 60 poems, and I was sort of like, I just produced all of this material and what do I do with it? I felt really upset when the account was taken down.
HR: Do you think it perhaps felt more personal than other forms of censorship because there was a function in which your readers were able to report you?
SS: I had made a few calls to action when many of the posts were being removed where I was like, if this content offends you, please write to me, let’s talk about it. I was so curious about the dismay.
HR: And did anyone respond to you?
SS: No one came forward to out themselves as a troll, but I did get a lot of responses from people who supported the work who also seemed upset by its removal. And I communicated with a lot of my readers throughout the writing process in general. Most of my supporters and readers were either horny men or female friends who kept pushing me forward in the project. I’m so grateful to them because I often felt like stopping because I was like, this is so humiliating. You know, ‘cause obviously on Instagram, you're supposed to seem so...
HR: I mean, Instagram is humiliating by design.
SS: Right, but people pretend like it’s not, and try to cultivate images of themselves that are curated and nice and polished and measured.
HR: Yes, measured against other people.
SS: Exactly. I didn't ever post photos of myself that I didn’t like. I often fear, actually, that mrsblueeyes is a deeply inaccurate portrayal of my looks. When I would post it wasn't meant to be an exercise in...
SS: Yeah, I wanted to like the way I looked in the pictures, and of course I wanted to believe in the poems I was posting. But nonetheless it was a very exposing experience and I definitely needed—every once in a while I really relied on—my followers to propel the work forward.
HR: Can you talk more about the relationships you had with your followers?
SS: Yeah, many of the poems were generated from my DM's and the conversations I had inside them. One of my favorite poems in the collection is in the voice of this guy who I corresponded with for a while who has a micropenis. I’d often appropriate other people’s voices to create the poems, which had to do with a desire to express the multitude of identities that one might possess in a single body. But also it was about intimacy with strangers, particularly strangers one can, these days, get to know very deeply yet never make physical contact with. I wanted to develop some sort of Whitmanic millennial feedback loop. And I’d also ask them for editorial advice, sometimes in exchange for pictures I wasn’t posting on my feed.
HR: I wanted to ask you about the role that such collaborations play in the collection. There is definitely a collaborative element to it, but in some ways a non-consensual collaboration. These horny guys messaging you became implicit and very much part of the trajectory of the book as a whole.
SS: That’s interesting. I’m very pro-consent...but yeah, you’re right, often times I didn’t ask for permission to use their language. But I was very careful to always preserve the anonymity of the people who showed up in my DMs. I value the exchanges I had and would never have wanted to violate anyone’s trust. I wasn’t trying to “out” or shame anyone...there was nothing to out. Occasionally some people were persistent or creepy but I would just, if absolutely necessary, block them. I wanted to trust my readers, foster mutual respect, and engage with that seemingly ancient idea of the internet as a potentially utopic space.
HR: These interactions, even with people who were reporting the posts, they propelled the project further, and then the people who were attracted to it added to the content and its evolution. The way that the project functions seems to be a lot about happenstance.
SS: Yeah, totally. At about 30 posts in on @mrsblueeyes123, I was like, I don't know where this is going...how it’s going to end...I don’t want to keep taking selfies forever...though I was still having fun and the attention was gratifying, I just didn’t know what the arc would be. I’m not great at Instagram, I actually hate using my “normal” Instagram because it lacks that strict curatorial thread. It lacks persona. But even @mrsblueeyes123 was less about “being seen” and more about the “behind the scenes.” The DMs were really where the most generative stuff was happening, where I was finding inspiration, courage, editorial, and language itself from totally unexpected sources.
HR: I want to ask about that because you said in one of our emails that “Instagram is a place where people are anyway.” And that's why you wanted to publish there. And maybe poetry is a realm where people aren’t anyway. At least not in the everyday.
SS: Poetry’s reach and readership can be quite limited, and I wanted to take advantage of the accessibility of Instagram and bring poems to people where they might already be spending a lot of their time. I also was interested in diversifying the types of poetry represented on the medium, a medium often associated with guilty pleasure and time-wasting. Interestingly, a lot of the guys who were reading my poems would refer to them as captions. But just because they didn’t know to call them poems or didn’t identify them as poems doesn’t mean they weren’t reading poems. I really like the idea that, like, maybe some of these people who were reading my work had never read a poem before, at least outside of formal education. And maybe I have something that I can share with these guys who are on these porny accounts…
HR: ...and having a moment with language.
SS: Yeah, maybe I can teach them something about the complexity of female desire...
HR: Can you talk to me about the re-staging and the re-articulation of the work? When did you decide, after the account had been banned, that you wanted to re-stage it on the Internet and not in a physical book or pamphlet? And in a form that mimicked the experience of being on Instagram?
SS: I knew that the content wouldn't make sense in a physical object because there are videos, and I needed to retain the moving aspect, the idea of scrolling. I wanted it to feel like a book that has a beginning and an end and also [be able to] retain all of the actual content from the Instagram. I didn’t wanna wait too long to make decisions because all of the posts are time-stamped and there was some pressure there to...
HR: To capture the contemporary moment and not seem, like, archival?
SS: Exactly. To get the work out in a timely way, you know, before Instagram becomes obsolete or something. I also knew I wanted it to feel interactive and I wanted it to be free, because in many ways the subject matter of the book is very anti-capitalist. I wanted it to remain just as accessible as the Instagram account. And the amazing designer of this website, Julian Mader, who actually doesn't have an Instagram account but with whom I’d shared a lot of the work throughout varying stages of its development, we had a conversation about it a few weeks after the account was banned and the design concept came about really organically.
HR: There are links in the book too. This goes back to the collaborative element, everyone is kept sort of present.
SS: Yeah, the material isn’t isolated, it's in conversation with the “community” of Instagram for whom it was produced and I wanted to keep that connection. The last poem of the collection for instance is a sort of form or questionnaire about censorship which asks a reader to “please complete this form outlining your objections [to the content], if any.” And readers are able to click a button and email me, which is one of the exciting interactive aspects of the book-as-website. But yeah, the design was intended to reflect a casual relationship to the pages/posts/poems, for them to flip out as if from a deck of cards. They always land in a different position and you can only go forward in the collection. If you want to re-read you have to load the site and flip through all of them again, so there's also this playfulness related to a sense of uncontrol, and entryway.
HR: Yeah, as if anything is in our control, or as if anything is private or as if anyone is the sole owner of an image anymore. Or as if a nude is somehow different than a poem.
SS: I’d often get comments from guys like, “You shouldn't be doing this for free.” “You should monetize this by having a Patreon account.”
HR: A subscription service would've really changed the implications of the content.
SS: Totally. I remember having a conversation with this guy who I was communicating with on Instagram and I was like...that’s actually the antithesis of what I'm trying to do. Like, as if the female body is something that should solely be bought or used as a type of currency. It’s funny because poets are notoriously unpaid and I was just like...if the poems are free then the images definitely have to be free. They have so much more value intellectually and socially than a photo of my body. There’s a very weird currency to sex and sexuality that I don’t understand. I wanted to find a way to create value, for both myself and readers, in the content outside of money.
HR: I think the kind of the economy of sex and work and what’s free and isn’t has a lot of strange and interesting parallels to a contemporary sense of time, and our attention economy, and what is a “good” use of time and what’s a “bad” use of time and what you feel guilty about and what you don’t. When I was looking at the collection on my computer it was hard to think, “Oh, I’m doing this serious thing. I’m reading a book of poems.” The format is so close to what I associate with time “wasting.” We create a lot of completely fictional, invented hierarchies.
SS: There's so much garbage on the internet that, like, maybe we just associate the internet with trash. But also trash can be beautiful or complicated or secretly valuable, and sometimes it needs to be dealt with...or repurposed.
Hannah Regel lives in London. Her first collection of poetry, When I Was Alive, was published by Montez Press in 2017; a second is forthcoming. She is writing a PhD thesis on performative writing at Goldsmiths College.
Stacy Skolnik lives in New York. She is a poet, editor, co-curator for Montez Press Radio, and PEN America Prison Writing Mentor. Stacy is co-author of Rat Park with Katie Della-Valle and her work has been featured in Lambda Literary’s Poetry Spotlight, Columbia Journal, The Operating System, No Dear Magazine, Fjords and Adirondack Review, among others. www.mrsblueeyes123.com is her first book.