In Still Rooms: A Close-Quarters Epic
OS Collaborator Constantine Jones talks about their new collection In Still Rooms, available now from The Operating System.
Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
I’m one of you, whoever you are.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
I never knew any other way to be. I was it before I knew it was something.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. Especially since I used to do so many different things when I was younger. I drew a lot as a kid, I performed in improv theater and short films, I made little comics in my school notebooks etc. I was always telling stories, one way or another. I didn’t fully take to writing though until a little later, when I moved to Middle Tennessee for school, and even then all my friends had to tell me I was a poet. Which I find extra funny since this answer is coming at the end of a novel.
Anyway, none of those titles really feel right to me or totally accurate in terms of what I do. I been using the phrase thingmaker to describe myself for a number of years now. It makes the most sense to me. I’m at a point in my life / practice now where I’m embracing all urges to combine genres / modes / mediums depending on what the work needs. It also echoes another phrase I been using as a handle for more than a decade now, stories & noise, which I think is exactly what I make.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
Most essentially I think a curious person. Someone genuinely inquisitive, dissatisfied with the given answers. The work that resonates with me most, in any medium, is the stuff that shakes me out of familiarity with things. Work that makes me see the ordinary fresh. Maybe not brand-new, exactly, but differently somehow. It’s a really necessary kind of disorientation that I think artists of any medium are charged with offering back to the world.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
The “Western” Anglophone tradition (whatever construct that may be) is ingrained with some very dangerous conceptions about culture. What I mean by that on a personal level, at least, is that anything Greek is largely considered ancient, dead, finished, long-ago. You want to take Greek lessons at a university? You’re gonna be translating Homer. Fine, but that’s not Modern Greek as it’s spoken in the actual country of Greece (let alone all the variations in dialect across regions). Meanwhile you want to take Latin? Fine, you can do that too. But the university might also offer Italian, and you won’t have to be in the Classics department to take it. Who are the Greek poets any given reader can think of? Homer, Sappho, maybe one of the playwrights. Ok that was thousands of years ago though, so fast forward. Who are the names now? Both in and out of translation? Both dead and living? And you can do this same type of questioning with Queer writers; with writers from the American South; with writers who share any of my various other particularities.
My whole point in this admittedly circular gripe is just to say — Greek culture is so much more than folks at large give it credit for. There are so many version of Greek-ness, of Southern-ness, of Queer-ness. And it takes someone who comes from all those communities and all those traditions to be able to tell about it right. So if anything, I’d say that’s very high on my list of priorities as a contributor to literary culture — of adding one more authentic voice and updated version of these cultures into the mix.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
This book started with a phone call from my dear heart Alex Terrell, who gave me the title as a phrase that she thought I might could do something with. I had just moved to New York from Tennessee and my Yiayia (my grandmother I mean my mother’s mother I mean my mother two times) had just passed. I was totally unmoored from all my projects, none of it felt worthwhile. So I typed that phrase T. gave me onto a word document and just wrote the first line. I had no idea where it was going or what it was going to become. After a while I started writing poems again more seriously, more deliberately. It was the first time I had worked with Cynthia Cruz and I was sketching out all these neighborhood poems. I couldn’t afford a camera back then, hadn’t yet saved up for one, so I was taking all these camera phone pictures of my surroundings and trying to do those photos back as poems. After a while they started to congeal, but still it didn’t quite work. I was under a lot of internal pressure, I think, to sort of pick a thing to do and do that one thing. It took a while to shake myself out of that, and I’m grateful that I did. Once I made the decision to punctuate the chapters of the novel with these poems, the whole rest of the structure sort of fell into place bit by bit. The addition of the Chorus, the constant interruptions of linear time, the confluence of religion / mythology / superstition etc. All of it made sense once I stopped trying to separate what I was doing into “this” or “that.”
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
The only thing I understood pretty early on in this project was that it was essentially a kind of grief exercise. I’m a project person by nature. Ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you. It’s very hard for me to write something as a kind of one-off, or standalone. It’s always three or four different bodies of work in my head at any given time, which is reassuring to me in the sense that I can just move through my days with all of them at least a little bit on my mind. That way, whenever something comes down to me, I don’t worry too much about where it “belongs.” I just know that eventually it’s gonna get grafted onto one project or another.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings / writings / work of other creative people informed the way you work / write?
I am and have always been more inspired by music / sound than anything else, in terms of impulse to create. For me there is always a sonic foundation to the work. For In Still Rooms, it was this obsession with the idea of a Chorus — of a collective counterpoint to the Ancient Greek “Hero”; a body both inside and outside the action at once, whose lines were danced, sung, accompanied by drums or the stamping of feet. It’s sort of like the first time I read The Waves or Jazz (and don’t get me wrong, I’m no Virginia Woolf and certainly no Toni Morrison), but I understood those books. I got them, how they worked, and I felt that they got me too. They’re the kind of books that simply could not exist in any other form, as what I can only describe to be works of sound set to language. Hopefully with the slow trickle of my work into the world, what I mean by that will begin to make more sense.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
I sort of talked about this before, but the title was given to me by a dear friend, as actually so many of my titles have been. Which actually I think is such a sweet, intimate gift. Like, listen, I see you and I know you so well, that here’s a phrase I’m entrusting you with, that I think would be safe with you. I liked the ambiguity of In Still Rooms as a title — the sort of objectlessness of it all, which is essentially what a ghost story is anyway.
In Greek culture, the concepts of ghosts and memory are particularly intertwined, which is where the segment titles came from. The first act is “Heirloom,” which I like for its compoundedness — something handed down that also ties together. Then there’s “Mnemosynon,” which is both the name of the Greek Orthodox memorial service held for the deceased and also a variation of “Mnemosyne,” who in Greek Mythology was named “Memory,” and mother to the nine Muses. Look at The Iliad or The Odyssey, and so many other ancient poems and dramas besides, and they all begin with an invocation to Memory and the Muses, bound as the human storytellers were by having lived only their one life. “Nostos” too is an important Greek word, especially for The Odyssey. It implies a return back home, wherever that is. And the final movement, “Memory Eternal,” is a translation / echo of the Greek Orthodox hymn for the dead at the beginning of the book. It’s actually a really beautiful hymn, sonically, but also in its meaning, which not only calls upon us to remember the departed, but for the Lord to remember them too.
And finally there’s maybe the most significant name — Eleni, the Greek name for Helen which means Light. Light itself is just as much the “hero” of this book as anyone, maybe even moreso. Light is always moving in / through / around the house, getting caught in the corners, bleaching everything blue. It could be said that the thousand ships launched at Troy were really only pursuing the Light. Light itself is the most ghostly thing — always there, somewhere, even when it’s not.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
If anything, it grieves with and for anyone who needs it. Takes some of the heaviness off.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I hope this book introduces me to so many other Greek-American thingmakers. I hope it can lodge itself as a missing piece connecting more of us to each other, both within and across generations. I hope it might work to dissolve the barriers between arbitrarily incongruous identities — the Greek, the Queer, the Southern etc. This version of a life exists, and if this book can be testament to that, I’ll have done what I came to do.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?
This book, and the Greek family certainly, is so essentially communal-centric. When I was first conceptualizing it, a phrase I would come back to often is a close-quarters epic. I wanted to make a short, quiet kind of book, without any car chases or rooftop shootouts. I wanted a book where relationship was the plot. How do we relate to those around us, family or otherwise? Especially when pushed to psychic / emotional limits. It was plenty of people who told me they thought that more should “happen” in the book. But I maintain that emotions are events, and they have consequences not just within our own bodies and minds but externally, in the force with which we touch the world. If anything, I aim to continue telling stories where the main character is We. Is Us. Is Our.
I’d be curious to hear some of your thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, ability, class, privilege, social/cultural background, gender, sexuality (and other identifiers) within the community as well as creating and maintaining safe spaces, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos” and/or disciplinary and/or institutional bounds?
I think so much of this problem has to do with re-framing the language we use to refer to the institution of publishing. It makes no difference whatsoever, for example, for publishers to advertise their eagerness for “inclusivity” because that still implies a power / status imbalance. As in, you xyz other-person-over-there are allowed to come in with “the rest of us.” No. That’s not the right attitude and it’s going to get nothing done. That’s why I believe so much in what organizations like OS does, horizontally, not top-down. I can’t claim to offer “The Answer” to such a deeply-rooted institutional fault, but I can say that leading by individual example is sometimes the most effective starting point.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
The House is open. Please come in, sit down. Just look at all this room.
About the Author
Constantine Jones is a Greek-American thingmaker raised in Tennessee & currently housed in Brooklyn. They are a member of the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry & teach creative writing at The City College of New York, where they earned an MFA. They also volunteer in the LGBT Center Archives, where they conduct research on queer Greek-American histories as they intersect with HIV. Their work has been performed or exhibited at various venues across NYC.