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Mixed Media

Words Like Snowflakes

Experimental author Shelley Jackson makes her mark on the UB landscape

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Any form not ordinarily used for literature has a lot of potential, I think. And each form will have its particular merits ”
Shelley Jackson

Shelley Jackson’s fiction, as she puts it, “straddles the borders between literature, art and electronic media.” Her innovative, often nonlinear storytelling inhabits both physical and virtual worlds, from tattooed bodies of volunteers in “SKIN,” an ongoing series, to her groundbreaking hypertext novel “Patchwork Girl,” written in 1995 when the Internet was still young.

Jackson’s latest project, “SNOW,” is built for Buffalo. Over the winter, she created a short story written in the snow, sharing individual words through separate, consecutive images posted on Instagram (@snowshelleyjackson).

“It was suggested by the appearance of streets and sidewalks on a snowy day: white with black marks, like a printed page,” she says. As WBFO’s Visiting Professor in the Arts for 2015-2016, Jackson came to campus twice last fall to give a reading and expose English students to new ways of approaching creative writing through art, science and other disciplines. She returned in February to create and photograph more frosty words.

In a recent email exchange with At Buffalo, Jackson provided a glimpse into a life immersed in the world of words.

What excites you most about digital forms of literature?
I’ve been especially drawn to the way they emphasize patterns of relationship over linear narrative, and how easily they incorporate other media. Right now I am fascinated with the way their shifty, contingent relationship with their “body” (i.e., whatever device you’re reading on) underscores the ghostliness of language, its tension with the material world to which it’s ambiguously tethered.

What about social media—what is its potential in art and literature?
Any form not ordinarily used for literature has a lot of potential, I think. And each form will have its particular merits (e.g., Twitter’s haiku-like compression). But what feels newest to me is the social in social media, and this has been important to my work from the beginning. Every book depends on its readers, but in “SKIN,” the readers are the work. The story has actually become a social network, an invisible web of relationships spanning the globe, intimate and distant at the same time.

Is there a particular attraction to doing a project via Instagram?
I like the serial-release form, which feels appropriate to a project that is (1) incredibly slow and (2) entirely subject to weather conditions, so that the words come in flurries, like snowflakes. I’m always conscious that certain early writers—Dickens, famously—published their novels serially, and it makes me laugh to think of this project as a weird heir to that tradition.

What did you do with UB students, both in and out of the classroom?
My role at UB was to provoke encounters between students in a variety of different departments. For example, some writing students and I visited Professor of Art Paul Vanouse’s Biological Art class, where we prepared petri dishes for an expedition to a polluted stream to take samples and talk about the different ways that a writer and an artist might engage with the material properties of the site.

Has your work, like “SNOW,” become more ephemeral over time compared to the permanency of a tattoo?
Is a tattoo permanent? Bodies are not permanent. People are not permanent. Hence the subtitle of my project, “a mortal work of art.” We are just slower-melting snowflakes.