J. Hope Stein is the author of three chapbooks: Corner Office, Talking Doll, and [Mary]: (yep, that colon is part of the title). She also edits the online lit journal Poetry Crush. Learn more at jhopestein.com. We talked to Stein about Edison, turn-of-the-century science, and the gloriously nerdy research that inspired her poetic projects [Talking Doll] and The Inventor.
CICADA: Tell us about [Talking Doll]. Where does the title come from?
J. HOPE STEIN: [Talking Doll] is a section in a book-length manuscript called The Inventor, which is the fragmented story of a pseudo-historical-biblical figure, loosely based on the life and times of Thomas Edison.
[Talking Doll] is written from the perspective of one of his inventions—the Talking Doll. There was a crop of these dolls that were defective—from Christmas 1889 or so—and they just piled up in Edison’s factory. One second they were the hottest Christmas item; the next, they were all returned to the factory. So the Talking Doll is a once-loved/now-rejected experiment telling the story of her maker.
CIC: How did Edison first capture your imagination?
JHS: I explored Edison’s time period before I latched on Edison himself as a figure. I was living in New York City at the start of the twenty-first century, and I felt the ghosts of the generation of New Yorkers who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. So I started to fixate on that generation. Instead of reading current-day newspapers, there was a period of time where I only read archived newspapers from 1880–1920. I wanted to crack some code that could help me interpret what was being printed in the newspapers of our time.
I started to notice Edison as a creator-figure. His name was repeated as the person responsible for these supernatural creations like the light bulb, the phonograph, the moving picture, and the electric chair. Edison actually invented very little of this, but he had ego enough to bring things to mass market—with his name on them.
CIC: What other kinds of research did you do?
I read a few Edison biographies, particularly books about electricity, Edison’s public electrocution of an elephant, and Edison’s involvement with the first model of the electric chair. Also, scientific journals from 1880–1920.
CIC: What’s your favorite fact about Thomas Edison?
JHS: “The Inventor’s Last Breath 2” gets its name from Thomas Edison’s last breath, which was allegedly captured and saved in a test tube and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s an image that is both desperately tender and scientific. It’s part biology, part magic. It suggests there is a chance that part of you can be captured. That that the breath is alive, even though Edison is dead.
CIC: The inventor is a fascinating figure in our cultural imagination—this weird convergence of genius and kooky consumer gadgetry (defunct talking dolls!). With all creative work, there’s this terror: is this Great Work or futile experiment???
JHS: I think great and futile are so terrifyingly connected. They are only separated by a small degree here or there. But I like work that goes for it.
Invention and genius are kind of tricky because someone like Tesla, who was a contemporary of Edison, had a far superior innovative scientific mind than Edison’s. But he lacked a few things Edison had, including ultimately, sanity. We are still unraveling Tesla’s genius. He was far ahead of his time, and that can be the tragedy of genius.
CIC: Tell us about your online lit journal, Poetry Crush. What’s your vision for the space? How does it fit into your creative career?
JHS: Poetry Crush was kind of an impulsive thing. I just started doing it, and I let it be what it is without thinking too much about it. At times, I’m very active on it, posting special issues with work from members of the poetry community I admire. Other times, I only want to post my own weird thoughts. Other times, I am silent.
CIC: Who’s your number one brain crush?
JHS: The brain that is growing inside me. Not mine, silly! I’m 8½ months pregnant, and the fetal brain makes tens of thousands of new connections a day. Crush!
Also: Malala Yousafzai. A lot of people really have a lot of loud and unthoughtful things to say about what’s going on in the world. They think if they say it loud, it makes them a leader. Or if they are violent with their words, it makes them stronger. These people are a dime a dozen on every side of every issue.
But Malala is a child who has been shot in the face by adults and is unphased in her message of education, dialogue, and peace. Her brain is far evolved past mine. Crush!
Text © 2015 by Carus Publishing dba Cricket Media