Elizabeth Hatmaker’s poem cycle, Girl in Two Pieces (BlazeVOX, 2010), explores the life and mythology of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia,” who was brutally murdered in January 1947 in Los Angeles. This interview was conducted by email exchanges between 10/27/10 and 11/1/10.
Scott Davis: First off, let me say how much I enjoyed reading your work. You’ve taken this figure that’s simultaneously famous and anonymous and interrogated the conditions of her status as icon and managed to restore to her some resemblance of humanity at the same time. It was deeply moving. What drew you, initially, to the story or the character of Elizabeth Short? Stories like this are told all the time, when did you get the fever, “the girl rancor,” when did you decide that this was the story that needed to be told?
Elizabeth Hatmaker: Thank you for your kind words. I was in Washington Dulles airport on a long layover with nothing to read, so I picked up Max Allan Collin’s Angel in Black. He wrote a series of detective stories in which his protagonist is embroiled in all of the great mysteries of the early to mid 20th century, including the Black Dahlia murder. As a lifelong true-crime junkie, I was intrigued by both the variety of true-crime “solutions” and Collin’s willingness to string them together into this larger unruly narrative—one that is, at turns, appealing and overheated. I tried to imagine how one could write Short in a way that was clean and dignified or smooth. I couldn’t. Trust me, there’s no way to write about her that doesn’t get banal or narcissistic or naive really fast (probably I shouldn’t admit this at the start of the interview). I suppose I started off interested in her narrative and representational awkwardness within true crime writing, a genre that beckons you to think about dead women like Short but then can never offer a dignified language for you to do it in.
My “girl rancor” came as I confronted all the creepiness that the project made me embody, all those positions of fantasy—liking her, identifying with her, killing her, fucking her, saving her, experimenting on her, avenging her, solving her—that make it impossible for me to simply and reasonably observe that we shouldn’t commit violent crimes against women. How am I supposed to look other women—other people—in the eye and say that I couldn’t quite play that line straight? That sense of writerly discomfort seems like the story that I needed to tell.
SD: Your work frequently invokes women who are peripheral to the story (as well as society): Harriet Manley, “all those women in Juarez,” the long list in “Norton, Jan. ’47 (Author’s Note),” “this daughter” in “Theory 3” (and elsewhere), Geneva Ellroy, and in part VI, simply “the Girl” (with its final allusive nod To Elsie). The cycle seems as much for all of them as for Elizabeth (and you acknowledge you write “for women like her”). In what ways do you imagine Elizabeth Short as a point of comparison for so many women? In what ways as simply human? How do you negotiate between this sense of “representability” and her own singularity?
EH: As I continued to obsessively research all things Black Dahlia, I was struck by the impossible epideictic logic of her dead name: “The Black Dahlia.” All these occasions which commemorate her memory—the books, films, TV documentaries, the crime scene photography that appears in art books. I can’t quite decide what to do with her. The bisected “Dahlia” riffs on the “beautiful dead girls” in those 19th century penny dreadfuls; her impossible name links an overwrought romanticism to a more forensic modernism. “Dahlia” the name is the idealized “angel of the house” term perversely reborn to perfection as pure mystery after a wild adventure in the 20th century public sphere. Elizabeth Short, on the other hand, was, several researchers tell us, “going to seed” at the tender age of 22 and probably not slated for a long or happy life even had she not been murdered in January 1947 and become “The Black Dahlia.”
As scholars like Chris Breu, Greg Forter, Erin Smith and Sean McCann observe, for many men noir and hard-boiled literature served as a site for “working through” the various complicated ideal constructions of masculinity and the increasing impossibility of embodying these roles within a Fordist economy. In this same way, true crime accounts of Elizabeth Short and many of the other women I explicitly name—famous names like Sharon Tate and the less-known but specific names of women killed in Juarez and in Vancouver’s Eastside—and the anonymous signifiers — “the Girl” or even “Elsie”— represent a similar “working through” space for women who make up a significant readership for both true crime and police procedurals.
Similar to pulp masculinities, true crime femininities serves as a sign under which the material violence of everyday life is elided with nostalgic imaginary relationships. It seems counter-intuitive as noir offers culturally celebrated “tough guys” while true crime offers us abject dead bodies for possible identification, but I wonder if, for many women, the name shift from Elizabeth Short to “The Black Dahlia” is an understandable thread between safety and death enacted in the “angel in the house/beautiful dead girl” dialectic. Certainly this thread can produce conservative responses—blaming the victim, identifying with violence, endless melancholia. But I think it also challenges us to construct better stories of supposedly “seedy” women like Short, probably like all of us, who, not safe but not yet dead, are perpetually in danger of death.
SD: Karen Joy Fowler once wrote a story about multiple Elizabeths –Tudor, Borden, Cady Stanton, Taylor – as different avatars for a singular intelligence (ed: “The Elizabeth Complex,” 1996). And as I read about “Beth for Short,” I kept thinking about additional Elizabeths: Bennett, Minnelli, Hatmaker. How much of a hatmaker is your short?
EH: I initially liked the idea of Elizabeth Short for obvious reasons: I liked the way she looked; she grew up not far from where I once lived in Massachusetts; some of her sad attempts to impress men reminded me of my similar attempts; we both have last names people make stupid jokes about. Two rather solitary matter-of-fact Elizabeths just trying to hobble together some sense of mystery and style in their lives, or at least that’s how I romanticize our shared intelligence. It seems wrong to claim we share the intelligence of male violence given her murder, but I suppose we do. I sometimes look at her picture and wonder if she would have liked me. Since writing the book, I’ve come late to three brilliant texts I wish I would have read a long time ago—Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts (both about the murder of an aunt she never knew) and Kate Millet’s The Basement (about the murder of Sheila Likens). Both women I think struggle with this problem of connecting one’s intelligence—which I take to include one’s ethics, one’s stupidity, one’s disappointments—to that of someone we can never really know even as we obsess about.
SD: You riff so well with received language and images and there’s a moment mid-way where I felt almost assaulted by the language of film, especially the language of noir. And your invocation of this language suggests a deep ambivalence toward it: you lean on it in so many ways and yet you seem resistant to it and bemused by it and even resentful of it. Do you imagine film as something akin to some social apparatus within which we learn to work all right all by ourselves without ever really knowing it? Something we consume without knowledge and without thought and yet it animates us, creating what we mistake for knowledge, channeling what we think is thought?
EH: I join several others in “killing the father” in the name of the Black Dahlia. I suppose my relationship to the idea of film in this piece revolves around the lack of a film starring Short. In theory, she went to Hollywood to be an actress, but there’s no evidence she actually followed through, not even a screen test or girly movie. It’s amazing to me how many narratives about her want to redeem her in film. Even as De Palma’s film Black Dahlia was largely dismissed by critics, it was the fictional Elizabeth Short “screen test” scenes that people thought had promise. It’s as if, more than any actual father, we count on film to save her and make her whole in our eyes.
SD: “Poetry can be about public outcry, same as the next form.” There is no art after Auschwitz or Hiroshima, we’re assured, and yet one reads, say, James Ellroy, and one feels that in the crepuscular light of January 47 the pain is only just beginning. Ellroy invokes what he calls a ruthless verisimilitude to find a narrative form that can encompass that pain without sentimentality or venality; how do you imagine the public outcry that is poetry as a form to encompass this pain?
EH: I love Ellroy’s work, don’t get me wrong, but I have to say that his claims for ruthless verisimilitude feels limited, more limited I think than his writing, which always psychopathically lyric, like the illustrations on old pulp covers—precise broody lines with color vomiting itself out. You know, before the events of January ’47, Short was apparently a fairly prolific letter writer, especially to men she dated. She kept a journal. She tended to exaggerate the events of her life—often constructing romantic and sentimental narratives to cover over what seemed to be a life filled with numerous rejections. She herself was probably guilty of the kind of banal excesses that somehow we are to avoid so as to respect some larger ethos about pain. But it seems awful to assume that the modes of engagement she used to seek comfort and to contemplate pain wouldn’t be meaningful or pure enough to engage our esoteric pain about her death.
What would it hurt to be sentimental about Elizabeth Short? I think we give up too easily on the modes of narrative engagement historically imagined to be feminine or excessive, forms that “talk too much.” Certainly the appeals of parataxis and tight indexical images are many, but I’m not convinced that they somehow get at pain in some better or more ethical way than overwrought sentimentality. Whose sentiments are venal here? The “no art after Auschwitz” line always struck me as insincere even as I offer up a similar sentiment; “poetry’s not free anymore,” after the Dahlia that is. There’s art, and we love it, but it seems like we don’t trust art to do much after Auschwitz. I’m kind of up in the air about whether poetry, like other forms, can express Short or women like her right. But I find great beauty in the web of attempts to do some justice for all of us.
SD: What are you working on now? I hear you and Chris are working on a project on Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, can you say more about that now?
EH: I’m working on a number of projects now. I’m lucky to be married to your friend and mine, Chris Breu, author of Hard-Boiled Masculinities. All my psychoanalytic gyrations above—all stuff I worked through with him and for which I owe him huge props. As I write in my dedication, he truly walks with me in the dark in many ways. We recently collaborated on a project on what we are terming “imposter noir.” Through this narrative structure—most famously employed by Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mr. Ripley—we try to navigate how noir explores the larger shift from U.S. Fordism to the current neo-liberal global economy. In conjunction with this, I ‘m trying to work out some connections between the work of Cornell Woolrich, who inspired many of my most over-the-top moments of excessive bathos in Girl in Two Pieces, with Japanese writer Natsuo Kirino, whose brilliant novel Grotesque seems equally willing to dig at the guts of self-pity, morbidity, and resentment—those emotions that I suspect everyone fears will infect the pure pain I talk about above. I’m also working on some new lighter poetry about exploitation films.
SD: A great moment in John Sayles’ Lone Star has our detective protagonist conversing with an old family friend who shakes a rattlesnake skin at him and says, “Don’t go digging around in the past; you never know what you’ll find!” In all the research and archival work you did for the project, was there anything that just blew your mind that didn’t make it to the text?
EH: First off, I’d never claim to be any sort of Black Dahlia expert or archivist. Plenty of folks– many cited in my acknowledgements—researched Short’s life far more carefully than I did. Even then, it’s my impression that there really isn’t much of a Black Dahlia archive. Apparently all of her “stuff,” all the evidence in her LAPD files, has gone missing over the years. Even so, plenty of Dahlia enthusiasts will note things they are obsessed with that I left out, or guessed at, or even got wrong.
But what rattled my chi as I got lost in all the various true crime accounts I read was what Mark Seltzer, in his recent book True Crime, would articulately describe for me as a kind of pathological substitution of my own commiserative reading forensics (Poetics? Are these the same in my work?) for more materialist modes of inquiry into her life. Perhaps this is what you are getting at? It’s not the stuff you dig up; it’s what the action of digging produces.
Still, and I couldn’t have written this book without it, there was a sort of drunkenness of objects and observations about Short’s life; with this came great joy. There was endless narrative and lyric possibility, for which I am eternally grateful to all of those Dahlia researchers. I’m equally grateful to my comrades in creative writing—Kevin Killian and his obsessive music to the dream of living pop in Action Kylie; Cecil Giscombe and his insistence on the importance of Martha Reeves’ voice, and then of physical place and its documentation in Giscombe Road; Joe Amato and his obsession with the un-erasable working-class figure on the blue-print of academia in Industrial Poetics; Dodie Bellamy and her continued commitment to documenting that female body in all states we ain’t supposed to talk about. These people, among others, showed me the way to work my “archive fever” in new ways. If poetics may suggest problems, it has always been a good place for me to find fellow travelers.
Scott Davis is Chair of the Department of English at California State University, Stanislaus. Elizabeth Hatmaker is the author of Girl in Two Pieces (BlazeVOX 2010), a collection of poetry and essays about the 1947 “Black Dahlia” murder. Her work also appears in Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights 2009), ACM, Bird Dog, Epoch, Mississippi Review, MiPOesias, Mandorla, and Mirage/ Periodical. Hatmaker teaches creative writing, film, cultural studies, and urban education at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.
Elizabeth Hatmaker reads from her work at Studio One Art Center on Nov 5th at 730pm
Elizabeth Hatmaker will also read at California State University, Stanislaus (Turlock, CA), on Monday 11/8/10, 1 pm in the Vasche Library West Reading Room. Click http://www.csustan.edu/English/ for more information.