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  • Big Table Publishing

Marc Zegans and Tsar Fedorsky Explore the Presence of Absence in Ghost Book

Updated: Jan 6

Ghost Book explores presence, absence, and ephemeral connection over time and distance. Its uncanny images inquire into the nature of this place, the past and present lives that inhabit it, and the traces they leave behind… it knocks about the borders of the built, dream, and natural worlds, is a meditation on how we negotiate and transcend social and generational distance.”

BLM: Hi, Marc, hi, Tsar, welcome. It’s a pleasure to speak with you today about your new project, Ghost Book. Wow! What a fascinating, evocative concept! It sounds like it grew into something beyond its original intent, which we’ll talk about in a bit, with regards to what some of Tsar’s photos revealed… but first, I’d like to ask you both to tell us who you are. Not what you’ve done, but who you ARE.

MZ: I thought about your question for a couple of weeks before responding because it’s a really demanding question to answer, and I wanted to get to the very bottom of it. What emerged was quite different than what I might have said if I hadn’t let your question steep for a while. At root, I’m a rumble, a deep, low sound that comes from somewhere beyond me. So, perhaps, I’m a channel that expresses this hum as tone. When I open to and voice this tone, I find myself in a state of isness outside of thought. I let out this rumbling tone more often these days. When I have come to a recognition that opens me to a truth I’ve not previously seen or have been unable to acknowledge, this tone travels through me and out into the world. Years ago, I wrote a piece called “a rumble” for someone who activated this deepest part of me. I didn’t have to capacity then to understand this rumble was simply me. All that I could express then was the rumbling resonance between us:

I wanna get to know you

rumple up the sheets in your bed

I wanna get to know you

with a glance maybe turn your head

I wanna get to know you

take a long walk between your thighs

I wanna get to know you

open a smile in your eyes

I wanna get to know you

your black hair falling on your face

I wanna get to know you

watch your strum with desolate grace

how often have we walked sidewalks

our paths only years apart

how often have we walked sidewalks

feeling the cracks in our hearts

I wanna get to know you

stumble tonight into your place

I wanna get to know you

before you leave without a trace

I wanna get to know you

draw your lips softly to my mouth

I wanna get to know you

rumble thrumming in your house.

TF: Interesting question. I’ve been mulling over this one as well. What immediately came to mind is that I am a combination of things. I tend to navigate the world as an introspective person. That doesn’t mean I shy away from getting out and about, but I prefer to experience things in a more quiet and introspective manner. This combined with an intuitive nature and one that expresses itself visually.

BLM: Give us a brief setup, please, as to how this came about, how you know each other.

TF: It came about because Marc was unable to pursue a planned writer’s residency at the Manship in Gloucester when it locked down during COVID. He was very interested in the idea of being social at a distance, as opposed to socially distancing, and so he came up with the idea of a virtual or “ghost” residency, got the blessings of Jo-Ann Castano and Rebecca Reynolds who are the Manship’s lead stewards, and came up with the idea that led to our collaboration and to this book.

MZ: As a writer and as a performer, I’ve had an ongoing interest in the question of presence. What does it mean to be present to a moment, present in a space, present in a dialogue, in a performance? And what does it mean to be absent? How does our capacity to be present or to create a felt presence travel across distance and over time? How does such capacity relate to absence—the void that arises with the departure of people, things, and detail from a space, and to the lingering and reappearance of what essences may remain?

There’s a disturbingly deep present quality in the way we experience absence. An empty room in a house with long history fires alertness and swiftly sharpens our awareness, forcing us to be present to the void. In this vacuum—as when a circuit breaker flips in our house, leaving us without light—we’re brought into contact with the tenuous, often ephemeral, nature of connection and what it means.

How, I have often wondered, do durable, brief, and spotty connection differently shape, transmit, transform, and transcend our physical lives? The advent of COVID and the cancellation of a conventional physical writer’s residency, presented me with the opportunity to explore these questions about presence, absence, and ephemeral connection in the form of a novel project engaging the now empty Manship. What if, I asked, a photographer entered the buildings and grounds and began to feel the presence of a poet on property, a feeling activated be small disturbances: rumpled sheets in a previously made bed, an open book on a table, a half-filled glass of water? And what if this photographer began to sense a kind of discourse between the poet and past residents of this famed sculptor’s house?

With this in mind, I began to vet the portfolios of photographers and filmmakers on Massachusetts’ North Shore, a process that stopped the moment I saw Tsar’s work. The moment I saw it, I knew that I had found the perfect partner.

TF: When Marc reached out to me about doing this project, I was thrilled, partly because the idea intrigued me, as did the notion of collaborating with a poet on the other side of the country, and because I live on the same street as the Manship and had wanted an opportunity to go into the house and studio barn.

“I have long been captivated by the notion of connecting across time and space and with the echoes of the past. I imagine it began because I moved often as a child and needed, in some intuitive way, to keep close to mind people who mattered to me. As my family tended to situate itself in older residences, I became sensitive to the presence of lives that had inhabited the rooms in which I stayed.”

~ Marc Zegans

BLM: What drew me to this concept was the idea of sensing a presence that is now absent. Years ago, I spent a weekend at a writing retreat in Gloucester, the site of Reverend Moonie’s multiple weddings of cult members, and in the hallway was this decrepit rocking horse… like we had in the 60s. It was SO spooky and SO Stephen King! Impossible not to stand there and wonder about the countless children who had sat on the plastic saddle… rocking…rocking… Anyway, Marc, it sounds like you’ve been aware of other worldly presences, what you call “sensitivities” since you were young. You describe some of your experiences with great ease, but were you ever frightened?

MZ: No, I never really was. I was very open as a child, curious about subtle, almost ineffable, experiences that I had with some frequency. I was, though, quite sad when this sense of attunement was blunted over time. What’s scary to me is not the experience of the things you mention, but the ways in which we distort them through labeling, grotesque mischaracterization, downplaying their significance, denial, and avoidance. The world feels much more alive, pregnant with the eros of energy seeking to be expressed, now that I’ve peeled back some of these dead layers and begun to experience again something of the open, unguarded attunement with the world around me that was so natural to me in childhood.

BLM: Tsar, had you had any similar experiences prior to this?

TF: For sure. I have been in old houses or even outside in areas of land, such as in historic cemeteries or ancient ruins in Mexico or Rome, where I have felt the presence of the previous occupants. I love trying to imagine what it was like to have lived during a particular period. I think probably a lot of people have similar experiences.

“When Samantha Harvey, a professor of English at Boise State, saw the photographs, she called me, and said, ‘Did you know that there’s an actual ghost in one of the pictures?’ A bit skeptical, as I had been through the photographs hundreds of times, I answered, ‘Tsar shot several of these through smudged glass.’ Samantha replied, ‘I’m not talking about those…’”

~ Marc Zegans

BLM: Tsar, did you enter the house with the intention of capturing a sense of previous residents, or was it spooky and you felt like you weren’t alone?

TF: I wouldn’t say I entered the house with any specific intention. I usually like to spend time at a location and see how the light falls and affects the environment and the space. While at the Manship, I couldn’t help but look at the furniture and curated items that remained in the house — sculpture, paintings, books, kitchenware, and chairs — and get a sense of what it might have been like to be there when the Manships occupied it. The house and its furnishings were, for me, a window into the past. There were times when the light created dark shadows, which leant themselves to some trepidation. Our collaborator Samantha C. Harvey, who wrote the forward to Ghost Book, observes there, “I was grateful for the lights being left on, because the inside of the house was randomly lit and there were slabs of shadows in the oddest places. Sometimes it felt like you would step into a hole; other times a shadow looked like a man standing.”

BLM: Tell us a bit about Samantha and how she became involved.

MZ & TF: Samantha’s a professor of English at Boise State with a scholarly interest in literary Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and Environmental Humanities. She’s also a fancier of creaky old houses with history behind them, and a friend of Marc’s. About midway into the project, she expressed interest in seeing the photo-essay. So, Marc sent her a copy. The next morning, Sam emailed him, then called shortly after to say, “Did you know that there’s a ghost in one of the photos?”

Sure enough, in the photograph that is now the centerspread in the book, one could discern the image of what looked to be a face in a muslin mask reminiscent of those worn by folks in Gloucester when it was a naval quarantine center, during the 1918 flu epidemic. Neither of us had ever seen this face in the image before, but now we could not unsee it. And we wanted to know more.

BLM: I saw that face!

MZ & TF: Samantha enthusiastically began to do some historical research on the property and the flu epidemic, joined the project, and eventually traveled to Gloucester, staying with her kids at the Manship, and continuing her research. Samantha made a huge contribution to the final project, eloquently placing the ghost residency both in broader historical context and in personal relation the images, the town, and her time in the house.

“From the first photo, I had a neck-prickling feeling that this house was not empty at all.”

~ Samantha C. Harvey

BLM: My first reaction to the photos was, Wow, these are truly lovely. I swooned over the empty chairs, the open doors, the rumple-sheeted beds. Only then did I go back and read the text at the beginning, and thought, Wow again; but a much bigger Wow! I went back to the photo sections and examined them thoroughly and slowly, noticing things I hadn’t the first time. Then I read the intro text again, then I looked at the photos again. Each time I was more and more enchanted by how beautifully the concept has been captured…even without the mysterious appearance of the apparitions, the sense of presence is powerful and indisputable -- people were born and fell in love and gave birth and cooked meals and wrote poetry and grew old and died. Their Essence lingers, evident in sight and in our uniquely-human reaction of ancient recognition and familiarity. I love that your hope that this book will give readers “a moment of wonder.” It did for me! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you about it.

TF: I appreciate your response to the Ghost Book, slowing down and spending time with the photos, noticing new things in them, that felt like it tapped into the essence of what my work is all about.

MZ: I echo Tsar’s feelings entirely. My hope all along has been that people will travel back and forth through the book, spending time with the photos, delving into the text, returning to the photos, sitting with images that are particularly engaging, and exploring what’s there, then turning the pages to get a sense of the larger story the book tells—a story in whose making they actively participate, bringing their experience, sense of wonder, and imagination to the encounter. I’m touched and truly honored by the energy you gave to your reading of Ghost Book, and to the verve with which you animate your experience. I hope that reading your response inspires others to approach it with similar warmth, spirit, and curiosity.

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