Stephanie Ellis Schlaifer is a poet and installation artist in St. Louis. She is the author of the poetry collection Cleavemark (BOAAT Press, 2016) and The Cloud Lasso (Penny Candy Books, 2019), her debut children’s book. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her poems and art have appeared in Best New Poets, Bomb Magazine, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, AGNI, The Offing, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Colorado Review, Fence, on the Poetry Foundation site, and elsewhere. She frequently collaborates with other artists, most recently with Cheryl Wassenaar on the installation The Cabinet of Ordinary Affairs at the Des Lee Gallery.
As a poet and installation artist, I am keenly concerned with the materiality of language—its specificity, poignancy, and authenticity. In my poems, I strive to create a singular sound and diction, one that establishes an intimacy with the reader, whether it’s familiar or unplaceable.
My first book, Cleavemark, is an extended lament through the architecture of houses. Its language borrows from familiar, if disparate, sources—the Bible, obscure movies, the clinical language of accident reports. With this source material, I create a speaker who can engage old memories with deliberateness and agenda.
In my new manuscript, Well Waiting Room, the poems explore the bureaucracy of the mind, imagining a group of government officials who preside over specific functions of the psyche. These interior bureaucrats include a press secretary, a curator, a librarian, and ministers for the cabinets of Self-Preservation, Desire, Lesser Offenses, Confrontations, Retribution, Misgivings, and many others. They operate in a space where the personal becomes the political and the political becomes the personal, tackling everyday indignations and global catastrophes.
In my visual work, material is language. I enjoy the tactility and unpredictability of working with everyday substances like salt, sugar, and soap. Sometimes I use these to alter found objects; other times, I cast objects from them, creating something tangible but unreachable. I like contending with materials that that carry their own agenda–you have to respect a thing for its own weight.
Much of my installation work is created in collaboration with the artist Cheryl Wassenaar, and our work merges sculpture, sound, video, text, and design to create what we think of as poems in space. I relish the chance to work with another artist because it means combining our skill sets and vision. It takes a lot of trust.