Robin Blyn, an English professor at the University of West Florida since 1999, has been observing the details and aesthetics of the freak show and its relationship to political and artistic ideals and revolutions throughout the course of history. She is releasing her first book this month, “Freak-Garde; Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America” and will be celebrating with a book release party and reading at Open Books. She took a few minutes to discuss her latest work and the inspiration behind it.
IN: How did you first get into writing?
BLYN: I always loved writing. I was actually supposed to go to law school. One of the greatest things I ever did was not take the LSAT! It’s hard to write and be creative when you sit at a desk all day or in front of a copy machine, and luckily this job (teaching at UWF) has allowed me the freedom to be creative and write and finish this book.
IN: When did you first become inspired to start working on this book?
BLYN: It actually goes back to Seattle in the late ‘90s, where I was living at the time, and I was teaching. The Jim Rose Circus was really popular then in Seattle and there were a lot of freak shows around. Especially in New York too, and on Coney Island. And “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn was really popular as well. I started to kind of bring up ideas about humanity. Are freaks defined by biology or society?
IN: Were you able to attend many of the freak shows that were popular in the ‘90s?
BLYN: Yes, I was. The one’s at Coney Island—it was surprising how tame it was really. It was less about the display of physical differences versus people who do weird things to themselves. They’d have someone called Lifto—who would hang weights from his penis or something and then you have people hammering nails into their nose. It had become more like “I am the freak,” instead of “the freak is different from me.”
I went to a circus museum in San Antonio, Texas and they had all these publicity shots and photographs from old performers from the P. T Barnum circus. The Mathew Brady Photography Studio was right across from the circus — the images were very compelling. There were life stories presented with some of the photographs that didn’t really match up with what you were seeing. You’d have this picture of this very sexually inviting, dark-skinned woman, in tantalizing poses, and then the story presented would be of this shy white woman. It produces uncertainty, and this is something that the avant-garde loves. You can use that uncertainty to pose questions.
IN: Tell me a little about the event at Open Books.
BLYN: The event is kind of a celebration — a party for the publication of the book that I’ve been working on for many years. I’ll also be doing a little presentation, which is a chance to share some of my thoughts with the community about avant-garde art and its relationship to freak shows.
IN: You’ll be reading an excerpt from the book, called “The Avant-Garde, The Communist Party, and the Strange Case of Brother Nathaniel West.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?
BLYN: Well Open Books is a pretty politically engaged bookstore, and I know some of the volunteers, and that they are really interested in the 1930’s, so I thought they’d enjoy this. Each chapter in the book is about a new way to approach the freak show. Chapter one starts off in the 1890’s, kind of with the late silent cinema, and how sound technology made us change what we think a person is. Then later we get into the 1930’s and the human machine, and what happens after the communist party revolution doesn’t happen. How do you get people to want a revolution? We’ve got people waiting in breadlines then and they’re still rejecting it. The book itself is a little bit of a freak show because it’s a collection of many different themes and variations.
“Freak-Garde” Book Release and Presentation by Robin Blyn
WHERE: Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
WHEN: Friday, Feb 21
TIME: 7 p.m.