Assay’s Academic Year 2015-2016 Annual Report

cropped-img_4534.jpg

We’ve had a great academic year here at Assay. Thank you, all, for your contributions, for reading the journal, and for your support.

hipstamaticphoto-479148500.856242Next year, we’re looking forward to a journal focus on Best American Essays. A few of our questions: How do we conceive of BAE as the standard for our genre? How have the editors and/or contributors influenced the field? What pedagogical considerations do we have when we use BAE in the classroom? Essay Daily ran a fascinating series on BAE this past winter; if you have not seen those pieces, it’s well worth your time. Please find Assay’s call for BAE-focused submissions here. We continue to consider all submissions, and you can find our regular submission guidelines here. As always, if you have questions, send us an email. We’ll continue reading over the summer.

This past year, our main journal published a fall and spring issue: Assay 2.1 and Assay 2.2. We also published a Special Conference Issue featuring panel talks from NonfictioNOW, AWP, and ASLE.

During the NonfictioNOW (#NFNOW15) conference last fall, we published ongoing conference reports. We also published conference reports from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference (#cnfwc16). Many thanks for these contributions, which make it possible for those unable to attend to learn, too. When you attend a conference, please consider writing up a panel / reading / workshop report for our “In the Classroom” series.

Our ongoing “In the Classroom” series continues to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This past year we were also super pleased to feature student travel-writer Lauren Wilson’s contributions.

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or response papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

On a more personal note, this was my first year as Managing Editor at Assay. I’m thrilled to be part of our team, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think more deeply about the pedagogical aspects of our field and to explore how we craft nonfiction. Thank you to our Board of Directors for their insights and support. Thank you to our readers and contributors for their enthusiasm and support. And a very special thank you to Editor Karen Babine for inviting me to join Assay.

TootsieNov2015

Tootsie.

We’re looking forward to next year! Assay’s fall issue will release September 1st. Our “In the Classroom” series will continue on October 3, 2016.

Here’s to a great summer of reading and writing. I’m off to cuddle my Tube of Fur.

With gratitude,

 

 

#cnfwc16 — Twelve Quotes Full of “Insight and Inspiration” from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_H

  1. “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning. – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “With an outline you’re not going to write about what you don’t know you know.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “Save your seedlings.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Try writing by hand, because “your fingers are connected to your arm, the veins to the heart.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Instead of saying that the reader has to do some work, think of it this way: “The reader likes to participate.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “First draft writing is like no other kind of writing – you have to go into the woods and keep going. Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings, that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The biggest thing an editor can do for you is get [you] out of your head” – Jason Bittle

 

  1. “Immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting a story unfold.” – Maggie Messitt

 

  1. “If you don’t have belief in your own gut, develop it.” –Adriana Ramierz

 

  1. “Burst upon the page.” – Lee Gutkind  

    CNFwc16 program

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

****

Randon Billings Noble author photoRandon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

#cnfwc16 — Personal Essay at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HThe 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference worked hard—and well—to address the many subgenres of creative nonfiction, but as a personal essayist I was most excited to hear Kristin Kovacic speak on the panel “Revising Essays and Short Work.”

Kovacic identified herself as a writer of personal essays and spoke of them with both fluid eloquence and sharp intelligence.

“First draft writing is like no other kind of writing,” she said. “You go into the woods and you have to keep going.”

“Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” And this is where you start to revise.

For personal essay, revision involves distance. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own story, your own thoughts, your own feelings. But to ensure that you achieve a level of necessary distance, Kovacic asks three vital questions (adapted from Patricia Hampl’s excellent book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory):

  1. How many things is this about? (Don’t ask what this essay is about but how many things.) Then make a list.
  2. How are these things connected? (That’s where the surprises come.)
  3. Who do I represent? (This is a great question through which to achieve distance, which, in turn, shows the importance of the story.) Are you representing an innocent abroad, a third wave feminist, an only child, a motorcycle rider? How do you write differently as a representative as opposed to an individual?

After answering these questions you can turn to details. The details of the story you’re telling have to bridge two things: what happened, and how you make sense of what happened.

“The artful part,” Kovacic said, “is how you track your thinking. The creative part is following a mind a work.”

CNFwc16 program

Kovacic also suggested to always title your essay, even if your first title serves as a temporary, working title. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways. It’s an invitation” but it’s also an indication of what your essay is about. You may find that your essay’s content – and therefore title – changes drastically in the revision process.

Other helpful tips included:

  • “A resonant work picks up meaning each time you use it; a repetitive word doesn’t.”
  • “The best place to look about how to stick your ending is back at the beginning.”
  • “There’s a lot of mea culpa in this work that makes it honest.”
  • “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings – that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.”

For more wise advice from Kristin Kovacic, find her teaching at Carlow University or the Chataqua Institute, or read her essay “On Usefulness” for guidance by osmosis.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

***

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

 

#cnfwc16 — Connecting at the Creative Nonfiction Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_H

The ballroom fills with guests chatting, donning their red lanyards reading CREATIVE NONFICTION in white text. I sit three rows from the front, sipping complimentary coffee, looking around and wondering if I will make any friends. This is my first big conference, and these large socializing groups remind me of the high school cafeteria, searching for a face I know in the sea of grinning faces on the first day of school.

It doesn’t take long, however, and this isn’t like high school at all. I meet Ruth, a freelance journalist sitting next to me, and then Jackie, another twenty-five year old like me, eager to learn more about creative nonfiction. Soon we are talking about writing over coffee and I am at ease with my new peers when Anjali, conference coordinator, introduces Lee Gutkind, the godfather of Creative Nonfiction.

“Hey, Hi,” he says, holding up a friendly hand. He is glad we are here and to see how the conference has grown, how the genre has grown over the years. He tells us that Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, started twenty-three years ago in his dining room in Squirrel Hill, PA. That before, people laughed at the genre and its silly title “creative nonfiction,” that it was a struggle to legitimize the genre in the beginning.

“And now,” he continues, “we are growing like mad…. It’s a movement, not a moment.”

And over the next few days that’s what it feels like.

Jackie and I find that we are registered for the same classes, and later we go to lunch in the city. Over lunch in the park we exchange ideas, we scrawl notes on napkins, recommendations of writers the other should check out. We ask questions about creative nonfiction as a genre, the ethics, the faultiness of memory, and what we think still needs to be written about. And while meeting agents and editors is great, this is also why we come here. To share what we know in the hopes of learning more about ourselves and the craft of writing creative nonfiction. The conference could have any number of great classes and teachers, all fine and good, but it’s just as much about the small connections, the conversations at lunch, the discussions in the hallway of the hotel that make this conference so worth it.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

***

image1-3Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes poetry, comics, and nonfiction. Her work has been featured/is forthcoming in Brevity, The Offing, The Rumpus, Booth, Word Riot, Hobart, and was nominated by The Boiler for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She reads for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is an editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.

#cnfwc16 — Report from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HCreative Nonfiction’s (CNF) motto is “True stories, well told.” It’s also true that their annual conference held over Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania tried to please everyone. More than 150 writers at varying stages on their journey gathered for three themed days of panels and presentations: “Write,” “Revise,” and “Publish.”

The first day offered master classes with Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, and others. The second day featured the harder work of revision through research and adaptations. The final day focused on the realities of the publishing industry and do’s and don’ts of writing book proposals, agent queries, and platform building.

Rather than the traditional literary readings or workshops, the CNF staff hosted a nightly happy hour. Long lunch breaks encouraged attendees to explore the restaurants, cathedrals, and museums within walking distance. CNF also offered twelve conference scholarships to their “Writing Away the Stigma” fellows.

For a novice writer, Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference really was “three days full of insight & inspiration.” For the already well-published writer, it was refreshing. If attendees sought individual access to agents, editors, and publishers, they were generous and available. For CNF fans, small really was a better way to learn to tell a true story.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

***

Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @mscholesyoung

Topic – Resource List: Diversity / Difference / Power in the Writing Classroom

blue flowerIn the Creative Writing Pedagogy group, which is on Facebook, Rebecca Makkal asked the following question: “I’m looking for great essays (preferably online, assignable to graduate students) about diversity/difference/power in the writing classroom. Ideas?”

Many thanks to the following people who posted links to the following pieces in the discussion thread: Karen Babine, Don Hosek, Anna Leahy, Bich Minh Nguyen, DeMisty Philosopiae, James Ryan, Jennifer Solheim, and Ned Stuckey-French.

If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment, and I’ll add the link to the list.

— Here is a broad, recent look at many interwoven issues:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/the-program-era-and-the-mainly-white-room

— “Workshop is Not For You, by Jeremiah Chamberlin: The Proper Care and Feeding of Writers”. Originally published at Glimmer Train, it is no longer available at the University of Oregon blog link… if you find a link to this piece, please let us know.

— The book Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, edited by Anna Leahy. Two chapters deal with grading, plus other topics related to power.

— Bernice M. Olivas: “Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition,” published in Assay 2.1. See more here.

— “MFA vs. POC” by Junot Diaz. Available at The New Yorker here.

— Matthew Salesses has great recent work about this subject: “‘The Reader’ vs. POC” http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/fall-2015/the-reader-vs-poc/

Pleiades has an excellent four part series on rethinking the workshop. Here is part one: “Pure Craft is a Lie” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/. Here’s the fourth in the series (you can also access the other posts through this link): Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be?

— “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course by Joy Castro” can be found here: http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/fall-2015/racial-and-ethnic-justice-in-the-creative-writing-course/

— Vida’s “Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop” can be found here: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-racial-invisibility-and-erasure-in-the-writing-workshop/

— Find excellent resources at the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, including David Mura’s “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin)” and Tonya Hegamin‘s “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview.” Both address issues of difference, and Mura’s piece speaks directly about what is required for white writing teachers to appropriately evaluate work by students of color.

 

The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

***

Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Lauren Wilson: Writer’s Block While Traveling Abroad

Political_World_Map_IrelandUK

It has taken me eight months, but I have come to the conclusion that there are three types of writer’s block when studying/spending significant amounts of time abroad. These three types come in stages, and even my non-writer roommates agreed that they went through these stages as well when it came to writing their own blogs to keep family and friends updated. I don’t think everyone experiences these, but I know at least a few people who share the same struggle, so I’m going to break them down and try to figure out how to get over them.

Image-3

Street musicians at the Plaza Navona, Rome, Italy

The first stage is “I’m not writing because I am so overwhelmed by all of the new and exciting things around me” type of writer’s block. This stage can actually happen multiple times while abroad. It can happen when you first get to the place where you will be leaving for the next couple of months (in my case, it happened in both India and Ireland), but it can also happen every time you leave that place for a little while and go somewhere new (for me, it happened again in England, Austria, Hungary, Scotland, Greece, Italy, and Spain). It happens when there is so much going on and so much to see that you don’t want to miss anything because you decided to sit down and write about it. It happens when you tell yourself, “I’ll just write about it later.” Then that later turns into three weeks and you suddenly realize you forgot the name of the person you met at the Hungarian baths in Budapest, which is unfortunate since they’re the entire point of the essay you’re trying to write.

Image-5.jpeg

The Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

There are two ways to combat this stage of writer’s block, I believe. The first is to just make yourself sit down and write down a few quick notes—nothing too in-depth, but enough to jog your memory when the time comes. The second way is to occasionally pull out your smart phone (because we all know you have one) and type a few notes into that about what you’re experiencing while you experience it. I carry a paper notebook with me all the time, but sometimes I prefer to use my phone for little blurbs because it is not as obtrusive and obvious in some situations as taking out my notebook. For example, in a street market it’s a lot easier for me to type a quick line into my phone than it is to stop and use my notebook. If someone at a street market said something that stood out to you, jot it down and expand upon it later. Something as simple as “Falafel guy, ‘Hey princess come back… I give you good price and my number, too’” is more helpful than keeping no record of it at all.

Image-4.png

A pedestrian street in Barcelona, Spain

The second type of writer’s block is the “I’ve been living here for a month and nothing is really that new or exceptional-seeming anymore” kind. It’s when you feel like you’ve explored everything there is to explore and are just living a normal life. It’s the stage where writing about the place seems like someone is asking you to write an exciting travel essay on your hometown and what goes on there. My solution for this stage of writer’s block is simple: find the seemingly ordinary things that make your place exceptional. Write about the everyday moments that aren’t so common anywhere else. In Galway, seeing someone have a beer after breakfast isn’t that unordinary. In Moorhead, Minnesota, that would be a little strange. To get past this stage of writer’s block, you need to regain the awe and excitement that you originally had about the place.

Image-6.png

Low tide on the coast near Doolin, County Clare, Ireland

The last stage of writer’s block here is the “Wait I only have a month left and have to do all the things” kind. It’s what happens when you realize you are leaving soon and haven’t ticked off nearly enough boxes on your bucket list for this place, and you suddenly feel an intense panic and fear of missing out. You suddenly put everything else on hold to go to that one pub you’ve walked by countless times but never actually walked in to, or to take the long way home because you’ve always thought about it but never have. It’s what happens when you’re suddenly impulse buying bus tickets to places you’ve heard about, but just never made the trip to. It’s the kind of writer’s block where you avoid writing because you’re scared you’re going to miss something memorable.

This, I think, is the trickiest stage of writer’s block. In a couple of months I probably won’t think so and will have half a dozen solutions that I could rattle off easily, but right now I’m stuck in this stage of writer’s block, and can’t seem to find an easy way out of it. For now, the best I can do is copy my ways of dealing with the first stage of writer’s block, and hope that I don’t miss out on too much while I’m here.

Editor’s Note: All photographs by Lauren Wilson.

***

LaurenWilson

Editorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

 

Sam van Zweden on “Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger,” by Fiona Wright

Writing the body is tough. As a thing with defined borders (like skin), and further borders within those borders (those we’re socialised to obey) that we dare not trespass against, it’s particularly tough to write the body in an open, curious, and freeing way. In attempting to write my own body, I constantly bump up against roadblocks – attitudes I dare not bend, taboos I fear to breach, assumptions I need to acknowledge before I can move past them and into something meaningful. It’s confronting territory, and possibly the highest stakes thing we can write about – that vehicle that allows us to be.

Compound the difficulty of writing the body by adding the controlling behaviours typically seen alongside eating disorders. The stakes become dangerously high. It’s no small feat, but Australian writer Fiona Wright manages to recreate this tension between control and chaos in her essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Echoing the open and closed written modes of Wright’s identity as both a poet and a critic, this work manages to strike a balance.

FW_Small acts.jpg

These essays take a variety of stances on hunger, as experienced through Wright’s own anorexia. Essays about travel explore the way encounters with the broader world have informed the author’s guilt and ambiguity towards eating, while other essays consider the ways that eating disorders are portrayed in the work of well-known and much loved Australian authors such as Carmel Bird, Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Wright’s pathology is reflecting in the writing as some of the obsessive detail-oriented thinking that is part and parcel of Wright’s experiences of hunger.

What makes this collection so exciting is Wright’s ability to effortlessly engage with theory, dipping in and out of ideas that might otherwise come across as quite heavy. While the subject matter is hefty, and rightly so (I’m not suggesting anyone approach eating disorders jovially), there’s an element of playfulness about the work. Curiosity is the driver.

There’s no doubt that writing eating disorders is fraught. Wright herself acknowledges this in her essay, ‘In Hindsight’, describing how her fellow patients refer to books like Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as ‘how-to manuals’ and ‘triggering as fuck’ (respectively). As a woman writing on the topic of eating disorders and hunger more generally, Wright must have been aware of the generic specificity of her subject matter. Eating disorder memoir = misery memoir, is the expectation. Cataloguing pathologies and redemptive recovery narratives seem to be the norm for other books on the topic. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of book Wright wants to write. She calls in theory from a number of sources – literary, scientific, historical – and at this point it would be easy to wield these things as weapons in the battle to beat down any possibility of her work being ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick lit’ – but, with a huge amount of grace, this isn’t what Small Acts of Disappearance does. Instead, Wright holds the theory she employs lightly. That’s not to say that she doesn’t take it seriously, because at times the book feels like a metaphysical and psychological puzzle. Rather, Wright experiments with various sources of possible explanations for the unexplainable, and she does so with curiosity, in a written mode that is distinctly female, and fiercely strong for it. Wright’s uncertainty about that experience is a weapon in its own right.

Small Acts… approaches the body and hunger with the openness of a poet, with the rigour and insight of a critic. It breaks open borders at the same time as it wrangles something unspeakable into a sensible shape.

It would be too easy for a voice like Wright’s to slip between the cracks in the Australian reading climate. Broadly, ours is not a readership (or reviewing culture, or publication culture, or award culture…) that deals well with hybrid forms. We prefer neat boxes. Our nonfiction comes overwhelmingly from older white men and tells our colonial history. Wright is part of a new generation and sensibility among nonfiction writers: the self matters. The small, mundane self matters. Hybrid and experimental styles offer something that ‘historical’ accounts and comfortable generic boundaries cannot. Small Acts is making its mark in the Australian nonfiction landscape, too – shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the work is object of plenty of discussion not only in literary circles but in mainstream publications, too. The dynamic is shifting: It’s okay to write things that tell humble (but deeply important) stories. It’s okay to write things that don’t fit cleanly into genre boundaries. It’s okay to write about yourself. Wright’s work is one of those leading this shift.

***

SAMVANZWEDENSam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. She has written for The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Killings, The Wheeler Centre and others. In 2015, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com.

 

 

 

 

 

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

images

I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

***

W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com