FREUDENSCHANDE: PRIV(AC)Y — by Heidi Czerwiec

FREUDENSCHANDE [1]: PRIV(AC)Y

Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?

Unheimlichgesitzenüberraschung [2]

Usually the cool, even cold, of a seat is itself startling, which is why our society has installed carseat heaters in vehicles, or why the tricked-out Japanese toilets like the Neorest 600 feature pre-warmed seats to accommodate your commode comfort. Accommodating. So, if we prefer warmth, why is this experience so unnerving?

Schrecklichwarmsitzplatzgefühl [3]

It’s unnerving anywhere, but never more so than in a public restroom – a sudden, unwanted reminder that we’re all sharing the same facilities, as much as we try to ignore it or pretend otherwise. The tear of a tampon wrapper. The multiple unspoolings of toilet paper, indicating a number two, a code brown. A strategically-timed sniff or cough to cover a fart. Stinks that arise, that you feel implicated in, even if you weren’t the instigator, when a newcomer enters to a wall of smell just as you’re washing your hands.

Unerwartethindenhitze [4]

The public privy is an uncomfortable, even unwanted reality check on the illusion of privacy. An odd communion in reverse, based not on breaking bread together, but on shedding it. And the unexpected seat warmth is a weird intimacy physically imposed upon us by strangers. A stranger’s private space has intruded upon ours, a stranger’s privates previously pressed to the same place as our privates. Deprived. A piracy of privacy.

Heißefremdenhinternsitz [5]

And yet, this physically-imposed intimacy is physics. More specifically, thermodynamics. In conduction, heat energy flows from the warmer to the cooler object, the faster-moving hot molecules colliding with slower, colder molecules until they arrive at the same temperature together, vibrating in unison.

Unbequemischintimität [6]

It’s not that different from nonfiction – sharing intimacy with a stranger. Whether you’re the writer or reader, intimacies and empathies and energies are flowing between you, across the text, connecting you in ways neither of you expected. Only connect.

Restroom

But “intimacy” isn’t quite right, either. It’s too pretty, with its connotations of a welcome secret, an inside joke, a delicious confession/confection shared between friends, intimates. In much of nonfiction, we are welcomed as confidantes, or at least allowed as sympathetic eavesdroppers.

Belichtungschande [7]

No, what I’m describing is exposure at our most vulnerable. A sense of shame. Some nonfiction shares its author’s shame, a shitshow we’re invited to witness – not always well-done, not always as welcome. Shock is not shame, nor necessarily confession. But when done well, we feel blessed by the gift of shame shifted to us, a shared burden therefore lessened. We call it brave and we mean both of us, writer and reader, for facing it. We find its face human.

Both experiences – nonfiction and toilet seat – can be weird, even gross. But ultimately human, even sublimely so.

Which is why I praise you, unseen sitter, unmoved bowel mover who, in the course of your courses, shared your warmth with me, intentionally or no. I praise the warmth itself, offered freely, uncommodified, proof of your movement, moving me at the molecular physical level, and at the metaphysical. And I praise you, reader, with whom I in turn share my warmth, breaking the illusion of privacy, breaking the fourth (stall) wall, to convey this, a love commodious, to you.

[1] Joyful-shame

[2] Weird-sitting-surprise

[3] Horrible-warm-butt-feeling

[4] Unexpected-butt-heat

[5] Hot-stranger-butt-seat (not in a good way)

[6] Unwanted-intimacy

[7] Shame-of-exposure

 

***

HeidiHeidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.

 

Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.

AbbeyinAmericaCover

Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.

This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.

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In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.

In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.

Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”

Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”

Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.

At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.

After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”

There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.

As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.

Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”

Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.

Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.

Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.

***

1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.

 

Assay Interviews Deborah Poe

poe with serra _creditKarl Bode.jpg

Deborah Poe w/ Serra / Photo credit Karl Bode

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing poet and professor Deborah Poe speak on a panel at AWP with five fellow women writers-professors-scholars. I wanted to interview Deborah for Assay, so that we might benefit from Poe’s creative process, writing, scholarship, and work as a creative writing professor. [Read my brief report for Brevity on that AWP2014 panel, “Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose” with moderator and panelist Holly Wendt, and panelists Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, and Virginia Shank.]

[Renée asks] Deborah, in your talk in the panel I mention above, you discussed researching and crafting your full-length poetry narrative Hélène. It’s an extraordinary poetic novella where a woman in a factory-convent uses her imagination to escape the confines of manufacturing silk in western France (in the 19th century) by pretending she is in China. Hélène imagines she is elsewhere. Poetry can take us elsewhere, but it can also teach us to live right here. In Hélène, your heroine finds a level of personal freedom through imagery. I’m packing so much into this question, forgive me, but here’s a quote from Hélène:

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater

power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Might you talk more about what this quote means to Hélène, to you? How might the dead function like poetry?

[Deborah answers] It’s funny that you bring up that talk, because I just devoted an entire class to research, empathy, and character in my flash fiction course in the Fall 2016 term. I gave the same talk, adapted a bit for fiction. After giving the talk, I then had them do their own research. We watched a video on the White Helmets in Syria as well as Before the Flood (Stevens 2016)—the new film about climate change narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Using that research and taking the details they found most significant, they then wrote drafts. Some beautiful work emerged.

For Hélène, I want to include the entire page from the book, which will help me answer your question and contextualize for readers.

I find no portraits of kings, of high officials, men.

In old designs I make out the eyes—more animal in shape—

not men. Powers. Presence in an abstract way

Pragmatic, existential.

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Hélène has had exposure to both French and Chinese art and has had time to register their differences. (I imagined this access through books within communal areas like the office of the factory convent in which she works.) She finds the lack of portraits of kings and high officials in Chinese art emblematic and a differentiating factor between east and west. In the east, as she perceives it, there is not only more of a focus on the natural world but less of a focus on ego.

I see Hélène as deeply observant and intelligent. She is not limited in her thinking and imagination, despite the abysmal working conditions within which she finds herself. I wanted this book to hold both east and west in it without exoticizing the east.

I suppose if we think about this particular passage you cited, the dead function like poetry in that poetry is language. The living language has power. Through the patterns of this living language, there is order, regularity, organization, and experience reflected back to us in script and art.

helene.jpeg

[Renée asks] You have a unit in your creative writing courses called “Revisions and Preoccupations.” Could you tell us about that unit and why you developed it?

[Deborah answers] I provide many opportunities for revision, and consideration of rewriting, throughout the term. But having such a unit in my creative writing courses allows me to underline the importance of revisiting and revising work.

If you’re a creative writing teacher, you undoubtedly find a significant number of students that resist revision—some quite fiercely. “Revisions and Preoccupations” gives us a set aside time to look at revision strategies—whatever the genre—and to consider ways to simplify tackling work again with the same kind of editorial eye and engaged reading that students utilize in workshopping their peers and in discussing published authors.

In poetry, for example, I provide a handout which begins with quotes from acclaimed authors about their own revision process. Then I have various questions for elements of poetic craft for them to help guide rewrites. With point of view, for instance, I ask students if they have tried the poem in first or third person if it’s written in second, or second if they write a lot of their work in third person. Questions like these urge students not to just copy edit their work but to really think about how to make a piece the best piece it can be.

“Preoccupations” is related to “Revisions.” Perusing their work over the semester, students begin to recognize what themes or concepts they return to again and again. That in itself is helpful and often compelling. But recognizing their preoccupations can also provide a lens through which to think about revision. For example, J— realizes in looking through her semester’s collection of writing that she writes a lot of poems with speakers yearning to return home. Using that yearning to return home as a lens through which to study a particular draft helps her think about how she can enrich the description in her piece about the speaker’s beautiful island home, or what is truly at stake in a sense of loss or displacement and if what’s at stake is coming through, or about how changing diction might better serve the tone or mood of the piece.

[Renée asks] In what ways do these “Revisions and Preoccupations” impact your own writing practice?

[Deborah answers] I am highly creative and analytical and am fairly systematic in my approach to revision. I use very similar ones myself in the rewriting phase to the poetry strategies I mention above.

[Renée asks] Would you name a teacher who had a particular impact on your writing practice and your teaching methods? Why was that influence unique? How do you bring that influence into how you teach in your creative writing classrooms?

[Deborah answers] Dr. Bruce Beasley, my professor at Western Washington University during my first two years of graduate school, is the best teacher I ever had. He always took the time with my work. That enabled him to provide suggestions for readings and tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. He did not try to impose his own aesthetic on me either. (I am vehemently opposed to teaching that does so.) I endeavor to bring that openness to work, to take the time with students’ work for thoughtful feedback, and to suggest writers they read whenever I think it fitting.

Thank you for your time and answers and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

****

Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (forthcoming from Dusie Press), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson. Deborah served as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016.

Listicle: A Brief International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman Reading List:

In honor of International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman, here is a brief reading list:

Listicle: Resources for Teaching Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

I visited several creative writing courses last week, and Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” was mentioned several times.

  • Find the original essay, published in The New Yorker, here.

Here are some resources for teaching and reading this essay:

  • Find Lynn Kilpatrick’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, here.
  • Sarah M. Wells’ article, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth” (on the entire book), here.
  • Find Ned Stuckey-French’s commentary on the author, the essay’s form and context, including additional reading resources, here.
  • Find Jill Christman’s reflections in Essay Daily, including classroom exercises, here

If you have other resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Thank you!

-Renée

#AWP17 Conference Report — Penny Guisinger on “But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives”

awp#AWP17 Panel R156: But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives

Description: When we’re writing about hot button topics such as sexual assault, domestic abuse, and poverty, there are often expectations about how the story should go. These common archetypes can be deeply held not just by general readers and publishing’s gatekeepers, but also by our inner selves. The writers on this panel share strategies for sorting out how society thinks we ought to have responded to trauma from how we actually did, and when and how to resist the pressure to conform to an expected line.

Panelists: Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz

Conference Report

Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives followed some Hollywood-esque formula? If life’s events lined up in a chronological order that made a clean narrative arc; if it was clear who the good guys are and the bad; if people engaged in consistent and predictable behaviors; if we knew enough not to open that basement door and shakily descend into the darkness below? Wouldn’t that be especially nice for us memoir writers? Not only would the writing be easier, but marketing plans would practically implement themselves, and we would all retire early after selling the movie rights.

This is a nice fantasy, but it’s not what happens. It’s not how life happens. And it’s not how great memoir happens either.

The five panelists participating in But That’s Now How It Was at AWP 2017 shared stories of living, writing, and publishing stories that stubbornly did not follow the formula. Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz each authored memoirs that captured their lived realities, which are more complicated (and harder to sell) than other, more predictable plot tropes. Panelists shared stories of being people first, writers second, and marketable commodities third, all in the face of pressure to prioritize differently.

Each author’s experiences in the writing and publishing of their book was different, yet also alarmingly the same. Zolbrod’s book, The Telling, tells the story of being the victim of child sexual abuse. She was asked (or told) to recast it as more of a recovery book to make the marketing easier. She resisted pressure to depict this part of her life as a “Gothic horror story” because “life is more nuanced than that.”

Anderson’s book, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, about the “unraveling of a violent marriage in post-Katrina Louisiana,” similarly pushed back against publishing categories. She thinks of her book as a love story; one that is funny, beautiful, and about a family. “The story was all of these things,” she said. She ended up turning down a potentially lucrative publishing contract in favor of one that allowed her to tell the story as she experienced it: with nuance and depth.

Laurie Cannady was admonished by a visiting lecturer in her MFA program for having a life that fit “every possible stereotype of a black girl growing up where you grew up.” Further, she was informed that her abuser’s choice to abuse both children and adults was something that just didn’t happen. “What I heard was that my story didn’t exist.” Her book, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, says otherwise.

Lynn Hall’s experience of publishing Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience was similar. On the road to publication she was asked to leave out the fact that she was sexually abused as a child. “This is a story of repeat victimization,” said Hall. “The book has three perps. People didn’t like that.” She has also had interviewers chop up her sentences and put them together in ways that make it sound like she blames the Air Force Academy far more than she does. “Markets like good and evil.”

Wendy Ortiz found that choosing a small press was one way around these pressures. Her book, Excavation, is about childhood sexual abuse she experienced as a teenager. But her teen self, refusing to be a trope, thought she was having a love affair, and did not see herself as a victim. That’s the story Ortiz wanted to tell: one with complications and honesty. She did not use the words victim or perpetrator, and larger publishing houses had a hard time with the idea that something we all know is terrible could be, in fact, not that kind of terrible. “I’m not supposed to be ambivalent about this,” said Ortiz. “But I treasure ambivalence.”

Because women’s experiences of violence have become politicized narratives, each of these writers had to navigate conversations with an entire industry that exists to make money first and art second. And while smaller presses can have more latitude, offering shelter, the messages also come from agents, workshop leaders, family members, friends, and the psyches of the writers themselves. Anderson talked very specifically about the internal pushback she created against her own story and the need to address it before she could even write the book.

There’s certainly no single way to get around the problem, but Cannady offered five very specific pieces of advice to anyone at any point in the journey who hears anything that sounds like, “You don’t get to have that story” from any other person. Ready?

  1. Fuck ‘em. (This was especially appreciated by the audience, and truly – in the heart of this Assay guest blogger – set an important standard for dropping of the F-bomb at this year’s AWP.)
  2. Write beneath the stereotypes. Go beyond what’s “expected.”
  3. Write in a way that attacks those stereotypes if they appear in your story.
  4. (Also received a lot of nodding and knowing noises of agreement from those present.)
  5. Let go of shame. Shut out the voices telling you not to share. Accept questions, but don’t accept berating. (She gave the audience permission to resort to use of mace or hand-to-hand combat, as necessary. We all fucking wrote that down.) (See?)

In her introductory remarks, Zolbrod posed questions that came up for her across the eight years in which she prepared for and wrote the book. They were questions that, it seemed, everyone on the panel had to face at some point during the process. There’s the struggle with the ugliness of associating oneself with one particular life event and its associated labels and connotations. There are questions about who might launch an attack as a result of the story being told. There’s the fear of being called a liar. Further, there’s fear of what happens if the story is not told. What if writers everywhere caved to the pressure and were either silenced or forced into those Hollywood-esque narratives? What if all our recorded stories actually followed that easy-to-follow narrative arc?

Maybe that’s not such a nice fantasy after all.

Suggested Reading List:

Every title by every one of these panelists. Every. Title.

***

Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the Founding Artistic Director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. 

#AWP17 Conference Report — Rachael Hanel on “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”

awp#AWP17 Panel S280: Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography

Panelists: Sarah Blake, Sarah Domet, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Kathleen Rooney, Anthony Michael Morena

Description: Traditional biographers aspire to get out of the way of their subjects in order to render objective portraits. These panelists take the opposite approach, emphasizing the impossibility of ever creating such a portrait and using this not as a failure but as an opportunity for imagination and interactivity. At this event they present examples, research and writing methods, and mixed media techniques for adapting history into literature, offering new modes of presenting the past and the people in it.

Conference Report

One piece of advice from David Shields helped Kelcey Parker Ervick re-envision a biography she was writing: The notes are the book.

When she came across that advice, Ervick was struggling with telling the story of Božena Němcová, a 19th century Czech writer of fairy tales. Ervick wanted to write about Němcová’s complicated relationships, but so much was unknown. After coming across advice from Shields, Ervick’s focus became clear. Instead of trying to write a more traditional chronological narrative, Ervick decided to look at her notes and realized she could use found texts, handmade images and postcards written by Ervick to Němcová to create the story. The result was The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova, published in 2016 by Rose Metal Press.

I attended the panel as someone who is writing a narrative nonfiction biography, but not all of the panelists write nonfiction. Blake is a poet, Domet is a novelist, Rooney is a novelist and nonfiction writer, and Ervick and Anthony Michael Morena use essay to bring characters to life. Still, I found value in all of their approaches to biography even if the end result was fiction.

Blake described her process of researching information on Kanye West to develop Mr. West (2015, Wesleyan Poetry Series). She became intrigued with West when she learned that his mother died around the same time that Blake’s grandfather died. Blake’s primary method of research on West was daily Google news alerts on the singer. Blake noticed parallels between her experiences and West’s, and she responded to those parallels in poetic form.

Kathleen Rooney took an ekphrastic approach to biography when writing about the Belgian artist René Magritte. She’s been a lifelong fan and translated his selected writings in a 2016 book (René Magritte: Selected Writings, University of Minnesota Press). Now, Rooney is telling the story of Magritte through his work, his wife, Georgette, and his dog, Lulu.

“From pictures, we learn how to see and how to be,” Rooney said.

Sarah Domet used the life of St. Agatha to inform her novel, The Guineveres (2016, Flatiron Books). She said her end goal was not simply to retell St. Agatha’s story, but to use her story to develop themes in her novel of the female body and desire. Often, the stories about the lives of saints were told in a way to highlight their goodness as Christian women and to serve as an example. In her novel, Domet offers more ambiguity regarding St. Agatha’s life. She wanted to create an internal portrait of St. Agatha, to get into her mind and speculate on what she was thinking.

“I wanted to wrangle the story from white male Christian biographers, to restore her to her full complexity and humanity,” Domet said.

Anthony Michael Morena also wrote about a saint of sorts, the “secular saint” Carl Sagan. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (2016, Rose Metal Press) is a mix of poetry, flash fiction and essay that tells the story of 1977 recording that was sent out into space to represent the whole of the human experience. Morena said he focused on the “extremely boring details” of Sagan’s life, for example, lunchtime at home with his wife. Most biographies of famous people leave out those mundane activities, even though it’s those details that people will identify with. Morena used Cosmos, a 13-part TV documentary about space produced by Sagan, for inspiration.

Morena and Ervick included themselves in the biographies they wrote. Morena folded his experiences as a New Yorker into Sagan’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Ervick found similarities between her life and Němcová’s and wanted to write to Němcová to highlight those parallels. For example, Němcová was not happily married and took many lovers. When Ervick first discovered Němcová, Ervick was in a failing marriage. As she continued to write and research, her marriage dissolved and she fell in love again.

She wanted to explore “the dialectical relationship between two lives and the new possibilities that emerge” from that, she said.

When an audience member asked the panelists how they decided to insert themselves into the narrative of others, Morena said we’re always writing about ourselves, even when it seems that we’re not.

“Even when we’re trying to be altruistic, we’re always drawing that line back to ourselves,” he said.

***

Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

#AWP17 Conference Report — Tara Betts on “The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism”

awp#AWP17 Panel F134. The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism

Description: From the early rap record liner notes to the annotation explosion of Genius.com, hip hop artists and audiences have always engaged the written as well as the oral textuality of rap lyrics. However, treating hip hop lyricism as written literature is a fraught proposition. Locating rap at the crossroads of written and oral traditions of African American culture, the panel evaluates rap as a written art that is symbiotically wedded to oral culture.

Panelists: Victorio Reyes, Derik Smith, Tara Betts, Jonah Mixon-Webster

Conference Report

Tracie Morris, former slam poet, author, performance and sound artist, professor and Coordinator for Performance + Performance Studies at Pratt opened the panel by drawing connections between her essay in An Exaltation of Forms (edited by Katherine Varnes and Annie Finch about 15 years ago) and the study of poetics and hip hop. Her opening comments made thoughtful insights about the papers by four panelists—three of them poets in their own rights, two of them Ph.D. candidates, and two of them professors, all of them deeply interested in hip hop. The clear through-line found in the panelists’ varied approaches would be that the voice serves as a vessel for poetry and embodies a number of texts that are subversive, rich, and full of historical contexts.

When Victorio Reyes Asili opens the panel, he discusses how hip hop not only has connections with the ancient oral legacies of global cultures, but that hip hop also has ties to the internet’s beginnings via the transcription of hip hop lyrics, so hip hop is not just performed, but also read. Asili particularly discusses how Regina Bradley notes the close timing of OHHLA being started in the early days of the internet and how the poetry of hip hop has been transmitted via technology:

“Think of all the word doc files, notepads, mp3s, and 8-track recordings, a nearly limitless ocean of compositions all sharing one thing in common; they are all composed in a related poetic verse. And these verses that we experience as listeners to a poetic, musical performance are also verses that we seek out as text, text that we read, share, and annotate. When we read these texts, we honor the lyrical skills of Hip Hop’s craftspeople. As the legendary Rakim put it: ‘I like to be read.’”

In making these connections to past oral traditions and the perpetuation of hip hop through technology, Asili sets the stage for Derik Smith to discuss the parallels between the presentation of hip hop artists with Black Arts Movement poets and preachers. He begins by mentioning “figures like Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni, who in the Black Arts era created populist poetics that was meant to help conjure a social and cultural revolution” but quickly references Kanye West and Notorious B.I.G. sampling Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets respectively. Rather than relying on the same underlying disdain of “porkchop preachers” and the Black church as a pacifying force, Smith articulates how hip hop artists find another approach in the work of preachers:

“Instead the poems needed to vibrate with the Dionysian power that was best exemplified in the oral artistry of the black preachers—and so, in their Oedipal battle against the patriarchs of the black church, BAM poets became versions of the preachers they sought to overthrow and replace.  They did this because they wanted to connect with the black folk classes who had for so long ignored the black artist-intellectuals who were wrapped up in the tar-baby of the Alabaster page. Listen to what Baraka wrote in 1970, “Simple faith, like church people say, that’s what we want—hard rock emotional faith in what we are doing. The same way your grandmama used to weep and wring her hands believing in Jeez-us, that deep deep connection with the purest energy, that is what the Nationalist must have” (Raise, Race 143). Realizing that it was the ritual and inspirational power of the church that galvanized the masses, these new intellectuals committed themselves to an ecstatic, liturgical and eminently oral poetics that emulated the art of the preachers in its moans, repetitions, elongated vowels, antiphonal cadences and additive oral formulas.”

This idea of how the poetry sounds impacts the narratives and how they are received. It also makes them easier to remember, so when Jonah Mixon-Webster discusses the power of ad-libs as a onomatopoeic device and a method to make side commentary or create rhythm. Mixon-Webster describes ad-libs as “Those glancing quips that peek through a moment of pause between a lyricist’s bars. The little phrases echoing from the background, the ones you find yourself waiting to chant along with,” and mentioned several examples, most notably Lil’ Jon known for “YEAH!” and “Okaaaaaayyyy!” However, the overarching idea of crafting memorable moments paired with concrete details and pleasurable sounds is more prominent in his talk:

“Now moving forward to what is also pleasurable about the adlib, we see that has much to do with its manipulation of the written and oral/aural textures of a phrase. Though as we’ve witnessed, many rappers may utilize similar lexicons, yet it remains that rappers are still able to use the affirmative in a way that can be felt and nuances.”

Tara Betts concluded the panel by beginning with an anecdote while writing and working in a coffee shop where she is listening to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce in October 2016. During the same time period when Nicki Minaj bowed down to Ms. Lauryn Hill as an act of deference. In doing so, Betts frames her essay with discussing how women’s voices in hip hop have been limited in some ways, but these two women found success that is not only empowering for young women, but also subversive in their rhyming bars and their sung vocals. Betts discussed how both women assumed different roles, and in the case of Minaj, different characters and personas. She then drew connections between their functions as emcees with Roland Barthes’ essay “The Grain of the Voice” and other Sound Studies scholar Adriana Caraveros’ essay “Multiple Voices.” In doing so, Betts explains how Barthes’ feminizing of the voice limits the capacities of women like Hill and Minaj who have expanded the possibilities for the female voice in hip hop. She mentions how Morgan Parker and Barbara Hamby have referenced Beyoncé and Lil’ Kim, so there is an emerging thread of women raising their voices in this genre’s craft.

***

Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue” as well as the chapbooks “7 x 7: kwansabas” and “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali.” Tara holds a Ph.D. from Binghamton University and a MFA from New England College. She currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Marissa Landrigan on “Imagining the Essay”

awp#AWP17 Panel R169: Imagining the Essay

Description: Imagination, which might be defined as unfettered curiosity, a hunger for inner adventure, and a willingness to incarnate in the other, is at the heart of the essayist’s craft. On this panel, four essayists/teachers of the form (representing personal, lyric, narrative, and hybrid subgenres) discuss ways to imagine into one’s work by reconceiving structure and time, inviting contradictions and collisions, attending to the strangeness of fact, and moving aurally and physically with language.

Panelists: Rebecca McClanahan, Lauret Savoy, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson

Conference Report

I’ve always loved talking, thinking, and writing about the essay’s imaginative power, and the four writers serving on this panel are among my favorite practitioners of the form, so I was incredibly excited to attend this panel. Then, Ander Monson walked into the room wearing a Predator mask. I knew this was going to be good.

monson

Rebecca McClanahan (the panel’s moderator, or, “liberator” as she said she prefers) began by declaring that, contrary to any perceived threat, “the imaginative essay is very much alive.” I certainly wouldn’t argue otherwise after leaving this panel, wherein each writer articulated and reflected on the vital, pulsing, wriggling nature of their work.

McClanahan focused on what she called the primary element of the essay: movement. She said that, in investigating what she admired about some of her favorite essays (citing Barbara Hurd’s “Moon Snail” as an example), she discovered the most of the shifts and turns in a good essay could be described using active verbs. The essayist may pivot, collide, zoom in or out, straddle expanses, and more. In a piece of writing not driven by plot, McClanahan said, “the rocky landscape and terrain of the mind” is more than enough to create movement. She encouraged us to welcome “ifs, ands, and buts” into our essays to create this kind of dance, and ended by saying that the most important question an essayist can ask herself is “at what point am I most divided?”

Next up was Lauret Savoy, who brought to the podium a stone and began: “I’d like to say a few words about ghosts and silence and race and the fugitive pieces of memory and history.” Savoy characterized her own work as uncovering the strata of history, told and untold, and spoke to the imaginative necessities that work often entails. She reminded us that, though we all know history is a privileged narrative, this means some stories have been intentionally eroded and obscured. The imaginative act, then, is to uncover and excavate and put the eroded world back into language.

It was during Savoy’s presentation that my sense of what this panel could be about began to shift. I came largely for craft ideas, and McClanahan’s discussion of movement was an excellent exercise I tried in my class the following week. But Savoy, and then Lia Purpura, reminded me of the larger world and the role the essayist can play in our culture.

Purpura began with a statement that underpinned most of the conference: “Well, everything’s changed, hasn’t it?” She continued by admitting to a recent struggle with the question of how and why we teach the imaginative essay in a cultural and political climate that seeks to decimate language and truth, and spent her time discussing some specific strategies she has found to guide her teaching since the U.S. presidential election. Namely, Purpura said she has been worked to make explicit a discussion of the values we uphold by writing creatively.

Living like a writer, Purpura reminded us, means resisting passive reception, and unchecked consumption; what, in the era of Trump, could be more important? But beyond simply knowing these values are a part of her class, Purpura discussed the idea of teaching specific practices that feed her students and develop their minds. She spoke, for example, of the practice of keeping a journal, not just for the purpose of strengthening one’s writing ability, but as a place to experience and explore shades of perception, to questions of oneself, to welcome doubt and uncertainty. Purpura also spoke of learning to work with art time — the slow, meandering progress of a mind creating — rather than urgent striving for simple production.

Overall, Purpura said, the values at the heart of imaginative behavior are the very things that make us human, and can therefore be a form of active resistance, a “place where the deepest roots of civically important values — empathy, curiosity, questioning — are planted.”

I scribbled like crazy during Purpura’s segment of the panel, grateful for the sense of significance she lent to our writing and teaching work. And even the panel’s closing speaker, trickster Ander Monson, walking to the podium with a mask on his head, continued to reiterate the importance of what we do.

Early in his presentation (after being forced to remove the mask so he could breathe and be heard), Monson spoke about the cinematic technique from the original 1987 Predator film wherein the camera periodically occupies the perspective of the Predator. This, he said, is the central technique of the essay: imagining ourselves into another’s perspective. He praised the “cognitive work it takes to imagine yourself inside another,” to see as another, to speak and tank a different way. And, ultimately, he reminded us that when we occupy these different imaginative spaces in an essay, we are really just exploring playing different versions of ourselves.

What could be more important, in a world that seeks to shun and silence any form of difference, than finding a way to maneuver ourselves into those silenced spaces? Of giving voice to the other and working to build empathic connections across divide?

I left feeling inspired and invigorated, to be sure, but also charged with a sense of responsibility, a reminder that the essay’s imaginative power — always valuable — may be a crucial element to preserving our humanity in these dark times.

***

Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, April 2017), and her essays appear in numerous journals including Orion, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Katie Hatcher on “What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know”

awp#AWP17 Panel S142: What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know

Description: In 2017, what message does an all-white masthead send to writers of color? Beyond the content of their work, what issues must these writers contend with in publishing? Four writers of color and one white editor explore real and perceived tokenism, the pressure to change a story or voice to fit an editor’s racialized assumptions, the continued erasure of writers of color in the canon and awards systems, and the highs and lows of working with editors in the face of these and other challenges.

Panelists: Deesha Philyaw, Dennis Norris II, Patrice Gopo, Lisa Factora-Borchers, Jennifer Niesslein

Conference Report

In 2017, we’re all working together to become a more unified, supportive world. So when I saw that AWP was hosting a panel entitled “What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know”, I knew it was something I needed to hear. The result was a candid, frank, and necessary discussion that gave some insight to this young, white aspiring editor as to how to cultivate not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but how to work to create an industry where the marginalized are made central and mastery of voice is paramount.

The panel was made up of four writers of color, one of whom is also an editor. These are people who know what they’re talking about, who have experiences that they draw from in dealing with the mostly-white world of publishing.

The panel was proposed and intended to be moderated by Jennifer Niesslein, editor of the web magazine Full Grown People, who unfortunately was unable to attend. The idea for the panel came out of Jennifer’s desire to better understand the needs of writers of color. She could see that writers of color are often tokenized and marginalized, and she wanted to amplify their voices. In Jennifer’s absence, one of the panelists, Deesha Philyaw, stepped up to moderate.

Deesha is a freelance writer; her book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, was co-authored with her ex-husband. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and contributes to The Rumpus. Her co-panelists were Patrice Gopo, whose work can be seen in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Dennis Norris II, whose fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly and Apogee Journal, and Lisa Factora-Borchers, a writer and editor of the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Assault and has written for Refinery 29, The Feminist Wire, and Bitch Media.

In light of the subject of the panel and subsequently this article, I feel I should also identify myself. I am a white woman in my mid-twenties. I was born and raised in Mississippi before moving to London to get an MA in Publishing. I now live in Pittsburgh and intern for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction. I feel the need to explain my background in order to expose and acknowledge my own biases and privilege. It’s the reason I attended this panel: I am aware of my privilege and I want to understand ways in which I can use it to amplify the voices that aren’t always heard.

The panel opened with a question that white writers don’t often have to consider when submitting their work to a publisher: What message does an all-white masthead send to you?

Dennis was the first to answer. When he sees that a magazine, journal, or publishing house’s leadership is mostly or entirely white, he’s “going to take a long pause” and consider whether he wants to send his work there. He feels that it signals that there is less space for his work at these publications and doesn’t want to waste time and energy by sending his writing to them.

Patrice agreed. When she sees that the leadership for a publication is all white, or even that they’re just a list of unidentifiable names on the publication’s website, she feels it’s likely the submission won’t be successful and that she won’t have anyone on her side, especially in a large company.

Lisa has sat on both sides of the desk, as a writer and as an editor. When she is looking for somewhere to submit, she is “strategic and protective” of her work. “It’s a form of self-care and pride,” she said. Lisa asserts that the writer has to believe in their work and find an editor and publisher who believes in it too, so the writer knows they’re making every effort for them.

As an editor, Lisa understands that an all-white masthead does send a message, even if it’s unintentional. If a company doesn’t make it clear that part of their vision is promoting diversity and equality, then they are “missing out on complex writing” and their talent will be “watered down”.

Fortunately, there is a way to communicate to writers shopping for places to submit their work that your publication is on their team. On your website, you should be intentional in your mission to inclusion and equality. Craft your mission statement to reflect this. If you do have people of color on your leadership team but the page introducing your masthead is a list of names, include head shots next to everyone’s name and title. And, especially, highlight your writers of color and what they bring to your publication.

As one might imagine, the writers on the panel all had experiences to share in which race came to bear, and most of the anecdotes were not particularly positive. Each writer agreed that often they were called on to be the “black perspective” on a subject, or that their work was chosen to be published merely to fulfill a quota for diversity in a publisher’s list. But they also had positive experiences to share.

Patrice gave us three characteristics that are helpful for a white editor to have.

  1. A willingness to collaborate. She said that she has had authors push their perspectives on her work and attempt to change her writing to fit the narrative they want to portray. This is not helpful to the writer, nor is it helpful to the reader, who won’t be getting an honest representation if the editor has his or her way. Being willing to truly listen, collaborate, and provide a platform for the writer is imperative to being a good editor.
  2. A sense of humility. White editors should acknowledge their bias and the fact that they won’t always understand the perspective of the writer.
  3. Show that you value the work. Whether with monetary compensation (equal, of course, to the amount paid to white writers), or with nominations for awards and distinctions, show that you didn’t publish the work because the writer isn’t white, but that you truly find their work inspiring, exemplary, and worthy of recognition.

Lisa suggested that, when working with white editors, writers of color try to work exclusively with intentional editors who will be helpful in guiding them through the editorial and publishing process. Her experiences with editors such as these were positive because they “payed attention to the promise of [her] work” and gave her “thoughtful comments” and constructive critiques to help really improve her work. On the flip side of this, she’s had experiences where the editor gave her almost no feedback, simply telling her, “This is great”. Lisa noted that not only did this not help her hone her craft, but it made her feel like she was ticking a “diversity” box on their list and that her work wasn’t really valuable to the publication for anything other than that.

Another suggestion from Patrice, which all the panelists agreed with, was to read broadly. Step outside of your comfort zone with books. Dennis brought up the many reading challenges that have been circulating daring readers to read books that push their boundaries and broaden their understandings. Reading is known to increase empathy, and reading about experiences that differ from your own helps you better understand someone else’s worldview.

A question came from a writer of color who has become frustrated with all of the time and energy she has spent explaining privilege and prejudice to white people, in particular to publications with white leadership and white editors. She wanted to know how to handle these questions in the future and, half-jokingly, asked if she should start charging for the service. The answer from the panel was simple and unanimous: Just stop. It should not fall to people of color to constantly explain white privilege and the systems that keep it in place. In 2017, white people have white people for that. If the questions are coming from a sincere place, it is likely that the questioner has white friends who can answer them and guide them through their privilege—and there is always Google. There are multitudes of articles and think pieces like this one, this one, and this one, that can help you understand your own privilege, what to do about it, and what to do with it.

The overall lesson from the panel was this: Try. Try sincerely. Make an sincere and open effort to seek not only diversity, but strong voices to tell a strong story. At any publication, it’s the editor’s job to curate and cultivate the list they publish. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the editor more than anyone else to be intentional about finding writers of color with honest, powerful voices that deserve to be heard.

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Katie Hatcher is an avid reader, somewhat reluctant writer, and aspiring editor. She currently interns for Creative Nonfiction Magazine and has an MA in Publishing from Kingston University.