AWP2015: Everyday Oddities: Natural Fact and the Lyric Essay

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, Joni Tevis

Colin Rafferty kicked things off with a little history: In 1997 Seneca Review started publishing what they called lyric essays. In 2003 Graywolf published John D’Agata’s anthology of lyric essays, The Next American Essay. Many think lyric essays have become synonymous with memoirs but the essays in this panel are full of factual research.

Chelsea Biondolillo gave us what she called a case study. She read a short essay she wrote for a glossy nature/science magazine and then talked about what was missing: an “I,” a narrator, and “a sense of invention — not in the D’Agataian sense.” Then she read a lyric essay about the same subject, and the differences were very clear in terms of language, mood and both the narrator ‘s and the readers’ engagement.

Brian Oliu said that the goal of a lyric essay is less to inform than to share an experience. A lyric essay needs to have a layer of authenticity – facts – but how do you research emotion? He does something he calls “method writing” – not just researching but actually doing the thing he’s writing about (which works best, he confided, when you love the thing you’re doing – like playing and writing about 8-bit video games for his book Leave Luck to Heaven). He ended by saying that sometimes we embody a work but “at some point the work might embody you.”

Joni Tevis discussed her essay “Warp and Weft” from her book The World is on Fire (out today – if you’re at AWP stop by the Milkweed table!) and how hearing a song on the radio – Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” – made her think that her essay, about the South Carolina textile industry, might really be about recovery from crisis. She researched Memphis Minnie’s original, which took her back to the Great Flood of 1927, which took her back to the flood in Genesis, which made her thing about creation, destruction and loss. So she included this line of thinking in her essay. She wanted to end it with a mythic note, the way quotidian acts (such as harvesting sumac) can have a larger significance (using the sumac to make ink to write down memories that may have otherwise been lost).

Christopher Cokinos claimed that lyric essays have both a wide and focused perception. He talked about his book Bodies, of the Holocene, in which nature became for him “a more wholesome compass” than a fraught marriage. The architecture of his book is lyric, but lyric does not mean falsified. Lyric essays can be both trans- and inter-temporal, they can be complex with multiple perspectives, but perspectives are not falsification. He ended with a play on John D’Agata: “The lifespan of a lie exceeds us.”

Colin Rafferty was piqued by the fact that he couldn’t name all the presidents so he went on a mission to read 44 biographies of the 44 presidents in the (then) 44 months before the next election – and then write 44 essays, one about each president. “Nonfiction is reality,” he claimed, “but it doesn’t bind us to realism.” One of his presidential essays, “The Assassin’s Bullet,” uses a piece of music to give it structure. When McKinley was shot a band was playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) and Rafferty used the titles of the different sections of that work to structure his essay. He listed other lyric essays that use researched facts to great effect: “Judy Judy Judy” from Let me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello and parts of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Essays of this nature “look at the history that has brought us to this point so we can see it again.”

And here are some memorable moments from the Q&A session:

  • “Truth is attractive; everyone loves gossip.”
  • There’s no particular length for a lyric essay, but a “pressurizing frame” is helpful.
  • When structuring a collection of lyric essays it helps to have a good editor – or a form like a sonnet, where there is a “question/issue then pivot/turn then a resolution.”
  • Sometimes a structure presents itself.
  • Writing a lyric essay is exhausting.
  • Metaphors can act as a two-way membrane.
  • The lyric essay is deeply under theorized.
  • Sonic textures move the lyric essay towards poetry.
  • The last 18 years have been a kind of diagnosis creep.
  • You don’t have to have a dramatic story to write a great lyric essay.

This was a terrific panel and I’m looking forward to reading and rereading every work I linked to — while listening to Led Zeppelin and Schumann! Look for these writers in print, person and pixels. You’ll be glad you did.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity: Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at


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