Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of poets talking about nonfiction – the panelists all consider themselves poets first. The lyric is defined as a mode of poetry short in form, concentrated in time, subjective in its observations, personal in nature, and musical in quality. He cites Coleridge’s poetic faith as a willing suspension of disbelief – how does the way in which lyric essays engage with poetic faith/belief compare and contrast with lyric poems? What are we willing to believe/willing to suspend disbelief about? Do we experience belief differently depending on genre?

He gives the example of Carolyn Forché’s piece “The Colonel,” which is labeled in books as a prose poem, a lyric essay, or flash fiction, though it seems to fulfill all of the parts of the “lyric” definition above. There are variations in its mode of delivery: short, declarative, detached sentences, which are broken by lyric moments that swerve into figurative comparisons – not reporting, but creating the experience for the reader. Yet he’s noted that students treat it differently depending on how it’s presented to them: if it’s essay or flash fiction, they analyze it for character; if it’s a prose poem, they assume it really happened and want to know why she was there, what happened next, etc.

Justin Bigos: Tony Hoagland considered himself as a poet who drifted toward narrative out of necessity, to give his poems structure, yet felt like the poetry was still the most important part. Bigos says he foregrounds lists, catalogues, and litanies in his work, and references Marianne Borich’s essay in In the Blue Pharmacy on the use of litany in poetry, focusing on its use by Whitman. He calls litany a suspension of time, suspension of a moment, and reads a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

So how does this work in essay (as opposed to poetry)? Bigos cites Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and shows how Gay uses litanies to simultaneously demonstrate belief as well as doubt.

Sejal Shah: Deborah Tall and John D’Agata quote Helen Vendler, who says of the lyric poem, “It is suggestive rather than exhaustive.” Shah also notes the use of verbs in John D’Agata’s description of the lyric essay: leaping, meandering, jumping.

Shah is interested in gaps, white spaces – what can’t be said? what fractures when we try to say it? how does trauma or grief fracture both memory and language? She’s also interested in leaps of faith and logic, the associative rather than the linear. She talks about the attempt to write “Street Scene” in Paris while grieving her best friend’s suicide, and how travel and walking seemed tied up in that – Anne Carson says that pilgrims are those who figure out things by walking. Here is a link to read Shah’s “Street Scene.”

Bojan Louis: spoke about trauma, abuse, and memory, and the blank spaces left by them, and the issues of belief/disbelief (by others, and of the self). He points to Afaa Michael Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, three books of poetry that deal with a history of abuse, incest, racism, the death of his son, years of factory work, and of coming to poetry. [Louis reads selections.] Louis notes that poetry hasn’t worked for him while writing about trauma, though – that’s come through nonfiction.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Editor’s Note: Heidi Czerwiec contributed many posts from #NFNOW15. We are most grateful to her for making the conference so accessible to those who were unable to attend & for preserving a record of these talks. Thank you, Heidi!


  1. Reblogged this on Sejal Shah and commented:
    I had a wonderful time attending the NonfictioNOW 2015 conference at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here’s a write-up of the panel I was on, about “the lyric moment” in both lyric poems and the lyric essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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