#AWP17 Conference Report — Vivian Wagner on “Essaying on the Edge: Teaching Alternative Forms of Nonfiction”

awp#AWP17 Panel S145: Essaying on the Edge: Teaching Alternative Forms of Nonfiction

Description: Hybrids. Microprose. Hermit crabs. Fraudulent Artifacts. Collage. Experimental nonfiction is an increasingly popular subgenre, inspiring anthologies, contests, and even bestsellers. It blurs boundaries and often resists definition – which can make it difficult to model and assess in a classroom setting. Join a panel of experienced instructors with a wide variety of teaching experiences as they offer lesson plans, tips, and tricks for effectively bringing this engaging subgenre to students.

Panelists: Chelsea Biondolillo, Silas Hansen, Alexis Paige, Marco Wilkinson, Brian Oliu

Conference Report

Hybrid forms fascinate me. Until attending this amazing panel, though, I’d never connected them to biology and the environment. All of the panelists discussed in various ways the vibrancy of hybrid forms, and Marco Wilkinson’s presentation, in particular, was remarkable for the connections he drew between the world of ecology and the world of writing.

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Wilkinson, a horticulturist and permaculturist in addition to being a writer, understands soil and botany and the places where things grow. He argued, in his presentation, that in ecological systems, edge zones – such as continental shelves and forest edges – are marked by a profound productivity and diversity. He connected these zones to the edge zones of writing, where different life forms come together, meet, clash, and converse. Out of this vibrant ecological conversation grows a wilderness of forms that are, literally, in the middle of things.

Hybrid literary forms, he argued, also spring up in the places where ecosystems meet, clash, and negotiate. And in these places, there’s an energy alive as anything in ecological edge zones. It’s the edginess of these places that makes them fascinating and, ultimately, the place where new ideas, thoughts, and approaches are born.

The edge, said Wilkinson, is an experimental zone, a liminal zone.

“These are spaces of productivity because they are a place of friction,” he said.

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Wilkinson talked about a wild edibles course he teaches, where he takes his students to parking lots and other edge zones, looking for wild plants, like ramps. He discussed the way that when you’re looking for plants like this, and you ask, “When do ramps appear?” one answer is in April. Another, more phenological, answer, is “when willow catkins appear.” This approach, which follows ecological time rather than clock time, and focuses on the interrelatedness of ecosystems, “privileges experience over the ticking clock.”

A key part of his presentation was the notion of cross-pollination, both between plants and between literary genres. He also addressed the permeable boundaries and borders between humans and animals, and the way that those, too, can be seen as fruitful edge zones. He discussed a book called Creaturely and Other Essays (Turtle Point Press, 2009) by Devin Johnston, which includes descriptions of Johnston’s walks around St. Louis with his dog, and the way that the experience opens up the writer’s sense of place.

Wilkinson offered a prompt from this book: follow how an animal goes through or experiences a town, and create a map of human life afterwards. Ask yourself, where do human maps brush up against animal maps?

He talked, too, about Rebecca Solnit’s writings about cities like San Francisco, and how she brings together wildly various and contrasting maps, such as one for the city’s cypresses, and another for its murders. The edges between such disparate ways of seeing the world, he said, create a friction zone. A zone of creation. An edge zone.

Ultimately Wilkinson argued for a poetics and politics both of “seaming” – examining those places that stitch together vastly different ecosystems and approaches – and “seeming” – recognizing that everything, finally, is provisional, temporary, and experimental.

I loved Wilkinson’s presentation about edge zones as a way of understanding hybrid literary works because it was a beautiful and moving essay in itself, taking to flights of metaphorical fancy in order to capture the spirit and impulse behind hybrid forms. His presentation was itself a hybrid form, drawing on academic and scientific models in order to create a new kind of conference presentation, one that imagined a new way of thinking and speaking about literature. In fact, I found myself, as he talked, drawing flowers and grass alongside my notes, creating my own edge zones, my own cross between writing and art. Such was the spirit of his presentation.

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The other panelists, too, offered valuable contributions to the conversation about hybridity in literature. Chelsea Biondolillo talked about the value of having students create a taxonomy of essays in order to understand and classify the literature they read. Alexis Paige talked about how she teaches at a community college, and her students – mostly white, male vocational students – gravitate toward reading and writing hybrid forms because they don’t seem stuffy and inaccessible like some literature. Silas Hansen talked about a class that he’s structured around experimental forms, encouraging students to get away from the thesis statement and five-paragraph theme and into other kinds of creative and analytical writing, using everything from grocery lists to syllabi and infographics to quizzes and sonnets and Yelp reviews. And Brian Oliu wrapped up the panel by delivering a kind of manifesto for experimental writing, telling the audience, like he tells his students, to “get weird.”

“Our work as essayists is never finished,” he said, “and that’s a massive, sprawling, hopeful thing.”

This panel itself was a massive, sprawling, hopeful thing. It didn’t deliver any easy answers to the question of what, exactly, makes hybrid works valuable, or even how to define them. It didn’t make final pronouncements or decisions. It was open-ended in the way that hybrid literary forms themselves are open-ended, ready to consider anything as literature, and to consider literature as anything.

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There’s a freedom to this approach toward writing and reading, teaching and living, that I love. Forms are not fixed. We are not fixed. Our writing is not fixed. If we write to survive, then hybrid forms offer, perhaps, the best hope for survival. If we’re to evolve and change, we’re going to need a diversity of approaches, a flexibility of forms, and a recognition that change only happens through the cross-pollination of ideas. There was something ultimately hopeful and inspiring about the presentation, and I left it with a reinvigorated sense of myself as a writer, as well as a deep love for our unsettled, unsettling, and wild world.

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Editor’s note: Read Silas Hansen’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series on Eula Biss’s “No Man’s Land”.

Read Marco Wilkinson’s “Self-Speaking World” for Assay (2.2).

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Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington) and a poetry collection, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books).

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