AWP2018: The (Art) World is Everywhere Whispering Essays

Panel Participants: Joey Franklin, Sarah Minor, Shawn Wen, Joe Bonomo, Elena Passarello

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMThe genesis of this panel was a quote from poet and essayist Alexander Smith, who said “The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one only need be the world’s amanuensis.” He also called essays “the infinite suggestiveness of everyday things.” The panelists looked to the world of art not for what to essay, but how: what can we learn about essaying from other techniques in the art world?

Sarah Minor spoke on visual art and the essay – she herself works in “the visual essay,” where text and space work together, the visual arrangement of words in the space on a page. She argues for a shared language that bridges visual arts and creative writing spaces:

  • narrative: time + action = progression; building and/or layering an idea, not necessarily telling a story arc or plot
  • self-awareness: making reader/viewer complicit in the processes of art
  • texture: = feeling by seeing; in essays, juxtaposing sections that have different styles so that they rub up against each other

Joey Franklin spoke on hip-hop and the essay, about language/story/rhythm and the surprise of artful collage. Quoting Montaigne, “I am perpetually tricking myself out.” Franklin notes several similarities between hip-hop and essay composition:

  • “self”-centeredness: a preoccupation with the “I,” the ego, the personality
  • authenticity: “keeping it real”
  • persona: a cultivated self or alter ego, depending on what’s required for an essay or project (like Eminem’s character Slim Shady) – an ironic or adopted stance for the sake of a project or argument
  • metacommentary: rapping about rapping, essaying about essaying
  • emphasis on tradition or genealogy
  • 2nd-class label
  • genre purity debate
  • appropriation through other genres
  • hyped-up rivalries (East v. West Coast, D’Agato v. Gutkind)
  • sampling: collage of sources – Judith Kitchen on the lyric essay: “The aim is to make of, not up.”

Shawn Wen, “What Radio Teaches Us” – from radio, she learned cadence, silence, breath, how a line holds your mind and ear, and how to imitate speech. In particular:

  • texture: bring in dialogue or other texts to break up the flow
  • timing and feeling: editing for timing/flow for precision
  • juxtaposition of different voices, textures, paces
  • collage techniques: including lists, poems, biography, history, description, and performance
  • BUT, acknowledges limitations of radio: very linear, oversimplified takeaways, too populist, doesn’t allow for complexity

Joe Bonomo spoke on Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Essay – how Aldous Huxley and Pete Townsend each claimed his art (the essay and the rock song, respectively) as a vehicle for any subject. He notes that while we come to the music that matters to us around puberty, we come to essays as adults. The essay moves forward as the shape of the author’s thinking and then circles back; rock tends toward a “5 paragraph essay” form – verse/chorus/verse/bridge/verse/chorus – though it may move away from this in jam sessions/live outtakes/etc. There is an ironic self-awareness in both

Elena Passarello spoke on theater and the essay. Because of the limits of performance (limited time and money for rehearsal), each actor breaks down a role into beats made of skill, tradition (what others have done with the role), energy, prep for role, research. The essayist often has a similar preparation before sitting down to write the essay. Yet for both the actor and the essayist, there is space for magic to happen in the moment of performance/writing. A repertory actor will create a different voice, stance, presence for each role – the essayist does the same for each essay, and an essay collection functions somewhat as a repertory of roles. Shared techniques include:

  • archive
  • documentary vocality
  • interview/docupoetics
  • multiple voices

Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at

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