NFN18: “The Essay As Unstrung Lyre”

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Panel Participants: Traci Brimhall, Katharine Coles, Heidi Czerwiec, and Noam Dorr

Brimhall opens by describing how, for these panelists, poetics inform our prose. For her, as a poet, paragraphs are scary, and letting a sentence touch both sides of the page is both intimidating and exciting. She focuses on using the ghazal, an Arabic couplet form that features religious themes or those of love and its inevitable loss. She cites Agha Shahid Ali, credited with bringing the ghazal to contemporary poetry in English. When Brimhall wrote poetry, she felt uncomfortable writing in received forms, but the ghazal seemed flexible enough. In adapting it to prose, she changed the ghazal’s couplets to two-sentence paragraphs, with the refrain ending the second sentence. Leaps between paragraphs were honored. Sentence lengths varied wildly, and in fact, she played the tension of the length of the two sentences off each other, as opposed to the line-versus-sentence tension in a poem. She did not use rhyme, but she did include her name in the final paragraph.

Coles notes that even if genre doesn’t exist, it’s still useful to pretend as if it does. She prefers to think of lyric versus narrative each as nouns and each systems of behavior. “If we think of sentence as narrative and line as lyric, we err.” Lyric operates in a “this, and” mode that seems to move us forward even as it keeps us from going anywhere, while narrative operates as cause-and-effect or if/then over time. Poems may use the if/then structure, while prose may use lyric to dazzle. An essay may become lyric not just in the adjectival sense, but in the noun sense, using substitution, recursion, sonically and rhythmically dense language, and compression. The essay can also serve narrative, starting from a clear (but arbitrarily chosen) beginning to a clear (but arbitrarily chosen) end. She cites Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal, and reads from her own piece “Filament,” a lyric essay incorporating language from Emily Dickinson. She also read a sestina in prose, and a haiku in prose (which, she jokes, ends up being an aphorism).

Czerwiec notes that while lyric prose often borrows from short prose forms (parable, joke, fairytale), it doesn’t often borrow from verse. She cites Brenda Miller, who has done some work in this area, but that as a craft technique, it hasn’t been widely discussed. Czerwiec claims that because of their inherent patterning, verse forms can be used to reveal patterns in content, or to impose order on what seems like chaos, in short prose. She read from Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, for which she adapted the heroic sonnet crown into prose to represent the interrelated issues involved in fracking in ND. The form is 15 pieces, each 14 sentences long, the last sentence of one becomes a version of the first sentence of the next, with the 15th piece made up of the repeated sentences. She also read an excerpt from Decants, a sequence about perfume that’s written in haibun, because the form paired well with perfume’s ephemerality. She also described how she teaches adapting verse forms to short prose using sonnet, haibun, sestina, and pantoum, and provided a handout.

Dorr opened by reading Alberto Ríos’ “Some Extensions on the Sovereignity of Science,” in which the speaker tells the reader to look backwards from an explosion, as everyone else reacts to it. Dorr speaks about the use of poetic fragments. In his essay “Fragment Fragment,” he writes about living in Jerusalem in the 1990s during almost constant suicide bombings in public spaces. He couldn’t get the sentence to capture the experience of the explosions, so he turned to the fragment. He considered how the suicide bomber and the drone bombs of today are complete opposites: the latter’s technology versus the suicide bomb turning the human body into the crudest of weapons. He also wrote in this essay about the “Zaka,” Orthodox first aid who help survivors, then go around and collect what fragments of bodies can be recovered. He notes that one of the oldest forms of poetry we have are Sappho’s fragments. He reads one, in which Sappho is watching a man watch the woman she loves, how the fragment both creates a triangle and collapses it. He parallels this to the drone: how violence is committed via drone via a distant operator. He also talks about recursion/refrain and the trauma loop: how recordings of violence are replayed in media, and in the PTSD of survivors. He closes by reading from “Fragment Fragment.”

Handout from the panel: PoeticFormFlashProse


Heidi Czerwiec is a contributing editor at Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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