NFN18: “Intersecting with the Aphorism”

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Panelists: Elisa Gabbert, Lance Larsen, David Lazar, James Lough

Down from the mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona, I drove to the desert and Downtown Phoenix. With me I’d hauled an audio book, Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant accounting of the almost miraculous rediscovery in the fifteenth century and the fierce and at times bloody battles to restore the works of ancient Roman poet Lucretius. His poem, The Nature of Things, which espoused a sort of atheism, a theory of natural selection that predated Darwin by two millennia and that argued that the universe was composed of atoms made for a perfect travel companion: as bold as St. Christopher, more enlightened, more open to pit stops. For my first NonFicitonNow Conference, the tales of these brash champions of books would keep my ears company.

To start the conference, I clunked into the back row of the panel, Intersecting with the Aphorism. As the moderator, Utah Poet Laureate, Lance Larsen began the show with a definition, a baseline from which we might consider the aphorism. It’s short. It’s precise. It surprises. What else would you expect? What else? Larsen spoke of flypaper and how the act of opening up a journal acts as such. Open and catch. Something satisfying and squirming will stick. The opening is quintessential. Every beginning an adventure. To show he meant what he said, Larsen had a handout, our homework: four brilliant writing assignments designed to generate aphorism, to give us something onto which language might grip.

On this base, poet Elisa Gabbert built. She too shaped the conversation with the particulars of aphorism, but what was most striking was her overarching conception of the aphorism as essay. And if, as she posited, an essay is a piece of a continuing conversation or part of a process of thinking, then the aphorism is that too; an intersection, as she put it. In her book The Judy Poems, she wrote, “Just like the future, / the past branches out / into infinite possibilities.” Aphorism was one of those tools by which she ran these routes.

Next came David Lazar, founder of Hotel Amerika, whose feature on aphorism years ago launched the idea of aphorism as the acceptable and profound, yet not overly proud to the point of being rash, form that it is. To the conversation, Lazar added the joy of mistakes, of mishearing and misspeaking. Inspired by mornings with his family where wit was competitive as any sport played with a stick and ball, he lauded the virtues of the cliché misheard, the pun that laughs hardest at itself. Looking around the room, the notion of family and folly and error and the joy of misunderstanding resonated well.

When James Lough took the microphone, he connected Lazar’s aphorisms sparked by family to practicality; that is to say children, and how they ever so wonderfully take up so much time. With three children how is a writer to write a novel? Not well, was certainly my experience, and judging from the understanding around the room there were plenty of a similar conclusion. Which is greater, the dirty diaper or the profound novel yet unwritten? Tell your answer to the baby wipes. We know what’s mightier than the pen. Lough championed the aphorism as that writing technique that can be managed when perhaps nothing else can.

Larsen, Gabbert, Lazar, and Lough played off each other with the quickness that one would expect from lovers of aphorism and in this quick, wit, they delivered a history of the form. They celebrated well-known champions Ambrose Bierce and Oscar Wilde, and they also re-figured Mae West, celebrating her wit as a playwright. The constant defensiveness that comes from being such a puny form, the panel flipped on its head and by panel’s end it was the aphorism kicking the sand wherever it would. On the aphorism we dump our hopes, our thoughts. It’s as open as a stick man in a cartoon strip. Whether by happy coincidence, dumb luck, or with revised inevitability, I was happy to have steered into a room where intersections proliferated and playfulness celebrated.

James Jay has worked as a bartender, a wild land firefighter, book seller, surveyor, and furniture mover. He received a MFA from The University of Montana and a MA in Literature from Northern Arizona University. His third collection of poems, Barman, will be published by Gorksy Press in May of 2019.


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