One Must Follow One’s Bliss: Interviewing the Essay with David Lazar

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Born in Brooklyn, David Lazar eventually went on to study poetry and the essay in Syracuse and Houston, working with the likes of Hayden Carruth, Phillip Booth, Raymond Carver, and Phillip Lopate. He’s also responsible for the creation of the Nonfiction Writing programs at Ohio University and Columbia College Chicago, where David and I first met.

In addition to having written numerous collections of essays and poetry (including, but not limited to I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, Occasional Desire: Essays, and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy? An Essay on Love) he has edited the anthologies After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover The Essays (co-edited with Patrick Madden), Essaying the Essay, and Truth in Nonfiction.

David and I spoke here about the intricacies of & in essays. Whether these intricacies have been generalized in the context of essays, have appeared in David’s own essays, or have searched for a home in the essays of David’s students, he has remained ever-attentive to the ways in which the essay twists and turns, reveals and conceals, and dances, intimately, both for and with its readers.

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In I’ll Be Your Mirror, you write that “The personae we create (at least partly) and the personae we think we’ve created don’t always match up.” What kind of personae would you say you’ve crafted throughout I’ll Be Your Mirror? Is it any different from the personae in your work before this book?

Writing autobiographically—and let’s say specifically in the essay, since that’s what I write—you’re constantly in the position(s) of both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster, simultaneously the creator and the created, the product of yourself that isn’t fully controllable, or even understandable. I’m a bit loathe to comment too much (or shall I say in a certain way) about my persona in this interview, because I’d rather have the reader make their determinations of what kind of thing this is without my telling them. Of course I do tell them, in many ways, in the essays themselves. I could tell you obvious things about the persona: he’s funny, he’s neurotic, he’s trying to undermine his defenses, and not have that emerge as just another form of defense, etc. But as to what gives a persona its distinct verve, I wouldn’t dream of offering an opinion. I do believe that my persona is different in these essays than it has been before. For one thing, it, he, is older. (Is a persona a thing, or a person? It’s a voice, of course, but is it an entity?) That means, in this case, that the voice of the essays is darker in some ways, more joyous in others.

With an awareness of this sometimes-darker, sometimes more joyous persona, how do you try to maintain the performativity of the persona, or keep it in check?

Those personae are frequently out together, dancing cheek to cheek. In terms of performance: the essay is always performed, even if its tendrils run deep into life. Checking the performance is just calibration for the most part: what’s building the voice, pushing the tension in whatever the essay is trying to unfold through the self’s written method acting. But there are those times, in fact, when I uncheck the performance for performance sake, thinking it helps the essay in some way (or perhaps even in occasionally blissful disregard), and let myself go into a performative swoon of some sort. These are moments of excess, and they sometimes please and amuse me. Perhaps the reader, too. But who knows? One must follow one’s bliss after all, even occasionally, along with the demands of the art.

In terms of the relationship between obsession and epiphany in the essay, which do you think is more exigent in your own writing?

desire-300x463Obsession, no doubt, since I’m fundamentally suspicious of epiphany. If I had been a Magi, I would have been one dubious Magi. Or, I would have accepted the revelation with a grain of salt. The root of epiphany is in the Greek for manifestation or sudden appearance, things I’m naturally suspicious of. Now, as an overthinking, anxious individual, I find obsession, by which I mean not a clinical form of ideation, but a persistence based on a desire that can’t be shaken, a desire whose existence is an image of where your mind needs to go—a saving grace.

As an essayist, what are you obsessed with these days? 

I’m not sure I obsess as an essayist until I’m in the middle of an essay, at which point my obsessions may be somewhat technical—about transitions and grammatical quirks, leaps of essayistic faith that may be or feel too contrived, not essential to the beating heart of what I’m desiring to get closer to. Most of my obsessions are like the return of the repressed: they’re personal and longstanding. Oh, I could say, “Fred Astaire,” or “John Clare,” or I could talk to you about the bridge between self-possession and weeping—what happens in those moments that move us towards release is such important music. But our real obsessions, if we’re fortunate enough to be on familiar terms with them, or have glimpsed them in shop windows, shouldn’t be brought out to sing at parties. Think Hitchcock.

You mention both “leaps of essayistic faith” and self-doubt: But if there’s so much doubt going on in essays, then what’s there to leap faithfully toward?

Who knows? Sometimes just the idea of the leap itself? But, as always when speaking in these terms, Kierkegaard is useful. I’m a great believer in the essay’s use of the mind’s dialectical momentum, the ability to challenge ourselves to find what we call truths, or meaning, through rational processes of thought. But every artist knows that there comes a point when our depth of need to surpass what we know rationally haunts us, and prods us to find other ways of trying to know the world, ourselves, the questions that haunt us, and it is during those times the metaphorical leap of faith asks us to leave or put aside the rational, the dialectical, and try other ways of knowing. You can tear a word in half, or erase it. Abandon, if only temporarily, your logical exposition, and give way to fantasy, the deep meditation of image. Whatever you need as a writing artist to get to a place that logic may not be sufficient to carry you to.

I say this as someone who deeply invests in the formal processes of classic essayistic exploration. The hinges have come off the doors in our time. And there has to be work that echoes that. So, I think essays that push out the boundaries of the form are wonderful things. My former student Kristen Radtke, for example, in her new book, Imagine Wanting Only This. Lina Ferreira in Don’t Come Back. Anne Boyer in Garments Against Women. Anne Carson. These are all voices that are finding ways of leaping in the essay. Simone Weil writes (in Gravity and Grace), “Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.” We leap even in doubt. Or always in doubt. Of course, as writers, our job is to make that leap compelling: a swan dive.

In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that, when teaching the essay, you’ve “always encouraged hybridity, telling [your] students that the essence of the essay is, as [Georg] Lukács and [Theodor] Adorno have remarked, its formal openness . . .” As an essayist, how would you categorize your own deployment of hybridity?

I probably wouldn’t, except to say that I learn by going where I have to go. That I’ve never felt limited by what I might formally do in an essay (break out into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” deal from the bottom of the deck), nor have I have felt compelled to cleverly search for a form—because a series of paragraphs on a page, with one thought following another, couldn’t serve themselves and the essay perfectly well.

You also write in “Hydra” about Elizabeth Smart, saying she’s “among the few writers I know who appears to risk everything, to be emotionally raw, formally wild and self-aware, yet lucid, lucid.” Although you were focused on Smart, how might you also attach these descriptions to the essay’s relationship to genre more generally?

These are all qualities the essay might have in its different forms, the last two of which I would argue are almost always necessary: lucidity and self-awareness. It’s very difficult to perform the essay without being aware of your performance; the meta-essay is the essay. And I cling to the notion that essays usually exist in some relationship to ideas, to the processing of information, whether it’s about the self, or herrings, or rock formations, or the number of times Schiller uses the letter “b.” So, lucidity. Lucidity.

If you cling to the essay form’s “relationship to ideas, to the processing of information,” then how do you take note of a “processing order”? How do you prioritize?

That’s an excellent question. I’m not sure I’m clinging, though. I’m not a clinging type. This is what I ask for in essays, though I think if you look both at what I’ve published over the years, as well as the variety of what I’ve written, you’d see a catholicity of types of processes. Some do come in series of ordered images and scattered commentaries. Some as more expository forays into expression, direct or indirect. How information is processed, the order of its relative importance, is both intuitive and, one hopes, knowable through seeing through the blinds of associations that create new understanding, insight, or even let one know that nothing new can be known, which is often a very valuable insight to blunder to. My priority is always to reach the sentence that seems so newly minted that it shivers in response to oxygen. Do I ever get there? I desire to, and desire is a holy word; self-judgments are best rendered either quietly, or in the rich atmosphere of essays. 

The essay “Five Autobiographical Fragments, or She May Have Been a Witch” expresses the notion that you hadn’t “reached the age of self-fascination.” You were talking about adolescence, but what about your self-fascination as a (personal) essayist? How would you describe that process of discovery?

Well, let’s be blunt: if you’re going to write autobiographical essays, or familiar essays, you better have a sense that you’re a pretty interesting person. Modesty would be absurd, a mere topos. If you didn’t have a sense that an audience is going to delight (in the largest sense) in listening to you, then you wouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. Which isn’t to say we don’t all have our moments of self-doubt.

Now, discovery and self-fascination or self-knowledge, for that matter, aren’t quite the same thing. You could find yourself fascinating, charming, the life of your party of one . . . all of which means you think your inner life is teeming with exotic fish. You like looking at them. But knowing anything about them, about yourself—about, for example, how your charm may be related to your neuroses, or how your repressed emotions have caused compensations that have saved you or failed you, how your expressive side may be a screen, a façade, a door, a floodgate. This is the work we do (whether we’re the actual subjects of our own work, or are undressing the self as part of a parallel sequence of exploring some idea, some film, some phenomenon, some fish) as we move through the deeper channels of our essays, of essaying. An essayist who doesn’t find herself interesting enough to want to know, “Who are you, really?” and “Why do you do what you do, say what you say?” probably hasn’t probed the self very deeply. I’d say it’s hard to imagine an essayist who hasn’t really done some significant psychological work on the self. I think the stakes are too high, the language of the self too complicated and supple to not. The processes of discovery are what an essay is. We use language to structure ideas and create experience in order to reveal what we hadn’t known.

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You also write a bit about friendliness: In terms of friendliness and the essay, how would you say the two do—or don’t—go hand-in-hand, especially in terms of delivering an essay’s “personal” aspect to the reader?

In life, in my work, I never want to be accused of being excessively friendly. Certainly, there’s an intimacy between writer and reader inscribed in the essay: even when Montaigne tells you not to waste your time reading him, he’s acting as though you’re a familiar. To whom else would one say such a thing? It creates a (false) sense of relationship. I don’t really think about the or a reader very much at all when I’m writing. I’m mostly figuring out if I’m doing something that makes sense to me, that excites me a bit, and most importantly, that doesn’t bore me. The “Dear Reader” moves are very important signals, though, or they can be if they aren’t too cute: they show that you want to involve the reader in the process of the work (which the work itself should be encouraging). It’s a device, after all, a formality. But it does, if used well, create a frisson of recognition—a person experienced this and is speaking to me, even if we both know it’s a gambit. This is nonfiction.

In “Voluptuously, Expansively, Historically, Contradictorily,” you tell Mary Cappello that she and you “both seem to be perennially taken by, and swept up a bit by, intensities of coincidence.” Which coincidences, if any, would you say led you toward I’ll Be Your Mirror?

Without getting into too much detail, I had an accident that scared me mortally a couple of years ago, and it led to one of the most productive writing periods of my life. Part of the accident was akin to slipping on a banana peel, and part of it was much more psychologically legible. And for several months after that, I felt I was writing to preserve myself, to protect myself from some combination of daemons that I didn’t understand. I’ve always prided myself (before a fall on a banana peel?) on wanting to know as much as I could about myself and my motivations. But for those months I was writing deeply, but not directly, about what had happened, as though digging some kind of parallel tunnel, hoping to either get to the surface, or the right depth, depending, of course, on which way you’re going. So, there’s that.

Then there’s the coincidence of Heather Frise and I having gone to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and emerged to see Martin Creed’s large neon MOTHERS sign. We agreed immediately that we needed to collaborate on a project involving mothers because of that accidental intersection.

Coincidences are like charms dangled in front of us. They’re about attention, about what we notice, though we frequently assuage the volition. A given day gifts us with stockings full of coincidences, small and large. But many, we’re too distracted to see or register interestingly enough. Mary Cappello is my coincidence-sister. She spots the meaning in strange convergences, and when we happen to share them, it’s a great delight to me: a way of creating order, of finding patterns in a world that seems to me sometimes one blink away from chaos.

One more question about teaching: You’ve taught in and developed programs in nonfiction over many years, but in I’ll Be Your Mirror you note your unease about how not only is nonfiction pedagogy “completely under-theorized,” but that teachers of nonfiction need more focus on what you call “the psychodynamism of the workshop.” What are you—and what can we—be doing to get nonfiction pedagogy where you think it needs to be? Where do you think it needs to be? 

Well, happily, there are forums on nonfiction pedagogy on Facebook now, which is a good thing. And places like Assay have come along and are publishing good work on the essay and related forms of nonfiction. I just saw a special issue of a magazine called TEXT out of Australia, “Essay Now,” that had a few interesting pieces in it—very indebted to US work on the essay. The Essay Review at Iowa has published some very good work—I’ve been happy to be included there. So: more. And, I’d like to see more attention given to essayists of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. My students seem to find reading the essayists’ frequently wonderful sentences so arduous—at first!—that the more of us who do it, the less torturous this would seem.

As for the psychodynamism of the workshop, it’s just always worried me a bit that we’re handling so much trauma. I’ve been in therapy all of my life. I consult with therapists about workshop issues. But I wonder if we shouldn’t be teaching our teachers more formally, setting up structures that are more specific to the tenderness and intensity of what our students are so frequently writing about. Some of my friends are hardcore about focusing on the art, the structure, etc. I couldn’t be less like that. The shape of the work comes from the shape of the experience, and how it is processed, in an autobiographical essay. (Of course, there are an infinite number of kinds of essays, but autobiographical essays dominate our teaching.) And so, we dive in, and the psychodynamism of the group, the class, the meeting becomes central. And I care very deeply about the hearts as well as the minds and careers of my students, so my own sense of pedagogical decorum must always engage with what I think is demanded of the work. Considering what we talk about in workshop, the subjects we’re asked to mediate, would it be unreasonable to expect that we, and the students we’re training to teach other young autobiographical writers, have some background in the psychoanalytic literature(s)? Had read some Winnicott or Melanie Klein or Lacan? That’s a discussion I’ve always thought nonfiction was light on: our relationship to the traumas brought to us and how we contextualize it within an art-making program. It’s a sometimes-tense interplay. But that’s the role, that’s my vocation as I choose to understand it. And I hope it’s served the art of the essays my students have brought to me, as well as the life of the essayists themselves. But, really, who knows? Another large leap of faith.

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bwimg_7833Micah McCrary is the author of Island in the City (forthcoming, University of Nebraska) and a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays, reviews, and translations have also appeared in Essay Daily, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and a contributing editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. A doctoral candidate in English at Ohio University, he holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago.

An Interview with Sophfronia Scott

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, here.

Introduction and interview by Elizabeth Cohen

In the amphitheater of American horror stories, the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting of 20 school children and six adult staffers may be the saddest of all. The writer Sophfronia Scott, in her two new creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith and Love’s Long Line, explores various facets of the tragedy and other topics with the vise of witness and her writer’s deep and empathic eye. Her son Tain attended the school and he survived that day. Not so his dear friend Ben, and many others from their community. Her two books, one written as a co-author with Tain, now 13, parse the enormity of that loss, along with the largest subjects of them all: faith, origins, life’s fragility, and motherhood with a capital M.

In time, the Sandy Hook shooting would come to stamp a certain part of central Connecticut with the broadest imaginable girth of tragedy, and most certainly those families most affected by that day, with a sort of scarlet letter L, for insurmountable loss. But for me, Sophfronia has another identity altogether.

When I moved to New Fairfield, Connecticut in 2007, not knowing a soul, a mutual friend told me, “You have to call my friend, the writer Sophfronia Scott.” That suggestion led to an early morning meet-up at a Starbucks just off the highway near her home. Her many dreadlocks were pulled into a haphazard swirled top notch and as she walked my way, I saw she had a New York Times in one hand and a large chai latte in the other. Her face was a canvas of warmth with the most delightful spill of freckles that made me think at once of a child I once knew who told me her mother told her that her freckles were “angel’s kisses.” I confess I can’t recall much specifically about our conversation that day, but I do recall the feeling of it. If empathy and maternal solidarity could be made woman, this was that woman. She had brought me her novel and I had brought her a memoir I wrote. We were there because of writing itself, and that eternal quest among writers for the fellowship of our kind, but we quickly discovered the bonds of motherhood, love of music and nature and books, books, books. A friendship followed that involved visits to cafes to hear her singer-songwriter husband Darryl Gregory perform, and eventually to her home, set on a wooded lane, where she often hosts groups of her writer friends. By the morning that the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, I had long since moved away, but my bond with Sophfronia was so very real. I immediately thought of several families I knew who might be affected. And then one word came flying into my brain: “Tain.”

Reading her new books this winter was to travel back to that time and further, to her childhood, to the horrific experience of miscarriage, to her joyful days as a mother, seeing Tain in the rearview mirror of her car and knowing “all is right with the world because he is there.” Traveling, in short, on the magic carpet of her narratives, in which she weaves snatches of memories, both sharp and incandescent, philosophical ponderings and marvelous literary experimentations like an essay that follows the “Holy Week” between Palm Sunday and Easter, and one which contemplates words themselves stemming from her son’s daily vocabulary school homework. Beneath all of these is that same humming presence of intelligence, empathy and something I will just call grace. That thing I first witnessed all those years back, couched in the angel-kissed face of the woman who came out to meet another writer at a Starbucks, to invite her into her community, with fellowship and light.

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Q #1: Both of your creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith (yours and Tain’s) and Love’s Long Line, at first glance, could be easily described as books forged in tragedy, but upon reading the essays it quickly becomes clear that they could also be seen as invitations to grace and faith. When you describe them, what overarching concepts do you feel connects or defines them best?

Sophfronia: Grace and faith are certainly the overarching concepts, both present in almost all of the work whether I’m writing about them directly or not. I’m also big on forgiveness and love. But the connection in both books is in my seeking of how these concepts show up in the reality and everydayness of life. The title of the essay collection was inspired by Annie Dillard’s observation in her book Holy the Firm that we all “reel out love’s long line alone…like a like wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.” I like to think my essays show that yes, there is loneliness, longing, and grief exacted by a fearless engagement with the everyday world. But if you hold onto the line, there’s an abundance of joy and forgiveness to be had as well.

Q #2: In the first essay of This Child of Faith you tell the reader that there was a time in your life when you came to the realization that your father was illiterate. This made me wonder about the powerful experience for parents – and especially writer parents – of seeing their own children learn to read. Was this especially meaningful to you, knowing that you come from a parent who could not?

Sophfronia: Actually, the more meaningful experience for me was realizing Tain could recognize beauty in writing. He was in fourth grade, I think, when he first said “Mama, you’ve got to read this!” I thought he wanted to show me something he thought was funny but it was a gorgeous paragraph of metaphor comparing boys to puppies in the way they gathered and then learned to run and race each other. I still remember how he excitedly said, “And you know the boys are not really puppies, right?” I said I knew, and told him this was a wonderful example of metaphor. He repeated the word, slowly, as though I’d just taught him a magic spell. “Metaphor.” Since then he’s said, “Mama, you’ve got to read this” many times, and I always listen. He recognizes the most amazing writing—Home of the Brave, a novel in verse by Katherine Applegate, was one of his recommendations when he was in fifth grade. That’s so exciting to me, and gratifying because I’m not sure if you can teach how to feel the wonder of words. But he has it and so abundantly.

Q#3: What has it been like passing along the torch of writing to Tain, in the act of co-writing a book with him? Was it fun writing this together?

Sophfronia: There were days when Tain would not have called it fun! The way our book is set up, I write the main narrative but each chapter contains a section called “Tain’s Take” where he writes his version of the story. We recently spoke to the writing classes at his school, Newtown Middle School, and one of the things Tain told his fellow students was how frustrating it was because of the many times I would send his writing back to him because he hadn’t told a story fully or included enough details.

As we started to work, I found it interesting how the questions Tain asked about the process and the issues I guided him through were the same ones I work on with my adult creative nonfiction students. Tain was concerned that he couldn’t remember exactly some of the events because he was younger, really another person, then. I taught him how he could research his own life, how there were clues to help him. He interviewed our minister and the Sunday school director at our church. We tracked down entries he’d written for the “Jesus Doll” binder the director keeps. He learned that he could write from these materials. It was hard work, especially as the deadline pressed upon us. But I’ll never forget the day when the finished book arrived and I put it on the passenger seat of my minivan for when I picked him up from school. When he saw it he said, “We did it!” and high-fived me. I loved that moment.

Q#4: Much of the book This Child of Faith is about the source of faith and the actual definition or coming to an understanding of the nature of God. Tain writes, “I asked my mom who God is and what Sunday School is.”

I wondered if you can explain a little further how motherhood seems to have invited you to explore the nature of God deeper for yourself, and if you can discuss a bit how this deeper experience of spirituality has informed you as a writer, given that it is a recurring theme for you in these books.

Sophfronia: That invitation is really the heart of This Child of Faith because I didn’t know my own faith would be so deeply affected by guiding Tain in developing his. And honestly, I didn’t expect it to find its way into my writing. When I started writing about faith it was more in conversation with close friends and for myself. But it became clear by the way those near me responded to my words that I’m somehow able to write about this huge abstract concept in a very down to earth way. I see that as a gift, a very important one, so I continue with it. And I believe one feeds the other. Faith opens my eyes to the wonder of the world and that shows up in my writing. Writing about faith grounds me in my feeling for it, affirms it for me in a way. It’s hard to describe concretely, but that’s the way it is, like a river flowing through me.

Q#5: Building on that question, two more queries arise for me on the nature of God which you parse in these essays in both books. Firstly, you have written here in your essay “The Hairbrush Song”: “I feel the essence of faith is written in our cells” and that God is “definitely imprinted in our DNA.” This led me to wonder how you reconcile the generally accepted idea that God is a being outside the self, do you feel God exists bout outside and inside us, and also made me wonder how God can love us and be in us. To say “God loves you” would seem to imply God is “other.”

Secondly, here, I found myself wondering what you think of the concept of the “God gene” proposed by the geneticist Dean Hamer, a hypothesis that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, may be controlling this. Do you feel God is written upon us in this biological way, as he asserts? What does this mean for those who do not possess this gene? And what are your thoughts about this?

Sophfronia: I think many see God as “other” and “out there” but I believe our connection to God is no different than our connection to our own parents. Each of our parents is within us—we are made up of their cells. And yet they are separate people walking around outside of us. Likewise, God is in our cells within us and God is all around us. God really is that close—that may be hard and even scary to contemplate—but I believe it’s true and comforting. It’s true for everyone. We are all children of God whether we realize it or not. I don’t know anything about the God gene concept so I can’t speak to that. But I’ve noticed that it does seem to be easier for some more than others to believe and make that connection. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that’s why it’s important for me to write what I do—in case there’s a chance that I can provide an assist from someone trying to get there.

Q #6: The theme of the power of names and naming seems to crop up repeatedly in these books. Most notably, in your essay about your own name, “Calling Me by My Name” in Love’s Long Line, you write that in bestowing on you at your birth a rare name and, by accident, an unusual spelling, your father “poured into my tiny vessel of possibility the essence of what I would become.” In This Child of Faith, you describe teaching a Sunday School class at your church in which you ask a little girl what her favorite part of Communion is, to which she replies, “I like it when Pastor Kathie says my name.” Clearly names hold a certain power for you, a framing and recognizing of individual being and belonging. Can you discuss this theme in your writing and talk a little about Tain’s name as well, and what it means to you?

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Sophfronia: Yes, I believe a name can be a powerful stamp of who we are and I think many beliefs and individuals act on this as well: notice how when someone wants to signal a big change in their life they often change their name. In many faiths when you reach certain stages you are given a different name. I think a name is powerful whether it is common or not, but I’m more attentive to this because of my unusual name. As I said earlier, I tend to write about the grace and love in everyday life but I do it in a personal way hoping readers can see similar aspects in their own lives. And you recognize your life by your name, your own name. How we show up in the world can be a way of demonstrating how we own our names. How do I show up in the world as Sophfronia? How do you show up in the world as Elizabeth? How do people connect with us in this very basic aspect of ourselves?

Of course feeling this way about names, I knew I wanted my child to have a name he could hold and feel very much as his own. I write about this in the book, but when I was pregnant and learned I was having a boy I knew I wanted him to have an Irish name to represent my family’s Scotch-Irish ancestry. I am black and both of my parents are black, but on my father’s side of the family red hair and freckles run rampant. One of my sisters, preparing for a reunion, started researching our family background and this was her discovery. Who would have thought it was possible to be both black and Irish? I didn’t! So I wanted the baby to grow up knowing this aspect about himself. One day Darryl came home and told me he’d been listening to a jazz drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and said Tain was a cool name. I agreed. It was simple yet different and elegant. We started considering the name, and I mentioned this to a dear friend who happens to be well-versed in Irish lore.

“Tain is an Irish name!” he said, and told me of an ancient Irish epic called The Tain. It’s the story of a legendary cattle raid, and it has the same standing in Irish culture that Homer’s The Iliad has in classical Greek literature. Tain means cattle or bull.

Obviously, I thought, this was supposed to be his name. He is Tain. And to this day that’s how I respond when people compliment him or marvel over something he’s done: “He is Tain.” It is fact and explanation. His middle name is Elijah, a reminder for him that he is close to the voice of God.

Q#7: You write about sharing a hometown in Lorain, Ohio, with the author Toni Morrison and how at a certain point you felt it was important to acknowledge your shared roots with this American literary legend. In your shortest essay “Toni Morrison and Me” you seem to make peace with the fact that you are so very different from her, yet share a love of stories and storytelling, plain and simple. I wondered if you could have an opportunity to interview Ms. Morrison, what the one question you would ask her would be.

Sophfronia: Toni Morrison and I have a similar background in that, though she’s older than I am, our fathers both worked in Lorain’s steel mill and we had a bit of that hardscrabble upbringing. I still think of that and how much of it is still within me and I wonder if it’s the same for her. If I were to articulate that in a question it would be:

“Do you ever recall the smell of the steel mill’s sulfur that filled the air at times, and the reddish orange tint of the sky from the smoke billowing from its smokestacks? I do.”

Q#8: Lastly, in many of these essays you are self-reflexive, discussing the act of writing the essay itself in these essays. So much so that I began to see this as a stylistic feature of your writing, this writing about the writing inside the writing. Do you see this as so? And what fuels you to include in essays material about their genesis or development or purposes?

Sophfronia: Wow, I guess I do do that. I didn’t notice that before. I suppose I do it for two sort of similar reasons. First, it’s my way of thinking out loud. I’m often describing in my work a very specific thought process and I want to make sure I have the reader with me, that I don’t lose him or her as we walk through foggy places. Second, as a creative nonfiction writer and specifically an essayist honoring the definition of essay, which is “to try,” it’s important to me to signal to the reader that I’m making an exploration, an attempt at something. I don’t know how it will turn out and the results may be imperfect, but here we go. Let’s see what happens.

****

ElizabethCohenphotoElizabeth Cohen is associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh and editor of the Saranac Review. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road; a book of stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and five books of poems, most recently, Bird Light, published by Saint Julian press.  She lives with her daughter, three cats, and brand new puppy, in Plattsburgh, NY.

 

Assay Interviews Anthony Bart Chaney

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“The double bind, stated briefly, was an inescapable paradox in which a message was refuted by its context. ‘Don’t be so obedient’ was one such message. The context was an imperative; the message ordered the listener to ignore that context. One could neither comply nor escape complying.”—Anthony Chaney. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pages.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Congratulations on the publication of your beautifully written and fascinating book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (University of North Carolina Press).

By way of providing background to our readers, and giving thanks, I want to note that we met at the 2017 “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute hosted by the University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, & supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was created and run by Thaïsa Way, Rich Watts, Ken Yocom, with support from Allison Ong.

I particularly want to say how wonderful it was to meet you at the “City/Nature” Summer Institute, and as a fellow writer, to thank you for our deep conversation about all aspects of writing—and of teaching writing, including Composition. Prior to this interview, our initial conversation took place on a hill in Gasworks Park on the north side Seattle’s Lake Union during the Fourth of July celebrations.

Anthony Chaney: Yes, that was an unforgettable day at a fabulous location. What a gift to have the time to talk at length about a book project while sitting on a hillside amid thousands of people on the fourth of July in Seattle.

Assay (D’Aoust): Let’s start with how your book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness engages with some of the important conversations and questions from the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute. Two of those questions involved how scholars speak to each other across disciplines and how scholars reach out to larger communities. Bateson is a figure who worked inside and outside the academy, had an astounding grasp of different fields, and impacted many of those fields. In what ways does your book Runaway speak to specific disciplines, across disciplines, and reach out to communities?

Chaney: Crossing disciplines was a theme in Gregory Bateson’s life. He was raised in the tradition of British natural science. He was trained at Cambridge in anthropology. Later, he was took part in the post-WWII Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. Because Bateson’s approach to scientific inquiry was not in any way careerist, he felt little obligation to carve out turf in any particular field. Rather, he followed his research questions wherever they led. They took him from field work with tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea, to reworking psychiatric theories in California, to studying dolphin communication in Hawaii, and to eventually becoming a public intellectual speaking out on social crisis from an ecological perspective.

All this discipline-hopping was in service to one effort: to reorient the life sciences around the concept of information and away from the old Newtonian concept of force. That shift in orientation was part of a much broader transition in the way we organize perception and account for the world around us, a transition toward an “ecological imaginary,” as they say in the environmental humanities.

Because this effort represents such a big shift in the way we see the world, Bateson was ahead of his time. Yes, he crossed disciplines, but there were so few doing what he was doing, it was hard to find others who could appreciate his work. One effect of the insulation of disciplines is that people inside become closed off to ideas from outside. For Bateson, the result was that he often found a more receptive audience, say, when he spoke to mathematicians about biology than he did when he spoke to biologists about biology.

In regard to reaching out to communities, your question speaks to the basic narrative concerning Bateson’s life that I tell in the book. In the 1960s, Bateson is reaching out, trying to find people to share his ideas with, to bounce them off of, like all idea people need to do. He finds a receptive audience in the insurgent youth nation of the 1960s. These folks are very much in the midst of enacting, consciously and semi-consciously, the transition I’m talking about. As I tell it, Bateson and his audience find each other.

Assay (D’Aoust): Your introduction is titled, “Gregory Bateson and the Spirit of 1967,” and your book sets the stage of a “London moment,” using Allen Ginsberg’s attendance at a conference in London, where Ginsberg heard Gregory Bateson speak, to introduce Bateson himself. You have such an astute ability to reference literature in the book, which provides context. If I might add, I was born in 1967. During that time, my mother was working for Carl Rogers, arguably another one of the influential thinkers of that era, and my father was finishing a Ph.D. in biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I grew up knowing Gregory Bateson’s name, but many people, as you suggest in the book’s “Introduction,” don’t know Bateson. By way of introduction, you write:

By shifting attention from social crisis to environmental crisis, [Gregory] Bateson gave his audience a kind of keyhole through which to glimpse this new ‘postmodern’ science of complexity and interrelatedness and, in turn, a new accounting of reality. That new accounting suggested not greater autonomy but greater responsibility. It emphasized not emancipation but dependence.

Among many other threads, throughout the book your scholarship conveys the intersection of ideas and references our contemporary moment of climate chaos in profound ways. All this is possible, I think, because of your fantastic skill as a writer. Runaway is crafted; all the research is there, and it is a story and contains stories. Might you talk about the craft of writing this book, particularly with your background as a scholar, writer, teacher, and a musician?

Chaney: How nice to be able to speak about craft, particularly because my training as a writer is from the fine arts side. I always thought about writing the way I thought about music or visual art. An artist’s job is to create an aesthetic experience. Artists strive to charm their audiences, to touch their audiences emotionally, to press their buttons, to break through and engage them.

images2I started out reading novels, mostly, and considered novels the preeminent literary form. But I remember the first real history of ideas that I read. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just picked it up at a take-one-leave-one shelf at the apartment complex of a friend. The title intrigued me: The Culture of Narcissism. (It had been a big book in the late seventies, I later learned, in some ways influential on Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech.) In any case, that book knocked me out. It hit a lot of the same buttons that novels hit. Again, this had something to do with interdisciplinarity. Scholarly books I’d read in college were all safely within their own particular disciplines. But the writer of this book, Christopher Lasch, mixed history, philosophy, literature, film, social science, and politics. This umbrella approach opened me up to thinking about events and ideas contextually.

But again, I came at writing the book not primarily to document some body of knowledge, as a scholar might. I aimed to create a compelling reading experience around a set of events, people, texts, and ideas. I shaped it with a couple of big narrative arcs. One I already mentioned, about Bateson finding his audience. The other is about the double bind itself, its career, so to speak, as a cultural concept. It starts out in the mid-1950s as a way to think about schizophrenia as a pathology not inside some individual’s body but in their relational environment. Bateson refines the concept, develops it; it resonates with and echoes numerous other contemporary ideas. By the summer of 1967, Bateson invokes some version of it in talking about “the greenhouse effect” to a group of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London. This may be the first time the prospect of climate change is put before a lay audience. And here the double bind is used as it is often used today in the discourse of ecological crisis—the wicked dilemmas and feedback loops that mock our most common sense efforts.

Those are the two big stories, and I’m glad you noticed the smaller ones, too. Every section of every chapter was crafted narratively to keep a reader interested and turning pages. Few if any characters or ideas are introduced that don’t show up again later to make another contribution to the plot or to have their moment of resolution.

Assay (D’Aoust): You use “Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the [Sixties] decade.” Specifically with reference to the challenges we face with global climate chaos and disruption, and how to bring those facts into the classroom, what impact does Bateson, and by extension your book, have for our understanding of “ecological consciousness”?

Chaney: Everyone knows about climate change. Everyone grasps ecological crisis; we’ve known that for at least fifty years. Yet it still packs the punch that it did the first time, maybe even more so, since we’re now experiencing the consequences of climate change not only in our weather but in our politics. Many of today’s refugees are climate change refugees, are fossil fuel industry refugees. We look around to the old industrialized countries of the West. Many are adopting what one commentator has called “armed lifeboat” policies. Our current president advocates such policies. His presidency is, to a large degree, a manifestation of the politics of climate change.

What example are those of us who have been around a while setting for our students and our children? What are they learning from us other than to avoid looking at or talking about the most important problem we face?

My claim is that the topic is so painful and so disruptive to our most foundational ideas that it can’t bear a prolonged gaze. It seems to me that paralyzing despair and outright denial are both part of the emotional force field that won’t let us give our predicament the sustained contemplation that it requires. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that anything can be borne if you can tell a story about it. The story I tell happens in the past; we see historical figures confronting and recoiling from these issues for the first time. We can think about the meaning of climate change at a remove. If we can do this, maybe we can dismantle the force field and not be so afraid.

Assay (D’Aoust): You write about multiple threads at once and you juggle the interconnectedness of things. You write:

Bateson’s belief was that the new science of complexity and interrelatedness allowed people to think and talk about things such as their relationship with their ecology, war, psychological pain, and right and wrong with scientific rigor, without resorting to mysticism or moral preachments. Bateson insisted that depictions of reality were self-reflective and reinforcing, and so if people accounted for the reality beyond themselves as material, amoral, and mindless, then they would account for themselves as amoral mindless machines. But if people attributed to the reality beyond themselves the complexities of mind, they would not strip out from their analysis issues of right and wrong, and an account of themselves as moral beings would follow suit.

Would you share how you found your subject?

Chaney: After reading the Christopher Lasch book, I read another one that took up the topic of Gregory Bateson and discussed his ideas in a critical way. I enjoyed reading Lasch–that didn’t mean I believed everything he said. I decided to look into Bateson myself.

imagesBateson’s book Mind and Nature gave me my first glimpse of the science of complexity and interrelatedness—or, as Jeremy Lent has recently called it, “the systems view of life.” This is not Bateson’s science alone–far from it. The ideas of the transition I mentioned earlier are much bigger than any one thinker or scientist. Bateson’s contribution was partly that he was a terrific writer and could communicate with non-experts like me.

There’s that famous line by Henry Adams about how he was a Darwinist “before the letter.” I think many people who read Bateson are Batesonians before the letter. He articulates a perspective that we already know because by now the ecological imaginary reaches far into mainstream thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can put it into words. That doesn’t mean we can grasp the corrosion that occurs between this new way of thinking and the old ways that are still very much a part of us—and especially of our political and economic institutions.

Assay (D’Aoust): To finish, since our readers are teachers and writers and scholars, I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the balance between academic research, writing, and teaching. How does your creative training in writing and music intersect with and support your scholarship? There is an awesome picture toward the end of the book of Bateson with what looks like the sculptural art of an enormous ear, but it’s actually “his underwater listening device.” To me that photograph sums up the emphasis you place on listening in Runaway. You and Bateson seem like very good listeners.

Chaney: Thank you, Renee, I hope that’s true. I enjoy teaching and I try to be good at it, but creative work–which must of course include input–is what it’s all about for me. I’ve always made a place for it and done what I had to do to support it. I spent eight years on this book, and I could have written it in less than half the time if I hadn’t also had to make a living. I’m sure your readers can relate. So my only advice is the same advice I’ll pass on to my teenage children. “Keep a low overhead.” I think Buddhism and stoicism both arrived at a similar conclusion.

Assay (D’Aoust): Thank you so much for your time—and for Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness!

****

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony Bart Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas and blogs mostly on environmental issues for the Society for US Intellectual History. He plays bass and write songs for the long-time Dallas band, Lucky Pierres. He’s published personal essays in a number of literary journals, in paper and online, including The New Orleans Review, Reed Magazine, and Chautaqua Review. Here is a link to his blog: https://anthonychaney.com/

 

 

Editor’s Notes:

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities here.

Visit the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute here.

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part II: Celebration and Humiliation

“This is a very friendly conference.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote Speaker NonfictioNOW 2017

“Life is now.”—Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland

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Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Before NonfictioNOW 2017, I’d met only one of its four hundred delegates face to face: my mentor and childhood friend, Dzvinia Orlowsky; and emailed with just two others: Wayne Koestenbaum, about our interview; and Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, the Conference Project Manager, to help convert her schedule to PDF. Every day, I consulted my own copy of the timetable (its color-coding rendered useless by a monochrome laser printer) to choose which events I’d attend and, later—due to fatigue and overstimulation—to decide which ones I’d skip.

After registration, during the drinks reception at the University of Iceland, I was still as fresh as Icelandic bottled water—the melted glacier ice, filtered through inert layers of lava rock, which I’d been drinking since my arrival two days earlier. Quaffing white wine now, I scanned the room for nonfiction heavyweights. Recognizing a trim figure in a bold shirt and heavy-rimmed glasses, I plowed through the crowd, and assailed Wayne Koestenbaum. He greeted me with warmth, grace, and a firm handshake. I’d already bumped into a friend of a friend, Bradley Wester and, through Orlowsky, met Kathleen Aguero, Richard Hoffman, Michael and Carole Steinberg, and Mimi Schwarz. I now introduced these new acquaintances to Koestenbaum, buoyant in a sea of writers from twenty different countries, in an atmosphere of friendliness and effortless communication that would prove typical for the entire conference.

Next day, I strode down a curved walkway in the Háskólatorg building to Room 102, where a panel, “My Roland Barthes,” with Wayne Koestenbaum, Rachel May, and Xenia Hanusiak was scheduled. Nervous about the impending interview with Koestenbaum, my handwriting was worse than usual, and my jottings about the session made little sense afterward. Yet, the images conveyed by the panelists lingered. May’s portrayal of quilts as stories, “textile as text,” were vivid, as were the elements Koestenbaum connected to “his” Barthes: precision in language, the mode of “recitative not aria,” kinship between words, mystification, glaze and patina, and the chestnut he’d found on Gertrude Stein’s headstone in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. There was much to process. In the end, I forgot to ask Hanusiak about her career as an opera singer and, with my brain in buffering mode, retreated to the cafeteria to stare through floor-to-ceiling windows at fast-moving Icelandic clouds.

* * *

After my videotaped exchange with Wayne Koestenbaum, I felt elated, inspired, and entirely incapable of absorbing anything but food and beer. Optimistically, I assured Koestenbaum I’d see him later in the Nordic House, and he divulged his plans for the Authors’ Evening:

“I think I’m going to read one of the notebooks from my recent book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, which is a series of diary poems, all taken from notebooks I kept in various states of trance … states somewhere between automatic writing and dreaming.”

I missed that reading, and those by Ariel Gore, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Tim Tomlinson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, and Gerður Kristný; also Heather Taylor Johnson, Fiona Wright, and Quinn Eades’ book launches; because, after dinner, while the sun didn’t set, I crawled beneath a large feather comforter and went out like a light.

The following morning, Hoffman, Steinberg, Schwartz, Hope Edelman, and Desirae Matherly participated in a panel, “When Writers Repeat,” while I stayed in bed with sinuses that demanded rest, and aspirin washed down with glacier water. By afternoon, I’d recovered sufficiently to attend “Memoir Time,” a panel with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, and where I discovered Donna Talarico live-tweeting behind me. She’d arrived on Icelandair’s inaugural flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavík, with mayors of both cities on board (including the “hot” one), which had been diverted to Boston and delayed because of a “bad smell.” After the discussion, I forced a hug on her, threw myself at all five panelists, took photos with Lisicky and Sukrungruang, declared, “I’m a huge fan!” and “I want to submit to Sweet!” and, powered by adrenalin, ran upstairs to catch a ride to Ragnar Kjartansson’s vernissage. The affair was concurrent with Karl Ove Knausgård’s keynote address, and—shoot me—I chose Ragnar over Karl, art over memoir, and music over literature.

On the last day of NonfictioNOW 2017, after a wind-chilled walk along Reykjavík’s harbor, I arrived at Harpa Concert and Conference Center just after Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s keynote address. People were milling about in the foyer, drinking coffee from lidded cups, and it was clear from their comments that I’d missed a memorable speech. I chatted for a while with Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, who was as bright and communicative as on the first day of the conference, and, entering the auditorium, was greeted by an equally cheerful and relaxed Koestenbaum.

I took a seat in the front row just as a small delegation entered and, in a moment of reciprocal recognition, both President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and I uttered, “Oh, hello!” He beamed winningly, as he’d done at Kjartansson’s opening. His spouse, Eliza Reid, wearing an all-over-print of white tulips or, perhaps, magnolias, filled the chair next to me. As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she’d held the opening address at the other Authors’ Evening I’d not attended. Enthusiastically, I introduced myself as a fellow Canadian, but she seemed unimpressed by this riveting fact, and showed absolutely no interest in my amusing story of how I’d met her husband.

Onstage, Elena Passarello began her introduction: she connected Harpa, or harpa, to “harp,” “harp” to Harpo, and continued with a tribute to Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, crediting the book for her motivation to return to literature after a decade in drama.

Wayne Koestenbaum took the podium and began with a tribute to Aisha Sabatini Sloan. He compared the essence of her keynote to what philosopher and conceptual artist, Adrian Piper, has communicated through her performances:

“Articulate the unspoken frame to politely, or impolitely, refuse the frame and step outside it.”

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Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote, NonfictioNOW 2017

Koestenbaum then enticed the audience to follow him beyond the frame, into four dazzling parables or allegories, the short essays he wrote for Reykjavík, which disregard borders and classification. The first, “Annette Funicello,” contains this seductive sentence:

“There is no logical connection between Annette Funicello, a beach rose, an inquisitive bee, a beach’s cubicles, and the men who long ago stripped, under my inquisitive gaze, in the vicinity of weakly sputtering public showers.”

The second piece, “Allegories for Iceland,” describes enigmatic encounters with a leather-bracelet-wearing foreigner and a densely bearded stranger, spiraling into implied states of desire and uncertainty, which Koestenbaum guides into an anticipated present:

“A full century after Cubism, why am I trying to reproduce this afternoon’s reality in faithful sentences rather than present to you an askew distillation of the events, filtered through a presiding consciousness? Why is the consciousness overseeing the narration of this fable so lacking in discernment and discrimination? Why is this episode not announcing its relation to the professional gathering during which the tale will be recited?”

Before reading his third parable, Koestenbaum cautioned, provocatively:

“And now, we fall into the abyss. We leave the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.”

Koestenbaum’s “Gaufrage and the Erotic Limitations of Capability Klein” is a collage of contrary components: Japanese woodblock prints, dildos, a mattress store, Lyme disease, a character who calls his sexual limitations “talking points,” and this captivating image of carmine clouds and skunks:

“Last night, in Cap’s backyard, we could see, wandering across the grass, three skunks, each accompanied by a carmine cloud. Carmine is not usually fluorescent. These clouds disobeyed the laws of carmine, and acquired an unnatural day-glow brilliance that wounded the eye lucky enough to gaze at their felicities.”

Before reading the last allegory, “The Sexual Translator,” Koestenbaum explained he’d “issued a call to myself, before sleep, for a dream that would respond to the emergency call of this conference. The dream arrived.” This piece features a figure named Abel Mars, a translator whose labors “sometimes took the form of naps,” and includes a riff on the word “frack” that is as enchanting as it is hardcore:

“‘Frack, frack, frack,’ went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of ‘frack, frack, frack,’ Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word ‘fuck’ into ‘frack’? Perhaps ‘frack’ was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand?”

After a brief question and answer session, Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, NonfictioNOW co-chair (with Robin Hemley, its founder), introduced President Jóhannesson, who read his witty and poignant speech directly from an iPhone, sometimes going off script, yet always following a red thread. A writer and historian, his thoughts were highly relatable not only to the genre of nonfiction, but also to the conference:

“We cannot only rely on sources that remain from the past, or what we can find in the present. We need to add our own interpretations, our own descriptions, and we must allow ourselves to imagine what might have been, when the sources do not exist or are hard to find. Those who control the sources, they will also control history as well, and that cannot be.”

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President Jóhannesson

He quoted from David Lodge’s novel, Small World: An Academic Romance, to emphasize that the real goal of literary conferences is not academic discourse, but human interaction:

“It’s this kind of informal contact, of course, that’s the real raison d’être of a conference.”

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson’s speech flowed into my still-fresh memory of Wayne Koestenbaum’s address, and infiltrated a specific sentence in his answer to a question from the audience:

“I always tell my students that if you wake up in the middle of the night feeling horrified about what you’ve written, it’s a very good sign.”

After the conference, my sentiments needed time to merge and emulsify, and only when this process was complete, did the following paragraph write itself:

I leaned toward Eliza Reid, not gesticulating, as I usually do, and complimented her on her husband’s speech: “That was very moving.” There was no verbal response, only fabric flapping, sleeves waving, two palms striking. I clapped too, but in a different rhythm.

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Blue Lagoon

NonfictioNOW 2017 ended, and Karl Ove Knausgård and Lidia Yuknavitch remained as elusive as Björk. Farewells looming, Dzvinia Orlowsky and I unwound at the Blue Lagoon, afloat in geothermal bliss, extending time beneath silica mud masks. After two more white nights, I flew home, with a single regret: that I hadn’t interacted with even more amiable writers.

I’d met Amy Gigi Alexander, but sailed past Quinn Eades and Sam van Zweden; didn’t see or didn’t recognize: Bob Cowser, Joanna Eleftheriou, Ariel Gore, Leslie Hsu Oh, Anna Leahy, Patrick Madden, Desirae Matherly, Lance Olsen, Laurie Stone, Julija Šukys, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright, Arianne Zwartjes—and a few others with whom I’d already bonded on social media, or would do so later. We now foster our virtual friendships, and wait for another conference to bring us together and, until then, connect through a book, or a page, or a few well-chosen words.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum

 

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part I: Celebrity and Humility

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Genia Blum and Wayne Koestenbaum

Three weeks before the start of the NonfictionNOW 2017 conference in Reykjavík, I emailed the keynote speaker, Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, writer, painter, musician, author of several celebrity-based books and a literary celebrity in his own right—with a request for an interview:

“As a former ballerina writing a memoir, I’ve lived and worked in Europe for almost forty years, danced in ballets, musicals and operas, including three seasons at the infamous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Besides themes of writing and memoir, I would love to talk art and theater with you.”

Five days later, Koestenbaum emailed back:

“Apologies for my slowness in responding to your gratifying email! Yes, I’d love to participate in an interview/conversation with you. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our meeting in Iceland, and to our chance to speak about affinities.”

Affinities! Wayne Koestenbaum! My first interview!

It was also my first conference.

***

In the Seventies, pursuing a European dance career, I left North America on Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines (“We are the slowest, but the lowest”), and took advantage of a bargain-price stopover in Reykjavík that included tours of thermal springs, mud formations, lava fields, waterfalls, and geysers. I lost and regained my balance near a volcanic crevasse, came close to being scalded by escaping steam and, overwhelmed by a fish-heavy dinner buffet, mistook a chunk of whale blubber for cheddar. It’s a wonder I didn’t confuse the entire country with cheese—Iceland’s otherworldly landscape was as alien to me as the far side of the moon.

Retired from ballet, I returned in June 2017 as a writer and a first-time NonfictioNOW delegate. Iceland appeared far more familiar now: tourism had boomed, English was spoken everywhere, and Reykjavík had its own Dunkin’ Donuts. It was my new persona and the opportunity to meet other writers that seemed exotic, more so than a volcanic island and its midnight sun. I’d never even worn a nametag before. After “Memoir Time,” a panel session with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, I approached Lisicky, proffered my identification, and was thrilled when he recognized my name—though it wasn’t through any familiarity with my extremely slim body of published work, but because I was the fan who’d retweeted and “liked” so many of his posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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NonfictioNOW 2017 Opening Reception

Even off-conference, my nametag was the flying wedge with which I connected with everyone and anyone. At the opening of Ragnar Kjartansson’s first museum show in his homeland, God I Feel So Bad, I searched two crowded floors of Reykjavík Art Museum for the artist I admire. When I finally spotted Kjartansson, he was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of well-wishers. Nearby, a tall, handsome man in a black suit radiated charm—in my direction, I thought. Pulling its black neck lanyard taut, I extended my NonfictioNOW ID, almost grazing his nose when he bowed unexpectedly.

“Hello!”

“Hello, I’m Canadian.”

He beamed, “My wife is Canadian.”

“Oh! You must be the President of Iceland!”

Regrettably, Eliza Reid, the First Lady, wasn’t in attendance, but the star of the evening was still in my line of sight. I pushed the small talk toward an entreaty:

Please, introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson!”

With an authoritative wave and a loud whoop of “Ragnar!” Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson summoned Kjartansson and his entourage. I swooned and stuttered. Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, the Mayor of Reykjavík (a title journalists often prefix with modifiers like “hot” or “sexy”), also joined us, as did his conspicuously attractive wife—and our group turned into an Icelandic VIP gathering. Only Björk was missing.

The day before, Wayne Koestenbaum, NonfictioNOW 2017 keynote speaker, had spoken to me of the inspiration he receives from minor fame:

“In my writing, even in my lounge act songs, I need to take a word or a phrase which creates an emotional situation for me. It’s often a star’s name, particularly a minor star’s name, a cultural particular.”

We’d met for an informal exchange in the Háskólatorg building of the University of Iceland, in the large foyer which houses the student cafeteria and bookstore, above the lecture rooms where the conference panels were held, in front of a curved white wall we both agreed was reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I’d confided in Richard Hoffman that I was anxious about my first interview, and he’d calmed me with an anecdote about one of his own “firsts.” Now, Hoffman winked encouragement from across the room, while next to him, Michael Steinberg, no longer discomfited by my telling him he was a legend, smiled benevolently. Sitting vis-à-vis from Koestenbaum, with my multicolored shawl in serendipitous correspondence with his brightly pattered shirt, I was starstruck.

For his NonfictioNOW keynote address, Wayne Koestenbaum had composed four parables, or allegories and, for one of these, he’d taken a minor 1950s and 1960s TV and movie icon as a starting point:

“The words ‘Annette Funicello’ arrived half an hour before I started writing. I repeat ‘Funicello’ again and again in every sentence, like a chant, ‘Funicello, Funicello, becoming Funicello …’ I was very aware, when I wrote my four allegories, that the first one was nonfiction. I felt it had a kind of ornateness and roundaboutness that pushed against the straightforward narration of a couple of incidental encounters I’d had. I was aware, with the next two, that they crossed the line into fiction. Not because I wanted to flee nonfiction, but because of the humiliation issue. The thing I want to write about at this moment, I cannot just start talking about in public. I need to disguise to some extent, and universalize. I don’t have the distance or the wish to confess on that kind of level. It’s just too self-sabotaging. I was aware I had recourse to something like fiction, and I felt this certain amount of guilt, because of course it’s a nonfiction conference. But I try to think about that in the pieces.”

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At a panel discussion earlier that day, Koestenbaum’s virtuosity in weaving together seemingly disparate anecdotes and ideas had mesmerized me, yet the simplicity of one statement stood out:

“Write what turns you on.”

Wayne Koestenbaum “turns me on.” His books are vibrant compositions, segmented into complementary and juxtaposed sectors, a style also common to his artwork. Humiliation offers variations on its title in fugues that reflect on embarrassment and regret—themes that resonate with the sense of degradation and insufficiency that imbued my classical ballet training. Another book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, examines opera and queerness, and is dense with reflections on the art form, summoning up recollections of my own intense fascination for the music and its history when I first began performing together with opera singers and musicians. I asked him about Verdi’s Aida, which he describes in The Queen’s Throat as the first opera he saw as a child, mentioning that my mother had made her stage debut in Aida before World War II, as a young ballet apprentice at the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet.

“My father is from Berlin, but I think his father’s family came from Lvov—Lviv. I remember Aida, but I don’t remember my response to the singing. I have a visual memory, and I remember the color of the blue sky above the Nile in the third act, and I remember the height of the stage and the blueness. I had a couple of opera records, and was obsessed by the bilingual thing. I remember looking at the opera librettos. With Aida, I remember looking at the column of Italian words, and I’d never seen Italian. In particular, I remember the plural definite article and thinking it was so strange, gli, g-l-i … It was a cluster of opacities that fascinated me, with a wish to untangle them and kind of carve my way into a feeling relationship. There was deep mystery, and I remember vividly the sense of opera as an unknown, and that the unknown was desirable. When I paint, I respond very intuitively to color, relationships of color, ‘feeling toward’ the color.”

The subject turned to Switzerland, where I live. Koestenbaum mentioned Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and its Swiss-themed suite, as well as a book about Robert Walser, Walks with Walser, by Carl Seelig. My very superficial familiarity with Liszt’s piano oeuvre, and Swiss literature and geography—Vallé d’Obermann is neither in Germany nor is it the origin of the name of a popular dog breed—threatened to embarrass us both. Navigating past the awkwardness, we remained in Switzerland, but returned to art. I mentioned the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, which displays works by Klee, Picasso, and other modern masters. Koestenbaum continued:

“Are Picasso’s paintings fiction, or nonfiction? Obviously, for me, that’s a term that comes from a literary genre and not painting, but you could say that … Picasso’s paintings represent an emotional and optical truth, a cognitive truth. The transmission of energy from much of Picasso’s work is unmistakable, and it has a certain violence and aggression. I talk about Picasso in one of my allegories, actually, and I talk about his body and my body.”

More and more people drifted into the foyer. A baby started to cry, with the pitch and intensity, perfected through evolution, that ensures no infant’s distress can be ignored.

Lying on a table in front of us, a small video camera had recorded our conversation. An iPhone, meant to function as a second microphone, was on my chair, where it pressed into my left buttock, the slight discomfort balanced by my willingness to abase myself for a literary luminary.

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I joked about the wailing baby, “Better here, than on the plane going home!”

Koestenbaum’s response was both touching and generous:

“But it’s cute! It’s very affirming, to know that there’s a baby here at the conference, and maybe the baby is the child of writers, who will teach it to love literature and language. May the children grow up to be happy readers and writers!”

The baby fell silent, and forty-five fluid minutes of insightful conversation also came to an end. Koestenbaum and I would meet again in two days, at his keynote presentation in Reykjavík’s futuristic concert hall, Harpa.

I leaned forward and tipped sideways, removed the iPhone, and switched it off.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

Assay Interviews Deborah Poe

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Deborah Poe w/ Serra / Photo credit Karl Bode

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing poet and professor Deborah Poe speak on a panel at AWP with five fellow women writers-professors-scholars. I wanted to interview Deborah for Assay, so that we might benefit from Poe’s creative process, writing, scholarship, and work as a creative writing professor. [Read my brief report for Brevity on that AWP2014 panel, “Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose” with moderator and panelist Holly Wendt, and panelists Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, and Virginia Shank.]

[Renée asks] Deborah, in your talk in the panel I mention above, you discussed researching and crafting your full-length poetry narrative Hélène. It’s an extraordinary poetic novella where a woman in a factory-convent uses her imagination to escape the confines of manufacturing silk in western France (in the 19th century) by pretending she is in China. Hélène imagines she is elsewhere. Poetry can take us elsewhere, but it can also teach us to live right here. In Hélène, your heroine finds a level of personal freedom through imagery. I’m packing so much into this question, forgive me, but here’s a quote from Hélène:

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater

power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Might you talk more about what this quote means to Hélène, to you? How might the dead function like poetry?

[Deborah answers] It’s funny that you bring up that talk, because I just devoted an entire class to research, empathy, and character in my flash fiction course in the Fall 2016 term. I gave the same talk, adapted a bit for fiction. After giving the talk, I then had them do their own research. We watched a video on the White Helmets in Syria as well as Before the Flood (Stevens 2016)—the new film about climate change narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Using that research and taking the details they found most significant, they then wrote drafts. Some beautiful work emerged.

For Hélène, I want to include the entire page from the book, which will help me answer your question and contextualize for readers.

I find no portraits of kings, of high officials, men.

In old designs I make out the eyes—more animal in shape—

not men. Powers. Presence in an abstract way

Pragmatic, existential.

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Hélène has had exposure to both French and Chinese art and has had time to register their differences. (I imagined this access through books within communal areas like the office of the factory convent in which she works.) She finds the lack of portraits of kings and high officials in Chinese art emblematic and a differentiating factor between east and west. In the east, as she perceives it, there is not only more of a focus on the natural world but less of a focus on ego.

I see Hélène as deeply observant and intelligent. She is not limited in her thinking and imagination, despite the abysmal working conditions within which she finds herself. I wanted this book to hold both east and west in it without exoticizing the east.

I suppose if we think about this particular passage you cited, the dead function like poetry in that poetry is language. The living language has power. Through the patterns of this living language, there is order, regularity, organization, and experience reflected back to us in script and art.

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[Renée asks] You have a unit in your creative writing courses called “Revisions and Preoccupations.” Could you tell us about that unit and why you developed it?

[Deborah answers] I provide many opportunities for revision, and consideration of rewriting, throughout the term. But having such a unit in my creative writing courses allows me to underline the importance of revisiting and revising work.

If you’re a creative writing teacher, you undoubtedly find a significant number of students that resist revision—some quite fiercely. “Revisions and Preoccupations” gives us a set aside time to look at revision strategies—whatever the genre—and to consider ways to simplify tackling work again with the same kind of editorial eye and engaged reading that students utilize in workshopping their peers and in discussing published authors.

In poetry, for example, I provide a handout which begins with quotes from acclaimed authors about their own revision process. Then I have various questions for elements of poetic craft for them to help guide rewrites. With point of view, for instance, I ask students if they have tried the poem in first or third person if it’s written in second, or second if they write a lot of their work in third person. Questions like these urge students not to just copy edit their work but to really think about how to make a piece the best piece it can be.

“Preoccupations” is related to “Revisions.” Perusing their work over the semester, students begin to recognize what themes or concepts they return to again and again. That in itself is helpful and often compelling. But recognizing their preoccupations can also provide a lens through which to think about revision. For example, J— realizes in looking through her semester’s collection of writing that she writes a lot of poems with speakers yearning to return home. Using that yearning to return home as a lens through which to study a particular draft helps her think about how she can enrich the description in her piece about the speaker’s beautiful island home, or what is truly at stake in a sense of loss or displacement and if what’s at stake is coming through, or about how changing diction might better serve the tone or mood of the piece.

[Renée asks] In what ways do these “Revisions and Preoccupations” impact your own writing practice?

[Deborah answers] I am highly creative and analytical and am fairly systematic in my approach to revision. I use very similar ones myself in the rewriting phase to the poetry strategies I mention above.

[Renée asks] Would you name a teacher who had a particular impact on your writing practice and your teaching methods? Why was that influence unique? How do you bring that influence into how you teach in your creative writing classrooms?

[Deborah answers] Dr. Bruce Beasley, my professor at Western Washington University during my first two years of graduate school, is the best teacher I ever had. He always took the time with my work. That enabled him to provide suggestions for readings and tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. He did not try to impose his own aesthetic on me either. (I am vehemently opposed to teaching that does so.) I endeavor to bring that openness to work, to take the time with students’ work for thoughtful feedback, and to suggest writers they read whenever I think it fitting.

Thank you for your time and answers and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

****

Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (forthcoming from Dusie Press), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson. Deborah served as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016.

Assay Interviews Marcia Aldrich, editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women

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Edited by Marcia Aldrich, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women is now available from the University of Georgia Press. At Assay, we were delighted to have the opportunity to ask Aldrich questions about the anthology.

Waveform has a Wednesday reading at KramerBooks in D.C. and a Saturday panel as part of #AWP17. Learn more, here.

Marcia, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for our “In the Classroom” series at Assay. Congratulations on the publication of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women (University of Georgia Press).

The essay selections in Waveform have diverse and surprising forms. It’s a contemporary anthology, in the best sense of our current moment, and it’s long past time that we have a contemporary creative nonfiction anthology filled with essays by women writers. Gender is not a theme, per se, though all the essays included are written by women and, as such, feminism is very much part of the project. The essays have such a wide-ranging take on multiple topics that I see the anthology working for courses from Composition to Creative Nonfiction Writing to Literature. You’ve built an accessible blog to assist teachers who use the book in the classroom, and I imagine contributors, including yourself, would be happy to Skype into courses.

Question from Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Is there an ideal course that you envision for this anthology? Multiple courses? (As a follow-up, I don’t want to imply that the book is only for the classroom, because it is also a super read.)

Answer from Marcia Aldrich:

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I am a fan of miscellanies and collections, those books that can’t be reduced to a theme. I always read The Best American Essays with pleasure because I can dip into the idiosyncratic mind and style of one essayist and then move onto another. Waveform provides those kinds of pleasures and surprises for the general reader of essays. Built into the anthology is the idea of classroom use. The book’s place in the classroom has been in my thinking from the book’s inception. Waveform grew out of my being a writer in the field, an editor impressed by the growing achievement of women essayists, and as a teacher who designed nonfiction writing courses. From all those positions, I became aware of an omission, a lack, an absence, if you will, of an anthology of contemporary women essayists that reflected the range and depth of the writing women were publishing. I had conversations with other women writers about the frustration we felt at the limited presence of diverse women in the collections we were using in the classroom—for example The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Despite loving the selections, it fell short in offering us sufficient diversity for the contemporary classroom.

At Michigan State University, if Waveform had been available, I would have used it in many of the classes I taught. I teach different levels of creative nonfiction workshops and I include a range of reading materials to accompany our own writing. The give and take between reading and writing is an essential component to the way I teach. Waveform offers examples of the types of essays being written today—it covers the spectrum from flash essays, lyric essays, list essays, found material being shaped into essays, narrative essays, memoir essays, epistolary essays, immersive essays, speculative essays. The formal innovation is a gold mine for the nonfiction classroom. The wide range of style and subject was carefully curated to offer students an introduction to the multiplicity of forms the essay is taking. Most students enter the nonfiction classroom with a narrow idea of what the essay is based on the kinds of composition courses they had in high school or freshman writing classes. They are genuinely surprised, and happily so, to find the essay to be a site of invention and personal expression.

I’ve taught literature classes focusing on contemporary nonfiction under the rubrics of Women and Literature, Readings in Nonfiction, Special Topic: The Essay and so on. In my teaching rotation, I move between reading courses and writing courses built around different topics in the field of nonfiction and in each case Waveform was the book I was missing. I created the book I wanted to read, the book I needed to exist for the purposes of filling out the creative nonfiction landscape, and the book I needed in the classroom. I didn’t imagine one ideal course where Waveform would best fit. I imagined Waveform as filling the gap that exists in any number of different kinds of courses in which contemporary nonfiction is being studied and written.

Question from Assay (Renée): There is a Waveform panel coming up at the 2017 AWP conference in D.C., and I’d love to have Jocelyn Bartkevicius, a panelist and contributor to Waveform, answer the following question. But, first, a little background.

I first learned about Waveform when I attended your panel introducing it at the 2015 NFNOW conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. That panel was called (and asked the question), “Is This the Golden Age for Women Essayists?” From the audience, during the q&a, Jen Palmares Meadows, who has contributed to Assay, asked “What, if anything, do your publications do to seek out or include women of color essayists in your publication, and was/is it enough?” You, Marcia, answered that you worked very hard to include diverse voices in the anthology. Brenda Miller was on that NFNOW panel and said she felt she had not done enough to include diverse voices during her time as editor of The Bellingham Review. There was a general consensus that more work needed to be done. There was a discussion about the need for women of color to submit to journals, but less about the advocacy editors must do. So we have the AWP panel coming up, and both you and Jocelyn Bartkevicius are on the AWP panel. (Jocelyn’s fantastic essay, “Gun Shy” is included in Waveform).

You were each in previous positions of power at literary magazines, Fourth Genre and The Florida Review, respectively, and now you’re not. So how do you see your work advocating for women of color changing with this anthology and the forthcoming panel? What can this anthology—and those like it—do, that cannot by done by literary journals? And since we’ll have Jocelyn Bartkevicius answer this question, she is welcome to tailor the answer to the upcoming AWP panel.

Answer from Marcia Aldrich:

This is mainly Jocelyn’s to answer, but I’d like to say something as well.

As editor of Fourth Genre, I built issues from the submissions that came in the mail. I was reluctant to depart from that tradition by aggressively recruiting essays. It was a depressing fact that Fourth Genre did not receive many submissions from writers of color, male or female. This was troubling and I became cognizant of the need to rectify the imbalance.

As the editor of Waveform my role was different and I had the opportunity to create a more balanced portrait. I felt a responsibility to construct an anthology that wasn’t just stylistically diverse but included a more representative range of voices. I was adamant about delivering on the promises of diversity and in Lisa Bayer, the director of the University of Georgia Press, I found someone who shared that commitment. In the case of Waveform, I actively recruited essays.

j_toothy_dogs_3Answer from Jocelyn Bartkevicius:

When I was editor of The Florida Review, with some regrets, I upheld the long tradition of considering work that was sent to us, rather than reaching out to writers to submit work. There was one exception: Sometimes, if I was at AWP or another conference, and I heard a compelling talk, one that worked as an essay as well as a more standard conference paper, I would ask the writer if I could have it for TFR. In that way, one two or three occasions, I was able to add some more diverse voices to an upcoming issue.

Reading over-the-transom submissions, the ethnicity of the writer wasn’t always evident. For example, one of the essays that was a finalist in our annual contest was about politics, being part of the team that traveled in advance of the President of the USA on his international trips. It was a brilliant essay. Only near the end did the writer reveal that she was a black woman. Her essay is still one of my favorites that we’ve published.

As for Waveform, I think Marcia did an excellent job of reaching out to women of color and LGBT women. The voices, topics, and forms of the essays in the book are compelling in themselves, and also reveal the complexity and diversity of women’s esthetics and concerns. My MFA students are about to discuss the book in a graduate class on craft, and I’m looking forward to their responses.

When I pitched the panel to AWP, I emphasized something that Marcia points out in her writing about the book: That in her New York Times piece on whether or not this is a golden age for women essayists, Cheryl Strayed, while answering yes, qualified that yes. Writing by women–of all ethnicities and gender identities–are underrepresented (as Marcia has reported).

My proposal emphasizes what I call the literary fallout from that paradox–getting published more than ever in literary journals, but then not reprinted in Best American Essays. So women get read, but as is the nature of literary journals, those pieces are in a sense, just a flash in the pan. Read and then recycled. I promised that our panel would explore the complications of that resulting invisibility.

There’s another angle that some of us on the panel will consider. Most of us wrote the essays included in the anthology expressly for that anthology. My contribution, “Gun Shy,” is one such example. I’d never consciously written an essay “as a woman.” That is, of course I’m a woman writing, but I’ve never thought about the ways I was creating a gendered self in my voice or style or choice of topic. So, on the panel we’ll reflect a bit on how our work is affected when we are specifically asked to write as women, and whether identifying as a woman–putting our work out there as women’s writing–is tricky, even maybe dangerous.

One aspect of the panel proposal that is invisible in the conference schedule, is the way I argued that a panel on women’s voices would be essential in Post-Inauguration Washington, DC. When proposals were due, Trump had just accused Hillary Clinton of “playing the women’s card,” and she’d taken that attack and turned it into a call for action. She listed all the issues important to women, and said, “If that’s playing the women’s card, deal me in.” In my proposal, I said that the talk of the town in DC during AWP’s conference was going to be the impact of having our first woman president, or–and at the time I thought this was a longshot–how playing the women’s card meant women would be silenced once again.

Last week, I attended the Women’s March on Washington and discovered that I was right and wrong in that proposal. The new administration strikes me as one that is working hard to destroy rights that women have fought for over the last few decades. I actually read a Facebook post I found not just offensive, but terrifying, written by a man in in my town whom I’d thought was just an ordinary Republican. He said that electing Trump was going to allow us to deport all the “brown women” [his term] because now we’d get the white women out of the board room and back into the bedroom where they belonged. At the Women’s March, hundreds of thousands of us spoke out and resisted. We screamed resistance. So here’s another paradox for our AWP panel to consider: As the elected officials erode our rights, and hack away at free speech, will women’s voices become silenced or louder? And how will we, as women of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, and political priorities, join together to make sure the voices that are heard are multiphonic.

Question from Assay (Renée):

Back to Waveform, specifically. Many of the essays are thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, and I would like to highlight Torrey Peters’s memorial to trans people killed around the world in “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay.” Peters created the essay from a document that listed all the deaths of transgender people from 2013 to 2014, which is why it is called a “found” form. I wondered how you found this particular essay—how it came to your attention.

Answer from Marcia Aldrich:

I discovered Torrey Peters’s essay “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” in Brevity’s special issue on gender, published in May 2015. This was one of the first times Brevity devoted an issue to a special topic with guest editors and I had been looking forward to its arrival. I found Torrey’s essay to be the standout of the issue. It did not escape my notice that the essay fell way outside Brevity’s word limit which suggested the editors believed sufficiently in the work to waive the word length requirements. There are several things to say about this essay and why I selected it. First I had been following Torrey’s evolution as a person and a writer. When Torrey was David and a graduate student in Iowa’s Nonfiction Graduate program, he had submitted the essay, “The Dressing Room” to Fourth Genre in my first year as its editor. The interns and I had collectively been reading submissions for weeks and were disappointed in the quality. And then “The Dressing Room” arrived. I remember one of the interns shrieking as he was reading the essay: “Yes, yes, this is it. This is what we’ve been looking for.” We passed the essay from one to another, reading with genuine excitement. It was the first submission we all agreed was a clear acceptance and an example of the kind of essay we were hoping to receive. For the rest of the submission period, we compared every other essay to “The Dressing Room,” which may have been unfair, but it was our way of asking whether this essay deserved to be published alongside the essay we all considered exemplary.

So when I saw Torrey had contributed an essay to the special issue, I was excited to read it. “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” couldn’t be more different than “The Dressing Room” except that they are both searing and brilliant. Perhaps my training in poetry makes me especially appreciative of “the found” in art, that is the way art can take found materials and shape them in such a way that their inherent power is revealed. I’ve taught Torrey’s essay twice, both in introductory level nonfiction writing classes, and in both instances students chose it as their favorite essay read in the semester. The student presentations on this essay were both outstanding, followed up by the best discussions we had in either class about the relationship between form and content. Why does this form work so powerfully to memorialize and haunt readers?

I am particularly happy to have two mini essays about “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” on the Waveform blog, one by Torrey herself who speaks candidly about how she feels about the essay now and a reader response by one of the students who “taught” the essay to our introduction to creative nonfiction class in the fall of 2015. These materials on Torrey’s essay were just what I envisioned including when I had the idea to create a blog that might be a teaching resource.

Question from Assay (Renée):

There is an excellent interview conducted by Zoë Bossiere (with you) about Waveform at Essay Daily, and I’d like to direct readers to that interview (see link below), if they haven’t seen it yet. I’m also mindful that there’s no need to repeat what you cover in that thorough interview. But I would like to follow up on one of your answers. You note that in Waveform you “wanted to depart from a thematic or subject driven approach and instead highlight the way writers interact with subject through elements such as style, voice, tone, and structure, and allow the subjects to fall where they fall.” Along these lines, what effect do you hope Waveform has on the genre, on the way women write nonfiction?

Answer from Marcia Aldrich:

This is the most difficult question you have posed to answer concisely. Historically women writers have struggled with cultural tendencies to pigeon-hole their work along thematic lines. Modernist poets like Louise Bogan and Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example, chafed against labeling them as poets who wrote about love. While both poets did write about love, this characterization reduced their accomplishments and pushed them into the sentimental or domestic tradition of women’s writing rather than placing them in the modern poetry stream. There is a place for the thematically organized collection and I have used them in the classroom–often students come to read women’s writing through a thematic lens. In 1996 Wendy Martin edited The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women. I happened to have an essay included in the book under the heading Essays on Self-Identity. It’s a wonderful collection and historically important but Martin had a different intention than I had with Waveform. Martin was interested in the essay as a map of the territory of women’s lives in the second half of the twentieth century. She was much more attuned to the experiences represented than the form or development of the essay itself. Twenty years later, I wondered what would happen if I put together a collection of women’s essays that weren’t packaged thematically and weren’t chosen because of their thematic content. It’s quite freeing to not assemble a book of essays based on content and not have to select material based on a principle of thematic coherency. It almost feels as if it is a subversive act.

I remember working with Charlie Altieri, a modern poetry scholar, in graduate school in an independent study where I read various theorists and the assignment was this: what does this method of analysis make possible in your reading of this poem and what doesn’t it make possible. He was interested in my discovering how different ways of reading literature are made possible through different methodologies. With a thematically organized collection, the reader immerses herself in how different writers approach a common theme, all the while deepening her overall experience of the theme. A worthwhile experience: coming at a theme from a variety of angles and voices. The theme provides a scaffolding.

On the other hand, if you take away the thematic organizing principle, I asked what do you get instead? In a sense, you take away a crutch. You must discover what the essay is concerned with—you must be more active in figuring out how the essay works. And by interacting more actively with the essay, you immerse yourself more in the form of the essay to discover its content.

I’ve reversed the ways of reading by depriving the reader a thematic hook or guidepost. They’re on their own to grapple with the essays. This grappling mirrors my own experience of reading essays in the last twenty years. The essay landscape has been broken wide open in the last twenty years; it has moved away from being predominantly a narrative or persuasive form and embraced wholesale innovation and unpredictability. Perhaps it was never an easy matter to say what an essay was or define how it operated, but today what we call an essay is a multi-splendored thing.

I don’t have an aesthetic agenda to push with Waveform—I’m not championing the lyric essay, for example, over the narrative essay or pitting one school of thought over another. Perhaps the book reflects my own mobility as a writer and teacher—to write and read all over the essay spectrum from flash to lyric to classic meditative forms. As a teacher, I offer my students a wide array of essay examples as well. I like to surprise myself; I like to be surprised. I’m hoping that in the great mix of the essays in Waveform, readers will find something to love, something that speaks to them and helps move them forward in their own lives and writing.

From Assay (Renée):

Thank you so much for your time—and for your long support of writers in our genre. We look forward to your panel and reading at #AWP17!

Useful links and further resources:

Find more information and to purchase Waveform from the University of Georgia Press, here.

Use Waveform in your courses. Teaching resources and much more information can be found at the Waveform site, here.

Read Aldrich’s excellent interview with Essay Daily, “Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on Diversifying the CNF Anthology,” here.

The full list of contributors: Marcia Aldrich, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Chelsea Biondolillo, Eula Biss, Barrie Jean Borich, Joy Castro, Meghan Daum, Jaquira Díaz, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Patricia Foster, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Margo Jefferson, Sonja Livingston, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Brenda Miller, Michele Morano, Kyoko Mori, Bich Minh Nguyen, Adriana Paramo, Jericho Parms, Torrey Peters, Kristen Radtke, Wendy Rawlings, Cheryl Strayed, Dana Tommasino, Sarah Valentine, Neela Vaswani, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright.

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Marcia Aldrich is a professor of English at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing: Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray and Companion to an Untold Story (Georgia), winner of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the former editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius has received the Missouri Review Essay Award, The Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Iowa Woman Essay Prize, the Vogel Scholarship in Nonfiction at Bread Loaf, and the 2016 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in such journals as The Hudson Review, The Missouri Review, The Bellingham Review, The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, TriQuarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Bridges, and Sweet, and has been selected for the “notables” list in The Best American Essays. Her essay “Gun Shy” is included in Waveform: Twenty-First Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. She is working on a memoir about the Lithuanian diaspora and secret mass deportations in Soviet Lithuania. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and is the former editor of The Florida Review.

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Assay’s Managing Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s book Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Follow her on Twitter and visit her author page.

The Travel Writer-in-Process by Lauren Wilson

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I used to think that spending two weeks at home is more than enough time for a Christmas break—I’m usually more than ready to go back to school and my friends and enjoy the freedom that college allows.

That was before I had spent four months living in India though, and long before I had wrapped my head around the fact that I was about to leave for Ireland for another five months. With those facts looming over my head, two weeks was a terrifyingly short amount of time. Between the holiday celebrations, shopping trips I needed to make to get the necessary gear for Ireland (I somehow still managed to get to Galway without a rain jacket though…), and all of the different relatives I had to see, it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of time for anything—much less writing.

I have now been in Ireland for a little less than a month and I haven’t written a single thing. Nothing about India, Ireland, or the holidays. I haven’t even done proper journaling. My poor little red moleskin journal who has followed me so faithfully around the world hasn’t seen more than a few quick scribbles here and there, much less any formulated notes on my experience. There are too many new things to see, too many bookshops to visit, pubs to try out, too many streets to wander down. The lure of Galway’s Latin Quarter with cobblestoned streets and musicians at every turn is one that I am unable to ignore. I have finally got a normal class schedule again (I’m back to lectures that take place twice a week, rather than four hours of the same class every morning), but none of my classes require writing until the end of the semester. Even then, none of it is creative writing. So it would seem as though I’m in the same situation as last semester—stuck with no incentive to write while I’m in Ireland. So I’ve had to come up with a few reasons of my own.

With stable access to Internet comes the ability to look for journals looking for student submissions. Some of them even pay, and Lord knows any college student could use that. So, to help give myself some incentive, most of my time spent on the computer is used looking for where I can send my next piece, and especially what topics editors are looking for submissions in. Even if nothing gets accepted, having a deadline to work with and a new topic that someone wants me to write about is enough of a challenge for my overly-competitive self to sit down and get to work. Even if nothing gets published, it’s still a good way to make myself write about new things and even look for new ways to do so. So far, I’ve found two that look like something I can do (if anyone has any ideas on others, I’d love to hear about them), and in addition to that, I’ve set a goal to fill the new journal I brought with. I might not specifically write about everything I’m experiencing here now, but if I can write it all down now, then I will be able to write about it all later. My journal has found itself a new home inside my purse, and if I have a few minutes between classes all start to catch up on things I haven’t jotted down yet. Also, I have no shame in pulling out my journal when sitting in a pub. I’m working on getting details of all of my favorite pubs and cafes while I’m sitting in them. Who knows, it could make an interesting essay someday.

So for now, I’m going to write what I can, read as much as possible (you have to read good writing to write good writing, according to Concordia’s English department), and have as many new experiences as I possibly can. I’m already planning adventures for the coming months (Greece for Easter break? Sounds good to me!) and my reading list for the classes I’m taking is long enough without adding my own books to the list. Between genre studies and a class on modernist/postmodernist writing, I’ve joined a sort of Book-a-Week club. AroundtheWorldcvrOn my shelf I currently have The Time Machine, Around the World in Eighty Days, Hamlet, The Driver’s Seat, Silas Marner, Mrs. Dalloway, Pale Fire, Herland, Ten Days in a Mad House, and Alice in Wonderland.

The list of my own books is a little shorter. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman is there, along with Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino, and I have my eye on Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, and a book on maps and how they affect our lives. It’s only a matter of time before I cave and pick those two up to add to my collection. With all of this going on, I’m going to focus on enjoying my time here, and I’ll write about it all eventually.

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

Interview with Taylor Brorby

Taylor Brorby is the newest addition to the Assay staff, as a contributing editor to our blog. By happy coincidence, he visited Concordia this week, where our editorial assistant Nick Nelson sat down with him.


Nick Nelson: You described earlier that there will always be an importance of writing to an individual. What makes writing important to you?

Taylor Brorby: I think for me, writing is important because it allows me to see outside myself. When I’m reading, and in particularly reading as a writer, I’m thinking of how is this person is telling their story. What sort of ways are they structuring it? What might be new? What might be exciting, and highlighted to me as a reader? But for me, it’s also recognizing that in the importance of writing there’s also the importance of language and how words not only sound, but what they do on the page. That’s where humor comes in, when you look up the roots of the words to find where they come from, it allows you to do a great pun if you wanted. But I think it’s important because it allows me to see another story that is outside myself, but usually when you’re reading you find that story that seems so far away from you actually is holding a mirror up to you and then you see maybe your own biases, maybe your own desires, maybe your own hopes. So that is why I think writing for me is really important, especially encountering just other writers whose experience is far different from mine. Continue reading