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.

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

* * *

[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

* * *

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! At Assay, we’ve expanded members of our team to include senior editors and contributing editors. Welcome to our new Contributing Editors: Creighton Nicholas Brown, who has also taken over my duties as Social Media Editor (thank you!); Jennifer M. Dean; Micah McCrary; and welcome back to Taylor Brorby. We also welcome our new Senior Editors, who will be reading submissions to the main journal: Christine Cusick; Jenny Spinner; and Julija Šukys. Please take a look at our expanded group over at our masthead.

This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” Look for columns from members of our expanded team. Next week, I’m excited to share with you Contributing Editor/Social Media Editor Creighton Nicholas Brown’s column “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.” This will be followed by a two-part interview/essay from Genia Blum reporting back from the NFNOW17 conference this past June in Iceland. At the end of the month, we’ll feature Colin Hosten’s “Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipau.”

We’re always looking for submissions to our “In the Classroom” series and to our main journal. While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our general guidelines for teachers and writers for “In the Classroom” submissions:

intheclassroomassayguidelines

You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

You can submit via our spiffy Submittable page here.

We would love to feature undergraduate and graduate writers. As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already and in the past. Please keep them coming. If there is something we can provide to support your reading, writing, and teaching, please let us know.

Remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal.

With gratitude,

Renée

***

Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. www.reneedaoust.com

Assay’s Academic Year 2016-17 Annual Report

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We’ve had a good academic year here at Assay. Thank you, all, for your contributions, for reading the journal, and for your support. As has become our custom, we are offering our Annual Report to remain accountable.

A favor? Please be sure to like us on Facebook and to follow us on Twitter. Thank you!

Activity:

  • Celebrating Best American Essays: In the past year, Assay published a fall and spring issue: Assay 3.1 and Assay 3.2. In 3.1, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Best American Essays with quite a few excellent pieces on the series itself.
  • We are thrilled to have been able to release our Nick Nelson’s spectacular Best American Essays Project into the world during Year 3–if you haven’t seen it, it’s here! He archived the entirety of Best American Essays‘ Notables and Reprints in a searchable format.

AWP 2017–Washington DC:

  • We conducted our first panel at AWP called Assaying “Our Hybrid Thing”: The Cross-Pollination of Nonfiction Studies and Pedagogy with Assay staff and alumni, including Ned Stuckey-French, Jenny Spinner, Crystal Fodrey, and Taylor Brorby. It was a blast!
  • We had a Bookfair Table, too, which was so much fun! Thank you for your support at the conference. Extra special thanks to our Advisory Board members: Dinty W. Moore for staffing our Bookfair table, and Ned Stuckey-French for being on our AWP panel. It was so great to meet so many of you in person and put faces to names!
  • Conference Panel Reports: During the 2017 AWP conference in Washington D.C., we published ongoing conference reports. If you missed them, check them out here! Many thanks for these contributions, which make it possible for those unable to attend the conference to benefit, too. When you attend a conference, please consider writing up a panel / reading / workshop / chance meeting for our “In the Classroom” series.
  • Stay tuned for the call for panel reports for the NonfictioNow conference in June.

In the Classroom Update:

  • Our ongoing “In the Classroom” series continues to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This past year we were also super pleased to feature interviews. See our interview with writer, editor, and professor Marcia Aldrich, here, regarding the fantastic anthology Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. We featured an interview, focusing on creative writing obsessions that are particularly useful in the cw classroom, with Deborah Poe, here. Be sure to read our interview with Gail Griffin on being an ally in our Spring 2017 issue and on her creative nonfiction essays, here.
    • We are currently working to more firmly integrate In the Classroom into the main website, so stay tuned for that reorganization this summer.

Syllabi Bank:

  • We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! Expanding this resource will be a priority in Year 4.
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Tootsie: Quality Control.

Submissions:

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or response papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

Looking Ahead to Year 4:

We’re looking forward to next year! Assay’s fall journal issue will release September 1st. Our “In the Classroom” series will continue on October 2nd.

In the meantime, we’re reading for our Fall 2017 (4.1) issue, so please send your wonderful scholarship, informal analysis, and pedagogy!

With gratitude,

Gail Riekie—Of its time and for all times: Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle”

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“I believe we are all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country attractive. I look back to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with its Christian inhabitants.”—Charles Darwin

Thus Charles Darwin concludes the Chapter XX of The Voyage of the Beagle, his account, written for a general audience, of the five years he spent as the appointed Naturalist on the Beagle expedition. In this time the ship circumnavigated the entire globe, but its main objective was to survey uncharted stretches of the South American coast. Darwin spent the greater part of his time on land investigating the natural history of what is now Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

The Voyage of the Beagle provides a fascinating picture of the world as it appeared to a young Englishman in the 1830s. We also gain insights into the early attitudes and thinking of one of the most influential scientists of all time. It is clear from the passage quoted above that this is no dull scientific account, despite the subtitle “Journal of Researches.” Certainly, The Voyage of the Beagle contains substantial sections on geology and natural history, some of which the non-specialist may find heavy going, but for the most part Darwin’s lively, engaging and wide-ranging curiosity about the places he encounters make him a fascinating travel companion.

The Voyage of the Beagle was written over twenty years before Darwin finally published The Origin of Species, his seminal work on the theory of evolution by natural selection, but one inevitably also reads The Voyage of the Beagle text alert for hints of his nascent thinking on the subject.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 to an English close-knit family of considerable social standing. His father and grandfather were both doctors. Initially Darwin too studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but he neglected his studies in favour of his passion for natural history. His father then dispatched Darwin to Cambridge University to study for the Church, with the idea that as a country vicar he might pursue his interest in beetles while maintaining a respectable position in society. Through contacts made at Cambridge, Darwin, aged only twenty two, was invited to join the survey ship, the Beagle, both as a naturalist and also because he was deemed a suitable companion for the Robert Fitzroy, the ship’s captain.

BeagleBoat

Darwin’s youth and enthusiasm for new experiences are evident in The Voyage of the Beagle from his comments on the Cape Verde islands in the book’s very first paragraph:

“The scene …. is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from the sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

A few pages later on landing in at Bahia in Brazil:

“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, is weak term to express the feelings of the naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.”

In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s South American adventures include several expeditions with gauchos in wilds of Patagonia, where attacks by the indigenous population are a constant threat. In a town near Buenos Aires, he finds himself in the midst of a real live revolution, which he drily notes “was supported by scarcely any pretext for grievances.” Encounters with “savages” in Tierra del Fuego prompt him to marvel at what he sees as “the gap between savage and civilized man.” In Chile he experiences a severe earthquake and its aftermath, and on Tahiti he is taken on a frighteningly precipitous mountain ascent.

It is clear from the outset that we are in the company of an exceptionally lively, inquisitive mind, passionate about natural history in the broadest sense. In drawing a comparison between ‘civilized man’ and ‘savage’ Darwin deploys both language and the concepts that we would not use today but that were part of the educated discourse of his time. Much has been written elsewhere on the topic of Darwin and racism, especially in the context of his later works (e.g. ‘The Descent of Man’). The point about The Voyage of the Beagle that I want to stress in this piece is how Darwin is interested observing and explaining the behaviour of everything he saw on his life-changing voyage—lizards, tortoises, earthquakes, Fuegian natives. The scope is astounding. We also see how Darwin combined his immense curiosity and capacity for detailed study with an ability to hypothesize and seek explanations on a grand scale. Thus we are treated to glimpses of the traits that led to later scientific greatness.

Giant Tortoise

Giant Tortoise, photo credit Vince Smith

What might surprise the reader who thinks of Darwin primarily as a zoologist is how much space in The Voyage of the Beagle is devoted to geological observation and theorising. Certain sections may be a tough read for the non-expert, but the interest of these passages lies in what they reveal about Darwin’s ways of thinking about science, and his capacity to see both the wood and the trees. Darwin studies in detail the sedimentary rocks along the Patagonian coastline, and dwells at length on evidence that the land has been gradually uplifted through time. He then muses on why the fossils of mammals he has inspected in the rocks of the Buenos Aires region are distinct from related mammalian fossils reported from North America:

“The geologist who believes in considerable oscillations of level in the crust of the globe within recent periods, will not fear to speculate either on the elevation of the Mexican platform, as a cause of the distinction….”

Of course Darwin does also provide plenty of vivid descriptions of the flora and, especially the fauna he encounters. His writings from the Galapagos Islands, where the local wildlife have yet to learn to fear humans, show him also having great fun. One moment he is riding on the back of a giant tortoise, next he is throwing a lizard into a deep tidal pool to investigate its response. When Darwin spots another lizard digging a hole, he reports:

“I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared at me in the face, as much as to say, ‘What made you pull my tail?’”

He is particularly struck by the tameness of the bird population:

“There is not one which will not approach sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I have myself tried, with a cap or a hat. A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle of one I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.”

But this being Darwin, the remarkable tameness of the Galapagos fauna is not merely observed and described, it becomes the starting point for speculation about broader concepts of instinct versus learned behaviour and the mechanism of heredity.

“With domesticated animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is much more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge. In regard to the wildness of birds towards men, there is no other way of accounting for it.”

Darwin brings the prejudices of his time, but also his scientist’s desire for rational explanation, to his descriptions of the ‘natives’ he encounters. He finds that the New Zealanders’ practice of tattooing and facial markings “gives a disagreeable expression to their countenances” but he also recognises that “…it is moreover probable that the deep incisions, by destroying the play of the superficial muscles, give an air of rigid inflexibility”. He calls the Fuegians “ludicrous” (and worse) but he also comments on their considerable talents for mimicry, and wonders how and why they developed this capability.

The fact that Darwin was raised in a society rigidly divided by class is evident from his condescending comments about social relations among the South American colonists:

“Many officers in the army can neither read nor write, yet all meet in society as equals. In Entre Rios, the Sala consisted of only six representatives. One of them kept a common shop, and evidently was not degraded by the office.”

The extent to which Darwin believed in God continues to be the topic of academic debate. That he was at best an agnostic is clear. When, as in the generally disparaging comments about New Zealand quoted at the start of this essay, Darwin praises Christianity in ‘Beagle’, it is because he sees it as a practical means of advancing ‘civilisation’ rather than in spiritual terms. Perhaps he gives a hint of his true thoughts on religion when he speculates on the reasons that the Australian and American fauna differs so markedly:

“An unbeliever in everything but his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators must have been at work’.”

Is Darwin that “unbeliever”?

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One thing that The Voyage of the Beagle most emphatically is not, despite the book’s title, is an account of maritime adventures. The reader hoping for an account rich in detail of life aboard an 1830s century survey vessel will be disappointed. The truth is that Darwin suffered grievously from seasickness throughout the voyage, and his determination to spend as much of his time as possible on land was not purely motivated by the pursuit of science. Towards the end of the voyage he asks, rhetorically:

“And what are the glories of the illimitable ocean?”

Although Darwin spares the reader the details of his tribulations at sea, he also at no point attempts to portray himself in any way as the heroic adventurer – and not for any shortage of material. To my mind, this is ultimately one of the most engaging aspects of the book. Darwin surely ranks today as one of the most brilliant minds our species has ever produced, and in Beagle he has given us what feels like an honest, unspun account of his impressions and his thinking in the crucial formative five year period when his world-changing ideas began to take shape.

***

GailandBertieGail Riekie is a geoscientist with a lengthy professional background in both academia and the energy industry. For her PhD, undertaken as a ‘super-mature’ student, she investigated methane emissions from boggy soils, and followed this with a stint as Associate Lecturer in Earth Science at the Open University. In the next phase of life, she plans to focus more on her writing, aspiring to convey the creativity and richness of the scientific endeavour. Gail lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, with her wire fox terrier Bertie (with whom she is more than happy to share a distant mammalian ancestor).

Read “A Close Encounter with Dr. Trump,” at Aberdeen Voice.

Read Gail’s Bouncing Bertie’s Blog, here.

 

FREUDENSCHANDE: PRIV(AC)Y — by Heidi Czerwiec

FREUDENSCHANDE [1]: PRIV(AC)Y

Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?

Unheimlichgesitzenüberraschung [2]

Usually the cool, even cold, of a seat is itself startling, which is why our society has installed carseat heaters in vehicles, or why the tricked-out Japanese toilets like the Neorest 600 feature pre-warmed seats to accommodate your commode comfort. Accommodating. So, if we prefer warmth, why is this experience so unnerving?

Schrecklichwarmsitzplatzgefühl [3]

It’s unnerving anywhere, but never more so than in a public restroom – a sudden, unwanted reminder that we’re all sharing the same facilities, as much as we try to ignore it or pretend otherwise. The tear of a tampon wrapper. The multiple unspoolings of toilet paper, indicating a number two, a code brown. A strategically-timed sniff or cough to cover a fart. Stinks that arise, that you feel implicated in, even if you weren’t the instigator, when a newcomer enters to a wall of smell just as you’re washing your hands.

Unerwartethindenhitze [4]

The public privy is an uncomfortable, even unwanted reality check on the illusion of privacy. An odd communion in reverse, based not on breaking bread together, but on shedding it. And the unexpected seat warmth is a weird intimacy physically imposed upon us by strangers. A stranger’s private space has intruded upon ours, a stranger’s privates previously pressed to the same place as our privates. Deprived. A piracy of privacy.

Heißefremdenhinternsitz [5]

And yet, this physically-imposed intimacy is physics. More specifically, thermodynamics. In conduction, heat energy flows from the warmer to the cooler object, the faster-moving hot molecules colliding with slower, colder molecules until they arrive at the same temperature together, vibrating in unison.

Unbequemischintimität [6]

It’s not that different from nonfiction – sharing intimacy with a stranger. Whether you’re the writer or reader, intimacies and empathies and energies are flowing between you, across the text, connecting you in ways neither of you expected. Only connect.

Restroom

But “intimacy” isn’t quite right, either. It’s too pretty, with its connotations of a welcome secret, an inside joke, a delicious confession/confection shared between friends, intimates. In much of nonfiction, we are welcomed as confidantes, or at least allowed as sympathetic eavesdroppers.

Belichtungschande [7]

No, what I’m describing is exposure at our most vulnerable. A sense of shame. Some nonfiction shares its author’s shame, a shitshow we’re invited to witness – not always well-done, not always as welcome. Shock is not shame, nor necessarily confession. But when done well, we feel blessed by the gift of shame shifted to us, a shared burden therefore lessened. We call it brave and we mean both of us, writer and reader, for facing it. We find its face human.

Both experiences – nonfiction and toilet seat – can be weird, even gross. But ultimately human, even sublimely so.

Which is why I praise you, unseen sitter, unmoved bowel mover who, in the course of your courses, shared your warmth with me, intentionally or no. I praise the warmth itself, offered freely, uncommodified, proof of your movement, moving me at the molecular physical level, and at the metaphysical. And I praise you, reader, with whom I in turn share my warmth, breaking the illusion of privacy, breaking the fourth (stall) wall, to convey this, a love commodious, to you.

[1] Joyful-shame

[2] Weird-sitting-surprise

[3] Horrible-warm-butt-feeling

[4] Unexpected-butt-heat

[5] Hot-stranger-butt-seat (not in a good way)

[6] Unwanted-intimacy

[7] Shame-of-exposure

 

***

HeidiHeidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.

 

Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form, here) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.

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Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.

This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.

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In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.

In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.

Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”

Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”

Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.

At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.

After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”

There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.

As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.

Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”

Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.

Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.

Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.

***

1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.

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.

helene.jpeg

[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.

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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.

Listicle: A Brief International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman Reading List:

In honor of International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman, here is a brief reading list: