Favorite Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Mystery My Country”

14 SophfroniaI’m going to tell you to read a book that’s not here yet. But it’s coming. In fact it’s quite close. At first I only sensed it was out there somewhere, its wake pushing waves across an ocean and causing seawater to lap at my toes where I once stood on dry land. Now I see this book, a gorgeous ship at full sail, on the horizon. It’s so beautiful I feel impelled to cry out, “Look, it’s here!”

The vessel we await is called Mystery My Country, and it contains a collection of dervish essays written by Robert Vivian, the author of four novels and two collections of meditative essays. It arrives in 2016, published by Anchor & Plume. A dervish essay is a prose poem that takes on the spinning energy of its namesake. But it goes beyond the realm of poem and stakes itself in nonfiction because Vivian molds the form to make it so. Using precious little punctuation he feels his way through, much as a straight essayist would, a notion, an observation, a question, all in service to better understand and appreciate what connects life to himself and his world. The whirling dervish energy might send Vivian through the tight spaces of grace in small acts, as in “My Neighbor St. Therese”:

“…but I know your mouth is my mouth and your voice my voice as together we take care of what we can however brokenly and imperfectly, cleaning a kitchen floor on our hands and knees using our tears for water, the smallest cry in the mouth of the smallest thing, offering even the little we are because there’s nothing left of us to give, not even a flower.”

Or it might push him to accept the present moment of health while at the same time coming to terms with old age as in this excerpt from “Come Earthward”:

“…but we are still quick and lively, and there are grooves in people, actual unplowed furrows deep as the night and it is glorious to move, glorious to walk and turn around, and before the planet of arthritis and old age we were all swallows and leaping fawns—we were the world when it was young, and there is stardust in us yet, so move while you still can…”

There is vital work happening here, and risk, especially in terms of Vivian’s ability to totally give himself over to the piece. He said in an interview, “I know when I’ve finished writing a dervish essay when the last line surprises me, when I sense the whirlwind is about to expire. Yes, it’s visceral, and yes, it’s spiritual. I less end them than they take me to a brink and I fall over into silence.”

I first encountered a dervish essay when Vivian presented one at a faculty reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The massive energy of the piece rang through the air and flooded the room. It was so beautiful, filled with his simple, emotional truths such as a touching, one-sentence description of the way his wife laughed. He layered these truths, one upon the other, until suddenly he’d made this complex creation reminding me of something so easy to forget in everyday life—that the little loves do matter; the way we notice a laugh or a butterfly on a sprig of lilac is what make us who we are as artists and differentiate what we have to bring to the page.

For the next two years no matter what literary journal I read whether in print (Booth, The Tishman Review, Stoneboat Literary Journal) or online (Barnstorm Literary Journal, Posit, Gravel) I would find Vivian’s dervish essays, large messages in small bottles, washing in with the tide and meeting me wherever I happened to be as I walk these writing shores. Soon it was obvious a book wouldn’t be far behind and I felt thrilled by the prospect of having these precious gifts assembled all in one place.

This ship will arrive, its bright sails glowing in the sun, and we’ll marvel at how, in the rough seas of creative writing where tightly held expectations about genre and form threaten to sink an artist at every turn, Vivian has managed to stay true to his course. We’ll all be glad he did since he, like a modern day Rumi, generously offers the lessons that will teach us as writers to dance with this whirlwind energy, and as human beings to split our hearts open with wonder of the world.

Here are links to ten Vivian dervish essays, so you can get your feet wet and prepare for this marvelous passage. What a ride we have in store.

“Looking, Then Listening”–Barnstorm Literary Journal (includes a recording of Vivian reading)


“Come Earthward”–Wraparound South


“My Neighbor St. Terese” and “When the Stones Abandoned the World”–Posit Journal


“Who is the Spirit”–Gravel Magazine


“Moon, River, Snow”–Bohemian Pupil Press


“Crow Ceremony” and “Stumble”–Numero Cinq


“Lead Me”–Iron Gall Press


“Open Letter to Late Night Traffic”–Sundog Lit



Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. She recently completed her second novel and is finishing an essay collection. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.

Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of poets talking about nonfiction – the panelists all consider themselves poets first. The lyric is defined as a mode of poetry short in form, concentrated in time, subjective in its observations, personal in nature, and musical in quality. He cites Coleridge’s poetic faith as a willing suspension of disbelief – how does the way in which lyric essays engage with poetic faith/belief compare and contrast with lyric poems? What are we willing to believe/willing to suspend disbelief about? Do we experience belief differently depending on genre?

He gives the example of Carolyn Forché’s piece “The Colonel,” which is labeled in books as a prose poem, a lyric essay, or flash fiction, though it seems to fulfill all of the parts of the “lyric” definition above. There are variations in its mode of delivery: short, declarative, detached sentences, which are broken by lyric moments that swerve into figurative comparisons – not reporting, but creating the experience for the reader. Yet he’s noted that students treat it differently depending on how it’s presented to them: if it’s essay or flash fiction, they analyze it for character; if it’s a prose poem, they assume it really happened and want to know why she was there, what happened next, etc.

Justin Bigos: Tony Hoagland considered himself as a poet who drifted toward narrative out of necessity, to give his poems structure, yet felt like the poetry was still the most important part. Bigos says he foregrounds lists, catalogues, and litanies in his work, and references Marianne Borich’s essay in In the Blue Pharmacy on the use of litany in poetry, focusing on its use by Whitman. He calls litany a suspension of time, suspension of a moment, and reads a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

So how does this work in essay (as opposed to poetry)? Bigos cites Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and shows how Gay uses litanies to simultaneously demonstrate belief as well as doubt.

Sejal Shah: Deborah Tall and John D’Agata quote Helen Vendler, who says of the lyric poem, “It is suggestive rather than exhaustive.” Shah also notes the use of verbs in John D’Agata’s description of the lyric essay: leaping, meandering, jumping.

Shah is interested in gaps, white spaces – what can’t be said? what fractures when we try to say it? how does trauma or grief fracture both memory and language? She’s also interested in leaps of faith and logic, the associative rather than the linear. She talks about the attempt to write “Street Scene” in Paris while grieving her best friend’s suicide, and how travel and walking seemed tied up in that – Anne Carson says that pilgrims are those who figure out things by walking. Here is a link to read Shah’s “Street Scene.”

Bojan Louis: spoke about trauma, abuse, and memory, and the blank spaces left by them, and the issues of belief/disbelief (by others, and of the self). He points to Afaa Michael Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, three books of poetry that deal with a history of abuse, incest, racism, the death of his son, years of factory work, and of coming to poetry. [Louis reads selections.] Louis notes that poetry hasn’t worked for him while writing about trauma, though – that’s come through nonfiction.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Editor’s Note: Heidi Czerwiec contributed many posts from #NFNOW15. We are most grateful to her for making the conference so accessible to those who were unable to attend & for preserving a record of these talks. Thank you, Heidi!

AWP2015: Argonaut, Citizen, Empathy, Inoculation: New Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, & Claudia Rankine

 Hundreds of AWP-attendees streamed into Auditorium # 1 Friday afternoon to listen to four powerhouse women speak about innovations in recent creative nonfiction: Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine were joined by Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae to talk about their respective newly published books and the success surrounding them.

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AWP2015: Everyday Oddities: Natural Fact and the Lyric Essay

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Colin Rafferty, Chelsea Biondolillo, Brian Oliu, Christopher Cokinos, Joni Tevis

Colin Rafferty kicked things off with a little history: In 1997 Seneca Review started publishing what they called lyric essays. In 2003 Graywolf published John D’Agata’s anthology of lyric essays, The Next American Essay. Many think lyric essays have become synonymous with memoirs but the essays in this panel are full of factual research.

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