R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

images

I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

***

W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

A Moveable Feast #PorteOuverte by Jen Palmares Meadows

When you hear of the Paris attacks, you read what you can from your computer, of the urgency to apprehend shooters, to save hostages, to care for victims. You have never known war, but know that in instances of despair, stories of hope and heroism will begin to emerge. You search for them amongst the carnage, and they come, without fail. A man pulling wounded from Bataclan Concert Hall. Taxicabs shepherding people home without fare. Parisians offering shelter to strangers, with the hashtag #PorteOuverte, meaning ‘open door.’

You don’t know anyone in Paris, nor have you ever been. In your mind, Paris is breathtakingly beautiful, but what you know of it is croissants and berets, and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Still, because you are a narcissist, you imagine yourself in Paris, imagine the absolute fear. As a writer, as a human, this is often the first step one takes towards empathy, towards understanding…

Her tweet would have read:

27 rue de fleurus. My salon is open. #porteouverte

Gertrude Stein would have opened her doors to you. Her voice would have carried in the darkness, her thick hand pulling you inside, leaving only a moment to slide locks into place. “Come away from the windows,” she might say, motioning you deeper into her salon, where others have sought shelter.

“Don’t let them in. They might be one of the terrorists,” a shadow calls from behind a hat stand.

“Are you mad?” Another voice. “We must let them in! We must!”

“Here,” Ms. Stein says, pointing to the wall farthest from the street, and you join those huddled on the floor. Ms. Stein hands you a coat, one she says was left by a patron. It is itchy and durable, smelling like oranges and the sea.

In the dim light, some read news updates on their phones, and text their mothers. Others use their phones to illuminate the pages of books they have taken from Ms. Stein’s shelves. You see her collection is massive, having grown over many decades. There are new works, you had not expected, but should have known would be there: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land. And there is work from Svetlana Alexievich, Junot Diaz, Carole Maso, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe. Books, so many books.

You pull from the shelf, A Moveable Feast. You first read Ernest Hemingway’s short memoir, of his years as a struggling, young, expatriate in the 1920s, when you were in graduate school, and you loved it then, loved wandering Paris with Hemingway and hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald.a-moveable-feast

In the safety of Ms. Stein’s salon, you read, and your heart is with Hemingway and Paris. You drink with him at La Closerie des Lilas and watch fishermen along the banks. Looking over the water, Hemingway tells you, “We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.” And you agree, because this Spring cannot be everlasting.

You chat with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, and borrow books from her lending library. You “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” You attend horse races, drinking champagne, and calling obscenities from the stands. Hemingway displays much of his famed chauvinism, sharing odd conversations with Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. His overt sexism is obnoxious, particularly when he describes his falling out with Ms. Stein.

“There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.”

After that, you wonder why you are on this walk with him at all. Despite countless oysters, countless bottles, with Hemingway, your thirst and hunger is never assuaged. You and he wander Paris with a lasting dissatisfaction, an endless hunger, so common to the lost generation to which Hemingway belonged.

Shouting from the street frightens you. A look around Ms. Stein’s salon reveals that many others have begun to read A Moveable Feast as well. Now, they too ramble along with you and Hemingway, a veritable Parisian cafe crawl.

Of the crawl, there is much to enjoy, much to learn about writing. Hemingway shares his theory of omission, in which, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You see merit in his theory, see how it applies well to flash fiction and micro essays.

“What is that?”

“You would like it.”

“I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel,” he admitted. “It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

There is comfort in this.

And throughout, Paris is with you, its trees and its rivers, its landscape. When Hemingway describes a Paris spring threatened by rains, you become silent:

“Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat [Spring] back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” (Here you begin to cry.)

“In those days, though,” he went on, “the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

Later, A Moveable Feast will make the French bestseller list, a half century after its publication. Adam Biles, the current manager at Shakespeare and Company, will call A Moveable Feast, “a symbol of optimism…a symbol of Paris as Paris should be. It’s a symbol of cafe culture. It’s a symbol of literary culture…It’s everything that, in many ways, was attacked.”

“This is a love letter to Paris,” the woman next to you says, clutching the book to her chest.

Still reading, you rub the wet from your face, and agree.

***JanPalmaresMeadows

 

Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Assay@NFN15: Weird Places and Particular Spaces

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 11.40.48 AM

Bill Carter, Tim Flannery, and Annette McGivney, with Jane Armstrong moderating

Panel description: Our panel will demonstrate the nonfiction narrative’s unique ability to provide an intellectual and imaginative space in which the author can describe, explore, analyze, contemplate, interrogate and speculate upon his or her relationship to specific places. Our panelists, all of whom have journeyed widely to places real and imagined, close to home or distant and dangerous, employ the nonfiction narrative as a mode of transportation to carry readers far afield to foreign lands or ever deeper into the richly contoured landscape of the individual writer’s mind, showing, ultimately, the dynamic and recursive relationship between self and place as the writer builds an environment on the page while the environment simultaneously shapes the writer.

The conversation began with Jane Armstrong riffing on the panel description, noting the humor of a self-described “shut in and hermit” moderating a panel of wilderness obsessives. She went on to expand the definition of the wilds to include one’s own backyard, explaining how defamiliarization was the nonfictionist’s technique for making strange even the most familiar of places. “All writing is place-based writing,” she said, because we can’t extricate ourselves from our biography. Defamiliarization asks us to imagine that we can. Jane gave a brief lecture on the X and Y axes of nonfiction, where X is the external world and Y is the internal self—one could plot any essay or book on this graph. The other axis governing nonfiction: timespan, which could range from brief to geologic. Jane expressed an interest in liminal spaces where time moves oddly. Her example? The airport. “Every flight is a continuation of every other flight.” She then read a brief essay that explored how place could warp time, using a childhood memory of the first time she flew on a plane to meditate on the loss of her mother: Loss warps time just as flight does. The flight perpetually delayed mirrored the narrator’s desire to endlessly defer her mother’s death.

Annette McGivney took a different tack, describing how she used the wilderness as a space to contemplate how humans work. Her research focused on wild places that have returned from the brink of destruction at the hands of humans, wild places that were “all-consuming and clearly in charge.” She discussed the difficulty of writing about wilderness as the task of narrating the act of “living in the moment; of capturing a process of unfolding.” She read a chapter from a book set in Twilight Canyon wherein the narrator hikes with an inexperienced friend and they nearly run out of water before stumbling on an oasis made all the more lovely by their brush with mortality. “Go in without a safety net,” she said, and the piece revealed how life is often like hiking in inhospitable terrain: the Canyon just makes this truth obvious and visible. “I know how to find my way in the wilderness,” Annette wrote, but “not in the so-called civilized world.” The wilderness can be healing, she said, especially from the trauma of an abusive childhood.

Bill Carter began by reading an excerpt from his book, in which he has a dream that he’s drowned in a fishing net. His work is interested in places where “no one belongs; where nature is violent without apology. Where no one drinks green tea and reads self-help books.” He talked about travel as a good way to jumpstart writing. “Books are about doing things. So keep involved in things.” Of his first book, on the Bosnian War, he said “it was a beautiful place during a horrific time.” He felt that hard labor had always been a cure for him (much as Annette talked about the wilderness as healing). “Exhaustion was healing after the brutality of war.” He was especially focused on honesty in nonfiction: “There are so many ways to disguise human emotion,” Bill said. “I try to cut through all that.”

Tim Flannery talked about attempting to write place through the lens of geologic time, to tell “history in deep time.” He claimed that “you can’t understand a place until you can think expansively about time,” and went on to offer dozens of beautifully wrought examples. One particularly lovely one involved the salt flats in Australia. Digging beneath the surface to excavate bones, Tim noticed the distinct smell of rainforest, a “humus” smell, moist and completely at odds with the arid landscape until he recalled that the salt basin in which he stood was once a lake some 30 million years prior. He pointed out how seeing the familiar (in this case, a smell rather than a sight: the scent of hums) when you are far away makes you see it differently. “The world is inexplicable without time,” was how he ended his talk.

The Q&A was brief: Jane asked how distance (in terms of time, but also space) from one’s subject helped (or hurt) one’s nonfiction writing. How far must you be from an experience (in terms of the axis of distance versus proximity) before you can write about it? Tim suggested focusing on longing: he tries to figure out why he longs for a given place, and why he longs to write about it. This is his way in to the work: understanding why and how a place affected him.

Another question asked about the use of metaphor to describe a place, and the panelists all felt that finding the right metaphor (Annette’s piece imagined the Grand Canyon as a woman, for example) was key—the right metaphor “helps me conceptualize what I want to do,” said Annette. Bill noted that the right metaphor wasn’t clever and instead “honored the place” it described. Tim ended the panel by answering a question posed by Brian Doyle about nature and culture, and how we’re used to viewing human consciousness as being embedded in culture rather than nature. Tim pointed to a book by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) on aboriginal land management as an example that complicated this dichotomy.

**

Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Collagist, Diagram, and Brevity, among others, and she has reviewed for American Book Review, Essay Daily, and Entropy Magazine. She is about to step down as Nonfiction Editor at The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She will soon join the North American Review as Nonfiction Editor.

Topic: Essays by Writers of Color

IMG_7690Thanks to Cyn Kitchen for this list:  essay (not memoir) recommendations by writers of color, who are American, but who are not writing about race.

Please add your suggestions in the comments!

__________

  • Richard Rodriguez, Darling, excerpted in Harper’s.
  • Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist
  • bell hooks
  • Alison Hawthorne Deming, Colors of Nature
  • Stacyanne Chin, The Other Side of Paradise
  • Ta Nehisi Coates, Beautiful Struggle 

Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit”

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.10.06 AMControlling metaphors are often reserved for the realm of poetry, rarely in nonfiction do we speak of such things. It makes sense, too–after all, poetry is known for its density, its scarcity of words. But nonfiction, too, has its moments of controlling metaphor, moments where images take hold of writers, saying, “Use me!”

Debra Marquart, in her brief essay “Hochzeit”–which later appears in her memoir, The Horizontal World–employs an image, the accordion, which gives structure to this economic, finely wrought piece of prose.

Marquart’s German-from-Russia upbringing was marked by dancing, by wedding celebrations, by, as she says, “circles.” From the get-go, the reader knows where she is: she’s at a dance, and the room is swaying, pulsing: “I remember circles–the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt. A neighbor lady polkas by[.]” This opening establishes the form and function of the piece: saddle up, reader, you’re in for a swinging good time, and you might get a little dizzy from the dancing along the way.

Throughout the piece Marquart takes time to observe and document the dance: the Ray Schmidt Orchestra is playing, young women wear patent leather shoes, chiffon dresses, mothers’ lips are smeared red. We’re in Lawrence Welk country, and the party is just beginning.

Marquart presses the reader deeper into the psyche of the region, meditating on the odd instrument of keys and bellows, manuals and ranks: “[F]ather and son take turns playing the accordion, the bellowing wheeze of notes, the squeeze, the oom-paa-paa.” Not only can the reader see this, the squeezing of the accordion, but we can hear it, too, with Marquart’s precision of language: oom-paa-paa. We learn, too, that the accordion is the instrument in this part of the world, that the son is the “heir apparent to Lawrence Welk,” where Marquart definitely states, “This is polka country.” Not only does the accordion define the structure of this piece, the accordion defines the structure of this region.

We step back from this moment, from the sound of the music, and continue to swirl. We’re with the author–her childhood self–soaking in the wonder and dizzying effects of this evening dancing. “A man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa makes the round with a tray of shot glasses, spinning gold pools of wedding whiskey.” Don’t you just love the humor of that observation, a man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa? And the swirling continues: “three sips for everybody, no matter how small.” Libations help heighten the sensory detail of the rest of the essay.

And then we’re off again, returning to the dance where our narrator is lifted-up, but she’s not sure by whom. “An uncle, an older cousin?” And so she is trot around in circles, lifted in the air, as the accordion pulses; eventually the narrator returned to the old women at the tables. We know the setting is congenial, that we’re among friends, as the oom-paa-paa continues to flow across the dance floor.

The dancing continues. “The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine.” And now the focus shifts from the narrator to her parents, “the best dancers on the floor.” The scene mimics the pulse of the accordion: “The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline. Women swing by in the arms of their partners. High whoops and yips emit from their ample bosoms. They kick their big, heavy legs and throw back their bouffant.” This is when the metaphor is pressed deepest: We see the room mimic the accordion, we can picture the women, see the men holding tight. We are in the land of the controlling metaphor. Oom-paa-paa.

Before the scene ends we press deeper into the moment, focusing on Marquart’s parents: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room.” The accordion is not only the defining instrument of this region, it is, or so it seems, the vehicle for dancing in the Marquart family. The spinning continues.

In seven brief paragraphs Marquart weaves together the accordion, polka, and dancing like a finely made tapestry. We swirl and spin with her, listening to the bellowing and pulsing of the music as the Hochzeit, the wedding celebration carries on. In nonfiction, like in poetry, there are moments where the skill of a controlling metaphor increases the depth and clarity of scene, this, is seems, is something worth stealing from Marquart.

-Taylor Brorby is a contributing editor at Assay.

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AWP2015: University of Minnesota Press Looks Both to Past and Future

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMA university press: Home for all things obscure, scholarly, and regional.

Right? Not quite, as was clear at the University of Minnesota Press 90th anniversary panel held Friday morning at AWP.

Three UMN Press authors—Karen Babine, Kate Hopper, and Sarah Stonich—read from their widely appealing works and entered into conversation with Erik Anderson, regional trade editor for the Press. Continue reading

AWP 2015: The Past is a Place: Former Minnesotans Remember

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Maria Damon, Barrie Jean Borich, Amitava Kumar, Cheryl Strayed

 Maria Damon, moderator, briefly introduced the panelists and explained that had been asked to return to Minnesota and write about a fraught place.  It was later revealed by the panelists that the work they had read was brand new – all of them had been writing late the night before and had had exchanged encouraging emails cheering each other on.  Even without knowing this, the work they read was astounding. Continue reading

Topic: Maps and Mapping

IMG_7690Thanks to Julija Šukys for this list on maps and mapping! Add your suggestions in the comments below!

AWP2015: Flat Lands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMFlat Lands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest was moderated by Nickole Brown, co-editor of White Pine Press’s Marie Alexander Poetry Series, which publishes one or two books of prose poetry each year. While the series itself does not focus on the Midwest, several of its authors write about/from the region, and the panel featured these voices.

I’ll mostly stick to an overview of the panelists’ remarks below, but I want to quickly note that this was one of the most thoughtful, cohesive, and enjoyable panels I’ve attended. I was not particularly familiar with the panelists or the press before attending, and I left looking forward to reading more of their work. The authors all have impressive resumes, but I’ll simply link to their White Pine books below, since they read from these during the session.

Continue reading