Benjamin Batley on Anthony Bourdain: The Punk Rocker of Food, Culture, and Travel Blogging

The reason I use punk rock as a comparison to this blog is because it is unconventional and doesn’t follow the typical norms of travel and food writing. Anthony Bourdain has a very unique non-fiction writing style that is both credible and personal. Much like punk rock’s genre, the genre of blogging is fast-paced and informal, yet very significant and widespread. Like punk rock’s short songs, Bourdain’s blogging is concise and “to the point.” He is able to convey a lot of information about the true meaning behind many of his experiences in very few words. His writing, like punk rock, is “raw,” goes “against the grain,” and is political, yet remains aesthetically entertaining as well as alternatively fashionable to a wide array of readers. His blog provides a great way to gather insight into different cuisines, cultures, and travel destinations, but also provides the path to a plethora of resources that can enhance and satisfy the anthropological enthusiast’s knowledge and desire to learn through both the author and his subjects.

220px-kitchen_confidentialRenowned chef Anthony Bourdain is very well-known for his television shows, books, and speeches that discuss subjects such as travel, food, and culture based on his experiences as someone who has set foot on all seven continents. But, he also has a blog on Tumblr that provides even further insight into these experiences that weren’t necessarily covered in the final cuts of his more widely known publications. His writing is simple, edgy, and colorfully uncensored but has the ability to spark a significant emotional reaction within readers that could potentially educate and change readers’ perceptions about various different cultures both inside and outside of the United States. His blog writing, like most of his work, has the ability to touch on the deepest aspects of humanity in every culture, no matter what one’s inherent political beliefs may be.

In his blog post from May 12, 2016 entitled “Brown Dog,” he says, “You may be the most cynical, born and bred, citified lefty like me — instinctively skeptical of big concepts like ‘patriotism’, relatively foreign to hunting culture, unused to wide open spaces, but spend any length of time traveling around Montana and you will understand what all that ‘purple mountains majesty’ is all about, you’ll soon be wrapping yourself in the flag and yelling, ‘America, fuck yeah!’ with an absolute and non-ironic sincerity that will take you by surprise.”

This charismatic quote conveys a lot about Bourdain’s personality in a very brief snapshot of his blog work, which functions to show his talent as a very effective author. As a New Yorker that is far from home in the rugged terrain of Montana, he is honest, straightforward, and doesn’t mind publicly being able to identify and sympathize with other peoples’ viewpoints, even if they may contradict his own. One of his hallmarks as a writer is the conveyance of his unabashed and often hilarious opinions, but even more noteworthy is his ability to admit that maybe the other side has a point too. By being capable of this, he displays a very likeable persona that is highly opinionated, but still humble, writing in a way that is magnetizing to many people who enjoy learning about different cultures.

In a piece about Filipino culture in one of his episodes from the show Parts Unknown entitled “Unfinished Business,” posted on April 22, 2016, he discusses this particular episode’s focus on the humanity of Filipino people, not just the Philippines in a broad sense. He begins the post with an anecdote about Vangie, the Filipino baby nurse who helped raise his daughter and the close friendship that developed between both of their families. He writes, “This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much — for each other — for strangers. Because my experience is far from unusual.”

This behind the scenes look is a strong example of what to expect when reading about the background of what went into the filming of many episodes of this show. He goes out of his way in this blog to give his fans an insight into how Filipino culture has personally affected him, and no doubt will be capable of appealing to many others’ experiences with Filipino culture as well, which is inevitably quite prevalent in the United States with such a large influx of Filipino workers, who often go unnoticed, but really have a significant impact in our society. Again, although his shows typically have the outer appearance of a focus of food, travel, and general culture, he really intends to, and succeeds, in appealing to the distinct human qualities of these cultures, which he expands on in this blog.

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batley-biopicBen Batley is an English teacher, graduate student, and local musician in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his BA in English at Loyola University Chicago and is completing his MA in English and the University of Nebraska Omaha.

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.

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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.

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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

Creighton Nicholas Brown — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.

Kincaid

My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.

Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.

We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”

What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.

We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.

I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.

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BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”

CFP: Assay 3.1 and Beyond!

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At Assay, we’ve dubbed Year 3 “Year of Best American Essays.” Our intrepid assistant editor Nick Nelson, who’s been with us since the beginning, has been working to make the reprints and Notables of Best American Essays into a searchable form, and his project will be released in the next several months. He started the project in the fall of 2014, before Assay published its first issue, and the scope has grown considerably as he has pursued it. The project is truly exciting, a wonderful and useful piece of work for our genre, and we are thrilled to share it with the world. Stay tuned for the release date.

2016 is the 30th anniversary of the Best American Essays series and we can’t think of a better gift than attention paid to this institution that forms so much of who we are as a genre. Essay Daily started things off so well with their Advent project in December–and if you haven’t checked it out, you’ll want to. Best American Essays, as a literary series and foundational element of our genre, is such a rich source of conversation. As we also celebrate BAE’s anniversary and Nick’s project, we will devote a section of the magazine in both 3.1 (Fall 2016) and 3.2 (Spring 2017) to interrogating BAE as the standard bearer of the genre, the pedagogy of teaching with it, analysis of individual pieces, and any other place creativity strikes.

imageWe’re looking for full scholarly articles, we’re looking for informal discussions, we’re looking for pedagogical theory, lesson plans, assignments, and more. The introductions to BAE have long been considered the beginnings of nonfiction theory–where does that put us as a genre? If you’re not sure what you’re working on is something we’d be interested in, please ask us!

We continue to read and accept general submissions, so even if your current work isn’t on BAE, we’d love to see it. Deadline for full consideration for the fall issue is May 1, 2016; deadline for the Spring 2017 issue is December 1, 2016.  Click here for the link to the full guidelines.

Don’t Say It: Meghan Daum Writes It in “Unspeakable” by Amanda Page

We may not talk about the topics Meghan Daum covers in her most recent essay collection, but reading about them is a pleasure and a practice I return to again and again.

It’s rare that I wait impatiently for a book to be released. During these times, I watch online bookstores for the release date only to then drive in frenzy to the local bookstore and pounce on the first available copy I can find. Once it’s in my hands, I don’t let go–not even to let the clerk scan it. I’ll have one hand on it at all times until it’s been read through to the end. Then, the obsession wanes, and I can relax back into my detached indifference to the onslaught of new titles delivered to the world daily.

It was in one of these frenzies that I got myself to the bookstore and purchased Meghan Daum’s essay collection, Unspeakable. I read her first collection, My Misspent Youth, when I was busy misspending my own youth. It was enough to make me a fan, but it wasn’t until I read Daum’s memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, that I thought, “She gets me.” The number of kindred authors in my life is a low one. I keep an eye on their upcoming work. When Unspeakable hit the shelves, I was happy to sit down with a familiar voice. Daum is a writer who works in subject matter relevant to my life: debt, house obsession, childlessness, and as she states in Unspeakable, being a member of Generation X, that “passing thought” of a generation, that “minor player” of a demographic.

Unspeakablecvr

In the introduction, Daum confesses that all of the essays in the collection were written with the sole purpose of being essays in that specific collection. She states that writing about oneself is a specialty, albeit a lazy one. I nod my head in agreement and understanding. One thing I must emphatically state about my relationship to Daum’s work is this: I relate.

I relate to her take on her personal life, when she refers to engaging in online dating as “field work.” In “The Best Possible Experience,” she refers to her engagement in one particular romantic relationship as “anthropological curiosity.” Daum continues to date a man who sounds self-absorbed and even a little creepy, all because she’s interested to see what will happen. I think of this as a tenant of a writer’s life. We do an awful lot, and we extend ourselves and our comfort to stay in strange situations, just to see where the story takes us. This particular trait isn’t discussed enough, I think. But therein lies the point of Daum’s title (and entire collection.)

The book is called Unspeakable precisely because she is discussing topics that often do not make it into the dinner conversation. Or, for that matter, the conversation with best gals over brunch. The subject matter on the table is hard to talk about. Daum takes it on and makes it digestible for those of us willing to read it.

Daum’s collection begins with the death of her mother, includes an essay in which she explains how she will never be a mother, offers thoughts on her life as a dog owner/mother, and then ends with her own brush with death. Maybe it is the product of being composed for the sole purpose of existing in this collection, but the order seems deliberate, careful, and eases us into each new unspeakable theme.

The topics themselves are not unspeakable. We lose our mothers. We may not have children. We may prefer raising dogs to raising kids. It’s what is said in each of the essays that bring the theme – and the title – to life for the reader. In “Matricide,” Daum tells of the experience of packing up her mother’s apartment – while her mother is slowly dying in said apartment. She tells of the watchful, maybe judgmental eyes of the hospice workers. She tells us what she loved about her mother and what she didn’t. It may seem strange to offer words of resentment or frustration in an essay about your dying mother, but while reading it, the content doesn’t seem cruel. It seems honest.

In another essay from the collection, Daum claims to be an “honorary dyke.” She tells of spending a lot of time with lesbians when she was a young woman, even though she never questioned her heterosexuality. She dressed like a lesbian and preferred music by lesbian artists. She took on the most basic, stereotypical traits associated with lesbians, and therefore sought to call herself (or be called by lesbians) an honorary member of a tribe. This essay that seems young and naive – maybe better suited for her first collection, though I don’t think of any of the essays from My Misspent Youth as young or naive. It’s not the voice of “Honorary Dyke” that’s young, it’s the desire for the title that seems juvenile to me. But, maybe that’s the point. The desire for such a thing might come from an immature or unidentifiable place, but that doesn’t mean it should not be spoken.

I can’t tell if that’s the collection’s greatest strength, or a trick of the title. The essays get away with being confessional or revealing a naive or cruel thought of the author, but since we’re dealing with what is often unspeakable here, it’s all fair game. We’ve been warned–on the cover. The writer isn’t dealing in “appropriate” material here. And that’s the point.

Daum isn’t dealing with unspeakable acts, either. She hasn’t dealt out cruelty that she must confess or defend. I can’t think of a single defensive line in the entire text. She’s simply revealing some thoughts you may not feel comfortable with having, let alone admitting. For instance, in “The Dog Exception,” Daum writes about the connection some humans have with the canine kind. She describes the loss of her dog, Rex, and how in a lot of ways, that loss is harder than losing a human loved one. She states what only a few seem to understand or are willing to say, and those few often get demonized for it.

That’s why those few often don’t say it, and that’s why we need Daum to do it.

Daum had an edited collection of essays enter the world less than a year after Unspeakable was released. Though she doesn’t offer an essay of her own to the anthology, her essay from Unspeakable, titled “Difference Maker,” about how she is comfortable with being a child’s court appointed advocate and that’s as close to being a mother as she ever needs to get, is a handy precursor. The anthology is called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. For a long time, the words “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed” have been used to describe willingly childless adults. Those words were not, somehow, unspeakable. I’m eager to see if the authors she selected were able to defend their decision with the same stoic sense of absurdity and honesty that Daum presents the unspeakable themes of her collection.Selfishcvr

I like an honest conversation. I also like to get to the deep stuff quickly. I’ve been told that I “get deep fast.” I don’t have a lot of patience or interest in small talk. Strip away the niceties and I can get to know you. This is what I like most about Daum’s collection: I get to know her, and in doing so, I get to know myself a little more, a little better. I relate.

She opens a door, and I make a mad dash through it, much like I make to the bookstore when an author I admire (or to whom I relate) offers up a new piece of work. While I’m waiting for the next one, Daum’s Unspeakable makes for an excellent re-read.

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AmandaPageAmanda Page is an assistant professor of writing and humanities. She lives in Ohio with her two dogs and various drafts of personal essays. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking. You can find her musing about the essayist life at amanda-page.com.

The Travel Writer-in-Process by Lauren Wilson

Political_World_Map_Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writers to Read: On Compression by Taylor Brorby

As Polonius reminds us in Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit.” But when dealing with geological time, this might seem oxymoronic. When reading about earth’s time periods millennia need dozens, if not hundreds, of pages—and let’s not even begin to discuss the amount of pulp needed to begin writing about millions of years. Yet compression seems to be the best ingredient in Barbara Hurd’s compact 712 word essay, “Fracking: A Fable.”

Hurd’s lush and vivid language put Earth’s time into human language:

“Rain fell for centuries, and millions of years after that, the ancient Appalachian Basin just west of what is now the East Coast spent even more millennia becoming a sprawling, shallow bowl. And then nothing much happened. Another million years passed.”

Hurd takes our understanding of time and, like rolling a piece of play-doh, condenses it and presses it smaller. Millions of years are rendered in short sentences. With a flick of a phrase, time—time beyond human understand or concept—is whisked away:

“More tens of thousands of centuries passed while the water sloshed and the undersea mud thickened, and in all that time, no human ever stood on its shores, no blue crab ever scurried in the ooze.   There were no witnesses. And even if there had been, who could have stood the boredom of watching that slow, barely breathing world?”

What many readers might consider monumental in Earth’s history, Hurd renders in pithy sentences: “A few continents collided, some peaks rose, some valleys sank.” No big deal. And part of the reason the movement of time is no big deal in Hurd’s piece is that the main focus is on the precious energy source our lives depend upon: oil. Hurd’s piece is not strident, doesn’t chastise, and is not what we might call typical “activist” writing. Yet there is a lurking concern in her layered approach—subtly, Hurd urges the reader to think of time, what the scale of time looks like—the reader might dig deeper to understand how humans have manipulated Earth’s processes for our own benefit, our own dominance.

Halfway through the essay, Hurd’s pacing shifts. The sentences pick up tempo, and we start to blaze across the page at lightning speed. Look at this:

“We developed with lightning speed—geologically speaking—our brains and vision and hands, our fast and furious tools, our drills and ingenuity, and all the while that ooze-become-rock lay locked and impenetrable, deep in the earth, farther than anything, including anyone’s imagination, reached, until in the split second that is humankind’s history on this planet we pushed a drill with a downhole mud-motor a mile deep and made it turn sideways and snaked it into that ancient rock speckled with evidence of another eon, and a few minutes later we detonated small explosives and blasted millions of gallons of slick water—sand and water and a bit of biocide in case anything was alive down there—into what hadn’t seen water or light for four hundred million years.”

One sentence. Compression does not necessarily mean short sentences; it can also mean rapid, quick-moving, and lucid thinking—this, undoubtedly is one of the hallmarks of Hurd’s piece (which writers might also turn to for vivid language, rich imagery, or the play of mind-bending concepts of time). In this way, Hurd mimics the geological compression throughout Earth’s history. The writing condenses, is layered, and has staying power like a geological period.

By the end of the essay Hurd alludes to the risks of fracking—not by commentating on spills or radioactive material—but through our understanding of story:

“And when the slick water was withdrawn from the fissures and small slither-spaces and that prehistoric bedrock was lickety-split forever changed, no one could predict the impact, not even we inventive humans whose arrival on this planet is so recent, whose footprints, so conspicuous and large, often obliterate cautionary tales.”

Eventually, Hurd’s sentences do shorten. Her final two paragraphs are each single sentences: “And soon the unpredictable, as always, occurred.” Disaster? Biocide? The reader’s mind is left to its own devices. “And now, in no time at all, not everything takes forever any longer.” The reader, pushed along a continuum of time, now understands just how quickly we inventive humans have compressed the timescale of the world.

Like a smooth river stone, Barbara Hurd’s “Fracking: A Fable” is smooth and round, something to carry in your pocket, pull out, examine. It is bedrock. Enjoy the language, the imagery, but enjoy too its precision, it’s compression. After all, it speaks to a practice that places us and the future of ecology in peril.

***

ContributScreen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMing Editor Taylor Brorby is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, he is currently working on a poetry collection related to the Bakken oil boom, as well as an essay collection and editing an anthology of creative writing on fracking, “Fracture,” for Ice Cube Press, due out this winter. Taylor is a regular contributor to Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, and he is the book review editor at Orion Magazine.

Writers to Read by Jois Child: Wide-eyed, a Little Breathless, and Falling Slowly Earthward

That’s how I felt the first time I jumped out of an airplane. And that’s how I feel reading James Agee’s sentences.

It is July, 1936. Young Jim Agee and Walker Evans are on assignment from Fortune magazine to document the lives of white tenant farmers (sharecroppers) in Alabama. They hardly know how they will do this, these northern, urban strangers. Evans will take the photographs, but Agee struggles with the words that will eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.

But he can’t give us those things, so he writes hundreds of pages that read like a symphony and unfold like scenes from a motion picture.

LetUsNowPraiseFamousMen

 

One of the first incidents Agee describes is being taken by white landowners to a tenant farmer’s house. In the telling of it, Agee’s lyricism interweaves the particular moment, the social history, and the dilemma of the outside observer:

A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. . . . We drew up in the oak shade as the doors of this house filled. They were Negroes. . . . Here at the foreman’s home we had caused an interruption that filled me with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober people in their Sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children, and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by our arrival, they no longer could [emphasis mine].

The sparse, layered details of the scene (Sunday clothes, the far side of the house, getting dinner) are interwoven with the words of the strangers’ interruptions at crucial junctures, so that the word “realized” occurs between the introduction of the visitors and the description of their interrupted activities, and the word “arrival” appears where it will interrupt the getting of dinner as well as the general enjoyment of the afternoon.

The general feeling “regret,” becomes the realization of the situation – the Sunday ease, free from white outsiders – and then the final powerlessness to undo any of the harm: “now… they no longer could.” This single sentence structure carries not only the immediate and particular situation, but calls out and illustrates the overwhelming social codes in which Agee finds himself confined.

But the body of the book is about the lives of three white sharecropper families, told in such complex detail, so finely nuanced, that the sentences grow and grow in parenthetical and semi-coloned clauses, as here in a list of the particular qualities of several of these people at work:

the infants of three families, staggering happily, their hats held full of freshly picked cotton; the Ricketts children like delirious fawns and panthers; and secret Pearl with her wicked skin; Louise, lifting herself to rest her back, the heavy sack trailing, her eyes on you; Junior, jealous and lazy, malingering, his fingers sore; . . . Annie Mae at twenty-seven, in her angular sweeping, every motion a wonder to watch; . . . Mrs. Ricketts, in that time of morning when from the corn she reels into the green roaring gloom of her home, falls into a chair with gaspings which are almost sobs, and dries in her lifted skirt her delicate and reeking head; Miss Molly chopping wood as if in each blow of the axe she held captured in focus the vengeance of all time….

Reading such comprehensive sentences is a little like falling slowly earthward. One cannot read them fast. They require slowing down, breathing evenly, letting the colors and the weariness, the heat and the never-ending-ness fill the wholeness of life in this place and time.

***

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Jois Child writes and reads manuscripts from a tiny patch of forest in North Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Sun, High Desert Journal, and Women Owning Woodlands.

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’s Call for Submissions and “In the Classroom” Review

imageEditor’s Note: I want to be sure that regular readers of “In the Classroom” have seen Assay’s call for our spring issue.

 

Assay Call for Papers: Diversity in Nonfiction

Our spring issue will take up issues of diversity in nonfiction, so please send us your articles, conversations, and pedagogy that address diverse nonfiction texts, underrepresented authors, and varied educational environments. Deadline for full consideration is January 1, 2016.

 

Thank you for spreading the word and submitting!

Our “In the Classroom” series will continue next Monday (and wrap up our fall series) with a piece from Jen Palmares Meadows. You can read Jen’s super Assay panel post about “The Beasts Amongst Us” from NonfictioNOW here. You can also read a Jen’s great NonfictioNOW posts about “The View from the Slush Pile” over at BrevityPart I and Part II.

We’ve had a super year with our “In the Classroom” series, covering “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” A few examples: we started this fall with Jessica Handler writing about Joan Didion, continued with Sophfronia Scott writing about Robert Vivian (“dervish essays”!), and last week Stacy Murison wrote about Brian Doyle. Erin Davis wrote about teaching Jess Walter’s “Citizen Vince” and Dinty W. Moore wrote about teaching Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit.” There was all that and more.

We’re grateful to all who contribute to what we trust is a valuable resource for teachers, students, readers, and writers. As you finish your fall grading and make your holiday writing plans, keep Assay in mind!