Monday, December 5, 2016

12/5: On The Protest Essay

In the turn of a night, we arrive at a new age. A new reality where our country not only turns its back on its values but on logic and reason. Knowledge and fact take a backseat alongside decency, compassion, and basic human rights. In their place are boorish manners that legitimize a racial supremacy, embracing sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, ignorance and its uglier kin, intellectual antipathy and ambivalence. Dictated mainly by an America that historically advocates religious morality and socioeconomic rectitude at the exclusion of large swaths of people whom for decades have struggled for a voice. None of these elements are exactly new, but felt more so because of the sudden force in which we were made to face an America that openly threats to strip citizens of their freedoms. In such an environment that so starkly qualifies individuals like me to second-class citizenry, the morning after appeared dismal and somber. Looking out my window, the sun refused to show, in its place was incessant rain that marshaled me back to my thoughts. Marilynne Robinson believes that “we have good grounds for exulting human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.” And yet to me, it feels as if our country is dissolving from within. This impasse in our American narrative is so severe that I admit to losing confidence in its spirit and future. So glum, I know.

The remedy to this gloom lies in art. Iris Murdoch, says that “art and morals are… one. Their essence is the same.” Therefore, it is the essayists moral duty to address the current lines of social division, dissent, and oppression as a form of protest. As a protest essayist, a writer must fully accept the role of authority as a public intellectual and be fueled with a passion for justice. In this role, they demand hope amid despair and insist on the recognition and preservation of our inalienable rights. A protest essay incorporates the form of personal essay to examine those conflicts and disaffection in society and culture. By sifting through personal experience, the protest essay takes two roads, discovering the universal or making analysis of the particular. Both require two major tenets of the literary essay: the intimate presence of the writer and the engagement between the self and the world.

A protest essay exists when society claims unity and equality and then turns a blind eye to division, bigotry, and inequality. The protest essayist is born out of this necessity. African American and Mexican American as well as other marginalized forms of literature essentially confront such injustices. In literary nonfiction, the writer not only embarks on what Phillip Lopate refers to as an “engagement with the writing process” that leads to “a voyage of discovery,” but in doing so, touches on the protest essayist’s role in understanding their own identity within a systemic, institutional oppression.

An essayist is drawn to write a protest essay when they sense what Gloria Anzladúa refers to as la facultad. Anzaldúa defines la facultad as having an “instant sensing” with a “capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” Those who possess this sensitivity—women, homosexuals of all races, the dark-skinned, the outcasts, the persecuted and marginalized, the foreign—are all “excruciatingly alive to the world.” This instant sensing is a defense mechanism developed when “you’re up against the wall.” Such feeling was never more evident than the morning after the presidential election. And now in the weeks afterward, I’ve discovered that acknowledging and channeling this “survival tactic,” honing it into art is a vital call to action.

            This instant sensing seems embedded in the personal essay. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the most revered essayists, many of whom fall under the influence of la facultad, have written personal experiences that speak on behalf of others with such awareness and urgency. James Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son,” reflects on the death of his father as a catalyst in order to purge the resentment and rage built up over the years of living in a segregated United States. The experience—while cathartic—also informs the larger social problem. Take for example, Baldwin aligning his familial rage with the racial tension that many African Americans felt in the 1950s, calling both a “disease” that no “Negro alive… does not have this rage in his blood—one has a choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” It’s not difficult to replace the word Negro and insert Latinx, gay, Muslim, transgender, or woman, and still understand Baldwin’s point when talking about the oppression caused through exclusion. Recently, an undergraduate student admitted to me that he was Baldwin. “His story,” he said to me with a smile of recognition and pain, “is my story.”

            As Baldwin’s essay is a reaction to the racial segregation in the shape of memoir, other writers react by approaching the protest essay as an analytical meditation. Writers like Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa embraced this style as a means to explore identity politics and feminism. Specifically, Rich’s “Split at The Root” and Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” rail against a sexist patriarchal structure by first understanding and identifying the parameters before redefining their existence outside of it. In their hands, the protest essay is an examination that arrives at a personal truth—Adrienne Rich sees herself “split” at the foundation of what defines her, an inauthentic half-Jew and a protestant gentile; while Anzladúa imagines the surreal, her “wild” tongue, unruly and feral like her dispute between her American and Mexican selves. As an intellectual argument, their protest essays establish for an audience a stronger comprehension of an oppressed individual and the universal self, declaring to readers: we exist.

            George Orwell believed that no work of art was free of political bias. He rejected the notion that “art should have nothing to do with politics,” an act that he asserted was itself a political stance. Moreover, all writers are forced into becoming “some sort of pamphleteer” when faced with seeing injustices. Orwell cites Burma, Hitler, and the Spanish Civil War as the major forces in his life which turned him to write against “totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” In writing against these forces, Orwell aimed to make “political writing into art.” The writer already inherently aspires to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter the other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” Thus, making the personal essay that already aspires to art as the best vehicle to voice objection and lay an ideological groundwork for a movement.

            For Orwell, the structure of a protest essay is less picturesque and more exact. He suggests that the more political an essay is, the less aesthetic its language. Orwell is mostly right about this, although the best protest essays border the aesthetic and the bare-boned prose style. Let us note that an essay’s “exactness” by no means being less artful. There is importance in drawing this distinction because it helps in establishing the protest essay’s main structural characteristic: lean and direct, placing the author’s intimate voice (her anger, his rage) front and center for readers. Let us take note of something else: writing personal essays is hard, threading political layers to one’s personal experience poses challenges for an essayist.

            Early in Adrienne Rich’s “Split at The Root,” she confesses her fear in the confessional aspect of the personal essay process, describing it as a “dangerous act” where something must be claimed and something exposed in the facing of forces at play. I like this idea of claiming and exposing as a mechanism to fight back. In this new world we find ourselves in, we must claim, we must expose. Again, Orwell: “I write [protest essays] because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention…” Orwell’s starting point is feeling a sense of injustice, his biggest concern lies in getting heard. Even then, Rich calling the act of writing an essay as dangerous takes a whole new context many decades later given the recent backlash against multiculturalism and globalism. With all the hate crimes and ugly rhetoric spewing from darker sections of social media, a writer must understand not just what their getting into, but be aware of their proper role in a post-fact world.

            Inevitably, the post-fact world is lived on the internet. Acknowledging how technology and social media disseminates ideas and narratives guides us to the forms that carry the power and essence of the protest essay. The most popular form is the think piece, an immediate meditation that is part op-ed, part article, part blog post. In the days after the election, my Twitter feed flooded with thought pieces, most notable were Roxane Gay’s “The Audacity of Hopelessness” in the New York Times and Garrison Keillor’s “Trump voters—it’s not me, it’s you” in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, The New Yorker dedicated their “Dispatches” section to thoughtful pieces by authors such as Atul Gawande, Mary Karr, and Toni Morrison. Reading all these pieces, I got the sense that social media’s continuous churn of information and our current manner in which we process it with an insatiable yet short lived memory, threatens to defuse the power and influence of the think piece. The argument against this, one might say, is that people read what our great thinkers have to say in perilous times, and yet, I’m convinced this occurs only in your Internet’s safe spaces and echo chambers. So how does the personal essay go beyond its own parameters to assert its existence, the way, let’s say, Ta’ Nehisi Coates or Claudia Rankine capture the public consciousness?

            The success of the protest essay lies in the simple fact that it must be read. It must survive outside of academia while still asserting an intellectual authority. And right here is the problem: the protest essay must figure out a way to both thrive among the rapid obsolescence of social media and in a world, resistant and skeptical towards thought. I’d argue that the think piece as a form is too present minded, but then does this mean the success of the protest essay—and the personal essay form itself—is contingent only from its inherent characteristic of reflection? Would Baldwin or Anzaldúa’s essays carry the same emotional and cultural impact (not to mention withstanding the test of time) had they been written with the same immediacy as the think piece? In turn, would the think piece function the same and gain legitimacy by waiting? Truth is we can’t afford to wait. The time is now for essayists to understand their role and help guide this generations’ return to human brilliance.

César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read the rest of his contributions to Essay Daily hereherehere, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

12/4: Marcia Aldrich et al, “Let’s do an Anthology”: Writers Shaping the Literary Creative Nonfiction Landscape

When I began editing Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, I gained a new appreciation for writers who were simultaneously editors. As the chief editor of Fourth Genre I depended on writers willing to review books, interview, and read manuscripts for which they would not be paid. Most literary journals depend upon the good will of writers to donate their time and expertise. Working with the writer-editors at Fourth Genre changed the way I looked at the literary world. I began to see the world of creative nonfiction as a community whose growth and vitality was built by a network of writers who were also editors.

In the last several years I’ve been fortunate to have essays included in anthologies edited by writers: After Montaigne, University of Georgia Press, edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, University of Nebraska Press, edited by B.J. Hollars, Creating Nonfiction, SUNY Press, edited by Erin Murphy and Jen Hirt. These three anthologies are just a small sample of the anthology offerings that have come into being in response to the growing interest in creative nonfiction, with special emphasis on the essay. I’ve joined their ranks. On December 15, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women will be released by the University of Georgia Press. Writers turned activists are increasingly shaping the creative nonfiction landscape through editing collections. The editors of these anthologies are busy, productive writers. And yet, instead of just keeping their heads down, so to speak, and focusing on their own writing, they have chosen to undertake editing an anthology. Why would an experienced writer choose to edit a collection of essays? This is the question I’ve asked and here are their answers.

We are all busy writers and educators, and yet we have each undertaken editing a collection of essays. What motivated you?

David Lazar: I have edited three anthologies and two collections of interviews, and in each case the motivation was slightly different, but there were some commonalities. Among these were: I had to proceed with the convenient fiction that the anthology wouldn’t be too arduous a project, wouldn’t take too much energy away from my own creative work. Without this fiction, which I’ve somehow managed to repeat—the power of denial! —I’m not sure I could have done the editing work. I also need to be bothered. Bothered by wanting something to be out there that isn’t and feeling that I need to address this tiny crack in my imaginative vision of the literary universe. Another self-delusion, though one that I hope will provide some level of entertainment or food for thought for a few people. But mostly, I have an idea that interests me and I like to have more than one project going at a time, and so I think, a la Micky and Judy, “let’s do an anthology!”

B.J. Hollars: I suppose what motivated me is what always motivates me: a deep, insatiable curiosity, and a desperation to find an avenue to try to sate it. When I began my proposal for Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, I was hardly an expert on the subject. I was relatively new to nonfiction, and particularly naïve to unique structures within the genre. But I was hell-bent on learning everything I could, and the more I read, the more I wished there was a single anthology that might offer me a range of boundary-blurring essays, as well as some insight from the writers themselves. I searched the shelves and found nothing. And so, summoning my inner “fake-it-till-you-make-it” mentality, I wrote the proposal, tried to sound a lot more confident than I was, and then began the process of creating the book I knew I wanted.

Jen Hirt: There are two major elements that motivated me to undertake the co-editing of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers. The big motivators were collegiality and my interest in interviews. Let’s start with the interviews: I have a little bit of a journalism background through which I’ve had a chance to practice the art of questioning. How do you ask the right question to elicit the most insightful response? I love that challenge. I’ve learned a lot about writing through Q&A sessions, so the chance to craft so many questions and then edit the answers into an anthology seemed like the right project to be doing as a professor, writer, and program coordinator within my department. The collegiality motivator has to do with the fact that Erin Murphy approached me with the idea for the book. She’s at Penn State Altoona (I’m at Penn State Harrisburg), and I knew she brought a lot of experience to the table, since she edited the first book in the series, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. I see collegiality as not just small talk at the copy machine, but also mentorship. I knew Erin would be a great mentor (she was and is and will be!), and I’d always wondered how to edit anthologies. Signing on as a co-editor was like taking a continuing education independent study with a seasoned editor. Who would turn that down?

Patrick Madden: I feel a great debt to Montaigne, and I love to read and teach his essays, but I feared that his work was not being taught widely enough in college creative writing classes. Also, I’d learned a great deal in David Lazar’s classes by imitating great essays from the past, and I’d often given my students the assignment to “cover” one of Montaigne’s essays. From there, it was a short step to wanting an anthology that would form a bridge between our time and Montaigne’s, and would inspire writers to seek out Montaigne’s masterful work. Plus, I was excited about what essays some of my favorite writers might write if given the assignment of covering Montaigne. I was not disappointed.

Marcia Aldrich: I undertook the making of Waveform because I wanted to play a role in the conversation about the essay in my time beyond being a practitioner. I was emboldened by my experience editing Fourth Genre where one of the most satisfying parts of the job was curating issues. During my editorship, I created two new features—the first asked the writer of one of the accepted essays, notable for its innovation in form, to write an accompanying essay discussing the process of composition. The second feature was called Writer as Reader drawing on a dual sense of the personal: the use of creative form in telling a story about the writer’s relationship with an essay. I was creating a historical document of how we were writing nonfiction during this period, with a special emphasis on formal innovation. My longstanding interest in formal innovation and its importance to literary history is what motivated me to undertake Waveform, a collection of essays by women that points to and celebrates the formal accomplishments of women essayists.

How do you understand the expansion of creative nonfiction? Or to put it a little differently, what interests you in the expansion of creative nonfiction?

David Lazar: Oh, that term still hurts my ears a bit. I’ve talked about this elsewhere so I’ll give my most economical answer: There was a gradual movement in the culture towards material in all media that was experiential, less mediated by the traditional aesthetic filters of poetry and fiction and drama, and at least to American readers, the essay and memoir had been lurking somewhat unnoticed as forms that dovetailed with what the rest of the culture was interested in. Even though these forms had their own aesthetic histories and complications. Nonfiction also has represented a growth area for academic creative writing programs saturated with the traditional genres. What interests me? To be honest, I’m not sure I am all that interested in such things. Or very modestly, at best. My interest in forms tends to be chaotic and archaic.

B.J. Hollars: The day I lost faith in writing was the day I learned that a movie had been produced entitled The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. To be fair, I have no quarrel with its predecessor (The Brave Little Toaster—a classic…sort of…), though after a finger-splitting day at the computer keys, there was nothing more soul-crushing than to learn that writers were now profiting wildly by sending kitchen appliances into space. How can I compete with that? I wondered. Clearly, it’s all been done. It was around that time that I began to think about how we might write our stories and essays differently. How we might expand the limits of form, push beyond the conventional boundaries, and find new ways to hit the human heart. In the world of nonfiction (or at least memoir), our greatest tool to ensure originality is our voice. After all, our voice is our own—no one else has it—and our personal experiences are our own, too. But I continue to think that experimenting with form is another incredibly powerful tool. If it’s all been done (i.e. if we’ve resorted to toasters expressing their bravery via interstellar travel) then perhaps it’s up to our voice and our form to tell our stories differently. I suppose this is the long way of saying that what interests me most in the expansion of creative nonfiction is our interest in innovation, our willingness to take a step back from our stories and ask, “How can I tell it differently? In a way it’s never been told before?” These days, the answers to these questions are becoming harder and harder, but there are still plenty of answers to choose from.

Jen Hirt: This question lines up perfectly with my other anthology, Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction, forthcoming in June 2017 from Michigan State University Press. In this fascinating project with co-editor Tina Mitchell (founder of The Turnip Truck(s) and instructor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette), we’ve included only essays that contain a secret, a lie, or a half-truth. Most are reprints, so to make it new, we also interviewed each contributor about the challenges of writing within this gray area of creative nonfiction. How do you reveal a secret that isn’t yours? How do you reveal a secret that might anger family and friends? How do you justify the troublesome half-truths in a genre built on truth? And what is the difference between a secret and a lie, and how do different writers handle it? This is where CNF is expanding – a clever or controversial theme coupled with craft talk. I’m not the first to spot that horizon. The Far Edges of Nonfiction and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction did essential work in this area too. In my Advanced Nonfiction class this semester, we’ve done nothing but experiment how we can expand creative nonfiction and justifying our decisions to take these new trails (that’s the tricky part – justifying a risk). The undergraduates in that class have had smart insights that almost come to them naturally. They live in a post-fact culture; their interactions are simulated and surveilled, and they know it (and hate it and love it). Creative nonfiction is expanding to hold their cynicism and their passion for change in a postmodern (and post human?) culture.

Patrick Madden: If by expansion we mean that more people are writing creative nonfiction and publishing it and reading it, then I’m self-interestedly excited about the possibilities for writers (me), of course. Specifically, I believe I’ve seen a general change in attitude toward the term essay. When I was in graduate school, just fifteen years back, I heard again and again that I would have to hide my essays, give them other labels, especially once I had a book’s worth of them, because “nobody wants to publish essays.” Some publishers did publish essays, of course, but not many. When I lucked out and landed an essay collection with Nebraska, I asked that the word “Essays” be displayed prominently on the front cover. I was told, “No, we can’t do that.” But maybe they had a change of heart, or maybe editorial didn’t communicate with design, because when the cover mockup came, it had the word “Essays” prominently displayed. I was overjoyed, and I never reminded the press about what they’d said. And now I see the word “Essays” frequently, right on book covers, even bestselling and award-winning books. I believe this is not simply an “observer expectancy effect” or “frequency illusion,” but that readers are hip to what essays are and can be. They’re no longer thinking of “essays” in terms of the punishments their high school language arts teachers assigned them.

Marcia Aldrich: What interests me most in the expansion of creative nonfiction is its diversity. “A genre, whether literary or not, is nothing other than a codification of discursive properties.” So said Tzetan Todorov. There is no such thing as the one size fits all essay: it is not a fixed genre. It is as varied as its practitioners. As someone with a scholarly background in modern poetry and a writer who thrives in experimentation, I am most interested in innovations upon form.

What gaps or need did you perceive in the field that you wanted to address?

David Lazar: For the Montaigne anthology, Pat Madden and I wanted to connect Montaigne to familiar contemporary writers to a generation of readers who, perhaps, didn’t much read him. In my Truth in Nonfiction anthology, I wanted to have a bunch of writers speak from all different angles about a subject that never quite seems to die off, no matter how much we sometimes tire of talking about it. For the Essaying the Essay anthology, I wanted to connect what seemed inevitable to me: that the essay continually talks about itself.

B.J. Hollars: Mostly, I was hoping to curate a “one-stop shop” for readers to explore essays that utilized innovative forms and structure. Moreover, I wanted a book with behind-the-scenes mini-essays that provided insights from the writers themselves. Finally, I wanted writing exercises, too—something that might compel the reader to try a few experiments herself. I wanted the book’s organization to emulate the pedagogy I enjoy: one that provides examples, conversations related to the examples, and the chance for the reader to give it a try. I hadn’t found a book that fulfilled these varied roles, and I suppose that was the gap I was trying to fill.

Jen Hirt: As far as needs go, I would love to see more celebration of essays that start with the idea that imagination is creative nonfiction, that if you imagine something, you can argue that that imaginary scenario is not fiction, but nonfiction. Of course, the writing must be phrased properly, but that should not be a hindrance. For example, “I imagine that the apple is speaking to me, and this is what it would say if it could speak….” I know writers who will draw the line right there and say, “Nope, that’s fiction. It didn’t happen, it’s fiction.” But imagination happens. It’s a real thing, a powerful place your mind goes. Write it as real, and read it as real.

The gap question is a little harder to answer, because creative nonfiction as a genre seems like it was made to fill the gaps. However, I do have this observation. This semester, I’ve noticed that my female students of color in a beginning creative writing course dove right in to their creative nonfiction assignments with an eye and ear for amped-up imagination, experimentation, and wordplay. And no topics were off limits. They created some of the strongest workshop submissions (and workshop discussions) all semester. Other than the few essays I assigned in class, they had never read any creative nonfiction at all, and did not know it was a genre. That means they came to the class with a solid skillset for telling stories in vibrant, evocative language. Where did that skillset come from? To answer that, I started thinking of my white male students this semester, who almost uniformly turned in what I think of as the “safe and quiet” essay, in neat paragraphs, with a tidy conclusion and nothing startling in content or language. During workshop, one black female student said to the author of such as essay, “I wish you had offended me more.” We all laughed, and I tried to re-contextualize her comment a little bit while still respecting it – I said something like, “Are you encouraging this writer to use words and phrases creatively so you are surprised and you react?” Yes, she said, yes yes yes. She wanted to feel and to admire, not just read. How do you learn that? How do you try to teach it in a 3-4-week unit? I’m not sure, so I guess I would like to see more craft essays on that aspect. Writers who just knew how to write lovely crazy nonfiction, not from reading it but from living it – how did you make it work on the page?

Patrick Madden: As I mentioned, I thought that MFA students weren’t reading enough Montaigne. I based my assumption on a relatively small sampling of fellow students, some of whom didn’t even know who Montaigne was, yet were studying creative nonfiction. And even I wasn’t reading enough Montaigne as a student, until I began my PhD program at Ohio University and studied with David Lazar. Once I did read him, though the effect was gradual, I fell in love and decided that if you want to write essays, you must first love Montaigne. I hope this anthology becomes a bridge for people to find Montaigne again. If students (especially) see cool contemporary authors engaging with the master, then maybe they, too, will want to read and get those first exemplary essays. Secondarily, I have perceived a reluctance to intentionally borrow from or imitate past masters. Some writers believe a naïve myth about ex nihilo originality, and I want us all to embrace our influences, as the writers in After Montaigne have done.

Marcia Aldrich: The publishing world has been catching up to the interest in all forms of creative nonfiction. There are a growing number of anthologies that highlight the diverse range of the essay. It’s as if the place of the essay has been secured and now we can focus on more specialized points of entry, hybridization, our debt to Montaigne, writing process and so on. What has been missing is an anthology focusing on the contemporary essay written by women. Despite the growing accomplishments in the field by women, I didn’t think they received the kind of recognition they deserved. Hence, the birth of Waveform. But I wanted to buck the trend of anthologies of women writers organized around theme. I wanted an anthology that emphasized the innovations in writing I was seeing in the field, that didn’t monolithically tilt towards the more traditional branch, and I wanted to deliver on the promise of diversity for today’s classroom. These were the needs I felt Waveform should address.

Can you talk about your experience editing a collection? For example, what were the pros and cons of recruiting new material versus reprints? If you had a co-editor, could you discuss that or alternatively working alone.

David Lazar: Well, with new material you must work with these sticky living writers, which can be appallingly time consuming. On the other hand, I’m terribly fond of some of them, and it’s lovely to get rare new work. That’s the joy of editing, isn’t it? Reprints can rejuvenate lost work, which is quite satisfying, and other than permissions, are easy to do. As for solo vs. co-, I’ve enjoyed co-editing with Pat Madden more than solo, I think. Despite his unruly temperament and tendency to sing all submitted work out loud to the tune of “Maria,” Pat has been the most congenial co-editor I could imagine. He and I have a rhythm with working, who does what when, that I think is sympathetic and intuitive, and we agree a lot, if not inevitably, which makes life easier. When we don’t, it’s not earth shattering.

B.J. Hollars: A friend with a bit more experience in the anthology editing department once jokingly warned me that working with writers is a “bit like herding cats.” That may be true, even if we’re the coolest cats around. But in truth, the writers I worked with were all a dream. Very little herding was needed. From the start, most every writer I approached seemed gung ho to take part in the experiment.

As for new material versus reprints, for me, I think it’s important to get a bit of both. I’ve found that publishers’ marketing department loves to use the line, “including original work by [insert awesome author’s name here].” Indeed, that can be a great selling point. Who doesn’t want to read original work by a beloved writer? But the reprint, too, is essential. There are some essays that are simply too canonical to ignore. The problem, of course, is that oftentimes the reprint rights are beyond one’s budget. More than a few dream essays were lost because of budgetary constraints.

I didn’t have a co-editor for this one, though I imagine that partnership might have come in handy. It’s hard to rely solely on one’s aesthetic. I don’t think for an instant that B.J. Hollars’s personal aesthetic is sufficient when it comes to which essays “should” be read in the classroom or beyond. Rather than simply selecting my “favorite” essays, I tried to provide a wide-range of work, all of which covered different subjects and tackled new experiments. Throughout the selection process, I always imagined I was making a mix tape for friends: chances are, your friends won’t love every song you choose, but hopefully a couple will stay with them.

Jen Hirt: You would think that new material would be ideal – no copyright hurdles, and readers will be drawn to the book to see a new piece by a favorite writer. But in the case of both anthologies, my co-editors and I ran into the perennial (and endemic) problem of time. Possible contributors who didn’t have a new piece to offer bowed out due to lack of time to revise and polish. It’s understandable; we are all pulled in ten different directions and then some. I was once asked to contribute a brand-new piece on a theme (to the award-winning anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines), and it did in fact take more time than I realized. (Glad I did it, however!) But another problem we ran in to was writers reluctant to “give” the piece to an anthology first – they wanted it to appear in their own books first, then get anthologized later. One contributor in this category dropped out because of an impasse with the publisher; others stayed in, but there had to be an additional level of reassurance regarding copyright and ownership. If you think about it, it’s a bizarre level of negotiating for books that make so little money. I’m from the generation that embraced “copyleft,” the idea that getting the word out is more important than owning the word, so I tend to not worry about copyright issues with my own work (when I have the option of not worrying, that is). To be honest though, I’ve noticed that writers from older generations are much more savvy about copyright, which is both good and bad for anthologies.

Reprints for Creating Nonfiction were easy, because from the beginning, Erin and I made it clear that we would accept only pieces to which the author had the copyright. Since there was no theme, writers would submit just about any good piece. Reprints for Kept Secret were difficult, because Tina and I were after specific essays on a theme; often, they were essays or chapters long in print by major publishers. We encountered pricey permissions fees and unrealistic format requests (for example, one permissions agreement allowed for reprint in print, but not in the e-book version). We had to make the tough decision to drop those contributors. We also encountered months-long Byzantine permissions processes where our requests got passed from one mid-level assistant to another to another. A few times, we had to beg the authors to beg their agents to make a direct call to whoever had the final say on permissions as we came down to hours before a deadline. It was stressful. I’m grateful for my co-editors in both these projects – the ability to “tag-team” a difficult situation was essential, as was the second set of eyes and cooperative problem-solving. I think doing an anthology alone would sort of break my soul and crush all my hopes for humanity.

Patrick Madden: Essentially all the essays in After Montaigne are new, written on assignment specifically for the anthology. The only exceptions are a pair of pieces that the writers had written recently and which suited our purposes ideally. In our case, we were very lucky that all our contributors were enthusiastic about the project and happy to be a part of it. Everybody was on time and amenable to the few edits we suggested. Also, we had no hassles with permissions for copyright.

As for co-editing, I suppose that others’ experiences would be different from ours, but since David and I have a long and abiding friendship, we had a lovely time working together. The work was divided very evenly, though not by assigning certain tasks discreetly to one or the other of us. Instead, we each did all the categories of work, about fifty percent of the time. When we had to make decisions, we discussed them diplomatically, with nary a shred of dispute or contention. From start to finish, the anthology was a shared labor of love.

Marcia Aldrich: The idea for Waveform grew out of conversations with Jill Talbot. Everywhere we looked articles were popping up celebrating the “Golden Age for Women Essayists” and we believed the time was right to put forward an anthology featuring contemporary women essayists. We wanted to invite new, never-before-published essays in the main. Unfortunately, because of time demands Jill had to drop out of the project and I went forward on my own. Now I better understand why so many anthologies are co-edited. There’s a lot of work that goes into bringing an anthology to publication and it helps to have someone to share the load, whose strengths and resources might be different but complimentary. It is useful to talk matters out with someone else while coming to decisions. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t published such a book realizes the kind of housekeeping that goes on behind the scenes—the endless emails, getting permissions, the signing of contracts, proofing of pages, publicity. It can be daunting to undertake by yourself. In the end Waveform includes new material and reprints, half and half, which struck me as a good balance for many of the reasons my fellow-editors mention.

What have you learned about publishing and marketing collections? Did your original conception undergo any changes in the process of seeing it into print?

David Lazar: I think I’ve learned to be, in the most gentlemanly way possible, stubborn. Or shall we say, insistent. At a certain point, I know what I want to do when I commit to a project, since I only commit to a very few, and I’ve thought about it for a long time before I do. And then I want to see it through. Editing and writing are sister arts, and one wants to, in editing, as in writing, stay with the vision you had of what you wanted to do. That isn’t to say one should be immune to a proper course correction if it comes along, or suggestions. Editing is the essence of a collaborative avocation. In the Montaigne book, we added epilogues and epigraphs as necessary components to each essay after we got started, and our style sheet for how the book was going to look evolved. That kind of thing.

Jen Hirt: For Creating Nonfiction, Erin and I originally planned to have the contributors interview each other. But as we strategized how to do the initial sample for SUNY (before getting the contingent contract), we realized that the coordination needed for that idea would be extreme. So, we decided to do most of the interviews ourselves. Another marketing issue was the title. There are other books with the “Creating Nonfiction” title (or a title close to that), and we had to think carefully about the pros and cons of that.

For Kept Secret, Tina and I are attempting to establish a pre-publishing base of secret-minded fans and scholars through a Facebook page. We’re posting news, articles, and insights about secrets; some posts have more of a creative bent, while others are just fascinating or relevant to the day. For example, when Dylan won the Noble Prize in literature, we posted the video for “Like a Rolling Stone” and the lyric “You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal.” As the book nears publication, we’re going to post teasers for the essays and interviews. After publication, we’re hoping that readers will post other essays about secrets, lies, and half-truths so that the site becomes a repository and teaching resource.

Patrick Madden: Initially we had an agent who tried to publish the anthology with a big New York publishing house. Though we got many kindly worded rejections (noting the editor’s personal enthusiasm for the project), none of the publishers we tried thought they could sell the book. So perhaps, despite my optimism about the bright future of creative nonfiction and essay collections specifically, mainstream publishing is still not ready for the kind of work we Essay Daily readers love. But that’s why university and independent presses are so vital. The University of Georgia Press seemed to love our concept from the beginning, and they’ve given great support to the book while leaving the editorial vision to us. Their next step is to bring out After Montaigne in paperback, in time for AWP 2017, and market it for course adoption, which is where we hope the book will remain a staple for a long time.

Marcia Aldrich: Like Patrick and David, I initially queried some agents and editors who worked in commercial publishing. When I began the project, I thought it might be commercially viable because of the roster of writers and the recent attention to the rise of women essayists. It struck me as a timely project. The responses I received, while phrased slightly differently, all were concerned about marketability. The lack of a thematic hook made the book not “readily marketable.” It didn’t have a “take” on being a woman other than being essays by women essayists. Treating the women writers as writers and focusing on the diversity of narrative approaches was viewed as a hindrance to selling rather than a strength. The vision I had for Waveform as a book that treated women writers primarily as writers working with artistry in the essay form was what motivated me. To compromise that vision wasn’t an option. Editing the book was always a labor of love with intangible rewards. I am grateful for The University of Georgia Press. They have understood, supported, and been genuinely excited about my approach. So, the answer is that Waveform reflects my original conception.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-CenturyEssays by Women, published by University of Georgia Press.

Jen Hirt is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. She has co-edited two anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (with Erin Murphy) and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (with Tina Mitchell, forthcoming 2017). She was a contributor to the award-winning anthology From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines. Her essays have won a Pushcart Prize and have received three "Notable Essay" mentions in Best American Essays. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg, where she is also the English program coordinator.

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. Next February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Forthcoming from Nebraska are I'll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms and Characters. Seven of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, and series co-editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. A Fulbright and Howard Foundation fellow, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

12/3, Mary Cappello: Advent's Unconscious

I used to devise boxes in emulation of Joseph Cornell as a suspension bridge to the task of writing. For me, it was like cooking or gardening—a time-stiller that I could lose myself in as prelude to inlaying words like windows onto a page. My handicraft sometimes tended toward a slender cigarette box—my favorite being those a friend supplied me with of Nat Sherman’s—into which I would glue scraps of images cut from magazines, or the surprise of a feather, the glint of a single letter embossed on a glass shard, tucked beneath the opening of a lid. Working with shoebox-sized enclosures à la Cornell was more difficult because, with a wider plan at my disposal and multiple lengthwise sides, I could never visualize how the parts would speak to one another.
     I remember the occasion on which I lined one such box’s interior with crossword puzzles missing their words, cut a few strategic cellophane windows into the back panel, and interspersed an object—a four inch tall choir girl balancing one actual candle in each hand—with 3-D paper cut-out images of “girl thinking,” or “girls hop-frogging” at the base (it’s amazing what old National Geographics will yield). I met the challenge of this larger surface by cutting small doors into the sides of the box, depositing a surprise image behind each one, and labeling each door with a letter versus a number. Behind the letter “n” a bobbin; behind the letter “s,” an Egyptian mummy; behind the letter “I,” the surprise of an angel face missing its halo, an Italianate Buddha in profile. Other diminutive doors gave way to Niagara Falls; a rotary telephone; the psychedelic color wheel of a cereal box’s hidden code; the dots and dashes insignia of a painting in miniature by Paul Klee; a complete set of colorful vintage luggage; one snow-globe; one planet, unnamed. Taken together, the letters spelled out the box’s title, “Advent’s Unconscious.”
     It’s safe to say that the Advent Calendar was my favorite Xmas “device” in childhood—so much more promising than the mawkishly exposed manger with its array of scraggly-bearded shepherds and stony faced wise men. Poised between restraint (only one door per day) and effulgence (the surprise and its gasp), advent made each day over in the image of an event, and one worth courting. The doors and their allures, secreted with a possible gift, aren’t only meant for children, because, isn’t the appeal of our Internets [sic] the illusion of a box inside a box inside a box? Don’t you think they knew what they were doing when they named the software “windows,” or branded a laptop, “air”?
     And isn’t the essay itself—this one as much as those you write and read—an Advent Calendar’s operating system? The essay as the sort of window that cantilevers outward instead of, bottom to top, up. The essay as that type of window, easy to miss, overhead and out of reach, that requires a very long pole; the window that has all the signs of being built to do its job of swinging wide—surely it wants to be opened—but that cannot really be practically approached; the window above which the bats reside, so you can’t open it without the promise of something less pleasant than a “fluttering.”
     Each day of our lives is an advent of what we notice or forget, a brush against a door of the suddenly remembered or the hopelessly out of view. Like, my wondering today, how I could possibly never have read Joan Retallack’s essays on the essay when I thought I’d read and loved and been influenced by all of her other work. Or, like yesterday, finding a box I made when I lived in Russia fifteen years ago on which I’d written the word MOODS in large block letters, only arriving at a book of moods today. Or the day before that, only noticing after visit number five, a painting in the therapist’s office that she insists has always been there (it throws the entire balance off). And the day after that, the sudden desire to translate the commonplace, “How are you?” (see therapist again) into the more tellingly ontological “How is it that you are?”


On November 8, 2016, something happened to Advent Calendars that feels irreversible. The Advent Calendar was usurped that night when the map of these United States—exactly double the number of an Advent Calendar’s days—presenting themselves as the door to a prospect, blue or red, filled eventually, over the course of several hours and into the next day, into a nearly, solidly dystopic scarlet: each puzzle-shape went from neutral to replete on a newscaster’s computer screen, as if to say, “finished,” “done,” “down,” “won.” It was an Advent Calendar of sinister proportions that slipped traumatic shock into the space usually reserved for surprise.
     Since that night, it feels as though my hearing has gone awry. So, too, my sight. At a poetry reading with Lee Ann Brown, when she speaks of collecting “ballads” across the North Carolinian landscape, I hear the word “ballots.”
     An essayist, I’m easily impressionable. Now I experience a voting booth or box as a Catholic confessional. A door swings open into a darkness, and the whir of a grate that I kneel before holds the shadow of a man in profile who would condemn me.
     This year, the ever-ominous “holiday” mood is simply a reminder of so many bloody Sundays.
I’m not making this shit up. Now The New York Times requires me to look and hear again because how am I to reckon with the phrase in a recent article that reads, “the plight of ‘white racists.’” The alt-right’s white supremacists, the journalist reports, “believe that the president-elect sympathizes with the plight of ‘white racists.’” Did the reporter supply the word “plight,” or did the racists? Plight: rhymes with fight, and usually reserved for those who have no fight left in them, or those who lack the means to fight the powers that oppress them; in saner parlance, the plight of the working class, or the plight of the poor.
     I switch on the radio and am met with another spanking new phrase to greet the new reality: it’s a blithely frank interview with a “fake news entrepreneur”: a person who makes a living by creating false news feeds that he delivers like “red meat” (he says) to mostly rabid right-wingers in search of rationalizing fodder for their hate. The liberally-minded, he says, are more discerning and not as likely to be taken in. But there’s big business to be made here, and he’s going to grab it while he can.
     Then there are the mouthings of the president-elect: for him, words cannot be coined because they are always already spent. Though he could be credited with injecting a great number of American hearts and minds with a toxic Valentine (“Make America Great Again”), his language neither connects properly with affect nor with physicality; nor with gesture, nor with the dictionary; nor with time-space. His repetitions know two modes: stall and stand still. When he talks now, he sounds as though he is reading from a cue card that is very far out of view (note the perpetual, if oddly confident, squint). Because he has no access to language, he will never understand a word you say. And he will also therefore be perpetually in fear of you, and convinced of the need for your quashing.
     Is it permissible to write such sentences as these in a democracy? Or are we entering a culture of the overheard? One in which our fellow citizens will be on the lookout for what will come to be misconstrued as Enemies of the State and of its “office”? What is a citizen allowed to say, and especially in a world where the “elect” has said everything that civility does not allow, again and again and again, for the past ten months? The elect—the word has never really meant someone who has been elected, but someone who enjoys a privilege denied to all others. The elect are the privileged, the chosen, and the saved. But we are citizen-subjects whose rights must ever be upheld, and especially if, like a belligerent father, the president-elect demands our respect.* “Don’t you know who I am?!,” the despotic patriarch asks while he shakes us and beats us. “That I could squash you like an ant if I wished to?!” Such questions are unanswerable, and yet we know full well their answers. We know all too well who he is, but we cannot, will not say.


On election night this year, some people were overcome with sobs; others, unable to cry, vomited. Still others combined the two reactions. So many people—myself, included—had visceral responses to American citizenry’s hail and hearty vote of a billionaire xenophobe into the White House. So many felt ill, and awash in paralyzing disbelief: first we said we couldn’t believe it was happening; then we said we couldn’t believe it had happened—here we could pause to consider that we are products of a contradiction: we are shocked by the inevitable, the all-around-us. Now, many of us pretend it is not happening, once more (“Let it go girls!,” a fellow yogi condescendingly addressed me just the other day, “It’ll be ok!”).
     I decided early on not to leave hold of my evisceration, but to await the language that can emerge from it; to embrace it and to essay it. I stopped listening to the news (rhymes with noise) and searched for my copy of Osip Mandelstam’s prose work, from The Noise of Time, to Fourth Prose, from The Egyptian Stamp, to Journey to Armenia. I could quote some Mandelstam and imitate Mandelstam; I could play Mandelstam at top volume, or set his voice to low in a deeply quiet room. Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who was tortured and later perished in a labor camp at the age of 47, whose first visit to the infamous Lubyanka in 1934 was ostensibly prompted by his having compared Stalin’s moustache to a cockroach in verses that ran thus:
We live unconscious of the country beneath us,
Our talk cannot be heard ten paces away,
And whenever there is enough for half-a-conversation,
The Kremlin highlander is mentioned.
His thick fingers are fat like worms,
His words hit hard like heavy weights,
His cockroach’s huge moustaches laugh,
And the tops of his boots shine brightly.
Mandelstam, whose work was suppressed “under the cult of the personality of Stalin,” as his translator, Clarence Brown describes it. Who gives me birdsong ripped from an entrail. Whose sad, triumphant life teaches me that when your friend calls the police on you, because of something you said or something you wrote, they end up being tortured first. You, second. No one is saved. Mandelstam, some of whose prose transmits “the inner experience of the death of Russian culture” (61); a “miniaturist and digressionary” in the tradition of Gogol (59) known for his “deliberate cacophony” (33), who held fast to the sense of “surprise…as the essential ingredient of all true art” (61).** Mandelstam, who in essaying, won’t exactly lift your mood or lighten your mood: so much for diversions. Whose writing, “wholly untypical of Russian prose” according to his translator, returns me to the subtlety of sound and calibration.
     Let’s pause here to recall what Nabokov said of the untranslatability of Russian “shum” in Shum vremeni (translated as The Noise of Time): “‘Generally speaking, the sense of shum implies a more sustained and uniform auditory effect than the English ‘noise.’ It is also a shade more remote and confused. It is at heart more of a swoosh than a racket. All its forms—shum (n.), shumnïy (adj.), shumyashchiy (part.), shumet (v.)—are beautifully onomatopoeic, which ‘noisy’ and ‘to noise’ are not.” It includes, “‘the hum of the city’” and “‘the tumult of the town,’” “‘the murmur of the woods,’” the “‘sough of forests,’” “‘the dinning stream,’” “‘the sounding sea,’” “the rote, the thud, and the roar of the surf on the shore—‘the surgy murmurs of the lonely sea…’” (Brown, 33).
     Where can the essay take us in dimly lit times? Where did it take him? Mandelstam, who plays the instrument of language beyond itself, effecting a composition out of a much more difficult de-composition, suffered from auditory hallucinations following his beatings and deprivations in The Lubyanka. His wife, Nadezhda, who recounts the course of their literary and political life together in Hope Against Hope, works to distinguish between those external voices that forever afterwards plagued him and the inner voices he remained faithful to as the very basis of his poetry—the call to create poetry in the hum or musical phrase that rings insistently in the ears, “louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room” (70). Though he experienced years of silence in what he called “the word trade,” he eventually wrote again from inside the gaps, fully attuned to the importance of keeping those open. He met the none-sense of propaganda with a passionate absurdism; the drumbeat of forward marching with dizzying dissonance; the deadlock of pounding non-truths—dumb-founding rationale of violent acts—with an irreal, and surreal, uncategorizable prose. He let language scream and rip in shrieking tatters unfolding it and going in from the back, and underground, beneath it. He never entered the realms of the literary “elect” (Brown, 14).
     What he said he needed may be close to what I feel I need right now. I love his articulation of it in Fourth Prose (1930):
Things have come to the point where I value only the proud flesh around the wound in the word trade, only the insane excrescence:
And the whole ravine was cut / To the bone by the falcon’s scream
That is what I need.
I divide all the works of world literature into those writers with and without permission. The first are trash, the second—stolen air. As for writers who write things with prior permission, I want to spit in their faces, beat them over the head with a stick and set them all at a table in the Herzen house… 
I would forbid these writers to marry and have children. After all, children must carry on for us, must say to the end for us what is most important to say. But their fathers have sold out to the pockmarked devil for three generations to come.***

Following his spells in The Lubyanka, Mandelstam suffered from inflammation of his eyelids for the rest of his life. His interrogator told Nadezhda that the visible soreness around his eyes was the result of too much reading—but Mandelstam was not allowed any books in his cell. Nadezhda speculated that it was the result of the bright lights his jailers shined into his eyes during their endless interrogations. Mandelstam himself conveyed that his eyes were damaged by the combination of bright lights and a “stinging liquid” the prison guards squirted through “the spy-hole in the door [of his cell] whenever he went near it” (Hope Against Hope, 76). Nadezhda thought he might have imagined this in his derangements and as an effect of whatever drugs his torturers administered. That he was dragged to a punishment cell and placed in a straight jacket when, approaching his spy-hole, he begged for water, she knew to be a fact.
     Whenever I return to Mandelstam, two other facts meet me in the space of my privilege, asking to be reckoned with:
     [1] that his work survived because Nadezdah devoted herself over the course of several decades to memorizing it;
     [2] that those few who survived him—(at least 1500 writers died under Stalinism between 1924 and 1953)—held fast to the belief that someone had scrawled onto a labor camp wall a line from one of his poems, even though it was never clear where and when exactly Mandelstam died. That sentence read: “Am I real and will death really come?”


How can we create a literary Advent Calendar for these times? I begin most tentatively, inspired by Mandelstam to fill in words behind closed doors:

Day One: The elderly head tilted in spite of its best effort to perch upright on its neck; the youthful head and its hat—goofy and raucous and crazed.

Day Two: The unidirectional sound of voices in a political pulpit.

Day Three: The amphitheatrical sounds of birds and the amphitheatrical sounds of art.

Day Four: The moody compositions of Anatole Liadov: a room to feel properly roused and restless in.

Day Five: Nothing can be brought to conclusion and everything’s unhinged.

Day Six: The need to fantasize a tenor—a leader and her movement—for these times.

I’ll say it again: these days I read and re-read Osip Mandelstam. I’m not good at Advent, nor am I hip to the tune of Lent’s restraint, because I want to open the doors of his sentences all at once, allowing for a bell concert of discordant re-arrangements. Sensing that these times will be better served by patient recollection, I offer this Mandelstamian Advent Calendar, or, at least, the beginning of one, one sentence from his prose for each day of a year that our country is helmed by a jabbering businessman.


[1] “‘What was the mood of the petty bourgeoisie in Kiev in 1919?’”

[2] “It is frightening to live in a world that consists only of exclamations and interjections.”

[3] “And on the table there is an elegant syntax—of confused, heteroalphabet, grammatically wrong wildflowers, as though all the preschool forms of vegetative nature were coalescing into a pleophonic anthology poem.”

[4] “Let us speak about the physiology of reading. It is a rich, inexhaustible and, it would seem, forbidden theme.”

[5] “Now I stretched out my vision and sank my eye into the wide goblet of the sea, so that every mote and tear should come to the surface.”

[6] “And I began to understand what the obligatory nature of color is—the excitement of sky blue and orange football shirts—and that color is nothing other than a sense of the start of a race, a sense tinged by distance and locked into its size.”

[7] “The red paint of [Matisse’s] canvasses fizzes like soda. He knows nothing of the joy of ripening fruits.”

[8] “Looking at Renoir’s water you feel blisters on your palm as though you’d been rowing.”

[9] “Signac invented the maize sun.”

[10] “Standing before a picture to which the body temperature of your vision has not yet adjusted itself, for which the crystalline lens has not yet found the one suitable accommodation, is like singing a serenade in a fur coat behind storm windows.”

[11] “The end of the street, seemingly crushed by binoculars, swerved off into a squinting lump: and all of this, distant and linden-lined, was stuffed into a string bag.”

[12] “Damp chamois skin, rotted velvet—but when you break it open to look inside: azure.”

[13] “The kangaroo moves with the leaps of logic.”

[14] “Leopards have the sly ears of punished schoolboys.”

[15] “Yesterday I was reading Firdousi and it seemed to me that a bumblebee was sitting on the book sucking it.”

[16] “A plant is a sound evoked by the wand of a termenvox and it coos in a sphere oversaturated with wave processes.”

[17] “It was the descending and ascending motion of cream when it is poured into a glass of ruddy tea and roils in all directions like cumulous tubers.”

[18] “I have received your eighteen page letter, completely covered in a hand straight and tall as an avenue of poplars, and here is my answer:”

[19] “We are all, without suspecting it, carriers of an immense embryological experiment: for the very process of remembering, crowned with the victory of memory’s effort, is amazingly similar to the phenomenon of growth. In both of them there is a sprout, an embryo, some facial feature, half a character, half a sound, the ending of a name, something labial or palatal, some sweet pea on the tongue—which doesn’t develop out of itself but only answers an invitation, only stretches out, justifying one’s expectation.”

[20] “There was some beautiful boiling water in a pewter teapot and suddenly a pinch of wonderful black tea was thrown into it. That’s how I felt about the Armenian language.”

[21] “Now, no matter where fate may carry me, this sense already has a speculative existence and will remain with me.”

[22] “What tense do you want to live in?—I want to live in the imperative of a future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be.’”

[23] “Lower your eye into what will be for it a new material ambiance—and remember that the eye is a noble, but stubborn animal.”

[24] A slice of lemon is a ticket to the fat roses of Sicily; the elevator is out of order. Life is both terrifying and beautiful! I repeat once more: the grandeur of this place is that no information is ever given to anyone. In a rage the chief tangled all the yarn. The deaf-mutes disappeared into the General Staff Arch: They went on twisting their yarn, but were already much more tranquil, as if they were releasing messenger pigeons in various directions. In order to answer someone it was necessary to undo the laces that cut into one’s chin. Terror takes me by the hand and leads me. A white cotton glove. Terror unharnesses the horses when one has to drive and sends us dreams with unnecessarily low ceilings.  He is a lemon seed thrown into a crevice in the granite of Petersburg. Life is both terrifying and beautiful.****

[25] “The horizon has been abolished. There is no perspective.”


*My reference aims to recall, among other things, the recent paternalistic call by the president-elect to the cast members of Hamilton to “apologize for their terrible behavior”—his language for a statement they delivered to the vice-president-elect at the close of the show at which he was in attendance, and which the president-elect deemed “inappropriate.” In this same string of tweets, the president-elect also judged the show—considered a contemporary masterpiece—as “highly over-rated.” Or, rather, that he’d “heard” the show was “highly over-rated.”

**I am referencing Clarence Brown’s introductory and critical essays contained in his translation of The Noise of Time, throughout.

***In a footnote to this piece, Clarence Brown explains that Herzen House was a building “on Tverskoy Boulevard…[in Moscow, which] was at the time something like the headquarters of Soviet literature, since it housed principal writers’ organizations as well as numerous indigent writers and their families.” The “pockmarked devil,” he writes, is “a phrase that would most certainly have been taken as a reference to Stalin” (239).

****Most of the sentences in my Mandelstam Advent Calendar are culled from his Journey to Armenia (1933) except for this one for Day 24, which is a cut-up created out of various sentences that appear in The Egyptian Stamp (1928).

I refer to the following texts herein: Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, translated with critical essays by Clarence Brown, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986; Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, translated from the Russian by Max Hayward, with an introduction by Clarence Brown, New York: Atheneum, 1970; Alan Rappeport and Noah Weiland, “White Nationalists Celebrate ‘an Awakening’ After Donald Trump’s Victory,” The New York Times, November 19, 2016: “Mr. Stankard said he thought it was unlikely that Mr. Trump would be able to do things like end affirmative action, even though he believes that the president-elect sympathizes with the plight of ‘white racists.’”


Mary Cappello’s five books of literary nonfiction include a detour (on awkwardness); a breast cancer anti-chronicle; a lyric biography; and, the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, which appeared last month from University of Chicago Press. Devoted to forms of disruptive beauty, she is a Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow; a recipient of the Dorothea-Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow. For further info:; or for follow-up conversation,