Monday, September 18, 2017

It Starts with Curiosity: a Conversation with David LeGault and Edward McPherson

Early summer saw the publication of two new essay collections—One Million Maniacs, by David LeGault, and The History of the Future, by Edward McPherson. Each essay collection is, of course, very different from the other. David’s essays explore the nature of collection, gently reminding the world that there is value in not only people’s cast-offs and refuse, but also weird cast-off television shows and movies as well. These are woven together with a thread of an essay about collecting 100 copies of the CD 10,000 Maniacs: Unplugged—a thread that occasionally shows David’s discomfort with his obsession with collection as well as a determination to see his 1 million Maniacs goal through to the end, through job loss and the diagnosis of his baby daughter with Type 1 diabetes.
     Edward’s essays dwell upon geographic locations and the human experience that spins out from them—with a not-insignificant focus on the consequences of human calamity in the form of nuclear threat, climate change and racism. The range from the more personal, spending time in Edward’s family home in Gettysburg, to the journalistic, with our fearless leader exploring the gas boomtowns of the Dakota plains and excavating dinosaur bones nearby. There’s also a focus on the quirky: Edward seeks out a man who builds concrete bunkers, and inhabits the body of a World Fair attendee. As different as they are, both collections share a similarity: the authors explore, in Edward’s words, “questions you just can’t let go.”
     Because we all know each other—the three of us as students in the University of Minnesota MFA program, and David and I further back, as Ander’s students in the undergraduate writing program at Grand Valley State University—I had the good fortune of pestering them about their work. —Morgan Sherburne

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Morgan Sherburne: To start, I'll ask maybe a super boring question writers get over and over and over—but can you both talk a little bit about the impetus for these essays/books? Edward, your essays are about many different subjects, but with the common theme of environment/home(s)/future. What sparks the essay? And what do those moments look and feel like? David, you cover many different subjects, but with the common theme of collection/obsession/ collection/obsession. So many of these essays are about small moments. What's the moment look like in which you realize you want to write about a given subject—pogs, the killdozer, the collection of found tools?

Edward McPherson: 
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mention obsession. It seems to me essays usually sprout from questions you just can’t let go—some sort of compulsion and/or confusion (intellectual, behavioral, emotional, what have you) that’s pushing you to circle around a topic.

     In the case of this book, I started out baby-stepping my way through it, essay by essay. I thought I wanted to write about the history of American places, and I wanted to mix the personal with a more journalistic view. So I first wrote about Dallas, where I grew up, because I hadn’t written much about it, and I had a friend who was writing for the relaunched tv soap, Dallas, right as we were nearing the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and there were all these intersections (or so it seemed to me) between who shot JFK and who shot J.R. So I did a bunch of research and made a trip to town, where I toured the sites and spent a few days on the set of the show, and an essay came out of that.
     But I didn’t have a road map for that essay and certainly not one for the book. In the beginning, I think I was hoping (and I know my agent was hoping!) that one of the essays might turn into a single-subject book, because doing months and months of research and spending time and money on travel—all for maybe 35 pages (on average) of prose—is a deeply inefficient way to write a book.
     Sadly, it’s the only way I know how. In each of these essays I’m either coming home (to a place I know well) or posing as a tourist (traveling to a place that holds a mystery, something I feel a need to see). For the North Dakota essay, for instance, I just kept reading about the Bakken oil boom and I got fixated on those nighttime videos from space in which you could see the blazing lights of the rigs and flares (where there had been nothing visible just years before). I also kept reading about the bone rush, how they kept finding important dinosaur fossils. And, sure, the two topics are superficially related—things being pulled out of the ground that are enriching the state—but it wasn’t until I was there touring the oil fields and digging for bones in the Badlands that I realized the essay was really about extinction. (Fossil fuels, fossils, climate change, the view from space or the other end of eternity.) It all seems so damn obvious now! But, truly, I had to go there to figure that out.
     And not every subject I tried panned out. For instance, for the past 15 years or so (ever since reading a brilliant piece by David Grann in the New Yorker), I have been obsessed with the century-old water tunnels of New York that run downhill for miles from upstate into the city. I mean, everything about these tunnels amazes me. So I got a bunch of long books with stunning architectural diagrams and happily pored over them before bed (no doubt to the detriment of anyone who engaged me in conversation during those months). But when I sat down to try to write something about these tunnels, there was just nothing there, no real question—only wonder. I was just awestruck, aesthetically. That’s as far as it went. So I had to ditch the water tunnels (and those months of research) and keep digging into New York. Moving sideways, I started reading about subway tunnels, and it just happens that I spent most of the morning of 9-11 stuck in a subway tunnel, and that got me thinking about my early days in New York when I was working at a magazine and about Joan Didion and essays about leaving New York and nostalgia and trauma…and at last I was going somewhere that felt both engaging and confusing.
     So that’s how I kept adding essays one at a time to the book, and I wasn’t sure right up until the very end that they would cohere. But I’m a big believer in a quote from Ben Greenman that I've tacked up over my desk: “A book of essays can be a constellation. Individual pieces shine like stars, but to see the whole project as a unified thing requires a mythology. You need faith to make out a shape around all those dots of light, to believe in the bear or the swan.”
     David, I imagine you’re under the sway of a similar kind of faith? Your essays—while circling a theme—certainly don’t feel proscribed or easy to anticipate, in a very lovely way...

David LeGault: I don't think there was a conscious choice to write about obsession, rather, I think I came to realize that all of the essays I was writing were pretty obsessive in their own way. I think so much of putting all the shorter stuff together into a book had to do with figuring out what it had in common, especially considering that so many of these essays vary in subject and even format—there's a 30-page essay about a VHS-based gaming system and an essay on people falling through ice and an essay that was originally published as a video of sounds I recorded in the dark. People would ask me what I was writing about and I wouldn't even know how to describe it, and any attempt at describing it made me (and still makes me) sound insane. I think when trying to organize it, it seemed like weird objects/ideas people hold onto seemed like a good fit, and then the Maniacs idea (which was an ongoing joke at my job) became a good idea for a narrative thread I could weave through...the Maniacs sections in the book were the only chunks actually written for the book, where everything else was just written on my own weird interests, and I had to try to justify it later.
     As far as the moment goes, I do think it goes back to the idea you mentioned of small moments. It really starts with curiosity—an interesting article, some research I stumbled across, or (while working at a used bookstore) when some bizarre book or piece of ephemera was brought to me directly. Or, like the found tools essay you mentioned, while out on a run and picking up the garbage I find on the ground. I try and learn as much as I can about the thing, and once I get enough information together I look for a pattern or a shape or an idea that I can write around. This usually leads to more research and more threads. I think this brings me back to the idea of writing about collections as well: just like a curator in a museum, I think it's the writer's job to take the collected information they have and put it into an order that directs a reader toward the bigger meaning. Different arrangements lead to different ideas—which is why I can watch the movie Air Bud and direct it towards child abuse and missed family connection, when it could just as easily have been about basketball playing dogs (which in retrospect may have been the better idea anyway).

Morgan: I’m always interested in how writers structure essays into a book. I noticed, David, of course, the construction of your Maniacs thread. I thought the thread worked very well and naturally. Edward, “Three Minutes to Midnight” felt very final and a very good cap for these essays, many of which have this nervousness about natural disasters/manmade disasters.

Edward: “Three Minutes to Midnight” was written last and meant to be something of a finale, or resting place. (It ends the vaguely western movement of the essays—we run into the ocean. It also encompasses some of the themes that were there from the beginning (such as conspiracy theories) but amps up the sense of apocalypse.) If the book is centered on places where the past is erupting into the present in unexpected (often uncomfortable) ways, then this is the essay which boomerangs most forcefully into the future. Where is this all headed? Doomsday and the apocalyptic imagination come into play, since that’s just another oversimplified narrative we cling to in order to duck responsibility and/or sleep soundly at night.

David: Really, for me it was a way for me to better highlight the passage of time, particularly as it related to the whole idea of collecting. I had no children when I started collecting these albums, and by the time I was finished I had two! One of them spent a week in intensive care and to this day she involves around-the-clock care. During that time I had flown to both the east and west coasts for job interviews for jobs I did not receive, instead going back to this retail job I strongly resented, but could not leave because of the health insurance my family desperately needed. In short, all the real-world “adult” stuff in my life was getting really serious, but everyday I would go to work and it would be the same, somewhat mindless reprieve from that as I'd sit in the basement of this store and price/listen to CD's for several hours a day. The idea of the Maniacs collection was becoming more ridiculous, but after two years and 70 CD’s out of 100, how can you stop? I think it helped as a structure for the book because it had a linear progression (zero to a million!) but also to show the significance the project took on: to have twenty copies of the same CD felt crazy, but once I got to 100 after several years, it felt important.

Morgan: David, research is clearly central to your essays, but the weaving together of the research and the personal is so effortless. When you're learning about a thing, what does that learning look like? Edward, can you talk about the difference between writing these essays and pure journalism?

Edward: Before getting an MFA (in fiction) I worked in magazines and newspapers and wrote two nonfiction books. So my early training was in journalism. But the pieces in this book feel very different to me than magazine features. They’re essays—i.e., containers for uncertainty and doubt. And, yes, the essays are a bit journalistic in that there’s an external subject (i.e. not me) that’s under consideration, and I use many of the tools of journalism (the interview, the reporting trip, and so on), and the ethics of journalism might come into play (in terms of how I handle facts, how I treat the people I come across), but I think these essays are also very personal, and they certainly don’t pretend to any sort of pure objectivity. All the information has been filtered through a very present me. So I imagine them floating in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere between the poles of so-called “literary journalism” and memoir.
     And like David, I love research. A recent review noted my reliance on catalogs—how I’m always trying to cram more into an essay. Again and again in the book—whether it’s with the 1904 World’s Fair or our attempts to nuke the moon—wonder and good intentions invariably go awry, often due to a kind of forgetting, an amnesia for the past. That forgetting bothers me, and I like the idea that these essays are my pitiful attempts to combat what Tennessee Williams called the “monosyllable of the clock”: loss, loss, loss. But not through nostalgia—since that’s just a way of sanitizing the past—or embalmment (that is, getting too precious with the historical detailing). Maybe I’m really just hoping to combat inattention, the perpetual distraction that seems to be our current way of being in the world. I mean, there is a bit of aggression in an 80-page essay. I’m trying to slow things down. Hopefully I’m not just the guy saying, “Enjoy a second helping of raw kale, kids!”—I’m always trying to move and entertain—but I am also trying to shift close attention onto the world (what is and what has come before).

David: I think my goal in writing an essay is to make as many connections as possible between seemingly disparate subjects, and I think research is the tool that best allows me to do that. In terms of how it works, it's very unstructured: like you say, a lot of Googling, or watching movies, or going through ephemera. Basically I continue to do it until some pattern emerges. I'm paraphrasing, but there was a really good David Foster Wallace quote about the difference between fiction and nonfiction: fiction starting with nothing and building it into a story, and nonfiction starting with everything and having to remove facts and details. Research helps me see which details to remove in order to shape the thing, especially when it shows us the strange or unexpected. I think Edward's response to the research question works for me as well. I think I am very present in a lot of these essays, even when the focus is on outside research. I think the arrangement and ordering of facts (As well as seeing which one the writer chooses to include) make it personal. Despite my use of facts, I really have no sense of how this would work with more typical journalistic impulses (and I really resist wanting to include citations), but I think my research approaches the same ends while taking a very different path.

Morgan: David, I loved one of the final pieces in this book—a very long (comparatively) essay wherein you slip into being the main actor in various video games. Can you talk a little bit about constructing that essay, especially its almost fiction-like forays into these other games? I'm also curious about your character's experience in the essay alongside your difficulties in real life—the illness of your daughter, Winnie, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at such a young age, and your job search. 
     Edward, all of these essays are so wide-ranging. How do you decide how far to let an essay range? Once you've drafted an essay, what's your process by which you corral it?

Edward: There’s always a tension between finding an ever-expanding terrain and letting an essay sprawl, which often signifies laziness (it means I haven’t figured out what exact questions I’m circling).
     In the early drafts, I let myself go anywhere—knowing that I will have to rein it in during editing. (Luckily, my wife is a particularly ruthless first reader of my work! She knows all my tics.) Starting out, I just cross my fingers that my ongoing aesthetic/artistic/moral/intellectual/ political preoccupations will somehow bind the thing and create some friction. Then I take a hard look at what I’ve got. Ultimately I’m going for something revealing but not didactic. I have to save room for surprise, uncertainty, ambivalence, and so on. The reader should be taken on an investigation that spirals outward and doesn’t end easily (if it ends at all). Then the next move is theirs to make.
     The St. Louis essay in particular mimics the delights and dangers of working this way, in that the essay models a kind of research process allowed to go unchecked. In other words, I'm guilty of the same wishful thinking as the organizers of the World’s Fair—the idea that you can, indeed, cram it all in, capture the whole world in a fair or reveal an entire city in an essay. There are real problems in these dreams that pretend to a kind of completeness—you’re always leaving someone/something out (see all the fair's racism, Eurocentrism, etc.). Thus there’s a moment in the essay when I go on a breathless rant about all the stuff that I have forgotten and/or left out. Turns out I’m a no-good tourist, too. And here I’m doing something I tell my students all the time: I’m trying to make a problem of my essay a problem in my essay.

David: This essay did come about in a different way than a lot of the other essays in the book. Although it certainly fit into the bookstore narrative—several of the VHS tapes of this game did come into work and I did pull them out of a dumpster—the essay was originally a pitch for the Boss Fight Books Series (an awesome publishing project that I highly recommend). I wrote a proposal on the game that wasn’t exactly the right fit, but digging into the game, I was reminded how much imaginative energy I spent as a child pretending to be in this really odd world that no one else cares about, and how badly I wanted other people to care about it (especially The Rescue of Pops Ghostly, which I’m linking here because it really is surreal and worth watching). As an adult, I don’t really get to play video games anymore, but I think they are a compelling subject to write about because they do place the audience in the role of the main character, giving you a chance to change the outcome or (in newer, bigger games) change the story entirely. It also feels like cheating in that I get to write nonfiction that includes ghosts and robots and fantastical elements while still sticking to the essay form. These games give you all the illusions of playing a game like this without any of the payoff, which felt particularly apt when talking about the aforementioned illness and job search stuff.
     In any case, it gets back to the accumulation aspect of my writing: this project was envisioned as an entirely different thing, but eventually I realized that all my essays were more or less getting at the same ideas whether I intended it or not, so the piece was a natural fit for the collection at a certain point.

Morgan: And, finally, from whom do you draw inspiration as writers? Do you have an essayist or poet or novelist who makes you think, “I need to go to work now.” Edward, who do you admire in the journalistic essay genre?

David:
I always have such a hard time with this (what should be a softball) question: I do think it just goes back to obsession in the more general sense. I love to see people get excited or angry or frustrated about something that only they care about. And I think it comes from high-brow and low-brow sources. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands out because it starts in a pretty journalistic way and gets progressively more intense as Agee tries (and fails) to capture what he's trying to capture; his frustration is what makes that book so important to me. Of course, I get equally excited about stuff like this because of how batshit crazy it is to spend hundreds of hours trying to find ways to beat Super Mario faster, to learn how to re-write the code of the game by jumping on shells. With that said, I think the correct formula needs more than obsession (it's why I wouldn't call that video interesting in itself, even though the material of it would make a great essay). Maybe it needs the writer's self awareness (or in my case shame or embarrassment), or maybe a more confident writer than I doesn't have to justify their obsession and can simply move on to finding its deeper meaning without also arguing for its existence in the first place.

Edward: There are so many free-ranging journalistic essayists (let’s just call them writers) to whom I owe a debt: Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Kolbert, Teju Cole, Valeria Luiselli, Lillian Ross, John McPhee, Hilton Als, Svetlana Alexievich, Robert Sullivan, Jo Ann Beard, Susan Orlean, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Eula Biss, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, D.J. Waldie, James Baldwin, and on and on. All these people really nail characters and/or a sense of place (or sometimes place as character).
     But when I was off wandering the Badlands or oil boomtowns or the atomic desert or the streets of Dallas/Brooklyn/LA/etc., the books I most often carried with me were the Joan Didion classics from the ’60s and ’70s (Slouching…, The White Album).
     Why her, other than the fact that I fell in love with those books years ago in college (and obsessively read her leaving New York essay—like everyone else—when I was working my first Manhattan magazine job)?
     As the book grew darker, something about her paranoia, her relentlessly apocalyptic imagination felt right—it seemed like a certain disastrous amnesia had leeched out across the land. Craftwise, I love her jumps in time and space (offering a kind of angsty cubist view), how she walks the intersection between personal and cultural breakdowns, and all those killer details she fixates on (that act as tuning forks picking up whatever eerie background music is going unheard by the major players in the scene). She’s never really at home; she always claims to know and not know a place, which is why she takes the temperature of every room she enters. Most of all, I like how she arranges all these collisions—within a sentence, within a paragraph—of things that can’t neatly coexist (the personal and the public, our past and present selves, history and the future, an insider and an outsider point of view, etc.)—for me, that’s what makes these places come alive. I’d follow a writer anywhere if the landscape is finely textured and populated with complex creatures and feelings.

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Morgan Sherburne has an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an MS in science writing from MIT. She's a science writer on the University of Michigan News team.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Durga Chew-Bose, vacuums & swans-in-a-pond


There are so, so many great lines in Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood, but this one conjoinment of words in particular, for whatever reason, really rocked it for me. From the book’s opening essay, “Heart Museum,” five words synergized into one great, weird image:

A Dyson in the desert

Some context will probably help. The essay plays on her amazement that the heart is such a dependable thing, beating ever onward, continuing its awesome work through all kinds of havoc,

Even when I stand naked in my room after a long day of stupid letdowns, when I consider becoming a woman who screams or hacks off her hair, or tosses her purse instead of hanging it. Even then, when nakedness can’t undo the day, when my heart is lodged in my throat and my whole body falls limp—my whole body like my left wrist when I fasten my watch with my right hand. Limp like that. Even then, when I feel completely poured out and defeated. A Dyson in the desert.

I spent the summer proselytizing: It’s her metaphors that really do it for me – I told everyone, adding an exclamation point, or two. I’ve calmed down some, but the enthusiasm is still there, simmering. 

I didn’t actually know what a Dyson was until I was twenty-five or so, living with an ex-girlfriend who borrowed one from a friend so we could suck two months of accumulated dog fur out of our carpet, and of course some cheap plastic part of this vacuum—the roller, or the bracket thing that holds the roller—snapped in half just as we finished. She was resolute that we would replace the entire machine, or at least have it fixed, if we could, because that’s what you do when you borrow your friend’s expensive tools and break them. We Googled “dyson” and the model type, and quickly realized our options would be limited. She was in school, and I was only making—I am too embarrassed to admit how little—as a landscaper. In the end, the friend was great, and generous, and told us not to worry about it. In fact, she was thoughtful enough to say it was warrantied, which maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t, but that really let us off the hook. 

A few months later we were invited to her wedding, which my girlfriend warned me was to be a $400,000 affair (there are no secrets between some friends), presumably to include a celebrity chef, a barrel of Laphroaig 30-year, ice sculptures and exotic flowers, an orchestra, some swans-in-a-pond, and, and actually I’m struggling to imagine what could possibly make a wedding cost 2.5 times more than the home I am raising my boys in now. In the end, we couldn’t make it and I was honest-to-god relieved. 

The only criticism I have of Too Much and Not the Mood is that Chew-Bose seems to be the type of writer who grew up with a Dyson in the closet. Is that unfair? Is that even a criticism? 

Myself, I grew up very comfortably, I think, knocking out my weekly chores with the Kirby Classic III gifted to my parents when they were married in 1976—the Dyson of its day, maybe. 

Anyway, that line: A Dyson in the desert

A picture of exasperation, exhaustion, arms hanging, shoulders slumped, and—knowing the brand as I do now—resilience. Just lovely.



Craig Reinbold curates this site's Int'l Essayists column and recently co-edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Clutch Fleischmann and Torrey Peters talk about Joss Barton

Below is the next installment in a series on trans writers, genre, and the essay, where I talk with Torrey Peters about the writer Joss Barton and Barton's piece “Lord, Be a Femme.” Check out some other recent interviews in this series-- most recently, conversations with Trish Salah and Cameron Awkward-Rich about their own work.


Before you begin, check out Barton’s “Lord, Be a Femme,” and make sure to check out Nameless Woman: An Anthology of Fiction by Trans Women of Color (edited by Ellyn Peña, Jamie Berrout, and Venus Selenite), where "Lord, Be a Femme" also appears.


T Clutch Fleischmann:


Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about an essay (or essay-type thing) you love. I reached out to you for this project in part because I appreciate the way you center trans women in your own writing-- you distribute your work directly to trans women, you explicitly make trans women your audience, you pay deep attention to writing by other trans women, that sort of thing. So I was curious who you would pick to chat about, but not surprised when you immediately suggested something by Joss Barton, a writer we both appreciate. Could you start by telling me a little why you like Barton’s writing, and what you like about “Lord, Be a Femme” in particular?


Torrey Peters:


Morgan M Page, who runs the trans history podcast ONE FROM THE VAULTS, was talking on twitter the other day about how the immediacy of social media and social media critique has dulled the edge of queer art. How young artists run the risk that when they release a work that’s confrontational and difficult, within a few hours, people (often from their own communities) will come after them in that distinctively awful online manner. As a consequence, Morgan wrote (or tweeted, I guess), artists, chilled by online conflict, have begun to produce work that is more anodyne, that appeals to crowd wisdom, that doesn’t challenge or upset, and that functions in an internet-friendly mode. But! Morgan named a single exception, an artist who, to paraphrase somewhat, seemingly doesn’t give a fuck about the properties of her readers: Joss Barton.


Set against Morgan’s concerns, I think Joss’s work is doubly impressive because not only does she thwart the online encouragement of toothless art, she does so while publishing almost entirely online, on online-only mediums. She ignores the beast from within the belly of the beast--or whatever the cliche would be.


I follow a lot of queers on social media, many of whom work very hard to show off how little they care about propriety (I’m also guilty of that). As you scroll down through the endless ho-hum photos and posts of queer paraphernalia and style...suddenly there’s Joss: with a piece about PReP, or craving cum--written in a tone that is not about shock value at all, but instead communicates that she wrote what she did because she’s just simply giving voice to an honest desire--and I, scrolling through my phone hours later and many miles away, genuinely gasp at her audacity, and then can’t help but clutch at my pearls, unable to keep myself from worrying how can she be saying all this, what will it cost her????


Social media and blogs purport to be about communicating immediacy and raw experience, but in fact, like most online mediums, often devolve into the practice of posing and carefully crafting a persona. As a result, when someone like Joss comes along, and shows what actual unposed desire or pain can look like, it’s completely shocking and possibility-expanding. Yet her essays are also kind of a paradox for me, because they are so nakedly honest, and yet also so carefully constructed. So anyway, I chose “Lord Be A Femme,” not just because I think it’s great, but because I wanted your help in thinking through how she achieves all of this.


I read through what Morgan M Page was saying-- it hits on some of the unease I have with a lot of the queer or trans discourse I encounter lately. I appreciate you bringing that into this conversation. I’m especially excited to talk about that in relation to desire and pleasure. We have this massive amount of literature and art that explore desire-- what it means to be the desiring body, how desire and pleasure can impact meaning and selfhood, how desire becomes both a formative element in politics and also a problem in political communities. It’s not hard to find messy desire, or desire that might be politically problematic, or radical desire, all these things that become central in modern essay traditions. I’m thinking of Closer to the Knives, Herve Guibert, City of Nights, The Argonauts, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, etc. All these explorations of the thinking self and the autobiographical self as a self that desires, cruises, engorges, defecates, fucks, celebrates, and encounters.


But in terms of writing about the trans self, and writing from the position of a whole trans self that is allowed all those ranges of being we see in traditions of cis writing and cis queer desire, we don’t have as many models. I think there are models available, and I think we can find trans desire as soon as we can locate trans writing-- “My Words to Viktor Frankenstein,” say, or Sandy Stone, or Trish Salah, or Ralph Werner, or Max Wolf Valerio. But on large right now I’m also hungry for more examples, and surprised at how difficult it is to locate them sometimes, especially if we look to essay and nonfiction instead of to poetry and fiction and erotica, which offer a few more.


So I’m really glad, also, to have Barton’s work for all of these reasons, and appreciating it even more when taken in the context of what Morgan Page pointed out.


Let’s talk some about that, what exactly the writing is doing. When I think of some of the cis queer texts I mention above, for instance, I sometimes get annoyed, that readers seem to stop at “wow, how radical/whatever to be so explicit,” but don’t get to the next step, honestly encountering what’s said. What’s that encounter like for you? What comes after the appreciation?


Well, maybe the thing that comes for me--and why I like it on a deep level, before I get into craft or politics, is the tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Maybe even in that eerie and classically Freudian homeliness/unhomeliness uncanny (especially at the end). For me that comfortable familiarity hits right off, with dressing up as a little kid, which I think is as close to home for trans girls as you can get. It’s comforting. The kind of convo I have with trans girls where everyone goes “me too!”


Then, in the second section it gets more specific: with the mention of Yahoo chat rooms, and then stitched into the essay, the introductory online chat that one had in that particular era, as a teenager when picking up a man for cyber sex--and cyber sex is SO specific to a place and time for me.


(side note: I had a relationship this spring in which I had a lot of cyber, and maybe it’s just that the 90’s are in fashion again, but honestly, it’s way more fun than I remembered. Or maybe it’s just fun when it’s not one of the desperate things that you do when you’re closeted and aching for some kind of connection with someone, even someone who might be tricked into seeing you how you want to be seen).


So anyway. What happens is I feel this sense of familiarity. And then, my brain tries to process it. And I think about the various vectors along which I also have had this experience: I’m midwestern. I’m trans. I’m of the same generation.


But just as I feel sure that this is a narrator or a voice who is speaking to my own experience, the experience splits, and I’m taken somewhere unfamiliar to me: growing up poor and brown. And then in the last paragraph it switches modes completely from realism into--I’m not sure what to call it--a kind of Central American-inflected dream logic/orgasm. Which is a barrier into things that I can’t cross, as I feel her moving into a space not only disconnected from the previous epistemologies, but marked as specifically for people of her own experience, an experience that is not my own. But which in being connected to the deeply familiar sissy experiences of trans teenage years and the metaphor of being fucked into orgasm, makes me want to be there with her, in this wistful way. There is a kind of you’re my sister/you’re not my sister at all push/pull thing happening for me, which I find both upsetting and deeply alluring.


And so the deep question that this all brings up for me is facing the ways in which I think my experience is like or unlike those of other trans women--or even to what degree there really exists such a category as “trans women’s experience” or even a category of just “trans women.”


Yeah I appreciate that potential in the explicit, the sexual, all that-- that a body can lead to another body, that the physical can lead beyond the physical, that the point of contact is a point of many contacts, violent and pleasurable and historical and imagined and on and on. It’s like the chorus of men calling for her, voicing their desires as she “bleeds out” for the viewers at home, and then the complicated place of the reader in the mix of all that.


You also mentioned craft, which I think is important. The disjunction and fragmentation seems pretty comfortably in line with a lot of contemporary essays, and the weighing of the autobiographical alongside the other concerns also seems in line with essay craft. But the moves and language of the piece feel totally fresh to me at the same time-- when it veers in new directions, it’s a surprise, but the movement carries me.


Yes, I think that’s why those final turns work so well. The first two thirds set up certain expectations, and then those expectations are both thwarted and expanded, so you see what comes with totally fresh eyes, and without the normal walls that one puts up. Had the essay started with such incredible imagery, I might have rolled my eyes. I would have been like, “Okay this is one of THESE essays, and I’ll read it in THIS way,” but by the time she took that final turn, she’d relaxed me, she had gotten me nodding along, reading with my guard down--so when hallucinatory final section hit, with the subsequent change in tone, register, and language, I’m completely vulnerable to it. And then meanwhile, it’s this really high, wild language, but the metaphor is set up in such plainly sexual terms, that it’s almost orgasmic itself, complete with the comedown, where after an orgasm you open your eyes again, and it’s just some dude sheepishly pulling off a condom or, as she says, wiping off his dick. It’s like sacred and profane and exquisite and banal all in one long run. Which is how sex so often is, when you can look right at it.


So when you put the first section together with the last section. It’s almost the narrative of how she created herself as a sexual being: the path from a young child, through shrugging off the shame of teenage years, to the moment in which she can fuck as an adult woman, with all the glory and ambivalence that entails. The essay is both a lifetime and a tiny moment, or maybe I should say that employs a lifetime to serve a tiny moment.


Glory and ambivalence… Yeah, I’m thinking again of how the (trans) self is constructed, what risks we are or are not encouraged to take by our friends, our social worlds, when we render our self and our body in text.


I think that’s a nice place to close. Thanks for chatting with me about this, Torrey, and giving us the occasion to celebrate some writing.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Craig Reinbold poses nude with Erik Anderson


It’s a rare and great thing to get so riled by a book.

I dug into Erik Anderson’s Flutter Point as soon as it was pub’d by Zone 3 Press after winning their annual creative nonfiction book award. We seem to be fans around here: Nicole Walker also recently conversed with Erik about his previous book, Estranger, put out by Rescue Press in 2016 (that’s right, two books in two years; who is this guy? How’s he doing this?), and – no small thing – he may have just tied Didion and Louis C.K. for most mentions here at Essay Daily. How is that possible? Yet here we are. 

Flutter Point is essays, all are good, some are great, a few are over my head (Anderson seems to be roughly 3X the intellectual I am), and one super pissed me off enough that I read the book a second time a month later because I was still thinking about it, in particular about how this one essay seems to violate the essayistic principle I hold closest to my slightly tachycardic (four cups of coffee this morning) heart: that you go ALL IN

If you’re going to write about Tunisian activist Amina Tyler posting a topless photo of herself on Facebook with the words My body is mine and not the source of anybody’s honor – an act for which she was threatened with death by stoning – and if you’re going to write about FEMEN, which self-describes as an “international women’s movement of brave topless female activists,” and if you’re going to suggest that a righteous response to a Missouri rapist’s acquittal would be posting a naked photo of your male self on the internet with the words “This is not an instrument of rape” written on your abdomen, then you must do it! You must, because once you throw the idea out there you need to follow through and see where it goes. That’s what good essayists do! And yet, Erik Anderson, a solid essayist, I think, did not do this. He backed down. wtf? 

Luckily, I have his email. No reason to stew alone. 

*

Hey Erik, 

I enjoyed Flutter Point a lot, though I’ve gotten kind of stuck on this one essay, "FOR A BODY NOT TO BE," in particular this: 

...it occurs to me that, to protest the mysterious dismissal of charges against her assailant, engineered no doubt by his powerful relatives, I might take and post online a naked photo of myself with the words "This is not an instrument of rape" written on my abdomen. That this is almost the last thing I will actually do strikes me as a sign of the complacency that is the sine qua non of my demographic.

You give a nice intellectual out in the rest of the paragraph, but I keep coming back to this: You acknowledge that your choice not to include such a photo of yourself is "a sign of the complacency that is the sine qua non of my demographic", and yet it’s exactly this complacency the essay is writing against, I think, or at least is interested in bringing to the front. Shouldn’t the essay try to overcome this complacency rather than simply rationalize it? Why not just include that photo of yourself in the book? 

Why resort to the intellectual? Why not double-down on the action? 

*

Hi, Craig, 

Love your question. Goes to the heart of what I was arriving at in that essay and, maybe, in the book as a whole. 

A couple years ago I heard Kristin Dombek say - she may have been quoting John Jeremiah Sullivan, but I can't quite remember - that you should never make yourself the hero of your own essay. I usually resist prescriptions like this, but I think there's some wisdom in this one. Had I included an Amina Tyler-like photo of myself at the end of the essay, I would have been asserting the kind of heroism Dombek (and/or Sullivan) advised against, but more importantly, from my perspective, it would have claimed (rather than enacted) a bravery I don't possess, a bravery that belongs to those, like Tyler, whose visibility as bodies (unlike my own) requires courage, even audacity. I felt such a photo would have been disingenuous, at least in part because, demographically speaking (straight, white, middle class, male), I am not the oppressed but the oppressor - even if my political loyalties run in the other direction. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, points out that white people are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. I want to go in the opposite direction. I want to assert my complicity. Not to revel in it, but to name it and, with effort, to move through and hopefully past it. 

Something like #notallmen (even though it's true that not all men are violent, sexually or otherwise) conceals and extends the problem. It treats stories like Daisy Coleman's as anomalies, when they're anything but. This week you have the president spewing more misogyny on Twitter, but the response that this is somehow out of the ordinary is absurd. Hating on women is part and parcel of the culture. And as long as we keep pretending that it isn't, it will continue to be so. 

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but this is the line of thinking that went into that essay and others. That it's not time for white male heroism but for some serious self-scrutiny. 

Does this all make sense? Does it seem silly or stupid or self-defeating? 

*

Hey, again, Erik,

This resonates: "I felt such a photo would have been disingenuous, at least in part because, demographically speaking (straight, white, middle class, male), I am not the oppressed but the oppressor.” 

I was thinking the obvious end to this post would be for me to do what you have chosen not to – to follow through on your idea, i.e. to post a nude pic of myself with your line this is not an instrument of rape on my abdomen, you know, actually acting out the action you decline. But as straight white middle-class males maybe this is simply not our place to act? There’s little to no risk involved in you or I posting such a naked/political photo, and maybe that’s the point? Maybe the fact that there’s no risk makes the action worth less? 

But, is an easy gesture less of a gesture? Is an easy action less helpful for being easy? 

Or worse, does an easy action belittle others’ actions where more is at stake? (E.g. Amina Tyler's life was actually threatened as a result of what she did...) 

I've got two boys tearing though lunch right now so this is only a half-formed thought but I wanted to tug at this line - "That it's not time for white male heroism but for some serious self-scrutiny".

Sure, this makes a lot of sense, intellectually, but when does this serious self-scrutiny just become navel-gazing, and what's the point, really? Why stop to think about our complicity/complacency when being complacent leads to more awful things actually happening?

What good is thought without real action? 

*

These are all great things to tug at. I don't think it's navel-gazing, nor do I believe that thinking and action are mutually exclusive. Thinking/writing is a kind of action, much as reading or writing, say, is not separate from real life but in fact is real life. An essay is an action, a public statement. It participates in the public cognitive scene, lets others know your thoughts, links one life to another, allows us to connect/cross-pollinate through the membrane of the page. That this essay has raised the possibility of you taking such a photo, for instance, well, I find that totally delightful - whether or not you take and post the photo. 

But here's another way at this: the t-shirt that reads, "This is what a feminist looks like." I would never wear that t-shirt, even if I align myself with feminist principles. I don't feel it's my place to call myself a feminist, my place to determine whether I am successful in my efforts to be an ally. (Feminist friends have, of course, disagreed with me on this.) It's not that the gesture of the t-shirt is an empty one, but that the more necessary occupation, to my mind, is a far less public one. It involves, say, you and I raising our sons in a different way, counter to the culture. It involves, for my part, speaking less, listening more, avoiding the mansplaining trap, trying to create room for other voices, and encouraging my son to be something other than the proverbial bull in a china shop. You know that moment in "Notes of a Native Son" where Baldwin talks about finding for the next generation a better antidote than the one that was available to him? I love that. 

I've taken part in a lot of political actions since November, as I'm sure you have too. I've often been a body in public space, not any body precisely but certainly not the central one. My solidarity depends upon, among other things, my humility - as not seeing myself and my story and my needs as central - whereas the t-shirt, the photo, these moves feel more overbearing to me. 

They might not be to others, and I respect that. I am, by nature, self-effacing.

I'm with you about hungering for action - I totally get that. But again, there's Baldwin, regarding us with those keen eyes of his, not only the most important American essayist of the twentieth century, I would argue, but also the essayist of the Civil Rights movement. Baldwin knew King and Malcolm, of course, but he saw his job as something fundamentally different than theirs: on one hand to witness and on the other to analyze, which he did with such perspicacity and rigor. He was not a man of action in King or Malcolm's sense, and yet his voice remains active, prodding us onward. 

Which brings me back to that membrane of the page: I feel now that we've met, haven't we? And that here we are, doing the cognitive work together. That feels to me like action, whatever comes of it in the world. 

*

Yeah, it’s action, I get it, I see it. And your anecdote in the book about the guy in your high school who performed Nirvana’s Rape Me in drag hits hard this idea of OCCUPYING YOUR LIFE, which is great. I’m gonna offer a quote for those who haven’t read the essay:

I don’t know whatever happened to Marc, the would-be Kurt Cobain from my high school, so I can’t say whether these days he’s still dressing in drag or whether he’s now a corporate accountant with a smattering of kids and a house in the suburbs. Maybe it’s both. As an emblem of revolution the executive in drag may be a little uninspiring, but such a person, if he exists, may be occupying his life on a profound level. I wonder about all the people for whom any demonstration is merely an outgrowth of the way they live their lives. This maybe the truest occupation, in every sense: rather than the message mediating the life, or vice versa, the message becomes the life, and the life becomes the message.

I'm tempted to leave off here. I don’t really think anyone reads past 1000 words anyway, and that’s a beautiful idea there in that paragraph – but, as nice as the intellectual knot you tie may be, I think I found a way out: Don’t ditch the larger action (the photo) – just take yourself out of it. 

We don’t want to make it about ourselves, right? I think that’s right, so post the photo, but no face, just your penis, and your words – applying This is not an instrument of rape not just to yourself (as the #notallmen folks seem to), but to ALL MEN

Remove yourself from the statement, but make the statement. Then see what happens. 

Realistically, nothing will happen. And then we can go back to everything else? 

*

I have thoughts on that, some of which belong to “For a Body Not To Be,” some not so much. My impulse is to leave the question open, however, to resist resolution – in the essay and in life. 

I would only add that one of the tragic ironies of the Tyler photo is that her body was not, in effect, her own, and that for others it was a source of somebody’s honor, despite her heroic effort to reclaim it. Could something similar happen with this other photo? Would its primary function be to protest or to highlight its own ironies? What would the photo achieve, and for whom? Would it defeat itself? I don’t mean to goad you, but I suppose there’s one way to find out…

*

I should probably post this photo now. When I started all this I thought I was prepared to. It was early summer and the tiger lilies were just stalking up. Life seemed so warm and easy and endless.

But now, somehow, it’s fall, and that courage seems to have cooled. Easy ‘nuff to bare your brain, even your soul, but your penis? Shit. 

Shit. 

So I guess that title is just clickbait then.



Erik Anderson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Poetics of Trespass, Estranger, and Flutter Point: Essays. He teaches creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College, where he also directs the annual Emerging Writers Festival.

Craig Reinbold curates this site's Int'l Essayists column and recently co-edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Visual Essays: Field Notes from Iceland



This summer, Sarah Minor attended NonfictioNow '17 in Reykjavik and conducted research on local textile traditions and the relationship between Icelandic literature and landscape. This embroidered text uses embroidery thread, beads made from sheep horns, and a pair of underwear.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Nick Neely: Some Phases of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”


1.      To preface: I am not a trained physicist or astronomer. I am an amateur who began this fleeting study with too limited a telescope and maybe the wrong lens. I think I may have burned my eyes by reading it several times, but I trust the damage isn’t forever. Wear your welding glasses—that’s my best advice—and log your own observations below.

2.      The essay begins with mournful descent and dislocation: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.” We’re immediately thrown into the valley of the shadow, a place that is, and is not, the Yakima Valley in Washington State. It sounds, justly, like a coming panic attack. At the hotel, Dillard begins to introduce all sorts of, to borrow her phrase, “complex interior junk,” most of which are head-scratchers at first. She mentions the drunk men in the lobby, a fish in its aquarium, a canary in its cage, a child’s bucket and shovel—none of it seems especially relevant, but it’s just the kind of random stuff that’s good for atmosphere when cast in a certain light. She remembers reading in the lobby about gold mines that “extend so deeply into the Earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands. … When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.” Why does she tell us this? Already she’s established a mood, a space, where she can introduce just about anything and it will seem right and ominous. But what’s most unforgettable is the vegetable clown. Dillard recalls lying in bed the night before the eclipse and seeing, on the hotel wall, a painting of “a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables”: “The clown was bald. Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his small and laughing human eyes ….” Finishing her description of this likable “lunatic,” who is also composed of string beans, parsley, and chili peppers, she abruptly continues, “To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours ….” The juxtaposition makes a clear suggestion: this clown is “ourselves,” the vegetable body with an expiration date, in which the eyes of what’s distinctly human—that is spiritual, not corporeal—shine out for a brief moment in time. And already, on page one, time begins to scramble: One has to recall the curious paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth century Milanese painter behind the Four Seasons, each a smiling man-cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.

3.      When the eclipse hits, time and the senses are thrown into disarray. She sees the world as if it were simulacra. “The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead.  … I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages … I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.” One notes the halting repetition (throughout the essay) that produces a sense of immediacy—of thinking and its instantaneous revision—and of disbelief or trauma. This passage and much of the essay also moves by metaphor, which (as my brother smartly pointed out), is a kind of eclipse: the “real” is hidden behind the figure, and yet for a moment its size and shape are made clearer. In any case, Dillard, and all of us, are thrown both forward and back: Back to the nineteenth century, and further back to the Middle Ages. Yet forward to our own deaths. The essay takes on the feel of a choppy pool, waves rebounding off walls, past and future, to create a slack tide of time. When she reports, “My mind was going out,” she means not truly going “blank,” but to the ultimate reaches of imagination. We’re not sure where, exactly, we stand: “The grass at our feet was wild barley.” Does she mean literally at her feet, in Yakima? Seems not, for she continues: “It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, about the Euphrates Valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down.” Here is an ur-vision of life long ago in a valley like the Yakima. Maybe this is the Elysian Fields or Asphodel Meadows. It is certainly “the region of dread” she anticipates as the essay begins.

4.      “We had all started down a chute of time,” as Dillard summarizes—one she carefully orchestrates. At the start of the third section, she actualizes the essay as a space of descent and time travel (if it wasn’t already clear): “It is now that temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold has risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the strata again.” Here one begins to suspect that her eclipse experience also functions as a metaphor, an allegory, for the essayist’s process: We must face the region of dread, of drafting. We must search for a way to describe this impossible-to-describe experience. Simultaneously, some of the essay’s “interior junk,” its earlier images, begin to well up and reveal their complexity. Double-meanings accrue and eclipse one another, obscuring and highlighting. It’s a sloshing trough of metaphor. The gold mine article from the hotel returns and resonates. Now her gold might be the memory of the eclipse, that “old wedding band in the sky” (the strata might be the “cirrostratus” in which that day in 1979 began). In part, the subject of the essay becomes memory itself, the difficulty of mining it. If we’re to believe the narrator, two years have passed since the event. We might imagine Dillard took some (probably rather good) notes, or even wrote up until that point in the draft, before she fatigued and could on longer face the dread, and stuffed the essay in the proverbial drawer. But now she is ready to descend deeper into the mine/mind.

5.      She struggles to capture the eclipse: It doesn’t look like a dragon, but it does look like a “lens cover, or the lid of a pot.” “It obliterated meaning itself,” Dillard concedes. Like a mushroom cloud, “what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking.” “The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array [of an eclipse] than language can cover the breath and simultaneity of internal experience.” She feels, in essence, defeated. “It [the eclipsed sun] was as useless a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as memory.” The essayist’s means and materials—language and memory—feel inadequate and isolating. What finally surfaces is a portrait, a paragraph, that describes something of an awful Resurrection—dead spectators standing on the hills not just misremembering their lives, but having “forgotten those they had loved.” What could be a worse fate? Maybe this is not Resurrection, but purgatory. Here is darkness visible, rock bottom—not the thrilling sublime one might anticipate from an eclipse event, but something tipped too far into terror. If the trajectory of the essay describes, or mimics, the phases of an eclipse (of course, it must), we are in totality.

6.      Then the bright bead of the sun at the edge. Dillard forces us to visit the worst, a nihilistic landscape where “we cared for nothing,” where memory falters, so that she can ask us to realize what we have. The fourth section begins: “We teach our children one thing only, as we are taught: to wake up.” This is forever Annie Dillard’s project, to jar us from complacency and engage with the world, the present, while we still can. It might seem a pedantic project in this essay if she didn’t paint her own melancholic descent into “the deeps” as, potentially, a symptom of that complacency. She finds herself jarred at breakfast at a diner after the eclipse: “A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, ‘Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.’ … He was a walking alarm clock.” Her timing is impeccable: At this point in the essay, we all needed this reality check (of course, Dillard can’t then resist turning this Life Saver, a mint candy, breath-freshening O, into a life saver buoy, which brings her the surface). This kid’s thought is as valid or true as her own heavy sifting through the metaphysical strata of past and future. In part, this assertion feels a tad disingenuous: She’s aware of her powers. She obviously relishes her mode. For my part, she distinguishes too strongly between mind and body: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computers terminals printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull.” But these details, she admits, are important. All those things for which we have no words are lost,” she writes. I take this to mean: Describe your eclipse any old way that occurs to you. Remember that when you try to write your own essay about Monday’s two minutes of totality. Salvation is through a simple thought likeLife Saver.”  The main thing is to continue to dive, to mine …  “ The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel,” writes Dillard. “… With these we try to save our very lives.”


7.      One last observation: She writes of the moon’s shadow that races 1,800 miles an hour across the landscape, “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like car out of control on a turn.” What sheer madness that these huge masses—one that we call home, one that we call the moon, one the we call the sun—are in something of a stable orbit. The whole arrangement is so unlikely, incredible, incomprehensible. This fragile clockwork of loose spheres, in Dillard’s arrangement, also refers to an individual life, to a relationship, to memory in general, but it ultimately refers to the art of the essay. Reading “Total Eclipse,” I feel this bodily: The unlikely images hurtling past each other, the abrupt and leaping pivots, the confusion of time and space—what are the chances that it could all adhere, all harmonize. And yet it does. The props from the hotel, including the child’s shovel and bucket, finally come whirling in to cast their full metaphoric shadow. Even the vegetable clown returns to illuminate: You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your bucket and shovel and no longer care.” It’s good to remember that an eclipse, and a metaphor, is just an artful coincidence. But it still might mean everything. Go chase the eclipse, whatever that means to you, and then try with all your might to do it justice—dig yourself out of that grave.

*
Nick Neely's first book of essays, Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing and CLMP's Firecracker Award for creative nonfiction. He is also the author of the essay chapbook Chiton, and Other Creatures, from New Michigan Press. His nonfiction has appeared in journals such as Orion, Kenyon Review, and The Georgia Review. He lives in Hailey, Idaho with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Alternative Routes: An Interview with Jericho Parms

Lost Wax by Jericho Parms (University of Georgia Press, 2016) is an amalgamation of forms and styles: lyrical, narrative, essay, and travelogue. It’s a fun read for viewing new frames encasing investigations that journey both longitudinally and mentally. The book is playful, but willing to be knife-jabbingly tragic. It’s well-researched but personal. Lost Wax, on the whole, is a balanced, nuanced collection for those who need a present “I” that doesn’t sit only with the self but expands into other subjects, such as art and identity. Published by the University of Georgia Press as part of their Crux Series in literary nonfiction, the book aptly ushers the genre forward.  Jericho was kind enough to answer some questions about form, essays (in terms of her work and the genre), process, and travel.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Reading this book I got the sense that I was reading a form of “Travel Essay.” Or really, a friend of mine asked for suggestions for a class she’s teaching on Travel Essay, as opposed to Travel Writing, and your book just seemed perfect. It seems rooted in the Montaignian sense of the term “essay” and it bounces us around places geographically as well as cerebrally. Do you mind that term? What does genre mean for you anyway? Where do you find yourself on the Barnes & Nobles shelf and what shelf (real or imaginary) would you like to find yourself on?

Jericho Parms:
I do like that term both for the way it sounds and for the potential for conjoined meaning. Travel: to journey, and essay: an attempt. The combined sum of those two words elicits a sense of urgency that I admire; its impact is like that of enjambment in poetry. The term feels fervent, fertile—both meandering and rooted, restless and searching. I like to think of genres like any other boundary: little more than lines drawn in the sand (subject to the whim of the wind) or cracks in concrete—which might mean the world to a child trying to avoid them in an act of play, but like most boundaries, edges, classifications, labels, I think they are often given too much value. I prefer lines that are open to being blurred, bent, blended. That said, just like boundaries in the sense of parameters and frames, genre distinctions can serve us by providing the initial lines within which to color before we decide whether or not to forgo the outline before us. Genre feels akin to any other “rule” in that rules are made to be broken and are best broken when one has taken the time to understand them.

As much as I love the idea of appearing on the shelves of Barnes & Noble’s essays section (happy, too, to know that Barnes & Noble does in fact have an essays section), one of the more gratifying moments since the publication of Lost Wax was receiving an email from an acquaintance who said he had stumbled upon the book in a small library in Texas. Seeing your book in a bookstore is no doubt satisfying but I love the thought of the book nestled in a library stack, a book exchange at a café somewhere, a lending kiosk in Bryant Park, a free box in Berlin or Montreal. It’s the potential for unexpected reach that most excites me, the idea that the book might be found by happenstance, might be party to a serendipitous encounter.

CCP: You seem to have caught the travel bug early. How do you think this shaped you and your writing, and what would you recommend to people who maybe are not able to travel?

JP: Yes, and I credit that travel bug and sense of exploration in large part to the way I grew up. I was raised in New York in a pretty diverse and artistic family. Although we had little financially, I benefited from the riches of support and I am grateful for that. So, when I graduated high school I decided to defer college in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. When I was enrolled in college, I decided to take time off, saved up from my work-study job and traveled to Guatemala, and again to Spain. My ability to travel has come largely out of a stubborn determination and (having held jobs since I was young) a certain work ethic, which is to say that if the passion is there, financial means need not preclude or inhibit one’s interest in traveling. I think we often put too much emphasis on the financial burdens of travel and allow such constraints to become roadblocks. It can be easier to remain “in place” rather than pursue other views and different vantage points, but I find it worthwhile to do so, particularly when we are young and untethered by employment, family, or other responsibilities. I am certainly guilty of this—and more so in recent years as I have grown more tethered. For those with mobility and the means (and motivation) to travel, I would say find every opportunity to do so, and find ways of making those opportunities meaningful to writing. There are an increasing number of wonderful conferences and workshops abroad. For those without the means physically or otherwise to board a bus, train, or plane elsewhere I would say there is no limit to our ability to “travel” locally via museums (particularly encyclopedic and natural history museums), galleries, concerts, festivals, an alternative route to work, a new restaurant, or the far side of town. To circle back to our definitions, the word travel is defined as to go, to move in a given direction or path, but it is also defined by the act of journeying through or over, to be moved from place to place. Travel is a term I take liberty to define loosely, and within its loose definition there is unending possibility.

CCP: I love the research in this book, how it lets my mind toggle between some of the personal essaying and the research-driven writing. It feels like the braids and interconnections build off each other and call-and-respond. Maybe it’s a chicken-egg thing, but I’m wondering if there’s a general sense that your writing begins as a question and you need to look it up on the digital ether or at a library or if it’s a curiosity about the self that feels muted without the extra research?


JP: I’m inclined to say it’s a combination of both. I agree with your chicken-egg analogy. I often think, too, of the process as a revolving door that begins with a question, image, idea, observation, that, in turn, leads to further questions, images, ideas… and so on. Curiosity about the self drives many an essay forward, and the true inquiry beneath an essay is not always immediately evident. In the essay “On Puddling,” for example I knew I wanted to write about the death of a friend whom I didn’t know well, but whose untimely passing had stuck with me (having happened during a time in my life when I experienced a series of such losses). The present “occasion” of the essay examines driving dirt roads and watching butterflies gather in the soil. In this case, research on Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship to butterflies became, for various reasons, the connecting tissue between the past and present threads of the essay. What began as seemingly peripheral research on Lepidoptera and Nabokov’s lifelong fondness for the species, led me to expose the underlying instinct or true core of the essay: my need to list, catalogue, preserve, make last, when life’s experience (stubbornly fleeting and difficult to pin down) had taught me otherwise.

CCP: Also, have you met writers and readers that seem to have an allergy to researched material? I’ve always been fascinated by this response. Does research seem necessary for you despite maybe turning some people off?

JP: Sometimes I do wonder if there isn’t a bug going around when it comes to readers who cringe at researched material, but it may just come down to a question of audience, a writer’s voice, and the potential chemistry that exists in the space between reader and writer. Mimi Schwartz has a great piece on “Research and Creative Nonfiction” where she describes the need to “write so the seams of research don’t show” using masterful examples from essayists such as Barbara Hurd and Jocelyn Bartkevicius. And I agree, in good research-driven essays “fact and feeling must blend.” For me, whether or not researched material makes it into the final version of an essay, some form of research usually feels necessary to my writing process. Research helps reveal my curiosities, preoccupations, obsessions. And yet, I will be the first to admit that sometimes research can be a crutch, a distraction, can overburden the writing, or overshadow the underlying impulse toward personal truth in a piece. I’ve gone down endless paths of research only to find myself at the bottomless pit of information about, say, chairs depicted throughout history, the puddling behavior of butterflies, or every instance of red appearing in the natural world. Months ago I grew obsessed with the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction; most recently the tradition of Ama divers in Japan has captured my attention—but what am I really writing about? At some point, I inevitably have to pull myself out of the external world of information and obscure fact, vast as it is, and remember why I am writing in the first place, which tends to ground me again in the personal. No essay is going to contain every reference to chairs throughout art history, (my essay “Still Life with Chair” certainly didn’t) but it might contain a handful that I’ve decided may be useful. And yet, that handful of researched chair images is nothing without the one image of a chair depicted in a painting that I remember from one night of my life—the central image that serves as an entry point into personal narrative and remembered experience. For some readers research will never fly. For me, as a reader, in order for research to be compelling, it has to be in service of a larger idea that or experience that an essay is trying to unpack. As Schwartz suggests, it should feel relatively natural, seamless.

CCP: I know you’ve talked about your essay forms in other interviews, but I want to mention how I admire the way you experiment with form and structure in the book. I for one love this even though I feel like my own writing is formally predictable. Did this come naturally for you? What kinds of thinking went behind your final forms? Any forms not make the cut?

JP: In my writing process, an essay’s final form is often the result of several misfits and failures. I love essays that speak to both the universal and the personal, that peer in close while carrying an awareness of a panoramic view—essays in which the structure further informs content and meaning. With the unending possibilities of form, what is most important to me is to make sure a chosen form feels warranted, not contrived. I’m not interested in bells and whistles for the sake of it. (And, yes, most times I’ve approached a piece thinking I’ll write the perfect list essay or another found or experimental form, they often dead end—and quickly). So I tend to allow form to emerge later in the process. The title essay of the book, “Lost Wax” for example, was originally written as a straightforward narrative following a solitary drive to a Colorado hot spring. And while that overall narrative still exists in the final essay, the revision process led to that initial narrative being largely fragmented: interrupted by meditations on Greek and Roman sculptures, detours into memory, meandering digressions on love, youth and idealism. Ultimately the content of the essay and the central metaphor of mold, impression, and absence (as understood through the lost wax casting method) felt too confined within a traditional narrative. It begged for a form that felt both entwined and ephemeral.

CCP: This leads me to something else I’ve been thinking about lately. As a teacher I now bear the responsibility of giving new writers direction. Uncannily, I remember things that my earliest mentors said, and I wonder about new writers developing a sense of themselves. How would you say you began sharpening the tone that would become Lost Wax. What were some pivotal moments for you?

JP: It is a gift to have the voices of several mentors in my head. I believe the generosity and guidance of other writers can have a remarkable impact on new writers developing a sense of self and voice. In addition to a handful of brilliant and saintly teachers, I would cite my reading life as having the most direct influence on my writing, particularly the essays that compose Lost Wax. There were certainly definitive moments, during my time in an MFA program, for example, or while traveling, when my devouring of essay collections reached a height, but equal was (as it has always been) my passion for poetry. Somewhere between the two forms, I found my way to the final versions of these essays. What I love about poetry, like good essay collections, is the way that even in book form, each essay and poem retains its own properties while contributing to a sense of cohesion and collectivism.

My earliest interest in writing came in the all-too-familiar form of writing bad poetry in high school, and by the time I was in college I had an impassioned, though largely unfocused, interest in journalism. The turn for me was after college, when I was reading the work of essayists—particularly female essayists—who allowed themselves to enter into their own writing, and whom, as Joan Didion has suggested, wrote not to explain or tell but to understand. And these writers were doing so not in the realm of traditional journalism or in the traditional sense of memoir, but through the essay. Kate Zambreno has written about the act of taking the self out of the essay as a form of repression, “like obeying a gag order” which, looking back, felt true to me at the time. The pretext of objectivity in journalistic writing felt stifling. At the same time, I was working at a museum. Surrounded once again by art of all kinds, I eventually began to explore my own ideas, memories and associations afforded to me through sustained observations on art and object. Although we don’t need to defend this in the same way it once needed to be defended, it feels worth iterating: self-expression is a legitimate form of art, one best conveyed with a balance that takes into account the context of the larger world. In that way, the essay has become something of a lifeline for me, in much the same way art has always been. Just as paintings were once referred to as mirrors, I see the essay as a similar vehicle that can teach us about perspective, grace, humility, voice and observation—about our collective human condition and how to be active participants, thinkers, idea-lovers, and meaning-makers in the world.

CCP: I want to go back to genre for a second if that’s all right. I’m wondering where you see the essay genre or the nonfiction canon moving? What shape is it in, and where would you say it’s headed?

JP: The essay genre is in good shape! Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or simply a blind believer, but I feel that creative nonfiction, specifically the essay in its shape-shifting forms, is well-positioned to affect change. I believe in the essay for many reasons and I hope to see more and more diverse voices taking up this genre because in form and function it mirrors our feeling and thinking insides, gives dignity to uncertainty, subverts and questions. It is an inclusive form and carries vast potential to contribute to the good in the world. That sounds lofty, I realize. Pretentious, even. But once again so much comes down to the origins of language: to essay is simply to attempt, to forge meaning, understanding, a connection with others. We may not always succeed, but you bet we’ll try and try and try again.

We often emphasize questions of literary craft when we discuss the essay as a genre but I hope to see us embrace the essay’s activist roots as well. From Montaigne and Woolf to Orwell and McCarthy, Baldwin and Didion, the essay’s lineage has often embraced speaking out, thinking “on” and “of” and “against” stagnant notions of collective identity or the nuances of humanity. In an ever-changing cultural landscape, I’m interested in the ways in which writers can push in, pull out, and re-draw the boundaries of literary form to serve our nuanced experiences and how hybrid forms (those blended lines) allow writers to navigate and/or negate the boundaries of identity, history, place, and memory.

CCP: Last, what’s your process like? What’s a good writing day for you?

JP: Ah, the question of process. Process is a constant struggle for me. (But I’m working on it!) My writing process is amorphous and erratic, bingy and indulgent. It creeps up and sidles, pokes and barges in, and sometimes squats ominously in the corner. I have no illusion about the reality of endurance and fortitude that is required of a writer to write—to write well, that is. So I see process as less dependent on ability or knack for words than a willingness to do the work, just like anything else. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, James Baldwin wrote “…beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” I have always admired his phrasing: in large part practical, with a just hint of romance.

A good writing day starts with writing and ends with something else. This is to say, I’m much more inclined, when given the chance, to write in the morning when there is less distraction filtering in and out of my head. I am not one to pull an all-nighter at my writing desk, it is far too tempting to go to bed early with a book or a movie instead, and I’m a stickler for natural light. Beyond those rough parameters, I write when I can. I am a messy drafter, restless in the early stages of an idea, but I slow down and become deliberate when revising, which, for me, is the true joy of writing—a process I sometimes wish would never have to end, and often think it never truly does.

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Jericho Parms' writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her work has been noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. She is both a graduate and the Assistant Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches in the writing at Champlain College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and elsewhere.