Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thomas Mira y Lopez on Nicole Walker, Fish, and the Art of the Baloney Sandwich

Nicole Walker is, among other things, a better cook than I. In “Fish”, the essay that opens the just-out Quench Your Thirst With Salt, Walker tells us how to prepare dinner:

“Cooking filets of fish is not complicated. Salt and pepper the fish. Press the water out of the skin with a knife. Slide it across at a twenty-degree angle. In the pan, in some oil, two minutes on the skin side, one minute on the flesh.
It’s the sauce that’s difficult.
First you need an herb rarely paired with food like rue or lavender or chamomile.
Sometimes green tea. Or demi-glace.
Then you need an emulsion. One stick of butter per dinner party. OK, maybe two.”

Already, Walker is head and heels beyond my capabilities—what clues me off is that she is aware of the angle she makes when she slides her knife across the fish. And this is even before she instructs us to “puddle the emulsion in the middle of the plate.” I am not a bad cook, per se, but I am a less sophisticated and discerning one. I cook for one and so my rules are simple—that I like what I eat and I eat what I like. Which means lately I’ve been downing a lot of baloney sandwiches.

“Fish” is a short essay, its tripartite structure uncoiling over just three pages. It is about the changes a landscape has forced upon a creature, or rather the changes in a landscape that have changed a creature. The changes that have not necessarily led to its progress, but progressed it to a different physical state. In the way the essay entraps you, in the way it draws you in and entangles you, in the way you thrash in its three-layered intricacy, the essay is as elegant and captivating as a trammel net.

In each section, Walker focuses on a different fish, so that the essay is composed of three different animals that unite to form a single creature. In the first section, a salmon jumps her way up the dammed Columbia river, “her silver skin turning apple-skin—ripening. Dying.” The salmon is on her way to create new life, to lay the “eggs lined up in her tubes”, and also to end her own. In the second section, another fish jumps out of the water, this a “big fish…off Florida’s coast” that the 11-year-old Walker reels in and which a “stubbly man” will club on the head and toss in a cooler. But “no one eats forty-eight inch barracuda” Walker informs us, and this leads to the third section, where we read of her cooking chops, where a third dead fish, a fish that is no longer a fish but filets of fish, is transformed back into a work of art, back into a thing of beauty, back into something that can contain life, back into something that has a liquid home, even if that home is emulsified sauce in the middle of a plate. Finding that home, progressing and yet returning a fish to that space, both in the world and the world of the essay, is quietly stunning. After all, “it’s the sauce,” Walker reminds us, “that’s difficult.”

I’ve been thinking about “Fish” and about the essay in general in the context of my baloney sandwiches. I have decided that Nicole Walker’s essay is like baloney. Like “Fish,” the baloney I eat (Bar S Bologna) is composed of three different animals, or former animals—chicken, pork, and beef—which combine to form a single creature—baloney. And so like “Fish,” Bar S’s structure is tripartite. This baloney, this trinity of mechanically separated chicken, pork, and beef is unlike other baloneys: most are just made with two types of meat. Of course, there are other active ingredients in Bar S: corn syrup, salt, modified cornstarch, potassium lactate, sodium diacetate, flavorings, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. I like to think of these as the sauce.

Like cooking filets of fish, making a good baloney sandwich is not too complicated. I take a slab of Bar S (they are thick-cut slices) and slap it down in a frying pan. While I’m browning that (no need to add any butter or oil to a circle of meat that already contains 25% of my daily saturated fat and 20% of my cholesterol intake), I toast two slices of 9-grain, spread some mayonnaise on these, squirt a little sriracha, and layer a bed of Amish bread-and-butter pickles on the toast. When the baloney’s grizzled enough, I close the sandwich up and slice down the middle (I recognize that slicing from the ends to form triangles is more elegant, but this, after all, is not an elegant sandwich). The sandwich is actually pretty good, if I ignore the fact my skin breaks out a day or two afterwards.

A funny thing happens, however, when I fry the slab of Bar S. When my spatula presses down on the baloney, the meat whistles, or it approximates whistling, something between a hiss and a squeak, a hybrid sound as if all three animals are expressing their anguish. Or are just expressing. In this moment, I wonder how the parts of these animals cohabitate, how they get along, whether they get along, which particle of the circle of meat belongs to which animal. The meat is so finely ground there is no way of telling, and probably I wouldn’t want to tell. But maybe the animals themselves want to tell, maybe they want their voices to seep out, maybe the stove’s fire is consuming their oxygen and this is their last desperate cry. Maybe all they want is what Walker’s essay would give them, what essays in general should and do give us: a voice for those that lack a voice.

In moments like these, I start to think that baloney is very much like the essay. It is hybrid, it is appropriation. It is a chimera and we its Bellerophon. Baloney is not what it looks like. It is a lie or a misdirection—its shape, color, form, and texture all belie what it actually is. Baloney is bullshit. Literally. It is penis and testicles, intestines, innards, horse meat probably. It is the offal, the scraps, the worse than giblets. The burnt oil-soaked chars left on the grill, the bits I eat when no one is looking, the bits I like to dribble on my burger. Baloney is odds and ends. Odds and ends signify matter of little importance, signify nonsense and foolishness, and so we say the word baloney when we think someone’s pulling our leg. Baloney is dual. It is camouflaged, in disguise. Baloney is really bologna, except bologna does not look or sound like baloney. Baloney is bologna because it is a large seasoned sausage that has been cooked and smoked, and Bologna, Italy is the birthplace of mortadella, another large seasoned sausage that has been cooked and smoked. Baloney is a variant of mortadella, a simulacrum, an inferior representation because it is ground finer and lacks the cubed and visible pieces of fat that make mortadella what it is. But baloney is also innovator. It shapeshifts, it evades categorization. It is an immigrant and a borrower and a traveler. It lifts materials from other sources, other processes, other systems, and makes them its own. Baloney reinvents the scraps of others. Baloney is a finer grind. It disassembles itself but aims at an essence more saturated and less particulate. It aims at a shapelier and comelier state, one that is digestible but also dangerous if consumed in excess. It aims at the humblest of transubstantiations and alchemies. It aims at the truth.

Thomas Mira y Lopez is a first-year candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dead Possums and Unicorns: a Q&A with T Clutch Fleischmann

I first encountered a proof of T Clutch Fleischmann's book-length essay, Syzygy, Beauty, about a year ago. Right from the beginning I sensed a certain magnetism emanating from the text--  the book seemed to fall open on its own in front of me and I don't remember turning the pages. Instead I felt sucked into one of those Victorian dances in which one constantly changes partners-- the book left me awed, dizzy, and slightly breathless. I caught up with Fleischmann to discuss Syzygy, Beauty, essays and essaying, and geekiness.


ND: I have some questions I've been wondering about since reading Syzygy, Beauty, but I would actually like to start by asking what you've been most preoccupied with in terms of the essay and essaying since finishing your book.

TF: I was on a kick for quite a while where I was thinking about the political implications of essaying, particularly about the links between innovative/weird essays and anarchist and liberation politics. I'm still excited by that, but it lead me into a more academic and critical place than I had been in a while, so right now I'm geeking out about how amazing lyric and hybrid essays look when they put on critical drag (or maybe the other way around). For the EssayDaily advent calendar I talked about Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which is a great example of that, and a lot of my perennial favorite essayists (Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, &c) work in that mode. But now that I'm thinking directly about the joining of my critical academic mind with my personal lyric mind I'm seeing examples everywhere, like in the Feminaissance anthology from Les Figues press and in the latest issue of Animal Shelter, both of which are bustling with that type of work. People are so weird and brilliant, and the world is so weird and brilliant, so it makes me really excited when the essay, in its big and basic project of thinking about the world and our experiences in it, really plays up that weird brilliance.

I've also been lucky to have some conversations lately with friends about what a transgender poetics looks like, or might look like, or might become, all of which was informed by similar conversations happening online and in some journals. So that's lead me to wonder about a trans essay and how some experiences common to a lot of trans people (shifting identities and bodies, living in a world that doubts or disbelieves your self, &c) might productively affect how we essay. I don't really have any clear thoughts there, but it's where my head has been at, and maybe some trans person who really likes to think about essays will read this and email me.

ND: I think "brilliant and weird" essays captivate me the most because of their power to enlighten the world by eschewing conventional habits of thought. Trans-poetics seem particularly situated to do this because of how much we depend on conventional gendered language to inform our reading experience. When writing do you find that situation to be a burden or a blessing?

TF: I’m skeptical of any take on life that doesn’t come across as weird and brilliant, regardless of from whom it comes. I think you’re right that unconventional thought is particularly exciting not necessarily because it’s unconventional, but because in its departure from convention it often enlightens an otherwise overlooked aspect of the world. It falls back on the tired conversation of truth in the essay, where some essayists really want the genre to uphold some idea of singular Truth. But that’s just not how the world works, that type of Truth doesn’t exist. Instead, the world is fucked up and weird, and everything changes all the time, and who I was last year is not who I am today. The tiniest little molecules that we can find all appear to be time-traveling and teleporting; children are forming multiple, distinct, yet somehow interrelated identities across the physical world and world of social technology; and most of us gleefully live as though we are not complicit in massive wars and environmental collapse. The world’s batshit, and the essay’s real brilliance and beauty lie in trying still to honestly understand it while knowing that nothing makes sense. To get back to the question, I do think my own experiences as a queer/trans person have helped me to understand the essay this way. As my own identity has shifted, I’ve had to grapple with the incompatibility of my “truth” alongside cultural “truths,” and all that has lead me to a place where I’m more comfortable with unanswered questions and lingering tensions. But I don’t think that’s unique to a trans perspective— all of my favorite essayists seem to operate out of a similar understanding, it’s just the road I took to get here.

ND: So, I want to go back to Syzygy, Beauty for a bit. The essay describes a highly intimate situation, but at the same time uses research exterior to that intimacy. How did research figure in this book?

TF: I do what I think a lot of people tend to do, which is process my life and my ideas through indirect associations. This is one of the main things that draws me to visual art again and again. In Syzygy, Beauty, for instance, I could never point to an obvious connection between Tracey Emin and the relationship buried in the essay. But I was drawn emotionally to Tracey Emin's work, and spending time with that work left me thinking about my own relationships, which in turn led me to reading more criticism about her, more interviews with her, looking at more work, &c. Eventually, the essay became a tool for me to try to pull that all back together, seeing what the outer edges of the research might have to say about my relationship after all. That is typically the kind of research that attracts me. I don't set out to solve a problem or to find an answer, but instead let my mind wander freely, enjoying the curiosity and feeling comfortable with the fact that most of what I encounter won't find its way into the writing.

ND: Your last answer made me think a lot about the balance in an essay between following a logical thought progression and allowing the mind to wander/wonder associatively. How do you work with this balance in your own writing?

TF: My mind tends to default into associate logic and wandering. I don’t think that’s something particularly unique to my experience, although I will admit that I’m totally inept at understanding narratives or linear logic, so I probably try to make use of the wandering more than some writers (I tried to read narrative-heavy Game of Thrones a couple of months ago and spent the whole time like, what the hell is happening!). Other forms of literary arts have a much more comfortable relationship with aporia than the essay tends to (again, it’s that worn out conversation around ethics and truth that seems to muck it up). As far as the actual act of writing goes, though, I rarely have those questions in the front of my mind. From what I remember, my most productive or exciting work started to come about when I left those worries behind, which for me went hand-in-hand with leaving the workshop environment. Plenty of writers, of course, can do whatever work they want while in a workshop and benefit greatly from the feedback, and I gained a lot by going through the experience. But I need to entirely divorce myself from an imagined critical audience—an audience who might ask for clarity, or who might probe my associative links in a way that stresses me out—in order to create the work. I’m just too anxious, and then there’s probably someone I’m trying to sleep with in the workshop or something, and then I get so tangled up in imagining how other people are going to read whatever I write that I end up writing something I don’t even believe in. In contrast, it’s when I write freely, letting images and theory and narrative accumulate how they will, that I actually like what I come up with. Of course, once I’ve made an essay, then I have to let those real and imagined critical voices back into head and allow them to ask their questions, like, what the hell does that mean? or, why are you suddenly talking about a dead possum here? And I’m sure I have no idea why I thought I needed to talk about a dead possum, but I can at least figure out some of what it does—associatively, linearly, logically, whatever—and from there figure out what place it might hold in the essay.

ND: I have one last question: What is the geekiest topic you have ever essayed or wanted to essay about?

TF: When I was in school I became really convinced that the movie Xanadu was an extended metaphor on the role bars have played historically in creating and limiting queer subcultures. I ended up watching it on Hulu over and over for months and trying to write the essay (I called it “Xana-don’t” because I’m brilliant) I don’t know how many times. I tried it as a bunch of weird lyric aphorisms, I tried it as a straightforward piece of queer criticism, I tried it as a hybrid with photos of myself spliced in—I probably spent more time on it than I have on any other single essay. Eventually, a few good friends helped me realize that I was just an obsessed person rambling for thirty or forty pages at a time about a kind of crappy movie and that, even if I was onto something, I was in it too deep to actually write anything coherent. I also wrote a lot about unicorns for a while.


T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM. They live in rural Tennessee and can be reached at

You can purchase a copy of Syzygy, Beauty here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Joni Tevis on the long lyric essay

A Paperback Cabinet of Wonder: Unlocking the Long Lyric Essay

I’m thinking today about the challenges of the long lyric essay, which I’m defining as anything from about forty pages to book-length. For me, a lyric essay works like a poem can, with pressurized language and associative leaps, and although it may contain narrative, story is not the main engine pulling the reader through the material. And like a poem, the lyric essay can take a turn at the end—sometimes a sharp, surprising turn.

Let’s face it: no matter its length, the lyric essay presents challenges to the reader as well as to the writer. Narrative is a powerful tool to discard. And the language in a lyric essay can be dense, concerned with sound as well as with meaning. The pleasures of the lyric essay—the unhurried delight it takes in surprise and thought—can turn too easily into its downfall. Syntax can tangle; lines of thought turn self-indulgent. This is prose of the kind that Robert Coover called “disruptive, eccentric, even inaccessible,” but I believe that despite its challenges, the long lyric essay can provide a space for the reader and the writer to delight in each other.

In thinking about this question, I’ve been reading critic Tom Le Clair’s book, The Art of Excess, in which he discusses prose that makes a “quantitative deformation of conventions,” something I believe the lyric essayist sets out to do, consciously or not. Even more important for the terms of my argument, Le Clair cites key points from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes defines the “text of pleasure” as “the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.” But the text of pleasure differs from the “text of bliss,” which “imposes a state of loss… discomforts (perhaps to the state of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, (and) brings to a crisis his relation with language.” How can “bliss” coexist with “a state of loss,” “discomfort,” and “boredom”? How can “bliss” “bring to a crisis (one’s) relation to language”? Barthes says we want to be shaken, challenged, when we read. If that’s right, then the long lyric essay must strive to be a “text of bliss.”

In order for this “text of bliss” to succeed, I believe that the long lyric essay demands a strong narratorial presence to draw the reader’s attention to, and make meaning from, what would seem like bare facts. More: the lyric essay’s images must startle, its juxtapositions surprise—while feeling inevitable.

Briefly, three models for the kind of long-lyric exploration I want to do in my own work. Two are nonfiction and one is poetry. Each example, longer than the last, depends on something other than narrative to bind it together, and each one reaches some kind of resolution.

My first example—Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album”—clocks in at about 12,500 words. It depends on shape, but even more, on an intensely hermetic sense of time—the late 1960s. The air is close, the entrances sealed shut. In fifteen sections, the narrator leads us through the Manson murders, campus riots, and music culture. When the end comes, there’s no easy conclusion, but there is a sense of resolution, with callbacks to previous images.

What holds the piece together? The narrative arc of the Manson case is part of it; the narrator’s grip on herself is part of it. The persona of the narrator herself is part of it, but that’s too easy. The narrator resists the notion that any simple answer could come of all this: as the last line says, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” The essay might resist easy meaning, but it still satisfies. Why? Of course, Didion’s sentences are lovely, and I find her steely narrator very sympathetic. But there is something more at work here. Could it be the physicality of her details—a lit match and Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants; the smell of jasmine and a crumbling tennis court—juxtaposed with the unanswerable questions of her time, a time that more and more, with its violence and dread, reminds me of ours? When the narrator first hears of the Manson killings, she says, “I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

Didion’s essay demonstrates one of what I believe to be the lyric essay’s natural strengths: while clearly art, it feels more realistic than a strictly-plotted narrative would. And with that strength, a question follows: Is this a peculiarly postmodern form, fixated on fragments? Not for me. I appreciate its affinity for fragments, because oftentimes, that’s what we find—shards of pottery or a few words of chalked graffiti. But I want the reader to have an intellectual and emotional payoff at the end. If not a conclusion, then a resolution, and Didion’s essay provides that.

My second example is Anne Carson’s “Very Narrow—Just for the Thrill,” which clocks in at about 15,000 words. Here, two shapes corset the material. The first shape, told via travel diary, is that of a cross-country drive and camping trip the narrator takes with her soon-to-be former lover, a scholar of Chinese wisdom. The second shape is a list of places, with names such as Cross-Fire Zone, Ten-Heart Hermitage, and Flesh and Blood Bridge, mentioned on an historical map made by a royal courtesan in 1553. There are 67 items on the map list; there are 67 sections in the travel diary. Matching each item from the map with its corresponding entry in the travel diary provides sparks of meaning. Like a terrific last line in a poetry collection, the map slingshots you back into the beginning, so that you reread the piece with that new revelation in mind.

As an example, I’d like to read section 58 in the travel diary. By this point, the relationship is deteriorating between the narrator and her lover; they are also passing through Las Vegas, which surely isn’t helping.

Las Vegas, Nevada
On the radio someone is interviewing Ray Charles. When I do a song I like to make it stink in my own way, Ray Charles is saying. With eyes closed I can smell the fickle Tao of Las Vegas heating up in layers. We seem to be driving through the center of town, to judge from the frequency of stops. Traffic intersections smell like underfur of dogs. Raw liver as the humans wash past hot, cold, hot. Neon smells like shock treatment and makes that same ice-pick nick on your mind. I remember on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, I overheard my aunts talking to Father about young girls and the dangerous age. “But she isn’t going to be one of them,” I heard Father say firmly. I was filled with pride, which smells like rubies. I got seven nights to rock, Ray Charles is singing, got seven nights to roll. His voice smells like wooden rain. Who will I be instead? is a question I never got around to asking Father. Every night goin show my face with a different chick in a different place. Well I suppose I can be anyone I like or rather, with eyes closed, nobody at all. A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream, says classical Chinese wisdom, but a dream not dreamt is.

The corresponding map item from courtesan Lady Cheng’s list reads “Bridge of Just Tears,” which is preceded by number 57, “Straight Road,” and followed by 59, “Stations of Refreshment for Travelers on the Straight Road.” I’m struck by the ways in which the polyvocality within the essay—as here, with the Ray Charles quotes, lines from blues singers are spread through the piece—is underscored by the map list at the essay’s end, a kind of phantom doubling or recasting of the events that take place within the essay’s 67 sections.

Carson’s essay demonstrates a second natural strength of the lyric essay: it allows the writer a space in which to make meaning out of events and sensations and thoughts it would be easy to overlook. This, too, matters, says non-narrative nonfiction, which creates meaning through accretion. I think of the marine worms who live in the shallow waters off the Gulf Coast, collecting bits of broken shell and seaweed and cast off crab claws and barnacle flakes; with these, they knit long socks in which they encase their soft bodies. Every piece is a necessary part of the disguise and the armor; the chips are no good on their own, but only as assembled.

My last example is A.R. Ammons’s book-length poem, Garbage. Part of what ties this book together is the act of writing itself, as in lines where the narrator calls our attention to the process:
…how to write this
poem, should it be short, a small popping of

duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home
late, losing the trail and recovering it.
The narrative voice is pleasingly unsure of itself, and this self-questioning feels right for the non-narrative, non-mastering modus operandi of this piece. But more than that, the narrator himself ties the poem together. He’s clearly present from the beginning, with his musings on soybeans, departmental meetings, and trips to the farmer’s market.

And here I see a third natural strength of the long lyric: the particular pleasure it takes in rigorous language. Each word and its placement count. It comes to its conclusion in its own good time, and its realizations bubble along, almost subterranean, until they break upon the reader, who seems to get it at the same time the narrator does.

An odd thing happens when I read the poem’s last lines, with their gesture toward the superlative:
the gentlest, the most
refined language, so little engaged it is hardly

engaging, deserves to tell the deepest wishes,
roundabout fears: loud boys, the declaimers,

the deaf listen to them: to the whisperers,
even the silent, their moody abundance: the

poem that goes dumb holds tears. (121)

The gentlest, the most refined—I’m struck, here, by our longing to define the outer limits of something, an urge that comes on us early in life and sticks with us.

As evidence of this, let me present the book fair of my memory, Concrete Elementary School, in Anderson County, South Carolina. We lined up with dollar bills our mothers had paper-clipped to the order forms, to buy the Guinness Book of World Records. Even though it was chunky as a dictionary, you could read the Guinness Book straight through. At lunchtime, we read it aloud, savoring the things people thought up to do, and the fame their odd success brought them.

Even now, staring at the Guinness home page, I’m hooked. Here’s a man towing an airplane; here’s the world’s largest collection of sick bags. Here’s the statistic for the fastest mile covered on spring loaded stilts. Says Ammons: “…anything,/ anything, anything is poetry”; okay, here’s the most toilet seats broken by the head in one minute—46, he was from Indianapolis.

We want to push the limits. Here’s proof, a long list poem doubling as the book most stolen from bookstores (unless that’s the Bible.) It’s a book of wonders, a paperback cabinet of curiosity. Writes Ammons,
we’re trash, plenty wondrous: should I want
to say in what wonder consists: it is a tiny

wriggle of light in the mind that says, ‘go on’:
that’s what it says: that’s all it says.
Reading Guinness, alongside Ammons, I’m attracted again to the prose Coover calls “disruptive, eccentric, even inaccessible.” Disruptive, yes. Eccentric, yes. But these two qualities need not lead to inaccessibility. Isn’t that life; isn’t it the text of bliss? What challenges the reader, upends her expectations, forces her to recast her assumptions in a new frame.

Walk with me through the art of excess. Past the house in the desert made of old green bottles, chinked with mud and glowing in the sun. Past the fabulous show costumes Liberace wore, glittering and glistering with several oceans’ worth of factory-made shine. Right on up to the big sphere that lives in its own glassed-in house, audacious and disruptive and strange: The Biggest Ball of Twine Made By One Man, of Darwin, Minnesota.

The Biggest Ball, they say, weighs nine tons, is forty feet around, and took twenty-nine years to make. I have seen it, and I can tell you this: it’s tall as corn in August of a good year. It pulls dust to itself, smells like mice, and started with a yard or so of leftover baling twine. He twisted it around two fingers and tied it into a knot to save. By and by, the saving of it became more important than anything else.

This, too, is a text, a memorial. I think of Barthes again: to examine it brings “discomfort,” “(perhaps to the state of a certain boredom).” It “unsettles….the consistency of (the reader’s) tastes, values, (and) memories.” It “brings to a crisis (one’s) relation with language.” I stood before it, and knew not what to say. Says Ammons, “we mean to go on and go on till we unwind/ the winding of our longest road.” No matter how closely you look, you can’t find the place where he stopped. The end is like the beginning, and there’s a long, long line between.


Joni Tevis is the author of a book of lyric essays, The Wet Collection, just out in paperback from Milkweed Editions.  She is finishing a new book of nonfiction about ghost towns and atomic dread, and she teaches creative writing at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Masked Men: On David Shoemaker's Dead Wrestler of the Week

A confession: I love professional wrestling. As with most people, I became entranced by it at a young age: I would go over to a friend’s after school & we would smash plastic figurines together—head-butts & chest-smashes with the occasional scraped knuckle from where fingers would get caught in between molded tights and overdramatic abdominal muscles.

Another confession: I still love professional wrestling. Whereas most children’s love faded away at certain moments (the diaspora to Ted Turner’s WCW & subsequent demise, the shift from the TV-14 Attitude Era to the kid-friendly no-blood current WWE iteration), I remained loyal to Vincent K. McMahon’s pectoral carnival & Americanized, bastardized Greek theatre experiment. I get legitimately excited at the possibility of potential storylines involving my favorite “Superstars” (WWE avoids using the term “wrestler” to describe their athletes) & often find myself shelling out upwards of fifty dollars every few months for pay-per-view events.

When I explain my love of wrestling, many scoff. Rightfully so; it is a childish concept—this pretending to beat each other up, this heightened masculine melodrama. At times I feel guilty for liking such a ridiculous thing: the WWE’s track record in terms of political correctness is dicey at best—there is racial typecasting, misogyny, a healthy dose of homophobia, & the occasional poop joke thrown in there for a guaranteed laugh from the pre-teen audience. I can deal with these missteps solely because I can treat it as fiction; the WWE has over fifty characters on their roster, each with their own different backstories & nuances. At times, due to sheer number, it reads like The Iliad, only slightly more daring. What I cannot get around is the reality of it all: the fact the heroes & villains of my youth are dying at a rapid clip—of heart disease, of brain disease, of liver failure, all caused by years of self-medicating & self-“improving” in order to sustain a career at the highest level of sports-entertainment.

David Shoemaker, a writer for both Deadspin as well as Grantland, has taken it upon himself to write essayistic elegies to these fallen wrestlers in a series titled “Dead Wrestler of the Week”—the title of the series a nod to the fact that for a while, it seemed as if a new wrestler was dropping dead every week. (2002-2004, in particular, we lost Mr. Perfect, The British Bulldog, one of the Road Warriors, & the Big Bossman.) What is beautiful about these essays is that they straddle the line between the real and the sublime: the lifetimes without pyrotechnics or guard rails are often up against the arcs of the characters that these men & women portray. Take, for example, the story of Owen Hart, who died during a pay-per-view event in Kansas City in 1999 when Owen, playing the character of the Blue Blazer, fell from the rafters after his harness malfunctioned while attempting to “fly” down to the ring.

Perhaps more so than any other star of his vintage other than Mick Foley, Owen's relationship with "real life" — Owen's relationship with "Owen" — was written in such a way as to call into question the very nature of wrestling reality. His relationship with his brother was inflated into an epic conflict. His accidental injury of Austin was turned into a later storyline in which Owen supposedly made the same error in "maiming" Dan Severn. And then there was the Blue Blazer angle: They took an act that he had worked years before and turned it on its head, shoehorning in his qualms with the wrestling industry at large. (It should be said that the parody was aiming to encompass more than just the WWE — the very act that led to Owen's death was partly a reference to Sting, a star for the competing WCW, who entered the ring from the rafters in similar fashion.) That his death would initially be misinterpreted as a scripted pratfall — that it would undermine the very legitimacy of wrestling reality — is a devastating metaphor for his career as a whole.

But, of course, it wasn't fake. According to CNN, "Hart was given CPR inside the ring as the ring announcer haltingly told the audience that the incident was not scripted, as professional wrestling matches openly are." The fans watching at home got the bad news from Jim Ross, who, as the lead announcer of the show, was charged with narrating the tragic event in real time during the pay-per-view telecast: "This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight. This is as real as real can be here."

Shoemaker, in this piece & in others in the series, deftly points out the paradox of professional wrestling; the illusion is to make what is fake seem real. When reality gets too mixed up with the “entertainment,” we achieve something not unlike the uncanny valley effect: the replica comes too close to reality and we grow repulsed towards it. Or, in the case of professional wrestling, it just makes us sad; take, for example, the countless examples of wrestlers, well past their prime, attempting to make a comeback for a few quick dollars (you didn’t think Aronofsky came up with this out of thin air, did you?) & showing up bombed out of their mind & collapsing in the middle of the ring.

This is important work here: World Wrestling Entertainment is spectacular at controlling the spin—make no mistake that what you see is what you are supposed to see. However, when things leak outside of the wrestling universe, it is a bit harder to control: consider the ESPN Documentary on Scott Hall’s substance abuse, or the national media coverage of Chris Benoit’s murder-suicide. While Shoemaker’s pieces document the dark (read: real) side of professional wrestling, they also show the humanity behind it all—to me it is reassuring to know that despite Owen Hart’s brat-brother persona, he was well-loved backstage and a good guy “in real life.” It is a nice reminder that these stories about these characters continue on after the fictions end: the men behind the masks or facepaint or long-hair (grown to accentuate moves for visual effect) are the essays themselves, attempts to find meaning and heart in something beyond the confines of a squared-circle.

As for Shoemaker’s public elegies of “mystery men”, perhaps there is something to be learned; something to be saved. Recently, former WCW & WWE wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, has started “DDPYoga,” a home fitness system. Among his clients are his old friends, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, as well as Scott Hall. Both have had their share of health problems & drug abuse & are looking to get clean. Page has documented these journeys on his YouTube channel & they are often strange, beautiful, & moving—Roberts especially is taken aback by the fact that people still care about him & are rooting for him even after his tenure with World Wrestling Federation (The Snake reciting “Footprints in the Sand” after finding out thousands of dollars have been donated to help him get shoulder surgery is easily the most surreal thing I’ve seen this week).

There's a beautiful moment after finding out that over $7000 were raised overnight for his surgery where Roberts says "All those years, I guess they did mean something." Wrestling, of course, can be perceived as meaningless: it is pop pulp entertainment, plain & simple. At its best, it is the theatre of the absurd. Shoemaker acknowledges this, but at the same time finds something tangible & sublime here: that to have tragedy there must be something defined despite the falsehoods & pageantry--that someone is listening after the last table is in splinters.

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His collection of Tuscaloosa Missed Connections, 'So You Know It's Me,' was released by Tiny Hardcore Press. His series of lyric essays on video game boss battles, 'Level End,' was released by Origami Zoo Press. He is working on a series of essays about professional wrestlers. Mark Henry is his spirit animal.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Kati Standefer on the Mysterious Leslie Ryan and the Structure of a Trauma Narrative

You have not heard of Leslie Ryan. Because you have not heard of her, I would like to hand you a book of her razor-sharp prose: maybe a prickly memoir, maybe a collection of essays reeking of creosote and mud.

But you have not heard of her for a reason. It is this: as far as I can tell, there is only one published essay by Leslie Ryan. So you must lean very close. Listen very carefully. The essay is called “The Other Side of Fire.” To find it, dig up an anthology published in 2001—Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, edited by Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes—or perhaps get a photocopy from a friend who read it once years ago, in college. It is the kind of essay people remember from college, but it will mean something else now. After all, the body changes—and so, too, how we draw our power. This essay is about both.

So many essays have been written about terrible things: rape, abuse, teeth-grinding poverty, drugs, abandoned children. These stories climb up the spine, demanding telling; and yet there comes a point when we, as readers, reach saturation. It is possible to become so deadened by a story that one cannot climb back out of the darkness. Here lives Ryan’s brilliance: without flinching, she both tells us these stories, and spares us. “The Other Side of Fire” includes every one of the experiences listed above, and yet it is structured to offer a ladder back out.

Here is how the essay does not begin: “When I was twelve, my younger brothers and I were abandoned for over a year in an apartment on the southside of Richmond, Virginia.”

If the essay were to begin there, we might, as readers, believe that this is the point: that this thing happened. “The Other Side of Fire,” though, is not about the fact of the happening. It is about something bigger—where our power comes from. So Ryan starts big. In her opening, she writes, “For most women the body, like the story, is not a simple thing. It’s a battlefield where lies and truths about power go at it.” It’s such an authoritative opening that we know she will have to back it up—and that’s her next move, transitioning us into story.

She takes us into the south Idaho desert, where she once worked as a wilderness therapy guide for troubled youth. “The idea was that direct contact with the natural world could help students gain a more healthy sense of identity and empowerment,” she writes. She describes the tattooed teenagers, “[wearing] the tales of their crimes like dog-tags,” even though “beneath it they seemed to writhe like grubs set down in unfamiliar terrain.”

It isn’t until page three, then—when we’re already thinking about the teens’ power and survival—that Ryan descends us into her own experience: “When I was twelve, my younger brothers and I were abandoned for over a year in an apartment on the southside of Richmond, Virginia.” By now, the framing lets us know we are dipping into Ryan’s own experiences for a specific reason. Though the story is told in such tight, exquisite prose that we might want to stay there, we do not. We learn how Ryan used her body to survive—we see father’s Playboys beneath the mattress, Ryan examining her curves in the bathroom mirror and whispering You have one thing, the drug dealer beating her—and we get out. We go back to the desert. We see Ryan’s own process reflected in the experience of one of her students, Dawn.

Each one of these stories says something additive about power and the body, until suddenly—after all this framing—the essay becomes an orchestra, its different levels and themes sputtering with sound and meaning, the prose sharpening under cold and basalt: “Dawn wasn’t moving; she was fenced into one of those partial truths that quickly become lies. The pornographic therapist told her to separate her mind and body and peddle the body part; her role as a victim told her that power lay as much in being scarred as in scarring. Both lies make battlefields of women’s bodies: they require that we keep hurting our bodies somehow, because our power and our identities depend on it. But these lies are based on an incomplete assumption: that strength lies only in our having power over ourselves or others.”

Thus, the structure of the essay builds one of its primary points: while victimhood is a kind of power, it is one to be moved through. It is not the end point. The apartment in Richmond is important, but not more important than the desert, where Ryan discovered that “a mind that wanders far from the body can land a person in strange territories, far from water or cover. If I stopped listening to my body and to my lived experience at any time, I might become lost. I found myself realizing that power does come from my body, after all, but in a very different way.”

Whenever I finish reading “The Other Side of Fire,” I find myself lit with an understanding about trauma: A thing never happens once. A thing happens all the time, is still happening right this instant—to us or to other people. And the thing turns into other things, transmutes, burns up, reappears. Ryan’s life is her students’ lives, and in ways it is my life too, all of us complicit, and the structure of an essay can take this into account, widening its considerations through framing and pacing. As a writer, the essay challenges me not to allow the trauma narrative its weak single arc, but to hitch it up to something bigger—to move through it. To go into the darkness, yes, but to build a staircase back out as well.

Now that you have heard of Leslie Ryan, you should read her: the one essay, ropey with calluses, lacy garter belts, pale spiderwebs of scars, bright serviceberries and sage. See what your body says about it. And if you find her, tell her I want a book.


Kati Standefer is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she writes about the body, consent, and medical technology. She has a yard full of gravel and Gambel's quail. She prefers cowboy boots.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Movies Are Not Hot Dogs, Essays Are Not Frogs: An Iteration (of Sorts): A Review, and a Q&A With Author/Editor B.J. Hollars

1.     Brief Q&A With Self

The new B.J. Hollars anthology is finally out. Blurring the Boundaries it’s called. Subtitle: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction

Why is there always a subtitle? Why don’t titles just give us enough to know what the book is about? Novels never seem to have this problem. 

Because like the genre itself, the titling is a blend of art and information. The title is the art; the subtitle is the information. It’s a conceit that mimics the genre. You’re so dense sometimes.

2.     Good Things Come From Pudding:

Hollars: “While I was in graduate school, Dinty W. Moore swung by my university to teach a three-day class on the nonfiction short-short. Prior to his visit, I’d never really tried my hand at nonfiction writing, but when the three days were up, I was captivated by the genre.

“One afternoon during his visit, Dinty and I were plowing through some barbecue at a local rib shack, and somewhere between the sweet tea and the banana pudding it occurred to me that while I suddenly wanted to study every essay that stretches beyond the normal limits of nonfiction, I didn’t know where to begin. Sure, I knew a few names—D’Agata, Shields, Monson, Biss, and my mentor Michael Martone—but I didn’t know where I could find these kinds of genre-bending essays in a single volume. So, with bbq sauce dripping from my face, I said, “Dinty, if I solicit you for an anthology would you contribute a piece?” He said Sure. I said Great. Then, to celebrate, we ordered some more banana pudding.

“All in all it was a 2-3 year project.”

3.     I suppose the question really is: Do we need another essay anthology? Another essay anthology touting lyric essays and “exploring” the slip from truth into personal truth into personal revelation into claptrap?

Sure. Why not? Trees are a renewable resource. Also, I’ve noticed you really like the word “claptrap.” I suspect your projecting your own insecurities.

Don’t change the subject. How many essay anthologies does one need to be happy?


How many essay anthologies do we own already?

Six, I think, so we’re almost there. But anyway, each anthology offers something different. For instance, this new one features some writers we weren’t familiar with before: Brian Oliu, Naomi Kimbell, Paul Maliszewski, Wendy Rawlings

Are we a better human being now, having been exposed to these writers?

I believe so, yes.

But how so exactly? Besides more names, and so more books piled onto the already teetering piles of books-we’ve-just-absolutely-got-to-read, really, what is this anthology doing for us? What is it adding to our life? Isn’t there enough “blurring the boundaries” claptrap out there already? Isn’t this conversation, you know, like so 2012?

4.     Pogs Too Were Pretty Cool For About A Year:

“Yeah, I’m not sure this ‘blurring the boundaries’ phenomenon (if in fact it is a phenomenon) is anything new. In fact, these boundary-pushing anthologies seem to be flooding the market. It’s like suddenly people can’t get enough of this wonderful weirdness. Maybe that’s proof that there is some traction to this sort of thing, that this is more than a flash in the pan. Then again, pogs were pretty cool for about a year… Let’s just hope genre-bending essays don’t go the way of pogs.

“I would never be so bold as to claim that I’m offering anything new. Writers have been blurring the boundaries, probably, for as long as we have had established boundaries to begin with. In Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” there’s a great line in which one of the characters remarks, ‘Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied?’ I’ve always loved that line, probably because I’m pretty convinced humans (or at least nonfiction writers) suffer from a similar inclination. Now, maybe we’re not lying entirely, but we’re certainly shaping a version of truth that’s most convenient for our work. I used to be the guy who slammed his fist on the table and promised, ‘Every word here is true!’ Now I’m the guy who shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I tried to make every word here true, but what about all the words that aren’t here?

“This is the long way of saying that my anthology should not be confused for a manifesto. I am not calling for the destruction of everything that has ever come before. Quite to the contrary, I think the essay form has an incredibly strong history. All I’m asking is for writers of nonfiction to envision new structures and styles and strategies that might allow for an innovative approach to storytelling. Sometimes I like to naively believe that the nonfiction writer’s struggle to home in on ‘true truth’ is just the result of our inability to approach it from the proper trajectory. As if maybe if we were given the perfect pitch, at the perfect velocity, and we swung the bat forward at the perfect angle, then maybe, we could knock truth out of the park.” 

5.    There’s a conspicuous absence of D’Agata in here. 

You mean foxy Fox Mulder’s kid brother?
             I think that joke’s getting old.

I don’t think it’s a joke.

Anyway, we should ask Hollars ‘bout that.

6.     Foxy Fox Mulder

“To be absolutely clear: I am not the trailblazer; I’m just the guy who didn’t want to walk the trail alone, so I solicited 20 writers to amble into the forest alongside me.

“I certainly solicited John D’Agata. He was probably the first person I asked (after my barbecue-fueled fever dream with Dinty). But I get the feeling he’s a busy guy, and when I never heard back from him, I figured he was overwhelmed with other projects. Also, since he’s already edited some incredible nonfiction anthologies himself, I figured my own might be viewed as a ‘competing’ book, though I’m likely flattering myself.

“It’s funny you refer to Lifespan of a Fact as ‘brouhaha.’ I get what you mean. Few nonfiction books test the limits of these boundaries so fearlessly. And as a result, whether we liked the book or hated it, we’re nevertheless talking about it. I think the conversations that come about as the result of books like Lifespan of a Fact and David Shields’s Reality Hunger do a lot of good for the genre just by existing.

“I’m currently at work on my own genre-bending book (I call it a ‘hybrid text’) in which I attempt to ‘faithfully’ report 100 stories about local drownings. But of the 100 dispatches included in the book, only 75 are actually reported faithfully. The other 25 are complete fabrications. I never differentiate between them though, and I’m curious how this uncertainty affects the reading experience. That is, if a nonfiction writer promises unreliability…what then?

“D’Agata does a great job bringing this point (and points like it) into clearer focus. My own humble efforts to continue these genre experiments are likely a reflection of my own continued grappling with all the questions I still don’t have answers for.”

7.     Anyway, these days, I’m not even really interested in the question of truth or Truth or to what degree we’re blurring the boundary between nonfiction and fiction. I’m more into exploring the boundary between nonfiction and poetry, which this anthology does sort of implicitly, in that a lot of the essays included are so-called lyric essays. These days, that seems like the more interesting boundary we're encroaching on.

Is no one else worried about essayists usurping poetry’s literary righteousness? The day an essayist wins an NEA grant in poetry, the world is going to end. 

A lot of essayists have won NEA grants in poetry, you poop. A lot of essayists are poets. Essays have a lot in common with poems. Maybe essays are poems?  

I think it’s more like that old saying, “All rectangles are parallelograms but not all parallelograms are rectangles.” 

Are you suggesting that all poems are essays but not all essays are poems? 

I think I’m suggesting all essayists are squares. 

Anyway, what does our man Hollars think about all of this? 

Who’s Hollars again? 

B.J. Hollars, you doof, the editor of the anthology we’re looking at. Remember too how much we enjoyed his book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America. It’s still on our mind, months later. It’s moving stuff, as in, you know, it really moved us. Maybe you should read it again? 

Say what? 


Hollars says what?

8.     Parallelograms May Or May Not Be Essays

“I think we in the nonfiction world often find ourselves blathering on about the blurring lines between nonfiction and fiction, but it’s easy to overlook the overlap between nonfiction and poetry, which is equally of interest to me. In fact, what some people call the nonfiction short-short others might deem a prose poem. Where’s the line?

“As I was soliciting writers for the anthology, I made a point of trying to include poets as well. For instance, while we know Beth Ann Fennelly mostly for her poetry, her essay “Salvos Into the World of Hummers” provides a pretty strong case for how one’s use of poetics can translate quite easily into the essay form. I’ve always been jealous of poets. I’m convinced their precision of language makes them the most versatile writers.”

9.     Any last first impressions?

This anthology isn’t marketing itself as tub reading.

For sure—this anthology is not a shoulder massage.

It ain’t no Tana French novel. 

Still, I would say I enjoyed it. Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome” is an old favorite. Ditto Steven Church’s work here. Wendy Rawling’s epic essay of General Hospital. Monica Berlin’s “The Eighteenth Week.” There’re lots of fine essays, essays fine in their own right. Life improving-type essays, if you know what I mean. 

That said, Saturday morning, don the robe, pour the coffee, slink towards the hammock—with Blurring the Boundaries

Probably not. Really, this book seems meant for the classroom. 

We spend the first month of our Intro to Creative Nonfiction class just trying to convince students that “essay” doesn’t mean “5-paragraph critical analysis.” It’s a trick to convince people that to write creative nonfiction really means you can DO ANYTHING.

Caveat: as long as it’s interesting enough.

For sure, yeah, true. And I imagine this particular anthology would help move that conversation forward a lot. Here, we get—

Kim Dana Kupperman assembling fragments; Biss & Maliszewski stacking facts and experiences into essays not unlike impressionistic paintings; Ander parsing via outline, as in essaying in outline, essaying outlines; we get Kimbell with footnotes and a page of references; Dinty W.’s essay is ostensibly “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Personal Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal”; Michael Martone gives us his text in a single right-aligned column that mirrors (or at last suggests a mirroring of) the paralysis that has left one side of his face unresponsive; Marcia Aldrich dissects a mother-daughter relationship via a series of definitions of “trouble” that break down in metaphorically rich ways. And there’re more traditionally-styled essays, too. 

This anthology makes obvious the many ways that form can accentuate content.

The ways form can add to content.

Form is content. 


You can say anything—that’s what we tell our students. You can write anything. And you can use nontraditional, unconventional forms. So try a new form, we tell them. Just try something different. And see what happens. Usually, the world cracks open a little bit.

These essays here lead by example. 

We already teach Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction don’t we? Is Blurring the Boundaries going to replace it on the syllabus?

Maybe eventually. I imagine we’ll put them both on the syllabus, at least for while. The Touchstone is farther reaching, but the tighter focus of Blurring is useful too. And every piece included in Blurring the Boundaries is also accompanied by a Behind-the-Scenes mini-essay. And there’s a stack of essay-specific writing exercises at the back of the book. It’s a useful practitioner’s anthology, for sure.

10.  Essays Are Not Frogs, Says B.J. Hollars in the Introduction, Possibly in Response To: “Why aren’t there any frogs in this book, yo?”

“The behind-the-scenes” mini-essays that accompany the essays themselves are actually something I implemented in my first anthology, You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story. After teaching enough creative writing classes I eventually came to realize that while the students and I did a lot of head scratching about authorial intent, we never really came to any solid conclusions. This was frustrating for the students, and pretty soon, their frustration wore off on me as well. I wanted to give them some solid terrain, and if that meant finding a way to bridge the void between author and reader, then that was a bridge I wanted to try to build.

“As you can probably guess, not all writers are too keen about revealing their magic tricks. I get that. And I agree that part of what makes a story or essay so great is the ability to see the end result without having to see the struggle that went into it. Still, sure, no one wants to watch how a hot dog is made, but plenty of people want to watch film commentary to better understand how a particular movie is made. Which leads me to this: Movies are not hot dogs.

“But back to the question. When I asked writers to offer a behind-the-scenes look at their work, they always agreed. They, too, I think, wanted to provide something more for young writers. And their insight has proved invaluable. It doesn’t stifle classroom discussion; it gives us terra firma.

“While I always expected the world of academia to find at least a little use in the book, I’ve been really excited to see that these essays seem to transcend the ivory tower. Ultimately, I think all readers want to feel something when they devour an essay, and thankfully, just because some readers don’t immediately recognize the form doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to try something new.

“My own fascination with boundary-blurring essays is related to this notion of ‘feeling.’ As someone whose writing often veers into the realm of sentimental melodrama, I’ve found that boundary-blurring essays often help me tamp down some of these excess emotions and have the potential to leave readers feeling both raw and renewed. That’s what I aim for—negotiating between emotional highs and lows to provide readers a full and emotionally rich experience.”

11.  Strangely, I do feel emotionally enriched. 

That’s what I’m saying. That’s what good essays do. They dissolve anomie, defend epiphany, salve loneliness by showing us that we’re all in it together. 

In what? 


So they make life better?

These essays here make life better.

Like cream in the coffee. 

A dram of Drambuie in the evening. 

Epsom salt in the bath. 

This has probably gone on long enough. 

You get the idea. 

It’s worth picking up just for Michael Martone’s bio. Page 262. 

See you there.