Thursday, March 5, 2015

Naomi Washer: Not the Map but the Winding

The first poet I ever personally knew died a week before the launch of Ghost Proposal’s first issue. I am still trying to find the sense in that. It is an answer I may never find; the essay I will continue to attempt. When he died, I returned to his poems. In them, I rediscovered qualities I have sought out in writing ever since—doubt, risk, and the grounding of place amidst timelessness.

From the Ghost Proposal mission:

Proposal: an offering; a possibility; a conjecture; a guess; a hypothesis; a thing-to-be-explored.

Ghost: a shadow on the sleeve of your sweater; a rhythm returning from lifetimes before; the meandering suggestion of a river on an ancient, yellowed map.

We want to publish your strange objects. The whispers sitting in between your shoulder blades.


As a writer and reader, it is not answers that comfort and sustain me, but questions. I write and read not in an effort to conclude but to attempt to stretch out across boundaries in hopes of forming ties between my own questions and the questions of others.

It is this kind of essay that we seek to include in Ghost Proposal. The essays we publish move beyond particular circumstances of place and situation to that space of timeless wondering which is open to all who risk accessing it.

And I do believe that space is real; is physical. We know that essays begin with a question but I believe it is equally necessary for them to end on one. The best essays traverse un-articulated landscapes, but I do not think that they leave every corner of those landscapes discovered and named. As editor of Ghost Proposal, I look for essays that pull back their seams so inner contours may be glimpsed, then end on the invitation for the reader to step inside—to take over, to take the exploration some place new.

Take the final lines of Ryan Spooner’s “Syskrin” in Issue 3:

How the eye darts. How it wishes to lead the body to wear it lands. On the edge of a scene—there, over there, away.

Spooner uses the description of encountering an object to teach readers how to enter a space he will end by inviting them into. He begins by enacting his very writing process: “Peeling out the cantilevered drawers and hinged trays of my great-grandmother’s syskrin…” He goes on to describe what is inside, then: “I’m peeling out the memory of it, too…” He asks, “Getting back to it, remembering it, what do I get back?” Then reaches for it, “I would arrive always at a squat pot of dark India ink…” Then focuses: “Where else have I known that ink’s luster?” And then this ending that cinematically zooms beyond the box, beyond the spot at the end of the couch in the myriad homes in which it took up residence, to a summer long gone, “the whole sky sweating, heaving…” Who among us has not known that sky?


Ghost Proposal is still young—we’ve just published our fifth issue—and Issue 4 marked our transition into un-labeled writing—uncharted territory, as it were. We no longer label the work by genre, which allows readers to discuss what a piece is doing, where it’s going. I am most excited when I see an essay enact the whole aesthetic of Ghost Proposal, such as the middle of Jill Talbot’s “On Trouble, Like Dust” in Issue 3, from a section subtitled Detour:

I have empty streets inside me. Streets that have built cities, maps of trouble. With the slightest turn of direction, I can be back on any one of them. Their coordinates fixed and sure, a grid of who I once was, who I thought myself to be, who I tried to outrun.

The essays in Ghost Proposal are so often my own troubled maps that I have to believe other readers will recognize them too. Because essaying is larger than any one of us. Ghost Proposal was founded through correspondence, between myself and another poet, and our mission corresponds with Spicer’s poetics in After Lorca—letters to a phantom. The confluence of correspondence (one object in relation to another), correspondence (letter-writing) and translation (re-placing a piece of writing in another time, context and language) is what we believe a ghost proposal is.

Imagine my pleasure, then, in publishing Dave Snyder’s “An Open Letter to Everything” in Issue 1. Letters, originally designated to the private sphere, now reside in a public space surrounding genre: “…nothing and no one that reads this is not you. In this I feel safe to tell you, dearly, what I must here in the privacy of the crowd.” Snyder’s letter-essay simultaneously serves as microcosm (on paper) and macrocosm (in concept) of the aesthetic we’ve developed as each new issue evolves.

Because what have I done here, if not placed our contributors together on an India-ink map, traced the correspondence between them? Objects arranged on a dark cloth, surrounded by darkness, take on a heightened color and focus—such is the nature of the essays collected in Ghost Proposal:

Spooner’s remembered sky—Talbot’s empty streets of the self—Snyder’s letter to all of us.

Seeing it laid out like this, I remember another I’d like to add after Spooner and leading to Talbot:

Sometimes I can’t watch Revenge in its entirety because it hurts me to see people hurt. Even cognizant of the fiction, I flinch at the elaborate and destructive plots, and postpone watching until the dark place in me awakens and requires its balm. 
(“On Revenge,” Carmen Gimenez Smith, Issue 1)

And what emerges out of a space both private and public—a space that both belongs and does not belong to the essayist?

I will venture an attempt:

I near the end of writing this, make a stop at Essay Daily to check out the most recent post. It’s a review by John Proctor of Steven Church’s book Ultrasonic; it hones in on both of their experiences writing about the deaths of their brothers. I’m wanting to include some references here to other Ghost Proposal essays such as Dan Beachy-Quick’s “The Fragile Bow: On Imagination and Atrocity” (Issue 4) and Patrick Thornton’s “Silent Eulogy” (Issue 2) but I now feel compelled to speak to John Proctor directly.


Dear John,

I read when I get stuck in writing, as so many of us do. I hit a dead-end on my own page and seek a new route in someone else’s. Insert here: new coordinates on the circular map of the essays we’re trying to find. We begin in one place and find the next road when we are meant to. There are so many echoes these days. My poet friend died and his name was Johnny. This paired with the explanation of the work we seek in Ghost Proposal corresponds to your review. We read each other because we correspond; because we correspond, we go on writing.

Dear John; Dear readers; Dear contributors; Dear Everything,

Here is a haunting; an offering; a shadow; a prompt, from the end of B.J. Hollars’ essay “SOS” in Issue 4. With what will it, for you, correspond?

I try to make sense of the koan that has risen to the surface:
if two boys don’t drown in the river, is the grief you feel still real?

Naomi Washer is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal and an Assistant Editor of Hotel Amerika. Her essays, poems and Cambodian translations have appeared in Ampersand Review, The Birds We Piled Loosely, St. Petersburg Review and Poor Claudia among other places. She lives in Chicago where she is completing an MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College.