Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nick Neely: Why Write About Animals

I pose the question, taking my cue and much else from John Berger’s seminal, mildly elliptical essay “Why Look at Animals?” As it happens, much of my writing thus far in life has been about fauna, and yet I have never sat down for long to explore the implications. Why do I write nonfiction about animals, and why do we? What are the ethical considerations? Of course, there is a vast field of animal studies out there, impressive and growing, and I am no expert, only an enthusiast. Fundamentally, for me the compulsion to conjure beasts is entirely wrapped up in nature/nurture: I had the luxury to fall into animals as a kid (I had an knack for spotting them, and often the patience to observe them), and I never stopped looking.

Then again: How can we not write of animals? As you know, some of the earliest human-made images were the beasts on the walls of the cave in Lascaux, France, painted in pigments: predominantly horses, stags, and bulls, but also felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros. This was writing before writing, if you will (and this text was open to the public until our exhalations began to damage the walls, to erase it). These and other early animals drawings are variously interpreted as trance visions, depictions of constellations, etc. But they were also just what was everywhere around. Animals lived at the edge of the camp, or even within the same cave. “What distinguished man [people!] from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought,” Berger notes in “Why Look at Animals?” “Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.”

With the advent of agriculture and husbandry, this relationship became more familiar, in a sense, but also more fraught. Our ideas about animals began to shift. Not coincidentally, just about then writing came into being. The cuneiform script of the Sumerians emerged to tally and keep track of tradeable goods, which included domesticates. From the start, writing evoked animals, but it also signaled the transition of animals from independent subject to object, from mystery to commodity, in our perceptions.

More recently, animals have been relegated to further extremes: projected onto the cave wall as caricatures, or not all. We tend to see wild animals less, but love the idea of them more. “The urge to turn animals into either things or into people reflects the distance we have traveled in a generation or two,” writes Stephen Budiansky in The Covenant of the Wild, a book on my shelf. “We conveniently alternate between anthropomorphism and blindness.” On the one hand, the gazillion dollar pet industry and Pixarification of penguins and polar bears (animals as people). On the other, anonymous shrink-wrapped meat (a thing, I suppose).

As Berger posits, quite elementally, “No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed and eaten so that its energy is added to that which the hunter already possesses. The animal can be tamed so that it supplies and work for the peasant. But always its lack of language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man.” Since animals are a silent majority, and we can only ever project (onto) them, how do we negotiate between anthropomorphism and blindness so as to least marginalize them between the margins of our writing? How can we extract them from the practical clay of Sumerian tablets and today’s best-selling tablets?

One answer might be veracity: in paying rigorous attention to an animal’s features, describing it precisely, learning its biology. So very many resources have been devoted to the study of animals that the facts themselves, the stories of their attainment, have a life of their own. I do think it’s true that our admiration and respect for an animal grows as we discover more about it: That a hummingbird’s heart beats over a thousand times per minute, say. Or that a hummer can accelerate, in a dive, to 65 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal alive in proportion to its body length. It would also seem important to write about animals in the places where, increasingly, they actually live as their ranges shift in light of habitat alteration and climate change: liminal spaces like suburbia and muddy, thawing tundra.

But particulars of science and scrutiny aren’t everything, or the main. “Animals are always observed,” Berger notes. “The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” So true. As we atomize an animal’s body and behavior, label every piece of it, we are not necessarily drawn closer to its essence, if that’s what you want to call it. Plus, the scientific and casual terms that describe animals are cast in the light of just one particular way of knowing.

Extending Berger’s language, maybe, at the same time, we need to know less. Maybe the less I know—the more I admit to that (and I do), and the more I play—the more I “get” animals. Ultimately, I think its incumbent of animal writing to leave the creature more mysterious, more animal, than it was found. What’s neat, if not needed, are “animal essays” rather than essays about animals, if that distinction makes sense—and an animal essay doesn’t have to include a critter to fit the category. Essays that don’t strive to contain. That aren’t zoos (the lions break out).

All this is to say that it’s not the worst idea to bring to animals something we feel is outside our normal selves. Our writing may not embody the animal, actually, but at least it’s doing something foreign, which is animal in a sense. The writing I admire is something I can’t predict or hypothesize; instead it acknowledges, through form or content, that we are still writing on the walls of a cave, the corners of which we cannot see, the confines of which we don’t even know. The most I can do is paint a few vivid pictures. Overlapping perhaps, but also free-floating in the dark.

I often wonder whether I shouldn’t devote more of my words to my fellow humans, who I love and worry about. I know I will do so in the future. But then I also remember that the fate of humans and animals is so entwined. To write of animals is to write, inevitably, of us. That mirror is there, if hidden. Berger again, in this wise essay, one you should read: “The reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units.” Pigeonholes, cubicles, cages … these things are not unrelated. To complexify animals is to watch out for ourselves.


Nick Neely’s essays (many of them on animals) are published or forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, and Harvard Review. He is the recipient of a Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, a UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, and the 2015 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. He is also the author of a new chapbook of essays, Chiton, and Other Creatures, just out this month from New Michigan Press. More of his work can be found on

Monday, October 26, 2015

Emily Van Kley: On Distance

In May 2015, Michigan State University Press published an exciting multigenre collection called Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsulaedited by Ron Riekki, who's doing as much as anyone living to highlight the many writers who write about Michigan and/or consider Michigan their home. He's edited several anthologies now, and Here is the most recent and perhaps the most exciting. It's been an opportunity to discover a number of writers who were not previously on my radar, including Emily Van Kley, who posts below about her relationship to place and to state and to state of mind.

And do consider checking out the anthology, if you, like me, miss where are you are from this time of year. --Ander

On Distance

At first, I didn’t think of the place I had grown up as a place, as anything with its own story or parameters for being. Roads were long, in various stages of disintegration, and always, always bowed over with trees. Lakes were big enough to alter weather. Woods were close, which isn't to say that I noticed, really, unless they were absent, as when my family would travel south though neighboring Wisconsin, or pass through one of the few Upper Michigan townships where there was cultivated farmland, which seemed quaint, bare, and impossibly old-fashioned to me. Cities made sense––my grandparents lived in the south suburbs of Chicago, and obviously with so much concrete trees would be hemmed in, more accessory than landscape––but grass? fields? trees playing second fiddle to tilled dirt, low-lying vegetation, hoofed animals that didn't have the sense to jump a fence line and stay out of sight? That was the stuff of 50s television sitcoms, of romanticized Westerns. Foreign to me. It was a shock, when I left for college and followed a path west thereafter, how much of the country is forest-less. How little trees figure in the overall topographic equation, how much they cede.


I worry that I make the Upper Peninsula precious now, having been gone just about exactly as long as I was there. Of course I do. My poems about the UP (and so many of my poems are about the UP) tend toward the cringingly nostalgic, maudlin, embarrassed, embarrassing. To wit:


Despite absent traffic,
the road required attention: 
blacktop gnawed by snow
& thaw, unwitting deer, nonsensical
seams of bedrock & eruptions
of maple root to launch 
a station wagon, wreck its rims.
It was always dark. We always 
sped. So the lights were a problem
when they snaked the sky 
green, sharpened the black
edges of torn-paper 
pines, pulsed violet
as if at the hest 
of a technician’s knob.
I watched as if I was leaving. 
I was always leaving.
So I craned the windshield, 
swerved & neglected
to swerve. The road rattled, 
my tongue bled. Leave long
enough & you may no longer 
be from anywhere.
Some people like to watch 
the dark flare behind
their eyelids. That is one way.
Everything technicolor, even the desolation I obsess over in my writing, which folks who still live in the UP, like my parents and their friends, would be quick to tell you is far from the whole story, and would of course be right.


My own relationship with the UP is intense, a little macabre. A lot died while I lived there. Mining, which built the small and then smaller towns I grew up in, had been on its way out throughout my childhood. In one town abandoned high-shouldered mine buildings towered near the Pamida and the National Ski Hall of Fame. In another a flooded 200 foot open pit served as a swimming hole for the brave, despite a sunken crane dubbed Lazarus that was rumored to gather air bubbles and bloat to the surface every so many years. There was the year the logging company, my last town's only remaining industry and sponsor of my summer softball team, announced it was leaving. Left. Not long after, the window factory down the road moved operations to Wisconsin, forcing many of my classmates' parents to take apartments out of state, live the week there, return home on weekends, sliver their same pay for the sake of keeping a job. Keeping a job: an embattled state, one that seemed to get harder and harder until the prisons came, and then just stayed hard. Or the military funerals I'd be pulled from class to play for. The shrill sound of notes through my trumpet's cold mouthpiece while coffins were carried to idling hearses, then driven away to be warehoused until spring when the ground could be worked, car exhaust disappearing against snowbanks and then rising into the sky’s snow-grey.


Not long after my partner and I moved to western Washington and it began to seem like the move would stick, I got snowflakes tattooed over most of my back. I thought it would help me feel less lonely for a lonelier place, one that went still for six months of the year, wrapped itself in cold the way some people cover themselves in blankets––one that wasn't striving to be anything other than its sad and spectacular self. And it did help, a little. The needle with its creeping geometry close to and away from my spine like ice taking the surface of creek, inch by inch. Even now, when I catch a glimpse of my shoulders in the mirror my mouth sometimes fills with the taste of snow, flat, slightly sweet, momentarily fierce with cold and then vanishing.

That’s how it is when I think about the UP. On the one hand, I live elsewhere because that’s the life I’ve chosen. And it is nice to live in an area of the country with enough other gay people that we associate based on individual preference rather than on bare survivalism. I enjoy having regular access to live music beyond oldies cover bands, and I adore sitting lakeside in the summer without once dousing myself in DEET. Most of the time I grasp the logic of such things, but then a photograph of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will appear on a friend's Facebook page and my senses are cast into such a yearning they clamor, begin to cross.


Here's an example of the kind of synesthesia that rules my relationship to Upper Michigan: when I was growing up, each short summer my family would set out to harvest enough berries to last a year's worth of morning toast and neighborly gifting. Strawberry, raspberry & blueberry all grow wild in the UP, as do lesser known but eminently jam-worthy varieties like sugar plum (serviceberry), thimbleberry, and chokecherry (these last possessing all the charms of a tablespoon of witch hazel when fresh but quite tasty when sweetened and preserved). I don't remember often being asked if I wanted to go berry picking. It was one of those activities, like school or dental visits, that were set by forces beyond myself. Berries would come ripe in the woods, and that meant the whole family would soon be piling into one of a series of the aforementioned road-salt rusted station wagons and heading to a secret location my parents had been scouting off some trail or forest service road as soon as snow receded in spring.

My mother, who'd grown up in rural Indiana and had been employed as a young person in commercial blueberry fields, was maniacally efficient when it came to picking: it was customary for my brother, sister, father and I to combine our afternoon's work in the hopes of mustering a challenge to her dominance, and to fail.

Though in general I approached berry picking with the same good-natured ambivalence I brought to all potentially enjoyable outdoor activities that were nonetheless not as predictably wonderful as reading for hours on end, I truly hated picking raspberries. Wild raspberry canes have furry spines that flush your forearms to a prickly fever. They prefer areas of the woods that have recently burned, where the canopy is sparse & the soil dusty. They come ripe during the hottest part of the summer and, worse, the sunny spots they favor are the domain of biting flies (mosquitos having dominion over dusk and shade). Compared to mosquitos, with their slender proboscis and dram of anesthetic, biting flies are crude, unprofessional. They use serrated mouth parts to saw––or if hurried, rip––ragged little holes in victims' flesh. Their bites are instantly painful––pure and abrupt as being slapped. The affected skin tends to swell and bleed, which everyone knows attracts more flies. The bites can engender a flashing rage, the same dumb, inward-focused fury that comes from stubbing a toe. Preventable. Evidence of a lack of vigilance, and its punishment at the same time. Sweating, wheeling my arms overhead until I tired, pinching tiny wounds of raspberries into my ice cream bucket, yelping with sudden pain, knocking the bucket over, righting it, repeating––that was raspberry picking for me. Years into my adulthood, I hated the taste of raspberries. I wouldn't touch the jeweled pints of jam we'd raise from those excursions. A church member's cobbler would taste sweaty and somehow oppressive. Fresh berries on ice cream sour and salty as frustrated tears.


Taste with touch. Beauty with pain. My thoughts about Upper Michigan are a jumble and, I’m afraid, likely to remain as disorganized as my erratic emotional response to having left the place. I recognize this sense in Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, the concept album by Sufjan Stevens, which deals with themes of nostalgia, longing, and estrangement with the depth and juxtapositional skill of a lyric essay. Despite its bias toward the Lower Peninsula (which is after all typical of most things Michigan) and fact that as a Yooper I am more or less contractually obligated to view with a measure of distrust any work made about the UP by someone from downstate, track five, titled after the Upper Peninsula, has always had its persuasive moments for me. "I live in America with a pair of Payless shoes/ The Upper Peninsula and the television news" it begins. There, the isolation, florid in its plainspokenness. There the sense of separation: the speaker from a nation, the viewer from happenings far removed. The music itself vacillating between the spare and unassumingly lovely to the discordant, speaking its own language that, depending on your mood, could signal either mourning or joy.

Emily Van Kley's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Best New Poets 2013, among others. She's a recipient of the Iowa Review Award and the Florida Review Editor's Award, and has contributed to several anthologies, including Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She lives in Olympia, Washington. Find her online at

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Meet Montaigne!

On a pleasant afternoon outside Bordeaux, in his tower at the corner of his family chateau, the writer and statesman Michel de Montaigne, stocky and bedraggled in britches and poofy blouse, was serving us wine from the estate’s northerly vineyards.

“I speak my mind freely on all things, even those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction,” he assured us as he wandered to a shelf and began fidgeting with a book of Cicero’s poems. “I set forth notions that are human and my own, simply as human notions considered in themselves, not as determined and decreed by heavenly children set forth their essays to be instructed, not to instruct.”

The beloved former mayor and adviser to French kings is perhaps best known for his three-volume collection of Essays, which he began writing upon his retirement in 1572, at the age of 37, when he discovered that simply allowing himself idle time to read and think led his mind, “like a runaway horse, [to] give itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and [to] give birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose,” that he began to write in order to “make [his] mind ashamed of itself.”

His first two volumes of Essays, which appeared in 1580, contained this prefatory warning: “Reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Yet readers did spend their leisure on reading the Essays, enjoying Montaigne’s candor; his wavering even-handedness; his playful, associative mind on display in the text. And not only in France in the sixteenth century, but around the world and through the centuries.

This simple man of letters seems as surprised as anyone that his literary legacy has lasted over four hundred years. “I do not love myself so indiscriminately, nor am I so attached and wedded to myself, that I cannot distinguish and consider myself apart, as I do a neighbor or a tree,” he commented as he poured refills then tenderly passed us an original printing of his book. “Here you have some excrements of an aged mind,” he chuckled, “now hard, now loose, and always undigested.” And we all had a hearty laugh together. 

Born Feb. 28, 1533, in Guyenne, France. Married to Françoise de la Chassaigne (1565-92), with six children, one who survived infancy. 

Why You Know Him
In his Essays, Michel performs acrobatic mental feats of association, considering everything that comes into his purview with artless art and graceless grace. “It is the language of conversation transferred to a book,” said Emerson. “Cut these words, and they would bleed.” 

What You Don’t Know
Out of respect for her honor, I have never gazed upon the breasts of Mme. De Montaigne.

I will not sit with thirteen at the table. I can dine without a tablecloth, but very uncomfortably without a clean napkin. My teeth…have always been exceedingly good… Since boyhood I learned to rub them on my napkin, both on waking up and before and after meals. I am not excessively fond of either salads or fruits, except melons.

My meat: rare. 

Favorite movies?
I was expecting more, or perhaps less, from Stoic. Perhaps the prison film is not my genre. The Cannibals was interesting in a lurid way, surprising in its Sophoclean inspiration. I frankly thought there would be more about the cannibals. Perhaps I’m too literal about these things. A Man For All Seasons was one I watched several times. It reminded me that as an ill conscience fills us with fear, so a good one gives us greater confidence and assurance.

When I dance, I dance, when I sleep, I sleep, and I think Fred Astaire is like a sleep dancer, walking on air . . . that magical man. He seems to stop time. So, I’d say Swing Time is a good one, with Ginger Rogers . . . I am very much driven by beauty. So let’s just say anything with Rita Hayworth. The felicity that glitters in virtue, shines throughout all her avenues and ways. Oh, and “Put the Blame on Mame”! 

What books are on your nightstand these days?
I study myself more than any other subject. 

Understood, but any books grabbing you lately?
Erasmus, Rabelais, La Boetie… 

What do you think of more contemporary essayists, say, James Baldwin?
If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I. I also quite like that fellow Sebald. 

We understand that your tastes in music run from des Prez and Willaert to more contemporary fare. Can you share with us some of your favorite popular songs?
“Boys, Boys, Boys,” by Lady Gaga would seem to capture the essence of the Socratic impulse. Then there’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” by the White Stripes. Lisa Hannigan’s “I Don’t Know” is quite good. Dusty Springfield sang a song very true to my way of thinking, “How Can I Be Sure.” Then, of course, Ray Charles singing “You Don’t Know Me” speaks to me of the wavering and noncommital natures we carry in this shifting world. Similarly, the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” comes from a dilemma I have often found myself contemplating. 

So this new book, After Montaigne . . . what do you think of the use of your work as the basis for new musings?
I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement. I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself. [After Montaigne] has this notable advantage for my humor, that the knowledge I seek is there treated in detached pieces that do not demand the obligation of long labor, of which I am incapable.

I find it admirable at representing to the life the movements of the soul and the state of our characters. I cannot read it so often as not to find in it some new beauty and grace.
Amongst so many borrowed things, I am glad if I can steal one, disguising and altering it for some new service. All the glory that I aspire to in my life is to have lived it tranquilly. There is nothing that poisons a man so much as flattery.

But I’m flattered.


David Lazar and Patrick Madden are co-editors of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (Georgia, 2015), which includes over two dozen wonderful essayists writing "cover versions" of the master's works. They have each visited Montaigne's Tower in France, and were each turned away because it was then closed. David made it back the next day. Patrick will have to make another pilgrimage. Don't try to visit on Mondays or Tuesdays, friends!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

On Roxane Gay, Louis C.K., and that time I dropped an F-Bomb

By the time I was 18 I had invested a lot of thought into my sexuality, not so much because my closest friend at the time was gay, but because this friend of mine had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I understand these impulses. I can relate. Alas, in truth, my sexuality was never really a question. Understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me: I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my big toe and my second toe. I inherited—from my mom—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at 18, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.

So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—this friend of mine did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm Nos with, Hey man, it’s OK if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?

Anyway, it was different with my friend. He had an agenda. He was actually trying to foist an identity on me, prod me in a direction I didn’t want to go, and I responded to his teasing differently—maybe because it wasn’t teasing exactly. When he called me gay I lashed out, not by spilling his as-yet unspilled beans, but by pushing and punching, and maybe this response—this physicality—only egged him on? Of course I was never really out to hurt him, never punched him in the face, or the balls. I was just frustrated and striking back—asserting myself—the only way I felt I could. Then one day, as I socked him in the shoulder, he grabbed my arm and with some aikido geometry twisted me to the floor, where he pinned me beneath his 6-foot burly boy-man frame. I was royally pissed, as frustrated at having been pinned as I was at hearing some jerkface bystander half-heartedly shout the usual “Craig’s so gay!” And pinned I was, stuck, physically powerless, my friend’s high school scruff closer to my own than it had ever been. So I struck back, again, the only way I could. I shouted, “Get off me you faggot!”


I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Keeping in mind that I rarely cite anything myself, when she tells us the N-word can be heard 110 times in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (“110 instances of the N-word in nearly three hours”), I’m like, 110, where did that come from? Not that I doubt the number, I just want to know. She cites so many other statistics, why not this one?—and in this age of reflexive-citation no less, when, if you’re big-name enough, and she certainly is, there will always be someone with too much time and access to the internet who will want to dispute your numbers, facts, stats, as a means of disputing your ideas. I would have thought she’d be more careful—or is it just not important here?

In “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories” Gay talks about Frank Ocean’s 2012 release of Channel Orange, and with it his announcement that he had “once loved a man”. She writes, “as a black man coming out as gay or bisexual, particularly as part of the notoriously homophobic R&B and hip-hop community, Ocean was taking a bold step, a risk”. She goes on to say this risk appears to be paying off. “Many celebrities vocalized their support of Ocean, including Russell Simmons, Beyonce, 50 Cent, and others…Channel Orange was a critical and commercial success.”

Oh, if only that were the last word, but: “Of course, Ocean is also part of the Odd Future collective,” and she points out that “his friend and collaborator Tyler, the Creator’s debut album, Goblin, contains 213 gay slurs.”

There’s that big-number-w/o-citation thing again—though wherever it came from, this number makes her point:

“Tyler, the Creator continues to assert he’s not homophobic with that old canard of having gay friends. He stepped up his defense by also claiming his gay friends were totally fine with his use of the term ‘faggot’ over and over and over… I do not know the man. Maybe he is homophobic, maybe he isn’t. I do know he doesn’t think about language very carefully. He believes that just because you can say something, you should. He is not shamed by using 213 slurs on one album…”

Okay, sure, but where did this number come from(!)? She cites other big stats. Why not these?

Then, maybe: Maybe I’d missed the point, couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Who gives a shit where the number came from? 213 is a lot, but would I be less riled if it was really, like, 189? Or 25? Maybe the point really being made here is that the actual number doesn’t matter. The slur—faggot—is there. Its presence at all is the issue, not the number of times it’s used. Even just one time, just once, is enough.

My own experience speaks to this.


Recently I’ve been digging into old seasons of Louie. Season 1, Episode 2 (way back there, at the beginning of things) opens with a poker scene. Louie and his assortment of buddies are playing cards and joking around and laughing (as in all idyllic guys’ night-cheap beer-and-salty snacks poker scenes), except that this clique includes an openly gay man and eventually their conversation gets around to the fact that Louie says “faggot” on stage a lot, more than he says Hello in real life, so the gay friend, Rick, suggests. At this, Louie genuinely (I mean he’s acting, but the show is so great because there’s also a sense that this is Louis C.K., and that this sincerity is sincere) asks Rick, “Does it offend you when I say that word? Do you think I shouldn’t be using that word on stage?”

Rick: “I think you should use whatever words you want. When you use it on stage, I can see it’s funny, and I don’t care. But are you interested in what it might mean to gay men?”

Louie: “Yeah, I am interested.”

Rick: “Well, the word ‘faggot’ really means a bundle of sticks used for kindling in a fire. Now, in the middle ages, when they used to burn people they thought were witches, they used to burn homosexuals, too. And, they used to burn the witches at a stake, but they thought the homosexuals were too low and disgusting to be given a stake to be burnt on, so they used to just throw them in with the kindling, with the other faggots. So that’s how you get 'flaming faggot.'"

Louie, smiling: “So what you’re saying is gay people are a good alternative fuel source.” Everybody laughs. “I’m sorry, go ahead.”

Rick: "You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them, maybe while they’re being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. But, you know, by all means, use it. Get your laughs. But, you know, now you know what it means.”

And then there’s a pause, a reflective silence as the camera focuses on the solemn, chastened faces of Louie and co. This lasts exactly three seconds. Then Nick, the dick sitting to Rick’s right, and the guy who admits he’s “disgusted” by all things gay, says “Okay, thanks faggot. We’ll keep that in mind.” And at that everybody laughs, ‘cause they’re all friends and there’s only love around this table. The scene ends with Rick kissing Nick the dick on the forehead, forgiving all trespass. Then those kickass Louie credits roll.

But I come back to those three seconds. For three seconds C.K. had his audience squirming. Three seconds. Then he let us off the hook. It’s as if in those early days he was stuck on the idea of Louie as a comedy series. Edgy, provocative comedy, but still tell-a-joke-and-make-us-forget-our-troubles situational comedy. A later Louie might have lingered in that uncomfortable moment, that awkwardness, rather than let us laugh our way out so quickly. Instead, there in episode 2, the tension is broken and it’s camaraderie all around. All is resolved. Except nothing has been resolved.


So I called my friend a faggot, and then he let me go. I jumped to my feet, but there was no righteousness to this escape. He looked, not defeated exactly, but deflated, sad, like a kicked dog, like I had punched him in the balls, as if I had struck below the belt, and then suddenly I saw that’s exactly what I had done. I was the jerk—I saw this. Our friends could mock me, so crassly, and he could prod me however he wanted, but there was a line, apparently, and I had crossed it. By this point no one else in the room was paying us any attention, this moment mattered nothing to them, though here I am fifteen years later still stuck on it.

Have I crossed that line since? I don’t think so, but this memory-puzzle is imperfect. I really don’t think so though. I apologized, and the two of us moved on, but my friend didn’t laugh it off with me. I had hurt him, and he didn’t let me off so easily. I was never given permission to see faggot as funny. If laughter heals wounds, I was denied that catharsis, and I still feel some of the shame of that moment.

I think that’s OK.

Craig Reinbold is one of the curators of Essay Daily

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

#literatureasexhaustion: Thomas Larson on Riley Hanick on Kerouac & Pollock & the Interstate highway system &...

Around 1910, Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian artist, began a revolution in seeing by finishing the first abstract paintings in Europe, though the Navajo, the Chinese, and the Muslims had been making design art for centuries. It took a few years before he quit portraying mountains and horses’ heads and drew, instead, a phantasmagoria of floating and cellularly busy flat forms. The surprise was that Kandinsky’s subjectless swirls and smudges, lines and dots, said something, despite not representing recognizable images like peasants or churches. Voila, as he’d intended, form in itself was rapturously beautiful. As if the Western eye knew all along that a triangle and a splotch, when layered on canvas, would animate the space like geometric ballet. Why had we avoided the disjunctive so long in art?

Writers have been jealous ever since. We, too, have wanted to dispossess ourselves of subject, push the language arts beyond their referential-bound or plot-driven limits. (Joyce’s Ulysses is an enduring struggle, a crucifixion of sorts.) The disjunctive for writers is not easy: language cannot just unbridle itself of its associative or grammatical qualities. Noam Chomsky has shown us why with his rendition, “Colorless green ideas sleep fitfully.” It’s a prickishly logical sentence minus the sense, though the tension between its sound and syntax renders its poetic affability. How odd, how marvelous, that our grammar can convey such illogic allure.

One solution has been to fragment prose, a way to crack the narrative crystal. For twenty-first-century readers it’s a commonplace whether rendered in short, easily passable paragraphs, the accretive form (Maggie Nelson), or in the ever-changing, sentence-by-sentence pointillism, the aphoristic style (Emil Cioran). Most of the fragmentists hew to some form of narration. But new in the experimental nonfiction groove from Sarah Gorham’s redoubtable Sarabande Books is Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion. Hanick presents a daringly discontinuous narrative that’s tempest-tossed, its guy wires popping, a spectacle of self-subversion. A book very hard to limn.

No writer, save Gertrude Stein—a page performer whose hijinks I find unabsorbing, even trite—has pushed the epistemological question of abstraction in nonfiction as volatilely as Hanick has. His much-assembly-required tale features a sliced-up narrative, trumpeting the mashup aesthetic louder than anything I’ve read. It’s alternately brilliant, show-offy, nerve-wracking, a touch inebriated—and deserving of a long going-over if largely for those (of us) stalwarts who love to wrestle with the nonfictional, randomized mosaic.

Hanick’s three motions are the three subjects or conveyances he zigzags through and around: 1) Jackson Pollock’s very large painting, Mural (1943), commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim and hung in her home in New York, later given to the University of Iowa Art Museum where Hanick beholds it, beside 2) the typewritten scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road on tour and display at the same museum where Hanick also beholds it (I can’t quite figure if he was security, charged with guarding the painting or the scroll, or a writer-in-residence), and nearby to most of us, 3) the Interstate highway system, built during (and epitomizing) the Eisenhower administration, whose auto stream, according to an early traffic planner, is “an integral part of the American spirit—freedom of movement.” This trio—Pollock’s paintball forms stampeding across big canvases, Kerouac’s methedrine-fueled, single-paged autobiographical novel, and an America that runs across itself (away from and to itself) by car—triggers Hanick’s quixotic wanderlust.

Some parts of the book are straight-ahead, focused on the stars, Jack and Jack:

The work of the Beats occasioned famously negative reactions from older and more esteemed writers. Not writing but typing, Capote said of On the Road. Not writing but plumbing, Beckett said of Burroughs and the cut-up method. The value of a dismissal is its brevity, the ease of its acerbic click. Appears to have been painted with a broom, reads an early review of Pollock’s. 

And, with dates like mileage markers, the highway theme keeps returning in its own broken bits:

1909. In late January the Automobil-Verkehrs-und-Übungsstrasse is founded in Berlin. A track consisting of two lanes, each either meters wide with a nine-meter median strip, was funded not by the government but almost exclusively by a combination of financial and racing organizations. Within three years they will begin the construction of a nearly ten-kilometer road that is significant for being completely devoid of intersections. 

One attempt at tack here is to counter descriptions: the continent-wide monotony of the Interstate grid against the whirling dervish dancing of the Beats and the action painters. These subjects surprise each other continually and, at first, create momentum. But quickly the opposite happens. There’s a strange feeling of anti-momentum surging in. Hanick seems to grow tired of, even peevish with, the explanatory: he continually fragments the text and develops impressionistic and surreal bits. You can feel him insisting on this form. You can feel him foiling any accretion of plot, a method once Zenfully described by the minimalist composer Terry Riley: “One need not push ahead to create interest.” Hanick:

Doubts about getting anywhere as one way to remain at work. Enlisting the viscera another. Increase is a line relying on limit. Put otherwise: What would it mean to be so wrong that you could come to feel wrong enough? To be so lost into what you thought you were doing, so concentrated in your incomprehension, so nearly blind to your hand that no single thing that watches you will ever adequately appreciate your fear? Both Pollock and Kerouac chose a medium—the Novel, the Enormous Oil Painting—that had come to hold itself in the highest regard. This helped inform their particular desperations. 

Thus, the massive double-lane, coming-and-going American roadway is nothing like a novel on a scroll or a picture painted on the floor. It is neither random nor organic: it is planned, solid, socially engineered, not individually executed. The road itself is the opposite of the life-in-flux of two notorious Jacks. This dichotomy between person and system and its resistance to mixing surprised me. I noticed sooner than later that Hanick’s not talking about cars as conduits; he’s writing an ode to concrete—as if the asphalt mimics Kerouac’s conveyor belt or Pollock’s slopping-it-on. Once I noted how much mutation there is in all this traversing and Pogo-sticking about, I couldn’t stuff the feathers back into the pillow. Motions in conflict (the title’s promise) never come together as a subject, a directive, a smithy. Purposeless purpose eludes him.

And yet the hyper-fragmentary form feels well suited for these freeway dashes. I just wish I could name, beyond the throw-of-the-dice arrangement, the end he seeks, beyond a mischievous performance. For instance, in the chapter “Slotted Mailbox, Telephone Pole,” Hanick begins by describing Pollock getting a job as a stonecutter in New York, “cleaning bird shit from a statue of Peter Cooper.” Next, he serves up the “time-gap experience,” about the eyes going blank, losing time, losing memory, and since nothing happens, the moment is unrecallable. When time and sense return, the subject “cannot name the thing it was wandering in.” This is like the “experience” of driving the Interstate.

Yes, but then Hanick gets loopy:

Because we are so quintessentially there and not as we glide in the eye of the highway, we are banal. . . . Thus, the highway is memory unstrung, the harbor lights appearing and immediately inconsequential. Teaching us how to be anxious and drifting at once, showing us a marbling of countercurrents. We go there to forge a thinking that is quick and lackadaisical, as impossible to touch as it is to set aside. 

I get the gist but much here is slippery, vacuous. How do lights become inconsequential? If we have a time-gap, how are we “anxious and drifting”? (It’s actually a good descriptor of Hanick’s style.) “We go there . . . .” We do? Not if we don’t have to we don’t. “Quick and lackadaisical” thinking forges marbled countercurrents? I thought we were prone to space out. We can neither touch it nor set it aside? Huh? is the interjection I write in many a margin.

This chapter grinds on, pinging between oddity and longshot association: letters from imagined women (maybe Peggy Guggenheim, maybe wives or ex-wives) to “JK” and “Jack,” basted with erotic titter; more paean to pavement (measuring “a continent’s geological knowledge of itself” and revealing “a set of insights opened and remained among the unplanned consequences of the highway”); then more off-ramps: Pollock telling stories to Thomas Hart Benton’s son, Eisenhower’s churched Kansas family, Ike being talked into authorizing a coup in Guatemala; plus, a 1957 dedication ceremony in Wisconsin for I-94; and this: "Art may or may not be a word we need to endorse a pleasure that makes us feel complicated."

Yes, my list is plucked, petal-like, from this bouncy/rubbery chapter. But I hope the citations show Hanick’s collision aesthetic. That he’s baffling us (and himself) on purpose, perhaps. Its arbitrariness, its leaves-blown-by-the-leaf-blower-only-to-settle-back-to-another-nearby-random-shape. And that my mounting frustration occurs in the essay’s muddled middle (but where else could it go? not at the start and not at the end). Whereas the opening third of the book is so promisingly wild and coherent, I kept reading until I didn’t. I flagged. Then the fish, from its wiggling, fell off the hook.

In the home-stretch of the book, and much the blearier, I got re-attached to a congealing subject. The Iowa Museum of Art and its holdings, including Mural, were evacuated in a June 2008 Iowa River flood. (The only half-wet museum did not qualify for FEMA aid: It “was now a space that had failed to even be properly ruined.”) At last, some direction recurs. Using the memoirist’s “I,” Hanick tunnels into the museum staff’s discussion whether to sell Mural once it’s appraised at $140 million (one private offer comes in at $175 million). Their collective determination says no. Never sell. Instead, raise funds by sending the 8-foot-by-20-foot canvas on tour. Hanick’s participation with the present-day political/financial life of the painting pops awake what has so often been a desultory book, blunting favorably, if late in the game, his scissors-slicing style.

Hanick’s a discontented writer. Plus, there’s a sense of him sentencing us, his readers, to hard labor. (Any Twitter trends like #literatureastask or #literatureasexhaustion?) I find nothing sinister in his style. It’s something else. Because Hanick’s so enthralled with his bricolage—and despite my own eerie fascination with Pollock, the most Minotaurish of the abstractionists (after installing Mural in Guggenheim’s New York home, he celebrated by peeing into her fireplace)—I feel like a looky-loo, watching Hanick write, not unlike watching Pollock paint. John Updike once said, “Pollock painting is the subject of Pollock’s paintings.” Through it all, like an Interstate driver, I’m a passerby, ever rolling on and away.

What’s more, the book suffers from an inconsistent inconsistency. It should be obvious that consistency and inconsistency, one instead of the other, moves us down the road. But when the way forward is inconsistently inconsistent—extreme mood swings; passages of history or fact buddied up beside dizzyingly vague or flippant statements—there’s trouble. Consider another petal-pluck:

We would like most to be drizzled aluminum, to be useful and blind like a flashbulb. Expertly kept from ourselves and arriving into shining tatters by an anonymous fawning. When you’re telling that joke, don’t make it sound like a script. Spontaneity is the wish for perpetual departure. The rhythm of its dream is one and one and one and one

What’s the puzzle this deviously splintering book was created for and written to solve?

Once this question appeared—and I was glad that Hanick lanced its boil—I left off the tale to think about the relative stability of prose narrative. Paintings and photographs are frozen in time; the question of movement, continuous or not, is moot. (Architecture may be solid but its three-dimensionality invites our participation.) Film like music moves by unfurling in its own set time. Prose, like baseball, is burdensomely slow. It’s supposed to be slow, which is why we judge good prose by the degree to which it agitates itself out of its doldrums—whether it culminates, whether it turns characters convincingly, whether its ideas dock in strange, new ports and stay awhile, whether it collects and expiates emotions.

Prose requires comradely devotion because we can’t read a bit and quit as we can poetry. Prose is like an aging relative who placed in a nursing home lives on for another ten years and whose long-term undying must be attended to. Prose asks us to forgive its staying over, beyond the weekend. Prose insists we—and its author—make a good-faith effort to stick around, to partner.

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader, now its Critic-At-Large, and Book Reviews editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is

Monday, October 5, 2015

On Form Fashioning Content: Patrick Madden in conversation with Jill Talbot

For this past AWP conference (Minneapolis, April 2015), I was to present on a panel about “‘Fashioning a Text’: Discovering Form and Shape in Literary Nonfiction” with Michael Steinberg, Elyssa East, Michael Downs, and Robert Root. The general idea was that, even though we write from factual experience, we often find our form in the process of writing, sometimes despite our initial plans. This describes my most common method of writing, in which I begin with a question and write to discover both wisdom and form. But I decided to engage my contrarian instinct instead of writing the paper I expected, and I thought about how some writers (myself included) sometimes begin with a form, then fit their subject matter to it. Never one to speak only about my own experiences, I decided to interview several writers who had borrowed and modified other forms to make their essays. Among the writers I emailed were Joey Franklin, Dinty Moore, Ander Monson, Caitlin Horrocks, Desirae Matherly, Michael Martone, Eula Biss, and Jill Talbot, who wrote a powerful essay in the form of a college syllabus. Because of the compressed format of an AWP talk, I could only use a fraction of anybody’s insightful responses, so I’m glad that Essay Daily can present Jill’s replies in full.

                   — Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden: Which came first, the story or the form? I mean, did you want to write a "college syllabus" essay and then found the material for it? Or did you have your basic idea and then hit on the right form to contain it? How did it all come about?

Jill Talbot: I was teaching a course on the New American West, and we were in the middle of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I wrote my dissertation on Kerouac’s road narrative influence, but I hadn’t re-read the novel since I was in my twenties, when I was raging against accountability and responsibility and lusting after any man who did the same. You know the scene in Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield talks about the museum?: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times . . . . The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that, exactly. You'd just be different, that's all.” That semester, my daughter had just turned nine and was beginning to ask questions about her father, Kenny, the man who ran off for different roads and different women when she was an infant, and for the first time, I read that novel not in admiration of the crazed search for “It,” but as one of the women that men like Sal and Dean leave behind. It changed the way I taught the novel—not as a non-conformist, manic, road-as-life manifesto, but as a glimpse into the doorways where women waited for men to come back, already knowing they wouldn’t.

So I began to wonder how much Kenny had influenced and altered what I read and how and why—but more importantly, why I taught certain texts over others. I started looking through previous semesters, and it was clear how I had been teaching nothing beyond my own heart and its rupture. One syllabus in particular, an American Literature II one, in which I used an anthology but made very specific selections—each one echoing a moment I shared with Kenny (he loved Raymond Carver poems) or an experience I had because of his leaving.

I copy and pasted that semester’s reading schedule into a new document and started filling in the gaps that were on the page (but not in my mind). I annotated each text—put my own story, I suppose, beneath each author and title. It began as a test (Is he really in every one of these? Can I pull this thread through every last one? Answer: Yes.) That came first and then I thought how my persona was a professor, so she better teach, which is why most selections have both the professional and the personal, but ultimately, the persona (self) deconstructs, and she can’t bring herself to discuss certain texts or lines out loud. In fact, this explains the crossed out On the Road Part I on the syllabus and the exchange for Sherman Alexie because that semester in my New American West class, we followed Kerouac with Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (you’ll notice the conflation of that semester with previous ones—which happens to any of us who teach—we teach in a chamber of echoes—those students and questions and conversations that came before). I’d stand in class teaching Alexie, and I couldn’t bear to read those questions I had underlined out loud when I held my book, but I wanted to know the answers. And as the essay is an interrogatory form, Alexie’s questions were at “The Professor of Longing”'s core: "How do you talk to the real person whose ghost has haunted you? How do you tell the difference between the two?”

Back in my office, working on the syllabus draft, I recognized that I had been bringing Kenny’s ghost into every class. I was “teaching” it—though there’s no way for my students to know that. I wanted the syllabus essay to speak to that universality—the common experience of teaching works we love—we’re embedded in them somehow, and they’re in us, so we’re invariably teaching palimpsests (which is how I think of the syllabus essay—the text of my history with Kenny beneath the texts of the syllabus). It’s impossible to escape your loss and your longings when you teach them, semester after semester. The essay allowed me to put my grief and longing and lostness—what had always been beneath the surface of the syllabus—in it.

PM: What difficulties did you find (in writing, revising, or in publishing) because you chose a non-standard or borrowed form? Did you ever feel constrained by the form you chose? And/or did the form free you or inspire you to write something different from your other (standard-form) work?

JT: Experimental forms confine and expand concurrently—so while I had parameters and the required elements of the syllabus form, I was also forced to interrogate familiar material in a new way.

PM: Have you ever failed at writing an experimental form? Revised your experimental-formed work back into a standard form?

JT: I think all writers begin with some form of scaffolding they eventually lose after understanding it helped the essay find its way, and I’m no different. I see it in workshop all the time—that what helps build the essay ends up falling away.

When I set out to do a borrowed form or hermit crab essay, I begin thinking how the form and the content are in conversation or competition. For example, the enumerated essay, which I’m seeing more and more of, is most successful and interesting when the content relates a concept or a memory that defies order. Justin Daugherty’s “A History of Loneliness in 23 Acts (of Love)” (The Normal School) offers no answers, only questions, a search—the logic of enumeration works against the lack of logic in the persona’s interrogations. I love when that happens.

But back to standard versus experimental form: I have an essay in the form of wine list, for example, an essay about a time when I chose wine over Kenny and how that affected our relationship. The list allowed me to emphasize that wine was the center of everything, so it’s the main feature on the page—everything else (us) is in small print, so to speak. I also use the absences (some wines on the list are not followed by text) to speak to the distance between us, what we were keeping to ourselves. [That essay is in Issue 10 (Spring 2014) of PANK and in The Way We Weren’t, by the way.] In the same way, the syllabus essay has those two texts in conversation and in juxtaposition—the assigned texts and the personal ones, the public persona and the private self.

I don’t think you can only write experimental form or standard form—some essays don’t need to play—sometimes you need to let the story stand. But for some essayists, like me, there comes a time when I need to take off the training wheels and fly down the hill, leaving all the streets I’ve known behind. And as a reader of the experimental essay, it’s like playing Follow the Leader, racing down the hill after that bold essayist knowing I’m being shown a path no one has ever ridden, and I shout into the wind: “Very cool.”

Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, co-editor of After Montaigne, and co-translator of the Selected Poems of Eduardo Milán. He teaches at Brigham Young University and curates

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. She co-edited The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together and edited Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and listed in the Notable Essays section of Best American Essays 2014. She is also the nonfiction editor for BOAAT Press.