Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Literary Field Guide: A Q&A With Eric Magrane and Chris Cokinos


If field guides and poetry have something in common, perhaps it’s the way the writers of each seem to possess an inexhaustible knowledge, only the barest of which is transferred to the page. The more you read, the more you want to know. The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide combines aspects of both in its descriptions of the region’s most prominent species. On February 22, I sat down with the book’s co-editors to talk transfiguration: of the genre, the landscape, and what we’d choose if we could transfigure ourselves.

Paulina Jenney: I thought we could start by talking about how the book was born. What came first: the essays, or the idea to write a field guide? I’ve never seen anything like it.

Eric Magrane: The first incarnation of the project was the Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park, done in conjunction with the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro. The BioBlitz was a citizen science project in which public were invited to join scientists in the field inventorying species. And actually, a number of species that hadn’t been seen in the park before were found through that. Chris and I were a part of the arts planning group for the BioBlitz. I proposed the poetic inventory, which mirrored the form of the Bioblitz but would produce poems and prose instead of quantifying species. We gathered 80 poets and writers to write pieces, poetry or prose, addressing species that live in the Sonoran Desert. It was more of an affective or emotional response in how one individual human interacts with another species.

Chris Cokinos: This was really Eric’s project from the start and I sort of horned in and said, ‘I want to be involved.’ I had just moved from Utah to Tucson and was suffering some shock. I didn’t really know Eric or anybody on the planning committee, so it was fortuitous for me to be able to tap into the writing community here. I would say too that it's part and parcel of Eric’s creative and intellectual interest in arts and environment and science and his thinking like the poet geographer that he is. After the BioBlitz, he published pieces in his magazine, Spiral Orb, and it became really clear that this was the model for something that could be a sort of Sonoran nature writing 2.0 — this new generation of writers.

EM: We thought about what the next form of this work could take, and we hit on the idea of combining the genres of literary anthology and field guide. For me, one of the really exciting things about it is playing with form. As a geographer and as an artist, I’m really interested in what happens when you put different forms together. Different ways of approaching questions, different forms of approaching knowledge, different forms of approaching biodiversity—which we hopes happens in this book—are very important. I also find hybrid projects like this to be the most fun and interesting projects to work on.

CC: Right from the start, we knew we did not want to write a traditional field guide. The field guide as it is today is an immensely utilitarian form, and that’s great. But if you look back at earlier incarnations of field guides, when binoculars start to become available and the genre is sort of invented, the prose is playful and metaphoric and interested in sound and it’s funny. The early authors of field guides would tell stories. I think we wanted to capture some of that while being as accurate as we possibly could. We ran the field guide material by experts, but I think part of the reinvention was defying someone's expectations about what a field guide would be like.

PJ: There’s a wide range in the field guide entries as well as the poems and prose. Some are really literal, like, ‘this bird is six inches long,’ and then there’s the ocotillo description, which starts with “Imagine you are on the bottom of the ocean...” How did you tackle those?

EM: We wrote the field guide entries in the library at Tumamoc Hill, a landmark site in the history of desert ecology. We surrounded ourselves with piles of field guides and all kinds of research on Sonoran Desert ecology, and we riffed off some of the things that were there. We approached it so that each entry in a sense a creative piece as well: a mini lyric essay or a little prose poem, like in the ocotillo you reference…

CC: sometimes a call for conservation—

EM: Sometimes a field guide says just as much about the human as it does about the species it describes. It's essentially about taxonomy—the way humans organize other species, so that was one of the things we tried to play with as well. In technical or scientific writing, there could be a reduction to biology, but what about an aesthetic sense in approaching each of the species?

CC: But also being cognizant too of not getting too anthropomorphic. We were up there for several days bouncing these things off each other. For me as a writer, and I think most writers think of themselves as pretty solitary, it was an eye-opening collaborative research and writing process. The interchange that happened between the two of us as we were writing those pieces was both an extension and embodiment of what was happening in the book itself, in that these writers had gone out to the desert, interacted, observed, wrote about the species and then came together in this wider conversation. I think the field guide entries reflect, in both the process and the product, the sense of extended conversation among a variety of authors— not just Eric and myself, but all the people who have preceded us in writing about the desert.

EM: And the process for deciding which of us would write which descriptions was organic. Essentially, “This is the one I feel like writing about next.”

CC: Yeah, I remember I took the saguaro because I don’t have a real affection for saguaro. In fact, one of the reasons I jumped on the project five years ago was that I felt really out of place here. This was not the landscape or ecosystem, these were not the mountains or valley, that I had lived in for ten years. It was like, ‘I need to immerse myself in this place, now.’ I was feeling adrift, and so personally, the project was a way of creating a kind of home space for myself.

PJ: I think there’s a sense that both the writers are really immersed in the Sonoran Desert, as one reads the entries. A lot of the pieces, in fact, come from the voice of the desert or the animals that live there. I’m thinking particularly about the one with the vulture, where it says something like, “Of course the vulture’s head is made of bare skin, because who would want to stick a head of feathers in a deer carcass?” I think the line between the human writer and the animal kingdom… it’s easy to get lost, in a good way.

CC: Well, I think it’s important to remember we are all animals. An animal responds to some stimulus in the environment with fear or curiosity and can communicate that in certain ways, and at a base level, that’s sort of what we’re doing here.

EM: And it’s this multivocal thing as well. It’s a community project in the broadest sense: community of writers, and community of these other creatures. Although I’d spent a lot more time here than Chris -- I was a hiking guide for ten years in the Sonoran Desert before I got back into geography at the University -- the project was for me something of a love note to the Sonoran Desert.

PJ: Do you foresee, or would you like to see, field guides for other regions as well, say a Field Guide to the Appalachians or, the Pacific Northwest?

CC: Yes. My hope is that this becomes a thing, and that people from other parts of the world see this as a way of involving community, both human and otherwise. I think it’s just waiting to be done. It’s beautifully scalable; you could do it with a garden or the Grand Canyon.

EM: And I think it’s a way for people to really get to know their place. I knew a decent amount about the desert beforehand, but through the process of doing this project, I dug deeper. Each of the writers had to go out and get to know, in one form or another, this species that they were writing about. And hopefully, the readers get to know the desert in a different way and through that, the book inspires care and respect.

CC: Field guides are a form of de-mystifying, right? They’re typically very literal, scientific information. There’s factual content here, and not just in the field guide entries, and so there’s a kind of de-mystification. But at the same time, because of Paul [Mirocha]’s illustrations, or a certain variety of syntax and sound and voice, there is a certain kind of enchantment as well. I hope that it does both.

PJ: I’m wondering, especially with the birds and the mammals, how you assigned the species. For example, I’d imagine you can’t just assign someone a puma and say, ‘okay, good luck having an encounter with a puma’… or maybe you can?

CC: Maybe you can! Or, take Cybele [Knowles], who did not ingest any part of the sacred datura. The writers had varying levels of intimacy and distance with the species, and I think that’s appropriate.

EM: Some of the writers didn’t really know their species at all, and in that case, it was, here, meet, get to know each other. There’s such a variety in how the writers decided they were going to write about, or to, or of, their species. Some requested specific species, some were assigned. It was a mapping, in a certain sense, of all those different human and nonhuman relationships. Each of those pieces becomes an object that contains something about those relationships that can be approached, performed, or explored in many different ways, as a model, as a marking of a certain time and place, as information about human conceptions of nature.

CC: And I would say that that range is reflected across the spectrum of difficulty and accessibility, too. This book is as various as the writers and the creatures and the plants. There are some very straightforward and personal narratives that are nonetheless quite artful, and then you have some very compressed, maybe oblique kinds of work, which I think offer their own beauty and solace, even if you don’t have a rational paraphrase for what a piece is about. We tried to have a real range of entry points for people. Someone who’s not familiar with the desert or some aspects of contemporary poetry, they’re going to find ways into this book. And readers who know the desert very well, or have a certain eye for poetry are going to find entry points into this book as well.

PJ: I agree. Do you have any questions for each other?

EM: I have a whimsical question for Chris, actually. If you could be one of these species, and not a human, which one would you choose?

CC: Oh, that’s a good question. I have two answers: One is one of my favorite species, but I’m not sure if it’s in the book. I’d want to be a loggerhead shrike.

EM: You’d want to be the butcherbird! The loggerhead shrike catches insects and lizards and impales them on cactus thorns or barbed wire fences, and then they’ll fly away and come back later and eat them. Dude.

CC: Right? I would either want to be the butcherbird or the flicker, which I wrote about in the book. Those are birds that have followed me, or I’ve followed them, or we’ve co-evolved over my movement across different landscapes, from Kansas to Utah to here. There are certain species that are iconic for me in that way. What about you?

EM: I’d probably choose a bird as well. There’s something about a species that lives in a way that’s quite a bit different from the way that we live. So, raven. Their language, their ability to fly, they seem like they know quite a bit. Or I think it would be fun to be a Sonoran spotted whiptail, a lizard, because it would be a lot different from being a human. As far as plants go, it would be interesting to be a mesquite tree, or an ironwood, but I don’t know if I’d want to live for that long in just one place.

CC: We could be like, concocting the plot for the next Margaret Atwood novel. I’d want to be a sacred datura, if I had to be a plant. What about you, Paulina?

PJ: I mean, in terms of birds, it’s funny because I’m vegetarian, but I keep thinking about the vulture. As far as reptiles go, I think I’d want to be the greater short-horned lizard.

EM: You’d get to shoot blood out of your eyes!

PJ: Yeah, it’s so wild.

EM: How did we describe that in the field guide entry? The superpower that every eight-year-old would want?

CC: Yeah, I’d totally love to be able to shoot blood out of my eyes. Can you imagine? Like, this committee meeting is over. *spew*

PJ: Well, before we get there, is there anything else you’d like to share?

CC: I have a fact to share actually; this is just coincidence that we’re doing this interview today. Every year, I mark in my planner the anniversary of the death of the last Carolina parakeet, and yesterday was the death of that bird, named Incas. He died in the Cincinnati Zoo 98 years ago. I keep that in my logistical planner to remind me of the stuff that’s really important. Not to end on a down note, but I really think of this book as one of those artful tools through which we can transcend our own ignorance, because those were birds that were quite beautiful and could easily have been spared, and so hopefully this book will touch some people to love, and defend, and protect.

EM: One of the things that we put in the introduction is a question: In 100 years, how many of these will be elegies? In 1000 years, what will the makeup of the Sonoran Desert be? That, for me would be one of the most interesting things about being a different species— having a different conception of time. As humans, we think on certain timescales, and being able to shift that some, to think about Chris’ comments on extinction…

CC: I think that’s the heart of the book, actually. Things come and go. Extinction is a normal process, beauty is ephemeral, and a book like this not only helps us think of different temporalities, but also about the aesthetic foundations of policy choices that we make that sustain or diminish a particular system. Maybe this book is having an object or poem or essay or drawing to help, in some way, clarify or trouble that question. What is it you value? What is it you find beautiful? What do you want to work to sustain?

*

Paulina Jenney is a double major in creative nonfiction and environmental studies at the University of Arizona. She communicates for the Institute of the Environment, is the Recommended Reads editor at Terrain.org, and writes the Tree of the Week series for the Campus Arboretum.

Eric Magrane is a poet and geographer. He is poet in residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and is the founding editor of Spiral Orb. He is currently completing his PhD in geography at the University of Arizona and teaching environmental studies.

Christopher Cokinos is the author of three books of literary nonfiction: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds; The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars; and Bodies, of the Holocene. He’s the author of a poetry chapbook, Held as Earth, and co-editor of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide.

Monday, March 28, 2016

“Queer It If You Can”: An Interview with Brian Blanchfield by Jill Talbot

I discovered Brian Blanchfield in January when Ander Monson tweeted a link to his essay, “On Dossiers,” featured in BOMB Magazine. The essay begins with a quote from Roland Barthes, followed by Blanchfield’s musings on the definition and purposes of dossiers, specifically in relationship to his experience on the academic job market. Within those musings, a floodlight appeared before me: “a horrid site called Academic Wiki Creative Writing 2015.” Here was a fellow writer and applicant who had come out of the Wiki shadows to share a particular experience with one university’s search, to declare his grievances with the bewilderment of the process and its conclusions. Blanchfield offers, “I am merely opening a dossier here, on disappointment with academia.”

The biographical information following the essay explains that “On Dossiers” is from a collection titled Proxies, so I ordered a copy, but not before I Googled “Brian Blanchfield” to find out more about the guy who struggles to land a T-T gig. Two poetry books, one of which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was also longlisted for the National Book Award. A contributor to Harper’s, The Nation, The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and Conjunctions. What the fuck, academia?

Is it my hair? Is it my unnaturally thin wrists? Is it my somehow sorrowful face in profile, its misguided, expectant smile? Is my voicemail gay? Gay enough? Is my posture unemployable?

I appreciated Blanchfield’s attempts at explaining his failure for the very reason Phillip Lopate says we read essays, “to feel less freakish and alone.” If you, like Blanchfield, like me, have come up short year after year on the job search for a permanent position, you have your own questions you muddle over (and over). It’s a very different set of questions from “What do I know?”.

I e-mailed Blanchfield to thank him for his essay, to commiserate about the difficulty and drudgery of the annual search. We went back and forth a bit, then plummeted into silence as we each performed our annual Skype, campus visit, long wait dance

After reading a few essays in Proxies, I reached out to Blanchfield again, and this time, not as one of those individuals he refers to in “On Dossiers” as “confrères on the outs. A family, we, of unaffiliateds,” but as a reader and scholar and writer of the essay. I wanted to interview him, to have the chance to bring as much attention to his essays as possible. They’re that good.

In “A Note,” the brief preface to Proxies, Blanchfield explains:

I decided on a suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources. I wrote these essays with the internet off. I determined not to review again the books and other works I consulted in memory, and I did not stop thinking through the subject at hand to verify assertions or ground speculation or firm up approximations. Que sais-je? Montaigne asked his library shelves one day late in the sixteenth century, and increasingly that seems a good start.

Montaigne. Bingo. Blanchfield invokes the tradition of a mind “thinking through” a subject, as he does in essays titled, “On Owls, “On Propositionizing,” “On Man Roulette,” “On Tumbleweed,” “On House Sitting,” “On Frottage,” “On the Near Term,” and seventeen more “On”s. As I began the brief essays that usher the reader into the collection, I discovered the wildness and playfulness of what I refer to as the “pure essay,” the essay that meanders and arrives not in conclusions, but in continuations, the essay that doubles back on itself, that draws on the secondarity of the subject at hand (the self) vis-a-vis intertextuality.

However, rather than quoting Virgil with authority as Montaigne did, Blanchfield “[suppresses] . . . authoritative sources” by relying on memory. Que sais-je?, then, becomes not only what one knows, but what one remembers, and we misremember, we revise, unwittingly. To that end, Blanchfield’s explains:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Blanchfield’s contemporaries in this “thinking through” approach include essayists such as David Lazar, Mary Cappello, Elena Passarello, Wayne Koestenbaum, Patrick Madden, Steven Church, Lia Purpura (I could go on), and, as Blanchfield mentions in this interview, the layering of life writing and intellection as practiced (and perfected) by Alison Bechdel and Maggie Nelson.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing offers a seismic addition to the Essay World.

In “On the Understory,” you write about making maps when you were young. For readers unfamiliar with your essays, I’m hoping you’ll create a map of one of the essays in the book, a legend of your “thinking through” a subject.

What a great idea: a schematic for how these essays travel their territory. (I wish I had my childhood Etch a Sketch.) I think to map the course of an essay probably gets me also to trace to a couple of important forebears.

The twelfth of these twenty-four essays is “On House Sitting, Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” By that point I think the reader may be accustomed to (and read right past) the formula of these essays’ chunky titles; accustomed, too, to the suppositional and speculative quality of the improvisatory, go-it-alone thinking—a result of the constraint you’ve laid out. If the reader is also accustomed to the brevity of these essays, it’s at this point in the book that expectations are flouted a bit. “House Sitting” is one of several essays that extend to seven, eight, ten pages, rather than two or three. After a while, these essays just outgrew their rooms

Housesitting is typical as a subject in this regard: I chose it with a loose sense that inside it there was hot material for me, personally uneasy territory and the invitation for vulnerability, and that I would find it. Atypically, I knew here, before I began, that I wanted to arrive at an assertion, an insight I had had once while interviewing Eileen Myles: “I think you could tell a rather comprehensive queer literary history through the lens of housesitting.” And then pursue what that might mean.

This essay begins with a quick review of an experience of housesitting a friend’s apartment in Provincetown—finding the keys under the back stairs, reading and developing selective (even erotic) relationships with his books and things, deducing from a note on the desk that Eileen had been there before me. And very early on, this essay, like nearly all of the essays, attempts a definition of the subject at hand. There’s a funny scientistic project to this book, I think—in part the pieces are structuralist studies of the phenomenon or object or meme, and it may be that each time the “study” surrenders to the intimacy I find within. Or maybe there is no victor in that toggling.

In any case, the structuring “rules” of housesitting are determined here, one by one. They’re familiar to anyone who has caretaken another’s space. I move through a few of these. Mutual benefit is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or an enabling fiction. Initially everything about housesitting is citational: here I am “drawing the blinds,” now I think I’ll “separate these twist ties,” etcetera. The housesitter’s identity shifts during his stay: minder, prowler, visitor, surrogate, beneficiary, help. Because the eventual goal is to leave things as they were, housesitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious. The construct is a tidy socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last formulation wanders into an area of concern revisited elsewhere in this book: the question of simulation of heterosexual models, versus the original expression of the categorically queer. I think because there’s tenderness under my assertion, I then turn back to personal anecdote, narrating several housesitting incidents, including when a friend’s husband returned home early to find I had substantially rearranged the place and was with a guy in their bed. I must say, I left out several other doozies. These amount to an inquiry into the specific sort of resentment that announces itself if one party or the other is insensitive to what it might mean to borrow the stance and posture of cultural privilege when an LGBT person housesits a straight household.

That’s the zoom-out opportunity I finally take to think about Hart Crane housesitting for the Gorham Munsons and James Schuyler housesitting for the Fairfield Porters, Eileen Myles housesitting for friends in Bucks County Pennsylvania, and Jack Spicer refusing to “play house” for writers he resenting for moving out to the suburbs. What I hadn’t expected is that this would open onto an even wider inquiry into what queer community is and can be, and who exactly I mean when the poems in my second book, A Several World, construct again and again a we, a first person plural, a collective that recognizes one another, conjoined perforce in solidarity. A few of these essays discover something well beyond what I thought was available, and this is one, which connected for me (and, sadly, anticipated) the deaths from HIV/AIDS of the friend with whom I was discovered in bed, and David Armstrong—a subject of the book I loved in Provincetown and later my boyfriend’s boss for whom we often housesat, and James Merrill.

So, maybe you can hear Roland Barthes’ science of signs in Mythologies and (behind that) Adorno’s Minima Moralia as formative influences, and the work of Chris Kraus and Wayne Koestenbaum who do not suppress the autobiographical and even the abject in the monograph form, and Alison Bechdel and Maggie Nelson and others for whom lifewriting is indistinct from a kind of free intellection.

Essayist Joe Bonomo has compared writing an essay to “building a house without knowing in advance how many rooms or floors you’ll put in. The house builds itself.” He has also written, “The mind is a large house with many rooms. The rooms are connected-by hallways, by frayed runners, by wall lamps, by desire, and by memories.”

While reading your essays, I appreciated the experience of wandering pages and paragraphs without knowing where I was going, discovering unknown rooms, following the hallways you used to connect them, and being delightfully surprised at the end of each essay, thinking, “I never thought we’d end up here,” or “I’ll be damned, he brought it back.”

I don’t want to ignore the connections you’re making between queerness and essaying, because it’s a connection/overlap/conversation I had planned to ask you about, so I assure you, I will come back to it.

But since you bring up your second book of poems, A Several World, I wanted to ask you a question regarding genre. In The New York Times review, you’re described as a poet who “can connect anything to anything else.” This mode of writing echoes what you’re detailing here.

How and why did you make the shift from poem to essay? And why now, do you think?

When I was living in Missoula, teaching at the University of Montana, 2008 to 2011, I had a recurring dream that was largely architectural. I’d be in a childhood home of mine or in an apartment I had rented and I would discover a door I hadn’t seen before, along the hallway or in a closet or in the building’s “utility room.” Opening it I’d find a passageway that led down some stairs or along a corridor to another door, and so forth, eventually opening onto something that felt like total largesse, a windfall: a huge natatorium from some other era, or a plush, cozy “reading room,” or something. The feeling of illicit trespass would give way to an understanding that I have access, that this too is part of my living quarters. I have the keys. They were exploratory, exhilarating dreams, and the message: this area has been here all along, unoccupied or undiscovered by me, and from now on it’s part of what I inhabit.

It was in these years that I wrote the very first of these essays, and came to understand slowly that there would be a book of them. I’ve fallen into the habit of saying that essay prose is “another room on the house” that I thought was all poetry. My subconscious was already working out that insight long before I said it aloud.

Stephen Burt made that remark about my first book of poems, Not Even Then, and I recognize in it a (sometimes wearied) assessment critics make about the Metaphysical poets: that they can and do connect anything to anything else. Rhetorical and committed to reasoning, but given to associative logic.

My second book likely absorbs the description less thirstily. But A Several World anticipated Proxies in a couple of ways that are apparent to me now. Not least in the suite of poems, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012, in which, one by one—Time, Authority, Casuistry, Education, Symmetry—“the history of an idea” becomes a kind of landscape for a sort of fictive, imaginative idyll. My own lifespan to that point provided the parameters, and while those poems are nobody’s working epistemology, I’m glad for the permissive premise I granted myself that if you have lived those years you are plenty expert enough on the recent trajectory of an idea and its value to tour someone through the area.

Attention to the thing as expertise enough, the sense of an infinitely repeatable experiment, and treatment of itemized individual subjects almost as though you were involved in a series of place studies: all are qualities of Proxies, too.

I’ll also say that when I really got into the writing of this book of essays, in my late thirties, I grew aware of a rather simple urge, which is made of a fervently nonacademic independence: I wanted to say what I knew. What I knew not only as a “queer intellectual” poet, but also as the son of a truck driver and a Primitive Baptist, as a perennial applicant alternately absorbed and expelled by academia, a professor without an office, a spiritual beginner, a furtive and class-conscious observer, and so on. With a fair amount of candor. That hadn’t been available to me in poetry. You could call it an early mid life crisis, I like the term reckoning: a wish to add it up, to integrate my knowledge bases, each one more than a little off base.

To write about propositionizing (the linguistics term) or the leave (in billiards) or the understory (in ecology) without access to any outside knowledge turned out, peculiarly, to be a way to do the psychologically integrative work of memoir. A back door entry.

I ran into two poets in a bar the other night (no, this is not the opening of a joke), and I suggested Proxies to them for the poetry craft and writing exercises you discuss. For example, in “On the Locus Amoenus,” you discuss the poet versus the speaker of the poem; in “On Containment,” you explore Charles Olson’s term “proprioception”; more than once you mention and/or quote the poetry of Hart Crane; and in “On Abstraction,” you describe an exercise you ask poetry students to do to avoid it.

You alluded to “On the Leave,” at the close of your last answer. That’s one of my favorite essays in the collection. In it, you begin by discussing pool (now I’m unfolding a map of your essays for readers) and “think through” the game in terms of the leave (“in billiards, is the arrangement of however many of fifteen numbered balls remain on the table”) and the given (what’s left for the next taker, “who must address the cue.”) From here (I’m flattening the creases of the map), you begin discussing your father, who supplemented his truck driving income by shooting pool. During the few custody weekends after your parents’ divorce, he’d take you to the bars where he played (I loved the description of the bar in daytime). Then, after the age of twelve, you rarely saw him: “Understanding this given as the leave, it took me years to know how to play my turn.” From here (now I’m pointing to a road’s direction), you describe a sexual encounter near a pool table in a bar, where you’re sure you had shared the story of your father, the pool shark:


It can be very attractive in one’s narrative to replace the given with the leave. Because if I equate my foundational circumstances with the leavings, the discard, the refuse—even the ruins—of others, I feel more entitled to use them, to build from the rubble.
 
I wonder if you see this ability to “remark,” as part of (your) essaying, as well.

I like the rough road of your summary, and I’m glad to know you like that essay in particular. If you’re playing your shot, you’re keeping in play what’s already in play: yes, I think that is a fair analogy to the work of essay nonfiction, for me. I mean, in this genre I find I need something particular to examine, to annotate, trusting the larger secondarity of another subject is accessible somewhere within. To be a bit reductive, that’s the model for writers as different as John McPhee and Guy Davenport and Claudia Rankine and Adam Phillips.

Shall I fit under my teacher hat here for a moment? The root of “poetry” comes from the verb to make (and the root of fiction is to form), but at the root of the word “essay” is the verb to weigh or to weigh out. That etymology seems to be have been determinative, at least as I work in these genres. For now I like the essay as an act of measure, to estimate the matter at hand. A bill of lading.

I was in my thirties before I realized that fraught was the past participle of freight. I guess I have been unpacking ever since.

The other way you may be meaning remark is also central to the pleasure of writing to me. I’m afraid I’m given to the occasional aphorism or apothegm—or anyway some kind of relatively bracing quick formulation—in prose and in poetry. I mean in this very essay, one of the shorter ones, there a few of them. It’s likely a kind of self-reprimand or counterbalancing impulse after a long deliberative passage or more intricate sentence-work.

As we talk here, you’re on the road (in real time, not on a map of an essay), so I should note that “remark” is a word you italicize toward the close of that essay; in particular, you claim that your life (the writing) is a reply, even a remark. I like thinking of my essaying, too, as a reply or a remark. Very much so.

When I was in college, I was a cheerleader both for the Baptist university I attended and for a professional organization I worked for during the summers, so most of the men I spent my time with in my formative late teens and early twenties were gay. At my university, the men were threatened with being removed from the squad or even expulsion if they came out, and one of them was kicked out of his apartment after his roommate found out and announced, “I want to be President some day, and I cannot have a homosexual roommate in my past.” (I’ve never heard that roommate’s name on MSNBC or seen it on an election ballot.) Many of the conversations I had with my friend and other men centered around their frustration at a world that did not allow them to be who they were, or, as it was the late 1980s, their fear and the reality of HIV/AIDS.

It took me a while to figure out why I’ve always been drawn to the writings of gay men (it took until my thirties). A few years ago, I taught a class focused on the works of Bernard Cooper and Truman Capote, yet expanded to include other writers, such as Peter Cameron, Marky Doty, Adam Haslett, Paul Lisicky, Ryan Van Meter, Felice Picano, Bob Smith, Ocean Vuong, and Edmund White, who were all were gracious enough to be interviewed via e-mail by individual students in the class. What I eventually figured out was that each time I read one of these writers, each time I suggest a writer to a student or an acquaintance, each time I teach a book or an essay, or that year I took my bank teller a copy of Ryan Van Meter’s debut essay collection as a gift when he married his husband—I’m trying to give a voice to those men I knew and loved and cared about (and, I fear, let down) then.

In that way, my penchant for reading and teaching (and interviewing) queer writers serves as a remark, a reply.

At the close of “On the Leave,” you describe that “you (the writer) find that to answer is also to resume and, in resuming, to reconcile with posterity. Queer it if you can.”

David Lazar in “Queering the Essay,” notes, “The essay doesn’t just resist classic gender binaries, but in many ways queers them. I’ll put the statement out of the rhetorical closet: the essay is a queer genre. What do I mean? I mean this in a most specific way. In the way that queer theory defines queer as a continuing instability in gender relations that undermines the traditional binary of gender, replacing it with indeterminate, transgressive desires. The desire of the essay is to transgress genre.”

Interesting analogy, and worth thinking about. I feel the urge to fuss with it a bit. Because it gets slippery, doesn’t it, when you assign intention to identity stuff?: positioning differently toward the gender binary isn’t always a desire to transgress or replace it; but, it can be an enactment (act as is if there is no center, per Stein) of the constructedness of gender. Genre, too, is of course a received structure; and there too it’s possible to back into intentional fallacy, in assuming the author is claiming a referential relationship to nonfiction or the essay or memoir or whatever.

It wasn’t long ago, fifteen years or so, when even in English certain writers resorted without better options to borrowing the French term for a kind of writing unconcerned with genre distinction: écriture. What are you writing? Just writing. Who was that, Barthes, and then Helene Cixous, écriture feminine? When’s the last time you heard her cited anywhere? But the tradition they were (barely) naming—Colette, Duras, Michel Leiris, Annie Ernaux, Hervé Guibert—was really influential on the prose writers I’ve learned most from: The New Narrative writers in California, the transgressive autobiographical novelists on both coasts, critical theorists working outside of discourse and objectivity, overlapping as they all did with gonzo journalism and conceptual art and documentary poetics and who knows what all. What terms have we settled on: lifewriting, autotheory, semioautobiography? I saw a nasty Kirkus review call it personalia, which I think we ought to endorse. I like essay. Essay suffices.

Is essaying queer? Yeah. And yet my single favorite passage from it, maybe my favorite passage of literature, remains the opening pages of Manhood, more or less a collection of cultural criticism pieces, by Michel Leiris, a cis straight white European man, in which the writer analyzes the specimen of himself, from the physiognomy of his “humiliatingly ugly” facial structure to his disgust for newborn babies to his habit of scratching his anus in unguarded moments. It’s a thrill, I think, because such thoroughness of self-scrutiny is rare.

If only your friend’s former roommate had then, or developed later, this sort of radical self-assessment and behavioral analysis. I hold out the possibility (I elect the possibility) he’s out there somewhere, the little governor, reflecting on the rationale and interworkings of his erstwhile moral cleanliness. On his self understood as specimen and type. (The utter opposite, it occurs to me, of self-blind Trumpism.)

Also. Giving your teller your favorite book: I like you.

All these terms you allude to work to identify, to place into a category, yet if something defies categorizaiton, how do we name it? When I was dropping my 8th grade daughter off at school one morning, I nodded to a student walking to the front door and asked, “Is that a boy or a girl?” She answered without hestitation, “What does it matter?” Indeed.

I, too, am comfortable with “essay,” though I’ll add one to your list up there: Barrie Jean Borich’s “Autogeographies” (from Bending Genre, which also includes four other writers—Kazim Ali, Lia Purpura, T. Clutch Fleischmann, and Karen Brennan—making connections between genre and gender). All of a sudden I’m thinking of of Jill Soloway’s “MaPa” in Transparent.

You turned us toward the self, so I’d like to close by returning to the beginning of your book, “A Note,” in which you claim, “This is a book braver than I am.” I appreciate the separation of the self as Brian Blanchfield and the persona of the essay/the essayist. I’d love to hear how you distinguish between those two entities: the individual and the essayist.

You name here someone who has been crucial to the development of this book, always one of my first readers, my closest writing partner in Tucson, and one of my early teachers, Karen Brennan. Karen’s essay “Memory, Story and the Recovery of Narrative,” which developed into her memoir Being with Rachel, is one of my touchstones for trenchant combination of the personal and the scholarly. (And her new, next book Monsters is brilliant, adventurous as ever at the boundaries of genre.) Thinking of her, in relation to your question, is pertinent, perfect, especially as she more than anyone knows the calculus that brought me to the title of my collection, relatively late in the process (I had the working title Onesheets for a long while). Proxies I like for sort of naming the form I’m working in, like a diminutive of approximation, a prosey estimation of a subject. But of course I also welcome its established meanings, and the more I learned what it is to write nonfiction and narrative, learning the ethics of writing this book, the more it seemed that the essays were proxies for me—to act where I could not or would not. Stand-ins, agents, avatars, sentries. I came to have the sense of sending them out ahead of me, ahead of what I was in the present ambient moment of each essay able to confront. Essay as deputy self. For a while I’ve been predicting that Proxies will at the very least accelerate certain of my relationships, professional and personal. Wherever they were going, they’ll get there faster now.

I can already say, ten or fifteen days into the life of the book, still in its prehistory really, that it organizes actual opportunities to rise up to the level of disinhibited honesty that I permitted myself writing them. I think I’m finding that now the necessary forward action is expressed as standing by them. (The standing in era is finished.)

The rolling endnote, Correction., I’ve described as an afterlife of facts, after the reckoning. I’m beginning to feel that living on after authoring such a book will likewise feel distinctly subsequent. To say nothing of consequences.

*

Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of poetry and prose, most recently Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, available now from Nightboat Books. For the essays in the book--which have appeared in Harper's, BOMB, Brick, StoryQuarterly and other publications--he was awarded a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction. The more recent of his two collections of poetry, A Several World (Nightboat), received the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was a longlist finalist for The National Book Award. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and hosts the radio show Speedway and Swan.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the essay collection Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She is the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Two of the essays in The Way We Weren't were named Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015, respectively. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, Passages North, The Pinch, and The Rumpus. She is currently the essays editor for BOAAT and the fiction editor for High Desert Journal.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Truth or Dare: On Imaginative Essays, Genre Transgression, and Shared Voyages

I. It started with Virginia Dare.


Like most Americans, I learned about The Lost Colony as a child—in fourth grade social studies class. The mysterious disappearance of the English settlement at Roanoke. The group led by John White numbered over a hundred when they left England in 1587, including White’s own pregnant daughter Eleanor, who gave birth at Roanoke. The baby, Virginia, was the first English child born in America. Even as a kid, I loved a good mystery, but I never wondered about what happened to the colony as a whole, or thought about them much at all, except as it pertained to Virginia whose newness captured me—a baby conveyed across the ocean in utero and planted like a seed in the New World. Virginia Dare. Her first name for a Virgin Queen, the second, a verb meaning courage. What would such a child have been like, I wondered over the years, until, a few years ago, I decided to pose the question to Virginia herself, in an essay, of course—because the essay is the best way I know to handle questions that don’t leave:

II. Teams of scientists have been searching the Roanoke site for years, analyzing bone fragments and combing through the soil. They will eventually settle the whole mess of The Lost Colony. But what will that have to do with what I most want to know? Some truths can’t be found in a compilation of facts. Some truths only reveal themselves when a person puts down their shovel and pick and opens their arms wide enough to receive a child gone missing for nearly four hundred and thirty years.

So I called out. But could such a long-gone child possibly hear? And even if such hearing were possible, would she recognize so strange a voice?

Yes. The answer is yes.

You will think I’ve gone soft in the head, that it couldn’t have been Virginia who answered and how right you’d be—though I’d be equally right to insist that a voice did return from the impossible distance into which I cast my line, a place which seemed to me very much like the outer Carolina Islands, a stretch of land navigable only through a tangle of letters and time, a wild space, from which a voice that was not my own rose from a lonely shore.


III. Literary resuscitation. It turns out to be habit-forming.

So good, in fact, I tried my hand at it again, bringing Susan B. Anthony back from the dead, standing with the suffragist on a late August day in 1920, the day the 19th amendment took effect—but only after bobbing her hair and setting her in a beaded dress at a speakeasy on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, the two of us watching bootleggers pull their boats into the bay.

I kept on. Dissolving the boundaries between imagination and reality and letting such habits infiltrate my essays. I climbed into the pages of a Kate Chopin story, inserted myself into 1890s Louisiana, standing under a canopy of tupelo and cypress trees while Chopin's main character, La Folle, decides whether or not to face down her greatest fear.

So close to fiction, all this imagining.

Ah, you might say, so you have an active imagination, that's not so bad.

But there’s more.

While I studied what I could find and read what others had written, it seemed the things I most needed to find, those small but essential moments, did not survive.

It wasn’t enough to report the facts of the tide of women leaving Ireland in the 19th century, I needed to stand with them for a moment, to feel the pulse of that boat as it pulled away from the Cork coastline, that ship loaded with mothers and fathers and children, moving faster than they expected from every last thing they knew. I wanted to be there with them for a moment, looking at the last bit of land before facing fully the blue before them. I wanted to stand there, between a group of girls leaving County Mayo, until I could almost feel their breath.

Do you see how far it’s gone?


IV. Which leads me to this confession, this sense of nagging unease.

If I were a fiction writer, there’d be no problem—I’d celebrate, in fact, and encourage myself to float further. But for going on fifteen years, I’ve loved the essay as much as a literary genre can be loved—for its movement, elasticity and poetic possibility, but most of all, for the direct connection to its writer, the throbbing honesty of its voice. If literary forms were friends, the essay might stammer a bit and take her time about it, but is the one genre who’d level with you about how your ass really looks in that dress. Which is why I stand before you now, an essay lover, more surprised than anybody that I may have gone astray.

When it comes to nonfiction, I'd always considered myself devout.

Which is to say that I tend to sit at a distance rolling my eyes when writers get into the Great Truth Debate. To me, it’s clear: If a fig tree grew in your front yard, don’t say it was an apple tree. If you make apples of figs, it’s fiction. And fiction is a fine thing. But a different thing, and I, for one, like to keep my genres straight. Hear the preaching in my voice? But only on this one thing, and not because I want to deprive anyone of apples or insist on figs, but because the inventional strategies of fiction lead to a different sort of truth than the essay, whose revelations rely on the act of sorting through the shards buried in the actual world, as well as those within us.

Still, all this preaching has me wondering if (as in life) those who are the most strident do not hide the largest transgressions? Except that, for all the imagining in my latest round of essays, I still find the line between the truth of the essay and the truth of fiction to be clear.


V. In the end, the way I make sense of the line between essay and story comes down to this:

  • The fiction writer creates a new world for readers (which, of course, is often created from existing parts).
  • The essayist guides readers through a new look at the existing world.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s the idea of writer as guide that is the essay’s heartbeat, it’s anchor. The claimed and outright presence of the writer that allows the reader to understand that—even during bouts of imagination—he is traveling with the writer. What matters most is how the writer filters and perceives, what she remembers, reports and wrestles with—the manner in which she renders her unique take on the world.

The essay is an invitation then, and, for better or worse, its trajectory and tone is largely about that invitation, the way it’s extended and delivered. The reader’s awareness of and connection to the writer is precisely what allows him to understand that no matter what’s put before him, he is, for the duration of the essay, on a shared voyage, and having a new look at the world by standing for a time at the writer’s side.

The guide may be clever, brooding, methodical, meditative, wise, funny, irreverent—and yes, even fanciful, but always, she is present in the work, whispering, here I am, let us travel for a time together.

*
Sonja Livingston's most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history and imagination to illuminate the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the memoir, Ghostbread, which won an AWP Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, and Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.

Illustrations:

1. Virginia Dare Tobacco, label, (circa 1871)
2. From Virginia Dare: A Romance of the Sixteenth Century, by Mrs. E.A.B. Shackelford loosely based on the life of Virginia Dare (19th century)
3. John White's Map of Roanoke (1585)
4. Map, John White & Theodore De Bry (1590)

Friday, March 18, 2016

March Sadness and the Collaborative Essay



So this March I've been running this project called March Sadness. Well, I'm already oversimplifying: we have been running the project, my wife and I. Actually, still oversimplifying: we're running it with a bunch of writers and musicians and listeners and voters and friends. It's a bracket that we made of the saddest songs of the college rock era (think MTV's 120 Minutes and the world it inherited and built and the world it collapsed under after, thanks to Napster and so forth), roughly 1980-2001. We (The Selection Committee) selected and seeded the songs with some rules: no more than one song per band, those dates are strict, and we tried to select for some different sorts of sadnesses, which meant that we didn't necessarily choose the absolute saddest song by every band represented on there (like I know that there are sadder songs by Low and Slowdive and Indigo Girls...probably). Feel free to naysay in the comments or suggest oversights as you like.

Crucially, though, we're now playing the games off, and are in the Sweet Sixteen beginning today, Friday, March 18th. Matchups are live for 24 hours for commenting and voting, and the song with the most votes advances. No need to register: you can just click on the game and vote. Like today we have two games: (3) Tori Amos vs (1) The Cure's "Pictures of You" and (2) Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" vs (6) This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." Listen, read, comment, and vote! Or you can click on my twitter feed which has polls on it too (you may have to scroll down a touch) so you can vote that way.

From pretty early on, I've not thought of this as just a fun exercise (though it began as that) but as a monthlong collaborative crowdsourced essay on sad songs and sadness in music, what makes for a great sad song, and how sadness or sad songs work on us. I'd like to make the argument here for more collaborative essays.

If you were at the NonfictioNow conference last October, my co-keynote with Michael Martone made this case there: we each wrote mini-essays about keys (hence the keynote, ha ha, got subverted into a keychain, or that was our initial metaphor) independently and delivered them in a random order generated by a member of the audience. Maybe you were there. Maybe you thought it was cool or confusing or pointless. I tried to make the argument in my half of the keys we offered for a collaborative essay. The essay seems to me very, very closely tied to the singular I (or the apparent singular I). I've written about this before, how the essay's the ideal simulation (and I do mean simulation with all the implications of the technological metaphor) of the individual mind churning—ruminating, in the way of the cow's digestion.

I still believe that, but I also feel like it's limiting. And it seems particularly limiting in the era of the Internet, which as we all know also seems to coincide with the Age of the Essay: why does the essay seem to flourish in the networked environment? It's not just because, as David Shields, says that Facebook is a personal essay machine (though there's that). And it's not just because of the ascendancy of the essay in the academy (in comp programs as the primary tool and in the ascendancy of creative writing programs themselves).

I remember having a conversation with Stephen Elliott—this was a few years ago now—maybe in Portland at a book festival there, I don't remember exactly—where we were riffing on the possibilities of electronic media, which for me then had primarily to do with multimedia and branching possibilities, interconnectivity, really. But his thought was that electronic media needed to take advantage of social interconnectivity. That thought stuck with me, because I've become increasingly convinced that our relationship with our media has been changing: now we expect to be able to download and snip apart and remix and remake it, whether it's via fan edits on youtube or slash fiction.

The cagey essayist here may note that essayists (and artists of all stripes, particularly collagists) have been doing this since forever. I don't mean explicitly, like going all Girl Talk on a Virginia Woolf essay and just adding beats and more raps (though I would totally listen to that). But aren't essays always patchworks of others' ideas, responding and responding and incorporating quotations and bending around our impressions of how others have always walked these roads before us? I mean, the phenomenon of commonplace books (which I have my cnf students do) has been around for centuries, and in a way that's not all that far from what tumblr does. I'd venture a guess that the essay has always been the most rhizomatic of the literary genres (or non-genres as the essayists have always complained, a problem that John D'Agata's epic anthologies have been trying to solve (see this space for a conversation with him on the eve of the final volume dropping in a couple weeks).

But why not, given that we seem to be communicating ever more quickly with each other (hence I ping Nicole Walker in an essay and boom, her Google Alert all of a sudden picks it up in a day before I've even got my head around the idea that it made it to Nicole almost instantaneously: hi Nicole), consider other ways in which we might interact?

I modeled one in my NonfictioNow keynote: Michael Martone and I were riffing back and forth, but I was also advocating in that keynote for the collaborative (as in collaboratively-written) essay, and I incorporated big chunks of bits that my students wrote in that presentation. I'd given them some prompts, including some of my early thinking, and asked them to write back in whatever way they liked, and I used some of their material in my part of the collaborative essay.

What I read there was only a small portion of the much bigger project, which is presently looking for a home (have ideas? drop me a line), but that seemed like one way to go about it.

March Sadness is another. For starters, though I've written about 80% of the content on the site (until today), my collaborator did the others, and it's a much richer conversation, I find (as you'd expect) when it's not just me in the echo chamber trying to make some magic. Her takes on the songs have affected mine and my thoughts about what kinds of sadnesses they articulate or create or describe. So there's that.

But tomorrow, starting with the Sweet Sixteen, we're also running short essays by writers and friends including Brian Blanchfield, Katie Jean Shinkle, Kate Bernheimer, Juan Diaz, Danielle Cadena Deulen, Kathleen Rooney, T Clutch Fleischmann, Elena Passarello, Matt Vadnais, Manuel Munoz, Alison Stine, Megan Campbell, Nicole Walker, and a couple more peeps yet to be announced. We asked them to introduce the sixteen songs and essay about them in whatever way they want.

I'm particularly excited about this because I'm interested in hearing what people have to say about This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren," for instance, in my view a colossal song and a dark horse to win the whole thing, if also something of a niche one. I found, in exulting about it with Brian, that yes, indeed there's something we share, and so why not explore that? You've done that, I'm sure, in talking about music or films or whatever, and the online discussion is a familiar enough form by now for most of us. So making a bracket's allows me (us) to do it in a more concentrated or slightly formal way.

We started with 64 writeups, each of one song, and because we began it in a bit of a half-assed way it just didn't seem possible to find people to do all those and manage all that. So we just did it ourselves for the first weeks: my collaborator and I  wrote almost all the mini-essays in the first two rounds. But the fun thing is of course that since the games are decided by popular vote (and the votes are affected by the commenting and conversation), the results have often been surprising. Like who knew that Mazzy Star had enough to get "Fade Into You" by REM's "South Central Rain"? Or that they would take (1) seed Joy Division's "Atmosphere" down to the very last minute of voting and lose with almost the very last shot (if you don't mind me extending my basketball metaphor), as they did yesterday? What was I missing about Mazzy Star?

Even when I consulted Ben Ratliff, music critic for the New York Times and author of a new book just out called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, he picked Mazzy to win it all. Really? Well, that turned out to be (barely) wrong, but his book's great. I'll probably talk about it shortly on the March Sadness site, particularly his useful chapter on sad music (and Nick Drake's Pink Moon).

So the voting—and the commenting—and the talking amongst ourselves has been for me very useful in trying to figure out just what I think about how we should disambiguate strands of sadness, so all of this suggests another model of a curated conversation-essay. I don't know: maybe I'm just trying to justify all this work I've put into a super music nerdy project, but I don't think so. I believe the collaborative idea here is legit, but we'll have to see. Some of you have found us there, or will find us there, and think: oh shit, this is a good idea. I seem to care about this. What I want to know then is not just who you'll vote for (and do vote!) but what those votes tell you about yourself—about ourselves and what we want from sad songs.

And what I hope is that this can become bigger and stranger and more surprising than any essay I'd be able to write about sad songs myself will be. And we need y'all to help us get there. Which is what you're doing already by reading this and participating in this blog, of course, another model of collaborative essay...

Monday, March 14, 2016

Int'l Essayists: Aurvi Sharma on the Body Patchwork, the Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days & the Kamasutra


Awhile ago I was reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (which I just noticed is referred to as a “collection of short stories” / “autobiographical episodes” on his Wikipedia page: weirdness) and found myself trying to name all the essayists I could who were born / live / reside / write from outside the U.S.—and I got a few, sure, but not as many as I’d like. There’s the obvious 20th-century-and-earlier cadre of greats, but who’s writing essays in Italy, or Argentina, or Morocco, or Ireland or India today?

That’s a bit disingenuous. Of course I know a bunch of contemporary int’l writers, some great essayists, and Essay Daily contributors, among them—last week’s featured essayist, for instance, Renée E. D’Aoust, who writes much of the time from Switzerland. But, still, I’d like to know more!

I'd like to know more, so I thought I’d use this space, every few months, to solicit a writer with a distinctly international background, asking them to write about another international writer of interest, someone we may or may not know, someone we should know, someone we would probably like to know, someone writing interesting things. 

I’m not sure what kind of legs this project has, but whatever. This is Essay Daily after all, an ideal space for trying out an idea. Making an attempt. An essay. (I hate to go to that cliche place - essai! - and yet, here we are, right there. Maybe it's inescapable. And wonderful.) 

I was intro’d to Aurvi Sharma’s work when her essay “Eleven Stories of Water and Stone” won Prairie Schooner’s 2014 Summer Nonfiction Contest. I loved it, and immediately asked if she’d write something for the Daily, which she did, a beautiful piece on language and identity and her grandfather, “a poet who scaffolded our lives with his prose.” She seemed an obvious choice to kick off this column.

        - Craig

* * * 


The Body Patchwork: 
The Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days and the Kamasutra

‘Perhaps I should have been able to bring those bits together, 
but such a narrative was not available to me, 
not after what I knew of storytelling.’ ­– Meatless Days


1. During High School, a common boast amongst my cooler peers was having read the Kamasutra (at night, under the covers, with a torch, while their parents slept). There were frequent claims of prodigious sexual knowledge gleaned from its pages. I was the literary type but the Kamasutra was not considered my terrain. 

2. I wasn’t even interested. I had seen the sculptures of Khajuraho at the age of eight (we lived in a mild-mannered town a couple of hours away), and I knew all about the orgies of those lithe stone bodies. For me, like for most people around the world, the Kamasutra was some compendium of the weird ways people in ancient India twisted their bodies while having sex. 

3. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally did read the Kamasutra at the ripe age of 30 and was met with pages upon pages about how an urbane gentleman should set up his house, how he should apply make up, the number of times he should bathe in a day, the days of the week he should shave, the best mouth fresheners available, ideal games to play during the day, the foods one must eat, the right clothes for the right time. The sex was there too, but the book turned out to be about the art of sumptuous living for the cosmopolitan, affluent people of 300 ACE somewhere in northern India.

Such glamour lingers within the Kamasutra’s pages. The text remains as much about culture, social mores and psychology as it is about sex. 

4. Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days, written in 1989, is a memoir about growing up in postcolonial Pakistan. It’s the story of Suleri’s Pakistani father, her Welsh mother, her beautiful sister Ifat and three other siblings. There is no plot here, time is broken. Reminiscences jump forward and backward. 

But the memoir is also the history of the young country, formed when India – at the time of independence from the British in 1947 – was divided into two. Suleri speaks as intimately of Pakistan as she does of her family.

5. Besides being the largest mass migration in human history – over 10 million bodies woke up in a country that was no longer their own and had to migrate to the other side – the Partition of India also saw horrible riots. Millions were raped, butchered. 

Pakistan’s genesis and India’s independence, then, floats upon blood, bodies and on dismemberment that soaks Suleri’s exquisite sentences. 

6. According to Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar, one of the aims of the Kamasutra was ‘to civilize the violence of sex, ritualize the cruelty of intercourse.’ 

7. Meatless Days: ‘For Ifat, the event clinched her perception of bodily secrecy and the illicit texture of what happens when something is added onto or subtracted from flesh. For me, however, it was and still remains my sharpest consciousness of the publicity of blood.’

8. Pakistan was created by the process of trimming the eastern and western extremities of India and naming them Pakistan, the land of the pure. But in this purity of intent was a big hole – the country of India lay between the two parts. 

Amidst this strange mutilation, is it a surprise then that I take two odd bedmates, written two millennia apart, and try to suture them together? These are my favourite books – one ‘Indian’, the other ‘Pakistani’. But really, when have I ever been able to take nation states seriously?

9. (Suture is cognate with Sanskrit sutra, meaning thread. It also refers to a genre of ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, which are collections of aphorisms.)

10. Sanskrit theatre has the trope of a narrator called the sutradhaar. Literally, a person carrying the thread. 

11. (Before suturing I must also retrieve the thread. Before suturing I must unravel.)

12. What is kama, then? It’s Sanskrit for desire as well as pleasure. In various contexts, it can imply sex, love, longing, affection, a gambling stake, virility. 

13. What am I suggesting? That for the pleasure of inquiry, one can read many things in words – just as one can read many things in bodies, faces and silences – simply for one’s total and absolute pleasure. 

14. In Meatless Days, Ifat tells Sara, all of eight years old, about how all nursery rhymes are about the ‘horrid parts of sex.’

‘“Don’t you think there are some things you shouldn’t tell me?” I asked her once gloomily. “Don’t you think it might be bad for me?”

“If you let it fester, that’s your fault,” Ifat answered.’ 

15. The Kamasutra’s fourth century milieu is lush, concerned not with unwieldy human bodies along with their ejaculate and smells. The Kamasutra is interested in the erotic. 

Wendy Doniger and Sunil Kakar put it succinctly when they say that the Kamasutra’s aim was ‘the rescue of erotic pleasure from the crude purposefulness of sexual desire, of reproduction alone.’

16. For example, the 13th century commentator Yashodhara does not consider masturbation as true kama because the pleasure does not involve real eroticism. 

17. In the Kamasutra, the body is the narrative, concerned not only with the 64 arts of making love, or the surreal ways you can twist your body during sex, but the whole social, cultural ramifications of love, desire and sex. In Meatless Days, the narrative itself is a body.

18. The title of Meatless Days refers to Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting. But in the shadow of this absence, the book is frequently, greedily obsessed with food. 

19. It’s a comparison too tempting to resist. Between one book concerned with ultimate pleasure and another fixated with complete consumption.

20. Consumable things in Meatless Days: mangoes, goat testicles, goat kidneys, the past, context, word, ink, swimming pools shaped as fish, Dadi shaped as shrimp, mother as water, sister as milk.

21. The funny thing is, the Hindu god of love is Kama Dev. He is also called Atanu, which means one without a body. 

22. So the Kamasutra, like Meatless Days, is not about eating to fill up or to survive. Rather, it’s about the pleasure of consumption as well as of withholding, about what it could possibly mean, this navigation of being meatless and meat-full. 

23. Meatless Days: ‘My crucial fault was a blurring of vision that allowed me to equate flesh with information, my poison with another’s meat.’ 

24. Suleri’s father was an influential journalist, frequently jailed for sedition against the Pakistani government. When her sister Ifat was run over by a car while walking outside her home in Lahore, the case turned hysterical. The family found their privacy shattered. Ifat’s letters morphed into evidence, her body into news. Police demanded to carry out an autopsy. Suleri’s father refused.

25. Suleri says, ‘I said a quick goodbye to the sweet assurance of those days when I could claim to know the names of things.’

26. Kama itself can be dissected. The commentator Yashodhara wrote in the 13th century: 

‘Kama is pleasure, and its limbs
Are jewellery, perfumed oils and garlands
As well as forest groves, roof-top gardens,
The playing of lutes, and wine.
Its base is women –
Unrestrained, beautiful, young,
Amorous, flirtatious, clever at flattery,
Drawing to themselves the minds and hearts of men.’

27. A popular brand of condoms in India is called Kamasutra. Colloquially, it is referred to as, simply, KS. This is pretty demonstrative of the exhilarating mash up of the times we live in, where an ancient cultural text is also a brand, an object, a contraceptive. Also, a receptacle, a wall. 

28. The Kamasutra: ‘Pleasure consists in engaging the ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose. […] The sensual pleasure of erotic arousal that results from the particular sensation of touch.

29. What happens when the text becomes skin as well as the sheath that prevents touch? 

Then the text becomes the body itself. 

30. Dismemberment runs through Suleri’s book and the body is fluid. People change names, roles, tropes, even metaphors. Like the Kamasutra’s unnamed male protagonist who runs between the narrative’s pages from bachelorhood to seduction to marriage, on to boredom, then seducing other men’s wives and finally visiting courtesans, the women in Meatless Days, too, take and abandon identities, mutating into one from another, calling, as Suleri did when she was a toddler, ‘a squirrel marmalade and marmalade a squirrel’. 

31. Meatless Days: ‘“There was a voice that used to say to me, “Put back your body where your life belongs,” but I have never been particularly good at heeding that piece of advice, happy instead to let life and body go grazing off to their own sweet pastures.’ 

32. Suleri on her mother: ‘Long before I watched her face wear like the binding of a book, that creases its leather into some soft texture and acquires a subtle spine free of gilt, knowing better than openly to announce its title.’

33. Faces as books, bodies as text, kama as desire as well as pleasure. The snake eats its own tail. (Tale?) 

34. The Kamasutra:

“The territory of the text extends
only so far as men have dull appetites
but when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion,
there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

35. The Kamasutra is all about the shringar rasa. Shringar implies beauty, love, attraction. Technically, the word means ‘adorning the body’. 

36. Rasa means essence, but also flavor and juice.

37. Women’s bodies in the Kamasutra are tropes – with thighs like elephant legs, eyes like lotuses, they are always slim-waisted but their breasts are so heavy and tight that not a blade of grass can come between the two. 

38. This surfeit of the body is present in Meatless Days, too, but as its mirror image, a body devoid of lushness, of sexuality, existing as mutilated parts that fall here and there, as if to create pilgrimage spots in animistic origin stories around the world. 

39. Meatless Days: ‘She seemed to live increasingly outside the limits of her body, until I felt I had no means of holding her.’ 

40. Suleri’s bodies hold whole worlds. Liminal, they are cities, words and ink, they are brother, sister, mother and father, also newsprint, context and discourse.

41. Suleri on her hunchbacked grandmother, trailing a goat into their house, which was to be sacrificed on Eid: "Like a question mark interested only in its own conclusions, her body crawled through the gates.” 

42. In a stunning argument in the Kamasutra that unfolds over several pages, Vatsyayan makes the case for the female orgasm. He insists that women experience pleasure just as acutely as men. He goes on to compare pleasure with a sentence. 

Just as an object and a subject cohere to produce a single meaning, a woman and a man pleasure each other for their climax. 

46. (In Sanskrit, the word for object and meaning is the same: arth.) 

43. Suleri speaks of discourse a lot, using that dry term in shockingly tender situations, after her sister’s death, after her mother was knocked down by a rickshaw and did not survive. 

(“She would saunter into our house, with three children now, along with her discourse and her face.”)

But Suleri also speaks of her time doing theatre and feels the relief of mouthing someone else’s lines.

45. Meatless Days: “Then she gave us all our gifts – a Chinese name for all of us, carved onto an ivory chop and accompanied with a wad of reddest ink.”

44. The last line of the Kamasutra: ‘He succeeds when he plays the part of the lover.’

47. The Kamasutra can be likened to a play. Like most Sanskrit drama, it is divided into seven acts. The lovers are called nayak (hero) and nayika (heroine). The characters who assist the hero-heroine are sidekick, clown, supporting actor. 

48. Vatsyayan calls the woman-on-top position Purushayitva, which means, literally, ‘to play the man’s role’. 

49. When a woman writes, does the text become gendered too? 

50. As Ifat, Suleri’s wise sister who the book is an elegy to, along with all the women Suleri left behind in Pakistan, tells her, ‘it doesn’t matter, Sara. Men live in homes, women live in bodies.’ 

51. In the Kamasutra, in a discussion of the types of love (love by habit, by erotic imagination, by oral sex, and so on), a curious one is ‘love by transference,’ where the present lover is loved for his or her resemblance to a past lover. 

52. Meatless Days: ‘As she talked on, the voice grew more and more familiar, giving me the strangest sense of déjà vu, but it was only when Fancy darted a guilty sense in my direction that I realised what she had done. She had pilfered my voice! In my absence, ventriloquized me to a T!’ 

53. What are the consequences of the body? 

55. The violence in Meatless Days is real. Suleri cajoles her ill younger brother to sit on a stool with a pot of hot water and camphor on his lap, and inhale the steam. An accident – Irfan spills the water all over himself. 

‘He clutched at his groin and everywhere he touched, the skin slid off, so that between his fingers his penis easily unsheathed, a blanched and fiery grape.’ 

54. The Kamasutra’s chapters:

ONE Sexual typology according to size, endurance and temperament
TWO Ways of embracing
THREE Procedures of kissing
FOUR Types of scratching with nails
FIVE Ways of biting

56. Reading Meatless Days for the third time, halfway through I realise that I have underlined pretty much the whole book. So now next to lines that make me moan with pleasure as one would at a ghazal or a sher, I draw a little heart. 

57. I could not articulate what Meatless Days made me feel, until I came upon these lines in the Kamasutra:

“This is no matter for numerical lists
or textbook tables of contents
For people joined in sexual ecstasy,
Passion is what makes things happen.” 

58. In Sanskrit, bhav means emotion. It can also mean orgasm. 

59. We’re all playing roles in Suleri’s world, writing our messy, plotless stories in her ‘ink-damp’ pages. 

60. ‘Even today I can feel her spirit tell me: “Daughter, unplot yourself.”’

61. (These stunning sentences, so concerned with the body and the text, with the body as the text, deserve not just my attention, for attention is abstract. For books this succulent, only a beating part of my body would suffice.) 



A Pushcart-nominated writer, Aurvi Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the AWP Emerging Writer Prize. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, James Merrill House and Sarai-Delhi. Her writing has also appeared in Fourth Genre, and she is a regular contributor here at Essay Daily.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold

Bibliography
Vatsyayana. Kamasutra (translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar). Oxford’s World Classics, 2009.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Thank You, Madeline DeFrees—With Love, Renée E. D’Aoust

I met poet Madeline DeFrees—once—in the late Eighties, which was more than a decade after she left the Catholic Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. DeFrees taught a writing workshop (with poet Michael Spence) on Bainbridge Island, in Washington State, where I grew up.

Madeline DeFrees inspired me because she had joined and left the Sisterhood, serving for thirty-eight years as a nun. In her poem “The Family Group,” DeFrees writes: “I heard the visionary rumor of the sea.” I had visions of the sea entering me to wash all my shame away—and an unarticulated hunch that DeFrees might know about such things. When I took her workshop, I was twenty-one years old. The workshop was packed, primarily with middle-aged women. The tables were set in a rectangle.

As it turns out, because of how DeFrees spoke to me, that workshop is the standard-bearer by which I have always judged writing workshops that I have taken and taught. I’m a middle-aged woman now myself, and I’ve experienced a lot of writing workshops. But I’m thinking specifically about that one, because Madeline DeFrees passed away on November 11, 2015, and I never wrote to tell her what that workshop still means to me.

I’m pretty good at letting someone know what she or he means to me. The night before my grandfather died in 1977, I woke my parents in the middle of the night, insisting that I must write a letter. I wanted to tell my grandpa that I loved him, to thank him for being my grandpa, and to thank him for teaching me that if the wind changed direction while I was making one of my quirky faces I might get stuck with one expression only. (I used to make monster faces at him when he came to tuck me in.) Grandpa died the next morning after I wrote my letter in the middle of the night, so I learned at ten years old not to wait. My grandmother received that letter; she explained that Grandpa probably wouldn’t have been able to read it (he was too sick), but he knew I loved him. My mother explained that my letter gave great comfort to my grandma, who gave it back to me before she died just short of 100 years old.

I sent my undergraduate advisor homemade raspberry jam to thank him for guiding me from dance to the page. For years I sent my favorite literature professor bottles of homemade jam, too. It was the least I could do. I often write snail-mail thank you notes after I appear at bookstores. I send writers random notes. My friend Dylan Reed and I had a project through our MFA years sending emails and postcards to writers we admired. The deal was to send a note a week, to sign it, but not to expect any reply. We preferred to send postcards with our first names only, because then the writer was under no obligation to reply. We checked our progress every week by talking about our choice for the next week.

But I never wrote to Madeline DeFrees.

Back in the late Eighties, I was writing poems of a particular dark place during a particular dark time. I didn’t want to be a poet (or more generally a writer, at that point), though as a young kid my parents had taken me to hear Gary Snyder, who sat on a braided rug and read his poems, and I often secretly dreamed of doing something like that.

In “Finding the Space in the Heart”, Snyder writes:
      The space goes on.
      But the wet black brush
      tip drawn to a point,
            lifts away.

I’ve always loved reading poetry. I wanted to take poetry workshops because, even back then, I loved analyzing words gathered on a page. Furthermore, the reading and writing of poetry was helping me through a very tough time, which is considered secondary to the product of the poem in a workshop. My tough time writing something (then or now) has nothing to do with the worth of a particular piece of writing or the reaction to it. But why not? A workshop, after all, is pre-submission, pre-publication. It is meant to be a creative environment to assist in the process of editing, so the work can become its very best.

My mother was an avid reader of poets; in my early twenties, I was reading Mom’s original copy of Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us. My mother, a writer, had taught me that when you are stressed or suffering, you always have time for a poem. You have ten minutes to read one or to write a draft, she would say. Twenty minutes.

In The Country Between Us, Forché bears witness to the Salvadoran colonel who collects human ears—desiccated by the time Forché sees them spread over a dining table: “What you have heard is true. I was in his house.”

I took three poems to the workshop with Madeline DeFrees. I wrote about three sexually abusive relationships with three different, older men. My poems were not a cry for help. I saw them as poems, originating in and from my pain, and worthy of feedback.

My fellow attendees were… silent after I read one of my poems. No one said a word. In workshop, there can be what I call the lake silence, often a three-second pause: you will all go for a bracing swim together. Colleagues are soaking up your phraseology, your finely detailed droplets.

Then there is the silence, longer than a three-second pause, that is not a reflection of wonder, but an “uh-oh.” I call this the cliff silence: You will fall off and go splat. It should be the work that goes splat, but sometimes it is you.

One woman spoke: “Renée uses the word ‘black’ three times in this poem.” Fair enough. The gist of the comments was that the poems were disturbing, difficult to read, very off, very dark—accurate, I think. But participants continued: “These are awful.” “I can’t read these.” “I won’t read these.” What these comments were really saying was something like this: “How dare a writer make me uncomfortable?” I hadn’t brought poems to a workshop because I was a dipshit. I had brought them because I thought workshop might make them better. The all-too commonly applied “gag rule” in writing workshops, wherein the writer is told to remain silent and not allowed to ask questions, is problematic. It’s problematic for those of us who have a history of being silenced through assault, in my case with actual physical gags, and for all those who have had to find a way forward through silence, to speak once again. When you work very hard to speak up, to reaffirm that voice is a form of agency and safety, it’s difficult to have that voice dismissed or superseded by a teacher, much less an entire group.

I am not comparing my young unrealized poems to Forché’s work. I am suggesting that because I had read challenging work, I found the courage to reach deep into the inner resources of my secrets and shame.

Also in “The Family Group,” DeFrees writes:
      That stance the mallet might surprise
      if it could strike the words we hoard for fears
      galloping at night over moors through convoluted bone.
      The strange uncertain rumor of the sea.

I took a writing workshop during my undergrad with poet Colette Inez, another workshop leader who knows how to hold sacred space. A young woman was struggling to write about a rape, almost abstract, almost disembodied. The poet’s “I” never appeared in her work, anywhere. The poems were exceedingly confusing to follow. My classmates were mostly Columbia College undergraduates—young people about twenty years old. I was over thirty. (I had dropped out of college years earlier to pursue my dream of being a modern dancer, and I was back to finish my degree.) Unlike the women in DeFrees’s workshop, my fellow Columbia University undergrads met these poems with compassion. I cried after one class, because I was so impressed with the way my fellow undergraduates reached out to this young woman, treated her poetry—and her—with respect, and how so many of my classmates, week after week, said: “Keep writing. There is more here. Keep writing. We support you.” Colette Inez held to the standard I’d seen Madeline DeFrees set so long ago—a standard of support and compassion and excellence.

In “Far in the Blindness of Time”, Colette Inez writes:
       The contained are asleep in their clouds
       but the young are like fire,
       orange and red tongues in the dark
       igniting the old from the fog of their dreams.

In contrast to these undergraduates, the women in that workshop with Madeline DeFrees, so long ago, were neither loving nor compassionate. But Madeline DeFrees was. As the women around that room kept talking, kept saying “dark” and “she’s a mess,” I felt as if Madeline reached out her hand to me. It was probably her heart. She’d been a nun so long, maybe she had learned how to loan out her heart? I think now that she may have been praying for me while those women gave feedback. She didn’t stop them from speaking, and I listened as best I could. As the complaints died away, silence returned. A quiet space of a different sort. Silence in a retreat happens through prayer, meditation, intention. DeFrees had taken back control of the class. Without saying a word, she had created sacred space. Sacred silence in a writing workshop is rare.

First DeFrees spoke to the room, and I paraphrase: “There is no reason not to write difficult material. We have a young woman here willing to write the darkness.” And then this Catholic nun, a Sister, turned to me, and she said, which I remember clearly because she wrote the same to me in her book When Sky Lets Go: “Keep on writing whatever you want to write, no holds barred!”

The power of a Sister. The power of a leader.

As a follow-up, several of the women in the workshop individually phoned my mom to tell her that I needed to be in therapy. I appreciated their concern. My mom didn’t tell them that I was already in therapy, that I had been in therapy, that I would stay in therapy. “That’s yours to tell, or not,” Mom said. What she said to the women was this: “I tell Renée to keep writing. I tell Renée to keep writing what she needs to write.”

Works Cited:

DeFrees, Madeline. When Sky Lets Go. New York: George Braziller, 1978.

—. “The Family Group.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets.
 
Forché, Carolyn. The Country Between Us. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “The Colonel.” Poetry. The Poetry Foundation.

Inez, Colette. “Far in the Blindness of Time.” Poetry. The Poetry Foundation.

“Poet Madeline DeFrees Passes Away.” The Writer’s Chronicle. February 2016. 49.

Snyder, Gary. “Finding the Space in the Heart.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets.


*
Renée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews "Book of the Year" finalist (memoir category). Forthcoming and recent publications of her essays and reviews include Brevity, Inside Higher Education, Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Trestle Creek Review. She is an AWP “Writer to Writer” mentor and managing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College, and she lives in Idaho and Switzerland. Follow her @idahobuzzy and visit www.reneedaoust.com.