Monday, June 19, 2017

Melissa Matthewson on Desire, Design, and the Lyric Moment

Enter Here: Constructing Extended Lyric Prose of Desire
access a threshold
When I sit down to write, I approach with a sort of compulsion, and what I mean is that I feel crazed to find the most resonant and booming way to express a moment, a story, an experience. It’s what we know as the creative impulse, the urge to fashion a narrative which takes a reader on a beautiful journey that engages all the senses, the story reaching for some sort of epiphany or state of transformation. It’s quite the ambitious task. I am thoughtful in my approach, aware of my disadvantages, or doubts, my ego, but in essence, what I’m always reaching for, is that place in writing that revolutionizes or surpasses daily function, that place which takes ordinary practice and pulls it into something greater, to persist in the lyric moment.
the lyric moment as…
How to prolong the lyric moment? How to reconcile poetic techniques with extended narratives? These are the questions Carole Maso asks in her essay, Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: A Lifelong Conversation with Myself Entered Midway,” of which she reveals a number of poetic techniques writers must incorporate in order to prolong the lyric moment—architecture, music, constellations, and image intensity. She refers primarily to works of fiction, but these strategies, of course, can be applied to nonfiction works as well, and that’s my primary genre of interest. Maso references the erotics of extended lyric prose, which to her, works in the elongation and expansion of a prose text. She calls it an opening.” She writes, There is compression in lyric fiction, yes, but also expansion. Elongation. The longing for clearings. An opening up of perceptions, possibilities, every time the writer or the reader sits down. And duration, and the obvious erotics of this.” This idea of the erotics of duration, of expansiveness in writing lyric prose, of opening, works in various layers here. There is the layer of possibility in the composition of lyric prose, but there is also the prose of desire and the ability of two writers to write within this expansiveness, to approach the work as anticipation, as intimate linking. Not to mention the erotic as power, which Audre Lorde has espoused in her essay “The Uses of the Erotic.”
two texts
In Anais Nin’s autobiographical novel (perhaps we call it a nonfiction novel, or a hybrid text), A Spy in the House of Love, Sabina, the narrator, is struggling with her own identity and freedom within various sexual relationships. She is torn between the safety of marriage and the excitement of sexual affairs. It’s a story of sensual restlessness. In the introduction to the novel Anita Jarczok refers to Anais Nin as among “the most notable experimental writers of the twentieth century.” While Nin is widely known for her diaries, this novel exemplifies some of her extraordinary lyrical writing. As Jarczok says, Nin’s carefully selected words and elaborately constructed phrases are woven into expressive and memorable passages. Together with the rich imagery and lyrical language, they create the spellbinding and dreamlike atmosphere of the narrative.”          

Katherine Angel’s book, Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult to Tell, is an experimental nonfiction work in which the narrator explores her love affair with a man through personal experience and philosophy. In this book, she considers the feminine, the masculine and the relationship between those two as she questions the nature of women’s sexuality and desire.
In her essay, Carole Maso writes of architecture. This term describes what we’re all trying to do when we construct a narrative. It’s the art of design. How are we to design our essays, our stories? Which form works to fit the content? Her idea of architecture is one of spaciousness in which the passion of the mind can release its creativity onto the page. Virginia Woolf, wrote, in reference to form, Stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, boldly and freely until one thing melts into another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all the separate fragments.” Maso refers to the construction of form as an organic process, one that is mysterious and elusive, where the construction is an experience of space. Often, we don’t find the architecture of an extended prose piece until we begin writing, as we explore what story we’re trying to tell and how the form may enhance the content. Maso suggests, To create whole worlds through implication, suggestion, in a few bold strokes. Not to tyrannize with narrative. Allow a place for the reader to live, to dream.” That’s our aim in assembling a narrative: creating a cathedral to enter in as readers, to look up and around at the space in which we can feel a story’s depth.

Angel’s book is constructed in such a way that allows for the elucidation of concepts, namely that of the feminine struggle with desire. Without the chosen architecture, without the form, the story would/could not hold as much weight. Angel extends the expansiveness of the story by setting her book into eleven titled sections. She titles each with a lyrical title, allowing the reader into the substantial space of her exploration of desire. This allows for possibility and rumination on what’s to be discovered in revealing the details of the affair and the subsequent questioning of the narrator. Subtle connections are made between the text in the chapters with the titles themselves. For instance, in a section titled, I Would Even Say: To Open Her Mouth,” the narrator covers several subjects having to do with expression, dialogue, voicing opinions about women’s sexuality, the differences between the feminine and the masculine, even a simple argument between the narrator and her lover. The titles are a clue to what we may find on the pages that follow. And they are beautiful on their own. As poems. In addition, the notes to the book tell us that each title references another writer’s work. For example, Harnessed to a Shark” references a phrase from Virginia Woolf’s Selected Diaries, October 27, 1935.

Within the eleven sections, Angel splits her book into further segments: Roman numerals create distinct sections and within that framework, numbered sections with the text. She uses white space in building the architecture of the book, something that poets have at their disposal in order to give the reader contrast, weight, pause. Angel writes in sparse prose with sometimes only one sentence on a page, usually revealing some dramatic content or language, followed by white space, leaving the reader to consider the meaning of the text. For instance, early on, Angel writes, Fuck me. Yes, fuck me!” and then leaves the rest of the page open. Using white space presents ideas in fragments and can be quite provocative. It creates tension. For instance, in another example, she writes in reference to women and women’s sexual identity, So, we’re all whores now?” then white space, followed by, Silly grown women.” The white space here is a way to cue. To pause. To suspend the lyric. To upset the conventional structure of storytelling.
Angel asks questions of the reader as an opportunity for engagement with the narrative creating a storyline by questioning. For instance, Angel writes, Must I either take or be taken? Must I either do or be done?” Again, Is this a compulsion to be what the other person wants? Am I sitting in the draft, taking the leg? Am I not quite myself, but someone else?” She continues to build the narrative, even validates it, with many feminist authors, most notably Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf. Angel responds to the quotes, or in addition, the quotes are connected to various events taking place within the story of the love affair. She quotes Sontag, Fucking vs being fucked,” wrote Sontag. The deeper experience—more gone—is being fucked.” She responds by telling of an event in which she wants to make love on top, to be in control, but then she second guesses herself and wonders if The Man” as she calls him will not be fully satisfied if she’s on top. This goes on for several pages in which she investigates the nature of sexual positions and how they relate to power and femininity, but again it’s almost as if it is a call and response, a technique to build space within a storyline. Later on she quotes Foucault: Pleasure, wrote Foucault—pleasure in the truth of pleasure—is sustained, ‘but not without trembling a little,’...” The rest of the chapter is devoted to sexual acts and defining pleasure within them.

If Angel were to go from point A to B in a linear fashion, we might not get the dramatic pauses that her particular construction allows us. In terms of content, this exploration of desire and sexuality is dramatized in this form. It’s a lyrical subject in itself—the erotic, the sensual, and to use a lyric form for construction heightens the effect of the text. You could call it an erotic form.”
Nin’s book does not follow a traditional novel form in that time is murky within the framework of the story. She creates a dreamy atmosphere on the page. One never knows where Sabina, the narrator, is in time. We switch between multiple encounters with various men—five in fact—as well as switch between Sabina’s fantasies and anxiety about what each lover thinks of her, or whether her husband will find out about her affairs. In lieu of a traditional timeline to create a framework for her novel, she blends the events, fantasies, and dreams together to create a new architecture, one that is expansive and actually reflects reality as stories never unfold in the way we design them to. This does not create confusion because we understand this is how the book has been constructed. We float with the narrator in and out of affairs and dreams. For example, there are no chapter breaks, numbers, or titles. Further, in one section, Sabina is visiting her lover, Philip, in three different places. First, on a boat. Then, the sand dunes. Then, the city. It’s drawn out as fragmented memoir. Sabina muses moving between lovers and desire and insomnia and calm moving between these section without pause, in a floating atmosphere which mimics the narrator’s own drifting between erotic affairs.
Maso writes that we should sing in prose, to somehow get the urgency of bone and blood and hair, entire histories, into prose.” She calls this type of writing symphonic, fugue.” We can manipulate sound in our sentences as Maso suggests by reading everything we write aloud. Nin is a master of music in her language. It seems to fuel her prose,

Desire made a volcanic island, on which they lay in a trance, feeling the subterranean whirls lying beneath them, dance floor and table and the magnetic blues uprooted by desire, the avalanches of the body’s tremors. Beneath the delicate skin, the tendrils of secret hair, the indentations and valleys of flesh, the volcanic lava flowed, desire incandescent, and where it burned the voices of the blues being sung became a harsh wilderness cry, a bird and untamed cry of pleasure and cry of danger and cry of fear and cry of childbirth and cry of wound pain from the same hoarse delta of nature’s pits.

This passage moves like how a body might move. It evokes the erotic. Her use of repetition heightens the music, like beats, like what it’s like to get lost in a song we love. The music of the language also works to intensify the desire, makes us feel the eruption that’s taking place within the narrator. There is movement in the word choice. And the cries toward the end beckon music and desire at the same time, ending on the right beat, a consummation of the desire and the song. Use of punctuation is important for the pause, but also to keep the music of the sentence in continuity. In an interesting blog post by Ken Carroll, he writes about the idea of variation in sentence length, which he believes is the key to making music in language because in fact, our human speech has variation as well. He recommends contrasting short sentences with longer ones.

“The present - Alan, with his wrists hidden in silky brown hair, his long neck always bending towards her like a very tree of faithfulness - was murdered by the insistent, whispering interfering dream, a compass pointing to mirages flowing in the music of Debussy like an endless beckoning, alluring, its voices growing fainter if she did not listen with her whole being, its steps lighter if she did not follow, its promises, its sighs of pleasure growing clearer as they penetrated deeper regions of her body directly through the senses bearing on airy canopies all the fluttering banners of gondolas and divertissements.”

That’s one sentence, extending the lyric over many images, sounds, tunes. One could say that it’s important to vary sentence length and to even use fragments, one word sentences, to mimic music, but here’s it’s like an opera of sorts. The use of punctuation, again, helps in this sentence to contain the music. Again too, we hear a repetition that makes the music with the clauses of its” over and over again, drawing out the lyric. On one end of the sentence, the narrator struggles with her husband and his faithfulness, his solidity and then, we flow into the narrator’s desire, which unfolds as a melody would, both in rhythm and tonality and extension.

Later on, Nin writes about Stravinsky’s Firebird” as Sabina’s place in music where she might find self-revelation, “The fireworks were mounted on wire bodies waving amorous arms, tip-toeing on the purple tongues of the Holy Ghost, leaping out of captivity, Mercury’s wings of orange on pointed torches hurled like javelins into space sparring through the clouds, the purple vulvas of the night.” Much of Nin’s book is akin to this type of prose. And while she brings the music, she also returns to this notion of desire, by comparing clouds to vulvas in the night.” It’s a delicacy and an attention to the sound that makes for prose that unites the reader in their quest for connection and understanding.  

of patterns
The definition of constellation is a group or cluster of related things. It comes from the Middle English as an astrological term denoting the relative positions of the stars. Maso refers to constellations in lyric prose as patterns or accidental associations. These constellations evolve throughout a story or narrative, change and augment the lyric work. In reference to her own work Maso writes, I wanted it all: the moment and the elongation of the moment, and then another moment, and the cumulative pleasures of an intensifying, building content.” She goes on to explain what she wanted in her prose, The pleasure of accumulated meanings, of accretion, which is the narrative act. A fragile constellation, through time and space, of relationship.”

From the beginning of her work, Angel builds connections between the feminine and the masculine, liberation versus connection. She does this through sexual encounters with her lover in order to ask, find, provoke the larger questions. These layers build upon each other as we go on in the reading. It’s like tree branches crossing over each other, lattice work possibly, spider webs, knitted scarfs, any number of things that layer meaning by associative connection. A really good example of this type of constellation work occurs in the middle of Angel’s book. There are three numbered sections that build upon each other that explore the idea of the masculine versus the feminine. In the first she writes, My man. This man. The Man. No wonder, sighed Ellis, that ‘so few women, so very few men”—the anguish in that ‘very’!—‘come safely into port.” In the second section beneath, Coming safely into port. He puts down anchor in me, and finds his masculinity there. I put down anchor in him, in his masculinity, and find my femininity there.” She’s also creating an intensity of images in the patterns as well. In the next section, facing the page, A port: a place to rest. A place also to traverse, to pass through. Putting down anchor, but only for a while.” She’s started with the man, and man’s need to find his maleness with a woman, though she uses the port as a metaphor, that its not an easy landing, its temporary, a resting place, but not permanent. She builds in just two pages and three numbered fragments this constellation of meaning. If we were to craft our prose with this careful attention to patterning, our prose becomes complex and elaborate. In addition, Angel builds upon the entire idea of desire throughout the work as a constellation, as hunger, and she uses different ways to approach the subject, but each fragment is working to build upon the previous one in order to create that cumulative intensification. Desire becomes hunger. Hunger becomes the female wanting more. Hunger becomes the voice. Then the man. And it all starts to interplay.

Another example in Angel’s book of this kind of constellation that I want to point out is two separate fragments that appear side by side.

My desire to speak desire, as I struggle against their weight, is revisionist: of myself, and of what I understood to have made that self. Of the feminism that made me, and that forbade my desire; or the feminism I made make me—for what makes us choose the canon we choose?

And next,

The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement. Speaking undoes the perceived straitjacketing. Unlaces the corset, winds down the hair.

Angel struggles with her desire to speak desire, calls it out as a retelling, a revision to herself, to what she knows. Calls out feminism that denied her desire, or that she denied herself. She’s struggling to find the voice and so she continues to build the tension in the next passage. She wants to burst through the quiet, the woman who does not speak her desire. The sentence, As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement,” which likens back to Maso’s idea that the elongation of the lyric prose is erotic: the excitement, the expansiveness, opening. So here, Angel unlaces the corset, winds down the hair,” an opening of speaking of desire, taking risks, bursting, elongating.  

Nin also creates connections and patterns within her work as she writes desire in a different way, through a fictional narrator who struggles to find her own identity within various sexual relationships, but because this is the pulse behind the narrative, each section continues to build on this pattern of associations. For instance, the association that she works to build throughout the entire novel is that of the multiple self. She writes,

Slowly what she composed with the new day was her own focus, to bring together body and mind. This was made with an effort, as if all the dissolutions and dispersions of her self the night before were difficult to reassemble. She was like an actress who must compose a face, an attitude to meet the day.”

Consistently throughout, she writes of re-design, of designing a new self, of masks, of being an actress in her own life, of pretending. This continues to build with each new affair, each new man she encounters. It becomes a chaos of constellations. She also uses her cape as a way to build this question of identity. Always she’s running away from someone or something with this cape hiding her true self, or masking her chaotic, restless inquiry into who she is. In reference to a man who gazes her way, she writes, It was the alchemy of desire fixing itself upon the incarnation of all women into Sabina for a moment but as easily by a second process able to alchemize Sabina into many others.” The fractured self. The search for identity. One woman and many women. To be honest in our exploration of patterns, we must immerse ourselves in the pleasure of creating those links, in seeking the wholeness that Nin and Angel do in their narratives. It’s the under layer of our prose. The working layers. The associations built into a round ball, a whole sun. An erotic embrace.
forced to see
Intensity meaning force, potency, strength and if we are to use imagery in our prose, then they should carry the intensity of the thing they are trying to portray. Just as in poetry. Images are our means for bringing meaning to a story, for exploring the weight of a narrative, for bringing intensity of imagination. It’s how the reader can picture a whole world. Maso writes, Images follow a progress through interplays and modulation until they reach a level of nearly unbearable intensity.” She goes on, 
Throughout, images such as boats, dream, figs, swans, roses, horses, gloating, angel, butterfly endlessly repeat themselves in varying configurations as the imagination gropes and tries to make sense of chaotic experience. As the imagination tries to save, the outward world distorts to speak of the interior world. The internal world informs the external world. A hallucination.”
So imagery, and the intensity of certain imagery, becomes a dream, or a hallucination for the reader. A mirror for what we feel inside of us. The strength of a writer is when they can take an image, intensify it over an extended prose piece, and make it work in such a way that our imaginations are making sense of experience as Maso suggests. Both Nin and Angel rely on image intensity throughout their extended prose works to provoke the imagination and to sense the external world. They do not rely on one image alone, but multiple that work with each other, against each other, through each other.

Nin returns to several of the same images again and again. Fever is a common one to evoke the sensual restlessness of Sabina. She has throughout feverish breathlessness,” “not yet warmed by her feverishness,” “the fever had reached its peak.” As well, the flesh and body are repeated. Sabina wears a cape throughout the story which works as a way to intensify the narrator’s search for an identity, for her masculine freedom, for her multiple selves. For instance, she writes, Also the cape held within its folds something of what she imagined was a quality possessed exclusively by man: some dash, some audacity, some swagger of freedom denied to a woman.” Again she writes, ...the warrior’s shield for his face in battle, all these she experienced when she placed a cape around her shoulder.”

Nature in various forms repeats itself as a building and intensifying image—the dark, the ocean, trees, the moon—all imagery she calls upon to build the desire of the narrator.
The song ascended, swelled, gathered together all the turmoil of the sea, the rutilant gold carnival of the sun, rivalled the wind and flung its highest notes into space like the bridge span of a flamboyant rainbow. And then the incantation broke.”

All of these things—constellations, image intensity, music, architecture—should be on our minds when we sit down to write. Let’s write like poets do, remembering that our job as essayists is to embrace the expansiveness of language, to create a place that a reader enters with awe and wonder, to bring about an erotics of words and images. Think of writing an extended lyric prose piece as an opening to the passion and desire we all hold within us, as Audre Lorde has suggested is the “power of the erotic.” To do this, we compose for music, design images for intensification, constellate and pattern meaning, and architect an expansive space. Approach our writing as we do the erotic.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Bellingham Review, New Delta Review, among others. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She recently completed a fragmented memoir of lyric essays about desire, marriage, farming, and identity. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm. You can find her at

Monday, June 12, 2017

Eric LeMay: On the Essay in Our Time

The quality of being constantly contemporary—
or of stubbornly surviving the vicissitudes of history, taste and the whimsicalities of fashion—
is the single quality most commonly found among major works of art…

- William Gass, “Tests of Time” (2003)

What makes an essay timely? How does an essay, like a needle on a nerve, tap the zeitgeist? What, for example, is the essay equivalent of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which in 2016 The Washington Post described as “the poem that captured the mood of a tumultuous year.” And just how do you go about gauging whether a poem or any artwork has captured a year?

It’s impossible to know how many people have read the poem, though one estimate in August put the number at nearly a million. The poem has been interpreted into a dance by a troupe in India, turned into a musical score for the voice and harp and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.

It looks like going viral and global is one measure. If so, then maybe Fan Yusu’s “I am Fan Yusu,” Amy Krouse Rosenthal's "You May Want to Marry My Husband," or Brian Crooks’ "What it's like to be black in Naperville, America," which he originally wrote as a Facebook post, might be among our timeliest essays.

And what makes an essay timeless? How does an essay survive its moment and capture readers in some unimaginable and far-off future, like the reflections that Sei Shōnagon have done? She recorded them over 1100 years ago in what English readers now call The Pillow Book while she was one of the attendants to Fujiwara no Teishi, a consort of the Japanese Emperor Ichijō. And here I am enjoying them in 2017 on a sagging couch in Appalachian Ohio. “I am the sort of person,” she writes, “who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.” I find myself liking this sort of person, despite the differences of time, language, place, and culture that should make my experience of The Pillow Book less like reading essays than encountering aliens.

There are, of course, limits to this distinction. Can’t an essay speak to its time and also say something timeless? Can’t an essay be, in Gass’s words, “constantly contemporary”? Take Woolf’s Three Guineas or King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or the suddenly timely essay written in 1963 by Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, where she describes Donald Trump:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him . . . because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

I found this passage in one of Maria Popova’s posts on her blog Brain Pickings, which is itself a timely update of a method used by the “timeless” essayist who invented the genre, Michel de Montaigne. The commonplace book was something like a modern-day book of quotations, where Renaissance writers organized passages by classical authors so that they could use them for practical and spiritual guidance. Montaigne kept a commonplace book, as did Francis Bacon, who brought the essay into English. When Popova offers us excerpts from Arendt’s “increasingly relevant masterwork,” she’s turning Arendt’s words from a half of a century ago into commonplaces that can help us make sense of these troubling times.

So what’s the point of making this distinction? Why ask how time and “the times” shape our experience of an essay? After all, essayists seldom sit down to write an intentionally timely or timeless essay. A topical essay, sure. A moving essay, an entertaining essay, an essay that takes up a crucial issue of shared concern or strives toward a private reckoning, even an essay that explores some oddity or curiosity or everyday happenstance so familiar we no longer see it for what it is. These are all recognizable motives for essays. But intentionally taking on the times? Or rising above them? That’s not the usual instigation for essays.

And yet, what if I asked you, as I have other essayists, to give it a try? Take an experience or event about which you might write an essay—maybe a recent march in your hometown or maybe your first experience of death—and write two versions of it, one that makes it as timely as possible and one that makes it as timeless as possible. What literary strategies would you use to show your subject’s immediate relevance? Alternatively, how would you approach it to show its lasting importance? What linguistic choices would you make? Would you allow yourself shorthand phrases? Slang? Would you drop in a little Latin, a vox populi or a Caesar non supra grammaticos, which Montaigne himself would have recognized? Or would you avail yourself of text-speak and emojis? And how about form? A nut graph? A listicle? A series of lofty periodic sentences that close on a final image like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past like snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead?

It’s an interesting experiment. And one point of it, I think, is that it recasts how we approach crafting essays. When we have to imagine how an essay would strike a reader, right now, in this very moment, or when we have to imagine how an essay might endure, might speak to a reader wholly unlike us in a wholly different future, suddenly we see anew the literary gestures and stylistic techniques to which we’ve grown accustomed. Does this really work? Toward what end? For whom? Do the essays of the past that have somehow remained compelling have something to show us about how essays remain compelling? Do the essays of the present—the lyric essay or the braided essay or the argumentative essay—truly speak to our moment? What, in the end, are our ambitions for our essays? And if it turns out that your ambition is neither to write a timely essay nor an essay that transcends its time, imagining how to do both will likely clarify what you do want your essays to achieve. 

A more personal reason I’m interested in the timelessness of essays is that my own work always seems both behind and ahead of the times. Take the new collection of mine. It’s essays, mostly about essays. It uses text, images, audio, video, code. It’s interactive. It incorporates material in real time from social media sites such as Twitter and Flickr. It is, I’m pretty sure, the first collection of essays that’s “born digital,” made to be experienced electronically, with no other medium in mind. Now this innovation doesn’t mean that the essays are good. It’s just means they’re doing something new in the genre. And here I’m quick to add that what’s new for the essay isn’t new when it comes to the genre of electronic literature. Compared to works such as Blood Sugar by Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer or The Network Effect by Jonathan Harris and Greg Hochmuth, my collection looks very behind the times.

And it is, even if you don’t compare it to the vanguard of electronic literature. First off, the collection really only works on a desktop computer. And since you’re probably reading this on your smartphone, you know my mistake. According to website-tracking services such as StatCounter, as of October 2016 more users are accessing the web with their mobile devices than their desktop computers. So for those of us interested in the digital future of the essay, that future is literally in the hands of our readers, unless they’re wearing some version of Google Glass or an Apple Watch, in which case writing essays for a hand-held mobile device may already be dated. (Should I mention that my previous book includes several essays designed to run on the no-longer-supported and gradually disappearing platform of Flash?)

Then there’s the fact that the collection is free, readily available for a click, as though it were a plain-text file posted on Project Gutenberg in 1998. Publishers have yet to figure out how to monetize electronic literature, which is one reason e-books are, technologically speaking, so lame. To make them a commodity that works across various e-readers, the files have to remain simple and stable. My previous collection, the one I probably shouldn’t have mentioned, was published in three different formats: a print version, a regular e-book version, and an enhanced multimedia version that includes video, audio, and images that don’t work on any of the major e-readers except the iPhone and iPad. At the time I designed the enhanced version, the only other e-book that had audio and video features was Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in my Head Bother You? So in a way, my essays are as timely as a 2017 performance of “Dream On” by a drug-ravaged septuagenarian.

That said, this noise in my head doesn’t bother me. The essay has always been a capacious genre. It has room for the timely and the timeless, the ahead-of-time and behind-the-times, even the ill-timed. And doesn’t any essay not about our pressing political moment seem ill-timed? Our polis is in flames—what else should we be writing about? I’m grateful for those essayists now speaking truth to power and for the technologies that allow us to hear and share their voices. Yet, even in this moment, I think we also need our non-political essays, essays that take up the song of starlings or laundry chutes or moods and metaphors. For me, the appearance of these essays is a heartening sign that the complex, reflective, and generous thinking found in our genre continues to thrive, even as our governing powers become cruder and more cruel. These untimely essays, with their surprising range and deeply felt curiosities, show our minds working at their fullest and most far-reaching, which is to say at our best and perhaps our most timeless.

Does that mean these essays will survive the times? Some of them will certainly find their way into anthologies—the Best Essays or the Pushcart—and some will be read and quoted by literary scholars of the future hoping to make sense of this moment once it’s passed. Just what was going on with the literary essay in that horrible Post-Postmodern Time of Trump? What were the essays that mattered? If I’m around, I’ll be curious to find out. Right now, as one essayist in the midst of it, I believe the answer will center on essays by women. As Marcia Aldrich’s new anthology demonstrates so well, women are not only crafting essays that give voice to perspectives and concerns that men have overlooked, neglected, or silenced, but they are also transforming the very nature of the essay to yield new knowledge and new ways of knowing. In the work of such essayists as:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kim Adrian
Marcia Aldrich
Susanne Antonetta
Kristen Arnett
Mary Kim Arnold
Jocelyn Bartkevicius
Jo Ann Beard
Allison Bechdel
Amy Benson
Chelsea Biondolillo
Eula Biss
Barrie Jean Borich
Jenny Boully
Nina Boutsikaris
Tisa Bryant
Amy Butcher
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
Mary Cappello
Anne Carson
Joy Castro
Lyn Chapman
Durga Chew-Bose
Jill Christman
Meehan Crist
Meghan Daum
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Emily DePrang
Danielle Cadena Deulen
Jaquira Díaz
Sarah Einstein
Beth Ann Fennelly
Thalia Field
Patricia Foster
V. V. Ganeshananthan
Roxane Gay
Sarah Gerard
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Vivian Gornick
Carla Harryman
Lily Hoang
Fanny Howe
Kerry Howley
Sonja Huber
Leslie Jamison
Margo Jefferson
Sarah Kendzio
Amy Leach
Dinah Lenney
Ariel Levy
E.J. Levy
Lara Lillibridge
Sonja Livingston
Sandra Tsing Loh
Valeria Luiselli
Jennifer Kabat
Cheryl Diane Kidder
Sarah Manguso
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Carole Maso
Rebecca McClanahan
Meghan McClure
Brenda Miller
Sarah Minor
Angela Morales
Michele Morano
Kyoko Mori
Jessica Hendry Nelson
Maggie Nelson
Susan Neville
Bich Minh Nguyen
Randon Billings Noble
Wendy C. Ortiz
Anne Panning
Adriana Paramo
Jericho Parms
Kate Partridge
Elena Passarello
Jennifer Percy
Torrey Peters
Kristin Prevallet
Lia Purpura
Kristen Radtke
Claudia Rankine
Wendy Rawlings
Marilynne Robinson
Lisa Lanser Rose
Bonnie J. Rough
Mary Ruefle
Selah Saterstrom
Sejal Shah
Heather Sellers
Christina Sharpe
Sue William Silverman
Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Zadie Smith
Rebecca Solnit
Katherine E. Standefer
Megan Stielstra
Alison Stine
Cheryl Strayed
Kelly Sundberg
Jill Talbot
Catherine Taylor
Joni Tevis
Abigail Thomas
Dana Tomasino
Erica Trabold
Patricia Vigderman
Nicole Walker
Christy Wampole
Elisa Washuta
Shawn Wen
Terry Tempest Williams
Amy Wright
Lidia Yuknavitch

the essay is becoming a new epistemological engine—deftly felt, fiercely intelligent—capable of taking us through this maelstrom we're now living.  These essayists are capturing the truths of our time in essays that will long outlast our time. 

Eric LeMay’s Essays on the Essay and Other Essays was recently published by Zone 3 Press. He thanks Sarah Minor, Dinty W. Moore, and Jill Talbot for their help in recommending essayists not to miss. He also apologizes for likely missing some great essayists and he encourages you to mention these essayists in the comments so that he and other readers can find their work.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cameron Awkward-Rich Interview

Below is the next interview in a series on trans writers, genre, and the essay, this time with Cameron Awkward-Rich. The author of Sympathetic Little Monster and Transit, he is currently completing a dissertation on "the politics and poetics of bad feelings in trans theory and literature," and is the co-editor, with Sam Sax, of The Dead Animal Handbook.


T Clutch Fleischmann: First off, could you tell me a bit about your relation to categorizing your writing, both in terms of genre and in terms of gender? How does thinking about genre figure into your writing process, for instance? How important is it to you that your work is or is not affiliated with "trans writing," or "trans poetry?" Where are the points where these categorizations cease to become productive in describing your writing?

Cameron Awkward-Rich: Sure, of course. The question of genre and the question of gender are linked ones, for me, although only to a point. They're linked insofar as, when I was writing the poems that wound up being Sympathetic Little Monster, I found poetry, in many ways, to be an ideal form to capture the experience of transition. Especially when the unit of analysis is the poetry collection, poetry allows for strange I's—speakers divided within themselves and/or not quite locatable—in ways that narrative prose doesn't quite. So, in a way, gender led to me genre.

But I think you are also asking a question about how much I care about—or how much I think it is useful to read my work in terms of—genre/gender distinctions. The answer is: it depends. Sometimes I write with particular genres or modes in mind (confession, essay, ars poetica, etc.), and I guess I think it probably helps to understand those poems in relation to the genres/modes they claim to belong to, but I always want the poems to mean something in excess of, or in spite of, genre distinctions. The same is true in my thinking about belonging to "trans poetry": definitely I have no aspirations of distancing myself from that description, and I really do think that understanding my work in relation to transness and as in conversation with other trans texts (the history of trans autobiography in particular) is necessary. But...I've also been in workshops where people try to relate everything I produce to transness, which—while I'm sure it's possible to do, because I'm always trans—seems silly/reductive/limiting, especially when it cuts off other interpretations.

Related to that, could you tell me how you are thinking of "essay," as it is used in the titles of (poems?) like "Essay on Crying in Public," or "Essay on the Appearance of Ghosts?" I appreciate the way it orients me, as a reader, and gives me some ways to move through those pieces that I might not otherwise come across, including the way the word sometimes links the writing to other texts (other, specific essays). Could you provide a description of essay, how you think of it as a genre? 

I'm glad you find the essay titles orienting; that's mostly why I decided to keep "essay" in the titles, to offer some suggestions about how one might approach them. I think of essays as pieces of writing that, as you note, are in some kind of citational relation to other things called essays and that set out to make an argument about something—another piece of art, a cultural phenomenon, an idea. Essays are much blockier things than poems, because they require one to offer evidence, construct a defense. So, calling some of the poems in the book "essays" was, at least initially, a way of drawing a distinction for myself between what these pieces are doing and what I felt like the majority of what the book does, which is capture an experience or feeling. Does that make sense?

Definitely. I agree that narrative prose seems somehow less suited to speakers who are divided or "not quite locatable." Could you say a bit more about why that is, in your experience? I'm wondering both why poetry seems to make more space for this, and why narrative prose might not-- how much it can be attributed to traditions, to formal qualities, etc.

In Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, Sharon Cameron gives this account of 'the lyric' that I'm not sure I wholly buy as description of a genre, but that I find delightful. According to her, whereas narrative genres tend to produce complexity by distributing ideas and points of view among multiple characters, lyric works “not by the ceding of territory to different characters” but through “a speaker who says ‘I’ and yet is pluralistic.” For Cameron, this plural I is produced through the particular way that lyric manages time. She argues that while novelistic and dramatic narratives rely on temporal compression—to fit a life into a novel, a day into a few hours of theatre—they also rely on the expansion of moments in order to “make room for the luxury of articulated self-reflection.” Lyric, on the other hand, seems to take place only in this expanded, interior temporality, so renders time into a “still life”: moments, and the changes they index, are “not consecutive but…rather heaped or layered.” “The lyric…will withstand the outrage of any complexity for the sake of being able to present sequence as if it were unity.”

Anyway, there is something that feels both true and useful about this potentially outrageous temporality for representing trans speakers, in particular, since trans is in many ways defined by the potential simultaneity of moments/categories that are ordinarily taken to be distinct—it's a way of representing the experience of dysphoria, for example, of simultaneously being a girl and not one at all. I guess all I'm trying to say is that one of the fundamental problems of transition narratives, as I see it, is that narrative seems to require either an utter transformation (Man into Woman) or stability (Emergence...I was x all along), but lyric lets both of temporalities these exist at once, which seems more true.

Another, shorter, answer is that while prose narratives often actually do represent strange selves—the 'we' of Justin Torres' We the Animals or the multiple, floating, cosmopolitain subjectivity of the first 30ish pages of Mrs. Dalloway—when it works, it always seems like a formal achievement, something distinctive about a particular work. But, like, it seems true that one of the most ordinary features of a collection of poetry is that, across poems in a book, the speaker might always say 'I' but you can't expect that 'I' to stay the same from poem to poem. That is, what is often a distinct formal achievement of particular works of narrative prose seems to be built into the poetry collection. And while we—and by ‘we’ I guess I mean literary critics—tend to focus on individual poems as the unit of analysis, the poetry collection seems to me to be an equally, if not more, important unit for talking about how poetry circulates, is marketed and received, and so on.

Thinking of the essay-poems (is that the right language?) as being less invested in capturing an experience and more invested in offering evidence also aligns with how I think of those genres. Thinking again of the pieces labeled as essays in SLM, is there a point where any of them begin to verge outside of poetry, where they might leave poetry behind and become essay, or where the genre-thinking would fall away? Do we experience evidence, at times?

Sure, essay-poem! In the abstract I would say of course we experience evidence and of course feeling factors into how argument works, what makes essays effective, their poetics (the love of puns in literary criticism is, I think, evidence of this). Speaking concretely about the pieces in SLM, I think of "Essay on the Appearance of Ghosts" as being most obviously essay-like, if only because its use of citation + close reading + framing with vague historical truisms most closely follows the moves of (a kind of) academic writing. This won't answer your question, I think, but part of calling them "essays" was an effort to use genre-thinking in order to ask questions about the usefulness of distinctions between genres: When does experience become evidence (and vice versa)? Mightn't it be useful to think of all speech as argumentative, as making an argument? What kind of authority does citation confer, anyway?

Can I ask a question? It seems like you might have something to say about genre distinctions generally, and the essay/poem distinction in particular...where is this line of questioning coming from and/or leading to?

I appreciate the question back! There are a few motivations, one of which is that I think of my own writing and the writing I love as being somehow essay-ish, although most of the writers I'm excited about are actually located in the poetry world. I'm also interested, very much in line with your thinking about temporality, in the possibilities and critiques that emerge from trans writers in particular (although, of course, not exclusively) when we consider some of the core assumptions of memoir, essay, documentation, and all that. Trans writers, I think, offer a range of alternative ways to think of the self, progression, temporality, truth, cohesion, etc, which seems relevant when thinking about the essay's strained or even controversial relationship with truth. I also relate to genre similarly to how I relate to gender, where I feel at times frustrated and bored with the whole thing, but am still returning to both of them, maybe hoping they will break some, that categories will cease to be useful. So I'm looking, kind of, at a cluster of questions, without expectation of finding any particular answers.

I like that definition of lyric temporality, what it seems to offer. Thanks, also, for bringing We the Animals and Mrs. Dalloway into this. Who are some other writers that come to mind as giving us this form of lyric time, strange selves, etc.?

Hm, I relate to a lot of your answer here, especially to the continual return to categories of gender/genre despite (or, for me, because of) boredom with them. I find that boredom interesting somehow, because gender is so obviously a kind of melodrama, insofar as it is a story that 'works' by flattening everyone out and generating emotional intensities. And, until embarrassingly recently, emotional intensity is precisely what gender produced in me! So boredom is a new experience and I’m curious about what kind of relations to gender/genre it affords.

As for other examples of lyric time/selves, Alexander Chee's Edinburgh is a good's a novel that formalizes the self-estranging effects of trauma (historical, intimate) by making the voice of the narrator hard to pin down in time. Jason Schinder's Stupid Hope is a poetry collection that is both interested in what it means to be an 'I' in relation, but also, because it was assembled by his friends after his death, is an enactment of this. There are many examples of trans writing whose subject matter is something like the lyric self, or the self in lyric time—Ari Banias' Anybody and Chase Joynt/Mike Hoolboom's You Only Live Twice are two recent examples that I'm quite fond of—but I can't off the top of my head come up with a particular example of how this is registered at the level of form, though it must be! Uh, I’m convinced that many many recurrent figures in sci-fi might be thought of as literalizing and/or embodying something like the lyric self...time travelers, obviously, but also the various telepaths, the borg, Octavia Butler's Oankali, etc etc.

I like that, the melodrama of gender and the flattening of experience—it resonates with me, both as something I’ve noticed (the trans memoir, in its more conventional forms) and as something I had to move through. I think also of the kind of cartoonish version of the lyric poet, singing a song to the beloved, hoping that language and sound might lead to human connection—something like the childhood experience of turning to writing and reading when feeling especially alone, and how to preserve multiplicity and difference through that.

To close, could you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now? Does your new work align with SLM, or depart from it, in any particular ways? 

To be honest, since SLM came out, I’ve mostly been writing my dissertation, which is a work of criticism that approaches many of the same themes in SLM (the usefulness of bad feelings, violence/intimacy, trans narratives, practices of reading and “reading,” etc.) in order to make an argument about the narrative habits of trans studies.

But now that that’s more or less done (!), I’m hoping to turn back to a pile of poetry that seems to be slowly accumulating into a manuscript I’ve been calling Dispatch. SLM came out pretty much all at once, in first the two years after I started grad school and taking testosterone simultaneously, so that book was really driven by a feeling of turbulence; is, at bottom, a transition narrative even though it’s in a kind of critical relation to that genre; and is really self-focused, driven by conflict within an ‘I.’ This new manuscript comes out of a different feeling, the feeling of continual return or repetition, perhaps. Also, Dispatch is much more interested in the world, thank goodness. Anyway, these new poems pull much more from resources outside of myself—the news, the archive, other people’s poems—and tend to wander around in questions like: What kind of revisions need to happen to make this a poem/world in which my friends are alive, that isn’t structured so as to kill them? How ought I pay attention, how to register the perpetual bad news without letting it fatally intrude? What kinds of we’s can be made across spatial/historical/categorical distances, and how might these be maintained?

Basically, less teen angst! Some teen angst, to be sure, but less. I hope so, anyway. We’ll see.