Monday, August 14, 2017

Alternative Routes: An Interview with Jericho Parms

Lost Wax by Jericho Parms (University of Georgia Press, 2016) is an amalgamation of forms and styles: lyrical, narrative, essay, and travelogue. It’s a fun read for viewing new frames encasing investigations that journey both longitudinally and mentally. The book is playful, but willing to be knife-jabbingly tragic. It’s well-researched but personal. Lost Wax, on the whole, is a balanced, nuanced collection for those who need a present “I” that doesn’t sit only with the self but expands into other subjects, such as art and identity. Published by the University of Georgia Press as part of their Crux Series in literary nonfiction, the book aptly ushers the genre forward.  Jericho was kind enough to answer some questions about form, essays (in terms of her work and the genre), process, and travel.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Reading this book I got the sense that I was reading a form of “Travel Essay.” Or really, a friend of mine asked for suggestions for a class she’s teaching on Travel Essay, as opposed to Travel Writing, and your book just seemed perfect. It seems rooted in the Montaignian sense of the term “essay” and it bounces us around places geographically as well as cerebrally. Do you mind that term? What does genre mean for you anyway? Where do you find yourself on the Barnes & Nobles shelf and what shelf (real or imaginary) would you like to find yourself on?

Jericho Parms:
I do like that term both for the way it sounds and for the potential for conjoined meaning. Travel: to journey, and essay: an attempt. The combined sum of those two words elicits a sense of urgency that I admire; its impact is like that of enjambment in poetry. The term feels fervent, fertile—both meandering and rooted, restless and searching. I like to think of genres like any other boundary: little more than lines drawn in the sand (subject to the whim of the wind) or cracks in concrete—which might mean the world to a child trying to avoid them in an act of play, but like most boundaries, edges, classifications, labels, I think they are often given too much value. I prefer lines that are open to being blurred, bent, blended. That said, just like boundaries in the sense of parameters and frames, genre distinctions can serve us by providing the initial lines within which to color before we decide whether or not to forgo the outline before us. Genre feels akin to any other “rule” in that rules are made to be broken and are best broken when one has taken the time to understand them.

As much as I love the idea of appearing on the shelves of Barnes & Noble’s essays section (happy, too, to know that Barnes & Noble does in fact have an essays section), one of the more gratifying moments since the publication of Lost Wax was receiving an email from an acquaintance who said he had stumbled upon the book in a small library in Texas. Seeing your book in a bookstore is no doubt satisfying but I love the thought of the book nestled in a library stack, a book exchange at a café somewhere, a lending kiosk in Bryant Park, a free box in Berlin or Montreal. It’s the potential for unexpected reach that most excites me, the idea that the book might be found by happenstance, might be party to a serendipitous encounter.

CCP: You seem to have caught the travel bug early. How do you think this shaped you and your writing, and what would you recommend to people who maybe are not able to travel?

JP: Yes, and I credit that travel bug and sense of exploration in large part to the way I grew up. I was raised in New York in a pretty diverse and artistic family. Although we had little financially, I benefited from the riches of support and I am grateful for that. So, when I graduated high school I decided to defer college in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. When I was enrolled in college, I decided to take time off, saved up from my work-study job and traveled to Guatemala, and again to Spain. My ability to travel has come largely out of a stubborn determination and (having held jobs since I was young) a certain work ethic, which is to say that if the passion is there, financial means need not preclude or inhibit one’s interest in traveling. I think we often put too much emphasis on the financial burdens of travel and allow such constraints to become roadblocks. It can be easier to remain “in place” rather than pursue other views and different vantage points, but I find it worthwhile to do so, particularly when we are young and untethered by employment, family, or other responsibilities. I am certainly guilty of this—and more so in recent years as I have grown more tethered. For those with mobility and the means (and motivation) to travel, I would say find every opportunity to do so, and find ways of making those opportunities meaningful to writing. There are an increasing number of wonderful conferences and workshops abroad. For those without the means physically or otherwise to board a bus, train, or plane elsewhere I would say there is no limit to our ability to “travel” locally via museums (particularly encyclopedic and natural history museums), galleries, concerts, festivals, an alternative route to work, a new restaurant, or the far side of town. To circle back to our definitions, the word travel is defined as to go, to move in a given direction or path, but it is also defined by the act of journeying through or over, to be moved from place to place. Travel is a term I take liberty to define loosely, and within its loose definition there is unending possibility.

CCP: I love the research in this book, how it lets my mind toggle between some of the personal essaying and the research-driven writing. It feels like the braids and interconnections build off each other and call-and-respond. Maybe it’s a chicken-egg thing, but I’m wondering if there’s a general sense that your writing begins as a question and you need to look it up on the digital ether or at a library or if it’s a curiosity about the self that feels muted without the extra research?


JP: I’m inclined to say it’s a combination of both. I agree with your chicken-egg analogy. I often think, too, of the process as a revolving door that begins with a question, image, idea, observation, that, in turn, leads to further questions, images, ideas… and so on. Curiosity about the self drives many an essay forward, and the true inquiry beneath an essay is not always immediately evident. In the essay “On Puddling,” for example I knew I wanted to write about the death of a friend whom I didn’t know well, but whose untimely passing had stuck with me (having happened during a time in my life when I experienced a series of such losses). The present “occasion” of the essay examines driving dirt roads and watching butterflies gather in the soil. In this case, research on Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship to butterflies became, for various reasons, the connecting tissue between the past and present threads of the essay. What began as seemingly peripheral research on Lepidoptera and Nabokov’s lifelong fondness for the species, led me to expose the underlying instinct or true core of the essay: my need to list, catalogue, preserve, make last, when life’s experience (stubbornly fleeting and difficult to pin down) had taught me otherwise.

CCP: Also, have you met writers and readers that seem to have an allergy to researched material? I’ve always been fascinated by this response. Does research seem necessary for you despite maybe turning some people off?

JP: Sometimes I do wonder if there isn’t a bug going around when it comes to readers who cringe at researched material, but it may just come down to a question of audience, a writer’s voice, and the potential chemistry that exists in the space between reader and writer. Mimi Schwartz has a great piece on “Research and Creative Nonfiction” where she describes the need to “write so the seams of research don’t show” using masterful examples from essayists such as Barbara Hurd and Jocelyn Bartkevicius. And I agree, in good research-driven essays “fact and feeling must blend.” For me, whether or not researched material makes it into the final version of an essay, some form of research usually feels necessary to my writing process. Research helps reveal my curiosities, preoccupations, obsessions. And yet, I will be the first to admit that sometimes research can be a crutch, a distraction, can overburden the writing, or overshadow the underlying impulse toward personal truth in a piece. I’ve gone down endless paths of research only to find myself at the bottomless pit of information about, say, chairs depicted throughout history, the puddling behavior of butterflies, or every instance of red appearing in the natural world. Months ago I grew obsessed with the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction; most recently the tradition of Ama divers in Japan has captured my attention—but what am I really writing about? At some point, I inevitably have to pull myself out of the external world of information and obscure fact, vast as it is, and remember why I am writing in the first place, which tends to ground me again in the personal. No essay is going to contain every reference to chairs throughout art history, (my essay “Still Life with Chair” certainly didn’t) but it might contain a handful that I’ve decided may be useful. And yet, that handful of researched chair images is nothing without the one image of a chair depicted in a painting that I remember from one night of my life—the central image that serves as an entry point into personal narrative and remembered experience. For some readers research will never fly. For me, as a reader, in order for research to be compelling, it has to be in service of a larger idea that or experience that an essay is trying to unpack. As Schwartz suggests, it should feel relatively natural, seamless.

CCP: I know you’ve talked about your essay forms in other interviews, but I want to mention how I admire the way you experiment with form and structure in the book. I for one love this even though I feel like my own writing is formally predictable. Did this come naturally for you? What kinds of thinking went behind your final forms? Any forms not make the cut?

JP: In my writing process, an essay’s final form is often the result of several misfits and failures. I love essays that speak to both the universal and the personal, that peer in close while carrying an awareness of a panoramic view—essays in which the structure further informs content and meaning. With the unending possibilities of form, what is most important to me is to make sure a chosen form feels warranted, not contrived. I’m not interested in bells and whistles for the sake of it. (And, yes, most times I’ve approached a piece thinking I’ll write the perfect list essay or another found or experimental form, they often dead end—and quickly). So I tend to allow form to emerge later in the process. The title essay of the book, “Lost Wax” for example, was originally written as a straightforward narrative following a solitary drive to a Colorado hot spring. And while that overall narrative still exists in the final essay, the revision process led to that initial narrative being largely fragmented: interrupted by meditations on Greek and Roman sculptures, detours into memory, meandering digressions on love, youth and idealism. Ultimately the content of the essay and the central metaphor of mold, impression, and absence (as understood through the lost wax casting method) felt too confined within a traditional narrative. It begged for a form that felt both entwined and ephemeral.

CCP: This leads me to something else I’ve been thinking about lately. As a teacher I now bear the responsibility of giving new writers direction. Uncannily, I remember things that my earliest mentors said, and I wonder about new writers developing a sense of themselves. How would you say you began sharpening the tone that would become Lost Wax. What were some pivotal moments for you?

JP: It is a gift to have the voices of several mentors in my head. I believe the generosity and guidance of other writers can have a remarkable impact on new writers developing a sense of self and voice. In addition to a handful of brilliant and saintly teachers, I would cite my reading life as having the most direct influence on my writing, particularly the essays that compose Lost Wax. There were certainly definitive moments, during my time in an MFA program, for example, or while traveling, when my devouring of essay collections reached a height, but equal was (as it has always been) my passion for poetry. Somewhere between the two forms, I found my way to the final versions of these essays. What I love about poetry, like good essay collections, is the way that even in book form, each essay and poem retains its own properties while contributing to a sense of cohesion and collectivism.

My earliest interest in writing came in the all-too-familiar form of writing bad poetry in high school, and by the time I was in college I had an impassioned, though largely unfocused, interest in journalism. The turn for me was after college, when I was reading the work of essayists—particularly female essayists—who allowed themselves to enter into their own writing, and whom, as Joan Didion has suggested, wrote not to explain or tell but to understand. And these writers were doing so not in the realm of traditional journalism or in the traditional sense of memoir, but through the essay. Kate Zambreno has written about the act of taking the self out of the essay as a form of repression, “like obeying a gag order” which, looking back, felt true to me at the time. The pretext of objectivity in journalistic writing felt stifling. At the same time, I was working at a museum. Surrounded once again by art of all kinds, I eventually began to explore my own ideas, memories and associations afforded to me through sustained observations on art and object. Although we don’t need to defend this in the same way it once needed to be defended, it feels worth iterating: self-expression is a legitimate form of art, one best conveyed with a balance that takes into account the context of the larger world. In that way, the essay has become something of a lifeline for me, in much the same way art has always been. Just as paintings were once referred to as mirrors, I see the essay as a similar vehicle that can teach us about perspective, grace, humility, voice and observation—about our collective human condition and how to be active participants, thinkers, idea-lovers, and meaning-makers in the world.

CCP: I want to go back to genre for a second if that’s all right. I’m wondering where you see the essay genre or the nonfiction canon moving? What shape is it in, and where would you say it’s headed?

JP: The essay genre is in good shape! Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or simply a blind believer, but I feel that creative nonfiction, specifically the essay in its shape-shifting forms, is well-positioned to affect change. I believe in the essay for many reasons and I hope to see more and more diverse voices taking up this genre because in form and function it mirrors our feeling and thinking insides, gives dignity to uncertainty, subverts and questions. It is an inclusive form and carries vast potential to contribute to the good in the world. That sounds lofty, I realize. Pretentious, even. But once again so much comes down to the origins of language: to essay is simply to attempt, to forge meaning, understanding, a connection with others. We may not always succeed, but you bet we’ll try and try and try again.

We often emphasize questions of literary craft when we discuss the essay as a genre but I hope to see us embrace the essay’s activist roots as well. From Montaigne and Woolf to Orwell and McCarthy, Baldwin and Didion, the essay’s lineage has often embraced speaking out, thinking “on” and “of” and “against” stagnant notions of collective identity or the nuances of humanity. In an ever-changing cultural landscape, I’m interested in the ways in which writers can push in, pull out, and re-draw the boundaries of literary form to serve our nuanced experiences and how hybrid forms (those blended lines) allow writers to navigate and/or negate the boundaries of identity, history, place, and memory.

CCP: Last, what’s your process like? What’s a good writing day for you?

JP: Ah, the question of process. Process is a constant struggle for me. (But I’m working on it!) My writing process is amorphous and erratic, bingy and indulgent. It creeps up and sidles, pokes and barges in, and sometimes squats ominously in the corner. I have no illusion about the reality of endurance and fortitude that is required of a writer to write—to write well, that is. So I see process as less dependent on ability or knack for words than a willingness to do the work, just like anything else. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, James Baldwin wrote “…beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” I have always admired his phrasing: in large part practical, with a just hint of romance.

A good writing day starts with writing and ends with something else. This is to say, I’m much more inclined, when given the chance, to write in the morning when there is less distraction filtering in and out of my head. I am not one to pull an all-nighter at my writing desk, it is far too tempting to go to bed early with a book or a movie instead, and I’m a stickler for natural light. Beyond those rough parameters, I write when I can. I am a messy drafter, restless in the early stages of an idea, but I slow down and become deliberate when revising, which, for me, is the true joy of writing—a process I sometimes wish would never have to end, and often think it never truly does.

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Jericho Parms' writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her work has been noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. She is both a graduate and the Assistant Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches in the writing at Champlain College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and elsewhere.

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