Monday, March 30, 2020

Our Spring Quarantine Reading Recommendations

Dear Essay Daily Readers,

Since many of us are going to be stuck inside for a while, and especially because we know many writers with new, exciting books of nonfiction whose book tours just got blown up by coronavirus concerns, we are inviting you to send us brief (or not-so-brief) riffs on the books (essays and cnf especially, 2019 and 2020 especially) that you're most excited about or are most looking forward to. We'd love to drive readers to new and notable books, and to get them to buy the books from their local retailer of choice. We'd particularly love to direct you to our favorite local bookstore, Antigone Books, who will ship or do curbside pickup! It costs a little more than Amazon, sure, but we need bookstores to survive the next 6 months or everybody loses.

So we'll be publishing a series of riffs and recommendations here over the next few months. Want to join us? Send us yours here.

Thomas Mira y Lopez's Recommendations
What I’m Looking Forward To: All coming a little bit later this year, but I’m excited to read Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland, Caryl Pagel’s Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, and Kati Standefer’s Lightning Flowers. I’m looking forward as well to what form Sarah Minor’s Bright Archive takes in the world.

What I Just Read: I tend not to read books as soon as they come out, but some 2019 titles that I’ve recently read that have stuck with me are: Andrea Long Chu’s Females, Andre Perry’s Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, T Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing A Body Moves Through. Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States is from 2018, I think, and remarkable. I’m still working through it, but have found Elissa Washuta’s and Theresa Warburton’s Shapes of Native Nonfiction valuable, particularly as a teaching resource.

What I’m Going to Read Next: Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House. Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism, which just won the Believer Book Award for Nonfiction (there’s a nonfiction category now!) and which I will most definitely use Coffee House Press’s March Badness discount (code: MBADNESS) to buy. And The Gnome Stories is down and, once the dust settles, Ander Monson’s I Will Take The Answer is next.


For any Cleveland folk, buy these from Mac's Backs!
Thomas Mira y Lopez is the author of The Book of Resting Places and an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps. He lives in Cleveland, where he teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Sejal Shah's Recommendations
I'm recommending my forthcoming book (first book!), This Is One Way to Dance which is a memoir in linked essays from UGA Press/Crux Series in Literary Nonfiction. These essays, written over many years, are about growing up Indian in non Indian places, movement, love, weddings, home, friendships, failing out of academia, and how to keep moving in the face of loss. Oh and about the time I went to Burning Man without a ride out. I'd also like to recommend Emily Arnason Casey's Made Holy (also from UGA/Crux, Sept. 2019) and Amy Long's Codependence (Cleveland State University Press, Sept 2019) and I'm looking forward to reading my fellow Rochesterian Sonja Livingston's newest collection, The Virgin of Prince Street(Nebraska, 2019), Elizabeth Kadetsky's new memoir in essays, The Memory Eaters (UMass Juniper Prize, out soon); and my former grad school classmate's Lisa Olstein's Pain Studies (book length lyric essay from Bellevue Literary Press).


Buy from Antigone Books!

Sejal Shah's debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, (University of Georgia Press, June 2020, Crux Series) explores identity, culture, language, and place. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and the anthologies, Strange Attractors: Writers on Chance (University of Massachusetts Press) and Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press). She is at work on a memoir about mental health. Shah's essay, "Even If You Can't See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity" was a 2019 Editors' Pick at Longreads, and she has presented keynote addresses on this topic at Princeton University and UNC Charlotte. She lives in Rochester, New York. 

Eric LeMay's Recommendations

Hello friends of the essay,

I have a few quick things to say before I turn to a great collection of essays: Berry Grass’s Hall of Waters (Operating System, 2019).

I’m a host the New Books Network. In case you haven't heard of it, it's the largest educational podcast in the world: a public-spirited project aimed at spreading the word about serious books to a wide audience ( The network has numerous hosts, who interview authors with new books and then podcast the interviews through NBN's websites, Twitter, Facebook, iTunes, etc. NBN has been quite successful, with tens of thousands of listeners worldwide and about 35,000-40,000 interviews downloaded every day. In 2019, the NBN published 1,500 episodes and did 8.5 million downloads.

Recently I interviewed Berry about their new collection. In my introduction to our interview, I wrote: “Grass’s aim is nothing less than to demythologize the American Midwest. Grass wants us to see something like the true history of the land and the culture from which the Midwest arose, one built on systemic racism, exploitation, marginalization, and violence. At the same time, Grass tries to reckon with what it meant for them to grow up, as Grass puts it, 'queer and trans in such a toxic environment.' The result is a book that’s dazzling in its variety and steadfast in its vision: to see clearly how the white dominant culture of the Midwest obscures the land to which it laid claim and the nature of who and what it is, all in the hope of a clearer and truer vision of who we are and how we might, in the end, be accountable to ourselves and one another.”

Below is our interview. Berry has keen things to say about writing the essay and being an author in our moment.

I’ll also take this moment to extend an invitation to authors out there who might be interested in doing an interview. I’m especially interested in supporting first books, books from small presses, books by historically marginalized subject positions, and books that celebrate and shake up what the essay is and could be.

All best wishes to you for wellness and safety,


Buy from Antigone Books!
Eric LeMay is an essayist and a host on the New Books Network:

Chris Cokinos's Recommendation: Peter Milne Greiner

Peter Milne Greiner's Lost City Hydrothermal Field is a brilliant cross-genre book of poetry, SF prose and essayistic SF prose. On the ancient end of the field, anything by Loren Eiseley feels just about right these days—moody, to say the least. A shout-out to Nina Boutsikaris's I'm Trying to Tell You I'm Sorry. Beyond books, I recommend the paintings of de Chirico and the film Perfect Sense first to convey mood and second to remind us to learn. Perfect Sense is THE perfect pandemic film, heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting.


Buy from Antigone Books, Book Stop (Tucson), or Ken Sanders Books!

Chris Cokinos writes stuff and is trying to pay attention.

Matthew Gavin Frank's Not So Much of a Review of Sarah Vap’s New Book-length Essay, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, Exactly

Sarah Vap’s new book-length essay, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions (Noemi Press, 2019), is about the end of the world.

No: Sarah Vap’s new book-length essay, Winter, is about Late-stage Capitalism as a wolf; no: as a vulture; no: as an asshole buying up 17,700 bottles Purell, and then selling 2 fluid ounces of the shit for $70 or more.

No: Winter is about war, family, miscarriages actual and metaphorical, drones and contagions, the overlaps and disconnects between blood and motherhood, between the soul and snowmen and fucking and laughing and Mongols and Luke Skywalker, density and diarrhea.

No: Winter is about trying to write and re-write a single poem called Winter over a period of twelve years.

No: Winter is about good intentions: Searching for the invisible. No: The aria in the belly of silence. The noises we make that best trouble the hearts of the whales. The dolphins that can now rediscover the joys of the Venetian canals.

No: Winter is about failed starts, and the asshole.

No: Winter is about warming one’s children’s toes, about breast milk, Donald Trump, dead fish, Monsanto, big guns, big guns, about ExxonMobil reaching into its vagina until it bumps into its cervix, and there discovering the I.

No: Winter is about laying eggs as the ice overtakes the window.

No: Winter is about how even our taxonomic language strips certain animals of their rightful legitimacy; of their right to a non-violent communion. It’s about how, for instance, even though pigeons are egg-layers, we’ve excluded them from the linguistic generosity we lend to mammals who reproduce as we do—the group Placentalia, for instance; animals who, like us, carry their fetus in the mother’s uterus, nourish it via a placenta. Due to this important commonality, we’ve decided to include the “Placentals” in the Eutheria clade, Eutheria deriving from the Greek for “true beasts.” If they reproduce as we do, they are perceived as more actual, genuine. We eat them with heavier hearts.

No: Winter is about stopping, about wishing we could just stop.

No: Winter is about interrogating over-yessing. About scratching and scratching at yes until its inner holiness or horror begins to leak out onto the tile, becoming the swarm in which we seek consolation, to which we attach our anxieties, at which we throw all of our best dildos, tampons, scattershot love, hoping that this, this will keep the predators at bay.

No: Winter is about the bay—the things that, while making their plans, embrace and drown in it.

No: Winter is about so much more than what it’s about.

No: Winter is about right now. About screaming Get out of here. Right now.

No: Winter is about examining one’s genitals in a Venetian hotel bathroom at Christmas, and the lights are flashing and the salmon are trying to love one another amid the motor oil, and roses are falling past the window and are decorating the backs of no dolphins in the canal, because this is before the virus, and the dolphins haven’t dared to yet return to the city.

Buy Winter from Snowbound Books!

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His forthcoming nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers (about, among other things, the ways in which carrier pigeons are used by diamond smuggling rings) is due out February 2021 from W.W. Norton: Liveright, provided our world is still in existence by then.

Joanna Eleftheriou's Recommendation: Beth Peterson's Dispatches from the End of Ice

I loved traveling with Beth’s narrative persona to places I’d never imagine going myself—a village in Norway, the Swiss Alps, and Wyoming. Following her mind inquire in each of these places about the meaning of things that disappear, Beth’s book taught me so much about science, climate, culture, and most of all … ice! I used to think of ice as the cubes that keep my drinks cold. After reading this phenomenal book, though, I see ice as an entire world, with a complex history and compound structure. I better understand the development of ecosystems around ice as well as ecosystems of knowledge and scientific classification. It’s brilliant!


Buy Dispatches from the End of Ice via Indiebound!

Joanna Eleftheriou is the author of the essay collection This Way Back. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Joanna’s essays, poems, and translations appear regularly in journals including Chautauqua, Arts and Letters, and The Crab Orchard Review. She contributes to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and a teaches Christopher Newport University and the Writing Workshops in Greece.

Jenny Spinner's Recommendation: Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young

I have been reading my way through New Zealand women essayists in preparation for NonfictionNOW. I love this collection. It feeds my determination to "globalize" my creative nonfiction syllabi and my own theoretical work in the essay. Read it, and dream like me, of NonfictionNOW in 2021.

Buy Can You Tolerate This? from Powell's!

Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where she teaching creative nonfiction and journalism and directs the university writing center. Her most recent book is "Of Women and the Essay: An Anthology from 1655 to 2000 (University of Georgia Press, 2018). 

Send us your riff or recommendation here for new (or new-to-you) books (especially essays or other sorts of creative nonfiction) that you're most excited about. We'd particularly love to highlight books out in the last 6 months or so and those coming out in the next 6 months, but anything's eligible. We'll be publishing a series of these riffs & recommendations over the following months. Here's the google form to submit yours!

Monday, March 23, 2020

“No Color is So Startling as Clear”: An Interview with Amy Leach by Sarah Ruth Bates

Amy Leach’s “The Wanderer: A Long-Overdue and Dispassionate Assessment of the Earth as Art” came out in the October 2018 issue of The Believer. I read it and texted a screenshot to a friend. I forget the accompanying text, but it was probably something like, “!!!” I read it and felt so clearly seen, in that rare way, like I’d had the beginnings of a few seemingly unrelated thoughts and the essay had coalesced those thoughts and articulated them both brilliantly and beautifully.
    I applied to MFA programs that year, and one application called for a critical essay in response to a work of nonfiction published within the last 10 years. I responded to “The Wanderer.” The response grew, became a thread in my manuscript-in-progress.
    “The Wanderer” is a brief essay, with a simple premise articulated in the subtitle: the writer, a first person plural voice, reviews the world as art. They find the world wanting. Some critiques are silly: “Let’s just say that if we were able to conjure anything out of the blue, it would not be a blobfish.”
     Others, though, land with more weight: “As it is, the world seems deficient in uniformity and purpose. Granted, there are mini-purposes here and there, like how within his swarm a mortuary bee has a purpose: dragging away the dead bees. A mopper’s place in Mattress World is clear, but what is the mopper’s place in the universe, the universe being inscrutable? When everything is mad, even the exigencies are mad. Sweeping, mopping, schmoozing, morticianship.”
     On the first read, I probably physically nodded at this. Sweeping, mopping (I was a 20-something and hated housework (still am, still do)); schmoozing (I was working as a lobbyist), morticianship (I was writing about, among other topics, absurdities and contradictions in death and dying, autopsies, and burial practices).
     I felt that the essay, in its mode of criticizing the world, was inhabiting, really elucidating, the constant discomfort of being a person (which I felt keenly (still do)). Amy writes, “We often feel that the artist is toying with us, being purposefully opaque, making us try to winkle out his meaning.” (The hope that powered my undergrad philosophy studies: that there’s a meaning to be winkled out).  “Sometimes a cloud resolves itself into a camel and then we think, Ah, so that’s what he’s getting at. But then we think, But wait, we don’t really know what camels are getting at. The figurative art here is as enigmatic as the abstract art.” In my “critical” response to “The Wanderer,” I wrote, “it’s like having a broken heart and listening to a song that resonates—sure, I’d rather not feel the pain, but it comforts to know that someone else feels it, too.”
     So: this essay mattered deeply to me. I asked Amy if I could interview her about it. I had questions about how she’d composed it, her process in general, how it fit with the mostly-different essays in her book, THINGS THAT ARE (Milkweed Editions, 2014). I sent her my questions.
     She responded, “There's one thing I should maybe clarify before we talk, in that I wrote "The Wanderer" as satire, as a send-up of an over-controlling, over-conservative, over-ideological aesthetic--the kind of aesthetic I encountered sometimes in workshop. So everything I am seeming to criticize I am really meaning to praise. Anyway, we can talk more tomorrow!”
     I texted a friend:
what happens when the piece that most articulates how u feel turns out to have been written as critical satire i am the enemy!
but also i love her book so i am maybe not the enemy! AH!
Then, a little later:
i feel indicted
but also not?
Not really indicted, of course, because Amy was generous and kind. I did feel pretty stupid. I’d been caught in the literary version of “people who thought The Onion was real.” But, this being the literary version, it’s more complicated than that.
     It’s unsettling to see read thoughts rendered for the first time in an essay, to sprout your own projects from that essay, and then to hear from the writer that she intended it as satire, a full flip, everything the opposite of how it seemed. It’s also kind of fantastic. I’ve been feeling stuck on the voice for my book, I think because thus far, I’ve written into discomfort and frustration. I feel sure of the concerns of the book, what I want it to worry, but I’m not yet sure of the voice/tone/structure—the approach—what Noam Dorr called “the grammar” of his own book.
     Amy’s revelation of satire threw me, but I needed to be thrown. She made me realize I was begging questions: do we have to be upset with the world’s mysteries? Do we have to confront inexplicable strangenesses with frustration? Do we really want to take umbrage at enigma? (Is it entitled, and itself absurd, to do so?)
     In Things That Are, Amy shows that we don’t have to stay mired in frustration. There’s another path, a brighter one. She explains what that looks like, below. Unsurprisingly, in her explanation, writing-work and life-work form overlapping circles. There’s a moment where she asks if what she’s saying makes sense, and I answer clumsily because I feel like it makes so much sense, more than I’d have thought to look for: she’s mapping the way she writes, and the resulting route also functions as a way to try to live.


Sarah Ruth Bates: I’m so excited to talk with you! Thank you so much for taking the time!

Amy Leach: Oh, you’re very welcome! I’m glad the essay resonated with you!

SRB: Oh, very much. So, you wrote “The Wanderer” as satire, in response to, you said, common attitudes in workshop?

AL: Well, I don’t know if I would say “common,” but I remember somebody when I was in graduate school (Note: Leach got her MFA at the Iowa Nonfiction Writers’ Program), raising the idea of what it would be like to workshop Shakespeare, or Moby-Dick, and I always thought that was the most hilarious idea, and had always wanted to develop that joke, and I think that’s always been in the back of my mind: what if we applied our conventional aesthetic principles to something wild?

SRB: Something maybe out of our range?

AL: Yeah, right, exactly. Moby-Dick, or…I just kept going, bigger and bigger and bigger—Oh, why don’t we just review the whole world? You know, according to our aesthetics. The workshops were generally helpful, but I remember people would say to each other, “oh, you’re going too far,” “this is too this,” “I can’t figure out your worldview,” and there was often pressure to be more obvious. So this essay is like an extended joke—what would it be like if we workshopped the animals? There’s a passage in there that reads, “olms are too ambiguous, and Pomeranians are too combustible.” I started with a list like that, criticizing animals for being excessive in specific ways, and then I developed the rest of the essay around that. Does that make sense?

SRB: Yeah, definitely. That totally makes sense, because I did wonder—it’s such a great premise for an essay, but I wondered how it might have occurred to you. And it makes sense, too, because Things That Are is so excited about the world that I wondered, how did this come from the same mind?

AL: I know, it must have seemed like quite an about-face, like I was saying opposite things.

SRB: My little theory about it was that you got a bit—that you had to carry the Things That Are sensibility throughout the entire book, and that you got a little bit tired of it? I wasn’t sure.

AL: (Laughs) I got fatigued by being so excited all the time, so I decided to be weary and sophisticated.
     But there’s one piece in Things That Are that used the same wicked condescending voice, and that’s "Memorandum to the Animals." I had played with it just briefly there.

SRB: Oh, that’s the one where they don’t make it on the ark, right?

AL: Yeah, oh, sorry, animals.

SRB: We can’t—

AL: We don’t have time for all of you—

SRB:You’re cute, but you’re not gonna make it.

AL: It was that same condescension that I tapped into when I wrote "The Wanderer"—but no no no no, I never did get fatigued of wonder. (Laughs). I’ll never get tired of wonder.
     Another thing that triggered this essay was that I was reading about Chekhov, and one reviewer who obviously wanted Chekhov to be a propagandist called Chekhov “the high priest of unprincipled writing,” and Chekhov himself said, “I lack a political, religious, and philosophical worldview.” And I thought, oh! That’s why his stories are so good! Because he’s not adopting this stance and in a very controlling way trying to make everything he says stay on message, adhere to his program. And I thought, well, wouldn’t it be funny to criticize God as an artist, to criticize him for the same thing, for not having any principles. We can’t figure him out! We can’t figure out where he’s coming from, we can’t figure out his worldview, his philosophy, we can’t figure out even his religion, and he lets characters be way too free! It’s just a free-for-all here, and that’s very disturbing to us!

SRB: Yeah, we do not like it!

AL: No. And the characters are not obvious. The world is not obvious. I try to be inspired by the world, as an aesthetic example—not just by books in my own genre, in my own culture, that have been published in my own time. If that’s all you take as a model, you might be satisfied with small rules and conventions, but if you start straying to other times, other genres, art, music, rivers, trees, animals, it is very freeing. It frees you from small principles.

SRB: Oh absolutely. Yeah, I hesitated to use the word “research” with your work because it seems like it’s so much deeper and more playful, and I didn’t want to use such a strict term. Is that a word that you would identify with, or is it more like play, exploration?

AL: Oh, research is fine. I love research--consulting materials outside of my own experience. I guess it goes back to the point of this essay, in that the world itself is so much more imaginative than my own imagination. When I find out about panda bears or peas or the moon, my imagination is stretched a lot further. Does that make sense?

SRB: Yes, for sure, and taking those phenomena as artistic inspiration, it’s sort of the opposite of “The Wanderer” view—it’s still, “the earth as art,” but as exemplary, not as something to criticize.

AL: Yes, yes. For this essay, I didn’t do as much specific research, I just had troves of tips in notebooks over the years. In the essays in Things That Are, I would go pretty deeply into learning about my subjects, like the moon, and what I like about research is what I like about nonfiction. If I just make things up, if I make my own moon up, it’s not as interesting! As the moon!

SRB: Yes. I loved the astronomy parts of Things That Are.

AL: Thank you.

SRB: Of course. So, the one thing—I’m a little embarrassed that in some ways I did sort of identify with the frustration that happens in “The Wanderer,” that feeling of if only it made more sense.

AL: Oh, I think it’s very natural to want things to make more sense, to be more understandable, comprehensible, and I do, too. I think it’s when I write that I try to counter that in myself, and I start (laughing) reveling in the uncontrollability of things! Incomprehensibility of things! In the dazzle. In the mystery. In the questions, although certainly, well, that’s not how I always feel about concrete things in my own life.

SRB: Yeah. Does writing help with those concrete things?

AL: I think it’s a relief. To try and just accept that life is wild, and incomprehensible, and funny and strange and versatile, and all those things that I was describing, when I was "criticizing" the world [in “The Wanderer”]. And changeable, and so hard to judge, because it’s always changing.

SRB: And maybe we shouldn’t even be trying to judge.

AL: Right. You had asked me in your email, which of these is your inner voice—the voice in Things That Are or the voice in "The Wanderer"? I don’t think either of them is, normally! But when I write, I’m striving to think the way I want to think. Writing is a practice: I want to celebrate these things that are so difficult. I don’t know if that makes sense.

SRB: It does, I love that, yes, because we have to—it’s not this simple, but we can be annoyed at the things that are not sitting exactly the way we would want them to

AL:That we can’t control

SRB: Yes, and I do think I’m trying to look for ways to delight in those, those aspects of existence, and it is hard. I studied philosophy, in undergrad, and then medical ethics after, and I do think I wanted a frame that made everything fit, and it’s a long process to try to first accept that maybe we won’t find one, and then get excited about that.

AL: Or maybe the frames just haven’t been big enough yet?

SRB: Yeah, maybe that! And I love the idea of writing being a way of reaching towards the way we want to approach life.

AL: That is why I like writing, because it takes a lot of work: it sometimes takes me many pages before I achieve it, but then I think, yes, this is the way I want to think.

SRB: Yeah, we can’t ask that it also be easy.

AL: No, no! (Laughs)

SRB: That’s so interesting. And—I’m curious if you could say more about the work you’re doing now? You said a few essays have the “Wanderer” voice. What is the book like, if you don’t mind my asking?

AL: Well, I started out with a couple of research essays, as I had done with my last book, but then I started writing this piece (“The Wanderer”), and it changed my direction. I’m still doing research, and I will always value how research takes me way beyond where I could go by myself. But one of the reasons I did so much research was because I didn’t want to be programming my essays. I felt like research could get me away from any programming, or propaganda, in my own head. And then I wrote this piece. And I thought, oh! I do have ideas, and I like the ideas! The two other pieces in this voice—one of them is about the poor animals whose careers are sagging, who need to be more like us, so we’re going to give them PowerPoint presentations in the business-inspiration mode. For the other essay I made up the text of one of these lectures, called, ‘How to count like a pro.’ I try to get the animals to be more practical-minded.

SRB: Uh huh.

AL: And of course, everything I’m saying, what I really mean is the exact opposite.

SRB: Yeah. Which I felt in The Wanderer, especially having read Things That Are, but those questions, like I said, did feel so alive to me.

AL: Uh huh.

SRB: What is the purpose of--maybe the cloud looks like a camel, but why camels?

AL: (Laughs) I know! I mean, it is a predicament!

SRB:Yeah! I love that the question can be alive even within satire.

AL: Yes! Yes! So that is one interpretation, take it seriously.

SRB: It’s great how much laughter can be felt in Things That Are.

AL: Oh, good! Good.

SRB: I imagine you kind of guided by your own chuckles, as you write.

AL: Yes, absolutely. And you know, I’ll try the jokes out, over and over and over and over, and I feel like some jokes are good once, they make me laugh once, and then they don’t make me laugh again so I have to discard those, and some jokes make me laugh five times, and that’s not enough. I try to keep the jokes (laughs) you know, that make me laugh long-term.

SRB: For sure. You try them out by writing them again, or by reading them over?

AL: Oh, reading them over and over and over.

SRB: Totally. This might sound tangential, but it’s related—I’m teaching composition, as part of the MFA, and I like to start the classes with an image, and this semester it’s Hubble Space Telescope pictures of the universe, because the Seinfeld writers apparently had photos of the universe in the Writer’s Room, because it made everything funnier, always, which I loved.

AL: Wow! That is a good reference point!

SRB: Yeah, just the reminder that we’re on a spinning rock. Everything gets sillier.

AL: That’s wonderful!

SRB: I’m so glad you’re reacting that way. The freshmen just gave me dead eyes. I was like, this is gold! It’s not from me!

AL: Oh no! Well, it’ll make an impression on them, probably. The universe will make an impression on them.

SRB: If the universe can’t, then no one can. (Both laugh).
     Oh, I’m curious, when you compose your lists, do they come out that way, or do you go back and tweak them, the way you read your jokes over and over?

AL: They never come out that way, no. I tweak them and tweak them and tweak them, and I would not consider that labor at all. It’s just fun, and it’s a relief from trying to come up with an interesting idea. If I’m having trouble with an idea, I’ll go play with the lists again! The things that guide me when I’m making those lists…I would say it’s primarily sound, just finding lots of names, for animals or whatever, that sound interesting and funny and rhythmic together, and also, to alternate obscure words with recognizable words. I think that one little list that you had quoted…

SRB: Oh yeah—“noddies and finches and ouzels and froglets”

AL:Mmhmm! I think that one had started out being all obscure. When it was accepted, at The Believer, it was a list of four obscure animals many people wouldn’t recognize, so Joshua Shenk had recommended, and I thought it was a good recommendation, “Can we throw in something recognizable here?” and that’s where the finches and froglets came from. To alternate recognizable and unrecognizable.

SRB: I’m glad to know that they’re tweaked, because they hit so many different notes, and it feels so precise.

AL: No, I don’t go around just spewing these musical lists. I mean, in some ways that would be nice, but it’s also nice to have to work for it, because then it’s more of an accomplishment.

Amy Leach is the author of Things That Are, published by Milkweed Editions. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa, and her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Science and Nature Writing, A Public Space, Orion, and Tin House. She has been recognized with the Whiting Writers' Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award. She lives in Bozeman, Montana, and her second book, The Modern Moose, will be published by FSG in 2021.

Sarah Ruth Bates is a writer currently based in Tucson, AZ. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Outside, Boston Globe Magazine, Off Assignment, Appalachia Journal, WBUR Cognoscenti, and WBUR ARTery. She's a first-year in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she serves as Managing Editor of the Sonora Review. Catch her at and @sarahrbates.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

THE MALCONTENT: Beyond Crabs: Visual Metaphor + Experimental Form

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 

Something that has irked me recently—as experimental and graphic forms of essay writing have flourished in digital platforms—are the ways most traditional artistic and literary venues continue to flatten our potential for understanding the work these essays are accomplishing. Because of this, it has also been interesting to track the ways experimental essays have made it to publication and especially into print by donning the new terminology of “the hermit crab essay.”

When I first learned of the "hermit crab" form, it felt to me like an umbrella term nonfiction writers were using for the thing poets had forever been calling “found” or “received.” But Tell It Slant [1] defines the “hermit crab essay” as “[the] kind of essay [that] appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with the material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it” (25).

I pause whenever I see this (oft-quoted) definition, and I recently understood why. Tell It Slant’s definition of “hermit crab” forms reminds me of something Sianne Ngai, author of "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" [2], once said in an interview when she described the link between cuteness and powerlessness, particularly the way objects “get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled” (6). In Tell It Slant’s above definition, a hermit crab essay’s form is not an extension of content, as Charles Olson says, but so separate from content that it covers and protects a text. I think the pause I experience in the face of the term comes from this notion that a text without a certain structure is vulnerable (“soft,” “exposed,” “tender”) or even lost (“must look elsewhere”). I think the term “hermit crab essay” suggests that essays are, on their own, too “soft.”

Once, when I was a child, I saw a hermit crab wearing a blue plastic bottle cap, marching around inside the circle a small crowd had formed on the beach. Hermit crabs offer a rich visual metaphor because they “borrow” the abandoned shells of other animals (mollusks plucked clean by gulls) as they grow and need larger carapaces. Occasionally, when shells are scarce, crabs will choose human-made objects, like bottle tops or pen caps, for armor (& here I’ll weirdly, preemptively nod to Anne Carson’s writing about the Ancient Greeks' relationship to leaks and lids [3]). Many years later, I think of that crab’s borrowed lid differently when I see images of gulls with their bellies split open and spilling the same bright caps that combine to make the great Pacific garbage patch. Trash that walks is still compelling to me, but lately, I recognize that the image of a crab wearing a plastic cap is compelling because it’s a little cute. Cute because it is involved in a heightened vulnerability, an unsuccessful masquerade, a silly (anthropomorphic-ish?) mistake that crab is making.

Many writers I admire have said (read: bemoaned) that essayists talk a lot about structure but often mean very different things. [4] I have wondered what Tell It Slant and other volumes mean by a text that is all underbelly, and how much the draw and the “publishability” of an easily identifiable “found” form—like an essay as Google Map directions or an essay as a quilt—depends on that project’s potential, as Ngai says, for cuteness. Not all versions of the “hermit crab essay” are recognizable before you read them. Some structures we see immediately and others we can’t. An essay in the form of a “Drug Facts” label has a graphic structure, a Rubik's cube essay has internal structure, a piece of dialogue often requires the structure of white space, and a character offers structure through subtext. What I notice is that the writers with authority over the term “hermit crab” often aim to define structures of nonfiction, but visually so, and in order to replace or make up for structures which aren’t immediately visible, and which elsewhere are often narrative—like the Freytag Triangle, the climax scenario, the hero’s return. I think the lack of a narrative or storytelling mode is what a text-as-vulnerable-underbelly means. If so, the idea of a “hermit crab” essay seems about form as a way to defend against or adjust for critiques of what is inherently essayistic about the essay, a genre often decried for making literary “mistakes” (“show don’t tell,” “exposition,” “no scene”).

My most significant beef comes from the “hermit crab” definition in the introduction to The Shell Game [5] anthology, a collection of hermit crab essays. Here, the editors encourage a practice in which form is separate from content. This happens through an extended taxonomic metaphor that warns against the potential pitfalls of applying found forms that are connected too closely with their texts (in metaphoric terms, forms that are sealed too tightly):
The most reliable sign that an essay lacks adequate air is a tendency toward the meta end of the literary spectrum. As soon as a hermit crab essay starts talking about itself as a hermit crab essay, things usually start to stink. Unfortunately this is a fairly common problem, perhaps because writers of this particular genre seem, for some reason, to have read too much Borges and Barthes, or perhaps because, as a rule, they are so in love with the act of writing that writing about the act of writing has, for them, become an irresistible draw. And yet, as far as the common reader is concerned, this sort of thing quickly becomes a snore. Just as the biological hermit crab is periodically obliged to hop out of its shell in order to sweep it clean of its own droppings, so the author of a hermit crab essay would be well advised to trim away all unnecessary meta-narrative gestures, which can become so tiresome… (xiv).
In the section above, the essayist is encouraged to consider “the common reader,” who seems to desire only the immersive, narrative experience that meta-awareness interrupts (?). And again I pause in recognizing how most of the weird and beautiful essays contained in The Shell Game anthology do not fit this definition. These are essays, after all, texts that eschew traditional narrative for a structure that is intentionally meandering (self-recursive, meta, associative, “absurdly diffuse,” “weirdly bullheaded,”[xv]) and the variety contained in this anthology demonstrate the many direct and indirect ways essays are variously engaged in a dialogue with their forms. In The Shell Game’s description, because what is natural to essaying is discouraged in both content (“clean of its own droppings”) and in its form ("adequate air"), it seems that the “hermit crab essay” could be a concept (in a sense, familiar to essayists who hang out with novelists or wish to publish in “__________: A Journal of Fiction and Poetry”) that becomes inherently self-hating.

What has always compelled me about the concept “hermit crab essay” is that it recalls the parallel both writers and artists have often drawn between an experimental form and the concept of a home, home being more useful whenever it flags the role of space, origin, and collective experience rather than simply a shelter—the kind that divides the personal from the political realm. Ursula K. Le Guin once used a related visual metaphor to describe containment via literary structure. In the “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” [6] Le Guin weaves a parable of early hunter-gatherers with the anthropological theory that the first human invention was not a hard, blunt weapon but likely a soft bag or sack, to unpack the ways some writers have come to value traditional narrative structure:
So the hero has decreed through his mouthpiece to the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! Hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it. I differ with all of this. I would go as far to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another, and to us (152).
By describing “spear-like” fiction, Le Guin critiques narratives driven by action, violence, plot, climax, and by describing sack-like fiction Le Guin celebrates, well, the opposite: “If it is a human thing to do to put something you want…into a bag or a basket,” Le Guin writes, “and take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag or container for people…if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time” (152). If you, like me, like your visual metaphors, you’ll appreciate that earlier in this same article, while citing Virginia Woolf’s attempt to reinvent the English Language in order to tell a different kind of story by replacing the word “hero” with “bottle,” Le Guin proposes, instead, “the bottle as hero… A holder. A recipient.” It’s at this point that I begin to think of the little crab’s “bottle cap” differently. I recognize that a “borrowed” form is not always a text’s wound, costume or shield but often something much more deliberate. An experimental essaying form, used well, is a non-text element that extends (rather than apologizes for or defends) essaying.

A sack doesn’t guard against what it contains. A sack gathers things together, provides intimacy, holds a specific collection of objects in closer proximity than they will ever be elsewhere again. A successful sack takes the shape of its contents, but that shape shifts continuously as we look through the bag. Since the days of our over-referenced ancestor Montaigne, plotless, meandering, sack-like texts (Le Guin: “The Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”) have interested writers and readers of the essay, and these days they have found a home inside many experimental forms. Like Le Guin, my interest in form is not an interest in offering a backbone, a plot, an arc, or a killing to a killingless text, but in the way experimental structures can situate various materials in conversation, can add richness to kinds of telling that have historically been hard to make visible on pages through traditional narrative and plain text alone. As T. Fleischmann shows us in “Ill-Fit the World,” [7] these modes of telling, of inviting the reader into meta-awareness and meaning-making, are native to the contemporary essay (and perhaps, through this participation, one beauty of the essay is its ability to frame the reader as Hero [8]).

Le Guin’s wink to gender through her symbolic and literal anatomical structures in “The Carrier Bag Theory…” is of course also a nod to the ways gender binaries attach to hardness and “softness,” and to the old ways that writing about daily life and without a traditional hero has been devalued, left out of canons, explicitly and physically erased. Here I am also reminded of David Lazar [9] and Kazim Ali’s [10] likenings of Genre to Gender, of text to the body, and the limitations to understanding both as demonstrated by the language we use, and the way we have traditionally discussed both subjects. For myself and my contemporaries (many of whom are finding new ways to write sack-like texts to avoid dichotomies embedded in traditional narrative structure, including those who actively write against second-wave attachments to the vulva and literary theory that relies on the difference of sex) the motif of “womb-like” experimental writing feels boring, if not unwelcome. Which reminds me again of the split between crab and shell, and of the tired (but still useful?) slogan “the personal is political,” which the third wave took up to further collapse binaries of inner and outer, hard and soft, sex and gender, form and content. By describing essays without narrative structure as “tender,” and by calling the relationship between a text and its form “borrowed” or “protecting,” the current definition of “hermit crab” essays limits the work and dissemination of essay forms by recalling, for starters, the old mind-body problem, and by highlighting experimental writing for the way each example has the potential (in its objectness, its “lopsided” appearance, its containment, its extra-textualness) to be understood via lack and gimmick.

Rather than decry writing of this kind, I am interested in what is possible when we develop new conceptions of contemporary essaying by looking closer at the variety of ways that sack-like (lyric, bent, permeable, interactive, collaged, trans, gender-bending) essays function in constellation with experimental form. And I remain compelled by the notion of form as a text’s home, not for the game of borrowing, but for the quality of containment that homes and sacks share—their role as a gathering space for putting various objects in relation, for the arrival of the “unhomely” (what Homi K. Bhabha—yes!—calls “the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home, the home-in-the-world.” [11]). I wish to push past crabs and shells as our only language for graphic and formal essay experiments, not just because of what they suggest about traditional narrative structure as an ideal, but because of the way they hamstring our methods of speaking about the relationship between the form and content of a text. If we continue to think of form as a shell, and essay as soft meat, then often the only way weird essays will get into print mags is by tromping over wearing a structure that came from print to begin with—the essay as personal ad, the essay as recipe—and we’ll end up fashioning our writing for the limits of those venues, but never beyond them (one nods to invented forms). Essays, after all, are the genre Rachel Blau DuPlessis was drawn to for its “distrust of systems, skepticism, and transgressive nature,” (see Carson: “leaky”) which sometimes feels like the very thing The Shell Game wants to contain.

Down with the hermit crab! Not really—I don’t have another term to offer you, nor a call for the final death of this one—though perhaps use it carefully. The crabs have walked us this far, into an era where many editors and designers care less about texts that “tell,” about house fonts or margin sizes. Universities and their literary journals are already far behind the graphic capabilities of Zine culture, for example, and the interactivities that video games can offer readers.

From here, I’d like to have better conversations about the ways essays have already established relationships with forms designed to extend their essaying into both internal and graphic spaces. I’d like to recognize, once more, experimental form as a “home” where home is being redefined by people who are not at home in most places. This is why graphic and visual forms have always pushed at the boundaries and capabilities of both the literary journal and the traditional print page, and why those venues should adjust to feature them or go away. I say we keep an eye on the venues that create affordable print components and offer online appendices where work like this can flourish. Let’s build more of them.

The homes we are making in experimental essays are places where the personal and political combine. They are places for navel-gazing, for self-critique, for non-linear stories, for telling, for dialogue, the “shock of recognition,” and for uncanny experiences that can invite new engagements with essaying across both physical and digital space.

[1] Miller, Brenda, and Susanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, McGraw-Hill, 2005. Page 25.

[2] Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, by Sianne Ngai, Harvard University Press, 2012. Page 6.

[3] Carson, Anne. “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity.” Men in the Off Hours. Vintage Books, 2000. p 147.

[4] Singer, Margot. “On Scaffolding, Hermit Crabs, and the Real False Document.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 77-80.

[5] Adrian, Kim. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

[6] Le Guin, Ursula. “‘The Carrier Theory Bag of Fiction.’” Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, Grove Press, 2006, pp. 165–171.

[7] Fleischmann, T. “Ill-Fit The World.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 44-52.

[8] Monson, Ander. “Text Adventure.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 81-90.

[9] Lazar, David. “Queering the Essay.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 15–20.

[10] Ali, Kazim. “Genre-Queer: Notes Against Generic Binaries.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, by Margot Singer, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 27-38.

[11] Bhabha, Homi. “The World and the Home.” Social Text, no. 31/32, 1992, pp. 141– 153. JSTOR,

[12] Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. “f-Words: An Essay on the Essay.” American Literature, Write Now: American Literature in the 1980s and 1990s. vol. 68, no. 1, 1996, p. 15-45. Accessed Dec 15, 2017. Accessed 14 November 2018.

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Joni Tevis: The End of the World as We Know It: The Nonfiction of Apocalypse

Friends, I intended to read this essay at AWP in San Antonio on March 5, 2020, as part of a panel titled "It's the End of the World as We Know It: The Nonfiction of Apocalypse." Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. So I share it here with you in this form, a little changed. My thanks to fellow panelists Beth Peterson, Matt Donovan, and Desirae Matherly.


Friends, thank you for your attention, for sharing these thoughts with me.
     For me, writing the apocalypse isn’t fortunetelling. It’s history—looking at the past through the eyes of the present, and looking reflexively, too, to try and discern what the past has to tell us about now. I think of a textile mill in my hometown, in upstate South Carolina, abandoned twenty years, overgrown with briers and Virginia creeper.
     If to write about apocalypse is to write about history, how do I want to do history at its most seductive as an essayist, not a historian? I love material culture—the dogwood shuttle from the textile mill—and the power that comes from creating context between objects, phrases, and moments. I want to figure something out that I can’t any other way. Poet David Kirby calls the poem the problem-solving machine. That’s how I think of essays.
     Because apocalypse is nothing new. The collapse of the textile industry is, for me, a regional economic apocalypse that started in the 1960s and crested in the mid-1990s. For evidence of earlier environmental apocalypses and shifts, look at limnology, the study of mud cores taken from wetlands; the yellow bands of pollen that sink to the bottom of the lake each spring tell the story of what lived there before. Look at paleodendrology, the study of thin cores of trees, whose annular growth rings speak of the climates of the past.
     What does “apocalypse” mean? We take it as an ending, often a dramatic, violent one. But literally “apocalypse” means unveiling. Several years ago, I hauled myself halfway around the world to the tiny Greek island of Patmos to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse, where according to tradition, the writer John had the visions that he shaped into the biblical book of Revelation. This book had frightened and fascinated me ever since I was a kid in the mid-1980s, late Cold War, hearing a lot of sermons about Revelation and its coded meanings. I can trace my love of close reading to those Sundays.
     So I’m struck by the title of the panel that inspired this piece: “The end of the world as we know it.” Let’s do a close read of that song, released by Georgia rockers REM in 1987 as track six of their platinum-selling album, Document.
     Michael Stipe delivers the lyrics with driving insistence. This is not a minimalist song. I can’t always understand what he’s saying, not because of the mumblecore singing he’d favored on the band’s earlier work, but because the world of the song is crowded. His voice gallops along like someone’s about to pull the plug on his mike. Remember the first lines:
That’s great! It starts with an earthquake,/birds and snakes, an aeroplane. Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
In medias res. Dramatic! REM has four members and this song needs all hands on deck. We hear Bill Berry’s drumming first: rattabattadap, rattabattadap, rattabattadap, tap, like a snare drum in a military band. That’s great! sings Stipe, his cynical, defiant tone surely part of why the song is still popular, spiking in play, for example, before the predicted Mayan apocalypse in December 2012. Peter Buck’s guitar, jangly and tight, keeps the train on the track that Berry’s drumming lays down. And I’m a sucker for Mike Mills’ backing vocals, particularly on the chorus. Against and beneath Stipe stutter-singing it’s the/it’s the end of the world as we know it, Mills sings, It’s time I had some time alone. Nobody sounds sad about any of it.
     Which might be a problem. The lyrics are dark but the music—uptempo, major key—skids along like a happy little road trip. It’s the lie at the core of the best rock songs; I hear it in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Places where the form itself comforts by its very existence. Implied: things will work out now; they have before. It’s hard to imagine the world without at least some trace of yourself.
     Let’s talk about traces; let’s talk about debt. REM guitarist Peter Buck said that “It’s the End of the World” was influenced by Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And I buy it: the insistence, the particulars, the much-madness-makes-divinest sense absurdity. Said rock critic Andy Gill, “an entire generation recognized the zeitgeist in the verbal whirlwind of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’” as Dylan sang about the man in the trench coat, the tapped phone and the fire hose in a rapid-fire, flat-affect delivery that Stipe would later echo. Dylan, in turn, acknowledged his song’s debt to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jack Kerouac, Chuck Berry. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
     But out of REM’s whole song, its outpouring of rage and fear and excitement, the lines that hit me hardest are the ones clinching the first verse:
Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right, right.
You: vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light;
Feeling pretty psyched.
With the rapture and the reverent: Sunday morning preaching. Slam, fight, bright light: that was atomic. Nuclear. It was a springtime Saturday, April 26, 1986, when Chernobyl melted down in the world’s worst nuclear reactor accident to date. When Michael Stipe wrote his song in 1987, Chernobyl must have been on his mind. Of the time, he said later: “In 1987 and ‘88 there was nothing to do but be active….Our political activism and the content of the songs was just a reaction to where we were, and what we were surrounded by, which was just abject horror.”
     In thinking of Chernobyl, I think, of course, of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. In her work, Alexievich preserves the words and stories of eyewitnesses to counter the state narrative and the historical amnesia we’re all subject to. She includes little of her own context; she’s arranged these narratives, but they speak for themselves.
Her own thoughts she leaves until the end of the book, “In Place of an Epilogue”:
For three years I rode around and asked people: the workers at the nuclear plant, the scientists, the former Party bureaucrats, doctors, soldiers, helicopter pilots, miners, refugees, resettlers. They all had different fates and professions and temperaments. But Chernobyl was the main content of their world. They were ordinary people answering the most important questions.
I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumor, vision. Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them.
And after reading Alexievich’s work, I hear REM’s song differently. The children from the exclusion zone would have been too tired to sing a song that frenetic, or maybe any song at all. Said a teacher: these seventh-graders “are always tired and sleepy. Their faces are pale and gray. They don’t play and they don’t fool around. If they fight or accidentally break a window, the teachers are pleased”.
Said an evacuee, echoing ideas I’d heard myself at the time:
Everything that’s written in the Bible comes to pass. It’s written there…about Gorbechev. That there’ll be a big boss with a birthmark and that a great empire will crumble. And then the Day of Judgment will come. Everyone who lives in cities, they’ll die, and one person from the village will remain. This person will be happy just to find a human footprint!
     REM’s video for the song shows a teenaged boy in an abandoned farmhouse. The boy drums on a tin globe. Holds up an old photograph. I can’t watch much of this. I’ve always ignored the NO TRESPASSING signs, and this looks too much like what I’ve seen. A sagging sofa. Papers on the floor. Outside the window, yellow grass.
     A hunter in the exclusion zone spoke of:
The empty villages, just the stoves. 
     Said one evacuee:
I washed the house, bleached the stove. You need to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back. 
     This is about suffering, grief. For the dogs and cats, deer and boar, rabbits and birds that lived there; for the fir trees near the reactor that turned orange, then red; for the people. Writes Annie Dillard:
If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
     Said the wife of a liquidator:
I don’t want to hear anything, read anything about Chernobyl. I’ve seen it all.
     The little girls in the hospitals play with their dolls. They close their eyes and the dolls die.
     Why do the dolls die?
     Because they’re our children, and our children won’t live. They’ll be born and then die. 
     Says a liquidator: “When I got there, the birds were in their nests, and when I left the apples were lying in the snow. We didn’t get a chance to bury all of them. We buried earth in the earth.”
     Said a widow:
I stopped the clocks in the house when he died. It was seven in the morning. 
     Said Alexievich, in her book’s last lines: “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.”
     It's time I had some time alone. This line, sung by Mike Mills against and underneath Michael Stipe’s chorus, enacts community. Two voices singing, alive and in harmony. Mordant, yet hopeful. Almost naively so. Implied: I’ll make it. And a joke: I needed a break from y’all anyway.
     Said a liquidator:
We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, respirators, and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, ‘Boys, what is this—is it the end of the world?’ 
These things are unspeakable. But it is our job—as historians, as essayists—to speak them. To play it straight, or play it for laughs. If we can, to share the words of those who were there. And most of all, to pay attention.
     Michael Stipe said he wrote his song after he dreamed a party attended by people with the initials L.B.: Lester Bangs, Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce.
     Said Lester Bangs, rock critic: “Realizing that life is precious, the natural tendency is to trample on it, like laughing at a funeral.”
     Said Leonard Bernstein:
The 20th century has been a badly written drama, from the beginning. The opposite of a Greek drama. Act one: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act two: Greed and hypocrisy leading to a genocidal world war, a boom, a crash, totalitarianism. Act three: Greed and hypocrisy … I don't dare continue.
     Said Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leader:
Only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor from it. No matter what the attacker might possess, no matter what method of unleashing nuclear war he chooses, he will not attain his aims.
     Said Brezhnev: “God will not forgive us if we fail.”
     The only name Michael Stipe repeats is that of comedian Lenny Bruce. If you’re looking for Lenny Bruce quotes, you can find plenty; he wrote a book (How to Talk Dirty and Influence People), and recorded several of his routines (including I Am Not A Nut, Elect Me!). Said Lenny Bruce: “Life is a four-letter word.” Said Lenny Bruce: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” (Lenny Bruce is not afraid.) But the quote I like best is something he maybe never said.
     Said Lenny Bruce: “There are never enough I love you’s.” To write is to assume a reader. Or a listener. While we’re here, together, now, let me add to this moment one more I love you.

Songs, Images, Texts:

Touched upon or silently obsessed over, in order of appearance:

Arnold, Walter (US, b. 1981.) Photography. Check out
Kirby, David. All of his books are terrific. His most recent two are More Than This
(2019); Get Up, Please (2016), both from LSU Press.

Limnology at the University of Minnesota. Check out the Limnological Research Center,

REM, Document, the band’s fifth album. IRS. Scott Litt, producer. Recorded March-
May 1987. Video directed by James Herbert.

Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.” On Let it Bleed, released Dec 5, 1969. Decca Records.
Jimmy Miller, producer.

Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” On Bringing It All Back Home, fifth studio
album. Released March 22, 1965. Columbia Records. Tom Wilson, producer.

Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
Translated by Keith Gessen. NY: Picador, 2005.

Dillard, Annie. “Total Eclipse.” From Teaching a Stone to Talk. NY: Perennial, 1982.

Much Admired:

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” From The White Album. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1979. An
enactment of past civil engineering, present research & obsession, and future
apocalypse, all in five paragraphs.

Burtynsky, Edward (Canadian, b. 1955). Photography, including Nickel Tailings #34,
Sudbury, Ontario.

Misrach, Richard (US, b. 1949). Photography, including the Salton Sea series. 1983.

Nix, Lori (US, b. 1969). Photography of handmade dioramas, often of abandoned
scenes: Chinese Take-out (2013), Subway (2012), Circulation Desk (2012).


My books, both published by Milkweed Editions:

The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse (In which I write about Patmos, the Cave of the Apocalypse, and many other things.)

The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory

Stay in touch via Twitter @jonitevis

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. The winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Associate Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music, destruction, and iconic American landscapes.