Monday, August 16, 2021

The Essay’s Slow Simmering: An Interview with Caryl Pagel

Sarah Minor: You’re a writer of poems, essays, reviews, good-news emails, and jacket texts. You’re also a publisher and editor at two indie presses, the CSU Poetry Center and Rescue Press, the second of which you co-founded, and both of which are known for publishing outstanding contemporary work that is often hybrid and risk-taking. This meant that you were the main force behind the editing of Bright Archive, my collection of visual essays. I frequently find myself in awe of your work with texts that span genres and styles. Your many editorial projects demonstrate a keen sense of writing and its process—from the sentence level to the full scope of a book project. We’ve talked briefly about the term “experimental,” and how this term has changed—or perhaps hasn’t changed as much as we expected it to?—over the past decade. As someone who both makes experimental work, and who has brought dozens of indie titles from submission queue to paperback, what does “experimental” mean for literature today, and how have you seen it change during your time as a writer and an editor? 

Caryl Pagel: My first collection of essays, Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, was recently published by the author-run experimental fiction publisher FC2, and I feel lucky to have worked with a press that actively values “adventurous, nontraditional” writing as an aesthetic-political force, and has done so for half-a-century. I think of the essays in Out of Nowhere as being in conversation with other form-curious art-obsessed writers: Claudia Rankine, Eileen Myles, Siri Hustvedt, Lucy Lippard, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Chris Kraus, or Renee Gladman, to name a few of my favorite writers. My book might be considered experimental because it incorporates photographs, mixes genres, and is made of long, meandering sentences and several one paragraph essays. Its approach to content is peripatetic and rambling, its relationship to the truth simultaneously over-framed and under-valued, its concerns and associations meant to unfold gradually.

SM: Of course one hears the term “experimental” used to mean everything from “original” to “hybrid,” “difficult,” “interested in language,” “approaching the form of the book uniquely,” “multi-genre,” “multi-modal,” “impenetrable,” “sans plot,” “artsy,” “weird,” or “tethered to avant-garde lineages.” It’s an imperfect term but I still use it, as both an editor and writer, out of an appreciation for its most immediate scientific implications which are, to me, about trying something out, perhaps playfully, to see what will happen, actively prioritizing materials and processes over expectations or precision of outcome. 

CP: Valuing the experimental can mean an emphasis on the present, the practice. It can mean making something unfamiliar, something you can’t quite put your finger on, and maybe it’s speedy and good, or bursting, flawed, energized, and you publish it. Experimental literature be difficult. Maybe a reader needs to approach it with patience or good will (hard!), or read it again (time!); maybe it’s not easy to write that jacket copy or review, maybe you’re a little uncomfortable, maybe when you talk about the work you’re wrong (gulp!). Experimental literature can expand perceptions, stances, structures. Perhaps the author is fine with you feeling bewildered or bored, agitated or unmoored. Can experimental literature create stronger relationships with complexity, inconvenience, and desire? Would we benefit from stormier, more robust imaginations? 

As an editor (or reader, teacher, friend), I’ve noticed that my participation in a book’s “experimental” qualities can usually occur at two points. The first is when I encounter a writer thinking through a project that they might not embark upon or finish for fear of its difference or their own perceived limits of readership or publishing opportunities. In this case an editor can encourage something unusual from the start by saying yes please, do what you see. Alternately, one might edit a finished manuscript with strangeness as their co-pilot, calling attention to a work’s idiosyncrasies or most mysterious gestures. In my work at the two presses you mention, I imagine the publishing process as a period of time in which one can extend a project’s options or expand its questions (as opposed to a kind of smooth closure). So much of the history of experimental literature is linked to small press publishing, collaborative artmaking, and niche communities and is the result of author-editor relationships, proximities, intimacies, and micro-cultures. How are these histories accounted for? Where do the social or relational aspects of literature appear in conversations about the experimental? How do shared, fluctuating narratives of artmaking operate in opposition to the figure of the genius or celebrity?  

SM: Your collection of poems Twice Told is a book about subjects like intuition, hearsay, ghosts, loops, and coincidence. The essays in your collection Out of Nowhere Into Nothing revisit landscapes, inside jokes, and topics like sight and memory which echo the voice and interior conversation from your poems. I wonder if you have insights on the differences in making a book of poems and a book of essays? How does each form communicate differently? I’m thinking especially about the notion of “the turn,” which you’ve described before as a quality that can be shared by essays and poems. I’m thinking also about how writers of narrative use terms like “pivot,” “reveal,” or “twist.” What is a turn? Do you think elements like “turns” shift, arrive, or behave differently depending on the form and length of a text? 

CP: I think of a turn not so much as a plot twist or change of subject but an attempt to trace the inevitable associations, distractions, and detours of the animated mind. It’s less about the content’s logic, or what’s turning (the widening gyre, the season, the screw!?), than a pace-based shifting of direction; it’s a gesture based in rhythm more than theme. If a poem or essay turns often enough (requiring some time, as you mention) it will inevitably circle back in on or around itself, having become more complex, or at least stranger, in the meantime. So yes, even in prose I’ve held on to what I think of as the poets’ turn, which can be more startling and less tethered to a piece’s initial argument or source than in a more traditional essay. This gesture can create unanticipated patterns or a slow simmering recognition which might feel to the reader like coincidence or the uncanny.  

SM: When reading the essays in Out of Nowhere Into Nothing I am often thinking about sight and perception from the perspective of an speaker who is constantly moving through the world. This year the book was longlisted by The Believer! When my students read the collection, they described your essays as feeling like “being on a walk with a friend”—an experience of continuousness that moves us comfortably, associatively, but always with an eye on our surroundings. As someone interested in physical page forms, I also wondered if this effect had to do with the format of paragraphs that allow the reader’s eye to remain connected for many pages. Was conversation, or continuousness on your mind as you were writing these essays or compiling them for the book? 

CP: Absolutely—I’m interested in the experience of continuity with detour. As you mention, many of the essays take the form of a walk, and others are meant to meander via casual social time (at a bar or party), driving, talking, or travel. The essays often exist in the “place” where getting lost in thought occurs, which for me is when I’m in motion. I appreciate the contrast between a body moving in a linear (if rambling) route while the mind darts, sometimes simultaneously, in many directions and through several timelines. My hope was that these essays would sustain a train of thought for a bit longer than one would expect if aiming to make a single sharp point, the way you might allow yourself tangents and irrelevant excitements in conversation with someone you’re familiar with. There’s an intense intimacy, I feel, in the form, which is perhaps in contrast to both one’s immediate impression of it on the page (long, unbroken text blocks being potentially alienating at first glance) and the content (so much of which dwells in nothingness, loneliness, bewilderment). I hope that instead of the usual rest of a paragraph break the occasional images provide an escape from language, like encountering a sudden valley or window. 

SM: Can you share a bit about what your writing process looks like? You’ve often said that walking is a part of writing for you. Do you carry a pen and paper in your coat pockets? When you “begin,” do you start by reading, or do you sit right down with a draft or a new page? At what point does research come into your process?

CP: Walking is part of my process because it’s where I have ideas, and there’s a rhythm there that I’ve found useful. I walk circles around my (our!) Cleveland Heights neighborhood, which amounts to some kind of pacing, and/or take very long walks around Chicago, where I’ve lived on and off in my adult life. But there’s not much that’s purposeful about it. I go on a walk and then sometimes have a thought. I take frantic notes on paper or in my phone or brain, transcribe them when I get home and then mostly forget about them. So, in that way walking is probably just as—but no more!—magical than sleeping or showering or driving or staring at the wall, but it’s important to this book because the walks-as-process started showing up in the essays as content. I love writers who can capture a walk’s wonders surprisingly and think of Cole Swenson, Teju Cole, Brandon Shimoda, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Walser, and Lisa Robertson as great wanderers. I’m not the first reader or writer to generally care less about plot than style, connection, joke, sound, or description, and a walk—even just moving from one side of the room to the other—can be all the action I need. But you’re talking to someone who watches Friday Night Lights for the lights, so…

SM: Because “collection” is a subject of both your creative and editorial work, I wonder if you have insights on the structure or function of literary collections and collecting. You’ve mentioned the “Indiana Jones” ordering method—where the book opens with a more action-packed piece as an introduction to more reflective, lyric sections. Are there other ordering types you’ve named or imagined? Do you think the ordering or re-ordering of collected pieces in a draft can help to shape the revision of individual pieces? How do you know when a collection is “finished”—is there a particular quality that gets distilled through repeated motif, shared subjects, and the call and response of stylistic choices? Is there a key?

CP: Ha, yes, ye olde Indiana Jones method. That’s probably the best name I’ve come up with but I have a lot of different strategies depending on the book. I love this part of editing (not necessarily for myself but for others). I love thinking about pacing and balance and levels of mystery and various chronologies. It’s a different process for every book, with different perspectives on finished-ness, different collaborative dynamics. The act of ordering can feel like an extreme synthesizing of pattern, theme, tone, mood, goals, music, and form and then, a… uh… vibe-based organizing session responding to that synthesis, a combination, in the best case, of insight, and instinct. I’ll make up a few names for shapes I’ve encouraged in the past: the Indiana Jones, the Sweet Wave, the Calendar, the Pillow Fight, the Fun House Mirror, the Bouquet, the Lazy River, the Retired Docent, and the Shared Songbook.

SM: From a perspective outside of publishing, over the past five years I’ve maybe noticed that the popular lyric/braided essay form is moving aside to make room for forms like the long poem and types of short “auto-fiction.” I’ve also loved seeing many very small books of prose in print. Do you think you’ve observed shifts like this that pertain to new crossings in literary modes? Do you think “length” is attached differently to genre today? 

CP: I guess the great thing about working in small press publishing is that you can basically do whatever you want. Things are always changing and there aren’t really any rules. I’ve loved many smaller hybrid works that have been published in the past few years. I think of Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book, Mary-Kim Arnold’s Litany for the Long Moment, or Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk as beautiful examples. I can’t speak for all small or indie presses but will say that at Rescue Press, since the very beginning, we’ve been interested in uncommon lengths, shapes, genres, designs, and approaches to what a book can look like or enact in the world. We’ve published a little bit of everything: mini short story collections, performance props, memoir-in-lines, multi-genre meditations, wild poetries, hybrid messes, travelogues, novellas, and the simply uncategorizable. 

SM: We’ve heard tell that you’re working on another collection. Do you feel interested in talking a bit about that new project, its process, and about what it’s been like to work on a new book after publishing both essays, poems, and a hundred books by other authors?

CP: I have notes, a desire for some new propulsion, but nothing in writing yet. Between the CSU Poetry Center and Rescue Press I’ve spent the last year, in collaboration with the other editors and staff at both places, working on forthcoming books by Gabriel Blackwell, Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, Dot Devota, Tobias Wray, Julie Marie Wade + Brenda Miller, Valerie Hsiung, and Shane McCrae. Some beautiful writing to look forward to! 


Caryl Pagel is the author of Out of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2, fall 2020), Twice Told (University of Akron Press), and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow). She teaches in the NEOMFA program, directs the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, and is a publisher and editor at Rescue Press.

Sarah Minor is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press 2021) and Bright Archive (Rescue Press 2020), winner of the 2020 Big Other Award in Nonfiction. She serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Video Editor at TriQuarterly Review.

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