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.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Maddie Norris on Bodies Built for Game

Last year, I stopped asking for invites to watch sports with men. There used to be a group that watched basketball every week, and I’d mention how much I loved the game, how I followed my favorite players from college to the NBA, how A’ja Wilson went to my high school and my friends won state. “You should watch with us,” they’d say, and then every week they would watch without me.
     I kept watching alone, on my small computer screen, texting my mother about no-look passes and deep threes. Sometimes women or non-binary friends who knew nothing about the game would watch with me, but most of them weren’t bred with sports, so they did it for me and not the game. I watched women’s college soccer, the NWSL, men’s college basketball, and women’s college basketball alone in my four-hundred-square-foot casita. I yelled at the screen, clapped so hard my hands turned pink, and sometimes, when we lost, I cried.  I loved sports too much to do without them, but I missed sitting with friends who understood what the body felt when it arced a stepover, when it pump-faked then shot, when it dug into, against, through another body.
     Over Christmas, I went to a USC women’s basketball game with my mother and my high school friend Caitlin. Mom goes to every home game by herself (find her behind the visitor’s bench on TV), and Caitlin once envisioned playing in college before she tore her ACL. When we watched that game, we fell into one another when a three-pointer swished, we pushed each other’s shoulders when a block shot into the stands, we hollered so loud for a “Woman Up!” T-shirt; we felt love. As we walked to our cars we talked about the bronze statue of A’ja that would be built soon. We went to a mostly white high school, where white girls won prom queen and homecoming queen, but on the court, it was Caitlin, Chelsea, and A’ja. On the court, Black girls won. As we walked to our cars, past the spot where A’ja would soon be cast in metal, Caitlin said, “I love all these folks bowing down to a woman, and not just a woman, but… a tall woman.” We laughed, but it was true: a Black woman was the pride of South Carolina. The complicating factor is that it was the body of the Black woman that was the pride of SC, not necessarily the woman herself.
     The next day, as I considered the beauty and violence of sports, I started reading Bodies Built for Game. Before I finished Natalie Diaz’s introduction, I knew the book was something special. Diaz weaves between the reality of the sport that made her and the sport that breaks so many. As I write this, trying to summarize her introduction to a 300+ page anthology, I realize I’m doing it a disservice. There is no way to piece apart the way Diaz writes about race, gender, community, and violence. There is no way to watch sports without touching the strings that weave together the whole net.
     Still, I want to watch the highlight reel.
     A yellow transistor radio tucked into a windbreaker, “the carved canyon of the Bighorn River like a vein on the land,” a mid-air switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed one. In “Takes Enemy,” Shann Ray immerses us in the tradition of exceptional Native high school basketball players from Montana. We see the details, the particulars of the game. We feel systemic racism pour over everything. We understand this is an elegy for the greats, for Tim Falls Down, Marty Round Face, and Max and Luke Spotted Bear, for Joe Pretty Paint, Juneau Plenty Hawk, and Willie Gardner, for Fred and Paul Deputee, and for Jonathan Takes Enemy, among others. “All I loved,” writes Ray, “all I watched with wonder—and few got free.”
     In “After Simone Manuel’s Olympic Victory in the Women’s 100m Freestyle,” the speaker’s swim coach calls Manuel’s win a “beast.” The medal ceremony isn’t aired on NBC. The commentators don’t mention how historic a moment it is. And Lauren Espinoza asks Don’t you see what it means when you call that accomplishment beast-like? Don’t you know how many Black and Brown people have been drowned by white people? Don’t you know white people threw acid on Black men and women to get them out of swimming pools? We see the violence that undergirds the win, that is inherent in that single word: beast.
     Saretta Morgan talks with Christina Olivares, a queer Cuban American poet, about boxing. Olivares explains the many ways she inhabits in-between spaces as a mixed, bilingual woman who grew up poor and attended Amherst. This in-betweenness can allow for communities in different places, but it can also lead to a wariness from those rooted in a single-specific identity. Boxing, on the other hand, is all about connection, about community. The in-betweenness can contribute to a feeling of disorientation relating to the body, but the sport ties the self to the body, forging a reconnection between the mental and the physical. In the ring, there is a stable reality between two fighters; there’s antagonism, sure, two people wanting to dominate the other, but it is “rich, complicated, and useful.” It’s two people pushing each other, exposing the other’s faults, leading to the growth of both fighters.
     Anson Dorrance, head coach of UNC women’s soccer, calls his reserves game-changers; it’s a rare team that merits the term, but the squad earned it. Here, in this anthology, every piece is a game-changer. They can stand alone, each poem, essay, and short story strong, breath-taking, illuminating, but they are clearly a part of the larger team. I mentioned the length of the anthology earlier because it strikes me that every single page is one worth reading. Every piece is vital. It feels silly, futile to try to summarize the magic of the anthology. The score says little of the game; ask the players, the coach, the fans instead.
     So maybe this is the true review: after I finished Diaz’s introduction, I sent the pdf to Caitlin. “Maddie,” she said, “this broke me…I literally needed this. Right now. In this moment.” I think we all do.


Maddie Norris, the recipient of Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, was the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction. Her work can be found in Territory, Essay Daily, and Opossum, among others. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about the death of her father, niche medical history, and the pitfalls of romantic love.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Bridges, Unlike Rules, are Better Unbroken: Karen Lloyd in Conversation with Nicole Walker

Karen Lloyd: When I started out on this journey of writing essays, I now understand that I had a majorly inadequate idea of what an essay was, and how it can behave differently to other forms of prose. A few years down the line, I have a much greater sense of what the essay is and what it can do; how it can perform. The learning has been steep but surprising and at times really energizing. Sometimes I’m deep in the process of writing and out of the blue there’s a lightbulb moment; about how exactly I can structure this essay, because of something that rises up from the depths. Or there might be a moment of fission that leads me towards the form of another essay. And sometimes even a single word can ignite ideas about form. I’m thinking of a word like ‘filamentous’, and how the writing itself can be filamentous, stretching here and meandering over there and coming back home again to the body of the essay.

Something that I really like about your writing is your use of metaphor. They are frequently extended and, well, filamentous. Themes and ideas recur numerous times throughout your work; I’m not aware of having seen this approach before, or not quite so coherently done anyway. And this came to be really important to me in the Creative Writing PhD that I’m undertaking at the moment. The way you structured Sustainability: A Love Story, became the single most influential book of essays in my supporting research, helping me to understand how it is possible to create internal and external rhymes within a single essay or within a sequence; how one can link or resonate with another and then another, rather than existing in isolation.

From this side of the Atlantic, it feels as there’s a particular aesthetic to much North American writing, but I feel that your work stands apart from this; it feels like its very own thing. Reading your work, nothing feels laboured; it feels spontaneous, but then there’s also this element of control and intention, and I wondered how aware you are of working like this. Are you working like this? Or am I miles wide of the mark here?

There’s an ongoing theme of consumption in your work. As parents we provide for our families, but now, with the reality of the climate crisis having entered the mainstream, (at last..) every choice that we make has a consequence. Your essays engage with the to and fro between the world and your writing, which I really like. You never allow humans off the hook; or yourself for that matter. You’re sometimes very hard on yourself, and this is very comforting to me. Even on holiday (for goodness sake,) as in your essay "Abundance or Scarcity: A Tribute to Not Knowing Which is Which," you are constantly watching your own actions—from the food choices made in the shop to the sunscreen you’re not supposed to use because of the effects of its chemicals on the acidity of the ocean and the dying of the coral reefs; everything is laden with meaning and the impact of human activity.

Meanwhile, the fish in the sea and the whales and the sharks carry on doing their thing, and the earth as a character, and as itself, is morally neutral. Was it your original intention to present yourself as a central character; one that is utterly fallible? Should we allow ourselves off the hook? Or by taking yourself to task, is what you are really saying that it’s the human race that is under scrutiny?

Nicole Walker: First of all, I am so grateful to you for reading Sustainability and these newer essays and for your description of my work. Perhaps my reaction to your generous comments can lead to how to answer your questions. My first response is to put the words away. I immediately close the laptop. On the one hand, I can’t read that much kindness. I don’t deserve it. On the other hand, I want to preserve the moment—you know, as a writer, that instances of deep appreciation are far and few between. This connects to your question about utter fallibility. In writing, one is supposed to have “authority.” The word “author” derives from such a concept. But authority has always been a troubling concept to me. Authority seems monolithic and impenetrable. In the braided essay, weaving back and forth between multiple ideas is to penetrate—to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge. I am envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting. Sure, one moment I know something but the next, I surely don’t. This relates to climate change. “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think.

I think we should both let ourselves off and hang ourselves hard upon the hook. Climate change is both our fault and also the organic extension of humans’ flaws and gifts. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. And, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for technological advances. Perhaps what I see you getting at is thinking about where “here” is. Perhaps by scrutinizing where we are, the details of place, the specifics of where we stand, we can make more grist, more stuff of the relationship between us and here, maybe even eventually seeing that the Human Race and the Place are one in the same thing. We and the planet hang together and, you’re right, the planet can get along fine without us but not so much the other way around. So it’d be nice to be nice to the nice, as Frank Burns said on MASH. 

One thing I love about your poem, "Genesis" (at the end of this post) is the way you incorporate IKEA, God, and the Mariana Trench. To me, this is how we show that humans and nature or humans and planet are not separate. The thingy-ness of this world is “of this world” and connecting those things in one poem or one essay makes them planar. In your essay “Human Resilience Training,” you weave together the importance of swimming to you personally, the incredible, natural description of the damselfly, and then the toxic effects of algae blooms. You write that “The Environment Agency and the Lake District National Park tell us that the algal bloom is a naturally occurring phenomenon. This is true, in the same way that cholera is a naturally occurring phenomenon. They tell us this because they do not want us to worry.” So here shows the planet/nature not caring about the humans or the dogs that may be in the way of a natural algae bloom. However, we know that it’s often human activity, like industrial agricultural processes, that create these algae blooms. Humans disrupt nature but are themselves extensions of nature.

Sometimes, I think we deserve what we get. But I most assuredly don’t think the damselfly or other creatures deserve what “we” dish out. Humans work paradoxically. “A few miles up the road, the village of Staveley is one of my cycling destinations. I can stop at the cafĂ© and drink coffee and eat cakes. I can read a book whilst also affecting to lose weight by cycling and work by eating cakes and reading.” Can these paradoxes be useful in changing human nature? Or our consumerist conditioning, at least? Even if the earth is neutral about humans, and if humans are an extension of earth, is it in our “nature” to just go about our human-y ways? Do we have to change our nature to “save” nature?
In Human Resilience Training you describe Storm Desmond’s destructive powers. Roads washed away, emergency services taxed to the nth degree, the water rising right outside your front door. I love this scene you describe.
In our sitting room a slow, bulging accumulation of water had inveigled its way inside the structure of the house and gathered in a big pregnant swag above the bay window. At any moment, the ceiling paper might have burst. I fetched a knife and a bucket and stood on a chair and stabbed a hole in the paper to relieve the pressure. It was a relief to relieve the pressure. Later, I joined the paper back together with glue and painted it over, but I know the flaw remains.
I’m sure “love” isn’t the right word but, since I imagine that the water has receded and the ceiling has been re-drywalled and re-painted, I do love how this scene is so narrative, so alive, so visible. I wonder if what differs between climate change writing and “nature” writing, is that there is scene, drama, events. There’s also, as you show here, humor. I wonder if these are tools we can and should use to draw people to pay attention to the emergency of climate change? I also wonder if, without the emergency, readers would be farther and fewer between?

KL: A couple of things. First, I think all this interest in nature/environmental writing is actually a product of people having finally realised how alienated they had become from that world, rather than having been provoked by climate issues. Secondly, yes -humour! Where would we be without it. Without humour maybe what we are (well, me anyway, definitely,) are a couple of moaning Minnie’s, banging on... In "Abundance and Scarcity," we get this; ‘I get back to the house and the wine is all gone. So is the ice. I’ve lost my water bottle. My step-grandmother-in-law is sitting by me at the table while I consider whether to go into town for some wine or whether to learn to love tequila. Does my laziness trump my predilections? I love wine so much. I get another beer.’ and ‘twenty-five cases of beer, four liters of tequila, one liter of vodka, one of rum, two fifths of Glen Fiddich and five bottles of wine. There are seventeen of us. That’s more than one case of beer per person, but it is I who sees the lack here. Five bottles of wine for a group of seventeen whose last trip was to wine country?’ It’s so marvellously saying look! I’m just a regular person! I might be picky about plastic straws, but I’m damn well going to enjoy myself!

NW: I do have some priorities right! This question leads me to my last question. You speak of the crushing loss of a world you’ll never see again and living in a country that has abandoned its progressive promise, “They voted for a Prime Minister who has been shown to tell lie after lie: who doesn’t care sufficiently about our childrens’ futures to take the climate emergency seriously nor take part in the televised climate debate. A Prime Minister who is uber-privileged, self-righteous, disgustingly dishonest; leading those who are unable to see into a future that is uncertain at best, potentially disastrous.” It’s impossible to live in so much disappointment. You begin the essay with such incredible images of the “etiolated flock of fieldfares and thrushes” and other vivid details which predicts the turn in mood of the essay:
Recently, I asked my elder son what on earth he makes of the state of the world, and what he says is not the gloom of my own forecasting. He tells me that he thinks it’s a fascinating time to be alive. I am in awe, and humbled. I wish I had his sense of calm and his optimistic outlook.
My last question is how can we balance a sense of hope and excitement for the world while still acknowledging the disasters burning around us? And, to take us back to the earlier questions about paradox, perhaps it is in the delight that we’ll find the way through the disaster?

KL: In 2019, the Guardian newspaper decided to re-designate the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate crisis;’ I decided to follow suit. I wonder if it’s possible then, to talk about a crisis in writing? I’m interested in why you have ‘begun to be careful about using the term climate crisis—as opposed to change. It’s unequivocal that it’s a crisis. but not essay—it can change—but can it be in crisis? I think it’s fascinating to think of the essay—or at the very least—writing, as being in crisis. It feels to me as if much British nature writing is indeed in crisis; ‘nature’ has become this separated place where writers go to recover from any number of internal problems; mental health: to ‘find’ their sexuality: to recover from alcoholism etc etc. For me this kind of approach perpetuates the idea of nature being something entirely separate from us; it’s where we go when the processes of the industrialised world catch up with us—and to coin a British term—‘do our heads in.’ What essayists like you are doing in Sustainability, or Jonathan Franzen in The End of the End of the Earth, is what David Foster-Wallace described as being “an enormous eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees.” You are that eyeball, consuming the world by close looking.

You say that “Change” is the hardest part—unpredictability, inability to forecast the weather, let alone the future, agitates and destabilizes. The form of the writing should reflect that, I think. And yes, you and me and Mr Franzen are saying, we’re all implicated, and that we all need to act and change the thinking we’ve grown up with; that it’s no longer fine and dandy to carry on. (Oh how we carry on…) But unless governments engage pretty soon, there’s not a great deal of impact that individuals can have.

I hear you saying that you’re ‘envious of those writers for whom the ground underneath isn’t always constantly shifting.’ But isn’t the ground continuously shifting underneath us? Isn’t there a continuum of shift—both in the climate and in the essay? I think I’d feel more concerned if I thought the ground wasn’t shifting. I want to stand on the tectonic plates of the climate and of language and observe where and how they carry me, like some freakishly slow surf dude. Here I’ll mention the way you question the idea of authority, as something other than being authorial—or marshalling—as something that serves ‘to undo as much knowledge as to do knowledge.’ But as essayists, don’t we also become authorial through our unadulterated greed—consuming everything that presents itself during our research, then chucking half of it overboard. My wanton excesses are the plastic gunge-islands that gyre away from redrafted essays. (We should meet up there sometime..)

Another way of giving and—through the lens of the reader—receiving, authority, is through the structure of the braided essay. In High Pressure Systems you twine the story of a series of devastating fires, with the individual disaster that your aunt’s life became. Both elements include brutal realism; landscapes take years to recover from fires: the threat to communities. Then your aunt’s bruises, her lost teeth, the falls; a relationship that’s so far gone it’s passed the tipping point. The lag in the system; recovery as the only thing it sometimes is; a disappearing. Fires happen. Clouds change their behaviour and chemical reactions change sand into glass. Then there’s this strange sequence where people just keep going as normal:
The neighborhood is moved to “Set” mode. Neighbors pack their photo albums and birth certificates in the car. It’s strangely calm—people still go to work. My son Max’s summer camp is still on although the Museum of Northern Arizona canceled my friend Gretchen’s youngest son’s camp. It looks like a war zone when you get close to the fire. It sounds like one from here.
There’s a matter of factness to your writing here, and then the chaos of what we’ve done to the climate:
It’s hard to make a case to the monsoon: come now. We need you today. We needed you yesterday. But now that the monsoon has arrived, blanketing the mountain in moisture, the fire managers become flood managers. They could have trained the fire. It’s impossible to train rain. Still, they try. They’re pulling cement barriers to organize the water to flow west. We’re packing sandbags for the neighbors to layer against their thresholds.’ 
What I see here is the writer maintaining control of her writing, which in many ways, is about all we can do.

NW: I guess that is what way to ride out the shifting ground--write like we're surfing. I wonder if that counts as proper prioritizing.

KL: I need to qualify something I said earlier. It’s about Callum, my eldest. We talked again the other day in the car, and I told him how humbled I’d been by his response to the climate and political inaction (narcolepsy?) that even now, engulfs the world. Cal is a pragmatist. He sees it all rolling on, and he doesn’t like what he sees. But he’s staying with this idea of fascination. I think we all need to stay with it too.

NW: Cheers to that.



Karen Lloyd

And on the seventh day, God sat back in his IKEA Poang
chair, lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings that travelled
miraculously in sequence across the skies.
And when the ash tip fell it fell as gritty smuts that set
the ancient Californian forests on fire and all the crews
fought the fires but after weeks of this were too exhausted
to continue. And even when the flames were extinguished,
they flickered like electricity underneath the surface
of the earth, bursting out momentarily in the Mariana trench
before the ocean ate them, then burst out again in Tasmania
where they became the very devil.
And families fled the flames that ate their timber houses
like a Komodo dragon eats a lizard and one particular
family ran to the water and became six bobbing blonde
heads and a dog underneath the jetty,
while around them, everything burned.

And I do not blame God, even though in Genesis
he tells us that everything is for our use and our use only;
all the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky
and all the creeping things that creepeth along
the ground and the fracking companies and Shell Oil
and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,
the thousands of sea birds ruined, all the
laughing gulls and the diving gannets and the pelicans
waiting to be cleaned – again – and for all the world
are like a Pieta; oh, how they are fallen!

Back in the clouds, God begins to hear voices;
they rise into the atmosphere from every corner of the Earth
and some of them speak in tongues and tell us
this is not climate change or the consequences
of our habits upon the planet.
God removes a shred of tobacco from his lip,
considers it for a moment, then stubs out the cigarette
and, vowing to give up – again - rises from his chair
and remembers some of the things his mother
taught him, because mothers are the fount
of all knowledge. He goes into the kitchen,
fetches a bucket, some cloths and a Brillo pad
and wearily, begins to clean.

Karen Lloyd lives in South Cumbria. Her first book, The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay (Saraband 2014) was included in The Observer’s top books of 2016 and won the Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards. Her latest book, The Blackbird Diaries—A Year with Wildlife (Saraband 2017), explores the wildlife in her garden in addition to issues of land use and species loss, and is also a prizewinning publication. She is a contributor to Guardian Travel, BBC Wildlife, and Countryfile magazines amongst others. Her poetry has been published by Corbel Stone Press, Zoomorphic and in the This Place I Know anthology (Handstand Press 2018). Karen is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University where her thesis is a book of essays exploring abundance and loss in the natural world. She is the initiator of the ‘Reimagining the Lake District Uplands’ project—a partnership between Lancaster University and the University of Cumbria to explore and implement ways of improving biodiversity in the uplands in a time of climate crisis.
Nicole Walker is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books/OSU Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM and directs the MFA Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.