Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Who Created Creative Nonfiction? Kim Todd in conversation with Rachel May


Who Created Creative Nonfiction? Long before Wolfe, Capote, and Thompson, dozens of women, as stunt journalists, established Creative Nonfiction’s hallmark conventions. Kim Todd’s new book, Sensational, finally gives them the credit they’re due. 

Kim Todd’s beautifully written book, Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s Girl Stunt Reporters, tells the story of the leagues of women who revealed the problems our society faced in the late 1800s, particularly in spaces inhabited by women. They donned disguises, went undercover, and reported on sexual harassment in the workplace, the conditions of the insane asylum, and many other social issues. Reporting in this same era alongside the stunt reporters was Ida B. Wells, who brought to light the lynching of hundreds of Black people. At times, as in the case of a still-nameless reporter who told the story of the wide availability of abortion access in Chicago, they subverted societal norms as well as newspaper reporting conventions. And of course, they suffered at society’s hands for daring not to conform. Stunt reporting was deemed “trash,” a judgment that Todd explains has persisted to the present day. 

Her introductory essay—and the book as a whole—make the case for the lasting value of the girl stunt reporter’s work, and how their writing actually establishes the baseline for creative nonfiction, long before those who have previously been credited with the genre’s founding.

We sat down to talk about the girl stunt reporters and their legacy.


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RM: How did you decide to focus on stunt journalism, and what surprised you about the project?

KT: I started this project when I was tasked with designing a class for undergraduates about the history of creative nonfiction and early practitioners. I was taught that things started with Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. I’d read Nellie Bly but hadn't heard very much about her, and it struck me how completely readable she is more than 100 years later, particularly compared to her peers who wrote long, ornate sentences and include references to the Bible and Shakespeare, which can be hard to unpack these days. 

In contrast, Nellie Bly does everything that I ask my creative nonfiction students to do: She tells a story through an engaging first person narrator. She uses scene-based construction. She uses a lot of dialogue. She creates these great characters. She draws you into the world she’s talking about through sensory detail—whether she's in the asylum being thrown into a very cold bath, or picking away at rancid food they’ve served her, or on the very uncomfortable boat ride from the mainland to Blackwell's Island—you're right there next to her, in a way that I think of as a model of creative nonfiction. 

As I learned more about her, it became clear that she wasn't the only one doing this kind of work. She was so successful that it opened a decade of opportunity for women to do undercover reporting about important societal issues in a narrative way, and—particularly fascinating to me—on issues related to women. Women reporters were able to go in disguise to these female-dominated spaces, so they could look at the way that women were being treated in public hospitals, or the poor working conditions of women in factories. Their work was really unique. 

I'd heard about the history of creative nonfiction starting with New Journalism in the 60s and 70s, and the history of investigative journalism starting with the muckrakers in the early 1900s—but these women were doing very similar things earlier than both. 

RM: Yes! I was taught that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was the first work of creative nonfiction. 

KT: That's another thing that struck me—the men, when they're doing something innovative, often declare that they’ve created a new genre. Capote said, I'm writing a nonfiction novel! Tom Wolfe said, I call this New Journalism! Hunter S. Thompson said, I'm doing gonzo journalism! But these women were working within this genre and forging new territory without labeling it and saying that it's something surprising and new. 

One of the sadder elements of the book, which overall I think is hopefully joyful and exuberant, is that almost immediately, the women reporters were shamed for their stunt journalism. Often, when they're interviewed, they're semi-apologetic about it, like, Oh, yes, I just have to do this kind of work, you know, because I have to support my mother.

The genre was dismissed. After about a decade of success, a lot of the women made apologies for having worked in it or denied having done that kind of work, even though it was very clear that they did. 

RM: You write, “Bly shook free of the ruffles and hoop skirts of Victorian prose and made her sentences accessible to the less educated and to recent immigrants who might struggle with English—the specific readers Pulitzer coveted. While she advocated for serious reform, her writing was always a pleasure to read. She was funny” (39). 

Reading Sensational and your argument about Nellie Bly in this context is so interesting. That excerpt that you pull out in your book of her language and how crisp it is—“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would and I did.”—and how she illuminates these stories for people who didn't have access to education that other readers might have had illustrates how she opened the doors for a different kind of reading public.

KT: Exactly. You know, Bly worked for Pulitzer’s The New York World. And that was very explicitly one of his goals—he wanted to sell a lot of papers and he wanted to reach this audience of new immigrants who are flooding into New York at the time. So, the language had to be accessible and engaging. 

He was also particularly interested in reaching out to women. Importantly, the material that he thought appealed to them didn't all have to do with parties and the latest ballgowns, but delved into women’s lives.

RM: You write beautifully about the power of stunt reporters’ abortion coverage: “And still, after decades of suppression of the practice and discussion about [abortion], by the time the Girl Reporter made her rounds in 1888, abortion was everywhere. There was the sad, coded story from the St. Paul Globe in 1889 about a girl found dead in her sweltering boardinghouse room. Originally from Minneapolis, she’d gone to Montana eight months before, only to have returned to rent a room for herself and her husband, who never showed. Several days before she’d taken ill, she’d visited a Twin Cities doctor because of ‘uterine trouble.’ He suspected she may have died of ‘an internal hemorrhage. Maybe she took some drug or the cause was her smoking cigarettes, the paper speculated. But it doesn’t seem much of a mystery…[I]n writing about abortion…, revealing how commonplace it was, the Girl Reporter showed the lie at the heart of the idea that women could be divided into good and bad, fallen and chaste….And as is often the case with writing that breaks a taboo, everyone read it” (77). 

I thought so much about the movement, 20 years ago, for the legalization of the morning-after pill, and trying to get that passed. And the ways that people have been talking about abortion really openly since the Supreme Court ruling in the last few months, online and in essays like Nicole Walker’s New York Times Op-ed, making evident like how these laws are going to impact women. I think about abortion as a contemporary issue, and reading about it in the late 1800s was really fascinating and surprising for me, which I guess is really naive.

KT: No, not necessarily. Justice Alito’s decision is based on the fact that abortion is not part of American values or traditions, but in 19th century newspapers, it was everywhere, from that piece in the Twin Cities newspaper, to ads that were all over the place. So many of these big 19th century scandal trials which had to do with a young woman's mysterious death turned out to have abortion at the root. Either they died of a botched abortion, or they needed an abortion and their lover had lured them under the pretense of giving her one and murdered her. 

In 1888, a young woman writing for the Chicago Times went to doctors in Chicago, and asked them to provide her with an abortion, and charted their responses. This was at a time when the Comstock Laws, which sadly seem to be coming back, made it illegal to talk about abortion, or to write about it, so she could do the reporting under this cloak of exposing this horrible illegal thing. 

But actually, after pages of coverage, what anyone reading the reports would have taken home was the message that women were having abortions all the time and that many doctors would provide them. The reporter detailed all the different medicines you could take, all the different kinds of operations you could have. It became clear that it wasn't just poor, desperate women having abortions but also married women, wealthy women. It exposed how completely pervasive it was, and a lot of the doctors treated the women with respect and acted like this was a normal request. 

RM: It's so interesting. I didn't know that this time is so rich with stories of how women were changing the narrative but also had to be hidden within it to protect themselves.

I just love the way you embody the art of creative nonfiction in the book, as you’re telling the  stories of women who helped found the genre. You write, “…Eva McDonald, a voracious reader in Minnesota with a rebellious streak, …would discover the potential of stunt reporting as an activist tool. Small with a dark fringe of bangs, McDonald had a round, pale face and thick, ink-swipe brows. A bout of diphtheria when she was nine left her heart weak, but she was anything but frail” (42). 

How did you get into the rich detail of who they were and how it might have looked as they walked into an office to take a job? 

KT: I tell my students when they're doing research to use in creative nonfiction, that they're looking for all the things that the page is hungry for—images, scenes, sensory detail, any direct quotations they can find.

I'd previously written a biography of a woman who lived in the 1600s, and there were hardly any print records available. What was wonderful about researching these women is that they were all writers. So, there were many newspaper articles, and because they were working in this proto-creative-nonfiction mold, they wrote very vivid descriptions and talked about their feelings as they were going into different spaces, getting into a disguise. 

One of the challenges of the book was to take these personas that they created to tell the story in the newspapers, and try to find some private documents that might have indicated what was going on underneath. For a number of them, there were troves of letters, and some oral history. 

RM: Who do you think were some of the most influential stunt reporters in their day? 

KT: Ida B. Wells was not a stunt reporter, but she took on the most hot-button topic of the time, writing about lynching in a very unflinching way. She sat down and documented every instance of lynching that happened in given years. This is something that the northern papers were hardly covering. 

At some point, to allow herself freedom of expression, she decided that she needed to own the printing press. She self-published a number of her books, so that she could say what she needed to say. 

In her memoirs as a younger woman, you see her very overtly dealing with the tension between her desire to speak her mind and the knowledge that it would be dangerous for her to do so. She reads something that makes her furious and writes, outraged, “Can such things be and no justice for it?” But then she adds, “It may be unwise to express myself so strongly but I cannot help it.” Owning her own press and publishing her own books is one of the ways that she gets around censorship.

RM: I'm glad you brought her up. Her work is so important, especially in thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement today, the ways that we can see everything documented on video screens, similar to the way that Wells’ careful documentation of lynchings created evidence that people just couldn't deny.

KT: She has this very chilling list, in one of her books, where she lists the reason that people were killed. For example, hanged for stealing hogs, lynched because they were saucy, lynched for no offense. It underscores the pervasive and unjust nature of these killings. 

RM: Like Black While Driving, Black While Walking, or Claudia Rankine’s ongoing list of people murdered by police in Citizen.

I was thinking about whether #metoo, founded by Tarana Burke, came out of this history, because women disclosed their own lives in an effort to create change, starting on Twitter and then in so many essays and articles; women’s stories were finally given credence.

KT: Definitely. These stunt journalists talk very explicitly about sexual harassment. That’s something I wasn't expecting to find. Women like Nell Nelson, or even Eva McDonald, who went into garment factories, for example, and looked at the way that women were treated—the reports are all right there. The women are telling the reporters, My foreman said if I wanted the promotion, I had to do something improper. They document horrible things that the men say to their female workers. 

RM: Thinking about this history, who are some of the most powerful voices that you hear in creative nonfiction today, doing work like this or work that’s similarly groundbreaking but not yet given enough credit?

KT: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed is exactly in this mode. She went undercover to see if she could live on minimum wage for a year. There were women doing exactly that in the late 1890s. Elizabeth Banks did a whole series on whether she could she live on $3 a week, the going wage for factory workers at that time. Like Ehrenreich, she concludes that no, it’s not possible. 

You also see these women’s influence in undercover journalism and immersion journalism, for example Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. You see it in a whole slew of experiments where people try to live in a certain way for a year, and in activism journalism, where people are exposing something with the goal of making a change.

Another piece that always stays with me because it seems so perfectly in the mold of the kind of reporting these women were doing is “The Price of Nice Nails,” by Sarah Maslin Nir, about nail salon workers being poisoned by the chemicals. 

RM: That was an amazing piece. 

When you started writing these stories, how did you decide who would be the most significant to include in the book?

KT: When I started researching Nellie Bly and finding other women doing this kind of work, I thought, Wow, maybe there are 12 women here and I can write a book about it. And it turned out that there were hundreds all over the country—so many major writers that I did not include in the book or couldn’t give enough space to. There were girl stunt reporters across the country, from huge city newspapers in New York and Chicago, to tiny newspapers out west.

Nellie Bly opened the door, and many women took a range of paths, using different strategies to negotiate hurdles. Some, like the girl reporter at the Chicago Times who wrote abortion [exposés], which was probably the most reputation-damaging topic—you didn't even have to be pregnant out of wedlock, even pretending to be pregnant out of wedlock was shameful—never emerged from behind that pseudonym. We don't know who she was. 

At other times, people drop out of stunt reporting when the criticism gets too intense. For example, Kate Swan McGuirk went on to use the name Kate Swan to do all of this reporting for The New York World that was accompanied by very large pictures of her doing very dramatic feats, and she became a target for a lot of criticism of the girl stunt reporter. Whether it was because it was that she was using the first person too much, or because she was exposing her ankles, people really piled on her. She dropped out of reporting and disappeared for a couple of years, then came back under a slightly different name, forging a career doing demonstrations of gas stoves. 

Other women just didn't care, like Caroline Lockhart. She was a reporter for the Boston Post, and did all these outrageous stunts. And then she moved to the west and wrote quite risqué Westerns dealing with all these improper topics and seemed like she had a great time and a great life.

RM: I just love your introductory essay and the way that you defend what these reporters were doing, questioning why their bodies should be made to undermine the story: 

The issues faced by stunt reporters and excavated by Woolf still play out today. Writing by women about women continues to be shunted into separate literary categories, those that are both high selling and low prestige, like romance novels, ‘chick lit,’ and memoir. Like stunt reporters, the authors of online personal essays are expected to write about their bodies and are punished for doing so with scorching criticism (and sometimes threats) in the comments section. It’s a no-win situation. In contrast, roles brande[d] more ‘male’ are held in high esteem, like war correspondent and investigative reporter. What is considered respectable versus sensational or literary versus popular often remains centered on discomfort around female physiology, leaving writers who take women's lives as their subject to navigate the narrow, rocky passage between tame and scandalous (9). 

KT: These women could write for the women's page, they could talk about recipes and sleeve lengths; that was eminently respectable. They’d get very little money and lots of praise. Or, they could do these things that were much riskier, had much more societal value that people actually wanted to read—but then they faced a huge wave of condemnation.

RM: What do you what do you think is the greatest lesson that you took away from all of this research? 

KT: These judgments that were made so long ago are still very much with us. Even now, people will say, Oh, that thing that that women were doing in the last decade of the 19th century was really embarrassing and set women back for a long time in journalism. So, I decided to research their work with an experiment, to see what happens if I call it good instead of bad. And it is good.

I was surprised by the way these aesthetic judgments, that this work is trash, were passed down from 1898 and keep getting recycled—Women shouldn't talk about their bodies. That first person thing was really bad—even when we’ve very clearly moved on. 

RM: I just love that, yes. We see women’s work that way historically—with memoirs, for example, if you're too confessional, it’s not literary, it's just worthless. I think a lot about how I’ve been told to silence parts of my story, or that I have to tell it a particular way to be meaningful.

KT: Another thing that was driven home to me through the reporting was the Catch-22 that women were in at the time and which is still very relevant today. I include a quote from Joanna Ross’ book How to Suppress Women’s Writing that says it well: “In the face of continual and massive discouragement, women need models not only to see in what ways the literary imagination has been at work on the fact of being female, but also as assurances that they can produce art without inevitably being second-rate or running mad or doing without love” (259).

I think my take home message, which I will try in my own writing from here on out, is to be braver. 

RM: How do you do that? 

KT: My favorite quote, which I put at the start of the book, is by Nellie Bly. She says, “I write the truth because I love it, and because there is no living creature whose anger I fear or whose praise I court.” 

I don't know if I'm there, but I hope to get there. It's something to aspire to.


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Kim Todd is the award-winning author of four books of literary nonfiction. Her most recent, Sensational: The Hidden History of America's “Girl Stunt Reporters,” was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Richard Frisbee Nonfiction Award. Other books include Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis and Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America, winner of the PEN/Jerard Award and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Salon, Sierra Magazine, Orion, and Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies, among other publications. She is a member of the MFA faculty at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis with her family.

Rachel May's work has been published in Guernica, LitHub, The New York Times, National Geographic, Outside, and elsewhere. She's the author of four books, most recently An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family & Slavery, a work of creative nonfiction, which the New Yorker calls a "meticulous and insightful account of slavery's role in early mercantile America." 

Monday, October 31, 2022

The #Midwessay: Beth Cleary, Blood Earth

 



Blood Earth: Words on the Iron Range

Beth Cleary


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I drive I-35 north out of St. Paul toward Duluth. The ex-urbs are farmland with For Sale signs or farmland for canola and corn, then small towns housing antique malls, truck stops or, at Moose Lake, a medium security prison.  I veer off I-35 at Cloquet, bound for Highway 53 and the Iron Range. 53 has a different feel: as on 35, increasing thickness of conifer, aspen and maple, yes, but here signs announce the Range itself. There is an historic marker citing 400 active mines in the early 20th century. There are signs for the “Range Cities “ of Virginia, Mountain Ore, Chisolm, and Eveleth. Signs for attractions like Iron World, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the Discovery Center Museum of the Iron Range. For destinations like Wirtanen Pioneer Farm, the Wellstone Memorial. For scenic mine overlooks.

Roadside signs appear beside clustered mailboxes and stand sentry on the edges of aspen, facing the highway: We Support Mining Mining Supports Us. We Support Mining Mining Supports Us. Red, white and blue, We Support Mining Mining Supports Us. “Us” means us people, and us “U.S.” There are also signs for dumping any elected official weak on taconite or copper nickel mine expansion. 

There is no signage for the problem of what mining does, has always done, to the earth. What mining is as extraction industry, destroyer of geophysical story, disrupter of geologic time. 

A marker at the Laurentian Divide rest area on 53 describes how the ancient rock of that spot channels waters in three directions: north to Lake Winnipeg, Hudson’s Bay and the Arctic; east and south through Superior and the other Great Lakes toward waterways that become the Atlantic; or through lakes and streams that form the southward flowing Mississippi River. At the Laurentian Divide rest area, I am at about the halfway point of the Mesabi Range, in the middle of the elongate trend called by geologists the Biwabik Range—Biwabik the Ojibwe word for “iron.” The Iron Range refers generally to three separate but geologically related formations: the Vermilion Range, northernmost and containing bedrock significantly older by millions of years than other parts of the Range; the Mesabi Range, the central, largest and most productive ore fields; and the Cuyuna Range, the southwestern reach of the trend. 

Turning slowly and gazing in all directions from a place called “Confusion Hill” because the mind scrambles at the age and kinds of rock, I try to understand the “before” of what I see, the long “before” preceding settlers’ excavation. Everything seeming-solid in every direction has been gouged, cut, moved, in just 150 years. The mature-seeming trees are actually re-growth, after white pine forest clear cut. Hills by the roads are grass-grown overburden. Some lakes on the other sides of those hills are actually filled-in open-pit mines. St. James. Pioneer. Embarrass. They are stocked with young rainbow and lake trout every Spring before the fishing opener, because no fish that eludes the canoeman’s line in summer survives a winter in a fake lake.

The entire northland was the home, for centuries pre-contact, of nomadic indigenous people, who made camps for living in summer, and camps in different places for surviving winter. Then 19th century surveyors, precious metal speculators and eventually mining companies came, “buying” land that had never been bought-and-sold, scattering the native people, and luring tens of thousands of desperate immigrant men underground to hack at the oldest rock on earth. It’s the rock itself which fixes my attention. Its very age—between 2,500 and 4,000 million years old—gives solace to me, to the wriggle that is my life, all human life and enterprise, first and finally. The age of the rock is a rebuke to the humans and our violence. I learn about the rock of the Iron Range—its varieties and formations, deep time dramas of ancient volcanoes, rifts, collisions, orogenies—to atone.

We Support Mining Mining Supports Us. Men, women, descendants are buried across the Range in the undercrust of earth. Their bones’ and tissues’ calcium, zinc, phosphorus and other minerals return to the very soils miners moved to get at veins of ore. The iron running through their blood resorbs into the ground, the collagen in their bones dries slowly in the cold. And meanwhile rock forms, and extends, and cleaves and overcomes, in time we cannot comprehend and for purposes we cannot know, hard as our blasting may try.


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At the rim of the St. James pit lake, Aurora, MN. (Photo by Beth Cleary)


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Beth Cleary is a writer, theater maker and educator. Her essays appear in Fourth Genre, After the Art, The Maine Review, and other publications. She is co-founder of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minnesota. 


What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

“Affirming Life”: An Essay Daily Interview with Kiki Petrosino


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When I dared to imagine a writerly future, during the years of my formal education at state schools in Virginia, where I was born and raised, and Arizona, where my African American father’s family moved, from Chicago, in 1968, I foresaw a career resembling Kiki Petrosino’s. Of course, I did not then know (or know of) her; I did not then believe that any other writer shared closely, on surface level, the contours of my own life: one African American parent, one white; study at the University of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson’s variegated shadow still blankets the grounds (never campus); explorations of all this (identity, family history, the verdant earth of our pulsing commonwealth) in prose polished to gleaming. 

It is an altering thing to encounter someone whose background so neatly (on surface level) mirrors yours, and who has achieved every aspiration, or so it would seem, that you could have thought up for yourself. 

I could have never been Kiki Petrosino, no, though her memoir, Bright, recently out from Sarabande, produced singled tears.

Bright is about so many things mixed people of lightish skin carry (to borrow from Petrosino's language): questions asked, by strangers, of a body that perplexes; the confusion of history in a country that broke (and now sutures, or tries to) along lines of race; reminders to the self of one’s distinct (because live) beauty. It is about much else, however: the grief of her Italian grandfather’s passing, by his own hand; the sharded doubling she encounters when engaging with the life and work of Jefferson (another mirror, then); poetry (for Petrosino has published until now, in book-length work, as a poet) as religiosity, as faith. 

We spoke about Bright during her one day in Charlottesville (where today she teaches at U.Va.) between travels overseas and travels within the country. I can only hope it is a first conversation, not the only. Matthew Morris


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Matthew Morris: So, early on, Bright turns (and then remains) densely intertextual, engaging with passages from Dante, Shakespeare, Sarah Manguso, and Seamus Heaney while referencing the alliterative verse of the Old English poets and the Book of Revelation’s “robes” and “crowns.” Then, of course, there is the writing of Jefferson, especially his Notes on the State of Virginia. I was wondering if you could talk about how allusion, reference, and intertextuality operate in your work. What makes those kinds of moves so richly generative for you? Because they seem richly generative…


Kiki Petrosino: For me, I think that the intertextuality you see in the memoir reflects the intertextuality of my life as I’ve lived it. I think that as a person who’s a practitioner of the literary arts, quotations and passages and moments from the things that I’ve read in the past form a kind of embroidery, or they’re sort of stitched throughout the reality that I live as a day-to-day person. And I think anybody who was and is a voracious reader remembers well those seminal works that they may have encountered at a formative period of their literacy; and for me, the pieces that you see cited most often in Bright, for instance Dante and Shakespeare: those were works that I encountered early on in my literary education. And that became part of the tapestry of my imagination. 

I was doing most of the writing of Bright and the revising of it during the height of the pandemic, during which I kept a pretty close quarantine. And I was also in the process of moving, so I felt really distanced from the physicality of my actual collection of books. Some of my books are in my office, which is on the U.Va. grounds. Some of my books were packed into boxes to move, and other books I was maybe teaching from, but I was only teaching online, and so I was also ordering a lot of electronic copies of books and talking to publishers and begging them to slide me a PDF of a book so that I could make sure my students had as much accessibility to books as possible. 

And so because it wasn’t as easy for me to put my hands on my physical books anymore, I relied on my memory of books that were important to me and books that I had read before. I feel like all of those factors combined to give you a sense of how those citations and those references to different texts are braided throughout the work. 


Morris: Yeah, that’s really lovely. I love the idea that these are thinkers that you’ve been thinking with for a long time, or thinking against, depending. And that feeds into my next question about Jefferson. 

He is a complex figure in this book (and shadowy, because he’s been dead for a long time). I didn’t know this, but you write about him defending a mixed-race man in his suit for freedom long before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and you also write a lot about the musicality of his language. 

For all your misgivings toward Jefferson, you treat him with sincere empathy, noting “the solemn register of his losses”—including the loss of his wife, Martha, when she was quite young. How has your relationship to Jefferson changed over time, personally or creatively, and who is he to you now? And do you think you will continue to engage with Jefferson? I know you’ve also written about him in the poetry book White Blood.


Petrosino: So, when it comes to Jefferson, I always begin with fascination and curiosity about him, and if you start from those positions—I’m interested; I’m curious; I’m fascinated—for me as an artist, that is the position from which you can generate new work. And that curiosity and fascination leads you to read and investigate what was visionary and luminous about his intelligence, and it also leads you to confront the aspects of his life and his legacy that were painful, exclusionary, and that did not live up to the vision that he articulated so well in documenting the Declaration. 

So, for me, it is not a matter of, you know, do you like or dislike Jefferson; do you feel this way or that way about his legacy? I kind of feel all of those things at once. And that’s why it’s actually wonderful to live in a place like Virginia, because Virginia is a place, of course, where Jefferson lived, where he wrote, where he thought about so many things. But it’s also a place where the past and the present and the future intersect constantly. Every square inch of ground in Virginia has some kind of past, some kind of story to it. And then it has a present: what’s going on in the present moment, and then how is that going to feed into the future? Because the land itself is complex and has many stories running through it, so too are the people: the people who have come together to make Virginia what it is are complex. 

For me, that’s where I start with Jefferson. 

I think that he will continue to reemerge in my writing and thinking, because every time I read more about him, I find out something that is interesting, that sparks my curiosity about him. And it’s interesting to me how the things about Jefferson that I’m interested in just so happen to match up with aspects of my own literacy formation. 

Of course, he founded the university where I went as an undergraduate and where I teach now, so there’s that concrete connection. But he also was a person who could speak and write across multiple languages, and I like to do that too. When I was at U.Va., I studied Italian. I went to Italy and studied abroad, and I worked in Europe for a while, so I used those language skills. So that is something that we end up having in common. His interest in nature and horticulture and gardening: those are things I’m interested in too. His European travels: I’m also interested in that. 

In looking at the figure of Jefferson, it’s not always that I’m only thinking about his biographical self, let’s say, but I’m also thinking about Jefferson as an occasion to think about the ways in which I learned to read and think about the world around me. And what does that literacy, what does that training both include and exclude? In the research process for this book and for my previous book of poetry, I found myself going into archives and libraries, because I’ve been trained to seek knowledge in repositories that announce themselves in that way. But those libraries and archives don’t contain everything. For example, they don’t contain my family’s oral history about our generational past. In trying to do research about a complicated place like Virginia, you also need to learn a new kind of literacy. You need to be able to read all kinds of different information and to read across different sorts of information. 


Morris: Yeah, thank you. Even reading the physical landscape: I always feel like when I’m in Virginia, it activates my imagination in different ways. I’m so glad you say that, and that makes me think about also, like, Virginia is where Loving v. Virginia happened. 


Petrosino: That’s right, yeah. Which ends up being relevant to my life, because my parents were married, and they were married after Loving v. Virginia. They were married in the state of Maryland, but that Supreme Court case, Loving, that struck down certain sets of laws, “racial integrity” laws, basically said that it’s unconstitutional to discriminate against people that wish to marry on the basis of their race. And so, my parents were married after that groundbreaking Supreme Court decision. 


Morris: Right. Same with mine. 

So, okay, going to questions of mixedness or in-between-ness: the book is billed as a memoir on the cover. On the back, Chet’la Sebree describes it as an essay collection. When I read Bright, I sort of read it continuously, but there are these breaks, these “fairy-tale interludes.” How do you yourself see the book? Do you see it as memoir, as essay collection? Does that matter? Is there being a blending or an ambiguity to the project part of what you’re up to here?  


Petrosino: Well, I see it as a hybrid work. I think that when I think about it now, I see it as a work that is in the realm of memoir. It’s a memoir that takes place in prose, for me, in vignettes of prose. And, probably as a function of the pandemic (and how that lockdown and the anxiety and stress of it affected my own attention span and my own reading practice), I became interested in shorter prose forms. I was able to accomplish the work of this piece by braiding together shorter moments and shorter passages of language. 

Prior to working on this memoir, I had published the occasional essay. I was a poet mostly who would write the occasional work of prose, and usually pretty short-form prose. And so I went back to some of those pieces and tried to find what professors at U.Va. might call the “luminous fragment,” borrowing that term from Modernism, and tried to figure out how I could create a mosaic, or how I could braid together something that would give you a sense of the totality of an experience but not always tell you the causal narrative of that experience. 

And, again, that reflects the way that I view my own life. If I was going to tell you something important about me, I wouldn’t begin with just a story about my birth and go from there; I would probably tell you about an experience I had or a trip that I went on or a story that I heard that was important. And then I might put that next to another story, another account, and that’s just the way that my imagination and my sense of my own life feels to me. 


Morris: Thanks, yeah. The “luminous fragment.” I read one of your short-form essays last night. I think it was in The Iowa Review a while back. It was called “Literacy Narrative.” And you’re thinking about your grandma a lot in that piece. 

Anyway, maybe we can talk about, if you don’t mind, the work you’re doing with faded and with appearing and disappearing text. 

So, you know, you’ve got this one section of Bright where the physical text of your grandfather’s name, Prospero (and the linkage to The Tempest is really interesting) is getting darker as you move down the page, and increasingly visible. And at the very end, you’ve got this section I thought of as being like a round in choir—


Petrosino: Neat. 


Morris: More is getting stacked on top, but there’s this repeated element. And, again, some of the text is easy to read, and some is faded out until we get to that last line about “all she would carry.” 

What I wanted to ask you is, how do you think about these graphic elements in relation to your subject matter? Or how do you think about them generally? What are you doing with them? 


Petrosino: Yeah, okay, so I think about presence and absence a lot. When I think about the legacy of different ancestors in my family, I think about them as both present and absent. There are ancestors who I never met; my life on Earth didn’t overlap with their life on Earth, but their decisions or the circumstances in which they found themselves, the path they either were on already or that they chose, put the family on a certain trajectory. 

One thing that might be interesting for any reader to think about, regardless of whether they’re African American or not: Can you trace back the first example of literacy in your family? Like, who was the first ancestor that knew how to read and write? Where were they from? How long did they live? What was the likely circumstance in which they learned how to read and write? Also, think about: is that ancestor a male ancestor or a female ancestor? If you can only trace back through the patriarchs, who’s the first matriarch that you can document in some way knowing how to read and write? 

For me, for at least one part of my family, it’s not really that long ago: the first example of handwriting that I found is from 1907 for one of my ancestors, and he signed his name. But he signed his name in a way that you could tell he didn’t really know how to write; he was sort of drawing the letters. And I ended up getting that signature tattooed on my arm because it was super important to me to have that example of writing close to me at all times. 

So that ancestor is both absent and present, you know? And in my last book of poetry, I worked with erasure poetry a whole lot. An erasure poem is when you take an existing text, usually that you did not write. What you’re doing as the poet is you’re erasing around all of the words that you want to keep as the poem. I was doing that to show how you might receive a historical record or you might go into a library and get some information, but in fact that piece of information might only leave you with more questions than answers. So, the text is both present and absent in an erasure poem. 

Moving on to Bright, I was also interested in presence and absence, and in the places where I felt some kind of weird, resonant echo with the things I was reading. There’s some echo when my grandfather has the same name as the main character of The Tempest. The presence of that name creates a chime: it’s both present and absent; it’s coincidence, but it also could be symbolic. The fading of text and of gray and black is another way of working with the absences in a certain kind of historical record or thinking about the way that things echo or resonate across pieces of text. 


Morris: Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. Gosh, you’re making me think about, because I’ve done a decent amount of family history research also: I learned a few months ago that my dad’s surname and my surname, Morris, has a linkage to literacy and an ancestor who was taught to read before emancipation, and that really lit a lightbulb for me… 

Sorry, I have a lot of thoughts—


PetrosinoNo, so, like, if you know that there’s an ancestor that learned to read prior to 1865, there’s already a story there of someone making an effort to learn something. And so there was value placed upon literacy, because there was such a risk for them to do that, and it could not have happened in a school the way we think about it. Those are the kinds of things that are fascinating to me, because I have to read between the lines and understand the significance of the story. I have to use all of the context and things I’ve been learning about the history of a particular time and place. 

So that exists, but I also don’t have that story told by that ancestor about how they learned to read. I only have the results, which is—in my family—after this 1907 signature, everyone can read and write. This ancestor’s son became a doctor and went to Hampton and then went to medical school in Chicago and became a doctor in Illinois. After that point, everyone was a doctor or teacher of some kind. 

And so this trajectory happened; there is some story there, and it’s the work of writing, for me, about all of this stuff, to always hold a place for that story that I don’t have but that had to have existed—


Morris: Yeah—


Petrosino—that I know existed. 


Morris: Right, you’re honoring that story. You yourself are part of that story now. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but as a professor of poetry, generational change from before 1907 to now—


Petrosino: Yeah. Because what it does, actually: it is affirming life. By holding space for that story (and not trying to write inside of it, and not trying to forget about it or gloss over it: by holding it) it affirms the reality and it affirms presence. Because the reason the story isn’t there—it could be because the story was taken away from that ancestor, that they weren’t given the education necessary to write their own testimony. But it could also be that that ancestor used agency in moving the family forward in a way, and that’s actually the testimony. You see what I mean? 


Morris: Yeah. 


Petrosino: Yeah. Like, they did leave something; it’s just not what you’re looking for, but it is there. 


Morris: That’s really beautiful, Kiki. Like, affirming life. I don’t think I’d thought about it in quite that way. But it feels true to me. That to think through, to hold those stories is to affirm life. 

So, I think this is kind of related, what we were just talking about, to the “secret flower,” which you write about early in Bright in relation to being in school in Baltimore. And then this idea recurs when you’re writing about the Moon, another rich metaphor in the book, and in fact on the cover as I look at it. 

Anyway, I thought about this idea of a “secret flower” when I was reading your book, and I also thought about your Black grandfather, who would say, “I’m a good color.” And in counterpoint to that, we have Ross Gay on the back of the book talking about the “brutalizing fictions of race.” 

So, do you see those two things as standing in counterpoint or opposition to one another? Or what is the “secret flower” to you? Is it the reverse side of the “brutalizing fictions”? Something else entirely? 


Petrosino: I think that’s probably approaching the right interpretation. I actually think that, for me, writing about having a mixed-race identity—but, it’s like, I also identify as Black—there’s a disparity that I think that those of us who are of an interracial background can experience, which is that there’s a difference or a dissonance between how we feel on the inside about ourselves and our humanity versus when we go out into the world and we hear from others how they perceive us. A lot of it has to do with the physicality of the body: how do we appear or present to the world? 

And many times in my youth and continuing into my, I guess, middle age or whatever, I regularly hear from people what category they think I should be in, how I look to them, what they thought when they first saw me, you know, which brings the body into the conversation in a way that I don’t always consent to. Because this is a body that I either have or inhabit, that I’m connected to in some way, but when I exist in my internal self, when I am using my mind and my imagination, when I’m reading, when I’m being a human being, I don’t think of myself as parts. I think of myself as a unified human being. There’s always something kind of shocking and not altogether pleasant in hearing what other people have to say about what racial category they would put me in based on my appearance. 

And so maybe the “secret flower” is that self that is the internal truth of a self that persists and endures and also needs to be nourished, you know, despite or quite apart from (quite apart from) what the outside world might want to put on a person. You know? 


Morris: Yeah. Thank you. Those interactions never seem to end. 


Petrosino: Right. That’s the other thing I want to say, is that I think it’s really important that when mixed people speak, each person gets to be listened to, because each of our experiences is quite individual, in fact. And that’s why it’s hard to generalize. Not everyone identifies the same way. And not everyone’s encounter with this issue is going to be identical. There’s a lot of variation, and it has to be that way. It is that way. Because we are all different, just as every human being is different. And that sounds tautological or it sounds weirdly paradoxical, but I think that part of my work is to resist this very, very strong impulse in our culture and in our discourse to group people into categories and then to treat those categories as if they’re completely immutable. 


Morris: Part of what’s interesting to me about what you were just saying is that even the categories between the other categories get described as fixed or immutable. That’s exactly what you were just saying, but … monolithic. 

Do you want to talk about the idea of “stifled grief” in the book or is that something you would rather not? 


Petrosino No, we can talk about that if you want to. Sure. Let me open up your email.


Morris: And this is in relation to your Italian grandfather—


Petrosino: Yes. So, you ask, “Is the project for you also about allowing grief its space?” Yes, it is. It goes back to what I was saying before about presence and absence. You know, my grandfather, in completing suicide in the way that he did, removed himself from presence. But yet that particular act—the tragedy of it—has had this resonating presence in my life. But it also, for a very long time, seemed to be something that I shouldn’t talk about, both the action itself, like what happened, but also the way that it affected me. That’s probably because there are societal taboos about speaking about suicide, and also the Roman Catholic Church: it’s maybe one of the worst sins in the traditional teachings of the church. And so, you know, that makes it difficult for people to talk about things that happen. 

These things happen, and these departures cause us to feel grief and mourning. You know, I was just in Italy for a little while, and speaking Italian is a really emotional experience for me. I have reached a level of proficiency with the language that allows me to be in Italy and feel pretty comfortable interacting in Italian. I was able to have long conversations with people about all kinds of things, and the musicality and the sound of the language, also being in Italy and looking around at things: these were constant reminders of the Italian side of my family, in a different but related way to the way that being in rural Virginia is a constant reminder of the African American side of my family, and the Afro-Virginian, we’ll say, side of my family. 

Being in those environments and in those spaces and speaking a language that is present but also evocative of ancestors who are now absent or distant is a complex, resonant, and rich experience for me. I did feel, I think, for many years, that there was no place in my writing for this particular grief, and that I would have to stifle it. That I would have to write about other things or not write about my grandfather. And actually there’s quite a lot of joy when I think about my grandfather’s legacy, when I’m reminded of things, when I see things that he would have liked or when I put together something about the way that he would do things and then I go to Italy and I see people doing things that way. Those are moments of joy for me. And those are the things that I want to focus on. 


Morris: Yeah, I love that, and I could feel that in the book when you write about him, you know, being in the garden—


Petrosino: Yeah. And my African American grandfather also had an amazing garden, and I have memories of walking in the garden with him. I don’t know why grandfathers do this stuff, but it seems like there’s something grandfatherly about having a garden and tending to and having that connection to nature and then allowing the grandchild to be near when those things are going on. That feels important on both sides. 


Morris: Okay, Kiki. This has been really a lovely conversation for me. The book was also really meaningful for me to read, and I’m glad to have met you. 


Petrosino: Me too. The questions were very resonant and thoughtful. Thank you so much. 


*


Kiki Petrosino is the author of White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia (2020) and three other poetry books, as well as the memoir Bright (2022), all from Sarabande. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, where she is a Professor of Poetry. Petrosino is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, the UNT Rilke Prize, & the Spalding Prize, among other honors.

Son of an African American father and a white mother, Matthew Morris most often writes through questions of race, identity, family history, and love. His essays appear in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, and Mid-American Review, among others. He was born and raised in Virginia and studied nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, defending his thesis, “Ghost Hand,” in May of 2021. 


Thursday, September 29, 2022

Jay Ponteri: Horse(s) at Dusk: a Diary about Amina Cain’s A Horse At Night: On Writing

Horse(s) at Dusk

or

“What is in the room is ours” :


A Diary about Amina Cain’s A Horse At Night: On Writing


by Jay Ponteri


*


"Without planning it, I began a diary of sorts. Lightly. A diary of fiction.” 


Those are the opening sentences of Amina Cain’s new prose book A Horse At Night: On Writing, just published by Dorothy Project. As soon as I read these sentences, I understood immediately that my writing about Cain’s book would also be “...a diary of sorts. Lightly. A diary of…” nonfiction about Cain’s “diary of fiction.” 


I have given myself this parameter, too: as I read and write a diary about Cain’s A Horse At Night, I shall also reread her last two books of fiction—Indelicacy and Creature—and I’ve just discovered she published a book of stories before Creature titled, I Go to Some Hollow, which I have ordered and added to my list. 


Third parameter: I shall read some (maybe all?) of the books she mentions, the first being Marguerite Duras’s Ravishing of Lol Stein. 


*


Now is an appropriate time to say that I only write about BOOKS THAT I LOVE, and in this way, the brand of criticism I write might be called Lovicality. I know that I love Cain’s new book before I have read past the title. Often my favorite book is the book I have yet to read. Often my favorite book is the book yet to be written. You can stop reading today’s entry at any point to order your copy (preferably, directly from the Dorothy Project website) of A Horse At Night.


*


The space between what happens on the page and what lies beyond is, for many writers, softly porous, a dynamic web with many curvilinear, intersecting pathways passing through material and immaterial realms blending—holding us and revealing us at once. Walk these pathways within / through / around / beyond language into what language represents, attempts to represent, slips off. Feel the soundscape to which you’ve been listening shaping the page’s visual field extending 0ff the page into your heart and the hearts of many others. Let’s call this softly porous membrane a condition cultivated from a committed, lifelong reading practice in which books expand already-existing interior scapes that cannot help but pour into the exterior ones. At once meta-spatial and metaphysical, this condition in which the text becomes a 3D space one can literally step into and with and one in which whatever’s happening on the page rises up as its own body—bodies making new textual bodies. Reading embodies the reader by allowing the body to commingle with other bodies. Cain meditates on and enacts this embodied condition again and again. In the opening section, Cain refers to it as the “double immersion” of “fiction and life.” Here’s an example from that entry: 

The little shop, I have gone to it a couple of times a week every week for many years. Can you picture me driving there, all that I was thinking, all that I was feeling? Picture it one hundred times. On this day this person was important to me, on this day another. Often it was the same person, the same people. There was something I needed from the shop, or I wanted to leave my desk. I don’t think it’s bad to leave your desk, especially when you are going to a place that reminds you of the shop Laura discovers in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, the one that is half florist, half green grocer. And so I have also always been thinking of Lolly. 


The flowers that look like bright yellow balls, with soft pinetree-like leaves, are standing in their bucket of water, not far from a large bowl of tangerines. Fresh flowers and surrounded by darkness in that corner. How could I not think of Lolly, especially in the blustery seasons? I was glad I left my commonplace desk. I went back  to it with those images in mind. (10-11)

For Cain, Lolly (a.k.a. Laura) is not simply a character in a book but an intimate, a woman whose inner life and experience Cain has not just simply witnessed but felt so deeply as to transmit then illumine, through her own reflection, Lolly’s inner life. To communicate the experience of feeling seen while witnessing another. One of the most dynamic qualities—there are so many of course—of reading is how we can be so close to another human being’s thinking, how we can feel the distinct texture of their consciousness, feel within our bodies another way of being in the world while feeling our own. And at what seems like the same instance, but is the next instance, our own memories and thoughts and analogous experiences—nesting there the entire time—reveal themselves. (This thought nesting within Cain’s consideration.)


*


This softly porous condition is also one of vulnerability and fragility. Things so easily loosen, break off, attach to other things—and one discovers they’ve been connected all along—or float off on their own, alone. What seems disparate is linked and what appears connected reveals its thousand fissures. My favorite passages in both Indelicacy and A Horse At Night—which seem like sibling books—occur when Cain writes ekphrastically, dreaming within and beyond paintings. Paintings are 2D, yes, and yet Cain’s prose extends painting into the realms of installation and performance. She makes a hybrid art of painting. A sentence from Indelicacy, page 51:

It rains in a drawing, and if the drawing is good, you feel wet.

Another example from Indelicacy, pages 54-55:

A woman stands in a room facing away from the viewer. Her dress is black, with either a white apron or cord tied around her waist. We can’t tell which, but it affects how we see her all the same. It gives her shape; it separates her from her surroundings, which is not always so. At the bottom of the painting, for instance, her dress blends into shadows on the floor.   
We see also her white neck, her brown hair pulled back from it; she is looking down, but not completely. Maybe she is reading a letter. 
The room is almost bare, except for a chair she’s standing next to, in front of her a table, and beyond the table a furnace. Two white doors, closed, lead to other rooms, other feelings, or else a continuation of this one. 
I am always fooled by these suggestions of other rooms we might go into, but never can, never will. Another space, but it is closed to us, even if it feels open. Thought of in a different way, if it is all suggestion, what is in the rooms is ours.

Things closed feel open. The narrator sees, beyond the frame, a letter the figure looking down might be reading. The narrator sees beyond shut doors too. What is in the room is ours. 



This dreaming into and around the paintings’ figures extends into her consideration of literature. Now I offer an example from A Horse At Night in which Cain—she’s meditating on the idea of projection—adds, through her imagination, to a landscape she first encounters in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk

…I’ve been imagining the sea in Southern Spain where the narrator Sofia is stung twice by several jellyfish. The medusas in the water in Almeria are transparent and have long tentacles. The land beyond that sea: a scorched desert with white plastic greenhouses scattered across the hills. I like to imagine the medusas and the greenhouses are communicating with each other, projecting themselves to each other across the beach.

What emerges through Cain’s imaginative act: a connection—between beings (medusas) and non-being beings (greenhouses) filled with beings (flora). It’s hard to say if we are in Levy’s landscape or in Cain’s, which reminds me of Anne Carson’s short talk on reading in which the narrator recalls being so immersed in her reading during summer vacations, nestled in the backseat of the family car, that she sees in a rockface Madame Bovary’s neck and, conversely, when she thinks about the hair on Madame Bovary’s “female flesh,” she asks “Deciduous”? In a sense, Cain has kept intact the child’s imagination, so active, so fluid and tendrillar, that it never sees the partitions adults throw up between various realms and modes of existence. Here the narrator in Indelicacy enacts this idea as she considers writing about painting:

And maybe more important, I began to feel that I could see my writing—not the words or the paintings—somehow in between. That I had made a new thing. (27)

Cain’s prose is somehow in between. Reminded of Celia Paul’s—in Letters to Gwen John—view of image-making as “unvoiced language.” Although it could also be an observation Etel Adnan makes in Journey to Mount Tamalpais. This is now reminding me of Brandon Shimoda’s vision, as expressed in his essay “The Process of a Drawing Being Made” in which Shimoda describes the act of drawing and looking at his drawings as 3D instances:


There was a destruction site, a pit of dirt with workers, surrounded by buildings and trees, so that’s what the drawings were: workers, buildings, trees… Looking at the drawings now, I’m most attracted to the workers. The buildings have aged, the trees are overgrown, but the workers are fresh, because they look like they are still waiting. For what? For the work to end? For the work to begin? To be returned to their families, tranquility, music? It is clear they love each other. For one among them to move closer? To be honest?


*


Try this (I did yesterday):

From Indelicacy: 
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read. Then write again. Sleep. (29)


*


I have been thinking for years about how writers write about writing. During and after graduate school (late 90s), I studied fastidiously “the writing craft,” in particular, the tools fiction writers and poets use and the language we use to describe said tools, e.g., point of view, characterization, structure, metaphor, image, syntax, lineation, etc…, and when I found the genre I was meant to work in—Essay, the space (for me) in between and beyond fiction and poetry—I eventually began to question all of this naming and analysis, which felt to me too far removed from what I was doing when I wrote. These words and definitions I encountered were somebody else’s words and definitions, mostly white cis- men’s. I knew I wanted to think more impressionistically about writing or not even separate the two, ie., here is writing and here is writing about writing, which is to say, it’s all essay to me. 


The giant beating heart of Cain’s book (of Indelicacy, too) is her close, dynamic interactions with pictures, objects, and their figures and aspects of their visual compositions. She’s showing the reader-writer the idiosyncratic ways she defines elements of story. She models the writer’s need to investigate their own sense of story along with the origins of that sense, to look for methodology in their own particular narrative instincts—and to stave off trying to impose methods that work well for other writers. I often see this in Creative Nonfiction courses when students, under the spell of exceptional lyric essay and collage work, impose nonlinear structuring and its methodology of juxtaposition/blank space/soundscape on content that perhaps wants more straightforward story or essay. Of course writers benefit from mimicking what other writers do—as I am mimicking Cain’s form here—but equally important we must listen closely to (and for) our own way of being in the world, on and beyond the page. Cain articulates her own sense of her journey of writing about writing on page 110 of A Horse at Night:

While thinking and writing about novels and short stories, I’ve mostly been paying attention to things we could say are “accessories” to them, not what we would say is crucial. I haven’t been paying attention to plot, character, dialogue, or conflict, those formal elements of fiction. If I get to these elements at all, it is through one of these accessories, like animals, relaxation, friendship, or the self. Animals appear in novels just as characters do, even if not all of the time. Plants appear in fiction too. I’ve begun to think that when they appear, they can guide us in understanding what we are reading, and where we are when we read. 

Cain chooses her own word—“accessories”—for what she’s thinking through. She does not refuse the formal elements—she works with them in her own ways that rise through her way of being in the world. And of course there are so many other writers working critically in more idiosyncratic or, perhaps, somatic ways, thinking of Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry, Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a luxury,” or Carl Phillips Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination and Douglas Kearney’s forthcoming Subwoof Optic. Mary Ruefle, in Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, says this in her “Short Lecture about Craft” (bracketed text, mine):

A craft is a boat, ship, or airplane; the most primitive craft is a raft, whose very word is embedded in the word craft.   
Great skill is involved in building a craft, for it is far from easy to make things that float or fly.  
Those unknown men and women [referring to the Phoenicians] who with the labor of their minds devised a raft and with the labor  of their hands tied the logs together and tested the seaworthiness of their raft… 
Who taught them their craft?

*


Cain grapples with what preoccupies her—the feelings, struggles, sensorium, ideas, and conditions drawing her attention and that her fiction engages through story. Winter/snow. Female friendship. Animals. Authenticity.  This is essay—the mind using the materials of language and blank space on the page to realize instances knowing and unknowing, often in the same beat, and Cain refers to this essay space as “a pasture of thought.” She might consider the works of others—novels, paintings, creative nonfiction—or she might remain in consideration of her own experience, which is to say, one way, perhaps the best way, to write about writing is not to write about writing. This reminds me of a sentence from Jenny Boully’s Between-and-Betwixt: Essays on the Writing Life

What I have learned about great writers: they were always obsessed with something, but they were very seldom obsessed with writing. (117)

One of Cain’s preoccupations is solitude. The prose explores the various contradictions that any solitary experience engages. On page 32, Cain explores the importance of witnessing the world autonomously:

When another person is accompanying you, they fill the space between you and certain kinds of experience. It is important that that not always happen. A person should be like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball, absorbing everything around them. We can’t see quite this way with someone else by our side.

Later on page 34:

To be in favor of solitude is not to be against community or friendship or love. It’s not that being alone is better, just that without the experience of it we block ourselves from discovering something enormously beneficial, perhaps even vital, to selfhood. Who are you when you are not a friend, a partner, a lover, a sibling, a parent, a child? When no one is with you, what do you do, and do you do it differently than if someone was there? It’s hard to see someone fully when another person is always attached to them. More importantly, it’s hard for us to see our own selves if we’re not ever alone.

I have just culminated a two-year period of not being in a relationship amid the pandemic era. During this period, I grieved over lost loves and my 18-year-old son’s near exodus, now less than 12 months away, and our planet’s collective decline and denial of the violence surrounding us, within us. I was in reflection of my own behaviors, my own complicity. I understood I wanted and needed to spend time alone, although I didn’t intend it to be for two years. Certainly, at any moment, I could have created an account on a dating app and attempted to meet someone (or even just hook up). I simply didn’t want to encounter myself in that virtual space. I didn’t want to begin a relationship in what seemed to me a space of severance, removed from bodies, disembodied, a space of representations of personaes trying out and being tried out, nothing unfolding, just judgment and everything mediated through a screen. I didn’t want to have a relationship with a device. I realize dating apps work for others, but I couldn’t, still can’t see myself in that space.


During those two years, also totally sober, I identified all the destructive behaviors—across a 15-year marriage and two post-divorce relationships spanning four years—in which I engaged and reflected on them again and again. Much of that reflection occurred either in my writing, still in draft form, or on long nightly walks around my SE Portland neighborhood. Eventually—maybe it was the motion my body made through space-time along with the new body I was creating on the page—I learned to identify then allow shameful feelings to pass through me, to see myself as a vessel linked within a web of beings and non-being beings. I accepted what I had done—acceptance arising from a daily practice of humility, seeing myself as a human who makes mistakes, who seeks forgiveness and does better the next time. This humility puts me in mind of a sentence from Alphonse Daudet’s illness notebook titled In the Land of Pain (trans. Julian Barnes): “Poor night birds, beating against the walls, / blind despite their open eyes.” I wanted now to see things, to stop flailing, to cultivate something other than unhealthy behaviors shaping problematic relationship dynamics. 


Humility : acceptance : the dissipation of shame : enacting and feeling myself change, becoming somebody other : 


It’s never a straight line, always a zigzag or perhaps a few steps forward then more back (or less back), then a slant, then, hobbled and refreshed, forward again. 


I walked and I prayed and came to understand I could act differently. 


This is not a struggle I shared with anybody and I came to understand that not only could I behave or act differently but that I was and am a very loving human being and that this love, the kind of love I wanted to stand in, existed on a spiritual plane, that it included disappearing not only shame but grievance too, perhaps two sides of the same coin. While living without sexual touch, without intimacy, for two years, is not something I ever want to do again, I had to put space between my body and the bodies of others to get a better glimpse of who I was. I don’t want this to sound like something was figured out, other than the struggle is ongoing and the point is to attempt to feel it fully and share it, whatever that might look like.


Cain on page 34: “More importantly, it’s hard for us to see our own selves if we’re not ever alone.” 


On my walks, I began to encounter, once again, toy plastic horses tethered to metal rings at the edges of sidewalks. The rings remained from a time when one might need to tie up their horse(s) while they went inside a shop or a friend’s house or their own. The tiny horse project had been around for many, many years—I think I began to see them in 2005 in NE Portland where my then partner and I lived, around the time our son was born. That first slow liquid year of our son’s life during which I walked with my son strapped into a chest pouch, initially facing me then eventually facing out to the world. We walked all over the neighborhood, miles and miles of walking, this before my son began to talk and I had my thoughts to myself. When we found a tiny horse tethered to the ring, I’d crouch us down to the curb, show it Oscar, and make up names for each horse, stories too, for as long as my legs and back could hold out. (Perhaps those horses continue to gallop through my son’s dreams.) Encountering the horses again felt like a sign to me, 17 years later, that I was on the right track, that being alone at this moment in my life was necessary, being alone in and with this moment, the pandemic era, all that necessary space between our bodies. I was grieving the end of my son’s childhood, mine too.




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(I will pause to say that Gabrielle Civil has dones some brilliant writing about this experience of space between bodies amid the pandemic in her recent stunning book the déjà vu: black dreams & black time, which I highly recommend.) 


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I just picked up Marlen Haushofer’s novel The Wall, just translated from German into English for the first time by Shaun Whiteside and published by New Directions. The narrator goes on vacation with her cousin and cousin’s wealthy but unhealthy husband to a hunting lodge he has built in the woods, and the couple walks into the village but doesn’t return, and when the narrator tries to go to the village to find them, still in  the forest, she encounters an invisible wall behind which she’s trapped and beyond which the human species, aside from her, no longer exists. The novel is about—thus far—her relationship with the creatures with whom she shares a landscape, in particular, her cousin’s husband’s hunting dog, Lynx. The writing shows a dynamic cross-species interaction, as described in the scene in which she first encounters this invisible wall:

When I finally reached the end of the gorge I heard Lynx howling with pain and shock. I walked around a pile of logs that had been blocking my view, and there was Lynx, sitting wailing. Red saliva was dripping from his mouth. I bent over him and stroked him. Trembling and whining, he pressed close to me. He must have bitten his tongue or chipped a tooth. When I encouraged him to go on with me, he put his tail between his legs, stood in front of me and pushed me back with his body.(9)

Lynx pushes the narrator back from the wall in order to protect her from the painful experience he’s having. Their bodies are touching—and often touch in the pages beyond this passage that I have read—in a way that suggests the narrator’s willingness to experience directly all the non-human beings surrounding her. Solitude gives way to feelings of loneliness. It also shapes a variety of other experiences, giving ourselves a better sense of who we are in the world. 


Cain on page 34: “More importantly, it’s hard for us to see our own selves if we’re not ever alone.”


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I return to Cain’s writing practice as one in which ekphrasis plays such a central role. In A Horse at Night, in reflection of darkness, Cain describes the process of paintings flowing into her body:

When I began looking at paintings of nighttime scenes because I wanted to write about them, I felt immediately comforted. It’s probably why I was drawn in the first place to write about darkness, but I wasn’t expecting to be soothed so quickly. It was a nice evening, going through different representations of dusk and twilight and gloom: two figures moving against a windy blackness; a dark Yosemite; Faust and Mephistopheles riding through a witches’ Sabbath; a summer night in Arizona. While I looked at these images, the darkness surrounded me as well, outside of my house. (39-40)

The paintings flow into her being in the present moment as her dreams about the figures and landscape flow back into the painting. To return to a sentence I quoted earlier:

And maybe more important, I began to feel that I could see my writing—not the words or the paintings—somehow in between. (27)

This sense of somehow in between language arises from Cain’s experience as a close viewer/reader—the visual experience and the language we use to conjure that experience—that, in turn, infuses her thinking about narrative, like a sort of meta-ekphrasis. Here are three stunning passages from A Horse at Night, pages 20-21, in which Cain, using words that define visual experience, considers various elements of story:

I find it enjoyable to make objects appear, and characters appear, which is different than how the characters look. And when objects and characters, and also landscapes, appear together, that is another way narrative happens for me…  
I would rather work in front of or behind a narrative, where I can focus on these other things even if the story is still there. I want to leave a chain of images that remain in the reader’s mind. I want to write what heightened experience feels like…  
In my own fiction, I sometimes find myself trying to conjure something that isn’t there, so that it both is and isn’t appearing. For instance, in my novel Indelicacy, when the narrator Vitoria is visiting the desert, she says, “I pulled my hair into a loose bun, but not like a dancer would do it.” There is no dancer in this sentence, yet I see the dancer. This is one way to haunt a sentence. Plainly. It is exciting to me to think I might haunt my own sentences, to believe that they can be haunted. That the reader might be taken over subtly, that there is room in fiction for an experience like this. And that something of this experience might remain. (20-21)

After I read this passage, I turn to a novel Cain discusses throughout A Horse at Night—Marguerite Duras’s (trans. Richard Seaver), The Ravishing of Lol Stein. This passage is from the very dramatic opening scene in which the narrator witnesses Lol Stein watching her fiance fall in love with another woman, which ends their engagement and forever changes the course of Lol Stein’s life:

The orchestra stopped playing. The ballroom seemed virtually empty. There were only a few couples left, including the one they formed, and behind the green plants, Lol and that other girl, Tatiana Karl. They had failed to realize that the orchestra had stopped playing; after the break, at the moment when it should have started in again, they had moved back together, like robots, deaf to the fact that there was no longer any music. It was at this point that the musicians filed past them one by one, their violins enclosed in funereal cases. They had made a motion as if to stop them, perhaps to speak to them, but in the end they did not. (11)

There is no funeral in this sentence yet Duras (and Lol) see the funeral in the violin cases, little coffins or body bags in transit, shut and packed and being carried from the room. 


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I have gone out looking for the toy horses tethered to the rings as I want to take Polaroids of them for this diary. I know there is one—a three-legged one—tethered to a ring near my apartment and I can even picture what side of the street to which the horse is tethered and how close it is to the busy biking roadway SE Clinton but it is not there. I cannot find it. I find photos of the rings but not the toy horses. Once I do find it, I realize I have walked by them—there are two horses and a bear—many times. They are so small, at ground level. I did not reshape my attention to locate something so small yet  “small” is not the experience I have when I do view them. 



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Cain deepens the experience of her reading and writing by paying close attention, through language on the page, to her inner life, that weaving of feeling and thought—which comes first?—that helps us make sense of the mysteries we are becoming. She writes a section about her sense of authenticity and feeling, as she gets older, that she is losing something she once felt as a younger person:

My loss of authenticity is related to change, to how, as I’ve gotten older, I seem to have become a different person. In a way I have become strange to myself, and so how I am and feel around others has also been destabilized. I have more fears than I had when I was younger; I am more rigid: and there has been a loss too of the freedom I once felt, when the world seemed entirely open, and utterly beautiful. I don’t know if I can say that I have been able yet to move meaningfully toward authenticity in my life, but to face this loss with honesty has in itself felt significant. And in my writing I am able to be close to who I am, or at least access parts of myself I thought I had lost. (56)

I wonder about the connection between facing loss with honesty and accessing lost parts of selves. I mean to say, honesty in our lives, not entertaining illusions, speaking truths to ourselves and to our friends and family and community, facing and feeling difficult feelings, not avoiding them or numbing them, in turn, can reward the human artist with a fluid access to invisible realms. I want to live the remaining time I have in this mess of grief, to reach through and with this grief to live in connection with others. My friend the poet Emily Kendal Frey once told me Truth is love, and I believe this, and it only took me about 50 years to find this more authentic self. The things we have lost we cannot get back but we can feel the loss, we can, from these feelings, construct new bodies that connect out to other bodies, we can keep rebuilding ourselves and keep in touch with lost selves. We can see the gain in having had the experience in the first place. This is another way to haunt a sentence.


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Over coffee, I tell my friend Janice about this diary and the toy horses, that I’m struggling to find them, and later walking her dog, she comes across one and texts me its location. I remember the time Janice and I, at the same cafe, a year before, sitting at the edge of the cafe’s courtyard, watched a moving lump begin to push up to the ground’s surface covered in wood chips. This lump, the size of a small loaf, tunneled just beneath the ground across the courtyard where it eventually surfaced near a fence post. Janice, whose relationship with flora and fauna is expansive and pouring—you must read her novel Imagine a Death, which dreams into the varied, interconnected lives of many animal species—identified the creature as a mole. I won’t speak for Janice but I know I didn’t want to see that mole surface. I wanted the mystery of what we were seeing—a partially surfacing creature-lump in swift motion across a courtyard—to remain beneath the ground just as I wanted the mole to remain protected too, tunneled, beyond human sight and hands. And to share the experience of that encounter with Janice, the mole’s tunneling then surfacing, felt connective and meaning-making, full of mystery, of possibility, of grief too, as if the triangle the three of us formed—mole : Janice : Jay—lit up a connection-web Janice and I hadn’t yet noticed, or no, we’d noticed it but hadn’t noticed it in this moment, in this particular form. 


I understand now that my grief work was opening me up to these kinds of experiences, this kind of friendship, the intimacy of friends, even friends who see each other only a few times a year, that nourished me during such a difficult time, with so much space between my body and the bodies of others.  



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One among many strengths of Amina Cain’s prose is its ability to paint pictures with language. The title of the book—A Horse at Night—is a layered image, both discernible and open. 


The horse at night, separate from humans, autonomous, its breath visible only to itself, exists unwitnessed by human eyes. It reminds me of this passage, or no, the entire prose piece, which I think of as an essay, by Clarice Lispector, “The Dry Sketch of Horses,” included in The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dodson). Here are a few sections, spanning pages 451-455:

Stripping  
The horse is naked.

 

Form 
The form of the horse represents what is best in the human being. I have a horse inside me that rarely manifests itself. But when I see another horse then mine expresses itself. Its form speaks. 
Sensitivity 
Every horse is wild and skittish when unsure hands touch it.

 

He and I 
Attempting to put my most hidden and subtle sensation into sentences—and disobeying my strict need for truthfulness—I would say: had it been up to me I’d have wished to be born a horse. But—who knows—perhaps the horse himself doesn’t sense the great symbol of free life that we sense in him. Should I then conclude that the horse exists above all else to be sensed by me? Does the horse represent the beautiful and liberated animality of the human being? Does the human already contain the best of the horse? Then I renounce being a horse and in glory I’ll go over to my humanity. The horse shows me what I am. 
In the cold dawn 
You could see the warm moist breath—the radiant and tranquil breath that came from trembling extremely alive and quivering nostrils of the stallions and mares on certain cold dawns. 

The reader carries Cain’s image through the reading of the book and it’s not referred to or mentioned but the image is so strong and impactful you still look for the horse at night or you feel it is there all along and then you approach the book’s final paragraph:

But now that I am working on a new novel, I am not writing about shame at all. For the first time, it is love I seem to want to write about. I am still interested in pleasure. I am still interested in landscape. But how can I, how will I, write about these things now? I don’t think I have to figure it out beforehand; my subconscious mind is leading me. Already, under the pleasure, under the tropical landscape of the novel, I can see something ominous starting to arise. I have never been able to force myself to write about anything, or to avoid anything for that matter, and I don’t think I ever will, so I’ll just see what keeps arising, how I approach the difficulties of being alive in this particular moment in time. Once again, it’s freedom I want when it comes to writing, and in life, even within responsibility. Being unrestrained. Yet I know it will be different; it always is. Like a horse standing in darkness. The pasture gate has been left open. (125-126)

The human has left the gate open. The horse can wander off, can be free of fences and gates and the various forms of restraint humans gravitate towards. Cain wants—in her life and in her writing—to find the condition, that space, of freedom, sans constraint, and yet she understands “it will be different.” What will be different? Is it that feelin/being unrestrained happens only within spaces of restraint? Or that feeling unrestrained is only temporary? Or that feeling/being unrestrained feels different than we envision it feeling because we envision it as a concept, a future feeling/condition, as we feel restrained? And let’s consider the image: the horse in the dark, the pasture gate left open. (The “pasture of thought” gate left open.) Under the dark skies of night, the humans are not watching nor are they there to close the gate. And who left the gate open? And was it left open accidentally or purposefully? Or both at once? Considering the context—ART—the latter seems more valid, as in, artists attempt to make spaces for themselves to experience motion without restraint. And yet the horse stands in the darkness, the horse is NOT moving. It is unrestrained and perhaps its standing in the darkness, knowing it can walk through that open gate at any moment, is one way to express its freedom. Or perhaps it sees that the gate has been left open but it also grasps the truth, the reality of its existence, that the pasture fence still and will always exist. And what does it mean to stand under the cover of darkness? Let’s turn to the end of Cain’s own meditation on night:

A scene of darkness, whether in writing or art or film, allows for a break, and a bit of quiet, like having a small pillow laid over your eyes. Why shouldn’t we rest? But it’s not just resting, of course. I think it’s also a move to the unconscious mind, to what can be understood without thinking, without trying too hard. A way to sit for a moment with what you are experiencing in the work. 
Whatever the reason, darkness captivates, holds its own kind of sovereignty, and we need the change from daylight to night and back again. We need to come down from the day. From Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills: “Mariko moved across the room toward the window again. She was just tall enough to lean her elbows on the ledge. For a few minutes she looked into the darkness, her face close to the pane. ‘I want to go out now.’” (48)


Night, the time to go out, to return to the many selves.


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And now thinking again about all of the rings on sidewalks I encounter, without horses tethered to them. Maybe this is the next moment Cain dreams about, the horse has trotted off, into the night and all that remains is that rusted ring. 


The gate has been left open. 


Let’s walk up to it together.



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(This diary is for my friend Janice Lee)


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Works Cited


  • Boully, Jenny. Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life. Coffee House Press, 2018.
  • Cain, Amina. Horse at Night: On Writing. Dorothy Project, 2022.
  • Cain, Amina, Indelicacy. FSG, 2020.
  • Duras, Marguerite. (trans. Richard Seaver). The Ravishing of Lol Stein. Pantheon. 1986
  • Haushofer, Marlen. (trans. Shaun Whiteside). The Wall. New Directions, 2022.
  • Lispector, Clarice. (trans. Katrina Dodson). The Complete Stories. New Directions, 2015
  • Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. Wave Books, 2012.
  • Shimoda, Brandon. “The Process of a Drawing Being Made.” University of Arizona Poetry Center, 2021.


Other books mentioned

  • Adnan, Etel. The Journey to Mount Tamalpais. Post-Apollo Press. 1986.
  • Carson, Anne. Short Talks. Brick Books, 1992.
  • Civil, Gabrielle. the déjà vu: black dreams & black time. Coffee House Press, 2021.
  • Lee, Janice. Imagine A Death. Texas Review Press, 2021.
  • Levy, Deborah. Hot Milk. Bloomsbury, USA. 2017.
  • Paul, Celia. Letters to Gwen John. NYRB, 2022. 




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Jay Ponteri directed the creative writing program at Marylhurst University from 2008-2018 and is now the Chair of PNCA’s Low-Residency Creative Writing program. His book of creative nonfiction Someone Told Me was published by Widow+Orphan House in 2021. He’s also the author of Darkmouth Inside Me (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Wedlocked (Hawthorne Books, 2013), which received an Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Two of Ponteri’s essays, “Listen to this” and “On Navel Gazing” have earned “Notable Mentions” in Best American Essay Anthologies. His work has also appeared in many literary journals: Portland Review, Gaze, Ghost Proposal, Eye-Rhyme, Seattle Review, Forklift, Ohio, Knee-Jerk, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Clackamas Literary Review, While teaching at Marylhurst, Ponteri was twice awarded the Excellence in Teaching & Service Award. In 2007, Ponteri founded Show:Tell, The Workshop for Teen Artist and Writers, now part of summer programming at Portland's Independent Publishing Resource Center on whose Resource Council he serves. He teaches memoir classes at Literary Arts. He lives with his son Oscar and Oscar's pug MO.