Monday, November 19, 2018

NFN18: Ethics of Writing Nonfiction with and about the Incarcerated

Like many fellow essayists, we spent the weekend of November 1-4 in Phoenix, Arizona at the NonfictioNOW conference catching up with old friends and making new ones. We also sat on a panel on ethics of writing with and about the incarcerated. The panel included chair John Proctor, writing teacher at Manhattanville College and Rikers Island; Sarah Shotland, director of the Words Without Walls program at Chatham University; Pittsburgh journalist and essayist Brittany Hailer; Bob Cowser, who teaches at St. Lawrence University and participates in the university’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program at Riverview Correctional Facility; and Chauna Craig, Creative Nonfiction Editor at the Atticus Review and teacher in the Second Chance Pell Program.

Perhaps the best thing about our panel was the many-branched conversation we had in response to questions the audience asked. We employed a method of question-gathering gleaned from a presentation at NYU by the Criminal Justice Initiative, passing out notecards beforehand, having runners (in this case John’s father and brother) pick them up as people wrote questions on them, and ordering and addressing them as they came up naturally in our conversation. We’d recommend this method, which made for a vibrant, efficient discussion with an involved audience.

That said, we only had an hour and fifteen minutes, and we didn’t get to many of the questions. So, we thought we would give a list of those questions with written responses from our panel here.

“If you’re brand new to doing this, what do you recommend/thoughts do you have?”

SBS: Find your allies in the system and on campus. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the people who come to your aid when the inevitable crisis happens. Try your best to build a team so you avoid burn out. Don’t try to expand too quickly, or serve too many students at once. This is a field where I think “scale” is a danger. My best success in this work has come in its most inter-personal relationship building. The longer you can work with the same, small group of students, the higher the impact. Try to see if there’s a group of relatively stable students in your facility who you can make a year-long commitment to working with. That will give you a nice pilot project, and help you avoid the challenges of constant turn over.

JP: One thing I find about this work is that a lot of it is quite ad hoc, which I think is a result of the American justice system itself being so disjointed. When we talk about working with the incarcerated, we might be talking about teaching in a jail, which has its differences from teaching in a prison, which has its differences from teaching within an alternative detention facility (like, say, an in-patient drug treatment facility or a community shelter that works with the courts, which are especially receptive to practices of restorative justice, in which this work fits). If you want to get involved, you can also work directly with a facility, with a nonprofit organization, with an institution of higher education, or a number of other entry points I’m not thinking of right now.

CC: I taught as part of a program that I thought (assumed?) was already well-established, but as others have noted, I still needed to find my allies, i.e. those people in both the correctional and academic institutions who believe in this work and were able to help me work around the many unanticipated barriers, obstacles and problems that seem to perpetually arise in this work. And read the rich resources that are already out there to help you contextualize this work.

BC: I think a new teacher needs to be mindful of the profound effect prison, even for short stints, can have on your overall well-being. I think the relationships you form with people who work and are incarcerated there can be incredibly satisfying— I’m certainly more aware of social justice issues and of my own privilege since I started this work, and have made so many lasting friendships. But there’s a cost, too— psychological and even physical, in terms of the stress that system is designed create. We are not entirely immune just because we can leave at the end of the day. That said, I would never discourage anyone. It’s the best work I do and has changed me as a teacher and a man.

“I teach creative writing courses to MA students who are incarcerated at a state penitentiary south of Houston. We’re a second-chance Pell Grant recipient, and the only university in the state of Texas that offers BA and MA degrees to incarcerated people. Thanks for noting how HARD it is to be alone.”

JP: Like Sarah says, perhaps the most important thing to do is to find a team to lean on. I’ve slowly built a team of educators at my facility at Rikers, but I also have a group of friends and fellow writers who are interested in the work I do, and I send them a periodic Mailchimp newsletter. I have an extensive Excel file of people and organizations to contact when I’m wondering how to handle a particular situation, or when I need to talk through something. I find most fellow educators are warm and empathic, but I also try to remember that the work is not about my own personal journey or whatever. That’s perhaps the element of the work that is the greatest salve to my intrinsic loneliness: Working together with other people, on behalf of people whose personal journeys are much more fraught than my own.

“The men I teach don’t have access to computers. What research methods can I ask them to use? How do you run a workshop using only handwritten drafts?”

JP: I do struggle with this as well. One perspective, though, is to look toward their release and emphasize to them how many words they’ll have written by then, that they will be able to read, revise, and/or develop then. It’s actually given me great pleasure to save the work of guys who work with me until their release, and then give it to them as a sort of graduation gift.

BC: My incarcerated students have never complained about re-copying whole essays in the revision process, not in my hearing at least. It’s but one more inconvenience in a world of little inconveniences. And they are SO committed to the work.

“Thoughts on the loss of physical books in favor of e-readers, especially in terms of what it means for the progress of inmate education and educational programs?”

SBS: I am upset about this. I think it will ultimately lead to less meaningful programming and offers another venue for corporations to make money by charging incarcerated scholars for e-books.

JP: While I agree with Sarah on principle, I will mention a recent development at Rikers that is working at the other end of my mind. Recently New York State entered into a partnership with a tech company to provide tablets to all incarcerated people. At first it seemed like a horrible crackdown on what they were allowed to read, as our governor instituted a pilot program at certain facilities whereby the people incarcerated in those facilities could no longer receive books in the mail and could only read selected titles made available on the tablets. Fortunately the public outcry was so loud that the pilot program was eliminated. Fast forward a few months, and the tablets are now at Rikers, with not just selected titles but software installed that allows the men and women incarcerated there to create, publish, and share content with other people on the facility (with, I must add, many limitations). My team is currently in contact with the rep of the tablet provider, and they are setting up a monthly newsletter for men in my facility to publish their work!

“What about teaching texts in the class by ex-prisoners who have become famous: [e.g.] Eldridge Cleaver, Ricardo Sánchez, [Jimmy] Santiago Baca?”

SBS: Yes! I do this a lot, and try to invite those writers to visit the class if at all possible. Would add to the list Dwayne Betts, Etheridge Knight, Angela Davis, Shanka Senghor, Wole Soyinka, James Kilgore. The letters of Mandela and King. I try to bring in a combination of work that literally and explicitly speaks to incarceration along with work that speaks to all the other human experiences we share: family, place, food, love, parenthood, spirituality, humor, etc., etc. Balance.

JP: I’ll just add that Sarah has edited an anthology that I use with my incarcerated students, Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration, which has many authors who have been incarcerated, including Baca, R. Dwayne Betts, and others. Sorry for the plug, but it really is a great, eminently teachable anthology.

CC: I am very in favor those who have been incarcerated speaking their own stories in their own voices, and teaching work by writers who’ve lived in prison gives currently incarcerated students real world models and that vital sense of community that so many of us find in authors who’ve lived lives similar to ours.

“Describe a time or situation when you failed ethically.”

BH: I’ve felt like I’ve failed my subjects by not properly preparing them for fact-check. I works for an investigative newsroom that is incredibly thorough. When I write about formerly incarcerated persons, I am asking them to share incredibly traumatic experiences. When I have to come back and ask them to “prove” those experiences, I run the risk of retraumatizing them. For years, my subjects have not been believed, and later, for a journalist to follow-up an interview about dates, paperwork, or other witnesses who can corroborate their experience can make them feel betrayed. Now, I am very upfront about our fact-checking process and try to prepare them for that experience as best I can.

SBS: We have a final reading at the end of each semester, in which our students present their best work for an audience of other incarcerated students, C.O.s, and other facility staff. We are required to approve what they’re going to read for these events. Early in my teaching, a student asked me if he could read something that he’d written since our last class. He was a great student, and I fully trusted that the work he wanted to read would be fine. I didn’t check it before he read. He ended up reading an incredibly graphic, vulgar piece about his work as a pimp, which included a passage about a woman who was shockingly similar to ME. The C.O.s in the room were very unhappy, and one of them ultimately made him stop. This put our whole program in jeopardy of being cancelled, made the incarcerated women in the audience incredibly uncomfortable (maybe even threatened), and damaged my standing as a teacher. It was a moment when it became very clear to me that my job was not only to give students agency in their own work, but to protect the program, and all the future students who might benefit from it. I had ethical obligations to the audience, as well.

JP: One of the first things nearly everyone tells you when you start this work is that you never ask anyone you with what they are being incarcerated for. If they volunteer the information, fine; but that is not for me to ask, any more than I would ask one of my college students to tell me about things they’ve done in their personal lives that they regret. When I started at Rikers, especially considering that it is a jail and the people with whom I work have not have been convicted of whatever they’re in for during the time I’m working with them, I decided that I would not base any of my interactions with them on their innocence or guilt of the crimes they are in for; I would simply interact with them in recognition of our shared humanity. After I’d been running my workshop for about four months, a man started coming regularly. After he’d been attending a couple of months, he told the workshop he’d been falsely accused of breaking and entering and sexual assault. After he’d shared this, he asked me if I knew what moral panic is. I told I was aware of the concept, mostly from reading Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics. He asked if he could read it, so I lent it to him. After reading it, he began speaking of himself as a folk devil, and if me as a Christ figure. On week on a whim, I decided to Google his name, and found out that he has a very extensive record of sex crimes, many against children the age of my own. After my initial shock, I realized that I could not be in the same room with him. I asked the CO working with me to stop calling him down for the workshop. He’s now been sentenced upstate, and still writes me letters I don’t respond to.

I’m still parsing out the ethics of his case, and where things went so horribly wrong. There is of course the violation of his privacy in looking him up, but a part of me is glad to have found that out about him. One might say I should have called him out more forcefully on his delusions, but I still wonder if it’s really my place to call people - people, not cases - on their delusions when I hold so many myself.I allowed myself to feel empathy for a fellow human, only to retract it when I found out the kind of human his record says he is. Like I say, I still don’t know exactly what to do with this.

BC: A few years ago, in a memoir class, I pushed a young incarcerated man to consider in revision the connection between failed art school interview (he had skipped it out of a fear of failure, motivated by a double-consciousness first described by DuBois) and the assault that landed him in prison, which occurred only hours later. When I arrived at the prison the next week, I learned he was in solitary confinement after committing a new assault on another incarcerated man the previous week. I couldn’t help but think my pushing him back into that crisis had led him to act out again.

“How do you ensure the safety of your students when they write their story? How do you ensure their safety when you write about them?”

BH: To retell a person’s experience in the criminal justice system is an incredible responsibility that I take very seriously. I have to establish trust. I have to do no harm. I am constantly checking in with subjects. I try to prepare them for their life and story to debut on a public stage. Open communication and transparency is key. Having heart is key. Making sure you are telling the story with care and nuance is key. Sometimes I think I am more worried about it than the subject.

SBS: I don’t know if I can ensure it, but I can definitely encourage students to consider questions of safety. I try to be explicit about the difference between and value of public and private writing. I want students to make a conscious choice to take something from a piece of private writing to a piece of public writing. Once a student decides to make something public, then you have questions of revision: what to keep, what to edit, how to frame, what to foreground. Revision has high stakes in these circumstances. My students are largely concerned with the families of their victims (a lot of my students have killed people). By the time they reach my class, they are profoundly aware of the consequences of their actions and don’t want their stories to re-victimize the loved ones of those they’ve killed. Other students, with less serious crimes, are much more concerned with questions of how the piece might impact their case, their parole, their life inside the facility. These are questions and concerns that I’m not that qualified to answer for them. After all, they are the experts about life inside a prison. I think my responsibility is to bring up the questions and give them class time to think/talk through the options.

“How do you cope with seeing the level of injustice that your students are suffering?”

BH: I had a really hard time with this and became a journalist as a result.

SBS: Institutionally, I push my university to support programs that work for justice, especially in their funding priorities. Personally, I try to bring in writing prompts for my students that allow them to articulate and explore their strength, hope, gratitude, and community. Not as a way to avoid the injustices that they’re suffering, but as a way to remember the strength and agency that they still have. Sometimes those things are very small, but identifying them and illuminating them through a poem or essay can be a miracle. I obsessively read writers like Victor Frankl, Angela Davis, and bell hooks, who are so hopeful, brilliant, inspiring, and powerful. And I give myself permission to compartmentalize the injustice and still do things like laugh, play, and celebrate my own life (see the answer on self-care.)

BC: Not to be flip, but how do we cope with the injustice we see around us every day OUTSIDE of prison? I am insulated from it by layers and layers and layers of privilege, so prison teaching is a way of forcing myself to confront issues of social justice and inequality. An incarcerated writer once wrote to me that he was strangely grateful to prison for forcing him to encounter and confront himself. Me, too.

“Has what you consider ‘ethical’ changed in response to a system that may itself not have your students’ best interests first? (Examples?)”

SBS: The system does not have students’ best interests in mind, but there will be individual people inside the system that do. Find those people. They are often social workers and clergy. Work with them. Follow their leads if they have been involved in the system longer than you have.

CC: I teach at a university heavily populated with first-generation college students in a somewhat poor county in my state, and I’ve always been sensitive about the cost of textbooks. In fact, I think it’s unethical to order books that I don’t use a lot or to order expensive texts when there are less expensive alternatives. When I understood with the Second Chance Pell Grant program that the university president was paying for my incarcerated students’ texts and the correctional institutions were allowing my students to keep all their books in their cells, I recognized an opportunity. I ordered big anthologies and books I wouldn’t necessarily spend class assignment time on. Why? Because the most ethical thing to do in that situation was to put valuable reading materials in the hands of men who needed and would read those books. The prison situation flipped my usual sense of what was right on its head in this case, and I don’t regret it.

“I was interested in the panel because I am constantly thinking of questions of ethics when it comes to teaching with students on the inside. Mainly questions of consent. It feels important to communicate about issues surrounding mass incarceration and its impacts and students on the inside are limited in how their stories are shared. Ideally, it would be great to help them shape and publish work. But when writing about it, I want to be careful about consent. I think about anonymity, about not wanting to "other" in any way that would cause further harm (both potentially to students and in perception of those on the outside). I teach with minors as well so that's a whole other thing. Mostly, I am curious to hear what you all talked about because these are questions I am very invested in thinking about how to handle responsibly and also use the storytelling tools I have to shed light on the ills of the system.”

SBS: These are issues I’m thinking about all the time, too, and I can only offer giving students opportunities to weigh the risks of telling their stories, risks of remaining silent, and risks of journalists “getting it wrong.” Taking time to imagine possibilities is a small way of making more informed decisions about how and why their stories should be told.

CC: I’ve determined that as a writer who isn’t a journalist, I can only tell my stories, but those stories are important. For example, how what I see/hear/experience as someone working on the inside but able to leave anytime has made me rethink my own privilege and naive opinions about issues surrounding incarceration. If I can help others like me see what I see, maybe more states will take Florida’s lead and restore voting privileges to former felons or make even greater strides toward genuine reformation and restoration of lives to people who have “done their time.”

“Another thing that isn't explicitly about teaching writing with incarcerated students but that is an issue is there seems to be a real dearth of programs for people reentering. I think in part some folks find it exciting to teach inside carceral space but there's such a need for community and artistic expression when people get out. I'm wondering if folks know about successful programs/funding for both adults and minors reentering community.”

SBS: Project Rebound, which works in many of the schools in the California State university system, does great work:

Education Justice Project, which is run by Rebecca Ginsberg, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, works to get the students who are taking classes on the inside to finish their degrees at the University of Illinois when they are released:

Our program offers a fellowship program called the Maenad Fellowship to women who have been impacted by substance abuse and/or incarceration. We pay for child-care, transportation, and offer a stipend when people complete the 12-week creative writing class on Chatham’s campus:

What I’ve learned about re-entry programs is that the greatest obstacle to participation are the mundane, everyday things like inflexible work schedules, lack of permanent housing, childcare, and transportation. If programs are interested in working with those who are re-entering communities, we absolutely must find ways to eliminate those obstacles by finding spaces like public libraries that are located on bus lines; in making childcare, transportation, and stipends a priority when writing grants to fund the program; and by making sure you have the legal ability to stay in touch with people once they’ve graduated or participated in an “inside” class. Community partnerships will be crucial. Who are the organizations who are already doing this work? How can you partner with them, hear what wisdom they have, and help them to serve their clients/constituents with writing skills?

JP: I honestly can’t conceive doing this work without considering successful re-entry of the people I work with as the primary goal. This was something I didn’t really foresee when I deciding I wanted to work with the incarcerated, but once I grasped that responsibility as part of this work I also realized the deep and wide community of educators and advocates working toward this end. The New York Re-Entry Education Network (NYREN), in particular, has been foundational in linking me to librarians, agencies, employers, and many other entities in the variegated ad hoc community in support of people who’ve suffered under and are recovering from our system of justice.

CC: Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop in Denver has a free writing workshop specifically for people in transition from incarceration. It’s called Writing to Be Free, and this, and other free community workshops is a great model for ways writing can be integral to re-entry.

“As a paralegal, so much of my writing in regards to offenders is either on their behalf or directly in contact with them. We had a client who was a writer, and his manuscript was used in trial as evidence against him (some similarities between the offense and the story’s plot). In these in-prison writing programs, is this a sort of risk that the inmates take? Are they aware that this is a risk? How do you navigate explaining this while also encouraging your students to write?”

SBS: My students seem very aware that this is a risk. I re-assert that risk, but also give people the room to make a decision for themselves. Some of them also know that they’re going to be in prison a long time; I have many students who are serving life-without-possibility-of-parole, so the risks are different for each student.

“Is it possibly cruel and/or frustrating for inmates for them to get just a small taste of education in prison-teaching programs when they most likely will not continue their education? How does a teacher in a prison education program handle the sense that it may be useless in helping people with basic re-entry elements such as housing and employment?”

SBS: I think we talked about this at the panel, but my best antidote for feeling helpless and useless is to be a part of a community of people who are working on these issues. As a prison educator, try to become part of a wider community of people who are working on different parts of the mass incarceration problem. There are no doubt people in your community who are working on housing, employment, parenting, public health, etc, etc. The more you know about the resources available in your community, the more you can refer people to those resources which gives you the ability to focus on the work you’re an expert in: writing instruction. We are up against a massive system. We can do our small part, support those near us doing their part, and avoid burn-out by leaning on the community.

“Writing about the men in the 3rd person feels unethical. Help?”

BH: I am coming at this question not as an educator, but as a journalist. I obviously am constantly writing in the 3rd person. My newsroom does offer first-person essays to anyone who has a story to tell, but often times, I find that subjects would rather tell you the experience and have it shaped in a way that feels professional and true. Sometimes the writing and editing and and work it takes to shape a story can be frustrating and overwhelming for folks. They know they want their story out there, and they’d rather a professional do the work to capture it in a way that audiences will engage with.

I tell my students that I’m a writer, and that recently I’ve been writing about the work of teaching in prisons. I am transparent that as a writer their jobs will be to observe the world, witness, document, reflect, articulate insights. I have to practice what I preach, I have to bear witness to the world I’m travelling in and out of. Being transparent helps my ethical questions.

“How can your colleagues not suited for this work best support you in this work?”

SBS: Great question! By letting other professors in the university know that it’s happening--supporting the project in casual conversations with colleagues rather than making dismissive remarks. By referring graduate students who might be interested in working with these programs to us. By enthusiastically and publicly celebrating our work in faculty meetings. By doing research on mass incarceration. By making issues of race, class, and mass incarceration central in your own writing and scholarship. By considering how your field, research, or personal work intersects with mass incarceration. By finding out what your school’s policy is on accepting formerly incarcerated students, and if there are limitations on hiring formerly incarcerated people as faculty and staff in all areas of the university. After finding out what your school’s policy is, advocate to “ban the box” in your admissions and hiring policies.

By voicing your support of the program to us privately. By asking us if we could use any supplies, books, or resources for our prison classrooms. By simply writing us a nice note that voices your support for our program. Believe me, knowing that there are people who personally support you will be tremendously helpful. We are so often anxious that no one else thinks this work is worthwhile. Respecting this work as service when reviewing us for tenure and promotion.

CC: Oh yes. Everything Sarah said.

“What are you self-care practices for doing this work for a longer haul?”

SBS: Community, community, community. You have to be friends with people who can let you vent, cry, scream, and be frustrated with the work. You have to have people in your life who you can be honest with when you want to quit. You need at least one person on your faculty who is in total support of the program who can advocate for you when you are too tired. And you have to take semesters off. In order to keep a program going AND take semesters off, you need a team. Build that team, build your community. Rely on them. Also, give yourself permission to have fun. You’re allowed to jump on trampolines, get drunk, go on vacation, and make out at Salsa Night. Do these things. Your incarcerated students want you to.


John Proctor’s work has been published in The Weeklings, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and the forthcoming anthology of work on the rhetoric of suffering, Beyond Pain (Routledge). He is a lecturer of writing and media studies at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island.

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and Co-Founder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers in Pittsburgh, PA. The program is run through Chatham University's MFA in Creative Writing program, where she is Assistant Professor of English. She co-edited the literary anthology Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence and Incarceration, which includes a companion workbook for educators who teach writing in alternative spaces. Her essays about mass incarceration have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Baltimore Review, Proximity, and elsewhere.

Chauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her work has been honored as Notables in both Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is currently Creative Nonfiction Editor of Atticus Review and teaches incarcerated students in the Second Chance Pell Program.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing at the Allegheny County Jail. In 2017 she wrote a ten-part series -- “Voices Unlocked” -- exploring how the U.S. penal system has shaped identity and life of Pittsburgh residents. She has also covered stories on drug addiction, race, development and motherhood.

Bob Cowser’s most recent book GREEN FIELDS: CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND A BOYHOOD BETWEEN won "Best Memoir 2010" from the Adirondack Center for Writers. He is Professor of English at St. Lawrence

Monday, November 5, 2018

24 Words in a Day: Frequencies from June 21, 2018*

In descending order of frequency, as analyzed by Dorian Rolston in the collected posts on our What Happened on June 21, 2018 project:
  1. Day (902)
  2. Time (694)
  3. Home (467)
  4. Work (436)
  5. People (375)
  6. Water (303)
  7. Bed (297)
  8. Morning (290)
  9. Husband (284)
  10. Room (279)
  11. Things (275)
  12. Car (272)
  13. Night (268)
  14. Friend (257)
  15. Dog (248)
  16. Summer (248)
  17. Life (246)
  18. Walk (242)
  19. Man (220)
  20. Book (209)
  21. Phone (202)
  22. Children (197)
  23. Head (194)
  24. Coffee (186)
* Compiled by a very amateur corpus linguist in AntConc, a free software he later learned is simply called “freeware.” Any errors owing to his being a complete novice, the list was lightly edited for content: no non-nouns (even pronouns, sorry “I (12,549)”), no repitions and reprisals (for instance, “Something (321)” was cut in favor of its more expressive—because at once more materialistic and vague—cousin), no mere thing-nouns where the greater idea-noun subsumes them (hence, “House (283)” dropped), no specific instances that don’t add anything to the general category (as in “Years (286)” and “Minutes (206)”). And with apologies to “Mother (175),” who should’ve been thanked way more frequently—on this day and every other.

What do you make of this? Let us know in the comments or via twitter.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Craig Reinbold: Is this shit racist?

This has been bothering me for so long, this weirdness around the word CHOCOLATE, adj. “having the color of chocolate; dark-brown.”


When I was a kid, 8th grade—so, like, 13?—I was at a school function, or a game, or something. It was late, dark, wrapping up, and for whatever reason I was standing around outside next to a 6th grader, and because my little sister was also in the 6th grade, and because I was full-on a big brother, or whatever, I have no idea really, I asked this kid if he knew her, and then I asked, So, what do you think of her? And he replied, I know her, but I don’t like her. And I asked, Well, why not? And he said, Because she’s chocolate and I don’t like chocolate girls. 

We're both from Wisconsin, my sister and I, truly, we're both from here, but she was born in Kolkatta, formerly Calcutta. I'm white. She's brown. Not that either of those is a great descriptor of what our skin actually looks like, but the point is, that kid said this to me not knowing I was her brother. 

I picked him up—I was relatively big and he was small—and sort of threw/pushed him into a nearby parked car. 

Then the principal’s husband, who also worked at the school, appeared and pulled us apart and asked why I was so upset, almost in tears, which is how I get when I’m legit upset. I told him, and he asked if I wanted to call in his wife, the principal, but I didn't want to embarrass my sister, so I just said, No, let’s just forget it. Never happened. 

Except, obviously, I’ve never forgotten about it. I realize, too, there’s a good chance that 6th grader hasn’t forgotten either. 


I was in my early 20s, in Brazil, playing a lot of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art, and one of the regulars at the gym introduced himself to me as Chocolate (pronounced shaw-co-lotch-ee). Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil for a long time, and so practitioners adopted nicknames, and this tradition has been kept up. And he had super dark skin. And he went by the name Chocolate. This was sort of stunning to me, but I went with it. I wasn’t from there after all, and Brazilian culture is not Wisconsin culture. Also, this was his name. This was how he identified himself, which seemed important. 


I was in my early 30s, teaching a CNF workshop. This was not a super diverse class, and some of our conversations were uncomfortable, at least for me. We had just finished talking about “Illumination Rounds,” an essay excerpt from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which was written from his time as a Vietnam War correspondent for Esquire. So, Herr was writing for a big, well-reputed, national magazine, and yet in the essay he constantly refers to black soldiers as “spades.” One of the students asked what a “spade” was. They asked if it was racist. I had them Google it, and the consensus was, yeah, it’s pretty racist. 

Should we be reading this stuff? If it’s racist? Even if it’s fucking canonized in The Best American Essays of the Century

In the end, the class decided, Herr, whatever, maybe that language was acceptable then, and the essay is still really good, so we’ll go with it, that’s fine. It’s worth reading. But, a writer trying to be taken seriously today probably shouldn’t follow suit. 

I hit home, too, that for a writer these questions come up all the time. Ultimately, we need to answer them for ourselves. 

That was that. A pretty good conversation, actually, I thought. 

Then a few days later one of my students emailed out his essay to be workshopped the next week, and in the essay he wrote about going to a local park known to be a hangout for a lot of homeless youth, and I think the essay was about how much he enjoyed getting off campus and spending time getting high with real people. There was a drum circle, or a guitar circle, or maybe they were just passing a joint around in a circle (?), but at one point, in the essay, he referred to the guy sitting next to him, and this guy’s chocolate smile. 

We went through the essay, everyone was positive, as students tend to be in undergrad writing workshops, and no one mentioned this chocolate smile thing, so when all was done, I said something like, There is this one point in the essay I think we should talk about… After I mentioned it, a few others acknowledged that, yeah, it had made them uncomfortable, too. 

I made a point of acknowledging why it bothered me—I told them about that 6th-grader calling my sister chocolate when we were kids. But it's complicated, and I also told them about Chocolate, the guy I trained with in Brazil. I acknowledged our own experiences may shape our opinions about this. I knew what I thought, but I wanted to keep it ambivalent and let the students in the class figure their ideas out for themselves. 

This student responded by saying he had figured it out, had answered the question for himself Herr-style. He’d thought about it and had used that word intentionally. He was writing life the way it is. We’re all colors, he said, and asked if I would be bothered by him using vanilla to describe himself. 

I left it to the class. Everyone shrugged. And he stuck with chocolate smile


More recently, chocolate has turned up in a couple different books, and this didn't really bother me, but it did stand out. 

I neglected to note the page number, apologies, but at some point in Joe Ide’s novel IQ he describes a black character as chocolate. Joe Ide is Japanese-American, I think. But he grew up in South Central L.A. And I think in the book it’s a black character describing another black character. Does that make a difference? It didn’t really strike me as problematic…

Not problematic at all, for me, on page 10 of A Burst of Light Audre Lorde writes with all families, we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk.

There must be other examples, too. Got one? 


Is it a matter of speaking across ethnicities, or races? Or speaking, essentially, of oneself? Am I just hesitant to speak outside my own firsthand experience? But as writers don’t we do that all the time?

With this on my mind, I recently realized I actually made a similar move in an old essay, which was thoroughly workshopped, and published, and no one ever said anything: I described some Cali boys as having “skin tanned the color of caramel.” Granted, I wasn't calling those guys caramel. I was just describing the color of their skin. 

But, wait, isn't that what my student was doing?

But, wait, wait, caramel doesn't carry the same freight as chocolate, does it? The history of oppression and racism behind that 6th-grader declaring I don't like chocolate girls is not the same as the admiration we've been taught to feel for those white Calis and their righteously tanned, surfer skin, right? 

It's different. Or no? 

It’s complicated. I don’t know. 

Would I still be thinking about this, 25 some years on, if that kid had just said, Oh yeah, I do like her. I totally like... 

I’m cashed.

Thoughts? Insight? Help? Anyone?

Craig Reinbold is an ER nurse in a Milwaukee-area hospital, and was once the managing editor of Essay Daily. He really would like to hear what you think: @craigreinbold

Monday, October 15, 2018

Eliza Smith: The Wound or the Essayist

One Saturday night, nearly two-thirds through my time in the MFA and thinking always of my thesis—a collection of essays with a heavy emphasis on loss and grief—I open a new document and start to recall, image by image, my childhood with a chronically ill father. I’ve been attempting essay revisions, and I keep thinking about how my readers asked to see more of the child narrator, how she coped with her father dying. They found it charming that she brought her father’s lung x-rays to show and tell; more details like that, please.

So, I lay into my keyboard, transcribing these moments that live in my memory: begging my family to join me in the basement when the tornado sirens sounded off, fearing for their deaths; drawing a picture of my father being eaten by a T. rex, a recurring nightmare after watching Jurassic Park. I write about teaching my first-grade class how to sign a song to celebrate Earth Day (my father wanted me to learn ASL so we could still communicate when he could no longer speak). The time I twisted my ankle in the hospital waiting room. Holding his hand while a machine suctioned the mucus from his lungs—everyone else left, none of the adults could bear it, the way his body shook. Children are odd creatures. I write about how special I felt, to be the girl whose dad was dying. Special status. Grief girl.

I have always been Grief Girl.

The man who would be my husband was so in awe when I told him my life story, that I had lived through so much pain. And I loved this. I loved that I had a big story. I loved that I could retell it in a way that made people lean in. And I didn’t even have that big of a story yet. All I had was Dead Dad. Also Estranged Birth Father. Also My Parents Got Divorced Because I Caught My Dad Cheating and Told My Mom—that one was a crowd-pleaser, I held it back for special occasions. There was also Found My Granddad Dead When I was Five and Favorite Uncle Died of HIV/AIDS Ten Years Later. I didn’t even have the other stories yet, the stories my husband would give me: Miscarriage story, Married at Nineteen and Divorced by Twenty story.

What comes first: the wound or the essayist?


My writer friend and I like to refer to ourselves—ironically and enthusiastically—as “wound dwellers.” We picked up the phrase from Leslie Jamison, who writes about a boyfriend referring to her as such. In her final essay in The Empathy Exams, she examines the trope of wounded women, the attractiveness and danger of writing about pain: “What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by.”

They summon sympathy.

They bleed enough light to write by.

But then, the danger: “The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation.”

Does my insistence on wound-dwelling play into a patriarchal agenda? In recreating pain on the page and then lingering there, am I perpetuating a damaging stereotype—like calling to like?

Maybe so. But suppressing pain never got me far, either.


In a forms seminar on the lyric essay, I’m one of few essayists in a group of fiction writers and poets. Their particular hesitations with the form intrigue and amuse me. They are concerned with the possibilities of manipulation within white space, an unease triggered by a line from Eula Biss in Seneca Review: “I am suspicious of gaps, of silences, of contradictions because I know how easily they hide unfinished thinking and insufficient research.”

I care far more for the first part of that quote: “Holes in an essay, I tell my students, flaws in the logic, contradictions, unanswered questions, loose associations may all be necessary because of what they ultimately make possible.” I don’t try to talk my peers out of their anxieties about truth and veracity; I’ve learned these are boundaries we create on our own, over time.

The conversations that leave me spiraling are the ones about wounds. In her craft essay on found forms, a relative of the lyric essay, Chelsea Biondolillo recounts a student asking if “'these kinds of essays' have to be sad or traumatic,” to which she admits to the reader, “I wondered myself about the intrinsic sadness of the essays I’d found.”

But as she moves through her own essay, Biondolillo recognizes wound-holding as an allowance of the form, rather than a prerequisite: “The wound needs to be protected, these essays seem to imply, with something hard and calcareous. Something spiny, perhaps, or even pearled. Something you might want to pick up, even if it is chipped.”

In this case, the wound doesn’t manifest in an essay—the essay allows for the wound to exist.


The Trauma Olympics. It’s a phrase that moves through nonfiction circles, or perhaps specifically MFA nonfiction circles. Maybe we’re still new enough writers to feel self-conscious about our subject matter, or maybe that self-consciousness never goes away. In an act of self-deprecation and -preservation, we throw around this phrase and laugh. Death, chronic illness, sexual assault, mental health, inherited trauma, abandonment—we hand out invisible medals that mean you can write about this thing.

By my math, I score extra points for the miscarriage because I was eighteen when it happened, but it was also a decade ago, so the shininess is starting to wear off. Good timing, then, when my sixty-year-old mother starts experiencing symptoms of an unidentified dementia. Now I can entwine the loss of a would-be daughter with experiencing the loss of my mother as a daughter. It’s almost unfair, how many trauma points I get for this.

To be valued for one’s wounds means one must stay wounded, forever, to be valued.

My therapist asks why I refuse to let go of my grief and I say, “Maybe after I finish writing my book.”


In our seminar, we delight in how Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts communicates joy; it’s the first work we’ve read with a positive emotion as its driving force. That it’s taken us several weeks to get to joy makes sense: sources of sadness lend themselves to the essay, to all forms of narrative—the tension between failure and conquering, loss and gain, the arc of overcoming.

Of her partner, Nelson writes: “What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.”

When I read this line, I feel my body relax. I imagine Nelson suspended, if only temporarily, above hurt. Without question, she has and continues to experience grief, but this moment of joy exists forever, and I am grateful for it.

I try to think up conduits of joy that might be emphasized in my collection and scribble them at the top of my notes during our discussion: womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty. They all feel like a stretch, too abstract to mean anything.

When my former professor visits campus for a weekend workshop, she asks what I’m thinking about, and I explain my fears that I’m writing a joyless book. Later, when we read over my essay draft—about my estranged birth father, and his sister who died at twenty-seven—my former professor shares a grief-laden scene she’s working on. “I don’t write many things that are happy,” she says. “But I can write beauty, and I hope that’s enough.”


For our seminar and an independent study, I read the following book-length, lyric narratives:

A Bestiary by Lily Hoang
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz
Micrograms by Nicole Walker
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
Ongoingness and The Guardians by Sarah Manguso
Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno
The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco
Afterglow by Eileen Myles
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
When the World Breaks Open by Seema Reza
The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman
How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman

As a class, we also read the following lyric essays:

“Too Many Spirits Who Begged to Be Let In” by Jenny Boully
“Autopsy Report” by Lia Purpura
“Shoulder” by Honor Moore
“Thoughts on My DNA Results” by Tyrese Coleman
“The Professor of Longing” by Jill Talbot
“A Brief History of Her Pain” by Jen Soriano
“Self-Portrait with Parts Missing and/or Smeared” by Michael Wasson
“Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary” by Danielle Geller
“Pain Scale Treaties” by Laura Da’
“Part One: Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series” by Tiffany Midge

We’re midway through the semester before I realize we’re reading lyric work nearly entirely by women. (John D’Agata, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore are on the syllabus, but with craft essays.)

Compiling a list of lyric books by men takes more effort than I expect. When I ask devoted readers of nonfiction for recent titles, they think silently before finally offering one, maybe two. Eventually, we come up with the following:

The Face by Chris Abani
The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke
Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto
About a Mountain by John D’Agata
Feverland and Happy by Alex Lemon
Brilliant Imperfection by Eli Clare

Why is it so difficult to find men writing lyric books, lyric essays? Do they sense the wounds inherent in the form? Do they refuse to be wounded, publicly?


After my first reading among my peers, during which I read a lyric piece about my miscarriage and brief marriage, a friend asked if I planned to publish the essay.

“It was so, so good,” she said. “Or maybe it was just the public performance of vulnerability.”

I trust this friend, and her comment was genuine: it was a moment of deep vulnerability. For years, I kept that period of my life secreted away. I couldn’t write about it—at least not well—until I found the lyric essay. As Biss wrote, white space allows for gaps in logic and research, but sometimes those gaps are necessary to create narrative from experiences too painful to recount otherwise.

Still, my friend’s comment pressed on my persistent fear: that my work will be valued for the depth of its wounds, rather than the craft that conveys those wounds.

When I meet with a writer and she asks about my thesis, I find myself revealing more and more about my past with each follow-up question. (She writes fiction; when we talk about her manuscript, we don’t speak of her life.) Because she is kind—because I have divulged a litany of losses while sitting on her floor, playing with her baby—she expresses sympathy, and I feel compelled to refuse it. This isn’t the wound I’m talking about, I’d like to say. It’s the work.


Twice during my time in an MFA program, I’ve been audience to men speaking mockingly of writing about the self. (I should clarify that both were guests; one of the two had a significant platform.) These conversations are rote and uninspiring, inevitably leading to the insinuation that personal essays fall into the lowest category of writing: that which is therapeutic.

I would like to invite these men to witness the toll that writing about grief and trauma often takes on me. To sit in one’s pain for several hours a day over an extended period of time is no joyride; if it is therapeutic to come to the end of an essay or poem or story that involves the act of wound-dwelling, why would we ever begrudge the writer that temporary relief?

No one is making me write this collection. I often fantasize about the next project, which might mine less of my personal narrative—how much more work could I get done, I think, without those necessary, restorative days away?

Recently, though, I published a lyric essay about my young miscarriage and the ensuing fallout, and women reached out to me. Some offered similar stories; others simply acknowledged the wound. For once, I recognized the piece as both: a spiny and calcareous thing, craft and life, work and wound. Each of these women lifted me for a moment, holding me in a space that felt a lot like joy.


In her lyric book Tender Points, which recounts sexual trauma and the external disbelief of that trauma, Amy Berkowitz discusses the idea of “straight masculine prose.” She turns to the reader early on in the book and lets them know why she’s selected this stripped-down syntax: “That’s why I so firmly want prose here. Sentences. Periods. Male certainty. These are facts. No female vocal fry. No uptalk. No question about what I tell you.”

Berkowitz’s prose breaks down when she approaches the memory of the rape, her lines dismantling until they appear more like poetry. David Shields wrote in Reality Hunger that prose starts to naturally fragment when approaching difficult or traumatic topics, but how does that account for intentionality?

To say that prose “just fragments” when approaching trauma seems to insinuate that the writer couldn’t “maintain” the straight, masculine prose—that her feelings, and thus her lines, got away from her. The assertion echoes the idea of wound-dwelling as reflex, something that writers—women writers, wound-dwellers—have no authorial control over.

I want to say there’s another reason: that straight, masculine prose was the thing that couldn’t contain Berkowitz’s experience. So, she created her own form, that could.


When I write joy, it’s centered around my nieces. My mother had two daughters—my sister first, then me—but my sister moved away to live with her father when I was five. I felt, in many ways, like an only child.

Now my sister has two daughters, raised under the same roof. Full sisters, there’s no question of their connection. My sister sends photos of them entwined on the couch together, playing tag together, taking baths together, screaming together. They are teaching me about sisterhood; they are showing me what I’ll never have. (And yet—when I write of my nieces, I write of joy.)

Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors contains joy. As does, I think, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. I love these books, but it troubles me that both are written by new mothers, both centered around children. Surely there are other things over which to express joy?

Or perhaps what I mean to say: surely there are other things over which I can express joy, in my own work.

Womanhood, matriarchy, family loyalty.

I’m still compiling a list.


Eliza Smith lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in The Offing, The Pinch, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.

Monday, October 1, 2018

That’s Crazy: Why Nonfiction is Not Therapy

Recently I taught a nonfiction workshop that was the unique blend of curious writers, quirky personalities, and pure happenstance that can only be called (somewhat hyperbolically) magic. We geeked out on the essay, delving into craft and reading powerhouse sentences out loud. We took risks, experimented, tried our hands at flash and graphic narrative, at one-sentence essays, at the hermit crab essay, literary journalism. Some of the work was good, some was not. And some was stellar, leaving us a bit breathless in the workshop circle, students muttering “damn” while shaking their heads. We started arriving early, talking about essays and craft before class, but also music and anime and birds. More than one students had work accepted for publication before the semester’s end.

Midway through the semester, several students started saying, “This class is like a therapy session.”

Sure, many students wrote about mental health and trauma and poverty and relationships and illness, but this was not what they meant when they said our class was therapeutic. The class was not capable of curing or healing the trauma about which they wrote. And many did not write about trauma or pain at all, instead wrote delightful, quirky pieces about videogames or military service or collecting feathers or long-distance running. And still, these students and much of our class felt the workshop was something restorative.


This same semester someone asked if I would work with a writer who wasn’t interested in craft.

“She already has a story—she’s lived quite the life.”

This was not the first time I’d heard this, but the implication that anyone who has lived a terrible or terribly exciting life is guaranteed a narrative by way of experience is how we’ve gotten to the point where every minor celebrity has a poorly ghost-written memoir and some writers feel the need to fabricate extravagant events in order to sell a book. This is also the reason I have to remind students (and sometimes myself) that nonfiction is not always about tragedy or narrow escape or the worst/best day ever. Some of the best nonfiction is about observing, delighting in the mundane, relearning what we thought we knew.

More troubling, however, this notion implies that writing about trauma is somehow devoid of craft, removed from the intellectual rigor of the essay. Readers scoff at “confessional” writing as though one cannot write with ferocity and humor and insight about real human hurts. The suggestion also diminishes the trauma itself, focusing on its shock value and unbelievability, and thereby implying that narrative and narrator are somehow separate, that suffering is merely anecdote or legend rather than the author’s life.

The conversation progressed. “She doesn’t want to focus on craft. She really just needs an audience. The workshop will be like therapy.”

The cliché that personal writing—the memoir, the personal essay, nonfiction as a genre—is somehow able to heal is as exhausting as it is incorrect. Writing is labor-intensive, arduous. The ultimate in confusion, writing asks us to sequester ourselves in order to write for an audience we are too busy to ever spend time with. And though some describe writing as a kind of catharsis, writing nonfiction often seems the opposite of restorative, for the best nonfiction asks us to render our flawed selves on the page, question our motives and even memories. To dissect. In fact, writing nonfiction willingly invites paranoia about truth, that troublesome concept that has become obfuscated lately. Writing nonfiction requires great risk, tossing ego aside, inviting (self)criticism. Nonfiction writers try to weave the minutiae of their lives with the greatest threads of humanity, hoping like hell they end up with a braid, though more often the result is a knot. The goal is complexity, contradiction. Nonfiction often resists resolution entirely, instead a search in order to get lost, to not-know. Writing nonfiction is not therapeutic—it is maddening.

I don’t remember how I ended the conversation, which included soundbites like, “She’s an adult, so has more to say than kids in their twenties,” but I do remember when the talk turned to my own forthcoming book, which is, ironically enough, a nonfiction book about—among other things, I hope—therapy.

“You must know how good it feels to write without the pressure of an audience. To just get it out.”

That we writers of nonfiction are desperate for an audience yet gloriously unconcerned with how our words will impact readers is the reason nonfiction and nonfiction writers are sometimes called vain, navel-gazing, indulgent. But we are not—or should not be—solipsistic. Creative writing asks writers to read extensively, become literary critics, consider social and historical contexts, synthesize texts and ideas, research physics or phlebotomy (given the project), and become architects, weavers, engineers not simply of sentences, but entire worlds.

Writers of nonfiction—including students, who astound me with their nimble, wonderfully strange, tender and tenacious brains—are philosophers and sorcerers of text and testimony. And while they sometimes write about themselves—nonfiction can also be about bees and origami and blood platelets, the writer absent from focus—they always write with audience in mind. We labor over a scene so readers can imagine themselves there, fret over the way a line will sound on a reader’s lips, hope, desperately so, that readers will apply the particulars of our pasts to themselves, to the world.


In my early twenties I began to see and hear things, thought my body was rotting from inside, experienced dozens of daily panic attacks that left me unable to eat or leave my home, walked the slick edge of panic as though a tightrope, certain that hurt was my destiny. I saw asteroids and ghosts, lost feeling in my limbs, grew afraid of my own breath, ragged as a claw. I was surrounded by death, but therapy gave me back my life.

I wrote about this experience in Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, a book that I hope shares the difficulties of living with anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, while also examining the cruel history of treatment of mental illness patients in the United States and interrogating cultural attitudes about mental health.

Writing this book was hard—I had to relive terrifying moments, try to capture on the page what had been so wild in my mind, render myself vulnerable when much of my professional life had been about concealing this. I had to research, laboriously, doubt this research, navigate the anxiety that comes from thinking I had gotten something wrong and everyone would know and judge me and then I’d die in a ball of fiery hate flame hurled from the heavens (because that’s how the anxious mind catastrophizes). I wrote linearly and then chopped up time because that is how it was in my memory. I tried to make beautiful sentences about things that were ugly. I sat, day after day, month after month with myself and the lives and histories of so many other patients who have been told by our nation that they are wrong, bad, crazy, mad.

I had certainly “lived a life,” but this would not excuse poor craft. If anything, I felt increased pressure to get the story right, lest mental illness be blamed. I did not write for myself—I wanted to reach others who had felt bruised, broken. The writing was not medicinal—each day was a reckoning. I was alone, no trained professional helping me to seek clarity. Often I felt worse after writing, from the pressure of the task and each painful memory.

And while I gained clarity in the narrative—number of chapters, point of view, scaffolding, cadence—I did not necessarily gain clarity in my life. Writing did not cure my anxiety—if anything, the process increased it. I am proud of the book I have produced and the narrative it contains, but the ongoing narrative of my life has not been helped by the act of writing. My mental illness was not cured by writing about it. In fact, the months leading up to the book’s publication were some of the most mentally challenging I’ve experienced.

As much as likening personal writing to therapy contributes to the false narrative that personal writing is easy, soft, nonintellectual, the comparison also implies mental illness or trauma or violence or pain or grief or any of the reasons hurting humans seek therapy are an easy fix, a quick solution rather than a lifetime of painful negations. This comparison minimizes the real, active work of both nonfiction writing and therapy. As much as I am exhausted by the notion that nonfiction writing is an effortless kind of narcissism, I am also tired of the comparison that therapy is the same, for it too is reduced by the comparison. The comparison of nonfiction writing and therapy is one that seeks to misrepresent, and by doing so devalue the very difficult work of both.

I am fortunate that I found a wonderful therapist who provided me the tools I need to manage my mental illness even after her care. Sure, my experience with therapy can be compared to nonfiction in superficial ways—I mined the past, going down into darkness searching for a glint of understanding. I sought to piece together a cohesive narrative. I spoke stories from the privilege of present perspective. I used the essayist’s tools of circling my subject from many angles, using digression, saying, “I remember,” or “I can’t recall.” I revised. And I had scenes, metaphors, images—ice like glass caught in my throat, the sinewy muscles of a body that’s spent a lifetime prepped for pain, a fist cracking blossom onto my ribcage, the way someone whispering, “Why do you make me hurt you?” feels like blue, like ocean gone cruel, like stars turned to shards.

But therapy was hard in ways that writing is not. There are many things I could list here, but the most important is that no matter how I’ve worked, day after day, the narrative of my mental illness is never finished. “Butt in chair,” I say to creative writing students, to myself. “Just write the damn thing.” But I will not—I cannot—conclude therapy the way I do an essay and send it out for publication’s seal of approval. I rid myself of a subject—starfish, prairie grass—upon writing, but I will never be rid of mental illness.

What strikes me most about the comparison between nonfiction writing and therapy is that people do not make the comparison to be accurate. They make it to be dismissive. They make it to be cruel.

I did not go to therapy for an audience. I did it for myself. I did not go to therapy because I had “lived quite the life”; I went to therapy because I wanted a life at all.


All semester my students wrote and said, “This class is like a therapy session,” even though there was no trained professional across the room—while my PhD claims I am trained, most days I am shouting, “More carnival research! More clowns!” or wielding a pair of scissors and crying out, “Tetris this essay into cohesion!” Still, I knew what they meant, for that semester our class was the only thing I enjoyed.

Likening nonfiction to therapy is a poor comparison because unlike a writing assignment, the things for which people seek therapy often do not conclude. Over the years, my mental illness has changed, clever shapeshifter, keeping me on my toes—or rather, on my knees—just when I think I’ve learned to manage. While anxiety is an old friend, obsessive compulsive disorder is a new acquaintance.

That semester my OCD meant I could not look in a mirror because my face was sliding asymmetrical, was changing without me, a ghost or a demon whose imperfect reminder that nothing is permanent, that everything falls apart, I could not bear. I saw uneven surfaces, cracks, and carpet seams, and longed to flee spaces because they were wrong. Everything was wrong.

I counted steps when I walked, my throat catching when flights of stairs were not equal in number. Numbers mattered—palindromes for microwaving, for waiting for poison to leave a pipe before filling a water glass, for drinking water or washing my hands.

Nothing was clean. When people talked to me, I saw the way their skin was thick with germs, with filth, with contaminant. I did not want to be touched, no hugs or handshakes. I could not stand others in my office or home, where they scratched their heads and sneezed, sloughed off hair and skin onto the floor and furniture. Even I was filthy and so I used Lysol on my shoes, my purses, even my hands in a few fits of panic. I changed immediately each time I returned to the clean, safe space of my home.

Soon I clapped and cleared my throat, nervous tics, shaking my head side to side to be free of the thoughts that came sharp and fast, and that I could not be rid of no matter how hard I tried to rewrite or revise my life. I could not stand cracking bodies or fingernails, which made me sick, teeth, too, stabbing through the soft, smooth gums, shifting and staining and never lining up right right. Nothing was right. My hands shook when I looked at them and I licked and licked my teeth, pressed my tongue hard against them to keep from screaming until they, too, were shaking.

That semester I counted to remind myself to breathe and then I came home where I counted down until bedtime, hoping in sleep I would not count, though I clenched my teeth so hard I wore holes through my mouthguard. It didn’t matter if I was awake or asleep—everything tasted of blood.

I could not write, but if I could it would not have made me feel better.

During our nonfiction workshop, however, I did not have a decaying body. I did not see germs. I did not count. I did not have to try to remember to breathe. There was indeed something about the experience that distracted me, gave me purpose.

What I’ve learned through the process of experiencing mental illness, researching it for Quite Mad, and teaching bright, bold students who sometimes open up to me about their struggles is that mental illness is on the rise, especially for young people. Ours is a world where students fear school shootings and sexual assault and unemployment and staggering loans and poverty, the very real factors that lead to mental health struggles. A world where people believe “adults” have more to say, more to write, than “kids” in their twenties. An existence where the social and political world shifts beneath us. We are witness to a world where the unreal, the crazy, the mad, have suddenly become reality.

When my students said the workshop felt like therapy, they did not mean to say it was soft or easy or vain the way many who wield the comparison would argue. No, I believe what students valued when they arrived early and stayed late, wrote drafts far exceeding the required length, wrote essays that weren’t even assigned, researched and revised and risked, was the way the genre creates agency, power, possibility.

Though nonfiction is not therapy, it does provide space to be free, to experiment without the fear of failure, to wander and doubt without retribution. What is restorative is not that it is undemanding or coddling, but that it offers multiple realities, the ability to shape something, to construct and critique in a place and time that so often do not allow this.

Each day I was convinced I was dying, suffocating from the counting, which resonated inside me, louder than my heartbeat. Each day students struggled to pay their bills, to navigate marginalized identities in this national climate, to balance work and school and the same mental health struggles as me and so many Americans. And each day we wrote, butt in chair, risking, failing gloriously, trying again. Students went for the jugular, cut to the heart of a scene, ripping through bone to the marrow of a moment. They held up magnifying glasses to humanity.

It was not soft or easy. We wrote through blizzards and oppressive New England rain. We wrote about bees and origami and blood platelets, but also sexual assault and addiction and abuse. It was not vain. We were philosophers and sorcerers of text and testimony. All semester we wrote, and when the green returned, buds bursting to bloom, the dirt-rich smell of renewal, so did a small semblance of my sanity. Together we were architects, weavers, engineers not simply of sentences, but entire worlds.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University..

Monday, September 24, 2018

Jay Ponteri on Danielle Dutton's SPRAWL

O the things feelings of loneliness make us humans do. I’m not sure if we talk about the experience of loneliness enough. What do you think? I’m not sure because maybe others are talking about loneliness but I’m not hearing their conversations. I’m not sitting at the same table. When I was a teenage boy, I couldn’t imagine riding my ten-speed all the way to the mall. I could have, but my imagination somehow couldn’t reach all the way. Fourteen months after we divorced and two months after moving into separate places (her: house and me: apartment) between which our son began to shuttle, I took a trip by myself to Mexico City where I spent 10 days wandering the streets in every possible direction, in lines, curves, circles, slants, curlicues, voids. I was alone, often lost, but not lonely. 
August 23, 2016
Today Centro Historico. Streets turn to cobblestone. Streets narrow. Buildings built with gray stone. Buildings with stripped facades. Crumbling buildings. Iron gates open into courtyards in which I shall never sit. Food stands with tarpaulin roofs sagging with puddles of rain water. No street signs, no landmarks to orient me. I turn right. My body just does this. It turns right onto a street curving to the left curving to the right and overhead small cement stoops with clothes draped over lines to dry. Everything seems to lean over the street, as if it all might fall onto me.
Alone is a condition, loneliness a feeling. There are many ways to be alone in the world. We are alone in our bodies. We are alone in our thoughts. We are alone in interior and exterior spaces, alone around people we know, around people we don’t. Walkers and people eating at food carts crowd the city sidewalks as cars with drivers and passengers ride past me, and out in the country, a woman walks on the side of a two-lane road surrounded by fallow fields. It is winter. Five people, complete strangers, crowd into an elevator and the elevator rises to the eighth floor. The person closest to the door exits first. Alone in bedrooms, alone in kitchens, alone in bathrooms, in barns, in garden sheds, at grave sites, inside churches, on a narrow path bending gently through the forest. To be alone, to feel oneself alone is to be in touch with the distinct edges of our bodies separate from the bodies of others. Alone is a condition, loneliness a feeling. The experience of loneliness entails an intense but less varied emotional mix. When I feel lonely—alone or not alone—I feel a presence of absence nagging at me, I miss somebody. I miss you. Loneliness might include feelings of grief, aggrieved feelings, sadness, invisibility, anxiety, disorientation. The edges of my body seem to be disappearing. I suddenly don’t know myself, so I reach for you, but you’re not there, which brings to mind this line from Morgan Parker’s poem “Ain’t Misbehavin’”: “No one to walk with / into the glowing couch, the green / afterward.” What happens inside of our thoughts, what we feel, only we can see and feel. Didn’t E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel say something about how we get to know characters in novels better than actual people in our lives, even loved ones?

Speaking of novels—Or is this a book-length prose poem or a book of prose?—on page 101 of Danielle Dutton’s wondrous Sprawl—published in 2010 by Siglio Press and now reissued by Wave Books this month—the speaker says of her suburban surroundings:
Seen from above, there is a peculiar pattern to our expansion: neighborhoods snake around supermarkets, hospitals, airports, malls. It’s wanting to not be left behind. Houses shimmer together with weather. There’s a kind of earthy gravity to the weather. I uncover this fact by accidental research. I figure I might have an internal architecture, with buttresses, abundance, possibility, or an intestinal space in which nothing works the way it should, like buildings built on botanical models, or buildings based on your own DNA, or whole rooms built to laugh in, or sticky gardens with the usual material but brighter, or more dull.
We expand, we stretch out in the grass but first we park illegally, and before and after (and during?) we procreate. We design then build apartment units with ground-floor commercial use. The external and internal architectures seem to rise up in shared spaces. “Houses shimmer together with weather.” The speaker does not distinguish the house from the weather, nudging this reader to consider the more destructive repercussions of the American suburban project (or the human project, I guess)—we view the landscape as “open plots” as opposed to a dynamic, living, ever-changing ecosystem upon which many animal and plant beings depend. We are nature. We develop more and more land. The earth is this exposed body we dig up, dismantle, cover anew with cement and throw-away housing and malls built in strips filled with shops with names like “Massage Envy,” “Curves,” “Gentle Dental.” A poet friend who’s also a pharmacist told me drug companies like to create names for drugs using words with as many Z’s and X’s as possible because they—words with these infrequently used letters, the open land of the alphabet—have proven to increase the bottom line. Have we hit the bottom yet? And why so much expansion, why all the cheap materials? Why can’t we sit with ourselves in the spaces we already inhabit? It’s wanting to not be left behind. It’s ordinary loneliness—we want others to include us—and it’s a loneliness tapping into a core problem with existence: we won’t always exist. And by spreading out as if land does not end, by racing to the Plaid Pantry for a pack of American Spirits and a sleeve of Pringles rather than sitting with ourselves, and by replicating our flailing again and again, everything becomes indistinct thus forgotten. We don’t have to die to be forgotten. We already are.
There is a ruthless realism to the way we breathe, the way we sit at the table, the way we fuck, or eat breakfast, or sleep next to each other or next to thousands of strangers. This place has forgotten people living in other towns. We hardly recognize ourselves. (105)
I can tell you for certain after my son and I returned from Ikea with his new green rug and desk chair and lamp, both of us were in a very, very bright mood. Now I am reminded of Lydia in The Birds (played beautifully by Jessica Tandy). Lydia’s son Mitch falls in love with Melanie Daniels, and Lydia’s not jealous of Melanie, that her son’s attention is elsewhere. Lydia does not want to be abandoned. She does not want her son to leave her and his little sister in Bodega Bay. Sprawl is not an essay but feels like essay—spreading out one’s thinking on the page, on many pages, to feel the accumulation of thought, motion of consciousness, its emotional mixtures and fresh perceptions, how it knows and un-knows at once, at twice, at thrice, O the rise and fall of one’s thoughts speeding towards the slow, slow drip, into blank page spaces. I’m talking about the variety of human consciousness, cogitation as action, contradictory thought tissues as plot with emotional, dramatic, and thematic resonances. On the page of essay, we encounter not ourselves but a voluminous representation of something like ourselves that makes us feel visible to ourselves and to others and connected to something totally other that may or may not be sentient. It’s wanting to not be left behind. Our ancestors we never knew who suffered and who felt pleasure, alone and with others. Of course we are left behind, but in the moment of composition—and perhaps replicated when we read the work of others—we feel something other, the touch of another. Thank you, Ms. Dutton, for making this book, Sprawl. I am alone but not feeling lonely.

August 22, 2016 
Cafebreria El Pendulo. I buy a book of poems by Coral Bracho (Marfa) from which I intend to translate. A woman asks me to watch her computer. I say, "Si, yo puedo," and noting my broken Spanish, she says, "Thank you." I continue to reread Bolaño's The Savage Detectives while consulting the map on my laptop computer for whereabouts of streets Bolaño describes: Bucarelli, Colima, Paseo de la Reforma. When I step out onto Alvaro Oberon, I walk without intention, without destination, I walk for three or four hours without knowing at all where I am. I don't look at the map and I'm not sure why other than I want to be a part of the city's density, one body in a crowd of bodies walking on sidewalks, crossing busy avenues filled with passing taxi cabs and motorcycles, people crowding around food stands selling tacos and cups of fruit topped with whipped cream. To look at a map I'd have to stop walking and my body wants only motion, wants the invisibility of one body blending in with other bodies. All bodies. I know I have walked into other neighborhoods and these neighborhoods have names I don't yet know and somehow I find my way back to Roma Sur. At my apartment, lying on the wood floors, I listen to the sound of the traffic and voices of passersby on Huatabampo. Then the rains begin. Late summer and early autumn, the monsoon season here. I had no idea.

I don’t know what exactly I am doing here. Am I writing about the city or the suburb and what really is the difference? Am I writing about being alone or feeling lonely? Am I writing about a novel or a poem? Sprawl is not nonfiction, does not gesture towards autobiography, but its central method of characterization is close, expansive, associative interiority—deep revelation through a sprawling show of idiosyncratic, eccentric consciousness. How I write. The Wave Books reissue includes an afterword by another amazing thinker-proser-maker Renee Gladman. I haven’t read Renee Gladman’s afterword yet. I will read it only after I have finished writing this piece. I purchased the Siglio Press edition in 2010 at a small-press bookstore on Capitol Hill (Seattle) called (maybe) Pilot Bookshop (now closed, think it was closing shortly after I was there). And here a brief shout-out to my other Seattle friends at Open Books Poetry Emporium, the best book shop on the planet Earth. I do recall what drew my attention immediately (still does) was Ms. Dutton’s unparagraphed prose. Sprawl is presented in a single paragraph, or as I enjoy calling it, and I didn’t make this up, an unparagraph. In 2013, late January I think, I presented to a roomful of other human beings at Columbia College some of my crude thinking about unparagraphing, and here, courtesy of Puerto Del Sol who later published these unkempt thoughts, is some text from said lecture:
Today I want to consider the Unparagraph, which I define as prose NOT organized into manageable chunks separated by white space. In an unparagraph one writes within a single block of prose till completion (whatever that means), only making use of white space around and inside the letters and between and around the words and that precedes the first word and follows the last. Here an avid, livid inclusion guides compositional method; the prose reads on the page as crowded, capacious consciousness. I try to spill out as much of what passes through my noggin onto the page, and the thought of organizing this lovely spillage into manageable, focused chunks for readers often seems like trying to kill not only thought but heart too. The operative word here is spill, which means in its intransitive form to flow, run, or fall out over one place into another. Writing feels like an expansion or unfurling of self, not a diminution of self—for that I can go to the bank or the next faculty meeting. Simply put: one moves the mess of contradictory thoughts feelings dreams perceptions sounds from one’s head to the page. Things fall out of our bodies and the able writer must let them. The page, once blank and tidy, gets covered with my shit, my shit is all over the place. The page is the only space in my life in which I feel utterly comfortable making a giant mess. It might seem like the sentence contains or carries thought, perhaps true, but sentence and thought shape each other, that is to say, in writing and speech, thought materializes through the sentence. Sentence reveals thought. Sentence forms thought. Without sentence, thought is barely formed, ephemeral, a seemingly endless tape of word, sensorium, feeling, traces of memory and dream. The essay is that page space for prowling searching quivering turning thought, for received thought that seems to rise out of the void, that discovers and holds contradictions of a single consciousness, made manifest in the sentence at hand.
In Sprawl Dutton’s unparagraph stitches together “internal and external architectures,” which is to say, we build the suburb as the suburb builds us. Space-time collapses. Yesterday is today is five weeks ago and 96 years from now. The front- and backyards, sidewalks and shady lanes (O Pavement!), parking lots and shopping malls and parks, bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms—the spaces the speaker inhabits seem to reflect and refract at once. Then they perforate, pouring into one another (imagine lacing fingers of lovers) just as all the modes of consciousness, the soul modes—dream, story, thought, perception—blend into one another to form a single tape of unfurling selves within self. If the suburb shrinks us through its sterility, depersonalization, and sameness—“we hardly recognize ourselves…”—the unparagraph re-conjures the speaker’s idiosyncratic way of being in the world, enlarging the speaker’s humanity horizontally (the sprawl across the page) and vertically, which is to say, it reveals her personality, its proclivities and contradictions, what makes her singular, unique voice and unique breath shaping voice. Dutton’s speaker devotes herself to encountering the suburban’s surface through keen attention to its varied signs, phenomena, actions, and dynamics. Her attention tends to be miniature in scale—the senses perceiving closely all the smaller bits, an eye for fragments, an eye that fragments—and from these impressions, she lifts her gaze to consider impacts and origins, elucidating the broader implications of our need to sprawl, or she expresses a deepening within herself, revealing private, musical thoughts and dreams, miscellany, and dispatches from her eccentric interactions with (in)sentient world.
Today I imagine busily dusting furniture. Then I imagine throwing furniture out a window instead of dusting it. I imagine dust gathering on broken furniture and horse shit on the ground. Meanwhile, the countertop is crammed with apple and orange peels. A half-eaten lollipop rests on its clear wrapper beside a pestle and mortar, also a white plate dirty from a slice of cherry pie, several aspirin cut into quarters, and an empty glass container. Before lunchtime, alone on the sidewalk, the world rolls by like a magical ride. The ice-cream truck jingles as I pass and all the lawn gnomes offer a cheerful ‘Hello.’ They look out with dead aim at the perfect beauty of lawn care, car pools, mailmen, etc… (21)
She sees the surface so closely that she ends up seeing beyond the surface, It’s a kind of double (or triple [or quadruple]) seeing. Like looking out through your eyes to see your face with all the other faces and non-faces. Her capacity to see particle(s) and body and beyond body—this, I think, is instructive to us essay makers. I’m not sure what I even mean other than we dig deeper into ourselves to get beyond ourselves—to you. The speaker attends closely to the detritus, the remains inside and outside her house, things left on tables, on lawns, sidewalks, streets. She mixes the aftermath of sprawling with the act of sprawling farther. This is kind of like saying look at the deceased body in the casket next to other bodies in decline lined up to look at the deceased body in the casket. One might mention this book’s plot line of the speaker’s marriage to her husband coming undone. Her husband’s name is Haywood—Hey, Wood! The marriage plot here is compressed, fragmented, volatile and depersonalized by turns, and, in the end, like marriage, unresolved. More so Ms. Dutton’s book explores the human condition of being alone in America:
Afterward, I take the leftover bread from my sandwich to feed to squirrels and crows in the park. I bend over and roll the bread across the grass. One squirrel runs away from the rolling bread, but the crows don’t move at all, but then they do move, toward the bread, sort of nonchalantly. That night I dream I have roots in me and a pot of buried gold, my own buried treasure and I carry it around in my stomach. In the morning I plant petunias and find a marble in the dirt. I chop broccoli at the kitchen counter and with its clean, bitter smell I continue to sharpen and realize. I enjoy the energy the knife gives me, which is somehow constricting and stupid. Later I wash dishes and hum softly and think of old sex-partners, different positions, or beds, how one was just a mattress on the floor and one was in a closet. That one imprinted itself on my memory due to a series of odd gestures involving a sweater and a cock, as well as the calculated intercession of photography. Some photos are destined to be kept in boxes or closed dresser drawers. And some photographs people won’t give back even when you ask for them. Still, there are all kinds of pictures displayed on walls and shelves. (23)
What seems unique, dignified too, and perhaps runs counter to the sprawling body, is the speaker’s capacity for presence in quiet, ordinary moments. This presence nourishes her relationship to the world, the many selves encountering the world. The broccoli’s smell (clean, bitter) sharpens her presence, and she realizes, another way of saying she becomes visible to herself. She keeps herself company. We follow the speaker’s mind through perceptions of ordinary tasks, dreams of splendor, salacious memories, and a meditation on photos as remains. Her mind is so elastic that it takes us readers, at once, further and farther, and what’s that line from Richard Siken’s poem, can’t recall the title, something about seeing “…your true face, the back of your head.” We apprehend not only what the speaker perceives but how she perceives along with the human qualities shaping her sensory receptors. She sees lots of edges, for example:
On the edge of the countertop, lined up along the edge, is a plastic cutting board with dried tomato pulp, a mixing bowl, a crumpled paper towel, a ramekin, a stack of plates, two tumblers, three spoons, a cold saucepan, a rubber band, a portion of lemon skin, and the cap to a bottle of vinegar. 24
I stand on the edge of the dining room table, all bathed in light, for nearly twenty minutes, which seems to freeze time. 51
The sugar bowl with blue lace patterns sits at the edge of the table. It might even hover centimeters above the linen tablecloth. 59 
Gathered together on one small section of the kitchen table is a stack of bills, a plate with a shell of hard-boiled egg, orange peels, two glasses, one linen napkin, one spoon, and near the edge is an empty box of chocolates (gold foil). 61 
I leave the plate and the peel on the edge of the counter and drink water from a tumbler and wipe my hands on my pants. 103
What sits at the edge might fall over. Or not. The narrator’s marriage breaks apart but not fully. The narrator tells the story not of her life but of her mind, the life of her mind sprawling within a body connected to other bodies sprawling and extending without limit or restraint across America, and who’s going to report back to us living in garden apartments? Who’s going to let me know what the darkest days say to the lightest days? How can I know if I’m doing the right or wrong things?
I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together. My husband is here, and our daughter, age three. She is blonde and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei, and she does not understand why she cannot go to the beach. She cannot go to the beach because there has been an earthquake in the Aleutians, 7.5 on the Richter scale, and a tidal wave is expected… My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce… 133-134
—says Joan Didion in her essay “In the Islands,” and then in the documentary The Center Will Not Hold:
Joan Didion’s nephew: Did he [Didion’s husband] read that?” 
Joan Didion: He edited that. 
Joan Didion: You used your material… You wrote what you had.  
Jay: If she cannot hold me, then I can hold myself. I can put my arms around my shoulders and squeeze tightly. What do you think about this idea, Mrs. Wick? 
Speaker from Sprawl (on page 7): Meanwhile, the crows in the yard act like dogs and Mrs. Wick leans over to tell me she’s on a journey she likes to call “Mrs. Wick.” 
Joan Didion: That was what I happened to have at the moment. 
Speaker from Sprawl (on page 49): There are strawberry stems on the tablecloth, several juice glasses, a half-eaten bran muffin, a pink napkin, a net. There are crumbs and stains, and the morning light devours what it sees. I take a walk in the garden, which is just like the countryside. I write letters to people elsewhere in America, idealizing simple faith, fidelity, and pastoral elements from the past. Then I look out for woodchucks.

August 25, 2016 
I stumble upon an entire retail district—three or four dedicated blocks plus cross streets—of lights in every possible color, size, shape, e.g., bulbs, fixtures, CFL’s, fluorescent tubes, lamps, chandeliers. Every shop glows with electric light. I pass a sleek black panel displaying oblong-shaped colored bulbs flashing, dropping light down to the ground in undulating waves then extinguishing momentarily before rising back up to the top only to disappear again. Without consulting a map, I realize how close I might be to Centro Historico but there’s always the chance I’m not close at all. Illumination abounds.

Alone is a condition that can shape one’s sense of self, form half-selves and multi-selves nesting within a single way of being. I’m talking about identity, and I am talking about more than identity. How we come to know ourselves is connected to and separate from the ways others know us. I suppose the danger with any sense of identity is how it can fasten one to a single way of being. This is who I am, this is not who I am, etc... If we view ourselves as alone in the world, we may not see the incremental ways we connect to family members, lovers, friends, acquaintances, complete strangers. Ramekin is a small dish for baking and serving an individual portion of food. Art, among other things, tries (tires) to inhabit these gaps around identity. Even though the speaker shares space-time with others (her neighbors and her spouse) and, yes, she recalls in more expressive prose childhood memories of her and her friend Lisle, the speaker mostly sees herself as alone—in her house, neighborhood, and suburb outside of the city to which she occasionally refers and considers both present and beyond her reach:
I hope to inform you what a triumph the big city has become. (3) 
I sit at the kitchen counter with the cat at my feet and watch the lights of the city in the distance and a skyscraper. Helicopters and plans revolve around it in peculiar orbit. (4)
In the distance the city flickers. (35) 
We have a distinctive ecology involving cows, furniture, farms, real estate, azaleas, fires, corn, curtains, dust, passion, malefactors, milk, meat, cherries, wasps, mayors, pipe fitters, fences. Still, the city resists and defines us. (39) 
Hate and fear rise out of the metropolis; I glimpse it from my bathroom window when the wind blows the trees just right. (49)  
We could take a train together and disappear in the city outside. (85)
O even when we live in the city we cannot be part of the city, cannot become the city. The city squeezes us into scuttling compactions overpaying for coffee and forgetting our key fobs at the gym. The city is forever a dream for which we reach and reach and reach. In our lives, we shall spend so much time alone, with and without others, in our houses, in cafes and restaurants, on airplanes, inside our cars, walking down sidewalks, running on paths through the forest, in the bathroom on the toilet or taking a shower, in our thoughts and feelings through which we walk ill-equipped, determined to trace fully (never fully, no) the beautifully imperfect edges of our bodies and be in touch, consensual, reciprocal touch, with the bodies of others and the objects we make and the landscape from which we’ve sprung, to feel our bodies in motion, in mystery, all this alone space-time perhaps preparation for the ultimate alone space-time, of dying, crossing over into death, this place to which we can only travel alone even if we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by others whom we love and who love us and many people do not have this fortune, many people die surrounded by complete strangers. In the face of death and uncertainty surrounding our deaths, we make things. Poems, spicy artichoke dip, Visions of Johanna, portraits of refugees, lending libraries for those who live outside, carnivals in Prague. O Karl Ove! Sprawl’s speaker writes letters to the women who share with her this suburb. The letters are often hilarious, insightful, emotional, demonstrative, detached from emotion, etc... The narrator also makes strange, silly performances, in private, in public, on and off the page, and to clarify, “silly” is a compliment in my book:
I walk through the doorway wearing my aggressively orange hat. I do it over and over. I do it as a kind of series and then I do it in reverse. I do it as an indicator of a particular lifestyle, to redefine myself and exclude others. First I do it in a red pantsuit and then I do it in the nude. I do it and I say, “I doubt it.” I twirl a little when I do it. I do it and am striking when I do it because I do it in a frilly dress like meringue. (3).
O summer of jumpsuits! O autumn of sweater dresses! And in this moment, I would like to define the essay as vocal sprawl, thinking, expressing various qualities of voice in the service of revealing so many selves, e.g., vulnerable, guarded, performative, detached, searching, uncertain, ironic, silly, wistful, receptive (when words have ears!), overconfident, quiet, defensive, jocular, sincere, blind, visionary, distracted, prowling, and taken together these selves contradict, un-know, mystify, surprise, feel inevitable. Human behavior is dynamic, fluid, largely unknowable. The speaker’s voice toggles between sincerity and irony, between hyper-detailing and abstract imagination, between sense and sound. At moments the speaker is so immersed in the suburban surface, the illusion of immortality throbs, and here the reader senses a dreamy irony, and then in the next sentence or within the same sentence, the speaker shifts to sincere insight:
We listen to one member of the family who talks about airport safety. Then we go into hidden parts of the house or yard and cross-fertilize like birds and squirrels or like the work in any beanfield. Pesky neighbors show up on our lawn after dinner. This is evidence of the demise of my easy world, which seems like it’s easy. For dinner I serve roots, pumpkins, radishes, and kale. I garnish it with red onions, parsley, and mint. We are culpable, hateful. We sit back and pick off spiders walking the circumference of our town during the autumn months. But sometimes we share a vision, we pick out a criticism, we plunge ourselves into compassions of indistinct sensation: change, transfer, dazzling. (87)
The speaker understands living is not easy, yet protects this illusion of ease by decorating it, garnishing it “with red onions, parsley, and mint,” only to be punctured by the speaker’s direct, sincere admission of culpability and hatred. Suddenly, no matter where you live, you are implicated in this need for illusion. In Mexico City, I walked around by myself for 10 days, phone off, chasing ghosts from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. When I am alone, a distance in space-time separates my body from the body my body wants to touch and be touched by. Words keep me company. Dreams keep me company. A marionberry cacao latte keeps me company. Memories keep me company. Walking through my neighborhood. Correspondence (I owe Brandon a letter). Fern fronds. Lupine. Yarrow feather. Memories of 2 Rue Tardieu. To send my thoughts out to what cannot be is to send my thoughts on a journey I like to call, Mr. Ponteri. Being alone is the condition of the writer in the act of writing. When you feel the particular edges of your body at the same time you feel the motion of your body sprawling across the landscape it inhabits, then you feel the space in between things, you feel the human machine, you feel the joy of sitting with yourself, the joy of needing nothing but what surrounds you and what’s inside of you. No matter what we cannot separate ourselves from our fauna pack spreading about and across the landscape, leaving in its wake desensitization, detachment, destruction, decline, disparity, despair:
To celebrate we want another parking lot, a bigger lot, with bigger spaces, and many good spaces close to the entrance. It takes paperwork and months and more paper. The mayor says, “Indefatigable!” We bulldoze small and inconvenient fields of strawberries or corn and replace them with the increasing complexity of everyday life: promised lands, the right of “choice,” boundaries, color schemes, paper mills, etc. There are golf courses, chain restaurants, six brand-new gated communities, and, in the edge-towns to the north, there is a debate about public housing and how to shift responsibility for the poor. The book calls it “suburbanizing the conventional inner city,” and argues that it is “excessively intentional.” But this place is a flat surface. The place is distinct from other places and at the same time isn’t. This place is really convenient. There are all sorts of differences that already exist. The book tells us we resemble virtual neighborhoods and according to the experts the virtual is “more compelling” than we are. I walk through the streets and look in windows to witness cheerfully painted walls and vertical lamps, high technical quality and surround sound, mystery, beauty, fry baskets, fried chicken legs, joy sticks, shelves, ovens, beans. 78-79
The speaker flickers between illusion and the truth beyond, and this motion between the two is a kind of locale, an orienting point, in the way traveling home is home, or like searching a map and finding the phrase, You are here, and understanding the word “here,” the point on the map beneath this word, and where you actually are happen to be three discrete spaces, all shared and separate. Like our bodies. Perhaps we might call such an intersection love. Speaking of love, I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the speaker’s love of lists. Another poet I know, the poet Erin Nelson, considers the lists better than I ever could.
Danielle Dutton’s epic prose poem “Sprawl” has a particular and distinct tone and vocality. Sentences both sprawl and contain—contain words, lists, and objects, and contain a palpable lack of emotion. I keep coming back to the refrigerator. I imagine sentences and lists posted to the refrigerator door. The kitchen staple. Not unique to the suburbs, but perhaps especially expansive and numerous are the refrigerator models present in the suburbs. Some houses may have more than one. Several varieties even. A garage refrigerator for beer. A spare freezer to stock with bulk shopping items. The list upon list. Dutton’s lists go on into absurdity, as the contents of the refrigerator accumulate and weigh down spoil and weigh weigh weigh but don’t go away. They reveal the divided self, the need for human connection and nourishment, also the emotional rejection and remove. Loom. Tip. Stretch. The poem stretches across nearly 140 pages. The sprawling poem the sprawling list. A series of arranged scenes. Words arranged, food arranged, items of the suburban home arranged. The prose calls me in, like the warm refrigerator. 
I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting on a black-cushioned couch in a café called Good Coffee on SE Division Street in Portland, Oregon. I am watching people ride by on bikes, inside moving cars, on foot. Everybody looks busy, content, at ease, and amidst feelings of loneliness—I don’t want to be left behind—I feel outside of it all, excluded. I’m trying to put my life back together, trying to remember how to be alone because somewhere along the way I lost this.

August 27, 2016
I lie on the wood floor. Sunlight shines through the sheer curtains pulled across tall windows of my apartment. I live on Huatabampo. Next to Jardin Ramon Lopez Velarde. The neighborhood is called Roma Sur. I move to the tiny kitchen to boil water for coffee. Pink tiles, cool against my feet. Nobody within one thousand miles knows who I am. Later breakfast at Cafebreria El Pendulo (reading more Bolaño), then I set out to find the cloister where Mexican poetess Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz lived. Occasionally I step out of the crowded sidewalks to stand back against a building or in a locked-up doorway where I can retrieve my guide book with map from my backpack. I can't match the street on which I find myself with any street names on the map. I check the map's key to make sure it says "Mexico City" and it does. Then I look around Paseo de la Reforma for any signs that might read "Cuidad de Mexico.” Am I indeed in the city I believe myself to be? And perhaps I am using this map too literally? Perhaps I need to read this map more like I read a poem? I don’t think the point is to lose myself but is the point to find myself? Or somewhere in between? Always more questions than answers.


Jay Ponteri’s memoir, Wedlocked, was published by Hawthorne Books and received the 2014 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His chapbook of short prose, Darkmouth Strikes Again, was published by Future Tense Books. LOBE is forthcoming in 2020 by Widow Orphan Books. His essay “Listen to this” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2010, and more recently, “On Navel Gazing” was mentioned as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2015. He has published prose in Gaze; Oregon Humanities; Puerto Del Sol; Knee-Jerk; Essay Daily; Ghost Proposal; Seattle Review; Salamander; and Forklift, Ohio; among others.