Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The "Writing" Essay

I just finished reading the Spring 2011 issue of Gulf Coast (I'll probably put up a review a little bit later on) and there was one specific essay that has been bothering me: "Nobody's Friend" by Molly Giles. The essay is about how Molly wrote an essay where her daughter and granddaughter show up as characters, and how her daughter--even though she was presented positively in the story--swears she will never forgive her mother for it. The essay explores typical memoir territory (do we have a right to tell other people's stories? Do we ask permission to write on certain subjects? James Frey, libel, etc) and how it applies to Molly's particular experience as well as writers everywhere.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the essay, and maybe this is my editorial impulses talking, but it didn't feel right appearing in Gulf Coast. I wouldn't mind if this article had showed up in Poets & Writers or some similar venue, but showing up in a literary journal felt somehow inappropriate.

Here, I should admit my bias: it's not that I dislike writing "on writing," but I hate when it appears in literary journals/creative venues. Admittedly, it is mostly (if not entirely) writers who are reading literary journals, but that doesn't mean we should be publishing work that would be of little to no interest for a casual reader. I think literary journals should be pushing in the opposite direction--looking for ways to bring in readers from outside of academia--and the inclusion of writers writing about writerly subjects feels incredibly insular.

Writing this, I feel like I'm being a bit harsh on Molly, and I don't mean to be, but I am wondering what y'all think about the "on writing" essay: does it belong in literary journals? If not, where is the appropriate venue? Does publishing this type of nonfiction close off the genre from the mainstream?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Nonfiction Reading List

I was just reading this post over at HTMLGIANT and it occurred to me that I've seen a lot of these lists for fiction, but I've seen very few nonfiction equivalents (and, to be honest, those lists all seemed fairly inadequate in terms of variety of styles/gender/ethinicity/nationality/etc).

Anyway, the last week of my nonfiction workshop is next week and I'm going to try and compile some type of master reading list over the next few days to give them all as a going away present. With that said, I'm not nearly as well read as some of y'all here and I'm wondering: what books you would include if you were making a list that adequately covers the entire spectrum of creative nonfiction?

Post your lists/ideas in the comments section or email me and I'll make a master list that I can share with anyone who's interested.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Georgia Review – Bringing the Finest Writers to the Best Readers

At first glance The Georgia Review looks like the type of journal you'd want to spread across your living room coffee table: glossy, showy, and professionally constructed with attention to the finest details, a journal almost worthy of holographic Christmas giftwrap. The cover of every issue is artfully decorated with paintings, sketches or photographs that beg passersby to pick them up. Inside, the magazine only gets better, as one would hope. Each issue—approximately 175 pages in length—contains essays, fiction, poetry, book reviews and, of course, more eye-catching art (the Spring 2009 issue, for example, subtitled Culture and the Environment—A Conversation in Five Essays, contains a painting of bikini-clad woman cowgirl-straddling her hunky boyfriend on top of a motorcycle while wearing an American flag helmet—need I say more?). Not only does each section contain several submissions—except art, which only displays one artist per issue—varying from one to forty-something pages, but they reap with quality: recent issues contain essays by Albert Goldbarth, Lia Purpura, Scott Russell Sanders, and Barry Lopez; silhouette art by Kara Walker and poems by Stephen Dunn and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, just to name a few. Don't be discouraged to submit your work, though, as the journal claims to debut between one and five new authors every issue.

As nonfiction goes, the essays range from the academic, literary-types—Anne Goldman's “Questions of Transport: Reading Primo Levi Reading Dante,” Spring 2010—to straight forward memoir, as in Reg Saner's “Back Where the Past is Mined,” Spring 2008. At 35 pages, Saner's essay recounts his Korean War tour as an army soldier, focusing heavily on his self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and often drawing comparisons to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. But his essay is not just a psychiatric analysis of war but a funny, insightful case study on what it means to wear a soldier's boots during a “Forgotten War.” He writes about all the expected war-related themes—machine guns, booby traps, blood and death—but he also provides stories that will make most readers laugh, cringe and turn away simultaneously, leaving the essay with a nauseating smile and puckered asshole. In one anecdote, Saner tells of how he always carried the most recent letter from his stateside girlfriend in his helmet, an ubiquitous habit in all combat zones. During a nasty drought when his soldiers drank oily water used to cool machine gun barrels and toilet paper supplies ran low, and with what he now thinks was a serious case of hemorrhoids, Saner resorted to using his girlfriend's love letters to wipe his behind because the feathery paper she used comforted his bleeding asshole. Thankfully, warfare technology has improved in the past fifty years, so now soldiers fighting the war on terror feel the cool caress of moistened baby wipes and not college-ruled paper.

In another issue (Summer 2009), Judith Kitchen uses her mother's 1930s European travel journal as the basis for a researched essay. Although the essay is eerily reminiscent of Louise Steinman's wonderful book The Souvenir, Kitchen's essay, titled “True Heart”, reconstructs her mother's post-adolescent European travels from her mother's diary entries, sometimes guessing wildly to decipher the meaning of what seems more like coded hieroglyphics than prudent record keeping. The essay, which contains photographs of her mother and actual scans from the pages of the diary—both of which provide a nice visual supplement, focuses on her mother's possible love encounter with a man known for most of the essay only as “True Heart.” Throughout the essay, Kitchen presents herself as her mother's cheerleader, rooting her along as she meets True Heart—a polite, Yale educated Southern gentleman—and engages in a sexy relationship after only a few days. One aspect of the essay that I found especially interesting, beside her mother's inscription “2 Ys U R, 2 Ys U B, I C U R, 2 Ys 4 Me,” was a scan from a boarding ticket given to Kitchen's mother after boarding a United States-bound ship on her return home. The ticket, a warning against contraband possession, lumps tobacco and cigarettes with heroin and other chemicals that in today's America would secure you a prolonged stay in one of Arizona's grimiest jail cells. From what I can tell, passengers carrying heroin, tobacco, or firearms only needed to report their contraband to ship officials; contraband confiscation is not mentioned on the warning flier. Rounding off at 28 pages (including pictures and scans), Kitchen presents the reader with an insightful, passionate essay about a daughter trying to understand her mother's early life—a read worthy of every page.

Although it's tough to judge the quality and scope of a journal from a handful of essays, The Georgia Review appears to be a top echelon publication, the type serious writers should gravitate towards. Perhaps the journal's only vice is that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts between May 15th and August 15th, but I imagine this is typical of most literary journals. And at $8.25 per issue (with subscription), The Georgia Review really delivers “the finest writers to the best readers.”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

501 Minutes to Christ--Poe Ballantine

A while ago--AWP 2009--A and I talked about this author, Poe Ballantine. I'd read him once (Best American Essays 2006) and that essay, the title essay of the collection 501 Minute to Christ, really entertained and inspired. I finally found his book at the book conference and asked A if he'd ever read him, he hadn't, and so he told me to "essaydaily" him. Verb form. So here I am, months later, doing that.

The collection was published by Hawthorne Books of Portland (isbn 9780976631194), is Ballantine's 4th book (2 novels, 2 essay collections), and the 11 essays read quickly. Ballantine is a quirky, non-writing program (college dropout, no less) writer in the vain of Kerouac (kerou-wacky) in that much of the material comes from his wanderings across America (there are some Greyhound essays, certainly) and Bukowski in that a lot the rest of his writing comes from real work experience in labor jobs (cooking, boat refurbishing, etc). Often the secondary characters are very animated and strange, as one could imagine on the Greyhound circuit.

Perhaps what I liked most about these essays was the fact that Ballantine is always at the center of the essay, but sort of in this slanted, off-handed perspective. His essays go places, a lot of forward movement. Which I appreciate. He doesn't take too much time interrogating the interior. He sets off on adventures and then figures it out as he goes.

I could see these essays being useful to writers (and students of writing) in that the prose is straightforward yet skilled and the content is a dirty romanticism. They seem to answer that often-tossed-about question, "What's better for my writing: The MFA or Vagabonding?" (Answer: either/or/neither; it depends.)

They fit best in the "Personal Essay" niche of nonfiction writing--I don't find them lyrical or form-driven or natural world bent. Most of these essays were published in The Sun in Ballantine's mid-40s even though he'd been writing for years and years before. I could see The Sun advocating a spiritual or humane worldview from these pieces.

I think my favorites were "World of Trouble" (perhaps my favorite writing on Katrina I've read so far), "My Pink Tombstone" (golden retriever as McGuffin), "Methamphetimine for Dummies" (best Meth writing yet?), title essay, and "Blessed Meadows for Minor Poets" (Ballantine's account of a disastrous relationship with his first major editor/agent after being published in Best American Short Stories 1998 and failing to finish his sold story collection). I skimmed only two (the essay on meeting his wife, the one on plotting to punch John Irving/Norman Mailer in the face). It's a solid collection.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Things I'm fond of that can be found in a review of the South Loop: the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Russian Tea Time, Soldier Field, ColumbiaCollege

The cover of the latest South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art is kind of sexy. I feel a slight twinge of I don’t know what (guilt, self-loathing, anticipation of reprisals) saying this—seeing as how the cover art is a drawing of a stripteuse in a very burlesque cat woman outfit, pulled from a graphic essay which I’m pretty sure is a condemnation (or at least a critique) of strip culture, the (wo)men who perpetuate it, and the ensuing degradation of the women being objectified—but I’m going to say it anyway. It is sexy. Sexy and provocative (as in thought-provoking): not only do I immediately want to pick the journal up and look through it, but after that first flip through the corresponding graphic essay, seeing it in its entirety, as I turn back to the cover once more for one more look, I also cannot help but question (and feel slightly uncomfortable by) my initial attraction to the artwork. A successful essay, maybe. A successful cover definitely.

Of course the cover’s allure also comes from the fact that the background is a cool blue the exact tone of a dusky November sky, much of the lettering is the pastel yellow of happy spring flowers, and the smooth mat finish feels so good to my fingers.

That said, I am now going to take a measured step back from the actual journal—volume 12—that I’ve been looking at.

SLR: Creative Nonfiction + Art is relatively young. The journal was born in 1987, but prior to 2003 it featured only the work of students in the nonfiction and literature programs at Columbia College. Today, each SLR volume includes work from established and emerging authors, from folks who have MFAs, who teach in MFA programs, who have published books and won awards, but also from a number of people who appear mysteriously disconnected from the MFA world, and also, interestingly, each volume continues to include work from a handful of Columbia College undergraduates. And the undergraduate work is actually pretty good.

(Yes, I do feel a bit catty saying that, but surely I can’t be the only one preyed by the notion that undergrad work inherently equals less than stellar, and so here, where the work is fairly stellar, I feel the need to say so, though that is not to say the doubt never resurfaces. At one point while reading Volume 12 I may have cried out "What kind of writer quotes Sartre in an essay about despair!?—how jejeune!” But then of course, at the end of the day, when I take off my beret and have a beer and stop being such a pugnacious ninny, I actually really enjoy the essay in question—its calm, and how altogether together it feels. Yes, the references might give the impression that the writer just crammed for the final in a survey course on existentialism, but who really cares?—Sententious references aside, the poise displayed throughout speaks to a greater maturity than maybe I myself can claim.)

Actually, generally speaking, everything I’ve read in the last three volumes of SLR has been pretty good. Goodness seems to be the central (though by no means the only) criterion for inclusion; SLR also wants the work it publishes to hit hard, and to support their mission of giving us “strong, compelling, resonant voices that give insight into contemporary experience, and cultural phenomenon…to present artists and writers who…engage audiences and motivate thought,” and who actively “investigate ways of being in the world.” (This last line is actually ripped from a really fine essay in Volume 12, Deer Come to the City, by Stephanie Dickinson.)

I like words like engage and motivate and being and world, and I like writing that digs deep for some resonant sense of significance, and for the most part SLR seems adept at meeting its mission and giving us just that, which is commendable, very commendable.

Of course goodness and digging deep for significance are only 2/3 of the SLR recipe. The final, important ingredient (imagine a dirty martini without the dirty) is some kind of inspired genre-blending, supra-artistic style. (Or at least some good non-linear narrative denoted by a lot of section breaks.) Anything of that sort, really, seems to be fair game.

SLR features nonfiction (+ art) presented as memoir, poem, as montage, prints of paintings, narrative photos, photos with internal captions, graphic essay, mixed media, as a craft-art project, and of course as the more traditional (blended-genre, non-linear, funktified-in-some-crafty-way) narrative/lyrical essay.

Truth be told, I am totally enamored by the craft-art-project-as-essay thing (Volume 12, page 91), or at least with the idea of it.

The piece bears a title, Untitled, comes with an explanatory epigraph, and “directions for younger readers,” followed by a list of needed materials, said instructions, and an illustration of the final product should one undertake this endeavor. It’s great. What’s not to love? Actually, of course, there is something not to love, and I’ll tell you what it is. Yes, this page-long piece is quirky, and entertaining, and is kind of enjoyably profound in a one-page kind of way, but overall, I wish it did more. I want it to do more. For starters I want all readers (not just the younger ones) to be encouraged to participate. And I want it to instruct me to use my favorite Crayola-color markers, and my favorite color of construction paper—or at least I want the page it’s printed on to be made in such a way that I can use its space for this project. I want the page designed in a way that begs me to actually follow these instructions, to involve myself in the piece. I want the piece to expect me to take part in it.

The piece—as it is presented—doesn’t seem to take itself seriously as the art project it claims to be, and seriously, I love the idea of essay-as-art project enough that I wish it did. I wish it didn’t just help me “investigate ways of being in the world,” but could actually become part of my world. I wish it were made in such a way that I could cut it out and magnet it to my fridge. I wish I were expected to do so.

So enamored by this thing was I, that I contacted its creator, Priscilla Kinter, to see if I could get some insight into the idea behind it, and to ask about the mysterious editorial choices that leave me wanting more from it. She was kind enough to respond, and it seems SLR only published the first of two parts of the piece, and yes, Ms. Kinter does “see the complete piece as an actual construction project…The second part of the essay builds a man, from brown wrapping paper and hide glue, in steps that are meant to reveal the man, but even more so the narrator (which would be me), and/or things about the relationship. Because I made the essay, I have a hard time seeing how either half can stand alone without the other in that each half works to explain, in some way, the remainder.”—and thus I now feel warranted in my reaction to the piece as presented here: Pleasantly enamored, but wanting more, wanting more because apparently there is more to be had.

And thus we begin the inevitable critique of this journal (which I do—keep in mind—really, really like). Here it is: at times, SLR seems more interested in sustaining its eclecticism than with its actual content; they seem to emphasize the variety of its content (at times) at the expense of its content’s artistic concepts (most notably when it comes to truncating longer graphic works).

Yes, there is a super-cool art-project-essay-thing, but no, as it is presented here, it does not actually function as an art project. Yes, there are several wonderful graphic essays (including a spectacular visual rendering of an Argentinean poem in translation), but there are also several presented as excerpts with little or no context, and which end abruptly just when the narrative seems to be really taking off. Yes, there is some stunning photography, but it is only shown in (oh God no!) black and white. I don’t know. This might just be what happens when you only publish once a year, when you cram 32 pieces into 116 pages. Try to fit too much in, in too short a space, and something is lost in the process.

Of course, I understand that every journal operates with certain goals, and within certain limitations. And I appreciate that SLR isn’t boring, not at all. I like that they focus on nonfiction (+ art). I like that they want to publish alternative forms of the essay, and I like the breadth and quality of work they present to us, I do. But still, I hanker—I want the journal to be my idea of perfect. I want it to be A+, and instead, as it is, I think it might be an A-.

Take note, SLR: In the future, I would like to be given art projects I can cutout and tout; I want all graphic essays to be packaged with context, and a beginning, middle, and end; I want color for all photos, and all photos should be printed on glossified paper; I want twelve issues a year instead of one, with dollar bills stapled into the binding throughout; I want pheasant-flavored treats for my dog; I want a free grande latte every Friday; And I could use a shoulder rub.

SLR, I’m not asking for much, just more of the best of what you already give us.

Monday, November 22, 2010

n+1: highbrow (and not sorry about it)

The Editors of n+1 are on a mission: to create a space for an unapologetically highbrow discussion of the problems of the contemporary world and to wage a literary struggle against intellectual laziness. Keith Gessen, Marco Roth, Benjamin Kunkel, and Mark Greif launched n+1 in 1994 in response to the commencement of the Iraq War and some of the disappointing dialogue surrounding it in the literary community.

If you spend any time searching for these guys on the internet, you’ll quickly discover that they have serious beef with a number of writers, journals, and organizations. In fact, in the first 10 pages of their very first issue, they called the New Republic, “Designated Haters,” McSweeny’s, “A Regressive Avant-Garde,” and The Weekly Standard, “PoMo NeoCons.” You can imagine (or google) the conversations that followed.

These guys are smart, serious, angry, and not afraid to stake a position on any issue - from Palestine and war to dating and pop music - and hold firmly to it. They are also well published, both by big-time publishing houses and, in what to me seems an alarming frequency, by themselves in n+1. About 20% of every issue is written by them or other of their editorial staff, a fact for which they are often criticized. They’re also criticized for being (until recently) an all white, all Ivy League educated group of 30-something New York dudes.

At first, I was tempted to post a bunch of juicy gossip about them, but the more I read, the less I really cared about the above criticisms. Sure, I’m a little annoyed that they publish so much of their own work while claiming that n+1 is a forum for a conversation on the commodification of culture. But really I’m impressed at the ambition of the journal. As a labor organizer, I’ve always been a sucker for a call-to-arms. And n+1 often reads as one. I like that they take seriously the idea that there are things worth organizing for and struggling around, like literature, like culture. I’m drawn to the fact that they call n+1 a research institute that has taken the form of a literary journal, that it treats literature as an action, a practice. I think it’s about damn time someone start defending literature and cultural criticism in a serious enough way to launch the kinds of attacks they’ve made (even if I don’t agree with all of them).

The most recent issue I read in full is the Winter 2008 (the UA library seemed to stop carrying the journal after that, but there is a lot of content available on their website), which was only four issues ago since n+1 is a twice annual publication.

The issue is parsed out as most of their issues are; beginning with a section of short pieces of cultural criticism called, “the intellectual situation,” a diary written by the editors, followed by a section of short pieces under the heading “politics,” the first of which is written by an editor, which is followed by a contributor letter, which gets responded to at length by three of the editors. On page 37, we get the first chapter of a novel by Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff, on page 77, we get a series of translated poems by Kirill Medvedev, and finally, on page 88, we get an essay by a contributor. It is followed by an essay by an Assistant Editor, another piece of fiction, and 4 book reviews (2 of which are written by editors).

I’m laying out the contents in this way both as evidence to my (still only mild) annoyance over how much of it the Editors wrote and to explain why I’m heading on from here to talk about Wesley Yang’s, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” And that’s because it is the only essay in the 235 page issue written by a contributor.

And as essays go, it’s pretty good. It does some things that good essays - especially good n+1 essays - do; it talks about some of the real problems that exist in the contemporary world. At its heart, the essay is about the unloveable, the abject, and its place in our beauty obsessed, perfect body/teeth/hair/skin obsessed, reality-shows-about-botox-in-a-classless-utopia obsessed world. It’s about violence; both the bloody violence of student massacres and the quiet violence inherent in the hierarchy of wealth and beauty. And it makes interesting juxtapositions that intersect these kinds of violence without making a simple cause and effect relationship between the two.

n+1 tends to publish long essays that make good use of extensive research. This essay does that. From deep fact gathering to making personal and anecdotal connections, research is one of the strong points of the piece. Though there are moments (“Cho did not think of himself as Asian, he did not think of himself ethnically at all,” for example), that I question the veracity of and evidence for and wonder how they hold up to the stated level of intellectual rigor at n+1.

The first two sections of the essay are centered around the stories of two Asian boys who become school shooters, then there is a section about a seemingly benign loser and Rutgers student who had personal beef with our narrator, which is followed by a section about a guy who gets lots of responses to his online dating profile. While the sections are held together (at times brilliantly) in their consideration of the violence of beauty and by the presence of personal narrative throughout, the transitions between them felt a bit clunky.

I often feel with essays (including my own) that collude the personal with research that the juxtaposition of the kinds of information and the kinds of voices employed is interesting, but that the meaning behind the juxtapositions is not fully uncovered or realized. And I feel that here. The author is writing about violent atrocities - premeditated massacres - and their connection to the abject while including personal narrative with sentences like, “[My friend] told me that I was ‘essentially unloveable,’” and of the “perpetrator of the largest mass murder in American history,” he writes, “He looks like me...” These sentences mean something, and I have theories about what that something is, but the essay fails to interrogate them, or really any of the personal, enough for me to know what it means by them.

n+1’s Keith Gessen told the New York Inquirer, “The point for us is we're much more focused on the idea of a story’s or essay's necessity—is it necessary, does it explain our situation, some part of our situation? If so, then we'll edit it until it's good. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how good it is.” My first thought: Yang’s essay is case in point, at least on the necessity front. My second thought: don’t they ever get anything that is both necessary and already good?

n+1, have you ever heard of rodeo queens?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Seneca Review: Introducing, Defining, and Promoting the Lyric Essay

Since its inception in 1970, the Seneca Review has published mostly poetry. As essayists, our interest in SR began roughly thirteen years ago, in Fall 1997, when the “lyric essay” made its first appearance. John D’Agata’s term as Associate Editor of SR began at about the same time, SR’s website would lead me to believe.

Most recent posts have included some sort of disclaimer/full-disclosure clause, and mine is no exception. In fact, my disclosures are many: I love poetry. I know very little about poetry. I know even less about the lyric essay. What excites me most about SR is the fact that gifted essayist and fellow MFA candidate at the University of Arizona – Noam Dorr – will have a piece published in the next issue.

According to the SR website, here are a few things (I translated into bullet form) that the lyric essay does:

· The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.

· The lyric essay partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

· The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention.

· The lyric essay, generally, is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.

· The lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.

· The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.

· The lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language - a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.

· The lyric essay is ruminative; it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation.

· The lyric essay’s voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement.

The SR editors seem to envision the lyric essay as a kind of… minx? She desires. She merely mentions. She melds. She feigns coyness. She meanders. She’s punchy! She pursues. No, she stalks.

She leaves the writer questioning.

But what about the reader?

After all, for each thing that the lyric essay does, the lyric essay asks for the reader to do something in return – to follow the “uncharted course,” to synthesize the “webs of idea, circumstance, and language,” to assemble the fragments, to interpret the mosaic, and ultimately, to gain something.

In an interview that accompanies the Spring 2009 issue, Geoffrey Hilsabeck asks Dan Beachy-Quick, whose piece “The Laurel Crown” appears in the same issue, about this idea of the “lyric reader.” (A small, edited portion of the interview appears below.)

GH: If there can be lyric poets and lyric essayists, can there be lyric readers, or is that absurd?

DBQ: The lyric reader understands that the worth of reading isn’t some sum-knowledge. Rather, the lyric reader sings back out the world the reading gave her, and in doing so, in expressing and making exterior that world reading gave her, a world now also deeply her own, she offers that world back up to doubt and question. Singing is this offering not of doubt, but to doubt. This is why, in the reading I love the most, the same reading I write about, I do not feel I’ve learned anything, or gained anything, but feel more profoundly my ignorance, and if I learn anything, I learn how better to take advantage of that ignorance.

So again, the lyric essay is a … siren? I have to admit, I’m pretty intrigued by SR’s recurrent depiction of the lyric essay as a kind of elusive woman, although I’m not sure if this concept is unique to SR or not. I’d guess not. But worth a little discussion, in any case, I think.

Notably, the most recent “special double issue” of SR for Fall 2009/Spring 2010 is titled “The Lyric Body,” and features pieces that address our corporeal lives. Pieces in this issue – most of which I found fascinating – tended to focus on the body as it changes - as it ages, travels, plays, dies, heals, etc. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the pieces in this issue also focus on the body in a state of peril or decline, as it faces death.

In the introductory essay, Stephen Kuusisto and Ralph James Savarese explain the reason for this thematic choice: “The body presents a form for engagement, the only one an organism has. That engagement is always political, whether we recognize it or not, and always lyrical, whether we see it that way or not.”

Clearly, SR seeks to engage readers who are interested in the more lyrical, experimental versions of the essay. And although I often find these forms inscrutable, I found most of the pieces I read in SR to be at once challenging and very accessible. I wanted to do the work that the essays were asking me to do - to be a “lyric reader.”

(The) Normal School: Insert Joke about "Anything But Normal" ha ha

Normal School is, first and foremost, worth the money. The money part is, like everything else about it, quirky; two issues a year, listed $5 newsstand, $20 a subscription, meaning there’s a $10 charge in there for saving you what I imagine to be (I don’t know—I have a subscription) the considerable pain in the ass of finding a newsstand with Normal School on it. And yet, as I said, it’s worth the money.

I subscribed to Normal School at AWP because a former roommate of mine works on it and I once wrote her a hot check for rent, truly believing that, as happened so often with my debit card, it would clear and I’d be charged $35 dumbass tax but at least I would have paid my rent. It didn’t work out that way. She was, understandably, upset. I also once exploded a bag of popcorn in her microwave and didn’t clean it up right away; for some reason I thought it already smelled that way. I don’t know why. These are the things you think about, along with loving things, with deep remorse in the years between being 20 and stupid and being 30 and slightly less stupid and running into her walking out of AWP as you’re walking in. She invited me to a party Normal School was throwing and I said I would go and it turned out I couldn’t and I felt so guilty that I didn’t text her and on the last day, I walked up and down the aisles three times and finally asked somebody where Normal School was so I could go buy a subscription I couldn’t really afford (the check, however, cleared) because I still felt bad about the microwave.

This, however, is not the main reason it’s worth the money.

Normal School has a hearty helping of the McSweeney’s empire’s style of deliberate whimsy but without the gravity, the sort of wry despair that makes so many of their antics feel like a dry, knowing laugh as the ship goes down. It’s quite possibly just me, but The Believer (also a subscription, but from a different kind of guilt) that makes me feel a. That I haven’t read enough and never could, and b. It’s all for shit anyway. Normal School feels like The Believer took their meds. I mean that as a compliment.

Normal School is… well, it’s worth quoting their own self-summary, since it communicates both style and context.

“The Normal School is a bi-annual journal featuring nonfiction, fiction, poetry, criticism and culinary adventure journalism. We are nestled happily into the California State University at Fresno like a comfy spore in a benign and mighty lung. We dig quirky, boundary-challenging, energetic prose and poetry with innovations in content, form, and focus, which isn't actually as high-falutin' as it sounds. We're just sort of the lit mag equivalent of the kid who always has bottle caps, cat's eye marbles, dead animal skulls, little blue men and other treasures in his pockets.”

Cool part is, they mean it. They’re magazine-style in physical format, well-designed, B&W on good paper with pull quotes and occasional, non-invasive ads for lit mags, books, and high-brow-hippie orgs like Amnesty International (full-color, full-page inside cover—nice work, Normal School!) and the Project on Government Oversight. Taking a cue from the New Yorker, each month they commission one artist to drop in a few cartoon-like illustrations here and there, not on the story with which they appear but on a theme. Last issue was Lori D. on the county fair; the one before, Jason Graham drew scenes from “what Show and Tell day would be like at The Normal School.” (I’m aware, by the way, that there’s a The in the title, but I like just Normal School better.) Covers are full-color with highlights designed to tantalize—“Susan Straight knows where you can stick your Dixie Cup and rubber balloon”)—and feature serious names like Maud Casey and Sherman Alexie. But all this is window dressing.

The reading is the thing. The design is impressive, fun but not so self-consciously quirky and whimsical that it’s distracting from or compensating for the content. The content is why it’s worth the money. This stuff is *fun.* It’s fun for my brain. First story, first issue I got of Normal School was “The Fifth Category” by Tom Bissell, which on the first page described the wine bottles on airplanes as “perfume-sized” and the windows as “lozenge-shaped,” which are the kinds of associations that feel so perfect that they seem obvious—maybe they are to you; after all, I haven’t read enough—but I’d not read or thought either before. There’s meaty poetry, not too long but diverse and abundant. And, interestingly, there’s a really satisfying quantity of prose (each issue is 112 pages) but that whole “genre” thing goes undesignated. Nowhere does Normal School tell you what’s “fiction” and what’s “nonfiction.” And since they genuinely welcome innovations in style (Brag Break: University of Arizona’s own Kirk Wisland published “Johnny Cash Died” in the most recent issue, a sizeable essay that is, I believe, a single sentence) you really, really can’t assume what’s what. I love this. As a second-year nonfic at UA, I’ve been sitting in on discussions of genre divisions and definitions for 16 months, and Normal School was the perfect place for me to practice all those different modes of thought about where we draw the lines when we write and how those lines change how we read.   

In short, there are lit mags you subscribe to because you should read them, and then there are the ones you read. I read Normal School because it makes my brain happy, and when my brain is happy, I want to write.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Short Essay on Animal Distress

Robert McGowan's essay "Owl," at only two pages, leading off the new issue of River Teeth, a journal that owes its title to something resonant and literary, I have no doubt, even though I have no clue what that is because I am not very well-read or smart, accomplishes something substantial, good and hard, possibly not in that order, in a very short space. It starts simply with the twitter-worthy (in fact I just tweeted it to my digital commonplace) sentence: "I have a sad story about brave death," goes on to describe, in completely unsentimental terms (the necessity of this is probably obvious to all involved), an encounter with a great horned owl caught in barbed wire.

Already you're not interested in reading this, I suspect. Unexpected encounters with animal distress--even the overtly manipulative Sarah McLachlan-tracked and -starring ads for the ASPCA, all of which will still immediately bring me to tears upon accidental viewing, even in fast-forward on my DVR, both because of a remnant fondness for early Sarah McLachlan as well as the series of one-eyed dogs, wounded cats, and abused, abandoned, or otherwise homeless pets--push my buttons way too quickly and disable my critical response, leading to my nearly instantaneous paypal donation, which is, after all, the point of this manipulation. Perhaps they have this effect on you too. It's a weakness, a lack of intellectual force. I admit it.

After all, animals in distress, particularly wild ones, just happened upon in the course of our boring errands (calling William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark"), are an easy occasion for the puncturing of our daily lives that the essay--and the poem, and the story for that matter--does well. In this increasingly simulated, marketed-to, click-tracked, GPS-overlaid, overly-narratized, focus-grouped, poll- and pundit-pummelled, bought and sold, digital, data-mined, spun and, above all else, in ways we are increasingly inured to, virtual world, it's easy to forget in our dailyness and our Daily Showness that the world we live in is only barely controlled if it is controlled at all. Living in Tucson, Arizona, where great horned owls are one among many good reasons not to let your domestic animals outside, is a nice reminder of this. This is to say that you can build your own wounded animal reflection essay with this here received language and emotion kit for only $29.95 plus the obligatory shipping gouge.

McGowan doesn't do that, and the essay holds up under later, cooler-headed examination. "Owl"'s (that's one awkward construction) power owes quite a bit to its economy. That first line performs it well. We get a few swerves, some authority-and-scene-building "dusty chert roads," a quick diversion into the evolutionary behavior of owls, but nothing superfluous. Nothing you'd be able to edit out. Just well-formed declarative sentences (seeming artlessness is in fact an art) that require your attention and reward it.

The essay proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, culminating in a slightly--but, to its credit, only slightly--more examined penultimate Stafford moment with what seems to me an indisputably great line, "In the ground, the owl went into other animals, and it does not matter, but I would like for him to have become fuel for soaring." What makes it for me is "and it does not matter."--the way in which it defers sentimentality. And then "Owl" departs quickly with a quick and faintly spooky coda and then all we have is white space on the page.

And even if it does not matter, or if I am being marketed to and my experience soundtracked by McLachlan's lackluster "Adia" (try Solace or Vox, Lilith Fair weather fans), the experience is what it is: I trust what I feel, or felt, the combination of experience and its hazy memory, and I felt a little more alive today.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pinning Down Prairie Schooner

Unlike many lit mags, Prairie Schooner’s aesthetic and ambition are difficult to define. In recent Essay Daily posts, much discussion has been dedicated to identifying a vibe/mood/ambition/preference of a journal (some prefer experimental work; form-bending work; august, cerebral work; and on and on). This is a useful exercise. Don’t be a chump, we have been told. Read the journal. Understand their aesthetic. Figure out if your piece is a good fit. Sound advice, to be sure. And usually it’s easy enough to sort out. Reportage + strong narrative (perhaps) = CNF. Words + design (perhaps) = Ninth Letter. Etc. But in my afternoons spent poring through PS, I have yet to nail down such a convenient formula. I note an aesthetic range of authors in these pages (from our own edgy Ander Monson to writer-of-the-West Mary Clearman Blew).

Given that I am a confessed novice in the world of lit mags, I thought it wise to contact someone who could discuss, more knowingly, PS’s tough-to-pin aesthetic. I emailed Managing Editor James Engelhardt, and he was kind enough to enlighten.

JE: We like work that makes us keep reading. When a piece moves us--intellectually, emotionally, or just propels us through--then we take special notice. We look for pieces that risk something. A jump in logic, perhaps. A surprising insight. I think you can see that we don't have a particular aesthetic, though our ambition is to publish the best work we can find.

I find this unwavering dedication to fine work noble. Admittedly, the aspiring/submitting writer in me is challenged (if I’m trying to be un-chump-like and only submit pieces that I know will fit their bill, it’s more convenient if I can rely on X + Y = This Lit Mag). But the reader in me, and (eventually) the writer too, is impressed by such commitment. There is no gimmick here. No marketing strategy to set themselves apart with a catchy tag line about requiring this type of work, or that type of writing. If it’s risky, moving, inspired, it’s PS.

Switching gears a little, as a nonfiction-type (at least for the moment), I was inclined to consider the place of nonfiction in these pages. We’ve all heard claims that nonfiction can occasionally be forgotten in the shuffle of poetry and fiction. After all, there are still MFA programs that don’t offer the specialty; as mentioned recently on this site, many journals still lack nonfiction editors; other journals don’t accept essay/memoir at all. Admittedly, when opening a lit journal, I often scan the table of contents, checking for the number of essays. That PS has been a home to some of my most beloved nonfiction pieces speaks to its commitment to what we do. They’ve got nonfiction editors (a big plus), and for two decades nonfiction has found a home in these pages. But the skeptical reader in me noticed that PS offers book prizes in both fiction and poetry, but not non. Quickly, though, Mr. Engelhardt soothed my concerns.

JE: We may well include a nonfiction prize in the future, but the poetry and short fiction were the two genres that interested UNP [University of Nebraska Press, through whom the winners are published] the most. They don't usually publish poetry but were willing to take a chance on books that we vetted, and they agreed with us that the short fiction collection was--and still is--an endangered species that nevertheless still had much to offer to the literary ecology. UNP otherwise quite likes nonfiction, and it sells well for them, and that reality also cooled their interest in a nonfiction prize.

He is absolutely right. Many of my go-to memoirs have come from UNP. And I applaud that they are providing a forum for poetry collections (so competitive in that world, I hear), and while I’m not sure the short story collection is any worse off than the essay collection (especially in light of Phillip Lopate’s “In Defense of the Essay Collection” in the most recent River Teeth), I am excited that they have pushed for book-prizes in the first place (a mark of an impressive, established journal, I think). Most important, though, as an aspiring nonfiction-type, each time I turn to PS’s pages, I am nourished and inspired by the nonfiction they present.

And with that, let us segue into discussion of recent PS essays. (Clearly, for a blog post this is growing long, so these considerations shall be brief, too brief.) In the most recent issue, Floyd Skloot and Kate Flaherty contribute the essays, “Something to Marvel At” and “Method Acting,” respectively. The pieces seem thematically linked in their considerations of relating to/identifying with artistic works. For Skloot, it is the works of Jules Verne, for Flaherty, Shakespeare. Over the last decade, Skloot’s devotion to fiction has tapered, and through Verne’s works he remembers how deeply he needs those stories. “Verne found a kind of joyful freedom in the dream of fiction,” Skloot says. And he ends by confessing, “I lose myself in reading Verne, and it reminds me of the impetus to begin reading Jules Verne at age sixty-five, my desire for a fresh appreciation of something I had been missing, the marvel of original storytelling.” As Skloot identifies his need for fiction through the works of Verne, Flaherty compares her first lessons in love to Romeo and Juliet. Clearly there are thematic similarities; stylistically, though, the pieces couldn’t be more dissimilar. Where Skloot’s tone is cerebral, Flaherty’s is chatty. Skloot’s piece feels essayistic, while Flaherty’s tips toward memoir. Again, these stylistic variances speak to PS’s diverse strengths as a journal.

The summer issue’s essays are also thematically linked. Again, two pieces are featured, “Silence,” by Mary Clearman Blew and “Cartographies of Change,” by Tracy Seeley. Both pieces deal with loss (for Blew, contact with her son, for Seeley, her health). Where Skloot and Flaherty varied stylistically, Blew and Seeley aren’t quite so dissimilar. Both essays feature reflective prose, and both leave the reader a little stunned. I am reminded of Mr. Engelhardt’s proclivity toward pieces that move us emotionally, that are surprising with insight, and these essays are evidence of Prairie Schooner’s devotion to such compelling prose.

--Many thanks to James Engelhardt for serving as the voice of PS.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Reading: A Look at Ninth Letter

Let us now meditate first on some writing and then on some design, if they are different, which I'm not certain they are.

In the most recent issue of the literary journal, Ninth Letter, an essay appears which pushes our understanding of what an essay is and what it might contain or do or be. Enveloped in a search for quiet, On Silence, by Joshua Schriftman, considers an expanse of information from muses to language; from the decibel to death. The piece is a centrifuge at whose center is Andrea, or love perhaps. (What? I'm a closeted romantic. Step off.) Essentially, the piece is simultaneously soundless and loud in its earnest attempt at internal quiet. If not loud, exactly, then intense. But let's talk about form.

The non-linear narrative offers silence as an elusive character whom our author seeks. In his search, we see two forms of footnotes, a chart, some diagrams and a numeric organizing principle. This fragmented narrative ultimately comprises a layered whole, where we are first compelled by the meditation on silence and later drawn into the story of a relationship and its subsequent failures.

After reading the story, engaging with the forms, I began a post-essay stalk and was happy to find Schriftman on the internets and then-gasp!-a website for On Silence, with sound even. The site is password-protected, so I emailed Schriftman. He generously offered to share the site with me, which basically allows the user to navigate through the essay while experiencing sound, clicking and reading. In other words: it's a manifestation of the form of the essay itself, with moving footnotes and multisensory experiences.

He even answered some questions. Here's a snapshot of our conversation (edited by me; brackets are my inserts):

Can you discuss your process?
My process was about one percent writing and ninety-nine percent revision...I tried to make each [chapter] a sort of complete essay unto itself, and the constant question on my mind was how to maintain a certain tension throughout.

Did you draw the illustrations for this piece?
I didn't draw the illustrations, although I sort of love them. [Ninth Letter] took a rather abstract approach that I think I might have been afraid of attempting [in his website, which has visuals] and doing so with a kind of ironic play on structure and flow. I personally believe their schematics work very with with the text of my essay.

Would you call this an essay?
Yes. [Insert humble commentary and reference to D'Agata.] I think an essay is essentially an experiment, a no-holds-barred attempt to get at something.

What are you reading? Who's influenced you? Any literary journals you're digging?
My current goal is to catch up on my friends' and mentors' writing. I'm halfway through Chuck Kinder's Last Mountain Dancer, which I'm thoroughly enjoying. I've been slowly working my way through a couple of issues of Tin House, and I am indeed digging them. It's worth mentioning that Ander Monson's been an influence, and I've really enjoyed some of the writing at Diagram. [I deleted and reinserted the last sentence about four times, on account of being Ander's advisee.]

[End transcript. And thank you, Joshua.]

What does this mean for the essay as form? The interrogation of moments (or pieces) as a means of comprising something cohesive reflects, I think, the way our minds work. Linear writing has always struck me as more false than other kinds of nonfiction, especially now in the way that information is increasingly accessible to us. Put another way, the combination of forms accurately reflects the human experience, and maybe even offers the most logical container for each piece of the whole. Of course, I have no idea what this might do for the essay; but I do think Schriftman's piece is part of a larger moment in which we investigate the essay.

Now for some design-speak.

Last year, Ninth Letter was presented to me as the literary journal towards which all other journals should strive. More specifically, this was what all journals should look like. And the journal certainly is beautiful and beautifully considered, from ephemera planted in its interior pages to its poster-folded-as-dust jacket exterior. The journal has become an object to be considered, or perhaps a series of objects to comprise a whole.

The journal is the product of a collaboration between the Graduate Creative Writing program and the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois. Part of the journal's mission is to curate exceptional writing as illuminated by "cutting-edge" graphic design. It should be noted that the journal has been featured in impressive design powerhouses like HOW Magazine and Print Magazine. When the recent issue arrived in my mailbox, I guess I was expecting more pictures.

The journal wants to be experimental and, comparatively, I believe it is in the way that content is considered on the same playing field as form. Undergrads spend an entire semester developing the look of the journal. In this issue, the intention of the designers was to make images that reflect the reading, thereby adding another layer of concept to the work. For instance, in Schriftman's essay, we see sort of abstract diagrams which reference, I think, sound or maybe silence, or even both. But to me, they still feel outside of the essay. They are necessarily separate from the text and this kind of juxtaposition feels slightly forced.

This meditation is not about design so much as images; or, shall we say, the design of writing. Where are the graphic essays at? Where are the pieces that integrate imagery necessarily into the text such that one cannot exist without the other? Is it that this isn't being done? Seeing a photograph alongside text reminds me of the traditional livre d'artist format, where (in one scenario) writers and artists collaborated to create beautiful books, but where each component could be read separately. (See also Arion Press.)

I feel sort of alone in this desire, for words to be smashed with images. But I wonder if this is where the essay might go. Certainly, Ninth Letter moves us in this direction. I just hope for more: more images, more graphic-y writing, more objects falling out of the pages and into our hands. More.