Guest Post by Kelli La Pointe
The Spring 2008 issue of the Seneca Review offers a variety of different writing styles – from nonfiction to fiction to poetry. Unless you look at the back of the magazine to see how the different authors presented in it are categorized, it is nearly impossible to distinguish one style from another. The common theme that runs through the literary magazine seems to be that of experimentation. Straightforward narrations really don’t have a place here, at least not in the issue I’ve examined. All the pieces of this issue experiment with style, content, and structure, blurring the lines of traditional writing. Of the pieces in this edition, there are three that really stand out, representing three styles the Seneca Review publishes: lyric essay, poetry, and a hybrid lyric essay/poetry.
When looking at the pieces that are clearly not poetry that the Seneca Review names lyric essays, it is clear how these essays are something more than nonfiction. One lyric essay that caught my attention was “In My Version of the Afterlife Grandma is Riding an Elephant” by Alice George. The piece focuses on two story lines – one of the narrator’s grandmother’s death and the narrator’s desire to be buried when she dies, the other on the growing number of elephants turning against humans and killing hundreds and how hundreds of these people are burned because they believe burning purifies dead bodies. The connection between the narrator’s grandmother and the elephants seems tenuous at first, until the narrator mentions that her grandmother was cremated, just as many of the elephants’ victims in Africa and India. The subject of the piece is deciding which is better, cremation or burial. Each section is separated by an analogy. Each analogy connects to the section it precedes, giving a brief example of what is to be read. The title of lyric essay is well applied to these types of essays, which are more like – as a friend of mine once termed – prosetry, prose written as poetically as possible before turning completely into poetry. The essay moves well, the tone is even without giving too much to the exaggerations throughout the piece. Of all the essays in this piece, this one struck me most of all.
The poem “– U – R – Testimonies (An Excerpt)” by Philip Metres takes excerpts from testimonials from Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib. What makes this poem unique is that only a word or phrases from each line of the testimonies is presented. Everything else is white space, bringing up images of letters that have been censored for content. The words float about the page, nothing to anchor them in place, time or space, giving the poem a sense of helplessness one would feel in prison. The words, when read together, elicit emotions from the reader that one would expect to find in reading the full testimonials. It is an effective poem, drawing emotions from the reader and causing them to think, especially once the reader reaches the note at the end of the excerpt that explains where the words come from.
Between the poem and the lyric essay there are three hybrid pieces the Seneca Review dubs lyric essay/poetry. “When Dada Ordered Chinese” and “When Dada Skipped School” by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde fall into this category. The two pieces characterize Da-Ren, which according to the footnote at the bottom of the first page, is a “significant motif in traditional Chinese thought.” The author creates Da-Ren as a character, detailing different aspects of his life. Without knowing that Da-Ren is not a real person but the personification of an idea, it is easy to assume that this is a nonfiction piece, providing brief glimpses into the life of a man. It is an unusual piece that may not work in another literary magazine.
This magazine seems to look for very specific kinds of work, lyrical pieces that dance on the border of nonfiction. To be published alongside these poetic writers would require very special pieces. Many of these pieces, so artfully and poetically composed, seem to be experiments in nonfiction writing, creating new kinds of nonfiction, poetry, and sometimes combining both. Straightforward pieces about life or personal experiences, unless written in a poetic manner, have no real place in this magazine, as represented with the Spring 2008 issue. The three pieces that I have described are just examples of the many pieces of the three styles printed in this literary magazine.