Monday, September 27, 2010

The Sun: Chicken Soup for the Graduate Student Soul

After reading through my first three issues of the non-profit literary journal The Sun, it didn’t surprise me to find the slogan, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free”, as the header on the journal’s website. This journal is nothing if not personal, both in content and in philosophy. Gracing nearly every page of each issue are stories about people. Stories about all manner of things: women who want to try sticking their finger up their husbands’ anus, about working as an aid practitioner in war-torn Sierra Leonne, about Hurricane Katrina, about alcoholic fathers, about buying a new car, about living as an amputee. A plethora of political and oh-so-personal stories abound.

There are no advertisements. There are pictures.

Oh yeah, The Sun also provides complimentary subscriptions--$39.00/yr for the rest of us—to prisoners, people with limited income, the homeless, women’s shelters etc. The cumulative effect of all of this is a warm-fuzzy going home for Thanksgiving kind of feel. A friend of mine recently commented that after having read several literary journals she had concluded that it was “mostly writers who read them.” “Nobody else really reads them,” she repeated to me.

The Sun is the kind of literary magazine you can safely assume is read by non-writers; it is accessible and I like that. Perhaps this is why it is one of only three literary magazines that can be found of the shelf of my local Bookman’s; when I asked why this was so, the cashier told me they were ‘really popular’. Usually this is something we hold against a book (journal in this case) but since I am usually one of the plain popular dopes who fall right in line with the mainstream, I decided to withhold judgment.

Then there is the section called Sy Safransky’s Notebook where the journal’s editor-in-chief publishes excerpts from his supposed notebooks (“My cat Zooey woke me up this morning. He licked my hand, then stretched out besides me […] That’s what we all want, isn’t it? A place at the table. Room in someone’s heart”), as well as a section called Reader’s Write in which readers are encouraged to write in on a variety of topics from Porches, to Saying Yes, to Small Victories, to Change of Heart.

The Sun blurs the line between professional writer, reader, and editor; each is contributing to the magazine in a less than conventional way (i.e., the writer is contributing personal journal entries and readers are called upon to submit a short piece of literary nonfiction). This is another way in which the journal seems to want to establish a personal relationship and dialogue with its readership.

To wit:

“Your magazine has shown me that I am not alone.”

Bridget Willey, Sun reader

“‘I’ve felt so many things. It’s not like a magazine. It’s more like a person, a friend.’”

Ashley Walker, author

Editor-in-chief Sy Safransky resists defining the magazine, claiming that labels feel reductive (between the labels is where the magic happens, he says), but the journal’s online mission statement describes the journal as a fusing of the personal and the political, as an attempt to honor the genuine and the spiritual, and as an effort to “invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” According to Sy, “exploring the vagaries of the human condition”, and “honoring the mysteries of the heart” are the driving forces behind his vision for The Sun.

Even for me—an infamously uncritical consumer of inspirational (read cheesy) writing—this seemed like a lot of times to mention the human heart and the human condition and the human spirit, and all this talk about being best friends with the magazine and being uplifted started to make me a little uncomfortable. That was when I noticed a section at the end called Sunbeams (eek!), which turned out to be a page of inspirational quotations. I was about to put it down then and there—write it off as not a serious literary journal—when a quotation (“to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”—Simone Weil) caught my eye. I sheepishly wrote it down, like a spy taking notes in a badly lit Eastern European cafĂ©. I had to admit: I liked that section. I liked the chicken noodle soup, rolling around in your snowsuit, man who triumphs over terminal disease feel of it all. Let’s face it—most of us like to read stories about people like us, about people who are challenged in great and mundane ways; a lot of us like to read for that gem of meaning, so that along with the writer, we too feel we have learnt something.

This is what The Sun delivers. Not to mention pretty good writing. No, this is not Chicken Soup for the Graduate Student Soul (despite my earlier allusion to chicken soup), but it is writing of fairly high caliber. Though the journal is by and large interested in the narrative essay, recent issues have shown new enthusiasm for more experimental forms.

In the January 2009 issue, Cary Tennis’s Since You Asked features a conglomeration of pieces culled from the writer’s advice column on, and though this was not written as a cohesive essay (or an essay at all for that matter), it is interesting to examine the way it works as a piece of nonfiction— or what Sy Safransky might call a ‘true story.’ Each response works as a sort of micro essay in and of itself. Help-seekers write in about a variety of problems, such as the neglectful wannabe Hollywood boyfriend, the guy who doesn’t like finding right-wing propaganda in the loo, the woman afraid of falling into a complacent and passion-less rut with her boyfriend, the guy who ditched his pregnant girlfriend as a teenager and is now dealing with the fall-out.

The questions themselves seem suspiciously uniform in style (not to mention the curious content…I mean, who takes the time to write to an advice columnist about the fact that they are feeling, meh, kinda irritable?), which leads one to wonder if they are real at all. Perhaps they function rather, as a sort of intro to the topic at hand, i.e., provide Tennis with the opening he needs in order to pontificate/ “essay” on his subject of choice. The last response in the piece for example, becomes an enraged mediation of the fact that bad things happen to good people, concluding with the words, “It’s the truth. You’re wiser now, though black-and-blue, sobbing in the firelight, waiting for the dawn.” It’s the truth. The author provides us with a final truth in each of these vignettes: a lesson if you will. And this seems similar in structure and ambition to all the pieces in The Sun. There’s an issue, it’s discussed, and some kind of resolution—or revelation—takes place.

Emily Rapp’s “Surviving the Body”, an essay about an amputee who goes to Korea to teach English, ends on a similar note. “Grace,” she tells us, “can only be experienced when we fail.” The reader is left with an image of Emily literally burying her discipline stick in the yard (presumably symbolizing the various types of violence portrayed in the essay). As in many of the magazines other pieces, things are tied up and—quite literally—buried. Though the end seems to suggest that the essay’s largest ambition is related to the experience of triumph over failure, the essay as a whole feels as if it is divided into two vectors: violence and healing. Rapp moves predictably back and forth between these two threads: the egregious violence (including spousal abuse, date rape, corporal punishment),which she witnesses in Korea; and short sections of prose describing the various therapies and surgeries (including learning to walk again) that she underwent as a result of a congenital bone-and-tissue disorder.

The most engaging sections of the essay are those where Rapp uses vivid imagery to describe her leg, doctors, and the various procedures she underwent. Ex. “Wooden limbs and rubber feet hung from the ceiling on frayed cotton straps. The legs were like body parts hung out on a laundry line, estranged and neglected, waiting to be claimed and inhabited by a person who would give them a reason to exist. My dad and I sat in silence, watching the limbs sway in the feeble breeze from the single ceiling fan and listening to the whine of the saw in the room.” Perhaps this is a result of temporal distance, but these sections feel better processed, and more wholly digested, than the parts that take place in Korea. In Korea, Rapp gives the reader scenes of physical abuse (her kicking the American soldier in the mouth with her carbon and steel foot, the young girl being made to endure physical torture in the schoolyard for their transgressions) but there is little reflection on what these scenes might mean, in particular with relation to the healing vector of the essay. Though the essay closes with a climactic image and a lesson (grace can only be experienced when we fail) one is left wondering (as we often say ad nauseum in our MFA workshops): was it earned?

The micro essay “The Things We Say When We Say Goodbye” by Alan Davis, a tender portrait of Davis’s Uncle Joe, is similarly precarious. A conversational tone, employing snippets of dialogue, and anecdotal memories, creates a picture of a peaceful man. We come to know Uncle Joe via his belief systems: his philosophy of life. The essay is divided into two sections, each ending on a hefty, yet puzzling note. The first section (a brief sketch of Uncle’s Joe’s religious beliefs) ends with the words: “Those were probably my last words to him, aside from the things we say when we say goodbye”. The sentence echoes the essays title, and one expects it to be picked up again later in the essay (what are the things we say to each other when we say goodbye?), but it is not. The second chunk is a speculative account of Uncle Joe’s death terminating in the unexpected conclusion that “disaster was always, is always, a heartbeat away”. ??? This dramatic conclusion felt particularly unearned, but perhaps such are the limitations of working with such a short format.

The essays in The Sun all seem to beg a similar question. While we all want to take a journey with the writer and feel we have arrived somewhere by the end, essay upon essay of tidily wrapped up narrative, may leave us wondering how much of the human condition is really being represented here. The stories in this journal are powerful, and it is possible to be drawn along by the plot points themselves—not to mention some authentically well written prose—but there is a fairly polished quality to the magazine that may be problematic for some.

Best American Essays 2010 Table of Contents

I haven't had a chance to read through it yet, but figured I'd post the Table of Contents here, as its nearly impossible to find anywhere else (every year they keep their contributor's a mystery, it's pretty bizarre):

Elif Batuman- The Murder of Leo Tolstoy (Harper's)
Toni Bentley- The Bad Lion (NY Review of Books)
Jane Churchon- The Dead Book (The Sun)
Brian Doyle- Irreconcilable Dissonance (Oregon Humanities)
John Gamel- The Elegant Eyeball (Alaska Quarterly Review)
Walter Isaacson- How Einstein Divided America's Jews (The Atlantic)
Steven L. Isenberg- Lunching on Olympus (The American Scholar)
Jane Kramer- Me, Myself, and I (The New Yorker)
Arthur Krystal- When Writers Speak (NY Times Book Review)
Matt Labash- A Rake's Progress (The Weekly Standard)
Phillip Lopate- Brooklyn the Unknowable (Harvard Review)
Ian McEwan- On John Updike (NY Review of Books)
Steven Pinker- My Genome, My Self (NY Times Magazine)
Ron Rindo- Gyromancy (Gettysburg Review)
David Sedaris- Guy Walks into a Bar Car (New Yorker)
Zadie Smith- Speaking in Tongues (NY Review of Books)
S. Frederick Starr- Rediscovering Central Asia (Wilson Quarterly)
John H. Summers- Gettysburg Regress (The New Republic)
John Edgar Wideman- Fatheralong (Harper's)
Garry Wills- Daredevil (The Atlantic)
James Wood- A Fine Range (The New Yorker)

Not sure what to think of this list yet, but I'm sure y'all will have your own reviews/thoughts. Mainly, I'm hoping that we won't get a dozen essays about the process of writing, as last year's edition felt pretty overwhelmed with the subject. As always, I find myself more drawn to the Notable Essays in the back, where one finds a more interesting variety (as well as a few familiar names/contributors to this blog, congratulations all.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Evolution of Fourth Genre

Fourth Genre--an excellent literary journal and major crush of mine--has been around for awhile (ten years to be exact).  For this blog entry, I thought it would be interesting to look at how Fourth Genre has evolved over those ten years.  To illustrate this, I'll look at two issues and discuss two essays: the first from Fall 1999 (insert Prince lyrics here) and the second from Fall 2009.  Ten years.  A lot can happen in ten years.  Heck, ten years ago today, I was fifteen and heading to an N'Sync concert.  I digress.

Let's start by looking at Bret Lott's "Toward Humility," published in the Fall 1999 (Vol. 1, No. 2) issue.  First, a bit on structure.  This piece is structured with numbers, but instead of going in numerical, chronological order, we get a backward numbering set: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0.  I tend to dig this kind of organizing principle--not just because I'm anal and I get off on numbered chunks (so crisp, so clean!)--but also because it keeps me reading until the very end.  And that's important.  It's so easy, with essays, to stop reading a piece if you have a hard time following it's path.  Now onto content.  "Toward Humility" works for me because it does a great job utilizing its second person narrative voice.  I'd imagine most people who read Fourth Genre--and most literary journals in general for that matter--tend to be writers.  Since this piece is from the perspective of a writer who has earned enormous and unexpected fame, we writerly types can sink easily into this voice (we want to imagine that one day, that'll be us).  But, as we read on, we see that this fame and fortune comes with its downfalls.  The author, after gaining major attention for his first book (even getting to be on what we presume to be "The Oprah Winfrey" show), never achieves the same amount of attention for his later work.  In the essay, the protagonist is currently working on a new novel, but it's not living up to his (nor his editors') sense of potential.  Towards the end of the essay, there's a poignant scene where we see narrator yelling during his son's soccer game: "Let's GO!  Get in the GAME!" He yells at his son.  We realize though that he's not so much yelling at his son, as he's chastising himself: Finish that book!  Make it good!  By the end of the book, the narrator has isolated himself (presumedly just temporarily so) from his wife and family.  We see that the price you pay for fame is the frightening possibility of losing those that are most important to you.

I should pause for a bit and talk more about this Fall 1999 issue.  The journal is arranged in very predictable patterns.  In other words, there's nothing fancy going on here.  As I scan through the issue, I see the essays are just about all similar in length (15-20 pages long) and are structured the same.  With the exception of Bret Lott's essay (he uses numbers) and John Lane's essay (he uses Roman numerals), within each essay, three black boxes are always used to indicate section breaks (the same way that dots or asteriks are utilized in many essays).  I found it somewhat shocking that the journal kept this form going for the entirety of the journal.  It was as if the journal was saying, "If you don't have an organizing principle for your essay, we'll make one for you.  We love these three black boxes!"

Fast forward ten years later.  Now we have the Fall 2009 issue.  A lot has changed in terms of the structure and content of the journal.  To find out what specifically changed, I emailed the current editor, Marcia Aldrich, to hear her perspective.  She graciously answered my email with some awesome, detailed answers.  Here's what she said:

1. Wanted to bring younger writers into the journal, and younger readers, I made a concerted effort to do so, and think I have made a big change in that area. A good mix of talented graduate students, or recent graduates have been making their appearance in our pages. Lots of emerging writers as well mixed in with more seasoned writers, but a dramatic shift. At AWP, lots of graduate students coming by the table NOW because someone in their program had a piece accepted. I wanted more diversity of age: got it.

2. I think, though some may argue against this, that we've moved the journal into welcoming more diverse styles of creative nonfiction, with an openness to innovation and lyric essay. We're publishing more short essays of an experimental sort. I wanted to represent better the range of writing being done under the umbrella heading of creative nonfiction. I think there's been improvement. Still we're dependent on what comes through the door.

3. Introduced picking a clearly innovative essay to spotlight and ask the writer to write an accompanying essay about the essay's composition.

4. Introduced Writer as Reader section. See guidelines. Eula Biss is writing on Joan Didion for our spring issue. This is the most exciting feature for me that's new and my idea.

5. New book review editor, emphasis on more diversity of what we review. Deliberate attempt to make sure we're reviewing widely. moving in the right direction.

6. Cutting capsule reviews which I thought was a weak part of the journal. Gone as of spring.

7. Trying to publish more graphic essays. Trying.

8. Redesign to make a little more elegant and literary within the limited means at my disposal.

So, there goes.  I too noticed quite a shift in terms of variety of content.  Whereas most of the essays in the Fall 1999 issue were of similar length, style, and structure, the Fall 2009 has some surprises: shorter essays, a graphic essay, and a bit more experimentation in terms of style.  The magazine still has its organizing principles (it has traded in the three black boxes for three black arrows facing northeast), but has allowed for more structurally experimental essays; one of my favorites being Heather Seller's "Becoming a Mouth."  Again, gotta love the organizing method here: Sellers uses ten headings (i.e.: 1. CRAZY GIRL, 2. HUMOR I DESIRE, and so on).  This is a new kind of story-telling unseen in the first issue.  The story isn't linear, but served to us in episodic chunks.  The chunks are all related, but we see more of a non-linear mind in action.  Seller's opens with a vivid scene of an outcast girl (presumed to be her?) on a playground.  The section ends strong and shifts from sad to hopeful with: "...and the girl on the edge alone has one idea she knows is good.  She's going to be funny" (17).  BOOM!  Killer line.  Then she goes into how she honed her specific breed of dark humor and how she has utilized it--for herself and her writing students--throughout her life.  She shifts from the personal into a more big picture essay as she discusses the role of comedy--"we laugh at painful things"--and the role of the comic writer: "we have to digest what is not digestable" (24).

I find it interesting that both pieces I read (and loved) were addressed to writers.  The first being a caveat to the fame and fortune of best-selling authors in "Towards Humility," and the second a "how-to" on comedy and comic writing in "Becoming a Mouth."  Again, maybe this is because the people at Fourth Genre know who their main audience is: writers, of course!


Monday, September 6, 2010

In Brief: Brevity's Brilliance

I don’t know that much about literary journals. I subscribe to one, read a few others sporadically, make myself feel involved in the field. A few professors and friends unknowingly shame me in my secret, referencing the works of the largest literary journals as though I should be friendly with not just the articles but the evolution of the artists. I nod, complacent in my lie because of shame or something akin to apathy. Probably both.

I say all this to prove that I am an unstudied eye.

The most recent issue of Brevity does make me think, with a flutter of hope, that perhaps I can commit myself to something as formal as reading an issue of a lit rag cover to cover (figuratively speaking, of course). With what little hands-on experience I have regarding editorial decisions for a magazine, I still can’t help but give mad props to Brevity for its fantastic composition. The journal, complete with its 14 essays ranging from topics of memory to craft, does an excellent job of revealing to an astute reader (or one assigned the opportunity to review a literary journal) the range of the form. Using texts as short as 188 words (that’s less than a third of the requisite cap for entry, FYI), "Issue 33" finds a way to pair themes, styles, methods, and approaches for nearly every essay in the journal. This ability to seamlessly braid the journal’s text using so many considerations not only gives Brevity a cohesive structure, but a jump-off-the-screen substance that compensates for any sans-technology protests one might make about this online literary journal.

Let’s examine a few examples that illuminate my point, shall we? “Lag Time” by Steven Church uses experiences of lightning to analyze the nanosecond split between hearing and understanding about the death of his brother; Marcia Aldrich’s “The Back Stroke” analyzes how returning to swimming in a pond (an activity her now-dead sister taught her) allowed Aldrich to dismiss the control loss had had over her. Their two nature-renders-memory essays contrast starkly with Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s puzzling “The Soils I have Eaten.” But all three fit. Nature essays? Memoirs? Relationships between space and people? I would have a hard time sealing any of these essays inside their boxes. Yet, by their juxtaposition—by their resonance—I may fall into a deeper dialogue with each of them.

Alright, so Church’s piece: Over the course of its 411 words, “Lag Time” evolves from a piece comparing storms in California with those in Kansas into a piece comparing the space between lightning and thunder with the uncertainty before you realize you do recognize that thing that went bump in the night. Fine. Now watch for the back flip. With a thesis that is continuously revealing itself, we move into discussions of the irreconcilable fracture of a family once death enters. The reader can see how this well-executed essay takes us from California to loss, from storms in the atmosphere to storms within a household. But when we began, we didn’t predict we’d get there.

Contrast that with Aldrich’s “The Back Stroke.” From the very first our title clues us into what we may encounter; Aldrich then expands the foreshadowing with her use of imagery rendering death. She’s floating face down at first, passive; then she’s striving, moving towards her destination; then she’s releasing, finding her own form. We are told, both metaphorically and rather bluntly about the author’s intention (“Dead now, she couldn’t say, ‘Let go, Marcia. I’m holding you.’ I had to do this for myself.”). But even then, Brevity capitalizes on its editorial capacity: Aldrich follows Church in the journal, allowing the reader to consider Church’s essay and the way he still dwells on the first moment of learning to live after a death. The two stories meet one another in the journal, and we discover something altogether unexpected in their encounter.

So why, then, include “The Soils I have Eaten”? I think Brevity is flashing a bit of an artistic reminder with this piece. A descriptive narration, “The Soils I have Eaten” acquaints readers with various places-become-personalities. Sure, there’s nature writing here. But beyond that there’s interaction, there’s encounter. The essay begins in the distant third-person, moves to the close third, then the second, then the plural first, then singular first. Nezhukumatathil is drawing the reader into the text (as Church did) but with a completely different method than we’ve seen elsewhere in the journal. It’s Brevity’s “Don’t forget: we rejoice in the dynamics of the essay too!” moment.

To expand, another fantastic example of how Brevity engages readers of essays appears within the pairing of “I can’t Stop Thinking of That New York Skirt, Turquoise Sequins Glued onto Sea-Colored Cotton” by Diane Seuss and “The Watch” by Lisa Groen Braner. Thematically, these two essays share a very similar bent: the ability of objects to return us to experience. But Brevity’s genius begins to show through here when the two pieces take vastly different forms. The latter, a more traditional chronological memoir focused around a watch, contrasts starkly with Seuss’s not-quite-stream-of-consciousness digression using objects that ground the reader in the narrator’s personality/experience. Certainly they are memoir, certainly they showcase objects (look no further than the title if you want to argue the point). Yet, they’re on opposing seas of style. Which is, quite frankly, a brilliant editorial choice.

Perhaps there is room for a bit more editorial discernment in the journal (I had no taste for “The Moment,” and the two craft essays touched on tangential topics as compared to the rest of the material in this issue. But you can’t control submissions can you?). There were too many essays dwelling on death—a commentary on our culture?—but with such light-hearted editorial delight in form and method, I would never accuse the journal of focusing on the dark. Too much here shows craft in and between the words. So for writers who read literary magazines (or lie that they do), I would bring forward Brevity. It’s worth the time, however brief.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

dislocate, discussion (an obscure Live reference which is probably not worth making or noting, since Live turned out to be mostly not very good, which is sad because their first couple discs have some good moves and occasionally I want to karaoke "Lightning Crashes" because I know, just know, it would rock. Maybe this Friday?)

I'm looking at dislocate's Spring 2010 issue, the contaminated issue. It's designed well, for starters. Thank Brian Laidlaw, their design editor, for that, presumably:

Nice. Pretty, suggestive. The interiors are pretty quality also.

First let me start with some disclaimers about incest. Dislocate is the product of University of Minnesota's MFA program, a program generally on the rise, as far as I can tell, and also the program in which one of my very favorite writers, Charles Baxter, teaches. I have no real connection to Charles Baxter apart from having followed him and his work [read: semi-stalked? --Ed.] for about 18 years. I have no connection to the MFA at Minnesota. My wife is from Minnesota. I play a lot of disc golf in Minnesota (hola Kaposia, Inver Grove, Acorn, Cottage Grove, Bryant Lake, etc.). Several of my best friends are Minnesotans or have been Minnesotans. I have nothing against Minnesota. I also recently ran a marathon in Minnesota along with the nonfiction editor of dislocate, no less. My mother's family is from Minnesota (mostly, or where it bleeds into North Dakota). I was once on a road trip with my brother in Minnesota during the worst winter they had in 40 years in which I was driving my father's newly bought Isuzu Trooper, which is just an awful automobile, which had a problem with the heater, as in, it pumped out no heat. My brother and I could each drive for a half an hour tops before having to switch off so we could warm our near-frostbitten feet on the sad s-wisps of heat emanating from the feeble defroster since the vents did not work. The temperatures were into the -30s. At one point we stopped at Fleet Farm--or Farm and Fleet, I forget which name it's called in Minnesota--and bought several pairs of electric socks which consisted of a tube sock with an electric wire running throughout it. The net effect of the electric socks was that the wire would heat up and burn the part of your feet it touched, and your remaining foot would be frozen. They came with a disclaimer that read, we found out later and far too late, "not to be worn."

Also I know, quite well, several of the the nonfiction writers whose work appears in this issue, including one Lindsey Drager and Katie Jean Shinkle. I also know the nonfiction editor and marathoner, David LeGault. I know Jenny Boully's work very well, and know her a little less than well, I'd estimate. I know Brian Oliu only via occasional conversations, and the editorial connection we have in that I've published his (interesting) work before in the journal I edit, DIAGRAM. I've also published and admired the work of the judge of their "contaminated essay" contest, the great, gorgeous, and well-adorned Lia Purpura. Which is all to say that I'm not exactly a disinterested observer. And that this journal is, at least as far as nonfiction goes, literarily stacked. A good compliment for dislocate would be to compliment its nice rack. Which is to say it shows off well. It's not all curves, though.

Structurally, the issue is divided into five sections and a coda, and I confess I have no clue as to why this is, or what the sections mean. Perhaps it is referencing something that I am too dumb to know. Or perhaps it's constructing its own sort of structure as a book object, a thing too few journals try.

The nonfiction published in the "contaminated essay" contest section is a bit of a departure from the nonfiction published outside of the contest in this issue. For starters, the non-contest essays, Drager's "Photographs I Did Not Take" and Boully's "from not merely because of the unknown that was stalking towards them" are way more lyrically-affiliated than the contest winners (though there's elements of lyric in Shinkle's "Air Hunger," and Oliu's rocking the MS-DOS lyric love with his "C:\run iliad.exe" (though I'd like to point out that traditional MS-DOS would not allow that space in a filename, thus puncturing a little of the formal appeal of that play). The contest winner, Lehua M. Taitano's "Reticulation," comes complete with a neato graph behind the layout:

You figure out what the graph paper effect is for when you read the essay. It's related, mostly. I'm not 100% convinced of its necessity, but it was subtle enough that I didn't notice it through the first couple pages. Presumably this was in the manuscript, though I wouldn't put it past the designers & editors to spiff it up a bit with this feature.

As you may guess, the contaminated essay referred to is a way of talking about hybridity--the essay invites contamination from other sources, and their contest asked for work that fit this bill. DIAGRAM ran (and runs) our own Hybrid Essay contest, which is fairly similar in terms of the sorts of writing we're looking to promote.

Note to hybrid-writer-types: don't just shoot the poetry cannon at your essay and figure that makes it hybrid or contaminated. Well, maybe it's contaminated, but not all contaminations are net positives. I mention this since that's what we got a lot of in our contest, and I'd guess that dislocate probably got a lot of that too. Nothing against poetry--Drager's essay here is arguably more poem than essay, and it works. But poetry shouldn't be the default, and if you shoot bad poetry at a bad essay, you get a really bad essay-poem whose weakness is magnified.

Anyhow, I'm particularly interested in the two modes of Boully, one found here and found in her essay "A Short Essay on Being" in a recent issue of Triquarterly. (They're all-online now as you may have heard, and I think this is a good move.) If you know Boully's work, you know it tends to be very interested in fragment and language textures. However, I've read a couple of Boully's more overtly autobiographical essays, both about Thainess in some sense, and they are much more prose-transparent than what she's best known for. Her piece in dislocate is from an evidently forthcoming book more in the more language/fragment-oriented direction.

These two sorts of Boully essays come from very different places--one more linguistic, exploratory, overtly formal (see also her book The Book of Beginnings and Endings and her book/essay The Body), and one narrative. In "Being" from Triquarterly she's talking about being Thai and her methods of dealing with fools, wanting to make a more obvious point, and exploring a particular set of experiences in an occasionally bitchy (not meant here entirely as critique) and often entertaining way. In "from not merely..." Boully's main vector is much less obvious. The piece begins midstream in an "Also he was fond of variety," and proceeds in two strands--one a sort of footnote to the other. Or that's how it seems initially. The two strands vary in their primacy. The essay becomes a sort of riff on Peter Pan (imagination, power, gender), but being that's it's excerpted from a forthcoming book, it's less obvious to this reader how exactly it works as a stand-alone piece. Which is to say it certainly requires more readerly work.

I wonder what accounts for these two very separate--opposed, nearly--modes of essaying, if there's a way to resolve them in one Frankenstein monster essay or book. (Why are we asking to resolve them? That feels at the least ungenerous--we should want our authors to be split, and resplit, and resplit, but yet there's a readerly desire to resolve both into the one brain that sends out these transmissions.) I admire things about both modes--the pleasing difficulty and rich linguistic loam (that's a showy and wack phrase; sorry) of the stranger, lyric explorations, and the apparent directness (which reads as undefensiveness or vulnerability at times) of the narrative pieces. They require different sorts of readerly work, one displaying its arty peacock feathers, one doing less of that (on the surface at least--that apparent artlessness is also an art, as we know). There are downsides in each mode that could be rectified by the strengths of the other. The apparent plainness feels a little easy at moments, maybe disingenuous, I've thought in my more suspicious moments (though this is probably part of comparing the "easyness" of the prose to her other work). I find myself wanting those linguistic fireworks to pop and illuminate the night, to make sure she and her readers earn their way to the important moments. And in some of the more prose-opaque essays it's easy to get tired and yearn for a a little bit of transparency or light to filter in. I'm not really pulling any conclusions from this since I don't know what I want, but I'm interested to watch and see if these two Boullys converge or diverge.

I don't find myself particularly interested in Josh Garrett-Davis's "Pratincole." It lacks the motion and energy I liked in some of the other essays in the issue, though it definitely demonstrates another strand of the dislocate brand of nonfiction (which is clearly branded to be more expansive--smart, dislocate, smart). Dude certainly has the knowledge. And a wilingness to drop that know-how bomb on us. Yet as a reader I am a flighty breed. I need immediate tension--vulnerability--energy! So I turn to Nick Neely's (presumably no relation to Indiana poet by way of Chicago and Alabama Mark Neely) "Tidewater," which has the story and energy to roll the tide over us and to hold my attention. It's less interesting on the sentence level (though its apparent second-person strategy is a bit of an odd one--maybe not even the right one--and there are some great licks throughout), but the story is pretty great, so that can carry us a ways. It's very narrative, though. Though, narrative is an extremely powerful force. Watch enough non-narrative films (Hello, ha ha, Dali, for instance) for long enough, and you start to really badly want some transformer to attach another transformer who is threatening the existence of good-looking teens resulting in a set of cool explosions which lead to narrative outcomes, because narrative--even just a hint or threat of it--brings motion and direction--stability! energy!--to pretty, abstract, intricate things.