Sunday, November 28, 2010
501 Minutes to Christ--Poe Ballantine
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)
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
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
A Short Essay on Animal Distress
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.