Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The other is a quicker, less gnarly (in a good way) read, a small book, sized for the hand and the seat back pocket, really a pair of essays, each about half the book. Checking In/Checking Out is a two-headed beast, written by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich, ordered alphabetically (I don't know whether Checking In should happen before Checking Out, and the book is designed so that it works either way, with two covers, two ISBN codes cleverly designed into the covers so that I didn't even notice them. Even the spine could read either way. An object like a codex is hard to baffle like this, but they've done it nicely here:
Both essays are about air travel and the workings of airplanes/airports, in some ways like Alain de Botton's A Week in the Airport, at least in subject and in the meditative mode they each periodically assume. Each takes a different tack at the subject: Yakich's is the more narrative and personal, centering primarily around the passenger experience, his own fear of flying, but meandering, as essays do, to a number of other subjects including his marriage, attempts at meditation and tooling around Belgium in search of love, air crashes and air statistics, and the film Fearless. I started with Yakich since I know him better. He's the author of a recent novel and a couple kickass books of poetry and a highly amusing website which is as of this linking kind of impenetrable, not to say unentertaining.
Schaberg's is the insider view, having worked for Skywest as a "cross-utilized agent," a catch-all title for most things that need doing in airports, cleaning, baggage handling, checking people in, and so on. Schaberg's essay is setup as a collection of small anecdotes than anything else, subtitled "Seatback Pockets," "Meal Kits," "Tetris," and so on, so perhaps it's better thought of as a collection of little essays with some linkages rather than one essay. He's also the author of The Textual Life of Airports, a book of cultural criticism/literary analysis of airports as texts and the ways in which airports have registered in literature, which should give you a sense of the vision he brings to the essay. There's some memoir content in his essay/s too, though much of the real pop of it is in the descriptions of working behind the counter and in the nonpublic areas of airports, a subject fascinating to this reader at least, given the way that air travel has become mythologized in my mind in the last decade.
Much of Schaberg's essay is guided by his experience working for Skywest, and that experience is one of an initial thrill that gives way to exhaustion with repetition, all the spectacle of crawling underneath a just-landed jet squeezed out by rote. The more interesting stories become the human ones such as his odd collection of coworkers: Vicki, who slowly warms to him and starts bringing him Mountain Dew Code Reds which the two of them guzzle in secrecy, even though she is later fired for what appears to be no fault of her own; and hulking Montana cowboy Tom, who says "There are only two times when I wear a hat like that [backwards]: when I'm riding my bike, or when I'm sucking somebody off." Nice.
The essays pair in many ways, some obvious, given the subject matter, and some not (Jeff Bridges makes an appearance toward the end of both, for instance, and Yakich shows up in the end of Schaberg's essay). This is some of Yakich's best writing that I've read (though I like much of his work), and though I haven't read Schaberg's Textual Life this suggests its promise. Since it's selling for $100 at Amazon, it's meant for academic libraries rather than end-users, but don't let that dissuade you from checking out Checking In/Checking Out.
I've always been interested in airports more as liminal spaces, barely spaces at all (my first chapbook, Safety Features, was set all in airports or on airplanes), and I love to write in them. They're transitional, public but anonymous, at least for the passengers, though they do have a dearth of outlets (as, among others, Patrick Smith, who writes a column for Slate called Ask the Pilot, has noted on multiple occasions). These transitional, liminal spaces are ideal for the kind of essay thinking that de Botton does, and that Schaberg and Yakich do in this book. I'd love to have seen more of their brains on display here, see them each sprawl out a bit more (Yakich sprawls more successfully than Schaberg to my mind, though his domain is more relentlessly personal). Perhaps to suit that direction they've started a website (journal? I guess) called Airplane Reading which I'd encourage you to check out and send work to: it too is a home for some essaying (or perhaps memoiring or storying). Try flipping back and forth between each of their halves of the book and the website, and then insert some Lia Purpura for an ideal cross-training regimen. And take down your holiday decorations before you're an embarrassment to your neighbors, please. Okay, I'll give you until New Year's Day, or the 2nd if you're hungover on the 1st. I can hear the tinkling of the music still emanating from your yard.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Literary descriptions of the desert plant Fouquieria splendens (aka: ocotillo, desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob’s staff), were, for me, somewhat ruined by Jon Krakauer. In 1988 he published an article in Outside about canyoneering in Arizona, including a day-trip traveling down the Salome Creek, east of Phoenix. En route to the canyon, he gives a perfunctory nod to the desert landscape visible from the old road they’re strolling along, “an abandoned jeep road lined with a thousand towering saguaro and flame-tipped ocotillo…”—and because I read this just as I was moving to southern Arizona, and it was fresh on my mind the first time I ever laid eyes on this crazy plant, I have never since been able (and this surely reflects a personal failure of imagination as well) to separate this incredibly pedestrian—though perfectly accurate—description from the actual thing itself: I see an ocotillo in bloom and I cannot help but think flame-tipped.
I see an ocotillo in bloom and I cannot help but think flame-tipped, that is, until now. Joni Tevis, author of The Wet Collection, and the included essay, “Jeremiad of a Bad Drought Year,” has officially cracked my metaphorical cloister, and the possibilities of language, of ways to loop words and meanings through and around each other, seem once again boundless. Tevis has taken Krakauer's 2-D description to the anvil and hammered the shit out of it, worked it over, refashioned it, reimagined it into a thing more akin to a Calabi-Yau manifold—a many-dimensioned thing of wonder. She writes:
"In a faithless time I have gone to the desert and seen there ocotillo, devil’s buggy whip, naked canes rising from the stony ground. Gray, stippled with thorns, it rattled in the wind, and no plant has ever looked so dead to me. But I’ve seen, too, the desert after rain, when the ocotillo’s tips force out petals red as any cosseted rose. The ocotillo plays at death, crying a song to the cold desert wind; the ocotillo in bloom is a god’s hair ablaze with fire, or blood."
To be fair, nuancing words isn’t really Krakauer’s forte. He’s a mountain man, an adventurer, these days more of a journalist, and maybe that’s okay. Here, he’s a travel writer moving through a landscape—see an ocotillo, describe an ocotillo, traverse a canyon, narrate that activity—while Tevis seems to be something categorically different, that is an essayist, embedded and invested in place, and as such, language is part and parcel of her game. I suppose at the end of the day, I don’t really expect Krakauer’s imageries to knock me out, and I don’t expect Tevis to scale Everest. They’re just different personalities, different voices, and as lame as his adjectives here are compared to her metaphors, we read different writers for different reasons, and I’m glad they’re both on my bookshelf. Who, after all, wants to listen to The Decemberists when you’re in the mood for The Stooges? Or Tori Amos when you’re in the mood for Le Tigre? Or Morrissey when you’re in the mood for Dylan? Or…maybe you’ve had enough of this mixed metaphor. But you get the idea, I hope.
Krakauer has given us some great writing, but he’s no virtuoso when it comes to wordplay, and I herewith renounce flame-tipped, and all such depthless adjectives. Tevis is a boss wordsmith, and she has, for me, rescued the ocotillo from being typified by two blah words and a hyphen. And her book, The Wet Collection, is like a butter churn. Her language is like cream. An ocotillo in bloom is God’s hair ablaze.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I occupy the same position as most contemporary small press publisher/editors in that I am also a writer. I also submit to press contests. The buoyant optimism I felt after reading about Lewis Hyde's gift economy faded when my first vigilant round of entries netted no prize winner--causing me to recognize that whatever I told myself when I licked those envelopes, I had expected something for my effort and fees, not to mention the dedication that keeps me at my desk writing in the first place. I'll leave aside the obvious question of whether transaction mindset is healthy or useful, just to note that, justified or not, it results in a sense of entitlement.
Which is to say, it helps me to know how at least one press spends their fees.
At Zone 3 Press we were lucky enough to receive 69 entries for our first Creative Nonfiction Book Award, after being a poetry press since 2006, and I am grateful for every submission--though as much for the attention as the $25 fees. The $1725 it totals--and that assumes all payments went through, and we had several issues with check payments--is not even enough to cover printing, which is approximately $2500 for 1000 books and postcards. Other expenses are the finalist judge's honorarium, an honorarium for the semi-finalist judges (who all read off-site and are unaffiliated with our institution), advertisements announcing the original contest and the contest winner, travel expenses and promotion of the winner's reading, and fees for book tables at festivals. There are also time donations by faculty and staff at Austin Peay State University who oversee the process--including making the books available on Small Press Distribution and responding to queries from contest entrants, and managing information as it passes through multiple hands. We are fortunate at our institution to have the Center of Creative Excellence, which provides compensatory funding, without which we would not be able to publish.
I hope my post demonstrates more than anything that I believe in the value of small presses, which are operating on well-monitored accounts--at the very least if the accounts are smaller they are also more closely examined--and that neither I nor my colleagues are milking cash cows when we are coming into the office on weekends and nights and summer days to help another manuscript into the world.
Friday, October 7, 2011
For one thing, to the best of my knowledge many of the presses you mention in your email are funded, at least partially, by universities, foundations, grants, etc. Orphan Press is basically me and Greg, a writer and an artist with a lot of passion, some good ideas (we hope), and very small pockets. We're working to develop other sources of funding, but it's tough and it takes time...
the short answer is that we put a great deal of research into contest fees and the literary market in general, as well as the type of book we want to produce. We feel that this fee is fair and in line with the market, particularly given our emphasis on high quality overall. We are a very small press, completely self-funded. Everyone is on a strictly volunteer basis. Every penny raised from the contest will go to pay our winner and to cover print and production costs--and we still will likely fall short. There's no profit here, except for the satisfaction that we hope to experience when we discover a unique and compelling piece of work, and we can bring it forth into the world in a beautiful way. As the press grows and we perhaps become the fortunate recipients of grants, donations, or other forms of support, we may be able to change our fee structure or offer other ways for our writers to get their work out into the world.I've also invited Amy Wright, from Zone 3 Press, to post about the experience of running a cnf book contest for the first time at that press. I also invited her to talk a bit about the economics of the press and contest. They'd run contests in other genres previously, I think, but this was the first year of their cnf book contest (the great Lia Purpura picked a manuscript by Essay Daily's own Nicole Walker, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, as the winner; it'll be out in Spring 2013).
My hope is that we can have some frank and open conversation about the contest system and how it does or might work in the world of the essay, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and so on.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
I get that the economics of writing contests are tricky, especially so in prose, even more especially so in nonfiction (I wonder what the economics are of, say, the Bakeless contest in nonfiction; I know the AWP economics loosely*), and super especially so in any sort of vaguely experimental prose. And for a startup press a contest is a tricky beast indeed. But a $45 entry fee is quite a lot for a $1000 honorarium + publication. That's on the border of the golden 1:20 ratio between entry fee and possible prize money that I usually use to determine whether a contest is exploitative of its entrants.
It seems to me really likely to limit your entries (though I suppose you probably only need 22-23 entrants to break even if you're not factoring in administrative overhead and any judge's honorarium).
I'd be interested in hearing back from y'all about the thinking behind this. (I'd be happy to setup an account to post back here if you like.)
I post this in the spirit of open and frank discussion, not in the spirit of discouraging what looks like an exciting new press for the essay.
* As the preliminary judge for the AWP Book Prize in Nonfiction a few years back, I think I read about 120 book submissions, and forwarded ten to the final judge. As I remember, it was a $25 entry at the time (now it's $30 for nonmembers and $15 for members). So you can do the math on that. There's some administrative overhead, as any contest coordinators can tell you. I think it was still a $1000 prize + publication, though now it's up to $2500 (nice work, AWP). Which is pretty reasonable.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
As a recent MFA graduate I brought a student’s perspective to the challenge of editing our collection. I wanted the essays selected to nurture my own writing by challenging my ideas about the form and encouraging experimentation. In short, I wanted teachers from whom I could learn. Think of the anthology as a kind of portable writing workshop on the craft of the contemporary essay.
We chose to use the word essays in our title instead of the term creative nonfiction because we felt the word essay, from the Old French essai, (meaning a trial or an attempt) best reflected the kind of adventurous spirit readers will find celebrated in the anthology. And it is that sense of possibility that most attracts me to the genre. The essay’s malleability allows a writer to shape the form as she wishes.
Ander suggested that Sheryl and I each comment on our favorite essays. What a great idea, and yet I find it difficult to do, because each essay in the collection moves me in some way. Nevertheless, I have chosen a few I wish to highlight: Joy Castro’s “Grip,” Linda Hogan’s “The Bats,” BK Loren’s “Trends of Nature,” Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” and the three very brief essays we included from Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir. I focus on these pieces, not necessarily because I love them best, but because in each I find something interesting to learn and qualities I wish to emulate in my own work.
In “Grip” Joy Castro opens her essay with a description of the torn “bullet-holed paper target” hanging over her son’s crib. The object is both tangible and symbolic and serves as the departure point for Castro’s exploration of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child. She organizes her essay into five discrete sections separated by white spaces. Her choice creates a kind of staccato rhythm for the piece, reminiscent of the sharp sound a gun makes. The essay’s power resides in its brevity and restraint, and the lyricism of her language.
Linda Hogan brings a poet’s sensibility and a naturalist’s appreciation to her beautiful essay, “The Bats.” Her title strikes one immediately because of her choice of article; “The” makes a difference. She conveys in her first words that her interest in these creatures that “live in double worlds of many kinds,” is specific and personal. Her essay moves between a narrative about two encounters with bats, one in a park in frigid Minneapolis and another in a cave in Germany, and the lyric. In the end, it is the beauty of her language I find so compelling. Imagine perceiving the world through sound, as bats do. Imagine a world where “Everything answers, the corner of a house, the shaking of leaves on a wind-blown tree, the solid voice of bricks.”
BK Loren’s poignant narrative “Trends of Nature” is published for the first time in our anthology. I find much to admire in this piece, but most of all, I appreciate what is true of the best personal essays: the writer’s honesty and the bravery such candor frequently requires. We trust Loren’s observations of coyotes, because she is willing to scrutinize her own behavior with the same degree of insight.
I keep returning to Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” in part because I’m fascinated by the way his capacious mind works. Moore uses the alphabet as the organizing principle for his essay. His ingenious choice creates a framework in which he is free to consider a range of apparently unrelated subjects without losing sight of the essay’s central theme. His exploration of fatherhood is humorous, touching, and surprisingly informative.
From Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir, we included three flash essays, each of which is paired with an image: “Pissed Off at Three Years and Four Months,” “Tower of Silence,” and “Young Man with Rifle, Black Dog and Dead Ducks.” Each essay is but a paragraph long, its shape on the page mirroring that of the related image. Sutin’s choice to use postcards as writing prompts creates a unifying structure for his memoir, while allowing each entry to stand alone. The pairing of photograph and prose serves to enhance our appreciation of each and provides Sutin with the necessary distance he needs to explore his complex past.
I believe our anthology tells a compelling story about the wealth of experimentation and multi-faceted character of the contemporary essay. I encourage you to read that story yourselves. I trust you will be challenged, inspired, and entertained.
Margaret L. Whitford
Monday, July 25, 2011
In the next few weeks in this space I've asked the editors of a couple new and forthcoming anthologies of essays to guest post about their favorite selections from the anthologies, what case their anthologies make about the state and range of the contemporary essay, and their motivations in assembling these anthologies. I've more or less been using one of five anthologies to teach my undergraduate courses over the last few years, and am happy to see some new and perhaps more interesting options come up. Of course I'm a fan of John's The Next American Essay and the case that it starts to make (especially in concert with the second collection, The Lost Origins of the Essay), but I get a bit bored with the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, though it's got some excellent essays. And the Best American Essays series is usually an interesting choice, as are Lee Gutkind's The Best Creative Nonfiction 1, 2, and 3. The Best American Essays of the Century is excellent, but it feels dusty, and I feel dusty, and I just want to get clean after that. I eschew textbooks in general: I've never liked the paratexts surrounding the actual essays with the helpful writing tips and instructional whatnot, and prefer the essays themselves without all the crap. Really I might as well make a packet for myself and just use that, but then I feel like I'm limiting my inputs, not forcing myself to reckon with anything new, like living in a gated community, which you know is a model home for our future death.
Sheryl St. Germain and Margaret L. Whitford will be guest blogging about Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century (Autumn House Press, out now) an anthology that's clearly looking at the intersection between lyric and narrative. (Full disclosure: this and a few of these other anthologies include my work; it's a small world, the essay world.)
Then there's BJ Hollars' edited anthology, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, forthcoming in 2012 it looks like from University of Nebraska Press. I've asked him to contribute a note about this sometime in the future too. I don't know what all is in here, but it looks and sounds interesting. And Jill Talbot is editing an anthology of metanonfiction (and interviews with the nonfictioners included there) forthcoming in 2012 from University of Iowa Press. My sense is that these anthologies are among a set trying to offer a less traditional/more radical or adventurous vision of what the essay can be.
I'm sure there are others forthcoming--and I'd invite you to join us in our conversation here as it progresses.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Ander asked me at the beginning of the class why I was so raucously against some of the forms. He asked if it was because I felt threatened. I acknowledge that it probably was. How could the dweeby words-on-page essays I created compete with an entertaining autotuned selection or a visually stimulating atlas? I was angry at the authors of these works, indignant that they could wedge in on a genre I had such strong preconceived notions.
But then, I read. I watched. I viewed. And I learned.
The Best Essay of the Year, according to a convert.
“The two-dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and aesthetic appropriation of the world. In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down at it like a god.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 11.
“Whether an island such as --> Easter Island (100) can be considered remote is simply a matter of perspective. Those who live there, The Rapa Nui, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, ‘The navel of the world.’ Any point on the infinite globe of the Earth can become a centre.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 14.
What’s fascinating about how Judith Schalansky puts these quotes from her introduction into conversation is that her form allows her to maintain the tension of conquested control from the outsider and subjectedness of the viewer to the land’s will throughout the remainder of her essay. A great cartographer is meant to know the land in an authoritative sense, to represent exactly what’s there while also adapting the representation to communicate to the outside reader consulting the maps. Authority and possession drips from a map (case in point: you can hold and amend a map). Every map is a repackaging of reality. Yet every map is secondary to the reality. The map may lie, but even its lies cannot change the reality of the landscape—rather, the lies can change our understanding of the landscape, leaving us in even deeper ignorance and out of a sense of control. The mapmaker seeks to dictate to the land while always being dictated to by the land.
Schanlansky holds these two characteristics of the cartographer—governor vs. subject—in hand and proves that they apply equally well to the essayist. With each island we are given two maps: one, on the recto page, to look down upon like gods. The other, on the verso page, a globe that rolls to showcase the remote island as the navel of the world. One seeks control—a top down, scaled drawing of the features of the island, named and categorized by its human conquerors. The other robs us not only of our control, but also of our perspective, showing us views of this nearly-spherical Earth that we have likely not been introduced to before. (Two-dimensional depictions of a globe rarely move away from the North-South alignment, let alone the four perpendicular compass points.) These maps dialogue with one another, allowing the reader to interrogate and reevaluate—to essay—his or her understanding of place—of any place.
The form places the material in relationship with itself—two divergent expectations of the islands upheave the perspective of the reader. The mind at work with these two perspectives must attempt and reattempt to comprehend these islands. Likewise, the mind at work with this book must attempt and reattempt to comprehend our relationship with place. If Schalansky posits anything, it is that we cannot ever be 100% governor nor 100% subject. We can never 100% know nor 100% define a place. Contradiction is inherent in the attempt. Her title for the intro is a perfect example: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” An atlas, with its perpetual pursuit of control and its perpetual insufficiency mirrors this theme. The form depicts the material in a beautiful, understated, and ever-deepening way.
One of the pleasing components of this book is how measured the material is treated. Each island receives the same amount of representation—every island is put into relationship with another island, every island has two individualized maps, and every island has up to one page of narrative. The consistency of this scale is satisfying as it allows us to be able to experience each island both uniquely and in relationship with the others (just as every feature of a map is both unique and in relationship with the others). Further, the god’s-view maps on the recto side of the book feature a tiny scale of 5 kilometers. Every single top-down map uses this same scale, allowing for each map to be compared to another. In this way, the consistent scale of the maps allow for all of the maps to ever be in dialogue, deepening their relationship to one another.
Yet there’s much more than visual scale in this book. The project itself is one of nuanced and balanced scale—to read any one page is to encounter the entire piece’s scale, that of a whetted appetite and satiated hunger. In these maps we find intriguing stories as well as descriptive scenes. We find gaps in our knowledge as well as facts to fill in our experience of the places.
Everything is methodical, but everything leaves us wanting more. We are subjected to the limited information provided while also given so many authoritative facts (latitude and longitude, square kilometers, historic timeline, location in relationship with other islands/places) so as to feel in command of the material. The result: the scale of this project is both minute and vast.
We meet places but we meet our imaginations here too, bridging gaps in the narratives and expanding beyond the book. Schalansky says it so well: “Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits—the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired.” I believe that we can say the same for this essay—Schalansky’s wandering mind (and our own) comes to this book with a longing that will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining. Yet Atlas of Remote Islands, with its stories and balanced scale, ever welcomes us in for more. We close the book and turn back to the opening page. There’s always something new to be discovered.There’s much more to be said about Schalansky, but her essay is so deep, uses its form so much better than this blog post uses its own, that I’d rather just recommend going out and buying your own copy. Whether you read it for the language, form, facts, or beauty, you’ll enjoy the wandering mind ever present on the page.
Monday, May 9, 2011
I think perhaps one of the most useful ways to compare the three might be to think about the project, and the execution of that project through the chosen form. As Wood creates unconventional map after unconventional map of Boylan Heights, his books is, in fact, enacting its project on its own terms. Each map may be thought of as an "attempt" to create a visual or pictorial representation of the neighborhood. Thus, not only does the introduction "essay" in that it introduces the project - it continues, on each page, to "essay" with each map being an exploration of a different (and unusual) aspect of place. As one blogger posted, this book is not about Boylan Heights, it is about expanding our sense of place as we understand it through our representation of it. Here, what another blogger posted becomes relevant: the use of the second person. Far from being annoyed or "pushed in," I felt the second person to be inclusive where Schalansky and Shields were exclusive, or in the latter case, particularly alienating. The stances of each author are obvious from the way he or she posits him or herself in the titles. Re Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (rhetorical), Atlas of Remote Islands: 50 Island I've Never Set Foot on and Never Will (semi-rhetorical - these places only exist in the author's imagination, a warning label that serves as a disclaimer for the blending of fiction and non-fiction), and Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (title: rhetorical in an abstract way - re the blogger's question "What do we mean by 'Everything'?" subtitle: relatively neutral, although still abstract - it introduces us to the concept of a "narrative atlas," which is an idea we wrangle with alongside Wood and his students throughout the book). For me, and I think I can speak for my group, the author's positing of the reader in an inclusive mode allowed the book to be about presence rather than absence (Schalansky's "Remoteness", Shields' "Hunger for Reality").
While Schalansky's form self-consciously engages in the very concept she calls "colonizing" by re-creating the maps of her 50 islands in a traditional manner, Wood's approach opens up an entirely original method for making and reading maps. Wood is self-conscious in a different manner: he realizes that the places/things he maps are ephemeral, "useless," and incapable of becoming "commodities". However, his introduction is in praise of the beauty of mapping/preserving a moment that will inevitably be subject to change. Whereas we typically understand maps/the landscape itself to be static, especially in an age of Google Earth, satellites, etc. In fact, as we know, the earth and the global tectonic regime is constantly changing, eroding, erupting, etc. Wood calls attention to this logical fallacy, and points earnestly toward the importance of mapping human decision-making, and understanding how our presence is constantly shifting the places we inhabit.
In response to Shields, all I have to says is: it's been done before, and Benjamin's The Arcades Project is much more interesting to me.
In conclusion, I think it is rather obvious that Wood is still the obvious choice. His form succeeds above and beyond Schalansky and Shields, in that each page of the book marks another "attempt," or "essay" that can be read collectively. Although the same argument could be made for both Schalansky and Shields, I believe that upon close examination and scrutiny that you, dear reader, will feel compelled to agree with me when I say their "attempts" fail. Schalansky's book seeks to understand remote places, and does so with a breadth that each "attempt" is relatively the same as the previous. The same goes for Shields. After a while, it is inevitable, dear reader, that you put those two books down, and take a break from listening to the same thing over and over.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Wood's book is the only one of the three finalists that can be and wants to be read in one sitting. Not that this should determine the prize, but I think it's worth noting. While the reader is compelled to pick up and put down both Schalansky and Shields, sometimes due to sheer exhaustion, Wood's project is accessible and interesting enough to compel the reader throughout the book, to continue flipping the page until they sadly reach the back cover. Don't get me wrong, dear reader, all three books are worth returning to. But Woods' is open enough to let you into his world, into a consideration of place, time and time again, without pressing judgment, without telling you what to think, and by letting the visuals speak for themselves.
I think it is obvious that Denis Wood's is the most idiosyncratic and creative mind at work here, and raises the most interesting questions with respect to our daily lives. His book takes the most (interesting) risks, and has the most at stake. He asks us to pay attention to the world around us, to (try to) listen to everything that sings in a world in which we must often struggle to find beauty among a damaged and urbanized landscape. He completely inverses the use-value of the map, and challenges his readers to do the same. Mapping becomes not about hegemony of place, but preservation or a moment in time, and understanding how such moments speak to how we, as humans affect our planet, our landscape, our city, our neighborhood, our own home. And what important things for us to consider deeply and abstractly as we find ourselves on the brink of ecological disaster, overpopulation, etc. the dawn of the 21st century.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
If essaying is about thinking, or thinking about feeling, in order to judge which essay resonated with me most, I’ve been thinking about how each one made me feel. Judging, finally, for me, is entirely subjective. “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” George Bernard Shaw wrote, reversing the logic of the Golden Rule, “Their tastes may not be the same.” I may have gauged a work and assigned it weight in my psyche upon first encountering it, alone, only to be changed after a discussion in which I discovered how the work had affected my colleagues, and, via peer pressure or sympathy, felt compelled to reassess the value of it.
However, in the end, perhaps because I failed to learn anything or because I’m incorrigible when it comes to my aesthetic conviction, I returned to my initial impressions of each work and made the decision of which ones were best based on my instinctive appraisal. Although I was moved by the visual beauty of Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” and Herzog’s accented voice-over, once I became aware of its propaganda (and the fact that I wasn’t going to stop using plastic bags in a sometimes careless fashion) I lost interest. Boully’s tone made me suspicious that she was setting me up to look like the fool, like the boy with blue balls at the end. After much discussion I was able, I think, to see the layering and the intelligence in choosing such a controlled tone, but ultimately I didn’t want to go back, perhaps because of my unsavory first date with it. With Bucat, I remembered having my last name, Diamente, butchered, mispronounced, and made fun-of (my first name is Neil, and my father, an Italian immigrant, named me after his favorite American singer), so I was not moved by her dramatization nor did I consider it as important as Finnegan’s subject of the drug war in North America. However, with his New Yorker article, I felt I was being informed of a highly complex social problem that probably would never be solved and so I felt helpless—not a good feeling. Not his fault, but it’s exactly why I read and write poetry and not the news in which men die miserably every day. I laughed hysterically at the “Bed Intruder” song but realized, however clever and savvy it was (and how much I came to admire the Gregory Brother’s talents to Auto-Tune the news), hysteria is a naturally temporary state; I haven’t laughed since, thinking of the Bed Intruder song. Conversely, wonder is a perpetual state and Schalansky’s “Atlas of Remote Islands” put me there. I picked her atlas because it mirrored my love of simplicity, remoteness, solitude, and adventure, despite the subsequent talk about the implicit colonialism in mapmaking and writing. I also love quotations (“One thought fills immensity” –Blake) so “Reality Hunger” fed that love and fostered a desire to make a manifesto of my own regarding what it means to be a poet in the world. Shields’ personality didn’t appeal to me (he seemed like a whiner, not a winner), but his project did. Watching Soll’s “Puppet,” I was reminded of why making an inanimate object come to life is such a primeval urge in the world, why children instinctively make puppets out of anything, which is precisely my favorite activity with my own two children who can’t get enough of seeing their hands’ shadows turn into birds, alligators, dogs, and spiders. I like puppetry, period, and his documentary helped me explain why I do. I lived in San Francisco for a year, but Solnit’s “Infinite City” didn’t trigger nostalgia or curiosity as perhaps it did for others; I simply felt overwhelmed by it. And finally, Wood’s conceit, to make “useless” maps that “prove” everything sings seemed to me such a futile, beautiful gesture that only a poet would attempt, but I did not vote for it. In the end, I could only choose my top three favorites and I settled, for better or worse, on awarding those favorites in each category, or form: atlas (Schalansky), text (Shields), and film (Soll).
After all of Ander’s talk of the idiosyncratic “brain” behind each essay, how to measure it against or within its genre/constraints, how valuable it is to contemporary society, how much of the essay is conducted in the spirit of inquiry, the only question I asked myself, which was usually answered at first blush, was how did it make me feel. I feel compelled to blog, to write this post so I’ll pass this class and graduate, but I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it. Each post gets gobbled up by the next like highway mile signposts, but I’m not sure where I’m going. “What are you doing after you get your MFA,” everyone asks, with the assumption, perhaps, that I can teach now or continue on in a PhD program somewhere like many writers do today. When I was sleeping in the university library two years ago while going through a divorce and had moved out of my house and into a study carrel, I couldn’t imagine spending any more time there. Academia will always remind me of the dust on those books in the stacks. And although I would stop and stare at the titles of books I would probably never read on my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, when I lay down in my sleeping bag at night and listened to the hum of air-conditioners preserving the knowledge within its walls, I felt trapped, like a pigeon lodged in the building’s air vents. Some part of me resists the privileged life of academia even as I am drawn to it. And so I don’t know what I’m going to do with my MFA in regard to getting a job that it can help me to procure. All I know is I’m going to continue, undaunted, perhaps unemployed, as I have been more or less since starting graduate school. Like Shields who quoted Graham Greene—“When we are not sure, we are alive”—I’ll leave the blogosphere where I began by quoting Shaw again: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands
David Shields, Reality Hunger
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas
Let the final battle beginnnnnnnnnnnn.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
I had plans. They involved my reading glasses, a series of Diet Cokes, twenty-eight pages of spiral bound notes on Denis Wood’s Everything Sings, and indignation. I could show you these notes. They sport letters that spike and twist over college rule lines. They are an emotional mess of acute angles. (If you have read Wood’s text, think of the map image that accompanies “Radio Waves,” but rendered verbal and infused with opinion.) And all of this because I struggled with much of what I encountered in the early parts of the book’s second (Wood’s own) introduction, with small claims, contradictions, and assumptions that both implicitly and explicitly weave through pages 8-25.
I wanted to understand Denis Wood’s motivations in undertaking a project in which he and his students, over a series of years, sought to map aural and subterranean activity, electrical waves and wires, and lived experience in Boylan Heights, North Carolina. I, like Wood, believe that images are legible, whether found in combination with lettered or wholly pictorial texts. And I believe that verbal texts, imagistic texts, and the many and various hybrid blends of the two are, at least in part, both personally and politically charged. So I was glad when Wood argued that the arrangement of maps within an atlas – “political, physical, climate, natural vegetation, soils, agriculture, population density, gross national product, literacy, protein consumption, and life expectancy” – could be read as an unsettling argument that a people or place’s poverty had been induced by natural forces, even insisting that the argument was there (10). And then I was confused when, on the very next page, he wrote that “nothing obligates a reader to start at the beginning [of a series of maps] and plow through the complicating actions to the resolution” (11). I did not know what to think: Did Wood feel that the order of a series of maps within an atlas mattered or not? Was I in the midst of rooting for Wood & Co as subversive organizers of cartographic materials, scrappily armed with new approaches to human geography? Was Wood, with this allusion to Freytag’s pyramid (“complicating actions,” “resolution”), asking that we as readers be the ones to fight back, reading in whatever way our little hearts desired? Or something else?
Because I approached Everything Sings thinking (and still think) that what Denis Wood and his students have done not only matters in a socio-political sense, but as something compellingly beautiful, I also wanted to understand Wood’s creative and formal objectives. But when one section of his introduction bore the heading “The Map and the Poem” and was closely followed by a call to the reader to imagine the atlas-as-story and then a discussion of the atlas-as-essay, exactly what Wood was proposing that he was after or had accomplished in Everything Sings felt unclear (10-11). I began to suspect that these comparisons of the contents of an atlas (to a poem, to an epic poem, to a story, to a novel, to an essay and, by means of the book’s title and elsewhere, to a song) were just a rather messy way of repeatedly emphasizing one of Wood’s larger (and good) points: that maps can be read, even when unaccompanied by text, that they are even inherently narrative pieces and are more capable of conveying emotional and sensorial experience than we have yet asked them to be. But I had to come to such conclusions after having read much further in the book, because precision remains an issue in the book’s earliest pages and Wood struggles a little – through exclamatory asides, between cross-hatchings of celebrated names and movements – in articulating just what he and his students have done.
With underlines, check marks, and bullet points, with snaking and inky scrawls, I tried to resist this book. I felt cantankerous and unbearable, but I just kept scribbling away. How, I wondered, could Wood ponder a troubling staticity among cartographers in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century without any nod to the possible effects of common global fears of degeneration during those years, or the waxing and waning of empires (12-14)? And why, why did Wood insist on including me in all of this? I didn’t appreciate being called to and tugged at with these uses of the second-person, this “you” that Wood used, repeatedly, to break through the fourth wall. As though leaning across a table, or at the bar and over a foaming glass of beer, Wood says, “I know you’ve seen these…” (12). As though gesturing wildly before us and asking that we shout with him, as though evangelical and moved by the spirit, Wood cries out, “In the gap between? You, standing in the shower, the water shooting up from the underground, fountaining from the showerhead around you, …” (25, my emphasis). It is clear that he uses the second-person to pull us in, because he wants for us to join him, to feel present and a part of this experience, especially when he employs this “you” to speak in terms of ‘you, me, us’ (19). And it is because of Denis Wood’s use of the “you,” calling to me and to each of his readers, that the difficult shell around my difficult heart began to ease and crack.
Not every use of the second-person in Denis Wood’s Everything Sings is the same. As noted above, in some instances, the “you” is rhetorical, a conventional appeal to audience that easily links to any author’s concern for ethos. Some uses of “you” are emotionally charged, they seem to buzz and hum, to echo as though shouted from above a pulpit or lectern. Still other uses of “you” work to suggest the reader’s presence in the experience of the text, and seem to seek to blur that already sometimes thin line that separates sympathy from empathy. This version of “you” continues in its use throughout the larger text of Everything Sings, and comes to signify a “you” that Wood wishes to have encountered or had beside him while in the neighborhood of Boylan Heights. In this way, through references to the “power pole whose cables hum and sing as you fall asleep” or to the “stretch of sidewalk in which your kids wrote their names while the concrete was still wet,” Denis Wood offers his readers the lovely experience of what some have called “nostalgia without memory.” I first experienced this myself when reading Amy Hempel’s tiny story titled “Weekend.” When I read the conclusion of Hempel’s piece for the first time –
The women smoked on the porch, the smoke repelling mosquitoes, and the men and children played on even after dusk when it got so dark that a candle was rigged to balance on top of the post, and was knocked off and blown out by every single almost-ringer.
Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women’s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought: stay.
– I felt nostalgia for something that I had never experienced, and therefore could not actually remember. But I felt as though I longed to return to those scenes, those people, and those places still. This is what I came to feel as I read Wood’s book, even after all of my urges toward stubborn denial: The Boylan Heights of Everything Sings was a place that I longed to return to, even while my mind informed me that it was a place I had never been. I allowed myself to feel moved by the beauty of some of these maps (“Pools of Light” (47) and “Wind Chimes” (91)) and fascinated by the accomplishments of others (“A Sound Walk” (88-91)). I wanted to believe that I recognized Lester Mims on his bike, swinging a paper so as to possibly make it to the porch (58) and I sat quietly and focused as I searched for the number 37 (“attempted suicide”) on the map labeled “Police Calls” (52-53), wondering about loneliness or isolation, about life as an unbearable weight, among these people – on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, around the corner – that I wanted to believe I had known.
Everything Sings, in the end, is not a book in which, as its publishers strangely suggest, “useless knowledge is exalted.” Everything Sings, instead, works to fight the privileging of quantifiable forms of information – that which is meted, “objective” – over the emotional and sensorial experience of place. Because of Denis Wood’s innovative approach to mapmaking, even crisp, dry numbers (“Police Calls”) and naked lines (“Squirrel Highways”) tell a story of people, of place, and the entwined experience of both. Everything Sings is remarkable in what and how it essays.
I love Mary Ruefle’s book “The Most of It” because of its naivety, which leads her down delightful paths of thought and fancy. You want to hug her. You want to take her home. She’s endearing.
But how much know-how do we want from the essayist? Can everyone get away with Ruefling? Can naivety go too far and become strained and unbelievable? Can we really be that naïve in today’s fast-paced, technological, polluted, globalized world? Should we mitigate or offset our naivety? What is lost when there is no naivety in an essay?
Entries without naivety so far: The Gregory Brothers and David Shields. These artists situate themselves in the modern world with their savvy appropriations. The tones of their work are different: the Gregory Brothers are satirical and goofy but hip, while Shields is intellectual and intense; the Bros spoof, while Shields argues. In both approaches, something essential has been lost. This might sound too harsh but, for me, spoofing is for teenagers and convincing is for adults. Naivety has a whiff of the child in it. Naivety retains a refreshing degree of wonder, vulnerability, and curiosity.
The most naïve entries so far: Bahrani and all the maps, that is, Schalanksy, Solnit, and Wood. On the surface, “Plastic Bag” appears to be the most naïve work. I’m sure we could all convince a roomful of kindergarteners to write from the perspective of a plastic bag. But Bahrani’s work is polemic and ironic, and—sorry, I’m in such a harsh mood right now—gimmicky. Yes, I love Herzog. Yes, I loved the radical bags ripped on a barbed wire fence. But many of the scenes, I could not get behind, especially with what felt like inspirational music modulated in the background. Ultimately, “Plastic Bag” felt forced and affected.
I learned a new word the other day in class: “twee.” This term was applied to one of Solnit’s maps. You, as I, might be wondering what the hell “twee” means. I looked it up: “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.” The “Tribes of San Francisco” map reminded me of the laminated placemats I grew up spilling my food on. I never liked them as a kid—they were stuffy and uptight, meant for fake kids. Though Solnit has various maps—many of which are quite beautiful, many of which are cluttered and overloaded with information, she does not successfully tap into the child-like naivety that I am now arguing for.
So what are real kids like? How naïve are they? I think they’re more complicated than first blush. Kid fears must be weighed in—kids can be surprisingly dark and superstitious. Yes, they also adhere to their stereotype of uninhibited, honest, and carefree, but they know and sense more than they can express or fully understand and this can be ominous. What I’m driving at: the most successful naïve essays create a counterbalance for their naivety; they have an edge; they refuse to be cute; they throw in some adult.
For this tough naivety, my favorite essays thus far: Schalansky and Wood. They retain their wonder and imagination, their tactile welcome and fascination, but anchor themselves in dark and unusual places. We find loneliness, cannibals, dystopias, and issues of conquest in Schalansky. Though Wood is not as dark thematically—only one map, the police calls is overtly ominous—his maps transform surprising perspectives. He takes what might be a naïve impulse—jack-o’-lanterns, for example—and makes it map-able. Wood in many ways achieved what Solnit set out to do: to show that there exist an infinite number of possible perspectives to map. He allows his naivety breathing room, then development. His essays (within his overall essay) retain their child-like wonder, presence, and idiosyncrasy.
An aside: Soll’s “Puppet” has the subject of the naïve adult. What could be more uncanny and wondrous than a puppet, especially modeled off of a real human (no frills, no purple, no Barney)? But is subject enough?
Where my other favorite essay, Boully’s “Short Essay on Being,” fits in to this wayward discussion on naivety, I’m not sure. Her angst and revenge might have more to do with the teenager or the outraged adult. But studies have shown that when we are mad, angry, or threatened, we revert back to childhood reactions and behaviors. If she has naivety, it is mischievous, layered, and risky. She could have got caught at the end of her essay, and exposed herself not only to her culinary victim, but also to herself and the reader.
This is just to say, I like essayists who act as naïve adults: full of curiosity, strangeness, and the ability to get in trouble.