Thursday, July 28, 2011

Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-first Century

Like my friend and co-editor, Sheryl St. Germain, I’m very pleased Ander asked us to write something about our anthology, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, because it gives me a chance to write about me. (I’m not entirely kidding, but please continue reading anyway.)

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

Between Song and Story: Essays for the 21st Century

I’m delighted Ander asked us to write something about our new anthology of essays, just out from Autumn House Press. It’s called Between Song and Story: Essays for the 21st Century. We (co-editor Margaret Lehr Whitford and myself) showcase the work of 46 mostly American contemporary essayists (see the whole list here: The anthology offers a selection of essays that will serve as models for creative writing students at the undergraduate and graduate level. We’re interested in the form of the essay, specifically the play between lyricism and narrative, and believe our anthology is the first to highlight the ways in which both story (narrative) and song (poetry) inform the essay, thus the title, Between Song and Story.

As a teacher and director of an MFA program, I wanted a collection adaptable to multiple teaching situations, in courses, for example, not only devoted to the craft of the essay, but more specifically to explorations of the lyric essay, the formally adventurous (or as some might call it, the “experimental”) essay, as well as those focused on nature writing, travel writing, or more nuanced explorations of place, since those are subjects that interest me. Several of the pieces in the anthology are pieces I’ve used in both graduate and undergraduate courses for many years with great success; others are from new writers who are helping redefine the genre.

I love every essay in this collection, but if I had to pick the top five, I’d pick John Haines’ “Snow,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Ugly Tourist,” Michelle Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: the Subjunctive Mood,” Joyce Carol Oates’ “Against Nature,” and Tom Varisco’s “Let’s Pretend.” I’d pick them not because they’re necessarily the best, whatever that means, but because each offers something provocative with respect to the formal elements of the essay. They’re all great essays to teach, a lot of fun to read, and almost all of them explore deeply serious subjects with a sometimes wickedly funny voice.

Three of the writers are older, and I think it’s important to remember that writers from earlier generations have been experimenting with form for quite a while—it's not something totally new. Writers like Oates and Kincaid, for example, were playing around with form while John D’Agata and David Shields were still in short pants.

Oates “Against Nature,” which we reprint in our anthology, is a tour-de-force in what Ander might call “hacking” the essay: broken segments slide into historical reflection and personal narrative; she uses collage and rapid changes of voice and tone to juxtapose cultural narrative, quotes from other writers, and even a bit of mock literary criticism. Nature writing, Oates claims, "inspires a painfully limited set of responses in ‘nature writers’ . . . reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness” ; she proceeds to show, on every page of this essay, why it need not. Full of allusion, irony and sass, the piece radiates energy.

Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Ugly Tourist,” is both mean and hilarious, a rant written wholly in second person, a powerful diatribe against a thoughtless kind of tourism. “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist,” she writes, “ is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day.” But we feel a bit like an ugly person reading Kincaid, an ugly person able to laugh at her own ugliness. The piece both invites us in as readers and mocks us for our ignorance. We can’t get pissed off at her, though, because her voice is so mesmerizing and disturbingly funny. It’s quite difficult to sustain second person for any length of time in an essay, but Kincaid’s use of it is so compelling I never want it to end.

John Haines died early this year, and while he may be best known as a poet, he was also a fine essayist. His small essay, “Snow,” is a lyric piece built simply on the act of looking at snow as if it were a page to be read. In an essay of eight paragraphs, the first of which lingers on the metaphor of snow as book, Haines evokes the whole of the Alaskan landscape, its muscular, foreign beauty that must be discovered through mindfulness and deep attention, the skills of hunter and poet. The story of the tracking of a wolverine, follows, and after a lyric pause another story, writ in the snow, of a battle between a moose and three wolves. “What might have been silence, an unwritten page, an absence,” he writes, “spoke to me as clearly as if I had been there to see it,” and here he’s speaking not only of the ability to translate a narrative from the snow, but of what is required of us to find meaning in our lives, the intimate seeing necessary to discover the pattern of a story or poem in whatever whiteness we find before us, snow, paper or screen. I began to fall in love for the first time with the lyric essay form, reading this essay many years ago; I experienced for the first time with the exquisite sense I would later come to cherish, that I was reading a poem disguised as an essay, a poem that had changed into comfortable clothes and invited me in for a drink.

Tom Varisco is not known as an essay writer; he’s the head of a design/branding studio in New Orleans and has two self-published books, Spoiled, about refrigerators left out after Hurricane Katrina and Signs of New Orleans, a design and photo book that serves as a record of the city’s “sign language.” The piece we published of his, called “Let’s Pretend” is just one paragraph long. The paragraph uses graphics—words that melt, fade, morph into waves—as it purports to give directions to Café du Monde, a well-known coffee shop in New Orleans. At a certain point the words themselves get as shadowy and wavy as the city became after Katrina, then finally right themselves when the reader has found that cup of coffee. The piece ends with suggesting, having found Café du Monde, we can now “pretend nothing ever happened,” the text fading at that point so that it is almost unreadable. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I’m from New Orleans, but I’ve read just about every heavy tome written about Katrina, and I find that this piece, this one paragraph, gets to the heart of the issue more than anything else I’ve read on the subject.

Michelle Morano’s “Grammar Lessons” uses grammar rules regarding the use of the subjunctive, specifically in Spanish, to explore a situation involving a boyfriend who tried to kill himself. It’s a brilliant, serous, and darkly humorous essay that evokes the doubt, guilt and anxiety one feels when someone close to you decides to try to kill himself. The essay is organized according to various rules of grammar, but the examples are anything but boring. Clarifying the difference between indicative and subjunctive, she points out that you’d use the indicative to say

I was in love.
Or, the man I loved tried to kill himself.
Or, I moved to Spain because the man I loved, the man
who tried to kill himself, was driving me insane.

The rules for using the subjunctive serve as section headers from the rest of the essay. As everyone knows, the subjunctive can illustrate a wish or desire, as in

I would love to continue singing the praises of the writers in this anthology but I am already over the word limit.

If you are a teacher and think you might want to use this anthology for a course please email me at I’d be happy to send you a sample copy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The 2011 Essay Prize Winner & Forthcoming Conversation

Well after the fact, I realize that none of us every posted an official capstone on the conversations that the two graduate craft seminars had last spring on the nominations and finalists for the Essay Prize 2011. Apologies for the oversight. This is just a short note to announce that the winner of the prize is Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands. Thanks to John D'Agata for inviting the University of Arizona to participate in the conversation and selection process this year.

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.