Thursday, July 28, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. OH how I love Michelle Morano’s “In the Subjunctive Mood"! I've used it in CNF classes, but find it's so technically adept that my students are daunted by it. Shame, that, as the examination of language Morano undertakes is a perfect tool for digging deeper into story. Great piece for looking at the second person in CNF too.

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