“Drain the victim’s blood, sell the corpse, and use the soul on guard duty. No muss, no fuss, no problems.”
Olivia Voldaren—one of the hottest, most powerful red black vampires of all time—has it correct: use the whole animal. No sense wasting any meat. The essay should accomplish: selfishness and resourcefulness, the courage to gather its pieces tightly back to you in all their sticky saltiness & rearrange them & eat those pieces & rip the hearts out of foxes & verb them & make them nasty. I used to really dislike that word “nasty.” It’s weird in the mouth, right? It sounds lowly. Ha! Welcome to the classism of words! But now I like nasty a lot. It captures both the “activeness” (the ability of an essay to illicit a response from the reader, to translate & move & affect) and voice (without which invention can’t happen) that I like in nonfiction.
As the nonfiction editor at Black Warrior Review I’m always looking for unrestrained prose when I’m reading. Unrestrained, a bit mad—hectic maybe, but at the same moment quiet & directed. I like honesty in writing. I know—I know that’s such an abstract thing to say and isn’t all nonfiction honest.
Somehow these thoughts on loudness & restraint & sincerity remind me of Chelsea Hodson. Her essay, “Four Cities,” in our upcoming issue, 40.1, is exactly what I mean by honesty. It’s difficult not to love every word of her essay actually, but there’s a moment early on that I think embodies this elusive sincerity. She’s remembering a story she wrote in grade school. She writes “…girl makes friends with bird, bird introduces girl to other bird friends, all birds die from electrocution when girl makes phone call. My mother saves my school worksheets, one of which reads, Loves: dogs, wild animals. Hates: when things die, tomatoes.” Her essay doesn’t stop at merely remembering—it imagines and bleeds and, before I knew it, I was right there bleeding with her.
Our 9th Annual Black Warrior Review contest recently closed, and I spent part of my Monday morning sending out notification emails to all our sweet & beautiful nonfiction finalists. When I was reading through the submissions for the contest, and when I read submissions for general content, I’m looking for something inventive, both as a reader and editor. I don’t want anybody to remake the wheel or anything so dramatic. I don’t give a fuck about the wheel. The wheel works. Or doesn’t work. Nice for it. So what. I’m also not interested in reading 100 submissions that are exactly the wheel. Because that’s boring.
Ha. Isn’t it lovely how metaphors are so apt at communicating an idea, but at the same time not communicating anything concrete about that idea. I’m going to try hard from here on out to say some concrete things, but I’d like to also say that I’m the current nonfiction editor for BWR, not the eternal nonfiction editor. I might actually like a business card that said eternal something. Eternal Vampire. Eternal Mono Black Except When I’m Red Black. Eternal Grixis. Eternally aggro. Maybe something less awkward than those. Eternally yours. Oh yes, eternally yours. Every editor leaves their mark on the journal. I’m just one BWR editor. I can’t really answer the question of what I’m looking for, exactly, because I like quite random/diverse things, so I’ll just tell you what I like and some of what I don’t. At the same time, BWR is known for its nontraditional prose. We like essays that play with form, that question the boundaries of “essay-ness.” I think regardless of my preferences, quality pokes its head out despite taste.
I get bored easily. I want an essay to capture me within the first few words. Attention to language, to each word, is important to me as an editor. Beginnings are important too. It probably sounds unfair—to decide upon the quality of the essay so early—but I don’t like words to be taken for granted. I like language to be precise & crisp & wielded appropriately, decisively. I want to be able to hear the sound of the essay as I bite into it. The essays I’ve enjoyed reading most have an engaging tone and voice and sound to them. They’re direct, also confident, also humble.
I’m interested, both as an editor and reader, in the “something else.” I’m interested in fable and mythology and wonder in nonfiction. I like strange things. Nonfiction’s willingness to imagine—that’s the challenge, how much are you willing to imagine as the writer. I like the risk in that—the permission to imagine, to indulge in the fantastic.
Part of being an editor is being selfish. You have to know what you like. There’s a difference between stuff-I-like and stuff-I-don’t-like-but-is-obviously-well-crafted—part of my job is recognizing the presence of that distinction, and then getting over myself. My favorite moments are when I get to the end of the well-crafted (but out of the realm of stuff I seek out) essays & think “fuck” or maybe “damn.” There’s an essay like that in our upcoming issue that I’m extremely proud to have within our pages—reading it actually made me cry more than once.
Sometimes as an editor, I have to be able to say “this essay is well written but not to my taste.” I do that a lot. I’m picky. I don’t like a lot of stuff, but I recognize quality. One thing that always catches my eye is when the essay is taken out of the standard/traditional aligned left text. I like the message that sends. Yes, on one hand it says “hey, look at me,” but on the other it also says “hey, look at me.”
O form. O Christmas. O Holiday Joy. I love Christmas the most out of all the other holidays. Halloween can suck it & Thanksgiving is just a giant dinner party to satiate our excitement that Christmas is just a month away. Just a month away. Thanksgiving makes sure that Christmas dinner isn’t a barbarian’s feast, that we’re not all pounding our fists on tables or flipping them. And every August I start wanting Christmas to come along again. The snow the stupid insistent holiday cheer the stupid bells & hats the stupid repetitive upbeat music the crowdedness the hurriedness the smell of cinnamon & ginger & clove.
I adore everything about the mass production of the holiday, the artificiality, the intense devotion to form—hang the stockings, put up the tree, decorate the tree, turn on all the Christmas lights, eat gingerbread and caramel apples. I like that the holiday forces itself upon you, surrounds & suffocates you. Not even the radio will let you breathe—there’s Frosty the Snowman on every station. Isn’t the artificial joy terrifying & awesome. I like nonfiction that is like the holiday. I enjoy the level of devotion or obsession or crowdedness—that’s one of the things that draw me to a piece of nonfiction. I like the attempt at something—the journey of it all, the exploration, the searching.
Playfulness—yes. I’m going to contradict myself again and say that not every essay or nonfiction piece has to mean anything. I like pretty things too. I like the directness of text messages, phone messages, graffiti, billboards, audio, twitter, etc. There’s something interesting about the speed of those things and the places they occupy socially. They’re lively/living. There’s craft and skill in aesthetically inventive—playful—work. There’s consequence in knowing how to manipulate language. There’s consequence in knowing how to manipulate language in order to manipulate your reader. I appreciate that consequence. I welcome the manipulation.
I’m interested in pieces that explore and utilize ritual, which I think is lyric in structure. In building worlds & atmospheres or moods & voices. I’m interested in repetition, in incantation, in the accretion of stuff (and what the stuff looks like all rolled together). Meaning in accretion—meaning through ritual. Julia Cohen’s essay, “I Cannot Name It, It Lives,” does lyrically driven ritualistic work. This is one of my other favorite pieces in issue 40.1. Her piece invokes “object” like a long, lost lover. She makes it corporeal. By the end of her essay, the word “object” has so much force to it. She chants “Object, are you lonely? Are you neutralized? Domestic? Perpendicular to my pose? Object too polite to expose itself.” Her essay is an invocation, but it’s also a love letter.
Kristen LeMay’s essay, “Moods,” does a similar work. The thing I liked about that essay was how restless it felt. It wore the process of her thinking. She continually reevaluates the word “mood,” the idea of mood, explores its history, in language and in culture. There’s a charming impatience to her essay. She directs the reader, or herself—“Wait. I do remember one adjective we used for the mood: seething. Another: he was heated up. And boiling. As if someone else lit the fire. As if all we could do was wait for it to scald or explode.”
I like interruptions in essays. I like how the interruption reflects everyday life.
I like lyric. I think that’s the future of creative nonfiction. The plurality of it is exciting—the hybridity & multi-mediumness is exciting. The line in nonfiction excites me. The space of the essay is no longer on the white page, no longer subjugated to paper, to the 1 or 2 inch margin—fuck paper. So many things you can do with programming & computers & old-fashioned projectors tears up the page. That’s the fire that I’m interested in feeding. What an ironic thing for me to say, since Black Warrior Review is a print journal. But experiences don’t happen in print—print is so static—so that’s its own contradiction I suppose. We do have some pretty amazing stuff online now. If you haven’t you should check out Eric LeMay’s “The Tetris Effect” on our website.
I’ll admit I’m suspicious of the narrative. I think it dulls the lyric. I’m suspicious of prologue, the story everybody knows, the tradition. That stuff is boring. As a reader, writer, and editor I’m cautious/fearful about being boring. The present moment—that’s where the heat is. I look to nonfiction to explore the liminality of experience. I’m interested in the between stuff, the temporal stuff. Again, I speak personally here. I’m suspicious of a lot of stuff. I’m a woman. I’m Samoan. I was dirt poor growing up. We didn’t have a lot of things. Stuff didn’t mean anything. So I like Christmas because everybody is happy at Christmas. You don’t need anything to experience Christmas. Christmas is everywhere outside. It’s important to be suspicious of narrative because anyone can pick that stuff up. Anybody can learn narrative. I said a couple words and I have a narrative—woman, miscellaneously-not-white, poor. Those words don’t really tell you anything about me. They have no effect. They’re boring. I could string together enough memories to cover a few pages—but that’s not an essay. I’ll be straight forward here. I don’t care much for essays that only reconstruct the past. That is one thing that annoys me as an editor. I read quite a bit of strung-together-memories-or-feelings that impersonate essays. I want the essay to do more work than mere memory.
I’m interested in resisting narrative, but not discarding it. Black Warrior Review has a history of publishing essays that challenge narrative, essays which are interested in pushing beyond nostalgia. We’re interested in consequence—in lines and sentences and paragraphs that affect the reader. We’re interested in essays that capitalize on the lyric’s strength to invoke feeling immediately (to knock you out with intensity & concision & precision of language) and narrative’s ability to tap into the familiar, to build characters. Part of the reason I love Adeena Reitberger’s essay, “Here Is Always Somewhere Else” is because of its rejection of narrative in its opening lines. She begins: “There were no county fairs. There were no goats or chickens or cows. We never ate funnel cakes or corn dogs or deep-fried Oreo cookies. We didn’t sit in the sun until our noses turned red or stack hay after the harvest or ride to the lake in the back of pick-ups wearing bathing suits.” I’m interested in that dialogue—in the rejection.
I like an essay that makes me forget I’m reading it, that obscures the process of reading and instead makes me feel and experience. I want to feel everything.
To state the obvious: people want to feel things. One of the hardest things, as a writer, is letting them, is figuring out how to translate your experiences. One of the easiest things, and one of my favorite things about being nonfiction editor, is to feel things. I really appreciate that people are willing to share their experiences with me. Some of the things I read take a lot of courage to say. I respect that difficulty. It’s hard, as an editor too, to make that distinction between courage and craft. It’s rewarding too when you stumble upon an essay that is both. I think that’s what the BWR is all about at the end of the day. It’s sort of romantic, in a strange way. I want to love every piece—I’m willing—but at the same time I want to be charmed—convinced. I want my heart to seize up, my breathing to forget itself—I want it to be nasty.
Leia Penina Wilson is currently the nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review. She can bake cakes. She likes medium and large, very fluffy dogs. She likes cats that way too. And raccoons. And beavers. She plays Magic. She loves vampires. She has long, brown hair. Her book of poems, i built a boat with all the towels in your closet (and will let you drown) is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She might be in love with you.