There is a New Yorker cartoon on my refrigerator by Charles Barsotti that depicts two middle-aged gentleman seated over espresso cups. The caption reads “I keep my life well ordered so I can be outrageous in my private thoughts.” Outrageous—from the Old French ultrage “to push beyond bounds”—is not how this mustachioed speaker’s friends would describe him. Far out he is not—ha ha! But I get him. The drawing puts his persevering malteses in touch with my rough likenesses.
Essays are outrageous like that. With one line they put in conversation Harry Mathews’ The Case of the Persevering Maltese—which puts in conversation St. Augustine and Marcel Duchamp—with Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness, which itself puts Madame Lulu, visiting from South Africa, in touch with Paul Celan.
They push past the bounds of the given, overthrow the assumptions we inherited, invent new norms, like those formative late night talks in college when friends and I spent whole afternoons voicing newfound beliefs, complicating each other’s questions, deepening empathy and stirring up saucier half shells for the world that was our oyster. But gradually those wide open windows of time narrowed into panes of hours. The back porch sofas were hauled to the dump, and clean well-lighted places became working lunches. The world, though, did not stop expanding after adolescence, nor did the need to process our past and future actions close like the Rising Sun Bakery. I still needed somewhere to set my mug and seek out meaningful exchange. The essay became that folding table, a portable cafe for heart-to-hearts and battles of wit.
My role as nonfiction editor of Zone 3 journal and Zone 3 Press is best understood in this way—to generate the energy of discourse in which what is at issue is in conversation across issues. Concerns and joys spread like the grapevine that carries the rumor that Ander Monson’s typing teacher once threw an electric typewriter from the fifth floor window of his high school, in “Keyboarding.” Or, the philosophical equation Marianne Janack uses to explain to her husband the relationship between a Ducati he wants to a vasectomy he does not. I take in such stories like memories. A literary journal serves our need to connect, the way an essay can.
“Connection” has a romantic vibe, but relationships raise bars we are likely to resist. We might better imagine these perspective-altering encounters as inevitable, like a family. I grew up going to family reunions so large I left certain I was two degrees of Aunt Diane away from half the town. It is easy to imagine the writers that stretch over the almost thirty years of Zone 3’s history as kin.
Literary community is similar to the family Rebecca McClanahan pictures in her multi-generational memoir, The Tribal Knot. Her relations challenge each other to re-examine their preconceptions about race, loss, love, place, and the desire to keep silent. No one is immune from this kind of influence—including McClanahan—who says in an interview with me after the book’s release that she had not planned to weave her story into that of her ancestors, but living and dead relatives seemed to insist: “Come on out, you coward. You’re part of this family too!”
When I joined Zone 3’s editorial board in 2007, the journal had been printing only poetry and fiction for over twenty years. Opening submissions to nonfiction, I anticipated, would redefine our aesthetic. Wanting this new venue to reflect the genre’s range, I sent out calls for lyric meditations, flash manifestos, cultural criticism intertwined with personal narratives. Did I use the word opera? Maybe. I held up Anne Carson’s Decreation as a model. The potential for expression was thrilling, considering we had invited the genre that begins where other forms leave off. Ned Stuckey-French and Carl Klaus’ anthology, Essayists on the Essay, had not yet been released, but I was looking for the kind of essays they say embody “a multistable impression of the self...in the process of sharing thought with others.”
Conversation can extend one’s reach, Walter Pater suggests later in the same anthology. According to him, the “really large and adventurous possibilities” of the essay arise from the dialectic method of question and answer, as in the Platonic Dialogues.
My interest in nonfiction is deeply intertwined with the collaborative assay that is the interview. Each issue of the journal, I try to contribute between one and four. My favorite explanation of the draw of the form came last fall when I asked Dan Beachy-Quick for his take on the dynamic, which he says "seems to offer, ideally, a profound kind of trespass, an overhearing, in which the actual importance of two people talking together exists not in the conversation itself, but rather in the intimacy only trespass allows, a glance, a glimpse, a listening in that feels worthy exactly because it doesn’t initially belong to you at all."
Such an interlocutor seems to say, “I intend to talk to you seriously,” as Harry Mathews begins his essay “For Prizewinners.” Such a considerate opening is inviting, but what makes me lean in for the next line is that “you” he is addressing, the multitudes of whom I am so curious to know.
So perhaps the grand contribution of the essay is its access—to people, to minutia, to experiences one has never had but sensations she might. Access is how I think of Nicole Walker’s gesture to wet her finger and taste her father’s cremated ashes in “Skin of the Earth.” A desire to take some measure of his death pushes against the bounds of her condition like a blue eye of beach glass.
Were Nicole sitting beside me like the men in Barsotti’s drawing, friendly and receptive as she is, I doubt I would ask, “Why did you finger your father’s velvet box of dust?” As it is, the question seeds a conversation within the text. I pick up on a crucial bit of information that around the time of her adolescence, the man who taught her to ride a bike came “to prefer drinks to kids,” and this exchange takes on a revelatory quality. I grasp how long her grief is against the impossibility of reclaiming him. Such is the authorial work I suspect one cannot teach, but only draw a fathom line to chart its depth, pull out a topo map to gain a sense of scale. Checked by no limitations but our own, the elements are clear, breaking down against the desert Walker and her sisters are crossing to scatter his ash.
Within every conversation inheres potential for conversion.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot describes “the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.” He is referring to a poet’s development of consciousness, but the illustration also speaks to us here, considering how exchange is catalytic.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, the author of four chapbooks, and the recipient of a Peter Taylor fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. Her nonfiction appears in Bellingham Review, Brevity, Passages North, Drunken Boat, Tupelo Quarterly, and is forthcoming in DIAGRAM and Kenyon Review.