Sunday, November 30, 2014

11/30, the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, it turns out, is the first day of Advent, thus the Essay Daily Advent Calendar 2014 arriveth

So hey.

This is the week in which I erect the monumental Rudolph in my yard as my answer to the neighbors’ overwhelming cheer. It is fifteen feet high and inflatable, implacable. It moves its head as if to say I’m overcompensating for my lack of spirit, but also as if to say: I am thinking about you. Typically I don’t have the Christmas spirit: the season fills me with a vague sense of dread. The gifts I offer will just showcase my failure. But last year I bought my giant Rudolph and set him up and his presence—if it’s not too weird to say his—changed my approach to the season. I inflate him in the late afternoon and let him run until my neighbors have shut down their displays for the night. I take a weird amount of pleasure in my Rudolph being the last thing shining on my block, and in the little ritual of coming out after my family is asleep to unplug him and hold him as he deflates in such a way that he doesn’t pitch into the thorned ocotillo or the sharp agaves.

We began the Essay Daily advent calendar a few years back as a way to actually enact the daily implicit in our name. Going fully daily is still beyond us, but every December we offer this advent, an essay a day, counting down until the 25th as a way of saying thanks. And, too, of offering a daily devotional to the essay. It is a daily pilgrimage we make here, religious skeptics as some of us are, and believers in one thing or another as others of us are, to this museum of the contemporary self.

The essay is a museum of the contemporary self. That’s what it is: a register of one consciousness moving sentence by sentence through time. One thing about the self is that it’s always contemporary: being in an essay is being in the present tense of the mind, so that inhabiting Sei Shonagon or Pliny the Elder doesn’t feel so far removed from how we felt—how we thought—yesterday as we contemplated our neighbors mania for decoration from the depths of our collective hangovers.

Sure, our Is do shift a little. Maybe we’re all getting stupider—or faster—on account of electricity and interconnectivity and blah blah the Kindle end of the book kids these days. And, sure, not all essay-Is are created equal. But what makes the good ones good is how they can still captivate us even now in our diminished mental states. Let’s be clear, though, when we’re talking about I we’re talking also about artificiality and performance: an essay I is always artificial and performing, even—or especially—when it claims it’s not. The Is we present are a tiny subset (at most) of our capacious selves, performances that we sharpen each time we reread and revise the version that shows up in our drafts. They’re what we choose to show you, how we pruned ourselves for you.

Allowing myself to be possessed by an essay-I (if possessed isn’t making too much of it: and I don’t think it is when we’re talking about some of the stronger personalities we’re presented with, how they occupy us, how they rewire us and continue resonating in our mind even after the essay is done and gone) is an exercise in humility. How surprising and invigorating the essay I can be! How good it can feel to be someone else for a little while! We spend so much time being ourselves (whatever that means to each of us). Perhaps it’s worthwhile to try being someone else every day this December. At the least I bet that exercise in selflessness will improve the gifts you give.

To that end, we offer two features this year: first, we’ll run our featured posts—each on an essay, an essayist, or some aspect of the essay, as usual—each morning leading up to Christmas.

Second, it’s been a good year for the essay. We have a lot of suggestions for books or essayists that you should be reading and thinking about gifting to others. So we asked essayists we like to suggest their favorite Essays to Gift This Year. We’ll run these (usually brief) lists each afternoon.

Check back with us as we go. See what each new day has to offer in the calendar. We can’t promise chocolates, but we can promise a new exhibit each day in the museum of the contemporary self. Maybe some will involve chocolate.

So join us as we read an essay a day as a devotional this December. Maybe it’ll become a habit for you too.

Allow us to suggest Philip Graham's "The Man Behind the Santa Beard Confesses" or perhaps David Sedaris's "The Santaland Diaries" (pdf: the essay starts on page 2), the season being what it is...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Brett Sigurdson on the Roots of Mud Season Review

I’m scrambling today. I have five essays to read, a few to decline, an accepted submission to proof, three essays to give feedback on, and an interview with a writer to conduct. Such is the life of a volunteer editor for a four-month-old online literary journal started by members of a writing workshop.

I’m the nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review, and if it sounds like I’m in over my head, that’s alright—I’m merely pulling my weight. I’m one of the six editors, eight assistant editors, five readers and four staff members—volunteers all—who make up MSR’s staff, and we’ve all been absorbed in our work. Our third issue went live last week, and when I look back, I’m amazed by how far Mud Season Review has come since it opened for submissions in June. Our toil has created a system that is all but running itself: we’ve smoothed out our review process, our PR team is connecting more people to our mission, we’re seeing a steady stream of quality submissions. We’ve also begun to look forward to our first print journal, which we’re funding from our feedback-request option.

Mud Season Review started with a tally of votes in a survey among the members who make up the Burlington Writers Workshop, a free writing workshop for all Vermonters. More than half the respondents to the survey said they wanted to start a literary journal. BWW’s head organizer Peter Biello made it our number-one priority and gave us the support and guidance we needed to make it happen. And while the project could have—maybe should have—seemed daunting, there was a sense among the editorial staff from the outset that anything is possible.

This attitude is no doubt linked to the success of the BWW itself. The organization has evolved since 2009 from a loose group of writers meeting at bars throughout the city to over 600 members who meet for several weekly workshops in its own space. And it’s not just poetry, fiction and nonfiction—the BWW has held songwriting, digital storytelling, even radio play workshops. Not to mention events ranging from classes on book design, to discussions on the use of flashback in fiction, to readings by prominent Vermont authors like David Budbill and Howard Frank Mosher. BWW members also print a yearly anthology, Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop, and publish their writings in special supplements placed in every room of a chic Burlington hotel. If you’re a writer in Vermont, the BWW is an incredible resource.

In starting a new journal, the editorial team envisioned a publication that emulates the inclusive, encouraging, all-for-one-one-for-all ethos of the BWW. We wanted to open our arms to writers just finding their voices—those who are perhaps intimidated by the publishing world—as much as we wanted to appeal to those who are producing and publishing their best work. But as we met to discuss our mission, our motives revealed other benefits:

1. We learn about our writing from the work that we read. Why not use the process of creating and maintaining a journal as a means to learn more about how we can improve as writers?

2. We wanted a venue to discover new, exciting writing. Most of us have read great stories in the BWW workshops, yet we know that it’s harder and harder to find a place to publish this work. We wanted to help those stories and poems find an audience.

3. We wanted to work with fellow writers on a project that would foster the community feeling the BWW has created.

And, hey, no matter what happened, we could at least have fun doing it.

BWW members voted on the name, selecting Mud Season Review after that unique time in New England before it’s properly spring. The snow is gone, but the mud remains, covering a landscape that will soon turn green. We like to think Mud Season Review honors the lonely time that writers spend on their work, that fertile period of creativity right before a piece truly blossoms. With each publication we want to honor the fruits of the slow private work of creation. We choose pieces to publish that are worth a slow read, worth re-reading and thinking about. And we work hard to find artwork or photos that complement each story, something that adds perhaps another dimension to a story or poem.

Just like the workshops the BWW holds, we’re open to a range of writing (and art). In terms of nonfiction, we want to see writing that pushes limits of structure and form while still telling a solid story. Out of the three essays we’ve published so far, all have been braided narratives and all have been long, in-depth looks at an issue, a time, or a place, from the point of view of a self-reflective narrator. I come from a journalism background, so I really connect with long-form journalism pieces that tell a story with research and form at their heart. I’m also open to memoir and more poetic explorations of experience, as long as they reveal real insight into their cruxes or awareness of broader issues. But whichever form the piece takes, our editorial team wants to be affected by a story.

With each publication, we’ve tried to mimic the support-your-fellow-writer ethic of a writers workshop, and this has translated in ways obvious and not. Where we give each piece of writing the weight of our attention in a workshop, in the journal’s case, we give a writer’s work one month to be the focus of our readers’ attention on the website. Then we give each writer a chance to step “out of the box” to discuss his or her work via the interviews we post during the month that work is featured. 

We also try to mimic the constructive, critical nature of the workshop behind the scenes. In all the genres, when possible, we try to offer specific feedback on pieces we decline that we feel are close but aren’t quite realized. Though it takes extra time and thought, the staff of Mud Season Review is dedicated to approaching writers as fellow writers whose work we’re rooting for. After all, that’s the scene we grew out of.

A few weeks back, I got an email from a writer I’d given feedback to via our feedback request option. Her essay had been accepted for publication in a journal and she wanted to thank me for the time I had put into reading and responding to the piece, encouraging her to keep working on it. Even though we didn’t accept her essay, she wanted to thank us for taking the time to help her improve her piece.

We have big ambitions as a journal, but it’s this kind of small connection with other writers that keeps me going as an editor. And we hope it keeps more writers working on their writing, not to get it published, but to make it live up to its conception. The inner work is done alone, but we hope Mud Season Review can be a trellis that lets it bloom.

Brett Sigurdson is nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He is the former Thomas J. Lyon Fellow for the journal Western American Literature, formerly published by Utah State University. There, he earned a master’s degree in American Studies with an emphasis on creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in Western American Literature and NewPages. He is currently the editor-in-chief of The Charlotte News, a nonprofit newspaper based in Charlotte, Vermont.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Andrew Maynard: Writing the Monster

Writing the Monster: On “Truck Stop Killers” and John Wayne Gacy


Andrew Maynard


My favorite story my father tells is a recycled one, a story told by his former law colleague and friend Greg Adamski. It’s about John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Well, it’s as much a story about John Wayne Gacy as any anecdote can actually be about anyone. Revision: John Wayne Gacy is a character in this story. Adamski was Gacy’s attorney, the one handling his appeal. He was tasked with arguing not so much Gacy’s innocence, but why he should be taken off death row. Adamski no doubt knew he was simply trudging through legal hurdles toward the finish line, i.e. Gacy’s inevitable death. Gacy’s monstrosity had been well documented, and Adamski and everyone else knew he didn’t deserve to live. His choices had derailed him from the tracks of humanity, yet in a vacuum Adamski couldn’t help but find Gacy charming. Charming might seem a strange adjective to attach to a man eventually convicted of 33 murders, all young men: 28 buried beneath the floorboards of his Illinois home, the other five thrown into the Des Plaines River. Excluded from these statistics is Jeffrey Ringall, who in 1978 was lured from the street into Gacy’s Oldsmobile with a joint, a prelude to being abducted, tortured, raped, and discarded the next morning in Lincoln Park, where he woke up beneath a statue hoping it was all just a dream. It wasn’t. But he survived. I sometimes wonder how Ringall’s personal essay would read.

In “Truck Stop Killer” (originally published in GQ, later anthologized in Best American Essays 2013), Vanessa Veselka writes of the years she spent hopping into cars with strange men, primarily long-haul truckers, one of whom may or may not have been Robert Rhoades, a prodigious serial killer who raped, tortured, and murdered dozens of women. Veselka was fifteen at the time and had recently parted ways with the older boyfriend for whom she had abandoned her home and hit the road. Veselka quickly learned what she was in for. “The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute.” She even labeled the various degrees of trucker misogyny:

1. You (the driver) kept your urges to yourself.
2. You asked me to have sex and offered to pay.
3. You told me I owed you sex for the ride and chicken-fried steak and threatened to drop me off somewhere dangerous.
4. You dropped me off somewhere dangerous.
5. I had to jump when you slowed down because you were going to rape me.

Because Veselka was clearly perceptive enough (even at 15) to recognize the danger in her ventures with truckers evokes the question Why? Why would she choose to put herself in danger? This is a query that has continually drawn me back to this essay. In the midst of the newly inflated discussions about domestic abuse and the media’s constant questioning/interrogating/accusing of these women’s (the victims’) roles in the matter, I often find myself tentative to articulate my stance, worried that I might simplify the reality rather than validate its complexity; I’ve seen how the men (it’s nearly always men) who try to scrape answers from isolated anecdotes tend to silence the real issue with their noise. And when my own language/perspective falls short, I find it helpful to turn to someone else’s. Here’s how Veselka avoids making blanket statements that could potentially dress the countless women who’ve hitched rides with truckers in a tidy, yet false uniform: she simply doesn’t. “People don’t leave home because things are going well; they leave because they feel like they have to, and right or wrong, that’s how I felt.” Veselka presents the reader with a naked reality and then trusts us to accept it. What she doesn’t say says everything. Her background is not atypical. Most teenage girls argue with their mothers, and plenty have fathers living in different states; yet the fact that Veselka’s problems aren’t extraordinary in the aggregate doesn’t mean they weren’t so heavy on her shoulders that they didn’t eventually crash down and crumble the remnants of her remaining adolescence and lead her to the road.  

My father’s story begins with Gacy’s co-counsel, Greg Adamski, and his wife, Karen. Greg and Karen were speaking to Gacy in a holding cell just weeks before his execution. Greg told Gacy that they had reached the end of the appeals road—the execution was now inevitable.
  “Don’t worry, Greg,” Gacy responded, confidently. “I’ll be speaking with you on your birthday.”
  Greg made eye contact with Karen then looked back to Gacy. “No, John,” he said. “My birthday’s in six months—you won’t be at that party.”
  Gacy’s eyes locked on Greg. “Don’t worry, Greg, I’ll be speaking with you on your birthday. I’m sure of it.”
  Greg shook his head: “Looking forward to it.”

I am both attracted to and weary of the essay welded to trauma—accounts of dead children, abuse, bullying, absent parents, lovers lost, etc. My fear: the author will use her painful past as a vehicle for a painful reader experience. I have no interest in the cautionary tale that is simply a cautionary tale: a photo of charred, mangled lungs on a cigarette box. But I also swoon at these subjects in hopes that the experience will be reformulated, transformed. I’m willing to let an essay haunt but not spook me. The problem with the trauma story is that it can be too easy to pigeonhole characters as either inflictors or recipients of wrongdoings, which is inherently anti-essayistic; it dehydrates the essay of its juice—shifting dynamics, complexity. There is no best practice when it comes to writing the monster except this: don’t write the monster. In Michelle Brooks’ essay “The Ceiling or the Floor,” she begins, “As an undergraduate in a modern dance class, I had to watch my rapist perform a solo dance number to the sound of dolphins crying”—one of my favorite opening sentences for an essay. Ever. Brooks adapted her traumatic experience into a form that could tease out comedy and absurdity despite the weightiness of the story without ever compromising or ignoring the gravity of the subject. She created a medium that could let us laugh at her rapist. Veselka doesn’t search for the witty (at least not in the comic sense) moments; I don’t think that was ever an option. The greatest tragedies inflicted by Rhoades were onto others, not her. But the success of “Truck Stop Killers” is attributable in large part to Veselka’s opening scene with Rhoades. She recounts catching a ride with him just days after witnessing a dead girl being pulled from a dumpster at a truck stop, an alert to the dangers of hitchhiking and later a key thread of evidence in determining whether it was actually Rhoades who had picked up Veselka. During the ride, Rhoades (presumably Rhoades) had pulled the truck off the side of the road and, with a knife to Veseka’s throat, escorted her into the trailer. Veselka remembers her response: “I said I knew he didn’t want to do it. I said it was his choice . [. . .] until he looked at me and I went still. There was going to be no more talking. I knew in my body it was over. Then he said one word: Run.”
  At its simplest, this scene sets the occasion for Veselka’s investigation of Robert Rhoades and the women he killed, but it also does something greater. It reveals her willingness to paint Rhoades doing something innately human: making a choice. Addressing the tendency to classify violent men as “monsters,” Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side, writes, “But that term, with its connotations of the unnatural and uncontrollable, absolves the abuser of the responsibility for being human.” It would be absurd to expect everyone subjected to violence to search for moments of humanity in the narrative of her abuser, but for the essayist it is an obligatory exploration. I’m not arguing that everyone deserves empathy, just that all characters deserve flesh and blood and guts, because flesh allows characters to be surprising and malleable: to live and breathe, to rot and spoil. Dressing a character in flesh lets him/her embody the essence of what it means to be human and subsequently what it means to shift our preconceived paradigm; it makes it possible to mold the trauma story into essay, maybe even art.

On October 14, 1994, Greg Adamski got out of bed on the wrong side of forty. He poured himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and pressed play on his answering machine, listening to then deleting messages from familiar voices, friends and family members wishing him a happy birthday. And then Greg heard the cold, hollow voice of the dead. “Hey Greg, it’s John Wayne Gacy—I told you I’d call on your birthday.” A chill ran through Greg’s spine as if being inhabited by a poltergeist. He stepped back from the answering machine recognizing the absurdity—he’d seen Gacy on the gurney, heard his last words—“Kiss my ass”—yet it was undeniably Gacy’s voice on the machine. He was as certain of the voice as he was of its impossibility.
  And then he heard a laugh—not Gacy’s, but his wife’s. Karen was standing in the hallway behind Greg, watching her husband react to the recording she had made months ago as a premeditated practical joke. Greg took a deep breath, a broken grin spreading, because he knew he was in the middle of a story he’ll tell for the rest of his life. A story he’d tell my father. A story my father would tell me. A story I’m telling you now. A story he knew meant something, whether or not he ever figured out exactly what that was.

Near the end of “Truck Stop Killers,” Veselka concludes: “this investigation of mine wasn’t a detective novel. It was a ghost story.” A ghost story? Sure. By digging into her own story and the stories of the many others who never had the chance to tell their own, she gave a voice to the silenced. But unlike the ghost stories told around campfires, Veselka refused to say monster. She didn’t let Rhoades off the hook that easily. She made him human—and in doing so rendered an account that in its restraint was all the more disturbing.


Andrew Maynard lives in his sister's 1976 Airstream on San Juan Island, Washington. His essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, DIAGRAM, and the inboxes of several receptive family members. He's currently at work on a novel, an essay collection, and landing a job with health insurance.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Visual Essayists IV: Gretchen Henderson

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we 
     find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
                                    -John Muir

Gretchen Henderson touching a replica of the Omphalos stone 
(the belly button of the world) at Delphi. Photo by Yurie Hong. 

SM: Hi Gretchen, can you tell us a little bit about the work you are doing at MIT this year?

GH: First, thanks for inviting me to be part of this compelling conversation on “Visual Essays.” As for MIT, I’m returning as a Visiting Artist for a chamber opera called Cassandra in the Temples. Last year, I reimagined the myth of the ancient mythic seer Cassandra with an ecologic twist for a libretto to be composed by Elena Ruehr, who is on MIT’s faculty in Music. We met before I finished my postdoctoral fellowship there and had a mutual appreciation for one another’s work, where she felt that my books read musically like operas, and I felt that her music was like listening to poetry. The collaborative synergy has been fascinating, also leading me back to antiquity and to a month-long immersion in Greece. An unstaged version of the opera will be performed in November by the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, who specialize in an array of world music styles and dedicate themselves to “mining the expressive potential of the human voice.” As part of the visiting artist residency, I’ll be working with classes and doing some collaborative master classes, along with preparatory work for the performance. If anyone happens to be in Boston on November 21st, the performance will be at Kresge Auditorium on MIT’s campus (tickets available here).

Henderson's Artist Book Music Begins Where Worlds End

SM: What is it that draws you to interdisciplinary work? What happens within art-writing-music-research processes that might not within a single subject or medium? Do you ever think that these multi* texts amplify the ways they engage with modern audiences?

GH: Each project doesn’t start out interdisciplinary or intergenre for its own sake, rather encountering an unpolished gem of a sound, image, character, or cadence that seems to gleam from a larger genre: an essay, a story, a poem. Content gropes toward a form, seeking a shape where form and content grow in and out of each other. These works are not deliberately hybrid and often want to gravitate toward a home genre, but the material leads me in a different direction, like following cairns on a trail. Other times, there’s a concept or material that leads backwards before forwards, or wears down that seeming-gem to dust.

My projects may end up interdisciplinary and intergenre because of my background but also because the world is naturally interconnected, like John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” It’s been helpful to have strong grounding in multiple genres to essentially inhabit their architectures, then to see where borders are malleable or porous, tunneling into each other. Each genre builds upon foundations with deep archeologies. During college, leaning toward work in human rights, my writing gravitated to creative nonfiction, new journalism, ethnography, oral history, and documentary film, before I even thought of being a writer. While teaching high school, a diversion of a night class on the “Short Short Story” led me into fiction, which later ended up the focus of my M.F.A. If that professor had called her course “The Prose Poem” instead of the “Short Short Story,” I likely would’ve ended up in poetry. Labels steer us in different directions. Poetry kept lulling over the years, likely because of my background in music. My doctorate was devoted to tracing a lineage of literary appropriations of art forms, focusing on fiction but casting a wide net across genres, working to find forebears and precedents for my literary and artistic inclinations. Over the years, I’ve taught at a variety of colleges and universities, and it’s helped immensely to teach separate courses in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literature, museum studies, book history, and other disciplines that have helped me (and hopefully, my students) think about genres in and of themselves, alongside interdisciplinary and interartistic overlaps, to know where borders are to navigate and cross them. And how to return to a home genre with a new perspective.

"These works are not deliberately hybrid and often want to gravitate toward a home genre, but the material leads me in a different direction, like following cairns on a trail. Other times, there’s a concept or material that leads backwards before forwards, or wears down that seeming-gem to dust."

Two page spread from Henderson's novel Galerie de Difformité.

Given my background in music, I’m essentially interested in voice and acoustics. Toward the end of my doctorate, thanks to a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, I was grateful to have some of my “fiction” read by Forrest Gander who said, “You’re writing poetry.” Most pieces weren’t getting accepted as fiction, so he encouraged me to send them out as poetry, and then a bunch got published. That advice was insightful, and the exercise of re-labeling under a different genre made me think more about reading strategies, how a reader meets a page with an inherited set of expectations about what constitutes genre. Following a genre’s lineage outside of its academic or commercial packages, you start to read and listen at the level of language, and the text starts to talk back in fascinating ways. The medium of the message also deeply influences the evolution of genres, again coming back to convergences of form and content. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and sensory registers shift and influence the acts of reading, writing, making (and un-reading, un-writing, and un-making) our changing world that, in turn, changes us.

As you mentioned, modern audiences encounter many media forms and find different ways to navigate these literacies, which in turn suggest new creative forms. Since we live in a world whose literacies are increasingly visual, aural dimensions of literature appeal to me as the two-dimensional medium of the page can resonate as a three-dimensional soundscape or echochamber. In our noisy visual and aural landscape, I am interested not only in sounds but also silences, absences as well as presences. Earlier this year at AWP, I gave a talk about history (more toward the French, histoires, meaning both “history” and “story”) and in writing that talk realized that many of my books adopt architectural frameworks in their titles—with “house,” “gallery,” and “temple” literally embedded in The House Enters the Street, Galerie de Difformité, and Cassandra in the Temples. Writers often talk about “narrative architecture” or “poetics of space,” but I hadn’t meant to be that overt! But it was ear-opening to recognize, since I’m always interested in how different texts set up resonant echo-chambers. Since the activity of reading is often silent, other sensory registers can activate the space of the page: visually, aurally, haptically, and metaphorically.

Writings that are commissioned or collaborative often come with specific genre specifications. I welcome this “constraint” and use that term generously and generatively: every genre is capacious, evolving over long histories, leaving room for exploration. “Visual Essays” (as you know well, given your own capacious work) include the wide landscape of nonfiction from the lyric essay to new journalism, ethnography to creative nonfiction, documentary poetics to oral history, and much more. My most recent nonfiction project was a commissioned essay for an exhibition at Gallery Molly Krom in New York, offering a wonderful experience of correspondences with the artist Sanda Iliescu, finding a form of essay that echoed her artwork, our interviews and correspondences into a kind of call-and-response art criticism, which will be published as a chapbook of her art and my writing. Since “essay” etymologically derives from assay, as in testing, I view all of these writings as investigations, a quest of questions.

SM: In your work as the cross-genre guru of "trying," much of your texts have been deeply considerate of performance spaces and deformanceas you write, “form in motion.” Im interested in how your textual work considers these strategies of access that extend beyond the relationship between reader and printed page. Can you speak a little about deformity? And the connections between deformance and the performance of cross-genre work?

GH: “Deformity” includes “form,” literally embedded in the word. I started working with the word in 2004 in a doctoral course on “Eighteenth-Century British Visual Culture” where “deformity” seemed to emerge across an array of textual and visual sources. The period’s classical excavations left a rubble of fragments to repiece against a backdrop of empire and expedition. My final critical paper for that course ended up being titled the “Galerie de Difformité: far from the hybrid art+text novel that emerged but laying the foundation for that project, starting as a series of critical illustrated micro-essays, linked as if they were an exhibition. During my M.F.A. back in 2000, I had incorporated artifacts, maps, and visuals into my other novel-in-progress but was advised to remove them and focus on text, and that became the focus of my M.F.A.. But then that doctoral essay wanted to fracture into art+text terrain, as it explored forms of deformity not only aesthetically but also socioculturally. (For instance, Aristotle defined women as “deformed” males, and Samuel Johnson defined “deformity” and “ugliness” interchangeably, associated with disability and ridicule.) The further I unpacked the word’s etymology and usage in various periods in contexts, its deformance started to perform, and then the challenge became finding a literary form that fit the content—which ended up, literally, needing to deform across genres and media.

One of the constraints of the Galerie de Difformité is performing contemporary publishing practices: with its “Exhibits” (essentially, prose poems, narrated by one of the novel’s characters) first published in an array of literary journals, then mounted in an online gallery, inviting readers to “deform” those published pages, then getting published as a palimpsestual book, which then became a project in pedagogy, incorporated into classes across disciplines, among other offshoots. The book has been deformed/performed at over 20 universities around the country, deforming in fits and starts, materially and virtually. I’m as interested in composing as decomposing inherited reading and writing strategies to see (and hear and sense) what we take for granted, working with unraveling ends that double as beginnings. The project has been a method of research, a series of investigations crossing genres, creative and critical bounds. 

"Seasons change; bodies age. Thinking of form as fixed misleads, since change animates everything. Making art is as much about process, if not more than product."

Given my background in music, I’ve viewed “deformity” as a verb—deforming as deformance—and was thrilled to learn early on in the project of Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuel’s critical work on “deformance” as a pedagogical strategy. “Deformance” also been defined in more negative sociological terms by Susan Schweik, so the context changes in different cultural contexts. Essentially, yes, I think of it as “form in motion,” since nothing is static. Seasons change; bodies age. Thinking of form as fixed misleads, since change animates everything. Making art is as much about process, if not more than, product. Music scores are not performances in-and-of-themselves but rather provide musicians with roadmaps for performance. Every performance differs, based on the musicians and mediums of time and space. Inter-artistic notations set up fields of interpretation. For me, another angle of performance/deformance emerges through museology, which can function as a narrative strategy. When you walk into an exhibit, a curator has planned a path, but the three-dimensional intersection of space and time offer a kind of choose-your-own-adventure. This format deeply influenced the deforming shape of the Galerie, but as mentioned, each of my projects has different shapes that arise out of entwined form and content.

SM: It seems that many writers working across media have been advised to pair their work down to text.  Sometimes I wonder if, to the literary community, multi-media texts seem like a new movement coinciding with new technologies tied to social media. You were one of the first instructors I studied under to convey the scope of multimedia work across time. Can you talk a little bit here about the history of visuals in writing?

GH: Yes, visuals are everywhere in the history of writing! When you think about the materiality of writing—from inscribed clay or wax tablets, to papyrus scrolls with their horizontal and vertical weaves, to manuscripts on scraped vellum, to the codex and different manifestations of books—all of these provide a visual, tactile, and multi-sensory aesthetic that can be more or less invisible as visuals are integrated or juxtaposed. Text upon text can emerge in traditions from scholia, glosses, and palimpsests. Illuminated manuscripts, emblem books, extra-illustrated and grangerized texts, scrapbooks, collage, bricolage, fine press books in the vein of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, livres d’artistes like Henri Matisse’s Jazz, Russian avant-garde books, Fluxus kits with explosive “magazines,” a wide range of artists’ books... There are so many writers who engage aspects of visual writing: from George Herbert’s concrete poems and a tradition of Visual Poetry (or VisPo) to William Blake’s illuminated printing, to the typographic play of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (with its infamous marbled page) or Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, to Emily Dickinson’s fascicles, to William Burroughs and Brion Gyson’s Third Mind, to Tom Phillips’s “typographic rivers” in A Humument and different practitioners of erasure (Mary Ruefle, Jen Bervin, Jonathan Safran Foer), which barely skims the surface of contemporary writers who have worked with art+text from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to W.G. Sebald to Shelley Jackson to Mark Danielewski to Steve Tomasula and so many more. This also barely touches upon the evolution of these processes in electronic media, with artistic e-books, apps, and creatively computed concoctions. Many considerations come into play with media, not only production and reading strategies but also decreation, given the ephemerality of different media, influencing our sense of a work: from surviving fragments of Greek drama to electronic literatures that become inaccessible with new technology platforms.

Marbled Page from Sterne's Tristram Shandy

SM: You've touched on the slipperiness of genre already but I'm very interested in your process working across genres. What changes for you? What are your thoughts on how various media might pair differently with fiction, nonfiction, poetry... or opera?

GH: My sense of genre changes through the compositional process and through structures and shapes found in life. Everything is interconnected, and for me it’s about listening and finding analogous registers in literature through other arts. Priorities and perspectives change. When you hold a camera to frame a photograph and shift the shutter and aperture, light and shadow, the visual changes are palpable. What fits inside the frame, and what gets cut out? Is the subject close up or distant, blurred or clear? Analogous processes in writing shift at the level of language and line, syntax and sentence, paragraph and page, contributing to the overall picture or soundscape of a story, poem, essay, or hybrid text. It’s helpful to try to fit inside any genre’s form and follow its inherited “map,” then re-connect dots like stars in constellations to find alternative myths. It’s also interesting to turn the map upside-down and try to navigate terra incognita and map your way back to a sense of home. One of my first writing teachers, John McPhee, actually had us turn in maps with all of our assignments. The exercise seemed artificial at first, where you made your map after writing a piece, but little by little, that sense of structure seemed inseparable, like a spine connected to bones, muscles, nerves, and fascia holding together a whole body to animate and let it live.

When students are interested in multi-genre or multi-media work, I recommend as exercise trying to write and publish distinct types of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, criticism, and more—to get a sense of the various architectures and assumptions for each, to investigate and appreciate what elements overlap and divert, to understand and defend each choice rather than making an arbitrary jumble. Chance operations are useful exercises, but then it’s up to the writer or artist to decide what is worth keeping or discarding, what questions are provoked, where any choice leads and how it influences overall practice. If your writing doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, there can be pushback but also possibility, so it’s vital to know aesthetic precedents. John Cage wrote that composition is not about self-expression but self-alteration, and each investigation likewise alters a sense of a genre’s or medium’s capabilities.

"As writers de-classify their works from genre labels, what do we discover?
What possibilities and questions arise?"

The writer Richard Rodriguez once described in an interview for the American Scholar how his ideal bookstore would be organized: “Chaotically,” he wrote. “What I love most are secondhand bookstores that are completely disorganized. I get published because there’s a Hispanic shelf—I know that—but that means I’ll always be shelved next to a sociological study of Mexican-Americans in Texas in the 1940s. I’ll never be shelved next to the books that created me . . . James Baldwin and D.H. Lawrence . . . People should be allowed to become illegal immigrants in each other’s lives.” As writers de-classify their works from genre labels, what do we discover? What possibilities and questions arise? Galerie de Difformité has been categorized under fiction, poetry, art, and (to my surprise) nonfiction and criticism. That chameleon quality is built into its structure but also has illuminated for me how categorization historically works around words, and what gets lost and found when translated across genres.

As for opera: designing that narrative and writing the libretto felt like returning home for me. I came to music almost before writing and spent many years performing, studying composition and music history before turning to writing. I think through texts in musical terms, and it’s been interesting to hear from some readers that my texts are meant to be read aloud. Writing the opera gave full license to imagine text to be performed as song. When Elena first invited me to collaborate, she took my writing and physically held up some of poems in my chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, saying: “This poem is 2-3 minutes of music. That’s 7-8 minutes of music.” It was immensely helpful to translate texts in temporal terms and think about how a simple surface could hold layers of meaning. I’ve sung for most of my life, so the process of writing a libretto felt like a leap into something deeply intuitive as embodied memory.

Henderson's broadside of "Wreckage by Sea"

Librettists historically strung together words with vowels, which open the mouth to amplify and project sound. Since Cassandra’s myth hovers around listening, it was important to me to build a soundscape that shifted the audience’s act of listening throughout the opera. Serpents are important to her story (reputedly licking clean her ears, giving her the gift of prophecy), so I constructed one song entirely on words with sibilants (which also close down the mouth). Cassandra’s subsequent lament after being cursed ends up devoid of sibilants. There’s much more to say—simply, character and text are tempered throughout. Even as the songs visually resemble poems, they function collectively like fiction and are performed like a drama. The libretto draws upon techniques of different genres and disciplines to forge something more from their intersection that can only be realized in an intermediary, interartistic, interdisciplinary space. Laocoön is a literal character in Cassandra’s story but also embodies the very question of wrestling between genres, as theorists from G.E. Lessing to Clement Greenberg to Daniel Albright have explored. Many more components influenced my reimaging of myth: from knowing the number of vocalists to determine characters, to studying their vocal ranges and proficiencies, to dividing the length of the chamber opera into movements, to mining the myth for aural motifs to thematically and formally organize and transform the narrative, to thinking through ancient modal music and materialities of transmission that could contemporize its message, and much more. It was a humbling, amazing experience after I sent Elena the finished libretto to start receiving her sheet music and midi files and hear musical analogues to my text and work with her to shape the soundscape of the opera. Essentially, an underlying theme boils down to how we listen as a species to one another and to the changing natural world around us. It’s an ecological take on an apocalyptic story. I’m really looking forward to hearing Roomful of Teeth perform it in November. Among other projects, a new opera also is in the works.

SM: Thanks, Gretchen.

Gretchen Henderson writes across genres and the arts. Her hybrid novels include The House Enters the Street (Starcherone Books, 2012) and Galerie de Difformité (&NOW Books, 2011), which is a book deforming across media and recipient of the Madeleine Plonsker Prize. Gretchen’s collections of nonfiction and poetry include On Marvellous Things Heard (Green Lantern Press, 2011) and Wreckage: By Land & By Sea (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), as well as an opera libretto, Cassandra in the Temples. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and hybrid works have appeared in a wide variety of journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Performance Research, Journal of Artists’ Books, and The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing. A classically-trained musician, Gretchen also is a scholar of literature and art history and has taught at a number of universities, most recently at MIT and the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and this spring will be teaching at Georgetown University. She recently moved to Washington D.C.

Sarah Minor is from the great state of Iowa. She is a doctoral candidate in Nonfiction at Ohio University, and holds an MFA in the same genre from the University of Arizona. She lives in Athens, Ohio and is at work on a collection of visual essays about liminal spaces, if you can believe it. More, here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lunch: A Look at How We Read Now

My writing life changed because of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Not the poems, though I love them, but the title. Lunch Poems. Poems to read while you’re eating lunch. Maybe you’re at a diner or on a park bench. Maybe you’re out back, by the dumpster, with a Coke and a cigarette. That's okay. Nothing fancy in Lunch Poems. No need to put on your suit or sackcloth and brace yourself to confront the sublime. These are just lunch poems. Read one more while you’re finishing your falafel.  

Evoking a specific experience, Lunch Poems alerted me to all of the wonderfully messy ways we read. Sure, our reading might involve a perfectly overstuffed couch or cozy bed, where we make bargains with ourselves about how many more pages we’ll enjoy before we really have to go to sleep. More often, when I read and when I look around and see others reading, the experiences are less ideal. We’re on buses and treadmills. We’re in waiting rooms and cubicles. We’re at lunch. O’Hara’s title reminds me, as a writer, to take into account how we read now.  

I’m aware that the likely inspiration for O’Hara’s title came from the fact that he supposedly wrote many of them on his lunch break. There’s also the story that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, O’Hara’s publisher at City Lights, kept pestering him to finish the book. “How about lunch?” Ferlinghetti would write. “Cooking,” O’Hara would reply, with a promise of the meal to come. And yet Ferlinghetti himself put out Lunch Poems in City Lights' Pocket Poets series, books small enough and light enough you can hold them in one hand while you maneuver a fork with the other. 

And now, as ever, reading involves a lot more than just words writers craft. It involves the whole scene of reading, from the time and place in which we read to our very mood as we read. Now, however, reading also involves the medium in ways that remain relatively new. We read not only newspapers, magazines, journals, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but also tablets, smart phones, laptops, and a production line of other electronic devices. We read words, yes, but the majority of them are made of 1’s and 0’s.

“Reading” may not even be the best verb for reading, since the words we encounter on screens large and small usually come interwoven with images, videos, and other media. Do I read my Twitter feed? It feels more like I use it or consume it or maybe absorb it. And even if I’m reading E.B. White’s essays on my iBooks app, do I stop reading and do something else when my wife texts me “Again!” and includes a video of the kitten playing in the toilet? Reading—if it’s still reading—has become capacious, fragmented, distracted, deliriously digitized.  

These are becoming familiar observations, but we have yet to resolve the questions that arise from them. What does it mean to read in the digital age? What does it mean to write? Even now, almost two decades since the rise of the Web, we’re still finding our way.

For those of us interested in the essay, we might have a slight advantage. The essay, at least since its embrace by the periodicals in the 18th century, has been a genre that thrives amid the bustle of everyday life. Since the time of the Tatler and the Spectator, essays have traveled, often in pockets. And this history might help the essay as it adapts to the digital world. The genre, to say it another way, may be primed to thrive amid all of the Web's kitten-in-the-toilet videos.  

For today’s post, the folks at Essay Daily kindly asked me to write about my new collection of essays. How did the demands of the print and electronic mediums change the work? Some of the book’s essays were originally created for digital platforms, and I had to adapt them for paper. Others were created for print and had to go digital.  The result was three versions of the book: a print book, a standard e-book, and a multimedia “book” with video and audio material. There’s also a website, to house the book’s interactive material. The upshot is that most of the essays exist in two or three “final” versions, with these versions offering significantly different experiences of the essay depending on the medium.

The assumption, I think, is that this variation—this lack of any fixed or definitive version—should be troubling. A reader of my book can never have the literary experience I might have intended, because one person is reading words, while another is reading the same essay, but also listening to me read it or maybe watching the vintage cartoon that I paired with it and not reading at all. This concern has troubled me from time to time.

In the end, however, I tend to think: Lunch Poems. Even in some Platonic world, where I could imagine a perfect version of the collection, some electronic Library of America app that ran across platforms and transformed into a leather-bound book on command, there’d be those messy, unwieldy, unpredictable readers. (I'd still hope that someone would thumb through it on break, by the dumpster.) That is, even if I could control the book-object, I could never control the book’s readers.

Nor would I want to.  My experience of creating essays to be listened to, essays to be watched, essays to be played, all alongside essays to be read, has led me to love the big mess of how we read now. I certainly don’t want to lose the overstuffed couch or the midnight page-turner, but I want to embrace the iPhone and Android, the audio book and Twitterbot, all of the various ways in which we, as writers, might reach our readers. I want to see what artistic possibilities the new (and old) media offer us. And if that means that essays, poems, and stories, are no longer one experience, but many experiences, then, when it’s time, I’ll pick the one that’s right for lunch.

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton  
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun  
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets  
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                     I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)  
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life  
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine  
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do  
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or  
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and  
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue  
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and  
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

The images in this post are used through a Creative Commons license courtesy of photographers on Flickr. For attributions please see go to this link. You can find multiple versions of Eric LeMay's book here.