Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Wayne Miller and Joanna Luloff on nonfiction at Copper Nickel
Copper Nickel is in the strange position of restarting itself after an unanticipated period of hiatus and transition. As many in the literary world know, terrific and important poet Jake Adam York—who founded Copper Nickel in 2002—died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2012. Wayne Miller was hired in 2014, after twelve years on the staff of Pleiades, to take the helm of the magazine—the same year Joanna Luloff also joined CU Denver’s faculty and became a Fiction Editor. The other faculty members on staff are Poetry Editors Brian Barker and Nicky Beer (with whom Wayne co-edits poetry) and Fiction Editor Teague Bohlen (with whom Joanna co-edits fiction).
When we were trying to figure out who would handle nonfiction, we all agreed we wanted a pair of editors who, between them, would have good knowledge of both fiction and poetry, in case interesting essays came in that engaged critically and/or stylistically with one of those genres. Wayne—who edited nonfiction for Pleiades for a portion of his time there—and Joanna—who edited nonfiction for Blueline—seemed a good pairing. While our collective interests in nonfiction are fairly broad, we both agree that the work we find most interesting is first and foremost “rhetorical” rather than “narrative”—i.e., writing that has at its core the open exploration of intellectual, philosophical, social, and literary concerns.
As I see it, nonfiction is a form that grapples with ideas, intellectual questions, and an engaged scrutiny of the world. I appreciate Patricia Hampl’s introduction to her guest-edited issue of Ploughshares where she suggests that the essay is a conversation between the private self and the public self. Using Montaigne as her inspiration, she weaves a metaphor where the nonfiction writer is stepping out onto the sidewalk of experience, translating the external world through an internal lens of rigorous observation and introspection. I am also influenced by Theodor Adorno’s claims about nonfiction, particularly the essay form, that it is a genre open to fragmentation, intuition (“luck and play” he says), uncertainty, and the ephemeral. I agree with his suggestion that nonfiction deals with experience and its grounding within culture. Here are some other terms he uses that I also admire in nonfiction: immediacy, skepticism, grounding in language, self-reflexivity, musical logic, and heresy.
And to invoke another critic on the essay—Georg Lukacs—I am struck by his claims that great nonfiction privileges process over product, journey over destination. While narrative can play a role in elucidating the ideas of an essay, I tend to favor nonfiction that takes investigation as its primary mode over traditional narrative craft (i.e. character development, scene construction, plot, etc.). To me, associative logic is a wonderful pleasure in nonfiction writing, where we can see a writer exploring her subject without narrative restraint (like Eula Biss or Lia Purpura do in their essays). I admire essays that grapple with socio-political questions and tensions in our world and writers like James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Edwidge Danticat who layer narratives of personal conflict alongside political and historical complexities, and who use the essay to unpack what we might take for granted in our everyday lives.
Nonfiction should have—at least for me to be interested in it as an editor—an intellectual project, a sustained question or problem that’s being explored. Nonfiction tends to lose me when it operates as narrative first and, thus, the this-is-how-it-happened truth of the story becomes a fundamental, justifying value of the piece. I have no problem with narrative itself; narrative can be a powerful—often inductive—tool for engaging with a subject. So can rigorous/logical inquiry, linguistic play, associative meditation, humor, aphoristic assertion, deployment/exploration of powerful imagery, etc. Whatever approaches an author chooses, I want those choices to work primarily in the service of exploring or unpacking the intellectual concerns(s) at an essay’s core.
I prefer this sort of nonfiction because narrative constrained by “the truth of what happened” employs a more limited toolkit than narrative in which an author can “make stuff up” to complicate the story, develop symbolic resonances, and engage in discovery on the levels of character and plot. I realize that narrative nonfiction inherently requires choices of emphasis, scene-making, etc.—that it can’t help but construct tiny fictions within its larger narrative “truth.” I might potentially be interested in an essay that openly explores those kinds of choices as they’re being made (if it does so in a surprising and original way). And, of course, it should be said—and quickly—that fiction also engages with intellectual questions and concerns. I realize some people find true stories more compelling simply because they’re true. On the most basic level, I’m just not one of those people. Many of the most compelling stories I know are fiction.
A few quick examples of recent-ish nonfiction I admire: James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” powerfully (and famously) uses a small personal narrative as a springboard into massive intellectual and socio-historical concerns. Mark Doty’s Firebird is a mostly narrative book that consistently investigates the larger question of how one learns to define beauty. One of my very favorite books in any genre is Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, which uses a winter trip to Venice as an occasion to meditate on mortality, empiricism, and human history. A few less narrative examples: I’m consistently wowed by the essays in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam, and I’ve recently been excited by Eula Biss’ work. William Gass’ essays—particularly Reading Rilke and On Being Blue—are extraordinary. In Copper Nickel 20—out in March—we’ll be publishing an essay by Robert Long Foreman in which he articulates what he finds compelling about the “truth” of nonfiction. I don’t agree with everything he says (as you might tell from what’s above), but it’s a terrific, insightful articulation of its position, and Jo and I are both very happy to have it.
Wayne and Jo concur:
In the end, we at Copper Nickel are won over by nonfiction writing that takes risks, that surprises us, that willingly engages difficult questions and complex observations. Above all else, we find ourselves drawn to nonfiction that asks us to see the world in a more complicated way.
Joanna Luloff is the author of the short story collection The Beach at Galle Road (Algonquin, 2012), which was chosen as a Discover Great New Writers Barnes & Noble selection and won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka, Luloff teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where she serves as a Fiction Editor of Copper Nickel.
Wayne Miller is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The City, Our City (Milkweed, 2011) and Post- (2016; forthcoming). He has co-translated two books by Moikom Zeqo, most recently Zodiac (Zephyr, 2015; forthcoming), and co-edited three books, including New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008) and Literary Publishing in the 21st Century (Milkweed, 2016; forthcoming). He teaches at the University of Colorado Denver and serves as Editor/Managing Editor of Copper Nickel.