Monday, May 11, 2015

Sheila Squillante: On using asterisks like bread crumbs

Both/And: Notes Toward a Multi-Genre Craft Class

I’ve just gotten my course assignment for the fall: The Craft of Creative Writing, which I am to teach as a multi-genre class, including both poetry and creative nonfiction.

At first blush, this seems apt. I am, according to my CV, both poet and essayist.

If it appears in print, does that mean it’s true?


Am I truly equipped to teach the basics of both? My department clearly thinks I am though my academic background—my degree-- is in poetry. My book and chapbook publications are in poetry. I had never written an extended piece of prose anything until graduate school where I learned to write memoir. My first teacher was a Famous Formidable Memoirist (FFM ©) who taught as a VAP in my MFA program for a short time.

The learning environment was both bristling and rigorous.

I have to pause here and tell you something: I chose those two wordsbristling and rigorousfor a reason. I could have said any number of other words to get at what I mean.

But I didn’t because it wouldn’t have sounded as good.

See? I’m a poet. I can’t help it.


I have to figure out how to approach this class. First step, Facebook, naturally. So I prostrate myself to the hive, who buzzes enthusiastically, delivering texts that can be read as both/and. Interstitial. Prose poetry. Lyric essay. Maggie Nelson. Anne Carson. Charles Simic.

The hive has a brilliant glowing brain and wow, so much more experience than I (it feels like) with creative nonfiction. I am deluged and feel like drowning might be a good way to go.


I don’t precisely know what I’m doing. I feel this way a lot as a writer. Maybe also as a person. Sometimes I feel tender toward that vulnerability.

I say, I am a poet. Or, I am an essayist.

My job is vulnerability.

But sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in it.


One of the things I learned first about writing memoir was that in order for my reader to trust me, I had to be honest both with and about myself:

If I’m going to teach, I need to better buzz around the hive. 

Background doesn’t much matter. Keep writing. 

One of the the firsts things I learned about writing poetry was that the individual word matters:

Maybe if I just call myself “writer?” 

I could have said “overwhelmed” up there, but then you wouldn’t have seen the wave crest hugely behind me.


Do you see what I’m doing with these segments? I tend toward them these days. They mimic the way my brain buzzes and glows. Which is to say, associatively. I don’t expect the FFM would approve. I think she would demand more connective tissue. I’ve demanded as much of my own students. My colleagues and I talk about how students seem to want to write in experimental forms before they learn how to write a traditional narrative.

Like it’s a bad thing.

Maybe I think it is, too, but that could be because it’s how I began.

But then again, I’m forever telling my poets to “just write it” and stop worrying about narrative.

There are many kinds of narrative. Many ways to begin.

What does “traditional” mean?


Charles Simic once described his composition process like this:

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walk: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely-shaped root, a corner of a torn photograph, etc….where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships which hint at meanings appear.

So, juxtaposition. Parataxis. The friction and frisson between words, images, ideas.

The hint of meaning.

Oh, I like this very much.

Ask my students how many times I’ve trotted this one out to talk about composing not poems, but essays.


I don’t precisely know where I’m going with this. I’m using asterisks like bread crumbs.


The FFM taught me that I had to know what I was writing toward before I began to write it. She insisted on wisdom. It was my job to be confident. She’d have had no patience for Simic’s hinted meanings. Essentially she wanted a thesis statement:

When my domestic life was all chaos and crumble, my crappy food service job kept me focused and moving forward.

I wrote a thesis like that once.

When my memoir writing was all over the place, my thesis statement kept me focused and moving forward. 

I still write like this sometimes.


I always pictured the wisdom I was writing toward as a sparkling, golden gem—maybe amber like at the end of The Fourth State of Matter, which I did not read in her class.

Imagine it glowing, dangling at the bottom of the light cord above your computer.

Pull to illuminate.


Amber as image.
Amber as metaphor.

Hey there, poet. 


Beard’s essay taught me braiding, though I didn’t know it was called that at the time. Then, Brenda Miller taught me the word for it in “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” She also showed it to me—the word I use with students is “enacted”—on the page itself by describing teaching the form to her own students. What a smart, beautiful essay that is! What a helpful piece of pedagogy!


I spent an hour the other day annotating Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things.” I’m a sucker for a good, chewy list and a take-no-shit female voice.

I did this because I’ve been considering including it in the nonfiction part of the class, and annotating helps me see the scaffolding so I can help the students scale it.

In poetry, I call this going “line-by-line.”

Same difference.

Dig in.


I wouldn’t call Shonagon’s piece a memoir, though it does have the flashes of the insight and reflection the FFM would require:

A carriage passes with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am travelling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise, but also the owner of the carriage.

I wouldn’t call it a lyric essay, either, though the poet in me was delighted to find so many moments of pure music:

forever spreading out the front /of their hunting costume/or even tucking it up /under their knees

Note the line breaks, mine.


From a 10th century text we can learn about structure (she begins and ends with a leave-taking); about juxtaposition (a sneezing person sits up against dancing fleas); about perspective (some sections are as intimate as a snore, others zoom up and out to give us a crow’s eye view); about motif (the way noises—a dog’s bark, a baby’s cry, a creaky carriage-- interrupt almost-moments); about the recurrence of characters (“A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him,” shows up twice) and about what I think is one of the hardest things to teach in both poetry and creative nonfiction: ambiguity.

Shonagon’s speaker (who is most of the time “One,” but some of the time “I,”) notes how hateful she finds it when a lover “sings the praises of some woman he used to know” while he is in her presence. “Very annoying,” declares One. That confident voice all the way through.

But then, the parenthetical, the moment of honesty with and about herself:

(Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)


Both annoyed and tantalized.

Both hateful and pleasant.

Both tradition and experiment.

Both sentence and line.

Both poet and essayist.

See you next fall.

Sheila Squillante is the author of the poetry collection, Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2015), as well three chapbooks of poetry: In This Dream of My Father (Seven Kitchens, 2014), Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and A Woman Traces the Shoreline (Dancing Girl Press, 2011). She has published work widely in print and online journals like Brevity, The Rumpus, Eleven Eleven, No Tell Motel, Prairie Schooner, MiPoesias, Phoebe, Cream City Review, TYPO, Quarterly West, Literary Mama, South Dakota Review and elsewhere. She is associate director of the MFA program and assistant professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

1 comment:

  1. I love this: "When my domestic life was all chaos and crumble, my crappy food service job kept me focused and moving forward.

    I wrote a thesis like that once.

    When my memoir writing was all over the place, my thesis statement kept me focused and moving forward.

    I still write like this sometimes."
    And also "hey there, poetry."
    And also the whole thing.
    Here's a thesis statement I want to write: "All essays are braided." See Sei Shonagon.